Katherine Forbes Riley
The rock was as tall as a man, large at the base and small at the top like a pyramid. Within moments of arriving at the swimming cove, Sylvie's son Constantine had splashed through the water and climbed up its side, where he clung to the top like a monkey, lake water dripping from his jeans.
Diana's son Rowan followed him, careful not to get wet, crossing a series of small stepping stones to side of the pyramid rock.
"Mine!" crowed Constantine when he reached it, raising his face to the sky.
"Constantine," warned Sylvie.
"But Mom, I conquered it!"
She sighed. "It's those Asterix books. But at least he's reading, right?"
Diana didn't answer. Rowan was back on shore now, he seemed to have forgotten the pyramid rock, and her daughter Lucie was tugging on her hand. Diana bent and took off their shoes before letting herself be led into the lake. The toddler squealed as the water rose up her legs. Looking back, Diana saw Rowan watching them. "Come in!" she said. "It's not cold."
Her son shook his head, but after a minute he bent and removed his shoes. He put one foot in the lake, and then the other, and then stopped. He'd been anti-water all summer, wouldn't swim or even go through the sprinkler, treated it like poison touching his skin. Kids went through phases of course, but it didn't seem healthy, this aversion of his. The last time he'd entered water willingly was in the spring at a pond near Constantine's house. It had been their first playdate and the two boys had been trying to catch tadpoles. But Constantine wouldn't share his net, and when Sylvie finally insisted he'd stomped away and come back with a bucket full of pond water, which he'd dumped on Rowan's head.
Shocked as they'd been, Diana and her husband Marcus had later agreed a six year old couldn't be judged by the same yardstick as an adult. Kids were little animals really. And Sylvie had taken full responsibility. "Honestly," she'd emailed them that same night, "we're going to be working on this! The last thing in the world Richard and I want to discover is we're raising a boy who treats new friends like that."
Friends weren't exactly banging down Rowan's door. Why, Diana didn't know, for he was sweet and sensitive. Soft mud puffed between her toes. The lake was so clear she could see the bottom was embedded with sparkling stones. She turned back to her son and smiled to see him collecting a small pile of them in his hand.
Suddenly from behind her there came a great splash. Sylvie sloshed past, moving fast. Constantine had jumped off the pyramid rock, a jump of six feet at least, into water no higher than his ankles.
Coming back Sylvie caught Diana's eyes, and then closed her own and shook her head. And Diana had the sense of understanding precisely what she meant, even though no words had been conveyed. This was something she hadn't experienced with another woman in years. Her conversations with the other elementary school mothers were tangles of thorns and creepers, but even during that first playdate at the pond she'd perceived Sylvie's wallflower grace and quick switches through point of view like the water's rippling reflections of her own face. Sylvie was older than the other mothers too, and though some of them disparaged her because of this, Diana was impressed. How intelligent Sylvie seemed! How interesting. It was as if in her maturity she'd learned to perceive her own life at a distance.
On their second playdate their conversation had touched on their own mothers. "Oh, mine's horrible," Sylvie had said and then added with a self-deprecating laugh, "but that's a tale for another day." She'd been ready to brush it off but Diana, standing there in the playground, had felt as if the fourth angel had just sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun and moon and stars had gone black. She was not, after all, alone! Here before her was another woman with a mother just like her own.
Thereafter followed weeks in which their boys played desultorily in parallel or teetered on the edge of conflicts the two women distractedly policed, while each in turn acted as a receptor for the other, a sounding board for the ugly truths that rifts with one's mother reveal. But each was always quick to defend the other, saying, "But how else could it have gone, given her?" and afterwards there remained between them that feeling like a secret code would bring.
Back at camp Sylvie got dinner organized while Marcus and Richard set up the tents. The two women had concocted the idea of an end-of-summer camping trip a few weeks before and reserved adjacent sites at the state park. The sites were lovely, surrounded by pines and separated by a thin line of white birch, each equipped with a lean-to, a fire ring, and a picnic table. Diana was sitting with Lucie at hers, keeping an eye on the two boys. They were cavorting around inside her lean-to like it was a stage and singing something, a marching song they must have learned at school although the accompanying movements Rowan was making looked more like a jig. He'd shot up recently and was taller than Constantine now, Diana suddenly noticed.
"Can you do this, Constantine?" he asked, breathless from the exertion of lifting each foot so high it passed in front of the opposite knee. Constantine raised one foot, and then frowning, lowered it again. Marching right up into Rowan's face, he sang loudly, "The noble Duke of York, he had ten thousand men..."
Suddenly they were locked in a double arm wrestle. Diana thought it was part of their play until their faces grew fierce.
"Rowan!" she called, seeing their intertwined fingers whitening and their arms tremble. Her son had never been in a physical altercation before. She knew he'd been provoked but didn't want him to think it was acceptable behavior either. "Stop now or you will be doing jumping jacks!" she said, and when he continued to ignore her, "Okay, ten!"
Now he pulled free—this took effort, for Constantine continued holding on—and began jumping. But he raised his arms only halfway, and barely spread his feet.
"You're not doing it right," Constantine remarked.
Diana heard a noise then, or maybe it was because she was still disconcerted, but something made her glance towards the neighbors on their other side. Two men with greying crewcuts and highly developed torsos had arrived on motorcycles not long before. She caught glimpses of them setting up camp through the trees.
When Rowan resumed his singing jig she looked back just in time to see Constantine try to trip him. "Ten," she called sharply, surprising herself. She didn't expect the boy to listen, but he did. He smiled as he spread his feet and clapped his hands above his head, and then he laid down on his belly and did pushups too. "I do these in karate," he told her.
Sylvie disliked team sports on principle, believing they engendered as much bad as good, but she was very enamored with this karate class he was taking. It taught metaphysical skills, she'd told Diana, like self-control through breathing and balance for strength of will. Now, as Diana watched, Constantine rose and thrust one leg forward. He bent the other, and taking a deep breath, aimed clawed fingers at her son.
"Marshmallows!" she called, rising to her feet. "It's time to look for marshmallow sticks!"
"Did anyone hear those loons last night?" Sylvie cupped her steaming mug in both hands. They'd risen with the sun and Diana thought she looked childlike and curious with her face bare of makeup and her hair mussed like that.
"Is that what they were?" she asked. Multiple times during the night she'd heard the echoey calls, and dreamed the park was full of howling wolves, their calls like beacons as they circled the dark lake. "I've never seen a loon," she mused.
"You probably won't," Marcus said. "They're very reclusive."
"Aren't they white?" asked Sylvie.
"Black, I think," Marcus said, but Sylvie was no longer listening, distracted by her son, who was reaching for her homemade blueberry muffins.
"Constantine, wouldn't you prefer some fruit instead?" she said, and quick as a wink he stuffed half the muffin in his mouth and then brandished his plastic knife at her.
Diana and Marcus pretended not to see. Sylvie's son had already wolfed down two of her scones. The night before he'd eaten three helpings of her pasta salad followed by four s'mores. At six he already had a potbelly, which, Marcus remarked, was a miniature version of Richard's own. Their son was perfectly proportioned, and he hated to eat. "Sit, Row," Diana said now, for he'd slipped from the table with his oatmeal untouched and was poking the fire with a stick.
Once breakfast was over Richard returned to his tent saying he'd hardly slept a wink. Sylvie and Constantine wanted to go kayaking. Marcus wanted to fish. Rowan said he didn't want to do either, so Diana took him and Lucie down to the swimming cove.
Alone, he was brave. "Deeper," he said, "deeper," until the water was up to his waist. Drifting around a leafy bulge of land, they discovered a small inlet. A large pile of sand at its center brought to mind a wilderness castle. It was surrounded by fertile water plants, and rivulets encircled and branched from it before winding their way down to the lake. Rowan climbed the mound and began building roads and sending down supplies, a water-logged maple leaf, a crawfish claw, some sort of seed pod, an open clam shell. Lucie walked in the rivulets, squeaking as their sides crumbled and reformed beneath her feet. Diana did her stretches, balancing like a stork or a crane or maybe even a loon in the long still lake.
On their way back they took a shortcut down a woodsy path. It split around a clump of trees and Diana and Lucie took the left fork while Rowan took the right, but after a few steps he stopped and cried out.
"What is it?" Diana said, coming back.
"I saw a loon," he said.
She looked where he pointed, but if the bird had been there, it was gone now.
"What did it look like?" she asked.
"It was black," he said. "And white too."
By noon the sky was stacked with clouds. Crawling into their tent to retrieve their rain gear, Diana threw out her lower back. She felt the pop and immediately backed out again, gear forgotten as she walked in circles trying to gauge the damage. She took an ibuprofen and after lunch laid down in the tent with Lucie for her nap. Upon rising again she felt a dull ache that twinged a warning with every step as she headed out in search of the others.
The swimming cove appeared empty at first. Then far out in the lake she spied Marcus and Richard, hands trailing in water up to their waists. Hearing a voice she waded around the corner and found Constantine crouched on the castle mound issuing orders. Sylvie was there too, lying at the base of the mound with a faraway face, dribbling sand from her fingers into baroque towers.
Diana said hello and then sat down wincingly and watched her son run around. She felt a sense of having intruded but thought it was only a false impression, a twisted reflection on her surroundings cast by her own pain. Constantine had fallen silent, except for when Rowan's track took him near to the castle mound. Then he would yell, "No, Rowan!" and Sylvie would murmur, "Constantine," and the muscles in Diana's lower back would seize. "How about," she finally ground out, "we draw a line down the middle?"
"That's an idea," said Sylvie.
"No!" Constantine jumped down and began scrubbing a line through the sand. "Rowan," he said, extending it to the water, "you can go on this path that I am making. But you must walk like this. You must jump over this part," he said, demonstrating, "and go slowly, slowly, here."
"Constantine, honey, maybe Rowan doesn't want to do it that way."
Rowan said nothing. Both boys resumed their separate games, and he avoided the mound entirely for a while. Then suddenly he ran up and over it.
"No, Rowan!" Constantine shouted, and shot out a hand that narrowly missed him.
Diana got to her feet then, and ignoring the starbursts of pain, climbed the mound and dragged her heel right down the center of it.
Constantine screamed. For a moment Diana was sure he was going to hit her, but instead he burst into tears and ran.
Sylvie ran after him.
Not until all sounds of them had faded did Diana look at her son. He looked back at her with his face perfectly blank, and somehow this was worse than if he'd frowned.
"Can we go now?" he said finally.
"Wait." Diana sank down on the mound then, panting a little from the pain. "I think we have to just—wait."
Her son's expression never changed.
Marcus had gone for ice and firewood. Sylvie was bustling around in her lean-to. Rowan was hovering in the trees watching Richard read to Constantine at their picnic table. Diana was watching him, on slow burn again because it was his Calvin and Hobbes book they were reading. Every few minutes he asked if he could go over, and finally she gave in.
"Welcome!" Sylvie called as he approached, but Diana thought her enthusiasm sounded weak and noticed she glanced at Constantine first. Constantine didn't say anything, neither when Rowan came over nor when he climbed up on Richard's other side to listen.
A few minutes later Diana muttered, "Oh hell," and limped over too. Tapping Sylvie on the shoulder, she motioned for her to come around the side of the lean-to. There she apologized, said she knew she'd only exacerbated the problem by drawing that line in the sand. "It's how I would've dealt with my own kids," she said. She was trying to convey more than this too, and for a moment it seemed as if Sylvie understood, but then she said, "Oh Diana, I know we're both only doing the best we can," and it seemed as if she hadn't understood anything at all.
As Diana returned through the trees, the rain that had been threatening all day started to fall. It fell hard, in heavy splats that made Lucie grimace and squeeze her eyes shut. Diana put her down in the lean-to and fumbled two more ibuprofen from her bag. Sitting on the wooden planks, she levered her legs up one at a time and then inched her body back until she was leaning against the big cooler against the wall. There she sat feeling each spasm in her back, watching her daughter dip to the boards and inspect the items scattered there, a plastic cup, a head lamp, Marcus's fishing hat. Slowly her conversation with Sylvie settled on the scale. Again she heard Sylvie saying, "Diana he was so upset! I just kept telling him to breathe, until he was able to explain why he'd acted that way." Now in her head the rest of the conversation was going very differently, she was saying, "Your son's a bully, a spoiled brat."
Out of the rain her son appeared. Dripping. Grinning. He climbed into the lean-to and ran its dimensions in short erratic bursts, accustoming his body to the space.
"Watch your sister!" Diana barked when he nearly stepped on her fingers.
He stopped then. All the pleasure left his face."It's more fun over there," he said, and hopped back out and disappeared.
Someday Constantine would get his, Diana thought grimly, recalling Marcus's first words after the bucket incident. She'd never heard Sylvie even raise her voice to him, much less punish him. With her own kids Diana employed immediate consequences, and typically physical ones. Ten jumping jacks were soon over and forgotten and moreover they provided exercise—something Constantine clearly lacked.
But Diana would admit, to herself at least, that it wasn't only jumping jacks. Often she shouted. Occasionally, she screamed. Sometimes she used tickle spots as sources of remonstrance, pressing the sensitive muscle between her son's neck and shoulder until he giggled and squirmed free, or inserting her finger under his arm and sliding up until he twisted away, laughing, capitulating. Twice she'd gripped his arm too hard, and once when he jumped on her back suddenly, she'd put her hands back to fend him off. He still had the tiny sickle scar and sometimes when he touched it his eyes would go far away, as if measuring the distance between his knowledge of the way things were and the way they were supposed to be. Remembering now she despised herself, and hoped he would not some day. Would he confront her like she had her own mother, would he say to a friend she never beat me, but there were a million other ways she tried to destroy me?
Trapped in a shack by a cold hard rain, and everyone else was having a better time without her. Even Lucie was ignoring her. Suddenly and unmistakably, she felt like her mother. It was a crystalline sensation, almost an inhabitation: this was one of her mother's funks. This feeling that the whole world was against her, while at the same time knowing it was herself who was in the wrong. There was something deeply wrong with her. There was something deeply wrong with everyone. It was all part of the same funk feeling.
She wanted a drink. She wanted three drinks. She thought about the prosecco in the cooler behind her. Why not? Just sit here and drink some. Even one sip would change her mental state, numb her back and chill her brain so she could walk over there and join the crowd. Suddenly she craved the heady grace of sparkling wine. Her mother would have drunk the whole bottle if she felt like it, unapologetically, belligerently. Diana imagined herself taking a sip and then hearing someone approach and fumbling it back into the cooler. Once, before she was a mother herself, she might have risked it, but not now. It was just this feeling, this—desperately, she looked out at the rain.
The forest glistened. Leaves dripped. Green fluoresced.
The call repeated, once and then again. A lingering tremolo, it sounded like the laughter of the insane except it wasn't menacing, just unreal. For as long as it lasted nothing felt real, and in its wake there was a loosening. A lightening. Inside or out Diana couldn't distinguish at first, but she felt herself growing apart from the funk feeling, envisioning it shrinking until it was a hard hot ball in her hands.
At that moment, Sylvie appeared. "Rain's slowing," she said. "Do you think we should we brave a fire?"
"Sure," Diana said to her friend, answering that question and more.
They worked with a sense of adventure then, Richard holding an umbrella over the fire ring while Marcus fashioned an intricate construction of paper twists and Sylvie foraged for dry kindling. Diana poured cherry spritzers for the children and then blushing only a little, said, "Is anyone ready for a glass of prosecco? Or is it still too early yet?"
After dinner they stayed up late talking by the fire. The boys lit sticks and drew things in smoke. Finally Constantine said he had to pee. Rowan did too, and so Diana offered to take them. They raced ahead of her into the bathroom and immediately raced out again. Rowan clutched her hand as she led them back through the weak bathhouse light, and even Constantine stayed close. It was dark inside and all the stall doors were closed. That's what had spooked them, she thought, and smiled. When Constantine stepped forward and pushed one open, she touched his hair. "Good job," she said.
Outside again, the night was black. The stars were bright. The boys turned on their headlamps and began playing tag. The bobbing beams made them easy to find as they ranged through the forest behind the campsites. Then suddenly there was only one light. Far off in the trees, it went one way, and then the other, and then stopped. Moments later she heard giggling. Constantine was invisible without his light but the zipping of his tent gave him away as he climbed inside.
She was running even before she heard the cry.
That night the loon's call was high and rising, interspersed with a series of sharp liquid beats. It woke Diana from a dream of drowning and then lasted so long she fell back to sleep before it was over. Marcus dreamed he'd murdered Constantine and then tried to cover it up, with people finding out bits and pieces as the dream went on. He told Diana about it sotto-voiced the next morning while packing up the tent.
According to Richard's car thermometer it was only 46 degrees. Sylvie said she'd felt the cold seeping up from the ground during the night. A thick fog enveloped them while they ate but once the sun rose higher it all burned off and left behind a perfect morning. Marcus decided to get a last hour of fishing in and Richard said he'd finish packing while Sylvie and Diana took the boys to the swimming cove, bled off some of that energy before the long drive home. Already they were arguing, and Rowan kept hounding Diana to let them play a game on her iPad. Finally she said if they behaved they could play it when they got back. They ran ahead then, bumping shoulders in their hurry to get to the cove, but upon reaching it the women found them at it again, gripping each other's shirts, each trying to drag the other down.
Constantine let go. "He pulled me first!" he cried.
Rowan let go too. His face wrinkled up, about to cry.
"Well, you were both fighting," Sylvie said, "so you've both lost the iPad. Wasn't that Diana's rule?"
Constantine shrugged. "I didn't want to play it anyway."
But Rowan came running, pressed his face to Diana's stomach. "He was hitting me. I was only stopping him," he said. "Please Mommy, can I still play the iPad?"
She wanted to let him, believed what he said, but how could she overrule Sylvie now? "No," she said, "I'm sorry, but no."
He hit her then, her arm, her leg. "I hate you!" he shouted. "And I hate Constantine too!" He ran away. She followed him. The forest was silent but for the sound of his weeping. Isn't it strange, she thought, looking down at the ground, how sometimes the answer is a path with all its markers and turning points illuminated, and other times I can't even remember the question?
Then her son was beside her, slipping his hand into hers. "I'm sorry, Mommy," he said. “It’s okay,” she answered, bending to hug him. “We all get mad sometimes.”
Swimming towards them was a flock of mallard ducks. Fearless, they waddled right up onto the sand. Diana rummaged around in her diaper bag and found a baggie with a few crackers in it. "Break them up," she said, doling them out, "so they last longer."
Rowan fed the ducks tiny pieces from his fingers. "Mommy, it doesn't hurt!" he said. "It just feels like they're bonking you gently."
Constantine threw his whole cracker at the ducks' heads and then came running back for more. Once, twice, three times he did this, ignoring both women when they told him not to until finally Diana said he'd had enough. Then he went barreling into the water, kicking up spray and scaring all the ducks away.
"I know I second guess myself too much," Sylvie said, watching him climb to the top of the pyramid rock, "but I'm just so afraid my mother's quicksilver temper will come out of me."
Diana's own mother's temper was a hard hot burn, just like her own. You can judge a child separately from its mother, she thought, but didn't believe it. Who's the loon? she thought, and then said, "You know, I saw myself as a kind of pariah until I met you."
Sylvie laughed. "Me too," she said.
Diana looked out at the water then and saw Rowan climbing the pyramid rock. The moment he reached the top, Constantine stuck out a hand. And then her son was arcing out over the still shallow lake, his body gold and winking in the morning light.
Katherine Forbes Riley is a computational linguist and writer in Vermont. She is currently a visiting writer at The American Academy in Rome. A Dartmouth graduate with a PhD from UPennsylvania, her creative writing has been a finalist at Slice and Calyx, and appears in Paper Nautilus, Blue Monday Review, decomP, Fiction Southeast, Noö, Spartan, Jellyfish Review, Conium, James Franco Review, Mulberry Fork, Halfway Down The Stairs, Crack the Spine, Storyscape, Whiskey Island, Lunch Ticket, Eunoia, Literary Orphans, Eclectica, BlazeVOX, McNeese Review, Akashic Books and Buffalo Almanack, from whom she received the Inkslinger's Award.