On the Path to Hope–Second Place Winner
Days after the orphanage, at three, she sat on my lap, head against heart, drifted to sleep. Her hand went to her mouth, two fingers in, while other hand rose, pinched her face. Two pink fingers, index and thumb, with miniature nails, forming pincers to break the flesh, slightly, so she’d feel quick, sharp jabs, just enough to distract from the past.
A baby in a crib without food, light, touch. Smell of feces. Crying. Mother gone, back, gone. A brother bouncing around, sister lying beside. This can happen for only five months before a child catches pneumonia, gets an earache, will die in five days.
First day of first grade, I brush her hair. Brown, shimmering. Thick. As rubber tines go through, strands pull back. Earlobe. Tiny red cracks decorate edge, like lightning bolts of remembrance.
“I know school can be scary, try not to pinch, okay?”
Her eyes: dark brown, solid. The lashes long, expression alert, every day, expectant. At my mercy. They swell with water, nose expands, lip puffs. She cries fat tears. Failure, she thinks.
I need motherhood training. “Don’t worry, I love you.”
How lucky her sister got sick. Doctor saw that dark attic. Social worker wrote “concentration camp baby.”
In hospital for five weeks. Given medicine, fed food, held, loved. She slept, oh, how I can imagine, she slept. An ambulance brought her to the nuns. Her brother, sister already there.
It’s Thanksgiving. Tucked in. Her nose is upturned like an elf’s. We talk, adjust blankets. Find Pinky to pull her string. Her cheeks, littered with red cracks. I explain capillaries but don’t want to overwhelm. I’m thinking, When? Someone’s with her all day.
“But I get bored at night.” I kiss her. “Mama? I want to use my middle name.”
In playroom: toys, bright rugs, women led songs. Children danced, she stumbled. Her mouth was open, pinafore soaked with drool. Hair in pigtails, bands of yellow flowers. I was shocked, excited, worried. Her body was soft. Limbs, bendable. How will I keep her from harm?
Spring. She runs down the driveway, waving a note. Dibels score: 100. I don’t know Dibels but know it’s great. Backpack belt drags on ground, I open door. Shoes fling off at stairs. Where they go. Lunchbox on toaster. Where it goes.
With a wet towel, I wipe her forehead, eyes, mouth, neck, beneath hair where we all sweat.
“Look, Mama.” Her finger presses each cheek, back and forth, touch, switch, touch, switch, touch, switch. “I don’t pinch anymore.”
Her cheeks, uninterrupted skin. No craggy marks, inflamed flesh. It’s pure youth.
We high-five. She sits at the kitchen table, opens her folder to Writing sheet. I set out nuts, cookie. She nibbles. Her pencil shifts quickly. She scratches letters, veers off lines, absorbed in thought, then asks how to spell “bike,” “playground,” “home,” and all the other words she can think of to tell the story of her brief, extraordinary life.
Karen K. Hugg is a writer, gardener, and mother. She earned an MFA from Goddard College and has published in Roots: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, Specs, Hip Mama, Opium, and others. She works by day as a gardener and lives with her family near Seattle, Washington.