His mother couldn’t remember my name.
I heard her once: He took some girl in a poofy pink dress to the dance. That was me, only her neighbor for my whole entire life. I could shout it down from her hayloft and she might take it for the voice of God.
She doesn’t believe in God, he’d told me. Do you? I’d asked, though if he were damned to hell it wouldn’t change how I felt. The light from the haywell made his hair dusty-shiny.
We’d sit in the hayloft, running our fingers along each other’s thumbpads. My thumb along his thumbpad. Why did it feel so good? I willed myself tiny so I could explore it like new land. Hike along, plant a flag. His tongue curled against the base of my neck like a kitten. His mother’s voice below: Lance! Fergus barking. Our shoulders shaking. The sweet and powdery hay smell in our mouths.
Better go, he’d whisper. He’d go down first, wooden ladder worn grainy smooth as old piano keys, then call up to give me the all-clear.
He’s dead now. I can’t remember the exact color of his eyes, and it makes me angry. There are red gulleys in my forearms. They got there because I was trying to understand things. It worked for an instant, his face flashed before me—then it was gone.
Lance is dead. And his mother is losing her mind. What’s left of it. She’s muttering and calling to the empty house, hacking at the roses ’til even the strongest, oldest ones turn brown. Mrs. Mondragon brought a chicken-rice casserole, knocked, waited, finally left it on the front porch and drove away. Rose came out after awhile, picked it up, sniffed it, and chucked it over the side wall onto my grandfather’s land. Even the dish. Fergus got it in the end. Dug under the fence and drove off the flies.
Fergus knew she was off her rocker before anyone else, being the only one she talked to.
Lance got spiral notebooks from Mondragon’s. Drew sketches of people we knew: Fergus running, birds lining the wires on the county road. Me, sitting by the well. Look to the left, he’d say. The sound of pencil on paper was all I’d hear for good long stretches.
When he showed me the paper, I looked like me the way the drawn well stones looked like stones. Familiar and not familiar, recognizable and also strange. Looking, you did not even notice the blue college rule lines of the paper. His mother came out on the porch and he showed her and she sniffed and nodded, said, The felled oak needs chopping. She saved them, though, all of them.
That one of me by the well—I want that one back.
I’ve been in her house hundreds of times. The floorboards creak. We’d have to walk down the hall hugging close to the left wall baseboards. Then, at the picture of the old guy in a high collar, slide diagonally to the right, socks catching on shreds of wood, tiptoe along the lighter center board and leap over the doorjamb of his room. Land toe first, no heels. Moonlight shining off the walnut bureau.
My mother asked, Why do your socks look like you’ve been walking through minefields? That was before. She wouldn’t joke now.
I’ve been in her house while she’s awake too, aiming for politeness in those weeks before he left: Hello, Miz Rose, how are you? Awkward shuffling of feet. The cuckoo clock in the sitting room crowed, and she squinted her eyes at me. He saw my face and grabbed my hand. Thumbpads.
If a soldier’s whole body were as thick as thumbpads, he might not need body armor. Still too soft, though. Probably. I don’t know.
My mother says I can’t miss any more school. My father doesn’t say anything. He went once to try to talk to Rose and she sent him away pretty damn quick. There’s a lawn chair rusting in front of her house. She sits in it and talks to herself. Fergus doesn’t eat too regular. I bring him scraps so he won’t bark at me when I visit the hayloft.
Lance told me I was the best girl, the only one. Though after he died Amanda Vega cried every day for two weeks. Sat in class with black streaks down her face, didn’t even wipe them away. So I stopped going to school. Until it went on too long and they made me go back. No more excuses, my mother said, her palm hot on my back as she shoved me out the front door. Buck up. My mother doesn’t say my name often, but she knows it of course. Can you count the days since someone has spoken your name? Nicknames don’t count. I can: six. Unless someone called to me and I didn’t hear.
Sometimes I imagine the light in the hayloft is like the light in heaven. Warm and hazy. Tiny things floating in the air, maybe microscopic angels. He’d have laughed at that. Kitten tongue curling behind white teeth.
There will be a new owner of this land. My father wants it to be him. My grandfather says it’s cursed. People crushed and splintered and lost. Superstition is from the Devil, he says, but the Devil bears listening to.
At Lance’s goodbye party I heard him drunk and laughing with some other boys. Laughing in that way that isn’t nice, the way boys do together. And knew that, if I went up and asked, What’s so funny? They’d say, Nothing.
Then he left on the bus, with his duffel bag and his warm coat and the letter I had given him.
He used to follow Lance everywhere. Stuck like a burr. Couldn’t follow us up the hayloft ladder though. We heard heavy dog breaths below us more often than not. He’d put his fingertips on my collarbone, lightly, and say, Hear your heartbeat?
That’s the dog! I’d shove him backward into the hay.
I don’t know why the willow tree is called what it is. Infamous. Lance said he didn’t know either, though another time he said it had something to do with his Aunt Stella—Mrs. Mondragon now—when she was young. The tree grows crooked but you can’t tell that from close to it, standing underneath and looking through a curtain of green, light falling in tinted diamond patterns, making everything pretty and quiet. Any number of things could make that tree infamous, I imagine. We’d tried a few, hidden in the open air.
His olive army coat was canvasy under my fingers. He wore it even before he signed up, liked it because it was cheap and warm. Are you practicing? I asked, and he stuck out his long jean leg and dusty muckboot and said, No army surplus here. Pure farmboy.
I couldn’t tell whether he was happy or sad as he said it. Still can’t. Then the rain that had been threatening came pattering through the leaves. Equal distance between his house and mine. When we were kids we would have run off our separate ways, chanting the lightning protection spell all the way home. That time, he grabbed my hand, said, C’mon. We ran for it. My first time in the hayloft.
Lightning, lightning, go away. Strike us down another day.
I wrote him sixty-two letters. Two for every week he was over there. Real paper letters, like women in the old movies write to their sweethearts. My grandfather loves those movies, and liked to channel flip every Sunday afternoon to find one. Recently, though, my mother said, Enough. I could feel their eyes on me but did not turn. In those movies, the girls who cry for their soldiers always look pretty. Hair combed and lipstick and all. Most times the soldiers come back, maybe wounded so the girls can nurse them back to health.
A good war, my grandfather said, pointing at the TV, voice rattling with unspit loogies. A just war. My father popped a beer open, said, I know. Same tone as he answered my mother when she talked about fixing the rabbit screen around the garden. He’s heard it all before.
Lance sent me one paper letter and fifteen emails that I read on the computer in the school library. I printed them and read them again sitting up in the hayloft. He also sent me some emails to print and give to his mother, because she has no computer and doesn’t even know how to use one. I read those too, and you’d think she knew and hated me for it, the way she snatched the paper from my hand and glared. Then she thought better of making me mad and offered some pineapple juice. It tasted like the tin.
My name was right there at the top of the email print-out, but still she never used it.
Some of the things he wrote to her he also wrote to me, word for word. Basic information: It sure is hot here, except when it’s cold. Sand gets in everything. The boys are trying to get more armor. Berretta’s are dinky. I am okay. Don’t you worry about me.
To her he also wrote: How is Fergus? Can you get someone to help you fix the east wall? Don’t forget to drive the tractor into the barn before December. Can you send some of those socks that wick sweat? Have you talked to Aunt Stella? I sure miss your homemade jam. I’ll be home soon to eat it. Give Fergus a butt scratch from me.
To me he wrote: I miss you like crazy. Have you seen Tall Ben? Make sure he has my unit number so he can find me. The guys here are mostly tough and nice. Wish I could be sitting in the hayloft right now with you. Don’t go there with no one else. Do you visit my Ma? I wish you would sometimes I worry about her being alone.
Once when we were kids he took me to the well, chucked a pebble in, and then put his fingers to his lips and whispered, Listen. We leaned our heads against the stones and closed our eyes. A frog croaked and jumped, water lapped. The small sounds rose, echoing louder as they came, like a train through a dark tunnel. Little chimes of sound grew rounder until the stones vibrated against our skulls.
When you have a memory like that of someone, how can you help but love them?
Another time, older, maybe seventh grade, he was going shooting with Ben C. and Ben S. Ben C. wasn’t Tall Ben then, hadn’t had the growth spurt. They were just C. and S. I wanted to go too. The fall had turned everything burnt umber and crisp, and even the armbands on their hunting jackets matched the red around us. Shove off, Lance told me. No girls allowed. You can clean our boots when we get back. They laughed like they always laughed together, and hoisted metal in the air. They’d owned shotguns forever. No memory before guns.
When they signed up, the recruiter told them country boys make the best sharp-shooters. It’s in our blood, he said. The one who recruited them was the brother-in-law of Ben S. His eyes gleamed like a father looking at a brand new baby. Lance told me that. I wasn’t there.
Lance didn’t talk about fathers much, since his own was killed in a tractor accident. Mothers, now, that’s another story.
His mother used to be busy and bossy, but never mean. Other people’s mothers had soda and cherry drink mix. Lance’s mother stabbed triangles into the lids of partly rusted tins and set the cans on the counter next to a bowl of sour green apples and a loaf of dark bread. Help yourself, she’d say. And she really meant that part about helping ourselves. When we were too short to reach the cabinets, Lance would drag a chair over and pull down glasses, then pour—one knee on the counter, one foot still on the chair—and hand them down, juice yellow and smeary against the green jelly jars.
If his Aunt Stella was home it was a different story. In the days when Stella lived with them, she would let us rummage through her trunk of old clothes: long dresses and uniforms and a sword none of us had seen the likes of. She said it was a hundred years old at least, stuff from an old war, when skirmishes were fought in the Midwest. Old guns, too. And a tiny tin of gunpowder, looking like snuff. Lance loved it. All of us did.
Rose knew my name then. When we were little kids. She smiled sometimes, and Lance could always make her laugh. I’d come to his house because there was softball out back, warm bread with jam, and if we were lucky, Stella’s fizzy grape drinks, which she put paper parasols in like real cocktails. What’s for dinner? he’d demand, and there would be chicken and dumplings on the stove, steam pinking cheeks and hair curling around faces. His father was always off working and there’d be no muddy boots or loud television or strong tobacco. The house smelled of Stella’s green mango soap and Rose’s fresh cut flowers, placed in vases near most every window. While Rose finished up in the kitchen, Stella sailed out in her almost-clean apron, waltzed Lance through the sitting room, twirling in three full rotations before stopping in front of the old record player and picking an album from the stack. The sitting room had sofas and armchairs that shone in the light so that you did not notice the splitting seams. Stella would pick something old, sung by a lady we’d never heard of. And then she’d stretch her hand out to me and we’d both curtsey and she’d twirl me too, singing along at the chorus: Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Until Rose called from the kitchen, Soup’s on, wash hands, and almost as she said it the phone would ring and it would be my mother saying, It’s almost dark, come on home now. And leaving that house felt like the worst punishment in the world.
Things changed, though. I guess they always do. Stella moved to town and Rose got mean and Lance turned to hunting, didn’t want to sit by the well with me. A year or two after that his father died. And now all you can see in that house are the splitting seams. Moonlight shines off the hardwood floors, throwing sharp edges on everything. Even when we were older and friends again, more than friends, I didn’t like to go there.
Once, under the Infamous Willow Tree, I’d asked Lance where it got that name. And he shrugged and ran his hands up over my ribcage and got that half smile I’d only just started to recognize.
Another time, though, he’d snuck a bottle of peach liquor from Mondragon’s and we sat sipping and looking out over the new corn. He stood unsteadily and slapped his hand against the other side of the trunk and said, Look here, and I crawled around to the side that faced the road and there it was. A bumpy scar about three feet high, blackened with tar. Before your granddad put the tar on, he said, I could stick my whole hand in. It was smaller then, his hand, it had happened years before. Did he think it would die? I asked. Maybe, he said, or he just didn’t want it to be so ugly. I laughed at that, thinking about my grandfather worried about whether a tree was ugly or not, with all the other things he had to worry over. Lance didn’t laugh.
I’ve gotta go see to the barn, he said, and scooped up the bottle to go. When I stood I realized how drunk I was. The horizon reeled and I clutched the trunk, holding that bumper-sized ridge of tar that I’d somehow never seen. Whose truck was it? I yelled after him. And he misheard me and thought I’d said fault. He must’ve, because what he yelled back was, Stella’s. Stella’s fault. Stella never had her own truck, though, or even a car.
He loved her. Stella. And I did too, what little I knew her. But his mother told him not to see her, and he loved his mother more because he didn’t. For a time. They had a feud, those girls, my grandfather said. Over what? I asked. Whatever it is people feud over, he said. Family stuff, bunk. My mother was ironing over by the radiator, and she looked right at him and said, That ain’t bunk. Then he muttered something too low for either of us to hear and went out to check the leaky pump. I looked at my mother and the steam rising from the iron that didn’t quite reach her face, and I thought about Rose’s kitchen, how it used to be. It’s hard to be pretty on a farm. Hard to keep caring. Just look at any woman over forty.
After Stella married Mr. Mondragon, Lance used to go to the store an awful lot. He figured he wasn’t technically visiting Stella. We’d drive over there once a week after school to buy candy and sodas, pens, paper clips—whatever excuse he could come up with. And if she was there, she’d make a fuss over him. Bright lipstick and low-cut dresses that looked a little funny on someone that old. Still pretty, though. She’d pat his cheek and smooth his hair and tell him how tall he was growing. And she’d always give us something for free: a bar of chocolate, a chrome tire gauge, a laminated map. Then she’d put her hands on my shoulders and look me in the eyes and say my name. And she’d say, You take care of him, okay? So you see, I liked going too. I agreed to any excuse he came up with, and came up with a few of my own. I didn’t think twice about Rose. Rose has no good reason to like me. The only thing we have in common is him.
On the drive home, he’d pull whatever he had stolen out of his pocket. Nothing big, ever. A handful of two inch nails or a box of staples. A small glass flask of alcohol, if he’d had a chance to walk along that aisle. He wasn’t mean. That wasn’t him. It was the only way he could go see Stella and not feel like he was betraying his mother, that’s all.
When they brought the flag she took it and pulled it to her chest and slammed the door and nobody ever saw it again.
I’d been on our porch, looked up at the car sounds, saw Ben S’s brother-in-law driving east, in full uniform, slowly. There was nowhere else he could’ve been going. The road dead ends past our two parcels. Part of what makes it choice, my father says. Privacy.
Part of what makes it lonely too.
I ran. Had to. The short way, direct through the dead corn, acreage so flat the hayloft rose like a church steeple. Stumbled once over a forgotten hoe and went down hard, pushed through the climbing rose thicket, which is where the arm scratches started. Thorns crawling in every direction, rosehips like pebbles, forearms bleeding. (His face!) Ran along the road for a bit then veered south at the Infamous Willow and cut up along the short stone wall our grandfathers had built to remind each other where things stood. Vaulted it.
She was standing in the doorway and the uniform was on the porch, talking. I stood three yards back, panting so loud I couldn’t hear the words. Yellow t-shirt torn and sticky with sweat. She looked over at me once but didn’t see me, not really. That’s when she slammed the door. Flag a sharp triangle at her chest.
Ben S’s brother-in-law wore a black armband. His face when he turned was moony with confusion. He hadn’t done it before. Lance was the first. The first in our county, that is. There’s been more since.
He didn’t look so old, then. Not fatherly at all. He saw me and shook his head—not like saying No, but like someone shaking off cobwebs.
Need a ride home? He asked, tapping his fingers on bright buttons.
How? I said, and then there was more cobweb shaking and he told me. I backed into a rose bush, broke a few branches. The words didn’t mean anything. Stood there, shoulder blades bleeding a little—the thorns were big—‘til he drove away. Then I went and climbed the wooden ladder and stained the hay.
You see? I spend so much time in the loft because there’s too much there to leave behind.
When Stella left them was also the time I left. Junior High. Left, meaning, wasn’t friends. Wasn’t welcome.
There’s a lot I don’t know. But plenty I do: He had a ridge of pimples along his entire jawline those years, like the ribbon of an old-fashioned bonnet. Feet too big, arms too long. The school bus dropped us at the end of the county road, same as always, and we had to walk a stretch together. He walked ahead about ten feet and I’d watch his shoulders and the brown back of his neck and think, Where did you go? The old Lance, the him that liked me and had smooth skin, he was hibernating. Gravel skittered under our feet, back and forth, almost like conversation.
When his father died in the accident, there was no conversation at all. No sign of him or Rose for at least a month, until the truancy officer drove out and said something. Those people should go to church, my mother said, if there’s any time you need it . . . They’ll leave the land soon, my grandfather said, can’t manage alone. My father brought his iced tea to his lips and took a long sip. Silence fell. Another kind of conversation: forks against plates, everyone working their own thoughts. Dining room clock ticking. Any number of nights like that.
We started liking each other again because I went and found him in the fields and said, Your mother isn’t selling, is she? You’ll stay here? There was a shred of leaf in his hair and he smiled. Calf. That was the color of his eyes. Soft brown, that newborn shade. They lose it when they grow, the hair coarsens. He reached out for my hand and said, I’ve missed you. Simple as pie. And there we were again, like we’d been sitting together by the well all that time, listening.
My grandfather always said that Lance’s father wouldn’t have lasted on the land as long as he did without Rose. She’s the flinty one, he said. They would’ve sold years ago, and taken a loss. Admiration in his voice, and also scorn. Theo’s father—Lance’s grandfather—was different. He could squeeze seeds out of gravel, my granddad said, and had to some years. Unless you put your guts into it, you’ve got no business living out here.
I told Lance what my granddad said—not the part about his father but the part about guts and asked, Do you think it’s true? Think you’ll stay on? And he clutched his stomach and fake threw up and made noises like the victim in a scary movie. Then he dropped his arms to his sides and said, There’s only so much guts anyone can spare before kickin’ it. That’s the first day we kissed. Under the Infamous Willow, one minute talking about guts, the next minute lips all smeary soft together. Thinking about how strange it was that night at dinner, I laughed out loud and my father asked what was so funny and of course I couldn’t tell.
I started thinking about how we could move to town together and get jobs where we wore nice clothes. Lance wanted to go to college, sort of. He didn’t like school much, except for football, but there were some things he was good at. Like drawing, and geometry. Rose wanted him to go real bad. She got on him whenever he got his report card about how he had to apply himself. How are you supposed to do that when you’re always working? I asked. And he shrugged and said it’d be different if they had help but they didn’t, did they?
I guess you could sell. And I thought of my grandfather as I said it. Sell and move to town. You could do better there. Rose could get a job in a store or something. You’d have more time. Trying to get rid of me? he asked, and he was mostly joking but partly not. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, how much of us comes from our families. I mean, even if we don’t want it to. It was just him and me talking, but it was like my father stood behind me and Rose stood behind him, giving each other the pig eye. Everywhere we walked on that land, they’d walked first. Invisible tracks under our feet. Which is partly why I said, I’ll go too. I’ll go with you. He just laughed at that and told me my dad would kill him. Then we were talking about something else, or not talking at all.
But it stuck in my head, that thought of living in town with him in our own apartment. Because I asked my mother if that’s why Stella left—if she fell in love with Mr. Mondragon. Even though it was years between her leaving and her marrying. My mother shook her head and said something abut Nosey Parkers. It was hard to imagine Stella falling fast for Lucius Mondragon. He was much older than her, and fat, with bushy sideburns and a cigar always burning between his fingers. Where did she live? I asked. And it was a little rented room over the Bluebird Café, which is also where she worked in those days. That wouldn’t be so bad. She could walk to the store and to the movies. The fried potato smells probably didn’t seem like much, not after living with all the smells we have out here. Rose was brokenhearted when she left, my mother said. In her own way.
Rose brokenhearted. It sounded too soft to me, not like Rose at all. Maybe I’m just not a charitable person.
The first time I saw Rose face to face after her husband died, I’d gone over to deliver a jar of the black currant jam my mother and I had made the previous spring. It was nice to think of how much had changed since we’d picked the berries. The sour tartness mellowed by heat and sugar. Me and Lance friends again. We picked them over by Johnson’s creek, I told her, handing it over. That’s where the sweetest ones are. And she took it with the strangest look on her face, like the look my father gets after eating spicy chili. Then I remembered what my mother had told me to say, and added, Our family is very sorry for your loss.
Girl, she muttered—first time she’d said it—Girl, you tell. . . you tell your Grandfather. . . you tell him thank you. Her voice didn’t mean thank you, not at all. Lance rounded the house and she turned, holding that jar in front of her, and went inside. I told him what she’d said, and that my granddad didn’t make the jam, had never cooked anything in his entire life so far as I knew. And he said she just had memories of Johnson’s creek, that’s all. They’d used to swim there in summers, all together. All together who? I asked, and he said his parents and mine and Stella and my granddad—and him, once he was born. I probably just didn’t remember because I was so much younger. Two years younger, that’s all. What’s that got to do with who made the jam? And he said he didn’t know but did I want to see the snake he’d just killed. Which I did.
Maybe his saying it reminded me, but I did remember Johnson’s creek. I was so little they carried me most everywhere: over the big boulder and across the boggy parts of the footpath. Lance threw my red ball so it splashed into the dark part of the water and I cried until a man picked me up and walked me out to it. My toes were in water, then my knees, then belly. I squealed when we reached the ball and he said, Grab it, hon, and then he carried me back and set me down on the shore near my mother’s blanket. That’s my only strong memory of Lance’s father. The smell of cigarettes in his hair and his freckled shoulder skin and the red reflection on foresty water. And the sounds of the women on the shore—my mother, Rose, Stella. Like their voices pushed us through the water and then reeled us back again. It was rare, I think. Those days when everyone stopped and sat still and laughed. They were rare, but they happened.
What do you miss about your Dad? I asked him. We were walking hand in hand down the gravel road. My father had just driven by in his rattling truck, honked and waved. On his way to town. What do I miss? Lance spoke in a sing-song, in rhythm with our steps, then swung my hand out with his—point to the horizon, then back behind us, horizon, town, horizon, town—faster and higher until it almost hurt. Hey, I said, and pulled my hand away, wanting to be serious, to act like grownups.
I’d give anything, now, to take that back.
Lance looked back at my father’s disappearing bumper. He said, Left axle’s riding low. Tell him I can go over Saturday afternoon and look at it.
Your Ma wouldn’t like that, I saidall snippy, she thinks the Browns are trying to steal your land. He laced his fingers behind his head and stretched elbows wide, bending back to look up at the sky, and said, Rain tomorrow.
Just like his daddy, my mother said that night over dinner. Good with engines and predicting the rain. She smiled as she said it. Plenty of Rose in him too, my grandfather said, just watch.
I wanted to watch. I would’ve, for as long as a person can. But he left.
Check on my Ma for me. He asked it of me, so I had to do it. I printed out his emails to me. Except there’s two I won’t give her. Two I kept, not for her eyes. I put the paper in my red binder and walked the long way to her house, straight down the county road.
There was a thought in the back of my mind that we could exchange paper for paper. Lance’s drawing in exchange for the emails. Rose would read the messages, press them to her chest, and say to me, He loved you so much, he told me so. He’d want you to have this. She’d hand over the well picture, our fingers touching.
In the hayloft, I sat by the unlatched window and folded each page so that the flat paper became something else. Three-dimensional. When I was done they sat in a row: thirteen airplanes on a hay hangar. Kneeled and leaned against the window, not caring, wanting to be seen. There she was, clipping away in the garden and muttering. Fergus was watching her, one eye open.
I have good aim. The first one landed right on the bush in front of her. She pulled the plane—Lance’s plane—from thorny branches and unfolded it, then sniffed and looked up at the gathering clouds in the west. Storm coming.
Rose, I yelled down to her. Rose! No more Miz Rose, no more of that. He sent those to me, Rose, but you can have them too.
Girl! She shrieked, not even looking in my direction. Quit stealing my hay! So I flew the rest, one after the other, and she turned this way and that, picking airplanes out of her shrubs and off the gravel footpath.
Missed one! I yelled, pointing toward a shadowy spot near the well. I scrambled down to show her. When I got there she’d gathered them all, was pressing the paper against her stomach and moving a greedy palm to smooth it flat. We stood face to face, both breathing hard, but her eyes slid past mine like they couldn’t focus. Then she pulled the paper from her belly, laid it across her forearm like a book, tore a long shred off the top page, balled it up, put it in her mouth and chewed. Her face was gummy with concentration. Contorted, nose and cheeks and lips moving like waves under the force of that lantern jaw—my grandfather’d said she’d been pretty once, a real firecracker—her face worked and worked and then she puckered and spat a gooey mass right at my feet.
I backed into the rose bush again, couldn’t seem to stay out of its embrace. And she did it again and again, ‘til every page was gone and the pulp was scattered like fat logy bullets on the ground between us. I might’ve laughed, another time, if it weren’t his words she was chewing. She looked up at the sky again, said, Storm’s coming. Git. Her eyes not rheumy at all, clear as the sky wasn’t.
Lance is dead, I said. First I’d spoken in that whole time. First I’d spoken those words, ever. But she didn’t hear and walked over to sit on the porch, pulling an envelope from her apron pocket. Like she was alone. I backed up, stumbling and cracking branches ‘til my heels hit the stone wall and I had to turn if I didn’t want to fall. The wind picked up and fairly pushed me home—firm and wet on my back, working through the shirtholes like fingers.
That run home was a path I knew like my own palm, but it felt like a foreign country. Flat stretches and curves and gulleys, cawing birds and upturned leaves. Air smelling of ozone. A stitch in my side. The whole land knew a storm was coming, but not what to make of it. The birds didn’t know which of them would be picked up and broken. The dirt was hard with unknowing. I’ll never come this way again. And it seemed the birds and the wind and the whispering leaves confirmed it. Then the cawing fell silent and the sky went dark.
It broke just as I reached my mother’s garden, screens knocked out already. She was standing in front of our house, blue shirt whipping up to show her pale stomach. My father was helping his father into the tornado cellar—two checked shirts dancing together by the trap door. When she saw me her hands sprang open and she yelled loud enough for him to turn around. He hooked his arm at us, beckoning. Urgency in it.
I stood and looked at my mother and told her what I’d told Rose, which she already knew, which it seemed the whole land knew. Her hands waved me toward the trap door but I ran right by her, up the porch stairs, pulling the screen door open hard against the screaming wind, and stumbled to my room to stretch face down on the bed. Shutters banged and the roof groaned. My back hurt. The side stitch moved over my whole chest, and my heart pulsed so hard and the storm spoke so loud I didn’t know she was there until I felt a hand on my shoulder.
Sylvie, she said, her voice big and echoey because all at once the shuddering and howling stopped and we were cupped in the eye of the storm. Sylvie.