That day in July my mom came out of the house, wiped her soapy hands on her thighs, and told me to get my lazy bum up off the grass and go weed the peas. She wore rolled-up blue jeans, a cotton blouse, and a red bandana that tied her dark hair back from her face. Her toenails were caked with dirt and needed cutting.
“Don’t want to,” I said. My dad had been gone on a job for a week and it was just the two of us. In the sun the temperature read ninety; bugs swarmed around my skin and flies landed intermittently on my thighs and knees.
“Katie, how’d you get to be so lazy?” she said, squinting off towards the hills that used to belong to my dad’s parents, but had since been sold, and then started walking alone through the tall grass down to the garden. I watched her thin shoulder blades moving under her blouse and went back to the library book I was reading. It was about a girl who lived in a clean house in the suburbs with lots of rooms and windows. The girl wrote stories, and the book was about those stories she wrote and all those windows. I wanted to be like her: unencumbered, surrounded by light. In one story she wrote about girls who turned into birds: hawks and ravens and buzzards and crows. They could fly anywhere they wanted to go. You knew, reading, that the girl who wrote the stories was free, too, you could feel it in your bones, but I couldn’t concentrate anymore, with my skinny mom walking down to the garden alone.
I felt a trickle of sweat slip down my spine and thought about those weeds—tall, green, stringy—crowding out the tomatoes and peas and carrots and beans. I thought about our basement full of empty canning jars collecting dust and our Datsun with a busted starter. After a few minutes I got up and went down the hill too, kneeling down in front of the carrots and pigweed. My mom didn’t say a thing, just looked at me sideways for a moment and smiled, then went back to the peas.
We lived in a house that didn’t have many windows: just a few small double-hungs in each room that we covered with plastic in winter. My dad had built the house when he was twenty: a pine-sided cabin with two bedrooms and a porch and a barn where he had hoped, someday, to keep horses. Now that barn was just a place with no walls where we kept snow tires and broken lawnmowers and old chairs that needed caning.
The weeds were thick and everywhere: pigweed and witch grass and dandelion. It had rained all of June and standing water pooled in-between the rows and mosquito eggs floated around in the pools. But that day was all sun. My hair fell into my face and stuck to my cheeks and the thin brown hairs on my legs shone. Wet dirt wedged under my nails and made them throb. The skin on my arms and legs burned. My mom’s arms were a nice freckled brown and she didn’t sweat. Mine were my dad’s: pink and burnable.
“Sing low, sweet chariot,” my mom sang, quietly and out of key. She had grown up in a big house in the suburbs, just like the girl in my book, and could have done anything with her life. Back in college she had wanted to be a poet. There were floppy books of poetry stored on a shelf in the corner of her bedroom, collecting dust. I got up and moved to the shade. I lay down and closed my eyes and thought about how a Coke or a blue Slush Puppy or a sip of my dad’s cold beer would feel on my tongue. I could hear my mom inching along through the rows. I picked a blade of grass and stuck it between my teeth and nibbled on it, let the bitter taste seep all over and then I spit it out and just lay there, feeling the cool.
I had the story of how they met like a movie in my mind. My dad had a job at the local college building storage sheds. It was hot and he worked with his shirt off and all the girls hung around, my mom told me, pretending to read near where he cut and hammered boards. But she was the only one to offer him a beer. He said he’d love one but swimming was an even better way to cool down. Then he winked. “You like to swim?”
He took her to a place in the Broad Brook called Indian Love Call and told her it was named that because Indians would bring their girlfriends there. On one side of the river a ledge outcrop rose twenty feet above the water and they carried their beers up to that rock and looked down. The water bristled with snowmelt and the boulders flashed silver in the sun. He beat his fists against his chest and made a hooting call meant to imitate an Indian and his voice echoed back. Then he took off all his clothes and leapt into the water. My mom stood there in her bohemian skirt and blouse looking down at him. He crowed and hollered and splashed and looked up at her. She laughed. “What you waiting for?” he called out.
“It looks cold,” she shouted above the sound of water hitting stone.
“Fresh!” he yelled, so my mom took off all her clothes and jumped in too. She’d never been naked in front of a man or leapt off a cliff into ice water; she said she knew right then, in midair, her life would be something entirely different than what she had imagined. I learned all this one night in the dark of my room, moonlight lighting up the side of her face as she told me.
“You all done?” My mom stood up, brushed her dark hair out of her face with the back of her hand and looked down at me on the grass.
“Yeah. Pooped,” I said, so we walked back up to the house together. The sun had settled below the trees and the sky bloomed tangerine behind the leaves. She was too thin. Lacking muscle. “Eat, woman,” my dad would say, poking her ribs. “What, you want to float away?”
She put some rice on the stove and started chopping kale. Every once in a while she’d glance up at the old-fashioned clock that hung on our wall and made a loud ticking sound I knew so well sometimes I couldn’t hear it when I tried. On top of the clock sat little wooden turtles and rabbits and birds my dad had carved for both of us years ago.
She looked again at the clock. It said seven-thirty, which meant my dad should have been back a few hours ago, which meant he and Bill, the guy he built houses with, had either broken down or were drinking six packs at the river.
She licked her dry lips and looked at the door. It had warped over the years and now a half-inch gap of outside light shone between the door and the frame. Once she had asked him to fix it so he took some duct tape and pasted a strip over the gap. “There,” he said, grinning, laying the duct tape on the table. The strip of tape still hung there, half peeled down, the sticky part dull with cobwebs.
My mom turned the tap water on and the light over the kitchen sink flickered. She had asked him for real electricity too, not the long cord strung from tree to tree through the woods up from his parents’ house that made the lights flicker every time she used the blender or ran water. My dad just laughed and left the room when she asked for that.
I heard his truck coming up the driveway and went outside. When I was young we had driven that red Ford to Florida where we had camped in a tent surrounded by sand pines and cooked on a Coleman stove and my mom’s skin had turned a beautiful brown; there are pictures. There’s also a picture I took of the two of them dancing barefoot in sand, my mom’s neck tipped back in laughter.
My dad hopped out of the truck and came towards me. “There’s my beauty!” he called out, scooping me up and swinging me around in a circle. His eyes were bloodshot and he was grinning. He set me down and looked at the house. “How’s Lyn?”
We walked inside together. She didn’t look up, just kept chopping her vegetables, the knife making little scratching sounds on the board. “And beauty number two,” he said, quiet, breathing.
He went around the counter to where she stood and put his arms around her waist, placed his thumbs on her hipbones. “I said hello, beautiful,” he said into her ear. Then he looked at me, his eyes glistening. He was drunk, I could tell. I loved him when he was drunk; he talked to both of us this way. My mom stopped chopping her vegetables and closed her eyes. The cotton of her shirt went up and down with her breath. Then she pushed him away with her elbow. “Go take a shower.”
We ate dinner at the table out in the yard: rice and greens and a can of pintos my mom opened up. She didn’t even heat them on the stove, just dumped a pile onto each of our plates. My dad got a six-pack from his truck and opened one and told us about his week. He told my mom this was the biggest house they’d ever built, that he was going to make a profit. “I’ll buy you any god-damn thing you want,” he said, grinning, leaning over and pinching my thigh.
My mom poured some white wine into a Bell canning jar. She took small sips and squinted out towards the view. She was doing that thing she did, I knew: trying, with her eyes, to make the hills flat, pretty. Turn them into poetry. They used to belong to my dad’s parents. Now they were just black silhouettes spotted in ugly houses, the sky behind them the blue of his and my eyes.
He set his beer down and looked at my mom. “Okay few days, Lyn?”
She took another sip of her wine. “It was alright.”
Their faces were just shadows. My dad leaned down and unlaced his boots, slid his feet out, rested them up on the bench between us. They were pretty like a woman’s: pale from being inside his boots all the time.
My mom got up and cleared the plates and took them into the kitchen. I heard water running and the kitchen light flickered. Mosquitoes swarmed around my head and bit my legs. I let one turn red with blood and then I swatted it so it left a smear on my thigh.
“Ugly,” my dad said, and laughed, but it was an out of proportion laugh, like he was laughing at something much funnier or not funny at all. I sat there waiting for another mosquito to land on me and fill up with blood. I thought about the girl in my book and how she didn’t think about her parents spent dreams, or weed their gardens; all she thought about was the people in the stories she wrote and herself.
“How about you, Katie Belle,” my dad whispered. That’s what he called me. “Doing okay?”
The back door slammed and I went around the side of the house. My mom was going down the hill to the garden in the near dark. She kneeled by the zucchini this time, pulling more weeds, trying to make things right. It was a losing battle; I knew. I followed and stood quiet in the shadows a few yards away. After a few minutes she stopped weeding and bent over and put her face in her hands. Her shoulders started to shake. I looked at the view and then at my toes and then back at her. The shadows of her shoulder blades started moving around under her skin. The skin of her back stretched out until it was gleaming, nearly translucent. Large pointy things, the length of my legs, began moving around, poking through her ribs and skin.
“Mom,” I called out, my voice too loud in that dark.
She looked up at me. Her eyes hazy, viscous, blank. Those things on her back were iridescent, dark feathered wings.
Then a look of recognition passed through her. “Oh. Hi.” Those wings disappeared. Stopped pulsing there. She had been crying but she looked beautiful. “Want to help, Kate?”
My heart was electric but I went and knelt next to her. It was the only thing I knew how to do. We pulled until it was so dark we could no longer tell the difference between one thing and another: unearthing spinach and carrots and beans. A firefly flew into her blouse and started blinking in there. She laughed and tugged the cotton away from her chest and the bug flew out. Then she put her arms around me and held me to her. She smelled like dish soap and earth, but something strange and sour that I’d never smelled before, too. All around us crickets were finding their partners. I thought about my dad up there drunk at that table and how I’d always be like him: wingless, from here.
“You cold?” she asked. She started shaking and I could feel those wings again, behind me, trembling under the surface of her skin.
“No,” I lied. The night air was warm but I was freezing. Only where she touched me was I warm. Her breath was sour, uneven, scented of wine. On the horizon the moon started to come up through the trees: just a sliver, then disappeared behind the tops of the hemlocks and the pines.