From the Ashes
For this reason she named me Phoenix, and at the earliest age she could, she dyed my hair the color of flames.
My mother was always paranoid.
Out of my three siblings, my mother always called me her special girl, the miracle she worked hard to have. It was evident how precious I was to her. I was the one she held onto tightly in the supermarket, the one she would not allow to play outside for fear of kidnappers. She would glance furtively around at malls, fearing people who wore sunglasses or whose stares were just a little too long.
“If they’re blocking the windows to their souls, they must have something to hide,” she would tell me, yanking my arm while she hurriedly ushered me away.
My mother was always clever.
She knew how to get what she wanted, how to make anyone her friend. She knew how to retrieve their secrets without spilling any of her own.
My mother always told me she would never leave me.
This was why she constantly watched over me. I remember the day, however, when my mother finally relaxed. As usual, she refused to let me play outside. But I had seen the way the other children played and chased after each other, had heard how their laughs filled the streets with untamed joy.
I was eight, and I yelled, “I’ll be fine! No one out there is gonna take me! No one’s even looking for me!”
Something in my mother finally crumbled; a wall that let relief and assurance flood into her face. What I’d said was what she’d wanted to hear for years.
“You’re right,” she whispered. She gave me a small smile, caressing my face with her elegant fingers and gazing down at my head. She frowned. “Your roots are showing,” she murmured. “We’ll re-dye your hair soon.” Seeing that I was about to protest, she pasted her smile back on and said, “But go and play for now.”
And it was that day I realized that if I told her what she wanted to hear, my mother would give me what I craved: freedom. It wasn’t complete, no; I was still her doll, the girl born of fire with locks of flame, her constant companion, but I was closer than I had ever been to something so close, yet so out of reach.
It never occurred to me that my mother had something to hide, until the day she ran.
It started at a birthday party, when her wall of paranoia began to grow once more, brick by stifling brick.
I was ten, celebrating my friend’s birthday with cake and soda so sweet that basic functioning became difficult. The rest of the ten year-olds were hyper as well, sugar rushing through their veins at high speed as they ran all over the backyard, dumping Pixie Stix down their throats like it was water.
It wasn’t unusual for everything to be a mess. The flower piñata lay broken on the floor, ravaged and empty, and the birthday girl was going at her birthday cake with renewed vigor, intent on reaching the center so she could gobble down the smiling face of an unnameable Disney princess. The ground was sticky and littered, and all of the mothers were attempting to clean up their children.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was another mom staring at me besides my mother.
The nice-looking lady came up to me with a smile. “Hey, sweetie,” she said. “Hold on a sec, you’ve got some bubble gum in your hair.”
She reached into my tangled mane, and I felt a yank.
“All better,” she said, gazing into my eyes with a searching expression. But then she smiled, like my mother did when she wanted to assure me, nodded, and left.
The moment she was gone, my mother rushed up to me, grabbed me by the arm and crouched next to me, urgently whispering, “Who was that?”
“I had bubble gum in my hair,” I said. “She pulled it out for me.”
My mom looked shaken. “We’re going home now.”
Ignoring my protests, my mother half-dragged me out of the party without so much as a goodbye to the birthday girl or her parents. We went home, where we proceeded to hole up for about three days.
During this incredibly boring time, I would hear my mother pacing and mumbling, wondering, “Should we move or stay? Move…stay…”
For my mother, it was the wrong choice.
On the fourth day, the officials came and took me away. I was in state custody, and two days later I was told that my mother was not my mother.
The lady at the birthday party was.
This lady I’ve also come to see as my mom, but when she told me the story of how I was taken, I can see the story playing out in my mind the way my other mother—my first mother— would have seen it.
My mother always said I was born of fire.
That’s the only way to steal a child without anyone coming after her. There is no reason for anyone to believe that the little girl she is about to make her own was kidnapped.
My mother was always paranoid.
She leaves animal bones strewn on the floor and dry wool that will hopefully burn and resemble human ashes. She needs to make sure there is no doubt.
She will pass the new baby off as her own, and when her little girl grows up, she will shelter her and protect her and her identity by dying her hair red so that she will no longer resemble the girl she once was. She will become her little Phoenix, reborn out of the flames.
My mother was always clever.
She enters the real mother’s house, who believes her a friend, and claims she left her purse upstairs, where she proceeds to cut the extension cord connected to the space heater and takes the infant from the crib, carefully hiding her in her tote bag.
Half an hour later, she watches the house go up in flames as a mother wails for her lost newborn child.
But my other mother—my real mother—was also clever.
As she pulls imaginary gum from the hair of the red-headed girl, she pulls out strands of hair as well, realizing that the girl’s face remarkably resembles those of her own children.
So in the end, my first mother was still clever, and she ran before the authorities could catch up with her, abandoning her three other children and the little red-headed girl whom she always said she would never leave.
The years have passed, and my blond hair has grown out so I resemble my real family even more. But every now and then, the sun glints on my hair just so, and I think of my first mother, and my mouth fills with the taste of ashes.