Emily Brisse

To Be Held

The earth beneath my feet is soft, like a belly, I think, like a mother. I step down upon it quickly, down the embankment that slopes behind the house—over last year’s leaf litter, this year’s fresh growth, shoots of creeping bellflower and fleabane, the young upstarts of maple and sumac—and start immediately to work. I am on a rock hunt. On the house’s front side, there is a line of hostas at the top of the driveway that would benefit from a border of boulders. I’ve decided. Already placed a few. And the count on my two-year-old son’s guaranteed nap is steadily depleting, so gloves on, shovel in hand, I move.

I bend and angle myself around thick logs, mossy with age. I slide sometimes, clutching onto the vines that seem to grow everywhere. I use my shovel as a walking stick. Later, after I’ve lived here longer—for we have only recently arrived—I will think about the richness of the soil, of the deep stores of water running underneath, about the wide nearby lake that is another mother, another source—the constant motion toward something greater. But for now, my body waits for the resistance, a quiver of yeses from my wrist to elbow to shoulder to neck to spine when the shovel shouts ping.

It is not as simple as wanting, I’ve learned. There is much effort that is required.

Over the next forty minutes, I find and dig under and lever out seven small boulders ranging in sizes, squashes to melons. They are black and muddy, and red and smooth, and glittering with gradations. The largest one was barely visible, and when I unearth it, I step back, sweating, breathing hard, slapping at mosquitoes, and glance up at the embankment I will have to ascend. It is probably a little stupid, I think, lugging these things. Pride cometh before a fall. But then I bend low and lift with my legs and hold that rock child in a burdened embrace and climb. Up and up. Pants snagging, ground sinking, arms aching, up.

When I have let the rock drop next to the collection of others—still 200 yards from the driveway—I am no longer thinking about hurrying or hostas or anything else. There is just the sense of the space between my arms and chest where I carried the rock. The memory of a weight. An empty lightness.

I slouch down atop an old oak stump that had been cut close to the earth decades ago. It measures over two feet across, and its surface is soft and damp, like skin. Or, I think, a scar, that most permanent of reminders. I bring my feet in, wrapping my arms around my knees, so my entire body is within the stump’s perimeter. I raise my face, squinting against the late July sun, imagining the trunk that went up and up, the sap that went up and up, the pores and the cells, how long she had stood there, the first year she grew tall enough to see over the sumac, those early leaves, such small green flags of far off promises. The effort of her life.

And now, all that, these many years later—gone. In its place, space. Does she always regret that cleaving, I wonder, or is there, at times, a relief?

Later, I do lug those rocks to the top of the driveway. I place them, one by one, in an arrangement that is varied and surprising, complementary to the hostas, and that, I hope, they’ll each dwell in with some satisfaction: clean and visible, their strangest and prettiest sides highlighted, no longer hidden in the belly of the earth.

But there on that stump I think of my boy, warm in his bed, undoubtedly with his knees tucked under his stomach, his butt pushed into the air, just like it used to press into my ribs, just as it still rests against my arms whenever I rock him in and out of dreams. I both had and had not been ready for him to be born. I will spend the rest of my life, I know now, worrying about this world I’ve delivered him in to.

In the days that follow, I walk again down and through the embankment of my rock hunt. Once it is to salvage the shovel I’d forgotten, once with my son to find a fugitive ball, and once during another of his naps. I tell myself I am scouting for more rocks. They all do look smart up there along the driveway, nudging just next to the hostas, gleaming and cool after a rain.

When I next notice one, though, veiled beneath a crown of vines—four feet of smooth black rock completely parallel with the slope of the land—there is no thought of a shovel. It is too big to carry. Instead, I sit upon its warm body, knees pulled in, sun on my brow, and rest. For a moment, I am still and steady, not certain, but held.


Emily Brisse’s essays and fiction have been published widely, and have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction’s True Story, Ninth Letter, under the gum tree, and River Teeth. A 2018 recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, she teaches high school English at Breck School and lives with her family just outside of Minneapolis.

 … return to Issue 10.3 Table of Contents.