Holly doesn’t understand all the bent ways of her mother. She doesn’t realize that mothers shouldn’t do things like watch their ten-year-olds bathe, or that she has no friends. Momma quietly destroys all of her relationships, turning and folding them over in her hands like salt kneaded into the loam of her daughter’s heart. Holly is dimly aware, because Momma is clever. Like a chameleon, what lives inside Momma’s skin is very good at manipulating what doctors and teachers and parents and relatives should have seen. Including Holly.
For now, Holly sits out in the crook of the tire swing Daddy set up under a dirty pine tree before he left. Momma, who is not yet Mother who is further still from Jennifer, has locked her out of the house for the afternoon since school let out. “Just need space” she says, although space to do what Holly is never sure, since all Momma does is smoke menthols behind brown heavy curtains that maybe once weren’t so brown and watch daytime television until dinner, and sometimes for a while after that if she forgets or falls asleep.
So Holly sits in the tire swing and hums to herself while she digs her bare feet into the soft dirt. Cicadas rattle somewhere off in the tall grass that’s overgrown around their yard and the humidity and heat of the stifling New England summer beads sweat against Holly’s skin. Her shirt clings wetly to her back, and the air conditioner attached to the ramshackle of her house kicks to life.
She’ll decide later that she felt the thing fall rather than heard or saw it, but one way or another it happens, and Holly can see part of the waist-high reeds from across the yard shiver awkwardly underneath the dirty pine trees that she knows Momma hates. The reeds seem to chirp as she approaches. Carefully she combs through them with her feet, bending and folding them over as she searches the ground. It doesn’t take long. She scoops the thing up and coos at it gently, pets its head and rubs back the baby-fine down feathers. What she assumes must be its mother chirps at her anxiously from a limb above, and Holly cranes her head to the sky.
“Fell out of your nest, I see. Bad place, you know. Mean old cat hangs around out here. We’ll need to get you back up there,” she says. Holly eyes the tree, follows the grey scaly trunk up and across to the branch overhead, then spots the nest. She furrows her brow, remembering the last time she dared climb a pine tree.
Look at you your clothes are a mess there’s sap in your hair and dirt all over you and spiders live in those dirty things I’m going to spank your ass go fetch me a switch don’t you ever get up in one of those pine trees again they’re disgusting things and do you want to be disgusting that’s not ladylike at all no daughter of mine will be improper not like a whore not so long as I have anything to say about it now take your clothes off and get in the bath and
And Holly is sure she does not want to go back in one of those pine trees, yet there its nest sits, and here she is. Doubt taps against the thin windowpane of her mind. Holly thinks she’ll be careful. Thinks that if she doesn’t climb too much into the tree, just a little bit, just as high as she needs, she should be okay. Shouldn’t get too dirty. She scans the trunk of the tree all the way around and finds no sap to rub off on her and catch her dress, so she drops the bird in a pocket and wraps her arms and legs around and shimmies on up to the first branch. The mother bird is chirping and dancing something fierce now, bouncing from limb to limb around her like it were a prizefighter and all the branches the ropes of the ring Holly just stepped into.
“It’s o-kay,” says Holly. “I’m gonna return your baby in just a minute, don’t worry.” She moves out far enough to swing the soles of her feet up against the trunk. Catches it with her heels, walks up to the branch, and swings her legs over it. Sits up, then pulls herself on up to the next. Holly glances nervously back down toward the house. The heavy curtains that cover the windows and shut the world out remain undisturbed. She doesn’t think Momma has seen her, but it wouldn’t be the first time she’d watched Holly in secret, only to later burst through a door and demand she explain her shame.
A few more branches later, and she’s there. Holly scoops the tiny bird from the pocket of her sundress and sets it back in its nest. The mother bird still dances about chirping at her, but it seems eased. Holly examines her dress and arms and legs: miraculously, she finds herself to be clean. Satisfied, she picks a landing spot on the ground, and jumps down. She rolls as she hits the ground and springs back up in the tall weeds, bits of straw in her hair the worst of the damage.
Holly bends to pat down her dress and freezes. A button is missing. Despite the balmy weather and recent workout, she shivers as a chill constricts her skin and passes over her forehead, across her cheeks, and down her spine. I must have lost it when I was climbing, she thinks. Oh no, but Momma… Holly spends the rest of the afternoon searching frantically for the button, even as the sun sets and the light dies beyond use, before her mother finally calls her inside.
Holly gathers her books from under the tire and bites her cheek as hard as she can ever remember to keep from crying as she walks down to the house. The inside is dim. The only lit bulb hangs bare from a wire in the laundry room that serves as the entrance. Laundry is piled in corners and the room smells sour from clothes sitting damp in the washer too long. The house is quiet.
“Momma?” Holly asks, stepping through the kitchen.
Her mother responds hoarsely from the bedroom around the corner. “Be quiet. I have a headache. Fix dinner for yourself tonight and shut my door.”
“Okay Momma. I love you,” Holly says. And she does.
Her mother grunts and Holly does as she’s told. She breathes a sigh of relief. At least for tonight the button won’t be discovered. She knows the pantry won’t have anything but old canned vegetables and the fridge will be barren except for hot dogs, which she’s sick of having, so she goes upstairs to her room instead and reads a book on her bed. How long she’s been reading Holly isn’t sure, but the sun has long since gone down before she hears a rapping at her windowsill. Looking over the pages of her book, she’s surprised to see the mother bird from earlier this afternoon. It has her missing button in its beak. Before she can say anything it drops the button on the sill and flies off into the night. Holly nearly squeals before remembering Momma is asleep, then sets herself to sewing it back onto her dress.
The next day Holly brings a bird identification book home from school. As soon as she gets home, she heads for the pine tree in the back to sit underneath. Before she can climb the hill to the back yard behind their house, Momma calls her in.
“Holly, got some chores in here for you. Come inside.”
Momma is standing in the laundry room when she gets in. “Need you to get some of these clothes washed. Doing lights, take off your dress. It’s going in the wash.”
“Okay, let me go change in my room.”
“No. Those clothes are all dirty or they don’t fit. And there’s no one here but us girls anyway. Just take off your clothes.”
Holly knows this isn’t true and feels hot in her cheeks and ashamed but knows Momma will make her pick a switch if she doesn’t mind.
“Get working on this laundry then you can go outside and play.”
Holly does as she’s told and Momma leaves the room. A few minutes later and she’s back, standing in the doorway to the kitchen. Holly pretends she doesn’t notice the staccato flashes of light that punctuate the beep beep, click of Momma’s camera. She finishes the laundry, then goes to her room to find clothes.
Outside under the tree, the sun is bright. The air is clean. There is no heavy curtain of cigarette smoke here. The golden reeds she sits in surround her, shrouding her and blocking out the house, the road, everything but the tree above her, and the blue sky. She takes her shirt off because it’s hot, because it feels good, because she wants to. Holly watches for the birds above her and flips through the identification book. She learns that her new friends are called Turdus migratorius: American robins. She envies them, envies their light delicate song. Their flight. She spends hours trying to imitate what she hears, talking to them, singing to them. Holly fancies they understand her, and in her mind she speaks though chirps and whistles. Delicate song flitters from her lips.
“Hello, Momma Bird. How are you today?”
“Fine, thank you. Yourself, my dear?”
“Oh, wonderful. Quite a day, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes. Thank you so much for saving my baby yesterday, truly. We are oh so grateful.”
Holly blushes, but whistles on. “I am happy to help. What a lucky baby to have such a good momma as you.”
“You flatter me! But we owe you a life debt. Anything that’s ever needed, just sing.”
“Oh but I couldn’t burden you, and I wouldn’t know—”
“Sing, Holly, dear. Sing.”
Holly imagines that they talk in this way—and maybe they do—until the sun begins to set, and when Momma calls for her, the sound is a grating, foreign thing. Not like the whimsical notes of the robin’s song that dance on the wind like wild motes or dandelion seeds weaving through the air understood. Momma’s voice is hoarse and cold. It grinds against Holly’s ears like bits of thick glass caught in the sink disposal, and bringing her mind back from the robin’s song to understand Momma is a struggle. The sound of her own name is alien until it isn’t, until to Holly’s horror she realizes Momma has had to call her three times before she finally understands and can make sense of her words. Holly almost imagines she hears the robin call after her as she darts toward Momma, feet pattering anxiously against the earth. She almost imagines the robin whistling after her, Sing, Holly.
Maybe it does.
When Holly gets to the door she is out of breath, and Momma is waiting, arms crossed. Her jaw is set, and her eyes are flat. “I would have you pick your own switch for making me call after you if I didn’t think Uncle Lenny would mind it,” says Momma. “But I can’t have you all scarred up now. Get this place cleaned up, we’re going to have company tonight.”
Holly scrunches up her nose and cocks her head, hands on her knees as she pants. She knows she doesn’t have any Uncle Lenny.
This doesn’t scare her because she doesn’t know it should.
So Holly does as she’s told. She goes inside and cleans the kitchen and washes the dishes and takes out the trash and does all the chores around the house that Momma doesn’t ever do. She orders and straightens the art decorations she’s made and hung for Momma on the fridge, the Mother’s Day card and the Easter collage and the watercolor from last week created just because. She does this with a smile on her face and a daughter’s love in her heart, warm and trusting and innocent and full despite the thick fog-like malaise that seems to hang low around the place. When she’s done, Holly draws open the curtains in the kitchen, opens the windows, and lets the light in. Hands on her hips, she admires her work. Momma will be happy. Proud. Of course she will. Maybe they’ll even eat dinner together at the table with their special guest, as a family. They don’t ever have guests. Holly wonders what the occasion is.
“Yes, she’s here. Upstairs in her room.”
A pause. Holly presses her ear hard against the grate in her floor, struggles to hear. She knows if Momma catches her like this she’ll get the switch, but something hasn’t felt right since Momma made her stay in her room after cleaning. She can only hear one side of the phone conversation; it will have to do.
“Of course I’m sure,” says Momma. Her voice is muffled. Holly thinks it sounds like listening through a seashell she found by the shore one summer with Daddy. She wishes he were still alive.
“Well, how many ten-year-olds do you know that have already lost their virginity?”
Virginity. Holly doesn’t know this word. Fingers fly over the worn tissue-thin pages of Daddy’s pocket dictionary.
“And she needs to stay that way. Until I get paid. Twenty minutes tonight. Just a taste. That’s it. School is out tomorrow for the summer. She’s yours after that.”
Like the pieces of a puzzle she’s stood too close to for too long, things fall into place. Health class. Crude jokes in the back of the bus. Questions in the locker room. She has no Uncle Lenny. Virginity.
Holly is no longer dimly aware.
“Fine. Yeah. Be here in an hour.” Momma coughs and slams the phone down in its cradle.
Tears well up and if Holly had ever known it before, she would have called the thing that crushes and leaves her hollow inside despair. She imagines the paintings on the fridge are brittle, and they crack, unseen, in the stale air of what she realizes is a very lonely house, not a home. The pieces flake and fall broken, tumbling and turning end over end as they seesaw to the cold, freshly mopped linoleum. Holly sets her face into the crook of her arm and cries against the windowsill.
There are no tears left when the rusted pickup truck coughs into the driveway; spite has taken their place. Her dresser has been dragged, quietly as she can, to bar the door. The sight of him stepping out now fills her again with dread. She watches as what must be Uncle Lenny saunters toward the front door, stumbling before knocking. He crushes a beer can and tosses it to the bed of his truck. Though she doesn’t dare to hope, Holly thinks back to what she knows was only a dream.
Sing, Holly. Sing.
And so she does. She purses her lips together, presses her tongue behind her teeth, and whistles. She chirps, trills, rolls the words she imagines over in her mouth and through her lips like she never has before. Imagines, believes, that she weaves and twists and threads her desperation into something someone will hear. Holly sings.
Muffled voices from below. There’s a scuffle, and the man curses.
“Hey, watch out, will you? Jesus, ain’t you ever been around a kerosene lamp before? She’s upstairs. Let me see the cash first.”
The stairs begin to creak. Holly whistles and sings and cries her throat raw, the outside setting sun a fiery red through her blurry tears. She nearly misses the robin dart over the roof below and in through the kitchen window.
Her doorknob twists. “Holly, open the door.”
She presses her back against the dresser against the door, shakes her head. Her hair is matted against her forehead and cheeks, sticky wet with tears and sweat. Her chest heaves. “Oh no, please Momma oh no, I don’t want to,” she says. “Don’t make me do it, Momma. Please don’t make me do it.”
“Holly goddammit you open this door or so help me God I’ll fetch the switch myself and bust your ass like you never seen ‘fore child, open this door.” It shudders and bulges against the dresser under heavy-fisted blows. Holly braces her feet against her bed, presses back against it. Through curses and heavy fists, the door inches open. Her knees grow weak and begin to buckle.
“What the hell, get off me! Damn thing, it’s come through the window–Oh God, the lamp! Jennifer, get down here!”
The assault against the door ceases. Holly presses her ear against the grate in the floor, hears scuffling. Shouting. Soon, she no longer hears—she smells. Smoke. It begins to waft up through the grate. She throws her blankets over the top of it and makes to push the dresser out from in front of her door, but her arms are tired. Her legs are weak, and the feet of the dresser have collapsed on themselves, dug into the wood of the floor. More, the doorframe is splintered and warped. The door is jammed. It doesn’t budge.
Holly hangs out her window, watches the front door. She doesn’t know why, but it’s quiet below now. Momma and Uncle Lenny don’t come out. Her tears come again, but they’re of a different sort. Happier, in a way. It gets hot in her room, fills with smoke. Holly can see the flames licking out from the windows below. She doesn’t imagine her arms and legs forming into thin hollow things, graceful, lined with sleek black feathers and red puffy chest, her mouth a perfect little beak. She doesn’t imagine because she doesn’t have to. Holly remembers her envy of the robins and their flight. She remembers what the robin told her. So she sings. Holly sings, and sings, and sings, and sings.
The fire burned hot. Maybe even hot enough to turn bone to ash. But they only find the remains of two, and a family of robins sing easily into the warm summer day above golden reeds that sway in the breeze while men search blackened bones.
R. Leigh Hennig is a writer and editor living in Seattle, WA. He runs The Semiotic Standard, a sporadically updated journal on all things speculative fiction, and will be attending The University of Washington in the fall for his MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics.