Plain China

Counting

by Megan Ross Rodriguez · Susquehanna University
Carrot, Megan Gesell · The University of Vermont

Two days late. Then seven. Ten when Colleen went into labor. She counted them off on her fingers. Grade school math. Third grade she’d learned a trick. That was after addition went from fingers to minds. The teachers didn’t want finger-counting for addition or multiplication, but Colleen learned. Fingers held the secret to any multiple of nine. All ten fingers held out straight, bend down the multiple for a product. Two times nine needed a bent-down ring finger. A pinky. Eight fingers. Two and nine was eighteen.

Her daughter was born on the eighteenth of December. The nurse gave Colleen prune juice and walked her through the halls. Told her to swing her hips in round circles. Circles like her belly, like the droplets of the hot shower fallen on her skin. She tried to count each one as it fell and rounded on her arms. Thousands or millions maybe. Too many for fingers. Too many for tricks. The doctor decided to slice the girl out. Cut a jagged smile across Colleen’s belly. Latex hands sifting through organs. Later, a nurse handed her a pink blanket, bundled around her daughter. The baby fit along Colleen’s arm, head resting in her palm. She named her daughter Eleanor.

 

Colleen trembled her daughter into the car that first time. Strapped in the car seat and cocooned the girl in whatever safety she could. Hands clenched on ten and two, Colleen drove her daughter home. Eleanor slept while Colleen carried her from the car into the sage green room with a crib that could be made into a little bed two years later. Birds on caged perches were papered into a border along the ceiling. Colleen had a cat once named Sneakers who would leave dead birds on the doorstep. Sneakers purred. Birds meant love.

Eleanor cried through the first night and the next. She cried many nights. The birds flitted nervously in the shadows as Colleen nursed and changed and swaddled. But the girl would sleep later, hands fisted next to her head, and the birds would nest.

Colleen had painted the little green room. Had run her palms over every inch of the wall, the soft caress of her fingertips against the brush. Windows open and sweat pulling the thin cotton shirt to her back. The wallpaper border she’d carefully pressed into place, stroking the wing of each bird. Colleen belonged to her little gray house. Through the window she saw the lake, reflecting back her trees as they folded red and orange into the sky. The big bedroom she painted the grey of just after the storm.

Colleen bathed Eleanor in a little plastic tub by the kitchen sink. Just enough water to wash, one hand always supporting her daughter’s head. The water pooling in tiny round droplets on her daughter’s skin. Colleen wicking each droplet away. She smoothed Eleanor’s hair and felt the wing beat of her pulse. It thrummed through her fingertips. The baby’s hands opened and closed around the air.

When Eleanor started to walk, Colleen always watched, eyes flitting, never coming to rest. The lake had started to scare her. She hid from it. Tucked her canoe away in the garage. Water swallowed and took and never returned. Colleen woke sweating from dreams of glass lakes, Eleanor hidden beneath the surface, her own face gazing back at her. She walked across the hall to her daughter’s room. The birds raised their heads and ruffled their feathers. Colleen looked at her daughter. Eleanor, face framed by tiny hands, whose lips moved without words. Colleen looked until she couldn’t see her own face.

 

One night, Colleen woke with her throat dry and cracked. She ran her fingers over the walls, found the bathroom by touch. She didn’t fill the chipped mug with water from the tap. Didn’t drink from it. Colleen had heard once that it only took a teaspoon of water to drown. In the moonlight, her face filled with dark hollows. Thoughts of sinking into empty shivered through her. The next week, she built a wooden fence. It rounded the yard, separating it from the lake. A fence too high for Eleanor to climb, a gate too heavy to open, a latch too difficult to work. Colleen watched her daughter in the yard, safe behind the fence.

When Eleanor turned four, Colleen knitted her a gift, counting each stitch aloud. Knit one, pearl two. A pair of scarlet mittens attached by a long string. The string looped up the small coat sleeve. Across the back and down the other. Thick wool, dyed with juniper. It was May and the ground had softened, but chill blew off the lake. Colleen snuggled on the small coat. Wiggled the mittens onto Eleanor’s hands, struggling with the little thumbs.

Inside the fence was a play set, low to the ground. Colleen had built it. Set each screw and tested the joints. But Eleanor always ignored the play set. She ran to the tree that grew in the yard. An ornamental maple, many-armed and spreading, just starting to bud. Eleanor stripped off the mittens as she ran outside, little empty hands dangling from the ends of her coat sleeves. The trunk formed a small y, perfect for small feet. Eleanor pulled herself up into the branches while Colleen fluttered in her periphery, watching.

Eleanor let her hands fall away from the branches. On her toes, she stretched against the sky. The ground came up muddy soft to meet her. Colleen had only time to brush over the girl with her eyes before Eleanor rolled over and laughed to her feet. Eleanor believed she’d flown, but Colleen shook her head. Back in the house, she washed the mud off her daughter’s ten small fingers, cradling each one. She thought her daughter’s bones must be hollow. So delicate, struggling into the air. She put Eleanor’s coat in the wash. Mud had worked deep into the fiber of the little red mittens, dulling the color.

That summer Colleen cut down the tree. Pruned back the branches. Let the leaves run through her fingers as she piled the limbs in a heap. The tree had cast too much shade on the garden. Nothing would grow. Eleanor cried and Colleen planted another tree. Just outside the fence.

 

Eleanor came home from kindergarten with the first word Colleen hadn’t taught her. Stupid. The sky, the house, the little green room. All stupid. The birds shivered and tucked their heads under their wings. Colleen smoothed the quilt over her daughter and gently pressed the heel of her hand against Eleanor’s. Her daughter’s fingers growing slimmer and longer each day. Still soft, snagging on her mother’s rough skin. Colleen’s fingers were strong, fraying just a bit around the edges with forty years of wear. Her daughter’s hands would look like that. Not long and elegant. Thick working fingers, counting fingers.

Eleanor learned to work the gate latch that year. And Colleen started again to dream about water. She could never quite see it, the water. It glittered in the corners of her mind. Colleen turned and it slipped into the dark. She enrolled her daughter in swim lessons. Safe plastic corrals that kept the water at four feet. And Colleen watched again. She sat away from the other mothers. Pressed her palms to the metal bench to keep from rushing forward, wiping the drops of water from her daughter’s face. Eleanor could never keep her knees straight during the lessons, kicking through the water. The instructors kept her at the first level, session after session. Colleen bought a small life jacket and a lock for the fence.

At night, Colleen pressed her ears against the thin walls of the house and listened to their thrumming beat. Her daughter’s heartbeat, expanding and contracting with the walls. Sometimes she’d open the door, one hand pushing in reverse to keep it quiet. Her daughter slept on her right side, one arm draped across her body, the other curled by her mouth, cupping her breath. Colleen felt a tug between their beating chests. A red yarn string between their hearts. Something the doctor forgot to cut. Never could.

 

Sound carried across the water. Clear, as if the people on the other side of the lake stood only feet away. Eleanor liked to sit on the swing outside and listen. There were always voices in the wind, snatches of song blowing off the water. Sometimes, she thought she heard someone call her name.

Eleanor was six the first night she unlocked the fence herself. She slid the key from the wooden box on her mother’s dresser. The feel of the metal on her warm fingers made her shiver. She turned to look at her mother, asleep in her narrow bed. She felt eyes but saw only the wallpapered birds through the open door of her bedroom. Eleanor flew to the edge of the yard. A splinter pierced her finger as she unlocked the gate and shouldered it open. The water expanded in front of her, larger without her mother. It was too cold to swim. She stood, shoes sinking in the damp ground inches from the lake.

Colleen’s eyes found the prick of dried blood on her daughter’s first finger the next morning. She rubbed the finger gently between her own hands. Took a washcloth, just damp from the sink. Let a few drops fall onto Eleanor’s wound. The only blemish on her daughter’s skin. Colleen looked at her own hands. Pebbles from a fall still worked under the skin of her right palm, the thick sheen of a burn across her left, a jagged ridge on her thumb from the slip of a knife. She held her daughter’s blank hands, the soft pink of fingers not yet counting time. Only the single prick of blood.

Eleanor wanted her room to be red. Red like the autumn leaves falling down to the lake. Colleen woke to the rip of wallpaper. The birds dashed to the floor, wings broken. The paint came from a little shed in the front yard. Eleanor painted quickly coat after coat, perched on her toes, straining to reach higher. Painted until Colleen’s hands were gone from the walls. But Colleen saw only the prick of blood spreading across the room. Growing larger and larger. She collected the bits of paper and smoothed them. Pressed them like flowers between the pages of a book. Colleen held her ear to her daughter’s wall that night and heard the soft cries of the broken birds.

 

Colleen drove Eleanor to her first day of elementary school. Walked with her to the entrance. Eleanor stopped before the door, one hand flung out in front of Colleen’s body. She said she could do this by herself. Colleen wanted to reach out as she had before. Press the heel of her hand to Eleanor’s. Their hands would fit together, she knew. A matched pair. Eleanor pushed on and shouldered open the door, let it thud empty behind her. Colleen stared at her reflection in the glass. Her own face watching back at her, Eleanor hidden behind it.

Colleen sat in the parking lot, fingers tight around the steering wheel, hands at ten and two. Her eyes flitted to the windows, flat glass reflecting sky. The air beaded on her skin. It filled her mouth and eyes and nose. Her ears rang with the heavy silence. She rolled down the window to breathe. Deep breaths, trying to fill the hollow of her chest with air. First her stomach, round and full and empty. Expanding up her rib cage, her shoulders. She held the breath for a moment, feeling the air pull at the back of her throat. When it started to ache she curled over herself, forehead pressed against the top of the steering wheel, wringing the stale air from her lungs.

 

Colleen’s eyes traced constellations in the knotted pine walls. Eleanor curled in the chair in the corner, head against the armrest, eyes closed. Frost laced against the windowpanes. Colleen watched her daughter. Her unfamiliar sharp edges, corners. Bones pressing white against her skin. She wondered if they would slice through. Cut the world red. Rip through in jagged smiles. Colleen wanted to wrap her in a blanket, struggle on little red mittens and make sure her daughter never took them off.

Winter, the ground hardened and tucked away beneath the snow. Colleen trailed through the front yard, the shovel rubbing against her palms through the thin gloves. The burn in her arms as she worked across the driveway. She tried to remember the names of the muscles. Learned too long ago. Too hard to remember. Too many to count. The handle rubbed through the thin gloves until she had blisters on her palms where they joined with her fingers. At the end of the driveway she saw little flecks of scarlet. The plow had pushed the snow into a little bank. On top a single scaly bird’s foot. A few inches of leg. She counted seven flecks of scarlet in the snow.

 

Eleanor knew where the old ice skates were hidden. In the basement, behind old coats, board games, a suitcase. Ice skates, relics of a time before her. She ran a finger over the smooth leather. In her mother’s bedroom, the little wooden box. The key. Looking over her shoulder, she saw nothing through her open bedroom door but the blank red walls. Eleanor pushed the gate open, just enough to slip through. Tied on the skates at the edge of the lake. Wobbled out onto the dark ice. Heard her name, carried in the air from the other side.

Colleen found the trail of red yarn weaving through the backyard. Serpentine coils in the snow. She followed it from the back door. Wound it around her finger. It pulled at her skin. Grasped at the rough joints. She swayed with its loops. Around the swing, the tree stump, through the open fence gate, down the slope of the shore, the end dragging out across the ice. Colleen had heard of people who stopped knowing their own limbs. Who couldn’t tell how far they went or where they stopped. Colleen looked down at hands tangled in scarlet yarn. Wondered if they belonged to Eleanor. If she’d lost them somewhere in the snow.

The yarn pulled Colleen across the dark mirror. Pulled the breath from her lungs. Running, slipping across the ice. The cracks spidering to the hole. The cracks ringing. The yarn curling into smoke around her fingers. Catching her rough skin and dripping from her palms. Colleen followed in her daughter’s tracks across the lake. She followed as her daughter sank into empty. Her heart beat with crippled wings. One. Two. She counted empty breaths. Three. Four. Five breaths without her daughter. Six. Seven.

About the Author

Megan Ross Rodriguez · Susquehanna University

Megan Ross Rodriguez studies creative writing and Spanish, among other subjects. Her story first appeared in Susquehanna’s journal, RiverCraft.

About the Artist

Megan Gesell · The University of Vermont

Megan Gesell started painting in high school in Chatham, New Jersey. In creating a portfolio, she developed a 12-piece concentration surrounding the idea of still lifes made out of fruits and vegetables with the obvious influence of man. Carrot first appeared in UVM’s journal, Vantage Point.