Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
Turns out, for three months, Eli, my five year old, had a small black pebble in his ear. Don’t ask me why it never bothered him or why I never noticed. I am only his mother. When the very old doctor gently removed the pebble, Eli said, “Oh, there you are. I was looking for you all over.”
About a week later I read about the Makapansgat pebble, a two-million-year-old reddish-brown pebble described as “water worn” with “staring eyes.” In 1925, this pebble, a pebble with a face, was found outside the vicinity of extinct hominids, implying that it was carried a good distance, as one might carry a fairy tale, because in the pebble a human recognized something and so kept it and carried it.
In Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel,” it’s not the breadcrumbs but the moonlit pebbles that point the children home. The breadcrumbs, eaten by birds, are the vanishing path that lead Hansel and Gretel to an edible house inhabited by a ravenous witch. At first, Hansel and Gretel gently nibble at the house, like mice. Then Hansel tears off a big piece of cake-roof. Then Gretel knocks out an entire sugar windowpane. The children are insatiable because what they are really hungry for is a mother and their mother is gone. Children with mothers don’t eat houses.
While I write this essay, my mother stops speaking to me. The reasons are as old as the oldest fairy tale. As old as pebbles. For days my chest feels like it’s filling up with dry leaves. My head is bricks and glass. A shattering takes up residence in my body. I am forty-three and her silence still does this to me. I want sugar. I want to sleep.
In less than three paragraphs, the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” goes from mother to un-mother. First she feeds the children her house. Then she plans on eating them. She is as “old as the hills” because she is as old as all the un-motherish parts of all the mothers—since the beginning of time—added up. She is the stepmother’s hatred of Hansel and Gretel grown older and more feral. A hobbling, hungry hatred. A blind hatred with a “keen sense of smell.” What nourishes the witch are the children she despises.
“It’s always good,” says my mother, “to be a little bit hungry.”
When I was twelve and my twin brothers were nine, we lived in our own apartment in New York City. We had a television on a cart we’d wheel around the living room waiting for The Wonder Years to come on so we could disappear into a family. And we had a frying pan. We had small hands our grandfather would close around thick wads of cash. We had a father we saw on Thursdays and every other weekend. We had a mother in the penthouse, eight floors above us. We went to Yeshiva. We studied Talmud. We stole school lunch.
Now I live in Athens, Georgia, with the kudzu and the red clay and the lubbers in a house most likely built over the bones of Civil War horses. I have run away from everything that once was familiar. There are pebbles everywhere. Piles and piles of pebbles. Everyday my sons come home with pebbles in their pockets, their lunchboxes, their socks. Like a thickening starburst, the pebbles make paths that stiffen in every direction. There are so many pebbles. They shine bright. The pebbles are rising. I miss my mother.
I mean to write about home, but I keep confusing it with hunger. I mean to write about hunger, but I keep confusing it with home.
Home in fairy tales is more like a parenthesis. A single curved bracket before a picture is hung.
If you stay home there is no story. No pebbles, no witch, no oven, no water to cross, no apron pockets filled with jewels. Home in a fairy tale is like a cradle sawed down the middle, each half rocking gently on opposite ends of the woods. A cracked shell. The warm crook of two arms that will never know the other. What lies between is the hunger. What lies between is a child warmed by a small pile of brushwood that will soon go out.
Noah, my seven year old, carries around a small brown bunny. His name is L.F. At first I think his name is alef, like the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. But no, it’s L.F. “What does that stand for?” I ask. “Lost and found,” says Noah. “Good name,” I say.
Hansel and Gretel, left in the woods, believe their father is close by because they can hear the sound of an ax. But it’s not their father’s ax. It’s the wind knocking a branch their father has fastened to a dead tree. It’s the sound of being abandoned. Even for a fairy tale, it’s a blow.
The father’s branch returns later as the little bone Hansel sticks through the barred door to trick the witch into believing he is not yet plump enough to eat. By showing him how a father can turn into the wind, Hansel’s father teaches him how to be a bone instead of a boy. It’s the lesson of a lifetime. It’s what keeps him alive.
Over spring break, I send my sons to a camp for “creative rewilding.” Their teachers live in a bus. Eli says his teacher’s name is Jewel, but I find out later it’s Joel. He has an arrow tattoo across the bridge of his nose, pointing east and west. If it rains, the children stand under a tarp because there is no actual facility other than the woods. “What did you do today?” I ask. “We learned how to walk through the woods like a deer.” I flash back to Yeshiva of Flatbush, 1983. I am eight years old. In a white button-down shirt and a long blue wool skirt, I am singing “We Are Leaving Mother Russia” at the top of my lungs. There are about a hundred of us singing into the brown air of the school auditorium: “We are leaving Mother Russia / We have waited far too long. / We are leaving Mother Russia, / When they come for us we’ll be gone.” The rest of the song is full of prison and the Russian sky, and dead boys, and passports, and freedom, and “another Hitler waiting in the wings.” I rarely went outside.
“You have to be really quiet,” says Eli. “A deer never ever steps on a branch.” I did not know this. His face is painted with glittery blue ash. I can’t tell if I’ve brought my boys as far away from my childhood as I possibly could have, or somehow brought them closer. Closer than I could ever bring my own childhood to me. Which path of pebbles is this?
I grew up surrounded by rabbis. My sons are growing up surrounded by trees.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve made a terrible mistake.
“You need to get the hell out of Georgia,” says my mother. “And go where?” says my father. “This is the most beautiful house I’ve ever lived in,” says my husband. “I wish we lived in Israel,” says Noah. “I’ll teach you how to button your sweater,” says Eli. “For when you’re small again.”
When the doctor removes the pebble from Eli’s ear and hands it to me, I imagine pushing it into my own ear. As if it might whisper directions home.
It is a Jewish tradition to place not flowers but stones on the tops of graves. It is to keep the soul from getting lost. The Hebrew word for “pebble” is tz’ror, which also means bond. Often, on Jewish tombstones, are these words: “May her soul be bound up in the bond of life: תהא נפשו/ה צרורה בצרור החיים”
Or as I like to read it: “May her soul be bound up in the pebble of life.”
In Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, Molloy (who is in his mother’s room) cannot remember how he got there, cannot remember if his mother was dead when he arrived, or dead after, or even dead enough to bury. Molloy, who cannot remember his own name, has a thing for sucking stones and wants to establish the best way to distribute the sixteen sucking stones he has to suck among his four pockets so he sucks each stone equally. So no stone is sucked less than another stone. “They were pebbles,” says Molloy, “but I call them stones.”
Are the stones the ancestors of Hansel’s moonlit pebbles?
Molloy sucks the stone, and then puts the stone back in his pocket, but never the same pocket he retrieved it from. He desires to circulate the stones with great fairness, as a father might give bread out to his children. Did he forget to suck one stone? Has he sucked one stone too many times? But why stones? Stones are minerals pushed up from the earth’s core, as the earth’s crust grows and erodes. Stones are the earth’s heart-of-the-matter. They come from the center.
When Eli was an infant I breastfed him endlessly, while he rapidly lost weight. His latch was crooked, and in my postpartum fog I didn’t realize he was burning more calories sucking than he was getting from my milk. “Maybe there’s something wrong with your milk,” said my mother. “Maybe it’s making him sick.”
Molloy sucks the stones so as to take every conceivable path. But it’s hopeless. “The solution,” he says, “to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed.” Right after this Molloy begins to see black specks in the distance: old women and young ones, gathering wood, who come and stare. One woman gives him something to eat. “I looked at her in silence until she went away.” After Molloy gives up his stones, women like water worn pebbles with staring eyes begin to appear. Women like too many paths that never lead to mother. That always lead to mother.
I am reminded of Lot’s wife who turns to stone—well, salt, a hard mineral—because as she fled Sodom she looked back, perhaps for her daughters, perhaps to see her city one more time. She turned back and looked, like I look. She turned back to see what she will now forever look at without seeing. Lot’s wife doesn’t even have a name. And her punishment is horribly unfair. I wish Molloy could put his mouth around Lot’s wife and loosen her out of her petrified state, out of her pebbleness. I want to name Lot’s wife L.F. A name that sounds like alef, but really stands for Lost and Found.
The lactation consultant explains to me there is too much air between my breast and Eli’s mouth. I pull him closer.
When my grandfather died, my mother gave me his favorite sweater. It’s the color of the woods in winter. The first time I wore it I reached into the pocket and touched something hard. Three breadcrumbs. Maybe crumbs from the rye bread that he loved. I keep them in a small tin can on my bedside table. Eli’s black pebble is in there, too. If they were children I’d name them all. But they’re not children. They’re three breadcrumbs and a pebble. And they live where I live. They live with me at home.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.