My mother was the sort of woman who wound her way through unfamiliar places only to see if she could find her road home. But she was also the sort who sunk with relief into habit after a day made long by the weary world of customer service, happily exchanging adventure for the same patch of pavement every day for thirty years. I am not really sure what sort of woman that is, but I am sure that she wouldn’t have given a damn about that because the geese chase you on Maple but the dogs wander the roads on Esota, and frankly she has better things to do than to go around worrying about what someone like me thought about how she liked to spend her sunsets, and in her day you’d have to go out to the tree and pick your own switch and you would learn quick to take a large one and rethink your tone of voice young lady, thank you very much. I had once thought to bring up the fact that there were, in fact, no trees from which to take switches around the house in which she grew up, but I knew that she would just as soon tear one from the ground at her feet.
On her drive, the twice-a-day-for-thirty-years drive, she would pass the sign that once was white but that had chipped itself away to reveal bare flesh beneath. “Keep going, girls!” its scars cried encouragingly, silently, to nobody but itself and the few who passed slowly enough to see. As children we would remark that someone should take it down, just a silly old plank nailed to a silly old tree for an event years ago that probably nobody even went to because it would be silly to go out and just run. My mother would sometimes smile and sometimes scowl at us. Then she would rest her hand at the top of her steering wheel and point, somewhere far far away as if we weren’t talking about the sign but about something we were too young to understand. Her voice would swell and rise, driven by some moderate and inconceivable emotion, not tiptoeing but vaulting passively between the amused patience of parenthood and the strained exhaustion of a solo act in the same. Always she told a story about some group of women running, for some cause as forgotten as its effects, and always I asked how people would raise money at all by running. I would express with grim consideration that it was a frankly painful affair that anyone would ever have to.
She could only see it as she drove toward home, the beacon that hung only for those making their way out of the town, out of the lights, out into the wilderness. For much of my life this meant nothing to me. Even for the last few weeks, I have spun silently over the nowhere-road and noted the sign, and though I felt greeted by this nostalgic piece it was no more than that. A raggedy old remnant from a childhood lost before I could ever quite grasp it. But today, as the golden fall sun sets the maples practically aflame, with the same big-talking ravens calling Ma! Ma! Ma! as she had let us believe they did on one day full of laughter when my brother was still little and she still loved us, the tears melt grief into my skin and I have to scream.
Sometimes you think things are all out of place and falling apart in the moment, but when you look back you can’t help but feel that all of this was intentional. So specific a set of things had to happen and maybe if one detail had been different things would have been okay but you couldn’t hold all of the pieces at once and they all fell into place against you. Maybe that’s what I want. If I can make all of the pieces fall just like they did then, if I can capture in amber every detail as it bloomed, maybe I’ll learn some kind of control over such gentle destruction. Like it’s a story and you, poor reader, are joining the protagonist in an endless aching suffering and only I can guide you through it. Like I can give you both–her, us, me?– a new ending.
She’s gone. She’s been gone for a long time, and now I think that maybe she had never really been with us and maybe she kept taking this road hoping to find her real home and maybe she never found it and maybe I’m going to be just like that. I sit in my car, crumpled against the wheel, and sob beneath the trees, thinking of my mother and the times that I somehow knew she had done the same, because damn it we were trying but sometimes we don’t know what to do and there’s always someone saying going, keep going but we’re tired, so tired.
A sound leaves my throat that might have begun as a sob but that fell back and rang from my chest instead. All she ever did was keep going. I stumble from the car and into the ditch beside it, locking tearful eyes with the old thing. There are no people around to mask the flaking leaves beneath my boots as the corvids watch me curiously, this human that collects their things. My shaking fingers slide under the edges of the plank and pull, expecting a great bond to have held it in place for so long, but the wood gives easily as if it had saved the last of its energy to leave this open-air grave. I don’t know if this is legal. I don’t know that it doesn’t matter, because even if it were, there would always be something else, something wrong. Thunder pounds in my temples like it does through the floors and suddenly I notice the fear that has been creeping ice cold nails under my skin.
Keep going, girls, keep going, like you’re skidding down a frozen road to a stop sign coming up too fast, keep going, like you’ve barely any control and you’re starting to swerve and you’re scared but you have to try and meet the brake before you meet the truck, keep going, like you aren’t sure if this is one of the times where you’re supposed to rest or run, keep going, because if the crash doesn’t kill you then you’re dead.
But there isn’t any ice today, just the searing kiss of an indifferent sun. I remember the sign in my hands. It is empty, barely a feather’s weight, something created and forsaken and invisible. It was never intended for me, or for anyone but a handful of women who left decades ago for their more temperate homes, wherever one might keep a second when one can afford two. Still, I am the child beneath the trees. Whatever deeper message I think it carries must come from me, from my own mind, but I know that isn’t quite right because it meant nothing to me until today.
No, it doesn’t even mean anything today. I turn the thought over, gently, as if too hasty a consideration will bring it all back down. She is all I can see, appearing before my words and drowning them all away with a look. A depression lulls in my chest roiling with terrified tears and muddy disgust for what I have done, and an amused bitterness barks with laughter that the sign was never for me and never would be. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for me. The same sudden bark bubbles up from my chest, a resounding gasp of a noise at home with the joyful caws of the avian neighbors.
With furrowed eyebrows and a tearful smile, I lay the battered beacon in a nest of leaves and wander numbly back to the road. My eyelids are heavy. A sigh stirs the grounds as embers drip from the maples and bury the land in fire. It’s time to go.
It’s time to rest.