She broke all his moments in half with the kitchen door standing open.
—Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”
A Good Place to Dig
When my mother left, I had no idea of her leaving. She took nothing with her, left no note, only a little slick of oil in the space where the truck had been, and my father stood looking at it as if this might be a good spot to build something. Or to dig. He seemed to measure it with his eyes as he wiped his glasses on his T-shirt, and that was the most acknowledgment he gave to her leaving. For the time being.
I was eight that year. My sister was thirteen, and the old dog was dying though none of us could acknowledge it. This, among other things that went unacknowledged: the spider bite in my armpit, the need for new shoes, the lie my father told to hide his fear that she wouldn’t be coming back, and all the heat’s damages.
“I’m telling you” was a phrase my father kept saying, then trailing off while he tore open bags of frozen mixed vegetables. Or sometimes even “I tell you what. . . ,” though nothing got told.
My father let the drought run its course that summer, leaving the hose coiled against the house. It held at its center the breathing of spiders in their webs, the whisper of their feet small and dry like the speech of corn husks. By the end of August, we took inventory of the things we lost to the heat: the grass went first, then the persimmon tree that shaded the trampoline and dropped its fruit there for us to mash with our bare feet like grapes for wine.
There were no edges to the heat and so things got lost in it, easily, like the falling of that fruit. My mother got lost in it, misplaced somehow in the wavering sheen above the blacktop, a humid spell of disappearing. She drove west, although I didn’t know it was west until much later. But I think now about how she must have driven all that long afternoon with the sun in her eyes, the light sinking and spreading like an egg cracked into a glass, the road disappearing at a fine point up ahead like a cleanly sharpened pencil tip. She had left her sunglasses on the countertop next to a half glass of skim milk and a receipt from the video rental store—for two movies long overdue: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Bedtime for Bonzo. These things stayed there untouched—the milk casting a doggy smell around them—as if we understood that to disturb them would be to break apart some magic that sat inside her absence.
The yard dried in stages—shapes of yellow that spread daily like a slowly exploding star. The spider bite in my armpit swelled to a huge size like a pregnancy in the wrong place. I waited to see what would happen, feeling its pressure, a thing that seemed to have its own pulse, and the morning my mother left I was reaching up to bring the cereal boxes down from the pantry shelf when she caught sight of it. She yelped and grabbed my wrist as if I’d done something wrong, or was reaching for something dangerous.
“What is that?” There was a separate fear in each word. I didn’t pull away.
“A spider bit me,” I said, a tremble beginning somewhere in my spine.
There was a long pause. She bent close and let go of my wrist. “Does it itch?” she said, extending a finger as if to touch it. The finger hovered near enough that I could feel the heat of it.
I nodded. It did itch. “Don’t touch it,” I said, but she hadn’t.
She stood up fully, and said in a defeated voice like a baffled doctor, “Baby, I don’t know what to do about that.”
I had only shrugged and reached for the cereal box again.
I knew the exact spider, remembered its shape: a dense feather of darkness on the cool gray stone of the porch steps. I’d been going to bring in the mail, and the dog had followed me out. He lowered his muzzle to this thing that moved with frightening purpose, its black shape spreading strangely like a shadow cut free of the thing that cast it. I watched the dog breathe in the spider’s scent and wondered how it smelled to him—like dark earth maybe, like a sweaty palm. Then he opened his mouth to trap it there. “Drop it, Bear! Drop it!” I panicked.
I thought maybe the thing could poison him, tried to pry open his jaws with my small fingers. When he finally opened his mouth, the thing sprung out, crawled up my arm to my armpit as if trying to seek shelter in me. I had wanted to scream, had opened my mouth for the sound, but something about what was happening seemed very private. I reached into my sleeve in silence and the spider was there, suddenly docile in the middle of my palm. I threw it out into the yard, its body seeming to bloom in the air, a drop of black uncurling almost weightlessly as it fell, and Bear followed the arc of its tiny darkness, barking at the place where it landed. It scuttled off, having already forgotten (I was sure) the space inside the dog’s mouth and the twin marks it had just left on me, like little red and pupil-less eyes.
This all happened during the first week of the new school year—the classrooms scarily cold and clean. I’d sit looking down at my desk, missing the lake that looped at the end of our cul-de-sac, thinking of my bathing suit drying on its hook in the bathroom. I thought about how when I’d pull it on after school it would still be damp, colder even than the stiff tile air of the classroom, and it would resist my rubbery flesh like trying to reskin a peeled peach.
This is all the thinking I had room for: there would be time for a swim before dinner. There would be two or three fat women in chairs along the shore with bottles of Sprite and wide hats. There would be my mother swimming laps in lengthening circles out toward the lake’s center like a bird looking for a place to land. There would be my father lying on his back on the picnic table, his hands dampening some paperback about airplanes and World War II. There would be the older neighborhood kids crouched in the shallows as the water chilled, telling stories about the ghost of a drowned girl that hovered above the lake, stories of empty houses and men without faces and lightning strikes and, when they thought I wasn’t listening, of strange sexual acts in parking lots and cemeteries. The sun would lower and my sister would leave the circle of teenagers. We would drift home, shivering and loose-limbed, to eat pork chops and baked beans on the screened porch behind the house, the fan ticking overhead like a rapid clock.
All through the school day, I let the longing for these rituals consume me. I nurtured it, as one might blow on coals to keep them hot, scratching idly at the surface of my desk with a blunted pencil.
But on the bus ride home that day my sister said, “I don’t feel like swimming,” and I felt all at once the fragility of that future I’d built all day at my desk.
She didn’t know. She shrugged. I was in awe of her ability to so easily dismiss the sweet warmth of the shallows and my bathing suit on its hook, the stories that would drift among the kids in their circle like fish moving in chilly little currents around their ankles.
“Well maybe mom will take me,” I said, almost considering our mother in that moment as a second older sister, picturing her tucking her short hair into her swim cap and looking ageless and fish-like.
“I doubt it.”
There was a tautening to the air in the bus, swelling up like the spider bite beneath my arm.
“Why wouldn’t she take me?”
She slid the stiff little bus window down to fling her chewing gum out into the heat.
“Mom has a lot on her mind right now,” she said finally. These were obviously Dad’s words. Adult words. I was inheriting them here, as the school bus moved and brought us gradually up against the space she’d left. “She’ll probably have a headache.”
After a long silence of a mile or two of dust rising around the bus like dirty weather, pings of gravel like hail falling upward, my sister said finally, “Besides, it’s going to rain.”
No Blue Like This Blue
But it didn’t rain, and when we got home my mother was gone, my father still standing at the curb where he must’ve been when the truck pulled away, that humid smear on the lenses of his glasses.
“Where’s Mom?” one of us said. We were always saying this, walking into rooms where my father sat putting together model airplanes or polishing his shoes, looking around as if not seeing him and saying, “Where’s Mom?” while he kept his eyes on his work and told us that she was in the shower or taking a nap or out in the yard, and we’d drift back out of the room, leaving him to the quiet of his hands.
My father’s face was still full of the sight of the truck’s brake lights burning down into distant pinpricks, the familiar lilt and jangle of the engine. There’s just no blue like the blue of that truck, he used to say, as if that particular shade existed nowhere else on earth. I came to almost believe him. The truck as it moved seemed to make every light into twilight, casting a little shadow beneath it the color of squill. And in my mind now our father’s face holds that color, as if he was still standing there with his glasses in his hands. Then, even his breath seemed tinted with blue, as if struck by a sudden frost.
“Your mother had to go to a conference,” he said slowly in answer to our questions. “For work. In Chicago.” These details unspooled heavily, and if I’d looked at my sister’s face then, I would’ve known it was a lie. But I didn’t look. I watched my father remove his glasses and polish them. And so I went on believing, believed even after my mother returned a month later with plastic bags full of animal parts that she told us our uncle, the hunter, had given her. She came with strangely babyish gifts for us. For me, a set of elaborately carved alphabet blocks and a stuffed dog that looked just like Bear. For my sister, a huge set of crayons, over two hundred colors that came in a black plastic unmarked case that looked eerily like a briefcase, and a picture book called A Home for Tandy about an elf who must find a suitable place to spend the winter by the time the first snows fall.
I had looked at my gifts, confused, and when my mother had asked what was wrong I’d told her, “But . . . these are baby things.” She had looked like she was going to slap me, but then her face sort of shivered and fell and she left the room, returning red-faced minutes later to the kitchen table where we all still sat, as if time itself had gone out of the room, my sister staring down at her open case of crayons and I still clutching the stuffed dog to my chest and sniffing the top of its head. It smelled like a mall.
And even then, I suspected nothing, falling into my father’s quiet lie as if into a habit, one that lasted for years, so that every act which followed was one of belief.
While we held our gifts close, my mother stood a long time at the kitchen counter, sorting red hunks of meat that seemed to still be bleeding, as if she were conducting slow surgery. Ripe venison, the house smelling of this animal’s recent death, and one of us asking (it might’ve even been my father), “What are we gonna do with all that?”
“We’re going to eat it,” she said.
Years later I thought of this, when as a teenager I worked for a season at the hunting lodge not three miles from our house. I’d sweep out the cabins and wipe strange hairs from the floors of the showers, and the hunters would try to tip me in deer parts, offer to cut hunks from the sides that still seemed to move with breath. “You can take anything but the antlers, babe,” and they waited for me to name my cut of meat while I watched their hands hold the knife at an unfamiliar angle. The deer swayed on long hooks that hung from tree branches outside the cabins, the tidy black of their hooves dangling just above my eye level so sometimes I’d feel the blood drip on the back of my neck while weaving between the draining carcasses like a bee trying not to drown in a quick downpour. I could not think of eating the things they gave me. But I brought them home, and my mother worked again at the kitchen countertop as she had that September she came back to us, sealing the parts neatly in Ziploc bags and putting them deep into the white-cold mouth of the freezer, leaving them there. It was a kind of burial.
During that month when she was away, my sister and I spent most of our afternoons behind the house, sleeping cautiously in the backyard, keeping very still because to move at all was to feel the itch and crawl begin—all the tiny life moving against the pits of our knees; a worm drawn up by our warmth, a beetle somehow threatened by it. We were small but the world beneath us was smaller, the world we crushed and held down. We tried to hold in our minds an emptiness that would erase the need to shift, to scratch an itch, imagining the stillness of absent things: the space around a seed where fruit once was, the small and perfect circle of skin at the back of our father’s head where hair no longer grew. Beside us, the dog stayed awake to fill the gap we left while sleeping.
I’d spread my arms above my head to stretch to my fullest length. And my sister once creaked open an eye, her face near my armpit, to squeal and roll away from me.
“What the hell is that?”
And I told the small tale, “A spider bit me,” yet again.
“Oh my god, Cora,” she said. “You know that thing probably laid its eggs in you. You know they’re gonna hatch and you’ll have baby spiders coming out of you.”
I held myself away from her. I felt panic settle as she told me about the living things that could burst and teem from me—fresh and evil and alive, small and private darknesses that would swarm and take over. I was afraid, but kept my face still, eyes closed so I wouldn’t have to see the insistent look on her face—hating and somehow loving my own fear in the same instant, like when I heard the teenagers crouch in lake water and speak in thrilled whispers about every strangeness they knew of.
She fell silent. “Do you think I should show it to Dad?” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.
She rolled away from me, linking her fingers behind her head and looking up into a blue that was nothing like the blue of our truck. Our absent truck.
After a pause she said, “What’s he gonna do about it? He can’t stop them from hatching.”
It is easy to look back and say, “Her absence was everywhere.” At the time I was busy pretending she was “away on business,” while my father folded towels sloppily, holding them too long against his chest, and my sister began drinking vinegar straight from the bottle. Drinking it every day, she said, would add a decade to her life. I did not understand her desire to gain extra time, but how could I grasp the idea of a decade when I hadn’t yet lived that long? Even the dog had been in the world longer than I had, seemed to know more, standing at the sliding glass doors and making small noises of urgency when cars came down the street.
This was something my sister and I never spoke of later, her vinegar phase, whether the bitter swish and pucker against her tongue maybe somehow calmed her, made her feel grown up and serious. I did not ask. My father would watch her take the bottle down from the pantry, pour herself a glass, and bring it to the dinner table. He would eye it as if it were an insect caught in a jar, but he said nothing.
There was one night I remember my sister hovering in the doorway to my room while our father was out getting a pizza for us, renting videos even though Bedtime for Bonzo and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town were still unwatched on the countertop. Faith held a tall glass of apple cider vinegar in her hand, giving the glass little swirls that did look eerily adult, like a martini in the hands of an old Hollywood actress. I noticed she was wearing some of our mother’s jewelry—a string of freshwater pearls and a turquoise ring. I’d spotted them and made a small anxious noise, like the dog’s whine as he stood pleading at the back door.
“Ooooh,” I said lingeringly, “just you wait until Mom gets home. You’re gonna be in troooouble,” and I drew the word out, like a song I knew well and was savoring. In the midst of that word I saw something awaken in her; my only warning was a tiny hiss between her teeth, the smallest leakage, like air escaping a sealed jar. The long ‘o’s of “trouble” were still in the air between us when the glass of vinegar shattered against the wall just behind me. In the silence that followed, she looked at me as if I were something fully animal, something no longer capable of speech. There was a fine dusting of glass on the bedspread. Later, I would run a comb through my hair and little crystals would fall from the strands, like hidden pieces of winter, very sharp ice.
I waited, with the vinegar dripping in long brownish streaks down the wall, for her to speak. Or leave.
“You don’t get it, do you?” she said coldly. “Mom’s not coming back.”
She would sometimes make up stories to frighten me. Mainly stories about the woods behind our house and men with hooks for hands who hid there, about the lake’s deepest parts and what waited at the bottom to touch my dangling legs as I swam. Sometimes stories about uglinesses of nature or the betrayals of my own body, like the tiny spiders that she’d said were living in me, waiting. But I had learned not to believe her when a certain tone came into her voice, designed to stir fear but with something almost like laughter behind it. I had trained my ear to hear this, and I told myself then, with the cider falling down the wall, that I’d recognized that familiar mocking note. That she only wanted me to be afraid. Nothing more. She only wanted to bring me to the brink of belief and then laugh, arms folded, as I finally fell into it.
“You’re a liar,” I stuttered, trembling and stunned, the smell of the vinegar sharp enough to make my nose and eyes itch.
“You’ll see,” she said. “She’s gone.” And she turned and disappeared down the hallway.
It was the only time that month that she shared her anger with me, and the room was full of it, rank with it. But still I hadn’t believed her. I sat on my bed unable to believe in any permanence: that the glass of vinegar could never resume the shape it’d been a second before, that my mother wouldn’t return to us, that the smell on the walls would never quite leave, a faint stain remaining for months, and the air in the room going more and more sour over time.
My father began leaving elaborate notes for us on the kitchen table—a thing that he’d never done before, although our mother was always a prolific note-writer. She liked to use abbreviations: “H²O the plants”—the act of watering broken down into parts, molecules. Or “w/o” instead of “without,” and there was something so much lonelier about the ‘w’ and the ‘o’ being separated by that line, without even one another.
My father’s notes, on the other hand, took no shortcuts; everything got written out. They sometimes took on the character of a missive being written by a pioneer from some far outpost, brave and falsely cheerful. They’d begin “my dear girls” and have the vague flavor of hardship. “I’ve gone to the store for tools to repair the back door (No more creaking!), but I shouldn’t be gone too long and there’s no need to worry about dinner. I’ll make us some soup when I get back. All My Love, Dad.”
Sometimes we wouldn’t see the notes until after he’d returned, an absence we hadn’t even been aware of when we’d sleep late some mornings or stay down at the lake shore until darkness fell sudden as a lantern blowing out. We’d stumble home, the hair on our arms prickling as the lake water dried on our skin, and we’d find our father opening and closing cupboard doors, banging down pots onto the stovetop, with the sad little note still on the table where he’d left it hours before for us to find.
Years later, my sister and I found one of these notes. Both home for Thanksgiving, we were up late one night talking in the kitchen while our parents slept. We began taking half-empty bottles down from the highest shelf of the pantry, making foul mixtures of root beer and cooking sherry, and daring one another to drink them. The room was full of familiar smells: a doggy scent of food left in pots on the stovetop, the mannish tang of cut logs laid up by the fireplace. But there was a foreign smell in the room with us, something we both seemed to become aware of at the same instant. It smelled like something small and dead.
“You smell that?”
“Where’s it coming from?”
Half drunk, we pushed the refrigerator out from the wall just a crack and found it there on its side, mouth in a little open ‘O’ as if it were singing a high note. Its pink feet were like the smallest hands imaginable. Beside it, we both saw a yellow post-it with my father’s squarish handwriting. He always wrote in capital letters printed very small and evenly, so his notes read like gentle shouting. When my sister made a small noise at the back of her throat, I couldn’t tell if she was reacting to the note or to the dead thing beside it.
We stared, and finally she reached for the note. It read: “FAITH, PLEASE WALK BEAR IF I’M NOT HOME BY 5:00. THERE’S A POT OF CHILI IN THE FRIDGE IF YOU GET HUNGRY. BE KIND TO YOUR SISTER. LOVE ALWAYS, DAD.”
Seeing the note like that gave me an odd chill, like looking at photos of yourself from a time when you were very ill. I remembered how, at the time, he would let his hand linger on our shoulders when he served us grilled cheese, always some black-and-white tv show from the ’50s playing faintly in the living room as if to fill the gap left by the absence of our mother’s voice. The notes had been an attempt to keep himself around us, and us around him, even while he was away running errands or working. This is what he knew to do.
His urging my sister to be kind to me made me feel very small. A residual helplessness flooded up from somewhere, causing me to picture myself standing on tiptoe to reach up for the cereal boxes on a shelf too high for me. I turned away from Faith, embarrassed.
“Remember when I threw the vinegar at your head?” she said suddenly.
I nodded, again looking warily at the mouse, as if waiting for it to return to life and scamper away. I felt a slight tremor of horror as I noticed the shrivel of its tiny pink tongue at the corner of its mouth.
“That was so wrong. And I never said I was sorry about it. I’m really sorry, Cora.”
I stood blinking. She’d said that she’d thrown the vinegar “at my head.” I had never in my life thought she’d intended to hit me with it. I remembered hearing the glass break, some of the vinegar dampening my hair. I tried to remember her face, but it was a blank space. I felt a fresh fear, a terrible feeling of unknowing.
“I was just so angry,” she said. “And none of it was your fault. I’ve felt bad about it for a long time.”
“Oh, it’s okay,” I murmured. “It was so long ago.”
The note was still in her hand. Her eyes were on the mouse. “What should we do with it?” I said finally.
“Bury it, I guess,” she said shrugging.
She wrapped up the mouse in an old newspaper we took from the floor of the pantry. We grabbed the nearly empty cooking sherry, found a rusty shovel in the garage, and brought both into the backyard with us. The moon had a crooked look, a tilted crescent like a strained smile, but the air was fresh and chill and spun up from the lake in small gusts that moved our hair around, reframing our faces. My sister tried to dig a hole, but the ground was frozen and the shovel handle snapped and splintered in her hands. She held up the two broken pieces with a shrug, and meeting each other’s eyes across the tiny dent she’d made in the earth, we both started cracking up.
“We’ve really botched this poor thing’s funeral,” she said, taking her glasses off to polish them and wiping at the corners of her eyes.
She held the newspaper-wrapped mouse and said over it solemnly, “Well, I didn’t know you, but I’m sure you were a good mouse,” and flung it out into the woods behind the house. There was the faintest rasp of twigs breaking as it landed, then a stillness that seemed almost stinging. We leaned together, laughing helplessly, my father’s note already forgotten.
When she came back to us, it was dusk—a dusk that creaked and puckered, with the sky at its edges the color of an overripe red plum. My father sat at the kitchen table looking over a book of maps. From the dimness of the backyard, we could see him through the little picture window above the sink. He sat hunched inside of so much light, turning pages very slowly, as if the book were ancient and could crumble if not handled with extreme care. He looked very small, as if magically trapped inside a lantern; everything but himself and that yellow room was too dark to look at, my sister and I suddenly seeming to be made from an excess of shadow.
The air moved in gusts of heat, like a great mouth breathing on us. My sister was braiding my hair.
Inside that warmth, we heard the truck’s engine, barely audible beneath the crickets, and I imagined the cab parting the light of streetlamps like a swimmer in water. She was moving toward us.
Bear began to bark. We saw our father stiffen slightly in his chair, and then the door of the truck slammed like the crack of a very distant gun. As we ran around the side of the house, I felt we were measuring very quickly, counting steps, seconds, an equation that understood the size of us, of the house, and of the distance it took finally to come in sight of the blue truck parked at the end of the drive, with our mother a dense shape of darkness beside it—and our father in the open doorway of the house with light behind him, another dense shape of darkness. I looked hard at the truck; it seemed more familiar to me than this woman, this man. No blue like that blue, not anywhere in nature. A blue beyond blue—a blue that could color even the night around it, give tint to the shadows of my mother and father.
“Hi, babies,” she said. I could feel the braid in my hair already beginning to loosen.
My sister stood clenching and unclenching her hands, as if trying to remember what they were for.
None of us seemed to know how to touch her. She had a strange new smell in her hair and clothes. The smell had an undercurrent of burning to it—earth and flame and something almost metallic, like an apple wrapped in tinfoil and left too long baking in the coals. But it was definitely human: sun striking wet hair, drying it; sun striking arms and legs and changing their color gradually over the length of an afternoon.
The cab of the truck reeked of this foreign smell. My sister even asked about it the following afternoon when our mother drove us to the U-Pick peach orchard two towns away.
“Cologne,” my mother had said. “I was bringing a bottle back for your father and it broke.”
She even told us the name of the scent.
“Bottled Night,” she said.
I did not know I was lucky. I sat inside of luck the way my father sat waiting in that lit room, thumbing the pages of a book of maps, tracing the lines back and forth—the route she’d taken away from us and the route she’d take on her return.
We were lucky. She had come back. We were lucky. We had won out over her other life.
But I was still oblivious, clutching to my chest the stuffed dog she gave me, spelling out nonsense words with the alphabet blocks, watching my father take a long time at the sink washing his hands before ladling chili into deep bowls. My mother’s face was golden tan, seemed almost too bright to look at, like Moses when he came down from the mountain.
And I had no idea that we had been caught between two futures, like a leaf pressed in a book. These futures both belonged to her, and I had no idea.
This was why my sister threw the vinegar at me—because I refused to share in the burden of knowing, in the awareness of abandonment that grew and filled, edging toward some kind of spill.
Looking back now, I see there was something magical about her disappearance, the way things beyond understanding hold a dark magic at their cores and harbor it there: how the lake brims with the unseen; how life can wait in us and we can contain it—bodies in water, spiders in flesh—and how even the very nearest lives can escape us, escape our knowing.
Sometimes, to drown out the noise of my mother’s absence, my father would leave the tv on all night. He seemed to like best the sounds of old cowboy movies—long chases unraveling across the screen, their thunder and forward motion. The chase would form a gentle, background chaos as I lay awake in my bed, holding my breath: each noise of horse whinny and gunshot, each whizz of arrow and whoop of Indian, made up a separate part in a symphony of pursuit. I would lie on my back, counting the split seconds between bullets or hoofbeats, trying to map that technicolor desert just by the space between sounds.
There was one night when, sleepless and desperate, I threw off my blankets, my skin wriggling with fresh sweat, and I felt like a fish suddenly freed from its need for water. I shuffled silently down the hall to the living room. I could hear John Wayne’s voice, soft and sturdy like fresh-cut beech wood. I stood behind the sofa where my father sat, watching that patch of naked skin at the back of his head, perfectly smooth and bright white like a cap of snow on a mountain. I wondered how long it would take before he felt me there, the breath of me. I felt small in my loose pajamas, and John Wayne was vast on our little television screen, cramped within the frame and yet somehow dwarfing everything else in the room. The tiny whitish rings of condensation on the coffee table seemed to have come from dolls’ cups.
The desert was bright gold. John Wayne loomed in its midst like a human redwood. Maybe my father was asleep. I listened for the whalesong of his snore, but he made no sound.
I stood a long time, watching the movie with him though he didn’t know I was there. Everything on the screen moved steadily forward, steadily toward the finding of a little girl who had been taken, captured. I waited, growing sleepy even as I stood there, swaying, not wanting to sit down on the sofa, not wanting my father to know that this moment was being shared.
Whenever John Wayne spoke, I thought I sensed a shifting in my father. Wayne spoke with more assurance than I’d ever heard in anyone: “We’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.”
In the end, they found the girl, but she didn’t want to return. In the end, though I’d made no sound, my father turned around to face me very suddenly. We looked at each other, there in the dark of the living room. We looked across the small space separating us, both of us peering like children over the back of the couch. There were tears running in long wet stripes down his face. Tears were caught up in the hair of his beard, making it glisten in the glow from the tv.
“Sorry.” My voice was nothing. Not a voice at all. “Sorry, I couldn’t sleep.”
He did not wipe his face. I wished more than anything that he would wipe his face with his hands.
“Nothing to be sorry about,” he said, his mouth wet in the bracken of his beard. “I couldn’t sleep either.”
No part of me knew how to reach over and touch him. I looked past him at the screen, backed away like someone who encounters a wild animal. I looked past him to the slick reddish-gold of the desert, and I had the strange wish that John Wayne could see us, there in our little living room. That we were the ones he was looking for.
After that night, the spider bite seemed to grow. It pressed toward something final, its weight changing the stretch and lift and pulse of my skin. I was afraid, but didn’t know how to share that fear with anyone. Sometimes, placing my hands beneath the dog’s chin, I’d force him to look at me with his eyes dim from cataracts, as if he could understand everything about bodies, even my own, and about small crimes of nature such as the ticks we’d pull from the whitest and barest places inside his ears.
Every time I sat or stood I felt I had shrunk, and the size I’d lost had been given to this small world beneath my arm that bore itself forward, a planet adrift. That pull was constant, and it was like another version of me, a small self that understood something I never could.
When the bite finally opened and bled, deflated, there was nothing inside—only more of me, the dark blood like a shadow cast in red. Maybe a little poison was there, leaking: some yellowish stripes of infection, ooze and ooze, quiet and wet beneath my arm.
I told no one about the wound. Once it began to seep it seemed too small to mention, something I had to nurse in private—and so I did, bending to open the cupboard beneath the bathroom sink, soaking cotton balls in rubbing alcohol and holding them under my arm, until the clean cold dripped down the length of me. My T-shirts held that smell, the scent of preservation—bright white and endlessly sterile.
I remember lifting my arm before the mirror, pulling the tainted cotton balls away and meeting the gaze of a single bleeding eye. I imagined I could still see, through the mess, the twin points of entry: the marks where the spider’s mouth had tasted me. I tried to put a Band-Aid there, blindfold its gaze, but the eye was too moist, kept slipping away. I stood there breathing hard, watching my image breathing hard in the mirror. I remembered Faith’s arm bending back, the crook of her elbow springing forward like a snake as she hurled the vinegar at me, some hot wave sending her arm into motion, and I wanted that same anger, an anger of action. I wanted to lift the spider from the grass, meet its row of charcoal eyes, tell it This is your fault, and close my fist around it, feel it extinguish like the pinch of a wick between fingers. I wanted that tiny absent life to be held accountable for the seeping under my arm.
I grabbed a small magnifying glass off my father’s desk and ran out into the yard, somehow convinced that the spider would be in the same place it had fallen nearly a month before, waiting for me, defiant, like the challenger of a duel. I felt sure I could recognize it, as if in biting me, it had been the one to receive a mark.
My father found me an hour or so later, bent in half with the magnifying glass almost grazing the tips of unmown grass. I’d been going inch by inch over the withered lawn, starting at the place where I remembered the spider falling, and moving in circles that widened outward, the same way my mother swam.
My father stood on the porch, and I pretended not to notice him watching me. The light moved sharp through the smooth lens in my hand, and everything seemed to brighten as it was made larger.
“Are you looking for something?” my father called out to me, “or just looking?”
I felt the seeping start again beneath my arm, and remember thinking that perhaps my sister had been right and that now, finally, after the moments of slow drip and the cotton balls soaked in alcohol, now would be the moment of hatching, when the hush of hundreds of tiny feet would make their exodus back into the grass, and my father would watch in horror, his mouth a small ‘O’ of disgust in the middle of his beard.
“Just looking,” I finally replied, wishing he would go away and trying to will him back inside, trying to will the spider to appear.
“What have you found?” My father asked, leaning against the railing, seeming amused and curious about my search.
I did not answer, but as I looked down through the glass my shoulders breathed a sort of shrug. I moved the glass closer to examine a smallish daddy longlegs that moved quick and tidy between the grass blades. It looked nothing like the spider that had bitten me. I knew it was innocent, its mouth too small even to find grip on my flesh. I watched it move away from me, gangly and strange, and then crushed it quickly with my heel while my father looked on, his face blank with confusion.
Everything spoke of her—but nothing could tell me anything about her leaving. The dog was dying and the plants in the yard thirsted brownly, but I still couldn’t believe these things were beyond recovery—like the fresh emptiness beneath my arm, a place where it seemed a heartbeat used to be.
All of this began and ended so easily—the slam of the truck’s door when she returned, and I think it was the very next day when she drove us out to the peach orchard, where men on ladders passed fruit down to women who stood beneath, a chain of quick harvest. The baskets we carried on our arms grew gradually heavy with downy flame. We rubbed the warm fruit against our cheeks.
Few questions were asked; maybe none. It didn’t matter now whether she’d been at a conference in Chicago or visiting her brother in California, or even that she smelled like a stranger. It only mattered that the orchard that day was gold and green, and we chased each other among the trees, half-hiding behind the narrow trunks, laughing when we were found, laughing when fallen peaches burst beneath our feet and sprayed juice upward against our fleeing ankles.
Our lives resumed. We walked out toward the open fields that bordered the orchard, wild wheat growing at the edges, and our mother opened a head of wheat between her palms, twisting the grains and offering them to us, saying, “Eat!” as if offering manna, something biblical.
I remember her showing us how to milk honeysuckle—the careful pinch, and then pulling the long thread of stamen through so we could lick the smallest bead of nectar. She called us her hummingbirds as we sucked. She called us little fawns when we ate the grains of wheat from her palm. Baby birds, baby deer. We were newborn animals, unable to feed ourselves.
It was so small, that month of absence, when I think of a life, of the whole blinding span of it, of summers shedding themselves like skins, of the sprawl that is ourselves.
And afterward, after I learned the truth of her departure, I only wanted to understand how I could’ve missed it, been oblivious to abandonment. That was the whole mystery. The fact that she had grabbed my wrist, staring into the swollen spider bite and saying, “I don’t know what to do,” knowing she was going to leave and saying only, “I don’t know what to do.” And even that hadn’t been enough to make me understand.
Faith told me, finally, the year I learned to drive.
I was fifteen then, and at first, my mother and I took the truck to empty night-lit parking lots, where the streetlights’ warped constellations wheeled and spun. Then, graduating to back roads, I drove stiffly, my mother twisting her seatbelt in her hands, calling out the turns: “Left. Put your turn signal on.” She’d gesture through the open window, pointing to the yellow-and-black road sign that showed an arrow half-curled like an uncertain snake. “Here!” she’d call, and we’d leave behind one road for another, her voice and hands my map.
Driving with Faith was different. She’d begun to smoke cigarettes, all her movements now flavored with hazy recklessness. She spoke rarely, offering no direction, only turning the radio dial and letting the gusts bite the ash from her cigarette, her silence daring me into reckless speeds. I loved her for her carelessness, how she’d wash her hair at the kitchen sink, wringing the coil with her hands after, then call out to me, the twinned notes of my name like a little bell struck twice, and we’d drive. For hours sometimes. She’d lean her head out through the open window, as Bear used to, and let her hair dry that way, the thousands of strands beating together wetly, tangling into a sweet-smelling nest that she’d comb afterward with her fingers.
The road was holy. We were holy—something we never had to convince ourselves of. We’d press forward into dusk, and the fresh-born night would leave its marks and smells on us; driving was like falling asleep on a coin and waking to find the tiny imprint of a face on your cheek, the smell of copper fading on your skin.
There was a game we liked to play on those summer nights, when the thickening darkness reached across back roads for us. I’d press the gas almost to the floor and we’d roar stupidly, an arrow shot aimlessly into the dark; she’d reach suddenly across the steering wheel and, while my breath lurched like a chased animal, she’d switch off the headlights.
The motion was so small, just the flick of a wrist—and the danger of it was like an afterthought. There were no lights on those blind country roads; only the moon, slightly disheveled through tree branches, knocked sideways and scratched across with shadow. For an instant we’d plunge, unseeing, through the night, no longer separated from it, even by an inch, a millimeter. We’d shriek in unison, our screams matching in pitch and weight, delighted by the sharpness of our fear, choosing fear over anything else, the reckless dark swimming with us in its midst. That feeling of willful falling made even the blood in our veins seem intentional, our hearts pressing up in some great, irreversible waking. And just as the fear was becoming too large for us, for the cab of the small truck, I’d switch the lights back on, ease up on the gas. And each time, with the light pooling and spreading ahead of us, we’d laugh helplessly at the frowning darkness, at our own stupid bravery, at the foolish indestructible feeling of the truck’s weight pushing through dense shadow with us inside it. And each time we’d turn our track homeward, the knowledge of our proven good luck seeming to linger like a ringing in our ears.
When, on one of those drives, I asked her where she’d learned that trick with the headlights, she’d looked shocked. “You mean, you don’t remember Mom doing that when we were kids?” she said in disbelief.
“Mom used to do that?”
“Oh sure,” she said. “Sometimes on long drives. She said it helped her to wake up. She’d switch the lights off for just a second and we’d all scream at the top of our lungs. But I guess you must’ve been pretty little.”
I searched my memory, but there was no image of us all together, slipping into a brief and sudden darkness, my mother gripping the wheel as if rescuing it from the threat of a long fall.
“I don’t remember that,” I said slowly.
My sister dragged hard on her cigarette, her eyes lit up from beneath and seeming to take on a cruel cast. “Yeah well,” she said, “there are a lot of things you don’t remember.”
Her smoke was beginning to fill the cab, a bluish haze I tried to see through. The windshield seemed tinted by it and I felt sleepy, the warm heaviness that comes after a long swim.
“Tell me,” I said.
There was a pause while it sat there between us, all the knowledge she had on her side, and the silence as she weighed whether to steer me into it. Then she breathed heavily, her face lit darkly by the little tooth of flame at the end of her cigarette.
She told me about our mother bringing home fireworks one Fourth of July when I was still a baby, lighting them in the front yard. The sparks sprayed everywhere, shredding the leaves of trees, sliding down the roof, and spilling from the gutters. And in the midst of it: our mother, bent in half with her hands on her knees, laughing breathlessly.
She told me of the time our father brought home a half-conscious coyote pup wrapped in a blue blanket. He’d found it by the road, injured, and thought it was a stray dog. When our mother saw the animal, she’d said solemnly, “That thing is wild.”
And there’d been a time when our father had shaved off his beard and our mother had shut herself in the bedroom closet, shouting “What have you done with my husband?” and vowing that she wouldn’t come out until his beard grew back.
There’d been a time when our mother slammed the front door so hard that it broke off its hinges, and for almost a week in midsummer the house remained door-less, open to all the gusts and weathers and insects, yellow light leaking in the afternoon, and at night a blue rectangle like a portal to another world.
I listened and it all seemed familiar—both muted and vivid, like the lake on a windless day. And then, how gentle and serious she became, her voice an outstretched hand:
“Cora,” she said. “Do you remember when she left us?”
I didn’t speak for a moment. The words hung there—just like the space she’d spoken of where no door had been for a while.
Finally, I repeated that single word, breathing it out like a little puff of smoke. “Left?”
“You were eight,” she said. “The summer had just ended. She was gone for a month. Do you remember?” Each piece, tentative; each a thread she handled carefully in fear it would break.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. This was as easily dismissed as all the other memories: as our naked-faced father, or the coyote pup mewling in his arms, or the house so close to burning. “I don’t remember.”
She sighed. “Yes, you do,” she said then. She looked at me. I closed my eyes quickly, a switching off of headlights, to erase the insistent look on her face. She said again, “Yes, you do.”
She was right. I remembered the spider moving across my skin and the shards of glass I combed from my hair, and that fact of our mother’s leaving was there in the midst of it all. I felt as if I were very young and being introduced to the concept of a middle name for the first time. You ask your parents, “Do I have a middle name?” and they tell you what it is. They write it out for you. And there it sits, a stranger, between the parts of yourself that you already knew.
Things That Disguise Themselves as Magic
We do not mean for these things to color us, to tint the way we see our lives.
I felt for years that looking too closely would break everything that was left apart. I could not ask my mother where she’d gone to or why, could never show my father the Post-it note we’d found beneath the refrigerator, or say to him, “I know now. I know why you cried in the dark of the living room—in the shadow of John Wayne, who considered even killing that little girl he’d sought for so long rather than try to understand her as different from the way he’d always known her.”
So many things disguise themselves as magic: a kiss to heal a small wound, a spider in the grass, a glass of milk left out on the counter, the absence of headlights. Even meeting someone’s eye at the right moment can hold a foreign magic, seeing something there we think we recognize, only to find it is unknowable. This I know now: the things we want are never simple, even when we are children.
I could never ask my mother if she found happiness in us—but I think I must’ve believed all along that beauty sits inside so much that we brush up against each day—and that belief is something outside of happiness. That is something else.
When I finally asked her what it was that had made her come back to us, she looked very surprised. She said, “Why Baby, I never wanted to leave for good—only for a little while.” I wasn’t sure I believed her, but I think this is what she had come to believe regardless: that she wanted us.
There will always be a space where the unknowable touches up against us. Perhaps that is where a degree of magic lives—touching fear on the face, touching loss, then moving off into a world of exquisite ordinariness.
I remember, just after she’d come back to us, standing at the lip of the quarry a half-mile or so from our house, standing with my mother and my sister. There’d been rumors one of the neighborhood children had found geodes there, and had taken them home like stone tumors to be split open, to reveal their hearts.
We found rugged stones, light brown and dusty. And we knelt, beating them with other stones, ordinary stones, until our mother said: wait.
In those days there were seams everywhere—the light stretched taut at the horizon, the lightning dividing the sky when the storms finally came. It seemed easy that the rocks would open for us, like doors we could never fit through, blue and sugary at their hidden centers. We wanted to eat them from our hands.
We took them home. My father called them “thunder eggs.” He put newspaper beneath them and brought his hammer, as if they were coconuts. We expected leakage, wetness. There was none—only a grayish powder, insides gone old and finally breathing again. We wanted to know: How do the days add themselves up? How does the rock know its own seam? But we kept all questions secret for the time being. We only looked.
We looked inside, met the blue-gray eye there, its first act of looking, chambered heart bleeding a dust that was both soft and sharp.
Of course, we thought. Of course the world is blue at its heart. Of course this egg holds thunder like a pulse that seeps and strains against the shell.
We handled the two halves. How could we possibly be more mysterious than this—our own centers giving off a faint light, blood turning to crystal and sweetening, the mosquitos that settled on the backs of our hands perhaps knowing more about our insides than we did. The spider was already forgotten. The bite, already healed.
We could’ve returned to the quarry, gathered more. We could’ve told the neighborhood children about what we found, bragging and wet-lipped. But suddenly those things seemed to matter less. It seemed then that nothing mattered but the stones that were open and breathing on the table; nothing but those portions of a landscape we both knew and didn’t know. Maybe we felt that, from far enough away, we could see all their meanings clearly, the layers like roads on a map. Maybe all we wanted was to see the scattered music of their still hearts resolve into storm-colored ledger lines. Maybe we merely stood still in the wonder that cracking something open could yield so much.