You’re here again and this time you’re sitting on the sofa with my mom. I can’t stop staring at your claws. Soft brown eyes like a middle school boyfriend and a nose as big as a coffee mug. Wet with snot. Slick, black lips. These details are almost too much, like a cartoon that I can smell. You pant hot, deep tuba breaths through your open mouth in perfect staccato rhythm. (Have you swallowed a metronome? Are we at band practice?) You’re staring at me staring at you from across the living room entryway, one hand on the doorknob in case I need to escape. No offense.
This living room scene is appearing very dignified and I fully expect finger sandwiches to be served on a wheelie cart any moment until my mom reaches out to pat your husky, unfamiliar shoulder like you’re a visiting uncle from Indiana or something. I warn her not to do it, but she does it anyway. Even in dreams she refuses to listen to me. Her pointer finger is gnarled up from overuse or early arthritis or heavy drinking we’re not sure, but there’s a big witchy knob growing right in the middle of it. She doesn’t say but I know she’s thinking your shoulder hair is coarser than it appears. Less like fur, more like small brown wires, probably useful for quick drying. How do you stand on the edge of a waterfall without falling in? Never mind. I say stupid boring things when I’m trying to get someone to like me. Apologies.
My mom is too close but because you are so beautiful maybe she thinks it doesn’t matter. Maybe she thinks your beauty is a barrier, that you will always be this cool. But the moment she touches you with that knobby finger you attack, swiping at her chest, her neck, her face with your black claws, each one of them a poised dagger. You are up on all fours on the sofa, cowering over her small body, a furry brown building ready for the kill. Your roar deafening. Your meaning precise.
My mom’s last words are a gurgle.
Nice touch. Anyway, I thought you were in the bushes a few weeks ago but it was just a giant bull moose eating leaves. His rack was exactly the size of a kitchen table and soaked in fuzzy velvet. He reminded me of Elton John. I stood there on a trail watching Elton John grunt and eat leaves with my family and some other families. It felt like we were watching TV but it was real life, you know? Really happening. I took a lot of pictures though I was disappointed he wasn’t you. Like the time I was trying to meet Sting after a concert by hanging around out back behind the dumpsters and all I met was his sister-in-law. I was nineteen and living in London, wearing a long velvet skirt that Elton John would have gone nuts over. My plan was to start singing the moment Sting emerged from the back stage door and he would be overcome and invite me on tour. When instead I was shooed away from the dumpsters by the security guard, I went crying back to my Swiss Cottage flat and on the way I let a middle-aged guy with a greasy ponytail usher me into his closed cafe. He could have killed me but instead he made me a steak while I sat at the empty bar nursing my shattered dreams and feeling very sorry for myself that I wasn’t on tour in the arms of my beloved.
You have the same initials as my ninety-two-year-old grandma. She slept on my couch just last week and I took a picture of her sleeping because she looked so dead it was funny. She was wearing a white nightgown that was basically a doily with arm holes. Three squishy pink curlers nestled into her coifed hair and her face wrinkles all piled off to one side like they were taking their own separate nap. All of her wags and swings. My grandma likes to be extremely naked in her kitchen extremely early in the morning. She says it’s good to give yourself some air first thing. She misses VHS and I tell her so do I. We drink wine and play Kings in the Corner until the cows come home. She tells me secrets about her marriage to my grandpa who once threw a frozen turkey at her head. How when he got sick he became much nicer because he couldn’t drink anymore. How she was very grateful for those sick years.
My husband’s grandma died just last night. We visited her in the hospital and I could tell she was on her way out. It was cold in that hospital room and her bare legs just laid there on top of the mattress, all skin and vein and bone. I would have covered them for her but we didn’t have that kind of a relationship. She had purple eyebrows tattooed onto her face which probably saved her a lot of time in the long run. We had a hard time keeping that final conversation going because she was so weak. At her funeral people talked about how she folded fitted sheets very well. How she liked to complain to department store managers. How clean she kept her house. She liked things straight and tidy but the mess of death came at her like a storm, breaking her bones, crunching her forward, squeezing her heart, until she was cold and gone and in the ground. I wonder how long her purple eyebrows will last down there.
I don’t like to think about dying. About my body, this lanky cave of warm tissue that houses me, being gone. It’s hard to not feel extremely important, like the world really needs me in it for balance. And for singing.
One park ranger in Canada told me a story about the time you ate a black bear just because. They deemed you dangerous and shot you three times but you survived because you’re so freaking enormous bullets just sink into your fat and evaporate like compost. You’re still out there in the wild shredding things and scaring the adults. They call you The Boss. Maybe one day you will get sick and become nicer.
I’m worried I brought it on. The dream. The Great Mom Mauling. How you think things when you’re sad or hurt or raging. And how those things burrow into your brain and manifest like crazed gremlins if you get them wet or feed them after midnight. She used to play the piano late at night while the rest of us were sleeping. I was too young to know what she was playing, but old enough to understand that it was beautiful. The air vent in my room went directly into the downstairs den where she played so I pretended she was performing a private concert just for me. She played from memory, leaning into the foot pedal softly softly softly and then WHAM hard like she had a lover down there. I sometimes picture her on the other end of my air vent, eyes closed, fingers straight, pounding away at the keys after a long night of waitressing. It is comforting to know something else used to fill her up at night like that.
I love her but she drinks so much her brain is falling apart. I love her but I want to squeeze her face between my hands and shout into her face so loud that spit flies out.
It can be helpful to get away. See the sights. Have you ever been to New York City? I used to live there by a big cemetery with a lot of feral cats. I used to think, I’m really doing it. I’m really doing the thing I said I was going to do. Rain was exciting! Buying milk was exciting! I went there to sing on Broadway but I didn’t really do anything except eat a lot of chicken wings, get pregnant, and star in a Carpet King Commercial. Agents gave it to me straight: Colgate commercials were definitely out. Okay thank you for your time motherfuckers. New York is like that. One minute it’s killing you and the next minute it’s making love to you slowly in all the right places.
I miss the smell. It’s like fresh waffle cones and forgotten about chicken. Putrid and sweet like everything is alive and blooming and dead and rotting all at the same time. A real slam jam joy ride. Bodies oozing and flopping and careening right into you. Piles of garbage and then BAM Lindsey Lohan in a pants suit. I bet you’d love it. Do you love anything, G.B.? I saw two of you making love once. Very far away, just two dots on a hill, but I zeroed in with binoculars and then I saw that you were humping. At first it was exciting but then I got bored, like how I feel when I watch the Super Bowl. It went on for so very long it got me wondering if maybe you couldn’t finish? (It happens. Carry on cheerfully the next morning. Toast a bagel.) While you were draped over her like a Volkswagen she was poking around in the grass, turning over small rocks looking for grubs, wanting a snack break but you kept at her. At one point you bit her neck roughly, forcing her back into position. I cringed when I saw that. I mean, it’s easier to just imagine the bad things happening. And by easier I mean safer. And by safer I mean easier. And by easier I mean I don’t know if people actually love me or if they are just tricking me.
My therapist says I’m wounded. You’re supposed to take great care with wounded people because they are fragile, but wounded people can be very self-centered because they are always focused on their own big, goopy wounds. This one time my guts were hanging outside of my body dripping all over the kitchen floor. (This is a metaphor.) It was so unreal I couldn’t believe it was happening. Eventually I put my guts back inside myself but I think I put them back in the wrong order. So my spleen is where my diaphragm should be and my diaphragm is where my liver should be and my liver is where my small intestine should be and my small intestine is where my heart should be and my heart is where my appendix should be. At least it feels that way, I’m no organ specialist.
There are many ways to be ripped to shreds.
My class homecoming queen recently died of cervical cancer. The day she died, someone tagged me in a photo on Facebook that was taken the moment she was crowned. There I am, twenty years ago, standing behind her in a sparkly navy dress, my thin lips curled in disgust, my narrowed eyes boring hot holes into the back of her newly crowned head. Jealous. I wanted what she had. Straight hair, actual breasts, a blonde boyfriend who was good at singing. Now she is dead and buried in Colorado where there are a lot of sage bushes. After she died someone wrote on her brother’s Facebook page that we should all vaccinate our daughters against HPV and I wanted to rip that person’s head off. What the actual fuck? People make me so angry I want to full on throttle them sometimes. Just squeeze their throats a little bit to make them understand, you know what I mean? How dumb they are. How strong I am.
I’m trying to tell you everything I can think of.
Anyway. She was beautiful. The kind of beauty that is unfair but you feel grateful that it exists. Her forehead was just the right size. When she smiled, her eyebrows stayed on the same plane. Her teeth were all perfectly lined up like geese. These are the right qualities for a homecoming queen to have.
You do this to me. Get me all riled up. When I see signs on the trail that say Bear in Area or Bear Activity or You are Entering Grizzly Country Get Ready to Be Ripped to Shreds You Dumb Idiots The Boss is Probably Stalking You Right Now Bear Spray is Useless You May as Well Spray De-tangling Conditioner at an On-Coming Freight Train. When I see signs like this my heart beats backwards and the back of my throat feels tinny like some loose change is stuck in there. Every pore in my body tingles, warning me to turn around. Go back. Danger.
I go deeper into the woods anyway because I have to. There are things in there I need to see. Air in there I need to breathe. You know what I’m talking about? All that green breathing in what we breathe out, turning it clean, handing it back to us and asking nothing in return like a very sneaky Secret Santa or the world’s biggest golden retriever. Walking around in the woods I feel like for once I’m being properly held. No one is getting too hot, no one’s arm is falling asleep. There’s real sense of stamina.
I dream about you and you probably dream about licking ants. It’s fine I’m fine. Except I never wear the right colors when I’m hiking. The problem is that I like green so much that everything I buy is green. Green leggings, green shirt, green sports bra, green hat, green hiking boots, green rain jacket, green Nalgene. Other people exhibit some self control, starting with a sensible base layer like grey or black and then building with a little pop of color from there. I start with green and then add more green. It’s like a sickness the way I need green.
When I lived in Brooklyn I would walk through the cemetery just to look at the trees. I got in trouble by a security guard who accused me of exercising. After that I walked more slowly, meandering over to graves like I was visiting somebody. In my mind I imagined paying respects to Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and Leonard Bernstein and Walter Hunt who invented the safety pin. I stood at the graves long enough to make it look like I was conjuring up fond memories of picnics that we took together back when they were alive and healthy. I was such a liar.
I just remembered another homecoming queen friend of mine died. I drove to the cemetery and stood there imagining her pretty homecoming queen bones under that slab of concrete. It was the middle of winter and the snow went all the way up to my thighs. I let it fill the tops of my boots, let it fall down into my socks and numb my calves. I still had skin that burned and flaked and freckled, turned hot and cold and clammy. The least I could do was stand there feeling something. We once went skinny dipping in Lake Superior. It was freezing and we screamed the entire time. She was the only girl I knew whose breasts were as small as mine and I had loved her for it. We thought nothing could crush us. Not even huge waves from the hugest lake in the world. Not even little white pills. I felt sad standing there in the deep snow at her gravesite and my tears left tiny frozen rivers on my face. There were no trees in that cemetery, which was fine. For once I was in a cemetery for the right reasons.
The homecoming queens are dropping like flies.
I’ve just gotten back into singing at funerals. It’s not Broadway but at least it’s something. People show up expecting mediocrity and I like to surprise them by blowing the roof off the place, really letting it rip. I can’t stand when singers at funerals are bad. I mean people are dead up there. They mowed a lot of lawns/clocked in/found their G spots/skimmed the fat/fed the dogs/weather stripped/slow roasted/quick dried/got the pontoon back up and running/hurried home and then cancer or Alzheimers ate their bodies and they fought the good fight. They deserve Céline Dion. They deserve Beyoncé. I’m not trying to brag.
We dress up dead bodies and sing. You sit on dead bodies and wait. A teenage boy out for a run. A wilderness guide. Just this morning, a French composer out gathering nature sounds. Last year, a young mother and her ten-month-old. You were desperate. You had eaten a porcupine and the quills were slowly ripping your stomach/intestines/bowels to shreds, preventing you from putting on your winter weight. They say mother and baby died instantly, with the baby still strapped onto her mother’s back. I saw a picture of them before it happened. The mother was outside, breathing in that green Canadian air, looking fresh and holy, her tiny blue-eyed baby peeking over her shoulder. I wonder if I’m supposed to feel sorry for you but it’s confusing.
In the dream I do nothing.
I just stand there in the doorway while you go at my mom, ripping bloody chunks from her body and shaking them between your teeth like a happy dog. I stand there watching, with more curiosity than horror, as you take apart my mother bit by bit. To you, she is no person. Just a piece of breathing meat, a passable source of protein. I know there’s something going on here, some reason why this dream keeps coming back, and it’s messing with me. I should dial 911 or chuck a pillow. Something. But I just stand there in the doorway like a hanging plant. Hooray. Daughter of the year.
Once, I was hurt very badly by someone that I love. The pain made me think that I was dying. The pain made me wish that I was dying.
I could sometimes feel my heart tripping, it’s rhythm off. Good, I thought. I spent a lot of time on the kitchen floor with my head leaning against the refrigerator because the refrigerator hummed reliably.
Heart pain is a killer.
I took pills for anxiety for a few months but they made me not have orgasms and I really like having orgasms so no more pills for me. I’m on my own now. Worried and pill-less and ready for the sack. The pills took the edge off but I missed living on the edge. Me and Aerosmith.
I can’t stand this waiting. Let’s get it over with already. A face-to-face encounter. A face-off. I figure if I can face you, if I can face a raging dewy-eyed boulder with jaws, then I can face the other things. The in-my-mind, middle-of-the-night things. The porcupine needles. Scenes on loop that rip right through your guts. I want them gone. I want to go out alone. I want my grizzly bear story and I want it to be good.
We plan a family trip to Glacier. Bear spray arrives. I order books from the library to learn more about you on the sixteen-hour drive from Minnesota, but we leave before they arrive so instead I read a book by Miriam Toews. We pull in. It’s glorious. June’s first flowers quilt the hillsides in mighty pinks and reds and yellows. White beargrass blooming round and tall like furry sticks of cotton candy. Shaggy goats defying gravity, clinging effortlessly to slippery mountain faces, baa-ing like something straight out of Sesame Street. Elton John is there and munching away. Mountains, mountains, mountains. It is Disney minus the rides, minus the everything made. I understand why you live here.
There are signs stapled everywhere. The trees, the fence posts, outside the bathrooms. Warnings. Updates. Instructions. Back away slowly. Play dead. Don’t run. Don’t climb. Don’t move. Fight back. Belly down. Fingers laced. Protect your head. Grab a knife. Say a prayer. Your shit is everywhere on the trail and it’s probably fresh. I feel like punching my fist softly into the middle of it just to see if it reacts like bread dough. A friendly ranger in a wide brimmed hat points out claw marks on a tree that start seven feet up and run all the way down. Oof, that was a big boy, she winks. Have a nice hike!
Day four and I am on the Swift Current Trail in East Glacier. It is late afternoon and my husband has just left. He wanted to continue on, do a couple more miles, see the pretty lake, and so I need to hike back with the kids alone.
I panic. Change dispenses in the back of my throat. Bile builds. Heart beats backwards. My boys. They are both still small and skinny, bare-lipped and bare-legged. All it would take is one quick swipe. I watch as my handsome husband disappears around a corner. Silence. I want to throw up.
I wasn’t planning on taking the kids with me on my solo hike. I wanted it to just be a me and you thing. An uneventful meet-n-greet between fellow omnivores. Soulful yet safe. Artfully staged with maybe a couple of hummingbirds and a light mist. And if you decided to press my body into the dirt, crack open my ribcage and sink your teeth into my warm liver at least it would be just me. But no. Now I have to protect my offspring and all I have is one measly can of bear spray and some peanut butter Cliff bars.
The three of us hike. Holding hands and singing at the top of our squishy little lungs. Edelweiss, the Ants Go Marching, Lady Gaga, clumping along the trail as loud as we can. Fat marmots scatter, disappearing into impossibly small holes. Tiny brown squirrels cannonball from the brush at my feet, making me scream, making my boys scream, making us laugh at how easily we scream. When we’re not looking down at our feet we are looking up at this glacier-carved heaven. Craggy mountain peaks dipped white with snow, lush valleys of spruce and cedar and alpine fir, and always, always a shimmering sapphire lake awaiting below. Around each corner lies majesty.
I hold my breath when the trail narrows, when I cannot see what lies ahead. Those blind curves. The overgrown brush. I brace myself, gripping the bear spray that knocks clumsily between my small breasts, bending my knees awkwardly in some sort of defensive ramble. My boys squish close behind, understanding that I must offer myself to you first, if it comes to that.
After an hour or so I feel better. Less attackable. The bile is gone. The sun is out. I’ve just received a compliment from a passing hiker on my green headscarf. My boys’ voices give out but not mine, not yet. The ants go marching on and on and on and on and on. I know you are out there, a ghost in the bushes, but I allow myself to stop looking, at least for a little while. We finish our hike and head back to the campground. I make macaroni and cheese and we eat it straight out of the pot. We see another moose, this time a mom with her calf, munching away on some leaves right there on the edge of the parking lot. We back away, giving her the space she needs. The sun is beginning to set and we are all deliciously tired from our big adventure. Walking back to our campsite I feel small hands slip into mine and something aching and soft spreading slowly like warm honey under my ribs. An organ shifting back into place.
I go home sunburned and with my liver still intact. My feet a little blistered. My voice a little hoarse. My grizzly bear story isn’t all that good. It lacked actual action. I basically just worked myself up over nothing. Lions and tigers and bears oh well.
Of course, two weeks after leaving Glacier, park rangers closed off the Swift Current Trail due to unusual grizzly bear activity. It’s a shame we missed each other. Or not. I can’t decide.
Another grandma has died. Another grandma down.
When I started writing you this letter my husband had two grandmas. Now he has no grandmas. She was one of the good ones. The banana bread and golf kind. The bingo kind. All smiles. She drove a red convertible and joked about finding a rich boyfriend with no mustache. This one died while singing at a birthday party. Death by song, can you imagine? Lying there in bed, her body looked deflated and done, like a late fall garden, finished and absent of its own glory. We are so very frail, all it takes is one small nudge and down we go.
And I cannot help but think.
That we will all end up in the ground with the earth piled up all around us. Whether or not we are beautiful. Whether or not we are kind. Whether or not we have taken Broadway by storm or remembered our daughters. Whether or not we are vicious or reckless or straight-toothed. Whether or not Sting has acknowledged our vocal potential. Whether or not our wounds have healed, if our displaced organs have settled back into place. If we have forgiven or been forgiven. If we look good in a pants suit or have loaded up on green. The earth’s wet, mossy fingers will reach for us and we will soften into soil. We will be eaten by the worms or by the birds or by the silent grass. Maybe by you, even. Nosing through a grassy meadow one day you’ll heave over a large rock and there I’ll be, eyeless and wriggling and flailing around in the sudden shock of sunlight, and you will pop me into your mouth like candy corn and that will be that. Imagine.
I tried to tell you everything I could think of.
Now stop eating my mom.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.
Excerpted from Sound Like Trapped Thunder, by Jessica Lind Peterson. Copyright © 2021 by Jessica Lind Peterson. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Hobart & William Smith College Press/Seneca Review Books.