Tugging the belt snug on her robe, Auntie spoke and as she did the white hairs on her chin glistened in the dresser lamp's light: "They prayed for years to forget the past until they no longer believed God listened. Then one day the youngest child in the village awoke to find a perfectly round egg in his crib. Word spread of this marvel. Within hours, the villagers forgot everythingnot only their grief, but the curves of their beloved's face, their children's names. They stumbled through the streets, meeting neighbors, childhood friends, their very own father or mother, as if meeting that person for the first time. Their only memory was of the babe finding the oddly shaped egg. 'Don't hurt the child,' a big fat shiny black crow squawked."
Auntie bent her arms like wings and flapped them. We both smiled in pleasure. Auntie loved telling the story and the way she spoke I loved to listen. When Auntie came to America as a little girl, her grammar school trained the Ukrainian accent out of her, a different kind of forgetting. But if you listened carefully you could still hear the sounds of her first language lilting her words.
Auntie dropped her arms and continued: "But as soon as the snows melted, the healthiest of the young men carried the tot to a mountain crag. There, they left him to die and by the following dawn marauders conquered the village, slaying every person, young or old. Now only the story of what happened to the town remains."
Auntie touched one of the colorful wooden icons on her dresser top and made the sign of the cross backwards. Auntie was Great-uncle's wife and we loved her, but she wasn't raised Catholic. Daddy said that wasn't her fault because the place she was born was so horrible even God left it. But Auntie said her hometown in the Ukraine was a Garden of Eden until an iron curtain closed around it, making it impossible to go back. "They say home is where the heart is," Auntie often said. "That means I'll never see my heart again."
While Auntie rummaged in her top drawer for the heavy woolens she wore under her housedress, I charged out from the covers, reaching for my red woolen coat on the chair. Slipping into it, I waited for the magic of its heat as I stood by the window watching the early morning twilight give way to dawn. In the distance, hovering above the fields, was a mist that I imagined was the ghost of the family curse coming to get us, even though I knew the mist was caused by the fire burning beneath the ground. Thinking of ghosts made me think again of the Holy Ghost with its tongues of flame and I quivered with excitement at the thought that something important might happen that day.
Once the chill was off my skin, I crossed the hall to Brother's room. Brother's little body nestled cocoonlike under Auntie's brown and lime green granny-square afghan. With his back to the wall, his pink mouth sucking the cold air, Brother's slender Ma face had a kind of sweetness to it that only little kids get.
"Come on," I said, kicking at the mattress. "Take off your pajamas and put on clean underwear. Then put on your clothes." If you didn't tell him exactly what to do, it was your own fault when he screwed it up. We'd all learned that lesson.
I handed him fresh clothes, then shuffled to the opposite end of the hall to peer into Ma and Daddy's room. Ma and Daddy slept with their backs to each other, aimed for escape, exactly the way all Howleys sleep. This, I thought, was Auntie's magic. Before we moved in with her, Ma and Daddy never slept together. But as soon as Auntie invited us to move in, she started brewing a remedy to sneak into Ma's and Daddy's morning coffee. Within weeks they started not only sleeping together, but eating together too.
Head cocked, I listened until I was certain I heard Ma's breezy sighs in between Daddy's rasps. Then I rushed down the hall to pound on Brother's door. "It's Saturday, stupid," I growled. "My favorite day. If you mess with me, I'll let you-know-who into your bedroom tonight."
Copyright © 2014 by Natalie S. Harnett
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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