Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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     from We the Animals

In the morning, we stood side by side in the doorway and looked in on Ma, who slept open-mouthed, and we listened to the air struggle to get past the saliva in her throat. Three days ago she had arrived home with both cheeks swollen purple. Paps had carried her into the house and brought her to the bed, where he stroked her hair and whispered in her ear. He told us the dentist had been punching on her after she went under; he said that’s how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out. Ma had been in bed every day since—plastic vials of pain pills, glasses of water, half-drunk mugs of tea, and bloody tissues cluttered the floor around her bed. Paps had forbidden us to set foot in the bedroom, and for three mornings we had heeded, monitoring her breath from the doorway, but today we would not wait any longer.

We tiptoed to her side and traced our fingers over her bruises. Ma murmured at our touch but did not wake.

It was the morning of my seventh birthday, which meant winter, but the light glowed in the curtain like spring. Manny walked to the window, pulled the curtain around him, and covered himself so that only his face was visible. One Sunday, because we had begged her to, Ma took us to a church service, and there we saw a painting of men in hoods with clasped hands and eyes lifted upward.

“Monks,” Ma had said. “They study God.”

“Monks,” Manny whispered now, and we understood. Joel draped himself in the sheet that had been kicked to the floor, and I grabbed the other curtain, and like monks we waited, except it was Ma we were studying, her black tangled hair, her shut eyes, and her bloated jowl. We watched the tiny form of her under the covers, a twitch or kick, and the steady rise and fall of her chest.

When she finally woke, she called us beautiful.

“My beautiful baby boys,” she said, the first words out of her busted mouth in three days, and it was too much; we turned from her. I pressed my hand against the glass, suddenly embarrassed, needing the cold. That’s how it sometimes was with Ma; I needed to press myself against something cold and hard, or I’d get dizzy.

“It’s his birthday,” Manny said.

“Happy birthday,” Ma said, the words slightly tinged with pain.

“He’s seven,” Manny said.

Ma nodded her head slowly and shut her eyes. “He’ll leave me, now he’s seven.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Joel asked.

“When you boys turned seven, you left me. Shut yourselves off from me. That’s what big boys do, what seven-year-olds do.”

I moved both hands to the glass, caught the cold, and pressed it to my cheeks.

“I won’t.”

“They changed,” Ma said, turning her head to me. “Wriggled away when I tried to cuddle them, wouldn’t sit still on my lap. I had to let them go—had to harden my heart—they wanted to smash things, to wrestle.”

My brothers looked confused but oddly proud. Manny winked to Joel.

“Aw,” he said, “it ain’t like that.”

“Isn’t it?” Ma asked.

“I don’t want to smash nothing,” I said. “I want to study God and never get married.”

“Good,” Ma said, “then you’ll stay six forever.”

“That’s just stupid,” Joel said.

Ma raised a slow hand for silence on the subject.

“Will you get up today?” I asked.

“How do I look?”

“Purple,” I said.

“Crazy,” said Joel.

“Tore up,” said Manny.

“But it’s your birthday,” Ma said to me.

“But it’s my birthday.”

She slid the covers down to her waist and brought her hands up to her face, delicately protecting her cheeks, as if a hand might fly through the air at any moment, then she raised herself up, then her feet were on the floor, then she was standing in her green football jersey, with bare legs thin as anything and painted toes.

A brass-handled mirror lay on the bureau, and as soon as Ma raised it to her face, tears came and sat on her eyelids, waiting to fall. Ma could hold tears on her eyelids longer than anyone; some days she walked around like that for hours, holding them there, not letting them drop. On those days she would trace her finger over the shapes of things or hold the telephone on her lap, silent, and you had to call her name three times before she’d give you her eyes.

Now, Ma held the tears and studied her ugliness. The three of us boys started to back out of the room, but she called for me, said she wanted to talk to me about staying six, but she didn’t say much beyond that, just looked and looked in that mirror, turning her jaw at different angles.

“What did he do to me?” she asked.

“He punched you in the face,” I said, “to loosen up your teeth.”

I jumped at the sound of shattering glass. My brothers’ two heads instantly appeared back in the doorway, smiling wide, running their eyes from Ma to me, to the broken pieces of mirror, to the spot on the wall where it had been flung, to Ma, to me.

Ma’s hands were up protecting her cheeks again, and her eyes were shut. When she spoke, she said each word slow and clear.

“You think it’s funny when men beat on your mother?”

My brothers’ smiles dropped to frowns; they disappeared again.

I went and wrapped myself back up in the curtain, leaned my forehead against the windowpane. The light reflected back and forth from the white sky to the snow; the light caught in the frost on the window. Outside, it was too bright to focus on any one spot. I opened my eyes as wide as I could, and they burned with light, and I thought about going blind, how everyone said if you looked right up into the sun, full on, and held your gaze, you’d go blind—but when I tried, I could not blind myself.

Ma sat on the edge of the bed, breathing loud and slow, forgiving me. She called for me to sit on her lap, and I came, and we breathed together. Then Ma started in on my favorite song, about a woman with feathers and oranges, and Jesus Christ walking on the water. My head stretched all the way up to her shoulder, but she rocked me, rocked me, and hummed the words she had forgotten.

“Promise me,” she said, “promise me you’ll stay six forever.”


“Simple. You’re not seven; you’re six plus one. And next year you’ll be six plus two. Like that, forever.”


“When they ask you how old you are, and you say ‘I’m six plus one, or two, or more,’ you’ll be telling them that no matter how old you are, you are your Ma’s baby boy. And if you stay my baby boy, then I’ll always have you, and you won’t shy away from me, won’t get slick and tough, and I won’t have to harden my heart.”

“You stopped loving them when they turned seven?”

“Don’t be simple,” Ma said. She brushed my hair back from my forehead. “Loving big boys is different from loving little boys—you’ve got to meet tough with tough. It makes me tired sometimes, that’s all, and you, I don’t want you to leave me, I’m not ready.”

Then Ma leaned in and whispered more in my ear, told me more, about why she needed me six. She whispered it all to me, her need so big, no softness anywhere, only Paps and boys turning into Paps. It wasn’t just the cooing words, but the damp of her voice, the tinge of pain—it was the warm closeness of her bruises—that sparked me.

I turned into her, saw the swollen mounds on either side of her face, the muddied purple skin ringed in yellow. Those bruises looked so sensitive, so soft, so capable of hurt, and this thrill, this spark, surged from my gut, spread through my chest, this wicked tingle, down the length of my arms and into my hands. I grabbed hold of both of her cheeks and pulled her toward me for a kiss.

The pain traveled sharp and fast to her eyes, pain opened up her pupils into big black disks. She ripped her face from mine and shoved me away from her, to the floor. She cussed me and Jesus, and the tears dropped, and I was seven.    

[“Seven” from We the Animals by Justin Torres. Copyright (c) 2011 by Justin Torres. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.]

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