It is the first frost of autumn. The stars are reflected everywhere. Dusting the spiked grass. Lighting up the withered morning glories. Silver-lining the fallen leaves covering the frozen ground. In the distance, corn stalks sway against a pale brittle moon. Several large, black birds have arranged themselves in a row on the fence outside our vegetable garden. Crows. Jackdaws. Grackles. Ravens. Pop says they’re the smartest birds around.
“We can’t tell them apart from one another, but they can tell us apart,” he says. “That gives them the advantage.”
Pop’s engaged in constant battle with the local avian population. It’s a useless struggle though. Mama won’t let him kill any of them on account of bad luck.
“Talulah, come away from the window.”
Mama stands in the doorway. Her hair is unsheathed and it falls down her white nightgown like buzzard feathers. Her lips are a pale slash of disapproval. Pop says she was beautiful before I was born. Then whiskey and worry worked its way with her.
Mama thinks I will be swallowed up by the moon. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell her that the moon isn’t a giant mouth in the sky, she won’t hear a word of it. It pains me, because I love the shine of the night. She’s protective during the day as it is. She never likes me to be out of her sight. At night she’s zealous in her mothering.
“Too many dangerous things out there,” she says. “Moons with mouths, devils with pitchforks, lakes that will swallow you whole.” She can go on and on.
I tell her these things must be there all the time, but that only makes her double up her daytime rigor.
I don’t go to school with other girls my age. I see them sometimes, boys too, swinging their books and talking and laughing from the window or the garden. Sometimes I’m allowed to help outside with the washing or the gardening. This is my favorite thing. To feel the earth buzzing beneath me. I have an irrational fear that one day mama will close the shutters for good. Then the separation between me and the rest of the world will become tangible.
During the day she teaches me things. How to avoid superstitions and evils. Also, Latin and French. I can play the harp and the piano and recite most Shakespearean soliloquies. I practice them to the corn, sometimes bending the stalks backwards as if I were Romeo and Juliet were a swooning, silk-tassled vegetable. Except our forbidden love trysts only take place in the daylight. As soon as the moon is visible in the sky mama whisks me inside, stokes the hearth and gives me a task, any task, that keeps me busy until Pop comes home and supper is served.
Sometimes I sling paper airplanes with messages scrawled on them to the children who are making their way to and from school. Silly messages. Sometimes my name. Sometimes what I’ve been thinking about behind the closed shutters of my room. Sometimes asking about their lives. I wonder a lot what it’s like to be free.
Pop treats mama’s behavior like it’s nothing out of the ordinary. I only know different from all of the books I read. Moons don’t eat girls. Devils don’t hide in the crevices of night. Children don’t need to be locked inside.
“You’re so pretty,” says Pop, whenever I complain. “Your mama’s just looking out for you. She has her own way about these things.”
Pop likes to say that when I was first born, they washed me in cold spring water, and flowers grew from everything I touched. Flowers that smelled sweeter than any other. And when they combed my baby fine hair, pearls and rubies tumbled down to the ground like rain. Mama won’t confirm or deny this.
Pop usually brings me presents when he comes back from the market. I have a collection of golden beetles with wings that move and legs that click. They have wheels and gears inside like tiny clocks. My favorite is a giant scarab that buzzes recklessly though the air when I wind it up. I have garlands made of butterflies that dust my room with soft shimmery sparkles and paper stars that light up my ceiling in a swirling simulacrum of the world outside. I have an entire city built out of cardboard that is slowly industrializing my bedroom floor. In the cardboard city, the lamp posts turn on at dusk and the people, made of cornhusks, hurry home from work to their corn dolly families. Origami birds swim up above the rooftops and sometimes get swept away in the breeze from my open windows.
We’re rich. Pop’s cornfields stretch far across the dusty plains and beneath the heavy hung skies. During drought or flood they remain fruitful. Mama has lots of jewels and nice dresses but she never wears them. The devil comes calling to see people done up in their finery. That’s what she says. Besides that, there’s no place to wear them around here anyway.
Being cooped up in the autumn is the hardest, with the crackle of frost and the smell of change. The cawing of the grackles, crows, and jackdaws. I toss restlessly instead of sleeping. Whenever mama forgets to lock my shutters I jump at the chance to peek at the sepia night outside. The moon slices across the cornfields, growing yolkier as the season turns closer towards winter. Each night the branches grow a little more bare, until I can practically count the separate leaves on their bony fingers.
Lately pop has been looking at my arms. My hands more particularly. Sometimes even my shoulders. The way his gaze traces over them makes me nervous. I wind up my scarab and set it buzzing about the kitchen to distract him. It lands in the pot of oatmeal mama is cooking for our breakfast and she yells.
“Trinkets and toys! Devilry! Now tell me how much a golden scarab is worth when it’s covered in oatmeal?”
Me and Pop both keep our mouths shut. He’s back to looking at my arms. The hollowed out parts where my shoulders curve into my collarbone. I feel my skin starting to burn.
“Is it almost time to cut the corn?” I ask.
“Soon,” he says, sitting back in his chair and sipping his coffee. He transfers his gaze to the wall. Pop is like a lumberjack. He turns mama into a small angry shadow. “The Harvest Moon is nearly here.”
We still run by tradition around here. In his way, Pop is superstitious too. He never begins the reaping until the moon becomes pumpkin colored and pregnant, hanging in the sky like an engorged mother. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like. It’s the secret to his good fortune. During the harvest, I’m allowed to help during the day. Not just with the shucking but with the swishing of the scythe. The hacking. Releasing the earth from its heavy burden of ripe fruit. Of course the real thrill is being in somewhat close proximity of other people. Pop hires on lots of hands during harvest time. Last year there was a brother and sister, near to me in age, with faces covered in freckles, who wore straw hats and laughed at each other in a way that made my heart ache. I even made two corn dolly replicas of them for my little town.
I silently urge the moon on faster. I can’t wait until it’s time to cut the corn.
Pop leaves for work and I help mama clear the dishes.
“Talulah,” she says, “Go read the psalms for a little while and then you can help me hang the washing up outside.”
She’s in a soft mood today. I know she also wants the liquor bottle that she hides underneath the sink. Either way, I am more than happy to abscond to my bedroom with the promise of autumn sunshine awaiting me. Even when the air gets cold and thin, I can feel the sun tingling on my skin.
“You have a complexion like fresh cream,” mama’s fond of saying. She’s proud that I’m not hearty and tanned like most of the other folks around here.
I have no intention of reading the psalms. Instead I creep over to the windows and pull open the shutters filling my bedroom with glittering, autumn light. My paper village shudders and the butterflies spin through the air in a riot of color. The birds are sitting on our fence again. Today there are even more than usual. They’ve been temporarily displaced from scavenging in the cornfields. Beyond the fence and out in the fields I can hear the voices of men.
It’s past time for all of the village children to be at school, but I see a head bobbing up and down over the fence. It’s one of the local boys. He walks along unhurried. His hair is glossy and black. His presence disrupts the crows again and they scatter and realign themselves on the top our roof.
Now I can see his face. It’s square cut and chiseled and he’s whistling. He looks a little older than most of the others. There’s a familiarity to him, but I can’t quite remember when I’ve seen him. I’m better at differentiating corn dollies than humans. When he turns to look at me I’m rendered immobile. The clash of our eyes shocks me. He smiles and lifts his arm. A paper airplane sails in my window, executes a dizzying sweep of circles, and crashes into an unwitting husk family lounging on a pebble beach. By the time I look back up he’s gone. The crows are resettling with glossy, ruffled feathers.
Inside the folded paper is written a name.
I study the letters. The pen strokes are bold and confident. I imagine his hand scrawling them down.
“Talulah,” mama calls.
I hurry and close the shutters. I fold the paper into tiny squares and stick it under my pillow.
“Come on! It’s time to do the washing.”
There are thrills running all along my body. He knows my name too if he’s responding to one of my airplanes. I wonder if he’s said it out loud.
Outside the air is chill but sunny.
“Gracious,” says mama. “Look at all of these birds. I’ve never seen so many.”
She chews the insides of her cheeks worriedly.
Pop is wrong. I can tell some of the birds apart. There is a giant grackle that is bigger than all of the rest, and its partner, whose feathers are so black they shine an iridescent green. There is a small jackdaw that’s missing an eye, and a crow that hops on one foot. I can tell them apart from each other. A few of them I can even recognize by their caws.
“We’re going to have to do something about them,” mama says.
I’m used to her worrying. I pull the tub of water into a patch of soapy sunlight and begin dunking Pop’s dust brown clothes into the sudsy water and rubbing them up and down the washboard. There’s a simple delight in the transparent bubbles that rise up around me and burst midair. There’s the far off rustle of the corn in the fields. There’s the memory of that paper folded up beneath my pillow. I am drunk on the autumn breeze.
“We’ll need to put bowls out,” says mama.
She’s still looking uneasily at the birds. She crosses herself. Sometimes mama puts dishes of oil out to keep away the birds. It’s another one of her superstitions. She says crows are so vain that staring at their own reflection keeps them from getting into devilry. As I wash the clothes and wring them dry for hanging, she goes in and out of the house carrying dishes of oil and setting them on the ground a safe distance away. She puts the most around my bedroom window.
That night I peer through the slats of my shuttered windows into the darkness. The moon is fat and swollen. Ready to burst. The birds are scattered about the yard gazing at themselves in mama’s bowls. The grass is glittering with a light frost. On my window sill there is a new dolly. One that I didn’t make. It’s much rougher than my own corn people. Tied sloppily and without any arms. I can tell from the bristling skirt and the long plait of tassled corn silk hair that it’s meant to be a girl. I shake the frost crystals away and carry it inside carefully. I wonder if it’s a gift from Lucian. Or a clever trick from the birds.
I look out again at the assemblage of black shapes hovering in our yard. The big grackle pauses in his reflection, gazing to look up at me. I close the windows and carefully put the dolly under my pillow alongside of the piece of paper.
Tomorrow we will begin the harvest. The corn is so heavy it is bending down the stems.
I lay with my head over the name of the black haired boy.
I fall asleep with the sound of it on my lips.
“I don’t know if she should go today,” mama says.
“Elspeth,” says Pop. “I’ll be twenty yards away from her. Nothing can possibly happen.”
I’m all ready. I was up at dawn with the cawing of crows. I have an old pair of work boots on and a dress that is already tattered and stained from previous harvests. Mama has arranged a mason jar full of witch hazel leaves and bright red viburnum berries as a centerpiece on the table. I work some into my braids as they argue.
“I don’t care how many birds you saw yesterday,” Pop is saying. “They’re just birds. They come to eat the corn. Name me one farmer who doesn’t have to deal with them.”
“They’ve been watching the house,” mama says.
Pop gets up from the table abruptly. “Enough of the doom and gloom already.”
He wins. I knew he would. He tosses me some gloves and smiles a kingly smile.
“Wear these. I don’t want you to hurt your hands. Are you ready for the harvest Talulah?”
I smile back and nod. This is something me and Pop share. Probably that’s what makes mama so worried. In my pocket I have my wind up scarab and the paper with Lucian’s name on it.
“She’s a farmer’s daughter,” says Pop, as if that settles it.
We say goodbye to mama, taking our lunches and our water containers, and head out towards the cornfields.
The workers are waiting for Pop. They stand all in a line watching silently, reminding me of the birds. Some of them really look like crows, all hunched over and hungry. They watch me and Pop approach with careful eyes, waiting for his instruction.
“Harvest time!” Pop shouts and there are some vague hurrahs. The men are glad to have work, but their faces show a slight resentment that they are laboring in someone else’s fields. Still the sway of tradition and the promise of a plentiful crop wins out. There is a zing to the air that makes my skin ripple and my senses more aware.
The shouts begin resounding around the assembled throng. I want to yell too but I know Pop wouldn’t like that.
I don’t see the freckled twins but my eyes pick out Lucian right away. He’s leaning on a chaff-cutter and staring straight at me with a little smile. My insides flutter. His eyes look wicked. He tips his head in my direction and I glance quickly at Pop, but he doesn’t notice.
“What are we waiting for?” Pop asks. “If you don’t have tools of your own grab one out of the wagon. The women will bring down cider and refreshments in a few hours.”
Inside the wagon is an assortment of sickles, fagging-hooks, chaff-cutters, hoes, and winnowing baskets. The few females present that don’t carry baskets, retrieve some. I take a
sickle and a corn husker. The blade gleams in the silvery morning light.
We scatter into the tall rows of corn. I try to keep one eye on Lucian but he has disappeared.
“Talulah,” Pop calls. “Remember to stay close.”
I wave my sickle at him and smile. Around me the swish and crackle and hacking of the reaping has begun.
Inside the cornfields I become a much smaller version of myself. Tall stalks reach up over my head, closing off the sky. I can see down the narrow aisles… shadows of men swinging sickles. Women scurrying after them picking up the golden ears and silken tassels and stacking them in their baskets. There is something primordial in it all.
I make a game of it. I lose myself in the tallest parts of the corn field. I fall into a rhythm that resonates with the wind. Swish. Swish. Blade through stalk. Thump. Thump. Corn to earth. It’s almost trancelike. Then I hear whistling ahead of me. I hear it around me. Lucian appears from behind a cluster of cornstalks.
“Talulah,” he says. His eyes are not dark at all. They are the gold of the corn fields. “I’m not supposed to talk to anyone,” I say.
I’m not used to direct eye contact. I want to stare, but I can’t. My gaze wanders off to the waving tops of the corn. The shuddering leaves. The silver curve of my sickle.
“I brought some paper,” he says. “We can always make airplanes.”
I was right. His eyes are wicked. My own laughter surprises me.
“Is this your first harvest?” he asks.
In response, I swoop my sickle through the air, neatly taking down several stalks just below the ears. They fall to the ground in a series of crackles and thumps. The air between us glitters with the crystals of frozen morning mist.
Lucian looks impressed. “Of course it isn’t. These are your father’s fields.” He smiles when he says this.
I want to ask him if he put the dolly on my windowsill. And why he answered my paper airplane letter. And how many of them he’s read. Instead I stand there shivering along with the cornstalks. A woman comes by with a winnowing basket to pick up the wake of cut corn behind me, and Lucian disappears back into the tall stalks.
One for the cut worm.
One for the crow
One for the blackbird
And three to grow.
It’s an old rhyme. I’m not sure why it comes into my head right now. It’s for the planting not the reaping. The basket woman nods at me but doesn’t say anything. I begin cutting again. The swoosh of blade through stalk soothes me. I feel the relief of the cold earth under my feet as each ear tumbles to the ground.
The day warms a little between a pale sun and hours of laboring. My arms are aching, but it’s a good ache. Mama shows up with a few of the other village women halfway through the day. She has a gown on. The harvest is the only event she dresses for all year. Her gown is dark red and regal looking. Her hair is done up into coiled braids. I’m always surprised to see her looking like this. It gives me a glimpse of the young woman she must have been.
They’ve brought carts of refreshments. Hot cider, slabs of meat, loaves of bread, and steaming potatoes. The workers line up, dust streaked faces, blackened feet, and blistered hands. Mama oversees the feasting like a queen even though she didn’t prepare any of it. She’s been into the whisky I can tell, because her eyes are shining and her cheeks are flushed. It even takes her a little while to begin searching for me in the crowd.
“Don’t stand in line like you’re common,” she says, taking my arm and pulling me aside. She makes me up a big plate of food and rakes her eyes over me. “Have you had enough for the day then? Are you ready to come home?”
“Mama, please. I’m fine.”
I can feel the eyes of the others on me. She checks my hands beneath my gloves and examines my arms for cuts or gashes.
Pop’s also been into the whiskey. Or has his own stash of cider. They clash immediately.
“Elspeth, leave her be,” he says loudly. “This is a part of who she is. You know that as well as me.”
Mama’s lips flatten into their slashes. She rejoins the other women in overseeing the food and drink. I wander a little way off into the corn and sit down to eat away from her broody gaze.
Lucian sits down beside me.
“I wouldn’t,” I tell him. “If either one of my parents walks over here you’re as good as done for.” But I don’t really want him to leave.
“Your parents don’t frighten me,” he says.
He pushes a mug of cider into my hands.
“Why do you suppose they keep you locked up all of the time?”
Nobody has ever asked me that question. I haven’t had many conversations with people from the outside world. So I pretend that we are two of my corn dollies. This helps.
“My mama thinks the world is dangerous and full of the Devil. Pop’s just protective.”
The cider burns down my throat and into my stomach. It makes me tingly. The sun seems to shine a little brighter. Lucian’s eyes are positively glowing.
“Do you think the world is full of the Devil?” he asks.
I shake my head. “I have no idea what the world is full of. I’ve barely seen it.”
“So see it,” he says.
Around us the corn stalks are whispering in papery voices. The sun rests on my skin and I let his smile melt the thought of my parents away. We grin at each other in the dust for a moment and then Lucian gets up and offers me his hand.
I have never played with another person. We spend the rest of the afternoon running through the tunnels of corn, having cutting contests, and when the sky dims and the cries of Hooky, Hooky! start up again, I have already decided I’m not ready to go home. I hear Pop yelling my name but I don’t care. As the moon begins to rise up in the sky, glorious and orange, the basket women collect the last of the corn from the ground. Lucian pulls me through the narrow tunnels of empty stalks to the edge of the field where we watch in the shadows as the farmers light a massive bonfire and assemble the corn into giant piles.
“This is a husking bee,” says Lucian. He’s been refilling our ciders all afternoon. I feel closer to him than anyone else in the world. He makes me dizzy and alive.
“What’s that?” I ask. I see Pop scanning the crowd for me. He’s awfully wobbly on his feet.
“It’s a race to find the red corn.”
“Why?” With the shadows expanding his face looks a little different than it has all day in the sun.
The bonfire is crackling now. A few people have begun playing instruments and some are dancing around the fire. The husking bee is about to begin. The men are gathered around giant piles of corn with their shucking tools at the ready.
“Because,” says Lucian. “Whoever finds the red ear gets to kiss the girl of his choice. That’s how most courtships start around here. I’m not surprised your father never let you stay out to watch this before.”
My attention is divided between Pop’s silhouette calling out my name, the lights of our house up on the hill above, the dusty men getting ready to start husking, and mostly Lucian who is staring at me. My hair, my eyes, my neck, my arms.
“Don’t you want to be in the husking bee?” I ask.
Lucian shakes his head. The firelight is dancing across his face and eyelashes. Lighting up his eyes. He reaches up casually and pulls down a stalk from beside him that someone missed. He slices the ear of corn off with a small knife, and my eyes are stuck on his every move as he peels the tassels down slowly. Instead of the usual rich yellow, the kernels are a deep red. Like beating hearts. Like mama’s dress. The same time that he reaches for me I hear Pop getting closer. Mama is walking down the hill with a lantern, no doubt to bring me home. The husking bee has begun.
I take off running through the cornfields as fast as I can. Lucian chases me. We weave in and out of the tunnels of empty stalks. The Harvest Moon is sitting just on the horizon. It looks like a giant orange snail crawling across the earth. I have the irrational thought that we will meet it in the middle of the cornfields. That mama’s right. That all this time it’s been waiting to swallow me whole.
I slow my pace and Lucian tumbles me to the ground. We kiss with our mouths full of dirt and our bodies smashed together. He smells sweet. Like apples and corn. At some point the golden scarab in my pocket gets jostled enough that it kicks into action, its little legs clicking, its wings buzzing angrily. It swoops drunkenly off into the night. I have forgotten about everything but flesh and earth. Flesh and earth and all of the ways I have never known either of them well enough.
A shadow falls over the moon.
Pop is standing over us. His expression is terrifying. The stalks around us are quaking. I scramble to my feet, but Lucian takes his time. When he’s standing fully, he smiles at Pop. They are close to the same height. I don’t know which direction to panic in.
All of the sudden the moon seems in a hurry. It raises itself up into the sky and watches with a marmalade gaze as clouds begin to race across the stars. The world seems to swirl. Everything is too familiar. This place. This night. This moment.
“It’s just a little fun,” says Lucian. True to his word, he’s not scared of my father.
“How could you?” Pop says to me. “I’ve given you everything.”
I’m not sure what to say. Paper butterflies aren’t the same as real ones. He steps closer to me and Lucian. A curved blade reflects the hot orange of the moon. I can smell the alcohol on him. His face is dusty and streaked with tears.
Right up until the very last second I think he is going for Lucian. It never occurs to me that it’s my blood that the earth is thirsty for. Even when he takes my hands. Runs his fingers over my arms lightly. Even then, I don’t expect the blow. When it comes I can no longer see Pop, or Lucian, or the moon. Everything is blank.
When Pop said grackles were the smartest birds around, he was right. Maybe they are smarter than people. I never see my house again. The giant grackle, however, is waiting for me to wake up at dawn. The earth around me is still wet with blood, but my arms have been tightly bound with corn husks, just above the elbow, to staunch the flow. This time I don’t wonder who did it. Lucian is nowhere to be found. It takes me several tries to get to my feet. I’m weak with blood loss and light headed from pain. My balance is completely different with arm stumps instead of hands. I’m still blank though. My mind is blank. I don’t think about anything. I just walk. An assortment of birds flies just ahead of me. Grackles. Ravens. Jackdaws. Crows. Sometimes they swoop down to check on me as I stumble after them. I have hardly any sensation from the neck down.
I don’t know how long I walk before my father’s cornfields finally give way to grassy hills. Days. Weeks. My fever keeps me from having any real concept of time. The birds find puddles for me to drink from, until finally we come to a place that is green and smells like water. There is a stream and crickets. The air is slightly warmer. I have walked for so long that my boots are worn down through the soles and while my body has shrunk, my belly has already begun to grow. The grackle has changed the wrappings on my arms several times, and the wounds are no longer bloody and raw.
Beside the stream there is a copse of trees. I am so exhausted and grateful to find anything like shelter, that I bathe and drink from the stream until I feel full, and then fall asleep in the soft moss beside the water. I sleep for what must be days. I wake to a cold beak against my ear. The grackle and his mate are watching me. There is a pile of berries beside me and some small fish. I struggle to sit up, but the female grackle with the iridescent feathers hops over to me instead. She nudges my mouth open and drops a beak full of sweet berries in. Then repeats it with one of the fish.
It takes some time, but the birds build me a giant nest of twigs and moss, insulated enough to keep out the cold. It is a tremendous feat of skill and craftsmanship. Even so, the jackdaws, the more mischievous of the bunch, go on a pillaging raid to somewhere or another, and return with warm blankets and clothes to replace the tattered shreds that I removed when we first reached the stream. The ravens bring me rabbits and mice which I usually decline. The crows chatter all of the time. I don’t know how I ever thought that their caws weren’t musical. The grackles watch my every move. They know there is a baby coming. They busy themselves caring for me and preparing for the birth. When my arms are healed enough that I can use the stumps at least, I build a fire striking flint across a rock using my teeth. The grackles watch carefully and are soon more adept at it than I am.
We settle into a routine together. We bathe in the same stream. Eat the food that they bring back. I talk to them, just so that they know how much I need them there. Also, so I don’t forget the sound of my own voice. I never talk about Lucian and I never talk about home. I don’t know whether they miss it or not. At night I curl up in my nest, one arm cradling my belly, while the birds roost in the trees around me.
When the baby finally comes, the pain is fierce and the birth isn’t easy. It slices through the blankness inside of me. She’s small and pink and wrinkled. Her body spasms with furious, shuddering gasps and screams. I’m worried that her voice will carry all the way back to those faraway cornfields. I want to soothe her. I don’t know anything about babies. The grackles help tie off the cord with their beaks. My upper arm stubs are just functional enough that I can lift her to my chest although she’s still slippery.
We both sleep for a while. I wake up when she’s hungry. The response is instinctive. When she’s done feeding, the grackles start a fire and I crawl on my knees over to the stream. We both need to be cleaned before animals smell us. The water is clear and cold. I wriggle down into the water first for fear of dropping her. Then, carefully, I dip her in. She squeals. As soon as her tiny toe touches the water, flowers of every kind and color begin bubbling up to the surface.
I’m shocked, until I remember Pop’s story. Waterlilies, roses, hyacinths, and laurel go floating down the little stream perfuming the cool air. I dip her down farther. The flowers continue. I have no way to scrub her with my hands, so I use the soft moss that grows all along the bank to sponge her softly. Everywhere she touches it, flowers bloom. I’m enchanted. I’m half stunned that something so magical has come from me. This is when she slides out of my grasp and under the water.
Time stops. I stare down at my daughter as if through a glass case. I splash my amputated stumps around unsuccessfully. I try ducking under water and wrestling her back up, trying to get ahold of her flesh with my teeth, but I can’t grasp her. I feel pain. Real pain. The birds swoop over my head as I try again and again to lift her up.
Tears fall into the water. A new pain splits me open, this one so fierce I cry out. My heart will stop if I can’t save her. I duck down again, and this time get a firm grasp. I curl my fingers around her tightly and pull us both out of the water. She’s alive. Coughing and sputtering, but alive. I set her down and pat her back gently to help get the water up. Flowers are blooming in the soft grass around her.
It is only after I’m satisfied that she’s okay that I realize I have fingers. I have hands. I have arms. Fully functional ivory limbs as delicate and soft as my newborn. I hear the sound of wings flapping to see the birds, all of them, crows, ravens, grackles, and jackdaws lifting themselves up into the sky. Legs shaking, I pick my daughter up with my new arms and we sit by the warmth of the fire wrapped in a stolen blanket. I can hold her now. The way that a mother should. She sleeps and I stay awake, wondering if the birds will come back. There is something red lying in the grass beside the fire. With one arm I cradle the warm body and with the other I reach out and pick it up with my fingers. An action so simple and delightful at the same time.
The grackles have left one last present before returning to the home that I will never see again. It’s a necklace made of blood red corn kernels threaded onto a single string.