Winner : Terrain.org 9th Annual Contest in Nonfiction
The woods are loud with robin, cardinal, woodpecker, squirrel, and my two boys intent on making a more natural habitat for the toads they caught this morning. They stomp about and call out orders in their best impression of my father, an excavator and farmer, voices deep, authoritative, and abrupt. The toads are as tolerant as amphibians can be, scooped into damp hands and dropped in the driver’s seat of a Tonka truck. Big Toad is the trucker today. Little Toad the train engineer.
Our deck positions me straight between the Toad Circus and the woods, lush with new May leaves that have formed a bright green canopy within the last two weeks. Oak, walnut, and dogwood are most prominent, with maple, spruce, and pine for variation here and there. Our land slopes fast to a grassy knoll, soggy all spring from snowmelt and rain, then descends to an engineered creek bed lined with railroad ties. The creek spills out abruptly where the railroad ties end to form a more natural waterfall, carving a way out through shale. My boys explore these woods and waterways, ever on the hunt for creepy crawlers they capture and contain in buckets.
We are suspended above the land, in the trees, eye level with what normally hides 20 feet above the groundcover. Everything is overgrown. Two weeks ago I carried loppers and pruners around the yard to prune and lop whatever ought not be there. Walnut saplings—gone. Rose of Sharon seedlings—gone. Low hanging limbs of flowering trees I cannot name—gone. In my frenzy I missed the poison ivy. Its rash spread everywhere on me, the only living species allergic to its oils while deer and bird dine contentedly on its seeds and waxy leaves (but clearly aren’t hungry enough—you missed a patch, I want to say). Two weeks removed from first exposure, I scratch and itch casually now. I warn my boys to avoid the wilting vines by the drive.
I am both amused and horrified by the toad show happening in my driveway—the way my boys take liberties with nature as if it is theirs to claim and master, given dominion over the dirt of the earth and the rocks and these breathing creatures who just this morning were content to hide under groundcover. Now they take joy rides and race down our asphalt driveway with nothing but metal and plastic keeping them from being roadkill.
Six squirrels are arguing in the walnut tree. They are chasing each other’s tails and running down the trunk and limbs as if there aren’t dozens of feet between them and the forest floor. I see the leaves move first before the flurry of fir, hear the chitter before the race. My boys are bickering now, too, about their own ground and possessions, their rights, their justices, who should get the Tonka dump truck and who the car.
Toad’s lungs fill and deflate, fill and deflate. He calls out a 10-4 Good Buddy and pulls away. Does he know how soft his body is, how tenuous this ride? Does his body fill with air and adrenaline every time my son scoops him up from the dirt? They have squashed toads before, my sons. They are brutal, tender boys who do not know their power until it has been exerted and then grieve this final violence.
But first they hold their cupped hands up to me, mom, see, see? Toad blinks and blinks.
Once, when I was young, I sat in the cab of the excavator with my father in the changing light of a summer evening, at the base of a sloping hill on my grandparents’ farm. He was digging something, leveling something, evening out something, I don’t know, and as the long arm of the boom reached up and out, and as the bucket split open the earth and lifted the dirt with its big metal fingers, a groundhog ran from some disturbed hiding place. Dad maneuvered the bucket with his levers to chase the varmint, and we laughed at its scurrying. It didn’t run away, just around, darting in and out of the weeds and piles of dirt as we chased it with the bucket until it made one unexpected move into the path of our machine.
I had no malice in me, just delight to see the foreign creature run and play with us as if it had chosen this moment, heard the machine rumbling above its home the way my children hear the neighbor kids in their yard and dart out the door with a clash, forgetting their shoes in the frenzy to be among friends. But the groundhog didn’t ask for this.
The tracks of the excavator lurched forward. The bucket swung on its hinge. The earth opened. “Where did the groundhog go?” I asked. Back in his home, the answer. I learned later of my dad’s attempts to hide death, how he dug a place for the small body and buried it without my noticing its lifelessness, a child captivated by all the world has to offer and offers up to her, willing and unwilling.
My boys want to know what to feed their wild toads. I am reluctant to look up such information. “I think they’d rather be free to hunt their own food, don’t you?” I argue. There is such information in the world, however; it doesn’t take much to find it. Reptiles Magazine offers an article on “American Toad Care and Husbandry,” with advice to feed your wild toad three to six food items every other day, ranging from moth to grub to spider to slug and any other type of insect it can track and catch. With this new knowledge, I’m even more inclined to keep the toads free—go, eat, we have plenty of these insects and want fewer.
The chirping world must spy my sons and the captive toad. Surely they wait for stillness to circle in on the aluminum bucket habitat of mud and rock and lawn. The robin, the cardinal, the squirrel, the hawk, they chirp and chirp, a chaos of song and radio frequency, 10-4 Good Buddy, song of joy and fear and hunger. Are they interested in such captive delicacies, such easy prey?
Just now, a solitary ant skittered across the deck. I bet he’s on his way to tell his friends about something terrific, some morsel he’s discovered they should all retrieve. My boys call down to the neighbor boy, skipping and leaping across the driveway, Joel! Joel! We found six toads! There are even more now, tender bodies hopping against the aluminum natural habitat. It will begin to feel like a plague, soon, the mass of them.
All this is happening. It just keeps happening, out of my control, within my control, beyond my control. I want to know what the bird in the tree above me is clacking about so incessantly—is it love, is it insects, is it just that it is and is happy to be? Everything is so busy being. Everything is so busy in its individual song, and then interruption. Foot in anthill. Hand under toad. Bucket through groundhog tunnel. Wind gust against nest. Loppers through new shoots of green. Squirrel against squirrel against squirrel against squirrel fighting for nuts and dominance and love.
It is the weekend after a school shooting. A boy used a revolver and a shotgun to kill a girl for rejecting him and then he killed nine others and injured ten more for existing in a world in which someone could reject him. It’s exhausting, this constant violence. I feel guilty for being so tired of summoning grief over anotherschool shooting. We say these words now, “another school shooting,” the way people in our region might say “another rainy day.” It rained yesterday. It will rain tonight. It will rain on average 155 days here this year. What is the forecast? Another school shooting.
Violence is old, older than guns, older than cannons, older than swords, the same age as fists, as muscle, as stone. When Cain felt rejected by God he murdered his brother in anger. If I cannot have the blessing of Your love, he said with his fists, I will have the curse of his death. I would rather feel this pain than that emptiness.
As a daughter of Eve I cannot conceive of the violence of men and yet they are the fruit of my womb. Fist of my fist. Bone of my bone. When I hold the toad my son hands me with delight in his eyes it is with the same awe I felt when his own small body was first handed to me. He was intubated at birth, subdued so he would not pull the tubes from his own fragile lungs that forced his rib cage up and down in the ragged measurable breaths of not working quite right yet. This one is aware of the tenuous world. This one knows he is a miracle, and yet he is more inclined to test the precipice for danger. He is the one whose curiosity can turn malevolent, wonder turned to “I wonder what would happen if…” and then the end.
The toad’s lungs fill and deflate.
Early childhood trauma shapes the brain’s development such that a person may actually physiologically process the world differently. To my intubated-at-birth son, every discipline is a threat, every correction an accusation of unworthiness, every slight an opportunity to fight or retreat. His fight-or-flight trigger has no safety mechanism. When he is angry or guilty or sad, all of him seems to crawl into himself.
I know he breathes because his chest rises and heaves. I know he is swirling in a mental frenzy because he clenches his fists, picks at his skin. I know he feels as if he is worthless because he destroys his room, destroys art he’s created, destroys letters I’ve made for him declaring my love for him. I want so badly to reach him and help him when he lands here, but he vacates his eyes. He has no access to words. A therapist tells us to help him make sensory connections, to break the adrenaline driven sympathetic nervous system’s hold, and this trick is like a miracle. Tell me one thing you see. Tell me one thing you hear. Tell me one thing you smell. Eew, did you do that? He laughs and there he is again, my son, my son.
There are six toads hopping in the aluminum bucket habitat. There is now a woodpecker in the tree beating holes to find food to kill to eat to consume to live to fly to be beautiful and violent and silent and loud and alive. There is wet earth, decomposing leaves, new saplings from fallen walnuts. Everything is happening, living and dying, risking and riding, 10-4 Good Buddy!
The boys are giggling maniacally out of my line of sight. Their laughter is the kind that makes me worry for the toads. When I stand to look around the corner, my youngest son is holding a toad high above the bucket and looking to his brother, eager for approval. “Don’t—” I begin, but the toad is free now from his grasp, leaping, willing or unwilling, from three feet above the earth.
“You can’t do that!” I yell, startling them both. “You’ll hurt him dropping him from that high!” The boys look surprised at this news. You mean they can’t leap from three feet up and be okay? I don’t know if they can leap from three feet up and be okay, but the maniacal laughter makes me think it doesn’t matter.
I want my boys to grow up to be strong tender men. Gentle strong men. Careful strong men. I want my boys to grow up to hold their children in their massive paws of hands and know the power in them to be strong violent but choose to be strong gentle, the way my husband held them, the way my father held me. When they hurt someone or something, I want them to grieve.
The 17-year-old boy in Santa Fe “admitted he didn’t shoot people he liked and meant to kill the ones he did target,” but at least he has “cooperated with police,” said, “Yes, sir,” when asked by the judge whether he wanted a court-appointed attorney. He is a polite mass murderer. A considerate killer. A classmate said he was always really quiet.
What silences preceded the decision to load weapons onto the body and walk, or ride or drive and hide? What filled the rattle of Cain’s mind in those still moments, when morning breakfast bowls were still being eaten, steeling himself to cold, hard retaliation. What silences filled the shut doors of his room, what silences were pregnant with noise, the chaos so loud no one could stand to hear it and chose instead to ignore it?
Did Eve know Cain had the capacity to do what he did? Did she know of the rage, the jealousy, the way it could be uncapped, did she try to tame the fury early, coaxing every temper down to clenched fists relaxed, deep breaths. Tell me one thing you see. Tell me one thing you hear. Tell me one thing you smell. Did she teach him his manners, tell him to say, “Yes, sir. No, sir. Sorry, ma’am”? I’m going to use this body you gave me as a weapon, ma’am. I’m going to use your guns to kill people, sir. I’m going to see the fragile world around me and dominate it, sir, crush it, impose my power on it, sir.
What mother, hand pressed to pregnant belly, could ever dream of that one promised son and fathom the coming fracture of her love, her grief, her fury?
Eve isn’t given many words, just another son, one to replace Abel, and that son has a son. The lineage of Cain is one of vengeance, sons who reference their father’s curse and curse exponentially those who threaten them. Somehow, Eve crawls out of her grief and makes love again to Adam, son of God made from dust and breath, to conceive again a child who will turn from her to use his strength, violent or gentle. Somehow, she loves and loves again, love throbbing broken and healed, broken and healed, broken and healed.
My sons are at it again. They are each holding a toad in their cupped hands. I watch, take in the birdsong and squirrel chatter and breathing and blinking toads, the violence of the given world, and wait for what will happen next.
This essay examines the threat of male violence, the dark possibility of deadly response in the nation’s environment of universal armament, against the foregrounded figures of her own young sons at play in their yard. I admire this author’s insistence on inhabiting multiplicity–the comfort of the rural home and the nationally tolerated savagery of school shootings; the spontaneous joy of the boys and the possibility that it may morph into anger; caring for their young bodies that will grow up to hold a strength that can be tender or brutal. Raising boys against the violent grain of American culture is an essential narrative for our time, rendered here in just the ordinary summer events of one afternoon.
Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional, The Valley of Achor, Pruning Burning Bushes, and Acquiesce. She is a 2018 recipient of an Ohio Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She serves as the director of content marketing at Spire Advertising, and as associate editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, where she co-edits the Beautiful Things series. She resides in Ashland, Ohio, with her husband and three children.
Header photo by Lillian Tveit, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Sarah M. Wells by Jessica Huth.