MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

Mushrooms

Sangita Kalarickal

Lightning sliced ink blue heavens into a few jagged-edged pieces. Darkness descended in a deluge from the skies with rain racing towards the earth in large, heavy drops. Miniature streams rushed into the gutter and Brenda wished she was smaller, much smaller, so she could have drowned in these rivulets. Maybe the rains would flood the place and she could seek a way out from misery. Tears filled her eyes again, these days they had been surfacing quite often.

Her little kids beckoned her away from the dangerous emotional precipice that she teetered on. Lily and Rose with soft brown ringlets framing their face, eyes blue as the seas, both with ready smiles for her. Both named after summer flowers, for the seasons they were born in. Lily, the sweet-natured, sometimes naughty older sibling who cared immensely for her baby sister. Rose was the quiet one, who liked to play by herself, immersing herself in imaginary toylands and faerie forests, Both looked uncannily similar, large brown curls, pale blue eyes, and skin prone to bronzing in the sun, more like her than their father.

Ben had never seen them the way she did. Where she saw little faeries in the midwestern lakeside woods, all he perhaps saw were girls who by his right should have been boys. As months passed by, he withdrew within himself, drawn to drink which transformed from the kind man she had fallen in love with, to a violent sadist. In his drunken frenzies he had shown his displeasure repeatedly when he whipped off his belt and slashed at the girls after Brenda had sunk to the floor from his beatings. She shuddered as the memories came gushing forth. Walking out on Ben was not difficult. She had walked out on Ben five times before. Staying away however, was.

The first time she left with the kids, Ben found her and very nearly begged her to go back with him. Tears flowed down his rugged face and his shoulders slumped as he stuttered on about his inability to control his temper. "It´s not me, Brendie, you know it. It´s the damned booze. I´ll quit, I´ll quit." So sweet was he in his remorse, she had no choice but to believe him.

Heart melting and hopes soaring, she returned. Despite the sting of his lashing on her body still throbbing, despite the black and blue slashes across the children´s backs.

Of course, the new and improved Ben never stayed longer than it took him to convince her to return to cook his meals. The first day which rang with the promise of a bright, happy future soon melted into an all too familiar, dreaded present that her nightmares were made of. A nightmare that left her awake with fumes of his cheap bourbon swirling around her daughters´ tears.

Each time she walked out, she returned, lured by promises she somehow knew in her heart would be broken. Each time it took him longer to reach her and it took her longer to get convinced. Yet return she did. The known devil somehow seemed comforting, the shallow sanctuary a warm convenience. The security of a house, a steady income, certainty of the next meal. And people could change, couldn´t they?

The day after the last time Brenda returned, she began to gather hope. Ben came back home looking sober. Ate with gusto, the fried chicken and greens she had cooked. He seemed like the Ben she´d fallen in love with and married. The man who was the provider, the protector and plainly the man of her dreams. He had swept her off her feet with his gallant gestures of opening doors for her and working two jobs to get the right ring. They would share an ice cream in the dead of winter after an ice hockey game. Brenda sighed. They hadn´t shared an ice cream in a long time, even in the height of summer. But that night gave her hope.

"No alcohol, so the demon won´t appear. He just has to chase the alcohol away."

Lily and Rose clutched at their mother´s skirt and shot her nervous smiles. Brenda smiled back at them and gave the girls a slight shove. "Go on, go give Daddy a big hug. You can do that, don´t be scared!" Rose looked up at her with eyes large with fear, apprehension, questions all blending into a large tear. Brenda´s smile refused to fade and she nodded. Lily, the braver one, walked over to Ben and put her arms around him.

That was the gesture that broke the dam.

"Wha´ the hell d´you think you´re doin´?" Ben´s voice boomed and shook the rafters in the ceiling. "Get away from me!"

"Daddy!" whimpered Lily.

"Just coz I brought you back...!" And with that Ben stood up. The demon surfaced and burst out of the person that was her husband. He picked up a wooden ladle and came down on the two girls. Brenda rushed to her confused children, throwing a wall between him and her daughters. But that didn´t stop the lashing.

Later, she lay down with the girls. Guilt had caused bile to rise up her throat. Beside her, little Rose was shaking. Her mouth open and tears flowing in little streams down her cheeks. The veins on her little neck bulged and vibrated like plucked guitar strings. Brenda´s frown deepened. Something was gravely wrong.

No sound had arisen from her daughter´s tiny throat. Her mouth merely opened and closed. "Rose? What´s happening to you, honey? Tell me, baby! Tell Momma!"

But Rose couldn´t tell Brenda.

Ben had frightened the voice away from her little baby.

Two days later, when Rose retreated into silence and her voice refused to return, Brenda forced herself to face the fact that alcohol was not the devil in her husband. Perhaps the alcohol had only woken up a demon that now refused to be shut deep inside. She could blame no one for his sadism; only herself for choosing to stay with him. She had to make a decision for herself, Lily, and her voiceless Rose.

Brenda picked up her two daughters and left an unsuspecting Ben for the sixth time.

She found a job at Happy Joe´s and had begged a friend at the diner to let her stay at his old trailer. She was genuinely scared for her kids, herself. That had been two months ago. Ben had not yet turned up.

Brenda didn´t mind that though. Her worries were more immediate. She sighed and peered out of the tiny trailer window at the sky. If this rain continued, she would have a tough time putting on her shoes and getting to the diner for her shift. She had missed her bus and even running would not get her to her work on time. Trekking in this deluge for the two miles with the girls was not an option. Manager Happy Joe was kind enough to her, letting her bring her daughters, have them sit in the kitchen corner and do their homework or coloring. Many times he even let them eat free after the diner was closed. Brenda had learned to appreciate these little things.

But today, she had no strength. The rains would not let her get to the diner and neither could she let Happy Joe know she couldn´t make it in. She had no phone. She would surely lose this job tomorrow. She just had to reach down and beg for her job again. Perhaps Joe would be kind to her. Again.

She pulled little Rose closer. She remembered the day words ran away through her daughter´s tears, never to return. Brenda sighed again. Rose sucked her thumb and trembled slightly. The little one hated lightning. Lily, with all the wisdom of a seven-year-old, brought a blanket and settled down with her mother.

"Don´t be scared Rose, We´re here with Momma," she crooned softly, pulling Rose into her warm blanket. Brenda looked down at the two mops of brown curls that were her own, peeking out of Lily´s pink flannel. She stroked Rose´s cheeks who eventually stopped shaking.

Did they deserve this? Ben whipped them but he did provide for them. His work at the warehouse lugging whatever he was required to lug, brought in enough money to sustain them. Food on the table. Roof over their head. Then she had walked away.

Walked away, taking the girls with her. Away from their suburban home with a lawn for a backyard, to a trailer home. If it were not for Happy Joe, some days her girls would have gone to bed hungry.

Did they deserve this?

Did she deserve this?

Perhaps a little beating now and then was not too bad? Rose and Lily had started shivering. Brenda could even feel the cold seeping slowly into their skin.

"Let´s start up the oven and pull the couch a bit closer, girls. Come on." The girls scrambled off the couch. Brenda took in a deep breath and heaved the couch a few inches towards the kitchen area. That was when she saw them. A smear of white which reached merely the corner of her eye. A fuzzy small white and cream patch reaching out from the floor below the couch.

Mushrooms.

Growing up from her floor.

Three large soft cream flats capped the white stems, jutting out from the wooden floor.

A shock.

A surprise.

A message.

Brenda´s knees refused to support her. She sank to the floor. She couldn´t get her eyes off the mushrooms. What could this mean? Could she let her children live in such a dump any more? She had left behind her beautiful suburban home where she could care for the girls without struggling at the diner. The cruelty of the treatment Ben had meted out started to diminish. Six times she had walked out on him. Five times she had returned to the beatings.

She had tried. She was struggling to be a single mom. How could she do this alone? Bring up the kids, put them through school. Children needed their father too. Even if he came home drunk most nights and pulled out his belt.

Now she struggled to put food on the table. To send her girls to school, get them shoes at a real store, not Goodwill.

And there were mushrooms growing in her home.

The vision of mushrooms swam in the tears as they filled her eyes. Her eyes held the tears, precious cargo, loath to let go. Guilt enveloped her as her shoulders shook slightly. Her daughters lives were ruined now, all because she couldn´t understand Ben better. Could not trade a bit of abuse for their meals and beds. Shame!

The tears refusing to flow out now burned her eyelids. Her forehead throbbed.

Rose staggered to her mother and peered at the mushrooms peeking up from under the couch. Her face lit up and eyes brightened. A crooked smile ran across her face. A little forefinger extended out. "Momma! Mushrooms!"

The soft, yet high pitched voice of a three-year-old. The voice that had been buried for so long returned with no change, no hiccup, no signs of struggle.

Lightning sliced the ink blue heavens. It lit up the night, chasing darkness away.

A soft cry escaped Brenda´s throat. She almost fell onto her younger daughter and hugged her tight. She didn´t want to let go of that moment. Lily fell on the two of them, laughing. "Momma, she´s talking again, she´s talking again!"

The rain seemed to dwindle.

Her doubts melted away.

The mushrooms had undone the mess that Ben had created. She can still do it. She can find a way out.

The mushrooms found a way into her home.

She could find a way to live.