From the back porch, I watch their half-naked bodies wink in and out of the shadows, smears of dirt and grass along their sides. My boys are laughing and spraying each other with water under the shade of our ten-year-old ash tree. Their bodies have grown long and sinewy, all knobby joints, sharp scapulas, and cords of young muscle.
I missed their shift between fat and lean. I lost that block of time. It’s as though I’ve been hiding in a gray room with the door closed, the windows covered by blackout curtains. I could hear the boys’ voices change, the rise and fall, them coming close and walking past; but the sounds were muffled and smothered behind that door. I had closed it. I didn’t want them to see me.
The ash has gotten older and longer too; the wind flicks its boughs, thick and crisp. The branches now dip close enough for me to reach up from my patio chair and touch the leaves, their tips a sharp point, the green rich and full of yellow. I pluck one and lay it in the flat of my palm. It’s shaped like a crooked tear, the tip slightly turned at the end and the edges look torn, like watercolor paper. It isn’t perfect; the thin white lines of the veins drift across the surface and break into Ys along the outside curve. I’m awake now, during the tree’s summer. There’s still time before the fall. Maybe I can watch the transition this year.
The boys have dug a mud hole that’s turned into a dinosaur pond and taken over the garden path. The paving stones are an oasis of rock lined and scattered with bucketfuls of cheap plastic dinosaurs from the Dollar General.
Connor, my six-year-old, wants to be a paleontologist.
“I want to find bones,” he says. He’s told me this before, but today his voice is clear and close. I can hear the baby in his pronunciation. “Aye wanna fine bones.” I smile at him and he grins back with teeth.
Connor starts telling his brother, Riah, how the scene is supposed to look. “These are the babies for the mommy spinosaurus.”
Riah ignores his younger brother’s directions and arranges a cluster of herbivores across the sea he’s made with the water hose. His lips are clamped in a straight line. His jaw is tight and clenched. He frowns and narrows his eyes. He reminds me of myself. I know better. I’ve got this. I don’t need your help. He leaves his dinosaurs where they are.
Connor’s face scrunches up. “That’s where the herbivores would be, Riah!” He draws out Riah’s name. Two notes: a rise and a fall. He is imitating how I sound when I’m angry and frustrated.
“Rye-Ah!” Connor points across the water to a paver scattered with orange and green apatosauruses.
“Whatever,” Riah mutters and moves to squat further downstream away from Connor.
I interrupt to suggest that they can do what they want with their own dinosaurs. Connor frowns at me. “But the carnivores will attack.”
As if I don’t know. As if I could possibly be that naive anymore. There are teeth and jaws, thick scales and calloused hides. There might be a stampede. There’ll be carnage and death.
I didn’t kill the boys all the times I drove with them high and drunk. I knew to go below the speed limit, to straddle the broken white lines if I couldn’t see the curb. I would stare into the tunnel of a lane. The road would narrow, the sound of it under the car buzzing in my head. I would open my eyes wide and peer over my hands gripping the steering wheel at the eleven and one o’clock positions, my pupils dilated. I always saw several layers of asphalt. But I could find the real road beneath them. The one with the darkest color. I could look across at the speedometer on the dash. Ten miles under the speed limit. Wine in the coffee carafe. Children asleep in the back. I knew how to do that. I knew what music to play. I knew how warm the inside of the car needed to be. At home I could blow out their screaming or crying or fighting with my rage. And afterward, I could lull them into a stupor with the car. I knew how to shut them down with fear and noise.
The rules didn’t seem apply to me. I never got a DUI. No traffic cop ever pulled me over. I thought this was proof that I was still all right. I’m okay. I got this. I could pull up into my driveway. I could set the brake. I could arrive in one piece.
I drove like this for hours sometimes, without a destination, coming home with no memory of where I had been. In the car, I could put myself and my children on mute. I didn’t have to engage. I didn’t have to feel. I could keep myself from being a mother for a little while. On those long drives, I didn’t have to acknowledge the truth: I had no idea what I was doing with children. I didn't know how to be a mother.
We have survived though. I’m not sure how. My husband hasn’t left me. I can still feel the hover of his kiss on my lips as he left for work this morning. A solid fleshiness of warmth and beard. He has stayed, but with provisions: If I endanger the boys again, they will leave.
He said this one night, a month after I walked into my 12-step program. He was quiet in bed next to me, working a sudoku puzzle, his glasses down at the edge of his nose. He didn’t look at me. He could barely say it. There was a catch in his throat and a firmness in his tone. Please don’t make me do this. I saw the tears start in his eyes.
I have shut my eyes for so long that the world is too bright right now. Too sharp and solid. I’m coming to. I’ve been coming to for 180 days. Today I’m six months sober.
I watch my boys poised for a fight. In my heart I’m navigating the space between being absent and being present, and it feels like blood coming back into a limb that’s fallen asleep. It hurts, it tingles, there are needles under my skin. I’m trying to figure out, in the seconds it takes to respond, what would a good mother do? How do I reverse the harm?
I can see the boys’ eyes dart to me, their hesitation, fear opening their eyes a little wider. I could make it go away with my own teeth, my jaws snapping.
I take a breath, like I’m learning to do, blow it out long and slowly, “Can you make a valley go between them with the mud?” I suggest.
The boys consider it. I watch them work together slowly, gathering mud and shaping it into hills that hide the dinosaurs from one another, pile after pile. They make a mountain range, the water cresting and sliding through one section nearest to me.
“They can still share the water!” Connor says. I smile with him as he claps his hands and sprays mud all over my calves and my lap. “The dinosaurs won’t fight now!”
But I know the boys will. The calm only lasts so long. It comes in cycles that I’m starting to see. I can’t stop it. But though I don’t want to navigate through their arguments, I stay. I can hear when the fight starts, the spike in their voices, the tone. I can get there before it escalates.
I suggest something else, another valley to build, or a route through the tree roots. I’m amazed the boys listen to me. I’m always sure they won’t if I stay calm.
A pterodactyl plummets to its death, only to rise from the mud and fly, shooting straight up into the branches of the ash. The red and orange wingspan is wet and bright in the afternoon sun. It’s a fire, the spark of an idea, the ink of this pen on my page, the realization that we’re almost through to the end of the day and again, I don’t need a drink. I don’t need a pill. I’m learning how to put one foot in front of the other.
Riah has found an old cow rib under the loamy clay around the knotty exposed roots of our ash. The bone is curved, with striations and ridges and pits on the ends where the marrow leached out into the soil. It’s dirty and stained a deep red. I would’ve thrown it away before, opened a white trash bag and shoved it in the gray bin, stabbing it under the cardboard boxes I used to hide my bottles. As if padding the clink of all that glass would hide how many bottles there were every week. The crash as they shattered in the garbage truck early every Friday morning was loud enough to reach me in my hangover. My skeletons are so loud.
I hold the bone in my open palm, balanced on my fingers, looking at the mud on the boys’ legs and torsos, lines of it in rivulets down their arms and chests. All they need is a cave and clubs made from prehistoric mammoth bones. Their faces are flushed with heat and eagerness. I can’t throw away the bone. In this moment that bone is vital. It needs to be shared, held and acknowledged. Immortalized. I hand it back.
Riah takes the bone first, laying the rib on a paving stone. He starts digging in the mud, forming the shape in his hands. He moves downstream from the apatosauruses and sets up his mud figures on a cracked, parched section of our overgrown backyard. An ancient landscape, boiled and hardened and over run with prairie grass. His figures look like versions of Venus de Hohle Fels, the old mother.
I remembered the first time I saw an image of her, in college, in an old art book buried in the back shelves of the library, where couples sometimes made out, limbs wrapped around each other, their noises like plastic wrap and someone exercising. I knew when to come back later. If that row were empty, I would curl around the art books I found and disappear for a little while in colors and lines.
The day I found her, I felt her pull. Her body looked peeled with deep grooves and divots, but her breasts had survived, toppling over her heavy thighs and the enormous slit of her vagina. She seemed obscene to me then, gaping at me with her body. I thought she was dirty. Something to be hidden and put away. I closed the book with a thump, uncomfortable and a little afraid, like I am now, almost all the time.
My body still breathes and sweats. I haven’t destroyed it completely, but there are more lines and creases, folds and soft hangs. I have a mother’s stomach, puffy and rounded. My breasts have lost density, but they’re still here, nestled against me. The alcohol and pills have eroded me, leaving behind a figure gouged and distended. But I’ve survived, though I’m not sure how I feel about that yet.
I watch Riah mold his own Venus. His thick fingers look like mine; they take the dirt and make her parts without judgment. He isn’t afraid of bones or the figure he’s making. There’s no disgust for the body.
Connor wanders away from his herd of dinosaurs, his shorts muddy, his chest bare. He takes a broken branch and walks into the grass and the light, singing, “I’m exploring . . . I’m hiding in the shadows. I’m discovering the way.”