Not the scent of the smoke, but the sight of it, not the sight itself, but the screen through which it altered the sunlight—she couldn’t articulate the change exactly, it’s just that the light seemed odd, like the acidic light of a nightmare. She had overslept. She was used to waking at the sound of his alarm. Risen dazed and blinking into this strange day, the cool and yellow morning. Before she woke the girl, she stood on the deck. I have use of my limbs, she thought, without knowing why she thought it. And went back into the house. She dressed the child, and combed her hair, and shook cereal into a bowl for her—the child seemed not to notice anything at all, still pliant with sleep, and ate without speaking but with an unfocused concentration she brought to most tasks, that she brought even to her dreams, her face concentrated even in the task of dreaming, mirroring perhaps a dream-face that rarely smiled. It was too late now to hurry. And the girl ate slowly. The mother had the urge to smack her. She turned her eyes down to her mug of coffee and took a sip from it. Without milk or sugar it tasted bitter. Drank. She was coming awake.
Where’s Daddy today? Halfway through the soggy bowl.
Went to work early. You know, he might get home late tonight. After you’re in bed.
I feel funny, said the girl.
The mother put a testing hand against the silky forehead. You’re fine.
I feel funny.
No, she wasn’t fine, the forehead was hot. But Jesus, God, just a moment alone, today of all days. Children made noise, the woman had been told, but nobody had ever told her that the noise children made would be intolerable. The noise they made, the sneezing and singing and screaming and shrieking—nothing wrong, when she raced to the other room, the child was shrieking with delight—and crying, crying, a scraped knee, a broken doll, and the crashing of toys and furniture and bodies, this noise was near constant, slowly growing throughout the waking hours, swelling in the afternoon to an evening crescendo, the noise under everything, diminishing every pure thought and action, the noise she could not quite block out and had to monitor for signs of true distress. Even alone, one child—Christ, imagine two! Looking down at the sick daughter. She was small, she was six years old, very small, but turning, already, or, she should say, finally, human, with her own thoughts. Dark as her father, darker than him, the mother had not made a mark on her.
Okay, stay home with me today. I’ll call the school. You go back to bed.
I don’t want to.
You go to school or you go back to bed.
Don’t try me right now. The anger in her own voice scared her. The girl fled. Anika!
She called the school. Something going around. She was shaking. The anger in her voice sounded like her mother’s.
She lay in her bed, still with her school clothes on, and pressed her face into the pillow. Now the mother was gentle and stroked her back. The structure of her rib cage was like a pair of hands, each rib a slender finger. The little body contained a soul. She wasn’t crying, but her face was flushed.
Come let’s get you—
Let’s get you—Anika!—still—
For she was squirming, then shivering, as the woman lifted the dress over her head and pulled down the tights. Her baby’s body gone skinny, the ribs, the dark chest, tiny nipples. Her pajamas were pink, they buttoned. She dressed the girl in them, then tucked the blankets around her.
You’ll warm up.
Read to me?
The same book, one they could both easily recite from memory (father, too). The mother made herself patient. One winter morning, Peter woke up and looked out the window. The body beside her felt incandescent. She could have been sick the day before and the mother hadn’t noticed. Maybe even two days. Had she? Three pages and she was dozing. The mother shut the curtains and left the room. Out the window, the sky was lambent, glowing, it seemed, from a diffuse source. She went out onto the deck to gaze at it. The air felt dry in her throat. The hill sloped away from the house, bare for a mile and then trees, not tall enough to block the view yet, but they were creeping slowly upward, and one day would. The woman was remembering the hillside when it was green and jeweled with newts bisected with purple and orange, with sideways eyes, cool on the palm, their movements slow with terror. The girl had caught them. Delighted. They lost their tails, she told her mother. If they were caught. Does it hurt? The mother didn’t know. What happens to the tail, does it become a whole new newt? The mother said maybe. And then, the girl’s eyes lighting up with understanding, Is that how humans are made, too? Baby, the mother had asked, do we have tails? But rain had not come for months and months, and the hillside had browned—some would say become golden but she would say brown, and it was not bitterness, because she had felt this way for many years, steady in her hatred of summer.
The light was golden. As light should be but never is. Then she caught the first dark scent. Oh—what now? But the feeling was like wonder. Smoke? She was a body in air. As he was speaking last night, she could hear the water in his mouth—his spit—she could hear the sounds of the mouth that happened around the words, of the lips opening and closing, of the tongue sliding, and occasionally the click of teeth. Under the sound of the words was the sound of breath, the breath that carried those words, so at first it was difficult to hear them, the words, and when she did hear them there was so much space around them she thought, Well, I’m okay. But later, only a little later, she realized that it had been shock. She had not let the words into her body. It was as though she had placed a pill on her tongue, could feel the weight of it there, but could not yet taste it. Alone, in the almost empty house—for it had been late at night, and the girl was sleeping—his words began to enter her: she tasted them, she felt the burning of their swallow, she felt them come into her bloodstream. She stood in front of the mirror. He had changed her, she wanted to see it. Her features were the same, but they had a different meaning now, she looked older and sour, and she saw the lines on either side of her mouth and traced them with her finger. The lines of her mother, her mother’s sourness. Oh God. And then she turned away from the mirror with a clenching, a balling up, for once her tears began to form she would not be able to stop them, for days she would live in a red and swollen mind, stuffed up as if by cold, eyes leaking in betrayal.
Now inside, she turned on the TV for news but there was nothing. Only soaps. Three channels came in, and a Spanish channel and a Christian one. Switched it off. And restless. She went into the child’s room, the girl slept with her mouth open. Sick, the child was docile, hers, she was her mother’s but not her own, too docile, suffering but the face in sleep was angelic. She had forgotten to take her temperature like a bad mother, she had not given her any medicine like a bad mother. Should she wake her? But didn’t the body need sleep most of all? She thought of the drive to school with her daughter, pulling to the curb and watching her walk into the stone building. Past that, she had not thought, but likely she would end up at the ocean. Walking, walking, or just sitting in the car, dry, watching the sea fold
over. Where was he. Work, or.