Inside each of us is a dark reservoir. Sleeping, the old woman curls around the baby, the tight shell of a walnut. The cabin contains a still-life: brown table and chairs, wool mittens hung to dry, earthenware dishes, bread, lentil soup. When the baby wakes, the old woman takes her to the fire and rubs her hands in its warmth. They sing—alto, babble, bah bah of sheep through the wall.
One day, the old woman finds two ancient quarters behind the rocking chair cushions and decides to buy a treat in town. Patiently she waits for the snow to stop falling, and when it does, she straps snowshoes to her feet and the baby to her back and walks out into the blue afternoon. Her brown cloak moves quietly between the trees, from shadow to light and back again, and a red woolen cap sits on the baby's head, attracting birds that come to peck at it, looking for something to eat. It has been so cold for so long that no icicles hang from the branches and the streams are silent, rivulets and waterfalls frozen into a decadence of ice; it is so cold now that the baby's breath freezes and furs immediately on her scarf. Where the sun shines, the snow is blinding, but under the trees, blue deepens to a darkness bordering on gray. On Main Street, the only store is out of brownies, cookies, chocolate bars, and cocoa powder—and just as well for the old woman had no milk to make it with. Instead, the merchant offers the old woman Nutella, just arrived from France, a spread of chocolate and hazelnuts which, he assures her, will turn any slice of toast into dessert, and she takes it, her mouth already watering and the baby already reaching over her shoulder for the jar.
On the way home, trees creak, ice cracks, a chickadee whistles. She's been warned she might run into bandits. Instead, she points out the tracks of a snowshoe hare, a polar wolf, and a rare white squirrel. At home, the baby licks Nutella off her finger and scrapes with her tiny sharp teeth. From the bed, they watch flame shadows until they fall asleep, sweetness still on their tongues.
Will plot necessitate that something more happen than a frog emerging from a pond? In the forest, moss vibrates and new leaves haze the trees. A girl clutches the week's groceries in a string bag and watches the platoon marching through town. She is old enough to love but young enough to get in trouble. Instead of turning home, she follows them, and for an instant the soldier at the end of the line turns to look at her.
Across the street, another woman leans against her porch railing and watches too, resting one hand on her belly to feel the quickening. Could the baby's father be the one with a blond scruffy beard or the one with dark hair and blue eyes or him, the quick one with his loose loping stride—because she's been with all of them. For lunch, she eats fresh peas with mint, a lettuce wedge with green goddess dressing, and she can't be still. She sits down, slurps soup, gets up again, peers out the window, scoops peas and spears lettuce leaves and chews bread while she straightens the newspaper, takes out the trash, and opens her mail with a paring knife. Soon the men will march into a foreign city, a big city with an opera house, museums devoted to art and commerce, a symphony hall, a botanical garden where every plant is labeled with its Latin name, and they will walk among those wonders, bumping shoulders and telling jokes. (Pause.) She knows she is a green-eyed monster; inside her the baby swims laps, spirals, turns and returns between her heart and her pubic bone, between her liver and her spleen.
That night the soldiers camp by a stream, and the girl beds down nearby. Did the young soldier come to her and touch her lip with just one finger? More? In the morning, she hears nothing: the army is gone. From the top of the rise, she sees the platoon below, readying the howitzers.
In the late afternoon, showers briefly ease the torpor. The melons have ripened too quickly—first split, then rot. Foolishly, she planted the vegetable patch out in the field. Far from the house, the sun there is relentless. And she hates lugging water from the spigot in the yellow plastic bucket.
She much prefers lying in the hammock strung between the black locust trees, attempting to count the individual leaflets along each stem. Watching the grass grow? her mother asks when she comes out, bringing a wet glass of lemonade and slices of watermelon, and swinging the hammock when she sits down. The mother eyes her daughter's belly: she's been watching it grow all summer, although she has yet to say anything—at least anything direct—for despite this respite at home, her daughter is old enough and wealthy enough to take care of herself and a child. Should the girl's father still have been alive, he would have ranted, screeched blame, threatened disinheritance or a shotgun marriage, and her daughter would have laughed and asked how many of the possible fathers she should marry. Her mother would like to know for sure whether her daughter is pregnant, although she has to admit to herself that she's already pretty darn sure. She would like to know if her daughter knows the sex of the child, because she would like to start planning (names, sweater and cap colors other than sunflower or pale green, nursery decorations, childcare plans, baby food brands, cloth diapers vs. disposables, etc.) but she dares not ask. Instead, they clatter ice cubes and eat melon, wiping the juice from their cheeks with the backs of their hands.
Down in the forest, preteen girls run between the trees. Their bare white torsos shine, and their golden hair flags out behind them. A hand grabs a trunk. Then a whoop of delight rings back up the hill. Aspens shake their leaves.
Over the mountain, gray clouds mask the orange moon. The wind brings down a whoosh of leaves. Holly berries and prickly buckeye conkers blot the forest floor. Last sun meets first frost. In her chest, the woman rages, in her heart.
Or is it in her head, a constant screaming command to her and to her mother lying bedridden in the cottage? She's been lying there for months, her breath growing shallower and shallower, until now she just gurgles and spits, and yet she seems unaware of this. Her teeth are relaxed, allowing her lips to take on the shape of a smile, and her eyes are soft, and her fingers have uncurled. Rage! her daughter mouths silently, aware all the while of the visiting white-hatted nurse in the background, straightening a table cloth or washing a cup or readying a hypodermic with morphine. The woman wants her mother to rage and not to rage, to shout and to be silent, to toss and tumble and throw her blankets off and to do the crossword puzzle with one pencil in her hand and another tucked behind her ear, as she sits up in a silvery satin bedjacket against dove gray pillows. If she doesn't rage it's easier to care for her once the nurse leaves for the day, but if she does rage it means she's not going to die yet. Even if she never followed her mother's advice, she now misses her mother's mentorship: the appraising glance, the plucking fingers, the deft instruction, the withering sigh, the shining example.
Is it possible to describe silence without using a metaphor? Not silence clamps down or settles. The baby holds something in her fist. What is it? Between her fingers, light streams out.
The note on the piece is a bit messy and should read as follows: This story is one of many experiments I've been doing lately using traditional verse forms to write fiction, seeing what I can learn about the form by writing in it and seeing how using that form effects the content. Other stories have used the sonnet, the sestina, and the villanelle, but this one is a haiku cycle.