Nora likes to watch the way the ants crawl in and out of Henry’s bootprints in the mud out back, climbing out of each one like they’re the grandest of canyons. Henry isn’t Nora’s real daddy, but they pretend the way the ants pretend that the bootholes are something more than what they are.
Nora sits on the back porch most nights, behind the screen, and all around her are the jars of stars that Henry brings home on the good nights, green flickers under fluttering wings and the way the red spots on the lightning bugs’ heads look like spooky eyeballs forever staring. The stars in the jars fly for the ones up above even though they can never reach them.
The bad nights are when Henry calls through the trees for Nora’s mama even though he knows Nora’s mama is gone. Bad nights is the new mud trail helixing back and forth past the first one, mud sucking up boots and Henry coming in barefoot with the mud leaving footprints that could be severed wings for the way they look, clipped and strewn across the kitchen floor. A big pile of wings by the fridge and another by the back door, where Henry puts all his empties. Bad nights is Henry on the sofa, crying for Nora till she can’t pretend she doesn’t hear no more and has to go and sit on his lap and hear the sad songs and smell the sour smell that makes her eyes water every time.
Good thing about bad nights is there’s always a good morning the next day. Mountains of oatmeal peaking from a milky lagoon and the way the stubbly lump on Henry’s throat will move back and forth when he drinks from his bowl like it’s nothing but a big cup. Mornings where sunny dew shines off the grass out back and dances in their eyes, when they will march into the hills, into the trees, and take the fruit they find there. When Nora finds the tiny apples, the two of them become giants stomping through a miniature world. These mornings are honey let to drip from the tip of a spoon, hours that drizzle over bread and glint against the raisins baked into it. Afternoons spent watching Henry split logs out back, and the way the wood on the inside is brighter than the bark, where the rain and the snow and the wind tirelessly do their work.
Some nights Henry doesn’t come back with jars of stars or helix a new path. Some nights Henry comes back with the stink of blood and sweat on him and an eye so puffy it looks like he’s growing another head. His voice and breath come out like broken glass down a garbage disposal these nights. These nights he has to go to work inside his cage. When he says cage, Nora sees him at the zoo, gnawing at the tiniest of apples and beating his chest for a crowd. She doesn’t see the referee with his dead eyes and hobbled leg, the other man in the cage with his prickly head and sour smell. These nights Nora climbs up onto her kitchen chair and brings a slab from the freezer, holds it to Henry’s eye as he tells her stories about the way her mama used to be before she went away, before even she had Nora, and these are the strangest stories to hear because Nora can’t see her mother as a young lady, waitressing to put herself through art school, scrounging up any bit of free time she can find to paint and draw and sculpt. She can only see her in the quiet light of morning, sun shining off her smooth head, round and full as a fresh hatched egg. Smooth because of the sickness. Smooth because Mama’s friend Key Moe had come to visit and when Key Moe came he took everything, even the hairs on your head.
One night Nora hears Henry making weird noises in the bedroom and when she goes and peeks in the door’s crack where the fading light shows dust floating like tiny negative stars, there’s a picture of Mama in Henry’s busted hand, and even though his knuckles are split and skin calloused he holds the photo like it might fall apart, and his other hand is under the blanket, and the way the blanket rises and falls it’s like the parachute game in gym class, and when Henry sees Nora he yells like he just lost Mama all over again, and Nora glides back down the steps, skipping every other one.
One night is an anniversary. An anniversary is when you can run down to where the wild borders order, with the spruce as boundary between your land and the great woods, and to pick dandelions and marigolds and the wild roses lined with untamed petals, and to string them together so each one balances the next. An anniversary is when Henry dumps out all the cans into a great big muddy hole, turning canyons to lakes linked by murky streams. An anniversary is when you put the flowers over Mama’s head and she can see them even though she’s so far down. When it’s time to laugh and then cry and then laugh again. When it’s okay if you mess up and call Henry Daddy.