by Amina Cain

Two Dimensional War

     It was the middle of the summer. During the rainy season the land around the river was almost like a marsh, but in the middle of the summer it grew dry and cracked. This dry land seemed to stretch for miles with only a few buildings and only a little grass. Then a paper bag or a can would blow across the land. Sometimes I wondered why I had wanted to live on land that looked like a destroyed place would look, but there was something calming about it too, as if it wasn’t required to be anything, as if no one would bother it for a while.
     My husband was away, but I was here, in this place. I had chosen it because my family had lived here.
     I didn’t know many people. Sometimes I would go to my friend Pauline’s house to visit her and her young daughter. Pauline would show me Johanna’s drawings and I would sit down at the desk to look at them one by one. They were often very small, drawn on bits of paper, and they were ordinary. One, a yellow flower on a black background, she said Johanna had drawn just recently. For me, this one represented something I could never explain.

That summer I got headaches. Once I had such a bad headache I couldn’t walk. I stopped and sat next to a field. At times the headache waned and when it did I started to wonder what my husband’s life was like. I had an image of him waking up in the morning and making his bed while it was still dark out. I knew the land where he was living also looked destroyed, but I didn’t know much beyond that. I wondered if he was happy there.
     When my headache finally subsided, the field looked clear. I saw the outlines of everything around me -- a house in the distance, a wooden fence not far from where I had been, a leaf under my hand.

The summer passed slowly by us. I wrote just as slowly. On some nights I only wrote one sentence. On Tuesdays my husband called and we talked for half an hour. On those nights I wrote more.
     “In a few weeks I’ll get to visit for two days.”
     I thought of Johanna. She often wore something that made her look like a wolf and she had to hold it so it wouldn’t slip off her head. “Why do you wear this?” I had once asked her. “Why do you want to look like a wolf?”
     “That’s great news.”
     “I miss you.”
     “I miss you too.”
     I looked at my reflection in the mirror. Why should someone want to look like a wolf?

When he came home we went to a dance not far from our house. I danced with him while Pauline danced with a man she had just met. It was a waltz. After a while we stopped. The men began to talk. Pauline and I walked out to the porch.
     “It’s past Johanna’s bedtime,” Pauline said.
     Johanna was playing in the grass with another little girl. She didn’t look tired.
     “Johanna,” Pauline called in a way that didn’t seem to wait for an answer.
     “Do you like the man you were dancing with?” I asked.
     “A little.” She watched the flame inside the glass lantern. “There’s supposed to be a meteor shower tonight.” But she wasn’t watching the sky, she was still watching the lantern.

Loam as night. When my husband and I first moved here we went to look at a geyser. The ground surrounding the geyser was sandy and it looked like there was salt on the sand. I don’t think we paid attention to the geyser that night.
     I stood there squinting into the darkness, feeling like something was stuck in my throat. I never felt like an adult and I didn’t know how to handle what was happening.
     My husband put his hands in his pockets and moved outside of the light.
The car ride home was awful. I had a headache and I could think of nothing but my bones. I opened up the glove compartment and pulled the things that were inside it on top of my lap.
     “What are you looking for?” he asked me.
     I wanted to find something I could pull apart lightly, stitch by stitch, so that it looked like a new thing when I was finished.

“I see you,” I wanted to tell Pauline.
     She was a woman you might accidentally miss if you didn’t consider her for a long enough time. In fact, she told me she had once felt invisible. She could seem insignificant in an old brown coat, but she was not. She was funny, something I never thought myself to be. Sometimes I was in harmony when I was with her, sometimes I rode on my own body like a blanket I couldn’t kick off.
     I wanted to write about Pauline, but I didn‘t know what to say about her, and I didn‘t really know how to describe her either. And since she liked to read what I wrote, I knew she would be confused when she read what I had written about her.
     I didn’t write about her.
     One night we ran along the river until we couldn’t run anymore. Then we collapsed on the bank and she told me a story about Johanna wetting her bed. Johanna had cried. I turned on my side and watched something cross the land away from us. I don’t know what that thing was.
     “I’m not a good mother,” Pauline said.
     “There‘s no father for Johanna.”
     I wanted to write about that night.
The next time my husband came home he stayed for a week. He made love to me and took me to a play. When the lights went down and the actors came out onto the stage I replayed us making love. I had watched my knees the whole time. Now my husband took my hand and held it in his. We watched the play.
     They say when a horse breaks free, you can not speak. When a person who has reformed leaves a prison, something exists that can’t be put into words.

At Pauline’s house, I helped Johanna put away her toys.
     I had carved into the frozen river that morning with a knife. The things I carved were barely visible. Without knowing they were there, no one would have been able to see them. I hit the ice with the knife as if I were angry, to try to make myself angry, and though a little anger arose, it was not very much.
     I felt hopeful. I had seen something in the ice. There a small green stone was wanting heat. I had hit the ice with the knife over and over again just to make myself feel something.
     “Johanna,” I asked, “what’s this one?”
     I held up something loose and ragged.
     “That one is you.”

Amina Cain lives in Chicago where she teaches at Columbia College and co-curates the Red Rover experimental reading series. Her writing has appeared in journals such as 3rd bed, Spinning Jenny, the2ndhand, Sidebrow, and Denver Quarterly. She has just finished work on her first book, a collection of stories.