The blue jay stole the baby straight out of the bird bath. Lorely wailed when she saw the little head bobbing in the jay’s grabby beak. The baby’s mouth was set into a silent ‘O’ of shock, its eyes fixed on Lorely. She raced after the bird calling, “Thief!” but the jay, muscular and confident, skimmed the tops of the sunflowers and disappeared within the feathery camouflage of the cedar tree.
After she yelled for her mother (no answer), her father (not home), and her older brother (didn’t care), Lorely began to climb the cedar, her bare feet finding prickly traction, her hands soon sticky with sap. She had just turned ten, and while she was too old for dolls, she was not too old to pretend she was a fairy or a monkey or a mother as long as she kept her fantasy a secret. When she was left alone in the garden (and everyone was glad to assume she was out there being happy and out of their hair), she put her hands in mud and made porridge, or she dug down in her mother’s best rose bed until she had a hole that smelled of death. There she made her mucky potions. Sometimes those potions involved making babies.
Up Lorely went after the thieving jay, taking hold of branches that supported her like bronzed arms. The jay was a little asshole. This was what her mother called the bird when it dogged Lorely around the garden, screaming and dive-bombing her sparse hair. “That. Little. Asshole.”
Bradley, her brother, had told Lorely there was probably a nest of bird babies somewhere in the yard and that’s why the jay was agitated, although it made no sense why a jay would still have babies in September.
Down below she heard the screen door slam, then Bradley say her name. He said it with no energy, with barely any breath, as if he were meeting a basic requirement in speaking, which he was. Her mother had sent him out to find Lorely because she was too lazy to look herself.
The garden, usually abundant and well-tended this time of year, had gone completely over to sunflowers that had grown tight and neglected as a reedy, forgotten forest. This year her mother had given up. Just given up, she said. She had been fired from her job (embezzlement, not proved) and turned her back on the garden.
It was as if she’d given Lorely keys to her own kingdom, one Lorely did not need to weed, water, or share. Her mother was always showing off her favorites: Roses. Daffodils. Lilacs. Monkey Puzzle Tree. Grape Arbor. And dirt. She liked putting the wormy dirt in her white, white hands and then thrusting it under the nose of anyone who came by. “Best stink there is,” she’d say. Her mother was proud of the compost from her own bin, its rotten smell a funky perfume Lorely had come to know well that summer as she mixed and made her people. The baby was her best one yet. Its little limbs were smooth like peeled carrots, its eyes shiny drops of water. It writhed about like a newborn mouse when she stroked it just right. Lorely had been keeping it under a flower pot, safe from slugs and prowlers. Each morning she could tell the baby had grown during the night. Its little eyes fluttered in wonder whenever she lifted the pot.
Soon the baby would need to come inside for a regular bath, Lorely guessed, but in the meantime she’d been bathing it in the birdbath. She had looked away for just a second, in search of a rag to dry the baby with, when the jay swooped down and stole the naked child.
“Hey stupid,” her brother called softly from beneath the cedar tree. “Where are you? Your Highness says it’s time to come in and pack.”
A shower of twigs rained down upon Lorely. Above there was a scratching of claws, a squawk that sounded like a cough. Had the jay dropped the baby? Or swallowed it? The thought of its tender flesh macerated by That Little Asshole made Lorely climb faster. She was high enough now she could see all of the garden beneath her. The worn faces of the sunflowers were tipped downward, their stalky necks exposed. Their bright twists of petals, more abundant than her own hair, were now brown now at the tips. It was most certainly fall. School had started, but Lorely had not gone. There was no point, her mother said. The whole family would go feral now.
Bradley grunted as he pulled himself up after her. “Her Highness says we’re moving and you have until a count of ten to get in here. After that she’ll start putting your clothes and toys into garbage bags.”
Or Bradley would have to do it. Or her father. There was the mystery, whether her father was home out on another walk. He was always taking walk after walk after walk. She wondered whether he would return home before they moved—if they moved—or remember Lorely’s name, or get her mother to smile again and leave off with all the shame. “We have to get out of here. I can’t show my face in this bullshit town,” her mother said one minute, then “I don’t recognize myself in the mirror” the next.
Her mother spent a lot of time saying things like that, as if by saying them (Lorely’s father observed) the words would change anything. Her mother had gained twenty pounds. She wore Lorely’s father’s jeans with a belt to hold them up. She wore his shirts because they hid the rest of her. She cut off her hair. At times she stood still stock on her bare feet with untrimmed toenails and stared out as if contemplating some responsibility she could choose or not choose to do, like sweeping the floor or just closing a window. As if it was the hardest thing in the world to decide. She stared at the kitchen window often, as if she was waiting to grow wings and smash her way through the glass.
Lorely felt sorry for her mother, she guessed. She didn’t need her, even preferred the neglect to all the years of “goal setting” and “short- and long-term planning.” Ever since her mother had given up, Lorely had finally been given a life.
And look, she was making babies, and she was only ten years old. She was casting spells with good results. The sunflowers had decided not to die yet, for instance, and her father often walked by her without seeing her, and her mother when she slept stayed down like Sleeping Beauty, as if she would not wake for one hundred years. Best of all, Lorely was invisible to her overbearing brother. Until today he’d ignored her.
But now he was focused on Lorely and closing in.
“Way too high, Grasshopper,” he said. “Back your butt down here.”
“No,” she said.
There was a whiff of adulthood in Bradley’s voice, a shadow of concern in his face. Worrisome, the way his eyes found hers up through the branches, the way his expression morphed into a ghoulish replica of her mother’s, or the way it used to be when she scolded, then hugged, then scolded, then hugged in a never-ending routine of raising Lorely into the grown-up her parents could be proud of. Her mother’s efforts had made Lorely lonelier and lonelier until she believed adulthood would most certainly kill her.
The jay screamed when Lorely poked her nose into his nest. He had the baby between his black, spidery feet. It lay blinking, naked, and pale pink in a fluff of downy feathers. None of the bird’s chicks were left. Lorely’s baby looked ready to be eaten or loved or dressed up in doll clothes. Lorely saw now it was a girl like her. There were its little girl parts right before Lorely’s eyes. Two creamy petals and a red rose bud between them. The baby kicked, and the bud bobbed. Her crotch looked nothing like the hard, plastic crotches of the dolls in Lorely’s bedroom, with their tight seams, stiff legs, and easily washable skin. What was that thing, pink and urgent, peeking out at Lorely from between the baby’s legs? Was it alive? The baby reached for Lorely, her muddy arms waving in a way that showed she expected Lorely to pick her up and cuddle her and love her, but all Lorely could think about was the creepy caterpillar between the baby’s legs. This was not the cute baby Lorely had made.
That Little Asshole tipped his cruel head and eyed the little pink worm. He pecked it just as Bradley grabbed Lorely by the ankle. She felt the clench of his fingers. He meant well, her brother, but the nest was now falling, the jay screeching, and the baby screaming, its face contorted with pain and rage.
“You are an ugly baby,” Lorely said as Bradley tried to yank to her down.
“I have you, chicklet,” he said. “Come away.”
The baby kicked and writhed. Blood from where the jay had pecked her pooled in the nest’s lining of downy of feathers.
“Do you want to fight me for the baby?” That Little Asshole said to Lorely. His voice was nasty and sharp. “I offer only because you made her, although it is I who love her.” His beak was bright with the baby’s blood.
Bradley yanked Lorely so hard she almost fell off the tree. He thought it was a joke. “Be careful,” he said. “Be careful or you’ll fall.”
Lorely fought him off with a swift kick to his head. She held her own. None of her family could seem to understand how big she’d grown. Breaking free from her brother, she snatched the baby. Having nowhere else to put the child, she jammed her into her mouth and then made her way toward the top of the tree, scaling branch after branch, Bradley and That Little Asshole in hot pursuit. They would never get her, neither one. The baby, fussing and writhing, tasted at first cold as ice, then hot, hotter than fire. Lorely held on through the hurt, her teeth bared and biting down.