You think of childbirth, of the length of time he sat in your gut, his bones growing denser, his fingernails hardening from soft pads to a thick mass he could chew on. You could feel the strength of his hands early on. Some boys kick, but yours fluttered, his fingers moving rapidly like he was swimming. When he was inside building limbs beside the rest of your organs, making himself into something separate from your hungry stomach, your winding intestines, you dreamed of him scratching his way out and you came to sweating. You woke up scared of what you were creating, knowing even then he’d be a force to be reckoned. His fits came quickly. You remember the first one, he was only a toddler after all, his blue eyes big, innocent, and intimidating. The contrast threw you. He was two. Dressing him each morning was torture. He hit, he bruised you, grabbed hold of your blonde hair, it swayed in his face and he latched hold. He turned three and the biting started, the spitting and scratching grew more constant. You blamed yourself, cried for hours, kept cursing your interior, wondering at your diet, your lifestyle, what you must’ve done to turn him into such a monster. You were only seventeen. You went to the priest to ask for advice on the matter. When you were an infant, your mother said, the priest was the only one who could calm you. You were a crier, a teether, and you wanted to believe for the first three years that your son was cast the same, would break out eventually. Father, you said, please you have to help me. You rocked your son on your knee. He was three, he couldn’t speak. The only noises he made were frantic cries and high-pitched screams. Sometimes the sound he released sounded like the teapot boiling. Sometimes the sound he released sounded like he was performing. Sometimes the sound he released made you want to shake him and shake him, please stop, baby, please, you have to quit screaming. The priest’s advice was to keep at it, but you were young, you were so young, you can’t defend your decision, and you gave him to your mother who was just three months out of the institution, her hysterical spells and wandering fits having become too much, cured only by round the clock care and, eventually, salt pills.
When our mother returned home, her body pale and hollow, the back of her left hand bubbling up and rough where for six months the nurse stored her needle, you were hesitant. The skin beneath her eyes held the texture of loose rubber, her cheeks burned shapes of red in overlapping shades, a topography map of her absence spilling across her profile. You expected her to return as the woman who held you on your back and talked the magic of the water, who said if you learned the waves, you could easily float forever. You needed to forget this was the same woman who threw you against the table, your head hitting hard, your hair bleeding, the woman above screaming that your energy in the room was itching, it burns, I can feel it. You needed to forget this was the same woman you found naked under the dock down the beach, her face in the crotch of a stranger, and as you dragged her home, she swore that shaming herself was the only penance for the sins she’s committed. You had to remove her unraveling from you. All those months, you needed to believe she’d come home as the woman you weren’t scared to remember. You needed your mother. But instead, they took the tragedy she was and gutted her further.
For the first three days, she nested, holed up in the chair beside the window, rocking back and forth while the waves rolled in. You brought her only water at the doctor’s request, and twice each day, filled her pale hand with four white pills. Then you’d pick up your son and leave her framed in the window watching the ocean until her next dosage. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. She was supposed to walk in the door and tell you how sorry she was, pick the boy up and claim him as her own. She was supposed to walk in the door and let you be seventeen again, whatever that meant, you weren’t really sure. Then again he’s crying, picking halfway through the fabric of his diaper, his skin underneath raw and nearly bleeding, and in the other room, you hear your mother gagging. You realized on her third night home you haven’t slept in a week. Not a wink. You heard a crash. Your son was crying. He knocked over your mother’s water glass and she did nothing. You scooped him from the shatters, you mopped up the mess, she did nothing, you surveyed his skin for bits of glass, he wouldn’t let you touch him, she did nothing, and on her fourth day home, you walked in and handed her a week’s worth of pills, hovered over, watched her swallow the handful.
Then, you think you feel something, though you’re no longer sure what that is. It drips in your stomach, your hands, they are shaking. And then you recognize it. You watch your regret register on your mother’s face, watch it gather in her throat and gag her, but you do nothing. You stand there. You watch her skin growing sticky, her eyelids blinking, they are slowing. You watch your son gravitate toward your mess of a mother. You are crippling. But remember, you are seventeen. Your muscles take you easily down the beach to the police.
At home they found her slouched and sweating over the armrest, your son between the legs covered in a green gray liquid that pasted her chin. They moved her to the bathroom. You watched from the doorway, your face eclipsed behind the doorjamb as they fed two tubes down her throat and filled her with fluid. You made yourself think of the sound water makes in your gut when you’ve drank too much, made yourself remember the two weeks the two of you lived at sea until you got sick, and your mother took your foot in her hand and rubbed your second toe, said, this is your concentration spot, said if you ever found yourself afloat and alone, pushing here on your pulse where your foot met the dirt would ground you. She was running then, you realize. On the boat, you weren’t living at sea. She was taking the two of you from this shoreline and moving north to a port where you’d have a choice between life on the water or a life in the city. She came back because of your weak stomach, your inability to handle buoyancy. She came back and you handed her a day’s worth of dosage and watched her throw up the last bits that you left of her.
When they walked out from the bathroom and asked you what happened, you could not talk, you could hardly stand. You went to the kitchen and handed them her prescription. Behind them, you could see her caving in on herself, a limp pile of seaweed. They told you to give her plenty of fluids, they moved her to her bed, said they’d check on her in the morning. They said, please, don’t give her any more of these and took the jar with them. Without her at the window, the house felt off balance. You found your son under the chair, rocking it softly as he moved his toy train back and forth beneath it. You reached out your hand and without coaxing he came to you. He was covered in your mother’s insides and smelled acidic. You took him to the bathroom and set him down outside the bathtub, which was coated in a thin film of the mixture your mother poured from her stomach. It smelled nothing like the milky fluid your son coughed up for those first few months. You bent to your knees and found the bucket, filled it with hot water. Your son sat calmly on the floor and didn’t squirm as you cleaned the bathtub, then filled it, pulled his wet t-shirt from his body and dropped him in the water. You climbed in after him, fully clothed, held your breath and submerged your head. You listened for the bubbles but only heard your son sloshing on the surface. You knew you had to come up for air eventually, knew you had to gather your bearings, collect your offspring and put him to sleep. You knew what happens to a body left in the tub overnight, the way the skin wrinkles and the temperature drops, knew the way you pulled at your mother’s shoulders and the way droplets beaded off her body, how she slipped, her head dipping below the surface and the way your weight struggled against hers dead in the water. You knew you had to sit up. You wrapped your son in a towel and pulled him from the tub.
He went to bed more easily that night than he ever had or ever will. For a boy who can’t smile back when smiled at, you knew this couldn’t be empathy. He will never understand you, but you didn’t want to know that yet. You hovered over him and watched the simple beat of his breathing. The things you have done will never be forgiven. You left his room soundlessly and walked out of the house to the beach. You sank your feet in the sand and watched the water lap them, had to concentrate hard on the space where your soles met the ground. You tried not to think of the small spaces of nothing between the sand and your skin. You closed your eyes and focused on your toe but even then could not feel your pulse beating.
It took two months for the hole in the back of your mother’s hand to finish healing, and at night you closed your eyes and imagined it growing deeper, wider, a cave so large your son disappeared into it. You sometimes found yourself on the beach digging your heels into the sand over and over, still feeling nothing. Your mother watched you wander and changed his diaper. She remained silent. Weeks overlapped, and then you realized one day when you found her making him dinner that you had been gone for hours, where were you, what were you doing, you had no answer. Your mother’s eyes were hardly focused, but you went quietly, you wanted your old life back. You let him go, let her take him. You became his sister, your mother his mother, and you returned to your life as a teenage girl, went to school, tried to not remember that sitting at home were two halves of you trying to find balance together. Your head wandered through math class, couldn’t solve for x, couldn’t not think of the unknown at home. You ignored the boys in English asking if you’d be around later, if you were up for a fuck, and a group of girls giggling, of course she is, haven’t you seen her stretched-out, rubber band of a stomach? You were hollowed out, gutted, and they all knew it.
Sometimes after school, you’d take the long way back, walk the beach north and think about how if you just kept walking, you could find the first quiet town and begin again as someone new. Then, you feel it and know you have to get home, walk through the door and find him on the kitchen floor alone, crying like glass shards, pick him up and find the bathroom door shut, the water running, open the door and find your mother writing bible verses on the mirror through the steam as he fights against you and screams. The next morning, you find her rocking in the bathroom, mumbling about penance for the sins of your existence. You try to feel nothing. You feed him breakfast. You go back to school. You are a sieve, but, little girl, you are losing everything. On the periphery, you watch him grow from an angry toddler into a silent, violent little boy, your mother matching his swinging fists with grips so tight sometimes it feels like she has you in her hands. You want to yell at her, to tell her to stop touching your son. He is yours, even his ugliness was formed because of you, but your mother tells you, you’re no mother anymore, unless he’s yours and only yours. You remember the sleep deprivation, the moonlit crying fits, the time you had to pour antiseptic over your mangled fists. You remember the night you held pressure to his chest while he took swings at you, trying to stop his bleeding after he rubbed his nails over and over against his skin until he first rashed then burned then broke open completely. You cower back to the natural space carved for your seventeen-year-old life that includes days at school and nights with boys who know nothing of you. In the mornings, you wave your son goodbye, and he mirrors your movement. You find these small exchanges hopeful, like you might return home at the end of your day, and he will be a normal boy and you will be his mother. At the same thought, you grow hot and itchy. You are not his mother, not a mother at all, just a vessel, an empty, sagging, sad abdomen that poisoned him for nine months before giving him up completely. Goodbye, you tell him. He grunts after you, matching the sounds that you make in perfect pitch, but his eyes remain blank like he doesn’t know what he’s saying. He doesn’t know he’s communicating. Because of this, you find it easy to tell him anything. One night, you come home from the beach. It was one of those nights where the air itself felt like it was breathing. You waded into the sea. In the moonlight it felt like it did the night you met your son’s father. He was uniformed and on leave. He was a talker, a charmer, you were fifteen and believed in possibility, that connections between people were what made the world worth living. You were so naive. He spoke passionately about a life where his children wouldn’t know the color green from anything outside the shade of trees or the sea. You loved his nose because it looked broken, he lived a life and you wanted to know it. You told him about your mother, thought he might take you from her, show you the meaning of distance and start a separate life somewhere exotic. He lasted through the New Year, left before you realized your insides were multiplying and growing askew.
At night, you watch your in his crib. He is silent and you’re not sure he can even tell you’re in the room. You’re still wet, the salt water dripping from your forehead to your lips and you close your mouth to each drop like you’re preparing to hum. You sit next to him, know if you touch him, he will startle and start crying. There is a whole world in him and you want to believe it’s full of sounds you can’t imagine, colors you’ve never known, and at the center of it all, there’s a version of you that didn’t twist him in your center and wring out any hope for connecting. You watch him pick his right hand up and tap his right ear, watch him place it on his lap before doing it again, this is a loop he’s caught in, and you want to believe—you have to—that it’s his way of showing he’s collecting your words and putting them into his ear: see, I understand you.
* * *
You return home after school to find your mother collecting small piles of mud throughout the kitchen, your son’s diaper sagging. You see mud or shit, maybe a concoction of the two, smeared over his pale skin, brown and wet, through his blonde hair, smeared like infantry in the trenches. In a different world, he is playing dress-up, mimicking his solider father while his grandmother partakes in the game. You stand for a moment trying to process the indoor garden. You want to ask your mother what she is doing, to demand an answer, to pry some sort of sane logic out of this situation. You want to live in a world where you’re allowed to expect your mother to act like a mother. Instead, you move to the sink, let the water run into the basin, hold your fingers wide so you can feel the temperature on the sensitive parts of your skin, then you grab him by the armpits from behind, you surprise him, and at first he squeals, he starts flailing, you nearly drop him. The smell from his diaper is sulfuric and dense, but if you keep him at arms’ distance, he’ll wiggle out of your hands. You pull him closer, against the white of your school uniform, and you feel his warm, wet body trying to find leverage. Your mother turns around, she hears his screaming. You can feel the diaper loosening, losing surface tension, spilling down the front of you. And just where do you think you’ve been?, she demands. She’s getting up, moving toward you, and you see on the ground near her hands the dirt moving. Worms, there must be hundreds of them, squiggle around on the ground. The entire room feels like it is bursting.
You want to drop him, to turn around, to leave them, to run to the docks and board the first boat you see, to leave the horizon behind and pretend the only world that exists is blue in every direction. You want water to rush in, clean every inch of the surface, for the waves to knock your mother down, to pull you and him with them and fill and fill and fill over everything. She says, I needed you here to help me. You knew better than to trust her. This is your fault she disintegrated back into nature, and you almost let her take him. You hold him close to your body, you move the last two steps to the sink, you pull him away from you over the basin and turn him around so he can face you. He is crying and flailing and you are covered in a day’s worth of your son’s feces, your mother is saying, Let him go, I can do it, and then from somewhere deep in your gut, you begin humming. You submerge him slowly into the water, and he keeps crying, but his screams are growing softer. Your mother grabs your arm, says, Let him go! I will do it, and in one swift movement, she pulls your elbow loose, he drops into the sink, it splashes, the warm water absorbs through your shirt and you shove her aside. She stumbles backwards and as you sift him from the sink, you hear your mother hit the floor and you realize you’re still humming.
The guilt that floods you happens so quickly you can’t determine its origin. You find it in your gut, your face, it blurs your vision and through your gathering tears, you see the boy in your hands making eye contact and, then, from somewhere guttural you hear it soft, almost inaudible. In your hands, soaking wet, he’s looking at you, matching your tone. His hum grows louder, he sounds like a freighter blowing its horn off the coast, the way it rolls quiet at first then faster and louder over the water, and when his wave breaks, he is laughing. You have never heard this noise come from his small body. He loosens in your arms, he is no longer fighting, and you are able to wipe his entire body with a cloth. With his fists relaxed, the brown clumps in his hands rub away easily, you pull the diaper from his body and drop it into the trash.
Your mother gets up slowly, you can feel her moving behind you, but you are focused on his eyes and the way he is simply looking at you. You stare at him for a long time. You wash his body, his hair. His thin blonde strands in the water feel separate, alive and aquatic. Somewhere in the room, your mother is making mounds, collecting worms. In your hands, he is cooing. You set him at the sink’s edge, button off your soiled shirt and you pull him to your chest. You know you have to go help your mother, pull her from the ground, help her into the shower, clean the kitchen, convince her again to start taking her medication. But his skin against your chest feels like the trench that’s burrowed through your stomach lining all these years is finally filling. You see her kneeling on the ground, her hair hanging in her face, her posture slouched. She looks like something that crawled in from the water, like the time the two of you went to the north shore to look at the beached whale dying from dehydration. You held back, scared of the mass, scared of the sadness, but your mother went closer. You are nothing alike, she was never scared of emotion, it’s what broke her. On the floor in the kitchen, she looks up at you, her ocean eyes out to sea, her vision so glazed over she looks like she might start crying or drooling. The difference between these two possibilities scares you. You want to tell her, Please, you have to stop doing this. But you are a sad selfish little girl. You want your mother to be your mother or your mother to mean nothing. There is no in-between. You think about all the animals you know who orphan their young at birth. How sea turtles lay egg then return to a life of their own. You don’t want to be, but you are this. You are learning there is a limit to how long you can go on living a life where the only two loved ones you have can’t maintain eye contact. In school, you learned about mammals that leave their sick. You don’t want to be, but you are this. You pull him tight to your chest. Go pack your belongings. You are still humming.
Betsy Seymour lives, writes, works, plays in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Originally from Michigan, she spends most of her time writing about water and sand that sings.