Ember Against Gravity
After our miscarriage, we escaped to my parent's cabin, bags half-packed and full of mismatched clothes. Even in the mountains, Marie wouldn't get out of bed, despite the promise of a long, purposeful hike. Determined, I began a routine, as Dr. William St. Michaels suggested during marriage counseling, humming the I Love You song, which had the same melody as Hey Jude but with the phrase my love in the chorus. Marie, still underneath the mound of covers, would only hum the first verse before pulling the sheets back over her head. Most days, I hovered near the door, hoping she sing the along before my hike; however, no matter how long I waited nearby, she wouldn't sing alone, not even when I hummed underneath my breath, urging her to continue the song. If our voices weren't in unison, then she'd rather remain silent.
Midway through my morning hiking routine, I heard a cry down the mountain, somewhere in the underbrush. While there was a brutish quality to the screaming, it wasn't wholly animalistic. The tonality had human attributes, sort of like a child who'd left at an upscale shopping mall. I ran toward the voice, blind, cheeks raw from the branches whapping my face, caves aching from the strain of a prolonged downhill sprint.
The crying stopped when I reached the base. The forest prevented me from locating the wounded creature, even when I squinted, both hands pressed against my Mets cap. I began calling out, Here kitty, kitty, even though I knew it wasn't a cat. I just know that kids react to silliness, and I figured animals would respond in the same way. As I approached a clearing, though, the Creature dashed behind a tree, hands covering its head. I continued calling but it wouldn't even respond when I repeated the I Love You song, which I sang often, even when my wife wasn't buried underneath mounds of covers. I chased after it, humming in a low pitch.
I didn't know what to call the animal when I found it. He looked like those black and white photographs inside National Conspiracy Weekly; he even had a sloped forehead with protruding lower jaw. His skin, which was much like leather, had patches of fur around sensitive areas, much like a human. It also didn't know how to address my presence. The little guy kept repeating some guttural sound, almost as if it were choking. I inched closer, still humming the song, making sure each movement appeared deliberate. It continued making that sound, growing louder as I approached him, until the Creature screamed at my touch. Its death rattle got me thinking about the First-Aid kit inside my backpack, the one near the large supply of trail mix.
"You're going to like this, lil' buddy," I said, hands full of trail mix. "There are pieces of toffee in here, too."
When he came close, I let him peck at the trail mix while keeping my hand steady. He'd eat one at a time, then look at the brushes as if he were asking for permission. This went on for ten handful, but it wouldn't settle down no matter how much I fed him. Even though the sun hung directly above us now, I knew it would soon set, leaving the forest in a sea of darkness. Where would this creature be? In the dark, the cold, struggling without food or comfort. In my mind's eye, I pictured thousands of children, many of whom had no one to care for them, no stable parent guiding their future. So, despite my better judgment, I did what any concerned parent would do in this situation: I grabbed its hand, much like you might do with a petulant child mid tantrum, forcing it to follow me back to my father's cabin. At first, the Creature struggled, trashing against my grasp, nipping at both hands. I had to wrestle him down at one point, subduing him with the Anxiety Relief spray that Dr. St. Michaels prescribed to me after the stillbirth. While it took nearly the whole bottle, I got him to not only follow me willingly toward the cabin but to also lock our hands together.
I called out for my wife as we neared the door. Nothing too loud, just so she'd come outside. I didn't think it would be the best idea to open the door without warning her about our guest. The Creature, while still a baby, stood about three feet tall, around the size of a disgruntled Kindergartener; yet, no matter how much I cried, she wouldn't budge, not even when I began singing our I Love You song at full volume.
"Honey," I yelled while holding the door for the Creature, "I'd like for you to come down for a moment."
"Excuse me," I shouted. "Hello?"
I began tossing food onto the floor, forcing him to follow me to the bedroom. He shadowed my every movement, even as we zigzagged through the hallway. When I entered our bedroom, knocking on the door first, of course, never once did my wife look up to see the Creature hiding behind me. This kind of behavior was the avoidance of intimacy that brought out my rosacea. Last week, while she read Jillian Harper's new book, Your Belly Looks Like Don Rickles' Face, she wouldn't address my questions about what to make us for dinner. I ended up microwaving a Hungry Boy dinner for myself as she ate steamed veggies with no salt. No way I'd let that happen once more.
"Can we talk?"
Instead of answering her question, I stepped aside, revealing a nervous l'il Creature.
"What the hell is that Morgan?"
"I'm not sure," I replied, tossing more trail mix on the floor. "I found him in the woods alone, crying for help."
"Get him the hell out of here," she said. "Call the rangers or the police or someone. He shouldn't be here."
"They couldn't care for him."
"Like you can?"
The Creature began gnawing on the nightstand once it'd run out of my trail mix. I attempted to smile while searching for more food in my backpack. Marie, however, wasn't interested in helping me find food, but rather something to swat him. Before she could act, though, I tossed the entire bag of trail mix into the guest bathroom.
"That's just a temporary solution, Morgan," she said. "I want that thing out of this house now."
"Let's sleep on it."
"Sleep on what? If that was a bear cub, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"Look, we just need to powwow, and the li'l Creature situation will work itself out."
Before she could respond, I tossed a handful of jerky into the bathroom, and then shut the door, leaning against it so the Creature couldn't escape.
"Powwow, huh?" she replied. "Seems like you've already made up your mind."
Marie let out a sigh after collapsing on the bed. She began massaging both temples, attempting, somewhat unsuccessfully, not to watch me press my weight against the door. She continued rubbing her temples, checking the bathroom door every so often. I could see the dilemma etched in her scowl. She made that same face while we debated whether or not to have our child. Before the stillbirth, we'd look up at the ceiling, pointing at constellations hidden inside. As she massaged herself, I pointed at the ceiling now above us, hoping she'd remember the past, the promise we made. Marie didn't look above, though, not even when I began explaining St. Michaels' theory of Paternal Debit Quota™ once again. She only stopped when l'il Creature pawed the door with its little hand. Immediately, she stopped rubbing her temples, then walked to the bathroom, placing her hand directly where it had scratched.
"What would Dr. St. Michaels say about all of this?" she asked, still rubbing her temples.
"I think he be okay with this," I replied. "You know, after all, we're doing something positive."
"And how is this different from the cat situation?"
"This time I'm not taking something that isn't mine," I said. "This is something I found."
"The neighbors still won't talk to us," she said. "You cuddled with their tabby for the better part of a weekend before the cops came over a took him from your arms."
"How about we call Dr. St. Michaels together? That way we'll get his viewpoint on this."
"You'll lose," she replied. "He'll never go for this plan."
I shrugged my shoulders, careful not to lift my back from against the door. Behind me, I heard the Creature pawing at the door, struggling to use the handle much like I had done. With each attempt, its body slammed against the door, pushing me forward; however, no mater how many times he tried, I stayed at my position, never once wavering in my resolution. A parent had to be firm, even when it became hard.
This fact, among others, became the crux of Dr. St. Michaels' second book, The Power of Codependency: How To Stop The Being Your Parents. In chapter four, he detailed Walt Jr.'s unfortunate story, who had a father that believed children should not only respect their elders but repeat their life verbatim. During adolescence, Walt dressed Walt Jr. in replica clothing from his childhood, a vintage collection of 70's staples, such as a jean-jacket with Emerson, Lake & Palmer embroidered in the fabric. Family members tolerated this strange behavior until Senior forced Jr. to make love to his high school sweetheart, who was, at that point, in her late seventies. I kept thinking of this pair while the Creature pressed against the door, squealing, wanting to be near me, even though he hardly knew me. What kind of father must he have back at home? I didn't think it could get worse than Walt senior.
After my wife went to bed, Jr., as I now called him, slept in my arms, but only if I kept food nearby. He'd take a little nibble from my hand, then fall back to sleep in the middle of chewing. Around midnight, I'd run out of food, even for myself. I had to risk leaving him to get more supplies. I cradled Jr. in all the blankets we had, allowing him to make a nest on the bathroom floor. I told him two things I loved about him, which Dr. St. Michael recommended parents should do, even if you weren't gone for very long. Jr. cooed while I described his positive qualities, a belly full of teriyaki jerky.
The moonlight peered through the sliding glass door, bathing the living room in a milky glow. It seemed amazing that this light was just an echo of the daylight, everything that couldn't fit inside the day. Life had become cluttered with remnants, tiny pieces that couldn't ever fit into the bigger puzzle of life. It was a shame we never acknowledged this fact. Not to brag, but I mentioned this to Dr. St. Michaels once, and then he put it in the forward to his not-yet-released book, Monogamy: The Only Thing From Your Parents You Should Keep. He, though, much more eloquently than I ever could, described it as recognizing the remainders of God's kisses from above.
This thought disappeared when a shadow emerged on our deck. The silhouette appeared to be a deer, but instead of moving away, it grew closer, until the outline eclipsed the moonlight. As its shadow stalked the sliding glass door, I traced its outline on the hardwood floor, imagining the hulking muscles on this creature. Before I could look up, it smashed through the door, trampling over furniture to get me. It pinned me down, saliva spilling across my face, huffing just inches away. The beast dwarfed me, standing almost two feet taller than myself, with another hundred pounds on me. I kept still, curling my legs like a roly poly on its back.
The Creature's father began slamming my head against the floor, only pausing to call out in a guttural voice that shook the house. Blood filled my vision, causing the world to become hazy, incomprehensible. It took some time to focus through the pain, but I could still hear Jr., who was in the bathroom, buried underneath blankets, mimicking the same call. In fact, each time Jr. cried out, the Father became more irate, focused now on my neck, rather than just bashing my head into the hardwood. With each blow, the moonlight became darker, more obscured.
Marie shook me awake. She pawed at my clothing, screaming, repeating my name with more emphasis. I felt my neck before speaking, noting the grooves where the Father had pinned me down on the ground. I could now trace its entire handprint across my throat.
"Is it gone, Marie?" I asked, rubbing the grooves in my neck.
"They both are," she replied. "The little one and its father."
"Wait, Jr.'s gone?"
"You named him?"
Before I could console her, she dodged my grasp, hoping around the debris. Like Frankenstein's monster, I stumbled after her trail, mumbling our song underneath my breath.
"What?" she said, still hoping. "Just go rest while I clean this."
"You're avoiding intimacy."
"I am? Look at this mess, Morgan."
"It can wait."
She sighed before cleaning off a chair nearby. I tried sitting on her lap a bit, but my t-shirt kept inching up, exposing my belly fat. Embarrassed, I summersaulted onto the floor below, tumbling between the debris. It felt more comfortable sitting Indian-style, since I didn't need to drape my T-rex arms over my belly or tug at my shirt.
"Go," she said.
"We've both changed since it happened," I said, "and maybe not for the better."
"You're on this kick, which, well, I don't know how to describe." I replied. "You won't move but you're obsessed with fitness magazines."
"And you've gone crazy about this Creature," she said, arms now folded against her breasts.
Marie then reached for her temples, as if she might rub them again, but stopped short. She pawed her jeans, rubbing the length of her thigh, not knowing where to place her hands.
"He did bring us joy."
"So what, now we're going to keep it?"
"I never said that."
"You didn't have to say anything," she replied. "It's written across your face, as always."
"Well, I should hope someone catches him," I said. "The Father is bound to hurt someone."
"But you aren't the person to do that. Call the park rangers, call the police, just call someone else."
"And what will they do with the little one?"
I placed my hands atop Marie's shoulder, kneading the muscle with my fingers. She became tenser as I rubbed, scooting away from my touch until I could no longer reach her.
"We have all of this trapping equipment, Marie. It's going to waste right now."
"And?" She asked. "You don't always have to be the savior, the knight in shining armor. As soon as we're done here I'm calling this in. I'm not letting this turn into another cat fiasco."
Instead of continuing the massage, I let my hands drop to my waist, where I began picking at the dried blood on my jeans. Soon, my fingernails were covered in specks of blood, with some underneath the nail and others plastered around the cuticle.
"Okay, fine," I replied, "you do whatever you need to do. Just give me a head start."
The sun hovered off the eastern sky that morning, never reaching higher than the margins of forest skyline. As the day progressed, its rays stretched across the mountains, yet never seemed to saturate the underneath my feet. The earth, because of that fact, was cold, almost damp. I trekked on. Each time I huffed in a gulp of air, another would pour out, much like a locomotive. Even though Marie wasn't here or in agreement with my so-called plan, she texted inspirational quotes from Dr. St. Michaels' website. "Make sure to wear the St. Michaels' papoose at all times, even when your child has reached puberty. The papoose can fit a child of any size on your back."
Deep within the forest, I found Father and Jr. huddled around a campfire, obscured only by the flames and nighttime haze. Through the miasma, their outlines looked like giants against the rocks. Still, though, I pushed forward, inching through the underbrush. The closer I came to their fire, the clearer they became against the rocks. I now saw Jr. situated on his father's lap, his butt up in the air, ready for a spanking. Father barked in its language, shouting, chastising Jr. for running off earlier. Before I could react to the situation, it began spanking my child, using its hand like a paddle. The cries filled the forest once again, the ground shaking beneath me, trembling like an earthquake. "You should not ever hit a child, since they aren't prepared to handle the psychological damage that comes with physical violence. Instead of hitting your child, write them a strongly worded email, then read them said email dressed as their favorite television character. This will demonstrate that not only you disapprove of their actions but their hero does as well. I would also recommend staying in character until the child replies to your email with the subject marked SORRYDAD!"
No amount of emails could've expressed the rage building up in my gullet. Here was my adopted son, abused by his father no less, yet I couldn't save him from this pain. I stood nearby, forced to squint through the nighttime, praying for him to stop. To express my rage in a healthy way, I began describing, under my breath, the room Jr. could have when he came home. Before our son had passed, I hired a professional artist to map out my previous son's life, down to his birth all the way to college. This mural took up the entire nursery, even the ceiling, which depicted my wife and me as angels. This wasn't so much a reminded of death, but rather the glory of it, a place where we could protect our son after we'd passed on, hidden above in our mansion within the clouds above. The floorboards were also painted, of course; they depicted our son in the womb, just to mimic the duality, the circle we all must complete.
I slept near them, curled underneath a large pine, no more than fifty yards away from their makeshift camp.
When the sun rose, it repeated the same game as yesterday, where it hid off in the distance, not wanting to peek above the treetops. I called Marie from the valley below the camp, down near the fork, lest the Father hear my voice rustling from the pines.
"Did you find him?"
"Yes," I replied, "but I haven't secured him."
"I called the authorities on you," she replied. "Don't get into a snit."
"Luckily I have a head start."
There was a slight pause before she spoke again, almost as if she were searching her chest for the right words.
"Remember when you found out we were pregnant?" she asked in a low voice.
"How could I not?" I said. "I think I had a level four Dr. St. Michaels Daddy-To-Be meltdown."
"That's when I knew you'd be a good father to our children," she replied. "Most people are careless. They turn into their parents, whether they know it or not."
"I know," she replied. "Anyway, it's been beautiful back here. When I woke up, the sun was almost pressed against our window. If I wanted to touch it, I'd just have to reach—."
The phone cut out, leaving behind that annoying beeping noise, followed by the voice on my phone asking if I wanted to reconnect. I didn't need to just yet. There was a child waiting for me, suffering under the yoke of his father. I turned the phone off.
Two hours into the hunt, a cry interrupted the forest once again. It wasn't the high-pitched squeal from earlier, but rather a much deeper voice with a similar cadence and pattern as the previous voice. I sprinted back to the other traps, sure I'd find Jr. dead, pulled apart by his reckless father. If he were to die, it would be my fault, since I'd waited so long, left him to wallow in his father's ignorance. Two sons, I thought, two sons. God gave me a second change, and I tossed that aside, just because I couldn't hurry.
When I arrived, Jr. sobbed, yet he wasn't stuck in one of my traps. He ran around the snare, screaming, imitating his father's cry. The Father thrashed against the trap, pulling the metal, its hand bloodied from the teeth. It didn't react while I circled his position. I was no more than six feet away, but it still couldn't detect my presence. Instead of pulling the trigger of my rifle, I calmed down Jr. with several jerky strips, and then wrestled him to the ground. If I could get him in Dr. St. Michaels' back-björn, we could make it home even before his father escaped from the trap. No way he could follow in his condition. We'd be home, underneath the mural in the nursery, watching me and the wife spin around the heavens while his father died.
I was able to subdue Jr. long enough for him to settle on my back. Sure, he kicked me in the butt, screaming for more jerky, but he didn't seemed to mind leaving his father behind. In actuality, I bet his father's death was a blessing, since he could thrive, free to become the child God destined him to be. I began explaining to him how I'd correct his upbringing, even fix the wild nature he'd developed living in the forest. "Animals, even in the wild, can subsist together, yet so can the family huddled around McDonald's. Only a family concentrated on the intellectual growth of its members can escape the sting of death." He continued eating while I hiked up the trail. We had several miles until home and the forest clouded over, just like yesterday, making it impossible to find your way in the mist. Even my hands seemed distorted.
When I became lost, Jr. began making little whooping noise, almost as if he were calling someone over. He wouldn't take anymore jerky, not even when I shoved it down his gullet. He focused all his energy on making his little hooting noise. I stumbled forward, without a clear direction, sure God would part the heavens above. The mist cleared around the bend, exposing a path, which I'd hiked dozens of times.
The trail, while visible, wasn't clear of obstacles. The Father, now without most of its leg, waited for us, its body saturated with blood. It swayed in the distance, grunting, eyes filled with venom. I turned away, hobbling back into the forest, but it overtook us in a few strides, pinning me down on the ground below. Jr., still attached to my Dr. St. Michaels' back-björn, squealed in pain, pushed into the moss. I began imagining my family tree, the sprawling roots, zigzagging through history, leading to this moment. If I died underneath that massive brute, history would stop, since there wasn't another Morgan to carry on, to correct the legacy of his forefathers.
What a disappointment that would be.
I inched the rifle upwards, positioning it just under its chin, my finger hovering over the trigger. My son was there, not as a physical being, but rather a spiritual force pushing me forward, guiding me toward another son, the one attached to my back. The Father roared, its saliva and blood pouring over us, covering every inch, every piece of me. I closed my eyes, reaching for the trigger, yet couldn't find a grip. Each time I attempted to squeeze it, my finger slipped, just barely grazing the cold metal. I fought, despite the brut over me, breathing, focused on ending me. My plight reminded me of a tiny ember from Dr. St. Michaels' book of allegories, the one thrown from a campfire. Soon enough, the ember would fall down to earth, its life snuffed out completely. Only if that piece of ash floated back inside the fire would it stay lit, alive for one more day. I closed my eyes, waiting for my life to become black, like the ember. Suddenly, a shot echoed through the forest, causing all action to stop. Several other shots followed the initial one. The Father moaned, pawing at my clothes like a small child, its eyes no longer black but white with specks of red.
After the silence returned, I found the Father's face inches from my own, a hole near his crown like a third eye. I rolled its body off us, then ran backward to obscure Jr.'s view, feeding him as much jerky as he wanted while we ran. Once I regained my composure, I searched for the shooter, the savior from upon high. In the distance, with the gun still trained on the Father, I found my wife standing resolute. It felt important to embrace Marie right away, not as just a husband, but as a true, honest to God complete family. I couldn't leave, though, especially when you considered my obligation to the Father, who lay in the bramble. If I didn't burry him, my son would feel as if he had a wound, which could never heal, since no one bothered to banged the injury. I signaled to her with a head nod, pointing at the body below.
I attempted moving the Father, but could only drag him through the forest, stopping every few feet to regroup. His paws felt meaty, kind of like my father's hands. Both had scars instead of lines inside their palms, the history of hard labor and fights at the bar. I squeezed harder, pushing my father aside, attempting to inch the body toward the pines. A small clearing was just around the bend with enough surrounding trees to protect his resting place. When I arrived, I handed my son over to Marie, who now had the rifle slung around her shoulder, then dug my hands into the soil, throwing dirt onto the body. My palms cracked, bloody from labor. I continued digging, though, hands pulsing with pain, not stopping until its body disappeared.
Jr. climbed into my arms, nuzzling me, tracing the newborn scars etched into my own hands. I held him close, rocking back and forth, repeating positive phrases and feeding him. He murmured along with me in a semi-human voice, attempting to mimic his real father. My wife watched, iPhone trained on both of us, documenting each movement, every single interaction. I imagined watching this back at our real house, with our son between us, the stillbirth just a memory. She smiled back at me, her teeth white, glimmering in the moonlight. It had been weeks since I'd seen them like this.
We packed our mismatched clothes after returning to the cabin and then never returned.