By Pat Morris
CW: The following piece discusses the emotional abuse of a child.
Maddie loved skunk cabbage. She loved its pretty purple flowers—long gone by this second week in May. She loved the way its big green leaves lined the little stream that tricked through “the gully” where she kept her hideout. She even loved the smell. Other people didn’t, and it kept them away. That suited Maddie just fine. “The Haven” was hers alone, to slip away to after school until dinnertime every day she could.
Under a cover of vines and low trees, Maddie swept the forest floor clean and carefully laid some old car mats she’d found in the dump pile. It took her a whole afternoon to push up the big flat gray rock, but it made a nice little seat, table, or backrest, depending on her mood. Right now it was a back rest.
Maddie could hear the other kids playing basketball in the road down the street at Danny Leary’s house. She’d long ago stopped wanting to join them.
“Look, it’s Miss Priss!”
“Hey, watch the fatty try to run.”
“Why would anybody want to play with you?” Mom answered her own question. “Nobody likes a crybaby.”
Maddie reached into the hollow of the dead tree, hoping there weren’t any spiders, and pulled out the plastic trash bag where she stored her treasures. Everything was still there: her holy cards—the Good Shepherd, the Madonna, St. Anthony; her Guardian Angel snow globe; the adjustable sapphire ring she’d given Mom for Christmas and found in the garbage the next morning; a white rock with flecks of real gold, so far her only panning success; the bag of candy she’d stuffed down her pants in the Save-a-Lot when no one was looking.
Then came the books. A garage sale lady had let her have all five for a dollar because they were so old. They smelled funny, and Mom had told her to get those filthy things out of the house.
So Maddie read them in her haven. They were about a girl named Nancy who could solve mysteries. Nancy was probably too smart for her own good, just like Maddie, but nobody minded and her friends liked her even though she didn’t pretend she didn’t understand the clues. They went on adventures together in Nancy’s roadster, which was some kind of car. Maddie thought it must be a fast one. Someday she would have friends who liked that she was smart and they would go on adventures in a roadster.
She’d made her notebook herself: she took some lined paper with holes in it from her school binder and made a cover from a Hamburger Helper box.
Maddie flipped through and checked off her lists:
My Stuffed Animals
Benny the Bunny
Denny the Dog
Penny the Panda
Things I Can Do
Touch my toes without bending my knees
Blue jumper, two white blouses
Long jeans, short jeans
Three T-shirts, blue, red, Bugs bunny
Green with flowers
The green dress with the flowers was her dress for the May Procession. Of course she wasn’t picked to put the crown on Mary, but Sister Ann said if Maddie stopped showing off and raising her hand all the time she could be in the procession. So Maddie learned all the hymns by heart and used her birthday money to buy paper flowers and blue ribbon for her headdress. The ribbon was real satin and the flowers were yellow and pink, just like the ones on her dress.
The morning of the procession Mom went to the hospital to have another baby so they dropped Maddie off at Aunt Bonnie’s on the way.
Aunt Bonnie let Maddie have some pancakes and juice—Emma had eaten the last of the bacon. Maddie had a bath last night but Aunt Bonnie made her take another one, and change into one of Emma’s old party dresses. Maddie knew better than to say she wanted to wear her own pretty dress.
The pink ruffly dress itched, and Maddie’s head hurt from the tight braids and tighter crown—this one made of silk flowers and kept on with about a million hairpins stuck into her scalp—that Aunt Bonnie gave her. Maddie bit her lip and pretended she had something in her eye.
Outside church they lined up by grades and then by class and then by height, girls on the left and boys on the right. The line went all the way across the parking lot.
Father Tim led them all in.
“Oh Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today
Queen of the angels, Queen of the May…”
One two three. One two three. Maddie started swaying to the rhythm. Mom said she was as graceful as an elephant on roller skates, but here in the procession, under the umbrella of the Madonna, she closed her eyes and succumbed to the passion.
“Bring flowers of the fairest, bring flowers of the rarest…”
Mid-twirl she felt a sharp pinch on her ear.
Maddie sat out the procession in the backseat of Aunt Bonnie’s car and couldn’t play outside or watch TV for the rest of the day.
After Aunt Bonnie talked to Mom at the hospital she handed her phone to Maddie.
“Your new brother is named Paul,” said Aunt Bonnie.
“Why do you always have to ruin everything?” said Mom.
Maddie closed her notebook and put it back in the plastic bag. She turned over her Madonna card and read the prayer on the back.
“…Mother of Mercy, out life, our sweetness, our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve…”
Maddie kissed the card and put it back against the tree.
“I’m sorry I ruined your special day.”
She reached into the bag and felt around for the sharp edge of her secret jewel, a perfect piece of broken glass that sparkled in the sunlight. She rubbed its shiny green surface between her thumb and index finger as she pulled her shorts leg up as high on her thigh as it would go. And marked her body with a cross.
Then she wiped off the glass on a skunk cabbage leaf, wiped off her leg with her fingers, sucked her fingers clean, and put her things away.
It would be dinnertime soon.