by Susan Rukeyser
Hampered by mittens, I clutched a tree trunk as the ground shifted. Some animal part of me knew: earthquake. Like when I felt my first contraction and understood natural obligation.
The red clay hillside, frozen hard as concrete, loosed rocks that bounced across the trail, smashed icy patches from yesterday’s snow, and finally tumbled into the ravine’s dormant Kudzu. I scrambled towards a shelter further up the trail. Thunder boomed, rain fell in sheets.
If I wasn’t on time to pick up my daughter from school, she’d panic. Wouldn’t she? It was just the two of us. Her father wanted to be free of me more than he wanted her. People offered help, but humiliation drove me South, where I was a stranger.
The shelter was three walls, a roof, and a bench, on which sat an old, heavyset woman. She leaned forward, hands on her knees. Brown skin hung heavy. Silver hair frothed like foam, or clouds.
“I said I should’ve known better. I’m not up for this. Now I’m stuck here, and sick.”
“This weather,” I said. The shelter creaked and swayed. It unnerved me, but I didn’t want to sit beside her. I left work early, overwhelmed by my cubicle and the people, always around. I checked my cell: no service. I promised my daughter I was always reachable. “I need to go.”
“Please stay. I’m not well.”
“It’s pouring! We’re always late for something, I’ve learned that much.” She regarded me with hazel eyes like tide pools. “I’m a mother too,” she said. “I get it. She’s fine. They’re always fine, until they’re not. Then we know how little we control.”
Had I mentioned my daughter? I wanted to ask, but my mouth was sealed, as in a dream.
“I’m a storyteller,” she said. “I know how to kill time. When the storm is over we’ll walk back, okay?” She straightened, closed her eyes:
“When the last of her children fell to rot, Mother swallowed Earth back down. The oceans were sour on her tongue. Brown trees scratched the roof of her mouth. The ruined dirt was hot, stinking of plastic. She tasted her rotting children and all the animals. Empty skyscrapers and stadiums and trucks tore at her throat, finally lurching to her stomach, dissolving in acid.
“Mother had wished her children brave, but always they sought the familiar. They sought her. At first she tended them too closely, overcome by love, or pity.
“They all wanted to be boss. Wanted to know who got more. Who didn’t pull his weight. They fought constantly. It wore her down. She spoiled them, but they wouldn’t share. They assumed she’d forgive.
“Like any mother, she blamed herself.
“Now her stomach swelled to bursting with her sharp, heavy world. A storm raged inside, and she knew.
“She heaved, brought it all back up.
“Earth bobbed into space. Continents shifted into position. The atmosphere glistened with her saliva, pristine again. Roots stirred in clean dirt. Seas teemed with fish already sprouting legs. Goodbye, she whispered, and a new wind circled Earth. She left before the hominids appeared.”
Moments passed in silence. The rain stopped and sun broke through the pines. Watching a toad leap from a puddle, I unzipped my jacket, suddenly roasting. “So it’s a creation story?”
“Destruction is the important part. When and how to let go, hardest questions for any mother. It flops on the festival circuit, but I like it. I don’t mind ambiguity.”
“I have to get my daughter.” I tried helping the woman up, but I must’ve missed her arm. I swiped at air.
“She’s fine, I told you. We’re in the midst of it, don’t you know?”
I walked away. Then ran. My daughter needed me more than this old woman who maybe was strange? Who maybe didn’t move her lips when she spoke? I wasn’t sure, afterwards. I remembered her eyes.
I meant to go back and check on her. Later that day. The next morning. Then too much time passed. She must be okay. Someone helped her.
Of course I was ashamed.
Now I hike this trail every week. The shelter is empty until I get here. My daughter is grown, gone away from me. Towards her life, I suppose.
I don’t need a lot from people. I need more than nothing, I’ve learned that much.
“I should’ve known better,” I tell the worried mothers who sometimes pause by me.
Susan Rukeyser lives in the South but hails from New England and dreams of life in the Mojave. Her work appears in SmokeLong Quarterly, Metazen, Stone Highway Review, and Monkeybicycle, among others. She has one novel out for consideration and another in a drawer. Find her here: http://www.susanrukeyser.com