The porcupine girl was born with a full set of quills, softened by amniotic fluid and slicked down by placenta and blood. The doctor didn’t make the usual announcement, and after a few moments of infant squall, he said with practical Southern gumption, “Good thing she wasn’t breech.”
Charlene and Hank Bartell couldn’t imagine what kind of secrets in their family woodpile threw back such a child, but Hank insisted they take her home to their single-wide in White Deer. Hank named her Mayfair after his grandmother. He thought nothing was more beautiful than his daughter’s blue eyes-not the sky, not any lake, not his beloved Texas Bluebonnets.
Mayfair grew up like any child-crawled, cooed, ate rice cereal and the mush of apricots and squash. She made gooey smiles and took her first step into Hank’s arms. Her first word was “light” under her first Christmas tree.
At the same time, Charlene slipped further into her own self-determined failure, immobilized by Smirnoff and cigarettes in front of the television. Hank stopped leaving the baby with her after he came home and she was cutting the quills with a pair of nail scissors, Mayfair’s face swollen, her open-mouthed wails stretching into soundless gasps. Hank knew about darkness. He’d been to Vietnam and came back with a Purple Heart. But for him, Mayfair was a light that spilled over his worst memories and shined them away.
Without complaint, Hank took over the household. He modified the baby seat with bumpers to cushion the quills around Mayfair’s head and shoulders. He pushed her in the grocery cart and in the park swings. He read to her every night until, after a few years, she began to read to him, her pixie-sharp face earnest, framed by black-tipped quills.
The summer Mayfair was eight, Hank taught her how to throw a baseball, and she washed his Ford truck for $2 every Saturday until she earned enough to buy her first mitt-a blue Rawlings. He taught her to oil the leather to a deep sapphire and to press it under her mattress at night until the supple pocket moved like skin. For hours after dinner, they played catch and then he helped her with her homework-long division or book reports about famous inventors and American presidents.
Every day, Hank walked Mayfair to school. He limped from that shrapnel hit he’d taken at Dai Do. Someday he might tell her about the silver pelicans on the Vietnam rivers. Or the pink-tailed storks. How there could be goodness in the dark, as beautiful as a speckled eggshell. Alongside Mayfair’s joyful skipping, he leaned his head down to hear her every word.
“If you could have a superpower, what would it be?”
“Oh, probably something to keep those damn coyotes from tipping over the garbage cans.”
Her quills clacked like shuffled cards. “Night vision,” she said. “Oh. Magnetic fingers. What else?”
“Probably something to keep the damn lawn mowed down.”
“Laser-beam eyes,” she said. “Ooh! And night vision so you can cut the grass in the dark. What else?”
He cuffed her head, careful not to startle up the lay of quills. “Something to keep down your infernal racket,” he said. But what he really wanted was to keep her safe.
Hank knew he couldn’t protect Mayfair. Not from the teasing at school. Not from Charlene’s drunken rages that came without warning.
Then one day before school started at White Deer High, Hank found Mayfair curled in the yard, beaten, some of her quills snapped like broken reeds. Hank sat all night at the kitchen table drinking dark whiskey, pain sliding around in his head. In the morning, he drove Mayfair to his sister’s place in Oklahoma City.
Mayfair couldn’t look beyond the little blue suitcase at her feet.
“I’ll come back,” Hank said. His chest hurt so it was all he could get out.
As the truck turned the corner, Mayfair sprinted after it, silent as the dusk and the empty road that rolled out between her and the truck.
Aunt Stacy was kind to Mayfair but naÃ¯ve. She couldn’t tell when Mayfair came home stoned or drunk on strawberry Boones Farm. She believed Mayfair’s explanations for the thin, measured cuts that lined her forearms and legs-of course, she blamed the quills.
After Christmas, Stacy got Mayfair a job at the federal building downtown where she worked; the daycare needed a part-time storyteller. The first day, round-faced children flocked to Mayfair, heads rich with red, brown, black and silver-blond hair. Their little hands touched Mayfair’s quills, face and scarred arms. They scrambled into her lap and begged her to read “Poky Little Puppy” and “Hop on Pop.”
The children eased something in Mayfair, made air come into her chest without hurting her heart. She went back every day.
On a Wednesday morning, with children draped over her lap and legs and ducked under her arms to see the pictures, Mayfair started reading, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” when a terrible sound like a train engine howled into the room. Chunks of wall and ceiling fell. Glass shredded the air. Smoke blacked out all light.
The firemen and rescue workers who dug Mayfair out of the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building discovered a small group of children alive, protected from the bomb blast by a curious curtain of quills that scattered like dry branches as they put Mayfair on her own stretcher. By the time Hank arrived at hospital, every quill had fallen away.
He lifted her hand, such a small hand for one so beautiful and full of light.
“Mayfair,” he said. “Here I am.”
Her face was bruised and puffy, stitched together in places, quills gone. Her blue eyes shone clear.
Hank set down his suitcase and laid the blue baseball mitt on the bed. “The doctors say you’ll be good as new. All the whiles,” he said, “I’ll tell you a story.”
He started from the beginning.