Before Zebra

Not physical, my new camp-mate says, evaluating my muteness. Emotional. You haven’t spoken in six months. No infections, paralysis or palsies. “Selective Mutism,” right?

“Correct,” I would say if I spoke. But I don’t. Speak.

Do you talk in your sleep? my camp-mate asks. It’s dark in our room, and my camp-mate’s voice filters down from above, muffled by the mattress of an upper bunk bed. I have never seen my camp-mate, who somehow is only in his bunk after “lights out.”

“I don’t know if I talk in my sleep. How would anyone know that?” I would say if I could.

I’ll listen and tell you, my camp-mate says. I’ll tell you what you say.

My roommate wasn’t here when I arrived at Camp Nag’s Head. I discover his voice again each night, as if his words are pieces of a broken mirror on the floor beside my bed. At night I also hear crickets through the high, screened window, and the roar and whoosh of cars and trucks traveling up and down Route 158. As the outside sounds peak and fall away, they remind me that I’m rooted here at camp.  On the other side of the highway, the ocean, hidden by summer rentals, rolls out to infinity. I might hear an occasional surge. There are dunes south of Camp Nag’s Head. Their silence dwarfs my own muteness—I’ve lain among them, my ear against the sand, listening. I imagine that on clear nights a visitor can hear the hiss of starlight striking the dunes like sleet.




“It’s a miracle, a camp like this for Austin right in Nag’s Head,” my big brother Jesse said to my sister-in-law Briggie. His eyes flitted from the pamphlet to his wife, to the therapist who’d handed him the literature, then back to the pamphlet, and finally to me. “You loved it when you and I drove down there with Greta. Remember our big adventure, Austin? The week at the Nag’s Head beach house? Remember it was freezing?” I didn’t answer, and Jesse read from the pamphlet: “‘Selective mutism. Grief management.’ They list both.” He continued reading: “‘The camp provides a 45 day residential program designed to strengthen the things attendees do well; work on things that are more of a challenge; encourage attendees to have fun and make friends.’”




Language abandoned me—or I abandoned it—all of a sudden one day, when my mother’s dementia reached a crisis point. Even though Jesse’s got twenty years on me, Mom had been confusing me with my brother-from-another-father for months. Then she blanked out the fact that I ever existed. She saw me only as pre-teen Jesse. Austin who? When she saw us next to each other, Mom looked from huge Jesse to under-sized me and somehow registered that the same son co-existed at different ages.

The breaking point came as Jesse and I stood together in our kitchen, watching Mom in her un-tethered robe pour a dozen freshly beaten eggs from a mixing bowl into the dishwasher.  If she’d been capable, she’d have seen us as separate products of her pair of marriages: Jesse was her boy from the man I called Uncle Jim; I was her offspring from the “love of her life,” Robert. But, slowly but surely, I’d been squeezed out of the picture.

“Jesse,” she said, looking from my brother to me, “tell Jesse to clean your room. You don’t listen to me.”

“You mean Austin?” Jesse asked fuzzily. “You mean I should tell Austin to clean his room?” Mom put the dirty mixing bowl in the pantry. Her robe hung open, exposing sagging, blue-veined breasts. She regarded the two of us warily.

“I don’t know what you’re calling your invisible friend these days, Jesse,” she said, “but you’re not funny.” I struggled to keep my gaze from dropping beneath Mom’s waist and squinted to avoid looking at her breasts. But I found no comfort in the cold eyes that refused to take me into account.

I remember thinking a trapdoor had opened beneath me, and then nothing. It was the last time I saw my mother. I woke up in a hospital bed. I don’t talk now. I follow simple directions, but I don’t converse—no winks, nods, notepads, or sustained eye contact.  Language is easy for some, like Briggie. She’s Swiss and speaks five of them. My sister-in-law is the world famous veterinary expert you might have seen on Youtube. She sings yodel-lullabies to mother pandas to get them to accept their babies. She was invited once to be on Letterman, but turned them down. Greta, my three-year-old niece, picks up words as naturally as a tadpole grows legs. I have no more appetite for language than I do for breathing underwater.




A few very old Dr. Seuss books have come with me to Camp Nag’s Head. These books are family treasures. They’re over fifty years’ old and smell like memory. They first belonged to Jesse’s dad, mom’s first husband, the man I called Uncle Jim. My own father spent nearly a year dying in the hospital, and Uncle Jim helped care for me while Mom tended to Dad. It’s Uncle Jim’s voice I hear in Dr. Seuss’s rhymes and rhythms.

It’s possible I’m too old for Dr. Seuss. I read these books to Greta, although now I can’t recall the sound of my own voice. I’m at the age when boys’ voices change. If I should suddenly start speaking, I might sound like a stranger to myself.

Uncle Jim moved into our guest room after my father died. Mom needed his help. She’d already grown forgetful—Dad’s illness had been hard on her. Uncle Jim did things like pick me up from school, until the day he didn’t show up because he’d had a heart attack.  While I waited for him, watching yellow buses drive off with my classmates, he was dying in our driveway.

Uncle Jim’s death pushed Mom closer to the edge she eventually tumbled from. The therapist who suggested Camp Nag’s Head for me hinted that as Mom disappeared, she yanked me down with her—I’d been carrying the same losses she had, and then she added herself to my load. When she no longer recognized me, I collapsed. And woke up with nothing to say.




Jesse, who’s been flying down to visit every weekend, sits beside me in the library of Camp Nag’s Head. He opens Dr. Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra, sticks his large face in the middle of it, inhales deeply, and reads aloud.  I blink across the room through the glass door overlooking the courtyard garden. Sparrows hop into and out of a thorn bush. Jesse reads about the fantastical letters invented to spell the names of the creatures the book pictures: the letter QUAN is for Quandary, an animal that lives alone on a shelf at the bottom of the ocean, perpetually worrying: “is his top-side his bottom? Or bottom side top?” And THNAD is for Thnadners, “and oh, are they sad, oh/ The big one, you see, has the smaller one’s shadow.”

Someone sticking his head in the library might mistake Jesse for my father. Counting Uncle Jim, that would make three dads for me, which is funny because I really don’t have any. And I’m not sure if I’m supposed to try to remember or forget my mother. My actual father, Robert, is the dad I remember least.  I see him in a hospital bed, connected to tubes and machines. He’s a picture on the mantle holding a baby I’m told is me. He’s the empty chair at the dining room table we toast on holidays. He is the reason we open our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve instead of waiting for Christmas morning, like Jesse said he did when Mom was married to Uncle Jim. I’ve inherited my own dad’s pale blue eyes, his wispy blond hair, his lack of size. He never read Dr. Seuss to me. When I try to call up his voice, I hear him telling me, “Time for bed.”




I know some Dr. Seuss that’s for little kids, my camp-mate says as we lie in our dark room. “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish . . .” It sounds like he’s counting down lost parents. Since every camper here at Camp Nag’s Head has a disorder, I suspect my camp-mate’s might be that he is unseeable.

Camp Nag’s Head T-shirts display the camp name in a logo: a butterfly with a round face and hopeful expression. I think the logo is confusing—it should be the head of a horse. During group activities, I notice that the other children keep a hand on their shirts just below the logo, as if their problems are printed there and they’re trying to hide them. I see nothing under my logo, but I pick up the camp habit of holding my hand over my heart.

Every camper has a companion-therapist, which is one of the special features advertised in the camp pamphlet. My therapeutic companion, Terry, is a thin man or woman with short hair and a flat chest. S/he wears baggy shorts and has untanned, hairless legs. When s/he speaks, s/he seems to be trying either to make a naturally deep voice higher or a naturally high voice deeper. Her/his face is as gleaming and featureless as the face of a figure on a sports trophy.

I spend hours in the library flipping through my Dr. Seuss books. Terry sits across from me, thumbing through old issues of Psychology Today. S/he peeks at me from time to time to see what I’m up to. This afternoon there’s a AAA guidebook on the table between us. It’s for the states of Virginia and North Carolina. It’s newer than the guidebook Jesse and I used two years ago when we drove down to Nag’s Head with Greta, who was only six months old. Briggie was in San Diego, trying unsuccessfully to save a rejected newborn panda. I wonder if the information has been changed in this new edition of the guidebook.  Maybe this camp has been added to the list of Nag’s Head attractions. If I had speech, I’d share with my camp-mate what I learned about the origin of the town’s name: how land pirates marched ponies with lanterns hung from their heads along the beach at night, knowing that ship captains would mistake the lights for safely harbored boats and wreck their vessels on dangerous reefs. Then the land pirates would plunder the wrecks and murder the survivors.

If I open the AAA guidebook, what would Terry think?




Does Jesse visit Mom as often as he visits me? Does she still know who he is? For the few hours he spends here, he must waste dozens in the air. Kitty Hawk, site of the Wright brothers’ first flight, is only a few miles up the highway from Camp Nag’s Head. On our vacation two years ago, we didn’t go to Kitty Hawk—the weather was too foul.

You must have flown over millions of people on your way down here, my camp-mate says. Including the President of the United States.

And we must have passed many of the same millions that February two years ago when we drove down—though some of the first millions must have died, and some of the second millions hadn’t been born.

Somebody back then, maybe only one person, must have noticed your car and had a thought about it. And this time somebody must have looked up and watched your jet disappear into a cloud.

If the same bystander witnessed both, that would be narrowing something down, wouldn’t it?




When does Jesse have time to see Briggie and Greta?  He and I stroll over the grounds or sit in the library, sometimes with Terry, who knows Jesse is my brother, not my father.  Other children pass by like bubbles with their own guests or therapist-companions.

“I hear you might visit the dunes,” Jesse says. His face looks tired from smiling. By coincidence I turn to the page in On Beyond Zebra showing the letter JOGG, which is needed to spell Jogg-oons, “who doodle around in the far desert dunes/ Just doodle around, crooning very sad tunes . . .”

I flip to the next page without reacting. I want Jesse not to worry about me. He talks as if I respond to him. He tells me Briggie and Greta miss me. It’s possible, he says, that they will fly down for a visit next Sunday instead of him, unless there’s a major animal emergency somewhere in the world that Briggie must attend to. I blink in my brother’s direction, then lower my gaze to the bowl of miraculous fish I imagine that I’m holding instead of a book.

“Mom says hello,” Jesse murmurs. His eyes dip to the camp logo on my shirt when he tells this lie. Mom is a memory hole.  When it’s time for Jesse to leave, he hugs me good-bye in arms as thick as a bear’s, and I feel myself disappear in them.




Is it a miracle that this camp is in the same Nag’s Head that Jesse, baby Greta, and I vacationed at two years ago when the Carolina shore was suffering through a record-breaking cold spell? We’d only been in our rented beach house a day when a sleet storm knocked out the electricity, and the week’s supply of Briggie’s breast milk we’d brought for Greta was in danger of spoiling. A fire blazed in the hearth as I propped Greta on the sill of the picture window. We watched Jesse lug a cooler to a dilapidated shed where he hoped the mother’s milk would stay cold. Beyond the shed the black ocean spread to the horizon under gray clouds. Greta squirmed when she saw her father.

“Da-da!” she enunciated clearly. “Da-da!”

Baby’s first word, something unexpected. But I shouldn’t have heard it—it belonged to her parents, not to me. I was thrilled for a second, but I knew I had to keep the achievement a secret. Greta would speak again—there’d be no stopping her; it was the natural order of things.

“Right,” I whispered, “That’s your daddy.”

Da-da!” Greta shrieked again as Jesse disappeared into the shed.  Months later, six hundred miles to the north, “Mama” became the baby’s first official word.




Here are Briggie and Greta, led to my room by Terry, who says s/he’ll meet us in the library and leaves us alone. A white bandage winds around Briggie’s forearm. Greta holds her mother’s hand and, leaning into her hip, looks up at her face. The three-year-old places a finger on the bandage.

“Boo-boo,” Greta purrs, then “Nurse.”

“Yes,” Briggie says to her daughter, then “May I?” to me as she sits on my bed. Without answering, I sidle toward the window. My camp-mate, of course, is absent. My sister-in-law lifts her pink T-shirt and unfastens her nursing bra just as Greta steps up to take her mother’s nipple. While my niece nurses standing, I think of calves I have seen reaching for their mother’s teat in barns at county fairs. Briggie’s smiling eyes are the color Jesse calls Lake Geneva blue. He said they reflected the Alpine sky, and he could see snowy mountains in them.

“She’s more unsettled and tired than hungry,” Briggie says over her child’s head. “Our flight left before dawn.” I picture the jet that brought them south soaring from one of Briggie’s blue eyes to the other, then focus on my visitors’ pairs of matching sneakers—pink with white and purple trim. “Your brother wishes he could be here,” Briggie says. “He’s spending time with your Mama this weekend.”  Greta’s hair is a nest of dirty blond curls, darker where they’re sweat-pasted to the nape of her neck. I hear her slurping.  Briggie’s short hair is lighter and straighter—her bangs end an inch above her eyebrows. With a breathy gulp Greta pulls back from her mother, who arches her back as she snaps her bra shut and tugs down her shirt.




My visitors and I sit in the library with Terry. Greta fidgets on the bench beside me, peeking over my shoulder at the pages of On Beyond Zebra I flip through, front to back, back to front. The child’s hip bone, as hard as a baseball, presses into my thigh. She might smell of milk. I remember the stale-sweet odor from bottle-feeding her at the Nag’s Head beach house. I’m afraid a picture of Mom is going to pop out of my Dr. Seuss book, but I keep turning pages. Would I recognize her? “Mother” doesn’t start with a made-up letter like the rest of the creatures in this book.

When Terry asks Briggie about her bandaged arm, my sister-in-law answers,

“A mother panda surprised me as I offered her own baby to her. She lunged at me and bit me. There’s a lot of stitches. It’s surprising how quickly they can move, they seem so lethargic. When I sing to them, sometimes I relax and let down my guard.”

Terry seems to know about Briggie’s career. S/he asks why mother pandas reject their babies.

“Good question. My husband—Austin’s brother, you know, Jesse—thinks that the species is tired. Pandas have given up, he says. He calls it ‘specie-al suicide.’ Specie-al, not special. I think they’re grieving over something they’ve lost. They’re depressed.”

Terry says, “I read in Psychology Today that scientists studying grief use prairie voles instead of rats for their experiments. Voles form bonds, so they feel loss. Rats don’t bond.”

Briggie nods. “A rat will fight its own mother to the death over a scrap of cheese.”

Terry clears his/her throat. “Which do you think is worse, evolving into something that’s given up, or evolving into a rat that only cares about itself?”

Briggie is quiet for a few seconds. I flip through On Beyond Zebra. Greta swats at the fluttering pages. “But those don’t have to be the only choices, right?” Briggie asks.




Briggie has signed me out for a day trip to Jockey State Park, and we’re trudging through the dunes. It’s hot and shade-less. The sky is a uniform milk-white—the dunes fail to rise against it with the majesty they reveal when the sky is blue, and the hike is less a pleasure than a chore. Greta has tired quickly, and Briggie carries her in her unbandaged arm. Mother and child wear blue baseball caps with little red socks on them for the Boston baseball team. Sun-block glistens on our arms, legs, and cheeks. I still feel the touch of Briggie’s hands from when she smoothed the lotion over me in the parking lot. My copy of On Beyond Zebra sticks to the arm I’ve tucked it under.

“I can’t believe we forgot a water bottle,” Briggie chuffs. “We won’t be able to stay out here very long. Let’s climb that big dune so we can say we did it, and then we’ll go to the beach across the highway. We’re going to see the ocean soon, Greta!”

We plod to the top of the highest plateau, and Briggie starts to point past a series of receding dunes toward the first water she sees—but the blue expanse has an opposite shore, and she’s puzzled. What she’s looking at is the bay between the Outer Banks and Roanoke Island. The AAA guidebook says the settlement on Roanoke Island disappeared without a trace hundreds of years ago. Briggie pivots 180 degrees and shields her eyes from the late morning sun. When we shift direction, we see how close we are to Route 158. Beyond the dunes rise power lines and the rooftops of condos.  But here and there at the horizon are slate gray slivers bounded by nothing but the milky sky.

“There’s the ocean!” Briggie shouts. She hoists her daughter high in the air. “See the ocean?” Greta glances at the rooftops and wires, then back at the plainly visible water we all saw first. “Sure,” Briggie shrugs, “why not?” She grunts as she lowers Greta to the sand. The child totters for a second, then takes a few steps toward the edge of the plateau. The slope of the dune is too gradual to be dangerous. I see small groups of hikers scattered across the acres the dunes cover. From the color of their shirts, some of the hikers are from my camp. No one is close enough to recognize.

Back when I had speech, and Greta’s single word was a secret, I read On Beyond Zebra to my niece while we cuddled in the beach house waiting for power to be restored. If I could tell my camp-mate the story of how Nag’s Head got its name, I might change the lamp-toting ponies into zebras.

“Austin,” Briggie says, “You’ve got a month left of camp. When it’s over, you’re going to come live with us in Boston. We’re going to move your Mom to a place near there. It will make things easier for everybody.” Greta has stretched out at her mother’s feet, resting her head on the compacted sand as if she hears the dunes’ heartbeat. I scan the horizon over Route 158, but I’ve lost the bits of ocean. I raise my book to block the view.

Beyond Zebra,” Briggie reads from the cover. “But what’s before Zebra? That’s something to think about, too, isn’t it?” She scoops up Greta, who giggles and goes limp across her mother’s arms. It looks like Briggie is offering her as a sacrifice. Or has plucked her from the ocean.

Before Zebra. I want to picture my mother, but I don’t dare—what if she appears naked, and with pointed teeth? Briggie adjusts her daughter into a comfortable carrying position and starts down the dune. I watch the muscles of my sister-in-law’s thighs knot with each step. Jesse told me Briggie had once been a ski jumper for the Swiss national junior team: “She fell, and took up dance instead.” Now Briggie saves baby pandas. As I march behind my sister-in-law, I hear her yodeling softly to Greta. The notes rise and fall from chest-deep to falsetto and back. These are muted, desert yodels, nothing like those bellowed from mountain top to mountain top in the Alps. I feel the soft notes in my own chest and throat, and it’s all I can do to keep my lips pressed shut.

But I stumble and release a single sound: “Flunn.”

Dr. Seuss writes that you need the letter Flunn to spell Flunnel—a creature so shy “he only comes out of his hole, I’m afraid,/ When the right kind of softish nice music is played.”

“Excuse me?” Briggie asks calmly, pausing and looking back up the dune at me. I’m shaking my head like I’ve got water trapped in my ear.

“Alright. Okay,” Briggie nods. Without another word she continues downhill, goose-stepping, letting gravity do the work. Greta gazes at me over her mother’s shoulder, her eyes as blue as Briggie’s, as blue as the sky has to be for the dunes to look their most impressive.

“Aus-tin,” the child pronounces. The syllables float toward me like pink rose petals.

Greta, I think, apparently loud enough to cause Briggie to turn her head and add her grin to her daughter’s.