Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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Nana’s back porch is sinking. The marsh is going to swallow us all someday, and every time it rains heavy, she yells at me and Lucas for running too heavy around the house, like if we jump too hard, we’ll sink. It’s a long house with no stairs, the only home I’ve ever known. I’ve always wanted to live in a house with stairs, but instead Lucas and I get to race back and forth across the entire length of the house, from the kitchen on one end all the way through to Nana’s bedroom, throwing ourselves into the pile of laundry on her bed like raked leaves. In the early blue morning, I stand on the heating vent in the creaky hardwood hallway and let the heater blow the skirt of my nightgown up into a flower. Papaw’s the only one awake before I am, and his footsteps are so heavy the whole house seems to breathe with them.

Every morning Papaw leaves for work at five minutes past six. I watch reruns of The Andy Griffith Show with the sound off until 6:42. At seven, Grandma wakes up and we make scrambled eggs. On the weekends, she lets us have the sugary cereals that she keeps hidden in the skinny cabinet all the way above the stove, but on school days, it’s scrambled eggs and cow’s milk from Big Ed’s cows that we pass on the bus ride to school. When the school year starts again, Lucas is going to go to the big school. I’ll still be in fifth grade. I know Nana’s nervous because it’s always my job to look after him. Last year, whenever Lucas was having trouble, Mrs. O’Neill called Mr. Grove and he had to send me down to the portables to get my brother. He’s my responsibility.


I am telling you a lot of things and it is only to tell you this: Lucas is my brother and once Nana and Papaw die, I am going to be the only person who knows how to look out for him. I am telling you this because I am his little sister and it might seem odd that I’m the one who has to take care of him, but it’s not weird to me because I live it. Every time Nana’s hands shake more than usual or Papaw starts choking in his sleep, I get scared for the day you’ll try to take my brother away from me. I know you will. I know whenever you step your black dress shoes up our front door and peer in our windows before knocking that you think you’re going to come across the two of us fending for ourselves, I know you’re waiting to take Lucas away the same way you took Big Ed’s son last week after he shot the gun through the kitchen window, even after everyone told you that it was an accident and that Ryan would never hurt anyone, especially not his daddy, but just because he was different you came and now all Big Ed has is his cows with the sad eyes.

I want to tell you that Lucas is not like Big Ed’s son. He doesn’t laugh the way Ryan does, who only laughs loud and deep because he finds lots of things funny. When I was little, sometimes I was a little scared of him ‘cause he’d get so loud in church that they’d have to ask Big Ed to take him outside. Lucas isn’t like that, he doesn’t accidentally scare people because he’s loud. He doesn’t say anything with his mouth because he doesn’t like words and only a few people can understand the way he communicates. I’m the best at it, says Nana. It’s only ‘cause we grew up together.

For a long time, I always told people who asked that there was something wrong with him, until I realized it wasn’t really wrong, the way he was. Wrong was getting yourself in trouble on purpose, wrong was when Papaw put his cigars out on the side of his armchair and Nana scolded him for it. Wrong was yelling in church or spitting your gum out and sticking it behind your headboard until you’ve got a whole collection. Everybody does lots of wrong things, but Lucas ain’t doing nobody wrong by being the way he is.

What I’m trying to say is, Lucas ain’t a scary person. He doesn’t want to scare people. Only person who’s scared is Nana, and that’s because she knows I won’t be there to get Lucas on and off the bus when he goes to the big school. I’m real worried, too, but a little part of me is also excited to start fifth grade on my own, so I can stay back after class with the other girls on the blacktop and play hopscotch instead of having to run off right away to go get Lucas and make sure his thermos hasn’t exploded in his backpack before we get onto the bus. If I tried to bring Lucas to play hopscotch, he wouldn’t understand the rules and he’d pout like a raincloud with his hands in his jacket until we went home.


Lucas likes clocks. Every Sunday after church Papaw drives them all the way into Pendergrass in his old truck the color of dead leaves, for the flea market. Nana says walking around from stall to stall is what gives Papaw his exercise for the week. They’re on the lookout for clocks, all kinds, to carry home in paper bags that night so Lucas can skip dinner and take them out to the garage. He’s got a whole collection of them out there, would stay up all night with them if he could, dissecting his clocks, prying open their backs and pinching springs, gears that he cleans with a toothbrush until they shine like nothing you’ve ever seen.

He’s got all kinds of clocks: carved wood ones with fancy designs, alarm clocks in all colors, all sizes. There’s a big Christmas clock with a little carved town that folds out from the front, and a little ice skater with a yellow jacket pops out and skates a lap around the pond every hour. It hadn’t worked when we’d first gotten it, but Lucas and Papaw had taken it apart, oiled it, repainted the little ice skater with a horsehair paintbrush until his eyes shone white again. I sat on the bumper of the truck and watched Lucas do the painting, with the little skater so close to his face that his eyes were crossed, so careful that I caught him holding his breath. When he’s concentrating hard like that, I always have to remind him to breathe.

There’s a black and white clock with a cat’s head, two paws holding the clock’s face to its stomach, and a tail that swings from left to right, right to left. This one is my favorite. It hangs above the kitchen table and sometimes I stare at the tail long enough, count the seconds in my head until I feel my eyes losing focus.

The only clock Lucas isn’t allowed to touch is the grandfather clock in the dining room. It shakes when it chimes with the hour. I used to be scared of it. Nana says when I was a baby, I wouldn’t even go into the dining room with it. When Lucas was a baby, he didn’t cry much. Nana says he would just stare at everything, like he was watching ghosts move around the room. Everybody said he was the easiest baby they’d ever seen. He was the furthest thing from a picky eater and slept all through the night without a problem. The only thing he hated was cars. Papaw said he’d wail like a coyote the entire time they drove him anywhere, screaming until his face turned blue, and even if Nana took him out of the car seat and held him in her lap, he’d scream and scream the whole way there. He doesn’t do that no more.


I also want to tell you this—at night Papaw takes us to see the fireflies.

Lucas and I sit in the back of his pickup and we drive slow over the backroads to the empty fields behind Big Ed’s farm. It’s one of those places where you can throw your arms out and run and run without having to stop. Sometimes Lucas runs with me, but most of the time I take off on my own, beating my feet against the wet grass so hard that I can feel my bones knocking together.

We only watch the fireflies. Sometimes Lucas and I cup our hands around the fluttering flickers of yellow light, slowly opening our palms to get a better look at them. They never fly away right away. It’s like they trust us. Lucas holds out his arms and they crawl around his wrist, over his fingers, up and up his arm. He doesn’t laugh much but when they do this he smiles and smiles. Soon it gets too dark and we have to go home, and in the distance I can see Big Ed’s window lit up dull yellow, to match the signals of the fireflies as we drive off.

Only once did we ever try to bring the fireflies home, and I’m telling you this because it reminds me of you. You’ll see why.

Last Friday, we caught a handful of fireflies and guided them to crawl into an empty mason jar. On the ride home, I held it careful between my knees and watched them scrabble around the smooth glass, wings opening and closing like they knew there was nowhere to go. I felt guilty. We kept them on the nightstand next to our beds and I couldn’t sleep because I kept watching them, counting the seconds between each signal of light. Eventually they slowed down, like they’d given up. I rolled over and fell asleep.

In the morning, I was the first one up, and I tiptoed the jar outside to set them free. I expected them to fight to be the first one out, to launch from the jar and disappear into the sky, but nothing happened when I unscrewed the lid. I shook it gently and they didn’t react, just continued to crawl around. I left the jar under the steps, resting on its side, while I went in to have breakfast, and when I came back out to check on them again, the jar was empty. I thought that was a good sign, but then the phone rang and it was Big Ed saying you took Ryan away from him. And then nothing felt too good.


Lucas starts big school in fourteen days and I am going to teach him how to get on and off the bus on his own. Until then, he will take apart his clocks in the garage and play jacks with me on the kitchen floor. Until then, we will go to Big Ed’s every Sunday to say hello and buy another gallon of milk. I will be honest and say I am trying real hard not to think about you. Or Papaw’s coughing, or the way Nana is starting to forget things. I’m trying not to think about you and how you came and took Ryan away last week. Or how you’re probably waiting for Lucas, too.

I don’t like catching fireflies anymore because it reminds me of the call from Big Ed. I took the mason jar back inside after they’d all flown away and set it on the kitchen table, empty. No one’s moved it yet, even though it’s been a week. Today Papaw asked if I wanted to catch more fireflies tonight and I said no. Did I not like them anymore? he asked. I said no, I still like them, but this is not their home. Do you understand? This is not their home.  

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