On our boulevard of weeds and rot, our retired neighbor, Ivy, made us tea and finger sandwiches, taught us chopsticks and Chopin on the piano, and doled out metaphors and buttercream mints. In the mornings, she sat outside under a canopy of wings, feeding the birds stale bread on her small patio.
“Why do so many hummingbirds come here?” we asked, her tribe of latchkey kids forming a circle around her as the birds darted toward the orange nectar she left on a low olive branch.
“Hummingbirds have a better chance of survival if they make their cone-shaped nests near the nests of hawks,” Ivy said, tilting her head toward sunlight and breathing as if she were soaring through mountains. “They found their hawk.”
We were used to her way of explaining the world. She made sense away from the chaos of our homes, our families, and our growing awareness that making ourselves small and unseen was both protection and a slow death. Adults on the block called her a witch, but we knew she was magical and mighty, orchestrating the wind with her knotted fingers, her untamed white hair springing loose from its many pins while she whistled birdsong. We threw crumbs with her, rolling the stale bread between our fingers as the birds flocked around us, eating from our palms, gifting us with wind and flight, sun and sky.
When the red-headed boy came over with his stepfather’s fist imprinted on his cheek, we knew to get the bag of frozen peas from her icebox. We each claimed our own bag of frozen vegetables. He was asleep in the basement, and some of us were playing Candyland when we heard the knock.
“I’ve got it,” Ivy said, flicking her wrists at us, meaning we had to take cover. We flew downstairs, then tiptoed back up to watch through the cracked door, digging our nails into the wooden steps.
“Open up! I know he’s in there somewhere,” the stepdad yelled, pounding on the front door.
“You carry on like that, I won’t answer,” Ivy said. The pounding subsided, and just as she cracked the door open, the stepdad launched a kick that sent her stumbling backward.
“I ain’t gotta listen to you, you crazy old hag.”
Ivy pulled herself together and grew big, stretching and expanding, filling in each wrinkle of her loose skin as she took up space, pushing past the doorframe. Her house dress, a bouquet of peonies, became a garden, and the two embroidered crows, a murder.
The stepfather shrank back at the sight of her, horror streaked across his brow, his mouth agape. He stumbled backward, then turned and ran. We waited to witness what the stepfather had seen. But she shrank back into herself, closed the door, and began singing the notes she taught us on the piano, each key pulling us closer to the sky, erasing the ink of night and the memory of our fear.
Sabrina Hicks lives in Arizona. Her work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Pidgeonholes, Barren Magazine, Third Point Press, 100 Word Story, and other publications. More of her work can be found at sabrinahicks.com. Twitter: @desertdwellera3