Believe it when again I tell you, little heart,
A mother’s fears are as deep waters.
But first: I spy ladybirds in your window. What luck. Remember with me how once we knelt to collect them nearly every autumn. Dozens inch in through your orchard-facing window, each to mistake the gap in its frame for a knot in a tree, or some such safe, thin place. And they are good for the garden, remember. Ladybirds eat aphids. So I’ve pressed my old writing desk against the infested sill.
Like petals of a flower they silently release, all full of grace and falling all red, all morning.
Oh, and how I’ve missed my handsome farmhand! I sense a kiss of winter on this autumn wind, and yes, I’ve tasks to be completed yet. If only you’d come back a week before cold weather. A day, even, for still there’s ash to be split, and manure needs shoveling, and now all my flowers wither with inattention in the greenhouse, my son, that distant greenhouse…
Which is to say, my seedling,
I feel a bit neglected. You see my complaints may be a sister’s, but my fears are a mother’s still. It is since selling your Granny’s home on the Island last winter that I’ve come to occupy this space between the darkness and the light.
Not to mention that Horse. No, and not to even mention Thunder. Both are in your window grazing on fallen apples. It is Thunder’s blackness, by god—it is the bewildering depths of Thunder’s blackness! Why yes, how your pup has grown since last you left us. The way he passes through this afternoon like a raven, or how all night through he licks at his paws wildly beneath this old desk.
Late autumn allergies, of which we both of us suffer, and in my quiet watching I’ve just held this bowl too long under scalding water. How careless. For now these two hands of mine are red, my blossom, they’re blistered, and a voice on the radio whispers of an artwork once stolen since retrieved.
Winter, the careless voice insists, is the latest example of our progress as society. Today we are delighted to return Winter to its rightful owner.
Progress, ha! How volatile language can be. I long to be more exact, my heart, I long to hold the roots of things. And so I pass the lonely nights with this book of origins your Granny willed to me—the only thing she willed to me. She’s left many marks inside it. Underlines in red ink, these little annotations.
For instance, she’s noted here how contemplate stems from the same source as temple.
Or, more simply, how un is a prefix meaning not…
And it was an evening not unlike this when, last year, your uncle called to request my presence at the Inspection. Oh, what I would have suffered to have had you with me in my mourning! For it was to be a red-eye to him in the city, my strength, then a ferry to your granny’s home on the Island, and your uncle has this way of making me feel more isolate in his presence than outside it.
I felt immediately peculiar. At the hotel, for instance, a desk clerk with severe features was speaking quietly, recommending we not cross the threshold of the grounds’ wrought iron gate. For there was unrest in the city, he explained, and it was to rush below our terrace like a body of unending black water.
We have everything you could possibly need inside the lobby store, he said. We have alcohol and clothes. We have calendars. Books.
As he led us through the courtyard garden, the young man spoke of the sprinkler systems and their unpredictable nature.
Our timers are meant to simulate the rainy season, he whispered, though sometimes the timers might fail. If they do fail—please, he said—do not be alarmed. It is common for them to fail, and by morning the flower beds will only have flooded.
Your uncle’s terrace hung opposite an empty cathedral, and on each of those mornings I woke late, and lazily to the songs of mourning doves nesting in the spires. All that history beckoning, yet just outside our reach. All those ruins, my love, all that art! I drank from paper cups while circling the stone paths of the hotel garden. I contemplated the careful hand tasked with transplanting the cypress trees, the hyacinths, the chrysanthemums.
I considered the lilies.
It seemed a dangerous business to me, their unrooting. And each of those mornings your uncle woke with discipline to swim laps in the indoor pool. I would find him looking dazed and bloodshot in the same black windbreaker, sitting cross-legged with a book beneath the courtyard’s flowering ramada.
He always reeked of chemicals and smoke after those swims.
That pool is over chlorinated, I would tell him, where is it? Clay, there are too many chemicals in that pool.
Never did I find it, his mysterious pool. And yes, my flower, diligently I searched. I imagined it as some lowly lit temple. Yes, I imagined it someplace at the hotel’s very center.
For how he acted afterward I knew it must have been a dark, and numinous place.
The book he carried swelled with water, its pages coming apart in the absence of glue. From that book your uncle often read to me. He read me poems about the migration patterns of birds, stories unrooting ancient myths.
I remember one poem in particular. It was a portrait of Boreas, the horse-shaped god of the northerly wind.
Yes, my son, that was a good poem.
A hand, your uncle would often remind me, amounts to but four inches when measuring a horse…
So I’ve bandaged these hands for to better hold Thunder’s leash, doing my part not to peel away more skin. The wound is directionless, you see, and on each hands’ palm I’ve picked at it, and picked at it, and picked at it, so now much of the skin is missing.
I fear it a rather serious burn,
Though not to worry. For this home is still here and so is Thunder and that Horse. I can hear the unending cold rush of the creek when I close these tired eyes to listen, and the trees in your window are like cathedrals, my root, they’re breathtaking! Red leaves shimmer like stained glass in the light, and like your mother’s hands—now so red and silently aching—the leaves pressed to your glass are but a fragment of the picture.
For it is up, and up, and up, I see green leaves remain on the top branches yet.
And I said to your uncle when finally we boarded the ferry boat, I was saying,
My fears were once laid out so bare and plain before me. Once they were there, you see, just right there—if I dared to reach out, I might touch them.
It was table edges, I told him, it was little helmets loose. It was all the invisible bones inside fish.
And, I’d imagine, all the horrors of water, your uncle offered knowingly.
He was chewing the lip of a paper espresso cup while searching the window of the ferry boat. Like old habits, I thought, his black hair still shining from that morning’s swim. How as a boy your uncle had sucked at the collars of his shirts, or how he’d licked at his lips until they were red, and raw.
Exactly, I said, for he was right about the water. Yes, Clay, that’s exactly right.
Look, he said, there it is. Do you see it? He pressed a finger to the glass, and behind it I picked out your Granny’s home from the collection of white, shining shapes on the cliff face.
The only familiar thing remaining inside her home was the piano, my grace, have I told you this? Everything else had been willed away, or sold, but her piano remained.
We may need to sell this along with the house, your uncle said. I’ve tried to get a team of men in here to lift it, but no one can imagine how she got it up here to begin with. The Inspector doesn’t think we can haul it down the cliff face, and even if we did, then what?
The piano filled the foyer like a coffin with its pitched black lid. We looked inside as we’d done as children, and your uncle passed his fingers along the white keys.
What’s this blue, I asked him, taking his hands into mine. Dried blue paint lined the skin around his nails, something I hadn’t noticed in the city.
It’s for tomorrow’s Inspection, he said as he closed the lid. The Inspector insists we match the blue pigment of the original blue window trim. I’m struggling to find it exactly. This Inspector, he is meticulous. All this worry over the septic tank and the foundation and the roof, and he has me mixing paints for the window trim.
And oh, my hatchling, where has this day gone?
The sun here threatens to set in your window, and presently a voice on the radio declares there’s snow to come already—that we’ve but a few hours until a storm.
I hope there’s time yet for my walk with Thunder, for every day now he’s lead me down the winding paths to the black waters of the reservoir…
Now home, I wonder this:
What shape might a mother’s absence take? I ask you, for in me your Granny’s absence is a sound.
Yes, it is the crackling sound of an ache, like when a tree bends in the wind before breaking, and you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say to you this Inspector, my son, he had a wintry look. His black hair was pressed back, his eyes as blue as a jay’s wing. And the Inspection was on a Sunday, I remember, for cathedral bells rang out every half hour and, the Island being off season, the day was otherwise quiet.
A pale light reached through the dried branches of the flower trellis. I remember the low voices of men speaking outside cafés on the harbor, and horses jingling with equipment, and the circular cries of the seabirds,
And I remember the sea, my fire, how it blackened as it lapped against the harbor wall.
Your uncle has always liked birds, and lucky for us he had this in common with the Inspector. Both had witnessed Black Herons hunting for fish in the flood waters.
Black Herons are a rare site, your uncle explained. He’d seen the bird’s black plume shading its head like an umbrella as it fished. Or like a veil, he said. Or a cape.
And all morning I’d watched your uncle agitating indigo leaves in the foyer. He was convinced he could recreate the original blue pigment of the window trim himself. He stood on the piano bench with a tall wooden stick, the indigo leaves in a metal bucket, and deeply blue water was marking the stain of the concrete floor.
His hands were more grey than blue with the effort, and when the Inspector finally arrived, I felt shame. I felt disgraced, I remember, for your uncle can get so caught up, so tangled up in the details.
There was no truth, I realized then, simply no truth to the notion this Inspector would give a single care about the pigment of your Granny’s blue window trim.
Your uncle was putting on boots. There was a knocking on the door. There was sunscreen in his hands, and he was rubbing them up and down his face, and he had covered himself with this embarrassing shade of blue…
And, my joy, I was surprised to find the Inspector was about your age. He wore the same black windbreaker as your uncle did, and he had the same shining black hair, though when he reached to shake your uncle’s hand I noticed a rose tattooed in red ink on his wrist.
He took my hands into his, complimenting your Granny’s obituary, how I’d written,
In lieu of flowers, we ask only that you pray for the fruits of her hands.
Your mother and my grandmother were very close, the Inspector said. They were in the Navy. The first WAVES during the first of our world wars.
Is that true? I asked him. Really? Is she here, your grandmother? May I meet her?
She died when I was a boy, he said. But your mother was very good to me. She was an important woman in my life. She taught me to play piano when I was a boy. I saw her play in the cathedral once. It was as if someone had laid hands on me.
I invited the Inspector in for a drink, though—of course—he declined it. Your uncle wrung his hands behind me. Without stepping inside the Inspector said,
Ma’am, what language would you prefer?
This one, I said. This is my only language.
What a shame, the Inspector said. This language is not very precise. Many horrible things have come from the simplicity of this language.
Simplicity? I asked.
I’d like to check the depths of the pit before we sign these papers, he said to your uncle. The flooding was severe while you were away. Because of the storms, the tank was not installed. But still—it pays to check the depths.
First your uncle led us to your Granny’s basement. The Inspector put on black rubber gloves before touching the pipes. He touched them like a doctor might a patient’s injured hand, or leg, and for a moment the three of us shared a closeness.
Very good, the Inspector said. Very good, Clay. You’ve nearly broken this home to harness. You’ve done good work here.
It was startling, suddenly, to be underground in a dark wet room with those strange men.
And outside, at the threshold of your Granny’s back lot, your uncle shut the wrought iron gate behind us. Where your Granny’s pomegranate tree had once taken root was a thin, pool-sized hole in the soil.
Is this your pool? I said to Clay playfully. Clay, I laughed, is this where you’ve been swimming?
What a shame, the Inspector said, kneeling near the pit. He reached for a fallen pomegranate. He took the fruit into his hands.
Perhaps we should bury her piano in here, I said to the men. Come on, Clay. Why don’t we drag that piano out here and bury it?
Fruit of her hands, the Inspector said to your uncle. I’m sorry. What a shame, Clay.
Then he said,
Did your mother ever have animals? Any cattle? Or horses?
Only a dog, your uncle said gravely.
And what color was this dog, the Inspector said.
Why is that relevant? I asked him. I turned toward your uncle. I asked him, What would it matter, Clay, the color of the dog?
Everything is relevant, the Inspector said, standing. I assure you, ma’am. All of it is relevant.
And with gloved hands he gestured toward the empty pit.
With the Inspection over, your uncle led us inside and spread papers onto the piano lid.
As Clay fussed with the paperwork the Inspector said to me,
Odd word, wave. As a verb it is a gesture of greeting. Though as a noun it is an arch of water. Do you understand me, ma’am? You have to be careful with a home like this. The transference of a home like this, from one party to another, it is dangerous business. It must be done carefully. A home like this must be respected. Or feared, say, like a horse.
No, I said.
No, I did not like this comparison. I have to be very careful with comparisons like this. You know it, my hope, you remember. For once two things get linked inside my head, I have great trouble unlinking them.
And I did not want to think of your Granny’s home as a horse.
I pushed the image away with the backs of my hands. The sound of my mother’s absence had taken leave of me. With blue hands your uncle reached, the Inspector reached. Something like a tree had fallen within me. I pushed them away with the backs of my hands. They stood over me, those men, and I beat at their black windbreakers with the backs of my unburnt hands.
No, I said. Clay. No. No. No…
Your uncle read to me once how a jay’s wing contains no pigment. Like water, his book would insist, a jay’s wing absorbs all the red light, and only reflects what it cannot hold in.
And once I thought hope might be like water. Truly, little heart, I did. I thought hope might come and go, like tides do. But no. No.
No, I know better now. Hope is not like water. And there is winter in your window. Drifts of snow make shapes in the lamplight, and all these ladybirds blacken like fruit seeds in the bowl I’ve placed on my desk. And I am sick with burns. How am I to make a fire with these hands so badly burned? And anyway, who am I to make a fire?
What right do I have to make a fire?
All I know, my grace, is this:
Tonight I am meant to cross the threshold of our orchard’s wrought iron gate.
And with these hands, and with Thunder leashed, and with winter occurring, I am to make my way passed that Horse. I am meant to make my way passed that Horse, and upon entering the greenhouse I am meant to finger these seedlings into the desperate soil of my inner garden where they are—and all of them, my blood—meant to winter…