By Irene Lee
When the choir of angels was coming down at the end of my bed they ran around me and I couldn’t tell if I was afraid or if I loved them. And the one, she was whispering to me, all quiet, that she’s going’t take me away. Telling me she knew my trouble. I’d only ever seen her eyes and her mouth before when I was such a little baby I could hardly see anything. ‘Cause when you’re small all you see’s the sky and the people’s faces looking down at you and she would look at me with eyes that shone bright and puckering those thin red lips. But now I saw her full and she’s got on a dress that’s longer than her legs and flows all over the floor, making it glow. It’s beautiful to see her milk body underneath. She’s got red lips that tell me to come outside. She gives me her hand and she opens the window as if it was light as air. I grasp it. And I held that hand all the way out of the house out into the bright nighttime. She led me all the way down the hill to the barn me following, through all the yellow grass and all the yellow bugs. We went in the barn where she laid my head down on her lap where it’s warm and sweet and I feel like I could sleep there longer and dream deeper than I have ever in my life. Singing quiet so’s not to wake the cows. Before I sleep she says, ‘you’re all circles.’
All the cows died when the old barn burned last August. The barn was older than me and older than my dad. When Chris was just a toddler I’d let him go in there and he’d be waddling around getting splinters in his fingers because he’d touch every damn thing that was wooden. He’d just scream and scream until I squeezed it out of him and a pill of blood would drop down onto the hay for that racket.
The August the barn burned the leaves were turning early. Every one of them was getting peaked and pale already and the next week they were red across the land. The ground was dry. Goldenrod was so want for water that they looked like raw toothpicks planted in the ground as far as you could see. My family doesn’t live off of the land so the meat and corn was still good. We still had the cows. I shop about every day at the grocery store that’s open ‘til 11 Sunday to Sunday. I shop all the time. The same mothers come to buy food, Laura, and Jainee, and Sally, leaving children and husbands. The smell of the aisles is crisp, and true. The young cashiers shower before work and come in with hair gelled slick as streams; they remind us of high school games and our thighs when we were 17. All of us have bags under our eyes now. Lord, help me, but that Price Chopper is better than church.
On the day the barn burned, I had just turned into the driveway. It was early in the morning but it didn’t feel like morning for the damned crushing heat. So I was taking the groceries out of the car when I smelled something burning. Sweat drops had been crawling down my back since yesterday, no time to dry before they fell or coagulated in the creases in my shirt. My head tingled from the heat. I was just about looking forward to taking the last bag in, with all the lasagna and veggies and turning the AC on and cooking all that until Phil came back, with the boys and the tractor so they’d eat. Just when the car was about empty, and I picked up the last overflowing paper bag, that was when I smell wood burning over the hill. And there I go, running to high heaven. I was seeing the clouds now, they were dark, like rain clouds, only low and circling. So I ran to the barn, stopping at the hill and looking over. I saw the flames fly out the window. My mind was up and gone into the rising black smoke. The barn and all the things inside were beginning to pop, becoming nothing in the air. By the time I got all the way down the hill—grass crunching under my feet, by that time, I could hear the cows bellowing inside the hot stomach.
I wasn’t breathing in enough. I thought I would faint, halfway down the hill I just about concluded jumping into the flames. Instead I filled a blue bucket that had survived the heat until I could hardly lift it for the water; it was slapping, soaking my only sneakers. When I went in the barn door the fire looked like it had been going for the whole time I was gone and maybe even before. Maybe before I was gone, a piece of straw had caught and not been put out.
Braying of burning cows and hissing of flames filled the hallways. All the way down the corridor stiff heads swung violently like mechanical ghosts in the county fair funhouse. At the end of the corridor, between the heads, I saw an impish shadow belt through the flames. It scared the shit out of me, with all the cows and here was the shadow. I didn’t dare follow it. Much later when I came back to the car I must have forgotten to put my bag down because when I got there the groceries were splayed all over the ground. You know there’s been a disaster when things are splayed around.
I don’t want to say this, but if it wasn’t Chris who made that fire I don’t know what did, not those cows and not the damned sun. I found him crouching in the dried up swamp later that night after the firemen left. We noticed he was gone when we came inside and the boys were shooting moths from their room and Chris wasn’t downstairs scratching in the floor. I went out. Phil broke all the dinner plates. Now he’s leaning over and rubbing his face in his hands and the boy’s gotta sleep. My arms ache from Phil’s hands grabbing them. I had to find Chris, lost among the fireflies; I found him by springing from one flicker to another. I found him digging and Chris’ hands were covered in mud as he looked up at me. I told him to get here, boy.
“You know when your mom is so angry at you that she forgets your name? ‘Get here, boy!’ She says, ‘get here!’ “ Jason sucked a lollipop, his lips sticky blue. He doesn’t like me too much. But he’s listening. His mom gets mad at him. His mom’s a fucking bitch. Sorry, she’s a mean woman. Bitch. That time I saw her scolding him, I could swear she was going to hit him. “Your mom’s a bitch.” He threw his lollipop at me.
I told him to get here. He raised his thick brown eyebrows. And when that boy raises his eyebrows I get all trembly and feeling like there’s a worm in my stomach, knotting up and eating the food there. When I dream about those eyebrows I wake up in a sweat.
We made a buck or two off those cows.
We made every penny we had off those cows.
I told him we can’t have dinner tonight. I told him we can’t have dinner tomorrow. I tell him these things and he comes to me, like I told him, and he reaches his dirty hands out to me, mud dripping from them.
Driving Chris to school may well have been a pilgrimage across America. He’s got his book on the Gold Rush sitting on his lap. It’s an old one with mountains illustrated on it and a crew of miners, their hands over their foreheads, covering their eyes or saluting the setting sun that rested in the crook of the golden peaks. The land changed from our desert farm to the schoolhouse on High Peak, the mountain where there’s woods. His lunch and backpack would be crammed on the floor at his feet and he stares straight ahead. Nibbled shadows of oaks flow over him. Chris’d pack a lunch for himself in the morning because I’d make dinner and breakfast for him. He’d make a sandwich and take a couple of apples. He likes to eat my raisins. He sneaks out of his room at night to eat my raisins so when I go to find them there’r none but some scattered on the floor.
After mam’d put her hand over my eyes and say I had to start getting up to bed I’d be alone in my room. There are fluid creatures in the corner. I used to see them morphing in the shadows. Then mam’d walk by and she’s got the warm smell of sour milk n’ I’d just be there wishing that smell’d come in my room. I smell it in the kitchen when the sun is down. I get sweet fingers in the cabinet, mam’s hand’s smell all over the wood.
He’d jump out of the car and stomp into the schoolhouse. I never waited to see him get to the door, ‘cause I got to go shop, of course. In my dreams I am in those aisles, eating crackers and drinking wine. He walks like an animal, his muscles folding with him every which way he moves. He grew up but his skin’s too small. He’s stronger than I am.
The night before the barn burned there were so many fireflies that bars of shadows from tall reeds ran over the hill. No fireflies have ever been known to come out in August. Fireflies blink when they are fighting during mating season; off-season, there they were, battling like it was the last time to battle before fall spilt onto the maples completely.
Come here, I say when I found him in the swamp. Come here boy. He comes here. He’s got mud all over his palms and he tries to touch me. His hands are dripping with mud and I’m not going to wash no clothes anytime soon and I sure ain’t for no pity so I slap them away.
The night I drag him home from the swamp I wake up and think I’m dreaming. There are still fireflies crawling in the shadows in my room. I see Chris in the corner. He’s sitting in the corner, not looking at me, back curled as a chameleon. But he’s there. I see him from the moon, an orange glow instead of a white one. My body shivers in terror and I wake up and now I know I am not dreaming. Chris is not in the corner. I get up and my sheets are all white from the sunlight, falling over itself just to get inside.
The wind coming in was cold and after a day and a night I still smelt the fire. I come downstairs because Chris has got to get to school. The coffee machine rumbles as he sits at the table with a chocolate bar, cereal, and orange juice. Wrinkling plastic all the way down the chocolate bar as the whoosh of fire heats the beans and the drip of coffee makes a dark mirror in the cup. Circles of ripples.
“You ain’t going to become anything but a convict.”
He looks up, his eyebrows like slugs. “I don’t care.” His eyes turn out the window in the direction of the big charred spot on the ground, mocking me. He is holding his spoon like a monkey. His back is a small mountain, crooked and rising up behind him.
“Do you realize that we have no other kind of money coming? You’re going to get it when your father and the boys come home.” I took out a cigarette. My mother smoked, even though she lost her breasts and died. But the boy didn’t look at me.
In the car the clouds were dark, too dark for the shadows. Too cold for the windows to be open to drown out his nasally breathing, like his face wasn’t grown big enough to fill his lungs.
He reached his hands out and I slapped them away. I slapped the mud and his God damned hands away.
Mam screeched out the parking lot and I was late to school ‘cause I’m always late but I don’t ever care. And when the teachers yell at me when I come in and I sit down, their faces get all red and their voices get so high pitched that my ears ring from it. When they get mad, teachers look like angry pigs with steam coming out of their heads and it looks so funny. They can throw the chair on the floor. They can write those big red Ds all over my papers. With their big puffy fingers they can send me down to the principal’s office every morning when their mouths are brown with steaming smell coffee and their fingers are trembling. I don’t care.
I scrape the inside of the desk: ‘suck.’ The teacher scrapes the blackboard. ‘My.’ She turns around and looks out with a grey twisted face. ‘Dick.’ The boys say it when they are fighting and Phil says stop and the boys keep fighting and they say that and I know what a dick is. They told me what it is. They fight in the barn but I can’t go in there and they’re holding me down saying I’m too little and a retard and I needa go and stay in my room.
When the papers come out, the town is all up about it and they don’t know who did it and the newspaper said it was done by some gypsy, some vengeful woman who lived here a long time ago and ran out on her wedding. I tell them that it can’t be started by someone who doesn’t even know us. Though I think I’ve heard of her.
She’s just outside my window. She is running down the hall. She is small and crouched under my desk, syrupy sweet smell all over. But mam’d never know ‘cause she’s never there to see.
I come to Price Chopper with my cart and Jainee’s got a baby but it died when she was sleeping and the blood came out in curdles like rotten milk, but she was too tired to get up until it was day and there was a puddle on her bed. She says she’s moving. She says she’s leaving John because he beat the baby out of her. When’d you get pregnant anyway? I asked her because I never saw the growth. She always looked so fit. Her curves smooth as a raceway.
She’s out my window looking up at me from the softening schoolbooks. She waits for me outside of school in a ray of sunlight. The desk smells like lead, the desk is soft from years of use. My scrapes are not the only ones. They are the only ones that swear. Everyone is too afraid to swear, everyone except for me.
I should have told her, it’s better not born.
Mam came late in her car; mam’s rubbing the wheel and she’s got this red face that doesn’t look at me. She told me that she was going away and that I got to go home and that she wasn’t gonna come back soon. The car screeched out of the driveway. When I go inside I go to my room and the beautiful woman is there and she’s not wearing anything and her body’s swimming in the air. It’s up in the roof and I tell her I can’t. I can’t come with her tonight ‘cause mams got a temper. I think that I am about to be sick. The woman’s so sweet that it hurts a bad ache that I want to die so I tell her I can’t. She runs her hand over me and she tells me she’s going to take me away and I tell her no I can’t. I tell her I am not going with her to the barn. With her hand she guides me to her skin. It feels like a candle. I tell her I am not going with her to the barn.
She holds out a handful of raisins, mam’s raisins; the smell makes a beautiful woman so I take her hand with my eyes closed and she opens the window as if it was light as air. I follow her figure out to the barn. I smell a storm in the breeze. The night is burning up with fireflies as we walk down the path. I lie on her hot lap and she strokes my hair and I fall asleep so deep that I feel as if I would never open my eyes again. In my dream mam’s there and she’s lying down next to me in bed and my belly is full and we fall asleep under soft green quilts. Tender morning coming now, hearing mourning doves. Soft light on my skin, straw rough on my cheek.
The beautiful woman’s gone. She’s gone because mam hates me. She shrivels when she looks at me. She gets so mad she stomps her foot so that the tiles shiver, the walls shake, they’re so scared. They’re shaking all the time, and her face gets all red.. So this is what I think when I take the matchsticks from the drawer in the office: Things have got to stay warm when there’s not a woman holding me, no angel loving me, no raisins and you’ve got to make those feelings come back. You’ve got to make things warm again, ‘cause you got to make yourself sleep at night, ‘cause there are creatures in the corners of your room that won’t be leaving. Boys will have been here already because the sun has risen and it has begun to overflow golden on the field. The barn is soft and rotting from age.
Irene Lee spent her childhood in the Hudson Valley and is instilled with the echo of woods and bound to the blueness of mountains even in the city. Her work aims to build strong and loving community through books, parties and education, from the most intimate form of connection as reading stories to the most communal as music and dance. She has published the zine SETS, an art book, Lost Cities, and Spells. She is part of a feminist publishing group, Fine Dress Press. Her writing has been published in all of her publications as well as a Flux Factory publication for which she taught a creative writing class called ‘The Wonder Cabinet.’ She creates programming and assists in directing the East Harlem site of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation serving children ages 9-13. Certified in CPR and freelance swim teacher, please don’t hesitate to contact for lessons.