The Migraine As I sit on the dock with the morning sun and heat still rising in the sky, the lake lapping gently, a stillness tickles my insides. I could curl up inside this headache. The deep croak of a bullfrog cuts through the morning. “I know that frog,” my older son says. “You two have met before, have you?” I say without opening my eyes. I sit in a deck chair, a book open in my hands as though I might be reading. At my side, a drained mug of coffee, my second, with the hope that the caffeine will constrict my blood vessels, chase the pain away. “Yesterday on the beach. It had been stabbed in the eye by something. It was all bloody. I moved him into the woods.” At 9, he tends to make up stories so I’m not sure if he is telling the whole truth. I lift my sunglasses and we stare at each other; it’s possible he’s waiting for me to call him on his bluff. He looks away. I decide I don’t need to know. The headache rests in the base of my neck and reaches down my back. It has kidnapped my heart, threatening to squeeze if I make the wrong move. Blackmail. Normally, at this point, I would call someone for help, escape to a dark room, take a pill. But I am alone. Our weekend away. Just me and the kids. But this is not so different from our real life since my husband died. Away from what, I wonder. I can feel the headache vibrating inside of me, a pattering both quick and slow, both an engine and a fuse. My medicine, forgotten on the blue tray next to my bathroom sink, leaves a baking soda taste in the back of my throat. A burn. Bitter. I do not miss that. You have a tendency to self- sabotage, my husband once said. The tray on his side of the sink has been empty for six months. “Hurry, and take it off the hook!” My son has caught a fish. He dips it in the water to keep it alive when I am too slow to respond. He pulls it up and dangles it in front of me. When I stand I am unsteady on my feet, listing to one side as though I’m drunk. My limbs go from light to heavy, but my fingers spark with electricity. I hold my hand out and pause until both the fish and I are ready. I squeeze its body firmly but gently and it doesn’t flinch and flip the way they sometimes do. I thread the hook out without getting it caught in the hole. The fish still has not moved and I worry we’ve killed it, but when I throw it back in the water, the fish twists and swims away. My 6-year-old slips his hand into mine as the fish blurs out of sight. I look down at his tawny head and think, when did you get here? Things I should know. The headache is half beast, half man and momentarily I let it embrace me. Its fur is downy and thick and warm. I can see the real world through a membrane; for this moment I am in its fairy tale world, lying on a divan, protected. In the real world, dark thunderclouds thread into the blue sky from the west. I sit back on the beach chair with my younger son nestled against me. The older hooks another piece of ham onto the fishing hook. Just a little while longer, I think, as I close my eyes. The headache has a hunchback and wolf ears. I cannot see its face. It won’t show it to me. It is gentle. It is not the worst headache I ever had, but it is familiar in its monthly recurrence. It’s not pain exactly. Or it’s not just pain. I think of Persephone going to the Underworld. The mark of seasons changing. The representation of death and rebirth. I look out at the water and notice a patch that looks different from the rest, a square with waves moving in a different direction. It shimmers and I’m not sure if it is the headache or if it is real. A door perhaps. Where Hades comes up out of the earth in his chariot. I am here but I am not here. I am looking through the membrane at my children. The younger one retains the plumpness of babyhood. He’s eating goldfish, dropping every fifth one between slats in the dock, potentially on purpose. The older one’s toes hang off the end of the dock. He has teenager feet on a boy body. It hurts to look at them straight on. It starts to rain and I blink and I am here and we gather the books and shirts. I slip on my sandals already dappled a darker shade of brown with raindrops. I grab a towel heavy with water, too heavy for how much rain has yet fallen. As I carry it inside and place it in the dryer, my biceps ache. The machine thumps confidently, then bangs louder, louder, but it could just be my head. I can see the machine jumping. I think of the fish before it swam away, the will to live. I switch off the machine and hang the wet towel over the door. I can act normally so long as there are no major events. I make scrambled eggs for lunch because we didn’t really eat breakfast. My younger son spills the little bowl in which we keep the salt and I feel my edges blur, pull, expand, ready to burst. The beast holds me tight. I open my mouth to snap at my son but when I look at him it seems I already have. He cries. I cannot find the dustbin. I cannot find the dustbin. I walk down the hall to look in the bathroom closet. I remember the eggs are still on the stove. I run back and they have not burned exactly. I decide to sweep the salt right out the door. Something twitches in the pile of salt and dirt. I lean down but cannot tell if it is a spider or a large tick. I try to count the legs but it won’t stop moving. I sweep it out into the rain. Looking out into the surrounding trees, I wonder if the salt will attract animals to our front door, and if so, what kind. Maybe my beast is out there. The leaves rustle in the breeze, muted and heavy from the rain. We eat and play cards. We say words and I struggle to understand their meaning, the pain in my head interfering. Something about a tree lion, how they climb to escape or hunt, or maybe both. Something about chips and betting. “How do you know how to play that?” I ask at one point and my younger son shrugs. A cold sweat springs up on my back and it could be the headache or it could be the thought of my son out in the world, alone, learning how to gamble from strangers. I play with the boys until I can’t hide the truth from them any longer. “I’m not feeling so great,” I tell them and their foreheads scrunch up in concern. “I just need some quiet time.” Somehow it is not yet noon. Time has stopped. Time has potentially begun to move backwards. If I wait long enough, maybe I will get my husband back. I place the children in separate rooms. One hour. They know this because we do it every day. Every day, just us. One two three. My whole life the shower in this log cabin we visit every summer the hot and cold faucets have been reversed. I turn on the cold faucet and wait. Someone knocks at the door and I say, “Yes?” even though I am naked and standing outside the shower and I do not want anyone to come in, my older son has started to become embarrassed by me, but I can’t figure out how else to answer and no one responds anyway. I stand for a long time with my hand in the stream of water. Freezing cold. I move the faucet further to the left, and further. Finally I turn the knob marked hot and the water warms under my fingers. Did my husband fix the faucets before we left last fall, or am I on the other side of the membrane with the beast, living in reverse? Perhaps I have been living in reverse my whole life. I step into the water and already feel guilty about how long this shower will take. I let the scorching water burrow into my hair and I feel the headache shift, rising to the surface. I no longer see the beast, now there is a man in a field. Clusters of small flowers sprout up at his feet as he dances. I can’t see the flowers well because there is a low mist, or perhaps that’s the steam from the shower. The man wears a mischievous grin, but it’s not a real grin, he’s wearing a mask. He’s not a real man, either; he’s made of wood. To make the shower last longer I shave my legs for the first time in a long time, shedding a layer of skin with the forest of hair, leaving part of me behind. Like I can become something new but still be tethered here, so I can find my way back, find my way back to my children. How many times I have become something new. Daughter, sister, wife, mother. And now this. Widow. Ghost. I think of the many fairy tales I have read but they jumble in my mind. Sometimes the animals the characters meet in the woods help and sometimes they don’t and I’m not sure it’s possible to tell the difference. Headaches have a breaking point, the point at which I would cry into my husband’s arms, when I would tell him I couldn’t take it anymore and he would hold me and assure me I could. The beast would recede after that, back to its own world. I both want the headache to be gone and I do not want the headache to be gone. My children need me. Would it be so bad if the headache never went away? I would be allowed to stay here forever. There is no one but the beast to hold me now, to assure me. The steam rises. The animals. Were they trying to lead me somewhere? The frog, the fish, the spider. I turned them all away. When they could have led me back to my husband. I turn the faucet again, chasing the heat. I hear voices but I don’t know where they’re coming from, which side. “Mother?” Is it my boys calling or me? Is it me or someone else? “Come back,” the voices call, we’re all calling. “Come back.”
-- Hannah Harlow has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her stories have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, The Jellyfish Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. A publishing industry veteran, Hannah now owns and operates a bookstore on the north shore of Massachusetts.