From the French, camoufler ‘to disguise’ and camouflet ‘whiff of smoke in the face,’ Mother, a guarded woman, excelled in the art of camouflage. Not the blend-into-the-surroundings type, more a masquerade of the mind. Brain arteries branching to circuitous wonder.
Left-handed with a knack for mirror writing, Mom had a preference for palindromes; words spelled the same forward and backward. She named me Elle and my younger sister Ava. Referred to our dog Biplo as Bib, pointing out that the white fur on his chest resembled one. She called our father Alfredo, Dad, and had her name, Rowena, legally changed to Mom. Her favorite band was Abba—though SOS was the only song she could name. And she loved Haydn’s Symphony 47, a musical palindrome—the second half of the third movement written the same as the first but backwards.
Thus, we travelled through life on a subconscious thoroughfare of back and forth. One way there, one way back. Unsuspecting of the countless ways our mother’s idiosyncrasies informed our psyche, we were, at times, oblivious to her dangerous detours and furtive diversions.
Semordmilap was her other specialty. Like a palindrome, a semordmilap (which spells palindromes backwards) can be read in reverse, but with a different meaning, such as the word “stressed” which when inverted reads “desserts.” It’s another way to play with language. And because most of us can only focus on one thing at a time, the playfulness can distract from its other, more insidious possibilities.
Looking back, I now understand Mom’s extensive collection of mirrors: framed mirrors, ornate hand mirrors, and mirrored walls strategically placed in every room. We even had a “true mirror” to view ourselves the way others see us. It was a small box with two mirrors positioned at right angles so that when you looked into it you’d see the reverse of the reversal you see in an ordinary mirror. The mirrors were not only useful for deciphering her notes to us, but also a symbol of her detachment, another step that adds distance between her and the object reflected.
For a while, our bedtime stories would revolve around the history of the looking glass, from Narcissus gazing into dark pools of water, to ancient mirrors made of obsidian, polished stones, and polished copper. We learned that metal-coated glass mirrors were invented in Lebanon in the first century AD, and that later, the Romans coated blown glass with molten lead.
After our father died, Mom became driven by some vision of Ava and me becoming the Venus and Serena Williams of chess. She’d read articles to us about famous female chess players, from Judit Polgár, a Hungarian chess grandmaster considered the strongest female chess player of all time to Vera Menchik, the original superstar of women’s chess who, after winning the first ever Women’s World Championship in 1927, successfully defended that title six times—winning every championship until her death in 1944.
She even taught us a version called palindromic chess, a game in which the ending position is the same as the starting position. No capturing, no checkmate—instead, the player whose pieces have exactly reversed their positions (white pieces ending up in the initial black piece positions and vice-versa) wins the game.
“It’s a fine way to distinguish yourself in an arena with so few female contenders. It’s also an excellent way to keep your self-esteem intact.”
Back then, I had no idea what she meant by that. All we knew was that she had a list of “chores” which included a lot of grocery shopping. So, I figured chess was just another way for her to keep us occupied.
Dad, who died of a heart attack shortly after Ava was born, was kind and easy going. Not only did he tolerate our mother’s idiosyncrasies, he found them attractive. And more, he loved chess. Both, life-long Michiganders, they met at a chess match in New York as opponents. When Mom won, Dad said he fell in love.
Now, firmly in my teens, I began cultivating a snarky attitude toward my mysterious mother. Ava, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to Mom’s unusual lifestyle. Maybe it was because she’d already become a formidable figure in the world of chess.
I didn’t care. It never was my thing. I liked the strategies, but I was just too antsy to sit around for hours. And lately, I was distracted by a different challenge: the fact that there was an aspect of my mother that left me in a pervasive state of confusion. Her secrets made her remote, and I interpreted her behavior as maternal rejection. Beyond that, there was the erosion of trust. It got to the point where I didn’t trust anyone.
* * *
My suspicions began with Mom’s late-night runs for milk, when we already had milk. And then I thought about the times she was late to pick us up from our chess lessons after school.
“Chess will teach you theory and strategy,” she would say, disregarding the fact that she was late. “You must do your best to develop your abilities to visualize objects in space and to mentally manipulate those images. It will serve you well later in life.”
Though I always admired Mom, lately I felt conflicted. Part of me wanted to possess her enigmatic aura, and yet I found the isolation made me lonely as an existentialist on a Saturday night. Mom’s thick red hair was cut in a Louise Brooks style bob. And though she was a grunge-loving teen in the early Nineties, these days, she always wore a dress—usually A-line with a scoop neck, thin leather belt, and flats. Sometimes she wore Asian style dresses with a Mandarin collar. She was tall and slender and towered over Dad, which may have explained her uncool choice of shoes.
Ava possessed Mom’s Irish features, red hair, green eyes, and fair skin. I inherited Dad’s Italian coloring and stature, petite with dark hair and dark eyes. But I didn’t take after either of them in their love of chess. The only part of it that I could relate to was that of being a pawn in Mom’s private life.
Feeling like an outsider, a girl bereft of a close mother-daughter relationship, I realized one way to cope with these feelings was to find out exactly what she was up to. I would soon be 18, and was done being the dutiful daughter. And so, the interrogations began.
“Where were you last night?” I asked, pointedly.
“I had to go out for milk.”
“But we have milk.”
“Not enough for rice pudding,” she answered. “I was craving rice pudding.”
“I’ve never even heard you mention you like rice pudding,” I said.
“Perhaps, that’s why I was craving it. It’s been a while,” she said in a tone suggesting irritation. She stared me down and in her eyes I saw someone I didn’t know. Someone who frightened me. I felt a wall going up. This time it was my wall and I walked away mumbling under my breath, “You seem to run out of groceries a lot.”
The next morning, I decided to shed my poor-me victim mode, suspecting everything I needed to know was written in the mirror, so to speak. That night, when Mom left for her “errand” I surreptitiously gathered her notes, determined to decipher her palindromes. At first, I thought they were coded life lessons:
A car, a man, a maraca.
A new order began, a more Roman age bred Rowena.
A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal-Panama!
A dog! A panic in a pagoda!
A nut for a jar of tuna.
Acrobats stab orca.
I was stumped. What’s with all the fish? The only real clue was that Rowena was her given name. Did she fancy a different life that we deprived her of?
Later after considering the palindromes more closely, I realized they were an outline for a novel about Carlos, a Latin American musician visiting Japan at the behest of some Italian Mafioso types who threatened to stab him in the “yams” and then lock him up in a pagoda with a rabid dog should he yak about the plan.
I tried to decode the line a nut for a jar of tuna. Was it a barter? Or was it about some crazy person who loved tuna? It was difficult to decipher them out of context. I needed more time.
Each night, as she was about to leave for her alleged grocery run, I’d tell her I needed things like compasses and protractors for school, to buy time.
“But why do you need those? You’re not studying geometry.”
“We’re diagraming sentences in English comp,” I said.
“What kind of sentences?”
“The American sentence. It was poet Alan Ginsberg’s creation of 17 syllables in one sentence. He said the Japanese Haiku 5-7-5 worked well in English.”
“Are you screwing with me?”
“Actually, I’m taking an interest in Japanese culture. Do you know anything about Japanese culture?”
“Whatever,” she said looking at her watch. “Teenagers!”
But this wasn’t typical teenage rebellion and she knew it. The tables were turned. I found myself attempting to disarm her at every turn until it was she who became unsure of me. How does that feel, MOM?
I needed time to scan the pages of her notes and study them more carefully. Each night she added more to the story. This time it was a title, Utu, and more pages. I found out utu is the Māori concept of reciprocation, or balance. To retain mana, or honor, both friendly and unfriendly actions require an appropriate response. Hence utu covers both the reciprocation of good deeds, and the seeking of revenge. “It’s a kind of paladromatic moral code,” I told myself. An eye for an eye. Both mana and utu are ingrained not only in the Māori culture of New Zealand, but character, social interaction, judgment, and justice. To offend mana or invite utu was to pay the price.
Over the next few weeks, I attempted to decipher her notes. Ultimately, all I took away from her story was that she might be a brilliant author. Why keep that a secret? I returned to her original palindrome outline: A car, a man, a maraca. A new order began, a more Roman age bred Rowena. A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal-Panama! A dog! A panic in a pagoda! A nut for a jar of tuna. Acrobats stab orca.
In the story, her protagonist, Carlos, is instructed to smuggle expensive blue fin tuna. A variety that can bring in upwards of $8,000 a kilo. Artie Fucini and Vinnie Rossi, two mob guys from Staten Island had seen a feature on 20/20 about a 500 pounder in Japan that recently sold for 55.4 million yen, which translates to almost two million big ones.
But the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza, are known for their own brand of utu. As old as the Samurai sword itself, this group controls Japan politically and otherwise. Having gotten wind of Carlos ’s little escapade, they weren’t about to let some Panama-hatted chicharrón slither away with their coveted tuna. Carlos found himself in an untenable position, or as they say in Spanish, la caca. Even Japan’s prime minister fearing for his life, could not, or rather would not, stop the Taiji dolphin and whale slaughter. It was no metaphor when they said his hands were tied. They used 500-pound monofilament fishing line, and when available, monomolecular wire that consists of a single strand of strongly-bonded molecules like carbon nanotubes.
As the story progresses, Carlos sends a note cleverly concealed in a lacquered coconut shell maraca to the Italian mob informing them that there are problems. They, in turn, airfreight a dead carp from the Hudson River to his hotel room in Tokyo—letting him know he’s got bigger problems.
One night after Mom left for a grocery run, she grew suspicious and returned home to catch me scanning her latest notes.
“You startled the hell out of me!” I said as she snuck up and grabbed my laptop.
“So, this is why you have me running around looking for esoteric serving utensils for your alleged history of food class?”
“I thought we needed a pickle fork, anyway,” I said sheepishly.
Mom was not amused. I’d never seen her look so disturbed.
“You have been lying to me! I am disappointed in you, Elle. Very disappointed.”
The expression on her face was a collage of pain and anger, verging on heartbreak. I had to tell her the truth. Not just that I had deciphered her clever fiction and that I admired the story’s tension and conflict—especially Carlos ’s character arc, but that her role as a mother was less than maternal and left me feeling alone.
“Maybe if you weren’t such a lousy mother, I wouldn’t have to sneak around like the characters in your precious novel!”
She looked as if she’d just been startled awake, pausing for several uncomfortable moments before saying, “That story isn’t fiction.”
“Sit down, Elle. I never wanted to involve you but—” she hesitated.
“No, I want to be involved! I want to be a part of your life. And now I’m really worried about you. What if the Yakuza—”
“There is nothing to worry about. Most of these guys have trouble reading straight-forward script. I can assure you English mirror paladromatic writing with my coded twist is way over the Yakuza’s fedoras.”
It was the first time she referred to mirror-writing out loud.
“That’s why you write backward and in palindrome, to conceal information?”
“One of the reasons.”
“So, you’re a detective?”
“A double agent, Elle.”
“Of course, double agent, you wouldn’t be a single agent, that would . . .”
“Cut the sarcasm.”
“Okay, okay. Can I ask you something?”
“You might as well.”
“I got most of the story. But there was one phrase I had trouble with: a more Roman age bred Rowena.”
“Rowena refers to a stunningly beautiful woman who is intelligent, competent and who, without intent, intimidates the hell out of most people. She has high standards but keeps her expectations reasonable. She chooses her path in life, turns obstacles into challenges and then meets the challenges head on. A Rowena has a phenomenal grasp of whatever language by which she communicates and uses words to achieve her goals. Yet, a Rowena is empathetic and never wants someone to feel diminished in any way.”
That was a description of Mom, all right. Though, I hadn’t realized she didn’t want to make me feel diminished because, well, I felt diminished.
“That’s a great description of your name. Why would you change it?”
“Because, it makes me a target.”
“Oh. Makes sense. Can you tell me how you got involved in all this?”
“Not right now.”
“Everything with you is private! I’m sick of it! You have no idea how long I’ve been hurting,” I said, trying not to weep.
She put her arm around me. “I never wanted that, Elle. I’m very sorry. I went through it myself as a girl, and wanted to spare you.”
At that moment, I suspected she might have been ashamed about her own quirks, let alone her atypical chirography.
“Were you teased as a young girl?”
“Let’s just say being different is attractive when you’re older but among children it can brutal. I just wanted you to be self-reliant and strong.”
Is this why this mysterious woman had built walls as thick as a Civil War fortress? For the first time, I actually felt sorry for her as I sensed her vulnerability. “Mom, you really are a true Rowena,” I said wrapping my arms around her waist, “and I am proud to be your daughter.”
“Elle, listen.” She held me by the shoulders and looked into my eyes. “You are more like me than you know. You were born a Rowena. I’ve known it since you were a toddler. You’ve always been curious, smart, and gifted in ways that frankly scared me. You solved puzzles in minutes that others would need all day to solve. I downplayed it only because I wanted your life to be normal.”
“Wait, did you say I’m . . . a Rowena?”
“Yes. And I’ve always sensed you’d be a sensational double agent, but didn’t want to expose you to the dangerous life of espionage. I thought distracting you with complicated sentence structure and urging you to concentrate on chess would be enough to satisfy you” She got choked up, “And I love you and your sister so much, I’d risk my life to give you both the life you deserve.”
It was the first time she looked at me with a deep sense of recognition. I realized the chess lessons that annoyed me so much were her way of mothering, the only way she knew how. Chess was also a way to keep Dad’s memory alive. I could almost feel the mortar begin to crumble in the wall I had built. She went on to talk about her work, saying it was impossible to turn a blind eye to such egregious matters.
“Turning a blind eye? That wouldn’t be very utu-like, now would it?”
And then, in a gesture of maternal devotion heretofore unknown to me, one that would save me from years of analysis, she shared her secret pen name, Avid Diva. Releasing not only me but herself from a hermit crab-walk existence.
“I can’t believe you’re Avid Diva!” I said. “I have read every one of your books!”
“You see, you really do know me, Elle.”
“You mean none of them were fiction? Not even the one where Carulucci Fada steals Marcel Duchamp’s Dada toilet and cleverly hides it in his bathroom?”
“Ah yes, The Fountain. All true. Fortunately, we discovered it within a few hours—before he had a chance to use it.”
“Did Dad know?”
“So, I’m the first to know?”
“The very first.”
“Wow.” Suddenly I felt special.
Mom promised that once this mission was complete, she would wrap up her work with the Yakuza.
“It’s too dangerous, Mom. I don’t want to lose you.”
“Oh, there’s little chance of that. And besides, while you girls were studying chess, I was practicing Ninjutsu.”
“Yes. Back in feudal Japan, they used this type of martial arts to focus on unconventional warfare, espionage, and assassination. It’s one of the deadliest forms.”
“Have you actually assassinated someone?”
“Let me just say that I have inserted the element of surprise in my practice. My adversaries, expecting conventional Ninjustu are unprepared for Palindrome Ninjustu where each move is executed in reverse. In some circles, I’m known as Odoroki, which means “surprise” in Japanese. And, being partial to palindromes I, of course, changed it to Odorodo.”
“That is so cool!”
Mom was moved to tears and I could see her tremble.
“It’s just such a relief to finally open up to someone, especially my own daughter.”
“I feel really bad. All this time I thought you were just pawning us off.”
“No, Elle. I was truly aware of the pain of rejection. The only thing that saved me as a young girl was chess. People who play chess have an excuse to seem less socially adept. They seem smarter and therefore can use smugness as a defense, should they need it. I wanted you and your sister to become grand masters to avoid feeling the way I did.”
“Wow. That’s really going the distance, Mom. I mean you could have just sent us to a shrink. But I’m glad you did it, at least for Ava’s sake. She’s making quite a name for herself. She’s as good a chess prodigy as Susan Polgár, sister of champs Judit and Sofia.”
“Susan was the first woman to qualify for participation in the World Championship cycle, though she was forbidden to compete due to her gender. I have every confidence Ava will be one, too,” she said proudly.
At that moment, I realized she really did care. How challenging it must be to raise strong-willed daughters while working full time. She went on to tell me that though she was a brave woman in matters of mana and utu, it was not so when it came to matters of the heart—but that it was getting easier because of me and Ava. Mom thanked me for prodding her and said she was ready to tell me all about her painful childhood so that I could learn from her mistakes and begin to trust again.
She scribbled a palindrome on her notepad and handed it to me: Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?
DIANE DeCILLIS writes at her desk in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Her poetry collection, Strings Attached (Wayne State Univ. Press, 2014) has been honored as a Michigan Notable Book for 2015, won The 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Award for poetry, and was a finalist for the Forward Indie Fab Book Award for poetry. Her poems have been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, and Best American Poetry. Poems and essays have appeared in CALYX, Evansville Review, Minnesota Review, Nimrod International Journal, Connecticut Review, Gastronomica, Rattle, Slipstream, Southern Indiana Review, William and Mary Review, and numerous other journals. She currently teaches advanced poetry for Springfed Arts in Detroit.