Updated: Jun 30
CW: gun violence
Good Guy, Bad Guy, Monster
And we are here as on a darkling plain. -Matthew Arnold
October 17, 2014: East Chicago, Indiana
Afrikka’s body is found in a bathroom at a Motel 6, strangled. I knew her as a little girl, who, when angry would slam her head against the floor, repeatedly, and the group home staff had to hold her down to stop her from hurting herself. At 19 she was working as an escort in Chicago and encountered a man who strangled six other girls, too. He left their bodies at a brown, abandoned house with an overgrown lawn. Some headlines said by leading the police to the bodies, Afrikka’s death served a purpose.
The fear of the dark tends to evolve around the time children are old enough to have a sense of imagination.
“Leave the light on, leave the light on, please,” D is three, makes this into a chant.
I buy a night light that shines the solar system onto the ceiling, curved lines, the path each planet takes around the sun. Each planet rolling like an open eye, trained on the light.
June 17, 2015: Charleston, South Carolina
The boys are almost 4 and almost 2. We live in South Carolina. We are white and most days it’s not too hard to pretend this kind of evil doesn’t exist. An evil that lurks in the church and prays with the people it then turns to kill.
But this day I remember my husband meeting his friends’ cousin in a rural part of the state. The man sat with a Beretta on his knee. Then he fingered the trigger and asked, with his southern drawl, “The Bible says red winged birds shouldn’t mate with black winged birds. Don’t you agree?”
I used to imagine my children would not know about McDonalds and we would spend all day outdoors. Now I’m standing in front of the TV during the violent parts of Spiderman because I cannot find the remote. At the commercials I begin to count the number of guns that appear, and I turn it off, despite the whining kids, and at night the littler one whispers “No bad guys” as he falls asleep.
My sons play with “Monsters in my Pocket.” Tiny witches and behemoths, multi-colored minotaurs that fit in the palm of their hands.
September 15, 2015: Cincinnati, Ohio
My brother comes to visit on a Greyhound and at the station a man comes up to him and says, “Help me, man. I just got shot.” My brother sees that he’s bleeding through his brown leather jacket, and he doesn’t know if he should help him or run, doesn’t know if more shots are coming. Is it finally happening to me? The man collapses, the police and an ambulance arrive. Someone says, “I think it’s time to get on the bus.”
Some creatures can make light with chemicals inside their bodies – mostly deep-sea anglers, one celled organisms and strange worms. Humans make fire, which destroys even as it glows.
Do you feel like you’re walking with a torch?
March 22nd, 2016: Belgium
The new baby, R, is 12 days old when the bombs go off this time, in Belgium. The airport, the metro. His spine against my forearm, his head in my palm. Cradle, sway, rock, nurse. The rocks falling and smoke. The explosion. Sirens, burns, and nurses sway, and rock. I watch the TV and a woman with her torn shirt, bra and stomach exposed. Gray cement and smoke. The baby is twelve days old. There is blood. The sound of coughing. Smoke and blood. Some say labor is not painful, but intense. There’s a difference in pain that serves a purpose. A body doing what a body is supposed to do and this – gashes and gaps and missing people. Missing parts of bodies and buildings. Exposure. This baby asleep in my hands. A whole body in my hands.
A husband took his daughters out of line to play and their mom was killed in the blast.
Growing up, my dad was a fire chaplain. One call was after a young realtor had been raped and beaten to death showing a house in our quiet Indianapolis suburb. It rattled him. Her eyeball hanging out of its socket. Her father dropping to his knees in the arms of the police officer at his front door.
How long till I meet the Minotaur in this maze?
Are bad guys real? Sometimes people do bad things. There’s nothing to be scared of. Go to sleep.
When I was a child I was afraid an airplane would drop a bomb. I was afraid of kidnappers. I remember passing a car on the highway, someone looking at me through the passenger window, I burst into tears, convinced he wanted to take me.
These fears were mostly irrational.
In summer, I’m driving and hear a radio interview with Sue Klebold, Dylan Klebold’s mother. She says she was a good parent. She says she thought she knew her son. She did a TEDtalk, wrote a book about mental health, about reckoning. I can’t stop thinking about her, had always thought the Columbine shooters came from “bad homes.”
Nov. 5, 2017: Sutherland Springs, Texas
L asks, “Mom has anyone ever made a peanut butter, jelly, and cheese and sandwich? Mom, why are you crying?”
Eight members of one family, including a pregnant woman and a 17-month-old girl, were among the dead.
Later that night, D, age six, comes upstairs beaming, “mom you wanna hear my machine gun noise?”
I don’t want to hear it, I want to tell him there is a child who is motherless today, that there are brothers and sisters laying on tables at the morgue, that this keeps happening, that I’m afraid. “Sure, honey.”
Do you feel like you can’t change the channel?
I drive past D’s school, in kindergarten now, see the police car parked near the entrance and wonder: how long would it take before someone notified me if a shooter was in the building?
I remember folding laundry and watching the news, years ago. An aerial view of a school called Sandy Hook. D was a baby, asleep in his crib.
What will my children fear? Going to school and getting shot? A bomb going off at the airport?
I’m afraid these fears are rational
No bad guys.
May 25, 2018: Noblesville, Indiana
A friend’s daughter called him from school. She told him she was hiding under a desk in a locked room. She wanted to say goodbye in case she didn’t make it out.
The kids want to watch Scooby Doo. It’s not scary, they argue: The monsters always turn out to be real people.
Good guy. Bad guy. Monster.
I’m lying in bed considering moving to Canada. What secrets will they keep from me?
October 27, 2018: The week before the fourth and last baby came, 12 people were shot and killed at a Pittsburgh Synagogue. Hate crime. Two black men were shot dead at a grocery store. Hate crime. A woman was shot dead at a yoga studio. Hate Crime.
Could hear screams from inside the synagogue.
What is the sound of too much blood on the floor?
I tell my husband I cannot engage, stay numb and far away this time. I don’t watch the news.
Change the channel.
The midwife says I’m becoming porous, literally beginning to open.
She says she thinks of transition in labor energetically – as two worlds colliding, as one world dissolving into another, as if the world becomes new with each life, as if the mother, then is a maker of a child and a world.
She said when she arrived and I was in labor I was still myself between contractions, chatting and smiling, but around 7:40 am things changed. You were out there, and you weren’t coming back between the waves.
How to come back?
Nov. 18, 2018: Chicago, Illinois
12 days after my daughter is born a police officer, doctor and pharmacy resident are shot dead at Mercy Hospital.
Officer Samuel Jimenez...was gunned down as he went to the aid of other officers...was married with three small children.
I touch the baby’s soft head, the spot where the bones have not fused, hardened. How easy to harm. How quickly everything hardens.
On the news, a candlelight vigil. So many people, holding light in their hands.
It’s time to get on the bus or drop to your knees.
At night I kiss R, two-years-old, and whisper, “No monsters. No bad guys.
Close your eyes.”
March 17, 2019: Christchurch, New Zealand
The snow has finally begun to thaw streams spring up everywhere,
golden in sunlight.
At three years old, Mucaad Ibrahim was the youngest victim of the mosque shootings.
On a walk, L bends down. His five-year-old hand reaches for a muddy cigarette carton,
I shake my head, honey – just leave it. He pauses
but mom, we don’t want the world to be bad.
September 22nd, 2019
At the Moms Demand Action meeting they say: “When your child plays at a friend’s house always ask if they have a gun
always ask if it’s secured.” I remember the story of hide and seek a loaded gun in the closet,
the girl who was airlifted, but survived.
On the phone a woman asks: if I’ve been personally affected by gun violence. I say no, I mean not enough, I think of the shooting near my husband’s office. Near, not in. I’m afraid I mean
not yet. “You’re lucky.”
April 22nd, 2021: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Nine minutes and 29 seconds.
“Mom, why do white people kill black people or I mean why do black people kill white people, I mean why do people kill people?”
It feels like the whole country pauses.
Later and despite—
The whole country continues. Big and small machines, always at work.
In a dream, I know how to end this poem. I see the lines curl into a fist and fade. When I wake up, it’s spring and the birds and the news and another date [ ]. Between every two numbers is an infinite amount of numbers. The ending slips away before it’s written.
Rebekah Denison Hewitt holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she was a Martha Meier Renk Distinguished Graduate Fellow. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Narrative, and Poetry Northwest and have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. She is an assistant editor at Orison Books. She lives in Wisconsin with her family and works as a librarian.