Sheila McCrory takes ballet lessons with the other children in her kindergarten class. Her mother and father are pleased. It is a rare domestic joy for them, and they smile from the kitchen window. They watch Sheila as she waits for the bus, leaping from one position to another. A large backpack filled with crayons bounces on her back.
The dance teacher, Ms. Parvati, sees potential in their child. “Such poise,” Ms. Parvati says, “Such strength.”
It is true, but like most young ballerinas, Sheila has difficulty knowing what to do with her hands. She is self conscious about them, keeps them close to her body like the wings of a bat.
“Up!” Ms. Parvati shouts. “Up! The position of the arms shows the strength of the dancer!”
Ms. Parvati is quite taken with Sheila’s several hands. She encourages the child to raise her arms, fan them out around her like a halo, pinch her fingers together in the dainty shape of cobra heads. Sheila bites her lip in fierce concentration, and her arms sway like palm fronds, eight of them all together.
“Yes!” Ms. Parvati shouts. “Yes!”
Sheila likes school. She is a good student, though she tends to break pencils, and the teacher is afraid to let her use the scissors. At nap time she has her own braided rug on which to sleep, a perfect square of stillness. At art time Sheila draws flying snakes, rivers of stiff, peaked waves, mountains and clouds that flow into one another. Her art is like a promise that the world could be a better place if only you could touch one vermillion wave, one bright diamond on the serpent’s back.
At the end of the day when it is time to go home, Sheila clutches her backpack in her hands, confused by the straps and pockets, the zipper, the inexplicable toggles. She
is her little girl self, all turned around in the moment, not an artist or a dancer. Her crayons spill to the floor. Everything needs her attention, and Sheila has tears in her eyes. This happens every day, this moment of leaving when the safe haven breaks open, spits Sheila out onto the waiting bus with its hard seats and pinching windows. No one knows how undone Sheila is by the end of the day, except perhaps the teacher, who patiently returns the crayons to the cardboard box.
Mother is waiting for her when she gets home. They have grapes and Saltine crackers in the kitchen as a wet snow begins to fall. Mother spreads paper across the dining room table. Sheila gets her crayons, broken and soiled from the backpack, and climbs up to kneel on the table. Her hands arc back and forth. Colored lines swoop down and cover the paper like a braided rug.
The cold day has clung to her, made her sleepy. It is dark, and Father tucks her into bed, folds her arms over the sheets. Sheila lets him do this. He makes his fingers into puppets on the wall: the shadow shape of a duck waddling across the bedspread, the wolf bounding after. The hunter’s gun – double barreled, thumb cocked – last of all. Sheila twists her own fingers to form the story, following Father’s Peter and the Wolf in fuller detail.
In the end the wolf dies, the light is turned off, and Sheila lies in the dark thinking how wrong it is that those who are eaten should leap unhurt from the belly of the wolf once an old man’s axe has slit it open. Sheila knows what happens when you eat things: the teeth go to work and turn everything to mush mixed with spit. She tosses in bed, tangling her limbs in the sheets as she thinks.
In among the covers, her comfort, Mr. Wiggles, pokes his red elephant nose. He reminds her that the wolf is a shadow, the duck too. Mr. Wiggles does not appreciate the drama of fear. Mr. Wiggles enjoys a good joke, and with his prodigious memory he recalls every one he has ever heard. He whispers them to Sheila: What do ducks have with soup? Quackers! What do you get when you cross a rabbit and a snake? A jump rope! Soon they are giggling beneath the covers.
Sheila wakes later. She can hear their voices in the living room, rising like heat. Mother’s voice rages, a sea storm, tearing up and crashing against the walls of the room in a pounding, smoke-orange beat. Father’s anger is subtle – words seep from him, drip from twisted lips. They drop like poison and pool at his feet, soaking into the carpet, there to spread for days.
Sheila is sitting on the stairs watching them. She clings to the railings, her hands wrapped around the posts. She begins to rock her body, pushing and pulling until the length of the banister buckles. Her parents look up from the room they have savaged – lamps crying in the corners, chairs cowering. They look up in alarm at the banister falling and say, “Baby, what’s wrong? You should be in bed.”
Hours pass. Sheila and Mr. Wiggles are beneath the sheets. She is trapped like a bird. Outside, the trees are making slapping sounds, beating against the glass. She tiptoes down the hall.
Father and Mother sleep in the same bed, he with his arms thrown wide, battle- ready, she with the sheets twisted in her fists. They frown, and Sheila frowns back, knowing.
Down the stairs she hugs the wall, avoids the lie of the railing.
In the kitchen she opens drawers and takes things she needs.
In the dark, the house is a looming stranger. Behind her, a late-night gibbous moon glows high above the trees. It is a moon to drink by, the bottle emptying shot by shot in the darkest hours. Sheila has never seen this moon before. She is, after all, only six years old. But in some ancient, unnamed part of her, she understands the power of its waning light, knows how it marks time and the death of things. She shakes the box of matches in her hand, listens to the sticks rattle in their cage.
The flames grow quickly; Sheila has skill at setting fire to things, and lapping tongues pour skyward. She begins throwing rocks at her parents’ window. She shatters the glass and hears the startled noises of their fear. Father’s face appears at the broken window, and for a moment they are frozen, staring across the moonlit yard at one another.
The fire is burning correctly, and there is still time for them to hurry down the broken stairs and not get burned. Otherwise, they will have to jump from the window.
“Daddy.” Sheila says.
His face disappears.
When the firemen come, the house is ablaze. Mother and Father shiver in their clothes. They whimper like puppies as everything they know turns to smoke. But already they’ve begun to see in the charred remains the promise of things. Sheila knows this. She can tell by the way they hold each other, stamp their slippered feet in the cold, that they are alive to possibility.
When they come back to see the ruin, to say goodbye, Sheila slides out of the car holding the leash of a puppy. Something new to replace what is gone.
The puppy has a broad, white back and a wide jaw. Sheila runs her fingers over its amputated ears, and the puppy licks her face. She has named it Nancy.
Mother and Father emerge more slowly from the car, each clutching a slick plastic folder the lawyers have given them. Duplicate copies of legal documents pertaining to ownership of the burnt home and other mutual assets lie straight in the pockets. They are getting a divorce.
Nothing stands but the brick chimney, and sun beams slant through the absent rooms, lighting up particles of ash. Sheila loves the gray and black shadows of the burnt house. She holds Mr. Wiggles close in one arm, and with another she directs a pointed stick, poking the wet coals. In the center of her destruction, where the living room had been, Sheila plants the stick.
At the end of the leash Nancy gambols in the debris. She eats bits of charcoal, black carbon sticking to her teeth and tongue. She rolls, righteous in the black ash, her several pink nipples turned toward the sun.
Jennifer Lee is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins MA Writing Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in JMWW, Brink Magazine, The Potomac Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Cobalt. Her work has won the Maryland Writers’ Association short fiction prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Award. She recently finished writing a novel and is hard at work on a pair of novellas and a looming science fiction trilogy. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.