Burn Your Maps

A short story

By Robyn Joy Leff

Six days after Halloween my nine-year-old, Wes, is still dressing in the furry, puffed-out uniform of a Mongolian nomad. He goes to school in the bushy fake fez he ordered off the Internet, tromps across the light Portland snow in his bloated felt boots. What seemed impossibly clever at the end of October has by November grown a bit disconcerting. We threw the gap-toothed pumpkin out two days ago, and Wes merely yawned. But just try to touch his hat—say, to wash his hair—and he turns all claws and parental condemnations.

Wes's father, Connor, is more annoyed than troubled by this unexpected detour into Ulan Bator. Connor, who sells next-generation CAT- and PET-scan equipment to major medical centers, survives on his ability to make up other people's minds, to blunt dissent with reason.

At dinner he shouts at our son, one word at a time: "Who are you?"

"I'm a yak herder, sir."

"Who are you really, though?"

Wes considers the question carefully. "For now," he says, "you can call me Baltnai."

Connor refuses to call his son Baltnai. On the seventh day, at breakfast, we all sit in silence and glare: I at Connor, Connor at Wes, Wes at no one in particular. When Wes is in the bathroom, Connor seriously suggests that we stage a midnight raid, rip off the kid's costume while he's asleep, and toss it in the trash compactor. End of Mongolian story.

"A fledgling imagination is at stake here," I say. "We can't just crush it."

"I've got this weird stomach thing again," Connor says, tossing away his pumpernickel bagel. "Every morning."

"Connor, he's only nine. The developing brain is wacky."

"Wes is not going to be wacky."

I touch my hand to his shoulder. "What I'm saying is, he has a lot of good reasons."

Wes comes out of the bathroom dragging a huge ball of toilet paper, at least three quarters of the roll, wrapped into an amorphous blob and hitched to his wrist with mint-flavored floss.

"What in the world are you doing?" Connor asks.

"Now I have a flock," Wes says. "A little lamb."

"What about Ethel?" I worry all the time about my son's fading allegiance to our elderly dachshund, about his breaking her very fine heart.

"She's a dog. This is a lamb."

"You're not dragging that pile of crap to school," Connor says with a snort.

"It's not a pile of crap," Wes states, entirely cool. "And Dad, even in Mongolia sheep don't go to school."

In our usual routine, Connor drops Wes in front of Hawkins Elementary and me at the equally dour-looking community center. Wes gets a kiss, but I don't.

"Why don't you ask one of your freaky child-psych friends," he says when I'm already halfway out of the car.

"Connor, you're making too big a deal. Do you know my brother swore he was Spider-Man for a month? One day he started up our garage and he actually thought his hands would stick. The fricking moron broke his leg, pissed off my dad, and ended the superhero summer."

"Lovely. Your brother. Alise, let me ask you something." Connor doesn't even turn off NPR. "You ever had any Mongolian students?"

"Probably. We cover the globe here in the Pacific Northwest."

"You think that has anything to do with it?"

"It's going to be my fault now—is that the concept?" I zip my jacket high over my throat.

"It's just a question," Connor says. "A line of inquiry."

"It was a National Geographic Special, Con. That's what Wes says. Ask him yourself, Mr. Inquiry."

"That damned Discovery Channel," Connor says. "They act as if all information is equal."

"I think it's TBS," I say.

"He watches too much TV as it is," Connor says.

"Con, it's not like we let him watch Wild Police Videos."

"Let's review this later," he says.

"Have a nice day," I say.

I teach English as a Second Language. My students come from Mongolia or Turkey or Laos, yet I rarely know it. They are the tired, the huddled, the oddly uniform masses who yearn for Oprah and Wolfgang Puck and Intel. They all wear Gap-ish clothing, even if it's secondhand or Kmart. They bring lunches that have nothing to do with where they come from—the Polish woman eats supermarket sushi, the Japanese teenager downs a burger, the Somali carries in boxes of Chinese takeout and snakes cold spicy noodles into his mouth with his equally serpentine fingers.

I used to love all this, used to get off on the very odor of the classroom—a volatile magic of knockoff perfumes, ethnic spices, and cheap wet leather. I could smell the hunger to fit in, to regenerate into fatter, tanner, more legend-worthy versions of themselves, and it aroused me intellectually. I wanted to feed that hunger, wanted to snake American customs and social niceties and the correct use of adjectives into their heads like so many cold spicy noodles. But that was before burnout set in, before I saw too many of my students get nowhere or get terminally frustrated or get deported, their well-taught English turned to spite.

This year, for the first time in a long while, I have a favorite. I actually find myself bouncing to class, pleased to sit authoritatively behind my desk waiting for Ismail to walk in, always with that loose neon-blue backpack bumping toward his high ass, always with the slightest, smoothest shift of the eyes, always catching my eyes with the very corner of his.

He is a Pakistani in his forties, short, and lean. He was an engineer in his former life—something to do with mines, I believe, though I fantasize that he is a bridge builder. Earlier in the quarter I asked my students to write a short essay titled "My Advice to New Immigrants Coming to the USA." I got a lot of funny answers—"There are many bad drivers." "Bring earplugs." "You must have some lucky." "Eat ketchup, yum."—but Ismail's actually stopped me in my tracks. He wrote,

Throw out all maps. Rip them from your books. Rip them from your heart. Or they will break it. I guarantee. Toss all globes from the roof until you have plastic pieces. Burn any atlas. You can't understand them anyway. They are offensive, like fairy tales from another tribe. The lines make no sense and no longer make mountains. You have come to the land where no one looks back. Remember, don't look back. Don't look out the window. Don't dare turn your head. You could grow dizzy. You could fall down. Throw out all your maps. Burn them.

I asked him to stay after class the day I returned the papers. I underlined the A on his essay twice.

"Your essay was so poetic and so sad," I said. "Your written English is quite excellent."

"Yes, it is for crying," he said. "I am this year forty-five, but I am learning like an American boy. Every day I see MTV. Now I rap better than talk. You enjoy Snoop Doggy Dogg, teacher?"

I snorted. He wasn't the gloomy or downtrodden sort I'd expected. "I don't know, we're more into 'NSync at my house. Tell me, Ismail, what are you hoping to do here in America? Return to engineering?"

"No, not one chance. I want to have a coffee shop. Coffee makes all the world happy."

"Not me, actually. Burns my stomach."

He frowned. "For you, for you then, teacher, we have something very special. We have sweet milk, or mint tea, or a drink of almonds. No worries. We make you happy. We will. No doubts."

For some reason in that moment I believed him, and we became friends after that, talking after class about the vagaries of Portland's traffic laws, about the cultural accuracy of The Godfather, sometimes even about Connor and Wes. Ismail never talked about his own family, and I didn't push in that area. After all, he was a man who advocated throwing away all maps—and what were families if not sharp demarcations in the flesh?

But on this day, when all the others have shuffled from the room with their admittedly cushy assignment to write a New Year's party menu, I sit on the floor next to Ismail's folding chair and say, "I've never asked, but do you have children?"

"What do you mean with 'have'?" He smiles slyly. It is impossible to know if he is teasing, playing the coy student.

"Are you a father?"

"Of course," he answers. "But my children, they are not with me in my home. So I think I do not 'have' them, as you say."

"Oh," I say. "I'm sorry, then."

"That's no problem," he says. "But you. I think you look very bad. Unhappy."

"No sleep. My son is acting a little weird, and my husband is angry."

"Anger is for husbands," Ismail says with a shrug. "That is the way."

"I know, but this is different. We disagree about Wes. About how best to raise him. You understand?"

Ismail, perched above me in his chair, lowers a hand, seemingly toward my hair, and then lets it slide away. "In this country," he says, "I cannot imagine to be a father. Your problems, they are so—" I think he's going to say "ridiculous"—"decadent."

"Well, Wes wants to be a Mongolian."

"What do you mean by this?" Ismail is no less confused than I.

"He wears a little tunic and pretends he's from Inner Asia. I don't know why—something he saw on TV or read on the Internet. It struck him as, I don't know, a kind of home."

"Mongolia? Like, as in, Mongolia?"

"Yeah, Mongolia."

"Shitty Mongolia?" Ismail shouts. "Dirty, ugly, poor Mongolia?"

We both start to laugh, the kind of musical laughter that feeds on itself, until Ismail puts a long finger to his stilled top lip and settles himself deep into the impossibly flimsy-looking chair beneath him.

It always ends this way. No matter how Ismail and I begin our conversations, they always complete themselves just like this. We both shut up and just sit together. We don't look in each other's eyes. We don't touch. We just slump, staring into space, breathing lightly, together. At first I found it quite odd, disturbing, indefinite; but now I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't some previously undiscovered form of love.

Wes leads his toilet-paper sheep to the dinner table on night No. 7. Connor makes strange faces at me, curling and crushing his lips.

"I met a neurosurgeon from the Ukraine today," he begins, spinning yet another tale of M.D. heroics for Wes's future benefit. "He was all of five foot one, ugly little guy, but they say he has magical hands. He can make precise movements of a millimeter or less. You know how big that is?"

"Has he been to Mongolia?" Wes asks.

"Didn't ask. He uses something called a gamma knife. To blast right through tumors. Is that cool or what?"

"Mongolia isn't that far from the Ukraine," Wes points out.

"How was it in Mongolia today?" I ask.

Connor clicks his tongue at me.

"It was cold," Wes says, "but then, it always is. It was windy, too. It's almost time for dzud."

"What's dzud?"

"It means the slow white death," Wes says.

"Jesus," Connor says. "Are you okay with this?" He is pointing his fork at me, a piece of spinach waving limply.

"Wes," I say, ignoring Connor, "what is it you like so much about being Mongolian?"

He squints at me. "Can I sleep on the stairs tonight?"

"Why, Wes?"

"Baltnai," he corrects. "Because that's where the Mongolians live. On the steps."

"That's s-t-e-p-p-e, you know. It means a plateau, like a high, flat piece of land."

"I know what it is, Mom," he says, in the fierce way of smart boys. "But since I'm here, I got to do what I can to be there."

"Name me one reason," Connor says before bed. I could name him three, not the least of which is that we are on the verge of separation. On the verge, we say, as if it were a bungee-jumping platform, as if we could just step backward at any point and laugh at what we almost did. But I don't want to start that talk tonight, so I say, "Grandpa Firth."

"Absurd," Connor says. He is lying on top of the covers in his briefs, fingertips jammed just under the band, which incongruously screams JOE BOXER. He doesn't look as if he could sell firewood to an Eskimo. He looks like a little boy himself. He turns to the right and hugs the bottom of his naked ribs. I toss his half of the blanket over him. He shrinks to a lump beneath it.

"Slow white death," I say. "You think that's a coincidence?"

"Alise," he says.

Two months ago Connor's father died in our television room, surrounded by hospital equipment and cases of Ensure. Before that we saw Grandpa Firth maybe once every other year, guilted into occasional holidays. Wes barely knew him. Hell, I barely knew him. Connor used to say he didn't want him spreading his lies to Wes. I knew only that Connor was like a nine-year-old himself in the old man's presence.

"You don't see the connection?"

"Between my old man and Mongolia? You're just pushing any button you can find."

"No—I mean, maybe there's something there. About the incredible transience of human contact. Or something. I mean, I don't know what I mean."

"No shit, Sherlock."

He shuffles and moves in closer, his skin sharp with cold, igniting that lingering instinct to warm what's next to you. It's almost as though we could drop this whole pretense of so many years, wiggle into one another, make sweat-happy teenage love. Instead I slide the sole of a foot onto his icy calf.

"I think Grandpa Firth told Wes that he used to be a CIA agent in Singapore."

"I'd say it was the chemo talking, but that was him. In translation, he meant he once had too many drinks in a bar in Singapore."

"I'm just saying that Wes liked his stories. He's got that storytelling thing now. It's like an addiction."

"My dad was real good with addictions."

"It kills you that anyone could like Will Firth, doesn't it?"

Connor wriggles a little. "You're so wrong it's hilarious, Alise. That's the only thing around here I'm happy about. Wes was the only one who ever made my dad—" He clears his throat as if he's going to cry, but of course he doesn't. "But you know," he goes on, "maybe it's you, and the way you give him so much freedom. He lacks a sense of that one thing Will Firth gave me—boundaries."

I snort, but then suddenly I'm the one who's crying. Lightly, but still crying.

Boundaries. Borders. Maps. I retreat fully from Connor's body, drop my foot off his warming leg, tuck into full fetal position. It could be worse, I suppose. I have a friend, a child psychologist as it happens, who keeps separate bedrooms with her artist husband. He has sleep issues, Krista tells me, and he can't fall asleep if someone else is in the room. So once every two weeks or so they come to each other to make love, but she tells me it's like visiting a stranger's bed: they are awkward and silly, and when they're done, they wipe up and return to their separate islands.

Separate islands, my brain sings near sleep. Then, before I drop off, I begin to wonder just how many young nomad boys in the heart of Inner Mongolia—most? 50 percent?—are lying in their yurts right now humming to the Backstreet Boys on some Walkman a tourist left behind, fully engaged in the reverse of Wes's fantasy, certain they were meant to be born American.

I'm sure I have plenty of culpability. Unlike Connor, I don't consider myself that free a parent. Wes may watch some TV shows but not others. A 9:00 P.M. bed curfew is enforced. I've spanked him several times, but never with premeditation. My worst sin may be that I have spent so many nights on Wes's bedcovers, my favorite globe spinning under my fingers. Ismail's nightmare, our little game.

"It's all so close together," Wes said, giggling, in September, because that's what happens when all you do is trace your finger from one land to another: the very shape of distance falls away, becomes an impossible geometry.

"That's just an illusion," I said.

It was a huge error. People of my generation feel we have good excuses for our loneliness. But what about Wes? He flicks through dozens of search-engine hits for Mongolia, and learns that the world's millions are within his reach. So how can he know it's still okay to feel that no one on earth can understand him, that no one can comfort him if he sits in his room, a micro-lump in the middle of Oregon in the middle of America in the middle of the world, losing it?

Connor doesn't speak at breakfast. He just clutches his slight paunch."Are you going to call the doctor?" I ask.

"About Wes?"

"About your bellyache, Con. You see a million doctors every day."

"They're head guys. I need a GI man."

"Like GI Joe," Wes says.

"'GI' means 'gastrointestinal' in medical talk. Like guts."

"Ew, that's gross," Wes says. He rubs his nubby wool hat violently.

"Bet your hair really itches," Connor teases.

"When it does, I meditate. It's like praying, only you do it to Buddha"—Wes says "Butt-ah"—"instead of God."

"Where do you get this stuff?" Connor asks.

"I don't know. Encarta and stuff."

"You know, nomads don't really have the Internet or CD-ROMs."

"Duh, Dad. They don't need it, anyway."

"Why not?"

"Everything they need is right there. They don't have to order stuff from UPS." He is unflinching, standing up to his father. Connor must secretly be proud.

"And where is everything you need, Wes?"

Wes shrugs and squints, making his features so small and pointed that I want to put him back to my breast, grow him all over again. "I don't know," he says. "Where?"

So much purpling blood pours into Connor's face that I am certain he is going to scream. But instead he shuffles quickly toward the bathroom, where he remains until we are all going to be late.

Thank God it is Friday. I'm not exactly looking forward to the weekend, with everything building to a head over Mongolia, but Friday is my student-conference day, when I meet with anyone who makes an appointment to see me. Ismail always makes an appointment.

My Friday slots are almost always filled. Most of my students come desperately seeking help—but not with their English. Today a tall, balding Sri Lankan inquires whether I know any performing-arts agents. His son has an Asian-techno hip-hop band, and if the kid can just snag a record contract, they'll be able to afford a bigger apartment. I tell him to try a book at the library, which makes him belly laugh for a good long minute. At least I'm useful for something.

Sometimes I think I am a fraud, because I myself can barely speak a second language. I can squeak by with some Spanish and a tad of Farsi, and I have painstakingly memorized certain Chinese characters, but I lack that magical ability some annoying linguists have to slide simply between two tongues, easing back and forth between one way of speaking and another. I admit that I am attached to the shapes my tongue makes, to the comforting way my throat opens and closes day after day.

I didn't mean to do this kind of teaching. First I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but my hips bloomed round; then I wanted to be in the Peace Corps, but I met Con; then I fantasized about becoming one of those brilliant private school matrons who mold little geniuses into men and women of the world, only that was just silly. Of course, it was the same for Connor, who wanted to be a brain surgeon but kept failing chemistry. Nothing quite turns out in our lives. But that's what gets me: there might still be a very few remote places in the world—deepest Mongolia, maybe—where a person comes to live exactly the life expected, exactly as offered. I didn't. None of my students has. Wes, child of his times already, doesn't even have a shot at it. And yet somehow it thrills me—and maybe Wes as well—to know that such a thing remains imaginable.

By 3:00 P.M. Ismail should have arrived, but he is late. In his absence I draw thin, malformed yaks on my doodle pad and think about Connor's stomach. Mostly I imagine it's a problem of emptiness. He has lost twenty pounds in the past six months, has started taking a kickboxing class on the weekends, has stopped buying ice cream. I wonder if this has affected Wes at all—his father's slipping away, disappearing, reducing himself. I wonder also if Connor is doing it for me. Is that possible? Is it wicked to hope that his ill health is rooted in thwarted passion?

When Ismail arrives, he is breathless, agitated. He walks right across my office to the window, which looks on a parking lot overgrown with peeling, rusted Subarus.

"You think you have some trouble," he says.

"Is something wrong?"

"Lahore has called. A son may be arrested."

I think of going to him, but I know that's not what he wants. His skin—what I can see of it—seems to sag, pulled toward the window and away from me.

"Why?"

"It is not known. Maybe some drugs, maybe some politics, maybe, I don't know how to say, crazy, crazy, crazy."

"Will you go there?"

At last he turns around, and I can see his face, which looks no different—as soft and yielding around the lips and jawline as ever, eyes still shifted to the side.

"I cannot, you see."

"Can I do anything? To help?"

He saunters back to my desk, forcing a slow grin.

"Let us discuss the Austin Powers," he says. "I do not get this one."

"Ismail," I say, "I can't talk about Austin Powers right now."

"Why so?"

"You've upset me. You're upset. It's outrageous."

He sits on top of my desk, the way a boy with a crush would. "Everything is what you say: outrageous," he says.

He's so damn glib it infuriates me. I scrunch up my doodle page, yaks and all, and throw it at him. Hard.

He glares at me, finally revealing a glint of hurt. Then he grabs a slim paperback off a shelf and hurls it at my shoulder.

I return fire with a catapulted rubber band. Ismail takes up chalk from my board and strafes my side of the desk with several pieces. One hits me square in the cheek, smarting immediately. I rise and move toward the bookshelves. A paper clip ricochets off my breast. Blindly I grab at a stapler. He takes my wrist. I take his waist.

We crumple into each other, almost hugging. But not. Our arms fall to our sides, the stapler falls to the floor, and we tremble. But we say nothing. We do not touch. We do not look in each other's eyes. We do nothing but stand there.

Finally he steps back and says, "Thank you. You are a good teacher."

"Ismail," I say.

"Shush—we cross no line," he says.

We cross no line, he says. Or at least we pretend not to. You choose your home and you burn all your maps, but that doesn't mean you might not find yourself lost and speechless where the lines fall away and the mountains blur and the silence feels better than years and years of conversation.

Ismail and I walk casually to the parking lot, talking of Austin Powers. "Okay," he says. "But why is this funny?"

"Analysis kills humor," I tell him.

"Why does joy break so easy? This is one shitty substance."

I see Connor in the Toyota, biting his nails. I imagine him winking at me. "Try Groundhog Day," I say. "And please, your son, if there's anything—"

He laughs, just like the Sri Lankan—the most frequent response to offers of assistance these days.

In the car Connor says, "That your Mongolian?"

"Oh, Lord. He's Pakistani, Con. He was wondering why Austin Powers is funny."

"Wrong person to ask."

"What does that mean?"

"Alise. Let's not. Hey, I talked to a doctor today."

"About your stomach?"

"About Wes. A neuropsychologist, top gun, Harvard, the whole schmeer. He says we're in trouble. We have to nip it in the bud."

"Nip what? What about your stomach?"

"He says that obsessions can literally reshape the landscape of the brain. Neurons get stuck in little pathways, draw new maps. It can be permanent."

"Does he have kids?"

"What?"

"Does he have a nine-year-old son on whom he experiments?"

"I don't know, Alise. The point is he knows the brain."

"The brain is just a bit."

"The most important bit," Connor says.

I exhale into my fist. "So what does he say we should do?"

"Take the costume."

"Take the costume," I repeat.

"Throw it away, bury it, burn it. Free Wes of the compulsion."

"Oh, Connor, that seems needlessly cruel."

"Are you saying I'm cruel?"

"Not you, Con. The idea of it."

"Just like that, you know more than the experts, huh?"

"I know my son," I say.

"I know my son too," he says.

The Toyota pulls hard to a halt in front of the library, where Wes waits inside, no doubt reading up on Mongolia. I find myself unable to undo my seat belt. Connor doesn't take his off either. We just sit there a moment, strapped in, he tapping on the dashboard, I fiddling in the cavern of my handbag for something I cannot name.

Saturday afternoon, day nine, Wes walks Ethel the dachshund up and down my back. This is a ritual we began about a year ago, when I started getting fierce cramps in my trapezius. Wes told me he'd read that Gypsies used to walk pet bears up and down people's backs for money. He has always been that kind of kid—digging up weird facts and anecdotes wherever he could find them. Nondiscriminatory about information, I guess, all of it worth paying out.

The truth is that a lot of his info is crap. But with Ethel he hit gold. She loves being the masseuse, and I can tell by the way her sweeping tail draws broad smiles up and down my torso. I, in turn, love the feeling of the paws pressing into my sinews, their animal motion so much more random and unflinching than a human rubdown. Just a walk on the back. Pure, motiveless attention.

I am grateful, as usual, after the mini-hound massage, so I brew Wes a pot of tea, since that is what he says Mongolians drink. Tea and lots of vodka, he says pointedly, but I roll my eyes, so we have Celestial Seasonings Cranberry Cove instead.

Connor is at his kickboxing class, which means that Wes and I can talk about his idea of building a ger in the back yard.

"It's like a tent, but it's round," he tells me. "I just need sticks and animal skins."

"Your father will have a cow," I say.

"A cow skin would be good," he says. I wish his smile would last longer.

"Wes," I say. "Are you mad at us?"

"At who?"

"At me. Or your father."

"Not really." He wrinkles his perfectly smooth face. "Not exactly."

"Are you still sad about Grandpa Firth?"

"It's okay, you know. I think he'll be reincarnated. Maybe as a Javanese rhino, but he'll be born in a zoo, because they're almost extinct."

"Wes," I say, "you've got to tell me the truth. Do you hate your life?"

"You're freaking, Mom."

"Really. You can tell me. Do you hate your life with us, with me and your dad, here in America?"

He takes a sloppy sip of tea and then smiles sympathetically at me, as if I'm a hundred moves behind him. "Silly worrywart," he says. "You guys always think it's 'cause of you. But sometimes that's not true. Sometimes a person just wants to be a Mongolian, okay?"

"Okay," I say. "If that's what you feel like."

But it's not okay, because when Connor comes home from his kickboxing class, his forehead is taut and shiny, his cheeks are fat and ruddy, and he stands in the foyer huffing.

"Are you all right?" I ask.

"Stop it with the stomach."

"You seem a little off is all."

"I'm good. I had a great workout." He smells salty and smoky, like winter air.

"Good," I say. "Tougher and stronger every day."

"Are you mocking me?"

"Jesus," I say. "Can't I say something nice?" But I am thinking, Mocking, the bane of our times, and Why don't I ever feel the instinct for niceness first anymore?

"Let's go to the movies," he says. "It's icy as hell out there, so it won't be crowded. We'll get hot cocoa and popcorn, be a real fam."

"Okay," I say. "Let's be a real fam."

He stands there for a second. "Where's Wes?"

"In his room. On the computer, I think."

"Wes," Connor calls.

"I think he's going to be okay," I say suddenly. I don't know why.

"Wes," Connor calls in a louder voice.

"He's really such a smart kid."

He appears in front of us, a smart kid in a tunic, felt boots, and a wool fez, dragging crumpled toilet paper.

"Do you want to go to the movies?" Connor asks. "That thing with Keanu Reeves?"

"Really?"

"It's not R?" I interrupt.

"Really," Connor says.

"That's so radical, Dad. It's all CGI—computer animation, you know."

"Great. Why don't you put on your jeans and a sweater, and we'll go get the tickets."

"What do you mean?" Wes asks.

"Connor, please," I say.

"I mean, just go change into something normal, and we'll go."

"I'm a nomad, Dad. Take it or leave it."

"I'll leave it," Connor says. The edge has taken over his entire voice, lopped off the soft bits. "You can wear the hat, but the rest is history. That's my final deal."

"I'm going upstairs," Wes says, and shrugs. "I'll be on the modem. 'Night, Mommy."

"No computer," Connor says.

"What?"

"No computer until you take that stuff off."

"Mom?" Wes looks at me urgently.

"Con, let's just rent a video and have a nice night," I plead. I feel like an envoy to the Middle East, my centrist position as dangerous as any.

"I want to see a movie," Connor says.

"Well, I want to see a video," I say.

"Well, I want to have a loving wife and a sane son, but you can't always get what you want."

"Take that back." Wes jumps in his father's face now, looking fierce and ancient in his little nomad uniform. If he had a scimitar, somebody would get hurt.

"Listen, Wes—" Connor says.

"No," Wes says. "I won't. Not till you take it back."

"Take what back?"

"You know what. Take it back."

Connor bends slightly at the waist, and his knees seem to make small circles. I can see how badly he wants to take it back, how the very pull is shredding his innards. But he can't. He can't take it back because he has no more room to stash anything.

"Take it back, Dad," Wes says again in a hoarse whisper.

But his father, my husband, is paralyzed where he stands, in the foyer, at the base of the stairs. Wes pushes past us and races out the front door, whipping it shut on the beat of a sharp sniffle.

I want to say something to Connor, something he won't ever forget, but he looks so bereft that I can't imagine doing further damage. So I button my shirt to the neck and head out into air that has the essence of conscious razor blades, cutting you just for having the gall to breathe it in.

What I find first, on the Swenson's lawn, is a fur cap laced with strands of greasy hair. Then I see the tunic on a tree stump across Ashford Avenue, and the sash and the fat yellow boots near the bus stop. They have been violently strewn, ripped away. Bits of thread are everywhere in the snow, like shrapnel. I follow the line of them, contemplating just how cold it really is, just how long it would take a naked nine-year-old boy to develop hypothermia.

It's amazing how fast he can run in the snow, as if he was born to it. My lungs are like meat in a freezer, all elasticity gone. I am forced to crawl at the bus-stop corner, because the sidewalks are far too icy to get traction with my sneakers.

I almost lose him, but near the school I find a footprint rarely seen in the snow—light as a snow angel, with individual little ellipses of toe shapes. They lead me to an anemic bush inside whose silver arms Wes is huddled, snorting snot into his trembling hands. His body is bright red, but it looks strong. As I get closer, I see that what I thought were white blisters on his belly are actually frail bubbles of water. He looks more inviolate than I ever imagined he could be.

I grab at him anyway, search his limbs for wounds, feel his baby-thin skin for aberrations. Then I catch his eyes, the whites expanding like the universe, and I see him searching for something in mine, for some reason or explanation or even just a nano-glimmer of hope that will set this all back to bearable. He begins to laugh.

"It's not funny," I protest. "You could die out here like this."

"I'm naked in the snow," he giggles. "I'm a naked Mongolian. My butt has ice on it."

This part is true. He is in shockingly dirty blue Gap briefs, which are soaked with snow and sagging off him. I start to laugh too.

We both look up and see Connor approaching, lurching and sliding and completely off kilter. When he reaches us, his chest heaves; his breath steams out his mouth.

"What in the hell are you two—" he starts, but then he stops.

That's what gets me. He stops.

"Oh, Christ, you both must be freezing," he says. "Come here."

I scoop Wes in my arms, his wet bottom drenching my shirt. Connor has had the presence of mind to take a wool coat on his way out, and now he wraps it around all three of us, making a kind of mobile cave. For the first time I realize that I am freezing, that my fingers, nipples, and nose are buzzing near numb. Inside the coat Wes and I cling to each other and to Connor's almost fiery warmth. We start walking home, three bodies moving through the night under one cloak, picking up pieces of Mongolia the whole way.

It's very quiet out. The night is so cold and so amply hushed that I can hear the constellations hum like halogen lamps. We say nothing to one another. When we get to the house, before we separate and rush for the door, for a single moment I almost speak. I almost say, "We're home."

But I cannot tell a lie. I don't know that we're home, because it's as if we don't belong anyplace on this earth, in any country, or any house, or anywhere, really, but in this ragged circle of wool.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/01/burn-your-maps/302385/