Over the crib in the tiny apartment, there hung a bullet-holed paper target, the size and dark shape of a man-its heart zone, head zone, perforated where my aim had torn through: 36 little rips, no strays, centered on spots that would make a man die.
Beginner's luck, said the guys at the shooting range, at first. Little lady, they'd said, until the silhouette slid back and farther back. They'd cleared their throats, fallen silent.
A bad neighborhood. An infant child. A Ruger GP .357 with speed-loader.
It's not as morbid as it sounds, a target pinned above a crib: the place was small, the walls already plastered full with paintings, sketches, pretty leaves, hand-illuminated psychedelic broadsides of poems by my friends. I masking-taped my paper massacre to the only empty space, a door I'd closed to form a wall.
When my stepfather got out of prison, he tracked my mother down. He found the city where she'd moved. He broke a basement window and crawled in. She never saw his car, halfway up the dark block, stuffed behind a bush.
My mother lived. She wouldn't say what happened in the house that night. Cops came: that's what I know. Silent, she hung a screen between that scene and me. It's what a mother does.
She lived-as lived the violence of our years with him, knifed into us like scrimshaw cut in living bone. [End Page 119]
Carved but alive, we learned to hold our breath, dive deep, bare our teeth to what fed us.
When I was 21, my son slept under the outline of what I could do, a death I could hold in my hands.
At the time, I'd have denied its locale any meaning, called its placement coincidence, pointing to walls crowded with other kinds of dreams.
But that dark, torn thing did hang there, its lower edge obscured behind the wooden slats, the flannel duck, the stuffed white bear.
It hung there like a promise, like a headboard, like a No, like a terrible poem, like these lines I will never show you, shielding you from the fear I carry-like a sort of oath I swore over your quiet sleep. [End Page 120]
Joy Castro is the author of the memoir The Truth Book. Her work has appeared in Chelsea, Quarterly West, and the New York Times Magazine. She teaches in the Pine Manor low-residency MFA program and at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.