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