So many people have children without realizing the enormous, almost impossible task they have undertaken.
Feeding, clothing, housing a child: these are the tasks you can enumerate and quantify; they can be held in dollars and closets and streets, concrete, actualized, undeniable. You either provide, or you don’t.
Somehow, that is the easiest part.
The intangible is so much more difficult. What does Love look like? Your child will learn at an early age; the knowledge will embed in viscera so tangled and intrinsic, veins must be snapped and bones broken should you wish to remove it. The slightest bruise of emotion drives down deep into the body, a rotten root.
These definitions inform reality, truth; like a magnifying glass, the world is sharpened through them—no matter if the lens is distorted.
How can people have children? The thought agonizes. A scraped knee is patched, and forgotten. But the look of lovelessness stretches inward infinitely, a repeating reflection. A wound that never heals and more so seeks out the weapon of its making to inflict the familiar sensation, like a tormented, unfulfilled ghost.
My father manufactured twist ties. Great sheets of steel wire rolled on a conveyor belt, were painted with hot plastic, cooled, then set, and finally sliced toothpick-thin lengthwise, then across. The ties were dumped into cardboard boxes and shipped out according to weight, not content, which always seemed unfair to me. That someone should receive less twist ties than someone else, and randomly, said so much about life.
We were put out of business by hand-held twist tie machines, which contained a spool of ties that passed through a cutter operated by a trigger. Ties could be made as long or short as necessary, and spools were inexpensive. We couldn’t convert the production of sheets into spools, and the equipment to refurbish the factory was too expensive. The business went under. Bread makers everywhere owned their own twist tie guns and effectively pulled the trigger on my father’s life’s work.
When I was very little he would gift me twist ties, and I would weave them into my hair and twist them under braids. They left light, ghost-white scratches in my palms as they passed from his hands to mine, their edges sharp and unyielding as they cross-hatched to form a multicolor bird’s nest in my cupped hands.
The factory fell into disarray at about the same speed as my father, and we finally sold it after he died.
I noticed the windows shortly after. New equipment was being moved in and I went to watch the last of my father’s legacy slowly trickle away. The eyes of the factory were composed of a series of large, square windows–four stories-worth of twelve windows that ran lengthwise across the face of the building. Within those sets were twenty-four smaller square windows, making each like the head of a fly. Post-depression era windows, they didn’t open and offered a fractured, distilled light inside the factory. You could almost play a very boring hopscotch game from the light offered by the lowest level of windows, if the time of day was right.
The old equipment was moved out and new equipment moved in, and with each day, a single small window inside a set of twenty-four was broken. Holes the size of a baseball appeared in each of the twenty four windows, and each hole was identical, as if the windows themselves had been pushed out of some window-breaking factory and set into the facade overnight. Months passed and the factory became something of an urban legend. The windows were an impossibility; that much was clear. No bored child could have reproduced the same hole in every window. Replacing a window only resulted in the new window being broken, and eventually the owners gave up on replacing them.
After three years, there were one thousand, one hundred and fifty-two broken windows on the front of the factory. The owners never opened. A thousand lonely eyes, their pupils sharpened to a singular, repeating point, looked out menacingly on our town.
I pushed her.
No one thought anything of it—they assumed she fell.
How many times had we counted those steps? She took the odd numbers; I, the even. I had fewer steps. She always came out ahead.
I often stayed at the base while she peered over the edge from the top. The stairs spiraled inward, upward, like a nautilus. My own face stared down at me, smiling. I never looked down on her, never had that vantage.
Just the one time. I couldn’t see her face. Only the tangle of hair and limbs and blood, like rough red algae washed ashore.
Copyright Beth Carter
It ran once before it died.
I built it out of anything I could find: an old toaster, grocery carts, poolside cushions, abandoned tires. I fastened my father’s watch behind the wheel to measure how far I went. I’m not sure why I bothered; it’s clear a digital watch is required.
I don’t know exactly where I am. Women wear petticoats, and sewage lines the roughly hewn streets. It’s America, but I’m not sure when.
The components I need to get home don’t exist. I forgot about that. Is that odd?
I’m going to die here. I feel like I just started living.
I’m disgusted. To think that thing is out in the world, walking around, and no one knows about it.
You’re not a genius. I don’t care what you say. Every morning you fidget behind your newspaper and the sound of it cripples my senses—the ceaseless crackle and swish of paper pages being turned by nervous hands. You should be nervous. You don’t know what you put out there.
We don’t even know if it’s still operational. It’s been weeks. I hope it fell in the river. I’ve been hoping that ever since I saw you open its back. I don’t think I was truly bothered by it until that moment. I had seen it when it was all mechanics, but avoided your workroom for the part that came next: Its gestational period. That skin. When you peeled it back and I saw the wires I felt my dinner rise up in my throat. What a waste. You could be a genius if put to proper use. But this is like shooting a rocket ship into the ocean.
I stayed at my mother’s for a week. The week it found its voice and started walking around our house. I couldn’t scrub the floors hard enough after it left—there are not enough open windows to air out the stink of oil and lubricant.
I walk around town haunted. I look for new faces on the street, people I don’t recognize. I never saw its face. I don’t know what I’m looking for. A stranger in the crowd with a too-perfect gait, a rigid, toothy smile, eyes that don’t see anything.
I really hope it fell in the river.
Did you know that I saw you leave? I watched you from the upstairs window, like a ghost.
How strangely we perceive things. I never expected to wonder, of all things, how and when you packed a bag. What a strange first thought to have. When did he pack a bag? Where was this bag? How long had it been packed?
I don’t think I’d ever seen the bag before. A long, black duffle bag with thick, white canvas straps, and metal studs on the bottom to lift it off the ground.
We have a high shelf in our clothes closet, but it’s really my shelf. You never kept anything there, as far as I can remember.
The closet in our front hall has coats and shoes and some cassette tapes in shoe boxes, but I never saw that bag in there. There’s absolutely nothing under the bed—you’re fanatical about that. I remember the first time I kicked off my shoes in the bedroom and one shoe bounced under the bed. It was like the Princess and the Pea; you knew something was under there and couldn’t rest until it was out and put in its proper place. God forbid something be underneath us while we sleep.
Was it balled up inside your sock drawer, folded in on itself and shoved into the very back, where no one would see it? It could have been under a couch cushion, or better yet behind one, and I suppose I might not have felt it or noticed. But that doesn’t account for when you filled it, and where it lived after it was filled. It didn’t have to hold much; essentially, it was a go-bag. The house still has a lot of your things in it. I wonder whether you’ll come back to pick up everything else.
I watched you throw that mystery bag into our car, across the driver’s seat and onto my seat. You got in after it, and never turned around to look at our house. The car turned on and you drove away, and I craned my neck and held my cheek to the window to see if you would look back, but you didn’t.
A quickie to meet my postaday obligation.
You often smell. It isn’t necessarily a bad smell–a touch of hay, maybe a whiff of sweat, just the tiniest bit of fish (the result of your pesceterian diet)–but it is augmented by less pleasant, albeit occasional smells.
You’re quite gassy, for example. And when you’re anxious, you pant excessively, and the fishy smell increases.
You curl up to sleep, folded inward like a baked cinnamon roll. Unlike the last dog, you dream. Or at least I can see you dreaming–something I’ve never seen before. Your toes flex and separate, paws wholly twitching, top lip fluttering like you’re whispering an animal secret to the night.
Sometimes, in the midst of dreaming, you bolt upright, your neck and head strained to the ceiling. You howl painfully, haunted by another life only visited now in sleep.
I could write about you for days. Not at this moment, because I can’t stop looking at you, but maybe someday soon. Your terrible allergies, like mine. Your half brown, half white fur, a mirror to my skin. Your terribly desperate fear that we might leave you and never come back. As if we could.
I know you’ll leave us first. I don’t want to talk about my terribly desperate fear. I don’t know what to do with it.
The road exists but briefly, illuminated in an 8-foot scope courtesy of the car’s headlights. We’re driving into some great, cavernous mouth, traveling on a ceaseless tongue, moving deeper and deeper into the belly of the night. I look behind to see nothing, no road behind us, a flicker of red light closing the mouth shut.
We don’t exist. That’s how I feel. We’re parting the darkness like a body cutting through water, but it closes up behind us and only opens if we keep pushing, keep moving. It requires that we struggle. If we stopped, we would go under.
I can’t remember where we are going so late at night. I can’t remember where we came from. I try to see the sky but the forest is too close to the car. Branches draw sharp claws against the windows where the road is thinnest, and the trees choke off the skyline, vanishing the stars.
Something happens to a body that can’t see stars. To look too long at a universe without depth is suffocating, like putting a whale in a fishbowl.
I don’t know where I’m going without the stars to guide me. The forest rushes past, a black bur of unforgiving darkness, and I know that there could be anything ahead. Anything, or nothing.
(Writing something on the go, from my phone, so i don’t miss my postaday personal obligation. Hence, the ode to tea.)
Doubled over with a stomach ache, insides churning and gases bubbling, the pungent spice of peppermint permeates the pain and lulls it to slumber.
Too many cups of coffee turn the stomach acidic, work the brain overtime, deny the body of sleep. A quiet cup of green tea, leaves so young they’ve only known a day of sun, ushers in–the perfect understudy.
Earl grey sits for an exact period of time, or turns bitterly tannic. English breakfast with milk and sugar: Drink As Dessert. Curled Jasmine pearls unfurl in water warmed to just bubbling, barely boiling, and must be removed quickly or the liquid grows petulant and tart.
Chamomile and lavender, golden and sun-sinking purple, settle the mind for dreaming. Oolong the color of orange peels melts like butter on the tongue.
Antioxidants. Clean caffeine. EGCG. Tannins.
In my dreams I drown in this room.
Water pours in from some unseen spout in the floor and quickly engulfs the space, waves slapping noisily against the walls and lifting furniture to float. I sit in my bed and pull up the covers around me, piling them against my body like sandbags on a stormy shore.
I’m drowning in this room. Water reaches the top of the bed and unfurls at my feet, cold as dead skin. I feel my nightgown grow wet and heavy. There shouldn’t be waves; there isn’t a tide, but breakers form with no distance to travel, no relief from their fitful, foamy tantrums. Soon I’m standing on my bed, icy water creeping up my body, the touch unwelcomed and inescapable.
There is no door. There are no windows. Pieces of furniture blip out one by one like clouds dissipating in a heated sky. There is only my bed, and the impossibly cold grip of the water as it crawls up my legs. The parts of me it touches instantly go numb.
By the time it bubbles up under my nose, I can’t feel anything. Each inhalation draws in water. I can taste the salt on my tongue. The ceiling is so close, I can see small, hairline fissures in the white paint. They connect and spiral outward like a spider’s web.
I’m drowning. I gulp water into my lungs spasmodically, like a dying fish.
Each time I sputter awake, gasping for air, I wonder. Perhaps next time, I’ll stay under.