Children think we make them, but we don’t. They exist somewhere else, before us, before time. They come into the world and make us. They make us by breaking us first.
This was what I learned the day everything changed. I stood upstairs folding laundry, my back aching from Pearl’s weight. I held Pearl inside my body, the way a great whale swallows a man into the safety of his belly, waiting to spit him out. She rolled over in ways a fish never would; breathed through my blood, burrowed against bone.
The floodwater around our house stood five feet high, covering roads and lawns, fences and mailboxes. Nebraska had flooded only days before, water coming across the prairie in a single wave, returning the state to the inland sea it once was, the world now an archipelago of mountains and an expanse of water. Moments earlier, when I’d leaned out the open window, my reflection in the floodwater had returned dirty and marred, like I’d been stretched and then ripped into indiscriminate shreds.
I folded a shirt and screams startled me wide eyed. The voice was a blade, slipping metal between my joints. Row, my five-year-old daughter, must have known what was going on because she screamed, “No, no, no! Not without Mommy!”
I dropped the laundry and ran to the window. A small motorboat idled in the water outside our house. My husband, Jacob, swam to the boat, one arm paddling, the other clamping Row against his side as she struggled against him. He tried to hoist her onto the boat, but she elbowed him in the face. A man stood in the boat, leaning over the gunwale to pick her up. Row wore a too-small plaid jacket and jeans. Her pendant necklace swung like a pendulum across her chest as she struggled against Jacob. She thrashed and twisted like a caught fish, sending a spray of water into his face.
I opened the window and yelled, “Jacob, what are you doing?!”
He wouldn’t look at me or respond. Row saw me in the window and screamed for me,[KM3] her feet kicking at the man who held her under the armpits, lifting her over the side of the boat.
I pounded the wall next to the window and yelled out to them again. Jacob pulled himself over the side of the boat as the man held Row. The panic in my fingertips turned to a buzzing fire. My body shook as I folded myself through the window and leapt into the water below.
My feet hit the ground beneath the water and I rolled to the side, trying to lighten my impact. When I surfaced, I saw Jacob had winced; the pained, tightened expression still on his face. He was now holding Row, who kicked and screamed, “Mommy! Mommy!”
I swam toward the boat, pushing aside debris that littered the water’s surface. A tin can, an old newspaper, a dead cat. The engine roared to life and the boat spun around, spraying me in the face with a wave of water. Jacob held Row back as she reached for me, her tiny arm taut, her fingers scratching the air.
I kept paddling as Row receded into the distance. I could hear her screams even after I could no longer see her small face, her mouth a dark circle, her hair standing on end, blowing in the wind that came off the water