THE SKY PINPRICKED
by Rachel Ranie Taube
We are two women, one man, and two little boys.
“I really need to go to the bathroom.” Tanner’s voice could be a girl’s.
“And me.” Shawn copies him, looking up from the moss he was admiring. Beyond them, patchy grass claws toward the lake and trees are beginning to drop their leaves.
Issue #126 soundtrack: Elijah “The Great Northern”
“I’ll take them this time,” I say.
My older sister Jane nods gratefully, and I leave her to finish unfolding our tent. Her husband Ron is constructing a second tent; he pulls a black rod from the pile and feeds it into the tent’s loop.
“Aunt Amy, I need to go first, I asked first.” Tanner is 6, brown-skinned and sturdy, with a round belly and freckles dotting his chin and forehead. He and Shawn have the same too-long wavy hair, down to their shoulders.
“Come on, both of you,” I say, holding out my hands for them. They come and slip their fingers into mine.
Shawn tugs. “Where?”
“We’ll just go in the woods, remember we told you about that?”
“Amy told you that, dummy.” Tanner reaches around me to poke Shawn’s chest, then pulls back before Shawn can retaliate.
“Cut it out. Here we are.” Both boys struggle with the cords on their shorts, and I have to help Shawn untie his.
“You know, Shawn is a lot smaller than me,” Tanner says as he pees. Tanner is only a year older than his brother, but a good three inches taller and sturdier. Shawn is skinny—when he’s older they’ll tease him for being scrawny.
“Yeah, but Tanner has a smaller penis,” Shawn says matter-of-factly.
“Hey.” I know I’m fumbling the response as they finish and pull up their pants. Jane would turn this into a life-lesson moment, spin out some meaning about respect and love and what matters, but I can’t find anything to say that won’t make it worse.
“Help me tie my shorts!” Tanner demands, so I do.
Shawn’s life jacket is bulky, but I manage to shove him out of the water and onto the dock ahead of me. The water-winged Tanner is still giggling and grabbing at my shoulders.
“You are a pain,” I say and send Tanner floating back towards his father, who’s treading water a few feet away. He floats next to a canoe that has long since been overturned. Behind him the lake stretches for a half mile, maybe, with trees, late-summer green and yellow, hugging the circumference. Instinctively I frame a landscape, with that overturned canoe as an anchor in the foreground—there’s humor, tension in it. For a moment I wish I had my camera, but then I let my shoulders relax. It’s comforting to remember that I don’t have to reach for my lenses today.
I catch the metal steps of the dock and I climb up after Shawn, dripping.
“You’re so good with them,” Jane says from her seat on the edge of the dock. Shawn has attached himself to my leg. I dare him with my eyes, and he giggles, so I shove him off and back into the lake. He resurfaces cackling. I sit down next to Jane and swish my toes through the water. The wooden dock, burning the back of my legs, darkens as the wetness spreads underneath me.
“They’re very entertaining.” I almost tell her what happened earlier, what Shawn said.
“I always said you should work with kids. They go nuts around you.”
“Sometimes I do, sometimes I photograph kids.”
“You know what I mean.”
I squeeze water from my ponytail, which is full of knots and smells like the turtles who live in the lake. Jane wipes the splashes off her arm. Even on the lake, she looks every bit the professional. She’s an event planner, and designs her own look like she designs venues: hair set in careful bleach-blond waves, eyebrows combed and shaped, fingers patiently painted navy.
I watch the boys splashing each other, and their yellow lifejackets are bright against the dark water, but maybe too neon. I don’t love it as a portrait but they’re finally getting along, for now.
Jane and I used to play together like that, when we were four and six, maybe. We’d bathe together each night while our mother sat on the closed toilet seat, flipping through a magazine. Our best game was at the end of the bath, when the now-cold water was draining by burps and gurgles. Jane and I would pretend we were being sucked down the drain, and we’d scream and giggle and flop, letting slippery fingers fail to grasp the other end of the tub, while our mother read her magazine.
Jane nudges me. “I’m just saying.”
“That you’re good with kids.”
“I know, I got it.” I look out across the lake, where the trees seem to grow right out of the water to bump roundly into the sky. A friend has invited me to participate in a photography show, and as usual, I’m full of doubt, hate every photo I first liked.
“I stand by it, I’ve always said you’d be a great mom.”
But I’m sliding off the dock and my ears are filled with water and my hair is weightless before she can say anything else. I stay under, winging my arms to stay down, and count to ten. When I pop back up I’m already swimming towards the beach. I pull myself out of the water, dripping and cold, and head towards our camp. It wasn’t on purpose that Jane and I hadn’t seen each other in so long. Nearly two years. It was always just…like this.
I shiver inside our tent as I pull off my one-piece bathing suit and pull on my underpants and drag a sweatshirt over my head. I reach for my phone, flick open my camera roll, and scroll through. A bird examining a bright green pile of moss—no, badly framed. A squirrel perched on a root—no, no emotion, plus it’s blurry, and not in a good way. A red-leafed maple branch against the blue sky—definitely no, boring, cliché, boring. I look through the screen at my own toes, my naked legs. I turn a little so my top leg looks thinner and snap a photo. Then I set both legs firmly against the ground, so my thighs appear thicker than they are, and take another. No. I make a living working events, mostly the gigs I get through Jane’s network, and it gets hard to get back to this kind of photography.
Skin still damp, I struggle into my jeans. Leaving my phone in my bag, I head back towards the lake. Quietly, I watch them from the shore, mentally framing shots in a way I can’t help anymore. The boys splashing each other and Ron floating close and Jane watching from the dock. Snap. The boys coming over to her. Snap. Jane in the water, finally, laughing but careful to keep her hair dry. Jane back at the metal steps, climbing out, water dripping off her legs and arms. Snap. That one I kind of like.
When the boys are done swimming I stand, and they run at me with wet hugs. We all head back to the campsite, and when the boys run ahead, Jane loops her arm around mine.
While Ron helps the boys change, Jane takes a seat next to me. I look down at the rip in my jeans, then at the trees. Jane runs her hands against her jeans and sighs dramatically. The late afternoon sun is still just warm enough that I can pretend to be soaking it in. I lean back and close my eyes.
“What did happen with Justin, then?” she asks. I pretend not to hear, refuse to let my eyelids more or give me away. “You know, I’m just—“
“Mom!” Tanner calls. When I look over his shape bulges against the side of the tent.
“Mom?” Shawn asks. Ron emerges from the tent.
“All yours… I’m going to find wood for a fire.” We had promised the boys a real campfire and s’mores after dinner.
“I’ll come,” I volunteer, quickly. There’s a shriek from the tent and Jane goes to them, not looking at us.
Ron picks up a stone and chucks it towards the trees. It makes me laugh, and he smiles. We leave the camp for the trees, and as we get farther I can enjoy the crunch of leaves and twigs, the shuffle of the underbrush. Ron has collected two fat branches by the time the boys’ yells are dulled by distance. We approach a fallen log and I sit on it with a dramatic grunt.
“Boys wore you out?” he says.
“Aren’t you beat? Or are you just used to it?” Ron leans against a tree. The boys get their hair from him, Tanner his sturdiness.
I run my fingers through my hair and curl one lock around my thumb. My breathing is short and Ron’s is deep. I kick some leaves in his direction. They halt midair—I always forget you can’t kick leaves; that halt is always unexpected—and they flutter back down. I hold my thumbs and forefingers out like a camera and watch the leaves as they swing like cradles.
“You didn’t bring your camera,” Ron says.
“I didn’t want to have to take pictures of the boys all weekend,” I repeat.
“Oh, you wouldn’t have had to take them all weekend.”
“I know Jane wants me to, I get it, I know.”
“Hey, I was just teasing. You know she doesn’t mean anything by that. You just take nice photos, obviously.”
“She does though. I get it. Jane wants to know why won’t I take pictures of the boys, ‘what’s my thing about children.’” I mimic the way her voice gets high when she’s annoyed.
“Oh, that’s not fair.”
I look down and count the mushrooms growing near my feet. Two, four, six, eight, nine white-capped mushrooms.
“She didn’t think you’d come, when she invited you.”
It always feels like she’s bragging, when Jane invites me to spend time with Ron and the boys. Always feels like she’s trying to make up for the time, when Jane was 17 and I was 15, that I had a boyfriend and she didn't. She would never have deigned to date the still-braces-wearing, lanky track runner who took me to the movies once a week before making out with me on a park bench. But she still cracked her knuckles as she paged through the magazines she kept next to her textbooks, alternately dog-earing beauty tips and physics formulas.
I adjust so I can reach into my jeans pocket, and I pull out a ziplock bag. Inside is a thin white joint and a lighter. Ron laughs.
“Smoke?” I offer.
“God, I wish.” I open the zip on the bag anyway, grin and don’t break eye contact as I reach in. Ron moans. “Put that shit away. You want Jane to smell it on you?”
“We already smell like lake,” I say, but I zip the bag again, pressing out the air, and stand so I can shove it into my pocket. “Alright, alright, let’s get the wood and get back.”
We come back with a pile of branches just as it’s getting dark. Tanner screams when he sees us, so Jane yells, so Shawn screams, too.
“I changed my mind,” Ron whispers to me.
Ron and Jane light the barbeque to make hotdogs and I take the boys to the edge of the lake. We see how far we can throw rocks, since they’re too young to learn to skip them. Shawn says he can throw really far; Tanner says he can throw farther, and he does.
Later, after dinner, we stack the branches into a tee-pee in the middle of a circle of rocks. Jane pulls out the marshmallows and chocolate and graham crackers as the boys look on. They have already chosen sticks for roasting, which they grasp eagerly. Jane, former girl scout extraordinaire, impresses the boys by lighting the fire with a flint instead of a match.
“Watch closely,” she says, “but stay back,” and Shawn gasps in delight as the spark jumps and catches and, as Jane blows on it, starts to drape the kindling in light.
After we’ve eaten at least two s’mores each, Ron douses the fire with a bucket of water and climbs into a tent to unroll their sleeping bags. Jane and I put away the marshmallows while the boys poke at the now-extinguished pile of wood.
“Don’t touch,” Jane reminds them. “It’s still hot.” Tanner is poking at the last of the kindling with a stick. He breathes in and blows like his mother did, face close to the center, and sees a flick of light. Shawn wants to do better, wants to impress him, and breathes and blows as hard as he can. His too-long hair hangs forward.
“Stop it, you two!” I say.
“You can’t do it,” Tanner teases. “Bet you can’t.” Shawn blows again, and a spark jumps and reaches for him and it looks like it will catch.
Jane is already there, pulling him back, checking his hair and his face, and she’s yelling, “That is enough what did I say that is enough,” and Shawn has started crying.
“Mom,” Tanner says, “Mom, it wasn’t my fault!” He’s sniffling too now and Ron has joined them and Jane is yelling at each of them in turn. Then she turns to me and hisses,
“You were watching them!”
Jane banishes all three to the tent, and they crawl in silently one after another, Shawn, Tanner, and Ron, and Ron zips the tent flap behind them. Jane walks towards the woods. She stops with her back to me and musses her hair and then rests her clasped hands on her head. After a few moments she returns and takes a chair near the dying fire, and I do the same.
We can hear Ron’s voice but not his words as the boys’ sniffles quiet, and then the change to a rhythmic tone as he starts to read them a story by flashlight. Jane and I watch as bits of charred wood flick off the logs and float in the wind.
It could have been very different—could have been me, in her place. The week I turned 17 and Jane turned 19, I missed my period and was sure I was pregnant. Jane said only the right things, about how she was there for me, but the silence between her comforting noises was all longing, all there in the way she stretched her knuckles, slowly, while I huddled against her chest. That week I took the best picture I'd taken so far: Jane read a magazine on my bed, her white legs bent underneath her. She was cracking the middle finger of her right hand with her left. Natural light from the window hit her face, making her nose look longer, her eye sockets deeper, her chin stronger. Her hair was tied in a messy bun that draped small strands on her neck.
I turned out not to be pregnant and quite a good photographer.
Jane met Ron a few weeks later at an inter-school dance. They were married and pregnant by 21. Then, of course, the too-late, second-trimester miscarriage. Then nothing and nothing and nothing. And finally, finally, one boy and then the other, quickly, like they’d been waiting in line.
“Let’s go out in the canoe,” I say. Jane surprises me.
Jane climbs into the canoe first, and I step into the water to push off from the shore. The canoe starts gliding and I jump in, making her clutch the sides of the boat when it rocks. I paddle us out and into the blackness, wetting my knees with droplets of lake as I switch sides. We can’t hear Ron and the boys anymore. When the stars look like they’re everywhere, I let the paddle rest on the bottom of the boat. The metal bar that I’m sitting on hurts, but I don’t move. I tilt my head back and look straight up, until the blood rushes to my head and I feel a little disoriented. I always remember Jane’s pregnant belly at her wedding, just visible when the wind blew her dress against her.
“Ron made a move on me today,” I say.
“Yeah, put his hand on my hip. While we were getting firewood.” It’s dark, but I can hear the soft swish of her brushing her jeans with her hands.
“Why would you say something like that?”
“I thought you should know.”
“I don’t believe you. That’s not true.”
“Obviously it’s not true. Ron would never do that.”
“What the hell, Amy?”
“I don’t know.” I laugh. I have an urge to push her into the water. She leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees. It’s too dark to see her expression.
“I think the boys hate me,” she sighs. “And each other too. They like you, though.”
“You know what I heard them say today? Shawn told Tanner his penis was smaller.” I cackle. “And you know what? I checked. I looked. And it’s true!”
Jane buries her head between her knees and I can’t tell if she’s laughing or crying, but the canoe rocks and emits uneven ripples.
I watch the stars and the lake until I can’t take it. I pull the ziplock bag out of my pocket and she looks up. “Want?” I know exactly what she’s thinking about me. Then she turns away and touches the strand of hair she’s been twirling to her lips.
I light it. I breathe and it burns. She chews her hair and doesn’t look at me until I offer it. Then she takes it and inhales herself, making the end flicker. Bugs chirp everywhere and the water ripples as we pass the joint, the canoe rocking a little when I hand off the lighted paper and lean back on my hands to look up and up.
I can see her searching for what to say next, holding the small remaining paper carefully in her fingertips. Jane curses as the burn catches her fingers, and she tosses the remaining paper into the water. For some reason I expect it to stay bright as it goes down, so that we can see the little orange star disappearing, slowly slowly groggily and down past the fish. Of course, the water puts it out as soon as it touches the surface. Instead of sinking it floats, litter on the lake.
“Dammit,” I say. It’s floating away. The paper is floating away and my sister is twirling a piece of her hair again and I can’t take it. So I flip the boat.
The water is much colder than during the day and it fills my eyes and ears and nostrils. I stay down for as long as I can; I open my eyes underwater and I can’t see anything. I pump my arms so I can stay down, letting bubbles escape my lips, liking the small terror of blackness.
Something touches me and my chest contracts. Jane’s grabbed my arm and she pulls me up. The air is even colder than the water.
“Fuck, Amy!” she says. I cough.
“No, you’re not!” We both breathe hard. She grabs on to the overturned canoe, feet treading. I float on my back, like I’ve been teaching Tanner to do, with one of my hands gently supporting him at the small of his back. The sky is pinpricked with stars, cut off at the boarder by the deep darkness of trees. It is a relief not to have to reach for my lenses at this moment. The water licks my legs and arms and the corners of my eyes. The lake water is cold.
Rachel Ranie Taube has published fiction and poetry in Cleaver Magazine, Apiary Magazine, and the Penn Review. She was a 2015 Tent Creative Writing Fellow, and she holds a masters in Creative Writing and Gender Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She works and writes in New York. Follow her on Twitter.
Joshua Finnell is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he works as the Scholarly Communications Librarian at Los Alamos National Laboratory. His art has been featured in Adobe Airstream, Midwestern Gothic, Psychopomp Magazine, and Banango Street. Visit him online at joshuafinnell.com and follow him on Twitter.
Elijah grew up in Woodstock, New York, and now is based in Brooklyn. While attending the Music Conservatory of Purchase, he recorded an EP under the name Elijah Wolf, which led to major placements in commercials and a featured song on Showtime series "Shameless." Elijah's debut EP, How's Annie, was inspired by the cult classic TV series Twin Peaks, and it will release this week both digitally and on CD from Old Flame Records. New Yorkers can also catch his EP release show on 8/4 at Music Hall of Williamsburg with Everything Everything.