The bridge shakes. Four-year-old Emma screams. It is a rope bridge with wooden slats for flooring and it bobs and rolls like the deck of a small rowboat moored in a breeze-ruffled pond. In other words, it won’t pitch my daughter over. Emma doesn’t know that.
“Keep going,” I say. She is halfway across, was carried there by the momentum of her gait, half-run, half-skip, before she realized she was not on solid ground any more. I am behind her carrying the baby, Sam. We came to the prairie path to walk and look for butterflies. Emma has a new net she wants to try out.
“Look, Emma,” I say. “Up there. I think I see a white one, a cabbage butterfly.”
I love the way her voice rises in anticipation with the tilt of her chin. “Where?” Then hardly ten seconds pass and “Where?” Emma asks again, both voice and chin wobbling with distrust. How quickly she’s learned to see through my well-intentioned fibs. She won’t move.
She is stubbornly timid lately — ever since four months ago when Sam was born. A stage, my friends reassure me. Typical when a new baby comes home for a child to act this way. Typical, too, of her age. Yet I can’t help wistfully remembering the way she used to climb the jungle gym in the park with no fear whatsoever, her plump small hands tightly tenacious as they encircled the splotchy silver bars.
Despite misgivings I continue with my white lie. “I think the butterfly just flew towards those trees, Emma. Let’s go and look.”
No go. She won’t budge. I would pass her, show her how easy it is to cross, but the bridge is too narrow, meant for single-file walking, and I can’t scoop her up. Not with Sam in the waist-wrap. If I did I’d probably lose my balance. Whatever possessed me to think I could handle two children?
For a brief second, exasperation building, I consider grabbing her arm. I could push her in front of me saying, “See, Emma? Nothing to be afraid of,” but I find losing my patience scary.
Last week Emma wouldn’t let me cut her nails though she was never been afraid of the scissors before. I noticed how long her nails were when she accidentally scratched me. We were playing tag. She etched a long, narrow white line on my forearm that soon reddened, filled with blood. “You have claws like a cat,” I teased her. “Let’s take care of them.”
We went inside. I got the scissors out of the utility drawer, sat her on my lap, and took her hand in mine. But as soon as she saw that tiny steel instrument bound about my fingers, she cried out.
“Nooo — I’ll never scratch you again, Mama. I promise. I’ll be careful.”
There was no reasoning with her, no coaxing. I even resorted to bribing her with the promise of a chocolate shake. Forget it.
It is such a simple thing to cut a child’s nails. I’d done it many times. Only the day before Emma had watched me carefully snip Sam’s with the safety scissors. “Should I get those?” I asked her. She was hysterical. “No, no, no,” she screamed.
I’d never hurt her. How dare she think so? I could hear the baby begin to cry in his crib, waking from his nap. “I don’t have time for this nonsense, Emma,” I said as I pried her hand open trying to cut at least one nail anyway, just to prove this procedure was simple, unharmful, and that she should listen to me, believe me.
Emma’s eyes rolled back in her head. She pushed her heels against my shins and arched her back. The scissors flicked against the tender skin of her finger tip. When a scarlet bubble formed above the cut, she held her breath back so long — as did I, horrified, with her — I thought we’d both faint.
Now on the bridge I say, “Emma.” My speech is slow, careful, precise. “Just do it one step at a time.”
“But I’m so scared, Mama.” As if she anticipates I’ll keep verbally edging her forward, she simply plops down.
Sam is heavy. Even at birth he was a large baby, definitely not easy to deliver. Well, I think, I’m not going to just stand here. I sit too, shifting Sam, who is snoozing, onto my lap. We can sit here for while, I think, though sooner or later we’ll have to move: if we want to go chase butterflies; if we want to go back to the car; if someone else comes down the path and wants to use the bridge. I don’t tell Emma this. I’ll wait. No use panicking her just now.
I pull the blue and white seersucker sun hat closer over Sam’s brow. I watch the breeze tease a curl loose from Emma’s light brown ponytail. The small river below us is not wide. It’s more of a brook really. The summer has been fairly dry and it runs low. Even if Emma tumbled, it’s a drop of less then four feet and the water’s only 8 inches or so deep. The bottom is softly muddy. We’d be scared, her and I, but unless something truly freakish happened she’d be okay.
A dragonfly, green and shimmery, wings translucent and so at odds with its bulging gargantuan-eyed body, skims back and forth just in front of us.
“See the dragonfly, Emma?”
“I see it,” she sighs. She might as well say ho-hum.
The dragonfly hovers and darts, then dives towards its prey, a small fly.
“Mama,” Emma says, “Where do butterflies go in the winter?”
Okay, we’re back to butterflies. Maybe this outing won’t be a bust after all.
“Well, let’s see. Some hibernate like bears in places where the winter isn’t so cold. Some fly south. The pretty orange and black ones do that. The Monarchs.”
“But some die, don’t they?”
Good grief. All I wanted to do today was get out of the house and go for a walk. “Because that’s nature’s way,” I say, hoping a vague answer is good enough.
“Do they go to heaven?”
I’m silent. I know my aunts have Emma believing in angels as fervently as in Santa Claus, but it isn’t something I want to address. Not now. Finally I say simply, “I don’t know.”
“Mama,” she says. “I don’t want you to die. I want to be with you always. Don’t ever leave me.”
I look into her eyes. A film of tears makes the irises swirl. If a tear dropped now I swear it would be as deeply blue as a northern sea on the finest of days.
“I won’t,” I say.
There it is, the biggest white lie of all. A promise that leaves my lips easily, with no trepidation. “I won’t.” It surprises me how much I mean it.
My own mother died in childbirth — my birth. An unusual occurrence, complications from pre-eclampsia, but it does happen. When I was small I believed she was always about me, though I knew of her only from pictures and the stories my aunts, her sisters, told me. Oh, I didn’t think of her in a spooky way, as a spirit or as some benevolent angel smiling down from above. Nor did I think of her as the traits I inherited. I hated to be told I was her “spitting image.” What a disgusting thing to be, I thought.
However, I did think of her as something other, not dead and gone.
My father remarried when I was six. In the days he and Christina first dated, she used to seek out my affection by buying us matching outfits. Her shopping wasn’t just a ploy though. She was truly nice. I happily remember blouses with collars outlined in pink daisies, round handbags of white leather, soft yellow cardigans.
On the day of the wedding I forgot all that. I felt wicked — a word not used much anymore, but it fits. During the ceremony my head felt hot and the grin I wore seemed ready to explode off my face. At the banquet hall, before the meal, I found the wedding cake stored in a hall pantry and stuffed myself with it. I threw up over my satin-sashed flower girl dress before wedding pictures could be taken, and my paternal grandmother took me home, scolding all the way. I didn’t care. I ran up to my father’s room, found suitcases lying there packed for the honeymoon, opened them and strew the neatly folded clothing all about, stamping on pants and polo shirts, and even attempting to tear underwear before I could be stopped.
I don’t remember if I was punished. I only recall that for days after I simply mooned about, finding myself drawn again and again to my mother’s wedding photo, now placed in the guest room, discreetly out of the way. In her tulle head-dress adorned with seed pearls, in the satin that looked to my eyes as glossy as fresh saltwater taffy, she was my sleeping beauty, and some day the spell would be broken, the thorns pruned back.
I could see her so clearly doing everyday things with me — walking down to the lake at the end of the street singing “Clementine” or something else I’d been practicing for the Y summer camp show. When we got to the dock, she would look at me and smile. Hand in hand we’d do something I was too timid to do myself: run its length counting out our strides before cannon balling over the water — bodies suspended in air — shouting “Too late now!” We would do it just the way my aunts told me — and now tell Emma — they’d all done it as sisters long ago.
But with Christina baking cookies in the kitchen, Christina going over math homework with me step by frustrating step, and with Christina getting pecked on the cheek when my Dad came home from work, the story began to feel unreal. Soon the woman in the picture became merely that — an image caught under glass, day by day fading from black and white to softer tones of silver gray.
“Emma,” I say, watching her twist a piece of hair around and around her finger, wondering if she’s satisfied with the promise that still surprises me, “Why are you so afraid now? Can you tell me?”
She shakes her head then tilts it back. “Can you feel the sun? He’s licking us.”
“Yeah. It kind of feels like that,” I say.
“Guess know what? Remember the other day? Remember when I put my popsicles down?”
“He ate it. The sun. I went back to get it and it was gone.”
“Yes,” I say. “It melted. That happens.”
“I remember that,” she says. “I remember a lot of things. I’ve got good memory.”
I stroke her arm lightly, cognizant of its fine delicate hair, the emergent freckles. How beautiful she is. How I wish she wasn’t so sad. How happy I am to be with her in this quiet moment. I kiss her cheek.
But we need to get up. We need to go on. Soon Sam will wake wanting to suckle. This isn’t a good spot. We won’t have caught our butterflies to put in the plastic jar I carry; butterflies we’ll release later by our house. The afternoon will pass and this will become just another day when things haven’t panned out — like when it rains after we decide to go to the pool and we end up standing in the hall dressed in our suits, arms full of tubes, waterwheels, and buckets, staring out at the downpour.
“The sun liked that popsicle,” Emma says. “Maybe he thinks we’re popsicles.”
She smiles. I should take advantage of that.
“Wonder what flavor he thinks I am,” I say.
“Oh you’re grape,” she says giggling, “because you like purple.”
“And you’re strawberry because you like pink.”
“Sam,” says Emma, “is orange, just like his t-shirt.”
I toddle to my feet, grip the rope handrails. “Let’s go before we disappear.” The bridge sways. “Kind of feels like being on a swing,” I add merrily. Emma nods her head but she still won’t rise. “In a minute,” she pleads.
I hear voices behind us coming up through the woodland path hiding the parking lot. A little voice is shouting, “Let’s go!” A woman’s says, “I’m coming, I’m coming.”
“Better get up now, Emma.”
Do or die, sink or swim. Trust me, you’ll be okay.
“Go on. Someone’s coming. You don’t want them to think you’re afraid, do you?”
She is frozen.
Someday I’ll tell her about the times I was irrationally scared. I’ll tell her about when I married her Dad, and get out my album searching the photos to see if the fear can be seen there. Me putting on my lipstick. Me standing with my father and Christina on the sweeping foyer stair. Me getting into the car to go to the church. Me standing in the vestibule with my bridesmaids, lining up. Me taking my father’s hand. All that time, as I continuously smiled at the camera, I was absolutely convinced Kevin would not be waiting at the end of the aisle, that in his place was just a blankness. All those people going along with the wedding? They were simply being polite. They would let me marry a ghost to save face.
Of course, that wasn’t the case, but I still get that feeling whenever Kevin and I fight and he storms out of the house to drive around awhile, or when he flies away on a business trip. Soon I can’t remember the feel of him next to me in bed, can’t even picture the bulk of his shoulders pointed towards the ceiling. I feel only the cool expanse of the sheets and the pillow clutched to my stomach.
Sam is stirring, wrinkling his face, grunting like a little piggy. Not quite awake, but almost.
The voices behind us are louder now. I see a girl about Emma’s age emerging from the woods. She sprints up the path to stand at the base of the bridge.
“Gotta get through,” she says in a bossy tone.
“But the bridge is shaky, scary,” Emma tells her.
“I know that!” she exclaims, walking right up to my hip, boxing us in.
“Johanna! Wait up!” the woman who must be her mother yells as she comes out of the woods.
Usually I’m inclined to take a protective attitude when faced with aggressive kids, but it occurs to me, despite the guilty twinge it provokes, that I should just let this child bully Emma into moving.
The bridge wobbles more wildly under the weight of the three of us. Four of us if you count Sam. The girl’s sun-reddened face begins to collapse. “I forgot how high this was,” she says.
In a definite turn for the absurd the bridge is becoming like something in a Russian or German fairy tale, filling up with ever more people afraid to move. Great, I think, we’ll all be stuck here. Fools all.
But strangely the crowded bridge, the frightened girl, seem to make my daughter happy. She’s grinning.
“What’s your name?” Emma asks the towhead.
“Mine’s Emma. I’m four.”
“You know,” says Emma, “there’s this game.” She gets to her feet. “It’s one, two, three, and when you say three you have to run and say ‘too late now’ and you can’t go back.”
“Okay,” says Johanna, turning to a trim blond woman now on the bridge’s edge.
“Mommy, we’re going to hold hands and run across, okay?”
“Sure,” the woman shrugs.
So hand gripping sweaty hand we position ourselves, leaning forward as Emma calls out, “One.”
Johanna adds her voice. “Two!”
Then we all shout, “Three” — racing at an ungainly pace because I’ve got Sam around my middle, and because we’re stretched out single-file, and because we’re loping sideways, yet somehow getting across to the river bank where the soil is loose and dry and little puffs of dust dance up around our sneakered feet.
“Too late now!” I shout in as big a voice as I once imagined my mother having. In front of me I see Emma — for the moment all timidness gone, for the moment forgetting me — turning with the path out of sight, swooshing her net in the air, Johanna leaping by her side.
“Let’s catch butterflies,” I hear Emma command.
Johanna’s mother smiles at me. “Kids,” she says shaking her pretty head lightly, for all the world, I think, like a solid little pony shaking its mane just for the brief momentary joy of it.