I was ten years old when the neighbors called the police to extinguish the Holy Sock Fire my mother had started in the parking lot of our building. It was clear enough to all of us—my brother, my mother, and me—that the wrath of mismatched footwear (a dangerous number with the three-hole mark of the trident and all of them punctured at least once!) was endangering us all, and not just our apartment but also the entire building. Even the crazy conformists should have been able to see that once the dark energy was in, only the pure blaze of a fire could drive it away.

It’s hard to fathom, Mom used say, her thin hand falling over the pale of her cheek. Especially hard when the solution is so clear. I can still hear the whirl of her words as she gathered our socks into a burlap bag. Press a proper circle into the blacktop with ivory white soap. Conjure the cleansing spirits. Keep the flames away from the nuclear lines of conformist car bombs. Easy. Safe. The future would surely reflect that.

Although a long winter of going sockless to school did little to change our family fortunes, the memory and thrill of that fire, and the brave way my mother fought the scorn of our neighbors and neighborhood police, warmed us in ways we could never explain. Even when we went from last period gym to the frozen parking lot to wait for our bus to pull up. Even when the sweaty soles of our feet stung and froze. Mom was protecting us in ways that went deeper than any of them seemed to realize. Deeper than any of them could even recognize. Which is why we all rubbed our cheeks when safety was the word Miss Waxy Lips kept using—whispering, in fact, with her cottony mouth of phony sadness. It’s the safety of the children that concerns us, she thissed at my mother. Your safety, she breathed all over my brother and me. But we knew who was in danger. We wouldn’t be fooled again. Especially by a whispering woman who wore red stockings in winter and didn’t know the first thing about the dangers that darkened our days and paralyzed our nights. A woman who couldn’t speak loud enough for all of us to hear over the tremble of cold and fear.

I was fourteen when Mom woke us up at 3:33 a.m. and led us with our ragged ripped pillows and the super’s steel shovel down the back roads to the high school football field where we made three triangular graves in the center, left, and right of the thirty yard line and poured the black feathers and stained brown foam into the pits of each one. We had barely finished when the police showed up. Their report didn’t even mention that it was the line nearest the parking lot, not the one by the playground, and that Mom would never risk anything near a playground. Here’s one I’ll never understand: Supposedly what Mom did was so wrong, but somehow it’s okay to watch people without them even knowing they’re being watched? Okay to burn city dollars (not that Mom would ever support any city tax scam!) to run surveillance video all night long?

They should have been proud to see what she was willing to do for the safety of the community and the safety of the school. But all they could do was label and threaten and pity and say Even one more episode and we’ll take your boys away for good! Well, we had heard that before. If only Mom had the money to buy us a couple of new pillows. We would have been as safe and as cozy as the clouds.

It was on my graduation day when Mom smashed the window of Mr. Thompson’s car and tried to pull me out with her claws and slice Maggie Thompson’s hair with the hedge clippers she borrowed from the super’s garage. They took Mom away after that. It wasn’t the school this time, but Maggie’s parents who acted like Mom could’ve killed their daughter or would’ve done anything that put anyone’s safety at risk. As if she hadn’t spent every second of her life trying to protect us all. What they didn’t know could fill a home so much bigger than the one they forced her into. The one they call her home now. Here’s another one I’ll never understand: How do they take Mom away and then say she’s home? Where was she before? Where does that leave the rest of us?

But Mom, at least, had thought of us, my brother and me. As always, she knew what she was doing—what she had to do—and when she had to do it. Knew I was old enough, by the conformist rule of law, to take care of myself and take care of my brother and fight to keep us together and safe.

And we are safe. For now. Even Maggie says so––Maggie who still sneaks over almost every night and swears she always knew that Mom was never going to hurt her. But even she thinks Mom is better off in some state home. Says you have to be careful, especially when raising kids. But if Maggie and I ever had kids, I would have my doubts that she would know what to do. Know how to protect us. Would she sacrifice herself to keep our home safe? Would she recognize the signs? I would press my palms against the fragile peaks of her shoulders: How do you mind the symptoms of a world so black and mysterious and cold? It’s all just too hard to fathom.


Photo credit: Scott Robbin / Foter / CC BY-NC