By BOB JOHNSON
Joetta woke from a dreamless, midday nap to a knock on the door, and the first thought that came to her was, The grass isn’t mowed. Visitors to the Thatcher home were rare, but like the woman traveler who wears clean underwear in case of an accident, Joetta believed a house’s tidy exterior promised a respectable life within.
On the other hand, with bills to pay, with the Indiana heat stifling, with Mother sick in bed upstairs, the last thing Joetta needed was company.
She rubbed her eyes and limped to the front window. A young man in a corduroy jacket stood on the porch. Joetta didn’t know him, though she decided he wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness. Those people carried tracts and bibles, not manila folders under their arms. Also, they had a smile at the ready, while this one—he knocked again, then mopped his face and checked his watch, all in the same harried motion—had difficult business before him.
She thought not to answer, but she figured someone compelled to be there would feel compelled to return, so she opened the door slightly and peered over the safety chain.
“Is that Mrs. Thatcher?” the young man said.
Joetta had never been anything but Miss Thatcher, despite having recently turned fifty. “Who’s asking?” she said.
“Am I addressing Dorothea Thatcher?”
“Mother is upstairs and not well.”
He stooped to take her in. His eyes were blue, his lashes nearly white. Perspiration beaded his smooth upper lip. “You must be the daughter Joetta then.”
That was more familiarity than Joetta was obliged to tolerate, and she closed the door firmly. She put an ear to the wood and listened for departing steps, and when they didn’t come, she knew the young man was still standing on the other side.
“Miss Thatcher,” he said, as if two inches of cedar weren’t between them, “I’m Leonard Weeks, from county code enforcement. I’m here to talk about the cabin.”
Joetta suffered from various ailments—an enlarged heart from a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, a withered leg from polio—but her memory was sharp as ever. The last time a county man had visited to talk about the tumbledown wreck at the rear of the property had been a July morning like this, five years before. The day had been hot then too. Mother had made waffles for breakfast.
“We have no business with Allen County,” she said loudly. “Our taxes are paid.”
“This isn’t about taxes, ma’am.”
She figured as much. The cabin had deteriorated steadily in the decade since Joetta’s father Reverend Thatcher had died, and with its decline had come attention from local government. The building was an eyesore, a safety hazard. Pigeons in the rafters spread disease. Teenagers were breaking in to smoke marijuana.
That last complaint had prompted Joetta to hire a man to board up the door and windows. Otherwise, she’d let the old place—all but invisible from the main house, a grim shell in a stand of ancient oaks—fall in on itself.
“We have no business with Allen County,” Joetta said again.
“Joetta,” Weeks said not unkindly, “our next talk might include the sheriff.”
Joetta stayed for a moment with her ear to the door. Its two coats of shellac were sticky in the heat, though it had been years since Papa had applied them. Previous county men had also promised visits from the sheriff, but those threats had come to nothing. Boarding things up had been enough the last time, knocking down the remains of a privy and filling in its hole enough the time before.
“What do you want?” she said.
“To talk a bit, ma’am.”
She cracked the door again. Leonard Weeks was blonde, skinny as a fence post. He’d taken off his corduroy jacket and slung it over his shoulder. Moons of sweat rose from his armpits and met beneath his tie. He brought his face close. “Might I trouble you for some ice water?”
It was a ploy to gain entry, Joetta knew, but, though she’d long abandoned her father’s faith, she still lived by his dearest biblical maxims: clothe oneself in modesty, give without thought of repayment, welcome the thirsty stranger in.
“Make it snappy, then,” she said, undoing the chain and stepping aside. “You’ll get nothing from me but cold water.”
At the kitchen table, Weeks held an icy tumbler to his cheek and told her he’d been with the code office in Fort Wayne for a month. His job, as best he understood it, was to pester folks. “For this”—he laughed ruefully—“I got my social work degree.”
When she didn’t answer, he put down his glass and fixed her with a smile. “You told me at the door, Joetta,” he said gently, “that Mother’s not well?”
“I also told you,” she said, “you’d get nothing from me but water. That includes permission to use my Christian name.”
He laughed again and lifted his palms. “I’ll state my business, then.”
“We have no business with—”
“Of course.” He opened his folder, his eyes not leaving her face. “You must know, Miss Thatcher, that the cabin is an important county landmark. Its provenance dates to your great-great grandfather Joseph, back to when the Miami Indians roamed the hills.”
“I’m aware of its history.”
“But its condition has sparked three complaints this year alone. The roof is eaten away, the foundation’s crumbling.” He nodded to take in the bright kitchen. “As nice as you keep the main house, Jo…ma’am, you’d think you’d want—”
Joetta stood. “Finish your water, Mr. Weeks.”
“Miss Thatcher, please.”
“This conversation is over.”
He left soon after, though not before dropping a letter on the kitchen table. She’d accomplish nothing by burning it, he said. He had plenty of copies.
When she’d closed the door behind him, Joetta thought to climb the stairs and check on her mother, but her bad leg ached, and she was short of breath. Instead, she fell onto a chair and pondered her circumstances.
Papa was ten years gone. Mother was nearly eighty and, aside from a halting trip to the toilet every day or so, hadn’t left her bed in weeks.
Otherwise, there was only her brother Alex, though Joetta hadn’t seen him in a lifetime. Adopted when he was four and Joetta an infant, the brilliant Alex Thatcher was everything his sickly baby sister was not. Dark-haired and handsome, a genius on any stringed instrument he touched, he’d gone directly from Purdue to the Chicago Symphony, until whispers of scandal made their way east in the years thereafter—a rich man’s wife, cello lessons where there was no cello—and for all Joetta knew he lived in Timbuctoo by now.
She pushed to her feet, catching a glimpse of herself in the toaster’s reflection. She was nice enough looking, Mother had sometimes said, despite being childishly thin, but a girl who lurched around like a sailor in a windstorm, a girl who read every book in the library but never picked up a hairbrush… well, a girl like that should set her sights on other dreams, because she could forget a husband or children.
Joetta had tried her best. She could name every state capital by the time she was six. She’d been a champion speller in junior high school. She’d missed being co-valedictorian her senior year with a single B-plus, while Dennis Frederick got all As.
But when a scholarship invited her to follow her brother to Purdue, when she imagined chancing upon Alex—him by then a senior—on a campus sidewalk at night or in an empty lecture hall, Joetta knew that home would be her vocation. She would cook, clean, manage the bills, and, when a decision was beyond her, look to her parents to decide.
She climbed to the upstairs bedroom, where her mother lay swaddled in blankets like a child. The room was ripe with soiled linens and an odd, new stink coming off the old lady’s skin. Joetta wanted to throw open the windows and let in light and air, but Mother was cold—she’d always been cold, even when she wasn’t sick.
Joetta sat and smoothed her hair until she jerked and moaned. “Quit your petting,” she said, her voice like rats’ feet over dry leaves. Her daughter lifted water to her lips, but Mother covered her mouth with a hand. “What was that business at the door?” she whispered when Joetta had set the glass down.
“A man from the county. About the cabin.”
Phlegm rattled in the old lady’s chest. “I’ll speak to the reverend about it.”
Later in bed, Joetta read the letter Leonard Weeks had left behind. The county had run out of patience, it said. Though the Thatcher cabin had been built before the Civil War, it had most of its original timbers and was clearly salvageable, if only the family would look to its restoration.
But the time for discussion had passed. Under Allen County’s powers of eminent domain, the structure would be purchased at a fair market price, taken apart log by log, and reassembled near the Lincoln Library in Fort Wayne.
“Future generations,” the letter finished, “should LEARN from such a piece of history, not watch it fall apart before their eyes. We pray you’ll agree.”
Joetta examined Weeks’ signature. Its prim, formal loops suggested an educated man, its closing flourish a cocky one. She turned off the lamp and lay with the letter open on her breast. Besides a shared handsomeness, the county man hadn’t resembled her brother Alex in the least, yet there was something in each that recalled the other.
She grappled to say what that was, but only as she’d begun to drift off did the answer come. Other men—the grocer, the meter reader—looked past her as one might a broom leaned against a wall. Leonard Weeks, like Alex before him, had studied her closely, smiled at her demurrals, pushed for things she wasn’t willing to give.
In the morning, Joetta pulled on Papa’s boots and began to cut the grass. Mother had insisted on doing the job until a stroke two years before, the mower propping her up like a walker at a rest home, but these days she couldn’t snap beans without getting tired.
The sun was hot, and soon Joetta’s leg was throbbing. Her path went back and forth between the house and the cabin, where each time she took in its broken chimney, oak trunks crowding its outer walls, foundation stones that, Papa had told anyone within earshot, Joseph Thatcher had hauled to the site behind a mule called Cygnus.
“Why would he name a mule after a star?” Alex had asked once when he was fifteen and Joetta twelve.
“Cygnus isn’t a star,” Reverend Thatcher had answered. “It’s a constellation, vast beyond our imaginings.”
“So why name a mule after a constellation?”
“Because God’s grandeur is in all of us. Even the lowliest creature.”
Alex giggled, pinching his sister’s bottom. “Even Joetta?”
Joetta looked to see if her father might scold him for the cruelty, but, as he did with all her brother’s misbehaviors—cheating in class, fights on the ballfield, spying on Joetta in the bath—the reverend only laughed and tousled the boy’s hair. Alex was a “rascal,” Papa would say, but rascals had a way of growing into city managers, businessmen, even ministers of the gospel, once their rough edges were smoothed.
Joetta had cut half the yard when she needed to rest. She killed the mower and sat heavily on the porch steps. A flagstone path stretched from her feet to the cabin. Once perfectly edged, it was all but lost in the grass.
She couldn’t keep up, was the truth of the matter. Mold in the cupboards, water in the basement. Rot and collapse were always impending; even the strongest person couldn’t keep them at bay forever.
She stood to return to work, but found herself instead in Papa’s tool shed, where she dug through rakes and shovels until she found a crowbar. She walked to the cabin and pried loose the boards nailed over its doorframe. The door itself had swelled and shrunk so often in the seasons it was stuck fast, but she put her shoulder to it until it broke free with a kind of scream.
She stepped inside and groaned aloud.
The main floor, once so tidy under her father’s care, was a shambles. Fingers of sunlight struggled through holes in the roof. Cobwebs hung from the windows like ghostly curtains. An animal scuttled overhead in the loft. The plaster walls had crumbled, littering the floorboards with dust. The reverend had used the space to store hymnals, tithing envelopes, Sunday School readers tied up with string, and these—soaked by rain, hardened by drought—leaned together in calcified piles.
“Ah, me,” Joetta said in the fusty quiet.
The stairs to the loft had collapsed before she was born—its pieces still lay where her father had piled them in a corner—and a ladder leaned in their place. Joetta followed it upward with her eyes, just as two pigeons flew through a window and perched on a rafter. They fussed and cooed, their feathers teal or pearl or salmon, depending how the light hit them.
Joetta rested a boot on the ladder’s bottom rung, found it solid, and lifted herself one step and then another. When she and Alex were young and Papa had given permission, they’d used the loft to play hide-and-seek, to tell secrets from school, to spread quilts and have a sleepout, moonlight flooding in, their naked feet pressed against timbers.
Now she climbed to the loft for the first time in thirty-five years. There she found a spot mostly clean of bird waste and sank to the floor. The pigeons had fluttered away, but wasps floated from their nests to study her.
She was exhausted, sweat dripping off her nose and a taste like burnt pennies in her throat. Her bad leg was thinner by half than the healthy one, and she squeezed it and panted until the room stopped swirling.
After a time, she crawled on hands and knees to a corner, where broken chinking made a niche. There she pushed a hand through spider webs and mouse leavings until she found a wooden cigar box. She undid its clasp and emptied the contents into her lap:
A blue ribbon from the Allen County spelling bee.
A Morgan silver dollar.
A tintype of her grandfather Joseph Thatcher, for whom she’d been named.
A magnifying glass in a leather pouch Papa had given her on her sixth birthday.
A letter, crimped and fragile as a moth wing. Joetta unfolded it and read:
I feel badly for what I said.
Your father reminds me that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Your sin is forgetting your chores. Mine is a sharp tongue.
You and Alex each have your own gifts, and comparing you to him was wrong.
Joetta folded the letter again, wondering, as she always had, why it deserved a place among her precious things. She returned it and the rest to the box, until a single object, a jewel case like a sleeping bird, remained. She clutched to her chest and listened—to the gentle hum of the wasps, to a breeze in the oak leaves, to the thudding of her own heart—when a voice called from below.
“Is that Miss Thatcher?”
She dropped the case into the cigar box and returned all to the nook, then crawled to the loft’s edge and peered down to see Leonard Weeks looking up at her. He’d taken off his corduroy jacket again in the heat and held it in one hand as he spread his arms.
“What a grand old place this must have been, hey?”
“What do you want?”
“I have good news.”
Joetta was in the long skirt Papa had insisted she wear for outdoor work. “Stand away, please,” she said, putting a foot on the top rung.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, moving to a wall.
When her feet touched the floor, Weeks was examining the grooves in an exposed beam. “Did you know, Miss Thatcher,” he said, “there’s a cave painting in France of bison and rhinoceroses, where the artist signed his work with a palm print?” He shook his head. “Your grandfather’s axe marks will strike future historians the same way.”
“Adze marks,” she said.
“He shaped the timbers lengthwise with an adze.”
He nodded. “Adze marks. Of course.”
“Also, the Chauvet artist may have been a woman. Scholars disagree.”
He looked at her in surprise as men had always done when she knew things they didn’t. “I stand corrected, Joetta,” he said, bowing slightly at the hips.
She nearly scolded him again for using her first name, but he’d said it with such good humor she let it go. “That’s kind of you, Mr. Weeks, but the cabin stays put. We’ll burn it down before we let the county take it.”
“Who is ‘we,’ exactly?”
“Mother and me.”
“Mmm-hmm.” He studied the beam some more. “What about your brother?” he said, as though the thought had just occurred to him. “Alex, I believe his name is.”
Joetta’s heart froze. “What do you know about Alex?”
“Only what my digging tells me. He’s fifty-three. He lives in Battle Creek. He—”
“My brother is none of your business, sir.”
“Actually, he is, ma’am.”
“What do you mean?”
“Alex inherited half this property when your father died.” He looked at her curiously. “Surely you knew that.”
“It’s a lie.”
“It’s not, Joetta,” Weeks said. “We talked on the phone just this morning. He’s coming south to help with this cabin business.” He smiled. “That’s my good news.”
Minutes later, Joetta stood in the house’s front room and watched the county man walk to his car. His back was turned, though the looseness of his stride, the tilt of his head, told her he was whistling.
She went to the kitchen, where she poached an egg and heated a cup of broth, taking both upstairs. Mother had faded visibly in twenty-four hours, her skull adamant beneath her flesh, the skin shrunk from her teeth. She groaned as her daughter lifted her, and when Joetta put the broth to her mouth she twisted away.
“Behave,” Joetta said, but she lowered the old lady to her pillow again, then sat in the wing-backed chair and watched the sun through window shades change from late morning to early afternoon.
Alex lived in Battle Creek, two hours to the north. The same heat scorching Joetta was no doubt scorching him as well. They looked at the same stars at night. She had imagined him roaming the world like a lion, seeking someone to devour, when he and Leonard Weeks had talked on the phone that very morning.
She heard a rustle and saw that Mother had rolled to a side and was watching her, eyes bright in her gaunt face.
“Want to eat something?” Joetta said.
Mother worked her tongue before she spoke. “Not hungry.”
Joetta leaned forward. The old lady’s flashes of awareness came and went these days like heat lightning above a far tree line. There might never be another. “I need to know some things,” she said.
Since her stroke, Mother’s eyes moved independently from each other. Now one fixed on the wall and the other warily on Joetta’s face. “What sorts of things?”
“Did Papa leave half the house to Alex?”
Mother coughed drily. “It’s what folks do,” she said.
“Leave their worldly goods to the son.”
“What about me?”
“What about you?”
Joetta stretched to take her mother’s hand, holding it tightly when the old lady tried to pull away. “Didn’t I give my whole life to this place?”
Mother sighed. “You did your best. I always said so.”
Joetta sniffed deeply. The stink off her mother’s skin was like spent marigold blossoms, dead flies on a windowsill, milk left out overnight. “What did Alex do to… to deserve so much?” she whispered.
Mother smiled and closed her eyes, as one remembering a dream. “He was the answer to a prayer.”
Joetta dropped her hand and sank back into her chair. The dark room pressed in from all sides. The air was foul. She wanted to rip the curtains down, smash the windows with her fists.
“But wasn’t he a monster?” she cried aloud. “Didn’t he hurt us and bring us shame? Didn’t he take and take and take without a thought to anyone else? Wasn’t he the opposite of what Papa preached every Sun—”
Mother was writhing from side to side. “He had no choice in how God made him. The morning star only knows how to shine. He… he…” Her chest swelled with a great draught of air, and when she released it she was dead.
An hour later Joetta sat in the kitchen. A better daughter, she knew, would have washed Mother’s face, crossed her arms over her breast, called Mr. Labuzienski at the funeral home. But Joetta had left the upstairs room in haste, and now she only sat and traced the whorls in the wood table with a fingertip.
She remembered Labuzienski’s oily condolences as he’d zipped Papa into a bag and wheeled him to the hearse. She remembered neighbors appearing soon after, hands bearing walnut bread or pies, eyes famished to know who had been on the gurney.
She remembered Mother in the days that followed, looking up from her needlework in a kind of stunned confusion and saying, “I’m a widow,” as though the change from one existence to the next had been too abrupt to take in.
“I’m an orphan,” Joetta said to the quiet house, trying to generate a like astonishment, but all she felt was emptiness, like a child’s pumpkin scraped out at Halloween. She went over and over her mother’s final words:
The morning star only knows how to shine.
She’d been almost sixteen when Alex came home from his first year at the university. He’d taken up smoking and was banished to the porch when he indulged, and there he’d regaled his sister with stories of the brilliant people he knew, the parties he attended, the music and poetry she’d only read about in books.
Inevitably, his talk turned to Joetta’s place in the Thatcher house. She was no longer a child, but a young woman. His dormmates had remarked on the family photo he kept at his desk, how fragile and pretty his sister was.
“Aren’t you tired,” he’d said, lighting his third cigarette in half an hour, “of being Miss Goody Two-Shoes? Of hanging onto that old gasbag’s every word and jumping whenever Mother calls?”
Yes, Joetta had acknowledged, she supposed she was a little tired, but what other life was there for a girl with a bad leg and bad heart and not a friend in the world?
“Whatever life you choose!” he’d answered. He jerked his head toward the indoors, where Papa was writing his sermon and Mother embroidering a pillow. “It’s positively wicked to raise a daughter in a swamp of superstition and involuntary servitude. Those people—those pious good-for-nothings—are the worst kind of criminals. Degenerates during the week and money changers on Sunday.”
“How are they degenerates?” Joetta had asked softly.
“By treating you like a scullery maid,” he’d nearly shouted, “fit for cooking porkchops and paying the water bill.”
Joetta wanted to protest—Papa was forever kind, Mother could be sweet when the house was running smoothly—but she held her tongue. Her brother was exceptional. Everyone said so. He’d gone places and seen things she’d only dreamed about.
Alex had been home a week when he suggested moving their talks to the cabin. It would be like old times, he said, and besides, there were tales from university life that weren’t suitable for the porch.
When Joetta asked their father’s permission, the reverend clapped his hands and agreed. It was a fine thing, he said, having his children under the same roof again. “God’s in his heaven,” he proclaimed. “All’s right with the world.”
And that night in the loft—the spring air cold, owls in the trees—Alex had produced a silver flask from his jacket and sucked from it as Joetta huddled beside him, and between swallows he’d described how sophisticated life was beyond the Thatcher walls, how men and women drank wine and smoked hashish and traded partners like ordinary people lent out magazines.
“It’s always been that way,” he said, his voice soaked with contempt. “The Greeks passed slave boys back and forth. Ben Franklin had”—he made quotes in the moonlight with his fingers—“‘intrigues’ with prostitutes. Even the sainted Joseph Thatcher married his first cousin Belinda.”
Joetta was shocked by the flask—tobacco was an abomination, Papa often said, but whiskey was the devil’s brew—but she knew all about great-great-grandmother Belinda. Cousins marrying cousins, the reverend had explained, was once a common practice. Men and women didn’t always have the luxury of choice. Adam and Eve’s children “most certainly” had connubial relations, given that they were Creation’s first people and God had commanded them to be fruitful and multiply.
“Papa told me about Grandma Belinda,” Joetta said. “He—”
Alex silenced her with a barking laugh. “Of course, he did. He was covering his ass.” Joetta was shivering, and he pulled her to him. His large teeth gleamed. His breath was hot against her face. “Do you doubt for a minute, my naïve Joetta, that our parents slept together before God sanctified their union?”
“I don’t know,” Joetta said. “I—”
“Ah, baby sister,” he said, pressing her to the floor. “You’re so adorably stupid.”
She wasn’t stupid, but when she tried to say so, he was suddenly kissing her with his whiskey-tasting mouth, the first time—the only time, as life would have it—that Joetta Thatcher would be kissed by a man.
The phone roused Joetta from her thoughts. She looked at the clock above the sink. She’d been sitting for an hour. Folks rarely called the house, and she thought at first it must be Leonard Weeks, but after the phone had rung five times, ten, twenty, she knew it was Alex.
He was calling from a gas station on the road, from the county man’s office, from the house across the street. Soon he would walk up the sidewalk and turn a key he’d never gotten rid of in the front door. With every tick of the clock, he was drawing closer.
The phone went dead as she climbed to Mother’s room, where she opened the curtains and threw the windows wide. The old lady’s face in sunlight—eyes staring, mouth in angry mid-utterance—was dreadful, but Joetta combed her hair and tucked the covers beneath her chin, then closed the door and went downstairs.
There she found Weeks’ letter and pinned it to the wood tabletop with a boning knife. She thought to write something caustic at the bottom of the page, but instead she took the egg she’d poached and smeared it with her palm across the county man’s signature.
The phone began to ring again as she was washing her hands, so she dried herself and went outside. There she paused to survey the house she’d lived in for fifty years. The siding was faded but clean. The windows were sparkling, the flowerbeds tidy.
Any passerby would assume that decent people lived within.
The interior was spotless as well, but for a dead woman upstairs and an egg congealing on the kitchen table. These could be easily remedied—one by a call to Mr. Labuzienski, the other by a dishrag and some cleanser.
She walked to the cabin and pushed open its door. Afternoon light slanted through boarded windows. Pigeons cooed from the rafters. Papa’s hymnals and envelopes and church readers leaned in mummified stacks against the plaster.
Joetta studied the stacks for a time, then found the crowbar where she’d dropped it the day before and pried a bundle from the wall. It broke apart as it fell, spilling its moldy guts about her ankles. She did the same to the stack next to it, and the one next to that. Soon she was striding back and forth like a reaper, slashing at the piles, splitting their skins, scattering pages in her wake.
In ten minutes, paper covered the floor. Joetta thought to rest, but evening was upon her, and there was more to do. She walked to where Papa had stacked pieces of the ruined staircase, and these she pried apart with the crowbar, stuffing church litter between them until she’d assembled a small mountain of paper and wood.
When she’d finished, she stepped back and examined what she’d built. Some of the pages were damp but most were not. The staircase boards had escaped rain through the roof. She was satisfied all would burn when she asked it to. She fussed with the pyre a bit longer, then climbed the ladder to the loft. There, she fetched the cigar box from its hiding place and took from it the sleeping bird jewel case.
She needn’t worry, Alex had said when he was finished, leaning against a timber and draining the flask. He’d pulled out at the last moment. Also, they weren’t really brother and sister. Also, it wasn’t possible for a girl to get pregnant her first time, and tonight—he’d laughed out loud—was clearly her first time.
When Joetta didn’t answer, his voice turned cold. There was no sense telling Papa or Mother. They wouldn’t believe her. She’d only be making trouble for herself.
He was right, of course, and the next day when the reverend asked why she was so quiet, Joetta said she was getting sick, perhaps from spring air in the cabin.
And she was getting sick. By sunset she was feverish, and she woke in the middle of the night to throw up. A muffled heaviness settled over her in the days that followed, so she could barely do her chores. After a week of this Mother suggested that she was playacting for sympathy, that Alex being home meant she wasn’t the queen bee any longer, that her change in status galled her.
As for Alex, he breezed in and out, visiting old classmates, playing softball at the park. Soon he left for Camp Interlocken in Michigan, where’d he’d won an eight-week fellowship teaching music theory to gifted teenagers.
With her brother gone, Joetta could almost breathe again, but then the nausea returned. She found herself crying at odd times. She couldn’t bear the smell of her own cooking. When she missed a period, she told herself that she’d never been regular, that Alex had promised she wouldn’t get pregnant, that Reverend Thatcher’s God couldn’t be so cruel as to give his daughter a child by his adopted son.
Her fears were realized and put to rest on the same August morning—nine weeks after the loft, only days before Alex was to come home from Michigan—when furious cramping drove her to the toilet. There she crouched and sobbed as her insides splashed in pieces large and small into the bowl.
Her baby had been pink as a newborn mouse when Joetta scooped it from the toilet, but thirty-five years wrapped in a tinfoil shroud had hardened it like a worm baked on the sidewalk. Even so, she made out its nubby fingers and toes, its rounded spine, its bulging face curved inward, as if to study the thing it would never become.
She clutched it and lay on her side, listening to the snapping of the fire below. She wasn’t afraid. She’d read every book in the library, and she knew that children upstairs in burning houses or women burned at the stake as witches were almost always dead before flames touched their flesh. The oxygen around them was used up. They slipped away, passed on to whatever—
The heavy door crashed open beneath her, and then Leonard Weeks was shouting, “Miss Thatcher! My God, Miss Thatcher!” An older man’s voice joined him, in a roar that demanded obedience. “Joetta, show yourself!”
Joetta didn’t hear. The loft had filled with smoke, and she was unconscious, her only child tight against her breast, a smile on her face like a woman remembering a dream.
Bob Johnson lives and writes in South Bend, Indiana. His stories have appeared in The Hudson Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Barcelona Review, American Fiction, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.