Authors: Lauren Groff
I walk on, and as the boy's trotting noises fade I hear a disquieting constant sound that I can't place. It is a sticky night: I shed my jacket last week, and it is only gradually that I understand that the noise is coming from the first air conditioner turned on for the year. Soon they'll all be on, crouched like trolls under the windows, their collective tuneless hum drowning out the night birds and frogs, and time will leap forward and the night will grow more and more reluctant to descend and, in the cool linger of twilight, people longing for real air after the sickly fake cold all day will come out and I will no longer have my dangerous dark streets to myself. There's a pleasant smell like campfires in the air, and I think that the old turpentine-pine forests that ring the city must be on fire, which happens once a year or so, and I wonder about all those poor birds seared out of their sleep and into the disorienting darkness. I discover the next morning that it was worse, a controlled burn over the acres where dozens of the homeless had been living in a tent city, and I walk down to look,
but it's all great oaks, lonely and blackened from the waist down in a plain of steaming charcoal. When I return and see the six-foot fences around Bo Diddley Plaza that had gone up that same night for construction, or so the signs say, it is clear that it is part of a larger plan, balletically executed. I stand squinting in the daylight wanting to yell, looking to find a displaced person. Please, I think, please let my couple come by, let me see their faces at last, let me take their arms. I want to make them sandwiches and give them blankets and tell them that it's okay, that they can live under my house. Later, I'm glad I never found them, when I remember that it is not a kind thing to tell human beings that they can live under your house.
The week of heat proves temporary, a false start to the season. The weather again turns so clammy and cold that nobody else comes out, and I shiver as I walk, until I escape my chill by going into the drugstore for Epsom salts to soak my walking away. It is shocking to enter the dazzling color, the ferocious heat after the chilly gray scale; to travel hundreds of miles over the cracked sidewalks and sparse palmettos and black path-crossing cats I dart away from, into this abundance with its aisles of gaudy trash and useless wrapping and plastic pull tabs that will one day end up in the throat of the earth's last sea turtle. I find myself limping, and the limp morphs into a kind of pained bopping because the music dredges up elementary school, when my parents were, astonishingly, younger than I am now, and that one long summer they listened
on repeat to Paul Simon singing over springy African drums about a trip with a son, the human trampoline, the window in the heart. It is both too much and too little, and I leave without the salts because I am not ready for such easy absolution as this. I can't.
And so I walk and I walk, and at some point, near the wildly singing frogs, I look up, and out of the darkness, a stun: the new possessor of the old nunnery has installed uplighting, not on the aesthetic blank of the cube but, rather, on the ardent live oak in front of it, so old and so broad it spreads out over a half acre. I've always known the tree was there, and my children have often swung on its low branches and from the bark plucked out ferns and epiphytes with which to adorn my head. But the tree has never before announced itself fully as the colossus it is, with its branches that are so heavy they grow toward the ground then touch and grow upward again; and thus, elbowing itself up, it brings to mind a woman at the kitchen table, knuckling her chin and dreaming. I stand shocked by its beauty, and as I look, I imagine the swans on their island seeing the bright spark in the night and feeling their swan hearts moved. I heard that they have started building a nest again, though how they can bear it after all they've lost I do not know.
I hope they understand, my sons, both now and in the future just materializing in the dark, that all these hours
their mother has been walking so swiftly away from them I have not been gone, that my spirit, hours ago, slipped back into the house and crept into the room where their early-rising father had already fallen asleep, usually before eight p.m., and that I touched this gentle man whom I love so desperately and somehow fear so much, touched him on the pulse in his temple and felt his dreams, which are too distant for the likes of me; and I climbed the creaking old stairs and at the top split in two, and heading into the boys' separate rooms, I slid through the crack under the doors and curled myself on the pillows to breathe into me the breath that my children breathed out. Every pause between the end of one breath and the beginning of the next is long; then again, nothing is not always in transition. Soon, tomorrow, the boys will be men, then the men will leave the house, and my husband and I will look at each other crouching under the weight of all that we wouldn't or couldn't yell, as well as all those hours outside walking together, my body, my shadow, and the moon. It is terribly true, even if the truth does not comfort, that if you look at the moon for long enough night after night, as I have, you will see that the old cartoons are correct, that the moon is, in fact, laughing. But it is not laughing at us, we lonely humans, who are far too small and our lives far too fleeting for it to give us any notice at all.
Jude was born in a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles. Few people lived in the center of Florida then. Air-conditioning was for the rich, and the rest compensated with high ceilings, sleeping porches, attic fans. Jude's father was a herpetologist at the university, and if snakes hadn't slipped their way into their hot house, his father would have filled it with them anyway. Coils of rattlers sat in formaldehyde on the windowsills. Writhing knots of reptiles lived in the coops out back, where his mother had once tried to raise chickens. At an early age, Jude learned to keep a calm heart when touching fanged things. He was barely walking when his mother came into the kitchen to find a coral snake chasing its red and yellow tail around his wrist. His father was watching from across the room, laughing. His mother was a Yankee, a
Presbyterian. She was always weary; she battled the house's mold and humidity and devilish reek of snakes without help. His father wouldn't allow a black person through his doors, and they didn't have the money to hire a white woman. Jude's mother was afraid of scaly creatures, and sang hymns in the attempt to keep them out. When she was pregnant with Jude's sister, she came into the bathroom to take a cool bath one August night and, without her glasses, missed the three-foot albino alligator her husband had stored in the bathtub. The next morning, she was gone. She returned a week later. And after Jude's sister was born dead, a perfect petal of a baby, his mother never stopped singing under her breath.
Noise of the war grew louder. At last, it became impossible to ignore. Jude was two. His mother pressed his father's new khaki suit and then Jude's father's absence filled the house with a kind of cool breeze. He was flying cargo planes in France. Jude thought of scaly creatures flapping great wings midair, his father angrily riding.
While Jude napped the first day they were alone in the house, his mother tossed all of the jars of dead snakes into the swamp and neatly beheaded the living ones with a hoe. She bobbed her hair with gardening shears. Within a week, she had moved them ninety miles to the beach. When she thought he was asleep on the first night in the
new house, she went down to the water's edge in the moonlight and screwed her feet into the sand. It seemed that the glossed edge of the ocean was chewing her up to her knees. Jude held his breath, anguished. One big wave rolled past her shoulders, and when it receded, she was whole again.
This was a new world, full of dolphins that slid up the coastline in shining arcs. Jude loved the wedges of pelicans ghosting overhead, the mad dig after periwinkles that disappeared deeper into the wet sand. He kept count in his head when they hunted for them, and when they came home, he told his mother that they had dug up four hundred and sixty-one. She looked at him unblinking behind her glasses and counted the creatures aloud. When she finished, she washed her hands for a long time at the sink.
You like numbers, she said at last, turning around.
Yes, he said. And she smiled, and a kind of gentle shine came from her that startled him. He felt it seep into him, settle in his bones. She kissed him on the crown and put him to bed, and when he woke in the middle of the night to find her next to him, he tucked his hand under her chin, where it stayed until morning.
He began to sense that the world worked in ways beyond him, that he was only grasping at threads of a greater fabric. Jude's mother started a bookstore. Because
women couldn't buy land in Florida for themselves, his uncle, a roly-poly little man who looked nothing like Jude's father, bought the store with her money and signed the place over to her. His mother began wearing suits that showed her dÃ©colletage and taking her glasses off before boarding the streetcars, so that the eyes she turned to the public were soft. Instead of singing Jude to sleep as she had in the snake house, she read to him. She read Shakespeare, Neruda, Rilke, and he fell asleep with their cadences and the sea's slow rhythm entwined in his head.
Jude loved the bookstore; it was a bright place that smelled of new paper. Lonely war brides came with their prams and left with an armful of Modern Library classics, sailors on leave wandered in only to exit, charmed, with sacks of books pressed to their chests. After-hours, his mother would turn off the lights and open the back door to the black folks who waited patiently there, the dignified man in his watch cap who loved Galsworthy, the fat woman who worked as a maid and read a novel every day. Your father would squeal. Well, foo on him, his mother said to Jude, looking so fierce she erased the last traces in his mind of the tremulous woman she'd been.
One morning just before dawn, he was alone on the beach when he saw a vast metallic breaching a hundred yards offshore. The submarine looked at him with its single periscope eye and slipped silently under again.
Jude told nobody. He kept this dangerous knowledge inside him, where it tightened and squeezed, but where it couldn't menace the greater world.
Jude's mother brought in a black woman named Sandy to help her with housework and to watch Jude while she was at the store. Sandy and his mother became friends, and some nights he would awaken to laughter from the veranda and come out to find his mother and Sandy in the night breeze off the ocean. They drank sloe gin fizzes and ate lemon cake, which Sandy was careful to keep on hand even though by then sugar was getting scarce. They let him have a slice, and he'd fall asleep on Sandy's broad lap, sweetness souring on his tongue, and in his ears the exhalation of the ocean, the sound of women's voices.
At six, he discovered multiplication all by himself, crouched over an anthill in the hot sun. If twelve ants left the anthill per minute, he thought, that meant seven hundred twenty departures per hour, an immensity of leaving, of return. He ran into the bookstore, wordless with happiness. When he buried his head in his mother's lap, the women chatting with her at the counter mistook his sobbing for something sad.
I'm sure the boy misses his father, one lady said, intending to be kind.
No, his mother said. She alone understood his bursting heart and scratched his scalp gently. But something
shifted in Jude; and he thought with wonder of his father, of whom his mother had spoken so rarely in all these years that the man himself had faded. Jude could barely recall the rasp of scale on scale and the darkness of the Cracker house in the swamp, curtains closed to keep out the hot, stinking sun.
But it was as if the well-meaning lady had summoned him, and Jude's father came home. He sat, immense and rough-cheeked, in the middle of the sunroom. Jude's mother sat nervously opposite him on the divan, angling her knees away from his. The boy played quietly with his wooden train on the floor. Sandy came in with fresh cookies, and when she went back into the kitchen, his father said something so softly Jude couldn't catch it. His mother stared at his father for a long time, then got up and went to the kitchen, and the screen door slapped, and the boy never saw Sandy again.
While his mother was gone, Jude's father said, We're going home.
Jude couldn't look at his father. The space in the air where he existed was too heavy and dark. He pushed his train around the ankle of a chair. Come here, his father said, and slowly, the boy stood and went to his father's knee.
A big hand flicked out, and Jude's face burned from
ear to mouth. He fell down but didn't cry out. He sucked in blood from his nose and felt it pool behind his throat.
His mother ran in and picked him up. What happened? she shouted, and his father said in his cold voice, Boy's timid. Something's wrong with him.
He keeps things in. He's shy, said his mother, and carried Jude away. He could feel her trembling as she washed the blood from his face. His father came into the bathroom and she said through her teeth, Don't you ever touch him again.
He said, I won't have to.
His mother lay beside Jude until he fell asleep, but he woke to the moon through the automobile's windshield and his parents' jagged profiles staring ahead into the tunnel of the dark road.
The house by the swamp filled with snakes again. The uncle who had helped his mother with the bookstore was no longer welcome, although he was the only family his father had. Jude's mother cooked a steak and potatoes every night but wouldn't eat. She became a bone, a blade. She sat in her housedress on the porch rocker, her hair slick with sweat. Jude stood near her and spoke the old sonnets into her ear. She pulled him to her side and put her face between his shoulder and neck, and when she blinked, her wet eyelashes tickled him, and he knew not to move away.
His father had begun, on the side, selling snakes to zoos and universities. He vanished for two, three nights in a row, and returned with clothes full of smoke and sacks of rattlers and blacksnakes. He'd been gone for two nights when his mother packed her blue cardboard suitcase with Jude's things on one side and hers on the other. She said nothing, but gave herself away with humming. They walked together over the dark roads and sat waiting for the train for a long time. The platform was empty; theirs was the last train before the weekend. She handed him caramels to suck, and he felt her whole body tremble through the thigh he pressed hard against hers.
So much had built up in him while they waited that it was almost a relief when the train came sighing into the station. His mother stood and reached for Jude. He smiled up into her soft answering smile.
Then Jude's father stepped into the lights and scooped him up. His body under Jude's was taut, and Jude was so surprised that the shout caught in his throat. His mother did not look at her husband or her son. She seemed a statue, thin and pale.
At last, when the conductor said, All aboard! she gave an awful strangled sound and rushed through the train's door. The train hooted and slowly moved off. Jude could now shout, and did, as loudly as he could, although his father held him too firmly to escape, but the train vanished his mother into the darkness without stopping.
Then they were alone, Jude's father and he, in the house by the swamp.
Language wilted between them. Jude was the one who took up the sweeping and scrubbing, who made their sandwiches for supper. When his father was gone, he'd open the windows to let out some of the reptile rot. His father ripped up his mother's lilies and roses and planted mandarins and blueberries, saying that fruit brought birds and birds brought snakes. The boy walked three miles to school, where he told nobody that he already knew numbers better than the teachers did. He was small, but no one messed with him. On his first day, when a big ten-year-old tried to sneer at his clothes, Jude leapt at him with a viciousness he'd learned from watching rattlesnakes, and made the big boy's head bleed. The others avoided him. He was an in-between creature, motherless but not fatherless, stunted and ratty like a poor boy, but a professor's son, always correct with answers when the teachers called on him, but never offering a word on his own. The others kept their distance. Jude played by himself or with one of the succession of puppies that his father brought home. Inevitably, the dogs would run down to the edge of the swamp, and one of the fourteen- or fifteen-foot alligators would get them.
Jude's loneliness grew, became a living creature that
shadowed him and wandered off only when he was in the company of his numbers. More than marbles or tin soldiers, they were his playthings. More than sticks of candy or plums, they made his mouth water. As messy as the world was, the numbers, predictable and polite, brought order.
When he was ten, a short, round man stopped him on the street and pushed a brown-paper package into his arms. Jude found him vaguely familiar but couldn't place him. The man pressed a finger to his lips, minced away. At home in his room at night, Jude unwrapped the books. One was a collection of Frost's poems. The other was a book of geometry, the world whittled down until it became a series of lines and angles. He looked up and morning was sunshot through the laurel oaks. More than the feeling that the book had taught him geometry was the feeling that it had showed the boy something that had been living inside him, undetected until now.
There was also a letter. It was addressed to him in his mother's round hand. When he sat in school dividing the hours until he could be free, when he made the supper of tuna sandwiches, when he ate with his father, who conducted to Benny Goodman on the radio, when he brushed his teeth and put on pajamas far too small for him, the four perfect right angles of the letter called to him. He put it under his pillow, unopened. For a week,
the letter burned under everything, the way the sun on a hot, overcast day was hidden but always present.
At last, having squeezed everything to know out of the geometry book, he put the still-sealed envelope inside and taped up the covers and hid it between his mattress and box spring. He checked it every night after saying his prayers and was comforted into sleep. When, one night, he saw the book was untaped and the letter gone, he knew his father had found it and nothing could be done.
The next time he saw the little round man on the street, he stopped him. Who are you? he asked, and the man blinked and said, Your uncle. When no comprehension passed over the boy's face, the man threw his arms up and said, Oh, honey! and made as if to hug him, but Jude had already turned away.
Inexorably, the university grew. It swelled and expanded under a steady supply of conditioned air, swallowing the land between it and the swamp until the university's roads were built snug against his father's land. Dinners, now, were full of his father's invective: Did the university not know that his snakes needed a home, that this expanse of sandy acres was one of the richest reptile havens in North America? He would never sell, never. He would kill to keep it.