Moon Jump

We called her Ya-Ya because she said grandma and granny made her feel old. But I think she selected the moniker because of its enthusiasm, a repeating ya as an affirming, double battle cry at the beauty of the world.

Once, when I was five or maybe six, I was staying with her for a long weekend, and she rushed into my bedroom. The sky was still moon-bright. Her skin shined from the misty, early morning walk.

“Mo,” she said. “You have to see this.” Ya-Ya pulled me outside and across the street to an expansive park full of wide-open grass occasionally punctured by gnarled trees. My eyelids were heavy as plums as we walked to a nearby oak.

“Look.” She waved one hand through the air, the motion deliberate and reverential. It was dark enough that I didn’t immediately see the three, small leaves suspended in the air. As Ya-Ya moved her hand, the leaves swayed, as if by magic.

“They’re caught in a spiderweb,” I said with a child’s bluntness.

Ya-Ya’s face fell. I don’t know if she hadn’t realized and had the sort of heart that could truly believe, or if she was simply playing along, seeing the world as it should be rather than how it is.

“But imagine there isn’t a spiderweb,” she said.

I tried, but as the sky lightened and caught the silky thread, I couldn’t unsee it. My mind wouldn’t bend to that sort of whimsy. Ya-Ya wouldn’t be deterred. No granddaughter of hers would lack imagination. She excavated whatever small bits of magic from me that she could.

“Well, let’s try this,” she said. “I want you to moon jump.”

“Jump over the moon?” I asked. “Like the cow?” And then, as if I’d summoned the creature with my words, I noticed a cow with us in the park. At its edge, maybe a hundred feet off, her head bent, eyes dark and gentle. A cow here in the early morning should’ve felt strange, but it didn’t.

“To moon jump,” Ya-Ya explained, “is to leap from your own body into another’s. To become the cow who jumps over the moon, to see that star-strung sky and the moon’s craters up close with another’s eyes.”

I felt my eyebrows raise and then lower. The cow was the beginning of something, a way to see and believe.

“Imagine,” she said, “and then leap.”

I closed my eyes. I tasted grass in my mouth, bitter and bright. I leapt.

What you don’t realize about the sky is how much dark space there is between one pinprick of light and another.

▴ ▴ ▴

Over the summers, I stayed with Ya-Ya for three to four days at a time. I was a lonely child, who didn’t make good friends easily, so I looked forward to my stays with her. She felt less like a guardian and more like a friend. Ya-Ya taught me the ways of the moon. Over pancakes studded with blueberries, she explained how it was rude to enter the mind of an unwilling other. I thought about my own jumps, as I stuffed my mouth full of pancakes and marveled at the way the berries dyed the batter the color of a bruise.

Ya-Ya explained that cows were always happy for company, which was why she suggested I try my first leap with the cow that morning in the park.

We sat and talked at the kitchen table, its worn wood marked with acrylic-paint flecks. Ya-Ya loved to paint, and she did so with a passionate chaos, color always spilling from the page.

“In my experience, humans are always unwilling,” Ya-Ya had said, “so you should steer clear of their minds. It would take a truly unique person to allow you to enter them.” A wall clock full of songbirds ticked, marking each second with sound. At the top of every hour a new bird sang. Eastern meadowlark and red-winged blackbird. American goldfinch and wood thrush. “But mice are good,” she said, “and most birds. If you’re lucky, a wild, wild creature like a bear, or if you’re very lucky, a cat.”

In those summers, my hands were always sticky with syrup, my mouth full of maple. At the time, I wasn’t sure if Ya-Ya took moon jumping seriously, as a literal leaping into another, or if she simply believed in the imaginary power of the human mind, as if we could believe our way into another’s existence. I wasn’t sure how real my own jump had been, even though some nights I swore I still felt stardust on my skin.

Ya-Ya cut her pancakes into triangles and shuttled stacks three high into her mouth. “It’s important work,” she said, “looking at the world as another.”

I nodded, chewing on her words.

The clock ticked. A yellow warbler whistled in the kitchen; the call ended with a rising note.

▴ ▴ ▴

When I was twelve, I stayed with Ya-Ya for the whole summer.

On the hour-long drive to her house, my mother and I played our usual car games. I spy, twenty questions. The whole trip unremarkably normal, until we pulled up to Ya-Ya’s house and my mother turned toward me and said, “Keep an eye on her, okay?”

I nodded solemnly, but I didn’t understand why an eye was necessary to be kept. I hadn’t yet detected the beginnings of Ya-Ya’s fraying mind. A teapot left too long on the hot, hot stove, a forgotten name or address. Small slips, at first, the way most things begin.

I spent a glorious summer with Ya-Ya. She lived in Lake Elsinore, the name of both a city and a lake. Southern California’s largest body of fresh water. The city is built up now, but back then it felt empty and desolate. Although it was only an hour or so from LA in good traffic, Ya-Ya’s city was as barren and beautiful as the moon. The Santa Ana mountains, the same mountains around my home, seemed taller and more colorful here, and the lake was an unblinking eye of blue or sometimes a dark, awful green when the algae bloomed.

Ya-Ya had two dogs and three cats, all of whom were a delicious, unruly black. We spent that summer tromping around the lake with the dogs, unleashed and sprinting. The dogs, Charlie and Chuck, liked chasing ducks. Ya-Ya and I counted how many ducks the dogs urged to the sky. Sometimes we moon jumped into those flying, frantic bodies. After long afternoons at the lake, my shoulders ached, my arms remembering what it felt like to flap.

We moon jumped into hawks and soared high above a field of grass in the park, where the cow had once appeared and I’d learned about moon jumping. Our hawk-sharp eyes scanned the field, detected every movement. A mole burrowing where the grass thinned, a mouse sending ripples through the bladed green. I loved it when the hawk and I dove, the way our body became a sleek missile—both falling and flight. The first time I felt a mouse in my talons, its furred warmth in my mouth, I gasped my way back into myself.

I cried, but also—it’s hard to describe. I liked that beastly instinct. The wild energy, the earthy self-reliance. Every night that summer, I dreamed of being the hawk devouring a mouse. Part nightmare, part desire.

It was around that time that Ya-Ya began allowing mice to enter her house. I don’t know if one thing caused the other. If she knew I was dreaming hawk desires, knew she needed to tame my thirst. Cause and effect are difficult when it comes to Ya-Ya. She operated with a different sort of logic.

First it was two mice who found their way into the old dresser in her second guest room. She lived in a three-bedroom, so one was her room, one was mine for the summer, and the other was set up like a bedroom but was also brimming with this and that. Stacks of mystery books. Farmer’s Almanacs. Thin, white handkerchiefs, some hand embroidered with animals. Easels and canvases with colorful portraits of my mother and dreamy landscapes full of animals.

The spare bedroom became the mice’s room. First two adults nested in old sheets in the bottom drawer of the banged-up dresser. But two mice easily become more.

One night: the moon bright. Ya-Ya shook me awake and pulled me to the mice’s dresser.

“Look at them,” she said. She held a candle in her hand because she didn’t want to turn on the lights and startle them. The air smelled like a used match, like dripping wax.

The babies were so impossibly small. Pink and gray and tender. Eyes shut tightly, their little torsos curled like ferns. I moon jumped into one, as easy as blinking. A soft, dark cavern, a maternal heartbeat. Salt and fur, a body curled and breathing. I’d never felt love like that.

At first, we told no one about the mice. Even after that summer ended and I returned home to my parents, neither Ya-Ya nor I breathed a word. Not when my parents and I visited her on the weekends. Not when we stayed with her for Christmas. I demanded that I stay in the mouse bedroom. When I peered into the drawer, hundreds of mice bodies wriggled within. Ya-Ya had made a small hole in the floor for them, so they could travel beneath the floorboards to the outside. It was a miracle there weren’t mice everywhere in her house. But maybe they knew that sort of visibility was dangerous.

Still, there were worrisome piles of pellets. A damp, sour smell. Something raw and horrible and lovely about that dresser.

It was two, maybe three years, before my mother discovered the mice. My mother, the animal lover, Ya-Ya’s artistic and kind daughter, was appalled. I listened at the bedroom door as they argued.

“You can’t live like this,” my mother said. I was finally old enough to understand my mother had concerns, and to see they were growing. She didn’t think Ya-Ya should live alone or so far away from us.

“You can’t kill them,” Ya-Ya had said, her voice wavering, as if she were crying.

My mother didn’t kill them but agreed to a compromise. A peculiar device that omitted high-pitched sounds drove the mice from the house. Both Ya-Ya and I moon jumped into the furry creatures as they fled, the sound a cyclone of chaos in our heads. I dream still of that sound, and my heart flutters.

▴ ▴ ▴

Ya-Ya moved to an independent-living apartment complex a ten-minute drive from us. She couldn’t have cats or dogs in such a place, so we adopted her cat. Her other animals had grown old, had died the way we all hope to—quietly and surrounded by those we love.

Ya-Ya had never lived without animals, so we got her a rat, the sort of small, caged animal the complex allowed. But from the first moment Pica arrived, Ya-Ya refused to cage her.

“She hates it,” she told my mother and me. “Would you like living behind bars? It’s cruel.”

I was sixteen, an age where my body felt wrong and awkward, and the girls were petty and vindictive, so the idea of having a safe place that was only my own felt wonderful.

My mother said, “You can’t let the rat roam. It’s—”

But I had joined Pica in the dark beneath the bed, where she had made a little burrow from tissues and old towels. Pica was nibbling on the corner of a towel. The terry cloth was soft in my mouth, comforting on aching teeth, but I wanted something more to chew. I’m sure my mother had said something like unsanitary or dangerous or against the complex rules.

I was back in my own body when I heard my mother scream. Pica had bitten her. A small, weeping wound on her calf.

“You see?” my mother said.

But Ya-Ya never caged the rat. I don’t know if she made this decision because Ya-Ya was Ya-Ya, or if it was because the links between cause and effect were growing tougher for her brain to fathom. I visited her every Wednesday after school, and as months passed, she seemed a little less herself. Sometimes she seemed stuck in a daydream. She’d drift off mid-sentence, her gaze unfocused. Sometimes it merely seemed life had become too tough for her, or else her interest in it too waning. When I set up her paints for her, she would start but never finish a piece. I was devastated by these changes, this moon-jumping fierce woman becoming something less. I began dreading my Wednesday visits, both because it was hard to see her like that, but also because my own life served as an easy distraction. I’d fallen in love with science and was taking upper-level classes with mounds of homework. How easy it was to forget about others, to only focus on yourself.

Ya-Ya had a boyfriend for a while, a veterinarian who looked very old but was kind. The relationship didn’t last long.

“Why did you two split?” I asked her one Wednesday.

Ya-Ya shrugged, and I thought that might be the only answer I’d get. She stared out the living-room window, up at the cloudless blue sky. Then she said, “Other people are so often disappointing. I don’t care about what they care about. I’d prefer to be alone.” She sighed.

Somewhere outside, a bird sang its sweet call, but I couldn’t identify what species it might be. This unknowing made me incredibly sad. I wondered if other people sometimes included me. I wondered if I sometimes felt the same. Not long after, Ya-Ya stopped leaving her apartment. My mother began delivering all her groceries.

Pica grew fatter and fatter, from a decadent life of Oreos and plums, peanuts and carrots. She had bitten everyone who entered Ya-Ya’s apartment—my mother, my father, Ya-Ya’s former boyfriend. Everyone except Ya-Ya and me.

▴ ▴ ▴

I turned eighteen. I’d grown tired of California, of all the people, and yearned to leave. I left for the Midwest to attend college two thousand miles from home. Then the East for graduate school. I visited California when I could, but in those young-adult years, it was hard to understand the treachery of time. Pica died. Ya-Ya moved in with my family after a nasty fall and prolonged hospital stay made it clear that she couldn’t live alone.

I graduated, then got a job with the National Park Service based mostly, but not exclusively, in Utah. A state home to some of the most magnificent parks—Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands. I had a small mobile house in Moab, the red-rocked south of the state, but often traveled for my job.

As a working adult, time passed differently, often in sudden bursts. With none of the landmarks of childhood and young adulthood—graduations, significant birthdays, summers off between school years—the days often felt long, but the years short. Ya-Ya got older and frailer. Eight years passed. I loved my work, and it was easy to let that passion become my life. Though I dated a little, no one stuck. Like Ya-Ya, maybe I preferred to be alone. It wasn’t uncommon in my line of work. I think those who fared best on their own gravitated to these positions, which were usually in remote places that were so breathtakingly beautiful you didn’t need company.

I only saw my family once a year. Though I longed to see them, the truth was, in growing up, I’d grown out of California. It was too loud, too packed with people and cars. I felt bad for not visiting more, but every time I went, I felt more frustrated by the traffic and claustrophobic from the crowds. In California my mind felt wooly, as if I couldn’t see clearly.

▴ ▴ ▴

One summer morning, I found myself in Salt Lake City. I often traveled there for work and knew the city well. I parked my battered Subaru on State Street, spent five minutes fiddling with an app on my phone to pay the meter, and then headed west. I had twenty minutes to kill before my meeting with the Minority Leader of the House and I liked walking around downtown. Its energy always felt different than California’s bustle. The blocks are exceptionally wide in Salt Lake, and so walking them, surrounded by skyscrapers, feels both expansive and claustrophobic. Somehow the extra space on the ground reminds you how the buildings take up so much of the sky.

I was in the city on behalf of the sky. My colleagues liked to joke and call me the Dark Sky Defender, the moniker said in a bad impression of Batman’s serious guttural. But their name wasn’t wrong. It was my job to protect the Colorado Plateau, which spanned four states, and was one of the darkest places in the country.

On the streets of Salt Lake, the sun was out in full force, the sort of UV power that only occurs when you’re at four thousand feet. I looked up, eyes resting on the tops of each building. I passed a more modest structure, maybe six or so stories, likely one of the LDS Church’s many administrative buildings. At the very top was a Canada goose. A solitary one, even though they often travel in groups or at least pairs. Perhaps this goose, like me, fared best alone, or at least this was the story we told ourselves. Though I often liked being alone, I wondered how different my life would be if I could find my mate. There was a certain ache in solitude, one I’d grown used to, but couldn’t always ignore.

On top of the building, with the sun slanting behind the goose, casting her in darkness, she seemed out of place. I’m not religious or even superstitious, but I do believe in the power of the natural world. The goose felt like an omen.

Can omens be good and bad? It struck me as both absurd and wonderful that a goose could be so high on the building. Of course, geese can fly, and so her presence was easily explained, but I’d never seen a goose in such a place. I closed my eyes, her dark image still imprinted.

Some might think it silly to spend your life protecting darkness. With so many other crises, why worry about something as seemingly innocuous as light pollution? But a night sky free from human-made light is essential for ecosystems. It affects circadian rhythms, predator-prey interactions, and species migration patterns. Many species of birds become disoriented by what we call sky glow and they can’t help but fly toward the light. Their migrational compasses depend on dark skies; they need the moon for orientation.

From the top of the building, the city unfolded as neat grids. A wind kicked up, and it felt so good and so sad as I ached for a thing I had no word for.

All day I thought of the goose, that maybe-omen. I called my mother from my hotel room that night, just to check in. Ya-Ya had fallen again. She’d broken a leg. I could hear tears in my mother’s voice as she spoke.

The next day in Salt Lake, as I walked the streets, I looked up, scanned every building for a goose. There were no geese anywhere in the city. I called Mom from the hotel that next evening, and then again the day after from my house in Moab.

“I think it’s time for a nursing home,” Mom said on the third call. “I can’t lift her anymore. She needs more care than I can give.” The prospect shrunk both our hearts. Over the past few days, I’d been fearing it would come to that. I’d briefly imagined what I could do to help, pictured myself moving back. But I loved it too much in Utah, couldn’t imagine a life with any sort of happiness for me in California.

I thought about offering to bring Ya-Ya to Utah. I traveled too much to be any help, and Moab was remote, too far from adequate medical care for the idea to be reasonable.

▴ ▴ ▴

One month after Ya-Ya moved into a nursing home, I made it home for the holidays. My mother and I had brought Ya-Ya cookies and hot chocolate. We gathered around her bed, and I pretended not to notice how frail she was. I thought I’d prepared myself. I had known after the broken leg she’d stopped walking entirely, had known dementia fully settled in her like a dream. But seeing her motionless was still shocking. She was so changed. She’d been pleasantly plump, and now her cheekbones protruded as angular peaks, her arms thin as twigs. Her skin was the color of early season corn. It looked as thin as tissue paper.

We ate cookies, we laughed a little. I wrapped my arms around her hollow frame, her bones like a bird’s. I liked thinking of her that way—just ready to take flight.

My mother left to talk to a nurse. Ya-Ya bent forward and whispered something I couldn’t hear.

“What?” I asked, and she repeated her words again, but she was still indecipherable. I imagine she said something like, Do you still moon jump? Or, Let’s look out my window at the birds. I’ve named them all. It was exactly noon. I thought of her kitchen wall clock, full of bird voices. I wished I could give Ya-Ya all their sounds.

▴ ▴ ▴

Three years later, I was at home in Moab when my mother called and told me about Ya-Ya’s strokes. They were small and went entirely unnoticed by the nursing-home staff. It was my mother who noticed a new slurring in Ya-Ya’s words, the left side of her face drooping more than before.

When I got off the phone with my mother, I went for a walk. I lived on the outskirts of town, and the second you step outside, it’s all red rock, a heart-aching desolation. I’ve always found comfort in vastness. I feel most full and human when surrounded with it.

I didn’t want to blame the nurses there, because they seemed to take wonderful care of Ya-Ya. I couldn’t blame them, when I, myself, had seen Ya-Ya only a handful of times in recent years. There’s nothing that could be done for such strokes, so even if they had detected the changes, it wouldn’t have mattered.

I wanted to blame someone.

I walked the nearby trail, each second the air darkening. I thought about what it meant to grow older, about how it’s both natural and unkind. It had been so hard to witness Ya-Ya’s slow descent. Maybe this more than anything was why I rarely returned to California.

Night came like a wave, the air drowning in it. I loved it. Like a switch: my world became almost pitch black, the loss of sight corresponding with a sudden deluge of sound—crickets and horned owls.

I thought of Ya-Ya alone in her bed, in a nursing home brimming with people, some dying, some with long lives stretching ahead.

In the darkness, I opened my eyes as wide as I could, but I might as well have had them closed. Alone, in that velvet orb of lightlessness, I could’ve been the last human on earth. I smiled. Especially in situations like this, I liked being alone, which isn’t sad, but the opposite. Because it isn’t being alone, is it, when you’re surrounded by the world?

▴ ▴ ▴

“Why would you drive nine hundred miles home during a blizzard?” my mother asked.

“All the flights have been canceled,” I said, even though I knew that wasn’t what she meant.

“It’s not worth it,” my mother said. “She likely won’t wake up again.”

“I know,” I said. But I had to see Ya-Ya. I knew seeing her one last, hard time would be better than never seeing her again.

I white-knuckled my way out of Moab, the snow thick, buffeting sheets. I thanked whatever higher being I might believe in that my Subaru had four-wheel drive and that there was no one else on the roads. I slid and went thirty in a sixty-five zone. I fluttered my breaks. All I needed to do was stay on the road.

Part of me wished I had someone besides my mother in my life who would tell me not to make this journey. Part of me wished I was home, in front of a fire with some man’s or woman’s arms around me. Moon jumping had shown me the power, the wonder, in connecting with another being. But though Ya-Ya and I had spent our lives feeling that closeness with animals, we weren’t able to find it with another human. I wondered if that was the price of moon jumping. When you were so attuned to another being that you became them—felt what they did, lost yourself in their body—no other connection could compare.

But we live the lives we live. As I sputtered my way toward California, I tried not to think of my loneliness or the way my car could easily slip off the road and be buried in a snowdrift. Of how cold metal and flesh would be when encased in ice. Instead I thought of my meeting in four days’ time, where I would make my case in front of the Utah senate to protect our dark skies. I hoped I’d be able to make the meeting.

My mind drifted to birds, and I allowed the white, white of the blizzard to guide me home. A blizzard is a bit like a dark sky. It strips human eyes of sight. I had to trust that my hands on the wheel would keep me on the road, that seeing only two feet in front of me would be enough.

▴ ▴ ▴

I arrived at Ya-Ya’s nursing home. The nine-hour drive had taken me fourteen, but I’d made it. Once I exited Utah and drove through the curling corner of Arizona, the snow had become lighter, then disappeared completely.

I checked in with the nurses at the front. I’d never been there alone, without my mother. The check-in desk seemed impossibly long to me, an infinite stretch of off-white. I was the only visitor.

I walked to Ya-Ya’s wing. Her door was open. She slept, her body so still, her mouth wide open. I hesitated at the door. Ya-Ya used to sleep like that when she lived with my parents. When she first did it, my mother, father, and I took turns being alarmed. She looked dead with her mouth open like that.

Once we got used to it, I’d joked to my mother, “Ya-Ya could swallow the moon in her sleep.”

My mother had said, “The moon and all the stars.”

If Ya-Ya had ever shown my mother the art of moon jumping, my mother never said anything to me. I was afraid to mention it, as if voicing it aloud to another might break its magic.

I approached Ya-Ya’s bed and leaned over her, my ear to her mouth. The faintest wind of breath assured me that this time, like all the others, Ya-Ya was not yet dead. But her breathing was faint, her body impossibly small.

I held her hand and we sat in silence. I didn’t expect her to wake; my mother had forewarned me. This would have to be enough.

Outside the window, birds twittered in the small courtyard. Simple starlings and one plump robin. Nurses came and left. Bats replaced the birds, their flight swooping and dramatic.

I didn’t want to leave because I didn’t want Ya-Ya to be alone. Though she may have liked solitude, I thought she’d appreciate the company in a moment like this, at least with someone like me by her side. Her hand was dry in mine. I suppose at some point, I might’ve dozed. I was so tired that wakefulness and sleep felt the same. My mind jumped to the bats outside. I inhaled insects and slipped through the night. Ya-Ya inhaled, and I fell into her wide-open mouth.

Together, in dreamy dark, our bodies nestled into one another. She was so warm, as familiar as returning to a womb. Somewhere, mice made their high-pitched squeaks, their sounds so much like chirping birds. I was here and somewhere, myself and Ya-Ya, myself and mouse. First one, then one more. We scurried toward her, burrowed around her body. She was growing colder, but we brought her our warmth. There were hundreds of us. We were salt and fur, we were a galaxy of life.

Michelle Donahue has work published in Passages North, Brink, Arts & Letters, and others. Her work has been supported by the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is associate editor of Ecotone and teaches creative writing and publishing at UNC Wilmington.