It sounds, at first, like a bird. The way birds sound. Caws and chirps and trills. Occasionally, the tree will shimmy in the place it has made its home. The leaves will rustle to indicate there is an animal inside the tree.
The mockingbird arrived in March, on the first day of spring. On the sidewalks every blossom was on the edge of opening, of making life. Even the cracks in the concrete spilled over with green. I knew it was the first day of spring because I keep very careful track of the days. I count them. I check my breasts for swelling, the lining of my underwear for blood. Months have passed. I’m counting my life in months as each one ages me further away from possibility. And then: the mockingbird.
At my desk where I build artificial things on my computer, I sat at the window that morning—the first day of spring—when the bird, a living thing, advanced across the window, its body in the shape of a pistol: tail feathers the barrel, its body the magazine, the wings a trigger. Its iris was as orange as a marigold, as small and round as a currant. It looked right at me in the window where I make my mother talk to me, and then it startled into the tree where it began to churr.
The noise was good company at first. Most of the time I’m head down, coding in letters and symbols. It would stir, and I would watch the tree shake along with its rhythms. One could say it was jubilant—spirited even. It kept my mind off my breasts, off registering a humming in my uterus, off the way it felt watching mothers during story time at the library with their chubby-footed babies. It kept me off the blogs—the photographs of the fabric of maternity shirts pulled across stomachs like the taut skins of plums, the epicenters of bellybuttons jutting forward into rough stems. Their wet mouths preparing for maternal instruction, engorged and pulsing with life.
But by the middle of April, the squawking very suddenly shifted something inside me. Its crying was uncontained, it screamed in my head even when it wasn’t screaming. I began thinking about that bird and how it was shaped like a gun and how with the right kind of aim, I could do something about it.
One morning, I ask my mother, >Should I kill the bird?
She appears on the launchpad in miniature, no bigger than an eyedropper, wearing the same blue dress she wore to my wedding, stamped in yellow roses, her favorite kind of flower.
“I saw a bird today in the tree!” she says. I put my finger through her hologram.
I type into the command line, >Respond to the question, ‘Should I kill the bird?’
“I said, ‘look at that bird,’ and tapped the glass with my fingernail. I was holding you, and you giggled with your two tiny little front teeth,” she says.
>Respond to the question, ‘Should I kill the bird?’ without mentioning your daughter, I type.
“My feet are killing me today,” she says. She smiles. She always smiles in the blue dress because she smiled the entire day at my wedding and in all twenty-three photographs I scanned to generate her animation.
>Good grief, Mother, I set into the command line. Building idiomatic expressions into our communications increases her metrics on banter-ability to help her appear more real.
“Grief is a terrible thing about living,” she says, smiling. “It’s something I wish I could protect you from. But the decision to become a mother means I think living through it is more important than not living at all. When my mother died, it was the most terrible thing that ever happened to me. To know you’ll never meet her when you arrive—and she you—makes my heart sick.”
At the window, Ms. Lady stares out at the shaking leaves, trilling at the bird. Her tail thwacks against the hardwood floor, her pupils fully dilated into desire. She’s doing the thing cats do when they are on the hunt—her body lowered to the floor, back end shivering.
The mockingbird keeps on into the night where John sleeps unmolested, his breaths in sync with the squawks, as if they’re the same thing breathing. I count the days. Twenty-five since the last signal my body failed. I’ll know soon enough. Am I imagining the way the breath and bird sound the same?
I go to my desk and initiate the launchpad, typing into the command line: >What did you do in the moments after your mother died?
There she is in her dress, smiling.
“Mother,” she says.
>Change vocal feature to express sorrow.
“Mother,” she sighs.
>What did you do in the moments after your mother died?
“Today mother died. It has not been more than ten hours since my father called me to the house, and yet, I have never missed her more.”
I save the register as a Successful Exchange.
Back in the bedroom the tree is still in the window and Ms. Lady lies curled at the foot of the bed. I put my hand on my abdomen. I bloat my belly and watch the silhouette of myself in the mirror in the corner—the moon through the gossamer curtain, the line of my body through the nightgown. I pull it around me the way I’ve seen women do in maternity shots on the blogs. I look away from myself like I am looking away from the camera. I pout my lips as if they are surging with life. The mockingbird stops, and then it is just one breath: John’s in the night.
My work is to make my mother’s responses more authentic. Using her words ensures it’s completely her, but the wires are still tangled. Now, she answers in data, in facts, but I want her to soothe me, to appear as if she can recognize me. The first puzzle was developing her lexicon from small snippets of language from home movies. The puzzle now is how to get her to say the things I need her to say in the way I want her to say them. To work me through my grief.
There were only two questions at my interview: Can you code in Hologram? and How much have you lost? I gave them the key to my Github profile where I store my open code, and then I explained her death: the long stretches of treatment, collapsing in the hallway, the hospital bed in her sunroom. Then I described it.
“Grief,” I said, “is not mine. It’s everything. A teacup is no longer a teacup. It is a memory of the kind of tea she drank. A flower is not a flower. It is every flower she gave me, pulled from their roots, every Mother’s Day bouquet pressed into a photo album. Grief,” I said, “is like being pushed out of an airplane without a parachute with no sign of the ground. The ceiling is the floor. There is not time because time has been folded in half. You are not yourself. You are a you that has been taken from its own skin . . . Should I go on?” I asked.
No, they said. I had the job.
>What was your mother like? I ask her on the twenty-sixth morning of spring.
“My mother taught me how to sew. She taught me how to comb a horse’s mane. She taught me how to bake an apple pie. She taught me how to sing. My mother taught me how to braid my own hair.”
>Pause your speech as if you are being wistful, I command.
Her hologram sputters so that she is there and not there, a current of waves that are almost her. This is what happens when she gets confused.
>Pause your speech when you talk about your mother as if you are having nostalgia. Inflect and emphasize verbs.
>Reference Merriam-Webster for ‘nostalgia’ (noun).
She comes back into view.
“My mother taught me how to sew . . . She taught me how to comb a horse’s mane. She taught me how to bake an apple pie. She taught me how to sing. My mother taught me how to braid my own hair.”
>Do not emphasize “taught.”
I repeat the first command line.
“My mother taught me how to sew. She taught me how to comb a horse’s mane. She taught me how to bake an apple pie. She taught me how to sing. My mother taught me how to braid my own hair.”
>Did you love your mother?
“I loved my mother. My mother would have loved you.”
I save the register as a Moderately Successful Exchange.
At the sink where I fill a glass with water, I hear my mother’s voice out of the open window.
“My mother taught me how to sew,” it says.
With the launchpad shut down, my mother was nowhere in sight. I open the window farther and put my head out.
The mockingbird is sitting on a branch just within my reach.
“Are you talking to me?” I ask, laughing at the idea of it.
It responds with its shrill call, the kind that sounds like missing.
“You know, I could just kill you,” I say. I shut the window.
Ms. Lady was waiting for me a year ago, the day after we returned from my mother’s house where she died in the sunroom. She was calico and rib-thin, the ridge of hairs along her spine roughed into hard knots. The corner of her left ear was missing—the remainder, weather-beaten like a wilting rose. She had ear mites and fleas, her ten toenails were caked in mud and other detritus from the outdoors. She smelled of dirt, her hair coated in pollen and sap and sand from the park.
She waited at the doormat like we knew each other.
“Hello, lady,” I said. She circled my legs in a figure-eight.
John looked at the two of us. “What the hell is this?” he asked.
I remember smiling, and I remember noticing myself smiling for the first time since I kissed my mother on her eyelids. I picked her up.
“She’s so skinny,” I said. She licked the side of my hand with a rough tongue, and I noticed the whiskers on the left side of her muzzle were worried down to nubs. “We have some canned tuna, right?”
“You’re not serious,” he said. We both still stood at the door, him holding our bags and me holding the cat. “She’s a street cat,” he said. “Who knows what’s living on that coat. If you feed her, we’ll never be rid of her.”
Then I looked at her and she looked at me, and John and I looked at each other, and he understood that when I asked the question about the tuna, I was not asking if I should feed her, but how.
I made a sleeping spot for her on the floor of our bedroom that night and lay awake with the new thing inside me where my mother used to be. One day in, and I felt like I was being strangled already, as if my body was holding up the atmosphere. The airplane door had been opened, and someone pushed me out.
“John,” I said, shivering his arms. He startled awake.
“I want a baby,” I said.
“Josephine, go to sleep. You’re just sad right now.”
“No,” I said, thinking of my mother’s hair, the mittens she’d knit for me every winter. The way her eyes started sinking into her face the week before. “I want a real baby.”
“This isn’t the right time to talk about this, we’ve got to think it through.”
The tiny ceramic bell she kept on her windowsill. The way she’d put my hair behind my ears. Painting her nails for my father’s funeral. Her eyelashes. Her liver-spotted skin on her hands.
“I already have,” I said.
After that, I kept Ms. Lady inside with me and my new routines and my longing. There were cars in the streets, other things that could kill her. The neighbor Paul next door had a gun.
She paced at first, howled at the sliding glass door.
“She won’t be happy with you,” the veterinarian told me. “Once they get a taste of the outside world, they never want to leave it.”
I coaxed her with salmon treats, distracted her with ribbons and wands, with dangling tail feathers, but she lingered always at the door. She pressed the pads of her feet against the glass, her howls full of sorrow. This went on for months.
Then, one afternoon in late February, when John came into the kitchen, his arms full of grocery bags, she sprinted across the room through the narrow opening between his legs back out through the door and into the world.
I searched for her for two weeks, went every night into the dark with a flashlight. Every night next door to Paul’s, where he flirted with me like he always did, sucking his teeth in a way that said he wanted to have me, as if the issue of the cat was just in the background. Here I am, his eyes said. Just here if you want me.
On the fourteenth day, she returned, her nipples bulging and red, her belly pregnant with life.
For the last forty-four days, her stomach has dropped toward the floor, nearly skimming the ground when she struts down the hallway.
“Why didn’t you get her fixed?” John asks each week as she protrudes further. He’s shaking his head at more than that, and we both know it. He means me and my want and my new sadness.
>Tell me about the day I was born.
Mother smiles. “Three days ago, you arrived,” she says from her launchpad. “My contractions started the evening before, and your father packed the car right away. I don’t remember much—isn’t that funny how the mind shuts out the pain so quickly? And then, there you were, wet and presented on my chest. I have never felt so alive.”
>Tell me about the day you died, I request.
“Yesterday, John Lennon was killed dead in the street.”
>Tell me about the day you died, not John Lennon.
“Today, Ian Curtis of Joy Division hanged himself. He was found dead.”
>Tell me about the day you died, not John Lennon, not Ian Curtis.
“Karen Carpenter died of a heart attack yesterday,” she says.
>Import ‘Hospice Notes Scanned,’ ‘Death Certificate Scanned,’ into conversation, I type into the console. The data file path updates, and several lines appear.
>Tell me about the day you died, not John Lennon, not Ian Curtis, not Karen Carpenter.
“Edith Collins died at eight hundred thirty-four on May 5th, 2019. Marital status at time of death: widowed. Immediate cause, final disease or condition resulting in death: breast cancer. If female, pregnant in last year? No. Informant’s name and relationship: Josephine Collins-Slate, daughter. Place of death: residence. If other than hospital, specify one: decedent’s sunroom.”
I try the next question from the Griever’s Protocol.
>Tell me how it felt to die.
“I feel happy when I’m with you,” she says, smiling at nothing. I put my face down to the surface of my desk right in her line of sight, so she looks at me. “I feel alive when the sun shines on my face.”
Every conversation is like this: two jigsaw pieces that ought to fit together, but don’t. I’m trying to cram my parts and her parts into alignment, but there is always an observable gap, a place in the seam too large to fit though my job is to do just that, to develop a prototype so that loved ones can see their dead come back to life. I must get her to respond meaningfully based on the records I have: my baby books, the journals where she kept copious notes of her days and the news, old voicemail messages. I try anticipating what loved ones will ask their Holograms through the Protocol.
“Look at me.”
She looks through me.
“Look at me,” I say.
She stands with her hands clasped at her waist. I have programmed this as her Resting-Pose, though this will be a customizable function for clients later. In this way, she looks like she is always waiting to hear from me, instead of the other way around.
>Have I waited too long to become a mother? I type. >Will I get to become a mother?
“When my mother died, it was the most terrible thing that ever happened to me. To know you’ll never meet her when you arrive—and she you—makes my heart sick.”
I turn away and pull the basket of documents from under the table, sorting for the printed emails from her hospital records.
“Look at me,” she says, while I’m bent over shuffling, and I sit up. She’s not yet programmed to speak unless prompted. At the launchpad, she quietly waits with her hands folded. I look back at my console displaying my last line of code.
I hear her again, but instead it’s the mockingbird, watching me with its cappuccino feathers dipped in white, await at a droplet of sap on the planter box outside the windowsill.
“Edith Collins died at eight hundred thirty-four on May 5th, 2019,” it squawks. “Informant’s name and relationship: Josephine Collins-Slate, daughter.”
When I reach to open the window, stunned, it flies away.
Later, when I can’t sleep and John is deep in breath, I check my calendar on my phone: day twenty-seven.
“Look at me,” the mockingbird calls from the tree. “Look at me!”
I go to the window.
“What do you want from me?” I say, only it’s a whisper into the night hissed under my breath.
In the last year, to become pregnant I’ve done yoga, acupuncture, vitamins, tinctures. I’ve consulted an astrologer, a psychic, a fertilization specialist. I have frozen eggs. I have visited shrines, slept with tinctures under my pillow. I have changed my diet, meditated, joined support groups, attended counseling.
“John,” I say in the middle of the night each month. I wake him on the tenth morning after every period has started. “Look at me.” He rolls onto his back, solemn.
“John,” I say in the early morning on the twelfth day, the fourteenth. “Look at me.”
I don’t mind his silence, which will someday be filled with a soft drooling mouth, with tiny ear-folds. The milk dribbles, soft kicks inside knitted pajama sets.
“Why did you wait so long?” he asked one morning. I stared longingly at the fence circling the sandbox at the park down the street. Inside the circle there were children. Mothers. Everyone was smiling, eating crackers out of sandwich bags. Everyone had crumbs in their hair except me. I was neatly dressed, standing with a coffee cup in my hand, nearly twenty years older than every woman inside the circle, many of whom sat with their own mothers on small benches circling the perimeter.
“I don’t know,” I said, even though I did know something. I knew all about the new space of missing.
The problem always with the Hologram is building more lexicon for my mother. At first it was easy. Each new letter, document, home movie offered thousands more words, new combinations I could layer onto the next. But she always responded with the same snippets of language—she registered a key word and sputtered out its adjacent web of speech.
On the twenty-eighth day we are stuck in a loop.
>What are the things you wish you could hear your mother say again?
“Karen Carpenter’s mother must be so sad,” she says for the fourth time, smiling.
I take a break and rummage through the garage for rags to make Ms. Lady’s birthing-day nest. At the bottom of a container of my mother’s things is a shoebox, and inside is a VHS tape labeled Backyard in her careful handwriting. I take it, hopeful it can offer us a way out of our rut.
The mockingbird is waiting on the concrete when I open the garage door, my arms loaded with the tape and equipment. It cocks its head.
“I feel alive when the sun shines on my face,” it caws.
I crouch down, and it hops backward.
“Look at that bird,” it says.
“Why are you here?” I ask. Its irises shimmer, new pennies in the sunlight.
“I feel happy when I’m with you,” it squawks.
“No you don’t.”
“My mother taught me how to sing,” it says, and sings it.
“Who are you?” I sit back. There is a collection of rocks in the planter just in my reach. “Should I kill the bird?” I ask it. “It would be so easy.” I point to the rocks.
“I want a baby,” it screams.
“Shut up,” I say. I palm a smooth, gray stone.
“I’m holding you now while you sleep,” it says. It jumps back in small bird jumps as I move toward it. “I loved my mother,” it says.
I throw the rock as hard as I can at its small head but miss as it flies back toward its tree.
Later, while I’m programming my mother, I feel a constriction—a kind of cramping I haven’t felt before. The seizing takes the breath from me.
My mother looks away from me in her Resting-Pose while I grip the edge of my desk and count the days on my calendar again to be sure: twenty-eight. The edge of the curtain blows in gently from the open window, the fronds of the palm outside shift, the line between now and later so thin.
I drink a glass of water, then type.
>What did it feel like when you became a mother?
“Becoming a mother has been the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. The days go by and all I have done is look into your eyes.”
>Elaborate on your feelings.
“I feel so happy when I look at you.”
>Did you ever do anything bad to get something you wanted?
“Karen Carpenter dead at thirty-two. Sometimes bad things happen to good people.”
I think of Paul’s eyes, next door. Maybe the problem is John. It would be so easy to go over, to put Paul’s hands on my body just once.
>Did you ever do anything you shouldn’t have done to get pregnant?
“Today I’m five months pregnant. Over halfway there!”
From outside, comes a long, whimpering, shimmering cry.
>Can you hear the baby?
“Babies are the sweetest things in the world. I always knew I wanted to be a mother.”
I remember her fingers twisting my hair. Her lilac perfume, the way her makeup foundation rested in the creases at her eyes.
The cry comes again, and so does the cramping. I swallow and pull the curtain back. There at the edge of the planter box is the mockingbird, bending its head to the side, its eyes on me. It opens its mouth and cries again, just like a baby does.
Later that night I find Ms. Lady in the bedroom closet, pacing, with her belly nearly at the floor. She stops to lick her genitals and a gush blushes out. She moans a deep moan. She pants.
I crouch on the floor to be near her, and her eyes are anguished, wide open—the same as my mother’s before dying.
I bring the supplies from the living room—a box, a stack of blankets, two heating pads John uses for his back. I’m reusing the small box that my wholesale pregnancy tests come in as her nest. Over 99% Accurate, it says just below where she settles herself as her abdomen constricts.
I call John in, but he’s uninterested, standing halfway in the room while he scrolls through his phone. Half an hour later a wet lump squeezes out of her—a kitten surrounded by its amniotic sac. Lady licks it with her tongue and chews the umbilical cord away with her teeth, a bloody tube tying them together. I sit in the corner watching as she breathes it to life, as she grooms the fur pasted to its body like a swim cap into small soft tufts—as she transforms it from an alien shape into something more familiar. More real. It begins mewing at once, its face pressed to the blankets, struggling to hold itself down as she nearly rolls it from the box with her roughness.
She carries it by its neck to the corner of the blanket and it pulls itself across in a crawl, its bottom still covered in blood. It’s orange and white like her, rooting into her underarm as she rolls over, exposing her underside. She howls—nearly trampling it as she stands—and begins to bloody again. Her foot works into a stamp across the clean pad. The next kitten emerges, its sac an empty plum skin. This kitten is less active, barely crawling and silent.
I have never seen anything come to life before. She wasn’t a mother in one second, and suddenly is in the next. The fresh kitten’s need is inside of itself, in its toes, kneading her. I have neither the thing to need nor to be needed.
Two more kittens come. They wrestle each other and put themselves at her cochineal nipple as she leans back in repose. The second keeps struggling for air, so she works at it with her tongue until she finally leans back, exhausted.
I’ve had a dream about my mother since she died that is always the same: she has returned for something I hope is me, but isn’t. She searches through her dresser drawers, pulls up the hoods of trashcans. She stares into an empty dishwasher.
“I’m here, Mother,” I say. It was the same while she was dying. She kept looking out into a middle distance as if there were something just out of reach.
She looks up at me—always twenty years younger—the same age I am now. She shakes her head as if to say: I know you are, but that’s not what I need to get back to living.
When I go to check on Ms. Lady later, the kittens are alone in the box, mewing. There are smudges of their collective blood—the things they have been stewing inside of together—everywhere. They are stacked on one another like playing cards and one is in the corner, breathless, a curled lump. In the bathroom where John has left the window open, a pawprint of blood is marked on the sill.
I run through the neighborhood screaming for her. I make John go to each door on the street and ask to be let in the backyard. At Paul’s, he gestures to me in the street where I stand with blood smeared on my sweatpants, my loose ponytail nearly undone. His gesture is apologetic, as if to communicate I have lost my mind. He disappears into Paul’s house, while I put the flashlight on the bushes in the front yards, into the trees.
For hours we search.
“Let it go, Josephine,” John finally says. He says I need to get back to the kittens, but what he means is I need to let so many other things die.
Hours go by, she’s nowhere.
Back home I wait for the sun to come up before going outside again. At my desk I load Backyard into the VHS to pass time.
My mother holds the camera as she walks alone in the yard of the same home she died inside, where strawberries and flowers grew. The yard changed so little over the years, it could have been any time. It could have been before me, or in the weeks before she vanished.
She walks from plant to plant. Here is the rose bush, she says. Here are the geraniums. She labels things, that is all. But after each introduction she says the same thing, I grew this for you. She carefully fingers the leaves. It is the same way she used to put my hair behind my ears.
How much have I lost? I have lost her words and all the ones she would have put together into new forms. I have lost Lady. I have lost myself.
That bird can materialize anything it wants to, and I cannot.
The Hologram will never be my mother, even with this language. Even in this dress she wore to my wedding, she wore when she took my face in her hands and told me she loved me. Even with every word for flowers, for beauty, she will always stand just this one way. She will always just fold her hands and only smile. I’ve known this all along, of course—that I have only been reaching.
After the tape ends, I put my coat on and go into the yard. Everything is waking up, the leaves cupping dew like hands filled with water. I pull the shrubbery back.
“Lady,” I call. “Lady.”
I see it when I get to the base of the tree: first a flap of wing torn roughly from the body, then, a head. Its body is several feet away, disemboweled, the feet curled up like small onion rings.
When I turn back around there at the bathroom window, another set of paw prints trails from the outside back inside the house.
It’s then I feel the synching; a spot of wet.