By Aj Strosahl
My daughter is born a black hole. After my long struggle, they put her on my chest, squalling mightily, and I look down at her and see nothing. Not nothing, really, but something like a photograph taken by a camera whose lens has been smeared with Vaseline. She is flecked with viscera and coated in fluids. My hands roam her face with intelligent purpose, trying to divine its shape and texture. I listen to the shocking drum of her tiny heart against mine and close my eyes. When I open them and look down again, the psychic caul evaporates––tingly grey static curling out into the air-–and she is revealed to me and the light from all known galaxies seems to finally find us. Here is the crumpled little mouth, the glassy blue eyes, my own horsey jaw. Her presence is violently perfect and astounding.
I name her Artemis, after the goddess of the wilderness. When I leave the hospital two days later, I throw away the medication they give me in the garbage can by the automatic doors, and drive us up the side of the mountain. Our cabin is set back from a bluff above the river, just inside the treeline. It has everything we will need.
Those first weeks we are two animals in a burrow; I groom her like an ape and lick her wrists to taste the skittish pulse there. I bathe her in river water in an old washtub and feed her at my exhausted breast. I wrap her in lambskin and walk her around outside, looking up at the stars. I start calling her Artie. We are blissfully alone. When an old colleague from the Parks Department drives over from the ranger station on the other side of the mountain, carrying a basket of cloth diapers tied with a pink bow, I bare my teeth at him like a rabid dog.
“We’re not ready for visitors,” I say, stopping him at the front door.
“Are you sure?” Dennis asks, peering around me. He scratches his temple and looks at me, seemingly perplexed. “Seems like you could do with a pop-in. Also, they’re wondering if you’re feeling ready to head back to work? I was worried about you alone up here; I know you’re on leave but––”
“I’m not alone,” I tell him, and I don’t move out of the doorframe.
Dennis leaves, looking bewildered. I don’t tell him that I won’t be coming back to work, that I can’t return to giving trail maps to weekend warriors who blow across the mountain like a sour wind, leaving their Clif Bar wrappers where they fall. I walk all over my land with Artie on my back, pointing out the landmarks of our kingdom. The river, the clearing with a fire pit I dug myself, wide and deep. Our generator, our teeming vegetable garden, our well. As I tramp across the forest floor, I tell Artie stories about my life before: about my mother, a cruel woman who once blistered my palm with a willow switch after I asked for a second slice of cake; about the time I narrowly escaped a daytime forest fire, racing down the mountain in the Forest Service truck, the sun a perfect, pitiless neon dot hanging in the hazed sky. I tell her about the bandrui, the Druidesses who were guardians of an ancient world.
Every night, I whisper to her:
This mountain has a name, but it does not have an owner. If we protect it, it will protect us. We do not fear, for we live in the heart of the Gods.
Each month, we take my truck into town and it’s like visiting a strange and hostile planet. I shop as quickly as I can, with Artie strapped to my chest in marsupial repose, and the townspeople turn their faces away instinctively, as if we are lit too brightly to view at a direct angle. I cover Artie’s face with my hands; these people do not deserve to behold her.
Time passes. Artie grows; she walks, then talks, then runs, then swims. She’s capable and goofy and brave. On summer nights, we sleep rough, spreading quilts over our bedrolls on the forest floor. We fish for rainbow trout at the river and fry them up with lard and salt. We sew quilts on an old sewing machine and can pickled squash and cold crops and asparagus. Artie sucks the sap from stalks of sourgrass, pressing their silken chartruese flowers to my cheek. In winter, the land is so prehistoric and unyielding that it incites a stultifying calm in us, and we spend days curled up on the warm hearth, eating canned oysters on saltines or napping like over-sated cats. We bundle up in woolens and hike down to the river, which flows icy and true.
“Where do we live, Mom?” Artie asks me sometimes.
“In a wild land only we know.” I say. I tell her that Greeks used to call Delphi the womb of the Earth and that where we live is like that: someplace both sheltered and immeasurably powerful. For ten years, we are so very happy and safe.
When Artie is eleven, we drive to town on a supply run and in the Albertson’s, while I’m bagging up muesli, she wanders off and meets a girl named Jess, who plays Artie a terrible bleating song on her little pink phone. They hunch over its tiny rectangular screen, giggling. When I find them, Jess’s mother––a fretting brunette in a long linen dress––is crouched by Artie, looking at her with concern. For a moment, I see Artie the way the town world might: a scrappy-looking girl with a nest of blond hair, outfitted in my old ranger’s vest and a dirty white t-shirt. Her feet are bare, toenails yellow and hooflike. Artie’s saying that she lives somewhere secret, and that she doesn’t need school because she already has a job. She takes care of the mountain. I smile tightly at the mother and pull Artie away.
The following week, a woman from Child Protective Services comes to our cabin and tells me I must enroll Artie in school.
After her first day, Artie cries all the way home, where she strips off her orange sweater, then the brown corduroy dress she made last summer, and deposits them into the garbage. She kicks off her boots and glares at me.
“I can’t wear this,” Artie spits, her expression foreign and hateful. “They said I looked like a Flintstone. I don’t even know what that is!”
She is outraged, as if I’ve cheated her of something essential. She spends the evening looking through my small wardrobe for any usable items, ultimately settling on an old thermal shirt, and a pair of my jeans that she frantically alters at the sewing machine. The next day, we go to a mall outside of town. We buy stretchy black jeans and oversized t-shirts, a sparkly red jacket with zippers everywhere. We buy a pink mobile phone, like Jess’s. When we’re done, Artie looks at me with heartbreaking gratitude and says: “I still like the stuff we make, but I need these now, too.”
When she’s thirteen, Artie has a slumber party at the cabin, but the girls get upset that the homemade pizza I serve is made on hard brown dough, with sheep’s milk cheese and kale from the garden. One of them asks Artie where I get my hair cut, and when Artie tells her I do it myself, with nail scissors, the girl rolls her eyes and cups a hand over her mouth, sniggering. After that, when I drive Artie to and from school, I wait in the truck two blocks away so I won’t embarrass her.
On the weekends, we are ourselves: we hike indefatigably for miles and have tree-climbing contests and clear brush from the back of the house, where we’ll build chicken coops. I remind her who we are–– we do not fear, for we live in the heart of the Gods–– but she won’t say the words with me, just nods and rests her head on my shoulder.
At fifteen, Artie plays forward on the high school soccer team. At the first game, a girl on the opposing team throws an elbow and Artie falls to the muddy ground, her hands clapped over her eye. Before I know it I’m out on the pitch, screaming and clutching Artie to my chest. Artie is aghast and mortified. She doesn’t understand: we used to be one person, not two. The referee leads me back to my seat, and as I sit back down, I hear Artie saying quietly: “Please, I’m sorry, she’s mentally ill.”
Time moves at its undiminished clip and suddenly, Artie is seventeen and beautiful. Boys drive up the mountain in pheromonal parade, picking her up for school dances and nights out at the movies. Eventually, she settles on one: a grinning dog of a boy, with a slyness around the eyes. This boy is obsequious and polite, but he has a small silver barbell through his tongue, and twice after my daughter is out with him, I smell semen and marijuana on her sweet breath. I am gripped by fear beyond reason.
I don’t know how to tell her what the world is really like. About the hiker who came late in the winter before she was born. I found him off-trail in a snowstorm, panting and desperate, his eyes rolling white. It was too late and snowy to take him back into town, so I drove him to my cabin for a night’s rest. I lit a fire and draped him with blankets. I fed him poached eggs and the good venison sausage I saved for guests. I put clean sheets on the spare bed and made him peppermint tea. I woke, screaming, in the dead of night on my bedroom floor, to find him racing savagely inside me. I fought and clawed like a snared rabbit, and his forearm pressed my cheek to the soft sanded wood of the cabin floor. His predator stink filled my home and in the morning, he was gone. Months later when Artemis arrived, a balm for my suffering, I knew this man could not be her father. I had to protect her. All I had ever tried to do was make us safe.
I can’t think of how to tell her this, so I don’t.
One night, a few weeks after she’s graduated from high school, Artie tells me that she and Brian, that doggish boy, have rented a little apartment in town. She’s going to get a job clerking at the local pharmacy and Brian’s enrolling in hotel management training. They’re in love, she tells me.
“I’m ready to start my real life,” Artie says. “It’s less than an hour’s drive, Mom. The apartment’s cute. You’ll love it.”
“Artie, no, you can’t. It’s not safe.”
“Please don’t start that again.”
“Stay with me and we’ll build you your own house, he can even visit––“
“Oh,” Artie sighs, wringing her hands and looking out the window, away from me. “I’m so sorry.”
The following weekend she packs her things and drives them down the mountain. The forest is quiet. I will never tell her this, but there is an obscene relief in losing her; there is a natural order to it. She’s a whelped pup, off to make her way in a world that is dangerous and ecstatic and inconstant in ways I can no longer comprehend. Maybe she’s onto something. Maybe what she’s learned is that the world we built together waits for her, alive and incandescent, ready to rise up and catch her like a steadying hand. When she is ready, it will be here. And so will I: a clever little animal, crouched low in its warm den, peering out to watch the world turn.
AJ Strosahl is a writer who lives and works in Oakland, California. She holds an MFA from St. Mary's College of California and her work can be found or is forthcoming in The Summerset Review, Oyster River Pages, Signal Mountain Review, and other outlets. Her short story, 'Dayton', was long listed for the Jacob Zilber Prize for Short Fiction in 2020 and she recently attended the 2021 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences. In 2022, AJ will be the fall artist in residence at the Bryn Du Art Center.