I cut my son’s hair and it falls like wheat.
That is what I’d remember.
The teacher in autobiography class says you choose what you remember, you make up your life like a story and select the details to set in your mind. When he says this I think: if this were true my mind would just be wheat now. My mind would be as clear as a window, but something with feelings … a bowl of skin … and through it there would only be the lightest drift of fibres. I’d see nothing, feel nothing but my baby’s hair as he let me cut it … the first cuts dropping in stems of moisture, the lighter, drier pieces floating, glittering over the damp towel like grains. Like seeds.
But already there’s a detail, there’s the white towel below us. There’s more than just wheat.
I’m a mother. We live in the details. I’m still a mother.
So I follow the detail back, to the piece of the day I can stand going into. We’ve just come from the shower and we spread his damp towel over the floor. We’ve trimmed his rustling head before and so we’ve left ourselves naked; we know when we finish we’ll have to jump back in the shower. There’ll be prickles and feathers caught in our mouths, in the folds of our throat, our elbows. Our belly button will be a cleft of dust and if we don’t wash it out our skin will stay awake all night, wriggling.
I knot my towel over milky breasts and he sits in the shadow of my legs. His little warm white spine trickles down from his hair. We put the television on and let its pictures wash past us, but we turn down the sound so I’ll sing to him instead. Sometimes he hums to the songs I make up against his ear, against his shoulder, little inside-out tunes that I murmur about his body, his name. We can stretch and rhyme whole operas out of his name, we play with it like a ribbon, winding it in and out through the alphabet, making a net of days. His name: the lonely vowels, the jump to open. I’m helping him know who he is … the sound of my mouth is the edge of his body. I’m hoping he’ll remember this.
I’m hoping he’ll remember this forever. Or at least one day … as he cleans his face when it belongs to a man, as he brushes a man’s darker hair. Or perhaps as he shaves and the motes of his own hair drop from his body without him noticing.
Forever is never as long as you think it will be. It is only a clipping of wheat. It is a frond of light, and it falls. It falls.
Golden, I would write: golden. They don’t let you write golden these days. Look, just look at the shape of it on the page, the teacher tells me: soft, overblown.
He writes it on the blackboard, golden. I want you to look at this word, he tells the class, I want you to study it. This word represents every cliché that I want you to cut from your language. This word is poeticism.
It is a demon in cherubic form. You must cast it out.
My son’s hair was golden. Let me write golden. Let me write golden.
My other son, my oldest son, comes home from school with a note from his teacher. She is a trainee teacher, and the note is young and stupid and brief.
It says that my son has refused to take part in the school science topic of bees. Bees is highlighted for me, with a dark, a capital B. When my son is encouraged to participate he produces deliberate mistakes. Please find enclosed a sheet where I should observe the kind of sullen errors she means.
On the sheet there are fat cartoon bees, some looking like puffy cherubs, some looking like burglars with masks on their eyes and shady hats. Stamped in each of the cloudy bee bodies is a word that my son was supposed to use to fill in the gap in the sentences. Instead he has used one word repeatedly. The word is eye, and he’s written it into most lines: Bees work at building the eye, gathering nectar to make the eye and protecting the eye from robber bees. The Queen eye works the hardest. She doesn’t eye until she dies.
The only time he hasn’t used the word eye is in the correct sentence: She has a baby almost every time you blink your … in this gap there’s a whole list. WINGS, EGGS, ANTENNAE, EXOSKELETON, my son has written. He’s cut the words into the page in jagged black strokes. He’s written them in a spiky shell so the letters start to look like an insect.
She has a baby almost every time you blink your POLLEN, I read.
It was golden as we watched it darken and come off our skin in fringes of water. It was golden as I picked up the towel and shook it into a breeze from the kitchen door. It’s golden as I get out of bed and go down into the living room and switch every light on and even get a torch and crouch where I cut his hair down on the floor. It’s golden, golden in my mind, although I can’t find a shred of it there, where I lost it. Not a seed, not a lash. Not a thorn.
I think of the policeman who had to take my son from me. I think now, as I thought then, this is the first time he’s picked up a child.
You could see it in his body, you could see where the knowledge was missing … those signals in the collarbone, the wrists of people who know how to pick up a child. He spent a long time kneeling in front of us, just looking at us. The other people in the room must have thought he was moved, he was giving us time. Perhaps he was, yes he was, I think, but even more than that he was solving a problem. He was studying our bodies trying to look for places we might come apart. He was examining my son’s legs, the neck that lay over my elbow, calculating the weight, the pressure, the words needed to break me from him.
It was a task, an assignment: to break us open where my bones held onto his bones, where my milk slipped over his ribs, where my hair and my breath and my fingernails kept asking his mouth to answer my singing.
To pick a child up out of that is no small act. What breaks milk, what breaks touch? He did it through pity.
He said, my sister’s pregnant, and then his breath was very quick and hooked because he thought he’d said the wrong thing.
But almost at once I answered him. I said, don’t tell her about this.
I remember silence. Then I remember looking at this man’s shirt and saying, I don’t want those buttons to scratch him. And he showed me how the silver buttons were on a ring which slid out through the pocket, and he held them down by the baby’s scalp where my hand was fixed through all his hair.
Can you hold them for me? he asked.
That was all I could do for him. I couldn’t move any further … just open my hand and let them fall in like stones.
We were a problem in gravity and he was the instrument that had to solve it. And I pitied him.
I take the note to my son’s classroom. When I enter I can’t breathe. The walls are hung with her life cycle, and down from the ceiling she floats from orange strings. She’s not a cartoon now, her multiplied bodies are glossy and jointed and accurate. She flies through the seasons marked out around the room and I see her in Spring, squatting, strands of gleaming egg split from her abdomen, her fur, her veiny wings. I sit down on a desk: in Summer she hovers on nests of waxy cocoons. Inside each oval egg there’s a pupa, its exoskeleton gathering on it like fingernails.
The teacher finds me. I’m sick in the cylinders of nectar the children have sellotaped from cut-down bottles. I catch it all in the water they have thickened with glue and coloured yellow, and when I am finished I pass it to the teacher. I tell her why my son will not be taking part in the science project. She shakes a little but she gives me a list of other topics we might select.
I look down the list and I see wheat.
Butterflies, I tell her.
But every time you blink your eyes there is pollen. The last thing I see when I leave the room is the light that throbs on the dark husk of the queen.
The teacher of autobiography splits the word into three sections: autos, bios and graphe. He tells us again to consider how each of these is constructed, how even before we commit our autobiography to paper we have processed our life story through choices of perception, pressures of what may not be said. Decisions to forget.
I point out that in the middle there’s something that we don’t construct, not always.
He queries. The body, I say.
He says, we construct our physical life through language, language filters the body. We remember our body only in terms of what our language can say.
I start to say, no, sometimes it’s the other way, the other way, but I can’t explain it.
He says, the fact that you can’t explain it is evidence for what I’ve explained.
But in the middle I see the sleeping thorax, the long clear wing. I see the atmosphere of my eye flushed with the grain of my son’s drifting hair. I hear the pulse of my baby’s throat as it pollutes itself, as it boosts its tissues … with what? … with water, with fear, with vessels of nothingness which close him away from me.
Into their blue nerves, into their dark blooming.
The teacher is right in one way … there’s no vocabulary for this.
But outside of language the memory still comes. It comes to the body.
I don’t construct my son’s mouth as I hook it and call and drag it with mine. I don’t construct the wires of milk that keep working down from my shoulder blade trying to cloud life through the nipple because his mouth is there, because the breast remembers. It knows the brush of light against his teeth.
This would not be part of my story. I would not remember this.
You wind and pin sheets around the milk but it still moves to the memory of him.
The body can’t decide to forget.
I would not choose to remember him the way other parts of the dream sometimes make me. Sometimes in the dream I’m in the shower and I hear his voice asking if he can come in. Maybe, some nights, I slide the door open and take off his clothes as they soften with steam. I count his buttons, which he calls bubbles, or help him find words for the parts of his body which pull out of the blue cloth, ankles, ears, knees. I feel him moving around me in the spray as he plays with the toy he has smuggled, the branch of his hand on my leg for balance, the feather of his hair against my hip. When he stops and leans against me the current of his humming brings my bones to the surface.
Other times I just shuck his clothes roughly without talking of his body. I don’t notice his body because I don’t yet know that I will lose it.
Sometimes I just say no. I’m tired and I don’t want to let him in. I hear his voice fill and gulp, but I concentrate on the sound of the water. I don’t see the clear print of his hand banging, banging the flushed glass. I’ve raised my own hands up to the water and I’m staring at it tracing my empty palms.
I should go to church, the young man says. I might find something there I could turn to.
The autobiography teacher has put us in pairs, to discuss early memories of books. The boy I’m paired with says, the Bible. Daniel, Jonah, the animals were what he loved.
I say, Where the Wild Things Are, the last book I ever read to my son.
The boy says, they thought there was something. They’ve wondered, the class. My grief is a rumour here.
He has a beautiful skinny face and his eyes are sexual. Along his arm the muscle of an older man grows in a plait. A vein rises, forks. When he says the word church, it comes out rich and lonely.
I tell him the Bible is just a book about dead children to me.
I go into my oldest son’s room. I sit on his bed with him, and tell him he won’t have to study bees. He opens a drawer and takes out fist-shaped papers. He’s crushed them with precision, but I see edges of hives, a head draped in net.
There’s a diagram which tells us of the hive wall, its algebra. I close this sheet in my bigger hand until we can’t see any of its symmetry, its shine.
I say, what about butterflies?
Crabs, he says. He wants to do crabs.
When I ask him why, he says he remembers being at the beach with his brother. They were paddling in the creek which broke off the hard waves into the shade. I remember what he’s going to say … that there was a white crab drifting in foam and he scooped it out, and the two boys opened its body slowly with a stick.
So he knew about crabs … because I told him, he says against my chest.
They listened to it creaking and they looped weed out of its claw. Then my oldest son took his brother into the shallows to show him the soft dark holes, the quick chisel of legs that sucked down into them.
We told him about them, I know we did, he says through my ribs. We warned him.
He gets out a page where he’s started on crabs. He’s drawn one with crusts and nails and bubbles. Under it he’s written, If they see a bigger animal they hide under a rock or in the sand.
You know so much, I tell him, and he leans back on me and we sit there.
Death is a bigger animal, and so is grief.
It was the same towel. It was loose and warm when I pulled it off the wash line.
I hear the small hook of sound as it plucked on the steel.
Perhaps if I’d been the kind of mother who folds things neatly into the basket.
But I’m not.
I shake things out inside. He’s always laughed when I’ve done this. He’s always shrieked and pulled a face at the flocking noise of cloth in air. He’s always laughed and grabbed at the hanging ripples of shirt, at the wagging nappies.
I watch the towel swell into the air between us. It holds for a moment, rigid, fragile … like a wing in the space between my knuckles and his.
The dark body splits from it like an atom.
The bee is lazy. It lets death out with a shrug.
The laugh is the last thing his throat knows. He points and laughs as the cloth sky comes down to wrap him.
The autobiography teacher tells me I must cut, I must edit.
He gives me a story to use as a model. This is death, he says. Death comes with no adjectives. Death is in the distance between the body and the verb.
I tell him the policeman came back with an envelope of hair. But it was dead hair. I don’t want my writing to be like that hair, something cut from him after he’s dead. I want to find a language that moves on the page like he did, and sometimes I do hear it … something in an adjective that moves like skin. Something in a line that shifts like his head at my breast or his heel on my ribcage.
He says, a monument’s not a soft thing. Your language needs sealing, hardening.
He goes on, you can’t bury a child in a tomb of metaphors.
I don’t go back to class.
There are whole pages here for women like me. There are black prayers, Latin under plastic. There are leaves and curls set into a cross. My son helps me turn through the pages. He wants me to choose another picture, but he’s satisfied when I tell him the reason for wheat.
We watch the woman. She is orderly with the steamed tools, the long clean needles. Cut into her shoulder is a fairy with a stick of stars. It’s a woman’s parlour … no flames, no skulls, just the inking of loved ones, of lost ones. I open my shirt and she washes from my collarbone down to the core of my breast.
Can he get a crab when he gets bigger? my son asks me.
Yes, I tell him, if he still wants to, he can get a tattoo when he gets big.
The site is clean. The woman asks my son if he can hold back my hair. She prepares to lower the needle, pauses before she embeds the first black stroke.
Am I sure I know what it will feel like?
I know what she will say. Like sunburn, she tells me … but at its deepest, it may feel like a bee-sting.
‘Wheat’ was the winner of the 2004 Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Award, judged by Vincent O’Sullivan.