My mother thought the best way to teach me to be a woman was to teach me to be alone.
The morning of my thirteenth birthday, I woke from a throbbing, inexorable dream in the dark, seized by pain. The crippling waves flooded my middle. I lay doubled over, clutching my pink mouse to my stomach, until light broke between the curtains and the phone picked up on its first ring, as though my mother’s hand in sleep had been resting on the receiver. Her murmuring moved down the hall, and like an old-fashioned cradle tugged by its cord, my body lifted as one piece from the bed. I didn’t want to describe to her what I’d discovered, so I simply stepped from the underpants and brought them balled into the kitchen.
My mother stood by the stove in bright batik with the phone tucked to her ear like a little bird, cracking eggs into a pan and whisking them with soy milk, Tabasco, pepper. I still wore my nightgown, hair wild from its thrashes against the dream. She taught me always to dress upon leaving bed, to splash water on my face, rinse my mouth, and comb my hair, before meeting another person. She said this drew a line between day and night, kept good spirits from demon corruption. This was just the way she spoke. Boundaries, she meant, were important.
Her murmurs stopped when she saw what I held bunched in my fist. She slipped the receiver from her nest of dreadlocked hair and pressed the mouthpiece to her breast to muffle asking, “Is that what I think it is?”
I nodded, opening my hand and unfolding the white cotton package to reveal the stain, a glistening circle set on the bridge of fabric that stretched between the legs.
Without a whisper, she hung up the phone and put a lid over the runny yellow threaded with red starting to lump unmixed in the pan. “Oh, sweetheart,” she said, in her bright, disapproving classroom tone. “How about birthday pancakes instead?” Foot on the pedal, she popped the garbage can lid for me to throw in the underpants after the half-cooked eggs.
I wanted verbal confirmation of what had happened, but she only pointed me back down the hall to wash and change. In the bathroom I unearthed the mini-pillow of a maxi pad from its crinkly wrap of plastic, smoothed out the sticky wings, and fastened them in place.
I’d settled in before the soothing lilt of TV, pain dulling with the heat of a hot water bottle, maple-syruped stack and liquid Tylenol taking effect, when my mother came in the room zipping up the brown leather rucksack, stuffed to fill its shape. I knew then I was being sent away, like one of her indigenous subjects.
In the car, stopped at a light before a strip mall, she said, “I’ve told you of walkabout. There’s not much of an equivalent for girls. Mostly they sit around in huts and houses. This doesn’t change with marriage.”
She drove pinching the wheel high between her fingers as though leading it on by the ear. Her other hand trailed out the window with a cigarette, beads clinking from her wrist as she brought it to her lips.
My mother was an anthropologist by training, one who not only watched but joined in on native rituals—once surmounting a brief psychotic break brought on by hallucinogens smoked around a fire—but she gave all that up when she got pregnant, with me, for a renewable contract at community college. She’d never married. If I asked her who my father was, she shrugged.
Merging to the interstate, she rolled up her window and the talk radio that’d been on all along came audible, bringing us news of the world. When she took the exit for the little highway heading north, I guessed where we were going.
The cottage was where we’d spent many summers once Grandpa retired from making cars. Grandma no longer lived there. She went crazy fast after he passed to the other side, and my mother and her sisters, who normally only cohabitated a room on Christmas, moved her together to a home. She no longer recognized us as who we were. Sometimes, with a hardened gaze of adversarial respect, she called me Janice, my mother’s name, and I felt given a voyeuristic glimpse of a girl unknown to me, a shadow of a woman undressing in an upstairs window.
The lake was four hours away, the cottage ten minutes more, and I napped in the slant of sun splashing in over the dash. At the general store beside the lot with the climbable statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, she stopped for a box of food and supplies. Before she got back in the car, she made a call on her cell and smoked another cigarette. Her expression was at ease, neither conflicted nor concerned as she exhaled the smoke in long steady streams through the hoop pierced in her nose.
We drove along walls of trees, mailboxes signaling civilization cloaked within. The leaves were slow to turn that year, and most Up North were evergreens. When they broke, I could see patches of placid lake, unscathed by motorboats. Labor Day had long passed, and I should have started back to school, but the spring before, my mother had decided to keep me home till junior high was through.
By the time we pulled into the dirt drive, the midday sun had dipped behind the forest line. The woods were shady and cool. We parked in the clearing and she walked with me along the path to the cottage.
I hadn’t been since I was but a child, and it wasn’t as special as I’d remembered, just a small green-shuttered, white vinyl-sidinged house. My mother paid someone to clean the start and end of the season, but inside it still smelled shut up. She showed me the pantry lined with pouches and cans, and unpacked the eggs, real milk, and butter she had bought into the icebox. I’d only ever poured myself granola or warmed her bean soup on the stove, but she had faith I could figure it all out.
Out back under a tarp was a modest woodpile. “Of course you control the heat with this little dial, but fires can be nice and cozy, especially if you aren’t feeling well.”
I’d never started a fire in my life. They didn’t hold the same primal fascination for me as they did for her. I crossed my arms to my chest as she drew close to hug good-bye. The cramps were back, gripping like a low-slung belt over my abdomen.
“It will only be a week or less. Call before then if it’s urgent.” My mother made a show of turning on her ringer and brushed my hair back from my face. It finally had grown back out enough that she could. I couldn’t believe she was really leaving me, on my thirteenth birthday.
I felt the weight of loneliness before she could have reached the car. I pictured the slap of her sandaled feet picking up as freedom neared. She could do what she wanted now, all she’d been denied by my stakeouts with schoolbooks at the kitchen table, from which every murmur in the house could be heard; by my sit-ins before the TV, in protest of her class that went till night, postponing dinner. By my being born and tearing her from the enchantments of the jungle and the bush, ending her nomadic life.
I took two capfuls of the Tylenol and curled on Grandma’s creaky couch, pulling the afghan off its back to cover me. Apart from an ankle broken by a hard landing off a balance beam, I’d never felt pain so manifest and intense. My insides clenched for the expulsion of the tissue mass that had been building up. I started to cry, and the sound of it in the empty house belonged to a stranger. For the first time in my life, even counting all the cruelty of my last year at school, never waking up didn’t seem so bad.
But I did wake up. Once late at night to deep and enduring silence and shifting shadows moonlit on the floor. Again with the sunrise streaming through the open blinds and the songs of birds left behind by autumn exoduses. Each time, I took a swig straight from the bottle and tunneled beneath the blanket. When I could sleep no more, bladder full and stomach yawning hollow, I rolled slowly from a fetal position to stand.
By Grandma’s clock, lunch seemed the most appropriate meal to make, but looking at the pantry contents, I realized I could eat whatever I felt like and no one would have to know. At home, my mother enforced a strict healthy diet, reserving baked goods and sugar for special occasions. On the cottage shelf there was a dry fudge brownie mix that needed only eggs and oil. It wasn’t cake, which I was due, but I had the ingredients and the steps seemed simple enough. With the oven preheating and batter dripping down my arms, I opened a package of the marshmallows Grandma had kept around for roasting to tide me over. Defiant of a dull throb, I declined to take more medicine.
In the frilly bathroom, I found the flow had been light for all that anguish, and changed the pad, expert now in its swift removal and replacement, banking the wad into the wastebasket. I felt mature and medical, as I had in Health practicing CPR on the doll, while all my classmates laughed and shrieked and refused to put their lips to it, lest they find sick pleasure from the contact. Okay, it was blood, cells that could have made the body and bed of a child, but that was just science, and though my body was undergoing a process disconcerting and gross, I was still me. I understood how my mother could study other humans as though they hadn’t made friends.
I discovered that the cable box was still hooked up, and flipped to a trashy made-for-TV on obsession and rape. At home, my mother had this channel blocked in favor of more educational programming. The brownies came out gooey and I ate them with a spoon. On the screen, the woman who had been raped was kissing a man who looked like her rapist. He pushed her to the wall. Uncomfortably, I started to recall my dream, the one from the first night, and felt aware of the band of cotton pressed between my legs.
Past midnight, I hadn’t washed or even changed the channel. I still wore the corduroys and plaid button shirt I’d put on the day before and saw no reason to change from them now. Everything I might have needed was in reach: the bottle of Tylenol, the sweets, the remote control. I realized that I hadn’t even gone into the room that usually was mine when my mother and I came to stay.
The next day, the cramps returned with renewed strength. I crumpled over the toilet seat, bent in half, gripping my ankles. I’d heard of girls who could do it all at once, if they only pushed hard enough. I cried. I needed something stronger than children’s Tylenol, but it was all I had, so I drank a lot. In the kitchen I managed to heat up some Campbell’s soup and poured it into Grandpa’s GM mug. I drank the scalding broth and noodles and returned to my cocoon on the couch. I remembered that on the day I was born, my mother lost too much blood, and each year at my family party, Grandma had liked to point out how lucky it was that my mother stopped being stubborn and returned in time to first-world medicine.
Everything on TV that afternoon seemed shallow and petty, and even after sleeping off the last of the pain, I felt myself the most miserable creature on earth. I knew taking a bath and putting on new clothes would make me feel better, but I couldn’t seem to move. I couldn’t believe how much I missed my mother, who I hated half the time and who half the time hated me. Monday through Friday, I hunched over the lessons she made Sunday along with plans for her class, and she hovered over my shoulder with persistent condescending hints. At worst, she snapped back, and shut herself in her room. At best, she proposed a break, and we threaded beads, stretched on the floor as she told stories. My favorite were of the old woman Baba Yaga, who ate children for supper and lived in a cabin that stood on chicken legs, because these were our own ancestors’ tales, a legacy of her childhood, but she also told me of beliefs held by people more ancient, who lived attuned to a morality found in nature. Their literal enactments celebrated human instinct and exposed its transgressions when gone astray. From a feminist standpoint, she said, she had often to disagree with much tradition, but she recognized how rites, rules, and taboos could be like safe hands guiding you down a set of steps.
She saw life that way: that it started high and bright and ended in a cellar. I wasn’t sure where in the house that put us, but she assured me we were somewhere in the lamplit middle, together.
As dark fell and a wind picked up, I got up finally to close the blinds. I couldn’t resist peering between before twisting them shut. I had on no inside lights, only the TV, and once my eyes adjusted I could see far into the trees, beech and maple branches swaying over a dense patchwork of pine. With so many familiar comforts, I’d nearly forgotten how far Up North I was isolated. Most houses by the lake were vacation homes, and no one would be in them now. As rain began to patter, I thought of how it was just windows and walls between me and whatever lived outside.
In the night, the sky flashed and thundered, and in the morning I found, as though she had been birthed by the storm, a damp tabby mewing on the front porch. Her claws had been scratching at the door, scraping desperate woody streaks through the green paint. She wasn’t so thin as to seem starved, but brushed endlessly against my legs and butted her head to my hands. I poured a saucer of milk and let her in. We cuddled on the couch, her body purring, as I tried to think up good names. At noon I called my mother.
“I certainly didn’t mean you had to stay barricaded inside all day like a hermit. Step outside, go for a walk, get some fresh air, for god’s sake."
“Okay.” I fell silent, and she waited. “What have you been doing, Mom?”
“What have I been doing? What I always do. Teaching, grading, tearing out my hair. I miss you, kid, but I meant it when I said urgent. This isn’t much of an exercise if you’re calling me for things like how to feed a cat. Tell me you’re okay."
I said I was okay. I didn’t want to leave the cat all by herself after her traumatic night, but my mother insisted that was what made cats popular pets for eccentric single women: their resiliency and independent nature, their ability to use a box—I could use woodchips from the pile as her litter.
The season seemed to have turned overnight, closer now to winter than fall, but my mother hadn’t packed a heavy jacket. Rain had taken down the leaves and hammered them over the thicket; most deciduous were now bare. I stomped my feet and twirled in circles, as though to make myself known to the universe, but really just to stay warm. Mud-caked and pine-fresh, the woods smelled homey and purified of potential danger. If I kicked around for it, I’d uncover the path that led to the lake. I wasn’t sure I could go all that way alone and didn’t want to get lost. But I could follow it for a while.
It felt good to be out; pumping my legs, I felt strong. I found myself humming an aboriginal song my mother sang on Saturdays when she cleaned. From time to time I heard cars passing on the road, as the path curved along it before it went deep.
Roam far enough into the wilderness of your own backyard, you were bound to cross into another man’s land, and he wouldn’t be too happy. Grandpa said that once. He didn’t approve of a lone woman traveling the world to escape, prove a point, or find herself, but my mother said none of that was what she had been doing.
I slowed at the edge of a clearing filled in summer with Queen Anne’s lace and spattered now with leaves. A pyramid of cans, likely broken by a BB, lay in a frozen tumble over a fallen tree. I recognized the label as Labatts. I wondered who was responsible for all those empties, if the experience of drinking them had made a teenage kid a man, or if they had been gathered from a father sleeping it off.
Farther on, straying just off the path, I came across the patch of weed Grandpa always pointed to from afar as the work of either blacks or hippies. My mother would hoof off, for once forgetting me with my grandparents behind. She liked me always in sight when visiting them, as though to prove herself grown-up, and I the only child. I toed the many-pronged leaves, thinking of my wish for something stronger, thinking of my lost best friend Melissa, who the last time I came over smoked butts salvaged from her parents’ ashtrays while I watched, memorizing the motions, feeling none of the effects. Drugs and alcohol, my mother said, were known through history to bond humans through healthy ritual, but also abused to treat and hide symptoms of deep emotional conflict. I may wish to experiment as she had done, but what happens to your body, she said, should be out of love and a sacred choice.
To be out of my mind, joined to a higher plane, like sex held the aura of a vice I couldn’t want. I knelt to touch the plant and brushed against a clump of spikes that must have been its flowering. I pinched it off. Deflowering. In Science we had studied the pistil and stamen, dissecting them from the petals with our bare hands. A drawing had been passed to me like a note. Opening it, I was reminded of the box beneath my mother's bed. Inside, the veined, rubbery tube fit over a metal bulb that could be turned on to rotate and buzz in a low constant hum I’d never heard, even in the night. My classmates must have been able to read the recognition in my face. My skin burned hot then prickly cold, and as I had run from class, I now hurried back to the cottage
The cat, hungry again, was glad for my return, slipping through my legs in urgent figure-eights. I opened a can of tuna, gave her a dish, and spread the rest between slices of white general-store bread. My hands smelled of outdoors. I washed them and sat to eat at Grandma’s Formica dinette, sweeping off every trace of sandwich crumbs when I was done.
What the girls at school, Melissa too, had said of me behind my back was true. My mother, because she had broken free, was singular and strange, and to compensate I couldn’t have any fun. The only way for anything to happen—for confidences between females to be earned, secrets to be exchanged, notes to be passed, and covert meetings between the sexes to be arranged—was to hang out at the discount cineplex in the mall, where gang-bangers patted their chests beneath their puffy coats, beseeching one another to “step up,” and I was too prim, too goody two-shoes to do that. Trying not to stand out was not the same as fitting in.
No wonder they had tripped me from the beam, burrowed gum so deep into my hair my mother had to cut it off. No wonder they encircled me and the CPR-practice doll, pushed me down, and held my face, taking pictures of our locked embrace on their phones to spread over the school. No wonder they had called me It, neither girl nor boy, and patted my skinny body down in the locker room for signs of either one.
My mother was right. It was time to learn how to take care of myself. When you’re grown-up, she said, you’ll be the very same person, but you’ll be able to look back to a wealth of accomplishments and hurdles cleared, and the defeats of childhood will seem far away, like they happened to someone else.
I checked myself in the bathroom. The flow had significantly slowed, but I might have another two or three days. I stripped down to the skin and in the shower’s steam worked up a soapy lather. I dried my growing hair smooth and straight like the girls at school, dusted my skin with Grandma’s powder.
The last time we’d come together up to the cottage, we found Grandma in her robe without her eyebrows drawn, her hair white at the roots and auburn to the ends. She sat motionless, upright on the couch. My mother knelt at her mother’s feet, peeled off the slipper socks, clipped the hardened yellowed nails, painted them pearl pink. Even if you think no one else will see you all day long, she lectured me on the ride home, even if you don’t like who might come to see you, you should look nice for you.
I dressed in the room that was usually mine, where my mother often joined me with her blankets after lights-out. Grandma had hung needlepoint on the nautical-wallpapered walls. She kept skeins of acrylic yarn in colored bins in the closet, and left a few hangers for me. In the rucksack my mother had packed two of the bras I hadn’t yet worn. I slipped one on. It clasped in front with a little pink bow, not what I would have expected her to pick out for me, but the cups gave my flat hidden chest a firm-looking rounded shape under the fresh plaid button shirt
The cat hopped up on the bed and curled head to feet to sleep, and I dragged out a bin of yarn and a pair of knitting needles. No more waking late and TV into the night. I thought I could remember the stitch Grandma had taught one night as my mother sat in the corner, silently threading beads.
The devil makes work for idle hands, Grandma told Grandpa cheerfully in retirement. He would grunt and pull a lawn chair from the shed and slowly drink what seemed just one Labatts over the course of the morning, while Grandma put the dough that had risen overnight into a fattened ball inside the oven and my mother shared with me coffee and the crossword, complaining we had consumed enough carbs from the loaves yesterday. By the time the bread came out crusty brown, we were slathering sunscreen, and Grandpa had exchanged the chair for a fishing rod. His eyes were twinkly, and he pinched Grandma’s butt as she tried to pack the basket lunch, getting slapped away and called “you old horndog.” He looked to my mother for commiseration, playfully bumping her hip and squeezing her side, but she pulled me along to gather cover-ups and towels. He seemed hurt, but teased, What, am I being naughty? You going to smack me too?
You wouldn’t know what it’s like, Janice, Grandma had said that last time we had gone to the cottage; you never let yourself close to anyone, you only lived your life for you, to hell with anyone who wanted you to have the best. She turned to me, yanking her bathrobe belt to a knot, and said, Janice, You can just go to your room and stay there; no more playing games out on the streets at night if you can’t behave like the nice Catholic girl you were raised.
They thought I was growing up too fast, too wild, my mother said, driving the car. The way she kept me fed, it was no surprise I plumped up the way I did. Though Daddy always called it curves, she said, eyes on the road, so they moved me to the suburbs.
This made her laugh. I didn’t mention that she had done the very same to me before I’d even been born, because, just ten years old, I couldn’t see what about it could be so pointless or bad. When we got home from that last trip, she paced the hall, then shut her door and made the calls to her sisters.
I found Grandma’s cookbooks in a kitchen cupboard, and flour, unopened yeast, a mixing bowl in the pantry. On my first try, the dough didn’t much rise. On my second, the loaf came out burned from the oven. On my third, a hot slice with butter made a good before-bed snack. I had started on a scarf that wrapped just round my neck, and I folded it away before turning down the covers and climbing in, tabby cat purring at my feet.
The evening of the fifth day, I thought I’d call my mother just to boast of how well I was doing alone. The flow was petering, its proof a faint streak. It would soon be time to come home, and I wasn’t even desperate for it. I was baking not just for sustenance or for comfort, though I ate plenty of it, but to improve my skills, cooling chocolate-chip cookies on the counters, bread and pumpkin pies on open sills. I considered wild animals, but firmly felt the master of the house. As new creations puffed up and baked, I added more rows on to the scarf. The cat watched my activity from the parallelogram of sun atop the icebox.
The phone rang fully three times before my mother picked it up.
“Yes?” she said in the suspicious tone reserved for dinnertime solicitors.
I said, “It’s only me.”
In the background of her pause trailed a male mumbling, too immediate and mundane to be TV. I should have known. My mother was still a woman, and breaks between lessons held the silent sound of secrets being kept from me. With a swish she swiftly muffled the mouthpiece. She wasn’t alone.
“Goddammit,” she muttered, ostensibly to the man who lurked in the room. I pictured his hand, skin rough from skilled labor, setting on her silk-enshrouded arm. He would lift the sleeve and blow softly on her hairs, like a game. The unlikely stepfather—he was the real reason I’d been sent away. My mother was saying, “Sophia? Sophie, are you still there?” I hung up.
I ate half the cookies before the TV, cat crooked in my arm, movie after movie displaying scenes of betrayal and women mourning lost and never extant love.
I tried to think of anything my mother had taught about men or boys, but could recall no specific encouragement or advice, only the broadest statements on structures and implements of power and cultures’ concepts of masculinity. The only time we spent apart in recent months was when she left for the college, and I hadn’t seen a single person my age since leaving school. In Math there’d been a boy who sat in back etching elaborate engravings onto his desk with an X-ACTO knife. The teacher dropped the dry eraser at least once every class, bending so her haunches rounded out and dropped to hit her high heels. If she called on him, he knew the answer. If she didn’t, he spent class making smart remarks under his breath until she did. I was the only one who never laughed, imagining what he imagined he’d do alone to her, and with what.
I took off my day clothes before an unsheathed window, and when I turned out the lights, I searched and searched the night’s shadows, seeing only the limbs and trunks of trees. Grandpa was the one man of both his city and his country house, and the home in between. He was always fending off his wife’s and daughters’ bad dreams. My mother said I didn’t need a father and never really shared her own. I had trouble falling asleep, but what helped was holding my legs together, squeezing again and again, shifting my hips beneath the sheets.
In the morning, the fresh pad worn overnight was still white as snow, so I stripped it off, rolled it up, and banked it into the basket. Moving without it through the house, I felt naked and free, despite a body bloated if not from fluid or gas then from the cookies of last night. I wanted to celebrate that I had made it through, but I couldn’t call my mother, who’d been enjoying my time away
When I opened the back door to test the air, the cat dashed out, chasing an invisible sprite into the trees. I called her name, Ta-bby, here Kitty-Kitty, until my voice grew hoarse and I gave up. From the shed I dug out Grandpa’s fishing rod, bait, and tackle. In the corner was an unplugged minifridge of cold cans. I hesitated, but that they were here made him seem nearby and watching over me. I took one in my hand, lifted the tab, and instantly smelled his breath, distinct from the smokiness of my mother’s. My first small sip was bitter, and I poured out about half in drizzles along the trail. At the lake, I set his fishing gear on the dock and dangled my feet from the edge, staring out at the ever-changing peaks of the ripples. After lunch, before he went out in a skiff, Grandpa stood apart skipping stones with little flicks of his wrist, as though, with his buzz worn off, in a sulk, as though giving us a chance to forgive. The razor-edge caught the surface and bounced, caught and bounced, sending out concentric waves, then sliced through and was swallowed. I rubbed my thumb along the flat smoothness of a rock, but he had never shown me how and I didn’t want to lose it right away. I could see my breath and should have been colder, but another can of Labatts kept me warm. It seemed at any moment that ice could strike and spread across the surface, as a flash of light reflected from the sky. I threw out the stone and with a blip it sunk.
When Grandpa died, my mother took charge, advocating for cremation and the ashes of his body blowing out over the lake. Her sisters seemed relieved; they just didn’t want to have to help. But Grandma’s family had bought a mausoleum in the city cemetery. My mother said now the cycle of the earth couldn’t accept him; his soul wouldn't be put to rest. What I thought of it didn’t seem to matter. Which was that no one ever went to see him there and I’d not been close to him at all. I lowered his gear into one of the canoes tethered to the rocky shore. I wasn’t getting in. I’d never figure fishing out. I shoved it off. Either the canoe would fill with rain and snow and finally sink, or it would freeze in the middle, a monument. I watched it slowly sail, as though it’d never stop.
Eventually the sun lowered, threatening to set. I had to pee and I shivered. On the walk back my stomach growled, but I was Eve before Adam, the woods peaceful and still. Not until I reached the cottage, left lit like a confection, did I realize how dark it had become. I set out at the dinette warmed slices of bread and pie and a plate of day-old cookies and devoured it all, leaving the dishes at the table as I would for my mother. With tingly hands come unnumb, I carried more cans in from the shed. Then I came back for some wood.
Over the layer of ash built up in the hearth I stacked the logs into a teepee—I’d seen this on TV. I crumpled up a newspaper dated the year Grandma had been sent away and sparked the contorted pages with a match torn from a book printed with the name of Grandpa’s favorite downtown union bar. The flames, consuming fuel, ate to the tips of my fingers, and I kept letting go, but finally they spread and grew into a pretty strong fire. I sat right in front of it, proud, chemical glow burning my face. I thought about the marshmallows but decided that was juvenile. Instead I had more Labatts.
The flames danced, intertwined and apart. I found I could imagine into the fire changing expressions, like a face looking back. Now threatening, now inviting, now blank. My mother with her womb and egg provided me a concrete shape, the family I knew, the body that contained me, but there was a slippery wildness running through my veins, the secret of my blood. It was fantasy to envision the voice on the other end of the phone my father returned, and in the absence of his image, I feared the man I would see. I pictured the boy in the back of class, hidden by his ballcap brim, pale fur over his lip.
You have nice eyes, he said, peering into them. I drank.
A nice nose. He held a finger before its slope. I finished the can.
Nice teeth. He licked a hot tongue, drawing me close, radiating oppressive heat.
I came sober fast. The flames only caught me by my sleeve, and I rolled against them on the ground, gasping out of breath. Before the smell of singed cotton sent me to my room, I lay a moment in dull surprise that the only danger I’d been in all week had started with the wandering of my mind, locked with me inside the house.
I woke early in bed, the night a nagging dream. I didn’t remember the fire right away. My body moved heavy, hung over more from the food that had absorbed the alcohol. With no cramps, no stain, no ritual of a pad to change, I felt I’d lost a companion, an opponent. I felt alone.
At the mirror I washed my face, rinsed my mouth, and combed my hair. I looked different to myself, fuller in the face, but recognized that I’d somehow become more distinct. My mother knew exactly who my father was, and whether he had treated her well enough or very bad, she saw that capacity in me, in the eyes, say, that were his same devil blue, in the squared-off jaw that followed his shape, in the complexion of my skin, which tanned to island rum while hers burned and blistered in the sun. There may have been others, any number of days of waking in her tent alone, a lover so recently departed the sleeping bag was still warm, so new she hadn’t even caught his name; weeks, months, even years may have passed since the last one had gone, her body taken to sleeping as I spied it now, with legs spread, arms tossed, over the empty space; it was even possible, and in revenge I allowed myself the thought, that she woke once off a trail, wet wound in her hair, pants pushed to her ankles, with no memory of what occurred. But parting from him, she’d kept me, and I’d never let her forget the circumstances and existence of him.
Some knowledge you inherit, through a mystic kind of ancestral memory. Nature knows no right or wrong. Born with the same set of instincts and desires, any man—man in the sense that embraced, did not exclude—was capable of anything any other man could do. Tribes, my mother taught, are superficial demarcations, keeping people who were said to be different apart; said to be similar enough, together; and relation kept you closest, sometimes too close, for no better reason than that relations gave you breath. They made it hard for you to breathe; you couldn't love without thinking of what you'd learned of their love.
Years later, after Grandma's spirit joined her mind and left us too, in a fit of mumblings and shudders—my mother and I both were there—I recognized that what I feared was what was buried deep. Not every question, once emerged and made of words, needs to be asked. Not if the answer held no lesson, no reason why. Not if the asking and the answer, even those, were taboo.
I called my mother at home, but when I heard her voice, hopeful, penitent—I couldn’t speak. She knew that it was me.
“Sweetie?” she said into the silence. “Is it over? Did the bleeding stop?”