All the Daughters Sing – Jan Priddy

All the Daughters Sing – Jan Priddy

March 2023

Light pours straight down through the leaves, hot like midsummer, and the duff underfoot feels quite light and dry. Yes, it must be July. The moon has gone bright and dark and bright again without more than a mist falling. Salmonberries are ripening.

I move along the narrow path, using a staff of carved cedar wood because I tire easily, and my feet are unsteady on the path. Sometimes my attention wanders. I mean to be quick, sneaking away for this last walk alone. Daughters will come soon enough and spoil my solitude.

My goal is the large mossed-over stone marking where my first daughter is buried. My firstborn, Alice. The trees are deciduous along this slope. Thin branches and spicy leaves rattle with the slightest breeze, but the air hardly stirs, passing in and out of my open mouth without a sound, blood-warm as if I walk through the world’s breath.

I hold my breath and listen. No sound of Daughters behind me, though they will follow if they catch me wandering. They are light on their feet, careful even when it does not matter.

Being alone is the point of my walk, and there is no one looking to disagree. I only argue with myself. Daughters never argue. They listen. They are respectful of my opinions, my cautions and concerns. Yet, as I walk, I feel hemmed in and worried by something more, just out of sight. I should have told them where I was going and asked them to leave me be. They would have done that.

Waiting is an ache beneath my heart, the thudding sound of it, and desire for an ending.

Movement catches my attention just ahead and above, a fluttering like—very much like—something living. It stutters and drifts across the perfectly still air, down and down, like something alive, like a butterfly, and I have nearly forgotten what a butterfly was like after all this time. I track its movement along the downslope ahead of me, near Alice’s grave. Wonder flutters from joy to loss. I reach above my head to catch it, fingers splayed and reaching, mouth open, attention gathered completely by the movement where there should be no movement.

As I reach to grasp the butterfly, just beyond the tips of my fingers, I step wrong and wound myself. I sit abruptly on the dry earth—the out-of-season leaf drops nearby—and pull my foot into my lap, where blood wells from my broken skin. Much has been broken. This hillside once had homes with windows and kitchens and families.

I squeeze the tough sole of my foot, remove a sliver of green glass the size of a fingernail. Glass, after all this time. Decades crept past.

Since I was born, people warned the world might end in a blaze or with a whimper. Climate and catastrophe were always the story. Death from disease or some newly recognized toxin. Is that how it happened? I do not care. Instead, I fear sometimes I will never die. I survived a century and more past my time.

The light splatters down between the trees, their pale leaves unspeaking in the stillness.

Too soon, Daughters will scent blood and come running quick as anything.

In the middle of the twenty-first century, no British swallow returned from South Africa. Terns, wheatears, and sheerwaters vanished from their migratory routes. Sandhill cranes failed to return to wetlands in Michigan where they had rested and nested for nine million years. By then, seagulls no longer trailed fishing fleets. Bird feeders attracted only determined squirrels and chipmunks and rats. Small children playing in their own back yards carried festering bodies of songbirds to their horrified parents.

If anyone had predicted what happened, it would have been a worst case scenario. No one wanted to believe we would be helpless to fight it off.

I might have been among the first human beings to catch the new virus. Or perhaps it was a very old one. Or a bacterium. Or maybe several diseases that also killed birds and snakes and frogs and then mammals. There would be no one left to study and explain what killed them all—whatever it was that made me sick, but not dead. I will never know. I refuse to care how it happened. I will never know why or how or what will come later. For a long time I only focused on the now.

But when it started long ago, I lay under blankets, eyes closed, and shivered for what seemed an eternity. Hours? A day? I told my flatmate I needed to sleep and turned off my cell. At first, I assumed it was a cold coming on suddenly after work, then, later in the evening and the following days, some really bad influenza or another mutation of the coronavirus that would not let go. In bed, too weak to dress and go to work or even to call in sick, I messaged my boss and collapsed. My joints ached, skin wet with fever, but on a trip to the bathroom I tucked a thermometer into my ear and found my temperature had dropped to 95°. I staggered back to bed and to sleep. I was not yet afraid of dying. I was afraid of missing work, of not being prepared for the trade show presentation. I was afraid I would lose my job. I turned on my cell to message my boss again and scrolled through for news. Headlines declared that whole cities were getting sick and dying. I was afraid I would catch whatever those other people had. Despite being afraid I might die, I did not die. Instead, I felt better.

It was a Tuesday when I finally felt well enough to call into work, but service was down and I felt too wretched to care. My joints crackled when I sat up in bed. I could not hear my flatmates in the central kitchen or Carly slamming the door as she left early for work. Carly always slammed the front door. I could time my day by the slam and her stomping down the stairs.

I sniffed. What was that awful smell?

The stink was what finally drove me from bed and to the kitchen. No one there and I was sick, that was all. I drank a glass bottle of water, scrolled through screens that refused to open properly, opened blinds to check the street, but all was silent. There was power from the passive system I’d set up, and water ran from the tap when I washed my hands. But it was quiet. No traffic, no neighbor’s dog barked, no one played music. I wiped my eyes unstuck as I stood at the window. The air outside seemed thicker, misty almost, and my ears rang with a hissing, stinging sound that gave way to absolute silence, the quiet like a presence waiting. I wanted to lie back down. By that Tuesday—if it was a Tuesday—life on Earth, most everything that moved, had ended. Whatever it was had killed everyone I knew and entire populations I never could have known, though I did not understand that at the time.

I held myself quite calm when telling Daughters this story, emotions carefully in check. I had not been calm in those early years alone. I cried and screamed and shook and shouted at the silence. I ran through empty streets in the dark and walked for days south to the Columbia River and found no one, saw nothing that mattered.

Herds of deer did not dash through downtown canyons of concrete. I did not track the days with marks scratched onto a wall. I did not make plans to walk across the continent or to rebuild. Climate change had already done its dirty deed, invaded shorelines, stolen entire low-lying neighborhoods and left winters damp but mild. The filthy air blew away and I breathed easier. I accepted all that. I cannot explain, but I knew everything was changed forever and I made no effort to change things back.

I do not tell the Daughters any of this.

Even in those first days, there was no doubt what was behind Carly’s closed bedroom door. For a long time I huddled in my room, left only to drink bottled water, eat peas and broccoli thawing in the freezer, cold canned chili and the last banana, already gone soupy inside. It was crazy, but I thought everything would be all right if I remained calm, if I did not open Carley’s door or try to call my mother. That horrible smell. Flies everywhere. Plastics breaking down faster than they should.

Odors of chlorine and vinegar overrode the rot. My stored food ran out, and I went out to the grocery store over on 45th and thought about theft. From whom? I tried the doors, banged on them, threw rocks from a garden, but could not break the glass. I found an ancient push mower in the storage room of my condo, carried it down to the corner, and tossed it through the front window of the local convenience store. By that time, I had gotten used to the stink, or it was fading—I hoped it was. Entire human bodies collapsed into puddles and stains sliding across sidewalks leaving huddles of chemical clothing even the insects did not eat. Packages of crackers and cookies were spoiled and nibbled, but glass containers and cans were fine. Sell-by dates meant nothing. Weeks or months passed; I was already losing track of time.

I went out under the stars and searched for the sound of something larger than a carpenter ant. I had not yet noticed I was not sleeping. I knew my friends were dead, my family, my job didn’t matter. I did not have to complete my presentation on post-graphene batteries or defend the generation after that.

My watch quit working. My sport shoes smelled of vinegar and went flat. I thought I would have to give up running. The idea made me laugh and recognize how near I was to hysteria.

I made the list in my head: food, water, shelter. Family. Mom had called when her canaries died. I was already sick that day. My mother. I went to find her. Mom’s house was collapsing and I could not breathe. I sat in the road and could not get back to what I knew or the people. Everyone was gone. I closed my eyes and waited for the days to end. For the nights to pass. By now, I knew I was not sleeping.

The moon had gone to full by then—I could see the moon when I went out, streets lit by stars that had once been obscured by artificial lights. I walked all the way into downtown, past wooden buildings that seemed already to tip and sag. Stains on the sidewalks all the way to the waterfront and up against the inside of glass doors to office buildings. No bodies, the stink fading away.

I broke into the REI downtown, found flint and steel, a small folding shovel with a metal handle. Even this building was not steady, would not last long. From this and other stores I gathered everything that might be useful and not rot and dragged it outside to the middle of streets where I hoped I could find it if I needed something later.

Anything in freezers or refrigerated cases was hopeless. Cardboard packaging was eaten through, plastic containers were corroded and discolored. Ants fell from the ceiling onto my head as I collected glass bottles of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and sweet red peppers, cans of beans and tomatoes, fancy flavored salt packaged in glass.

I was very tired, but kept moving, seeking something familiar. I climbed back east through empty streets, broke into the Conservatory on Capital Hill. It had been my peaceful place, but now the plants in the center pavillion were dry and dead. Downtown again, I learned the trick to breaking tempered glass and smashed windows just to hear them fall. When my clothing fell apart, I broke locks on doors and found more. When I was hungry, I found whatever was nearest. I ate canned food shelved in the upper floors of downtown condominium kitchens, and built fires on their concrete floors to give light in the lengthening nights.

I closed my eyes, imagined sleep.

Some days, I cried and screamed and argued out loud with myself. On a long walk south, I raided small towns and tried to remember their names. Arms wrapped around my body, pacing the freeway and empty sidewalks that had begun to go cockeyed and too hot for bare feet. There was no one walking larger than a beetle. One sweltering summer day I came upon a river of black ants moving across the floor of an empty house, felt the crunch and moisture of their bodies under my naked heels, around and across my feet. Caught between fascination and fury, I stamped and stamped them, until, hysterical and sobbing, I had to run away from the squashed and swarming bodies. I closed my mouth on my remorse. The world was quieter, and I became quiet. There was nothing to see across the Columbia River, only another city falling down. I went north to home in Seattle. The word ‘home’ in my head made me laugh.

I thought about walking off the edge of a building or taking pills found in a pharmacy, or sleeping until the world ended. If only I could sleep. I leaned too close to fire though I was not cold, only alone and shivering. What threatened? No strangers. No dogs or wild animals drawn by flame. I remembered moths fluttering and dropping into campfires on the walk south, but there were no moths by the time I walked north again. Fewer flies. I walked for miles until I was too tired to walk further. I thought I would die.

When there were no longer shoes or clothing remaining from Before, I went naked and did not feel the cold even at night. I sat in shade in hot weather, found shelter from wind when the air cooled. I managed. I ate anything I could find or gather without craving any particular food. I was never sick. I remembered snow and books and family dinners. But it was never cold enough for frost and my books fell apart and all my family was dead.

I had been alone, entirely alone for years, when I realized I was pregnant.

One morning after bathing in the vast basin that I thought of as Lake Washington, I ran my hands across my stomach and felt the knot flutter below my belly button. My monthly periods had ceased long ago—how long? I should have been grateful; where would I find tampons? I was relieved, wasn’t I? I could not recall precisely when my monthlies had become yearlies, only that my last period had been a month ago. I argued with myself about the bulge in my belly: a parasite? But soon my belly grew round and tight. It was a baby turning under my hand.

I could not be pregnant.

In late spring, just weeks after I understood my condition, contractions began.

I deliberately turned away from both reason and fear. It was a miscarriage. Of course it was. I was losing the baby, and though tears came and my hands shook and I panted, I told myself it was all for the best. I could not have a baby alone. I could not have a baby at all. There was only the tiny bulge in my belly, not the enormous belly holding a full term infant. I breathed steadily, sat in the shade of a dying maple tree, and counted between passes of pain that was not quite pain but something else. Ripples of heat in my body—an orgasm, pleasure, and I was startled, then howling, screaming in pleasure and shuddering in that long forgotten ecstasy—how could I have forgotten this?

It seemed to last a long time, this pulsing pleasure and pain. Then, hardly noticing I did, I pushed it out. A sliding, climactic birth throb, and a blueish, blood-streaked sack lay between my thighs, born in a series of overwhelming orgasmic pulses. I gasped and closed my eyes, then, remembering something I had not known, I bent to tear open the sack with my nails. The slick covering membrane was tough and I used my teeth. It stretched, tore, and the tiniest infant pushed its face out. I cleared the sack. The infant lay on the new grass, slick and wet and mewling like a puppy. Alive. Tiny. I thought the baby would surely die—the size of two fists stacked end to end, barely as long as my fingers spread wide—helpless and dark. But it was strong. The baby screamed, and I gathered it against my bare chest. It hunted for a breast. Latched. Milk came, and the infant girl suckled.

Miraculous and marvelous. Another ripple of pleasure—again that pulse I could not help connecting to sex—echoed as my baby nursed, my whole body hot and glowing. What a blessing to feel pleasure and to be of use! I wiped my daughter clean with grass. She did not die that day.

My daughter’s eyes were nearly black rather than my hazel, darker than my grandmother’s eyes were said to have been. The baby’s skin, too, showed darker than mine, matching where mine was browned by the sun, but she had that rich color at birth. My beautiful Alice.

It was still spring when she slid out of my arms and stood. The child was not growing the way children were supposed to grow. Surely my nephew had been nearly a year before he stood unaided. I pushed the memory away.

Alice laughed, a burbling chuckle, ending in a squeal as she took a step away from me. She toddled toward a tuft of clover, stumbled on a stone and splashed the still water in a puddle.

I stood over the infant, steadying her shoulders between my hands.

“Okay, little one. Come along now,” I said, meaning to guide her away from the murky water.

The child looked around, frowned, and said, “Okay.”

My legs let me down onto the ground as if I’d fallen. I recognized then what I had refused to see before. I whispered to my already sturdy child, “Baby girl, little Alice, where did you come from?”

The tiny child looked up to my face and said, “Come from?”

It was all crazy, wonderful. I laughed and swung Alice onto my hip and then set her down, swung her up and over my head.

I laughed for the madness of it all—having a child, a child who stood in days, a child who did not resemble me at all. Like everything gone—the absence of dogs howling at the moon, no cats sleeping in sunshine, no birds, collapsing houses in the city—this child was something new and different.

But then, what was not? My mother had been fond of the expression, “So what else is new?” I watched my tiny daughter tumbling in the grass and whispered, not quite to myself, “Everything.”

I released myself from control and ran and laughed with Alice.

Before the first leaves turned and fell, Alice kept pace with me all day. She helped gather filberts on the other side of the lake, trailing after wherever I went, talking and singing too. My voice had been near silent, but now we chattered all day. I sang her to sleep and closed my own eyes and imagined what we might do next. We moved closer to the city, I made her toys from scraps of wood and taught her songs recalled from childhood, and my little girl sang back to me and in harmony.

“Come, let’s go up in the hills,” I said one day. “There might be huckleberries still.”

I rubbed Alice’s hair, thick and black. If I thought too much about how she came to me, I feared she might go away again. It was an irrational fear, but I was getting used to that.

All of this was impossible, but by then many impossible things had already happened.

The next spring I birthed a second daughter, and Alice watched after her sister Belle. Alice had stopped growing when the top of her head reached the bottom of my chin, and I was not tall.

My second baby developed just as Alice had, and I ate voraciously to keep up her milk supply until, by autumn, they could feed themselves. And then another spring and another child was born, cared for by my second, and Alice returned to my side. At birth, each was smaller than any infant human I had ever known to survive, and each grew faster than was possible. I could not know at first that they would not live long, but I was not so foolish as to ignore how they were strange. I simply chose not to care how it had all happened.

By the time I had twenty daughters, the last year’s child named Tina, Alice had borne a baby of her own. She was Ulla. I had not thought of my children as fully grown. I considered calling myself Grandmother, but they all called me Mother because Alice did. The next spring, only Vera was born to Belle, and I realized I had done birthing. Tina would be the last child born of my body. Now my daughters birthed.

Everything about their lives flowed quicker than mine.

They were clever with their hands, clever finding food, sometimes eating things I had never dared try. Perhaps their sense of smell was better. They rarely became ill from testing something they should not eat.

“Bad,” said Alice once after spitting up on the ground before me. “Bad teffa,” the girl said. She held out the frond.

“All right,” I said. “We won’t eat fern.”

They ate skunk cabbage and other flowers and many roots, and they scraped the inner bark of downed trees and gathered seeds. Alice would sit beside me in the evening before she slept and tell me everything she’d seen and the other Daughters had done. They braided grasses and the chewed fibers of roots and reeds. They planted gardens of sorts, setting seeds in the center of a meadow east of the city and seeming to admire the plants as they grew. They invited the bees but did not steal honey, gathered dead wood but would not hurt a living tree.

I talked and talked to my daughters until I was hoarse, until I noticed they hardly spoke back. They sang.

One spring day, all the children, who mostly were not children at all anymore, but girls or little women, all wore crowns woven of new green leaves and trillium flowers. Alice put one of tiny dairies and wisps of seedheads around my head. They stood close to one another, close to me, wrapped their arms in a circle around me, and sang. New words, new notes, and they sang in harmony like a well-trained choir. I did not recognize the music at all. They grew beyond me, my Daughters. Even Alice, my oldest child, could not always explain to me the why or how of her living.

They wove little sacks of a particular reed, though I would not have known how to teach them. They wave baskets tight enough to carry water. Insects did not invade their stored seeds and dry berries. They taught me how.

Insects themselves seemed less common. While telling a story about the small, wee voice of Mosquito, I realized my Daughters had never seen a mosquito. Perhaps spiders had won? But spiders were no longer as common as they had been. It had been years since I walked into a web between trees.

My years were marked: a child was born, and walked for the first time, and began to sing. I deliberately named them alphabetically, each named for someone, until I accepted that they did not need names to know themselves, and it was hard sometimes for me to tell them apart.

Alice was my first and best child, the child of desperation and need. The rest of my children, like the first, came unbidden. I tried not to care too much about them and that was impossible.

The sound of my Daughters calling and singing above the less insistent whir and hiss of insect life was a background chorus.

Partway through the alphabet the second time, Alice died. Alice died, leaving twenty-six sisters, eleven nieces, and a daughter of her own. All of them Daughters but me.

I rocked the small body of my first born and wept and moaned. Daughters closed around. They held me steady when my body shook. They licked tears from my face.

The Daughters carried their sister, dug a place in the forest with a boulder as marker, and covered her with flowers before covering her in the earth. They sang the sun down. The song was about forest and fruiting trees, the berries that stained their fingers and the experiences of birth and birthing and falling away. Finally they fell away themselves and went on with life. I mourned and sat apart and useless.

All my singing children, all Daughters, and all their Daughters after them, were like that. Most years a birth and a death. I stopped counting and naming. Or rather, counted and named only for myself, recognized that there was no one else to whom most numbers or names mattered.

I cared for them automatically. Because I believed I should love them all the same, I tried, but it was my firstborn I had most wanted to keep safe. I tried not to care too much after Alice, because they would die too soon. I tried to love them all the same, or not to love them. I failed.

They did not cry, but often laughed. They waited patiently. They licked my hands and wrists less often than they licked one another’s. Perhaps they recognized I did not like the gesture or need it as they seemed to themselves. They smiled and wrapped their arms around me and one another. They spoke, they sang the songs I taught them, but more often the ones they created themselves. I was content to have company.

How long did this idyll last? What were a few decades? My children grew, began to birth, and the oldest among them died while still young in my eyes. I had to let them go. I let them go.

Not sleeping—what was that about? Was it some kind of magical accommodation that allowed me to take 24/7 care of the girls? I wished I knew. They slept. Sometimes they slept half the day if they were not busy gathering or making or working on something. I seemed only to drift.

Springtimes passed, and others came and left. Decades. Daughters born and birthing and passed. I was not alone. But by now I have lived too long.

There might be no one left on earth who remembers what I remember. The children listen, but probably do not believe the stories I tell, ordinary descriptions of feathers and clawed feet. Even to me, this feels like dreaming or fables, fanciful stories of babies crawling for months, the slow development of speech and years spent in school, birds flying and horses’ muzzles velvety soft. Birdsong and frogs croaking and cows mooing. Dogs barking and cats mewing. Mice in the walls of houses. The eating of flesh, the sounds of a city. Open chest surgery. Libraries. Trains, planes, and automobiles. Illness and mourned death.

These are my stories—more like nightmare visions for which I claim nostalgia. Frightening by now even to myself. When I am gone, what will they preserve? While they remember what I say or sing, they write nothing. I have been unable to convince my progeny of the need for writing. Even to me, my stories sound fantastical. Dragons and sea monsters.

I think about Alice’s laughter, my daughter’s hand wrapped about my finger in the weeks after her birth, how by the following year Alice held the hand of Belle, and each youngest Daughter cared for the one after. I fed them, cleaned them, told them stories. I made decisions about where and when to move on. I was head of a large family. When did that change? My Daughters still move on without leaving me behind. They grow, become themselves and not merely a part of me. They walk into the forest and gather to sing, more than I can count. Over a hundred, and surely more gather to sing than come from my body. I never have more than forty-two Daughters alive at once. I try to count them again and cannot understand if I am counting them twice and three times or are there Daughters here who are not mine? It is another puzzle I cannot solve.

They sing a gift, not to me, but to one another. I follow them. The Daughters are well settled in their new world and have little need of me.

As if Alice stood before me, I hear her speak: “Mama.” The voice in my head startles memory awake. One day long ago as we walked in this forest, Alice looked up into my eyes. “Mama, the other Mothers are tall like you.”

“What other Mothers?”

She spun a leaf between her fingers, green like the glass. “There are nine Mothers in the world.”

“How can you know there are others?” I said.

“Just nine,” she said. “Far away.” She sighed and smiled, and then went along humming.

The shard that cut my foot is green. A leaf color. What came in such bright green glass bottles? Soda? Wine? I hardly remember and it doesn’t matter. I pull my foot up closer to my face to examine the wound. It is not so bad. I stand, test weight on my foot while turning the wounding glass in my fingers and rubbing its smooth outer side.

Here, I last held my firstborn. That first shocking birth and love of Alice is what I miss. Perhaps it is my lost usefulness. I have lived long past my time.

My living Daughters sing me back to the present. They are near. Like Alice did so long ago, they sing of other Mothers I will never know and other Daughters who join their choral gathering.

I am very tired. I half-close my eyes and give in to listening to their music, and when I open my eyes and look around, I find them waiting for my attention to return.

They smile. They stroke my hand. I worried for a long time about the end of the world, but the world does not end with me. I wonder if my Daughters think me a little mad.

Perhaps I am mad. Perhaps I will die now, because they are ready for me to leave them.

Your thoughts?

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