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Winter Worrier
by Penny Perry

          The toaster, a square, silver mirror, shoots back my reflection:  brown hair frames wet eyes, a pink bathrobe  -- so old the once fluffy material has worn thin -- hangs on rounded shoulders that look too small to belong to a woman. Yet, Jay calls me his sleeping princess.

          Out the window, across the canyon, the white horse grazes.  Maybe I can make it through today.

          Rory juices the last of our oranges. His freckled arms poke out of short sleeves. New school pants already inch above the tops of his sneakers. "Aren't you supposed to stay in bed?"

          I don't answer. Under my bathrobe, my breasts are full, my stomach swollen. I still feel pregnant. But no baby moves.

          Pregnant women have clocks ticking inside them. Mine said this baby is eighteen and a half weeks old  -- I'll be pregnant through Halloween, Christmas. After Valentine's Day, four weeks into Rory's second semester in high school, when our almonds are in bloom, my baby will be born.

          Someone has stolen my clock.

          Last night, when Jay and I came home from the Emergency Room, Rory asked, "What was the baby like?"

          The baby had toes, fingers, a lovely head. "He was perfect," I said.

          "Then why, why did you lose him?"

          The doctors said that in a second trimester death, they usually can't find out why a fetus died. I told Rory, "Maybe I wasn't perfect." Now, I turn from him to my coffee. Perched halfway up a canyon, our barn-red house makes me feel as if I were in a ship's cabin, sailing over rocks and the tops of live oak trees. Patches of dark green avocado groves are stitched into brown hills. Across the ravine, settled into dusty cliffs, more live oaks grow near a green cottage where the white horse nibbles on the stubble of dried grass.

          Rory pours juice into a Thermos. His backpack, heavy with books, makes him look ready for a hike. "Take your jacket," I tell him. His forehead wrinkles, carrot colored eyebrows meet. This is his father's frown. It scolds me for expecting the worst. I thought I had divorced that frown. "Mom, it is ninety degrees."

          It's also the last week in September. We have no rain in summer, hardly any autumn. Wind off the desert can push a September day past one hundred degrees. The next day can drop to the fifties if the wind blows in from the ocean. This morning's breeze carries the smell of salt. I say, "Winter will be here before you know it."

          This winter will not bring the promised child.

          This is the first year Rory has to ride a bus to school, to the town eight miles away. The bus driver, our local beekeeper, is a nice man but his wife is bossy. What if angered by her bullying, he drives too fast up a mountain road? Jacket in hand, Rory plants a kiss on my forehead. I'm crying. I hide my eyes in a sleeve.

          "Are you going to be all right?" he asks.

          "No."

          Weak kneed, feet still heavy with retained water, I follow him to the door. A giant spider web hangs from eaves and catches dew. After last night, I want a web, a net to keep Rory and Jay safe. There is no net big enough. "I'll meet the bus this afternoon."

          He frowns, but keeps silent. Some part of him must not like

that frown either. He touches my arm. Then he is gone, a bright spot growing smaller in the dusty waves of heat rising from our road. Across the canyon, the white horse stands beneath a live oak, the shadows turning her coat the color of pumpkins.

                         #

          The first evening without my baby, the storm clouds I had expected do not come. A cold wind sneaks up our canyon. After splitting logs and carrying wood into the family room to feed our cast iron stove, my light-haired son and his dark-haired stepfather sit together on the couch, under the afghan my grandmother crocheted. They watch the evening news. The police still haven't caught the freeway sniper.

          I sit in my grandmother's rocker and look for clouds. If it rains, the groves won't need me. Work-days, I drive a pick up truck over hills, turn on sprinklers, weed around spitters, mend broken irrigation lines. I shake my head at the TV. "Freeway snipers."

          "Mom!" Rory's eyebrows connect. He moves closer to Jay.

          Jay snaps off the news. His lips are as thin as two fishing lines. "Would you like tea?"

          I shake my head, smack my lips. The familiar sound makes me shiver. My grandmother's worried smacks trailed after me when I was young. "How can God let babies die?" I ask no one in particular, no one at all.

          Jay studies me as if I were a broken washing machine. He didn't feel our son move inside him. I rock.

          Babbie questioned God as if He were right there in her living room, snacking on Ritz crackers. She said there were too many crazy people in the world. Some of them drank. One of them drove a Plymouth too fast and killed her daughter. My mother.

          I stop rocking, study the clear, night sky. Has losing my baby caused me to become like Babbie, a woman with a kerchief on her head and winter in her heart? Babbie. Gray curls tucked in a bun at the top of her head, eyes the color of pond ice, lips as pink as a girl's. My beautiful grandmother. You had no clock. You lived each day as if it could never take you a step away from the past. Am I becoming a winter worrier too? Will I hold my hand over my mouth when the doorbell rings?

           Jay takes a cigarette from the satin-lined pocket of his smoking jacket. The jacket used to belong to his father, who died of lung cancer. Last night, Jay started smoking again.

          Like a pilot getting ready for a flight, he leads Rory to the joy-sticks to play Alladin. Half an hour ago, the two of them weren't so friendly. Arms hanging useless at his sides, like rusted tools, Rory watched his stepfather swing the ax.

          "Why doesn't he want to learn what I can teach him?" Jay asked, nursing a glass of his best scotch in the privacy of our bedroom two nights ago. "Someday he'll have a family of his own."

          Jay's baby kicked inside me. I had the courage to say, "Rory will do what his father and grandfather did. Buy logs already cut and call in electricians for emergencies." I told Jay that if Rory patched the roof with him, he would feel disloyal to his own father -- the man who changed his diapers and told him stories in the dark.

          Jay wrapped the kimono he bought in Hong Kong more tightly

around his big shoulders and bit into scotch-flavored ice. "But I've done things my father never dreamed of doing. He never traveled." He stared at the drink as if his father's face were there.                "He liked his recliner and his English mysteries. He'd think we were crazy for trying to be self-sufficient with an avocado grove."

           Freshly split pine hisses as it burns. The fire glows in the wood stove. I rock in Babbie's chair and sigh for Jay. No wonder he longs for a dark-haired child to work along side him and tap and hammer and plumb. Our lost baby might have been that child.

          Alladin dies on the TV screen. Rory shrugs. "Time for a hot chocolate break, anyway."

          Jay has taught him how to win and when to accept defeat. Last night, in his summer uniform, -- sneakers, shorts, and T-shirt -- Rory sat on my bed and answered homework questions. When my pains started, I told him I had indigestion. The pains got worse. The intervals between them were all too regular. I wanted to keep lying to myself, but my son tucked his hair under his Yankee baseball cap and said, "When you're losing, you have to admit it." He called the doctor. Waiting for Jay to get back from the store, I said, "The last time I went through this, you were born." Rory smiled his wonderful smile. "I guess I was worth it."

          Jay takes a turn at the joy stick. He is the luckiest man I've ever met. And the most skilled. Until last night, I thought he led a charmed life. He guides Alladin from steep cliff to steep cliff. His still face breaks into a smile. In a minute he'll be chuckling to himself.

I rub my sagging, empty stomach. Babbie's rocker squeaks. "How can you play when we lost our baby just twenty four hours ago?"

          He looks at me as if I have an answer. Something -- tears? steal the light from his eyes. He bows his head, buries work-worn hands in satin pockets.

          On the way out the door last night, I grabbed the first coat on the rack. Worn brown suede sat heavy on my shoulders. The coat had belonged to Jay's father and in better days he had worn it on snowy evenings in New Jersey. In the Emergency Room, Jay looked at the coat, at me, and at the baby's thin legs and bloody feet. I knew what he was thinking: dead father, dead son. He clutched my hand as if afraid that if he let go he would lose me too. He may not have carried our baby inside him, but his loss is as great as mine.

          "I'm sorry," I whisper into his neck.

          In our family room that smells of pine and eucalyptus, we hold each other like children lost in the woods.

                           #

          October afternoons come and leave quickly. The canyon is in shadow. After work, I park the truck at the Larabee's green cottage.

          Up close, the white horse's mane looks dusty. Her front legs bow. Through a hole in the fence, I feed her an apple. Her big yellow teeth just miss biting my finger. She lifts her head and waits for more food. "Tomorrow," I say. I surprise myself. Touching her makes me look forward to tomorrow.

          I aim the pick-up down the rutted road. Ambling toward a patch of new grass, the mare looks like a horse in a painting. A moment later, she disappears behind a stand of live oaks.

 

                        #

          Halloween dawn. Fog blows against my face, a dog barks, a rooster crows. Mourning doves call our canyon song.

          Near the green cottage, the horse whinnies. Tail high, head tilted forward as if greeting the sun breaking through the fog, she gallops on the canyon's rim.

          I kneel to the wet ground. What could survive under this blanket of weeds? "Think of your baby as a seed that didn't sprout," the doctor told me. Since the baby died, I haven't been able to face my pregnant lady's crop of melons and squash that promised to be exuberant when ripe.

          This morning, Rory reminded me to pick a pumpkin. Every Halloween I carve a Jack O' Lantern. I told him there would be nothing to harvest but weeds. He stared at me and said, "I'm here. Don't I count?"

          His question stung me. Every spring, Babbie made me leave my library books to help dig a garden. "Why can trees come back to life, but my daughter can't?" Her wrinkled hands reached for pink and white peach blossoms. Skating pond eyes filled with tears. I never had the courage to ask: "Don't I count? Don't I make the world better?" Now, I know how she felt.

          The horse whinnies again.

          I tug at stubborn roots. Maybe I can still find a pumpkin under the matted growth. Weak morning sun warms my back. Shriveled vines and a small rotted cantaloupe lie under a clump of weeds. The porcelain-colored stems of devil grass cut my fingers. I should get my gloves. I should give up. Nothing but weeds could live here.

          Another whinny.

          I pull one last handful of prickly strands. A patch of orange shows through the top of a pumpkin. It's probably rotten on the bottom. My fingers slide under. Firm. Whole. With a few twists, I snap the stem and pluck the pumpkin free.

                 #

          A candle lights the smiling Jack O' Lantern. Too old for a "regular costume," Rory has used my mascara to paint dark eyebrows and a pirate's mustache. At the door with a shopping bag, he waits for Jay to grin, and present the pillowcase that has the words, "Parent's Treats." Tonight, Jay only smiles and returns to his crossword puzzles.

          "Only go to friend's houses," I say. "Don't eat anything until I've checked it."

          The pirate flashes a cocky smile. "Don't worry, Mom."

          But I do worry. I rock in Babbie's chair and smack my lips until Rory, home again, clicks the gate shut.

          "Some kids broke the Larabee's front window," he says.

          Just like a Larabee to leave the house unprotected. Is the mare safe under a Hunter's Moon that seems to bring out the worst in everyone?

                          #

          I stopped liking Halloween when I was a child. Babbie splurged on Hershey bars. Her house with the climbing roses was the first stop for neighborhood kids. Halloween she opened the door with anticipation instead of dread. She poured candies into bags and said, "The treat's all mine."

          One Halloween, she had to take me to the Emergency Room. When we got home, eggs smeared her windows. "How can children do such a thing?" She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders. Under the street lamp, her eyes widened. "In our village, in Russia, a landowner told his ten year old son to throw bricks through our window while the father set our house on fire."

          I could see that boy smiling as his bricks shattered the glass. I couldn't sleep, thinking of him. In the morning, Babbie washed her windows. "This is America. A better place." She tossed egg peels in her compost. "You have to have hope. You have to hold up an umbrella in the snow."

          Next year, her porch light blazed its welcome. I stayed in my room, and covered my ears to shut out the doorbell's ring.

          "Let's go inside before anything else happens," I tell Rory.

          He stops at the front steps. "Those boys tried to egg me. They may have followed me home." He studies the road shadowed by trees and lit by the moon. "Mrs. Rivers made pies from our pumpkins." At the house on the hill above us, the porch light shines. Waiting. "I'll call her and tell her I can't come."

          I want to herd him into our house and bolt the door. He steps closer to me. In another minute he'll be hiding in my skirt the way he did when he was little. He'll be afraid of the dark. He'll be like me. An owl, the same dusty white as the mare, flies above us. I push the flashlight into his hand. "Mrs. Rivers is expecting you."

                   #

          Two more days until Thanksgiving. Like a child first visiting ponies, I pat stiff hairs on the mare's head. "She looks fat," I tell Mr. Larabee. "Maybe I gave her too many apples."

          "Fat?" He grins and shakes his head. His arm is in a sling. He once mistook a rattler for a garden snake and tried to shoo it into a box. I can wait a long time to hear how he broke his arm.  "She's in foal." His uninjured hand works a screwdriver under the hood of his truck. "You can save your apples. We're boarding her while the wife and me crew a tuna boat the next few months."

          They can't take the mare away just because they've got another get-rich scheme. Last winter they ran a lodge in the mountains and came back with stories of avalanches. "You told me I could board her if you left again," I say.

          "My cousin likes having Pearl up to his place. Calms his own mare down."

          Pearl. I stroke her long head. Could it really have been Mr. Larabee who found the perfect name for her or did she once belong to someone else? Why can't she belong to me? "But I wouldn't charge you anything," I tell him.

          Small eyes look amused. "You ever mid-wife a horse?"

          First with my fingertips, then with my whole hand, I massage Pearl's bulging side. "I could call a vet when the time comes."

          "Vets cost money." He bends deeper to the truck engine. Something pings in there. He mutters a curse.

          Pearl burrows her head into my flannel shirt. She smells of the sage that grows on our hills. My voice shakes. "Maybe I could buy her."

          "Not for sale."

          I put my arms around her neck, rest my face in the dust-colored mane. "When will she be back?"

          "Depends on the catch."

          I rub Pearl's belly, try to feel the new life. "You'll be fine," I tell her. The sage, the warm winter sun, the horse nudging me, all make me almost believe my words.

          Mr. Larabee is smiling at me. "Might be we can bring you back some fish. You ever tasted Dolphin?"

          My stomach turns. He laughs. "One of those, huh? Well, they swim into the nets, no way not to catch them." He goes back to his engine. "Can't change the way it is, now can you?"

                      #

          Jay says without snow it doesn't feel like Christmas. We trim the tree. Outside the big window, palms glisten in the sun, lizards do their push ups on the rocks, a yucca blooms. I remind him that the first Christmas took place in the desert.

          He sighs, gazes across the ravine. "All those oranges rotting. If the Larabees stayed home and picked their trees they might not be so broke." Like shut eyelids, shades block sun from the windows of the green cottage. "They're moving, you know."

          Moving? They can't. Every morning I look for Pearl. "They sold the house?"

          "Some family from L.A. wants it."

          A string of popcorn slides from my hand. "He said they'd be back."

          Jay rubs my neck. "I'm sorry."

          "Why do I lose everything I love?"

          Where he stops touching me, my neck feels hollow. His eyes get dark. "You still have me. We can try to have another baby."

          I sit in Babbie's ladder-back chair. Mahogany rails press into me. "Too much can go wrong. I can't take another loss."

          He pulls me out of the chair. "We're young. Healthy. We have a good chance."

          Three years ago he pointed his pencil at the sloping hill beyond the oaks. "We'll plant the grove there, and the garden over by that shed."  I promised the man who could make the future seem as real as a library book or the dirt road we were standing on, "We'll give Rory a brother or sister."

          I look out at the canyon that is already losing sun on this, the shortest day of the year. Jay is still talking, but I don't want to hear the hope in his voice. Why is it easier to accept a world with snipers, disappearing horses, and lost babies than it is to nestle against my husband's chest and picture the baby he tells me we can have?

                         #

          Christmas morning. I have dreamt a strange dream. Instead of sitting in my kitchen and looking for the horse, I sit in the green cottage and stare back across the canyon. Our-barn red house, with its peaked roof and cathedral window, looks crisp in morning light. A white horse grazes at the edge of my garden. By the woodpile, Babbie in her kerchief and bedroom slippers rocks in her rocker. A baby sleeps in her lap. Babbie holds an umbrella to protect herself and our lost baby from the snow.

          Jay shakes my shoulder. "We're waiting."

          For a moment, I'm torn between my family and my dream. Then I remember I'll never see Pearl again. In the living room, Christmas tree lights lose some of their color to the sun blazing through the arched window. In last year's robe, so short I can't believe it once fit him, Rory bends to a pile of presents.

          #

          Outside my kitchen, almond trees bloom. Spring grass greens our hills. On a day like this, perhaps even this day, my baby was to have been born.

          A truck stops at the Larabee's. I press my face against window glass. It's their cinnamon-colored pick up.

          By the time Rory steps into the kitchen, I've changed into jeans and a sweatshirt. Before he can say good morning, I grab my mug and run out the door.

          Steep cliffs and a rocky ravine tangled with thick trees and poison oak are obstacles to quick travel. Coffee splashing, boot heels thudding on dust, then tapping asphalt, then pounding dust again, I hurry past gardens, cut through farmer's yards and across the country road that circles the canyon.

          The truck is gone. Heads of dying geraniums droop by the side of the house. Sun streams through open windows. A wool jacket, expensive, and showing no signs of wear, dangles from the porch railing.

          Pearl is not in the meadow or orchard. How can the Larabees be back and the horse not be here? Did something happen to her?

          I climb creaking porch steps and knock on the door. No answer. Leaving my mug on the railing, I shade my eyes and look across the canyon. Our house does sail on the cliff. Something white -- Rory's baseball uniform -- and a swatch of blue -- my new robe, Jay's present to me -- flap on the line. Almond blossoms tremble on slender branches. In my garden, snow peas climb a trellis. Our woodpile is small and neat. Our house, garden, and grove, lovely as they are, look lonelier than they did in my Christmas dream.

          I squint and try to put my dead grandmother and baby into the picture, but the morning sun and crisp spring colors won't let me lie. Empty womb, empty house, empty grove. Only Jay, now guiding a mower through tall grass, his dark hair catching the light, his suede coat flapping in the breeze, gives life to the meadow. He is a patch of brown moving through a waving sea of green.

          "You can't bring back what's gone," Babbie said after we had seen a movie about a widower who lost his home and traveled across country with his cat. She tucked a scarf under the collar of my winter coat. "You have to love what you have." Though she had lost her husband and daughter, though she found the world a perilous place, she took care of me. I will always miss her. I will always mourn the loss of my child.

          The hum of our mower blows across the ravine. Nearer, a towhee whistles. I imagine the ghostly cry of a horse. But the sound comes again. And again.

          Afraid I'm dreaming, I run through the orchard to a barb wire fence near live oaks by a pond. Pearl stands in the shelter of trees, safe from the wind. I stroke her mane. Tail swishing proudly, she licks her foal, then prods it to the water.

          After a moment, I walk up the hill.

          Mr. Larabee is at the rear gate of his truck, pulling out lumber. "How do you like the new addition?"

          "I'm so glad Pearl's all right."

          "Of course she's all right." He whistles as he lifts a new ax and heads for his wood pile. "Why wouldn't she be?"

          Only a Larabee doesn't worry about what can go wrong.

          Before going home, I lean on the porch rail and sip the last of my coffee. The sun makes me squint. I look at the barn-red house, the almond blossoms, the man mowing. It's easy to imagine a dark-haired child trailing after his father in the new spring grass and tugging on the hem of the old suede coat.                   

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Penny Perry is a  six time Pushcart nominee in fiction and poetry, Perry is the author of an honorable mention chapbook "What Women Do" for Earth's Daughters, and a winner for the west coast poets for Persimmon Magazine. She is a co-author of the chapbook "Maiden, Mother, Crone."  Garden Oak Press published her poetry collection "Santa Monica Disposal and Salvage" in 2012. She was a screenwriting fellow at AFI. PBS funded and screened a film she wrote from her own short story.  Her first novel "Selling Pencils and Charlie" was published by Garden Oak Press in 2021