She needed a break from seeing it: the one daughter’s drinking, the one daughter breaking her hand on the other daughter’s face, the vodka-filled water bottles, the strategically placed puke buckets, the grandbaby turning his sleeping mother over on her side like he had been taught, etc., etc. So she squirreled away a few dollars to stay at a cheap hotel. She felt guilty about leaving them, but also if she didn’t remove herself she would do something dangerous. She couldn’t see it anymore, couldn’t see her baby she made with her body asleep in the snow. Well, technically she didn’t see that, the police just described it to her, but you get my drift. She was watching her creation destroy herself and there was nothing she could do, (believe me she tried all the things) but watch because she didn’t have the heart to do what the books said and put her baby out on the street. What she really wanted out of the hotel was the hot tub, to close her eyes in, to shut down completely in. And she did ease her body into the almost painful water, and it did feel so good the temporary reprieve, the halo of steam obscuring her sight, but lurking in the water was a single-celled organism which squirmed into her eye. It was a desperate grasp at relief, both her plunge and the parasite’s. It curled itself under the doorway that was her eyelid, embedded itself in the fleshy tissue, and started feasting. She came home with one eye shut. Disoriented. Nothing was better. The one daughter was unconscious in a grocery store bathroom. And the doctors couldn’t figure her eye out. At first they thought it was a trauma, then a bacterial infection until an eye specialist determined that, no, that’s a living thing in your cornea, preparing for its departure to your central nervous system. It was painful, an anvil in her skull, but the closed eye wasn’t empty. Instead, it offered a different vision. In it, she saw her daughter sober, happy, apple-cheeked, riding a fucking horse, lisa-frank style, walking down an aisle, white dress, a trail of babies, so clean. In the other open, still-operational eye, the daughter is running up a hill mostly naked, it is cold out, she is warning the neighbors about hallucinated phantoms. The mother wanted to close both eyes, to give up, and if the medicine didn’t work she’d die with her happy baby emblazoned on the backs of her eyelids. And this is how she figures the light works, the one you walk toward, the glowing embrace that protects us from knowing it’s the end, the calming fiction that gives mothers permission to let go, to pretend it’s all going to be okay, they can fend for themselves now, no need to be there to turn them on their side so they don’t aspirate.
She had been through lean times, (I mean when weren’t they?) but she means when there really wasn’t enough to fill the cavities in their bellies. She watched them fight over crackers, for dinner once prepared a box of Jiffy muffin mix with nothing but water and split the rubbery yield among 5, garbage picked the contents of a gas station dumpster after a fire made everything technically unsellable, wept when her children reported they did not eat their free school lunch. It is a mother’s job to feed her children, and when you can’t something breaks in you, your mind is a scramble/frenzy/war always hustling to turn nothing into calories, bulk, something to chew. So later, when the foreclosure notice came/the light bill was unpayable/ the children now grown with full bellies struggled to work/live, she protected them the only way she knew, gathering food from dollar stores and food pantries like a magpie on speed: cans of potted meat, boxes of tuna helper, obscure jarred frostings, all past their sell by date. Much of it was boxes of dust: dehydrated corn syrup, ground to sparkly flint, gelatin, stabilizers, MSG, flecks of green. When reconstituted with water it transforms to the equivalent of stacking all the furniture against the door. She fashioned her stores into fortress walls, flanks of soldiers, a watch tower, a moat, stocked all the cabinets, a storage room, an extra freezer, every pocket of space filled with insurance that it won’t come to that again. In the end, there was enough to eat, but everybody was hungry for something else: affection, work, revenge, alcohol, some of it surely grounded in that earlier time of want, but there is no feeding it now, the statute of limitations is long past. Afterwards, her cupboards remained full, but she couldn’t throw it out–it was a keepsake, a relic, an obsolete fortress made of highly-processed corn, long covered in moss, trees growing on the inside, admired, but useless, but still proof of how hard she tried to cushion them from want, how well she did her job, just look.
The pull of the water
My boy wants to watch the creek carry its burden–watch garbage gather in the current and be pulled against the rocks, watch the water travel in indirect swirls when it dances over the jagged bends. When that’s not enough, he throws leaf carcasses and wood chips and discarded bottle tops on one side of a bridge and then quickly runs to the other to watch them be pulled by the flow. Each time his act has the effect he hoped he hops up and down in place, overjoyed. He wants to be closer so we walk down the bank to admire the pull of the water up close. Suddenly, he pushes himself and his puffy coat into the metal fence, separating us from the water and tries to scale it. He needs to throw himself in, to be the thing dragged by the current and pulled under, to dance against the rocks. I anchor myself on the wet ground and hold him back; he wiggles. Everything is slick, the whole world a smooth, wet surface with no traction. It is impossible to create enough friction to keep upright, so I shift my weight and we fall back, away from the water, a panting, still-struggling pile. A stranger comes and asks What are you going to do when he’s too big for you? My boy writhes on the wet ground; I’m pinning him, begging, explaining, promising, praying the stranger will walk away. It feels unsustainable, the pull of the forces, a seam about to burst somewhere in my mind or my stomach or the space time continuum. I start scream-singing “this little light of mine,” scaring the stranger away and startling my boy out of his mania, and I remember hanging from the ceiling in the school cafeteria little paper mâché planets with signs explaining how long it will take their light to get to us, and how comforting it is to know someday it’s coming, either the light or the current to carry us away.
Erika Eckart is the author of the tyranny of heirlooms, a chapbook of interconnected prose poems (Sundress Publications, 2018). Her writing has appeared in Double Room, Agni, Quarter After Eight, Quick Fiction, Nano Fiction, Passages North, and elsewhere. She is a High School English teacher in Oak Park, IL where she lives with her husband and two children.