by Margaret Sweatman
After sunset it stayed hot. The asphalt delta with its banks of lilac and
mugo and white pines, this tangle of cul-de-sacs leaching out to the main
drag through the west end of town, was completely still, windless.
Barefoot, she carried the baby wrapped loosely in white muslin, a
baby light as a bird. No evening dew. She crossed the dry grass to the
bassinette tucked into caragana at the far end of the yard, beneath the row of
ash trees, beyond reach of the yard light. Moonlight speckled white chiffon
pinned to the bassinet. Vee pulled it aside to place the baby there and draped
the netting around again. Crickets. And the eternal traffic that flowed past.
Vee returned to the house on tiptoes over the crisp stubble. She looked
back at the moon-dappled cradle. Shadows swaying. A breeze after all. She
They were here, all of them. Talking, drinking, arguing. Terry and Sal
well into the rye, but not Dirk, thank god. A bit of luck, Dirk never getting
the hang of liquor. Booze would play havoc with the antidepressants and the
other stuff he took that kept him kilter.
Why’s it so bright in here? Vee asked, and switched off the overhead
light. Leaf-shadow played on the wall. Her breath caught in her throat.
She’d seen a beautiful mural once in Mexico and now here she was,
surprised again. She smelled of summer sweat. She thought about how she
liked herself, how she’d never know what it was about her that irritated
others. She had few friends but largely because the family took up all her
They couldn’t play rummy in the dark so they just leaned back, jawed
lazily, Dirk’s feet in Vee’s lap, Vee scratching at the wiry hair on his legs.
Her fingers could read the colour of the curly hair. Copper blond. When Dirk
was a baby he had a whole head of copper blond hair. Vee was six when he
was born and she would always remember pulling him up from his cradle
when he was fussing, to rock him till he shushed. Babies seem simple. But
they’re seeds that grow complicated. Like atomic fission or the first number
What if time ran backward in a life, say in Dirk’s life, so every
wrinkle and mole was absorbed into his skin, and his disappointment and
fury soaked back into his blood and bones and he shrank into that soft puppy
she’d held in the rocking chair when she was six? These were things
impossible to say out loud other than in substitutes, yarns about this and that,
like the time Dirk got a black eye playing baseball and threw the bat at the
pitcher, or Vee getting fired from that job selling ice cream at the beach, or
Terry’s broken heart over that awful Diana, where is she now anyway, no
surprise there, she was a bitch, don’t say bitch. Bitch.
Terry’s wife Sal got quiet because they hadn’t been married long and
she still didn’t know who she was with him. Vee was glad she wasn’t
married. She had sufficient trouble gathering the stray threads of her own
meanderings. Terry, stoked with rye and nostalgia, went on about some trick
that Diana could do with her tongue. Sal slapped his arm and Terry said, She
could touch her nose, so what? And Dirk said, She touched a lot of stuff with
her tongue. And Terry told him to shut his yawp and Vee told them all to be
quiet or go to bed, so Terry hauled himself up and grunted, Bed then. Sal
made a swan-like gesture with her hand and said, Terry. Vee wondered why
Sal would need help to stand, she hadn’t had that much rye, but maybe Terry
liked that sort of thing, and it would be his funeral, because Sal was the type
of moocher who would quit her job as soon as she got pregnant. Lust yields
our burdens. If a mother loses her mind, is her child set adrift? A mother set
her baby in the reeds. Where? A baby in a basket.
So much love, the world wants. Spread too thin, I am spread too thin.
Sleep was lusting for Vee, a big black tongue. Their voices floated
over and around Terry and Sal stumbling in the dark toward bed, Sal asking
Why, about some damn thing, and Terry answering Because, and Sal asking
Why again, and Terry answering Because, and Sal asking Why once too
often and Terry answering Because and also I don’t know so shut it why
don’t you. And Dirk not getting up but saying, Remember? So Terry yarned
a while longer, with Sal just a shadow, a sullen web of silence. It had been
fun, when it was just Vee and her brothers; when they were young, nobody
could tame them.
Time flowed smooth as water over a mirror into forgetfulness. Dirk’s
feet warmed Vee. Her fingers traced a D in his dry crusty soles. She must
not sleep, there was a reason she must not sleep, she closed her eyes. Rain, a
shush, a lull. Lullaby of night birds. She heard their wings in the dark, she
followed them out, she heard the rain but it was a dream of rain, and she
cradled the baby, cradled him just as she knew she should.
copyright © Margaret Sweatman 2020