Fall 2003, Volume 21.1
A Mother's Fairy Tale
Jessica Halliday (B.A., U of Washington) is a freelance writer living in Spokane, Washington. She writes for Imagine, a new quarterly national magazine of creativity and social activism. Previously she wrote as a columnist for the Lewiston Tribune covering arts and entertainment. Her work has also appeared in Northwest Woman Magazine. She can be contacted at: email@example.com.
"Skye?" My call for my three-year-old daughter is too small, too soft. A sonic boom would not be loud enough to transmit the horror that engendered it. I turn around in a circle, scanning the yard, the garage, the barn. I stop, facing the river. "SKYE!" My heart clatters and claws at my chest, a caged and crazed beast. My stepfather hurries from the garden where a moment ago, when the world was exquisite in its August warmth and glory, he worked among his vegetables. Gone is the comforting image, gentle man pulling weeds from the garden; gone too, the sweet scene of my children, playing nearby in the yard; gone the world in which I moved confidently, devoted and able mother of two splendid children; gone the sentient beauty of the river, made slack and swimmable by the dam two miles west. She’s gone. Skye is gone.
My shoes scrape at the graveled driveway, struggling to gain purchase, struggling to reach the edge of the motionless river. If I move right, think right, do this right, I’ll earn a second chance. Think quick! Undo a moment that will deliver a life change I can’t survive. My mom runs down the steps of the deck; she’s heard my scream and is already headed for the water. She throws me one look, one glance that holds grim communion with the image that fills my vision of the river ahead of me: my blond baby, my darling Skye, blue-faced, bobbing beneath the surface.
Two or three short hours ago, I complained. I spoke to myself, to the papered walls of my prison, complaints voiced out of the numbingly repetitive routine raising babies brings. It was too hot at our house. I didn’t want to spend the day there with bored and cranky kids. I didn’t want to clean up their messes, vacuum cracker crumbs, swipe drippy toilet rims.
My mom is moving methodically, back and forth through the shallow water. My feet won’t move anymore, although the message of ultimate disaster throbs in my every fiber. She’s gone. River. Skye. River. A rumbling comes over me, and though I am completely still, every synapse within fires, sharp reports, ordering action. At last, as though a tether has been cut, I spring forward and run to the end of the dock, baying her name, a bewildered and angered mother bear, sniffing danger and death on the hot August air.
Who invented time anyway? Why must it move ahead, linear? Where are the easy moments of the morning: Skye and Connor tumbling from their room, impossibly soft, pink eyelids heavy, angel-blond hair silly from sleep? Their sleep, the sweetest thing I think I’ve ever witnessed: soft, even breath, spilling onto pillows, holding all the energies and frustrations of the previous day. Sleep so deep, so restorative, as to hail from a fairy tale, given to the precious children, a reward for having braved me, the witch in the castle, executed every demand, paid every penance for every random crime they hadn’t known they committed all the day long.
Why can’t the sheer force of my will take us back to that morning, back to the moment we decided to go to Mom’s for a day of swimming? Where are the walls of that prison now that I want them?
I’ve been waiting for this moment, even training for it, some time now. Ten years ago, my little brother killed himself. Since then, since learning how to accept the unacceptable, since learning that being good in no way protects us from feeling bad, I’ve been waiting. The moment I held my firstborn child, my son Connor, this realization transformed my exhausted jubilation, quickly supplanting it with a flood of fear so forceful it took my breath away. This baby wasn’t mine. I couldn’t save him from any but the most common and obvious of hurts. Taking his first lungful of life vaulted him light years from the safety of my body, and he became just another life, like the rest of us, at the mercy of unimaginable chance.
The experience of my little brother’s death interferes and intercedes like a bossy mother-in-law. After I’ve given the kids permission to play in the sprinkler of a little neighbor girl, that mother-in-law starts chipping, picking, conjuring images I’ve tried to forget: The funeral director asking if we’d like special music. Mom’s face sagging around the mouth, silently speaking the unspeakable. The dry orange my mother, my father, and I peeled and shared in the living room. An image of me, the only one that people who came to his funeral must have seen, my back held rigid with shock, and I see myself as I must have looked, standing horrified at the rise and fall of the pastor’s voice. I hear the voice of experience, my experience, constantly. "See?" it says, voice dripping with disapproval. "See what you’ll have to do again? And it will be so much worse this time! You could have prevented this! Don’t leave your babies with the neighbors, thinking someone will watch them. Don’t leave anything to chance!" Directly, the laundry basket drops, clothes stiffening into wrinkled fingers, and I sprint across the yards that separate them from me. I breathe normally when I find them playing, unharmed.
And so again, here I stand, the end of the dock marking the end of a decade free from tragedy, marred only by memories of the last one. The realization comes faster the second time around. It might be harder, but it is more believable, more believable that I will only remember Skye from before, remember her naked—she loves to be naked. She sleeps in pajamas because the witch requires it, requires the hot and scratchy clothing at night—to keep her from the cold. When she awakens, she instantly disrobes, soft flesh gently rounding her shoulders, her tummy protruding to her own delight. She loves to run through the yard, through the sprinkler, naked. Tillie, the old lady who lives next door, leans over the fence and calls to me, "She’ll catch her death!" Disapproval pulls the grim lines around her mouth farther down.
The feel of Skye’s sweet flesh will exist only in my recollection, my brain now hard-wired to a motherboard of despair. I turn from the water. The blue expanse burns itself onto my retinas. I still see its blank, empty gaze, unflinching under my scrutiny, insistent in its announcement. Yes, she’s gone.
The wind lifts my hair away from my face. I’ve always thought of Skye as a kind of kite. As long as her father and I keep feeding out the string, she’ll harness every bit of energy around her and take off—soar. I lift my face up to the infinite blue above. Is she soaring now?
My chin drops suddenly, and my body moves forward, apart and yet together; I seem to swell and boil to a crescendo. I’m running, away from the bloated river, away from my mother holding her shorts up with one hand so they won’t get wet—and why does she care if she gets her shorts wet now? I am running away from the wind that lifts my little kite up and out of my line of sight. The grass is wet, glittering, green. Connor is spraying the hose. He loves to play with the hose, loves to fight with Skye over who gets control of the hose. Our boat, up on blocks, waits for a new rubber motor gasket. The windshield is scummy. I need to clean the windshield before we go out in it again. And then she stands up. From her hiding spot. Inside our boat.
The witch has been granted a reprieve, the littlest fairy has taken pity. It appears that a second chance at keeping the children in the castle is granted, a glistening red apple on a silver platter. Disbelief weakens my joints. My body becomes a slug, a snake, all supporting framework vanished. My knees find the grass. I sink down, green and melting like Dorothy’s witch after she’s been doused with water. My mind is trying hard to focus. What just happened? Is Skye in the boat? The frenzied firing of synapses in my head belie the puddle of green I’ve become. And then, she calls. "Mommy?" A pause, beautiful in its still accordance with her question, "Mommy, I was hiding from you." A tone of uncertainty, a hesitation lowers by a notch or two her victory call. "Yes, Skye." I force my chin up, meet her gaze, reassure her, act normal. As if it were a certainty, I reply, "Yes, Skye, I know."
How different would life be if my little brother were still alive? What if I’d never earned my membership card, gained executive privilege in that small, most exclusive of groups, the Suicide Club? What if I hadn’t memorized all the rituals, shaken my fist at God in solidarity with the others, confused and disbelieving that their beloved had chosen death over life? If I hadn’t, would I still assume the worst—always account for one blond head instead of two?
I don’t have a single friend who looks at her children the way I do. Blithely, they "double-buckle" when there are more children than seat-belts. "It’s okay—they’ll be fine," they nod at one another, confident that nothing bad could happen to them—not to their children. They love them too much—a line of reasoning as complex as a connect-the-dots puzzle you’d give a three-year-old: I am a good person—I love my children and make sacrifices for their well-being—Nothing very bad has ever happened to me (probably because I am such a good person)—We’re clear! And so the reasoning continues: Let the children go swimming at the neighbor’s pool—Someone will watch them—Everyone else wants the best for my children, right?—An overnight camping trip with Grandpa and Grandma? Sure! They never get too tired out to watch toddlers in the woods. Besides, they raised me, and I turned out, didn’t I?
I’m not close to any of these friends. I realize that when I take my children and go home, each buckled into separate, safe car seats, they shake their heads and smile at my retreating mini-van. I imagine them saying, "She’s just so paranoid." I’m tempted, occasionally, not often, to explain. Mostly, I refrain, for I know they won’t—can’t, really—comprehend what I’m saying. Of course they feel sorry and terrible for me. The next time I insist on something, like no balloons at the birthday party ("A flat balloon, inhaled, is nearly certain to cause asphyxiation."), they’ll nod knowingly, pretending to understand, at last, why I’m so vigilant. But they won’t truly get it. They won’t see, in those pretty pink balloons, what I see: my child, innocent, beautiful, grabbing her special birthday balloon, excited to blow it up, taking a big breath, and blowing, face red. Determined not to lose any hard-earned inflation, she keeps her mouth tight to the balloon, resolving to take a bigger breath in this time. Of course, when she does, she sucks the balloon into her throat, cementing the deal, as it were, lodging then locking the rubber into her tiny windpipe. Then I see me, panicked. I see me, trying to dislodge the balloon. I see the commotion, hear the yelling, watch someone call 911. Of course it’s pointless—my own pediatrician told me these kinds of suffocations are impossible to stop, once started—they must simply be prevented. Don’t these women listen to their doctors? Don’t they read? They think I’m silly? They don’t know how lucky they are to be so ignorant, taking so much for granted.
Even if they really tried hard to understand what it’s like for me, they’re, quite simply, on the outside of my club. They won’t know how to do the handshake, won’t know the secret knock that opens the hidden door. There’s only one way in—a complete and total initiation is required before membership is granted. No one gets a trial month to see how they like it. Membership privileges are always granted suddenly, shockingly; it’s a lifetime deal.
Today’s imagined drowning has proved exhausting, and I’m wondering if I’ll have the energy to drive the children back to the castle. The witch is worn out. From the quivery green straps of my lawn chair I watch Connor push Skye on a little tricycle my mom keeps for them. Skye is laughing, teetering on two wheels when Connor goes too fast. He grabs at his shorts, and looks up, scanning the yard for me. "Mom, I have to go to the bathroom." Instantly, I’m fully aware. A test, this could be another test. I’m being put through the paces today. Do I leave her out here while I help him use the bathroom (Mom doesn’t like it much when he’s allowed to go alone—something about sticky urine covering the floor surrounding the toilet, I guess.), or do I make her come in and wait while he goes? He’s dancing around, I haven’t much time to decide. "C’mon Skye, come inside while I help Connor go potty." I’m passing one test, I know, the one that ensures her safety, but failing another, the one that proves I’m a normal person. "I don’t want to go in, Mommy," she says. Of course she doesn’t. It would be ridiculous to stop riding your tricycle to attend your brother’s urination. If you did that every time he had to go, you’d never get anything done.
The witch pulls Skye off the tricycle and pins her to her side. "Let’s go, Connor. Hurry up before you have an accident." How many more tests today, I wonder? How many tomorrow? Skye is three, Connor four. In some ways, these are the easy ones. How will I prepare for later, for the Friday nights after curfew, the slumber parties, college?
At home I tuck them into bed. It is sweet relief. I kiss Connor. I sit on Skye’s bed, looking at her. "Did you have a fun day, Mommy?" She knows something isn’t right. She pulls at her nightgown, wishing, no doubt, she were naked.
I nod at her. "I did, honey. I had a fun day. What about you?"
"Oh yeah. I love to swim at the river. When can we go back?"
Go back—when can we go back? We have to go back, I know. We have to go there. We have to go on carnival rides and airplanes. We have many, many places to go where we can have lots of fun. "In a couple of days, okay? How does that sound?" I ask. She doesn’t answer. She’s fallen asleep. Connor’s breathing is heavy, too. I tuck the blanket around her and sneak out.
In my own bed, I turn out the lamp and kiss their daddy. The dark room offers a kind of peace. I will my body to relax, imagine it pressing, concrete blocks, onto the bed. I need to get some sleep, I think to myself, or I’ll be cross in the morning. I don’t want to waste a minute being angry with them, in case I fail any of tomorrow’s tests—the tests I know will certainly be coming. Right now, a star’s light shines through the high window, the one without a shade.