* * *
Momma makes Bird for dinner every Sunday.
Her and the afternoon spend their hours stuffing and plucking and cooking. I spend mine on the kitchen floor, blowing Bird’s white fluff in the air. Watching its feathers go higher and higher when I puff out, and float and fall when I don’t.
When Pa comes home, arms full of game, he sees this and says “Stop!” When Pa says “Stop!” he speaks with his palms. When I say “Stop!” I say nothing at all.
Dinner is ready. Momma takes my hands and scrubs them in hers over the sink. Bubbles fly up and I laugh but Momma doesn’t join in. When I turn and look at her, her mouth is a straight line. I flatten mine into one too.
Together we sit around the square shape of our dining room table and say Grace. Pa says that I’m old enough to know all the words, but his voice is never as loud as Momma’s when we say it, so I don’t think he knows them all either.
Grace ends and Silent Prayer begins. We pass the vegetables, potatoes and Bird around until our plates are full. I think of how William from school said my family didn’t “deserve” to pray. I didn’t understand what that meant and when I asked Momma, all she said was not to tell Pa. She made me pinky promise.
I look over to her and watch as she picks at her piece of Bird, pulling off its meat carefully with her shaky, thin fingers. When she is done, she pushes the bones into a pile on her plate to save for later. I copy her.
Silent Prayer is over when dinner is finished. Momma and I stand up and start to clear the plates. When I go to grab Pa’s plate, he slaps my hand away with his dirty one—there is still some potato left on it. I spy the red under his fingernails as I wait for him and my stomach does a flip: Momma has long stopped asking him to clean them. I have yet to stop looking when he doesn’t.
I take his plate and bring it over to the others. Pa stomps off to his chair and the scratchy sound of TV floods in. Momma scrubs and I dry. We make a good team.
When we finish, Momma holds a finger up to her lips. I watch as she tiptoes across the kitchen tile to peer into the living room. My heart thumps with every millisecond that she waits. But finally, she turns back and nods, coming back to her place beside me.
We take the pile of bones from where Momma had hid them and wash them too. Scrubbing and drying them so that they are shiny and clean before tucking them away in the box above the fridge for later.
Her hand waves in direction of my notebook on the kitchen counter. I sigh and take it with me to the table and start my lessons, feeling Momma watch me with her empty eyes.
She says “goodnight” and then she’s gone, having floated off to bed. I don’t know how she sleeps so often when I know what is waiting for her in her dreams.
I finish and tuck the notebook into my schoolbag. In the corner of the room, another set of eyes watch over me though a glass frame. I move in their direction but then stop, turning in direction of the living room instead.
I pass Pa on my way to the stairs. His eyes are closed but he’s not fully asleep, not yet—only two bottles are by his side. Three is the magic number to keep the ghost away, four to carry the shade into the next day. But he never goes past five, not anymore. Not since.
He looks so still—his face even and not screwed up like normal— the normal that was the normal Now, not the normal Before. Before he became something that made my palms sweat. Before a deer was always just a deer.
Suddenly he lurches forward, hand reaching for his side. I don’t have to watch from the steps to know who appeared behind his eyes— him and Momma both share him in their dreams. I turn and head to my room just as he gets up to grab another from the fridge.
* * *
I stay and wait in bed until the sky turns dark, and it is then that I climb out from my fort of sheets and head back downstairs, quiet as a mouse.
Pa’s snores are loud and threatening, filling the house with their rumble. I tip toe around him and his noise and into the kitchen where I climb onto the countertop. Above the fridge sits the box. I grab it and go outside.
In the back yard, snowflakes fall all around me. I blow out and watch them fly up, only to drift back down. My fingers wrap themselves tighter around the box. The bones rattle as I walk into the forest, my nose following the smell that clings to the wood of Pa’s shed. The same smell that sticks to his clothes and can be found rubbed into the lines of his hands. I know the scent well.
In the summers Before, the shed kept no smell. Instead there were only things we had found: twigs and branches from the forests. Rocks and hidden treasures from beside the lake. Feathers from the places between.
When I reach it, I plug my nose with two fingers, but I do not go inside. Instead I take the small shovel out from its hiding place under the big oak tree and go behind the shed and drop to my knees.
In the summers Before, we would explore until Momma’s voice would weave its way through the trees, calling us for dinner. When it would reach us, we’d press our hands side by side against the nearest tree trunk and count down from five.
Covered in a thin layer of snow, a cross made out of glued popsicle sticks lies ahead of where I’m sitting. I move it to the side and start digging. The mud is still soft, not yet frozen from the snow and so it breaks apart easily.
In the summers Before, we’d race through the world towards Momma’s call. His legs carried him faster and further than mine but I didn’t mind. When we would cross from forest into the backyard, he’d tilt his head backwards, face-up at the sky, and spread his arms out. Soaring towards home like a bird…
My shovel hits something hard—a piece of plywood. I move it and open up the box from the kitchen. Bird’s bones shine back, reflecting in the light from the moon.
In the back of my brain, Momma’s voice reminds me like always: when you have each other, you can never be alone. I try to send her a message back, throwing pictures of her, me, Pa, and him all together into her dreams. I hope one day she will catch them.
* * *
I take the bones out one by one, place them in the hole with the others and cover everything up again. Taking the cross in my hand, I stick it back where it belongs. Back over the small bones that belonged to Birds and back over the larger ones that belonged to him.
Montana Leigh Jackson is a Communication Studies student in Montreal, Quebec. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Semicolon Lit & Turnpike Magazine. She finds peace amongst words and within thunderstorms.