No-one shows any disappointment. It’s not like I was going to college or anything. I guess this is just about what’s expected. It still doesn’t stop the comments, and they don’t mean anything to me because I’ve made most of them myself, to other girls, and they’re lukewarm supportive. But when I hear, from someone not even bothering to stay out of earshot, that they hope it doesn’t end the same way as with my mother, well.
I’m nothing like her. I tell them so in terms of fuck-off, but the answer I get back isn’t one I ever suspected.
“You weren’t her first kid, is all I meant.”
If there were another, I think I’d know.
“The first one died,” says Gran. “In this family, the first one always dies. I’m telling you this so you don’t get attached.” Her hands are in my hair, smoothing it down, the long strokes of brush trying for sympathy when they can’t do much more than keep the snarls away for a little. “There’ll be other babies,” she says.
I don’t want another baby. I don’t even want this one. But babies are what girls do and I did what got it so here we are. And really, what else is there to do with life? I’d have one sooner or later, there’s no reason to wait another year.
“This one won’t die,” I tell her. “It’s growing strong and safe and I’m going to keep it that way. It’s what a good mother does.”
Good mothers are a sore spot. Mine ran off years back. Said she couldn’t stand it anymore, living here in the country quiet with the trees all black and green around her. Said they loomed too much and ran off to the city where other things loomed bigger, wanting excitement and finding only street corners, Gran said. “We all do that too,” she says now, reminding. “She’ll come home eventually, when she’s had enough, to be a help with your second.
“That’s the one that’ll live,” she says. “That’s the one you’ll care about.” She leans close, the stink of her breath a warning of rot too expensive to fix. “None of us cared about the first. You’re not the only one.”
“I care,” I tell her, stiffening, and she guffaws behind me.
“No you don’t.”
“If I didn’t care I’d get rid of it,” I say, smart-mouthed, and get the back of the hairbrush for my trouble.
“There’ll be none of that kind of talk in this house,” she says. “You’ll do your time like the rest of us.”
I’d asked to go on the pill. She’d said no, I didn’t need it, even though she’d been catching me with boys since I was fourteen. “Nothing you need to worry about yet,” she’d said.
So here I am, not worried. And no different.
Just like everyone else.
• • •
“They’re eggs,” says Gran. “It’ll stop soon enough.”
I hate them. I hate always having to rinse my mouth out because after each vomit the eggs get stuck in every crevice, between teeth, pouched into the corners of cheek. I rinse and spit, rinse and spit, and lie awake still at night with my tongue busy in my mouth, probing. I’m afraid to go to sleep in case one of the little eggs is still in there and it hatches.
I’m afraid I’ll swallow what hatches. I’m afraid I won’t swallow it, that I’ll choke in my sleep.
I knew a girl who swallowed bleach once. I won’t do the same, though watered-down it might not do much harm — not if I only used it to rinse? I just want to make sure that they’re dead.
Gran takes the bleach bottle away. She gives me another bottle instead. “Whiskey will do just as well,” she says.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to drink when you were pregnant.”
“Don’t swallow, then,” she says, indifferent. “Just spit. No harm you can do anyway.” She strokes my tear-stained, spit-stained face, my sour mouth. “Harm’s already done.”
I’m good for so long. Two weeks, nearly.
Just one little swallow won’t hurt.
One is more and more, the taste gets better, gets good, I feel warm and confident, until I wake up one morning with a hangover like my head’s been split, but instead of my own bed and curtains to block out the sun the sun’s just hanging there, overhead, and I’m flat on my back in a bald.
No, not a bald. A holler fill, the top of mountain cut off for mining, and the rock dumped into valley. I don’t know how I got here. There’s a family history of sleepwalking, I know that much, but I’ve always stayed in my bed like I were nailed there.
My feet are bare, all scratched up and covered in dirt. It’s all over me, like I’ve rolled in it, like I’ve buried something, and my mouth is full of earth. I spit it out, clawing at my tongue, and there in the spit-up chunks they are again: eggs.
“I need to see a doctor,” I say when I get home, but Gran just shakes her head. There’s no money for that, and if there was she wouldn’t waste it, not on a baby that won’t live. The school nurse thinks I’m looking for attention. She says I brought it on myself.
The boy I was having sex with says it isn’t his.
No-one will help so I just stop asking.
• • •
I’m not the only one.
She’s younger even than me. Twelve years old, is Gracie, and the small swell of belly is barely noticeable but then I’m looking for it.
Her eyes are bruised. I don’t know if it’s sleeplessness or a response to her condition and don’t ask. Her grandmother and mine leave us alone together.
“It’s rude to stare,” she says.
“At least it’s my face you’re staring at,” she says, and her voice is a hard little shell of indifference, covering. “My dad.”
Understandable. Sixteen’s bad but normal enough. Twelve is worse. Unless it was her dad who … but she sees that question in my face and shakes her head. “I doubt he could get it up anyway,” she says, calculatedly crude. “The mines have done for his lungs. He can’t do anything now without coughing himself half to death.” Except slap his daughter about, apparently, but then she kind of deserves it. Twelve, Jesus.
Except that thought, bitchy-unkind and reminiscent of nurse as it is, withers and dies when Gracie turns her little face up to me and asks if I fucked my way into blessed state or if it just happened, like it did with her.
“Don’t tell me you’re a virgin.”
She isn’t. She admits it. There was a boy, home from college — one of the few that ever left for there — and it was the week after her twelfth birthday. That was five months ago, and she’s only three months gone.
“It only happened the once,” she says. “He had to go back to school so we didn’t do it again.”
I wish I could say she looked old for her age but she don’t. “Told him I was sixteen,” she says, and more fool him for believing it but what’s done is done. Or isn’t, because even I can see those numbers don’t add up.
“I had someone,” I tell her. “It was more than once. Lots more. It’s got to be his.”
“Got a special kind of dick to make you puke up insect eggs, does he?” she says, and it doesn’t take fingers down my throat this time, because I never knew it was insects. I puke on the floor between us, great stringy heaves of saliva and egg, and Gracie looks on, dispassionate.
“See,” she says. “Eggs.”
I think they’re even squirming.
Gran sighs when she comes back in, seeing the vomit all over the floor. The woman with her shakes her head. “I don’t recall you ever being this overwrought,” she says, and Gran just sighs again.
“Kids today,” she says, and goes for a bucket.
• • •
It’s not that dirt tastes good. It’s that you’ve got to dig through so much of it to get to tree roots, and then unless there’s water handy those tree roots are covered with it too. We brush off the clots, Gracie and I, but they’re all so smeared still. We bring water bottles in backpacks to clean the roots off before chewing down, but it’s never enough to get rid of the taste of dirt completely.
“I’d rather eat dirt than not eat tree roots,” says Gracie, though she can’t help make faces. She’s not the only one. It’s more suck than chew, hard as they are, and between us we’ve pulled more than one splinter from our gums and lips. It doesn’t stop us going back for more, but each time we go deeper in the woods because there’s talk now, and worse than there was.
Not much worse. It’s not like olden days where we’d be sent away or anything, and there’s enough girls around my age with bellies of their own that most of the talk isn’t about me. But Gracie’s so young, still, and my hanging round her … maybe there’s some folks think I’m being kind, taking her under my wing when her dad’s so clearly incapable, but there’s as many see me as the bad influence. Never mind she got herself knocked up before we even met. Or got knocked up by something.
I still don’t know if I believe her.
But there’s the eggs, and the tree roots, and none of this is normal. And there’s our grandmothers, too, plotting together and they used to hang witches, I’m sure I read about it in school, or squash them flat with stones or something.
“They’re not witches, are they?” says Gracie, sounding young as she is for once. I wish they were, kind of. It might explain things some.
“Maybe we’re the witches,” she says. That might explain things as well, but I don’t feel any too magical lately. And if this is power, this small thing pouching out in abdomen, I don’t think I want it.
“If we’re witches,” says Gracie, “does it mean we’re allowed to do bad things and not feel guilty about them?”
“What kind of bad thing you planning on doing?” I ask her, and she goes all tucked in on herself and quiet, dirt under her fingernails and around her mouth and root fiber caught between her teeth. She looks like a wild animal.
”Nothing,” she says, and turns her face away.
• • •
Witches is as good an explanation as any.
“Maybe not,” says Gracie, and she sounds older than they do. Looks it, too, with the circles round her eyes as dark as they are, and so persistent they can only come from lack of sleep. This is not to say she’s escaped from bruising. They’re all over her arms, and there’s no amount of long sleeves can hide them when we’re in the woods and digging for roots.
“They don’t hurt,” she says.
She just shrugs.
I’ve heard her gran talking to mine. “It’s drink and out of work,” she says, his body going to pieces around him, the cough that’s not let up for years. “I told her not to take up with him,” she says, of the daughter that’s on a street corner somewhere, and given up on mothering. “Still,” and this time she’s talking about grandchild instead of child, “it’s not as if he can beat it out of her.”
There’s nothing can be done to stop him so she doesn’t try. No-one tries, except Gracie, and I only know that because of what falls out of her backpack when she goes for her water bottle, face smeared with dirt as it is.
The dolly’s nothing I’d give any kid, even mine, not if I didn’t want their head full of nightmares. It’s got coal dust smeared all round its mouth for one, and coal chips stuffed behind the tiny teeth for choking. That’s how I recognize him. The arms end early, hacked off blunt at the wrists. And the stitching there’s better than the shirt, which is tacked together with rags that have an old sweat smell.
“I didn’t want him dead, exactly,” she says. Just unable. Which brings home more than anything just how young she is, because if Gracie don’t realize she can be clouted just as easily by a forearm doing what a backhander could, then her imagination’s worse than her truth-telling. There’s pins stuck everywhere in the dolly, scorching marks, and a dampness come from drowning, or attempts of.
Given the new colors laid over the old on her own arms, there’s nothing about the dolly that’s capable.
“I don’t think we’re witches,” she says, doleful. “I tried lots and nothing worked. If we’re witches it should work.”
It’s a pathetic thing, that dolly, but folks look down on pathetic things here. I should know. And if I can recognize who this is supposed to be, so will they. And it’s not like anyone’s sided with Gracie before.
I make her bury it. I’d do it myself, but I don’t want to touch it at all.
“I suppose it was too much to expect,” she says, and she’s not wrong, because the next time I see her, the bruising under her eyes doesn’t come from wakefulness.
• • •
I don’t know whether to be sorry or not.
There’s a girl in my class, in the same family way, and it lights up her face when she feels the same movement. “It’s like butterflies,” she says, as if this is some magic thing that’s happening to her, instead of the expected event it is for the rest of us. Then again, her boyfriend’s stood by her and mine pretends not to see me in hallways.
“What do you want me to do about it?” says Gran, but I can tell she’s at least a little bit proud I haven’t collapsed in a watery heap for her to deal with, courtesy of someone who’s not worth it. It’s not as if the thing inside bothers to kick when I pass him on the way to class. You’d think there’d be something, some moment of recognition like in the stories, some stupid connection, but it doesn’t come and he just walks on and so do I.
The fluttering is worst at night. It presses up from the inside — quick, light touches, and too many of them. Perhaps the thing’s deformed. Perhaps that’s why it won’t live. You’re supposed to love your kid when you see it, but when I think of the way mothers in my family treat their kids I press down on all that pulsing and tell it not to push its luck.
There’s a moment, one night, which feels like escape. There’s something coming out, an itchy scratching between legs and it doesn’t hurt, exactly, but I wonder if this is it, if it’s over. I’d like it to be, so I don’t call Gran and I don’t ring for a doctor we couldn’t pay for anyway. I just lie there and pray, if failed witches pray, and if anyone listens when they do.
I don’t pray for it to live, but of course the bloody thing does. There’s fluttering still, that same press of movement, and when I reach between my legs and up inside myself the things I pull out are dry and fragile.
They’re wings. Just one at first, but the scraping feeling keeps going so I keep going too, probing and stuffing in more fingers than I’d like, trying to scratch out what’s in there and there’s a dozen in the end, a dozen little wings, which is only comforting because if it weren’t an even number I’d have thought I’d missed one and it would be crammed up there still, waiting to send me to toxic shock.
In the end I empty out my pencil case and hide the wings in there. It’s no use showing Gran. I already know what she’d say. What do you want me to do about it? That’s what she’d say, indifferent to wings as she was with eggs.
Gracie is less indifferent, when we meet in the woods at our usual place with mounds of dirt around us, and me holding up little wings like our lives have lost all sense.
Grace doesn’t say What do you want me to do about it? She just reaches out and traces the edge of one, rubs it between her fingers. “It’s scratchy,” she says. “It feels scratchy.” There’s a long time where she just fingers it and doesn’t say anything, and then she takes off her skirt and lays it on the ground. Takes off what’s underneath, too, and spreads her legs. “I can’t,” she says, and puts her little hands over her eyes. “Do I have them too?” she says, and it’s not like I want to look but there’s no-one else going to do it, and we have water bottles so I can wash my hands at least.
I’ll still be scrubbing with lye when I get home. From the look on her face Gracie will be too, though it won’t be her fingers she’ll be scrubbing, not after all the wings I pulled out of her.
• • •
She doesn’t go to school. She doesn’t answer the door when I go to her house to knock, though I only go the once. There’s not even any curtain-twitching. I don’t see her in the woods. The only thing that tells me she’s as fine as she can be is that her grandmother keeps coming to mine, and they keep drinking and watching their soaps and cackling, expecting me to clean up after them. Surely if her grandchild were dead, or had birthed whatever the hell is growing inside us, the old bitch would at least say something.
I hate the pair of them. No wonder my mother left. No wonder Gracie’s mother did. You’ll love the second one, Gran said, but if I’m the second and Gracie’s the second there’s no-one fucking loving us.
If they think I’m ever having another kid after this they’re crazy.
It’s what I tell myself, anyway. Late at night, little dried wings settling under my hips, I know it’s a lie. I don’t have any skills. I’m not going to college. There’s no jobs round here anyway, and where else could I go? Women in my family always leave, but they always come back. In the end, there’s nowhere else for them to live but under trees, and between mines.
So I’ll be here, my belly gone flat like it used to be. Tits a little bigger. And someday there’s going to be another boy. Maybe even the old one, if I get lonely enough and drunk enough to forget all that looking away. Whoever it is, I’ll let him fuck me, because if I can’t have anything else I’ll have that at least.
I know what my future is.
• • •
“Here,” says Gracie, shoving a parcel at me. It’s wrapped badly, but it’s still wrapped which makes it a present, and therefore a step up from the rest of the day, because she’s in the same boat so it might be something for me instead of a shower gift meant for baby.
It’s a library book.
“I stole it,” says Gracie. “Sort of. You’ll have to take it back.” Which makes it not much of a present at all but then I didn’t get her anything either. When I tell her so she just shrugs. “Other people did,” she says, and I can tell from the twist of her mouth that other people got her what they got me. Handouts and baby stuff. Gran says I can always sell it, but it’s second-hand most of it and not worth much. “Keep it for the next one, then,” she says, weaving on her feet. “What the hell do I care?” she says, belching, her breath rank with rot and rye.
But Gracie’s still staring at me, expectant, so I let the wrapping paper drop and pretend thanks I don’t feel, though I don’t pretend it very well. It’ll be no problem to return it. “I’m not much of a reader.”
“Me neither,” she says. “But then I started dropping bits and insect parts — not to mention the fucking eggs,” and I wish she wouldn’t say it because it makes my gorge rise, still. “Aren’t you even the least bit curious?” she says. “We both know there’s no baby in either of us. It’s got to be something else.”
The book is a field guide to insects. An old one, and from the card in the back it’s been taken out half a dozen times in fifty years. Somehow I don’t think the library will miss it. Honestly, I’d rather bury it where the dolly went, because after flicking through the pages it’s a whole lot of leggy, creeping awfulness. Gracie snatches the book back when she sees me staring, disgusted, at the cockroaches.
“I suppose at least it’s not that,” she says, flicking the book so it falls open in place, like it’s been bent that way before and the back is broken. Cicadas, even periodical ones, aren’t much better than cockroaches, but when I turn to tell her this she’s got one hand down her knickers and a searching expression on her face.
“Fucking must you?” I say, disgusted all over again but at least it’s her fingers not mine this time. But when she lays that moist little wing flat on the page, even I can see it’s a match.
“They live underground, and swarm in cycles,” she reads, grimacing. “Come out every thirteen years — or every seventeen.”
• • •
“They could have told us,” says Gracie, but those dates in the back of the library book say that no-one told them either. I don’t know what’s worse — that they didn’t think we deserved better than what they got, or that it’s all not over yet. But Gran’s been telling me all along: it’s the second kid I’ll get to keep. And if that seventeen-year cycle is set to keep, there’s a baby going to come along real quick after this pregnancy’s over with.
“Not for me,” says Gracie. “Not ever me. I don’t care if I have to douche with bleach every day for the rest of my life.”
The insect book is good for something after all. When the cicadas come up from under, when they burst out into daylight, it’s for weeks of mating and that sets the cycle going again, sends them back to the dark ground for another thirteen years, another seventeen.
All the fluttering makes sense now. I’ve held cicadas in my palm before, felt the vibration, the way their wings crackle and their bodies split open and leave old skins behind. An aging thing, the end result of growth. “Once these things are out, you just keep your legs shut,” I say. “Just to be safe.”
It doesn’t work like that. Spring comes and the cicadas come, thousands of them, millions, out of soil and out of us, and Gracie and I birth them out in the woods late one night, under the dark and looming trees we’d spent so long sucking on. We stumble home scratched and scoured out and empty. For a week I do nothing but sleep, and then I wake up wanting.
“The baby died,” I tell the boy who said it wasn’t his. I tell him in the hallway, and he looks at me this time but only for a minute. He feels sorry for me, I know. I tell him I don’t want sorry, I want to forget, and that’s all it takes. He’s willing enough to look again then.
I come home after, through streets covered with dead cicadas, to see Gracie on my bed, knees tucked up to her. “I should have said no,” she said. “I was going to say no. I don’t know why I didn’t.”
She’s staying with me. She has to, until our mothers come home. There’s no-one to look after us now. Gracie’s father smothered in his bed, lungs full of coal dust and something else, something fluttering. And her Gran went the same as mine, coughing one night till she choked. I heard her doing it. I saw the small empty skins on the floor. Good riddance to them. If we had to swallow it down, so did they. The children we sent out into the world came home in the end, like all children do, and brought with them the ill we wanted. It seems there’s a little bit of maternal loyalty left in the world, recompense for nine months of bullshit.
Perhaps we’re witches after all.
Gracie’s hand is on her stomach. “Do you think that they’ll love them?” she asks, of the mothers returning and daughters to come. “Do you think we should tell them they do?” She doesn’t say anything of her own love, because we both know that neither of us has any left for the things that come out of us.
“We’d be telling them a lie,” I say. But it’s a lie they’ll need, when I can’t stand this place any longer, can’t stand the cries and cradle days, the trees and the dark earth, and head off to the city myself. This kid will need a grandmother then, and they’ll need the lies that come with.
“I can live with that,” says Gracie, and she sprawls next to me on the bed, her body, bruises clearing, as flat as her voice. One small hand tucks into mine, and it strikes me that we’re luckier than most, that our cycles matched up, and that won’t happen again for generations. “Can I come with you, when you leave?” she says.
© 2020 Octavia Cade, all rights reserved