The storm started coming through just then, the line pop popping with electricity, my mind wandering and thinking about sparks coming up through the holes in the receiver.
“Mama, I got to go. The connection’s bad. You’re breaking up.”
Only this time I wasn’t lying when I said that.
The storm came and took the power with it. I had filled up the tub with water already. We didn’t have much food in the fridge to start, but I packed what I could on what was left of the ice. Nothing would last in this heat anyhow.
Shelby thinks it’s all a game and I do a good job of not convincing her otherwise. We play pretend outside all morning, because I figure it’s more natural to be sweating out of doors than to be soaking through our skivvies in the house. I let her run around the yard with no shirt, even though I know she’s getting too old for that.
From time to time, Mother says Shelby will pay me back for all I’ve done. She will be one wild heathen of a teenager too. I don’t say so, but I think no such thing. Shelby is smart in all the ways I am not. She will make better for herself. She will not be like me. And for that I am glad.
This afternoon, when the sun dipped down, she and I came out back to dig around in the wet dirt, pulling weeds out of my someday-flowerbeds. I don’t know what the protocol is on this kind of thing, or what the ideal weather is for yard work, but what I do know is the green strings come out easy this way, after a storm, just like plucking my eyebrows after a shower.
Next to me, Shelby holds up one earthworm after another for me to see, all of them washed up with the deluge, whipping themselves wiggly-confused from her fingers.
My child takes care of living creatures. Always has. When she was smaller, her daddy used to take her scouting for animals at night. We’d all hop in the truck and take the big flashlight, scanning the woods for their eyes, seeing how they reflected like mirrors when you shine on them. A green pair meant a deer; yellow dots were for coons. Once we went to the pond and saw pairs of red eyes glowing back, peeking from just above the water—gators they were—and Shelby started crying at their plain meanness.
I tease her just now and say that worm would make some good bait. “Where’s my fishing pole? Let’s go catch something.”
“No mama!” She squeals. “This isn’t a fishing kind of worm.”
“Well, what kind of worm you think it is?”
She sits and I can tell she’s thinking real hard. “It’s a breeding worm. We should keep it to make more worms and then we’ll have a worm farm all to ourselves for all the fishing we want.”
My ex-husband was good for breeding, even if he was good at leaving too. Suit yourself, I told him. Don’t come around here again. I was fine either way, to tell you the truth. I hadn’t given him too many reasons to stay. I only loved him because he gave me Shelby, which is all I really wanted to begin with.
It’s a wonder Shel is as pretty as she is. Robbie wasn’t a good-looking man, nothing handsome about him. His feet, I swear, they were tough as hide, made me cringe when he would wrap his legs around mine in the bed. But he was nice to dogs and I thought he might be nice to children and he was. He was good with Shelby, even when she was a baby. He didn’t ask me many questions, which was fine with me, because I didn’t have many answers.
I know Shelby misses him fiercely. I’m sorry I don’t feel the same.
“Shel, what do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m making my worm a home.”
“In my good china?”
“It’s the only kind of bowl we never use.”
I didn’t argue because I knew it was true.
A dandelion, some dirt, a leaf—a nice home for a bottom feeder. Holding the thing in her palm, all curved and exposed, it leaves a trail of dirt along her hand. Shelby has my hands, I think. Otherwise, my babies do not look like me. The both of them, the spitting image of their fathers. See already my traits do not carry. They do not take after me.
When I got pregnant in high school, they sent me away to have the baby. Nowadays, girls just go away for hours, but then, we were the girls who went away for months, months taken to give away our babies. The home for girls where they sent me was a big old house in Charleston, and we all slept in one room, like some hospital ward in an old war movie. At night there were moans from the heat and humidity, from swollen bellies and ankles. Someone was always sniffling in the dark.
Things weighed on my mind all the time, with the baby pressing in on me, me worrying I gave her a bad start, by making her weak in nervous backseat love. The boy who did it, he was not even a boy really. After it was all said and done, I heard he got someone else—as they say—in trouble. He married her straight off six months later.
I would lie still in my bed and try to think good thoughts to send the baby. I was worried she would know she was not wanted and I wanted her to know that someone wanted her. I prayed and prayed she would get a good place to grow and set down roots, where they don’t have to clip coupons or add water to the soup or use too much lettuce in the salad.
Of course that was then, and now is now, and things have changed. The cicadas have kicked it up a notch, keeping with the temperature, their motors running like loud little engines. Shelby looks to be wilting out here in the sun, so I splash her with water from a puddle, and she dances around me. We move and dance in the mud and the hair on our heads turns to slinky ropes and we twirl and it flings and hits our faces.
My firstborn, I only saw her face once, and not even after I birthed her. Thinking back, I don’t remember much about the pain during, only the pain after. The pain of giving birth didn’t amount to what was next. Even the clean, bright hospital lets you scream and scream at the hurt—at first anyway. After, they want hushes and deep breaths, for you to swallow and fake yourself strong.
I felt her in me, the baby, my baby and then she was out, in a nurse’s arms. Would that they had let me hold her, but reaching out my hands, the nurse moved away, too far away and she was wrapping her up and moving toward the door. There was talking all around me, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I was deaf to all but her crying and crying. Crying is good, the home told us. The cries after birth tell us they are alive, they are fighters, they are here and they are letting us know.
The door shut and I was left with nurses. I cried for her, but no one listened.
I do not know how long I slept or if it was true sleep, but it felt long and heavy. When I woke up, with a dry mouth and a wet pillow, I was alone, and I ached to numbness. On the table by my head was the room phone, and I picked it up to call Mother.
“Mama, they just took her. She’s gone already,” I sobbed.
She spoke softly, slowly. “Now, Dede, honey. Please. This is what we decided.”
“No!” I yelled. “Not this way. They didn’t let me hold her. I have to see her before they take her.”
I don’t know what Mother did to make it happen, but I can just imagine her screaming at someone, saying she was going to see her grandbaby somehow, some way. The papers are already signed, they would say. It’s standard procedure, ma’am. Less attachment lessens the grieving process, you know.
Mother would say she didn’t give a damn.
Three days later, they sent me home from the hospital. Two weeks after that, Mother and I drove to the county office off Greystone Boulevard, to a white room with black linoleum. When they brought in the baby, my baby, well, I cried until I couldn’t cry any more. I didn’t know if I was allowed to touch her, but I hugged and kissed her plenty. Mother took one picture, a photo she kept. I didn’t need a photo to remember her face.
Sometimes, I think I see her in Shel’s mouth, especially when she is sleeping. This evening, I let Shel curl up on our company couch, or what would be, if I had the kind of furniture fit for company. We will sleep in the living room where I have opened all the windows wide to let the night air blow down on us. I brush back Shelby’s baby curls, drying now just to get soaked in sweat.
Mother would look over at me, that day, on the car ride home, but I pretended not to notice. We didn’t speak the entire drive, and our silences since have measured longer than the stretch of springs in our phone cords.
After I went away, I never really went back home. Didn’t see the need, seeing as how I was broken, sixteen-going-on-something, worn in too old already. I found work and I found Robbie and I found this place, all out in the woods, where the only sounds are birds and bugs. Tonight, I am grateful for summer storms and the dark and disconnected phone lines.
It’s just me and Shelby and her latest pet, sitting in my china bowl, setting on the end table. I thumb around in the soil for the worm and pick her up, but she does not contract in my hand. She lies limp in my palm, and even when I poke her, it’s all mushed flesh. I realize that Shel gave her water before bed and this drowning may have been her demise, if it wasn’t for all that touch.
I stand with purpose, and getting the flashlight, I go outside. I step barefoot in the soil, soaked like a sponge, with nothing but bullfrogs and crickets to greet me. Collapsing on my knees in the beds to be made, I claw at the dirt.
If I were to stop this mission for a moment, and you were to shine a light through that stand of trees, seeing my eyes glowing back, you might think you had seen some mad haint of a woman, out here digging, nails full of grime, feeling around for just one nightcrawler.
She won’t have to know the difference.
And I won’t tell her, even if, in her bones of my bones, she already knows.