Then I shivered, felt it through my whole body, a shiver so deep whatever warmth I'd had beneath the quilts disappeared entirely, and I knew my sleep was over, that day and all the days left to me until this next child was born now begun. I let out a deep breath, too, saw the cloud it made in the room, and in that breath I saw what I'd known all along, known all the days until this one when I'd been thinking maybe, just maybe I was going to have another child: it was me, too, that age was weighing down on hard.
I sat up in bed, put my feet on the cold pine floor, my back to Leston. I stood, called out, "Boys," heard Wilman and Burton holler, "Yes ma'am!" The floor above us filled up with the scrabbling of two boys trying to get their clothes on, then the rattle of them both on the stairs.
I was on my way to the door and breakfast when Leston, behind me and still on the bed, said, "Jewel Hilburn, you take care."
I turned to him, my hand already on the doorknob. He'd gotten the smile back, his eyes the same deepwater green I'd known for what felt all my life.
I said, "You know I will," and held my eyes on him.
He said, "That I do," and nodded, and then I was out the door and on into the kitchen.
I'd taken care of myself most all my days, though things had eased up once I met Leston. Before that, though, before Leston and the stop and start of our having children and trying to feed our own selves, there was a world sometimes I would like to sooner forget than think about at all. But it's history that matters, what keeps you together in the tight ball of nerves and flesh you are and makes you you and not someone else.
I was an orphan at age eleven, my mother dead of a fever, my father not two months before she passed on having broke his neck on a log just under the water at the bend in the Black River, the bend nearest town where the post oak lay low to the water, and where, in spring, light through the leaves breaks across the river so that nothing can be seen beneath. He broke his neck right then, right there, with the quick and simple dare of diving into water, and when I was a little girl of eleven with both my mother and father gone, and me living suddenly with a grandmother I'd only met three times before, I used to imagine it wasn't a fever that killed my mother, but a broken heart at the death of her beloved.
But the truth was he'd moved into a logging shack a year before he'd broke his neck, and only showed up to our house at twilight on Saturday nights to have at my mother, then to attend church the next morning, his black hair slicked back and shiny with pomade. It was the thick and sweet smell of his hair that woke me up Sunday mornings, me staying up just as late as the two of them the night before, listening through the walls to the mystery they tended to each Saturday night, sounds I'd hear again only when Leston and I were together, so that on our wedding night twelve years later the low moan he made and the pitch and twirl of sounds I heard coming from me were like the ghosts of my long dead parents, sounds I knew but had forgotten in the cloud of years filled with taking care of me and me alone.
Sunday mornings we would go to church, where we'd sit in the pew, me between my momma and daddy, their only child. I'd had a brother, who only now comes to me as part shadow, pail light, a baby born when I was three and who died when I was four, and there are times before I go to bed when I will stop in at Burton and Wilman's room, sometimes even James', though he has fast become a man and lost the look of a child, and I will see in their faces the faintest trace of my brother, the thin baby line of an eyebrow I believe may have belonged to him, the open mouth and pale lips soft with air in and out which perhaps I am remembering, perhaps imagining. No real memories do I have of him, except for the idea somewhere of my daddy holding Joseph Jr. on one knee and playing buggety-buggety, and the picture in my head of a baby asleep. But that's all I remember of my brother, and even calling that a memory is giving the image in my head more credit than is due.
Copyright © 1991 by Bret Lott
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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