Day Come White, Night Come Black
—Rural Montana, late 20th century
Maria birthed two babies on a cold white morning, one following so quickly after the other they may have clasped limbs on the way down. Ice on the windows shone — she pushed and sweat on her brow mixed with steam from the boiling pot on the black iron stove. Her skin shone. Pelga, the Russian nurse from the next town over, built the fire up, to make Maria’s body soft in the warmth, and she freed all the knots in the room — unbinding her hair, unraveling the curtain ties, unwinding the yarns — to loosen the children. She prayed in a chirping, tripping tongue and asked for inmar’s good patience. She made Maria hold her arms above her head and kept her feet held high from the bed frame. She warned the women waiting from uttering the words “giving birth.” The must say instead “finding the child.”
“Nolpi Shodton,” Pelga, redfaced, would tell them every hour. She’s still finding her children.
Maria panted and slapped the boards behind the bed with her open palms, keeping her hands high under the woman’s eyes folded in wrinkles. She felt hands soft as chewed leather grasping her calves, felt hands wet and warm wipe sweat from her eyes.
A girl came first. In the final pain Maria screamed and waited for the second child’s cry to strike a chord with her own but no song came. She turned her head to the window and stared in the white light.
The fat old nurse sheathed the living girl in a blanket the color of teeth, and the boy born still and gray in a worn brown towel.
“Inmar s’otiz,” she said with one arm. God gave. With the other arm, “Inmar ug s’oto.” God has not given, she said soft, and, crying, held the unmoving thing to its mother. With the girl she turned to the oven and lifted the child three times. She said a charm that the girl would be alive and healthy, would take care of her mother in her age, and that she would get married with a wedding. Whispered under her breath she gave the girl a min’cho nim. A sauna name. A first and secret name. Open eyes. She called out, “Kulemjos, peresjos. Sjotele solo lul.” Deceased ancestors, ancient ones. Give her a soul. She wrapped the postpartum in a clean cloth for burial under the floorboards in the corner of the room.
Maria cradled the light parcel on her bare forearms and brought her face in close. His eyes rested closed, two dark halfmoon fringes. She felt the wetness still slipping on her legs. She kissed each easeful eye — first the right, the eye for a pleasant meeting, and then the left, the left for disappointments. Her lips moved to the perfect small ears.
“My loved.” Her tears fell on his face.
The Urmurt nurse fixed a coin into the cap of the girl with open eyes to bring fortune, carrying on the ways she learned as a girl in her village by the river, where birth remained the truest moment. She replaced the dead boy with the quiet, breathing girl and set him in a carved pine box she kept for this purpose. Pelga left into the snow. Maria rose, damp and clasping her daughter, to unbolt the front window so the boy’s ghost might come and go freely. She watched the curved old woman scrape down the road, growing smaller and pale as she passed the twisted oak along the way.
Cold air and white light. The day of my birth. You found me. You held me and brushed my eyes with the pads of your fingers. You gave me my brother’s name and I took it in my unfilled middle as I sucked at your breast. A storm of hail brings frost on its tail. Pale moon doth rain, red moon doth blow, white moon doth neither rain nor snow. If there be a rainbow in the eve, it will rain and leave; if there be a rainbow in the morrow, it will neither lend nor borrow. The cradle rocked and rocked.
On her second year to heaven James Open Eyes stops looking. She sings and laughs and calls her mother Ma-ta, dances with her head thrown back to the sky or toddles with her eyes cast to the floor. She strokes each of her mother’s fingers and rubs her head against Maria’s smooth brown hair, but when gathered in arms she buries her head and hides.
“A disorder,” the young doctor from town says. “When she grows older she’ll sit and stare or twirl strings. She may even be blind.”
Maria does not nod. Sick and sorrowful, she glares. “She can see things.”
“She lives without seeing others,” says the doctor. “Usually comes from the mother. A bond that was disrupted, or lack of tender affections.”
“There is one too many in this room! You have not seen all the sickness in the world. You have not seen my daughter dance near the fire, you have not seen her splashing in the basin or pulling flowers. And I have had too much of your company.” Maria stands to let the young man out and when he leaves she spits twice, once inside the doorway and once on the stoop.
“Ba!” says James. Maria takes her to nurse on the boundary stone at the crossroad, so she will know her direction when she has grown.
Pelga says the man should “kooshi govo ee oomree.” Eat shit and die.
“Why does she not look at me?” Maria asks.
“Mukolchin, earth god,” she says. “She does not look because he gives her frights to see.”
“Can she see without the frights?”
“Cover the zterkelas. Let her wander to see the things that will not frighten. Show her music and the light from the moon and the sun.” The old woman blows swampy air into the child’s mouth, for the breath of one who has never seen their natural father can cure a curse.
“It also works on thrush,” the nurse says. When she leaves the wind blows at her back and her hair waves above her head. Maria covers the mirrors. She gathers James Open Eyes to her chest and, solitary, sings of faeries dancing in forests of grass.
You danced and swung me until the room swirled. Your hair spun round. When the dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass. Fog on the hill brings water to the mill. Fog on the moor brings water to the door. If the moon shows a silver shield, be not afraid to reap your field. The room turned and turned.
James Open Eyes, seven hands tall and five years old, builds rings of stones with the neighbor girl, Emily. Emily has a fat face and a loud voice. The pair sprinkles barley seeds under the apple trees and recites, “Barley barley I sow thee. That my true love I may see, take thy rake and follow me.” Emily’s seeds scatter on the wind. On the black dirt James’ seeds make a shape.
“Looks like a toad,” Emily tells her. But it is a house, or a bird, or a tree.
They run from one end of their faerie land to the other, jumping logs. The chubby child trips and James runs to offer her hand. She looks at the rich dirt and the scraped knee, at the tall wheat and hidden toadstools, at the ravens above and the ground and the brown bare feet. But Emily is a mighty girl and she hugs James hard and grasps her head with wide hands. Their eyes gather. James shakes her off and turns. She pressed her palms to her face.
“James? The faeries get you, James?” Emily gasps and spits her words. James throws her head to one side and then the other. “Then what, James? You see something bad?”
James turns to Emily and stares at her standing straight and tall in a torn purple dress.
“Don’t stop when you cross the ice on the lake in the field, Em. Crawl on your knees or go round. You could sink.” She says this so quiet and low that Emily pushes her down in fright.
“I know that, bughead.” She runs home to tell her mother. With Maria, in the late red evening, James pulls out a cloth square checked with red and white. She folds, bringing one corner to meet the other and pleats the material under. Maria fastens it with two knots over her strange child’s eyes. James thrusts her arms forward and spins.
I in bare feet, a child. The purple dress wavers in the gust. The ice snapped but the sound echoed from the shore faraway. What is the creature that could make such a noise? Underneath it was dark and breath came wet, without air. When the stars begin to huddle the earth will soon become a puddle. Onion skin is very thin, mild winter’s coming in. Onion’s skin is thick and tough, coming winter cold and tough. On meeting magpies, ravens, or crows — one is lucky, two is unlucky, four is wealth, five is sickness, six is death. The ice creaked and snapped.
The shrunken Pelga teaches James Open Eyes music. They sit at the piano in Maria’s kitchen. Before each lesson the nurse plays the same song in a low register. She sings about a river called Kama. James cannot remember the notes or their letters and sits through each lesson swinging her feet and twirling her blindfold’s knots at the back of her head. When her hands stumble over themselves and miss the bone keys she pounds her hands down hard.
“I can’t find them! I can’t see the notes and I can’t play this music.” Her cheeks under the cloth are wet.
“Seeing is not playing,” the old woman says. She takes James’ hands in her soft and knotted grasp. “See with ears. See with breathing.” She strikes a key with James’ finger. “What sound? What sound?”
“C?” she guesses.
“No,” the nurse answers. “What sound in life? What? Boom? Tick? Tap?” She presses James’ fingers again.
“The church bell?”
Together they press another note.
“An apple falling.”
“The window in the bedroom creaking.”
The woman uses the girl’s hands and strikes a chord. James waits until the last echo and replies, “Rain on the chicken house roof, cricket in the grass, Ma-ta snoring.”
“See?” the woman says.
Icicles hitting the snow, feet on paced red dirt, skin whispering against skin. James plays the rocking chair’s creaking arms, the crow’s flapping wings, the jumping trout. She plays pebbles pouring from a hand, eggs tapping in the basket, gristle in the pan.
In the winter when Emily drowns in the hayfield pond Maria walks her to the little brown church. James Open Eyes runs her hands along the smooth pews. The Father’s voice bounces from the tall ceiling. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.”
Emily’s family fills two rows. Her mother, round with another child, stands outside the church. A woman with child must never see death. The baby could fall ill.
“Praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and the dance: Praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.” When the young schoolmistress plays the exiting song James listens for the sounding cymbals. But she hears Emily’s high laughter, the chirping chickadee, the setting of stones in the faerie rings. Hawks, cedar twigs breaking, slapping thighs running home across the fields.
Maria and James leave the church in the improper sunlight. Emily’s mother stands looking to the north. She sees James and grabs on to her thin arms.
“You knew,” she hisses. “You knew and you told her that day in the summer. She came home scared and told me you looked at her. You knew.” The mother’s round face is hard.
Maria pulls James away.
“She did not know. No one knows. It is not possible.” Maria speaks carefully to the heartsick mother. They walk slow and heavy down the snowy road — James tightens the knots in the red and white cloth. The church steeple behind them casts a shadow on the ground.
You led me away but I wanted to stay. Her mother’s hands hummed against my cloak. If the cock molt before the hen, we shall have weather thick and thin, but if the hen molt before the cock, we shall have weather hard as a block. If you wish to live and thrive, let the spider walk alive. Hay, hay, load of hay, make a wish and turn away. Em’s mother moaned and moaned.
At school, ten years along her way, James Open Eyes tells the children she is blind. They make fun, always making her the blindman in the bluffing game. They circle her and yell and sneak behind her and push. “Look at me, James,” they taunt and laugh. But they wonder how she catches them without cheating. They tug at her blindfold in the play yard. Only quiet Aedan leads her by the hand into the classroom. He stands behind her and glares at the mocking children. He likes her quiet movement, how she never trips, even when the children put sticks in her path. He likes her hair, long and combed under her cloth. After school he lags behind the others to walk with her. She walks backwards and takes her cloth off, keeping her eyes lightly closed.
One day in the spring she sees two hawks tumbling through her eyelashes. They break apart at the treeline and turn back to the sky. She inhales fast, turning to Aedan, but slips her folded cloth up to her eyes before she catches his hand. The schoolgirls gather and snicker at the pair, at quiet Aedan the sawyer’s son and James the blind girl with the strange grace. When James turns toward the smoke curling from Maria’s chimney the cheeping girls chant, “Curly locks, Curly locks, will you be mine? You shall not wash the dishes, nor feed the swine, but sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam, and sup upon strawberries, sugar, and cream.” They hold hands and dance in a circle around him. Their hair flies. Aedan’s skin brightens pink as he jams his hands into his pockets.
I wanted to say, Look at the hawks. Look. At home steam rose from the bread. You knew my stir because my hands fluttered so and you cut a slice for me. If I am to marry far let me hear a bird cry. If I am to marry near, let the cow low. If I am to single die, let me hear a knocking by. If you find an even ash, or a four-leafed clover, you will see your love adore the day is over. The south wind brings us wet weather, the north wind wet and cold together; the west wing always brings us rain, the east wind blows it back again. He held my hand and we walked and walked.
Eighteen summer and eighteen winters. Maria grows wrinkles and James has breasts of her own. The Russian nurse no longer walks to the house. They visit her in the next town and she says she wants to die.
“Move the table from its place,” the ancient nurse says. “Turn up a shingle on the roof and open all the windows.” Maria does as the nurse wishes. The old woman is ghostly even now. Maria also fills the empty objects in the house, stuffing dressing gowns and dishcloths into baskets and jars before turning them over. So the soul is free to leave and cannot hide anywhere.
“Take the vinegar away, Ja-ta, so the ghost does not sit around, and hang the birdcage outside. Move the beehives.” James obeys her mother. After hiding any refuge for her soul, James Open Eyes presses close to the old nurse and inhales. The woman smells of sheets and powder and the dust that rises from the road.
Walking west to home Maria weeps and weeps. James wipes at the tears with her palms and Maria stops swiftly, whipping the worn cloth from her daughter’s god-cursed eyes.
“Tell me.” James’ face goes white and her eyes grow wet in surprise at her mother’s fierceness. “Tell me.” James looks before pulling Maria’s hands from her face, running away. She cuts through the grain to their house standing white and hollow on the horizon. When Maria returns James sits at the table, wearing the faded cloth.
“You will die old and happy, just like Pelga is. Perhaps even older,” James says, rolling a spindle along the oak planks. Maria enfolds James and presses her face to her breast. She smells like fresh turned soil. When the light turns gray she lets go and moves to the piano. Maria plays Pelga’s song — water over river stone, butter in the churn, gulls from a boat at sea, leather upon leather.
I lied a lie and would be caught. You held me close and I felt the sickness I had seen, growing already inside. The hare he loves the highwood, the hare she loves the hill, the knight he loves the bright sword, the lady loves her will. No weather is ill, if the wind be still. You played and played.
At Pelga’s burial Aedan gives James Open Eyes a stick carved from cedar. She strokes its smooth length. They stand near the new-carved hole in the ground and watch the men lower the box with rope.
“Cedar is for protection,” he says. He is a carpenter and a carver, with strong hands and he smells of wood.
Every day he meets her at the boundary stone and they walk, holding arms. She tells him how to see with his ears. “See? The wind through a needled tree is high, like a whistle. Wind through the leaves is low, and it rustles.”
“The pine’s needles are pointed at the ends,” he shows her, pricking them against her palm.
“And this one?”
“Cedar’s needles are spread flat and soft. You could sleep on them,” he says.
A day at summer’s end he draws her low into the tall, dry grass at the riverbank. He tugs at her dress and she snaps a button off his shirt. His mouth tastes sweet and his hands are rough. He pulls at her blindfold.
“No,” she says. “No.”
“You do take it off,” he breathes. “I’ve seen you.”
She quiets him by guiding his hips to hers.
I opened up and felt a honeyed sharpness and heard a sound not held by any chord in my keys. He rested his head on my stomach, bare in the sun. Redbird, redbird, fly to the right, and I’ll see my true love come Saturday night. A scratch up and down is a lover found, a scratch across is a lover lost. If in October you do marry, love will come but riches tarry. If you wed in bleak November, only joys will come, remember. We rose and fell.
They wed in the fall. The cherry trees dropped their fruit. The bride must always walk to the church, so Maria clasps her hand, singing all the time to conceal her pain. They see a rainbow. “Brings good memories to the newlywed’s home,” Maria tells her.
James Open Eyes has a new white blindfold and a careful, tall posture. Her dress has long sleeves and the back brushes the ground. It shines like the fatty beads atop fresh pulled cream.
Inside the little brown church the Father says, “Light is sweet and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. Even those who live many years should rejoice them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclinations of your heart and the desire of your eyes.”
James and Aedan take each other, sickness and health, death do they part. James cries and her tears bump over her smile.
“If the bride weeps during the ceremony,” Maria tells her, “those will be the last tears she ever sheds over her marriage.”
They leave down the long aisle, James’ hand brushing the cool pews. The schoolmistress plays. The fence swinging shut, a wind blowing the door, a skipping rope hitting the grass. The church bells knell.
Maria walks with her daughter and her new son to the house he has built for them across the meadow. “Pick her up,” she instructs Aedan, lest James stumble or fall across the threshold and bring ill into the house. James laughs with her head tossed back, curled in his strong arms.
From the kitchen window Maria can see her own home, can see the window to the bedroom where she found her two babies. Her hands have grown pale as peeling birch paper. She sprinkles dry rice in front of their cupboards and ties a knotted rope across the footboard of their marriage bed, hewn from yellow pine. Then she leaves the couple and limps across the field to her home. She rests on her bed and remembers the small gray child she held in her arms. She remembers the tears splashing on his eyes. With steadfast certainty she understands that James has lied. She will die soon, with lines only faintly drawn under her eyes.
You crossed the meadow. He led me to the bed and his hands were cool against my back. A cherry year, a merry year, a pear yea, a dear year, a plum year, a dumb year. Magpie, magpie, chatter and flee, turn up thy tail and good luck to me. Snail, snail, put out your horns, I’ll give you bread and barley corns. I wanted you to go and stay at the same moment.
Maria dies in the winter when the ice again flashes on the windowpanes. James comes and washes the clothes she died in so she can rest. Aedan helps her shovel the storehouse and turn the apple wine in the cellar to ensure the grain of the year will grow after Maria’s death. Aedan moves to uncover a mirror, but James Open Eyes clutches his arm and shakes her head.
“They must stay covered,” she says. “One must never look at a reflection on a day of death.” She does not tell him they have been covered since she stopped looking.
They take the black fireplace in the center of the kitchen, so the spirit left in Maria’s house will continue burning in their own. James loads it high and sits all night, crying under her blindfold. Aedan comes and sits with her and he holds her hand, stares into the flames.
In the spring the milk cow, the nesting sparrow in the rafters, and James all grow pregnant. Her body is curved and new. When she washes clothes she immediately turns over the tub to ensure a safe delivery. She stops piercing the crusts of her breads with forks, so the child’s eyes will not be poked out.
The girl is found in the late fall. The snow falls for the first time. During each pain James cries out for Maria, and then for Pelga. She sweats and sweats. The doctor from the town, no longer young, comes to supervise the birth. He has a bag of sharp and shiny tools. Aedan sits downstairs and tenses with James’ every moan. He carves a cradle atop two rockers from cedar, smoothing the dowels with handfuls of sand. The doctor tells him he has a daughter, that she may likely become blind as her mother did. “It tends to run in families.”
Aedan shows him the door, saying, “Please do not ever come through this door again,” and then goes to James. The child is red and wailing, trying to gulp all the air in the room.
James lies sick and white, the sheets are damp. The room is hot and smells of river mud.
“I gave her a secret name,” James says. “A first name. Chickadee. You pick the rest, my love. My two loves.”
Aedan calls the girl Daire and James feels the word in her mouth over and over.
“Deh-ruh,” she says. “Deh-ruh Chickadee.” She looks underneath the blindfold straight into her daughter’s dark eyes. The girl looks back.
For the next six weeks James walks with shoes on to be sure her daughter will not take a dangerous fall when learning to walk. In the same six weeks she does not enter a stranger’s house without buying something in the town first so as not to bring misfortune. She does not draw water from wells, lest the well run dry for seven years. Aedan sets Daire Chickadee in the carved crib on her left side, so she won’t be a clumsy child.
The thousand responses of my heart would never cease. I held her body in one arm. Every ounce waiting for me. I wanted to show you, and I wanted to show Pelga. Look what we have done. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Sow peas and beans in the wane of the moon. Who soweth the sooner, he soweth too soon. The cock doth crow to let you know, if you be wise, ‘tis time to rise. We touched her and touched her.
Aedan catches James seeing. When Daire has grown some James takes her to the meadow near the pond. She shows her daughter the faerie rings made of mushrooms. She removes the blindfold and looks at her daughter’s curls the color of winter wheat. Daire is a joyful child, always laughing. She lifts her high and spins her round. Returning home and dragging an oak bole behind him, Aedan sees them dancing. He starts changing the furniture at night, the table over by five inches, the salt cellar where the sugar belongs. James wakes early to discover the changes and deliberately trips over the moved chairs. She pours salt in her tea.
One night dark as dirt she avoids the table that Aedan has set askew. He stands and grabs her by the shoulders. “Look at me!” He is fierce and sad. “Why won’t you look at me?” He snatches the cloth off her eyes. She squeezes them shut but he takes her face in his hands, forces her to look. “You can see. I’ve seen you in the meadow. I’ve seen you.”
Her eyes are frightened like a held animal’s. But she opens them and sees.
“What do you see?” he demands. “Tell me what you see.”
She is white and shaking.
“Nothing,” she lies. “I see nothing.” She weeps and falls into his arms. He is crying too, and he ties the red and white cloth back around her eyes, gentle in remorse.
Clouds of deathly gray and black. No breath. I took back my cloth and filled steins of water to set near the door. I tossed out the candles. What comes out of a chimney? Say smoke and each make a wish. Both then say: May your wish and my wish never be broke. Three holy men went out walking, they did bless the heat and the burning, they blessed that it might not increase; they blessed that it might quickly cease. He cried for me, and I for him. We rocked and rocked.
Returning from the field with Daire Chickadee on a day in bright springtime James Open Eyes smells burning. Smoke. The square house blazing in the sun. Flames reach to heaven. She sets her daughter in the rusted wheelbarrow at the gate and runs into the house. But no amount of water can stop this burning. The steins have been emptied. Again and again she enters the house, coming out again to cough and choke. Daire wails in the wheelbarrow.
In the ash, white and gray, she finds a mirror shard. Aedan’s brothers have removed his body in a box of carved pine. James holds her daughter upon her back. She picks up the shard and tosses her cloth to the ground. She looks. She sees that her eyes are blue, and sees more than that. What she sees does not frighten her.
At the burial she places the cloth with the red and white squares in the casket. The father begins a song, “When I went down in the river to pray, studying about that good old way, and who shall wear the starry crown, good Lord, show me the way.”
James and Daire join their voices and James looks straight ahead to the horizon. She will never cover her eyes again. The doctor from town comes to the funeral and calls her sight a medical miracle. She tells him she wishes him to be a better stranger. Daire holds a bird whittled from strong oak. She tosses it to see it fly, striking the doctor in the head. James and Daire take Maria’s home. Every night James plays. Fire eating wood, children’s jumping tunes, school bells pealing.
Water, blue sky, a circling osprey. I wanted to know where you went. I held our daughter and taught her songs to play for you. I uncovered the mirrors. When the cuckoo comes to the bare thorn, sell your cow and buy your corn, but when she comes to the full bit, sell your corn and buy your sheep. White horse, white horse, ding ding ding, on my way I’ll find something. When a cow tries to scratch her ear, it means a shower is very near. When she thumps her ribs with her tail, look out for lightening, thunder, and hail. We turned and turned.
James Open Eyes is an old woman. Daire has grown tall and strong. She carves from wood, and has found many children. James teaches them to scatter barley under the apple trees and find the shape of their loves. They learn to play music and how to see without looking. Sap popping in the black iron fireplace, snow hissing on the chicken hatch roof, biscuits falling from the pan.
James uses the cedar staff to walk to the river. She removes her clothes and enters up to her waist, where the current catches her. Above her the sky rests wide and open, below the water flows dark. She rests on her back and stares at the orbiting bird. Underneath, she looks into the black water. Her breath comes wet, but she is not frightened. As simple as breathing, she pictures their faces. Maria planting in the spring. Pelga scattering seeds over the stoop. Aedan with the dust from his saw on his brow. Daire in the wheelbarrow. Dirt as dark as sleep.
She listens and hears them humming together. Water over rock, ice melting in the sun, a girl’s high laugh. The south wing brings wet weather, the north wind wet and cold together, the west wind always brings us rain, the east wind blows it back again.about the author