Hush little baby, don’t say a word,
Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird don’t sing,
Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.
And if that diamond ring don’t shine,
Mama’s gonna buy you a jug of wine.
And if that jug of wine turns sour,
Mama’s gonna buy you a bag of flour.
And if that bag of flour gets spilled,
Mama’s gonna buy you a board that’s drilled.
And if that board that’s drilled gets broke,
Mama’s gonna buy you a billy goat.
And if that billy goat turns mean,
Mama’s gonna buy you something green.
And if that something green turns brown,
You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town.
I lay awake in the dark, staring at the cracked ceiling and trying to ignore the terrifying sounds coming from down the hall. I had been hearing them for the past seven years of my life, but I still found myself shuddering. I sat up, careful not to wake Lisa and Kari, who were on either side of me. Their closeness felt suffocating. I crawled to the edge of the bed, stood up, and walked over to the window. I stared out the tiny rectangle of thick glass at the glowing moon. For the millionth time, I wondered what went on in Mother’s room every night that caused such screams.
A pitter-patter of tiny footsteps made me whirl around, my nightgown swirling. I relaxed as I saw it was only Leo, the youngest inhabitant of our prison-like room. I smiled at the small six-year-old boy, and he grinned back. He held his arms up to me, and pointed at the window. I scooped him up and held him so he could see the moon. He tilted his head against my shoulder. We stood there for quite some time, until he yawned, and I carried him back to the bed he shared with the other six boys. I tucked him in, and he signed, Good night, Sara, before closing his eyes to sleep. I returned to the window, pulling a chair over. I watched the moon and stars as they cycled across the sky.
Shaking woke me. Lola’s face was inches from mine when I opened my eyes. I made a face at her, and she giggled noiselessly. I could see the stump where her tongue used to be. You fell asleep at the window again, Sara, she signed.
I shrugged, and signed back, You know it happens almost every night.
She nodded in agreement. I sat up fully, rubbing my cheek where it had pressed into the hard wall, and looked around the room. Everyone was waking up, stretching and yawning. I shivered, partly from the deep chill of the room and partly from the sight of all those tongueless mouths. Fourteen children, none of whom did anything to deserve this, were now trapped in a room and mute. Why? What did Mother do in her room with the samples of blood she took from each of us every day? Was there something special about us, or did she just pick us off the streets? And why did we need to be mutilated? I shook my head; thinking like that could be dangerous. I could get in trouble with Mother if she found out I was questioning her.
Speak of the devil.
The door slammed open and Mother flounced in, carrying a heavily-laden tray with our breakfasts on it. “Good morning, children!” she sang, starting to pass out our food. When she reached me, she set my plate of toast, eggs, and bacon in my lap, and pinched my cheek. “Were we sleeping by the window again, Sara?”
I nodded. I love the moon, I signed, and Mother nodded in agreement.
“It was beautiful last night!” she exclaimed, before moving on to pass Lola her breakfast. Once she had given us all food, she took out the little box with fourteen syringes in it, and asked us to line up. We obeyed, and she took exactly five milliliters of blood from each of us. Then she gave us small band-aids and left, without saying a word.
We weren’t surprised by the strange order; Mother always told us to have fun. We didn’t understand how we could have fun in a small room with no furnishings but the beds, two chairs, and a large stack of books, but we made the most of it. We played acting games and charades, we poured over new sign language books, we read the other books Mother allowed us over and over again. I can’t say it was a terrible life, but it was a boring one, and one full of confusion and slight fear. We were always afraid that if we managed to somehow make a noise we would get punished. We had all witnessed her anger; the first day Leo was with us he had started crying and tried to run when Mother tried to take his blood. She had lost her temper and screamed at us all for forty-five minutes. We had ended that breakfast with bruises and a greater fear of the unknown woman who told us to call her “Mother”.
She was beautiful, I mused as we ate our breakfast. There was never a hair out of place, and she had icy blue eyes. She was tall and poised, and she was even kind to us most of the time. But there was the slight madness in her eyes, no matter how sane Mother seemed. We knew she left the house during the day, and came back to her room at night. But we had no idea what she was doing.
Distracted as I was, I didn’t notice Shawn’s signs until Leo tugged on my sleeve. I glanced up in time to catch him sign pretending to be nice all the time. He seemed disgusted. I turned to Leo with a look that said, what’s happening? He shrugged, seeming just as confused as me, but he signed, Shawn thinks it’s stupid that Mother pretends all the time.
I frowned, and returned my attention to the conversation that Shawn had started. He was a rather hot-headed boy of nine, but even he wouldn’t be stupid enough to mention that in front of Mother. Lisa was disagreeing with Shawn.
She is not pretending, Lisa signed. She wouldn’t lie to us. She’s nice!
Shawn sneered. You think she is nice even when you see what happens when we disobey her? Are you crazy?
Everyone started signing at once, and I waved my arms through the air. When they had stopped, I signed, Everyone calm down. We may not know what Mother does, but we know that she is probably insane. I don’t really think there is anything we can do, so we should stop thinking about it and just live like we have been.
Rich shook his head. You think you are the best and always in charge just because you’re the oldest, Sara, he signed. I’m only a year younger, and I say we should find a way to escape.
I clenched my teeth and leaned back into the worn back of my chair as the flurry of angry signs started again. Arguments like these happened at least once a month. A few times, some of the kids had been convinced that we should try to escape, but they always chickened out at the last second. I had learned to just wait them out.
All of a sudden, Leo and Caroline started tugging hard on my sleeves. I stared at them, confused, to find them pointing at our tiny window. I followed their intent gazes and saw a small bird pecking at the glass. I waved my arms for a second time, and when I had their attention, pointed in the same direction as our youngest two. Everyone crowded around, and I sucked in a breath, worried that they’d scare the creature away. The bird only cocked its head at us, however, and chirped. At least, I think it chirped. I couldn’t hear it through the glass.
Evan jumped up and down, then ran to our small bookshelf and pulled out our big book of avian species. He flipped through it, then ran back to us. He pointed at a page, and I raised an eyebrow. A mockingbird, I signed to the rest.
Dylan opened his mouth and laughed in our silent way. How ironic, he signed.
Barbara frowned. It’s mocking us, she signed.
I guess that is its job, Iona mused. To mock people.
Evan shook his head, setting down the heavy book so he could sign. It is called a mockingbird because it can mock, or imitate, some birds, insects, and amphibians.
Nerd, Philip signed, ruffling Evan’s hair fondly. Evan slapped his hand away in mock anger.
It’s pretty, Caroline signed, eyes fixed on the creature.
We all nodded, but I couldn’t help but remember the line from the lullaby Mother sang us every night. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. What would come next? A diamond ring? I grinned at the thought.
After that, the mockingbird came back every day and pecked at our window. Freddy came up with a sign name for the bird, combining the signs for free and bird. We talked about it often, us older ones wondering why it kept coming back when we couldn’t feed it or do anything else for it.
One night, I went over to the window as I had the day before we first saw the mockingbird, to look at the moon. I watched the bright, white light until I began to drift off, but was snapped back to wakefulness by the now familiar tapping. I was confused. Mockingbirds aren't nocturnal. But I peered out the window into the dark night anyway, and sure enough, saw the small, pale brown shape staring at me with a little black eye that reflected the moon. Why are you here, Freebird? I signed, not caring that it was a dumb animal that couldn’t understand me. You are diurnal.
It stared at me, and jabbed at the window. Doesn’t that hurt? I asked.
It didn’t answer. I shrugged, and laid my head back down on my arms. We examined each other, the bird still pecking away, then a loud screech from Mother’s room startled it, and it hopped backwards. It looked at me in a way that seemed almost reproachful. It spread its wings and took off, spiraling off in a slow, teasing flight, up towards the crescent moon.
It’s not fair, I thought. If I could still speak, I would be whining. Why can’t we fly? Why can’t we soar up towards the moon and freedom just like the mockingbird? It’s not fair. None of us deserve this.
“—You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town,” Mother cooed, gently covering Leo and the other boys with their blanket. The younger children had already fallen asleep. Mother pressed a moist kiss to Leo’s forehead, and tiptoed out of the room. I watched her, heard the door shut, and closed my eyes. 3…2…1… The screaming from Mother’s room started. I sighed.
Freebird had been visiting for nearly a month. It had always been able to leave just in the nick of time before Mother came in, and it now came almost every night as well as the day, knowing it wouldn’t be heard by Mother over the sounds. Several hours into the night, it would show up by our window and start its relentless tapping. Tonight was no different, except the taps seemed more urgent.
I got out of bed and crept over to the window, staring at the small bird. It paused for a moment, and fluttered into the air, flying in frantic circles. I stared at it. Had all the knocking finally made it go mad?
Then I froze. Silence had fallen. There were no screams from Mother’s room. Leo sat up, staring at me with wide eyes. The quiet had woken him. The others began stirring as well. Accustomed as we were to the noise, we could not sleep without it. Freebird began beating its wings against the glass, and I started to shake. Footsteps pounded down the hallway, and the door slammed open. Mother stormed in. This was not the Mother that sang “Hush Little Baby” to us. This was the Mother that punished us, the Mother whose insanity shone out through her eyes with nothing to block it.
“Come on, children,” she said in a crazed, reedy voice. “We’re going on a little field trip!” She giggled. When none of us moved, her smile faded. “Now!”
I stood up, taking one last glance at Freebird. It was beside itself. The rest followed me, clambering out of bed. We stood in front of Mother, who lead us out of the room and down the hallway. The door was open. We all knew what it was. Mother’s room. She took my hand and tugged me inside. The others followed.
Lena Viola Hartsough is fourteen years old. She lives in San Francisco.