Joanne moved like a ghost, her bare feet padding silently on the floor. She was wearing her long blue kaftan. It hung around her body like smoke. She sat down across from Naomi with specks of dried paint in her hair.
David whistled over the stove. He put a thick pat of butter on every pancake and piled them up in three stacks. Joanne stared down at her plate and watched the butter melt and pool in an oily moat around the pancakes. Naomi took a bite to be brave, to show her it was okay, but as she chewed she felt the pancakes stick gluey to the back of her throat. Naomi didn’t want to hurt David’s feelings so she swallowed. The pancake slid heavy into her belly.
How’s that? David said.
Naomi smiled and drank her whole glass of orange juice. She smacked her lips and said, Ahh. Like she had seen kids do in breakfast commercials on TV.
Eat up, he said. You’re going to need energy for today.
Naomi was doing Treat Sales for Clovers. They were raising money for a summer camping trip to Lake Wanatutu. Naomi didn’t like Clovers. It was David’s idea. He said Naomi was really shy, so much like Joanne, and it would be good to work on making friends. David wanted Naomi to go on the camping trip and do horseback riding and rock climbing. He wanted her to wear her hair in braids and skip rocks on the lake like the girls in the brochure. The way the girls smiled made Naomi’s stomach pinch. Their teeth were too white, and sharp at the edges like shattered seashells.
David was taking time off work because Joanne was sick. All Naomi wanted was to lift up her kaftan, so she could press face against her mother’s belly like she did when she was little. She was different from other moms. She was an artist. Naomi loved to sit with her up in her attic studio; she loved to watch her mother work, sculpting colour over canvas with the shiny palette knife. Joanne smelled like warm soap and lavender and made Naomi feel safe.
Say good luck to Naomi, David said.
She looked up at her daughter and tried to smile.
Have fun, little chick.
Her neck was soft and pink like a baby bird Naomi had seen dead in the backyard once. Their house backed onto the woods and the bird had fallen out of his nest. Naomi didn’t like how small he was, how she’d almost stepped on him by accident; he was easily missed in the wet grass. Up close his neck was broken, twisted at an impossible angle. His eyes were still.
David loaded the Treats into the car in big brown boxes. Naomi had a clipboard with the Clovers Treat Pitch and she was supposed to say it at every door. They drove a couple of streets over and parked on the corner. They got out of the car and Naomi tugged her beret down tight over her forehead.
Are you ready?
Don’t chew your lip. It’s going to go great.
Naomi turned to face the first house. The driveway was long. It twisted up to the front door. Clouds hung low in the sky overhead. Naomi looked back at David and he flashed her a thumbs up. He looked tired.
She started up the driveway. Her legs felt light and wobbly. She held her clipboard in front of her, took two steps up the porch and reached out to ring the bell. There were footsteps in the front hall and a lady answered the door. She was wearing shiny black leggings and a tight zip up sweater. She had a high, bouncy ponytail and long fingers.
Hello, she said. She smiled down at Naomi.
The lady looked past Naomi and saw David down at the curb. She gave a little wave over Naomi’s head. Her fingers were thin. They never stopped moving. Like a spider getting ready to strike.
Are you selling cookies, honey? the lady prompted.
She lifted the clipboard so she could read the Pitch. She tried to take a deep breath but it caught and shuddered in her chest.
Oh, you’re shy, she said.
Naomi felt everything get tight like her head was filling with air.
Say your thing, honey, the lady said and leaned against the frame of the door. She crossed her arms, drumming her fingers against her elbow.
Just say your little thing and I’ll buy a box.
We have Lays, Oreos –
Perfect, Oreos are perfect. Just one box, honey.
Naomi went down to the curb and David gave her a box of Oreos out of the trunk of the car.
Way to go, he said, beaming.
Naomi walked the cookies back up to the lady. She handed Naomi five dollars, still leaning in the doorway with one hip popped out to the side.
You’ll get better with practice, she said.
Naomi walked down from the house and felt a lump, round like a pebble, rising in her throat. She heard the door shut behind her. She walked back to the car with her chin down but David saw anyway.
What’s wrong? he said. Are you crying? Don’t cry. Are you afraid? Hey, hey, it’s okay. This is supposed to be fun.
Naomi shook her head.
I want Mom, she said.
When they got back to the house David put the Treat Packs in the garage. For next time, he said.
Inside everything was quiet. David called for Joanne but there was no answer. Joanne was in bed. Her legs rose under the blankets like a low hill. David sat beside her, reached into the sheets and scooped her up by the armpits. She slumped forward as if all the air had been punched out of her. Her hands hovered and bent sharply at the wrist like a marionette’s.
David said Jo, what do you want to eat? Won’t you eat something today? Joanne whispered something and hung there for a moment, her chin against her chest, her wrists like broken wings and then she kicked her legs out. The bed shook and David held her up against the headboard.
Shh, he said. It’s okay. We can go to the hospital. Do you want to go to the hospital?
Joanne turned her eyes up and saw Naomi at the door. No, no, I don’t want her to see me like this.
David glanced back over his shoulder at the door.
Just five minutes, Naomi, he said.
She went back downstairs into the garage. The boxes of Treats were spread out on the floor. Naomi knelt down beside a box of Cracker Jacks. She picked at one end until the tape came up and she pulled it off in one long, angry strip. There were bags inside with red and white labels, with pictures of sailor boys dressed in blue and white and little dogs at their feet. Fifty of them. Too many for David to notice if any went missing. And if there were fewer Treats Naomi could sell them faster. Then she could stay home with Joanne. They could forget about Clovers and the hospital.
Naomi stuffed five Cracker Jack bags up her shirt and went back into the house. She paused and waited for the creak of the floor, the swish of David’s socks on the carpeted stairs. But she could hear her parents, their voices muffled, speaking in the bedroom upstairs. David’s low encouragements and Joanne’s anguished replies.
Naomi wanted to be with her mother. When Naomi was little and she had a nightmare she would cry out for Joanne. She always came, even when Naomi’s voice got caught in her throat and all she could do was choke on little bits of air. Joanne always came and carried Naomi into the big bed. Naomi slept with her back up against Joanne’s chest, feeling the rise and fall of her stomach, the steady breath warm on her neck. David held her hand until she wasn’t afraid anymore. Things were safe, just the three of them, and Naomi could fall asleep.
Naomi held her hands over her belly to hold the Cracker Jacks in place. She tiptoed through the kitchen and out the back door. Joanne’s clogs were outside by the doormat on the deck. Naomi slipped them on. They were big and she had to move slowly. With every step her feet slipped forward so her toes touched the end.
Naomi went across the deck onto the grass. It was slippery and damp. It was grey and Naomi was a bit cold but not so much that she had to turn back. There was a little hole in the back fence where the wood had gone rotten. Naomi could fit through it if she squatted down and went sideways. David kept meaning to fix it.
Naomi passed through the fence into the woods. She knew not to go too far because the ground would get very steep and give way to the creek. She walked forward twenty steps, her feet slipping forward in the clogs. Naomi found a good spot where the ground went soft and she stopped and bent over. The bags crunched against her skin. She picked up a stick and pushed it into the ground. The mud loosened easily.
She lifted her sweater and dumped the bags on the ground. She squatted down and started to dig out a space, cupping the mud away with her hands. She arranged the Cracker Jacks in the hole and pushed the ground over top of them, covering the sailor boy and his dog. She placed a few sticks and rocks over the top to disguise the grave and make it blend in with the rest of the woods. Naomi stood up and rubbed her hands off down the front of her sweater, turned and walked back towards the house.
That night David fell asleep on the couch with the TV on, flickering blue across the family room. Naomi stayed up with Joanne in the studio. It was in the attic and had a high-sloped ceiling that met in a peak over a big triangular window. It looked out over the backyard and ravine. There was an easel in front of the window, a table for mixing paint and a chest of art supplies. Tubes of paint and brushes were scattered across the floor. Joanne was working on the walls, painting blackbirds. They started small, springing out of a crack in the baseboard. And then they grew, stretching across the walls with pointed wings and sharp talons. Naomi sat cross-legged in the middle of the room as her mother spread black paint thick over the birds. She moved slowly, her thin shoulders peeking out of the top of her kaftan.
I don’t want to do Clovers, Naomi said.
Joanne set her brush down and sat on the floor with Naomi.
Maybe you can stay home with me instead, Joanne said.
Okay, Naomi said.
Joanne held her arms out and Naomi crawled onto her lap. Her legs hung out over Joanne’s thigh and her feet rested on the floor. Joanne rocked Naomi back and forth and tilted her head back to look up at the birds. Joanne shivered and Naomi felt something shift. Like she was the mother and Joanne was the kid.
I’m afraid today, Joanne said.
I’ll keep you safe, Naomi said.
Naomi felt the shift deep down inside of her, the hard truth of it swelling like a rock. Naomi loved her mother stubbornly. She loved her mother from her stomach. From the low part of her belly where people could grow babies if they wanted to. Joanne’s black birds circled over them. They weren’t afraid. Naomi was with Joanne and they would always take care of each other.
She never went back to Clovers. David didn’t make her. They had Oreos and Lays and Cracker Jacks for months. Naomi found white and red wrappers on the floor in the studio. Joanne started to eat David’s pancakes at breakfast. The ground thawed and froze again and it snowed in the middle of April. She made her parents go outside and they pushed a snowman together in the backyard. They caught snowflakes on their tongues and Joanne laughed for the first in forever. She didn’t have to go to the hospital.
For a little while, they were happy. Sometimes Naomi would sneak out into the ravine to check on her Cracker Jacks. A tiny part of her wondered if they would make a tree, but every time she went to check, there was nothing. She would shake her head and tell herself to stop being such a baby. Cracker Jacks couldn’t grow into trees. And Naomi thought that was okay. Some things worked best when they were left in deep places.
David painted over the blackbirds on the walls. Summer came and Naomi stayed home with her parents. Every night after David and Joanne kissed her to sleep, Naomi whispered, Please don’t make my mommy sick, into the dark. She stayed up, her eyes wide, watching the black forest outside her window.
Christine Ottoni is a writer and poet based in Toronto. She attended the University of Toronto and the Humber School for Writers where she was mentored by Miriam Toews and Michelle Berry. A regular contributor to YP.ca, the media branch of the Yellow Pages, she is hard at work on her first collection of short stories with support from the Toronto Arts Council.