Little BirdConstance Ford
How old is she? That’s what they’d asked her mother at the hospital when she took Virginia there the morning after the cramping started. It had been dark when the first squeezes began in her lower abdomen, like a hand grabbing her insides and slowly closing itself into a fist, her gut caught in the grip of it. When she looked outside, she saw the moon slivered into the sky, a small white sickle pressed coldly onto a black background. “Sickle, sickle, sickle,” she said quietly, as she looked out the window. She liked that word. Cloud was another one of her favorites. “I made me some cloud berry pie,” she had heard someone say once, at a picnic. There was something about the way it felt in her mouth that she loved.“It’s cloudy out today,” she would say dreamily into the morning silence of their house, even if the sun made a bright ribbon on the floor when Jimmy opened the door at noontime. He’d come in and hold his hands up so she could see how black and greasy they were.“We might have a cloudburst,” she’d say, laughing.
“That’d clean you up. That’d wash you clean.” He’d run after her then, threatening to touch her with his grimy hands. “Mama!” she’d shriek and crouch down behind the kitchen table, hiding.
“You’ll be all right,” said her mother to Virginia. The large woman at the desk, whose fat folds at her neck and arms seemed to be spilling out of her shirt and sliding slowly toward the floor, helped them fill out the forms, and in The Labor Room—that’s what the white letters on the door said—Virginia took off her clothes and lay down in the hospital bed, the thin blue gown the nurse had handed her tied in the back. A few of the hairs at the base of her neck were tangled in the strings and every time she turned her head, they pulled. “I’ll be back in a little while,” said her mother, but she turned away and fiddled with the clasp on her purse. “You’ll be a long time yet. I have to go down the street for a while. To—to check on Mrs. Hammond. But I’ll be back before the time comes. You’ll be all right.”
“What time?” Virginia asked. “What time do you mean?”
A nurse came into the room, snapping on a pair of rubber gloves. “Let’s see how you’re doing, young lady,” she said, pulling back the sheet that covered Virginia’s legs.
“She might seem a little slow,” said her mother to the nurse, and then to Virginia, “I’ll be back,” and went out, shutting the door behind her.
“Wait, Mama,” said Virginia, as the nurse guided her feet into the metal stirrups on the sides of the bed. And then to the nurse, “It hurts. It’s starting to hurt again.”
“I know it does, but let’s see how far along you are with the pressure from the contraction.”
Virginia let the nurse place her legs into the stirrups. “It hurts,” she said again, as the fist closed inside her. She squirmed as far as she could to the side. The nurse had one hand inside her now and one hand pressing on her protruding, hardening tummy. “What are you doing?” Virginia said, when she could talk. “Are you taking the baby out? Is it almost out?”
The nurse finished the exam and then stood with her hand on her hip and looked at Virginia. She peeled off the plastic glove. “The doctor’s going to come help you get the baby out. You’ve got a ways to go yet. You’re only about five centimeters.”
She left the room and Virginia lay back against the pillow. The window was open and she heard some jays squawking somewhere close by and the tat-tat-tat of a woodpecker, pecking the life out of some poor tree, no doubt. Woodpeckers were the meanest birds, especially those big black flickers, the ones that scared the squirrels away and made nests in the holes of the trees near their house. Her teacher told her once that woodpeckers only pecked on trees that were already dead, but Virginia knew that wasn’t true. They lit into everything, even houses and cars. She saw one swooping down towards Jimmy’s head one time, most likely trying to steal some hair for its nest or maybe even peck his brains out. Jimmy ran, she remembered that—he knew that bird was up to no good. He ran in the house and slammed the door. She could picture Jimmy right now, outside their place, banging his hammer on the wood bench he was building for that shack of his, his cabin, he called it, since today was Sunday and he had a day off from working at the garage.
That Jimmy, their mother often said, he always has to have something to do, he just can’t hold still. His hair, even, was thick with motion, and it grew so fast their mother made him cut it himself, which he did, once a week, hanging his head forward over the edge of the bed and cutting, in one whack, the black growth that curled over his collar and into his eyes. It would fall to the floor in a feathery, forlorn heap, which he swept under his bed. Sometimes he cut his dark eyelashes too, because he hated how long and curly they were, like a fucking girl’s, he said, so he cut them to short, stubby bristles that made his eyes look even more blue than normal—a light, intense blue, the color of the sky reflected in the stream that ran near their house.
She thought of Jimmy coming into their room last week, or the week before. When was it? Mama had been downstairs, in the kitchen, getting ready for supper. She always sent Jimmy upstairs to put on a clean shirt before they ate. It was later than usual, Virginia remembered, because her stomach had been growling for a long time. She had been lying on the bed, just like now, only home, not in this cold place, and when the front door had finally opened, she heard some sharp words in her mother’s voice. The voice went on and on. Virginia didn’t want to hear it. She put her hands over her ears and started singing. Over in the meadow, in the sand, in the sun, lived an old mother toad and her little toadie one. “Wink!” said the mother; “I wink,” said the one: So she winked and she blinked in the sand, in the sun. Over in the meadow where the stream runs blue, lived an old mother fish and her little fishes two. . . She was on little crickets seven when Jimmy came into the room and closed the door. She took her hands away from her ears. “Hi, Jimmy,” she said.
He sat down in the chair in the corner and put his head in his hands. After a minute he looked up at her. “How’s my baby sister?” he said, walking over to the bed, as he unbuttoned his shirt. She had her t-shirt pulled up a ways, to cool off a little. It was hot still, she remembered that. Her naked tummy was pooching up in the air, her belly button stretched out so far her skin was almost smooth; it didn’t even dip in any more where her own cord had once been attached. Jimmy put his hand on her stomach and then leaned over and rested his ear on it, to listen for the baby, he always said. “How’s the little fish?” he asked. He rubbed his prickly cheek against her stomach.
She laughed. It was funny to think of a fish flopping inside her belly. Sometimes she dreamed about holding a big silver fish with a baby’s head and arms, its tail flapping and wriggling inside a soft blanket. She laughed again and then looked out the window.
The moon was hanging low and golden in the darkening sky and their two dogs, one German Shepherd and one hound dog, were jumping up to the plum tree in their yard, leaping up over and over. They were biting the ripening plums right off the tree, snapping them off one by one and then chewing for a minute before leaping up again.
“Look, Jimmy,” she said, “the dogs are fruit-picking.”
He laughed then and turned away to the closet to get his clean pants and shirt, the ones he put on every evening. “I guess they don’t know they ain’t supposed to,” he said as he flopped down on the saggy bed beside her. On top of his familiar sweaty odor, his shirt smelled like soap. She could picture her mother bending over their washtub, scrubbing her bristly brush around the collars of Jimmy’s shirts and up and down the sleeves. She helped with the washing sometimes—she liked plunging her hands into the cold water and swooshing the clothes around, pushing and pulling them through the water.
Jimmy lay with his arms up over his head and Virginia started singing again. Over in the meadow where the clear pools shine, lived a green mother frog and her little froggies nine. “Croak!”: said the mother; “We croak,” said the nine: So they croaked, and they splashed, where the clear pools shine. . .
“I’ll croak you,” said Jimmy and reached for her nose, pinching it between his fingers.
Virginia kept singing, only now it sounded like she had a cold. Jimmy let go of her nose and put his hand over her mouth, but jerked it away when she sank her teeth into his palm. “Hey!” he said. “Just finish the song, then we better get downstairs.”
After little anties twelve Jimmy rolled sideways off the bed, pretending to fall flat onto the floor. Virginia giggled as he stood up and looked out at the dogs. “I guess they ate their fill. They’re just lying there now, looking kind of sad. Maybe they got a gut ache. Come on,” he said, finally, turning to her. “Get up.” He grabbed her hands and pulled her to a sitting position. As she pushed herself slowly off of the bed, Jimmy walked over to the door and opened it. There was Mama standing there, a spoon sticking out of her hand.
“What was that thump?” she asked. “What in the world’s going on up here?”
“Jimmy fell off the bed,” said Virginia, her hand over her mouth, to cover her giggle. “Ker-plunk.”
“You didn’t have to come up here. We were coming down,” Jimmy said under his breath. He looked at the floor and scuffed his shoe back and forth.
“It’s a free country, ain’t it?” Mama said, looking at Jimmy. “It’s time to eat.” She turned away. “I was just coming to tell you that,” she said over her shoulder as she disappeared down the stairs.
Jimmy turned to Virginia and grabbed her arm. “Get downstairs, okay?”
“Ow,” Virginia said. “Jimmy, you hurt me.” Pulling away from him, she sank to the floor, her knees bent under her, and began rocking back and forth, holding her arm.
“No, I didn’t.” He sighed and looked down at her. “I’m sorry,” he said, taking her arm more gently and pulling her to her feet. “I am, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” His face was white and tired-looking. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
White, thought Virginia. The walls were white here, and so flat and smooth. Not like at home. She could see their house inside her head, the cracking brown boards on the outside, and on the inside too, and the cardboard that Mama had taped up over the broken window, and the dirt around the house where the chickens pecked for bugs. And the trees—they were everywhere, all up and down the side of the hill which rose behind their house, the smell of the sap running through them and leaves gathering on the ground thick in the air. They picked up the dead wood on the ground every day, and the dry leaves, too, sometimes, for their stove. When Jimmy threw a match in, the leaves would catch instantly, the smoke curling off them into thin, whispery hands that reached everywhere, around the wobbly table, under beds, into the darkness of the house, before the sun was up, even, when the chill of the night rested in the drafty corners and Mama was still in bed. Virginia had seen them, long-fingered hands that curved under doors and around the chimney outside. She squeezed her eyes more tightly shut and then opened them wide as the fist grabbed her again. Mama, she thought, and felt herself sinking into some other place, some long ago place.
Cold, rough—it hurts when she rubs her legs back and forth, scissoring them open and closed on the scratchy mattress, so she curls up on her side in a tight ball. Big girl, Virginia says, her face turned into the pillow, but she doesn’t know what that means.
"You're a big girl," Mama had said at bedtime. "You don’t need to sleep with me anymore." And now it’s dark and she’s with Jimmy in his narrow, creaky bed, just Jimmy, and she cries.
Jimmy puts his arm around her and tells her a story about dogs in the forest, nice dogs, wolves, he calls them, that point their noses up and howl when the sun goes down, to make the dark come faster. "They like the dark," he says. She still cries, for a while, then her eyelids droop, a new smell close by, a five-year-old boy’s underarms and hair that smells like outdoors—leaves and grass and soft brown dirt, a new smell, but warm and close. She closes her eyes and sleeps.
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