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“You will never know true happiness.
“Why am I telling you this? Because as long as you live, hope will remain drowning in muck and dirt and dust. Just as you will, my filthy ratty girl. Hope is rotten. Love has been spoiled. Happiness is just a tale. Remember that, girl. And you want to know why?
“Hah, you want to know why?
“Nah, that can never happen. I don’t know you, you idiot, and I’m a granny whose seen more years than Abraham Lincoln. You will never know why, just as I will never be able to go to heaven. No one’s going to heaven, in this life or the next. We’re all godforsaken, why else do you think god sent these locusts and black storms and the disease that’s making you cough up blood every minute?
“The end is comin’ no matter what the president or any of them rich men say. You will grow up lazy-eyed, stupid, and hideous in their eyes, even if you’re the most pirty girl in this whole hobo camp. Which you won’t be, mark my words, girl, you’ll never be. Never loved, never free. Your Daddy, and me, just tolerate you. Endure you. Your brother may say he loves you, but he’s just too young to know better. No one loves you, little girl.”
Then there came a pause as the old crone drew breath to begin her malicious preaching to Peasey, the same heartbreaking lullaby every night. She perched in the last wicker chair. Silent and motionless as I was, I tried to give as much consolation as I could. I love you, I said, although my silent lips did not carry the words further than my head. The vulturic woman drew in a deep, rustling breath that for a moment was in sync with the sinister wind I prayed that she was just going to sneeze, and not speak to the poor girl again.
No, I cried with my closed mouth, as she began to speak once more.
“We will leave you one day for the hope that life these days is easier without you. We’ll go to California or some place with green fields and sun. You will not have any friends. No husband. You will, without a doubt, die, girl, before you become a woman and learn how to make some money with it. Best if you just get it over with. Best if you just die and give us a chance for a good life.”
I pressed myself to her side. Don’t die, I cried, don’t die. Don’t give up. I knew, though, that her will to live was waning with every rattling cough and every word that the old vulture Regina spoke. Sometimes I thought that Peasey, or Margaret as her mother used to call her, could understand my thoughts, sometimes she gained strength from them. I knew that now was not one of those times. Her breath grew more faint and shallow. I could barely feel it against my side.
“Just let it go, accept it, Peasey girl. Get it over with soon and do yourself and us all a favor.”
I could barely hear the rustling of air through her lungs, barely feel the movement of her ribcage as she fearfully clutched me to her side. She was trying to let go. I begged her not to. Live, I whispered half plea and half prayer.
I recoiled as Regina reached her hand out and stroked the girl’s fevered forehead. “Good girl. Go to sleep now, Peasey.”
And she did. And slowly, she fell asleep and slipped into the peaceful cloak of her dreams. Her breath grew more even but for the occasional tearing noise of one of her coughs. I laid there by her side and wearily waited for morning, a small, ragged doll held in the hand of a dying girl.
I could not sleep. Rather, I cannot sleep. I have never been able to sleep, it is just not something I do. Years ago, a happier time, when Peasey and her brother, George’s mother was still alive, I was born. She sewed on one button eye first, then the next, and since then, for better and for worse, these button eyes will never cease seeing, and will never close. I cannot sleep but I can wander through my memories as a traveler, watching and reminiscing and remembering how it used to be.
So I thought back to happier times.
I saw my creation again that night, and felt as each of my legs were sewn on. Not painful really, just a tingling sensation. First my left, then right, crude lumps rounded on the end. And then my arms, and my head, semi-round and very simple. My dress was, at some point, red, but has been void of any color other than gray for a long time. Everything was at some time, a color other than brown and gray, but no one would know that now. My eyes, sewn on, saw their faces for the very first time. Sweet, smiling faces. They had named me Macky, after a dog their father had as a boy.
Margaret and George’s mother, from what I know of humans, was very beautiful. Her face was round and cherubic, her eyes gray and sparkling with dark brown curls cut short, framing her face. Behind her was some flowery wallpaper, a mauve colour with golden flowers forming an intricate pattern that was both elegant and warm. It was beautiful house, too, and everything about it was elegant and cozy. I know at some point during this memory- I am not quite sure when- two young, curious faces, beaming down upon me, appear from behind their mother’s shoulders, inquiring about what she was creating, but I cannot bring myself to relive that part of the memory… To remember how happy they looked, and how dimples formed as they smiled, and how their eyes looked so bright, and alive…
I came to with a wrenching feeling in my doll’s heart. I could feel Peasey’s hard, irregular, breathing against me. Every few breaths a shallow, sickening cough would penetrate the black silence. After each cough a thin layer of dust was flung up in the air then floated back down on top of us. Every time. Every time, no matter how ferocious her coughs were, the dust came back and cloaked us. Each cough rattled her chest, making her ribs pop out spastically, as though they were ready to leap out of her paper shell and crawl away with the swarms of locusts outside…
I could not see the black, creeping insects tucked in the corners of our shack, but rather hear and feel them shifting and hopping and gnashing their shiny jaws. Even if my vision was not blocked by the greasy pillow, I would not be able to see them. The locusts themselves were the embodiment of our fear, always present, always lurking, always present in the shadows of the day, and the dark cloak of the night.
I begged for day. Dawn came eventually, although with dawn came no day. The rising sun is obscured in black fog. I remember what dawn used to be, how beautiful the silver painting the morning sky was, and how there used to be pink and purple threads penetrating the silver in a cheery greeting to the sun, blanketing a golden brown field of wheat and corn spreading richly as far as the eye could see. Now I just see…
Peasey stirred next to me. She picked me up with a skeletal hand and cradled me to her chest. As sickly and dark as it is in the shack, we both know that with day comes hope. Perhaps it was just her childhood innocence, and our naivety to the harsh ways of the world, but back then, that was what we believed. Somewhere on my threaded lips, I felt a smile form, no different than any other expression of mine but still, a smile formed nonetheless, and we both knew it. For no matter how devastating and painful the night seems, for with night come shadows, howls, fierce fevers, and vulture Regina’s preaching, with day, even day where the sun is hidden in clouds of black dust, nothing can go wrong during the day.
Nothing can go wrong during the day.
Or so I thought, back then.
Peasey and I were the only ones in the shack, though through the window, we could see her brother George running towards the shack, holding something bright yellow in his hand. Locusts scatter from the ground as he ran. The window was not a window, per say, but a hole that had been boarded up and broken in then boarded up and broken in again in a vicious cycle.
The door slammed open with a loud squeal of rusted hinges and exhausted metal, and in ran George. His gaunt face was stretched with a wide, innocent smile. Hi clothes, like everyone in the makeshift family, were tattered and caked in a smelly blanket of dirt.
“Look, look Sis what I found!” I could hear Peasey gasp. His hands, small, round, toddler’s hands, were frail looking and thin. But that was nothing unusual. That small detail passed my mind. From my vantage point on Peasey’s chest, I could not see what had made her so surprised.
“Where did you find it?” She demanded, not sharply, but in awe. This exclamation caused her to cough harshly, but in their excitement neither boy nor girl noticed the droplets of blood she wiped away from her chin, smeared on her hand. The boy dropped whatever he had found onto her lap. Peasey placed me aside on the rocking chair their makeshift Gran Regina sat on every night, and then I could see what it was.
I gasped, too, although no one could hear me outside my own mind. On the lap of Peasey laid a bird, which in itself would have been spectacular since all birds had used their instincts and left before the dust bowl came. Twas not just any bird, but a bird as golden and as beautiful as the sun, the sun none of us had seen in quite some time. It was small, and light like a sparrow, but a bright with black accents on its beak and wingtips. I had never seen a bird this spectacular back in their old home, but, then again, I realized, this home was far away, and far different, from any place we had ever been before.
“Do you think he’s from Heaven?” Whispered George, eyes bright with wonder. He stroked the little bird gently, and its head lolled to the side. It’s glassy, unblinking eyes stared at me dully. It was then I knew that something was wrong.
“Don’t be silly. There is no heaven. Get that idea out of your head,” Peasey whispered, her voice sad and angry, recoiling from the bird. She stared at her brother, betrayed. I looked at her face. Her eyes were cold, and her mouth a grim line. She was starting to remind me of old Regina Crone.
“Ok.” I could see he was confused, and hurt by her words. But a moment later he shook it aside and started stroking the bird. “Do you think we can keep him as a pet?”
“Maybe.” Peasey reached out her and laid her fingers on his soft feathers. The bird remained motionless, beautiful and golden, the only spot of color in the whole shack. His beak fell open. I alone could see that it was dead.
We sat there, all three of us in silence for some time. Then George left to show the bird to Granny Regina, because their father was off at work at some farm for little money. Once he had left, Peasey’s coughing started up again. She slipped into a deep sleep, but it was not restful. I could hear her turning left to right, shifting and tossing and turning, and murmuring for her mommy.
Her mommy had been dead for three years.
Peasey was beginning to cough up blood.
As I laid there, in a meditative state, I thought back to happier times.
I traveled to when the family, the real family, with a mother and a happy father and no evil old Regina, owned a beautiful white house with a fine garden. George, Peasey and I were eating lunch in the lawn, on a picnic blanket. George was but a baby then, and gurgled and burbled happy nothings as Peasey tossed me up into the crisp air and caught be again, throwing and catching, throwing and catching, so that I could see the beautiful, blue, summer sky.
Peasey was wearing a sweet checkered, black and white dress, with no shoes. A moment later, her mother, the beautiful Denise, walked out in a red sundress, placing a tray of sandwiches and lemonade on the blanket. “Bon Appétit!” I heard her say, handing each child a sandwich.
There was enough food (or actually I should say that there was food) back then that Peasey could share with me. She placed a little tuna sandwich on a china plate in front of me, and put it up to my face. I didn’t eat of course, but I smiled and laughed in my head, which was enough for me.
They talked and played on the lawn for hours that day. Eventually, as the bright sky was turning to dusk, and the night insects began their melodic chirping, their father came home. Denise, Peasey’s mother, ran up to meet him, hugging him with all her might. She laughed a joyous sound like the tinkling of glass raindrops. Her father kissed George on the head, then ran to pick up Peasey, and in turn me.
We bounced our way to the swing in the corner of the yard, underneath a great oak tree. There Peasey, with me sitting on her lap, swung up in the sky and back to the earth, her feet never touching the ground. We flew, Peasey and I, until the sun completely disappeared behind the horizon and it was time for sleep. Then, we slept, each in our own way, and we dreamed, listening to the crickets and peepers outside her window.
Peasey came to, as did I, in the cruel waking world, when the rare word was shouted by her father from across the shack. Peasey tried to sit up, but I could feel her sides clenching painfully beneath her thin smock. She fell back down on the cot, panting. I hugged myself to her side and offered what little comfort I could.
During this effort, I had been propped up by her elbow, and I could see that a small meat had been roasted in the stewpot, the last pot in the house. I heard George asking, excited by the prospect of a meal, “Why couldn’t we keep the little birdie for a pet, daddy?”
The father was weary. Worry lines were etched into his face as though someone carved them there permanently. Bags hung heavily beneath his pale, wise eyes. They were the eyes of someone who has seen too much suffering. But still, he managed to smile at his young son. “Because, birds belong in the wild. But he left you and your sister a present before he returned to his home.”
The father reached into his ragged coat pocket, and pulled out two feathers. He handed them both to George, as well as two small, steaming plates of stew. “Take one to Peasey,” he said, and George ran gleefully over, careful not to spill a drop.
Peasey took the feather. Smiling weakly, she tucked it into my brown, yarn hair.
She gulped down the stew, made from the dead golden bird. A moment later she slipped back into her dreams. She clutched me with hot, sweaty hands that shook in fever and slept.
And so, I though back to happier times.
We woke up what seemed like a second later, but the small bit of light that penetrated the film of dust in the sky turned into pitch black silence. My doll’s heart filled with hate as I saw that old Regina was standing over us. It was time again.
“Girl. You had a meal tonight. You want to know what you ate?”
No, I commanded her. I begged her not to tell Peasey. If Peasey knew she ate such an innocent bird, the food in her stomach would rot her inside out.
“You ate the bird. The sweet one, with the golden feathers. That’s what you killed tonight just to keep yourself alive. Your life makes innocents suffer. Just let go, get it over with. It’s your fault. It’s all your fault.”
Peasey’s frail body stiffened. A tear rolled down her cheek, streamed down her neck, and dropped with a plop onto one of my black button eyes. My vision was obscured, all watery and misshapen. For the first time in my doll’s life, I was able to cry.
Then the tear sunk into my fabric skin. I could see again. I kept it there, inside my heart.
Peasey did not let any more tears fall. She laid there, stark still.
“You will never be loved. You will never be free of pain. You Daddy ad me and your brother, we don’t love you. Hey, if you weren’t here, you think we’d be cryin’? No, there ain’t gonna be any wailing escaping from any of our lips. No one loves you, little girl.
“Hope is rotten. Love is spoiled. Remember that, girl. There ain’t no heaven, in life, or in death. So get it over with. You’re going to die sooner or later. Make it sooner.”
Regina was done. The old, vulturic crone sunk back into her spidery chair. She pulled an empty pipe from her pocket and sucked on it with her withered lips. Peasey, for once, could not sleep. She began to cough violently, her ribs jumping and twitching and dancing frantically under her paper skin, and blood spattered her thin, once-checkered smock.
Then her tears began to fall. She cried. I cried. And between my silent sobs, and hers, bloody coughs tore through her chest. Before the night was over, I felt that there would be no blood left. Her eyes looked old. They were the eyes of one who has seen too much suffering, felt too much pain. They were older than her fathers. She looked like she was made of china, beautiful but frail, ready to shatter at any moment.
Exhausted, she finally slept, though not restfully. Her fevered hands twitched, and her throat trembled with unscreamed screams. She panted irregularly and weakly. Weary and heart-sore, I thought back to happier times.
I traveled not as far back as I normally did.
Only five or six months ago. We were homeless then, but hopeful. Peasey was not bedridden, and I had never seen her cry. There were no bloody coughs sucking away her life force. Yes, they were hungry. They were tired. They were cold at night, hot during the dry day. But there was no Regina, and Peasey and her brother were able to play in the barren wastelands. They, in their childhood innocence, were happy.
We wandered, Peasey and I, by ourselves, Peasey carrying me in her hand. I do not remember where we went, though where is a very relative term, considering there were only two sights you were likely to see in any other place than heaven or California: Open, flat wasteland, or camps of gaunt, homeless families, lost in the middle of nowhere.
I definitely did not think that then, those would be happier times. Peasey was dirty. Her mother was dead, but I think then she was still too young to understand what that really meant. George was still a baby, not a young boy. I myself, knowing the fear and worry their father felt and understanding it, was scared. But Peasey and George knew nothing of the banknotes that forced their father to sell the tires of their car for food, or the time he picked the maggots out of a dead turtle in order to make them a stew. They were innocent, and so, happy.
Back then, I would never think that sometime in the future I would be thinking back, and that that time would be my happier time. But anything was surely better than now, with the family each slowly dying.
Then, in my memory, Peasey stopped.
“See, Macky?” She asked me. I looked with my button eyes. I did see. I saw dead locusts, buried roofs, garbage; a desolate wasteland. But I could not close my eyes. I did see. I saw everything I did not want to see.
“Do you see the castle?” And so started our games. Peasey did all the narration, though I tried and tried to be the best playmate she could ever want.
I listened to what she said.
“There is a castle. It’s pretty. It’s pink and butterflies make the sky rainbow with their wings. We walk for a long time, and eventually we get close to the castle. It has a drawbridge, and unicorns guard the door from bad people. The door opens… Macky, do you see? Who is that opening the door? See the princess, waiting to greet little old me?
‘Why, Peasy, how fine to see you! Come, come, come in!’
“Oh Macky, that wasn’t nice!”
Peasey is talking to herself, running this monologue. We are approaching the shack that has been our home for the past half-year. Locusts fly spastically across the sky. There have been no butterflies for over a year. Peasey continues,
“I ask the beautiful princess, ‘But what about Macky? How could you forget my best friend?’
‘Why of course! I’m so sorry. Come, come, in! You’re just in time for the dancing. Would you like to get changed into pretty dresses? Quick! It’s almost time for the feast!’
We change into the prettiest dresses. Mine is like Cinderalla’s. Yours is like it was when Mommy made you. It’s pretty and red. And you have blue dancing shoes. Mine are as sparkly as the stars. ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ all the princesses say.
And look! There’s mommy! She’s waiting for us at the table of the feast. For the first course there’s creamy soup, with real chicken, and tomatoes and fish. And then salad, with caeser dressing and shredded cheese. Then for the last course there’s sweet dumplings, and chicken, and turkey, and spaghetti with meatballs as big as your head!”
I look up at her with my big, button eyes. I see that her eyes are bright as she says,
“And for dessert… Remember that pie mommy used to make? Sweet apples? It tastes just like her’s. Exactly like her’s on Thanksgiving and Christmas and any time you are having a bad day. Just like her’s.”
She pauses then adds, looking at the sky, “Just like her.”
We walk to the shack, and wait for her father to come home. She passes the time by throwing me up into the air, and catching me again. As I flew, I looked through the hole in the roof at the gray, sinister sky.
Now I wake up, and come to less happy times. I am sprawled on the floor, face down. The dirt floor presses coldly against my face. I am not too worried, though. I fall off the cot sometimes. It isn’t that unusual, sometimes Peasey lets go of me in her restless sleep.
I then realize that I cannot hear her ragged breathing. I cannot hear her painful coughs, or her labored panting. I can hear the breath of the raspy old crone in the spidery wicker chair, and her father and her brother, but no noises come from Peasey’s body.
My lifeless heart thuds in my chest. I can feel my limbs, numbing in fear, sticking out at odd angles, and I feel so helpless. I cannot see Peasey. I must see her, I must see her face. I must see, but I cannot see. The best I can do is to listen. Someone stirs. But it is not Peasey.
Somehow, although I cannot see or hear her, I know she will not stir again.
My throat is tight, and hurts with too many screams left silent, too many prayers unfound, and too many words cried that no one will ever hear.
And so, I think back to happier times.
“See all the princes? They’re all here to dance with us. Wow. What beautiful music! The bards are here just to play for us, Macky. The violins, the piano, is that a guitar?”
We are all alone in the desolate field. We are spinning, spinning, spinning around in circles. She giggles, and sings a little nursery rhyme her mom taught her when she was a baby. We dance and dance. We are, we were, dancing.
Somewhere across the shack I can hear someone wailing. It is George. He has found Peasey. I wish I could say goodbye. I wish I could see her face one more time. So, I think back, and I try to remember what it was like, in happier times.
“The sky is beautiful and blue, with fluffy white clouds. Maybe, someday, you and I will be able to ride those clouds with the princesses. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Peasey is looking up at the gray, barren sky. She is smiling.
Now, I am looking face down in the dirt. The grime is sticking in my black button eyes.
I hope that what she saw was what she really saw. I hope she say unicorns and sweet meats and felt her dead mother’s love. I tried as hard as I could to see the castle, to taste the sweet dumplings and smell the lavenders in the beautiful garden. I tried as hard as I could to share her visions, to hear the sweet harp music and the violins the bards were playing in the ballroom.
But, try as I might, I could not go with her to the castle. I could not follow her. She went by herself. All that time, all I saw was a desolate wasteland. When she saw butterflies, I saw black shadows and creeping locusts.
As I danced with her in the parlor room, amongst all the lords and ladies, it felt as though we were the last people on this earth. The barren desert stretched out in all directions. The barren desert, that was all I could see.
I hope she made it to that castle.
Somewhere deep in my cloth doll’s chest, I feel my heart break in two. The tear I was storing in there disappears into the earth. She is gone, and took her tears with her. But still, although broken as I am, I cannot cry.
But I can hope.
So I hope.
I hope she sees the silver dawn, with pink cotton candy threads accenting it’s beauty. I hope she can dance in the wheat fields, and ride fast clouds. I hope that somewhere she is spinning, and spinning, and dancing. Dancing, with a smile on her face, dimples forming joyfully around the corners of her mouth.
Most of all, I hope she can see her mommy again.
Distantly, I hear her father sob. Some foot kicks me so I am facing upwards. I see him lift up her inert, sprawling body. Her eyes are closed. Her lips are slightly parted, as though with a sigh. For once she seems peaceful.
I hope she will always see butterflies, even with her eyes closed for good.
I look out the window after they all left the shack, low on the ground. They are gone. I don’t think they will come back. They are heading to California, to make a heaven for their lives.
I am the last one left. I look out the window, and see a rolling mass of black dust swallowing up the desolate landscape like a hungry beast. The storm is coming again.
Thin, leggy locusts that have been hiding in the bed covers and the corners of the shack begin to hop frantically around, afraid of the approaching dust storm. I am not afraid, however. Even as the locusts with the gnashing, shadow-black jaws scrabble over me, I am not afraid. I think I feel tears welling in my doll’s black button eyes.
And, as I look through the obscuring water that misshapes all that is in the room, the locusts take flight with an enormous buzzing sound, louder than the approaching storm. I watch them fly away. I think I see Peasey soaring with them, looping and twirling, on painted wings.
The dust passes over me.
I am blinded, and hurled against the wall of the shack. The dust tears my seams, and rips my red dress into tatters. My leg falls away, and I see my torn hair swirling around me, a halo around me head. Slowly, I fall apart. It is not painful, really. It is more like a numbing, tingly sensation. My left button eye flies away into the black storm, and I feel all of my memories unraveling and melting away. The happy times, the bad times, they are all consumed by the storm. Locusts are whirling all around me, black wings broken and bent, spastically twitching their limbs, trying to escape.
The golden feather in my hair is sucked away by the whirling miasma.
As my last eye falls off my face into the chaos, I think I see Peasey soaring with them, the locusts. She is smiling. Her eyes are bright and young, and she is flying through the black chaos as though it isn’t even there. I feel myself sigh, not a silent sigh trapped in my mind, but a real one, and the last threads of my body fall apart. Peasey flies up, up, and away, fluttering and soaring on painted butterfly wings.