Sarah Kain Gutowski: Chapter IX: The Children  

  Find Her Sleeping

On waking, she found a pair of small hands cupped her cheeks. 
 The little girl’s face had replaced the moon, and her brother 
 orbited, making small, impatient sighs and grunts 
 as he tried to find, in that cramped space, a better view. 
 The girl moved her hands from the woman’s cheeks and ran 
 a finger softly along the pocks that scarred her lips. 
 Then pressing gently, she scraped her nail along the flesh 
 as if the threads were buried there, as if her skin 
had overgrown the stitches, and now she kept them, too, within. 

The threads, they’re gone, she told her brother. He gave a nod. 
 He looked relieved he didn’t need to touch the scars, 
 or venture closer. He stayed behind his sister’s shoulder. 
 The woman raised her aching head from the creek floor, 
 her throat dry with its dust, and her sticky tongue curled 
 like larvae inside her mouth’s cocoon. For now, it slept. 
 Why were you sleeping here? What happened to your lips? 
 they asked at once, like baby birds clamoring for worms. 
Her answer rose with bile in her throat. She choked it back; it burned. 

The woman motioned to the door of the little hut. 
 Beyond the entrance, the clouds were sketched with streaks of coal. 
 Reluctantly, the children crawled outside and stood 
 to wait for her in the fog. Their cheeks and foreheads glistened 
 with drops of mist, as if tears streamed down their solemn faces. 
 She raised herself from the ground and shook her skirt free 
 of dirt and lichen, grateful to breathe in the cool, damp air. 
 She savored its balm along her throat; that muscle felt bruised 
and scored by the bat’s sharp claws and spiny wings. It ached with rebuke. 

She turned and stared into the children’s expectant faces. 
 Her lips eased open slowly; a smile through locked teeth hid 
 her tongue from view. The girl smiled back, a mirrored grin, 
 and even her brother relaxed. He turned to kick at stones. 
 His small feet stirred the creek bed’s dust to shoot up 
 in a brown cloud, and gravel vaulted over the edge. 
 A bird hidden inside a tangle of weeds shot out, 
 its dark head arrowed toward unoccupied sky, and then: 
the frog tongue snapped, recoiled, and the bird hung from her mouth, dead. 

The girl’s expression began to change. Her smile blurred, 
 losing its arc, and her cheeks and jaw and brow grew hard, 
 jutting from under her skin. She aged in the rapid beat 
 and sudden, cruel cessation of the bird’s wings. 
 Her brother whipped around, confused, unsure he could trust 
 his sight in those seconds, or what he saw right now in these: 
 The woman, red-faced and fumbling, extracting the bird 
 adhered to her tongue – so small, but an awkward fit for her mouth. 
Then his face contorted, too. He pulled on his sister’s arm, shouting: 

Let’s go, get out, let’s go, but the girl couldn’t make out 
 his words; she heard only a howl, the sound of grief. 
 She thought it might be the bird, its body broken but living; 
 but the woman cried, the woman wailed as feathers fell 
 from broken wings that spread lifeless across her hand. 
 That sound, the woman’s grief, finally reached the girl. 
 As if she wouldn’t hear what she couldn’t see, she turned 
 to run across the field, pulling her brother along, 
and scattering groups of sparrows until the field was empty of song.

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