Little BirdConstance Ford
The door to her room opened and the nurse came in holding a razor and some towels. “We need to shave you up,” she said. “Everything’s got to be nice and clean for the baby. Can you lift your gown for me?”
Virginia reached for her gown, but a new pain pulling through her went up higher and higher until she could feel it in her throat even and then sank slowly into one small point in her back. When it was gone, she lifted her bottom up and pulled the gown out from under her and up over her belly. The nurse smoothed a warm washcloth over the inside of her thighs.
Virginia could see the nurse’s eyes looking at her lower parts. “How old are you, honey?”
“I was born in 1956 on April first,” Virginia said. She sank into stillness for a minute, then focused her eyes on the nurse again. “Mama told me that.”
“So you’re fourteen.” She ran the razor over Virginia’s skin and then rubbed her off with a towel. “Now a little antiseptic. This is going to be cold.”
Virginia lifted her head off the pillows and tried to see what the nurse was doing, but her stomach stuck up so much she couldn’t see around it, so she let her head fall back on the pillow. She shuddered as a trickle of cool liquid ran down the inside of her thigh.
The nurse patted her dry, fixed her gown so it was over her legs again and pulled up the blanket. “Sorry, honey. What grade are you in—ninth? Tenth? My son goes to school here in Harrisonburg. Maybe you know him.”
“I used to go to school, but I don’t any more because my stomach always hurt when I had to ride the bus.”
“Hmm.” The nurse came up to the front of the bed, looked at her again, then brushed the hair off Virginia’s forehead. “My son, he’s into the sports, any sport he can play. I always have to sit on him a little and get him to buckle down and finish up his schoolwork before his dad comes home. That’s the rule, he has to have it done before his dad gets home.”
“Jimmy works at the garage up in Elkton sometimes. He fixes cars. People take their cars clear up there from Harrisonburg so he can work on them. He’s sixteen.”
The nurse adjusted the blind on the window so the sun was only coming through in narrow lines across the bed and then stood looking at Virginia.
“The bus driver wouldn’t let me get off, sometimes, with the other kids,” Virginia said. “I told Mama, but she said I was telling stories. And then I threw up three days in a row and my heart felt all jumpy, like I couldn’t breathe. They wouldn’t let me come any more after that. They said I should go to the doctor, but Mama said I was all right. She said I didn’t need to go to any old doctor. She said I could just stay home and keep her company.” She paused for a minute, then cupped her hands around her mouth. “He made me stay on the bus. He was mean,” she whispered.
The nurse had picked up the damp towel. “Oh. Oh honey,” she said. She blinked rapidly, clearing her throat. “You’re a real good girl, you know that?” She squeezed Virginia’s foot, then went out.
He puts his hand on her thigh as she is going to sleep. He grabs it tight for a minute, the soft inner part, and she doesn’t know why he’s squeezing it so much. "Jimmy," she says. "That hurts." But he drags the blanket over his head. "I’m sorry," he says, "I didn’t mean to," and puts his arm around her shoulders like always. The next night he stays up late, doing homework that all the eighth-graders have, and she can’t keep her eyes open, waiting for him. When he finally throws back the covers, letting in a blast of air, cold on her legs and feet, she pulls her eyes open, heavy and dull with sleep. He jumps in quick and jerks the covers up, then turns on his side, away from her. "Jimmy," she says, "I’m cold." But he drags the blanket over his head. "I’m sorry," he says, his voice muffled as if someone is holding a hand over his mouth, and she moves next to him, presses up against his back in the narrow bed.
Coming in the window now, the rays of the sun shone in strips through the dusty air and onto the table beside her bed. Virginia followed the path of the light with her eyes and saw a clear pitcher standing there, full of water, and a small metal box with three red buttons on it. The box reminded Virginia of the sugar cookies they made at school one year, when she was in fourth grade. The teacher gave them red hots and they got to press them into the soft cookie dough, after it was cut in shapes, bells and candy canes and reindeer. The reindeer were hard to make, because the antlers kept breaking off when you tried to get the dough out of the cutter. The boys wadded up bits of dough and popped them in their mouths when the teacher wasn’t looking, and stuck them in the girls’ hair and down the backs of their shirts. They didn’t ever touch Virginia, though.
They left her alone. Virginia sat pressing on the dough with her fingers, poking it gently and finally got one reindeer to come out perfectly. She placed two red hots on it, one for the eye and one for the nose. It was a side view of a reindeer.
“Like Rudolph,” said the teacher. “That’s very good, Virginia.”
Virginia sat looking at her reindeer, thinking of antlers covered with velvet down, a wet, cold nose, breath coming out in steamy, cloudy puffs, a hoof stamping on frozen ground. She put her arms out, encircling the neck she could see so clearly and felt the nose nudge coldly against her ear. She turned her head to the side a little and kept it like that, so the reindeer could reach her ear.
“Virginia?” said the teacher. “Are you all right?”
The other children laughed and Virginia quickly put her arms down and sank into her seat. The reindeer cookie stared up her, red candy dots gleaming in the afternoon light. The teacher baked all the cookies in the school kitchen and after school, she carried her reindeer home in her two outstretched hands and showed it to Jimmy. “That’s pretty, Virginia. I like it.” He smiled at her and touched one finger to the center of her forehead the way he often did, a finger love, he called it.
She ran her finger over the red buttons on the metal box. Call, it said in small black letters underneath one of them. The others said nothing.
Her mama won’t talk at all sometimes, to Virginia. Her silence is so loud, Virginia feels pounded by it, like a hammer is pounding on her head. She sits on the floor and covers her ears with her hands, but it won’t go away. Mama sits in her chair at the table, her back to Virginia, looking out the window, waiting for Jimmy to come home. She waits and waits. Why doesn’t he come? Virginia thinks. "Why don’t you go find him?" Mama says then, like she could read Virginia’s mind. "Why don’t you tell him to come? He’d come for you." She’s still looking out the window. "Go on," she says, nudging Virginia with her foot. "You can wear the rope."
"Mama," Virginia says, "I don’t want to," but when she looks at Mama’s face, she feels pushed, like there’s a hand pushing her, and she gets up and goes outside and fastens the long rope around her waist. When she was little she couldn’t go outside without putting it on. "You might get lost," Mama always said. "Put it on." Virginia slides her back down the side of the house and sits there, looking as hard as she can into the woods, hoping to see the familiar shape of Jimmy’s body swinging into view. Come home, Jimmy, she thinks. Come home.
Another night, he’s late again and they have to wait supper, chili beans it was, and they’re gone now, except the smell. Mama’s voice fills the house, even though it’s her quietest voice. "Why are you down there at that old shack all the time?"
"I don’t know," he says. He’s holding a small piece of wire in his hands and he twists it around and around, bending it into a crooked corkscrew, then sits down.
"You don’t got a girl down there, do you?" she asks. "You gonna get yourself a girl?" She shakes her head rapidly, as if shaking off a cloud of gnats. Virginia peers through the dim light. They’re swarming everywhere, circling frantically around her mother’s head. "You out tomcatting, is that it?" Mama says, and a stream of bugs flies out of her mouth, filling the room. Virginia’s mouth opens in wonder, but she shuts it quickly so they don’t fly in. "Like your daddy? And now we got barely a bed to sleep in. And this old falling down house." Mama spits out the words like there’s acid on her tongue and Jimmy’s face caves in a little.
Then something changes in her eyes and she comes over beside him and puts her hand on his cheek. "But you’re just a boy, aren’t you? My good, good boy. You’re not a man yet."
He shakes his head and rubs the top of it with his hands, hard, as the insects circle around, then fly in a sudden stream into the fireplace, as if they’ve been sucked in, all at once. Virginia can picture them shooting up the chimney and out, tiny bits of transparent wing and black body parts, blazing into bright sparks against the night sky, then pinched out one by one in the cool air. "You’re not going anywhere, are you?" she clutches his arm, but Jimmy stands up suddenly and rushes up the stairs.
Virginia sleeps that night, and toward morning she dreams that two large crows are trying to get into the house. She hears them pushing the door open and the door scraping along the floor and she’s afraid, and she and Jimmy go out of their room to try to shoo them back outside, but then Jimmy disappears. She wakes up and turns over, but Jimmy is lying there, just like always, his mouth open, breathing in and out. One leg twitches under the covers, then he twists away from her and pulls the quilt up over his shoulders, even though the sun is beginning to peek in the window. “Go back to sleep,” he says, and she closes her eyes.
Virginia folded the blanket down and pushed herself up to a sitting position.
Nobody had been in for a while. She could smell a food smell from somewhere, like bread, maybe, or meat pies. It didn’t smell good, though, not like the bread at home.
Nothing smelled good. She reached one hand to the stirrup at the end of the bed and used it to help herself stand up. She walked over to the window and looked out at the grass and trees. The leaves were still on—yellow and red and gold-orange. She saw some acorns scattered around on the ground. Some of them had lost their caps. "Gnome caps'" Jimmy had said, once a long time ago. "For the little people that lived in the woods. In cloud land," he’d said, grinning. He knew she liked that word. He said it again. "Cloud land."
"Not all of them were gnomes, though," he’d said, his blue eyes serious now. "Some were imps, little creatures who were very smart and had pointed hairless tails. You have to be careful. They might come in your window in the early morning, right when the sun is coming up. You have to be careful."
She crossed her arms over her chest and swayed back and forth as she looked outside.
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