Lily Jordan can’t see the toes of her bright yellow wading boots over her pregnant belly. She sees swirls of orange fly line on the graveled beach, and tree shadows slanting down from the forest. She hears her 6-year-old son, Luke, tossing rocks into the lake.
“Don’t, Luke, you’ll spook the fish.”
“I don’t care.” And another rock shatters the smooth blue-green surface. His hazel eyes challenge hers, his mouth a tight line.
“What’s wrong, Luke?” She feels her womb tightening as if the fetus she carries recoils from her 6-year-old’s negative energy. She is determined not to lose this baby and hopes that today will reveal what turned Luke from a fun-loving talkative child to a silent, anxious one.
She wonders if her fears are catching. She hates to feel angry.
Lily’s gaze drops to Luke’s sodden sneakers, the spot of grease on his “work” pants. He won’t let her wash out the spot for it’s a badge he earns helping his father repair the broken items of their weekly life.
“Do you want me to teach you how to fly cast?”
“No, I want Daddy to teach me.”
“Daddy doesn’t fish.” Lily rests her hand on her belly. She has almost reached term after five miscarriages. But as her belly bump balloons, Luke’s moods swell. He hardly eats, nightmares break his sleep, and he acts out in school. His pediatrician suggests a psychotherapist, but Luke’s father does not want a therapist toying with his son’s brain.
“It’s a stage,” Luke’s father, David, insists.
Lily believes it is too intense to be a stage. She doesn’t know what has set his tantrums off but believes that good therapists expand the mind instead of shrinking it. Her husband tells her to chill and points out that when their pediatrician tried talking to Luke they wound up playing a video game. She is angry with her husband.
Poised at the edge of the lake, she watches Luke spoon sand into a small silver pail he confiscated from one of her plants. Actually, she had been successful at resuscitating the wilted plant — a badge showing she still has her green thumb, so she’s at the point where she wants to scream, but doesn’t because she must protect the baby with healthy energy.
Grateful to see cracker crumbs dusting Luke’s lips, Lily quietly exhales. “If you learn how to fly cast, we’ll go to the river. The trout jump really high there, Luke, like you do on your trampoline.”
“No, Mom. I said I want Daddy to teach me.”
“I know he’d want to, but he works extra hard now that we’re going to be a bigger family. We can take the baby camping and fishing when he’s older. You can teach your little brother how to fly cast.”
Luke glances at her belly, looks away.
A sailboat glides by, Lily noticing its red and white sails fluttering in a breeze that carries the scent of ripe watermelon she associates with the lake.
A chain saw blasts the air.
Another tree falling. Lily’s gaze sweeps the shrinking forest where she grew up, and where now, patches of bright sunlight pool on the pine-needled floor, replacing the oak and maple and ash trees she loves.
Luke’s sneaker stomps the sand. He raises his sneaker while his eyes duel with Lily’s.
“Ants have a right to live,” Lily says.
“They’re just bugs.”
“Please tell me what’s wrong.”
He ignores her.
The weight of failure hovers, but Lily ignores it.
A cloud of mayflies rises over the water. Lily points them out to Luke and gains his attention when a lake trout rises for a mouthful of the tiny winged insects.
A voice echoes up from her past, as gentle as the ripples on the surface of the lake. She was 7 and felt like the sun disappeared when her mother went into the hospital to give birth to her sister. She would not be the center of attention any longer, so her nature-loving Grandma Rebecca drove her down to the river and showed her that she could be part of something bigger.
Insects feed the fish and birds, Lily. They keep the lakes and rivers healthy. Mayflies are the most beautiful insects. And they’re all different. Like you and me and everyone on earth.
Lily repeats her nature-loving grandmother’s words to Luke hoping to engage him.
“Do bugs keep the lake healthy like you keep me healthy?” Luke responds.
She leans her fly rod against a tree, walks over to Luke, and tousles his blond hair. Perhaps it will loosen the humor they once shared. “How about I keep you healthy with a bug omelet? It’s got plenty of protein.”
“Yuck, I’m not a fish or a bird.” He pushes curls off his forehead. “Do fish eat ants, too? And caterpillars? My teacher’s bringing cocoons to class. We’re going to watch caterpillars turn into butterflies.”
“Fish eat the ants that fall into the water, so it’s up to us to let them carry on with their business. Not stomp them. Okay?”
“They carry on business? That’s funny, Mom.” Luke bends over and dribbles spit on a trail of ants.
Lily steps back.
“Mom, the ants go to work like Daddy goes to work. Now they can spit shine their shoes like Daddy does before work.”
Lily smiles. “I bet your little brother will think you’re clever.” She hopes she isn’t pushing the issue, but she wants her happy 6-year-old back. Lily remembers what Grandma Rebecca did after stopping her tears about sharing her parents with a new sister.
“Do you want to see something special, Luke?” She walks down to the lake where the mayflies hatched. She lifts a small rock and turns it over.
Luke stands at her side.
Scraping mud off the rock’s surface, Lily shows Luke the brown multi-legged mayfly nymph clinging to its surface and offers him her grandmother’s wisdom:
“Inside this nymph is a mayfly waiting to be born.”
“How did it get in there?”
“One day a mother mayfly dropped her eggs in the lake. They sank to the bottom and a nymph hatched out. It rose to the surface and crawled under this rock.” Lily remembers how awed she felt about her grandmother’s knowledge of nature — how she felt part of its life cycles when her grandmother said, Lily, your mother’s fertilized egg turned into an embryo and then a fetus like in the book I brought you. There are similarities when a nymph hatches into a mayfly.
She says this to Luke.
Luke peers at the nymph. “It’s not moving.”
“It’s waiting to break open so a beautiful mayfly can emerge.”
Luke’s eyes widen. “It breaks open? Does it hurt the nymph, Mom? If the baby can’t come out can you break open? Can you die?”
A trout leaps out of the water. This aha moment, after Luke expresses his feelings, has Lily feeling like the trout hit her on the head. She wonders how much her miscarriages frightened Luke: the bleeding, the ambulances, the surgeries, and her depressions after each miscarriage. She and David tried to shield him, but the losses happened so fast.
A fluttery feeling inside her belly is not the baby moving. It’s her 6-year-old’s distress.
She searches for the right words. “Nothing bad happened to me, only good things. You were born my beautiful son.” She studies his troubled face and wishes she could go back in time and be more present. “Every creature has a special way of getting born.”
His voice hitches. “Why do you need a baby? You have me.”
Lily’s heart lurches.
“Are you angry?” Luke says.
“No, of course not. I want you to tell me what bothers you.” She remembers to breathe. “Daddy and I want a baby because we love you so much. Love grows when you share it. We want you to have the gift of a baby brother, but most of all, we want to give your baby brother the gift of you because you are special!”
“Will you love the baby more?”
Lily holds Luke’s gaze. “Not a chance. I promise.” She reminds herself that he has been an only child for six years, owning their attention. How could she have been so blind? “Luke, your little brother’s going to think you’re the coolest dude in the world. You know how you look up to Daddy.”
A smile tickles the corner of his mouth. “What’s the baby’s name?”
Lily realizes they didn’t include Luke in that decision either. “We’re not sure yet. Maybe you can think of some names.”
“Okay.” He shifts on his feet. “I’ve got a stomachache, Mom.”
It’s a lot for a 6-year-old to digest, Lily thinks, holding Luke close, observing the white birch trees arcing over the lake, the insects dropping off the leaves of trees rippling the surface. So many currents — the vertical currents of mayfly eggs sinking to the lake bottom — nymphs rising to the top.
Luke removes the rock from her hand and strides over to its place of origin, fitting it into an indentation in the sand. It rests like a period at the end of a sentence. “Look, Mom, now a mayfly will get born.”
The baby shifts inside Lily’s womb. Taking a chance, she places Luke’s hand where the baby kicks. His mouth opens.
“Your little brother knows you’re here.”
“I love you, Luke.”
“I love you, too, and you can teach me to fly cast if you still want to.”
“How about tomorrow, when Daddy’s home? Do you think he could learn, too?”
“I hope so, but we’ll have to cover the couch with all the cushions in the house so he can’t lay down.”
Picturing Luke’s father dozing under a mountain of cushions makes Lily smile.
A robin hops out of the woods, pecking at the ground, scattering gravel. Its reddish belly swells with eggs. “Where do you think that the robin should build its nest, Luke?”
Luke gives it his full attention. “In the tallest tree, where big birds can’t get at it.”
“Where its eggs can safely hatch.”
“Like mayflies, but in their own way.” Luke shoves his hands into the pockets of his work pants. “I can teach my little brother lots of things. Like how to fly cast, and …” His eyes light up. “There’s a boy in my class named Robin. He’s my best friend. He’s really cool, Mom. Can we name the baby Robin? Like the bird?”
Lily thinks the name is perfect because of the memories it will bring. She pictures her husband asking what they did today, and she felt the words rise: “Luke named his baby brother Robin.”