child & her mother

lance olsen
© 2003



tell me a story i says lying there in the almost-black and my mama she says go to bed, girl, and i says tell me a story first, mama and my mama she says go to bed now, you hear and i says just one and my mama she says rolling her eyes toward heaven up in the darkness with that way she has of sucking her cigarette and letting its smoke spike out her nose like a cow on a cold autumn morning just one, girl, just one and then to sleep and so commences to spin me the most beautiful i ever done heard about this kind and handsome prince without a name who done got turned into a toad by a evil witch with hairy warts on her face and pink knuckles cuz he did not mind her plus this blindingly pretty princess who only wore white lace and done righted him into what he truly was with a gentle and pure kiss which sent the angels above to weeping and that was it that was all cuz i could not sleep that night no matter what simply could not sleep but stayed awake after my mama done finished telling and stayed awake after she done stood and touched my forehead with her rough dry palm thinking i was gone away and stayed awake through the carbon hours the opal hours the lilac hours aware-dreaming of that sweetest kiss bar none which brought the world up short and changed everything that god calls human everything that he does not and made the landscape re-picture itself so much the landscape began hurting cuz that is what real love can do it can make you feel cuz that is what the touch of a princess can do it can make you see how a prince can return from the red undertow called badness and so i did not wake up cuz i never went to sleep for happiness but when i heard my mama grinding coffee in the kitchen and slamming the fridge and feeding our kitties partly cloudy rainy and thunder i slipped out from under my sheets ran down the hall in my panties slid into my chair at the table and ate silent like as i hardly knew how no more cuz i was still aware-dreaming of that perfect state of affairs even as my mama she asks me how i slept cuz i had nothing more to say cuz that was the most beautiful story i suppose i will ever hear in my entire life bar none and so when i done concluded i slid off my chair and slipped on my pretty flower dress with the pure white collar and flipflops and smack went the trailer door behind me saying playing when my mama she done asked after me where i was going to down by the swamp as she done told me to mind my feet her voice dropping off behind me like a memory which is where i done headed directly the sky all blue like the precious stones in the prince’s cape and the sun humming like yellow jackets behind my eyes and the air hot-damp and riotous with fragrances thinking about my mama calls it elation thinking about elation and lace gowns that you never ever take off following the shrimp-pink dirt path behind our trailer into the woods where the earth feels spongy and cicadas fill your brain like the static between radio stations and you leave one way of seeing for another cuz everything there seems so much more real cuz it is all so what is the word overstated which is what you are both thinking and not thinking when you spot the frog on the fallen tree trunk in the shallow avocado-scummed water so you make a large arc and angle in from behind where the ground is still semi-firm and you crouch you crouch and duck-waddle you crouch and duck-waddle and then sit in absolute stillness for the count of ten twenty thirty and then see your hands swooping in from the sides so fast they are not your hands at all anymore but alarmed white swallows and you never thought about setting them in motion but even as that idea flickers up at you the frog is in your cupped palms that were birds a second ago and then at your lips which you worry might be too dry cuz of the sunshine and all but are not you know in your heart cuz it is what is inside that matters that makes the red undertow roll away from the shore of your soul as you kiss quick a brush-kiss like as with the boys brush-kissing on the playground during recess in the great telephone-line of kooties and nothing whatsoever happens but this does not surprise you cuz you know such a minor gesture will never be sufficient for a prince even though mice are running among your organs will not suffice cuz it is not fully felt not felt in the curve behind your knees between your toes in the tail you cannot see but know forms the base of your spine so you bring the frog back to your mouth again and this time you can feel its muscular nervousness in your cupped palms feel the animal’s feet scuffling in the cage which is nothing but you and you open your mouth and open a black hole between your thumbs and carefully and lovingly insert your tongue into it and lick what you find there and your breath goes away and the yellow-jacket-sun blossoms behind your eyes and the moist granular skin not unlike your mama’s hands after vanilla lotion the lungs pulsing like as fly wings the taste honey-salt and green and all the time a kind of frightened agitation within your palms fidgeting and back-kicking and going nowhere though you go everywhere and give it another long gentle lick-kiss which has nothing whatsoever to do with those that you have till this day delivered upon others nor those that have been delivered upon you and you can sense the red undertow withdrawing and can feel how right this one sign has been it has been more right than anything you have ever known till that is you retract your tongue and wait and stoop and unfold your palms and wait and set the frog among weeds and watch him watch with his dead gold eyes watching and wait till you realize only gradually you realize only as the afterburn of some thought you had last week that the world has not changed not at all and the frog is still the frog and you are still yourself and the sky is still blue and your heart is still your heart till that is you realize only gradually that you have guessed wrong and at the same time feel the waves start breaking once more over what up to this point you have envisioned as hope though almost immediately understand as the hope of the idea of hope and so you rise into the day rise into the sunshine into the rays your teacher says are all around you and inside you too and shut your eyes and listen to the yellow jackets the cicadas the intermittent chitters scattershot through the branches interlacing above you which puts you in mind of your mama how she sometimes collapses into herself like an imploding building on the news how sometimes after dinner you discover her all alone outside in the lawn chair smoking head tilted back eyes closed as if she can see the twilight through her lids and you ask her what she is doing and she tells you still not opening her eyes nothing, girl only that word does not mean what it means it means something so big and black it can hardly fit into language though she does not say another thing and her lack of saying says more than her saying ever could the sun bit by bit turning itself off and the evening bit by bit turning itself on and the over-sweet summer breeze stirring for maybe fifteen minutes no more without cooling a thing and you go back into the trailer to watch the television trying not to think about all this thinking but after a while you go out again to see and she is still there still sitting in the lawn chair alone precisely as you left her smoking with her head tilted back eyes closed and so you push on into the woods the thistles skunk cabbage elephant grass where the path forks and re-forks like a car with its windshield smashed while the sun goes on getting louder the atmosphere dank tropical like as the inside of a dog’s mouth and the you that is me walks singing all the songs i can think of and some that i have to make up till i come upon the pond which is without shore or bank but simply eases into being right under my feet one minute not there and the next there the grass gets wet and wetter and then drops off into hot chocolate swamp liquid as far as the eye can see and so i crab around the side that is not a side quiet as a rattlesnake cuz my mama she says i do not have a daddy and i says that is the silliest thing i ever done heard cuz everybody got a daddy somewheres and she says YOU don’t, girl and i says but everybody got a daddy somewheres and she says you just forget about such bullshit right now, you hear and she even said that word even said it like she was not thinking of saying it nor not saying it and so the you that is me walks sing-crabbing along the side quiet till i spot another frog and get down on my hands and knees and crawl through tall moist limp grass and become a statue and count ten twenty thirty and pounce and there it is in my hands the prince and i repeat what i done before only more carefully lovingly yet except this frog is larger than the first and strong and at the last second i decide to put my mouth over the hole between my thumbs and just for a heartbeat just for a single human pulse its amphibious head slips between my lips and everything turns pure white behind my eyes with the sun the most amazing thing the most perfect thing then it is out again and frozen and nothing but a frog and i confess though i do it in tiny additions sidling up on the notion that this process will take longer than i suspected but that as my mama says everything you want in life does precisely that so i set this frog that is only a frog down and move on till i find another and repeat the process and move on till i find another and repeat the process before long discovering i can begin to tell the difference between tastes textures smells this frog’s back skin or ear plate slightly more marshy than the last or less lumpy or more oily and this strikes me with the force of revelation cuz till then every frog has been the same frog every frog only one frog but now i figured each was itself and only itself the light passing above me and this impression made me feel rich in its knowledge and so i moved along the shore that was not a shore and scooped up frogs that were not frogs and kissed each and every one as if it was the most significant thing i could possibly do except when i picked up one the size of my fist and infolded its head in my mouth and put it down again i thought i saw out the edge of my seeing a rustling in the limp grass and next thing a water rat sliding through the brackishness where the frog had been and i commenced wondering if maybe inside some frogs were neither princes nor frogs but other creatures instead for instance ghosts of say deer or fish or dead kitties like partly cloudy rainy and thunder or maybe the souls of people who had accidentally fallen into the swamp and drowned cuz they did not mind their feet like their mamas had done told them or miraculous angels that came down to visit earth but got all mixed up or sinners from before the flood who did not believe in noah nor god or invisible jellyfish from other planets who needed to inhabit other bodies as astronauts need to inhabit spacesuits only ended up inhabiting the wrong bodies cuz they thought frogs were more intelligent than people or maybe even my daddy somewheres my daddy out there i remember the sandskin called his beard think i remember cuz he had gotten so sad waiting for me and my mama to return to him waiting for me and my mama to phone him or knock on his screen door wherever his screen door might be that his soul finally just gave up and walked away from his body in order to wander through the countryside alone for all its days in an oyster-gray limbo and that is what i found myself thinking when squatting by the pond that was not a pond i looked up and my heart dropped and i heard the red undertow begin sloshing nearby cuz the daylight above the trees was all of a sudden failing and i had not noticed the hours going by had not listened to my appetite growing inside me had not understood the regret of the light bleaching away sky becoming lemon rind becoming the tender flesh beneath your eyes bird chitter all around the long run home and i looked up and my heart dropped and behind the receding yellow jackets the overstated real the cicadas filling my brain like the static between radio stations i could hear the oceanic rise of croaking heavy and noisy as desire and i came to understand then if only for a second how many frogs existed in this swamp around me and how many swamps existed in this county around me and how many counties existed in this state around me and how many states existed in this country around me and how many countries existed in this world around me and how many worlds existed in this galaxy around me and how many galaxies existed in this universe around me and in that second i did not turn back toward my mama’s trailer but continued my sing-crabbing along the side of the pond that was not a pond wondering somewhere so far back in my mind that it almost seemed like someone else’s where does the kissing end?