Emily and Big-Headed Anna by Stephanie Dickinson

Emily and Big-Headed Anna

Stephanie Dickinson

Emily and Big-Headed Anna
1927. There in the dawn after milking I discover Anna, my husband’s sister, bent over the hay manger. Her big head’s covered by a hat the color of a song sparrow or a cloud of road dust. Mouth ajar as if a pasture gate’s left open. Her apron’s tied on backwards and its pockets bulge with cider apples she’s scratched from the orchard’s still frozen mulch to feed the calf—sold months ago to pay taxes. The barn is empty, but for the one cow let out to breathe the March air and stare into the distance. Strands of hair unravel from her braid. She is tickling her face with hay. “Anna,” I say. Sometimes I sense her behind me suckling her thumb, standing in my shadow, or lowering her head between the stanchions, waiting for me to draw the milking stool under and squeeze the bucket between my knees; her big nostrils drawn to the remnants of sour milk and the pale mash of bluegrass. Other times, I find her holding her head in her hands or resting its heaviness (like a chest of useless silverware smothered in burgundy felt) on a hay bale as if her neck could no longer shoulder its weight. “Anna,” I say again and it will be dusk. The apples she’s placed in the hay manger. “For him,” she answers, waiting for the calf’s brown eyes the size of our front room doorknobs but shinier. The barn light half-erased as if muted by burlap, its particles scattered like coarse rye flour from a grindstone. “Have you eaten?” I see the ghost of my husband’s father, a huge man with white hair and weedy black mustache, soft with animals and women, yet working both hard. He trembles in death, like a wick in a fading kerosene lantern. Is he sorry he pushed his wife, a fine-boned girl from Prague, to milk the cow no matter how big her belly? And the cow tired of the human thumb and forefinger, dragging the milk endlessly from her, wishing her teats tasted of bitter black marigolds not sweet, lifted her hoof, and kicked his wife in the stomach. His first-born’s head so large it jammed the birth canal. Her head, the circumference of a calf’s; Anna had to be roped and pulled out. The father ghost doesn’t see in her eyes what the nuthatches do when they come to her. Half-singing she will talk to them. Purple finches and chickadees call her name. My children share the bed with her in cold winters. They claim she moos in her sleep. Under a full moon and in green pastures they’ve seen her become four-legged and graze, only her hat staying the same. I threaten to wash their mouths out with soap for telling untruths. I know Anna chases snowflakes and will open her mouth to swallow them. She likes sheds and coops, the tumbling fence, the ditch under the mulberry bush. Summers, big-headed Anna befriends the neighbor’s cows in their field of long grasses. Summers, she wanders off to herd them up the hill, the lead cow with her followers, the soft brown of her eyes like overripe fruits, drawing the spirits. “Anna,” I say, “it’s time to go in.” Slowly without looking, she raises her head like a bucket of milk filled to the rim and hands me an apple.

Emily and the Whooping Cough

1899. Two long tables and in front of each of us sits a board to write on with charcoal. Cold in the one-room school, but where I am near the potbellied stove—is hot. I do not mind wearing long underwear that curl over the top of my brother’s boots or undergarments like dresser drawers. Thick stockings, and then a grey dress like a dirty overcast sky, and finally my apron. The lessons warm me. The nearness of books. I like my apron’s two pockets. Another slam of the outhouse door. Recess over. The Moses children crowd around me. Wilma. Francesca. Fern. And the boys. Mathias, Wilbur. They smell like wet feathers. Like cornmeal. I give them my pork cracklings and rye bread. I give them my molasses. Their lunch bucket is empty. They cough. Three days later only Fern and Mathias warm themselves at the stove. Mathias, the oldest Moses’ boy, blinks his white eyelashes like mulberry stems, and tells me there’s kinkcough at his house. His mother asks for help, knows I’ve already had the cough. I follow them to the hovel where nine live in two rooms. A horse neighs at our approach, a grey shadow whose ribs show through. He nudges the brittled hazelbrush with his muzzle. The chicken coop knocked to the ground and what looks like a one-winged hen chips her stone beak against the stonier ground. The last of the sun dies like a fiery frozen shooting star at the fenceline. Inside, I hear the sound of tosse canina. I know it from my brother’s Latin. A cough wild and cruel like a dog. The dim of the room lit by one wick kerosene lantern. Three in one bed. The babies together, their tiny fists clenched, heads like soft blue potatoes. The mother bends over the robe-slung bed, mopping the red stems of blood running from the noses of Francesca and Wilma and Wilbur. The woman’s another grey shadow like the horse, her chin juts, all jawbone bared. Her fingers are worked to the bone. My heart kicks. The unseen being has come, bearing his foul lilacs. The half-eaten apple of a nosebleed. The chalice of vomited milk. I tell myself that Providence has a plan for each of us, the stars will burn like lion heads and archers, the tails of comets will trail celestial wild flowers across the blackness. This night five Moses children die. The whooping cough that strangles as if an unclean God has placed a hoop around your neck. A crowing cock that wracks and chokes. I hold my friends after they have set out into peaceful death. The true music of a soul is quiet filled with a hundred prayers and I close my eyes. The mother is rocking and will not take comfort, tearing the hair from her head. Do not look for miracles and signs, John Hus told his followers before they burned him at the stake. Yet I look for signs everywhere. Is this proof that He does not exist, I think, but do not let the words pass my lips. The oldest boy Mathias will fight in the Great War, come home from the Argonne Forest and shoot himself. Only Fern is left to carry the misshapen Moses name into the next generation.

Emily and the Snapping Turtle
1905. There are places serpents live—cold-blooded beings who eat their young, hidden in mud and palmetto where pale beige eggs incubate. I was eighteen and a day wed when we entered the river glade remembered only in dead men’s dreams. The brackish water barely moved, and smelled of cow slobber. I did not yet understand what my husband fished for, or why he brought me here on our honeymoon, that would last an afternoon, his hair shining like the black sun that dusted the overhang of bass trees. I clutched the handle of the picnic basket as he baited his hook with the nightcrawler that wiggled in the hot green air. I pitied it, far from the moist dark soil of its home, and tasted its panic. My groom cast the worm into the river where his line caught on snags—drowned branches still trying to swim. The sun bore down on my high-collared blouse, its lace chaffing my neck, covering the love bite. Last night I lay beside him in nothing but my skin. Touching his trousers’ thickness, his hair. The line jerked and when my husband reeled in, a head like a muddy tablespoon emerged, and then the whip of a long bony tail. The snapping turtle hissed, clutched at a floating stump, determined to hold itself back from the bank with its hind legs. Everything tried to speak at once: the willow lashing the brown water with its wands; the buzzing flies; the matchstick gnats. The snapper spoke loudest: it howled. I knew from my eight grades of education his kind had been on the earth since God created the dinosaurs, that they were almost immortal. My husband’s face flushed, reddening, as he fought to kidnap the turtle, pull it from the river’s belly. I saw the creature’s eyes, the sun and moon alive in them at the same time, his great beak chopping at the air, maw like a lily. “John,” I said softly, “I’ve made us a picnic lunch.” My meaning—do not hurt this being who lives in the nocturnal mud, thinking the same thoughts as his ancestors 4 million years ago. Dragging it onto land, my husband knelt, his knee on the rocky beast, and with his knife cut off the snapper’s head. The legs twitched trying to free themselves, the head alone, jaw still trying to snap. And then my beloved used his knife to separate the top and bottom shell like the bark of a honey locust, severing the flesh that joined the two together. For hours the meat twitched, it would not lie quiet. Later I understood the gray glaze in the stew kettle. A watery grave—shells where bits of meat lingered. Soup, the color of slow-moving water. I tasted the heart and entrails, how it rested and fed, how it hung in the water. What did my husband want of the turtle—its leisure to lie in marshes and bogs, the safety of the house it carried on its back, or its life everlasting?

Emily and the Missionary

1904. Leaves overgrow them, drooping oily black from branches. The orchard’s fragrance thickening, bliss. The missionary stands before her. Back from Africa to ask for Emily’s hand. Too late. She is seventeen and already promised. He’s put fruit in her lap—apples and peaches. Her eyes, the soft blue of trough water. Prettiest girl in the church choir. He wears short pants, rumpled jacket. His hair recedes from his forehead, his tie is dull maroon. Nigeria and Cameroon. Bellies pouched from eating locust stew. Maiduguri, Dwo, Zinder, Jos. Cities with unbelievable distance between them. Hard to pronounce, the names grunt in the mouth. He tells her of deserts, of rivers that are roads, cold heat, flies. Here towns sprout every three miles from rolling alfalfas fields. Here it is always corn weather, humidity, bark secreting sap and black ants, worms coring apples. She wants to hear more about such barrenness. Her father milks seven cows morning and night. The missionary lifts his handkerchief to his lips. She smells mosquitoes on his fingers, a dank puddle of shimmering, a skim of standing water, thick like the cooked-off froth of asparagus. Mosquitoes lift the steamy skin from their puddles to his cheek. His teeth chatter. He wonders if he has brought cholera with him from the village where he preaches the new life in Christ. 30 dead. Women and children mostly. Cholera drinks you from the inside out. She wants to go there. Elizabethville in the Congo. Madagascar, a French colony, an island called Zululand. Wood-burning boats. Savanna, wet and dry seasons. All her imaginings take her there. Hovering over the white of the sanctuary air, the pale flesh throats, the heavy bloodless scent of altar peonies, she yearns toward something darker—ebony sweat, snake-like vines bearing showy half-eaten flowers, fat as a starving child’s face.

Emily and the Earthworm
1893. Knowing it was the day when my father would put down the plow and pick up his fishing pole, we entered the field, walking past the cow patties, thistle-thorned, grey and flaking, past the windmill and lye kettle where he dug with his three-pronged shovel. Thrusting it into the ground, he forked up long segmented creatures. The earthworms interrupted from their tunneling, their eating and digesting and opening the loam for roots and brethren insects. We took our precious cargo—these eyeless creatures—to the river’s far side, where the current twisted, and drowned trees lay in their peeling skins. There my father, the gentlemen farmer, set down his bucket. Around us the stooped hired hands fished for carp and bluegills; they’d come to the stagnant soil-colored river, as if to an unpretty girl with tangled hair who would open her blouse. It was to her they journeyed for an afternoon free of the harness. Who could understand the river better than these men, a lifetime spent humbling themselves before the dirt, the smell of lower animals on their hands? They wanted something of the unknowingness, the mysterious bottom that cranes hunted with their dagger. My father, all thick black hair, and soft blue cap tugged over his white hair, let me guard his bucket of earthworms. I watched them curl around his fingers as he fed them to the hook and cast them into the river. The wrong element for this, the most important creature on the planet—the soil maker. My father, my idol, I saw forever adding to the cellar’s bounty, planter and reaper of the fields, builder of milk houses, the sweating cold rocks of its walls, keeper of the cows, the surly one drinking deep from the puddles that shone because they must be fragranced with violets. After my father waded into the river I reached into the bucket and let the worms wiggle into my hand. Decades later my pilot son was shot down over the Himalayas flying food to China. An Iowa boy suspended above 14,000 foot ridges and crags. Parachuting out of his dying plane, he was caught by a tree. Entangled in his chute he hung in the icy darkness for days. I remembered my father’s anger when he discovered I’d dug into the riverbank and made a tunnel for the night crawlers to find their way home into the earth. Like the peasant who cut my son down from the tree and fed him a meal of slugs. All that he had.


© Stephanie Dickinson

Stephanie DickinsonStephanie Dickinson was raised on an Iowa farm and now lives in New York City. Her novel Half Girl and her novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil. Other works include the short story collections Road of Five Churches and Port Authority Orchids. Her story “A Lynching in Stereoscope” was reprinted in Best American Nonrequired Reading and “Dalloway and Lucky Seven” and “Love City” in New Stories from the South. In October 2013 New Michigan Press released her Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg. A new novel, Love Highway, based on the 2006 Jennifer Moore murder, will be out in 2015.