When they hear the ambulance grovelling out of the creekbed, her mother moves to the window over the sink ad braces herself on the heels of her hands. The panic that’s stoved down inside her borne on the brace of her hands, but none of it showing except in her eyes. The eyes slipping, starting, as though anxious to get out of her head.
The old man’s feeding hand quits. He hovers, too, featureless under the brim of his hat, ear cocked to the engine-there are no sirens-of what he still calls an “emergency car.” Lindy looks away from her father’s lunch. Leftover deer spaghetti, the noodles over-cooked and the sauce gamey because the worst of the venison they always have ground. The old man shoves back from the table with his red handkerchief still tucked in his pants.
“Won’t let us come near her, no she won’t. No, she won’t now. Won’t let us anywhere near her. No. She won’t.” Her mother, murmuring. The ambulance rattles across the low wooden bridge at the foot of the hill, shifts gears, and pulls the rise to the house.
Lindy follows the pair of them into the yard. She doesn’t own a winter coat because she lives in a warm place now, but her mother forgets to put hers on. As they wait for Eddie, the EMT, to get out of the ambulance and tell them what happened, Lindy watches her mother’s arms mottle pink in the cold.
“I’m real sorry,” Eddie says. He shakes his head with his face to the ground. “Can’t pick up a heartbeat in the baby. But they won’t let us take her out. She needs to get down to the clinic. You all don’t want her having it up in there.”
Her mother continues, tearless, droney. “She won’t let none of us near her. No, deed, she won’t. Nowhere near her.”
Eddie lifts his face. “How long you in for, Lindy?”
Lindy hasn’t seen him since high school graduation. Now he looks more like his father than himself. “Just for Christmas,” Lindy says.
“We’ll send Lindy up there to talk sense into her,” her father decides.
Lindy glances at him, sharp. He stands there ridiculous with the red bandanna aproned under his camouflage jacket. But because she only visits once a year, she can’t say too much. She’s been expecting it all morning anyway.
She turns back inside, seeking the woodstove. When she got in last night, it had been too dark to see the house good. Now it strikes her. High, narrow, and a scaley white.
Every Christmas Lindy’d stand beside the conveyor belt under electronic monitors with the other passengers, well-dressed and cologned. While behind her, silent and just out of sight, the odor of hunting jacket, of little-washed man, and of the woodsmoke he’s carried down all the way from the house. She knows her father’ll try to merge his rust-bitten Chevrolet Citation onto the freeway outside the airport and be forced onto the shoulder before he can snatch his little piece of road. They’ll sit across the plastic table under flourescent lights in Leesburg while he halves a Big Mac with his pocket-knife, rinses the blade in a cup of water, and dries it in his handkerchief.
She knows the open four-lane across northern Virginia, not a bump in the hardtop or a lurch in the grade, and the sun putting down, reluctant and pinched, back behind the Blue Ridge. They thread the last little city in the dark. Tunnelling. A few miles before the state line, the road chokes to two lanes, and the Citation chatters up the incline and nearly drags to a halt before they crest and hurtle down the other side into where she was born, Only a hundred miles from Washington, D.C., a city she didn’t see until she was 18 years old.
Then she is back, and it comes with a weight. Tunnelling. Through those little water gaps with the oak limbs nearly arbored overhead, and the gaunt frame houses, intermittent, strung in puny Christmas lights. Busting into the brief clearings, the barns and hayricks heaving up, now and again, then past, entombed some place behind them, the headlights no more than a glance in this kind of dark. And on both sides of the car, the dead brush at her elbows. Dirty blonde and ruffled in the tiny starlight there.
The old man speaks. “Dee-Dee’s got some kind of female problems.”
“What do you mean?” Lindy asks.
“I don’t know. I just been told she’s having some land of problems with her insides.”
Lindy studies her reflection in the side window. Against the receding shale bank, her face fixed, transparent.
“How far along is she now?”
“I don’t know. Six. Seven months.”
Her mother makes her take two plastic grocery bags. They bulge with home-canned green beans, Christmas sugar cookies, and a butcher-papered chunk of tenderloin, primest part of the deer. To get back in there, she follows a creekbed that runs dry almost every day of the year, a track too rough to carry the Citation. All her mother and the old man will call the father of this baby is “some Shotzhouser boy.” They and her sister are not speaking again although they live within three-quarters of a mile and Dee-Dee and the boy are squatting rent-free on the old man’s land. They’re holed up in something more camper than trailer in those timbered-off hills that used to be pasture back when a person could make a living farming up and down land like this. And even though the cattle were long ago sold off, they’ve spited the ground forever. Each hill corkscrewed with hoof-worn grooves.
Lindy smells snow, something she never smells outside of here. It comes to her hard in the back of her throat like such smells must come to animals. Then she can see the bald with the trailer nubbed out there on it, and she is taken aback by the sudden violence of metal in the rinsed-out winter grass. She climbs the slope, depending on the boy to answer the door and send her away.
There is no screen. She raps on a warped door of that dimpled stuff trailer doors are made of. After a few minutes, it opens a third of the way, and what she sees first is that this Shotzhouser boy is even younger than Dee-Dee, and Dee-Dee is just 20. He leans out in a plaid flannel shirt hanging open to a naked man’s chest with a brand-new look to it, a pureness to it. And this calls up something in Lindy, and suddenly, she remembers. Hard hands. Yellow dirt. The taste of cider turning that they carry in their mouths. She begins to understand what Dee-Dee does.
She stands self-conscious of the winter clothes she’s had to borrow—her mother’s kerosene-stained coat, plastic old-woman boots—knowing keen that this is not the thing to feel at such a time. “I’m Lindy, Dee-Dee’s sister,” she says, and waits to be told to get out.
The boy takes his lower lip in his teeth and looks past her. She recalls that his first name may be Shane. “I think I heard a heartbeat,” the boy says. He pauses. For the lip to steady, Lindy sees. “Come in and listen.”
The trailer is overheated as the Fourth of July. She drops the grocery bags in the dim behind the front door, the only distinct object in the draped room an aquarium of illuminated urine-colored water. From the cramped kitchen, a thin odor of unwashed breakfast dishes. Fried egg yolks gelling on plastic plates. Shane is already disappearing down the narrow hall, and Lindy stumbles after him, into a tiny bedroom that reeks of sweat.
Lindy had expected from Dee-Dee her usual hostility or smugness. She gets neither. She also doesn’t get a greeting. Dee-Dee’s face rises off the pillow in a knot, drained white with a purplish cast left behind. Red eyes move in the white face like a rabbit’s. It’s been a long time since Lindy’s seen her without makeup, and naked of it, Dee-Dee makes up quick the ten years between herself and Lindy. Shane has her stomach bared, it blown out taut and showing its veins. Dee-Dee waits for her with the boy.
“Put your ear to her belly,” Shane whispers. His hair is damp around the edges, his own heartbeat rapid in a vein in his head.
It occurs to Lindy that she hasn’t touched her sister’s stomach since Dee-Dee was five or six. Outside the single bedroom window crouches that sky, foaming low with snow refusing to fall. Lindy loops her hair behind her ear, inhales, and stoops.
She can feel the heat off Dee-Dee’s skin without touching her. Lindy squats there in stupid obedience, in self-disgust. But she is not surprised. Other boys like this one she has given in to, in situations almost as foolish, and way more dangerous. She knows she won’t catch a rhythm under Dee-Dee’s skin. She doesn’t even listen. She concentrates on appearing to listen while not actually touching Dee-Dee’s body. After what she figures is long enough, she stands back up.
“Nothing,” she says. “Sorry.”
“No-o,” Shane insists. He stops and swallows. “You got to move your head around. Listen in different places.”
“Look, why don’t I call the Rescue Squad back and they can take you all on down to the clinic? They got. . .more sensitive instruments down there.”
Shane cuts her a look with snakebite in it. When she leaves the bedroom, he tries to slam the door behind her, but flimsy like it is, it makes only a shabby smack.
She finds herself on the heap of cinderblocks that is their front stoop. The block she sits on wobbles. From under the trailer, a white cat slats out, petrifies at the sight of her, then bullets around the back. It shows clear the knobs of its shoulders and hips, and Lindy recalls first moving out of here. Then most of the dogs and cats outside looked fat. Now the ones inside look skinny. That is the difference. She stares at the grimy margarine tub that is the cat’s dish, the pork chop bones scattered in the dirt, and cannot think of a thing to do. Everything collapsed again into this single clod of narrow house, spent farm, and the couple miles that encrust them. An intactness not a thing in the world can prick. Not a television, not comings and goings, not births nor deaths, not the 12 years she’s spent outside.
Her mother had lost several between Lindy and Dee-Dee. “Your mother’s people have always had an easy time getting pregnant, a hard time staying that way,” her father would say. The losses had something to do with the distance between the sisters, a distance much greater than age. Dee-Dee is loved three times more, the way Lindy figures it. First, the inevitable love skip down to the youngest; second, the way parent love seems fertilized by the ones who make the most trouble; and third, the lost babies before Dee-Dee finally lived, making Dee-Dee precious in a way Lindy never was. But Lindy still carries memories of several. Blood curling over toilet water, a riddle there in the iron-stained bowl (it is the plumbing. They can keep nothing white.). Lindy uncertain whether it came out of a person or the pipes, and both to her at five years old somehow equally sad. Another time, her father returning from the clinic to tell her a little brother had died. “How come?” Lindy asked. “Well,” her father thought. “Because he was no bigger than my thumb.” Then he stuck out the thumb to show her, and always Lindy would see it that way. A little thumb baby, legless, armless, a crushed up infant face in place of the nail.
The door opens behind her. She turns. Desperation has forced Shane to forgive her.
“I swear,” Shane says. “I heard it. Can you come back in and listen?”
This time Dee-Dee has her face away, her eyes closed. Lindy kneels and shuts her own and wonders why she didn’t do it this way before. So much easier shut eyes make it. Closed up in her head, the odor of anonymous sweat that had hit her when she walked in comes to her as familiar as the snow smell did.
It is family sweat. The smell of how her mother sweats. Of how Lindy herself sweats.
Suddenly, Lindy wants to believe. She wants this bad. She lays her ear on Dee-Dee’s bare skin without flinching. She strains to hear the way she would if she’d been listening for that second noise in the night. She stretches her neck, does move her head around, does listen in different places. She even turns her face over in case the other ear might do a better job. And she remembers (she had forgotten, she slips back into the knowing the way her tongue loosens for talking here), she remembers how wrong they have it when they blame these pregnancies on carelessness. When, Lindy remembers, it is the opposite, it is a carefulness, a kind of mindfulness (the absence of anything else to do, to expect, the absolute lack of distraction, until that single person, the anticipation of the next time, dilates universal) a concentration only the very imaginative or the desperate can recover after passing age 22.
Lindy waits. Her breathing patterns Dee-Dee’s. But she hears nothing in there but, distant, Dee-Dee’s bowels working a little.
Finally, she straightens up with her eyes still closed and shakes her head for the boy. Then she opens them, and her heart socks up between her lungs. She had forgotten the full-length mirrors covering the closet doors across from where she stands. Lindy in the mud-crusted boots, the dirty-pink quilted coat daubed over with kerosene spills, her face rough, chapped, bloodless except in the nose. That raw and red. For several minutes, Lindy has never left out of here at all.
Once she escapes to the yard, she stands with her back against the trailer wall and strains to see distance. She’s brought up short by the cattle-racked knob across the creek. The cold beats her breath into the visible, and she jams her scarf to her mouth and bites down, an old, old habit. It returns to her in the taste of damp wool. A time when she was small, must have been seven or eight, she can date it by the wool taste, the strings that tied the cap she was made to wear then. She and the old man, not so old then, not yet blanked in the face then, and her uncle Jerry, and her cousin, Jerry’s boy, the one they call Thumper. Them walking their property line above an old orchard of Hebert Stills’, reblazing with a hatchet the healed-over trees that marked their bounds. And as they passed an old cistern on Hebert’s side, the concrete ledge of it a little higher than Lindy’s head and the whole thing no bigger across than a couple bathtubs, they heard a splashing and wheezing in there. Somehow a little deer had tumbled into it. Her father lifted her up on one of those giant apple crates so she could see down into the cistern, and then the men and Thumper went to fishing it out. But there was no touching it. The little deer, a last-year’s fawn, paddling frantic, walled crazy in her eyes. The men prodding at her with boards, and Thumper, scrambled up and clinging like a salamander to the cistern wall, swiping at her with as much arm as he could free without falling, but there was no touching her. She swam away from the old man to Jerry, and away from Jerry to Thumper, over and over in a star. Until she was nearly dead and had no choice. Then they levered her out with the planks, and Uncle Jerry cradled her down to the ground where she lay in a little crumple. Too tired even to shake, to flick, much less to run away.
Lindy realizes that for some minutes there has seeped from behind the trailer wall a muffled murmuring. She drops what is in her mind and pays attention. Faint and unbroken, almost like a television at a distance, but eerier, somehow, than a television.
The sound lures her back up over the rubble of stoop and through the warped front door. It comes from the bedroom. She moves silently over the balding carpet, smells behind her the raw deer haunch she dropped earlier start to cook or to spoil. It’s hard to tell which. The bedroom door stands slightly open. Without getting against it, Lindy peers in.
From her angle, Lindy can see Dee-Dee only from her breasts down. Shane has taken off the flannel shirt and has his back to Lindy, but she sees that although he’s not listening anymore, his head’s bowed so low his bangs drag Dee-Dee’s navel. Lindy moves a little at the naked back despite herself. The perfectness of it. How brief it will keep back here.
The singsong throbs along with a heat behind it. Lindy understands that she couldn’t tell what it was earlier because Shane is not speaking any words. Still, the contours of the thrum blaze up in her a remembering. A pattern beaten in her nerves. Eighteen years of Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights cramped and resistant in a pew. It is the shell of prayer he chants. A boy who knows the shape of prayer, but has never learned the words.
Lindy shifts to where she can see the front of him in the mirror across the bed. Once again, she feels nearly slapped with how young he is. His breath hovering Dee-Dee’s skin. She watches his hand moving over Dee-Dee’s stomach, over the dead fetus, in tight circles. Every minute or so, at the same interval in the drone, he uses one finger to trace a little cross on Dee-Dee’s skin.
Now it comes to Lindy what Shane’s trying to do, and she reels back hard. Finds herself caught short by the hall wall behind her. Groping through the front room, she trips and falls on her knees before she finds the door. Snow skulks stubborn behind the sky. She heads up back of the trailer, away from the house, towards the treeless knob. It’s beginning to turn dark, but she thinks she can get up into that open place first.