Storyglossia Issue 11, January 2006.

"Little Animals?"

by Staci Leigh O'Brien


"That's what I said." The grandmother of six was standing in front of May. "It's like there are little animals running all through my bloodstream." She shivered slightly, her earrings like small, high-pitched bells—the irritating kind.

May looked down at grandma's shoes—expensive shoes, standing on expensive carpeting. Two-year-old Jesus Sanchez—arms straight out—was running in sweeping circles through the living room, dining room, kitchen, pantry, into the dining room again, and past this well-dressed, well-meaning, grandmother who was explaining—during only the second home visit for the first foster child she had ever taken—why May needed to find him a different home.

"But this is his sixth home this year."

"I can't help that." Grandma uncrossed her arms and pushed the heel of one hand in May's direction. She kept the hand low, as though she didn't want May to see—didn't want her self to see—that her right hand was pushing Jesus away.

"Because of . . . the little animals."

The grandmother pursed her lips. "If you must latch on to that." Behind her, Jesus lifted her skirt, threw himself on the floor between her legs, screamed all he had into the bell-shaped hollow the muslin made, then looked hard up into the void, waiting for an answer. His things were already packed and sitting on the porch. It was a perfect blue-sky day—perfect except for May strapping Jesus into his carseat to drive him back to her office again.

"I'm sorry," the grandmother said now that the battle was won. May did not reassure.

She knew Jesus was difficult. For one thing, he liked to scream. His eyes could be silent, locked walls, then light would pierce them—sharp as the sun off a hand-held mirror—and he would scream, bellow really, deep and full as the slow toll of a bell too large for his two-year-old chest to carry.

He was roaring now. He hated the car. Each of his foster parents had tried: Tootsie Rolls, chocolate milk, books that sang and beeped and whirred when you pushed the buttons—but Jesus knew enough about his world to know what cars meant.

In May's world, they meant adjusting rearview mirrors away from teenage mothers who sometimes stood alone, sometimes were held up by boys with caps bent over their eyes, boys who had sworn out statements they would do nothing to help. May made it a practice not to watch as she pulled away, but Jesus' mother—just a girl—was always with her, standing in silence on a cold cement stoop that had no railing to hold.

May found them sleeping on a mattress in the basement, her new boyfriend more full of rage than even the one before. It was over quickly, then Jesus was in the car, his cries long, lonely notes; his mother a pillar of earth and stone in the rearview mirror.

May told herself she was saving Jesus from his fate—from having his face plastered over the news, abused, dead. As it was, he had made the news anyway. Maria had turned eighteen, found a job flipping pizzas, and begun fighting to get Jesus back. The south side was plastered with posters shrieking "Bring Jesus Home." The Welfare Warriors were marching on television with large signs, posters of him on his mother's lap, his eyes glossy black, receding into the picture as though they were stones in a river bed calling you into the water.

And now May's sixth attempt at a home more stable and sane than Maria's had ended because this stable, sane grandmother of six was convinced little animals were "running all through her bloodstream."

May flinched as a small shoe hit her head. Jesus had found something to throw. This was one of his favorite things to do—as was biting, kicking, scratching, climbing out of his crib at 3:00 a.m. to pour flour, sugar, or Tupperware filled with pineapple chunks onto the floor. He was not an easy child.

The only thing he hated more than the car was the building May worked in. She had to carry him in on her hip, facing forward, so his punches wouldn't fall square on her face.

A quiet "no" was all her boss could manage when she saw them.

May walked straight past and into the toy room—a small walk-in closet they had painted yellow and stuffed with used toys, sketching a false window on one wall that no one had found time to paint. She sat on the floor and set Jesus down. He ran to the corner, defeated. This was how he spent his time with May, staring at her from a distance, his eyes daggers—no, rocks—thrown in her direction.

Those eyes were closed when she found them. His mother was spooning him on a mattress in that basement, and that moment—before the boy who wasn't the father and had no interest in being one came charging down, before Maria began to scream, before May noticed the paraphernalia scattered on the floor—that moment when they were both asleep was the one that haunted May: two chests rising and falling together as though he had never been born at all, had never been expelled from the womb or thrust into the world, rising and falling as though they were still connected, mother and child, a sacred original cord pulsing between them.

In the silence, now, of Jesus' glare, May wished her eyes had never been opened.


Copyright©2006 Staci Leigh O'Brien