There was a thing that Junie gave birth to on October seventh one year, and no one ever talks about it. Ma called it the wages of sin and Dad said nothing, as he had been gone for several weeks on a savage bender. The fishing pole that Grandpa had been making was left on the kitchen table while he sat outside on the porch, Junie's shouts from upstairs muffled by the old house. When he came back inside, he broke it.
We had a dog at that time, a black collie named Bo, and he sniffed around Junie's bedroom door for a good day. Ma came out of the room after some hours, with a balled up nightgown and some sheets, and I stretched next to Bo on the hallway carpet, trying to get a peek under Junie's door. I'd been warned away, but I figured it was worth a beating if I could see what Junie had in there.
Her belly hadn't been very big. In fact, nobody knew about it until she was in her seventh month, on account of her big sweaters. She wore them all summer, claiming she was cold, but really, it had been to hide the small swelling beneath her breasts, which weren't of a size, either, not really. She was tiny, my sister. Fifteen, but she looked twelve.
I'd been making up names for it, secretly, as my first and only out-loud suggestion—Neil, after a boy I liked at school—got me a slap across the face. I had a list of six names for boys, and six for girls. I thought when I saw it, I would know which one from the list was the right one, but there it was, hours after she'd been in that room with Ma, and I hadn't seen it. I didn't even know what it was.
Lying on my belly, I saw nothing but the yellow ruffles around the bottom of her bed. I could even see an old slipper beneath the bed, and a Lego. That was good. I could tell Ma that I'd left a Lego in her room, and when I went and got it, I could show her so she wouldn't think I was lying, and I could see what Junie'd had. But Ma didn't come back up for a long time, long after I heard the laundry swing stop creaking around in a circle as she hung things up.
Eventually I got up and found Ma in the living room, a bowl of melted ice cream beside her. She wouldn't let me get my Lego that night. The next day, I departed for school, as ignorant of what my sister had given birth to as anyone. I was not allowed to speak of the event, even when teachers and the principal asked how Junie was doing. Since the first day back at school that September, all I was allowed to say was, "She is fine, thank you for inquiring."
School was nothing compared to the fact of a new baby at home, and all day long, I imagined what it looked like, how we would play together. I imagined little suits for winter with white fur around the hood, and carrying the baby on a sled on my lap down the hills. We would have so much fun, that baby and me. I was almost grateful to my sister, and I mostly despised her all the time. She was always so stuck-up, with her head in a book. She didn't even like to play nature walk in our backyard, or lava beneath the old swing set.
After three days, Junie came out of her bedroom, smelling like grease soap and sour milk. I told her to brush her teeth, she stunk. She took a shower without our mother's permission—we were only allowed to take baths—and worse, used Ma's razor to shave her legs and under her arms for the first time. Ma found the bloody toilet paper bits and whipped her with the razor, leaving little scratches and cuts on her arms and ears and neck. Then she made her sit at the kitchen table, where Grandpa's broken fishing rod had been, and with her shears, she cut off all Junie's hair.
It was real quiet after that. So quiet, I risked a peek in Junie's room. There was nothing in there.
When Dad finally came home that night, I was about bursting to ask someone where the baby was. Had they given it away? To someone in our own town? All my dreams of a baby to play with were cut to shards by constant fear that the baby was gone, and I wouldn't have it, not ever. Who else could I play with? Bo was older, a real serious dog, and my sister had been born serious, as far as I could tell. Nobody was ever allowed to come over, and we weren't allowed over to anyone's house. It seemed unfair, especially now.
But Dad didn't ask, and Ma and Grandpa said nothing about it. His hands hung at his sides, knuckles swollen and red, and he had a fading bruise around one eye. Ma fell at him, sobbing on her knees and asking for forgiveness. He ignored her, as he customarily did, and said hello to Grandpa. It was quite a scene, with her crushing her fists into the linoleum as the two men had coffee. And no one mentioned the baby.
I couldn't take it anymore.
"Mercy!" I said. "Ain't anybody gonna tell me where the baby is?"
Dad looked up, startled, as if he'd never heard of no baby, or maybe never heard of me before. Ma looked up, too, from her crumpled spot on the floor, and I knew that I had said a bad thing.
It was my unfortunate habit to open my mouth when I shouldn't, and no amount of beatings could change it permanently.
Ma got up off that floor, and Dad turned back to his coffee. She shuffled over to me, straightening up tall as she came. I backed up and backed up, right into the refrigerator, and she took my arm and shook it. She shook it harder. And then she shook me and shook me and slammed me into the refrigerator door, and the handle got my forehead.
She cried the whole time.
Junie came in; she'd been up in her room. She shouted, "Ma, stop it!" And she did. She stopped slamming me and grabbed for Junie, who took each punch and slap with the same quiet dedication she took all of them. I fell on the floor, dizzy. And like the Lego, I saw a bit of Grandpa's fishing pole beneath the kitchen table. A piece of reddened wood, cracked, no bigger than my thumb.
Dad pulled her off, flinging Ma away like she was nothing. His big swollen hands reached for Junie's head, almost touched her.
"What happened to your hair?"
But she wouldn't say. He acted like he couldn't touch her, hands hovering around her. Ma shouted and spat; maybe that was what finally did it. He turned and backhanded her as casually as swatting a fly. Nobody paid attention to me, crawling on the floor under the table, the piece of wood in my hand.
I went outside and sat there forever. No one came for me. The ground was hard, the dead grass brittle. I had no slippers on. Just my sweatshirt and corduroys. I heard crying, but it was only Grandpa, in his own bedroom, the walls covered in fishing poles and framed magazine pages from Anglers' Digest.
The sheets from Junie's bed had been hanging on the laundry carousel for days; they were stiff and cold and blue in the moonlight. I took them down and wrapped them around me. Shivered and shivered and felt snot drip hot onto my lips, and I licked it off.
I heard it crying then. Three days, but I knew it was the baby and not a kitten or maybe Grandpa.
Dragging the sheets, I searched for it, listening for the mewling. My breath came in clouds. The moon was barely out; gray glimpses of light on the grass were all I had.
Before the bender, Dad had cut hay, but it lay in damp, mildewed mounds in the field, never collected, never rolled. The crying came from the hay field. Behind me in the house, there was shouting. I ignored it, for the fretting was close. I tread carefully, lest I step on it, and searched through the piles. And there it was, hidden beneath the crackling, black hay.
I pulled it out, slippery-cold in my hands, and saw at last what my sister had given me.
A girl. A girl baby, mottled blue, its hair the same chopped texture that Junie's now had. Its eyes were closed, but it reached for me nonetheless, and I held it to my chest. I sat down and covered us both with the sheets. The baby grabbed my hair, yellow-brown like September's cornstalks, and opened its mouth wide. Its forehead begged to be kissed, and I put a finger in its mouth. It suckled, tiny teeth pricking my skin, and I remembered the piece of fishing pole in my pocket. I gave it to the baby, and it gnawed on the wood, happy as could be.
After a while, it spit out the wood and nestled against me, nails scratching my throat. I heard the kitchen door slam, and running, and wailing, but I sat still and quiet in the hay field.
Steps waded into the field, thrashing slowly through the moldy hay. Hunkering down, I tried to grab handfuls to conceal us. It was too late, for my Grandpa had found us.
He stood, swaying, a shotgun at his side.
"She's mine," I hissed.
"All right," he said, and, "It's a miracle."
He bent down, carefully setting the shotgun in the hay and reaching to brush away bits of wet hay from her. She looked up and opened her eyes at last. They were silver, as beautiful as old mirrors. He paused before he pried her from me, snot dripping down as I struggled to hold onto her.
She dangled from his hands in the moonlight, naked, growling. She wanted to be returned to me, to my arms. We were friends, best friends. I told him so, pleaded.
Grandpa looked down at me, his own nose beginning to run. He laid her back in the crisp, coarse sheets. She screeched, limbs out stiff, and in the woods at the edge of the field, things moved. Shadows crossed the fence, sliding and shifting through hay.
"Go back to the house," he said.
"Go back, Charlie." He began to cry. "Damn it, I love you both."
I was afraid for the baby, though Grandpa had never done so much as speak in a raised tone to anyone.
"You got five minutes," I said. "Then I'm running away with her."
He nodded, and I left that field, my Grandpa standing bare-chested in the October cold, looking down at Junie's baby.
I did go back to the house; I crept in through the kitchen door, and my father sat slumped at the table, sobbing on his arms, my mother on the floor at his feet, as ever, crying, pecking at the legs of his trousers. They did not notice me, and I slipped up the stairs to my room and stuffed some things in a pink backpack, and Junie came to my bedroom door. Her face was pale, her eyes damp.
"Where is it?" she whispered.
I shook my head. If she couldn't keep a hold of it before now, she didn't deserve it.
"Charlie," she whispered, touching my arm. I flinched. Her nightshirt was damp across her chest, and I noticed how her eyes were deep brown, like mine. Not silver. I had never thought to wonder who the father was. And in the same instant, I decided I did not care.
A shot cracked through the night.
We ran. Tumbling past each other, past Ma getting to her feet again. Out the back door. In the field, my Dad leapt, long-legged like a stag. Bo streaked behind him, a black shadow.
I hoped, for a moment, that it was my Grandpa. That he had somehow misfired and shot himself. I will never forgive myself for the thought, not ever.
It was not, as you must know. My Grandpa stood above the bundle, wrappings dark and in tatters. When I reached, shrieking, for the baby, my Dad shoved me back. I tumbled into the hay and lie there, the three of them standing above the baby, Bo prick-eared at my father's side. Junie was silent, close-mouthed and trembling. Dad put a hand on her shoulder, to pull her close to him, and she flung his hand away.
He stared at her as if she had been the one shot to pieces. He said her name, plaintive like a baby goat.
Junie flew at him. No words, just flinging herself, battering him and clawing at him, as wild as a fox. Grandpa put a hand over his face, sobbing. And so did I. I did not care if small Junie managed to damage our father. I did not care about anything. I would have stood or crept forever in that field, alone among the rotting hay.
Dad shouted for her to stop it. Stop it, Junie, please!
But she wouldn't, and he wrestled her down, arms snaking around to hold her. She struggled, and he grasped her to him, murmuring over and over, like she was a baby bird. She screeched, trying to claw him off her, but his hold on her was steel.
Grandpa said, "Bill. It's enough."
He looked up at him. "She's my daughter."
Grandpa lifted the gun, hands shaking. "I said, it's enough now. No more."
My father snarled. "Ain't you just the judge and jury. Know more than God himself, doncha. Criticizer. Hypocrite."
Junie bit his hand, and he let her go with a shout. She stumbled away. He began to stand.
Grandpa's shot took him in the side.
He was knocked to the ground. A momentary brightness filled me, a joy as cold as the night. But then I thought, We will be left with her! A dozen fears and exclamations ricocheted through me, my future a frightening, elated unknown. My father moaned once.
Whether or not he was still alive, whether we would take him from the field and find help or leave him, these things became irrelevant. He moaned, and shadows arose from the hay and covered him, fast, in silver streaks. They filled his mouth and latched onto his body. They covered the baby, too, what was left of her. Wrapped her up in silver, writhing around her.
I heard rustling all around us. Something slipped over my foot, like a centipede with a mirrored back.
Grandpa commanded us to run. He looked to the sky and said, "Dear lord, what have we allowed?"
I had to grab Junie; she was frozen in place. I shoved her, and she took off.
When we ran this time, it was for ourselves.
The things were everywhere, slipping beneath the hay and out again. The field was full of them. I looked back, and Grandpa stood there, aiming down. A shot. Another shot.
Panting, we vaulted the fence and landed on the other side. It was my intent to run all the way to town, but our mother stopped us.
"What happened?" she said. "Did he kill it? What is happening? Where is your father?"
She clutched at Junie.
"I said, where is your father?"
Junie stared at her, pointing out to the field.
Ma climbed over the fence. We let her.
For all my talk of running away, it was I who retreated to the house. Junie came with me, at first, but only to change clothes and take the roll of fives Ma kept behind the flour.
"Should we go?" I asked her.
"Nah," she said. "They won't come this far."
I was scared. Retreating to my bedroom, I wrapped myself in a blanket and watched from the window as the hay field became a glittering silver sea. After a bit, it was quiet, after the last gunshot, after Ma had stopped screaming. Bo had followed us, and he curled up on my bed, where he had never been allowed before. I stroked his head.
Junie did not say goodbye to me. I heard the door shut, not loudly, and racing to my parents' bedroom window, I saw her walking down the drive. As if it was afternoon, and she was just going to the little creek a half-mile down. I told myself that's where she'd be. I told myself that the field, the unfathomable cataclysm that had happened in it, the silver things, was a dream. I waited for morning to wake up. Sure enough, when I peeked again come daylight, there was nothing there but rotted hay.
In a few days, I had eaten everything in the house. I walked with Bo past the creek, which was alone and had no girl living on its muddy banks, all the way to our nearest neighbor's house. The Pauls took me in, somewhat mystified by my appearance and my story that my family had just all up and left, and gave me a sandwich and called the police.
They found a shotgun out there, nothing else.
A little girl could not own a farmhouse, so it was sold off, and I didn't go that way again, not ever. The Pauls had grown children of their own, but when it came down it, they would not let the girl with no family sink into the foster care system. Honestly, I told them, I don't mind an orphanage. Sounds good to me. They shook their heads and kept me clean and in orange soda until I was old enough to go off on my own.
I told them once, just once, about that night. I am not sure they believed me.
My sister found me years later, working at a bar and grill out on 24. Her hair was cropped low, a buzzing red halo. She could have grown it long and been the envy of every woman around; she could have had men writing poems to that hair. But since that time, many years ago, she has kept it short, and she does not call herself Junie, or the more grown-up June. She uses another name altogether, and like her hair, it is a secret all its own.
And never, when we see each other, is there any mention of that baby. It's as if it never existed. But in my mind, I still see her, beautiful and small and precious. In my mind, she is called Tamara, for that was the first name on my list, and the most fitting.