portion of Jenny Halper artwork

The Smallest One
Jenny Halper

There is dry earth on Woburn Creek, as though the ground itself has taken weak or ill, rolling healthy soil under water, leaving dark, cracked grass for pedestrians to tread on. I am carrying eggs I have gathered. They are small and black as marbles, each fits precisely in my palm. Chick eggs, my grandmother says, explaining that when very young birds give birth, offspring will never grow to full size, they will sprout to the maximum of an inch before laying their own; these eggs will be tiny, practically cracked and ready to hatch. This is a cycle that goes on until the smallest birds fly out into the thick gray air of Woburn Creek. Sometimes these birds are so small that mosquitoes forget human flesh and swallow them whole.

It is easy to live in Woburn Creek, where my grandmother’s house is on the edge of the water, over the lake that reflects a white porch, an empty swing that rocks back and forth with my grandfather’s absence, easy to leave my school books—the X’s of algebra and the tedium of French, oui, non, parlez vous francais—next to the cans of tuna I twist open and eat standing up without taking time to spoon into a bowl. At night, when the only light comes from the lake and the only shapes are the branches of trees that tap against our windows, I bring my grandmother tea to drink, warm cloths her forehead turns cold. “My goodness,” she says when the last of the candles have burned down and the house is black for the night. “It looks like they’ve stopped coming, the birds.” My eyes have adjusted and I can see hers, gray and worried; I reach out and touch the powdered skin on her forehead. “They haven’t gone, it just got dark,” I say, but when she is sleeping and the house is still I know that I am wrong: winter has come and even the bigger birds won’t survive.

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