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Land Of The Silver Birch

By Susan A. O'Doherty

Something is terribly wrong. The counselors are talking right outside the cabin door, in voices loud enough to wake her up. Amy opens her eyes to blinding light. Has she slept past Reveille?

Janet Hoak is still sleeping, in her bunk across the cabin.

“25 CC,” one counselor says. Mary B.?

They have missed breakfast, for sure. Amy hopes it wasn’t pancakes.

“How are you feeling this morning?” A large black woman sticks a thermometer into Amy’s mouth. Not a counselor. Not that Camp Silver Birch is prejudiced or anything, but there are no black counselors. A few black campers every year, and all the girls go out of their way to be nice and make them feel welcome. This must be the infirmary, though Amy doesn’t remember a black nurse, either. Maybe she’s new.

“98.4,” the nurse says, removing the thermometer. “Good for you.”

Amy starts to sit up but a million sharp pains in her abdomen force her back down. There must have been broken glass in the hamburger last night, and she and Janet ate it.

“Do my parents know?” she asks.

“They were here last night. You don’t remember, do you?” Amy shakes her head. The nurse chuckles. “That’s the Percocet. Nothing to worry about.”

Amy closes her eyes. She hopes they won’t send her home. She can smell the salt air and the pine trees, even through the closed window. The others must have finished breakfast and hiked back to change for swimming. “What time is it?” she says.

“Five-thirty. Try to get some rest. You have a big day coming.”

“Am I going home?”

“No, honey, not today.”

“Good.” She doesn’t want to miss the final campfire, the girls writing their wishes and setting them inside hollowed-out logs, to be set on fire and pushed out to sea. Every year, Amy’s wish is to come back. She tells the other girls she wished that Timmy Farrell would like her, or that her family would take her to France, because those are the kinds of wishes they all make, normal wishes. Everyone cries the last night of camp, but nobody really wants to stay. They cry because it shows they’re sensitive. Amy holds back because if she started, she’d never stop. But she takes in every detail, the impossibly clean smells of the girls, Ivory and Prell and Crest, the salt and seaweed, the heat and smoke in front of her and the shivery cold behind, and the guitars—always one or two counselors play the guitar while the girls harmonize, Like the swallow, so proud and free. Amy could just live there, always, eating in the mess hall, whispering after lights out, playing dirty Mad Libs on the bluff with Janet and Laurie Mandell, the wind and the surf stealing their voices so they have to shout out “shitface” and “motherfucker” and then collapse in unbelieving laughter.

She drifts off, on her towel on the beach, the sound of the laughter embracing her, keeping her safe. There is nothing as peaceful as napping after a long swim in the Sound, every pore cleansed, every muscle relaxed, floating alone but protected by the presence of her friends. She smells the smoke from last night’s beach campfire. At the end they played Gypsy Village, each girl picking an ember that looked like a lantern or a lit window in a gypsy wagon, watching till it went out, and then moving away from the circle until all the girls were standing and they buried the village in sand and filed up to their bunks, their flashlights playing on the cedars and birches lining the dirt path under the waning moon.

The smoky smell intensifies and it’s stale tobacco smoke and she opens her eyes to see Brendan, holding a bouquet of lilies. “Good morning, Mamacita,” he says.

“Is it visiting day?”

Brendan laughs. “They let the dads in whenever.”

Amy makes an effort, swims to the surface, feels on the bed for the baby. “Where is he?”

“I just stopped off to see him. They’re performing his morning ablutions. He’ll be with us in a few minutes.”

Her eyes fill. “I’m a terrible mother. I forgot him.”

“You were knocked out. If I went through all that I’d forget my own name.”

She will leave him on the subway, in the supermarket, in his crib while she drives away and the house catches fire. All her third trimester nightmares were portents. It’s starting already. They can’t send her home with Jamie; she can’t be trusted.

“You were awesome, Ames. Are awesome. I wish you could have seen it when she reached into the cut and pulled him out, and there he was.”

“What’s the difference between irony and paradox?”

He laughs. “Is this a riddle? Pair o’ docs?”

“I’ve been wondering.”

“About what?”

“I know you’ll be a good father because of the abortion.” It’s hard to get the words out. Her tongue feels disconnected from her thoughts.

A different nurse comes in. “Oh, good, Daddy’s here. He can help you to the bathroom before breakfast. We took out the catheter,” she says to Brendan.

“I don’t follow you.”

“You held my hand. You brought me ice. You cleaned me up the next day. You don’t run away from a mess.”

“Ah. I’d say that’s a false equation and a country song, but if it made you take me back, I’m for it.”

The nurse presses a button and Amy’s bed shoots her into a sitting position. She stifles a scream. Brendan grabs her arm. “Easy,” the nurse says. The bathroom is miles away, behind her roommate’s bed.

One summer she and Janet snuck into the unit bathroom after midnight. They wet wads of toilet paper and threw them at the ceiling, where they stuck. The next morning, the dried spitballs rained down on the innocent, shrieking girls as they brushed their teeth and used the toilet. Janet and Amy swore eternal friendship.

Her roommate, an Asian woman, is sitting up in bed, eating. She smiles and nods at Amy. “I was like that yesterday. It gets easier.”

Amy squats, slowly, inching through the pain, leaning hard on Brendan’s arms. There is blood everywhere. Irony, she decides. Blood and shit are Brendan’s natural medium. Socks on the floor, apple cores under the bed. He will change Jamie’s poopy diapers, but he will leave them out for the cat to bat around. Her life is over.

Back at the bed, a tray is waiting on her nightstand. “Yum,” Brendan says. “Want me to run out to a diner?”

“She’s on a restricted diet,” the nurse tells him. “Regular food tomorrow.” Together they help Amy back into the bed.

Amy nibbles on the dry white toast. “It’s fine,” she tells Brendan.

“Your tolerance for institutional food is always impressive.”

Everyone at Silver Birch complained about the lumpy oatmeal (“pig vomit”), the tapioca pudding (“frogs’ eggs”), the Mystery Meat. Amy complained too so no one would know how happy she was not to forage through the filthy fridge, the fuzzy peppers, the rancid chopped meat. After meals the girls passed their plates to the designated scraper, who would scrape all the leftovers into one disgusting pile, then into the garbage. Another girl would deliver the plates to the woman behind the counter, usually Miss Fanny, but one summer her daughter, who would load them into the huge dishwasher. Someone else would wipe down the tables. They rotated jobs every week. Amy loved the precision of it, the way the green plastic dishes would rise out of the steaming dishwasher every morning in time for breakfast, pristine as the salty new day.

She hears a distant cry and for a moment it sounds like a seagull, but her breasts swell and fill. “Here they come,” her roommate says.

Brendan touches her gown where it has wet through, then sucks his finger. “Mm-mm. Melted ice cream,” he says. “And those are quite some Dixie cups!”

Every year, on the last day, they would run someone’s undershirt up the flagpole. Undershirt club, undershirt club, I pledge to thee, they would sing in mock earnestness, their hands clasped over their hearts, Undying kinship and loyalty….

Amy Googles Janet a few times a year. Laurie Mandell, too. There are other women out there with those names, but she hasn’t found her friends. They probably took their husbands’ names, like Amy. She wonders if they ever look for her, what she would say to them.

A nurse wheels in a contraption that looks like a grocery cart, with a swaddled, screaming, tomato-faced Jamie in the basket. Brendan pulls him out, unwraps him, and hands him to Amy, who opens her gown. Milk dribbles down, mixing with the blood on her underpants and on the sheet. Jamie flails, then quiets as he latches on. She kisses the soft top of his head, the smell of milk and blood and hot, new skin eclipsing the salt and pine, the echo of his cries obliterating all coherent thought, all memory. Paradox, she thinks. Aloud she says, “Here we go.”

 

Susan O’Doherty’s work has been featured in Eureka Literary Magazine, Northwest Review, Apalachee Review , Eclectica, Style & Sense, Phoebe, and the anthologies It’s a Boy! (Seal Press, 2005) and Familiar(The People's Press, 2005) , and is scheduled to appear in Word Riot and the forthcoming anthologies About What Was Lost(Penguin, 2006) and The Best of Carve, Volume VI .

She is also a psychologist specializing in issues affecting writers. Her advice column for writers, "The Doctor is In," appears each Friday in Buzz, Balls, and Hype.

Susan's last work published in VerbSap was Spring To Fall.

 

Photo "Birches Glowing During Sunset" courtesy of Petra Winkler, Fussgoenheim, Germany.

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