Clara was 15, but when Miriam looked at her, she could see her as a baby still. She’d been a fat baby, and Miriam had complained endlessly about what it felt like to carry her – aching back, aching shoulders, constantly wrestling with an animal that wouldn’t take responsibility for its own weight. But now, now she’d give anything for those clearly assignable aches, anything to have her baby press a fat cheek into her face, slobbering her baby slobber onto Miriam’s skin.
Maybe they’d made a mistake, only having one baby. She’d always had enough, though, with Clara. She had enough holding her little girl’s hand and chatting with her before bed and brushing her hair while she squirmed and squirmed and then screamed. Miriam hadn’t known she’d be able to be cruel, before she became a mother. She didn’t know she had it in her, that everyday cruelty of turning an animal child into a human being. But she was capable. She’d even come to see the cruelty of taming as a kind of strength.
And now? Now Clara wouldn’t give her the time of day.
Bill told her to wait. He told her all kids vanish when they hit a certain age. “Give her time,” he said. “She’s just figuring herself out. Kids do that. She’ll come back.”
He was right. Miriam knew he was right. But it was different between Clara and her. For one thing, Bill had a life beyond their house. When Clara was born, they’d decided Miriam would stay home with her. Miriam hadn’t ever really liked working anyway. And child care cost so much that it seemed like, as long as they could afford it, it made sense for her to be a full-time mom.
Clara sat at the table now eating a bowl of cereal. Her hair was black. That was new. It had happened secretly overnight. Her nails were green. She was chewing in time to some private music in her head. She used to hum when she ate. So sweet. Kids at school had teased her about it, but Miriam had never wanted her to stop. She didn’t hum out loud anymore, but it seemed like there was always some rhythm circling around inside her that Miriam could see but not find inside herself.
“Do you need a ride home from school?” Miriam said.
Clara didn’t move. Had she even heard her?
“I could pick you up. Happy to do it.”
Clara kept chewing.
“Your loss,” Miriam said.
Clara shrugged. She left the house to wait for the bus without saying goodbye. Miriam watched her through the window. Her daughter, visible as always, but barely recognizable.
The news was filled with talk of the mountain erupting. Three hundred miles from their eastern corner of the state, so far away it was hard to imagine that it mattered. But every night, scientists got on the TV with warnings. Violence was coming. Fire and molten rock. The scientists knew it would happen even if they didn’t know exactly when. “Prepare yourself,” they said. “Get to safety. Don’t stay.” Miriam didn’t think they could possibly be speaking to her – 300 miles. So far away. But it felt like there was something personal about those warnings. She just couldn’t figure out what.
It was hard to think of mountains, at least mountains here, in the Northwest, as volcanoes. Volcanoes were supposed to be on tropical islands. They were supposed to send showers of sparks into the air like fireworks, and their hot lava was supposed to travel down to the ocean in thick, glowing threads, and anybody who lived close to them was supposed to have already figured out how to organize their lives around the regular eruptions. Driving west, the giant mountains punctuating the Cascades seemed like ghosts. Mount Hood never appeared gradually. It was always just suddenly there, floating, white and from another world.
Or Mount Adams, just past Yakima: sometimes she’d get a sideways glimpse of it, and then when she looked directly, it would be gone. Or Mount Rainier. In Seattle – when she was in college, when she’d met Bill – they used to joke about Rainier haunting them. It seemed like you’d be looking at the horizon and it would be empty, and then you’d turn away for a second and when you looked back the mountain would be there, covered in snow, larger than a mountain should be, like some kind of sign waiting to be read. But a sign of what? She’d loved its unknown quality then, that sense of something so much larger than the rest of the world, so resonant with meaning in its cold, stony way, but so impossible to understand.
She’d never been to Mount St. Helens. She wasn’t sure she’d ever even seen it. But she imagined it the same as those other ghostly giants – snow-covered, appearing and disappearing at will, a sign of something more than a place itself, a sign that refused to surrender meaning.
She could use a sign now, she thought.
May was beautiful. Miriam’s father had always said that the first week of May was when you could trust that every tree would have its leaves, and now, just past the first week, she couldn’t stop thinking about him. The kind of green that settled from on high was pale and aching with life. The last time she’d seen her father, his hands had looked bleached, like old leaves, veins visible, the skin nearly rubbed off. And now, barely a year since his passing, she felt him everywhere.
I was 15 once, she thought. Did I seem ready to erupt in the same way that Clara does? She tried to remember back to when she was a kid. It had been her and her father alone. Had he watched her eat breakfast before heading off to school? She remembered sitting at the table by herself. She remembered the house mostly dark at night, just the light in her bedroom while she finished her schoolwork. The world had been quieter then. She asked Bill what he remembered from his childhood, and he just shook his head. If only her father was still alive. If only she could ask him what it had felt like to be her father, when she was still a child. If only she could ask him whether he’d waited for a sign, as well.
Clara had started taking walks at night. Miriam couldn’t think of a reason to tell her no. After dinner, Clara would clear her plate, go to her room and then come back into the kitchen and say, “I’m going out for a while.” Then the door would shut behind her.
“Say something to her,” Miriam said to Bill. But when he tried, Clara just looked at him, and the longer she looked, the more he forgot what he wanted to say.
“Stand up to her,” Miriam said.
“What’s there to stand up to her about?” he said. “She’s taking a walk. We don’t want her to feel like a prisoner here. We don’t want her to feel like we’re her enemies.”
“She’s ours to protect,” Miriam said.
“She’s ours to trust,” Bill said.
On a Saturday night in mid-May, the heads on the television were practically screaming. The earth was about to split open. Walls of rock would turn liquid. Fire would blaze. Ash would be pushed up into the sky so thick and heavy that it would cover the sun and turn day to night.
“These are not predictions,” Miriam heard. “These are facts. This is science. This is real.”
And outside, the street lamps glowed the same soft light they always glowed.
“I’m going out,” Clara said.
Miriam looked at Bill. Bill looked at the television. The scientists looked back, opened their mouths, practically screaming their warnings.
The door shut softly. Just a month ago, it would have slammed. But now Clara seemed more interested in slipping away than in announcing her departure with a bang. The night was cold. Miriam could feel the chill sneaking in. She grabbed Clara’s jacket and ran out behind her. Her daughter needed freedom, but she didn’t need to be cold while she was looking for it.
But Clara wasn’t anywhere. Not on the sidewalks lit in circles by the streetlamps. Not down the street where the town ended and the county began and streetlamps gave way to front porch lights that as usual were mostly turned off. Night had fallen. It was dark now in the world, dark and her daughter was gone.
Miriam moved quickly, certain that she was moving faster than Clara would be, certain that wherever her daughter might be going, she would be able find her, would overtake her, would make sure she was safe. A mother should be able to do that. Her daughter was ahead of her, as certain as any vision she’d ever had.
But she didn’t find her. The night stayed dark.
Up ahead, the road turned into a bridge that crossed the creek. They used to spend hours there tossing pine cones into the water and watching them float away. Miriam stopped on the bridge, out of breath, and leaned against the cement railing. She could hear the water down below, though at first she couldn’t see it – it seemed that all the different darknesses of night blended together here.
But the longer she looked, the more she was certain that a part of the darkness was changing shape. Bring my daughter back, bring my daughter back, please bring my daughter back: The words rattled in her head, and she imagined the black water taking her words away, carrying them onward to an invisible part of the world that might or might not listen.
When she got home, Bill shrugged and nodded his head toward Clara’s bedroom door, closed, as always.
The mountain erupted at 8:30 the next morning, power beyond imagining.
And then, at 11a.m., 300 miles away, ash began to fall.
Miriam banged on Clara’s bedroom door and Clara opened it, rubbing sleep from her eyes, a scowl already settled on her face.
“Get dressed,” Miriam said.
And Clara did.
The two of them stepped out onto the street, ash falling around them like snow, piling and piling up in the warm May day, as soft as feathers, as soft as a mother’s touch. The new green leaves disappeared, covered by inches of dust. But underneath, underneath there somewhere, Miriam knew there was green still, and for just that moment she trusted that it would emerge again, and when it did she would forget all this and remember that the condition of the world is meant to be joy.