by Henry Christopher
why does she dream?
On a certain morning, the three billy goats Gruff were on their way to a distant hillside, where the grass was especially tall, and green, and tender.
She asks, “Why three billies on a hill?”
Soon, she’s asking more, losing traction on the switchback glissades of her developing mind. She asks until she’s out of breath: “What is zero? What is less than zero? How do you subtract one bear from many bears? What does three look like? Spot the difference? Throw leaves? Is green pepper yummy? What is the grass? Can you put on the naptime one? Do I have to pee? Why do I have to drink milk? Why do I dream? Do you dream?”
Yes, I do. I dream of strong hands.
“That’s cool. I dream of zombies chasing me. With sharks. The sharks are walking out of the water onto the middle of the street. They’re chasing me.”
That’s kind of scary.
“It’s not scary. It’s a little cool but not really cool and I wake up and I’m not even scared at all. It’s like I’m not even scared at all.”
I was one of only a few tenants of the houses on my brick road without children. Like most midwestern metropolitan areas, Akron, Ohio, has an unusually low cost of living, and so people relocated then remained there to raise children, whole flocks of them, and they took them to punk bars on their shoulders and wrestled them in front yards where the night previous a drunk man with a revolver fired shots into another man’s leg. Many of these children suffered into self-sustaining young adults, who would themselves attend shows at the same punk bars, or fire shots into a man’s leg in someone else’s front lawn.
I used to want children. I had a pregnancy scare a year after I quit teaching, at twenty-four, a fine age to start raising some, and discovered this was no longer true about me. How does such a large desire wane without my noticing it? More than the kid in potentia, what scared me was the idea of being scared of the kid. I tried to conjure visions of it while attending my daily life, learning to depend on others, pressing its hands over new growth in an old garden, but none of these little changes seemed meaningful or even possible to me, my life blown out of orbit by yet another pair of imagined tiny hands, and in a month I forgot about these promised compromises, and the tender threshold of conception came and went, and I moved on with my midwestern life in a pastoral urban neighborhood where every child suddenly looked to me not like a girl or a boy or other, but like immense sacrifice.
The story begins with teaching children. I have been probing for a thoroughfare into this topic, I guess. In the morning Miss makes me teach colors. She somehow knows my birthday. “I buy these in Iran every few years, whenever I go home.” A delicate string of hand-painted beads, cat-eye orange, twisted together on lengths of wire. “To give as gifts. This one is for you, best co-teacher.” I wear it as an anklet, don’t want to fade the paint away from the frequency of washing our hands in shin-high sinks, clasping a set of smaller hands to coax them clean, scrubbing down toilet-training areas, the crème backs of toddler potties. Delicate orange blossoms preserved behind enamel. The girl—who cries herself to sleep since her Daddy bought a new house with a new room for her in it—picks at the clasp until it needed repaired. I tell her to pick on something her own size. She picks and eats the leather off my shoes. Unraveling it in strips, pushing the furry black flakes past the tender pink lips in deep thought.
Miss tells me a story. We flip through lesson plans, through portfolios of hand turkeys, bumblebees, color squares, each red-yellow-orange strip of construction paper woven into immaculate flat baskets, each one representing one child and the time it took us to teach them how to move their hands to weave.
“In Iran, you learn in school not how to do colors, you learn math and science and you learn to clean your gun.” Your gun. “H-and-K G3.” Oh. “They give you the gun, they teach you to take apart, clean it, you build it yourself, over and over again, until you remember how.
“I move to America to teach. I move to America for my husband. Also I move here because of that gun. I never learn how to shoot it.”
The story began with me: I fell from the nest. I moved from Michigan to Ohio when my parents unjambed me from their lives, temporarily, but it rattled a dried abscess in my ventricles, calling up and down the states at night, trying to rent cars, afford my life, fashioning weird jobs from dust. For a while, I stole what I needed to survive. This is multi-dimensional. For a while, I was emotionally feeble and cruel and vacant-eyed, or so he said. It had something to do with theft. It had something to do with my body.
The story began with nothing: it’s about whatever it isn’t about. He and you walk off the edge of the page whenever I try to skewer you both down to its pulp. He and you are the smallest and you’ve gone to the other side of the bridge over the DEEP SWIFT river to graze in greener pastures. As for me, I’m the troll or I’m the final billy brother. My grief is too big and wielded as weaponary threat in casual conversations. I think I’m being quiet, making no noise, but a voice from underneath inevitably bellows, WHO IS THAT TRAMPING OVER MY BRIDGE?
As for me. The story began with me: I tilted on an upset hemisphere toward your absence in the center of a field, mine. The story began with you. You were a vision I had once.
And the hooves go: Trip-trap-trip-trap-trip-trap.
facts & statistics
One Thursday each fiscal quarter, we come to work in our pajamas alone, all eight or twelve of us. Our enrollment numbers indicate we needed at least twenty teachers on staff, but so far, we haven’t been able to retain our flock. The school is closed. The women come in their nighties and slippers and husband’s stolen bathrobes, plaid with the tattered waist-ties. Then me, unwoman yet unso, in my sweats and Lighthouses of Maine sweatshirt. We look like hell as we form a jagged semi-circle around our Assistant Director, presenting statistics from a reading pillow on the middle of the Gross Motor Room floor. I take notes. Her hair is tied hastily in a bun off the center of her scalp. This is the first we’ve seen her in nearly a month—she’s been out with pneumonia, but at least she brought her homemade chocolate-caramel pretzel bites in a pretty crystal bowl. I take notes while we listen, while we chew.
She prods a chart with a wooden apple on a wooden stick. “In 2018, nearly 28,000 children in Ohio were in foster care. Of those 28,000, less than 2,000 were adopted, 10,000 were reunited with their parents.”
Someone raises a half-polished hand. “Where did the others go?”
The AD shifts her eyes to the pie chart propped on the children’s easel behind her. She clears her post-phlegm throat. “Let me do a raincheck. I’m afraid I don’t have a statistic for that.”
When she and her siblings enroll with us, the girls are nonverbal and the boy is wet. He excretes a constant stream of slimy fluids, all of them equally unpleasant. I eventually win the elder sister’s words with pretty bribes and favorable deference, which presents its own challenges, but her little sister never does speak in my brief time with her. I don’t teach the littlest brother but hear his crying through the walls. The eldest asks if that is her brother screaming, and I reply yes, it is.
They bring toys to school. The magical talking unicorn with the bobbing head. You press a hidden button on its back. The Frozen dollbaby with the gooey blue eyes, arms like moldy dowel rods. “What’s a mold?” It’s like a germ, like mud, like a fungus that grows and grows. “Fungus is a silly word. You made that up.” I didn’t, if you remember the mushrooms we picked on the playground— “A mushroom not a fungus.” But it is. We could find a book about it, we could read the book cuddled together in the pillows on the floor. “Okay, where?” I try to find a book about mushrooms in the stack of special books stashed above their cubbies. The books are special for having all their pages, all their covers and spines. I find The Billy Goats Gruff. It’s not about fungus, it’s about grass, it’s about movement. It’s close enough. We read it, we read it again. Soon she predicts words before I pull my lips around each plosive, she’s guessing what comes next. What’s behind the cover? I ask. Once upon a time, there were three billy goats. She moves her fingers to walk them away, over the hillside: trip-trap, trip-trap, trip-trap.
i dream of hands
I’d wanted to be young with someone again. After I left Maine, before I moved to Akron, I applied to teach, then forgot about it, then New York, then Saint Ignace in the Upper Peninsula to sleep near a storm blown off Lake Michigan. I woke in a wet tent with mice dreaming in my hair. I broke my shelter down early. I received a call-back from Miss as I returned through Frankenmuth, the cell towers pinging off my brain again with a near-tangible electric hum.
“Do you have a lot of family?” she asked.
No, yes, sort of. I do, we’re not—it’s complicated right now.
“Mhm. Experience with children?”
“Any outstanding personal dates or responsibilities that would affect your ability to work?”
I have nothing, no.
I pulled aside at a rest station on the turnpike, thought about getting out, running through the parking lot, slashing car tires with the switchblade in my jacket pocket. I watched men in orange jumpsuits pack trash into black bags along the scenic look-out over Roscommon, all those miles in the dark. I leaned my seat back, cracked the windows, and slept. When I got back to Akron, I wouldn’t have an apartment. But I’d have this new job, wages, children.
While sleeping, I dreamt a recurring dream. I was driving in a desert, and I stepped out of the car to break my lover’s nose. I recognized the gesture as fiction as soon as I recognized him in the passenger seat. I woke. I reimagined this scene over and over again from new, cinematic perspectives, the snap of cartilage as my fist connected with the slope beneath the bridge of the nose, starboard, the energy driving my blow beyond its target in slow motion, and the flush of blood speckling the bow of my upper lip. I’m in control, then—
If I could’ve had you back, I’d kiss you sore, I’d bundle us to greener pastures. I only wanted to be young. Only wanted to be with someone, again.
facts & statistics continued
When you’re raising two preschoolers at twenty-one, working full-time at Panera Bread, and trying to nail down a new daddy, sometimes you drop the kid off a few hours early just to get your nails done.
After we close, I see her sitting on the cool blue metal top of the electric-maintenance box. Telephone wires loop over her head, clusters of snow, hands thrust into the pits of her coat. The kid tucked under her chin, in the zipper of her coat, in her lap. They’ve missed their bus.
At the Fiscal Meeting, the AD reviews the facts from her clipboard. Here’s how many we’ve lost. She says, “Enrollment retention.” Here’s how many receive assistance from the state government. She says, “The poverty rate for children under the age of 5 is 24% in the state of Ohio, where the teenage pregnancy rates for girls aged 15-17 have dropped from 65% in 2005, to 41% in 2013, to 20% in 2016.”
When you’re raising twins at nineteen, sometimes you drop them off and don’t come back. You kiss their doubled heads and shake our hands for the last time. Accidents happen, we say, and roll the babies over to change their diapers again. Every two hours on the dot. Scrub in, scrub out. One of us gets off to attend your wake, the other doesn’t. Relatives emerge, assuming your place. The drop-offs, the kissing, the shaking of hands.
There is always someone fighting to disappear, children who desire nothing more than to wrench themselves free and make a break for the parking lot.
Life goes on.
I spend the first week memorizing Miss’s curriculum handbooks, her marginalia, flipping through her display cabinet. “I need fresh ideas,” she says. “You’re young. You’re smart. Feel free to add.” Add? Add where? My head swims. My memory’s expunged and there isn’t room for anything else.
Miss takes a leave of absence each year for one month during summers. For one month, I replace her at the deft helm of textbooks. I build experiences from our craft closet during spare naptime hours, pouring paint onto Styrofoam platters.
Insects the first month—bees with hand-cut stripes, paper butterflies, a wall of interlocking hexagons forming a honeycomb over the door and hivemind facts transcribed by hand. Then water, which I take to mean ocean. I gather shells and dehydrated fish for our sensory chest. I fashion a boat from cardboard and adhesive. The flag we stitch together from fingerprints and inkpads, ballasting it over the bow, gentle on the crow’s nest, a mural of waves in the hallway window. Let’s talk surface tension. Let’s mix blue dye. I help the children change into their bathing suits, cartoon-characters winking on their chests and thighs, slather suntan lotion from labeled prescription Ziplocs, and attach one sprinkler-head to one long hose, chasing each other in rainbow arcs through the playground lawn. I snap pictures for parents to package with their backpacks at the end of the day.
Finally, to use her hands without hurting. I make her tie the sprinkler to its source, spinning the threaded fitting between her fingers. It requires patience and precision. When we change the sprinkler, I say, show me how to work it again. So she does. You won’t hit your friends? “No, Miss Hannah, I’m sorry.” Okay, thank you. “Allowed to play now?” Of course you are. She scampers away.
When Water Day is tired, we lay on our backs on our towels, drying in the sun.
My mother’s tapered hands worked the lid off a Rubbermaid bin in her closet, brittle nails bitten to stubs. She struggled. Then succeeded. Out came new baby clothes, 2wks to 8mths. Perfect pink snowsuit with enclosed feet and rabbit-ear hood. Mom called it The Marshmallow. A price tag dangled from the safety pin through the left sleeve. It cost more than I earn in one week. “I keep buying these dumb things. Call me stupid.” Baby clothes? “Yeah, duh. No, I’m gonna wear it. Think it’ll look good on me?” She held it to her chest, then replaced it in the bin, smoothing out the folded shoulders. Har-har. “I’m serious. I’ll never be a grandma. I’m getting too old and sick. I’ll be dead by the time—” Mom, Jesus Christ. “You know it’s true. I had all three of you by the time I was your age. None of you are giving me grandbabies. Well, that’s alright.” I stared again at her knuckles, dishwasher dry, securing the lid over the box. “Are you at least using protection?” I don’t want to talk about this.
On a certain morning, the three billy goats Gruff were on their way to a distant hillside, where the grass was especially tall, and green, and tender.
We read the story each morning, midday, afternoon. Our days contained in twenty-some yellow pages. By day three, she knows the words before I recite them. Her voice warbles and raises above mine, a tinny falsetto cracking at the edges from disuse.
“Especially TALL,” she cries. “And GREEN. And ten-der.”
messages for the loved & lost part one
so am I to blame with you, baby?
so I performed a disaster
folding you into my want, an ache
broken into two syllables:
I need…I want…
but what did I know? what
did I know
what you need?
are you cavernous?
is you an open door?
Who were you? What were you like?
Would you have been like me?
Bare and rare and un-contained.
are you an echo
of the gone:
us, us, us…)
more facts & statistics
Begin with a child. End with that child vanishing into an inevitable trajectory. I can imagine a good life, but I can’t endow it with life-giving qualities necessary to make it real. Realistically, mothers want what is best, and in pursuit of the best outcome, do the worst possible things.
The AD says, “Negligence is not intentional abuse by definition, and childhood victims of unintentional abuse are significantly less likely to engage in conversations and practices that make timely response possible.” Things like this happen. Everywhere, all the time, the worst imaginable outcome occurs. A girl learns how to build and disassemble a gun in rural Iran. A newly married couple gets run off the road by a drunk driver and both die, orphaning their children. The child you hoped wouldn’t ever return to his biological parents does return overnight, and you never hear from him again. “There are still chances, safety mechanisms.” The social workers come, inspect knapsacks for components and life, bottles in age-appropriate ounces, take the children by their little pearly hands to doctors appointments, public meet-ups, government buildings. “In Ohio, social workers are responsible for double the average caseload of anywhere else, roughly 24-31 children a piece. The optimal turnover rate for social work agencies is 10% annually. In Ohio, the rate is 40%. Of nearly 200,000 referrals for child abuse in Ohio each year, less than half are ever investigated.”
Begin with a child. End with that child. Begin with no child. End with none. There they go, the legions, trip-trap, the legions are traveling away from us as we watch their hooves diminish, trip-trip trip-trap, beginning and ending, there they go, our little lost ones, over hillsides. I can imagine a good life for you, though I couldn’t make it real. I can dream.
i dream of strong hands
My dreams changed. It started with taking attendance. The rote muscle movements, my knuckles coming to a point near a pen’s nib. Fourteen heads on a clipboard, reduced to fourteen check-marks down a column. It’s naptime. We’re dancing. I learned acoustic guitar just as intended and perfectly played every Vashti Bunyan song I ever cried to coming down the New York highways.
Inhaled as the inevitable transition came. My bleeding fingers, so anticipatory of theft, so knowledgeable of pilfered sweaters, markers, tiny knives, the misted globes of grocery store grapes. Hi, who are you? I’m the new kid, the new friend, and I know all the words—little red caboose, little red caboose. I know when the stanza ends. We simultaneously popped up on our cots, palms uplifted like in church: CHOO CHOO! This wasn’t any song from Bunyan’s catalog that I knew, no tender well-traveled whispering down a microphone, there was nothing cautious about this—a boxcar circling a circular track. When I said goodnight, no heads hit their pillows. They stared behind me at the bright door. The flush of blood. Arcing, shining.
God, oh god, oh god.
I didn’t recognize the door. I recognized the hands easing through, creases of callous flesh illumined in waves of amber light. Gesso, acrylic—yellow, blue, blood. I recognized the light.
When I woke, I lay on the floor again, sweating and spread-eagle. I gagged until vomit trickled down my chest, into my lap, crawled out of my pants to the low windowsill and leaned my cheek against the glass, the fog of my breath forming aborted memory, foul-tasting pink bile in the shape of your face.
In an hour, I’d continue. I’d get dressed silently in polo and slacks to teach whatever it is I didn’t know to children who didn’t know it—how close they always were to being the only reason I remained alive.
new vessel, old wood
I can bring in real bees, I say. “Real bees?” They don’t know the difference between what is a real bee and a fake bee. Anyway, it doesn’t matter: a three-letter sound prefaced with some numb four-legged adjective. The difference is one you can hold, the other just sort of sits there. They understand that, or at least feel now their want of real bees leaded with actual powers of death.
It’s against school policy to bring home curriculum and spend paychecks on supplies, but I do all the time. Scraping bees from the porch panels into clear containers, building a cardboard boat in my landlady’s living room. I tape and re-tape the mainmast. Append a crow’s nest from a cut carton of eggs. I invite the barista from across the street over so I can weep into her open mouth. She’s beautiful and I touch her knees, her shoulders, the port wine stain glossing half her face, and I want her to swallow me. If I look away, my brain misplaces her. She’s a gap between three stars where forgetfulness is found. She’s mine to manipulate for the night in my hands, in the living room, where she sees the boat in a kaleidoscope of shadows and ceiling dust. “Cute,” she says. “That’s sweet, really. Those kids are gonna remember you forever.” Funnily enough, they can’t even remember my name. She laughs. I tell her lately I’ve been thinking smaller, small hands, small eyes, reconfigurations of my own ambitions. I tell myself that as long as I’m moving, I’m moving. Suddenly I move so far. I’m gone.
I was tired, ill. Shortly after arriving in Akron, I locked myself out and had to break in one night through a locked door in my backyard, slipped on black ice, and hit my head hard enough to blow up neurons in my skull, shattering memories of recent meals, conversations. Trust me: the head bleeds easily. I lost the ability to comprehend myself or small common creatures. I wanted to take up birdwatching but couldn’t peer through binoculars without my eyes misting up. Birch trees standing together and unexpected along trails caused me to fall to my knees weeping. It was a year and a half of dissociative spells. I’d be driving or showering or toweling off and the letterboxing would come abruptly round my eyelids and I needed to quickly find a safe space to pull over or sit down before I stopped recognizing my skin and floated around my body, my spirit exorcized. Sometimes it lasted only a few moments and felt like very quickly blacking out. Other times it destroyed more meaningful chunks of time—a recalcitrant toddler chewing a calendar. Once, it stole two straight weeks. I woke up in a new month blinking. I reminded myself of Lazarus. A friend had let themselves inside and up the stairs into the freezing attic to spoon-feed me applesauce. I went to a doctor who told me I was depressed, was prescribed lethal white magazines of estrogen pills, which I took blindly and faithfully for the remainder of the year even though they made me feel worse, so much worse, disconnected and other in a body that’d already proven as best it could how very little it belonged to me. I developed an infection. I was put on antibiotics. I was allergic to those and they put me instead on steroids. Meanwhile, I’d been bumped from my preschool class to infants. My co-teacher was fired for admitting herself to the hospital—a warning shot across the bow, narrowly missing my cheek. Miss put me in charge of driving her to work each day, driving her home each night. She put me in charge of rectifying our school’s NAEYC certification. Hundreds of erroneous pages. In the gaps in my gray matter, I started to recognize a new thing in my world, necessary and mostly forsaken: boundaries. Everything blurred. Whenever I wrote, whatever I wrote, I found myself drafting and redrafting my resignation letter. It exhausted me, the inevitability of divorce. In a prolonged period of losses. Frames of my life lurched and bled through a percolator, a colander, winnowing what chaff from what wheat? The bruises from my nighttime fall migrated their colors up and down my body: sheared-veil burgundy, new-dawned green. I kept meticulous records and photographs and icons of my time, but I was losing it, I was losing time inevitably, I was losing my health, my mind, my grasp of human speech patterns. Worst of all: again and again, I was losing my children.
notes on facts and statistics
Omission. Trauma—subjected to or witnesses injury fear hopelessness horror. Emotional maltreatment Toxic Stress, accumulated burdens disrupt brain development
Verbal Abuse leads to: rejection, terrorizing, isolating, corrupting. Cycle of
lose sight of child’s needs (as goats to bridge, so blood to drain)
PHYSICAL INDICATORS—including hunger, injury, sleepiness, poor hygiene, pain, clingy, sex awareness, developmentally delayed, toilet accidents, kept home to avoid discovery
Proprioception little woebegone one how it’s not illegal to have a conflict, but it is to act on it—
recusal. refraining from every matter
I was talking about my story. The hemispheric emptiness. A face and half a face, its matching dew drop gone. Self-invented disaster was disaster all the same. Miss told me, “Miss Hannah, you are bright, it will happen to you again.” Are you threatening me? She laughed.
Like I said, I used to want children until I didn’t. When I wanted a child, just one, I was twenty-two and ambiguously filthy, sad on someone else’s floor. My partner at the time, and my body a fresh stretcher for your life. Lake water made warped pregnant patterns on the paneled ceiling. Two silver wristwatches perched like cockatiels on the window, chirping out the seconds. We talked about mental illness and perpetuating cycles of emotional abuse.
“I have a longing for the stability of eternal things, and more fear of losses than I should.” Yes, of course. “Which is why I can’t have children, I don’t want children. But then I think of a garden.” You think of a garden. “You know, putting one in the backyard, if I ever have a backyard. Buying the child a little shovel and helping dig the holes together. Watching the beans grow. I think of what gardening would be like, and I think: yeah, I want that. I want to be young with someone again.”
I agreed. I wanted that, too. I said so, aloud.
I wanted you.
things we sing together
She says, tugging my pocket, “Teacher, write! Write this down!” And sings a song:
“That horsey. Two, no that’s two.
“I don’t know horsey go.
“I put I got a ducky.
things we sing
Showed me the words. Taught me. Tenderly stroked and counted the tops of my knuckles, smiled a little. Placed my hands upon the hilt—one two three four five. Sucked the sap from. Coaxed the milk. Show me, please, so he showed me how. Strong hand found the pulse.
I’m obsessed with his hands webbing out and making fists. With our plans, an inherited house with three cribbed rooms, ceiling vaulted by the hands of his final generation, fruit leaking dye in the kitchen sink. Catalog it further: the birds who roosted in the eaves each summer, the ferry to Peak’s Island, family on the porch nibbling bread, a fox staring for too long as we ate blackberries from the low branch, a green plaster canoe and the lake we pushed to the center of, a bed where he held me down between his hips and skinny frogs climbed the windowpanes and the shadows of their limbs legged the wood walls and second hands clicked into place and one two three four five and outside water rushed. Water rushed into rocks. We went downstairs to collect breakfast from Blueberry Hill. On the couch, I was obsessed with the folio of Edward Hopper prints.
Read from the book. If I said turn the pages slow, we turned slower.
Said my name. I asked quietly: yes, hello, what is it?
What is it.
In the house I vested my language, my will to speak. So this was what happened when I stood from the couch, walked my ache down the dark gravel street: I lost everything.
school & work
I set the kids loose in the summer yard behind the school, check them off the transition board, all accounted for. We’re all accounted for. They spring upon the first crumbling toadstools they see. I show them which leaves heal wounds. These, the ones with the parallel veins, bitter taste, we fold them in our palms and push them through the cyclone fence onto the can-cluttered highway berm. And the cars blindly run by. It’s work, it’s school. She falls from the monkey bars and I shuttle her up to my chest, under my chin, press her shoulder blades and the pain is gone. She sniffs onto my polo collar. “Ouch,” she mumbles. “Can I go again?” No, wait a moment. Get a band-aid first. Until the pain is gone.
messages for the loved & lost part two
You curl on the floor. Someone’s up to their knuckles in you, open up, memorizing all your rooms—or your rooms memorize the outline of strong hands. The manicured curl of those well-kept fingernails saying they love you. When you drive home two hours in the dark, sparks fly from welding projects suspended on the overpass and the limelike wedges of headlamps force your eyelids up. Stay awake, alert, alive. Do not steer the car into bent-up disaster barriers blocking the road from the valley. Cuyahoga River through a cracked window. An incantation of silt and brine, your generational longing reduced to winter whispering in the nighttime drive, your panic, your thin blood threshing through a newly fashioned entry point through skin and jeans, devastating your seat. You can’t tell anyone. So—what do you do what do you do what do you do do you do—
The district manager drops in to observe my preschool class. I press a child’s hand onto the black stamp pad, rolling and pressing the folds of her fingers. Maximum coverage. Milk from morning’s cereal caked into the webbing of her fingers, blood or dirt etched deep in the beds of her nails. She comes to school with a new bruise across her tiny breadth of back. A neon-pink hospital bracelet. “Pretty jewelry,” she tells me. I lift her palm from the heel, affix her hand to construction paper. This’s going to make the feet for your bumblebee, I tell her, We’ll hang it from the ceiling over your cot for naptime. “It’s wet.” When it dries, little love. The others wait their turn around my shoulders.
We sit down to eat. The district manager steps in with the lunch cart. She looks massive and other-than in her dress slacks and padded jacket. Only managers wear civilian clothes in the classrooms. Teachers wear stained khakis and company polos. By eleven in the morning, mine already have little hands, nostril holes, and eye-boogers glued to the sleeves and chest and legs. Eight children raise their paint-colored faces at her nametag.
“I hear you’re doing very well.” I lift my serving spoon into a bowl of yogurt. I use my manners, I say thank you. “They say good things about your work with the children. You’re on track to your own room, if you want it. Do you have a future in mind?”
With the company? For myself? No. I thank her for her time.
At her last pick-up, I inform her mother she needs to change the girls before bringing them to school. Her daughters have developed a scarring rash. Her sister is unteachable, but I don’t say that. She isn’t challenging, just vacuous. She crouches to relieve herself anywhere, like a stray cat might do, and can’t tell the difference between shapes. We’d recently celebrated her birthday with the toddler class, but she hadn’t seemed to notice.
“Miss Hannah,” says Mom, “Do you have children of your own?”
Underneath my hand, I untangle a knot in her daughter’s blonde hair, its sticky and precarious impossibilities.
“Until you have children, you have no right to bitch at me about how I raise mine.”
Miss pulls Mom and daughters and wet baby boy into the administrative office to discuss language use in the presence of other peoples’ children. One last glimpse of her making faces at me through the hallway window, the fishbowl office glass bending her reality bigger than my own. She raises her magical talking unicorn high high higher over her dirty head. Down the line of weeks of absences, we call and call her home phone. I never see her again.
For months not a whisper of blood. A dam burst. I had a period for two weeks straight, leaking all of everyone I was or would’ve-could’ve-should’ve been. In the public bathroom the gaps of my fingers shimmered, caught up in red molar chunks. I wanted to tip forward into an only kiss of the ichor. My knees icy on the clotted porcelain floor cutted up in the gaps of grout. An ant tracked then lost itself behind the toilet bowl.
In a bathroom on the fifty-cent freeway, my life obliterated. I became shrapnel, all past-present-future possibilities with no possibility of holding together.
in the bathroom
when I held you for the first time.
So she predicts with clarity. The three billy goats cross the bridge into greener and tenderer pastures. The littlest goat crosses first, then the middle, then the biggest goat defeats the troll guarding the bridge so—from here on out—it’s possible. Free range. Easy sailing.
Yesterday I watched as one of my older students went between two friends fighting, of course, from far away. She held the one back and her hand out to the other. “Now say you’re sorry,” she commanded. “Now hug.” Then she released them and went back to painting.
I must learn a new assertiveness. I have my right to let the world congratulate me with unimaginably small victories.
I’ve been thinking, lately, biblically, in big avenues and holy shapes. I’ve been naming colors aloud to remind myself such patterns exist. When a ghost cuts a body and moves through the pieces, marking half from half. I’m here, you were there, she’s here, then not. When I lay in the reading corner with her favorite book, the memorized lines inscribing themselves behind the blur of sleepy eyes, sopping thumbprints. Scooping spiders into plastic drinking cups, turning them out the back door. Tall and green and tender. I want taller and greener and tenderer. They will forget whose hands wade them out to their first steps. They will forget who helps bury pinecones behind the playground, who shows them their first oriole crying in the dead November tree, who places their fingers on the backs of dried starfish in the sensory chest, who holds the icy washcloth to their brand-new goose egg bruise.
I turn over the last remaining child at the end of a 12-hour day to a tired father, bundle up the bottles from the breast milk fridge into the diaper bag, pack the crib sheets into washing machines. I press toys into labeled wicker baskets. I remove my soft-soled shoes and vacuum the floor. I wipe the windows and mirrors, wash my hands, and stand alone in the quiet room with no children in it. Then I turn down the lullaby machine. No more fais do-do. Then I turn out the light.
messages for the loved & lost part three
Child: when you clapped your hands or laughed in the desert all at once cactuses became real and little owls to fill them. I was almost you, full of you. My eternal longing for actualization like you making a landscape from nothing. With your simple bright beaming. Love is, was: clothes someone else folded for you. In fall: the first yellow fingernail-sized leaves on the bed.
Before you had the words you knew you wanted to say, when home was just a fantasy dreamed up in a faraway crib, and as long as no one saw it, it didn’t actually exist. Mama was dearly missed. I missed the concepts sometimes more than the reality as it was or is.
You might’ve known some words. “No up” and “lay down,” “more,” “snake,” “want.” I remembered these fragments of child-snatched language.
In the half-slumber of nonexistence I must’ve appeared as a dream to you; you recalled my body as one remembered, long ago, a ghost haunting its hallway, or an intelligent but quiet horse in its corner stall. Eventually you slept but I still didn’t want you to, couldn’t let you go. Still easily fascinated by your face, hands, the world’s frail texture. The nudge of your chin would cleave my palm in two. I waited for months for my seasons to break.
I needed to let go. Go to sleep.
The secret is: to get me to sleep, you have to make me blink.
from the loved & lost
Les gentils oiseaux,
Ont des chants nouveaux,
Pour le p’tit frérot
Qui fait bien dodo. (I was going to say something about the night
And it is the night.
But in my considerations about time, it’s also true
that there’s no such thing as the night. There’s only this night.
And the next night. Not every, but each. I don’t know
if I like that. I have a longing for the stability of eternal things,
and more fear of losses than I should.
The way time gives and takes, its own kind of jagged,
high high higher
Miss asked more than once, “Do you want a family, Miss Hannah?”
I don’t know.
Though I am furtive and migratory, certain branches of my family have lived in Akron for generations. Each generation a new miscarriage, a new tiny stone planted in the family plot. These latest models of us, we’re not even trying, we’re so afraid. But my aunt, who can’t have children, says this is alright. There are other ways to continue. She says this as we walk Dodge Ave toward the piercing parlor. “I have a family,” she insists. “It’s enough for me.” My landlady walking side-by-side with us says the same thing. She says if she hadn’t miscarried her daughter more than two decades ago, we might’ve been born on the same day, been the same age, we might’ve been friends.
Lately, they’re widening the roads where I live so you can walk them.
And lately, kid, you know, I’ve been thinking: some wonders like children you cradle in the horizon of your lap. We become Atlas. We reverse the architecture of condemnation and time.
“That’s kind of scary.”
It wasn’t scary. It was a little cool but not really cool and I woke up and I wasn’t even scared at all. It’s like I wasn’t even scared at all.
proposed activity for today’s lesson plan
Put the children on your back and pony them in circles through your dustpan enclosure, the paint-stained tile glittering and fast underneath your sock-feet, take the children and swing them up over your shoulders, up into your arms, cling to the children, kiss their sweaty hairlines, the genetic indentations where one day they’ll be bald forty-somethings, or mostly bald fifty-somethings, the fatty rolls of the arms they’ll learn to bike and swim and throw with, to have and to hold, to hold against the chest so close and so warm, the tiny fluttering hearts beating against the bone filling with blood that floods fast to the surface of their bruises, you know, you’ve seen those clumsy knee-scrapes on the edges of playgrounds, chairs, toy trucks, you’ve lapped up the tears, now put the children on the paint-stained tile and watch them run. Watch them run those jaunty bandy-legged runs, throwing all their weight directly onto the knees and balls of the feet. Lay in the grass and leaves near the corner of the fence. Lay on your back while the children lay around you, joining without an invitation, because they like to do what you do, like to do it until they get bored and threaten you and butt their heads into your stomach and say they’re monsters, dinosaurs, horses, birds. Say they are the scariest monsters, dinosaurs, horses, and birds you’ve ever seen. Ask them nicely—please—not to eat you. Throw your arms around their shoulders, pulling them down to the knees of their mud-stained leggings, indelible as ink. Breathe sopping and sweet in your pocket of borrowed time. The intended outcome of this lesson is love. Key questions: why & whose? Watch the gentle silk hairs of the children trigger against the wind. Now close your eyes. Now let them go.
Henry Elizabeth Christopher is a trans writer from Akron, Ohio. His writing has been published in journals such as The Threepenny Review, Gordon Square Review, Delay Fiction, HASH, and Gigantic Sequins, and has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. Henry is the critical essays and interviews section editor at CRAFT Literary. His debut novel, No One Dies in Palmyra Ohio, is available through What Books Press. He’s currently working toward his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Washington in Seattle. Credit for his author photo goes to @jacob_christopher123 on Instagram.