(Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel by Lisa Moore, the celebrated author of February and Caught comes an exhilarating new novel from House of Anansi that asks: What makes a family? How does it shape us? And can we ever really choose who we love? Planned released date: May 3, 2022)
She knew the [pregnant}social worker wasn’t talking about the scratch on the bumper but expressing a solidarity. They were both terrified because they’d found themselves in situations beyond their control.
This would be the way of it for the foreseeable future. The social worker would not lift a hand help Trinity after this moment, but she was here now, they were joined together by the social worker’s grip on Trinity’s hands. They had shared something, the complicated fripperies of fate, the social worker had been brought to her knees in the hard sunshine, spit washing the child’s face, gripping the child’s hands, really looking at her, taking her in.
She was saying they both had to accept their situations.
I’m after ruining my stocking down here on the sidewalk, she said. The social worker was letting Trinity know that she was definitely worth the pair of stockings, maybe all the stockings in the world. But she was also telling Trinity that she was on her own, going forward. No matter what was on the other side of the screen door, Trinity would have to make do. All the social worker could offer was a concentrated moment of mutual sympathy. Then, with sudden vehemence, the social worker slapped her own neck. It was as if, like everything else about her body, the social worker’s hand had acted by itself. The print of her hand on her white neck and there on her palm, a squashed mosquito, which she held out for Trinity to see.
I got it, she whispered. She rubbed the dead insect off her hand onto her floaty dress and got up from her knees. The moment was over. The social worker was rapping on Mary Mahoney’s screen door.
They’d done the tour of the house and Mary Mahoney had sat with her back to the window, so all Trinity could really see was the foster parent’s hands loosely clasped on her lap and a stillness that was unnerving. Out of nowhere, creeping with stealth, a white and caramel cat leapt up onto Mary Mahoney’s lap.
One of the old woman’s hands buried itself in the fur, and her strong bony fingers arched and dove, over and over, in rhythm with the social worker’s speedy, unrelenting monologue about her doctor, whom she was convinced was a drunk.
This is Butterscotch, Mary Mahoney said, speaking over the social worker, who didn’t stop to acknowledge the interruption, although the old woman had already told them the cat’s name upstairs.
Nice cat, Trinity said.
Wasn’t nice when I got him, Mary Mahoney said. With the one eye hanging out on his cheek.
They’d had to take the eye, she said. Didn’t they? What else could they do? It took Trinity a moment to realize Mary Mahoney was addressing the cat. She’d thought at first it was a skill-testing question.
Couldn’t they just stick it back in? the social worker said. Why did it have to come out at all? She sounded plaintive, weary.
Mind you, they did a nice job, sewing it up. Smart, though, this cat. Like the whip. You couldn’t get one over on this old fellow.
They’d each fallen into a kind of stagnant pathos, hypnotized by the scratching hand on the cat’s back, the knuckles too large, rigorous. The social worker had nearly been swallowed by the couch, she was listing to the side and had to put her arm out straight on the armrest to keep from falling over. It was clear the social worker wanted to get going.
This is my last job, she said. Before I go on maternity leave.
You’ll want to get that bath poured, for the birth, Mary Mahoney said. Even at seven, Trinity understood Mary Mahoney was poking fun. It was clear to both of them the social worker was terrified of the birth, and maybe even the motherhood that would follow.
Trinity had never been told about giving birth, as the social worker called it, but she understood motherhood to be an inescapable torment that happened by accident and that “giving” was a euphemism. Doesn’t the baby get taken out of her somehow? What does giving have to do with it?
The cat turned its horrible face into a shadow cast by the armchair, and Trinity saw the cavity where the eye had been.
She thought of the stiffness in Mary Mahoney, the timbre of her voice, when she said the cat had needed privacy
It was the first sign that the new home might be better than the last. The tiers of frozen cookies, way too many for them to eat, was the second good sign. It was about show, and Trinity knew the importance of appearances. The cat’s missing eye was the third good sign. Mary Mahoney cared about appearances only to a point. She could love something no matter what it looked like or how vulnerable it was.
The two of them sat in silence while she social worker continued with her story about the last visit to the doctor. She suddenly rose up out of the couch and wrenched at her dress, pulling it tight against the medicine ball stomach, and approached the cookies, took a chocolate chip cookie in one hand, and held the other like a plate underneath her chin. She spoke through the crumbs on her lips.
I’m after leaving a few papers in the car, she said. That’s all that’s left, the papers. Then I’m done. I just have to get the papers, have you sign them, bring them back to the office, and get this thing out me.
She went out the front door, and they could hear the beep of her keys unlocking her car.
Will you help yourself to a cookie? Mary Mahoney asked.
Trinity said, No thank you. They said nothing more, as if they were in church. Then, the social worker was back. She laid the papers out on the side table. She stood with her hand on the small of her back.
Sometimes I feel like the spine is going to crack right off me, she said.
Mary Mahoney signed and signed. Then she gathered the papers and knocked the bottom edge of them against the desk and passed them to the woman. She picked up a square of paper towel, of which there were three, next to the cookie display, and she stacked three chocolate chip cookies, two shortbreads, and a date square and handed it to the social worker.
I couldn’t, the social worker said. I’m at high risk of diabetes. I’m not allowed to eat sugar.
My guess is that baby will be here in a couple of days. You can eat whatever you like, Mary Mahoney said. The social worker put one of her hands on her belly.
I need more time than that, she said.
Two days, Mary Mahoney said. Not a moment more, I guarantee.
I haven’t packed my bag, my hospital bag.
You best get at it. Tell the doctor that if you feel like it, you’ll be doing handstands or cartwheels or swinging from the light fixtures while you give birth. It’s your birth, you tell him.
He said I’ll be in so much pain I won’t know what I’m at.
Nonsense, Mary Mahoney said. And with a hand on the woman’s back, gave her a little nudge out the front door.