Isaac is very small as he climbs into my arms, bending and pulling and kneading at my skin and everything underneath with his tiny hands. I offer him no help. Let the nasty little dumpling struggle a bit, he’ll appreciate it more.
“It’s almost bedtime,” I say, wrapping him up in my skinny arms.
“I know.” He wipes his nose on my shoulder, thinking he’s being sneaky.
“What’ll it be about then?”
“About you. And Daddy.”
I feel my jaw tighten. I don’t mean to be angry, really I don’t. I almost toss him off me as a sudden urge for privacy washes in. Don’t want to think about it, especially not with him there, reminding me of…
But he’s looking at me, fearless, and I won’t give him reason to fear me.
Brave, for five and a half. And he’s mine, all mine.
I loosen myself up and swish liquidy words around in my head, making up a fantasy out of nothing but truths. A story should be a story – but whatever I do to my son, I won’t lie to him. “Alright then,” I say, a little too pleasantly. “A story about your Mama and Daddy…”
He pulls a little at my hair, which looks more red than brown against his chubby, white hand. Shinier too. He does bring out my best, it seems. “Will it have a happy ending?” he asks.
I smile. “No. I don’t like ‘em with happy endings.”
“Happy endings are for princesses, aren’t for little fishy things, like me.”
I ruffle his light hair, maybe a little harder than I mean to. “Like half you,
It is a short few yards from my chair to my bed, but a thousand miles when I carry my son. I toss him into the pillows with a grunt, and he giggles high and low all at once. The shirt of his Bob the Builder pajamas lifts, exposing his squishy tummy and a strip of blue big-boy underpants. I flop beside him. He looks up at me that way I love, where I know every word I say matters more than anything anybody else will ever tell him.
I will tell it to him pretty; I’ll make it sound like drip-dripping cave water, melodic and musical. He’ll listen, he’ll like it. He won’t comprehend, but he is five and a boy and doesn’t care to. But he’ll remember, and someday if he disobeys me and grows up, he might understand my wishy-washy words. I won’t lie, ever, but I’m not ready for him to know the truth, the whole truth yet.
I begin: “Once upon a time. There were rivers, and streams. I remember them. There was water, and I was water and water was in me.”
“You weren’t water, people can’t be – “
“Hush and stop being smarter than your Mama.”
He hushes. He likes that I think he’s smart.
“I was water, and all the life in it was in me. I was young, and free, and there were things I liked: swimming, salt, glass, green. And boys.”
“I told you hush up, didn’t I?”
I wait a moment, and continue. “There were boys. Pretty boys… boys with lips like rain and hair like murky creek beds and muscles flashing like fish beneath their skins. I liked the way they tasted: cool, and slick. I liked them because they were light with the silver of youth, and asked little of me. Trouble with pretty boys is, they like growing up.”
“No we don’t! I don’t, anyway. I won’t.” His brow puckers in confused frowns. O, I do like my boy. He isn’t like other ones.
I say, “That’s good, munchkin-monster. I like you like this. I’ll make sure to keep you this way, ever and ever, amen.” He snuggles against me, satisfied.
I go on: “One day, before I was ready, those boys, who weren’t sweet like you, they dried up into men, and went off to seek their fortunes.”
“Like in stories!”
“It is a story, booger. But I’ll skip ahead: nobody wants the mermaid, in the end. Don’t believe the movie, read the book.”
“But you’re not a mermaid, Mama.”
“’S a Secret.”
I sigh. My breath must smell of coffee, which he hates, because his nose wrinkles up. “You wanted a story about me and Daddy. When you ask for a story about how I was what I was, whatever it was, I will tell you.”
“O. Okay…” He does not comprehend, but he is trying very hard. I can tell because he bites his middle fingernail when he is trying to understand.
He won’t though. Not yet.
I have to swallow before I go on. I don’t want to say HIS name, or even think it, but it’s buzzing in my head, ugly and mean. I ignore it.
“Anyways. So…. I got left. And left. A lot. And I didn’t mind. Didn’t mind till the dry, dirt-men started coming around. The old ones. They said they were my age, but I did not believe my own timeline to be so long.
“First they tested me, a toe at a time. I was warm, for why shouldn’t I be when sunshine was for the sharing?
“They waded in next, straightbacked and vain. There were so many, and all so dry and hot and alien. They slid down the banks to me, then went away again in huffy surprise when I melted them to mud. It wasn’t my fault. It’s only common sense, anyway.”
“You know mud, Isaac. What happens when you make a mud pie and pour water on it?”
He is proud to know something that I do not (I must not know it, for why else would I ask him?) “It melts!”
“Exactly. The loam-men were – ”
“A kind of dirt. ‘Sgot lots of leaves in it.”
“The loam-men were simple, and quiet, and just almost almost almost didn’t mind me. They were dark around the eyes and bruised on the inside and their smiles were sad and they thought they were better than me because they had suffered.
“People step on dirt. And dirt men. That’s what I tried to tell them. ‘S no wonder they suffered. I suppose they thought I was not smart enough to teach them.”
“O well is right. Anyway, I didn’t so much like the paler, sandier men. They were so loose around the edges, like their bodies were held together by business suits. Like their souls were so lacking their cells would not stick together. They dissolved with a slushing sigh and I did not miss them much. What sound does it make when the water at the beach comes onto the sand?”
His little arms go round about his head. “SHHHssshhhhchhhccchhh!!!!”
He is good at sounds.
“Right. It was like that,” I said. “Then the silt-men – ”
“What about Daddy?”
I had almost forgotten. Ugly remembering… ugly truths… I won’t tell him!
But just the storystory.
“O, him.” The ugly name now, I have to say it. So I spit it. “David. His name was… David.”
I am angry now. I don’t hide it very well as I say, “Your father was clay, and I hated him worst.”
Who knew such small eyes could be so big?
“He came down, and hit me all of a rippling sudden and I awoke from dreams of fog and rain. I was not afraid of him. He caught me up in a bottle, swirled me around until I was drunk-dizzy, sick and sweet. I reached out to touch him and he did not, he did not break up in little bits, as others did. He did not…” My words dry up and I must swallow the dregs.
Isaac will not look at me. His questions are quiet, and he is thinking, and hard.
“And then … Well, you know what we siren types must do when a sailorman is drownding in our storming and waves.”
“You have to save ‘em, don’t you.” He doesn’t ask. He knows.
“We cannot stop it, you know – ”
“ – and love must follow until we are all caught up in netted pearls and our
own green hair.
“Your hair’s not green.”
“No… So. Anyways….
“I thought I’d saved him. Well. Well. That just wasn’t enough. He wanted too much. Wantedwantedwanted and would not SAY HE WANTED.”
My words are growing hotter now, I can feel them boiling behind my eyes but I can’t stop, can’t stop, can’t stop. “He wouldn’t ever say, ‘Sarah, I want this, or you, or something.’ Just went on with the longings and ruint himself on what he didn’t have and couldn’t ask for.”
“What did he want, Mama?”
“He wanted YOU, Little Boy. Little mud boy. Little fishy mud man boy.”
I am angry, and afraid, because he is afraid because I am angry. So I smile, and tickle his tummy, and that is my sorry. His giggles mean I am forgiven. Simple to be a mother, isn’t it? Good to be a mother.
He senses we are close to some important part. “What happened then?”
I sigh, calm now. Sad now. “Without asking, he reached up in me and used what was me and what was him to render YOU. Some little neither-swimmer-nor-sinker stinker, wrought of all that was mean and hard in him. I didn’t want him to, and I tried to stop him. But all I did was drownd him, and leave myself pitiful. All that wanting he’d done, and all that working and building and shaping of you, and turns up he didn’t want you so much as he’d thought. And I ended up with you and without him after all.”
I thought that would make him sad, but somehow he looks proud of it. As if he knows what a powerful little bundle he was way-back-when, to have won my freedom-drunk heart to himself so easily.
Funny stinker, he is.
“So here was you, and me, all on our ownsome-lonesome. And what was I to do with a thing like you, both clay of your father and flashing scales of your mother? It would have been less frightening had I been older, or younger, or anything but what I was. Which was free.
“I hated you so, bending me, breaking me from the inside out, and then ruling me like some blanketed, wrinkle-faced tyrant! But that soft little tummy and your blinking eyes were such as I had never seen, and I was more helpless and in love with mothering you than I ever… Don’t laugh, boy.”
He rolls away, thinking himself too grown-uppish to listen to the L word in any form. I go on with my story, smothering him with wet kisses and tickles until he screams. “I loved you, little monster, little half-breed, changeling, creature-discomfort, little wreck of living joy!” He does not fight me, but screams and wriggles like a fish on a hook until I cannot hold him.
He lies back on the pillow, wary of my poking fingers, gasping for breath. “Hee.. heehe… finish the… story, Mama…” he says.
I comply: “And so I did the worst thing, worst thing, worst thing I have ever done in my life: I built a cage, walked in and let you lock the door.”
“What kind of cage?”
“This one. This house.”
“’S not a cage, Mama.”
“Like how you was a mermaid?”
“O. Well… whyfor?” he asks gravely. His middle fingernail continues to suffer.
I speak it like a secret: “I traded water-freedom for a son I didn’t think I wanted. A son more alien to me than his father. A son of dirt with a stunted little tail, who would grow up and be a man like his father… David.”
There is quiet for a moment. He chews his nail, little gravel-puddle-grey eyes soaking me up, until I say:
“But I could teach you to swim, and you could be like me. You could have my faults, at least, and not his. And that was enough for me.
“So you and I live happily ever after. The end.”
He sits up and looks down at me, too seriously for a five and a half year-old. I suddenly have a vision of my little blondish Isaac sacrificing Abraham with a toddler’s plastic sword. It passes away more quickly than it came. “But you said it wouldn’t be a happy ending,” he complains.
I will never lie to my son.
“And so it isn’t,” I say. “It’s a bad, sad ending. I don’t get to swim about free anymore, and you don’t have your Daddy.”
He looks down at his pulpy fingernail.
I say, “I like sad endings like this’n. But I never did like the happy ones.” I put my head in his lap, very carefully. “I think it’s the best kind of ending.”
He wipes spit off his fingers onto my shoulder. “Me too.”
A good boy, mine is. And he’s mine mine mine mine mine.
Author Bio: Lizzie Locker
I grew up on a farm in Alabama and spent my childhood hunting fairies and deer in the woods around my home. I am currently a senior at Mississippi University for Women, and I will be graduating in May with a degree in Creative Writing. Most recently, I have been published in Signatures Literary-Arts Magazine and The Dillettanti Review. I am also the recipient of the Neill James Memorial Scholarship in Creative Writing and the Mozelle Purvis Shirley Portfolio Scholarship.