“The glacier was God’s great plough set at work ages ago to grind, furrow, and knead over, as it were, the surface of the earth.” —Louis Agassiz
My mother leered at us, my sister and me, over her Bible. She looked like a Welsh shepherd. Her face was reddened by the unseasonably dry January air; her brown eyes were scrupulous. She had Irish copper hair and pale, soft facial features. The prominent bridge of her nose was crooked from a childhood injury, and her nostrils were naturally flared and then chapped by the multitudes of tissues she used to combat her cold. It is the last concrete image of her that I have. Catherine and I would often joke that her face was red from screaming at us. Outside the small bay window we added lore to our traded stories under her ever-present gaze. We would make her a legend: so intimidating that the wind wouldn’t touch her, lest it be pushed back much harder. She was equally frightening as a mother—to challenge her would be to defy generations of child abuse that her family lauded as good Catholic parenting.
I palmed Catherine’s back to brace myself as I rose, my joints frozen by the snow. We were making a snowman to show my mother how talented we were. This was solely for her. We had no real neighbors. Our home was skirted by hedge rows and dead fields. The nearest home was about a mile away, nestled in rural seclusion. The single lane dirt road that linked us to them and the main road was even further away. It was a rarely-maintained ribbon of asphalt that was regularly driven only by our mailman, Joe. He came every Wednesday in spite of the snow that blanketed the road. Our ears had become accustomed to his station wagon’s chained tires sputtering and grinding at every turn or pothole. Catherine and I had grown fond of Joe and his Long Island accent. He would tell us fantastic stories of working for an unnamed Mafia boss as we helped him carry things into the house. We were equally excited for what Joe brought: usually food my mother had ordered the week before, sent from the mainland to our roomy Alaskan island. Sometimes, though, our father would send us a letter talking about the vast expanses of America he’d seen. He sent poorly-written postcards with pictures of sunny ocean scenes he wished we could see with him. He drove trucks for a living, sending money and word back every other week.
This year he was not back for Christmas or the New Year. Instead on Christmas morning we unwrapped toys while our mother read the apology letter he’d written. At that point we hadn’t heard his voice in seven months, a new record. I was twelve and Catherine was ten. My mother performed the job of single parent with angry flair: a tyrant whose word was law. We would resist occasionally to spite her. We were trying to prove something, though we never knew what. She would send us to bed with stinging cheeks and runny noses from tears we’d hold back until the lights went out. We would cower from her until we’d forgotten our previous punishment and try again. It was like trench warfare; we were the bored forces inciting tiny battles. We didn’t care to think about the consequences. We just wanted to prove to ourselves that she wasn’t just a domestic teacher and priest. We wanted her to be our mother too. It was the one role she couldn’t quite play.
At 2:30, our mother shouted, “James, bring your sister inside!” through the barely open front door. Recess was over. The snowman would have to remain incomplete. We were homeschooled for two reasons: one, because my mother felt that God belonged in the classroom, and two, because there was no school on our island anymore. We were the youngest two people there—among about a dozen people under the age of eighteen left. The adults (mostly native Aleuts) worked to keep their home from falling off the map. It’s the rock they clung to since the Coast Guard shut down the base bringing most of the servicemen and their families back to the mainland. When they left in 1994 they took the need for the college, the McDonald’s, even the high school, for a time—we were living on the government’s newest lost cause.
On that particular day we were learning mathematics. I was starting long division and Catherine was tasked with her multiplication tables. We worked vigilantly, all too aware of the punishment we might receive if we didn’t look busy. Idle hands were the devil’s playthings, after all. My mother coughed hoarsely as she watched us work. When we finished she would grade our work in front of us, compare our scores. One of us would be praised, the other guilted into trying harder next time. Today I performed more admirably. My mother kissed me on the head as she got up from the kitchen table to check on dinner. Catherine was shifting on the wooden chair, tearing up at the red pen marks before her. She always took it hard when she did worse. When she seemed particularly sad, I would try to do poorly to make sure she wouldn’t cry anymore. She deserved the love more anyway. I was the first child—the sole focus of attention for two years.
“Dinner will be ready soon. Go wash up,” our mother said. Catherine shook the tears from her eyes as we walked up the narrow stairs.
“What did you do wrong today on your tables?” I asked as we both stood before the ancient bathroom mirror washing our hands.
Catherine’s face was warped by the imperfections of the old looking glass. “The sevens,” she answered with a frown. “I never remember the sevens.”
I offered to help her learn them, to get the blank tables from my mother and educate her before bed. She declined my help, as she always did. Catherine felt like a child when I helped her. She made sure I knew she was no such thing.
In February my mother’s cold seemingly grew worse. After fits of hacking, she would wince and wrap her arms around her chest from the pain. Throughout all of this she refused our suggestions that she tell someone she was sick with anything worse than a cold. The letters from our father came less frequently. He had been given more jobs, hauling things long distances, sometimes across the whole country. He sent us pictures of sunsets and more money than usual.
Our lessons became less and less a part of the day. We were allowed to spend more time out in the fenced-in front yard. We made modifications to our snowman as he solidified with the sunlight and the cold. Sometimes our mother would fall asleep while we played, leaving us to our own devices in the yard. It had been many years since we’d had it in our heads to attempt escape. When we were younger and the summer hovered over us we used to try to get past the green fence. Catherine would step on my back and unlatch the handle to the gate, freeing us in a flick of the wrist. Our mother was always soon behind us, never letting us get any further than where the walkway met the road. Now we were smart enough to know that the only thing out amongst the snow or brown fields was endless nothing or abandoned homes in faded bright colors. Instead of running and playing, we’d talk for hours about what we figured our father was doing, or what we would do when we grew up.
“I think that I want to write books. Or poems,” I said as we dug in the snow looking for sticks we’d never find.
“Why?” Catherine asked, squinting to look at me over the glare of the sun. “You’re so good at math, you should be a mathematician.” She struggled with the word, smiling a little, clearly proud at overcoming such a grand term.
“I don’t like math,” I assured her. “Do you remember those stories Mom would read to us when we were kids?”
“I think so. The ones with the geese that pray?” she asked, referring to an obscure Grimm fairy tale that fit my mother’s Catholic agenda.
“Yes, sort of. I want to write stories that will make people happy,” I said, beaming with pride at my future accomplishments.
“Well, I want to be a doctor,” she replied, obviously uninterested in what type of poetry I’d read. “I want to fix sick people like Mom.”
“Mom has a cold; you can’t fix that.” I said. I saw our mother’s under- statement as truth.
Our mother called us inside after her nap, cutting off our conversation. There were no further lessons, just a dinner that consisted of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and a sleeve of stale saltines. My mother sent us to bed. Her chorus of pained coughs followed us upstairs from the living room. She never came to see us in bed anymore. She took to sleeping on the couch as if the trek up to her room was too taxing. We became the sole inhabitants of the second story. That night Catherine was buzzing with ideas for her future. We talked until the early morning. We talked like time meant nothing, enjoying our newfound social privileges. I dreamed that my father was on an island covered in black sand. I could see him from my boat but I sprung a leak. He watched as I sank, shouting “James,” as if yelling my name would stop the ocean from consuming me.