As a child, I didn’t understand longing as a possibility. My mother gave me her understanding of life as an inalterable, irrefutable set of circumstances designed like a lesson plan, an exercise against hope. I didn’t long for a family, for specific people, but I did collect my cache of reasons for this absence. I hoarded my inadequacies and mistakes into a deep secrecy. I learned to turn to this depth within myself as an explanation for the silence. This became the foundation of my life.
I dream an elaborate dream of a moth-like creature inhabiting a body, which dies. The creature needs to find another body to inhabit. She chooses mine, and I consent. There is to be a ceremony, but at the last moment, I divert her into another woman’s torso. It becomes as though I am telling a story, because I say, “And the next morning I made sure to smile at her. She really liked that.” Reds and browns and velvet, I smooth this woman’s skin, she becomes winged.
This morning I saw my dead grandfather facing me across the street. Pale blue fisherman’s cap, beige old-man’s windbreaker, white sneakers. White skin cold pink. He carried two weighted shopping bags. His shoulders pulled forward, his head heavy toward the ground. He opened the grey graffitied dumpster, disposed of the evidence. He walked slowly, holding himself tight in the middle as though his hips were closing in on him. I willed his hips to snap shut, lock it all inside, in place. Wet of his tongue in my mouth, wave of nausea, hiss in my ears. I willed him to slip on the wet and mossy steps, fall, become bloody, know the sharp crack of breaking.
The screen door slams shut, sealing him inside, leaving me alone on my own porch, outside. My vision returns from shades of tunnel-grey to a more familiar depth of shadows and light. At my feet are pots filled with growing things I know. Dahlia. Zinnia. Salvia. Love-Lies-Bleeding. Every night I water these plants from the spigot on the eastern wall, and every morning I thank the night’s growth for watching over my sleep. I become aware of an inhalation stuttering through my lungs. My grandfather has been dead for eight years. This man bringing out the garbage is my neighbor’s brother-in-law, harmless, arthritic, intact.
In the beginning, I was raised to understand the presence of others to be superfluous. I was taught that my mother was my best friend, and I hers. We were each other’s sole family and community. The existence of my mother’s clan was something I just did not consider. I didn’t know words like grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle. Father. My mother had sprung from the earth or sea or sky, to be my mother. This is a mythology we both accepted.
My mother was a sad, lonely woman. Born neither of the sea nor the sky, she was raised in a family of people with names and histories and secrets, withheld. She left it to me to create and define her new world, to tell the story of the good mother. I was to be her salvation.
She is young, pre-teen. Her younger brother is chasing her through the house. She is a distressed damsel. He is a monster. He has a wooden ruler for a tongue. They are running. They are laughing. She slips into a bedroom, slams the door behind her. Still running, still chasing, he crashes into the door, the ruler punctures his throat.
Again, the chase. The four children are spinning circles in the attic. My mother’s foot breaks through the floor, dangles over the dinner simmering on the stove. Her blood and her shoe ruin the stew.
She tears through the house screaming. I don’t remember the words she uses. Her hair wild, her bare breasts flopping. Disgusting. She tears through the house after Kimberly of the always dirty feet, always now in my world, always watching, always breathing. They both run, four bare breasts, I cannot find my eyelids. I wish for blindness.
She tears through the house, screaming, chasing Kimberly, picking up the two-by-four in the doorway, bare breasts. I cover my eyes. I burrow through the hole in the floor. I am a gopher. I am a mole. I am a snake. The hole is a tunnel is a new world dark and wet and smelling of worms in rain. No seeds here. I will go hungry. No light here. I will go blind.
The rumblings of chase, thunderous and electric, a freight train head-on with the eighteen-wheeler filled with chickens. Fear-dropped feathers, blood and dung, the squawkings of doomed women. And reverse and reverse and then disappear. Gone.
I am a speck on someone else’s wall, a wall built with two-by-fours and shit. I am in a world of dirt and secret spaces, deep and hidden, wild and worm-filled, water level rising, then receding. No air. No breath. No skin no bones no sound.
When I was being a child, I made my home in the base of an uprooted oak. Her roots, once deep and wet and thirsty tongues, now stained and wizened, moss-draped fingers sheltering a kiva for a child’s most important ceremony. Into her cupped and cradling palms, I burrowed and breathed and slept. Inside her grasp, I was held and hidden, warm and earthy. Inside her, I buried my most precious things. Stones, marbles, sea glass, yarn, colored paper scraps with words written on them. I stuffed my special bits into the creases and crannies formed within the arching, clasping roots. In the moist soil beneath me I dug trenches and graves and gardens. I spoke rites or prayers over each piece. Thank you I’d say, placing the speckled stone next to the yellow yarn, covering them both with the scrap of red paper, the special word secreted with its folds, you will not be lonely. You will have each other. Covering the cairn with leaves and mud, patting the whole of it, humming the little buzzing song in constant play in my throat.
He was my age, with dark shaggy hair and skin darker than mine. He was always dusty, dirty, tear- and sweat-stained rivers down his skin. His visits were preceded by a low rhythmic hum, something like the ocean at night, heard through closed windows. Steady, strong, salty. He came to me at night, when I stared at the moving shadows and then at the still shadows that moved by my will. His inherent rhythm became a voice, a deep, rocking sound, moving through me, vibrating me like a hum. And there he was. Familiar, always, a reflection of myself, inside. I always had that knowledge, that he was the same as me, but inside instead of outside. By the time I was ten, I began losing consciousness every time he appeared. I collapsed into the street while waiting for the school bus, when he came to me and showed me that he died when jumping off a cliff. Chased, he flew from the dusty red rocks, into an unknowable distance, because death was better than this. I remember my childhood and sometimes wonder that he is all I had.
The huge pine in front of the house on Walnut Street. Crawl under the lowest branches to the place of just dirt and needles, canopy of green Christmas above. Haul your little body to that place under the tree when inside becomes too loud. Hold your breath. Hear the bloodrush drown out that silence. Disappear into the dirt floor. Believe you can hold your breath forever and become dead and then you will become not alive and then you will become yourself. Wake in the morning, not dead, not discovered. Alone with the dirt and the needles and the smallest of crawlers and flyers.
Asking questions about the absence of a family indicated a depth of dissatisfaction, which I was never supposed to understand. I learned early that we get what we ask for, no more and no less, implying my loneliness was of my own doing. Wanting a family and a father was a betrayal of my mother, who had sacrificed everything for me, including her own history. Instead, I held the same cautious, secret certainty of so many sorrowful children: if they had known about me, they would have come for me. And later: if I were better, smarter, more beautiful…
I dream of the chase. I must gather my belongings, all that is important, and flee. This process is slow, deliberate. I am not hurried, though the necessity is clear. I leave alone, having loosed the animals and opened the windows. I have what I need. The house, gray and defeated, is behind me. I am not afraid. I enter the field, the forest, the riverbed. That which pursues me is an hour, a day, behind me. I am not afraid. But I cannot stay. I enter this flight with only the knowledge that what will be important will be ready upon my arrival.
I learned the language of others when I was three years old. My mother tells me she had made it a point to read to me every day since I was born, and one day I just took the book from her, turned my back, and began reading it, silently, for myself.
From my books, I learned about playing and friends and adventures. I learned about girls and boys and toilets and overhead lights. I learned how babies are made, and born into families with mother father sister brother. I learned these words for family. My books taught me distance and dissociation. I learned to disappear. I learned to find safety in the words of someone who has found someone to listen.
I am four years old, and my mother is pregnant with my sister. She marries a man, gives us his name. I am flower girl at the wedding, surrounded by his family, who are not mine. Black and white photo of me, flowered frilly dress, eyes level with dozens of cotton-poly thighs. I am looking at the camera, clutching wild flowers. I am so sad, so alone. I remember this day like a recurring dream. Another photo, entire wedding party, I am my mother’s only family. I am the only child. All the women are looking at me, all the men looking into the camera, but for the one gay brother, who is the only person smiling. He is smiling at me. And when that gay brother died, of that long illness no one would name, I thought this is it. Now I am alone.
The story is that after this wedding, I asked my mother if I could call her new husband my Daddy.
This is how I crept into his family, hungry for anything a family could give me. I am four, I am seven, I am nine. I convince myself he is my father, this is my family. But I am an outsider, the only child. I am held at arm’s length, observed like a stray animal who might be infected. I am called daughter, granddaughter, told there is a place for me at the long empty table. Bread and butter. Wine bottle, dark. Ashtrays, the chair is too low, I can’t reach the food. I am unseen. But there is a place for me, I am told.
The parents of this family did not speak to each other during my life. Not one word. They lived alone together in the house once filled with their six children. Dark paneled wood, locked rooms. Mimi sits in her chair with her embroidery. A sorrowful chain-smoking silence. No one speaks. He watches television in the other room, plate on his knees. No one speaks. Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak, something won, something lost. It’s nearly time to go to the club. He leaves, and Mimi puts down her threads, lifts me to her lap, tells me I am good.
These are the stories I don’t tell. My details are not what people understand. You’ve heard all those words by now, from voices other than my own. I don’t know the smell of old man penis, or the scratch of old man skin, or the sear of child flesh tearing. I cannot give you dates, or times, or patterns of behavior. I can elucidate the nature of distance. The encroaching betrayals of darkness and oxygen. Blindness, suffocation. I can tell you what it’s like to simultaneously dread and beg for the passage of time. Ceilings, water stains, spackle patterns, spider webs, streetlights. I can tell you that sometimes it just doesn’t matter who is in the room, or across the hall. Anyone can pretend to be asleep. Anyone can pretend to be awake.
I try to stay awake until he goes to sleep. If I stay with him in the living room, running my fingers over the pale blue carpet, watching the television into the late late night broadcasts. If I stay awake, over here, under the coffee table, covered in the afghan she crocheted, he will become too tired to come to me. So hot, there is sweat, there is the so tired of flickering television, the thickening of muscles, no water, no movement, just the corner of the eye and the canned laughter.
She locks the door behind us. My place is on the cot at the foot of her bed, the portrait of her grandfather looming angry above her head. She checks me surreptitiously as I undress. Spotting the shock of clean white undershirt, she grabs me, whispers what did he do to you? Tears so easy, ready, I don’t know, Mimi. I don’t know what he did to me. No bruises, no markings, but the shaking begins at the base of my spine, moves into my belly. I become liquid, waves crashing into the pit of me. She holds my chin in her fingers, says you have to stay away from him. Everything that is me leaves me, puddles to the floor, swarms to the thinning air. I am cold, black, silver, gone. In the morning, such a drumming sadness, such pain. No one speaks.
Nine years old, they sit me down, tell me this is not your father. He tells me he is my sister’s father, tells me my father is nowhere. I had managed to forget this reality, erase the beginnings of my life. In this sudden disclosure of truth, the jig is up. This means he is not my grandfather, she is not my grandmother. The betrayal is not of my family, but of the error of kind strangers taking this stray animal in. I see how easy it is to separate, how easy to turn away, become blind. He says I’ll be your father, if you’ll let me. I’d rather have no one, I say.
But so desperately I want a family. I want grandparents and parents and sisters and brothers and cousins and all the rest. I want holidays and squabbles and secrets that do not tear my world apart. I want my children to know what their world is made of. I want them to know love. Big, beautiful, emotional, no-strings-attached love. Dinners with full bellies and laughter and messes for the dogs to clean up.
My mother says: I woke up in the middle of the night and my brother had his hand under my nightgown. That is the story, beginning to end.
I dream I am at my mother’s house. The house is on stilts, built on a small slope. The land moves toward the elbow of the brook. I see the roots of my secret tree at the turn of a path. A small crawl space where there ought to be a foundation or a basement. In dream and life, both, no foundation for this house. Dream has no walls, dirt ground, not closed with the plywood and black tarp and abandoned spider webs. I’m screaming. Under the house, hanging from beams, there is a bird caught in a net or ropes, spinning rapidly. She’s cocooning herself in a web of her own making. The black dog is barking ferociously at the bird. I’m screaming for him to stop. I want to save the bird. I look for rocks under the house to throw at the black dog. I am furious with him, and afraid, but I don’t throw any rocks. I am powerless but for my screaming. I am unable to rescue the bird, but I know she’s there, under my mother’s house, beating her wings.
There is a silence within these stories. A surface-skating, darkness, winter, withholding. Every night, within exhaustion and retellings, I am trying to capture the essence of what I was not able to communicate. I stare at walls, doors, ceilings. I sit for long minutes, my thoughts covered in a thickness I manage to keep mostly at bay within my public life and interactions. Through a thick web of pale cotton, wool, smoke. And I am gone.
Three nights after I was married, I dreamed of a candlelit screened-in porch near the Lake. I sat on a chair with a hidden compartment in its arm, into which I was intently secreting away my most special things. The proximity of her family was heavy and dense, yet their nearness was something I craved. I was glad to be there, surrounded. All at once, the lights went out, and with them disappeared my secret holding place, with all my most special things. In my sleep, I woke my partner, yelling, They’ve stolen the light! They’ve stolen me!
The black sky, white moon. Squint these eyes, there are mouths moving. They speak, respond, echo, locate. Encounter a voice, herself wandering, knowing. She bends voicelike, takes this face in her palms, or this hand in hers, whispers a secret belonging to a place. Notice roundness, she says, balanced upon the moon, rolling seedpods in her fingers, she wants to be seen. Move toward circles and spirals and all things round and full and steady. Hold a stone in this palm; feel her sigh of telling against this skin. Know the cycles of river to sea the salts of fish, of bird’s belly, the fall of release.
Know palm of hand, know now. The hot eggs of snake, intensity of movement within soft shell, know this is what it is to be enraptured, entwined. Name snake and estuary, vein as parts of self. Know these modes of travel as the most true and sacred of all movements.
I struggle to be here. On an airplane, I say this is how it has always been. These seats, these patterns, this air pressure. This is my life. I do not know anything else. Recycled stale air, the pressure buzz in my ears. The sense of hurtling through sky without soreness of muscles or dehydration; this is familiar to me like my dreams.
When I was young, I would hold my breath until I turned blue. Deep stretch of my lungs, air still at the top of my throat, I was alive inside my body. Hold it, hold it, lips tingling, chest moving with a heartbeat fully realized. The shifting of muscles moving into my center, an opening, a closing. Suction. The river rush in my ears, underwater, contained. Hold it. Taste of salt in my mouth, unimagined and thick. There is blood inside me, I think, there is blood inside me and bones and meat and worms and water. Run my fingers over my skin, everything is softer, finer, more subtle and sensitive. My body my body my body. Hold it. There is nothing but me, nothing but me and the breath that I choose to keep.
I’m cradling a person, small boy, older boy, it’s not clear. Somehow he seems to be my son. We are at my mother’s house. She is on the couch with us. His head is on my lap, I am stroking his hair and face. It is a good, strong moment. Then it is time to go. The boy lives with my mother, and I will leave him there after my visitation. I’m preparing to leave them, when he asks me to do something I don’t want to do. I get angry. I yell that there was tenderness a moment ago, and now there is just this. My mother starts demanding that I do the thing, too. I think she put him up to it. I change the lining in the garbage in the kitchen, all the while railing against feeling so used. I feel like the tenderness was a front and what they really wanted was this.
My sister and I used to play a game called “Pretend I’m Dead.” I would lie on my back, arms straight at my sides, stiff. I would close my eyes and hold my breath while she would try to bring me to life. She would tickle me, lick me, try to make me laugh. If she felt me breathe, or if I opened my eyes, the game was over. Our roles in this game, and all others, never changed. She was always trying to bring me to life, and I was always resisting.
They used to think I was a genius. Ran tests on me, rewarded my high scores with a choice of a gold-spined book, which I had outgrown before I started school, or a milk chocolate bunny left over from Easter, which made me sick to eat. They skipped me past kindergarten, and wanted to move me to second grade. Four and a half years old, shy tiny little girl, I slid into first grade, everyone hoping I would have a better chance of making friends if they were closer to my age. I made brief friendships when I gave away pieces of my chocolate bunnies, but no one wanted the gold-spined baby books.
There was a girl in my first grade class named Michelle. She wasn’t allowed to sit her desk in rows like the rest of us. The teacher had brought in a cardboard box from a clothes washer and placed Michelle’s desk inside. She did her drawings from within the brown corrugated box, with no windows cut out, in the farthest corner, near the racks for jackets and wet shoes. My desk was across the room, where we were arranged alphabetically. Second row, second desk back. Sometimes I could hear her crying, but she never made any other noise.
When we rode the bus home after each school day, she would sit in the front seat, by herself, the long bumpy trip, while I sat in the seat opposite. I watched her closely, ready to observe some difference between us that kept her in that box, and me outside. We both kept our hands on our laps, our feet dangled above the floor. We carried the same tin Wonder Woman lunchbox. Her hair was longer than mine, but lighter brown. Her socks bunched up around her ankles, and her favorite sweater was red. Her father was always waiting for her at their corner. They walked away together holding hands. I craned around in my seat, watching them, until they were gone. I walked home by myself, everyday.
There were snakes crawling out of the hole in the bathroom floor, the night I woke up vomiting blood. Conscious thought: everything is coming out. We moved that week to a house in the forest, with a sudden new father and sister and new kerosene smell on my skin. No electricity, no toilet, no running water. This is where I would become strong. Twenty years later, my shoulders ache from hauling firewood and buckets of water to the house. My most secret places, my escape routes, learned in this house. The silence of deep winter, snow piled to the windows. I learned the distance born of solitude and cheeks turned.
My mother watches the door, cigarette after cigarette, waiting. When he comes home, it is early still, but winter dark. I look up from my book in the corner. Thick blood smell in the room. She stands, grabs the shotgun resting by the front door, I’m done with this. Past the wood stove, past the bathroom with no door. Up the ladder into their room. Gun dangles from her hand into the air, disappears. Beacon. Yeasty blood smell, I hope this is never me. He follows her, quickly, looking to my corner for an explanation. No words, no stories, I have nothing. Snow on his boots, his jacket still buttoned. Bag of groceries in his hand, he does not let go. I am eleven. I hear them, tides of voices, she is crying, is he crying? I am alone downstairs. I begin buttering bread for grilled cheese, her favorite. I spread mustard on the inside, slice onions and orange cheese. I pull the green beans from the freezer. I am not breathing. I am almost gone. I hear is this what you wanted? Look at yourself.
Originally published: Ellis, Favor.; Ardila, M.; Contreras, C.; Gavilán, R.; Vargas, A. “Breath / Técnica de respiración.” La Palabra. Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica de Columbia. 15. (2007): 117-132.
The shaman had a vision that I lived in a cold, cramped place where there was no food. This was hundreds of years ago, she said, and I did not know when I would be fed, that sometimes there were weeks without eating, without the contact of any living thing. This was the life when I learned the place in my body that I thought could not be hungry. I retreated into this place, because there was no other. It was a slow starvation. I retreated into this place and shrank to its size until I was broken. They broke your spirit, she said, and then your spirit family came to help you heal.
I am talking now about the raw place at my sternum, hairy and tangled under my ribs, heart. There is hunger there. A skittish rabbit, the wild eyes of a trapped thing. This is not hunger for food, though there is that. This is a hunger I have not sated, a low howl almost imperceptible against the soundtrack of machine and gossip. But within the silence that comes moments before disaster or annihilation, there is the screech, sharp and bloody. Slaughterhouse, slow door on a child’s fingers. The keening of one whose only love has been lost. This is that hunger.
I dreamed a dream of consumption. A documentary of myself as a young girl. I see I am small and dark, a secretive child. As her audience, I am removed, distanced, am able to believe their version of me is up for my own interpretation. A male narrator tells me that I am a collector of found, dead things: frogs, birds, rotting fruits, appendages. I am shown the back of my younger self, puzzling over a carcass. I am sliding my fingers through cold organs and viscous blood. I am told I saved the best parts; liver, finger, eye, tongue. I am told I prepared these best parts as food for my family, that I tried to feed my aunt a frog’s eye.
But in this watching of myself, I see that I am squeamish, that I am unable to offer this decomposing flesh as food. Instead, I make small slices and methodically chew and swallow that which I will not feed to others.
The man tells me that this child, and now it seems her identity is not known to him, is a danger to women and children. He does not know this child is me. He shows me that she stored her own aborted fetus in a plastic food container. The fetus, not a fetus, but a toddler, is alive, warm, breath fogging the clear plastic. This is her, this is me, this is ours. Her face is mine, so small.
I watch the girl crack the lid off the container, to allow breathing. She gently places arms and legs, little scraps off the floor, into the plastic container. I see that she is pretending to believe our fetus is dead. She knows she is on camera, that she is being observed in this moment. She has a plan, it is clear. I am complicit.
The man pulls all the meat off the chicken bone, grease in his beard, wine bottle on the floor at his feet. I sit at my place at his elbow, pressing fingerbruises into my flesh. I knew her. I knew her cluck, her call, the warmth of her intention trapped in straw. I knew that bone. His teeth scrape the smooth surface of her yesterday’s support and grace, and he grunts his satisfaction, a boar rooting for truffles or fresh shit. When he finishes cleaning the bone of all flesh and drippings, he winks at me and snaps her in half. He tips the jagged break toward his lips. Slurps the marrow. Tongues the internal filigree for any last bit of her juice. I loved her, I whisper. Spray of life lost across the table, splatters my fist. The meat of my bones slide to the floor.
Now there is the sudden memory of seven, carrying the glass gallon jar to the pond’s edge. Squatting. Toes sinking into the mud, algae clinging to my skin. The flying things; dragonflies maybe, water skimmers; skate the still surface, slicing my reflection. Glass jar plunging into water, scraping slimy bottom. Water, mud, squirmy black speckled tadpoles, fill my jar. Sitting now, my pants fill with pond. Jar between my thighs, I hover, observing. Water thick with black, I plunge my hand, feel the little ones between my fingers, solid and electric. My breathing slows. My pulse is strong. I close my eyes. Soft. Ticklish. Silly. My hand is their scenery: landscape, mountains, trees for this small world. I am something alive, finally, touched. In the deep of me, I am touched. I am the sudden steady in this jarred world.
I bake my Minnie Mouse red plastic sandals in the oven, after hearing about the mother and father in Maine who baked their little girl, same five as me, when she would not do as she was told. My own mother assures me she would never bake me. I wouldn’t taste good without spices, she says. I have no wings or drumsticks.
The long, cool hallway at the back of the trailer. Door hidden behind the woodstove. Our toys in garbage bags, locked away when we did not clean our mess. The hallway was once the roosting wall for the chickens housed in this trailer. When it was a chicken coop, before it was a person house. I hunted for feathers and eggs, carved the raw wooden walls with secret words. Snuck the vinegar bottle into the darkness, forbidden full-throated gulps. To feel the searing splashdown into my belly. Cauterized esophagus, stomach lining, pee of fire. A reconstruction, a warning: this body is dangerous to you.
Being always dirty, a bit smelly, itchy. Hollow hunger, food does not satisfy. Hold the grimy free lunch tokens, soiled from sweaty hiding places, illicit feedings. White foods, beige foods, sugar, starch. Canned soggy slimed green beans. Tater Tots. Ketchup. Chocolate milk, blocks of yellow government cheese, powdered milk, all gave me diarrhea. But I was so hungry. They fed me food for poor people that made me sick. We are all fat, diabetic, hungry. My great-grandmother died in her armchair, unable to lift her 300-pound load to call for help. My mother shits rivers running to the bathroom. My sister and I do not eat, not really. Our blood pumps poorly and we are cold in our sweaty hiding places.
And when my little stepbrother dropped down to 72 pounds, my mother made him take off his shirt to show us what he had done to himself. I watched the deep purple of his kidneys, liver, secret organs, pulse with the movement of thinning blood through his thinning veins. He could be cracked open, I thought, cracked open like a seedpod or a dried chicken carcass. We would find little bits of him, wrapped in the thin paper of gizzards. He is nothing, with his two Cheerios a day and steady finger sit ups.
Later, we learned just a bit of the story he had not told before. It took a year in Children’s Hospital to find the one disclosure, the one safeguard to ensure that it would not happen to us. But it did happen. My mother said he was selfish, that was no excuse for starvation. It happened to me. Push that away, quiet little girl voice.
Ignoring her has become a denial of my body, my flesh, my pleasure.
I am still learning how to feed myself.
I name the turkeys in the yard Susan, Maxine and Lola. Throw tea parties for the ladies flaunting their labia chin bonnets. The birds are lovely and polite from their distance, through which I long as one longs for rain or darkness. When I run toward them, it is with open arms and a promise of love. Belly rounded over my belt, feet bare and grimed, I am the wingless creature of forever flight never quite welcomed to the sky.
Some people know how to eat. Some people taste, chew, swallow, digest. In the mornings, I wake to an immediate dread that I will need to feed myself, and that I will not know how. Other people know how to be nourished.
I understand the body processes of saliva, acids, reflex, absorption. The alchemy of matter into energy. I also know the faint shaking and icy functioning that comes from no food. I know the cramping and release of my body rejecting what I taste. I know craving. I know retention, hoarding, withholding.
In the beginning of my life, my mother fed me beans and rice and vegetables. I wasn’t allowed sugar, but when I turned three, there were thirteen cavities from sticky raisins. There were the constant ear infections from eating dairy. My little body was unwell. Because we were poor and alone, my mother did not have another way to feed me. When I was older, she began stacking boxes of cookies and cupcakes in her closets. At night, she would gorge, and not share.
When I was no longer enough, my mother began preparing me for her disappearance: when you wake in the morning and I’m not here, don’t worry. The aliens came and took me. But I wanted to go, so don’t worry. So I learned to expect my world to disappear. I did worry, I was consumed by worry. And when I was five, she left. She was with me in body, but now there was a father and a sister, and I was replaced. I was on my own. I had not yet learned to care for myself in the most primal sense.
As a child, I was overcome by night mirrors. Reflections of an unexplained inner darkness, shadow. Dreams in childhood were of the chase, of a tearing away. The sharp, sudden shards of a child stolen or misplaced. These have found their resonance within my body: a hollow, pierced and sore.
One could eat one’s self. Gorge on milk and salt. A feast of dream or memory, taste of pooling blood, beading fat. Tongue the sores, worry. Marrow, slick down the throat. Feathered fibers of muscle: tickle, gag. Roll the veins between teeth and tongue, burst. The blood. The blood. Iron and salt. Dried at the corners of my lips.
Dream or memory takes over. This is real. This knowing is a hunger, is a knowing. Consciousness brings me only a language you might understand.
Feast on my own body. Starve.
Purge, purge. I don’t want this. Take it back.
When I was twenty-five, she decided to stop smoking pot. She told me she had never, in thirty years, gone a day without getting stoned. She didn’t know how to be in the world feeling everything she felt, so she found this way to disappear. She stoned me in her womb, cut me off from the world of emotions. She told me the pot was why she was having so much trouble losing weight. She was hungry all the time, she said.
I was raised within her thick numbing hunger.
I became her hunger, growling and inaccessible.
The shaman had a vision that I was a small girl, full of life and love and excitement. She saw me run to my mother, asking to be held. She saw my mother lift me for a moment, distracted, and put me down. The shaman tells me there was a time in my life when I was desired and loved above all else. She tells me that my hunger lives in the sore spot where this memory is held. She wants me to believe her, she tells me my life will depend on the trust I can find for this memory.
Originally published: "Hunger."VoiceCatcher. 3. (2008): 73-75. Print.
My mother sits at the table, tobacco smoke, coffee, torn blue packets of sweetener. Robe tied at her hips. Breasts, thighs. She says: Morning, Glory. She does not look up, playing cards lined up, piled. There is no bathroom door; I pee as quietly and quickly as I can, I don’t want her to watch me. Then: blood on my thighs, sticky black. First time. Christmas Eve, carols on the radio. Ache. Slink to my bedroom, giant diaper pad shoved in my waistband. Pass her, she does not look up. Blood on my fingers, I am entranced.
Sixteen and we ate onion and black olive pizzas for the first time. It was snowing. Dragged sleeping bags and cigarettes and the stolen liquor to the field behind the library. We brought the boy with us, and his pot. We would get a better buzz, he said, if we would take it from his lips. Thrill of tongue and hot numb. Walk back to her house, trail the sleeping bags. Jump into the ditch whenever a car drives by. We left cigarette burns on the blankets, the boy on the corner. Her wide bed, close, asleep. Longing in the pit of me, I had no language.
Lost my virginity in a boy’s bed, airplanes on the sheets, mobiles above our heads. The world out the window was pink. I had never seen streetlights in a snowstorm. His come still wet on my thighs, I was changed by the color of the sky and the shifting possibility of landscape.
The girl who wanted to be my friend, sliding her hand under my shirt, cupping me, breathing on my throat, hot. Hand inside me, next day she told the school I was a dyke. This was the year the frat boys threw Charlie Howard off the downtown bridge, fag.
At the party at the rich girl’s house, that boy asked to see my breasts and I showed him. I looked away when he put his lips to my nipple. Snow out the window. Ice creeping up the pane.
The day after I turned eighteen, I fucked the manager of the lumber yard, left blood stains on his wife’s sheets.
Woke up on my back on the gravel parking lot. The ocean crashing behind me, man inside me. Voices of strangers, circling, congratulating. His words in my ear, fuck fuck fuck. Quiet, still, willing him to finish. Stars in the sky. I wiped myself with a dirty t-shirt from the floor of his truck. Not until I was home alone did I realize I didn’t know who he was.
My mother, demanding I tell her what I was doing when I was gone at night. Said, I’ll tell you how often I masturbate, if you’ll tell me what you do with that boy. I learned to come from my mother’s vibrator and her boyfriend’s magazines.
When I fucked the boy in the air force, he held my head down when the jets flew over our heads. I felt his semen burning in my stomach for days.
The night I drank two bottles of Boones Farms apple wine and threw up all over the Dunkin Donuts bathroom. The same night the ex boyfriend told me I am a psychotic bitch from hell. That night, naked throwing up in the bathroom next to her bedroom. She put me into her bed even though I was sick. I told her I had had a dream about having sex with her, she was taking photographs, she was beautiful. How to say it? How to ask? She said yes. I became falling bridges and open water mouths.I could hardly breathe, kept thinking this is real, this real, this is real. And I’m sorry I left her then, I didn’t want to leave. I left my body with hers there on the bed, returned to that crouching corner, and I couldn’t come back. Rocking rocking, there is no language for this, or anything like it.
It begins in the womb. The distancing, the numb. The acrid haze of dissociation, the yearning for escape, at incalculable cost. There is that high moment between inhalation and exhalation. That opening, she to him, land to sea. That closing, land to sea, they are colluding. A balance born of erosion and transformation, both.
The sea holds within herself the memory of all her storms and stillness, her disasters and poisonings. She remembers all her births and deaths; she knows forgiveness and reprieve. Her shorelines shift and settle, discovering the shapes of themselves.
The keening tides of the sea’s history are heard as the mother’s own blood-pulse. The child in the womb becomes the repository for this history. She is buoyed within the stories, salted and swelling. This pulse, steady and felt, becomes her voice and her language, becomes her blood. From salt and sand she knows her bones, her breath, her strength. She tastes the hope and the fear, and she makes flesh. Sorrow and joy; she makes voice, fingers and toes. She learns to listen, to hear. Each cell, fiber, membrane, stretch, holds within itself her translation of what she learns, but will not be told.
I know these stories from my mother’s blood. I soaked them in, embryonic sponge, storyteller, translator of silences. Fingers, toes, poems, heart.
Don’t get excited. You’ll probably lose her. My mother’s mother always on the ready for the disaster of death. And so if my mother is excited about me, she will not talk about it. And this is the way of it: I do not learn the thrill of emotion. Instead, I absorb the suppression, the silence, the worry.
When my mother’s father was dying, twenty-two years after my birth, he begged for a pair of tinsnips he could use to cut out the pain deep in his belly. He drew a map of the precise location of the heat, the entry point, the incision he would make. The pain had finally become a tangible enemy on the familiar ground of his failing, betraying body. These pages are my map.
When he left the family, a year before my birth, my grandmother quickly married a new man, who wasted no time in locking her in the house and nailing down the windows. He left her, too, after she woke from a beating and broke out through the bathroom window. It was an hour before someone would open an urban door for her, a bloodied crazed stranger, begging for help. My mother tells me this is proof of the persistence in my blood. I see fear and betrayal. This is an alienation, a turning away, doors closed, hopeless.
It was that night, that beating, in that hospital where I would be born, that she was introduced to Jesus. She started telling everyone he was the only man who would ever have her again. Back at home, she started eating everything in sight and took to buying girl-on-girl porn at yard sales in neighborhoods on the other side of town. My grandmother no longer speaks to me. I am a sinner.
There are others, orbiting and pulsing through my veins. A man. My uncle. He hears voices, believes he killed his sister and JFK, both. Later, he will try to kill his mother when he throws a television at her head. A woman. My aunt. Oldest child, least favorite. No one will tell her she is loved. Like her mother, she will turn to Jesus when her husband begins stepping out with the Mexican girls across the border. They did not come looking for me. They are one lesson in isolation and defense.
I was nearly born on a Greyhound bus. Two weeks before Christmas, the mountain roads were slick with used snow and salt.
Imagine the crowd who might have attended my birth: dusty travelers, lonely salesmen, runaway teenagers, affected hippies. People still smoked cigarettes on buses then. The air was thick with tobacco, stale wet wool and wood smoke. Imagine my amniotic waters, spilled, rushing, frothing toward the rear of the bus, washing over the cracked wads of gum, the cigarette butts, the boots on feet.
Imagine the emotion. The man rushes up and down the aisle, asking for towels and rags and water. The children angle in their seats, what is that smell? What is that noise?
But I was not born on the Greyhound bus. The driver, cursing, turned it around and dropped my laboring mother at the nearest hospital.
It was her twenty-third birthday, I was three weeks early, and the storm had closed down all the roads from the mountains.
Yellow walls, antiseptics.
Stay. Stay where you are. I’m supposed to keep you inside.
No one is here. Where are they?
Count. I’m supposed to count.
Breathe. I’m supposed to breathe.
Why won’t you wait?
Wailing in the next room.
Stiff paper scratching her ass. I can’t breathe.
The clock is ticking, loud. I can’t breathe.
It’s morning, they will come soon.
This is not how it’s supposed to be. Sweat.
The grimy seams in the yellow cement block wall.
Winter storm, silence.
You’re supposed to wait.
Clamping thighs, pelvic floor, knuckles. Resist.
Labor room. Birthing room down the hall.
Why won’t you wait? Push.
Why aren’t they here? Push.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.
I can’t be alone now. Push.
rhythm steady humming
from dim to light
the squeezing the tightening
no air no air
gasp cold world
Now. Separate. Surrender. Release.
I dreamed the dream of the woman under red water, her twin not her real twin. She asked me to wait. She said it will not be long. Then whales leaping from the river, jubilant.
She left so quickly, to live on her islands. This is what I expected, I told her, steely and brave. She wept over the wires, and I thought how sad, we aren’t there yet. I reminded myself of the dream to wait. I waited so long, I began to forget. In the forgetting, there were the dreams of the sea, ravishing, overwhelming, silver in the darkness. She on her islands, me in my caves. Dormant mammals, dreaming.
Her return was a frenzy of avalanche and tsunami. I cried at the top of what some call a mountain, clutching for shelter, finding only myself. I cried and clutched and then I walked away. I left her and found another, for a moment. When we walked again, together in the spring, I held her hand cautiously. I worried that I could not ever know real or true.
She kissed me once and told me she would do whatever it took. Whatever it took. And I tested her. I cried often, dug many holes, unearthed a labyrinth of hiding places. Finally my tunnels were structurally sound, my caves concealed, and I agreed to stay with her.
We traveled together then. Six thousand miles we traveled, and more. We met our families and we slept in the deserts. Turtles and crabs and mosquitoes, long hidden roads and spiritfilled nights. There were times I would have left her. On an island, I exploded and slept for a month. I woke to her telling me, again, I will do whatever it takes.
We retrace our steps, and I sing the same songs, stuck in the discordancies of fear and hope.
We are here together now. She is warm next to me. Can I believe that? She’s with me all the time, whether I see her flesh or scent her on the air. I’ve written the poems, circling the themes I’d memorized before she grew into my memory herself. But there are times in the darkness, in the weighted shelter of my melancholy, when I glimpse a sparkling, a heat, and know that this is where she has reached me. She has managed to sniff out all my hiding places. And she doesn’t call me out. She asks me if I want some tea or vegetables, and am I warm enough? So many years she has been tending this fire, and here I am, fresh air, outside with the stars.
It is in this open air that we work to know each other. To return to our silences as we would return to the fresh water source or to the broad sky. It is our task to greet each other with honor and emotion, to hold each other, above all else, as truth-tellers. I ask that she believe me, that she trust my translations of memory. Much more, she hears me, holds my languages, full and embryonic. She does not turn away.
We are the last three riders on the school bus. There are no houses for a mile in any direction. We are dropped off at the end of the driveway. I am twelve. I dread the long walk up the hill. It’s June, and hot. Kimberly walks quickly away from us. She always wants to be the first one home, and she never wants us to walk with her. Celina and I are small, and move slowly. First, to the green mailbox across the road. Freedom Hollow Farm painted in white on the side. Slip whatever mail there is into my backpack. Then the hill.
The walk is easy at first, hard packed earth from all the drivers who realized they’d gone farther than they wanted to, and used our driveway as a turn-around. This is the widest stretch of driveway, and the trees have not grown their arching branches together yet. The sun is hard on my scalp. Celina is waiting for me at the turn. She is small. I don’t remember ever being that small. She looks so sad all the time now, and scared. She is so small, where did she come from? Her backpack is heavy. I just have a notebook and the mail. We trade bags. She is seven and she is for a moment light and pleased. We walk into the turn, ninety degrees. Neither of us like to talk when we walk up the hill.
In the wintertime, when the snow is deep and it’s dark by the time we get home from school, sometimes there’s a snowmobile waiting for us. I like to drive slowly up the hill, to feel the weight of us, plus machine, sink down into the fresh snow. Once there was a man waiting for us on a SkiDoo. I had never seen him before. He said your mom says to tell you peanut butter. Our secret code word to trust strangers. He smelled like beer and pot, but I got on anyway, holding Celina in front of me, between us. He drove quickly, so there was no time to feel us sinking.
It’s that day in June. We have passed the easy part of the walk, and we have begun the climb. There are peeling birch trees, loose rocks on the road. The insistent hum of calling insects, no one could ever name them for me. Dust on my shoes. We are at the 50-gallon trash bin. I lift the lid. Spider webs tangle into my fingers. No packages today. This is where deliveries are left, because none of the drivers will negotiate our driveway. We walk. The road here is steep. It was washed out this spring, and I am still on the lookout for good, bright rocks. Celina tells me she is tired. We aren’t even halfway there.
We crest the first hill. We walk slowly. There is the warm smell of fresh green, spicy new growth. Wild silence, just our breathing and the buzz call of the unnamed insects. Kimberly has walked beyond our vision. We reach the gully with the wild grape vines. In the fall, there will be big purple grapes drooping to the ground. They are too sour to eat right now, while it’s warm. We have to wait for first frost until we can pop them in our mouths and pull the sour skins off the sweet pulp. We will spit the seeds at each other and stain our fingers purple. Today there are no fruits, just the beginnings of green leaves on the vines.
We reach the middle of the next hill. To our left is the roped-off road leading to the old farmhouse. You can’t tell from the driveway, but there is a deep crumbling basement foundation there, just a few feet away, filled with charred timbers and the overgrowth of decades abandoned by memory. Someone pulled the old sink out of the burned-out remains. Propped on its side, it is filled with the rotting brown leaves of last autumn. I know from earlier exploration that there is a cache of nuts underneath the wet leaves. Also a scrap of red paper with a secret word folded into it. I wonder about the people who lived there so long ago. I have decided that someone died in that fire, which explains why no one ever rebuilt over that foundation. I worry about the family that lived there.
We have almost finished the half-mile walk up the hill. I see the windmill, 80 feet tall, the No Nukes symbol painted on its blades. Soon we will have running water, pumped by wind and steel to our house. Allan is strapped to the peak, adjusting the mechanics. He waves as we walk into the sunlight of the clearing.
My mother has been planting in the patch of land we call an island, which is a stand of tall silver birches in the center of the driveway’s turnaround. Shovel on the ground next to a bucket filled with weeds. Smell of wet earth and compost. Empty green plastic seedling containers. Nearly hidden, a metal trash can lid filled with beer. Slug bait. When the lid is filled with the bloated, inebriated slugs, my mother will dump their bodies into the burn barrel and set them on fire. I hate the feel of slugs between my toes when I walk on the grass, but I hate the sizzle of their burning more.
If we were to keep walking, there would be the old hunters’ lean-to the 4-wheelers still use at night. Waterlogged Playboys. Dented Budweiser cans used as makeshift bongs. Once, dirty women’s underwear, torn, with beetles underneath. And beyond that, the road slopes back down, turns into wheel tracks and blackberries and then the first trickle of the stream. At the end, a mile away, is the new clearcut and the noise and the men.
The door is open. My mother had wanted some color in the wintertime, so she painted the door pink. Fuchsia, she calls it. After a storm, that door is the brightest thing around.
The door is open. We see her feet first, then she is on her back and Kimberly is on top of her, straddling her. She is punching our mother. She is yelling fuck you fuck you bitch you’re nothing you’re not my mother and my mother is on her back, her arms over her face, and Kimberly is on top of her and my mother is suddenly so small.
I run to the windmill, yell help, Allan, help and my sister is screaming. Celina is screaming, no words, just scream, and Kimberly is screaming words and when I am inside there is nothing I can do, so I cry. My mother is on the floor, on her back, and she is being hurt and my sister is standing, screaming, and I am huddled, crying. Allan is here. He yanks his daughter off his wife and my mother on the floor kicks her in the crotch and there’s Allan between them. Celina is screaming and I am crying he shoves Kimberly out the door.
She runs, hard. Celina is outside yelling don’t go don’t go don’t go and I am on the floor no no no and Allan is crying and my mother is yelling. Kimberly is gone.
For a moment, silence. Now there is the memory of the sudden spring storm. Rainwater rushing down the driveway, tearing gullies, mud rivers. Deep gouges, boulders shifting. Clay that has been hidden under dust and tracks and old snow is exposed. Smooth now, and red. The road is washing away. Everything - the forest, the field, the paths to the garden, the island, the pink door - everything is flooding. It doesn’t seem very deep, but you never know where the ground has collapsed. We need to stand here, at the highest point, and hold onto this thick birch tree. We do not want to be swept away, or pulled under. The foundation fills with water, brown and roiling. Within the urgency of the river, there is that silence. The silence of trying to remember what happens next.
The birds are gone. I want to walk that water. The surface seems smooth, but strong hands pull you when you’re not paying attention. The gray sky reflected pink in the red clay pools. The new pebbles piled into the bark of that collapsed tree. Pay attention to this: the rain on my skin, new tracks worn into earth and flesh, alike.
I have ten photos of my father.
I keep them in a dark orange envelope, along with the letter his mother wrote to mine in 1995. I did not learn of this correspondence until after my grandmother had died. The letter is written on yellow lined paper, longhand in blue ink. Please excuse the legal pad paper, but I have it close by, so I will use it. I keep the envelope and its contents in the filing cabinet, in the otherwise empty folder labeled, misc. family.
I didn’t know there was a family. I didn’t know I had a family.
All I have of my father is inside me, and inside these photographs. What can I know from aged, blurred, color-stained images? I can note shared expressions and characteristics. The sprout of hair between our eyebrows, the squint in our smiles, the deep tan of our arms in summer. He was often alone, reading or standing or sitting. I can see that he traveled within his generation, through the fifties and the sixties and, gloriously, on through the seventies. He has been a prolific sower of his seed. His progeny span decades, I have learned from these photographs. I have many brothers, and their photos, but no sisters.
I am dissatisfied with these photos. I want a photo of my father sleeping. I want a telephoto shot illuminating the intricacies of his skin. I want a photo of him the day I was born. What was he doing? Was he thinking of me? There was snow on the ground that day. And where was he the day I learned to read? What was he doing the moment my face was sliced open by the new cat?
I want the stories of him, but I do not want him. I hold the distance of these photographs like a lifeboat. I want to know everything there is to know about him, but I recoil at the prospect of relationship with him. I want to punish him, withhold myself from him. Deny his rights to know who I have become. It’s too late. Too late. This is what I would say to him, I think. Then deeper: what if he denies my right to know him? My preemptive distancing.
There are few stories of my father. He was born in 1945, though my mother has always told me he was much older than that. Always there is the suspicion she is deliberate in her misinformation.
My mother tells me he came to her late in her pregnancy, and tried to make a go of it for two weeks before disappearing forever. Secretly, I know she must have driven him away. Typing the last sentence, I typed she must have driven me away.
I want to know his voice sounding inside my head. I want to hear him say my name.
There are the two snapshots taken for Christmas cards. My father, an infant, is sitting in a highchair. He is smiling. I see he has two bottom teeth and a tuft of downy hair on his crown. He is a fat baby, well-fed, bright. Written on the bottom of one photo: Merry Christmas. Ed, Ruth & Jimmy. He is wearing a pale jumper with an elephant embroidered on the bib. His undershirt shows ducks in a row. There is a string of drool hanging from his chin.
First I will answer your medical questions. Jim had a heart murmur from birth. This is what caused him to be discharged from the Navy. There was no scoliosis. He had the usual run of kids’ diseases. Chicken pox, measles, mumps. As for graying. It could be hereditary. I presume Jim told you our two sons are adopted, so I don’t know if they (his biological parents) grayed early or not.
He is young. Maybe five or six. There is snow on the ground. It is the day after a storm, when the sun has come out to make a smooth layer of ice. He is stomach-down on a toboggan, heading downhill. The glare bothers his eyes, but he keeps his face lifted. His hat has a fold-up sheepskin brim. His jacket is brown. The trees are brown. He seems sad. I feel a knot in my sternum looking at this picture.
He had a fantastic personality with everyone except at home. He was very jealous of his younger brother. He made his life hell. Even today they don’t keep in touch.
He is ten years old, someone has written his name and the date on the back of this photo. It is a child’s writing – his? The “i” is dotted with a circle. He is standing outside, squinting into a glare. His thumbs are in his front pockets, his fingers on his thighs. James Dean. He is wearing a boy’s bomber jacket, dark, with a darker fur-like collar. The zipper is down a bit, to reveal a white t-shirt with a colored collar. He is wearing jeans. There are three cars behind him, a building. This is a schoolyard. There is a pothole filled with water. His ears jut from his skull, military haircut. Half-smile. I feel a familiarity in his discomfort.
Jim was an honor student until he was in his sophomore year in high school, when he started getting serious with the girls. From then on it was downhill all the way. He had such potential. It was a shame he ended up as he did.
School photo. He is me. Half-smile, thick eyebrows, oversized spaced front teeth. He is wearing a sweater I am certain his mother chose for picture day. No self-respecting junior high kid would wear a crocheted slit-neck sweater of his own volition. He is a beautiful boy. His eyes are kind, genuine. His hair is parted on the left, into a high swoop over his skull. I think his voice has just started cracking. He thinks about girls and listens to the radio while he looks out this window at night.
I find it very, very easy to be true
I find myself alone when each day is through
Yes, I'll admit that I'm a fool for you
Because you're mine, I walk the line°
° I Walk the Line. Lyrics by John R. Cash. Recorded 4/2/56.
You know I don’t recall you writing to me. I think you called me and I’m sorry to say I might have been rude to you. At that particular time I’d had it with Jim’s behavior and was a bit embarrassed that he was leaving a line of children around the country without marrying them. So if I was rude, I apologize. Since Jim lives so far away I have lived a more peaceful life.
He sits on the green chair. He is wearing a light gray suit with a dark gray shirt. His socks are black, his shoes shiny brown. His left ankle is perched on his right knee. He is reading a magazine. Pink curtains. Gray rug. The slatted blinds are open. There is sun. A potted plant, a lamp, a doily. He is looking at the photographer, his brow furrowed, left eyebrow lifted, mouth open. This is the expression I hold when I have been intruded upon. He is casual and it is December, 1958. He is thirteen.
When he was out your way we didn’t see him or hear from him for nine years. Then he called us on Christmas Day. I had a letter from him a couple of weeks ago, the first in years. I answered his letter and will wait (how long) for an answer. He said he had grown up finally. At 50 years of age, I would think so. I’m still skeptical.
Same day, same room, green chair, pink curtains. Same light gray suit jacket, now black pants, white shirt, striped bow tie. He is standing with his mother, his right arm around her waist. He is six inches taller than she is. Her left arm holds his back. Their free arms hang limp at their sides. Her dress is navy with small white polka dots. She is wearing lipstick and pearls for this photo. Her smile is toothy and guarded. He grins, glowing, with his chin thrust forward. He is proud. It is the smile I give when I am pleased with myself. He is going to a dance, a social event. He is dressed for a girl. He stands in front of ceramic animal figurines. A door is closed. A person taller than them is taking this picture.
He did call me after his dad died. He wanted me to pay his way so he could come home. Since I didn’t have the money to send him he asked me to send him a credit card – which I wouldn’t think of doing. I’ve wondered if I did right.
He is twenty years old. He is sitting on a couch next to a thin woman, who is smoking a long cigarette. He holds a baby in a light blue jumper, propped on the coffee table in front of him. He is looking at the camera, that familiar half-smile. The woman is looking down, her eyes slits, guarding the baby, who is staring to the upper right, beyond the edge of the photo. A painting on the wall, a snowdrift covering a barn to its sloped roof. His wife is Kathy, his son, my brother, is Mark. November 17th, 1965.
Perhaps I was wrong. If I was, it’s too late to worry about it now.
This must be the ‘70s. He stands with his brother and an older woman in front a bookshelf stacked with trophies and encyclopedias. Wood paneling, gray carpeting. He and his brother are wearing the uniform of their generation: thin, bellbottom jeans, t-shirt, plaid flannel overshirt. His left hand is on his hip, his right around the woman’s right shoulder. It seems he is pulling her from his brother, claiming her. He has a thick caterpillar moustache, long hair pulled back. He is beginning to bald. His forehead is familiar to me from my own baby pictures. He is a head taller than the woman, a head shorter than his brother. My uncle hides behind a mop of hair and a thick beard. He has colorful patches on his bellbottoms. The woman is wearing a black polyester blouse and light pink stretch pants. She has on a wonderful pair of silver horn-rimmed specs. His mother has written on the back of the photo, this is Vi, who knew both of them from babies. She passed on January 1991. Horrible picture of the boys. They have returned to their parents’ house and no longer belong. This is clear.
Her dad isn’t all bad – just a mixed up kid.
Last photo, May 1984, a Polaroid. He is standing inside his mother’s house. White walls, garish painting of flowers in a vase, it is spring through the large window. The hair that he has left is pulled into a loose ponytail. He has kept his thick caterpillar moustache. He is wearing a white Chicagofest t-shirt with an orange musical note riding blue waves over his heart. There is a faded tattoo on his right upper bicep. He is holding a baby upright in his clasped hands in front of him. My brother’s name is Aaron. He is dressed in a bright red onesie with feet and white stitching. They both look directly at the camera. He seems gentle.
Favor looks exactly like Jim. I was amazed when I put the pictures together.
Little girl alone. Sitting on the floor, humming. Hunched in the corner, her fingers are cold. She is warming; she has found the shaft of yellow light, will follow it until it is gone.
She arranges items on the floor. Paper scraps. Yarn. Colored blocks. Pinecones. Leaves. Dead mouse, rolled between her toes and the dirt floor. Each day there are discoveries. Miscarried kittens, left bloody and bald in shoes, corners, darkness. Blind. She makes a pile, because this is what makes sense, and in the morning they are gone. Rearranged.
My mother tells her story of my rescue. She says I was two years old, playing in the barn. There was a box freezer in the corner, she says, and the floor was dirt and hay. There were piles climbing the walls, living mounds of hoarded clothes, magazines, canned food. Tracks in the dirt, maggots. Stale cat food, crumbs, barn dust. She doesn’t talk about these piles in her telling of this story. I know they were there, because they have always been there. She has always been prepared for the disaster of having everything taken from her. This compulsion is nursed as a favorite child.
Smear on a windowpane, nose print, mud, fluid. There is the sense that she has always been in this room. Separate. She does not turn her head, she does not wait for anyone to walk through the door, climb through the window. She is not expectant, though she waits. She rearranges and she hums. Her belly is rounded over her lap. Her hair is long, keeps snaking into her mouth, eyes. She is wholly, deeply patient.
My mother tells the story that she was washing the dishes in the kitchen while I sat in the barn, when she felt as though she were pushed from behind. She turned, expecting to see me, but I wasn’t tugging her. I wasn’t with her in that room.
She wonders if the tide will come into this place, wash her away. She thinks that salt water is medicine. She has seen the ocean, but cannot remember how, or when. She has memories, but she does not know they are hers. She hums. She arranges her thoughts. Sounds, in and out, light and dark. She rocks, cradled, tidal.
My mother tells the story of washing dishes and being, again, pushed into the edge of the sink. This time there was force enough to bring pain to her pelvic bones and send a plate to the floor. She says she felt a flush of heat against her backside, and then an urgency of emotion toward me. This detail surprises us, every time. Emotion.
The light, the light. There is the idea that someone is in the room. There is the idea of being not alone. There is the idea of warmth, then, suddenly, the people. Everywhere, the people. Flickering, fading, swelling, people with eyes mouths fingers knees. She laughs out loud. She holds out her arms to be held. She has been retrieved.
My mother tells the story of finding me encircled by flames. She tells the story of the fiery rescue, smoke, heat, light. Her skin was not touched. Her lungs were not touched. She was untouched. She tells the story that I screamed when she pulled me from the fire. She was not able to soothe me. I would not be soothed. I did not need soothing, she says.
The light, the light. Gone now, and the laughter. There was the searing, and the tearing, and now this unbearable cold, this unbearable loneliness.
I know this is true because this is what it feels like to tell this story.