Was that the voice of a child out on the street, or did she imagine it? She never heard children playing in the neighborhood. A little louder this time, a child singing. “Ring the rosie! Ring roun’ the rosie!” The old woman went to the front window and dragged open heavy curtains, setting free a veil of dust that settled on her shoes. She pulled her sleeve over her hand and wiped a clean circle in the center of the hazy window.

Outside, massive new houses surrounded and shadowed her two-room cottage. There were garages out front that spit out cars every morning and swallowed them up every evening. There were front porches, some with chairs, but no one ever sat on them. No little ones ever tumbled on the perfectly trimmed grass.

“Pocket full of posies!” She watched as a little girl appeared two houses down, dancing down the sidewalk. She was holding a doll in one hand, waving it wildly over her head as she sang. When she reached the old woman’s house, the child spun around and threw the doll into the air. It crashed to the sidewalk. The girl stopped singing and picked up the doll. Its arm hung by a frayed strip of cloth. The old woman watched as the girl walked to her garbage bin, lifted the lid, and dropped the doll in. She slammed the lid down, startling the old woman, who clasped her arms around her waist. The girl skipped down the street singing, “Ashes, ashes, all fall down,” and disappeared around the corner.  

The old woman walked through her house, out onto the back porch, and sat on the steps to settle her breathing. She imagined the doll in the trash bin, lying on carrot scrapings and chicken bones, growing cold as the sun set. She imagined it falling from the garbage truck through the air, falling and falling, coming to rest on mountains of trash. She walked to her garden, taking deep breaths to blow those thoughts away.

On the edge of the garden was a large stone, painted white. The long grass around it was bent over for want of cutting, but it was soft under her knees. She laid a hand on the rock, still warm from the midday sun, and it calmed her. Purple veins crisscrossed her hand, lending a lavender cast to her skin, skin that had been clear and smooth when she carried the rock here long ago. Over the years, it had sunk several inches into the ground. She brushed dirt and bird droppings from its surface. Pansies she had tucked in around the stone turned their gold faces to the west, following the sun. As dusk fell on the back yard, they curled in their leaves, sequestering the day’s warmth against the cool of the coming night.

The old woman picked a handful of peas for supper and dropped them into her apron pocket. She tied up raspberry canes that had come untethered from the fence and picked a handful of ripe berries. One especially large berry caught her eye, and when she held it against the sky, the setting sun turned each druplet into a red crystal. Why did this one berry grow fat and juicy while another withered on the branch, dark and dehydrated?

After supper, the old woman returned to the front window and watched lights go out in one house, then another and another. She pushed a chair away from the front door and tried the lock. It had seized, frozen from disuse, but she twisted it back and forth until there was a loud snap as the bolt gave way. The door moaned and sagged, letting a slit of dusky light into her living room. When the sun fell fully away, she stepped out into the darkness.

The old woman ran a dishrag under warm water and cleaned the doll’s face, wiping away bits of tomato, picking coffee grounds from its hair. The arm of the doll had lost its stuffing. She used her finger to push cotton down inside until it was plump and round. With the tip of a needle, she caught up a few threads and tugged at the cloth, creating dimples in the elbow. She reattached the arm and the leg using slip stitches her mother had taught her. In the bottom of her bag, she found her smallest crochet hook and grabbed a handful of colorful yarn remnants. She pulled out a length of pink yarn and a long strand of blue. Both were clean and soft, but she couldn’t choose. How could she choose? They wouldn’t tell her. No one would tell her. She put the blue yarn back, started to pick it up again, but let it fall into the bag. With the pink, she crocheted two tiny booties. She put them on her fingertips while she attached bows, then slipped them onto the doll’s feet. She lay the doll on her footstool and walked to the bedroom.

It was painful to bend so low, and the bottom dresser drawer was stuck, but after several tries, she gave one good yank, and the drawer opened. The old woman lifted out a sweater she hadn’t worn in decades and a robe she didn’t remember at all. She pulled out his old slippers and held them to her face. At the very bottom of the drawer, she found the parcel, wrapped in brown paper, fastened with a faded department store sticker. She placed it on the bed, broke the seal, and lay her hand on a buttery-yellow receiving blanket.

The old woman sat in her rocker and bundled the doll in the blanket, tucking in one arm, then the other, wrapping the rest snugly around its body. She lifted the baby to her, took in its weight against her breasts, rested her chin lightly on the top of its head. She felt the gentle rise of the baby’s chest, an almost imperceptible wiggle as it settled against her, soft round heels pressing into her thigh. She rocked.

Just before sunup, the old woman awakened, still in the rocker, with the baby across her knees. She carried it out to the garden and placed it on the grass. With all her strength, the old woman tugged at the stone, rocking it back and forth, creating more space with each pull and push. She slipped the tip of her garden trowel into the space, rocked it again, slipped the trowel in farther, and finally, she was able to roll the stone out of the hole. The labor left her exhausted, and she sat back on the grass to recover.

When her breathing eased, the old woman reached into the hole where the rock had lain. She brushed aside a layer of soil and rotting leaves, then lifted out a small wooden box, and removed its cover. The box was empty save a few bits of dirt, which she brushed away using the corner of her apron. Gently, she tucked the infant down inside. The old woman placed the palm of her hand on the baby chest, letting her warmth seep into its still body, then drew the blanket over the baby’s face. She covered the box and laid it to rest under the white stone. Bye, baby. Bye, my baby.

Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Wendy Gilbert Gronbeck

Wendy Gilbert Gronbeck lives and writes on the dunes above Lake Michigan. She writes humorous memoir, short stories, and essays. Ms. Gronbeck has worked as a video producer and writer, broadcast writing and performance coach, oncology nurse, hospice nurse and care coordinator. Her varied careers have provided first-hand experience with trauma and grief, heroism, humor and fury, and her themes and characters are born of that experience. Ms. Gronbeck’s work has appeared in Our Iowa Magazine; Michigan History Magazine; her blog, Iowa County Almanac; the Erma Bombeckboog; Little Old Lady Comedy blogs; You Might Need to Hear This; the short story anthology, Revenge (Free Spirit, 2022.) Her novel, Drownings,was a finalist in Novel Slices 2022, The Institute for the Novel.