For Mother and Father, it had become easier over time not to give Warmth or Love to Girl because of the hollowness inside and the layer of clay all around them. Which they were thankful for because part of them remembered when not being able to share such things would have broken them.
But things started to change as Girl was no longer theirs, as Friend and her became closer, and they realized that they were losing Girl, that she was finding what they weren’t giving her only in others.
And the thing about being hollow inside was that they were brittle, delicate under that soft layer of clay that covered them. Without that softness within, the clay underneath had turned dryer, easier to crack.
And when Girl smiled and laughed with Friend in a way they knew they never could with her, it just hurt them so much. They cracked inside, they started to even break.
The pain was worse than any spikes could be. The kind that broke apart the core of them instead of penetrating their outer clay.
One Sunday, when Girl was about to go spend time with Friend, Mother felt the pain so deeply that she called out to Girl, “No!”
Girl looked at Mother quizzically.
“I… I have a surprise for you,” Mother said, coming up with the words as she spoke, just saying whatever she could to keep Girl there.
Girl looked up at Mother with a smile. She wondered if the surprise would be a hug. Oh, she would love that.
“We, we’re going out. On a vacation.”
“Vacation? Right now?” Girl asked, confused but excited.
“Yes!” Mother said, suddenly energized by her own idea, “A mini-vacation. We’re going to go to the beach! We’ll build a sand castle! And, um, go sailing!”
Each idea kept tumbling out of Mother as she saw how Girl’s eyes shone brightly with each new one uttered, the look in those eyes reminding Mother of a time when she held Girl as a baby with her gloves and her own clay shared with Baby Girl’s clay through one of the few parts of her without spikes.
Finally, Mother ran out of ideas and said nervously, “So what do you think?”
Girl smiled a gloriously large smile, her soft clay lips practically reaching both ends of her face, and said, “I’ll tell Friend we’ll hang out another time.”
And for a brief moment, Mother’s inner cracks softened and healed. She took a deep breath and smiled back at Girl, feeling her spikes receding beneath the soft clay surrounding her.
Mother had called Father to tell him to join them. But he was working on Sundays now because he couldn’t handle being home anymore, seeing Girl happy with everyone but him and Mother. And now he couldn’t leave, and he was stuck to his desk. As Mother angrily demanded he come home, and as he angrily replied there was no way, his spikes grew and grew past his soft shell until they punctured the phone and broke it to pieces.
So Mother took Girl, and although she assumed Father had hung up on her, the pain of that was overwhelmed by the joy of looking at Girl’s smile as they headed out the door.
It was a sunny day, the kind where the skin almost felt like it was baking in the sun. Where a warm, powerful energy exuded from the people on the beach, and smiles seemed to just be the inevitable result of it all.
Mother was one of the smilers as she sat with Girl by water and helped Girl build a sand castle. She looked at Girl, whose perfect clay features shown in light of the sun as if she had just been born, as if the unseen spikes on her body had never been there. Inside of herself, Mother could feel her dry, cracked, hollow chest start to soften and fix itself.
She and Girl started talking. About life, and school, and boys. All the things mothers should talk about with girls. The kinds of things Mother had not been able to talk about because of all the distance she kept. It felt so normal. It felt so good.
Had she been wrong to stay away for so long? Had she made a mistake? This… this was good. It was healthy. And she could tell by Girl’s lilting, almost singsongy voice, that it was good for Girl too.
Then they were quiet, and that was good too. Both of them focused on the castle in front of them, their shared project. Their clay sometimes felt like it was becoming part of that castle, as if it was sliding off into it and making it a shared creation that had both of them held within it.
Girl started digging a moat, letting the water from the ocean fill it every time the tide swept in.
“That way we can keep the bad things out and the good things in,” she told Mother, breaking the silence. Mother nodded. But as the tide kept going in stronger, flooding the moat and hitting the castle, she started to wonder if it was really ever possible to keep the bad out forever.
They walked quietly together to the sailboats. Mother loved sailing when she was a girl herself. She was brimming with excitement to share this special part of herself with Girl.
Her inside softened more. And she could even feel the spikes inside her soft skin start to slowly withdraw inwards.
As they started to get the sailboat they had chosen ready, and Mother excitedly instructed Girl about everything, almost talking like she had when she was a girl, she couldn’t help but notice that Girl was no longer smiling. She was not exuding the same quiet before, the happy quiet. It was a face of seriousness. Like she was carrying a weight she didn’t want to tell Mother about.
But Mother was happy and confident now, sure she had discovered a new way to connect with Girl, that things would finally be different and they could talk like the book in the sky said that mothers should talk with girls. Even if they couldn’t touch, there was a way to be touched. In that castle, she had seen her clay touch her daughter’s, even if indirectly. They could talk, they could be close, they could touch.
So she spoke words she would later promise herself she would never speak again.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, giving Girl a warm smile that told Girl it was okay, it was okay to speak to Mom.
“Oh… I don’t… I don’t know… nothing’s wrong, really,” Girl said, her voice sounding more confused than pained.
“Well, it was just, we’ve had so much fun. Now you seem like something’s on your mind. You can share with me, Girl,” Mother said in a tone she hadn’t used since her and Father first dated. A tone of sweet calm and love, one with patience and care. The kind that only mothers had, and only girls could appreciate.
Girl looked up at Mother, gaining confidence from Mother’s tone, from Mother’s voice. Maybe she could say it, maybe Mother would be okay.
“Why don’t you hug me?” Girl finally said, her voice barely above a whisper.
Mother felt the spikes inside her push out, the hollow hole inside her crack, that love in her eyes fade. No. No, no. Why did Girl have to ask that when things had finally been so good, when life was starting to finally feel normal?
Girl gave a scared look for a moment, seeing how Mother had suddenly turned cold, as if they weren’t in the sun, as if they hadn’t spent the day together loving each other, as if Mother had always been as distant as she had been up until that day.
And Mother now saw Girl’s eyes, and how Girl looked scared, confused, and sad. How she knew it was this that kept Girl in the arms of Friend, and how she would lose Girl forever if those eyes kept looking at her that way. And what about the book and its description of love? Where would she be when it came to that?
So, in a moment of desperation, she took a deep breath. She focused inwards. For the first time in her life, she imagined her spikes, imagined them going back into her body instead of out. Imagined the inside of herself turning softer, less cracked. Imagined that she was not as dangerous as she was.
She pretended, in other words.
Because her spikes stayed where they were. Her insides: just as cracked and dry. She wanted to cry, but without a heart, she couldn’t even if she let herself.
Mother looked at Girl, and she forced her eyes to smile. She forced her mouth to glow. And finally, she forced the words out of her mouth.
“I’m just different, sweetie. I’m different than other mothers. And your father, he’s different too. I can’t hug you, even though ever day, I dream of it. Every day I want to hug you and kiss you and tell you how much I love you. I lost my heart for you, I gave it up so you wouldn’t know the pain I went through when I was younger. I love you, Girl, I love you so much.”
Except as she said those words, they weren’t what came out. She couldn’t do it, she couldn’t let Girl know the truth. For Girl, for Mother, for Father, she couldn’t let the truth out.
She had to pretend. Just as she had pretended to smile, to be as she was all day, she had to pretend that nothing was wrong.
“Why, Girl, I never hug you because you never asked me to. You hide and hide in your world all day, and you never come out to play with me. If you ever want a hug, just come to me. But I don’t think you want me to. I think you love who you love in different ways, Girl, and that’s just who you are. I accept you. Don’t worry, that you don’t hug me does not hurt my feelings. I will always love you and accept you.”
And Girl looked down at herself, and she wondered why she had never asked Mother for a hug. How did she not know to even ask? What was wrong with her, Girl wondered?
Finally, she looked up. Mother, for some reason, looked hurt, looked like she was in pain. Girl wondered if it was her fault. She had never hugged Mother. What a horrible Girl she had been.
And then Girl took a step forward. Towards Mother. And for some reason, Mother took a step back. Girl took another step forward. Mother froze, a look of concern and worry over her face. Why was she so worried? Wasn’t it normal to hug? It was almost like Mother didn’t want her to hug.
And finally, Girl understood. Mother was being nice. She knew that Girl didn’t want to hug, that it was all Girl’s fault, and she didn’t want to make Girl sad by hugging her.
But Girl loved her Mother too much, she couldn’t bear to see Mother in pain. And so, before Mother could move any further, Girl lunged at Mother and gave her a big, deep hug, stronger than she had ever given Friend.
For a moment, Mother just stood there in shock. Girl was hugging her, and she wasn’t stepping backward in pain. She just stood there, hugging Mother.
At first, she wanted to scream, angry and frustrated that her plan to keep Girl from hugging her had backfired. Then she wanted to cry, afraid Girl might have holes in her right now, but also wanted to look down as Girl didn’t act like anything was happening except the hug.
But then, finally, she felt it. The warmth of her clay actually touching Girl’s. The beauty of it. The intoxicating power of love finally truly shared between her and the clay that once was part of her.
And she hugged Girl back. Hugged as the warmth spread all over her body, as her insides turned soft again, as her spikes didn’t even seem to exist for once. Oh, how she had waited for this moment. The tears came down, and she was smiling, so thankful, so thankful.
Finally, they pulled away. Both of them smiling and crying, their clay soft, their smiles bigger than their faces.
For a moment, all Mother could see was that smile, that glow, from Girl. That love, charging between them like electricity.
So it took her a moment to see that it wasn’t tears flowing from Girl’s face. It was liquid, but the liquid wasn’t clear. It was red.
All over the front of Girl’s body where she had touched Mother, there were holes. Holes that now let the blood within her clay flow free.
Mother put her hand to her mouth. It couldn’t be, she hadn’t felt anything.
But of course. Of course, she still had her spikes. Nothing had really changed.
Except that this time Girl was not crying, like she was when she was Baby. Instead, she still smiled. As if she didn’t even know she was bleeding.
And indeed she didn’t. All she knew was that she had received a hug from Mother and it was the most beautiful thing she had ever experienced. It was beautiful because she had given something to Mother, something that Mother was afraid to take. And so they could finally truly love each other.
As they went sailing, the blood oozed out of her body, and the water from the sea washed whatever was left on her away.
Some part of her knew the hug had hurt, that she had given something truly painful up to the world. But she figured that was part of truly loving her family, and so she smiled as the boat bounced up and down in the surf. She assumed that was why Mother was crying, and why Mother hadn’t said anything. Because love with family had to hurt.
Mother looked down at Girl the whole time, expecting the sight she had seen when Girl was Baby to happen again. The spikes to take place of the holes. But instead, Girl’s body healed, the holes only leaving small depressions where she had been bleeding.
The whole time they sailed, all Mother could do was try to understand why Girl hadn’t grown spikes. But she could come up with nothing.
For Mother had never given a hug the way Girl did, and so she could not understand what Girl’s hug really was.
That night, Mother told Father about what had happened. They both felt their insides crack further. Their spikes went further out than they had ever seen. The pain of it all was too much, the confusion even worse.
They agreed that they needed to find new ways to protect Girl. This time she hadn’t grown spikes, but who knew what would happen in the future. And besides, Mother could not get the sight of the blood out of her mind.
And so they reached into their heads, and they took out their brains. The clay was even softer than their hearts, but they had to do all they could to protect Girl, and so they reasoned that any extra padding would protect her.
And besides, at least now they wouldn’t remember the pain they caused her.
They rubbed their brains all over their bodies. Now, only the biggest hugs would hurt Girl. But still, they agreed, they would need to avoid the hugs as much as possible in the future.
Except, as soon as they agreed, they forgot what they agreed on. Because they no longer had brains.