ELEPHANTS PACED RESTLESSLY, their immense feet beating slow syncopations. Monkeys gossiped nervously of fearful and forbidden places. Chameleons flicked their quick tongues and tasted the August air. An unblinking boa curled round the single rock that graced its cage; the tiger mother bared her teeth and readied her claws.
Out on Millstone Road, up in Lester and Helen Breck's barn, daughter Melinda howled in surprise, then roared in rage. Pain had taken her past exhaustion to a point of pure compelling necessity. Angry at the wrenching labor, this betrayal of nature, she took a great gulp of air and finally expelled her squalling daughter. Rough hands guided the infant upwards to her mother's belly; placed her by the breast. The anonymous babe turned her lips, seeking the nipple, and laid claim to her first meal.
Around the corner and down the road, the Wild Animal Caravan of the Hoosier Midways Carnival, mysteriously persuaded that the worst of some invisible storm was now over, finally settled down to sleep at the Heaven, Indiana 4-H and Fair Grounds.
There was a distracted air about this new mother. She was the farmer's daughter immortalized in bad jokes about traveling salesmen. Her own bad joke had passed through a little over eight months earlier, leaving samples all over central Indiana. One grew in the belly of Melinda-not a bright girl, but a pleasant and obedient one. She'd been instructed by her father to make up the extra bed for the Fuller Brush Man. "I'd like the gentleman to feel at home," he'd said.
The peddler knew an opportunity when he saw one. "You know what would make me feel most at home?" he asked the innocent Melinda. "I've got a pretty little wife there, and she keeps me warm at night. If you really want to make me feel at home, you could come back later, after your folks is asleep, and cuddle up here with me for a bit, so's I'm not so lonesome."
Melinda enjoyed this seduction. It was so different doing it in a bed. The brush man was a far more accomplished lover than Cedrick Burney, her classmate across the border of the back forty. She didn't think to consider what might happen next.
By the time Melinda's surprised roar pushed her infant into the Midwest world, she'd been sequestered for fully four months-kept in the barn by her mother, who told friends and neighbors that Melinda had gone to Iowa to help her ailing great aunt. Seventeen weeks in the barn had changed the farmer's daughter. She'd grown more and more to trust the ways of cows and pigs, less and less to expect anything of mothers.
It was her father who tended the birth.
Helen Breck did come out to take a look at the newborn, and found her worst fears confirmed. So when Lester came to tell her that Melinda had developed a fierce fever in the pre-dawn hours of her second day postpartum, Helen did what had to be done. A woman no longer given to tears, having long ago learned that they got her nothing but more grief, she was determined not to cry. She wrapped the infant in a clean piece of flannel, put it in a picnic basket and put the basket in the Kaiser. "Bring Melinda in the house," she told Lester, "and give her as much hot chamomile tea as she can take. I'll be back in a bit." And she drove off to town.
Lester was afraid to ask his wife where she was intending to go. These past many months he'd felt unable to ask her about anything she was planning, and had preferred, instead, to wait and see. The tortured determination on Helen's face the day she sent Melinda to the barn had chilled him, made him fearful of something he couldn't name. The keen intelligence and wry wit he loved in her gave way to humorless hypervigilance. Now she carried herself coiled, ready to spring, and it kept him in a state of constant, unfamiliar anxiety.
Copyright Jan Maher 2000. All rights reservered
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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