'When the Bough Breaks' by Jayne Martin
If they don’t get here soon, he is sure he will bust wide open. The bright yellow lily he’d picked for her this morning was already starting to wilt in the muggy heat of the Iowa noon. Seems like it was just spring when his father had carried him up the ladder to a thicket of Juniper branches where four tiny spotted eggs rested among the carefully-arranged twigs of a sparrow’s nest. “It’s no bigger than that right now,” his father explained. He’d seen babies before, watched as his Aunt Ellen grew large and round as a pumpkin with his cousin Ray. He knew they took a lot longer to hatch than sparrows. His mother, too, had grown large and round as a pumpkin. Some days she could barely get off the sofa. Her ankles had become thick purple rivers emptying into swollen ponds of flesh that he would rub as she stroked his head and called him her good boy. “She’s going to depend on you to protect her, you know,” his mother had said. He could do that. He was good at protecting things. When their barn cat tried to climb up to the sparrow nest, he’d chased it away with the hose and it never tried that again. He would hold her hand when they walked to school bus, and teach her how to tell the good snakes from the bad ones, and when it thundered so loudly that their whole cabin shook and lightning lit up the sky for miles around, he would hide his own fear so that she would feel safe. By then the baby sparrows had flown off, all but one that he had found lying stiff and cold at the base of the tree. When he had cried, his father said that was just nature’s way sometimes, and together they had buried it and said a prayer. He had clung to his mother’s skirt while his father half-walked, half-carried her to their car. They told him not to worry about the blood that trailed from their doorway. Soon dusk would begin to cast shadows like ghosts across their land. Still, he waited. Nature was especially unforgiving that year. This piece was originally published in the summer of 2015 by Midwestern Gothic and went on to win Vestal Review's VERA Award in 2016.