Stuff We Do to Make a Living

by | Apr 7, 2020 | Fiction, Issue Fourteen

Mother washes the dishes and looks like she is too old to wash them, like the sponge is aging her, and the plates are too heavy for her hands-like-bones. I step towards her but it’s just steam. She’s not there. She is on the couch, coughing and looking for her cigarettes. The smoke catches the silver light like the steam from the kettle. When I look again, there’s also a tiny mother, a copy of the real one, shouting on the mantlepiece. I catch her in a glass and carry her out. It’s still cold.

Mother blows out smoke rings on the porch. I go back to scald the pot, make a thermos of tea for the day’s work. At this time of day, I try not to talk. I shove things in front of us. Deal with breakfast in slabs and chunks, and I still shrink. When mother comes in to fetch her tea, she’ll see me the size of a ten-year old, I nearly choke on bread to stay grown-up. And today we got to do a job together.

 ‘It’s Lauren Next-Door’s Johnny’ she says, ‘Died last Monday’

 The car has started after all, so we’re driving there.

‘I can’t stand that woman.’

‘Why do it for her then?’ I ask.

She stares ahead. I check the bag: a long-handled net, rope, a small cage. It’s still cold when we reach the desert, and it looks hazy, like it’s not quite there. We watch out for the sheep dung and thorns. She leads, and I follow, the cage clanking on my back, my net banging against my thigh.

‘When I charm him, and he makes to run,’ she says, ‘just flop it. Don’t wait’.

‘I won’t’.

‘Last time…’

‘I won’t’.

A second sight is a gift, they say, a way to be rich. Except what I have is a second-hand sight. I get the leftovers of what she sees, ghosts of snakes and hyraxes, and I don’t even see them, just know they’re scuttling in the rocks, and she doesn’t know how to be rich. Johnny is ahead of us in the mist. Mother uses a small whistle that makes a low sound. At the point where the path reaches a tall rock, we stop. It’s freezing, but the tea and the cigarettes have to wait. We watch the path. A quick movement down its end, and she picks up the whistle again, blows. I run up, bring it down. A small soulkin, no bigger than a lizard. He wriggles. She shrugs. A lick of green crosses the sky. We take out the tea. She lights up a cigarette. When he gets tired of struggling, we’ll unwrap him and put him in the cage, and the sun will be up soon.  


Lauren-Next-Door arrives in the afternoon. Mother is dozing. Johnny is scratching the floor of the cage. Ex-biker, around twenty, my age.  His tiny wheels grow where his arms would have been.

She arrives in court shoes, balancing a 20-kilo bag of rice. There are patches of sweat on her flowery dress.

 ‘You know I can’t give cash, pet, will you tell your ma, oh there she is’.

Mother is staring at us. It is unclear, from this angle, if her disdain is directed at Lauren-Next-Door or me.

‘Where is he? Where’s my boy?’

I point to the cage.  

‘That’s it? So small?’ she’s afraid to go nearer.

Mother speaks: ‘What’d you expect, full size? Grief-free. The way you whipped him as a kid, you’re lucky we caught him at all. Now pick him up, you got three weeks.’

Lauren is shaking so much I want to prop her up. The way I want hold up the house so it doesn’t break apart.

‘Here’s your money’. She pulls out a twenty and throws it on top of the rice. Picks up the cage without looking in and marches out. Johnny’s wheels thump on the floor of the cage.


Her smoke clouds are all guilt and fury. There’s no order to them. Making dinner is a waste.  The captured souls get angry. They hurl potatoes at us. Trip us. Clog our car. She takes jobs from the neighbours she hates, from the neighbours that spat on the road as she passed, whose daughters spat at me at school. Whose sons followed me, really close, saying bad things I didn’t understand. The neighbours give us stuff:

Cans of beans, UHT milk, ugly veg. 

When I wash the dishes, I pretend I have a real conversation with her

‘Mom, quit smoking, they’re bad for you.’

A bag of rice, for a small soul to while away the hard days.

‘Why do we keep hunting them if you feel so bad every time. Leave them be. We could do other things. You could do things for yourself’.

Cigarettes or tobacco for rolling, instant coffee.

‘It’s just three weeks,’ she says, ‘they have all eternity, we’re not asking for much.’

An odd twenty to assuage the guilt.

They know at the unemployment office but won’t say a word in case they might need it.

It’s never enough for me to leave her on her own.

After three weeks, as the souls dissipate, I go over to the quiet houses to collect the cages.

I don’t know if she could do that job herself. On those days, her smoke lies low in the room, and she glares from all sides as she tries to make herself absent, to erase herself from the fresh marks of grief. Tiny mothers appear. And I hurry in with my glass and bits of paper, to pick her up from the shelf, and from the mantlepiece, to catch her creeping over the TV, and I want to gather them all and give her back to her, but I take them all out into the cold.

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