We were in the tall grasses creeping on finches when we seen mama run down the slope in her Sunday finest and throw herself in the creek. Papa stood there scratching at his hair like he was fixing a nest for a warbler. We thought she might have eaten some loco weed, or gone swimming near the pond where the government had tested them bombs that made the llamas spit blood and the babies grow thirteen fingers. Mama never cared much for Veyo. Papa stood at the fence a good while watching her float away downstream, then told us boys to wait inside at the window and like good boys we said yes, father. Sometime later we seen the two of them walking up the path and papa all smiles with an arm around her shoulder and mama teetering one foot to the other, her eyes far off.
Later we lay in bed.
Mama’s leaving, I said.
She left before.
Not like this.
He shrugged. That’s what he did when his thoughts hurt him: shrug and then head down to the creek. We were always at the creek. Sometimes we fished, other times we just lay there in the mud, staring at that milky rib of moon.
I liked to come down in those grasses after we fried a mess of Sanpete trout and feel them mucking my insides trying to put themselves back together, and then listening for what the breeze said, but there was nothing, which is the sound of forgetting.
We’d gone out to fish since we been boys. Only creek in Veyo with splake the size your leg. Freaks of nature. Papa had told us the story. It was Mormons come south and use the waters for baptism. Never been the same since. The wrong end of a miracle. Once we reeled us a monster and after we’d cut her open and eaten handfuls of her eggs like papa had shown us we seen a little pocket watch tangled in her innards. We opened it and realized it not only counted seconds but played ballerina music. After a miracle something is left behind, I suppose.
It was after we caught that fish with the pocket watch we decided to collect a heap of our catchings in a hollowed out tree on the other side of the bluff. Looking for other miracles. So that’s what we did: spear em and then watch em rot with their little fish mouths choking on the air. We didn’t tell nobody about the heap. We had near a thousand fish and all of them rotted except that fish with the pocket watch on her insides.
At first it made no sense but then I realized the fish stayed with us be- cause it was so heavy it could not rot and be carried up to god. It took both of us to carry her. It was beautiful.
What’s beautiful? brother said, and then I realize I had been talking out loud the whole time when I thought I was alone in my head.
Shut up, brother.
Are you worried, brother? Don’t be, he said. Mama has nowhere to run.
He had it all figured out because he had seen the maps. Father had burned a dozen after the last time mama found them because he said it gave her ideas. There were a few brother had kept hidden in the attic. We spread them out on the bedroom floor and I told brother what would happen. Mama would follow the old Veyo creek to Lake Panguitch, then keep floating until she was in the Mfolozi outside of Mtubatuba. One river is all rivers, brother.
We could swim after her. We could swim out of Veyo.
You can’t swim, I told him.
We looked at the maps and tried to say the names. Rybinsk. Wicklow. I tried to imagine how many steps it would take to find mama in those places. One. Two. Three.
At first we believed it would all go back to how it once was. Just mama and papa and us boys. Then papa fell down the stairs and broke his leg. When we came to see he was groaning at the bottom of the stairs like a sorry sack of bones and mama at the top of the stairs like a mouse just escaped from a trap, a kind of shame in her eyes but at the same time that look of agony we’d seen from her when she broke dishes when papa was out in the fields and she thought nobody was looking.
It’s an accident, she said.
Papa wouldn’t stand for some penny-grubbing doctor, so he waited at the bottom of them stairs to be raised by the lord. He said this family needed a miracle. He called on the lord for healing. Papa had once preached for the Mormons before us brothers were brothers, but then they ran out on the lord and Veyo. Not papa. Stand ye in holy places. And we have.
By supper we had all grown weary of his groans and prayers, so when he told me the lord did not descend for nobodies and perhaps needed some encouragement. I went to the shed for the beadle mallet. Papa pressed my finger against the thigh of his good leg.
You aim it true, son, he said. God will see to the rest.
Yes, papa, I said.
When I had mashed the leg he twisted in his spittle with ears red as turkey waddle and cursed the day of my birth.
It’s a fair punishment, mama said.
Do you think the lord will raise papa? brother asked.
Only god will be the judge of that, mama said.
We left him on the stairs with his prayers.
Later that night brother wanted to know who would run after mama now? Who would save her from herself? That’s when us boys decided it was up to us boy to watch over mama. I told him what must be done.
You’re gonna kill her.
Nobody’s killing anything, I said.
Brother didn’t understand why we just couldn’t give her a hug. I told him hugs are no good when you have a hole in your heart. All that squeezing just tears the hole wider. And the hole never heals.
First, we picked a mess of flowers that gave her sneezes and stuffed them under her pillow. She tossed them out the window. Then brother had an idea so we spent all afternoon loosening the second porch step. She was always going down those steps in a hurry and brother said she would fall and break her hip. But mama was too wise and she avoided them steps. She did not drink the milk where we poured the lye. She never opened the closet at the end of the hall where we put the hornet nest, even after I had given brother my lucky nickel to climb the tree and fetch it.
Papa did not move for days. He was like some old bear who’d lost his fur from too much scratching and now pretended not to have an itch. His leg swelled to the size of a pumpkin and turned purple. Sometimes he slithered around the house on his belly snatching food from the table, but mostly he sat there and waited for the lord to raise him. He watched mama with her bowl of vinegar wiping the house clean—the doors and windows and stairs and ceilings and walls—telling papa she was leaving just as soon as she rinsed the house spotless, erasing what was.
Like I was never here, she said.
Sometimes she stooped over papa and wiped clean his bloody thigh with the vinegary rag because she didn’t want him dead, she just wanted to be her own self.
At night I cried softly thinking about mama not being there in the morning. What would we do without mama to wipe the mud from our feet and the snot from our noses? What would happen if mama was not there to hold our hands in church or lick our scrapes clean? Mama always said we were miracles, which is why she kept us inside her belly eleven months because when she was so heavy she had never felt so close to god.
When I told brother he said that if mama left and we weren’t miracles, what would we be? Without mama, what were we?
Just boys, brother. Just boys, I said.
Brother held down mama’s legs while I roped her arms to the bed posts. She didn’t fuss, like she knew it was coming.
Lie still, mama, I said. It’s just us boys.
Her eyes were open now and she could see the heap of fish we’d carried from the other side of the bluff. At first she thought it was just to make another mess she would have to clean. She thought us brothers were there to throw fish slops all over the house. Then I told her I had figured it out—the heavy fish, us boys heavy inside her. We had it all wrong before, but now it made sense. When the lord wants something to move he makes it small, like a fish. When he wants it stay put he makes it heavy, like a tree.
When I went to open her mouth with the fistful of chum she said no and I said yes, mama.
Mama spit up the slops with a yelp. She said it wasn’t enough to make her heavy and I said god would be the judge of that. I had brother hold her mouth open while I pressed the other fish inside her. The little bones snapped and pinched. I pressed deep.
Good, mama, I said. We’ll get through this together. Hold her hand, brother.
She’s got other holes, he said. It was almost a whisper.
Fill them too, I said.
We kept pressing fish inside her. It was almost morning. Brother asked if she was heavy enough yet.
Shut up, brother.
When our hands were sore from stuffing I reached for the pocket watch. Mama was trembling now, like a mackinaw out of water. I held her hand. Her skin was slick like fish scales.
Don’t worry, mama, I said, winding up that pocket watch. I steadied my hand where she opened.
It’s nothing, mama. Just another miracle.
Ryan Habermeyer holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts and a PhD from the University of Missouri. His fiction has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appeared in dozens of literary journals. His debut collection of short stories, The Science of Lost Futures, recently won the BoA Editions Short Fiction Prize and will be published next year.