They are small steps. The shuffle steps of an old woman. But she is not old.

She is two days past five years and she is measuring.

Each shuffle step is a number. At first she calls them inches, then she makes up her own word for the increment. “Wriggles.” About the length of a worm, she says. “That’s what a wriggle is.”

Her mother is sitting at the other end of the porch, watching. She is holding a glass of sweet tea. Ice cubes rattle like dry bones when she tips the glass and sips, remembering the taste of leaves and flowers and sugar. Beads of condensation run down the glass and fall onto her floral dress.

“The glass is crying,” her daughter says, looking up from her measuring.

“I suppose it is,” says her mother.


“Tell me what you think, precious.” She holds the glass out toward her daughter. More drips fall onto the weathered gray floor. Her daughter stands on tiptoes, careful not to lose her place halfway to the flower box, just next to the stairs that point down at a cracked sidewalk.

Each drop is a black spot on the floor.

“I think…” The balls of the little girl’s feet land back on the porch, inviting a mouse-like squeak from the floorboards. She rises up on her toes again and stares at the glass, then at the spots.

“It’s sad about the spotted tiger,” she says, then resumes her measuring.

Her mother laughs a single laugh. “What spotted tiger?” She sets the glass on the wide arm of a whitewashed chair, then folds her hands in her lap.

“Eleventy,” says the young girl.


“Eleventy wriggles. That’s how many to the flower box.”

“Tell me more about the spotted tiger,” says her mother.

The little girl points to the fading spots on the porch floor. “The glass is crying because the spotted tiger is going away.”

Her mother smiles. She sees it, too.

“Where is it going?”

The girl fidgets with the bow on the front of her pink and white polka-dot dress. She tugs at the hem, studying it. She opens her mouth to share an epiphany, then closes it. She lets go of her dress, laces her fingers together just like her mother and looks over at the spotted tiger, all but gone in the afternoon heat.

“To heaven,” she says. Then she looks up at her mother’s face, thin and pale, painted by the patterned shadows of her lacy hat. “Do you have to wear that hat?” she asks.

“It helps,” she answers. “But I can take it off if you like.”

“No,” says the girl. “It helps.”

Her mother wants another sip of tea, but she does not move her hands.

“I’m going to measure something else,” says the girl. “From the flower box to mommy.” She begins her shuffle walk again, whispering numbers learned and imagined. One, two, three, four, slevin, ornty. Her mother coughs once, twice, three times, and then again. The girl looks up, but keeps on measuring, matching her steps in rhythm with the rasps from her mother’s throat.

The shuffle steps become full strides until, in one final lunge, the girl presses herself up against her mother’s knees. They feel like doorknobs against her tiny chest. She wraps her arms around them anyway, and hugs her mother’s legs, resting her head in her lap. Yellow bangs fall in front of her eyes and she looks sideways at the sweating glass as if through the hanging branches of a weeping willow.

“How many wriggles,” her mother asks between coughs. “From the flowers to mommy?”

“I stopped counting,” she says. Water continues to bead down the glass, pooling at the bottom. A tiny river forms and snakes down the chair’s bent arm. When it reaches the back edge, a single drop forms, hangs on for a moment, then drips to the floor. She waits for another. She waits a long time, counting again in her head, this time trying her hardest to use only learned numbers. When she gets to nine, a second drop falls.

“Mommy?” she asks, still holding tight to her mother’s legs.

Her mother coughs a “yes?”

“The chair is crying, too,” she says.

“Is it sad about the tiger?”

“No,” she says. “It’s sad about you.”

Her mother catches her breath and holds it. She runs her fingers through her daughter’s blonde locks, brushing them away from blue eyes like stars, always so full of questions. Except now. Now they hold an answer.

“I’m going to miss you, mommy,” she says.

“Oh precious.” Her mother bends forward to kiss the top of her only daughter’s head. The lacy ribbons from her hat brush the girls’ neck, tickling her. The girl shivers, but does not giggle.

“Will you take care of him?” she asks her mother.


“The spotted tiger.”

“Yes, I will.”

“When you go to heaven.”

“When I go to heaven.”

The world pauses. Everything listens. Even the quiet holds its tongue. Then, the girl speaks. Her voice is a song she hasn’t yet learned.



“How many wriggles is it from here to heaven?”

“I don’t know,” her mother says. “But it’s always just the right number.”

The girl lets go of her mother’s legs and straightens up. She looks down at their feet and thinks about how much growing she will have to do before she can wear her mother’s shoes.

“I think it’s nine,” the girl says. Then she smiles and her eyes go back to asking questions.

“Nine wriggles,” her mother says.

The girl turns and skips to the middle of the porch. She lines her toes up along the top of the steps, glances over at her mother, then leaps down to the sidewalk.

Her dress is a parachute. She laughs. Her mother coughs.

Another drop of water rolls down the arm of the chair and waits before it falls.
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