Did you know May is Short Story Month? I found out rather late in the game. But since it’s still May for a brief while, I’ll share a short fiction piece I wrote a few years ago. This story originally appeared in the May, 2009 issue of THEMA – the “Box Under the Bed” issue. Before I get to the actual story, I’ll use this opportunity to say that THEMA is an excellent little magazine. If you’re looking for something good to read, and/or if you’re looking for a prospective market for your writing, take a look at it. Even when they’ve rejected me, I’ve received thoughtful and helpful responses on my writing.
Now the story:
I was written in pencil. This represented a compromise between my grandmother, who believed Mama shouldn’t waste a name on me because I wasn’t a keeper, and my mother, who swore I would live and believed I should be listed in the family Bible in ink with the rest of the family. My grandmother kept the Bible in a locked pine box under her bed. I never did get changed to ink, though Mama asked about it occasionally. Granny always claimed she’d get around to it, but then would add, “It might be wise after all to wait a little longer just to make sure.”
The way she’d look at me made me feel like I was shrinking away to nothing already, as if I’d be gone without a trace in just a few minutes. I hesitated to go to bed some nights for fear I’d simply disappear in my sleep.
I was the only thing Mama ever stood up to Granny about. Mama told me how she insisted on having a bed set up right next to the wood stove when I was born. She’d hold me there between the warmth of her body and the heat of the stove, making sure I didn’t have a chance to go cold and stiff. Once I overheard my two aunts talking. They said when Mama realized I didn’t have even the strength to suckle, she soaked up her milk with a clean rag and squeezed drops into my mouth.
Granny never forgave Mama for being right, never completely admitted Mama had been right. I remember her arguing with Mama over whether I needed new pants. Granny told her, “The boy’s never going to get to any respectable size. He doesn’t outgrow his clothes but once every couple of years. If he’s too big for his breeches it isn’t in any physical sense.”
She used to short me on food too. Sometimes she wouldn’t set a place at the table for me until Mama reminded her. Then Granny would say, “Oh, I clean forgot he was here.” As if I hadn’t been there every dinner time my entire life. More often she’d serve out tiny portions onto my plate. If Mama then dipped out more for me, Granny would shake her head and ask, “How much do you think that little thimbleful of a child can hold?”
Granny’s always been substantial, sturdy, every bit as strapping as any farm hand she hired. And she doesn’t make room in her life for those who are too small and weak to make room for themselves. She’s never lost an opportunity of telling people she weighed over 10 pounds at birth, as did all three of her children. I was about a third of that when I was born, according to what I’ve heard.
Mama had me too soon. My early birth was due to her emotional upset at losing my father so unexpectedly. He got into a barroom fight, or else he was trying to break up a fight, or he walked in just as one man was shooting at another. Somehow he found himself in a bar and ended up taking a bullet. Nobody ever was arrested. The story was too confusing for the sheriff to unravel. I’ve heard about eight different versions myself. Well, all the witnesses were drunks.
My father was big, like his mother. I used to look at the only photograph Mama had of herself and Daddy together, taken just after they got married. In the picture they were standing close to each other. Daddy stood there broad and tall, taking up most of the space; even his whiskers seemed extra thick. He had his arm around Mama, a little wisp of a thing, with the top of her curly blond hair just grazing his shoulder. She wore a white gauzy dress. Daddy looked something like a bear who just ambled out of the forest, and Mama like a woodland fairy he’d found and carried with him.
Granny didn’t consider my mother to be good for much of anything; couldn’t understand why my father had brought such a person into the clan. My grandmother measured out her days in complaints over the meals Mama didn’t cook, the garden she didn’t cultivate. Of course, whenever Mama did try to help, Granny wouldn’t allow it. She’d grab the hoe right from Mama’s hand, declaring, “ Whacking the top off a weed’s no good. You have to be strong enough to get it by the root.”
Sometimes I thought Mama poured so much energy into taking care of me just to show up Granny. Keeping me alive was the one thing she could accomplish, against the predictions of just about everyone.
It was because of me that Granny had to keep Mama after Daddy died. Mama didn’t have any family of her own to go to. I know Granny hoped I’d take after my paternal side and serve as a replacement for Daddy. Or failing that, she wished I’d have the decency to be prompt about the journey to my heavenly home, preferably taking my mother with me.
Instead, I arrived early, extraneous and runty, neither condition ever to be remedied during my time in Granny’s household. When I first went to school I had to sit on a dictionary to see over the top of my desk, even though the teacher put me in the littlest seat at the front of the room. Embarrassed for anyone to know I came from her family, Granny tried to convince Mama to enroll me under a false name. By the time I started seventh grade, this past year, I had only moved back two rows. I’m still not tall enough to see over the heads of any but the youngest children.
I doubt I’ll be going to eighth grade. I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end of this summer. Right now I can’t think that far ahead. I can’t seem to think any farther than getting some food into my stomach and figuring out where I’ll sleep tonight. Once it’s dark, I can probably sneak some vegetables from a garden somewhere, maybe find a barn to hide in.
Mama died last week. She took ill one night shortly after dinner, and passed on two days later. I put on my best shirt and trousers for the funeral. That’s what I’m still wearing, though they’re not looking so good now. I’ve ripped a hole in the left knee of the pants. The shirt is stiff with mud and old sweat and grass stains. It’s amazing to look at it and think it used to be white just a few days ago.
I rode to the graveyard in the buggy with Granny. She didn’t tell me to; I just saw her climbing up behind the horses and assumed I should too. Not many people attended, only Granny and myself, my two aunts with their husbands and children, and the preacher. The service was brief; everyone seemed in a hurry to get out of the hot July sun. If there’s a minimum requirement for the number of words that can be said at a funeral, the preacher barely met it. I don’t remember much more than “God’s will be done.”
Next thing I knew the wagons were driving away. Everyone forgot me. I didn’t mind; I wanted to stay there with Mama a little while. I don’t know how long I sat by her grave. A couple of hours maybe. I talked to Mama, told her how much I missed her already. I asked her now that she was in heaven, could she be my guardian angel? Then the men came to shovel in the dirt. They told me I should go, so I walked back to Granny’s house.
I thought the family would gather there, bringing food, like people do after funerals. But when I came in sight of the house, I didn’t see any extra horses or wagons. Apparently they all went back to their own homes. By that time, I only wanted to go lie down in bed anyway. I was hot and my shirt was sticking to my skin; my head hurt and I felt like there was a sharp rock inside my chest, ripping a hole in me.
I walked on down to the house thinking that once in bed I might not get back up for several days. However, when I put my hand to the door latch, I found it was locked. I knocked, but didn’t hear anything inside. I stood there for several minutes, pondering where Granny could be. Finally I decided all I could do was wait for her to come home. I went around back and drew up some water from the well. I took a long drink and then poured some over my head. It didn’t do much to revive me. Feeling a thousand years old, I dragged myself up to the top of the small knoll beside our house and let myself drop under the shade of a maple tree. I fell asleep right off.
I woke up at dusk, groggy and confused, wondering why Mama had left me outside, sleeping in the grass, instead of bringing me in to my bed. Then I remembered. I looked down and saw lamplight through the window. Granny was home. Once again, I made my way for the door, aiming to get to my own bed. Once again, the door was locked. I could hear Granny moving around inside this time. I banged my fist on the wood and hollered, “Granny, it’s me.”
I received no reply. Eventually, I climbed back up to my maple tree and watched the stars begin to dot the sky. I wondered if Mama was looking down on me. “What should I do Mama?” I asked. No answer there either.
True night had come by that time. The dark seemed like it was grabbing at me, and the mosquitoes were eating me up. I ran back toward the house, stopping in the front yard to catch my breath. I began to tremble all over, standing there completely alone. I felt smaller than I ever had before. The thought came to me that if I shouted loud enough for long enough, someone somewhere would hear me and come to see what was the fuss, a thought immediately followed by the fear that it might be coyotes or wolves who heard me. My legs felt about as substantial as pudding by this time.
Wobbling a bit, I crept closer to the house. Instead of the door, I headed for the window. I peered inside, not knowing what I expected to see. There was Granny, sitting at the table, the wooden Bible box next to her. She was snipping a photograph with her sewing scissors, the picture of my parents. She was cutting them apart. When she finished, she lay Daddy down on the table, smoothing him out. Then she took Mama and threw her into the wood stove.
Next she went to the shelf where she kept her writing things: paper, pencils and such. She picked up something and brought it back to the table. Taking a key from her apron pocket, she opened the pine box. She lifted out the family Bible and opened it up. After staring at it for a moment she put her hand to the page. I saw then what she was holding – an eraser.
Copyright: Ida Bettis Fogle