They drive all night.
Yanked out of sleep, against her mother’s chest. Her mother carries her to the car parked along the curb, her mother shushing, then humming a quiet lullaby. She lays her across the backseat and covers her in a blanket, tells her to go back to sleep, honey. Everything will be all right soon.
Can I have Chiggers? I need Chiggers.
She’s eight, too old for her stuffed tiger. Her mother packed it away last year, but the girl needs something to feel safe, like she had before her dad returned.
Just go back to sleep, honey. This is all a dream. Go back to sleep.
As her mother drives, she watches the stars from the rear window, just above her. They are motionless, stitched into the sky. Though she can feel the motor rattle the car and she can feel the inertia of her body traveling through space, she wonders if they are motionless too.
She falls asleep. She wakes up in a motel room that smells wet. Her mother is asleep beside her. She needs to pee but doesn’t want to touch the floor with her bare feet. She doesn’t know where her shoes are, so she tiptoes to the bathroom.
It’s still night, but rather than returning to bed she goes outside. She walks across the parking lot. The asphalt is wet. It must’ve rained. Before crossing the street she wonders where she is going. Then, she turns to go back to the room. But that doesn’t seem right either. She doesn’t know where she is. So, she crosses. She walks until she finds a park where other people are sleeping. Vagrants. Transients. These are the words she’ll use to describe them when she’s older. She wonders if her mother will find her.
She hopes she doesn’t.
In November, her dad finds them. She wakes to find his truck in the drive, metallic blue and chrome, a dent in the driver’s side fender. A dent in the hood. She hasn’t seen him in two months and for a moment she can’t recall his face clearly.
From the back of the house, a shuffling of bodies, his heavy boots against the bare wood floor. He’s dressing, looking for something tossed aside. The door must be ajar because the noise of his movements and even his breath sound like they’re right next to her.
There’s an exchange of voices—her mother awake—and what they say sounds less like words than a murmur that existed before language. He stops pacing the room, no longer caught up in his hunt, but returns to the bed and then there’s laughter. Both of them.
They talk some more and her mother’s voice doesn’t sound quite right. A ghost. A possession. Then, the thud of his boots returning to the floor.
They make love. There’s a sound that comes from him, thick and heavy as his beard. And there’s a sound that comes from her, a sound that the girl doesn’t recognize immediately. But she will come to know it. She will one day recall this moment when she hears her own voice letting out that muffled, ecstatic squeal that she hears from her mother.
Mid-September, the first break of heat in an endless summer. She and her mother drive three hours to the Chickasaw River, her mother sharing the wheel with the girl for the first time, even though she’s barely fifteen. Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin – all rattle in the speakers. In between, they talk. They talk more than the girl can remember them talking before.
Now, at the bank of the river, she’s reluctant to take off her clothes even though the other women have. Their bodies glisten wet and flicker with the sun’s light which cuts through the branches and dapples the skin. Fall hasn’t quite come and the woods are still thick and sheltering.
This shelter, it’s like her mother. She hears her voice cut the air, call to her, summon her into her heavy bosom for milk.
Her fingers are tight at the straps of her shorts until they fall and buckle at her ankles. Then, her shirt overhead and laid to the ground as if it’s something sacred, in need of protection. Finally, her underwear.
The bank, wet underfoot, the impressions of trodden feet. The shape of her own. The heel, bridge, toes. The arch, an absence.
She steps to the water. The heat of her body floods into the river and with it a deep and profound ache, a sadness, she didn’t realize she carried. She wades further. Her cheeks wet with her tears and through the blur of wet sobs and a tight squint against the sun she sees her mother approach.
Her mother’s hand.
She guides the girl deeper,
until her head is submerged.
Her first time, she’s seventeen. It’s with a woman, a friend of her mother.
She comes over late in the evening, the smell of old grapes on her breath.
On the record player, Lou Reed. Her mother opens a bottle of Zinfandel and pours the three of them a tall glass. The girl has never had alcohol before.
They dance. The woman removes her bra, says she’s not going to let a man tell her what to do anymore. Without her bra on, the girl can see her breasts are bigger than her own. When she leans forward, she can see they are lined with stretch marks.
She’s heavyset and when she dances her breasts sway. The girl likes watching.
Her mother refills their glasses, then again. When they’re finished she opens another bottle and they all stay up until the sun begins to rise. Her mother falls asleep on the couch and the girl and the woman remove her shoes, cover her with a throw too short for her body. Her bare feet, calloused yellow and dirty, stick out from the bottom.
In the girl’s bedroom, the woman removes her shirt and the girl stares at her breasts, loose in their skin, so much like her mother’s. She nestles her head against them, listens for her heart. The woman’s skin feels different than her own skin, somehow warmer, full of life and blood.
After the visit, she drives to her apartment on Chestnut Street, where she stuffs clothes and toiletries into a backpack she hasn’t used in three years, since dropping out of college. She thinks about her mother’s face, how it looked emptied out, bloodless. Natural, they called it, but there wasn’t anything natural about it. Dressed up and painted, a stillness so still it looked like rubber, a mask from a gift shop. The body lined in silk and she stared, waiting for the breath to come back in a shock, a gasp.
She doesn’t know how to live without her mother but she’d been learning for nearly a year now. Her mother had been emptied out that long. Strange how something gets ahold of a person, drinks them up.
As she drives she thinks of the river, thinks of standing at the bank, all of them naked. But Oklahoma’s too far away, too long a drive. So, she drives up the canyon thirty miles, following the river closer to home as it snakes along switchbacks, butting against jagged cliffs. After she tires, after she’s far enough up and away, she pulls over at a gift store parking lot and gets out. She’ll stay the night somewhere farther up, somewhere in a mountain town built for tourists.
The river, it mumbles in a fast current. She follows the rocky bank to a place that feels almost isolated, even though she can still see the road. After she hears a car zip past, she stops, slips off her shoes and her socks and wets her feet up to the ankle. For a while, she just sits there, a coarse bed of rock and pebble digging into her buttocks.
She doesn’t know how long she sits there, how much time passes, but she is aware that a man has come, standing in the river, waist-high, and he carries with him, slung over his shoulder, a giant fish whose silvery skin is ashy and gleaming. A cigarette dangling from his lips, he waves. Then she sees the fish’s head has been lopped off, an exposed band of pink underneath.
She sits longer until she thinks she sees the sky’s stitching begin to unthread. A weakness in the fabric. It’s ready to burst open, expose whatever lies beneath.
When she can no longer see the sun and the world around her looks metallic and blue, she stands and undresses, stands at the bank naked, just as she’d done as a girl. She dips her toes into the water, which is much colder now, too cold, and she’s afraid she won’t have the courage to enter. She hesitates and shivers and a car passes and she looks to the ground where her clothes are a dishevelment that’s now harder to see because the sun is setting and the sky is becoming unstitched. In a brief flash, she sees her mother, that rubber-mask face and she smells her salt-skin and she wants to cry but doesn’t, holds it back, and instead she hears the song of women speaking, a babble of voices, just like that day in November when she was barely fifteen and she hesitated to enter then, but not now, no, now she takes a step forward toward their invisible bodies, and can feel them guide her into the freezing water toward them, feel their hands push her under, where the river will hold her like a baby to breast until the sky is finished unraveling and the world emerges anew.
Bruce Shields writes and lives along the Colorado Front Range where he received his MFA from Colorado State University. More of his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Occulum, Coffin Bell, and Kansas City Voices. You can find him on Twitter: @321ReadySetGo.