Outside, the last of the leaves were barely holding out against the bitter cold that all their show of flame couldn’t warm. Below, their fallen brothers lay, slowly giving up their golds and reds, and accepting their dull russeted fate with equanimity. But their sleep was soon interrupted by the scrapes of rakes and shovels, and then the grinding and metallic explosion of an excavator breaking ground.
The workmen moved with almost frantic speed. The shovels tore into the ground as if they feared any delay would risk the revelation of some unmentionable secret. The foreman had promised the city council the crew could repair every water line in the Grout Hill area before winter, and they could have if the summer hadn’t been so perfect. Now the men were paying for those easy days. It was going to be hard, but they were going to meet that deadline.
Amy had been crying off and on since 4:30 that morning. Sarah had tried everything. She didn’t need a diaper, it was dry… or maybe she did. She hated to see that purple face and hear the frantic, accusing tone in the cries. She laid Amy down on the changing pad and quickly, expertly pulled off the Velcro straps, slid off the old diaper, barely damp, wiped the little bottom–which she couldn’t help cooing over even as Amy’s screams reached a new pitch–slipped on the new diaper and fastened the Velcro straps. The whole action took under a minute. As she snapped the 12 buttons that make up the lower-half of any baby outfit, she spoke softly. “Amy, baby, it’s ok. Ok, ok, you’re gonna be fine…” And Amy’s cries continued.
As Sarah lifted her little girl, outside the excavator began its attack. The ground shook as the hydraulic arm punched through the chilled topsoil across from Sarah’s house. A pot, hanging in its place by the stove, rattled in time with the excavator’s every move. The deep roar of the truck’s engine hit the eardrums like the exaggerated downbeat of a car stereo designed to impress rather than complement. And all the while, Amy’s cries grew more frantic.
Sarah paced the dining room and kitchen, bouncing Amy up and down, desperately trying to think of something that she could do for her little girl. Could she be gassy? Was she hungry? No she just had a bottle. But Amy’s arched back and frantic rooting seemed like they could only mean hunger. Holding her daughter in one arm, Sarah located a bottle and began to fill it from the tap. Outside the shocks and roar seemed to become more frantic. Sarah lifted the bottle to check the water level. She had poured exactly 8oz. After so many bottles, she was able to estimate this amount without thinking. But as the looked, she noticed the red tinge in the water. She held the bottle to the light and saw a cloud of red flakes slowly descending to form a dark patch at the bottom. Amy’s cries passed from full-throated anger to the shrieking of a trapped eaglet.
Still holding Amy, carefully guarding her head from hitting the doorframe, Sarah used her free arm to open the pantry and rummage for the jug of water she had stored for emergencies. There it was in the back, under the big pots she only used for Thanksgiving and Easter. It crossed her mind for a moment that the baby would be safe if she set her down for a moment while she extracted the bulky jug, but the thought of that pitiful baby lying writhing on the cold linoleum made her stick to her original plan. As Amy writhed and arched her back with renewed vigor, her mother writhed and twisted her back, reached, lost, located, grasped the handle and finally dragged the jug out into the kitchen where she could get a firm grip and lift the jug to the counter.
A new noise had begun outside. A saw was cutting through the water main, adding a piercing soprano to the bass of the now idling excavator.
Sarah pulled off the jug’s plastic safety, steadying the jug with her other hand as she held the struggling baby against her with her elbow and forearm. Amy’s screaming was now so sharp that it seemed to pass above the level of human hearing, passing by the ears and attacking the head itself. Somehow, Sarah managed to pop off the cap and was just lifting the jug when Amy arched her back with such force that her mother’s grip gave way. Sarah instinctively dropped the jug and grasped desperately at her falling daughter. She heard a dull, liquid crack, then the rush of liquid. Her heart beat a deep and growing roar that threatened to burst her ear drums. She felt the earth move beneath her and from her core came the scream of an eagle whose nest has been overturned.
But in her right hand, Sarah grasped her little daughter’s left ankle. She dangled, still screaming, awkward but safe. Sarah lowered her onto the linoleum, paying no attention to the growing pool of water. She let go of the control that had meticulously cared for her daughter despite their anger and mutual resentment. And mother and daughter lay side by side, their bodies heaving, as anger, resentment, fear, terror, control all flowed from their eyes in salted streams that joined the pure stream spreading from the broken jug. The cool water soaked up through their clothes, washing away all memory of the day. Exhaustion finally quieted them and they simply floated in that pure pool.
Outside, a pool tinged with red spread below the severed water main. Then the workmen, working at the same frantic pace that marked this stage of the project, were fitting the new segment, welding it into place, filling in the topsoil and packing it down. As the sun set, the last leaves came to rest on the freshly overturned earth.
Copyright 2015, Bill Herreid