A Mother Could Love

Posted on: December 8, 2015

When they laid the howling baby on her chest, Marlena squinted hard, and said, “No, no, clean her up. You can clean her up now.”

“Ma’am, we cleaned her already. You can hold her,” said the nurse.

“Her face. There’s still blood on her face.”

“It’s her skin. It’s a birthmark. It’s not blood,” the nurse said, squeezing Marlena’s arm. “She’s perfectly healthy.”

The nurse urged Marlena to count the baby’s fingers and toes.

“See? She’s perfect. She’s a beauty.”

On her chest, the baby had stopped wailing. Marlena closed her eyes and cried as the doctor stitched her up.


Flora’s birthmark resembled a map of China. It began in her hairline and swooped down to cover her right eyebrow, eye socket, and cheekbone. The birthmark was a warm red, the color of the pomegranate seeds her mother ate with yogurt at breakfast.

“Stop staring at yourself,” Marlena scolded her daughter.

Flora pulled her eyes away from her reflection in the metal tea kettle.

“People will think you’re vain. Nobody likes a vain girl.”

“Okay, Mama,” Flora said, and poured hot water over her instant oatmeal.


They say the devil spat on her / No she was in a fire / It’s not a burn it’s a deformity / She’s so ugly / I heard she had a tail when she was born but they cut it off / No one knows who her father is / I bet his whole face is red like that / Don’t touch it / it’ll spread onto your hands if you do / Like poison ivy / Doesn’t it hurt / It hurts to look at / Ha Ha Ha / A face only a mother

could love

Marlena came home from her shift to find Flora sitting on the living room floor with a box of photos.

“It’s not nice to snoop through people’s things.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I only went to your closet to borrow a scarf...”

Marlena lifted an album from the box. Its cover was puffy, printed with a floral design.

Marlena in a cheerleading uniform.

Marlena at the prom with permed hair and the captain of the basketball team on her arm.

Marlena, standing next to a cousin on Halloween, her face painted white like a ghost.

Marlena stood and rested her hand on Flora’s dark hair.

“I’ll buy you a new scarf, if you want. Put the photos away when you’re done,” she said.


Flora ran her hands over the shelves of items--t-shirts with characters from crude cartoons, necklaces with spikes, spinning displays of nose rings.

The girl behind the counter, who had purple hair and a cropped KISS t-shirt, leaned across the display case and lifted Flora’s bangs with a long, black fingernail.

“Hey, no offense, but I can hook you up with something to cover that, if you want.”

Flora combed her bangs back down with her fingers. She felt herself blush. When this happened, she always imagined her whole face turning the color of her birthmark. She should go. What was she even thinking coming in here?

The reaction she trained herself to have, ignore the jerks, just leave, rose to the surface. Flora pressed it back down. The girl with the KISS t-shirt didn’t seem like a jerk--at least not the usual kind. Her eyelids were caked in grey glitter. She peered at Flora like a stylish raccoon.

“What did you have in mind?” Flora asked.

“There’s this stuff I use to cover my tattoos when I have to see my grandma. Works pretty good.”

The girl pulled a crumpled receipt from a trash bin behind the counter and scribbled Dermablend on the back.

“Sucks, but not everyone can handle the real me. You get that, right?”

Flora took the receipt and slid it into the back pocket of her jeans.

In Sephora, a luminous salesgirl with a fluffy afro squeezed the forty-dollar concealer on a sponge, then dabbed it on Flora’s face.

“I won’t do the whole area--that’d be more than a sample--but you can see how it kind of covers the redness?”

Flora looked in the mirror. A small section of her birthmark now looked grey--almost purple-undertoned. As if she’d been punched in the cheek.

“To achieve full coverage, you’d probably have to use more layers,” the salesgirl said, her berry colored lips pursed in uncertainty.

Standing in line, Flora plucked a bottle of black nail polish from the impulse rack and left the expensive concealer in its place.


“Now remember, these are just the proofs. If you want to order prints or digital files, your parents have to place an order by the fifteenth.”

Mrs. Carson passed around the slim envelopes, and Flora’s classmates began to critique their senior portraits.

Ha--I look good in a tux.
My hair’s sticking up!
Ugh, my Grandma’s gonna want like, eighteen copies.

Flora slid the photos an inch out of the top of the envelope. Then another. This couldn’t be right.

Instead of the screaming red of her birthmark, a smooth, pale cheek. A white eyelid. An eyebrow that matched its partner.

She was looking at a stranger. No--not a stranger, her mother. Her mother’s face stared out at her from behind her own strategically swooping bangs.

Flora turned the photos over in her hands.

Flora Alvarez. Harding High School. Premium Retouch - Prepaid. 


Flora tore the proof sheet into thin strips and rolled each one into a ball. One she flicked across the classroom. Another she dropped in a toilet in the second floor bathroom. A third she tucked into an empty milk carton on its way to the cafeteria trash. One she chewed into pulp.


Flora took the Northeast Regional into the city. She told Marlena she was going to a museum to do research for a school assignment. If her mother had known it was for a college interview, she’d have insisted on driving her.

The letter from Columbia lay folded on her lap. Across the aisle of the train car, a young boy tugged at his mother’s sleeve.

“Mama--Mama--that girl--” he whispered, pointing at Flora.

Flora angled her body towards the window. The refrain would never stop, but she wouldn’t let it ruin her day. Not this day, when she was so close to solidifying her escape.

“Mama--” the boy hissed again, “Look! She’s just like you.”

The mother looked up from her laptop to engage her son. She wore a sparkling wedding ring set and an expensive looking suit. Her birthmark, which covered not just one eye and cheek, but both, was the same deep red as Flora’s.

“Yes,” the mother murmured to her son. “She is very beautiful.”

“She’s a beauty,” the boy agreed in sing-song, flipping the pages of a coloring book.

The conductor announced that they would arrive in the city in seven minutes.

Flora turned towards her reflection in the train window and began braiding her hair, lifting one strand at a time, securing her bangs away from her face.

Then she shifted her gaze, looking through the window instead of at it, to the graffitied buildings blurring by. After all, nobody likes a vain girl. 

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Sophie Stuart

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