by Alice Archer
Alba was waiting for her, sitting at the bottom of the stairs. As her daughter stood and turned around, her face fixed and alight with stubborn pleading, Amy was both touched and exasperated to see that she had managed to devise an all-black outfit: tank top (inside-out; it was the one with GIRLS ROCK in sparkly fuchsia block letters on the front); fingerless arm warmers; tulle ballerina skirt; and her thirteenth-birthday boots, for which Amy had laid down the three-figure price only after Alba had been able to prove that her feet had stopped growing: real, quilted black leather, with little gold ankle buckles. Even her dangly plastic star earrings and the silk headband holding back her blondish-brown hair were black.
Amy started shaking her head halfway down. (Damn these heels; every time she wore them, she remembered why she’d stopped after she got married.) Brushing aside a twinge of guilty inadequacy that she wasn’t even wearing black—even though this dowdy mid-calf dress, navy with small white flowers, was what she thought of as her “funeral dress”; she’d bought it when she was 25, for her grandma’s, already feeling like black made her look washed-out and old, then worn it to her grandpa’s less than a year later, and then to that of a 93-year-old retired partner from Mike’s firm, three years ago—she assumed her sympathetic yet firm Mom-face.
“I’m sorry, honey. You’re not going. None of you kids are. I thought we’d told you”. They had—but she’d give her a chance to gracefully pretend she’d forgotten.
Grace, though, obviously wasn’t Alba’s priority today. “Why not?” she demanded, quivering up and down with a barely-suppressed boot-stomp.
“First of all, because your dad and I don’t think it’s appropriate to force children into . . . too close contact with . . . you know . . . death, and, and anything dark, and depressing. You’re young—you should be carefree, and focusing on the future, and . . . happiness, and . . . things like that.” There hadn’t been any kids at the partner’s funeral, she and Mike had recalled when discussing the matter, even though the program had listed some huge number of grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
“But you’re not forcing me,” said Alba, in that infuriating tone of hers, as if explaining something incredibly simple to someone despicably stupid. “I want to go. The little jerks don’t have to.”
Maybe not the time to address the issue of calling her younger siblings jerks. “And second of all, I need you here, to watch your brothers and sister for an hour or two.”
“Enzo’s almost 11! That’s old enough to be in charge.”
That might be so, in a logical world—but that wasn’t what the neighbors, or her fellow school volunteers, would think, if it got out that she’d left a ten-, eight-, and six-year-old home alone for an extended period. “Alba, that is enough. I’ve respected you enough to explain my reasoning, now the subject is closed.”
It wasn’t even like she could just text Zetta, like she had so many times, to come over and watch them, or walk them over to her house with promises of playing with the chickens. In fact, she wasn’t sure when—if ever—it might be okay to ask Zetta to babysit again.
“I know what you think,” said Alba, “you think Zetta will be hurt by you bringing all your babies, when hers is dead. But I’m not a baby. I’m her friend. And I want her to know that I care, just like you do.”
Again, Amy was both proudly surprised and irritated by her daughter’s insight. She patted her suntanned shoulder between tank top and arm warmer. “I’ll make sure to tell her for you.”
Alba followed her through the great room . . . where Enzo, Iris, and Otto sprawled and curled on the sectional, absorbed by their tenth-birthday iPhone, Amy’s Kindle, and the communal kids’ iPad, respectively, while some aggressively ugly neon cartoon whooped and whanged on the TV . . . and into the kitchen, where Mike was brushing crumbs off his tie and putting the wheel of Gouda back in the fridge.
“Caring about Zetta and Zaidin doesn’t mean I don’t care about my future. That’s the most retarded thing I ever heard.”
Mike headed out, without a word, through the mudroom, into the garage—but Amy couldn’t let that go, even if they were almost running late. “What did I tell you about that word? How do you think your cousin Paisley would feel, if she heard you use that word?” Paisley was Mike’s oldest sister’s youngest child, born when she was 43—the same age Amy was now; she shuddered to think—after trusting in the Lord and refusing prenatal testing.
“Oh my God, I’d never call her that! What kind of bitch do you think I am?”
Amy didn’t respond: either to the question—which her own mother would absolutely have answered—or the implication that she was the bitch for even suggesting that the scathing insult might be applied to sweet, plodding, perpetually bewildered Paisley.
Alba hung out the mudroom door and yelled, as she got into Mike’s car: “Am I allowed to say oh my God? Or is that rude to religious people?”
* * *
“Well, that went better than I thought it might,” said Mike, as they waited to make the always-frustrating left out of their development.
Amy sighed, cradling her forehead in her hand. “God. I just don’t know.” She couldn’t stop thinking how Alba had known Zetta since she herself was a baby, barely older than poor little Zaidin had been. Amy remembered wheeling her, in her sun-shaded stroller, down the street and around the corner for the first time of too many to count, eager to be the first to greet their strange new neighbor with the butt-length, wildly wavy, silver-threaded hippie hair and the gray-ponytailed husband who’d been wearing a black T-shirt with a demonic-looking zombie on it the day they moved in, and to tell all her friends what their deal was.
Zetta, despite the hair, had turned out to be only 27, three years younger than Amy. Her husband, Joe, who had not then looked egregiously older than her, had been 46. Over the next 13 years, while the proportion of silver to dark brown in Zetta’s hair increased, her appearance had not otherwise changed—not even the length of said hair, while Amy and all the rest had ruefully, jokingly dragged themselves in for their first “mom cuts” not long after their first babies. (Of course, Zetta wasn’t a mom—but no one would’ve been cruel enough to point to that as a reason.) Joe’s, meanwhile, had thinned and receded significantly, but he clung in defiance to the ponytail.
In 13 years, neither Amy, nor anyone else, had ever figured out exactly what he did that enabled them to afford this neighborhood. Joe remained a closed book, puttering in the basement most of the day, going out on odd errands—nights, weekends—in the plain white delivery truck, with ladders mounted along both sides, that there’d been that kerfuffle about the HOA not wanting him to park in the driveway because it wouldn’t fit in their garage; then in the faux-wood-sided dinosaur van he’d suddenly replaced it with (not seeming to miss the ladders).
But Zetta had, unexpectedly, become a closer friend to Amy than most of those she’d planned to gossip with about her. She’d fallen giddily in love with baby Alba, that first day they met, and Alba seemed to remain first in her heart, even after the other moms tentatively accepted Amy’s glowing testimonials and let Zetta babysit their kids, too. They all conspired not to report her to the city for keeping more than four backyard chickens, which was the maximum allowed by zoning regulations. In return, they were all able to bake cupcakes and birthday cakes and zucchini bread (usually also with Zetta’s zucchinis) with her organic, free-range, pale-green and brown-shelled eggs, even if most of their husbands and kids refused to eat the actual fried or scrambled eggs because of their vividly orange, un-Safeway-like color.
For her part, Amy had been thrilled to find a fellow reader and art-appreciator. She hadn’t even resented Zetta (for long) when Alba spat, during a blowout battle at age 9: “I wish Zetta was my mom, instead of you!”
Zetta had made the cloud-soft scarf, in shades of pink blending from cotton-candy to black raspberry, that Alba wore every single day from October to April when she was 11, and had even, patiently, sitting out on her sun porch over the course of many days last summer, taught her to knit, which she now got in trouble for doing in school assemblies and study halls. Amy noticed how Zetta always talked to Alba the same way she would to an adult, which may have encouraged Alba’s belief that Zetta saw her as a friend, rather than a child—which, for all Amy knew, she might have. And while Alba apparently couldn’t watch her own, totally toilet-trained siblings without whining, she’d been looking excitedly forward to babysitting Zaidin.
“Do you think we made the right call?” Amy asked Mike.
He dropped one hand from the wheel to rub her knee. “This is just another one of those times you can’t know for sure what’s right. Might she have gone, and been all right? Maybe. And might she have been traumatized? Maybe. All we can do—all we can ever do—is just the best we can.”
Amy laid her hand on top of his. “In case I forgot to say it before, thanks a million for giving work a miss today. I know how much you love your Saturday mornings in the office—”
Mike gave a sarcastic little laugh.
“—but I really don’t think I could do this alone.”
* * *
From across the large, softly-lit beige room, Amy thought at first that Zetta looked remarkably calm. She was wearing a loose black pullover and her ankle-length black broomstick skirt, its hem incongruously embroidered with bright folksy flowers; none of her ceramic-beaded or feathered “statement” jewelry was today in evidence. Once they got within about ten feet, however, Amy realized that she was heavily drugged. Her un-made-up eyes were glassy and unfocused, and her mouth drooped at one corner as if frozen in her habitual yeeeesh! at a racist remark or a tantrumming toddler being manhandled in Target.
In response to Amy’s effusive sorries, Zetta just hollowly moaned. Joe . . . in a slim-fitting black suit Amy would never have guessed he owned, looking like a morose, aging rock star or a Hollywood gangster with his black satin shirt and matching tie . . . kept one arm around her waist, and gruffly thanked Amy and Mike for coming.
Then it was time to approach the cascading mountain of flowers at the front . . . Amy quickly glanced over them, making sure the wreath of daffodils and blue-dyed carnations she’d ordered was there . . . and the tiny, pearl-colored casket that stood open in their midst.
She had at first been taken aback that Zetta and Joe had decided on an open casket. But, as she stood there, clutching Mike’s arm, she had to admit the mortician had done a phenomenal job. Zaidin didn’t look dead; if anything, he looked like one of those expensive, creepy dolls that Melanie, up the street, had gotten into after her twins went off to boarding school. In other words, just like a real, live baby . . . with his thick tuft of dark hair, his ruddy skin you’d swear would be soft and warm if you touched it, his still-wrinkly eyes squeezed shut, one fist raised up beside his mouth as if about to start sucking his thumb as he slept on his back, in a red-and-blue airplane onesie, on a bed of sky-blue silk . . . just one that happened not to be breathing. Just as Zetta had found him, on Wednesday afternoon, when she went to pick him up from his nap and nurse him.
Amy felt shameful relief at the unforced tears that coursed down her cheeks, as Mike nodded slowly and rubbed his hand up and down her arm. She’d cried when she first heard, of course—poor Zetta! And this was probably her only chance—but now, a couple of days later, she’d worried her dominant emotion might be creeped-outedness at the thought of the nonbreathing baby lying like this in her cradle.
She’d lent the cradle to Zetta for her baby’s first three months, the same time all four of her own had slept in it, until the recommended move to a crib. Amy herself had slept in the cradle as an infant, as had her brother, their mother, and all of their uncles. Her great-grandfather had made it, completely by hand, while awaiting the birth of her grandma, in 1919. He had been 50-something at the time—a true 19th-century craftsman—whose 20-something bride had barely survived the Spanish flu epidemic the year before; and he had poured all of his age-old training and meticulous artistry into a suitable shrine for his only, longed-for child.
The cradle was a thing of beauty, its warm golden oak glowing like heavily solidified sunshine, carved with a lavishness of flowers, acorns, ribbons, peeping elves and cherubs, clouds and sunbursts. Amy recalled tracing every detail with her childish fingers when it stood in her room, piled high with dolls and stuffed animals, always seeming to discover something new among the well-known fronds and faces. It stood perfectly balanced on the Queen Anne curves of its rockers, steady while the baby slept and shifted, but able to be set to a soothing, metronome-like rock at a gentle touch.
At over 100 years old, it was probably the oldest thing in Amy’s house. (She still resented her mother for selling the solid cherry dining-room set, also made by her great-grandfather—five-leaf table, twelve chairs, china cabinet, and buffet—getting $400 for all of it when she and Amy’s father moved into a condo after Amy left for college. When barely ten years later, she and Mike spent more than $5,000 on a set with only eight chairs, that was at least real wood and as close to the same quality as machine-made stuff got.) Since being vacated by Otto, it sat on the upstairs landing, by the rail overlooking the great room, with a white lace shawl draped over one side and two porcelain dolls Amy had rescued from thrift shops sitting side by side on lace-trimmed pillows. To the left of it sat a larger doll, on a straw-bottomed chair that had proven too flimsy for human use; to the right, the upstairs vacuum cleaner—purchased after the cleaning lady almost took a spill hauling the other one up, and Mike worried about lawsuits—stood hidden by the calico skirt of a smiling rag doll from a shop in Amish country. And literally every time she’d been upstairs in Amy’s house, Zetta had sighed, sometimes lightly touched the carvings, and repeated some variation of, “This is the most beautiful thing,” or “You’re so lucky, to have something like this in your family.”
So when Zetta clasped both of Amy’s hands, and told her, with eyes like gray starbeams, that she was pregnant . . . at last, after so many years of trying everything, and right when, at 39, she’d begun the slow, painful process of giving up hope . . . the first thing Amy said to her, after all the happy tears and hugs and congratulations, was not to tell her (tactfully, cautionarily) about Paisley—even though she knew Zetta would be 40 by the time the baby was born; she would, later on, including confiding that she’d had the tests done with Iris, when she’d been 35, and Otto—but, with pure joy, a surging, buoying spirit of generosity such as she’d felt before only on Christmas mornings since Alba was old enough to appreciate actual presents more than wrapping paper and boxes: “You know that old wooden cradle of mine you’ve always loved? Well . . . I’m done having babies, and hopefully won’t have any grandbabies for at least about 15 years . . . so . . .”
It had crossed Amy’s mind to lament the shadow that Zaidin’s death might cast over those grandbabies, in that same cradle . . . but she’d never believed in luck, or ghosts, or anything of that nature. The cradle was due to be returned the weekend after this one; today should have been the day Zetta and Joe put together Zaidin’s crib. But Amy had already decided she’d be absolutely okay with Zetta keeping it longer than planned, if it comforted her at all. She’d wait a couple of months before carefully feeling her way around asking for it back—if Joe didn’t show up, first, with it in the back of his van.
She’d actually been briefly afraid that they might sue her and Mike, claiming the cradle had been unsafe. But equipped with a new, all-natural, hypoallergenic mattress, free of any suffocating sheets, pillows, bumpers, or teddy bears, it hadn’t been remotely blamed by the examining doctor. Zaidin would have been no safer in a state-of-the-art, computer-designed, robot-milled crib. (Didn’t they use to call it crib death?) It was just one of those hideously, maliciously unfair mysteries that boggled the mind of any thinking, feeling person how anyone could believe in any form of God.
Between her heels, and the disc she’d slipped in her back helping set up for last year’s spring carnival at the kids’ school, Amy was grateful when everyone took their seats. But they just had to play that awful Sarah McLachlan song, that always made her think of shelter animals staring out of cages, and started her tears welling up again.
Joe got up at the podium, muttered a few words over a crumpled piece of paper, dissolved into rough choking sobs, and slumped back down to the front row, where Zetta rocked slowly, unceasingly back and forth, back and forth, her wavy silvery head bowed, the world beyond her desolation shut out.
Then another song that Amy thought was Tori Amos; then some screamy rock song she didn’t recognize. A bearded man in a dark, purplish-red robe, with some kind of elaborate embroidered sheepskin or something around his shoulders, prayed in an impenetrable accent, rang a small bell, and placed it in the casket, along with a small, plain bouquet—or a bunch of herbs? Some New Agey thing of Zetta’s, no doubt.
Finally, a woman from Zetta’s craft circle . . . Amy had met her, two or three times; the translucent, needle-nosed natural blonde who’d apparently never heard of makeup . . . sang something lilting and melancholy in a foreign language. Her high voice, in song, was unexpectedly honeyed and rich.
“Is that Irish Gaelic, do you think?” Mike whispered. Amy shushed him.
* * *
After, there was a selection of grocery-store pastries and tall steel urns of surprisingly tolerable coffee. Mike and Becky Meyers’ husband—each other’s usual fallback on such occasions—were off in a corner, talking their boring lawyer talk. Amy was talking to Becky and Melanie, in suitably low, shamefaced voices, about the latest doings of the Kardashian clan. She had already hugged Zetta and apologized to Joe that she and Mike would not be able to drive out to the cemetery—just stopping herself from explaining that it was because she had to take Enzo and Otto to karate.
The three of them sprang slightly, guiltily apart. It was the priest, or whatever he was. Amy tried not to shrink further back, or make a face; his sheepskin (or so she hoped) smelled pungent. Her friends—to her embarrassment—did not succeed as well as she felt she did.
“Pardon?” asked Melanie shrilly.
God, thought Amy, shut up and let him try! English clearly wasn’t his first language.
“Ramoun-a-shriv,” the priest repeated, his brown eyes bright and earnest. Up close, he was younger than she’d thought; possibly only early twenties, his dense, wiry beard seeming almost false against soft rosy skin. “Please come. Thorsday after next—full moon. This asplain.”
He held out several sheets of paper, home-printed and folded into pamphlets. Amy took one first; then Becky; then, reluctantly, Melanie.
“Please come. Bring children—everyone.” His eyes shone fixedly upon Amy. “You. Amy? Mother of Alba?”
She was unsettled despite herself. “Yes?”
“You, aspecially, must bring your Alba. She is most dear to our Carcozetta.”
“Of course,” said Amy. “We’ll be there. I promise.” Before she even knew what she was promising.
* * *
“No, no, it’s absolutely for real.”
Amy curled around her iPad, on the wicker couch on the sun porch, her phone clamped between head and shoulder. She tapped another YouTube thumbnail—and quickly swiped down her volume at the burst of wild, heartbroken wailing. Black smoke was billowing skyward.
“You don’t think they’ll slaughter the goat right there, do you?” asked Dani McClellan, over the phone. “Zetta wouldn’t go for that, would she? I mean, she’s such an animal lover. And Fiona’s still on this silly vegan kick of hers—I’d just die if she said . . . anything.”
“Did you see the one where they chopped that gorgeous gilt bed, and all those painted cabinets, to pieces, and just threw them in like—firewood?” Becky, the other party on their conference call, sounded incensed. “And that china! When you think how much they could’ve gotten—for charity, even, in whoever’s name—”
“Yeah,” said Dani, “that hurt. And the one with the brown and white goat, where they’re all in literal rags? It’s like, how much stuff do you people even have? I bet your grandpa’d want you to hang onto it—save your money—”
“I know,” said Becky. “It’s insane.”
“Um,” said Amy. “Maybe . . . we shouldn’t focus so much on . . .”
“So this . . . ra-moon-a-sieve—”
“Shriv,” said Dani.
“—thing, this is something all Dar—Darvoulis do, when someone dies? And Darvouli is, what? It’s a religion?”
“Kind of a religion slash ethnicity, I think,” said Dani. “Like Jews. Or Muslims.”
“Actually—” said Amy.
“—Muslims are pretty much every race.” But neither of her friends responded, and she didn’t have the strength to push the issue past the flutter of panic slowly rising from her stomach to her chest.
“This is so—freaking—weird,” said Becky. “I mean, I always thought Zetta and Joe were white! Not that—I mean—”
“A lot of these people look white,” said Dani. “It is weird.”
“But, like, her last name isn’t that weird. Sythulu? It’s no weirder than—Plodnik, or Schrantz—”
“Or Fontanelli,” Amy teased herself, fighting down the flutter. “When you know only one grandfather of Mike’s was even Italian.”
“But no, wait,” Becky broke in, “that’d just be Joe’s name, wouldn’t it? So why is Zetta . . .”
“If they married within their church,” said Dani, “or tribe, or whatever . . .” She trailed off. They all knew there were certain things they’d never know: things that, even if you came right out and asked Zetta, she’d just chuckle, and shake that hair of hers, and bat lightly away in such a way that you knew not to ask again. Like what Joe did, or how they’d met, or where she was born and grew up, or how old she’d been when they got married.
Finally, Becky asked the question Amy had been dreading and hoping they would. “She’s . . . not going to burn your cradle, is she?”
“She better not.” It just burst out, like Amy’s body . . . that had birthed the four babies she’d rocked in that cradle . . . letting fly with what her higher mind didn’t dare to. “She better not. I’m sorry. I know she’s grieving—it’s the most horrible— And I want her to do whatever the heck makes her feel even a tiny bit better—I don’t even really think it’s that weird—but—” The phrase including clothing, personal utensils, furnishment (particular the bed from which he or she passed) still pulsed alarm-like in her mind, as if it had been printed in blinking red.
“Does she still have it?” asked Dani.
“Of course she still has it!” said Amy. “It’s only been three days.”
“Well. You have almost two weeks.”
Amy crumpled a hand through her hair. “I just . . . I’d hate for that to be the first thing I actually talk to her about. You know? I’ve texted her, even sent her an email I was up almost all night Wednesday writing, and I haven’t heard a word back. Not that I’m blaming her, of course, it’s just . . .” She cringed to remember how Zetta had held her, and comforted her, and made her herbal tea after the miscarriage she’d had between Enzo and Iris, now that it was obvious Zetta didn’t need her in anything like the same way.
“Don’t worry,” said Dani. “So did I, and I haven’t heard back, either.”
“Me, neither,” said Becky.
“I’m sure she just needs time.”
Amy didn’t tell them that didn’t help; she’d thought she and Zetta had something special. It occurred to her to wonder if Zetta had texted Alba.
“Still,” said Becky, “I think you should get it back before the . . . thing. Just to make sure it doesn’t, like . . . accidentally . . .”
“But, like . . .” Amy agitated her hair again. “How do you even ask something like that? Um, Zetta? Remember that cradle you don’t need anymore, because your son DIED in it?”
Dani snorted. “If you were Lisa Schrantz, you wouldn’t be worried. Remember that gaudy sterling silver bank, with the teddy bear, that she gave Zetta for her shower? Well, she actually says she’s going to ask for it back, for the next time one of her sisters has a baby.”
Becky groaned. “Oh my God, I don’t believe her!”
“I know, right?”
“But . . . would silver even burn?”
“It’d melt,” said Dani, “if the temperature was high enough.”
“But that’s not the same thing!” Amy interrupted. “You give someone a gift, it’s theirs, they can do whatever they want with it. That’s just freaking etiquette—which I’m not surprised that Lisa— But that cradle wasn’t a gift, it was a loan.”
“And that was a hundred percent clear when you gave it to her?” asked Dani.
“Yes, of course!”
“It says here,” said Becky, apparently looking once more at the pamphlet from the priest about what a ramoun-a-shriv was, and the history and meaning behind it, “that burning the dead person’s belongings is supposed to sever their ties to the moral plane—”
“I think they meant mortal,” said Dani.
“—enabling them to move on free from temptings to haunt their home or loved ones.”
“And how ridiculous is that?” said Dani. “I’ve never once heard Zetta— I mean, like, the way she always decorates for Halloween . . . you’d think someone who actually believes in those things . . . And if she’s going to be consistent, why doesn’t she burn her whole house down?”
“Or jump into the fire herself?” said Becky. “You’d think a poor little two-month-old baby ghost would be more attached to his mother than a bunch of clothes and stuff.”
“Jeez, Becky,” said Dani.
“Sorry! It’s just—you know.”
“All I’m saying,” Dani steamrolled on, “is that suffering something like this, all right, that gives you the right to go a little crazy for a while, but not completely crazy.”
“You know what?” said Amy. “I don’t care what Zetta wants to believe. I’m not calling her crazy, or insulting her faith.”
“She wants to burn everything of Zaidin’s? That’s fine! It’s just that that cradle is not.”
“We’re with you there,” said Becky.
There was a heavy silence, during which an IM popped up from Lisa:
Omg dani just told me abt your cradle!!! I understand its ackword for you to go ask for it
Big time, Amy replied.
The message Lisa had been typing popped up without delay:
I was going to take a casserole over & ask if i can have that beautiful bank i gave zaiden, just so one of my nices or nephews can use it instead of wasting it. Mels here & she says she’ll go w me. We’ll ask for you & steve can pick it up. You don’t have to do a thing
Amy sighed. “Dani, I’ve got to forward you the IM conversation I’m having right now with Lisa.”
“Me too?” Becky giggled.
“Sure. Just a minute.” Amy put the phone down in order to type rapidly:
Don’t you dare!!!!!
If you want that ugly bank so bad, and you don’t give a crap about basic etiquette that says a gift belongs to the recipient, then YOU can be cruel to a woman who just lost probably the only child she’ll ever have. But if you bring me into it I’ll never forgive you!
You can tell Melanie the same goes for her and everyone
There was a long pause, during which Amy’s heartbeat gradually slowed. On her muted iPad screen, the scene cut from the mourners swaying and wailing, the flames lighting the night, the priests, in their robes and sheepskins, walking all around, continually ringing large handbells . . . to the embers smoking, and lanterns being lit, and the skinned, headless goat being lifted on its spit. Hands held out beautifully painted bowls for chunks of roasted meat, which were piled atop the same bright yellow ricelike something Amy could’ve sworn she’d had, and enjoyed, more than once at Zetta’s house, and ladled with richly steaming sauce. Adults squatted and gorged with both hands, as if to smother down their sadness; laughing kids with sauce-smeared faces chased each other around the splintered ash-heap. It all looked so heartfelt, so . . . authentic . . . the kind of thing she might actually look forward to experiencing, if only . . .
“One thing I don’t get,” said Becky, “is, how would a giant fire like that even be allowed, in this neighborhood?”
“I bet they can get some kind of special permit,” said Dani, “if it’s a cultural thing.”
Amy had actually started to type a slight softening of her statements . . . and Dani and Becky to gabble in her ear about non-Zetta-related matters . . . when Lisa replied:
Another longish pause, then:
ok if your cradles not that important to you
I’m sorry to be so blunt but
and in its place typed:
It is but
Then just stared at the pulsing cursor.
* * *
“So I went over to Zetta’s today, with another lasagna,” Amy told Mike, as he stabbed at the dinner plate she’d reheated for him with one hand, the other rearranging the papers he’d spread over the dining-room table from his messenger bag. “They had their garage door open, and it looked like they’d been gathering things there, for the, you know, the—ritual.”
Mike nodded, swallowed. “Sounds interesting. When are we talking to the kids about—”
“It’s there, Mike. Just shoved up next to the highchair, and the carseat, and a bunch of stuff that’s not even opened. Like trash.”
Amy leaned against the table, shaking her head.
“You know, up until now, I’d actually hoped she just—I don’t know—forgot where that cradle came from. You remember how out of it she was at the funeral. But now? It’s obvious she’s not planning to bring it back. I mean—storing a wooden antique like that in a damp, humid garage? Among junk? Where anyone could just stroll up and steal it? There’s no other explanation. She must mean to burn it.”
“Did you say anything?” Mike asked.
“I didn’t really get to talk to her. Joe took the lasagna, and practically shooed me out.”
Without warning, Mike leaned over and hugged her around the waist.
“I’m sorry, honey. I know how much that cradle meant to you. And I think it’s so sweet of you to let it go, for your friend’s sake.”
Amy blazed up with indignation. “Sweet of me!”
Mike didn’t seem to hear. “You know what? I’ll find an old-fashioned carpenter—maybe up in Amish country—to make you one just like it—real wood, just as fancy—for your dolls. . . . And the grandkids, in about 30 years.”
Amy tossed aside both his joking exaggeration and his arm. “You think I’m deliberately letting it go? To be sweet?”
He blinked. “Well. She is grieving. And—her religion, or tradition—”
“That doesn’t matter! Tradition, culture—none of that gives a person a right to burn another person’s cherished possessions! And an Amish cradle wouldn’t be just like it—it wouldn’t be made by my great-grandfather—and I wouldn’t have had it all my life—and our kids wouldn’t have slept in it—”
Mike prudently didn’t mention that Zetta’s kid wouldn’t have died in it, either. “She probably just assumes you’re okay with it, because you haven’t asked to have it back.”
“But don’t you see, I can’t do that . . .”
“Then it’s your choice. Either go over there and ask, or resign yourself to watching it burn Thursday night.”
“That’s impossible—I just—there has to be another way.”
“What? Sneak over, and steal it out of her garage, like you said? Like a thief?”
Amy’s mouth hung open.
Mike refocused on his plate and his papers. “Just don’t expect my help with that.”
* * *
“Please, sweetie. Please.” Amy squeezed both Alba’s cold hands in hers. “We’ve come this far—I can’t do this alone, I told you—my back—”
“I know, I know.” Alba seemed to stare down her own execution, though they were still a house away, dithering in the shadow between sun-yellow streetlights. Just a mother and daughter, in matching black velour PINK shorts (which Amy cherished a secret vanity that she could still pull off), out for some fresh night air and exercise. “I just can’t stop thinking—what if they—what will we—”
“They won’t. I promise. And if they do, it’s all on me. I’m a mean, evil mother, and I made you do it. You even cried.”
Alba smiled weakly in the dark. In the Culligans’ house, next door to Zetta and Joe’s, blue-white TV light flickered near the bottom of the two-story great-room window. Toward the end of the block, a jogger . . . a man they’d seen, but didn’t know by name . . . bounced in time with his golden retriever on a leash, moving away.
“Just think,” said Amy, encapsulating her earlier argument—“fifth generation.”
“Fifth generation. Fifth generation,” Alba repeated, as if psyching up for a soccer goal or a high dive. “I’m doing it for them.”
Amy would’ve liked to think she was doing it at least partly for her, and her bad back—but she’d take what she could get. Smiling conspiratorially, trying to make this, if possible, fun—a daring adventure they were undertaking together, to rescue their family history, and hopeful future, from the unjust flames, without being rude or risking the slightest unnecessary injury to Zetta’s feelings—she beckoned her daughter onward.
“You know, I’ll bet Zetta doesn’t even notice the cradle is gone,” she’d told her (before falling desperately back on Don’t you want your babies, and Iris’s, to be the fifth generation to…?) “She’s got so much stuff piled up—she even has a crib to burn, if there really needs to be a bed.” And if she did notice, what could she possibly say? You didn’t break into my garage and STEAL BACK that beautiful heirloom cradle OF YOURS that I borrowed and planned to BURN, did you? Unthinkable. She’d put the cradle in the basement for a few years, where Zetta wouldn’t see it when she came over, and no one would ever say a word about it.
Zetta and Joe were home, as expected; his van and her little yellow Prius both stood in the driveway, in temporary violation of HOA rules. The garage door was closed for the night. Under the cover of crickets, though, and the constant rush of the unseen highway looping just outside the development, they made their way along its windowless, vinyl-sided wall. A chicken clucked quizzically from the backyard coop as Amy unlocked the side door with the spare key (she had a full set to Zetta’s house, as Zetta had to hers). She knew there was no alarm system; they’d all repeatedly suggested it to her, over the years, but Zetta had just laughed, and shaken her hair.
As dark as it was, Amy immediately sensed the garage was even fuller of stuff than when she’d last seen it. As clinklessly as possible, she slipped the keychain into her shorts pocket, and took out the breast-cancer-pink mini-flashlight she’d located in the mud-room junk drawer—the big black power-outage flashlights were way too bright. But she hesitated to ignite even its feeble beam before she had to.
“Just follow me,” she whispered. “Feel your way.” Then, as Alba’s slender silhouette shuffled forward against the bluish-blackness outside: “Shut the door.” Only then, with her back hunched toward the black-windowed door of Zetta’s mud room, did she shield the baby flashlight with one hand and flick it on.
“Oh my God,” breathed Alba, as the faint light played over the jumble.
“Shhh. Help me out here. I think it was over . . .”
Amy made out the rocking chair and changing table from Zaidin’s nursery, both piled with stuffed animals and tiny clothes. More clothes, boxes on boxes, and toys he wouldn’t be—wouldn’t have been able to play with until he was 2 or 3. The rocking horse—the circus toy chest—the sustainable wood mini-kitchen—the sky-blue bookcase full of books. (That irked her, uncontrollably, even more than the clothes—When you think of all the poor kids without any books!) And back there, against the wall, a pyramid of yellow metal canisters printed with warning logos . . . black skulls, flames . . .
“Where’s the goat?” Alba whispered—as if expecting either a live, bleating one, or for a skinned, headless carcass to jump out at her, glowing, like one of Zetta’s animatronic Halloween decorations.
“If they’re having one,” said Amy, “they’re probably bringing it in tomorrow, fresh. Now help me look. It should be near the highchair . . .”
All the baby-shower gifts were here, she realized, glimpsing her own $150 under-the-sea-themed pack-n-play, still in its box. No doubt the beautiful pale blue and green blanket Alba had knitted, all by herself, was in here somewhere, too. Then she caught the picture on another, smaller box . . . an insipid silver teddy bear, greedily embracing a stack of silver building blocks . . . and felt gratified.
—Until she wondered: Had she succeeded in shaming Lisa into not asking for it? Or had she asked, and been told no?
“Can I have this?” Alba held a small stuffed unicorn.
“No. We’re not thieves. We’re getting what’s ours and we’re—”
“I meant to remember him by!”
“Shhhhh!” Amy smashed her finger to her lips. But Alba heard it, too; her eyes went wide as a frozen deer’s. Another car—or truck, it sounded more like—rumbling and hissing to a halt outside, behind Joe and Zetta’s vehicles.
Amy switched the flashlight off. Afterimages bloomed on the darkness. She heard Alba’s accelerated breathing, and willed her to stay calm, stay still; she wished she could reach out and squeeze her hand, but didn’t dare risk stumbling over something.
A door slammed, then another. The low, mumbling voices of two men just penetrated the garage. Amy crouched down, instinctively—but they went around by the brick path, through Zetta’s rosebushes, to the front door. Then Joe’s voice, low, hoarse; he’d opened the door as if he’d been waiting for them.
They all went inside, or seemed to. Amy waited, waited . . . wilted with relief as she heard Alba’s breathing normalize, and no sound at all from the house . . . and, after what felt like 5 or 10 minutes, switched the flashlight back on. Almost immediately, the beam found the edge of a large box depicting a happy blond baby standing in a crib. “There!”
It took some quiet, careful shifting of boxes to get to, but the cradle was still there, next to the high chair—both of them hidden by a huge arch of multicolored paper flowers, such as Amy had seen in several videos, with a blown-up photo of Zaidin in the middle: held in Zetta’s lap, between the silvery waterfalls of hair, her head cut off at the neck.
Anxiously, Amy ran her hands over the carvings—but in the semi-dark, at least, could detect no rotting or warping from its week of sub-optimal storage. She shifted the high chair out of the way by herself—which was a mistake.
“Oww—” Pressing one hand to the small of her back, she waved the flashlight at Alba. Alba tucked it in the waistband of her shorts—sending crazed shadows across the ceiling—and jumped to help her shift the arch of flowers, though it was, despite its size, far lighter.
But awkward. They pulled it two ways, shedding flowers on the floor. “Shit!” said Amy. “Sorry, sweetie.”
She couldn’t be sure, but she thought Alba rolled her eyes.
Then she had cause to silently snarl it—Shit! The front door again; the men’s voices, Joe’s among them.
Amy motioned frantically; Alba turned off the flashlight. The men proceeded along the path, down the driveway, and it sounded like they opened up the back, or some compartment, of the truck. There was an extended period of low conversation and cumbersome, steely clanking.
Alba sighed hissingly, in combined tension and boredom. Then Amy heard her start feeling through things.
Without thinking, she waved an invisible hand—Stop it!
But only when something clattered plasticly on the concrete floor did Alba freeze. Her terror seeped through Amy’s veins.
The men, however, gave no sign of hearing. It sounded like they were arguing, though not in English.
Against her will, awful images and ideas invaded Amy’s mind. Zetta hanging from a ceiling fan, or sprawled in a tub full of red water . . . Joe, not wanting any more trouble, calling up a few of his mysterious business associates to help him dispose of the body . . .
By feel, holding her breath and letting it out in silent huffs, she lifted the rainbow-tie-dyed free-trade cotton sling that Zetta used to carry Zaidin everywhere in from where it was draped over the side of the cradle, and laid it over a box of clothes. She pulled the mattress out, tried to prop it up—winced at the sound of crushing paper flowers.
She edged toward Alba, whispered: “I’m going to feel my way to the door. You just stay put. I’m going to take a peek—”
Alba clutched blindly at her. “They’ll see you!”
“I only need to open it a crack. I’ll be quiet. I need to see where they are, see if we can get it into the Culligans’ bushes—”
“They’ll see us!”
“Alba, the longer we stay in here, the more chance we’ll get—”
BASH! They both jumped. Did one of the men just shove another against the truck? And was that Joe, growling as Amy had never heard him—as if he fully meant to cave the other man’s skull in with one of those heavy, steel—whatevers—
Alba stifled a sob. Amy wrapped her arms around her, felt her trembling—or maybe they both were.
SLAM! “It’s okay, it’s okay,” Amy whispered. Just the truck being closed back up. The men went inside again, purged of violence, their voices reduced to a mumble.
Amy grabbed the flashlight—switched it on—stuck it in her own pocket. “Okay.” She smoothed her hand once, quickly, over Alba’s hair. “We’ve got to move fast, now. We’ll hide it in the bushes, like we said, then I just need you to come back with me in my car. Then we can have that Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer, and watch something on Netflix. Anything you want.”
She positioned herself behind the head of the cradle, ready to lift it into the vague aisle that had been left through the garage, from where they could maneuver it to the door. To take hold of the foot, Alba stepped up on a box—
Which shifted, or gave way, with a sharp, ugly krack!
Alba fell sideways with a cry and a crash.
* * *
“Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhhhhhhhhh.”
Still no sound from inside. Amy released her breath—though it caught on the knife thrust into her chest by Alba’s fast, anguished breathing.
“That’s my good girl. You’re okay. Now please, please just . . .” She crawled toward her daughter, found one knee with her hand. Alba flinched away, whimpering.
“No-ooo . . . other one.”
Alba sucked through her teeth as Amy felt gingerly down toward her left ankle.
“Is it broken? It’s broken, I know it is.”
“It’s probably just sprained.” But even barely touching it, she knew it was broken, too. Ankles . . . even rubbery, 13-year-old ankles . . . weren’t supposed to bend that way. Amy closed her eyes (though it made no difference), wondering briefly how a kid who’d made it through 8 years of ballet, 6 of gymnastics, and 5 of soccer without a serious injury managed to break her first bone now. Thoughts raced after, unavoidable, of that expensive day camp she’d just sent in the final payment for, for Iris . . . that “read books and put on plays based on them!” thing that was a clever cover for helping kids like her develop lagging social skills. And the even more expensive travel tournament series she’d agreed to sign Enzo and Otto up for, in pursuit of a couple of $5 gold plastic karate-kid trophies to decorate their dressers. And the fact that Enzo would soon need braces, probably at least six months before Alba’s were ready to come off—
“Oh my God, it hurts, it hurrrrrrts . . .”
“I know. I know. I’m sorry.” Amy picked up Alba’s fallen flip-flop, which her hand brushed against, and set it in her lap; she felt Alba clutch it like a security plushie. She knew better than to ask if she thought she could walk.
“How am I going to get out of here?”
“You’ll lean on me. Like a Wounded Warrior. Like on the bumper sticker.” Amy failed utterly at making it sound fun.
“O . . . kay.” Alba raised one arm, reached around Amy’s neck. Amy felt the scream rising in her throat, exploding softly against her lips, from even that slight movement.
Though it hurt her—actually hurt her—she plucked Alba’s arm off. Held her hand tight in compensation.
“First, though—I’m going to need you to sit tight—stay quiet—for just a minute, while I take the cradle out.” Could she shift it that far, that fast, without help? She’d have to. She’d have to.
“Don’t leave me here!” Alba’s whispered whine must have pierced the walls of the house—
But still no sound—no lights.
“I’ll be right back, I prom—”
“Why can’t you take me first?”
“If—” Amy bit her lip. She’d been about to say, If you can’t stop yourself screaming bloody murder—”If they catch us before we get it out, it’s lost.”
“I’ll call 911!” Alba patted at her pocket . . . but Amy had made her leave her phone, just as she’d left her own; the last thing she’d wanted was the stereotypical horror-movie scene where the hero’s phone bursts into bouncy song as he’s holding his breath, hiding from the killer . . .
Amy moved back toward the cradle’s head. She sensed Alba’s fingers reaching for her in the dark. “Please, please, sweetie, I need you—”
Alba gasped through her pain. “If you leave me in here”—her whisper was low, vehement, almost adult—“I’ll never forgive you. Never.”
* * *
Amy let herself sag against the bulk of the cradle, just for a moment—just to rest. Her spine was shrilling a nonstop, red-hot wire of agony straight up into her brain. If she hadn’t needed surgery last year, she would now—on top of Alba’s medical bills, and everything else—
She tried to savor her small triumph, reaching out (though she instantly regretted it) to make sure the rough, pinelike branches adequately hid the foot of the cradle. She felt along its rockers for scratches from her desperate dragging over concrete and grass. Nothing obvious, in this crazy crisscrossing of darkness and moonlight, under the million brushings of the Culligans’ sheltering bushes. Now if she could just stand up—
The long, shuffling slide of a glass door. Amy slumped, disbelieving. Joe and the men again—coming out onto the sun porch, this time.
Opening the screen door, clumping down the steps—coming this way.
She shrank down beside the cradle, trying to transform its shape and hers—if visible at all—into that of a mere decorative boulder—
The three men stood with their backs to the garage wall, just a few feet from the side door—cutting her off from Alba, trapping her— Amy’s fingernails clawed into the mulch. What kind of idiots—between a mother bear and her cub—!
As she stared, her spine still shrilling, eyes dilating hugely, one of the men dug in a pocket, passed cigarettes—cigars?—to Joe and the other one. They leaned in for him to light them up, then resumed their places, three or four feet apart.
Their foreign, guttural monosyllables throbbed in Amy’s ears along with her heart. The three slowly rising and falling fireflies shimmered through her tears. Her eyes and nose felt raw, full of the rank, un-cigarette-like smell of their smoke . . . unless that was all that lighter fluid, from the garage . . . spilled, leaking . . .
How on earth was Alba staying quiet? What must she be thinking right now? Did she mean what she’d said, about never forgiving . . . ?
As Amy remained crouched, with branches tickling her neck, and cramps building in her thighs to match the wire in her spine, she tried not to see a stray spark flaring—a blue-skirted curtain of flame climbing the side of the garage—the whole thing blazing up, before she could even— And it’d serve her right, wouldn’t it, for her act of grave-robbery? Her own child the sacrifice—
Joe flung down his cigarette, and Amy almost screamed. He ground it beneath one heel, and headed back toward the sun porch, inside.
The two strange men stayed put, smoking . . . smoking. One of them . . . tall, young-looking, long-limbed . . . had a ponytail several times the thickness of Joe’s, spilling forward over one shoulder; the other . . . shaven-skulled, refrigerator-shaped . . . had storms of serpentine tattoos warring on both arms in a slant of almost-full moonlight. Amy dug her nails into her knees until they bled.
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