by AJ Strosahl

My daughter is born a black hole.

After my long struggle, they put her on my chest, squalling mightily, and I look down at her and see nothing. Not nothing, really, but something like a photograph taken by a camera whose lens has been smeared with Vaseline. She is flecked with viscera and coated in fluids. My hands roam her face with intelligent purpose, trying to divine its shape and texture. I listen to the shocking drum of her tiny heart against mine and close my eyes. When I open them and look down again, the psychic caul evaporates—tingly grey static curling out into the air—and she is revealed to me and the light from all known galaxies seems to finally find us. Here is the crumpled little mouth, the glassy blue eyes, my own horsey jaw. Her presence is violently perfect and astounding.

I name her Artemis, after the goddess of the wilderness. When I leave the hospital two days later, I throw away the medication they gave me in the garbage can by the automatic doors, and drive us up the side of the mountain. Our cabin is set back from a bluff above the river, just inside the tree line. It has everything we will need.

Those first weeks we are two animals in a burrow; I groom her like an ape and lick her wrists to taste the skittish pulse there. I bathe her in river water in an old washtub and feed her at my exhausted breast. I wrap her in lambskin and walk her around outside, looking up at the stars. I start calling her Artie. We are blissfully alone.

When an old colleague from the Parks Department drives over from the ranger station on the other side of the mountain, carrying a basket of cloth diapers tied with a pink bow, I bare my teeth at him like a rabid dog.

“We’re not ready for visitors,” I say, stopping him at the front door.

“Are you sure?” Dennis asks, peering around me. He scratches his temple, seemingly perplexed. “Seems like you could do with a pop-in. Also, they’re wondering if you’re feeling ready to head back to work? I was worried about you alone up here; I know you’re on leave but—”

“I’m not alone,” I tell him, and I don’t move out of the doorframe.

Dennis leaves, looking bewildered. I don’t tell him that I won’t be coming back to work, that I can’t return to giving trail maps to weekend warriors who blow across the mountain like a sour wind, leaving their Clif Bar wrappers where they fall. It would demean us both.

I walk all over my land with Artie on my back, pointing out the landmarks of our kingdom. The river. The clearing with a fire pit I dug myself, wide and deep, where we like to watch the moon on warm nights. Our generator, our teeming vegetable garden, our well. As we travel through the forest, I tell Artie stories about my life before: about my mother, a cruel woman who once blistered my palm with a willow switch after I asked for a second slice of cake; the uncle I only met twice, who willed me the cabin, which I moved into when I was almost still a girl myself. About seeing the ocean for the first time. About the time I narrowly escaped a daytime forest fire, racing down the mountain in the Forest Service truck, the sun a perfect, pitiless neon dot hanging in the hazed sky. I tell her about the bandrui, the Druidesses who were guardians of an ancient world.

Every night, I whisper to her:

We do not fear, for we live in the heart of the gods.

Each month, we take my truck into town and it’s like visiting a strange and hostile planet. I shop as quickly as I can, with Artie strapped to my chest in marsupial repose. The townspeople turn their faces away instinctively, as if we are lit too brightly to view at a direct angle. I cover Artie’s face with my hands; these people do not deserve to behold her.






Time passes. Artie grows; she walks, then talks, then runs, then swims. She’s capable and goofy and brave. On summer nights, we sleep rough, spreading quilts over our bedrolls on the forest floor. We fish for rainbow trout at the river and fry them up with lard and salt. We sew quilts on an old sewing machine and can pickled squash and cold crops and asparagus. Artie sucks the sap from stalks of sourgrass, pressing their silken chartreuse flowers to my cheek. In winter, the land is so prehistoric and unyielding that it incites a stultifying calm in us, and we spend days curled up on the warm hearth, eating canned oysters on saltines or napping like milk-drunk cats.  We bundle up in woolens and hike down to the river, which flows icy and swift.

“Where do we live, Mom?” Artie asks me sometimes.

I tell her that Greeks used to call Delphi the womb of the Earth and that where we live is like that: someplace both sheltered and immeasurably powerful. For ten years, we are so very happy and safe.






When Artie is eleven, we drive to town on a supply run and in the Albertson’s, while I’m bagging up muesli, she wanders off and meets a girl named Jess, who plays Artie a terrible bleating song on her little pink phone. They hunch over its tiny rectangular screen, giggling. When I find them, Jess’s mother—a fretting brunette in a long linen dress—is crouched by Artie, looking at her with concern. For a moment, I see Artie the way the town world might: a scrappy-looking girl with a nest of blond hair, outfitted in my old ranger’s vest and a dirty white t-shirt. Her feet are bare, toenails yellow and hooflike. Artie’s saying that she lives somewhere secret, and that she doesn’t need school because she already has a job. She takes care of the mountain. I smile tightly at the mother and pull Artie away.

The following week, a woman from Child Protective Services comes to our cabin and tells me I must enroll Artie in school.






After her first day, Artie cries all the way home, where she strips off her orange sweater, then the brown corduroy dress she made last summer, and deposits them into the garbage. She kicks off her boots and glares at me.

“I can’t wear this,” Artie spits, her expression foreign and anguished. “They said I looked like a Flintstone.  I don’t even know what that is!”

She is outraged, as if I’ve cheated her of something essential. She spends the evening looking through my small wardrobe for any usable items, ultimately settling on an old thermal shirt, and a pair of my jeans that she frantically alters at the sewing machine. The next day, we go to a mall outside of town. We buy stretchy black jeans and oversized t-shirts, a sparkly red jacket with zippers everywhere. Last, we buy a pink mobile phone.






When she’s thirteen, Artie has a slumber party at the cabin, but the girls get upset that the homemade pizza I serve is made on hard brown dough, with sheep’s milk cheese and shepherd’s purse from the garden. One of them asks Artie where I get my hair cut, and when Artie tells her I do it myself, with nail scissors, the girl cups a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide with sympathetic humiliation. After that, I start dropping off and picking up Artie at a secluded intersection two blocks from school.  She doesn’t ask me to do this, but she doesn’t object when I do.

On the weekends, we are ourselves: we hike indefatigably for miles and have tree-climbing contests and clear brush from the back of the house, where we’ll build chicken coops. I remind her who we are—we do not fear, for we live in the heart of the Gods—but she won’t say the words with me, just nods and rests her head on my shoulder.

At fifteen, Artie is a striker on the high school soccer team. I watch each game from the stands, not following it at all, just keeping my eyes trained on my daughter as she moves across the pitch. It’s all I can do; the constant churn of the crowd makes my ears ring, gives me vertigo. There are too many faces, too many smells. I don’t know how Artie can stand it, but I can’t deny how she looks out there: like a young woman, who understands the task at hand. During the third game, the last I’ll attend, a girl on the opposing team throws an elbow and Artie falls to the muddy ground, her hands clapped over her cheek. Before I know it the bleachers fall away and I’m out on the pitch, clutching Artie to my chest. Artie is aghast and mortified.

She doesn’t understand: we used to be one person, not two.

The referee leads me back to my seat, and as I sit back down, I hear Artie saying quietly: “Please, I’m sorry, she’s not used to. . . she’s ill.”






Time moves at its undiminished clip and suddenly, Artie is seventeen and beautiful. Suitors drive up the mountain in pheromonal parade, picking her up for school dances and nights out at the movies. Eventually, she settles on one: a grinning dog of a boy, with a slyness around the eyes. This boy is obsequious and polite, but he has a small silver barbell through his tongue, and twice after Artie is out with him, I smell semen and marijuana on her sweet breath.

I can’t find the language to tell her what the world is like. About the hiker who came late in the winter before she was born. I found him off-trail in a snowstorm, panting and desperate, his eyes rolling white. It was too late and snowy to take him back into town, so I drove him to my cabin for a night’s rest. I lit a fire and draped him with blankets. I fed him poached eggs and the good venison sausage I saved for guests. I put clean sheets on the spare cot and made him peppermint tea. He was charming, grateful and weak.

“People said one of the rangers lived off-grid up here, but I didn’t expect to meet her,” he told me, smiling.

I woke, in the dead of night on my bedroom floor, to find him pressed to my back. His trembling passed through his bare thighs, and into mine. He was attempting to fumble himself inside me; before I was even awake, I was already fighting back. His forearm pressed my cheek to the soft sanded wood as I bucked and snarled.

“We’re sleeping,” the hiker said. “I’m asleep.”

His arms were noodly, lacking a predator’s strength. I reared up, kicked. Bit his wrist. Kept him out.

In the morning, I removed the barricade from my bedroom door and found him sleeping peacefully on the cot in the front room. His upper jaw was half stoved-in, brown and purple, where I’d kicked him. My foot ached. I’d find three of his teeth under the bed later, bloody at the root. We didn’t speak. I drove him down the mountain partway, dropped him at the first trailhead.

“Walk from here,” I said. “You’re strong enough.”

Months later when Artemis arrived, a balm, I remembered the warm, wet spill, barely noticeable in the brawl, on my exposed backside. I’d never been with a man, but it was like I recognized the low mineral stink of it. He’d come with a hoarse cry, just as I kicked him away into the bureau. The mess required nothing more than normal tending, a quick swipe with a fistful of tissues to scrape every trace of him from my body, or so I’d thought. No different than the iodine and gauze I used on the corn on my big toe, which had split open during its contact with his incisor and was nearly sheared away.

Nothing had happened that night, except a woman, alone, protecting herself, which wasn’t anything at all. He was no match for me, and yet he had infiltrated my life, then remained, all because of a few drops of something essential that got into the wrong place. Artie had only asked about her father once, years ago, and I’d told her that she was a fatherless miracle, born of the mountain. It was the truth. I’d only ever wanted to be alone, until she came along. All I had ever tried to do was make us safe.






One night, a few weeks after she graduates from high school, Artie tells me that she and Brian, that doggish boy, have rented a little apartment in town. She’s starting a job clerking at the local pharmacy and Brian’s enrolling in hotel management training. They’re in love, she tells me.

“I’m ready to start my real life,” Artie says urgently. “It’s less than an hour’s drive. You can practically see the ranger station from the bathroom window and I can see the east face from the living room. When you see the sun, I’ll see it at the same spot in the sky, at the same time.”

I nod, smarting at the falseness of the premise: the physical distance between our land and town is negligible, and has always been. The following weekend Artie packs her things and drives them down the mountain. The forest is quiet. And I think that this is right, this is the way all mothers must feel—a corrective rending, a separation. There is an obscene relief in losing her, surrendering to the natural order of things. She’s a whelped pup, off to make her way in a world that is dangerous and ecstatic and inconstant in ways I can no longer comprehend. She is already miles away.






It’s the moon we watch together, not the sun. Artie buys me a cell phone, black with a smooth animated screen, all the little icons glowing in their ether. She calls late at night to tell me if the moon is worth the walk to the clearing above the river, where the view is best. She says things like:

“Looks like an eyelash tonight. Meh.”

Or: “Blood moon. Get your boots on.”

Or: “It’s distracting tonight. Dunno why. But I just cut myself shaving, I couldn’t stop looking up.”

Or: “Penumbral lunar eclipse. You go check it out soon—no, wait, I’m getting the keys, I’m coming to you now.”

Brian calls me once, when Artie has strep throat.

“She says,” Brian starts, then there is a muffled commotion on his end of the line. “Sorry, shit, I dropped my phone. She says—I’m telling her, Artie, hang on!—that she thinks…she thinks it’s nothing special tonight. But that you’ll like it.”

I walk out to the clearing. The moon is pale and slung low in the sky, its outline wavery and inviting. I do like it.






Artie’s son is born six years later, the day before her own twenty-fourth birthday. Brian, unexpectedly stalwart, has taken her to wife, and their son was unplanned, but wanted. Artie doesn’t call me until her labor is complete (she knows I don’t go into town anymore—can’t—even for this) but she texts me when it begins. As soon as I see the message, I busy myself for hours in a frenzy, hoeing rows into a new patch of soil where I will plant red corn. One of the new rangers at the station brought me the seeds, an heirloom. As I work, everything I feel in my body makes me think of what she must feel in hers.

“He’s here,” Artie says hoarsely, when she calls that night. “Nestor.  He’s in my hands right now.”

“How did it go?” I ask her.

Artie is quiet, and in the background I hear the muted din of the hospital: orthopedic shoes squeaking against tile, the alien whirr of machines, stage whispers. Her breathing, and the workings of the place, fill my left ear, while the sounds of the night and the river fill my right. I ask her again how it went.

“I can’t explain it,”  Artie says finally. “It makes no sense. He wasn’t here. Now he is.”

“I know.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Artie asks, and I hear her shift in the hospital cot. “If you could just tell me one thing…”

I consider telling her the truth: that there is nothing to reveal. There is no one thing. We mothers, all of us, can and will only do our best, and it will not be enough. We will do the work of gods (we are journeying in perpetuity) and always find it transcendent, and wanting. Our true and fearful hearts will endure.

“I think you just did the hard part,” I tell her. We both know it’s a lie.

She breathes hard, two soft snorts that remind me of when she was a girl, trying not to show me she was winded on a hike.

“I can’t see it in here,” Artie says, and her voice is suddenly tremulous, frail. She’s talking about the moon again.

“I’ll describe it to you,” I say. “I’m looking at it right now.”

AJ Strosahl lives and writes in Oakland, California. She has recently published in CRAFT, Ruminate, Cleaver Magazine and other outlets. Her writing has received recent support from the Vashon Artist Residency and the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. Find more of her work at