Ladybird In Story Form
Ladybird and I met in fifth grade—I think. I say I think, because I’m not really sure. It seems like we’d known each other forever, but it must have been fifth grade, because I remember Mrs. Johnson introducing her to the class. Ladybird was new to town and I remember she kind of crept into the schoolroom on the first day and headed straight for the back. She looked nervous and shy and seemed to be trying to make herself disappear by tucking her arms and legs in as tight to her body as possible. The teacher, Mrs. Johnson, had called Ladybird up to the front of the class and Ladybird had inched up there so awkwardly and quietly, that the class, seeming to sense something weaker than themselves, started to giggle.
Mrs. Johnson had a nasally voice that seemed to get even more nasal when she was mad. She held Ladybird’s shoulders and said, “Class, this is our newest student. And her last name is Johnson, just like mine. We must be related!” Mrs. Johnson seemed to think this was funny, but the class, who didn’t like Mrs. Johnson at all, just seemed to find this more reason to dislike the new girl.
She waited for Mrs. Johnson to let go of her shoulders, all the while looking around the room helplessly, like she was trying to find an exit. She crept towards the back of the room again, which probably seemed like the safest place to her, and ended up next to me, in the back — where I’ve always sat.
I studied her out of the corner of my eye. Once she sat down, Ladybird seemed to lose all her nervousness. She must have begun to breathe again because her body started to inflate back to normal size, which for her was always small. Ladybird opened her backpack and slowly began to place things in her desk, seemingly unconscious of the people around her. I watched her for most of the morning, but didn’t decide whether I liked her or not until I noticed that during math, while the rest of us were multiplying fractions, she was sketching little pictures of birds in her workbook. My momma used to sketch pictures of birds a lot too, before she died. “Hey Ladybird,” I said, leaning over and smiling. I’m not exactly sure why I called her that, it just came out. She looked up at me and squinted at my face for a second and then smiled. We were friends after that.
Ladybird wasn’t her real name. Her real name was Annabelle Johnson, but I always called her Ladybird. Like that President’s wife. Annabelle was too close to my own name, Anna, and anyways, Ladybird seemed to fit her better. She was small, and pale, and pretty, except for her nose maybe. In my opinion it looked a bit like a beak; longer and a bit sharper than the rest of her face. It wasn’t ugly, just a bit bird-ish- which doesn’t surprise me. I’ve noticed that people who like a certain kind of dog or pet often look like that animal. I have a theory that people weren’t actually all evolved from apes. Some were, but I think the rest were probably evolved from a whole lot of different animals which is why some people look like mice or like dogs. And you can look at some people and just know they must have come from a snake.
And Ladybird was bird-people.
After that first day, we stuck close together at school, Ladybird because she was shy and me because I was awkward. I liked to think that my awkwardness was because I was too big for the town, but I think it had more to do with having a body that was too big for me. I grew tall fast, and by fifth grade when Ladybird and I met, I was heads above anyone else in class. Sometimes I think we must have looked like an odd pair; Ladybird, small and pale with slow, precise movements—and me, sun-burnt and knobby with legs that seemed to splay out every which way but the way they were supposed to. Looking back, I guess that’s how friendships form in school. You just find someone as uncomfortable as you are and you stick together.
I took on the role of Ladybird’s protector. Being small, she was an easy target. I remember one day in sixth grade nasty Mary Ellets started sticking things down Lady’s shirt at recess and telling the boys to fish them out. Ladybird was crying and Mary had her pinned up against the schoolyard wall. I was suspended for two days for giving Mary a black eye. Her parents were furious and didn’t talk to my family after that when they saw them at church. I didn’t care, and besides, no one had ever even asked what Mary had been doing to get herself punched. Sometimes I think the world would be a better place if some people got popped in the face more.
Ladybird protected me too, just in a different way. She sat with me for hours as I cried over Tony Wilson in the eighth grade, smoothing my hair and telling me that I was too pretty for him anyways. She protected me from all the hard thoughts and feelings that kids are surrounded with. She made the world softer.
“If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” I asked her one day. We were teenagers then and like we often did, we were sitting on big rocks down by the river just outside of town. I leaned back on the warm rock and let my feet dangle down into the water. Ladybird was sitting behind me sketching in her notebook.
“Probably Vegas,” she giggled.
“Vegas?” I said, shocked. That was the last place I expected. I thought she’d say some exotic place like Belize or the Polynesian Islands, “Why Vegas?”
I like that it’s called the city of lights. I think it sounds pretty.” She giggled again, “and I want to be a flamenco dancer.” Sometimes I think Ladybird liked to say things just for shock value. But maybe she meant it. She probably meant it.
“You’re strange,” I replied, smiling and flicking water up with my feet to watch the light catch it in midair.
“What about you, where would you go?” She asked
“Anywhere but here. I hate this town.” I replied.
“Aren’t you happy at all, Anna?”
“Yeah, of course, I’m happy some. But being born here is enough for me. I have no intention of dying here too.” I stopped short, realizing all of a sudden that I had said the “d” word.
Ladybird was silent. She was looking down at her arms. There were red spots all over them. She was sick, and we both knew it, but in the way that children can do, we pretended like it wasn’t true. But even that was getting harder to do. Ladybird was tired a lot lately. If we went anywhere she would often have to sit down to rest. Last week we had been walking down to Jessica Westover’s house to look at the new dresses her mom had gotten her, and halfway there Ladybird just kind of stopped and looked up at me. “Anna, I can’t go.” Her joints hurt a lot and she had pain in her stomach. I put my arm around her waist and helped her back home. She was in bed for two days afterwards. When I saw her again she looked too little. I mean even though she was little to begin with, it seemed like she just kept getting smaller and smaller. I had started to get afraid that she was going to disappear altogether.
I’m not exactly sure when the sickness started, maybe that spring — It seems all so hazy now. I just remember one day knowing that she was really sick — not like the kind of sick that everyone gets, but a worse kind of sick. I had never asked her what was wrong, and she had never told me. Maybe we both thought that if we didn’t talk about it, it would just go away. Or maybe it was only me that thought that. Now it just seems like she was trying to protect me.
“Anna,” she started after a pause, “do you know what I like about nature?”
“No,” I tried to hide the anxiety in my voice.
“I like that everything makes sense. When I’m in the city, around people, I get scared a lot. And I start to worry about all kinds of things, maybe because everyone around me is worrying so I just start to worry too. And nothing makes sense. Dying doesn’t make sense,” There was a pause and then she added quickly, as if to cover the pause back up, “And money, and school, and jobs — all those thoughts kind of overwhelm me. But in nature, none of it matters and everything makes sense. Like if you look at a tree—it starts out as a small little seed, and it grows tall, and it gives air and shade, and animals live all around it. And that’s its only job. All it ever has to do is just be. And even when it’s dying it doesn’t seem like death because it just sinks back into dirt and a new little tree starts to grow out of it. And it’s never really gone, it just keeps right on living as the earth. And in a way, I think it’s kind of beautiful.”
I continued to flick the water up into the air. I felt like she was trying to tell me something really important, and I wasn’t sure I was getting it, but I was listening really hard.
“And sometimes I think it’s all so beautiful that it hurts. Happiness, sadness, life and death, they just all go together, Anna, and I don’t think you can separate them out.” She was quiet again for a moment, “Sometimes I’m so happy Anna, that I imagine my chest opening right down the middle so I can swallow the whole world inside.”
I looked at Ladybird. She was sitting there on that rock in the sun, red-spots on her arms and all, grinning from ear-to-ear. I started smiling too. And the smile turned into a laugh. And the laugh lasted deep into the night.
Ladybird is gone now. She died of leukemia that fall. It’s been fifteen years since then, but when think of her I like to think that she is still all around in the earth and the dirt and the new baby trees, and that moment is locked in time; absolutely and perfectly happy—so happy that it hurts. And you can’t separate the two.
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Portland Fiction Project
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