A teaching job plucked us from the city, planted us gingerly in a town literally surrounded by corn. We bought a small house, two bedrooms, one bath because it was compact, updated and affordable. It would not require my attention. My wife was consumed in great gulps by the baby, and I was peering into and trying to fit within academia’s dollhouse. The yard was huge, magnified further by the fact we’d never had one. My wife murmured in her dreams to children not yet conceived, children inventing new ways to injure themselves in the great green expanse. She wanted six babies, and was in the thick, heavy cream and honey daze of easy motherhood. Our second baby would snap her out of this, keep her awake for days, miserable until the sixteenth specialist diagnosed our son, Max, unhappy Max. But this was when Trina was an infant, sleeping, and my wife plump and smelling of yeast, sleeping beside her. My loaves of bread, I’d whisper, kissing my wife awake. I was prepping spring courses when I began thinking of a garden, perhaps raised beds, but soon it was gargantuan and too overgrown for my skull, its near wilderness demanding ground, purchase in real life. I had never grown anything beyond a bean sprout in fourth grade science; the bean wrapped in a wet paper towel within the green house of a plastic freezer bag. Soon, I found myself trolling the Internet, then cordoning off half of the yard, renting a tiller, staying up until dawn choosing heirloom seeds from the stack of catalogs in the bathroom. I spaced fruit trees in the front yard, already drunk as a bee on their imagined canopies and harvests; plums and pears and apples and cherries. I imagined six children hanging from their knees, their chins always sticky, then clambering to the top of the trees—to the branches that bent, scrambling for the last wet handfuls of cherries. Now, I spend most of my life waiting to return to the place I grew out of my imagination. The place I wore the knees out of my jeans and forgot myself, half convinced I could disappear in the raveled vines of green beans, happily go to my death in the dappled dark where the slenderest, bite tender beans are. After Max, I had a vasectomy. It was a decision made jointly in voices that strained under the weight of exhaustion. It was only when I was planting the last garden, Max a baby that cried unlike any baby the parenting books described and never slept, never slept, never slept, it was only when pushing the seeds down into the soil did I think of it differently, did I think of my own seed, rendered dead. In the deciding, my wife so skin pressed by the writhing Max that she couldn’t bare a touch that required any more of her, it seemed a pruning—clipping with finality the heaviest branches so they would not fell from the trunk. But afterward, my fingers in the dirt, it seemed a death. We suffer our own winters. Yet, even in autumn or dead December, the garden lives as surely as it did in thick August. It takes root in the base of my skull, then sprouts and tendrils until come spring I am lovelorn and homesick with wanting. But by the time final grades are in mid-May, my wife needs a rest, and Max, Max requires constant care and attention. Tending to. There is no time to garden, although I would surely choose the garden, if I had a choice. Max sits upon my knee, his head cocked like a wren, listening to something I can’t hear. He doesn’t have the words yet to articulate whatever it is that tortures him so. What can he do? He wails. I imagine the sounds he makes as living, growing, wild language. Language that can’t be tamed in measured rows. Language that bears no discernible harvest.
I was a delicate child, susceptible to illness, and this worsened when I turned ten, after my father’s suicide. My mother was frail too, and so pale I could map the veins at her neck and wrists. I was old enough to know some things and not others, but when I explained, as my mother tucked me in, that father stood in the darkest corner each evening as we listened to the radio, simply watching, as still as a lamp post and glowering in the way he had, she gasped hard enough that I knew sobbing galloped behind. The next morning when I woke, a suitcase sat resolutely by the door and Fritz, my mother’s friend, drove me three hours to Aunt Betsy’s farm. It was 1939. Mother could not bear good-bye.
It was truly Uncle Douglas’ farm, but everyone knew he lived in his office, reading and writing, smoking and drinking, and Betsy ran the farm. Where my mother was pale and slight, blonde hair and gray eyes, Betsy was windburned and loud with large hips and copper frizz that frothed about her head and shoulders and turned up in her meals. Her body was tall and wide, hard in places, soft in others, and she seemed to live within her body in the same way Uncle Douglas lived within his office. Her bosom was enormous. Later, in my studies, I would see images of fertility figures and think of Betsy. She was lusty all about, and not in a dirty way, but in a way that made some uncomfortable. Some people couldn’t look her vitality head-on.
I was given one chore. At the end of each day I was to walk out with the shepherding dogs and bring in the sheep. They were a pack, and I had never seen animals move as one, then scatter like starlings, only to bring in the sheep. My job, really, was to watch them and take wonder in their way, and to come to understand that they were known to one another, these four dogs, in a way I was not known to any one and in a way that I did not know any other living person. The dogs seemed to like when I buried my face in their necks, or gently pulled the brambles from their long coats. They turned with great inquisitive looks when I whistled. They turned in the same instant, with similar faces, their wet noses glistening in that deep blue dusk. When the sheep were in, I would see Aunt Betsy’s face in the kitchen window, and it would halve itself in a smile, meant just for me.
They could not have children. Betsy had lost three, early on in her pregnancies, during that first decade of my life. She absorbed loss like a wall, at least in the telling of it to me. She’d point to the cows and chickens, the pigs, and say that nature was that way, rougher on some than others, but it never felt a judgment to Betsy, just a fact. Just the way it was. “We’re all animals,” she said, and she expected us to take a moment of silence before each meal, considering what had been given and given up, so we could eat. At home, my mother had said grace, each word clipped like a toenail, so the prayer sounded like a bullion cube of dissatisfaction. Betsy once told me, “Words are good, when you need them. But silence, silence is a room to carry with you. Some things you know without words. Some things you can’t put words to.” I would watch the dogs corral the sheep and I would consider my father, what he could not say, and what I could not say now to my mother. Silence with Betsy was a room made of windows, the radiance a buttery balm. With my mother, silence was a root cellar at the end of winter.
I remember most the light of that summer, whether it was light being born as dawn set upon us, or the light of the honeyed July moon, so pregnant seeming, I imagined six small moons nursing at that moon’s teats like the barn kittens. And in late August’s evenings, the corn drying, it fell pink and golden across fields like silk. In the course of the summer, I had become strong and brown. Betsy had cut my hair in a pageboy and my legs were scratched and bruised from coming to know the woods. My neck wore the beads of bug bites. I cast off shoes, and my soles were callused.
Betsy did not tuck me in. She crawled into bed with me, and read each night until my eyes closed. She let me fall asleep to the cadence of her chest rising and falling, her hair sticking to my bath fresh cheek. Some love cannot be articulated.
And one September morning, I watched the dust kick up in a gravel cloud before the car materialized as if from a vapor. I could make out Fritz’s profile, and beside him, mother in her hat, one hand holding it in place. The dogs barked and gathered at my heels as I ran to the house. Perhaps I always knew my mother would return for me. Perhaps I didn’t. I was ten, and did not know what a child I still was—what I still did not have words for.
Panting in the kitchen doorway, it was clear Betsy knew, and the knowing had collapsed something in her. She sat at the table in a man’s shirt, unbuttoned so I could see where her cleavage began. I begged, on my knees, at her feet, to let me stay. Then she reached for me. I could hear Fritz knocking, the thin voice of my mother calling out, but I had buried my face in Betsy’s neck. She was cradling me like a baby. Betsy was crooning, “Hush, my child.”
Barbara Harroun teaches composition and creative writing at Western Illinois University. Her work has previously appeared in the Sycamore Review, issues of Another Chicago Magazine, issues of Bird’s Thumb, Prairie Gold: Anthology of the American Heartland, Requited Journal, Festival Writer, Red Wolf Journal, and Catch & Release. It is forthcoming in I-70 Review, Sugared Water, Per Contra, The Riveter Review, Pea River Journal, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Mud Season Review, bioStory, The Lake, Emerge Literary Journal, Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, and San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack.