And Daughter, Still Water: Fiction

Water Mother Ducks

(Liya Rechtman)–You are a graduate student and a recent mother of two. For you, sleep has become the rare bead of sweat off a water bottle soaking the packed, parched, mid-summer landscape of a desert. Your conjugal bed has forgone conjugation and your rare hour of unconscious overlap with your husband imitates intimacy. Before you were married, you never considered how complementary sleeping patterns could purge your bedroom of those deep and reverberating pleasure-moans to which you were once so accustomed.

On Sunday afternoons, you allow your toddling two to glue themselves to educational morning programming, specially curated to enhance aptitude in everything from math and music, from empathy and recognition of the underlying concepts of feminism and social justice. While cartoon puppets play across the screen, illuminating untanned December faces with sickly obsidian blacks and neon greens, you retreat upstairs to your bedroom. Your husband is at work and you have the blankets to yourself. This is your moment to quench your thirst, to drown yourself in close-eyed dreams. You throb against the movement of time over your forehead, pushing your eyeballs into your sockets. Every part of your body offends your nerve endings; everything hurts. The waves of fatigue crash over you and obliterate your bedroom, your children, their show, your husband…

You are sleeping. In your sleep you are by the beach, in Tel Aviv, except that this Tel Aviv beach is out the window of your Connecticut home. You are trying to find your children, but they have gone swimming and become fish and you cannot breathe underwater like them. You do not have a bathing suit and you think it would be better if no one on the beach saw you naked so you wade in with your sweatpants and sweater on, hoping they will protect you from a watery freeze never before seen on the Tel Aviv beaches. You need to warn your children that, even though they are fish and they can breathe anywhere they like, there’s something dangerous in the water. You want them to know that they are beautiful, that their scales gleam against your camera but that you cannot capture them underwater and will they please grab hold of the string and hook so you can pull them up into safety, you have a fishbowl for them in the house and you will feed them malachite pellets and little ground up bits of olive every day, they will never be hungry. In your sleep you can hear them responding to you, telling you that they are grown up now.

You are sleeping so soundly that that the water hitting hardwood floor does not wake you, even though you have trained yourself to always sleep lightly, to be alert in any emergency. You are sleeping so soundly that you incorporate into your dream your children’s shrieks as camera snaps, their patter up and down the stairs as water on sand. As the light switches on in your bedroom you see cut blocks of beryl and unpolished quartz against the backs of your eyelids. Concentric rings of garnet sunset circle the flash off camera lens’ mirror.

Ima! Ima! ” Your daughter screams in Hebrew. You raised them on a bilingual breakfasts and half-Hebrew holidays. They call you by your ‘Hebrew name’ in an emergency, as if the ancient language of the matriarchs in more equipped to handle scraped knees and barking dogs than the bastardized Germanic constructions of English ‘mommy’ or ‘mom.’

Your children do not wake you. They have found the thick, black permanent marker that your husband uses to label packages, which he keeps in the upper drawer in the kitchen. They have painted thick, black bear prints, shining and inky against the hardwood floor of the living room, sticky and smeared on the tiled kitchen, bleeding into the cross-hatched eggshell gratings, pooling into the couch. The bear’s prints are marked as one large black spot, bigger than the ball of a child’s foot and three smaller ones. Your younger son is crying because he has come to believe that the bear is real, that a monstrous beast has wrecked havoc on your home and will be returning for him at any moment. Never mind that he helped his sister in placing the prints. A child’s mind is an experiment and his reality has no fixed meaning, no relation to a set of rules or structures of plausibility.

To your son, you and the bear are equally reliable in your potential to be tangibly present. There is no sign of you in the house despite his calls for help, his use of your special-emergency language, and yet there are real and present bear-symbols scattered across the floor of what he used to know as his living room, his mother’s kitchen. Sunday afternoon is turning into Sunday evening. The light is hitting the window and the front porch at a slant and the forest pattern on the couch is a real forest, full of beastly bear prints. The hum of microwave, refrigerator and heater compound to create an insurmountable cacophony of invisible, indefinite rhythms. He has been abandoned, except for his sister.

His sister quickly realizes her mistake, her responsibility in the game. It is her job to protect him from the monsters of her mind and fend off the Sunday fiends. It is her job to reach the orange juice and olives in the refrigerator when the light slants in and the couch becomes forest, when on Sundays their mother abandons them and hides in unknown corners of the darkening early evening winter house.

His sister crawls into the first floor bathroom that doubles as a cleaning supply closet hidden by a shower curtain of bubblegum fish and extracts a construction yellow bucket. She heaves the muddy slosh of water residue and cleaning chemicals into the eggshell porcelain bathroom sink and refills it with fresh new water. His sister makes waves against the hardwood floors. She is surprised when streams of water fall in between the floorboards and wonders where they are going. She wonders why the ocean of tap water is not washing away the remnants of imaginary bear. She calls for Ima and does not understand where in the house you could be, or if you have already left, or if you will come back. The magic of the exotic un-American-ness of it all is impotent on Sunday afternoons. She wonders if her mother is the bear or if her mother is in between the floorboards and gone forever in the ocean she made.

Did you realize, when you woke up, how much you had scared them? Did you realize how they had grown in those abandoned hours? You had slept twice over the time of the educational television program you had pre-screened for them and that they were hungry and that the refrigerator you had installed was too high up for them to reach anything in the shelves. When you first walked down stairs, rested, what were you thinking? Did you see the beauty in the way black pen bled into white kitchen; did you see the colorlessness of your children’s late afternoon nightmares?

We screamed for you, Ima, we called you by your magic name and hoped that you would save us from the inside of our own stories. We thought that Ima would take us from the land of lost children and and give us back to the realm of six o’ clocks and pre-approved movies. We didn’t know that bear prints are special and can only be washed away with bleach and gloves and grown-up hands. We didn’t know that the monster bear of dad’s sharpies would spill into the fabric on the coach and the paint on the kitchen walls.

Photo Cred: Hara Person