a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Anne grabbed the porch pillar and spun on one foot to face the sunset.
“Look!” she said, “Turkey vultures.” She hopped onto to her tiptoes and let go of the pillar hovering a moment, arms out as if to mimic the birds. She wore a short crinoline skirt. We were both barefoot, our toes lined in dirt. We’d both just finished 8th grade. This was all I knew about her.
“I wonder what died.” She demi-plied and plucked up a fuzzy dandelion growing through the gap in the porch steps.
Mom— I almost said. It had been a month since she died, and my father had become addicted to sleep. I’d hidden his vodka in my underwear drawer, but he never went looking for it. My little sister, too, always disappeared after dinner and drew her blinds closed. Anne didn’t know this.
“Make a wish.” She stuck the dandelion in front of my nose. I sneezed. The seeds wobbled. “Blow!” Anne twirled the stalk. “Quick!”
I blew to the end of my breath. The tufts parachuted out and landed in the gravel.
“What’d you wish for?” she asked.
“Can’t tell,” I said.
“No! Then it won’t come true.”
“Kids made that up because they’re embarrassed about what they wish for. Tell me.”
I snatched another dandelion. “You make a wish.”
She blew the tufts in my face, hers haloed by red sun. “I wish to live in the Amazon when I grow up. I want to walk tightrope in the canopy and wash my hair in the rain. I wish to be wild.”
“Feral,” I said. “Not wild.”
She did a pirouette, then bowed, offering her piano-player fingers to me. I took her hand and pulled till she tripped and fell into my lap. The vultures landed in the field and picked at the dead thing.
“Tell me your wish,” Anne whispered.
I shook my head. It would just be so embarrassing, telling her that I hadn’t wished for anything.
We’d met a few weeks before, at the end of June. I was buying Bugles and Diet Coke from the gas station. Mom never let me or Lorelai drink soda.
Anne was at the register, buying candy. She wore a pink tank-top and blueberry lip gloss, specks of glitter catching in the overhead light. As the cashier scanned her candy, she stretched, arms arched over her head, fingers splayed as if to run through sun rays. I noticed her mood ring: azalea pink.
“Thank you,” she crooned, receiving her single quarter in change at the center of her palm and closing her fist around it as if it were something valuable. A pink star diamond or a Denisovan tooth.
I bumped into her as she turned. “Sorry,” I said.
She held up her hands. “You’re fine, you’re fine.” She hovered as I paid with a lacey dollar bill I’d plucked from Dad’s khakis while folding laundry. When I was short a quarter, Anne obliged me. The coin was shiny and warm.
We walked out the station together. “Follow me,” she said. “I’m doing an experiment.” She slapped the candy bags on the blacktop behind the store: Swedish Fish, gummy bears, gummy worms, Sour Patch Kids, peach rings, and fruit slices. Sunlight cut through my temples. The pavement was hot as a charcoal grill.
“I’m testing how long it takes each one to melt.” Anne pulled a stopwatch from her pocket and clicked start.
“Ok,” I said.
“I’m Anne,” she said.
“Nice to meet you. I think the fruit slices will melt first. They’re the thinnest.”
Anne was right. This was the first thing I deduced about her: she was always right. The fruit slices melted. She peeled open the bag and offered me a tie-dye glob.
We ate, fingers sheathed in stickiness, stomachs sick with sugar. All the while, my coke settled, and ants came for the bugles. The peach rings were the last to melt, and rather than vomit rainbow, we threw them out. We ran down the gravel road, kicking up dust that gummed our lips. It was too bright to see but we didn’t know where we were going anyway.
We scuffed to a stop on the riverbank. Anne didn’t waste a moment. “Let’s swim.” She shucked her shoes and stepped in.
“Wait.” I caught her wrist. “You can’t swim in your clothes.”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
She peeled her hand away and stepped in. I followed.
We ran till we couldn’t touch the ground without going underwater. Swimming in a river was not like swimming in a pool. The water was Earl Grey-colored, and my toes tangled in pond grass I couldn’t see. Fish scurried from the strokes of our arms. Anne was the better swimmer. She was one of those people whose lot in life was to be the best at everything they try. We raced: to the big pine tree, the heron’s nest, the turtle basking on a rock. She was powerful, I was flailing. After every race I clung to her waist, let her hair stick to my shoulders.
We talked about rivers: The Nile, The Indus, The Danube. We wondered how they compared to our river. Egyptian sand would burn worse than the blacktop. The Indus would have boat traffic. The Danube would be cold. Our river had to be the best then.
“Don’t tire yourself out,” she said. Maybe I was the only one racing.
We got out of the water on the side of a highway. Grass veined through gravel. Anne tested her hand on the blacktop. “You could burn off cancer on that.”
We tiptoed back to our shoes, took the country roads home. Well, to my home. She walked with me there and when I said, “This is my house,” she said. “Oh, bye then. Or walk with me a little longer.”
“I have to go home,” I said. “Dad needs me.”
“Hippos,” she said. “We didn’t even mention the Nile hippos. You don’t wanna mess with them.”
I smiled. “Bye.”
When I went inside, Dad was asleep, on his stomach, one hand on his throat, the other dangled over the bed. His breath sputtered, like an old car trying to start. A bubble of spit popped on his lip. I shook him and he didn’t wake, which meant I had to make dinner. I made mac and cheese from a box, garnished with black pepper and parsley from Mom’s planter on the windowsill. Lorelai was not impressed. She pursed her lips, in that way girls do when less-pretty girls show up to school in zookeeper khakis. She’d stolen Mom’s carmine lipstick and strapless bra which slid down to her stomach. She rolled her eyes as she took the plate.
“What?” I glared.
She clicked her tongue. “I just wanna eat real food at some point.”
“Please what? You gonna cry again?” she said.
I had never cried, not in front of her. “Go to your room.”
“You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Then just leave me alone.”
Lorelai took her food to her room. She stacked her bowls on her bedside table. I ate on the couch then did the dishes. After, my hands felt slimy, desiccated onion clogging my nails. I washed them under scalding water and slicked them with hand sanitizer till they felt clean. Next was dusting. Mom had dusted every day. Sometimes, she asked me to do it, but she always did it again after I finished. I scratched dust from the crevices in the dresser and washed my hands again. I vacuumed. I finally remembered to clean the drain in my parents’ bathroom sink. I did the laundry. I went at every item with the lint roller, for good measure. I made a game of getting it done quick and afterwards my arm hurt.
Dad woke up at 3 AM. I was perched on the coffee table with a mug of green tea.
“Hi Jules.” He sat on the couch across from me.
“What’d you dream about?” I asked.
“Clouds shaped like dolphins.”
“I don’t remember what happened exactly.” He never did.
“Would you tell me if you dreamed about Mom?”
“Yes.” He stared at my toes. “You used to paint your toenails.”
I sipped my tea. “You have spittle on your chin.”
He wiped with the gray sleeve of his bathrobe. I tapped my fingernail against my mug and waited for him to speak.
I stood. “I have to go to bed.”
I didn’t have Anne’s number, but this wasn’t a problem. The day after we met, she materialized on the mossy railroad I always went to after leaving breakfast on the counter for Dad and Lor. My goal was always vitamin D, but this morning the sky was soft and silvery.
I spied Anne in a primary-colored checked dress and white converse, her hair in a topknot. She turned, as though sensing my silent stare and smiled. “Julia!” She broke into a jog and met me in a hug.
“I didn’t know you came here,” I said.
“I don’t, usually.”
I looked over her dress again. “Is that Mondrian?”
She shrugged. “It’s my mom’s dress. Just got big enough to justify wearing it. Did you feel a drop?”
“Oop, another one.”
Within seconds, rain slopped down. She closed her eyes and opened her mouth to the sky, like a baby bird receiving worms from its mother.
Her eyes smiled and she looked at me. “It’s good rain. No sulfur.” She took my hand, and we jumped off the tracks to the drainage ditch.
We ran to the gas station and dried our hair by the heater. Our shoes were waterlogged and browned like old photos, our mud smearing the linoleum. I kept waiting for the manager to walk over and kick us out.
When the manager did come over all he said was, “You girls better get home. Flood warning.” Anne offered to leave a tip for the janitor, but he declined, so she wiped her teardrop pearl earrings with a tissue and placed them on the windowsill, winking at me. “Sterling silver. A good birthday present for a daughter.”
“Or a wife,” I said as we headed out. They reminded me of the earrings my mother wore in her wedding pictures.
“Come.” Anne pulled me to the riverbank which was spilling into the grass.
“I don’t want to drown.”
“We won’t drown. We’re just going to stand. This summer, I want to try things.”
“Standing in a floodplain?”
“Stillness. I’ve always been so bad at it.”
I shook my head. “I don’t—”
“We’re just trying. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” We took off our shoes and stepped into the too-high river. The current rippled over my toes. Anne pulled her hair down and tossed the tie in the river. I did the same. She chuckled.
“Now, still,” she said.
She closed her eyes.
I took her in all over again. Watched the water drops spiral down her curls. If she breathed, I didn’t catch it. Her smile split like a crescent moon.
She opened one eye. “Rain smells like carrots.”
“It smells like dirt,” I said.
She took my wrist to her lips and the warmth of her lingered as we ran to my house. I snuck her in the window of my bedroom and squeezed the water from her hair with my sheet. We tiptoed to the bathroom and ran the tub. The water went brown as we dipped our feet in. Heat lanced down to my bones, the most exquisite pain I’d ever felt.
Anne winced. “God. Remember this feeling the next time you defrost chicken.”
She cupped her hands under the faucet and sprinkled hot water over my head, “In the name of the father.”
“I was baptized in the river.” Anne brushed a cold cross on my forehead. “I was seven. I forgot to hold my breath. Sometimes, I imagine the minnows swimming around my brain.”
“It explains things, ya know? The thoughts going ‘round in circles. Fish swimming ‘round a bowl.”
I pulled her foot out of the water and grabbed the loofah. Dirt nestled in the lines of her foot. I scrubbed.
She jerked away. “That tickles.”
Sunday, like every Sunday, I ironed Dad’s button-ups and pressed his slacks. I laced Lorelai into a black and white checkered dress that covered her collarbones. She complained so I promised to make brownies from the box in the afternoon. I dug the keys out from the bottom of the bowl of apples and pressed them into Dad’s hand. We went to church. Or they did. Halfway through the sermon, I went to the bathroom, then out the door.
Anne perched on the church sign, kicking the pastor’s name with her combat boots. “Thought you’d never show.”
I took off my cardigan and draped it over the sign. “Just had to get the family out of the house.”
Her eyes fell to my shoulders. “Close your eyes.”
“Because.” Her lips teased a smile.
I closed. She sprayed my face with sunscreen, then my shoulders and my chest. I think she wanted to startle me.
I plucked a violet and held it out for her. “C’mon. I want to show you something.” I led her around the back to the church garden. Squat dogwoods and Japanese maples tangled with wild rosebushes and rhododendron. In the middle of a patch of daylilies stood a stone cross carved with lambs and Celtic knots. Under the big black oak sat a lichen-crusted bench and a statue of monk with holes on his shoulders where little limestone birds had fallen off.
“This is where they bury people from my church.”
“The keep a list of names in the pastor’s office. My mom’s buried here. Her ashes. But who knows? Maybe the last rainstorm washed her away.”
“In that case, she washed down into the river.”
On the hottest day in July, we put on our swimsuits and lay in the shallows of the river, shoulders cocooned in clay. Anne invented lives for the animals she spotted. Todd the squirrel had just moved from Maryland where the squirrels are tiny and auburn-furred to find community with his fellow gray giants. Jack the eagle was fishing for his family of seven. The little one-clawed crayfish had lost his other claw in a duel defending the honor of Lady Crayfish, who lived in a house with a window made of an abandoned magnifying glass and spent her days watching the diatoms kaleidoscope in sunlight.
I pinched bowls out of the river clay, red slip smeared over my stomach. “Can you see diatoms with a magnifying glass?”
“Maybe if you’re a crayfish.”
“How well can they see even?”
“I don’t know, what do you take me for? Your dad?”
“My dad doesn’t study crayfish.”
Anne pulled her knees up and scratched stars on her skin with her fingernail. “Do you have a story?” she asked.
“My mom said, there’s a horse in France that’s pure white and lures travelers with its beauty. Once they get close, it bares its dog’s teeth, and eats them.”
“Says you minnow-brain.”
She laughed. “Your mother must’ve had dark sensibilities.”
“Not really. She was just a nerd.”
“Shhh, don’t speak ill of the dead.”
“I have another story,” I said.
Anne raised an eyebrow.
“I had a dream once, about clouds shaped like dolphins,” I said.
“I don’t believe you,” she said.
“Dreams are never like that, peaceful. They’re always messed up somehow.”
“Maybe yours are.”
She grinned. “C’mon Julia, you think I haven’t noticed? You blush when you lie to me.”
I got into this habit: while I folded the laundry I’d sit in my mom’s office and stare at her wedding photos. A barn strung with fairy lights. Dad in a paisley tuxedo and Mom sewn up throat to ankle in lace, little teardrop pearls hanging from her ears. These were the only pictures of her because most of the time she was behind the camera.
In the photos, she looks thinner than she was, or so my aunt tells me. Her bridesmaids had to tight-lace her into the dress because it had been fitted months earlier before she was pregnant, and my grandparents couldn’t know she was pregnant before the wedding because they were like that.
I only remember her drinking tall bottles of flavorless seltzer water. Popping ice cubes gemmed with pomegranate seeds into a Mickey Mouse bowl. Rubbing her salmon with more cayenne than she could handle—she was Pennsylvania Dutch; salt was a strong spice to her. Mom was good at excuses.
She liked shiny surfaces and sharp angles of sunlight. She retouched the photos herself, correcting the redness in her eyes but not the tears, pristine and glass-like on her cheeks. She removed the mole from just above her eyebrow. When she took portraits for school photos, she whitened the teeth in every single one without charging extra.
Summers she’d only emerge from her office when she heard my sister shout, out of a morbid sense of obligation. Slam the door to the dishwasher when she discovered it unemptied.
“It’s not that hard, Julia. If you see the dishwasher needs to be emptied. Empty it.”
I never felt attacked. I was the good daughter. I’d meant to empty the dishwasher but was distracted by a hopping sparrow or the red squirrel who lived in the magnolia outside my bedroom window.
Still, I was annoyed. Hey, maybe I wanted to slam a door too. Maybe I wanted to shake them. Both my parents. Yell. Mama, drinking water till your stomach hurts isn’t eating. Dad, a self-imposed coma isn’t rest. Just because I’m older doesn’t mean I’m going to clean up after you. Why am I the only person in this family who still believes they’re alive?
Somewhere is the middle of July, I lost count of the days it had been since my mother died. I lost my sense of the season.
At night I slept under both mine and Lorelai’s comforters. Pink checkers. Blue lavenders. In the morning I smothered the scent of my sweat with Lysol. The sunset was coming late so I slept in the peach glow of early dusk, smacked my alarm quiet at midnight, and poured broth down my father’s throat before going back to sleep at dawn. Mom’s supply of tea was gone, and my eyes felt like hard marbles in my skull when I did my chores. I got sloppier. I found my black hairs stray on the white coach, dust bunnies on the coffee table, Dad’s pillow sheets blued with old spit stains. I was distracted, like I’d been before Mom died, except by my memories rather than squirrels. I kept trying to tally all the times I’d lied to Anne. I’d never meant to, but if she was right, every blush was a lie. Every smile was a lie.
I met up with Anne a few more times, in the river. She ringed ivory concealer under my eyes. The sun weighed down on my eyelids and I feared waking up blind. On my chest, my skin rolled away and split like Pangea. My shoulders were always spared, stuck in muck and shielded with dark water. The cold gently needled me, like acupuncture.
Anne turned to loom over me. Her hair coiled round my arms like ivy. She drew her thumb down my collar bone. “I read a book in the library ‘bout kelpies. River horses that turn to mist. Drop riders into the water.”
“How romantic,” I mumbled.
“Why are you so tired?”
“The sun sets too late,” I said.
“It’s seven, you’re not supposed to go to sleep yet.”
My mind drifted. “I’m sorry.” I cracked an eye open. “I’m sorry Anne— Anne?”
I opened up fully. She was not there.
I walked to the gas station, concrete crusting my shoulders. I bought a coke and drank it all at the counter. The cashier joked about bringing out the mop to clean me off. I dropped the bottle on the floor and ridged the cap into my palm.
From the sill, Anne’s earrings winked, having sat there all summer. I sighed, palming the little gems on my way out. I looked them over again. They were so familiar. Yes, they looked like my mother’s. My eyes stung. I ran back to the river and screamed for Anne, but she didn’t show. You’re stupid, I told myself. You’ve been dreaming all summer and you didn’t even realize.
I went home.
I went to my parents’ room and wrenched open the drawers of my mother’s ancient wood vanity. Frantically, I sorted through the gold chains, scuffed old rings and the tangled piles of dangly earrings. I dropped a heavy string of jade beads on the floor.
“Jules. What are you doing?” Lorelai kicked open the door. “Don’t go through Mom’s things!”
Dad bolted upright in bed. “Girls, what’s going on?”
“Did Mom keep her earrings from the wedding?” I said.
“What?” Dad rubbed his eyes.
“Those stupid pearls,” I said. “Are they here?” I tossed a ruby ring over my shoulder.
“Stop it.” Lorelai grabbed my arm. “You’re acting like a crazy person.”
“Don’t touch me!”
“You broke Mom’s necklace! What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Lorelai please—” Dad said. “Julia, what’s going on?”
“I need to find—”
“Find what?” Lor snapped. “Something else to break?”
“Julia—” Dad started.
I covered my ears. “Stop it.”
“Jules,” he said. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sick of you,” I said. “I sick of both of you. I just need to find— I’m trying— I’m trying. I’m always trying harder than you. I hate this stupid house. I hate this.”
“Julia.” Dad reached for me. I walked out.
On the front porch I faced the sunset, breathing from the bottom of my lungs. My skin steamed in the heat. The leak sprung. I cried, like Lor had that day in the emergency room. Like Dad had leaning over the casket. My throat ached. I pulled another dandelion creeping through the porch step. I made a wish.
I put on Anne’s earrings, crossed the road, hopped over the carcass in the field, and came upon the river. I traced the bend of the bank as the sun traded its light to the sickle-shaped moon. The sky was charcoal by the time I found her. Anne stood in the shallows; hands cupped in front of her.
She smiled. “Julia, come see.”
I stepped in. A tadpole fluttered in the pool of her hands.
“You have to be careful releasing them.” She knelt and slowly lowered her hands into the water. “Drop ‘em in too fast and they’ll drown. Be free little dude.” The tadpole flitted across the reflection of the moon. “Hey, I’m sorry ‘bout earlier. I hopped over to the inlet, to pick some raspberries for us. I tried to keep my eye on you, but I turned around and you were gone.”
“I don’t remember—”
“You were asleep.”
“Oh— and you waited for me?”
She pulled a raspberry from her pocket. “Saved one for— You’re wearing my earrings.” She flicked one and giggled. The berry dropped into the water, the ripples gentle against our shins.
I kissed her. I wanted to be the one to do it. Her mouth opened, as if to catch mine. Moisture bloomed on my lips.
When we broke, I kept hold of her hand. “I forgive you,” I said.
She giggled like the flutter of a bird rearing into flight. “For what?”
“Never mind.” I leaned into her. Her skin goose-fleshed in the breeze. She smelled like rain.