In the mornings, when the apprehensive sun is just coming through the windows of the garage, before the city has begun making any sounds of life, Helena holds her children. She lifts them out of their cradles and tiptoes around with them pressed to each side of her chest. Not because they are crying – at dawn they have most often finally gone to sleep – but because she needs to know she still can.
Helena has never gotten to hold anything she loves. Once, she had a doll that she loved dearly. But the nuns took it away from her, and after that people kept taking away from Helena: her clean conscience, her unsullied body, her freedom of will. Her trust: in God, in truth, in herself, in anything real. They took away from her until there was only bad and ugly left, only other people's ideas and convictions in her mind. Perhaps that is why she did all those terrible things that she tries not to think of. Because she never got to learn how not to. Not once did she get to stroke something along it's back and feel the honor in return. Never did she get to care for anything. Love anything.
Now, Helena has more people to care for than she can count. Now, Helena has so much love that she feels it stack in her throat and weigh her bones down. Now she has something more valuable than she thought she would ever get to have. So every morning when a new day breaks, she has to lift her children up to make sure that she still can. That they aren't a dream or a mirage or a trick, that they are really hers to comfort, with her hands stroking their backs endlessly soft. Her sons. They whimper into her chest and stir in her arms, and it vibrates through her whole body. To get to hold something close. Protect it. Love it.
She tries the word on her tongue sometimes, as she sways around in the quiet of the garage. I am your mother. It lies uncomfortably in her mouth.
She never had one, always wanted one. And then she got one, but Helena killed that mother. Knife through mother's ribs. Mother's blood on Helena's hands. Something drove her to drain the life from the promise of mother and Helena cannot understand what it was. Maybe anger that she didn't get to be a daughter because mother decided so, or confusion, or fear, or maybe a terrible combination of them all. Maybe she did it because it was all she knew how to do: take things away.
Then Helena was pitch black with envy for girls with mothers. Sarah. Kira. Gracie. They all knew something, a secret that she would never understand. She prayed to God every day for something she couldn't name. She never got to learn how to say the word. She never had anyone look at her in that way, that way that says nothing is ever going to matter as much as you. She wanted so badly it made her sick, but she didn't know what it was she wanted. Empty of everything but others' ideas. And yet, all the time while stumbling through those meaningless corridors of darkness, so enraged, so appalled at herself for throwing away her own remedy.
Then Helena got a sestra. Holy and alive. Despite the scars on her skin and the blood all over her hands, Helena got to hold her in the cabin of a shower while they both shook in tandem, and for the first time, she was loving something and holding it in her hands. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Helena wanted something that she could put a name to. After that she got many sestras and maybe a couple of brothers, and her hands became full and she stopped thinking so much of mothers.
Until she became one.
Alison calls her mommy. Delphine calls her mamán. Helena holds her children up in front of her and looks deep into their green eyes and tries to become one. She doesn't find herself any closer. Still cannot close her mouth around the word. She asks Sarah how she did it. "Oh meathead," Sarah says, "I still haven't. I'm still in way over my head, and it's just a matter of time before Kira realises I'm actually a shit mum and moves out."
Helena wants to argue with that, wants to tell Sarah how she almost stole Kira away because she was so unfathomably, achingly jealous of the way she was looked at by Sarah. But she also wants an answer, so she asks Alison.
"Oh, honey," says Alison and stops folding laundry to look at her fondly. "It took me months- maybe even years, before I really felt like I was a mother. I think you just have to pretend you know what you're doing, until one day, you wake up, and you don't feel quite as much like you're lost at sea anymore. And your child smiles at you in that... way, when they see you and you're just sort of... there. You know?"
Helena doesn't know. Alison smiles at her and puts the folded dresses into the top drawer. "It'll come. Don't worry."
Helena tries not to worry.
She lets Krystal cut her hair so it falls soft onto her shoulders. When she lifts the shirt over her head and glances back into the mirror, the lines on her back have started to whiten. She finds a razor blade in the bathroom one day and her hand doesn't dare to touch it. Is afraid of what would happen if she felt it between her fingers: if her arm would bend back of its own accord to remind her of how unholy she is.
Helena still tries to talk to God sometimes. But God has never really listened, and before she thought it was because she was undeserving, but now she thinks it might be because she doesn't need him anymore. The part of herself that Helena would cut open and bleed out on the floor for God to take has been gingerly picked up and sown back into her body. By her sestras, her sestras with their beautiful brown eyes and shining faces and their hands that are always there in some way: stroking her back, pulling her up, holding her still to remind her who she is.
Perhaps she doesn't need mothers, or gods, because Helena has something else to love now. Something that loves her back. And so finally, she manages to pick the razor blade up from the sink and fold it into toilet paper until it isn't sharp and hurtful anymore, and she throws it away and walks out into the summer's day, her hands clean.