The first time my son and I arrived at the farm school, the mothers and children were congregating out by a metal swing set with barber-pole stripes. Two girls, about five, rode on traditional swings with long chains, and two younger girls were swinging back and forth on a plastic glider, their gunnysack dresses blowing wildly in the air behind them. A toddler wearing canvas overalls milled about the play yard, and around him raced three bigger boys on pedal-less bikes. Everyone wore boots and appeared warm and remotely preppy in a wool sweater or down vest. A woman held a baby in the cocoon of a calico sling.
It was mud season and still snowing in the mountains, but, lower, this valley felt wet and cool in the morning. On one side were rolling foothills, and on the other a strip of cottonwoods led to a river maybe a half-mile away. The ranch-style schoolhouse was situated mid-valley next to a small farm with two cows, one horse, a few goats, and a coop of chickens.
An old friend was discussing the ability of horses to heal trauma. She wore the same flannel shirt as a few other mothers but tied it at the waist, so it looked more fashionable. I sat to the edge, watching my son. He was three and came running at me, plowing into my legs. I want a bike, he said. I leaned over and whispered, See the goats. He glanced at the pen and ran toward the swings, and I worried he’d get knocked flat—even if he recovered quickly, the sound of his wailing would stay with me for days. He lurched around, his eye on the curving bikes, the undulating swings, the other children in their winter hats, sunscreen whitening their already-pale skin.
I hitched up my maternity corduroys and heard the old friend holding forth. Horses are heart-centered. Pre-kids, this friend and I had smoked cigarettes late into the night, discussing feng shui and karma and applying these concepts to our relationships. But now that we were mothers, she applied these concepts to our children. She also resisted western medicine, finding its routine procedures unnecessary. It wasn’t surprising when she introduced me like this: Here’s Sara. She’s pro-vaccine. And the mothers in the chat circle peered down or away, or they stared right through me.
In the silence that followed, I stepped toward the teacher, who’d been in the goat shed but talked to a pallid woman on a bench nearby. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the younger woman wiped her eyes. In front of them, on a tree stump, was a speckled-enamel tea set. I bent to pour myself a miniature cup of cider.
After outside playtime, the teacher corralled the mothers and children into a circle. We held hands and sang a good morning song and stepped to the porch in single file, our arms out and hands still connecting. The children sat along a bench, and the mothers stood opposite their youngsters. My son’s lips were moving—he tried to keep up with the next verse: Here is my garden / I rake it with care / Then a few seeds / I shall plant there. The older children performed the finger play, and the younger children, captivated, mimicked the tiny movements.
Inside, we sat in assigned seats at a wooden table. The teacher gave a short puppet show with three characters: a gray woman with a broom made from twigs, a king, and a lady with long golden hair crafted from yarn. She then offered a concise weather report involving planetary alignments as well as highlights from an astrological sowing and planting calendar. We were served a dish of grains and fresh fruit—African teff with ripe avocado—and the children ate bread and brown apples—the snack must have been prepared a few hours earlier. I turned to the teacher who sat to my right, at the head of the table, and told her it was the most delicious salad I’d ever eaten. She filled my bowl again. You’re hungry.
After snack, the children left the kitchen area to play in the living room of wooden and natural toys. A few girls tucked fabric dolls into a crib while my son played with blocks on the braided wool rug. He stared at the girls, who were acting out familial roles—Mother rocking the crib while Father retired to the kitchen to wash wooden dishes. The teacher busied herself in a throne-like chair, mending one of the doll’s dresses. It was impossible to tell her age—not yet a grandmother but with white bangs and the sides of her hair pinned up in gold-colored barrettes.
The mothers knitted and talked. The mothers reminded me of a loft of women sewing sails for wooden ships, a scene I’d once come across as a child. The pale mother who’d been sitting with the teacher came to sit with me and taught me a rhyme for the knit stitch: under the fence / catch the sheep / back we come / off we leap. There was something ethereal about her, her skin translucent, her hair threadlike, and it felt easy to be with her without my having to perform niceties. Briefly, I forgot any misgivings I was having about being in this place.
The reasons I came to the school were not complicated. I was looking for community in a deep way as if seeking religion. At the farm school, God was mentioned, but its methodology concerned the spirituality of nature, and it worked for me how church had worked when I was eight or nine. I believed, at least for the moment, in what we were doing: educating children with rhythm, by imitation, through beauty.
My son and I had been attending the parent-child playdates weekly for about a month when the teacher held a Parent Night. I knew not to bring my husband, who was a self-proclaimed skeptic—he stayed at home with our son.
The other couples and I gathered on the rug, and the teacher knelt in the circle and lectured on her philosophy. You must be wondering why I do these things. Several of her principles made sense, but here and there she’d go overboard. For example, she said we should feed our children organic food, but biodynamic was even better, and when a father put up his hand to ask what that meant, the teacher said: Someone prayed over the seeds before planting them. She said children lived closer to the spiritual world, which sounded right to me, but then she said they could see fairies and gnomes we couldn’t see, and: Sometimes I see them too. The teacher warned against having too many electronics, too many modern devices, and we nodded—we all shared the worry technology was taking over our lives and, thus, the imaginations of our children. She sighed and looked at me: Or reading too many books. You don’t need to fill their heads with so many stories.
After her lecture, I wasn’t sure what to say to the deer-eyed, other parents. With her husband, my old friend hummed around the teacher like little birds. I grabbed my things and headed for my car, my legs stiff from having been folded underneath my weight for so long. Navigating the muddy ruts of the parking lot, I noticed behind me the pale mother who, on my first day, had taught me the knitting verse. She was putting her cloth bag on her passenger seat and shutting the door, so we were alone in the grassy lane. She stood close, and I glanced at her skin again—it was almost a light blue. I held my bag over my shoulder with one crooked hand, and she glanced at my free hand as if she might grab it. I’m so glad you’re here, she said. In the early evening, the leaves of box elders flickered in the breeze, and her skin shone beside them. I’ve only a month to live, she added. I breathed in sharply and felt my throat catch. The pale blue mother gazed beyond me, the sky darkening now, a trace of woodsmoke in the air. She hugged me lightly and went around to the other side of her car to open the door. See you next week!
Not even a year before, my mother had died. She’d been in her late sixties. The lung cancer had come on fast—then it had taken her ten days of no food or water. I hadn’t known any of it until one of her last days—there was no way to know. Her husband, not my father, was frail emotionally, and he’d sworn to her not to tell my brothers or me. Since her death, a swirl of questions swept through me like phantoms, and I felt like a house that was empty and haunted.
When I was very young, the age of my son, my mother worked, leaving me with a nanny. But on weekends, when we went sailing on our boat, my mother had been terrified I would drown. She attached me with a string to the white line that went around the entire deck. Of course, she hadn’t meant it to be cruel, tying me up like a dog in a yard. For hours, I watched the bowsprit bobbing along the choppy waves while my older brothers worked around my frame, keeping the halyards and sheets coiled, the sails trimmed or folded like flags. Eventually, I went down below where I played housekeeper, rearranging food boxes on the shelves, containers of cheese and yogurt and berries in the icebox, sliding closed the wooden galley doors. I was captive there too, I imagined.
The next time I drove the canyon road to the school, I felt pulled to it—then when I arrived, I felt tethered and stayed close to the pale blue mother, whose name was Annette, while we did a craft project: pushing wool into acorn tops to make tiny, amorphous dolls. She had two children—a boy who’d just celebrated his sixth birthday and a girl, four. The fawn-like girl followed around the teacher, helping to feed the animals, and afterwards she played with dolls. The boy rode one of the bikes, which suited his rambunctious nature.
Annette was telling me about her part-time job. She had a pleasant voice and did book recordings in town. We sat to the edge of the other mothers who were involved in a homesteading dialogue concerning the freshest eggs and the best recipe for millet cake. Other topics included soaking grains for hours before cooking them, making bone broth, roasting almonds. Can’t you buy almonds already roasted? I asked. A woman whose husband worked as a hospital surgeon chimed in: Yes, but if you want them to be healthier…. I looked to Annette, but she just shrugged. So many rituals appeared to make motherhood easier but in a roundabout way by making it more difficult first. Besides nutrition, the conversation circled around sleep: schedules, arrangements, herbs.
The teacher began singing again, this time instructing the children to pick up the toys and put them all away. Once the room was tidy, we sat around the rug for the final blessing. The other mothers struck me as the most rosy and rested women I’d ever seen, except for Annette.
In the coatroom, everyone changed out of slippers and back into boots and vests. I couldn’t find my son’s hat. He filed out with the others—they would convene in the play yard, this time by the maypole without the teacher. There was the swish of corduroy behind me, and I turned to see Annette sitting on top of a bright green parka that had been folded lengthwise over the side of the bench. We were completely alone now, so I mentioned my mother, her supposed cancer I’d never seen, and how she’d been determined to leave this world in a way she saw as dignified. But I wish she’d stayed long enough to meet the baby, I said and scanned my belly. Annette leaned toward me. She brushed her hair away from her face and whispered: See, our children come into this world attached to our bodies, but they’re individuals in the eyes of God. Annette was telling me children could be born to the wrong parents. Children could easily get the same love, even better care from a parent or grandparent who was not biological. My body is not necessary—it could be another woman giving my daughter warmth. Like a wet nurse. She said her son had detached from her as a baby—he was more connected to the father’s sister who took care of the children while Annette was at work.
A row of windows along the top of one wall lit up the coatroom, but I still couldn’t find my son’s hat. I searched the floor where our boots had been. Annette moved right in front of me, so when I brought my head up, I could see a disparity between the two sides of her chest under her button-down shirt. Her right breast was enlarged. There was something around her arm too, bulkier than actual flesh—I kept staring at it. Did you hurt yourself? She showed me the bottom edge of the bandage: The needle cut me last time. She didn’t meet my eye, explaining she’d been driving to Mexico for treatments. I get there in the middle of the night. Last time I arrived so late, I was so tired, the nurse was so tired. Annette said they took out her blood and filtered it, cleaned it with an ultraviolet light and then put it back into her veins. I asked if anyone accompanied her. A friend. And how often did she go. Once a month. Annette re-buttoned her shirtsleeve. My hands were clasped in front of me. Are you sure that’s safe? She nodded and said, This doctor is American—he was driven out of the States by pharmaceutical companies. They don’t want us to know there’s a cure for cancer. I reached out for Annette next to me on the bench, but she was getting up, pulling her coat out from under me. She was dismissing me when it may have been the other way around. My insides felt like they were on my outsides—I had to keep asking questions in order to right my body. But didn’t you just say you were separating from your children? She furrowed her brow and swished in her corduroys out of the building.
I stepped to the door, which outlined the goats ruminating in their plot. Beyond the field, I knew these foothills led to sweeping, empty forests with spindly jade evergreens, but the mountains were not visible. The valley was socked in. It had stopped snowing in the mountains that morning, and a warm swath of clouds trapped cold air underneath, creating an inversion. I felt stuck, as if I were sick too, like I had fallen into a pool where I couldn’t swim. I pushed my feet onto the grass, past the tables where we spiraled apples another morning even though apples were out of season because apples keep all year in a dark, cool place. Someone had cleaned up the mess from the ground—the skins, pulp, and seeds were nowhere to be seen. I walked to the gate and then outside of it to the huge white fir, where the children played last before going home. My son stood with Annette whose bigger kids were climbing the sturdy limbs. I put my son’s hat on his head and told him, I’ve got something for you in the car.
That night I put my dinner aside. I told my husband the school was like a Pentecostal church where I was being forced to watch snake handling. He looked alarmed since I’d been filtering my thoughts and telling him only positive things. I told him about the pale blue mother’s travels to Mexico for a medical practice that was likely illegal. I said Annette wasn’t just someone in pain—she was someone who would inflict pain on her small children by leaving them. I added that one day I’d seen the teacher’s mail on the porch, including her subscription to a magazine about conspiracy theories. My husband called the school cultish. Then he said we were living so far from town—he thought I seemed less lonely since traveling to the playdates. He reminded me that, along with being pregnant, I still grieved my mother’s death: Normally, alternative ideas wouldn’t faze you. Still, we planned I would speak with the teacher. Only she had the power to talk Annette out of her strange bloodletting.
The following week my voice was too soft when I asked the teacher if we could chat after the playdate. She was cleaning up after our felting project, putting the chunks of wool in a bag and dumping out the warm sudsy water in the sink. She heaved a long sigh. Is this about your boy? He’s pushy. My throat tightened. My son revved a wooden truck over a wooden ramp in the playroom—the teacher and I were in the kitchen area—but the teacher didn’t elaborate. I waited maybe an entire minute for her to speak, and she waited for me while she wiped the very wet table with a thin cloth. Her presence felt so large my resolve softened more. I had to make an effort to say anything. I asked how she could let Annette die. Can’t you do something? The teacher shook her head. My son ran into the kitchen area, but the teacher didn’t acknowledge him. She squeezed the cloth over the sink, so the water dripped out. I told him we’d be another moment, but she started to tell a story, and my son stayed to listen.
A child had come to the school as a baby—he died while still her student at the age of six. She held him first when he was a few months old. Held him last when he was dying. The cancer doctors tortured him. Modern medicine’s not about curing people—it’s about profit. I imagined the teacher telling Annette this same story. My son climbed into my lap. He told the teacher we were going to have a baby. I blushed, but she didn’t acknowledge the news. She kept on about cancer and the therapy Annette was receiving. An ancient process. How it killed bacteria in the blood instead of injecting the body with harmful chemicals. The cancer was very far along. Probably nothing could save Annette, the teacher explained. At least the treatments wouldn’t hurt her. The logic sounded fuzzy, but I wasn’t sure what to believe—as a mother, I often felt expected to trust in things blindly. The teacher had finished her chores and searched my face. Grief welled up just as my husband had warned. Your friend told me about you, the teacher said and turned, hanging her apron on a hook. She was putting on her fleece coat and waiting—she had to go outside before she could go back inside. Finally, she opened the coatroom door, so my son and I could walk out. She sighed. You take on other people’s problems, she said. It’s her choice.
At the end of the next playdate, Annette and I walked out so that our kids were again by the white fir. We’d left the fenced area while the other mothers stayed in the play yard. Every time we came together alone like this we started where we’d left off. On this day, she told me about her family, how three of them had already died of cancer—her grandmother, father, and sister. I asked if they’d had doctors. Annette nodded. She riffled through her bag for her phone. You should see how many messages I’ve sent. She found the phone and scrolled through texts, saying she didn’t have a doctor in town, only a lymphatic massage therapist.
My son had climbed into the big ornamental pine with the older boy and girl. Annette’s son jumped out of the tree and picked up a stick and was swinging it wildly against the ground just beyond the tree. I asked why her family wouldn’t return her messages. Her son swung the stick up again—and then again—and my son was getting very curious. He pushed himself off the first limb to be closer to the older boy. Annette explained her family didn’t write her back anymore—they were angry with her: Since I’m not getting chemo. I asked her son, my voice a note higher than usual, if he could be more careful with his stick. I hoped Annette would chime in, but she seemed preoccupied with our conversation. I don’t know why they think it would work this time—it hasn’t worked for any of us before. Her breath thinned. I suggested she sit on the bench the teacher must have put there for mothers. My son was getting closer to her son. I thought he might step into the stick’s arc—why he’d do such a thing was unclear, except the teacher had confirmed one day during crafting: Little boys gravitate toward chaos. I asked my son to step back, but he didn’t seem to hear me. I reached down to hold my belly. There seemed no easy way to watch any of this unfold. My head felt heavier than the rest of my body. Their father’s sister will take the kids, Annette said softly so that her children wouldn’t hear. I lifted my chin, gesturing to her girl and boy: I don’t know how you can leave them behind. Annette’s expression contorted, and another side of her appeared, a weakness. I know what I’m doing.
The other mothers were laughing in the play yard. I asked Annette if she knew the boy who died, the one the teacher had told me about—Annette was silent. I turned to the children again, asking her: Is he okay with that stick? But she just stared at the grass. I walked over to the boy and gently held his forearm. Can you give that to me please? His expression appeared weathered for such a young child, calculating. He pulled his arm out of my hand and swung his whole frame around. He whipped the ground with the stick and again brought it up, this time very high, and then across my son’s clear face. My child started bawling. I gathered him up in my arms. His cry must have been shrill because the other mothers came running through the gate. Annette stood up, still holding her phone but hiding it behind her coat. She pointed at the stick, saying I’d tried to take it from her child. He didn’t know what to do. I touched the spot where my son had been hit—it was already a soft welt. I knew the skin beneath would blacken. The old friend came over with an open bag. She offered homeopathic arnica tablets. My son batted her away—I couldn’t help but relish his reaction. He must have felt my inward mirth because his moans let up. He sucked in his breath and closed his eyes. I held him close and told him he would be okay. Then I carried him to the car.
My old friend knocked with the crook of her finger on the car window. I had to turn the key in the ignition, so I could roll down the glass. She said if I’d let the children alone, they would have worked it out—my son wouldn’t have gotten hurt. You willed something wrong by going over there and interjecting. I recalled what the teacher had said and pushed aside any lurking paranoia that something was actually wrong with me. But the old friend hadn’t finished. Why are you so awkward now? Are you going to talk to anyone besides that ghostly woman? I didn’t reply, and she let me know I was letting her down, even going so far as to say this was a community, and I had gifts to share. I rolled my eyes and put the car in reverse, waiting for her to walk away in her cowboy boots.
That night I felt cold in different places in my body. The sensation traveled from a small spot in my back to my arms and onto the top of my head. I didn’t need to ask my husband what he thought. The next day I called the teacher. She didn’t pick up, so I talked into her answering machine—it sounded ancient like one with an actual tape. I stuttered as I spoke even when I imagined she wasn’t listening but out with the animals. The drive down’s too far, I said. My son and I would not be coming back.
Just before her death, my mother had called to say she was sick and declining medical treatment. It was too late anyway, she’d said, crying. Later, when I read up on food and water refusal, I realized she must have been panicking. She must have been in hospice, knowing her time would soon end.
The following week my thoughts pointed into corners. I kept thinking about the timeline, how Annette said she’d only a month to live—how she would attend the farm school, and I had nowhere I needed to be. My son forgot about the fading mark under his eye and wondered when could we return—What will they do without me? My husband stayed home from work a few mornings to play with him.
Very early one of those mornings, when sleep tugged at my body, but the baby was wide-awake and moving around under the surface of my skin, I got out of bed. I was in the half-light of the kitchen, between the counter with red and green variegated fruit and the curtain-less window bright with snow from the ground outside. I cooked a rich broth with chicken and vegetables. I steamed a cup of rice to put in with the broth. I sat at the table and wrote a letter to Annette, asking her to explain everything to her children: Don’t assume they won’t understand. I left the sleeping house and headed one last time to the farm school. The more I drove into the valley, the more I couldn’t feel the openness of the world, the way I had felt it as a girl when I’d been out on the water and dreamed I would someday encounter infinite possibilities. I was a wife now, a mother, and with my second child, and my life choices were narrowing.
Annette’s vintage sedan stood out among the shiny station wagons in the lot. Her passenger side was open, and I set the pot in her car with the letter, but the door didn’t close right. I opened it again and slammed it shut. I had one hand on the window while I caught my breath. My belly was high and spherical but askew, like I was carrying a pumpkin. My car idled, so I leaned in to turn the key and shut off the engine—the urge to see about Annette was still great. I walked toward the white fir to where I could see the horse and goats on the other side of the field, bands of foothills behind them. I strode through the gate past the maypole to the center of the play yard. I came to the spot in between the mountains and the house where we formed the circle and sang good morning to the birds and the bees, but I wasn’t taken up with the scenery. I had been a grown woman attending preschool again when I should have been working, even if it meant leaving my son with a caretaker. I was wrapping my mind around the treachery that beset families who came to this place when through the kitchen window, I saw two figures—they were the shape of mothers—the one who created this sanctuary and another who came to find solace in it. I stepped into the perfect light of the coatroom and listened to the murmur of familiar voices and children playing. Then I stepped back out into the play yard. The spring air felt like a wide and warm lake I could swim across.
I hadn’t yet reached the gate when I heard someone call my name. I turned to see Annette. She was holding her layered skirt with one hand, so she could move her booted feet a little faster. I knew it was just temporary, she said, taking my arm. I knew you’d be back. She was no longer a pale blue—she was graying. But she was still here. Her children flew out from the door and ran to the play structure. Annette followed them with her eyes. Her expression was open and clear like the space between our bodies.
Elizabeth Brinsfield is a teacher and editor living in Iowa. Her creative work has appeared in the Kenyon Review and Passages North among other places.