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Notes from the small pond: Motherhood

The young mother rubbed oil on her already brown legs and lay back on the towel in the sand, her skin a shiny offering to the sun. Nearby, her blond, husky son, covered in sand, sucked orange pop from a straw.

“Don’t spill that,” the mother said, not opening her eyes, not moving her head, her brain slowly melting in the heat.

“I’m not,” the boy said, truthfully. He looked at the pop and the sand around him, checking for signs of spillage.

“I don’t want any ants,” the mother said, breathing a deep sigh, sinking further into the depths of sun-self absorption.

The boy sucked hard on his straw. He looked at his mother, noticed her brown, shiny legs.

“How come your legs are wet?” he asked, dropping the not-yet-empty pop can to the sand.

“It’s oil. It’s for making my skin look good.”

“Looks wet,” the boy said, not satisfied, absently burying the can beneath a shallow mound of sugary sand.

“Why don’t you go swimming?” her eyes still closed, brain melting steadily toward the back of her skull.

“Too cold,” still burying, thinking about nothing, baking in the heat. Then, he flipped himself backward on the sand, like a seal and fell immediately fast asleep.

The mother, her eyes closed, was, of course, unaware, and she spoke every now and then in the general direction of her son’s sleeping, blond body.

“You didn’t think it was cold an hour ago, she said, slowly raising her arm to brush away a casual fly. Five minutes later she added, “… Couldn’t’ve gotten colder since then …”

Meanwhile, the boy slept. He slept with his hand buried under the sand, his fingers clutched loosely around the sticky pop can. Orange drool drained slippery from the corner of his mouth. His eyelids fluttered like the wings of a hummingbird and his body temperature climbed like the sun. He slept like a mummy and dreamed like a rock, the sun beating down on his skin.

Ants, small soldiers of insidious intent, marched toward the sugar in the pop can. Lines and ranks and corridors of them, all hustling toward the prize in the sand.

The mother drifted in and out of sleep, from dreams where the beach sounds were a shadow in the twilight, to riveting consciousness as aware as a child; her eyelids, nonetheless, remained shut.

“Isn’t this great?” she mumbled, rhetorically, still oblivious to her boy’s heavy slumber. “We haven’t had a summer like this since the year you were born … God, I was miserable that year.”

When there came no answer, she slipped back once again to her dreaming, her brown skin cooking.

She thought of the summer her son had been born, the green empty feeling it gave her. She remembered the loneliness of the drives to her gynecologist, the windows down, listening to the radio and the hot highway wind, sweating and crying, too weak to pray. She remembered the fear and the nights with the fan blowing the air around, mixing her mind, bouncing her dreams off the shadows.

She opened her eyes, just a crack, felt the blazing yellow pinch of the sun, and closed them again, inhaling a deep breath and exhaling slowly, unable, despite that, to clear her mind.

She remembered how she came to hate her body, so huge and round and unfamiliar. It was somebody else she looked like, somebody’s mom or unfortunate older sister — whoever it was, not her.

She remembered how she hated the sight of herself, her stomach, hated the feel, would stare in the mirror, standing sideways. Once she stared at herself for nearly an hour and threw up at the end of it, falling down on her floor, the itchy, hot carpet, the taste like lye on the back of her tongue.

“I’ll never be beautiful,” she said, and then heard it for real, from her here-and-now throat, and jerked awake, squinting like an infant, her mind sprinting, her melted brain sloshing like pudding.

She looked at her son and saw him there sleeping peaceful as a daisy planted by the wind.

“There you are,” she said, laying back down. “Go ahead and sleep if you want to.” With her eyes closed again, she thought of nothing at all, just the pulse of the heat on her skin.

The boy, still asleep, like a stone in the earth, did not jump up or answer or move. He lay like something beached, his arm like a bridge for the cavalry of ants that traversed it.

They marched like cadets, diligent and true, from their prize in the sand toward the orange, drooling hole of his cracked-open little boy mouth.

Cloquet’s Parnell Thill is an award-winning colunist and author of “Killing the Devil and Other Excellent Tricks,” available online. Contact him c/o [email protected].

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