I am in the bathroom where my mother locates the first moment of her
paralysis. Twenty-five years before my birth, that story obliterates
my own memory of the cracked linoleum, the blue bathtub, of brushing
my teeth in the mirror. By now I seem actually to have seen her definitive
seizure. Five years old, she is sitting on the toilet twirling a roll
of adhesive tape. It rolls away, she reaches, and can't reach any more.
Once a month I have a dream in which I must carry her over some improbable
terrain. I worry about pulling her arm out of its socket.
I wonder: After polio caught its handful of stray girls in dried-out
farm towns of Eastern Washington that year, where did the jumping part
of her go? I think she has in her head a little trapeze with a five-year-old
like a circus monkey swinging on it. I imagine no dancing woman there,
no bounding teenager, no twelve-year-old on stilts, no walking alone.
Just a girl, not quite six, upside-down in a fruit tree, running like
a wolf into a flock of chickens, rolling toward a ditch in a tractor
tire. At seven I can balance on one foot without touching the walls.
I must make my own polio. I am subject to mysterious rashes; my hives
bloom toward my mother in a topography of sympathetic roses.
"Braille," she says, a word I don't know. She labors to inflate one
flattened lung, drawing hard on that side. I inhale for two.
I squint at the + sign on the test stick. I figure I have about five
weeks. I collect some water from my father's pond; I put a bowl of tadpoles
on the porch like we used to. They'll shape up into frogs before I have
Curie's head snaps toward the traffic on the south side of the house,
but the bark is held back. There's a woman with a megaphone standing
in the road. She is black. I go out the porch door; the tadpoles hover
in a clump.
"I don't LIKE this road," the black woman says.
"What are you doing?" I ask. I am white. Cars whine past.
"The newts are moving," she says. "From that pond over there," she
points to the trees beyond my house, "to that pond over there."
"I remember," I say. Even when there were thousands, my father used
to pick them up and carry them across. We look across the machine-rutted
dirt, stripped for a median, a speed-changing lane, a climbing lane.
"Do you think we could put up some tents here?" she says.
A huge pick-up pulls up. A man in sunglasses buzzes the window down.
"You can't stand there, Ma'am," he says to the woman. There's a plastic
State Highway Department tag clipped to his shirt. We are getting a
"You again," she says, but he zips away. She offers me her hand.
"Amphibian Rescue," she says. She gives me a pamphlet about newts and
other endangered amphibians of the Hanford Reach, the last free-flowing
non-tidal stretch of the Columbia River, intact because of the Department
of Energy's security requirements for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
That is where my father worked and died. This is where we lived.
"Providence has brought them to your doorstep," she says.
"I'm selling this house," I say, but she's already in the road again.
I walk back to the pond. It has bloomed with a viscous green algae
I've never seen before. I haven't lived here in years. I get in the
For six winters, the pamphlet says, amphibian volunteers have been
carrying salamanders across the new high-traffic roads near the Hanford
Reach. "At one inch the newts leave their original pond," I read. "They
return to their original water to mate and lay eggs. This migration
is made one night a year." I wonder about their numbers since the fire
last June. Sparked by a car crash, flames swept through the nuclear
compound, jumped twenty miles in ninety minutes, and torched 192,000
acres of native grass, sagebrush, elk, grouse, coyote, and snake.
Curie puts a paw in the pond. "No," I say. The water stinks, makes
her sick, and is hard to get out of her coat.
Curie lies beneath my body for the breeze. I try to get it, that I
am pregnant. I wonder if Curie can smell it. The sky is moist and gray,
mild and amniotic, but I can still see the live wall of smoke, the color
black birthing itself, my mother's white hair outlined against it.
It starts to rain. Curie follows the whites of my eyes. The rain sounds
like a quilt landing on the pond, like thimbles.
There is a photograph in which my mother is holding me. She must have
grabbed the wrist of her weak arm and pulled it tight. I am wearing
a red flannel nightgown with buttons and white snowflakes. My mouth
is opened in a small, astonished gap. I cannot remember the taking of
I remember stepping carefully around the nightgown's pieces laid out
on the floor. I sit beneath my mother while she reads the pattern's
instructions, see her eyebrows contract through a crack in the table.
I watch her foot on the sewing machine pedal and think how lucky it
is for me that she does not need two feet to sew. The other foot is
folded slack. I need to look at something else. There is the green hemming
tape on the inside of her skirt; I am sorry that no one else will see
its tiny sutures. I move to a cooler stretch of tiles. My father is
sick but Christmas is coming. She crosses her legs but must free both
hands to lift her right knee over her left. She shifts her weight, the
table creaks, the stays in her back-brace must be pressing into her
shoulder. On the table there are seven real shell buttons in a cup.
I reach for the cup, put the buttons in my mouth. My mother has just
cut them off of her yellow sweater. I like their sound on my teeth,
their skeletal feel. I spit out six and blow them dry. The seventh tastes
like bone and my mother's hands. I don't want to, but somehow cannot
help swallowing it.
"In Style One, lace outlines the yoke," she reads aloud. "Style Two
has a Peter Pan collar." She lifts the hinged wing of the table. "Which?"
I want to point to the Peter Pan, but I don't want her to think I might
like to fly, so I say lace instead. I nurse a fresh batch of blisters;
my mother tells me not to scratch. I try not to, but out of sight, I
do. There is a heart-shaped scuff on the sole of her dark orthopedic
shoe. That foot, that pivot, is everything; it balances the world in
a perpetual circus act, a stack of dishes brilliantly poised on the
tip of a walking stick.
"Buttons," my mother says, and I place the remaining six in her lap.
One at a time she drops them into the cup. There is a silence. I hold
my breath and she eases herself away from the table. I can't see her
face. When Christmas comes, she has embroidered a snowflake over one
The black woman is standing in my yard with a tall dark man in orange
coveralls. I get out of the hammock.
"What are your names?" I ask. I am barefoot.
"Noleen," she says.
"Jorge," the man says. We shake hands. He turns my wrist to see the
red pattern there.
"He works for the Highway Department," Noleen says, frowning
"I just quit," he says, shaking his head at her.
"We could make speed bumps," I say. "We could slow the traffic and
you can move more newts."
"That's illegal," Noleen says. "Northwest Amphibian Rescue doesn't
interfere with the law."
"I will," Jorge says to her. "Are you married?" he asks me. "I like
"No," I say. I push too-long bangs out of my eyes. I can't decide between
long and short. I take my other hand back. He lets it go. I go in the
house to bed.
One night when I was ten and my father was beginning to die, the newts
"The pond," my father whispered, "the road." He tried to get up.
"We'll move them," my mother said to him. "Put on some shoes," she
said to me.
She worked to stand. He leaned back. Height ebbed out of him.
She leaned on me in the yard. I pulled in sullen lunges. I didn't want
to go without him, and walked too fast on purpose. She looked back at
the house and raised a hand to the light that parted the curtain. I
wanted to wave too, so I let go. A gust of wind caught up her coat and
yanked her sideways. She was slight; her coat was red. It blew into
a sail and nearly lifted her. She dropped her basket and stretched out
her arms. A paper bag filled with newts and wet leaves split in the
dirt road. She lurched, long enough for me see her mouth open and shut,
a moment in which she still might not fall and in which I tried to speak
but there was no air, a moment in which I saw the hives on my hands
stretch toward her but a foot away from the fingers that reached toward
me. She fell.
I couldn't sleep that night, and went to the window. I saw my father's
damp, bare back, moonlit in the road. My mother stood in the yard.
"Where are you going?" she called.
"Crater Lake," he called back. He sat down.
I got to him first. There was a mushroom-colored newt in his hand,
the color of his own waxy cheeks.
"Come back," my mother called.
He put the newt down. I picked it up. My mother found it in a cigar
box the next day, and let it go. She must have carried it over.
The man from whom this pregnancy is sprung studies frogs. I answer
phones at his lab in Hanford. I type grant applications, arrange for
rental cars and dentist appointments.
I knock on the door designated "Researchers Only."
"It's open," he says. He is peering at live amphibians, deformed in
dishes. He was the kind of boy who scanned the Guinness book for giant
tumors, Mandarin toenails, swallowed thumb-tacks. I look at the top
of his head, at the way his combed hair has always seemed to me planted
by machine, grown by fluorescent light. I look at the security clearance
tag on his key-chain. I want to go away.
"What happens to these?" I ask. I watch the frogs kick.
He shrugs. The frogs carry extra legs that drag and jerk, their candle-colored
bellies stretching around visible organs. Their skin should be patterned
like lichen, I think. They should look like moss. They knock heads in
their shallow porcelain trays.
"Maybe, since they don't have trees to mimic, they are trying to match
the dishes?" I ask.
"That's ridiculous," he says.
Hives come up on my forearms. I don't tell him about the pregnancy.
I steal his keys. "Do Not Copy," they say, but the Ace Hardware man
does anyway. When I get to the house, the fishbowl on the porch is empty.
Curie has drunk the tadpoles. I drop into the hammock.
I learned I could run out of my mother's reach. In her wedding photograph
she is standing up. She could not have walked in the boots she wears
there, though they are beautiful and add three inches to her height.
Just that once she looked taller than my grandmother, solid and vertical
behind her. I'd touch my grandmother's face in the picture because she
was alive there, but my eyes always came to rest on my mother's feet,
fantastically shod in eggshell suede, laces looped through shiny hinges.
I found the boots packed in the attic, slender and weightless. Smooth
soles, leather unblemished—in them my mother had not taken a single
step. I took them to the barn and put them on. I had thought I would
dance, but now I didn't want to. My mother came upon me creeping back
to the attic in my socks, a boot in each armpit. We stared at each other.
I put them down by her, and flew. She tried to follow. I heard her stop—that
is, the rhythm of her lopsided step ceased. I feel I am hurting her
in describing her gait. Over my shoulder I saw a look I couldn't read.
"Don't you work for me?" I hear the man in the State Highway pick-up
yell across his road to Jorge.
"No recuerdo," Jorge says.
"You are totally annoying," Noleen yells after the man in the pick-up.
"You are a big fat horsefly."
The frog scientist pulls up in a squeal of dust. "I think you have
my keys," he yells over the engine and the air-conditioning. He watches
me pad across the gravel, barefoot. I hand the keys through the window.
"You're fired," he says.
"How are the frogs?" I ask.
"Stage C," he says. He drives away.
"Very cranky," Noleen says.
"He makes you look like a girl with her feet set in asphalt," Jorge
"He's the asphalt," I say. I go inside.
By 1963, the year of my parent's marriage, the average release of beta
emitters from reactor effluent was 14,500 curies per day. In 1966, they
finally took their honeymoon to Crater Lake. My father began digging
the pond when they came home, just as the multipurpose N-reactor came
on line. That is the year they conceived me.
In the pictures, my mother has long hair that grows sideways. Her mother
had always cut it short, thinking it too stiff and stray for a weak
girl to wash. Melanoma took five years to eat my grandmother from the
outside in; then it sprang over her skin in dark doughy shapes.
In the pictures, my mother has nice hands. Long wrists and smooth skin.
Later they were stained in the summer from boiling fruit. We'd fill
four buckets with blackberries. I would wear a bikini with a little
ring between the breasts. I'd sunburn through that keyhole. My mother
watched the berries in the pressure cooker. My father worked. I rode
my bike to Seven-Eleven. My hair blew behind me as 760 billion liters
of contaminated water, enough to create a lake the size of Manhattan,
entered the groundwater. Microbes learned to nest in Styrofoam, freckles
blackened, trapped in armpits and the breast underside. My grandmother
died. I was filled with sadness muted by my love for Donny Osmond. I'd
throw bottles in the irrigation creek, jam-jars with letters that I
hoped would go out to sea. Occasionally I'd get letters from people
who picked them up, but I never wrote back. I'd feel bad about that,
terrible, but I wouldn't write back. All I ever wanted to know was how
far the bottles got, and it wasn't ever far enough. My father died.
My mother braided my hair every day. I cut it off. I didn't want her
to touch me. I tried not to touch anything dusted with the ash-colored
lint. I tried not to go outside when the sky was yellow or green, but
strange stains seemed to bloom up from within. Wet messages from the
body left sweaty fingerprints on the knees of my cutoffs, bleating at
the world while I stood still.
"We'd like you to stop making this road for a few days," I say to the
man in the State Highway pick-up.
"That's ridiculous," he says. He zips away.
"You want your cold asphalt," the guy at Ace Hardware says.
"Highway paint cures overnight," Jorge says, "but we need rollers."
"And gloves," I say.
After midnight I drive into the road worker's equipment site. There
is a trailer office with a satellite dish. There are backhoes, steamrollers,
and mixers on flatbeds. I back off the road in front of the chain-link
entrance gate. The rear wheels of my old station wagon sink into sand.
I dig in, past a tow-truck's capabilities.
The man who drives the pick-up hurries out of the trailer.
"You blocked the equipment," he says.
"Oh," I say.
"Do I know you?" He says.
"No," I say. I walk home.
The newt people have been arriving for a week. The moon is bright,
and at 3:00 a.m., when there's almost no traffic, Jorge and I hurry
to pat down the illegal asphalt by ourselves. Behind the house, someone
plays an accordion, some else plays a harmonica. When Jorge pries open
the road paint, the solvents make me puke.
"You pregnant?" Noleen asks, watching us. The accordion player ambles
into a three-quarter strain. The harmonica joins him, and a violin.
"No recuerdo," I say.
"Your Spanish is lousy," Jorge, says. He wipes my mouth with the corner
of his shirt, then pulls me toward him and into the tune. We dance between
our speed-bumps, dance across the median. I have just puked, but I am
waltzing. The trees, the pond, the house fly past in bright, mossy slots.
Curie barks and wags. My feet weave with the man in the orange coveralls.
Everything moves but his eyes. Compass-dark, they follow my face like
I am true north.
"You're going to get a big, beautiful belly," he says, but it's a question.
Our fresh speed-bumps steam a little, their shaky stripes smile up at
"I don't know what I'm going to get."
"Choose life," Noleen says.
"The half-life of plutonium is 25,000 years," I say. "A dust-sized
particle constitutes the maximum body burden."
"I once saved a dead opossum mother's eight babies on South Valley
Road!" she says.
"Radiation causes mutations that transmit from one generation to the
"Whatever's in my path," Noleen says, "God wants me to rescue."
"I've seen a nine-legged frog," I say, "I've seen a two-nosed cow.
There are too many crows, too many snails, too many pigeons, raccoons,
starlings, and weeds. There are too many possums."
"What does your rash say?" Jorge asks, touching my collarbone.
"There aren't enough newts," Noleen says.
"I need to go away for a couple days," I say, "can I borrow your truck?"
Jorge gives me the keys. He takes a blanket from his tent and puts
it in the cab. The newt people drink wine from Dixie Cups. Curie licks
up my vomit. Noleen raises her megaphone to oncoming traffic.
It takes me a day to get to southern Oregon, to Crater Lake. It's cold
and the campsites are closed. Curie and I stare down from the rim. I
watch Curie look at the lake and consider the fence. Lava cliffs rise
a thousand feet from the water's surface. Curie wants into that reservoir.
She sniffs the lake for ducks, squirrels, lizards, and bats. She strains
toward a hole in the chain-link. I put her on a leash. Curie sighs to
the ground and looks at the moon. We crawl into the truck and doze with
the radio on.
I wake up to a program about the dreams of the disabled, people who
saw, walked, and spoke before they were blind, rolling, and silent.
"Sometimes I have extra hands," a man says, his voice crackles. "Sometimes
I have fins, and gills." It's cold. I curl up around Curie, but she
wiggles out of my hold and I open the door for her. I listen to the
voices of wing-clipped humans who in their dreams feel color, scale
walls, fly. "I can swim for miles," a woman says, "I've had hooves,
feathers—I've had a tail I could wag." Steam and dust rise from
the fresh dog piss pounding down by the truck. "How does a tail feel?"
the interviewer asks. Curie hops back up. "It feels good," the woman
says, a little sadly.
When I was fourteen, my mother told me she had always wanted to study
in Europe, and that she still did. I didn't like to think of her wanting
that, ever. My father was dead. My high school hygiene teacher had just
said, "boys like sex more than girls." But I could imagine my mother
liking it when she exhaled the word "France." And I knew that I would
like it, too, that desire would reach up past the blisters and shoot
the apples off the trees.
Senior year my mother applied to a foreign exchange program and was
accepted, but my grandmother said no. With lumbar polio there is severe
spinal scoliosis. The ribs press on the lungs. Congestive heart failure
My mother stayed home until the June 2000 fire, until the afternoon
I came to pick her up. I found her on the porch with her hand blocking
the sun, watching the horizon boil.
"It's time to go," she said.
It is night but I start the drive back to Hanford. There is no mountain
or crater, just blackness and passing clumps of light. Ten hours more
and Tacoma gleams, a long, sprawling blur. I pull over and call my mother
at a pay phone in Eltopia.
"How do you dream?" I ask.
"I'm an acrobat," she says from her room in the assisted living wing.
"No net, no wire. I wear those white wedding boots. On a trapeze. In
Paris. As myself, now."
"I went to the lake," I say.
"Go farther," she says. We hang up.
Most places I go, I assess this way: paved paths versus cobblestones,
rocks, and turn-styles. Escalators versus loose bricks, the distance
to the elevator. On the way up to the crater I drew in the dirt a path
to the summit. In the visible life I ascribe to her, my mother has never
run a mile, never driven drunk, never shoplifted nail polish, condoms,
chocolate, ribbons. She has never smoked behind the mall, set the grass
on fire, or waded through the creek naked. But she has flown weightless
in mercurial shoes.
Twenty minutes after midnight I break into the lab in Hanford on the
way home. I load the misfit frogs into a milk crate on a bed of wet
paper towels. I dump my copied keys and my security tag in the mail-slot
"I stole these," I say to Jorge when I pull up. He lifts the paper
and watches the lab-frogs stroke and flop. Curie yelps. She wants to
"Have you ever heard of the midwife toad?" Jorge says. "The male carries
the eggs on his back and moistens them with dew. The tadpoles hatch
and swim off."
"If they can swim," I say.
Jorge puts his hand on my face, like no one ever did. "The newts are
moving," he says.
I look behind him. Bits of fabric become lucid in the dusk. An old
man in plaid pants weaves amongst others, bent over newts balanced on
leaves. We join them, cup our palms near our chests and creep over our
beautiful speed bumps, which lie like bodies in the road. Three hundred
sixty-eight newts with mask-like bands and dark fudgy bodies make it
across that night. I tie Curie to the truck and let the lab frogs swim
I have just driven the For Sale sign into the grass in front
of the house. Noleen shakes her head and packs up her megaphone. The
barn is quiet, but I hear shuffling in the rafters, a trapped bird—a
starling. I scale the loft ladder with a hatchet. My eyes dilate in
the roost and I hack an opening in the wall. I decide to let the bird
find its own way out—I don't want to chase it into a pitch that
might explode its heart.
"What if nobody buys it?" Noleen yells up to me.
I put my hand in an empty nesting stall. My fingers seek an egg, the
way one pokes for the loose change in a pay phone. I find a hole a little
bigger than my fist, blocked by a piece of rotted burlap and heap of
rope waste. Behind that there is, encrusted with petrified straw, a
wooden box. Hidden for fifty years, it has been made out of kindling
scraps by a child. It rests in my hands like a time bomb. Inside is
a single shoe covered with shredded white cloth, stolen from the chest
in which my grandmother had stored her wedding outfit. Bent nails hold
the box together; house-paint has been applied slapdash to it's surface.
On the lid are my mother's initials in green chalk, and on the sole
of the shoe, in determined cursive, are the words, Made In Frants.
I put my hand in the shoe. In its toe is a braid, the one I cut off
at thirteen. My mother climbed the loft ladder grown. Suddenly I can
see it, a woman of 65 in a swing, her improbable hair billowing in the
gap between able and bodied, in the space between this pond and the
one across the road.
"Who knows. I'm taking my mother to Paris."
To the left I hear a thrust and flap, a feather twists, drifting in
a hatchet hole of sun. Beyond this, the highway crew hammers up our
speed-bumps, and beyond them, I can almost hear Jorge, running his finger
over the teeth of a comb. He is singing to the lab frogs. I can't help
it: I see us dancing in the road. He is holding me in a back-bending
dip, and I have the kind of hair that brushes the ground. •
Kate Small's work has appeared in Chelsea, Other Voices,
and the Best New Voices anthology. She is currently finishing
an MFA at San Francisco State University.