Authors: Lauren Groff
She came back to find her sister naked outside the cabin, under the banana tree. Look, the little girl said dreamily, sucking her fingers.
The older sister looked but saw nothing. She did not see the unripe bananas like stubby fingers hanging down, which had been there when she went to get the water; she did not see the peels, which she would find later in the garbage.
There was a monkey, the little sister said. A tiny, tiny monkey. It had fingers like person fingers. It sat on the roof and peeled the bananas and ate them all up.
The older girl looked at the little sister. She stared back with round eyes. There was a long silence, and something in the older sister turned away, even as she nodded.
All right, then. There was a monkey.
Now, over the wind, all the way across the pond, from the beach on the other side of the island, there came a noise the older sister caught, then lost, then caught again. It was a song their mother had often sung along to on the radio in the car. A songâthat meant a radio. The older girl took her sister's face in her hands. We got to get ready fast, she said. Then we got to run.
They scrubbed themselves in the waves and, wet, put on their mother's dresses, the only clean things there were. Shifts in tropical patterns that came down below the older girl's knees, to the younger one's ankles; on their mother those dresses were so short you could sometimes see her underwear when she was sitting down. They poured her perfume all over their wrists and heads.
Then they ran. They stopped when they were still among the trees, breathing heavily.
There was a boat anchored not far out, and a rubber dinghy pulled up on the wet part of the sand and a fishing pole buried next to it. A woman lay on a blanket. She was white, though her shoulders and thighs were going pink. She was plump. She was mouthing along to a different song on the radio, her feet waggling back and forth in time.
There was a man beside the dinghy with his swimming trunks down to his knees. He was peeing, the girls saw. He didn't even wash his hands in the waves, but went over to the woman and stooped and put them in a cooler for a minute, then popped them under the woman's bikini bottom while she screamed and swatted at him.
He laughed and took a beer can from the cooler and opened it and drank deeply, and picked up a sandwich in waxed paper. The older sister's mouth watered. She was glad when he crumpled the paper up and didn't litter but put it neatly back into the cooler.
The older girl looked at her sister. She was wild. You could see all her bones. The older sister took the brown leaves out of the little one's hair, brushed the dirt off her dress, took out their mother's lipstick, which she'd put into her pocket as they ran out the door. She put lipstick on her sister's lips, then made tiny circles on her cheeks. Now me, she ordered, and her little sister's face pursed in concentration and the lipstick tickled on her own cheeks and lips.
She put the lipstick back into her pocket. She would keep the gold cartridge of it long after the makeup inside was gone and only a sweet waxy smell of her mother remained.
Ready? she said. Her sister nodded and took her hand. Together they stepped out of the shadows and onto the blazing beach.
The woman on the blanket looked up at them, then shaded her eyes with a hand to see better. Later the woman would visit the girls once, then disappear after she left the older sister a gift, a vision of how the sisters had looked just then: ghost girls in clown makeup and floral sacks, creeping out of the dark forest. The woman's mouth opened and a cry of alarm stuck in her throat. She raised her arms in amazement. The girls took the gesture for a welcome. Though they were very tired and felt tiny under the angry sun, they ran.
It was an old hunting camp shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub. Our friend had seen a Florida panther sliding through the trees there a few days earlier. But things had been fraying in our hands, and the camp was free and silent, so I walked through the resistance of my cautious husband and my small boys, who had wanted hermit crabs and kites and wakeboards and sand for spring break. Instead, they got ancient sinkholes filled with ferns, potential death by cat.
One thing I liked was how the screens at night pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards.
Even in the sleeping bag with my smaller son, the golden one, the March chill seemed to blow through my bones. I loved eating, but I'd lost so much weight by then that I carried myself delicately, as if I'd gone translucent.
There was sparse electricity from a gas-powered generator and no Internet, and you had to climb out through
the window in the loft and stand on the roof to get a cell signal. On the third day, the boys were asleep and I'd dimmed the lanterns when my husband went up and out, and I heard him stepping on the metal roof, a giant brother to the raccoons that woke us thumping around up there at night like burglars.
Then my husband stopped moving, and stood still for so long I forgot where he was. When he came down the ladder from the loft, his face had blanched.
Who died? I said lightly, because if anyone was going to die it was going to be us, our skulls popping in the jaws of an endangered cat. It turned out to be a bad joke, because someone actually had died, that morning, in one of my husband's apartment buildings. A fifth-floor occupant had killed herself, maybe on purpose, with aspirin and vodka and a bathtub. Floors four, three, and two were away somewhere with beaches and alcoholic smoothies, and the first floor had discovered the problem only when the water of death had seeped into the carpet.
My husband had to leave. He'd just fired one handyman, and the other was on his own Caribbean adventure, eating buffet foods to the sound of cruise-ship calypso. Let's pack, my husband said, but my rebelliousness at the time was like a sticky fog rolling through my body and never burning off, there was no sun inside, and so I said that the boys and I would stay. He looked at me as if I were crazy and asked how we'd manage with no car. I
asked if he thought he'd married an incompetent woman, which cut to the bone, because the source of our problems was that, in fact, he had. For years at a time I was good only at the things that interested me, and since all that interested me was my books and my children, the rest of life had sort of inched away. And while it's true that my children were endlessly fascinating, two petri dishes growing human cultures, being a mother never had been, and all that seemed assigned by default of gender I would not do because it felt insulting. I would not buy clothes, I would not make dinner, I would not keep schedules, I would not make playdates, never ever. Motherhood meant, for me, that I would take the boys on monthlong adventures to Europe, teach them to blast off rockets, to swim for glory. I taught them how to read, but they could make their own lunches. I would hug them as long as they wanted to be hugged, but that was just being human. My husband had to be the one to make up for the depths of my lack. It is exhausting, living in debt that increases every day but that you have no intention of repaying.
Two days, he promised. Two days and he'd be back by noon on the third. He bent to kiss me, but I gave him my cheek and rolled over when the headlights blazed then dwindled on the wall. In the banishing of the engine, the night grew bold. The wind was making a low, inhuman muttering in the pines, and, inspired, the animals let loose in call-and-response. Everything kept me alert
until shortly before dawn, when I slept for a few minutes until the puppy whined and woke me. My older son was crying because he'd thrown off his sleeping bag in the night and was cold but too sleepy to fix the situation.
I made scrambled eggs with a vengeful amount of butter and cheddar, also cocoa with an inch of marshmallow, thinking I would stupefy my children with calories, but the calories only made them stronger.
Our friend had treated the perimeter of the clearing with panther deterrent, some kind of synthetic superpredator urine, and we felt safe-ish near the cabin. We ran footraces until the dog went wild and leapt up and bit my children's arms with her puppy teeth, and the boys screamed with pain and frustration and showed me the pink stripes on their skin. I scolded the puppy harshly and she crept off to the porch to watch us with her chin on her paws. The boys and I played soccer. We rocked in the hammock. We watched the circling red-winged hawks. I made my older son read
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
to the little one, which was a disaster, a book so punny and Victorian for modern cartoonish children. We had lunch, then the older boy tried to make fire by rubbing sticks together, his little brother attending solemnly, and they spent the rest of the day constructing a hut out of branches. Then dinner, singing songs, a bath in the galvanized-steel horse trough someone had converted to a cold-water tub, picking ticks and chiggers off with tweezers, and that was it for the first day.
There had been a weight on us as we played outside, not as if something were actually watching, but merely the possibility that something could be watching when we were so far from humanity in all that Florida waste.
The second day should have been like the first. I doubled down on calories, adding pancakes to breakfast, and succeeded in making the boys lie in pensive digestion out in the hammock for a little while before they ricocheted off the trees.
But in the afternoon the one lightbulb sizzled out. The cabin was all dark wood, and I couldn't see the patterns on the dishes I was washing. I found a new bulb in a closet and dragged over a stool from the bar area and made the older boy hold the spinning seat as I climbed aboard. The old bulb was hot, and I was passing it from hand to hand, holding the new bulb under my arm, when the puppy leapt up at my older son's face. He let go of the stool to whack at her, and I did a quarter spin, then fell and hit the floor with my head, and then I surely blacked out.
After a while, I opened my eyes. Two children were looking down at me. They were pale and familiar. One fair, one dark; one small, one big.
Mommy? the little boy said, through water.
I turned my head and threw up on the floor. The bigger boy dragged a puppy, who was snuffling my face, out the door.
I knew very little except that I was in pain and that I
shouldn't move. The older boy bent over me, then lifted an intact lightbulb from my armpit triumphantly; I a chicken, the bulb an egg.
The smaller boy had a wet paper towel in his hand and he was patting my cheeks. The pulpy smell made me ill again. I closed my eyes and felt the dabbing on my forehead, on my neck, around my mouth. The small child's voice was high. He was singing a song.
I started to cry with my eyes closed and the tears went hot across my temples and into my ears.
Mommy! the older boy, the solemn dark one, screamed, and when I opened my eyes, both of the children were crying, and that was how I knew them to be mine.
Just let me rest here a minute, I said. They took my hands. I could feel the hot hands of my children, which was good. I moved my toes, then my feet. I turned my head back and forth. My neck worked, though fireworks went off in the corners of my eyes.
I can walk to town, the older boy was saying to his brother through wadding, but the nearest town was twenty miles away. Safety was twenty miles away and there was a panther between us and there, but also possibly terrible men, sinkholes, alligators, the end of the world. There was no landline, no umbilicus, and small boys using cell phones would easily fall off such a slick, pitched metal roof.
But what if she's all a sudden dead and I'm all a sudden alone? the little boy was saying.
Okay, I'm sitting up now, I said.
The puppy was howling at the door.
I lifted my body onto my elbows. Gingerly, I sat. The cabin dipped and spun, and I vomited again.
The big boy ran out and came back with a broom to clean up. No! I said. I am always too hard on him, this beautiful child who is so brilliant, who has no logic at all.
Sweetness, I said, and I couldn't stop crying, because I'd called him Sweetness instead of his name, which I couldn't remember just then. I took five or six deep breaths. Thank you, I said in a calmer voice. Just throw a whole bunch of paper towels on it and drag the rug over it to keep the dog off. The little one did so, methodically, which was not his style; he has always been adept at cheerfully watching other people work for him.
The bigger boy tried to get me to drink water, because this is what we do in our family in lieu of applying Band-Aids, which I refuse to buy because they are just flesh-colored landfill.
Then the little boy screamed, because he'd moved around me and seen the bloody back of my head, and then he dabbed at the cut with the paper towel he had previously dabbed at my pukey mouth. The paper disintegrated in his hands. He crawled into my lap and put his face on my stomach. The bigger boy held something cold on my wound, which I discovered later to be a beer can from the fridge.
They were quiet like this for a very long time. The
boys' names came back to me, at first dancing coyly out of reach, then, when I seized them in my hands, mine.
I'd been a soccer player in high school, a speedy and aggressive midfielder, and head trauma was an old friend. I remembered this constant lability from one concussive visit to the emergency room. The confusion and the sense of doom were also familiar. I had a flash of my mother sitting beside my bed for an entire night, shaking me awake whenever I tried to fall asleep, and I wanted my mother, not in her diminished current state, brittle retiree, but as she had been when I was young, a small person but gigantic, a person who had blocked out the sun.
I sent the little boy off to get a roll of dusty duct tape, the bigger boy to get gauze from my toiletry kit, and when they wandered back, I duct-taped the gauze to my head, already mourning my long hair, which had been my most expensive pet.
I inched myself across the room to the bed and climbed up, despite the sparklers behind my eyeballs. The boys let the forlorn puppy in, and when they opened the door they also let the night in, because my fall had taken hours from our lives.
It was only then, when the night entered, that I understood the depth of time we had yet to face. I had the boys bring me the lanterns, then a can opener and the tuna and the beans, which I opened slowly, because it is not easy, supine, and we made a game out of eating, though the thought of eating anything gave me chills. The older boy
brought over mason jars of milk. I let my children finish the entire half gallon of ice cream, which was my husband's, his one daily reward for being kind and good, but by this point the man deserved our disloyalty, because he was not there.
It had started raining, at first a gentle thrumming on the metal roof.
I tried to tell my children a cautionary tale about a little girl who fell into a well and had to wait a week until firefighters could figure out a way to rescue her, something that maybe actually took place back in the dimness of my childhood, but the story was either too abstract for them or I wasn't making much sense, and they didn't seem to grasp my need for them to stay in the cabin, to not go anywhere, if the very worst happened, the unthinkable that I was skirting, like a pit that opened just in front of each sentence I was about to utter. They kept asking me if the girl got lots of toys when she made it out of the well. This was so against my point that I said, out of spite, Unfortunately, no, she did not.
I made the boys keep me awake with stories. The younger one was into a British television show about marine life, which the older one maintained was babyish until I pretended not to believe what they were telling me. Then they both told me about cookie-cutter sharks, which bore perfect round holes in whales, as if their mouths were cookie cutters. They told me about a fish called the humuhumunukunukuÄpua'a, a beautiful name
that I couldn't say correctly, even though they sang it to me over and over, laughing, to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” They told me about the walking catfish, which can stay out of water for three days, meandering about in the mud. They told me about the sunlight, the twilight, and the midnight zones, the three densities of water, where there is transparent light, then a murky darkish light, then no light at all. They told me about the World Pool, in which one current goes one way, another goes another way, and where they meet they make a tornado of air, which stretches, said my little one, from the midnight zone, where the fish are blind, all the way up up up to the birds.
I had begun shaking very hard, which my children, sudden gentlemen, didn't mention. They piled all the sleeping bags and blankets on me, then climbed under and fell asleep without bathing or toothbrushing or getting out of their dirty clothes, which, anyway, they sweated through within an hour.
The dog did not get dinner but she didn't whine about it, and though she wasn't allowed to, she came up on the bed and slept with her head on my older son's stomach, because he was her favorite, being the biggest puppy of all.
Now I had only myself to sit vigil with me, though it was still early, nine or ten at night.
I had a European novel on the nightstand that filled me with bleach and fret, so I tried to read
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
, but it was incomprehensible with my
scrambled brains. Then I looked at a hunting magazine, which made me remember the Florida panther. I hadn't truly forgotten it, but I could manage only a few terrors at a time, and others, when my children had been awake, were more urgent. We had seen some scat in the woods on a walk three days earlier, enormous scat, either a bear's or the panther's, but certainly a giant carnivore's. The danger had been abstract until we saw this bodily proof of existence, and my husband and I led the children home, singing a round, all four of us holding hands, and we let the dog off the leash to circle us joyously, because, as small as she was, it was bred in her bones that in the face of peril she would sacrifice herself first.