The Swing

Mabel sat motionless on the porch in the late afternoon sun, an afghan tucked in around her legs and the front wheels of her chair. In her lap one thin blue-veined hand clutched the other as if it were a bird she had caught. Her pale face was almost hidden by lank curls the color of old ivory. Her eyes were sunk deep into her angular face and were that peculiar watery blue one sometimes sees in blind people. But her eyes were still good and they darted about restlessly, seeing everything that happened on the wide lawn that stretched out around the old farmhouse like a green velvet skirt.

She followed a robin searching for worms in the grass - it pecked, listened, then took a few short stiff-legged hops before trying again. Further down the yard by the huge old oak tree, occasional sprays of red dirt arced above a gopher hole. A flicker of white in the boxwood hedge caught her eye. Was it that big magpie that had been making such a racket in the blackberries earlier? Then a small child stepped out of the hedge and stood brushing dead leaves from her hair.

It was a girl of five or six, but her calf-length dress made her look a few years older. She looked up at the house to see if anyone was watching. Their eyes met for a second, but the girl looked right through Mabel as if she weren't there, as children sometimes do with very old people. Then she ran off toward the oak, her flying skirts revealing black leggings and high-topped brown shoes. She climbed up onto the old swing that hung from one of the higher branches and started pumping vigorously. Mabel was pretty sure the little girl was supposed to be doing something else, probably her lessons, but she wasn't about to betray her. It must be one of her great-granddaughters, but Mabel wasn't sure which one. Names and faces were so hard to keep track of these days.

The child's hair flew behind her in long auburn curls as she swung higher and higher. Watching her, Mabel had a sudden body memory of swinging; the wind whipping through her hair, leaning back until her toes were pointing at the sky, the ropes scratchy in her hands. She remembered the delicious instant of weightlessness at the end of the arc, lying there motionless in the sky, free even of gravity. There would be a tingle in her belly - a mixture of danger, freedom, and total elation that Mabel only now recognized as an early sexual response.

A woman's voice floated clear in the still air, calling the little girl to her dinner. The girl stopped pumping and let the swing slow down by itself. The mother called again. The little girl jumped down and ran around to the back of the house, not looking at Mabel as she rounded the corner of the porch.

Mabel sat on, feeling the dry heat going out of the air as the shadows lengthened. The sun dropped behind the row of cedars that her Poppa had planted as a windbreak along the driveway, throwing diagonal stripes of butterscotch across the emerald lawn. Mabel watched a woodpecker moving erratically up the side of the old oak, his wings flashing white when he leaped to another branch.

"No, you certainly may not," came a man's voice from the house. "You are not to walk out with that boy; not tonight, and not any night. And let that be the final word on the matter."

The screen door behind her opened with a rising squeal of springs, then slammed shut with a flat dry bang that Mabel had always associated with summer. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a teen-aged girl walk past her and stand looking out at the evening, her thighs pressed against the porch railing, arms folded tightly under her breasts. Mabel could tell from her tensed shoulders and white knuckles that the girl was furious but determined not to cry. She brushed her long brown hair back from her face with an impatient gesture. Mabel wanted to say something to her, but again she wasn't sure of the girl's name. A few moments later, a man came out of the house and stood behind the girl. His hands lifted to touch her shoulders, hesitated, then clenched and fell to his sides.

"Princess," he whispered. "I know right now you think I'm as cruel as Kaiser Bill, but I'm only thinking of you. You're too good for that Ledbetter boy. His father's only a shopkeeper."

"I don't care about that, Poppa," she said. "That's not important. Hi's been my boyfriend for years."

"Yes, you were playmates when you were children. But you're not children anymore. You're growing up, and things change."

"But I love him, Poppa. I have to follow my heart."

He chuckled. "Is that a line from one of your romance novels? You're only sixteen. What do you know about love?"

She whirled to face him. Her blue eyes flashed in the fading light.

"What do you know about love?" she blurted angrily. "You work and you eat and in the evenings you read your old paper. You don't have any romance in your soul."

His face darkened. He wasn't used to having his children talk back to him. He opened his mouth to reprimand her, but then stopped. A last beam of sun turned her hair to copper.

"If you think I don't know about love," he said quietly. "you haven't been paying attention these last sixteen years. And as for romance, your mother could... well, we'll let that be. You're a lovely girl, Princess, and you're going to be a beautiful woman very soon. Boys will be falling all over themselves to be with you. Don't waste yourself on boys like Hiram Ledbetter. He'll never amount to anything."

"But I love him, Poppa!" she sobbed, the tears coming at last. She turned and ran down the steps and across the lawn. She flopped down in the swing, sulking and miserable. Her father watched her helplessly for a few moments, then turned and went back in.

Mabel watched the girl idly twisting in the swing, looking like a sad little marionette hanging from its strings; tethered, controlled. Mabel's chest grew tight remembering how frustrating it was to be that young. She had the emotions of a woman but the restrictions of a child. She was burning with impatience to be grown up. Strange new hormones were gushing through her like runaway trains, tugging her violently this way and that, making her say and do things she had never done before, like talking back to her father. Life was confusing, unstable; all the certainties of childhood were sliding away like the sand beneath her feet when she stood in the waves. Mabel thought of calling the girl over, trying to explain it to her. But Mabel had learned the ancient sorrow of parenthood - that you cannot spare your children their pain. You have to watch them make the same mistakes you did.

The girl rocked idly in the swing, her shoes scuffing in the bare path under the swing, until it was fully dark and the fireflies were dancing above the grass. Finally, with a deep sigh audible all the way to the house, she came up the steps and went inside, letting the door bang behind her. She didn't even glance in Mabel's direction.

Mabel wondered who the girl was. She hated not being able to remember; it was humiliating to have to ask. It must be one of the granddaughters - perhaps Sally's youngest. But wasn't she in college now? The comings and goings of the family became a hopeless swirl in her mind and she let the tangle drift away.

She sat watching, enjoying the still evening air. She looked up at the indigo sky, staring at a patch of sky until as if by magic it filled with stars. She could hear bats squeaking up there above the porch eaves, and knew that the mosquitoes were coming out. She half expected some one to come out and collect her, but no one did. The sounds from the house diminished and stopped. Eventually the last lights in the house went out. Soft snoring came from an open upstairs window. Well, it was a warm summer night. She was quite comfortable where she was. It was relaxing not to have to talk with the family, always trying to remember who everyone was and having them chuckle at her if she asked the same question more than once. They were all very kind, of course, but they treated her as if she weren't all there, as if she had always been old and a little confused.

Mabel's head jerked up. Something had moved out on the lawn. She strained her eyes into the darkness, trying to make it out. It flitted to the corner of the porch, stealthy, listening. She caught her breath, wondering if it was an intruder. A soft scrunch of a foot on a gravel path. Whoever it was moved toward the foot of the steps. She held her breath, but he didn't seem to notice her sitting there in the darkness. He stooped suddenly and picked up a handful of gravel, then tossed a single pebble onto the porch roof. It seemed to make a lot of noise as it rolled down the shingles and fell onto the lawn, but she didn't think it was enough to wake anybody up. Nevertheless, she heard an upstairs window slide up. The shadow on the lawn melted into the forsythias beside the steps.

Then the porch roof creaked and Mabel could hear someone moving cautiously across it to the side of the house. There was soft rustling, then something white appeared in the top of the wisteria trellis. The dark shape ran to help a girl in a white nightgown climb down the last few feet. They embraced.

"Oh, darling," she whispered. They were only a few feet away from Mabel and she could hear their whispers and even the soft wet click of a kiss. She could just make them out against the starlit grass, while she sat in the black shadows of the porch.

"Are you sure this is safe?" came a husky male whisper. It was the voice of a young man, but certainly not an adolescent. This couldn't be the young Hiram Ledbetter that the argument had been about. How many boyfriends did the girl have?

"Of course. I've climbed down this way lots of times. They've never heard me." There was another long silence. More kissing. Their breathing was fast, excited. Mabel, an unwilling eavesdropper, heard the rustle of their clothes as their hands moved over each other's eager bodies. She was embarrassed to be so close to them, to hear their most intimate sighs. Perhaps she should cough or clear her throat, warn them that she was there? But she did nothing, just listened.

"Where can we go?" the young man whispered at last. "We can't get down on the grass. The dew's fallen. You'll get your gown all wet."

For a moment Mabel was terrified they were going to come up on the porch and discover her. But then the girl gave a soft laugh. "I know," she said, and in one motion pulled the nightgown over her head. Mabel gasped in spite of herself, but the young man's own strangled exclamation covered the slight sound.

"My God, what are you doing?" he hissed. "You're naked!"

"I thought that's the way you wanted me," said the girl saucily, stepping out into the starlight and turning a pirouette before her lover. Mabel could see her young girl's breasts standing out high, the straight back, the strong legs. She was like a colt, slim and muscular and leggy, bursting with life. Mabel could hear a tremor of fear in the girl's voice. She knew she was playing a part, trying to shock the young man, to seem older and more experienced. But she was also driven by desires she only partially understood. Listening to the girl's husky voice, Mabel could remember her own first flushes of lust so long ago, how the raw need had boiled through her body like hot oil.

But this was a different girl than the one earlier; taller, more mature - perhaps an older sister? Looking at her, partly shocked, partly admiring her daring, Mabel suddenly remembered how it felt to be a beautiful young woman - to be the center of attention, desired by every man who saw her. Oh, the power and the glory of it - to be able to control a man, even grown-up men, with a glance, a touch, a glimpse of leg or neckline. She could sense how excited the girl was. She was revelling in the man's eyes on her, letting his desire wash over her like a warm flood. Then he rushed forward and swept her up in his arms.

"The swing!" she murmured against his lips, and he carried her out into the darkness under the oak. Mabel couldn't see them any longer. Suddenly, with a pang so sharp that it caught in her throat, she reflected that never again would she feel a lover's hands on her. What a thought after all these years alone! Well, let them enjoy it while they can. She couldn't think of revealing her presence now. She could heard the swing creaking out there in the darkness, back and forth, back and forth. Mabel listened, a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth.

She woke with a start to find that the moon had risen. The swing hung empty. She blushed as she remembered what she'd been dreaming about. Silly old thing, she chuckled to herself. Well, it was all the fault of those young people.

Then the sound that had awakened her came again. The cry of a baby from within the house - a loud wail that soon grew to a continuous keening. Mabel was puzzled. There were no babies about the place, were there? Or did Annie have a little one? No, that was years ago, surely.

A rectangle of light slanted across the far end of the porch and a moment later a woman came out, carrying the wailing infant on her shoulder. No, that wasn't Annie. Or was it? Did Annie have that reddish hair? The woman, whoever it was, didn't see Mabel sitting there in the darkness under the wisteria. She paced back and forth, patting and cooing and saying, "Hush," all to no effect whatever.

"Honey?" came a man's aggrieved groan from the upstairs window. "Is he all right?"

"I think so," she replied. "I'm sorry if he woke you up, tonight of all nights, when you have to get up so early."

"Maybe if you didn't stand right under the bedroom window? This is my last chance to sleep in my own bed for a year or more."

"Oh, it won't be that long, will it?" she said. "General Pershing said it would be over by Christmas." There was no answer. She looked around. "Come on," she whispered to the child. "Let's go play on the swing. Does that sound like fun, a moonlight swing?" She walked across the lawn, trailing a stream of crying through the night like a motorboat wake on a lake. She sat on the swing with the baby on her shoulder. With her feet she gently rocked the swing. The timbre of the crying changed at once. Within a few moments it subsided into hiccups, then silence.

Mabel thought that they looked like a Madonna and child sitting like that in the moonlight. There is a sense of rightness and purpose that comes over a woman when she holds her own child, a fulfillment many women don't know they lack until they experience it themselves. For all the books and talk and fuss about love between men and women, it is only a shadow of what passes between a mother and her child. Mabel remembered holding her own baby like that so long ago, feeling his little fist clenching at her hair. She could see his eyes on hers, struggling to hold his head up to look at her. For a frightening moment she couldn't remember what had happened to that baby. Then she remembered that he was an old man now, a grandfather himself. Where was it he lived now? Somewhere out west, wasn't it? Perhaps this was one of his girls. But no, they're both older than this woman, aren't they? She wished she knew who all these people were.

When she next roused from her musings she was surprised to find that it was early morning already. A red-headed woman was pushing a boy of two or three on the swing. On each push she threatened to grab his feet and each time he squealed with delight. Mabel smiled, remembering the thrill of pleasure she'd felt every time she made a child laugh like that. The woman was laughing too, but suddenly she stopped, staring into the distance. She shaded her eyes with her hand, her body rigid as a metal post. Mabel followed her gaze, but all she could see was a lone bicyclist pedalling slowly along the dusty road toward the house. The child suddenly howled with indignation, and Mabel looked back in surprise. The swing was empty, swinging in a long diagonal. Mabel leaned forward just in time to see the woman, carrying the howling child, plunge into the glossy green jungle of a cornfield. Mabel stared in amazement, but she felt a tightening in her chest, a foreboding that she could not account for. Something was terribly, terribly wrong, but what could it be? Looking back to the road, she saw that the boy on the bicycle was a telegraph messenger. He stopped at the end of the lane, looking at the house. Then he hurriedly stuffed something in the mailbox and pedalled quickly back the way he had come. Mabel watched until he had disappeared. What was this terrible sense of despair she suddenly felt? So much of life was like that these days - people and events that clearly used to have meaning for her, but were now only hopeless puzzles that left her confused and tired.

She sighed. It was frustrating not being able to remember. It was all so long ago, and so much that had happened in between was hazy now, more and more of it slipping away every day. It was so strange to grow old. She couldn't believe it had finally happened to her. Where were all those young men who had wanted her so? Where where her friends, her classmates, her lovers? Dead, most of them, or as old and forgetful as she. It seemed so important to keep the memories alive. No one else remembered the things she remembered; the people, the places, the parties, the tears; and when she forgot them they would be gone forever.

"Hello there," came a voice. She was startled to find it bright daylight again. A black woman in a white dress was bending down before her. Mabel blinked in surprise. The woman gathered up the afghan and smiled down at Mabel.

"Time for lunch," she said. "And then we have to start getting you packed. You haven't forgotten about going to your new home this afternoon, have you? You'll like it there, I know. It'll be so much better than rattling around in this empty old house with just me to look after you." She bent and released the brakes on Mabel's chair.

"My sakes," she said from behind her. "You've been sitting here staring at that old stump in the yard for hours. Sometimes I wonder what you see out there, Miz Ledbetter."

copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford