I was nine when I got my first bruise. It was earlier than most, young to have been hurt so deeply. But it wasn’t unexpected, considering who my mother was. I ran home from school, hand covering the mottled green crescent nestled under my lip.
My mother pulled my closed fist away from my lips. “Who did it?”
“David Parker,” I said, as she swirled a silver seam ripper in alcohol.
“What did he do?” she asked, rubbing pink numbing cream on the skin around the bruise. I relaxed at the familiar scent – like maple syrup. My mother was never able to wash the smell off her fingertips. It was always present, when she cupped my face, braided my hair, flipped the pages of my favorite books.
“He said what you do is evil – that we’re destroying the town.” Only the deepest hurts, that soul-deep pain, caused bruising. David’s words had hurt; I worried he was right.
“Nonsense.” My mother dragged her stool around to face me, hand on my cheek to hold me steady. “I’ve seen David’s mother in my shop countless times. She doesn’t think I’m evil.”
“Is it going to hurt?” I asked. I knew what my mother did, but I had never seen her at work. She’d said I was too young. I did not want to witness the process for the first time on my skin.
“Not a bit,” said my mother. She hooked the metal lip of the seam ripper beneath the corner of the bruise and flicked upwards. I held still, watching the flicking motion of her wrist from the corner of my eye. Under, up. Under, up. Rip. Rip. Rip. Like a silver fish leaping in and out of my skin.
“I’m sorry this happened,” said my mother as she worked. “It’s just ignorance. People don’t understand what we do. It scares them.”
“It’s okay,” I said. I didn’t know if that was true, but I was glad my mother was healing my first bruise rather than some stranger.
I sighed with relief as she worked, the pain sloughing off with the skin.
“There,” she said, the mottled bruise hanging from the tip of the seam ripper. She walked to the window and flicked the bruise skyward. It gusted up, like a dead leaf, buffeted in the October wind until it came to rest against the great dome of the sky, a black speck.
After that day, she said I was grown enough to help her while she worked. Even though I didn’t feel older, I began my reluctant apprenticeship.
Sometimes men came to the shop, but mostly it was women (Mother said this was because men were more likely to do the hurting). From the gaps between my fingers, I watched her heal the stooped, harried stream of them, watched them depart less stooped.
I scratched away at my homework while Mrs. Thompson had a potato-shaped bruise excavated from her shoulder after her husband left, her lower back still pruned and pink with scar tissue from the day her daughter died.
Leaving, she hugged my mother. “Bless you.”
I picked the crust off my grilled cheese, watching wide-eyed as my mother worked her way over a bruise the size of a cast-iron skillet, emblazoned across a young girl’s breasts. She did not give her name. My mother didn’t ask. I wished I could unsee the dead look in the girl’s eyes as she stared at the shop ceiling. But my mother wanted me to learn, wanted me to take over the shop one day.
And, almost every week, my mother sliced a fresh bruise from my skin too. Someone in town, another kid at school, sometimes the teachers, blaming her – and me – for the growing darkness. Before I turned ten, my skin was checkered with scar tissue.
Bruise after bruise floated from my mother’s window, papering the sky. I lit candles now, holding them up as my mother worked, so she could see. She squinted over sepia skin in the growing gloom.
We had heard of other places where this had happened – towns that had gone completely dark.
By my eleventh birthday, my blemished skin had turned pallid with lack of proper sunlight. My birthday candles stuttered in the shadowy half-light. No-one from my class came, not even the children of those my mother had healed.
I blew out my candles, increasing the darkness, just like my mother.
“Couldn’t we just stop?” I asked feebly, staring at the empty chairs clustered around the confetti-strewn table. “Everybody hates us.”
She sighed, worrying the coiled ribbon taped to the top of my present. “I’m sorry, darling. But I can’t stop. Someone has to help heal these women.”
Furious, I ran from my mother’s shop, into the splotchy half-darkness beyond. The sky resembled a pond strewn with leaves – only jagged patches of it visible through the accumulated debris. She followed me, still clutching that pathetic present.
I stared insolently at her, both our faces streaked with shadows.
“Of all the jobs,” I said. “Why did you have to pick this one?”
“Without my work, their pain would be permanent.” She spread her arms wide, “Healing is what I do.”
I pointed at the black sky, “This is what you do.”
She took a step back, a bruise as black as the sky above us oozing from her hairline like blood.
“Oh mom,” I said, taking a step forward. I stared at the fresh bruise. I wanted to erase the reproach etched in her skin. “I didn’t mean it,” I said, eyes brightening with tears. I had been the recipient of many bruises, but never yet the cause of one.
Her fingers investigated the new shape on her forehead.
I strode through the crepuscular rays of light crisscrossing between us, and hugged her.
“I know,” she said. “Come on inside. I’ll deal with the bruise, but I need you to hold the light.”