When I was six, my mother abandoned her body and left it for me like a present. I learned how to fold her body. Slender cranes, boats to ride in, paper balls puffed up with air. By the time I was nine I knew how to fold my mother into the shadows of my hair, her paper bird bodies tangled in black strands. When I turned twelve, I learned how to build palaces out of paper, kingdoms of animals all made out of the same body.
My mother always felt safer in small spaces. She wore a necklace of keys, each opening one of the eight doors that needed to be unlocked to enter her bedroom, each door smaller than the last. With every door she opened, the air became colder, stiller. As if she were quietly tumbling down a hole until she landed on some sticky, dark heart. I imagined my mother crawling by the eighth door, her hands padded with dust, reaching out blindly like a baby.
It was never my idea to start folding my mother. The doors are what began to slowly crease her. Her limbs would get stuck in between the frames and then something would close shut, something would let out a noise. Sitting on my own in the living room, I would imagine that door three had closed on her right arm, then door five on her left leg, door six on her knee. I’d wonder if rooms and rooms away, my mother was lying crumbled and stuck, expanding and collapsing like a wheezing accordion, crying out a song that none of us could hear.
I wanted to follow my mother when she started opening the doors to her room, the keys deliciously clicking. I imagined the walls lined with sleepy little frogs, stuck to the walls with their own saliva. My mother bending down and bringing her lips to kiss each and every one. I imagined full size men bleeding out of green bellies, falling around my mother like fat drops of rain, full grown princes. I imagined them carrying her off to her room, taking care of her while I was waiting, eight doors away.
My mother hated her breasts, because that was the one part of her that she couldn’t sharpen. Before she vanished, she made sure that her body was as small as it could be. Once she disappeared, the first thing I folded her into was a star. I folded slowly and dragged my nail until the edges were as sharp as I could make them. I held the star up to the light and saw the five points, flat and glistening. I touched each point with the tip of my finger, and I pretended I was Sleeping Beauty pricking my finger over and over until I fell into a deep sleep, and the rest of my kingdom slept with me. And we would sleep and sleep until someone came and woke us up.
Before she left, my mother would sing as she cooked over the stove, Oh, sweet girl. Are you mine? I asked her if it was from a song and she didn’t answer me. The stove would sometimes be on when the pan was empty. Smoke would rise and I wondered how it was possible for my mother to burn nothing. I looked up at her and asked my mother if I was the sweet girl she was singing about and she said nothing. I climbed up on the kitchen counter and pulled her head to my chest and sang Come and let me kiss your head. Oh, silly girl, now’s not the time to cry, as if I were her mother. But then she began to cry and begged me to stop singing.
The mother I know best is the mother in my dreams. I follow her through the doors with a necklace of keys of my own. When I see the rooms, they all look the same. Each is empty with an empty fireplace. Sometimes I think I love my dream mother more than my real mother. In my dreams she is already folded. Already a crane, already a boat, already a ball. And I curl her close to my chest and fall back to sleep. Her papery skin pressed to mine.
My mother was never able to fold her own mother. For years, she tried, but the body wouldn’t budge—the skin too thick, the creases not strong enough. Her body was stubborn. It refused to think of itself as a mother’s body. As a girl, my mother cried and cried over that body. She even sang to it, hollow notes, grumblings from deep within her stomach. Until one day, she couldn’t stand it and locked the body behind the eighth door. Some mothers just want their bodies to be their own. What is a daughter to do?
If I ever have a daughter, I would want to leave her an instruction manual full of all the different ways she could fold me, of all the ways she could make me contract or expand, make me float in the air. How she could transform me into the things that my body never let me become. A shared secret.
When I’m fifteen, the house catches on fire. I’ve already spent months carefully unfolding my mother. I flatten her into the pieces of paper she left for me, and I slide her underneath the first door, fast and hard, hoping that one of these little pieces of paper will make it past the eighth door. I collect my mother’s necklace of keys, and fasten it around my neck as I walk down the stairs, and I begin to sing Hush, sad girl. Mommy doesn’t want to see you cry. Hush, sleepy girl. Please just close your eyes. Oh, my girl. Small and scared. Please remember that I will always let you be mine. I sing until the words blur together and are just small vibrations from my lips, burning and disappearing quietly. The fire sighs around me, and I think of all these bodies of mothers and daughters escaping into the air. Floating free and cleanly, into the sky.
Sabrina Helen Li is a writer from New Jersey. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Threepenny Review, Black Warrior Review, and the Harvard Advocate among others. She is currently studying English at Harvard College.