by Zoë Brigley
In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
He shall ride the silver seas,
He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home, and rock…
---Dorothy Parker, ‘Penelope’
Do you remember those afternoons in summer? The high and tight sound: that ratta-tatta-tatta of the sprinklers making arcs over the grass? You joked that our lawn was the worst in the neighbourhood. Before long, the home owner’s association did send a letter out, said we had X amount of days to turn our green patch into monoturf: a luminous, plastic carpet.
It’s all yellow now. Water quotas mean yellow lawns, and yellow clay exposed with great cracks in it. I swear I can feel the foundations of the house shifting, squeezed by the dry earth.
I never thought we should live here: a part of the country that was once overgrown woodland, now sterile fields. The Wyandot, or Huron, lived here first, pushed out from the Georgian Bay in Canada. They lived in longhouses, in tight-knit villages, but when the white settlers came, they brought a new name: the Great Dismal Swamp. They drained it, mowed down trees for fields, forced it to bear crops. That’s how it’s been ever since: fighting the land into submission, always at war with the insects, the weeds, the mould that blights the plants, and the poison sumac drilling its tap root deep into the ground.
Years have passed since you disappeared, and they tell me now that it’s time to forget you. The boys are so tall and long you would hardly recognize them. Jon is in fourth grade, studying hard on his math, and Thomas lost his round babyface when he started kindergarten. Every night I sit in the rocking chair, and read to them. We started Alice Through the Looking Glass, but I had to leave off, because it gave me a peculiar feeling. How she looks into the mirror, and sees it all: everything reversed, and back to front, not how it should be at all.
They are pressuring me to marry again, but I continue to persuade: I can’t marry another man if my husband is still alive. Marriage is sacrosanct now. It’s supposedly a woman’s duty to marry as soon as possible and have children. I could tell them that the more people there are, the worse things will be, but they wouldn’t listen. All they want is more young minds to fashion in their own image.
So many of their rules are supposed to save us from global warming, but it’s just an excuse. It’s actually about control. None of it makes sense: they want more babies, but there are strict rules about how we have sex. No sex before marriage, no abortions, and no contraception. Abstinence saves the unborn, they tell us, but that’s just for the unmarried.
The other day, they sent a new man round to check the energy meters. Straight away, there was something I disliked about him. Maybe it was his doughy face, or the cool, flat flesh of his fingers when he shook my hand. His name – Mike – was stitched in white letters on the chest pocket of his blue boiler suit. He had a mild-mannered voice, but I could tell he was a true believer.
“Is that you?” Mike asked, pointing at our wedding photo. I nodded wordlessly. “I’m sorry about your husband. A lot of folks got shaken up in the mix when they closed the state borders. It had to be done to keep us safe, but it’s a shame for you. Still young enough to have another baby too.”
“I’m done having children,” I say.
“I’d be careful about saying things like that,” he says. “We all have our duties. It must be hard for you here by yourself. It doesn’t look like your husband maintained the house and garden very well.”
“Oh, he never liked yard work much,” I replied. “I had to nag him to get jobs done, or do them myself.”
“You see,” he said, “what you oughta have done was to put out a long glass of lemonade, and make a game of it. And after he did the work, if he wanted something a bit more than lemonade, well…”
Fuck off, Mike, I think. But I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to avoid it. You know if it happens, it won’t be my choice.
If you are out there somewhere, I hope you are thinking about me, and the kids. I didn’t know that the clamp-down would come that week when I took them up to the cabin. I didn’t know that when I drove back, you’d be gone.
I have to admit I was angry at first, and scared. It was too late for us to leave then. Perhaps I should have driven out of the state when I heard the news on the car radio, but I was thinking of you. The phone lines were jammed, and I couldn’t leave without you.
Yes, I really was angry, but I’ve thought about it since. I can imagine you running the numbers with that rational brain of yours, seeing that the obvious answer was for you to leave right then. Maybe you thought that I would do the same, and we would meet up somewhere. Maybe you thought that if you got out, you could reach us later, help us do the same. Why didn’t we see this coming with the first abortion ban? Why didn’t we leave when we had the chance?
Sometimes, I wonder if you were just a coward, leaving us behind. I could forgive you that though. Much worse is the thought that you were hurt, because there were “accidents” around that time. I tried emailing Anchita, but never heard back, and I only have a pass to drive in our neighbourhood. I wondered about what happened to her and the kids down in the city. Sometimes in my worst moments, I imagine you dead. I think the boys wonder too, but we don’t speak it out loud.
Meanwhile, the state lawmakers tell us we must live and work locally, and women are encouraged to stay at home for the most part. Stay local for the planet’s survival. Women work as nurses or secretaries, but hardly any bother. They pay us womenfolk to stay at home, and I’m not sure that I want to be out there in this new world. They are marrying young women off as quick as they can. Mama bears protect the home goes the slogan.
Sometimes I imagine you back here with me. The other day I was spraying insecticide around the base of the house, trying to keep the swarms at bay, when I came upon a pebble that we brought back years ago from a trip to the Virginia coast. Remember, before we had children, how we stayed out there in a cabin by the beach for weeks, so balmy that we lived in (or out) of our swimsuits. My hair turned wavy from the seawater, I swam so much, and we slept curled up to one another. I miss your body. Not your young body from when we first met, but your thirty-something body from the last time I saw you. The strong broad chest of you.
If you were here though, I don’t know how we would manage. I can’t imagine that we’d want to bring any more children into the world. And to put two people in a marriage together, where sex is only for making babies might be a kind of torture. I suspect though that people find a way, as they always have. In the past, people made condoms out of silk paper, lamb intestines, or soaked linen. There are ways around the rules: for the unmarried kids desperate to discover each other, for the married ones who don’t want any more children. They would be in trouble if they were found out, but no one can be in our bedrooms watching, or at least not for now.
I have to tell you that it’s hard without you. I know you always thought I was so strong, but now I’m scared. If I never get out of here, I doubt that I’ll ever see you again. When the push comes, I will have to leave, but then there’s the children. I make plans. I gather maps. It might have to be on foot, my best route being over the hills and mountains to Pennsylvania. I’ll leave on a Friday after I pick up Thomas and Jon from school, so they might not notice we’re gone until Monday. I’m just not sure if Thomas can manage it yet, so in the meantime I play the dutiful mother and the grieving, abandoned wife.
That summer when I found you gone, and us all trapped here, I was so angry. I used to walk out onto the back patio wearing nothing but my bikini. I would lie out there all afternoon, hoping to make the lidless windows of suburban houses blink. I would lie there listening to sprinklers, their ratta-tatta-tatta, and when the wind blew, a fine mist would fall glistening over my bare skin. By their own rules, nobody was allowed to touch me, a married woman. It was a small act of defiance, but I’ve changed since then.
No one is allowed to use the sprinklers now, and it is so quiet in the empty house while the boys are at school. Most days I stay inside, the blinds drawn against the blazing sun. If I make myself so very small, perhaps they might not notice me. If I keep myself small, perhaps they’ll forget I exist.
About the author:
Zoë’s family lives in Maesteg, and she was brought up in Caerffili. She has published three collections of poetry with Bloodaxe Books, the most recent being ‘Hand and Skull’ (2019). A book of non-fiction essays, ‘Notes from a Swing State’ (Parthian) is due in 2019. She is an Assistant Professor at Ohio State University in the USA.