CW: Death, Domestic abuse
This is what is most important: the ache in scraped knees. The crawdads scuttling among river rocks. The groan of pipes in your cracked kitchen sink. Night stealing hours. Ponds like meters-wide tide pools. Mud stealing hours. The leak in your bedroom ceiling, the water damage creeping outward around it. Threat of collapse. Men stealing hours.
You were a child—no one could have faulted you for that. You have learned not to fault you for that.
A portrait: great groaning farmhouse, middle of nowhere, dirt driveway, straw-colored fields, straw-colored hair (your mother) (your little brother, too, before), straw-colored sky in the evenings (no light pollution to color it vibrant), deep-south (no aurora borealis to throw it shimmering). You and no army. You and ponds like oceans. You and a little brother, before.
He—here’s a memory that doesn’t make you turn your face to hide—he played in the woods more than you did, before. Little firecracker, noisemaker, mischievous thing. He was annoying at first and then nothing, and you remember him fondly now, remember the many times he dragged you into those woods with him, remember how he never was as careful as you are, tugging you through underbrush and over rocks and streams. Falling, always falling, and getting up again and running. You scraped your knees so many times when you were with him, and the two of you shared that hurt: scabs that sting like memory.
Your brother was the one who first showed you the streams and ponds, the places where rain collected, the mudslides, the bugs that skittered across the surfaces of water like spiders on tables. Water like oceans. Creatures like tide pools. You made friends with the crawdads. Your mother brought home a deep, dripping basket, and you feasted on the crawdads. They pinched you alive and dead, blood welling from the snips (blood welling from the scrapes on your knees). There are pebbles stuck under your skin, even now, from the times you refused to let your mother clean them.
Your mother. This is a portrait of her you remember: her cleaning you; cleaning dishes; cleaning toys and treasures found in straw-colored fields; because you and your brother were too small to reach the sink basin. A portrait of your mother you also remember is: woman stoking fire; woman sowing seed; woman wringing chicken necks; woman sobbing; woman’s arms, holding you, holding your brother, before. Portrait of a woman: memory like a painting, only brushstrokes; her vague shape stands shining by the farmhouse.
And that farmhouse—as much as a house can love, it loved you, you think. And you loved it. And it could have stood to be taken care of, too, that house, but your little hands didn’t know how to take care of anything you loved (crawdad-eater). Instead, the leak in your bedroom ceiling grew ever wider, and you watched it: house crying, begging for help. Two buckets to catch the drips instead of one. Circular stain like a moon. Mama, fix it. Mama. Mama. You had dreams of the house giving up on you; it stopped straining to keep its shape, let itself bow inward, let itself split. Threat of collapse. Mama, please. Mama.
They never did fix that leak, but over the years, you got good and familiar with repairmen: work boots and denim and patchy beards. Strong smells—sometimes cologne, or alcohol, or urine, or all three—and strong arms, stained with oil. Stained ceiling. Houses, you thought of them, at first. Holding the roof up. Keeping you warm and dry. You never had a Pa to do that, and they kissed your mother, and a Pa fixes things; you knew that, the kids in your grade told you that. You wanted them to be houses, at first.
The house—great-groaning, middle-of-nowhere—loved you, and it hated those men, and you hated those men eventually, hated them like hands raised, like fists squeezing, like water damage widening, darkening, spreading, spreading. Like your brother hated eating his greens, before.
i. night stealing hours
Your Mama loves you. You know that. That’s why you can hear the repairman’s rumbling snores down the second-floor hall even from up in your loft bedroom. The snores lie in your mother’s bed, chasing her out of it, to the bathroom the three of you (four, you suppose) share, where she turns on the faucet and cries as quietly as she can. You hear her. You often hear her.
Your bedsheets are star-patterned; she got you them special, and for the first few days it was an excitement to get to go to sleep, to snuggle among them like you could become one— everlasting, bright. My pole star, your mother calls you, because your brother is her shooting star, quick, fleeting. You love the nickname. You love the way she says it when she tucks you in, just before she leans down to kiss your forehead. There she lingers for a moment, and you get to close your eyes and be small, not seeing the tired lines on her face, not seeing beyond her shoulder to the ceiling above, warped with water, stain like the moon to your star-filled sky, impatiently hanging.
The real moon looks into your bedroom, and you can see it still, even with all the lights off. It looms above you like an entity all its own, ever watching, waiting for the precisely right moment, whenever that may be. This is your room, but this is its room too, and you’re okay with sharing most nights but tonight is so loud and the moon highlights it so brightly so you can’t seem to fall asleep, no matter how hard you squeeze your eyes shut.
You pull back the blanket and slip your little socked feet into your sneakers and you lace them up and out of the bedroom you go, the floorboards’ creaks masked by the sound of the repairman sleeping and by your mother’s tears. It’s an easier time sneaking out than ever; normally you get caught in the kitchen on the squeaky linoleum. That’s the quietest room in the house at night, you think—to you, it feels like every moment within it is a transgression, even when you’re just up to get a glass of water.
Tonight, you aren’t caught, though. Tonight, the cool, dark air welcomes you as you slip out the mudroom door, shivering slightly with the chill. You like the warm summer nights better, when you can hardly tell the difference between it and day if you cover your eyes, but tonight’s temperature makes sense somehow, so you accept it. It feels too late to go back in for a jacket anyway.
You and your brother both know your mother’s farmland well enough to be let loose, so you don’t hesitate when you walk out into it, heading diagonally toward the joining of the field and forest, not sure yet which path you’ll take. These nights are no good for anything but away. You don’t have some secret goal like you usually do, to look for treasure or to find the perfect place to howl at the moon. Tonight, you have no other goal than to keep your gaze from the water damage in your bedroom, and to avoid the cacophony that the repairman has brought into your house.
You decide at the last second to stray right, towards the forest, taking the paths your brother has trampled for you. He has always been more eager than you to explore—not to say you would ever turn down an adventure—and as much as you don’t like to admit it as the big kid, you follow his lead more often than he follows yours. He is brave in a way that you were not before he taught you.
Mama has read you plenty of stories where the woods are dangerous, but you’ve never been afraid of this forest. It’s impossible to be scared of it when you know it so well, when you can point out where a family of squirrels nest and where owls roost in the day. You’ve never seen a coyote here (and you won’t, even after). You know the roots and the paths and the streams—your brother showed you those—and you know the deer trails and the shallows where fish sleep. You like the woods, and as much as woods can like, they like you.
You go to the closest creek. It’s not nearly wide enough to be considered a river, but it’s the one your family calls “the river” anyway, where Mama catches crawdads and where you and your brother play pirate ship. It leads upstream to a small pond, which your mother told you is fed by an underground stream, and which in turn fed your daydreams for weeks afterward: a million-billion mermaid dreams and shark dreams and fleeing-from-piranha dreams.
The water greets you when you arrive, burbling over stones. You take off your sneakers and your socks and you roll up your pajama bottoms and you say hello back to the water by stepping into it, letting it run around your ankles, filling in the space around your limbs like the world’s closest-fitting shoe. The water is gentle in the action, though, and once you get used to its shocking cold, you stand there with your eyes closed. You could for hours. You have done for hours. Mermaids play in your head, and sharks, and minnows and piranhas and lobsters and jellyfish and crawdads, and there’s a tickling at your foot—you open your eyes and look down.
The moon is just bright enough that you can see the dark shadow of a real crawdad creeping over your toes; you must have been still long enough that it forgot you aren’t another rock. Looking closer, you see minnows darting around your ankles too, forgetful and trusting. The moonlight illuminates them and obscures them and illuminates them again, reflecting off the water and then piercing it as it undulates. Breezes wend their way through the trees, moving through you as through them. Leaves and undergrowth rustle. Water passes you, eroding. The crawdad’s whiskers tickle your skin. Far off, deer lift their heads. You are no different; you are a piece of the woods just as them.
You like the woods. You are just as big and just as little as every old thing in this place.
Quickly, like your mother taught you to do, you flash downward and snatch the crawdad from your foot. The minnows scatter and the splash echoes out into the unbroken wood, and as you raise your prize triumphantly to your face, it squirms in your grip, little claws clicking, searching for purchase on your skin. Just as big and little as everything. Predator catches prey. Humans are predators, you learned in school, and this is a piece of the woods just as anything else. You wonder, briefly, how crawdad would taste raw—but your mother has warned you against eating uncooked food and out here there is no boiling pot to cook it in, so instead you drop the crawdad back into the river. It sinks for a moment, immobile, to the bottom. Then it darts away.
A cloud passes over the moon. Its brightness falters, and the woods darken—not in a way that terrifies, but in a manner gently reminding you of the late hour, of your empty bed, of the common nights Mama comes to check on you while you sleep. She was awake when you left; you know she will have found you gone. You know she will be waiting in the kitchen, arms crossed, repairman asleep above her, for your return.
You don’t bother putting your socks back on. You slip your wet feet into your sneakers unbothered, grabbing the socks in your fist as you go, and then you traipse backward, following the path you and your brother have trampled a thousand times, heading back to your house, to your mother, to your night sky bedroom and the second moon that waits for you there.
ii. mud stealing hours
Straw-colored fields. Straw-colored summer sun beating down. Your mother’s straw-colored hair pulled up as she works ahead of you.
You’ve never been exactly sure what it is you’re doing out here—Mama always says you’re too young to really work just yet—but she gives you instructions on what to pull or dig or plant and you do it, following her lead, mimicking her motions. She tried to shoo you inside when you first started following her out here, insisting you go play, but something you’re not allowed to do has always held allure, and it was a good feeling that swelled in your chest when she relented with a smile and promised she’d show you how. That was when your brother was still too little to think, when the girl from down the road would come to look after him for “Five bucks an hour and dinner besides,” which she had told you in that voice that meant she was repeating someone else, rolling her eyes but still holding onto your brother’s tiny hand. She stopped being interesting after you realized this meant your mother considered you big enough not to have a babysitter of your own, and then your head was inflated to bursting.
When your brother did get old enough to think, he started following you out to the fields the same way you once followed your mother. Mama smiled at the procession you made, and when you looked to her for permission, she let you teach your brother like she taught you. You and him always end up wandering off eventually to look for treasure or play in the grass, but Mama never seems to mind. She’s a hard worker, you realize sometimes, stopping to look. When you take the time, you notice she’s never still.
Today, the fields are wet with dew and last night’s rain. Your rubber boots are already muddy up to the ankles and you squelch along after your mother, every step breaking the slight dirt-skin the sun attempts to bake dry. Your brother squelches behind you and you’re both giggling at the sound, attempting to mimic it and only managing to make yourselves laugh harder. Ahead, your mother turns to smile at you, straw-colored hair under straw-made hat, and when you and your brother look at her in anticipation, she squelches forward and makes the same perfect sound with her mouth. You both cheer and rush toward her, and then you’re taking her down into the mud, helpless to your ferocity.
It’s you and no army but your brother beside you, your mother the enemy, globs of mud your weapons hurled from little hands. Your mother takes the onslaught with surprising grace. She steps into the role you’ve given her, evil-laughing and smearing mud right back in your faces, tickling you both wherever she can reach, lifting your brother and using him as a shield against your attacks until you give up and declare you’ve joined her side, then pelting him even harder.
She’s laughing, and it’s such a bright sound, and you love your mother so much in this moment, love her harder later (after) when you get to look back on it and remember. She’s always known exactly how to make you laugh, and for you to make her laugh in return is a treat like no other—but getting to throw mud at her without consequence is a close second.
No work has gotten done. Mama doesn’t seem to mind much, but then there’s the sound of the repairman’s truck rolling up the drive and your mother stops laughing, looking back over the straw-colored field, hair now muddy enough to be brown. She squeezes your brother close for just a moment before putting him down, and then she turns to you and makes that smile that means she’s going to have an upsetting grown-up conversation and doesn’t want you to think about it. And she tells you to be careful, to not get too dirty, she’ll be back soon, so why don’t you go looking for treasures again? We still need to find the last pieces of that starling, don’t we? She’ll be back soon, she promises again. She just has to go welcome the repairman home and get cleaned up.
She goes. Your brother, who doesn’t know that smile yet, pouts for a moment then tugs you back down into the mud. You let him, and above you the sun bakes you dry. And if you lay there long enough, the sun will turn to moon, and the blue to night, and the moon to stain, and the repairman’s snores will sound like infestation, and the house will groan its steadfast refusal, and you will be wrapped in sky, will turn to pole star, staid, bright.
iii. men stealing hours
It is night, again. It is dinner.
Your mother has made pork chops and green beans and she has brought home fresh apple cider. The sink leaks. A draft blows in through the window above the sink, which has never shut right, and in your room on the third floor, the moon-stain grows.
The repairman sits across from you. This is not the same repairman that snored loud enough to send you to the river, and it is not the same repairman that took your mother away from the mud, but they are all the repairman in essence; they fill the same role each time, throw the same wrench between the easy love of your mother, your brother, and you. This repairman smells more like cologne than anything else and it’s better, you suppose, than piss or beer, but a repairman is a repairman no matter how he smells, and he is not a house. He is water damage, spreading, and eventually the roof must collapse. A threat cannot only be a threat forever.
It is dinner. Your brother doesn’t want to eat his green beans. He whines this to your mother, and she gives him the smile that means I love you but please not now, but your brother doesn’t know all the smiles yet and he just keeps saying no, keeps pushing away his plate, spitting at the food and getting so loud, so loud, and he was a child—no one could have faulted him for that. You will learn not to fault him for that.
The repairman slams his hand on the table.
Repairmen have slammed things before. Hands on tables and doors in thresholds and once a knife to the wood of the kitchen table. You can endure slamming, but your brother has never had to—he has, by chance, never been around for it—and the only thing he can do is cry, loud, so loud, so loud. The repairman slams both hands on the table this time, and you shrink back in your chair. You don’t understand him—if he doesn’t like loud, why does he try so hard to be louder?
He’s shouting. Your mother tries to mediate, coming around the table to your brother, shushing him and smoothing her hand over his scalp. She tells the repairman it’s alright, he’ll eat, there’s no need to shout. He does not listen. He tells her to shut that boy up. He tells her there’s no right for him to be disrespected like this. He tells her I give so much to you just because you ask, and this is what I get in return? A bland meal and children who speak before they are spoken to? He tells her she’s a tease. He tells her she’s a whore. He raises his hand and stops telling her things.
Your mother is on the floor.
The linoleum turns red.
Your brother is crying so loud, and you look at the repairman, and he does not look back at you because you are quiet. You are not forgotten in this moment but least important, and because you are quiet, and because you are not brave, and because your brother in this moment cannot teach you how to be, you watch as the repairman lifts him by the throat. He raises his prize triumphantly to his face, and your brother squirms in his grip, little hands writhing, searching for purchase on the repairman’s skin. He’s so small there, caught; predator catches prey. There are predators among humans, you learned in school, and this is a part of the world Mama hoped you’d never see. Your brother isn’t crying anymore, and out loud the repairman wonders briefly if he would taste like your mother does—but you don’t understand what this means, and anyway it doesn’t matter because your brother has stopped squirming, and the repairman drops him back into the chair. He seems to sit upright for a moment before gravity catches up and he crumples, limp, to the floor. And you, quiet you, dart away.
As much as a house can love, your house loved you, and it hated repairmen just like you did, and though you were too young to know how to take care of it—though the ceiling had split, though the damage had spread too wide—the house did not give up on you. You were a child. It never faulted you for that.
You disappear into the bowels of the house. Great groaning farmhouse and you know it well, know every shortcut and hidden place. The repairman did not do the job he was hired to do; the repairman did not get to know the house’s guts, did not fix them. The repairman could never have followed you. And as big as the old place is, as sprawling and maze-like, it feels made to be your size. In half the places the repairman chases you, he’s too big to fit quite right. You hide within the house, and in turn, the house hides you.
You, elder sibling, pole star, know all the right things to do. You run. You hide. You lose the repairman long enough to dart into the kitchen and grab the landline, and you remember the way Mama hides your eyes from things too ugly to look at, so you keep your head up and don’t look at the linoleum, don’t look at your brother, don’t look at her, beautiful and ugly both. You thank your self of months past who convinced her to change to a cordless phone, because you saw an ad for one and thought it was cooler. You take it with you, back into the embrace of your house, to the deep places where repairmen can’t even be smelled, and you remember the number to call, because your mother taught you.
It is night. It is no longer dinnertime. It is three hours before the police arrive to your middle-of-nowhere, and the repairman, whose name you don’t know, whose license plate you never would have thought to remember, is already gone.
And it is after.
And you were a child, so they took you, at least for the moment, from the house, and it became memory, brushstrokes: house and mother and brother; a portrait, a made place, straw colored, fluid like water, falling like water, draining like water. You, collapsing like water, like ceiling, like child left alone. You kept only what was most important. You kept night and mud and men, and you let the rest become painting, life become after. World became image. You were a child, and you left all of it with that version of you, because that person could bear it. That person endured the loudness, that child was loved, so loved, and that child inhabited before.
It is easier for someone to bear a possibility than something that was lived. You—night you, mud you, men you—lived it.
An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2022 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the full version of this piece.