His mother – once flouter of crosswalks, hopper of chain‐link fence, charmer of man
child wild dog and zoo‐locked tiger – now is not. She is blank and syrup limbed on the
living room couch. What happened is that her brain’s tick flicked off. And after her fierce,
unfollowable departure, this was the next best thing. This was an electric shaking of her
brain by doctors. It took place in a quiet hospital room. Sanctioned by the father, and secret
from the son – a shock.
He sits next to the couch on the floor, his head the right height for an occasional
brush with her fingers. Or, if he straightens himself tall, for his head to be her hand’s resting
place. He tries and fails to whistle. Hums instead. Pushes his thumb into play dough. Makes
a cup to pretend to sip from.
His mother used to take him to the pottery place in town. She let him throw the clay
and center it. She put her slippery hands on his and pressed the spinning bowl to shape it.
She said, “You see?”
At the zoo, she barked with sea lions for him. Together they purred and arfed, sent
soundless messages to dolphins.
But she began to speed up. Her face quivered, and what she touched she seized – pot
and pan handles, baby’s breath stems from the garden, bars on the ladder to climb to the
roof, where she showed him he could see every little thing and not miss an instant on the
The night before the emergency, she woke him. She told him through the dark to say
his name twenty times, fifty, one hundred, and his name would start to sound like a foreign
language. And then he could fall asleep, having split away from himself. But he had been
And that sharp morning, she pointed to her gut and cried, “Son, sweetheart, the forty
years I’ve got are stacked up tall right here.” She pointed to his house of blocks, where it
seemed the fault may lie, and said, “They are in a shaky pile.”
She asked, “Sweetheart, do you know if at the gates, God forgives me?”
After many, many still months, his mother will heave herself from the couch. She
will scoop him up, her little son, with none of his things. She’ll cut the phone cord, board the
door, and hurry him into the car while his father is at work.
On the highway, she’ll tell him how the schools are better halfway across the
country, yards bigger, sky wider, women bolder. She’ll take him to a forgotten, tumbleweed
town where she can have him all to herself.
That day will be the lightest and longest of the year. It will grow him up.
He’ll look back on it in the space of many an odd breath that catches him over the
course of his quiet future.
And once, to look back, he’ll need to turn his head away from the television news,
which is what nudges him to memory. The news shows a girl in sweet clothes. Her hair is
blond and fine. Her hands are holding each other behind her back, where you can’t see
them, and she’s completely still because she’s in a photograph.
Three people, seas and cities away, kidnapped her. They had her sleep in one of
their two beds. They gave her water and a little food, braided her blond hair back. They
held her hand to walk her to the latrine at night, because with no streetlamps and a sun
sunk early, there, there is a dark that shocks the senses.
They let her teach their children songs, let her draw them pictures. But they did not
let her go. To not lose time, she envisioned the days as invisible rings around her, her
future coiling out. Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, she prayed. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. And
when everything went fantastically wrong – the money didn’t come, she was held too long
and looked wildly sick – they killed, stripped, and sank her in deep waters. They washed
her clothes, laid them flat on a hill to dry, to sell on the roadside for almost nothing. This is
how it happened:
They tried first to feed their children, who were hungry many times a day. There
were eight then five then three cups of rice to ration out to the big, close family. Another
baby to be born next season. Impossible rains slid the earth out from under their house.
Fallen boulders blocked the road on the side of which they’d sold clothes, cans of milk and
tomato paste, tweezers and scissors, rosary beads and fabric flowers, a few of which they
used to adorn the room in which they held a small, tearful ceremony for her.
His mother was raised in three languages, which flooded her ear and tied her tongue
until she finally spoke, brilliant and serene, at four years of age. Her parents were proud. In
their lilting tongues, with their wild homeland stories, in the kitchen sun and on the edge of
her bed before sleep, they loved her deeply.
She whistled. She acted. She spoke in a voice too loud or too quiet, and rooms of
people listened. She trespassed. She stuffed seedlings in her pockets to scatter where she
pleased. She asked forgivable boys to pull her hair as they kissed her carefully. She prayed
but no one knew it till she told the man she married, and with him had one son, whom she
later stole away with on a permanent trip.
Though it killed him to leave her, he did leave at age eighteen as children do. But she
did not stay left quiet, nor still. She called out his name relentlessly. She kept rearranging
his cast away things – caps, blocks of wood and a music box, stuffed bear and bunny,
bundled twigs and stencil stars – but he did not come home.