What baby wants
We got him a rocking horse but our baby complained it was made of wood and it wasn’t very nice for the tree, and we tried to explain how one thing always displaces another, but our baby was having none of it. He lay in my wife’s arms, a tiny frown on his face. A milky dribble ran from his mouth. You have to eat, we said and eating means taking and we talked of all the different types of fruit; dark cherries falling in clusters, peaches raining down in a high wind, strawberries poking up from the earth. Our baby sighed, butted his little head into the breast.
When we offered him fruit, he threw it on the floor. Trampled it with his chubby feet. Red juice squeezed up between his toes. That’s not very kind, we told him. Our baby started laughing. His little chin wobbled. He shrieked with joy.
We put him outside under a tree. Birds made their nests in the high branches above. Our baby wrote a thesis on ‘aerial domesticity.’ We were amazed at the language he used. At night he slept under a pile of magnolia leaves. It was good to hear the faint rustling sound and know he was still alive. My wife stood by the window, bare breasted, her arms raised over her head.
I don’t know whose idea it was to kill the snails but we only did it because they were half dead anyway, crushed up in our pockets and what else could we do but put them out of their misery. We chucked them against the brick wall. Watched them froth up, make a slivery mess as they slid down. All except one that bounced off the wall and we had to kill it again. But just so nobody thinks we were bad you have to know we dug graves for those snails. Scraped the dirt away with our hands. Piled moss in so they had a soft bed to lie on. We stuck a twig on the mound to mark the spot. Somebody said we should salute the dead snails so we did that too. It was getting dark, that sobby time when you want to fly flags or pray to Jesus but we ended up singing the National Anthem and that felt pretty good. A group of snails is called a walk. But that’s when they’re alive.
We run for Jesus. We run the streets, we run with our hands in our pockets, we run backwards squawking like chickens, we run our faces stuffed with bread, we run past pigeons, daring them to snatch it from our mouths, we run like the Evangelists on wet Sundays, we run like playing cards falling from Joey Wheeler’s hands, we run like he burned his smoke into our thighs, we run past the lake full of sunken bicycles, we run like old firemen startled from sleep by the ringng of bells, we run straight into church, bread dropping from our mouths, we stop running when we see Jesus, we stop to kiss his marble feet.
If someone saves you, you’re either mad at them or love them forever and it was that way with me and Rhonda. It wasn’t the usual sort of love. Or the usual sort of save. She doesn’t pull me clear from a run away horse, drag me out from under its belly, the sharp hooves flailing the air. What she does is walk into our living room, hands on hips, eyeball my nervous uncle and say, ‘Tammy’s not going driving with you anymore.’ My uncle just about chokes on his cake. He can see Rhonda is the sort of girl who could say anything. He doesn’t yet know what she knows, whether she might be the canary about to sing, to put an end to the Saturday driving lessons down lonely roads, girl, keep your eyes on the road, watch that nasty bend, while the car starts and shudders and picks up speed through a corridor of trees.
He calls it a meander. I’ll take the girl for a meander, he calls to my mother, head out the window of his Chev. My mother is a tamed thrush. She cocks her head, coos that would be lovely, Ted. She tells me I’m lucky to get free driving lessons and not to give him any trouble.
Rhonda pushes me towards the door. ‘Go,’ she laughs. Down at the paddock we practice being horses, shaking our manes, running wild. Then we turn, approach slowly, ever so slowly until our noses touch. Our nostrils flicker, our rubbery lips pucker. Rhonda’s breath is warm on my cheek. She’ll either bite me or kiss me, I never know which. Later she’ll say this is another one of my made-up stories about her.
Frankie McMillan is the author of five books, the most recent of which, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions was listed by Spinoff as one of the ten best New Zealand fiction books of 2019. In 2016 her collection, My Mother and the Hungarians (Canterbury University Press) was long listed for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. In 2013 and 2015 she was the winner of the New Zealand Flash Fiction Day competition. She has won numerous awards and creative writing residencies including the Ursula Bethell writing fellowship at Canterbury University in 2014 and the Auckland University Michael King writing fellowship in 2017. In 2019 she was awarded the NZSA Peter and Dianne Beatson Fellowship. Recent work appears in Best Microfictions 2021 (Sonder Press), the New Zealand Year Book of Poetry ( Massey University) and Atticus Review.