It had been a hard year for the farm. Daddy was breading the lambs for slaughter, the wheat crop was coming in late, and he was older, needed more help. Rachel loved those lambs. She hated the rooster though, Custard, she threw rocks at that old biddy when he tried to hop on the chickens. Didn’t harm the eggs any though, when he fertilized them. Iris told the story, not my mother, Rachel’s only daughter. Iris in her kitchen of cornflower blue, the plates drying on the rack beside the sink, a tiny window over the southern street, with her mug of coffee, told me Rachel had a bird claw arm, a limp, and a lazy eye.
My sister wasn’t much to look at, she said, I guess I got the good genes.
All my life I had heard the story of Rachel without knowing what had really happened. I scrunched up my nose. My glasses had slipped down again; it was a way to avoid being that girl who pushed her glasses back up her nose. I knew I looked like Rachel even more than my mother did. Iris kept a picture album in the dining room hutch. She let me pull it out now and then. Pictures stained yellow with time, white rimmed and cold eyed. Zetta with her stern face beside her husband, tall and able or Iris and Rachel in white bonnets standing in the muddy yard looked back at me, soulless and stubborn.
Rachel was Zetta’s first daughter, born without enough oxygen, her left arm hung limp with fingers curled into her palm, permanently grasping. She grew enormous, awkward, didn’t speak in turn, and her socks fell down around her thick ankles where she let them lay. By the time Rachel was a teenager she developed a limp. From her perch in the branches of a Sycamore, Iris watched her sister drag her leg through the mud of the road with her bird-arm clutched to her side as she made her way from house to barn. Iris thought she looked like a freak, with her auburn hair cut in short chunks and her one wandering eye that seemed to watch Iris no matter where she stood.
The last thing Iris said to Rachel before she left with her husband and children for a job in Northern Minnesota: You know Daddy’s going to sell the babies this year. Rachel was on her knees rubbing a lamb behind the ears that would have been a ewe had it lived. Rachel ignored her. Iris watched the light shifting through the rafters, there was so much space up there, a kingdom of air, she thought, of light and air. Rachel, she pleaded.
I know you’re leaving, Iris, its fine, these babies’ll be fine.
Rachel. Her sister’s name felt like a mantra. Rachel, those babies are going to be meat.
Shut your face, Iris.
Iris knelt down and picked up one of the tiny lambs. Sweet little mouths that opened pink, new, like her two babies’ mouths had looked.
She kissed her sister’s sweaty forehead. Bye then.
The new life of Iris felt colder than the old, a landscape of North Dakota prairie wheat and deep skies, replaced by the red mining towns of Minnesota, with all the Swedes and Norwegians speaking funny English. Her children would learn to speak that way, her grandchildren.
They found a house on Hemlock Street. It was a corner house which made Andy proud. The lawn in the back stretched out into an open field, not yet developed. The town of Hibbing would at its peak have a population of 17,000, land swept out around it into woods, wilderness, lakes, places where wolves and deer roamed and were hunted. Yet, those houses were built so close together in some parts hardly a foot between them. They built like it was the old country and space was limited, or maybe they thought they needed proximity to survive, the heat of closeness keeping them all through the longest winters in the country.
The rooms of the new house, sturdy with young wood, were small and closed off, compartmentalized spaces so each member of the family could cozy into their own hole. But, Iris missed the old farm house, big and open, echoing footfalls, creaking stairs, large drafty windows because her people would rather be chilled then miss the short light of winter. Her children would play out on the lawn with the neighbor kids, they’d form a gang, ride their bikes up to the Iron Ore pits, left to fill with sea green water like oceans, return with stained red socks she’d never get clean.
She daydreamed about Rachel: twelve-thirty she’d be giving the lambs a bottle, four, she’d be brushing out Myrtle, checking her hooves for cracks. Iris fixed a dinner of chicken and potatoes, thought of her mother making stew, her daddy sitting to supper in the same chair year after year. Ivan, the farm hand they’d grown up following around like a big brother, sitting across from Rachel, his soft, dark eyes and shiny strait hair that grew too fast.
My mother Ruth was Rachel’s daughter, raised by Iris. Mother never knew Rachel. I always sensed that there was something to be ashamed of in Rachel. She was stubborn, unyielding, less than fetching, but these seemed okay things to me. We are in the backyard when Iris starts in again with her Rachel stories.
Your grandfather would’ve loved to see you all grown up. She tells me.
I am only half listening; these visits to Iris have become more of a duty. More and more she forgets where she is, what she was doing, even how old I am. I had to trick her into believing she quit smoking because she kept burning holes in the rug beside her bed. But, Iris remembers easily her old life on the farm and Rachel.
Grandma, I say, what really happened with Rachel? Why’d her husband run off?
Her husband, good lord, she never had a husband. I always hoped she’d marry someone. Thought maybe if she went to church she’d find a man. She wouldn’t hear of it. Laughed at me any time I brought it up. Ain’t no man going to marry me Iris! It was a shame, a real shame, but Mama Zetta kept the whole thing quiet, couldn’t bear a rotten reputation in those parts, hell she had a hard enough time with Ivan being half Indian. He worked for the family thirty years, then just up in left in the middle of the night. You got his shiny black hair you know.
It was fall on the farm. Rachel stood with heaviness in her belly, watching the boys bring in the crop. Her favorite lamb, Tipsy, at her side. She bent over the baby and nuzzled its nose with her own. Tipsy smelled of hay and milk mixed with the oily scent of wool. Zetta came out into the yard.
Rachel, get in here and help with dinner, Jesus child. Zetta started fanning her face with her hand. I can’t believe you just sit out here in the heat watching those men. People will start talking you know Rachel.
Rachel stood up and led the lamb to the barn. Her stomach churned as she walked up to the house. For a moment she waited on the porch looking out over the field at Ivan. He was forty five, still had a thick head of dark hair. She’d known Ivan all her life. She rested her good hand on her belly and counted again the months. No one knew, not even Ivan.
That fall, Rachel begged her daddy not to send Tipsy to slaughter. Please let me keep just this one. Her father, tired, agreed.
Rachel took Tipsy on a leash for a walk in the woods. The little lamb was bashful at first, uncertain about the new terrain of sparse forest. But then she leapt and her two hind legs turned in the air, making Rachel laugh.
You funny little girl, she said. Rachel sat down beside the stream, with Tipsy in her arms and for a long time thought about the baby in her belly. Did she think it would be a new life for her, a new start? Would Rachel and Ivan take over the farm eventually, have more babies to help with work, boys, though she wanted a girl all her own too?
She stroked the lamb’s ears, pressed her nose to the top of its head. Her heart felt warm and fragile.
Daddy wasn’t there when they came for the lambs. Ivan and the boys loaded them up. Rachel was asleep in her bed, tired from pregnancy. They took all the lambs, unaware of her father’s promise. When she found out, Rachel ran through the yard to Ivan’s room, pounded on the door. He opened it, surprised. What, what is it Rachel. She made him nervous. He loved her.
You killed her, you killed her! I hate you Ivan. And then she fell in a heap on his bed sobbing. Ivan had never seen a woman cry like that, didn’t know what to do, couldn’t comfort a woman in tears. He sat on the edge of the bed beside her. Then he put his hand out, it was a dark wrinkled hand, a work hand, rough and callused. The hand went to Rachel’s matted head of auburn hair and lay there.
Please don’t cry Rachel, tell me what is wrong, I promise I’ll fix it.
No, you can’t fix it Ivan, you can’t fix it.
About a month later Ivan packed up his room, he left most of his belongings behind as he’d have to go on foot, and in the dark cover of a November night he walked away from the farm he’d worked for thirty years, his home since he was fifteen. There was a letter for Rachel and nothing else. Zetta handed it to her. When she read it, Rachel knew she was all alone now. Her sister, Tipsy, and now Ivan had all left her. Now Zetta would kill her, never forgive her for humiliating the family with a child out of wedlock.
Did she plan to leave?
Rachel came to term at the end of December, just before Christmas. Her belly was enormous but the rest of her was big. Zetta kept telling her not to eat so much. Rachel you’re as big as house, quit wolfing all that food down, you look a disgrace.
I always look a disgrace Mama. She waved her bird arm in the air, her fingers curling into her palm.
Stop that, stop that right now, Zetta howled.
Three days before Christmas, Rachel lay in bed, suffering contractions. She must have wondered if she’d have a boy or a girl, she must have had a name picked out for the little baby like she’d named all her lambs. Maybe she was filled with joy for the first time in her life, she’d have something truly her own, something she’d made, she’d grown. The house was quiet, the wind rattled the old windows bringing a chill to her room. In the sky the moon hung fuzzy, glowing soft through the sapphire curtains. Iris’s empty bed was still there. The quilt tucked tight under the pillow, then over, the special way Zetta made beds. An old rag doll sat propped up against the pillow. Sometimes Rachel would pick the doll up and hold it in her good arm. She’d stroke its linen forehead and whisper to it.
We’re going to be just fine, aren’t we, me and you.
She got up and put on her coat, snuck down the stairs and slipped into her winter boots. She had some towels and a quilt with her. The pains were coming fast and water had leaked out from between her legs onto the sheets.
The snow crunched under her feet. It was terribly cold out. Too cold to be in the barn. She went in, hardly able to walk now, she hobbled to the empty lamb stall, all of them gone, all of them dead and eaten. Rachel laid the quilt down and then the towels. She took her boots off and then her long underwear. She thought she heard Ivan, but he had left weeks and she would never know if he had been aware of her condition.
Iris looks at me. I don’t look like her other grandchildren (the boys) they all have blond hair and stone blue eyes, lengthy bodies and tan skin like grandpa. I have dark auburn hair and short legs.
She had that baby girl out there in the barn three days before Christmas. I can’t imagine how she did it on her own like that, but Rachel was a tough girl. Stubborn as a mule just like your mama.
I watch my grandmother as she says this, her eyes squinting through her glasses, there is only an empty street past the yard. It can’t be what she sees.
I don’t want to disturb this moment with Iris drifting between me and the other lives she’s known. My mother wants Iris in a home where someone can keep a constant eye on her. But I know what that will do, how it will ruin her. How can a person learn to live in the cold rooms where the dead have expired, where we go to die when our luck runs out?
What happened to them, keep going Grandma? I touch her arm. The skin sags off the bone, freckled with age.
I’ve got to get down for a nap, I’m plum tuckered out. She says.
I go to see my mother, drive the five blocks to her tiny bungalow. When I open the door I can tell she’s been smoking again so I yell out: I thought you quit Ma!
She’s in the kitchen washing dishes an open beer on the counter beside her.
Grandma’s telling me stories about Rachel again, I say.
Full of shit that woman. Always telling stories, I learned not to believe that shit a long time ago honey.
I watch my mother’s back, she slouches in her shoulders, they are broad and rigid. Her thick hair streaked with gray is pulled back in a snarled bun. She’s wearing that old sweatshirt from the one trip she took out of state: Arizona, it says in neon pink letters.
In the weeks that follow I return to Iris every Monday after work. I drive to the Short Stop and buy her a pie or sweet buns. I don’t think she eats much anymore, maybe she forgets, but I like the way she smiles when I hand her a treat. She talks about the weather, her television shows, asks after my mother.
Your mother can’t get over a thing, that’s her problem, she never could move on. You know when I told her that I wasn’t her birth mother she ran away across the street and stayed at the neighbor’s house for a week.
Well when Dad died Mom changed, Gram.
Death changes us all, when I lost my sister I thought I would die, but I had your mother and the boys to look after, I had to keep moving.
I sensed my chance. How did she die Grandma?
She lost too much blood I reckon. Giving birth.
For some reason my mother got up in the middle of the night, couple hours past midnight and looked in on Rachel, when she discovered she was gone, Zetta went out to the barn because that was the only other place Rachel went. My mother probably thought she was brushing Myrtle, she liked to do that, Rachel did.
Zetta walked through the snow, the sky was clear now, the stars bright pin pricks in the sky. Cold winter skies always seem crystal clear, surreal almost. She opened the door, she went in. It was dark. I see her lighting the lantern that hung near the entrance of the door. She takes her time, doesn’t worry. Her daughter’s body would still be warm and soft. Her cheeks rosy from the cold and from the sweat of her labor.
Zetta knelt down beside her, called her name, Rachel, Rachel, before she saw the little girl still attached to her mother’s body by the long purple cord, wrapped in the ends of the bloody quilt. Zetta didn’t scream, didn’t howl over her lost child. It suddenly made sense to her: Ivan leaving after all those years on the farm with the family, Rachel’s body growing bigger. Was she in shock as she stood up and searched the barn for a knife? It was a dirty tool, should’ve caused infection, but it didn’t. Zetta cut that little baby free with one heavy lop of the lambing knife. I want her to lie down over the dead body of her child, to kiss her sweet cheeks, touch her eyelids. I want her to cry, to howl, to sob like she never has before.
Zetta left her daughter untouched, dead in the barn and carried her baby into the house where she washed it clean, warmed a little milk, and with a bottle they used for the lambs, fed her. Zetta named her granddaughter Ruth. And Ruth would someday be my mother.
In the spring Iris and Andy left the children with friends and drove across the state of Minnesota, over the Red River into Grand Forks, then north to the farm. Iris stepped out of the car, she’d been away for a year, but if felt like ten.
Go on in, I’ll be there in a minute. She told Andy.
Iris walked over the dirt, out behind the house, past the sycamore that still had a couple of boards nailed in it from when she used to climb it. There beside her grandparent’s headstone, and the tiny headstone marking the grave of a baby that would have been her mother’s only brother, was a new grave. On the headstone it said: Rachel Rosetta Weed born. April 5, 1923 died. December 22, 1952. She stood there in the muddy ground, the grass not yet grown in. She sat down, put her palms on the soil, dug her fingers into the dirt. She didn’t cry.
Rachel, Rachel, Rachel.
In the house she kissed her daddy on the cheek. Her mother had her back to her, fixing a bottle for Ruth.
Mom. She whispered. Mama, please.
Her mother turned but wouldn’t look at her daughter, couldn’t. Oh, Iris the baby’s fine, just perfect. Come see.
But, Iris couldn’t move, she stood there and heard the wind rolling over the prairie wheat fields, it all was the same, Rachel would come trudging down the stairs, her loud voice would fill the room. She wanted her mother for once, to hold her.
Iris picked up the baby and put the bottle to her tiny pink lips.
Ivan gone then? She asked.
That rat bastard up and left last November.
Zetta, her father warned, none of that now, its all said and done. Her father poured Andy a cup of whiskey, and the two men drank in silence.
Where are her things Mama, did you get her things together?
They’re upstairs Iris, you leaving right away?
The children are with the neighbor we can’t stay. Iris handed the baby to her mother.
She walked up the stairs, taking her time, smelling the dusty wood, seeing the curling yellow wallpaper. The room was tidy, nothing changed. She sat down on her bed and looked at Rachel’s bed. Her tiny rag doll sat propped against the pillow. She picked it up and held it in her hands.
They drove little Ruth back to Minnesota. Iris held her on her lap the whole way. Cooing at her, wrapping the baby’s tiny fingers around her finger. Andy smiled as he drove, he reached over and patted Iris’s knee.
It’s going to be alright now Iris.
I know that Andy, I know that.
Iris smiles, but she doesn’t look at me, it’s like she’s looking at something else. She’s looking through time and the crack is disappearing now, the dirt gone. Iris smells the prairie wind, the wheat, and hears the old Nakota horse in the barn. Rachel throws a stone at Custard, hisses under her breath. In her lap a tiny lamb sucks her fingers. Zetta kneads bread in the kitchen through the window the robins dip and glide. Up above Iris in the barn there is so much space, a kingdom of light and air rises. She sits beside her sister, tickles the lamb’s pink nose.
Rachel, she says, Rachel.
Ivan watches Rachel. Her profile lit up with the shadow of the sun moving through the barn window.
Come Ivan, come see this little one. She calls without turning her head. She has known him all her life. She is nearly thirty years old. He walks to her, his work boots fall softly over the hay swathed ground.
He kneels beside her. He can smell her hair, the scent of her unwashed skin. Her breath still milky as a child’s.
Hold him like this Ivan. She looks at him now, her funny eye fading west. He lifts the lamb in his tan, roughened hands, tucks it to him. He’s held a hundred lambs, but not like this, never like this. Rachel brushes her hair from her face, tucks it behind her tiny ear.
She looks at him. She isn’t a child anymore, he thinks. But he still loves her like when she was a half-pint tagging after him around the farm.
How did they get here? He wonders. He kisses her forehead. They are in his bed, in his room beside the barn, the lamb nosing at the legs of his dressing chair. Rachel’s dress spread out over her bare legs. He touches her belly. She is warm.
Kiss me, Ivan.
They slide easily together, this muscled middle aged man, still young, and the girl with the bird clam arm, the setting eye like a sun in her face. He kisses her fingers, the lamb crying softly for its mother.