Pea Ridge

Pea Ridge 1080 873 William Woolfitt

I remember glimmers in the dark, bits of light on my grandparents’ farm on Pea Ridge in Barbour County. I remember pale foxfire veins that feed on the decaying logs, fairy fungus, and the gloom of lightning bugs I caught, sputtering in a blue mason.

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My grandmother rides with me to the department store, shops a while, settles on a new dress shirt for my grandfather. He’ll have it, along with his gray slacks and bus driving shoes, to wear when he sleeps in the earth.

On her kitchen table, my grandmother keeps the scotch-taped envelope of spider-flower seeds from Ruth Ellen, who wrote above the cellophane window a note of advice: cleome is native to the tropics. Plant after danger of heavy frost.

At his funeral, standing by the long box, my grandmother greets each mourner, gives each a glance, a nod, then turns her eyes back to him. Once, she says, he looks good in that shade of blue. A relative corrects her: he’s not really here, meaning only the spirit has ceaseless life. She replies yes, but I love what’s still here.

Her family won’t listen to his song tapes or look at pictures of him, waiting until danger of missing him too much has passed.

Come spring, she will look for trout lily and Dutchman’s breeches in the ravine. Will crumble soil with her arthritic fingers. Will make two gardens without him. Will stay on their farm on Pea Ridge. Will mix Miracle-Gro granules. Will freeze peas so that she can have the taste of springtime when she thaws them in January.

Come fall, she will try to fill a big sinkhole in the back yard. She will move gravel, haul loads of rocks from the garden in her cart, get some extra shale and work at shoveling it in for two hours. When it still isn’t filled, she will cover it over with boards.

She will cut out potato eyes, and hang shiny pie pans and ribbons of foil to protect her gardens from crows, and plant corn in the long lines, seed by seed.

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I remember staying with my grandparents for a few days every summer. I remember a puffball, an earthstar, stepped on by cow-hoof or work-boot, coughing up its plume of rich brown dust. Splats of manure. The staticky voice of the weather radio. My skin scratched by hay stems, timothy heads, the rough twine. The bales I rolled, the bales my grandfather lifted onto the old blue flatbed truck. The meteorological feed from Backbone Mountain. Grasshoppers springing from the mown field like kernels of popcorn. Aloe for the scratch-marks on my neck, down my arms, thin red lines. If the weather’s favorable, reason for my visit to last two more days. The tractor-parts, the bucket of axel grease, the dim light in my grandfather’s hayshed, and its warm grassy smell. Motes and seeds caught in a ray that spills through a crack between two wall-boards. For tonight, cloudy, with a twenty percent chance of rain. For tomorrow, sunny, highs in the mid-eighties. Hamburgers from their own steer, whole wheat rolls, baby potatoes in their jackets, green beans (half-runner), corn-on-the-cob (silver queen). Chance of morning thunderstorms, decreasing by late afternoon. Tomatoes (beefsteak and Rutgers), sliced into slabs that gleam like bright red jewels.

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After my grandmother insists his oncologists say it to her plain. Say the truth about him she’s made life with, him she’s known seven times seven years, field after field cut and raked and cured, jar upon jar of peppers and applesauce and pickles, the chest freezer full of beef and blackberries in tubs, and all the calves, and piglets, and chicks. And vines on the burn heap, and counting moons.

            Make comfortable. Few weeks, at best.

She moves him home, the house he built for them. She puts the railed bed in the living room with its plenty of windows, tilts the bed so he’ll see pictures on the mantel, and the dirt road that crosses Pea Ridge, and the maple and peach trees, the nearest pasture, and the mockingbird, and their herd of Angus cows. If he lifts his head, if he opens his eyes. He’s all bone, light as a bag of hay.

He’s a changed man. He had always been such a strong person, always in charge, and very positive. Now, he gets anxious if she goes outside. He wants her near. She stops tending the garden. She stays by him, and tucks his sheets, his blanket, and dabs his brow, and brings ice she’s beaten to slivers, and holds the cold shards to his lips. She names farm animals for him, as Adam did. Rabbit. Kingbird. Wolf spider swinging on a thread.

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I remember the snow coming down in the dark, thick as kettle-boiled apple butter, sure to stick to sassafras, sumac, edges, and rims, the lip of the trough, the cow bones scattered through the hickory woods. I remember one bold finger or nose-tip freezing to chrome letters on the spare-parts flatbed truck, and icicles bearding the fir tree, and infertile eggs turning to pellets in the ooze of puddles lidded with ice.

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Clarice, my grandmother’s older sister, warns her, if you go to nursing school, you’ll drop out a few months from now so that you van marry a farmer from Lost Creek. All those girls do. 

Think of the slow water, skimmed by dragonflies, slipping between two mossy stones, running beneath the skin of the earth.

Clarice advises her, if you marry in the evening, don’t wear white. A better choice is navy blue.

Think of his hands, cracked in the winter, smudged with pine-sap, ash, grease, the drops of oils from his traps. At the strip mine, he repairs the diesel shovels. In his free time, he skins small animals, and scrapes off the gristle and fat, and nails pelts of muskrat and skunk and raccoon to a series of planks.

He puts on a suit and tie, pomades his hair, brings his guitar to the alley behind her boardinghouse, mimics Ernest Tubb, the Texas Troubadour, to serenade her with “Walking the Floor Over You.”

She slams the window, yanks the shade, scowls at her reflection in the mirror. She hates country and Western. She’s too late. His song has already gotten caught like a fly buzzing in a jar, spreads through her like strands of honey on warm bread. She goes to the fair with him, rides the Ferris wheel.

A record player in the rented room, kitchen privileges, hands cracked in winter and peaches too ripe for the outstretched limb, signs and warnings come true.

Header photo © Hanna Komar.

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