Full Grown was born a baby like the rest of us, but got her name because the corn around her reached maturity just the second she slid into the dirt. No one knows how a baby this dark came to be born here. They dragged her mother off before she could explain, cutting the cord to keep Full Grown from being dragged away too.
I was there, the child no one noticed, learning how one person becomes two and how quickly two people can be separated, how loss becomes a room as vast as a cornfield, as empty and dry as an old man's hand.
And now Full Grown will be a mother, she will be torn in two, and she fears everything. "I'm not pregnant," she pretends, "just growing in sympathy for my mother." In her room, books float at eye-level for easy reading. Plants hang before windows without hooks or wire. Full Grown has learned to make objects stay where she puts them. She never loses things.
Now she tells me she needs my help. She wants to rename herself, to have the name a mother would choose for her instead of the one the men made up. She threatens to call herself Nobody, Bad Seed, or Chaos. I push for Sweet Moon or Candle. I try out all the beautiful words but she says they do not fit.
"What did my mother say when I was born?" she asks.
I don't think her mother said anything, but I take my mind back, put myself in the corn, scratchy in the heat. The woman wants to scream, but only peeps quietly like an angry bird. The men are coming, but she can't move. She won't hide amid the stalks drooping from drought. There won't be a nest or camouflage or even a soda cracker.
The year that Full Grown came to the dirt was harsh, merciless. Too much snow, then too much rain, then no rain at all so that the chemicals didn't soak into the ground but blew with the dry winds into open windows, onto the clothes hanging to dry, into the nostrils of the animals. We were told not to spend more than three hours outside, not to dig our hands into the dirt without protection, not to drink untreated water.
All at once, Full Grown appears in that dirt, next to all the boots. The men will drag her mother away, but first she sits up.
"Wait," I tell her. "Your mother sat up and said, 'a girl'."
Full Grown has made her decision. "My name will be A Girl," she says, and everything floating in her room falls to the floor.
Everyone needs something just for themselves, something private to stroke and curl up with at night. It could be only a longing--when possessions have been taken away, when the land stops producing and we wander the old roads hiding behind trees and searching for abandoned treasures, even then someone can say: I am the woman who longs for the moment the rain starts. I am the one who remembers the taste of a peach.
A Girl laughs at my claims. "Not everyone needs something to hold onto," she says. "And no one remembers peaches, not really."
She believes in vitamin E, however, and she has faith in cocoa butter. She seems to only trust those things I have to risk my life to get for her. We open another precious vial of E and spread the gel over the stretched skin of her belly.
A Girl does need something to hold onto. It's inside her, so integral that she doesn't consider it a thing to be held up, carried, or put down. It's not a crutch when you can't live without it. Is your heart a crutch? Are your lungs a lucky charm? For A Girl, it's the story of her mother.
When she got old enough to be curious, we went to the courthouse.
"They say I was abandoned. They say I was dropped by a bird." A Girl trembles and the paper gently wafts to the table.
"But I was there," I tell her. "You were born in the dirt. Your mother sat up and looked at you and said 'A Girl' in a voice like running water."
"Before the booted men took her away?"
"Before the booted men took her away."
We check the police records too. A Girl reads to me; I can tell she reads between the lines. She tells me, "My mother grew smaller and smaller after giving birth. In the cell with barred windows, blood dried black on her legs. She turned in on herself. Her hands curved into claws and her bird legs grew weak. After the change, she floated up to the window, squeezed between bars, and flew away. They found only her shell."
"Are you sure she didn't die?"
A Girl is certain. I do not question her again. I can see how A Girl, reading about her mother trapped and dying, would transform her into a shiny, black-winged bird.
A Girl needs something of her own.
"Tell me something true," she says and I start lying again. She knows the truth and doesn't really want it.
"I am the one who forgets," I say. "The one who loses things. I am the one without history."
She knows I am not that one. I am the other, the one who sees the past in layers over every moment, who cannot pull down the gauze and cannot stop the grieving.
"Oh, Sophia," she says and strokes my face. "Tell me one of your stories. Rub my feet."
I tell her the one about running water, warm or cold. About lights in the darkness, ceiling fans, ice. I decorate with florid colors or else I make them muted and gray. I say the words taupe and silk. I conjure raspberries until she sucks in her cheeks at the tang.
It helps her to know that I remember. And to have her feet rubbed.
I imagine how we look from some distance, backwards through the years. We look too different to be sisters but something familiar is there.
When she was Full Grown, she was just the brown girl who ran with me. We were two sylphs: one dark and orphaned; the other complicated but plain-looking. And then began the time of looks and whispers, conversations that stopped when we arrived, and smiles that were only polite, and then not even that.
Despite our age difference, we began menstruating on the same hot day, squatting in the dirt behind my father's barn and marveling at the brown and red, the taupe. We never felt shame until the moment the man from town came around the side, past the cows, and saw us.
That man probably could remember rain. To us it was a word that meant as much as mother. We had no nurture and we had no water. Even the winters were dry, except for hoarfrost and the moist pockets we created between our mouths and the woolen scarves. In summer, we sweated and the dirt clung to us until I was almost as brown as Full Grown.
"It's beautiful," Full Grown said.
We watched the red liquid pool, seep downhill, and then gather where the dirt created a boundary. I took a stick and swirled our two puddles together and we moved closer to watch. Then the man's boots kicked dirt in our faces and when we looked up we saw in his face that something was over.
Full Grown was taken from us and moved from house to house. I could still feel her. I tried to tell her with my inside voice that I would find her, but it was she who found me after all, when she convinced them she was better off alone. Which meant with me. She made all sorts of promises, she changed her name, and she began looking over her shoulder.
I have to get the angle just right. If I look at us from the corner of the old yard, I see a pregnant woman sitting, leaning back against a porch pillar, wearing a pair of panties and a red T-shirt that doesn't quite hide the bulge. It's hot. The other woman, me, wears a sleeveless dress the color of sky. The pregnant woman twists and winds her piles of hair into designs and shapes. She can't keep her hands out of it. My hair is short and my eyes are heavy. I rub the feet of the pregnant woman, watching her face and leaning into the work. When she closes her eyes and stops playing with her hair, I know I've found the right spot and stay there a while, circling the muscle, releasing the ache.
We could be sisters, or good friends. Perhaps we live next door to each other and share stories in the late morning after we've finished chores. But the loose T-shirt and panties say something else: they say that some rules of the old world have been laid aside. Conventions lack weight. Gracious conversations, dips, curtsies, turns of the head. All that is gone. We do not need to know how to freeze mint leaves into ice cubes for the iced tea. We need divining rods and clean paper.
All I have is her and a longing, a deep well inside that, like the world, has dried up. Inside me I feel the dead plants, the parched animals, the confused children. I whisper to myself and the echo comes hot and distant like old fire. "When will you come back?" I am asking. "I need you to hold onto."
If I look at the angle right and squint my eyes some, I don't notice that the rest of the house hangs slack, that the paint has been chipped nearly completely from the porch. With the correct angle of vision and the right attitude, I can imagine a jar of iced tea brewing in the sun, a cellar full of this summer's beans and tomatoes, potatoes still in the ground.
I remember the taste of a peach. Truly.
I remember when the dirt was a second home to me, and every smell was a good one, one I could take in fully. The dirt smelled like something that hadn't yet been touched by anything, something that had only touched itself. Like A Girl in that moment before the men dragged her mother away and then put their hands on the baby, over her mouth.
I see a woman with her hands full of another woman's feet. I imagine between them a plate of sliced apples and pears, not yet going yellow. I give them a bottle of wine even, as they reminisce on a warm summer afternoon surrounded by small white moths and the whine of cicada.
Now I can see them almost as one. The coming baby, the two women, they've got each other.
A Girl is not interested in anything far away. She wants to be up close, in my face. Distance is for the weak. Have courage.
She dances in my head, sends willow leaves to circle my face and feathers to stroke me until I awaken. My linens could be her long, brown limbs and the pillow her belly. Until she stands up. I don't know how she has this energy in the heat. She never sits still and she will not let me sleep. She pushes the hair away from my ears and whispers promises she won't keep. She holds my eyes open with visions of birds the color of absolute night, birds with hands and feet, birds with babies.
Her own time looms. Her belly sticks out, taut and firm. Her breasts are tender, but she makes me take them into my mouth anyway. She says it's good for me. She says it's good for her.
A Girl searches through all my hairs, looking for the one that would betray her. She pulls several in case her methods aren't exact. She counts my freckles and seems excited by the final number. She makes intricate diagrams of my eye's iris. The shade of green is hard to match. She has to blend several colors together. This is the hardest part of the process so far.
A Girl comes to me during the day and makes me leave my work, the animals, my reading. She makes me leave everything but her. Back in her room, she dances around me, smiling.
"Doesn't it feel good?" she asks.
I do not feel good. I have not slept. I will not be ready when her time comes.
"Everything must change," she says. "I will be split in two but I will not allow half of me to be dragged away."
She tells me I must help, that she's preparing me in the best way, in the way she's divined. She makes me lie perfectly still and places flexible reeds over my body. She weaves a basket in my shape. I tell her the baby will be smaller, but she doesn't hear.
A Girl floats a layer of red and orange silks around me. She doesn't see that they clash. She murmurs as she moves. She recites.
Her belly is the pillow. I am so tired. I want to disappear inside her, to be pure, to have touched nothing but my own self and A Girl. I give up and am swallowed by silk, sucked through a hole. At one end is A Girl. At the other end is A Girl.
She is telling the story of leaving again and I cannot listen. A tiny blue vein throbs gently on the brown skin of her wrist and I swim up that stream, turn around and row back.
"I have to tell you," she says, but I am busy swimming in her currents, paddling lazily.
She puts her hands on my shoulders and then I am surrounded by her smell.
Excitement warm and sharp, and then fear, cold and diffuse. She directs me to the door and begins walking toward the old levee.
I follow her, just as her smell has been following me through my days, sitting on my chest at night. I can catalog the varieties. A celery, dirt, and mold smell. The perfume on my fingers after I crush garlic or take apart an onion layer by layer. The mustiness in piled wet leaves. The faint scent of creamed-corn in the breath she exhales while sleeping.
"It's not such an unusual story," she says. "But we play all the roles."
A tendril at her temple curls from light sweat. A Girl has put her hair up in chopsticks and the curve of her bare neck is a question mark, a salute to our bravery.
There is a scent she gets when she looks at me out of the corner of her eye and her whole body is a finger motioning: "Come here. Come here. Come on now."
She walks ahead now, tossing the words to her story out over one shoulder and reeling in new ones out of the humid air in front of her.
I try to memorize her, to be inside her and get her inside of me. Her voice is just one more smell, another aspect to chronicle, testimony.
She says the words safety and risk. She mentions roadmaps.
I follow her until my back goes out, until I see the same flowering bush at least three times. I follow her until the crushed plum pits underfoot go vinegary.
Until she is sure that even without her, I will smell her in the coffee, the shampoo, the mailbox. Grass will run through my fingers like her hair. Flocks of crows will follow me silently, watching with her eyes. All my dreams must involve her. Every walk I ever take is towards her. Each cup of tea will be infused with her.
"The end," she says, climbing the porch step. As long as the story of leaving ends with her sitting on the porch and shading her eyes from the sun, I can hear it.
Like all people born in the dirt, A Girl must be ready to fly. She keeps a satchel near the door. It holds her essential feathers, the dried leaves, her papers and books, the favorite funky clothes. She says that someday she will leave. Until then, I stay with her.
She wants everything she needs in a bag she can easily carry. She says she'll get her food from the ground and find shelter in knotholes of trees. She only worries about what she can't create alone. A Girl refuses to barter. She says she needs everything she carries. "That is the whole point," she tells me.
"I want to live like a small bird," she says, "surviving on the niblets of grass found between bricks, or in corners only I am small enough to get into. Even if surrounded, I'd be small enough to curl in on myself and find the air I need to breathe."
I imagine those tiny winged creatures hopping among the lowest branches of low bushes, how they seem to have a full civilization oblivious to safety and risk.
A Girl uses her ears like secret agents, telescopes, open channels. She can decipher any sound that floats up to her propped-open windows. She tells me what she hears. "That is the sound of a cat sharpening its claws on the catalpa tree in the yard. That is the sound of a glass bowl out of balance in the cupboard, vibrating when you walk across the room. Sit down."
"What do you listen for?" I ask. "How will you know when it's time?" She doesn't answer, or she answers in a riddle. "I hear a man cupping his head," she says, "sighing outside of a house where the door has been bolted against him. I hear a rope that's about to break. I hear boots in the dirt and birds in my head.
"I hear an old woman in town stop in the middle of cleaning strawberries to cry again for the child she lost. I hear one woman say to another: 'A Girl will have her baby soon.'"
She rises, heads for the satchel. "I can hear them in the village planning, the chalky voices of the booted men. They see how big I've gotten."
She picks up the satchel. I walk behind her down the hallway, down the steep steps of the fire escape. "That is the sound of you following me," she whispers. "I hear you coming with me. I hear you saying you can't live without me."