Noy Holland

What Begins with Bird
(Northwestern University Press, October 2005)

I start the bulbs in the window the day she flies in from Mississippi. I stand them up in the bowls of gravel that I scraped from the driveway with a spoon—hours ago, when the ground still showed. Now the yard is a blank of snow. The crocuses are buried and broken.

The bulbs have gone spongy or peeling and split from sitting in paper sacks too long. I should have planted them in October, picked a hole in the pebbly ground. But back then I had things to do yet, things I could do, and I can’t now. So I force hyacinth on the sill.

I sit among the brocade chairs and wait for the smallest changes: his lazy eye to open, a sound at the name in my mouth. We have named the boy after the city we succumbed to marriage in, in a storm as freaky as this one: wind from the north for Easter, the sky a pink velour. Our trees are as black as the shadows of trees, pressed flat in this light and moaning. Reno, Reno, Reno—without thinking, when we thought of his name, what a trial they are, those r’s. Weno, we know. But we didn’t know it then.

My sister will call the boy something else, no doubt, as soon as she has seen him, not sweetpea, nor pumpkin (I do) but by her weekly sweetheart’s name, or somebody lost or dead. The die off early, turn up their toes in babbling sleep, down where my sister lives. She will arrive with photographs, mangled faces, folded into her pockets.

Or it could be the snow has stopped her, turned her back for home. We call it that, all of us: home. It is a family habit, this turning away, a lie we began her lifetime ago, gathered over her, immobile: a lump, for months, in her crib.

My sister lives in an institution. The place is built in the dusky bottomland of the Mississippi River, among stands of trifling hardwoods overrun by the south’s Great Vine; even in winter, the trees bow their heads to that gray roving appetite, a great hunger—acres consumed by the pestilence of kudzu.

Nothing grows as quickly here. The ivy is slow and civil. Our trees bend their heads for hours, a week, and then toss off their burdens of snow. This can’t last. A day of melt and the goose will be back to jab at the grassy patches.

Only the rabbit, in the surprise of cold, keeps to her routine: brazen creature, fixed as stone, at the foot of the leaky birdbath. Frost has split the concrete bowl, parted the fluted column. These rotten New England winters. But everything else is calm: our one raccoon, the fat goose in our yard most mornings.

I tap at the glass. Not a flutter. Even the rabbit won’t scare. She will keep to her place at the birdbath while night comes and day again, waiting—who can say for what? Instructions, I suppose, a murmur, a nudge, from her sack of eggs.

Small as he is, my boy trumpets, stiffens his back a little. These are my instructions. But there is nothing I know to do for him, nothing to do but cluck and drift and wait here for my sister. We pass such liquid, unmoored days—no sleep—with only outside the seeping beech, the rising tide to mark time by. Love, love. I want nothing.

My boy draws up again inside me, nights, small body rocked shut, sweet thrill—to feel him pitch and tumble. The sea at night is yellow cream, a tongue from the waking shore.

Too soon—to be asked to speak, to rise and walk. They are slow, my tribe, by habit, to come (it is a birth, after all, not a funeral) but even so this is too soon for me. I am still jerking awake at night and dressing for the hospital: the chalky, sudden sky, the gray road, salted, gritty, slush hissing from our wheels. Still bleeding, the stuff dropping from me in great gobs.

I say none of this. What use? We are found out. There is no saying no to my sister. I hear her grinding her teeth over the phone, heels dug in, and her father, ours, our father has bought her the ticket to come. So we ready. I start the bulbs in the window—something more to watch for; I buy wrapped chocolate eggs. My turn—it has been decided, and there is no getting loose from my father, either, even from afar.

He calls ahead to say to me, “They say she’s been funny lately.”


“I don’t know.”

We move on to weather, because this is also our habit; I am given the nationwide report before he asks about my son.

“Our Mr. Sun,” he says, when he has embellished the heat in the Middle West with stories of rotting bodies, the elderly done in by stroke in the tenements of Chicago. This is when he seems to remember—that he ought to ask, to have already asked. We are both quiet, quietly breathing, and then my father plunges ahead.

“So how’s the baby? Baby okay?” he says.

“Yes, yes—“ he must be, though I wake him as so many mothers do to be certain he is still breathing. He grins in his sleep—these are dreams, I say—and startles. An arm flaps up. The lid of one eye heaves open. Dear lump. I could round his pointy head, work the flat patch where he sleeps on it, the notched resilient plates, the bone still spongy as the bulbs I found to force in the gloom this morning. But I don’t; it won’t last; I leave him be.

I leave the plastic band on my wrist where Nurse Jane wrote my name—how strange, that you cannot at first even pick out your own from all the other babies. Mine has eleven dimples—dimples instead of knuckles and one on each side of his nose; in the fat of his leg is a pucker the color of pencil lead, a stitch drawn deep and tightly and tied off at the bone.

I knew him in the dark this way. I felt for the stitch in the dark of my room where the big windows looked at the Merrimack, the viscid fenced canal; I watched school children pasting up paper eggs and tousling in the hall and, once, one boy swung his lace-ups up to catch in the branch of a tree. They dropped, and the other boys spat and hooted. I kept it dark inside my room for him so that when they brought him to me I knew him by his smell. He smelled of lanolin, clean and old and animal and bitter to me then and now and I knew him then as I do now by the feel of the stitch in his leg, not a stitch, nothing that will heal.

There is this, and the plastic band I will leave on his wrist until Sister has come and gone, my name, we had not named him yet, and there are too the ways in me to say as I do mine:

The cut in me, seeping still, the grinning stapled mouth: proof that he has been here, proof that he is gone. Here is where they found him, red and bawling, lifted him plumply out.

My belly skin a lizard’s, shrunk to shimmering and scale.

And here—this dimming streak, gray as ash, that marks me thatch to sternum; this line drawn through my navel that darkened as we grew. We grew, we grew.

I would have carried him in me for years.

Northwestern University Press, October 2005
5 1/2 x 8 1/2, 167 pp.
Trade Paper; ISBN 1-57366-125-2 / $ 15.95


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