A story in process.
With her back to the ground and her legs accommodating so her feet can rest to match, Madison, a girl of nearly six, lays in her yard with her thoughts, small as they may be, wandering toward something unfamiliar. She digs her nails into the earth, wiggling her toes and fingers in the uniform blades of an almost artificial lawn, a living comb in a familiar dance, feeling the cold soil against her skin, waiting for something to happen, hearing the grit of the earth against her nails. From a distance, even the relatively short distance that lay between her and the rich stain of the back porch – an excessive outdoor space that dances the line between gaudy and foolish – she looks like nothing more than a girl in a yard watching the clouds. Her frame is too small to highlight her straining, and even the arching of her back, when mixed with the grass and the angle of view from the house, couldn’t bee seen as anything abnormal.
But eventually, with her eyes on the clouds and her thoughts focused on the ground at her back, her fingers and toes drive into the soil. Her body constricts as her reach expands, and that feeling – a familiar, natural, uncomfortable feeling – returns. A sudden hurry in her body as much as in her head, a winding spring. The tips of her fingers and the soft spheres of tissue at the ends of her toes split and reach, a naked white in the earth, veining into the soil as the barren branches vein into the sky above her.
She feels her fingers in those branches as her skin warms in the cold, aching like a wintered hand beneath a steaming tap. She feels a sense of belonging that doesn’t feel right. A tingling in her limbs, a faintness in her now rapid breath. Shallowness in her gut. A comfortable nervousness in the most uncomfortable way. For a moment, made even briefer by her inability to understand it, she feels outside of herself.
Her fingers and toes withdraw from the earth without warning, sending her arms and legs toward her chest. She’s left alone and breathless and curled on her side in the lawn, shivering in the cold, too confused to respond to her mother yelling from the porch, demanding that she put on her coat and socks and, for God’s sake, her shoes, because it’s time to go. Madison can smell the dirt in the yard like she can smell it in herself. The earth she doesn’t want to be a part of. She can feel the steady breathing of the ground, a steady rhythm borrowed from her own or borrowed just the same in the other direction.
Eventually she does as she’s told, ignoring the ache in her fingers and the hole in her stomach. By the time she’s put on her last shoe, her mother is walking toward her asking why she insists on taking off her shoes and socks and what was she doing out there anyway. Madison shrugs in response and looks at the ground and feels her face go flush. She ignores a remark about the brilliance of her eyes as she walks in hand with her mother out of the yard and across the patterned brick driveway to the wagon, ignoring also the pull she feels behind her, a set of eyes on her back.
Madison Alice Price, named for popularity, heritage, and the patriarchal dominance of the family name – not to mention her father’s hobby-driven love of topography – lays bundled for the weather in a wagon. Despite the clever fabric origami of a folded blanket, the makeshift padding curls up both metal sides of the aged four-wheel pull-along, decreasing her space and her comfort. She says nothing of her irritation, preferring instead to constantly molest the fabric in an attempt to correct the issue, knowing full well it’s of little use. She is also longer than the wagon, a problem she fixes through the use of minor contortions and simple leg placement, making her situation far from ideal. But standards of ideal, assume her parents, vary with age, and they take no notice.
The year is 1991. The wagon is a Radio Flyer with muted red paint and a black handle that’s riddled with dents. There’s rust, a red much deeper and much dirtier than the paint itself, the blood of the wagon, on the under side of each edge, and age shows through from where her sister laid in much the same manner before her.
The Gulf war is in full swing somewhere in the world and Madison’s father has made it very clear on several occasions that he disagrees with the whole damn thing. Though her mother never vocalizes her opinion, she nods from time to time out of respect. But none of this makes the least bit of different to Madison as she lies in her hand-me-down wagon and stares up at the sky and the leafless branches that comprise her view. Her sister runs ahead, her father pulls the wagon, and her mother talks about fall, about the change of colors, while keeping one hand under her now undeniably pregnant belly out of habit or instinct or fear.
Despite her general enjoyment of the wagon and the effortless change of scenery it offers, she dislikes the confinement. She’s happiest in the grass, close to the earth and the soil and each time this notion crosses her mind and her small nose catches the smell of the earth in the air, she grows uneasy and her unspoken irritation with the wagon increases. She thinks of nothing other than the ground itself.
From her vantage point, as supine as possible given her circumstances, she counts the nests now sitting exposed in the barren branch system that webs the sky. Her counting, made inaccurate by both the sporadic placement of the nest and her wiliness to accept all ignorable distractions, is muffled and broken by the sound of her father’s voice. Attempting to express his political opinions, based largely on heresy and headlines rather than education or the articles to which said titles are attached, he speaks with excitement and wild hand gesture, occasionally swaying Madison from side to side, much to her amusement.
And again, without warning, her mother asks her what she was doing in the yard. And why did she have to remove not only her coat, but her socks and shoes as well? Before Madison can begin to ignore the questions and count additional nests, her mother peers back over her shoulder with a smile and a cocked look.
Madison doesn’t take notice of the look just as she neglects to notice her mother’s hand. But there, two down from the wedding band that sits audaciously on her finger, is dirt. A hint of black earth between her mother’s French manicured nail and her naked skin. A bit missed in cleaning perhaps. A bit left beneath the nail of a woman who sets neither foot nor hand in the garden.
But little Madison, caught in her wagon, counting the nests in the trees, misses these things. And her father does as well. Despite his good intentions and the love he feels for his daughters, a love so protective and focused that dreaming of the future causes a very real pain, he serves little purpose. But he is a good man and Madison’s mother knows that is his purpose.
Of course her mother also knows that the baby kicking about in her womb, a girl to be named after a great grandmother she’ll never have the opportunity to meet, has no direct relationship to this man walking beside her and, aside from the carrying and delivery, no direct relation to herself. And she knows that she is from the same vein that gave life to her daughters and to her own mother before her. But to say she understands any of it for what it is would be false, if not ignorant. She understands the process, the uncertainty, and the warming cold. She knows her role as it could be written on paper. She knows the term mother and she knows what it implies. But she still finds herself alone in the yard trying to figure out what it means and why she enjoys disliking it.