Little BirdConstance Ford
Mama waits by the window the next evening, too, but this time she talks sad in her quiet voice. "Do whatever you want," she says, when he comes in late again. "A real man don’t leave his home, but I don’t care anymore. You a real man or just a boy?" She moves to the rocking chair and leans her head back against the wood and closes her eyes.
"I can’t just hang around here all the time. I got to have my own place," Jimmy says.
Virginia puts her hands over her ears. "You’re scared, ain’t you," she can hear Mama saying, even though her hands are as tight as she can make them. "That’s how all the men are. You’re scared of her." She points to Virginia. "Because of what you did."
"I didn’t do nothin’," Jimmy says. "And I ain’t scared."
But in the morning, when Virginia comes back in from the outhouse, she looks into the bedroom and there’s a whole pile of hair on the floor and Jimmy is pushing his body through the window, first one leg and then the other.
"Jimmy?" she asks. "What are you doing?"
"Get out," he says, his voice coming back at her, hard and angry, and then says other words that she can’t understand because he’s outside and has pulled the window shut, pried it down with his fingertips. She can see his mouth moving through the glass and his eyebrows drawn together in an angry line. She runs toward the window, but he motions her to go away with his hand and then turns and scoots down to the edge of the roof and swings himself over the edge.
"Jimmy," she says, and tries to pull open the window, but it’s stuck down tight. She runs down the stairs and outside, but he’s nowhere. He’s gone. She runs into the woods calling Jim-my, but he doesn’t answer. "Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy." she says, waving her pretend sickle in front of her, a curving silver blade to cut a path through the trees and bushes, but she can’t find him. "Jimmy," she says again and begins to skip with the rhythm of the words. "Come, Jimmy, come. Come, Jimmy, come." A bird, bright with blue and gray feathers and a shiny black eye hops down onto the ground. "Pretty bird," she says, "I want to fly with you, blue jay," but it hops under a bush and when she dives after it and pushes away the leafy stems, it’s gone. She sits back on her heels for a minute, then gets up and walks around one of the big oaks nearby, just brushing the trunk with her fingertips, all the way around in a circle. "This is my tree," she says out loud. "No ghosts, no birds, no rhyming words. Si-ckle, si-ckle, gone." She sits down on the ground and pushes her finger into the soft dirt around the roots, which bump up in wavy-looking snakes under the ground, and traces the letters of her name in the dirt, then makes a star shape. And a heart. She always draws a heart. At school her papers were covered with stars and hearts. "The queen of hearts, she made some tarts, all on a cloudy day," she says out loud. "The queen of hearts, she made some tarts, all on a cloudy day." The trees rustle over her head and she looks up and sees the blue sky cut out in shapes in between the leaves. The cicadas begin to chant along with her, their sound winding up louder and louder, until they drown out her voice and she’s quiet. The tree trunk feels warm and she presses against it. All on a cloudy day.
She feels a pressure on her shoulder and opens her eyes. "Jimmy," she says. "Where were you?"
He bends over her, looking at her solemnly. "Do you want to see my cabin?" he says, picking out a twig and a broken bit of leaf from her hair. "Stand up." When she’s on her feet, he gives her a little shove. "Walk straight up that way."
They wind through the trees for what seems like a long time and then behind a clump of ashes she sees a shack with a dark opening. Some mud-daubers drone around their nest under the eaves. "Go on in," he says, pushing her forward again. "Those little bees aren’t going to hurt you none."
She steps through the doorway and inside, the dirt floor is swept smooth and the bench he’d pounded together is against one wall and there's a sagging table against the other, the wood of it splintery and rotten. An old broom leans in the corner.
"That’s Mama’s outside broom," says Virginia. "She said a bear must have took it. But it was you," she says, looking at him with wonderment. "What’s that rattling noise?"
"Nothing," he says. "It sounds like rattlesnakes, but it’s just some kind of bugs."
She sinks down in the corner, onto the bare dirt. "You can sit on the bench," he says. "That’s what it’s here for."
"I like sitting on the ground," she says. "The ground is cooler." She pats her hand on the dirt, and then pats it again, and peers closely at her handprint in the dust.
He sits on the bench looking at her. She pats the dirt again, then looks up at him. "Sickle, fickle, pickle," she says. "Nickel."
"Tickle," says Jimmy, lunging off the bench to grab for her. He pinches lightly on her ribs until she’s shrieking and they roll together onto the dirt floor. He pins her to the ground with his body and she’s still giggling. Her dress is scrunched up around her waist and he looks down for a minute at her bare legs, then suddenly rolls off her and sits up.
She sits up too. "Jimmy," she says, but he won’t look at her now, and after a minute, he jumps up and runs out the door and into the woods. She runs after him and when she catches up with him, they walk slowly back through the trees to the small open ravine that holds their house.
Their hound dog catches sight and scent of them and raises his nose toward the sky. As the sound of his barking echoes and jumps through the stillness of the air, three large black feathers float to the ground from the maple that spreads its branches over their house.
Jimmy stands and stares at the house. "She don’t want me to be a man. She wants me to be somethin’ else."
"Like what, Jimmy?" Virginia says.
"I don’t know,” he says. He picks up a rock and heaves it, as hard as he can, into the maple. A crow squawks hoarsely and flaps out of the tree onto the roof of their house and sits there, eyeing them for a minute, and then flies off, its black silhouette sharp against the sky.
She turned away from the window and felt the fist again, this time in her back. It spread up into her abdomen and she could feel it tightening there. Walking slowly over to the door of the bathroom, she opened it and gripped the handle with one hand and the edge of the door with the other. She held on and tried to think about the gnomes until the fist began to unclench itself. She felt something warm running down the inside of her legs and she looked at the floor and saw a bloody trickle of water between her bare feet. The puddle grew larger and larger until finally the dripping stopped. She sat down on the edge of the bed, her heart thumping. She looked at the red button. Call, it said. The fist clenched again and she stood up and gripped the door. More liquid dripped down.
The pain stopped, then started again. She held onto the door as it receded and then came once again. Sweat ran down into her eyes. She wiped her forehead with her hands, then tried to grip the door handle, but her hands were slippery now and she couldn’t hold on. Call. The pain went through her again and tore suddenly, large and bursting, through some lower part of herself and she cried out, not in words, but in a sound like a calf she saw once, its skin twisted onto a barbed wire fence, the sound just coming out of it, loud and sudden and long.
The nurse came quickly into the room and in a moment, a man followed her, a man in light green pants and a loose shirt.
“Jimmy,” Virginia said, bending over, her head in her hands. “Jimmy, it hurts. What’s wrong, Jimmy?”
“Lie down,” the nurse said. “It’s time.”
Virginia lay with one hand covering her eyes, the other reaching for the long bangs that brushed over her forehead. She rubbed a thick, soft strand between her fingers, then clenched the hair in her fist and pulled, and it burned like coal in the palm of her hand.
The door of her room opened. “See? You did good,” Virginia’s mama said. She walked in and stood at the end of the bed.
The baby lay beside Virginia, in the crook of her arm.
“I knew you could do it. What did you think you needed your old mama for, anyway? You’re a big girl, all grown up now.” She patted Virginia’s head.
Virginia could feel warm moisture seeping out between her legs onto the pad underneath her. “Let’s just give that uterus a nice squeeze, to make sure it’s clamping down good the way it’s supposed to,” the nurse said, as she came in behind Virginia’s mama and began massaging Virginia’s lower abdomen with her firm hands. The blood flowed out now, onto the bed underneath her and Virginia felt tears come into her eyes as her lower gut area cramped fiercely. “Okay, honey, easy does it,” said the nurse.
Virginia looked at the nurse. Charlene, said her name tag. Her eyes were brown and there were wrinkles right above her nose and on her forehead. “You’re a brave girl. She was here all alone,” the nurse said, looking at Virginia’s mother.
Her mother’s lips twitched as she moved around the side of the bed. “Remember when Aunt Gail had her baby?” she said to Virginia. “You said how sweet it was. You told me that, remember?”
Virginia looked down at the baby. It was wrapped up tight in a pale pink blanket and its eyes were squinched shut in its red, wrinkly face. She touched the top of its head.
It was soft, like the velvet dress her cousin had once when she was small, and it had a brown mark on its cheek, a small one near its ear. “What’s that, Mama? Why does it have that brown spot? Is it a mole, like I’ve got on my stomach?”
“It’s just a little birthmark. Just a little tiny one. The baby’s not a it, Virginia, it’s a she. Didn’t you hear the doctor say that? We got ourselves a baby girl.”
“Baby girl,” said Virginia. “We got ourselves a baby girl.” She lifted her hand and touched the baby’s closed eyelids, first one and then the other.
“Where’s Jimmy?” Virginia asked the next evening, when they went home. She pressed the small, tightly wrapped bundle to her chest as she walked toward the house.
The nurse had wrapped the baby up like that before they left and then handed her carefully to Virginia, telling her to support the head, to keep her arm right under the baby’s neck.
“I haven’t seen him,” said her mother. “Not for a couple of days. Maybe out to the cabin. I wouldn’t doubt if he was gone for good. Now let me take that baby,” said her mother, holding out her arms. “It’ll give you a little rest.”
“I’ll hold her,” Virginia said. The baby’s hand waved out from under the blanket and Virginia touched a small finger.
“You won’t want to. You’ll get tired of it. I’m telling you. It’s hard work taking care of a baby,” she said. “I remember when you was born. April Fool’s Day. Ain’t that funny? Let me take her.” She patted Virginia on the arm. “We’ll make a little bed for her. You’ll see. You’ll want me to help. You ain’t going anywhere, are you, Virginia. Not with a baby to take care of. Where would you go?”
Virginia slowly shifted the baby away from her chest and handed it to her mother, and with a quick motion, her mother unbuttoned her shirt, flopped her thin breast out and dangled it over the baby’s face. “You’re a good baby, aren’t you,” she said, and brushed her nipple across the baby’s mouth. The baby’s mouth pursed up and started working around, trying to latch on. Its eyes were closed tight as it worked its mouth around, like a tiny baby rat Virginia saw once, searching blindly for its mother. “She’s a good one— look at that,” said Virginia’s mama. “She knows what to do.” The baby got the nipple in her mouth and sucked for a minute, then began to cry. Virginia’s mama laughed. “Dry as an old bone, ain’t it.” She poked her finger into the baby’s mouth to calm it and moved toward the house. “Open the gate, will you?” she said to Virginia. “I got my hands full.”
As her mother walked through, Virginia looked up into the evening sky. The red and gold clouds shrieked across the sky, the edges blindingly bright. She shaded her eyes with her hand and for a minute she thought she saw the baby up there, only plumper, with wings sprouting out of its shoulders—she could see it flying away up into the air, smaller and smaller, its wings flapping, strong and sure, then slowly drifting back down and settling onto a branch of the elm tree that grew beside their house. She could see it perched there on the edge of a limb, its feet crossed at the ankles, holding onto the branch with its small chubby fingers, smiling down at her, laughing almost, it looked like. She squinted her eyes to look more closely, but now there was just pink and red and gold as far as she could see.
In the morning, Virginia came down the stairs. Jimmy stood by the front door, twisting something around and around with his fingers. His hair was shorter than she had seen it before, almost shaved clear off. “Jimmy!” she said, “look,” and pointed to the baby.
Their mother had the baby up over her shoulder, patting its back. “So you came home,” said their mother, her mouth pursed up tight. “Well, it’s a free country.”
Jimmy said nothing, just stood by the door.
“I finished feeding the baby a little bit ago,” said Virginia. “Mama, I want to hold her. Let me hold her.”
“She ain’t burped yet.” She stood up and handed the baby to Virginia. “You got to pat her back like that, real soft, so she won’t get a tummy ache. She’ll cry and you don’t like that. You told me last night you didn’t like it.”
Virginia took the baby in her arms. “Look,” she said again to Jimmy. “It’s a girl.” She came over to him and stood there, swaying a little, back and forth, and humming. Jimmy touched the baby’s hand and it opened, then closed tight again around his big finger. “She likes you,” Virginia said.
Their mother stood there watching. “I knew you’d come back.”
Jimmy turned to look at her. “I did, but I ain’t stayin.’”
Their mother sat down, suddenly, in her chair.
He turned back to Virginia. “I came to bring you this,” he said, handing her a small wooden bird. “I carved it.”
She smiled. “I like it, Jimmy. Here you take her, so I can hold the bird.”
He took the baby in his arms. “Like this?” he asked, holding the baby’s head carefully against his chest.
Virginia didn’t answer. She was looking at the little bird, turning it over and over in her fingers. Its wings were outspread from its body, and its beak was open. “It’s a robin, ain’t it, or a blue jay maybe. It’s going to let out a big squawk.” She ran her fingers over its smooth back. “It’s the best bird there ever was. Maybe it will turn real and fly up to the sky.” She laughed and then closed her eyes and slowly whirled around in a circle, her loose dress flying out from her legs, flying out in a swirl that wrapped the room in the colors of birds, trees, and the darkest feathers that drift to the ground in the wake of the wind through the branches.
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