The year our mother, Ruth, passed through menopause, my sister Beth and I watched The Incredible Hulk on TV. Beth was in love with the doctor, Bruce Banner: a sensitive scientist who drank a life-altering potion in his lab; sometimes, angry, he burst out of his shirt and turned green.
“Bruce is really smart and sensitive,” Beth told me while we were swimming behind our house, in a lagoon that led to the sea. “It’s sad he can’t stay anywhere for long, because of his problem.”
“He could explain his problem to someone,” I said.
“People wouldn’t understand, Hazel,” Beth said.
We first heard that our mother was passing through menopause when our father, Henry, got locked out of our cottage one afternoon, while our mother rearranged the furniture.
“Your mother is going through a change,” our father said; he had just come from the law office in his best business suit, carrying his briefcase, and he had begun to sweat.
“Why won’t she let us come inside?” Beth asked.
“She has not been creatively fulfilled,” our father said.
“It’s hot out here,” Beth said.
A few weeks later, our mother was watching the stock market on TV while cooking a roast and her roast burned; she served it with wizened carrots and soggy potatoes; when our father was cutting his tough roast at dinner, he pretended his knife was a saw; Beth and I laughed, but the situation was not funny to our mother, who stood up, plucked the roast from its platter, and flung it out the window. I watched it: levitating for a moment before making a hard landing outside, in a pile of sand. That night, from my bedroom window, I saw the roast carried away by a fat neighborhood dog.
The Incredible Hulk came on in the evenings, after Beth and I were in our pajamas; we descended to the TV room to watch. Beth made popcorn and poured it in bowls; she wore her glasses so she could see Dr. Banner more clearly.
“I know I would be able to help Bruce stay calm,” Beth said, as we watched him explode to defend a female co-worker, his arms swelling.
Sometimes our mother came in to watch TV with us: distracted, her mascara black beneath her eyes. Our mother was like Bruce Banner; she was either a woman we recognized, standing in the rooms we understood, or she was someone else: a creature swollen with fury, her anger frightening. Once, for example, she threw laundry at me in the early morning: dumped it on top of my head, in bed; I opened my eyes, pulled back my sheets, and she began to cry.
“I’m drowning in laundry,” she said. “My whole life has been about laundry.”
I pulled a bra off my pillow, removed a sock from my shoulder.
Our mother took a woodcarving class and Beth and I found her on the porch, overlooking the lagoon, carving a flock of ducks.
“Did you know the male ducks have bright colors, while the females are a drab brown?” our mother said to Beth and me, her knife sculpting a wing.
I had been reading about werewolves around the time our mother developed insomnia; you could become a werewolf if you were conceived under the new moon, if you slept under a full moon on a Friday, or if you drank water that had been touched by a wolf. Werewolves could dress in a protective wolf skin, but they had to remove and hide it at daybreak; if their magic pelt was taken while they were in human form, they could be killed. I was turning pages, late at night, when I saw our mother, wandering the hallways of our house, her nightgown fluttering behind her. I could hear her in the kitchen, washing dishes, and in the TV room where she watched noisy dramas that cast shadows on my bedroom wall.
Beth’s friend, Sadie, told her The Incredible Hulk was just a modern version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We were at the beach, building sand castles, and my moat was filling with water.
“Dr Jekyll was this really upstanding citizen,” Sadie said, digging in wet sand, “But when he became Mr. Hyde, he was a ruthless criminal.”
“Dr. Banner doesn’t become a criminal,” Beth said, “Even when he’s angry, he’s moral.”
“He should still learn to control his anger,” I said.
“He can’t help it,” Beth said, “He drank something in a lab.”
Our mother started smoking at night, on our porch, where her wooden ducks collected in piles; some had eyes but no wings; most were legless. I could see the bright end of her cigarette, growing long. On these nights our father sat on his sailboat, still tied to our pier, drinking beer. They had been mad at each other ever since our mother rearranged our father’s study: alphabetized books, arranged his files so he couldn’t find them, moved his reading chair so it faced east.
“This is my private space,” Beth and I heard our father yell.
“I wouldn’t know anything about a private space,” our mother said, “I’ve never had one.”
Werewolves are transformed by the full moon; I read that their first transformations are slow and painful: clothes caused a burning sensation, bones reshaped and shifted, excessive body hair appeared, followed by glowing eyes, fangs. Our mother took Beth and me to watch sea turtles lay eggs in the middle of the night, in spring. We sat in a soft valley between two dunes, watching female turtles drag themselves out of the sea; they moved heavily on short legs to the places where they dug their holes and deposited eggs.
“The gender of their children will be decided by the temperature of the sand,” our mother said, her hair wild in the wind.
“The mother just leaves her babies behind?” Beth asked when one enormous turtle turned, heavily, and began her laborious journey back to the sea.
“When they hatch, the babies see the horizon and know what to do,” our mother said.
I thought of the babies, awakening to the glow of a moon over the ocean, the sound of waves beating like a heart; I thought of how their gender could be altered by a change in the weather.
Driving home, wind in our faces, stars in our windows, our mother said she could relate to the turtles.
“The females return to the exact piece of beach where they were born and do what their mothers did,” she said, “That’s certainly what I did with my life.”
“Is that bad?” Beth asked.
“It’s predictable,” our mother said.
Beth and I were watching The Incredible Hulk the next time our mother transformed; she had just finished rearranging the living room, and painting one wall, when our father came home from work; he hung his coat in the entryway and stood, miserably, watching her.
“I’m making better use of our spaces,” our mother told him.
“I’m a little tired of getting lost in my own home,” our father said; Beth and I heard him walk into his study and slam the door.
On TV, Bruce Banner was on the verge of an important discovery in his new lab but a villain intended to stop him; our mother knocked loudly on our father’s office door; when he did not respond, she began kicking.
“Ruth, you are wrecking my home,” our father yelled.
“It’s your home?” our mother yelled.
On TV, Bruce Banner was riding an elevator with the villain; he turned to him and said: Don’t make me angry; you won’t like me when I’m angry. This was just before Bruce’s shirt buttons became tight and his facial bones shifted.
I found our mother late one night, building a bonfire on our beach; she was burning the things she’d worn when she was young: dresses, bikinis, a pair of high heeled shoes.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Getting rid of what I don’t need,” she said.
“Are you angry?” I asked her.
“I’m changing,” she said.
She stood a long time, stirring the fire, and her eyes glowed; her face was made longer by shadows.
“You will find,” she said to me, “that a woman is supposed to be young and pretty and take care of other people; then, a woman doesn’t matter at all.”
That night, a storm came and blew our mother’s wooden ducks off our porch, into the lagoon. Beth and I saw them out there in the morning, from our bedroom window: a strange, flightless flock, some without wings, several floating upside down. We watched our mother swim out after them, diving off our pier into dark waters; the wind blew from the northeast and her birds would not come to her; they were pulled by deep, invisible currents.
Dr. Bruce Banner met a number of women with long hair who fell in love with him, but he could never tell them the truth; he ended each show by hitchhiking to a new town. Beth told me she imagined sometimes that she would pick him up, after she learned to drive: roll down her window, and pull over in the tall grass to let him sit beside her. My book about werewolves had pictures of creatures that stood on two legs, with hairy faces; I read it at night while listening to our mother move, sleepless, through all the rearranged rooms of our life. I returned to visit the sea turtle nests but never saw the babies hatch and dig out of their holes; I do not know if they were male or female; I do not know if they mistook the light of cottages for the light of the horizon, their tiny bodies moving towards highways instead of oceans.