Turning Trash Into Talismans: How My Mother Taught Magic

By: Beaumont Sugar

A couple days ago, I tried to call my mother at the hospital, and some guy who was in what had been her room answered the phone. He wasn’t a doctor or anything—just a regular guy, a patient, and I guess he was messed up or something—he was in the hospital—because he told me my mother was dead.

“She di—she’s passed.” His tone was solemn.

A ringing began in my ears, and my joints loosened. My voice creaked, “But how…?” and then I begged the man to give the phone to anyone else. There was some rustling on the line, and my tongue scraped against the inside of my mouth. 

Buoyantly, a woman said, “I’m an RN on this floor. I don’t know where he got that!” There was a pause, and then she added, “We haven’t had any deaths today.”

It only took seconds for the wrong to be righted, and of course I learned a moment later that my mother had only changed rooms and was still alive on this earth, and that the guy who told me she was dead was just in a daze from whatever condition had landed him in the hospital.

Some experiences stretch seconds across space, and so the time contained by those seconds can only be measured in stars’ lifetimes.

When the disoriented man told me my mother had “passed,” I was swept away. Relief broke over me in a great wave and took my legs from under me. I was free. A circle had closed, and seemed to hold me. It rocked me and purred the word “over” into my ears again and again. Relief tossed me in the surf, and then it spat me back ashore.  

In the clearness of the sun, the relief I had felt upon hearing my mother was dead turned into shame. Seawater turned into brine; it was eating me. I tried to get away from myself. I tried to quiet it all down. My brain screamed how I deserved to be alone—and so I was, sitting paralyzed, just silence on the phone.

After hearing my mother was dead, my brain diffused; it was able to compress great swaths of time. The mind believes everything has a trick to it, and so mine searched my body for experiential data or long-hidden knowledge, hoping to find anything it could use to make sense of what was happening. For those couple seconds, I knew my mother was dead. In this heightened state, I remembered lots of hidden things. 

I remembered when my father screamed and stomped and slammed, my mother repeated quiet incantations. She took my arms and held my back against her chest. Her lips brushed my ear while she chanted breathe like me, breathe like me until I was able to calm down.

My mother only likes to swim if there’s a storm. When my father called my mother stupid, she looked for seashells. She used a razorclam shell as a pen to carve shapes in the sand. Foamy waves came to lap those signs up, and the ocean knew what she’d meant.

Old lessons returned to me from the places they’d been formed. My mother teaching me to fish. My mother teaching me to crush mint leaves into teas we’d brew in the sun. We shrieked with laughter while we baked bread. We put mud on bee stings, and used melon rinds to bribe whitetail deer into revealing themselves to us. She tried to teach me to talk with them.

I knew my mother was dead, and I knew I could bring her back again. I was the only one who could do it, and I knew that I could do it, if only I could remember or dream up or discover how.

I’m sure my eyes pointed back at my brain to assist, because in those seconds, everything was dark. My mind assumed a gaseous state to expand in search of a solution. It kept my insides under pressure, but my brain scattered itself outside of my body, reaching as far as it could for the talisman that would bring my mother back to me. 

From some other planet, I had heard the guy with the phone say to the room “She wants to talk to you,” but it warbled out at the end, like in a television show cutting to a flashback sequence. 

A lot of my earliest memories are based on sight, and stored in my eyes. My mother spent a lot of her time on a bed my father had moved to the living room. She was rubbery sprawled across it, with a lit cigarette still in her hand. Her mouth foamed, she gurgled. She must have bitten down on her tongue, because blood bubbled over her bottom lip and flecked her breasts. Her top lip was a coral color. I don’t know why she’d been putting on lipstick, and I don’t know why she wasn’t wearing a shirt. 

She was a vision, all the same, and my brain searched my eyes for some epiphany. It found something we might use to bring her back. She had been holding a mirror. 

The man in my mother’s former hospital room is giving the phone to someone else, someone lucid, and another quarter of a second passes. My brain has made it to the mouth I share with it, and I remember laughing, laughing, laughing, because my mother is tickling me. She’s tickling me with one hand, and giving our family keeshond a late night treat with the other. We are sitting together on her bed in the living room, reflecting the glow of late night broadcast television. She’s tickling me, and I’m laughing, and then she’s laughing, too. Then she’s shoving a spoonful of canned wet dog food into my mouth, and she’s laughing, and she pulls the spoon upwards and it clinks against my teeth as it comes out. I have to use my tongue to push the dog food out.

When given a contemporary translation, these memories arrange themselves into magic spells. My mind folds itself around the spoon, and pockets it with the compact mirror. 

In my mind, my mother is magnified. Her voice is fractured again and again by time, multiplied. She is surrounding me, she’s a choir of ten thousand, she’s singing to me, because it’s time to go to sleep.

My brain collects itself and pours down my back. It feels itself pressed into a wall. I am hiding in my grandmother’s room, but my grandmother is away on a trip. 

It’s just me, and downstairs are my mother and some guys she’s invited over. 

I’m behind grandmom’s bed clutching the phone in whitened hands. Every digit of my dad’s phone number has been pressed except the last one, a three. I hear my mom and two of the men in the kitchen singing, and their voices are the color of puke.

That night is a big memory; storing it takes both of my legs. 

They’re all yelling my name. My mother and the men drank all the booze they brought, so none of them can drive. She sends me walking to the beer store with one of those guys. I don’t stop talking the entire time. 

My brain looks up and down the pike, and it recalls the way my panicked heart beat in my ear. My brain looks behind my grandmother’s bed. There’s nothing here. Despair. What can I do with a mirror and a spoon? She is lost to us. She is lost.

I consider what it means for my mother to be dead, and the more recent parts of me explode in protest. Last week I’d asked her if she’d let me do her makeup some time, because my wife doesn’t like it. I asked if she’d teach me to make a cheesecake. Maybe we could spend Christmas together.

“That would be a dream come true,” she’d said. 

My habit of calling my mother every day is new. She didn’t show up when I’d sing with choir at school, and she wasn’t there when I got married. 

I have set down resilience. I am learning what forgiveness means. I want to be allowed to take another shot at this.

Another moment passes, and the nurse’s voice comes to me. I have realized the third talisman.

“I don’t know where he got that,” she says, “we haven’t had any deaths today.” 

I am weightless and shining. My brain rushes back into my skull. The bubbly-sounding nurse tells me the phone number for my mother’s new hospital room, and I scrawl it in childish, clumsy handwriting. 

I call her and call her, but she doesn’t pick up. The phone rings and rings and rings, for days and days and days, but she doesn’t pick up. I light candles. No answers. I speak in tongues. No one speaks back. I keep calling. 

About a week later, finally, I reach my mother. The call begins, and there’s some rustling and groaning. I tell her who it is. She doesn’t bother with pleasantries. Her speech is sticky brown and slurry.

“Did the doctor tell you how he’s gonna get the dragon offa my foot?”

What do you mean, what dragon?

“At first, I thought it was a cat, but it’s a dragon. It’s clamped down on my foot, I can’t do anything with it!”

You mean this is some kind of brace, it’s medical equipment?

“I guess so, if thisses what they’re using in hospitals nowadays! Maybe if I see the doctor today I’m gonna ask him when he’ll take this dragon offa my foot! I can’t do anything with it!”

My mom has had two operations on her leg, and she needed a skin graft, and now she’s got an external fixator screwed into her tibia, so of course they’re giving her pain medicine. She’s in a controlled environment, and everyone there is professionals, and yeah yeah yeah, I know. 

I know what the truth is, but I know healing comes at a cost. Her voice reaches through the speaker of my enchanted phone and pulls something out of me. 

She tells me about her day, and at the point of contact with the phone, my hand begins to lose feeling. Numbness spreads like frost.

“They won’t let me leave, but it issen up to them. I can’t take this anymore, I’m getting outta here.”

What is your plan to get out? I thought you said you couldn’t walk.

“To hell with them. I wish they’d just cut my leg off, if that’s what’s gonna happen anyways. It issen up to them!”

To hell with who?

“My doctor and his little surf buddies. They think they know everything, they’re out there surfing. The doctor and his buddies.” 

I tell my mom I love her, and that I’ve got to go get something to eat. I tell her I’m going to call her tomorrow. I hang up, and stay quiet for a long time.

When she talks slow like that, in that smushed-up voice, my skin crawls. I’m sitting on the floor again, and I’m hiding, holding the phone like it’s stolen, and I’m panicking again. Somewhere, some kid is crying who can I tell who can I tell? 

When she’s in the hospital and I’m calling her, I’m back there wedged behind the bed, and I don’t know if I want anyone to pick up. I don’t want my dad to be mad at my mom, I don’t want to hear what anyone else has to say about my mom. I’m trying not to hear what’s going on downstairs. 

Now I’m thirty-two, and I’m begging God to save my mom, because I’ve only recently come back from the dead myself.

The other day I told her that once she’s out of the hospital, I’ll take her anywhere she wants. I’ll take her to the kind of restaurant where they offer you sparkling or still water. She said she’d never been in a place like that.

I can feel the phone in my hand. I’m talking to my mother on the phone. I’m brought back again because she’s laughing. She thinks I’m so funny, but when she’s like this her laughter is too wild and it’s too long. When she laughs like that, and then wheezes through the labored aftermath, every one of my hairs sticks out, sensing. They are all of us a team, and we will sense out the danger before it senses us. The back of my neck burns and my ears strain, listening. 

I’m trying to have a conversation with my mother because I love her and she’s just had surgery, and because I know she needs me and I am ready to be here for her. I know I’m an adult now, and I know she’s in pain and pain medication is appropriate and a hospital is the best place to have a drug overdose if you’re going to have one. 

It doesn’t matter. When I hear that drooping, drippy voice and that spine-tingling cackling, it crashes through my entire body, and transforms me into a smaller version of myself, a version who’s still thrashing, still preoccupied. 

When my mother’s voice is like that, she’s dancing in circles around a version of me that’s still on fire. Still shaking, stuck forever waiting to see if we make it through the night. 

This is also the voice of sworn oaths. My mother’s voice sounds like dawn breaking. Hers is the voice of God after the flood. 

In the morning, after everyone has left, my mother joins me in wiping splatters from the wall and rinsing out ashtrays. My mother’s voice is the sunlight pouring through the windows, it catches on bits of broken glass glinting in the carpet.

Beaumont Sugar is an essayist, poet, and painter living in Anchorage, AK with Penelope and Waffle, their wife and cat. More of their essay work can be found in HASH Journal, The Whorticulturalist, Ruminate Magazine, GASHER Journal, AnchoragePRESS, their poetry has been published in decomp. Journal, and their visual art is on instagram @beaumontsugar, in Tint Journal, and at Tidal Artist Haven.