I’m Still Willa Carmichael

Prairie Fire - - ANDREW BODEN -

THE SUN­DAY AF­TER HIGH SCHOOL let out in June, my mother found my home preg­nancy test (+) and an abor­tion brochure from the Bagshaw Women’s Clinic in my sock drawer. I’d snuck home at 7:00 a.m. from a ware­house rave on the Down­town East­side and, mo­ments or hours later, stepped sop­ping wet from the shower into the spear tip of my mother’s in­dex fin­ger.

“A lit­tle pri­vacy, how about?” I said. Back then, I had sil­ver bead rings in my nip­ples, navel and labia mi­nora and had big plans for my labia ma­jora.

“These ny­lons.” My mother held up a pair of black fish­net ny­lons she’d found in my sock drawer, as if they were ev­i­dence the ser­pent from Genesis had shed his skin in my high­boy. She was dressed for this evan­gel­i­cal church she’d started go­ing to over on Willing­don af­ter Dad left. She had on her long, navy blue skirt, a starched white blouse and the grim, fur­rowed smile she wore on the judge’s bench at the Pro­vin­cial Court. Her favourite say­ing, when it came to par­ent­ing me was, “There are no ap­peals in my court, Willa.”

I knew at once that she’d found some­thing worse than the fish­nets and tried to drown out the alarm bell tolling in my head with a loud ac­cu­sa­tion of my own: “You can’t wear those ny­lons in church!”

Up came the crum­pled brochure with the black and white peony on the cover and, be­side it, the name of the woman who’d ad­vised me writ­ten down in my neat hand­writ­ing: Rhonda-Lou :-).

“Willa, you haven’t?”

I clutched my hand to my stom­ach, as if the baby was still there. God, no I’d never do any­thing to avoid be­ing a four­teen-year-old mother with a grade nine ed­u­ca­tion. I thanked some­body—God maybe or Stephen Hawk­ing— that my mother couldn’t pick out the frigid drib­ble of sweat rolling down my wet neck.

“How many weeks?”

I held up four fin­gers. It was eas­ier to lie in signs than words. “We’re keep­ing it,” she said.

Last night’s rave pushed at the back of my throat. My mother gave me a lit­tle, puck­ered smile and pressed her­self against my small, wet, bar­ren body. “It’s just morn­ing sick­ness. When I had you, I threw up un­til the end.”

My mother couldn’t have be­lieved that I would keep the baby. Maybe her doubt be­gan with the brochure and that I had an ad­vi­sor in Rhonda-Lou. Maybe it was be­cause my mother’s job as a Pro­vin­cial Court judge kept her out of the house for four­teen hours a day and she couldn’t stop me from read­ing Doris Less­ing nov­els. Maybe it was the age of the douchebag I’d slept with—twenty-three—and that I re­fused to tes­tify against him. My mother and I fought for three humid July days. We fought over the hor­ror of my hon­our roll brain trapped in­side a “trol­lop na­ture” (her words), over my bright fu­ture as a teenage mother liv­ing on wel­fare sup­ple­mented by pros­ti­tu­tion; over what to call the clus­ter of cells I’d planned to “pitch into a hos­pi­tal in­cin­er­a­tor”—embryo or child. On the fourth day, she handed me a plane ticket to San Diego and a bus ticket to San Quin­tín, Mex­ico, a small town on the west coast of the Baja. She was shipping me there to work for my half-brother, Randy, for the rest of July and Au­gust. Randy ran a Chris­tian mis­sion called Samar­i­tan Life on a five-acre spread just out­side San Quin­tín. I’m sure my mother thought that if any­one could guard my un­named clus­ter of cells past the first trimester, it would be Randy. I just wanted to get away from ground zero.

The night be­fore I left, my mother helped with my unpacking. She con­fis­cated my smart­phone and my lap­top. She took my copies of Lolita, The Grass is Singing and The Golden Com­pass, and left my pocket Span­ish dic­tio­nary and a Su­doku puz­zle book . She made me sign a piece of paper not to take ad­van­tage of al­ready be­ing preg­nant and fuck any­one in­side or out­side Samar­i­tan Life, es­pe­cially men “rem­i­nis­cent of that archrepro­bate, your fa­ther—God bless his HIV.” At the time, the agree­ment suited me just fine. Galen Wade, dry­wall taper, bassist, statu­tory rapist (said my mother) and, for six weeks, fa­ther, might as well have died. He didn’t re­turn my texts or calls when I told him I was preg­nant. I had to go alone to the Bagshaw Women’s Clinic and I had to come out alone. I had to be di­min­ished.

“You’re go­ing to re­turn, Willa,” my mother said, “with my grand­child steeped in the mys­ter­ies of the Lord.” And then she raised her palm and closed her eyes and prayed un­til her hand tremored as if she had the DTs. “Let your mercy and love reach in­side this daugh­ter of sin and pro­tect this lit­tle one. Lord, pro­tect this pre­cious gift. Lord, I beg you. En­force thy laws.”

Randy met me at the San Quin­tín bus sta­tion. He hugged me as my mother had at the air­port: as if I wore a con­cealed bomb. His sweat smelled of chilies and tor­tillas and the town’s salted, dusted air. At the cor­ner of each eye, he now had two light red splotches where once he had teardrop tat­toos.

“Bien­venida a San Quin­tín,” he said. He’d worked in Mex­ico for twelve sum­mers, but that was al­most all the Span­ish he knew—it was all the Span­ish most of the mis­sion­ar­ies knew. That and Dios te bendiga.

We drove south down the high­way in Randy’s black Dodge truck with the air con­di­tioner on high. He told me how good it was to see me, how much I’d love work­ing with the Mex­i­can peo­ple, how much “you guys” could help, as if I was two sets of hands now that he thought I was preg­nant. I said only cheery, va­pid crap. I knew my mother had armed him to un­der­mine me: any word I said that had any depth to it what­so­ever would be a trap­door into a lec­ture or a ser­mon about my get­ting preg­nant, about my killing a child if I chose abor­tion. Randy turned on the ra­dio to an English pro­gram that talked about sin­ners in the hands of an an­gry god. Even back then, I re­fused to cap­i­tal­ize god: this irate, vin­dic­tive de­ity was an in­ven­tion of ide­o­logues, of peo­ple who needed con­vic­tion to know plea­sure.

“I’m cold,” I said. I rolled down my pas­sen­ger win­dow, so I could breathe real air. My mother had cho­sen this place for me—be­cause of what it lacked. San Quin­tín had noth­ing that re­sem­bled a hos­pi­tal or clinic among the long rows of fad­ing, pas­tel-coloured store­fronts. A block off the paved high­way, we were knee deep in swel­ter­ing dirt roads, rick­ety ply­wood shacks and swarms of bare­foot chil­dren. The Baja’s god must have been an­gry about some­thing other than a pre­ma­turely emp­tied uterus.

We drove through a wide, steel gate flanked by palm trees into Samar­i­tan Life. Randy showed me to the faded, red two-per­son tent that would be my home for the sum­mer. Samar­i­tan Life had been a shabby camp­ground be­fore Randy bought all five acres and fixed it up with vol­un­teer labour from Cana­dian churches. He and ten lo­cal min­is­ters had scrubbed out the moral and spiritual stains with twelve hours of con­tin­u­ous prayer. The grounds had a pool, a cook­house, and a small care­taker’s shack. All four sides were fenced in by a tall row of scrag­gly ju­nipers in­ter­laced with an old chain-link fence and plenty of San Quin­tín’s tawny dust. My job would be to prep and serve three meals a day to the mis­sion­ar­ies who came from Canada by the bus­load “to show the mercy, jus­tice, and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of Je­sus Christ in Mex­ico.” Randy said that his ad copy prac­ti­cally writes it­self and that the Lord favours those who use the Ox­ford comma.

“You could use some favour­ing, too,” he said and glanced at my stom­ach.

I ca­ressed my belly with one hand as I’d seen other moth­ers do on TV. “A con­dom broke, okay?”

I should’ve said noth­ing. He reached into a leather shoul­der bag he wore ev­ery­where and gave me a New In­ter­na­tional Bi­ble and a sil­ver cross. He wanted me to wear the cross to look pure to the Mex­i­cans we built houses for and, more im­por­tantly, to Randy’s de­vout clien­tele. And I should read the Bi­ble to save, if not my­self, the in­no­cent life in­side me. “Your baby can un­der­stand what you read to it,” Randy said. “Start with Proverbs 19:23.”

“What’s my baby to un­der­stand if I read her 1 Sa­muel 15? God likes killing kids?”

“I don’t know you any­more.” He put on a wide-brimmed straw Stet­son and walked away silent and stiff-backed be­tween the olive trees. “I’m still me,” I called af­ter him. “I’m still Willa.”

I wasn’t, not re­ally. Doc­tor Deik­man had said that I wouldn’t re­mem­ber any­thing about the pro­ce­dure, be­cause of the “re­ally good drugs.” But when I peed I could still feel the cold plas­tic tube go­ing in and then the nasty suc­tion and af­ter that I tasted the cherry Flint­stone vi­ta­mins my mother used to make me swal­low. I tasted that flavour for months. In the cafe­te­ria at school. On the plane to San Diego. Af­ter tacos one night in San Quin­tín. As if loss came with a fruit tang.

My days at Samar­i­tan Life be­gan at 6:00 a.m. with Randy’s prayer meet­ings for the staff and ended at 10:00 p.m. when I locked the cook­house for the night. The mis­sion­ar­ies ar­rived by bus ev­ery Sun­day night and left the fol­low­ing Satur­day. I made gal­lons of oat­meal, chopped or­chards of fruit, and cooked caul­drons of spaghetti. I changed the toi­let paper in the out­houses and scrubbed the seats ev­ery night and threw the filthy wa­ter down the hole of the last out­house onto a swarm­ing cock­roach colony. I had lit­tle time to read or think. “Hasta mañana,” I said each night to Mrs. Casimiro, the milky-eyed Maza­tec woman whom I helped in the kitchen. “Dios te bendiga, Willa,” she al­ways said back and placed her hand, which was miss­ing two fin­gers, on my shoul­der like you do to a mourner at a fu­neral. “I pray for the baby. You pray for the baby, too.”

The Sun­day of my first week there, Randy made me go with him in his truck to the San Quin­tín garbage dump. The poor­est Mex­i­cans lived there in card­boards shacks and, for money, they col­lected scrap metal to sell in town. I went to help Randy un­load the pile of garbage in the truck bed, but he said, “You’re on light duty. Stay here.” Hardly had Randy let a black plas­tic bag hit the dust be­fore these six kids and their par­ents tore into it and rooted through the stink­ing mess for food. Randy got back into the air-con­di­tioned cab and took a call on his smart­phone from this bus­load of mis­sion­ar­ies com­ing down from San Diego.

The thick, black smoke from the garbage fires thinned a lit­tle and I watched two of the older kids tak­ing slurps from a tub of spoiled yo­gurt I’d thrown out two days ago.

“Why show me this, if you want me to keep the baby?” I asked. “You’re not keep­ing the baby,” Randy said. “You’re giv­ing it up. I know a good fam­ily. Prayer­ful in their hearts. They’re ar­riv­ing tonight. Your mom is okay with it.”

I felt too cold and dizzy to spit out fuck that I’m keep­ing it and walk back to Samar­i­tan Life. The past week that I’d been here, I’d let the rigour of my I’m-preg­nant act di­min­ish a lit­tle each day. Most of the mis­sion­ar­ies who came through Samar­i­tan Life had such an earnest, easy­go­ing credulity that I would have been long gone be­fore I had to start wor­ry­ing about show­ing. Now some­one wanted the baby I no longer had. I didn’t have the money to bus back to San Diego and re­book my flight and I had too much pride to call my mother in tears.

“Donna Edgelow—she’s the mother of this fam­ily I’m talk­ing about— her preg­nancy last year was ec­topic. You know what ec­topic means?” “I think I know the fe­male re­pro­duc­tive sys­tem.”

“She rup­tured a fal­lop­ian tube. Doc­tor said she shouldn’t try any­more.”

When the big bus pulled into Samar­i­tan Life at 10:00 p.m. and ejected fifty mis­sion­ar­ies from Faith Har­vest Church into the gravel-crunch­ing dark, I wore my base­ball hat pulled low and helped di­rect peo­ple to their as­signed tents. The group had brought ex­tra suit­cases full of chil­dren’s toys, san­dals, blan­kets and sacks of beans and rice for a camp of mi­grant Oax­a­cans who picked toma­toes one val­ley over. This tall woman in a white print dress kept call­ing my name. I knew she was the one Randy meant—this Donna. I could tell by the hope in her voice when she called me, as if Willa Carmichael trans­lated as bringer of lit­tle mir­a­cles.

“Willa?” Mrs. Casimiro said to Donna and pointed where I’d been. “Allá, en el os­curo.”

I stacked the last piece of ex­tra lug­gage in the large stor­age tent, crept to my own and turned up Patti Smith on my iPod un­til the rooster crowed from the farm be­side the com­pound. In the cook­house, I tried to con­vince Mrs. Casimiro that I was too morn­ing sick to serve break­fast. “When An­to­nio was born,” she said and handed me a large bowl with twenty eggs to whisk, “I worked in the fields un­til my wa­ter runs down my legs. Afuera, afuera. Vayas, Willa.”

I met the Edgelows again as I served French toast, oat­meal and can­taloupe to the long line of new arrivals from Faith Har­vest. A young girl with blond braids held up a sealed ma­son jar with a live black widow in­side. “Dad caught it this morn­ing in the shower. It can kill peo­ple dead.” The girl, Bethany, pulled at her mother’s pink James 1:27 T-shirt and asked, “What’s her name again?”

“You re­mem­ber, Willa,” Bethany’s mother, Donna, said. “Last night, she told us where to find our tent. Thanks so much, Willa.”

Bethany held the ma­son jar about six inches from my chest, right over the alu­minum pan of French toast I was serv­ing. “It would kill you, Willa. If it got free.”

“That thing isn’t get­ting free, is it?” said Donna. “Now, you’re sup­posed to be pray­ing for Willa, like Randy wrote on his web­site. Willa’s here on a very spe­cial mis­sion.”

Bethany closed her eyes and said, “I, Bethany Edgelow, pray that God anoints the work that, that—”

“—Willa—”

“—Willa is un­der­tak­ing. I pray that God grants her life in abun­dance. I pray that—what was the third thing? There’s al­ways three things.”

There was no third thing. What else could Randy write on the Samar­i­tan Life web­site and not give me away? Pray for lovely Willa, my four­teen-year-old half-sis­ter, so a man nine years her se­nior doesn’t im­preg­nate her again?

“We have so much to talk about, Willa,” Donna said. “You have such lovely skin.”

Af­ter break­fast, I helped load the cool­ers of tuna sandwiches and ap­ples and or­anges into the pas­sen­ger vans that would take the mis­sion­ar­ies from Faith Har­vest to the site where they’d be build­ing a house for a Mex­i­can fam­ily of six. Bethany had left the ma­son jar with the black widow in­side on the break­fast ta­ble, and when I went to let it es­cape, she called out from be­hind me, “It’s God’s.” She took the jar out­side and laid it on a creep­ing suc­cu­lent be­neath a tall red gera­nium, a full south­ern ex­po­sure. Al­ready at 8:00 a.m. the Mex­i­can sun felt like the hot coals for a pig roast.

“At least put it in the shade,” I said.

“What’s that noise?”

“That coo­ing? White-winged doves. It’ll go on all day.”

“It sounds like ques­tions.”

Bethany closed her eyes so tight she looked in pain. She had smears of sun­tan lo­tion along her blond hair­line and a gold stud in each ear. She prayed—a soft, quick plea for the Mex­i­cans she hoped to help, for her mom and dad, for another lit­tle brother. Her eyes opened and, for a sec­ond, she looked lost in the Mex­i­can heat. “Can I listen to your baby? Mom let me listen to hers be­fore God took him to heaven. His name was Devon and he liked the story of Moses in the bas­ket.”

A light sweat coated the nape of my neck and I put my hair up with a scrunchie. “My baby is no big­ger than a wal­nut.”

“Mom’s stom­ach got big. Yours looks flat.”

“I’m not show­ing yet.”

She nudged the ma­son jar with her shoe. The black widow pulled in its legs and shrank to the size of a peb­ble. “It’s just a stupid spi­der.”

“That spi­der was an egg. Its mother guarded it like your mother pro­tected you and Devon.”

“Pas­tor Bernie says I have do­min­ion over it. Do­min­ion is like be­ing the mom and the dad at the same time.” And then she thrust her­self into my arms and pressed her head against my ab­domen. I tried to pull away, but she’d wrapped her­self around me and held on with a crazy strength and pushed first one ear into my belly and then the other. When I thought I was go­ing to have to scream at her, her grip went limp. “Your baby is cry­ing,” she said. “Like Devon.”

Randy wanted me to go with Donna and Bethany and some of the other women to the daycare in Los Piños and trans­late. I re­sisted. But I had grade nine Span­ish and he said that that was bet­ter than what his team had, which was noth­ing. I could get to know Donna: that the Lord worked through her hands. I flipped Randy my mid­dle fin­ger and scur­ried to­wards my tent. Randy was be­side me in an in­stant, his hand wrapped around my wrist so tightly, my fin­ger­tips throbbed with blood. He had that sav­age, serene look in his eyes he used to get when he beat peo­ple up on con­tract and then told me how much he loved his work. “You go­ing to hit me?” I asked. “What about my pre­cious fuck­ing baby?”

We rode in Randy’s white pas­sen­ger van down the dusty rode to the high­way. Randy wouldn’t turn on the air con­di­tion­ing, be­cause the thick dust would clog the fil­ters, so we suf­fo­cated un­til the black­top.

Bethany pointed to the onion fields on our right side. “What are they do­ing?” she asked.

I ex­plained that the women wear­ing the base­ball caps, long-sleeved shirts and ban­danas over their faces were pick­ing onions— ce­bol­las. They made about two dol­lars a day and went home and maybe they had a hus­band, maybe not. But they had kids, lots of kids, from lots of fa­thers. “Not them. I mean those.”

I fol­lowed her fin­ger a bit fur­ther south, a bit higher in the swel­ter­ing blue sky. “The Span­ish word is zopi­lotes— vul­tures. Some­thing must have died in the field.”

“I can smell it.”

“Win­dows are closed, silly.”

“It’s the same smell there was when Devon went to heaven. It’s the same smell there is now.” She made a big show of in­hal­ing as much air as her lungs could hold. “It never goes away.”

The daycare in Los Piños was noth­ing more than a wire fence about eight feet high around a bare patch of earth, a see­saw and a rust­ing geo­met­ric play dome. About a dozen kids pressed their bod­ies against the wire and looked at us as we un­packed some sandwiches and toys. An older woman named Luisa and two other younger women, about my age, ap­peared in the door­way of the house that ad­joined the pen. The two younger women had a coo­ing baby in each arm. A painted piece of ply­wood on the wire door of the pen read Hom­bres no en­tran. Randy walked in­side, picked up a lit­tle girl and in­tro­duced us to Luisa in his bro­ken Span­glish. Luisa had grey­ing curly hair and plas­tic glasses whose lenses were as large as saucers and left a red shelf of flesh in each plump cheek when she took them off. In the next sec­ond, most of the kids had latched them­selves onto Randy and were cry­ing, “¡ Ca­puchi! ¡Ca­puchi!” as he closed the pen door be­hind him and left me shut in­side with Donna and Bethany. “Dios te bendiga,” he said.

We gave out the balls, dolls, toy trucks and skip­ping ropes. Donna said she’d brought a bag of nail pol­ish, so we could paint the nails of the women. The two young women with the ba­bies were first, and Donna

painted the first girl’s nails red and the sec­ond’s pink. The sec­ond girl gave me her baby boy to hold and Donna asked, “Did Randy speak to you, Willa?”

Luisa asked me, “¿Qué te ha di­cho? Tu cara te parece a la muerte.”

“Es nada.” To Donna, I said, “She says I have a pretty face.” “I thought she said muerte. Isn’t that the word for death? Like Día de los Muer­tos.”

“They have a lot of dark hu­mour here.”

“I’d think they’d have to. There’s not much else. This is hardly the place for a child.”

The young woman showed off her pink nails to Luisa and hugged Donna.

“You do have a pretty face, Willa,” said Donna. “Doesn’t Willa look pretty, Bethany?”

Bethany cupped her hand over Donna’s ear and said in a loud whis­per, “Watch out for the vul­tures. Also, Willa is go­ing to have a baby.” “I know, dear. Now Willa and I have a lot to talk about.”

Luisa must have known what the word baby meant, be­cause she asked me, “¿Estás em­barazada?”

And all I could do was nod and then the two young girls with painted nails yelped and hugged me and Donna said, “We hope that you’ll con­sider us, Willa,” as if she was a politi­cian I might vote for. She looked at Luisa with tears in her eyes and said, “I lost my last lit­tle one. Gone.

Vamos. And I didn’t know why God did that. But you have to have faith. It hap­pened for a rea­son.”

“His name was Devon,” said Bethany. “I had a toy truck for him. Mom said he liked trucks, so I buried the truck be­side his grave. Re­mem­ber what the grave said, Mom? Devon Arthur Edgelow, so small, so sweet, so soon.”

Luisa gave me a puz­zled look. “¿Qué dijo?”

I ran out­side the pen and vom­ited into the hot dust un­til I thought I would spit up blood.

“Her baby,” said Luisa, “is fright­ened.”

In the even­ing, Randy drove ev­ery­one to a road­side taco stand he called “Smok­ies.” It was bet­ter than merely di­gestible, he said—he’d eat there ev­ery day if he could. I or­dered for ev­ery­one: beef, chicken and pork with corn or flour tacos stuffed or un­stuffed with cheese. I sat on the steps away from the oth­ers and ate tripe tacos be­cause no one else would and drank a Coke. Donna and her hus­band, Jerry, came over and asked if they could sit down be­side me. I hadn’t met Jerry be­fore. He was wideshoul­dered enough to fill in for At­las on statu­tory hol­i­days, but short, and he al­ways wore a blue-checked mack­i­naw, even though it was 35 Cel­sius. He’d been off with Randy and some of the other men at the build site in Triqui and so far all I’d heard him talk about with Randy was this amaz­ing brand of dry­wall mud he’d dis­cov­ered at Home De­pot: hardly

any dust at all when you sand it. We ate our tacos and didn’t say any­thing be­cause from how se­ri­ous Donna looked I knew what they were go­ing to ask me. The tripe sat heavy in my stom­ach, but I kept eat­ing to look nor­mal.

Donna said that she’d made a com­pli­ment board back at the base with a large piece of scrap card­board and some con­struc­tion paper. There was a paper pocket with every­body’s name on it and any­one could write out a com­pli­ment and put it in any­one’s pocket. “Yours is look­ing stuffed al­ready,” she added. “Ev­ery­one likes you.”

I could only imag­ine what New Tes­ta­ment quotes peo­ple had writ­ten out to try to con­vert me, call me back in time to the dead and buried desert morals of an an­cient peo­ple. “That’s nice,” I said.

“In the morn­ing some of us are go­ing to the lit­tle folk art mar­ket on the high­way. I love the beaded sculp­tures here. Been col­lect­ing them for years. You could join us?”

“Mis­sus Casimiro keeps me work­ing all day. Thanks all the same.” Jerry looked right at me. “Randy said he’d talked to you about us.” “You’ve never even spo­ken to her be­fore,” Donna said to her hus­band. “This is Jerry. He looks like he works in the mines of Moira, but he’s ac­tu­ally a mu­sic teacher out in the val­ley.”

“Jazz gui­tar. Wes Mont­gomery. Django Rein­hardt. Pat Metheny.” “I don’t know them,” I said. “I like a lot of old punk.”

“Lou Reed. Joey Ra­mone. Mick Jones. I know their licks.” He started air gui­tar­ing The Clash and sang not so ter­ri­bly: “We ain’t got no swing / Ex­cept for the ring of that trun­cheon thing.” He caught Donna’s dis­ap­prov­ing look. “That was all be­fore the mercy of the Lord smacked my dopey ass.”

“We would take care of your baby,” said Donna, “as if it were our own.”

“I have a name picked out,” I said. “If it’s a boy, Wil­liam af­ter my dad—Wil­liam Car­los Carmichael. For a girl, maybe Sasha.”

“Those are lovely names, Willa.”

“Wil­liam Edgelow,” said Jerry. “Class.”

“You could visit,” said Donna. “Cou­ple week­ends a month.”

“Heck, come to the val­ley for Christ­mas.”

Bethany spun the ma­son jar with the black widow in it on a lit­tle mo­saic of bot­tle caps pushed into the hard-packed dust. The spi­der looked like an iri­des­cent black-and-crim­son mar­ble curled up in one cor­ner of the jar. Around and around.

“I don’t have a lot of money right now,” I said. “My mom is a judge, but since Dad left, my col­lege fund has kind of dwin­dled. To like zero.”

“We’d cover your ex­penses. Pri­vate room. Post­par­tum care,” said Jerry.

“She wants to sell the baby, Jerry,” said Donna.

Jerry’s brow pinched, as if he wanted to say, “Fuck that,” and leave.

“You want this baby to go to good home, don’t you Willa? You know you can’t look af­ter it. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. You could give it up to a stranger, but where would it go? Ev­ery­one looks good at the start, but then what? At least with Jerry and I, you know your baby will grow up safe and se­cure—”

I blurted out a num­ber, not be­cause I re­ally wanted the money, but be­cause I’d thought they’d leave me alone to suf­fer my lie in peace. “Ten thou­sand dol­lars,” I said.

They looked at each other as if a sur­geon had just given them the same bad news.

“Willa, honey, you want what’s best for your baby. What’s best is Jerry and me. The spirit guides us.”

Bethany spun the ma­son jar faster and faster.

“Why did you bring that aw­ful thing?” asked Donna.

“She’s all alone,” said Bethany. “She wanted friends.”

Donna took the ma­son jar from her daugh­ter and of­fered it to me. “Willa, you wanted to set it free.”

“Ten thou­sand dol­lars,” I said. “That’s what it’ll cost.”

When we got back to base, I went in the cook­house to help Mrs. Casimiro clean the ten plas­tic cool­ers we filled with lunches. She said that there was a call for me. “Un hom­bre,” she said.

“My fa­ther.” I didn’t know what made me say that. I hadn’t spo­ken to my fa­ther in six years. He sent me Christ­mas and birth­day cards, hand­made Valen­tines and broad­sides of his poems around the time of full moons. He sent framed black-and-white pho­tos. Pho­tos of him and his “skinny HIV lover,” as my mother said of Tim, the man he loved and ele­gized in son­nets, ron­deaus and tri­o­lets. My mother swabbed the glas­sand-black metal frame of each photo with rub­bing al­co­hol, twice. “At least,” she said, “there won’t be any more chil­dren.” She usu­ally added “to sup­port,” be­cause she’d sent money over the years to all the kids my dad fa­thered, at one time or another: to pay for braces or clothes or daycare or tu­ition. Randy was one of my six half-sib­lings, each from a dif­fer­ent woman. We had a Face­book group for a while— Will’s Kids: a Poet’s Bas­tards— un­til Randy found god and ate up Leviti­cus 18 and 20 and shut the whole thing down to protest the sin of Dad with Tim.

“Dad?” I said into the phone. Mrs. Casimiro turned on the kitchen faucet to rinse out the last of the red cool­ers and only air hissed from the tap. I was on the doc­tor’s ex­am­in­ing ta­ble again, my legs in stir­rups, my throat full, my uterus ugly empty. I forced out my hap­pi­est voice and turned to the cor­ner so Mrs. Casimiro wouldn’t see my face. “Dad, it’s me, Willa. It’s still me. Re­mem­ber what you wrote in that poem? It’s still me un­der­neath all this HIV. Dad?”

“Willa?”

“Galen?” It was Galen Wade: pu­ta­tive fa­ther and con­firmed sperm donor, be­cause he’d been my first and only. “Why the fuck are you call­ing me?”

Cars rushed past him in the back­ground. “Listen, okay? Please?” “Af­ter ev­ery­thing you did? Fuck—”

“—my van hit a seag­ull on the Port Mann bridge. Just now, Willa. It was so young—it wasn’t even white yet—and it was writhing on the ground and I picked it up and it died in my hands. Right there in my hands, this beau­ti­ful bird. And I started cry­ing and I couldn’t stop, you know? And I’m like, man you can’t go on like this, liv­ing this insane life. Gigs, drugs—be­ing such a prick. Be­cause you’re go­ing to be jump­ing off this bridge in another month.

“I want to keep the baby, Willa. I’ll move back in with my par­ents and we can look af­ter it. You won’t have to worry about a thing. You can visit the baby on week­ends.”

I dropped the phone on the tile floor and ran out­side into the warm night to my tent. The Faith Har­vest Crowd had gath­ered around a big blaze in the firepit, so I took the longer, darker route through the olive trees so they wouldn’t see me. There was an en­ve­lope with my name on it ly­ing on my sleep­ing bag and I opened it and all these lit­tle, folded squares of paper fell out. There was a hand­writ­ten letter from Donna.

Dear Willa,

Jerry and I are good peo­ple of faith and we know in our hearts that we will raise the lit­tle bless­ing you are car­ry­ing to be a good per­son, too. Jerry and I would like you to come back with us to Canada, so we can pray with you and your mother and talk about the adop­tion. Randy said he will call your mother, ex­plain the whole sit­u­a­tion and make the ar­range­ments. We would be happy to help you, as we dis­cussed ear­lier this af­ter­noon. We’re think­ing of a fund for your ed­u­ca­tion.

Love and prayer,

Donna and Jerry

PS—You had so many kind wishes on the com­pli­ment board, Willa!!!

The squares of paper from the Faith Har­vest com­pli­ment board were writ­ten in greens and reds and pinks:

Thank you for be­ing you, Willa! You’re an amaz­ing young woman. So kind and gen­er­ous! You’ve touched the lives of all of us!

I’m so glad to have met you. A big thanks for your help trans­lat­ing for the Faith Har­vest team!

Be en­cour­aged this day know­ing we love you! And so does God!

I didn’t know the Willa they were writ­ing about. I didn’t think about her and I didn’t want to think about her. The Faith Har­vesters whooped and hollered and I could hear some­one hit­ting some­thing. I wanted them to stop laugh­ing. I wanted Donna and Jerry and Bethany to never laugh again. I wanted no one to laugh again. I wanted them to be ly­ing in a

field and the vul­tures to be rip­ping hunks out of them un­til they stopped laugh­ing.

I tore out­side. They’d all gath­ered near the fire and hung a Big Bird piñata in a tree and the kids from Faith Har­vest were tak­ing blind­folded turns hit­ting it with a stick. Donna wrapped the blind­fold around Bethany and then twirled her around and around and said, ”Now hit it, honey, hit it un­til the candy comes out.” Jerry filmed her with his smart­phone. Bethany hit Big Bird flush on the belly and tore it open and candy be­gan to spill from it. The kids from Faith Har­vest rushed af­ter it and Bethany hit Big Bird again and more candy spilled down and down.

I stepped into the fire­light. I was cry­ing and Donna and Jerry looked up and Mrs. Casimiro and Randy and ev­ery­one else, too.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” Donna asked.

The ma­son jar Bethany had been car­ry­ing around for days with the black widow trapped in­side sat on a wood log be­side Jerry. I didn’t know what else to do, so I grabbed it and hugged it to my­self and sobbed and Bethany ran up to me and yelled, “That’s mine!”

I held the jar above my head so she couldn’t reach it. She jumped and raked at the air around me and clawed at my arm. The Faith Har­vesters had all gone quiet. Bethany hissed, “Hope, hope, hope it bites you!” I looked up into the shim­mer­ing, fire-lit glass as if I was look­ing into the di­a­mond heart of the uni­verse. It was ob­vi­ous as any­thing that the black widow had died. That I should’ve saved her days ago. That her death was my fault. That one day I’d be join­ing her and I’d have to tell her that I wasn’t good enough to save her. Or strong enough. Or wise enough. That I had to be­gin again—to learn to crawl again.

“Got my pe­riod,” I whis­pered. I couldn’t look at Donna. I couldn’t see the hurt on her face part of me wanted her to feel.

“What did she say?” some­one asked. Maybe Jerry.

“Her pe­riod some­thing!” Bethany yelled. “Now give my spi­der back!”

I looked one last time at the mo­tion­less black widow and threw the jar into the fire.

There was si­lence for the long­est time. A still­ness. Even Bethany didn’t move.

“I’m bleed­ing,” I said in the loud­est, clear­est voice I could. “Down there.”

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