The mother kneels before her son and pushes back his sweatshirt hood. Their cramped kitchen, the house’s poor heat, and on the boy’s clothes, the smoke of burning leaves. He winces when she touches his swollen lip. He offers an excuse about a recess collision, but he can’t look her in the eye. This gentle child, his fascinations with dinosaurs and creek-side frogs and Greek myths. The pain he’s carried since his father left. Later, she’ll make his favorite meal and embrace him in a love rooted deeper than his breathing days, but there’s another kind of love she needs to show him now. “Make a fist,” she says. He hesitates then complies, and she cups his hand, a kiss for his knuckle before she unfolds his fingers and repositions his thumb. “Could break it that way.” She pauses, their hands still united, a pose that could be mistaken for prayer. “At least that’s what your uncles always told me.” She sees her brothers, their roughhousing, their stitches and blood feuds. She sees herself, a girl traumatized by nature shows, the predators that fed upon the weak. She opens her mouth but says nothing, powerless to explain the cruelties of hyenas and little boys.
“Hit me.” She slaps her shoulder. “Right here. Go on.” He stares, and it’s all she can do to not curse his father for the empty spaces he’s left in their lives. The boy reaches out, a tap before his hand drops to his side. “No. Hit me like you’re angry. Like you mean it.” She pushes him, just hard enough to rock him onto his heels. She thinks of hyenas, their bared fangs. Thinks of fairy tales and goodnight kisses and all the other currencies she’d prayed could shield his heart. She’s crying now, for him, for the foolish things she once believed about mercy. She slaps her shoulder, hard, and the bite in her voice echoes in this shabby space. “Hit me. Hit me!”