My dog, Hooper, killed a possum in the backyard, and the next morning Ellie Longbottem had her baby. I know there doesn’t seem to be much in common between a dead possum and a tiny human born nine weeks too soon, but I was made to wonder if the two things weren’t connected in some way.
I had caught Hooper by the collar before he could do any more damage and told myself, Moriah, do not look. But I couldn’t help it. The possum seemed so peaceful, lying on its side, its little nose resting against its chest as if it were sleeping. I felt the urge to stroke its fur, but Billy Willis once got rabies from a squirrel, and in fourth grade, Lizzy got bit by the class gerbil and her finger swelled up to the size of a Ball Park Frank. Still, I felt there needed to be some sort of acknowledgment.
“Peace be with you,” I said, as Hooper fought against my arm. Then, for some crazy reason, I added the thing my Momma always said to company. “Travel safe, and come back soon.”
In the morning, the possum was gone. There were prints in the snow, big ones, must have been a coyote. Probably thought it hit the jackpot.
I didn’t hear about Ellie and the baby until I got to school. Missy, who I haven’t trusted since she lied about Charlie Ames having a crush on me, said Ellie had the baby right there in her bedroom. She said it was born with no ears and flippers instead of arms. I tried to picture a baby like that in Ellie’s room, a room I’d admired on account of it having a pink ruffled bedspread and matching curtains. I’d always envied those pink ruffles. Ellie and I used to be friends, back when we were kids. She liked to play make-believe games where she was the royal queen. I was the lady-in-waiting, or sometimes the prince, since I was three years younger and had darker hair, and would never be as pretty or fair. After she started high school, we stopped talking. I guess I was just some middle school kid, and she looked like she’d gone and raided the makeup aisle at Woolworths.
At school that day, we all avoided Beau Stevenson and no one talked about the baby when he was nearby. We were all sure his older brother, Tad, got Ellie pregnant. They’d gone together to a party at the old boathouse in June. Ellie claimed not to remember any of it, the drinking, the hook up, getting dropped off in her yard with one less shoe and her make up all smeared. Someone said they’d seen pictures on Jerry Brock’s phone, Tad with his pants down making a thumbs up at the camera, Ellie passed out on the floor, her skirt hitched above her thigh.
Daddy called her a slut. He said she’d brought shame on her family. Momma tsk-tsked him for using an ugly word, but then said it sure seemed like Ellie was asking for it, dressing the way she did and going out with older boys and drinking booze, and that I should take that as a lesson. I didn’t ask her to explain how Ellie could have been asking for when she wasn’t even awake. Momma would just slap me with a towel and tell me to stop being smart. By smart she doesn’t mean good in school, which I’m not, but acting like a smarty pants, like the time I’d asked her after I’d had some dreams about flying, why I’d been born as a girl instead of a bird. She’d waved a spatula at me, egg yolk splattering the floor. “Because you were put on this earth to help me, Moriah, and you can’t wash dishes with wings. Now wipe up that egg.”
Mrs. Longbottem had called Tad’s parents and told the Vice Principal, but the picture on the phone never turned up and no witnesses came forward. The school took Tad off the game against Ridgeville but that didn’t really matter cause it was just pre-season and everyone knows Ridgeville’s team sucks.
As for Ellie, she got set up to home school. I’d see her in the backyard all through the fall, sitting in a white plastic chair. Her hair got real pale and thin, like blonde string, and she stayed skinny except for the lump at her waist. It made me think of birthday parties when we were little, how we used to shove balloons under our shirts to make fake babies, and laugh as they popped. Sometimes she’d be moving her lips and I figured she was praying.
Ellie looked the opposite of how Mrs. Longbottem had with her babies, five more after Ellie, all girls, or how Momma looked, before Kenny was born, both of them blotchy and even fatter than usual. I once saw a picture of Momma when she was pregnant with me, glaring into the sun from the back of Daddy’s truck. She’d just turned nineteen. When she showed me the photo she got a little sad eyed, and told me she’d been aiming to get out of town but me and Daddy got a hold on her. I don’t think she meant it in a bad way, but I imagined her straining on a leash, like Hooper did when he saw a squirrel, wanting to break free and run.
I wondered if Ellie felt that way. As far as I could tell, she never left her property, not even for church. Maybe she’d wanted to avoid the whispers and headshakes. It wasn’t like she had any choice but to wait it out. Some girls at the high school have gotten helped out at the Women’s Clinic a few towns over, but Mrs. Longbottem was part of the group of ladies who handed out fetus fliers. She really loved babies.
The first few times I saw Ellie in the yard, I waved, trying to be friendly, but she never waved back, and after a while I pretended I didn’t see her.
When I got home from school the day after the baby came, Momma told me she had a box that needed to go over to the Longbottem’s. I have to admit, I was scared to go, thinking the baby was probably close to dead since it had come so early. The box had a bunch of Kenny’s old crap in it: a chewed up rattle, a book with a red car on the cover, some of those cotton undershirts with snaps, and a baby blanket, blue and white wool with trains running on tracks along the edge. Kenny had dragged that blanket around for years. Even though he drove me crazy sometimes, I had a hard time thinking about it draped over a dead baby boy.
The Longbottem’s house was bigger than ours, with a wraparound porch and an extra floor, but the paint was peeling and some of the screens were hanging loose, and I had to hold tight to the railing because the stairs were real slippery with snow. I knew better than to say anything to Momma who’d have had me over lickity-split with a shovel and a bucket of salt. I was hoping to just drop the stuff in Mrs. Longbottem’s hands and run, but after I rang the bell she pulled me inside, her face all flushed and happy.
“Moriah, come meet Jarvis.” She said the name as if he was a cousin visiting from Montgomery, and not some preemie baby who’d stolen her daughter’s sophomore year.
“I think Momma needs me at home,” I said, taking a step back.
“Oh your Momma won’t mind you meeting our little miracle.” Mrs. Longbottem pulled me inside, her hand like a claw around my arm. There was a tussle in the living room, two of Ellie’s sisters fighting, and she let me go as she turned to yell at them. I thought of escaping, but Momma would just send me back. Like laundry, scrubbing the floor, and math homework, it was always better to just get things over with.
Upstairs there was a funny smell, like when I’d gotten my period last spring and stuck the underpants in my bottom drawer instead of washing them out as Momma instructed. Mrs. Longbottem knocked on Ellie’s door. “You’ve got a visitor.” She pushed me forward and closed the door behind me.
Ellie was lying in bed, facing the wall. The way her hair fell on the pillow made me think of icicles, but they for sure would have melted. The room was so hot I thought my breath might turn to steam. It smelled worse in here and was real quiet. I had an awful feeling that Ellie was dead. I’m ashamed to admit it, but for a second, I wondered if maybe I could get one of the curtains. Then Ellie turned over. Her eyes were red and I could tell she’d been crying. Without all the makeup she was back to looking like a little girl. I felt bad about all the things people had been saying about her, the sort of things my folks said, and worse, and me nodding along like it was the truth.
“Hi Ellie,” I said. “How’s it going?”
I wished Momma had come. She’d know what to do, probably be fluffing up Ellie’s pillow and asking to hold the baby. Where was the baby anyhow? I looked around and saw the bassinet in the corner. Ellie hadn’t spoken, so I tiptoed over and peeked in. Baby Jarvis. He did have ears, and regular arms instead of flippers, but he looked less like a baby and more like my Grandpa, all red-faced and wrinkled.
“He’s real cute, Ellie,” I said.
Ellie spoke, her voice low and crackly. “I’m so hot. Can you open the window? Just a bit so Momma won’t see?”
I pushed the window up an inch, happy to feel the whoosh of outside air. Ellie lay on her back and looked past me. I followed her gaze but all I saw were those curtains, and the big cottonwood tree that Daddy yelled about every spring cause it covered our yard with thick fluff, like when Hooper chewed up one of Kenny’s stuffed animals.
“Do you believe in magic, Moriah?” Ellie asked.
“You mean like card tricks or making a rabbit disappear?”
“Real magic,” she said. Her voice was so low I had to step closer. The air around her was warmer and sweat beaded on her brow.
I shrugged, not knowing what she meant. Wasn’t all magic pretend?
“Here’s a little secret, Moriah.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I didn’t have a baby.”
I shook my head, thinking maybe Ellie had gotten a fever from giving birth. Once, when I had a high fever, Momma said I’d started yelling that I was in a swarm of bees and flung my arms like someone possessed, trying to shoo them away. I walked over to Ellie’s desk where rows of nail polish had been lined up by shade. It was the kind of thing I’d do if I were stuck at home. The blues seemed wrong. I picked up the bottle of Blue Sky to find it a better spot.
Ellie pushed up. “Listen to me,” she said. There was a look in her eyes that made me pay attention. She told me how all those weeks sitting in the yard, she’d been praying that the baby would go away. She told me she believed souls were just dead people waiting for a new baby so they could be born again, and she didn’t really care about some old guy who wanted another go. After it became clear the baby was still growing, she changed her wish. If it came out alive, she wanted it to have an animal soul instead, something that could run away. Ellie looked back to the window, “or be set free.”
I put the polish between Indigo and Blue Jasmine. I didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news but I said, “Well, Ellie, he looks like a baby. You know, like a person baby.”
“Just you wait.” She fell back onto her pillow and closed her eyes.
That night, I’d hoped to have one of my nice dreams about flying but instead I dreamt about being in a wood full of shadows, of birds and bats and squirrels and possums, and there was Ellie telling me they were the souls of dead creatures waiting to be re-born. I woke with my heart pounding and sweat soaking the armpits of my T-shirt.
When I went down for breakfast, I saw a police car out front and Momma talking to Mrs. Longbottem in the yard. Ellie ran away, I thought. Then, remembering how pale she’d seemed, Ellie died. I cooked the bacon Momma had left next to the stove, but the smell, usually so good, made my stomach turn.
“What happened?” I asked when Momma came in, her hands twisting the strings on her apron.
“It’s the baby,” Momma said. “He’s gone.”
I pictured a little coffin, a tiny, shallow hole.
“They think he was kidnapped. One of those baby snatchers, selling infants on the black market. Makes me sick. Nancy says the window was open this morning. Ellie took some pain medication, didn’t hear a thing. Poor girl. They’re going to do a full investigation.”
That night, before I let Hooper out, I made sure there weren’t any critters in the yard. While he was doing his business I looked up at Ellie’s room. At school, Missy had started a rumor that Ellie had thrown the baby out the window, fed it to a hungry coyote waiting below. I’d told her to stuff it. I told the others, “Missy doesn’t know a thing and she’s a big fat liar anyhow.” But, I wondered about the window. Had Ellie had me open it for a reason? True, it wasn’t a far climb up the trellis, but I kept thinking about that big, old cottonwood stretching out towards Ellie’s window, the snow clinging to its branches all white and shimmery, like an angel’s wing.
And then there was Ellie’s wish. It was crazy of course, and Momma would tell me it was blasphemy to even think it, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the world wouldn’t be a better place if all the unwanted babies could just be born as something else. There were plenty of families with more mouths than they could feed, kids coming to school with bruises on their arms and welts on their backsides, and yet there never seemed to be enough butterflies. I’m sure the world could always take care of another bird.
A week later and the police were still trying to figure out what happened to Ellie’s baby. Some folks believed the kidnapping story. Others, that there’s a big fat, baby-fed coyote somewhere.
I think, maybe they aren’t looking in the right place.
Sometimes, looking up at the cottonwood, I’ll spot a small black nose that might be a possum, and I’ll whisper, “Hello, Jarvis.” And I like to think that maybe all it took that night was an open window, an outstretched branch, and a pat of encouragement.Marcie Friedman lives and writes in the Chicago area where she also works in film and theater production. Her work recently appeared in Blotterature.