The First of June
In the meadow behind my second husband’s house, I’ve seen her on the first of every June for a decade. Maybe it’s her birthday—I probably lost her on one of our birthdays. Or perhaps her favorite season is late spring, like mine. Maybe she’s foraging for leftover fiddleheads; maybe it’s when her favorite birds fly. In any case, it’s almost that time again.
And she’s getting older. Much older.
The first time, it was just her small body, her white dress, sleeveless, like a summer nightgown. Her back was to me, it always was, but it was held high. All four feet of her. She bent at the knees. Picked a dandelion. Sniffed it, dropped it. Gazed at a robin, then at a pigeon. Then she was gone.
I really mean gone—the thing people mean when they snap their fingers and say then it was over. Just like that. Gone as in: Disappeared like she’d been made of mist or like a flower blown away or a cloud you swear you see a shape until it gets knocked into by another cloud. Gone like a wave. Or perhaps the loose, foamy ends of a wave.
Some invisible eraser erased her every time. Then it erased itself, too, so there was not only no physical proof of her, but no proof of her having existed at all. If something’s never existed, it can’t be erased. Quite the trick. After it happened, I looked at the sky as if that’s where she went. But I know that where she went is not up, but into. Through.
My child, I’ve never met her. She’s entirely unknown.
But you have to understand. She’s my daughter, solid as ground. No, I didn’t always glimpse her in fields like this. I’ve only been seeing her since I moved into my second husband’s house by the meadow—and only on June first. It’s true, sometimes I hear her voice, like the way you hear a voice on the radio of a ship lost at sea: Mother mother, mother mother. Sometimes a playful song, sometimes quiet and shy. Rarely very sad. But though I yearn for her like a phantom limb, I don’t need to hear or see her to know and be sure of her. These inklings in my stomach and muscles, the ones which have gripped me for years, are what promise me. When I see or hear her, the sensation it evokes in me isn’t exactly proof or validation. It’s much more akin to the shape of my own head nodding at itself, an of course or I knew you’d come.
Let me be clear: I don’t long for her the way a person longs for someone after feeling their ghost. She isn’t a ghost. She exists; she was born, she never died. I don’t know her name, but she is current. She is flesh. If you’re not understanding this, you’re not understanding. Let me say it as plainly as I can: I have a child, I’m sure of it. She came from my body. But I have no memory of having birthed her. I’ve never met her, never once touched or discovered her. Not even the moment she was born.
I’ve tried to tell people and swiftly learned I shouldn’t. For example, I told my second husband because it was the night before our wedding. I explained as simply as I could. “Even though I’ve never met her, and I don’t remember giving birth, I know I have a kid. I do plan on finding her.”
“I have to say, I don’t understand.” My second husband, he’s always been such a polite man.
“I know it sounds crazy. I know I’m not a mother, in a regular way, but I’ve also always known I have a child! I’ve just…never met her.”
“Let’s get to bed, hon, big day tomorrow.” He flipped back the top blanket on the bed as if to wipe away the conversation. We never spoke of it again.
Way before I started seeing her in the meadow, I knew about her even though I couldn’t find her anywhere except in those tiny electric pulses between my bones. I’ve tried to recall a time when I didn’t know I had a child, but can’t. There was no revelation, no uncovering; it’s just been a fact of my life, plain as other facts like my name or parents. As a toddler, I stared at dolls as if staring at a detached, dead limb. A facsimile. They repulsed me. They pointed at something much more real that I knew but couldn’t access. In elementary school, when all my friends wanted to play house, the unspoken rule was we were to alternate roles. But I refused to play the role of the mother or child. Pouting, I insisted on being the cousin, the maid, the mailman. I didn’t possess enough innocence to be a pretend mother; I couldn’t just play. I was a real mother. Even back then.
When I was twelve, after my first period—in horror, I’d gaped at the little ball of blood thinning into a strand, dripping into the toilet—I stuffed my underwear with tissues and bolted up the street to the library. I went straight to the adult section, then to health, then back to the rows near the farthest wall, where I pulled out every book on babies and pregnancy I could find.
Please don’t mistake me for someone who wanted a child or who dreamed of someday living a mother’s life. My situation has never been a dream, this is the whole problem. My child’s authenticity was in my viscera and in the air between my organs and in all my little hairs.
As I sat cross-legged surrounded by books, I went from entranced to forlorn. This information wasn’t helping. It was only confirming what I knew but couldn’t fix. My body had an energy around and within it which, even when I appeared completely still to others, felt like it was pulling me forward. Like there was a hole, and my body was compelling me, begging me, to find that which had once filled it. Searching, I paced, following the pull, an invisible rope tied in to someone else’s chest bone. Who tugged it from the other end, I could not see, but I knew it was her. I moved in all directions following this rope and its tug, circling around my room and the hallway quietly so my parents wouldn’t hear.
My teen years were spent like this. Pacing, hiding in library stacks, studying mothers and children in the animal kingdom. Every day after school, I stayed there until it closed. I learned about every species I could. About the queen bee and her tyranny, about all manner of bird and egg. But still I couldn’t figure out the mystery of my absent child, or perhaps it was my empty child—what to call her? How to frame her?
I had my own mother, of course. To her, I once referenced the situation, albeit in the guise of a clever teen philosopher: “Do you think it’s possible to have a child without knowing it?”
Bless her, she took this so literally. “That happens to men sometimes, right?”
“No, if you actually had a child, gave birth, but didn’t remember.”
“I suppose if you were on drugs or mentally ill?”
“Never mind. It’s just something I read about in this weird book.”
It happens that, a week after this exchange, I realized I was pregnant. Against every piece of sex-related wisdom I’d gleaned in my sixteen years on earth and in all my library studies, I’d had haphazard sex with the school band’s trombone player. He was at the library; we spent an hour talking about biology class. He was endearing, and, with my obsessive studying, I’d hardly spent any time in the vicinity of a boy. So when he kissed me near the bushes, some sudden energy of teenage sex erupted and we toppled over. We had sex right there, behind the library bushes, with hideous awkwardness, leaving almost all our clothes on. Over the next month, we hung out at lunch. Had sex in the library bushes a few more times. Called each other most nights. But then I stopped returning his calls; he stopped waving at me in the hallway. In all, it was a non-event, a way for us to get our virginity done with.
Scowling at the positive pregnancy test, panic sunk me. It saturated my air and skin and the places between my organs and between each cell which made my organs. It jammed my stomach with longing for my true child. It riddled me with existential dread at the implications of betraying her with another one, of filling up my stomach’s space with the wrong body. I walked four miles to the next town, to the clinic where the girls at school got free birth control. I begged for help. Relief cannot describe the feeling that came over me when the abortion was done, the panic going backwards, sucking itself out with the embryo, away from all those spaces between my cells.
The second time I saw her in that meadow on June first, she was about twelve, nearing the height she’d be in adulthood, dressed as any generic pre-teen; jeans, t-shirt, a messy tide of light brown hair. Her back, as it was every time, was to me. She was watching chickadees. My child, she was always looking at birds. But this time, she looked down, too. Felt her body. I squinted my eyes to get a better view—she was about twenty feet off, I never dared move too close—and saw the large red stain on the back of her jeans. She yanked her hand up from inside, blood on her fingertips. Examining it, she disappeared. An earthquake’s tremor fading.
Senior year of college, my father called. My poor mother, she’d died in her sleep. A stroke. She’d always been so benign, like a mother on an old television show; I’d never had the heart to tell her about my enigmatic child. I couldn’t help but regret it. Wouldn’t she have wanted a granddaughter? Couldn’t she have helped me? With no way to fix it or get her back, I dove into practical tasks. After her abrupt end, my father, who’d otherwise been a stand-up citizen—on the board at the local animal shelter and such—descended into discreet despair in his bed, hiding bottles of beer in the nightstand drawer. So I took it upon myself to clean out my mother’s belongings. While he napped, I probed closets and boxes, looking for documentation. Birth certificates. Photos. I knew there must be evidence somewhere; piece by piece, I tore apart every drawer, cupboard, container, and pocket. All manner of forgotten objects, I investigated. I even checked in the cracks between the couches and their walls.
No random pictures in crayon. No soiled baby clothes forgotten.
Cranky and juvenile as my first husband was, he intuited all this. I never told him, but I know he knew that this child lived with me like background noise or a landscape. His initial inklings happened when at my first real office job—we’d gotten married just after college and stumbled into all our assumptions about adulthood together—I was chastised by my boss, who’d discovered that my work’s internet browser was overrun with searches on missing kids. My boss moaned, “How it is it even humanly possible that you’ve spent so much time browsing the web at work? What do I even pay you for?” There was a low rumble of shame down in that spot of my chest where I so often felt my daughter’s rope tugging me. No way was I going to tell my husband what had happened. But at my work’s holiday party, my boss was drunk and the story about my morbid search history was revealed to the crowd. Swinging his glass of whiskey around, he capped his story off with, “Office weirdo strikes again, right?”
That very night when we got home, my husband drunk from the party’s cheap booze and I sober from shame, he walked into the wrong closet looking for his robe and stumbled upon a five-inch thick stack of wrinkled printouts. Articles about missing children, obituaries of kids dead before their time, write-ups about children who’d done inspiring things or set basketball records or completed adorable science fair projects. Annotated. Highlighted. Names that sounded like mine, circled. Photos circled, features on photos circled, too: This girl’s nose was mine, that one had my hair’s texture, this one disappeared near my college dorm. That one shared my birthday. This one had never met her mother after endless searching.
I’d have understood if my drunk husband held the printouts in my face and said, “What the hell is this?” But he didn’t, and somehow, that made the whole thing worse. He just stood there flipping through them page by page, body wobbling a bit. When he was done, he dropped them passively, papers fluttering in a small spiral to the floor.
Though he never directly confronted me on the fixation, as if a punishment, he started in about having a baby. We were getting older, he said, I probably only had a few fertile years left. He didn’t get my hesitation. He became aggressive about it: Didn’t I sign up for this when I got married? He’d say, “What, do you care that much about your budding career as an office worker?” He got pushy about lovemaking and started talking all the time about his seed, sloppily shoving himself inside me while I was half asleep. He’d say things like, “Don’t you care that I want to pass on my seed to the next generation?” For the love of god, he couldn’t stop saying barren, either. “You’re going to be barren soon. Barren. Doesn’t that scare you?”
How to tell him I already had a child, and that, somehow, I didn’t know her? How to explain this riddle that had plagued me since my earliest memories? I wanted to tell him, I did. In my sideways ways, I tried. I alluded to depression. Said I’d always felt something was missing, there was a hole. Carefully, I got bolder, said a part of me was left in another life. He scoffed and called me a hippie. I tried to say, no—you don’t get it, I dream about it, it’s a hole just as if I’d misplaced a child. Well, that’s fucking delusional, he replied. I backtracked, half-heartedly intimated it was a metaphor. Stop being so poetic, he scolded. You need a goddamn therapist.
He was right, of course. To live in a world where you’re the only person who has a child you’ve never met, whose very escape from your womb you don’t remember—that’s a world in which, if you’re not careful, your psyche could cave right in. Yet surely, I thought, eyeing my first husband as he skulked sexless around the house, I couldn’t be the only person who’d ever had this problem. I refused to believe it. I felt a dire need to stick up for myself, and I did, if only inside my mind. I had endless conversations with imaginary outsiders who dared to challenge me on the fact that it is, indeed, possible to have a child who, by all reasonable accounts, both exists and doesn’t.
At a loss, I pretended to try to have children. I never stopped taking my birth control. My deceit pained me, but the thought of betraying my child was too much to bear. How to explain it to her? My mind and heart crumpled under the weight of imaging it. I could not, would not fill her absence with another.
Eventually, he got his yoga teacher pregnant. He told me in a huff one night, like it was my fault. Throwing a suitcase together like some breakup posture from a movie, he left right then. Truth be told, the despair and desperation of still not being able to figure out my child after all these years—back before I could articulate it, way before my abortion or period or all the rejected dolls, right to the event of my own birth, when my brand new body understood its motherhood—far eclipsed any other heartbreak or crisis I could possibly experience. If anything, I felt relief that I no longer had to lie. I could return to my internet searches and my printouts. Pile them up in plain sight, without him.
Just one time seeing her in that early June meadow was all it took. I immediately understood she’d come back every year after. It was the beckoning of the rope. And there she was, that second June, with her period. Then the third. Each time, just a little older.
The night he left was when I first heard the far-off ship that carried her voice. I swear, it was as though her voice was coming to me right from the middle of the sea. Which sea, I’m not sure. I hadn’t been to many seas; perhaps this was the secret to finding her? I started looking up seas in my mother’s old almanac: Black Sea, Red Sea, Andaman; Lake Michigan probably should have been called a sea, perhaps that’s where she was? My mom grew up in Michigan. I could almost hear the waves bumping the sides of my child, gently knocking out her words, patting her back. Mother mother, mother mother. Sometimes a whisper or laugh, only once or twice a cry. Sometimes she sounded three or ten years old, other times twenty or fifty. A couple times she had the gurgle and babble of a small baby. Once, she sounded elderly.
I curled into a ball under the living room window that my child’s voice drifted through, and I cried. For days I cried, then I cried for a week, then three weeks, and would have cried for months had I not run out of paid sick leave. In those crying weeks, I got up from the floor under the window only to drink water, eat cereal, and reread my printouts. A child who had my exact name had been born; she lived a few states over. The child who’d disappeared in the neighborhood near my college dorm: I reviewed the date; it was during my freshman year. I contemplated visiting my college, looking down alleyways, poking my head around delis. Just a four-hour drive. Maybe she’d recognize me. Maybe she was madly looking me up, too.
In fact, I became absolutely positive, coiled up on that floor, that no matter where she was, she was looking for me, too. How could it not be? After all, she held the other side of that rope. She tugged and tugged it. We’d find each other, she’d come home with me at last, I’d cook dinner for her every night and buy her clothes from her favorite store in the mall.
In one of my newspaper cuttings was a local girl who’d won the high school science fair last year. I dug out a photo of my teenage self from my mother’s things. You wouldn’t believe it, this face and mine, they were exactly the same. The similarities were precise, uncanny. I held up a pair of my first husband’s reading glasses to the photo. The size of the chin, the neck. Even the manner in which her wrist folded over when she pointed at her poster boards. I circled all of it. And listen to this: Her project was on the birthing process of a rare Chilean hummingbird. I’d been obsessed with birds and eggs when I was a teenager, obsessed. I’ll find her, I decided. I’ll look up her phone number. Maybe she even lives in my neighborhood, provided whatever false parents she lives with hadn’t moved her away.
But as the high of having maybe discovered her wore off, I sunk into myself. How could I possibly get myself to act? Yes, I was a desperate mother. But, as I’ve said, I was not crazy. I understood society’s rules. Despondent, I unfurled my arms from my chest and peered over the windowsill, as if this time I’d finally see the voice’s body. Over my face, my child’s voice wafted endlessly through the window from its sea. But her body simply wasn’t there. It was never, ever there. In reaction, I was nothing, too; I was an inverted, negative space, the energy of two bodies undone together. Neither had ever been whole. It was a sort of opposite-energy—and energy of opposites, what else to call it?—which you won’t understand until you experience it someday. An untold child within me, around me. Without knowing her, I didn’t know what either of us were.
The fourth year in the meadow, she looked about seventeen, resembling the girl in the science fair article more than ever as she dug her fingers into the grassy dirt.
I supposed she was looking for eggs or abandoned nests. I was so proud of her.
The man who’d be my second husband was hired as a temp for me during my crying days. The boss kept him on because he was adept at spreadsheets and filing, a very practical man. And ours was really a very practical romance.
I knew within the first hour I met him that, even if he wanted a child, he’d never push the issue against my wishes. Truth be told, he had a lot of good qualities, but this was ultimately what drew me to him. He wasn’t a meek man. He was tall. Broad-shouldered with a baritone voice. He was quiet. He washed dishes in the shared break room, he let other people talk. He didn’t interrupt women. He had very few facial expressions or strong reactions to, well, anything. I watched him all day and, by afternoon, was satisfied. In my most casual tone, I asked him if he wanted to get pizza.
Our practical romance started that night with discussions about weather and what movies we’d like to see. Though he didn’t often mention it, he’d been divorced, too. One thing I’ve always liked about him is we never talk much about serious things. Our energy is one of just wanting a simple life, someone to take walks with, drink beer on the porch in summer with, a person to give you a ride home from the hospital after anesthesia.
He didn’t challenge me on my strange searches. He left me be on the issue of children altogether, a topic I could no longer touch. So although I never again brought up the issue of my child after the night before our wedding, I did become lazier about hiding my printouts and clippings. On our shared computer, I forgot to click away articles. Even though I never once found another story like mine, I brought all kinds of books home from the library about children. Children raised by wolves. Memoirs by kids of actors. Scandals in the history of adoption. Medical case histories, meticulously photocopied from the reference section, of women who didn’t realize they were pregnant. I read these books in bed, my body curled away from my husband. He never asked me about them, and I let him alone with his various quirks and solitudes, too. He does have them, after all. He has his own tender secrets; I can tell by the way he stares sometimes at walls as if looking through them. I know he’d rather I not poke his secrets, either. So I don’t.
Once, during the first couple months of our courtship, we’d gone out for coffee after work. It being one of those spring nights poets write odes for, we strolled around town for one hour, then another, admiring the new flowers, discussing future vacations. It was early evening when we passed by the high school.
“Strange school’d be open at night,” he murmured.
As we stopped and stood there, appreciating the warm air, I noticed a sign, hand-painted in emphatic green bubble letters, slathered with sparkles: Science Fair Tonight! My breath stopped; it really did. I put my hand on my stomach. “We should go in.”
“To the kid’s science fair?”
“It’s fun, don’t you think? I was really into this when I was young.”
As we walked through the doors, I felt I was walking through a tunnel. The last tunnel. Because I knew she’d be there. She had to be. She must be a senior now. My daughter. The girl who studied rare Chilean birds.
In fact, exactly for times like this, I kept a copy of her article tucked away in a little address book in my purse. I told him I had to run to the bathroom. From the graffitied high school stall, I pulled it out and examined her picture again. Her nose, her hair. The bend of her wrist, just like mine. Nobody bends their wrist like that. Our last names, almost identical. Our initials were even the same.
“Everything go okay in there?” he asked when I finally returned. Still inside my tunnel, I said nothing.
An experiment on how long it takes to rot bananas in different environments. A model for a rubber earthquake-proof building. The parents, some proud, some bored, mingled and gossiped. The rope in my stomach was being pulled more strongly than it ever had been. I swear it was as if my stomach was going to be twisted right out of itself into a distended orb under my spring windbreaker. Trying to stay grounded and upright, channeling every ounce of adult sanity I had, I scanned the aisles. My future second husband chuckled at a transistor radio that was being powered by a potato and, with genuine curiosity, stopped to ask how it worked.
Suddenly, at the end of the third aisle.
It was definitely her. The hair, the eyes, the chin. The skin tone and wrists. Her nametag. It was her. It really was.
Her display and project were bigger than any of the others. She was absolutely brilliant, it was so immediately clear. They’d even put her at the end of the aisle to give her more room. She had jars filled with molds of enormous dinosaur eggs, actual dinosaur egg molds, the signs above them revealing that she’d gone all the way to the city—the city where my college was—to interview a leading expert—who was a researcher at my very college—on Triassic-era dinosaur birth. There were dinosaur models, professionally-made plaques explaining the relevant aspects of her studies; she’d created a veritable natural history museum exhibition. And at the very top, an almost comically large blue ribbon.
I forced my voice out. “Hi.”
“Hi,” hers returned.
Then silence. She didn’t look away from me, but she didn’t look me in the eye, either. She looked at my stomach.
For both of us, I broke the awkward silence. As the adult, the probable mother, it was the least I could do. “This is really, well, beyond amazing. Congratulations, really, you’re—really going to be something. You’re going to be famous. I mean, I know how that sounds. But this is really something else. I used to study this when I was your age.”
An extrovert she was not. In the wake of my compliments and rambling, she turned pink. Then she put that wrist to that chin. “Um, thanks,” she said, smiling a little. I must have been staring at her, because she then said um again, with no other words.
“Your parents must be really proud of you.”
“Um, yeah, I mean.”
“Are they here?”
“No. I, um.”
“Are you okay?” I desperately wanted to protect her from her own awkwardness, and from mine. The instinct to protect her was as large as a canyon and flared inside me. I was simply burning. I wanted to tell her everything, I needed to. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t. I’d be abandoning her again. Undoing us both again.
She blurted out, as if a delayed reaction, “My parents, they’re like, not here.”
My thoughts stumbled over each other like a million panicked feet running in different directions. Semi-consciously, I adopted her um. “Um, late night at work for them?”
She moved her eyes from my stomach to her hands. “No, I mean. My dad will probably stop by. My mom, she’s…like, it’s complicated.”
At that, I swear, every organ in my body folded in on itself. I wanted to grab and hold her in that loving way mothers are supposed to. My dead mother was present, encouraging me. My stomach was protruding, it really was, I was instantaneously fat, it was as if my daughter was being born and I was finally knowing it. My muscles were thick with the need to take action. Our shared rope had never been so short.
My soon-to-be-husband arrived behind me then. “About time to get dinner?” My probable child was lost in a timid but loving conversation with her science teacher, faced away from me.
“Yeah,” I uttered. But what I wanted to say was That’s her, honey. The child I’ve I never met. It’s got to be. I wanted to pull out the article, show him the nose, the wrist; I so craved one person, just one person, who wouldn’t misunderstand. It’s got to be her, I’d insist. But the doubts started devouring me: Why didn’t she recognize me? Given our shared rope she holds the other end of, shouldn’t she know, too? I’d been sure it worked that way. I wanted to say to him, the rope, honey. She holds it. Doesn’t she?
The fifth and sixth times I saw her in the meadow, she seemed to be in college, maybe graduate school. It was so clear now how smart—no, brilliant, truly brilliant—she was. She shone, she really did. She had glasses now, and notebooks. She wore subdued colors, but with purpose. Tan jackets and cargo pants with lots of pockets as if she needed to bring supplies with her into all fields she visited. She was searching for birds, for eggs. Just like me, the robins watched her, and the sparrows, too, always from afar lest she disappear. She always disappeared, I knew that. The birds and eggs probably knew, too. But we all wanted to keep her as long as we could. Keeping her for just a little while, for just ten minutes or five, was enough.
Just after our wedding was when I saw her out there that first time, all four feet of her in her summer nightgown. I wasn’t worried or surprised when she arrived that night, nor sad when she left. I’d known she’d eventually, somehow, arrive, and would again. Afterwards, I slept on and off for days. A sweeter sleep than I’d ever known. My husband checked on me; each time, I’d roll over and tell him I was tired from the rush of our wedding and honeymoon—we’d gone to the Caribbean, I’d wanted to see the sea. To see if I could find, or at least hear, her there. But I couldn’t hear her at that particular sea and, despairing, I’d almost given up.
As was his way, gently, he pretended to believe my reasons. My eyes foggy, I watched him sit at his edge of the bed. He stared at the wall, his eyes becoming glazed, too. Sometimes he’d lightly cough, raising his hand to his mouth, then go back to his stare. He’d been having his own secret more and more these days, too. But his secret comforted me. And mine, him. So we sent each other love from within our respective secrets and carried on.
On the seventh June, she arrived like always. She must have been at least forty that year, but I always hesitated to look too close. What if my gaze penetrated her too much and sent her away prematurely? What if she was the sun and I went blind, never to see her again? The June after that, she was at least fifty-five. Probably more. She poked around the field, picking dandelions, taking notes about blue jays and ant hills. You’ve got to understand, I was truly never stunned to see her because her physical presence simply confirmed what I’d always known. It did nothing but cause waves of awareness and serenity. It was as though I was seeing the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest or Berlin, some earthly place everyone took for granted, even though most people have never been there to get proof. There was wonder, novelty, joy. But never disbelief. No uncanniness, as with an altered state or lucid dream. There was simply the phrase of course. Perhaps it was even what people mean when they say things like I saw god, I really did. The veil was pulled back. Now I can be at peace.
But by the time she got to her fifties, I knew she’d most likely be a good deal older than me soon, and I was right.
As they say, a mother knows.
On the next June, she looked almost seventy.
Don’t get me wrong, she was still working hard with her field instruments and tan pants with all the pockets. She still wielded her notebooks masterfully to jot down various findings. But her limbs were getting bonier, her hair thinner. Almost an exact likeness of what my mother looked like in the months before she’d died.
Afterwards, curled in bed, I pushed my pillow to my stomach, thrust it as far under my shirt as it’d go, touched myself at the bulge to secure the rope. It was still there, but finer. It was losing strands. I gripped it. So hard did I grasp that my hands hurt, even though, to anyone looking, it’d have seemed there was nothing to grasp.
Snapping out of his own trance at the edge of the bed, my husband asked, “You okay?”
So absorbed was I in my grasping that I could barely hear. I was listening for the voice over the sea. It wasn’t there. Oh god, it wasn’t there. The silence was an abject inversion of reality where once her voice was. Mother, mother. Mother, mother. Every single mother indented.
I will never be able to describe to you the degree to which, that ninth year, I craved keeping her. Even a regular mother wouldn’t understand.
I wept all night, gently. When I feared my animal sounds would burst through and disturb my husband, I went to the bathroom, held a folded-up towel over my face. Despite, I knew that ever having witnessed her at all was—how to say it? A gift is not right. I can’t let a word like gift desecrate the reality of what we had, she and I. So, pulling myself together, I envisioned, tenderly, placing the rope under my pillow for safekeeping.
Next June, I stood in the meadow. I waited. What else could I do? With my breath, I made as much full, clear space for her as possible, as if cleaning her bedroom and making her favorite meal in preparation for her to come home. And sure as I stood there with the stout grass of the first of June scratching my ankles, she emerged, old and tired.
It was her quickest visit. There was a crow, and the crow looked at her, and she looked back. Then she vanished. But the crow stayed.
When I was little, I was entranced by mirrors. Not because I was enamored by my own reflection, but because of the fact of reflections themselves. That on this earth I so accepted as neutral, as ground, there could be such a peculiar backwards space. In it, I was utterly upturned, swapped for something else, yet I was supposed to believe otherwise. I was supposed to say that, there. Me. Like nothing was amiss. Unable to solve the riddle, I’d stare and stare with my fingers on the glass. Behind me, in the mirror, my mother would sometimes appear. She’d never ask what I was doing. She’d just stand there, also upturned. Silently, we’d watch the shared reflection together. As if guarding something.
Oh, my child. This being. She went gray far before I did. First a little gray, then a lot. On our last June in the meadow, all her hair was white, yet only a little of mine was.
She’d abandoned her field clothes, her pockets, her notes. She was small. Filled with wrinkles and tiny caved-in spots of skin. Like that first time I saw her, she was wearing a summer nightgown, white and thin as her hair. The breeze stirred through her gown, starting at the bottom. Her back was hunched, legs thin, but still she stood with what seemed like pride. Yes, her back was to me, but she had aim. She had love. I could feel it on my side of that crumbling rope.
For the first time, I went closer. Still, she did not look. Uncertain, I glanced behind me. My husband. He was watching from the bedroom window.
I asked her, “Do you know me?”
Again, she did not look. But she didn’t disappear, either. I was five feet from her now. “Do you know me?”
And I couldn’t believe it, but she turned around. She actually did.
For the first time, I saw her whole being. With every last inch of my eyes, I comprehended her. With all my breath and cells and with the last of the rope in my hands, the other end coming right out of her stomach, like I’d always known. She was real, she was an object in three dimensions just like a tree was, just like any other animal body who had lived a life on the earth. On this earth, here. With me.
Her cheeks, pale, all sharp edges. Her skin marked with vague brown spots of age. Her irises brown and faded, nose small, bones practically nothing. Behind her, some robins flew away, some returned. A sparrow sat on a high limb, chirping vowels. Either the sparrow or my child said, “Do you know me?”
Like a sparrow, she looked me in the eye.
Then she put her hand on my hand. Like a living ghost who’ll always keep her, I squeezed tight.
And she dispersed. As I knew she would, she dissolved for the very last time. All the marks of her, the ripples of air in her wake, every last shadow and suggestion of her—gone.
Then the erasure itself was erased, leaving only the inverted things that come after nothing. And of all the nothings, this was the very last nothing there’d be. How else to say it? My heart pitched forward as if coming to the last stop on a train; my stomach went concave like a rusty old bowl. Our rope unfurled until it was indistinguishable from a million pieces of mown June grass, and she was undone. I mean this just like people mean when they snap their fingers and claim right into thin air, like that. Just like sages mean when they chant gone, gone. Gone beyond. Gone altogether beyond. Gone to the other shore.