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Crossing the River Jordan

by

William Hicklin

 

 
     
   

 

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THIS IS MY FIRST DISCTINCT MEMORY OF MY MOTHER: I WALK INTO THE HOUSE AND SHE'S SITTING ACROSS THE ROOM, HOLDING MY SISTER TO HER BREAST. I stare for a moment.   My mother says, "Do you want some?"   Her voice has an edge to it.   She holds her other breast out to me; her nipple stands out dark and ominous against her pale skin.   I shake my head, no, unable to talk or move.   My mother's eyes turn black.   "Then get out of here!   Stop staring at me!"

              I had come into the living room from the porch, where I'd been playing.   My mother sat on the couch, nursing my sister.   I asked what she was doing, then I watched, intrigued and a little ashamed, as she took her other breast out and offered it to me with an edge in her voice that betrayed--what?   Hope?   Desire?   Irritation?   The tone of her voice coupled with the shock of seeing her exposed breast repulsed me, and I shook my head no, unable to speak or move or look away from her until she yelled at me as if I had been leering at her.   I ran out, confused.

              I was three years old.   Four years later, she died.   My last memory of her:   she's squatting on the floor by the bathtub, buttocks on her heels, turning from something in the tub to look at me.

              Her hair falls in wet strands around her flushed face.   Water pools at her feet.   Her clothes are soaked; she's breathing deeply.   I look into the tub and ask her a question.   She springs toward me, beautiful and terrible, her eyes deepened by the darkness invading them.   It is her eyes, I think, that link the two images so completely in my mind, the first and the last, that create a sense of unity between the two.

              In the last memory I have of her she moved so gracefully, like a snake striking in a slow, fluid moment.   At the time I thought nothing of that movement--I sensed danger and I ran--but I've replayed that moment over and over, and I am convinced that was the most gracefully I had ever seen her move, except when she was swimming.   She was so tall and thin and awkward, and she walked all angles, loose limbed, just on the edge of control.   You held your breath watching her; an air of suspense hung over her--someone who moved like that was bound to break things.

              In the water she was different: graceful, natural.   Her movements were sinuous and smooth.   Her body fanned out into the water, her nails flashed like scales and the angles of her joints melted.   Her body undulated through the water, weightless, free of gravity.

***

              I remember a game mom played with me--she would smile, bring her face close till our foreheads and noses touched, and then say, "Boo!"   I'd squeal in delight, she'd pull back, smile, bump heads with me, and say, "Boo!"   I remember her warm smell, the fragrance of her hair falling around me, the safety I felt there in her lap.

***

              Interspersed throughout my childhood, mom suffered from "episodes." Most of her episodes occurred right after she and dad had a fight--we would hear them yelling in the kitchen, pots banging, dishes breaking, then silence.   Soon we'd hear dad's voice, quizzical, then imploring, then demanding.   She wouldn't answer.

              She punished him with her silence.

***

              Dad died this year, in the same house where my brothers and sister were murdered.   I don't know why he decided to stay--I wonder now if he couldn't sell the house or if he just didn't have the energy to move.   I never questioned it when I was younger; at seven whatever happens is normal, to some degree.   You may wonder why your mother turned monster or why this big hole opened up where a family used to be, but your don't ask why your father would stay in the house where his wife and children died.

***

              I look up at my mother's face.   She looks down and smiles at me.   As she brings her head close to mine, her face hardens and her eyes fill with darkness.   When our heads bump she says, "Boo!"   I wake with a start and hear a heavy breath, very close.   Startled and disoriented, I only know something very big is very close.   Then the breathing settles into a rhythmic pattern and I recognize it as my wife's.   My body relaxes, slowly.   I say a short prayer and succumb to the weight of gravity.

***

              When people ask me why I believe in God, I tell them, "Because of my parents."   They did teach me about Jesus when I was little.   You know, "Jesus loves the little children" and all the associated theology about God's disposition towards the wee ones.   But nothing in the "Jesus loves me, this I know" philosophy prepared me for mom turned murderer.  

              I hated God for a while--a family used to live here, where these ghosts reside.   I once had a mother and brothers and a sister.   I was left with a father who was himself a ghost, who never looked at me, who blamed me for surviving.

              And so each of my parents pushed me toward God--my mother attempted to kill me and my father ignored me.   I couldn't live without promise of tenderness or hope or purpose and so reluctantly I shuffled back to God, seeking comfort.

***

              I was born in the South.   I moved north for two reasons:   1.   I did not want to marry a southern girl.   Literature is full of southern women who are fragile, demented, and dangerous, and as my mother was southern, fragile, and demented, I decided that if I ever married I would marry a Yankee.   2. I love winter.   The sight of water frozen, hard and impenetrable, soothes me.

***

 

              I believed in my parents; I believed that they were faultless, that they were honest, and that they could protect me.   When I was frightened or needed warmth, I called on them.   God Almighty was less real and less powerful to me than my mom and dad.   Then, suddenly, our world began unraveling.   The orderliness and safety of our universe was replaced by chaos, uncertainty, and fear.   Our mother, fully half the deity we worshipped, went completely out of her head.   She was suddenly given to fits of rage, she would wail and pull at her hair, scratch her skin until she bled.

              Dad was powerless against her.   She treated him with contempt and derided his attempts to sooth her.   She became extremely inconsistent with us--sometimes warm and affectionate, sometimes withdrawn and sullen, looking at us as if we were a riddle she had to solve.

              But we grew accustomed to our mother's weirdness.   This was our family, how we lived, and though mom still scared us sometimes, she scared us less.   She took pills that induced a state of quiet, robotic performance.   And for us, that resembled stability.

***

              I view my mother as a murderer, my father as a ghost.   How will my children view me when I die?   What will my legacy be?   I want to be a fortress, a stronghold.   I want my children to trust me and I want my wife to respect me.

              Sometimes I fear that I am like my parents.   At times I feel rage, a monster slips in and looks out through my eyes.   At times I feel like a ghost, separate, invisible, distant and powerless.

              I am not a fortress.

***

              I was changing my daughter's diaper.   She was about two months old.   I was exhausted and she was screaming and twisting, pushing my arms away.   I bent down to kiss her face, to soothe her, but she blocked my face with her arms.   Suddenly I realized that she hated me--I could see the hate in her eyes, in her angry little face.   I sensed her utter rejection as she pushed me away, and without thinking I bent down, clamped her jaw between my teeth, and growled.   Her shrieks pierced me--I drew her warm, naked little body to me.   I wanted to console her, to let her know she was safe.

***

              I didn't hesitate when my mother called me into the bathroom.   Her voice when she called to me was clear, strong, and unwavering.   I didn't have a sense that something was terribly wrong until I rounded the corner and looked through the door.

              I saw my mother kneeling by the tub then saw my four-month old brother floating face down, his arms raised above his head, his hands clasped into tight little fists as if in protest or victory.   My stomach clenched and I looked at my mother.   Her eyes were dark and empty and alien, and her hair hung around her shoulders in loose, wet strands.   I couldn't move or speak, and mom just squatted there and watched me.

***

 

              I am a fortress.   I will cover my children with my strong arms.   I will hide them in my shadow.   I will protect them.

***

 

              I bring my face close to my daughter's, and as our foreheads bump together I say, "Boo!"   She squeals in delight.

***

 

              I looked at my mother and asked quietly, "What's wrong with John?"   And mom sprang, slow and sure, moving towards me as her body uncoiled.   I ran, in a panic.   But where could I go?   I was home .   I ran to the family room, thinking perhaps I could hide behind the couch, but she was right behind me.   I yelled and kicked and fought as she caught me up in her iron hands and carried me out of the room.

              I plead and fought all the way down the hall and into the bathroom, grabbing whatever I could reach: pictures, doorframes, the towel racks, the sink.   I put my feet down and tried to stand when she lowered me to the bathtub, but she forced my legs out from under me and pushed my face into the water. I struggled to get air, pushed against the bottom of the tub, and a few times I got my head out of the water, but then she'd force me down again.   I felt my brother's body bumping around as I fought to get air.

              I tried to hold my breath; I waited for someone to save me: Jesus or dad, or maybe mom would come to her senses and lift me out of the tub and cry and hold me.   I pushed my head out of the water and took a gulp of air and she pushed me down again, hard enough that I saw a flash when my head hit the bottom of the tub.   "Stop fighting," a voice said.   And so I let my body go limp.   My mother held my head for what seemed an eternity.   My ears began buzzing.   Finally she let go of me and I felt her lift my brother's body from the tub. I waited as long as I could, then slowly lifted my head and took a few breaths.   I held my breath and put my face back in the water.   A few moments later, I heard a shot.

              The paramedics found her in the attic.   She had tucked my brothers and sister into bed.   The three of them were lined up, side by side, as if they were taking a nap.   I still wonder why she left me in the tub.

***

 

              A recurring dream:   I'm standing on the bank of a great river.   A voice calls to me, clear and strong and unwavering but so quiet, like the lingering tone of a bell ringing a deep note.   I cannot tell if the voice is coming from the river or the other shore or my mind.   It tells me to step in, to step across; I don't have to be afraid.   I'm afraid.   The water is the color of steel and it looks deep.   It's moving fast and I can't swim.   But the voice sounds again and it is so persistent, so patient, and its resonance sets my soul ringing in response, responding in fear and anticipation as my foot slides away from the bank and breaks the surface of the water.

 

 

     

 

William Hicklin

William Hicklin grew up in South Carolina, but currently lives with his wife and 3 children in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  He graduated from Shippensburg University with a BA in English (writing emphasis) and is pursuing a Master's degree in Special Education.   He teaches English to high-school students with emotional and behavioral disorders--and writes in his spare time, when he is not working, studying, or spending time with his family.

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