Mother watches him from a stand of poplars growing out of the dunes. She’s kept still for five minutes already, and the boy hasn’t turned around. Mother is wearing dark clothes and will be hard to see among the trees, she knows. She is as skinny as a poplar, and the hollows in her face darken with the dusk.
“Mother gave him a red plastic shovel and a matching sandcastle mold and sat behind him. When the child was engrossed, she eased herself up and backed away from him, listening as his voice grew fainter.”
Mother gave him a red plastic shovel and a matching sandcastle mold and sat behind him. She watched the water and felt it pour into her, moving through her limbs and torso. When the child was engrossed, she eased herself up and backed away from him, listening as his voice grew fainter. Jesus loves me thisIknow, he sang, for the Bible tellsmeso. Little onesto himbe long. They are weakbut he isstrong. He still sings. She can almost hear him.
No one else is around. It’s a Monday in October and she can look to the right and see the empty parking lot several hundred yards away and the pier beyond that. Looking left, she sees nothing but sand for what seems like forever. She could walk along the beach for what would seem like forever. But if she moves he will look up and stop her. Mom! he will say, and she will say, I’m right here, I’m right here. Baby, I’m right here. Baby, she calls him, though he protests when she does: I’m five, he says, not a baby. She won’t say it yet, though. She will keep still. She can do that. She can dissolve into these trees and vanish.
Child turns. Mom? he says. Mom? He abandons the toys and stands up. He blinks and looks around, waiting in the almost-dark for the boundaries between earth and water and sky to emerge.
Mother inhales and goes rigid while he looks up and down the sand for her. For a moment she considers backing up farther into the trees and climbing the tallest dune, away from him. But she doesn’t because the sweetest part is coming. Mom! Mom! He runs now, in wide loops, getting nowhere, and then he stops and crumples to the sand. Mama! The old terror. Child knows he has to cry because crying is what makes her come back, but every time he’s afraid she won’t.
Mother counts to sixty, then steps out from the trees. The water evaporates from her body. She wonders how she looks, unvanishing herself like this, if it seems as though a part of nature itself is coming forward. She calls to him, and here, here—here is the purest instant. It’s only a flash, when he looks up and sees her smiling with her arms out and knows he is saved. She craves that wild relief on his face, and when he runs at her and she picks him up, soothing—Shh, shh, baby, I’m here, I’m here—already the instant has passed.
Where were you? he accuses. He wants to kiss her and hit her and yank her head around by its ponytail, but he doesn’t; he doesn’t move while she strokes his hair. I was only looking at the trees, she tells him. They’re turning color, see? I was here all along, baby. I was just looking at the trees.
Child lies in bed, at night or during his nap, and thinks about hurting babies. It makes his teeth feel funny, so sometimes he gets up and eats handfuls of coffee, right from the big can, but only when his mother is away. He scoops his fingers in and bites and crunches, not with his back teeth, like normal eating, but with the fronts. He pretends he is a beaver. He pretends he is a beaver eating a baby’s head that tastes like coffee. He’s heard babies have soft heads, and he wonders what that means, if they’re soft like a ripe nectarine or soft like a kitten or soft like other things that are soft. Sometimes it’s not his teeth that feel funny but his throat or his chest, like something’s there, touching him. Maybe it’s a baby. He wants to hold the baby that might be touching him. He would be careful. He wouldn’t hurt it, not really, but he would hold it by one arm and swing it lightly while he sang: Je sus lovesthe little chil dren, allthe children oftheworld. Then he would swing it rougher. It would be hard not to, even though his teeth would feel like they were floating in his head. He would swing it in a circle and let go. He wouldn’t be able to help it; the baby would slip. Down would come baby. Down, but first up.
He pushes in the babies’ eyes and yanks on arms and legs so they’ll hang loose. He steps on fat squishy tummies and bends back fingers and stretches mouths from their corners until they rip. He bites to bleeding where he can: noses and toes and ears, and he twists necks around as far as they’ll go. He pulls hair out and sits on rib cages and presses his thumb into throats.
Afterward, the babies lie around his room, crying, and this is when he wants the coffee. If he can’t have it he chews on the corner of his sheet instead, or his own wrist, like a trapped animal, a feral boy all bony and matted. He prefers the coffee’s crunchiness, though, and the way it makes him feel—fast and tingly and relieved. Coffee is for grown-ups, but it’s not hard for him to get. He climbs up on the counter and stands to reach the high shelf. It’s easy.
After the coffee he does his prayers, even if it’s just for a nap. NowI layme, rockabye baby, downto sleep my soulto keep, ifI should die before I wake, my soulto take whenthe bough breaks.
Mother lets him help her cook. They chop vegetables for a big pot of soup: celery and carrots and tomatoes and peppers and onions. She gives him the wooden pig cutting board, some stalks of celery, and a serrated knife as long as his forearm. With a matching knife she dices a pepper while he watches. Don’t put your fingers in the way of the knife, she says, sliding the blade ever so lightly across the tops of her knuckles. Touch only the handle, she says, as she runs the pad of her forefinger along the blade. Don’t do this, she says, and holds a strip of pepper over the pot on the stove while she brings the knife toward herself, stopping when the blade reaches her thumb and a small piece of pepper falls into the pot. Okay, she says, and points at the wooden pig with her knife. Go ahead.
Child takes his own knife and very slowly cuts the brown shriveled tip off a stalk of celery. She watches him pick up the tip, place it in the palm of his other hand, and lick it off and chew. Then he chops off another tiny piece, and another, leaving them on the pig, and Mother moves her cutting board and her pepper to the kitchen table behind the counter, where she can see him but he can’t see her. Remember, she says, be careful. Don’t touch the knife to your hand. Don’t ever handle the blade. He nods.
They chop. Child likes how the celery feels under his knife, the way it resists and then yields, and he likes the snapping sound it makes when he cuts through.
Mother gets up and scrapes her pepper into the pot, selects another pepper and two onions, and sets them on the table. Then she scoops into her palm the handful of celery bits the boy has produced and drops those in the pot too. Child peers in after his celery. He liked the pile he was making and is sad to see it go.