Qanita Zahara

I remember the first time I heard my mother howl. A cry, not muffled in any attempted disguise, but deep and guttural. The kind of cry that came from the pit of the stomach and clawed its way up the throat. She sat on the corner of her bed, a hunched silhouette against the pale moonlight seeping through her bedroom blinds, so disfigured, barely human. Sprawled in front of her were the tear-stained pages of a handwritten letter—an invitation, she said, to the ten-year reunion for the very first film she was cast. The breakthrough into what was an illustrious but fleeting career.

My mother was a force of a woman, or so I was told. A rising face of the big screen, on the brink of fame in an era before the internet. It was something about her glistening black hair and glassy skin, almost translucent, that made her mesmerizing to watch. A shapeshifter, they called her, who pushed beyond the boundaries of performance in a kind of transfiguration of self. Her eyes were moonless and piercing, enshrined by the screens of every movie theatre and living room TV across our coastal city. Her striking youth brought stardom, though short-lived, only familiar to me in stories told by the vague recollections of those clinging to a time long passed, the phantom of her once-pale face memorialized on rain-crusted billboards and newspaper clippings tucked into family photo albums. But she was porcelain, then, a Russian doll beautiful in its fragility, built to be taken apart and admired for it.

“People named their children after me, you know,” she once told me. Every night, she would narrate stories her past—the roles, friends, men, money gained and lost through those brief but cherished years—until I knew them all by heart. The fairytales of a faraway life told with a sadness that grew in hindsight.

I never knew this version of my mother. This frail herald of beauty. Where once her silk skin glowed, now roughened, forming ridges of worries unsolved and places unvisited; her pearly, rounded teeth sharpened over the years against the bitterness of compromise and the bones of my childhood bullies. There were no fragments left of her porcelain exterior, shedded as time passed, revealing a sturdier, weathered, but reliable, force underneath. I can only ever seem to recall memories of my mother at home: behind the kitchen counter, her graying hair peeking over the marble top; her large crouching shadow by my bedside as she read me stories; perched on the balcony, hind legs over the railing, waving, as I left for school every morning. She never really liked to leave the house, not during the day at least, growing increasingly housebound with time. The mother I knew was not the glass woman of her past life, but the solid body of reliance—the roof, the pillars, the walls of the homes she forged for me all these years.


It startled me to see her that way, tears streaming, crying out a pain that reverberated against the confines of the shuttered windows and shadowed walls of her bedroom. 

“I’m not going. I can’t go,” she murmured, looking up at me as the moonlight from the window reflected off her now-yellowed crescent eyes, “I have nothing to tell them. I have done nothing. What do I tell them?”

A slither of guilt creeped into the underside of my stomach. I thought back to when she first told the story of how she followed my father across the continent, leaving behind a life that, she would later come to realize, was not awaiting her return. It was a constant procession of new cities, a repeated struggle to find comfort in the extreme anonymity of a foreign land. My parents have always been forward thinkers. They roamed city after city for a place where I, barely a figment of an idea then, would know of grass and seasons and art and neighborhood playdates. My mother spent the early years of this voyage attempting to salvage what was left of her career—auditioning for roles, learning the local languages, sitting at expensive cafés, eyeing the door—but to little avail. Unfamiliar with failure, she grew resentful, convinced the world was afraid of a successful woman. But eventually she learned, part by part, to give up replicating a life long gone, to become a creature of change; she learned to let go, first, of expectations, then, of ambition, of routine, of the need for attention; and when I came into the picture, she learned to let it all go. She slipped this story in between talk of dinner plans and my after-school swim class. Another of the day’s many demands. 

I think about how much generational sacrifice it takes to live a good life. I think of the riverside village my grandparents grew up in—the village they left to raise my mother in the city, the village I have never set foot in. I think of the lives my mother could have led, the woman she could have continued to be. Full livelihoods, from births to deaths to the weddings and homes in between, have passed and culminated into my existence.

A certain uneasiness stirs in me sometimes when I look at my mother. I try, and fail each time, to imagine the woman I’m told she was, to reconcile the image of that ‘90s sweetheart with the fierce protector I grew up with who once, when I was fifteen, viciously scratched the car of a boy who stood me up on my very first date and who snarled at every other boy that has tried since. All of my friends were afraid of her and, though I didn’t know it at the time, so were most people. In grocery stores, movie theaters, at school, we would dodge furtive stares, shamelessly walking alongside her bare feet and large frame, ducking through doorways, knocking dried food cans off of grocery aisles. In some ways, the staring reminded her of how it used to be—hushed whispers and peering glances in every room she walked into—but in many ways, of course, it could never be the same. Though she learned to accept it as a fair substitute. It was in those moments where I would wonder if she ever wondered about the life she left behind. If she could do it all over again, would I be here? Would she want me here? I never dared to ask.

My mother always said I was a difficult birth. Twenty-four hours of continuous labor and limbs contorting, bones shifting in and out of place, bloody, beautiful, bizarre, a transformation of a woman into a mother. She joked I had been stubborn since birth, with a frighteningly determined refusal to be born, as if even then I knew my arrival into the world would mark a shift in her life, a permanent sharpie on a yearly calendar, a stretch on her skin. Under the sterile fluorescent lights, she laid her heart out on the hospital bed, crying in anguish and anticipation and every spectrum of emotion in between—a final performance of sorts; her ribs expanded, her spine curled and uncurled beneath the surface of her skin, thickening, forming a kind of armor. Her frame grew twice as large, nails sharpened, gripping the sheets beneath her with newfound strength. Her silky black hair laid in clumps on the hospital floor and in its place, grew short gray tufts, spiky, like barbwire wrapped across her body. My father refers to this night as “the bloodbath”—bedsheets ripped to shreds from her claws, soaked red in blood, half hers half his, bleeding from the scratches on his arms from her grip. My mother always said to me that night changed her forever. I think she meant it endearingly.


“I’m sorry,” she now whispered, her throat coarse from the crying. The words hung heavy among the dusty air, unexplained, but understood. 

I sat beside her and held her hunched frame against me, not knowing what to say. We stayed like that for what felt like hours, breaths in and out of sync filling the silence of words not found. Her paws were colder and frailer than I remembered them being, the skin loosening and fur shedding around the knuckles, as if in release of years of tension. She smelled lightly of herbs and coffee, my face resting on her back as I inhaled her scent, feeling the rise and fall of her silent breaths.

Rocking her gently back and forth, I reminded her of the beautiful life she had chosen to lead, purposefully, of the places she built into homes, of the things she had to be proud of. Her tears crystallized the corners of her eyes as the moonlight bathed her bedroom in its silvery radiance and we sat there, listening to the hum of the night breeze, two half-strangers, mother and daughter.

Qanita Zahara is an Indonesian second-year student studying Economics with a minor in Computer Science. Her favourite things in this world are Sunday mornings, iced coffee and buying books at a faster rate than she can read them.