All Rivers Run into the Sea
Life is a thief. You spend all of it chasing the things it has taken from you. But no one ever catches up to it. Life took my first five years, all the moments leading up to this, my first memory. I can’t remember why I was standing there, in the middle of the living room bleeding and naked.
There are memories and then there are the things you just know but can’t remember why you know them. I knew I was me but couldn’t remember why I was me. I felt as though I had just landed. I knew I was naked because I saw everything God gave me when I looked down to my toes. I knew I was bleeding because I watched bloody ribbons twist around my legs from the back to the front like red stripes on white mint. The warm streams trickled to my ankles like roots wrapping between my toes, turning beige naps of carpet into wine.
My blood was the second thing that life took. I imagined the Earth’s magnetic pulses seducing the liquid iron from my heart, through my veins and pores as little red rivers between pale shores, through the carpet and the wood, into the concrete and the clay beneath my feet, then back to her core. That’s where she keeps it all, our histories and moments. We all boil down to bloody magma. That is how she keeps us warm. She is relentless.
I knew that here was home because the air hinted that a meal was in the oven. I knew the woman outside the dining room window was my mother although I can’t remember birth. Bright and dim white spots in the air reflected sunlight like ghostly glass shards dancing through the room between the chandelier and the mirror.
Mom always liked the windows open, except for the living room one which was just one big pane of glass that framed our street and the neighbor’s house. The house smelled like wind, felt like wind. The eyes of the house were always open, as an invitation or an escape route. Both, perhaps. I would find out some day. Jazz was always on the record player, but only with the windows open. It was as if she was sending a signal, like a lighthouse. Music doesn’t sound the same with the windows closed.
From the center of the living room, I watched my mother in the back yard, through the white spots in the dining room and windy jazz, out through the back window. She unhooked white linens from wooden clothespins. But she didn’t just remove the sheet. She held the cloth, rocked with it, but not like a child. To her they were someone, holding her and rocking her in return. Clothespins perched on the wire clothesline observed the performance. Springing from the knees she spun around and held the sheet draped in front of her so all I could see was her fingers pinching the corners. The cool white cotton defied the sun and cupped the breeze like a sail. The air pulled a corner from one hand, twisting it gently away from her. This gave her a shy smile. She reeled it back in to her and closed her eyes when she smelled it. Mom loved to dance.
Folding that tall white flag in half against her chest her glance met mine. She stretched the sheet over the bridge of her nose, across her face so I could only see the top half of it. Her grey eyes broke my heart when they smiled at me. It was a desperate, loyal smile, one that promised to hold you while the world was cracking open under your feet.
But her eyes stopped smiling. Her brows pulled her lashes and lids open wide. Her pupils twitched scans up and down my body. Her chest inflated, shoulders dropped, heels spun, and she ran out of view with the sheet waving behind her. I forgot that I was bleeding.
The metal storm door clicked and clanged. Glass rattled when it hissed shut. I heard her feet slide and pound on the kitchen floor like the drums slapping from the record player. Her long strides split her floral print robe open like silk curtains. Through the white sun sparks in the dining room, she veered toward me, the linen sheet behind her waving to escape out the back window. Dropping to her knees in front me, both hands clung to my shoulders. We were face to face. There was nothing I could say. She looked down at the blood outlining a red moat around my feet and toes. Her eyes shot back up to mine. Quick inhaled breaths flared her nostrils. Terror clenched her jaw. She looked like she saw the world cracking beneath me. The only thing I could find to say was, “Don’t look Mommy. Don’t look.”
That just seemed to make it worse. She wrapped the white sheet around me. Her warm arms and sweaty palms pressed the cool cotton against me like kneading paws. It felt good. Somehow I didn’t feel any pain. Or maybe I did, but at this point in my life I didn’t know that pain was a bad thing. This may be the best I have ever felt, but how would I know.
The small of my back, then the middle, then the top started to pour out blood from hundreds of little slices all starting to weep one after another. I could feel them stain the cloth like red stars on a white sky. One by one they wept, becoming shooting stars. She held me and the bleeding stars in the white sky. She held everything in place. I felt like I belonged there, to whatever world on which I had just landed. She was holding her breath, and me and the white sky so tightly like she was trying to stop time. Maybe she did. The sky was turning red now. The wooden birds on the clothesline watched us. One hung upside down. They were getting a good show today.
I could feel her look at her hands behind my back. I could feel her shock, fibers stiffened in her body, she froze to stop from shaking. A forearm swept up between my legs, her palm pressed my belly, cradling me through the other arm as my mother lunged up to her feet. Bouncing down the hallway, feet first, she lassoed me at my waist, and I watched my bloody footprints in the rug drift further away until we hooked into the bathroom. The jazz only echoed a murmur in here. I got swung into the other arm then onto her hip. Mom moved quickly, but not panicked, like it was standard operating procedure. It reminded me that she was a nurse in the war. This must be how the wounded soldiers felt, being dragged away and repaired like a piece of machinery. She reached for a rusty green box with a red cross on the wall hung by a nail. Rattling the tin box from the wall and the nail with it, she shook open the clasp and dumped the contents into the sink. The nail pinged on the tile floor. The tin box entrails clanged as she reached in and dug through them: thin long limbed scissors, short pointed scissors, white paper medical tape, sheer white strips of cloth, dark glassed jars with green tin lids.
She sat on the toilet lid and unfolded me, belly first over her lap and uncovered me. The corners of the sheet fell to my sides so I could see red freckled cloth. The air from the small bathroom window felt cool on my back. I turned my neck to watch her. She pushed me back around and said, “No.” Eyes back down to the ground, I heard the faucet run, then warm drops were wrung onto my back. Pink water ran from my shoulders, down my arms, dripping off the tip of my finger onto the floor, resting in the white trenches between the ceramic tiles. The tiny bulbs of water gathered together in the grout like lanes of wet traffic. I made up stories about how I ended up here. Maybe I was a puppet, a marionette, and someone cut my strings. I landed down on this stage when the Devil ripped those strings from my back. Sure, that’s how I got here. Or maybe God is just bored. Bored enough to stick pins into this pin cushion not knowing that I am inside. Maybe He does know I’m in here. And, maybe, that’s the point. I know there is a God but I don’t remember why I know that, and now I know that the world is his pin cushion and we are stuffed inside.
The warm towel pressed against my back then slid down to my legs. The air felt cool again when it passed. Then a new, cold liquid stung every single opening. Stings like gasoline in papercuts rushed through me. It smelled like it too. Sucking air and spit through my clenched teeth I turned around. She pushed my head back down again, “Stop it.” I looked at the liquid trickling down my arm again. This time it wasn’t pink. It was clear. “That’s a good sign,” I thought.
From the living room the record hissed and crackled. I kept quiet so I could hear the neighborhood world outside. A trashcan clanged. Lawn mowing blades chirped as they reeled. Parents screamed at each other from inside the middle of other houses. A train went by on the Pennsylvania railroad; I could feel the rumble whisper through me and the bathroom. It was trying to tell me where it was going but I couldn’t understand it. The warm cloth dragged over my back once more then dabbed pressure on each cut.
Fingertipped scoops of cold thick jelly tapped gentle dabs on my back. After this I heard a different sound. The metal scissors plucked from the sink. Snip. Snip. This sound spun a tornado in my belly. I don’t know why but it did. She rested her wrists on the small of my back, “You’re gonna feel a pinch now, a bunch of ‘em. Just like this.” She pinched my skin with her fingernails. “Then tugs.” She stretched my skin in her pinched fingers. “A buncha those. Hear Me? Don’t be scared. Okay?” I nodded my head yes and inhaled deeply.
She started singing her favorite hymn. I don’t know why but I remembered that Mom only sang this song when something bad happened or was about to. This made my belly feel like a tornado spinning full of angry moths up into my throat.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
Her voice was like the white linen sheet in the wind. Thousands of fine threaded vibrations dancing in the air. She always sounded the same no matter how bad things were. It softened the pinches and tugs. Now I was being laced up like a marionette. Maybe I am a puppet after all. What plays could I be in now that I am restrung? I think I’ll be an actor one day.
Every time I asked how much longer, she told me five more minutes. She wasn’t lying, technically. It was a lot of sets of five more minutes. Dusk dimmed through the bathroom window. I pretended I was a boot, a soldier’s, being laced up. She stitched the wounds from my neck all the way down to my feet. My skin felt tied tight. She sat me up on her lap and started unrolling the white gauze around my neck, under my arms, across my chest. Now I am a mummy, a mummy with black boots. These boots smell a lot like smoke. I looked up at the bathroom window. A bobbing grey cloud sneaked up to it, winding out like the ghost of a snake. Mom stopped singing. Her hands paused. She looked up too, smelled the air, and swept me away again.
Bouncing down the hall, I watched the half used gauze roll unravel behind us, tethering us to the bathroom. The smoke got thicker as we ran in between the dining and living rooms, passed the red footprints, even thicker as we got to the kitchen, the gauze umbilical cord still intact. She sat me down on the floor, a half-naked mummy, at the threshold of the kitchen. She ran in.
Sheets of smoke huffed out of the top of the oven and through the four spiraled burners on top, to the ceiling, settling in a congregation of herding puffy smoke. The bent nook of her arm covered the bottom of her face like the sheet did in the backyard. I covered my face too. Mom reached in for the oven handle and reflexed back from the heat. As she turned her head back she saw my shielded face. She ran over to me, shifting out of her robe and sliding to the floor on her knees in front of me. Sweat dotted her face. She put the robe in my hands and pressed them to my face, “Stay.” I stayed, although my tornadoed guts told me I should go help her.
Smoke flooded out of the dining room window. The ceiling was striped black. Without her robe, Mom was stripped right down to her white bloomers. Rushing back to the kitchen, she took a dish rag from the sink, this time using it as a glove to heave open the oven door. Braided fingers of golden red flames twisted out, jagged, at her. Soot clung to the sweat on her red cheeks. She jerked back, her body reflecting the amber glow. The glowing claws hissed and cracked at her. She reached straight back, with both bloody hands, ripping the copper fire can off the wall along with the nail.
There she was. My mom, the firefighting nurse. Her legs planted wide like a baseball batter. Ash slashed across her face like warpaint. The copper can reflected the white fire glow on the front side. I saw my own distorted reflection in it. Heat smothered the house. From where I was sitting she was shaped like a five pointed star in knickers, sweat matted black hair at the top, bent right elbow stretching the handle back like a bicycle pump, left hand holding the can out like a shotgun pump, two white legs stretched out at the bottom. She pressed the handle into the can. Pressurized liquid shot from the reservoir into the oven, stinging the flames. The fire winced then clawed back out at her. She cocked and pushed again with tight white knuckles until the brass handle clicked. Fire shrieked back vengeance at her this time. She pumped the handle again. The fire hissed back. Her muscles twisted and pumped the handle back and forward. The blaze cowered. Again. She fought faster. White, yellow, and orange wisps twitched, flickers shrank back into a sopping black ball, crackling in the black pan on the center rack. Pop. Pop, along with the record player.
The can dropped, ringing empty down to the floor with the nail. Her feet back-pedalled to the wall opposite the oven, still watching the oven for signs of blaze. She slid her back down the wall to sit, then rested her arms on her knees and exhaled. I still had the silk robe over my face. Together, we stared at the solidified lava mass in the black pan. If God was bored he sure isn’t now. She chuckled to herself without smiling which also looked like she might cry.
Rolling the back of her head against the wall she turned to me. Something about the way she squeezed her brows together told me that she didn’t sign up for this. Her stillness said that she had been through worse. Her pale eyes pleaded with me, begged me to trust her. I dropped the robe from my face to show that I did. She had no idea that on that day she became my hero. I should have told her that.
Her dyed hands slapped against the floor. She pushed herself up on all fours then crawled over to me. My mom was resilient. Her face was still soft and playful under the sweat and battle dust. She dropped her shoulders and put her forehead to mine, “Catbird.” That’s what she called me, mostly when she needed to hear it more than I did. She reeled in the trail of gauze leading down the hall to the bathroom and finished wrapping me. Her red and black wet hands stained the white threaded mesh. A perfect C shaped scar arched just above the nail on her right index finger. This must be what the soldiers saw when her healing fingertips reached from under the Army uniformed sleeves.
Bandaged in gauze and wrapped in her peony printed robe she swept me up and over to the olive green velvet sofa in front of the glass window. Charred small holes speckled the cushions from glowing tobacco ash that fell from Dad’s pipe. The dark wood legs always snapped a little when we sat on it. We were chest to chest. She held me and sang.
My chin resting on her shoulder, I watched ladybug on the window, a floating red island. It was bare, blank. I made up stories about where its black spots went, probably where life keeps its collection of stolen things, at the center of the earth. It reminded me of the drops of blood on the white sheet, but a walking red droplet with big white eyes and black antennae picking up radio waves from the air. Maybe we listen to the same shows. It flew off. I wondered if it ever fell and what it would be like to fall when all along you know you can fly.
I looked across the street to where the Prokoriev’s lived. We just called them the P’s. They’re Russian. Sometimes I’d watch them glide on the planks of their porch swing (which creaked like our couch but in a different way). Their son Peter, Peter Perseus Prokoriev, and I were born exactly one day apart in the same place, Holy Spirit hospital. I liked sharing a birthday with him. He hated it, the fact that I was always right on his heels. We used to belong to the same church until we stopped going. I asked Mom why we stopped going. She always answered, “Because the holy water burned me.” She said that’s how she got the scarred C on her finger. But I think we really stopped going because of Dad.
“What happened sweetie? Can you tell Mommy what happened?”
I just ummed and twisted my lips from side to side.
“Mommy needs to know.”
I needed to know too. She was supposed to know everything. But I guess she did enough for one day.
“Think real hard, Ford.” That’s the name she called me when things were serious, my real name. She called me Tiger when everything was peachy which wasn’t too often.
“I think --”
“You think what?” She perked up straight, took me from her shoulder and waited eagerly, attentive. She ruffled my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes. I started a sentence I didn’t know how to finish.
“Well? You think what?” Her eyes tensed like beams pulling from me an answer. “What is it?”
I had to produce a response but I had no information to offer. I tried to remember. It was like trying to hold on too tightly to a greasy dream that keeps writhing away deeper, back into memory.
“I think. That. Um. God. Was just bored?” I arched my eyebrows, in suspense, waiting for her approval.
She closed her eyes slowly, her top lashes rested on her cheeks, inhaling with her chest and shoulders. She was disappointed. She needed an answer. I couldn’t give it to her. Her chest pumped with the start of a chuckle. Her lips bowed up slightly, puffing her cheeks, squeezing her eyes. She pointed her head down so I could only see the top of it. It was the moment before someone is about to open the flood gates of laughter or tears. You brace yourself for both.
“Don’t cry, Mom. It’s okay. I’ll help.” I didn’t know how to help but I knew she needed some right now.
Then, short waves of laughing air came in puffs through her nose, from her throat and stomach. Her shoulders trembled up and down. The corners of her mouth turned up to meet the corners of her eyes. Her jaw heaved open like the oven door and laughter rushed out at me like the flames. The flood gates opened. Springs of water surrounded me and leaked into my own eyes and ears and nose and mouth so I started laughing too. It was like we were holding hands, without embracing, in the middle of a tsunami. We cried laughing until our souls fainted, because we weren't supposed to and because we had to. Her laugh bounced and snorted and squeezed her eyes like the sea had been dammed up since Genesis. That was the happiest I would ever see my mother.