The Fertile Island Encounter was developed for women in crisis. We disembarked in humming throngs, greeted at the platform by friendly experts clutching clipboards to their chests. They handed us a packet of daily assignments based on our answers to a lengthy questionnaire. We dragged our baggage along behind us as they guided us to caves carved into the shoreline cliffs. The caves housed clusters of mothers and daughters tucked into hollows like the families of swallows I once saw in a nature program. I recall the show because raptors hovered above the swallow nests, wingtips trembling in the stiff breeze, lethal talons poised for the moment when the birds would emerge for food.
Wandering the grounds of the institution, I observed other mothers and daughters at various stages of the program—some were enthusiastically working together, and others were raging. Some had backs turned to each other, some held one another. I watched three-legged races and games of dodge ball, what looked like therapy groups, cooking demonstrations, and mothers and daughters collaborating on arts and crafts. An advanced group was assembling an architectural model. At the center of the events compound was a domed hall devoted to meditating gender and whether or not to utilize our wombs.
One of the first orders of business for participants was discovery. The rippling cliffs contained interior channels that wound through a series of exhibits, a sort of evolutionary diorama. Each destination contained clues and artifacts to help us gain a personal framework. There was a perpetual buzz as mothers and daughters and sisters traveled forward, backward, up and down, and some (like us), continually sideways along their respective histories. Certain units gained clarity, as evidenced by harmonious melodies vibrating from their spaces, sporadic crescendos and soaring strains marking insights. Our trouble began when my mother and I attempted temporal wandering, and became stuck between repetitive environments. We then got lost, had trouble working together, and stomped off separately. The music from our space was a ceaseless saxophone bridge that I recognized from an old Romeo Void song. Whatever happened to them, I wondered.
I returned to our cave which consisted of two suites joined by a human-sized doggy-door that I could easily have passed through to reach my mother. But inexplicably I decided to take an undulating path lined by split-rail fences that commenced just outside my door. It led me across bridges, out to the end of a lonely pier and back, criss-crossed the island, and landed at numerous nowheres before it led me back to my mom.
The thrust of my program was to check in with my mother and a case worker after completing certain assigned quests (that I seemed destined to botch time and again). The quests were to develop my torch-bearing skills. Sometimes I’d have directives to go straight-away to a target. I’d embark with all good intentions, but was distracted by things such as alluring blooms that winked and swayed beside the fences. I’d stop to pluck them so I could walk with their splendor. I’d grab and tug and brace myself against the rotting wood fences, while their roots held fast, wouldn’t give. The stubborn stalks would slip through my hands and I’d sit defeated, clutching mangled leaves and torn petals.
Or, I’d spot my childhood cat strolling atop a fence beam in the distance. I’d try to catch it to show to my mother. I’d call to the calico, and she recognized my voice, turning her head to watch me approach. I’d trot, then sprint toward her as she’d speed up, remaining just out of my reach before she vanished.
Each time I failed and returned to my mother, she’d shift and change in the languid manner of a lava lamp. There she was, younger than she’d been for decades, her beauty half in shadow.
“How do you look so young yet feel so old to me,” I asked her.
“Because I’m sad for you,” she said. “Why don’t you have a child?”
“You kept warning me not to,” I shot back.
She explained that I’d misconstrued her meaning—it was all about timing and agenda and practical alignment. “Shouldn’t there be something left to endure?” she finished.
I considered this, perusing my program for answers. I flipped through the pages without luck, and so ventured out again, our discordant theme song urging me on.
I took that same story-book road, noticing that the globe of dwindling sun was trapped at a static level in the afternoon sky. Everything tinged with a diminishing light—the brown cows and their weighty udders, the copulating rabbits, the snake that slid by with a mouse in its jaws. Plump birds tweeted from tree branches, their chattering songs obscuring the incessant, broken-theme sax. But all elemental action remained within a defined space, as if each piece was captured under an imperceptible bell jar. Actions completed then repeated themselves, the landscape an infinitely skipping record.
The road eventually led to a warehouse where the challenge was simply to stand across from an assigned male partner and hang on to the slick, gelatinous fish that he tossed at me across a wide expanse. My partner exhibited hallmarks of success—a stylish haircut, an emerging paunch, manicured hands, and beside him on the floor a duffle bag with a prominent dollar-sign insignia. The couples to my right and left were finishing the task on the first or second throws, linking arms and officially logging in their catch with a mediator. But no matter my dedication to the exercise, the fish kept sliding from my arms, spraying me with slime as my grip failed. The stray scales sliced my fingers and arms, and I stunk. I informed my partner that I was done and walked to the door as he followed me out, debating my decision, sending me on my way with recriminations and disapproval. When I gained some distance I heard him on a bullhorn shouting at my receding shadow, “It’s a simple thing, to catch a fish. You just didn’t give it your all!”
I returned to my mother again. Her hair had grown to the floor and swung like seaweed in a gentle current. She’d been focusing her energy on making new friends and associations with the neighboring clusters. She was unfettered.
“Can you help me?” she said without looking up at me,” I’m trying to retrieve my e-mails. I don’t get how to do this.” I watched her helplessly whacking her noodled fingers against a laptop keyboard.
“Who is sending you e-mails?” I asked.
“Well, your grandmother for one,” which was odd since my grandmother had died decades before, “and I’m expecting some important invitations.”
“You don’t want my help,” I said, “You want me to do it for you. What’s the point of that?”
There was the saxophone again, stuck in an endless loop like a gif.
“How do we turn that music off?” I asked, looking around for the source.
“By completing the epiphany quest. It’s on your list,” she answered, still fiddling with the laptop.
A man at the door explains to my mom that I failed the last task and this wasn’t going to work if I couldn’t finish things. My mother sighs and her disappointment renders her younger yet, like a child at the holidays who’s opened an empty box.
So I set out again, wandering along the highway. My instructions were to spot something real among false distractions. Here and there I noticed cloned icons behind the wooden fence. I examined one that looked heart-stoppingly alive, but the closer I got the more glaring the problems. One eye was lower than the other, straw sprouted from the ears; the smile was actually a frown when I drew closer.
“Boo!” a laughing man pulled from my dreams said to me as he appeared from a mist. He was naked and primal and smelled of sex.
“Fuck off,” I shrieked at him—these disruptions! He was shocked and repulsed by my aggression and I knew he’d report my outburst.
And now it was evening and I’d spent hours wandering into the memory of what I’d envisioned as a kid, and the way life feels when it stretches before you like a napping dog. I’d misplaced my list of tasks somewhere along the deserted pier, so I wandered up and down the oily boards searching for it. I leaned out over the hissing sea, hypnotized by the beam from a lighthouse in the distance. I thought about where I wanted to go. Then I was at my mother’s doorway once again.
“Darling,” she said to me, in her child’s voice, “why are you always so angry? They told me you keep storming off the set.”
We sat at the entrance to our cave—she’d made some tea and we cupped the hot mugs to warm our hands. We were still for a while, listening to the sound of the gulls and the pulsing shore. “It’s over,” my mother said without sadness. “Get your things and we’ll leave here together, let’s find another way to be.”
I crawled through the doggy-door (so easy) to my room, where that saxophone riff finally stopped skipping, and now I could hear the lyrics, She’s got a face that shows what she knows, she’s heard every line. I threw my belongings into my bag without care, zipping it shut and hauling it back through the doggy-door to my mother’s side. I shut down her laptop and unplugged it from the hub.
There’s a way to walk that says “Stay Away!”, and a time to go ’round the long way.
My mother stood off to one side cooing at a swaddled bundle, “Look, I found your baby, and your grandmother is here, too!”
My grandmother stood like she was in a funhouse mirror, with a line of replicas stretched out behind her.
“Can you swim?” I asked my mother and grandmothers, taking the infant that was handed to me.
“It’s been a while since I took to water, but I was a skilled back-stroker in my day,” my mother bragged.
I unwrap the swaddle and see that my mom has passed me a rag doll without realizing it. I walk to the edge of the cave and toss the bundle out into the hungry abyss. My mother gasps, her worried hands at her mouth.
“Mom, I can’t just bring things to life when they aren’t real for me.”
She pouts a little.
“How far down to the water?” my grandmothers ask with a measure of doubt.
“It’s OK, Omas,” I say, “the water is soft like down. I jumped in one time, ages ago.”
My mother says to leave the luggage, we don’t need it. I set it down. We experience a collective thrill, a confluence of endings and beginnings. When we join hands, we vibrate in unison. We all stand at the precipice and gulp the mysterious. It was twilight and the depths beyond the cave beckoned.