A Short Story
The sun hung over plains of emerald grass and swaying flowers, extending until the horizon fell away. Through the endless ocean cut a train of wagons, each packed full with beds, ovens, bureaus, clothes, firewood, guns, and ammunition, but most important, apple pie. Along each wagon walked hollow men and women, boys and girls; their heads hung in exhaustion. Only those blessed with space to spare rode with their belongings. The wanderer’s only consolation was that they faced the setting sun and that they had not yet strayed their course, for the greatest of many fears was to be caught on the open plains when winter came.
There was a hill, distinguishable only by its infringement into the sky, and the travelers watched it roll by, as a large as a wave is to a ship, moving through the grass sea. If one stood at the top of that hill they would watch the train come for a day and the next fade, as just another blade of grass in the sun, leaving only a trail like a scar on the land.
There’s Papa, Mama, Ellie, and I. Mama isn’t my real mama. My mama died. Then Papa met my new mama and sister and we moved out here. It was nice for the first few months. Then it got cold. We were hungry and scared, and Papa would hit and growl and yell. When we had hidden ourselves away for the night, he would sleep with his head on the table.
The boy sat in the tall grass looking up to the sky and cried. He cried from the open blisters on his feet and because Ellie was allowed to ride in the wagon and he was not and because he had been forced to leave his friends, his steamboats, and his home. He wanted to rip the birds from the sky, chase the buffalo from their herds, and raise the earth so that the torture of walking across its sea would not last what seemed a lifetime.
He curled his fingers around two bundles of grass and yanked them free of the earth, yelling and throwing them at one of the wagons as the train passed. No one turned an eye to where the dirt came from. Exhaustion and heat smothered their curiosity. The boy dropped back to the ground. Invisible, arms spread eagled, he stared into the candy blue gulf, and it didn’t matter where they were going, or where they’d been. All that mattered now was that he kept walking.
“Papa, I’m tired. I don’t wanna walk no more.”
“Well you gotta walk, boy. I can’t carry you, and Mama and Ellie have’ta be sitting in the wagon.”
“Isn’t there any room for me to ride? I can’t feel my legs, Papa.”
“I’m sorry, boy, there ain’t no room. You know it and asking more ain’t gonna change it.”
They stopped walking and the man squatted, looking at the boy with swollen eyes. His voice lowered to keep the world from hearing, “I wish there was a spot, I wish there was room for you, my hand to the Lord I do, but I need you to be a man now, boy, and sometimes being a man means hurtin’ so others don’t have’ta. Can you do that? Can you do that for Mama and Ellie?”
“Yes, sir.” said the boy, lowering his head in defeat.
In the spring Mama and Papa told us a little baby was to be born, that it was growing right there in Mama’s belly. Which is interesting cause’ it don’t look like there’s enough room in Mama’s belly for a baby. Ellie and I would press our eyes to her bellybutton to see if it was true, but Mama said she wouldn’t show us the baby ’til it’s born. After asking if we could check again, she started swattin’ at us like those black flies that bite at your ankles. She said, “This little baby thinks you’re dirty and smelly and so do I. Now go wash up for supper.”
I pitied her, her own husband not wanting the child they, together, had created. Why does a man do the things he does? He tries to love one moment, and in the next, push away all those who love him? I think Papa was made of glass. When he felt dull and stained he retreated to Mama to polish him up and make him new again. Once renewed he would push her at arm’s length out of fear that he might be shattered if he was rubbed too clean.
What could Mama do? With no one around for miles, who else could she turn to? And so she took him into her arms time and time again with the same results. When I first met her, the day she married Papa, I remember she shone bright like the Northern Star. Over the years, she began to fade. Only a little at first, her laugh tired, her goodnight kisses hardened and became infrequent. I thought she might return to herself once the baby was born.
Mama’s belly is round now, like a tomato so filled with juices that its skin burst at the seams, that’s how round. She stays in bed most days, not moving much except side to side and every so often, calling Ellie or I to bring water.
Papa said she was real healthy, which is good because then, Little Joe is healthy. Ellie said she thinks the baby is a little boy, so she started calling him Little Joe, which seems weird to me cause it looks like Little Joe ain’t gonna be so little.
Fireflies came out every night. Ellie and I would catch them and watch the light flicker between our fingers, singin,’ “This Little Light of Mine.” One night, when Little Joe was close to being born, Mama sat in the grass holding her belly. Ellie and I chased each other between the tall evergreens. Mama called out to us. We looked at each other, we thought maybe it was Mama’s time. Papa told us what to do, one of us would hold her hand and tell her to breath, while the other would get Papa.
So we ran, parting the prairie grass until we found her. I think she heard us coming cause when we got there she was smiling with her finger to her lips. Fireflies flickered on her belly. She took our hands while we sat down beside her, and I was happy she was my mama.