Mother untangles my long, brown hair that spills into her bony hands, shining like polished wood in the dim candlelight of the room. I bite my tongue to keep from wincing when she tugs at stubborn knots. Watching the rising moon, I sniff the breath of orange blossoms on the wind.
Tomorrow, I will pluck their petals from the bitter orange tree. Foreign buyers from far off lands will pay good money for the sweet neroli oil made from their nectar – a tradition thousands of moons old.
“The Gods have blessed our harvest, Mother. The trees are full, full.”
“Tomorrow, child” – Mother croons, combing my hair back – “I shall visit the orchard with you tomorrow.”
I smile, but know better.
When morning dawns and the dew has seeped back into the cool, waiting earth and the many practised women criss-cross the orange orchards for their pickings, Mother will have left. Her bare feet will not leave prints in the sand as she glides from one tree to the next, side-stepping the pockets of fallen oranges. Her fingers will not blister from plucking a thousand orange blossoms, nor will her eyebrows furrow as she carefully avoids bruising their petals. She will not see the fields bathe in the sun as she fills her baskets, or hear the humming of the bumble bees that come to drink the nectar from succulent flower heads. And when the light of day fades, she will not feel the passing of coins through her hands for a hard day’s work.
I press my lips into a hard line, blink away hot tears and gently tuck a flower behind her ear. There, something to take with you when you go.
I return to the stove-top, adjust the gas to the back-burner, fold the pot’s contents in figures of eight: Milk, crushed linseed, flour, mustard, fresh horse radish and comfrey.
The milk curdles and spits. The flame hisses. Hot liquid spews from the side of the pot and scalds my hand. I don’t flinch; my mind is elsewhere.
I watch how my skin turns pink, notice the fading petals of henna on my hand; remember how well Mother could paint when her eyes weren’t great orbs of emptiness, as white as the milk in the pot.
“Don’t let it burn, child,” comes her weedy voice.
“I won’t,” I reply.
When the mixture is ready, I place the hot liquid between two layers of flannel and administer it to Mother’s back and chest, careful not to blister the skin.
The poultice works quickly, her inhalations slow and deep, deep.
“Thank you, child,” she says. “Much better.”
I smile, but it does not reach my eyes.
I see the bluish tinge to her lips, hear the wheezing of her diseased lungs, the staggered breaths climbing her throat.
I smell the breath of orange blossoms on the wind.
Stooped beneath the moon’s gaze, I listen to the strange beating of Mother’s heart,
and wait quietly for her surrender.
Nicole. K. Hollick was born in Johannesburg – Africa’s City of Gold – and has recently taken solace in the moors of Scotland where she enjoys dreaming up stories with her doppelganger daughter and adrenaline-junkie husband. She is currently drafting her debut novel.