The hypothesis of gravity
Naomi is haunted by hawks.
There is one on the light pole above her car after work one day. She startles when she sees it—it’s bigger than she imagined. Its beady eyes watch her unlock the car door and scoot behind the wheel.
She goes for a walk around the neighborhood one weekend, and a hawk follows her, flying from tree to tree. She half-wonders if it is tamed and has escaped from a nearby owner whose hairstyle is similar to hers or who wears the same kind of t-shirt which might explain why it follows her for over half a mile.
The worse is when Naomi sees a hawk sitting on her backyard fence. It is so close to the house, its flecked brown feathers speckled with sunlight, eyes as sharp and golden as its beak, that she decides to get closer and try to take a picture. When she is within fifteen feet, the hawk turns and a dead rabbit hooked in its talons flops into view. The hawk dips its head and shreds the broken skull of the rabbit, pulling stringy bits of muscle away. Naomi is so close that she can hear the tendons rip, not unlike the sound of fabric her sewing mother tore by the yard when Naomi was a girl.
Today, a hawk sits at the entrance of the cemetery. “Wrong kind of bird,” she mumbles, steering absentmindedly down the familiar path. She tries to repress it, but a shiver ripples down her spine anyway.
There is usually an answer to everything. Even the seemingly insolvable mysteries of the universe—dark matter, black holes, the things that creep at the bottom of the deep blue sea—are simply solutions that have not been found yet.
She might even be willing to say there is always an answer, except dealing in absolutes is not very scientific of her, and as Principal Scientist at BioTech Solutions, she tries her best to maintain sound, controlled logic.
And if there isn’t an answer, there’s at least a theory. The Baader–Meinhof phenomenon is the theory that once a person notices something, they tend to see that thing over and over again. Another name for it: frequency illusion. A type of cognitive bias. In other words, your brain playing tricks on you.
For two years now, ever since the thing happened, her brain has played a lot of tricks on her. Forgetting where her car keys are. Crying at inappropriate or inopportune times (at the dentist getting her teeth cleaned, in line at the bank, watching a commercial for dog food…hysterical, hiccupping sobs that made her dentist offer to prescribe antianxiety medication). Stuttering, stumbling over her words, forgetting what she was going to say.
She hangs a right and rolls down the gentle slope toward an area demarcated from the rest of the cemetery. There’s the entrance shrouded by pine trees, guarded by two little cherub statues, their eyes empty and staring. Tiny little tombstones, like baby teeth, blanket the hillside beyond. The Children’s Garden, a plaque says. Which is horrifying to Naomi. What—they plant a dead child in the ground and hope a new one sprouts up?
Naomi parks outside the garden and turns off the car. She puts her head on the wheel and listens to the quiet clicking of the car settling, the wind gentle in the trees today. She takes a deep breath, then another. And when she looks up, a hawk is sitting atop one of the cherubs’ heads. It cries once, sharp and piercing, as if in warning, then flies away.
The hypothesis of gravity is very nearly fact at this point. The longer something is studied, the more answers we end up with. The more answers we have, the closer we get to the truth. This is the stake Naomi has planted in the ground all her life. It’s the Maypole around which she circles: the truth, the truth, the truth.
It’s why she went to college and triple-majored in biology, psychology, and philosophy (but not sociology because to label something as muddy and subjective as human sociability a science is laughable). To study the truth of life, the mind, and wisdom itself.
It’s why she married late. For a while, she could not find anyone interesting or kind or stable enough. But when she started to approach the final tickings of her biological clock, an inevitability staring her in the face—the childless remainder of her life, loneliness swallowing her slowly down its long dark throat—she decided that the truth lay closer to her pickiness than in a lack of suitable mates. And thankfully, that was the truth. Sal was a wonderful partner. Kind and quiet where Naomi could be hard-edged and stubborn. He was a malleable sort of man, moldable under the intense heat of a partner who worked in a highly competitive, high stakes career field. He made hot, healthy dinners every night—rice and tofu, bean quesadillas, ratatouille that he stewed for hours in a chipped porcelain Dutch oven, and very occasionally a steak on the grill when he felt naughty or celebratory or lavish. He cleaned up the dishes at night and made the bed in the mornings. He kept after the finances and generally created a life that was already centered enough around stability and small, quiet pleasure that when they introduced a baby into it, the transition went as seamlessly as could be expected.
And then, Naomi’s truth was exhaustion. Pure, elemental, and bone-deep. Around the clock care of a mouth with an infant’s body attached. A mouth that sucked at her breasts until her nipples cracked and bled, a mouth that screamed at all hours of the night.
Until one day, two and a half months into motherhood, her daughter looked at Naomi and smiled. Such a small thing—a two-inch gash between two biscuits for cheeks, nothing but gums beneath. Naomi didn’t even make a face or funny noise. Just looked down and there it was. And just as quickly, Naomi knew she would do (nearly) anything in the world to keep seeing that smile.
She read all the parenting books and did what they said. She ate salads and drank gallons of water so her breastmilk was healthy and plentiful. She took her daughter outside as often as possible, in a sling hammocked tight to her body, to plant tomatoes in the back garden, to see how the rain pooled on flower petals after a storm, on long hikes during the weekend. She gave her daughter foods of all tastes and textures so she knew what she liked (pears, peas, mango) and what she didn’t (kiwi, avocado). She held her daughter’s fingers when she began to walk and held her hand when she tried a bicycle for the first time. She and Sal both did bedtime because they loved that half hour at the end of the day when together as a family, they cuddled on the floor of their daughter’s bedroom, her hair shampooed and soft, reading books and sharing their favorite parts of the day before the parents tucked their daughter into the safety of blankets and a ragged stuffed rabbit.
Soon, she was in school, learning her letters and what two and two gave her. Four, like her family: her, Mom, Dad, and Sandy, their ancient orange tabby cat.
And when Sandy died a few years later, Naomi read a book on how to teach children about death and grief. She told her daughter plainly yet gently: Sandy has died. He isn’t here anymore. I don’t know where exactly. Yes, he’s happy. No, he wouldn’t want you to be sad. Do you want to share a special memory you had with Sandy? Yes, he was a good kitty. Yes, I’ll miss him too.
For a while, her daughter acted as if Sandy was still alive. She would speak his name in the same soft way, a purr echoing a purr. She’d get upset with Sal or Naomi if they sat on the couch beside her because, “Sandy is sitting there, you’re sitting on Sandy.” Over and over again, for a long enough time that Naomi was becoming concerned and uncomfortable, she had to gently reinforce: Sandy isn’t here. Sandy is gone. Sandy died, but he is happy. He isn’t in pain. Until slowly, day by day, her daughter stopped mentioning Sandy and focused instead on the things that twelve-year-olds are easily distracted by: makeup (could she please wear it yet), horseback riding lessons (could she please start them), her flute (could she switch to trumpet).
The question, as Naomi now sees it, is not how to study for the things you know to prepare for, like how to offer solid foods to a baby or how to explain the death of a pet. The question is how to prepare for something you have no idea is coming. That doesn’t even feel like a possibility.
All you can do is your best. You read the books. You listen to the doctor. You take your daughter to horseback riding and trumpet and swimming lessons.
But sometimes, even your best isn’t good enough.
And now, there is this. The truth of the matter. The new gravity to Naomi’s life. The thing she circles and circles. Smooth, sun-warmed marble. A name, etched in stone: Maisie Isabella Fallow. June 6, 2006 – August 17, 2019.
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