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:: Counting in His Sleep by Angela Lathem ::

It had been one hundred and thirty seven degrees at noon that day, or at least that was as high as she could count to. At five-thirty it felt only five degrees shy of what it had been at mid-day. Rebecca would be five next Easter, school age but small. Out in the country, the home-place was populated with wild gusts of hot birch trees that didn’t provide any shade. Even the compost pile, full of apple cores and dandelion heads, radiated bittersweet smells of humus. She knocked down apricots with a broom handle; eating their plush fur first, then the sweet sticky meaty insides down to the pit. She took the wet and hairy seed out back, and threw it at the chicken house. When the hens replied with confetti storms of feathers and squawking, she tossed pecan hulls in the air to add to the dander showering over and around her. With every weak throw she counted towards to the highest number she knew; each signaled another moment that she would be alone while father slept in the shade of the porch.

Near the shed, some rotting plywood covered a drainage pool. This was her own low-water bridge she could cross and escape the sounds of his snoring. Where she stepped heel to toes, the brown water lapped at her new sandals, the color becoming absorbed by the new white leather. Each dip into the pool rippled and calmed her as the boards sank under the flowing wash. She slid her feet over the hollows her little river had covered like a trap. The flutter of her hem and her legs, and her face in the dark river’s surface stole any thought that the noise and the mess of the chickens would awaken her father. She just balanced on the water that spilled over her legs and the stones that felt smooth like sloes.

Then, walking back to the house, she picked up a broken stick and scratched in the dirt all of the numbers that she could remember to write. Next year she would start school, if she kept learning to count like her father said. But she couldn’t think of the numbers that came next, while he snored uneasily just inside. The stick became a conductor’s baton, cutting through the air to all of the Sunday school tunes she could think to sing. Then it was a rough paintbrush, filling in the peeling house paint with scrapes of her favorite colors; singing and painting, scratching and scraping, and all the time getting carried away with her songs.

Moving nearer to the screened porch, the summer heat pushing her far from exhaustion and her senses, she started to paint the window screens, blue and orange, rainbow and gold. The stick then became like a fork, as she poked at the screen door with the roughest end until two of the holes met as a large gash near the center, letting in two horseflies and a June bug. She gasped and squealed at their liberation from heat into the house, shuddering from their buzzing wings and from the loud snort that sounds when a snore is cut short.

Her father must have heard one of them, whizzing by the amber light and hovering over the juices from the pot roast or the cobblers cooling on the stove. It took only a gasp of time for his boots to sound on the kitchen tiles, and for her to drop towards the lattice-work that bordered the house near the ground, looking for any opening that she could push herself into. His weight shifted the weak boards over her head, dust following the light that slipped through the slats and knots. The claps of his soles stopped near the door and curses slipped from under his breath, signaling that he had found the ruined door. When the door slammed back, shaking the dirt free from above her, she assumed that he had gone inside for his tools. Ashamed, she shimmied out of her hiding place, ending up under her father’s head and shoulders that were bent down in front of her eyes, his face aged with anger. He was too slow to grab anything but a shoe that the dirt had loosened from her foot like cool talc. She darted under his legs and out to the rigid ranks of cotton fields that stretched from home-place to home-place in their acreage. He let her run; yelling and hollering words she was comforted that she couldn’t understand past the reach of the porch-light.

The east Texas dirt was like ashes, and its powder-coated stones pasted smooth onto her sweaty hands. She crawled on chapped knees, scratching her throbbing shoulders on the small husks, harvest hard and tearing the ruffles on her second best dress, her cotton-colored hair curled and white as the tufts she ducked below. The fields were like a soft ocean on the surface but rough as rust underneath, and soon it grew too dark with the night for her comfort. Dinner was getting cold behind the concerned warnings from her mother’s sobs, but she went to the porch light like moth. Her father caught sight of the first row of plants that moved with a body beneath it; a face showing gray-blue eyes still flushing tears down dirty lines on her face. He grabbed her. Ripped her up and under the arm so her bones, light as a quail’s, strained from the five-year old body that they hung from. But she didn’t dare struggle, and when the bone made a plucking sound from the socket she made imprints of milk teeth on her lower lip. There was no sound from her crying. No kitten sobs to answer the question,

Are you crying girl? Cause I’ll give you something to cry about!

She hung there as her father raged on her from neck to heels with the buckle-end of the belt until her skin grew numb, raised up in blisters and bruises. She just closed her eyes and mouthed

One-two-three-four-five-six-seven

 
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