Nish’na Ba

By John Thomas Tuft

“Return to Peech Ko, return to him. Be swallowed by the wind,” Paz whispered. “Pama mema.”
He held her hand and waited. “Nene sa we o. Travel on the blue, into the arms of your mother.”
“Excuse me,” said a voice at the door. Paz looked up and saw a thin woman with thick gray hair brushed off her face, surrounding a face with the wrinkles and creases of nine decades of life unchained and unbowed. She was tall but slightly stooped, as if the weight of all that life pulled her closer to the earth.
“May I help you?” asked Paz.
“I’m Ginny. Actually I’m Virginia Rosalind Marks, but everybody calls me Ginny. Who might you be?” Her accent was that of someone from the Carolinas, soft and straightforward, with honest eyes that smiled whenever she said her name. “Is that family?” she asked, indicating the figure in the bed.
Paz nodded. “My daughter.”
“Bless her heart. What’s her name? I had two boys. Always wanted a daughter, but the good Lord didn’t see fit to give me one. I’m sorry she’s sick.” Her hands fluttered and produced a small handkerchief with intricate cross-stitching around its edges. “Oh my, she’s got something all over her face. Here, let me get that for her. She wouldn’t want her daddy to see her like this.”
Paz rose to protest, but Ginny waved him off. As she carefully wiped at the residue, she chatted earnestly. “I’m one of ten children, wouldn’t you know. Six girls came first, then four boys. My daddy must have been determined to have a boy, that’s all I can figure. Six girls came first. I’m number six, mind you.” She paused for breath.
Paz watched her ministrations with a small bemused smile on his lips. “Two sons, you say?”
“That’s right: Elijah and Matthew.” Her eyes lifted to the window, on the fourth floor of the nursing home, high enough to look out over the rolling hills of Beaver County. “I think they forgot about me. They seem to think I can’t take care of myself. I have half a mind to tell them off,” she paused, lost in memories. “It they ever come to see me, that is. This place is supposed to be home now. I had me a real nice house, mind you. Right down there next to the Beaver River.”
One hand went to her cheek, and her eyes clouded over. But it quickly passed. “Your hair is beautiful. Are you nish’na ba?”
Paz started, standing up abruptly. “What did you say?”
Ginny waved her hands at him, the kerchief showing bright red stains. “Don’t fret yourself. It means a person that just happened. Native American, I think.”
“I know what it means. Yes, I’m of Shawnee blood, from back when they were here in western Pennsylvania. Where are your sons? Why are they not taking care of you?”
Ginny blinked rapidly, the corners of her mouth drawing down. “They are good boys, now mind you. Did I tell you my Daddy used to want boys? I’m one of ten children, six girls first, then four boys. I had to wear hand me downs. Momma tried to sew me clothes, but the other girls at school would laugh. We wore pasteboard in our shoes when they got holes in them.” She laughed. “I always hated when it rained.”
Ginny twisted the petite kerchief in her hands, sucking in her lower lip. “The good Lord blessed me. I married a good man, and I worked for the…” she leaned forward to whisper, “the IRS. Internal Revenue Service. My first job was for the telephone company in our little town. I used to listen in to some of the calls, but don’t tell anybody. One man was just plain ugly; he used to call this married woman and they’d talk. Mind you, he was married and had four children, but he was carrying on with her. I used to listen in. I’d a been fired if I got caught, but that was just wrong of him. Do you know why I’m here?”
Her question caught Paz by surprise. He checked Annie, who seemed peaceful. “Maybe your boys thought it was best for you.”
“Why is your daughter here? She looks sick. I’m not sick. They say I don’t remember as well as I used to, but who does? I’m so glad you got a daughter. My Daddy always wanted a son. I’m one of ten children, did I tell you? My momma had six girls first, but Daddy must have wanted a boy awfully bad. Can you imagine, six girls? But he was determined to have a boy. Then he had four boys. Can you imagine? Daddy really wanted a boy.”
She leaned over and tenderly stroked Annie’s hair. “I wanted a girl, but I had two boys. I don’t know why I’m here, but I wake up every morning and I’m here. I don’t know where my boys are. Do you know? What did you say your name is?”
Paz sighed. “I’m Paz. Thank you for visiting my daughter.”
“Oh, it’s only right. I have trouble remembering things, but my momma always taught me to take care of others. We were poor. But we always had a big garden. And a cow for milk. And every year we raised a hog. I never had rice till we moved. Daddy worked in the textile mill at Spartanburg. That’s South Carolina. But then we moved to the flat country. Everybody there ate rice, so we started to eat lots of rice. And biscuits. Momma made biscuits for every meal. Not bread, mind you, but biscuits. There were ten children. Six girls and four boys. Daddy must have wanted a boy pretty bad. I’m the youngest girl. Did I tell you, I’m Ginny. Well, Virginia really, but everybody calls me Ginny. You know, I don’t feel like I’m ninety years old. I still feel like a girl inside. But I look in the mirror and there’s this old lady staring back at me. Mind you, it don’t bother me being ninety, but I still feel young inside. Do you know why I’m here? Will my boys be back for me?”
Paz sat quietly, listening. Ginny touched his hand. “Some of the poor souls in here are a bit touched, if you know what I mean. Did you ever get a song stuck in your head? I keep a song stuck in my head. I can’t remember all the words, but it’s stuck in there.”
“Why don’t you sing it?” Paz encouraged.
“Oh, I couldn’t do that. People would think I’m touched in the head. Do you know how long I’ve been here? It’s a nice room and the people all treat me decent. But I don’t know how long I’ve been here. Do you know? I’m one of ten children, I tell you. ” She smoothed her pants along her hips, which could barely keep them up because she was so thin.
“No, I don’t,” Paz said as gently as he could.
Ginny looked at the woman on the bed, confusion on her face. Then back at Paz before wandering over to the window. She sounded like she might be talking only to herself as she mused, “I’ll be walking down the hall, see all those poor souls. I don’t know what day it is, or how I got here. Maybe I’m nish’na ba, too. Somebody that just happened.”
She tucked the kerchief with the fine stitching back into the sleeve of her blouse. “I’ve got to get those biscuits into the oven. Daddy will be home soon.”
As she headed toward the door, he thought he heard the faint sound of humming. Maybe it was “Amazing Grace.” When he turned back to the bed, his daughter lay still, as though sleeping, slipping away on the blue.

(from chapter 17 of MIDNIGHT SHEPHERD)