Breadcrumb #259

CODY LA VADA

It’s a boy,
the nurse declares,
indicating the pixelated penis,
the sonogram blurry as a
Rorschach’s.
They see what they want,
draw their own conclusions.

It’s a boy,
the mother says with pride.
She buys blue blankets,
periwinkle pajamas.
The father imagines teaching
his son to score touchdowns.

It’s a boy,
the banners cheers –
and blue is everywhere:
streamers, balloons, paper cups,
even in the eyes of the pink fetus
nestled in the blonde woman’s belly.
Her laugh twinkles summer-sky blue.

It’s a boy -
the first words the newborn hears
as the doctor ruptures the quiet, and passes
the swaddled bundle from hand to hand.
The new parents have no reason
to doubt, or to suspect that he could be wrong.

           With the birth certificate ink still wet
           (sex: M), mother, father, and child
           go home to a blue nursery –
           a blue life.

• • •

Breadcrumb #258

KASIA MERRILL

I stand in a Rite Aid holding pee sticks and condoms, even though I have little use for either. Options that depict a scene that is much too late. A poppy seed, the internet told me. No bigger than a poppy seed.

    I place my palm against the poppy in my belly, turn to the cashier with a look of desperation. Should I spend $15 on a plastic stick so I can discover what I already know? The cashier isn’t looking at me. He is staring out the front window, playing with a plastic yellow WWJD bracelet on his hairy wrist. I push the pee stick into the pocket of my hoodie, place the condoms back on the counter.

    “You don’t need these anymore?” he asks.

    I head straight out the door. Nobody asks the right questions anymore.

_____

    One pee later and I am slurping soup for both my poppy seed and me.

    My mother picks a blond hair from my shoulder, tucks the tag in on the back of my sweater. Her fingers are cold against my skin. I cast her a look. Her eyes water. She sits down across from me and sucks soup from her spoon.

    “What’s wrong?” she asks.

    I open my mouth, close it. I could tell her, but I know how it will go. She is a hijacker of my emotions. She will feel my sorrow tenfold of how I feel it. She will cry and I will hug her, tell her it’s okay. Guide her through her misconduct of my own feelings.

    “Nothing,” I tell her. Lift the bowl to my lips and pour it in.

    Her eyes roll in her head as if I am seeing something she isn’t, as if I am a medium able to gauge ghosts and she’s looking for them. I don’t tell her that the ghost is in my belly. I don’t tell her I’m carrying the poppy seed of a dead man, a man buried not two weeks ago after being found in the driver’s seat of a running car.

I don’t tell her that the ghost is in my belly.

    Her eyes catch something and widen. “Are you upset about Derek?”

    “I’m not upset.” I finish the soup, drop the spoon into the bowl. “Stop obsessing over me.”

    When she reaches for my hand, I storm to my room and slam the door behind me. I lie on the carpet and fold my fingers over the world suspended in my skin.

    There’s a light knock and, when I turn, I can see my mother’s pink terry-clothed slippers in the crack beneath the door, framed by dust bunnies and cat hair.

    “I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t mean to upset you.”

    I feel sorry for my mother, but it is a strange kind of pity. It is the kind of pity you have for someone when you are the cause of their pain. It is strange to victimize your own victim, to want to save someone from your own wrath. I wonder if the little poppy seed in my belly will feel the same about me one day, will emerge with my likeness and my cruelty and have a personal obligation to be my despair, if only for the reason I have forced it too often to be my consolation.

    I yell the news through the door, tell it to the slippers in the door crack.

_____

    With the haunt of poppy seed in our house, my mother begins to hum more often. To buy tiny shoes and vitamins. To use high-pitched voices when addressing my belly and rub my shoulders when I’m too tired to push her away. She does Poppy’s astrology charts based on the due date and hangs it in the kitchen next to my own. We can’t see Poppy yet, but my mother seems to sense it everywhere.

    I take the poppy seed to visit its father. We stand on his grave and look down at him, somewhere beneath the dirt. I explain how he died — strung out and alone, the driver’s door open and his wallet missing. The dashboard beeping as the keys dangle from the engine. Poppy seed does not yet have an opinion on the matter.

_____

    My mother has nightmares that I lose poppy seed, that poppy seed emerges deformed, that poppy seed’s life results in my death. I lie in my mother’s bed, brush her hair from her forehead. I do not tell her that I have had the same panics, the same anxieties.

    Instead, I hum to her. I let her put her hand on poppy seed’s little world. We fall asleep like this, curled into each other. Russian nesting dolls with painted faces.

_____

    When I go to the doctor, they tell me poppy seed is not a poppy seed at all. Poppy seed is now a grape.

    My mother hangs Grape’s first photo on the refrigerator, next to a painting I did of Elvis when I was three years old. It falls off every time I swing open the door to eat cottage cheese from the carton with a spoon.

    My mother’s excitement is big, impending. It pushes into me, and I find I have no room for both our emotions. I have no room for myself at all anymore, I am being pushed out and away. My organs are being squished by the growing vegetable inside me. A foot on my kidney, a head pressed to my ribcage. A grape, a kumquat, a lemon, and, in a few months, a pumpkin. Always existing, never fully seen.

• • •     • • •

Breadcrumb #257

LARRY GARLAND

There’s something about a forest that seems to sooth the soul. Peace settles among the trees of deep woods like it has moved in to stay forever. But a deeper reality contradicts that calm. Don’t let your guard down, for violence visits there, too.

    I tried to like hunting. It’s expected of a Southern boy living in the countryside. Even more so for one growing up there half a century ago. Our Tennessee farm was evenly split between open, rolling fields and stretches of wooded, steep hillsides and ravines. Those wooded stretches were fingers reaching out from the deep woods of a state forest preserve adjoining our farm. The fall I turned 12, my father gave me a bolt-action single-shot rifle—a Remington, perfect for taking to the woods. My father said, “Son, that’s the best beginners rifle there is for shootin’ squirrels.”

Late autumn is prime time for squirrel hunting. By then, leafy treetops have abandoned my part of the south for the season. Left behind are barren branches looking like fingers grabbing for the sky. They seek a handhold against the howling winter winds yet to come. Squirrels are out and about in abundance. This is their busy season. From treetop nests of sticks and leaves—homes with a view—they make their daily commute to aerial fields of acorns growing on the branches of nearby oaks. Their job is to pluck acorns and bury them in secret larders under the detritus of the forest floor. After a day spent buttressing their winter food reserves, and maybe some time cavorting and sunning themselves, they head home again to be rocked asleep by swaying branches.

    Those brown balls of fur are exposed as they venture overhead, as they leap limb to limb, as they race up and down the trunks of trees. The fallen leaves have turned mostly brown, but many are brushed still with a touch of red or gold or purple. They have just enough life left to complain at being kicked about by scampering paws scurrying across the forest floor. That crunch can give away a squirrel’s location.

    A forest is never silent, so I hear them. I am quiet; they don’t hear me. A forest is ever moving, so I see them. I am still; they don’t see me. From hunts with my father, I’ve learned to sit patiently on the ground, waiting serenely so forest creatures won’t know danger lurks.

    I know the habits of these squirrels. They nap midday. But they get hungry. I have staked out a spot here in our woods where I know squirrels love to feed on the plentiful acorns of our tall oaks. I am determined to drop a squirrel, so I wait in ambush here. But these are clever animals. They know to run down the backside of a tree trunk, putting themselves on the far side of danger by placing the tree between them and the disturbance of any sudden movement or suspicious noise from below. I have curled my legs underneath me on a cushion of moss with my back braced against the rough bark of a chosen oak. A few deep breaths serve to still my mind and body. I inhale the rich smells of the dark and musky forest, and hold it for a time, before expelling that last big breath. Then I consciously will a more shallow and quiet breathing pattern, one with a rhythm more conducive to listening for the sounds of squirrels chattering among themselves, high in the canopy above my head.

    Soon enough a bushy-tailed rodent wrapped in a fuzz of fur makes its presence known. He springs atop the leaves of the forest floor, scurrying here and there in spurts, stopping at times to listen for sounds of danger. I am his danger this day as he goes on his way to his private larder for his evening meal. I am prescient, like some god, for I know this: he’ll have no need for a fur coat this winter, nor even for the dinner he is seeking this day. I unlock the safety, take aim at his head, and tenderly pull the trigger of my Remington.

    Pop! goes the rifle with its gentle kick as the cold bullet pushes off my chest and shoulder, and springs forward from the aim and intent of my eye toward its warm target. Almost instantly, there comes back to me the start of a loud echo from the firing gun. It drags behind it a small scream—whether of surprise or pain, I don’t even consider. My only thought is this: I didn’t get off a clean shot to kill it right away.

    I jump up and run toward my injured prey. It begins to flee, trying every few yards to ascend the trunk of a tree. Invariably, it climbs a vertical foot or two and then falls back to ground. I’ve done so much damage to a forelimb that it can’t manage the climb. Every time my victim falls, it takes off running again, with me racing after it. Soon, my breath is coming as insistent puffs and I am sweating. This chase goes on for some time. Run. Climb. Fall. Run. Climb. Fall. The squirrel keeps glancing over its shoulder at me in pursuit. Each time it does so, I see blood and big eyeballs staring. Eyes that are wild-eyed terrified.

    Thinking back, I must have looked wild-eyed, too. That poor squirrel kept trying to climb a tree like ancient Sisyphus, who perhaps even now is trying to roll his boulder to the top of the hill. That leaves me the role of a capricious, vindictive giant—a very small god. I am looking down at a trail of blood, and I am tenacious in my tracking. But now I’m starting to have qualms about what I’ve done. My prey is demonstrating tenacity, too. It has a strong will to live, and I can appreciate that. At least, it has a strong will until the moment it doesn’t.

That poor squirrel kept trying to climb a tree like ancient Sisyphus, who perhaps even now is trying to roll his boulder to the top of the hill.

    That soft bundle of fur finally gives up. It stops running and turns in its tracks. As it rises up to stand on its rear paws, it stares me straight in the face. I look back into those pleading eyes and something inside of me melts. That squirrel can’t utter words, yet some form of communication is flowing to me. A creature that had felt so alien and devoid of the gift of emotions I had presumed only humans possess is now showing me its fear and longing. Through the wet windows of those dark eyes, I see wistfulness and other sentiments that I cannot name. Two questions from me now fill the space between us: little creature, are you cursing me or forgiving me? And are you begging me to let you live or to put you out of your misery?

    That day, I couldn’t discern what last wish that creature might be asking of me. It had been created by a greater God than the one I had made of myself—a would-be god who on a whim had aimed to end a life. Anything I had left to give, I’d give. But what did it want from me? What I want most is to make it right. To undo everything. To unshoot that innocent squirrel, to unwalk my way to the deep woods, to unload my shiny new gun at home, to untake that murder weapon from the gun rack on our living room wall, to undress myself from these constricting clothes now trying to smother me, and to un-get up from my warm bed earlier this cold day. But I can do none of that.

    That day, I had brought violence to those woods. So what was left? What could I have done that moment for that small creature whose life I had recklessly toyed with? I fired one more time and put the spent ball of fur out of its misery. Spent, I say, for unnecessarily I had spent a life, one that was not mine to cash in. I couldn’t leave that injured animal there to die in agony or to slowly starve. So I left that ball of fur where it fell dead. I left it lying atop a bed of purple, bruised leaves sprinkled with bright red drops like holy water. But first, I fell on my knees and let my hot tears light the fire of a funeral pyre, one that still burns in me. Then I stood up and walked home.

    “Take this gun back, Daddy,” I said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t hunt no more.” Just as that squirrel had done, my father looked at me with eyes that spoke without saying a word.

• • •