My Father's Wife

The toaster quaked and popped out the burnt toast like an ugly duckling. Fiona giggled under her breath. The toaster reeked of indignation as it was disregarded. The wind that gushed in through the open windows carried the smoky wisps to Madrina’s nostrils, and they twitched. Brushing aside a stray strand teasing her angular face, Madrina continued foaming the laundry. The toaster now let out sparks of resentment as if angry with the neglect bestowed upon it. Fiona, though in its close proximity, continued to dangle her legs, perched on a chair. A sly smile spread her lips into a vile curve. As if belonging to another universe neither intersected not been parallel to this one, Fiona continued to carefully shirk the toaster.  Whoosh! The blast shook all of Madrina’s strands-stray as well as pet. A realization dawned on her. She had set the toaster for the morning breakfast sometime ago. She rushed like a tornado to the blazing machine. Her soapy hands smacked her gaping mouth as the sight of fire caught her eyes. “James! James, please be quick!” “Why are you yelling, sweetie. Is the earth on fire?” “Certainly not. But if you don’t rush here immediately, it will soon be.” With that the smoke alarm went jingling as if Santa was on his way. Fiona continued to dangle her sock-covered little feet. People would soon hate Madrina for burning the household with her absent-mindedness, and the Moran household would be free of the witch called Madrina.  Shutting off the main power supply, James doused the fire with the sand from the children’s play area, and the two adults slouched on the sofa to heave a sigh of relief. “Thank God, you are safe, Madrina! I couldn’t be unlucky for the second time.”  James kissed his new bride, and now it was Fiona’s turn to fume and flame as her plan number 57 had also gone kaput. She stomped her sock clad feet, which remained silent due to their padding, even though they wanted to shout like her. Not that she had not made her resentment clear early on, but the one who mattered the most took no notice of it. Once in her bedroom, she banged the door shut. A few dolls crashed in the floor in its quake. That did make some noise.  “James, she hates me to the core. We need to talk to her. Again.” “Don’t you think we have done that already. Just leave her alone. Maddy, she is just a baby. A baby who has lost her mother two years back. Don’t worry she will fall for your charm, just as I did. Soon, so relax. Let’s get us some tea as the toast is already burnt. May I have my daily bread-butter, Madame Madrina?” The couple laughed at this poor joke. But Madrina knew calling a dinosaur baby a baby would not decrease its monstrosity. Just because the fangs belonged to a baby krait, in no way did that affect the potency of the poison. Madrina took a deep breath and the remnants of James aftershave calmed her down. After all, he was a gentleman and in no way his child could be dinosaurs or kraits. She trusted his tutelage. The compassion with which he had welcomed her into his life was exceptional. On one of their dating expeditions, he had told her how he still loved his wife, Catherine. An aggressive form of breast cancer had taken her away in blink of a bleak moment. James and Catherine shared a great bond, which was evident from their pictures, and James’s longing for her. James’s honesty had stolen her heart, unlike her ex-husband who flitted around various women for a year, before she finally slammed the door on him. And here, James found no shame in revealing how he still loved his dead wife. Thus, Madrina had taken baby steps into their relationship to experience great friendship. Eventually after a year, both the broken shards re-built their world in a little space called Waterton. The picturesque hamlet of Alberta housed their love. The wedding took place at a church on a hill top and like Jack and Jill tumbling down the hill, the couple’s black beetle had made its way down the curves. Madrina had enjoyed the bumpy ride and she was gung-go to start her life as Madrina Moran. What she never expected was to participate in a torturous game that went up to 4th, 5th or even the nth level! James, a farmer turned entrepreneur, had set-up a new bakery, minutes away from his humble abode. Madrina was his first female foreign customer. To dump her past in Spain, she was here to unearth a new life. Who knew when life threw lemons, it also shared a recipe to make the best lemon-ginger cake. Madrina had found the recipe with James, and he was her secret ingredient. Once on his land, she never thought of returning back to her shores. They sailed through the sunset together. The only hiccup was the lemon-ginger cake came with a price.  James’s daughter Fiona, the brown, curly-haired mischievous girl seemed to have not liked Madrina’s sail into their seas. For her, it was the tale of father going fishing and bringing home a mermaid. A mermaid she was ought to call her mom. Fiona planned extensively to scare her off. From throwing garden lizards into her room to filling her mascara with charcoal powder, Fiona had done it all. The adamant fourteen-year old on the threshold of being a woman, showed premature signs of tumult. Transgression. While the past came cascading to Madrina, the present haunted Fiona. Back in her room, Fiona’s porcelain cheeks changed hues - from pink to scarlet. The grumpy face seethed with resentment. The dewy eyes forecasted a gray doom.  “Why you had to leave so early, Mum? Why?” Clenching her pillow tight, the girl vested it with her bitterness. The festering wounds oozed agonies. How badly she missed her mother? Even she couldn’t describe it wholly. The little girl boiled in her cauldron of her own making, brimming with jealousy, anger, and longing. Where would she find the tender touch and warm hug again? Who would oil her curly hair again? She had lost her mother’s touch as delicate as cream on milk, and feathers on wings.  “Fauny darling, we will make a good concoction for your rough hair this weekend. I have found some excellent herbs to tame your locks. My fairy will have best tresses in the world!” Catherine had promised her daughter. A promise that was never kept. A weekend that never came. The fairy was now grinding her demonic teeth, concocting plans to scare away Madrina from their lives. No one could replace her mother. No one should. No one could. Adamancy is a blind horse galloping its way to the fire. It never realizes the ambers would burn its skin, and char its bones as its wearing the blinders of hate. Fiona’s heart yearned for a revenge.  “Fiona sweetie, your lunch is ready. Mama awaits your arrival.” Swallowing the humiliation like a dry morsel, Madrina called out to her daughter. Sometimes, she wondered who ‘her’ here was. ‘Her’ for Madrina or ‘her’ for Catherine. “Faunny darling…” “How dare you call me that! For heaven’s sake, stop trying being my mother. And stop calling me Faunny! Only Mommy can call me that!” Madrina bit her tongue, her teeth ruthlessly biting into the fleshy part. Here, she was trying to wend the dent, and this girl being a badly-raised brat.  “So listen, Fiona, you deserve every bit of it. You deserve losing your mother. You deserve no love and no forgiveness. You suck, you, nasty child. You suck worse than a rotten rat.” The bough holding back, finally let loose. In an instant, Madrina banged the cutlery on the table, and spat the venom mounting inside her. She had had enough of this hatred every single day. She had made every attempt to be Catherine. She dressed in skirts and blouses, ditching her suits and pants. She learned to bake like Catherine. She even did the family laundry by hand. All the painstaking efforts to fit in the Moran’s jigsaw seamlessly. But now things were scaling from bad to worse. Second time in a day, doors were banged collectively and tears shed unanimously. “I miss you, Mommy.” This time around, overwrought with emotions, Fiona clutched her mother’s red, velvet diary. She caressed it like Catherine used to gently massage oil into Fiona’s scalp. With one hand, Fiona scratched her unkempt hair but she took utmost care to not let the debris stuck into her hair, tumble onto the diary. “Faunny darling, I have done your hair neatly now. Don’t you mess around with it at least for few more days. Once I am back from the surgery, I will redo the hairstyle.” Her parting words had failed to console Fiona. As if the dead mother would keep her promise, she didn’t permit any well-wisher, or even her father, to touch her hair for months. Whatever she could do, she did on her own, failing each time miserably. The hair grew messier till it was a perfect mesh of messy entanglements. A bird’s nest, filled with twigs and dry leaves of nostalgia. Yet, no one dared to touch the girl.  Fiona opened the diary. It still carried Catherine’s scent. Catherine had lived and abided by the Bible. Every day, she had written a verse from it in her diary. That was her way of finding solace. Her way of dealing with fate’s hand. Her way of battling cancer. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boost… Fiona couldn’t bear to read it. She could almost hear her mother sing the verse, her mother’s voice enveloping her in a hug. Catherine would borrow the tune from the Celine Dion sung, My Heart Will Go On from the movie Titanic. She would sing it while scrubbing the laundry, or hum it under her breath while oiling Fiona’s tresses. She would sing it while watering the plants, and while baking the cakes. She sang it throughout the day. Every day. Somewhere, deep down was a singer who never had the opportunity to hold a mike, who never had the chance to enthrall an audience. For some mothers have to forego their loftier ambitions to fold laundry, and fulfill their desires by singing lullabies. The house was her stage, and her family, her attentive audience. What Catherine sang to herself, the universe sang back to her, and that is why she was loved selflessly, even after she was gone.  Hidden in the diary was a small CD. One fun evening James had recorded his shy singer on his new handycam. The family had watched the delightful performance multiple times in Catherine’s memory. But since Madrina had arrived, James had requested Fiona not to play it in Madrina’s presence. Thus, in her small bedroom, Fiona would watch the golden past come to life. Just as she wished her mother would. *** A new day dawned, and a new ambition rose with it. Both Fiona and Madrina sulked the night away and gathered with new hopes of conquering the other. As usual, the toaster quaked and popped out a burnt toast. To avoid been reprimanded by her father, Fiona got off her chair and switched off the fuming appliance. It was then, that it happened. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boost… She entered with the folded laundry, humming the melody under her breath. Fiona had slept with the verse circling her mind. She had pondered over the virtues of the verse. But this melody erupting from Madrina’s throat, exploded the dormant volcano. “Spare me, Madrina! I see that you are now on a prowl, hunting for my mother’s memories. Don’t you have even an iota of shame lurking in your bones to have stolen my mother’s CD? Just leave us alone for Christ’s sake! Please don’t try to be my mother. There can never be another Catherine Moran!” Much against the chagrin of Catherine’s soul, Fiona had adopted swearing in her good Lord’s name.  A pure blasphemy! Madrina shrugged the laundry off, slacked back on the sofa as she watched Fiona storm off. The cushions encompassed her in their warmth. Yet, she shivered like a vibrating phone. All her life Madrina had ached for love. Each time, her bucket was left half full. She envied Catherine. How could the lady always have an overflowing cup? A loyal and loving husband, a beloved daughter, a faithful toaster, and even the blossoming plumerias in the backyard! The wretched plant refused to bloom in Madrina’s shadow. Here, she thought the song would soothe the wounded soul. But this attempt, too, backfired. She made a resolution, and decided she would face the demons head-on. Directly.  The onyx sky held its twinkling babies like precious dewdrops. Fiona stared aimlessly at the stars that incandesced in the dark. One by one they shone brightly as if her Mommy was putting on the lights at dusk. From the porch to the garage, she would light up the house as if every day was a Christmas eve. Up above in the sky so high, she, too, must be helping the celestial celebrations get ready for a performance called solitude.  Click!  The knob on her bedroom pivoted to a 180 degree. A streak of light from the hallway entered Fiona’s bedroom, and in the spotlight like a convict, Madrina stood transfixed.  “May I come in, Fiona?” Fiona turned away her face but didn’t answer. Her frown answering for her. Madrina mustered the courage, and walked up to her bedside. The girl was staring at the sky. Madrina contemplated whether to nestle next to her, but instead grabbed a chair and flumped on it. For a moment no one spoke, and both of them gawked at the sky. As if they could hear, Catherine croon her song.  Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boost… Recollecting the verse, gave Madrina the voice to speak her mind. Clearing the decks, “Dear Fioan…..” Fiona gave her a reproachful look. “Okay. Miss Fiona Moran…” This seemed okay as the girl continued to rubberneck in oblivion. “Í am here to apologize to you. I don’t know how to smoothen this hiccup out. But today I have to. Sorry, I ever tried to be your mother.”The words fell out of Madrina’s mouth like dead fish popping out of water.  Fiona’s eyes blinked. She blinked.  “I am sorry for being untimely foolish, and considering myself to be worthy of being your mother. I can see what a noble soul she was, and what a sin I have committed in wanting to be in her shoes. The can never reproduce her love for you. She was the epitome of love and compassion.” Fiona’s porcelain cheeks allowed a tear to roll down, and she made no attempts to wipe it.  “I am sorry but I will not, henceforth, try to be your mother, but maintain my stature of being your father’s second wife. But can I at least be your friend? A friend who wants to be loved, to be cared, to be accepted as a family. Not great friends. But just friends. Can we be friends, Fiona?” Madrina was crestfallen, her shoulders swooped towards her chest as she waited for an answer but none came. The clouds shrouded the stars, frothy masses obscuring the enlightened beings. The performance terminated. It was time to withdrew, and she did to her own bedroom. Before calling it a night, she prayed to Catherine who was in the stars, to allow her to merge wholly with the Moran family, and not merely act as a substitute. Meanwhile, Fiona gazed listlessly at the same hidden stars, waiting for the haze to clear. Expecting her mother to light up the skies with an answer. For the next few days, they went about their way, taking utmost care of not stepping into each other’s space. Madrina stopped trying to become Catherine, and went about being the Maddy she was to James. The house was silent if not peaceful. Calm knocked on the doors, waiting for the lady folk to welcome it. On occasions, the song did come to Madrina’s lips, but she swallowed it like a bitter pill. It was the song that had created the recent havoc. Not to be like Catherine but the song was Madrina’s reality. One night as Madrina sat marveling at the beauty of the shadowy skies, the doorknob turned open. Without asking, a wobbly shadow sat next to her.  “Madrina, can you please oil my hair?” The raspy words were honey-laden. The growling, fierce expressions were melting like chocolate sauce on pancakes. A star twinkled in Fiona’s moony eyes. This was all Madrina had looked forward to. This was all she longed for. Pulling the girl closer, but taking the precaution of not hugging her, she started to oil her tresses. Her eager fingertips dipped in oil and caressed the tresses. The fingers played a melody, gently moving up and down as if playing with the keys on a new piano. Learning. Discovering. Loving. The mane soaked in the love that it was bereft for ages. Madrina carefully pulled out strands of straw and flecks of dirt from the nest-like hair. There were more treasures hidden within. Delicately, she removed four pink clips entangled in the mass.  “Ouch! Madrina slowly. Mommy had bought those clips for me before she left for the hospital.” Madrina’s eyes welled, and the red rims flowed like overflowing dams. “Good Lord! This girl has preserved her mother’s touch in her hair! How does one compensate for her loss?” Madrina cried to herself. Is this why she never allowed anyone to comb her hair? Why she never maintained them herself? It was fear of losing the last maternal touch! Realization dawned on to James’s second wife. Yes, Madrina thought, she was only James’s second wife. Had she been a mother to his daughter, she would have known that mothers are irreplaceable. She resolved her understanding, and the Gordian knots one at a time. She touched only those that sanctioned her intervention. To the others, she had to give them some time. All this while Fiona sat holding the twinkle in her eyes. As if the final note was still not sung,  The next day, Madrina’s feet could barely kiss the ground. She didn’t know what made Fiona change her mind, and honestly she didn’t care. God moved in mysterious ways and she was glad for it. She eagerly waited for the night hoping it would bring her present she sought. And it did. Soon, it became a daily ritual for Fiona and Madrina. But one night, Fiona stole Madrina’s breath away by asking. “Maddy, can you sing Mommy’s song and put me to bed? I miss Mommy so much.” The little twinkling star in Fiona’s eyes asked for warmth. Madrina felt paralyzed. Her words failed her. The larynx turned into a piece of bone. Her bones rattled in anticipation of the symphony. Yet, she began. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast… “Go on. Don’t stop.” Fiona nudged her. Taking a deep breath, closing her eyes, Madrina spread her arms wide. She was ready to open the doors, and embrace love in all its forms. She was ready to accept the rose with its thorns, and the sea with its tides. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, It is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, It keeps no record of wrong. Love is patient, love is kind… The sleepy girl’s eyelids drooped, and she crept into Madrina’s lap. The star shone brightly in between the drowsy, quivering eyelids. Fiona transgressed into a dreamless sleep. For James’s second wife, it was nothing short of a dream. In the composed sky, the stars twinkled, applauding the brilliant orchestra. The moon rose high. Madrina thanked the universe. She thanked Catherine for blessing her with her little universe. Catherine’s song was settling in her heart.  From being James’s second wife, she was sailing towards being his daughter’s friend if not mother. 

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