July 16, 2004
Here is a story I am working on. Any comments are welcome.
That Spring, Part One
In that year of saplings and pastures and mist, my old dad got all crinkled around his eyes and announced that there would be no calf and no pups and no ducklings or lambs. He told us that the animals all decided that they would hold off this year because there wasn't so much food or nothing for them to eat up. And that had been my job ever since I was little, taking care of the babies, so now I had nothing to do. Well not nothing, really, because there was always things to carry this way and that, and things to pull up or plant, and fixing things up and stuff. But the thing I looked forward to every spring, the keeping alive of the ones that needed help, I couldn't do that no more. At least not this year.
When I asked my old dad why the mamas didn't just do it anyway, have their babies, he crinkled his eyes up more and said they was smarter than us. He said they knew better. He saw I was a little bit down about everything, and so he put his hand atop my head and just left it there, all heavy and warm, until I shrugged my shoulders and my old dad went to tend the garden.
Me and my brother Ike set out to the edge of the pasture, where we were gonna fix up a hole in the fence. Ike was three when I was born and he's all right. He's kind of quick tempered sometimes and he fought with my old dad once over something that wasn't even important. But him and me get along most times, and he's usually nice about carrying the heavier things and helping me out if I need it. That day he was carrying the planks while I toted the hammer and nails. It was just a small section of the fence that needed fixing, so we didn't need much wood. The hole had got there when a fella from town had run through it with his truck. He didn't run through it fast, though. He was drunk and sleeping and his truck kinda bumped against the fence and splintered that one section. Our cow didn't even really blink an eye.
As we walked Ike stepped on a bug and I pretended I didn't care. He's always making fun of me for caring too much about things. Sometimes I think Ike does things just to see what I'll do. So I've learned not to breathe too sharp or jump or shout or cry because when I do Ike rolls his eyes and laughs out loud, but only if my old dad isn't around. If my old dad is around he says, "Dammit, Ike, leave her alone," and that makes Ike go all quiet and he acts all shameful, though I know he isn't. Not really.
When we got to the fence we set down for a bit and I picked at the mud on my ankles and thought about what Old Dad said about the animals. "Hey Ike," I said. "You think what Old Dad said is true?"
Ike took one of the nails from me and rolled it between his fingers. "You see any animals with big bellies?" he asked me.
Well no, I thought. About this time every year the cow hung all low around the middle. And the sheep looked uncomfortable, their eyes all milky. The animals don't like you to touch them, and they're up half the night. And when the babies come it's like a holiday and Old Dad smiles, which he rarely ever does. When the babies come I like to peek through the barn door and watch. We never help unless someone looks like they really need it. When my baby sister was born there were a couple of folks helping out my mother and I just don't think she could have done it without them. I'm not sure, because I wasn't allowed in the room, but when the folks left they looked near as tired as my ma. I could tell they'd all been working hard.
But animals are different. Like my old dad said, they're smarter than us. They can do things like have babies on their own. But I watch from the barn door because it always makes my eyes go big and my insides all happy. It's the beginning of something and everything is new and the baby comes out all red and wrinkled and wet and the mama knows what to do, right away. I like to watch how they lick their babies all over and nuzzle them up. One time when I was watching a birthing I started to cry a little bit and when Ike saw me he wouldn't let me forget it for a month.
When a baby animal is born Old Dad watches too. At the first sign that the mama needs some help, he steps in, all calm, and does whatever he needs to do to make that baby come out living. And sometimes we lose one, sometimes that happens. The mama usually acts all confused and Old Dad scoops the little thing up real quick and carries it out to the woods. I don't know what happens after that. I suspect he gives it to the coyotes as a present for leaving our ducks alone.
If the baby comes out all right I let the mama love it for a few days and then I come to show my face. Since I'm the one in charge of the babies I've got to get the mama and the baby all right with the idea of me hanging around. I've had that job for a long time, maybe since I was three years old. My old dad kept trying to keep me in the house, because I kept escaping like a convict. And my old dad would point me in the direction of the house and push, just as my ma would figure out that I wasn't with her. So she would be waiting on the porch. And I'd walk back to the house, but I'd escape the next time my ma wasn't looking.
So eventually my old dad saw that he wasn't gonna win, and he gave me a job to do so I wouldn't just be mucking around. He led me to the barn where there was this passel of pups and he told me that the pups had to get used to people, because Old Dad needed them to listen when he told them to do things like guarding the chickens from the foxes. He told me it was my duty to socialize these pups, to make them love people and make them want to please folks. Old Dad said he would train them later, when they were older.
I set down under the old plow where the bitch was nursing her pups. The wood smelled like rot, but the good kind, and the air was kinda sweet and warm. The bitch growled at me but, as soon as she saw that I was only there to help, she let me be. She didn't let me touch the pups at first. But she let me set there. And after a few days she got used to me being around, and I got to pat the pups on their hot little heads. And then, a few days later, I even got to hold them in my lap. And the mama dog and I became quite cordial eventually, and I got to take the pups our from under the carriage and walk them around the yard before bringing them back to nurse.
So that was when I was about three, and my old dad saw that I was real good at getting the mamas and the babies to take to me. He told me that he didn't quite know how he managed before I came along and from then on I took my job so seriously, because I didn't want to let Old Dad down. That's when I became the expert on the animal babies.
But that year there were no animals acting like they was happy and sad at the same time. No big bellies. They weren't gorging on their food. And then I thought about how there wasn't as much food to be had, so that's probably how they knew that there wouldn't be enough for their babies. I didn't quite understand why none of them were gonna have babies, though, because I knew how those things worked, and I knew that it was hard for a female to get away when a male is let in with her. I couldn't figure it out.
Ike got me out of my head by flicking me in the ear, but I didn't make a noise. I just spit near his feet and, luckily, he decided not to do anything back to me. If I'd spit on his feet, though, that would have been a different situation all together.
"Come on, let's get this done," he said. "I'm getting hungry."
I held the planks up while Ike put the nails into the wood. When we were done we stood back to make sure everything looked okay, and then we headed back through the hazy spring fog because it was lunchtime.
My family lives off our own animals and vegetable garden. To buy all of the extra stuff folks need, like blankets and hardware and cloth and tools and things, my old dad goes to the auction twice a year. He trades some of the babies away, and he also brings lots of tomatoes, because that's something my old dad is real good at. Our tomatoes are the biggest around, and they're sweet and cool on your tongue, and folks would rather buy ours than anybody else's. So two times a year my old dad goes to the auctions and, while Ike puts up the babies for bid, my old dad stands outside the tent and sells those tomatoes by the crateful. I wasn't allowed to go to the auction then because I was too young. Even though they were my babies.
But that year the tomatoes weren't doing so well. The winter had been dry and so the dirt was dry too, and the tomatoes and the other vegetables weren't getting enough water. Me and Ike poured water on them all the time, but the ground just sucked it up and was dry again. My ma told me to not worry about anything, because this had happened before and everything had turned out all right. And we had enough to get by on, even if Old Dad and Ike didn't bring back too much money from the auction. But a part of me didn't like that everything was happening the way it was, that there was less food for lunch and that the babies weren't coming. It didn't seem right.
When me and Ike went into the house my old dad was already there. My ma says that eating in the middle of the day is the best thing you can do for yourself, because it makes the work in the afternoon a little bit easier. So even though my old dad tries to rush through eating to get back outside, my ma makes him set at least a half hour before he goes back to work. And she makes me and Ike stay a whole hour sometimes because we're growing and so we need more food and more time to digest. She also says that lunch is practically the only time she gets to just set with her children and talk.
I think my ma gets lonesome in the house all day, taking care of my little sister and doing house things. Me and Ike are up and out just as she's rising in the mornings, and so she only gets to see us at lunch and at dinner. She rarely gets to see my old dad at all, because he works so hard. But my ma says that she and my old dad did enough talking to last a lifetime when they were young, so they don't need to talk so much anymore. They already know what the other is thinking. But my ma says that she hasn't known me and Ike as long, so she likes to set with us and talk and get to know us better. My old dad would grumble about it if he didn't know it meant so much to my ma, because a whole hour in the middle of the day is valuable time. But Ma says that we're spending time with her, not wasting it, so it's okay.
Anyway at lunch that day we had eggs and oatmeal, even though that was usually a breakfast food. We had been having breakfast a lot. I think it was because the chickens kept right on laying eggs, even though they weren't eating as much. I guess they don't feel like the eggs are their babies when they aren't gonna hatch. So they didn't feel like they had to hold off on laying them. Maybe they know that we treat the eggs as food, and not as babies.
My ma held my little sister on her lap, and she was all squirming around. She didn't like to escape the house like I did when I was little, but she still liked to run around inside and get into trouble. She was two. I was seven then. Ike was ten. My ma said that all of us was pleasant surprises. I didn't understand how we could be surprises, because when the animals on the farm mate they do it for a reason, and it works just about all the time. So it seemed funny that my ma didn't know we were coming. But she told us that she did things different from the animals. Making babies didn't always work for her. So she kept trying, but it was always a surprise to her when her belly got round.
My ma says that my old dad was happy when Ike was born, because though he wouldn't admit it, he sort of wanted a boy. My old dad says that he's glad he had a boy first, because he needed help with the work, but my ma says that Old Dad actually wanted a boy because he felt he could love him more, and understand him better, because he was a boy once too. My ma says that by the time I came around, my old dad still wasn't sure about girls, so he was happy when I kept escaping the house as a baby. It's okay that I'm a girl, because I work just as hard as Ike and I don't like to dress up or nothing. And Ma says that by the time Bella was born, my old dad had kind of warmed up to the idea of a baby girl, and so he liked her a whole lot. My ma showed that she liked us all by hugging us and things like that. My old dad showed that he liked us by giving us work to do by ourselves. And letting Ike go to the auction. And letting me take care of the babies. He showed that he liked Bella by letting her sit on his lap after dinner, even if she poked him in the nose. He tolerates her pretty well, even when she's bad.
At lunch that day I told my ma about the animals, and she said she already knew. She said she knew even before Old Dad. When I told her that it didn't seem right, she said it didn't seem right to her either, but there are some things that we won't ever understand. Like what the birds are saying. Or what happens to people when they stop breathing.
"Old Dad says that it's because the animals know there's not much food," Ike said and I nodded.
"I suppose it's because something in their bellies stops working when there isn't as much food, and so they babies can't grow in there," I said.
Ike laughed at me and Ma frowned at him. "Babies don't grow inside a mama's belly, dummy, they grow somewhere else."
"Oh yeah?" I said. "Where do they grow?"
Ike said that they grew somewhere else and I asked where again, and he said somewhere else, and I told him that he didn't know. And Ike said he did too know, and that's when Ma stopped us both.
"Babies grow in the womb," she said. "It's below the belly."
"Yeah," Ike said. "The womb. That's just what I was gonna say if you had let me."
My ma went on to say that she remembered being in the womb when she was a baby. Me and Ike said naw, no way, babies can't remember things like that. And Ma said it's true, most babies can't remember nothing until they get to be about three, but she has a recollection of it being all warm and dark. And she was in a little ball and everything was all right. Ike said he still didn't believe her, even after my ma explained all the details, but I think maybe she does remember a little bit.
But not, me, though. I know I grew in my ma and eventually came out, but I don't remember nothing about it. I still have a hard time believing it happened at all. I know I've grown a lot, but it all happens so slowly. I can't believe I was ever so small, small enough to fit in my ma's belly. But I saw Bella just after she started breathing the air, and she was just so tiny. And now she's two and she's fairly sturdy looking. She walks around and talks a little bit. But it all happened so slow. I don't specifically remember Bella going from little tiny baby to a little tiny person.
My first memories are the ones of escaping the house. I don't remember much about the whole thing, just flashes and feelings. I remember what the screen door looked like then, before it was repainted. It was all chipped with white paint, and it didn't set quite right in the doorway. And there were holes in the screen. I remember looking over my shoulder at the house. I remember feeling free and scared. And I remember those pups, and how the mama let me get to know them.
Ma told me that I was bigger than Ike was when he was born, and we all laughed at that. Ike is so much bigger than me. I can't imagine coming into the world bigger than Ike was when he was born. I asked my ma what I was like when I was a baby, and she said that I was agreeable mostly, until I got to walking. She also said that I was always dirty, no matter what my ma did to keep me clean. "I'd give you a bath and then put you in your basket," my ma said. "And then I'd come back five minutes later and you'd have dirt all over your face and your dress would be torn. I don't know how you did it."
Ike pretended not to care about what he was like when he was little, but my ma saw that he kind of wanted to know. "You rarely ever cried, Ike," Ma said. "When you woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to nurse, you'd just make little squeaking sounds until I heard you."
Hearing about nursing was just too much for Ike, so he asked my ma if we could go back to work. She laughed and threw a dish towel at him and told us to get on outside.