I thought I heard howling the other night. It startled me from a dream, and I raised my head from the indentation in my pillow to listen again —
The silence left a ringing in my ears that only became louder the harder I strained to hear. After a moment I let my head drop back into place, but the ringing still remained: a high-pitched sound, like when you’ve sat in front of your computer too long, or when your jaw has been clenched for a while.
It was a long time ago when I last heard howling like that. Still. I know what I heard.
I am a native to the desert southwest, but when I was very young my family moved from Arizona to Michigan, then settled in Ohio. We made occasional visits back to Tucson when we could, and when we did, we often took a red-eye flight to deliver us from the heartland to the sand.
I can recall the car rides from the Tucson airport to my grandparents’ house outside of town. The cool, spicy wind would rustle through the car’s cracked-open windows as the night came alive within range of our headlights: an occasional mouse darting along the sand; the bleached, erratic wings of fluttering moths. High above, the moonlight traced the silhouette of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and as we drove up the dirt road toward the house, I could see creosote bushes and slender ocotillo branches dancing in the breeze. One time, I caught the eerie glare of two iridescent circles in the distance — followed by the slinking retreat of a black-tipped tail once he knew that he’d been seen.
Tucked into my grandparents’ guest room bed, I would hold the sheets up to my chin, listening to the howling of the coyotes that wandered about their property. They sang a sort of mournful ballad as they hunted around for their next meal, and my eyes widened when their barks morphed into loud, frantic shrills. The quarrel of their voices always meant that something had been caught. Jackrabbit? House cat? Maybe just a squirrel.
The next morning I would peer out the bedroom window to look for evidence of the kill. But the yard always appeared peaceful: quail quietly circling the barrel cactus, poking the ground for food. Not a hint of the tension I’d heard only a few hours before.
At night back in Ohio we had fireflies, shooting stars that you could touch. When the sun went down you could capture the magic in your hands and hold it, feel it tickle against your skin. At first it seemed that everything in Ohio was soft and touchable — the leaves, the grass, the soil. The nights in the suburban town where we lived didn’t hold as much for a young child to fear: no coyote, no scorpions, no rattlesnakes. On summer evenings, I played outside with the neighborhood kids until dark, chasing the long shadows of our bodies made from the spotlight in the yard. And at bedtime, my father would lie at the foot of my bed, answering my questions about the world until he tired of my curiosity and I fell asleep to the rhythm of his long, slumbering breaths. I could see he loved me then.
But the crispness of that knowledge faded over time, the way the smoky outline of an exploded firework disappears into night. The brightness, the certainty between us, somehow dimming into doubt.
In grade school my friends and I would gather our sleeping bags and pillows for sleep-over seances, giggling and whispering, Light as a feather, stiff as a board — things we could never do at my house because I knew that no matter how quiet we were, it would never be quiet enough, and my father would wake and come into the living room wearing nothing but his underwear and a scowl upon his face.
There were other reasons, too. Things that made me wonder whether he wanted me the way I was: reluctant to eat all the peas on my plate, forgetful about putting my bike away, careless about grazing my feet on the seat of the family car. There seemed to me an imbalance between cause and effect.
When I was older I’d lie in bed, wrapped in my sheets and self-conscious rage, watching the red light on my modest radio fade into black. My father had just stomped down the hall to it turn off as it was time to go to sleep.
Sometimes at night I could hear my parents quarrel, and I’d think of those evenings in the desert. My mother’s voice would rise against the thick wall of my father’s stance on whatever matter it was that they couldn’t agree — until she finally broke and all that remained was the echo of her slamming doors. All of my muscles clenched into a fist that I held deep inside my gut, and my heart pounded against the pictures I was crafting in my head.
Then, without explanation, the morning would bring calm; the offenses of the previous night seemingly forgotten. We would immerse ourselves in the routine of a Saturday morning as if nothing had happened at all. The smell of bacon, the waffle iron greased and heating on the stove, orange juice poured into plastic yellow cups, and me and my little brother circling the table, placing forks and spoons beside empty plates. Circling, circling. Like quail pecking at the sand.
I’ve been thinking about absorption lately. I love to watch the growth induced by drops of water on a sponge, remember fondly the sudden bloom after rain on the desert floor. I had always perceived it as something good, like seals sunning on a rock at the shore, their sleepy, whiskered faces lulled by a simple, naked warmth. Or the way a baby touches your mouth with her sticky, curious fingers while intently watching you speak.
But now that I am older I see that absorption can bring darkness, a certain heaviness introduced. Like the old, ragged bath towels my father used to mop up Lake Erie water from the hull of our boat. We’d be out sailing past the Cleveland break wall, choppy waves slapping against the sides of our little daysailer, spraying cold, green water onto our hands, our backs, our feet. The towels were thrown down so we wouldn’t slip on the fiberglass as we scuttled from side to side with each tack, and I would watch the terrycloth darken with saturation while my mother clung white-knuckled to the edge.
I was not afraid of sailing as she was then; though even now when I step on a boat I can still feel the permeability between her experience and mine.
My mother and father weren’t affectionate, which is to say, they weren’t affectionate with each other. My mother delivered plenty of squishy hugs to my brother and me, and I can recall at times the welcome weight of my father’s hand resting on my back. But they almost never touched each other. I first noticed this around the time when a fleeting thought, or an innocent brush involving a certain boy could cause my own skin to ignite.
Instead, their interactions were transitive: the handing of plates unloaded from the dishwasher, the exchange of keys on their way out the door. Hugs between them, if they happened, were painfully one-sided. I never witnessed hands being held, no caressing of toes or rubbing of shoulders, no kissing on the lips.
Their bed was a wooden platform that my father had constructed, with two mismatched, twin-sized mattresses shoved together, forming a thick seam down the middle. On the weekends when I was a child, my little brother and I would wake, climb onto their enormous bed, and jostle them up for breakfast. Sometimes, though, we’d pad down the hall to find the door to their bedroom locked.
The exclusion somehow concerned me, and I would knock and call for them, putting my ear to the hollow door.
“Go away, Heather,” my father would gruffly say, and startled, I often would. But sometimes my brother and I just sat at the threshold and waited. He’d plunk his diapered bottom into my lap and suck his thumb while the cat rubbed against our knees.
Eventually the door would open, and my father would stride down the hall to the bathroom. My mother wrapped a robe around her body and headed toward the kitchen, while my brother and I climbed into their vacant bed and relished the heat they’d left behind.
I used those mornings to gauge their happiness: the warmth between the sheets.
But most of the time the seam between them couldn’t be ignored.
One night when I was fifteen, I awoke just before dawn and headed down the hall to use the bathroom. The house was dark and still. Through the bathroom window I could see the branches of a naked tree. I had just set foot on the cold tile floor, my hand still poised to turn on the light when the door to my parents’ bedroom suddenly burst open.
My mother emerged in her nightgown, holding a sagging pillow in her arms. The sun had not yet broken, but I could see through the purple shadows a brand new mourning in her face.
“It’s been over a year!” she shouted into the darkness, and slammed their bedroom door. When she turned again, I tensed and froze like an animal in the woods. If she saw me, it wasn’t acknowledged. She ran down the hall without a word and disappeared behind the guest room door.
The gust of air that followed was a numbing injection to the skin. My knocks on the door were met with silence. I never dared to speak about the scene I’d taken in.
Things seen in the dark: a sliver of moon, the day’s regrets, memories emerging like stars.
The gulf between my parents had yawned beyond return. My mother left the master bedroom, but we still lived under a single roof. They woke in separate spaces. Dad made the orange juice from frozen concentrate; Mom roused me and my brother for school. The force with which they repelled one another made our kitchen a magnetic field.
He bristled at the mail she left unopened on the counter. She sighed aloud at the way he ate toast over the kitchen sink. Great offense was taken by a door he’d leave ajar, and he left her attempts at conversation hanging stiffly in the air. But there was seldom any yelling. The pain in our house had grown quiet, dull. We lived with it like arthritis.
On weekends during high school, it was my mother who waited up. I’d come home on Friday nights just a few minutes before my curfew, wearing the smell of cold air and the dewey thrill of time spent with the opposite sex. She sat alone in her nightgown, a bluish glow dancing across her skin.
One evening I returned to find her sitting on the family room floor and wearing a pair of headphones — the big, imposing kind, like a worker on an airport tarmac. My father had bought them for her; he couldn’t tolerate noise when he went to sleep. So she waited on the carpet, loosely tethered to the family room TV.
The sight of her leashed enraged me, and I told her just as much. But my mother shrugged, resigned, as if her position was well-deserved. Except the headphones itched, made her ears too hot, and after some time she unwound herself from the cords. He can’t possibly hear this up there, she whispered, with the volume turned way down.
It happened on a Friday. We were talking late at night after I’d come home from a date, when the TV and lights abruptly went dark. Like a power outage, except that the glow of the kitchen light was still casting shadows across the room. Is it a fuse? Where’s the circuit breaker? My mother and I scratched around in the dark —a cliché, really— two helpless, clueless females lacking skill with electrical things. We’ll tell Dad about it in the morning, we agreed, and tiptoed up the stairs to our rooms for the night.
But to our surprise the following morning, we found that everything worked just fine. Are we crazy? Did we imagine it?
Nothing wrong, my father determined, after completing his inspection of the outlets. But how could that be? my mother insisted. We both saw it happen.
Things seen in the dark: oncoming headlights and animal eyes. Loneliness and anger. Reflective signs, alarm clock digits, hours passed without any sleep. The glowing red dot on your bedroom ceiling, in constant surveillance for traces of smoke.
It happened again the following night, at exactly eleven o’clock. The screen went blank, the lights shut off; I locked eyes with my puzzled mother.
Here’s the incongruity that has kept me awake for all these years: it took darkness to illuminate how she and I were seen in our own home. The blackout was something he’d engineered, a timer hidden on the switch box in the basement. Like a trap to outsmart a rodent, an invisible electric fence.
I love how the writing has evoked in the reader the sense of unease that the children felt at times. Beautifully written and engaging.
It’s a fascinating piece. I couldn’t stop reading right till the end. Gripping…leave you waiting more.
Brilliant. Simply brilliant, and brave. My favorite part may be the end, where the narrative stops before I expect it to, before I am ready. I’m hanging there going….”Whaaaat?” And then I get it. So incredibly well done. Thank you.
Thanks so much, Elizabeth. Means the world.
From the moment I read this in Submittable, this became a seminal essay that I will remember … always. Absolutely beautiful work, Mary. What a fine example of subtle weaving, imagery and language.
Thank you so much for your kind words, Pamela. I’m so pleased that this piece found a home at HM!
I shared this on my FB page today, and it has already had an “I loved this” comment. It’s an extraordinary piece.