TWO GALLON HEART
Bound to the earth ten paces from the willow, Frankie calls to her mother. A dream of what she might have been appears solid, white hem dragging through the dust. These moments before dawn are the hardest. The ground will not let go and she must wait. Behind her, houses stretch a hand span of the prairie. Houses dropped onto miles of grass without a bird or any sound but rustling, mice in the cupboards. Frankie clenches her limbs and doesn’t stir. Come back, she whispers, come back.
Frankie knows the story of her mother and how they found her twelve years ago. She holds the story and traces it. She is its source.
Come back, she has whispered for years. Today she hears an answer. Today she can feel her mother moving, registers her approach in the tremble of soil. Vuelvo, hija, she hears, Vuelvo. Today she knows she should not have asked.
The woman who gave birth and some life to Frankie came at the beginning of a storm. Later it was said that she brought the storm. Frankie says she is the storm.
Not a blizzard, when the wind comes up through the plains and casts down blankets until those sleepless know only white. They stay inside and forget anything but square houses and dirt road. Then those too fade and it is only white before their eyes.
This storm came in summer. The days stretched themselves beneath the sun and the people waded slowly through wet air. In summer, the sky breathes deep and the mind expands beyond the row of houses, the waste of grass. In winter, they would not have believed what they saw.
Nina sits on the porch and waits for Frankie. She knows Frankie is not coming. Nina is the only one who can release her before the ground lets go. This is her task but today she refuses. They are the same age but they are not the same. Nina looks up the road and waits. The sounds of the stove fire, eggs cracked, flour stirred.
Are you finished with your chores? Jean asks through the screen.
Nina is silent. Jean wipes her hands on her apron, brushing off the stiff fibers from the corncobs used to start the fire. Fixes her long grey braid with the same long fingers Nina has.
I told you never to come down without her, Jean says, following Nina’s eyes out to the road. Did she go to the schoolhouse?
No, Nina says. She’s out in the fields.
It’s starting to rain. Go get her.
The people stood late into the night watching the storm. On their porches, they watched the night world bleached white by lightning. They stood waiting for the next flash, for the world to break in half in front of them. It was out of this break that the woman came.
In this place made of white boards fixed as boxes and a black sliver of dust never traced beyond the grove, the people did not know how a woman could appear, as if out of lightning, as if spit from the earth. They did not know how long she had been there. They could see only outlines. Dressed in white rags, fine lace torn by layers of root and cloud; a woman, young and full. Her hair caked in dirt and she was screaming. Tearing at her hair and crawling and getting nowhere, laced to the ground. They stood and watched. They didn’t speak. Only one of them had the sense to help her. He climbed down from his wooden railing and ran into the field.
Her skin was lashed to the dirt. The man stayed with her. He tore his shirt into strips to sop her blood. The others stood on their porches and watched. They knew what to do, had seen it all before, reached into blood—women and horses—and pulled out life. But they didn’t move.
Get up, Nina whispers into Frankie’s ear. Wake up, Frankie. I’m not kidding.
But Frankie can’t leave the ground. The roots carry her message and chide her for asking. Nina pulls her, grabs her arm, and rips her nightgown. The rain heavier. Where the water lands, it crackles like oil on a hot pan.
Frankie, it’s time to come home now, please.
Come back, Frankie whispers into the soil. Her bones shake like seeds in a gourd. Frankie’s lids and lips are open and moving. She does not see Nina. The thunder bursts and Nina counts. The lightning is coming closer.
Wake up, Frankie, Nina shouts but Frankie does not budge. Nina leaves her on the ground.
The dawn came, the sun baked, the trees sweated in their grove. The storm was a distant memory when the baby finally broke. The woman’s blood pooled around her, collected, and was devoured by the earth.
The man and the woman did not say a word. They worked together as if it had been planned, as if everything in their lives had been leading up to blood on the dirt and sweating trees. The people watching were silent too. Only the birds spoke for the child. Like humans in their song.
In her bed in Jean’s house, the cotton sheets stick to Frankie’s skin. She can’t peel them off her back. She can’t shake this heat. Jean rolls her over, removes the sheets, wipes her with cool rags, drips water into her mouth. Through her fever, Frankie can feel her mother waltzing down the dirt roads, rapping her fingers against the wet windowpanes. Her mother fogs the glass and shakes the screen door.
Nina sits by her with a book open on her knees. Frankie’s whispers turn to shouts. Air scrambling its dirty nails up cracked pipes and tongue crashing into teeth.
Quiet, Nina says. You’ll wear yourself out.
You’ve quit reading, Frankie says. What are you looking at?
Nothing, Nina says. She presses her pages and crosses her ankles. Just the clouds.
My foot the clouds. My stinky, sweaty foot.
The pages of Nina’s book turn slowly, lifted by her hand, her silent refusal.
We’re going to have a visitor, Frankie whispers. She’s coming soon.
No one’s coming, Frankie. No one comes here. Just be quiet.
Oh, yes, she is, Frankie says. She’s coming soon. Better watch out.
A robin slams into the window and Nina runs out the door.
Open the window and let him in, Frankie calls after her. She is sweating again. Holding the bed frame, she pulls herself up and out, blood rushing, head throbbing a new grown beast in her brain. She opens the window. The wind off the prairie dries her skin. The robin watches its reflection melt into a girl with wild hair.
Come in, Frankie says. She looks out at the sea that is grass and was once sea. She leaves the window open and climbs back into bed. Come in.
The woman was not known to the people. Both her color and language was strange. They saw her only as they could, as the colors of the night she came in, because they could imagine no elsewhere. Dark as the space between stars, white as the lightning that makes them. She was revolving to them, a twist so far toward one edge she expelled transformed onto the other. None of them could see her skin pale enough to pass as olive in winter, her green eyes, the dark hair at her temples and down to her jar. They could not imagine her birth, the subtle mixtures of an island where gods swam in rivers and rode people like horses, where she had left her name at the base of a ceiba tree. They could not imagine the paths that brought her to their door. They who knew only the white houses, the black road, who called those the colors of night, ignoring all other indications of creation.
They did not have the words for her and so could not see her. Frankie, they could see. Her skin was brown enough to see.
How did they get in here? Nina says.
Through the window, Frankie says.
I called them.
They crouch on the bed, close together, knees tucked and looking up. The birds circle the room, dropping feathers, landing on shelves, pecking idly at the quilt. Wrens nestle in the bureau, thrushes dancing between the curtains. They fill the air, fluttering out of reach, never colliding.
Who’s coming, Frankie? Nina says.
She rocks furtively, wearing a path into the mattress.
No one you know, Frankie whispers.
Nina stays silent. She doesn’t like this ghost woman and her tale. It has been years since Frankie spoke of her mother, since Frankie last believed she would come. Since Nina bore on her skin the weight of when she didn’t.
But the birds? Nina asks. Feathers cover the bed. How can you bring them whenever you want?
I called them, Frankie says.
A blue-black feather falls and settles on her collarbone.
She never flinches, Nina thinks. There are hundreds of birds in their room and they will be gone in the morning. She could slap Frankie and she wouldn’t notice.
With dawn the man’s wife stirred from her trance, realized new human flesh shivered within her reach. Crossed to the grove and wrapped the child in clean cloth. It seemed well, the baby, and the woman too, though she left the next day. Swallowed once more by gaping prairie. All day the husband faded. As if it was his blood that spilled on the ground, his blood that the earth drank without pause. The next day they found him beneath the willow. He had climbed out of bed at night and fallen there. Birds circled above him and cried his name.
Frankie’s mother is sitting at the table. In the wicker seat that Frankie helped mend last fall, in the too-stark light of a morning without clouds. The day will be hot. But she is not sitting. The wicker does not bend beneath her, such substances cannot notice her weight and though Jean serves her coffee, speaks to her of the price of small things, she can’t really see her either. Only Frankie can see her mother’s skin of polished wood grain, almost green and almost glowing, like trillium at night. Only Frankie can see the dark hair bleached red at the tips by sun and woven with reeds. Limbs like willow branches, lithe and pulled back, ready to snap. Frankie sees past the words about the weather and the road, sees straight to the rapidly beating bird-heart still tinged with reptilian blood. Jean sets down toast, raspberry jam, and a blue-speckled saucer of cream. She agrees to the heavy weight of dust on a woman’s feet. But only Frankie knows what the apparition means.
¿Vienes conmigo? The woman asks with blood warmed by sun and cooled by rain. Are you coming with me?
Frankie doesn’t answer.
This morning should have been warm brown bread and yellow butter, red jam running down wrists, orange yolk spilling across the blue forget-me-not patterned plates. Frankie and Nina’s legs swinging barefoot and tomcats weaving between their ankles like silk. Waiting around the table for a breeze. Instead, the morning is broken. Jean’s hands shake as she folds the cornbread batter, heats up more coffee, darts her eyes between Frankie and this, what? This woman. Not quite a mother and not quite a stranger. A woman and all that brings. Four cups in a quart, four quarts in a gallon and this is a two-gallon heart. That is all it can hold and it should not be asked to hold more.
Without the strange woman at the table, Jean can look across the kitchen and see Frankie. Her too-long limbs, her too-dark skin, her too-quick tongue. But with this woman seated on her wicker chair, accepting coffee, Jeans looks at Frankie and sees only her husband—sees only death.
They eat in silence, Nina and Frankie staring at the woman, their tongues held on a tight leash by Jean’s shaking hands. Nina goes to the porch to look for bags or a trunk to spy into but the porch is empty. Frankie slips into the cupboard beneath the sink and waits to be looked for. Her absence goes unnoticed. Jean and her mother talk in slow, heavy voices, arms crossed across the blue-speckled and forget-me-nots. Talking about Frankie and they do not notice that Frankie is not talking too. Why should she be? Frankie starts rustling, then banging. Jean pulls her out of the cupboard and exiles her for eavesdropping but she slips back, the women’s words barely audible over her rushing blood.
Nina eases her fingers, cool and never damp, around Frankie’s wrist and the rushing slows.
Where did your mother come from? Nina says.
Frankie stays silent so she doesn’t have to say she doesn’t know.
Will you call the birds for her? Nina says.
No, I won’t do anything for her.
You won’t leave me, either?
The only soul left alive in the stretch of box houses that had touched the child was the man’s wife. And what could she do? She could not hold her once but she was bound to her. She could not look at her once but thirst to see her. That was the only way the child survived; the spell she cast at birth. Jean gave her food, called her Francis. Put her down in the crib beside her granddaughter whose parents were lost too. And never locked the door at night so she could leave the house and fall where she was called—the dirt beneath the willow.
Frankie, why don’t you show her where she can stay? Jean says.
They watch moths bat against the screen door, seated on the porch and waiting for twilight. Jean does not know what word to call Frankie’s mother. It should have been settled long ago but by the time she realized her lapse it was too late.
I sleep outside, the woman says and turns to Frankie. Don’t you?
Of course not, Jean speaks before Frankie can, knowing too well the willow and the dirt.
Frankie slips between the railing of the porch and swings underneath. Crouched beneath the floorboards, in the dirt of swallows’ roosts, she nurses those first words: Don’t you. Don’t you. The first words ever spoken to her by her mother, unless she counts the calls from the soil before daybreak and the branches rapping a secret language on frosted windowpanes. Frankie does not need to count those words anymore. She came waltzing down that road for me.
And Frankie is burning to show her. That she is not soft for her goose bed, that she too can speak. She leaps onto the porch. She lifts her arms and closes her eyes. She stamps her feet with all her strength, bending the floorboards, lodging splinters into her toes, kicking up the dust Jean patiently swept away. Come, come.
Nina looks up to the horizon, sure she sees a mass brewing there. She looks to the faces of Jean and the woman and she is proud for the first time that she knows Frankie, proud to have shared sheets and secrets and cold water baths all those years.
But there is no sound except for heat lightning. Even the trees are silent. Frankie opens her eyes and the faces once fixed on hers have turned away. She doesn’t dare seek Nina’s, who remembers Frankie’s promise not to call the birds for her mother and picks at the dirt packed under her big-toe nail.
That’s just something Frankie does, Jean says. A play-game when she’s nervous.
Aren’t you a little old for play-games, hija? The woman asks.
Her words recreate the world. The birds are remembered as that, no more real than the sound of the ocean in a cupped hand. A whole world crumbles and a new one is born. In this world, there are only the lines of the chair and the porch, nothing hiding in the grass, no voices in the soil. For Nina this world is bleak but Frankie has been waiting and she enters silently.
I came for you, the woman says. Are you coming with me?
Frankie can only nod.
It will be hard for you, hija, the woman says. I have no home like this. The air is cold and the ground is wet.
She hadn’t asked for a child, started in some nameless town on straw and a face never remembered. The weight of the new thing got in the way. It tried to fix her to a single roof, a roof at all. She had no songs to sing, no lulling to calm the approach of dark. But she had not meant to leave her child. She merely continued moving and did not realize the weight was gone until her footsteps back to it had blown away. I am not a mother, she had said, and her dreams drained back into night.
Maybe you’re right, Jean says. It would be too hard a life.
Frankie knows any words would be too strong, would betray her heart, and she has to appear solid as stone. I called her back. Fingernails pierce half-moons into her palms. She came back for me.
Yes, a hard life, echoes the woman. Too hard for her.
No, Frankie says, she can’t control herself. It’s not too hard.
The woman rises from her chair, steps across the porch, and strikes Frankie. Her cheek swells and blooms red.
You don’t tell me what to do, the woman says. Her thumb slides down Frankie’s hot cheek and drops to her lip like a petal into water. She can make the seconds stretch. By the time she turns her back on Frankie and sits down in the rocker, Jean knows there is nothing on earth that would let her give Frankie to this woman. Frankie knows there is no force to stop her from going.
You should leave before morning, Jean says to the woman. You should leave and not come back.
Frankie hears this but she knows she can’t stay within Jean’s walls. She asked the ground for her mother and her mother came. She cannot deny her source.
Frankie and Nina climb into bed, both knowing they do so for the last time. Frankie kicks off the quilt but Nina reaches down and folds it evenly. Under the sheet they are still, Frankie hot and Nina cool. Frankie runs her hand through Nina’s hair, loose and rippled from her braids. Nina places her palm on Frankie’s forehead to cool it. The air beneath the sheet is wet with the coming storm and their hot breath but they keep their heads covered.
Will you go? Nina says.
Will you go without me?
Nina falls asleep and Frankie stares through the white sheet, lit with moonlight and grazing her eyelashes. Rising and falling with her breath, the sheets mimic the motions of the clouds but there is no pull to the earth tonight. The roots are silent and she can hear only the drumbeat of her own heart. Frankie leaves the bed, leaves Nina, and wanders the house. Each piece of furniture carries its own scent, held in for years and exhaled that night. On the rocker, Frankie smells Nina’s fear when Jean was bit by a rattlesnake last summer. Rubbing the corners of the kitchen table releases the screech owl she found years ago whose claws dug into the wood. She smells winter and the watching feeling of Nina’s when she waits for something secret.
Nina is not asleep. How could she be with the sound, loud as thunder, rushing through her? She feels Frankie leave the bed, moves her hand into the warm impression where her body was. She blinks and finds herself laced to the ground beneath the willow. Her face and limbs locked into the dirt.
Frankie walks to the porch, catches her mother’s scent on this newborn wind, knows she is still close. Under the porch, the moon lights up sparks of dust. The sparks continue upward. Frankie holds her breath, begging for a call from the dirt.
A breeze enters slowly through the floorboards and with it a change Frankie reads through scent. Her mother is moving. The damp places beneath her limbs tattletale the way the sound of her movements never would. Frankie rises from beneath the porch. She follows that scent and she does not look back.
Had the wind changed, had Frankie chosen to turn for a last glance on the box that once held her life, she would have seen Nina. Just a faint outline of white cloth against a black sky. When the earth breathed in, it let go of Nina and she ran, with no scent or sight to follow, just the electric braid tying her to Frankie. She couldn’t see Frankie but she kept running, following that braid. Soon Nina tired, soon she started crawling, but she kept moving.
All night long, the wind did not change and Frankie did not look back. The three walked: the woman, Frankie, and Nina, away from the house, away from Jean, down the sliver dirt road, each unheeding what was behind them, like comets cast unwillingly in the same orbit, hurtling forward.