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One Night a Year

Kate Small

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 to decide.

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.

"We?"

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 new highway.

"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 hammock.

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 that picture.

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?" she asks.

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 closed buttonhole.

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 at him.

"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 your hair."

"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 migrated.

"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 says.

"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 the moon.

"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 next."

"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 lurks.

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 behind me.

"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 taste them.

"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 away.

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.

Originally published in the February/March 2001 issue of Boston Review



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