S H O R T S T O R Y
b y l o i s s c h l e g e l ~ s o u t h e r n o r e g o n
WHEN THE moon is shining you can see most everything in chicken scratchings. Aunt Sadie, the one I’m named for, she read tea leaves. I think it’s something like that I do in the chicken yard.
Timmy and I wait on the stump. When it’s quiet, we creep in, careful not to wake the roosters who’ve stuck their beaks under their wings off in corners of the pen. They press their chicken bodies against the wire, dreaming of treetops and unclipped wings.
I walk in the coop, and it’s like reading a book. Like when Miss June taught me how words make pictures in your head, back in kindergarten. Our plate scrapings, pecked and tossed and worried by the chickens, are stories. Opening the coop door is like opening a book, with the words spread out across the chicken yard and the moon, a lamp over my shoulder, lighting up every jot.
I’ve seen Timmy growed and tall and handsome with the same curly, yellow hair he has now. I saw him in a fancy building, waving his hands around. Talking like that. I saw him and two little kids.
Then I saw him crying with tears running down his face and no sound coming out of his mouth. No sound at all.
The scratchings say Timmy will never have words. But I use the barn-rake to scrape all that away. I start at the far corner of the pen and smooth out the dirt, ‘til it says nothing, ‘til not one speck of food is left to talk to me. I rake it clean, leaving behind only long even lines and new chicken footprints.
I tell Timmy everything I see, even when it’s about him. He usually nods and snuggles up closer to me with his small damp hand in mine, and his yellow curls rubbing against my elbow. Sometimes I put my arm around him and we walk back to the house that way. But last night he ran ahead, slamming through the back door and onto Mamma’s lap.
She rocked him and looked into his big dark eyes and said, “Oh poor Timmy. What’s the matter with you child?”
When I came in, she gave me the look and said, “What you been tellin’ him now Sadie Mae?”
I don’t answer her. I just turn around and go back out to the stump. I watch the stars and wait until Mamma turns the last light off in the kitchen. Then I slip in through the mud room, down the hall and into the bed I share with Timmy.
He’s already asleep. I feel his warm breath on my cheek and hear the catch in his throat where the words are plugged up. I put my hand on his neck and he turns over, flinging one arm up over his head. I keep my hand there and try to unplug him, try to heal his voice.
Time is inside out, if you just look, if you just pay attention. It’s like when Mamma wears a new blouse and then discovers, halfway through the church social, the seams are showing and the label is lapping her neck. Once most folks get dressed though, they just don’t look at what they’re wearing. And we’re wearing time whether we know it or not. We’re wearing her from the moment we slide from between bloody legs, ‘til they slide the lid shut on us. After that I don’t know.
But here, in this world, time is there for the telling, the seams on the outside, the label waving free. Least that’s how it is for me.
I remember Mamma saying, “Sadie if you tell me my words one more time before they come out of my mouth…” Then she’d pause and mumble under her breath about Aunt Sadie. I never caught all the words, but Satan’s name came up and so did Daddy’s.
Aunt Sadie went away when I was six. But I can stir her memory up like she was babysitting me just yesterday. I hear her smoke curdled voice in my ear and smell her perfume. I feel the silky dress she wore brushing against the backs of my arms, as I sat in her lap and listened to the beating of her heart.
Sadie read to me, stopping only to smooth my stray curls and tuck my head back under her chin. She read to me from great volumes, things I didn’t understand. But the rhythm of the words pounds inside me even now. When I close my eyes, I feel them there, coursing through me.
Next morning, I throw grange-feed to the chickens, change their water and gather eggs. In the hen house the mammas cluck in soft, low tones as I slip my hand under their warm feathers and rescue their babies from life. Timmy carries the basket. His small arms strain as it fills with brown and speckled and blue tinted eggs, the kind you don’t see at the grocery.
The last hen to give up what she’s laid is a big Rhode Island Red named Martha. Her neck feathers stand on end as I try to grab her and throw her off the nest.
Today she has two eggs, since I didn’t bother her yesterday. She screams and flaps her stubby wings. Timmy is backing towards the door, dragging the full basket with him, losing eggs out the sides.
Suddenly, everything slows way down, like it always does when something I’ve seen in the scratchings starts to happen. This strange kinda peace comes over me then, ‘cause I know it’s just what is. I can’t stop it.
Martha rises in the air the way birds with clipped wings aren’t supposed to do. She cannon-balls towards me. Her feathers and squawking and crazed mother eyes fill the hen house air. Then she lands. Her claws dig into my forehead, opening my face the way a plow opens the earth. I feel a warm drip of blood roll from between my eyes, down my nose and off onto the floor; a circle of red in the midst of straw, feathers and broken yolk.
When Mamma sees me, she throws her hand to her mouth and mumbles something about a scar on my third eye and calling the preacher. But instead she cleans my wound and rocks me the way she usually only does Timmy. I fall asleep with my damaged face pressed against her breast.
We ate Martha.
Mamma turned her into chicken and dumplings the Sunday after she flew.
When we got back from church I set the table with the good china and extra places for Pastor John and his wife Hilda. Pastor sat next to me. After dinner, but before pineapple upside-down cake, he put his hand on my forehead and prayed, “Lord, deliver this child from evil. Make her an instrument of your almighty power on earth…”
His hand pressed into my head.
The cut throbbed.
I tried to pull my head away. Pastor John held on tighter. I ducked, trying to escape the push of his hand, trying to slide under the table into the dark tangle of legs and dust.
He held on.
The cut bled.
He held on.
I grabbed his arm, pulled it into my mouth—and bit.
He tasted salty—a little like Martha.
Then, me and Mamma were both crying. Blood was running down my nose again, catching at the corners of my mouth. It splattered onto the white linen tablecloth Mamma insisted on.
Daddy shook his head and looked down at his plate. Pastor John clutched his arm and Hilda spat out the 23rd Psalm, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil…”
I looked over at Timmy. He was eating upside-down cake right off the serving platter, catching up the sweet syrup on his fingers and licking it off. His eye caught mine, and I swear, he winked.
Next thing I knew I was in bed. Sent off without dessert, without even doing my chores.
I do have a scar. In spite of all the lavender oil Mamma made me rub into my cut. It’s a V shape right between my eyebrows that turns bright red when I’ve been out in the sun too long. I have to have bangs now to cover it up. Mamma says men don’t like girls with scars.
But I like mine. It reminds me of Aunt Sadie, except her scar was hidden, not scratched across her face. She showed me once, lifted her skirt and there it was, a jagged line down her middle, dividing her in two. I ran my small hand down the rough skin. “Where’d it came from, Auntie?” I’d asked.
“From doctors…tryin’ to save me…and you.” She finally said, and lowered her dress.
I’m not allowed in the chicken yard after dark now. Pastor John says I’m messing with things I don’t understand and leaving the door open for the Devil to jump through. He and Mamma had some long talks about me and they agreed I was not to prophesy.
All of this on account of how the morning after I bit the preacher I was feeling sorry and told Mamma everything. Told her about the chicken scratchings and Martha and Timmy and some of the other things I seen I’m not supposed to even mention.
I try to be good. I hurry to feed the chickens, slam the door shut and run back to the house as fast as I can. But now, sometimes, I see things even before the scraps hit the ground. I throw the mess of plate scrapings into the pen and for a moment each bit is suspended in air. A half rotten brussel sprout orbits a lop-sided tomato; rice and corn scatter across the chicken coop sky like constellations. And it all makes a story that pushes its way inside me, tells itself in a moment. Then it’s part of me. I can’t help but know.
That’s what happened the day of Daddy’s accident.
Dinner was late. We’d waited for Dad as long as we could. Until Mamma said, “Darn that man. He don’t know when to quit.” Then she pulled the meatloaf from the oven.
After we ate, Timmy and I went to the coop with the day’s scrapings. Chickens crowded around brushing soft feathers against my bare legs in a hungry dance, beaks open. The bucket was heavy with apple peelings from three pies Mamma baked. Slime sloshed onto my hands.
I heaved the bucket but it was slippery and flew off my fingertips, spinning into the story unfolding in front of me.
It hung, glinting in the moonlight, balancing in midair. Apple peels spilled onto the waiting birds. A bantee rooster rushed in from the edges of the flock, pushing other birds aside. The bucket fell—landing square across the bantee’s back, crushing him under its half-full weight.
Then the story made its way into me.
I saw Daddy.
I saw his chest pinned under tractor tires and soft deep planting dirt giving way underneath him, the weight of the machine pushing him into the ground little by little.
The bantee struggled under the bucket. I looked at Tim standing outside the coop.
“Do you see it?” I said.
Tim’s eyes opened wide and a flush spread down from his scalp and across his freckles. Before I could stop him, he turned and ran for the house.
By the time I got to the back door, he was already on Mamma’s lap. She crooned the poor-Timmy song. “What’s the matter with you child?” her voice sang with the squeak of the rocking chair. As I hurried through the mud room I heard Timmy sing back.
“Sadie see Daddy under the bucket.”
When Daddy came home from the hospital, covered with tire track bruises, he sat in his easy chair and let his body heal into its shape; let the bones knit him into a folded man.
As he folded, so did his life. The edges drew in and tucked themselves into the chair. After a while, all he could see was that room and two bent steps to the commode Mamma got at the Salvation Army.
With no man in the fields, church women kept us going. Every other day there’d be a meal on our doorstep. Or some kind soul would drop by for a visit and later Mamma would find five dollars on the sink tucked under the Fels Naptha.
During one of these visits, Hilda asked Mamma about Daddy’s accident. “But how did you know to go lookin’ for him?” she said. "You know our men. They’re always workin’ late and too much. How’d you know?”
By the time Hilda left she pried the whole story out of Mamma, who cried and said, “Pray for her Hilda. Pray for her.”
There really wasn’t any reason to pray for me. I’d been thinking my days of prophecy were over. Maybe nothing I saw in the scratchings was real anyway. Maybe I’m just a girl with a big imagination the way Mamma always told me. Maybe a bucket just fell on a chicken and it didn’t have nothing to do with Daddy. I just made that part up. Like I made up Timmy not ever talking.
After Hilda’s visit I could clear any pew just by sitting down. Folks would see me coming and before my skinny butt hit polished wood, whole families would be on their feet shuffling off to another part of the church.
The social calls, dinners and five-dollar bills stopped, too.
Hilda was first to pay a different kind of call. She whispered my name as I carried scraps to what was left of our chickens. We’d eaten as many as we could and still have eggs, throwing the bones and bits of gristle of the dead to the survivors, who happily pecked away at their cousins.
“Sadie…come on over here girl.”
I could see her half hidden in the dusk shadows of the pump house, one arm pulled long by a heavy bucket. Her eyes darted from me to the house and back again.
“Don’t leave me strainin’ and saggin’ here, she said and shoved the bucket of plate scrapings at me. “I want to know what the scratchings say about me.
I shook my head. “I can’t.”
“Here. Take this.” Hilda held out a crumpled handful of dollar bills. “I know your Mamma needs it.”
Her hand quivered in the light from the newly risen moon.
“Here.” She said again.
Behind me the chickens settled in for the night, some roosting on the poles Daddy built inside the hen house, some leaning into the wire outside, a few determined Mammas clucking softly in the nesting boxes.
The moon was right, the chickens peaceful.
I reached for the money and felt Hilda’s hand draw back from my touch. I shoved it deep into my pocket, picked up her table scraps and opened the chicken coop door.
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