A is for Absence. I learn phonics quickly, reading faster. You write out a string of words and I see them for what they want to say. See how the letters look so much the same but each is different; how this one curls over at the top with a soft sound like falling rain, this one tight and straight, all angles and sharp on the lips.
The same as the ants, you say. We watch them in a tidy black row on the pale earth, each with a job to do. We stomp out names into the snow– first mine, then yours, then Mama’s. I stamp his name, but you frown so I smudge it over with my toes.
You and I, not me and you. I learn our syntax: how we look so much the same, both of our eyes the living green of the grove we play in, bright from searching for someone who is never there. How we are so much different, I with my round cheeks and cheery chopped hair, you slightly taller but only because you are older, with that imperious hawk-faced elegance that you wear even as a child.
This is left and this is right; this is right and this is wrong. You are always teaching me, three years of wisdom that I drink as hungrily as the syrup that Mama boils down, marinating us in the fog of rising sap. We pour the sap over the snow and let it freeze into tiny shards of sweetness. That was the winter after he left. The one when we walked through the clinging snow to the barn, stamping our feet and blowing smoke like dragons in the hay-warmed haze within. The smell of grass on the breath of the cows, their kind lazy eyes. You spooned a scoop of Ovaltine onto my tongue and laid me down beneath the swollen belly, coaxing a stream of hot frothed milk into my mouth.
One plus one equals the whole world. You teach me math on frayed scraps of notebooks. I am hungry for numbers. I write so hard that the paper tears, but you just smile and give me another one. He left before we realized we needed him. Before you’d taught me about subtraction, or at least the mysterious kind that goes to zero or below.
She’ll go far, they say, watching me bending over a page in the cold classroom, my nose bent so close that I can lick up the words with my tongue. Mama smiles when she hears them say this but it doesn’t reach her eyes: her cheeks are moats of tiredness. I don’t want to go far. I want to stay close to you, I want you to detangle the secrets that are woven into the world.
I go, you are going, he went. Grammatically it is already over, but somehow it persists, more like the imperfect tense than the past. Imperfect, certainly. He comes to visit only once, on my birthday. I don’t remember which one. I just know that I am still small because he picks me up and swings me in an arc, easy and laughing. At first I laugh too, with delight, but when my feet touch the ground again I turn away, suddenly shy. There are tears in my eyes. Yours are dry but you won’t look at him, even when he hooks a finger under your chin and tilts it toward him. Your hawk-eyes are fierce, turned away and blazing.
Leaves of three, let them be. You teach me botany, or at least which nuts we can eat and which are sour like chalk. We sit cross legged and crack them open with our teeth when Mama is out late. You find the roots we boil into tea to wash away a stomach ache. I find a hollow trunk in our grove, a deep cool cave, damp with the breath of the trees. All day I hide myself in it, away from the sun and from your calls, your pleas. When you start to cry I don’t come out. I hear your footsteps getting faster, frantic, and I feel the sour joy of being the one looked for, not the one looking. Finally your footsteps stop, and all that is left are the sounds of your quiet tears. Then nothing. When night falls I come out from my hollow and crawl into bed with you and you cry again from relief. It feels natural, to make you weep. I wonder if I learned it from a different teacher. Curled there in the dark, my spine a barricade between us, I rehearse the way you taught me long division, that sequence of breaking apart. Just follow the pattern — separate, subtract, repeat. It felt so intuitive, like I’d been doing it for a long, long time.
Nora Studholme was born and raised in the countryside of Virginia, where she grew her roots wandering forests and finding animal friends, always with a book in hand. Her greatest delight comes from being a writer of short stories, poetry, and novels. Mostly, she thinks of herself as a treasure hunter, traveling through life seeking those glimmers of story that hide everywhere. Her short fictions have appeared in The Dillydoun Review and Club Plum, and have been finalists for several literary awards, including the Grindstone Novel Prize, The Alpine Fellowship, and Fractured Literature’s Micro Award.