ALL I knew of life, the song of the whippoorwill, the scent of Forsythia, the amount of scrap wood needed for a fire to burn long enough to soften beans, would vanish with a check mark on some thick-legged woman’s clipboard. When my youngest sister Alice announced with excitement that a black Studebaker pulled into our dirt drive, I knew it meant trouble. No friends with fancy cars ever visited us Wilsons. I shuffled everyone into the root cellar, shushing their high-pitched voices. We hid amid the dwindling supply of russet potatoes and parsnips. A deep man’s voice announced they were from the New Jersey Children’s Aid Society and looking for the “adults of the home.”
“Anna, what are we doing? Why are they here?” Alice asked. She crouched into the back corner of the cellar on a wooden shelf between two empty baskets.
“Hush, Alice.” I stumbled over loose floor gravel as my world toppled over.
“Anna, what is going on? Why are we hiding?” Helen, who wasn’t much younger than me, sensed on my panic. She huddled next to John in front of the shelves, her knees tucked to her chest. “What’s happening?”
I stood by the steep stairs and listened to the sound of the front door opening. Then, Helen’s lips parted wide to scream, so I clasped my hand over her mouth. “Hush up.” Helen grabbed my wrist and squeezed until I let go.
“Why are we hiding, Anna?” Helen’s voice shrieked with fear. “What do we tell them about Mama?”
“Do you think I know what to tell them?”
“You said she was coming back. Who are these people?” Helen’s voice raised with anger. Creaking floorboards echoed above us. We all looked up.
“Shhh. Mama never said she was leaving. So how would I know if she’s coming back?” My voice sounded equal parts angry and scared.
“But you said—” John stammered. “You always said she’d be back.” John’s head dropped down to cower behind Helen.
“What did you expect? You wouldn’t have believed the truth, so I gave you a lie.” Scrunching her face in anger, betrayal, Helen said, “You only believed it because you wanted to. It wasn’t fair for Mama to leave the truth tellin’ to me.” My voice resonated in the small cellar and drove the footsteps closer and closer to the swinging doors at the top of the stairs.
“Hello,” the sweet feminine voice called. “Are you down there?” Tip-toeing down the cement steps in high heels, she called again, “Hello, there.” Each tap of the heel snapped us further into the corner. She turned to see us cowering in the corner like scared kittens. “There you are. The Wilson children, I presume? I’m Ms. Atkinson of the New Jersey Children’s Aid Society.” A lanky gentleman followed close behind her. “This here is Mr. Williams.” He removed his derby hat and bowed down to greet the children. Clutching clipboards and what looked liked brand-new pencils, their air of importance rankled me.
Alice opened her mouth to reply, but I shot her a sharp stare before she had a chance. “Don’t say a word.” I stood in front of my siblings, my arms stretched out and head held high. I tried to make my scrawny figure appear broader, older.
“Well, we understand you children are living here alone, no?” her kind voice asked.
“No. We’re not alone. We’re together,” I replied.
“I’m sorry, dear, but you’re going to have to come with us.” She took my wrist and pulled me towards her, but I yanked back and ran towards the corner to shield my family. “Come with us,” Ms. Atkinson repeated. “You cannot stay here without a guardian. It’s not safe for you.” Snatching me by the waist, the lady peeled me off of Helen and John. She had me by one hand, her clipboard by the other. The man set down his clipboard on the floor and moved around me to catch Helen and John by the wrists.
“No,” I screamed. “We will not. We will not go.” I kept fighting the woman as she drug me up the steps. We could not leave our farm. As we entered the living room, I pushed her and ripped my arm away, but she held me by the shoulder.
“This foolishness will enslave you, my dear. A girl in your lot cannot carry such rage.” I heard the words but continued to fight. She did not know me. “You stop with this foolishness, or you will not like where you end up. If not for yourself, stop this foolishness for the sake of your sisters and brother.”
I stopped fighting and looked back at my kin, being shuffled up the steps behind me. “Fierceness, not foolishness.”
“What?” the woman asked.
“My father. He always told me I was fierce. I’m not foolish, Ms. Atkinson. I’m fierce.”
“Either way, Ms. Wilson, you keep it up, and you’ll find yourself in a place you should hope never to see. They need you.” She looked back at the young’uns.
They gave us five minutes to gather our things. We trudged to the car, our meager belongs stowed in threadbare pillowcases. The clipboard-toting strangers carted us off. Just like that, the world absorbed us.