Shepherdess

The ticking, ticking was uneven.

She lay and breathed with the ticks, but they came quickly made her chest hurt.  Then a scurrying and she thought it might be a mouse.  The covers had a strange smell.  Anna curled deeper into the bed and held her breath.

She knew it was morning, but little light came from the window.

Uncle Rob was talking down the hall on the telephone.  There was a clatter of plates.  Aunt Libby made doughnuts with cinnamon.  Anna turned and rubbed her face into the pillow.

It was Cousin Bradley’s room, and the bed was covered by a rough wool blanket.  Bradley was sleeping at Grandma’s.  Aunt Libby gave Anna the telephone and he told her to keep her hands off his airplanes but she didn’t know where the planes were.

He said he was riding the bike in Grandma’s basement and playing with Mizippy who was smaller than Joe.  Mizippy bit Anna one afternoon behind the couch and she did not tell because Grandma always said small dogs had to prove they were brave.

His bite didn’t really hurt but there was a little blood and she sucked at the wetness until it stopped.  She didn’t care if Bradley played with Mizippy, and she couldn’t ride the bike without Papa.

She swept her arm across the blanket and had to bury it beneath her against the smooth, warm sheets to take the sting away.  The light was mushy; shining through a curtain.  Her own room didn’t have curtains, and Mama said she wouldn’t have a curtain or shade in the house if it helped Anna to see.

Uncle Rob stopped talking and called for Aunt Libby.  Anna heard quick steps in the hallway.  Uncle Rob and Aunt Libby had three rugs and one was here in Bradley’s room.  Uncle Rob liked everything plain.  The bread he gave her had plain butter and nuts.  He always had a surprise.

Yesterday, he lay Anna in the snow and showed her how to move her arms and legs until she felt she must kick hard and sweep her arms through the snow that was stiff and heavy like the sand by the lake.  Then she was lifted up, high in the air onto Uncle Rob’s shoulders.  She gripped the top of his head and felt the bumpy hat he wore over his tangly hair.

“There’s a snow angel!” he said cheerfully.  “You left an angel shadow in the snow, Anna.  That makes you an angel.”

The snow was freezing into little chunks on the cuffs of her mittens.  She wrestled them off, throwing them away from her.

“Hold on, angel Anna,” said Uncle Rob, bending forward and she held tight, feeling all the warmth rush to her head.  He placed the mittens back in her hands and they were dusted with crystals of snow that collapsed like maple sugar candy in her fingers.

Angels were soft.  Their halos were as thin as a hanger, and they had feather wings so they could fly around the world looking after souls, Grandma said, giving Anna a block of maple candy, and her teeth first snapped then sank into the sandy candy.

You couldn’t keep the maple candy in your mouth like a peppermint because it melted into a syrup and you swallowed.  Angels kept watch and never slept.

They tended the souls on their way to see Christ in heaven, like He tended the baby lambs.

Where was heaven?  If the angels flew into the snow, they would fly into the ground and their feathers would get wet.

She pushed out of the covers and carefully lowered herself to the floor.  The rug was soft.  She crawled until she found her cat shoes and held them.  They had sat alone on the floor all night in the strange house and she could have had them under the covers.

Her lion was probably outside her own covers, maybe waiting for her to come through the door and she could not get him.  She thought of her lion’s hard, flat nose and glass eyes, but they were only holes in his big body and long mane.  Her Papa would growl and bounce the lion along her leg until he was right there in her face, roaring like a real lion.

Once he clacked the lion’s eyes against her teeth because she was laughing and her teeth were out.  Then Papa picked her up and swung her.

Her Uncle Rob was large, and she could sometimes see his big beard and the hat he wore.  He had a funny smell that was like elephants.  Like the little men in the book who sat on rugs and sang to the snakes with flutes.  He could hold Anna on his lap, and Bradley, and Joe.

But Joe would lick her face and Grandma made him push the dog away and it was only her and Bradley until Mama came to hold her and give her dinner.  Where was Joe?

Papa said Uncle Rob was a regular mattress, and Anna thought about her mattress when Mama would turn it on the bed and let Anna sit on it, folded over and bobbly, like the rings in the lake with Papa beside her, holding the ring so she didn’t float away.

That is what her Papa said about mattresses.

The door opened.

“Anna,” said Aunt Libby in a high voice.  “What are you doing on the floor?”  Anna dropped her shoes when Aunt Libby picked her up and started to cry.

“Oh, honey,” said her aunt.  But Anna’s insides felt crushed, and her shoes were on the floor and her lion was alone in her own bed.

They stood in a patch of sunlight and she could see the holes in Aunt Libby’s face.  Aunt Libby carried her, squeaking down the hall to the kitchen where the radio talked.

“Good morning, angel,” said Uncle Rob.  He put a doughnut in her hand and a cup of milk in her other hand and she took a bite of the cinnamon doughnut.

She felt the sugar drizzle from her lips.  He kissed the top of her head.  The milk was thicker than the milk at home and it was a cup with a big mouth.  Some of it spilled down her front.

“Oh shit,” said Aunt Libby.  She patted Anna’s chin and shirt with a warm rag.

“That was too much, Rob.  For godssake.”  Anna took another bite of the doughnut and it sunk into a soft pile on her tongue.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said.  “Sorry, Anna.”

She searched the table but the cup was gone, and there was running water in the sink.  The radio was on and a man said, “…gapers block on the Eisenhower, down to the left lane at Laramie.”

Then Aunt Libby started to cry.

Anna thought about Mama in the bed.  Mama’s voice was like the wrappers in the graham cracker box in the morning when she was being quiet and she cried for ever being bad.

“Where’s my little golden bear?” said her Mama and Anna tried so hard to find her.  There were cold bars between them and Anna had to feel through for the warmth of Mama’s hand.  Uncle Rob took her down the chute and gave her an animal filled with beans.

Later they stopped at a grocery store and everything was in different places.  Aunt Libby would not let her walk beside the cart like her Mama did, even though she was too old to ride in seat.

Her legs got stuck when Uncle Rob tried to pull her out, and Aunt Libby started to cry there in the store.  Everybody was crying.

When she could still see the books, Papa read about the elephant men, and Mike Mulligan’s shovel named Mary Ann that scooped out a house basement in a day and told her about big Al who had been her Papa’s friend when he was a boy.  Big Al’s father had run a shovel and sometimes they sat in the bucket.

“And it looked at us when we walked away!” he said because the shovel in the book had eyes.

Mary Ann dug too fast and turned into a furnace because she dug herself into the basement.  She thought about her Papa with a little boy’s body and his grown-up head on top running with his friends, riding on the shovel.

The eyes on the shovel were on the outside and couldn’t see in, even though now she thought she could see more on the inside of her head than before.  At the garden, Anna thought it only took one scoop of the shovel for each hole.

Her Grandma held her hand tightly, even though Anna could see the two black holes looking up from the ground.  She was careful not to fall inside because even the shovel couldn’t get out in the end and Anna couldn’t be a furnace.

At school they learned Braille and played with blocks.  The teacher talked about practicing and Mama would sit at the kitchen table with Anna on her lap and they would feel the bumps, smaller than a bug and bigger than sand.  It was hard to understand how the bumps all made a word, but easy to know if there was sand in your bed.

When Aunt Libby had put her on the toilet and cleaned her face and hands, she helped Anna with her coat and put her out in the backyard at the picnic table.

“I’ll be right in the kitchen, Anna.  I can see you the whole time.  Just sit out here and get some fresh air.  Okay?  You call if you need me, all right?”

Anna sat at the table the out of the wind and she licked her fingers until they were wet and cold and waited until she felt the sun prickling her spit off her hands, and her fingers were sticky.  Then they weren’t sticky.

She did that four times until Uncle Rob brought her in the house and she listened to the television until the doorbell bonged and Grandma was there.

Anna was relieved.  She knew her Grandma better than Uncle Rob and Aunt Libby.

“Where’s my girl?” said Grandma like she always did, so normal, and for an instant Anna thought Mama would follow Grandma into the living room, but instead there was her lion and Anna took it, holding his cold nose to her cheek.

He felt cold and smelled like cigarettes from Grandma’s car, but deep in his mane she could smell her own room and her own house.  There was no way to explain to him why he was here at Uncle Rob and Aunt Libby’s.

“She’s been so good,” said Aunt Libby.

“Of course she has,” said Grandma.  She pushed Anna’s hair back and gave her a little kiss on her forehead. Her lips were dry like the tap of snappy cigarettes.

“Have you thought about it?” asked Uncle Rob.  Anna felt the couch cushions bounce as Grandma sat beside her.

“I have,” said Grandma.  “Either way, she has got to stay with us.  I don’t want her going to Michigan with Don’s parents.   They have Mitchell’s kids and all of Amanda’s family right there in Lansing.”

“I’m dying,” said Anna.

“What, honey?” said Grandma.

“There must be some provision to keep her at the Blake School.  She needs to be here.  She’s not getting any better and she needs this special education,” said Aunt Libby.

“There will be a lot to learn for all of us.  Not just Anna,” said Uncle Rob.

“I’m dying,” said Anna faintly.

“If it’s too much for you, Mom and I can manage,” said Aunt Libby.

“Of course not,” Uncle Rob sounded cranky.  “I support this completely.  She’s our little angel.  Whatever it takes.”

“Good,” said Aunt Libby.  “She’s all we have left of Rose.”

“And Don,” said Uncle Rob.

“Yes of course Don,” said Aunt Libby.  “But I think of my sister first.”

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t.”

“I’m dead,” said Anna, feeling the cold marble eyes of her lion.

“No, you’re not, Anna,” said Uncle Rob.  “You’re fine and you’re here with us and we love you.”

“No,” Anna insisted.  “I’m dying.”

“Anna, that’s enough,” snapped Grandma.  “You are not dying.”

“I’m dying!” screamed Anna.

“Honey!” said Aunt Libby’s voice breaking from across the room, and Anna felt her grandmother’s thin, papery hands on her arm.

She sprung from the couch and screamed again.  “I’m dying!  I’m dead!  I’m dead!”

She ran with her lion and hit a table.  She dropped her lion and fell to her knees, finding him upside down under the table.  Uncle Rob’s big hands were on her shoulders but she twisted away and ran, hitting the wall, tasting blood like tin foil in her mouth, her breath knocked out of her.

“Just leave her for a moment,” said her Grandmother.  “Let her be.  Give the child a moment to herself.  We can’t keep grabbing at her.  She can’t understand any of this.”

Anna held her lion tight against the dark room and the voices.

“Christ, I don’t know what to do.  Maybe a nap?” said Aunt Libby.

“Maybe,” said Grandma sadly.  “I’m afraid I don’t know what to do, either.”

Anna felt hands touching her arms and the lion tipped away and she lunged for him, fearful of losing him a second time.

“I’m watching!” she shrieked, holding the lumpy animal to her chest.  “I’m watching!  I’m watching!”

Her voice rose to a piercing scream so bright that she felt remote from the noise, clutching her lion, covering his ears from her own shrieking, the dangerous sound spiraling up like snakes in their baskets, charmed by the music of the little dark men.

 

-I wrote this story several years ago  when I was remembering my response to the death of my grandfather when I was six.

The featured image is an old postcard image of the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia. The girls are playing hide and seek. MJ

 

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