Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
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Hungry Mother

“Why did we ever come here?” Claudette asked, pulling her sweatshirt hood up over her curly, yellow hair. “It’s cold. And scary.”

She was right. I felt it too. I think we all did, on that overcast summer day, all ten girls from our Methodist Sunday school class in Bristol, Virginia, only fifty miles but somehow worlds away from this somber place, Hungry Mother State Park, caught in a ring of steep, rugged mountains that plunged straight down into a mysterious, black lake. My dad had said that there were places in this lake where no one had ever touched the bottom, and looking out now at that still, black water, I believed it.

“Wonder what’s down there?” I said without meaning to, and was mortified when Bucky Wigmore, our minister’s son who had come along to be our lifeguard, punched me in the shoulder and said, “Electric fish that glow in the dark. And bones.”

“What?” I said.

“Bones,” he said, “bones of all the people that drowned down there,” giving me another punch and a big grin before his mother cried, “Bucky, you come on now!” She had him all loaded down with grocery bags.

“Don’t pay no attention to him, he don’t know a thing.” Claudette grabbed my hand and we ran down the grassy slope together to a big, rough-hewn log building at the water’s edge named Minnie-ha-ha Lodge, surrounded by several other smaller buildings and cabins. Tall, dense evergreen trees ringed the lake, and a sharp, piney smell filled the air. Inside, Claudette threw her pack up into a top bunk and I put mine on the bed right beneath hers and suddenly we were new best friends.

We scrambled outside with the rest when Miss Lavender, our Sunday school teacher, blew the giant yellow whistle that she had put around her neck. Mrs. Wigmore, our minister’s wife, wore huge, brand-new red Bermuda shorts with the creases still in them. Mrs. Wigmore was one of those ladies who are kind of average at the top but real big at the bottom, with a humongous butt which we couldn’t really see at church but which I pointed out immediately to Claudette, who started giggling and couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop either.

Miss Lavender blew her whistle again, authoritatively, and lined us up in front of Minnie-ha-ha Lodge. Miss Lavender was all bones with a pale, pretty face—a “maiden lady,” my mother had called her.

“Girls, meet Miss Brown, the park ranger,” Miss Lavender announced. “Now please pay attention, and you will learn all about Hungry Mother State Park.”

“Hi there!” The park ranger stepped up onto the porch. She turned out to be a pretty, perky dark-haired girl in a khaki uniform and a sort of cowboy hat that I would have died for. Immediately I decided to be a park ranger when I grew up.

“Welcome to Hungry Mother State Park,” she said. “I want to start by telling you the legend of the Hungry Mother. Yes, there was a real ‘Hungry Mother,’ which may surprise you. Back in the olden days when all this”—she indicated the bowl of mountains with a sweep of her pretty, manicured hand— “was all Native American territory, these Native Americans did not take kindly to it when white settlers began to move in. Indians,” she added, since we clearly didn’t know what “Native American” meant. “In fact these Indians attacked and destroyed several settlements on the New River side of the park, right over there.” Now she pointed across the lake from us. “A young woman named Molly Marley and her little son were among the survivors of this raid, who were captured and taken to the main Indian camp up on that mountain.” Again, the point. “Molly Marley was said to be very beautiful, with long red hair. Her husband had been killed in the raid. Who knows what horrors Molly Marley must have gone through during her imprisonment by those wild Indians?” We all considered this.

“But she was a very brave and determined young woman, and eventually she escaped, bringing her young son with her. They wandered the wilderness living on nuts and berries, though she gave most of them to her son. Molly finally collapsed, and her child wandered down a creek where he encountered two white settlers. But the only words the little boy could say were ‘hungry mother.’ After they gave him some food and water, he was able to lead them to the foot of the mountain where his mother had collapsed, only to find that Molly had already passed away, dead of hunger. Today, that mountain is named Molly’s Knob—3,270 feet high.” She pointed, and sure enough, there it was. “And the stream that comes down the mountain from it is now known as Hungry Mother Creek, which runs into this lake.”

We all looked at each other, surrounded by the story on every side. We could not imagine our own mothers dead. Except for maybe Eugenia, who lived with her grandmother, or Lois Ann who had a stepmother, as in a fairy tale. Some of the girls—Martha Sue, Brenda, Lisa, and Debbie—began to cry.

“Oh dear,” said the park ranger. “I’m supposed to tell the story. It’s just history.”

“You did a lovely job, dear,” said Miss Lavender, patting the park ranger’s shoulder. “They’re just tenderhearted is all.”

“Fraidycats,” muttered Bucky, who pulled out a harmonica and launched right into “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” to everyone’s surprise, or at least mine. But his mother nodded and encouraged us to put our arms around each other’s waists and sway back and forth. We sang “Let Your Little Light Shine,” and “Do, Lord, Remember Me,” screaming out on “look a-WAY be-YOND the blue hor-i-zon,” and “Ten Little Indians,” which in retrospect I find inappropriate, but nobody mentioned that.

The park ranger’s clear soprano soared above all the rest. She could easily be Miss America, I was convinced, with singing as her talent.

Miss Lavender loved that whistle. She blew it several times in a row, then said, “Now girls, it’s time to end our little hootenanny and tell the park ranger goodbye. Let’s all say, ‘Thank you, Miss Brown.’”

“THANK YOU MISS BROWN!” we screamed.

She waved and left.

The whistle again, which I was beginning to hate. “Okay, girls,” Miss Lavender said. “Time for a quick swim before supper! Now go get your bathing suits on.”


“It’s too cold to swim,” Carol whined, as we stood shivering on the shore in our suits with towels around our shoulders.

“Nonsense!” Miss Lavender clapped her hands. “Bucky, to your post!”

We all watched as Bucky flung off his shirt and strode past us down to the lake. All of us were twelve or thirteen then—in 1958—with little breasts, except for Eugenia and Carol who were fat all over, like Pillsbury Doughgirls. Bucky was seventeen, a rising senior in high school, with a crew cut that made the top of his head as flat as a table. He dove straight out into the black water and swam to the floating dock with powerful strokes, taking no breaths at all that I could see, like a superhero in a comic book.

Bucky pulled himself up the ladder onto the float where he set to lifeguarding immediately, walking back and forth, cocky and bold, or simply standing on the float to watch us swim, his arms akimbo and legs impossibly far apart. How could he stand like that for so long?

“Is Bucky bowlegged?” I asked his sister Carol, treading water beside me, who seemed shocked by the very idea.

“No!” she cried. “Bucky is a ath-a-lete!”

I swam over to tell Claudette, and together we almost drowned laughing.


Later the whistle summoned us to a large stone fire pit surrounded by big squared-off logs for us to sit on. A fire had already been built for us. It looked like a wooden tent.

“Come, come now—” Miss Lavender made us all hold hands around the fire while Melinda Bellweather, rumored to have some terrible disease, though none of us knew exactly what it was, got to light the fire with a special giant match about two feet long. But first she read a poem out loud:

Kneel always when you light a fire
Kneel reverently
And thankful be
For God’s unfailing majesty.

Melinda emphasized the “ee” sound at the end of each line. It was a really bad poem, I thought. I had planned to become a poet before I decided to become a park ranger.

After some fumbling around, Mrs. Wigmore lit the giant match with a cigarette lighter. (Did she smoke? Did she and Pastor Wigmore smoke cigarettes together?) When the giant match touched the wadded-up newspaper stuck under the tent of sticks, the flames immediately leapt straight up, at least five feet high. Melinda drew back, looking scared, and I could see the blue vein beating beneath the white, white, almost translucent skin of her wide forehead, which always gave me the willies.

After another blessing given by Mrs. Wigmore, which went on and on and on, we finally got to eat hot dogs that we cooked ourselves on long sticks over the fire, plus three-bean salad and potato salad made by our mothers and brought from home, followed by “Some Mores,” requiring the long sticks again. I loved the sticks. Then we sat around the campfire and sang some more, though Mrs. Wigmore would not let us sing “Kumbaya.” She said that was an African song, and the Africans were not Saved. We sang “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” “Hallelujah,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Day Is Done” while full dark fell all around us, making our ring of fire seem suddenly small and unimportant. I could feel the wilderness right there, just beyond our circle of firelight.

“Maybe some of those Indians are still here,” I whispered to Claudette and the other girls closest to me. “Maybe some of them didn’t get killed and they moved way back in those caves and they’re still there, living on squirrels and berries and nuts—”

“And beef jerky and firewater,” Claudette said solemnly.

I could just see them, walking single file on paths we didn’t know about, that only they could see.

“Maybe they’re watching us right now!” Claudette said, and we grabbed hands.

By then the fire was low, and it was getting really cold, and most of the other girls were nodding off.

Not me, though. After we had put on our pajamas and brushed our teeth at the water trough in Minnie-ha-ha, I lay wide awake in my bunk bed. I had never felt less sleepy, or more alive, in my entire life. “Claudette,” I whispered. “Claudette,” louder.

No response. I could hear her little snory breathing, sound asleep. I lay in my sleeping bag on the bottom cot, twitching as if electrified. Finally I sat up and put my socks and shoes back on and crept among the bunk beds filled with sleeping girls and pushed open the heavy door to look at the lake, which I had been imagining for hours now, it seemed, as I lay there sleepless in the dark. A utility lamp hung above the doorway, but its light stopped abruptly at the trees. I felt I had special powers as I somehow made my way down the dark path through those dense pines, which stretched out their needles to touch me softly, like a caress, as I passed. Finally I felt grainy sand under my bare feet, and then the forest opened for me like a door.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed involuntarily. For once I was not taking His name in vain, for the moon, about half full, had come up over the mountain now to hang in the sky right above our mysterious Hungry Mother Lake, somehow causing the lake itself to give off light. The light from the luminous water rose up in a column between the dark mountains, up and up into the sky. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

I drew in a deep breath just as Bucky’s arm came around me from behind. I did not scream. I was off in a realm somehow beyond all that and not even scared.

“You’re so pretty,” Bucky said. “I bet you don’t even know how pretty you are.” He nuzzled my long, messy hair. “I think you smell like new-mown hay.”

“Oh I do not,” I said. “That’s just ridiculous. I’ve never even seen any new-mown hay. My father is a pharmacist.”

“Still,” he said, parting my long hair at the nape of my neck carefully, then putting his lips against my bare neck, kissing me and then licking me.

I thought I would die.

“Easy now,” Bucky said, as if I were a horse or something, and sat me down on one of the benches out there at the overlook where he proceeded to put his hands all over me, under my pajamas.

I loved it. “Ooh ooh,” I heard myself say.

“Bucky!” his mother shrieked. “What do you think you’re doing? I’m so ashamed of you! I swear, you’re just like your daddy!” (Our preacher, Pastor Bob Wigmore!) “You get up from there right now!”

She swatted Bucky upside the head, a good one. “Aw, Mom,” he said.

“Get on,” she said. “Get out of here,” as he stumbled away.

“And you!” Mrs. Wigmore jerked me up by my pajama top. I was wearing my favorite pajamas, flannel with horses all over them. “You get up from there right now and go back to bed, and don’t you tell anybody, ever, about this. Not a soul. This did not happen. Do you understand that? You’re a bad, bad girl, but I will not tell your parents if you promise not to ever say a word. Now, do you understand?”

“Yes ma’am,” I said. World-class shivers were still running up and down my spine.

Mrs. Wigmore twisted my arm behind my back and marched me ahead of her up the path, and suddenly I was back in bed, covers pulled up to my chin, tucked in tight as a mummy all around. I will never go to sleep, I thought. This is important, I have to think about this.

That’s the last thing I remember before sunlight came streaming across us from the wide open windows with their shutters propped up, a green and golden perfect summer day already glowing outside, the lake now navy blue and sparkling. The notes of Bucky’s bugle filled the air as he played “Reveille.” Later, Bucky would become an Evangelist, then the pastor of a big church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Melinda Bellweather would die the following spring. I would not go back to Hungry Mother Lake on the next summer trip, or the one after that, or ever again. Our group of girls scattered in junior high school anyway, and I didn’t really know Claudette anymore when she got pregnant and dropped out in tenth grade.


Over the years I have often thought back to that beautiful day, a Saturday or Sunday in June, when I took my kids swimming at Lake Clearwater on the YMCA campgrounds just south of Tuscaloosa. This was not a fancy place to swim—no concrete, no concessions—but it was free. Frequently I’d go with another mother and her kids—often, the mothers of other kids who attended the cooperative community preschool, also free, where Davey and Ryan went. Their father never came with us. We took our own snacks and drinks in coolers, and spread out old quilts on the grass in front of the children’s swimming section, a roped-off, shallow area with a muddy bottom and three floats to swim out to or jump off of—if they could swim, that is. Many of the littlest children could not. They paddled around in water wings or played in the gritty sand or just jumped up and down squealing with a grown-up or older sibling holding onto them.

The rental canoes, all primary colors, were tied to their dock on the far left bank of the lake, a jaunty little flotilla, along with the sturdy gray johnboats from which people fished, mostly men and boys, mostly down at the farthest point where a bright little river flowed in from the wooded hills. The canoes plied the middle of the lake, weaving back and forth, occasionally pulling over to the rocky shore for a picnic or a sunbath.

That afternoon, a little breeze rippled the water, creating a sequin effect all over the lake. It was like an Impressionist painting, I remember thinking. I remember the bathing suit I was wearing, an old green two-piece from college. I remember that Ryan needed a haircut and Davey had a long, open scrape on his shin from a bike wreck the day before. Adorable though wild, my boys were always covered with cuts and bruises, to the point where doctors sometimes interviewed me carefully when I brought them in for treatment. Though I watched them like a hawk, I just couldn’t keep up with them—or even imagine what they might think to do next. They swam like fish, of course. And like fish, they’d stay under for so long, I’d jump up and run to the water’s edge to look for them, my heart thumping in my chest, and there they’d be, finally, first one and then the other, popping up yards and yards from where they’d gone down. I’d gotten used to it, sort of, at least enough to keep from making a scene every time it happened.

But the boys had stopped being fish at Lake Clearwater now that they had discovered the rope swing, on around a rocky point from their own swimming area. The rope swing—where the big kids, almost always boys, grabbed the knotted rope and leaped from the tallest rock to swing way out over the water in a thrilling arc before they let go and dropped at the highest point with a holler and a big splash. Nobody ever said what would happen if they didn’t let go and smashed back into the rocks, a sickening thought that crossed my own mind the first time I ever watched my own boys on the swing.

I had gotten used to the rope swing by that particular afternoon, when Ryan and Davey headed over there almost immediately, standing in line to wait for their turns again and again, the most patient I had ever seen them, and by far the youngest kids at the rope swing.

Directly across from our side of the lake was the grown-up area, which featured old people in folding chairs, often with little striped umbrellas, or sometimes playing cards at the picnic tables. From my own distance, I imagined how their skin hung loose on their arms and how blotchy it was—I would never get that old! Groups of teenage girls were always in motion over there, gathering and dispersing like birds, sunning themselves in clumps. Sometimes I could hear their squeals or the music from their transistor radios. Older boys were always in the background throwing balls and running to catch them. They all swam in their own area, which had a big float with two diving boards on it, one high and one low, and a high wooden chair for the lifeguard to sit in. There was also another, quieter part of the shore, a bit apart, where couples spread their big bath towels or blankets and lay very close to each other or snuggled together under the guise of “napping” or rubbed suntan lotion slowly on each other’s backs. I knew all about that, though it seemed hundreds of years ago and I could barely see that side of the lake now from the kids’ side, the mothers’ side, where we were.

I was at Lake Clearwater that afternoon with a single mother whose life astonished me. Her name was Beverly Rudisill (I had to get her to spell it for me) and she had moved to Alabama from Buffalo, New York, because her husband, like mine, had gotten a teaching job at the state university. Beverly was tall and redheaded with a beautiful, pale, muscular body and perfect physical poise. I was not surprised when she told me she was a yoga instructor, though yoga seemed very exotic to me back in those days, like vegetarianism or cremation, at least in the South.

“So what department is your husband in?” I’d asked on a previous outing with our boys. “Or is he at the medical school?”

“Oh, lord.” Beverly had rolled her eyes. “He’s at the business school. How boring is that? Anyhow, I’m out of there.”

I sat up. “Out of where?” I asked.

Beverly laughed, throwing her head back to toss her red curls around. “That marriage, of course,” she said. “I mean, it was like eating white bread all the time. I just wanted more, you know?”

“I think I’ve seen your husband,” I said. “Sometimes he brings Rico to school, or picks him up, right?” And I admit I’d been curious, since this man, Rico’s father, had dark skin and did not look, well, American at all.

Beverly laughed again. “Oh, that’s not my ex-husband! But yes, he’s Rico’s father.”

“And Rico is your son, right?”

“Oh, sure. I’m not married to his father, though. I’m a mother by choice, but I don’t want to be married to anybody right now.”

I’d been thinking about what she’d said—“mother by choice”—ever since. What did she mean? That afternoon at the lake, Beverly had brought The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing, to read, and I’d brought a collection of stories by Isak Dinesen. But we weren’t really reading, either one of us, both looking out at the lake.

Now Ryan came dripping over to get me. “Mama, Mama, come watch!” He pulled at my hand. “We’ve got something to show you.”

“What is it?” I asked, standing up.

“Come on, you’ll see, it’s a surprise. It’s way cool,” Ryan said, pulling me up. His wet blond hair looked brown, the color it would get later on, like Tom’s.

“Me too, me too,” smaller Rico demanded, shaking his dark, wet curls, so Beverly got up and came too, around the point to the rope swing.

“Hurry!” screamed Davey, holding his brother’s place in line.

Ryan let go of my hand and ran to join his brother just as the empty rope swung back toward them.

“Ma’am, you won’t believe this,” one of the older boys said to me, watching. “These little guys are something.”

Before I even realized what they were up to, the rope swung way out over the water with both boys on it at the same time, yelling their heads off.

“Oh dear.” Beverly grabbed my arm. Little Rico was jumping up and down.

The rope swing went out higher and farther than I had ever seen it go with either of them on it—the added weight, I guess. At the very apogee, the top of the arc, they dropped off, first Ryan then Davey, their beautiful bodies moving through a shaft of sunlight as they went down feet first, one after the other, into the lake. I loved them so much, it was beyond loving. Everybody was cheering. “I am a mother by choice too,” I felt like screaming. I am. Suddenly I had to sit down.

“How was that, Mom?” a guy asked.

“I’m going to get my camera,” Beverly said. “Rico, you stay right here.”

“Yay, yay, yay!” Rico was screaming as Ryan and Davy scrambled up the muddy hill and got back in line, high-fiving everybody.

Later, much later in the afternoon, after we had gobbled up our sandwiches, every bite, and kept the boys out for the requisite half hour, they were all back in the water, their own swimming area this time.

“I think your mom has had enough of the rope swing for today,” Beverly had said in a quiet, firm voice, and they’d minded her. Better than they mind me, I thought, but I was glad she’d said it. I actually read half of one of the stories in my book. It was set in Africa. But then I put the book down and looked up. I didn’t know why, exactly.


All of a sudden, there’s a rustle—like a breeze, only it’s not a breeze—across the lake and along the banks—you can’t say what it is, or when you noticed it, or how, exactly, but suddenly the noise level goes down. People are sitting up. I’m sitting up, pulling up my bathing suit, tying the straps firmly behind my neck.

Beverly rolls over and sits up, too, shielding her eyes from the sun. “What’s happening? Is something the matter?” she asks.

By then I’m jumping to my feet, staring out at the water right where Davey and Ryan were playing “Duck, Duck, Goose” with a gang of other boys only moments ago. At first I can’t find them among all those other little bodies, the sunlight on the flashing water, the sudden silence, and then Beverly is beside me and we’re running down the bank.

“Oh God, oh, there he is!” she cries, as Rico detaches himself from the splashing gang of kids now nearing the shore. He runs up the bank to her, followed by my Davey. But Ryan? Where is Ryan? I stumble forward to my knees, clutching Davey by the back of his shorts, still looking.

“Mom!” Davey cries, “Quit it!” struggling to get free from my tight hold on his swimming trunks.

“Where’s your brother? Ryan? Where’s Ryan?”—as if Davey doesn’t know his own brother’s name. Somebody once referred to them as “Irish twins.” Born fourteen months apart, Ryan first, they have done everything together all their lives. Everything.

“Right here!” Davey is crying now. “He’s right here, Mama,” but Ryan is not right here, or anywhere.

“Ryan!” I scream, scanning the water.

Somehow, without any sort of alarm being sounded, everyone is coming out of the water now, even those serious, muscular grown-ups who swim laps parallel to the shore. Even the canoes are coming out, one by one, in a speedy though orderly fashion, being divested of paddlers and placed up on racks. Three cars—two brown, one white and blue—drive across the grass on the grown-up side of the lake, right down to the water’s edge where no parking is permitted. When they come to a stop, several men wearing uniforms (some brown, some blue) get out of each car. We can see them but not see them, everything’s wavy in the bright and sparkling reflected light. Now more people are gathering over by the cars.

Why do I always expect the worst where Ryan is concerned?

I drag Davey back to the quilt where he sits hugging his knees, looking quite small. He was premature—5 lb. 2 oz.—at birth, and my mother always claimed that there is something wrong with him, but we don’t know that yet.

“Mom! I’m okay!” Suddenly, Ryan is yelling behind us. He grabs me around the knees, tackling me and bringing us all down in a rolling heap. The boys start laughing and I do, too, until Ryan starts choking and I have to pound him on the back. Whatever Ryan does, he does too much. Now Davey is crying. Finally, I get everybody calmed down and pull some snacks out of my canvas tote bag, apple slices and cheese nabs.

“What’s going on?” I ask Beverly when she comes back with Rico.

She flashes me a warning look and shakes her head. “Something is really wrong over there,” she says. “I think somebody must have had an accident or something.”

“Accident! Accident! Somebody’s had an accident!” the boys scream. They’ve had a program on first aid at their school, they came home with little first aid kits, band aids, and antibiotic salve, and cortisone cream for bug bites. They’ve been doctoring on Zelda, our Labrador retriever, ever since.

Why didn’t we leave? I will wonder later. Why didn’t I get those little boys out of there? But nobody else is leaving, either, nobody at the entire lake. All three boys eat their snacks and drink out of those little cartons with bendable straws.

Beverly lights a cigarette, then looks at me defiantly. “I don’t care,” she says. “This is making me nervous.”

I’m dying for a cigarette myself, but I do not smoke in front of my children, or my husband, either, though he knows it. He says he can smell it in my hair. Smoking is the last thing I have left from graduate school when I was that girl with the black turtleneck who wrote poems all night long and said she believed in free love. Whatever did she mean by that? Love is not free. Now free love strikes me as an oxymoron, like Army Intelligence. I had Ryan to keep Tom out of the draft, out of Vietnam.

Finally, a whistle blows—three long, ominous shrieks across the water, followed by a male voice speaking into a bullhorn, though we cannot quite hear the deep garbled words across the lake. And something else: eight or so men in swim trunks walk into the water then powerfully, purposefully, begin swimming back and forth, back and forth, as if in wide invisible lanes. Now other men in uniforms get into the johnboats, two by two, one rowing, one standing. They head out into the lake, too.

“Look at their hats,” Ryan says. “Those are police hats.”

“Cool,” Davey says. The bullhorn sounds again and again. But the words might as well be Danish, or Portuguese, or any other language we have never heard.

Now, finally, everyone is packing up, putting food and drinks back into coolers, throwing trash into bins, rolling up blankets and quilts, picking up babies, struggling to their feet, looking for their keys. It is as if we have all been asleep, or fallen under a spell.

In no time at all, clouds have completely covered the sun. Maybe God Himself is in cahoots with this turn of events. If you believe in God, that is. Mister Weather is more like it. I know that Beverly takes Rico to the Catholic church, but I don’t take my boys anywhere, to any church in this town where the first thing anyone asks you is, “What church do you go to?” Many years later, Davey, by then a freshman in college, will call me to say accusingly, “Mom! In English class today, I was the only one who didn’t know that the fish is a Christ symbol. In a class of eighteen, the only one.”


It took a long time to get off the Camp Clearwater property because the police were stopping every car, checking drivers’ licenses and car registrations before allowing us to pass through the gate. Davey was asleep in the back like a sack of potatoes, but Ryan started crying when the young policeman came up to our car, and could not stop, not even when an older policeman with a kind red face leaned into the open back window and said, “Now son, nothing to be afraid of, we’re here to protect you, that’s all. We’re making a list, don’t you want to be on it? Here, you can write your own name right here.”

But Ryan screamed even louder, kicking his feet dangerously near Davey’s head while Davey slept on.

“I guess you’ve got your hands full, ain’t you, honey?” The old policeman straightened back up and winked at me like we were in on some big joke, then waved me on.

The afternoon grew swiftly darker and it started raining in earnest about four miles from home, a slanting, driving rain. By then it was seven o’clock. The boys were exhausted. I couldn’t even get them to take a bath. I just stripped them down and stuck them into bed, where they did not stir. My husband had gone to some graduate school party earlier, and I could tell that he had not been back home at all. I went outside and sat on the back porch by myself in the wild, greenish light as thunder rolled and forked lightning, like a divining rod, split the troubled sky. I remember thinking then, in Tuscaloosa, what is going to happen to us? What is going to happen to us now? I drank one, then two, glasses of wine, the first of too many over the next three years until finally Tom left for good and I had to get myself together.

The next day, in the newspaper, I would read about the girl who had drowned in Lake Clearwater. She was a working girl, a waitress exactly my age named Regina Patterson. Apparently she and her boyfriend had been “having a big old time,” as he put it, drinking a lot—gin and tonic in thermoses—while they just floated around the lake on their inflatable raft, going wherever the breeze took them. Maybe she fell asleep. Maybe he fell asleep for a little while, too, and never even knew it when the raft nosed into that waving grass, and then when he woke up, she was gone. She’d just silently slipped into the lake, waiting to embrace her with its long weedy arms. This image came to me fully realized and terrifying.

What I remember most clearly now, though, is the clarity of that moment when the whistle first blew three times, cutting through all the bullshit of all of our lives. You are in danger, that whistle was saying. Pay attention. This is your life, your only life, and you are in danger. Your children could die. Or you could die. You could all die. Pay attention.

Later, Beverly Rudisill would give me the photograph she had taken at the rope swing that afternoon, a snapshot of Ryan and Davey caught in a patch of sunlight as they dropped from the rope to the water below. Forty years later, I still keep this picture on my desk. I love it beyond all measure, for it captures a day when no matter what was yet to happen, they were still mine, before I had to let them go, as we all do, had to let them climb up on the rock and grab the rope again and again. Oh, how I long to keep them forever suspended in the bright air before they splash down into time, into their own real lives.  

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