Her daughter was returning after a long time away. The mother would learn how to be a Mom again. Then she would know when to hug, when to stand back.
Fifteen years earlier, the daughter had been a premature infant in an incubator weighing just a kilogram. Then the mother used to drive to the hospital at 4 am to watch her breathe. She’d made up lullabies and slept sitting up beside the monitors. She’d knitted pixie caps for her head the size of an apple, but one morning when she’d been away, a nurse from the adult section deputising in the neonatal ICU put the wrong tape on the baby’s face to secure the feeding tube. When it had to be removed, the outer layer of skin had ripped, leaving a scab and then a scar on the infant’s cheekbone that eventually faded to look like a faint silvery fish.
When she was a toddler, the mother had to quit using soap to cure the girl’s eczema. She’d slather her in acqueous cream that made a scum on the inside of the tub. The mother fretted about damage from the African sun, begging the girl to wear a hat, to apply sunscreen, warning her about wrinkles, and cancer. Later, on the alternate weekends when the daughter was a visitor, she’d ask her mother for medicated creams for pimples, and moisturiser. They’d shop together. The mother would buy her perfume too, saying, Remember me when you smell this.
The girl has new scars like purple slugs in serried ranks, crawling up her arm, but hard to the touch. After she’d slashed herself, the dermatologist offered scar plasters, but the deepest cuts approached the artery. The mother rubs rosehip oil on her child’s skin, trying to loosen the keloid tissue, remembering the old worries, airy now as soda bubbles, light as rice paper confetti.
When she was married to her child’s father, her own skin was clear. There were never marks from sleep deprivation, no bruises from the interrogations at 11, at midnight, at one, at two. Only the slow-hitting clock bore witness to the fear.
Now the mother listens in the quiet hours as her daughter turns in her sleep. She hears the bed springs squeak when the girl gets up for the toilet. In the silence she wonders about matric dance dresses, wedding gowns. The girl draws with pencil crayon in her notebook, sleeves of lace or voile, long skirts to cover the slashes criss-crossing her shins, her thighs.
The mother finds them when the girl has gone to school, crumpled in the garbage. She takes them out and as she irons them, the air fills with the scent of hot paper.