Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”
Once there was a boy for whom flowers grew whenever he laughed.
They were daffodils, mostly, paper white, though there were irises and snapdragons and pansies too. In his youngest years they sprung from the earth in great joyful triplets. They filled the front yard of my grandmother’s house, spilled out into the sidewalk through cracks in the concrete, and began taking over the neighbor’s yard as well, growing through the spaces between the planks on the front porch. I watched them from my room in the gable, the blooms popping open like kettle corn. When he was four a vining rose began its ascent to my window, the deep pink and red of his joy opening petal after petal. A peace settled deep within me: somewhere, my boy was laughing.
My grandmother pretended not to notice. She plucked the roses from floorboards with indifference and clipped the paperwhites from the front walk without comment. When the flowers had covered every inch of the yard she adopted the gate of an elephant and trampled her way to the car. She contacted every florist in the county and offered the flowers up for a cent a piece, bouquets for quarters. They began coming on weekday mornings, shearing the flowers into large white buckets and dropping nickels into a pickle jar she left on the stone wall by the road. I saw the flowers on display in the shop windows around town, gathered neatly, and bound in twine or burlap.
And once a week, I heard my grandmother late at night, sliding the coins across the dining room table and packing her profit loosely into sleeves for the bank. Those days, I lay in the dark thinking of him. I imagined his voice, his smile. I fell asleep dreaming of his hands. They would still be scarce bigger than the size of my palms.
I met my father only once, on a grey day in early autumn. I was walking the main road home from school when a cold rain began pouring, and suddenly he appeared, running beside me with a purple polka dotted umbrella. We stopped under the awning of Clark’s Grocery and sat together on a bench. The water shuttled down the gutters.
“Are you Caroline?” he asked after we’d both caught our breath.
“Yes, sir,” I said. I frowned slightly, trying to remember if I’d met him before. I’d lived in Sparta only a few months. It was a small town, and my grandmother had lived there forever, so everyone knew who I was while they, on the other hand, remained strangers to me.
He smiled broadly and scooted closer to me on the bench. “I met you once or twice, when you were small. I was a friend of your mother.” I eyed him cautiously. “You don’t believe me,” he said with a laugh. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. It was dark brown but starting to grey.
“My mother didn’t have too many friends. Not that I remember anyway.”
“Ah, I am sorry to hear that.” He considered the rain a while. Then he turned to me. “What about you, Caroline? Have you made friends at school?”
“Yes, sir. Enough.”
“And your Grandmother treats you well? You like her?”
“Of course I do.”
“And are you happy living here? It seems a lovely little town.” I nodded.
The rain was easing up. The man stood and shook out his umbrella. “I travel often – almost always, actually. But this would be a lovely place to stay, if I could.”
I rose, and he patted me on the head, letting his hand rest. He stared at me intently. “You look like your mother, you know.”
“That’s what Grandmother says.”
“You don’t agree?” I shrugged. In truth, my mother seemed too wholly perfect to me in my memory. She had blue-green eyes and honey colored skin and a perfect kiss of freckles on her cheeks. I was darker, with brown eyes and pale skin. “Well, you look like your father, too,” he said. He smiled, and I felt I’d been told a joke without understanding the punchline. “Caroline, if you ever need anything, I want you to write me here,” he said. He handed me a business card with his name and address. “Will you do that?” I nodded. “That’s a good girl. Now head along home. I’m sure your Grandmother will wonder where you’ve been.”
Then he started towards town, whistling and swinging his umbrella beside him.
I went the rest of the way to Grandmother’s alone. I hopped from puddle to puddle, singing to myself and practicing hop scotch on the sidewalk cracks. By the time I arrived home my socks and mary janes were wet and brown with mud and my father’s card lost somewhere. My grandmother sent me to the bath straight away with a fair bit of scolding, and chastised still more when she saw I’d stained my gingham skirt with dirt, and as I went to bed last night I thought not of my father, but of how my mother never would have punished me for puddle jumping.
It was years before I understood who he was. I tried to remember his face sometimes when I looked at my own, and rehearsed our meeting in my mind, trying to guess at his feelings for me. I wondered why he hadn’t written my grandmother instead, or why he never came again. Sometimes I felt anger for him rise within me, but then I would forgive him. Then sadness would come, and then again, I forgave.
My mother died when I was six years old. She died of the flu, and it happened very suddenly. One day we were out in the garden, and she was showing me the blades of the iris bulbs, just beginning to press their way through the soil. The next day she was sick in bed and the doctor was called and I was sent to a neighbor’s. My last memory of her is from a distance: she is coughing in bed. There is a soft lamp beside her on the bed, so she glows yellow. She smiles at me, and blows me a kiss. The next day she was gone.
In my first memory of her it is the blue of early morning and she is asleep on the twin bed in our living room. It is winter, and my feet are cold and bare on the wood floor. When I place my hand on her cheek, she opens her arms to me and I tuck under the quilt with her. Her hair is soft and tickles my neck, and her breath is warm on my forehead. I have held onto this memory as tightly as I can. I have tried to remember the way her voice sounded when she said my name, but this has faded.
In between these are the collected things I know of her: she loved pears and radishes and tomatoes. She smelled of flowers because she kept a little pillow of lilac in her clothes drawer. She hummed along with the radio because she never remembered the words. She told me fairy tales before bed and her favorite was Snow White and Rose Red, and for my fifth birthday she gave me a set of dolls in their likeness. My mother’s hair was curly and she had dimples when she smiled. She was unexceptional in every way except that she was my mother and she loved me and even though she died just as I was coming into the part of life that is remembered I still wore for years and years her love around me like a coat of sunlight.
I met my grandmother for the first time at her funeral. I was struck by how familiar she looked, much like my mother, but how strange it was that she existed at all. I think before I’d believed that my mother had always existed – that she somehow sprang from the ground fully formed.
From my grandmother, I learned that my mother had skipped two grades in school. That she had played the flute but not well. When she was eleven years old and my grandfather was still alive, my mother had gone with him on an overnight fishing trip deep into the valley. She caught a large bass but wouldn’t let my grandfather keep it, throwing it back into the deep pool of the river. And then she had moved away during the war to be a nurse at the veteran hospital.
And then I had been born. My grandmother never spoke of this, and as a child I imagined that I had no father. My mother had been my world, and then my grandmother, and it was easy for me to imagine my lineage without men, as if they weren’t necessary in our family. Still, I never learned how my mother told her parents of my conception. Sometimes I wondered if my grandmother even knew my name before I came to live with her.
The night of my mother’s funeral after all the mourners left the house, my grandmother sat on the loveseat by the fire and pulled a box of yarn onto her lap. “Now Caroline, my love,” she said, “I am going to make you the prettiest sweater in White County. What’s your favorite color?”
“Alright, then.” She rummaged around and found a pale blue skein. “Will you sit with me while I knit?” She gestured to the cushion next to her. “Do you like fairy tales?” I nodded. “Well,” she began, “Once upon a time there were two sisters, and one was as fair as snow…”
As I sat beside her, I let my head fall upon her shoulder. I closed my eyes and pretended she was my mother. I believe she pretended I was my mother too.
Now this is how you grow a garden, Caroline.”
Grandmother wore her pink linen dress and her thick white canvas apron. She had left off her usual stockings and pearls. She put her hands on her hips. “Just leave it there Mr. Hawkins!” she yelled, pointing to the corner of the garden. We watched as the neighbor backed his truck into the yard, the mulch piled as high as a mountain. After parking he climbed up into the bed and began shoveling it off. My grandmother hoisted me up into the truck bed and then stepped up herself. I used the little shovel she’d bought me the week prior at the general store. “I’ve never been afraid of hard work!” she said. She wiped some sweat from her forehead and smiled.
It took us a week to mulch the beds, my grandmother pulling weeds as we went. She used an old kitchen knife, donning gardening gloves covered in a purple iris print. She stabbed the blade into the earth and twisted it round hard. Kneeling next to her I could hear the snap of roots before she tore the dandelions and henbit and crabgrass from the soil. Then she would use her cupped palms to pat the mulch around sprigs of onion or the beginnings of the lettuce and spinach and chard just beginning to sprout from the earth.
“It just gets easier every year, Caroline, love. Thirty years we’ve grown this garden. Your mother used to do this work, just like you.” I followed her around the yard and worked alongside her as she harvested tomatoes or examined the peaches and plums in the orchard. She was always chatting away, teaching me things — where to look for caterpillars or how to keep beetles off leaves. It was hard work, half of which she hired out to neighborhood boys in subsequent years. Looking back, though, I think this was Grandmother’s way of keeping me close that first summer, of knitting me to her when my grief was still so new.
In the afternoons we were too tired for much. We would bring a blanket out under the maple tree in the side yard, and read our books and drink lemonade, and in the evenings Grandmother would let me stay out late enough to catch fireflies in jars. She made me dozens of new dresses for school, and knew ten ways at least to braid my hair, which she took great care to do every morning.
For all this, of course, I missed my mother. I dreamed of her often, and in these dreams she was usually sitting on my bed, just as she did when she was alive, reading a book or mending clothes. Seeing her there, I would give a little sob and crawl into her lap, and tell her, “Oh, Mama, I thought you were dead,” and she would stroke my hair and say with half a smile, “My poor little Caroline, right here I am!” And when I woke up I would already be crying, and my grandmother would lay down with me until I fell back asleep.
One morning after just such a dream, Grandmother showed me a little patch of land in the corner of the front yard I’d never taken much notice of before. It was bordered in small rocks but the grass grew up among them and the only thing of note was a little trellis bench in the corner that had once been painted white but that was now faded back to wood. “This was your mother’s garden when she was a girl,” she said. “I’ve neglected it ever since she’s been gone, but if you’d like to take it over, I’ve a little rose bush for you to tend.” We planted it, kneeling together on the ground to tuck the mulch in around it. Then Grandmother said, as she stood, “You know, it seems to me there’s still something of your Mama’s spirit here, Caroline love. Like I can almost feel her. Can you feel her?”
I closed my eyes. I tried to picture her standing in the garden, smiling at me. She would have freckles on her cheeks, it being summer. Her hair would be curly in the humidity and heat. “I can feel her,” I whispered, and Grandmother squeezed my shoulder, gentle-like.
From then on whenever I was sad, I went to my mother’s garden and sat on the bench and imagined I was talking to her. Eventually, this became something of a prayer, and I would go to the rose bush to cry and speak any little sorrow I had. As the years passed, the rose bush grew and grew, and Grandmother paid a neighbor boy to build an arbor for it to trail up, and I would sit there underneath the shade of the roses.
When I was seventeen and it was one year since my son’s birth, I sat in my mother’s garden and cried harder than I had ever done before. I prayed to melt into the earth and dissolve I felt so sad. It was just turning from autumn to winter, and the rose bush was bare, but in an instant, as sweet as a kiss a little rose bud grew and unfurled where one of my tears had fallen, and then another sprang, and another, and soon the little garden was covered in blossoms and I knew deeper than any other knowing that the blooms were a sign sent for me.
Since then, the flowers had come steady each spring, growing more and more plentifully, and I understood them as proof of his joy. The blooms lasted later than all the other spring flowers, holding out even until the last whispers of summer faded into autumn. I would watch them and be peaceful, certain that he was alive and well, certain as they faded each winter that they would return.
But on a crisp, cool morning in the spring of my 23rd year, the boy’s flowers began to wilt.
Somewhere, my boy was seven years old.
Mr. Timmons, the owner of the florist shop on the square, came by at dawn with his sheers at the ready. I heard him slam the door of his grey Studebaker and watched as he considered the yard. Milkwhite daffodils bobbed their heads as he walked through the garden. He knelt down, cupped a blossom in his hand, and released it after a pause. Standing, he looked about him. Then he left, without clipping one.
I slipped down the stairs, my bare feet silent on the cold floor. Grandmother was already in the kitchen, brewing water for coffee. “Caroline?” She called softly. “Is that you?”
I was silent on the landing. After a moment I heard her rustle her way to the back room where she did the washing.
I unlatched the four locks, saving for last the deadbolt, slipping the key out from a string I hid around my neck, tucked in my nightgown. When I reached the porch, I closed the door behind me without a sound.
The flowers had begun to droop. They were yellowing some too, and the petals, when held between my fingertips, showed the start of wrinkles. The vines that wrapped around the house were browning, and as I watched, the petal of a pearly rose loosed itself from its bud and fell in sweet pendulum swings to the ground. I knelt and brushed a faded iris against my cheek.
The flowers were dying, even while spring was in full blossom all around them.
“Caroline!” Grandmother called from the front door. “What are you doing outside in your nightgown? Get inside, girl.”
I collected myself with a few deep breaths. “Of course, Grandmother.”
She put her arm around my waist as we walked back inside. “Why on Earth are you out here in your nightgown? We’ll be late for church if you don’t dress quickly. ”
Up in my room, my hands shook as I buttoned my dress and fastened my belt. There had been winters when he was younger, when I had worried about what I would do if the flowers never bloomed again. Those were dark Februaries and Marches, and each morning I would hurry to the window to see if any green pushed up in the yard. How faithfully the flowers had come till now! They had never drooped or wilted before. Not even in times of draught. I fumbled with the clasp on my shoe and willed myself not to cry.
“Caroline?” my grandmother called from the foot of the stairs.
“I’m coming!” I called back. I met my grandmother at the front door. She was wearing a dark blue dress with a faint green paisley print on the skirt. Her thinning hair, which was speckled grey and white, was smoothed into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. She wore thick tan stockings and flat black kedettes. Her glasses hung around her bosom from a gold chain, and her pocketbook bulged with her Bible.
“Your hair is a mess, Caroline.”
I looked quickly at the mirror in the hall tree, trying to smooth some of the fallen strands. She smiled softly, took my head between her hands and carefully unpinned my braids, holding the bobby pins between her teeth as she gently rebraided my hair. Her fingers worked quickly.
“There now,” she said as she released me. She looked at our joint reflections in the glass. “Pretty as a picture.”
Out in the yard, the flowers still drooped. Grandmother did not notice. “Let’s hurry or we’ll be late, Caroline.” She reached out her hand to me, then linked her arm with mine. I must have seemed upset, for my grandmother said quickly, “I love you, my girl,” as we walked along.
“I love you, too, Grandmother.”
When we arrived at the baptist church, most of the congregants were still milling about on the sidewalk. Grandmother nodded as she swept past the usher, taking a program with enthusiasm. As ever, we sat in one of the front pews where almost the entirety of our view would be the preacher and the pulpit. My grandmother took out her Bible from her pocket book, found the opening passage, and marked her place with the ribbon. Then she folded her hands neatly in her lap. The organist began, “A Closer Walk With Thee,” the choir singing from behind us on the balcony. The rest of the congregation filtered in, and Pastor Denton entered from a door off of the stage. He wore purple robes with sleeves so long and full his hands looked diminutive peeking out from the cuffs.
“Good morning, brothers and sisters!” He motioned for us to take our seats. “How wonderful to see your shining faces this fine May Day. This afternoon of course is our Spring Picnic; please join us in the side yard for games and entertainment and fellowship. One of my favorite days of the year. Today is a special day for Laura and me as well, as our youngest son Arthur has just returned from Nashville.” My stomach lurched. He was sitting in the front row with his mother. “As most of you know, he’s been there the last five years, getting his optometrist license and doing his practicum. We are so proud of him and excited as we can be to have him here with us before he moves to Knoxville this fall. I know you’ll help us in welcoming him home.”
Arthur gave a reluctant wave to the congregation behind him. He had not changed in the years away. He was leaner, perhaps, but he still looked more boy than man. Our eyes met for a moment. He smiled broadly at me. I looked away. The choir began a new hymn.
I thought of the boy. I closed my eyes and tried to resurrect the feel of him. As a baby, he smelled to me of earth and cedar trees and the way a window pane smells in a summer storm. I imagined the flowers. I pictured them more numerous than ever, spilling out into the road, bursting through the shingles of my gable. It was almost a prayer.
My grandmother nudged me hard. “Open your eyes, Caroline!”
Out on the lawn after the service the Pastor, his wife, and Arthur stood in a receiving line by the food table. Grandmother marched along. I ducked away, but I could hear the loud timbre of my grandmother’s voice and could see her and the preacher’s family through the leaves of the azalea bushes.
“Can this truly be young Artie?” She placed one of her bony hands on his shoulder. “You’re looking awfully grown up, my boy.”
“Isn’t he? We hadn’t seen him since Christmas last. I almost didn’t recognize him!” his mother said.
Grandmother laughed good naturedly. “I know it’s a joy to you to have him home. I don’t know what I’d do if Caroline ever left for so long, though you must be so proud.”
“Where is Caroline?” Arthur asked.
Grandmother looked around, confused. “Why, she was just beside me a moment ago!”
“I’ll have to catch up with her later,” Arthur said.
I joined Grandmother at a table under the shade of a tall oak tree, along with the members of her Sunday school class. They had all been friends now for fifty years. I had grown up around them, and as much as I enjoyed many of their stories from when they were younger, I hated when their conversation inevitably turned to who had died, or what prognosis they’d received most recently. When my grandmother started up her story of her back going out three weeks prior, I excused myself.
In the field, a group of children had gathered around a pole to play a may game. The girls were weaving in and out of stationary boys, striping the pole yellow and green. When they’d wound all the way down, they began to dance the other direction. They were laughing.
“I remember when that was us,” Arthur said behind me.
I managed a smile. “It doesn’t feel that long ago.”
“Is that any way to greet an old friend?” he said, softly. I presented my cheek to him, which he kissed softly. “How are you, Cari?” He was taller. “Mother says you’re still living with your grandmother.”
“Well, yes, I-”
“Grandmother needs me too much. Or so she says.”
“Ah.” He was unconvinced.
“But it seems you’re doing very well. Arrived from Nashville and off to Knoxville. Home must seem very small to you.”
“It’s easier if I stay away.”
“I do envy you that.”
Grandmother was calling. She’d already gathered her things and stood waiting for me on the sidewalk. “I’m tired, Caroline!” she yelled.
“Meet me, would you?” he said. He took my hand. “At the old place. The old time.”
“If I can,” I replied. I pressed his hand and left, ducking beneath the branches of a cherry tree. It was pale pink. There were bees on every limb, making their way from blossom to blossom.
When we reached my grandmother’s house, the flowers looked as though blown about by a great wind. The daffodils were face down in the dirt, and the vining roses on the house had collapsed, a great brown stalk dangling limply from the porch awning.
“Well, my goodness,” my grandmother said. We stopped on the front walk together, our mouths agape. “What mischief is this!” She began her march indoors. “I just know it’s those Jensen boys. I saw them over here yesterday with the devil in their eyes, scheming away. Sure as day they’ve come along and killed our flowers.” The door slammed behind her. I walked to my mother’s garden and sat on the bench, sure for the moment that the boy had died.
But then as I cried, a small sliver of a green blossom pressed its way through the earth before my feet. I knelt, and a single tear fell on it. The petals unfurled, pale white and as thin as tissue paper. And so I knew my boy lived, somewhere, he was still alive.
When I was sixteen, the way to visit the preacher’s son was this: I would wait until my grandmother fell asleep, listening in bed for the house to quiet down. Then I would climb barefoot down the redbud beside my window. I would unlatch the gate, my feet wet with dew as I slipped my way through the fence post in the back garden. I passed houses, shut tight and locked, and in my youth I pitied all those trapped inside, ignorant of the fresh blue air of the night. I stomped my way triumphant through the old school yard. I couldn’t get to him fast enough.
He was always waiting at the edge of the forest. He would take my hand and lead me through the dark bodies of the wood, to the stone outline of the house that had burned down long before. We laid on the earth, the needles of Virginia Pine pressing their fine lines in criss cross shapes across my shoulders. In those days, I thought only of him and the way his hands felt on my skin, the glow of his shoulders in the moonlight while the stars winked down at us from beyond the shadows of the trees.
At twenty-three, once the house was still I walked down the stairs, moving slowly. I yawned my way through the front gate. Out in the town the hush of the night made me shiver. Older, I looked on the quiet houses with longing. I pictured the peaceful families, the children snug in their rooms and the fathers and mothers sleeping close together. Each porch light, each shut door was a reminder: “You may not have this.” I hugged my sweater tighter around me.
The woods were darker than I remembered them, still I met them like an old friend. A meadowlark at the forest’s edge called a welcome. A fox scurried across my path. The wind clicked the branches together and rustled the budding leaves. The woods are not quiet. They are singing always.
He was there, leaning against the snaggled trunk of a fallen maple.
“You came,” he said with a smile.
“I came.” I sighed deeply. The crickets hummed around us.
“I just wanted to talk to you. We haven’t spoken in ages, it seems like.”
“It has been a while. Christmas before last? Or longer, even?” I pretended I couldn’t remember. It had been three years since we’d last spoken, and I’d thought of him more often than I’d wanted during that time. Tears came to my eyes. I was glad it was too dark for him to tell. “I’m sorry for that, really.”
“It’s alright,” I said, “We’ve both been busy.” This was a lie. I was embarrassed at how little I’d let my life become.
“I know. And I haven’t been here much, but I’ll be home all summer, and I was hoping it could be like old times.” He laughed a little. “Well not like old times, exactly. Only we could be friendly-like. I’m planning on meeting Scotty over at the dam tomorrow for fishing, if you want to come.”
“Well, maybe Tuesday, then. I might head up to the falls.”
“No, Arthur. Because actually, I’m glad I can tell you now. I’ve decided to go to him. The boy.”
He was silent a moment. The wind blew harder, the branches bowing around us. His face looked hard and stern in the dark.
“I don’t expect you to understand. I have to.”
“What will you do when you see him?”
“I’m not sure. Bring him back with me if I can. Make sure he’s alright, taken care of.”
“When will you go?”
“I plan on leaving tomorrow.”
“Where is he? Marietta?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll start there.”
He turned his back to me and kicked at a tree stump. “Damn… This could turn into quite the scandal.”
“I don’t expect anything from you. Nothing. I never did.”
“I always figured there was no point in us both suffering. That hasn’t changed.”
“Ah, yes, but I’ve changed.” Far off, lightning flashed without sound. “I’m coming with you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Let’s just be discreet about it, okay?” I nodded. “We can take my car,” he offered.
“Fine. Meet me at the bus depot. Around noon, let’s say?”
“Alright…” He sighed deeply. “I’m not going to tell my parents. I’ll tell them I’m going camping with friends from school.”
“Cari…” He dropped his head, as if he spoke the words to his shoes. “Does he look like me?”
“I-I really couldn’t say, not now. He didn’t so much when he was a baby. He was darker. More like me.”
He took a deep breath. He seemed relieved. “Until tomorrow, then.”
The storm that had threatened all night broke the next morning. I laid in bed, listening to the sound of the rain on the window, the thunder shaking the pains of glass. I heard the kettle whistle in the kitchen. I headed down for breakfast.
“Coffee, Carolove?” my grandmother asked when I entered the kitchen.
“Yes, thank you.”
She still wore her robe and slippers. “I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking bout those flowers,” she said as she poured.
“Mrs. Jesnsen swore her boys were visiting their grandparents in Altamont this weekend. I’ve never seen a whole yard of flowers wilt thata way.”
She had fixed biscuits with strawberry jam. We sat at the table where she read the paper in the mornings, reading aloud any parts she thought would interest me.
“Oh, Caroline!” she exclaimed. “Look here! They’re doing Midsummer at the playhouse this weekend. Won’t that be fine?”
I took a deep breath. “I’m sure it will be, but I won’t be able to go.” She eyed me curiously over the top of her paper. I spoke slowly. “You see, I’m leaving today on a trip for a while. I’m not sure exactly how long it will take.” She was stunned silent. “I’m sorry to give you such little warning. I only decided yesterday I would go.”
“Well where are you going?”
“I’m going to find him.”
She shook out the paper and folded it with a coolness I’d seen her adopt before, though not often, always in moments of conflict. She rose slowly and walked to the window.
“May I remind you of our agreement, Caroline?” she asked, her back to me.
“I remember it.”
“I said that you could live on with me, that I’d continue to support you, to raise you, so long as you swore that, under no circumstances, would you see that child again. You swore.”
“I’m not a girl anymore, Grandmother. I don’t need you to support me or raise me.” I stood. “I’m grown. I have to do what I think right. I have to live by my own ideals.”
“Hmph,” she sneered. “Ideals, indeed. You and your mother didn’t have half an ideal between the two of you, obviously.” Her tone grew biting. “May I remind you how you begged? How you cried? You sat right there in that chair and sobbed. I could have thrown you out. Many would have done. But I let your dresses out for you so your classmates wouldn’t know, so the whole town wouldn’t know. I-I lied for you!” Her voice faltered as she said this. “I lied, against my own scruples. I paid for your stay at that-that facility” she could barely say the word, “in Marietta. And all for this?” She slammed her hand down hard on the table. “I won’t allow it, Caroline. I will not let you leave me!” She collapsed in her chair, sobbing.
It was as pathetic a tantrum as I’d ever seen a grown person perform and I did not take it lightly. It almost worked its purpose. I knelt beside her chair and put my head in her lap, as if I was a dog. She stroked my hair lovingly, smoothing it neatly. “Haven’t I loved you as if you were my own child?”
“I love you, too, Grandmother,” I said softly, “With all my heart.” I rose and kissed her on the cheek.
“I’ll die if you go,” she said when I reached the door. I had heard such threats from her before. She had said this when I’d proposed taking the GED and starting school at the Ladies’ College in Murfreesboro, when I’d tried to take a position as a secretary in Nashville, and when I’d suggested that I could board with a former schoolmate in Chattanooga and work as a waitress. In years’ past, it had been enough to stop me.
This time, I managed a smile. “You had better not,” I said. I grabbed my bag from where I’d left it by the door and pulled an umbrella from the hall tree. I shut the door behind me.
I walked to the depot in the rain, my shoes and stockings soaked by the time I arrived.
Arthur was waiting outside the depot in his grey Ford. He didn’t get out of the car. I knocked on the passenger window and he popped the trunk. I threw my bag in and slid onto the front seat, shaking the umbrella out and running a hand over my damp hair. “What’d you tell your grandmother?” he asked.
“How’d that go for you?”
“About as you’d imagine. She says this’ll kill her.”
“It won’t.” Arthur turned his blinker on, made the three lefts around the town square, and we headed out of town.
Once, when I was quite small, my mother took me on a walk in a valley.
I remember walking beside her in a broad, shallow stream, the hems of her dress floating on top of water as smooth and shimmering as ice, schools of minnows parting around us as we went. The rocks of the creek bed were smooth and flat, covered in algae and water snails. My mother held my hand to keep me from slipping, and as we walked she told me the story of a doe who was separated from her fawn, who wandered deep and far into the world to find her. The doe crossed streams and mountains and meadows calling her daughter’s name but still she couldn’t find her. At last she came to a land of snow, as vast and endless as the sky. The doe called for her child one last time and the fawn appeared, as pale and brilliant as a star, with a fur coat of white and eyes that shone like silver. And then the doe was happy at last, and the two lived together in the cold place.
“It means, where you go I go,” she said. She squeezed my hand.
My mother left the stream when we reached a small island. It was covered in knee high grass, yellow-green and almost translucent in the sun. In my memory, it was as if with every step of her bare foot on the earth a blue bell sprang from the ground in full bloom. Then she unpacked a small picnic lunch of ham sandwiches and pickles and we shared it together on paper plates.
That is the truth of flowers : even some jaunty dandelion growing in a ditch is a miracle. It is the stuff of magic, a sweet growing thing made from light and dirt and seed. Inside each green body lives an unspoken law, as old as time: reach deep into the earth, send your roots into the rich darkness of the soil, and then, when you are ready, oh glory, break up into the air and see the sky.
The road south east from Sparta cuts through flat, open farmland. The clouds hung low and heavy over the fields, where small tobacco and corn plants were beginning to grow, timidly. The hills behind were covered in white puffs of flowering pear and wild dogwoods. Arthur was humming to himself, and drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.
I closed my eyes, remembering the drive as it had been in the autumn of my sixteenth year. That day, the sky was a bright, clear blue, and the hills were gold and orange and red. Grandmother lectured as she drove. “I might have known,” she said, “I might have know, you being your mother’s daughter. I should have barred the windows. I shouldn’t have let you out of the house. Just school and church and home. Oh but Jesus, didn’t I try to do right by you?”
I was quiet. I was seven months along, and in my belly I could feel the stretch and swift kicks of our baby. I knew he was a boy. I could feel it deep inside me, and in a dream, saw him born and wild and cartwheeling around the yard. We stopped for gas in Chattanooga, and as the clerk pumped gas, Grandmother turned to me and laid a hand on my knee.
“Caroline. If you’d only tell me who the father is, we could make this right. We could do this differently. I’d sew you a wedding dress, my girl.”
How close I came in that moment, and how often I’d relived what might have been! I had loved Arthur deeply, maybe even wanted to marry him, but I was so young that it felt as if whole worlds would have shattered. Tears filled my grandmother’s eyes, but I was silent. “Alright, then.” She said, thin lipped.
When we arrived at the home in Marietta, she wouldn’t even walk me inside. She pulled up to the edge of the gate, helped unload my suitcases, and drove away. She never even turned off her car.
Arthur had only driven a few miles when the rain came down so hard we could barely see out the front window. Arthur adjusted the air, trying to keep the window from fogging up. We were nearing Chattanooga when Arthur pulled over at a small picnic shelter on the side of the road. We ran to get under the awning. I pulled out some sack lunches we’d bought at a gas station in Monteagle. We sat across from each other.
“Caroline,” he said after a while. “You never told me about him, not really.”
“I wasn’t sure you wanted to know,” I responded. He stared at me intently. “He was so pretty, Arthur, like a little doll, and he was already seeming so smart, so aware! They let him sleep in the room with me — he cried in the nursery, you see. But next to me he slept so sound. I stayed as long as they let me. Then, Grandmother came one morning and we left him there. I handed him off to a nurse-”
What else could I say? The baby was just beginning to smile. In the morning he would look up at me from his crib by my bed. He would raise his arms ever so slightly, so I was sure he was reaching for me. He was the prettiest baby I’d ever seen, and I could feel my heart breaking every time I looked at him. In the dark of the night when I nursed him I would think of my own mother. She must have held me just as gently. She would have listened to the same sweet sucking sounds as she stroked the soft fuzz of my head.
When I held him for the last time, I prayed he would never remember me. How that broke my heart! But still I prayed that he would never know that the one who had grown him and nursed him and should have loved him best gave him away. My grandmother chatted the whole way home about how some doctor or lawyer or some well-to-do and his wife would come soon to adopt him, he was such a pretty thing, and that I needn’t worry, I’d done the right thing, and I was back just in time to take my exams and next year I would graduate and wouldn’t I look pretty in a cap and gown.
“You regret it,” Arthur said in my silence.
“I regret it,” I said softly. “And lately I’ve been feeling he’s not well. It’s motherly intuition I suppose. I need to know he’s okay.”
“That’s only half a plan, Caroline.” He was quiet. “What will you do if he’s there today?”
“I want him. I want him more than anything. I’ve never stopped wanting him.”
He nodded and stared at me hard. “Jesus, my parents will be upset.” He looked away. “But that’s alright. I understand.” We got back in the car.
The road was unpaved, and in the rain great gullies had formed. The car bumped along. The branches of wild pear trees hanging low hit the window. We came to a clearing. The house was as I remembered: on the broad front porch a half a dozen children were playing at hopscotch and marbles and dolls. The older ones straightened when they saw us and smiled agreeably. The younger ones were less reserved, and as we parked they pointed and waived.
I looked for him. I was always looking for him. He would be four feet tall or so, he would not be blond, he would not be too thin. Arthur held my hand as we walked up the stairs. We rang the doorbell and a woman I didn’t recognize greeted us.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Hm?” I could scarcely think. A few more children had appeared since we’d arrived. Too old, I reasoned. “No, we don’t.”
“Are you hoping to adopt? Or-”
“I would love to speak to Ms. Glenn,” I said softly.
“Alright, she’s just taking her lunch in her office, ma’am.”
We walked down a long hall. It was lined in photographs of smiling couples holding little babies and toddlers in their arms, or on occasion standing with small children beside them. I looked for him. We reached the office and the nurse knocked at the door.
“Come in,” Ms. Glenn answered from inside.
“Please sit down,” she said to us as we entered, gesturing to two chairs across the desk from her. “Anne Glenn,” she said, extending a hand to us.
“Arthur Denton,” he said, shaking her hand.
“Caroline,” I said.
“How can I help you, Mr. and Mrs. Denton?”
“You don’t remember me,” I said, softly.
Ms. Glenn straightened in her chair. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t.”
I took a deep breath. “I was here seven and a half years ago. I had a boy. I left him when he was three months old.”
Her smile had faded. She clasped her hands and placed them on her desk. “How can I help you?”
“I wanted to know about him.”
“We take care of all of our wards, I assure you.”
“Of course, but-.”
“What was your last name?”
“Miss Wilson!” she called loudly. The woman reappeared at the door. “I need to see a file. Caroline Montaine.” Miss Wilson nodded nervously and left. “You understand that I can’t give you any information if he is no longer with us.”
The woman came back in with the file, and Ms. Glenn opened it discreetly behind her desk. She looked only a moment before she took out a small photograph and slid it across the desk to us. “There you see,” she smiled, “Safe and sound with a lovely family. I can’t give you their names, of course, but… there you are.”
My hands shook as I took the photograph. Arthur leaned over close to look alongside me. There he was. Five years old or so and as beautiful as the sun. He had straight brown hair that was parted neatly to the side. He was wearing suspenders and a gingham shirt. He had my mouth and Arthur’s bright eyes. He was smiling, and held the hand of a plain-looking woman who looked well along in years. She wore a neat little dress and looked kind enough. Her husband was tall and large. He wore pinstripe overalls.
“Feel better?” Arthur asked.
“How carefully do you assess your families?” I asked.
“We are very thorough, I assure you. In fact,” she smiled, opened the file again, “We make calls annually for updates, just to do our due diligence, you understand. Let’s see…” For a moment, I thought she was going to read something to us, some report, or some quick update. Instead, her eyebrows wrinkled, only slightly, and she hurriedly shut the file and stood. She began walking us to the door. “We look at bank statements, we ask about home accommodations, their reasons for adopting. I don’t recall your son particularly, and legally, there’s not much more I can tell you. You gave up any claim to information.” She pulled out a piece of paper with the terms I’d agreed to. My young signature was uneven and faint.
“We understand, of course,” Arthur said.
“If there’s anything else you can tell me…” I said. Ms. Glenn shrugged and shook her head. “And you won’t give me their address? I would only write to the parents, just to inquire…”
“We understand,” Arthur said again. He put his hand on my waist, and started guiding me to the door.
At a diner on the main square in Marietta, a waitress brought two coffees.
“That was rough,” I said.
“Not really,” said Arthur. “That’s how I thought it would go.”
“You seem relieved.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Do you blame me? I’d say this is good news, all things considered. They looked like a nice family.”
“You didn’t find anything odd? She started talking about annual check-ins and then slammed his file shut.”
Arthur rubbed his forehead and frowned. “I’m sure he’s fine.” He was adding sugar to his coffee, tapping the last granules out into the cup.
“But you noticed.”
“I thought she was going to be more… revelatory, sure. But I’m not surprised that she couldn’t tell us more. Waived rights, etc.”
“I was sixteen. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“You didn’t waive your right, did you?” He straightened. He looked upset. “We’ll go back. We’ll contest everything. We’ll say I was under emotional duress. I mean, I was! Grandmother was threatening to kick me out! I’m not saying I’ll adopt him. I just want to meet him. I just want to-”
“It’s been over two years since he was adopted. I don’t think there’s any reason to open this up any further.”
I stood. “Arthur. You’re a coward.” I gathered my purse and started out of the door.
“Wait, Caroline,” he said. He followed me outside. It was dusk and a slight drizzle still lingered over the town. “We can go back. We can go tomorrow.”
“I just want to meet him.”
“I understand. We’ll get the address.”
We drove a little ways outside of town to a motel we’d passed coming in. The neon light above flickered “vacancy” in bright orange neon. Arthur ran into the lobby, coming back hurriedly. “I booked us a double, I hope that’s alright.”
“I thought you would get two rooms. I should have said.”
“Do you mind much? I can go back and change it.”
“It’s alright,” I said. He pulled around to the back. Our room smelled of stale tobacco and bleach. I put my bag down on the bed nearest the bathroom.
“I’m exhausted,” I said, sitting on the edge of the bed and beginning to unclasp my shoes.
“Me too,” he said. “Listen, Caroline, I feel there’s something I should have told you right away. I meant to in the woods.” He was rummaging through his bag, avoiding eye contact, I thought. “I’m engaged. Or, that is, I soon will be.”
“Oh?” I said. I tried to keep my voice unaffected, but inwardly my heart beat faster in my chest. I often imagined him married to someone else, and I had realized long ago that there existed too much sadness and disappointment between us. Still, he was the only one I had ever loved.
“Her name’s Annabell. She was the receptionist where I worked in Nashville. She’s agreed to help me open my new practice in Knoxville. It’s all but finalized. It’s been implied, I mean.”
“Congratulations, Artie,” I said, and tried to mean it.
“You’re not angry, then?” he said. He was staring at me earnestly now.
“Of course not. Don’t be silly.” I sounded nonchalant.
I excused myself to the restroom and changed into my nightgown. I unloosed my hair from its high bun. It had grown so long it reached my waist. He was sitting up in his bed watching television when I came out. I slipped quickly into my bed and turned off the lamp. “Goodnight, Artie,” I said, softly. He got up and turned the television off, and then turned off his light.
In the dark, I remembered our first kiss. We were only fourteen years old. We were walking home from church and we’d been caught up in a spring rain. He’d pulled me under the branches of a peach tree. He kissed me as the petals fell with the rain. A petal landed on my nose. I lay in the dark, thinking of him, and our son, and the life that might have been.
“Are you asleep, Caroline?” he asked after a while. “Caroline?” I didn’t answer him, and after a while I could hear his deep breathing in his sleep.
The next morning the rain fell on our windshield as we made our way back to the home, the droplets slowly joining and streaking down the glass in small rivulets. Arthur was quiet, his eyes puffy with sleep in the early morning. He yawned. At the home the children were just making their way onto the porch. Ms. Glenn must have seen us arrive, for she came outside hurriedly and met us at the foot of the stairs.
“I’m afraid you will have to leave at once or I will phone the authorities,” she greeted us. “There is no reason whatever for your presence here today.”
Arthur spoke calmly. “Ms. Glenn, as the boy’s father I would like a full copy of his file. I never waived any parental right, you understand. I don’t think it unreasonable-”
She moved still closer to us and spoke in a whisper that was so full of intent it managed to feel like a shout. “It is of utmost importance that the children not hear me, sir-” They had all crowded around the porch and were watching with wide eyes. “But what proof do you have that you are the father, after all? In cases such as these there is often little surety-”
I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks. “Ms. Glen, I-”
“I have no doubts whatsoever, and neither would you if you knew the situation at all,” Arthur said. He was pointing at Ms. Glen and had straightened so he towered over her. “You should be ashamed of yourself, ma’am.”
“Be that as it may, you can by no means show up seven years into a child’s life and expect any claim on him at all. I’ll be calling the police now, if you’ll excuse me,” and she marched her way back into the house, shooing the children out of her way as she did so.
“Come along, Caroline,” Arthur said. He was flustered and seemed angry, and I was proud of him for the first time in ages. “What a horrible woman.”
“We’ll have to get a lawyer,” I said as we got back in the car.
“Christ,” Artie replied, but he didn’t argue it.
We were almost back to the paved street when we saw the nurse from the day before waiting under an umbrella beside the road. As we neared she waved. Arthur stopped the car, and we got out, standing close beside her. “I hope I’m not being too bold.” She looked worried. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said, as she handed us the boy’s file.
A page labeled “Follow-Ups” was on top of the file. It had three different dates written on the left margin, along with the notes of the phone call. On the last date, which was from three months previous, MISSING was written in all caps.
“This just happens sometimes. More often than you’d think,” the nurse said. “They all start off so eager to be adopted, but it doesn’t always live up to their expectations. So they run away. They’re often found,” she said, more reassuringly. “We’ve had them show up here, a time or two.”
“What’s being done?” I asked. “Are they searching for him?”
She flipped the page over. On it was the name of the police officer in charge of the investigation, the last sighting, and what he was wearing. “This is all the information we have, I’m afraid. It’s really up to the parents to look for him at this point, not us.”
“Thank you, very much, for helping us,” Artie said, shaking her hand.
“I really shouldn’t have. I’ll lose my job, I expect, but he was a favorite of mine, you see. He was so smart, wild too, full of mischief. He was beautiful, really.”
I was torn between pride and dread. “I wish you’d stop speaking in the past tense.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. It’s only that I haven’t seen him in three years, you understand.”
“We understand,” Arthur said.
“I have to be getting back,” the nurse said. “If you can, try not to let on how you got the file.”
“We’ll never tell. Thanks again,” he said. She left us, making her way down the road bed, avoiding puddles.
We got back into the car. My hands shook as I began going through the contents of the folder. Arthur scooted to the middle seat and leaned close over my shoulder to read along. There were his health records: he’d gotten chicken pox when he was three. I imagined him, freckled and covered in calamine. On little slips of paper someone had added notes about his behavior: “James got out of bed 4 times last night, claimed he was worried I was scared of the dark.” Another said he’d been bothering the other children, “insistent that he must be called Knight James and demanding Luke be his horse and Peter his squire.” Then there was information about his adoption: Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, of Chatom, Alabama.
There was only one other photo of him. He was three years old or so, sitting in a little patch of flowers. “He looks so serious,” Arthur said. He did. His small brow was furrowed into a frown, and he was gazing past the camera. He held a small clover blossom in his hands.
“He looks wonderful,” I said, and Arthur agreed, nodding sadly.
We drove back to our hotel. Arthur got his road atlas from the glove compartment. We laid it on the hotel bed, running our fingers along the highways that would take us further south.
“It’s a long way to go,” Arthur said.
“We have to,” I said. “We have to now.”
“I know,” he said. He placed his hand on my shoulder.
Out in the parking lot, just beyond Arthur’s car, I watched as a small star of jerusalem broke through the gravel of the driveway, its small head bobbing in the rain.
When the time comes, if the time comes-
When the time comes, will I be able to run to him? Throw my arms around him? Will he know me at once? Will he look at me and see some semblance of a dream, some fragment of a memory, held close in his chest all these years? Will he remember once I held him as near as my own heart, nursed him as part of my own body, grew him in my belly, round and white as a moon?
Or maybe he will kick my shins, ask what took me so long. Rightly so, my son, my child.
I tried once before. I bought a bus ticket to Marietta. I packed my bags and made my way all alone on a summer morning so hot and humid to walk felt like swimming. And do you know tornadoes came? Whole tornadoes came between my boy and me. All the buses were canceled, and the sirens went off in the town and I lost my nerve and spent the afternoon huddled in my grandmother’s basement, feeling that much more like a child.
If I could see him only once more and if he might, not right away, but one day, forgive me, let it be because I was still so much a child. And his father too, not grown enough to be able to say to his parents: we are in love. We did this because we are in love. This child was made from love, every bit of it holy. It might have been a small simple thing. My grandmother would have sewn me a wedding dress. She would have loved to knit him baby clothes, small sweaters, booties the size of thumbs. We could have lived with her, or the little apartment above the bakery on the square.
It doesn’t matter anymore. When the time comes, if the time comes–
When the time comes, it would be no small thing to me to be able to even once place my hand upon his head, or even, if it were possible, to kiss him just once on his cheek. I might never see him again after that but still I might bless him in that way. Tell him: you were always wanted, always loved. You were born of love. To me, you are love incarnate.
END OF PART 1
© 2018 Rebecca Rose Moody