It’s always darkest before the dawn.
At least, that’s what her mother always told her. Yet the saying is being contradicted as light leaks through the horizon, running ahead of the sun. The sky is tinted a gentle embrace of blue and yellow, a faint glow brimming at the edge of the Earth.
She’s zipping up her jacket as the sun begins to rise, a whisper of warmth on her face when the first rays shine through the window.
Her steps remain silent as she shuffles through the hallway, the distant chirping of birds the only sound to be heard. Closed doors ignore the greeting of the day and keep the corridor dim. The door to her mother’s room remains slightly ajar, revealing only a sliver of a curtained window and the pearly toes of feet that peek out of the blanket. She pauses only for a moment to look before continuing down the stairs.
Once outside, she can let go of the breath she didn’t know she was holding. It escapes as a sigh, taken away by the wind as she begins to run. Dew on the grass glistens in the sunlight and bites at her bare feet, shocks of coldness for every step she runs.
She runs until the chill of the morning leaves her bones, until her breathing gets heavy and her heart is going to burst. She runs until she gets to the place where she allows her breath to go short and her heart to fall out.
Part of her soul resides in the bay by her house, an expanse of water that runs off the lake. She sits on the muddy grass ledge at the shore, the water swirling around her legs. Dirt caked on her feet washes off, dissipating into the clear water and turning it a cloudy brown. There’s a beach over at her neighbor’s property, made of bleached sand and scattered children’s toys. It’s far away, as the houses are spread widely apart. She doesn’t know her neighbors that well, only exchanging smiles and nods when passing by on the dirt roads.
Her home isn’t that far south, yet there is a patch of watermelons that grows near the water. Perhaps it was someone who lived there before, or some strange accident that they ended up in a place they normally don’t belong. They’re not ripe yet, at the moment petite spheres you could hold in your hand. Sometimes she comes down to eat the watermelon deep into the summer time, trying to pick the sweetest one. Most of the time she guesses wrong and they end up bitter.
Sitting on the grass, she kicks her legs a few times in the water and sends up sprays of water. She knows she has to get home soon to get ready for school, but she lingers, repeatedly telling herself that another minute wouldn’t hurt. Eventually the sun crawls up higher, whispering to her the time as the rays warm her shoulders. Her feet sink down into the squelching grass, mud seeping through her toes. It flies behind her and speckles her clothes as she sprints up the hill to her house.
Back at home, her mother is awake, drinking black coffee and looking at the wall. When she returns her mother doesn’t say anything, and neither does she.
Her mother’s name is Rien, with eyes of the sky and hair like fields of wheat. She doesn’t understand her eyes like the mud splattered on her legs, her hair the like the trees surrounding their house. She doesn’t understand Rien’s willowy figure and her own sturdy built self. Why the amount of similarities is about the same as the conversations exchanged on a daily basis. Why the only time she can see inside Rien’s door is before the day really begins.
It’s about time to leave for school, so she takes her things and runs out the door. Rien is taking a shower and is not there to see her off. She catches the bus and lets the scenery blur away to speeding green of trees and foliage. And then she closes her eyes to darkness.
Sometimes she thinks about school, wonders why people go. She watches at nature documentaries where the mother tends to the child and teaches it the ways of life, and hidden away in her mind, she tells herself that maybe if she didn’t have to go to school then her mother would talk more than greetings and sayings. That Rien would help her learn from the world.
But she doesn’t know if it’s possible, as Rien spends most of her spare time in bed. Sometimes she stares off into space, forgets her keys or what she was doing. Her mother leaves for work a little later than when she leaves for school, so she can never tell if the woman really went. What the job is remains an enigma. They don’t talk about it much— just as they don’t talk much about anything. Whenever Rien comes home her daughter remains silent, and neither say more than a “welcome back” or “hello”. They murmur their greeting and their lips remain pressed together, uncertain words retained in her mouth. She knows that most children hate their parents’ questions, that every “how was your day?” is replied to with a monotone “good”. Yet how she wishes for that question, that Rien could give her more than a few words and the salt from the bitter tears that she sheds when she’s feeling lonely.
Rien does not give her knowledge like she wishes for her to, and so she goes to school like every other child who needs to survive in life.
Right now they’re learning about genetics, how family members will share different genes and traits. They have homework to find the traits of two other family members and compare them with their own. One of the tests is the PTC test, where their teacher hands them the strips and tells them to bring them home for the testing. Some of the eager students tear off a tiny corner and place it on their tongue when the teacher isn’t looking. But they are found out as soon as they make faces and complain about the bitter taste.
She brings the strips home along with the other things to compare and tests herself on it. Her pencil makes lopsided circles around the traits she possesses, saving the PTC for last. It really is bitter, biting at her tongue and growing thorns down her throat.
Her mother is not home yet, so she looks at the space for her third person and makes up her father. From her imagination she pulls down his brown hair and eyes, his short but strong frame. She draws his hand in hers and circles yes for PTC. A father to look like her. A father who can feel the pain.
She’s testing another square of PTC when she hears the wheels against the gravel and the door closing. Rien walks in as she says a broken sort of “hello” with her tongue still sticking out. Her mother’s putting her keys in the basket by the doorway when she sees her and stops.
When she sees her mother’s face, she’s not quite sure what feelings were portrayed. Her lips are pressed together, unknown words crawling beneath, eyes slightly widened with shock yet crinkling at the corners. A mother staring at her daughter and a daughter unsure of how to respond. She swallows down the paper stinging at her tongue and her mother lets out a gasp, eyes glistening in the light of the room until she turns around and leaves, turning off the light behind her.
In the darkness, her mind is spinning around what just happened. In the dim light from the window she can barely see the outline of her hand, the slight white glow of her papers and PTC strips. Whenever Rien left for work, she turned off the lights, an occurrence that became a habit. Habits, like the quiet hellos and the silence of a shared meal.
What just happened wasn’t a habit. It hadn’t even ever happened before. She had never remembered her mother ever being so emotional, normally a tight face that occasionally smiled. It didn’t make sense as to what her mother did, why she would get so sad over something that her daughter had no clue about.
She wants time to think about her mother, so she runs down the hill to the shore. It’s where she normally goes when Rien is in her room with the door closed, when she lets the water wash away the the tears and the pain that her mother never notices.
In the night the ground is firm, a slight chill settling into the air. She shivers a little and then runs to warm herself up.
By the time she gets to the bay, her heart is pounding in her ears, the sound filling her mind. She’s not paying much attention to anything else and she doesn’t see her at first. When she does, she stops and she takes a sharp breath.
Her mother is there, sitting on the grass ledge she would always be on. She looks up to her daughter, then back at the water her eyes tracing the edges where the water meets the sky.
She doesn’t know what to do but sit next to her mother, so she does, dipping her toes in the water still warm from the day. In this special place of hers, a part of her soul, for once she doesn’t keep the words blocked by the dam of her lips. She looks at her mother and explains the homework, the genetics and the PTC. Her mother listens, and she sighs when her daughter is done.
Rien begins to talk, but then stops. She falters for a moment, and then says to her daughter that she is going to tell her a story.
Once upon a time, there was a princess, who lived in a large castle beside the bay. She had everything, loving parents and a bright future, but sometimes it stressed her out too much. The princess would always go down to the shore when the work seemed too much for her, and she liked to play on the grass beside the water.
When the princess turned eighteen, an evil witch gave her a magic potion that made everything turn into brilliant colors. The princess returned home with a whole new world, but her parents told her it was a curse. Furious, the princess fled the castle and ran down to the bay. Down there, she met a frog who told her he was a prince. He begged her to kiss him and turn him back, that he could make her life wonderful, and under the curse of the magic potion she believed him. Even after her parents moved away and he kept giving her potions she thought of him as a prince until the magic wore off and she finally realized he was but a frog. The princess had lost her everything as the frog left here too, leaving behind a single child to show her failure.
Rien hangs her head between her legs, tears choking her words. She murmurs how she had thought her daughter had found the potion that night, that she would go down the same path her mother had. Through her broken words she says that she is sorry, that she wanted the best for her daughter and didn’t want her influence on her daughter’s future. That she tried not to give her personal thoughts for they would be bad influences.
Her mother whispers All I wanted to do was raise you well and she whispers back I love you, mom.
They go back home, to the papers strewn across the kitchen table and the lights turned off. Her mother helps her finish her work, grimacing at the PTC but placing it on her tongue and exclaiming the bitterness.
She learns in class the next day that every parent will contribute a gene to their child. Every person either has a dominant, recessive or a mix of genes. As long as there is a dominant gene, it will overtake the recessive. Rien’s daughter closes her brown eyes and thinks about her mother, with her eyes of the sky and her hair of fields of wheat. And how deep inside, those genes don’t show, but they are inside her body.
When she comes back home that day, her mother is already there, with the packed basket. They walk together down the hill, to the grass ledge above the water. Her mother picks out a watermelon, and cuts it to eat with their picnic dinner.
As they kick the water and laugh, they eat. The watermelon isn’t ripe yet, but it's slightly sweet.