A sparrow began it, one of many that flew into the window, slow to learn the shortest route isn’t always through. El found it in the grass, feet tucked to its body, the whole of which fit in her palm and weighed less than a breath of dust.
She set it in a shoebox with a cloth diaper and waited for it to wake. Davis came in from the garden and sat with her.
“Knocked himself silly,” she said.
“Looks like it.”
Two hours passed. She knew every crack and line on its feet, the shape of its pin feathers, and that its eyes would never open.
“Shovel or trowel?” Davis’s chest moved against her back, his ribs a birdcage.
“Shovel. Too shallow and the cat will bring it in.”
Davis had a fine back; his muscles hid their difference in years. El said his was a kind face, a good face, and only a man who never cared about anything could have a smooth face. He dug, and El wondered if she’d still love Davis if he were a little cruel. She liked his face, even the bristles in his eyebrows, but loved his young man’s back.
She swaddled the sparrow in the diaper. Davis left her to fill the hole. It was tough ground, no place for planting dead. The cat watched from a perch on one of the eaves.
At night, she dreamed of starlings beating their wings against her face until the skin peeled away, and her body cracked like a desert.
In the morning, there was half a pot of coffee left on the stove. Davis would be gone ten hours, and return with marble and granite dust under his fingernails, in the creases beside his mouth and nose. He’d forgotten to put the lid back on the jam jar, and a line of ants crawled in to drown. She lidded the jar, trapping them inside.
El was ripe with sweat and pectin. She went lean during canning, sick from the smell of boiled tomatoes and lemon. She burned her thumb and ran it under the tap. The first year she’d burned herself canning she’d cried. At twenty she’d felt young, frightened. Davis had wrapped her hand where it blistered. The grit under his fingers was brick dust then, and he’d smelled like sweat and clay, like someone who knew what he was doing. That year she’d had five perfect tomato jars. Perfect jars needed tears to brine them, and the smallest bit of blood. Davis knew nothing about canning and smiled through every awful jar. He was sixty now. Twenty years. She’d canned for twenty years, seasoning with sweat and blood.
The cat slept on the sparrow mound. It opened one yellow eye and batted pebbles off the grave. El shooed it away, then called Mercy to let her know when to pick up the tomatoes and that she’d have jams by the end of the week.
In the evening, Davis hummed as he rocked them in the old lounger. His breath sounded like putting an ear to the railroad track. At forty, she felt like she was playing at being a child, but there was no shame in comfort when there was a number to its days.
“You lonely here all day, El?”
“Not enough.” Not enough to leave him, not enough to learn to stop missing him when he was gone, enough to hang on to a stack of cloth diapers that would never be used.
In the night there was a digging at the door.
“Must have let the cat out,” Davis said.
“Leave her,” El said.
The sparrow mound was a hole, stones scattered about. The cat’s claws were bloody and she tottered on painful feet. She’d likely left a present, and El would have to rebury whatever the cat had seen unfit to play with. She tucked the cat into her apron, set her down near the stove, and put out a slice of butter in a dish. She shouldn’t blame a cat for doing as cats do, but she did.
Two thumps against the window, almost on top of each other. Two bluebirds lay on the ground stunned, having chased each other into the glass. El got out the shoebox, lined it with another diaper, and nestled the birds inside. She waited, box on her lap, rocking.
When Davis came home, she asked him to get the shovel. It would be a good year for canned tomatoes.
El woke to the smell of coffee, bacon that had been cooked sometime before, and a thumping at the kitchen door. The bed held the shape of Davis’s side, his shoulder and hip having worn the mattress to his body. She ran her hand down the impression, then pulled on her bathrobe. A cat door. She’d ask Davis to cut one.
The cat was on the doorstep. Behind her was a child, brown, a layer of dirt covering every inch of his skin, making it velvet. His eyes were like his skin; soft, dark. A quick tilt of his head brought to mind hiccups or a sneeze. Four or five, she figured him, and without a stitch on but the dirt. Then she saw above his shoulder.
Where skinny shoulder blades should have ended, they began, two shadows sprouting from the child’s back. Clouds, wings made of dust. She backed away and the boy walked into the house as though he’d lived there all his life. His feet left tracks of clay dust on the stoop and then the linoleum floor. Not sandy garden soil, but something finer.
He sat at the kitchen table, in Davis’s chair, pulled his feet up and wrapped his arms around his shins, and leaned forward, leaving space for the dust that followed him. Everything about the boy was pointed. Nose, chin, bones, stare.
“Are you lost?”
The boy twitched. Uncanny was the word for it, like baby dolls that blinked and wet themselves. El’s mother had bought her one once, and didn’t understand why El had taped the eyes shut. Things shouldn’t pretend to be alive.
“Where’s your mother?”
The boy unfolded himself and went to the rows of mason jars El left cooling. He opened one and the lid made a hollow pop, seal broken, and something inside El broke with it. He sat on the floor, pulling wet tomatoes from the jar and shoving them into his mouth. She’d forgotten how tiny children’s teeth were, that small bodies had mouths full of hungry razors.
“Wash your hands.”
The boy paid no mind. He finished the jar and took another, then another. She thought to stop him, but indulgence was captivating, and it was satisfying to see a caved belly become full on her food. Jars piled around him, ten in all by the time he was through. He looked for a moment like he’d reach for another, a look filled with longing so strong El wasn’t sure she’d ever wanted anything as much. But he slumped, slipped to his side, and fell asleep.
The dust wings swirled on his back, breathing. She brushed her finger against one, expecting grit, but it was soft, like the ends of an ostrich plume.
She settled him in the living room on the lounger. He wasn’t heavy. Hefting bushels and the work of canning left her with strong arms, if not gentle ones. He rooted his body into the dents and valleys Davis had made. El covered him with a sheet from the spare set, tucking it beneath his chin. A bony little thorn.
The cat had followed them in and paced around the lounger, tail twitching, stalking. El shooed her, but she hissed and held her ground.
“Fine, then. You watch him.”
She phoned Mercy.
“Do you know if anybody in town reported a little boy missing?”
“Why? Caught someone stealing vegetables?”
El looked at the empty jars. “Not exactly, but I think he’s around four and he ate a month’s worth of tomatoes.”
When Mercy came, El was sterilizing jars and squeezing lemons. Mercy was a gray woman in hair and dress. The kind of girl who was born an adult, Mercy hadn’t been at ease in her skin until it wrinkled. She lived with Jeanne, the postmaster, and had for years. Jeanne was beige the way Mercy was gray, and they’d begun to resemble each other—Jeanne’s hair had faded like Mercy’s, and Mercy had taken on Jeanne’s slumped shoulders. El wondered what bits of Davis she’d taken on, his flat lipless grin, or his fence-hinge walk.
“So, let’s see him,” Mercy said.
The boy fidgeted in the chair. The dust shadow pushed away the sheet, as if he’d meant to stretch. He opened his eyes.
“Well, hell,” Mercy said. “Dirty, aren’t you?”
His hand had left an outline on the chair arm, a fine layer of clay dust the shape of his fingers. Dirty, pretty, and perfect.
“Somebody must be missing him, don’t you think?”
“WHERE’S YOUR MAMMA, LITTLE THING?”
“He hears fine, Merce. You don’t have to shout.”
“You sure about that? Does he answer you?”
“No, but he’s young.” El hadn’t talked until she was four, and when she did it was in complete sentences. She’d waited until she’d had something to say.
“I suppose. Have you called the police?”
“No. He was so hungry I just fed him and he fell right asleep. I thought someone would show up for him.”
The boy smiled and stuck a finger in his mouth, then snapped his head toward the bay window. Seconds later, a dark shape crashed into the glass and he took off running.
The chickadee was large in the boy’s hand, stunned like the sparrow and the bluebirds before it. He rocked on his heels, shadows from his back echoing the movement.
“That’s four this week.”
“The weather’s changing,” Mercy said. “Stranger things have happened from the heat.”
“Don’t make a fuss about it. No child knows they’re different until someone tells them.” Mercy had taught school for years.
El wanted Davis home. “I suppose. Do you think Jeanne would ask around about him for me? Just let me know if anyone’s looking for a little boy.”
Mercy was a good enough friend to understand when she was being told to leave without the impoliteness of the telling.
El let the boy hold the chickadee until she had the shoebox out, and another diaper cloth inside it. He set it down more gently than she’d ever seen a child do anything.
She filled an eye dropper with sugar water just in case, sat the box on the kitchen table, and pulled up two chairs. “Waiting isn’t so bad when there’s two.”
The boy sucked on one of his fingers. The skin stayed oddly dry.
“He knocked himself out. It happens sometimes. Nothing to worry about.” The words didn’t stir him, perhaps because they were a lie. “Do you want to tell me your name?”
A voice like wind and cicadas.
He seemed content sitting vigil, swinging his legs, leaning over the shoebox. Sometimes he touched the cloth inside. El’s skin burned. There was no need to explain a linen closet filled with unused diapers.
“Is anyone missing you?”
“Not yet.” He turned his attention from the bird. “We’re fine. You don’t have to watch.”
The room was smaller for his being in it. Canning was an activity she’d never realized was lonely. Cleaning, peeling, paring, heat, and steam formed a chorus of discomforts that drowned the voice inside her that whispered it was a job for many hands. She felt him as she worked—a small tug at the base of her neck.
When she was little and one of the barn cats had kittens, she’d been given one. The fear of responsibility for a life had been paralyzing. She should call down to the police station. She should have asked Mercy for clothing.
Slipping a knife under tomato skin was a delicate art. El could peel a whole tomato in one cut without marring the fruit.
“Are you still hungry?” Children were supposed to always be hungry.
He shook his head.
Skins piled up, jars filled, El’s sweat salted the water. She felt a weight press against her leg.
“Careful, I don’t want to splash you.”
“Done now.” He tugged her sleeve, leaving marks. She batted them out. “Done,” he said again.
The chickadee had died.
Davis was ashen with marble dust, back bowed from the day. Shoulds filled El’s mouth. Should tell him to hop in the bath. Should get dinner on the stove. Should rub his back. Should brush her hand through his hair, let him know she didn’t mind.
“We’ve got a guest, and there’s been another bird.”
While Davis dug, the clink of metal against sand and rock, the boy held the bird to his chest, whispering to it.
“Did you call the sheriff?”
“No,” El said. “Mercy said she’d ask around. I’ll call tomorrow.”
“You can’t get a name out of him?”
Davis moved slowly. When the hole was finished, the boy handed the bird to El. The diaper cloth was tight around the body, a perfect bundle.
“In,” the boy said. “In, in, in, in, in,” making a song of the word.
Once they’d buried it, they sat, Davis’s arm propped against the shovel, his other around El’s shoulders. The boy danced around the chickadee mound, and the piles of rocks over the bluebirds.
“It’s silly to keep burying them. I know.”
“The cat would eat them if we didn’t,” Davis said. Indeed, the cat was stretched out, watching, waiting for any scrap they missed. El smiled into Davis’s shoulder. He understood.
Their guest kept dancing, dust pulling from his back and into the night, pinions of air and earth.
Davis was awake. El could tell by his breathing.
“I don’t think he has a mother,” she said.
Davis squeezed her arm. When they’d first married he’d pull her to him this way, and she’d felt like part of him, a second heart. It was good to disappear into a person who knew everything, how to work hard and take joy from a day, how to make her feel like the sun rose because she did.
“I don’t expect he does,” Davis said.
“Do you think we could . . . ?”
“I don’t know, El. Wait and see a little.”
She lay awake, listening. When the door cracked open in the morning, the first rays of light spilling in, she saw Davis brush the boy’s head as he slept in the lounger, watched boy’s dust settled in her husband’s hands.
Davis ate and put up coffee. She pretended to sleep. He had wishes too, but kindness kept him quiet. She closed her eyes and imagined touching her hands to the boy’s back, one day sprouting wings of her own, long clouds of canning steam.
The sheriff said no one had reported a missing boy, but it would be best to bring him to the station for photos and to see if his fingerprints were in the child registry. The boy skipped around in a pair of Davis’s drawstring shorts. The waist bunched up, and the bottom of the shorts fell to his feet, making him kneeless as he chased the cat. Shirts didn’t sit on him at all.
“What’s your name?”
He ran out the kitchen door. The sky had cracked open and the rain thundered in the gutters, running through the downspout into the barrel. She watched to see if the plumes on his back would wash away, but they grew darker as water rolled from him. He darted to the apple tree, to two shadowed shapes.
They were girls, young, and the boy skipped circles around them—touched their heads and arms, giggled and squealed. “Come,” he cried. “New! New! New!”
The girls shivered against each other, faces hidden. El brought them inside, got towels to dry them, and returned to find the boy pushing bits of the freshly canned tomatoes into their mouths. Their eyes were the faded blue of hand-me-downs and borrowed dresses.
“Good,” the boy said. “Yummy.”
El emptied the linen closet of sheets and blankets, wrapping them tight. Their hair fluffed up and dried a dull yellow, like the clay that came off the boy. Their faces had hints of each other in them, mouths that turned downward, small chins. The way El and her older sister were poor copies of each other. The smaller girl was missing her front teeth. El imagined dipping her thumb in whiskey and running it over the smooth gum when teeth started to break in. But that wasn’t done anymore. Babies got teething rings and older children learned to suffer.
“Where is your mamma?”
A jar crashed, glass and juice scattering.
The smaller girl began crying, and her sister followed suit. The sobs turned loud and shrill. At the counter, the boy stood covered in mess. Unrepentant.
She was outnumbered.
El picked shards from around his feet, the nails on his toes were thick, with black streaks running down them, shells on sunflower seeds. He threw himself against her leg and held on like she was a branch.
The girls cried themselves to quiet.
“Mercy?” El whispered into the phone. “Merce, can you come over? There’s two more.” Mercy would know what to do. She pissed in the men’s room when the women’s room was full. El would wait until she wet herself. Mercy had trained her German shepherd, Ronin, to relieve himself on Bill Lester’s porch after Bill said something nasty when Jeanne moved in. Mercy never divulged what he’d said, only that Ronin would move on once Bill made up for it. Mercy once asked if El was happy, and left it be when El said, “Yes.”
She came in the pickup truck. By the time she did, the children had taken everything from El’s china cabinet and laid it out across the living room floor, plates balanced on teacups, bowls wore saucer hats, dust-covered wine glasses tipped on their sides. Each time she put a piece back, another set of hands would take it down. It was the most use the dishes had seen. The girls ran their fingers over them, plinking each dish, giggling at the sound. El saw the outline of something behind them, a shifting in the air like waves off pavement on a hot day.
The boy hung on her leg, standing on her foot as though she might carry him around. For a moment, she felt the brush of a wing joint against her elbow, and it sent a shiver through her that whispered change. Mercy found her this way, leaning against the wall, the boy tucked to her.
“They’re in the living room,” El said.
“Oh, Lord,” Mercy said. She’d come with clothing from the church consignment shop; things that, if El thought hard enough, she’d remember seeing on people in town. Boys’ clothing.
“I picked up a few things for you. Just in case. I didn’t know about the girls. Jeanne thought—well. We didn’t know.”
“It was a good thought, Merce.” El flinched at the sound of a handle breaking. At her leg, the boy giggled. “I tried putting things back. But it seemed like they were having such a good time.”
“You just don’t know better. You will.” Mercy tiptoed around the plates. She was a big woman, strong and tall, but careful. The littlest girl was in her arms without so much as a saucer wobbling. Mercy’s limbs seemed too large for a child that size, and El kept looking for holes she might fall through. Mercy patted the girl’s back. El remembered how good it felt to be little and have someone pat your back so hard you knew where all your insides were.
Mercy screwed her face up, and stuck her tongue out at the bigger girl, who laughed.
“Get the dishes, El, and call Jeanne, will you?”
The boy wandered the house, walking into El and Davis’s room, taking a book off the shelf as if to read it. El followed, closing drawers, hiding the pin box, holding the door to the medicine cabinet shut. He was fascinated by Davis’s sock drawer, which had two pairs of suspenders. The boy pinched their alligator clamps. When he grew tired, he sat in a corner, chin on knees, studying the girls and Mercy. They’d climbed on her, were pulling her hair out of its ponytail. They ran the gray between their fingers, rubbed their faces in it. She’d never seen Mercy look happier.
“We’re just furniture,” Mercy said.
El phoned the police station and let Sheriff Rice know that two girls had shown up.
“Tell him Jeanne and I will bring them by,” Merce shouted.
The little boy watched. El sat next to him.
“Do you know them?”
“Who are they? Do you know where their mom is? Will you tell me?”
“Okay,” he said, and it seemed like a great effort. Merce caught her eye, but said nothing.
Davis showed up before Jeanne did, rain washing off his workday. He took in the children, the boy and his dust wings, the sisters wrapped around Mercy, and there was a softness to his eyes that El had thought belonged only to her. In days by herself, in the height of canning season, in the pit of winter when snow meant weeks of solitude, she hadn’t been lonely. Davis looking at children made her lonely.
“They were in the rain,” she said.
It was enough for him. Davis sat. The boy drifted to him and it ran through her like a river. Davis’s sleeve held soft streaks where the boy touched him. El looked away.
The girls left with Jeanne and Mercy. It was simple math.
“We’ve got the beds,” Jeanne said.
Mercy was kinder. “We’ve been rattling around that big old house for years. It’s no trouble.”
“But if their mother . . .”
The meat of Davis’s fingers pressed her wedding ring into her skin. “We’re pretty far out here, El. It’ll be easier for someone to find them in town, don’t you think?”
“Mm,” she said. The little boy dug into a jar, pulled out a yellow grape tomato, and popped it into his mouth. El sold her canning in town; sometimes Mercy sold it for her. She couldn’t remember when she’d last seen someone other than Davis eat what she’d grown. It was intimate, feeding him with what she’d started as seed.
Mercy and Jeanne left with the girls, the smaller still attached to Mercy’s shoulder. The older had dug her fingers around Jeanne’s belt.
The door closed behind them. El’s fingernails had left dents in the base of her thumb.
The boy slept in the lounger again. She and Davis left the door open, a single lamp on in the hall, leaving them a view of where he’d slipped over onto the chair arm.
“Can we . . . ?” El said.
For a long time, Davis was silent. She thought of his old man’s face, his young man’s back, and the warm ease that came with being taken care of. She’d take care of Davis. He’d stop working. She thought of laughter. Lips touched her ear, and the sound of his kiss was in her bones.
“He might belong to someone,” Davis said.
“But he might not.” The good thing about an old man’s face was how easy it was to feel its shifts, even in the dark, to feel the hope. “I like him, El.”
A black-haired boy with eyes like seeds was in the garden, the cat twisting around his legs. He bent to stroke her, and the cat arched away as though to scratch. El saw it from her kitchen window. Her boy, she thought of him as such, went to the seed-eyed child and fed him from her jars, thick raspberries picked in July. The thorns had dug beneath the beds of her nails. Every crop was seasoned with curses. The new boy wanted only raspberries. Onions and tomatoes held no appeal, and when her boy offered them, the new child cried, tears that seemed to come from a well deep enough to water the county. El tried to comfort him, but he pulled away, slamming his thin body against the cabinets.
El’s boy, her dust child, screeched. “No! Not yours.”
He held the new child, the seed-eyed boy, rubbing his face against the hair on the back of the other boy’s neck. “Soon, soon, soon,” he said.
She called Mercy, but there was no answer, so she called the police station.
“That’s four. If I didn’t know you, I’d suspect you were snatching them,” Sheriff Hanson Rice’s voice was dry, half cigarettes.
“I wouldn’t, Hanson.”
“I know, El. But you know it’s weird. You and Davis alone out there for, must be twenty years? Suddenly you’ve got kids crawling all over.”
The boy with the seed eyes stared. His head turned to the side, a quick twitch.
Her house was not her own. It was a waypoint, a motel she and Davis had forgotten to leave. The jars on the counter were not hers, though she’d grown the fruit from seed and picked it with her hands. It was travelers’ food, for children stopping through. Her body was not hers, it was the children’s. To feed them, to house them for as long as they might stay.
“I know someone who’d take him in,” Mercy said. “Amy Ransom. She can barely look at a little boy without crying since she lost that baby.”
“Don’t tell me I don’t know grief from longing. I’m calling Amy.”
El agreed. The seed-eyed boy played with the buckle on her shoes, picking at it with a fingernail shiny like a dried corn kernel. “How are you and Jeanne getting on with the girls?”
“Peas in a pod.” It may have been the first time El had heard her happy.
When Davis came home, he did not seem surprised to find the seed-eyed child huddled in the recliner with their dust boy. Raised eyebrows made lines up his forehead like garden rows. “I’d ask if you missed me, but I see you’re busy.”
“I always miss you.”
“Are you alright?”
She was. The stack of diapers in the linen closet was shrinking. Each child quieted a whisper she’d heard for nearly twenty years.
She’d met Davis when he’d come by her father’s house. She saw him and thought, “This is a good man.” El remembered leaning over the fence, watching Davis go, and wishing she was at his side. His kind eyes and crooked nose. His strong back.
“I’m too old for you,” he’d said.
“I’m old enough to say you’re not.”
“What’ll you do when I’m broke down and you’re still young and pretty?” But his hand had been in her hair, twisting it around his finger.
“I’m good at fixing things.” She’d imagined their house, filling it with furniture and knickknacks, a rocker they’d fall asleep in. She’d peopled it with children, girls and boys who were every iteration of them, voices that never did come.
It was a good life. Lonely, yes, but the rest of it had been there. Later, she would rub the feeling back into his hands.
Davis showered, leaving her alone with the children. They chattered to each other and her boy’s dust wings formed a blanket.
She asked the new boy where he was from.
“Not now, not yours,” her dust boy answered.
El gave them a jar of raspberries, and the seed-eyed boy stuffed them happily into his mouth. Red with juice, his face was beautiful and a thousand murders.
Davis helped her make a bed for them. Quilts from her mother and grandmother, a long line of women who stitched and sewed, things they took out for the coldest parts of winter.
“Know you.” The seed-eyed boy spoke to Davis.
Davis smiled. “I’ve got a face like that.”
The dust-winged boy pinched the other child’s elbow. They squirmed for a moment before settling down.
In the dark, El said, “You don’t have one of those faces.”
“You only think that because you’re you.”
Amy Ransom brought a teddy bear, and the seed-eyed boy latched on to the softness, and eventually to Amy. El tried to remember how old Amy’s son would have been.
“Seems like a right enough fit,” Davis said.
“You’ll tell the police, won’t you?” El said.
“Of course,” Amy answered.
Before he left for the quarry, Davis said, “I don’t think mothers are coming. What’s the harm if Amy or Merce want to look after them?” Twenty years tuned an ear to words that lived in spaces.
They’d get their boy a bed. Fill a closet with his clothing. Pots on the stove with two sets of hands to stir them.
Davis held his back when he walked.
El and the boy spent the day picking blackberries, pulling thorns from their fingers, and drowning weevils. There were no birds against the glass. While the berries were setting up, the boy went into the garden and began digging with a stick. El watched through the window, how he bent over the little hole he was making.
“No birds today,” El called.
“Not today, not today,” the boy answered, and kept drilling the stick into the ground. She let him do what he wanted. That was the way with men, even the little ones.
“Are you going to tell me your name today?”
He tired of the dirt and began patting his belly. She fed him a sandwich with the last of the apple butter and the crusts cut off. Davis had done that for her the first time they’d picnicked. Bread made sweeter for the caring. The boy tore the sandwich apart, pinching tiny pieces between his fingers.
When he came home, Davis’s eyes were red from grit.
“Anybody new today?”
“No one to speak of. Come here.”
Around the table, El counted their feet, six, Davis’s boots peeling at the heels, her summer loafers scuffed, and those little boy toes. The boy’s feet were odd, middle toes overlapping the others, not yet flattened by walking.
The boy took the recliner again, and they sat with him, pulling chairs from the kitchen. They had no furniture for entertaining. She’d meant to buy it, for when family came to stay, for all the little feet that never arrived. The house Davis’s uncle had left him was much the same as it was when she’d first stepped inside. She’d added curtains, the stenciled apples around the kitchen, the blankets. They’d needed so little. And there’d been so little time, always. Three seasons a year was garden work, and the winter was too cold for anything but huddling under the blankets, or a trip to Mercy and Jeanne’s for Irish coffee.
Alone in their room, Davis said, “I think it’s okay if we love him a little.”
“His mother might come.”
“Loving him some won’t spoil him for that.”
She lay against him, and he was cool like the marble he cut. He took her hair from its braid. It was gray-streaked now; she could dye it but it didn’t bother anyone but her. Maybe that was how Davis crept inside her. For a while, the gap narrowed. For five, ten years, they’d been like one person. He’d taken to singing her name and calling her Ellaflower, Ellabelle, Ellamine. Was there an age when you became a child again? Maybe the middle of your life was for wandering back and forth looking for it.
With a sigh like a door opening, Davis died in the night.
She called Mercy, who came with Jeanne and the girls, and hugged El with hands and arms so many she couldn’t tell who was what, or where her body began and ended. The sheriff had to come to declare him dead. Hanson Rice walked around the bedroom, brown pants hiked high above a waistline so round he looked like an onion. He wouldn’t put his hand to Davis’s throat, so El grabbed his hand and did it for him, her anger a balm for all the rest. “He’s cold, Hanson. He’s dead, and has been since I woke up.”
“Was he sick?”
“He’s sixty years old and spent his entire life breaking rocks. What do you think?”
Hanson wrote HEART ATTACK in large letters. “We’ll need to wait for Gibb from the funeral home. I’ll put up coffee if you’ll show me where you keep it.”
Mercy shouted, “Oh for fuck’s sake, Hanson. He’s dead. What’s she going to do that hasn’t already been done? Get out, will you?”
Hanson Rice was a good man in that he let two women and three children beat him from the house with shame.
Which left Mercy, Jeanne, and the girls in the kitchen, and El in the bedroom with the body. With Davis. And the little boy hunkered behind the door. He twitched, his head cocking to the side, and she thought of his uneven toes, the dust that made his back, the food he’d eaten, how he’d fallen into Davis’s shape like he’d meant to be their son.
“C’mere,” he said. She followed.
His hand around hers was silt and ash, warm like summer and a fire, and stories that filled bodies up like whiskey.
“El, honey,” Jeanne said. “Do you want me to call Gibb?”
“C’mere,” the boy said again, and the girls began to follow him. Their fingers hooked on to El’s nightgown, finding holes in the sateen, poking into them for purchase. They smelled like winter, holly berries, and snow.
The hole the boy had begun the day before was shallow. The cat had rubbed her body in it, leaving claw marks in the valley and fur in the dirt.
“I’ll call Gibb,” Jeanne said. “We can’t—”
“NO.” The boy’s shriek was sharp. The girls let go of El’s nightgown and began digging.
“Pearl, Iris,” Mercy shouted.
The dust boy had fallen to the ground, searching for his stick, for anything to dig with.
El left them, digging in the garden, tossing dry soil left and right. She walked back, to lie with Davis. She counted his ribs with the flat of her hand. She tucked him in and called herself a fool. She looked at his face, how his skin fell toward the bedsheets, as though it too was leaving. She lay with him for an hour, listening to the digging, and Mercy and Jeanne’s quiet words.
“She’s alone out here.”
“We can ask her back.”
“You know she won’t come.”
El got up. When she was little and had cut her hand on a broken window, she’d stitched the skin together herself with her mother’s sewing kit. A ragged scar ran up the outside of her thumb. It caught her eye when she got the shovel.
The girls were knee deep in the dirt, and the dust boy disappeared into it. Mercy and Jeanne resigned themselves to watching.
“You can go home,” El said. “You don’t have to help.”
Jeanne was good with a shovel. Mercy got water and fed everyone the last jars of tomatoes, raspberries, and bread ends that were too hard to eat properly, but good for chewing when you were angry.
Davis slid into the ground on children’s fingertips. They patted his white hair as though calming a rabbit. They whispered little snippets of words. In, in, in, they said. In to sleep.
They covered him, which was harder than digging. Soil hitting clothing—landing on a person—was a heavy thing. The first winter they’d spent in the house, wind blew the back door off its hinges. Davis had boarded it in place. He’d set hot water bottles by her feet and covered her in every quilt they owned. Now she covered him.
He’s so much older. You’ll spend half your life alone. What will you do when he’s falling apart and you’re still young?
The earth rose above his body in a gentle slope. She set rocks atop him to bake in the sun and warm him. When dusk came, Mercy, Jeanne, and the girls left. They offered to stay, but El refused. They offered to take the boy, but he threw himself across El’s lap.
Alone, they hunted for the last perfect stones to cover Davis. Smooth and oval, dark, white, striped. Every kind he’d ever cut. When she was bent, back aching, she felt a brush of wind, warm across her, and knew the boy was beside her.
He tugged her inside. Fingers around her wrist. Sharp little nails digging in just enough to prod but not enough to break.
Gibb from the funeral home didn’t come that night. She waited for him to call, planning how she’d explain what she’d done. What was life but preparing for events that never turned out exactly how you expected? She’d envisioned Davis crushed by rocks, dead in a car accident, outliving her, or both of them together gone in a house fire from a bad furnace. Never peacefully in the night.
What do you do, El? Tomorrow you get up. You make coffee. You make bacon. You tell his work that he is gone. You call town. You look for a job. You sell the house. You look in everyone’s eyes and see how they think you got what you asked for, so young, marrying so old. What did you think you’d get? His back, his face, all the Ellabelles and kindness. A hand on your stomach that didn’t mind the sadness. Someone who was afraid you were lonely, but understood when you said, “Not enough.”
In the night, the cat sat on the stones. El rolled over to the space where Davis had slept. A side of the bed she’d never touched. When she again cracked her eyes, she saw the shadow of the boy next to the cat, and the strange way moonlight played through the clouds across his back. She should get up, but her body was stone and cotton, canning wax and linen, all the things she’d ever done.
At noon, she dragged herself up. The kitchen door was open. The boy was not in the house. She tried to shout for him, but had no name to call him.
In the garden, a dish of water sat at the end of the raspberry briars. A serving bowl from her grandmother, translucent in the sun. A bird splashed in it, a robin caught in the act of bathing.
The stones were overturned, the ground beneath them unsettled. El’s knees buckled. The robin hopped from the dish, curious. The ground dipped where Davis had been, another valley in the bed, another outline in the chair. He was gone and she hadn’t felt him leave. The dust boy sat near the edge of the grave, bare toes resting in the earth that had been Davis’s grave. Wearing a pair of Davis’s shorts. A cheerful smile on his face.
Violence rose sharp like a paring knife.
“Get out. I don’t want you. You’re someone else’s. Go home.”
She locked the doors, closed the windows, and hid in the bedroom. She let the phone ring. A shadow passed over her—the robin peering in through the window, tapping at the glass with its bright yellow beak. She drew the blinds.
At night, she heard his footsteps in another room. Those strange toes and their dust. Of course he’d gotten in. Odd motherless thing who took, and took. A scratching noise followed each step.
Let him rummage and take everything. She imagined forgetting how to move each limb, how to send the signals that made a body live. She forgot her legs, her arms, her hips and back. Her heart—dragonfly in a jar—continued.
Morning light. The bed shifted. The boy had climbed up beside her. A robin sat on his shoulders. Bird claws pinched so. She closed her eyes.
In the evening, little fingers held a spoon to her mouth, heavy with jam. She rolled away.
“We’ll feed you.” The boy’s voice made her shiver.
The robin sat on Davis’s nightstand. Robin redbreast, though it was more orange than red. Feathers wispy, like his hair had become toward the end. The robin looked at her. Curious. Familiar.
“He has to go,” the boy said. “Please say goodbye.” The bird’s eyes were beautifully black.
“Where will he go?”
The name the boy said was not in English.
“Is that a place?”
The robin landed on her arm, and there was an unravelling. When they’d just married, Davis had borrowed a motorcycle. He’d taken her on a ride over roads that wound around cow pastures, through land that burned yellow with wheat. Between the wind, the motorcycle and his back, she’d come apart. She’d cried and never told him. To feel such a thing again, from this bird, from those sharp little feet.
The robin stopped to rest on the window ledge. The boy must have opened it in the night. El thought the bird might call to her, but he did not. Later, she understood that his voice was too new, that words built ties. Then he was gone.
She woke again to the sound of something striking the kitchen window. Her legs wobbled from the time in bed. The boy was at the table, tense enough that he might snap. The wings at his back were a tight, stiff wind.
“You’re still here? Don’t you have a mother?”
He moved to the door, but did not open it. He pressed his fingers into the screen until it dimpled.
El took the shoebox from the closet, lining it with a diaper cloth. They sat. The little boy nestled against her side. There was peace in his breath as they waited for the warbler to die.
They packed the dirt over the warbler’s grave. The cat sat atop it, tail moving like a switch. Mercy called to say she’d put Gibb off, though there would likely be fines to pay. She asked if El needed anything.
“A bed. Two, really.” Before they hung up, El asked, “Do you love the girls?”
Mercy said, “Like I was made for them.”
In the day between burying the warbler and when the new child came, the boy whispered his name in El’s ear.
El’s house has large windows, the glass clear and smooth, washed every week, though it takes her hours to do so. Her son stays by her side, holding buckets sloshing with suds. In growing months, they live in their garden and the kitchen, which is ripe with salt, sugar, and steam. In summer, children arrive, one at a time; two at most—quiet things that move a little too fast. The people come after—women and men in every combination, together and alone. There are never two who are exactly alike. They are the same fabric, but different weaves.
I heard we should come here. That you could help.
I lost . . .
We want a child so badly.
Her son talks to the children when they first arrive. He is growing, but will never be a tall man. He is dark and quick, like a sparrow. They are never alone. She never asks him who he used to be.
When the children leave, their hands cling to their parents’ fingers like birds to a branch.
With time, their wings fade.