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Author Robin MacArthur and her family live on land in Vermont that her grandparents settled in the 1940s. But she often has a love-hate relationship with the state.
Book Excerpt: 'Half Wild'
By Robin MacArthur
“You want to jump in the creek?” my mother asks. It’s a Tuesday night in late July and we’re on the porch drinking Myers’s rum doused with lemonade. She’s wearing cut-off cargo pants and a Grateful Dead T-shirt full of holes; her cracked toenails are the chartreuse of limes.
“No,” I say, to which she snorts and throws her cigarette butt into the wet grass, where it hisses before losing its flame. Mist rises from the field. Baby grasshoppers pop. Clouds drift.
I don’t want to go down to the creek with my mom. Nor do I want to be living here at sixteen in this deciduous/coniferous northeastern no-man’s-land of Vicksburg where we were both born, forty square miles of intersecting roads, intersecting streams, failing farms, and rocky ledge.
Populated by ghosts and animals and lonely women. Frickin’ heaven, my mom calls these woods.
Heaven: like she’d know. She’s thirty-three years old and pocked with life’s failures: her sun-lined face and cheaply tattooed arms and soot-lined lungs. My mother has cleaned houses, waitressed, logged, gardened, trained horses, hammered nails, groomed dogs, hung Sheetrock, and killed other people’s livestock for a living. It’s made her body crooked, wrinkled, callused, bent. But she’s a tiger, too. She has a tattoo of a mountain lion on her left thigh that reminds me, every time I see it, of the love-warrior inside her. The one who wanted something other than what she was born with, who nursed me until I was three (little titty-monkey), the one who lays her hand on my shoulder when I come home from class and says, “Angel, you be good. You be real good, baby-o.”
Angel? Your mother named you Angel?
What is it with us and our mothers? The way we both love and hate them. The way they define ugly and yet we catch their face in our mirror and surprise ourselves with—gladness.
The last mountain lion they saw in our state was in 1883. They shot it in the hills above our town, and now it’s stuffed in a museum in Boston, tawny eyes aglow. My mom tells me she’d like to steal that motherfucker someday. Free it from its goddamn stillness. She’s only one-sixteenth Abenaki but claims that cat as her spirit animal all the same. And so that tiger tattoo, inked across her bony thigh.
But tonight she’s talking about dogs. About how she thinks we should raise them to sell. For money. Always dreaming of money. Always in need of more. She gets up and pours us each another glass; coyotes yip down by the creek: a fresh kill. Her words drift to wolves. “Did I tell you about Alaska,” she says, taking a sip, handing me mine.
Yes. She has told me about Alaska. She’s been telling me about Alaska my whole life. Roy and a trailer surrounded by wolves, surrounded by pines. The only place she’ll ever go other than here.
My mother and I have lived in this house, this hunting cabin on concrete blocks she stuffed with insulation, since before I was born. There’s a creek below, a field out front, a gravel road that runs straight for a while, and this porch. This porch. What is it about houses? The way their simplest elements contain who we are, say things for us. I was born on the living room couch, a mattress over a couple of crates. There was blood and my mom’s great-aunt Sugar with bundles of herbs and warm, thick hands.
“I think we could make good money raising dogs,” my mom says, nodding her head, as if I’ve agreed. “Half-wolf breeds. Half wild. Big buckeroos. Big stinkin’ buckeroos. Don’tcha think, Angel-o?”
She doesn’t wait for me to answer.
“Wolves,” she says, balancing her wide, bony foot in the air, touching the moon with its silhouette, laughing. “There were goddamn wolves in Alaska.”
She’s getting drunk, I can tell. I close my eyes and she disappears. I don’t want to be a pioneer. I am silently naming the places I might go: Chicago. New Orleans. Amarillo.
We’re waiting for the storm, which we can smell coming through the trees. We’re waiting for Robbie, her boyfriend with the bad teeth. We are, in some regards, waiting for dawn, or tomorrow, or next year. Leaves shuffle. Milky clouds stream past. The creek calls the water in the clouds home. My mom says it smells like desire and tips her head back, sniffing.
Desire. For a moment I know we both feel it: our shared loneliness. A deer steps into the far edge of the field—stick legs, dark pools of eyes—then turns away into the gray trees.
Objective correlative. I learned about it in my course on twentieth-century American literature. The way we anthropomorphize the world around us. I read Faulkner and Hemingway and Eudora Welty, books by frickin’ dead white folks, my mother said at the time, reaching for her Pall Malls.
Excerpted from the book HALF WILD by Robin MacArthur. Copyright © 2016 by Robin MacArthur. Reprinted with the permission of Ecco Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.
This segment aired on August 2, 2016.
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