There is a window in my mother’s attic that opens from the floor. When I step out into the warm night and descend three stories and run all the way to the train bridge where you tagged my name, I will not be afraid of people. I grew up in this town. I will not be afraid of ghosts. I am one. The trees have velvety bark here. The maple leaves are green and soft like velvet and softly laminated on elementary-school walls. The train bridge is low and part of the track that runs to the familiar city. Below the bridge slope weeds and branches, vines, a whole world of familiar creatures. It’s clear to me how I am going to get to my name, what I will have to go through. Every day, I type my map on paper.
But my mother, her route is complicated. She is going for the blur and the roundabout. It’s not from substance alone. Her blur is thought. Every day, she walks out the same attic window into circuitry. She pretends to forget and forgets to pretend. She reads and pretends to read. She stares at an empty fireplace. When finally it rings, she answers a telephone. I cut her nails over an empty basin. I search for anything to feed her from her kitchen.
It is thick summer, all trees. I am running a bath of air. I am running on cut grass and sidewalk, in the middle of pavement, heading east toward hills, toward the bridge where you tagged my name. There is a small steep forest beyond these streets. At the top, there will be city lights.
I walk into the open field. I arrange my mother into flowers, the flowers of my old dresses. I arrange the flowers along these roads and run with the bouquet. My legs start to hurt—I am not that young anymore. Before I drop through the forest, I will sit on the curb, like I did when I was with you and walking around this town in the middle of night, in the middle of school, and we stopped to rest, and you confessed you wrote my name with a bottle of spray paint underneath the train bridge. I wasn’t sure about it. My flat shoes wet with spring, my damp fingers folded into fists.
I will tell you what has happened to my mother. Like you did, I will confess everything at the curb: the sound of phones and type, how I could hear them even over the whir of the car when she was driving me to school, when her car-phone rang on her way to work, and she answered it to find out what was happening in her day. The handle of her phone was the size of a rat. The rat is still running around in her brain. I don’t know how to get the rat out of a brain—do you? Where there was an open field, there are now tunnels made by the rat in the shape of figure eights.
When I am in the front yard, and I look up to the attic, I watch the windowpanes become water-hemmed. The train bridge is not too far from here. I can climb up it to get out of this river. If you aren’t sure which one I am, I will be the girl-ghost. I don’t know if you will remember my name. We can look to where you wrote it.
Note: Originally published in theNewerYork.
I wrote “Water-hemmed” in response to poetry by Eric Baus, specifically the poem “Mirror Seed.” The speaker says: “I fell into an open field” and, speaking of birds, “I arranged them into flowers." I copied these lines in my notebook, and from there my piece unfolded quickly. For the title, I borrowed the word “water-hemmed” from an unfinished poem I’d written years ago about my birth. I was born and schooled in New Jersey, and we spent weekends and summers sailing on the Chesapeake, but as an adult I’ve lived in the West and now the Midwest. My writing seems to find focus in feelings of nostalgia for my hometown, its trees and people who are lost to me, plus that time I spent on the water.
Elizabeth Brinsfield grew up in New Jersey, has her MFA from Montana, and lives in Iowa.