I collected things.
My grandmother Magdalena said to me, “Elaina Bell, I have no idea what an eight year old girl plans to do with so many buttons.” I just liked them. They were smooth and flat and felt good between my fingers. Sometimes I sat on the bare wood floor of my attic room and surrounded myself by them. I’d line them up in concentric circles, arranging them by color and hue. After spending hours placing them just so, before I could even appreciate them for their preciseness, I would swipe at them with my palm and send them scattering under the bed and into the corners with the lint and dust.
Under a board I pried loose in my closet, I kept a box full of burned down matches. Late at night, the smell of grandmother’s pipe tobacco creeping up the stairs, I would take them out in the dark and chew on their blackened little heads. The taste of the charred wood reminded me of mother. My mother built a fire and put all of my papers there when we moved in with grandma. “He won’t be able to prove anything,” she said, poking at the embers with a stick. Sometimes she lit a match and let it burn for a second. Then she pinched the little flame between her fingers and used the burnt end to blacken the lids of her eyes.
My mother wore silver clips in her hair and she was always losing them. We had to take a trip into town in the neighbor's car to Woolworth’s every few weeks to buy more. She didn’t know that I had exactly forty seven of them. Not a single one had been misplaced all this time. They lined up neatly along a rectangle of cardboard, snapped there sweetly and tucked under the end of my mattress.
My bedframe was made of brass and grandmother gave me a quilt of pink and blue patches when I was born. Nobody knew if I was going to be a boy or a girl. My grandmother wasn’t one for guessing. She just plodded along with the things she knew and didn’t know.
I had fish. I caught them in the trickle of a stream that made up the border between our land and the neighbors'. They were all boys and they lived in a cabin at the foot of the mountain. I watched them from a flat warm rock on our side of the water. The sun shone through the heavy pines and warmed the granite under my bare feet and legs. They were teenagers, most of them, with broad backs and filthy hands. They left finger prints all over everything they touched.
I caught minnows and bluegill. Grandmother barely ever baked anymore. She didn’t notice when her biggest mixing bowl went missing. I kept the fish under my bed, three or four at a time. I didn’t feed them. I didn’t want to. I liked the thought of them with me while I slept. I liked that they had nothing, only me, and I was nothing, too.
Sometimes one of them would grow bold and leap onto the cold floor, dying with the sound of a little wing fluttering in the night. I had a cigar box full of their tiny skeletons. Some of them had dried flesh that clung to their spines like the body of the Pharaoh in the museum in the city. I heard about him on the radio. He was wrapped in bandages and preserved with honey for thousands of years. My fish were honest to goodness mummies; I wrapped them in fabric scraps I ripped from the end of my tattered quilt.
My mother gave birth to a baby boy.
“Impossible,” my grandmother Magdalena said as she labored. “You’ve been here nearly seven months and I’ve never seen you leave the property.” She left though. I knew because she came home with wet hems and sooty fingerprints on her throat.
“He’s too early,” my mother said through clenched teeth. “Do something to stop him from coming.”
She knew as well as anybody that you couldn’t stop a life that wanted to be started, even one that was doomed to end just as soon. My mother buried the baby under the roots of an old tree while my grandmother watched, leaning on the long handle of the shovel. She pressed her open mouth to the wet leaves and mud. No sound came out of her, only the ugly smear of her broken face and black match-stained tears.
"I'll put on some coffee," grandmother said as my mother clawed at the dirt, clutching handfuls of earth and moss to her breast and opening her mouth for the rain. "There's no use in all of us freezing out here with him, poor thing."
I wanted the baby. I wanted a cradle to creak while I slept.
“Shush, girl,” mother said to me when I asked for another brother. “Your brother broke my heart.” She sat in the rocking chair on grandmother’s porch and shook her head, no, no, no. I found her there, each morning, her forehead creased, eyes glassy and far away.
“Good morning, mama,” I said. She petted my hair absentmindedly. I thought that she would find a way to bring him back to us. I figured that she couldn’t tolerate much more of being away from him. And then, one morning, one of the neighbors found her dead in the creek.
“Oh no!” the neighbor boy wailed from the trees. The sun had only just crept over the horizon, sneaking under the curtains, a hue of electric green. I sat up in bed and ran to the window. “Oh no,” he cried. “Oh no, no, no!”
He carried her like she was a child. Her wet and matted hair left a dark mark on his shoulder. My grandmother looked at him with her hard, cold eyes, the legs of his pants torn and reaching the whole way to his knees. I wondered if he would have outgrown my mother, too.
None of his clothes fit him. He worked with an axe, keeping his family in firewood. He was closer to my age than my mother’s, but he didn’t fit into any of his boy’s clothing. I wondered if he loved her, the way he was carrying on, crying and kissing her blue lips. I wondered if he would miss her when she was buried.
I wondered too about the baby out in the heather. Would he have eyes, still? Were his bones brittle like my fish?
“Let it go, Elaina,” my grandmother said. “You make me ill with all of your wondering. Sometime you will see that you have to let things go.”
I didn't, though. I had a little metal spade that I kept in the blackberry bushes.
photo by asmund heimark
For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week, Sir challenged me with: Write about performing an intervention on yourself regarding some part of your personality that you think needs work. and I challenged Shiv with: I had to look really far down, deep down under everything.