A Good Medicine
by Jude Whelchel

First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Tabor and his twin are eight years old when his father walks out the door to live forever with the family he’d spawned in Moultrie.

“Your mother’ll worry over you, Hoke, but you’ll make it fine.” The father ruffles his brother’s muss of hair.

“I’ve left you everything.” He speaks to the mother of the mercantile and their home on the second floor.

She does not look at him. Her eyes are fixed on the wide plank floor, waxed and spit-shining, it reflects their foursome as vague bodies, as ghosts.

“You got a mind going for you,” he says to Tabor.

The father opens the door, ringing the little bell at the hinge meant to alert at the arrival of customers.

“God Almighty curse you,” the mother says.

“If God cares to bother.” The father crosses the threshold, his feet quick clops across the wood porch. Tabor counts 1-2-3-4-5-6—his father’s feet down the steps to the cobbled road. The mother stretches her arm, holding the bell silent as she closes the door behind him.

Tabor goes to the window. It is a crisp, autumn day. The trees have gone to gold and crimson; the sky is clear but for a high wisp of cloud in the distance. His father is a big man; he is taking longs stride away from them. He does not look back.

“Come away from the window,” says the mother.

Tabor takes a final glimpse—his father throwing his head back, his mouth wide like he is drinking air, like he is breathing for the first time.

* * * * *

The following day, the mother burns the father’s photograph in the hearth, shoveling the ash into the chamber pot. Never again will she utter the father’s birth name.

“He’s dead to us,” she says. “Bury him over in your mind, six feet in a grave.”

* * * * *

A week passes. Two. It is evening when Tabor finds his mother studying herself in the hall mirror, her dark hair unbraided to her waist, her blouse unfastened and peeled from one shoulder, the pebble center of her breast standing at attention. Her throat is milk, her cheeks the soft pink of new apples.

“What are you looking at,” says Tabor.

She cups her breast and shovels it into her garment, buttoning her blouse like she is finishing a chore.

“Take this to the attic.” She lifts the mirror from the wall.

 * * * * *

If the mother spoke it to her sons one time, she spoke it a hundred. As she renounced their husband, she vowed herself to them, turning her attention to the business of the mercantile, to making more of life for the sons than the husband ever managed, fit determined to compensate for their double cursing—the absence of a father coupled with the discrepancies of their birth—Hoke born compromised in mind, Tabor compromised in body. Each son some shadow of a man.

Hoke ripped at the mother, coming first, covered in lanugo, thick as pelt.

“Jesus on the Cross, I never seen such,” said the old midwife, wondering aloud if her mind was slipping, the infant soft-furred as a pup.

The second infant showed no interest in coming. Despite the groaning and urgings of the mother’s body, and with every effort on the part of the midwife to coax it down, the infant curled high and stubborn under her rib. The midwife, already counting the child for dead, reached inside the mother, arm to elbow, to pull Tabor, waxen and bilious, into the world. Hued like midnight, tied in umbilical, he arrived an emaciated plug of flesh.

“Jesus on the Cross,” said the midwife. She removed the cord to rest the limp infant at the foot of the bed.

“Be grateful in your heart you was given one living child,” she continued. “I seen it plenty, one thriving, one dying. It’s the way of life.”

It was only for the mother pushing herself to her elbows to catch a glimpse of the one she’d lost that she caught the jerk of the blued body and gasped so the midwife turned and saw herself the flailing arm of the infant.

“Jesus on the Cross.” The old woman took the infant’s face to her mouth, forcing breath through the pucker of lip, the mother thinking the little thing piteous, thinking what life it lived, if it lived, would surely be lived sickly and jeopardized.

* * * * *

In the months that go to a year that follow the father’s going off, Hoke, making solace for himself, folds into a cadre of boys: Harvey Rutland, Dit Mellon, Buddy Hester, and the rest of them. Like a pack of dogs, they are off, knee high in the creek beds, following no path but some shared instinct of direction into the woods, some spirit stirring between them they cannot name but celebrate in the snake coiled and rattling, the stink and disgust of a turkey buzzard died and gone to rot and maggots.

Tabor wills himself to keep pace, chin to chest, tracking the boys though he is ten paces behind, twenty paces, struggling for breath, and when he no longer has sight of them listening for the direction they have turned, straining to hear over his own breath, which comes tight, sounding a high-pitched whistle in his chest. It is more days than not he loses the boys—though one afternoon he is sure he hears them in the understory. He moves through trees and thicket toward the sound of voices.

“I am here! Hoke? Boys?”

The voices go silent.

“Boys?”

He hears a cough.

“Hoke?” Tabor calls again. Another cough. Or a snicker? A stifled laugh as the understanding flashes hot: they want rid of me, the thought is blocked off and sent away as fast as it forms, leaving a shadowy residue of misery that has Tabor fleeing, running as if he is chased by something that would strike him down, suffocate him to a final stale exhale. He stumbles, runs a few paces, stumbles again, headed for safety which is the window seat in the sitting room where his chest is a storm of wheezing and he is watching the road through the pane glass, and though he knows in some corner of his mind there is nothing coming for him he puts aside reason for his delusional monster, preferable to the hard truth that his twin wouldn’t be coming down the road to find him.

2 + 2 makes 4.

4 + 4 makes 8. The simplest equations come first.

8 + 8 for 16.

16 with 16 for 32. His breathing slows. He feels his back pressing the wall, the sharp bones of his hips into the seat cushion. Fear, in one costume or another, will chase Tabor Rawls for the entirety of his life. He is decades from the day he will turn to it, the day he will look fear in the eye and not once blink, but for now he molds brick from numbers, he masons a wall of security from equations.

“I can figure 64 times itself. 4096,” he tells the mother.

“I figure you don’t need to be inside, nice a day as it is.”

“Name any figure, I’ll divide!”

She shakes her head—she won’t have it. She shoos him from the seat.

“4096 by 72 and you got 56 with 8 remaining.”

“Out the door with you!”

“I’ve been out already.” He raises his arms in attempt to slow her, unaware until his hands are before his face that he is trembling. He tightens to still himself.

“Not long enough.” She pushes Tabor out the backdoor—the door closes behind him with a harsh clap, the bolt scrapes into the catch.

“4096 times 8 gives you 32768.” He knocks at the door. “Please!”

The door does not open and he knows it will not open for however long he knocks. He sinks to the plank step that is tucked beneath the doorframe. Laundry lines string the alley, stained bed sheets and work shirts fight for air and sun. Cans of garbage and slop buckets. Strewn scrap and wood crates, an ironing board and shit pan gone to rust. It is a mudway of stench. Against their house, a carriage bed, stripped of wheels, is turned on its side, a moth-eaten rug thrown over it, a rag mop upturned beside it. He takes the mop stick and crawls behind the carriage, curling into a corner. It smells of cats and piss, but it is better that walking the alley. There are too many shadows.

* * * * *

Hoke, the son with no interest in learning, is the son the mother wants turning numbers. Reading books.

“Figure 8 and 8,” she insists.

He counts on his fingers—she pops his head.

“God gave you a mind.”

He looks at the ceiling. He counts dips in the bead board. “15.”

“No. No. No. You’re ten-years-old! Your brother knows his facts.”

He will write equations and keep writing until they are fixed in his mind. The mother starts a single column on the slateboard.

2 + 2 =
2 + 3 =
2 + 4 =

And Hoke will read the blessing at supper. He turns pages in the Penny Whistles book, back and forth, until he comes to the one he chooses every time:

It is very nice to think
The world is full of meat and drink,
With little children saying grace
In every Christian kind of place.

“Amen, “ says the mother. Her lips stretch across the bridge of her teeth in satisfaction. This is the only smile she has, a hard-earned, grimacing cut across her face.

“I expect manners.” She stands to plate the meal.

“You’ll eat every bite,” she says to Tabor.

Tabor twirls a fork through his meatstew, dipping it into a mash of potato that sits on his tongue thick as sap. He rearranges carrots to make a boat, buttered peas into mast and sail.

“Eat like a girl and you’ll have no get-up to you,” the mother instructs.

Taber pierces peas with a fork prong. He nibbles at a cut of bread while Hoke laps up the last of his stew with an edge of crust, taking a second helping of potato, asking for pie.

The mother watches the wall clock. Ten minutes to the second—Tabor’s dish is nothing but a stir of portions. She is up from the table to collect the beltstrap she keeps coiled in the drawer of the sideboard.

“I was only letting my portion cool!” Tabor forces a towering spoon into his mouth.

She won’t have excuses and he knows better than resist. His knees surrender, coming together in a pinch as the mother wraps the belt once, twice around his thighs, beneath the chair seat, pulling the strap through the buckle until his chin thrusts forward, his lips purse.

“Hurry yourself and you’ll be out of it,” she says.

“And you.” Her voice stops Hoke who is making his way to the door. “You’ll not run off this afternoon.” She exchanges his plate for the Penny Whistles book.

“Take your seat.”

Hoke’s shoulders sink, he returns, dejected, collapsing into his chair. She pops his head. “Knock the poor attitude from yourself—one day you’ll thank me that you read decent.”

When the mother is gone to the kitchen house, Hoke leans to Tabor and takes spoons from his brother’s plate into his own mouth. He swallows down Tabor’s milk.

“Read, Hoke,” Tabor whispers. “She’ll be back.”

Hoke opens the book to the thick illustration page where there is a round, shoeless child arching the sky in a rope-tied tree swing. Hoke begins:

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Tabor covers the words with his hand. Hoke continues:

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—

“You’re not reading,” says Tabor. He covers the next stanza.

Hoke smiles and continues:

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown–
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

“I read by heart.”

“Mother won’t count your heart,” says Tabor.

The mother is back to the table with a slate and chalk. She eyes Tabor’s plate. She looks at Hoke.

“You’ll have a whiplashing if I catch you eating for your brother.” She snaps chalk on the table, breaking it into two pieces.

“The Lord’s Prayer. Start to finish.” She takes Tabor’s milk glass and the breadbasket to the kitchen.

Hoke furrows his brow. The fine muscles in his hands gripping the chalk, he makes slow, deliberate marks on the tablet, his fingertips going white, magnifying the dirt arches under his nails:

Ur fatder hoo art in hiven

Tabor shakes his head. “O.” He makes a circle of his fingers.

Hoke eyes the door for the mother’s return. He sighs and rubs off the slate with his shirt cuff.

“I’ll write for you, Hoke,” Tabor says. He pulls the slate across the table.

“You won’t tell?” says Hoke.

“I won’t tell ever.” Tabor writes quickly, in a script messier than his own.

“You want me to eat the rest?” Hoke’s fingers pick at the cane seat of his chair.

“Eat or don’t eat. I won’t tell.”

Hoke takes Taber’s plate into his lap. He makes a spoon of stew.

“I know I am a stupid boy,” he says, his mouth churning.

“Don’t feel bad, Hoke. At least you run good.”

*  *  *  *  *

Tabor takes steps two, three at a time. He belts canned goods to his ankles to make muscles in his legs. Left, right. Ten repetitions. Ten more. He suffers meals matching his brother, portion to portion, also bowing, no complaint, to whatever and all treatments the mother concocts. Ablutions of iced water, vapor fumigations, camphor amulets, poultice of garlic to the ear. There are scalding towels followed by rubdowns with remedies and elixirs that tout the benefits of brawn and vigor, reeking potions derived from Eucalyptus, cayenne, turpentine. Once a brown, translucent paste claiming genuine snake oil derived from Chinese water moccasins. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, fever or no fever, he strips bare and rests atop his bed, his face into a pillow.

“Bite this.”

He ignores the rag the mother offers. He sucks the fat of his lip between his teeth, bearing down until he tastes blood like a wheat penny on his tongue. She grinds menthol into his flanks, twisting, digging. He bites hard and harder and he can do this because in his mind the familiar recessed door opens and leads him to the river:

2 x 2 makes 4.

4 x 4 makes 16.

16 x 16 makes 256.

256 x 256 makes 65,536.

He multiplies himself from his body. He floats on his back, eyes to the infinity of sky.

65536 times itself… Numbers hang in the trees like leaves and he reaches for solutions. 4, 2, 9…

“Your blood’s stubborn,” the mother says. She goes to fetch a scalding towel from the kitchen—it will feel like fire, like skin coming from his bones.

“Scalding gets to circulation like nothing else,” says the mother.

“Will it help me run faster?” Taber asks

* * * * *

In celebration of their eleventh birthday, the mother orders Sunday suits from the Sears and Roebuck, matching breech pants, double-breasted sailor coats with yellow neckties. New socks, white with grosgrain trim. She keeps their good boots polished and gives her sons centerline hair parts. She oils their cowlicks into submission. They will go to church and anywhere with their heads high. She tells them though they have no father, they have one another.

She kisses them on the forehead. She says she loves them with a fierce love that wakes her at night—what lengths she will go for them!

* * * * *

Tabor is with the boys when they come upon the injured fawn under a catch of gallberry. Half-starved and ate into at the haunch by something Hoke predicts to be raccoon.

“Or maybe bobcat, though a cat would have drug it off,” he instructs. Hoke lifts the fawn, a stench of rot so given-up its only protest is a weak snap of the chin.

Buddy covers his nose for the stink.

“I smelled ten-times worse,” says Hoke.

Hoke stands at the center of the boys. These boys follow his lead, when he steps, they step. They will follow his plan—carry the animal down the road to the river, wash the wound, giving it drink, maybe caging it with log and limb until they come back to it with an offering of milk, making a nipple, if it comes to it, from the finger off a glove pulled over a glass bottle. In his arms, the slow blink of the fawn’s eye is the only sign of life.

“What you thinking?” There is a challenge baked into Harvey’s whispered tone and it calls the magnet of some internal compass in his twin to a darker and unconsidered pole. They are walking the road to the river, when Hoke suddenly stops. Tabor considers that the road they are on branches to a thousand paths extending to a thousand possibilities. Hoke could do any number of things in this moment.

“You got a machete in your shed?” Hoke asks Dit Mellon.

The boys are like hungry dogs around Hoke. Dit points back up the road to his house in affirmation and when they are there, the boys are whoop-cheering and watching the fawn, ears back and desperate, its awkward, bent limbs pathetic, pawing at the high grass. The head is arched sharply to the sky as if reaching would ward off the blows before they come, the first one hard but off aim, hitting bone. There is quick spray of blood and spasm of limbs before the second blow of metal sends blood up Hoke’s arms, his chest. The fawn exhales a melt of blood through the soft of her nose as the blows come and come and though the head is cut away the machete is cutting earth.

“You could stop now,” says Tabor.

Hoke throws the machete to his side. For a long moment there is only the sound of the boys’ communal breath and then a raptor calling from the high pines.

They carry the body, Hoke holding the head, back into the woods, marking the place they entered from the road with a tear of fabric from Harvey’s shirt. They use the rest of the shirt to tie the carcass to an oak. They bury the skull to keep rodents from having it.

* * * * *

Something is different. The smell of his brother has turned—like the sun has blistered and burned off a layer of Hoke’s skin that was holding back something pungent and gamy.

Tabor traces the skull with his fingers. It is fragile in a way Tabor had not expected, fine as a tea cup. He dips his thumbs into the cavernous eye sockets. He presses a fingertip against a molar.

“Is there a bone for me?”

“Boys got them all.” Hoke is sitting on his hands.

The boys have gone without Tabor to claim bones.

“All the ribs taken?”

Hoke shrugs. “You weren’t there. You can hold the skull much as you want.”  

Tabor turns the skull once more in his hands then reaches it to Hoke.

“You might’ve got something for me,” he says.

* * * * *

I got a mind. I got a very good mind. A quarter off a million makes 250,000. A third taken of 250,000 makes 83,333.3333…He has immunity; he is fortified. 83,333.3333. The numbers will never stop. To the end of time—that is endurance. His mind will run faster than any feet. Endure any challenge. An eighth of 83,333.3333? 10416.6666. Repeating not slowing, not stopping. Never.

10416.6666 to the second quotient? Tabor works his mind—108,513,889—until his body is all sweat, sour as a dog.

* * * * *

“It’s not fair as I’m not sick at all,” says Hoke. A fever has come over Tabor the mother has Hoke stay in with his brother.

“You’re inside not for being sick in the body but dull in the mind.” The mother brings the McGuffey from the shelf. “You need to be reading everyday! You don’t want ignorance holding you back.”

“I read good enough,” he says.

“You read remedial. Far below your brother.” The mother nods at the book to say to Hoke that he has no choice in the matter.

Before she is out of the room, she instructs Tabor. “Correct his mistakes—it is what a brother does for a brother.”

Hoke opens the reader. “It’s like a soup of letters,” he says to Taber. “If I could remember and not forget.” The intensity of Hoke’s look could implode the page. He presses his fists to his eyes. The book slides from his lap, striking the floor.

“I hate all books,” he says.

As if she has emerged from air, the mother is there, as a storm cloud through the room.

“You’ll get nowhere! Nowhere, I tell you!” She plants the book back into Hoke’s lap. “You want to be nothing but a farmer?”

A rope of snot comes from Hoke’s nose. He sniffs, wipes his shirtsleeve across his face.

“You practice in your head then you’ll read it to me.” She is across the room to tidy the bureau.

“Just say words about the pictures,” whispers Tabor.

Hoke wipes his nose again. He purses his lips to concentrate his exhale in a slow stream of breath.

“A girl and boy went walking off to the schoolhouse.” Hoke looks at Tabor. Tabor nods for him to continue.

“They was holding hands and a little old mutt dog comes on up the road after them.”

The mother slams a drawer. “Books are written in proper English!” Her feet drum the floor planks as she moves across the room. She thrusts her finger at the page.

“Come friends! We must go to the school. Do come along with me.” She dots the words with an angry finger. She points for Hoke to read the next line. He coughs back a sob.

“You read it, Tabor! Show your brother how it’s done.”

“I will lead you.”

The mother grips Hoke’s face in her hands.

“That is how it is done,” she says, leaving them in a huff of frustration.

Hoke bends to his lap and it occurs to Tabor to touch his brother’s arm, but he keeps his hands to his lap, turning to the window. The sun is soft through the glass like an invitation. He chews into his tongue to hold back a smile.

* * * * *

The day before the boys make twelve an afternoon rainstorm rolls in with dark, hard winds and thunderclaps. Lightening fires low and sharp. From the window of the mercantile the mother and sons watch as a high pine branch bursts to flame then extinguishes in the hard rain.

“This sort of storm don’t last long,” says Hoke.

“Doesn’t,” corrects the mother. “They can do a good bit of damage.”

Rain pelts the glass like marbles.

“We shouldn’t stand so close,” she says. “You’ve got chores.”

They retreat to the storeroom where there are no windows, but still they hear the storm fuming against the house walls. The mother fumbles with a lamp. Hoke will unload the crate. There are jars of goods, sugar sacks, sardine tins, and salt crackers. Tabor takes a rag to dust off and polish bulbous jars swimming pig feet, pickled cukes, peppermints. Hoke is in and out of the room stocking shelves, pouring sugar into a barrel. He drops a sack of flour that breaks open and spills the floor. They save what they can, Tabor sweeping the remnant into a dustpan. There is a low rumble of thunder. A soft flash of lightening comes through the doorway.

“Storm’s dying,” says Hoke. He lifts a pallet and moves it against the wall.

Tabor mops the traces of flour, the timbre of rain slowing its beat.

The mother points Hoke to a load of fabric bolts. “I want them displayed neatly in the front window.”

The bell at the storefront door sounds.

“It was a tornado! Hoke! You got to come!”

The twins go with the mother and meet Dit Mellon, breathless at the counter. He appears to have swum the river, clothing clinging his limbs, water pooling at his shoes. There are mud tracks across the floor.

“It was over the quarry. We seen it spit down out of the sky, spin and do its thing ‘til it was sucked back up from where it come. Hoke, you got to come with us to see the damage. All the boys are coming.”

“You’ll finish the bolts first,” the mother says to Hoke. “And you, Dit Mellon, will clean the mess you’ve made.” She takes the mop Tabor is holding.

* * * * *

The sky shows no evidence of the storm, but its footprint marks the road, thrown branches and leaf, a laundry line of clothing collapsed in a twisted knot, a roofing sheet come from some building. Tabor has left his brother and Dit inside to their choses. He steps over debris, a tree limb—this is the cleanest sort air and he breathes a long deep sack of it.

One and quarter mile to the quarry. 120 strides per minute—each stride a yard and two yards per second. Hoke and boys will come behind him. He can see them in his mind making a line in the dirt. They get ready, they get set. But Tabor is gone before them. His mind racing fast ahead. 1760 yards to a mile. 1 second makes 1/3600 of an hour. (2/1760)/(1/3600) equals to (2/1760)*(3600/1) and come to 4.09 miles per hour. Slower than the boys, but he turns down the alleyway calculating short cuts. Past the loading docks and the hotel back entrance, across hen yards, weaving chop blocks and kitchen houses, because if he can scale the link fence at the train yard and have a straight way over the tracks, beneath cars, if a station man doesn’t catch him, he might, he could do it, get to the quarry before the fastest boy. He is at his best clip to the fence high as two stories and he scales the link fence at the train yard, ignoring the cut to his knee by a jag of wire—he could climb even higher, to the height of the high trees, but he is over and dropping to the ground and up and darting between cars, ignoring also the high whistle wanting into his throat. He pushes it down. Blocks it with his mind, gives it no power.

“Boy!” calls someone from a platform. Tabor does not slow. There is wind to his back as he slips into the woods, running like an unbridled colt, unafraid until he comes to the quarry, bending over his knees, head up, he searches for the boys.

Tabor takes in breath, breath, breath. No boys. More breath, whistling breath.

The voices of the boys come through the trees—coming fast. A tight race. Tabor strips his clothes and climbs the granite tooth that juts over the water, his body a white streak against blue sky as the boys burst through the tree line, dogging for victory, they collapse, heaving into a scuffling bonfire of limbs. They are litter of mutts and Tabor wants in the middle of them.

“I’ve won!” he calls.

They do not hear him. He calls again, punching the words from his throat.

“Look here. It’s me. Tabor Rawls! I’ve won!” He steps to the edge of the rock face, sweeping his arms above his head, pumping wide, spastic motions of victory. The boys are still, leaning over one another, looking in his direction.

“Me!” Tabor jumps from the rock and in his brief moment of falling, he sees the boys, all eyes upon him, except for Hoke, his eyes steady and fixed beyond Tabor on the solid rock face.

10-9-8. Tabor counts as he sinks. He has never felt this before—7-6-5. Victory. Belonging—4-3. And pleasure. 2-1. He pushes against the rocky bottom, propelling himself to the surface.

The boys are wading into the shallows, coming for him, Hoke at the middle. Tabor takes quick strokes in their direction, sucking and blowing water from his mouth in a little fountain of celebration. He is in waist-high water when he is close enough to touch them, and he stands, the good stink of their skin in his nose. He reaches out, both arms for the embrace he imagines, and craves, and seems he has chased to a finish line. Dit and Buddy each catch an arm, someone is behind him, hands on his shoulders. His arms are pulled into a cross, stretching him wide. Tabor waits in this short, glorious moment, to be lifted over their heads, carried back to the bank and wrestled into the dirt in some ritual of concession.

They grip tighter and he does not understand what is coming which is Hoke’s hard fist, fast and mad, clipping his front teeth, catching his nose in a spew of blood and phlegm. One punch. 2, 3 punches in his gut. There is a kick to his ass and at the back of his knees so Tabor collapses, face down, down in the water, hands and feet hold him there—1, 2, 3, no breath. 4, 5, 6. No breath and he is sucking water because there is a fire in his chest. 7. He inhales water. 8, 9. More water. 9. 9. The next number? What is the next number?

* * * * *

Tabor is vomiting water into the dirtbank, hutched over like a dog. Hoke is sitting at his side.

“Where’s the others?”

“Gone away.”  

“I won.” Tabor turns and rolls to sitting. “I beat every one of you.”

The brothers are facing the quarry, the water smooth as glass.

“There’s no prize for you, Tabor,” says Hoke.

* * * * *

Tabor’s nose and bruises will heal, but his center incisors hang, broken-off and chipped away, like the entrance to a down-reaching cave. The mother makes Tabor a salt bath, takes a cloth soaked in camphor to his face.

For the first time in a long time, Tabor thinks of his father and tears come from the corner of his eyes.

“Hurt?” says the mother.

“A bit.”

“I’m sorry it was your brother done it,” she says. “But it’s a good medicine for you.”

Tabor takes the cloth in his own hand, pressing it against the swell of his nose. The pressure makes it easier to bear what rises in his mind.

It is his father who took the prize.

 

The Slide
by Jennifer Hasty

Runner Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

When I first saw my own living blood cells through a microscope, I suddenly had the idea that science could tunnel into the truth of me. I saw a vast population of pillowy discs drifting as if blown by a tide, some clumping together in long rolls, some bumping into strange spongy objects. And tiny bright dots, like stars, shooting this way and that through the traffic.

And it was me, all of it. No more doubt, no more worry about what was real and what was imagined. Here was an invisible realm that I could see with my own eyes.

“Pretty cool, huh?” said Mr. Howard, “The discs are red blood cells, well not cells really, because they don’t have a nucleus. The larger, grainy ones are white blood cells.”

“What about the littlest ones, the wiggly ones?”

“Bacteria, most likely,” he said.

“So the white blood cells attack the bacteria?”

“Sometimes you can see it, a white blood cell chasing down an invader.”

There were so many of the little ones, these wily specks, more than the spongy cells could handle, apparently.

“Is it bad, so much bacteria in my blood,” I wondered.

“Not necessarily,” he said, “There are so many red blood cells, so many that they can usually do their job pretty well no matter what. Bacteria are everywhere; so you always see some in your blood. And some bacteria are actually good. They say it boosts the immune system, having them around. Some are quite helpful, especially in your gut.”

I considered this, watching the drama acted out before me on the slide: the workers doing their work, the invaders looking for trouble, the police fighting for order in the chaos. The red blood cells were the virtuous ones, of course, the ones who ferried oxygen dutifully throughout the body, but they were boring, shifting mindlessly like cattle over a flat plain. The bacteria were the ones that caught your eye, made you wonder just what they were, what they might do next. Would this one find some cozy nook within me and divide itself into a full-blown infection? Or would it be discovered by a white blood cell and devoured whole?

I kept watching, couldn’t stop watching, as Mr. Howard went back to his desk to grade papers. After a while, I looked up at the clock and realized that I had totally forgotten that I had to be home to babysit my brother and sister so my mom could go to a church meeting.

Weaving through cars as I rushed home on my bike, I felt like one of those tiny bright spots maneuvering through the large, heavy globules rolling slowly through town. And I thought about my body, the inside of my body, where this kind of secret journey was endlessly unfolding—but with no destination, no resolution, just moving and dodging and surviving, on and on until the end.

I rounded the corner to my street as the late afternoon sun leaned down into the broad windows of our new A-frame church, reflecting an annoying light into my eyes as I slowed into the driveway.

I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, the little disks and spongy specs and pricks of light passing through my blinded field of vision, as if I were still looking through the microscope.

I was brought up to believe that we are, every one of us, part of the body of God. My father often said this in his Sunday sermons.

If that is really the case, I thought, then what I saw under the microscope is what God sees, looking into each of us: a struggle, not good or evil, but a struggle, thrilling, beautiful, and strange.

 

Something went wrong with me when we moved from Hollow Knob to Centerville. Or maybe something was wrong to begin with and I just began to realize it then. Hollow Knob had been a slow place, a quiet place, hardly a town, really, more like a scattering of farmers and small businessmen with shops in the few strip malls along the state road. Centerville was the big city to me, the third largest town in our state. We moved into a new housing development in the southern part of town where a lot of well-to-do people lived. Ours was the house built for the pastor’s family, right next to the church, smaller than the other houses in the neighborhood but built in the same mottled brick with a mailbox that looked like a birdhouse planted next to the curb.

It was the beginning of my sophomore year, just starting high school, really the best time for me to change schools, my mother said, sympathetic to my fear of the unknown. And everyone will be making new friends, she said. But in the first few weeks of school, I came to realize that this was not the case. The other kids all knew one another from their various middle schools.   They congregated in their cliques in the halls and at the lunch tables. Inconspicuously, I examined each group, looking for kids like me, or better yet, kids like who I wanted to be.

Most of the girls had a sort of look about them that I found mysterious. They wore very simple clothes, with very few ruffles or pleats, but even their plain polo tops were cut in such a way that their bodies seemed athletic and powerful. While the girls at my old school wore obvious perfume and make-up, these girls had a completely natural look, their smooth skin glowing, fresh and healthy. Their lips looked stained with cherry juice but glassy, dew-kissed. They smelled like fruity soap. They wore little jewelry, just small stud earrings, gemstone or pearl, sometimes small golden hoops, never anything large or dangly. Their hair was either long and loose or cut straight in a simple bob that fell across the cheek on one side. They did not wear braids or buns.

I had never known any girls like these and I could not imagine what their lives were really like outside of school or what I might say to one of them if I wanted to make friends. When I came near any one of them, in line at lunch or brushing past in the hallway, I felt a strange surge inside that left me breathless and confused.

There were a few other girls like me, with our braided hair and ruffled tops from Walmart.   We often wound up sitting together at lunch, sometimes sharing notes or helping each other out with hard homework problems. But in general, we were not that interested in each other, so we were an oddly quiet group, awed into silence by the power of those magical beings surrounding us, chattering away in their parallel world.

 

My parents were so involved in starting up the new church that they forgot to check the courses I was signing up for at my new school. I picked biology class. I knew that we had particular ideas about nature but I guess I thought I was old enough now to sift out the truth from the lies. My father told me that scientists don’t lie on purpose, at least not usually. So they weren’t evil, really, just misled, and therefore not terribly dangerous to believers like us. Or so I thought.

In the first few days of biology, we had an overview about the scientific method and the various things that biologists study. I found this a bit boring so I skipped ahead in the textbook as Mr. Howard gave us his first lecture on “The Scope of Biology.” I found a part about the origins of life, how lightening may have struck lifeless chemicals to make a “soup” of living molecules when the earth was young, about three and a half billion years ago. Some people think the energy from volcanoes or deep sea vents started life instead. And some scientists even think that life may have begun on Mars or on a comet and some collision brought little pieces of it to earth.

Somehow I felt relieved that there were different possibilities, that you could choose one to think about but you didn’t have to really commit to it because it could turn out to be wrong when some new evidence came along. You were free to change your mind. You didn’t have to be wrong forever.

 

My father found me leafing through the textbook one evening in the first week of school. I had found another interesting chapter in the middle of the book. There was a diagram of a tree with different categories of living things.

“Whatcha readin’?” he said lightly.

“It’s biology, Dad,” I said, closing the book and folding my hands on top of it. “Did you know that there are more species of beetles than any other animal? And that they benefit from global warming? Someday beetles may become the dominant species on earth!”

“No,” he said quietly, seriously, “I didn’t know that.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and took the book from under my folded hands. He flipped to the table of contents, then began shaking his head.

“Let me take a look at this,” he said. “I’ll give it back to you tomorrow.”

And I knew that I would never hold that textbook again. There was a long chapter on evolution, Chapter Fourteen. As I lay in bed, I cursed my own stupidity. Why did I have to go and tell him about the beetles?

The next day, when I came home from school, he called me into his office where he was going over church accounts. The big green textbook sat on the front corner of his desk, with a number of yellow post-it notes like a parade of militant little flags marching down the top.

“I’ve read some of your biology textbook,” he said gently. “And I think it would be best for you to take a different class.”

I heard myself heave a sigh. “I know you don’t believe in some of the ideas in that book….”

“We don’t believe, Nevaeh, not just me,” he said, his hand on his heart. “As a church, we believe in the truth of God’s creation. That’s what it means to be a Christian. This book is wrong. I don’t want you to study things that are wrong.”

“But to study them doesn’t mean I have to believe them,” I exclaimed, louder than I had intended. “I’m old enough to know about it without losing my faith.”

He took a long sip of coffee, then put the cup down in front of him and gazed into the cup for a moment. “Let me put this in a way I think you’ll understand,” he said, looking back up to me. “You know that I love your mother dearly, right? he asked.

I nodded, because of course I could not disagree.

“Well, what if a beautiful woman came into my office one day and told me she loved me and begged me to kiss her? What would you want me to do? What should I say to that woman?”

Although I wanted to turn the conversation a different direction to avoid the trap that was coming, the very idea of his infidelity deeply offended me so I took the bait, resigned to the lesson. “That you love Mom, that you would never let anything come between you and Mom.” I said, reciting my lines.

“That’s right, and it’s true, I never would let anything damage my relationship to your mother. My marriage is sacred to me. My family is sacred, given to me by God.”

I stood quietly, knowing that my attention was all that was required to get through the rest of this conversation.

“Your relationship with God is special and sacred, Nevaeh. This book has come into your life to tempt you, to test your faith. Its ideas are very seductive,” he said, flipping through the glossy, colorful pages, full of diagrams and nature photographs. “Will you let this book come between you and God’s word? Will you let its ideas damage your relationship to God?”

I closed my eyes for a moment, and for some reason, I saw behind my eyes the tree-like diagram of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order and the other descending levels of biological categorization. When I opened my eyes again, my father was studying my expression, kindly, patiently.

“I see that you understand me,” he said. “I know that this is difficult for a girl your age to deal with, especially a quiet, thoughtful girl like you. You don’t need to say anything, Nevaeh. I’ll write a letter to the principal and you can take a different class, one that won’t harm you.”

I closed my eyes again, savoring the image of the diagram that was still there. But as I held it in my mind, the words blurred together and faded away, leaving only the faint outline of a tree.

 

And so I transferred into the only remaining elective class that wasn’t already full, Home Economics. On the day I joined the class, they were learning how to make scrambled eggs. We broke into small groups and set to work in the several mini-kitchens along one side of the classroom. I was surprised to discover that many of those magical girls, the ones that looked so fresh and powerful, did not even know how to turn on the burner. But I knew a technique for making really fluffy eggs, so I suggested we try it. First you separate the eggs, then you whip up the whites into a foam, and then you recombine them along with some whole milk and immediately pour into a very hot, well-buttered pan. One girl in my group asked me how I knew so much about cooking eggs.

“Did you look it up on your phone?” she whispered, looking at each of my hands. I held a whisk in one hand and a potholder in the other.

I told her that eggs were my father’s favorite breakfast so my mother and I took turns seeing who could make the fluffiest ones. “I learned a few tricks watching my mom,” I said.

“Ohhhh,” she said, nodding slowly. Her eyes then flickered over my hair, my clothes. “I guess my mom doesn’t spend too much time in the kitchen.”

She picked up a stainless steel spatula and I moved away from the stove so she could stir the eggs. But she remained where she stood, studying the reflection of her glossed lips in the spatula. After a moment, she continued.

“And she says she doesn’t want me to get trapped there.”

“Trapped in your kitchen?”

“But this class is supposed to be an easy A, good for my GPA.”

As the teacher sampled our eggs, nodding her approval, an image came into my mind of the oven door snapping on my thigh like the jaws of a mouse trap as my classmates watched in horror. In the fantasy, I just stood there, one hand in an oven mitt, the other holding a spatula. I knew better than to struggle while everyone was watching.

 

I had a study hall in fifth period. Walking to the bathroom, I discovered that Mr. Howard taught Biology II during that period. So I started taking long bathroom breaks, standing just outside the biology classroom to hear ten or fifteen minutes of his lectures on symbiosis, bioluminescence, immunity, all sorts of fascinating things. As I stood listening to him talk about mass extinctions, he meandered over to the doorway. Pausing for a moment between sentences, he leaned his head out the door.

“Come talk to me after school,” he whispered, with a fatherly smile.

I was forbidden from taking biology class, but nobody said anything about chatting with Mr. Howard after school. I came by that afternoon. And the next. And the next. He even let me try some of the experiments his students were doing.   Most of the time, he set me up with some equipment then just went back to grading his piles of homework.

Even though he was there, it felt like I was alone, like no one was watching.

 

As she always used to tell me, my mother was raised to believe that girls should be seen and not heard. And then after saying it she’d laugh, as if to tease me with the prospect of enforcing this ridiculous idea.

In social studies class, we were studying the persecution of witches in Salem, Massachussetts in the 18th century. Mrs. Painter posed a question to the class about what factors led to the witch hunt. My own answer sat in my mind like in some kind of promising yet potentially disruptive event, like an unpopped kernal of corn. But as usual, I just sat there, scrutinizing the font in our textbook. I remember expecting the usual hush over the classroom after which I was often called upon.

And then I heard another voice, not my own, but with a similar oscillation between loud and soft, high and low, and going on much longer than other students ever did and saying something like, “some people would probably say that they were hysterical or full of teenage angst, you know, the psychology, or even that they were really possessed, which would be the religious angle. But I was thinking, their world was really changing, part of the town getting wealthier and the other part left behind. I think the girls maybe felt torn between different ways of understanding what was happening.”

The voice was coming from the back of the classroom but I was too shy and too stunned to turn my head to look. What I saw, instead, was Mrs. Painter’s expression, how her eyes warmed, her mouth pursed, her chin nodding slowly.

I don’t even remember when I actually laid eyes on her, probably after class when I could turn naturally, gathering up my books and backpack, stealing a glance across the room in the direction of the voice. But I knew before then, before I even saw her, that she was one of them, one of those girls with their fresh clothes and their radiant bodies, the girls whose movements constituted a sort of system in which the rest of us, both boys and girls, found ourselves oriented in one way or another.

Somehow I heard that in her voice, a determined pitch that turned my ear like a compass. What made me think about her so much—that day, and the next, and the day after that—was the other thing I heard in her voice. It was something uncertain, roving, searching, something as familiar to me as the cadence of thought in my own head.

Her name was Audrey Cooper and it turned out, she was in three of my classes, not only social studies but also English and Algebra II.

 

I found myself listening for her, in those classes, and even in the hall as I navigated the current of bodies streaming in both directions; I listened for that tone of shrewd conviction that seemed to rise up and around all the other voices, quieting the rest of us with the assuring constancy of her insight.

And then, after a couple of weeks, I found myself raising my hand in response to her comments. I never looked at her, kept my gaze fixed on the teacher, but Audrey was the one I was talking to. I found myself saying the most surprising things. In English, when Audrey said that free-form poetry allowed for more emotional expression, I argued that forms like the sonnet and the haiku imposed a kind of discipline on pure feeling, forcing it to become more subtle and more powerful at the same time.   In algebra, Audrey argued that we shouldn’t have to do word problems because numbers are inherently more pure than words. But words and numbers are both impure, I said. Only pure thought is pure. Only God is pure.

I could not turn my head to see how she reacted to my constant objections. But I could see how the teachers in those classes started turning to me after Audrey spoke, expecting my rebuttal. And the pleasure I saw in the eyes of those teachers was a pleasure held in tension between Audrey and me.

 

I went to Mr. Howard’s room nearly every day after school. Whenever I came in, he’d smile and nod, turning back to his piles of grading. Since I came in so often now, he just left the day’s lesson plan out for me on the black-topped lab table. I checked to see that the lesson was there and then turned away, keeping it in my peripheral vision like a piece of pie at the edge of my placemat. I’d started doing a few things around the lab to help out, feeding the tadpoles, misting the moss collection, making sure the sponge was moist in the domed habitat where ladybug larvae hung upside down in their cocoons, metamorphosizing.   After my chores, I read the lesson and then found the equipment to reconstruct his demonstration—Mr. Howard always had some kind of specimen or experiment to illustrate the lesson.

One afternoon, in late January, I dropped in to find him leaning over a wire cage.

“Hey Neva,” he said, his voice wavering with enthusiasm. “Come and see our latest subjects.”

He leaned away from the cage and I peered over his shoulder. Two white rats were snuffling around in a carpet of fresh yellow wood shavings. One of them paused to acknowledge our gaze, its pink eyes rolling up in its skull like small beads of glass.

“We’re starting the unit on animals next week,” Mr. Howard explained. “Our specimens arrived this afternoon.” He turned back to them, his face fascinated and bemused.

On the table next to the cage, I saw a packing slip. For some reason, I picked it up. It was a regular receipt, the kind you might find in any package arriving in the mail. “Outbred Rats,” it read, “Quantity: 2.” The total price was $52.17.

It struck me as odd somehow to purchase living beings the same way you bought any other piece of lab equipment, like a petri dish or a microscope slide.   But then, people bought cats and dogs and birds for pets, even mice, why was it weird to buy a rat for a lab specimen? Because it was an instrument like any other in the lab?

“What do you do with them?” I asked, wondering if I didn’t really want to know.

“Well, first I use them to illustrate the distinctive features of mammals, the fur, the mammary glands, the beat of the four-chambered heart, the differentiated teeth.”

“Only mammals have those things?”

“Yes,” he said. “Then we talk about animal behavior, aggression, cooperation, learning, sexuality.”

“You can see all of those things in rats? They cooperate?”

“Oh yes, rats are very social” he said. “If you put up a partition between them and set up a system where one rat has to pull a lever to give food to the other rat, they start cooperating so they both get enough to eat.”

“Did you see them do that? In this class?”

“Yeah,” he said, looking up from the cage. “It was a student project, modeled on some recent research.”

I felt my eyes widening.

“After the lesson on animal behavior, we have a class competition. Each student writes a research proposal to carry out a study on these two little guys. As a class, we vote on the top three proposals and the students who designed those studies become our principle investigators.”

“And you do the experiments?” I said, astonished. “Right here? In this class?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said. “And then we write up the results. It’s their final paper for this class.”

“So what other kinds of experiments have you done in the past?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, looking out the window, “one year we did a nutrition study where we had one rat eat raw vegetables and the other one eat only hamburgers and french fries from McDonald’s.”

“And what happened?”

“We had to cut the experiment short,” he said, “for humanitarian reasons. The fast food rat became obese and immobile.   We were afraid it was going to die of dehydration because it couldn’t even get over to its water dispenser. It was sitting in its own waste most of the day.”

I must’ve made a face. He held up his hand as if to reassure me.

“We stopped the experiment in time,” he said. “After a few weeks on the veggie diet, that rat was back to its normal weight. We wrote up the results and they were published in a youth science journal.”

“Wow,” I said. “You can really discover something, right here, something that nobody ever knew before.”

“Another year we altered their day-night cycles by putting them in different cages, putting blankets over the tops, and setting lights on differently programmed timers. Then we tested the effects on their cognitive abilities by timing how long it took each one to get through a maze.”

“What kind of maze?”

“Oh, let me show you,” he said and he went off to a corner of the room, searched through a stack of boxes and pulled a smaller one out from under several large ones. The front of the box depicted an astroturf grid with plastic panels that could be fitted on the base to construct a maze. At the top right-hand corner was a small cell with a bait tray. With my finger, I traced the path of the maze in the picture, thinking of the series of decisions the rat would have to make to get to the prize. Realizing what I was doing, I pulled my hand away.

But Mr. Howard was looking out the window again. Then he looked back at me.

“Nevaeh,” he said slowly, as if pronouncing a quiz question, “what do you think you would do if you could conduct your own experiment with our rats?”

I thought for a moment. What would I want to know?

“I would put them together for a while, let them get to know each other.” I was thinking as I spoke, my words fueled by rising curiosity. “Then I would separate them and put them on opposite ends of the room, where they couldn’t see or hear each other. For at least a week. And then, I’d take them out and put one in the bait area and the other one at the starting gate. To see if one would go through the maze just to be with the other one.”

He considered this, nodding. “And what would you be testing, specifically?”

“I guess,” I hesitated, “Love, I guess, or desire. To see what a male would do to be with a female—or the other way around.” My project was refining itself in my mind. “And I would time them to compare the male’s desire with the female’s.”

Mr. Howard raised his eyebrows. “There’s just one problem with this scenario,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, disappointed.

“These rats are both females.”

“Oh,” I said, again.

“We always get two of the same sex,” he added, “to avoid procreation. We don’t want an unexpected pregnancy mucking up our research.”

“No, you wouldn’t want that,” I said.

“But you know,” he said, “I don’t see why you couldn’t do the same experiment with two females. In fact, that might be a lot more interesting.”

“Really?” I said. “Do you really think it would work though? Would a female go through the maze to be with another female?”

“Well, I don’t know,” he said, “but that’s what you want, a question worth asking because you don’t know the answer.”

We gazed into the cage. Mr. Howard cocked his head as if considering his next comment.

“I got an email a couple of weeks ago. There’s a group of women professors at the university doing a science contest just for high school girls. You write up a proposal for an original research project, you carry it out, and then you write up the results. There are ten first prizes and each winner gets to choose between a telescope or a microscope.”

“I wish I was in your class,” I said, “so I could do it.”

“You don’t have to be in my class,” he said, “or at least the email didn’t say that you do. So just write up your proposal. We’ll be finished with our class experiment in April. The students will be writing up their results in the month of May. The rats will just be sitting there, idle, all that month. You can use them to do your own study.”

“So if I write it up, you’ll turn it in for me?”

“Sure,” he said. “You should do it, Neva, you really should.”

I was suddenly frightened at how much I wanted to. I looked deliberately at the rats. They snuffled about in their wood shavings, nudging up a pile in the corner. One of them climbed on top of the pile and turned, as if to encourage the other one to join her.

“What happens to them after school’s out?”

“I take them out to the country,” he said. “And I set them loose. They’re not very self-sufficient so they probably don’t last long out there but at least they get a taste of freedom before they get eaten by snakes or owls.”

I imagined them, two females, set free in a vast field of tall grass and wildflowers. Would they head off in different directions? Would they want to be together or each go in search of a male to mate with?

“I want to know,” I said, “I want to know the answer.”

“Do the experiment,” he said. “And then you’ll find out.”

 

Although early March was still dreary and cold, some of the girls began wearing short-sleeved polos to school, draping their pastel cardigans over their shoulders as they sat at their desks, crossing their shivering arms in refusal of the lingering chill. This was how I came to realize that spring was coming, a shift in the physical world that included us, embraced us as shifting bodies longing to, destined to return the embrace.

But for us, for me, early March meant Lent, turning away from the flesh, as my father said, turning inward to the contemplations of duty and fated sacrifice. I gave up lunch and saved up my lunch money, intending to donate it to a fund to help a woman at our church get an eye surgery she needed. Without lunch, my own vision was blurry by the end of the school day. I felt ghostly, floating through the hall into my last class of the day, Algebra II.   I gripped the edges of my desk as I descended slowly into my seat next to the long row of louvred windows. I was uncertain that my desk would really hold me in my place the entire class period.

We’d just started a unit on imaginary numbers.

Audrey was unconvinced. “If the square root of negative one isn’t possible, then it doesn’t exist and it can’t be a number at all,” she said. “It’s not a thing, it’s not out there in the world.”

But to me, buoyed by the faintest scent of new grass drifting in through a tiny crack in the glass louvres, anything seemed possible. I raised my hand.

“But a number, any number, isn’t a thing, it’s an idea,” I said, my words dancing off ahead of me. “It can seem to have a physical existence, when you place any quantity of things together, but even if those things are destroyed, the number still exists.”

“No,” Audrey interjected. “Then that number is gone and you have zero, a different number.”

“It’s like a person,” I continued. “If a person dies, the physical presence is destroyed but that person is not gone, not entirely. It’s not like they never existed. The person continues to exist as an idea.”

“As a memory,” Audrey responded. Then she stopped herself and checked the teacher’s expression, to make sure we hadn’t gone to far. But he was leaning against the chalkboard, happy to relinquish the class to our debate. So Audrey continued. “A memory of a thing that was once real, that once had a physical existence. But the square root of negative one never did have a physical form, never can be real in any way.”

“But maybe it will,” I said. “Maybe imaginary numbers will take form someday. Maybe we just haven’t found out how, not yet.”

At the end of class, I was zipping up my backpack as Audrey sauntered up to my desk.

“That really blew my mind,” she said, her eyes widening as she laughed.

I thought: this is really happening. Audrey had never spoken to me outside of class discussion. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“So you’re the smart girl,” Audrey said, still smiling, her eyes probing curiously into mine. I held her gaze for an instant, then my eyes slipped down the placket of her shirt, wandering over to the pale wedge of shadow beneath her small bosom. I caught my breath.

“No,” I said, with certainty. “You’re the smart girl.”

“Well,” she said, flipping her head so that the hard edge of her bobbed hair lifted from her cheek and fanned out backward over her ear like the pages of a open book. “Smart girls rule.”

“At least in the realm of the imaginary,” I said.

She looked at me quizzically, as if she hadn’t quite heard me, then nodded as if she’d suddenly gotten it. “But it’s real,” she said, beaming again. “It may be just an idea, but it’s real, right?”

“That’s right,” I said and she turned to go.

And I thought, yes, this really happened.

Audrey and me, it’s real.

 

I wrote a proposal for an experiment with Mr. Howard’s mice. I was babysitting the neighbor’s kids and I put them to bed at their regular bed time, as instructed by their mother. They complained, begged to watch another episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, but I was thinking about my project and so I stood firm, tucking them in precisely at nine pm. Then I turned off the TV and sat on the couch with my notebook on my thighs, savoring the expansive quiet, the time to consider what I most wanted to think about. Mr. Howard had given me a brief lesson about how to write a research proposal but he hadn’t given me the handout he gave his students. We both knew that I wasn’t allowed to have that. So I’d listened carefully to what he said and now I recalled the lesson, point by point. I stayed up until midnight, refining my research question, designing the experiment, thinking how I would analyze the data.

“Fantastic,” Mr. Howard muttered, as if commenting to himself. “You can get started at the beginning of May.”

I kept coming by after school, doing my lab chores and reading the lessons. But now everything I did was freighted with anticipation, taking on meaning as preparation for what was to come.

 

I started my experiment in the first week of May by putting the two rats together in one cage and enriching their environment with a few toys they could play with together.

I kept them together for two weeks, letting them grow accustomed to playing together, eating together, sleeping together. Then I took them out and put them in separate cages, stashed in corners on opposite sides of the room.

In home ec, we started doing final projects in May. Each group had to prepare a nutritional four-course meal for a family of four in thirty-five minutes.

“In the real world,” the teacher told us, “you’ll often have less.”

Each group had a day to prepare and present their meal while the rest of the class worked on a mending assignment. As a class, we all sampled the meal and shared our comments in group discussion.

My group was doing cashew chicken casserole. I came to class one Monday, our assigned day, to find the whole kitchen area marked off in yellow tape that read “Hazard: Do Not Cross.”

I went over to a girl in my group, the one with the glossy lips. Her name was Sophie and I’d gotten to know that she was a friend of Audrey.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.

“Haven’t you heard about the rats?” she giggled.

“In here?” I said. “Rats, in this classroom?”

“Mr. Howard’s rats,” she said. She leaned close to me as if sharing a juicy tidbit of gossip. “His lab rats escaped over the weekend. When Mrs. Mulvey came in here this morning, she found them running all over the counters and stovetops. We’re all in trouble ’cause she says it means we haven’t been scrubbing the kitchens properly after we cook.”

“My rats,” I whispered. “My project.”

“Your rats?”

“I mean,” I stammered. “Not my rats, they weren’t my rats. It’s just that I used to have a pet rat. He used to escape all the time.”

“Oh,” she giggled again. “Then you’re not going to want to hear what happened next.”

I met her laughing eyes. Despite her warning, she continued.

“The custodian thought they were just ordinary rats so he set out snap traps and caught them both. He’d thrown their bodies in the garbage out back by the time Mr. Howard found out about it.”

After school, I went to see Mr. Howard. He was sitting on the lab table, holding one of the cages. The other one was on the table next to him.

“It’s really a mystery,” he said.

“It’s ruined,” I said. “All that research and now I’ll never know the answer.”

“Look here,” he said, pointing to the severed latch on the door of the cage. “It looks like one of them chewed through the wire holding the door shut. “See how it’s chewed through, on the inside of the door?”

“But both of them got loose,” I said.

“Well then, look at the other cage,” he said, putting down the first cage and taking up the second one to show me. “The same wire is chewed through on this one, see? But it’s the part of the wire on the outside of the door.”

“But how could she have chewed open a wire on the outside of the door?”

“It didn’t, Nevaeh,” he said. “The first rat must’ve chewed itself free….”

“Then found the other one in her cage across the room and set her free.”

“I’m sorry your study was ruined,” he said. “But I think those rats gave you an answer after all. Maybe not what you were looking for. Maybe what they were looking for.”

 

A feeling set in, life surging around me, under me, but I held on motionless as a leaf caught against a rock in a swollen creek. It was better that way, stillness. I thought of my rats, caught motionless in their snap traps, life continuing on after them, without them.

On Friday afternoon, I sat on the bench in my gym clothes as the other girls dressed. I didn’t feel like opening my locker, changing clothes, going on to another class. I just wanted to sit there, letting normal life carry on around me as I became still and quiet, removed and undisturbed. I sat there inert with one gym shoe still on and the other one in my lap unlaced. One girl asked me if I was ok and I said, yeah, just tired.

“See you later,” she said, turning to leave and I realized that she was the last one to leave from that class and girls from the next class were already coming in, getting their gym clothes from the locked baskets at the back of the room, then stripping down in front of their lockers, some of them chatting with friends as they hurried their shorts up their legs and shimmied them up over their hips. I pretended to relace the shoe in my lap, though this made little sense; I was just waiting for this crowd to pass into the gym.

And then Audrey was there, beside me, pulling her yellow polo shirt up over her head, unzipping her short white skort. I continued lacing, noticing in the corner of my eye how she folded her clothes so carefully as she stood in her white socks, pink cotton panties, and pink stretchy bra. Another girl said something to her and she laughed. The girl reached over to Audrey’s back and snapped her bra strap. Shrieking, Audrey lunged at the girl, her fingers shaped into hooks. At that moment, Coach Loomis, the girls’ gym teacher, came barreling through the locker room, telling everyone to hurry up and get to the gym. “You two,” she said, pointing to Audrey and the other girl, “quit horsing around and get going.”

And in a few more moments, they were gone. I’d never skipped class before and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I laid myself down longways on the bench, staring at the industrial florescents for a while. And then, with sudden curiosity, I sat up and looked over at her locker. The locker door was closed and latched but the padlock hung open. Distracted by the playfight, Audrey had left it unlocked.

I listened for a moment. I could hear occasional shouts and thumps from the volleyball game in the gym but the locker room was quiet. And then I was at her locker, slowly pulling away the lock, lifting the latch, opening the door. Her clothes were stacked neatly on top of her loafers, her backpack hanging from the hook above them. My hand went to her shirt, tracing the edge of the collar down the front placket, under the seam to feel the buttons, then reaching below into the folds of her white skort. There was the beady edge of the zipper, the waistband, and deeper, the seam between her legs, still warm and slightly wrinkled from sitting in the previous class. My thumb crossed over and over the seam where the front piece met the back.

And then I heard a sound, a kind of urgent hum that grew into a soft moan. My eyes flew open as I realized that it was my own voice and not Audrey’s, as I had somehow imagined. And I stepped back, holding that hand out in front of me as the other hand went up to my throat. I felt the hardness of the gold cross under my fingers and my hand closed over it. Before I could formulate the prayer I meant to say to myself, I yanked the cross away from me and thrust it into the pile of clothes, holding it there for a moment, then releasing it into the warm folds of cotton. I took my hand away, closed her locker and locked it.

And then I got dressed and went to my next class. I slipped in, fifteen minutes late and the teacher didn’t even seem to notice.

Ashamed and horrified, I sat in class after class for the rest of the school day, replaying the incident over and over in my mind, inspecting every movement, every sensation, every thought that occurred to me as I did whatever I had done alone in the locker room. But I hadn’t been alone; God had been watching, this I knew. But what had God seen me do? Audrey’s clothes were so pretty; I was admiring them, that’s all. And I hadn’t stolen anything, after all, actually the opposite. And you could say (couldn’t you?) that I had left something sacred and beautiful for Audrey, that I was reaching out to her as a sister in Christ.

But I could not shake the feeling that I put that cross there to nullify something sinful, something from my own hand. Then I found myself thinking about how she might have found the cross there in her clothes, how she might draw the chain up around her neck, the cross swaying gently against her chest, how it might settle against her skin, now a part of her as it had been a part of me.

But she wasn’t wearing it in social studies and not in algebra.

After school, I went to Mr. Howard’s room but for some reason, he wasn’t there.

Walking home, I tried to force myself to pray but I just couldn’t. I tried singing softly to myself, the lyrics to my favorite song at the time, “Lifted Away”:

 

I fell into the shadow of dark desire

on the path from sin to infinite fire.

Then Your light touched my face

with Your power and grace

And you lifted my soul away, so high.

Your hands lifted my soul away.

 

That’s what I wanted more than anything, to be lifted away from this life, enveloped in a kind of selfless peace, free from doubt and struggle. When I got home, my mother was babysitting several church kids whose mother was in the hospital and the house was swarming with chaos as they played hide-and-seek with my sisters and brother. I knew that I would soon be put in charge of this mayhem so that my mother could cook dinner. I went to the bathroom just to have a few more moments to myself.

My period had started, ruining a nice new white pair of panties.

It must be punishment, I thought, for what I did today.

And I knew that I would never be lifted away, not by God and not by Audrey.

 

Even though my experiment had been ruined, Mr Howard wanted me to write up the results anyway.   In the last week of school, I found out that I’d won one of the first prizes. There was an awards ceremony but I couldn’t go because it was Wednesday afternoon when I had to go to prayer warriors. So Mr. Howard went for me, to pick up the microscope I’d chosen.

On Thursday, after school, Mr. Howard opened the box and pulled out the microscope, a huge and gleaming apparatus with dials and buttons and little red indicator lights. This was obviously not a toy. I knew I could never take it home with me.

Mr. Howard said he’d keep it for me in the science supply closet. He handed me a black magic marker and I wrote my name on the side of the large box. He hoisted it up to the top shelf.

“It’s right here for you,” he said, encouragingly. “You can use it when you come to the lab after school. Just go right in here and take it down when you want it.”

“Thanks,” I said but it came out like a whispery gasp.   I couldn’t catch my breath. I was remembering the feel of the cool metal arm in my hands, the teeth of the dial against my fingertips.

“And you can take it with you when you go away to college,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said again, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the box above my head.

“College,” he repeated. “Don’t forget.”

 

That night, when I turned out the light and lay down in my bed, I stared into the darkness above my face, prolonging the interval before my eyes adjusted and I could again discern the shapes around me: the dresser, the rocking chair, stuffed animals on a shelf, my younger sister’s body in the twin bed next to my own.

You see these things in the daylight, I thought, that’s what your eyes are designed to do. But when the lights are off, your eyes reach out, touching the darkness, opening up like fingertips seizing on a prize. If you’re awake, if you’re alive, you cannot stop yourself from touching darkness. You cannot stop your eyes from seeing what they grasp. Unless you close them, give in to sleep and close them forever.

My father tells us that we should think very carefully about what God sees when He looks deep inside each one of us. But now that I have my microscope, the question I keep wondering is, What does God mean for me to see?

All the Pieces Came Together
by Chris J. Rice

Runner Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize

I’ve always been a turtle behind the wheel, slow and steady. I didn’t get a license until I was twenty-four and I totaled two cars by the age of forty-eight, uncertain of where I was in space. I routinely drove off steep curbs. Somehow missed the dip that signified a driveway entrance or exit. Could never tell how far my own car was from the one just ahead. On mountainous roads I’d ask someone else to take the wheel, lie down on the back seat or crouch on the floorboards. Edges terrified me. I rode the brake, gulped fear, heart pounding. Never looked out the window with pleasure, even on planes. Didn’t care about seeing a carpet of clouds. I slid the porthole cover shut as soon as I sat down. Turned the overhead reading light on and zoned out.

Distance. Heights. Crowds. I couldn’t deal with everyday space and time. Scooped out just looking at a clock. Immediately convinced I was late, I’d grab my purse, eyeglasses and keys, and head for the door. I was the woman who always showed up too early and waited out front in her car, the woman who claimed a seat closest to the plane gate two hours ahead of the flight.

Transitions were hard.

“Read the letters on the chart for me, please.”

They looked like Celtic runes or the Cherokee syllabary. E was easy, the top letter on the chart and one I knew well. E was the initial of my son’s first and last names. Also the first initial of my adopted last name, and the official surname on my birth certificate, not the name I was born with but the name of StepDad. S — my initial from Real Dad — was long gone.

My biological father left when I was three years old, and didn’t come around again until I was ten. Looked at me wary. Looked at me weird. Told me I was like him. Told me I was like her. Took me for a ride in the country and spewed scary stories. “Never forget what I’m going to tell you,” he said. “Opposites attract. They attract all right. Then they fucking kill each other.”

“Were you ever hit in the head?” my ophthalmologist asked.

Fingernails in my arms hang on hang on. Head bounced against the wall. Run. Run. Run, you little idiot. Get out of here. Slip out the door and out of her way. Move. Two years old on my trike, twenty blocks gone.

I’m leaving. I’m leaving. I’m out of here.

Not enough to go around. Not welcome, not wanted, no room for any of us.

Not in her.

Born to a woman who had to parcel out love to her nine children.

  1. Me
  2. Moody Sister
  3. Baby Brother
  4. Tomboy Twin
  5. Platinum Twin
  6. Meanie Lee
  7. Lawyer’s Son
  8. Last Girl
  9. Last Boy

Only the twins had the same father: a man my StepDad tried to kill one night with a bottle opener.

Tore him apart and set Mama rambling.

After that night, she never lived in the same place for more than a year or so. She took off to avoid questions she didn’t want to answer from people paid to ask those kinds of questions: social workers, doctors, school counselors and law enforcement officers.

She distrusted authority and instilled that distrust in all of her children.

Mile-high moxie, ruthless disregard of authority, and freedom of a kind I left behind, left behind and sometimes longed for.

Afraid. And ashamed of my fear and my weakness, ashamed I wasn’t strong enough to carry my siblings away with me when I left. Afraid of being run over, demolished and obliterated by the hate and disregard that had lived in Mama and lived on in them. That didn’t die with her. That would never die.

“Here’s the thing,” the doctor said. “There isn’t a prism insert big enough to correct this. I’m going to have to send you to a strabismus expert.”

Strabismus? As soon as I got home, I looked up the term.

Strabismus, sometimes described as: crossed eyes, walleyed, lazy eye, wandering eye, or deviating eyes, an imbalance in the muscles responsible for the positioning of the eyes, preventing the eyes from tracking together in a coordinated way.

Psychological difficulties included: social inhibitions, anxiety, and often, emotional disorders from the loss of normal eye contact with others.

Traitor is what my half-sisters called me, and worse.

When the twins were three, Mama had Meanie Lee, the parting gift of some stranger in the night, and I knew that once again I would have to love her as my own. And I did. I loved her so hard and so strong, she called me mommy. She toddled toward me, arms wide open and trusting.

I held on to her the way I needed someone to hold on to me.

And then Mama had another baby, this time a boy. The kind she hated, the kind she never even tried to like. Born seventh in line, with a full head of black hair and dark inquisitive eyes. Eyes that took it all in from the get-go. I could tell. And I couldn’t take it. I had to get out of there, couldn’t try to love one more loveless baby one more time. The last I saw him he was fourteen months old, standing in his crib, watching and silent. And I was off to live with Real Dad and his new family.

Broken family, wrecked finances, for years involved with men who didn’t want me, harsh judgmental pricks, not tender or kind at all. The people in my life fluctuating, more acquaintances than friends, not as important as the ones I had left behind—never as important as the kids in the car.

In many ways I was still in that car.

Cramped legs, clenched fists, and squinting eyes.

Stubborn. For as much as I moved forward I also stood still. Afraid of what would resurface, I kept my life fragmented: these people here and those people there. Friends never met family. Family never met friends. I lived my life on the edge of every family system: biological, adopted, step, foster and married in.

Compartmentalized.

The only way I could deal. The only way I could keep it together. Then I fell in love with R, the first letter of relief, and the initial of my current last name, surname of the man I kissed under a bright light in the sky. “What is that?” I asked him that first night, because I’d never seen the moon so high, the world so bright.

In the first photo taken of me with my second husband and his two children, I stand apart from them, arms crossed, head cocked to the right, squinting eyes aimed left. Body contorted. Inward. Hidden away. Protected.

The way you look at us, friends would say.

Lighten up. Don’t sit so far away. Don’t look like that.

See it this way.

Ten percent of the general population has strabismus; four percent of children have strabismus. Age of onset for naturally occurring strabismus: two to three months or two to three years. The condition might be congenital, acquired or pathological. As for a fix, the odds were not good. The chance of achieving stereoscopy in adult life was slight to none. I examined photographs from childhood. I studied my gaze in infancy, in early childhood, and found a level gaze at two and four. Sad eyes, yes, but eyes able to look directly into the camera, until age six and then not so much.

At six, I remember looking across the room at a favorite toy, a gyroscope. I remember seeing it split apart and become two. One gyroscope levitated, the other stayed on the bed. I was in awe. Transfixed by the magic I had made. I thought everyone looked so hard they made the objects in the world split and float apart.

The wonder didn’t last long.

By age eight, I avoided eye contact. Shied away from the camera. Looked down, to the side. Covered my face with a book. Adopted a stubborn stance of defense and resistance. Sat as close as I could to the TV and squeezed my eyes together. Pressed in on my temples as hard as I could. Struggled to bring the doubled images on the screen together in my head. Couldn’t see to catch softballs lobbed my way, failed to judge the distance between my bike’s fender and a friend’s and crashed. I stayed inside more and more with my Moody Sister. Upside down, we flopped backwards into the canyon between our twin beds. And watched our lips move, striking and odd and so comforting. I became obsessed with viewing the world that way. Wondered why all doorframes weren’t inverted, allowing you to step up and into a room instead of mindlessly gliding through portals.

“Look at the world and paint a picture,” my fourth grade teacher said. “Make it look the way you see it.”

I chose the bloom of a blue iris, stuck in a water glass on her desk. I mushed the wet end of a watercolor brush into a cake of violet and transferred the flat world I saw onto the flat world of the paper with deceptive ease.

Transcribed the world of my vision onto the world of the picture plane.

The code for depth already buried in the back of my brain, disconnected.

Unplugged.

To “put” something in perspective is to place it within a contiguous space, in sequence, with clear boundaries and borders, in context. Seamless.

Art blows that map apart. Has to.

Life never stays the same, in sequence with clear boundaries and borders. 

In my twenties I made a special trip to The Museum of Modern Art in New York City to see Picasso’s Guernica before it was returned to Spain. I sat on the floor in front of that monotone mural and took it all in, transfixed by the light and the lack, by my recognition of the fractured world depicted: horrific conflict, child in the center, torch lighting the way. Cubistic. Drawn as much from what we know to be true as what we see in the world.

All art an abstraction, all vision an interpretation. The brain was an organ of interpretation.

“They’re not finished,” observers would say about my drawings and paintings. “Why don’t you ever finish them?”

“They are finished,” I would answer.

I was so sure I knew what I was leaving out. So sure composition was a choice I made, that what I left out was purposeful.

Drawing was my skill, my knowledge, and my way to get attention.

Life was so hard.

I made the meaning I could.

Adapted.

I was so adept at adapting; I was eleven years old before someone in my life noticed something off with my vision. Grandma Iola watched me struggle to see the TV and took me to an eye doctor. After the examination, she let me pick out a pair of cat-eyed frames, along with a silver chain to hang them around my neck. So I would never lose them. There’s one photograph of me wearing those eyeglasses, a black and white Kodak of a solitary girl standing on a gravel driveway in front of an old Chevrolet. A nerd girl in peg leg jeans, a button-down white Oxford shirt, and a corduroy jacket lined with fake shearling. Suede loafers with white socks on her feet, hair in a ponytail, stray bangs hung over and into the brand-new eyeglasses on her solemn face.

I didn’t even make it into Mama’s house with those cat-eyed frames. The instant she saw me, she ripped them off my face and threw them back into my grandmother’s car.

“Ugly four eyes. No kid of mine will ever wear glasses.”

Mama didn’t like doctors. She only took us to one when we needed shots for school attendance. Doctors were nosy. She didn’t trust them. She hadn’t gone to them when she was a kid and she didn’t want their questioning eyes on any of her children.

“Mercy,” my grandmother said.

Mercy was the word she used whenever she had cause to wonder. She said it in surprise or disbelief or whenever she needed time to think. I would hear her say that word whenever I was afraid. Petrified that day, I adopted her invisible faith, hoisted myself up from the curb where I had fallen and followed Mama into the house.

The next time I wore eyeglasses, I was forty-two years old, working as a photo researcher in the Los Angeles Times editorial library, with so much eyestrain I could barely think. For hours a day I looked through magnifying loupes, searched through Lektriever files for the best negative frame, browsed through online databases for this or that particular image, eyes in a squint, head throbbing. Queasy and disoriented, prone to double vision when I was tired, unable to pull my lazy right eye into alignment, make it cooperate with my overworked left.

A body holds a head to suit the senses. I held my head askew. Turned my face to the right and looked at the world crossways, eyes aimed in the opposite direction. I trained myself to look at the world sideways. Shot the people around me endless side-eye like some kind of perpetual doubter.

Torso twisted to support my misaligned vision.

Head rotated to reposition my wandering right eye.

Neck and shoulders torqued to the right to accommodate my head.

Right hip rotated.

Right leg followed and right foot splayed.

Spine curved.

I had some support to go to college from my foster parents but all the loans and work-study jobs were on me. It took me eight years to finish my BA because I married young, too young, and had my son when I was twenty-three.

I do not recommend that—going from unsupported child to raising one.

The waiting room of the Jules Stein Eye Institute in Los Angeles was full of parents with young children. Most of the kids were under three. Some were still in strollers; many wore eye patches like little pirates. I wondered how they could test pre-verbal kids with an eye chart.

Strabismus, if not detected and treated early, contributes to loss or lack of development of central vision. Early diagnosis increases the chance for complete recovery.

In the examination room, I took a seat in the exam chair and laughed. Across the room, shadow boxes held a menagerie of stuffed animals.

Above that was the Snellon eye chart.

The nurse came in and gave me a preliminary exam.

She showed me a card of geometric designs: nine rounded squares, and within each of them, a set of four concentric circles. “Point to the three-dimensional circles in each set,” the nurse said. “The circles that seem to rise off the page.”

As usual, I simply guessed. I did not know.

The world was a flat road stretching into the distance, parallel lines seldom converging, with objects and people popping into my field of vision as if from nowhere.

Twenty percent of murders take place within families. Reactive and regressive people respond with violence to upsetting or provoking stimuli. I’d read all about the makeup of criminals; I couldn’t get enough of the subject. I’d searched myself body and soul for the marks of Cain: odd lines in the palm, strange spaces between toes, creases on the tongue, and ears too low on the head.

Eyes unfocused.

The nurse left but told me to wait; the doctor would be in soon.

While I waited, I checked my phone for messages. I took a photo of the room and posted it online.

I’m here. Right here in this place.

We are animals with forward facing eyes. Eyes that converge to see close up and diverge to see into the distance; eyes that scan the world as we move through it.

Stereo and peripheral vision helps us do that.

I didn’t have either.

I was stereo blind. Stereo is the Greek word for solid. Real. Objects seen in three dimensions look solid, in and of the world. Located in space.

From early on, Mama wasn’t real and solid to me. For as long as I could remember, she was split into two people in my mind’s eye: the loving Mama who I imagined had been taken away and the mean version left in her place.

Get a grip, we say. Meaning: hold it together.

A couple of months before I found out Moody Sister had died Last Girl — the sister born after I left — called my landline. I didn’t recognize her number on the display but I answered anyway, uneasy and unprepared for what I was about to hear.

“Another one of our sisters is dead.”

Platinum Twin, seventeen the last time I had seen her, in the Tulsa Juvenile Detention Center, staring at me with dread, a truer blonde than her full-blood sibling, with spooky blue-green eyes strangely tuned out like Mama’s.

“They found her in her bed. Pretty as she always was but not breathing.”

“How? How did she die?” I asked. Wishing I had taken all of them with me when I left Mama and then the Midwest.

“She’s in heaven now, at peace with her savior,” Last Girl responded.

Still I pressed, needing to know. “What exactly happened?”

“I haven’t seen the death certificate. They won’t give it to me.”

Jesus! Couldn’t any of them answer a simple question? “Okay. Forget about the death certificate. Don’t you think it’s strange she died so young?”

She was only forty.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you remember who our mother was? What she was like?”

“Look, I haven’t ever met you,” Last Girl said. “I was a baby in the front seat of the car when you ran away. So, you know what, you don’t know anything about me and I really don’t know anything about you. But I’ll tell you what. I have faith and I do like my faith tells me to do. I forgive. What about you? Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior? Do you even believe in God?”

The earth, the ancients said, is a great island floating in a sea of water, hanging down from a solid rock sky suspended on all four sides by tenuous cords. Someday those cords will break and our only earth will fall. That’s what I believed. But I didn’t know how to explain any of that to someone I’d never had to keep quiet in the backseat of a speeding car, a baby I was never around to protect, never took care of through a dark wandering night. So I got off the phone as fast as I could, and sat down on the kitchen floor quaking.

Couldn’t keep it together.

Mama couldn’t keep it together. She died in her car in a hospital parking lot. All she owned was in a cardboard box stashed in an unpaid storage unit. Dead, but never gone, not for me, and not for all seven of her surviving children, and their children and their children and their children. She was still alive in them and in those to come, and in me, her oldest girl, the one not included in her obituary, the one who ran, the girl who got away.

Two of Mama’s six girls were already dead by the time she died. Two of her three sons left before they were grown, before they had reached the age of accountability.

Mama had nothing. Moody Sister’s real father paid for Mama’s grave and I paid for her headstone.

Daughter. Mother. Sister. Mother. Daughter.

When the nurse came back, she was with a portly man in a white lab coat. Finger puppets were stuffed in both his pockets. He introduced himself and sat down on a stool to read my chart. Then he handed the chart to the nurse and swung the phoropter over my face, a whirl of lenses, knobs, and prisms.

“Look across the room,” the doctor said. “And tell me what you see.”

“A pink pig, a blue elephant and, I think, a raccoon.”

He smiled. “No. I mean the letters on the chart. Start at the top.”

While I read as well as I could, he measured the distance my eyes roamed as I moved them from side to side, trying to recognize every letter, to prove to him and myself that I was okay.

“You should have had this done a long time ago,” the doctor said. He slid the phoropter off my face and told me what he planned to do.

Operate. Once, twice, maybe three times. Whatever it took to correct the misalignment of my eyes. It had to be done. The difference between my left eye view and my right eye view were too great for my brain to combine into one contiguous picture. So my brain suppressed the information from my right eye and only used the information from my left eye.

I stared at the doctor’s toupee and tried to absorb what he was saying.

He was going to fix me. Put his hands inside my head. Cut the translucent white skin over the surface of my eyes. Roll my eyeballs in the bony cradle of their sockets. Find the faulty muscle and alter it. Clip the loose muscle and tighten it. Cut the too-tight muscles off the surface of my eyeballs and move them down a notch or two. Stitch it all back down and call it done for now.

Who knew if the operations would work or not? The code for depth was buried in the back of my brain, disconnected all these years.

Unplugged.

“That’s deep,” Grandma Iola would say.

Depth a measure of seriousness, of sadness, a measure of how far down into the space of our psyche we are willing to go, to integrate, to pick up the pieces and come out whole on the other side.  

After Mama died, I tried to reconnect with my three surviving sisters with varying success: one called only to ask for money, another to save my soul, and the third routinely launched all-cap midnight attacks through social media. 

 

TO YOU WHO DON’T LOVE OUR MOTHER THOUGH I DON’T KNOW WHY!!!

 

A virtual barrage of vicious messages designed to convince me everything that had happened was my fault entirely. I was the Big Sister. If I had stayed, their lives might have turned out better.

 

What do we care what you think? Who are you anyway?

 

After the first operation, I was shattered. In. Pieces.

Eyes a kaleidoscope.

Brain cells and electrical circuitry were reactivated and scrambling to make sense.

The eye drops burned going in. “Look up. There,” my husband said. “At the fixture in the center of the ceiling.”

I focused on that light. Every morning I trained my eyes upward. And focused. Took charge of my vision.

What we make of what we see is our story. What we are able to see is our truth.

At fifty-eight I had to learn how to see again.

The monocular cues developed over decades to help me decipher the world were useless to me now. Now those cues were scrambled and I had to live with the reality of my actual vision while I retrained my eyes to work together. I was betting that if my eyes were not misaligned at birth or in early infancy — and I knew from photographs that they were not — my optic box had all the information I needed, and it was not too late to regain stereo and peripheral vision.

But it would take a lot of work.

Every morning as soon as I opened my eyes, I looked at that light fixture in the center of the bedroom ceiling and pulled the two images of that light fixture back together into one solid object.

I was determined to awaken my visual cortex, remind it, persuade it to reconnect to my realigned eyes. I was determined to see what I had never seen before. I wore a pirate patch on my left eye to coax my stray right eye back to center. I binge-watched Six Feet Under on my iPad, a shallow box of light placed six inches from my face. I focused on those tiny scenes and pulled their doubled images back together in my head. Forced everything to come together: my eyes, thoughts, words, and life.

I stopped driving on the freeways.

I clung to daily habits: walked the dog through the streets of our tree-lined neighborhood, sorted the mail: the pieces that fell through the slot in the door and the pieces I scrolled through on my iPhone inbox. Everything was fractured and flat: my sight, my mood, and the weather. Fractured and flat and sequential, it all rolled by, day after day. Day after day I used the same silver spoon, the same cereal in the same yellow-green Bauer bowl, the same uncertainty gathering, and the same debilitating doubt. A year passed that way, unsure of what I thought, felt, saw. Unable to correct badly placed commas, drive freeways or read for very long, I stared out the living room window, watching birds land on a water bowl and promising myself that after this was over, I would get a tattoo on my left shoulder, my dominant side, my weakened side, the side of my body which had held my left eye steady while the right side twisted away in confusion. I would get a tattoo of the first initial of all my last names. Mama on the brain, in my head, in my flesh and blood and bones, in spirals of DNA, undetectable to the human eye, fractured bits of information and promise, of fate and possibility.

We put the world together the only way we can, with our senses. We place what we know in context, and that context gives us a defined location in space.

What we are able to see is our truth, our reality.

Mama had two more babies after I left: number eight, another girl to ignore, and number nine, her last, another boy to hate. Born when I was twenty, five years gone and at last in college.

I had never met either of them when I got the call Mama had died.

Her story over and done, mine just beginning.

A being captive, yet in her heart evolate, flying outward like the ancients, as if springing into being from an embryonic state. Like the ancients I was determined to defeat the cowardice in my heart, the silence in my head and the trouble in my life.

I, eye, aye, this is what I give you, what I see, what I have seen, what I know to be true. Some people will never love you. They will clobber you with their minds and hold you down.

Do not let them.

“Don’t stop painting,” E, my first husband said. “Whatever happens with us? This is your thing. This is what you need to do.” As if he knew.

It was uncomfortable to realize the role my faulty vision had played in my decision to leave our son in Oklahoma with his father when I left to go to art school in California. I wasn’t stupid. I saw the power I gave my ex by leaving. The moral high ground he ascended to when I left my son behind. Loaded up my Datsun and took off with my drunken boyfriend.

My identity as fractured as my vision, I erected walls around me. Hard walls. Flat walls. Walls I made and maintained. Walls consciously and unconsciously made to give me space, to give me time, time and space to pull my vision together. Scarred with profound anxieties, I had already cordoned off my most painful experiences. I’d already accepted my fate.

In art school, the instructors pushed me to pick up a video camera. Put down the brush. Be like us or you can go home, hick girl. Pick up the tools of mass media. Use a video camera and deconstruct the dominant hierarchy. I tried. Put my right eye against the aperture and could not see. Went blind up against that machine. Literally could not see. Aesthetic production, they called it. Not art. Video flickers from expensive machines. A mechanical process meant to circumvent the body. Amend the body. Extend the body. MAGNIFY the body politic. They looked at my paintings of bodies, stacked and layered like history, like communal graves, like the back seat of a car, looked at my efforts and said: “Can you do without this obsession with the body? I mean. Does this say all you need to say?”

Then came the second surgery.

As I was going under the anesthesia, the baby in the bed next to me cried and I let myself be comforted by her mother’s voice. “Everything is okay,” she said. “It’s okay. I am right here.”

I hadn’t seen my son in twenty years.

“You will never see me again,” he told me when he left. “Never.”

Knocked out with his voice in my head, I came back to consciousness propped up. The doctor was asking questions.

“Tell me which is sharpest? Clearest?” Click. Click. “Is it this one or that one?”

The doctor wanted to make sure my eyes were not over- or under-corrected. He wanted to make sure my eyes were coordinated, able to move together like the front wheels of a car.

Not misaligned, continuing to pull me off course.

On the way home, my husband stopped at a Peet’s Coffee to get us each a cup. I waited in the car while he went in. There were bandages over my eyes, the smell of disinfectant on my skin, stinging, and I was so curious. But I waited until we got home, until I got out of the car, to lift the bandages and open my eyes.

And bam! Binocular neurons fired and the world unfurled in front of me.

Distant hills curved into the sky. Every leaf on every Chinese elm, which all grew in a row along our street, spiraled around me, one after the other. Plants grown out of the depths, rooted and round and three-dimensional, like me.

I walked through our front door as if into a new world. A sixty-year-old woman, who saw, finally saw what she had to do to take her place in the story.

One day I danced in the living room to Janis Joplin.

Oh yeah, take it. Take another little piece of my heart, yeah, baby.

No longer staring at the light in the middle of the ceiling, optic box busy unscrambling the chaos, pulling the doubled back together, no longer trapped in that space of powerless cowering, saying: I can’t, you can.

No longer an imposition, in the way and taking up more space than I should.

No longer adapting to the damage done, my center of gravity shifted.

My back swayed. My shoulders shimmied, my butt aligned and my two feet followed.

The pain in my neck went away and new pains moved in.

If this had happened to me, what had happened to them, my siblings? The baby in the crib the day I left, the day I finally got away?

And my son, the child I was too afraid to love. The being I brought into this world and the being I was most responsible for.

I, eye, aye, a blind spot exists before the physical possibility of perception, a blind spot not darkness, but the absence of light. Fifteen degrees from the center of the retina, right where the optic nerve takes off for the rest of the brain. Right where the nerve leaves the retina for the brain. Right in that spot, there are no light-sensing cells. Right in that spot, there is darkness. No contrast, or illusion.

Empty.

And in that place of emptiness all the pieces come together.

S

E

E

R

The entire world was my blind spot, self in the dark center, unable to see until I could.

Like the terrapin in the old Cherokee tale, thrown into the stream by wolves: the terrapin dove deep under water into darkness and came up on the other side into light, escaping the wolves, alive but broken. His back fractured against a river rock, the terrapin sat on the opposite bank and sang: I have sewed myself together, I have sewed myself together.

Gudayewu.

Goo-dah-yay-woo.

The pieces came together, but the scars remained.
###