My cousin Margaret would not stop singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” We sat cross-legged in her family’s basement rec room, the nubby carpet biting into my calves above my ankle socks as I slapped down cards for crazy eights. The older kids played pool, drinking pilfered wine from snowman Dixie cups. My sixteen-year-old brother John tossed one back, poured another.
“Four calling birds,” card slap, “three French hens,” slap. Margaret and I weren’t friends, but played together at family gatherings because we were the same age. At Thanksgiving she had given me a leaky Etch-a-Sketch to use, and then told me that the silver powder on my hands was poisonous. She peered at me over her fan of cards, her cheeks lifting in a smile her cards hid. “Two turtle doves—where’s your mom, Sonya?” she asked, her voice a singsong.
“She needed to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s this year.” I played a two of clubs, or puppy paws, as Margaret called them.
“Why? And a partridge in a pear tree.”
I shrugged. I’d heard my parents’ raised voices, the suitcase wheels bumping along the tiled hallway, the cold car coughing then roaring as Mom left last night. Margaret started another verse. The peppermint bark roiled my stomach. I drew three cards.
“Seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying.” The s sounds hissed at me.
“Stop singing that stupid song.”
“Five golden rings,” she sang louder.
When I’d snuck into my parents’ room, I’d spied mom’s wedding rings on the dresser, in a little bowl with three pennies and a rubber band. A narrow wind hummed through the window screen, spewing cold. My mother never could sleep in a shut-up room. Dad had left the window open, as if to lure back the flown woman.
“Four calling birds…”
“Three French hens, two turtledoves.” She raised her voice on each line until she shouted, “And a partridge in a pear tree!”
I punched her. Her teeth scraped my knuckles. Sucking on them, I tasted blood.
Margaret clapped her hand over her mouth, blood trickling between her fingers and dripping onto her white Christmas dress.
John lurched over, misjudging and half-falling on me. “Sonya? What….”
Tears ran down Margaret’s face, so at first I thought she was whimpering behind her hand. Then I heard the muffled melody, half sobbed, half shouted. My brain put all the words to the maddening repetitions, filling in what I had no power to stop.
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Ann Hillesland’s work has been published in many literary journals, including Bayou, the Laurel Review, Sou’wester, Corium, and SmokeLong Quarterly. It has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions, won the grand prize for prose in a Spark contest, and has been presented onstage by Stories On Stage. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte. Her website is at annhillesland.com.