On June tenth, I turned ten. The Saturday after my birthday, the eye blinking and popping began. We were eating breakfast. Matanni was sitting across from me; Patanni was at the head of the table. To this day, I can remember my first urge--so intense it was, like an itch needing to be scratched. I could feel little invisible rubber bands fastened to my eyelids, pulled tight through my brain, and attached to the back of my head. Every few seconds, a crank behind my skull turned slowly. With each turn, the rubber bands yanked harder, and the space inside my head grew smaller. My grandmother was studying me, making sure my face had been washed, my hair combed and fastened on each side with the blue barrettes she had bought me for my birthday. While Matanni studied me, I stared straight ahead and glued my eyes, growing tighter with each second, on the brown fuzz above her lip.
"Icy," she said, sipping her coffee, "what are you staring at?"
"Them hairs above your lip," I blurted, extending my arm and pointing at her face. "They're turning gray," I said, jiggling my arm at her nose, "right there."
Patanni, spooning sugar over his oatmeal, snatched up his head and turned toward me. "Calling attention to a person's weakness ain't nice," he said.
"B-but Patanni ..." I stammered, aware only of the pressure squeezing my head and the space inside it constricting.
My grandfather laid his spoon beside his bowl. "Apologize, Icy," he demanded. "Tell Matanni you're sorry."
"But Virgil ..." My grandmother reached out and caught his hand in hers. "What the child said ain't so bad. If them hairs turn gray, they won't stand out. Gray is almost white, Virgil, and white matches my skin." She smiled, caressing the top of his hand with her index finger. "It even feels white," she said, releasing his hand, stroking her upper lip.
Patanni pushed back his chair; the legs scraped against the blue-checked linoleum rug. "That ain't the point, Tillie," he said. "Icy, here, made mention of your weakness like it weren't nothing."
"She's just a child," my grandmother said.
"But it ain't respectful," he said.
"She meant no harm," Matanni assured him.
"Icy, what do you say?" Patanni insisted, leaning toward me.
"'Tain't necessary," my grandmother said, sitting on the edge of her chair, her large breasts weaving over her bowl.
"Icy!" Patanni ordered.
"Icy!" Matanni shot back, looking straight into my eyes.
"Icy!" he began again.
"Icy!" she repeated.
I jumped up. "There ain't no fuzz on you!" I hollered, feeling the rubber bands tug tighter and tighter, sensing the blood in my body pooling behind my eyes, pushing them forward, so far forward that I could stand it no longer, not a moment longer, and, hopping up and down, I bellowed again, "Fuzz is on my eyeballs. It itches my eyes!" Frantically, I wiggled my fingers in front of my face. "They itch!" I screamed, fluttering my fingertips. "They itch!"
Then, unable to close my eyelids or scratch my eyes, I covered my face with my palms and inhaled deeply, hoping that the itchiness and tightness would go away; but instead I felt my eyelids, rolling up further like shades snapping open, and my eyeballs, rolling back like two turtles ducking inside their shells, and the space inside my head, shrinking smaller and smaller until only a few thoughts could fit inside; and, terrified of the contraction, of each thought's strangulation, I threw back my head and cried, "Baby Jesus! Sweet Jesus!", and, not knowing what to do or how to stop it, I gave in completely to the urge:
Out popped my eyes, like ice cubes leaping from a tray.
Patanni and Matanni just sat there and watched my eyes spring from my head, but a minute later both pretended that everything had passed like it always did each morning. Matanni drank four cups of her mud-black coffee with a squirt of Essie's cream. Patanni finished his one cup, black with six tablespoons of sugar, and I drank my milk. All of us ate our oatmeal. I ladled honey on mine. Patanni preferred sugar. Matanni ate hers unadorned. No one resurrected Matanni's mustache. That one big pop had unleashed all of the tension, and the space inside my head grew large again, plumped up with thoughts. We ate in silence, and I sat calmly, as though nothing had happened.
Still, after that Saturday morning, during the summer of 1956, the urges claimed me. I was no longer Icy Sparks from Poplar Holler. I was no longer that little girl from Icy Creek Farm--our sixty-acre homestead, replete with two milk cows, a dozen chickens, and Big Fat, the five-hundred-pound sow. I was now a little girl who had to keep all of her compulsions inside. Whenever it became too much, after hours of hoarding blinkings and poppings that threatened to burst out in a thousand grotesque movements, I'd offer to get Matanni a jar of green beans from the root cellar, a pantry-sized room dug from a hill not twenty feet from the back door; and, once inside, I'd close the wooden planked door and let loose. Every blink that had been stored up spilled forth. Every jerk that had been contained leaped out. For ten minutes, I'd contort until the anxiety was all spent. Then I'd climb up on the footstool and grab the Mason jar.
With canned beans in hand, heading toward the house, I thought, Secrets are evil, and wondered what secrets my grandparents kept hidden. I listened to the crickets sing. Covered in shadows, their legs contorted deep in the woods; chirping, they gave their secrets away. A wildcat cried, mourning over something forbidden. Down a dirt road cradled between two gnarled, unfriendly mountains, Poplar Holler guarded its mysteries. So far, mine were hidden in a root cellar. Clitus Stewart's were tucked beneath his mattress. Mamie Tillman would throw hers into Little Turtle Pond. Everyone in Poplar Holler had secrets, even the animals, but I--Icy Sparks--knew that mine were the worst.