Riptide
by Marion Smith

Chapter 21

[p.184]I’m lying on new Ralph Lauren sheets, watching the sheer white cotton curtains shiver. The sliding door is a few inches ajar. I hear black birds on the lawn chorusing a seven-note melody. I don’t know what kind they are. It should be monotonous the way they sing it over and over, but it isn’t. It’s wonderful. A requiem. Or maybe a hallelujah chorus.

A Harvard professor studied the song patterns of sparrows and concluded that young birds never get the notes quite right unless they learn them at a certain age from an adult sparrow. Animals with brains need to learn things at the correct age in developmental order, just like Piaget said. I don’t know how Jasmine managed to do so well, the way Clint messed her up from age five.

Duncan’s bike riding. He didn’t want to go to breakfast after all. He’s been gone a long time. He said he needed to breathe the fresh air. I must have been staring at this curtain a long time, too. It’s getting hot. Should reach over 100 later today. Not many tourists in Palm Springs now. I feel sticky.

Does it matter if I get up and do anything today? Four and a half billion years this planet’s swung around. One second and the moon’s light reaches me. What does it matter what I’ve done or do? We’re blades of grass, tiny fireflies of energy blinking on and off, vanished foam on some Kauai beach. If I’d never existed, [p.185]everything would be the same. Light would still shine from long dead stars and women would look up and call them beautiful. We’ll always be the center of the universe in our puny minds.

I’ll get up and take a shower. Turn the thermostat lower.

Nietzsche has a myth about eternal return where he asks if we had our same lives to live over and over again, would we choose to do so? Can we stand who we are? Everyone wants to live, but on balance would we take it again? Would Clint? His pain has to have been exquisite. Would I? I only know we each do what we must.

It’s death that makes life precious. Acting in the face of death. I think I had my children to help me ward off death. And it’s worked. I’d live my life again, but only if I could hear the same music, see the same mountains, love the same people. I wouldn’t want to be anybody else. Sometimes life seems like a maze of people acting like mindless, suicidal robots; but then I hear the voice of someone I love, and I know I’ll take it all again. But if no one had ever needed me, if there were no one to fight for, I wouldn’t want life even this one time around.

Duncan should be back soon. We’ll have orange juice on the patio. We’ll eat bagels, chewing slowly. Slower than usual. I’ll ask myself if imagination is enough. Because this time imagination won’t supply an answer.

Did I make the best choice? Was it bravery or cowardice? So many possibilities. So many lives inside me. If I’m honest with myself, I know I shot him because of what he’s done to Jasmine and Jeanne. Not to stop him from hurting others, or to save his new children. It’s not even for my own grandchildren that I did it. Jared and Katherine would have to act for them, and the price their children would pay denies them the luxury of considering it. But there was no compensation to me short of his life for what [p.186]Jeanne and Jasmine, Jared and Katherine, and their kids have suffered.

If he could crawl into this room this minute on his belly begging forgiveness, asking how to make amends, would I pity him? I think so. I know so. But I’ve never seen one single sign of regret from him. I don’t feel mercy even now. Where would our species be if we abandoned retribution altogether and assented to Portia’s mercy, falling as the gentle dew? We’d be wiped out! Vengeance is in our genes. It serves some evolutionary purpose. It’s vengeance that I needed!

I never thought, before, what revenge really is. How intimate it is, like love, how all-consuming. How it ties you to another. Like compassion, it must be intrinsic to our nature. Where else did our innate demand for justice come from if not from wanting to be whole again through getting something back? Some tiny part of what’s been stolen. Some satisfaction of our sense of order, of balance and fairness, makes justice and the law a possibility.

The Greek word for justice means “to make even.” People used to practice their own vengeance and struggled to make it fair and responsible. Sometimes revenge became vendetta.

I remember how intricate and binding the rules for vendetta were in New Guinea. In war between the villages, one man only from each side would be killed. Then everything would be balanced and even. Reordered. Measure for measure. Not for the women though. A man could kill a woman and there were no consequences. We saw a man beat up his mother. No one interfered. It was as if he kicked a dog. No revenge was needed.

Pigs are the most valuable commodity in New Guinea. They’re raised by women for ceremonial sacrifices. Pigs are the only domesticated animal; the owners bring them inside their huts at night, and preference in care is given them over children. If a pig is orphaned, a woman will suckle it and raise it as her [p.187]child. Then, when the pigs they’ve nurtured are killed, the women aren’t allowed at the ritual feast. Only men and boys may attend. Women have severe protein deficiency but no pork for them. It doesn’t matter. They’re less than dogs. A man is unclean if he touches a woman unless they’re under an open sky. Men can’t eat food cooked by women, although women do all the field work. Somewhere in their hidden psyches, then, are the warriors of New Guinea afraid of women?

I don’t know. But they should be. They should tremble in their sleep for the day the dog may turn and lunge at the tender skin above the collar bone.

Yes, Clint, you should’ve trembled. I’m a woman but I was capable of killing you. For my babies’ blood. You should not have treated all of us as less than dogs …

Even our best friends won’t understand that. People will say we should’ve let the law take its course. We tried. We reported Clint to the Division of Child and Family Services and to the county sheriff. They couldn’t even put his name in their files or it would violate his civil rights. There was nothing they could do, they claimed, unless a new offense was reported. That’s one reason we wanted his bishop to be notified. He might’ve picked up a clue from one of Clint’s children, or one of the other children in the neighborhood.

I turn the shower to steaming hot.

Duncan calls in from the hallway. “I’m back. You okay?”

“Sure. Wait breakfast for me.” I yell back. When have I ever told him I’m not okay? So many lives inside me.

The shower feels wonderful. Burning hot. Genghis Khan put people in boiling water. He said the greatest joy a man could have was killing his enemy’s women and burning all his possessions. Me and Genghis Khan. I can’t turn it off. The picture in my mind of the front seat of his car. It’s like I’m in some new, foreign [p.188]culture where I don’t know who I am or what my place is. What rights do I have here? I can’t cling to my old values in the face of the encounter. For me intent is everything. Intent is my morality.

Me and the U.S. government. I remember seeing pictures in the space museum in Washington, of Von Braun after the army brought his team from Germany to White Sands to develop nuclear missiles. There was a photo of a missile on Pennsylvania Avenue, as well. A plaque explained that the V2 missile designed by Von Braun for the Nazis would help the United States prepare for future wars. This was before World War II was even over. Von Braun became a hero when he worked for our missile program, just like the government intended.

Do I believe in violence now? “Future war.” Annihilation. There’s always this voice rumbling in my ears that violence is wrong. Violence in self-defense is a trick evil uses to present itself as good. Violence is killing all of us. The very planet we live on. The same violent words are used to describe abuse of the planet and abuse of a child: rape, rapaciousness, uncontrolled lust for power, the arrogance and self-indulgence of Western culture, the thin blue line of ozone punctured like the hymen of a little girl. When my own bullet pierced a man’s skull, it ended everything. Everything I thought was true.

I bury my face in the richness of the soft towel. I want to make my skin sting when I dry. I put on my sandals and my new pink chenille robe, with nothing underneath. After breakfast, I want to swim naked in the pool.

I don’t know who I am. All I feel is a well of grief so deep there are no words or tears. When a massive star dies, it goes inside its own horizon, and makes a black hole where no light can escape. No, that’s not the right image; it’s not light escaping from me that’s the problem, it’s light not getting to me. I’m dying from lack of light! I should’ve let Clint continue destroying children.

[p.189]Jeanne, Jasmine, all of you. I want to hold you. I’m sorry. This planet wasn’t big enough for both Clint and me. And now I’ve added an unfathomable price on top of the toll our family already paid these past eighteen years.

In the kitchen I wash my hands again at the sink. The Salt Lake City phone book is on the counter.

I haven’t made Swedish pancakes for Duncan for a long time. I take down the bowls and get out the eggs and butter and milk. The egg beater. I wonder if I remember the recipe. I look up the phone number of the Salt Lake Tribune.

Einstein said the only question is whether the universe is a friendly place. I keep asking that. Is it hostile, friendly or indifferent? That’s what all this is about, for Duncan and me. Behind that question, of course, is the other one. Why is there something instead of nothing? And why is it so beautiful? I think I believe in my answer to that. There is, after all, something behind it all. For me at least.

I’d like to believe that on the night I die, stars will laugh. A young and beautiful woman will open long arms to me and say, “Come.” My children will forgive me. They’ll mourn. My husband will be comforted. He’ll find his god. Sunrise will come to some quadrant of the earth. I want to believe that. But I don’t think I do.

Flour, sugar, a pinch of salt. No baking soda. Beat the whites ’til they’re stiff. Five minutes at least. “Duncan, can you come to breakfast in ten minutes?” I call into the living room. He’s put on a CD. He can’t hear me.

My fingers don’t shake when I dial. My friend Beth answers at her desk. She doesn’t interrupt after I ask her not to. In five minutes she knows all the facts she needs. It’s like the time I first told her about Clint abusing the grandchildren and then the children. She was the only friend I told for a long time. She knows me almost as well as Duncan does. She’s crying. But she believes me.

[p.190]“Are you sure this is what you want?” she asks. “Once it’s printed there’s no going back.”

“Yes. I’ve thought all night. Don’t say anything about my being in Palm Springs or about Duncan. I’ll be home tomorrow.”

“You’re sure you won’t regret this?”

“Beth, believe me, I’m through sweating this. Trust me. I don’t want anything elaborated or explained or rationalized. Don’t defend me. I just want people to know why I did it—what I know about him. The facts are enough. It’s a breaking news story—‘Mormon Grandmother Confesses to Shooting Ex-Son-in-Law.’ Something like that. This needs to go the way I want. Make it straight, clean journalism. Just the facts, and they can judge me better than any jury ever will.”

I hang up before she can respond. She doesn’t have my number here.

One night it was so dark at Lake Powell we looked through a telescope and saw Saturn. Saturn with perfect rings around it, blindingly white against the dark sky. I didn’t want to let anyone else take a turn looking. What I believe in is that Saturn is really there. Just like they say. Saturn is there and it’s so beautiful. Maybe that’s all I need. Every time I look at the sky, I know Saturn is there.

I believe something else. I believe Jasmine and I can never be separated totally. They say when a quantum particle is separated from its double, the one “knows” what the other’s doing across space and time. Faster than the speed of light, those two particles know each other. Nobody can explain how one particle reacts to the other instantaneously. Across the universe, I’ll always know Jasmine and she me. “Yes, Jasmine,” I whisper, “I think maybe that’s atonement.” I’m crying into the batter.

When I break the first yolk into the flour and milk, I stir it until it disappears in the creamy mixture. Duncan’s playing [p.191]Górecki’s Symphony No.3 commemorating the Holocaust. How can anyone create such terrible beauty?

I need a magic incantation. One that I can chant. I close my eyes, tense my body, and say it in one breath: “Hold on to who I am. Nobody can have me. Hold on to who I am. Nobody can have me. Hold on to who …”

After the magic, it occurs to me how much easier it was for Jesus to take our sins than for God the Father to be our judge. The shortest verse in the bible has two words: “Jesus wept.” I’ve known for a long time that we have to forgive God, but I never knew before now that we must also pity him.

“Have mercy on God’s soul.”

It is Eve speaking. Eve on my bracelet from Kenya that Elizabeth played with in the therapist’s office, the day she talked.

“Mercy on God’s soul.”

I can hardly see to pour the batter in the pan. I want these pancakes to be good.

The phone’s ringing. Beth’s probably called one of the kids for my number. I’m not going to answer. I trust her to tell the truth.

I don’t want this music to stop. I want it to go on forever, Górecki’s symphony lamenting the Holocaust.

“Pancakes are ready,” I call again.

Duncan doesn’t answer. He’s listening too.