BY MARIYA POE
The sun sets, cold and ghost yellow. No one else is here on this beach somewhere in the mountains. Just us and the cattle grazing around our campsite and over the wildflower fields. My fiancé slices into a walleye, its insides trickle out, and my son hides his face. This isn’t his father. This is a few men down the line. Our fire blows smoke over the sand.
While the fish sizzles above the flames, I rifle through the bag of groceries between my ankles. An orange for my son, mango for my fiancé, another orange for me. My son leans his head against my knee and draws pictures in the sand. My fiancé picks a CD for his boombox. He needs music when he’s cooking. We all tap our feet and dance our fingers on our thighs.
My fiancé bites into his fruit and juice drips down his chin onto his chest. He kneels in front of me and runs his hands down my body. My woman, my woman, he says. He croons along to the music and kisses me on the mouth with sugary, mango lips.
My rule with men is to love them with hesitation. Love until you realize you’re afraid or maybe until there’s blood pooling beneath someone’s skin.
Eat what your mamma got for you, my fiancé says.
My son nods and rakes his hand through the drawings, erasing them. My fiancé watches him as he peels his orange, slowly, sweetly, opening the fruit like a blossom.
You’re gonna learn to swim tonight, he tells my son. Everyone’s braver at night. At night, nothing can see you.
I’m not supposed to love my brother anymore. He did things that can’t be forgiven. There was his face on the local news while my son slept with his head on my lap and there was my fiancé saying, very quietly, he really did it? Then Jamie’s face again, smiling, pouring out of the bright television.
When stars blink into the sky, my son’s in up to his throat. He’s got sleep around his eyes beneath his goggles. He turns back to look at me with his arms stretched above the water like wings. I watch from the shore while my fiance whispers, touches my son’s head. His hands grasp my son’s ribs and he lifts his little body up, offers him to the sky, then throws him into the deep parts.
The blanket drops from my shoulders and catches in the wind while I race to where my son went under. My fiancé grabs my arm and yells: This is how we teach him, it’s good for him, it’s good. I slip away.
My son thrashes until I have him and he wraps his arms around my neck and monkey-clings to my back. He coughs in my ear. He’s too heavy and I’m swallowing water but I keep going. My dress sticks to my legs. We swim past sleeping turtles scattered on rocks, past a half sunken tree, past hard darkness. Coyotes howl in the forest. My son squeezes me.
There are animals who run from danger and there are animals who run toward it. You think you know which you are. You can try to read the signs, memorize the rhythms and sounds, try to predict what’s coming–and then what.
From the beginning, my mother taught us to keep ourselves small, to keep our skin and faults close to our bones. Jamie was never good at it. Maybe that’s where he came undone. I don’t know. You tell me what makes a boy too hungry. What leaves him pounding his fists against his chest, and always taking, taking, taking.
I swim until we’re at the other side of the pond crawling onto the island. There’s no sand, only tall grass and dirt on my knees and stomach and hands. My son pulls the goggles from his eyes.
Are we lost? he asks.
You belong on land, I tell him. Like this, with me. You don’t have to swim.
He stares into the trees. Let’s run, he says.
Let’s run, I say back.
We run while the cold cuts into our wet skin. I hear his short breaths beside me. Weaving through trees, over fallen branches. We run until we’re falling over ourselves. We roll across a blanket of pine needles. My whole body burns but we’re laughing. He reaches for me and I catch his wrist, pull his hand closer to see his tiny fingers. My head pounds for air. He touches my face like a newborn searching for warmth.
Tell me how to keep my son’s heart intact. Boys, when they’re little, they’re such magic. They love too much and they’re more afraid than anyone because when you’re told not to feel something, that’s when it floods you.
Jamie’s turtle died the morning of his fifth birthday. We buried him in the garden behind the shed, put together a small funeral. At midnight, the first minute of my Jamie’s sixth birthday, he shook me awake. I need to see my turtle, he said. I need to see what the ground did to him.
We snuck outside in our socks and pajamas and tried to dig up the grave. We dug all over the garden for what felt like hours. I didn’t understand what we were doing, but if my brother wanted turtled bones, I wanted turtle bones.
When the sun began to warm, my shovel thunked. We were gentle taking the turtle out of the earth. The legs and head had broken from the body. Jamie kissed my cheeks, my forehead, he lifted me to my feet. He scooped the skeleton pieces up, brought them close to his eyes and ran his thumb over the shell’s ridges. The black sky was opening, turning grey. Stars gone. Jamie hummed. He lay his pet down onto the grass, reconstructed the body, and he played the shell like a drum, legs as sticks. It was an unsteady beat. He played and hummed. Humming deep and nervous: hmmmmmm, hm, hm, hmmmmmm, hm, hmmmmmm, hm. He rocked back and forth and when he looked up at me, wet sadness in his eyes, I danced. I let myself go wild, thrashing my hair and dancing all over the garden while he found a song on the bones. Soon we’d be afraid again; our mother would swing the backdoor open, march her bare feet into the yard, and drag us inside. She’d grab and swat and smack and yell and send us into our beds, wrap us in our sheets, press her lips to our heads. Soon the sun would leak through our blinds, and we’d be listening, trying to see each other’s eyes, unwilling to rest.