Jeremy’s whole life changed the day his mother left. When his mother leaves with the father of his worst enemy at school, nine year old Jeremy seeks to make sense of her abandonment. He throws himself into recreating the Book of Birds, a collection of drawings that his mother took with her on the day she left. While his father fights his own depression and his sister distances herself from their lives, Jeremy turns whole-heartedly to nature, and finds solace in the quiet comfort of drawing.
“One of America’s more gifted young writers–and this deeply felt story reaffirms his great promise".
— Tom Brokaw
“The Day My Mother Left is a deeply moving and lucidly expressed short novel by one of our country’s most gifted writers. James Prosek teaches me that what does not destroy us strengthens us."
— Harold Bloom
by James Prosek
This summer wasn’t about waiting for my mom to take me to the town pool with all the laughter and sun, diving and splashing, the smells of sun tan lotion and chlorine. As I drew in the kitchen, my dad paced back and forth across the living room like he still expected her to walk through the door.
I took long walks to get out of the house.
One day, on one of those walks, I stopped to listen to the bullfrogs making their ooouuummm ooouuummm sounds in the pond. Behind the barn, two cows were doing the reverse: Mmmuuuooo. Every sound had its own place, and for the first time in a while, I felt I had a place too.
I walked on.
Past the old dairy barn and a big patch of milkweed at the end of our dead-end street, I came to the path that led to the woods and the reservoir. A big sugar maple stood like a guard at the edge of the forest, its trunk posted with a yellow sign with black letters that said: NO TRESPASSING.
I remembered my dad telling me that about a hundred years ago, the water company bought all this land from the people who lived in the Mill River Valley. They tore down the homes and burned the wreckage, and they built a dam that flooded the river to make a reservoir for drinking water. The land around the reservoir, once open farms and fields, slowly became forest. The old dirt road led from our dead-end street into those woods.
I walked beyond the end of the street, down the dirt road, under the shade of the trees, through tall ferns and stands of spicebush and witch hazel. I’d only been down to the reservoir a few times before, with my dad. I always wanted to go down and fish the reservoir alone, but I was too afraid. Kids in town told stories about the ghosts of the people who were forced out by the water company whose houses were torn
down when the valley was flooded.
Bird songs echoed under the trees. A wood thrush. I came to a place I remembered, where a row of old trees grew along the road. My father had told me the trees—big sugar maples—were planted many years
before and marked the front of somebody’s property. Nearby he showed me the foundation of an old farmhouse, a pit in the ground lined with stones that looked like pictures of old ruins I’d seen in school
I stood in that place, by the row of trees, alone now. I felt alive, my vision seemed sharper. I could imagine a house behind the row of trees, a breeze blowing through the windows, billowing the curtains. The place seemed spooky to me when I was with my dad. Now, I walked on without fear.
Soon I was in a place I didn’t recognize, where the dirt road split on the other side of two stone pillars. One road went down to the reservoir. The other went up a hill. I took the higher road.
Farther along I got lost in my footsteps. I was hypnotized, watching my feet fall on the path, until a bird flew so close to my face that I flinched. I looked up and there in front of me was a massive tree with giant limbs, its long roots growing around a mossy ledge like the legs of an octopus.
A few paces from the tree, partly hidden by the leaves, I saw a staircase made of large, flat fieldstones. I walked up the stone stairs and straight ahead, under the massive limbs of the old tree. Light spilled through the leaves onto the ground, where I began to see the outline of a perfect square pit lined with stone-- the cellar of an old
house, or maybe a barn. A staircase led down into the foundation, and in the center of the square was a huge pile of stones and brick. This is where the chimney was. I stood there as a cold breeze off the
reservoir lifted the hairs on the back of my neck.
And then I heard the sound of moving water.
I couldn’t see any water, but the sound was so close I felt like I was surrounded by it, even standing in it. I walked along the edge of the house foundation and down a hill behind it, in the direction of the sound of the water. I got down on my knees and pushed aside some dead leaves with my hand.
The brook was running underneath me.
Fieldstones, longer than I was tall, made a bridge over the brook. Leaves had piled up on top of the stone bridge, hiding the brook completely from view. I tried to imagine the farmers moving the
big stones into place. It would have taken several men, maybe with horses, to move one of those stones.
As I walked farther down, the brook opened up and flowed freely through the woods. Tall green ferns and skunk cabbage grew on the bank. I came to a small waterfall. Deep in the dark pool below it, I saw a
flash. A fish.
I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to stay. I pictured a desk, my lamp, a chair, a bed --my own place-- arranged on the leaves that carpeted the floor. I wanted to stay here longer, but I needed supplies.
I arrived home sweating and out of breath. I worked quickly. I feared that if I saw my father, or spent too much time in the house, my vision of the camp would disappear.
Stick to the task.
I stuffed some matches, crackers, an apple, raisins, candy bars, a penknife, a flashlight, an extra T-shirt, and a bottle of water in my backpack. I tied my sleeping bag to the backpack with rope and threw in a drawing pad, pencils, and a hook with some line.
I ran down the stairs toward the living room. My dad wasn’t in his reading chair.
I should leave a note.
I put my arms through the straps of my backpack and started back down the street, past the barn and through the woods again. I liked the feeling of weight on my back as I ran.
I took a different route, directly through the woods instead of on the dirt road, in case a warden from the water company was on patrol. I’d heard that sometimes they were out looking for trespassers, but I’d never seen one. I didn’t want anyone seeing where I was going anyway. The spot was like a photograph in my mind as I walked. I could reconstruct it perfectly. It didn’t surprise me when I suddenly found myself there.
I put down my backpack near the stone stairs and found a large flat rock that made a good bench to sit on. I untied my sleeping bag from the pack, took a breath of the cool air coming off the brook, and lay down on the flat rock looking up into the tree branches. The air carried the smell of the spicebush and the rusty smell of water.
I ate my apple, core and seeds and all. I grabbed a hook and some line and headed to the reservoir, past a yellow sign posted on a white pine tree: NO TRESPASSING it read in bold black letters. The sign seemed funny because nobody was watching me except for the birds, whose singing seemed louder and louder.
The water of the reservoir came right up to the trunks of the hemlock and pine trees. Small waves lapped against the stones. The air was warmer here and the pine needles were soft under my feet. I leaned over and saw my broken reflection in the water. I recognized, for the first time, the ghostly image of my mother looking back at me.
Can’t I go anywhere without thinking of her?
A small fish broke the surface of the water, disturbing the reflection. Underneath the glare from the sky, I saw more fish. Sunfish.
I reached into my backpack for my pencils and paper. I tried to draw the small sunfish. An inchworm fell from a tree above me onto the surface of the water, and immediately one of the fish came to the surface and sucked it into its small mouth. Another inchworm was hanging from its silk thread just above the water, but too far for the fish to grab. One eager fish tried, jumping out of the water, flashing its golden sides and orange belly. I put down my pencils and paper. I wanted to catch one.
I knew sunfish were eager biters. I looked behind me on the bank and saw an anthill. The ants were carr ying small white grubs from the top of what looked like a volcano. I didn’t know what the grubs were, but they were big enough to put on a hook. I tried one as bait.
Because it didn’t weigh much, I couldn’t get the grub out far enough to reach a fish. So I got a stick and tied my line to the end of it. With the stick I could get the line out where the fish were. As soon as the grub touched the water I had a sunfish on the hook.
The fish had blue streaks than ran across its olive cheeks like streams on a map. Its eyes were orange-brown, with halos of green and blue. The sides were rust-colored with dark bands, and its belly was pumpkin orange. I took out the hook and held the fish in my hand for a while.
Maybe I’ll keep it. Draw it.
My hand dropped in the water and the fish splashed as it swam out.
I leaned back against a rock. I took a deep breath and as I exhaled I noticed the birds had stopped singing. I put down my makeshift fishing rod and sat completely still.
A large bird swooped down from the hemlocks. It landed on a rock right next to me. It was an owl and had tufts of feathers on each side of its head that looked like ears. It seemed so much like a person that I thought it might speak to me. I assumed it would just stay there, but as soon as it landed, it lifted its furry feet off the rock and flew away.
In the first weeks after my mom left, I felt that I wouldn’t mind just going to sleep and not waking up. My head was so full of bad thoughts that sleep was the only way out. If I could sleep. I didn’t want to draw, or do homework, or move. But now I had trouble remembering those times. I felt different, stronger, and my head was full of things I wanted to do.
What had I been so worried about?
I felt at home in the woods. It was the only place where I felt at home. Time didn’t mean anything here, nor did money or lack of money, or cars, or school, or parents, or anything. I wanted to shout, Nothing matters!
I walked to the old foundation, which was built into a hillside. If I cover the top with logs, I can make a good shelter over my head. I set to work choosing long, straight, dead timber, dry and newly fallen, from the forest floor. I lined up the logs to make a roof. I found an old iron bucket, filled it with water, and brought it to my site. I gathered dry grass and made a floor. This was basic stuff I learned on camping trips as a Cub Scout.
When I finished my shelter, I took out a candy bar and walked down to the reservoir to eat it. I watched the sun slip down behind the trees like a piece of melting ice. I was amazed at the idea of watching the sun move. I thought of my father. His voice in my head. “It’s not the sun moving that you’re witnessing,” he’d say. “It’s the earth turning.”
When were things ever what they seemed to be?
I threw a stick and laughed out loud.
Across the reservoir I heard ducks laughing in a cove.
Whack, hack, ack, ack.
I went back to my camp with a skip in my step, pleased with my shelter. And when I got under the roof, I felt tired. I unrolled my sleeping bag and climbed inside. It was too hot so I unzipped it and lay on top.
I dreamed of flying.
I was walking down the slope of our front lawn, spreading my arms. Why haven’t I done this before? It was so easy. The breeze lifted my body and I was floating, effortlessly above the tree line. I saw the whole farm below, the pond and the lily pads, the big green fields, the old barn. I flew over the reservoir and saw where the old stonewalls came into the water.
Light as a feather.
But then, suddenly, I was heavy. I lost my confidence, and the more I did, the faster I fell. I steered away from the trees and fell into the blue water of the reservoir.
I woke up, startled.
I heard a whistle. I knew that whistle.
I knew that whistle! Two high, bent notes with a straight one in the middle.
My father and Uncle John made it up when they were kids in Brazil. They used it to find each other in their neighborhood games, their secret whistle that only they knew.
For as long as I could remember that had been our family whistle. My dad taught it to us, and we used it to find each other in the supermarket, in the yard, in a crowd, in the house. It was ours and no one else's. There was no mistaking it. It was my dad. He was looking for me.
My father could whistle very loud. He whistled with two fingers in his mouth. The whistle carried a mile. It sounded close. I heard the sound distinctly, maybe half a dozen times. Then the whistles became more distant and disappeared.
I didn’t answer.
I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. I even tried to count the stars. By the time the sun came up I was exhausted. My eyes were burning, and my head felt hot and sore, like someone had been using it as a drum. I wanted my bed: the soft sheets, my pillow, my dresser, my closet, my window. I packed up my sleeping bag and started walking back.
Before I left camp, I took the food I had left and buried it under some rocks near my shelter. I knew some animal would probably dig it up and eat it, but maybe if I came back and needed it, it would be there.
When I get home, I’ll draw a map. I’ll start a journal like my dad used to keep. Inside the front cover, in a secret compartment, I’ll store my map. Even if someone found the map and followed it to my
place in the woods, they could never really get there, because the real place wasn’t on any map, or in the woods. It was nothing you could see. It was inside me.
Purchase the Book
"Prosek's artist's eye (a "cold, bluish moon," a young girl's skin like snow against a green couch) fills the white space left by his spare language. This novel for young people has all the innocence and beauty of [his] paintings."
— LA Times
"His (Jeremy) growing understanding of his artistic talent, and how it can shore him up and make him stronger, is the message of the book, and it's conveyed in simple, powerful prose. "A"
"Unexpected details and insight into a young, mixed-up mind make the book
a pleasing, emotional read for all ages."
— USA Today
"The 26 etchings, mostly of birds, made by Prosek on copper plates and used as chapter headings, are indeed lovely, and give young readers a visual sense of Jeremy's naturalistic world."
“The author unforgettably captures the way “she (the mother) took almost nothing with her, yet she took everything”—except Jeremy’s talent and his will to survive.”
— New York Times Book Review
“The beautiful, plain, short sentences and the concrete details of the New England forest, ocean, and small town bring close the timeless family drama, based on the author's own experience. Robert Frost comes to mind: Jeremy even learns to build a wall, rock by rock, and he knows he is building himself.”
"Prosek's story is the sort English teachers would love to assign. It is a fine book with a quality of excellence we don't frequently see."
"Prosek movingly chronicles young Jeremy's emotional upheaval after his mother abandons his family, in this sophisticated novel."
— Publishers Weekly