On the Wind, a Lullaby
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz

She began in the kitchen. Like the other rooms, the condition of it disgusted her, but it did not make her cry.

Hannah stood in the doorway, a bucket stuffed with a bottle of bleach, cans of scouring powder, and a bottle of ammonia in one hand; a plastic bag overflowing with rags and rubber gloves in the other.

The sharp smell of ants hung in the room and flies peppered the ceiling. There were dishes in the sink with scraps of leftover food, dried out or dark with mold.

Above the sink, the cabinets had been emptied of most of their contents. Cans lay scattered on the counter, on the floor. There were broken jars, the contents having oozed out, now caked and hardened. The doors of the cabinets had been axed; the wood splintered and slivers of it had showered down over the counter. One door hung still, though suspended crookedly, held in place by one hinge. Hannah tilted her head, trying to make some sense of it.

More dishes, but clean ones and possibly every last one her sister owned, lay broken, scattered across the floor.

Hannah sighed as her eyes circled the impossible task of the room. Where to begin?

She pressed the tears down, turned her head and took a breath of air, then turned back, forcing herself forward. In the kitchen, she set the bucket and bag by her feet. She needed a broom, she thought.

Opening the kitchen closet, Hannah was surprised to find it orderly—evidently overlooked.

Bracing the bristles against a pile of broken porcelain, Hannah pushed the broom and then again, again, until clear space emerged. She leaned the broom against the wall, kept her eyes focused as she walked back into the living room, and picked up an empty cardboard box. Returning to the kitchen, she set the box down, pulled on the rubber gloves and knelt.

Who had been responsible for what? Hannah thought as she deposited the shards into the box.

She worked in a methodical way, trying not to think: these were the dishes Janine had picked out for her wedding because she loved the rose pattern. These were the jars of jam she and Janine had canned after the peach harvest. These were the glass baby bottles Janine was going to use because she’d decided first off against breast-feeding.

Hannah had not noticed how her movements had stirred the flies, but as they buzzed around her, she waved her hands crazily through the air.

“Leave me alone!” she screamed, batting this way and that.

A few moments more and Hannah knew, like her husband had told her, that she couldn’t do this. Standing quickly, her stomach lurched and she charged toward the back door. She ripped the gloves off, fought with the lock, and yanked the back door open.

Outside on the wooden porch, Hannah fell to her knees and leaned over the side, her body heaving until her insides were empty. She took a few deep breaths and looked out across the dirt yard. In her mind, she heard Sam say that once the baby was born, he’d see about planting grass for a nice yard.

“Five or six of  ’em running around pretty soon,” he’d predicted.

Hannah had glanced at her younger sister when he’d said that. She’d seen Janine cringe.

She should have done something.

Hadn’t Janine asked early on for some kind of root—

“I don’t need this,” Janine had said. “It’ll only tie me longer to Sam.”

Hannah had noted the desperation in her sister’s voice, but she’d ignored it. Janine was still young; still restless, even married. Babies had a way, Hannah had said, of changing things.

Hannah can still feel her sister’s hands, steel clamps around Hannah’s wrists.

“Please,” Janine had pleaded, and there was something in her eyes but Hannah chose to deny it.

“You’ve been blessed; more blessed than me,” she’d simply told her sister. Hannah would never have a child, though she brought the world many.

And the child had come. Weeks early and he was small, but appeared healthy. Hannah had placed that baby against her sister’s breast but Janine acted too tired to even hold him.

“I can’t, Hannah. Please.”

But Hannah had insisted. Sam wouldn’t be back from his trucking job for a week so Hannah stayed, helping her sister until Janine had regained adequate strength. On the third day, Hannah went home and stayed away. She’d instructed Janine on feeding and basic care.

“Women have an instinct. You need to follow yours,” was all Hannah said as she left.

But Janine had not liked to play with dolls. She’d never cared for hers, leaving them in the mud or forgetting them at a relative’s. But that baby had not been a toy that she could forget. It cried, it wanted, it needed.

Hannah shook her head wildly, her tears flying as she thought of her sister placing a pillow over that baby and pressing it down.

And then—was it guilt or more craziness—Janine had taken Sam’s gun and went to the field out back and killed herself.

Sam had come home to find it all. And then, him crazy with grief and pain, he’d destroyed what Janine had left behind.

A mess Hannah cannot clean up.

She hadn’t noticed it before, there in the middle of the backyard, but now Hannah stood and walked toward the crib. It too had been attacked. She crouched down, reached in between the splintered slats and tapped the smiling pink pig dangling from the mobile.

Her touch set the toy in motion. There was a tinkle of a note and Hannah expected to hear a lullaby, but instead her mind heard the cries of a child passed between two women.

Here: one giving life.

Here: the other, taking it.

“Is mothering a natural instinct?”


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