I spent my twenties traveling and watching. A woman alone, it wasn’t hard for me to get rides, and it wasn’t only men who offered them. Families with a protective streak pulled right over. I watched them. I watched the people who let me camp out in their yards, watched the people who hired me to do odd jobs, carpentry or electric work or apple picking. I watched families at diners and in bus stations. I watched parents all over this great land being bullied by their toddlers over soda and TV and bedtime. I watched them bribe their own kids to do simple chores. I watched them hand their kids over to strangers who’d stick them behind a desk for six hours every day. Even on my lonely days, the days I didn’t know if I was fit for human company, I knew I could do it better. I certainly knew I could raise my kid better than the way I was raised. My mom coming at me with endless platters of white and yellow food so that I hid in the woods at the sound of the dinner bell. My dad, who I’d swear went on disability just so he’d have more time to roam around the county and brag. Deirdre used to talk about coming out to her family like it was some big thing, but what about when your family doesn’t hear you when you talk? I hardly noticed when my dad’s mind started to go, because the only thing he’d ever remembered about me was my whittling, probably because he was the one gave me my sheepsfoot blade. At my mother’s bedside, and then at her funeral, I whittled my first skull. I gave the carving to my dad, and, just like Lily, he lost it, like I knew he would. The only good part of growing up was how much time I’d had to spend in the woods, alone with my knife, my wood, and my comics.
It took almost three years of planning and trying before Lily was pregnant with Perley. The day we found out, on the Land Trust, we dragged our mattress out beneath the sumac tree at the edge of the pasture. In those days we rushed to close any air between us. We lay there and talked about what kind of parents we wanted to be. It felt good. It felt like love.
“I want to be taken for granted,” I said, holding her. “I want it to be news to the kid that my feelings could be hurt, that I even have feelings at all. To be boring, that’s the real trick. Let the kid be the exciting one.”
“What else?” she asked.
“I want to be the provider,” I said.
“All right,” she said. “But you also want to be alone.”
“It’s not that I want to be alone,” I said. “It’s that I am alone. Sometimes.”
“Well, I don’t want to be alone,” Lily said. “That’s not what I signed on for.”
“We’re a wolf pack,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
“My breadwinner.” she sighed, burrowing close.
“Not the breadwinner,” I said. “The provider.”
“What’s the difference?” she asked.
“I want to provide education, skills, and structure,” I said.
“Structure?” Lily asked. “You mean a house?”
“A house,” I said. “And stability. I want to be so There that this kid doesn’t even know what There is because the kid’s life is defined by There. I want to be so There that I’m not there.”
I put my mouth into Lily’s hair, sucked a strand, pushed with my nose.
“What about you? What kind of parent do you want to be?” I asked.
She touched her belly button, which was still concave. She was only six weeks along. “I can’t really imagine being a parent,” she said. “All I can imagine is this baby. When it comes out of there I’m going to get a bottle of Elmer’s glue, and I’m going to glue it to me. I’m going to love whoever it is until its head pops.” She turned in my arms, her body beginning to generate quarts of new blood. Twined together, we upset the sumac. It dropped its berries to smear our bodies the color of rust.
By mid-October the house was pretty much finished, even though Helen had ignored every single piece of building expertise I offered, treated me like goddamn free labor. But still, there it was, basically livable. Osage orange posts held up the porch roof, which leaked. Three large pieces of sandstone, pulled from the hillside, led down to the front door, which let daylight in above and below. Despite all its flaws, I’ll admit it wasn’t bad to look at.
It was hard to know just who to invite to the housewarming party or how to invite them. We could think of a few people we knew, sure, but we weren’t certain we wanted to see them, or that they wanted to see us, or that they wanted to see one another. We hadn’t seen these people having a good time, and we weren’t sure we wanted to. But Lily insisted that moving a woodstove was the perfect party for people who hated parties, so we temporarily called off Survival Dice, went to the grocery store, bought a case of beer, some packages of hot dogs, and three bags of chips. Lily showed up at the register with a bag of avocados, no matter she was the one always so worried about money. At home, Lily set up a folding table in front of the garden. She put the food on it, but couldn’t wait and ate two avocados right there, ate them as if they were apples, just peeling them and chewing them right through to the pit. The green paste encircled her mouth. I built a fire, even though it was humid as hell. The guests were invited for six o’clock.
I sat near the fire, smoothing Perley’s eyebrow as he kicked on my lap, an issue of ElfQuest open next to me. Helen mashed avocados in a bowl. Lily looked at me like the avocados she’d already eaten might not stay down. She said, “Karen, I think that’s enough smoothing.”
“Everyone’s got a rough eyebrow,” I said. “You’ve got it. I’ve got it. Even the elves have it.” I nodded toward my comic. Leetah, the beautiful elfin healer, stared up at Lily from the glossy page. She had one eyebrow tuft out of place. “But Perley, he’s got a chance,” I said, licking my thumb, smoothing Perley’s brow again and again. “If I smooth his eyebrow every day, he won’t have that fuzz, that sprout. With me and you and Helen, no one cared. No one who loved us got to us in time. But Perley will be perfect.”
“You know those comics are totally problematic, right?” Helen said, mashing.
“Please, enlighten me,” I said. “Just don’t charge me for the college credits.”
“For one thing, the elves are basically meant to be some kind of advanced race who show up to be worshipped by primitive humans as gods. It’s imperialism all over again.”
“You’re way off,” I said. “The elves are outcasts. They’re misunderstood and trying to get by on their own terms.”
“Not to mention the way they draw those female elves, it’s obviously some kind of sex fantasy for men,” she said.
“It’s not for men,” I said. “I’m just saying,” she said. “You haven’t even read them,” I said. “I’ve skimmed them,” Helen said. She watched me lick my thumb, smooth. “And what you’re doing is certifiably obsessive. Might as well get the kid a nose job.”
“Nobody asked you, Helen,” I said, flipping ElfQuest shut, and handing Perley up to Lily. He glared at Helen, his odd eyebrow slick with my saliva. Sometimes I worried he preferred her. He scowled at her with a single-mindedness that could be adoration. All I could do was scowl back at them. At six o’clock, the ducks warned us that our guests had arrived.
Deirdre and Janice from the Women’s Land Trust came. They brought a guitar and sang rounds at the camp fire, to stave off any attempts at conversation. The mill operator came, with her handsome young boyfriend. They brought us a sack of flour as a housewarming present, which Lily received with tears in her eyes. Mike from the gas station came, bringing us a quart of maple syrup from his trees. Frank came, with his wife and their six gap-toothed daughters, all of whom, except for Frank, wore lace-trimmed long skirts and checkered flannel shirts. Rudy came, his orange beard dyed a shade brighter by Cheeto dust, wearing several strands of Mardi Gras beads around his neck, which he gamely distributed to Frank’s children. As a rule he hated all socializing, so he’d prepared for the party by waking up early to drink. He stood near the camp fire, swaying along to Deirdre’s rounds until Janice asked him to stand a little farther away. Lily’s manager from the hardware and salvage store came, built like a shagbark hickory yet so persnickety that she sold acne cleanser by the register. She presented us with an economy-size bottle of hand sanitizer. “Happy housewarming,” she said, but Helen wouldn’t take it from her.
“This crap is exactly what’s wrong with the world,” Helen said. “I’d put it in the trash, but there’s no safe way to dispose of it. It’s not fair to sanitation workers.”
“But thanks so much for thinking of us,” said Lily, taking the bottle.
The mill operator kissed her boyfriend with tongue right there in front of everyone. Lily elbowed Helen. “When are you going to date again?” she asked.
“Leave me alone,” Helen said. “Perley needs a maiden aunt.”
I passed around the guacamole, chips, and beer. I caught our guests glancing over at the new house. I braced myself, but they took their time commenting on it. The kids took handfuls of chips down onto the porch and sat around blowing across empty beer bottles. They didn’t ask to go inside. Instead, by way of conversation, Frank told us what he’d heard on what he called the news. Chewing the wrong kind of gum could make all of his children go instantly brain-dead. Then Mike started in on fluoride in the water, and Lily’s manager joined in.
“It messes with proper hormone messaging,” she said. “And that’s just the beginning.”
“Sounds like that orangutan thing,” Helen said.
“What orangutan thing?” asked Lily.
“In some orangutan communities, there’s only one male, and he can’t stop growing,” Helen said. “He grows giant flat cheeks and a big fat throat. It’s called a flange. It’s all about hormonal messaging. Everyone in the medical community is talking about it. They’re wondering what kind of implications it has for humans.”
“I’ve never heard of that,” I said.
“Sure you have,” she said.
“No, I haven’t,” I said. “And I’m a nurse.” I was a nurse, but I hadn’t talked to another nurse since Perley was born. There were no nurses at our party. I hadn’t invited them. I couldn’t bear to hear their plans for improving Perley: shots, doctor visits, regular bathing, combing out his cradle cap. I couldn’t bear to be around people who thought of my son as just another body to be managed. Now that I knew Perley, I’d stopped believing in the ordinariness of humans, or at least didn’t want to be made aware of it. I didn’t want to know about other bodies, other baths, other wiping, other chapping and applications of ointments and administering of medicines. All these duties that I’d been proud to see to, now I wanted to reserve only for my son. When the clinic number showed up on my tiny screen, I held my breath until it disappeared. Still, everyone in the medical community? Everyone?
“This is bullshit, Helen,” I said.
“Why does the flanged orangutan get so big?” asked Lily, shifting Perley to her other hip.
“He’s the only male,” Helen said. “There’s no other male in the vicinity to compete with, so his hormones are unchecked.”
“And is he the strongest?” asked Lily.
“No,” Helen said. “That’s the peculiar thing. He’s not that strong. He’s got a weak heart and he doesn’t live very long.”
“We have to do something,” Lily said.
“About what?” I asked.
“About Perley,” Lily said.
“What does this have to do with Perley?” I asked.
“He’s the only male in the vicinity,” said Lily. “What if that happens to him?”
“It’s the hormonal message that’s important,” Helen said. “You just need to get his brain to send the hormonal message.”
“So we need Perley to, what, smell men?” Lily asked.
“I think that would do it,” Helen said. Perley looked into all of our faces and laughed, kicking Lily in the stomach. Our neighbors just watched us, respectful as cable TV. I took Perley out of Lily’s arms, against his squirming. “He’s my kid, Helen, and I’m telling you to back off,” I said. “This is ridiculous.”
“But what if it isn’t?” asked Lily.
From the moment I met my son, blue as a cave troll, coated in vernix, gasping in the new air, my mission became to not undo all he was born with. To watch him develop habits was painful to me. I resented each neural pathway as it was blazed in his brain. These made him more familiar to me, and I wanted him to stay choose-your-own-adventure. We’d been given a perfect thing, a wild animal, ours to domesticate and diminish. He didn’t need our intervention.
But sometimes I couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t stop myself from smoothing his eyebrow. I watched his tiny tucked-in face, his nose pressed on, the way that his nostrils curled in like parentheses, small gleams of oil in the corners, eyelashes rising and falling on his cheeks, crease of eyelids folding back toward his temples. I put my hand to his heart. I felt that steady unlikely rhythm. If I couldn’t believe in its reliability, then I couldn’t believe in anything.
“Rudy,” I said. “Can we borrow one of your shirts?”
Rudy stepped forward, red-faced and puffed up with generosity. “This is a very good decision you’re making,” he said. He peeled off his T-shirt, and his wiry hair sprang forth. The shirt he handed me had possibly once been white. It gave off a smell of yeast, onions, pine needles, sawdust, beer, and sap. I draped it over my shoulder. “I’ve been waiting for this moment,” Rudy said, scratching his furry belly. “A boy needs a father. I’ve said it all along.”
“You’re not his father,” I said.
“A father figure, then,” he said.
“You’re not his father figure,” I said.
“I’m happy to do it,” he said. He leaned down into Perley’s face. “You and me, kid,” he said. “You and your old uncle Rudy. We’re going to be good pals. I’ll teach you how to use a chain saw. I’ll teach you how to drink.”
“He’s not your uncle,” I told Perley.
Perley said, “Ah!” and punched Rudy hard in the nose, sending him off-balance.
“Motherfucker!” Rudy said, holding his nose.
“No hitting, Perley,” I said.
Lily said, “But did you see that? My Velvet Piglet is incredibly strong!”
“You little scamp,” Rudy said to Perley, still holding his nose. “You think you’re stronger than your old uncle Rudy. But someday we’ll have a real fist fight, and then you’ll see.”
“Can we switch this shirt out for a fresh one next week?” Helen asked. “I mean a fresh dirty one?”
“Babysitting, diaper changing,” Rudy said. “Anything I can do, just let me know.”
“Let’s see this woodstove,” Mike said.
We all, even the children, even the ducks, went up the path to the head of the driveway, where the woodstove lay in wait next to the scrap metal pile. We approached it as if it were a wild animal. We were cautious yet firm. I shifted Perley into the crook of my arm, used my free hand to yank off the tarp. The stove looked like the portal to hell, its double door a gaping maw, its clanking dials extending on iron antennae that cranked open and closed, its small windows flashing darkness.
Helen brought the dolly. “You kids get out of the way,” Frank said. The children chased the ducks back toward their shed, and everyone pressed forward. The women from the Land Trust quietly but firmly shouldered their way in past Rudy and Mike, the mill operator rolled up her sleeves, her handsome young boyfriend took off his shirt and stuffed it in his back pocket, the hardware store manager counted off, and they heaved. Frank pushed the thing too fast from below so that the rest of the group called out in protest. They rested. They swore. Then Frank’s wife took Perley, and I got in there, too, shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors. Mike counted off again, and this time we levered the woodstove onto the dolly, and then we walked that thing down the uneven gravel path, past the duck shed and the elderberry bushes and the spring, careful not to tip it into the ditch. We dodged the folding table, and stopped to rest at the camp fire, just up the bank from the new house. Frank’s daughters cleared a path across the porch, moving the beer bottles and empty guacamole bowl out of the way.
“What next?” asked Lily.
“What next? We put it in the house, is what next,” Rudy said.
“Will it fit in the door?” she asked.
“We’ll make it fit,” Frank said. Then Janice rose up and gave one of her lectures about feminist lifting techniques, and Rudy responded with a passionate speech about manning up. Then there was no talking but a lot of grunting as we walked the thing down one sandstone step and then another, inched it across the porch, upended it to get it through the door, and finally the woodstove was inside, taking up a third of the kitchen.
Frank’s wife handed Perley back over to me, and he gummed Rudy’s T-shirt while Lily refilled the guacamole and brought out another six-pack. Everyone stood around the woodstove, breathing and smiling and looking over our new house, which barely had room for all of us. We had to stand close together, Land Trust women cozied up next to mill operator and her boyfriend up against Mike leaning on hardware store manager nestled into Rudy’s hairy back stepping on Frank, children clustered on the floor. We didn’t even have any furniture yet. Our guests couldn’t have been comfortable. They sipped beer and craned past one another to look the place over. Shame choked me. But no one said, Pretty damn small for four people. No one said, Are you planning to fill the gaps? No one said, The rim joist isn’t flush. No one said, Is this floor made of pallets? Is it built directly onto the ground? When I set my beer down on the woodstove, the tilt to the liquid was clearly visible, but no one said, The floor isn’t level. No one said, This house is already sinking by degrees into the wet orange clay. No. Instead Frank clapped me on the back and said, “Look at that. Finished well before winter.”
“You women surely are ants, not grasshoppers,” Frank’s wife said.
“There goes the neighborhood, you fucking yuppies,” Rudy said, raising his glass. I swallowed my beer.
Deirdre brought out a sage stick. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to do a cleansing ceremony to drive bad spirits from the house,” she said.
“We do mind,” Helen said. “The last thing we need is more white people co-opting Native American spirituality.” Mike, the only person at the party who wasn’t white, laughed. Deirdre looked hurt.
“Thanks anyway, Dee,” Lily said, frowning at Helen.
“Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m part Indian,” offered the mill operator’s young boyfriend, still shirtless.
“Oh, of course,” Helen said. “A royal line, I’m sure.”
“I don’t know about him,” Mike said, “but when my great-grandparents came up from down South they settled with the Wyandot, married, children, everything. That was around 1820 or so. The way my grandma told it, those slave catchers were too scared of Indians to come looking for folks there.”
The hardware store manager said, “My great-grandma told me that when she was a little girl in these hills, the Shawnee would come down out of the woods because they were hungry, and our family would feed them.”
“That’s a beautiful story,” Frank’s wife said.
“But why were they hungry? That’s a fucking crime,” Helen said. “Right, Mike?”
“Do you ever think of something to say, and not say it?” I asked Helen.
“There aren’t enough hours in the day,” Helen said.
Rudy opened another beer. “You know what’s a fucking crime is private property,” he said to no one in particular.
“That’s what I’m always saying,” Helen said.
“Private property is what this country was founded on,” Frank said.
“Fuck what this country was founded on,” Helen said.
“I’ll drink to that,” Rudy said, and did.
Mike said, “Now, hold on. If they try to come on my land, I’ve got my Smith and Wesson.”
“You’re right about that,” I said. Perley turned his head to the side, and fit his mouth around my collarbone, trying to suckle. “If they try to mess with Perley or Lily—”
“Wait a minute. Who is They?” Lily asked.
“I don’t care who it is, I’ll do whatever it takes,” I said.
“But who is it that you’re so worried about?” Lily asked.
“Do you really have to ask?” I said.
“Let’s all drink to that,” said Rudy, and we all did.
Lily knew as well as I did who They were. Sardined there with our neighbors, I didn’t choose to say, According to the state, I’m not here. According to the state, I’m gone, I’m nothing. Lily is Perley’s only official parent. Neither Lily nor I liked to say it out loud, not even between the two of us. We didn’t want to make it more true. And if sometimes I felt myself hovering near invisibility, if fear made me fragile or turned me tyrant, if fear made me want to flee, well so what? I wasn’t going anywhere, not anytime soon. I was bound and determined to parent Perley within an inch of both our lives.
Maybe Helen was right about all the shit she said to people, maybe she wasn’t, but I couldn’t see how her jabbering changed anything. It didn’t change anything to stand there and talk. It didn’t change anything to talk about who They were. It definitely didn’t change anything to talk about this land, about why we were on it, who’d been on it before, and why they weren’t on it. It didn’t help to think about being kicked off of it or kicking other people off of it, or to figure ourselves as heroes. But Helen would have said not talking about it wouldn’t change anything, either. We stood around the stove with our neighbors and tried in vain to feel like we had something in common. When we got along at all, it was when we moved a woodstove together. It was when we pictured ourselves standing together against outside threats, instead of threatening one another. We preferred to imagine ourselves on the right side of things, including history. We preferred to stand side by side, thinking despising thoughts about people who were long dead and the mistakes that they’d made, instead of thinking despising thoughts about one another and about the mistakes we were right now making each moment. Then one of Frank’s daughters pointed down behind the woodstove and said, “Snake!”
The black rat snake slid from beneath the stove until it showed itself five feet long, and Frank’s daughters, all six of them, set up a delighted shrieking. The snake froze in place. It grew rigid and crimped up all along its length. It gave off a sulfur-and-onions smell, the fairy godmother crashing the party.
“You’re scaring it,” I told the shrieking daughters. “Black snakes kink up like that as an anxiety reflex. They only smell like that when they’re afraid.” But they continued shrieking.
“Be still!” Frank commanded. And they were still.
“We’re just playing,” the oldest daughter said. “It’s just an old black snake, we ain’t scared of them.”
“I am,” the youngest daughter said. “I am and I bet he is,” and she pointed at Perley. But Perley opened his mouth wide and made a happy screech, imitating the girls’ noise. I held him under his armpits, crouched down so he could get a better view. “Meet your new friend Snake,” I said, as he goggled and drooled. “This snake lives here, too.”
“Da!” Perley said. “Da!”
“Say snake,” Frank’s oldest daughter said. “Snake, Perley, snake.”
“Na!” Perley said.
“That’s enough,” Lily said, grabbing for Perley, but I swung him up to my shoulder.
“What do you do about a black snake in your house?” Lily asked the room.
“You feel lucky,” Frank said.
“I got them at my place, too,” Mike said. “They’re not venomous. And they’ll eat mice and copperheads.”
“Come on, Lily,” I said. “You grew up around here. You know about black snakes.” Perley gripped my braid and pulled.
“Not about having them in my house. And I grew up in town. Not so many snakes in town,” Lily said.
Rudy said, “Black snakes are territorial. If they’ve decided to live here, it’s next to impossible to get rid of them. This is the time of year they move in, too. Autumn. When it’s getting cooler at night.”
“They?” Lily asked. “As in more than one?”
“You might get a lot of them,” her boss from the hardware store said. “They’re loners, but they all like the same thing. So if you’ve got a good habitat, they might all move in at once.”
“They need somewhere to hibernate,” the mill operator said. “A hibernaculum. Someplace warm to spend the winter.”
“A house full of snake experts,” Lily said. “So snakes need a place to hibernate. Fine. I don’t see why it has to be our house.”
“Good a place as any,” I said.
One of Frank’s daughters squatted down for a closer look, and the snake fled into the wall via one of the gaps we’d failed to seal, so that only its tail was showing. Perley laughed and tried to lunge out of my arms.
“They’re harmless, Lily,” I said. “Even Perley can see that.”
Lily closed her mouth on whatever she planned to say next. Deirdre fingered her sage, but the snake was better than any hijacked ceremony. The snake made me feel like our fucked-up house had been chosen.
“Black snakes in the walls are much better than having flying squirrels in the walls,” Frank’s wife said.
“Now, that’s true,” Mike said. “Or what about these red beetles?”
“The hornworms this year,” Frank said. And so the talk turned to the many disappointments and hardships of the lives we were living, and how once you got rid of one thing, another thing was sure to turn up, and how this succession of pests, irritations, and unfairness would surely last until we were too weary to move, and so lay down on the lush water-laden land, lay down to rest, just to rest, lay down and died.