“Nine” by Christine Butterworth-McDermott

Christine Butterworth-McDermott


Mary and I go down to the creek
after the rain—the cracked ground
surrounds the moist center of the riverbed,
the dirt has never been this brown. Nothing
is ever saturated here. Mary gingerly places
her feet in the mud—when it dries her footprints
will be there for weeks and weeks. I’m determined
to make my mark, too, stamp on the ground,
sink knee deep. Mary tries to pull me free,
but the mud sucks me down. In the end, I lose
my balance and my new keds. Mary goes down
with me. We laugh and laugh until, slathered,
we make our way back to her mother’s kitchen.

Mrs. McClain throws us into the tub, scrubs
the mud from behind our ears. Mary’s pajamas
are too small for my long legs but are warm
from the dryer. We sit at the kitchen table;
Mary’s mother warms tortillas in a pan with butter.
I have never had tortillas before. We all sing along
to Sonny and Cher. Mary’s mother is Mexican
and her name is Rosie and she is warmer than
my mother, as warm as the buttery flour shell
in my mouth. She sends us to bed and we lie in
Mary’s room and talk about what it will be like
in nine years when we go to college, although
nine years seems an impossibly long time.

We talk about boys and the girls we hate in
the third grade and how weird it was that when
I moved here, we had the exact same pair
of glasses, which sort of makes us like sisters.
I tell her about my dead sister who is now in
Heaven. I say I hope she’s not lonely. Mary
says not to worry: God and Mary (the other one)
and angels take care of her. I fall asleep under
the moonlit picture of Jesus with his bloody crown
of thorns. I don’t like how his eyes watch me toss
and turn. I don’t like to think about dying
like my sister or the baby bird eaten away by ants
in my front yard. I don’t like the fact that my mother
is as cracked as the riverbed with nothing moist
in the center of her heart and that I am sinking deep
down into a darkness I don’t know how to name
where there are no Marys to pull me out.

from Rattle #31, Summer 2009

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