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Poisoned: An Excerpt from My Memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened

“I’m sure you didn’t mean anything by it,” she whispered conspiratorially, clutching at the wires crisscrossing her torso as if they were lifelines. “You didn’t really mean to hurt me, did you?”

I didn’t answer. I had no answer for her.

She raised herself; bent her back up off the angled, starched-sheeted bed, the skull-flattened pillow. “You won’t get into any trouble. I promise,” she assured me in her most persuasive tone, leaning towards me as if greater nearness would bring her closer to the truth.

I glanced at my mother, ragged now from our endless day of blood tests and EKGs, pitiful with probes attached to her chest and hands. Then averted my eyes and stared instead at my own hands, knuckles white on the edges of the uncomfortable folding chair on which I perched by her bedside, and wondered if they were even capable of doing her harm. Thought that if they were, that surely they would have done it already.

She bent her face close to mine, the urgency in her voice betraying the calmness of her countenance. “Just tell them what you gave me, sweetheart,” she pleaded.

Her breath stunk of metal fillings and stale cigarettes, and I backed involuntarily away. Hasty and harrowed, to her my retreat conveyed confession and it prodded her on, encouraged her investigation.

“It was poison, wasn’t it?” she whispered excitedly, almost hopefully, I thought. “Just tell me what kind!”

Why was she so obsessed with poison? I speculated, not yet comprehending that it was impossible to rationalize the irrational. She refused to eat at home anymore because the food might be poisoned; preferred the anonymity of restaurant fare. But then it was in my orange juice or her coffee, might have been sprinkled like salt on the eggs or buried deep in the butter, this mysterious killer toxin, by some even more mysterious killer who stalked us, who intended inexplicably to do us harm.

“It’s not too late,” she urged. “If you just tell them what it was, there might be an antidote. They could still save me!” She smiled at me and conscientiously ran her hands over her scalp, smoothing down the short blonde hair she’d had colored and cut in fruitless disguise.

Sometimes I even considered the possibility that she herself was guilty of administering the poison she so terribly feared. If that was the real reason why she kept snatching my meals away at the last second, in an attack of conscience over attempting to murder her own daughter. Even I had begun to look suspiciously at my food; wondered whether I should refuse it, no matter how many meals I had lately missed. I was gradually absorbing her paranoia, cinching it to my core like the belt around my sagging jeans.

“It’s not going to go well with you if something happens to me, you know,” she snarled, all at once dropping her coy sweetness. “I’ve left evidence. They’ll be able to prove it was you. You’ll be locked up for good, I guarantee it.”

I listened to the quiet bleeping of the machinery at her bedside and eyed the doctor staring curiously from the hall, the doctor who had been sent away after admitting they hadn’t been able to find any physical cause for the searing pains in her chest, the shortness of breath. My co-conspirator, no doubt.

“And don’t forget about Bellevue,” she spat. “I’m your mother and I can still have you committed. Maybe it would be good for you,” she concluded nastily, sneering her contempt of my supposed sanity.

It shivered through me, this worst of her threats, the familiar fear of the powerless pitted against the powerful. I imagined myself again, sealed into a strait-jacket, shrieking wildly in protest, proving my lunacy thereby. Being trundled into some dark hole and left there forever to rot, to die, while she roamed freely about, seeking, perhaps, another child, a youngster, a victim more susceptible to accepting her incomprehensible illusions.

“So are you going to tell me or not?” she snapped finally, whipping her head around as if to startle me into the truth, her hands clasping the bed’s guardrails, steadfastly refusing to misbehave in public, in front of witnesses. Hanging on to the cold steel as if afraid she might forget herself again, as she had lately made a habit of doing; bruise my wrists with her claw-like fingers, or box my ears with the flats of her palms.

I bowed my head as if in contemplation, perhaps in prayer. Gazed directly into the once-familiar mud-brown eyes, hollow now, as they had become in recent weeks, vague and empty and occupied elsewhere, in vast regions of runaway imagination that I couldn’t see, couldn’t possibly perceive.

I meditated whether I should try to explain it to her, the irrationality of her suspicion. How could I have poisoned her? I was sixteen, and the internet hadn’t been invented yet. I wouldn’t have known what kind of poison would work on a person, even if I’d had access to some. And how would I have bought it, with her watching me twenty-four hours a day, even while we slept?

I stared unwaveringly into them, the eyes so unlike my own, so nearly inhuman yet not animal either; alien eyes. And abandoned the hope of persuading them with my useless reasoning. Her world had an impenetrable logic all its own.

“I didn’t give you anything, Mom,” I said, turning away.

She cursed out loud. I didn’t look back.

She surrendered. Accepted the doctor’s discharge and took me home. But she eyed me mistrustfully as she ordered me into the king-sized bed we now shared.

“I can’t force you to admit what you did,” she conceded as she lay down, fully dressed, on top of the blankets. “But I still know you did it.”

She clasped her hand hard to her chest and let out a gasp, as if in pain. And almost I wished I had relented and confessed to the uncommitted crime, I pitied her so.

* * *

“Poisoned” received an Honorable Mention in The Avalon Literary Review’s Spring 2014 Contest and was published in that issue. The piece is an excerpt from my memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness, available in paperback and audiobook on November 7, 2014 from retailers worldwide, and available now for Kindle pre-order on Amazon.com.

It’s interesting to note that “Poisoned” is actually an alternate version of a flash fiction piece that I wrote and had published in the amazing Journal of Microliterature in November 2013. At the time I had decided to beef up my writing resume by seeking publishing credits, which are naturally far easier to obtain if you write short stories than long novels. However, short work requires more ideas – a multitude, in fact – and as my fingers flashed across the keyboard day after day, the idea well ran dry and I very quickly found myself searching through my brain for memories I could transform into fiction. As It hadn’t yet occured to me that I would be writing a memoir, the original story wasn’t about my mother and I at all, but rather concerned the relationship between a husband and wife when she is taken mentally ill. You can compare the two versions by reading the original along with my commentary here. Which do you like better?

“Poisoned” is also available as a FREE eBook; you can download it at your favorite eBook retailer.

My Short-Short “Poisoned” in The Journal of Microliterature – Thanks to an Editor’s Wonderful Feedback

My flash fiction story “Poisoned” has been published in The Journal of Microliterature:

http://www.microliterature.org/poisoned-by-lori-Schafer

This was a very tricky piece to put together. It was actually inspired by an incident that occurred in the course of my mother’s psychosis. One day she took me to the hospital, complaining of chest and abdominal pains. I was naturally concerned, but I also recall being hopeful that having a doctor examine her would lead to the (I thought) inevitable revelation that she’d lost her marbles. No such luck. But anyway, they took her complaints seriously, because although she was in fairly good health, at forty-one she wasn’t exactly young anymore, and was a smoker besides, so there was legitimate reason to believe there could be a problem with her heart. They gave her the requisite battery of tests, but couldn’t find anything wrong. Now, as an adult, I can pretty easily guess what they must have told her – that she’d had an anxiety attack, which she probably had – but at the time I had no idea such a thing even existed. In fact, I wondered more if perhaps it was all in her head; she was imagining a lot of strange things in those days. Then the doctor left the room and the interrogation began. And that’s when I began to be afraid that she’d somehow manage to pin the blame for her mysterious illness on me.

The first version I wrote of this piece was mostly reflective of that – my terror over being falsely accused and probably convicted of poisoning my own mother with some substance of which no one could prove or disprove the existence. I sent my story off to Microliterature, and a few weeks later I received a response from the editor that basically said (politely) that I had ruined an otherwise good piece by changing the tone halfway through. He was absolutely right. The story ended in hysterics, with the husband being dragged away by the police, which, while it carried the plot in an interesting direction, utterly wrecked the dreadful calm of the first half of the story. He did, however, say that if I ever did a rewrite, I should feel free to resubmit.

So I rewrote it. I changed the second half of the piece entirely, including the ending, making it more about the relationship between the husband and wife than about the consequences of the wife’s accusation. And I was careful to maintain the tone of the first half of the piece throughout, which worked worlds better than the original version. And here you see the results. How grateful I am to that editor! With one brief sentence he nailed what was wrong with that piece and clued me in as to how to change it from a so-so story into a well-done one. I realize, of course, that few editors have the time to address the defects in the submissions they receive. But I hope that those who do make the effort are aware of how much we writers truly appreciate their feedback, and of what an impact a few choice words can make on the quality of a writer’s work.

Addendum: After this story was published, I also composed an alternate version, a nonfiction piece also entitled Poisoned, which is written in the first person and is featured in my memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened. It received an Honorable Mention in The Avalon Literary Review‘s Spring 2014 Quarterly Contest and may be downloaded as a FREE eBook at your favorite  eBook retailer; I have also posted it here for those who are curious to compare the two versions.  Needless to say, I was very careful to maintain a consistent tone throughout!