September 03, 2012
We ran wild at night, effortless, boundless, under a blood-red sky—to where and to what we couldn’t have known. We craved it, that someplace. We were two little girls, sisters, daughters with no mother, distrustful of the freedom we were given, knowing she shouldn’t have left. We tore across dirt campgrounds where we slept, naked but for our mud boots, letting the wind shiver up across our bare chests. We stole bags of chips from the canteen on the pier. Our feet pounded the crushed oyster shells in seaside motel parking lots when we’d search for drinking water, and we let calluses thicken up our soles to withstand the hot desert sand, or dash over a highway of broken glass, wherever we’d been dropped. We scampered across the foggy cliffs that separated Pacific Coast Highway from the ocean in old ballet slippers, as nimble as two fairies, our long red hair whipping into tangles in the wind. We bumped up against the night, without stopping. We stole wrinkled leather sneakers that were two sizes too big, and wore them until they fit. We raced in the sand, fought in the dusk. We knew we were not invisible. We tightened belts around our stomachs at night and bicycled unlit sidewalks and sometimes tucked up our knees and steered with no hands through the darkness. No one hit us. We believed we were unstoppable. We slept under sleeping bags, beneath trees, and pushed our backs against cliffs, our noses cold.
We waited for our mother to come back.
“Ruthie, do you miss her?” Dolly asked.
“No,” I lied.
We talked of Cool Whip and ice cream, of warm apple crisp and salty Fritos. We dreamed of flying.
Then my mother came back. We’d crawl into our station wagon at night, trapped by her need for freedom, and then by her soap opera, General Hospital, which we watched on her portable television. Afterward, we listened to folk songs and Hebrew prayers as she’d strum a fat-bellied classical, knowing this meant that she was feeling fine, that she had acknowledged she had two little girls, whether she wanted us or not.
We used our fingernails to cut away ticks from our legs, and we cleaned up her empty bottles before she’d wake up. We bit at the skin around our nails, leaving it swollen and red.
If I told you that I ached for a different mother, I’d be lying. I ached for my own, every minute. As motherless daughters do.
She was our child. We didn’t know anything different. Everyone knew a mother was a daughter’s first love.
When she asked if we thought she was still beautiful, we said yes, because she was. We told the truth about the steely lightness of her eyes, how quickly they changed color with her emotions, from gray to blue, in parts. We lied when she asked if we thought she’d fall in love one day. We said yes.
It was as possible to miss someone who was right in front of you as it was to miss someone who had left. It was also possible to miss someone who had not yet been born. This I had learned. My mother had told us as much. We walked around craving everyone, even before they’d leave. We never thought it would end, our ache. Often, from the windows of my mother’s speeding green Ford Country Squire, we shouted out the words to James Taylor ballads and motioned for truckers to honk on demand by pumping our fists up and down. We grew cocky, forgetting we were people who had been left.
We were already nomadic, and from the most primal of places, we had become hunters, always searching for someone or something we could lay claim to, hook ourselves onto, to quiet our trembling clamorous souls.
As long as she came back for us.
I have few memories before I was six years old but waking up hungry is one of them. In the white sky of a January night, under the glow of a Hunger Moon, I remember looking out of the rear compartment window of the wood-paneled station wagon my mother called Big Ugly. We had been kept warm at the campsite all night, body pressed to body, wet leaves under the orange sleeping bag.
We hadn’t eaten since the night before. I knew this only because my job was to get rid of the trash. My mother had spent the evening grazing the tiny bottles of liquor on the flipped-down tailgate. Dolly and I had kicked around the canyon, making Jacob’s ladder designs out of string and waiting for the portable television’s batteries to die, which always brought on my mother’s mood swings. Even as Dolly moved the television so as to get the best reception and I adjusted the antennae, my mother drank. She watched us now from the roof of the car as she paged through her Old Farmer’s Almanac in search of the moon’s clues, her legs tucked beneath her on a plaid blanket that spilled over the car windows, keeping it dark inside for us when we finally went to bed, keeping out the moonlight.
When I woke up, I thought Dolly was crying because of my mother’s anger at the batteries, but it was the trees.
The trees were falling off the hillside.
We had never seen anything like it. I watched the blurred brushstrokes, the cascading sweeps of russet and umber tumbling beneath a blue-black sky. I had always clung to land, distrustful of the tide’s obedience to an irrational moon. Now, even the land was giving way. Storms from one of the strongest El Niños in years lifted the top layer of earth like a fingernail, flicking it off, along with rocks and branches. Dolly had woken up first, and started screaming. She pointed to the river of mud rushing down the canyon toward us. Only months before, fire brought by the Santa Ana winds had cleared the hillside of most of the trees. Now that there was little to hold the earth in place, the winds ripped the charred remains from their roots, spilling them across our campsite. The roots had released easily, willing to be exposed after having been tugged at and battered for so long. I could not blame them.
“Dammit, where are my keys?” my mother said, climbing into the front seat. She skimmed her hand across the vinyl. “Where are those damn things?” Her hair spun in wild black tangles, along with her rage. Dolly and I scampered around the back, searching. My hunger turned to dust. I could not find my glasses.
“Hurry up, Mom! Will you get us out of here?” Dolly cried, as rain swept across the windshield in blustery sheets, smacking the glass with rocks. Patterns of flesh and green filled the windows. Dolly handed me my glasses. Clarity.
“My keys. What did you girls do with them?” my mother asked, as I climbed in front beside her. The river of mud was coming toward us.
January’s Hunger Moon was supposed to keep us fed, or return my mother’s lover to her. But it had not done either, so far. The moon was misbehaving, my mother said. Bad unpredictable weather followed the Child Theory of Planetary Creation. The moon was Earth’s child, which meant that the moon’s materials had originally spun off from the earth. The Hunger Moon had conspired, teasing the storms toward the Pacific coast of California, bringing heavy rains and torrential winds, not at all following what she had planned.
I kicked a pile of clothes aside and shook out my coat, reaching under the seat, feeling the sharp teeth of the keys.
“I found them!” I cried, certain this would make my mother love me.
She took the keys from me without a flicker of recognition. She pushed them into the ignition, and waited. Nothing. She pumped the gas three times and then flooded the engine. We started moving. “Faster. Keep driving, Mom. Don’t stop,” said Dolly.
“Be quiet,” my mother whispered. “Please, just be quiet. If you’re not quiet I don’t know what I’ll do.” We drove off, barely able to see the full moon amid the darkness. This unforeseen storm had her rattled, threatening her mastery. My mother had been playing a trick on the world by surviving on her own with two little girls. Without a man. Without family or friends, to speak of. With only her Farmer’s Almanac and the full moons to guide her, she would do it on her own. But this storm had caught her off guard, and to boot there was hunger, which always made her anxious.
I heard howling. I watched the gray Hunger Moon sneaking behind the San Gabriel Mountains. I wondered if it might be willing to help us find a safe place. She had told me such things were possible, and I believed that the reason we were stuck, why the moon hadn’t cooperated, had something to do with me, my behavior. Not being good enough, brave enough, like my sister.
“We’re not going to die,” I whispered as I turned back to Dolly, noticing her hair, a deeper shade of red than mine, smeared straight across her wet cheeks.
As Big Ugly spun onto the slick highway and skidded to a stop, shattering the air with mud, I wanted to disappear from the aftermath of her lack of control, which I could feel. Disheveled tree roots, cracked rocks, broken bumpers, and shards of glass littered the road. People were being evacuated. I could sense my mother’s anger filling the car as she weaved through fender-bender crashes, drove up beyond the curve of sky, and then, once out of sight, pulled off to the side in a quiet and dark patch of mud. She reached across my lap and pulled the door handle, opening my door. “Get out, Ruthie. Don’t
make me tell you twice.”
I hesitated, wondering if she would do this to me again. Why was it always me? She lit a cigarette and blew smoke out the window.
“Out. Get out,” she said, hitting the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. I opened the door and got out. Standing in the rain, I watched her drive off, my hands balled into fists. My cheeks flushed, though I refused to cry, letting the rain soak my jean shorts and yellow tank top. I refused to bite my fingernails to the quick again. I looked around in the silence, wiping my glasses with the hem of my shirt. There was nothing but darkness and an occasional flicker of moonlight on the wet pavement. I stopped breathing, if only for a moment. I reached into my pocket and took out one of the smooth stones my mother had given me earlier. It felt warm in my palm. Somehow it anchored me.
There was that howling again.
I shivered, counting my heartbeats as I had learned to do. I wondered what it was about me that made her do this to me but never to Dolly. I stayed there for a minute, certain that my sister, who didn’t care about being loved and who could look a person in the eye without flinching and tell them how it was, scared my mother a little. Dolly had said “motherfucker” to a park ranger once, when he ousted us from an illegal camping spot. My mother had pretended not to smile and told her to swear only in Yiddish.
My mother liked it, her courage.
Ilie Ruby is the author of The Salt God’s Daughter which will be published on September 4th, 2012, and the critically-acclaimed The Language of Trees, which debuted in 2010 and was selected as a Target Emerging Author’s Pick and a First Magazine for Women Reader’s Choice, and for which complex Chinese rights were sold. Raised in Rochester, NY, she moved to Southern California to teach school, and began publishing poems and short stories in California literary magazines in the early 90s, among them Pearl Magazine, Caffeine, and Genre. She attended the University of Southern California’s Professional Writing Program, where she was fiction editor of The Southern California Anthology. She also holds a masters degree in teaching from Simmons College, and specialized in documentary filmmaking at Emerson College. She is the winner of the Edwin L. Moses Award for Fiction, chosen by T.C. Boyle; a Kerr Foundation Writing Scholarship, and the Phi Kappa Phi Award for Creative Achievement in Fiction. Ruby is also a recipient of the Wesleyan Writer’s Conference Davidoff Scholarship and the Barbara Kemp Award for Outstanding Teaching and Scholarship. She has worked as an assistant producer for a PBS archeology series in Central America and as an editor in the school division of Houghton Mifflin Company. Her essays appear in the New York Times, Psychology Today and CNN, among others. Ruby is a poet, painter, and mother to three.
Adapted from The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby. Copyright © 2012 by Ilie Ruby. With the permission of the publisher, Soft Skull Press.