by Ashley Hutson
When I was twelve, I made my bed in my grandmother’s kitchen. The bare mattress appeared in the middle of the floor like a moon. I lay down on it as the ladies of the family filed into the room wearing aprons stiff with hard water and starch, walking around the giant rectangle as if it had been there forever. There were ten of them—daughters, mothers, aunts, sisters. They chattered as they worked, clanging copper-bottom pots and pans and whisking and washing. They moved as though they had done this for decades. Certain magic had grown inside them like granules of yeast. They worked mysteries. They could render the finest gravies and broths and cakes from handfuls of powder and cups of water. They recalled recipes by heart, reciting ingredients like incantations. Every spoon and dish had its named place in the dark oak cupboards. Every blue flower lining the wallpaper was known and counted. Even the fluttering birds outside the window were identified—sparrow, blue jay, mourning dove. The women knew.
I lay in my bed, lame. A bed can have that effect. I was birthed wrong. My legs were worthy of observation but little else. They sat on the fabric like two skinny sausages. An aunt leaned down, said, “You won’t be needing these,” and chopped them off at the thigh with a magnificent cleaver. The blade left slits in the mattress. I watched as my legs were pitched into a giant pot or dish or vat of oil, however dead limbs are prepared. I had no knowledge. And then a pan ignited, and then a curtain ignited, and then fire ran up the wall like quick fingers. The women slapped at the flames with wet towels, crying for the wallpaper flowers. They filed out, knowing each secret route and means of escape. Then the room was gone.
When I opened my eyes, the morning was on its way. Dark was turning to light beyond the large window above the sink. Ash fell like snow. I counted my parts after the tragedy. Everything I hadn’t lost before seemed to be there still. Something dark expanded in my chest, consuming the sweet rush of a near-miss. I looked around. There were the pans, there were the pots. There were apron scraps scattered about. I knew each one before I saw it. Formulas stacked up inside my head, ingredients of things to come.
There was a tapping noise. The birds were sitting at the warped window casing, pecking at broken glass. “Sparrow. Blue jay. Mourning dove,” I croaked at them, frightened. “ How is it that I know you now?”
The mourning dove turned toward me. Do not be afraid, it replied in its birdy language. It put its beak in the air, searching. Smoke curled up from the ruined house. The air was filled with a hundred memories, singed and stirred into a single new one. The dove chirped again. This is how you learn the names of things.
Ashley Hutson lives in rural Maryland. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction International, Sundog Lit, SmokeLong Quarterly, matchbook, and McSweeney’s. Read more at www.aahutson.com.