At a time in a place on a world like no other . . . we are born . . .
Swish-swish. At every walking step, the green tail slithers behind me: a weed attached to my bum by grasping fingers. Many pattering feet follow, tiny paws tapping on the grass, bushy tails snapping at the air and any bug flying in too close. Furry bodies march to my plant baton while I conduct my purring cat band across the parade route through the overgrown backyard. The five felines lift paws and swats at the weed. The rest of my kitty hoard might lurk at the barn, sleeping on the sun-warmed hay, or out in the neighboring countryside getting their bellies filled while the rodent population declined.
Swish. My bare feet hop around the dandelions. These tiny sun cousins turn petals toward the afternoon’s glow. Their yellow centers buzz. Bumpy, cream-colored, pantyhose cover the honey bees’ legs as they ignore me while flitting to the next pollen catcher. I reach the driveway curving from the road in a wavy, backward S lengthened at the bottom. It passes by the house on one side and the garage on the other as it ends at the pasture entrance. I debate which way to go.
The cats decide. They rip the weed in half, shaking it in teeth and running away from those who have none. Several dash toward the barbed wire fence and wiggle underneath.
“To the BARN,” I command with my right arm pointing. I strut forward on the balls of my feet. Tiny pains enter my toes from the driveway’s chipped stone. Whenever I’m outside, I go barefoot. Sure, it hurts. But I hate shoes. Hate having my feet cramped inside, sweating, locked away, unable to move.
My body shivers while I unconsciously scratch at the bridge of my sore nose. I hate shoes. My mother always warns, “Michelle, you’ll get stingers in your feet.” I always shrug at the comment. I think it’s better to be free to run and play and bounce on bare feet. So what if I had to be careful of the bees wherever I go? So what if my feet turn red on the bottom, sore from the stone edges? Alive. The pain makes me feel alive inside while playing outside.
My body scoots through the beams of the fence. In the doghouse, a huff blows from a white muzzle as Zeus rolls over on his hay mattress. His chain jingles in warning as it causes the piglets in the lower pasture to jerk up heads and flick pink ears. I take the dirt path toward the second barn, straddling the water runoff from the slope.
Everything slopes. The barn. The dirt path. The pigs. Me. The entire property covered the side of a huge hill. Every day I walked either uphill or downhill. Hilly Pennsylvania.
“Sloped,” I breathe. My eyes stare at the barn. A window occupies the wall on the first level. A rectangular opening runs vertical on the second level, immovable slats covering it yet still allowing light inside. Feathers flutter in the breeze with their shafts stuck in the wood’s cracks. A shadow moves by inside.
I rush to the high foundation wall, pressing against the cold stone, and peek around. The double door smacks the barn sides, thrown open wide. Along the ramp struts several hens as they jump off the bottom edge and scamper underneath. They nest along the dry earth.
And me without my green club, as I stick the jagged end of the broken weed between chewing teeth. I sneak along the middle of the ramp where the main beam sits underneath. My feet avoid the sides, never walking on the sides, where weather and time has made the old boards weak. Falling at the bottom of the ramp is fine. Falling off at the top, more than fourteen feet high, onto the broken cement blocks below, is bad.
I reach the second level and peek inside. On the low rafter, white bodies hang. Baling twine wraps around pink ankles as necks dangle and heads swing in a slight rocking motion. No sounds come from the fat bodies. Outstretched wings droop, catching the breeze, rotating in the draft.
My toes stretch toward the clean spots on the floor. I hop on the wisps of hay orphaned from the bales against the wall. I near the first one in the row of ten. My finger pokes the still warm body.
The chicken comes alive. Wings beat at the air. The body swings about. Hysterical “BUCKAWS” erupt from its beak. The hen knocks into the next one hanging beside it. This chicken comes alive. It thrashes and crows and smacks into the third chicken, as it begins a frantic appeal for freedom. One by one, the domino effect runs along the entire row, causing a cackling fuss while loose feathers and downy dust drift downward.
“Go play, Michelle.” The voice comes from the other side of the empty chick pens. Michael walks into sight, plaid shirt tails hanging out of torn blue jeans, as he holds a chicken by its feet. He waits until the other hens settle down before tossing the twine over the beam and tying the end.
I ignore the command. Just because he is eleven and I’m six doesn’t mean he can boss me around. Then again, I rub the tender spot on my arm. Mike had ways of making me listen, and bruises don’t show easily on brown skin.
I jump back toward the barn doors. I stand on the right side, the entrance covered in chicken wire. My fingers go through the loops and clutch it while I press my face against the cool metal. I pretend to be a jailhouse stoolie housed in the same cell with the guy I ratted on to the police. “Help me . . . help me . . . ”
Mike turns his back, looking for more twine and more chickens. “Go away.”
“What’cha doing, Mikey?” I scrunch my face. It doesn’t make sense. He doesn’t like chicken. My brother won’t even eat it, griping about the stringy veins whenever our mom fries wings and legs for supper. I disliked those parts too, picking the meat off the bone instead. Of course, this didn’t mean I would hang the birds by their toes on lynching ropes because they had stringy veins.
Mike huffs. He walks from the second floor and down the ramp. I glance at the hanging chickens before hurrying out. He moves fast yet my brother has only so many places to hide on the farm. I find him inside the first floor of the barn. More chickens hang there.
“What’cha doing?” I ask again. I lean against the doorframe, the bottom entrance consisting of a large plywood door on roller casters in the metal track attached across the top. I rub my nose again.
“Nothing. Why are you scratching your nose? It’s red?” My brother checks on the hens by nudging them. Most of them create a fuss like the others upstairs. A few act sluggish, wings flapping in slow motion. He unties those ones.
I sniffle and lower my hand. “It hurts. I woke up this morning and it was all red.” I watch the hens stagger on wobbly legs. It reminds me of when I would stand on my head. All the blood rushed into the brain before I tipped over, dizzy. Then I had fun staggering about, bumping into objects. Always fun.
The hens don’t look like they enjoy it. They take their woozy strut out the door while oinking nears. Several pigs enter. The females snuffle the cement searching for any grub. Then the male hog appears, his head swiveling.
I rush toward the calf’s stall and dive onto the soft hay. Mike scrambles up onto the high tractor seat. We watch the hog trot around the main space, sniffing at the tractor and standing on the tire rim as it squeals at Mike. He stands still, barely breathing. I do the same, not moving, not wanting the creature’s wrath turned toward me. It circles the tractor before heading toward my hiding place. The hog pushes his forehead into the beams, looking for an opening.
Mike catches my attention. He gestures at the open pen. I nod, knowing the routine.
My brother jumps off the tractor seat, shoes clacking on the cement. He rushes into the pen, shouting, “Suuu-wee. SUUUU-WEEEE!”
The hog shuffles around. Squeals roll from its throat. Four hooves clatter as it dashes forward with every intent on slamming my brother into the back wall.
When the hog passes by, I scramble out the stall and run behind the large animal. Mike hurries toward the cinder block wall. The hog slides on the hay and into the pen as I grab the door and slam it close. Mike hops over the wall into the adjoining enclosure as the hog rears up and places front legs on the blocks. Its snout snaps at the air, teeth missing Mike’s leg by inches.
We breathe heavy while leaning against the tractor’s large tire. My brother has a dopey grin on his face. He strolls toward the pen door, shaking his foot, irritating the hog. It rushes over and slams headfirst into the beams. Its muzzle pushes through an opening, snapping.
I shake my head at the sight while spitting out the weed onto the floor. A female pig gobbles up the food as my hand presses against my belly. All this running and jumping around has loosened things below.
I move from the barn and along the dirt path. Zeus stands outside his doghouse, all white fur tufted across his tall body. He leans into me, almost knocking me from my feet. Sometimes I imagined riding on his back, racing through the valley, wrangling wild rabbits. Yet this time I couldn’t imagine anything right now.
“Oooo.” I scratch his head and hope he understands why I forsake the normal belly rub. My body crawls through the beams and heads through the backyard. More cats play in the grass. Every one of them flops over on their sides when seeing me as they purr in supplication.
“I gotta go.” I explain in way of apology. I reach the porch and the door bangs behind me. My feet rush across the cracked linoleum and toward the bathroom.
The door is closed. The light is on. I lean in and press my ear against the wood. Plastic rustles and scratching sounds.
I have a bad feeling on who is in there. My hand lifts, fingers curl, yet then lowers without knocking. I back away and enter the living room. Magazines litter the couch. My sister Jeannette, a year older than my brother, reads her celebrity gossip. She glances up. I point toward the bathroom.
“Dad,” she says simply.
I groan again. The rustling plastic and the scratching said as much. He sat in there, going over his lottery numbers. The state drawings on television had reached astronomical dollar signs. Everyone gathered their spare change and purchased tickets. My father also had succumbed to the lotto-craze addiction.
The amount of money he would throw in to “Hit It Big” could have bought two houses. A person could walk into any room and find a slip of scrap paper, the TV Guide, the back of a magazine, or an old calendar having number combinations written all over it. Our father had gotten it into his head that the lottery was a rigged parlor trick instead of a game of random chance. He believed a pattern (a code) of numbers would appear on certain days throughout the years, and it was just a matter of breaking the code. He had booklets of past numbers, as he checked and double-checked and scribbled out the best number combination that he believed had the most likely chance of appearing.
In a regular plastic grocery bag, he carried all these papers to work and home. It never left his side when watching television, eating dinner, or using the bathroom.
He could stay in there for years.
At least it always seemed this way to me, as I squeeze my legs together and plop down onto the floor. I turn on the television. A Woody Woodpecker cartoon comes on, not my favorite but it focuses my mind on other things for a little while. Besides, sometimes they would show Chilly Willy in-between skits. I love watching the penguin in his red cap and mittens.
Fifteen minutes pass. The colorful images help. Yet the door is still closed. Those noises associated with it being a long bathroom break sends my hopes sinking to the pit of my stomach. With my head on a temporary swivel, I stare at the television during the shows and at the bathroom during the commercials.
Snort . . . snort. The nasal grunts come from the other room at the back of the house. Tan slippers scuff across the carpet, clack on the hall’s tile, and whisk back onto the rug by the bathroom door. My mother shuffles into the living room on her way into the kitchen. Her lips move silently, the conversation for her ears alone until she realizes Jeannette and I sit in the room. Her silent mumbles stop. Now, humming rises through her throat occasionally interrupted by another snort.
She sucks in air through her nose, always claiming her allergies irritated sinuses. Every five seconds it happens. I think about the strangeness on how she does this at just certain times during the day. Whenever she busies herself with a task or watches something exciting on television, the snorts never happen. She could go for two hours without them along with her mumbles. The snorts and lip-smacking only happen when she has a certain person in her mind, and she muses about this person in a bad way.
My mother looks at my wiggling butt on the carpet. I mouth the word, “bathroom.” At a snort, she turns toward the door and knocks. “You know other people have to get in there too?”
“Let ‘em go outside.” The gruff words seep through the crack at the bottom. A snap of rustling paper emphasizes the current mood of the throne’s occupant.
My mother bustles away into the kitchen. She takes out a pot and sauce pan from the cupboard, dismissing the situation...