By Katherine Van Dis
We go to the Eno River—my son, my niece, and I—to collect treasures no larger than what can fit in the twelve round hollows of an egg carton. At home, when they have had lunch and are coloring at the kitchen table, I look through my almost 3-year-old son’s treasures.
In the first hollow is a small gray stone, no larger than my thumbnail. I hold it up to the sky for a better look and see that it is a near-perfect circle. It blocks out the sun like the moon during an eclipse, a phenomenon I will no doubt try to explain to my son someday with a clumsy diorama of oranges and lemons.
Next is the tiny shell of a freshwater mussel, its outside dark and ridged, its inside alabaster smooth. I hold it on the tip of my pinkie finger and remember the smoothness of my son’s skin when he was born, how terrified it made me feel, his newness.
The third is a rock just the heft and size of an arrowhead, but white, not like the obsidian ones I remember my brother collecting when we were kids. I once threw one of those arrowheads at Davey Hager, the neighborhood bully who lived on the corner with his coal miner dad and no mom to speak of. The stone cut his ear, and I still remember the sight of the blood, the shock at what I’d done. I remind myself that anything can be made into a weapon as I consider which side of the bullying my son will be on.
The tiny twig of birch is delicate and slender as the wrist of a beautiful woman. My mother has wrists like this, so small she cannot wear a watch or a bracelet. “You’re just big-boned,” she tells me. But everyone knows what this means. My son’s wrists still have a layer of baby fat, creases where his starfish hands meet his arms. But my niece’s wrists are willowy girl wrists. My mother calls this “thinning out.”
A piece of bark, rough and reddish. My niece stood at the base of the tree and stared up at it before picking a shred of its bark from the forest floor and tearing it in half, one piece for herself, one piece for her cousin. “Why would someone do that?” she wondered, pointing to the marks where people had carved their initials: JL + AC. “How would they like it if someone took a knife and carved into their skin?” I tell her this is a good question, and I make a note to remind her of it when she is eighteen and wants a tattoo.
Lichen. Neither of them had heard the word before. “Lichen,” they repeated after me. “I like lichen!” they sang, running ahead as I kneeled on the path, tucking the papery bits of fungi into the egg cartons. The grayish-white frills are like the pieces of skin I peel away from my son’s sunburned shoulders when I’ve forgotten, again, to reapply his sunscreen.
Verdant green moss, pillow soft. Motherhood has made me more tired than I have ever been or ever thought I could be, a fact that I blame no one for but resent nevertheless. There are few things I would not do to take a nap, each day, on a bed of moss like this one.
Yellow leaf with a tinge of neon green. A bit of autumn in the spring. “Long days, short years, sister,” a friend said to me once when I complained about my son’s five a.m. wake-up call. Though I don’t always remember this bit of mother wisdom, I know it must be true, because already I find I can hardly remember the terror I felt nursing him for the first time, how certain I was that he would starve under my well-meaning, watchful eyes.
A pop tab, muted silver. My son wanted to know what kind of tree this came from and I said, “A magic one.” He nodded, earnest. My niece narrowed her eyes at me and I put my finger to my lips. She shrugged, conceding my lie, but I caught her smiling as he continued to finger his bit of silver, wondering.
The sweet gum ball fits perfectly into its nook. I once saw an art exhibit with full-scale figures of young men and women dancing in a juke joint. Everything, juke box and all, was made from the natural world: tree bark and twigs, wheat stalks and sweet gum balls, which the artist used to mimic the short poof of a young girl’s hair. Maybe, like me, this artist wanted the earth to come up out of her, like sweat or blood. Maybe she wanted to see her child play in a square of grass not surrounded by a chain link fence.
Frond of a small fern, feathery as a lock of my son’s hair when he has it cut at the barber by Leroy, a gay black man whom my son calls “my Leroy” and whom he repeatedly asks if he can invite to his birthday party. I repeatedly say no, even though, when he asks why not, I cannot think of any good reason.
I pick up the last item, a reddish clay rock, mottled and hollowed-out like a heart petrified, no longer pumping blood. I hold the rock out on my palm and ask my son, “What does this rock remind you of?”
“A rock,” he says.
Katherine Van Dis is a writer, teacher, and mother of two boys (one almost four and one due in June) who lives in Durham, North Carolina. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review; she is currently at work on a collection of short stories.