I’ve been in the hospital four days when they put another woman in the room with me — an old farm wife from Beardstown, by the name of Trudy Deere. Trudy Deere has been in a car accident. She’s recuperating.
I don’t say a word to her. I don’t have nothing to say that people want to hear, anyway. So I keep my mouth shut. Besides, I heard her tell my sister that she has five children of her own, so I know what she thinks of me, lying in my bed with my face to the wall when the nurses bring the baby in. It’s nothing against the baby in particular, but nobody can see that. I’m a bad mother is all they see. People like to speculate. I guess by now everybody has speculated about me.
I lie here in my hospital bed in this white room under these white sheets wearing my white gown, and I think about Billy’s hands and breath and legs and skin all over me. I think about all of it from beginning to end, over and over. He’s out there someplace, like a coyote. Sometimes late at night, when everybody’s asleep and the nurses are down the hall at their station, I think I can hear him howling. I picture him on a hill, his head thrown back. I know he’s probably all the way to Mexico by now, but still I can hear him like he’s right outside my window.
There used to be animals all over the place around here, not just coyotes but foxes and wildcats and wild turkeys. You don’t see them much anymore, but sometimes you’ll see where they’ve been. When I would go off with Billy, we’d see coyote tracks, and I’d put my fingers on the place where their paws had been.
There are coyotes and foxes and wild turkeys in the zoo over in St. Louis, I hear. They must breed and have their babies right there in the zoo. And the babies must never know nothing but the zoo and people looking at them and living in pens. Or is that all they know? Maybe something gets passed on from their parents — like we pass on our blood and bones — something that reminds them of what they are, some old memory that comes down. The coyotes were in the woods back before Columbus, before Jesus, before anything we know. You mean to tell me all that history can be erased by a few years in a zoo?
They roll the baby into my room again, in her little bed, and leave her next to me. My sister Mary Helen sits beside me and talks, but I don’t say a word. I turn my back on her and make myself as cold as a dead fish. After a while she gives up on me and talks to Trudy Deere instead.
When they first brought Trudy Deere to my room, I thought her name was Trudy Dear, but then I saw on the door that it was with two es. Mary Helen wants to know all about Trudy Deere’s accident. Trudy Deere says they had to perform an emergency operation on her, and Mary Helen says, “I declare!”
Trudy lowers her voice and says that she actually died for one whole minute, and Mary Helen gasps and says, “Oh, my!”
Trudy swears to God it’s the truth, and Mary Helen says, “Of course it is,” but I can tell she’s wondering.
Neither of them says a word for a long time. Me, I’m lying here with my eyes shut thinking this is the first interesting thing I’ve heard in four whole days, and now Mary Helen is going to let it drop. I lie here helpless all the time, listening to people talk about the price of soybeans and corn futures, or Eisenhower and the war, or is it going to rain or not. When my family comes, I have to listen to them, which is worse. They say how I’ve made my bed and now I’m lying in it. They tell me I should’ve gotten engaged to Leander Filson, and remind me how the Filsons own about “half the goddamn county,” is how they put it. And when Leander comes home from Korea, then how’s he going to feel? How’s he going to feel when he gets a letter about me and the baby? I can tell everybody was hoping this baby would look like Leander. All those Filsons have red hair, and white skin that blisters in the sun. They’re like moles, if you ask me. They’re like animals who live in the ground — delicate and pale, with tiny pink eyes. You can take one look at the baby and see she don’t come from that family.
So that’s what I’ve been listening to every day, and now finally someone says something interesting, and Mary Helen’s just going to let it pass. I hear her walk to the window, and I can picture her looking out. Just when I’m about to give up, she says, “What was it like?”
Trudy Deere says it was like going down a long black tunnel. And then she stops, like that’s it.
A long black tunnel, huh? Well, maybe Mrs. Trudy Deere was on her way to you-know-where. I want to ask was it getting warm, but I haven’t said a word to her yet, and this doesn’t seem like the time to start.
“And then I saw a bright light,” says Trudy Deere all of a sudden. “And I saw angels.”
“Did you see Jesus?” asks Mary Helen. Like if Trudy Deere had seen Jesus she might forget to mention it.
“No,” Trudy Deere says.
“But there was angels?”
“There was three angels with the prettiest faces you ever saw, like on a Christmas card.”
“Is that a fact,” says Mary Helen.
But, Trudy Deere says, she wasn’t ready to be dead yet. She says she explained to the angels (like they’d care) that her middle daughter is fixing to get married, and there are all the preparations to make for the wedding. She hasn’t even finished sewing the wedding dress, for one thing. And now Trudy Deere starts telling Mary Helen all about the pattern she picked out for the dress, and it sounds just like the one Mavel Reynolds’s mother made for her when Mavel got married. I tell you, that dress didn’t turn out nothing like the picture.
“It’s a Simplicity pattern,” says Trudy.
Sure enough, that’s the exact pattern Mrs. Reynolds made for Mavel. Trudy Deere must’ve had about the weakest argument against dying them angels had ever heard. I’m surprised they didn’t laugh in her face. Instead, they came up with a deal!
The angels explained to Trudy Deere that she came down to earth to do a certain thing, but she wasn’t doing it, and so it was time for her to die. It was like she hadn’t made the payments on her car, and now the bank was repossessing it.
“They said that?” says Mary Helen.
“That’s right; they did.”
“And what did you say?”
“I said I sure was sorry, and would they give me another chance,” Trudy Deere says. So the angels told her she could have one more chance, but she’d better do what she was supposed to do, or they’d have to come back and get her, and this time it’d be for good.
Just when I think Mary Helen is never going to get around to it, she asks, “And what was it? What was the thing you’re supposed to do?” It sure wasn’t sewing that wedding dress.
Trudy Deere says it’s the dangest thing, but she can’t recall what it was. They told her, but it slipped her mind, and now she just can’t, for the life of her, recall what it was.
“You mean you can’t remember?” asks Mary Helen, like she didn’t hear what Trudy Deere just said two times.
“No, I can’t.”
Now Mary Helen repeats the whole thing back (she never was too quick): “You mean to tell me that you had angels speak to you, and they told you your life’s purpose and that, if you didn’t fill that purpose, then they were going to come and take you back — and you forgot what they told you?”
Trudy Deere says, “You ever woke up from a dream, and you could just about recall it, but not quite? It’s like that. It’s so familiar that if someone said it, it’d be like hearing my own name. You know?”
But I don’t think Mary Helen does know. She makes a noise in her throat, the noise she makes when it’s her turn to talk, but she don’t want to take it.
“It’s like God in heaven reached down and put a treasure in my hand, and then I dropped it,” says Trudy Deere.
I cover my head with the blanket and curl into a ball. I can hear the beating of my heart and feel the heat of my breath. I make a hole in the covers to peek out of. The baby is beside me in her little bed. I can’t see her, but I can see her hand where she’s raising it straight up in the air, with her fingers out, like someone has asked a question and she’s got the answer and is only waiting for her name to be called.