by Rebecca Taylor Fremo
My two boys darted ahead, chasing each other in circles as we followed the aging concrete path from Minneopa Falls back to the parking lot. “C’mon guys,” I begged for the fourteenth time. “Try to stay by the picnic tables. You’re way too close to the edge.” Winston and Ellet moved closer to the thin iron fence separating the picnic area from the falls of Minneopa Creek. Soon they bumped into an aging redwood picnic table sheltering a pile of sticks, heaped upon one another almost as if a picnicker had tried to start a tiny campfire.
As we neared the table, the pile seemed to move. I turned first to my sons then back to the sticks nestled on the ground. Only the sticks weren’t nestled. They were nesting.
“SNAKE!” my seven-year old cried.
But it wasn’t just one snake. Dozens of them slipped through the pale April grass. Ellet, nearly four, squatted, blonde head cocked to the left. His older brother Winston had already begun to speak parseltongue to them, a new trick he’d learned from reading Harry Potter books.
“I’m doing it, Mom! They’re listening!” Win was on all fours, wiggling his fingers at the snakes, hissing through the wide gap where his front teeth used to be.
“Hsssssaaaasssaaaahsssah,” Ellet mimicked him.
I felt sure I would pass out. Sweat dripped into my eyes and salted my tongue. Suddenly I felt Brian behind me, and I was stunned by how quickly he’d read the situation: Mother panicking. Children close to snake nest. New stepfather must save the day. He moved down next to my sons. “It’s just a nest of garter snakes. They come out right at the end of the winter. See how they’re all moving the same direction? They’re trying to find their way back down the falls.”
“I told them to go there,” Winston declared. Brian just rolled his eyes, a small smile nearly visible below his greying mustache. He makes that face a lot when Winston talks.
“We don’t touch them,” Ellet repeated the litany Brian had taught him back in October, a way, he hoped, to prevent cat-scratch incidents at home.
“We don’t pet them. We don’t squeeze them,” Ellet chanted.
Brian had captured Ellet’s full attention, affording me a rare teaching moment. “The mommy snakes probably have nests down there. See how the mommies run down the hole so fast to protect their eggs?” Once I could breathe again, I couldn’t resist this opportunity to reframe the narrative. Brian just shook his head at me. Maybe reptiles don’t really have maternal instincts. But my sons needed to hear a story about motherlove.
“Oh, the mommy is down there.” Ellet seemed delighted with this new tale.
Brian rolled his eyes playfully at me and moved away.
Bad first marriages never really leave us. Mine played tricks on me, making me doubt my own instincts. That failed first marriage ate away at me, consuming all the parts of me that my kids really needed: the silliness, the emotional availability. I became guarded, expecting the worst of everyone. I lived in a constant state of “fight or flight” for years, always searching for the barbs below the surface of every conversation, always armed with insults, so I could attack before being attacked. Once I stopped fighting and decided to fly, I turned all that defensiveness back in on myself, embarrassed to live inside my own skin. Soon I hesitated to scoop the kids up for a kitchen dance after dinner, and I was too self-conscious to jump in and wade with them in their backyard Barney pool. And then I began to really miss my children, even though they were splashing around, right beside me.
I was raised to believe that marriage is forever, no matter how goddamned miserable. But the day my ex-husband and I separated, just one morning after our eleventh wedding anniversary, the ground didn’t open up to swallow me. The first month that I was able to make my mortgage payment without tapping my 401k or the Bank of My Parents, I stopped expecting geological problems altogether. One year after the split, I started to revise my understanding of what could constitute a happy ending—or at least an acceptable narrative arc—for my own life.
For the next two years as a single mother, I went to bed each night with the deep satisfaction that comes not from having created life, but from having sustained it for yet another day. I was completely responsible for keeping my sons alive. They ate because I earned money for groceries. They had clean clothes because I washed them the night before. When they laughed, it was usually because I had somehow urged that delightful sound from them, and when they wailed, I had to accept responsibility for that, too.
I liked having nobody else to blame when cat hair clumped along the faux pine baseboards. My ex-husband and I had battled in the kitchen each evening, keeping careful score of each chore completed, how many nights one of us got to watch television rather than bathe the boys, how many times one got to go to an evening work function while the other stayed home. But now only a chipped cast iron sink remained, and we no longer faced off over piles of dirty dishes, eyeing each other like drunken cowboys to see who’d turn yeller first. Once Greg moved out, I lost track of how many times Winston had peed on the carpet. I stared, satisfied, as maple syrup crystallized on the floor beneath Ellet’s high chair. There’s a kind of grace in the filth your family makes, and a kind of power in being the one to decide whether to keep it or clean it.
But once Brian moved in with us, just a few weeks before our wedding, I began to notice the filth again. I saw our home through his eyes: my forty-year old fiancé had kept his own trailer home cleaner than I kept our three-bedroom rambler. He went a little overboard pitching in at first. I’d come home from the college where I taught, exhausted from trying to sound smart all day, only to find that where I had left three towering baskets of smelly boy clothes, Brian was now folding laundry with gusto, talk-radio blaring. I always thanked him for doing it. But I wasn’t always grateful.
When Brian and I woke up that Sunday in late April, just a few months after our wedding, we hadn’t really planned a trip to Minneopa Falls. The day before, we’d worn ourselves out digging a second vegetable garden in the backyard. I earned Brian’s respect when I proved I could do all the digging myself, even in April dirt, only recently thawed, without renting the cultivator from our hardware center. “There may be some farm blood in you yet,” he’d said, loading the fourth wheelbarrow full of sod into his 1974 Ford pick-up.
Soon the boys blew in from their weekend at Dad’s apartment, and he and I exchanged the requisite parental information (our version of a churchless Sunday ritual):
“El’s still rubbing his nose a lot, but there aren’t any more snot rivers,” Greg reported.
“Was the river green or yellow on Friday?”
“Kind of chartreuse–sickly yellow, maybe,” he said. It’s a testament to their dad’s devotion that he could actually answer this disgusting question.
“Did you get his temp yesterday?”
“Nope. But he ate well,” he offered.
At McDonald’s, all kids eat well, I thought. It’s a testament to my own devotion that I didn’t speak these words out loud.
We stopped talking once the boys began to unpack, flinging backpacks to the floor and hanging jackets on the backs of kitchen chairs. Winston ran straight to his room to read. Ellet barged into the kitchen in his green windbreaker, squeezed Bogie, one of our three cats, and melted down almost immediately when he couldn’t find his special airplane, the A3-20. Ellet was learning the names of airplanes from his favorite video du jour, “Mighty Machines at the Airport.” Once El located the tiny metal plane beneath his Buzz Lightyear quilt, he began to sing his current song du jour, the theme from the video. We now borrowed this VHS cassette from the library on a weekly basis, and Ellet and Brian have bonded over their mutual love for big equipment. Brian, who in his previous life restored International pick-ups, Chevy Caprices and antique tractors, finds Ellet’s devotion to bulldozers, airplanes, and trains endearing. He has a much harder time relating to Winston’s hobbies: playing chess, reading Harry Potter books, listening to funk music with his mommy, solving the extra credit math problems.
When Ellet finished his chorus of “Mighty Machines,” we knew what he’d request next: hours in front of the television, watching the video over and over. We needed a healthy alternative. “How about a trip to Minneopa Falls?” I asked.
Before we pulled in to the parking lot at Minneopa State Park, Winston and Ellet had already begun to argue. I’d agreed to let Brian drive his ’89 Chevy, hoping the fun of riding in The Big Car would be enough to stop the bickering that seemed inevitable in my Subaru. And when I saw the reluctance with which Brian turned off the radio broadcast of the Minnesota Twins game, I felt a twinge of guilt. Before he’d moved in with us, Brian enjoyed the deluxe cable television package, the one that included full coverage of the Twins, no matter when or where the team played. At my place, where we had the cheap-ass “this is what we give you so you wish you had more channels” package, we only watched the Twins when they happened to play Chicago on WGN. But what I gained from the sacrifice was priceless: the understanding that I controlled the images my kids consumed, the knowledge that they’d never hear the word “fuck”—at least, not from some stranger on television.
As the boys pushed each other across the acre of backseat in Brian’s car, I missed those weekends when we were still just dating. I’d either drive the two and a half hours to Brian’s place in Western Minnesota or he’d visit me. Alone, we explored one another’s territory on his Honda Goldwing. Riding on the back of Brian’s motorcycle served me up a delicious cocktail, a rare indulgence: total lack of responsibility with a twist of fresh air. I had no control over where we went or when we’d get there. If something went wrong out on the bike, it wasn’t my fault.
We finally parked the car and Brian unbuckled Ellet from his car seat as if he’d been doing it all his life. I wondered if he felt any regret. It had to bother him to give up the privileges of single life: baseball games, cable television, smoking in the house.
Once free of their restraints, Ellet and Winston dashed straight for the bridge crossing Minneopa Creek. Ellet ran across, stumbling as he neared the portion of the trail that skirts a limestone cliff before descending steep stone steps to the basin of the falls. I yelled his name, using an awful East coast screech that Minnesota mothers would never let loose in public. Sprinting after Ellet, I grabbed him by the arm and threatened to take him back to the car. As Ellet struggled and cried, Brian moved decisively toward us. He sank into a squat, instinctively lowering himself to my son’s eye-level.
I stalked ahead, a little jealous of Brian’s skills as a parent. I heard him tell Ellet, “We’ll just have to stay right here until you’re ready to hold my hand.” I kept walking, determined to catch up with Winston. I figured I could salvage the day by sharing it with the one child who might still need me that morning.
Soon the falls were so close we could feel the spray. Ellet began to count the steps as he went down, skipping more quickly than I could. But I refused to let go of his hand as we descended the steps, and Ellet started crying, red-faced and furious. Again Brian moved in, scooped Ellet up over his shoulder, asking if he liked to count upside-down. Seeing that Brian’s attention was diverted, Winston left the path and climbed toward the wall of rock to our left, his eyes darting back occasionally to watch his new stepfather guiding his little brother forward.
I followed Winston’s gaze and realized that Ellet and Brian had already crossed the creek and were now ascending the limestone steps on the other side. I began to panic as I watched my youngest child climb higher and higher, no longer holding Brian’s hand. He was now so far away from me that I couldn’t catch him in time if he fell. I looked to my right, and saw Winston moving farther away from me, edging towards the creek, stepping sideways to avoid turning an ankle on the steep trail, which was crisscrossed by exposed tree roots and jagged teeth of upturned stone.
I had two choices: I could trust Brian’s ability to guide Ellet while I followed Winston along the water’s edge, or I could abandon Winston and climb the stairs toward his brother. Either option meant that at least one of my boys would complete this journey without my help.
During the final months of my first marriage, few words passed between my husband and me that weren’t steeped in anger. Most of our conflicts seemed to involve sleep. When the boys woke up crying in the middle of the night, we’d argue about whose turn it was to get out of bed and comfort them. When Win was a toddler, his dad and I took turns sitting at his bedside until he went to sleep. But when my husband did the sitting, he simply fell asleep first, his red head near Winston’s strawberry blonde one, both sets of ears poking out at exactly the same angle. Winston chattered happily to himself as his dad snored.
This infuriated me. I couldn’t sleep while one of my children lay awake. So many possibilities for harm: an accidentally unlatched stairway gate, a bottle of bleach mistakenly left in the bathroom, the chainless front door. So when it was my night to sit with Win, I stared out the window for the hour or more it took him to fall asleep, imagining all those dangerous possibilities. The longer I sat, listening to my sweet boy breathe while his father either played with his aquariums or slept blissfully in the basement, the more I seethed.
Winston required these evening sit-ins for more than two years, so my rage intensified, and the volatility between Greg and me must have provided just enough spark to ignite a meticulously planned second pregnancy. Maybe I thought adding a new character would help us change the story their dad and I seemed so determined to write. But by the time Win’s baby brother Ellet reached his first birthday, we had split up for good.
Once we separated, I never felt that ball of fury in my chest when I sat at night with Ellet. Instead, I looked forward to the silence of his room, interrupted only by the soft hiss of the vaporizer on the bureau. I used to close my eyes and remember the stillness and humidity of Virginia nights back home. I was back in high school, reliving those last pre-curfew moments in our driveway, sitting in my Datsun 310, just after I killed the engine, reluctant to leave the car and go inside. And if I left Ellet’s room at 3:00 a.m. and found that Winston had already crawled into my queen-sized bed to wait for me, I didn’t care. It felt right to have him there. He let me tell him stories.
My favorite story was the one I told myself, long after Win fell asleep: the tale of two little boys who never saw their parents kiss, rarely saw them laugh together, and nearly grew up believing this was normal. Then one day their mommy woke up and knew, really knew, that it was better to live alone than to be lonely with someone else. And only after she knew it and believed it could she find real love. And when she did, it felt like a miracle. It felt like every cliché from every love song she’d ever heard. It was like Jim Croce and Dr. Hook and Otis Redding. Like Journey songs played at full volume in a Datsun 310 on graduation night. Their mommy found love even as a nearly forty-year old overeducated, overweight single mother living in the rural Midwest. So every Sunday when the little boys came home from their daddy’s house, their mommy and step-dad would always take them on an adventure outside. The end.
That was the story I was trying to write on the day that Brian and I brought the boys to Minneopa Falls.
A few weeks later, we returned to Minneopa. But the snakes were gone. The babies had slithered off in a hundred directions, wherever their instincts led them. Who knows how many small children, just like mine, might bend down to the grass where those snakes were now, seeking the source of sudden movement? The desire to explore is elemental, like earth or water. But so is fear. Even when our intellectual selves tell us not to be afraid, that we won’t spontaneously combust, for instance, if we leave our husbands, or that our children won’t necessarily fall into the river if they wander off the path, our feeling selves aren’t quite ready to believe it. Can we blame ourselves? We live in a world where sticks can turn to snakes in an instant.
Back when they believed the world was flat, English mapmakers included a caution at the edges of the paper: here be dragons. Sail beyond this point, beyond our own familiar world, and you’re on your own. My first marriage was that flat world. I couldn’t conceive of a life beyond its confines. Even when I dared to imagine myself as an explorer, the stories I wrote in my head always ended badly, punctuated by scenes of financial ruin, loneliness, exhaustion. Of course, we learned later that the world wasn’t flat, that we wouldn’t simply find ourselves riding the waves of the netherworld for all eternity, trying to evade the dragons that surely waited for us there. But the phrase lived on in our memories and imaginations. And the fear of the unknown lived on in me.
Even though our children are sleeping safely in their beds, they can always wake up and wander the house, thirsty for what lingers in the one bottle of household cleaner that doesn’t have a safety cap. Even though our marriages are miserable, we might be even more miserable if we leave our partners. Even though we know a pile of sticks can’t possibly be alive, still it can transform into a nest of writhing snakes.
Those ancient mapmakers were right: the world does have dangerous edges, boundaries that, once crossed, can never be uncrossed. But it is possible to bring a companion on the voyage. You just have to trust that he’ll be waiting when you come up for air, and that he’ll stay with you, even when sticks begin to dance.