As a child, death, for me, was like sex. My grandparents had done both. The sex was responsible for Mother and therefore me. The death was part of our first trip to Massachusetts. I was six, and a few months earlier, my brother taught me that death was also about bodies.
It was summer. The blackberries were almost black enough for cobbler. The air was so dry that we wanted to be in water all the time. My mother never forgot to latch the gate to the pool in the backyard. Caleb could open it. He stood on the edge of the wine-barrel garden pot, reached his fingers between the wooden boards, and flicked up the metal bar. I knew for weeks. I never told her.
Most days he opened it just for the thrill of opening it. We’d run across, smack our palms on the other side of the fence, then back, slamming the gate behind us. Caleb would scan the back porch for Mother. Satisfied, we’d collapse in the grass, knot our fingers in clover stems. One day, Caleb decided to go swimming. With all his clothes.
Earlier, he had undressed all my Barbies, tangled them together. I was still mad at him. I watched him in the yard from the kitchen window. I watched him unlatch the gate.
When we found him, he was swimming at the bottom of the pool. Mother shouted at me and dove in. I knew the 911 drill by heart and ran back to the house.
By the pool, Caleb was looking asleep. Mother pressed on him with her hands and then her lips, saying all these different words. Oh God. Please. Fuck. No. God. Come on. Please. Caleb. Goddamnit. She never used bad words. They sounded strange coming from her, funny almost. She sent me back inside to put some things in a bag for Caleb, his blanky and his favorite Tonka truck. I would have stayed, but the way she spoke made me do exactly what she said.
When the sirens came, Mother screamed at all the men in uniforms. They kept putting big hands on her shoulders. She screamed some more and threw one of the lawn chairs in the pool. We weren’t allowed to throw things in the pool. Especially not chairs.
Then I saw one man with Caleb’s body.
It was Caleb and not Caleb. It was a doll of Caleb, arms and legs filled with sand. The way the man held him was not how grownups were supposed to hold kids. The Caleb doll’s head was just there, hanging in the air. I grabbed onto Mother’s leg. She lifted me up and held me too tight, telling me over and over that everything was okay, that it would all be okay.
After that, everything was not okay. Father came home from his business trip early, and I didn’t care that he forgot to bring me a toy. I went to stay with Auntie for a while. She made me pancakes and let me watch cartoons all day. But when I tried to sleep, I dreamt of the Caleb doll and woke up so scared that Mother and Father came to pick me up in the middle of the night. It was better then, sleeping between them. All of us holding onto each other like we might fall off the edges.
Then there was the funeral, which really means a lot of people wearing the same clothes and being sad about the same thing: Caleb. The grownups patted my head and hugged Mother and Father who were “coping really well, considering.” That’s what Auntie kept saying. They were not crying. I guess maybe they used up the water in their eyes already. But the other grownups cried enough tears to fill a pool. They shook their heads and talked about how small the box was. Like they wanted him to be underground in a bigger one. I wanted to tell them how good Caleb was at being in small spaces. That’s why he was the best at spy-tack and hiding games.
After the funeral, there were flowers in every part of the house. Mother kept them even when they got brown and dropped petals and leaves. She stopped going to work and just stayed in bed all day. She was very boring. Just lying there, sleeping sometimes.
When the summer ended, she told me we were taking a trip, getting away. Father was staying to work, but me and her were going east on an airplane to a place called Massachusetts, where Grandma had been underground in a box since before I was born.
In Massachusetts, I watched my mother cry hard for the first time. Really hard, like I cried when I fell off the slide and my elbow went out of place. I remember only a few things from the trip like it was a dream. There was a small American flag that meant Grandma was in the Navy, a stone rectangle on the ground, and leaves falling like rain all the time. Crunchy piles of them that I snatched handfuls of to squeeze into dust while Mother wasn’t looking.
She wasn’t crying for Grandma.
In Massachusetts, I met all this family I had never known. Cousins and great aunts and uncles. They were all sad for us and cooked us big dinners. They kept us up late talking and looking at photographs from these boxes they found in the basement. They let me have Shirley temples with three cherries.
When we did go home, we sold the house and moved in town to a place without a swimming pool. We had to put everything into boxes, some a lot bigger than Caleb’s. I left all my Barbies in the throw away pile, even though Mother and Father said I shouldn’t.
At the new house, they tried to make another Caleb. They tried with sex and it didn’t work. Mother had to get the sex taken out of her body. She said she was sorry. He guessed somebody upstairs didn’t want me to have a brother. She said it was her fault Caleb wasn’t my brother anymore. She said she would be mad at herself for the rest of forever. She said she must have left the damn gate open. She said she must have.
— Allison Field Bell received her BA in Creative Writing and Literature from Prescott College in December 2010. She has published poetry and fiction in Alligator Juniper and Our Stories. She owes this story to her mother, who continues to inspire and encourage her writing.