Arms That Hold Me Back
by Kristy Nielsen
The memories bleed together, but that is because so much of the time was the same, the days all a single spinning image now, a long white room whirling in space. If I pay attention, I can see whole scenes replayed over and over, as if the past exists somewhere, indelibly inscribed.
I see mother singing, wrapped in filmy curtains. We didn't worry about clothes. It seemed we could just dance out of bed, across the bare boarded floors and into fabric. I watched her out of the corner of my eye so I wouldn't lose track of her and she went spinning down the hallway winding more and more curtains around her, all white, so she would blend with the walls.
At the end of the hall, she stopped suddenly before the last window and the yards of curtains spiraled off behind her in a wake. Such delicate folds of gauze, so graceful the way she lifted her ankle, pointed her toe toward the window and looked back down the hallway, one hand extended artfully. But then that look came over her face when she caught sight of me. I stood naked, fingering the edge of some silky fabric and trying to stop my lips from shaking. She was so far away. Her face had gone dark again.
If I look closely, I can see mother in a corner, her face alternating between hard and soft like a magic picture in a child's book: light, dark, light, dark, depending on how you hold your head. I am doomed to make the same mistakes, the end unavoidable. I never turn in time.
In the spring we opened the windows and piled everything onto the bed shoved under one of the eaves. The breezes came and lifted patches of fabric, paper scraps, and fluffs of hair and dust that had gathered in corners and we would dance along with these fragments in the current, using our hands to imitate the rising and falling fabric, swaying our heads like the dust that defied gravity and seemed to settle on the ceiling.
Sometimes we wore our lightest nightgowns, and other times nothing at all. On those days when she danced naked, mother's breasts would move in counterpoint to her hips and bits of cloth seemed drawn to her, not to cover her, but to accent a curve or provide shadow. The curtains blew in and were sucked back out with gusts of wind. I used them as dancing partners, but Mother let them push her into something completely different, something other than my mother. She sang along with music I couldn't hear, ignored my voice when I pleaded with her to look at me, flared her nostrils at my smell when I was right in front of her, and removed my hands when I caught hold of her.
This twirling, arching creature wasn't my mother; she was a ballerina with a swollen belly, a bird flapping along the wall toward a window, a trapped and beautiful but nearly extinct species. How could she be my mother? I thought, and I practiced being motherless even when she was still there. I sculpted her in the air in front of me, and then I caressed and clung to her, I held on tightly. I held my own hand and guided myself across the room, or I rubbed the side of my face with hair and closed my eyes. I held on tightly.
One day she looked me right in the eyes and said, "I am sorry." I was so startled I pretended not to hear. I picked a nightgown off the floor and smelled it. It was hers.
She dropped to my level and told me, "I am your mother.” But I just turned away to the white wall and kissed it. "Yes, mother." I spread my arms along the wall, turned my cheek to the cool paint and let the breeze brush my hair away from my eyes.
Mother walked around the room slamming shut all the windows until the last curtain hung slack and all the dust and scraps of fabric settled back on the floor.
I remember so much of our time with white curtains skimming bare floors, light-colored silky fabrics flying around, and us dancing naked. But on this day, I turned around and she'd gone dark again. Her lips pursed on a cigarette. "Before you were born," she said, releasing smoke, "I woke up every morning with dread. I went to bed with dread, slept with it." Then she stubbed out her cigarette and I watched her walk away.
Mostly her voice sounded like wind chimes or a flute. When she had them, her words were magical and could transform time. She would spread her fingers in front of my face and speak pictures. When I looked again, it was as she said, everything spread out before me in the colors she'd promised. "Today the walls are purple," I remember she said once. "The food is eggplant and the music funky."
"Isn't it a beautiful day?" she would say, and I would gasp. "It is the most perfect beautiful day ever." For me, it was true. For her, it was a choice and it wasn't a choice she could make every day.
Words seemed to keep away the darkness, so I listened even when she forgot to feed me or when I was too tired to really hear. I sat there amidst the flying colors, the subway careening through her invented city, people hurrying in and out of buildings, walking quickly to the ends of streets, turning into smaller and narrower alleys, rushing to meet her. In the stories, she always waited in her second floor flat, a record spinning, incense burning, her hair braided. She sprawled in a bean bag chair, or she sat backwards over a straight-back wooden chair reading a book while her admirers climbed trellises and fire-escapes, rang all the bells and hoped to be let in.
In some stories, she stood on a corner smoking a cigarette, waiting for a bus, or maybe observing the people streaming by and listening to music coming from a nearby record store. I enjoyed this part, just my mother in the world wearing colorful clothes and moving independently up and down the streets. When she walked, there was an unrestrained dancing in her steps, and both men and women sitting in the restaurant turned to watch her go by.
Somewhere in the crowd the man who would become my father watched too. He saw her independent stride and thought, here is a woman all right. The dancer's muscles in her legs flexed and he thought, here is a woman who could do the work.
Sometimes in the morning I would ask, "What colors today, Mother? How perfect?" But she wouldn't answer. Or, she would drag on her cigarette and look out the window at the same stretch of sky, making faces as if she were talking to someone. If she saw the man in the garden, she pulled me to her and we stayed back far enough that he wouldn't see. At those times, we were both silent.
She gave me the words she loved, and with those I was able to invent stories to make sense out of most anything. I memorized the words that captured a sense of freedom. I could sit in a net of my mother's voice and ignore almost anything else that happened. Her words, when she had them, held off night and fear, sickness, hunger, and guilt.
She often neglected to feed me, but when plump violet and grey birds landed on the white window sill, she put the words for them in my mouth. She fed me nouns and adjectives, and wrapped me in myths. She alphabetized my toes and named every plank of the floor. I loved her fiercely, mutely, and with a panic that sometimes stopped my heart.
On the cramped third floor, the ceiling sloped and our windows looked out only on sky. But I didn't need to see much. Mother gave me such beautiful sounds. She gave me bougainvillea and trillium. She said horseradish, turpentine, and phlox. I didn't notice how cold my feet became while I listened through the night and when I got hungry I just curled around my stomach and whispered, "buttermilk, granola, tapioca."
In my memory the white room spins. I see the still nights and then the bright days of dancing. I remember those happier times before I knew enough to be unsatisfied. I wanted to go on for years in that room, dancing, singing, listening to stories. I was a child and didn't know that things can't last forever.
I had never looked at myself in a mirror. I had never seen a word written out. I knew little except the great facts about my mother, her hundreds of moods, her fifteen smells, the brand of cigarettes and the way she held them between thumb and first finger, pointing the smoke away. I knew how much she would eat at each meal and which morsels she would leave on the plate. I could say even before she knew that she was tired, or needed to go to the bathroom, or wanted to be alone.
One morning, we danced across the floor as usual, but mother sailed on toward the window at the far end of the hall as if she forgot it were there, as if she thought the clouds would support her, wrap her in gauze, and set her down in the garden outside with a breath of encouragement.
I knew what to do. I leapt after, a little less graceful than usual, and caught her arm to stop her spinning. Mother ceased twirling, swaying a little as she found her balance. Almost immediately, I had to let go of her and then I dropped to the floor, an animal sound coming out of my own mouth. Across the bottom of my foot was a long cut and in the arch, a thick splinter protruded. I had never seen blood before. Red came into the room shocking and bright.
Mother stood dazed, inches from the window. "Be quiet," she said to the air with a puzzled look on her face. I shut my mouth and the sound stopped. Silently, I worked the splinter out of my foot. She looked over my head to the other end of the room and said the word "door" out loud for the first time.
Just that quickly, everything changed. The floor gave me a splinter and mother wanted to use a door. Suddenly, the curtains were old and dirty and the breeze wanted nothing to do with them. All our songs for the different times of day and night turned out to have the same words and music. The swathes of fabric disintegrated.
The questions I had always wanted to ask her came flooding out. "How many things would you die for, Mother? Where are all the other people? Where does that door lead?"
"None of our doors lead anywhere," she told me, "except this one." I watched her stick her fingers and then a barrette through the keyhole. She peered through, panting. She shoved her hair behind her ears and looked wildly around the room.
I couldn't stop my mouth. "What's a telephone? Did we ever have one? Do I have a father?"
Mother didn't answer. She ripped a piece of baseboard off the wall and slid the piece under the door. I watched in amazement. I didn't know there was anything beyond the door.
"Mother, what's out there? Where does light come from? Who made me yours?"
"Be silent," she said, and I was.
She picked up the key she had pulled into our room and looked at it. She held it up to her face and smelled it, then held it out on her palm in front of me. I ran my tongue along the bumpy edge and swished that taste around in my mouth. There were so many new things I needed words for and she wasn't giving me any.
She opened the door and stepped out. I followed her, holding a clump of her nightgown in one hand and keeping three fingers of my other hand in my mouth to remind me to be quiet. My one cut foot smacked a little on the floor as we walked down and down and passed through two more doors that weren't locked. We passed through darkness out towards more and more light. Finally mother opened a heavy door and we walked into the day. I sucked air in over my fingers.
"We're going to do some gardening," mother announced loudly, too loudly, and then I jumped, noticing the man sitting in a green metal chair just two feet away.
Mother grabbed me hard by the arm and started walking around the house. Then she slowed and pointed out the birds. I didn't want to see anything yet. Until we got around the corner, I looked only at her face which seemed to have changed color, and at her eyes which were very wide and darted all over.
In the garden, I noticed only flowers at first. They looked just as mother promised when she had drawn them in the air with her finger. Hundreds of ants worked the peonies at the edge of the yard. "That's a good sign," mother told me, still gripping my wrist. Rose bushes climbed the house with yellow and red blooms. Purple, white, and orange irises tongued the fence and gate. The colors kept me still and silent.
Mother just started digging, tossing dirt around, uncovering one thing and then another. I plunged my bare feet into the dirt, heedless of the cut, labeling everything with the words I'd learned but never used. "Worm, beetle, soil," I said. "Root, potato, dark, seedling." Mother didn't seem to need me to be silent anymore so I sang away, running through my dictionary of terms.
I could not have imagined this world based on the little I knew from looking out the window. The sky was not just a patch of blue like any other scrap of fabric. It was an immense quilt stitched of uncountable colors and textures. This ground felt more solid than our wood floors and the air was simply everywhere, rushing up under my nightgown, reaching into my armpits and ears.
I wanted to run over the yard, but mother kept me in one small area bordered by the fenced-in garden and the shed. I wanted to ask more and more questions, but her face was shut. She moved from one patch of dirt to another, smelling, occasionally tasting, and once she was crying.
In one corner near the shed, new shoots arched white necks through the dirt, but mother said she felt queasy at the thought of touching the firm stems. Then in the garden, she gagged. "Let me," I said and took the shovel and hoe. I didn't know what to do, but shoveled dirt into piles, patted them flat, then dug them up again. I turned the soil over and over and hacked it into rows with the hoe.
Later, I ran water over the dirt, and a smell just like her came up. I ran to the shed's white wall, sank down next to her, closed my eyes.
"We can't leave," she told me. "Don't even ask."
I laid on my back that night next to one of the windows, trying to imagine the whole sky based on the tiny square that was again all I could see. Then I closed my eyes and remembered my one red footprint that led all the way from our room to outside.
I thought about the sky a lot, its endless and hopeful variations. I discovered the constellations as they spun by our windows, which I learned faced north. I read every book that showed up in our room and learned how to find the area of a rectangle, a square, and a triangle. I read about the probable origin of our planet from a solar dust cloud, and I read the story of Job over and over in mother's Bible. "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and are spent without hope."
Those were quiet years and the room no longer spun through space in a white blur. It moved slowly enough for dust to settle in every crevice while we got older. I remember mother lying on the floor with a cigarette in one hand which she would hold up over her in order to make spirals and shapes out of the smoke. Occasionally there would be the sound of her inhaling and exhaling and every few minutes the sound of me turning the pages of one of my books. We no longer danced or sang and if mother spoke her stories out loud it was always under her breath. Mostly, she just moved her lips and no sound came out.
When there wasn't any heat, we would lie close together under all the blankets and when we were low on food, we each cut our portions smaller to give the other more food. We would sit at the table saying very little, passing smaller and smaller pieces of meat from plate to plate.
"This has gone on too long," I said one day.
"Please be silent," she whispered, but I only stayed quiet until she fell asleep.
At the far end of the room I sat on the window seat and looked through the screen. My face was covered with mesh imprints from leaning there when I noticed the clasp that held the screen in place. I undid it, set the screen aside, and climbed out onto the roof, gulping air.
In summer, I saw the oak's leaves when they blew toward our windows. In winter, I heard its branches scrape paint. That day, for the first time, I could see the whole tree pressing against the house, furrowed bark like wet fingered hair all the way to the ground, new leaves tossed out. Without the screen, the window frame, and the eaves to shape it, the afternoon unfolded brazen and fresh and I felt an opening in myself grow.
Life for us had begun changing the day I got a splinter in my foot, and changes kept happening, though slowly. I imagined one change was tied to another with a rope that was pulling a ladder closer and closer to us. I couldn't know what came after the ladder, but I knew that once it was close enough, it would be an easy leap from the roof.
"Let's imagine where I will be in ten years," I said to mother one day when she was doing nothing but lying there smoking.
"You will be ten years older," she said in a hoarse voice.
"Yes, but will I have a body as rounded as yours? Will I be on a road, in an apartment? What color am I wearing?" I wanted her to take me away with words again, to imagine another world like she used to.
"You will be ten years older," she repeated.
Please invent something, I thought. Give me a color, a word or a name, a frame to keep the future bearable. I wanted to know that she would be there with me, but I was afraid to ask. I waited and waited for her to tell the story with me in it, I waited until her nose whistled a little and then I knew she was asleep.
I had practiced being motherless for years, but I still didn't know how.
"Mother!" I said. "Where will I be tomorrow?"
"One day older," she yawned.
"Where was I yesterday?"
She smiled. "Sitting in front of me in your yellow cotton nightgown while I braided your hair and sang 'Frere Jacques'."
That had been years before. I let her go back to sleep and climbed out on to the roof to watch the birds.
I wanted another change to happen, something irrevocable even if horrible, something to break up the terrible repetition of days and years. While I sat there wishing, a storm moved in and all the birds started to disappear. The sky darkened, the light turned a bruised green.
The oak's leaves became purple, and its trunk turned ash grey. I could feel my heart wake up and I stood, even though it was dangerous. It was then I noticed a small door in the eaves, left of our windows. I laughed out loud as the first drops hit me. Thunder rolled. The wind came in gusts, first pushing my hair back, then sweeping it across my face as I sidled down the roof to the door.
The door was half-sized with no knob on the outside, but I pressed it and it opened inward. Inside, I found more furniture than we'd ever had: walnut chairs with needlepoint cushions, a settee, a tiny oak desk with a pull-cord green lamp, and rugs to cover the floor. It made me laugh. I had only imagined.
I walked through a dark hallway, into the half-lit kitchen, and switched on the light, still giggling softly. Across the room, a small woman slept, folded up on a chair, her face turned to the side. She was the only other woman besides my mother that I had ever seen. She had orange hair and a large, round face, orange from make-up. I stepped closer and watched her, fascinated, as her eyes lifted open and slowly rolled toward me.
Then all at once she leapt at me face-first, like a jack-in-the-box, or a giant sunflower caught in the wind. "What are you doing in here?" she screamed. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN HERE?"
I bolted through the rooms, out the tiny door toward my window, the laugh now stuck in my chest. The storm had hit with full force and rain pushed my nightgown into arms that held me back. I stepped across the slanted roof as quickly as I could but then the window slid down, and mother didn't see me. She looked right through me as she twisted the lock into place.
The stories I most want to forget are those that stay with me. For many years, my memories were kind. They came and comforted me, saying just what I wanted to hear and promising that they'd caress my hair and sing to me. But one day, my ghosts began to betray me. They came with blank stares. They told me horrible, horrible lies about myself and I believed them all. They told me the truth about the past and wouldn't let me forget.
The day the white room was spinning towards all along, the day whiteness ended and red came in to stay.
I awoke expecting to see mother lying on the floor with a cigarette, but she was up and busy for the second day in a row. She was even humming to herself and her face looked less grey than it had since I was a child. She had put on a soft cotton white dress with a garden of flowers embroidered across the chest, and she'd braided a red ribbon into her hair.
When she saw that I was awake, she called to me softly like she used to. "Come here, Meredith," she sang. "My baby."
The door that once led to the outside was still bolted, but I saw that two other doors I thought led nowhere were wide open. Through one was the orange woman's kitchen. The other door opened onto nothing but sky.
Mother had the orange woman in a pile next to a stack of boxes. "It doesn't hurt her," she said.
Mother ran twine under the woman, looped it over the top. "Is she missing bones?" I whispered. "How can you fold her up?"
The orange woman opened her eyes and I jumped back. "Put your thumb here," my mother said. She tightened the knot and patted the woman, two quick pats on the chest.
"There now, that's done."
"Who is she?" I asked.
My mother kissed the orange woman's cheek. "Don't look, Mother," she said. The orange woman closed her eyes. Even my mother had a mother.
Mother took me by the hand and led me to the doorway to the sky. She stepped with me to the very edge and began to smile. "Let's step out, Meredith," she whispered, clutching my hand.
I hadn't seen her so happy. "No, mother." I tugged at her to move back.
"Come with me."
She looked at me as if I were a small child and took my hand more tightly. "Come on sweetie. Just one step out with me."
"No, no, no."
"Say yes," she whispered, and dropped my hand. She lifted a foot, looked at me sadly.
"No!" I said softly after her, and then instantly I regretted it. I sat for hours in the doorway with my legs hanging into space, crying, "Yes, Mother. Yes, yes."
Every time I go through a door, I think about the consequences. What will be unhidden? Who will be sacrificed? What can be taken and what given back? The day my mother leaped into freedom, I realized my burden, the guilt I felt for being more alive, and my shame for feeling relief about being a little less bound. I was alone with a terrible secret. I wish I had known then how many beautiful things I could have promised to show her. "Hold on a little longer," I would have said. "I'll find flowers the size of your head and costumes so light you fly."
I didn't think to invent those things because the day before mother had seemed freshly hopeful, as if about to embark on an adventure.
On our last day together, we packed up the kitchen, talking and even singing some. We wrapped china plates and bowls, serving platters, casseroles. Mother gave the back of my hand a tiny slap when I was not careful. She prepared the crystal vases and wine glasses herself, gently cushioning stems in tissue paper, filling insides with cotton balls. "Where are we going?" I'd asked.
She didn't answer. She put her hands in front of my face and said, "Imagine a new world with more colors." But when she pulled away her fingers, I didn't see anything but the boxes and mother's face, smeared with dust.
In the back of a cupboard, I'd found a wooden hinged box with purple lilies painted on the cover, Dear Mother engraved inside.
"Who gave this to you?" I asked. Mother just looked at me. I looked back. The heat that day gave us smell. Our nightgowns swirled with it as the ceiling fan ticked overhead. The bags under her eyes had trembled, and her breasts, wilted daisies, pointed to the floor.
"Sweetheart, baby, precious," she had said with real tears in her eyes.
"Mother," I answered. Don't ever leave me, I was thinking.
She twirled across the room just like she used to. "My baby, my first, my little crooner."
"My mother," I called as if she were mine, dancing into her arms for the last time.
"My ballerina, my purple flower."
A Measure of the Sin
by Kristy Nielsen
I walk through town with Ruth, her baby on my hip, all of us weighted with rain. We pass men with bandaged heads, men singing prayers, women crouched under low trees clicking like squirrels. They quiet once we pass.
We do not know why we came out into relentless rain but we are becoming accustomed to doing what we don’t understand. He says go and we do not question or roll our eyes. He says wear a bucket on a rope around your waist and we do not point out that we could collect rainwater just as easily without setting foot outside.
He looks into my eyes when he gives directions and he can tell my thoughts. But he can’t punish me for what I hide so he only clamps his grey lips shut and stomps his foot to make me jump and start all the babies crying.
This baby, just newborn, already knows about survival and clings so that I hardly have to hold him. His mother takes a chill, but rain doesn't bother me. I would prefer to be sent out on a sunny day, or at dusk when the crows, the stubbled fields, and the houses are all the same shade of grey, the kind of grey I could step into and disappear. I would prefer to be sent out alone. Still, I am out of the house. Rain or not, I walk with straight posture, pressing on through town and letting people stare at the contours my wet clothes reveal.
They know who we are. They have all driven near enough to see the house leaning into scrub pines, holly oaks, and walls of kudzu. Perhaps they think they should do something, call someone. But they won’t. They shake their heads, but they do not turn away from the sight of two women collecting rainwater in metal buckets that slosh against their legs. They watch as the baby too young to have been named is carried by, uncovered but for a diaper. Yes, we would respond if we could, it is some kind of a test. The baby sucks at cold water on his face and forgets to cry for milk.
As we pass out of town, Ruth spits blood at the side of the road, her knees buckling in coughing spasms. I tuck the baby into the front of my blouse and Ruth climbs onto my back, pail and all. I do it because I can, because when he sees us coming down the trail to the house this way he will know I am stronger than Ruth, stronger than he imagines. Crouched, I turn my head to the side and watch trees pass as we reach the country and move out toward the house. Rain flattens flowers by the side of the road and even field cows have moved under trees. Looking down, I see bruises forming on my legs and my cracked toes caked with mud.
Pick up a foot and set it down. Repeat on the other side. I could do this forever, if needed. I could take more without breaking.
At the house, the man lifts Ruth off my back and sets her tenderly on a mattress. I hand him the baby from my blouse. As he unties and sets aside the buckets of rain, he says he hopes the water will have finally washed us clean. While I stand dripping, mud running off my legs and feet, he tugs in the buckets of rain he collected while we were gone, a measure of our sin.
I used to think if I heard nothing behind me, there was no one there. If I went to sleep in an empty room, I’d wake up in one. But I was wrong. Steam rises in the radiator while I dream, masking the creak of the window sliding open, covering the sound of footsteps padding across the room.
I thought that when we went to sleep, life was on hold, the house suspended, nothing moving but our dreams, nothing kicking but my heart. I thought I knew the dangers I faced, but all those years I was oblivious to the bear prowling our house at night.
Now I know he’s there and I see him climbing out of the front closet, smell him in my room. If I remember to stay awake at night, I hear him walking the third floor. In the morning, Ruth and Alicia say, "There is no bear," and run each other a hot bath. They close the bathroom door to keep steam in, winking at me with their secret eyes. Then they scrub themselves pink, letting the babies cry until I feed them myself.
I ask the man about the bear. He tells me we are too far south for bears. He tells me I imagine too much and asks for a glass of lemonade. I hear the bear snorting when I leave the room.
One night I awaken to find the bear on top of me. “Hello, Sunshine,” the bear says. And he knows my name. “Come on now, Meredith,” he coaxes.
I fight, of course, but he is so heavy. I claw at his hair and scratch where his eyes should be. I want to take some proof, a clump of fur, some blood under my nails. Should I look for scars or identifying marks? Can I remember his face well enough to draw it? I call to the man for help, but he just says, "There is no bear. Quit your dreaming and go back to sleep."
I believe in the bear: I feel his weight on top of me, smell his bear breath, hear his bear grunts. If this were a dream, would I feel real sweat wiped on my neck? Would the blood in my wrist pound where his weight holds me pinned? At my ears, feathers beating. My feet stub against dead ends in the blankets.
I thought I knew the world of dreams. I thought it didn’t matter how frightening my nighttime visions became because I could always wake up and shake away the fear. Now I know there are dreams I will carry between darkness and light, bears that step out of shapes at midnight and leave real bruises. I know the secrets sealed in a bear’s paw and carried away at dawn with my tongue, my eyes, my broken hands.
As the bear lumbers off with a long sigh, I hear the women upstairs whispering, listening through the vents. I don’t sleep. I watch the dark with narrowed eyes and think how survival depends on getting one less blow than would break you, and on concealing any truth in your eyes.
In the heat of the summer, the man begins to strip down the house. We don’t know what pieces of information he put together that led to this. We stay out of his way. Sheets of wallpaper litter the floors, paintings are stripped of their backings and thrown on the heap. Behind the back porch he dumps cooking pots, bottles and cans, photographs, books that have never been read, houseplants, my only vase.
He won’t touch the third floor, the apartment where Ruth and Alicia stay under slanting eaves, behind windows so small and round only one person can look out at a time. Their attic rooms overflow with stuffed chairs, rugs, flowered paper, wooden bureaus with curving mirrors above drawers that overflow with silk and soft cotton. There, the two longhaired women nurse their newborns, take short steps, mewing softly, and whisper secrets to make each other laugh. The children sit on the floor in between chairs and tables talking to their shadows in sign language. Some crouch in bottom bureau drawers, or lie sleeping on the two plush beds hidden behind red curtains under the eaves. The children are always quiet and never need to be shushed.
I am the childless one and I am the motherless one. I do not belong in the cramped attic and we can all feel it as soon as my boots hit the top stair. I can only sit for twenty minutes without gulping for cooler air and I must remember not to knock over the little figurines and china when I startle.
We can hear him pulling down wallboard, using a crowbar against stubborn nails and hammering plaster until it shakes white powder over everything. The house rocks under us. He thinks he can take the house down one inch at a time until the third floor sits on the ground. He thinks he can get to us by breaking anything that comes in between, that he can dig us all into the ground if he wants.
Alicia brushes Ruth’s hair, counting the strokes. We hear glass breaking and growls from downstairs. Alicia doesn’t miss a stroke on Ruth’s hair and Ruth’s eyes stay blissfully closed. I need to leave here. I’ve known it for as long as I can remember. But I have been patient, learning by watching him which tools do what, listening intently for a pattern in the days when I hear cars on the road. The women just sit there and grow their hair; they eat like birds so they can flit about as shadows or ghosts. They have babies.
I see that there are many ways to survive and I can’t judge them too harshly. They are surviving. But they make me think of wild animals kept caged who come to love the safety of the bars and the regularity of the food bowl. If the man took them into the woods and left them, Ruth and Alicia would follow him back, begging to be locked up again, promising anything if only he would remove the burden of their freedom.
I am different. I wear my restriction like a cloak that I imagine never actually touches the real me. I hold it floating over me with the force of my freedom. It is a space that has steadily shrunk, but I cling to the last two inches, to my skin and my body, which live by different rules even as I pretend to slump and imitate being broken. I am dangerous and live in danger but I have hope and that is what keeps the light behind my eyes.
By evening, the man has begun bringing supplies into the house and I must help. He herds two cows into the living room, shoos chickens onto rafters. With the wallboard down, he uses crossbeams as shelves--tomatoes, a potato placed alone, then a bucket of beans. Through the open wall I see him walk by carrying an armful of lettuce pressed to his chest, eyes feverish.
From my own garden, I bring in unripened vegetables. I place tomatoes on the windowsill. He stops me. "These are no good, Meredith." Then more gently, "See," stabbing one with his pocketknife. I don’t know how to survive alone. My tomatoes are filled with worms.
At night we breathe quietly among animals and food. I watch moonlight move slowly across shapes in the darkness, make each in turn a solitary portrait. I keep my eyes open and think of the night when only a shadow will wait where I usually lie.
I have my own corner where I sit and recite to myself. I memorize the list, the tricks I need to know, which roots, which berries, the stations of the sun.
I have learned to close my eyes and paint better pictures on my eyelids with my fingers. Sometimes a sun rises in the center of the darkness, splits in two and each half becomes round again, descending slowly to the outer corners of night. I want to live there. A world with two suns.
The man notices that I don’t sit around the table in the evening with the others, the way I turn out the lights and crouch in the corner with my knees drawn up and my hands covering my face. He knows my thoughts. “I know you want to get out,” he says. “But it is not safe.”
I cannot help myself. No one has talked to me in a soft voice for so long that these words of constraint make me cry with gratitude just because they are spoken to me. “Yes,” is all I can say and I press my fingers to my eyes to make them stop watering.
The man wavers in golden and red before me, his khaki shirt transformed for the first time into something colorful.
I see myself running in slow motion across the far fields. In the vision, I stop to look back over my shoulder. He is watching me, a dark scratch against the horizon. Yes, I am leaving, I think to him, but when I turn to run again I see that my feet are bare and thorns have grown up around my feet and ankles. They cover the ground as far as I can see and they are already growing higher.
When I open my eyes, he is gone. I scratch my bare legs and pull them closer to me. I am afraid years could pass like this, me in the corner with my two suns rising and setting, rising and setting.
When does something crazy begin to feel normal? There are always reasons. It isn’t safe, he says. Danger is coming. Only he knows the methods to survive and he will protect us. Inside me so far there has always been that sorrow that believes the promises and accepts the contract, even when the sacrifices required are suspicious. This is the time of sacrifice, I say to myself. Later it will seem worthwhile. The promise will be fulfilled, that hole inside patched, the sorrow appeased.
The months accordion in and out so that I sit heavy with the bear's child when the day finally comes for me to go out. I am to carry a twenty-pound bag of potatoes through the woods to the stream and wash each carefully. Ruth and Alicia will come with me to learn the way.
I cross the field deluged by light and air, the wind finding its way to all my skin and the sun genuine and full, pouring brightness as if there had never been dark. At the edge of the woods, I stop and look back; he watches us from the third floor window. We are so pale, I want to say to him. How can this be necessary? I breathe in the cool air and step onto pine needles and moss. He can no longer see us in the shade of tall evergreens. Finally, I can take long, full breaths without crying I can stretch my spine and flex my feet.
Ruth and Alicia think it is a dangerous mission. They run zigzag through the woods and stop behind trees to peer ahead. I walk straight with the bag over my shoulder, the bear's child clawing inside. I memorize the path, the trees, areas where the undergrowth is thickest, and those where the sun has gotten through so berries grow. At the water, I squat and roll each potato between my hands in the stream's current. The two women splash and giggle downstream. Occasionally they pose before mirror-like patches of water.
I look up when I hear a new voice. A brown woman in a red shift stands with her feet planted square in the streambed, staring at my potato. She squats in front of me, her breasts swaying with the movement. She carries nothing.
"How do you survive alone?” I whisper, glancing toward the women to see if they’ve noticed her.
She does not look to the other women. She looks right at me and then glances toward the reeds beyond us where a canoe is tied, bobbing in the gentle current. "That is the second most important question," she tells me.
If I cannot leave here, what does that mean about me? I finger the heart-shaped leaf of my philodendron. Can I leave it? Can I leave the only floors, the only smells I have ever known? Sometimes just walking at the edge of the yard I look down and my feet look like a stranger’s, the ground becomes a foreign country and I feel my heart leap, my fists clench. I have to bring myself back into the house with closed eyes, groping the wood at the doorframe, smelling for what I know.
I think about what I will have if I find a way to leave. My feet, hands, hair and eyes, my rotten tomatoes. And this baby. This baby that will be half bear and half me. I don’t know which is worse.
When I think about leaving, I realize it is a kind of love I feel for all of them, and it is the worst kind because it is so unbreakable and horrible. I am nostalgic for pain, melancholy when I should be enraged. My love is fractured all around the house and I can’t gather it up in my skirt or sneak it into my pockets. If I leave, I will leave my love behind. If I stay, I am a collaborator in my own betrayal, a monster accepting monstrous love. If I stay I will have answered no to the most important question.
At night I memorize facts and lessons, recipes, family stories. My dreams confuse me; they tell me one thing and then another. “Meet me in the field,” one says. “Turn over,” says another. I wake to find I am in bed with a torso, fingers, strands of hair. I am never alone.
“Hello, Sunshine,” the bear says.
“Don’t call me that,” I snarl back at him. “Call me midnight,” I say. “Call me dirt.”
During the day, I carry my pelvis gently, like a wounded hand, and search for quiet places to sit. I don’t know what to do with the hummingbird between my legs, fluttering madly all day long. The tension there sounds like fabric tearing, or the wind ripping petals off spring flowers that come up too early.
We are planting the new garden where it won’t be seen from the road. The man lets me out of the house to help while Ruth, Alicia, and the children take turns pressing their faces to the round third floor window that looks over the side yard. I avert my face while we silently break up dirt with shovels. He smells me in the soil I've walked over and looks at me with cow eyes.
With each seed I punch into the ground, I look for signs, I sniff the air. Will the bear come because I am covered in dirt? Does he watch from the edge of the field thinking of the way I scratch his face, of the scent in my blanket? I rub my hands over the heat in my belly, down. The tension between my legs is a moss-covered rock, a bowl of fruit, a secret letter.
The garden is finally seeded, the stakes positioned, tin pie plates strung up to scare the birds, and marigolds planted to discourage rabbits. The man walks slowly to the shed with our tools. When I look around the quiet afternoon, I feel certain that the bear will come tonight. The man leaves me alone for just a few moments, just long enough to lie back on newly plowed soil in midday sun, spread my legs, and let the hummingbird beat against my dress and fly away.
I have three pieces of paper, one pencil, an eraser. In the mornings, I do my planning. I diagram the house on one sheet, writing out all the things I will leave behind. I am meticulous about the details of every room, recording colors, textures, smells. I chart everything that happened in this house so I will remember, marking my life in the little squares that delineate each room. On the back of the paper, I draw the yard and barn, plot the garden, and show how the backfield ends at a forest of evergreens. It will be my anchor when I am in the world beyond the forest. The paper is already soft from being folded and unfolded, from the places where I had to erase and begin again, but it will remind me that I come from somewhere.
On the second sheet I make my map. After walking to the stream, I record whatever I remember and with each excursion, I add and change my map. I know the town lies to the south and a larger city to the east and north. I trace east with my finger on the soft paper, along the stream as it turns into a river, east behind the outskirts of the city and then beyond, east off the edge of the paper. East has become my magic word.
The last sheet of paper is for my lists. Supplies, food that will travel. Times when the man sleeps deepest. Nights when the bear comes and from which direction.
Time does not pass as quickly now that my mind is so occupied. My belly grows, my feet swell, and the bear comes for me less and less, but he still comes. There is a routine.
Today when the man returns from town with razors, the women know what to do. “Meredith,” they call me, giggling. “Come help us get ready.”
On the third floor, I help them shave up and down their legs, up and down their arms, under the arms, and even across the knuckles of their toes. They unfurl the hair on their heads, but any other strand must be shaved. Alicia plucks a few hairs around her nipples. I help with those delicate inner folds, softer than anything I can imagine and far too fragile. At the end, we rub oil over their hairless skin and they stand together like girls with nothing to cover themselves but hands and their waist-length hair, undone and gleaming. They have that secret look in their eyes again. What do they think I don’t know?
When I know my time is near, I hoard bread crusts and dry the last fruits of summer instead of eating them. “Survival is all that matters.” The man has said it many times. I take pieces of dried meat, candles, and two bottles of water from his special room in the cellar, but I do it gradually so he won’t notice. I have learned to be careful and clever, unhurried. I must be as smart as he is and twice as watchful. Survival, I tell him in my mind, is all that matters.
I dance, I sing, tell jokes, sweep floors, anything that is asked of me. But I watch his face while I sing and dance, I listen to him sleeping while I rummage through his supplies. I know him far better than anyone I might love.
When the man is in the other room, I know by smell whether his boots are on or off, whether he is awake and reading, or asleep with his mouth open. All my senses are heightened. I can hear the bear coming when he thinks darkness hides his black fur, and I can see through the dark how he curls his paw and then opens it, looking down in grief at the dumb beastliness of himself.
I watch the crops and the moon out my window and when the moon wanes completely, I leave my room for the last time, smelling the blanket and the wood door, caressing the walls I have known like sisters, piling my rotten tomatoes on the pillow for the bear to kiss.
I put my boots on outside and walk across the field toward the darkness behind the evergreens, my bundle in one hand, the other hand holding my belly, supporting that hard dwelling where the bear’s child has learned to stomp around. I walk with my head up and in measured steps that show my resolve. If the man awakens and looks out the back window, he will see nothing but the trunk of a tree that seems to be moving. There must be a strong wind, he will think, and close his eyes. My footprints will be there in the morning, but I am disappearing.
I follow the path with my feet through absolute darkness. Each step is as I traced it on my map and I stop just at the edge of the stream, then wade through the reeds. The canoe is still there. I tuck my bundle under the bow, untie the lead rope and push off eastward, the canoe whispering through the silent night. I wind down the stream until it turns into a river, letting the current carry me, paddling with my hands only to avoid the bank.
When I get nearer to the city, streetlights illuminate parking lots and the water’s surface reflects orange in swirling pools of waste behind abandoned factories. I am off the edge of the paper, I am in the unmapped territory. Already I wish it were more beautiful. I dare to wish! Only a few hours into my freedom, before I’ve even eaten one meal on my own.
I can see now that the river is crowded with water snakes. They dangle from branches and slink off metal rods hanging from the grey viaducts I have to duck to pass through. The snakes creep sideways with only their triangle heads above water and they slither up the bank with a sound like tongues on skin. I let the current propel me as long as it will, but when my canoe stops at the edge of the city, I start walking, pulling the canoe by its rope.
I have come so far already. Beyond the city, I tell myself, the snakes will disappear. They only live here where the water carries refuse and rats, they only live here on my escape route to test my endurance. East, I think with every step. East, I think, instead of remembering my blanket, the quiet darkness in the house on bear-less nights. My dress presses against my legs and my breasts ache in the cold, but I must continue. I imagine raising my baby in that house; I force the picture of myself and my infant, even a half-bear child, sequestered on the third floor, the way months and years would pass except for this action, these plodding steps and fumbling lunges I make now through murky water, these movements that I must not stop.
I remember a Bible that fell open to the Psalms. I read the prayers quietly when I was alone, whispering them in a dry voice. I need a prayer now, but I cannot remember the words. God, I am surrounded by the serpents. God, the dark waters are all around me and I am alone.
I cannot remember the right words so I pray anything that comes into my thoughts. “God, the dark,” I say. And, “Oh Lord, the chill.” Then I hit on these words: “Please keep me moving.” I say this over and over until it is a song, and my arms and legs do move, in spite of the cold. I move and then I find myself at morning almost as if a hand had picked me up and carried me through the night, guided me safely through snakes, rusted machinery, and the temptation to sink down and forget.
Past the city there are no more snakes and the current is strong enough for me to climb into the canoe and drift downstream, drying under the morning sun. I, who have received so little, know be grateful for any gift, so I am sure to say thank you aloud. I float into the next country, a new map, my time of labor, and a new vocabulary of survival.
This barn in a flat grazing pasture has been a hiding place for others. In corncribs, I find rusted cans, stacks of chipped plates, flatware, broken glass, moth-eaten blankets, a saucepan. Along one wall, someone carefully lined up houseplants where they could receive sun through the slats in the loft. Furniture is stacked everywhere, chairs four high and rotted through with mice and spiders, wooden chests of drawers and tables twisted and buckled.
Even in the shade of the barn, the afternoon is hot. On a stool in a corner I sit breathing, blinking, looking at my new home and making decisions. I allow myself some water, two slices of bread and half of one of the pieces of dried meat. Suddenly I am ravenous, empty. My body is sticky from dried milk and blood, but it feels weightless and as unbreakable as a ghost.
Survival is easy, I would tell the man. It is a serrated stone that you must swallow, cough up, and swallow again. You must fish it out of your excrement, sharpen it, and eat it again. Survival is in the body and that’s simple. It is faith I am choking on.
Between the outside wall and the internal beams I see a concealed square tin, its pattern obliterated by time. Inside I find pieces of paper which have been protected from rain and sun. Some earlier woman has erased recipes to write messages: "I wouldn't want you to see me this way, with my head bandaged, stark against the blue sky."
From where I sit, from where she must have sat, I see a tiny piece of the afternoon sky through a gap in the barn boards. My sliver of sky is blue also.