The Mere Wife

Maria Dahvana Headley


“Listen!” my son says. “Someone’s singing!”

Gren’s been playing with the skin of a red squirrel, some pebbles, and a tin can, digging a hole in the ground and burying his rattling rag doll.

“What’s that voice?” he says again.

It’s not a voice. It’s a piano. The player below us continues the alphabet, the scales rising, jarring, false notes. They sound like things I’ll never be able to get for Gren.

“Listen,” he whispers, his hands spread to catch the noise, like it’s something he can keep and eat, like it’s a bird or a frog. Like a song can feed him.

This is how the war begins: a piano lesson echoing up the mountain. This is how I start to lose him.


Only one other person has ever seen my son. You figure out what you can do for love, and the answer, it turns out, is anything. You can hide for love. You can stay hidden.

Cash register, Army surplus, my son wrapped up in my coat. He was just a baby then. I thought I might be up here on this mountain for no reason. Maybe everything I thought was wrong in the world wasn’t wrong at all. Maybe he’d be safe here. Maybe I was just every mother ever, panicked, looking at her child and seeing all the ways he might get hurt. He was mine, and I wanted someone to tell me my son was beautiful, to tell me he’d grow into a man. I didn’t want to be alone forever, with no one to help me, and no one but me to help him.

“Aww, you’ve got a little one,” the woman at the checkout said, and pulled the blanket away from his face. She looked at me, and I looked back at her, and neither of us said anything, but all the worst things blasted into my head.

The look on her face was a look I’d seen in the war, soldiers bending to admire babies, knowing that in a week, a day, an hour, those babies might be dead. I saw bombs falling and obliterating my son, and I saw guns aimed at him.

I saw his body categorized as an enemy body, and I couldn’t breathe. I wrapped him up again. I held him tighter.

I went up the mountain, trying to seem like I wasn’t running, doubling back, hiding my tracks. She was the last person I spoke to. That was six years ago. I hope she’s forgotten everything about it.

There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s perfect.

His eyes are gold. He’s all bones and angles. He has long lashes, like black feathers. He’s almost as tall as I am and he’s only seven. To me, he looks like my son. To everyone else? I don’t know. A wonder? A danger? A boy? A boy with brown skin?

Any of those things will make him a target. I know the world. I’ve been in it.


“Gren,” I say. “All is well and will be well.” I simplified the line, and made it a lullaby.

He says the next line back to me reluctantly. He’s distracted by the piano. “And the squirrels will be fed, and the trees will grow taller.”

“The snows will come and pile up, but we’ll be warm.” I say the next line, and Gren says the next.

“Like the animals,” he says. “All in their dens.”

This mountain used to be a place where predators could survive, but the last mountain lion I saw out here was spread across the asphalt one morning, belly vibrating with flies. We’re not predators.

“Like the fish sleeping beneath the frozen water.”

“Like the children, safe in their beds,” he says, and this isn’t a line I taught him. This is something he’s made for himself. Has he been watching the people down the mountain? Thinking about what he doesn’t have?

I put it aside. He’s still little. He doesn’t know how to lie to me yet. I haven’t always been here, but it’s all Gren knows.

I can’t panic. I can’t think things could be as bad as the rabbit part of my heart suddenly insists they’re about to be.

“We don’t need to listen to the people down there,” I tell my son. “They have their place, and we have ours.”

“Listen, though! Listen!” my son insists. There’s a little whine in his breath, the air catching itself in his vocal cords and singing through them. I worry about asthma. I worry about everything.

Everything in me says, Get away from here, but I know what I am. I’m a stack of broken dishes in the shape of a woman, and this is a flight response.

Nobody comes to this cave, and certainly not to the station below it. That’s closed off, and no one even knows it’s still there. I know that for sure, but I have to convince myself all the time.

When I was a kid, people didn’t want to walk up this mountain at all. They thought it was haunted. It’s full of steam springs, water rushing out of nowhere, cold breezes, strange sounds. The mere is half glacial freeze, half hot spots, mist coming up from the center. Everything about this place still exists because people are too nervous to break it open and see what’s underneath. It’s not a national park. Nothing protects it from progress, nothing but people being scared of ghosts. It’s private land. It used to be owned by the train company, and now, I don’t know. The people below us, maybe, the ones who surround it.

I stand up and brush the leaves from my jeans, feeling the wind coming in through them, too thin for the winter. I’m as thin as my jeans, my hip bones prodding my skin from the inside. Gren is no better. We strip the bark from the trees. We store nuts, and in the winter we roast them. I hunt with snares.

I tell him I’m checking our traps, but instead I go to the overlook and stare down at Herot Hall. The perimeter’s lit up every night with streetlights so God can see them from heaven. I can see them too.

I stare down at the neatly plotted roads, the green grass, watered even on days when it rains. I can hear the people of Herot Hall, the way their appliances beep, the way their car motors move as they come home to wooden tables and identical chairs.

The gated community goes all the way around the mountain, except for the place where the lake is. There are pickets for each of the houses—not the kind of fences that keep anything out—but at the top of the exterior wall they’ve got barbed wire and cameras, lights detecting our motions when we come too close.

It isn’t entirely walled off, though. The side facing us is unguarded. Whoever designed this put their backs to the hillside, like mountains weren’t a threat.

Below us, a woman opens the front door of a house made mostly of glass. A child comes running out, young as my son, but fed on better things.

The cats from Herot Hall climb up here to eat our birds. I have a Siamese skinned and ready for the fire, but cat’s nothing good to eat, and it isn’t enough. The Herot child is dressed in furred pajamas with feet, and the feet have soft claws. The pajamas have ears. A bear. I can see how that’d be sweet, if you weren’t me, and they weren’t them.

From my vantage, I watch the child bouncing on the asphalt, warm enough, fed enough, safe enough.

Safe from people like me, people living on nothing. If he saw me, he’d be scared. That’s how it goes.

The damage that shows: One eye. There’s a part of my hair coming in white instead of black. The damage that doesn’t show? PTSD, amnesia. Brain, shaken by explosions. Sight, full of shadows. Some people had it worse than me. Some people are dead. I’m alive and I think I’m thirty-four.

I felt like there was a miracle when Gren was born, when I survived it. Look at my son, I thought, wanting to show him to my mother, my grandmother, anyone, but there was no one left to show.


My ancestors built the first houses in this valley, hauling materials up the river to the mountain. The mountain was famous for its springs, and the mere was famous for being the place people came to be healed. In the 1800s, people drank the waters and soaked in them, and thought they were being cured of every kind of disease. There was a train from the city, and they’d come out, stay in the hotels for months. My family staffed the resort grounds, cleaned, cooked. Went about their business.

Soon after the turn of the century, people lost their taste for the water and started wondering if it was poison rather than medicine. The tourist trade dropped to almost nothing, and so my family started working for the train line.

In the 1920s, the train stopped coming, and they closed up the station. My family stayed, living in the old hotels, working the scrap jobs in a place left over from the glory days. They knew about the station because they worked the line. They were the ones who closed it off from the world. There were stories about the mountain, people dying in these caves, but my family wasn’t afraid.

I was seventeen when my mother brought me up here and rolled a rock off something I later figured out was a vent down into the station. She pretended she was leading me, but I had most of her weight on my shoulder.

This cave was part of the upper entrance, the one for maintenance, and out of it was a hidden staircase, metal, skinny steps, steep, spiraling down a long tunnel with a hidden door. She wouldn’t let me take a flashlight. The first cave, this one, had a view of the outside world, but she took me farther in.

We crept along a clammy wall, ankle-deep in water for a while, and below us, on one side, there was a drop-off.

Finally, she lifted a panel from the floor and showed me what was underneath it. The real cave, the old station, was like climbing into the mouth of a whale.

We looked down into the water off the platform, a gurgling river covering the old tracks.

She cupped her hand and lifted the water to her lips and for a moment I saw her as maybe she’d always been, my mother. A skinny woman with blazing eyes. When Gren was born, I saw those eyes again. Wherever he came from, he came from my family too. I sipped from her hand, tasting rock, dirt, and tree.

She tossed a penny down from the ledge at the end of the platform, and I heard something cry out. The sound echoed against the walls.

“If they ever come for you,” she said, “this is where you hide. There’re things down here they don’t know about. Old things.”

We were ten years into her illness by then. I figured everything she’d been through, chemo, surgeries, radiation, had messed with her mind. She was always saying things like this, trying to convince me I was special.

That night I climbed out the window in my bare feet and went to meet a boy. I was desperate to see anything that wasn’t my mother’s shoulder blades under her nightgown. We drove to a party. Someone had music and dancing and lights, parents gone, couches, closets, but all I remember was that when I came home in the morning, ready to get in trouble, my mother’s bed was empty, and by the time I got to the hospital, she was already in the basement, covered in a sheet.

Her grave is down there, underneath Herot Hall. I prepared her body for burial myself. I dressed her, and put her favorite things around her, like she’d have any use for them after she was dead. Her family’s things, all of them kept generation to generation. I figured they belonged with her, not me. There was a goblet made out of silver, which I spent my childhood polishing. It had the family initials on it, and every night before bed I was the one who filled it with water from the spring. She loved it in a way that pissed me off, like she loved it more than she loved me, and most of the time I wanted to drop it in the mere, but when I found her empty bed, the goblet was sitting on her bedside table. That was what I ended up holding, like I was holding her hand. I put it in with her to go down. In my head, I was taking off forever.

There’s no sign of her gravestone now. I don’t know how they got permission to build mini-mansions on top of a graveyard, but I guess they did. The cemetery was almost two hundred years old. People never think, until it happens to their place, that all construction is destruction. The whole planet is paved in the dead, who are ignored so the living can dig their foundations.

I walked away from all of it, from the place I came from, and from anything that tried to be more than the usual world. I knew about the station, I knew why it was there, and that was all I wanted to know. I wasn’t special.

Then my life happened.

If they come for you, this is where you hide.

The labor took a long time and it was as painful as any labor is. The birth was worse. Anyone who says it doesn’t hurt, they’re lying. He was born, and we both lived through it, and that’s more than nothing.

Let him grow up, I was thinking the whole time. That’s an old prayer. It comes in every language.

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The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley