A woman in the shape of a monster
The mother tells her children the story of The Incredible Elk: the rage that descended onto their house when she was five months pregnant with the middle one. The depression that held through the pregnancy, through the middle child's first year, lifted briefly for a third pregnancy, and then came knocking again. The first time the Elk came for the mother, she told the oldest (who was only one and a half years old at the time) to go sit on the flowered chair by the window until the fight was over. The oldest sat and cheered the mother on as she battled the Elk. She threw a tree, broke the air conditioner, put a chair inside a potted plant.
"What did he look like?" The children want to know.
She spreads her fingers atop her head to show them, and trudges heavily toward them with growling breath. "The Incredible Elk had five mossy horns and yellow teeth that dripped slime, and he was twice as big as an elephant."
The children are thrilled and curious. "Why did he want you? Why?"
The mother releases a sigh. "Actually, he was after you," she admits. "But, your cheering strengthened me. You cheered and I yelled, screamed, threw things at him. I kicked him and punched and cried and used all my power to kill him."
"Did you kill him, Mama? Did you?" the oldest asks, excited, jumping up and down.
The mother stares into the distance and drops her story voice. "No, my sweet. I did not. Not that day."
She stands vacantly at the kitchen sink while the children practice being ninjas and yell for her to watch. "Look at me, Mama. Is this a cool move? Look at this, Mama. Look!" She is trying to enjoy them: their laughter, their smiles, their fun; but it is so crushing, their joy.
"What can I do?" the father asks. "How can I help?"
"Sleep," she says. "Please, just let me sleep."
The children giggle at the mother. They tell her that she is The Best Mama in the Whole World. How beautiful she is, with her hands and her eyes and her hair, they say. She creates a song for them, to make up for angry words and fiery rages. A song that says she loves them when she is angry, and loves them when they are bad. She makes up a friend named Sally P. Squirrel, and a rule that Sally cannot come into the house—that way they will not ask her to be Sally when she needs them to eat their dinner. Because Sally P. would never ask them to eat their dinner.
Two years old, the middle child invites the mother into his room to watch him play. He is bouncing two toys up and down on the bed, a plastic baby doll he calls Baby and a pink lamb he calls Strawbobo—two creatures he seems to love endlessly, effortlessly, equally. This is the boy the mother did not understand, the boy she ignored and disliked, the boy she did not want. He covers Strawbobo's ears and tells the mother quietly, secretly, that really he loves Baby more because he is a real baby but he won't ever tell Strawbobo that because it's not his fault. "Don't tell Strawbobo, okay?"
"No, dear, I won't tell."
This middle child knows, in his way, that love is not a choice. He comes to the mother—as she watches the birds out the window above the stove—tugging her skirt and wanting up, up, up. Looking down she sees a boy she had not seen before. A boy so small and cute and sweet that she gasps and puts him on her hip.
"Where did you come from?" she asks this child, as if he'd appeared overnight.
"From you, Mama!" He laughs at her, "Silly Mama." Ha ha.
"Silly child, this cannot be true. You must have been dropped off by a stork."
But, for a moment, she remembers. Squeezing him out, the slippery warmth of him on her chest, and love, only love.
Outside the children ask the mother to play Sally P. Squirrel with them.
"Please, Mama. Please play Sally."
She relents; she plays. It is not hard, this game. It only requires that she does not know them. She must ask their names, introduce herself, play along. They are nameless orphan spies on the run; they are superheroes in disguise; they are Badger and Rabbit, friends of the forest. She asks them to tell about themselves and is amazed to hear their lives. They seem very happy, very loved. The mother does not know how this is possible.
They make a nest of grass and dried stalks and branches for the mother. She sits in the middle and they bring nuts. They tell her how to crack them open and advise not to eat the bad ones. They know how to find the bad nuts: just drop them into the pail of imaginary water. If they float, they are bad; if they sink, you can eat them. Why is this game so impossible? Why can she not remain Sally? The baby is napping, though he might be awake. The oldest looks at her sideways. Is she still Sally or has she morphed back to Mother?
Look at this funny child cracking eggs onto the floor, watch the dog clean it up with her tongue, witness the hilarity. This child is walking plastic animals through the poop inside the diaper he has removed from himself. He is walking the animals on the carpet, up the wall, down the stairs. The father enters the home and silently organizes the destruction. Here is a child with his head inside a bucket bonking into walls. Here is a child building a cushion mountain—does this look too high, too dangerous? Watch the mother, pouring her coffee, watch her scanning the room, watch the children watching her.1. Get the baby out of the dishwasher. 2. Read Little Bear to the middle one. 3. Latch the bathroom door. 4. Turn head and nod at the oldest's questions. 5. Nurse the baby. 6. Look at them. 7. Admire their sturdiness. 8. Find the dog; let it outside. 9. Remove the baby from the cupboard. 10. Get them food.
"Do you want peanut butter and jelly?" Repeat-repeat-repeat. Repeat until they listen, until they hear.
"Yes, Mama—cut mine in a triangle; I want orange jelly; make mine grape; Mama, did you hear me? Make mine grape!"
"You'll eat what I give you, goddamn it. Sorry. I'm sorry. Mama doesn't feel very good right now. She shouldn't have said that."
"It's okay, Mama. I'm sorry you don't feel good. Do you need a Band-Aid?"
"No. Sorry." So sorry.
The father is leaving for work, another week out of town, another week alone with three small children.
"It is okay to just put videos on," he says. "Take the boys to the river, start the garden, do yoga, write, relax, eat breakfast."
"Would you please just go."
"Don't kill them, okay?"
Rolled eyes. "Don't be ridiculous." A kiss. A hug. A frown. She hears his keys jingle out the door, the truck starts up, and away he goes. Over the bridge and through the woods, down the road, away from here.
The mother bathes the children and imagines their bodies thrashing against her arms holding them under the water. She sees herself weeping as she holds their lifeless bodies to her chest, unsure of what has happened. Focus in on the confusion. Which child would this hypothetical mother drown first? Wouldn't they be afraid? Try to stop her? She is not this mother—it is the newspaper, the radio, other mothers. Not her. She sits by the bathtub and tries to stop thinking this horrible thing that will not go away. Why must she think such horrible things? Sally chews a hole through the bathroom wall and washes the children for the mother.
At night the mother wakes in a panic, desperate to feel the rise and fall of their small chests. She lies awake staring at the ceiling, listening. She is listening for the sound of their breath, for intruders, for fires, for coughs and sneezes and cries. She sings to them while they sleep, kisses their cheeks, tucks their long hair behind their ears, and curls up next to their warm soft bodies. In the quiet dark it is so easy.
"They deserve a better mother," she complains to the father.
"You're a good mom," he assures her. "They love you."
"That is true," she says, "they do love me. Why should they love me? I am so unpredictable, so mean, so sad."
"Not always." He is angry now. "You are not always. You are a good mom."
Good—how she loathes the word.
The baby wakes in the night. The mother nurses him and turns his body away from hers, staying ever so still, wishing: Please, let him sleep.
He does not sleep. He stirs. He says "backpack." He laughs.
"God damn it! Go to sleep!"
The father wakes and shushes her, says she is going to wake everyone.
"Fine!" she yells. "Why don't we all just have a fucking party? Why the hell not? Let's just wake everybody up at three o'clock in the goddamned morning and watch movies and eat popcorn!"
He puts his hand on her shoulder, brushes the hair from her neck, and quiets the mother. "Shh," he says. "It will be all right."
The baby has fallen back asleep, soothed by the familiar lullaby.
Outside, the mother is walking. She is walking fast. They yell, they whine, they worry.
"Where are you going, Mama?"
"Nowhere. I will be right back; no, you cannot come; please go find your father."
She is walking, they are finding, and she is getting away for a minute. Just a minute by herself to hear the burble of the river, to feel sun on cold shoulders. Nothing is as she thought it would be. Where is the sweet-loving-kind mother so giving and understanding and patient? Where did she go? Why does she not sing with them, tell them fairy tales, be Sally?
A bird flying low sees her out; something in the blue color under his wings is all she needs to remember to smile. Purple Martin.
The mother was not always like this. Once, she was kind and patient and fun. When she got pregnant with the second child, something snapped. A curtain drew shut and the world became darker, more distant.
For two weeks after she had him, she did not leave the house. It is the tradition in many cultures that a new mother should be protected for at least a month following childbirth. She should not leave the house, bathe, or do any housework at all. She should not have sex. This was not the mother's tradition. However, a hurricane knocked the power out for the first postpartum week, and she reveled in the freedom this offered her from laundry, dishes, visitors, normalcy. By the end of the second week she still had not left the house. Her midwife came to the house to check on them because the mother was not returning phone calls. The midwife was worried. She asked a lot of questions about emotions.
"Second children are harder," the midwife said. "You are a middle child too, aren't you?"
"Yes," the mother nodded. "I am a middle child."
"You will be harder on him," she predicted. "You will blame him."
The mother tried not to hear this.
After declaring mother and baby healthy, the midwife insisted they go out somewhere, anywhere.
"Get out of this house!" she yelled, joking a little. "I don't care where, just go."
So, the mother and father loaded the children into the car and drove. From far away, the mother heard the father's voice, asking hopefully, "Where should we go?"
"Nowhere," she said too quietly. He could not hear. "I don't know," she said, loud enough.
"Well, it is up to you."
"I don't care."
"Just tell me what you want."
"I don't know what I want."
"But, it is up to you. Whatever you want!"
And so it went. On and on and on. Nothing was right. She could not sit inside of The Olive Garden or Cracker Barrel, Baja Bean or IHOP. She just could not. She was not up to the eyes and hands of prying strangers, their vapid dialogue and tedious declarations of selfish yearning. Impossible to smile, to say, He's just two-weeks-old... yes, isn't he beautiful? Martin, his name is Martin. Surely, she would gouge her eyes out at the table.
They drove for hours. The mother was overcome at times with the need to check the children's breathing and the oldest would protest every time she placed her finger beneath his nose. When she felt their breath, warm and moist on her fingers, she was filled with the smell of the candles she burnt at home since the second baby was born in the hurricane—like scented freesia wax melting into dressers and sour milk and burnt wicks.
In the parking lot of The Pancake House, the father took the children out of their seats—cradling the baby on his arm like a koala bear and gripping the oldest's hand. He opened the mother's door.
"Come on," he smiled.
The oldest offered the mother his other hand and she got out of the car.
The father comes home from work. The mother is absentmindedly making dinner, staring out the window above the stove at the laundry flapping on the line. The crying baby hangs from the ceiling in the Johnny Jumper; the middle child repeatedly blows a wooden whistle; the oldest runs cackling through the house wearing nothing but a cape and screaming, "Naked boy!"
"What's for dinner?" the father asks.
The mother looks in the frying pan. "Zucchini and pasta, looks like."
"Oh," he sighs. Sounding disappointed—to her. To the mother, he sounded disappointed.
She casually lifts the pan from the stove and dumps its contents into the trash bin. He yells and huffs as she robotically begins preparing a second dinner, and the children are stunned into silence—but the mother is soothed by the stinging smell of the plastic trash bag as the zucchini melts it.
In the seconds that it takes an insignificant white ceramic tea saucer to smack onto the floor from the hand of the middle child, grinning atop the arm of the sofa that he is not allowed to climb on, the mother has lost it and yells, "No sir! We do not throw things in this house!"
Which is funny because they most certainly do throw things in that house: they throw zucchini and pans and tantrums and fits. It is his laugh that does the mother in. She grabs him by the front of his little blue shirt, pulls him off the couch, drags his maniacally laughing self across the floor to where the laundry is heaped high. She is prepared to yell at this child, to yell until he cries. She pushes him back against the pile, and Sally turns sadly away, unable to bear witness to such rage. The Elk approaches from behind: greedily, hungrily, and thrilled with this anger.
Pause. Please. Let us just take a time out from this. Time has stood still. Let us too, reflect. Reflect while the Elk and the Mother fight it out. Sally will comfort the children.
MARTIN: Sally? What would happen if a monster came into my room while I was sleeping and tore open my stomach?
SALLY: There are no monsters.
MARTIN: But Sally what would happen if a monster came from the sea and ate my brains?
SALLY: Little one, listen to me. There are no monsters. I promise.
MARTIN: But Sally, what if a monster ate my brother and then tried to get me?
SALLY: I would come into your room and I would kill that monster.
MARTIN: I'm magic, Sally. I can kill monsters too. I'm magic and I'm big and I'll help you.
SALLY: Of course you will, dear. Now go to sleep.
She is the Elk. She is the Squirrel. She is the Mother. She stops the words from coming, stops the rage from pouring, stops the wind from blowing—turns away from the sobbing child in front of her, with his face contorted in fear and confusion, and teeth like little pearls behind lips stretched thin in a sob. She finds the nearest door and goes through it. The mother stares into the room, trying to find Sally.
"Woe to the mother losing her mind," Sally squeaks, and the mother agrees.
"I can't do this," the mother whispers.
Sally tells her that she is silly. "Yes, you can. Gather nuts and twigs."
The Elk murmurs in the mother's ear that Sally doesn't know anything; smashing the child is his helpful suggestion.
The mother places her head in her hands and tells them both to shut up. She stands. She considers herself and returns to her son. She touches his face, holds his hands, stares deep into his big confused eyes until he smiles. She puts the baby to her breast and sits on the floor to help the children build robots out of colored wooden blocks.
Sally wants to know why the mother is like this. If she could answer, the mother would. Maybe if she got a lobotomy or took pills, someone could cut the sad part out and everything would be fine. But what if they took Sally too? The children would have a mother with no joy at all, no anger, no sadness, just nothing. She can't do that to them. She can't leave them alone. She loves them too much.
The mother looks up "postpartum depression" on the Internet. She finds that she is not alone. This fact does not comfort her. It would be better, she thinks, if she were alone. But at least it has a name and with a name comes the possibility of a solution or at least an end. When it lifts, as it does occasionally, it is as if someone has turned on the sun.
Music from the other side of the globe playing on National Public Radio catches the mother unaware and she is dancing in the kitchen to the droning of sitars and the jangle of the tablas, unable to resist the high-pitched voice chanting out of sync with the quick beat. The middle child joins her with a mischievous smile and does ballet. He gracefully twirls across the linoleum to the intensely raucous Indian music. It is intoxicating, his dance. The mother lifts him in her arms and they dance round and round and round until the room is spinning faster than the planet.
The mother asks her sons if they remember anything from that time.
"Do you remember how I used to yell?"
They do not.
"Do you remember Sally?"
"Oh, yes," the oldest two tell her. The baby, who is now seven, does not remember. He would like the mother to play Sally now. She refuses.
"Sally is gone now," she says. "As are many things."
The children sense a story in these words and beg for more, but the mother tells them to go watch old home videos instead.
"Please, Mama! Please tell us."
She says, "The Elk was a horrible thing, but he wasn't all bad. Sometimes he helped me, too. He was very strong. He could stop the wind if he wanted to."
"You said he wanted us," the oldest asks, "Why did he want us?"
The mother considers this for some time. "I think he wanted me all to himself. He just didn't want to share me at all."
"I don't like to share either," says the middle one with a mischievous look.
The mother laughs, "You know, he could pluck birds right out of the sky, and when you were very little, you loved to watch them come flittering down like wayward kites."
"Did he hate the birds?" the youngest asks.
"No. He didn't hate them. He just didn't know his own strength."
"What happened to the birds?" the middle one asks.
"Sally P. Squirrel put lights inside their bodies and sewed them onto the sky. They are up there now. We can go look at them if you like."
Sally P. sits playing happily and peacefully with the children. The Elk beckons. Sally cracks an imaginary nut by smacking it against a rock on the ground. The Elk stands just beyond the tree line at the edge of the property, waiting. Sally feels the air, thick and hot, and smells the river, loud and rough. She is a very small and vulnerable squirrel. Were it not for the children and their storage of walnuts, she would not have made it through the winter. The children fight over who brought the biggest nut.
"Stop fighting or Sally's leaving," the mother threatens. The Elk perks his ears and the children watch her cautiously.
It is boring, this game. The Elk tells Sally to leave. The children beg her to stay. Sally P. asks the children about their mother. I do not want to hear these things. But I do. More than anything, I want to hear these things. The oldest plays along, happily telling tales of his beautiful mother. Why is she always beautiful? Why not kind and fair and fun? The middle child is not sure. He looks at Sally and wants his mother.
"Silly!" he laughs. "You are my mama and I love you this much."
He stands and shows her, wrapping his little arms around the entire world.
The youngest hands Sally a large walnut and she chatters her teeth as she examines it. To their delight, Sally wrinkles her nose and declares, "bad nut" as she throws it hard toward the Elk who flares his nostrils and slips grudgingly into the forest.
Title graphic: "Story Time Battlefield" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2013.