You can see for a long ways standing on my mom’s front steps, and I saw Ruth approaching. It was all rolling yellow and brown hills, and she in a haze of September dust. I slipped away from my mother’s chores and got on Pronto to wait by the side of the road. My mom called, and I used her name back.
She hated that. I looked over my shoulder at her. She wouldn’t call me again. There was no harm in seeing.
I intended to follow Ruth into town, and I ought to have started as soon as I saw her because Pronto was so old I could only ride him at a walk. His front right leg sometimes locked up, and if he weren’t paying attention, he’d go down. I always fell off him when he did that.
But I waited and eventually she walked past, carrying a rag doll that was all gray and limp with its own history. We didn’t know each other, but she must have recognized me because everyone knew our barn, which had been painted deep red to stand out from the hills. I knew a lot about her. She’d been staying with her mom who lived about twelve miles out of town, and she was halfway between my mom’s age and my own. And she was trash-poor. She had that halo of dust because her shoes were too big which made her scuff the dirt.
I wanted her to look at me so I whistled but my lips were dry, and I only made a blowy sound. She could have done something, looked away or down or cleared her throat, but she didn’t. She wore a fancy hat pinned to the back of her head and her black hair was curled and pulled away from her face. She would have looked like Joy Page from The Bullfighter and the Lady if she hadn’t worn her fine wool coat slopping off her shoulders. She thrust her belly out, not because she was proud but because she could do little to hide it. It was too warm for a coat like that. Finally, she looked at me, a blank stare.
My mom was no longer interested in me and my foolish decision. I was fourteen and on the cusp of doing whatever I pleased, and I couldn’t see the wrong of following Ruth into town to see my dad. Ruth was going to marry him, though he’d been divorced from my mom for hardly a month.
This was 1952, and my dad got away with things most wouldn’t even consider because he was handsome and popular. Ruth had lived in the apartment above my dad’s mechanic shop until he got her pregnant, then she ran to her mother who kept her until she showed. My dad drove out to get her, and she ran away into the woods. He gave word that he would marry her, but she’d have to find her own way into town. He refused to live in secret about things. Besides, there were no phones in Balsamroot except his. He had no way of taking responsibility except to let it be known, in case someone was headed that way and could give her the message. It was a strange story that made sense when you realized that people don’t make sense.
I fell in behind Ruth and easily kept up. After a mile or so, she jumped into the ditch to pick up a lizard and walked with it held high, its tail pinched between her fingers. She glanced back at me, as if she wanted to make sure I saw it. She tried to play with the lizard and the doll together, but when the lizard put its hand on the doll’s face, she threw it to the ditch and walked backwards, watching me ride Pronto. I couldn’t tell if she smiled or smirked, if she was friendly or triumphant. I had had a dad, and now she was going to him.
The warmth spread even on these hours; the sun was soft and made Pronto even slower than usual, but Ruth kicked along and lagged until she faced me and I caught up to her. Embarrassed, I urged Pronto to move forward but he stopped with his bad knee straight, so that he slapped the road with his hoof and refused to move. He probably needed to wait for the joint to soften. I was stuck there, looking at my dad’s future wife.
She tucked her doll in her elbow and hitched up her skirt. Her eyes were hazel pricked with blue and they startled me. So did her teeth, or the way she used them, drawing back her lips in a big smile. She was prettier than me. That’s what her smile said, that she had already won. And I decided that I was going to have to like her, no matter what. She and I were stuck with each other because of what my dad had done. I ought to be mad at him, but my mom had that covered, so I really didn’t have a choice in the matter. I wasn’t sure how I would manage.
I could see the straps of her camisole through her gauzy shirt, which, like her coat and skirt, was pretty but at least fifty years old. The camphor on her clothes gave the fine morning a musty feel.
“Can I ride your horse?”
I loved Pronto more than my parents, but the horse was as ugly as he walked. He was grulla colored, which meant he looked like he was always covered in mud. And he was so broken down that people told me I oughtn’t ride him. But it was crueler to leave him at the gate looking for me. And he usually didn’t go down when he needed a rest, at least if he wasn’t falling asleep. He stopped with a slap like he just did. He’d never been a flashy horse. Never fast or exciting, just trustworthy. No one had ever asked to ride him. He wasn’t that sort of horse. He was a hay-burner. That’s what my mom called him. Hay-burner.
“You’ll hurt him.”
“No I won’t!”
I might have let her, except she held her coat closed and ran away from me. I wanted to laugh at her holding her belly with her other hand as if they baby would fall out—I don’t know how she would have gotten on Pronto—but I couldn’t. And before you think that laughter is sometimes close to crying, I couldn’t do that, either. I felt the air come into my throat and out, as if she had changed nothing.
I decided to let Pronto go home on his own and walk the rest of the way, but Ruth hadn’t waited for me. She kept running until there was a big distance between us. After she was gone, seeing my dad on his big day didn’t seem right. I caught up with Pronto and walked next to him, prodded him when he grazed.
A couple of weeks later, the mailman knocked on our door. He took his cap off when I answered and asked to see my mother. I wondered if Ruth had killed my dad in some malicious way that looked like a heart attack until my mom said, “That girl gave birth, didn’t she.”
Because I told her about Ruth and the doll and the lizard, my mom insisted that she was still a child and that my dad had committed an act closer to molestation and rape than sex and love. It didn’t matter that she was older than me. Not by her mind, said my mom about that.
“Yes, ma’am. And he’d like Roberta to come see the child.”
“I suppose she’s expected to bring it something.”
“A boy, ma’am. And I wouldn’t know about that.”
“Thank you, Mr. Brown.”
My mom knew everyone, and everyone knew her because she was a Wicks, even if she went by Fitch, now. Because she was a Wicks, she had her own car, a Chrysler New Yorker Coupe. It was a sweet car, even fancy, and everyone admired her when she drove it. The Wicks were investment bankers who lived mostly back East. She could have bought a new car every year, but she didn’t want to appear rich to poor folk who were too willing to take his side. That, and she swore this was her car for life. 1948 was what she called the prime choice cut of my life.
I was ten when she got that car, and she and my dad were more wrapped around each other than anyone I knew. Most Fridays they would take that fancy coupe to Red Lodge, or Fish Trap, or Roberts. When they came back, they smelled like the fade of my mom’s perfume and cigarettes and whiskey and beer. Once I stood in the doorway, wanting them to see me and put me to bed like they did before she got the car, but they knew no one except each other. He spun her so that she faced away from him and she blushed as he held her hands away from her body, having her step in a way that was almost free of him, that let him watch her.
Now she liked to tell me that she was mad as hell at Markus. So mad that she wasn’t ever going to give up the good memories. Which meant she wasn’t going to give me a ride in the coupe to see my new brother because it would taint the memory of all those dances.
The following morning, Sunday, my mom wanted me to move my dad’s uncollected items from the basement to the barn. I left as soon as I put the last box down, before she could find another chore for me. I wanted to be there early so that they wouldn’t need to feed me lunch; a consideration, my mom would have said, no one had given her.
The garage door was up, which meant he was working, and he rolled out from under a car when he heard Pronto’s hooves. He usually didn’t work on Sundays. He wasn’t religious, he simply agreed that there should be a day when one had no obligations.
He looked so weary at first I thought it was someone else. My dad had a good reputation and people came from all over to have him fix their cars. He especially liked to hire men his age and older if they had fallen on hard times. But it was him.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“I dunno how you sit on that horse.”
“I squeeze his backbone with my butt. He won’t ever buck me off.”
My dad grinned— “Baby’s inside—” and rolled back under the car.
I got off and led Pronto to the backyard, removed his halter so he could graze down the tall grass. I reminded myself to scoop any poop onto the heap of weeds near the fence. Straight shit heats the soil and kills things.
All horses like a good roll after they’ve been ridden, to get the feeling of the rider off their backs. But Pronto was too old to roll all the way over, and it was hard for him to get back up, so I rubbed him down with clumps of dry grass. He stretched his neck and let his lower lip sag. After I rubbed the mark of me off his back, I found a bucket and took it to the spigot in front of the shop. That’s when I heard him whinny. I filled the bucket and went back to Pronto, half expecting him to be tangled in something, but there he was, standing underneath the cottonwood at the back of the yard, reaching with his long neck and his long nose for the gunnysack that hung above him like dead weight. I hadn’t noticed it before, though it must have been hanging there while I rubbed him down.
I knew the gunnysack held my brother even before I got back on Pronto and urged him forward. I stood on his back so that I could lift the sack and I felt the give of flesh. I smelled milk, a smell I never knew babies had, stronger than the smell of jute. I also smelled manure and dirt. I thought those smells were good because it meant that it was still warm. I felt only him, the thinness of my brother. She hadn’t bothered with a blanket.
The sack hung from a rope that was wrapped around the limb six times and tied off with a slipknot. The rope was also wrapped around the neck of the sack. It wasn’t a thick rope, just sisal, but the knot was too high for me to untie or cut. She’d put him up this tree without giving us an easy way to get him down, and I heard her laughing about it.
Then Pronto stepped forward to stretch his leg and that gave me an idea. I let go of the sack and clucked to him, making kissing noises with my lips to move him forward. I was still standing on him, and had forgotten to put his halter back on, but we’d done this trick in the pasture so many times, he knew what to do and eased me to the tree trunk. I then hoisted myself onto the lowest branch, stood to reach the next branch—the one my brother hung from—and pulled myself up.
“Dad!” I called again, and more laughter from the window, then a song, “Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop, when the wind blows the cradle will rock.” She paused for more laughter before finishing the rhyme. “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, Roberta and all.”
“The baby’s in the sack!” I said, knowing she didn’t care, and he couldn’t see.
I couldn’t pull the knot loose because the rope was wedged tight. I edged further onto the limb, shouting, “Git!” to Pronto in case I fell. Ruth leaned further out the window, as if towards the sky, and hummed.
“You’re such a good sister. Good-sister-bad-sister-somewhere-in-between-sister.”
Then she disappeared into the dark of her room.
My dad came to the yard and looked at me with some sort of anger. He wasn’t a tall man but built with long legs stuck on a square body, like he could wrestle down a tornado. His pants were grease splattered but he didn’t look unkempt, more like he was taking on the responsibility of fatherhood by working on a Sunday. Pronto remained beneath me, too old to look up and will me to be careful.
“Get down from there!”
My dad pushed Pronto away and stood below me, his hands on his hips.
“What kind of game is this?”
He was accusing me of tying my brother in the tree, but I didn’t care. Not until I could get my brother down. He hadn’t cried the entire time I’d been there, and I’d begun to wonder if he was dead or dying, if maybe she had poisoned him first then hung him from the tree.
“This is your mother’s influence. That woman’s full of hate.”
The gunnysack swung from my efforts and I thought that if I could just get him down, he’d understand that I hadn’t done it. Otherwise, how would they get him down, if not for me?
“I swear I didn’t do this.”
My brother began to cry. I smiled, feeling something between relief and anxiety and not understanding either emotion. I wasn’t supposed to like this baby. Everyone expected me to hate my brother.
“Why are you laughing?”
“I’m not! Can you get a knife?”
“I don’t think I can trust you with a knife until you tell me what kind of joke this is. Get down from there. I’m getting a ladder.”
Ruth came to the window with her rag doll, the same one she made kiss the lizard. She danced it for me, then quietly set it down when my dad looked up and asked if she was okay.
“I’ll get him. You wait there, Ruth.”
The baby began to full-throttle cry, the sound gurgling between breath and wail.
I balanced myself and sat up, hoisted the rope hand over hand, and held the sack in place between my legs with my elbows. Then I took a breath of bravery and leaned over it to undo the knot around the limb.
“Dad,” I said when I finally pulled the knot free, but he didn’t hear me. He was about to walk away. The rope was still wrapped around the sack, but I thought that would make it easier to lower to the baby. The sisal had left a dry but painful cut on my hand.
“Markus! Catch the baby!”
My dad turned suddenly, as if I was already dropping the sack, but I was easing to a lying position to lower it.
“Dammit, Roberta! What are you doing? Don’t do it like that.”
I was saving my brother, and I smiled down at him and thought this would prove that I am a good sister. He raised his hands reflexively, blinking his eyes against the bits of dirt and bark and leaves turning yellow and brown—me lowering his son to him.
“Watch his head!”
Because he was holding the sack with grease blackened hands and without particular consideration, as if catching a part from a car that had come loose unexpectedly. But my brother wailed and Dad put him in the bend of his arm and loosened the knot, rolled the sack down so that they were face to face. My brother lifted his arms as if startled to attention by a tent preacher.
“Marion,” my dad said, wanting the infant to respond to his name. “Marion.”
Ruth came into the yard, dressed in a jacquard dress that no one around here wore. It had a stiff skirt that gathered at her waist then flared to below her knees, and she put one foot in front of the other so that the skirt swayed from side to side. Her body looked like a long sigh. Maybe she hadn’t fully expelled all the things to do with my baby brother. I wondered if she would have preferred to keep him inside of herself, if that was why she was acting so strange.
She smiled brightly at me, as if her face were on a scroll and she had rolled past the insanity. She wore little black heels and she stepped delicately through the dirt of the yard. She looked so proper, I wondered if I had misunderstood her. Maybe it was a game she and my dad played. Maybe it took time to even out your emotions after you’ve had a baby.
“We must do something about that horse,” she chirped up to me. “Well, that was an adventure. Don’t be too hard on her, Markus. It was all for fun, wasn’t it, Bobbi?”
She held a blanket and a bright yellow rattle in the shape of a bunny rabbit towards Marion. The rabbit had surprised blue eyes, and she shook it in front of him, making expressive faces. I wondered if I had overreacted, that it wasn’t a bad thing to hang a baby in a sack from a tree. She chose a good limb, that’s for sure, and Marion didn’t seem to mind. At least not until towards the end. But if it wasn’t a bad thing, why was my dad mad at me? He hadn’t looked up since I rescued Marion. I would have to get him to love me by being the best sister to Marion, and that wasn’t going to be easy if Ruth liked to play jokes. She seemed like the type.
He handed Marion to her with hardly a look, but more careful than when he first held the gunnysack. She wrapped him in the blanket as neatly as could be expected and then she bounced and swayed, clucking until he no longer cried. I saw only the swirl of my brother’s black hair and the ruddiness of his skin. I heard him hiccup and then gasp, and hiccup again. My dad put his arm around them and she leaned into him as if he had rescued Marion from the tree. Then they took him away. My dad still would not look at me.
I hugged the limb and dangled my body. Even Pronto ignored me, and I had to fall on my own.
On the way back to my mom’s house, Pronto walked, splayed ears rocking, not bothering with the mouthfuls of grass he normally took. I rested with equal laziness—my head on his rump, watching the clouds shift with his limping stride.
I repeated my brother’s name again and again, as if he were math facts I could understand by memorization. That Marion was more often a girl’s name had no effect on me because it had been my grandfather’s name, on my dad’s side—a name my mom wouldn’t have allowed if I had been a boy, a name he wouldn’t have wanted me to have for the particularity of it. I never saw my parents fight, and I would never make sense of my dad’s indiscretion, but in that difference lay the reason for their divorce. It wasn’t the name, it was their stubbornness. Ruth was just a sideshow.
A car approached and slowed and Pronto plodded on, as if blind and deaf to everything. I looked at the driver in the business suit, likely returning from trying to sell something because those were the only sorts who wore suits around here. He smiled, and I felt his gentle envy—the halter lead looped over my old horse’s withers as if I hadn’t a care in the world. Then he lifted his fingers in a wave and left me, the wheels crunching over the gravel, and I yearned for him—so much that I sat up to watch that car disappear. He was just a man who wanted to trade places with me but now there was nothing. Only dust, lifting and thinning and just hanging there.
K.R. ROSMAN has published stories in Summerset Review, Foxing Quarterly, Platte Valley Review and other magazines. Originally from Montana, she now lives in Seattle.