Home > Fiction > Survivors
Published: Wed Apr 15 2009
Eva LundsagerUnder Constant Still (detail), 2017–2021, oil on canvas

1. Confession

Last June, ten-year-old Daisy Perkins pulled her cousin Ruth from the river. Four hours since the child slipped between the rails of the fence, followed a blue butterfly into the woods, skidded down the steep gully. Hope at dusk rising and falling. Ruth Laravee might be asleep in the tall grass—might be afraid and hiding. Pretty little Ruth might be in a stranger’s car, two hundred miles gone, dressed in dirty bad boy clothes, red hair snipped short, face smudged to hide her freckles.

No. Daisy who blamed herself, who promised to watch her favorite cousin, found two-year-old Ruth floating face-down in the water. Nobody else in sight. Nobody there to witness. Only the voice inside: Call for help. Find your father. And then another voice: Only you. You do it. Daisy yanked Ruth up by her ankles, slapped her back five times. I don’t remember. But the marks of her hands blazed bright on Ruth’s cold skin, so she must have hit hard enough to leave them.

Daisy does remember water spurting from her cousin’s mouth, Ruth’s face red with rage, that wild cry bursting out of her.

You can say it’s not true.

But it is true.

It did happen.

And the little girl lived like other little girls—Lela saw her on television the next day, legs strong enough to walk, words spilling—Ruth Laravee born again, undamaged.

Everywhere miracles.

Isn’t Lela living proof? Born too soon: three pounds, three ounces. So frail! Even her mother didn’t believe. So much blood I thought I’d died with you. She had nothing to give. Sixty-two hours before you ate, an eyedropper full of milk and sugar. You’d lost nine ounces! From where? I said. There’s nothing left of her. Eleven days before you cried. Five weeks before they let me hold you.

White scilla bloomed wild in the woods, a thousand tiny stars bursting. Ten weeks old and still so fragile: Lela Mikaela Hayes, six pounds, two ounces. Her father carried her beneath his coat. Along the path, to the river. So he says, so she believes she remembers—her father kneeling in the dirt to show her a cluster of white blossoms—the smell of him, pine and juniper—the sound of his muffled voice, a song to soothe her—the low vibration of him, one last word rising from his ribs, moving through her—and then only birds, only water over stones riffling.

Now they save babies who weigh less than a pound. And why not? Bears come into the world smaller than this, deaf and blind while their mothers are sleeping. What more evidence do you need? Violet pansies bloom under snow. The cold fails to kill; the weight of snow does not crush them.

Last November, one-legged Willis Brodie pulled 216-pound Vincent Flute from the window of his rolled truck as the battery sparked and gas trickled, dragged him up the steep bank seconds before flames exploded. I don’t know how. I can’t explain it. The photograph of Willis Brodie filled the front page of the paper, left pant-leg split to the knee to expose his prosthesis. Seventy-three years old, this savior.

Lela remembers the mild August day rescuers pulled Evan Biel from a crevasse on Sperry Glacier. Barely fourteen inches wide that crack in ice, ice walls slick as glass, ice rain raining. Two men climbed down sixty-five feet to find Evan wedged in ice, still alive, softly moaning. His warm body had melted the ice, but now it froze hard around him, locking his head in place, gripping one twisted leg, holding his hip and shoulders.

The men chipped him free, whispering the whole time, like fathers, like brothers. Don’t be afraid. We’re here. We love you.

Why did Evan Biel stop believing? Even in the helicopter, paramedics swore they heard his heart flutter.

Too cold, Doctor Kober said. Lela was there that day, working at the hospital, and she remembered Evan, a boy she liked who never noticed her in high school. They kept him on a respirator all night. Tried all night to warm him. Where are you? His mother couldn’t make him rise. His wife Nicole couldn’t tempt him. Let me be. Brain too numb to spark, too many bones broken. Please. Words formed in Nicole’s mind. Let me go. I’m so tired.

Nobody knows why. Only the dead can explain it.

Last Sunday, the beautiful woman on TV, the soldier home from Iraq with shrapnel still deep in her brain, said doctors gave her one chance in a hundred to wake, one in a thousand to do more than bob and babble. And here she was, radiantly amazed, smiling sweetly.

Somebody had to be the one, she said. Why couldn’t I do it?

In a tent, in a field hospital outside Baghdad, Jodee Beddia’s surgeon cut a piece of bone from her skull so her swelling brain wouldn’t kill her. Sewed it inside my abdomen, she said. To keep the bone alive. So nobody would lose it. Jodee Beddia flew home in a coma.

Now the bone is back in her head—she’s stapled and sutured. Pain, yes, always. Like light, she says, cutting through me. She traces a line from between her eyes, up over the crown, through both temples. Sometimes a jolt, she says. One more explosion. Her finger moves down the stem. She smiles. It’s only pain, a friend if you call it that, not so bad to be awake, alive today to feel it.

One bright day last winter, thirteen-year-old Rosanna Rios arrived at the hospital in time to give her heart and lungs, liver, spleen, pancreas, kidneys. In time to surrender her perfectly clear corneas and twenty-six inches of unscarred skin to save the lives, restore the sight, heal the burns of seven others.

Why should a sixty-nine-year-old man receive the heart of a child?

Your mercy spills, or doesn’t.

One sobbing child pulled from a neighbor’s well, one drowned in his mother’s bathtub.

You give us life to lose.

One boy hiding under the road, playing a game, trapped in a culvert.

You offer terrible grace.

One bruised baby found in a field of tall grass, alive and unafraid after a tornado, this one of nine hundred lifted up and set down, everything destroyed around her.

Do the living feel our faith? Will your heart stop if I stop believing?

One chickadee comes to the feeder. Even now, so close to twilight! Less than half an ounce of feather and hollow bone, ten drops of blood, heart smaller than a fingernail—yet she survives all night, every night, all winter.

Once upon a time, so long ago, one terrible November night, Lela locked Kai out of the house. Yes, it’s true. She did this. Six years old he was, her only one, her love, her child. Hush little baby. The child she sang to sleep. Don’t say a word. Halloween ten days gone, snow on the ground, Kai outside alone wearing nothing but blue socks and red pajamas. How long did she let him shiver?

Long enough to wipe spit peas from the floor, mop spilled milk, change the tablecloth.

He’d mashed the peas flat on his plate, refused to eat them. Such will! She snatched the potatoes he loved, the drumstick he wanted. Said he could have them back when he ate the peas. Every last one of them.

So hungry!

He wanted to tear her chicken wing from the bone, break the bone, suck the marrow—wanted to steal the bright green bowl full of creamy white whipped potatoes. He gripped the spoon, impolite, fingers forward—raised it to his mouth, closed his eyes to eat, whole body trembling. Even the smell, so terrible, stronger with his eyes closed—be quick, be done—he slipped the sticky peas into his mouth, dropped the spoon, tried to swallow—reached for the milk to wash them down, but she grabbed that too. No, chew them.

He tried—he did—but couldn’t do it. Spit the peas instead, spewed them across the table, splattered the yellow cloth, spattered his mother. She dumped the milk over his head. Crazy, she thought even as she watched her bad self do this. He flung the plate to the floor, and together they watched peas fly, china shatter.

Both of them wailing now, so loud she thought Mrs. Novak next door must hear them. Delores Novak, crazy herself—Lela hoped that eighty-five-year-old, ninety-eight-pound dervish would burst through the door and save them.

Did she grab his arm, twist hard, hurt him? She was twice his size, but he had that terrible boy strength, just like your father. He twisted his own arm to break the bone or break free of her. She heard weird little yipping sounds, herself or him, she can’t remember, saw him biting his own hand, to keep from biting me, biting so hard he pierced skin, and she let him go, smacked his head hard, smacked hard again to stop him.

He stared at her, amazed, spit a word she couldn’t hear, and bolted. She tried to catch, but oh, he was quick and small, scared and furious, buzzing from the blows, crazy as she was. He was out the door, slipping free, slamming the door behind him.

Fine, she said out loud, and locked it.

Just for a minute.

Long enough to clean this mess, stop gasping.

She swept the shattered china from the floor, wiped the peas and milk, put the food away. No evidence.

How long?

She stuffed the dirty tablecloth in the wash, laid a clean one on the table.

Where are you?

Forgot how cold it was outside, the boy in red pajamas.

Did she see him at the window—does she see him now? Blue face pressed to glass, skin stretched tight, a boy’s starved face, so hungry all day, so much smaller than he was this morning.

How many minutes?

Are those your fingerprints on the pane? Is that you knocking?

She doesn’t know, she can’t be sure how long she left him out there.

Nobody now—no fingers, no face, no fists hammering.

She opened the door wide and called him. Whirling snow, wind answered. She ran out in the cold without her coat, circled the house, thinking he must be here, crouched in the bushes hiding. So cold! She knew now how cold he was. She thought she’d find him under the sharp juniper, knees tucked tight to his thin chest, hush little baby, rocking himself to sleep.

Never so afraid, never so sorry.

She’s seen the signs everywhere: runaways, throwaways, unloved, unlucky—scarred, tattooed, cut, stolen—thrown from windows, shaken half to death, burned, buried—left for dead but not dead, too afraid to cry, somewhere still waiting.

She’s blamed the mothers of the lost, cursed the fathers who abandoned.

Please, just this once—I won’t, I’ll never.

She ran house to house thinking someone must have seen, hoping some kind stranger had him. She imagined him asleep on a neighbor’s couch, dressed in some other little boy’s soft warm flannel pajamas.

She remembers a row of jack-o’-lanterns grinning in the dark, old men now, burned lips, heads collapsing. She met a scarecrow nailed to a pole, arms flapping in the wind, sleeves empty. She heard tiny ghosts fluttering in bare branches, a tree full of whispering rags, little heads stuffed, bodies blowing.

She found a stunted snowman with a deer’s antlers, pitted and pocked by last week’s rain, one side washed away, one antler still high on his head, the other a crippled limb dangling. She stood alone in the dark with the battered snowman, one more little boy lost, one more frozen child. Half-frozen herself, listening to ghosts in the wind, hoping the scarecrow would lift one limp arm, point the way, and save her.

2. Lullaby for Lela

How can you forgive if she never says she’s sorry?

Eleven years since Mother locked you out, and even now you wonder why you spit the peas, why she slapped you—why you ran out in the snow wearing only red pajamas.

Does she remember your fists pounding at the door, your head banging on the window? You pressed your face to cold glass, flattened your lips and nose, tried to scare her. Did your mother see you dancing in the dark? So cold in my wet socks!

Does she know now, does she imagine?

You ran away from a stuffed man in a knit cap and black jacket. His head was the skull of a goat, too small for him, somebody else’s head, found in a ditch, dug from a field. You saw his long white nose, the buds of little horns protruding. He wore leather boots laced high, spiked for climbing trees or mountains. He wanted to kill you with his glittering axe, a child’s toy wrapped in foil. Flickering lights made him appear and disappear, lurch and lunge, alive in light, withered in shadow.

An eight-foot-tall man made of snow saved you. He seemed very kind, eye holes filled with dark fruit, pecked by birds, but not stolen. Don’t be afraid. Nobody’s real. One arm was the blade of a saw, the other a broken paddle.

Your mother found you hours later, safe in Tulanie’s bed, curled up close with your cousin. Let them sleep, Aunt Christine said. I’ll bring him in the morning.

You never spoke of it—then, or after. Never spit peas, never made your mother smack you. You heard her whisper in the dark hallway. So scared, so sorry. Why didn’t she come back into Tulanie’s room, scoop you from the bed, say the words out loud, both at once, you two together? You could have opened your eyes and gone home. Let them sleep. You refused to be the first, refused to cry out to her. Yes, let her go. Let Mother lie in her own bed, awake all night, alone, throbbing.

You remember holding Iris—another night, a perfect night, not so long after—you and Tulanie lying on the floor, Iris crawling back and forth over your bellies. Almost two and just washed, your cousin Iris flushed pink as the pink inside of poppies. She howled when Christine tried to take her away—so you carried her down the hall, you sat in the chair, you sang a love song lullaby, a song your mother sang to you, hush little baby, and you did forgive, and you do forgive, don’t you cry, and you both fell asleep as you rocked her.


See what's inside AGNI 69

Melanie Rae Thon’s most recent books are the story collection Silence & Song (Fiction Collective 2, 2015); the chapbook The 7th Man (New Michigan Press, 2015); a fine-art book featuring her poetry and the work of eight visual artists, The Good Samaritan Speaks (Prompt Press, 2015); the novel The Voice of the River (FC2, 2011); and In This Light: New and Selected Stories (Graywolf Press, 2011). Her work has been included in The Best American Short Stories (1995, 1996), three Pushcart Prize anthologies (2003, 2006, 2008), and O. Henry Prize Stories (2006). In 1996, Granta included her in its “Best of the Young American Novelists” issue. Originally from Montana, she now lives in Salt Lake City, where she teaches in the creative writing and environmental humanities programs at the University of Utah. (updated 4/2018)

Thon’s Iona Moon was reviewed in AGNI 39 by Matthew L. Pelikan.

Her AGNI story “Confession for Raymond Good Bird” won a Pushcart Prize and was reprinted in the 2008 anthology.

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