by Alice Longaker
Holding the pan underwater and letting it fill, she found the silvery water soothing. The sound, the warmth, the fluidity. Flies clutched the window screens,
promising a thunderstorm. Behind her, two children frolicked—both pasted with spaghetti sauce. The youngest gaily smeared the high chair with crimson, her four teeth displayed in pleasure.
The boy, age three fingers, was rolling his toy trucks through pretend roads lined with real pasta.
Scooping the children under each arm, she headed for the bathroom—up old, creaky stairs. Running the water and adding some bubbles, she hesitated as if a distant memory
pushed the present out of view. Through the steam, she seemed to see another bath . . . other children.
Attending to the squirmers, she removed the boy’s clothes, undoing each tiny button before cradling him in the water. She scrubbed his lunch away and then baptized the
baby in the same waters. Lingering, she touched a finger to calmed cheeks.
She held and cuddled, oblivious to her own damp clothing. At last, when the tiny shells were wrapped in quilts and tucked into their cribs, she sang:
The prairie’s asleep.
Even the sun
Has closed its eyes.
Hush- a-bye baby,
The gentle night’s deep
Will quiet your cries.
Back to her kitchen and dishes in automaton movements, the woman let the water run over her hands. Still she stood by the sink gazing out the window at a nearing trail
of dust that meant company for the solitary house on the plains. Her back stiffened, and she planted her bare feet on the cool tile floors.
Bang! Bang! A fist pounded the door. Wiping her hands on a towel, she opened the back door to her agitated guests.
“I’m sorry,” she offered.
“Mella, you know why we’re here?”
Glancing at the uniformed officers, she nodded.
Sheriff Turner’s face contorted—Mella was unsure if it was in anger or agony. He removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. “We will stay here with you
until Roger arrives to take care of the young ones.”
Sheriff Turner searched Mella’s face for answers. Mella and Roger were his closest friends, bonded tightly by the harsh landscape. A sob escaped his chest “Mella, I
have to tell you, ‘You have the right to remain silent.’ Do you understand these rights?”
“I understand.” Like a bored priest reciting a meaningless liturgy, Mella began. “You know I was married before—when I was young? I could not get it right. I just
missed being pretty, just missed being smart, just missed being a good mom. He left one night and never came home.
“I had two children, and one hot afternoon we had spaghetti for lunch. I took them upstairs for a bath. I just held them underwater. I tricked them into playing a
game—bathed them. I buried them in the backyard under the tree swing. They looked so peaceful and safe; they had each other for company.”
Mella did not expect an answer. She reached for some lotion to soothe her hands.
Sheriff Turner’s face revealed his own struggle between horror and sadness. His own struggle between law and friendship.
“Mella, if you had just asked for help—someone could have helped.” His voice cracked.
“The owners of the house were doing some landscaping,” she said. “And they found the bones.”
Sheriff Turner watched as she gently anointed her hands with lotion that smelled of almonds. Her hands were white and her fingertips pink. Hands of a mother—not a murderer.
“Are the babies asleep?”
“Yes, upstairs. They had spaghetti for lunch . . . and I gave them a bath.”