Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 We Let Our Thoughts Float Up Out of Us

 

June

The rabbits were wild the summer we turned eight. And there were more than the summer before. My twin, Delly, and I slept on the upstairs porch, pushed our beds together, watched for fireflies. Stars falling around us, the night falling, too. We counted stars, woke to birdsong and heat and sunlight through the screen, touched each other, casually as if we were one body suspended in the moment of our gradual awakening. A fascination. A turning inward, away from the world that pulsated beyond the fortress of our bed. The slow river, squirrels churring, the way the ground held dampness long after storms swept over us. Our bodies growing strong and tan.

Rabbits scampering over the back yard. Our mother growing fat with the baby. We touched her roundness, listened with our ears flat against the place where the baby grew. We waited. We named the rabbits names we made up for the baby we hoped would be our brother: Amren, Dawson, Floy. I drew pictures of babies with crayons that went soft in the heat. Delly made up songs to the tunes she’d learned to play on our piano.

That was in the big brick summerhouse that had belonged to Mother’s parents. Father put on his suit and left us during the week to work in Chicago. Mother shuffled through the house wearing slippers with worn heels. The blue of her eyes watered down, not like the sky anymore, not like the sapphire ring on her finger. We counted her footsteps from her bedroom to the kitchen, the floor creaking beneath her weight.

At dusk, we lay beneath the towering elm and waited for rabbits to couple on the back lawn. Brown rabbits on the cooling grass. We filled our pockets with small round stones gathered from the river shore. Counted how many times we hit a rabbit or missed. How many steps it took from the tree to the back door. We peeled and sliced apples for Mother. Showed her our drawings. During storms, the gate and house shutters would bang in the wind. The sound of trains in the night. In the day we roamed over the tracks, put pennies on the rails.

Every Wednesday old Doc Randolph drove up in his black car. We held our breath and listened at the door of Mother’s room. He clucked at our uncombed hair and bare feet. We tapped on Mother’s window and waited for her to tap back. We opened cans of peaches and jars of applesauce for our lunches. Floated saltine crackers in bowls of broth that we carried on trays to her room. In the heat of the day, we lay in the yard playing Old Maid and Crazy Eights. At dusk we made rabbit traps out of shoeboxes and string and hid them under the elm at dusk and waited. The rabbits trembled in our hands, their hearts racing. The velvet of their underbellies and ears. We held them then set them free.

Mother counted out vitamins and pills for morning, noon, and night. On her bed, Delly sat on her left and I on her right. We cooled her face with a wet washcloth, told her stories from books she’d read us when we were younger. We carried rabbits over the lacy shadows of the elm, the lawn glazed with dew. Their ears flattened against their heads. We carried the rabbits carefully, as if they were our own hearts beating in our hands.

We braided our blond hair, smeared powder the same blue as our eyes on our eyelids and dressed in Mother’s old clothes. Hung sheets and blankets from the elm and watched them change color with the light. We listened for Doc Randolph’s car coming up the road. He’d walk through the back door without knocking, a worried look on his face.We grabbed his coat hem and pulled him to Mother’s room. The rabbits stirred in our arms as we stroked them and spoke using our softest voices.

That was the summer Aunt Lydia arrived with a suitcase of dresses and books. The bones sharp in her face, her hair a long dark braid that reached her waist. Mother and Lydia hugged, tears in their eyes. Lydia touched Mother’s cheek the same way she touched ours. She lifted clothes from her suitcase and stacked her books on the bedside table. She gave us each a volume of poetry by Emily Dickinson bound in white leather, so small they fit in our palms. Mornings, Delly helped her sweep the floors and wash the windows. I followed her with a feather duster. When she rested in the big overstuffed chair we sat at her feet and fiddled with the straps of her sandals. The house smelled of her soaps and verbena. Afternoons, we raced through the yard and disappeared for hours down by the river to search for the whiskered faces of catfish, scoop tadpoles up with our hands, always half-listening for her voice calling us home.

Weekends, Father returned with circles under his eyes. We brought him clean towels and bowls of soup, listened to hushed conversations through the walls. To Aunt Lydia’s low hum as she pinned clothes on the line. Or baked cakes and bread, her long braid swinging between her shoulder blades.

The summer of too much rain, then not enough. With our hands, we caught butterflies, felt them whisper against our palms. Delly looked away when I mounted them on corkboard with thickheaded pins. Waited to look until after their wings moved less and less. Lydia helped us search through Father’s books to identify each one, marveling at each ornate pattern. We counted the lines on Mother’s palms and pressed our lips to the cup of her hand. Lydia cut enormous pink peonies and plunged them into jugs of water. Black ants streamed onto the tablecloth.

We rode into town for milk and flour, our bikes flying over the road that smelled of tar in midday heat. Dug through boxes of old photographs looking for pictures of Mother and Lydia when they were girls our age. Searched for the names of Grandma and Grandpa Fitzgerald and other ancestors on the inside of books and photo albums. Every room had its own smell—kitchen grease, old upholstery in the parlor, bathroom mold. And always a syrupy heavy smell beneath everything.

Friday evenings, we perched on the fence waiting to hear the roar of Father’s sleek sedan. Sometimes the wind blew through the trees and the shutters banged against the clapboard siding. His suit was wrinkled and the gold of his cufflinks caught the light in fits and starts. He’d greet us with a tired smile, briefly kissing the tops of our heads and then hurry in to Mother. We knew he loved her most, never questioning his absent dismissal of us. We grew itchy when he was home. Wanted to say swear words or break things. But we also vied for his attention. We washed and braided our sun-bleached hair and paraded in front of him wearing our pink dresses with the ruffled straps.

When my son is born you’ll be back on your feet, he told Mother as he took her hand. We believed he knew the baby was a boy just like he knew everything else about money and books and music. After the day cooled, we performed for him by turning cartwheels on the back lawn. We lay smooth small stones in his hands and told him about the games we played. About how the river changed color with the weather. At dusk, we sat beside him on the porch overlooking the lawn. When the rabbits came out and began to mate we grew shy and looked away.

He disappeared into Mother’s room for hours. We heard the deep drone of his voice reading to her, saw new frown lines appear between his arched eyebrows. Lydia prepared heavy dinners of meats and stews. The song went out of her voice and she disappeared into her room or worked endlessly in the garden, her face hidden behind her floppy big hat. The house grew heavier with him in it. And breathless, as if he needed all the air. Sundays, he gave us lists of chores to do while he worked during the week in his law office in the city. He’d look at us in puzzlement, unsure of who was who. We never helped him, agreeing on whoever he thought we were. As he drove away, we stood on either side of Lydia watching the dirt kick up behind his car.

We thought the summer was ours to give, that warmth and late light would make Mother and the baby strong. Our gifts were breezes fragrant with grasses and lavender and daylight breaking through the window screens. We dipped fine brushes in ink and decorated paper with pictures of wildflowers and meadows. Lydia taught us to fold the paper into herons and roses for Mother. She lit tiny cones of incense and we sat on the parlor floor with our legs crossed Indian-style chanting words we didn’t understand, knowing our voices drifted into Mother’s room. We collected special things from the yard—a four-leaf clover, long blue feathers tipped in black, a piece of a mud wasp nest. We picked rosemary and heated it on the stove in olive oil, filling the house with its aroma. We thought the hills rolling down to the river, the flight of birds curving and dipping against the sky, every blade of grass and raindrop was ours and we gave them to Mother trusting there would always be more. And we kept catching rabbits. Kept them in boxes under our bed. Listened to them scratch against the cardboard while we tried to sleep. Watched them scamper over the back lawn after we released them at sunrise when the teakettle whistled. 

One Friday, Father arrived with two puppies tucked into a wooded crate, warm mounds of yellow fur, round stomachs, and oversized paws. We buried our noses in their fur inhaling their puppy scents saying puppy, puppy. Lydia made beds for them out of old blankets and showed us how to take them outside after they ate. We gave them pieces of dried beef, their sharp little teeth biting into our palms. They flopped behind us wherever we went and cried if they lost sight of us. Lydia scooped them up in the bucket she made with her skirt. Delly named hers Fagin and I named mine Fang after characters in Oliver Twist. We snuck them out of their beds to sleep nestled between us, our faces against their softness. Mother smiled when they played beside her bed. She let them rest on her pillows and kissed their silky heads goodnight. Father couldn’t tell Fagin from Fang. How silly, we thought, that no one but us could tell them apart.

 

July

Mother died in childbirth the morning after a night of storms. The sirens woke us. We raced barefoot to her room. Ambulance lights smeared the walls red. Doc Randolph’s car in the driveway. They carried her out in a closed bag. We turned our backs to the door left ajar. Lydia stood at the open window, the screen pockmarked by jagged holes. The baby lay in the crook of her arm. We went to her and she pulled us against her. Rain struck the driveway. It fell like bullets on the roof. She let out a sound that scared us. I was mute. Delly began to whine. We watched as morning sun cleaved the darkness and light spilled into the house. Into Mother’s empty room with the flowered wallpaper. We inhaled earth scents of clay and worms, watched rain drip off tree branches, Delly and me, in our thin white nightgowns. We didn’t understand anything. We stared into each other’s eyes hard trying to hear each other’s thoughts. Lydia tall and straight and silent. Her wet scent and the shape of her face. Her braid straight down her back cutting her in two.

The baby was wrapped in Mother’s shawl with fringe dripping down. Lydia was crying and that made us cry, too. We cried into our hands, into our puppy’s fur. Our noses ran and our faces flushed. We shut the puppies in the kitchen, washed our hands. Lydia knelt before us and wrapped the baby in a blanket. She put him on the couch between us. We were afraid. His face all blotched, round blue eyes staring right into mine. His cry shook his whole body. His mouth made frantic little sucking noises.

Without Mother the weeks passed in dailiness. We lay on our backs in the grass watching rain clouds gather over us. Drew against our legs, our minds tight as fists. Our puppies strained against our arms, wanting a freedom we refused to grant. The rabbits disappeared. No one knew where they went or if they lived or died. The folds in Lydia’s skirt. Her sad smile. We spun around her. We were planets. I was Mars. Delly, Saturn with its vapor rings.

Lydia’s practical advice 

Nightmares aren’t real.

Use a spade to dig out a weed, a rolling pin to roll out a piecrust.

Use a crayon to draw a horse, a pencil to write a poem, your imagination to arrange flowers.

This is how to care for a dog, hem a skirt, love a child.

Some nights, the wind banged the shutters. It was Mother who used to fix things. Her red metal toolbox sat by the back door with its trays of screws, nails, and tools. Her hammer with the worn wood handle that had been her father’s. Paint brushes, cans of unused paint to color the kitchen a pale yellow. The yellow stopped midway over the stove. The old tired beige walls reminded us of mornings when the smell of bacon drew us from our beds to help with breakfast. Careful when cutting the bread, Mother would say. Careful when pouring hot water into the teapot.

Mother’s Favorite Things:

Tin canister with a hand-painted rooster

Cloisonné needle box

Locks of our baby hair in an envelope

Small silver cross on a chain

Dented tin measuring cup

Mother’s collection of blue glass bottles on the kitchen windowsill. We turned our hands in the blue light. Lydia looked down at us and she smiled her wide smile. She laid out objects Mother loved on the kitchen table and we took turns telling stories about them. We poured our memories into each one believing the objects would store and protect them. I held the carved ivory figure of the man and woman Father gave Mother on her last birthday. The man stood behind the woman who leans into him, his arms wrapped around her chest. I spoke of Father arriving early that evening, his arms overflowing with purple iris. Mother stood at the kitchen counter cutting vegetables. He crept behind her and put his arms around her just like the ivory man. The figure grew warm in my palm.

Lydia let us sleep in Mother’s bed. We tossed a quarter to see who got to sleep by the window. Mother’s scent everywhere—on the pillows and mint-green quilt. The art books on Mother’s bookshelf were of French Impressionists, abstract artists, and our favorites, the Pre-Raphaelites. We propped ourselves on pillows and wandered through them, tracing images she loved the best with our fingers—The Lady of Shallott, Ophelia, so many roses. We discovered a painting of a small room covered in wallpaper similar to wallpaper in our mother’s room. A woman’s form emerged from the wall, her face and body silhouetted against the wallpaper. Delly said the woman was trapped beneath patterns of flowers and vines. I thought she possessed superhuman powers to walk through walls.

We drew on each other’s backs with our fingers, spelling out words like thundercloud and cussing. Or brushed each other’s hair with the blue plastic hairbrush, saying things Mother would have said. Our puppies licked our faces as we turned onto our sides. Their legs grew long and their feet big. We slept and dreamed and woke at odd hours. Rubbed the sleep from our eyes, washed our faces. We leaned against the elm tree and let our thoughts float up out of us.

 

August

Pigeons fluttered at the window in the morning, their cooing something familiar that drifted into our half-waking. The last days of summer vines weighted with vegetables. Lydia fed us soups made with squash and pumpkin. Catfish clung to the river’s thick bottom mud. We raced along the shore, tripping over exposed roots, our shins bruised, mosquito bites scratched raw. We ran from Lydia’s gentle eyes and Dawson’s crying and Mother’s empty room. We stared into the sun without blinking until tears flowed down Delly’s cheeks. Dug into the wet shore with our hands searching for earthworms to coil in our palms. Tree rot, the bent white heads of the last dandelions. The slow moving river, its careless path of least resistance. The river a forgetting place.

We found envelopes buried in Mother’s sewing basket. Notes to Delly and me telling us how much she loved us. I am sorry to be in bed all the time. Do you know how much you are loved? Remember the day we picked all the daisies? Remember when we built the birdhouse?

Lydia taught us the names of what grew in our yard. We memorized the names of trees surrounding the house and along the river. Wrote Box Elder, Sycamore on note cards and nailed them to their trunks. The word forest comes from the Latin foris, which means away from civilization, Lydia read. As she spoke a shadow passed over her face and we knew she missed her faraway life. We feared we would wake up one day and she would be gone. 

Weekends, Father stayed in his upstairs bedroom smoking cigarettes. We heard Lydia knock on his door before going to her room with Dawson. Heard her say goodnight, Edward, her voice always changed by his presence. She hung his shirts out in the bright sun to dry before she ironed them and folded them into his suitcase. We showed him the picture of the woman who lived in the wall. He never called us by name or anything at all. Once he touched my cheek and looked away. Another time he pulled Delly close to him and she looked afraid. We watched Dawson rooting—searching for the flesh of the mother he would never know.

We fought over Mother’s clothing. Soft sweaters and nightgowns, blouses the colors of flowers. A long paisley scarf wrapped round and round Delly’s neck, trailing down her back. We slipped our hands into her leather work gloves. Lydia sorted and packed the clothing into cardboard boxes to take to town. In the backseat of the car our puppies hung their heads out the windows, noses madly twitching. At the church thrift store worn leather shoes and dark cloth coats mingled with statues of Jesus and Mary, purses and empty picture frames. We prowled through shirts and dresses, everything lightly scented by mothballs. Nothing as beautiful as Mother’s clothes—her black silk shawl with the big red roses and the crawling green vine that Lydia kept.

Lydia took the river road home, then one that cut through fields turned brown by harvest and heat. The breeze through the windows was lush with the river and the first hints of wet fallen leaves. We rode past bird-lined telephone wires, under clouds and a sky that grew thin and dim. At the edge of the yard our scarecrow hung limp on its cross, its pumpkin head gone soft too soon—the empty sleeves of Father’s old shirt, its absent hands.

One evening we sat cross-legged on Mother’s bed. Wallpaper flowering around us, the day’s events already beginning to disappear. I pulled Mother’s floppy gardening hat down to my eyebrows, shoved her red-handled screwdriver into my back pocket. Delly wrapped in Mother’s shawl, red roses and fringe spilling. Mother’s sapphire ring loose around her thumb. Three times we conjured Mother’s spirit. Three times the Ouija board spelled out P-r-a-y. We counted our plastic pop beads the way Lydia taught us, bent forward, foreheads almost touching. Our hair fell forward covering our faces. Eyes closed, we mouthed a chant Lydia taught us. Buddhist words we didn’t understand. We could smell the dinner chicken roasting. Over and over we whispered the foreign words. On the floor my puppy rolled on his back, paws straight up in the air. The clock’s five chimes caught in our throats. We didn’t look up. We waited.

A beating against my rib cage. I poked Delly. She dropped her head to her chest and I knew her eyes were squeezed shut. I peeked from under the brim of my hat. A shape of Mother pushed through the wallpaper, the blue stripes on her T-shirt, the fingers of her right hand coming into focus. A leg emerged. Her torso. She was a mood of light and shadow. A newborn sat in her arms. Its wet black eyes stared straight at me. Mother adjusted its blanket, stroked the top of its head. She smiled and I saw the window’s outline through her head. The baby opened its mouth but no sound poured out. She moved to the bookshelf. The baby turned away from me, hiding its face against her chest. They wavered in and out of sight. Then the wallpaper reclaimed them.

A hush fell over everything. Delly, Delly, I whispered. She lifted her head, pulled her hair behind her ears. Did you see? Did you see Mother? Delly fixed her gaze on me. Nope, she said twisting a fringe of her shawl around her finger. Her puppy whined and put his front paws on the bed. Down, Fagin, Delly ordered and slapped him on the top of his head. He whimpered. Stop it, she cried flinging off Mother’s shawl and tossing the ring to me. She gathered Fagin into her arms, buried her face in his fur. Fagin, just stop.

Father said we needed new clothes for school. Lydia took us on the train to Union Station in Chicago. She put the basket where Dawson slept on the seat next to her. Turning away from us she looked out the window. Light glanced across her cheekbones. She looked like Mother with her straight nose and gleaming dark hair. How different we were from her, our blue eyes and hair white-blond like Father’s. We sat stiffly in navy blue skirts and white blouses on worn cloth seats, our hands in our laps. Burnt autumn air blew in from the half-opened window. We sped through spent summer fields where horses indifferently lifted their heads, past squatting water towers, through the small downtowns of outer suburbs. Approaching Chicago, we saw the neglected back yards of tenements with clotheslines filled with colorless shirts and sheets. We were swallowed by long tunnels made of red bricks that ended in the station with its belching trains and sooty walls.

Father seemed even bigger in his office with its tall windows overlooking Lake Michigan where boats swayed back and forth in their slips. Leaving Lydia in his office, he took us to Marshall Field’s department store on State Street. We followed him to the children’s department where he left us after giving instructions to a sales clerk who called us darlings. Disappearing into separate dressing rooms, we emerged wearing identical sweaters and skirts, slacks and jackets. We left with clumsy bags and followed Father to the Palmer House amid honking taxicabs and trains clanking overhead on the El. The Maitre de’ knew Father’s name. When he asked about our mother Father’s face froze. Dawson cried in the cab to the station. Lydia bent over his basket. We saw one pudgy hand reach up to grab hold of her hair.

Finally, it was the end of summer. We gathered our schoolbooks and pencils in knapsacks. We moved out of Mother’s room to a bedroom upstairs with two single beds. Our puppies slept curled together in their wicker bed between us. Lydia gave Delly a flashlight. With her hands, Delly made shadow puppets on the wall by her bed. When she sat up her shadow grew making her look smaller. We turned our faces to the longer evenings, the sound of geese flying over our heads.

 

 

Jane Downs is an editor and writer living in Kensington, CA. She is a partner in Red Berry Editions. She has degrees from Syracuse University and Mills College. Her work appears in many literary journals and anthologies where her poems have received prizes. Her novel, The Sleeping Wall, was a finalist in the Chiasma novel contest. Her chapbook April Elegy is to be published by Kattywampus Press later this year. She is scheduled to be the featured poet in an upcoming Edition of Psychological Perspectives.