Jennifer Popa

Pity the Mammal Who Accepted the Blessing That Was Never Hers to Keep


If I should have a daughter I will name her Sylvia and we will wait for the day when she will kill herself. Some day. Some distant day we hope. We brim with hope in this game of pretend. But still, no matter how muffled the bell’s clapper, no one ever mistakes a death knell. And what everyone knows, but no one says is that its sound signals a mother who will be left holding her own hand.

Sylvia will arrive right when I need her. She will be my pet. The one thing I can make perfectly, sublimely, and without revision. Small pink vector of joy. Together we will tick down our days like cracking pecans from their shells, one at a time. We wait for the advent of inevitable loss. Our laps littered with the shells’ sharp corners and dust. We will work slowly and with patient hands. This movement is harbored only in its conception though not in time.

She will be the muse her mother made her. Because any child of mine will be preternaturally melancholic, certainly neurotic, as common a feature as blue eyes, mousey brown hair, a thin mouth that musters smiles for strangers without revealing even the faintest tinge of pain. This is the great trick I teach her, deceiving others into seeing only your fine-ness, how okay you are. Still, she will love wholly—love in a way that even the thought of being separate from me will cue her tears. My greatest fluency will be summoning her wail. This is what I want most of all: to be essential to someone. I stitch this secret in the webs of her fingers, her cowlick, the empty socket of her lost tooth.

As a child, she will fill her pockets with seeds, discarded snail shells from the backyard, half-stale cookies, worry dolls. Sometimes she will thumb the lines at my forehead, bring Band-aids to heal me. She will kiss my boo-boo and say, All better, Mama. And she is right. I will be the best I have ever been.

She will cut holes in the bedsheets to be a ghost. How I will yell, how I will ask what did I tell you about the scissors? I will repeat it, louder this time, as if my volume might unfurl some answer along her tongue. I will scare her even. But when I look to the holes where her eyes should be, there will be only ash. It spills out, dusting the linoleum. I throw the bedsheets out with the trash and make her sweep the floor. When punished, her eyes will tell me all the words she is saying with her mouth clamped shut. I recognize myself in her, though even this observation belongs to me.

Daughter as talisman, trinket, echo, pocketknife.

Mother as narcissus bulb, birdcage, the apron’s knot.

As a teenager she will begin checking her courage, slashing her skin, each scar a failing of mine—a seam I allowed her to open. I’ll spend my days wondering how it will happen. Will I someday find myself plucking windshield glass from the tangles of her hair, draining the blooded tub, wiping the bile-foam from her chalky mouth, retrieving a shell casing behind the toilet months after she finally does it. Will it be the needle in her forearm, a tipped soldier—or perhaps my Sylvia will opt for gas? This of course feels a bit on the nose. She will be far too original for such things.

Perhaps I dramatize. There will be more to our days than the endless business of dying, of course. As a child I will find her standing barefoot, stubborn in the grass, pretending she cannot hear me as I call out for bath time. She will pilfer tomatoes from the garden, seeds peppering her shirt, a sticky trail of juice tracing wrist to elbow. The ulna bone, she tells me when she is a teenager studying anatomy. Ulna, I will say aloud and marvel at the muscle of my tongue tipping this word into the air. Ejecting it into being.

If she should make it to adulthood she will be the waitress who specializes in burnt coffee and unremarkable pie, who never writes down a word of your order though never makes an error. Instead she will use her small pad for scratching poems and words that please her: supine, chimera, scythe. My words are: uninhabitable, filch, hysterectomy. Because when I do lose her, it will rip, burn, split me like the nut. It will show me how the meat of me can be pilfered by some doctor in some hospital in some city sometime before his lunch break: egg salad on rye in the perfectly-sized Tupperware his wife placed it in. The wife who bore him three perfect children. Children who would never use needles or have parents who named them Belladonna or Hemlock—children who would never make a sport of unspooling their perfect bodies. When I ask, the doctor won’t even tell me their names.

When my daughter leaves it will all be to say, she was never mine in the first place. I cannot preserve her for myself—I cannot preserve even the word preserve. And none of us can preserve a possibility. How meager it looks when boiled shut in a jar. I only took the assurances that were offered, and still she dies like any girl who has been told she is loved but cannot make herself believe it. How I had begged for the child who could make my body useful. If I do not say her name, she dies again and again, a thousand deaths before breakfast. Sylvia. Sylvia. Sylvia. My tongue lays limp though I speak it loudly. I’ve wanted her for so long I’ve forgotten why exactly. It’s the forfeited daughter who shows me that I am the greedy woman.


Jennifer Popa is a short story writer, essayist, and occasional poet. She is currently a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University where she’s working on a collection of short stories and a novel. Some of Jennifer’s most recent writing can be found at The Florida Review, Bellingham Review, Moon City Review, West Branch, and Sundog Lit. She can be found at