Some words are involuntary. They escape like a belch, like the way I tell my husband, “Normal,” when he asks about my day. Other words bury themselves in the flesh, evading, consuming, metastasizing.
I lumber through the entryway to see my husband stirring a bowl of green sludge. It looks gross but, odds are, it will cook into something delicious. I roll the bark-like flesh of my breast under the side of my thumb like it is an itch.
My son clatters into the room. “This tree’s going down!” Chris is five. He cares about yellow construction vehicles that are used to clear forests. Now, he pushes a toy version along the wooden floor at my feet. It smashes into my ankle. Four plastic appendages wrap around the pointy bone that juts over my moccasin. I’m grateful. Innocuous pain soothes other agony.
Evening sun shines through the front window, striking Chris across his pupils. He is young, his eyes like they were when he emerged from my womb, squinting against the light. I think, how can I leave him now? He is not yet adjusted to the harshness of the outside world. His eyebrows are only beginning to sprout. Just a few hairs now but enough to highlight his infinite expressions. A few millimeters in either direction and I am either destroyed or elated. “Do you just love feller-bunchers?” Chris says.
“Who doesn’t?” I say.
“Here comes the delimber.” Two human arms encircle my torso from behind and squeeze. I look over my shoulder and find Chris’s twin. “Which one are you?” I ask.
Ben smiles at my joke. His front tooth is loose and hangs at an angle. Its replacement lies in wait, leading with an edge that may be smooth, like my husband’s, or may be jagged, like mine. The distinction matters only because this tooth will emerge in time for me to find out. I will brush it and fuss over it and admire it enough that he will remember the brushing and fussing each time a new one emerges. That is to say, he will remember me.
“I’m taking off your branches. Be a log.” Ben sweeps his arms up and down my body, humming like machinery. I play along, lifting my hands into the air, imagining my roots spreading into the soil, my leaves catching the sun. It is easy to forget the pain when there are more pressing matters at hand. But then I twist the wrong way and nerves in my armpit fire. I crouch over to calm the burn.
Chris nods. “Right, but you’re supposed to fall all the way to the floor.”
My twins guide me the rest of the way down. I tingle with each fingertip that grasps my thigh, my belly, my arm, scooping tiny bowls of joy into my flesh. For now, my boys see me in the most flattering light: covered in bark, full of twigs and leaves. But I am struck by the irony. The closer I am to being part of the earth, the more they will notice my breath, my heartbeat, my mortal un-tree-ness.
My husband claps his hands. “Chris, Ben. Let Mommy get in the house. Let her take her coat off before you turn her into two by fours.” He pours me a glass of wine and leans over the counter so that his eyes are even with mine. “How was your physical?” He smiles. I don’t tell him about the spinach leaf caught between his incisors. I’m afraid he will dig it out.
The wine is the deep purple of blood from a vein. When I lift it to my nose, I smell Christmases and weddings and the midnight breath of my children when I sneak into their room and watch them sleep. I pour the wine into my mouth and let it puddle on my tongue until saliva fills my cheeks. I used to pray my boys would never grow, never change. Now, I stare at their grip on their chosen toys and fantasize about wrenching the toys away, about forcing their metamorphosis into humorless teenagers, to fast forward to their first acne, their first illicit body piercing, to break off the identity that binds them to me and watch as they spin up their own. I swallow the wine and shrug a shoulder. “Just another check-up.”
My husband brings a spoonful of his concoction to his lips, lets gravity dab it on his tongue. He wears an apron my mother bought for me. “Babe,” he says. “This muffin batter is wicked.” He dances a little and the ruffles on the apron flap in rhythm. His Cuban hips figure-eight around the kitchen. He kicks his legs and throws his head back so that I can imagine the music he hears in his head. My husband grabs my hand and twirls me around. The pain rumbles and I freeze. I look up, sure everyone has felt the volcano in my armpit, but they are all still doing what they do. I lean on the kitchen counter, short on breath.
“Mommy.” Ben pokes me on the side. “Watch this tree fall.” His vehicle wraps its arms around a Lego tower and extracts it from the base on the floor. The feller-buncher drops the Legos and the tower shatters into fifty different pieces.
“Mommy, don’t cry” says Chris. “We’ll build another Lego tree.”
I start to retch but it isn’t vomit that threatens to come up. I stare at my husband’s hips rocking and my boys scurrying to build another structure. Who could disrupt such a scene? I give them all I can. I hold it in for one more day.