The Mother

Brown strands of hair clung to the corners of her mouth before the wind blew them free, whipping her choppy locks into tangles that could pass for bedhead (if the person scrutinizing her hair had just crawled out of bed, and had yet to put in their contacts, she thought). The woman sighed. There is no such thing as “wind-tousled” hair when one lives on the plains of the Midwest; rather, there are fifty-mile-per-hour wind gusts that render combs useless and tease manes into something resembling the wildling ‘do of Disney Tarzan.

Why bother? She tucked a few errant strands back behind her left ear — not for the first or last time, to be sure — and pushed the screen door open. As the woman surveyed the horizon for the first time this evening, she kept a firm grip on the door. It had been opened against the unrelenting wind, but in Kansas, one could never be too careful. At any given moment, the breeze would shift its course, pulling the door from her grasp and slamming it back against the siding — bending the inadequately spring-loaded door closer and forever rendering it somewhat-less-useful.

The sky was bleached a milky white, as odd a color she’d ever seen it. There was no hint of blue, nor sign of the sinking sun (it was, after all, nearly eight) — only the faintest trace of umber mingled in with the white. Tomorrow, the forecast showed yet another wind advisory; it was likely the dust particles that were whipped into a froth today wouldn’t even settle overnight, and tomorrow’s sunrise would be obscured behind a haze of filth. It was impossible to accomplish anything significant with the wind battering you at every turn; even breathing seemed inadvisable on days like this.

The woman’s shoulders slumped as the screen door banged shut behind her. The house loomed behind her, its ghastly shingled siding an eyesore against what would otherwise be a relatively unblemished (albeit dry and sparse) horizon. From within the walls, she could just barely hear the whimpering cries — her son’s Bedtime Blues, as she’d mentally dubbed them. Every night, without fail: the crying. She wondered if he would ever outgrow it. Surely, the woman thought, surely someday he would fall asleep without the wounded cries of a child whose mother refused to rock him to sleep every night. Surely.

I could just go, she whispered to no one, not even herself (who’d know she was lying). She took a step, toes crunching blades of grass long-dead. The cries were fainter — was the baby still crying, or was this her imagination at work? Often, she didn’t know; especially in bed at night, when the pitch black seemed to play tricks on her ears. How was that possible? It was as though the darkness blanketed sounds, muffled everything except the whirring of her thoughts. Definitely fainter. Probably her imagination.

The woman took another step, and then fifteen more, stopping only at the cool bite of the barbed-wire fence. Now she could hear nothing of her life inside the barracks house, only the trilling of some bird that didn’t know it was bedtime and the distant thrum of tires on the highway.

She turned to her right, holding the top wire of the fence loosely in her fist — sometimes, the wire grazed the inside of her palm, other times it was as though she were grasping air — and closed her eyes. Methodically, probing the ground for holes and pinecones with her tentative steps, the woman made her way to the end of the line. Now the white of the sky had given way to a murky blue-brown, and a hazy blob of orange lingered where sky met earth. The woman definitely could not hear crying, not the child’s or her own. There was only the sound of daylight dying in the arms of Night. And the sound of her pulse, which had grown louder as she walked along the fence, as though the barbs that had torn open her flesh had also unleashed a voice: her heartsong.

Eyes open, she trotted to the car that sat miserably where she’d neglected it the last time she had left the house (six days ago), blanketed in chalky dust and roasting inside — hot air belched into her face when she jerked the handle, it rolled over her like a wave of ocean born in the bowels of an oven.

The baby was still inside. He would be sleeping now, the woman knew. His father would be home in a few hours; before midnight, most likely.

I could just go. There it was again! That lie.

With a grunt, the car came to life at the twist of the key.

He’ll be home in a couple of hours. Maybe even earlier, she reasoned. Sometimes he’s home earlier. The sun was no longer visible at all, the sky now nearly-indigo. The car’s air conditioner had sprung to life immediately, bathing the woman at first in a warm wash of air; but now, her arms were chilled, an odd sensation coupled with the slimy warmth of her thighs against the leather seats. She flicked the lights on, bumped the gearshift into drive. Slowly, slowly, the woman released pressure on the brake, allowing the vehicle to move forward of its own accord. It creeped maddeningly slowly toward the gravel road, but she could not depress the gas pedal. The instinct was there — press down — but somewhere the neurons that transmitted the message from brain to foot were misfiring, or not firing at all, the lazy little bastards.

They rolled onward, the woman and the car, neither in much of a hurry. She wondered if the baby still slept; sometimes, he woke up after an hour or two looking for his mother. They could spend all their waking hours together and he still needed the woman in his sleep, she mused. How magnificent, the needing! — she wasn’t sure that any other creature on the earth required so much from their mothers as infant humans. She knew for certain that calves could be weaned from their mothers within a handful of months, and of course by then, they were already foraging for the greenest shoots of grass and wandering farther from the herd every day. She crawled to a stop several yards before the road, the car idling tiredly at the woman’s indecision.

I could just go, she repeated. I could just go. But — the thought hung in the air before her, and her stomach lurched at the rest of the statement. The woman sighed — it felt like her first breath since she’d exited the house — and shifted the car into reverse. She didn’t quite run the handful of steps up the sidewalk and back to the door, but there was a renewed sense of urgency. Was that the baby, crying, or were her ears playing tricks on her again?

Her palm grasped the smooth metal of the door handle as headlights swept over the yard.

Everyone was home, now.

March on the Plains

There’s not a green shoot of grass in sight, other than — somehow, miraculously — the tufts of wheat crawling up from the powdery dust that passes for soil in the field across from our house. The earth hasn’t seen rain in seven months and it shows: trees are shriveled, their bark wrinkled and cracked like the flesh of a centuries-old tortoise; last year’s grass looks more like last decade’s grass; even the slightest cough from the sky sends chalky particles upward in a dizzying pirouette to the sky.

Today, yesterday, tomorrow (most likely) — the wind batters from the south. And the west. And sometimes, the north. It shrieks and moans as it whips around the walls of our abode, which emit their own protestations at the unrelenting battering ram. Together, the wind and the walls squeal out a song of misery, day and night.

The floor lamp flickers again and again, its light a wavering attempt at courage in the wind-storm that rages outside. Its brilliance ebbs and flows, mimicking my inner dialogue — I will not last another day in this desert wasteland. Oh, but you must! Mmph…

Another gust blasts against the door, followed by another and another and another. I imagine our house a dinghy tossed about on the ocean — oh, to be surrounded by water! — it creeps beneath the door, the wind: an unadmitted visitor paying no heed to social niceties, barging in coldly to wrap its wispy fingers around my ankles.

The chill rises, a tingling slowness as though I have been lowered into a pool of water feet-first. Whispers of the furious gales outside crawl deliberately upward, snaking ever closer toward the destination. I am certain — the wind is alive, burning with the icy fire of the soulless wicked.

Hand on the brass knob, I repress a shudder and twist. For an instant, respite: silence descends, dirt hangs motionless on the horizon, tumbleweeds relax their grip on the barbed fence.

In another instant, the door is wrenched from my grasp and Chaos resumes its descent, drawing me into the fray.

Motherhood, No. 2

It is early morning — somewhere between the hours of three and four, when my brain is too fogged with interrupted sleep to comprehend things like time — and you have awakened me with your intermittent cries. Yelps, more like. Between outbursts, a pause of several seconds — long enough for me to think Sure, he’s okay then and sink back onto my pillow before another cry wakes me from my sleep-drunken stupor.

Grumbling, I untangle my legs from the winding vines that the sheets have become overnight: your father doesn’t believe in sleeping like a normal human being (under the covers), so he is forever bringing a blanket to bed and hunkering down in it, pushing the sheets and bedspread to the side or foot of the mattress so that I end up in some sort of twisted pile of bedding that seems intent on strangling me as I sleep. You cry out again — I think you’re probably mostly asleep, the cries are so far apart — and I murmur reassurances that I know you can’t hear as I blindly walk the familiar path from our room to yours.

Your room is awash in the eerie glow of a too-bright nightlight that casts shadows on every wall. The worst is a spidery looking apparition that covers half of the room, mostly over your crib: the ghastly result of light striking your woodland-animals mobile. I secretly shudder at that leggy shadow every night, certain that your cries must have something to do with its looming appearance above your resting place. Can infants fear spiders? I’m sure any child of mine must.

On tiptoes, I lean over the top edge of your crib, my gut — still not recovered from carrying you, seven months later — creased in half by the hard walnut edges smoothed by your father’s shop machines. Shhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh, Mama’s here — you stop the instant my hands grasp your torso and I lift you gingerly from the confines of your bed. You’re hungry, though, and begin to grizzle feverishly as I carry you to our chair. I brace myself against the shocking chill of polished wood against the backs of my thighs and shoulders. In the dark, your mouth works like that of a little milk zombie: open, shut, open, shut, open shut — until finally, you find what you’re searching for and your eyes fold shut in a mixture of relief and ecstasy.

As you feast, I close my eyes and lean back, wondering who you will become. It is three-something in the morning and I am awake, picturing you twenty years down the road, always with that cheeky grin and creamy, smooth skin. You stroke my hand with your tiny plump palm, occasionally pausing to wrap a finger in your fist, as if to tell me Thank you, Mama or — I like to pretend — I love you most. Not that it’s a competition between your father and me; just, I am your most beloved now, and I will savor that, because later you will have friends and classmates and girlfriends and lovers and I will surely lose the privilege of that most as I drift along in the wake of your expanding horizons.

Looking down at the rounded nub of your nose, I think of my teacher’s son, David, who took his own life a few months ago. Tracing the soft curve of your cheek with my fingertip, I pray. Please let this child grow up to know he is beloved and help him to find fulfillment. And Please always bring him home to me, whole. And Please make him need me always.

You’re through with the midnight snack, your head has lolled back onto my forearm and your mouth is agape, a stream of milk leaking from the corner where your lips meet and trailing down your neck: you are one satisfied little boy. I’m not tired any longer; I’m wide awake with the kind of fervent panic I can only assume all mothers experience at one time or another. It’s a futile panic: you will get older, you will grow up and out, you will leave me for a different life. These are certainties, and though I hate the leaving, I know that it is better than the alternative.

I am not tired anymore, though, so I will hold you a little longer now. I love you, I love you.

I love you.

The Plains: A Vignette

Out here, people are fiercely loyal to a land that has no love for any thing or any man.

The desertlike plains of southwestern Kansas are fiercely unforgiving; on any given day, you can expect to hear the relentless and mournful howl of a wrathful wind, uncorked from some mythical bottle that refuses to be stoppered until all its air has pushed forth. The wind charges furiously across open fields, encouraging earth to rise and seek refuge in every available crevice — the corner of an eyeball, a crease behind the ear, a long-neglected crack beneath a front door, a hole in the wall of a barn. The dust rises like powder into the endless sky and creates a galaxy of its own volition, daring any and all to enter its massive expanse and come out the other side.

It’s a trick, though.

Everybody knows that it is impossible to do such a thing — challenge the earth and emerge unscathed.

The furious wind and living, breathing organism that is dirt in the southwestern plains are maddening on their own; impossible to endure when they join forces. And just when the elements seem powerful enough to rob you of the most human things you are comprised of, the plains layer on another element of abysmal self-destruction: the drought.

One can live for months without a single cleansing drop of rain, it is true. But physical survival is not a close relative to spiritual continuance. As the earth shrivels and withers in the fiery kiln that is southwest Kansas, so, too, does the soul beat a hasty retreat. There is something primitive in our souls that can only be nourished by the pattering of rain upon dirt, and I often find myself wondering if I am the only one that feels mine rattling around within me like a tab in an empty pop can — or if the indigenous peoples have evolved over time to function with just a wisp, nestled securely inside the pinky finger.

I must remember to nurture my pop-tab spirit, to water it with something life-sustaining. It will not find a knuckle to burrow in safely until the sky opens up next; I am not a native. My soul will skitter about until it finds my mouth open at just the right time and whffft! — it will flee east, or north, witching water all the way.

The Dream(s)

Last night I dreamed one thousand lies.

It started with the death of my brother. First he perished in a twisted ball of metal and fire. I wasn’t there, but it was in me — I felt it in the heart of me. My blind eyes saw the vacant black asphalt reflected in the glassy stare of his coffee-brown eyes. My sleeping arms started at the sudden sting of shattered windshield and we rolled and rolled and rolled together before resting downside up. I did not feel the flames but I watched as ribbons of brilliant yellow-orange devoured his coarse brown hair and freckle-spotted cheeks. This was his first death: quick but agonizing.

Next he died face-up in the basement of a new friend’s house: his lips a faint blue with the dried remains of vomit hidden just behind his teeth. He whispered to me slow, but my ears were asleep and I did not hear words; only incomplete sounds. At least his eyes were closed and guarded by thick black lashes from whatever came next.

Then he was whole, a perfect nuisance with his consciously relaxed posture and arrogant smirk — his stare both burning and jovial at the same time. He was whole, and then there was a hole, in his gut, just off to the side of his navel. From the hole a great scarlet flower bloomed, spreading its virulent leaves in hyperlapse fashion. The flower spread within him, too, and though I could not see at first I soon noticed a curled leaf eking its way out of the part between his lips: brilliant and garish against the dusty rose of his mouth. My phantom hand reached for this flower and instead brushed against the slick surface of a wall.

Painted eggshell and pocked with shallow dings here and there, the mostly-smooth surface seized my arm and led me away. I sat up abruptly, lungs grabbing desperately for real air (not that stuff of dream worlds), and I could finally see.

There were no scarlet flowers, there was no shattering of glass, there was no muffled murmur. Only the tepid air of the enclosed bedroom and the too-loud chirruping of crickets just beyond the narrow wall.