By our third anniversary we had two daughters. An instinct to mother directed all that I did. I was, by then, the lioness.
This morning I opened two eggs over toast. I remembered twenty years ago — when I opened soft-boiled eggs for two daughters. How careful I was, pushing my reading glasses back up onto my nose to better see shards of jagged eggshell did not slip onto the toast.
What hurt them hurt me. A topple onto concrete, then the yowl, then the bright blood down her narrow shin: I felt it.
With my head in my hands I sat down and stared toward the floor. I cried, without tears, and retched.
I had been so careful. I put up poisons. I tucked electric cords behind floorboards. I picked up skates and the bedroom slippers with floppy bunny ears from where they had been tossed. I striped jackets with fluorescent tape, double-tied sneaker laces, updated immunization lists, checked sore throats, hourly, with a flashlight.
They were fragile. Their skulls were no sturdier than the eggshell. That fragility made me vulnerable. Their existence opened me, wider, to what the world could do.
They got hurt in unexpected ways, on objects I would not have suspected of offering injury. A head cracked on an innocuous red brick. A lip torn and a tooth chipped on the trusty wheelbarrow. A wrist shattered on a bedroom windowsill. The elder ripped her kneecap during an easy family hike. The skin spread slowly open, a terrifying mystery plot unfolding that exposed pulsing gristle. She whistled with pain. The younger, riding her new bike, ran into a ’48 Plymouth abandoned in the alley. Pea gravel scraped one side of her face, left a white scar.
This morning I counted back. Each year spots with a blood wound, crashes percussively with screams, shimmers with high fever and sour stomach sickness under pallid nightlights, fibrillates through otherwise calm moments with high-speed emergency. I had been glad when it all ended.
I was young when we married, and only six months after the wedding, in the era before the pill, I became pregnant. I did not want children. I was too young. Not only that, I was enrolled in college and liking it, and my own mother was so chilly, even cruel, that I feared I would be arctic like her, and as distant.
When I try to locate the moment that maternal instinct “took,” I cite my seeing the umbilical cord. My obstetrician, an Austrian woman who took pride in “delivering Mutter awake,” asked, “Do you want to see the cord?” and plopped the kidney-shaped aluminum pan on my still-quivering belly. As thick as velvet theater cord, red and purple, what had nourished and fostered R, in utero, coiled atop the liverish placenta. The cord said something to me that did not come in words.
By our third anniversary we had two daughters. An instinct to mother directed all that I did. I was, by then, the lioness: snuffling out danger, blocking the den against predators, tenderly cuffing babies back into sleep.
S was born scrawny, always hungry. I did not make enough milk. Her cheeks never turned rosy and hot as R’s had after suckling. Her hunger dizzied me.
Poor R, jealous, confused, angry at losing her mountaintop, rubbed against my legs, pulled at my arms, scratched at my hands. She whined. She wept. My love for two stretched me on a rack, torn two ways.
We survived. By the time both could walk we were planting immense, ambitious garden plots. We were digging our own Eden. We planted raspberry canes, apple trees, flowering bushes. We raised ducks. We drew, painted, cut and pasted. We played hand after hand of rummy. We bought pups. The pups ate our socks, chewed ears off the bunny slippers. Even I, who grew up cold and alone in dark apartments with a frowning mama and an absent father, began to glow. I, who for years looked sallow and hugged mechanically, grew apple-cheeked and comfortable with embraces.
This morning, when I sat at the kitchen table, my head in my hands, I was not regretting those days passing. I was only aware again, by its recent tug on me, of our old instinctually forged connection. Specifically, I thought about S. “Ugly duckling’’ was what she was. For years. Strabismatic, her huge deep-brown eye drifted to her nose, stuck a moment before wandering back to center. Her brown hair fell in lank sections. Her chest was concave. She ate so much and stayed so thin that more than once her pediatrician tested her for intestinal parasites. “Worms,’’ she would sob. The unfairness her body did her, the blight of the drifting eye, her sister’s fair plump beauty — all weighed me down.
S was a “good child, the perfect child,’’ she once said proudly and with irony. When she helped out in the kitchen or garden, she was determinedly thorough, the kind of person who does not sweep dust whorls under a rug. She was egalitarian. She shared toys and welcomed new youngsters to the neighborhood. She was compassionate with younger, smaller children. She was heatedly loving. No one popped a cheek with hotter, more perfectly dried kisses. No one bound you as tightly with hugs.
At night I was always glad for the respite and for their safety, health, their wholeness. I slept rich deep sleeps of satisfaction. Years passed.
Adolescence altered them. R bloomed early, grew a bosom and acquired mystery and distance, fluffy auburn hair, and hips. In what became terrible days, S would stand watching while her older sister pulled on a sweater. A look of betrayal passed her wandering brown eye (which, with glasses, began to stay still). And then one day S went downtown and bought a white cotton training bra. “What,” R said, “are you going to do with that?”
“Train them,” S snarled, “to jump through hoops of fire.”
Then S turned twelve. Every beauty-producing gene for generations back in both families fired off and exploded in her face, limbs, frame. “She is gorgeous,” friends would whisper to us. “Gorgeous.” Once homely, the new beauty was a mantle she wore with simple dignity. She knew what it was to be laughed at, pointed out — “Ugly.”
Her hair shone like polished mahogany. Her drifting eye settled. Not only this beauty: even though she was tiny at five feet, one inch, she was strong, with biceps that bulged up, and she was courageous in the self-confidence of strength. Her presence thrilled me.
And she was wild. She fought off — and beat down — an attack by her boyfriend’s drunk twin brother one rainy afternoon at the county fair. She wrestled him down into the mud. She cut him across his chest with a Swiss Army knife a friend out of the crowd tossed her. I felt I must tell no one how physically, morally exhilarated I felt by what she had done.
I liked, too, that she never justified herself. I liked that she was, she said, “not too prissy to lie, but too proud.” I liked that she would not blame anyone when she got into trouble. When Sheriff Bob picked her up out on Bull Road, drinking in a pickup truck, she said, “I got caught.”
S would sit with me in the morning, sip black coffee, and tell me what she dreamed. The winter before she turned sixteen, she told of a dream through which “bad people” whose faces she couldn’t make out chased her. Sitting by the fireplace in her favorite tattered flannel gown, she shuddered. “Just before they grabbed me, Mom, I leaped up on the garage roof.” Her long, complex dreams’ happy endings left me always relieved, replete with a certitude that her life, somehow, would contrive to go well. She would be safe. I would be safe.
During their teenage years, I feared for them. My nerves seemed to scream, to idle too fast, to rattle through my flesh in a constant high gear. Every winter someone’s child was killed on the slick country roads that led into our rural town. Every summer someone’s child drowned in a nearby lake or gravel pit. One summer the tall red-headed boy down the block broke his neck, diving. He came home from the hospital in a wheelchair. His father built a ramp up to their front door and painted it gray, to match their house.
We lived by the hospital. I heard sirens every day. When both girls were with me in the house, I felt a smug assurance when I heard the sirens shriek. But more than once, when one girl was not home by midnight, or when it was almost midnight and time for them to come through the front door, I felt sick with fear, hearing the high whine rush down Chestnut Street to the emergency room. I would see limbs torn, lying in snow. I would see the O of a mouth on a drowned face. I would remember Jim, down the street, painting his son’s wheelchair ramp.
Then they were gone. When the ambulance whooshed down to the hospital, I no longer stiffened to take the blow of injury, the announcement of death. My blood, accustomed to flooding — for them — with adrenalin, began to thin and calm, to tour arteries and veins for only me. No longer a part of their fortress against harm, my flesh relaxed. The cord became suitably frayed, a string.
When I answered the phone and S said, “Hi, Mom,’’ I responded with an easy, “Hi, Sarah.’’ No warning bell rose, resounding and resonating through my legs, belly, breast. “Mom,’’ she said, “I got beaten, and raped, and robbed. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.’’
My baby, my brown eyes, your strong arms, your stiff upper lip, I see you. I hear you scream. Won’t someone toss me the knife? I want to cut.