There are places I can’t go. Fields and ripples of something called ‘grey matter’ that are closed off to me since – well, I can’t remember that either. I may have lost them in the pool; my mother said I was so deep that I looked like a stick in the water. Maybe it was later.
I go to school. The doctors told us it was ‘against the odds’ that I’d learn anything. I like it. The kids are nice, my mom says I’m pretty, and I think it helps them forget the stuff I can’t do. I can do most school things like reading and math, but I can’t write. I don’t remember the order of the words. It’s too deep. Sometimes there are things that the teachers say that sink deeper into places that I can’t get to. Deeper into the grey matter, I suppose. It makes me unable to learn. I don’t know why a snake hisses, or even why a cloud appears like a white ghost in the sky. I was told many times, but those things are deep. I’ll never get them back. Sometimes I wonder if I could get to those places that are now bottomless pits and get back some of what the pool took, but I can’t, as hard as I try.
I wonder a lot. About things like birds flying (where are they going? are they afraid?), or leaves that die and fall to the ground (why does it happen? it must hurt). I know they are simple. I’ve been told many times that these things that happen are natural, but natural seems like an odd way to explain what I see.
Every morning my mother makes me a waffle. I won’t have anything else. It makes me feel good to see the squares full with butter and syrup. I can see the whole thing happen and it doesn’t happen fast. I understand it.
“Your mother loves you,” she says to me.
I respond when I can. Sometimes I ignore her. I think she knows I hear her either way. Even if I couldn’t hear anything – even if the pool took my ears, too – she would still say it. Anyway, sometimes it’s hard for me to put all the things I can think into what I say. I think she knows I love her back.
“I love you, Mom,” I say in return, just to be sure.
She likes it when I talk. It makes her cry. Even I know there are two reasons to cry, but I can never tell which kind she does.
“Your father will be here tonight. He has had a long shift and he wants to see you. He loves you, too.”
“I don’t want to see him,” I tell her.
“What a thing to say, Mara. He loves you.”
“Not like you, Mom. You stay with me.”
“Your father works very hard. He cannot be here all the time like me.”
Mom has tried to tell me why he can’t be here. He makes money, she says, but I cannot see how it brings the things she says it does: waffles, blankets, and the car. I know he is not here, and here means love, I think.
“Can I play outside today?” I ask.
“I don’t know – last time-”
“I’ll stay in the back. I like the hill. It’s up high.”
We live in a different house now. Our yard goes up and up to a hill that I can see the whole town from. I just sit.
My mother stares into the backyard from the kitchen window. I don’t know why she does that; this house doesn’t have a pool like our other one, but sometimes she looks out there like she still sees one.
“Oh, honey, maybe you can play inside today. We can call Sarah, and you can play house.”
“I don’t want it, Mom. I want to be alone, up high.”
“Maybe I could go up the hill with you,” she tells me, but I think her crying has switched to the other kind.
I hate that sort of crying and even though I wanted to be alone I say, “Alright.”
There isn’t much sunlight left. It is going down. It always seems to go down faster once it gets near the top of the hills.
“Do you think there’s a heaven?” I say to her.
“I used to think so,” Mom sighs.
“Sarah’s mom says there is.”
“It’s a tough thing to prove.”
“Maybe there’s no heaven, like with harps and all happiness, but there’s another place, where things are easy to understand.”
“I hope so.”
The sun goes down and it gets cold. Below, in the fields before the city, mist fills in the dips of the hills. Usually when I go inside it’s before dark, but I want to stay.
“If there is no heaven,” I say, “then there’s no bad place either. So all the bad people can be bad and if they don’t get caught here they don’t get punished at all. That’s not fair.”
“I guess,” she sighs again, “but what about the things that are nobody’s fault?” She kind of says this to someone else, but we are alone. “Bad things happen, too many bad things.”
“Good things happen too, Mom,” I tell her and then think for a while. The sun is almost gone and an orange fountain springs up from behind the mountain before it disappears. “But if bad things mean there is no heaven, does it mean that good things make it real? Then it would depend on what there is more of. Is there more good or bad in the world?”
She kisses me on the head. “I don’t know the answers.”
“They’re too far in. I can’t get to them either. Too deep.”
“I think your father’s home. Let’s go in.”
My father expects a hug and I give it to him, but I don’t mean it. I think he knows I don’t. It makes me feel bad. I just can’t think of a way that he loves me. They say that you should love everyone, especially your parents. I don’t understand it. Maybe I can’t understand or maybe it’s not true. I’m not sure.
After all of the time is spent together, we go to bed. It’s raining tonight. I want to sleep in my mom’s bed, but it’s different when my father is here. He’s not here a lot. My mom says he fights fires, but I’m not sure. I didn’t know fires could fight, and it doesn’t make sense that he knew what to do after I was in the pool. Mom says he is the reason I’m alive. Water is the opposite of fire, I thought; how can he be an expert at both? She wants me to love him, but I can’t.
My father leaves again after a few days, and after a few more he comes back and we do the whole thing again where we have dinner, talk, then go to bed. I don’t want to sleep, so after they tuck me in, I fake that I am asleep for a while then I get up to look out the window. My door creaks and someone walks in. It’s my father.
“Hi,” he says.
I don’t feel like talking, so I return to the window.
“Your mom says you’ve been sitting on the hill a lot.”
“I like it. It’s high up. I can see things.”
He sits in the chair in the corner of the room, the rocker from when I was a baby. My father always liked the chair and I noticed a long time ago that he never sits anywhere else. It bothers me that he is in here with me and for some reason I say something that I never thought of saying before.
“Did you save me from the pool?”
He doesn’t answer me right away. It’s a little dark and I hear him sniff before he says to me, “I did.”
“Are you a water expert? Do you go to deep places when you go away?”
“I’m not an expert. I just know how to get water out of someone when they swallow too much.”
“I swallowed too much?”
I still want to be alone, but I can’t help talking to him. I look down and then there’s another thing I have to say. It’s like words are coming up from the places I could never get to before in my grey matter. I always wondered if the places that were too deep were blue instead of grey.
“What if I didn’t want you to save me?”
My father sniffs a few more times, but doesn’t say anything.
“Maybe there is more good in the world than Mom thinks and I could’ve gone to heaven.”
“I don’t know,” he says, but his voice sounds higher than normal.
“Do you love me?”
“Will you stay?”
My father doesn’t say anything. He comes to the floor and gets on his knees. He is below me and I am above him. I think he’s crying in the sad way when he tells me, “I will never leave you again.”
I think I understand more now.