What Kind of Mother

I had thought I was doing right by Levi—I took him to church, to concerts, museums—but here is a severed rat leg telling me otherwise.

“How do you know it was Levi?” I ask, already certain it was my son. It looks like his pet rat Zarathustra’s leg. Poor thing.

“Hannah,” says my neighbor Debby, “I saw him running from our house right before I found the box.”  She is pale and shaking at my doorstep, holding a cardboard gift box containing a bloody bit of rat. My autistic teenager had addressed the ghastly package to her 10 year old son. The note attached read: ‘To Amos. His blood is on your hands.’ I get it. I would be freaked too.

“Levi can be hard to understand sometimes,” I say, but she cuts me off.

“Amos is not playing with Levi again.Shit. Debby had been patient with Levi’s sometimes unsettling eccentricities. Plus Amos is pretty much Levi’s only friend.

“Look,” Debby continues, “Do I have to get a restraining order or are you finally going to do something?”

“I’ll get to the bottom of it,” I promise.

“Well, I know you’ll approach it like a mother. But you better think about what mother.”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you going to think as his mom? Give him the benefit of the doubt again?  Or are you going to approach it as the mother of a kid he might kill?”

“He’s not gonna—“

“Come off it, Hannah. This is how serial killers start.” She shoves the box into my hands and stomps down the porch stairs. “You know I’m right,” she calls over her shoulder.

“You’re wrong,” I say quietly to her receding back. Goddamn crime shows. Everyone thinks they’re an expert.  I shut the door and plop the little box on the kitchen counter. I pull up a stool and stare at it. Levi’s whole life I’ve worked consciously to believe the best of him. That’s what good mothers do. They give their children the benefit of the doubt. I only wish Levi didn’t provide me with so much doubt.

I am wondering whether to throw the leg out or freeze it as evidence when my phone rings. I pull it from my pantsuit pocket.


“Ms. Yarrow?


“This is Principal Roya. Levi is fine.” Uh oh. “He’s in our office now and he’s pretty upset. He ran away during 4th period. He was shouting about death and blame.”

“I’ll come get him.”

“Ms. Yarrow?


“This was his last strike.”

“What? I thought he had one more!”  This is the last public school within a 50 mile radius. The private ones won’t take him.

“There was the neck sniffing incident.”

“What? That wasn’t a real strike, was it?” Three weeks ago, he’d been sent home for sniffing the back of other students’ necks. The school mascot is a Tiger and he’s so proud to be a Tiger, proud to belong, that he pretends to be one. When asked what he was doing Levi had said, “I’m smelling them to see if they are good prey, for I am a Tiger.”

“Ms. Yarrow…” The principal sounded sad.

“On my way.”




We drive home from the school; Levi sits next to me, nodding his head in time with ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ which he has on repeat. He’s not saying anything. He didn’t say a word the whole time we were in the principal’s office, getting expelled again.

“Don’t you care that you got kicked out of another school?” Levi just keeps nodding to the beat. His profile is beautiful—the little boy he was and the handsome man he’s becoming blending with the endearing awkwardness of young adulthood. His eyes are closed and he looks happy. I can almost pretend no storm is coming.

But I know his disappointment and shame will roll in, and I’ll feel the sting of it. When your child is cut, you bleed too.  I am seized by fatigue and an urgency to just get it the hell over with.

“Hey! It’s over. You’re done. You’re not a tiger anymore, so you can stop pretending to be one.” Nothing. Levi just keeps nodding. I hit eject on the CD player and grab ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ Levi stops nodding and just stares at me, smiling like an innocent. I set my jaw, willing him to feel the hurt, and roll my window down. I toss the CD out and it shatters behind us. Levi screams, tears pour down his reddening cheeks. He wails like a siren as I speed toward home.

Only when we reach our driveway and I angrily jerk the car into park do his screams stop. His silence is sudden and complete. He turns.

“Mom, I left you part of Zarathustra too.” He smiles and says, “He’s in your purse.” He pats the back of my hand and I am seized with the urge to smack him across his face with it. Instead, I scream. A low roar from a deep place I never knew existed escapes my mouth. I turn my vicious hand to a fist and pound the steering wheel again and again and again. The horn honks under my fist and the turn signal snaps off the steering column. My howl sounds on and on while Levi sobs.

“You’re not a tiger, mom. What are you?” He runs terrified into the house and away from me. The roar finally runs out and I am spent.  I lean back in the seat and reach into my purse. My fingers close on a cardboard box. “There is blood on your hands, too,” the note says. The ziplock sandwich bag inside contains white front paws and a tail. Zarathustra. Why would Levi kill him?

I unbuckle myself and walk numbly inside and up the stairs to Levi’s room. I rap on his door before slowly pushing it open. Levi stares at something on his desk. As I approach behind him, I see that it’s Zarathustra’s head.

“There is blood on my hands, Mom.” Levi swivels in his chair and wraps his arms around my waist. He buries his face in my stomach like he did when he was upset as a boy.

“Why did you kill him, Levi?”

“I didn’t. Ziggy did.”

“The cat?”

“Yeah. Amos was over. You said Amos could come over. We went to watch Minecraft videos and I left my door open. Ziggy got in and broke Zarathustra’s neck.” I hold him tight as his tears sieze him. He didn’t kill his rat. Thank God he hadn’t killed that damn rat. He gulps for air.

“I miss him, Mom. It was my fault.”

“Honey, why did you chop him up?

“It felt bad that it was my fault. Like it weighed too much.  I read all of the Bible they gave me at Church. It helped.”

“How did it help?”

“There was a story about a man whose concubine was murdered, so he chopped up her body and sent a piece of it to each person responsible so they’d feel bad too. Every piece of Zarathustra I gave away, made me feel lighter. Like we could all share the blame together.  But it was really the man’s fault that the murderers got his concubine. And it was really my fault that Ziggy got Zarathustra.”

“Oh honey,” I say, and I know what kind of mother to be. I will never stop believing in my son’s goodness.

“I gave a piece of him to Ziggy, but he ate it. I don’t think he felt bad at all.” Levi looks up and sees me smiling. A sunshine grin breaks out on his face and we both start laughing.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you and broke your CD.”

“It’s Ok,” he says. “I’m creepy sometimes. It’s hard to understand.”

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