They are somewhere on the earthen floor when her pains start. Inside, outside. It’s hard to tell. The floor is a flat plane, cool and hard. June bugs click and thud; it is only May. The children lounge throughout the house like languid cats, indifferent. In the winter, they sleep in the main room, where Cora Belle gathers her five children hungrily around the pot-bellied stove. It’s the only room one with heat.
But now it’s nearly summer. Muggy. Sticky. The windows are wide-open, swollen. Bare limbs poke from mattresses, sheets. Pallets on the floor. Like camping. Oscar sleeps on the porch, on an old sofa. He will eat the stuffing, if he gets hungry enough, he says. Something’s always scratching, grunting, nibbling; the house is never quiet.
There’s small room with tub and toilet, but no pipes attached, just a lonely, peculiar space made for wondering and wandering, for looping in and staring. This is where she goes, when the pains start, to the claw-foot tub, a slick vessel for birthing. She lowers into its depth, hikes her house dress over her bulging belly. Moans. A gush of water, a pink stream of blood. There are calls for boiled water and the children cannot fathom it. Not in this heat. But she is panting. Insisting. Pointing. It’s a job for the older boys, Harlan and Oscar. And now he’s there, too. David. The father. The bones in her knees and wrists protrude. Her belly quivers. Her bun comes undone, cascading down her back, wet, sweaty tendrils and then, not one but two babies slip out into the tub.
The house had once been a stop for stagecoaches. A place for a bed and bath, a good meal. For a quarter. Maybe less. People came and unloaded, washed and slept. Perhaps babies were born. Like in Bethlehem. But now, it’s divided into duplexes. Railroad Housing. There’s another half, like a mirror, a ruin. Dirt and sage and musk. The children imagine polished floors and indoor plumbing, a porch that does not sag and swag. On the other side. But in reality, weeds appear in the corners, and babies are grown from bathtubs.
The woman in the mirrored ruin comes and brings a kitten nestled in cloth. Here, she says. It will keep the mice away.
She names them Betty and Bobby. They are robust and blonde and cheery-cheeked.
We sure know how to make purdy babies, don’t we, he coos.
She nods. She’s no-nonsense. The babes cling to her. Her skin is sallow, her eyes rimmed in purple. Within weeks, her waist is slender, she bends like a willow.
The children wash diapers and empty filthy water. They pee in beds and shell beans. Out back, where once was a farm, abandoned fields still produce patches of strawberries and apples.
She boils the strawberries into jams and jellies. There’s a muck garden out back, with carrots and lettuce and tomatoes. Homegrown. Better than store-bought, she brags. Prideful. Peaches, pickles. Nary a bone, because meat is pricey. The jars are cobbled along the sink and shelf above, like a cloud of glass. She filled the tub, too, stacking them in glistening shades of red and orange and green. Because, no more babies. She has her hands full.
Late summer is swimming holes and water snakes. Forts and trees and grasses so high. Ruinous womb of the old farm, backing to the rails, a whoosh of sound. The children dream up stories about bandits and outlaws, drowned children, Indians and quicksand. They worry about the little white cabinet door that opens to the root cellar and if the babies might slip through, but know they won’t, if it remains latched. The only thing that might happen is the kitten will jump in and never get out.
The earth is red. The cat is white. Coolness and warmth. Tiny face, blue eyes. A hush falls. The snow comes. Turnips and beets, biscuits and cornbread. A slab of lard.
Furnace. Stove. Warmth. Black nights and silent stars. A whoosh of wind. And then, stillness.
He’s not waking! Cora paces and frets. She turns on lights even though they cannot afford them. The children stir, sleep crusted eyes, mops of hair. Plump fists the size of plums. The older boys stand worried. What’s wrong, Ma? It’s not a school day. Who won’t wake?
His lips are blue, his face veined like marble. Alabaster baby. Stiff gray ball. He’s cold, she says, no heat. A haze of breath. The children are warm sacs of bone and blood, watchful, worried. She slams the chair, smashes canned peaches and tomatoes, pulpy smears of matter. The sound, it will wake him if he’s alive.
But he’s gone already.
To the train yards.
She places the baby on the dining room table. Wood and flesh. Polished and rough. Hewn. Pudgy feet, thick arms. The stove! Turn on the stove. The older boys gather firewood. No! Turn it off. We must preserve him. I must get your father.
She leaves, forgets her coat. Slides through the dusting of snow. Feels the frigid air through the toe of her shoe. Can tears turn to ice? She thinks so.
Come now, she says to her man.
Cora, I’m at work.
I wouldn’t have come if I don’t need you.
She turns and leaves, she goes alone. She must get back.
To the house.
The sagging porch. The chipping paint.
Throws open the door.
The kitten has grown, given birth. On the floor, in the kitchen, seven wet, wiggling kittens.
Someone has placed nickels on his eyes, and boy do they shine like the moon.
LESLIE LINDSAY — Leslie’s writing has been featured in Hippocampus, Psychology Today, Mutha Magazine, Ruminate’s The Waking, Manifest-Station, Literary Mama, Pithead Chapel, Cleaver Magazine, Motherwell, Agapanthus Literary and A Door = Jar. Her memoir, MODEL HOME, is on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. She is the creator and host of leslielindsay.com|Always with a Book, interviewing bestselling and debut contemporary authors. Leslie is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA, available on audio book from Penguin Random House. She is a former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. and is on Instagram and Twitter @leslielilndsay1. She resides in the Greater Chicago suburbs with her family.
Art by LUIS GARCIA ROMERO — Luis is a writer and graphic artist. His story “Ballad of the Wren” won first place in Flash Fiction Magazine and was a Pushcart nomination. He is the graphics manager for Longleaf Review. Find his mini-stories on Instagram @ministorywriter and his tweets @Luis_G_Romero.