when the neighbor’s cows shuffled into the field dad would always shout "cows are out!" and we (forgive us, just two kids) would burst through the side door. i gathered emerald strands of rain-fattened grass just outside of the cows' reach, twisting them into thick braids. their noses would nuzzle, tongues unfurl. you taught me that summer how to tell if the fence was on: by taking a strand of long grass (an imperfect conduit) and touching it to the hot wire. if it was on, the bones of our arms would thrum. pain gently weaving through the radius and ulna in electric plaits. we would smile, then, in the fading light. grass to the fencetop. mostly fearful of not having loved another fully. not yet knowing how to love ourselves. (oh, forgive us! just two kids, then.) learning new ways to ease into the hurt.
A train blasts a loud warning, rocking past sooty little houses near the shipyards.
Next, the call and response of a Canadian freighter ship and the reedy bascule bridge (L O W W W W W … H I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I ) drown out the familiar whine of oar belts just at the mouth of the Black River.
The bridge, opening at the center, stops traffic. The road stands in two vertical columns.
My brother catches fish marred with gaping sores on their gills. I run about the jagged ruins of the shipyards throwing rusted soldering rods into the churning, oily water with a TWHIP!
We pause, enthralled by the massive boat’s approach.
A nearby tugboat captain remarks that we need a decent pair of shoes – a junk heap being no place for a pair of skinny kids in flimsy flip-flops. And don’t screw around that close to the river, because if you slip the ship’s undertow will take you down, and you’ll never come back up.
We don’t listen, though – just watch the freighter slide toward the lifting rail bridge, eyes glued on the tracks, listening for more trains.
Somebody mistimed this, once.
We are drawn to the possibility of a more spectacular catastrophe.
The closet of my cousin’s childhood bedroom is a portal to the afterlife. In the back, behind the packed mass of old clothes and heaps of shoes, there is a small door that leads to the attic crawlspace. We used to hide there when we were little. Now, she slips in and out with deceased relatives and family pets. They wait at the top of the stairs for me, seemingly confined to the second floor.
My old loves are the only ones who ascend the stairs with me. We hold hands and are never scared. Sometimes I know nothing of my current life. Sometimes I confess to them. I am a mother, now. I love another and we can’t be together. Still, they hold my hand and we walk up the stairs. There is a black, amorphous mass in the northeast corner of the bedroom that only I can see. The spirits and boys ignore it. It terrifies me to my core.
Since the birth of my daughter, the attic dreams have been augmented with hospital night-terrors. IV ports failing, multiple botched epidural attempts. The doctors refuse to sew me back up after the C-section. They discharge me from the hospital, and I find myself sitting at the bottom of the stairs leading to my cousin’s room. My intestines keep slipping out, slapping lukewarm against my feet. I peer inside the wound, my blackened womb.
I gather my innards with the help of a boy I once kissed. He tells me we have to come up with a plan to sew me back together. He helps me up the stairs and opens the door to my cousin’s room. I ask him the unanswerable:
Am I a portal through which new souls come into being? Are we connected through crawlspaces to the before-and-afterlife? Can you see the black form standing in the corner?
I will ask my cousin tonight. I will tell her I am a mother now.