Women suffer different from men. Least that’s my take on it. Even the way we bleed is different. Take my Bam-Bam for instance. He only bleeds every so often, like when he shakes his fist at the moon and howls, forgetting he’s holding a knife to cut up rabbit for our campfire dinner. But women, we bleed every month, all quiet-like. When the cramps are real bad, I use his arm as my pillow, look up at the stars, and think about my ma.
One of my favorite memories is the time I turned eight. I reminded her that on her next birthday, I’d be four years older than her, because she only had a birthday every four years, on February 29th.
“Just you wait, missy miss,” I said, putting one hand on my hip and wagging my finger at her with the other. “When I’m big and you’re little, there’ll be big trouble in this river city for you.”
She laughed, told me to pucker up, and gave me a big coral smooch right on my lips, so’s I could wear her favorite lipstick, too. We skipped down the sidewalk holding hands, heading for the diner to share a double dip bubblegum ice cream waffle cone—my favorite. On the way home, we leaped into rain puddles. She always let me jump in the deepest one to make the biggest splash. She also tried to hide the sadness behind her eyes, but I saw it. I might have been slow, but I wasn’t dumb.
Ma moved me from Flint to Seattle that year. Just packed me up and drove us across the northern states. And did it in just a few days. Aunt Juanita and Uncle Carlos took us in. I slept on the couch. Mom took the floor.
She died three years later.
After Ma died, I overheard my relatives talking about me being small for my age and touched in the head from the lead poisoning in the Flint water, but they still took good care of me. I saved up for a micro gypsy bicycle wagon so I could leave when I turned 18. Sleeping in the living room all those years got real old.
Pb on the periodic table stands for lead, so before I headed out, I had “Pb” tattooed on my wrist, but told anyone who asked that it was short for Pebbles. And just like that, I had a new name. I even bleached my hair Pebble orange and stuck a bone in it, just like the Flintstones.
I don’t think the cartoon character had piercings, but I do wonder if she crunched ice, like me. It’s called pica and for some of us who have anemia, along with the lead poisoning, it’s all the rage. I’ve heard of chalk, dirt, and sand munchers, and some even more dangerous and gross, like glass and body fluids. Yuck. Bam-Bam, he’s a raw potato cruncher. We only just found out it’s a form of pica.
I gave up ice, for the most part, but I sure used to love it when I cruised around in my folding micro-home. I stored my art supplies, lift-up table and mini-kitchen under the bed of my crimson-red, caravan home. The hitch came off a church organ, the wheels were from my folding bike, and I used my camera tripod for stabilizing the legs, for when I wanted to stay a spell. I even painted a pink heart on the ceiling, so I could think of Ma last thing before I shut my eyes. I didn’t need much. Good thing, too, because I pedaled on down the road with my whole life behind me.
That’s just what I did, too. Peddled my wares with what earth freely gave me. Made eco-friendly jewelry and artsy stuff that sold really well. I whittled twigs into Christmas wreaths and reindeer, fashioned roadside metal into earrings and brooches, but my bestseller was Fred Flintstone driving his footmobile, all made from pebbles.
When I made enough roadside money, I’d stop by a fast-food place, load my cup with ice, and freshen up in their bathroom. Just for kicks, I’d buy a combo, and feed it to a homeless person sitting outside. I never ate junk food, but I didn’t mind filling someone’s belly with it. Figured I was paying it forward, while at the same time satisfying my ice craving and using a real bathroom to take a sink bath. Some places still used hand dryers that blew out hot air. They reminded me of the floor heaters back home in Flint that I’d stand on to get warm on chilly mornings.
I ate good on the road. I was amazed at the iron-rich foods I found. Wild berries were my favorite, but I liked apples, too. I savored the succulent juices running down my chin, under the night sky, while stargazing and thinking about my ma.
My aunt once said Ma would catch her death, sleeping on that hard, cold floor, and coughing up a lung. But she really died of a broken heart. That much is clear to me after reading an article about the Flintstone children of Michigan.
I like it out here. No city lights, just billions of stars. The falling ones sprinkle their star dust, like tears from heaven. Sometimes I think I can snatch one up and hold a little bit of Ma in the palm of my hand for a time, but that’s as likely as my aunt saying Ma could catch death. Truth is, death caught her.
Once I made peace with why Ma really died, I began to love what made me so different from everyone else. I only wished I could take back what I said as a child. I didn’t understand back then that grownups didn’t actually shrink at some point and turn into kids as us kids grew up. I just wanted to be as good a mother to her as she’d been to me. As a victim of lead poisoning, too, she shouldn’t have had to suffer with that cough, and waste away to nothing.
I met a group of people along the way who encouraged me to join them to work with nature. They loved my bike caravan and my simple ways, and thought I was just the person to work on the Great Western Checkerboard Project. I wanted to stay in Washington, so I decided on the Cascade end of the checkerboard, while they made their way to work in the Blackfoot River Valley in Montana.
I’d found my home out here with the elk, wolves, and spotted owls, content on my own. Then one day I ran smack into Bam-Bam. I dropped the wood I was carrying right on his foot. I think I nearly broke it.
He hopped around and finally sat down and took off his shoe to inspect the damage. “Damn, woman, didn’t you hear me?”
“I’m sorry. Glad it’s cedar, instead of something heavier, like oak.”
I sat next to him to examine his foot. “Why aren’t you wearing boots?”
“I left them back at camp. I just wanted to explore, so I wore these lightweight moccasins. Hey, you’re the Flintstone girl.” He didn’t ask, but stated it, all self-assured with his husky voice.
“How did you know?”
“Aside from the bone in your orange hair? The tat. I read about you on a blog. The girl with the lead tattoo.”
“Most people think the Pb is because I go by Pebbles.” I looked at my wrist.
“Yeah, well, you made a name for yourself, so there was a picture of you. I figured it out. Anyway, pleased to meet you, Pebbles. I’m Bam-Bam.”
“Yup. I’m a Flintstone kid, too. You inspired me to change my name and get my own tattoo. See?” He lifted his shirt sleeve to show me his. “I was hoping to run into you ever since I left Michigan.”
“You working here?” I hoped.
“Just started. Wonderful way to begin.”
“I really am sorry.”
“No, I mean it. Screw my foot.”
“Can you put weight on it?” I stood and reached out a hand to help him to his feet.
He hobbled around a bit, so I stacked my wood and said, “I’ll come back for this later. I’ll help you to your place. Where you staying?”
“About a mile over that hill.”
“You’re too hurt to walk that far. My place is a lot closer. C’mon.” I had him put his weight on me and we slowly walked to my caravan.
“You can stay here. I’ve got a new place up in the trees. See?” I wanted him to be impressed with my building skills. He was.
“That’s fantastic. Looks just like the Swiss Family Treehouse. Even a waterwheel and hammock.”
“Be right back.” I hurried to my caravan, grabbed my emergency kit, set up my stove, and heated water for licorice root tea. I was hoping he’d never had it because he was in for a big treat. It’s naturally ten times sweeter than sugar and the fragrance reminds me of when I used to stuff my mouth full of black licorice and turn my tongue the color of dusk under a rain cloud.
While I dressed his foot with a poultice from the root, we sipped on the tea, and talked about our own roots. First, I wanted to know about his Bam tattoo.
“The B is for Boron. They pumped up my intake of it to build my muscles and as a brain nutrient to compensate for the lead damage. Am is for Americium. They found that in me, too. No one’s sure if it was part of what poisoned all of us or not.” He got a faraway look in his eyes for a moment and shook it off. “Plus, when I get angry at what they did to us, I pound things. You know. Hammers. Any kind of tool. I’m good with my hands. I know Pb stands for lead, but tell me a little more.”
“I didn’t know the truth for a long time. Ma got paid under the table, until they no longer needed her. So she packed us up and drove me to Seattle, where she found work. She made sure I ate real healthy, but since the damage had already been done, there was nothing doctors could do. She taught me to read, right up until the very end. Told me to learn a new word every day. She withered away and died three years after we got there. Ten years ago.”
Bam-Bam and I ended up sleeping under the stars that night. In fact, we were inseparable from that moment on. Two damaged people, strengthened by the poison in our bodies. We turned our grief and anger into action. I didn’t get much medical attention after us Flint kids were poisoned with lead, while he was over-pricked and prodded. Now, we’re here to do what we can to nurture the other poisoned children who make their way to us.
We were damaged, sure. But we’re no longer known as the children poisoned from lead in the Flint water. We’re survivors with that extra metal to strengthen our bodies and our resolve. Bam-Bam got the worst of it growing up. Everyone knew he was “one of those.” They thought he was dumb. That’s why they dubbed us the Flintstones. And that’s what broke Ma’s heart. She blamed herself for the poisoned drinking water, but what could she have done? A whole lotta nothin’. That’s what.
Bam-Bam went from banging his head against walls as a kid to building beautiful log cabins. And pretty cool treehouses, including the beehive, the bird’s nest, and the free spirit sphere. He only uses what naturally falls for his building material. Bam-Bam’s careful with hammocks though. One day, while napping in one, he swatted at something a little too hard. The hammock spun around and he landed smack on his face. To this day, he doesn’t know I saw it happen. As soon as I got far enough away, I laughed so hard, my bladder nearly burst.
As for me, I traded pica chomping for planting trees and growing lush gardens. Proper nutrition helps with the anemia and the slowness in our brains. Some of us may be small, but we’re tough.
The Cascades are filling with those finding their way here through word of mouth or by traveling up the Pacific Crest Trail. Our water is mountain fresh, we give back to the earth, and nothing is wasted. We’re over a hundred strong now.
Bam-Bam and I got hitched, and we’ve taken in five of the lost children to call our own. We want that ripple from a pebble skipping across the river to turn into an ocean wave that keeps rolling over on itself, building momentum.
We live off the grid and don’t pay much mind to what’s going on outside our world. We stay low-key, not attracting attention to ourselves, and teach what we know to everyone who comes our way. We’ve even devised ways of making water out of thin air.
Bam-Bam got to name our first-born. We considered Barney, but he liked Dino. Maybe he’ll unearth some real dino bones and I can wear them in my hair. Bam-Bam says if Dino digs up a small enough one, he’ll put it through his nose.
“There goes the neighborhood,” I replied when he said it, and gave him an Eskimo kiss.
Since Bam-Bam named our son, I get to name our daughter, who’s on her way to us soon. Ma told me in a dream I’d be having a girl. I’ve decided to break the pattern, so I’m not going to name her Wilma. I’m naming her after Ma. I wonder if Isabella will be born on February 29th. I have a feeling she will.
I thank Ma every day for the sacrifice she made to do her best for me. She’s always near my heart. I keep a black and white photo of her in a locket around my neck, along with the last words she wrote to me.
“When you’re big and I’m little and we meet again, will you jump with me in rain puddles?”
Which reminds me. I think joy is different for the sexes, too. Bam-Bam loves catching fish bare-handed, but says I’m plum crazy to think Isabella might be my ma all shrunk down to size. I’ll love her all the same either way. Holding that baby in my arms, and looking up, I’ll be thanking those stars for turning all that lead to pure gold.
—Chris Drew resides between the Olympic Rain Forest and the Cascade mountain range, also using the Puget Sound as inspiration to write about causes, with a bent towards magical realism.