When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a woman, I put away childish things.
1 Corinthians 13:11
The city holds her captives fugitive. The winter is impossibly cold with a virulent wind coming off of the lake. The concrete freezes over, the streetcars are constantly derailed by water from the snowmelt, everything is gray and damp. Even the snow isn’t white; it’s dirty, trampled by feet, stained by exhaust fumes. In the valley children on toboggans are intrepid mountaineers, making the summit again and again, throwing themselves over the hill giggling and wet in their primary- colored snowsuits; misplaced starfish, exotic with their red cheeks and noses, feral eyes glittering.
Love and her sister used to be like these children. They’d sled down a path cut through the trees on the west side of the bay, a place where the land sloped down to meet the water. Cold hands and the memory of scents-the smell of damp wool, lanolin and sheep, raw cedar smell of new toboggans that Papa made, plane by plane. They played in the sawdust and watched the assembly of something so fine.
It had been a Saturday, so Meemaw hadn’t asked for their help with the chickens or the cows, she had driven them into town, sitting in the back of the truck with their toboggans. Eleven, both, in their flannels and wool. There were other children sledding at the hill, older boys mostly, but this place was different from the city and Meemaw didn’t think twice about leaving them there. What would they do, in the middle of town; what would they do, anyway?
Meemaw was accustomed to abuse. She was accustomed to being left, being screamed at, not being appreciated, having the dinners she’d cooked growing cold while a man was missing, somewhere, not saying anything when he came back with the unmistakable marine odor clinging to him. Broken hearts were just a fact of life. She didn’t think of the bodies of young girls, naked, their pink t-shirts hastily hidden and blood stained and their ruffled socks missing, concealed in rock piles or suitcases. Meemaw doesn’t think about men in vans “Sweetheart, I’ve lost my puppy, can you help me look for him?” The bad things that happened in Meemaw’s life were quieter than this, factored into the sum total of a life and its experiences.
Cassy hastily abandoned Love. Her twin, her strange and serious counterpart. Her love, her downfall. Cassy was vaguely aware of being embarrassed of her, embarrassed of her connection with her. The boys huddled around her, eagerly. She was crude, loud and racuous. She couldn’t be alone.
Love was used to this. She was used to being alone, it didn’t bother her. The incessant chatter of other people interrupts her own inner dialogue. She couldn’t hear the sound of the trees swaying in the wind over them. She couldn’t hear the water under the creaking ice in the bay, or the sound of a woodpecker, far off, hammering away at a hardwood to get to the grubs concealed, half asleep and cozy within.
So she sledded, alone, trudging up the hill by herself over and over again, with none of the small talk and heartfelt confidences that the other girls shared, whispering to one another behind their mittens, giggling. She didn’t like the sound of giggling; she couldn’t help but find it cruel. Laughter is another matter, but giggling belongs to the realm of cruel children, she was on the outside of a joke, the laughter at her expense.
It took her a few turns down the hill to realize that she hadn’t passed Cassy on the slope, neither going up nor down, and the woods were quiet, no loud dares or shouts or insults of the boys. As she climbed back up the hill, she strayed off the path where she last saw her sister, frowning seriously. She left her sled where she turned off the path. She had to walk about ten minutes into the woods, the sun going down, the snow no longer glittering like somebody has thrown confetti over it in myriad subtle pinks and blues and bright white, silvers and golds, the trees casting their long, bare shadows. Somewhere, she heard an owl. The footprints were messy, the snow trampled, packed and slushy and wet.
Cassy’s lying on her sled with a boy on top of her, Love recognized him from his jacket, camouflage print bulky around his small frame. He was gangly, a young teen. He’d waved at Love on her white horse before, smiling, and she’d shyly waved back. Three other boys were standing about in a circle, jeering and making lewd comments.
“Can’t get it up in the cold, Milburn, or yer balls not dropped yet?”
Love stood frozen, staring for a few moments. She knew what sex was, but this fully clothed approximation, spectators heckling and prodding and bullying, she didn’t quite understand. Finally, she said
because she could hear Meemaw, parked at the bottom of the hill, bawling out in her raspy smoke-ridden voice for them to get their asses into the truck or else they could walk home in the dark.
The boys turned to look at her with loathing, they couldn’t quite change their expressions in time and she sees their hatred. She’s even more an outcast now, interrupting, tattling little child. She could feel their scorn. The Milburn boy moved slowly, reluctantly, and didn’t turn to look. He was fixing his clothing while Cassy slowly stood, and started to pull her sled behind her; such a token of childhood and innocence that seeing her pulling it was obscene even to Love. When they got home, she stowed hers in the shed , unable to touch it again.
The tiny chicks and turkeys and ducklings would come in cardboard boxes in January or February, ordered out of a magazine. They’d keep them in the house until it was warm enough for them to stay outside without freezing to death in a sad huddle of yellow fluff. The woodstove produced an aura of smoky warmth where Love would sit among the boxes of miniature poultry, cheeping and looking at her without suspicion. Their wee eyes sparkled and glinted and she’d hold the chicks against her flat chest, stroking their fluff with one finger.
When the big boys came over to play with her sister, Love stayed with the chicks. Her sister didn’t love the chicks the way she did, didn’t know the beauty of the farm and the island and the water and the trees. She’d bring the boys over to see the chicks and they’d squeeze them too hard, press them with their big rough hands, and put them back in the box, mangled and deflated, their feathers crushed by rough hands, their black eyes closing and beaks opening as they lay down among their brothers and sisters. Love, feeling ill, took them out before the others cannibalized them.
Later, when she has left this life behind, leaving behind the daily abuses of a man who didn’t know he didn’t love her and riding away in an eighteen-wheeler to the city, all she can think about is these chickens. There is a man in her house, in her apartment, in her, in love with her. She longs to be held as a child. And when she closes her eyes and he breathes into her neck and moves beside her, a tear slips down her cheek as she thinks of beautiful cedar sleds left alone in the shed all winter, and yellow chicks in a room that smells of woodsmoke.