My sister and I, nestled in our bunks, pray with Maman that God will keep us safe in our new home. Maman closes the door, and through paper-thin walls I hear her praying with the boys.
I cannot sleep, so I creep down the hall. The full moon’s glow through the kitchen window illuminates Maman. She sits at the table, rubbing her eyes as she smokes. As though touched by a live wire, she flinches when she sees me in the dark. “Vas te recoucher,” she soothes, but I stand like a sturdy elm in our shelterbelt.
Maman and I drag the heavy chesterfield across the rust carpet. Papa has threatened to come pay her back some night, but we don’t know when. Once we’ve barricaded the splintered wooden door, she leads me back to my bunk. Maman gently tucks the pink floral comforter around my shoulders.
I imagine the Virgin Mary, her dark hair cascading like Maman’s and arms splayed wide, keeping me safe. Because sometimes, in my nightmares Papa holds a small silver gun. When the bullet cracks, I wake unable to breathe. Unable to sleep, I picture Maman in the blue floral bridesmaid’s gown that hangs under clear plastic at the back of her closet until I drift into dreams.
In the morning, dark crescent moons bloom beneath Maman’s puffy red eyes. She wipes eraser crumbs from the red gingham vinyl tablecloth and empties the overflowing ashtray. I collect her stack of torn cigarette packs, bills and receipts before I set the table. As I pull out the cereal boxes, I wonder why Maman tells us her subject has always been Math. On the backs of her scrap paper, Maman’s slanted numbers are scrawled in tidy columns, but the calculations never add up.
From my top bunk, I watch dirty snowdrifts thaw to slush. Beyond the frayed beige curtain, vacant lots fill with oily mud, fuzzy mauve crocuses and clumps of quack grass. This year, I will not witness the eruption of pussy toes in the pasture. I will not catch the whiff of sage perfuming the air. My heart flits against my ribs as I yearn to see knock-kneed calves suckling as their mother’s soft muzzles munch on porcupine grass.
In the trailer court, trees unfurl their budded leaves, coaxing me to climb down from my window perch. Outside, manure and hay waft downwind from the farm up the highway, and this place finally smells like home. I walk the gravel road toward the ruckus in the park. My brother and his friends let me tag along to check their gopher traps while the other girls stay behind to play with their dollies on the rusty merry-go-round.
By the time the final school bell rings in June the blazing heat melts old memories from my mind. Maman drives us to our first camping trip. By the side of the road, in a large green field a solitary tree towers. Despite the strong wind, it stands straight and stretches into the sky. In the rear-view mirror, sturdy oak limbs perform a farewell dance.
At the campsite, we pitch the canvas tent Maman ordered from the Sears catalogue. After a day at the beach, we sizzle hotdogs and roast marshmallows over smoldering briquettes. When the stars twinkle, we crawl into the shadow glow of kerosene lamp against orange tent and play Old Maid. Maman tells us stories from the olden days, from before she met Papa. Her teeth flash as she laughs. Her eyes flicker and dance like the stars.
Before summer seeps into a new school year, Papa takes us to the farm, which is no longer home. I do not want to go, but the lawyer signed a paper that says I must. In the truck’s rear-view, Maman waves her arms like the oak. When Papa turns the corner, she disappears.