“You must be adopted. They probably found you somewhere in Grandma’s garden,” My cousin Oliver explained.
As the youngest of three cousins, I was told a lot of stories about why my living arrangements were the way they were. I stayed over with my grandparent’s three school nights a week, and most weekends too. Whenever I asked Dad about it, he said he and Mom had very busy jobs and needed to work late nights and travel on the weekends. The conversations never went very far as he would start checking my homework.
“Real parents didn’t need breaks from their children,” cousin Lily said, “My mom saw your parents at the lake last weekend. They giggled like teenagers.”
I tried to remember if Mom ever giggled when Dad wasn’t around. She was always happier when Dad was there.
“No wonder she is always sad. She wants her own baby,” Lily added.
“Liars,” I screamed and bite Lily.
Whenever Oliver and Lily told me the adoption story again, I ran after them with my teeth glaring. My tantrums made them laugh. They then coddled me, told me they still loved me even though I was pick up from the garden. I said I didn’t believe them, but I did on the inside, it made sense. Why else would I spend so much time with my grandparents? On the news there were stories about babies found in the strangest places. My mom was different than all the other moms I knew. Mom refused to take me to dance classes even though I begged. But she did always made sure I wasn’t hungry or cold. And she made me wash any fruit with salt before eating it.
I had to prove I wasn’t adopted so I started sifting through the photo albums looking for baby pictures that showed my family in the hospital on my birthday. I even went though the box that Mom kept hidden from Dad, the box where she kept money and jewelry. But I couldn’t find a single picture.
Eventually I asked Dad. “Why don’t I have any baby pictures from the hospital?”
“Why are you asking honey?”
“Lily and Oliver said I was adopted.”
He laughed so hard he started to cough, “Ann, dearie, you can’t believe everything people say.” He paused to laugh and cough some more. “I was in such a rush that day I forgot the camera.”
“Other people would have had cameras?” I asked and watched his face for any signs of lying, but I didn’t see any. His body was still recovering from the laughing and coughing.
“I don’t remember. We were all so happy after you came out, we probably forgot. We took plenty of pictures when you came home. You can’t believe them. You are my daughter, I promise.”
“But” I said. I stopped because I could sense Dad wasn’t interested in answering my questions anymore.
“Ann, stop it. Don’t be silly. Your mom loves you.”
And not long after that conversation I noticed the first signs. I found a birthmark inside my left knee that mirrored the one inside my mom’s right knee. Everyday I studied myself in the mirror, and soon enough I found Grandfather’s chubby fingers, Dad’s ears, and Mom’s double-jointed elbows.
By then, my cousins had stopped telling me I was adopted. They said that was a joke and explained the reason I spent so much with my grandparents was because my mom was ill. They said my Mom ate too many watermelon seeds. One of those seeds was taking root in her stomach and the roots were moving down through her legs to the floor. Soon a plant would push itself through her spine, up to her neck, and out from the top of her head. That’s why she had joint pains so often. I stopped eating watermelons.
I asked Mom about the plant growing through her legs. She said it was a silly old wives’ tale. But each evening, she asked me to bring hot towels to put on her knees. Maybe my cousins were right this time; the plant was taking root. It was digging deeper and soon it would come out through my mom’s feet. My grandmother mentioned once salt water kills plants, and so I started pouring salt on the hot towels before I gave them to my mom hoping the salt would kill the watermelon plant in her legs. It didn’t work. Mom’s pains continued. She started putting hot towels on her ankles too. I had nightmares about her pinned to the floor by the thick green stems reaching out from the arches of her feet. She cried and moaned as dad rounded his back, pulling her out of the ground. She was like an overgrown radish buried beneath dense soil. I poured even more salt on her towels each night. I told Dad my concerns, but he just laughed and told me to stop wasting salt.
Then I learned the real story of Snow White and her horrible stepmother from my cousins. The evil stepmother was forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes. Afterwards, I worried about Mom’s shoes. One evening, as I was about to put another spoon full of food in my mouth, I asked Mom if people made her dance in iron shoes at work. Mom’s hands pressed into the edge of table and her face twisted from surprise to anger. She stared at Dad for a couple breaths with the most unbearable gaze. She pushed her chopsticks off the table with one furious swipe and retreated to her room. My whole body froze. I couldn’t move. I started crying when Mom slammed her bedroom door shut. Dad rushed to my side, wiping my face. He yelled something towards the bedroom. The plant had possessed Mom. Later that night, my parents fought after they thought I was asleep. I pushed my ears against the wall and heard mom saying to dad repeatedly, “You told her? How could you!”
Whatever Mom and Dad were hiding, I knew I had to find out. I was a resourceful child, a human bloodhound really. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew Mom liked to hide things in the crevices between the furniture and the wall. The box where she hid the money and jewelry was tucked away behind the headboard in their bedroom. It took a few days, but I eventually found what I was looking for.
It was a dirt-encrusted plastic bag hidden behind the electric box. I had to use a thin knitting needle to fish it out. Inside the bag was a blank sealed envelope. I turned the envelope over and there was nothing the back either. I sat on the floor holding it up towards the light trying to decipher what was inside but I couldn’t see much. I wanted to rip it open and read it, but paused when I thought about that night at dinner. If Mom found out I read her letter, she might get angry again. The consequences seemed better than not knowing so I opened it.
Inside was a photo of my mom wearing a bouncy white dress standing on her left toe while her other leg extended behind her at the perfect right angle. Her gaze followed the line of her arm reaching in front of her. She looked beautiful, calm, and otherworldly. Her cheeks were pink, and she was exhaling softly as if about to fly off. The accompanying letter was very short, a few lines only.
“Regretfully your position with TNH Ballet has been terminated. Please reference sections 3 subsection 11 of the signed employment agreement for the discussed violation.
I wish the situation was different, please know I wish you health and happiness in your pregnancy.”
I didn’t know Mom danced. She didn’t dance at any parties, and no one had ever told me anything about her as a dancer. I never wondered about the life she had before I was born. I never thought about her being that young.
I put everything back in its place and slid the plastic bag behind the electric box again. But inside the plastic bag, the letter was already opened. I tried resealing the flap on the envelope but the paper was wrinkled and torn.
Afterwards, I sat quietly waiting for my parents to come home. I stopped believing any of my cousins’ stories.