Sunday, 8 June 2014

When The Bough Breaks

     It is not yet dawn but I’ve been awake for hours. I run my fingers through curls the colour of a new penny and lean to kiss his cheek. He stretches and yawns then cuddles in close. I flex and relax my toes, the old rocker groaning a rhythm of comfort as I rock my son.
     Rosy strands of sunlight glide over the lip of the horizon and stream into the living room.
     Red sky in the morning, sailor's warning.
     The pink slowly fades to light, painting his fair skin golden. He murmurs, milky lips drooped with satisfaction, fingers curled by his cheek.
     A sparrow lands on the sill and preens with jerky dips of its beak. Lush notes of lilac waft through the open window, summer fresh on the breeze.
     I slip my shirt back into place then stand. The sparrow, disturbed, flicks its tail in annoyance and flits to the shelter of the silver maple.  Nestling my son to the curve of my neck, I breathe his essence, his baby-sweet smell.
     I tiptoe my fingers up and down his back, swaying from one foot to the other. I look around the room then settle on the yellowed family photo.
     Mom’s smile is tight, blonde waves tucked behind her ears. Dad sits next to her, shoulders stooped; his eyes bleached the blue of an Arizona sky at high noon. I sit on Dad’s lap, legs folded like a colt, mischief leaping from eyes identical to his.  My little sister leans into Mom, her face shyly turned from the camera, her halo of curls a shimmer of pale. My eyes are drawn back to Dad, to the distance in his eyes, to my small hand hidden in his and I feel the sadness, the tightening in my throat, in my chest.  
     The muffled clunk of the washing machine brings me back and I peer out at the clothesline strung across the back yard. With an outstretched toe, I hook a handle of the bassinette and drag it toward me. Squatting low, I lay my sleeping boy on his back and draw the blanket to his chest. He yawns and stretches and I smile as he thrusts the blanket from his body.  Drawing the netting across the wicker, I gather the woven handles and cross to the sliding doors.
     The dewy grass wets my feet as I cross the lawn. My shoulders warm with the heat of the morning sun. I slip into the cool of the old maple and search the latticework of leaves until I find the knobbed branch that sits at just the right angle. I lift the bassinette and loop the handles over the bough, shifting it so that they lodge where limb meets trunk.
     I sneak my fingers under the netting and cover him again, pausing to trace the soft of his cheek. A hint of a smile tips his lips and I smile in response, wondering at this beauty that is mine. I secure the netting and pull down on the bassinette again to be sure it is safe.
     “I’ll be right back, little man,” I whisper.
     I peer around my fenced yard, feeling the quiet. I'm drawn to movement in the dense cedar hedge that blocks the street beyond. I narrow my eyes against the glare of the sun and take a few steps toward the hedge. Uncertainty flutters in my belly and I take another step then leap back as a chipmunk, scolding angrily, darts from its hiding place in the trees.
     Feeling a little foolish, I peek once more at my baby. He is lost in slumber, suspended safely above any curious being. The laundry waits. I turn and sprint across the yard, sidestepping a marauding thistle.

     Cutting through the garage, I yank open the basement door and feel my way down the steps, mildew chasing away the summer green. I search above my head until I find the naked bulb and the chain that hangs beside. With a tug, the dark pulls back to the corners and I pad across the cold concrete to scoop up a laundry basket.
     Moving quickly, I lift the lid of the washing machine and fill my arms with wet rompers and tiny socks. The telephone cuts the still and I bash my head on the corner of the overhanging shelf. The jug of detergent topples. I make a swipe but it hits the floor, the lid skidding to the corner, blue slime puddling at my toes.
     “Damn!” I reach down and slam the bottle upright as the phone blares at me again.
     Rubbing my temple, I run to the family room and snatch the receiver from its cradle, stretching the looped cord so I can see out the window.
     “Hi Honey! How’s my grandson?”
     “Oh, hi Mom...he’s uh...he’s good,” I find the bassinette and the knot in my belly loosens.
     I trace the bump on my head as I pace back and forth in front of the window, my stare fixed on the tree.
     “Listen Mom...yah...but I really can’t talk right now... I’m a...” I try to interrupt but there is no break in the monologue. The cedar hedge twitches. Her voice trills on. A branch dips but no chipmunk.
     “I just need your sister’s phone number at work, Honey.”
     I press my forehead to the cool glass. I look at the bassinette and back to the hedge.
     “I gotta call you back Mom...I have to...”
     “Sorry Honey, I really need to speak to your sister.” The wheedling tone makes my stomach hurt. “You don’t mind do you, Sweetie?”
     I dart a look to the desk across the room, to the drawer that holds my address book. A prickle of heat warms my back. Damn!   
     “Just a sec.” My teeth bang together as I stretch the cord to its limit. I yank open the drawer and fumble through the mess of papers. I jam the phone between my ear and shoulder and rifle through with both hands.
     Damn! Damn! Damn!
     I glance back to the window but I only see the top of the tree and a piece of blue sky. The room dims. Clouds scud across the blue. I close my fingers around the book and feel the paper crumple as Mom’s voice singsongs in my ear. Flipping through the pages, I hurry back to the window.
     “Okay Mom, got a pen?”
     I press my index finger on the number and peer out the window.
     My lungs empty. The phone smacks the floor and bounces up, wildly pirouetting through space like a rogue ballerina.
     “Honey? Are you there? Honey?”

     He rubs his arm across his forehead. Sweat mixes with the stains on the sleeve of his old work shirt. Embroidered letters above the pocket once spelled his name, but the stitching has long since unravelled.
     Peering over his shoulder, he watches the sun’s gradual climb until a red glow creeps over the eastern horizon and bleeds across the sky.
     Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.
     The old litany echoes through his head as he pushes the paper bag from the neck of the bottle and unscrews the cap. Throwing his head back, he takes a long haul, choking a little as the contents burn fire down his throat. It is a fire he knows, a fire he needs. He wipes his mouth on the back of his hand and caps the bottle. He sits awhile then leans forward and parts a window in the cedar hedge with his hand.
     And there she though she knew he was waiting for her.
     The sunlight sets her curls afire as she lopes the length of the yard on legs of dancer. He can just make out the smattering of freckles on her shoulders. Muscles wave through her arms as she lifts the bassinette and settles it on a branch.
     He crouches low, the stink of his body rising from his collar. He watches her reach into the basket and he feels his own lips tip in response to her sweet, sweet smile. His knee gives out and he slips, landing heavily on his chest. He dare not push the hair from his eyes but lies still and peers through the lank strands.
     She stares at the spot where he hides, her brows gathered over pale blue eyes. A chipmunk appears by his head and scolds him with a trilling chip-chip-chip then scurries out the other side and into her yard. She jumps then sees that it is only a chipmunk and her shoulders relax. He admires her long legs again as she sprints back toward the house.
     His hands are as weak as a baby’s but he finds the bottle and takes another long pull, his eyes never leaving her until she disappears into the garage. The bassinette draws his bleary stare. He watches as it sways with the breeze. He pictures the child inside.
     He waits, listens to his own breath, knows he is wasting time.
     He looks over his shoulder but there is little traffic at this time of the morning. A tremor runs through his wasted frame as he caps the bottle and shoves it back into the bag. Setting it aside, he draws a shaky breath then pushes through the cedars.
     He presses close to the ground and peers toward the house. Empty windows watch him with dark, knowing stares. His gaze drifts across the back of the house, across the gray stone facade and across flowerbeds in need of a weeding.
     He’d had a garden like that once.
     He pulls himself to his feet, hunches his shoulders and stumbles forward. Panic takes his breath and he ducks behind a row of lilacs, leans heavily against the tangle of branches. His eyes dart to the house then back to the bassinette.
     His heart hammers at his ears. Is it a boy or a girl... maybe a little girl with hair the colour of burnished copper? A vision of another little girl steals into his head. A hunger, so strong it hurts, sweeps through him, a hunger that has nothing to do with the bottle he’s left beneath the cedars.
     He sucks a long breath across his teeth, crouches low then rushes forward. His step falters as he lurches from the safety of the lilac and into the open. Sunlight blinds him for a moment before he finds the shade of the maple. He leans against the trunk, feels the shaggy bark bite at his shoulder and waits for his breath to slow. His eyes grow used to the dim and the hanging basket swims into focus.
     He glances toward the house.
     Wind ripples through the yard and a rushing fills his head as thousands of silver leaves dance on their stems. The breeze brings to him, the cloying scent of oncoming rain and he peers up at the sky. A dark stand of clouds guards the sun; casts an eerie yellow upon the yard.
     Red sky in the morning...
     His legs, guided by urgency, carry him to the basket. He presses the back of his hand to his mouth then steals a look over the side.
     Burnished copper crowns the small head, just as he imagined. The child sleeps, arms flung innocent. An ache takes hold of his chest and for a moment he cannot draw a breath.
     His hand crawls up the side of the bassinette, propelled by the need. Trembling fingers, tipped by dirty, broken nails, push back the netting.

     The phone hits the floor. Mom`s tinny voice follows me from the room. Fear drags me wildly through the shadows. A mewling starts in my throat.
     Oh God no...Please, please no.
     Cinderblock walls blur. My bare feet slap the concrete.
     The man’s image cuts through me...darting eyes...ragged hair...dirty hands.
     Dirty hands reaching into the bassinette...reaching for my son.
     “Please God...please.”  I stumble up the steps.
     He pauses, notices for the first time how grubby his hands are. He wipes them on his pants then gently draws back the blanket, grasping it between thumb and forefinger.
     Blue...a tiny blue sleeper.
     It’s a boy...a boy!
     He allows the feeling to take him...the exquisite feeling. He gazes down at the face, at the perfectly sculpted lips, the tiny seashell ears...the beginning of a dimple.
     A cold wind hits his back. He hears the first drops of rain, the growl of thunder. He slips the blanket back over the small body. The wind snatches the basket and tosses it back and forth. The child’s lids flip open and he stares up at the man with startled bleached blue eyes.
     Another gust of wind.
     The man stares into the boy’s eyes for what feels an eternity. Then a crack sounds by his ear and he jumps. The bassinette hangs at an angle. He squints at the limb. A split runs the length of the worn bough. The basket rocks to and fro, to and fro. As the man watches the fissure grows, parting the swarthy bark.
    With quavering arms, he reaches up and takes hold of the handles.
     And the wind blows...
     The door crashes against the wall of the garage and the sob breaks from my throat.
    Rain drives into my eyes but I can see what I already know. The bassinette is gone. He is gone.
    A broken bough lies under the tree. I hurtle across the yard. Thorns bite into my heel as I step on the thistle. Rain peppers my skin.
    I pick up the broken branch and spin around.
    Where is he? God please! Where`s my baby?
    I shove wet hair from my eyes and run to the edge of the maple, into the storm.
    And there it is. I can just see it.
    The bassinette.
     My legs turn to water and I lurch to the lilac bush.
     The basket is tucked under the branches.
     Time slows and a silence fills my head. I look over the side.
     My boy looks up, eyes round, drops of rain tipping the fringe of lashes. His eyes find mine and his lips spread in a toothless grin. His arms flail, the blanket crumpled in his dimpled fists.
     I claw at the netting and scoop him into my arms.
     I gather him close, hold him too tight. He squirms and I press my face to his hair, feel the heat of my child, the essence of my being; my heart.
     “Thank you.”
     He watches as she cuddles the boy close and a smile feathers his lips. Bending, he finds the bag and tucks it beneath his arm.
     Emerging from the cedars, he sways slightly and carefully steps up onto the sidewalk.
     Fat drops of rain hit his head, meld into dark patches across his stooped shoulders.
     No one notices the old man as he ambles into the storm. Wind blows gray strands back from the worn face and drives hot tears from his eyes...
     ...eyes bleached the blue of an Arizona sky at high noon.

No comments:

Post a Comment