Radio Flyer

It was speed she learned

when I meant the lesson as fearlessness.

Don't be afraid, I said.

But she heard: faster, faster.

 

In water deep enough for drowning,

I trained twenty pounds of child.

Here's my hand, I said, close enough to touch.

But she said: let me go

and dove breathless, smiling, open-eyed,

time after time

into water pure as tears.

 

On the bare back of chestnut pony,

the long lead taut from halter to hand,

she rode like a princess, a pardner, Apache.

Once, spooked, the pony reared

and slid her to the ground

as if she weren't my daughter, my only child,

just four years old.

Mounted again—for this is the rule

after a spill—

she begged for a canter,

but I said walk.

I cinched the lead

into my palm

as if I could

with my own will

suspended her every future fall.

 

The radio flyer was safe.

Seated between my legs,

reclaimed by the lap she'd left squalling, red-faced,

she'd be bound by my speed,

my feet the brakes

dragging us to sober slowness.

 

We'd climb to the top of our hill,

park and load,

and scream until we reached the bottom

where the gravel dipped beneath the oaks.

The wind stopped only when the wagon did.

 

I'd drag my feet and she'd say no:

faster, Mama, faster.

Because she was safe

against my breast

and our voices pitched themselves

into the sky, soaring like

birds, like souls above fear,

I said yes, this time, with me: faster.

 

There would come a day

when I wasn't there

with my cautious hands

in the water,

on the lead,

my heavy feet on the graveled ground.

 

There would come a day when

she rode the radio flyer

without brakes, a single voice

speeding.

 

On that day, alone,

the last ride,

she pulled the wagon up from hell:

gravel bedded in her knees,

her palms bloodied by barbed wire

no tears

until she reached my lap.

 

Now, too late, I say once more:

be afraid,

go slow,

ride the brakes.

Now, too late,

she says again:

faster, faster.

 

Anna Tuttle Villegas