by Bonnie Rae Walker
It’s not that mom didn’t have compassion. She’d haul a bucket of hose water up beyond the fence line every morning June through August for the coyote, jackrabbits and all the rest. She’d even leave a knotted piece of twine floating in the water, tied to one handle. She said if the mice couldn’t figure that out then they could just be a drowned snack for the next thirsty thing that came.
Mom raged around the kitchen, all twisted sinew stuffed into second hand jeans. When she cooked, she’d get angry, the way some people do driving. We learned to stay out of her way. All five of us piled onto the couch and listened to the clang and rattle of dinner. They say you can taste love in a good meal, but her eyes burned every night she dropped that pot in front of us on the coffee table, daring a smart comment. It might not have been love, but it filled us.
“Take care of each other,” she’d say, straightening. Then she shouldered her white vinyl purse, bolt-locked the door from the outside, and was gone.
My oldest sister Ruby pretended to be a cafeteria lady, wearing mom’s shower cap and dangling one of mom’s cigarette butts from her mouth. We each lined up to receive our share, and Ruby would lean over our bowls, threatening to drop the butt from her lips, cracking, “What’s your name again, sonny?”
We’d shriek and scream, “Carmen!”
Ruby put us to bed. Late-late, we’d see the headlight flash of mom’s return against our darkened windows. Then we could finally fall asleep to the scrape and jangle of another stuffed wad of cash in the coffee tin, to the lull of her muttering curses as she uncoiled herself from her work.
But that morning we rose, having never slept, to meet with silence instead of breakfast’s usual clatter. We crept from the two rooms we shared, peering at mom’s absence.
The TV stayed off while Tiffany wept and Ruby made a list of places mom could be. We each took a turn.
“Tiffany, don’t you want to play?”
We rushed to the window at the sound of a car bumping up our winding dirt drive. Tiffany cheered when she saw the black of the sedan—mom’s color—through the churn of dust but ended in a moan when the light bar and white doors showed it for what it was.
Ruby walked out to talk with the officer, who was not much older, freckles and cheekbones under an oversized visor. When he took off his hat, Ruby’s nods of understanding shifted to a shaking of no-no-no, her expression twisting into comprehension. My sisters poured out of the front door as I turned and fled from the back.
I stumbled across broken pinyon, up to the edge of our fence, hearing now the rest of my sisters’ high cries. They huddled in a mass in front of the officer, who had backed away, clutching his hat to his heart. I followed the decayed fence line, dragging myself up the hill, gripping fists of rotten wood that buckled at my pull. Reaching the top, my breathing heaved soundless, filled with my sisters’ mourning.
The splash and scramble of small paws against plastic drew me to the bucket that our mom set out, now half empty. A mouse clawed at the wrong side, scratching along its smooth surface.
“You stupid idiot,” I said, looking down at the small animal’s shallow leaps and slowing strokes. My sisters still screamed, and I felt my lips curling back to do I don’t know what. The mouse stilled. Its head dipped underwater. Its paws drifted up and forward.
I kicked the bucket, and the sun-bleached plastic bounced away, cracking once and then twice, my sob breaking as it did. I cried and watched the water sink into the ground. The mouse lay still then twitched and darted into the chaparral.
Already the dirt had dried, nothing left for the coyote or jackrabbits or all the rest. I thought of my mom standing furious over fire, stirring with all her gnarled strength for her children, and knew I had done wrong. My sister’s cries had slowed.
I turned, watching them huddle unmoving as the officer backed into his car and pulled away. I watched their hair float up, blown by the dust of his leaving. My fingers splayed and hooked as I thought of the empty pot in the kitchen, of dinners and mom and a pile of waiting faces. Picking up the cracked bucket, I walked down the hill to find and fill another.
This story was inspired by the Harry Harlow experiments on maternal deprivation in rhesus monkeys. In the experiment, the infant monkeys were given two choices: a wire frame that dispensed milk and a terrycloth substitute. It led me to think about wire mothers. What if that was all that were present? What if she were trying her best and succeeding in her own jagged version of mothering? We are not all soft creatures, and love often takes sharp edges.
Bonnie Rae Walker is a writer living in San Diego. Her work has recently appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Whale Road Review and more. She is a Bettering American Poetry and Pushcart Prize nominee and can be found forthcoming in the 2018 Sixteen Rivers Press political anthology.