By Tamara Miles.
I was in the produce section of Bi-Lo looking for rutabaga when I first heard the child crying. I try to mind my own business, so I resumed my search and thought about the article I’d read online that morning: Why You Should Give Rutabaga a Chance. My therapist had said a few days earlier that I should try saying “Yes” to some new opportunities. “Yes,” I whispered to the rutabaga, as I put it in the cart and turned to look for the rest of the ingredients for rutabaga chipotle soup, while the child’s cries turned to an impressive wail, somewhere around the corner, distant.
I hesitated and then took my nosy cart in the direction of the cries. Sometimes, I am able to distract a crying child enough for the frustrated mother to have a minute of peace and thus avoid losing her mind or her temper with the child, as I’d seen one mother do recently, holding the boy off the ground with one hand while swatting his hind end with a still-folded umbrella.
There was no mother or child in sight, but the cries seemed to be coming from the ladies’ room. I crossed over to the deli section where the room was housed and opened the door. Inside, the child’s cry extended like a blooming vine from under one of the stalls, but I heard no mother’s half-hearted or furious response. I waited, and the crying did not abate. I began the awkward lowering to see what I could see under the door. The child was sitting on the floor, a teddy bear sprawled beside her, and a woman’s purse, too. “Is everything alright?” I asked the closed stall. Nothing.
I knocked on the stall, and when I again heard silence, I sat down on the floor and peered under at the child, who looked at me and went on crying. “Hi, darling girl. Come out, here, please. Is Mommy sick?” She nodded. I reached my hands under toward her. “I’ll help you, then we’ll help Mommy, okay?” Before she could resist, I managed to reach her arm and slid her toward me so I could grab her waist and get her closer. “Alright, sweetheart, put your head under.”
To my great relief, she did, but as soon as she was out, the wailing started again. I scooped her up and opened the bathroom door just as a woman was coming in. “Emergency here,” I said. “I’m going to need to find the manager. Can you call 911? This tot’s mother is apparently unconscious in the stall.” The woman agreed.
Once I’d notified the manager, and the police and ambulance were on the way, I said, “I’ll hold her until they get here,” and started walking the aisles with her, looking for ways to capture her attention. I shook a box of Cheerios and a box of Fruit Loops — she turned away — then headed down the candy aisle. At this point, I would have let her have anything, but then I wondered if she had some kind of peanut allergy and froze with my hand on the peanut M & M’s. “Fruit,” I thought, and took us past the gleaming row of apples and cherries and straight on to where I spotted the navel oranges. I had an idea.
With sirens in the background, I selected an orange, and with my fingernail, I split the skin and held the scent right under my girl’s nose. Just like that, I saw the reaction I wanted and felt like singing. Even through her stuffy nose and with the tears still coming, she smelled that citrus line of hope and sniffed again, and her eyes widened just a bit, and her breathing steadied. As the policemen and ambulance workers approached, I said, “It’s yours, darling girl,” and she put out her small hands to take it.
Emergency services found the mother with a heroin needle still in her arm. I insisted on riding along to the police station. I didn’t want to let the little girl go. I prayed her mother would live; I prayed she would never do this again. I prayed that somehow this child could come and live with me. I sang all the lullabies I could think of, including the funny one about the bear who is not good at counting sheep.
I started on old church songs with a round of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and the police officer even joined in at “He’s got you and me, brother, in his hands. He’s got you and me, sister, in his hands,” and the whole time, past the hospital where her mother lay in the emergency room, past the cemetery where we will all go one day, past the markets and shopping centers and fruit stands, this nameless child did not speak and did not sleep, but she had stopped crying and had lain her head back against me, and listened.
Even when we pulled into the station, and I carried her in, and finally had to hand her over, and looked back one last time with my own eyes full to the brim, that sweet girl held on tight with both hands to her own small, bright, bruised world.
TAMARA MILES is a proud member of Irish writer Jane Barry’s online creativity salon called “That Curious Love of Green,” which has propelled her writing ambitions for the past year. She also teaches English at a college in South Carolina. Recent publications include poetry in Fall Lines: A Literary Convergence and Love is Love, an anthology benefiting the families of shooting victims in Orlando, as well as articles for Auntie Bellum Magazine. Upcoming publications will include poetry in Pantheon Magazine and The Tishman Review, and flash fiction in Subprimal Poetry and Art. Please look her up at https://www.facebook.com/tamaramiles.poet/