When Ma was seven years old her heart turned sour. She said it never turned sweet again, but I remember a time, long before the mine fires burned beneath our towns, when Ma's eyes glowed like sunlit honey, when her voice rose and fell as pleasantly as a trickling creek. While Brother was swelling up Ma's belly, or flailing around in the crib, or crawling on the brown linoleum of the trailer over by Mercher's Dump, we were happy. The thing that changed Ma wasn't there. But I remember the moment it arrived. Me and Ma were playing tiddlywinks at the kitchen table. Daddy was still in bed, watching us from his cot in the living room and telling a story about the tiddlywinks queen and princess. Back then I was so young and stupid I thought all daddies slept that way, separate from the rest of us, dozing till noon. Brother scribbled chalk on the kitchen floor, trying his best to make that cruddy linoleum look pretty.
Through the kitchen window came this light, the color of swallowtail or goldfinch wings. I've never seen a light like that again. It felt like it shot through the slats of my ribs, searing me with a kind of happiness maybe all kids feel 'cause they don't know any better. But then deep in Brother's plump little throat formed this squeal of delight. Within seconds he was up, standing all on his own, and charging toward us with his first steps.
Ma turned, spreading her arms, cooing like a mourning dove. But when he fell into her, sobs shot from her mouth like the fire itself had flamed up through the floor and singed the skin from her bones. I lunged from my chair and pulled the baby from her arms, thinking he'd hurt her. Which I guess he did. Because right then her eyes went from liquidy amber to the scratchy dull color of sassafras bark. Her voice ever afterward bobbed with nettles.
Whenever I reminded Ma of this moment, she said her heart forgot it was broken but then remembered. How can you make it forget again? I'd ask. Over and over, I'd ask. But her mouth merely pressed into that tight squiggle that made me think of the worms I dug up for fishing. The worms still lived after you cut a piece of them off. I guess that's how it was for Ma. A piece of her was gone and for a little while she forgot about it.
When I woke that February morning, the morning that changed our lives, the pinkish air pushing in the opened window told of snow. I snuggled closer underneath the covers toward Auntie and pictured the mine fire flaming along the veins of coal beneath our town, veins as numerous and intricate as the blue ones on Auntie's legs. The fire lived by sucking air through the ground and burping up gases through our walls. I sucked in and blew out to see my breath form a cloud, which made me think of the Holy Ghost. A white blob was how I pictured Him, a white blob hovering over the apostles' heads before burning them all with tongues of flame.
Auntie used to say the flames gave the apostles more than the gift of language, the flames gave them understanding. I thought if that was true, perhaps the fire eating the underground mine shafts of Centrereach was trying to tell me somethingto give me its own kind of wisdom. I'm Brigid, named after Saint Brigid, who was named, some say, after the pagan goddess of fire. A saint who made the sores of a leper disappear. Smoothed the cracks in a madman's mind. A healer, like Auntie, though Auntie never allowed anyone to call her a healer. Something healed through her, she said, explaining that she was something like a messenger.
Groaning, Auntie sat up. She reached for a mug of water on the nightstand and with a spoon tapped at the film of ice that had formed during the night.
"Auntie," I asked, "how can you make a heart forget?"
Auntie took a sip from her mug, wincing at the sting of the cold water on her teeth. Slowly she shuffled to the closet where she stretched to unhook the shaggy bathrobe that hung on the door. As she slipped into the robe, a hidden smile tugged at the sides of her mouth. The story of "The Great Forgetting" was one of my favorites and Auntie savored the retelling of a town in the Carpathian Mountains where the people had been pillaged for so many centuries that they knew no joy.
Copyright © 2014 by Natalie S. Harnett
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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
The captivating story of an unconventional New England family.
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