In Their Mother’s Arms is a post-apocalyptic dystopia set on two islands: OPS, the false utopia island, and D’nalreven, the island where outcast children have made a home. OPS is run by a group of Elders under the authority of one supreme leader, N’rutas. The people of OPS believe that orphans should be spared the indignity of living off of the charity of society. It is more dignified to let the sea decide whether or not they die.
Mother is the matriarch of the outcast children. Mother fled OPS for D’nalreven and has spent her life raising outcast children who she has saved from the sea. The oldest outcast is a teenage girl, Darling. Darling and her little brother, Moses, were sent to sea when orphaned about a decade ago.
In this scene, Darling is telling her account of Mother’s death to the most recent arrival on D’nalreven.
Again, I Say
An excerpt from In Their Mother’s Arms
Thus Darling spoke: “There she lay; a body without a soul. Eyes shut. Mouth open. She did not seem to be resting or sleeping. There was no peace lingering in the air. It was death. Nothing dignified. Nothing grand. Just death. For the first time since I came to this island, I was witness to the very thing Mother had shielded me from: I was eyeing the fate that I had been saved from when she drew us from the water.
In the chair next to her, hunched over in defeat, still holding her hand, was Father. He didn’t sob. He wasn’t crying at all. He was past the state of tears. Grief had molded that man into a marble statue, unable to move, unable to let a single tear fall. The only signs of life were blinking eyes and the slow rise and fall of breathing.
What could I do? What should I say? Should I say anything? Should I walk away? I wanted to turn and run. I wanted to hide in my despair. But I couldn’t leave Father alone. And someone had to tell the other children. Someone had to stay strong. It couldn’t be me. Why did it have to be me? Mother told me this day would come. In many secret conversations, she prepared me for this. She tried to, at least. No one can be prepared for such a moment. When it comes, all that you were taught rushes out of your mind. All the faith and certainty you had the second before, dissipates.
Trying to find a center, I closed my eyes, breathed in slowly, and let out a whispered, ‘Calm.’ I thought about the last conversation Mother and I had before her mind was completely gone, eaten up with disease.
. . .
We were walking along the beach, early in the morning, as we used to when I was little. Only this time, I was holding her hand and guiding her along the sandy shore. Truthfully, I had her arm wrapped over mine so that I could hold her up. I let her lean on me. It was only fair. All the years I had leaned on her, now it was my turn. Of course, we had to go at a snail’s pace. She was already having a hard time remembering how to walk. But I didn’t mind. This was the only time I really had to be alone with her. She was the mother who did not have to be, the one who gave herself for me every day since she saved me and Moses from the dignity granted to us when the Elders of our island sent us off over the sea in nothing more than a single person raft to either live or die as chance would have it. As you know, this is what our people do to orphans — Dignity! they call it; they don’t know what dignified means. This is what they call our right! Not being subjected to an undignified life in which we are a burden is our right? Who made such a right, is all I want to know. They say it is for our sake that the sea be our judge — a dignified death, indeed!
Mother and Father showed me what dignity actually means. It is Mother and Father that have shown us all what the true dignity of a human being is: we are made in the image of One greater than the Elders, greater than that society that casted us out, greater than N’rutas, greater than anything we can even imagine. It took a long time for me to understand it. Maybe I still don’t. But I think Mother’s death helped me finally see what they both strived to teach everyday. Dignity doesn’t come when you are forced to not be a burden. But dignity is not the freedom to choose either. The dignity of a human being is wholly different. Our dignity is life itself. Our dignity is living through the troubles of the world and passing on the wisdom of our pain and faith. I think I learned from watching Mother age so gracefully, at least for a time, that dignity is never letting go of hope. Evil does not have the last word. More than anything, Mother and Father taught me, by word and deed, that our dignity is that we are made in the image of God’s eternity.
The dawning sun shone low on the horizon to our left: half dancing with the rolling sea; half resolute beyond the world’s end. As our steps sank into the wet sand, then rose and sank again, the morning tide came in and lightly tickled the bottom of our feet. Mother’s grey, wavy locks, so long that they hung down past her hips, glided back and whipped with the gusting breeze, as did her white gown. The sun’s rays deepened the hills and valleys of every wrinkle on her face, but her toothy smile assured me that she was proud of her age, that she considered the years storied on her cheeks and brow to be a blessing. Those grey hairs and wrinkles were well-earned. In my opinion, that is true dignity. It was a perfect morning.
We had been walking for a quarter of an hour without speaking a single word when Mother stopped and turned to me. ‘I’d like to sit down,’ she said.
‘Of course, Mother.’
I led her up toward a grassy dune no more than a hundred feet from the shoreline; still, it took the better part of ten minutes to make it there. I helped her slowly sit on the soft sand. ‘Is that good, Mother?’ I asked. ‘Are you comfortable?’
‘Sit down, Darling,’ she said as she patted the sand next to her. ‘I want to talk with you.’
‘Anything you want, Mother.’
Before I could take my place next to her, Mother began to talk. ‘I don’t know how much longer my mind will hold out. This may be our last chance. There are things I need to say.’
‘Oh, Mother, don’t talk like that. Don’t. You’re doing so good,’ I said in hopes of imparting a bit of solace. ‘You’re fine.’
‘I am not,’ she replied sternly and grabbed my hands with a grip I did not know she was still capable of. ‘Every morning I wake up and have to remember who I am and where I am. You do not see the worst of it. Father sees more than he will ever say and more than I will ever know. Trust me. Listen closely.’
‘Yes, Mother,’ I whispered with a lump of emotion catching in my throat.
She released her vice like grip and continued, ‘Soon, it will be your turn to carry the torch, to take up my mantel. I will be passing on. Father will not be able to go on very long without me. When I am gone, I need you to comfort this family of ours. They will look to you. Even Father will look to you. He is strong, but once I am gone, I think his strength will relent.’ As she said this, I did all I could to fight back the tears. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, they streamed down my cheeks. ‘There, there, dear,’ she consoled. ‘That is not all I want to say. It’s not all bad news. I want to thank you. I know that if I did not tell you to take my place when I am gone that you would anyway. And I am grateful for that. Eternally grateful.’ She paused to catch her breath. I could tell Mother was doing her best to not let emotion take over. She put both of my hands in the palm of her left and, while patting the back of my hands with her other, looked into my eyes with her watery blue eyes, smiled, then spoke again. ‘I know you would sacrifice everything. I love you so dearly for that. You are a darling. Your name fits well.’
I sobbed uncontrollably. ‘No, Mother. No. I don’t want you to go. I don’t. I can’t.’ I put my face to her shoulder and she caressed my head. This moment took me back to those first few nights after she saved us when I would wake up in the middle of the night screaming.
‘Don’t worry about me. When I am gone, my worries will finally be over. I want to talk to you so that I can encourage you to hold on.’ She pushed my head back from her shoulder and palmed my cheeks. ‘Stand firm, Darling,’ she shook.
I pulled my head back from her hands and wiped away my tears. ‘Yes, Mother. I will be strong,’ I sniffled. ‘I will do whatever you wish. Whatever you want to tell me, I can handle it.’
‘I know, my dear. I know,’ she said.
She took my hands into hers and began to speak. ‘A day will come soon when you will see my face and my soul will not be behind it. I will look like an empty shell. On that day, take heart! For that day will be the day that death has lost its sting.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘You see, the old, cold grip of the last planet, Death, N’rutas himself, is overcome in the moment that he thinks he has victory. In this life, his terror reigns, for we are under his looming dominion. And yet, it is by his scythe, that cutting blade of terror that waits in an unknown future, that we are cut away from the decay of this life and brought into the eternal realm beyond his reach. He is the very one who readies us to pass through the gate that frees us from his dominion.’ Then she said to me what Father said were her last words to him, even in her unconscious state, before breathing her last, ‘Joy wins.’
. . .
I opened my eyes and looked at Father. I took in another deep breath, puckered my lips and let it out. ‘Joy wins,’ I attempted to assure myself, under my breath.
I slowly walked over to the foot of Mother’s bed and reached under the covers to grip her foot. It was cold. There was no life in it. The last time I had touched her skin, it was warm and shivering. Now, cold and stiff. Yes, just the night before, I had held her hand. It was not but an hour or so after her death rattle, as Father called it, began that I gripped her hand and tried to give her comfort. I tried to comfort Mother, an honor and a curse.
For the better part of a year, her mind had gone so far away that she became like a toddler. Most here know that she had to sit in a special chair Father made her and be spoonfed. She had a fidget blanket and would have conversations with imaginary people. Terrible imaginary conversation and confessions of things that I hoped were not true, though I think they may have been.
That night, as I held her hand, I could feel the panic and fear trembling through her whole body. Her eyes never opened and her rattle never ceased. I so desperately wanted to take away her fear and torment, place it on my shoulders and carry it away. I wanted to hold her in my arms like a real child, pat her on the back, and let her know everything would be okay. Of course, I did not have the power to do any of this. As I stood there holding her hand, all I could wonder was if, in her present mental state, she even conceived what was happening: was she facing death with the mind of a toddler — a mind that couldn’t even get a spoon from her bowl to her mouth — or was she facing eternity with her true adult mind which had come back from deep within her consciousness, only to realize it was too late.
That night, as I held her hand, my heart was so heavy with grief that I felt as if it would burst. All I could think to do was speak words from the old world’s holy book. I began to recite every part of that word I could think of: ‘God didn’t send His Son into the old world to condemn it but to save it through the Son . . . All who trust in the Son will not be judged but have already gone from death to life . . . .’ At my words, I could feel a calm come over her body. Once I started my recitations, there were moments when I could feel her body relax and hear her breath die down — the first few instances I even thought she was going to slip from my hand straight into the hands of that Son spoken of in the old world’s holy book. And then, suddenly, her body would tense up and rush back from the shore of death. Once I realized I had no more of that word to give and her body was not yet willing to be at rest, I made a promise that I will seek to fulfill until the day I die: ‘I will do everything within my power to make sure that everyone in our family knows what you have passed on to me, that they will trust this Son you have told us about. They will know that Death does not have the last word, that N’rutas does not win. Rejoice. Again, I say, rejoice. We will all meet again in that land where joy never ends.’ After making this promise, I bent down and kissed her head, then gently laid her shaking hand onto her chest. I stepped back and took in the dignity of her aged face one last time before leaving the room.
‘Joy wins,’ I thought as a few tears streamed down my cheeks. I released the cold, dead foot in my hand and walked over to that man who was like a father to me — Father of all here. I leaned my chin down to rest just above his shoulder as I gave a quieted reassurance that I knew he would understand, and maybe him alone, ‘She cannot come to you, but you will go to her.’”
Donald W. Catchings, Jr., “Excerpt from Again, I Say,” An Unexpected Journal: Joy 5, no. 3. (Fall 2022), 121-130.