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by Christina Deka

NELLE 1 | 2018

You learn before you go that it is possible to carry human remains through airport security, but the process is complicated. You’ll need paperwork, a special container. You decide to put your mother in your checked bag instead. You put her in an empty shampoo bottle that you’ve pulled out of the garbage and cleaned thoroughly. You’re surprised all of her ashes fit.

Your mother always wanted to go to Italy, had collected books and calendars with titles like The Most Beautiful Towns in Tuscany. Now, she is finally here, in your purse. In her will she said she wanted her ashes scattered in Rome and Sienna. She set money aside for this specific mission. She didn’t say why she picked those two cities or where she thought she’d like to go. It had been a long time since you’d talked to her about where she’d dreamed of traveling. But that was because you’d moved away from home years before, and your daily telephone conversations, made from your cell phone during your lunch break while you walked circles around your office building, only skimmed the surface of things.

You planned to spend your trip searching for a few picturesque spots. Maybe somewhere famous, like the Vatican. You bought an Italian phrasebook. You wanted to be positive. You had this picture in your mind of what it would feel like to finally send your mother off. In the movies, when people scatter ashes, there’s always a swift wind.

But when you arrive a few weeks after your mother’s funeral, you discover the city is like a snarling, dirty animal. It’s crowded, and the sweltering streets twist and turn and open in pattern-less curves and lines. You drag your suitcase behind you and feel the eyes of the people passing you on the street scrutinizing and scanning your face, your body, your movements. The skin on your inner thighs is rubbing and sticking together. You can see them quivering under the fabric of your dress as you walk. You hate this.

You pause so you can wipe the sweat from your eyes. Someone brushes by you and their upper arm, damp with their own sweat, briefly presses into your shoulder. You recoil. You wonder if they noticed your thighs. You continue to walk.

In your head the aerial view of this place looks like tangled hair spread across a pillow. The air smells like garbage and flowers. The majestic buildings lining the wide street where your hotel is located are blasted with graffiti. Rivulets of dried, rainbow-colored paint run down the blackened walls and touch the sidewalks.

Inside, your hotel room is dark and cool. The blanket on the bed is mint green and pink, like your mother’s kitchen. You remember her leaning over the stove, her huge body swaying as she stirred gravy. The single window in your room does not have a screen, and you hear people rushing by, saying things you will never understand. You hear music blaring from cars and the grind and moan of motorcycles. You sit down on the bed. You are so tired. The exhaustion is like heavy syrup pooling around your body, hardening your skin to the bed. You do not want to go back outside, into the unfamiliar city. You curl up on the bed, but it is hard to fall asleep. You get up and pace the room. You change into three different sets of pajamas. You refold every piece of clothing in your suitcase while the shampoo bottle containing your mother’s remains sits next to the TV.

Thinking of your mother’s death never frightened or upset you. Her health had been poor for years, and you knew that it would eventually happen, but it always seemed like a far-off event. In your mind, your mother was ageless. Even though you’d begged her to lose weight for years, even though you’d pleaded with her to take better care of herself, even though you’d imagined the day countless times, you were still surprised when your aunt called and told you your mother was dead.

You were at work. After you hung up the phone, you walked out of your cubicle and pressed your face against the big window by the printer. You stared at the people scurrying below. They were carrying paper coffee cups and briefcases. You couldn’t move. You remembered a film you watched in school. It was footage of a dam bursting. When you were young you were frightened for the people who might be swept away, but now you just imagined your body becoming water, and how it would feel to finally flow free.

You came home for the funeral and nothing had changed. Your mother’s house was still filled with the same pristine furniture and knickknacks. You walked through the house and tried to touch each object. You savored the hush that had fallen. You cried when you put your face to your mother’s pillow and smelled her. This reminded you of being held close to her body. In your day-to-day life you tried not to remember this closeness, but in your childhood home, so near to all the objects your mother had been touching days before, you let yourself cry. You sat on her bed for a long time, running your hand over her quilt and watching your tears drop and absorb into the fabric of your pants until there were wet patches on your thighs and your eyes burned.

When her will was read you were surprised that you were entrusted with scattering her ashes. On the drive back to your small apartment in the faraway town you’d moved to, you glanced at the urn, which you’d secured in the passenger seat with the seatbelt. You did not believe in an afterlife, although she did. You knew, logically, that she was dead, and would not know what happened to her ashes. You wondered if you should take the trip. You wondered if it would make a difference.

You thought of this for days, pacing your apartment. The whole time she sat on your kitchen table, flanked by a pile of bills and dog-eared magazines. One night you couldn’t sleep, so you went to the table and sat down. A thin film of dust had already gathered on top of the urn so you brushed it away. Many years ago, you and your mother used to have conversations while sitting at the kitchen table. She would cut up avocados and toast bread. You would spread the green mush onto the crisp bread and eat and laugh together. She had an easy laugh. Her gray hair curled above her shoulders and the skin around her eyes wrinkled like tissue paper. Suddenly you rose and wrapped your hands around the urn. You pulled it close to your chest and placed your cheek on the cool, metal lid. You wished that you could place your head on her chest. You wished that you could rub your cheek against the soft cotton fabric of her t-shirt. You sat like this for a long time, cheek pressed to the urn, imagining her body.

The next day you booked your flight to Rome and requested time off at work. You put her in a shampoo bottle to prepare for the journey. It was strange to see the gray stream of ashes falling into the plastic container. Chunks and bits of bone dropped in too, and you heard them plop and rattle as they plunged into their new home.


You were hoping the right spot would be easy to find. But by the afternoon of the second day, all you’ve found are garbage cans overflowing with trash, crowded tourist attractions, and tourists. Every time you turn a corner there is another mass of people wearing headsets while the tour guide talks into a microphone or yells at them to keep up. The people in the larger groups wear business casual clothes—floral skirts, button-down shirts, pressed khaki shorts—and ride around on air-conditioned buses with pictures of ruins, or the Vatican, stretched across the side. There are also smaller groups of tourists wearing backpacks and floppy hats and wrap-around sunglasses. They aren’t with tour guides, but they’re all traveling together, in groups of two and three, marching past you with confidence.

You’re beginning to hate this place. You’re beginning to think your mother would hate this place too, but only because it is filthy. She never traveled to dirty places. When she was still able to travel she liked cruises and all-inclusive resorts, places where she didn’t have to worry about car exhaust, or graffiti, or foreign languages.

It rains in the afternoon and soon your feet, and sandals, and ankles are covered with wet, black grime. You are in a crowded piazza surrounded by a school group wearing matching hats when you stub your toe and break your toenail. You begin to bleed. You limp away from the crowds. It begins to rain again. You decide to go into a church.

The church is sealed off from the world by an imposing wooden door. No sounds from the street come in. The soaring ceiling is painted blue and scattered with golden stars. The only point of light is the altar, which is illuminated by hundreds of candles. The flames shudder. Your wet sandals are making sucking noises, and as you pass, the few people sitting in the pews look up and stare at you. This makes you walk faster, which makes the noise worse. When you come close to the altar you see that the candles surround a glass coffin that is wrapped in garlands of flowers. You peer inside and see a serene marble face. It takes you a few seconds to realize this is the sarcophagus of a dead woman.

There is a table in front of her coffin covered with stacks of glossy brochures in different languages. You pick up one labeled “English.” The brochure is titled The Life of Saint Catherine of Sienna. An elderly couple wearing polo shirts comes up to the coffin and begins to pray. You step aside and squint at the tiny font in the brochure. You walk to the nearest pew and sit down.

You glance down and notice that your toe is still bleeding. You panic because you cannot wipe the blood away. It is unsightly and garish. The old couple descends from the altar, and you hope they do not glance down and see the bloody mess peaking out from underneath the leather strap of your sandal. You’re sweating and tired. After the couple hobbles past, you rise and slip the brochure into your purse, next to your mother. Your toe is sore and throbbing. You try hard not to limp. You concentrate on each step as you move toward the door. You glance down. Dirt from the floor and from the street is stuck to the sticky smear of your toe. When you step out of the church the sun is shining and steam is rising from the hot pavement.

You take your time walking back to your hotel, not because you want to, but because your toe is still pulsing. You gingerly navigate the cobblestone streets. You try to look at anything but people’s faces because you know that they know you are an outsider.

The crowds have thinned and the air is cooler. The tourists have disappeared and the people on the street are locals carrying briefcases and bags of groceries. With each step you feel the shampoo bottle at the bottom of your purse bump your thigh. The late afternoon sun crowns the buildings and streets and people with a golden halo of light.

You were very young when you and your mother hiked through the forest together. It was early spring and everything was damp and fragrant with the smell of earth. At the top of a hill you paused and looked out together at the valley below. Your mother held your hand, and you watched the shadows of the clouds passing over the tops of the trees, which were wreathed in new leaves. The light was the color of honey. It softened the lines of your mother’s face. You thought she was beautiful. You place your hand on the outline of the shampoo bottle.

You stop walking and lean against a wall. The lines of your shadow are crisp against the street. She never said it, but you knew that your mother was disappointed in you. You left home to get away from that, from that feeling that something was wrong. You were not good enough—she never said it out loud.

“You can never leave me,” your mother would say, and you would feel ashamed, because that was all you wanted to do. As you grew older, you feared her neediness would swallow you whole. The heavier she became, the more she grasped at you, trying to reel you closer. You were not like that. You never craved the closeness of other people the way she did. You liked being alone in your room. You liked walking by yourself. Your mother was always around someone, a friend, your aunt, a coworker. She would stay up late into the night, talking on the phone. She was always talking, even to strangers. You hated this.

But you loved her. Because she made you laugh. Because her hand touching your hair felt like a miracle. Because when you were younger your differences were comical. You joked with other people about them. You told your mother everything then, too, even though a part of you didn’t want to. You felt sorry for her. You wanted to give her what she needed.

You begin to walk again. Your toe stings. You sigh. You’ve spent two days wandering the city and you still haven’t found a place to put her. In spite of everything, you knew your mother. This city is not for her, as much as she wanted it to be. You pause again and think about untwisting the cap on the shampoo bottle and dumping her ashes in the street. You think, She’s dead, none of this matters. She doesn’t know anything anymore. You have spent two days wandering, not really looking at anything, not pausing to admire this or that like all the tourists. You wonder what this would feel like, to be a tourist, to forget for a few days, to murmur “ohh” and “ahh” at paintings and buildings, only to discover that you’d forgotten their names a few days later. You haven’t been anywhere outside the country except Niagara Falls.

You think about this as you take the shampoo bottle out of your purse and begin to unscrew the cap. Everyone at work had been pestering you for weeks about what you were going to do this week, and you begin to imagine the conversations you’d have at work when you got back. Someone would ask, “What’d you see?” and you would say, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t remember,” because you’d been too busy trying to find a beautiful spot in a dirty city.

You can’t unscrew the cap. Your sweaty fingers keep slipping on the plastic. There are crowds of people leisurely walking by you. You look at them and their crisp, pressed clothes, which they seem to have been born wearing. They’re going to see you dump human remains in the street. You stop fiddling with the cap and shove the shampoo bottle back into your purse. You wipe your sweaty hands on your wrinkled cotton dress. A welldressed man brushes by you and you catch him glancing down.

Back at your hotel, you watch the pink and orange dusk fade into night through your open window. Warm summer air blows across your shoulders and from your vantage point you watch people stroll through the nighttime streets, their faces and bodies obscured, distorted by darkness and streetlights, their voices and laugher mixing with the sound of traffic.

You smell sour. Your clothes hang limp off your body. You take your mother out of your purse. You rest the shampoo bottle on your thigh. You realize that no matter what, you have to scatter your mother’s ashes. Somewhere. You cannot keep them forever. The idea of setting her ashes on a shelf in your house unsettles you. You sit for a while, listening. You absently put your hand in your purse, where your fingers brush the brochure you picked up at the church earlier that afternoon.

You step into the shower. The water runs black and red with dirt and blood. You fall asleep on the bed naked and uncovered, your skin scattered with droplets of water, your wet hair stuck to your forehead, the shampoo bottle sitting on the bedside table. Before you fall asleep, you reach for the sheet and cover your body.


On the train to Sienna, you read the brochure about St. Catherine. Catherine wanted to move beyond earthly things. Beyond body, beyond daughter, beyond woman. When she was young her mother took her to a hot spring, and Catherine went to the place where the water was too hot so she could scald her skin. Her mother wanted her to be pretty and married, but Catherine wanted nothing to do with that life. She lived in a cell and flagellated herself until her back was a bleeding sore. She starved herself, too. Fasting was her path to a deeper spirituality. She was decapitated after she died. Her head is on display in Sienna.

In Sienna there are more swarms of tourists. You have to walk behind several groups while you find your hotel, which is located on a small, dim, side street. Your room looks out over someone else’s yard. A clothesline is strung beneath your window, and an old church rises above the tree line, its façade circled by brown clouds of screeching birds. In the distance there are hills and you can hear the soft whir of cars on some unseen highway. Your room is sparse and bright and the walls are white. The windows are hung with saffron-colored curtains.

You sit on the bed and pull out the brochure. A breeze blows the curtains in and out. You use a pen someone left on the bedside table to circle the name of the church where St. Catherine’s head is kept. You trace the route on your map, and put it back in your purse next to the shampoo bottle. You pull out the bottle and place it on your lap. You run your thumb over the fading logo and think of your mother’s face when you told her you were moving away, how placid it was, how you had the sickening feeling she was feigning excitement for you, even as she helped you pack. You put the bottle down on the bed, close your purse, rise, and walk out of the room.


As you walk through the city you see many places where you could put your mother, spots where the clusters of medieval buildings break and there is a panoramic view of verdant countryside, but you walk right by.

The brick church where Catherine’s head is kept is perched on a hill. It is so high that even the birds seem to have trouble reaching it. They swarm hovering around the roof, silhouettes swooping and diving, but never landing.

The interior is plain: white walls, clear glass in the windows. The alcove that houses St. Catherine’s head is the only place where gold and color glitter. The head is in a glass box perched atop an altar, surrounded by frescoes and cut off from the tourists by velvet rope. There is a collection box too, and people slip coins inside. The clatter echoes off the ancient walls.

Even inside glass, and gold, and velvet, the head is terrible. It is shriveled, twisted, dried up, and gray like the empty bird’s eggs you would find on the packed earth when you were small. The eyes have rotted away. Slim, yellow teeth jut out from the places where the lips and gums once were so that her mouth is a gaping gash.

You wonder if Catherine smelled. You wonder if the site of her starved, mutilated body upset her family. You wondered if they kept their horror to themselves because Catherine had disciplined her body into holiness. You wonder about your own lack of discipline, about the folds of skin developing on your back and waist. The thought of your body while you stare at the dried, brown remains of another unnerves you.

For the past few years, until she died, you drove to your mother’s house once a month to eat with her. Your mother’s house was clean. Always. But the food she kept inside her cupboards was shoved in and stacked up at odd, precarious angles, so when you opened a cupboard door a cascade of boxed foods—mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, stuffing—fell onto your head and onto the floor. You think of the weight of these boxes as you held them in your hands and read the directions. You remember how the steam from the boiling water fogged your glasses as you poured powered mixes into pots.

“I want that, and that, and that,” she would say. She would point at the boxes and you would reach for them. She leaned on two canes. The slabs of her skin hung over her hips like folded carpets. Underneath her housecoat, the skin on her swollen ankles and feet was raised and flaky. The dry rash creeped up her calves like a carpet of moss blooming on a dead tree.

After your mother retired she never left the house. At some point you stopped asking her why. At some point your aunt began to do all the cleaning. At some point you started going to her house once a month and eating with her. You said that was all you could do. Work was so busy.

You ate everything she ate. Stacks of pancakes, cups of syrup, piles of iceberg lettuce smothered in dressing, steaks drowning in gravy, bags of chips, liters of pop, gallons of ice cream. You ate and talked with your mother about nothing, and your mother’s heavy breathing punctured the silence between pauses in the conversation. You drove home from these lunches in pain, your stomach cramping and lurching. Sometimes when you got home, you would stick your finger down your throat and vomit in the sink. Your mother was happy, though. She seemed happy.


In your room at dusk you take your mother off of the bed and place her on your lap.

Your father left long before your mother’s body became huge, before you were old enough to remember him. As you grew, your mother let you touch her less and less, but when you were small, and she was smaller, she didn’t mind if you played with the folds that hung over her elbows or if you watched her get dressed in the morning. When you were younger you did not realize that your mother’s body was considered disgusting, and so you loved her without judgment, and thought the fat on her thighs, the bulbous veins in her legs, the stretch marks on her belly, were like a great, wondrous landscape. You were jealous of your mother’s body because she had thighs that were soft like overturned soil and veins that looked like dark streams of water.

You remember this as you roll the shampoo bottle across your lap. You rise and cradle the bottle in your arm like a baby. You pull up a chair to the open window and sit down. Outside, the setting sun has turned the blue sky as purple as a bruise. The breeze brushes your face and moves the hairs on your arms. The clothes hanging on the line below move back and forth and a church bell chimes the hour. At dusk on summer nights, you and your mother liked to sit under the crabapple tree in the yard. Even now, thousands of miles from where you grew up, you remember how cool the grass felt on your bare feet while the world darkened around you. You watched the fireflies blinking and fading. On those nights, in the soft air, your mother told you stories about her childhood. They were always happy.

She loved summer. She loved the lawn and the tree. You loved them too.

You lean out the window and look for fireflies. You don’t see any, but the air feels like velvet and the stone windowsill is still warm from the afternoon sun.

You open the shampoo bottle, set it on the windowsill, overturn it, and let the ashes fall into the yard below. There is no wind.

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