The daughter’s wind chimes have been stolen. Someone swiped the singing things right off the cobwebbed porch. But more, too: her dusty rolling pin she bakes pies for her mother with, chef’s knife she rocks over garden-grown herbs, Guatemalan painting, Danish desk—all gone.
The unnoticing mother comes home, brushes through the door, down the rugless hall, past the cleared out kitchen and says to her daughter or herself,
Dogs need walked.
Litter needs changed.
Fish need fed.
Fern, Spider, Jade need watered. Press the soil first, daughter, to see how dry.
But the plants and animals, too, have been carted away.
The mother is losing it. That’s why her daughter’s stayed home and gone to community college in this suburban town, thirty minutes from the city with the schools she’d hoped to go to. The mother fills the fridge with empty plates, stacks bowls on her nightstand, crisscrosses the colored wires, so the TV fuzzes bad. A wonder nothing’s yet set ablaze or flooded from an overflowed tub.
The father is long estranged from the mother and the daughter but has come back to live in this town that’s full of whispering. The father had—still has—a beard that went in and out. He shaved it off every other month. So his face’s bottom went from prickle to bristle to prickle – never a comfortable kiss.
The father was never sure about a child, so the daughter tried to impress him. She learned to read early. She studied a map to track where the father went for his job. She attempted jujitsu and tuba. Ornithology and cryptography. She explained to the father leg-locks, bass clef, cardinals, and clues. He nodded and smiled and tried to get along but was baffled by this child, as fathers sometimes fear they’ll be. Puzzled, also, by the trapping feeling of this house, which he’d promised to live in with the mother when they married.
The mother mixes her words, says things like, “I am sudden hungry.” Her daughter corrects her, doesn’t think, lost cause. The mother’s muddledness doesn’t mean she’s lost her knowledge. She still helps with her daughter’s studies and keeps up with the news. She explains to her daughter NATO tactics, OPEC prices, NSA leaks, and UN resolutions, all of which reminds them of the father, who, through his travels, had gained slow coats of foreignness.
The daughter lays her textbooks down on the floor for lack of any hip-height surface. She’s given up on all but botany since the father left. She learns the needs of her plants and nurses them into growth and stability. She goes now to warm buns in the oven for her mother. But the Pyrex is gone. No cookie sheets or pans. They are not in the sock drawer, where her mother sometimes dumps them, not in the closet behind skirts and dresses.
The father’s job was to speak for his country to other governments. The mother and daughter figured he did this well; he fit into himself in a way they didn’t. But the father was never sure. He studied his face in close-up airplane mirrors to convince himself of who he was, where his home was, and why it mattered that he stand up for it. Why it mattered that he return at all, having grown so different. He brought the mother and daughter trinkets back. Gestures, one of the easier ways to prove love.
The father couldn’t cook to save his life, the mother said. He never cleaned or fed the pets. The daughter did these chores instead to show him she was willing. Still, the house was only whole with the father at the table or in the big library chair, both of which the mother now has trouble naming. Because he was often gone, because the mother and daughter were forever telling the town he was gone this week or last, it was all the easier for him to stay gone in the end.
These days the mother’s thoughts are like other people’s dreams. The father knows the facts from whispers in town, but he doesn’t know the beautiful details. How she spreads sand across the tundra, floats fish up to the desert to swim among icicled cacti. How slight, her daughter thinks, is the difference between day and night dreams anyway? For instance, the mother says the sun, in the height of the day, casts flashing stars on the pond in town. Her daughter sees that this is true.
The father was not unkind. Just that it was sometimes hard to find the mother he knew in the mother, when she began to lose it. He used to wonder where she’d gone to when they were sitting eye to eye. He pictured a miniature version of her, wandering the forest of her mind. Fumbling the levers and wrenches that operate her body and speech. And the daughter whom he couldn’t understand as his own. Whom, through the clean glass window, he watched as she linked herself to her slow-step mother and they strolled around the yard.
The daughter has strategies. She peels labels off their sleek-backed sheets and writes on them, then sticks them around the house. “Table” on tables, “chair” on chairs, “piano” on top of the dusty white keys—like a teacher teaching a foreign language. But now the house is all air, dirt, webs, and rooms missing what had taken them up.
Forgiveness is a dough that needs kneading. It is a punch, a pound, a rolling over. It needs more than a day. The mother couldn’t do it. The daughter couldn’t do it. So when the father took his last plane back, folding open, closed, and open the seatback tray; when he took the train from city to suburb, tilting his unsleeping head back, imagining the mother and daughter moving about the house; when he waited minutes with a lifted fist before knocking on the peeling-paint door; when he finally asked, the mother, for her daughter, out of love said, no no no no no. They bordered him out. The father then kept to himself as asked to. But knowing how hearts can change, he stayed near.
After an evening shower, the mother says to her daughter:
Hair needs dried and brushed.
Nails need filed.
No towel and no brush, though, so the daughter uses her hand to ruffle her mother’s hair, then runs her fingers through to smooth it down like the father sometimes did. No nail file, so the daughter just holds her mother’s hand.
There he is on the porch. If the mother or daughter looked through where the window used to be, they would see his face. His beard in its full, bushy stage, which had once reminded the mother of the moon’s most satisfying phase. But they don’t look, so they don’t see him. He is holding a plant pot with a young stem nestled in it. He’s holding two rabbits by their ears. He’s got pencils with worn erasers jutting out from his mouth. Around him are the many things he’s set aside for them: pillows—throw and sleep, cabinet knobs and stove dials, Lebanese vases and Kenyan masks, blankets to stay warm.
A house’s worth of objects are assembled on the porch. The father fishes the spare key out from the daughter’s boot, which lies below the wind chimes he’s hung up. His lungs shake out a breath. He marches through the door.
Days pass. Days of bringing the belongings slowly in, belongings the daughter doesn’t recognize, but the mother might. Days of the father naming each object to the mother. Days of seeing how the daughter has grown to look like him. Days of them deciding if and when to speak, about what. It is not easy. It needs mulling over. It is a leap and a stretch.
Now, to leave their house, they must squeeze between and dance around. The daughter must lift her careful leg over their napping cats. The mother must swerve their open drawers and grab a curtain to steady herself. The father, when he peels their door open, must make sure it doesn’t catch on a bump in the rug. But the three do leave. A lugging train chugs them to the city. They decide on the planetarium. Under its black dome, they lean their heads back to see the stars. The daughter clears away her mind’s clutter. The mother reads messages in the constellations. The father ventures a tug on his daughter’s braid and a hand on his wife’s shoulder. He is not shaken off by either woman.
Once outside, they must adjust from fake night into real day. They hear a plane overhead but can’t see it for the low fog. Later the sky breaks up. It becomes its weather-parts that children learn the words for in school. A light rain arrives. It falls steady through the afternoon and evening. Don’t think the family doesn’t notice, though, that all along, the dusky sun weaves through the rain to touch their skin.