THE FLOWER OF GRASS
James E. Robinson
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Belle stared at the white ceiling, waiting for the next wave of torture to crawl up and clutch at her soul.
She did not remember it, but someone had found her, and put her in her bed. Lying still, she could hear the ticking of the old clock making its steady way down the little hallway and into her room. By listening to this sound, she was able to authenticate her world, and her tentative time left in it. She had lived much of her life moving to the clock's steady music, its inexorable dance toward silence. As long as this companion heart remained beating, she would not be done; listening, she knew that for the moment there was still life in both of them. But even now a strange sense of disorientation suspended itself above her, a winged impression of time folding in on itself, so that she felt neither living nor dead, yet somehow understood that she was both.
She heard the clock's inner mechanisms groan, brace, then chime. And she counted silently along, lips barely moving --- five...six...seven.
Belle had been born in this bed. And in this bed, forty years later, after countless days and nights of fervent prayer, she had conceived her only child. We never lost faith, did we Dub? Our faith was tested, to be sure. But we never stopped believing. Jessie had come stubborn and squalling into the world here, too, in this very room, and the thought of it made Belle smile through thin, tight lips beaded in sweat.
Lying here now in the graceful pause between pain, beneath the heavy quilts made by her own mother, Belle stared at the fine crack running the length of her sky, just missing the tarnished brass base of the ceiling fan by inches. She had for so long looked up into this pale firmament that all of its details --- the crack, the two small brown water stains, the wisp of web just visible in the far corner --- had become imprinted into the essence of her being. Through childhood and its unspoken promise of immortality, through adolescent spring and sensual summer and the calming autumn of adulthood, the house and she had been betrothed and inseparable. Even after Dub was gone the house remained a living part of them both, with a true and steady heart. And though she had never spoken such an unreasonable thing, she had been afraid to leave the place, for fear that her very soul might wither and vanish like late-summer blooms from her garden.
Suddenly, the ceiling and the crack and the web and the lonely ticking from the next room, all of it held for her a divine beauty.
Perhaps this is the very first thing I saw, when they cut the cord and laid me in my momma's arms, she thought.
It's only right that it will be the last.
In the hushed room Belle prayed. Her parched lips formed silent words: Lord, I know you must get tired of me asking. But if it be thy will, I'd sure like to live until spring. It would mean everything to me, Lord, just to hold an armful of my flowers, just bury my face in a bunch of blossoms and breathe in their beauty, Lord. I'd be much obliged...but thy will be done, not mine...
And the wave rose up in her again. She focused all her strength on not screaming. She again saw Jessie's face staring out the kitchen window. Oh, how it hurt me to see you there, little girl, way too still and staring out...
"Momma." This time Jessie's face was real, inches from her own.
"Jessie." The weariness pressed down on her. Sweet Jesus, you know your reasons. But Jessie's never had a full chance at living, in some ways, not even much family, both me and Dub only children, and with no child of her own. Fighting to remain lucid, Belle reached and touched the angel's rose-colored cheek.
"Doc said I should let you sleep," Jessie whispered.
"Doc is an old woman."
Jessie tried to smile. She silently cursed her mother's enemy pain, but knew Belle would fight it tooth and nail, taking as little medication as possible. She pressed a wet cloth along the sides of her mother's neck, forehead, lips.
"Jessie --- " Knowing the wave would come soon, wanting to warn her, "don't let them take me out of my house."
"I know. I'll keep my promise." The scene unfolding before her seemed so unreal. "You can rest easy."
"Momma." The little girl inside Jessie felt helpless and afraid.
From her mother she had learned what it meant to be a woman, and a wife. Belle had taught her tenderness, and provided a safe place to feel. She had shown her how to fight without forfeiting her femininity. From her mother Jessie had absorbed much of her faith, too, and not just the shallow creeks of mind-faith but the deep reliance walked out on the storm-tossed seas of real living. But now faith felt shallow. Looking down at her mother she heard breaking everywhere, above and beneath her, the world all thin ice and falling sky.
Jessie pulled her chair to the edge of the bed. Taking her mother's hand, she leaned close down, gently, afraid of something precious flying away, because Belle had also taught her that love can be easily missed while life fleets away.
"Tell me again, Momma." Jessie could see the pain rising up, and wanted to whisk her mother away somewhere safe. "Tell me about you and Daddy."
"Child. Don't you ever get tired of this tale?"
"No, Momma. Never."
"Well, he was just about the most handsome man in the world, is all." Her voice, though hushed, seemed to strengthen as she spoke. "There wasn't much town back then, and most folks all knew each other, went to church together, the same church we've all gone to your whole life. The families all helped each other out with the farming or the livestock, whatever needed doing. And your daddy was flirtin' with me from the time we were both little." Her tone seemed to lighten. "I was nothing more than a girl, a young and silly girl. But by the time we started high school I already knew who I was gonna marry, and his folks and my folks, they all figured on it, too. There was just never any doubt in my mind. It was like God had planned it all out from a time before we were born..."
For one wonderful moment the old woman's face emptied of pain.
"Of course, Dub was so bashful. But I think he and I both knew from the first time we saw each other. The truth is, I never wanted to be anywhere else other than with him..."
As the red stream rose up hot in her, Belle closed her eyes and flew fast to her garden. The air flowed warm and rich and fragrant with nectar, and no day had ever been more dazzling. Living --- the world was again living, breathing, buzzing with flight. The green was deep, the colors bursting, the low, lush pansies and arching orange lilies, crocus and chrysanthemum, and her roses, sweet Jesus, the roses had never been more bold, wine-crimson, cream, yellow as the summer sun...
Jessie felt her mother falling away, and spoke quickly, childlike. "Tell me about when I was born," she said, because she did not know what else to say. "About how it seemed I'd never be born..."
Belle held tightly to her daughter's cold hand, pulling herself back. She was ready to go, but not quite ready to leave her Jessie. "Oh, my, we thought it would never happen. We wanted you, prayed for you for so long, and it seemed God wouldn't answer. But the Lord had his plan." Belle looked into her daughter's amazing eyes. She deserves true happiness, Lord. "You had a head full of dark, curly hair the day you were born. The doctor and the nurses, everybody just oohed and ahhed and kept sayin', ‘Look at all that hair!'" She reached up and ran trembling fingers through Jessie's curls. "And your daddy wasn't ever the same man after that. He thought you hung the very moon..."
"Momma..." Belle heard the voice from a million miles away, knew she was squeezing nails deep into her daughter's flesh, but she could stay no longer, her heart insisting on spring, air sweet and body light, and Dub there, too, more handsome than ever, reaching out to him with open arms, for the big bunch of blossoms in his hands, picked just for her...
"Yes. But a good tired."
They sit together on the white wooden bench swing, near the garden. He holds her hand, and with the other he tilts up the glass and finishes his iced tea, the ice clinking together against his lips. He moves the swing gently back and forth with one foot, a gentle, long-practiced rhythm. Birds sing.
"I'm so glad you feel better today, Dub. You seem real strong."
"I feel strong. Strong as an ox." He gives her a squeeze, though much of his strength is gone. "Wish I could help you out here more than I do, my love. But you've done wonders. This might be your prettiest garden yet."
"The daffodils are beautiful. Not having a late frost helped."
They sit, their world quiet and comfortable. The sky is so blue.
"I know you told me not to. But I keep worrying about her."
"She's so strong-headed sometimes."
"Ain't that the truth."
She elbows him in the ribs. "She loves him so. She doesn't know how to love any other way. But she's so young."
"No younger than we were."
"Yes. But that was different."
"You and Johnny Allen are two different people."
"Johnny is a good boy. He has a good heart."
"But he's different, Dub."
"Yeah. I reckon he is. But he's not like his old man. Not deep down."
"Goodness, no. God forgive me for saying such a thing, but Big John Allen is mean as the devil."
"Mean men are more scared and lonely than anything else, Belle. Lonely in a room full of people, sometimes. Scared of living, mostly. All that bluster and threatening. Truth is, a man like that is usually afraid of his own shadow."
"Anyway, Johnny means well by her. I truly believe that."
"I know he loves her. But I worry, just the same. He's a dreamer."
"That he is."
"Almost any other boy in this town, Dub. Most others, anyway. Every one of them would die to have her. They would stay around these parts, more than likely. Maybe even stay to work the land they grew up on, or open business in town."
"I know." "And I know you two like each other. But Dub, Johnny's no more gonna stay around here than I'm gonna fly to the moon...and writing books, of all things. Who can make a living doing that?"
"Is that really what you're worryin' your pretty little head about, my love?"
"It might happen, Belle."
"It sure might."
"And if she does decide to go, that'll be her decision. Jessie's her own person, always has been. She's got her own wild streak, been that way ever since she was little, and you know that better than anybody. Once she starts rarin' up it's hard to get a bridle on her."
"I know. But, Dub..."
"Yes, my love."
"I want her to stay, too. She's my little girl. But I don't want her stayin' because she thinks she has to help take care of me."
"Sweet ol' Dub."
"We've had her for eighteen years, Belle. Eighteen wonderful years, our only baby. But she don't belong to us anymore. Never did, really. She's God's own, and always has been."
The chains holding up the swing gently squeak.
"But I think he ought to go on and marry her," she says after a while. "I'm just scared to death he'll hurt her."
"That's for them to decide. I think Johnny's heart is good."
"Then he ought to go on and marry her."
"Belle, marryin' ain't a human thing, it's a God thing. We can go through the motions, and the preacher can say all the words. And when it's over we can dance and have a party and slice the cake and sign the papers. But none of that's marriage. Marriage is..."
"Yes? What is it, then?"
"Well, it's beyond anything we could manage on our own."
"What in the world are you talking about?"
"I mean, if two people are meant to be together, if God really means for it to be, then it'll be. Ain't no power on this or any other world that can stop it."
"Well, my goodness." Her eyes open wide. "There's a lot of poet in you, my love."
"You're cute when you blush."
"Stop it, girl."
"Sweet thing, please don't start that cryin'."
"I can't help it."
"Well, then, come and lean over here."
"I can't help being scared for her, Dub."
"Life can be so cruel and mean."
"Yes. Yes it can. But pain's part of it. Without the pain, I reckon we might take all the beauty for granted."
"All we've got is today, Belle. It's all anybody's got."
"But we've got each other, don't we?"
"Yes. Yes we do, my love."
"And it's spring again."
"Like when we got married ourselves."
"Yep. And I can bring you flowers, a big ol' bunch of wildflowers, and you can put them in water on the table, and they'll make the whole house smell sweet."
"Oh, Dub. I thought spring would never come."
"Her heart will know, Belle."
"Yes. Her heart will know..."
And when even the sound of the swing and colors and taste of cold tea faded away, and her eyes were forced open, the old woman moaned at the loss. Her pain cut so much deeper now that he was no longer sharing it with her. She longed for his strong hands and gentle voice.
But the room was real now, and the blade of pain twisting inside her finished body. And in her loneliness, as she had done time and again, she cast her eyes to the face on the wall, in all its incongruous passivity, those eyes of sad acceptance, of joy somehow still breathing, the eyes of someone who most deeply understood the heartbreakingly beautiful brevity of earthly life. And she called out from the airless core of pain, praying for arms to enfold her like soft, pink petals, white wings...
Excerpted from THE FLOWER OF GRASS © Copyright 2017 by James E. Robinson. Reprinted with permission by Monarch Books. All rights reserved.
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