Fiction contest judge Wiley Cash writes of Erin's work:
The Offering” is an absolutely gorgeous story. All of it—from the characterizations to the narration to the evocation of place to the extremes we’ll go to to make our families feel at home no matter where home is—is expertly rendered and deeply felt. “The Offering” balances interior and exterior storylines in the same way many of us balance our own desires with those of our family. This is conscious, confident writing, and the author should be proud that she/he captured something of the beauty and struggle of life in these pages."
The Offering by Erin Miller Reid
Winner, 2018 Fiction Contest
Miriam leaned over the kitchen sink to check on the lamb tethered to the clothesline post. It had finally quit bleating. For the past three nights it had cried steadily, ever since she brought it home. Miriam hadn’t been able to sleep for the constant squalling as she lay in bed contemplating whether she should just go outside and hold it. Maybe if she’d taken a quilt with her, she would’ve slept better out there with the little thing, comforted and quiet, than in her own bed. Peter, her husband, had snored next to her. He stayed so busy at the clinic and hospital, that when he finally did lie down, he could sleep through anything, even a bawling lamb outside his bedroom window.
Miriam wondered how she had ever let her own three babies cry in their cribs all those years ago. “You have to let the baby cry, otherwise you’ll spoil it,” had been her mother’s advice. “That baby will tire itself out and learn to sleep on its own.” The babies did always fall asleep eventually, but it never felt quite natural to let them wail by themselves on a stiff mattress in a dark nursery, even for an hour or more on a few nights. Sometimes, Miriam would tiptoe in after they had finally fallen asleep, and the crib sheet would be damp with tears, and then she’d cry a little bit herself.
The lamb was more stubborn than her own babies had been, but this morning it finally gave in and lay down under the weeping willow, curled up in a creamy coil, like a frosted cinnamon roll, its rosebud nose tucked under a back hoof. Miriam gripped the edge of the sink. The lamb looked so sweet sleeping there, but in the next day or two, she knew she’d have to kill it.
Just thinking of doing that made her armpits get all sweaty, but Papa would expect lamb for Easter. He’d arrive from Chicago on Holy Thursday to spend the weekend in Kentucky with her family. They’d all celebrate Easter together. Fortunately, this year Orthodox Easter fell on the same Sunday the Baptists would be celebrating it. Most years the holidays fell on different dates, sometimes weeks apart.
Papa had never been to her home in Kentucky, had never seen this old farmhouse nestled between two hills that she, as a Midwesterner, had learned early on weren’t actually mountains. He’d never seen the creek Miriam loved to wade in even when the kids lost interest, hadn’t seen the back hillside that would blossom out in redbuds, like it had gussied up with lipstick and rouge just in time for his arrival. Miriam hoped he would appreciate Wickers Bend, even if it was in the middle of nowhere and she had to drive twenty minutes to buy a loaf of bread. She hoped he would admire the life she and Peter had built here.
Miriam’s mother died in January. The ovarian cancer had been unrelenting and quick. This was Papa’s first holiday without her. He retired from his position as a priest in the Orthodox Church to take care of his sick wife in her last few months. Now with no Sabbath obligations, he was free to travel on the weekends. Miriam invited him to Kentucky, knowing the first holiday would be the hardest, and also knowing that Papa would expect her to carry on the family’s Easter traditions. Papa emigrated from Bulgaria, but he never gave up being Bulgarian. He married a Bulgarian woman who cooked him Bulgarian food and whispered Bulgarian words in his ear that made him draw her close and kiss her, hard and long, making his daughters giggle. He was disappointed when Miriam married her classmate, Peter Sutton, a Baptist boy from Kentucky. He was even more disappointed when she became pregnant and dropped out of medical school. “I didn’t come to this country so you could be a pregnant housewife,” he said to her.
Miriam didn’t wholly disagree with her papa. This isn’t how she’d envisioned her life either. She’d worked hard to be one of only two women in her medical school class, and sometimes she wanted to be the one, instead of Peter, leaving early in the morning for hospital rounds. Sometimes she’d rather be palpating abdomens and prescribing antibiotics than dusting and sweeping and deciding whether to fix lasagna or pot roast for dinner. She’d tried to find ways to fill her time outside the home. She served on the library board in town, was PTA president, and taught the women’s Sunday school class at the church just down the road. Make the most of what you’ve got. That was another lesson her parents had taught her, content in their tiny apartment in Chicago, a young family plunked down in a bad time in history, first the Depression then World War II, making due with Papa’s small salary from the Diocese.
This weekend, Miriam was determined to make her papa proud by showing him that even though she never became the doctor he’d dreamt of, even if she married a Baptist and lived far away, she was still his Bulgarian daughter. She’d not only planned a full traditional feast for Easter, but also Bulgarian food all weekend long. This morning, she’d start by making banitsa. It’d keep in the freezer a few days, and she could bake it the evening her papa arrived. Her mother had made it regularly, the phyllo pastry dripping with butter wrapped around melted white cheese that oozed out the edges when the fork cut into it. It was Papa’s favorite, and he probably hadn’t eaten any since her mother’s funeral.
Miriam pulled a mixing bowl from the cabinet, then gathered her ingredients. She balanced avocado-green Tupperware canisters of salt and flour and a sticky bottle of olive oil in her arms, and had to close the pantry door with the ropey sole of her espadrille sandal. Miriam was glad it was warm enough to wear the shoes again. She’d bought them on a shopping trip with her mother in Chicago last summer when her mother was still healthy. They made her think of that happy day, though her mother’s cancer was probably already growing deep in her belly, tumor cells doubling and invading like the kudzu Peter had to burn off their back slope the previous fall.
“Are you ready yet, Mama?” Teddy stuck his head in the kitchen, a bent Slinky bowed between his two hands. There was a crimp in one of its metal spirals, but the boy refused to throw it away. Today he’d stretched it partway down the front stairs letting plastic army men drop down its center hole like a chute.
“Just in time, Peanut,” Miriam said. “Wash your hands first.”
The boy slung the crinkled Slinky on the counter and turned on the faucet. He pumped soap from a dispenser shaped like a bundle of asparagus and stuck his lathered fists under the stream of water causing it to spray across the linoleum countertop. Miriam whipped her body to the side to shield the bowl of dough she was already mixing. It was nice to have Teddy in the kitchen, she reminded herself, even if he was messy.
She’d asked her teenaged daughters that morning if they wanted to help with the banitsa. They were out of school for spring break, and she wanted to teach them how to make it, so they could pass the recipe to their own daughters someday, maybe even their granddaughters. They’d already made other plans though.
“Mama, we can’t today. We’re going shopping in town,” Georgeanna leaned against the banister, twirling the car keys to the Buick Riviera around her index finger. Peter had given Georgeanna the family car last year when she turned sixteen, using her birthday as an excuse to buy himself a newer model.
“Yeah, Mama,” Elena, the fifteen-year old jogged down the staircase. She stopped a few steps from the bottom to twist a hair band around the tail of her braid, “Dawahares is having a sale on dresses.”
“Will you be home by lunchtime? I could wait until then.”
“No, we’re gonna stop by the Dixie for lunch.” Ever since Georgeanna had gotten her license, she told her mother what she was doing rather than asking permission. Miriam was still trying to sort out just how strict she should be with her daughters. Her own parents had practically chained her up inside their apartment. More than once she’d snuck out the fire escape to meet a friend, or a boy. She wanted her girls to feel independent, to make their own choices, even if that meant they chose not to spend time with her.
“Well, you girls be careful,” Miriam said, as each girl leaned her head toward Miriam for a kiss on the forehead. “I love you, Georgeanna. I love you, Elena.”
“Love you, Mama,” the girls scooted out the front door, the screen door smacking behind them. She watched a cloud of dust kick up from the rear of the gray Buick, its body wide like an ocean liner sailing down the gravel driveway.
Miriam shut her eyes, pressed her palms together, and put the knuckles of her thumbs to her lips. “Lord bless them and keep them and watch over them,” she prayed. It was habit that Miriam never let a family member leave her doorstep without telling them she loved them. God forbid, if anything happened to her husband, her children, or even herself, she wanted I love you to be the last words they’d heard from her. She figured it was superstition that made her pray over them. After all, a prayer wasn’t a magic spell.
“Mama, do you have to kill it? Can’t we just keep it as a pet?” His face pinched up like he’d been sucking on a lemon. Miriam laid her flour-covered hand on his head, leaving a powdery white print on his black hair. Teddy was the only child to inherit her black hair. The girls were redheads like their father.
Miriam finished kneading the dough until it was soft and cushiony, like the back of an old woman’s arm. She smiled down at Teddy. At least he wanted to keep her company. He stood patiently at her elbow, waiting for his turn to help roll out the dough. His head reached just over the windowsill, and he gazed out at the lamb.
“Mama, do you have to kill it? Can’t we just keep it as a pet?” His face pinched up like he’d been sucking on a lemon. Miriam laid her flour-covered hand on his head, leaving a powdery white print on his black hair. Teddy was the only child to inherit her black hair. The girls were redheads like their father.
“We have to kill it, Peanut. I’ve told you it’s for Grandpa Georgi.”
“Well, I’m not eating it,” the boy said, still staring at the animal.
“You don’t have to, sweetie.” Miriam used a clean dishcloth to dust off his hair. She wished she could’ve just bought a leg of lamb from the butcher shop like her mother had always done, but none of the grocery stores in town carried lamb, and no one in Wickers Bend raised sheep.
It wasn’t until a few days ago that she thought she’d even be able to serve lamb on Easter Sunday. She and Peter were driving back from visiting one of Peter’s doctor friends in the next county. As the car cruised over a hill of fresh asphalt, Miriam hollered, “Stop!” Peter slammed on the brakes and both he and Miriam slung forward. Miriam’s elbow slammed against the glove box.
“What in the hell, Miriam?” They both scowled at each other, Miriam massaging her throbbing joint, and Peter pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to dab droplets of blood from his lower lip where he’d bitten it.
“Look, Peter.” Miriam pointed out the windshield of the car, which was stopped in the road’s bend. “Sheep. And lambs!”
In a pasture hemmed in by a barbed wire fence, a herd of sheep, loaded down with a winter’s worth of dingy wool, grazed on timothy grass. Three lambs skirted the huddle of grown animals, scampering about and occasionally springing up and butting heads.
Luckily, the farmer that owned the sheep was home. Miriam knocked on his door and interrupted his Saturday evening Hee-Haw program. He only opened the door a crack, wary of anyone who’d come up his drive uninvited. Miriam couldn’t see his full face in the shadows, only the wrinkles around his pursed lips as she made him an offer. He stood there in silence. Miriam glanced back at Peter parked in front of the house, hunched over the steering wheel so he could see Miriam on the porch. “Wait in the car,” she’d told her husband a few minutes before while grabbing the checkbook from her purse, “I can take care of this myself.” As she waited for the farmer to make his decision, Miriam could hear banjos and Minnie Pearl, and the farmer’s wife giggling in the front room.
“I suppose I can sell it,” he finally said. “It’ll be less work than trying to raise it, anyhow.”
“Wonderful,” Miriam beamed as she scrawled her signature across the bottom of the check, “Have you ever butchered a lamb before?”
“I ain’t never done a lamb,” he chuckled, “But I’d reckon it ain’t much different than killing a cow.”
“Of course,” Miriam nodded, though she had no idea how to butcher a cow either.
Twenty minutes later, she and Peter rambled down the road. Miriam scooted beside the lamb in the backseat. The animal tossed its head and jerked, its hooves slipping on the floorboard. It tried to turn a circle, but got itself wedged between the seats. Giving up, it sat down on Miriam’s feet. It was heavier than she’d expected. She leaned over the lamb, hugged it as tight as she could, and tried to wrap her ankle-length skirt around its body, to swaddle it like she would a fussy baby. “Maa-maa-maa,” it cried, sounding like an old tin can toy the kids had that made animal sounds when turned upside down.
Peter stared straight ahead as he drove, the corners of his lips pulled tight. “Why couldn’t you just make that ham you do with pineapples and cherries on top? Why make things so complicated?”
“I want it to be special for Papa, Peter. He’s been through a lot. He needs a lamb on Easter. It’s what Mother always did.” Miriam tussled with the lamb, noticing it had already ripped her panty hose with its rough-edged hoof.
“Well, I don’t know anything about butchering lambs,” Peter said.
“Then I’ll take it to the slaughterhouse.” Miriam rested her chin on the lamb’s fuzzy bangs to keep its head still, trying to avoid biting her tongue when the animal reared back.
“Miriam, sweetie, the slaughterhouse only butchers beef, pork, and deer,” Peter said.
“Good Lord, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Miriam groaned.
“Why would I joke about that?”
“It’s not that. It’s this darned lamb. Hand me your hankie.” A warm trickle slid over the tops of her feet. Miriam unswaddled the lamb and saw yellow puddles pooling in the insoles of her pumps and on the floorboard. Peter handed her his blood-speckled handkerchief, and once that was soaked, she reached for his white lab coat that was flung in the backseat.
“This is just a lot of trouble.” Peter shook his head.
“Don’t you even worry about it,” Miriam said, wiping up the pee with his jacket.
“I’ll figure out how to butcher it myself.”
As they pulled into the drive, Teddy ran out to meet them, a nearly finished Nutty Buddy in his hand. The lamb bolted from the Buick as soon as Miriam swung open the door.
The boy squealed. “Can we keep it?” Teddy and the lamb ran circles around each other, bounding through the air like the ground was a trampoline.
“Your mother plans to butcher it, son.” Peter said, stepping from the car.
The boy’s face fell. “Don’t look at me like that, Peanut,” Miriam said, “I got this lamb for Grandpa Georgi for Easter.” The lamb raced across the yard toward the creek, and Teddy ran after it. “It’s not fair,” he yelled over his shoulder.
Miriam went to the shed and dug out an old rope. Outside, Teddy and the lamb still chased after each other.
“Peanut, bring me the lamb. If it runs around too much, it won’t be as tender.” She regretted the words as soon as she said them.
Teddy obeyed his mother and wrestled the lamb to the ground, still laughing at the animal. “I don’t like this one bit, Mama,” he said, the lamb wriggling in his arms, its hooves sticking straight in the air.
“I know you don’t, sweetie. I don’t much like it either. We gotta do it for Grandpa Georgi though.” She knotted one end of the rope around the lamb’s neck and the other around the clothesline pole. The lamb bleated, and Teddy dropped to his knees beside it. “It’ll be okay, buddy,” he said, stroking the lamb’s curly, biscuit-colored coat. Miriam looked away.
That had been three days ago, and Teddy was still upset. She cleaned the rest of the flour from his hair and kissed the top of his head. His eyes, the green-brown color of a muddy pond, were filmed with tears.
“C’mon now, Peanut. It’s time to roll the dough.” She grabbed a sawed off broomstick that stood between the stove and the wall. The dough stick, she called it. She plopped the dough, an unshaped ivory mound, on the kitchen table, already spread with a floured oilcloth.
She rolled the broomstick across the dough, pressing down with stiff arms. The stick spun under her palms like a wheel axle. She rolled until the dough was flattened as wide as the table, instructing Teddy to occasionally dust the table surface with more flour. She rolled until she could hold up the dough and see through it like a window sheer. Once it was thin enough, she handed the broomstick to Teddy and let him smooth out the edges. She wiped the collection of sweat beads from her lip with the back of her forearm. Rolling dough was hard work.
Miriam watched Teddy ease the dough stick around the perimeter of the table. His fingers were agile but deliberate. She wondered what he would use those hands for someday. Music? Woodwork? Perhaps, surgery. That would make his dad proud.
About the time Teddy finished with the dough, the lamb started bleating. Miriam tried to ignore it as she whisked eggs for the filling. Teddy craned his neck over the windowsill, “Mama, it’s lonely.”
Miriam stopped stirring. “Get on out there then.” She shooed Teddy out the door. She’d hardly let him go near the lamb, even though he had begged. It would only make it worse, she reasoned. But for now, she just wanted to make the banitsa in peace.
Miriam watched Teddy out the window. He sat cross-legged next to the lamb, teasing it with a dandelion. The lamb nipped at the cottony tip, feathery wisps floating into the air. Nearby, on the shed’s stoop, Miriam saw the bucket of butchering equipment she’d borrowed from the Creekmores who lived over the hill. They killed a hog every fall and had been sharing a pork loin with the Suttons for years, ever since Peter set their son’s broken arm for free. When she asked them, they didn’t have much advice on slaughtering a lamb, but at least they loaned Miriam the tools to do it.
She found a book about meat processing at the library. There was a full chapter on lambs and sheep. She’d been studying it like a textbook at night, lining out in her mind, step by step, what she’d have to do to get the lamb ready by Sunday. She figured it would be a two-person job, so she called up Martha Bledsoe. Martha had been a friend since Miriam first moved to Wickers Bend. She’d helped Miriam clear out a spot at the top of the creek bank for the garden and taught Miriam how to fix chicken-fried steak with a good brown gravy and skillet cornbread to go with it. Martha once helped Miriam get a copperhead out of the garage, killed it with the head of a shovel. If anyone would help Miriam, it would be Martha.
“Martha, I need your help.” Miriam had said over the phone, “I bought a lamb for Papa’s visit and I need help butchering it.”
“I’ve never butchered a lamb before,” Martha said.
“Me either, but I found a book at the library on it.”
Martha didn’t answer right away, and Miriam could hear her clicking a ballpoint pen in and out on the other end of the line.
“So can you help me?” Miriam looped the sunflower yellow phone cord around her finger.
Martha sighed. “Of course, I’ll help you. Have some lemonade ready. We’ll probably work up a thirst.”
Martha has always been such a practical woman, Miriam thought as she stirred cottage cheese into the beaten eggs. She glopped spoonfuls over the dough, spreading the mixture out just like she smoothed out clods of dirt with her hoe in the garden. Miriam’s mother had only ever used the Bulgarian white cheese, sirene, but of course Miriam couldn’t buy that anywhere around Wickers Branch. Martha had actually been the one to suggest changing the recipe. “What about cottage cheese?” she suggested one December evening after Miriam mentioned that she wished she could make banitsa for New Year’s. “It sounds like what you’re describing. It’s white and mushy, anyhow,” Martha said. She’d been right, and Miriam had been baking banitsa with cottage cheese ever since. Miriam wondered if Papa would like it, and if her mother would have approved.
Miriam set down the mixing bowl and poked her head out the back screen door. “Come inside, son. I’m ready to roll up the banitsa.”
Rolling the pastry was Teddy’s favorite part. It was her favorite part too when she was a girl. Miriam’s mother had been prone to hover, grabbing her elbow the moment Miriam rolled too quickly, but Miriam gave her son more leeway. Together, she and Teddy eased the edge of the dough from the oilcloth. They inched the dough along, careful to keep it taut without tearing it, shaping it so it looked like the milky belly of a rat snake.
Once it was rolled, Miriam curled it into a pan in a tight coil. Her mother would have said, “Watch now, don’t tear the dough. No one likes a runny banitsa,” and Miriam wished more than anything that her mother could be there right now, hovering.
On Wednesday morning, Miriam gave Georgeanna and Elena a wad of bills and told them to take Teddy to town to see the early matinee. “Keep him out of the house as long as possible,” she told them.
She moved the lamb down to the creek bank before Martha even arrived. She figured the mess would be easier to clean up if the blood just ran into the water. She laid down a tarp, and set out the bucket with the tools she’d borrowed – a four-inch straight knife for slitting the throat, a thin, curved knife the Creekmores told her was for slicing through muscle and tendons, a hacksaw for the bones, and two meat hooks to hang the carcass. She opened up the library book to the chapter on lamb butchering, and stacked a pile of rags next to it to wipe her hands on, so she wouldn’t get blood on the pages.
After everything was prepared, Miriam sat by the creek and waited for Martha. She stared at the water, watched it bubble white between slick, mossy stones. Miriam thought of the frigid mornings in the weeks after her mom died, when she sat by the creek in her overcoat on the frost-tipped grass after the kids left for school. The water wasn’t frozen over, but moved slower. No birds called to each other. The air was winter still. On those mornings, Miriam thought about her mom dying to the hum of Chicago traffic, kind of like she might die to the hum of this creek someday. Just then, a nuthatch fluttered over to perch on the branch of a buttonbush. The branch dipped low under its weight, skimming the water. Miriam imagined the creek later today, filled with blood, like one of Egypt’s plagues.
Miriam could hear the lamb rooting in the weeds on the bank, but she didn’t dare look at it. She knew she should discourage it from eating. From what she’d read, a full belly would only make the process messier. She didn’t have the heart to stop the animal though, gulping down its last meal, mouthfuls of milkweed and bulrush.
When Martha drove up in her pickup, Miriam hollered, “Down here, Martha, by the creek.”
Martha, wearing a pair of her baggy coveralls she’d borrowed from her husband, sauntered over and looked at the lamb rustling in the weeds. “Smaller than I expected. You probably won’t get much meat out of it.”
“I don’t need much,” Miriam said.
“So what do we do first?” Martha clapped her hands together.
“We kill it, I guess.” Miriam fished the throat-cutting knife from the bucket.
“Lordy-me, you’re going to slit the little thing’s neck?” Martha’s eyebrows arched.
“How else would I do it?” Miriam stepped high to pull the lamb from the underbrush, briers snagging at her ankles.
“A gun’d be more humane,” Martha said.
“As if anything about this is humane.” Miriam gave the lamb one last tug and yanked it into the clearing where she’d set out the tarp and butchering tools. “Can you just help hold it still?” The lamb squirmed and thrashed its head, bleating in protest.
Martha came around the rear of the lamb, and looped her arms under its belly, hugging its backside like a wrestler. Miriam pushed against its shoulders, fingers sinking into the lamb’s coat, which had already thickened since just a few days ago. Together, the women heaved the lamb on its side. Its body flopped like a fish on a line. Martha laid herself across the back half of the lamb. “Stronger than I expected,” she grunted, strands from her ponytail getting caught in her lips.
Miriam dug her knees into soft ground. The cool soil spread under her weight as she leaned her left elbow into the lamb’s shoulder. She groaned, a wayward hoof walloping her hip. Her face was close to the lamb. She could smell its green, weedy breath. She pressed the lamb’s head to the ground and slid the knife into place just under its jawbone. The lamb looked up at her, eyes sorghum-colored and unblinking. Miriam tried to steady her hand by tucking her right elbow against her rib cage, but the blade still trembled in her fist.
“Everything all right up there?” Martha’s voice was tense.
Miriam shot up, slinging the knife onto the tarp. The lamb jerked up and wiggled from Martha’s grip, leaving her on all fours in the grass. “Well, I’ll be, Miriam. What was that all about?”
“I can’t do this, Martha.”
“Why don’t I run up to the house and get the pistol?” Martha plopped backwards on the ground.
“I don’t want to kill it at all.” Miriam waved her hands in the air, like she was swatting gnats.
“You’re not afraid of blood are you? Didn’t you go to medical school?”
“We weren’t learning how to kill things.” Miriam sat down on the ground next to Martha and rested her forehead on her bent knees. The lamb was back on the bank munching weeds, its body camouflaged by waist-high grass and rushes. The two women sat side by side for a moment, catching their breath.
Miriam ran her fingertips over a patch of clover between them. “Do you know I’ve never found a four-leaf clover?”
“Well, that’s a pity.” Martha plucked two clover flowers from the patch and connected them by knotting the stem of one just under the bloom of the other. “We used to make clover crowns when we were girls,” she said, “thought it was good practice for when we’d be fancy some day.” She plucked a few more clovers to lengthen the chain. “It’s kind of amusing that little girls from Wickers Bend ever thought they’d need to be training for debutante balls. We should’ve been practicing cooking and cleaning, maybe learning how to slaughter lambs.” Martha chuckled to herself. “Maybe learning how to manage expectations.”
Miriam picked a clover bloom as well, and held the blossom near her nose so she could see the petals up close, little white and green cupped fingers with blush tips. “I guess we can never be quite sure how life will turn out,” she said, “Best be prepared for whatever comes.”
“Amen to that,” Martha said and laid the clover crown on Miriam’s black hair.
The next morning – on Holy Thursday, the day Papa would arrive – Miriam dragged the sheep from the back seat of the car. It hooked its rear hooves on the doorframe and wouldn’t budge. The harder Miriam tugged, the louder it cried. She finally jerked so hard, its hind legs broke loose from the car and it tumbled to the gravel, landing on its knees. She pulled the lamb across the parking lot on a dog leash that Martha had loaned her.
The cinderblock slaughterhouse was built low to the ground, like a pill bug hunkered down ready to roll into a ball at the first whiff of danger. A hand-painted sign on a scrap of plywood was propped next to the entrance. This little piggy went to market, it said. Miriam opened the metal door and coaxed the lamb over the threshold into the front office. The empty room looked like any other place of business – stacks of receipts and a telephone on the desk, a jar of pens and pencils, a radio on a file cabinet in the corner, calendars from the hardware store tacked to the wall, even a framed photograph of two freckle-faced kids holding a puppy. The only difference was that this office smelled like a barnyard, thanks to the animal pens in the back. Miriam was surprised. She supposed she’d been expecting bloody knives and innards strung out in the floor.
A door with a small circular window swung open behind her. A short man walked in, his galoshes, glistening with droplets of fresh water, squeaked on the concrete floor.
“What do we have here?” He knelt down beside the lamb and scratched its head, a chaw of tobacco bulging in his cheek.
“A lamb.” Miriam tightened her grip on the leash.
“I can see that, ma’am.” He lifted a styrofoam coffee cup stuffed with a white napkin already soaked in brown saliva to his lips and spit. “But what do you want me to do with it?”
“I’d like to have it butchered.” Miriam breathed in and out, nostrils flaring. The manure smell mixed with the odor from the man’s tobacco cup made her feel light-headed. She hoped he didn’t notice she was ready to pass out.
“We just do pork and beef, deer in hunting season. I ain’t done a lamb before.” He stood up, shorter than Miriam, but twice as wide.
“I guess it wouldn’t be much different than a cow,” she said.
“Guess not,” he said, “Is it a ram or a ewe?”
Miriam shrugged. She’d never thought to look.
He put his hands on his hips, still dangling the spit cup in his left fingers. “It’s a small thing. Won’t bring you much meat.”
“I don’t need much meat,” Miriam said, shifting her weight back and forth so the blood wouldn’t pool in her legs.
“Hmm.” The man spit into his cup again. “Well, I reckon I can a give it a try.”
Miriam unwound the leash from around her fist and fumbled to unfasten the collar from the lamb’s neck. She’d never noticed how soft the wool was just below its ears, like velvet trim. The man set his cup down and then squatted to lift the animal, hooking one arm under its hindquarters and the other around its chest, which set the animal to bleating again.
Miriam pulled the checkbook from her purse. Her vision blurred, stars and black flitting in and out. She scribbled, in a hurry to leave the place before she fainted cold in the floor.
“I’ll have the meat ready by noon tomorrow,” he said.
Miriam thanked him, then stumbled out the door to her car, her lips, her fingertips, her feet, all fuzzy and full of sand. She laid her head on the steering wheel, warm from the morning sun. She wanted to vomit. Instead she cried, so hard and so long that the tears chapped her cheeks.
Miriam was cleaning up her raccoon eyes and reapplying mascara upstairs when Peter arrived home with Papa. He’d been sweet to take some time off work for her papa’s visit. The tires crunched over the gravel in the driveway. Miriam put her make-up away, and hurried downstairs. The kids were already on the front porch waving to their grandfather, waiting for Peter to park so they could run out and greet him. When Papa finally stepped from the car they swarmed him, hugging him, holding his hand, and grabbing his luggage. It was like a pack of puppies attacking a man with bologna in his hands. Papa’s grin was wide.
Miriam waited on the porch. As Papa came closer, she realized how thin he’d gotten. He seemed even smaller without her mother following behind him.
“Miriam!” He stretched his arms wide for her, and she fell into him, her fingers slipping into the spaces between his ribs. He felt so skinny, like her dough stick, not sturdy like the papa who’d swung her into the air as a girl or helped her mother in and out of the bathtub just months ago. She wasn’t sure if he was thin from grief or from his Lenten fast. She pulled back, gripping his knobby shoulders in her hands. The skin of his face was delicate, like an onion peel, so that she could see every protuberance and arch of his skull, all those bony landmarks she’d memorized in anatomy decades ago. Blue veins bulged on his temples like swollen creek beds ready to flood, and his dentures, now too big for his mouth, slipped over his gums. Miriam kissed his cheek, still soft and warm. “I’m so happy to see you, Papa.”
That evening, the family dyed eggs. Miriam fished out clear glass bowls that wouldn’t stain, and filled each one with water and a spoonful of vinegar. Then she dropped in the colored tablets, watching the tiny bubbles fizz up from the bottom. It was tradition in Bulgaria to dye eggs on Holy Thursday, and it was usual to dye the first egg bright red, so it could be used to mark a scarlet cross on each child’s forehead as a blessing. Miriam’s mother had always made the dye by boiling beets, but Miriam had forgotten to buy beets at the grocery. Pink dye would have to do.
She situated a carton of boiled eggs and the bowls of dye on the oilcloth she’d used earlier in the week to make banitsa. The dim kitchen light glinted off the green, blue, orange, and pink liquids so they looked like potions. “Papa, I’m sorry I don’t have red dye, only pink.”
Papa smiled, his loamy eyes disappearing under wrinkled lids. “You worry too much, Miriam.”
“But I do have a lamb for Easter,” Miriam assured him.
“Naturally.” He nodded, and Miriam smiled back.
Most Easters, Peter dyed a token egg, dunked it into the blue dye bowl, went back to watching the news or a ballgame, and then came back twenty minutes later to fish it out, but tonight he sat with them and talked with Papa. Miriam leaned over her egg, drizzling pink dye over its oval shell. The kids bickered about colors and Papa drummed the table with his thumb. Miriam ignored them all and focused on dying her egg magenta pink. If it couldn’t be red, it should at least be bold.
When the eggshell had absorbed as much pigment as Miriam thought it would, she lifted it from the dye. “The egg’s ready, Papa.”
He took it from Miriam, her fingertips now stained pink. “First Georgeanna,” he said, savoring the sound of his namesake, his accent still rich, like heavy cream coated his tongue. Georgeanna leaned forward, more like an eager seven-year old than a contrary teenager. “May the Lord bless you with health and strength.” Papa made a wet, cotton candy cross on Georgeanna’s forehead, and then gave the same blessing to Elena.
When he got to Teddy, he repeated, “May the Lord bless you with health and strength.” He rubbed the end of the egg across the boy’s forehead. The dye had almost dried and left only a vertical pink smudge. Papa tried again to make a horizontal mark to make the cross, but the egg was too dry. “Oh well,” he shrugged his shoulders, “Bless you anyhow, boy.”
“Come here, Peanut,” Miriam drew Teddy close to her. She kissed the tip of her pink-stained index finger and slid it across to bisect the line on Teddy’s forehead to finish the cross. “There you go.” She nudged him back to the egg he was dying. It bothered her that his egg blessing didn’t work. It’s just superstition, she told herself.
Miriam took the pink egg to the kitchen. The first egg was never thrown away, but kept for good fortune. Her mother had always placed it in a basket on the table by the front door, left it there until it stank. In Bulgaria, when the family owned land, Miriam’s grandmother had buried it in a field to bless the harvest. This evening, Miriam laid her family’s egg on the windowsill above the sink. She wondered if her mother had dyed a red egg last year, the last Easter before she died. She wondered if her grandmother remembered to bury an egg in the fields the years when no rain fell, or those years so much rain came the wheat molded on the stalk, or the one year that her sons left, even though the crops were plentiful, because it still wasn’t enough. Miriam gazed out the window. She listened to the clink of teaspoons against glass bowls, the chatter of her children and Peter. She heard her father’s low chuckle, hollower without her mother there to tease him. Miriam’s eyes rested on the empty spot under the willow tree just next to the clothesline, where in just a few days the grass had been worn flat, and she wished good fortune could be more straightforward.