Dave Sanfacon listens as the bullfrogs croaking in the Vermont woods define and guard the night, and wonders why his father can’t do the same.
She draws the word out playfully. It sounds to me like an accusation.
She pulls my hand to her belly, eight months pregnant with twins. I feel a sharp ‘jab-jab-jab’ across my palm, like a baby bird trying to poke its way out of the shell. I stop breathing, as if under water, my next breath promising to choke me.
“You’re going to be such a great father,” she said.
I think of our car, going for a ride in the dark, down to the river, invisible.
“Think about how much they’re already loved,” she says. “After all we’ve been through and not giving up, how can they not know that their daddy and mommy love them?”
Something like a fist latches onto my guts and squeezes. I remember a dream I had the previous night, that same old Vermont dream. It’s the deep of winter, frigid and blustery, snow tornadoes dancing across the hills of my childhood home and something squirming beneath the endless white.
“They love you,” she says.
They don’t know me.
“They’re almost here,” she says.
I don’t think I want to be a father anymore.
She lies back on the couch and closes her eyes. She’s asleep before I start breathing again. I’m struck by how beautiful she appears. Her face, always lovely, has become something more, something evocative—like snow on Christmas Eve, like waking to the smell of cinnamon. Her hair, always blonde, appears now even fairer, the slightest of curls dangling like a willow across her neck, softening her angles, framing her in ways delicate and artful. And her belly, my God her belly—the big bulging pop of it, the way it shines, and the feel of it—one moment soft and malleable, the next firm and tight as a drum. I watch her belly as she sleeps—the lift and the settle, the rise and fall, the up and down—time measured in breath, whispering forward.
She opens her eyes. She sees me seeing her. She smiles. She shuts her eyes. She sleeps again and the smile lingers. Hers is a lovely smile, a smile I thought I might never see again. Three miscarriages in twenty months and her smile was smothered by a grief that threatened to break her. But she did not break. She knew that someday she would be a mommy. And now she is eight months pregnant with twins and she smiles often and I wonder if it is I who is breaking.
Something inside me isn’t right.
My wife is in love with our unborn children.
I fear them.
I jump off the couch and open the window and a cold gust of air slams against my face numbing my cheeks and watering my eyes. I open the screen and poke my head out and the sky above startles with its commitment to blackness. I close my eyes and the blackness dissolves into a brilliant sunset and I remember the first miscarriage on Paradise Island—the ocean side cocktail party, the sunset and the cramps, the hotel suite and the blood swirling in the toilet bowl. I remember the second miscarriage, our apartment in Cambridge, a tiny sac dropping from her body into the toilet and how calmly she lifts the sac from the bloodied water and places it in a plastic bag. And the third miscarriage, the third miscarriage, the third miscarriage … I try to remember the third miscarriage but I remember nothing—except that my wife was near to broken and I’d felt something like relief.
I open my eyes. Off to the West, low on the horizon, a thin slice of moon is perched atop the black sky like a cradle. A breeze swirls up from the ground below, surging up the brick façade of our building, tickling its way into my ears in gentle whispers. The whispers trace a voice from long ago. I close my eyes and jump over the moon—the wind behind and beyond whispering “Daddy.”
I looked behind me, back toward my home on top of the hill, back to my father, his far-away voice echoing through the hollows of the swamp.
Summer was near over. The air was cool. The evening sun lay low in the sky leaving all shadows to fall long and slim. I sat hunched over the edge of the swamp awaiting the call of the bullfrogs.
“Half an hour,” he said, loud as he could, which wasn’t loud at all.
I heard the screen door closing. In my minds eye I saw my dad disappear into the kitchen. It was Sunday night, his night to cook. Chinese food. He’d prep all afternoon—the garlic and ginger, the pork and chicken, the vegetables separated according to color, chopping and dicing and the big silver wok beside him on the stove awaiting the sesame oil and sizzle.
The evening was quiet down by the swamp. The sun dropped behind our rooftop and the swamp darkened. The bullfrogs should have been croaking by now, but the only sound came from the water gurgling just beneath the surface.
Then I heard the piano. Dad must be done prepping. He’d play piano for twenty minutes and then head back upstairs to cook. I liked watching him play piano, the back of his head swaying to the melody, his fingers wandering from middle C like ripples in a pond. He was playing Beethoven, that pretty song about moonlight. He really loved that song. I could tell because when he played it he’d close his eyes and lift his head up high and get real far away. He seemed happy to disappear into that faraway place. I’m not sure where he went. I never asked him. He never told me. We never talked much. I liked the moonlight song too. It sounded to me what lonesome might sound like if lonesome could whisper.
From the far side of the swamp I heard a faint rustling sound followed by a sharp ‘click’ and then something like a snapping whip followed by a noise that sounded like a foot stepping through slush.
“Goddamn, that’s twenty two!”
It was Eddie. He wasn’t supposed to be on our land. He wasn’t allowed in our house.
Eddie liked to hit people. He liked to swear, too. He was good at both. He seemed to be good at everything that made me feel sick inside. Earlier that summer he showed up with his little brother Andy for the baseball game we played every day on the field adjacent to our barn—and he just kept coming back. He was three years older than me, but seemed older than that, aging in increments of habit rather than time. He took up smoking at age ten, Camels, no filters. At eleven he took to drinking from tiny brown bottles hidden in his pockets. I remember the bottles smelled of ammonia and sour peaches and made his eyes turn back into his skull and when he drank more than three of them he would share his interpretation of the Bible and speak badly about “Jews” and “niggers.” The previous month Eddie had turned twelve. His dad gave him a BB gun, a Daisy Model 880.
I turned toward the voice but couldn’t see anything through the murk. I looked back toward my home, back to my dad and the piano and the moonlight song. He stumbled near the end of the song and went back to the beginning, repeating the lines, fracturing the flow.
It was near to dinnertime. I wanted to go home but couldn’t escape the tug of dread and excitement one gets from playing games in the dark, that fraction of a second before a body steps from the shadows and screams “Boo!” So I crept along the edge of the swamp, across the buckthorns and canary grass, nearer to the sounds, nearer to the voice. Beside me the cattails peeked up from the green ooze like periscopes. Above me the thick balsam firs draped the swamp in permanent dusk. Below me the gnarled tree roots reached up from the ground like limbs grasping.
He was close.
My dad was probably at the stove right then, cooking up his dishes. I liked his hoisin chicken the best. I hated when he put almonds in the dishes. Sometimes he used too much ginger, which to me tasted like Ivory soap. I also loved his hot and sour soup. That was his specialty. I liked watching him cook, standing behind him and seeing the back of his head bob and weave as he chopped and stirred. I liked the different smells, the sound of meat sizzling, smoke rising and disappearing. I liked all the different colors in the wok, red and green and white and yellow, all drowning in oil. Sometimes I wished I could cook with him, but I never asked him, and he never invited me. He was really careful when he cooked, everything slow and precise. Maybe that’s what made him a good doctor.
I stepped across a thicket of fallen branches, twigs brittle as spaghetti strands snapping underfoot. The swamp opened into a stream and the stream was bridged by a beaver dam and the beaver dam was near to collapsing. Clouds of tiny bugs hovered above the stream like little nightmares, assaulting my eyes and buzzing inside my ears like electricity. They were relentless rotten little things, miniscule blood junkies fixing on my skin. [Click to continue reading]