2021
SHORT STORY CONTEST
First Prize
$1,000 Award

MOTHS

by Kathleen Spivack

I am driving through deserted villages where occasionally a pale, wild face presses itself against a window, illuminated for a moment, looking out.

“Where are we going, Ma?” my son asks. He is sitting beside me, straining to see over the dashboard, into the night. Leaving your father, that’s where we’re going, I want to answer, but instead, “I don’t know yet,” is what I say.

The One in the back seat doesn’t stir or ask anything. The One who they say “will never be quite right.” She seems to be asleep but perhaps not. I say, “She’ll never give us any trouble.” My husband says, “Give up, Lindy. Give it up.”

Ahead of us the road veers like an arrow tip. I am afraid of falling asleep myself or drifting off onto the shoulder. I don’t like driving at night. “Keep me awake,” I say to little Billy, “Sing something.” But he is too frightened or withdrawn to do anything except ask questions: mechanically, without cease, already knowing my answers are insufficient.

I watch my baby breathe through the rear view mirror. Her mouth is open. She is big for her nine years. I didn’t give her a name at first. We called her the One. And it stuck, though she was finally baptized Martha. A suffering servant, my poor child.

“Where are we going?” Billy questions again. The trees speed by the car windows as if they were the ones traveling. I have an image of myself and my two children in a stationary—or so it seems—space capsule. We are hurtling faster than one can imagine, forward into perhaps frightening danger. But it feels as if we are not moving at all. By some trick of floating I manage to keep us on the road. It would be so simple to just let go of the wheel.

“Maaa,” Billy starts to whine. It would be so easy to pretend I haven’t heard him. Behind me, the One shifts. She moans slightly. I try to clamp down on my impatience. Lady astronauts do not like being interrupted. “Just sit back and try to sleep.” I pat Billy’s leg with my free arm, still trying not to break my focus.

My last conversation with Dave, their father, replays itself in my head. I try to concentrate back on it. Perhaps if I replay it enough I can understand. Maybe I can make it come out right this time. We are fighting over the One, as we so often do. My memory shifts into present tense.

“It’s not working for us, Lindy,” Dave says. We are in bed. He is up on one arm, stroking my hair. I am, of course, crying. “It’s starting to hurt us all.”

“I know. But—”

“And it’s bad for Billy, too.”

Something inside me stiffens against my husband. I am revolted by his fake soothing, and controlled voice. He is talking extra patiently, in that careful goody-goody way as if addressing a moron. Or the One. I cringe from his touch, brushing both his hand and my own unwanted tears away.

“She’s happy here,” I say. “And we can manage.”

“She’s getting too heavy for you to lift.” Dave is being oh, so reasonable.

“And at Fernbrook they can do more for her than we can. Teach her things.”

“I know about those places,” I reply. Who doesn’t? Instances of child neglect and abuse, children abandoned and forgotten, misdiagnosed, mistreated. “She has a chance with us. At least she has a chance.”

“I know,” Dave answers sadly. And then he is very quiet. We lie in bed silently, at impasse, each thinking. And we know each other’s thoughts. Miracles, idiot savant, Time magazine stories of vegetable children who suddenly play the piano. That couple—who were they?—who brought their autistic baby back to life. Constant care, constant stimulation. Prayer, miracles. Dave sighs. “I know, honey. But we just can’t go on like this.”

He means: I am neglecting little Billy. He means: I am neglecting him.

At this thought, I go into the next room to check on the One, as we so often do during the night. Is she still breathing? The One opens her blue eyes and still half asleep, smiles at me through her drool. “My baby,” I whisper, kissing her gently. “You are my life, only you.” She looks at me, understanding everything. “It’s time for us to go,” I tell her. She watches me gravely, somehow directing me as I start putting her things together. Diapers for a nine-year-old girl. Her warm clothes. She lies there, inanimate, as I struggle to get her into her slacks. “Help me, honey,” I whisper to her unmoving, inert body. Her face is expressionless and her eyes close again. I am sweating when I finish.

Dave comes into my baby’s room, watching. “It’s three in the morning,” he says unnecessarily. “What in God’s name are you doing?”

I have finished with the One’s things and he follows me as I head for Billy’s room. I don’t answer for a while, as I put a few of Billy’s things into a bag. What am I doing? I don’t know, but taking a big breath, I just keep going.

“Wake up, Billy.” I touch my little boy’s shoulder. “Wake up. We’re going to look at the stars.” Billy wakes immediately and without saying a word—for sometimes, truly, little miracles do happen—pulls on his clothes. Dave watches from the doorway. It is as if we are all in a trance, drawn toward some preplanned resolution already known. Dave does not move, and I move hastily through the children’s rooms. I take their few things down to the car, and quickly, in our bedroom, pull on jeans and a sweater.

“Honey, let’s not give up now,” Dave pleads, watching me. “Where are you going? What will you do?”

“I don’t know,” is all I can say. Now I am in the kitchen, packing crackers and milk. I don’t know what I will do, but to stay in this situation is unbearable. “It’s been nine years and we haven’t made a decision yet,” I remind him. Nine years since the One was born and lay inert in my arms. Her slate eyes never blinked, not even when they shone a light in them. But she looked at me and from that moment she has been waiting. Billy, nice, normal, thrashing, crying Billy, was an anticlimax and when he was born I was already too busy to bother with him. I almost couldn’t bear to see him learn to walk and talk and run so easily.

“I forgive you, I forgive you,” the One’s unblinking blank stare said to me. She loved to see Billy come into the room. But I’ve never forgiven anybody.

“I’ve got to get away and think,” I tell Dave. And as if mesmerized, he doesn’t protest. He watches as I struggle to lift the One out of her crib. And suddenly, “Let me help you.” He has always hated to touch the One but he bends forward and lifts her with me and together we get her into the car and strapped in. He touches my cheek. “Lindy, you know it’ll never work out. She’ll never be normal.”

I cannot bring myself to answer as I take little Billy’s hand. “We’re going for a ride,” I say, and as if already knowing, the boy for once doesn’t ask questions. “I know there’s an answer to this,” I tell Dave. “I just have to find it. I need to think.”

Dave stands on the dark street watching us as we drive away. And now, alone in the car with the children, I am suddenly frightened. All resolve leaves me. The children, sensing this, stir and the One cries aloud from the back seat. Billy, who has finally fallen asleep, twitches suddenly.

I am on a highway driving fifty miles per hour with a five-year-old boy and a severely disabled nine-year-old girl too heavy for me to lift alone. I have been a teacher, read every book and research study I could get my hands on and have only one thought in mind: Escape. No clear thoughts come. I want to know what to do. I want the One to tell me. But she beams a great vacancy toward me.

We are like moths, bashing ourselves against a window to get at a light which shines elusively behind the panes of glass. If only I could decide. If only Dave would decide. But he is as helpless as I am in all this. The One has soiled herself again and the smell rises from the back seat. Her adenoidal breathing fills the small compartment of the car. Little Billy twitches again but does not wake.

There will never be any answers, I realize. Never. I cannot imagine life without the One, although in every way, doctors and Dave have tried to prepare me for it. She is, as long as she is with us, my life. We are, all of us, each other’s lives. All of us.

I brake the car on the stopping lane and stare out at the dark trees. There is no answer from them either. At home, I know, Dave is waiting for us. He is sitting in the kitchen and the light is on. Something—although I cannot say exactly what—has been resolved. No decision, never a real decision, but an acceptance of ambiguity that is part of life with a One, no matter what you do. From the moment they’re born—or before—there will never be answers.

“We’re going home now,” I whisper to sleeping Billy. I check on the One, then turn the car around. The first faint light of sunrise is starting to show as we speed back down the highway toward town.

I picture Dave still sitting in the kitchen, waiting for us, his head in his arms. He is asleep, I know, but still waiting. I’ll never press you, Lindy, he says to me in his mind. The One is peaceful behind me and Billy lies curled in a dream.

There will never be answers, I mentally say to my husband. And I press the accelerator, speeding toward the waiting house. Everything will be just as I left it, I think. Why does that thought make me happy? And we hurry through dawn toward the house, toward that sleeping man, toward that kitchen where the light is still on.

______________________________

Kathleen Spivack is the author of 12 books of poetry and prose from Doubleday, Graywolf, Knopf, and others. Among them are A History of Yearning (winner of the Sow’s Ear Chapbook Contest); With Robert Lowell and His Circle: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz & Others (a memoir of coming to Boston to study with Robert Lowell and all that followed—University Press of New England); and most recently, a third novel, Unspeakable Things (Alfred A. Knopf).