Miss Etta handed me the tiny coffin, no bigger than a shoebox. It was made of pine and painted blue. She had bought it to hold her recipe cards in the kitchen.
Johnny came over last night to take the hinges off of it, and nail the top down. Miss Etta didn’t want me to watch. She guided me back to the guest room she had graciously offered me when I was pushed out by my own family. I waited until I could no longer hear her shuffled steps and then snuck back downstairs. I looked on quietly, hiding in the hallway. I watched Miss Etta gently lift the wrapped bundle that was my baby and place it in the box. As Etta held the lid, Johnny tapped a thin, shiny nail into each corner.
After bringing us to the cemetery, Miss Etta told Johnny to drive around for a while. This was woman’s work, she said, and I was relieved when he finally agreed to go. I’d kept it together as he paraded me around, his illegitimate woman. Four months was a long time to keep a secret, but I didn’t want to lose him. Only Miss Etta, his auntie and caretaker, had done the math to realize what was wrong. A man can be tricked, but never an old woman.
Miss Etta led me over to the far corner of the field through a maze of inlaid stones. We stood in a small patch of weeds. Miss Etta huffed as lowered to her knees, pulling up her flowered house dress to keep it off the grass. I watched as she pulled up plants to reveal a small unmarked stone. She reached up for my arm, her long, dark fingers wrapping around my wrist. Her rounded fingernails left crescent imprints on my inner arm like a bite.
“When I first came to live here,” she started, “I was still young enough to be carrying a child. I was on the run from a man who cursed me with his seed. Maybe it was because I was so resentful that God took that baby from me. He was born too early, with the cord wrapped around him tight. He left this world before he had of breath of its air. I buried my son right here, hidden from everyone else. I never gave him a name.”
Miss Etta pulled out the small garden shovel she carried with her for this trip. She dug right next to the stone of her own child, sharp stabs clinking against the stones that surfaced with the dirt. She kept her eyes down, but her face was pulled tight at the center, furrowed between the brow and lips.
“I know you’re like me,” she said. She stuck the pointed end of the shovel in the ground and left it. “You were carrying something past, weren’t you?”
That man. He placed one hand on my collarbone, close enough to my neck to make me twitch. “Don’t move,” he said, his voice heavy. I felt his calloused thumb brush the skin above my underwear. I pushed at his chest, a solid wall of body. When I jabbed with my knee, he pinned my leg down, his shin to my thigh. He unbuckled his pants. The inside of my eyelids went white with the first rush of pain. Sweat dropped from his chin to the bridge of my nose, sliding backwards along my forehead. I touched my face, the only part that still felt connected to me. I held my hands there, the last part left of me: two eyes, a nose, cheekbones, lips.
Miss Etta took my hand. “Sometimes a death is a freedom, sad as it may be.”
Before standing up, she kissed her fingertips and lightly touched the spot where her no-name baby lay. She sighed at the creaking of her joints, and motioned towards the hole in ground.
“Now, it’s for you to finish,” she said, walking back towards the front gate.
I knelt down, patting the dirt inside the grave as if to check its sturdiness. As I placed the box among the dirt, I felt a slice of pain in my abdomen, an echo of the cramps that pulled the baby out of me.
When the pain came, I saw waves of color as I closed my eyes and cringed: lines of orange and red; sometimes a shock of blue. Miss Etta's voice was a chant, half to me, half to God. Have mercy, Hold on. She rolled up her sleeves and asked me to lean back so she could look. She checked me with careful fingers, prodding where I was swollen and tender.
My voice struggled. “I’m not ready.”
“We’re never ready,” she said, “I figure this is going to happen fast.”
The next pain I had, she said Push and I did, both from instinct and instruction. It was only minutes but the pain passed like hours. It slipped out of me in a big rush of water and dark blood. I looked down even though it seemed like I wasn’t supposed to. I could just barely make out its still webbed fingers and toes forming beneath the translucent skin. I couldn’t hear a breath. No cry, no movement. She told me I had to push again, to release everything in me that the baby had been swimming in. I sat there watching my life pool at my feet. I was dead.
I was alive. Grains of dirt packed under my fingernails as I pressed down and down and down again, packing it hard and perfect. The box, my baby, now invisible. I wondered why freedom felt so heavy – wasn’t it supposed to feel like flying? I found a few heavy stones to mark the place, some dandelions in lieu of flowers.
Miss Etta was waiting for me.
Jamie L. Moore is the author of the novella, Our Small Faces, and received her MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is an English Professor and the Literary and Workshops Director for the Mixed Remixed Festival. When there is leftover time, she writes for Book Riot, her blog Mixed Reader, and works at being a big sister to six younger siblings. She is currently at work on a novel.
Photo credit: CameraRAW Photography