Lilian wasn't sure when she first began to suspect that her mother didn't actually love her. It had never popped into her brain in so many words, not until she was already quite certain of it. It was just sort of a feeling, a feeling of... not-quite-right.
It would have been easy enough to discern, if her mother had beaten or neglected her, or been cruel in word or deed, or even been coolly indifferent. But Lilian's mother had never done any of those things- had always been very careful, in fact, to praise and support Lilian, smile at and pet her, and generally find that perfect balance between strict and fair. Lilian's mother never lost her temper when Lilian was around, never yelled at
her for something that was not her fault. Lilian's mother was always very,
very correct in her actions towards Lilian, exactly as a loving mother should be.
And perhaps that's what finally tipped her hand to Lilian.
As Lilian got older, and realized that most humans erred at one point or another, she began to be unnerved by the fact that her mother never seemed to. Not emotionally, at any rate. And so Lilian began paying closer attention. And that's when she began to notice what she privately thought of as the "cold flash" in her mother's eyes.
The cold flash always, always preceded Lilian's mother being especially kind or loving. If Lilian saw the cold flash, she nearly always found herself enveloped in a long hug shortly thereafter. There was nothing menacing or threatening about those hugs, no hint of underlying violence... but it seemed to Lilian that there was a certain sense of desperation.
And so Lilian began to observe more closely still, until she came to the conclusion that it wasn't so much that her mother didn't love her in particular, as that her mother didn't really seem to love anyone, or even anything. So why was she pretending? If Lilian's mother didn't love her, why was she trying so hard to make the world- to make Lilian- think she did?
This insight- and the questions it spurred- bothered Lilian right down to her core- but she could never quite bring herself to ask her mother about any of it. After all, her mother might not have loved her, but Lilian still loved her mother, and she couldn't bear the thought of disappointing her by calling attention to the charade.
There came a day when Lilian's mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness and, as so often happens in the end, Lilian found herself keeping vigil by her mother's deathbed. Lilian's mother sleeps often now, eyes moving rapidly beneath parchment-thin lids. Every time those eyes close, Lilian wonders if they will re-open. And every time, the wondering hurts. Now Lilian sits, holding her mother's withered hand in her own, and she thinks how strange it is that her love for her mother makes this so unbearably painful- and yet also gives her the strength to keep coming back, day after day.
"You can ask me," the voice is soft, but there is no tremor in it. Lilian's mother is meeting her death with the same calm acceptance she has always met everything. "I know you've wanted to, for years now. I could never quite understand why you didn't."
"Ask you what, mother?" says Lilian, smoothing her mother's denuded scalp. She had had such beautiful hair, before: always braided and pinned so precisely.
Lilian's mother turns her face to her daughter, and opens her eyes. "Ask me if it's true."
"If what's true?" says Lilian. Her heart jumps, begins to race, but Lilian tries to keep her fingers light on her mother's, careful not to betray the adrenaline now surging through her system. She knows, of course, exactly what it is her mother is talking about. Lilian's mother flutters her hand beneath Lilian's in encouragement.
"This is your last chance to ask, my darling. And I don't want you to have any regrets in life that could have been so easily prevented. You already know the answer, I think."
Lilian takes a shaking breath, then looks deeply into her mother's night-black eyes. "If I already know the answer, why would I ask that question?"
The corner of her mother's mouth twitches with amusement. "Alright then. Ask the question you don't know the answer to."
For a long time, Lilian is silent, searching her mother's eyes for the cold flash, or for anything that might explain without her having to ask. All she gets back is her own reflection, small and haunted in a distorted hospice room. At last Lilian breathes, "Why?" and she isn't even certain which why she means.
"Because you were mine," the answer is immediate and fierce, and suddenly Lilian sees something uncoiling in the depths of her mother's gaze. This is not merely a cold flash- no, this is a burning cold so deep and terrible that it carves mountains into nothing; kills entire species; remakes entire worlds. Lilian gasps, and the mini-Lilians in her mother's icy eyes do the same, unconsciously recoiling. Abruptly the eyes close, cutting Lilian off from her reflections, and from whatever it is that Lilian's mother has never allowed herself to be.
"I couldn't love you," her mother whispers. "But I could protect you. And I did."