Melissa Benton Barker
Ainsley's grandmother took her for a haircut just yesterday, and now
the back of her neck is exposed, the delicate, barely visible line of fuzz
that runs from her hairline to the first knob of her spine. It's late
afternoon, and Ainsley is digging.
Her knuckles are rust-brown, her fingernails caked with dirt. She squats at
the foot of a palm, legs bare, knees open. She roots around in the dirt.
There's a mason jar beside her, half-filled.
"What on God's green earth are you doing?" says her grandmother.
Ainsley turns her head to look, then goes back to her work.
"I found some lizard eggs," she says. "I'm going to hatch them."
The ground all around the palm tree is dug up in little spots where she's
been rooting. Ainsley pushes herself up off the ground, holds the jar up to
her grandmother's face. Sure enough, five or six pill-sized eggs,
chalky-white, are pushed up against the glass. Ainsley has tamped the dirt
down on top of them.
Her grandmother is wearing a calf-length denim skirt with buttons all down
the front, and a straw-hat with silk flowers on it. Ainsley puts the glass
so close to her nose that she has to back up a step.
"All right," her grandmother says. "I see them."
Daniel O'Malley comes up the road beside them and passes by without looking.
"Daniel O'Malley is a handsome boy," her grandmother says.
Ainsley goes back to squatting.
Daniel moves up the road, shrinking as he nears the end of the block.
Ainsley's grandmother drops her hands. Even her own hands have gone against
her, grown ropy and splotched.
"Go on then," she says to Ainsley. "Go after him."
Ainsley sets off, walking right in the middle of the road because that's
what children do; they cannot be bothered with shoes. The road is rich and
warm under Ainsley's feet. In some places it's silky with flattened worms,
or even frogs gone crisp under car wheels. Daniel is going fast, headed for
When Ainsley makes it to the edge of the playground, she steps in a patch of
burrs. A few of them catch in the flesh of her heel. She falls with the
startle of it and drops her jar. She has to attend to her foot before going
after the jar, or the needles will burrow. She pulls her foot to her thigh,
starts to pick at it.
Daniel climbs down the monkey bars as Ainsley squeezes the flesh around the
last burr. The burr pops up and out, but there's still a buried splinter. If
she leaves it in there, it will turn red and swell. Then her grandmother
will go after her with a hot needle.
"I've got lizard eggs!" she calls to Daniel.
"We should crack them open," he says. "See what's inside."
He's got chap-lip, a scrape on his chin.
"I know how you can get them clean," Daniel says, so she gives him one of
the eggs. He puts it in his mouth and sucks gently, then shows her the
almost-clean egg, glistening on his tongue. She wants it back but he pulls
it in again and her breath roars inside her ears.
"I'm kidding," says Daniel. He takes the egg off his tongue and hands it
back to her.
The trees go black and shaggy around them and cluster together, hiding the
dim yellow lights of houses, mothers in kitchen windows, fathers in their
underwear, and the wayward, burr-struck cats who make their way home to lick
the insides of tuna fish cans.
There's a glow around the playground just before the sun goes down. If the
street lights burned out, the children would see the stars poking through.
Ainsley and Daniel hold the clean eggs on their tongues. Soon, there will be
Melissa Benton Barker has stories in SmokeLong Quarterly, Gravel, Necessary Fiction and others. She's an
MFA candidate at Antioch University-Los Angeles.
Read her postcard.
Detail of photo on main page courtesy
of Porphyria Poppins.
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