Five stories tucked into bed in an empty household

Katy Gunn

Tell-a-Tale Teddy Says

Marina, dear, everyone lived on an island. There was one small cat with orange stripes, and it slept with all the little girls, one by one, and never tried to steal a breath from even the smallest one.

Even when she put her raspy pink mouth to its face and flattened it with kisses. Her mother was always wiping fur from her lips and had to tell her cautionary stories to stop her from getting worms.

Worms would not be the problem in the end. Better though to be cautious.

Her name? The mother’s name was Mother.

The girl’s name was Marina. Yes, spelled like you too.

Marina’s mother told her about another girl who had a cat. This cat was gray with four white socks and white earmuffs and a bowtie. The island had only two gray cats and this was the only one with so many accouterments.

That cat was like a baby to her and she rocked it and held it to her little bosom and cheek whether it was asleep or awake, and even when it sneezed or just ate a rat. She loved it even when the hairs around its mouth were hung with strings of blood.

That is being a mother.

Now Marina liked to play putting the baby to bed with the gray cat, and she would tell it a story just like the stories she loved her mother to tell her. In fact, Marina was never out of her mother’s lap except when she was playing putting the baby to bed, or retrieving popsicles.

There was the game where Mother shut her eyes and tried to guess the flavor Marina had brought her. Then Marina would climb into her lap and lie exceedingly still, for stories.

Marina learned the story of the girl who was a coat rack, the story of the girl who grew very tall, and the story of the girl who rode a train with milkshakes. She relayed the stories to the gray cat one at a time, so as not to spoil it.

How I have spoiled you. But circumstances.

As soon as she said happily ever after or so the very sad story ends, she kissed the little gray cat right on the gray spot between its two white ears. Which was usually all right. Until the one day.

Marina had eaten too many popsicles. Her mother had spoiled her and given her grape after grape. This was because Marina wouldn’t eat the usual mashed potatoes or corn. She wouldn’t eat meat for a week, and her mother didn’t know what else to do.

Hear, now. Babies need to eat their vegetables. If they won’t, they must eat something. What else could a mother do? Mother gave you popsicles and really isn’t to blame.

But this isn’t the story of Mother.

On this day Marina said to the cat, so the very sad story ends. She leaned over to kiss it on the forehead, and hear this!

Her mouth stuck there.

It wasn’t your usual paste stuck or even honey or molasses stuck. Certainly more stuck than you would ever imagine popsicle juice to make your lips.

But her mouth stuck, and because she had puckered up for the kiss she could only breathe through her nose. The little white furs of its ears bowed away from her nose in the air she blew out, and when she breathed back in, they uprooted and went inside her like little swords the influenza took up.

Mother, mother! she wanted to shout but her mouth was stuck to the cat’s head. She coughed into the cat in a grating hack, hack that sounded like the cat was dying.

All cats must die. But babies, no.

Her mother lifted Marina and the cat into her lap. Tell us the story of the girl in the sky! they told her between coughs.

And I told her.

Even a mother can’t know everything. Like how the flood was coming.

Miss Beatrice Songbird Says

You want to hear again about the girl in the sky, then? Only because you are such a good daughter and so rarely interrupt.

The mother also had a daughter who danced more lightly than any other person anywhere on the island or the world. She didn’t die, like most of the people washed to sea by the great flood. This is because she had already left.

Her name? Alice.

The daughter who danced lightly did so because she had nothing to weigh her down. This is a rare state of being. Neither of us can expect to understand.

It must be admitted that the hovering troubled her mother, who hung her with coats, muffs, and heavy knitted scarves until the daughter who danced lightly looked like a coat rack and the mass of fabric weighed her feet to the floor, or at least kept her hovering hidden by sleeves and lace trim.

Her mother did not do this to punish or shame her. Know you that.

Just that someone dangerous might see the daughter dance lightly and fall into lust, lasso her with a thin sharp thread, and pull her away. Without her feet on the ground the daughter could not dig in her heels and so would be taken against her will.

So it is not that the mother wanted to tether her. She loved her and saw no other way.

Don’t cry, kitten.

Besides, the mother is no matter here. Alice found herself tethered.

When the woman with the thin sharp thread came and saw the light under Alice’s feet unbroken by the soles of her shoes, she bowed before Alice and Alice reached for the lasso herself.

She kicked off as she could and pulled the both of them off the island and away.

Away.

Now they both wear the coats to stay warm in the night heaven where there is no surface to support a fire. Alice taught her woman to dance and that’s what you see sometimes.

Her mother is very sad, very sad. But she stays busy. Like they say, a woman with a daughter in heaven never fails to keep all the dolls prettily dressed. A woman with a daughter in heaven always finds time to brush everyone’s hair.

You sort of have to love up there glimmering, as things go. Especially when you remember how sad she looked with all the heavy blankets pressing down her heart.

Yes, I mean the mother. The mother sort of has to love them. She is the mother, after all.

Brownie Hear-Bear Says

Marina, did I hear you say Violet?

I know you did not say violence, sweet girl. My hearing is off in my old ears sometimes. But this story isn’t about my ears. Violet it certainly was.

Yes, named for a flower but she wasn’t the kind of daughter who stretched toward sun. Or let it wilt her. She never gave it the chance.

She loved her mother and her blue sea lap in the nursery chair, and she loved stories. Violet sat all day while the sun rushed people to work and to the bakery and to plow the fields, and she said, tell me about the people who rush.

Violet listened hard so she could tell her sister Marina, so she could tell the little orange and gray kittens that tumbled around the room with abandon.

Don’t cry, Marina. This is what her mother told her.

Violet, people walk in circles hunched over. Bent like the old outside dog but older, like you wouldn’t believe. This is because they have jobs on their back, like banker and storekeeper and teacher and housekeeper. All the jobs are faulty.

No, mother is not a job. Mother is an island.

But could cherry farmer really bend a back to breaking? When he makes such tiny fruits like the love of little girls or like stones set in rings you can put in milkshakes? When he gives you a pocketful every time you come in to look and see, how red?

Yes, Violet, her mother explained gravely. Even cherry farmer is a job to break your back. Even toy seller and toy carver. The man who carved your pretty train, his nose is scraping the floor.

Toy carver doesn’t want to see your pretty nose dirtied by the floor because you had to go away into town and get a job. He knows your mother loves you, especially after Alice flew away. That is why he made your train with no motorization. So nobody else gets carried away.

Keep her nose scrubbed pink and clean, the toy carver told the mother. Here, I have made your daughter a very safe train.

Violet drove her train up and down her mother’s arms. She drove the train in circles around her mother’s lap. Choo! Choo! Look Mother, she said, train is like the people in the town, in circles. No, Violet, the people don’t stand so tall upright as your good wood train.

Choo! Choo! Up and down her mother’s neck and head. Look, Mother! She put the kitties on the train and rode them around and around. It was so silly.

Kitties ride train! you said.

So the mother knew she had to tell you about the people who ride trains. Especially the motorized train, in town. But first we must be sure you’re visualizing correctly. Remember they’re all bent over like horses with their front hooves hanging.

When they ride the train they’re going to get married.

Yes, dear, because of love. But there are many kinds of that and theirs is hinky and blushing kind. It makes no good marriage or they would do it in their mothers’ gardens. That’s right. Nothing so pretty as a wedding in a mother’s garden.

Granddaughters in the garden house, soon enough. The mother always thought.

We lament the lack of stories about granddaughters.

I’m sorry, you’re right, the train. We’ll miss it if we don’t tell fast. Perhaps for the better — 

The train has plush red seats and little trays with cherries on the tops of pink milkshakes the size for when you get peckish. No happy cherry farmer there and no extra handfuls, though. Train takes you to a place where nobody knows you and you’ll start to get bent to the dirt. Your only friends, ants. Crawling up your nose, and out your ears.

So never leave your mother, sweet Marina.

Teacher Talk Goose Says

Marina, once there was an influenza. It travelled in small clouds you could never see but it found a little girl and blew down her throat and set up camp there.

She wanted ice cream and popsicles and puddings for all her meals and syrups in spoons between them, because that is what her sisters got to eat. Then she got to have it too. A strawberry pudding! Marina shouted. A banana ice cream with blackberries mashed up on top, and cherry syrup!

Her sisters cried and cried but she didn’t understand because she loved cherry syrup. They let her eat theirs. You remember.

Where have the sisters gone, little Marina asked with her mouth full. It was bad manners but under the conditions her mother could not reprimand her. So she told her how her sister Alice learned to fly.

Yes, you do know that story. You used to ask if she wore a little green hat. Mother told you no, that’s for little flying boys.

Marina liked her mother’s story. Where did sister Violet go, Mother?

Well, Violet took a long, long train where people drank milkshakes with whipped cream and cherries all day long like you do, Marina. She is off to be married and the cake will be made of cherries with a frozen cream mother and a frozen cream father. But cream mother looked more like Violet than her mother because Violet was to be a mother one day too.

The train goes all around the island, and even off it.

Oh, Marina loved those stories. I want a train! she said. I want a cream father! It was so good, so good for the mother to see her daughter happy, since she had the influenza inside her, and daughters with war in their bodies are not often so gleeful.

You would still giggle, would you? While you kissed your little orange cat?

Here’s your lesson. Violet’s cream father was actually made of porcelain, and she didn’t even get to keep it because when she bit down, it broke into shards in her mouth. Her mouth all strings of blood and she was coughing on the porcelain dust, and on her wedding night.

You can’t be married in your state, said the train conductor, and he took back their wedding. All round her on the train, the people coughed up their milkshakes, and Violet coughed up her milkshake, and it was even more pink from the porcelain cuts.

The train stank and Violet had to lay down and shut her eyes. Her dress grew all wet from the sea coming in, for they had come to the edge of the island, and met with the flood. She hated it.

You hear me. She cried for her mother, cried and cried. She wished she never did go away for anything.

The very only person who heard her crying on the train was her sister Violet who twinkled in the sky above her. Violet was very cold, because it was night. But she didn’t wish the night away because then the sun would come and burn her. Always too few coats, or too many.

She could not take a single one off for fear of dropping it. Her coats were the very last thing her mother had given her, when she was so cold from the influenza in her body that it lifted her up like a snowflake. She missed her mother terribly.

Oh, mother! she cried in the sky. Oh, mother! Alice gurgled on the train. We are so sorry!

Don’t be sorry, dear girl, be smart. Sit still. Eat your syrups and listen here.

My Nurse Nancy Says

Marina, darling, the island was on the back of a very old fish. On the back of the fish were the people and on the backs of the people was a pestilence. The weight of the pestilence was the reason the old fish couldn’t move and why the people hunched over as they aged.

Influenza is heavy.

Are you considering all the ways the people might be freed and in turn free the fish? You might have fine ideas, but understand all the plans are faulty.

You may come to me with diagrams but the pestilence was heavier than that.

The daughter who saved the island in the end was named Marina. I know, I know. Never let anyone tell you a thing is impossible, let me teach you that if nothing else.

Marina had the pestilence on her mind but not on her body. She thought hard about how to save the people from it while she grew taller and taller straight up like a mast on the back of the fish. She grew until she left the range of her mother’s voice.

Marina don’t worry about that now. You know how I can shout and whistle even louder.

From above the people, Marina could see the valleys with their curved scales where the pestilence pooled. She saw influenza in the young boys’ pocked shoulders and the old men’s bony shoulder grooves.

She bent down to sweep the influenza out of the crevices in a young bridegroom’s back, but her fingers had grown with her height, and her fingernails were terrors. She scratched the skin off the man and he bled down onto his new wife and the fish and his blood mixed with the pestilence but did not change anything.

Marina, darling, stories must be told.

She tried again. Marina used her broad hands to collect all of the rainwater before it fell from the sky. She carried it until she found the woman with the deepest pools of influenza on her back. Marina tilted her cupped hands forward over the woman, letting a lake of water stream onto her back and wash the pestilence away.

But the drop from Marina’s hands was so great that the water hit the woman hard as a train and flattened her against the cold scales of the fish.

Yes she died. Just like a baby.

Again Marina collected rainwater, but this time she stooped over the people with care. She would not repeat a mistake, being a smart girl, like you.

Do not get a big head though Marina. You are still such a little girl.

Marina let her big hands spread so the water fell through the spaces between her fingers. She meant it simply to unseat the people so the pestilence would fall off their backs and into the water and be washed out to sea.

She only wanted to save them like a mother would. Do not forget her feelings on the matter.

The water Marina poured unseated the people and sloshed the influenza off their backs and washed it out to sea. It washed the people out to sea, too.

The fish was free of the people but still unable to move. The miles and tons of tall Marina weighed it down. Marina was sorry, and she stepped off the fish into the sea. She paddled through the people. She coughed for air and gulped the pestilence.

My dear I am sorry. Don’t give me those wet glassy eyes.

The people swam around in the sea, and when they grew tired they climbed on top of Marina to rest. Marina had grown tired too, and still. The people saw the bit of pestilence that clung to her back and swept it off, as they now stood straight enough to use brooms and their swim had given them new strength and they had found in themselves the will to be tidy.

You have always been tidy, Marina.

They built little beds from the bumps of Marina’s bent spine and tucked their daughters all in a row. It is what you must do when you are a mother.

I’m sorry. We called Marina our island because she was the only body left to hold us up.

Katy Gunn is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama with recent writing in Crazyhorse, PANK, Puerto del Sol, and more.