The Most Dangerous Part
The Most Dangerous Part
by Nancy Devine
My sister wears loose jeans, slung low on her hips, a too-large chamois shirt, its top three buttons missing, and hiking boots laced with fraying rope. She has worn these clothes for days, since our school burned and collapsed around us, since we began traveling north out of town drinking water from sloughs where ducks swim, since we roasted our first gray bird over a fire someone left smoldering before she herself headed north. My sister is mostly quiet, as if she’s all alone, leading us across empty prairie toward a border where we hear that things are better.
“They’ll have food and sweaters. Keep going north; you’ll find them,” a man who listened to a radio told us.
He sat on an old mattress, stained the color of coffee, a radio like a conch shell pressed to his ear.
The man with the radio is a memory, though I don’t know from how long ago. I am tired and hungry, always tired and hungry now, and I like to sleep. My dreams carry me back to grade school, to recess swings or merry-go-rounds, my teacher walking the playground with a crowd of students around her like a swarm of bees. She is so beautiful…her lipstick orange of marigolds’ unending summer bloom, its shine crisp as a cotton collar, her blonde hair curling under at her shoulders. I think the style is called a bob.
After our school collapsed and turned the air a rotten gray, a gray you could hold in your hands but wouldn’t want to, I saw her lying on the ground, her blonde hair liquid red around her face, one leg twisted beneath her.
“C’mon,” my sister said before I could figure out to describe how my teacher’s leg looked.
“We’ve gotta get out of here.”
Tonight, when I sleep next to my sister, both of us on our backs as if looking at stars, my head will rest in the crook where her arm joins onto her torso.
“I’m afraid,” I’ll say.
“I know. But we can’t stop for long. Go to sleep,” she’ll answer.
“They’d take our kites back there?”
“And songs and who knows what else.”
I’ll throw my legs over hers and scoot in as close as I can, as if I could hide inside her. It will be like this, because this is how it is on nights we decide to stop and sleep.
I write by the light of a TV, one a few of us watch that pulls in a station from the north. The picture is fuzzy, like the figures are moving through milk, and it doesn’t completely fill up the screen. It runs off a generator, so it’s sometimes hard to hear. We stopped because we saw others resting here, huddled close, sleeping near small fires.
One morning after we first drank from a slough, we ate plums we picked from a long row of bushes near a fallen barn. We spit seeds from the tart fruit onto bare dirt and held the flesh on our tongues before we swallowed. An old woman in khaki pants and a loose red sweatshirt came out from behind boards propped against a tree. “Girls, girls,” she said as she came toward us, dragging a black trash bag.
“What does she want?” I asked.
“Girls. Come inside. Eat some real food.”
She turned, and we followed her back to boards tree held together by stiff white cable. We sat there on old kitchen chairs at a huge spool for a picnic table. She fed us pickles she took from jars from the black bag, almost yellow, transparent, and chokecherry syrup we licked off our fingers.
“Will you go with us?” Come with us,” I said.
“It’s too far to walk.”
“But they’ll come take your kites and your songs,” I said.
“She’s right. Who knows what else they’ll take,” my sister said. “Besides, in the North they’ll have food and sweaters.”
We left crying, not loud sobs of spoiled little girls who don’t get their way, but weeping we had to hold in because it was too dangerous. My sister shook like she was cold and wiped her face with her shirt sleeve. When my tears found my lips, I licked them. This is what I taste like I thought. How can this taste and where it comes from make somebody want to swallow our songs, ground our kites?
“Don’t daydream. Keep moving,” my sister said and gave my arm a yank.
“I’m tired. I’m sick of this.”
“I know. But that doesn’t matter.”
She took my face in her hands and looked right into my eyes. I thought of my mother, how she held me like that and how my father looked into my mother’s eyes. We had to leave without finding them. It was too dangerous.
My sister is right. I should concentrate so we can get to the North and be safe. But before I stop daydreaming, there’s one last thing. Not long before our school was destroyed and my teacher was killed, I stood at a mirror in a school bathroom, trying to look into my reflected eyes as deep as possible, the way a person does when she’s trying to see past herself. I was singing a melody that had just come into my head so sneakily I barely noticed it in my throat. My teacher walked in, but I didn’t notice her until she said,” Catherine. You have such a beautiful voice! You must use it, dear; sing for others someday.”
That was before I lost track of one day becoming the next, before we feared things would be taken from us.
I’ll keep going north with my sister. We don’t have so far to go. I am going to stop all this day dreaming because, before they have a chance to take that song away, one I always feel in my throat now, I’ve got to get through the most dangerous part.
-refers from the phrase “picnic table” in Justin Hamm’s poem Small Town