Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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My four-year-old daughter Blake and I sit on the couch watching Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. It is our favorite movie right now. I am crocheting a blue blanket for a friend’s baby; Blake takes great pleasure in unraveling my yarn then trying to tie us together at the wrists. I give her a frown and a mock growl.

“You’re mine, Mommy,” she says.

In the movie a father and two daughters have moved to a gorgeous water-colored countryside, with exquisitely rendered rice paddies, morning glory gardens, and roadside shrines. The mother of the family is sick, at the hospital in the next town. The daughters are struggling through their loneliness and fear when they meet a huge, furry, benevolent forest spirit, the Totoro. Though it is never stated, I am sure the mother has a mental illness, like mine, and is taking a sort of Japanese “rest cure.”

“Look,” Blake says, pointing at the TV. She jumps off the couch and squats down on the floor, then stretches up towards the ceiling, arms high, on her tiptoes. “I’m doing the Totoro dance. Like we did yesterday in the Community Garden. To make the little seeds grow.”

I laugh. The Totoro’s seeds turn into a forest, which reaches up into the sky, carrying the laughing girls in the movie away from all that causes them pain, a natural world that actively comes and saves them. Blake draws Totoros everywhere. Funny, round-eyed creatures with whiskers and bird feet. Since she was born I have called her wood sprite, always running through the trees, her hair a leaf or a piece of fallen sky.

The girls in the movie go to bed under mosquito netting. I remember that Japanese houses are more open than ours–walls are made of paper and air. After I tuck Blake in later that night I open every window in the house. Normally when it’s raining I close everything and run the air conditioner in my room to help with my asthma. But tonight something has changed. I am thinking about the mother in the movie, how it feels to be in the psych unit, so closed away from the world. I lie on top of the covers and feel the night air flow over my skin. Hey, forest spirit, I think. Save me too?

The next day it rains. Torrents of rain, ten inches in two hours. By night the wetlands across the street from our house are flooded. This isn’t that unusual–the little creek overflows, turning the area into an impromptu lake, almost every time we get a good downpour. We hold Blake up to the windows, call it “Lake Blake,” which makes her laugh.

“Where do the bunnies go?” she asks. Hundreds of wild rabbits live in the woods around our house. So do groundhogs, deer, raccoons, possums, snakes, moles, beavers, bats, owls, and about a thousand different kinds of birds and insects.

“I hope they can swim,” I tease. The water is almost up to the levee, which is 20 feet tall.

“Mommy, are the animals going to be okay?” Tears come up along the lower rims of her eyelids.

“Oh, Princess, the bunnies already left. They’re smarter than we are. They would have known the flood was coming.” Michael shifts her to his other hip, ruffles her hair as he talks.

“I think they climb the trees and hold on with their furry little paws,” I say to get her laughing.

“For real?” she asks.

“Yup.” I hope she is imagining hundreds of rabbits up the trees in the forest, their white tails like spring blossoms. “Let’s go see,” I say.

We walk out on the levee to look at the water.

“What’s that sound?” I ask. Something is booming, like they are running the equipment at the cabinet factory down the road, except it closed two years ago. Blake hides her head in her father’s coat. We walk a little further. The water has overwhelmed the small culvert that drains the wetlands and is rushing through and smashing into the cement walls around it.

“That’s fast,” Michael says.

I nod. We walk back inside and put Blake to bed.

After she is asleep we open up a bottle of wine and sit on the back porch, listening to the rain, still coming down hard. It isn’t a pretty sound; the ground is so supersaturated that the water lands in heavy plashes. A hollow noise.

“Blake should sleep with us in case the water comes up,” I say.

“Our house will never flood,” he says.

“How do you know?” I glare at him in the dark and hope he can feel it.

“Because we’re in the never flood plain.”

“What the fuck is that? And who says?”

“The realtor, when we bought the house.” He kicks his chair back and puts his feet up on the table to show me he is refusing to get excited.

“But things are different than when the house was built. Global warming, anyone?”

“I still think we’re okay. The water’ll drain before it gets this high, or something.”

“Or something? How do you know? I mean who can predict something like that?” And behind the words is this: how can I trust you, anyway? It’s been two years since his affair taught me something about where my own edges lie. I’m a lot better now; mostly it’s okay. We adjust. But when I drink I remember the cold pool of anger under my ribs. I lost a lot of time. I lost a lot of time with Blake. I reach for more wine. “Anyway, I want the kid with us.”

“I can’t sleep when she’s in the bed. She kicks me all night,” he says.

“Sleep somewhere else,” I snarl.

Later I stumble up the stairs, and carry Blake, protesting at being partially woken up, into my bed. Michael sleeps with us too, even though I don’t really want him to. Rain smashes into the windows. I am deeply afraid, but I don’t think it’s of the water. The TV turns the room bright silver, then black. I doze in and out of sleep, dream the bed is floating us away, watch the flood news as creek after creek jumps its banks, community after community is evacuated. What the forecasters are really looking at, though, is the Susquehanna River. It winds through all the towns around here, and at 400 miles long, drains tens of thousands of square miles into the Chesapeake Bay. Normally a shallow, sleepy river, when it rises the Susquehanna rips houses off their foundations, and can suck cars and trailers and trees downstream at 30 miles an hour.

Around 2:00 a.m. police car lights flash across the ceiling, and I jump out of bed. Michael and Blake are sleeping, two blond heads together. I throw a coat on over my nightgown and slide my feet into my cowboy boots. The rain is still coming down hard; Lake Blake is the highest I’ve ever seen it. Dead even with the levy, where a police car is parked. I can see a flashlight beam far away, where the cop is out seeing if the culvert walls will hold. They haven’t. One side has already cracked and been swept away. He walks back along the bank; his big yellow raincoat reminds me of disasters on TV.

“Hey,” I call out. “Are we okay?” My hair is soaked. I realize that I am probably still a little drunk.

“Yeah, you are. The people across the street, not so much. We’re taking them out.”

“Should we evacuate too?”

“Not yet. There’s really quite a hill between you and them. We’ll bang on your door if you have to.” He comes and stands next to me, shines his flashlight out into the roiling water. I’ve never seen it moving before. The sound is almost deafening–we can barely hear each other speak.

“Wow,” I say.

“Yeah, wow.” The cop nods. We stand there for a minute, because what we are seeing deserves this, then he starts to walk to his car.

“So you’ll let us know? If we’re safe?” I call out to him.

“Come here,” he says. I walk back to the levy. He stands at the end, at least 20 feet from my house. “If the river comes up 50 feet, and it’s only forecast to hit 45, this is where it’ll be. The worst you’ll get is a soggy basement. If it hits your first floor, my name had better be Noah.” He smiles. Rain is dripping off his nose, despite his plastic covered hat.

Inside, Blake is sprawled across my side of the bed. I slide in next to her, curl an arm around her silky belly, and bury my nose in her hair. She roots around in the covers a bit, then settles. Michael turns towards us in his sleep. I look at the planes of his face and wonder, what next? An idea hits me, and I slip out of bed again. On the floor, next to the bed, I bend over and curl my body to the ground, then fling my arms upward, back arched towards the sky. I do this a couple of times, until I feel like laughing and fear waking my family. I am doing the Totoro dance, calling the forest spirit out to protect us because I half believe in him tonight. Let the water come into the basement. Let the trees grow through the windows, carry us up into the sky. Safety is something entirely different from what I used to think it was. Here is our house, open wide to the forest and the water and the world outside.

Claire T. Lawrence is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Bloomsburg University. She has published fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in Tri-Quarterly, Terra Nova, Connecticut Review, Event Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Puerto del Sol, and So To Speak among other magazines. She lives in 220 year old house with two children, her husband, and three Pekingeses. So far, it has never flooded.

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What a powerful story! Thanks for sharing, Claire.
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