Buttery sunlight lit up the spring morning as five-year-old Ethan played in the dirt near the clotheslines while his mother hung the day’s first batch of wash.
“That man with the funny hair, Momma. He’s standing on a corner watching the men put up a telephone pole. They’re telling him to move, Momma, but he don’t move. He just stands there. One of the telephone men comes over and takes him by the arm and real gentle-like takes him up on the sidewalk. Then they put that pole in the ground and he just watches.”
“What man is this?”
“His hair is white and it sticks up all over. He has a pipe. I seed him before.”
“Where is this, honey?” she said absently as she fastened clothes pins to a flapping sheet.
Little Ethan furrowed his brow and concentrated. “Place called Prince...Prince-something. Princetown, I think. Everybody’s carrying books.”
“That’s nice, honey.”
Ethan saw symbols in his head. Though he had not yet entered school and could not write, he was able to scrawl in the dirt a rough approximation of what he saw. “Look, Momma.”
Absently, his mother glanced in his direction. “What is it, honey?”
“I drawed what the man drawed. Look, Momma.”
Lifting her empty wicker basket onto her left hip, Eleanor West detoured near Ethan and examined his stick-scratchings. In the dirt, large block letters described E=MC2. Her boy had never written anything before. Einstein had been dead more than a decade.
Eleanor West’s face screwed up in a way Ethan had never seen. Her eyes widened as if she were not seeing Ethan, but rather something far beyond him. Like an angry rattlesnake her leg shot forward and her bare foot obliterated Ethan’s scribbles. As the boy looked up, stunned, he saw his mother’s hand arc through space, eclipse the sun and sky, and slap full against the side of his head. Through the ringing pain that descended over his little world, he heard her say, “You will not become a witch like your grandmother. I’ll not have it. Do you hear me? No more of this. Ever. Promise?”
Feeling dirty at what he had done and wanting back into the world of his mother’s love, little Ethan blurted, “I promise, Mommy.”
But that night the child dreamed. And he woke early in the morning in terror, soaked. He hadn’t wet his bed in over a year. Shame shivered through him as he stripped off his pajamas and bed linens and dragged them downstairs to the washing machine in the basement. Many times he had watched his mother put in the soap and turn the dial. Ethan pulled a step-stool next to the washer, loaded his clothes and a cup of powdered soap, and started the rumbling machine. He heard water running inside the white porcelain cube, so he turned away, hoping he had done it right, hoping he could get his wash clean before his mother discovered what he had done.
When he returned to his room, he found Eleanor sitting on his bed. “What happened?”
Ethan ran to his mother’s arms. “Oh, Momma, I had a dream. A bad dream. Please don’t be angry.”
“I’m not angry, baby. I just thought we were past all this. What was the dream about?”
Ethan buried his face in her chest, not wanting to speak.
“Go on, baby, it’s okay.”
“You won’t get mad?”
Ethan raised his pale face to his mother’s. “It’s bad, Momma.”
“There’s a funeral.”
Her face looked like a birthday cake that had fallen to the ground. “Who?” Then, in an instant, she said, “No. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
Eleanor watched Ethan closely for the next few days. She noticed that he followed his father, Justin, wherever he went, like a heartsick puppy. One evening, as she rinsed the supper dishes, she watched Ethan and Justin playing catch in the field behind the house. “Is it today?” she whispered to herself. Then, the strength went out of her. She wiped her hands dry on her apron and shuffled into the living room. She settled into the maple rocker her grandfather had built. She stared at the flowers in the wallpaper and rocked and cried until her chest ached.
In the morning, Justin West’s body lay cold next to her in the bed.