The Secret of Mothers and Daughters, by Courtney McDermott

His face looked like death. I saw the lesions first, tacked to his skin like charred leeches.  I couldn’t vomit in front of him.

There he was: a peeled apart version of the man simply known as my father. He was a man knocked apart and carelessly rebuilt. First it had stripped his appetite, leaving the skin in rows of dried petals sewn onto the bones that had been gnawed away. These bones (they had carried my brothers and sisters, had worked in fields, driven cattle) had been twisted apart from the joints, the blood drained from his face, his gums gored and left weeping blood.

And here in hospital they put him back together.

Attached the bones and wove the blood back into the veins, sewed the skin petals back into place. Though I could still see the seams. They left him unfamiliar. For doctors are not artists but patchworkers. And grandmother darns quilts better than they heal bodies.


And I held the straw up to his lips, which had been stretched and molded into a ridge, damming up around his endless black mouth.

I said hello to the first white man I met. I bought my first Western suit for the second wedding I had – to a thin girl with braids. She cut them off on our wedding night.

I had a life of many wedding nights. I had only one night with her mother. In a mining town. And the sky around us was a blackhole. Except for where the moon broke through to lead her home.

Hospital was his new home now. And the floor next to his bed might as well have been mine. Some nights he would almost stop breathing, and I would stay on the floor, the dirty tile cool on my cheeks. Waiting for him to breathe. He would wake up before the sun stretched over the buildings, and I would talk to him. Tell him what he was missing in the world beyond nurses and medicine schedules.

“The Queen had a prince. Isn’t that a great thing for the country?” That happened a year ago, but his eyes brightened every time.

“I bought a mango in the market. As big as my head. And when I cut it open the flesh burst like the sun and inside was a gold coin.” Neither of us had seen real gold before but he liked this. “Pretty gold.” He spoke in words, not thoughts or sentences. Like a baby learning to speak. Or a tourist trying to blend in.

“Mufasa had to carry a sheep on his back in order to bring it to the wedding celebration of his niece. The taxi broke down and lightning put it on fire, so he had to walk. They say the sheep watched the fire from behind Mufasa’s back, and the flames mesmerized it. It died from beauty before he reached the celebration.”

“Sheep meat.”

“Yes, when your teeth grow back I’ll cook you a sheep.”

If teeth grew like aloe plants, they’d be baby stumps after three months, full smooth teeth by six, and dead and fallen out by nine. We could eat all the sweets we desired, because after a year we’d have a fresh batch to chew and chomp and gleam in strands of smiles.

If teeth grew like beets then I’d wait until harvest and grow back the tooth that had been knocked out of my head when I was twelve. And if I were generous, I’d let him grow his back as well.

She bit my ear when we made love, and I like to think there’s a bit of a scar there. She gave me a scar and a child, and that’s the end. I have many scars – her love bite; the scar from the knife fight when I was a buck; the one when they cut me open and took out my burst appendix; the one from the hoe, when it came down on my foot.

I have many scars. I also have many children. And they are harder to ignore.

A parent can have many children and they can choose to speak to the ones they please, feed those better that they love, live with those if the mood suits them. But a child only has two parents. And if one drifted away like an untied boat, and the other doesn’t want you, then what do you do?

You visit them when they are dying and make them remember. Make them want you.

I remember these things: sneaking into the dam and being clean for the only time ever in my life; dropping my eldest son and his crying; the feel of my first woman; the feel of the last; scoring the winning goal in the seventh form football championship; driving; buying my first cow and watching it die from stomach infection; the burning fields; eating at the KFC; spending my first maluti. Getting sick. Watching the bike race in the capital city; falling… blacking out; the hospital; her face; the hospital…


I avoided looking at his face. This was easy. From the earliest days in school we stared beyond the teachers’ heads – at their necks, the ground, above their eyebrows. But I wanted to look. And I thought about it as he slept.

Maybe the others will arrive when he sleeps. The eldest with his fat stomach and two wives. Mufasa who has a yellow mother and a younger brother who refuses to meet me. Or the twins; they are beautiful and because they are the only other daughters (and from his second wife, the favorite) they are Lintle 1 and Lintle 2. So we will always know that they are beautiful. Lintle 1 won’t let me in her house. She slapped me on the street for calling him my father. But how else could I have told her the news?

Lintle 2 has a lazy eye (and that is why she is 2). But she bakes me cookies and wraps them in magazine papers, so I can read the stories and tape the pictures to my outhouse walls. But she wouldn’t come either. Said that the babies would be frightened. I didn’t tell her to not bring the babies. Excuses come easy to us. That’s how we survive.

I survived a drowning. A baby lamb had gotten caught in a current in the summer. Drought was only a scrapbook memory. I went to save it and slipped on a rock. My ears filled with water. I remember the wet silence the most. I couldn’t swim. Only fishes do that. It was the first of two times I stopped breathing. Someone pulled me up. The second time I stopped breathing was when I was sick and fell. Breathing is hard to hang on to, like money or women. Gone quickly before you really appreciate it.


“You took life for granted,” the priest told him. He had come to pray with my father who knew no prayers. Maybe that is why God chose him to die? We are all chosen, I suppose, but he might decide to kill you by drowning or fire or guns or childbirth. Or disease. There’s always disease here.

The priest smelled of curry and there were little foamy bits of spit on his lips as he spoke: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

And I said my own prayer, because Mother Joan at the school I went to said that as long as you were sincere – and God would know it if you weren’t – He would hear you. I left God behind when I left school. But he was coughing and his ribs were rickety boards of a bridge over his heart – if it hadn’t shriveled – and the priest in black muttered over a rosary for that same godless heart. And I took Him up again.

And I said in my head, “My father, soon to be in heaven, when you get there – if you get there – you’ll know what I think about you. And I’m sorry God for what I think, when all I want to do is to feel love. Help me feel love.”

The priest chattered in rhythm with the beads. “Amen.” He watched my lips. “Do you have anything you would like to say?”

I shook my head. That was a question that he did not want the answer to.

“May God save his soul.”

If God really is in the soul-saving business, then I better become his customer.

I stood in line at the ATM the week before I fell. She had come for money. There was no more school for her. There had been so many children before her; there wasn’t any money. But every other week she showed up for something. And every other week I would go to the ATM and try to pull out money and tell her, “No, not any money this week.” This wasn’t always a lie.

From somewhere outside my head I heard a man’s voice telling me to ask for forgiveness.

I ask for forgiveness.

The one time I saw my mother she crouched on the ground near my head where I slept and asked me to forgive her. I knew it was her because I could smell her milk. She told me his name and where I could find him and gave me a red handkerchief that she said he would remember.

“You could have his eyes,” she told me, and they were funny and almond-colored.

His eyes were pasty now. Any color had been eaten away, but I didn’t look at them long.

Mother had said, “Never, ever bring this up again. This is our secret. The secret of mothers and daughters.”

It was all my mother gave me. That and his handkerchief. Then she vanished in the pickup of another man.

“Any time now,” the nurse told me. She sailed in and out of the hospital room every few hours. Still I foolishly waited for the others to come. I didn’t have a phone, but I wrote four notes and the nurse said she would send them out. I’m pretty sure she just crumpled them up and pushed them into her pockets. I saw the bulges there the next time she came into the room with the cup of medicine.

I kept hard candies in my pocket. I would give them to all of the children – and then the grandchildren. Every time I saw her I would give her one. And she would smile only out of the corner of her mouth. I did that for her.

By God, I did that.

There was nothing for anyone to do. But I continued to sit, to sleep by his bed, to hand him his water.

My memories of him will be boxed up in his coffin. The conversations nailed away, the hateful thoughts buried underground.

I chose the spot where I want to be buried. It is on a mound behind the home of my ancestors. But there is so little body for them to bury. I can’t feel my arms anymore. And out of the hole in my head, I looked up and saw — her.

Had she been here all along? She leaned over and I saw the shadow of her mother, who I had bought for coins one night. I needed to tell her in that moment, as gray, feathery shapes began to hide my eyes.

“I love you,” I tried to say. “Daughter, I love you.” She needed to hear it once.

 He gargled. “Lovey.” I thought I could make that out. But whenever had he used the word love? His drowned-out unreadable eyes looked at me. This time I looked back.

The nurse said, “He sees you. I’ll leave you to say something.” She was gone, though I knew she’d be lurking near the door. A dead body would be a day’s work done.

I stood up and leaned over him. The only image of my mother floated beside me. That night when she told me that this man – the man decomposing before me – might be my father. And he might not. But either way, I should give it a shot. Because she didn’t want to stay with me.

So I told him: “I am not your daughter.” I presented that like a flag of truce. Like a sin in confession. Like a cow to a bridegroom. It was my last word – my last secret – my last gift.

His mouth sagged open and stiffened. I walked out of the room. They would bury him in the morning.


Courtney McDermott earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame. She has written book reviews for NACADA Journal, Warscapes, New and Literary Laundry. Her fiction and essays have appeared in various journals, including the Berkeley Fiction Review, Daily Palette, Little Village Magazine, A Few Lines Magazine, and Italy from a Backpack anthology. Currently, she is an English lecturer at Tufts University.


  1. The beginning of your story enthralled me…demanding that I continue it. The second and now third time I have read it, it continues to conjure up my own relationship with my parents, unlike your character’s in every way, except for the sadness that swells from being next to them in a hospital bed, there the moment when they left this world for the next.

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