They stand in a circle wearing horrible shirts with the sun shining down. They are red-faced children with shirts the color of traffic cones and sharpened stones for eyes. It is already 90 degrees and it is Horse Day for Bluebirds (Age group 10-12, space is limited so register your daughter today!). Their counselors lead them in song. “Let me hear your camp spirit!” Cora, a red-haired counselor, has so many freckles it looks like a disease. “Marsha, I can’t hear you.”
Marsha is making the right shapes with her lips but no noise is coming out. The group with the most spirit gets ice cream after lunch.
“Sing,” hisses a Bluebird between verses. Marsha sings.
The horses (Remember to include the riding fee with your application if you want your daughter to participate in this extra-special activity!) are kept in a stable at the edge of the camp. The counselors pick the Sunflower Girls (Age group 8-9, please indicate if you wish for your daughter to participate in the end-of-summer sleep-over!) as the spirit winners. It is the fourth time in a row the Bluebirds will not get ice cream.
“Bluebirds, line up.” Cora is their leader. Every lunch, she sneaks to the boat house (Only campers with a white or red swim band allowed!) to meet her boyfriend. Her freckles don’t stop at her neck.
“The Sunflower Girls keep getting the best of us.” Cora’s smile is widest when she is annoyed. “I’m going to start feeding you worms if you Bluebirds can’t chirp loud enough.” Her mouth is a hive of small, uneven teeth. “Let’s sing the Worm Song on our way to the horsies.”
They walk in groups of three and four, swinging their arms to stir the still air. “It’s Marsha’s song,” one Bluebird whose name is Heather whispers to another, whose name is Jennifer. They trail Marsha, clipping the backs of Marsha’s shoes as she walks. They sing a special version of the Worm Song just loud enough for Marsha to hear.
“Nobody likes you, everybody hates you, you’re just an ugly worm.”
Marsha’s heels smack against her flattened sneakers as she walks, flip-flop flip-flop, the sound of Granny’s slippers. Marsha is pretty sure Granny stopped recognizing her. “Who is this darling child? I’d like to give her a big kiss,” every time Marsha was made to visit. The toothless mouth opening and closing.
On the first day of camp (Don’t forget to dress your daughter in a camp T-shirt!) everyone was told to decorate their name tag according to the name of their group. Marsha drew musical notes around hers (HELLO!! My name is Marsha!), turning the s’s into treble clefs.
“What’re those supposed to be?” Heather had asked, poking her finger into Marsha’s chest. Heather has impossibly small lips the color of cherry chewing gum. Her barrettes and socks always match her shorts.
“It’s birdsong. Since we’re Bluebirds.”
Cora had called Marsha “creative” in front of the whole group. After the first week of camp. Heather had passed out invitations to a pool party in her backyard. One Bluebird was not invited.
There is a changing room next to the stable (Do not enter unless you’re dressed to ride!) where the Bluebirds change together. Marsha tries to hide the sweat that has turned her T-shirt a darker orange under her arms.
Marsha doesn’t wear a training bra like the others. Her mother thinks it inappropriate for a girl her age. Before Granny was sent away, she would feed Marsha milkshakes with raw egg and, later, whole sticks of butter. “You’re a twig. Better drink this if you want boobies.” Marsha’s mother assures her that she will one day be thankful for the high metabolism that keeps her so thin.
“Worm.” The word echoes through the room, the heat melting its source.
Marsha has a raised mole the size of a corn kernel just below her clavicle. She keeps her back to the other birds. Heather’s training bra has a pink flower in the middle. She likes to walk around in it when she holds butt inspection. Her bellybutton is a perfect innie.
“Get ready, Bluebirds! It’s tush time!”
Heather demands the full participation (Our wide array of camp activities build fitness and social skills!) of her fellow campers. From under the Bluebirds’ shorts emerges a flock of cotton panties the colors of the pastel rainbow. Jennifer spreads her legs and pushes her butt out like a model for designer jeans. Despite the small fan in the corner (All facilities are climate-controlled for camper-comfort!) the room stinks of yesterday’s sweat.
“Remember girls, stick out your ass to go to the head of the class! Even a little one can go a long way,” Heather sings, passing each bird from behind. “That means you too. Marsh mouth. Oh, I forgot, worms don’t have butts, do they?”
All the Bluebirds, even the shy ones, twitter. Marsha focuses on the tree outside the window, tries to think herself to a branch higher than Heather can reach. Through the window of Granny’s room there was only a creek with thick, brown water.
“What’s wrong? Don’t you know how to talk?”
Marsha’s head moves up and down.
Heather puts her mouth close to Marsha’s ear. She whispers loud enough for everyone to hear her. “Do worms have butts? Yes or no?” Heather’s breath smells like peanut butter.
“No,” Marsha whispers.
“Then how’d you get chocolate stains on your underwear?”
Sound bounces off the concrete walls and floor until it is the whole world. Marsha smells the metallic stink of shame from her armpits. When Cora comes in, her birds are dressed and ready.
In the stable (Horses hold a special place in every girl’s heart!), the flies have grown too fat to fly. The heat makes Marsha’s clothes (Jeans and a long-sleeved shirt are absolutely necessary!) feel heavier. Marsha’s horse that day is white with brown spots.
“My undies are clean,” she says to no one in particular. The horse’s name is Lightning. Its mane and tail are yellow-white like Granny’s hair. When it breathes, the air rushes too loudly through its nose. Marsha doesn’t like leading the horse into the sun, doesn’t like being near its large yellow teeth.
Outside the stable, the dark spots on the horse’s coat seem to spread like creeping stains. Marsha is afraid to touch them in case they are contagious like warts. When the horse moves, its bones make lumps ripple beneath its skin. Granny had a bump on the side of her neck that no one talked about. She would stroke it with her fingers until Marsha’s mom would pull Granny’s hand away. Marsha is short for her age. To get onto the horse, she needs extra help.
Most of the Bluebirds came to camp knowing how to canter. Mansha slows the riding class (All experience levels welcome!) down. She has a difficult time remembering that kicking with the left heel means turn right and that the right heel means turn left.
Heat jellies the air Marsha breathes. In it, she can see specks of dust and hairs loosened from the horse’s neck. She can see fly eggs and horse spittle. Heat melts the difference between the horse and Marsha’s leg. Underneath her jeans, she feels rough hairs sprouting. By the time Marsha returns to the changing room, she will be white with chocolate stains. The thought closes around her like a scab.
“Marsha!” The voice of Graham (Our professional riding instructor knows children as well as he knows horses!) cuts through her thickening skin. “Why aren’t you moving? Get your butt in gear. I know Lightning’s ready for a ride.”
“I have to get down. I can’t ride today. Please let me get down.”
Graham turns his horse around. Heather and the other Bluebirds stare. Heat blurs the lines of their faces. Heather’s mouth shimmers small and red.
“Why do you even come here?” Graham leads Marsha from the ring. He wrenches Marsha’s arm lifting her off the horse, then tethers Lightning to a post beside the stable.
Marsha watches the Bluebirds ride (Good horsemanship is something a girl can take pride in!) as if their bodies have been made for it. Beside her, Lightning snorts. The smell of fresh horse droppings amplifies the buzzing of the flies.
Inside the changing room, the air feels cool on Marsha’s skin. Marsha looks for Heather’s cubby. Today Heather’s barrettes and socks are lemon yellow. Marsha finds a hard candy in the pocket of Heather’s shorts and eats it even though it is unwrapped. She leaves with the shorts stuffed under her shirt.
Marsha stands beside Lightning (Be a careful Bluebird: never approach a horse from behind!), patting its side before reaching behind its legs. As Marsha rubs the shorts in the dung, she tells herself it is like twisting the top off an Oreo, the same feeling of give and slide as the cookie comes free from its creamy center.
“Horse patties,” Marsha whispers, and giggles. Lightning shifts. Its hoof comes down on Marsha’s shoe. The horse’s hooves are thick and yellow like Granny’s fingernails. The initial burst of pain becomes a dull throb.
“Let go,” Marsha says. Marsha pictures the ground softening in the day’s heat, the weight of the horse forcing her into the earth. Granny always worried she’d be buried before she died.
Heather’s shorts are heavy in Marsha’s hand. “Letgoletgoletgo.” Lightning’s tail swats slow flies. The Bluebirds (We try to make our youngest campers feel especially welcome!) are rounding the turn that leads back to the stable. Marsha shoves the horse with her free hand. She pounds it with her fist. Its pelt feels like little needles. She pounds between its spots.
Heather is at the front of the group. Marsha slams her shoulder into the horse, turning to avoid seeing herself touch its brown fur. Granny is behind Marsha’s eyelids. “Little girl,” Granny wheezes, “let me touch your face.” Whenever it was time to leave. Granny would squeeze Marsha’s hand and not let go.
The Bluebirds draw nearer, clip-clop clip-clop. Marsha begins to plead. “Let me go. Please. I’ll kiss you this time.” Marsha presses her mouth to the horse. Its hairs prick her lips.
Flies settle on the shorts in Marsha’s hand. The Bluebirds see brown and lemon yellow. Their horses are breathing fast from being ridden in such heat. Their sides rise and fall, rise and fall.
Heather’s face turns the color of cherry chewing gum. Her lips stretch and stretch. Graham begins to yell, but Marsha doesn’t hear him. Heather’s eyes are sharpened flint.
Rising temperatures are setting records up and down the eastern seaboard. Summer has just begun.
Myla Goldberg is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her first novel, Bee Season, published last year by Doubleday, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2000. It will appear in paperback this spring.