Today’s essay was one of two finalists in our spring 2022 Essay Contest

by Skye Pratt Epperson

Curves filled with electricity: a brain is fragile. Sometimes a brain only claps against a skull, as gentle as a ripple, and dies. But a brain is solid and hungry and, sometimes, can smash against bone and metal and survive, though changed forever. Then its owner is in for a ride. A fast ride down a steep hill, with no wind and all of the speed in the world, feels nothing like freedom.

My mother never reciprocated the devotion she collected. Her heart buckled close, she was agile and free. Then, at twenty five, she moved to Alaska and fell in love. She stood atop the mountains, wrapped in clouds, and felt that there must be a god. Lakes as sharp as glass smudged against land in a commotion of umber cattail and fireweed, proud as flamingos.  Summer was one long day, winter the longest night, and in that wild rotation she was poisoned with an unending need that only fattened when she moved to Swaziland. Before rainstorms in the sub-Sahara, the air sizzles. Lungs burn and fingernails throb. These days my Mother groans for Alaska, weeps in her bed the way women have always mourned a lost beloved.

Love is a slippery rock. Alaska forced my Mother onto it and, when she fell, she tumbled into my father. Love hit them like a car. Six months later they were married. She can’t remember that part, but has the photographs to prove it happened.

I imagine her, in those hopeful early days, weighing and choosing consequences as carefully as grapes in a supermarket, never taking more than she could afford. Before they married she told my father that in five years they could talk about a baby, and then just one would do. I try to picture her before that bicycle ride, self aware and responsible. She excelled in nursing school, I’m told. Photos show she wore a watch and did not chew her fingernails. Maybe she kept houseplants alive, or else didn’t keep them at all.

In 2008 I finished graduate school in New Mexico and rushed home to Swaziland. Homesickness had clutched my throat since I’d left for college eight years earlier, and then here I was, breathing. But Swaziland, full of birdsong and green breeze, is only the size of New Jersey—not nearly enough space for my mother and me to share. Love is a slippery rock, and my siblings and I learned early of the bruises caused by stepping on it.

Three years earlier, my mother had begun babbling gibberish and was confused when nobody understood her. A specialist in South Africa was recommended, tests run, and then we had evidence. Imaging proved what my grandmother had always known. The car that hit my mother when she was a newlywed inflicted the sort of brain damage that causes people to make stupid decisions for lack of foresight and impulse control. My mother’s stupid decisions manifested in reproduction, her unchecked impulses in white hot rage. They’re not all her fault, the years that followed.

On an especially frustrating day during those months at home I let my guard down and told my father, “I wish I had known her before.” His guard down, too, he said, “Yes, she was something special.” His guard snapped back to attention. “Is, of course. She is something special.”

When the accident happened and she woke up in the hospital, she had no memory of my father. She saw the ring on her finger, waved gold like a seascape, so simple, exactly like something she would choose. She knew she must have married him, whoever he was.

She thought that except for him, she had no trouble remembering the curve of time behind her. The love of mountains and rivers, the curve of mountains, the rivers that curve down the sides of them, the winds, curving through it all, to the sea, making waves. These she recalled. Sun bouncing gold off the waves, a smooth curve, smooth and calm as the inside of a skull. She knew how the word freedom tasted like wind inside her mouth, and maybe all of those curves grew inside her as silky as bone. Freedom. Freedom like riding a bicycle down a steep, steep curve of a hill, fast enough to catch the wind, to bounce over waves, to catch up with the feeling of being young and in love, fast enough to destroy the gas tank of a car.

I arrived, baby number one, so soon. She had forgotten her birth control as she forgot much of what used to be effortless. She did remember some things, like that she didn’t want this, that she had told him as much, that she had had a five-year rule. Then, two weeks after my first birthday, my brother arrived, then another, and then two more. The weight of all of us babies slowed her down. She carried too much weight to catch the wind, and her Alaskan mountains were gone anyway. She was so heavy that the lakes, also gone, would have swallowed her. These new lakes were filled with diseases and crocodiles, and slipping from a rock into one of them was impossible for her.

She has photographs of her wedding to prove its existence, and photographs of her brain that prove mine. On her walls in Swaziland, there are photographs of Alaskan mountains, and photographs of my brothers and my sister and me. Proof of freedom and consequence line the corridors.

Freedom can be sacrificed to speed, can be lost as quickly as a car runs into a woman on a bicycle. Speed took over all of the wrong parts of her. The curves and life inside her took on a more tangible form, and the form of those curves grew, hungrier and hungrier, louder and louder, more solid and fragile, and of too much consequence to comprehend.