shade pulled to block out the starlight reflecting
from the snow, swaying steady
in the arms of an awkward giant—
the sleep bringer
shushing the darkness. Daniel Ruefman is a poet whose work has appeared most recently in The Red Earth Review, The Flagler Review, Gravel Magazine, SLAB, Temenos, and DIALOGIST (among others). His chapbook, BREATHE AUTOMATIC, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2014. Daniel is the father to one and teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin–Stout.
I know a man who never waters his garden. Every spring, he plants an array of seeds in richly fertilized and cultivated soil, tamps a fond farewell and hopes for the best. He says a little stress is good for the plants, being thirsty will make them hardy, and when they do get a drink of rain they will learn to use that sustenance efficiently. As crazy as personifying vegetable sprigs sounds, this is the way the man gardens, and year after year he reaps a bountiful harvest.
This man parents his children in much the same way: lays a solid foundation, provides the necessities, and then sends them out on their own come what may. He likens giving help in any manner to coddling and has a no re-admittance policy after the age of eighteen. Like their horticultural counterparts, his children are resilient, self-sufficient, and stoic in the face of adversity; but they aren’t very loving, or generous, or kind.
I think of this man every year when I start my garden and consider trying his tough-love approach. Why not? I ask myself. What could it harm? I imagine letting something I gave life to struggle to the point of perishing, dying needlessly when help is a hose-length away. I flirt with his method, yet every year at the first sign of wilting leaves, I shower my little plants with a gentle spray, ultimately not willing to risk losing any of them if I can help it. Does this mean I am spoiling them, raising them to be weak and defenseless in the soiled world? Am I quashing their will to live? And what about my own parenting style, what does my garden say about my mothering?
I rake this question back and forth in my mind while methodically preparing this year’s dirt. Do I make life too easy for my child? I till through tangles of deeply rooted social convention and conflicting opinions. Will letting her cry breed insecurity? Will picking her up make her needy? I break apart the clumpy surface mounds of clay and sand, as common as my daily routine, and mix them with what lies beneath: cool, dark richness. Not just dirt any longer, but soil, ready to impart its magic upon tiny, shelled dormancies. How profound it is to be the medium of growth, to be the one responsible for raw potential, like a mother shaping a life. Am I worthy of such a miraculous mission?
From my sifting thoughts, a single word sprouts and vines towards its flowering. Purpose. What is my purpose in cultivating a person? It would be simple to apply the principles of agriculture to child rearing if I were only interested in one generation, one season, but my purpose is to raise a child capable of becoming a nurturing parent herself one day. Giving nourishment is so much
easier after receiving it. So, while I understand this man’s philosophy, I will still water my plants. I can love without indulging; I can assuage their thirst without rotting their roots.
Michelle Riddell lives with her family in rural mid-Michigan. She is a substitute teacher at her daughter’s elementary school where source material, both heartbreaking and humorous, is abundant. Her short features have been published in MomSense and Hello,Darling magazines.
Lana Bellahas a diverse work of poetry and flash fiction published and forthcoming with Anak Sastra, Atlas Poetica, Bewildering Stories, Beyond Imagination, Buck-Off Magazine, Calliope Magazine, Eunoia Review, Cecil’s Writers’ Magazine, Deltona Howl, Earl of Plaid Lit, Family Travel Haiku, First Literary Review-East, Foliate Oak Literary, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Global Poetry, Ken*Again, Kind Of A Hurricane Press, Marco Polo Arts Literary, Nature Writing, New Plains Review, Poetry Pacific, The Commonline Journal, The Higgs Weldon, The Voices Project, War Anthology: We Go On, Thought Notebook, Undertow Tanka Review, Wordpool Press, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Featured Artist with Quail Bell Magazine. She lives bi-continents, in the US and Asia, where she is the wife of a novelist and the mom of two frolicsome imps.
My sister stands beside me on the pool deck. We aren’t watching our kids play-fight in the water. Our eyes are on the adolescent bird sitting at the base of an oak tree a few feet away. We can hear his mother squawking at him from a bush nearby. He’s fallen from her nest, and she can’t carry him to safety because he’s almost her size. But she can’t leave him alone, either, because she knows better than any of us that the woods are full of raccoons, that her life’s work might end in a half-eaten lump of sorrow if he can’t get to a low branch somehow. There’s nothing for her to do but to wait and to sing.
My sons are young teenagers who need me less than they used to. They and I are developing new ways of relating to one another, but not the ones I saw coming. I hear myself telling them how to do things, how to be, how not to feel. I watch them push and doubt. They fall out of trees, and I sit, huffy and anxious, because I no longer hold their world in my hand. Because I hope for so much.
“Look at that,” my sister whispers. Both of us are frozen.
The teenaged bird is working his tiny nub-wings. They’re untested. They can’t possibly lift him. His frantic mother is warning him, begging him to be alright. My sister and I have forgotten to breathe as we watch him stab his beak and tapered claws, not yet dulled by endless twig-collecting and insect-finding, into the trunk of the tree. He’s beating his wings so hard against the bark I imagine they’ll break.
These days I flip through old scrapbooks more than I used to. I memorize the colors in my frozen moments, images I curated to stoke the future embers of mother feeling that might one day smolder at the base of my heart. I do it because I’m forgetting. I need these pictures to remind of the times my children sat backward on my lap and put their hands on my cheeks. When they stared so close I could count their eyelashes. Now they stand a few feet away from me when we cross a parking lot. True, I can still read them like the favorite books they’ve always been to me, but now, where their words used to lay clean, they clump together, muddied under layers of outsized emotion.
My sister and I lean ourselves against the treated wood of the deck. We’re silent but both of us are willing the bird-teen higher. We can’t believe he hasn’t plummeted to his death by now. We watch him make it halfway up the tree, his little propellers chopping the air. His mother is losing her voice from cheering him, from screaming, it seems.
And then he falls, landing on gnarled roots at the base of the tree. For a second he doesn’t move. I figure he isn’t dead yet, but will be soon, from the impact. I look past the tree, to the hill behind it, because this is too much to witness. My boys are throwing a football in the clearing. The younger one catches it and the older one tackles him, sending him hard into the earth. It’s only a matter of time before someone throws a punch but I’m thankful for the distraction.
Mother bird is quiet. Then I see her son stirring from the corner of my eye. He fluffs his gray feather coat, then stamps his feet and starts beating his wings, turning in a half circle so that he’s once again facing the trunk of the tree. He jumps toward it and clings, and his mother sends forth her everything song one more time. My sister and I can’t believe what we’re seeing, but it’s true; he’s making it, not to the lowest branch, but to one much higher.
I muse about that bird mother long after we’ve all gone back to the house. Did she go to bed early, hoarse and headachy? Did she find herself unable to feel after her son’s escape because it cost her so much? Did she remind her boy to visit once in a while, before he finally flew away, to let her know how things are going?
Maybe. Me, I’m still waiting. My boys are at the tree’s base, where the roots are thick and solid. I feel my stomach muscles pull tight as I watch them move their wings a little now and then. I’d rather gather them close and save all that for another day, but they’ve seen those top branches, and won’t be dissuaded. So I sit on a perch nearby and do what I can.
Hannah Vanderpool is a writer, a former ex-pat, and a home educator of three interesting middle schoolers. You can connect with her on Twitter, @HannahVPool, or at Praying With One Eye Open.