It’s an ancient memory—or is it a dream? My mother is putting me to bed, just finishing off our long goodnight with another of the strange and haunting songs she uses for lullabyes. She closes her eyes and sways slightly as she plucks her guitar—or, in some versions, her banjo with the mother-of-pearl fish set into the frets—and sings in a voice so ethereal, so unlike her daytime yell, that I wonder if she remembers it’s her son she’s singing to. At certain points in the song her eyes spring open and I feel them blaze through me with a terror I glimpse in them only when she sings. I want to turn and follow her gaze to see what frightens her so, to see what she sees hunkered in the wall behind my back, but the back of my own neck freezes with fear. My mother never explains it, never condemns me for my cowardice even as she proffers not a word to assuage my fear, so paralyzed is she by her own. The moment passes and she closes her eyes again, not to open them until the next time some turn in the story flings them awake. I try to find a pattern in these events: what words, what shifts in the melodic line cause them, and why? Why does she sing with her eyes closed at all? Why not just gaze out into space, like the performers on TV? Why not look at me? Sometimes her lids flip bolt open on the word you, but just as often they glide through that minefield without a peep, smooth as a train through a tunnel or a ship before the wind, and the lyrics flow by wrapped in the winding sheet of harmony and rhythm and line that soars between us until the moment I find myself fixed in those flares of hers once again, often as not on a word as innocuous as with, or not, or mine.
The songs tell stories, verse after verse of murder and betrayal, of roads and rivers set upon and lost, of seduction by monsters, stealth by forces slick as quicksand, thicker than my strongest magnet—demons hidden in the trees and rocks and seas, even in her clothes. When I wore my apron low, he followed me through ice and snow / now that I wear my apron high, he goes right down my street and passes by. Who is he? What’s an apron—have I ever seen my mother in one? She throws back her head and laughs in that voice like lilies when I ask. Tell her to make me a cambric shirt / without any thread or needlework. What terrible thing does he want of her? I look down at my coveralls and wonder what kind of power they hold. How will I know before it’s too late?
Who are the other people in the songs? Giants from my mother’s past—witches and fairies, enemies and lovers out of some black hole of time before me. I’m not certain what a lover does. I’m afraid to ask my mother to explain, when she grants herself not so much as a breath of relief from the song’s cheating heart, a shiver of peace from its pain. What’s clearer is what a lover leaves behind. On summer nights she sits on the edge of my bunk in her white batiste gown, her long moon-colored hair falling over her shoulders, her left foot tucked under her thigh, her right foot resting on the floor. The smell of swamp grass floats on the air. She damps the strings of her guitar and sends her voice out alone on the night. It curls like a tendril around the song’s core as it rises, soars and tumbles back down. She sings of a creature, half man half seal, who rises up out of the deep one night to lie with her—in her bed just across the landing from mine?—and make with her a son. The creature promises to return to her in that selfsame darkest hour before dawn, in some untold future, to wrench this son from her arms and spirit him away to the sea. I listen to the peal of my mother’s voice and a cold fire singes my back. Now I see. Now I understand. Night after night I vow to keep the rim of that darkest hour fixed in my sight, only to crash into it when my screams wake me from dreams I cannot shake even in the plain light of afternoon—dreams of black-and-yellow serpents wrapped around my legs, of roaches big as raptors crawling on my face. I wake to the wisp of a silky breath at my neck, a whisper of waves at my ear.
The air smells of wet black sand, of kelp. I watch my mother’s knee, the one she let me bandage against the road rash, bob up and down as she taps the air with her heel. The song’s faint pulse is no match for the slam of my heart. The porch rail moans without mercy, the sky stutters heat as the thunder that’s lurked behind the palisades all day long lunges straight across the bay for my hide. The wind slaps a strip of soiled gauze across the open wound of my window, back and forth, over and over. O the restless wind and the rain. . . My mother sings. Her ghost wheels its barrow through streets broad and narrow, crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o! Her eyes fly open on the last o, then drift shut as she ends that song and begins another. There’s a train comin / you better get on / it’s got no destination / it waits for no one. I hear the hiss of the third rail long before my bones feel the rumble of the train. A coffin the size of a sleeping giant thunders round the bend toward us on a thousand in-line wheels. Its flanks are sealed in a coat of yellow armor whose rivets dazzle even on moonless nights like this. Even now, you can see the mass of arms and legs sticking out the top, claws grasping, tentacles searching and coiling back. People say that if you look really close, you can see a head silhouetted in the train’s left eye. No, it’s not a reflection, says my mother, not just the echo of your fear. Something’s there. Those who claim to have seen it offer a hundred versions of its face. They agree on just one thing: that it is not human, or anything alive.
The last line’s the scariest of all. No everafter happily lived, no they. You are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine. . . . And she sank beneath the lowland, low-land, low-land / she sank beneath the low-land-sea! When the last character’s croaked and left the singer alone with her tale, what’s left to tell? What’s left to sing? Only the wail of grief, the knock of a knell without consolation, without reprieve. O ye shall marry a gunner good / and a right fine gunner I’m sure he’ll be / and the very first shot that e’er he shoots / will kill both my young son and me.
* * * * *
The years have passed. She never married a gunner.
I’m still alive, and so is she.
But on certain summer nights—you know the ones I mean—when the air smells of kelp and wet black sand and the moon has left the sky, when the ghost train grips the top of the pass just before it trundles by, if you bend your ear to the trough of the night in that darkest hour before dawn, you can hear the call, clear and true as her voice on the night she first sang it to me.
And somewhere in the currents off the Spuyten Duyvil, just beyond the tracks in the valley below, my father sounds and surfaces and sounds again. He slithers round the shards of a trestle no train crosses anymore, vestigial limbs stretching out of the chop like feelers against the purple sky. He dives. He tracks his memories beneath the sea.
He watches my mother, and waits for me.
B J Atwood-Fukuda lives and writes in Spuyten Duyvil, NY and Woods Hole, MA. Her work has appeared in American Letters & Commentary, The Mad Hatter’s Review, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present (Scribner’s, 2003) and Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books (Subpress, 2004).