The Ouroboros by Mary Gayle Newton

It was like this ceramic woman Eli had made for me when he was eight years old. He’d made her for Mother’s Day, and Tara had helped him fire her in a kiln in the art teacher neighbor’s backyard. The ceramic woman had an hourglass figure, a smiling face, and obvious bosoms. Her hair, a cluster of vermiform strands, looked like it had been a lot of work.

Eli had made a lady as his Mother’s Day gift because it was easy to roll a ball for the waist-down part, and another ball for the top half, with two more balls for the boobs. Then a little ball for the head with its rudimentary face, a couple of eye-dots and a fey smile, etched with a bobby pin. Her arms were amorphous, handless protrusions that extended from each of her sides, like a manatee about to hug someone. The face wasn’t much like mine. Still, I loved her because Eli had made her. 

I kept her on the windowsill in the kitchen for a couple of years, but she was too rounded at the bottom of her skirt, since Eli didn’t know how to make feet. This made her unsteady, and she kept falling off into the sink and getting broken. I moved her to different places in the house, but she always toppled again and broke further, and eventually she fell into obscurity and was forgotten.

She resurfaced, gradually, over the course of a chill autumn day five years later, a red-leafed day full of the scent of woodsmoke.

A police officer came to the door, saying that a white Honda, registered to me and my husband, had been found a few miles away on a back road, totaled. There was no one inside of it. A passing driver had called the police because the abandoned car protruded into the narrow lane, partially blocking the street.

Cress, my youngest, had strep throat, and I’d been making her a cup of honey tea, which I had to put on hold while I talked to the officer. Tara came through the door as he was explaining that the Honda had been wrecked against a tree, and, thankfully, not against anyone else’s car. Without speaking she strode to the girls’ bedroom and closed the door behind her.

“That’s the daughter that drives the Honda,” I explained. “Excuse me for just one minute.”

In the dimness of the girls’ bedroom Tara told me that Kyle Surdoval, her boyfriend since she was a freshman, had broken up with her. He was now a couple with Shelly Nordstrom, her oldest and closest friend. 

“That bastard,” she hissed. “How could he do this?” With the back of her heel she kicked the wooden frame of her bed, making it shake as if it would collapse any second. She ranted that she didn’t need this at the beginning of her senior year. Cress, in the other bed, watched through eye-slits.

“Oh, honey,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

Tara turned her back and put her hands over her face.

“I wrecked the car,” she muttered, with her back still turned, wiping her cheek on the back of her hand. “Is that why the cop’s here?”

“’Fraid so.” 

An image of her father appeared between the two of us, furious at her recklessness.

The door opened and Eli entered. It closed behind him with a secretive gentleness.

“Why’s there a cop in the living room?” he whispered.

“Tara wrecked the Honda,” I whispered back, feeling unreasonably ashamed of not being angrier. “She’s upset right now.”

“It’s okay, Tara,” Eli said, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. “The car was a piece of crap.”

“The car was impounded,” I told Tara, knowing this was irrelevant from her perspective. “You can tell me what happened later. I have to talk to the officer.” She continued to wipe her eyes while Eli gaped, beginning to understand that this wasn’t just about the car. As I passed him, I noticed something on his arm.

On Eli’s right upper arm something green was drawn, as though with a marking pen. It registered in my brain for a fleet moment, and I assumed it was one of those temporary tats kids get from gumball machines. Then my eyes returned to the front room where the police officer stood waiting.

And just as I began to ask him if it was necessary to file a report, and if so whether we could do it another time, because a family crisis was going on, the phone rang. Eli was saying “Mom, it’s for you. It’s the school.” 

The officer kindly explained that there was probably no reason to file any further reports at this time. He gave me some papers related to the Honda having been impounded, and left.

I crossed to the phone where the assistant principal at Drake’s Point High told me Blake had sucker punched Eric Surdoval, the younger brother of Kyle Surdoval, Tara’s ex-boyfriend. Blake had done this in protest against the violation of his sister’s feelings. The fact that it was Kyle who had broken Tara’s heart, and not Eric, hadn’t seemed relevant to him. He was suspended for five days.

“You might want to put some restrictions in place at home,” Mr. Barbera said. “This is the third suspension for Blake in the last quarter. All these missed days are going to wreak havoc on his academics.” 

“You’re right, Mr. Barbera,” I heard myself say. “He needs restrictions. Placed on him, I mean.” With one ear I was listening to Tara, in the kitchen, telling Eli she’d had no idea the tree was coming at her. Then suddenly, there it was. Turning my head, I glimpsed Eli gesticulating, the green thing on his arm appearing and disappearing into the sleeve of his T-shirt.

Which brings me back to the ceramic woman he’d made. Tara had glued her back together the first few times, when it was only her arms that had fallen off. Then I’d moved her to a small table on the porch. There she’d leaned against a potted plant so her lack of feet wouldn’t matter. But the dog wagged his tail and knocked her down, and Cress ran past and knocked her down again. I think her head came off that time, and I’d glued her back together myself.

Finally, one summer morning, Blake had Eli in a headlock on the porch, and Eli was trying to kick himself free. The table jostled and the ceramic woman fell a long way. Her various members all cracked apart, and it seemed I didn’t have a ceramic woman made by Eli anymore. Unable to bring myself to toss what was left of her, I put the pieces in a plastic bag, and stuck them in the bureau drawer where I keep my nightgowns.

“They all need restrictions,” Barbera said, in a confidential tone. “Believe me, I know. I have eight of them myself.”

In my distracted state I wondered what eight restrictions Barbera could have. I pictured ankle bracelets and restraining orders.

“Eight?” I said faintly. “I’m—I’m sorry.” 

Barbera burst out laughing.

“Sorry? Well thanks. I guess I do need the support with eight children. That’s a big family these days.”

At that moment Blake walked through the front door and skulked toward the boys’ bedroom.

“I just have four,” I said. “And they’re more than enough. Anyway, I have to go. Blake’s here.”

“My condolences.” Barbera hung up, chuckling unsympathetically.

In the doorway to his bed chamber, I told Blake I knew about the suspension, but he flung his backpack across the room and denied having been in a fight. I told him there was no point denying it because Mr. Barbera had just called. 

“Barbera’s a freakin’ liar.”

I searched his backpack for documentation while he yelled at me to leave his stuff alone. The pack contained only wrinkled, half-completed sheets of algebra, Gatorade bottles, and hardened french fries, which suggested that he’d thrown away the notice of his suspension. 

“Your father and I will deal with you, together, when he gets home.”

“Nothing to deal with.”

“I think there is.”

I left the room, carrying the bottles.

“So Kyle dumped you?” Eli was saying as I tossed the plasticware in the recycling bin.

Tara nodded, tearing up.

“What do you want done to him?”

“Nothing you can do.” She smiled.

“You think I can’t tie his tonsils around his head? And kick him into the next county?”

This got a laugh, since Eli was a groundhog-shaped thirteen-year-old whose most athletic feat was falling down spastically on purpose to disarm bullies. I was about to press Tara for the details on what happened to our white Honda, how she managed to plow it into a tree, and how she’d gotten home afterward, when Eli turned to face me, and I got a better view of the green thing.

“What’s that?” 

Tara and I stared at his arm.

“What? This?” He pointed, obviously stalling.

“I’m out of here.” Tara scuttled away.

“Who drew that?”

“It’s Irish,” Eli said, nervously.

“I can see that. But how did it get on you?”

“A friend of mine did it.”

I tried to picture some friend of Eli’s drawing the elegant Celtic knot with a jade-colored gel pen. It was perfect, like it had been done with a stencil.

“Can I look?” I took a step toward him.

Reluctantly, he pulled the sleeve of his T-shirt back and bared his arm. “It’s just an Irish style drawing.”

I had to admit that the design was cool. It made me think of Celts as aboriginal people, as they might have been before the Roman occupation. That and sailors drifting through fog on ships shaped like dragons. And on closer scrutiny I could see that the complex, beautiful drawing was a snake with its tail in its mouth.

“It’s a tat, Mom.” Tara was lurking in the hallway. It seemed she couldn’t quite leave her brother alone with me right now.

“Will it come off?” I pictured rubbing it with warm water and soap.

“No, Mom,” Tara said wearily. “It’s a permanent tat. He knows somebody whose brother is a professional tat artist. The guy did it under the table.”

“It’s Irish,” Eli repeated.

“For what money?” My voice rose hysterically. Even as the vertigo came over me, I realized how weird it was that I was getting hysterical over the wickedly beautiful Celtic knot on Eli’s arm when the Honda was wrecked. 

“His birthday money,” Tara said. “From Grandma Peggy.”

I had fainted only one other time, and that was when I’d found out I was pregnant with Tara. This time I didn’t pass out. Just sank down onto the kitchen floor, black spots encroaching on my field of vision.

As I went down I remembered Blake having Eli in a headlock, Eli trying to kick himself free, the table jostling, the ceramic woman falling onto the steps.

“Mom!” Tara knelt beside me, genuinely worried. “Eli! Get her a glass of water!”

“Water won’t do crap.” Blake loomed in the doorway. “Call 911, you freakin’ idiots.”

While Eli was getting a glass out of the cabinet, Tara passed to the phone, but I managed to stop her before she summoned an ambulance.

“I’ll be okay.” I was still half lying on the kitchen floor. “It’s just that the blood left my head so that it could—could nourish other organs.”

Eli knelt beside me, proffering water. I drank it to be polite.

“Aren’t you supposed to put your head between your legs?” he said. “So the blood will run back into it?”

“Put your feet up, Mom.” Tara brought a chair over.

“I told you not to get a tat, you moron,” Blake told Eli. “Mom almost fainted. She could have hit her head on something when she went down.”

“I’m okay. I just—why do all these things have to happen at once?” I gripped my head.

“It’s just what happens when you have kids,” said Eli in a reassuring tone. “Things are all chaotic.” 

And then Cress wandered in, a blanket around her, wondering about the progress of her lemon-and-honey tea.

***

 Several hours later I was in my bedroom, in retreat mode, when the door opened a crack and Eli’s face appeared in it.

 “I’m sorry about the tat, Mom. I didn’t know you’d pass out. I swear.”

“What possessed you to get a tattoo? Did you know tat artists aren’t supposed to ink up juveniles without permission from their parents? You have to be eighteen.”

“It wasn’t his fault. I told him I had permission. Oh hey, you still have my statue.”

For some reason I’d taken the clay woman from my drawer as we talked, barely noticing what I was doing.

I hadn’t looked at her in a couple of years. Her head was off, and a big piece was missing from the back of it. Large chips had broken from the top and bottom halves, and both her arms had come off, bizarrely evoking the Venus de Milo. 

“Yes, you made this figurine for me,” I said. “And also were instrumental in its getting like it is now.” The thought of Eli and Blake wrestling on the porch made those black spots reappear, momentarily, before my eyes. “What kind of consequence do you want? For the tat, I mean. I should start by making you write Grandma to tell her what you spent your birthday money on.”

 “Aw, Mom. Can’t I just rake leaves? Anyway, Grandma would probably like this.” He pointed to his tat again.

 I had to admit that my mother, a lover of all things Celtic, would probably like the tat.

“It’s called an ouroboros,” he said, more enthusiastic than someone who had recently given his mother a fainting fit should be. “It’s one of the most ancient symbols there is. It said so in a book.”

 He went on to tell me that his English teacher had made the class check out books from the school library, and he’d chosen one from the art section that contained pictures of Celtic knots with little text. As a result of this school assignment he’d found the ouroboros, and, deeply impressed, he’d wanted it tattooed on his body.

 “The ouroboros means that everything gets recycled! Like leaves are falling off the trees right now. But they’ll grow all green again in the spring. That’s why the snake’s tail is in his mouth. Things go around and around.”

 “It will never come off,” I told him.

 “I know!” His face brightened. “Which makes sense, because it’s a symbol of eternity!”

 But my eyes were fixated on the ceramic woman. 

“I want you to fix that,” I said. “It will be your consequence.”

 “What? This?” His eyes widened in horror. “Mom! No one could fix that thing. It’s broken all to hell.”

But I was already rooting through my arts-and-crafts box for the glue.

Eli was at the kitchen table for the rest of that evening, trying to glue the ceramic woman back together. There were many distractions, such as Tara crying over Kyle, her father’s lecture about the car, and his parental blowout with Blake over the suspension. So I sat across the table to keep Eli from wandering away. It took him some time just to glue the back of her skull on. 

“I’m glad you’re making me do this,” Eli said. “It was messed up that this statue got wrecked. I made it for you. And I wanted you to have it.”

My son Eli is one of those chubby guys who are surprisingly successful with women because they know how to charm. So it was hard to know how much of this was genuine and how much was an attempt to mollify. Still, he worked on the ceramic woman through the evening, and by bedtime the figurine was, amazingly, reassembled. We sat gazing at it together.

“Doesn’t it look like people from the ancient Egyptian days would all have a statue like this in their houses?” he said. “So they could, you know, ask it for things? And get it to solve their problems?”

“It certainly does,” I said.

I had to admit that it now looked like an icon some archeologist had dug up from a 10,000-year-old site in the Fertile Crescent. An icon that had been run over by plows and tractors, had been walked over by hooved animals, and had survived a variety of weather conditions, including, perhaps, the rising of the Nile or Euphrates. 

I put the figurine in with a potted fern, on the kitchen counter, her rounded bottom half deep in the potting soil in hopes that she wouldn’t fall over this time.

 Mary Newton is a writer and retired teacher. She has a BA in English with an emphasis in creative writing from UCLA and an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University. Her work has been published in isacoustic, and The MacGuffin, and is forthcoming in Evening Street Review. 

1 thought on “The Ouroboros by Mary Gayle Newton”

  1. This is a great “mom-life” story. Strikes the overwhelming feeling of handling a bunch of kids.
    Thanks, Mary!

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