Nonfiction / Sayuri Ayers
:: Surge ::
And it was always our season of peril: Electricity, the peril the wind sings to in the wires on a gray day.
—Janet Frame, Faces in the Water
“Mamma, how was I born?” My four-year-old son asks. He leans against me, one hand around my arm, another on his die-cast Volkswagen Beetle. I put down the bedtime book and glean my mind—recall my son as a squalling bundle, his fists blue-gray as storm clouds.
“You were so small that I felt like I wasn’t holding anything at all,” I began. “When I saw you, I knew that I loved you.” My son giggles, buries his dark head in my lap.
“Keep on reading, beautiful Mamma,” he says, turning the page.
That night, I dream of giving birth to my son. I’m walking in an open field and I’m struck by lightning. Our hearts course with current and he comes surging out of me, singed with fire.
While in the maternity ward, I was entangled in mind-numbing depression. I barely ate and spoke. When I opened my mouth, garbled weeping poured out. I lay paralyzed in the hospital bed, my mind swarming with darkness. Shadows eased tendrils over bedsheets. Blackened iris roots clawed upwards from the linoleum tile.
With the psychiatric medications, the images of the woman swaying from a doorframe and the devoured infant faded into shadowy lattices, then into vapor. Finally, I could hold my son, marvel at his lightness, the arch of his back, his milk-scented cheeks. As he drew draught after draught from the bottle, I gazed down at him, he up at me. Sunlight hemmed us together, silence broken by morning chorus outside the bedroom window.
But now, three years later, the shadows are back again. They flutter around the edges of curtains like moths. While my husband sleeps, I look beyond the boundaries of the backyard, deep into the woods. Pines rake at the winter moon. The gate is unlatched and swings loosely on its hinges. Like a pale arm, it motions to the icy river.
At daybreak, my son rushes into my room and leaps into bed. “You need a hug,” he says. For months my body has been aching, pleading for rest. I drag myself from bed, stumble across the chilly floor. With leaden hands, I heap a bowl full of yogurt for my son. It’s been a week and a half since I’ve showered. I plow my hands through my hair and change my underwear and bra. “Stupid,” I tell the reflection in the mirror. Its feral eyes dart back and forth.
“I’m fine,” I tell my husband. Tears course down my face.
“No, you’re not,” my husband says. When he had returned home, the living room was littered with toys. My son had been watching television for hours. I was sprawled weeping on the bed.
My husband riffles through the pages of the Emergency Mental Health Plan that we’d created. “We have to do something,” he says. I look at my hands, slow spreading of creases, lightning ingrained in flesh—the flesh spiraling down into darkness. I dig into my palm with my nails.
In my dreams, my son is captured by a beast with a million tentacles. While I slash and scream, the beast squeezes tighter and tighter—my son bulges, blackens. He bursts into ash and is swept away by the wind. Weeping, I search for him, gather soot into my arms. I wake up screaming.
My husband, son, and I finally move in with my parents. We lock up our house and leave the front lights on. We pull out of the driveway. I look back. The house wavers, forest bristling with snow. The river stirs, ice grinds along its shale bank—fractured teeth in a black jaw.
Every morning after my husband leaves for work, my mother eases me out of bed. She coaxes me to pull on my left sock, then right. She shows me how to brush my hair and teeth. She places a cup of tea and a bowl of broth in front of me. “Sip,” she says. “Swallow,” she says. “Again,” she says. While my son bounds in the snow, she rocks me as I weep.
Even at my parents’ house, there are days when I can’t get out of bed. I listen to my mother clanging pots in the kitchen downstairs, to the pad-pad of my son’s feet up to my bedroom. “Tell me a story, Mamma,” my son says, hoisting himself up onto the bed. I can barely lift my head from the pillow. He cups his hands around my face, and gazes at me, waiting. I close my eyes again.
“The monsters have stolen my car. You won’t find it,” my son says. His face, pale and solemn. “These monsters have lots of legs. They can squeeze through pipes and go down into the basement.” We find the Volkswagen Beetle smudged and dented, wedged between air vent and desk. “See,” my son says, cradling his car, “they’re everywhere.”
Before tucking him into bed, I tell my son: “There’s a dark forest. In the center of it is a monster with many tentacles. It tries to eat a tree full of baby animals. When you hear the babies screaming, you run into the forest. You’re afraid, but you have a crystal sword. You plunge the sword into the monster’s eye, and it runs away—never to be seen again.”
Burrowing into the comforter, my son smiles. “Tell me another, Mamma,” he says.
One morning, I’m awakened by the tap-tap of ice thawing from the house’s eaves. My son bursts into my room. He wraps his small arms around my neck, nuzzles me. “Are you here forever, momma?” he asks. “Yes—forever,” I say. Light dislodges, glimmers through my body.
The wisteria has finally bloomed, nodding its golden head in time to song sparrows. As I wash and dry the dishes, my son plays near my feet with his Volkswagen Beetle. I tell my mother about the new poems I’ve written, the soup recipes I’d like to try, how my son has grown two inches. She smiles at me, sunlight glossing her graying hair, dark eyes. “It’s almost time for you to go home,” she says, embracing me.
When I come outside to garden the Saturday of my family’s return, my neighbor comes to greet me. “I haven’t seen any of you for four months,” he says. “I thought I would have to call the cops.” Despite my husband’s weekend attempts at lawn maintenance, our home stands in five inches of wild grass, the garden beds choked with weeds. While my son steers his cars in and out of the shriveled tulips, I stab the weeder into roots of dandelion. I fill four yard-waste bags and lug them to the curb.
At night, my wrists and back crackle with pain. I stand at the window again, stare deep into the woods. The moon shines down into the whorl of darkness, down to the river bed. The white stone path and gate pulse with fireflies. I slip into bed next to my husband. I kiss his stubbled cheeks until he rouses; then I take him into my arms.
I pile the shopping cart high with daylily, begonia, and peony bulbs. I’ve selected each one for their hearty blooms, generous foliage. Anything, I think, to keep the weeds from coming up again.
In the cool morning, I empty the bulb packages into dirt with my son. I show him how to plant each bulb upright, lightly cover them all with topsoil. When I unwrap the peony bulbs, my son breaks into giggles. “Look!” he says. “Monsters!” He kisses their gnarled, trailing roots. When we plant them, he sprinkles them with soil and pats them with his small hand.
“How are you doing?” my mother asks. Adjusting the phone, I watch my son run his Beetle over and around my lap. I run my fingers through his hair, making furrow after furrow. His sweet baby scent, giving way to the fragrance of earth and sweat—the wind distilling. “I’m fine,” I say.
I pause from weeding garden beds and look up into the tree line. The tips of pines hiss and crackle under a sheen of static—the garbled voices almost comprehensible. I plunge the trowel deeper, earthworms and pill bugs squirming up from cresting soil. Under my hand, the darkness pulses. Beside me, my son scoops earth into his tin pail, tracing the flower beds his hands. He pets the inky shoots, saying, “Listen—can you hear them sing?”
From the writer
:: Account ::
Before I wrote creative nonfiction, I was a poet. I decided to approach my experiences with illness through the lyric essay because the form allows me to create a sustained narrative. I use my training as a poet to hone tone, rhythm, and conciseness of language. Writing poetry has also helped me incorporate strong imagery in my creative nonfiction pieces like “Surge.”
“Surge” is part of a four-part series that explores my experiences in motherhood, mental illness, and electroconvulsive therapy. After giving birth to my son, I fell into a deep postpartum depression, which was compounded by my existing mental health issues. This essay describes a period of reprieve, when my depression improved. At the same time, “Surge” foreshadows my hospitalization and ECT treatments a few short months later.
In “Surge,” the monsters and earth play a vital role in describing the mother-child relationship. I rely on magical realism to create an environment where myth becomes truth, power, and healing. Readers are encouraged to take leaps in imagination, to fill those gaps with their own voices.
A Kundiman Fellow and Soaring Gardens Resident, Sayuri Ayers is a native of Columbus, Ohio. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Entropy, SWWIM, Hobart, The Pinch, and other literary journals. She is the author of two chapbooks: Radish Legs, Duck Feet (Green Bottle Press, 2016) and Mother/Wound (forthcoming from Full/Crescent Press). Her lyric essay manuscript, Beast-Mother, was a finalist in the Paper Nautilus’ 2019 Vella Chapbook Competition. She has also received grants from the Ohio Arts Council, Greater Columbus Arts Council, and VSA Ohio. Please visit her at sayuriayers.com.