In This Country

By Virginia Petrucci

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She never knew why she felt the need to sing to the useless crops, her alto voice bristling over high notes of her own formation.

 
Sometimes Sundays are for keeps.

But for now, it’s still Saturday, and Marjoreen twirls her fork. She isn’t hungry. The farm dirt rolls in under the kitchen door, leaving sheets of mud-red lace across the tiles. She listens to the idle hum of the bees at the window. They push their heavy bodies against the pane, sway a little in their bumble dance, then push some more. They seem to be watching her. All she can think of is returning to her pillow.

“The bees are fat,” Marjoreen admires quietly.

“Eat your eggs,” Granny sighs. “It’s a little field day.”

Granny perches on the weary black dining chair that nestles perfectly between the back door and the dining activities of the kitchen looking out the window. It’s always around this time of the morning when she runs out of things to do so she sits and watches the farm until it bakes under the sun of early noon.

Marjoreen sighs. She doesn’t want to go picking, even for half the day. The weather is all wrong and the birds are crowding the low skies for themselves. She watches a beetle crawl across the table as she nibbles her eggs. The beetle makes good speed as it approaches her plate, but the stupid thing is overcome by a crack and disappears. She takes a few more bites of her breakfast then goes upstairs to change into her field trousers.  

The day is unusually warm for autumn and the sun rules firm and bright up in the cloudless sky. Marjoreen stops to feel the rays on her face. The birds have scattered. It’s the kind of day that aspires to be enjoyable but falls short due to its stagnant air. In the distance, she hears Ginny yapping and scuffing around in the dirt. Then she notices her mother’s figure bent over the crops, examining them for digestive suitability.

“I’m glad you’ve joined us,” Mama calls. “We got ourselves a nice batch today, but I can only pull the little wagon.”

Marjoreen walks over to her mother, letting her feet drag her progress. Since she’s parted ways with the formal constraints of childhood, she’s been having more days like these—days that feel like improper glue, like there’s a secret somewhere that is calling her but she doesn’t yet know where. And then there’s the incalculable spell of her pillow. Even the dog seems to have noticed her sleeping more.

Ginny greets her knees and licks something off of her trousers. The poor dog needs a bath. She looks down at the little wagon, half-filled with the still, brown crop that her mother deems a nice batch. Most of it looks dead.

“This it, Mama?”

“Mm!”

She’s never understood her mother’s sense of optimism.

Marjoreen tries to listen as her mother brews a conversation out of the dry air and the triumph of the sun over the land. She feels both admiration and disgust for the rows and rows of sallow crops that are the foundation of all of their meals. Her mother slowly stands up straight, sighing as her back cracks. She can feel her mother’s silent indignation with her approaching middle age. Marjoreen walks back to the side of the house to get the large wagon so the two of them can finish their picking as soon as possible.

She hears the familiar click of beetle death under her boots as she walks, dog and wagon by her side, toward the west side of the field where the crops tend to be a little greener, their leaves a bit gummier. Surveying the first row of geometric blooms, she decides that there might be a decent yield today after all. She starts the simple, meditative process of pulling, groping, tasting, and collecting the best crops.

After 20 minutes of successful picking, Marjoreen notices a runt. It slumps on its side, its half-formed heart unsavory, its little leaves like stubborn nubs that don’t want to be touched. When she was a little girl, the runt crops were her favorite. Since they weren’t edible, her mother would let her keep them in her room in a dish of water, sometimes for as long as a week. They couldn’t be played with, but they could be sung to. She never knew why she felt the need to sing to the useless crops, her alto voice bristling over high notes of her own formation. Once, she caught her mother watching her from the doorway, an immaterial assessment behind her eyes. Marjoreen was embarrassed, but her mother didn’t say a word, and she never prevented her daughter from singing to the misshapen, floating vegetables.

Marjoreen takes off one glove and lets her fingers play against the curious little crop. She pulls, the plant loosens its root hold, and Marjoreen places it in the wheelbarrow, careful to protect it from the larger crops. I’m too old for this, she chides herself. Still, she can’t help but smile as she thinks about bringing the runt home to nourish with her child’s ritual.

Her first steps were attempted in this field. Every precious and punishable memory of hers is rooted in the wholesome filth of her family’s farm.

The minutes fall away as Marjoreen relaxes into the intimate tedium of examining and extracting crops from the soft blanket of earth she has known her whole life. Her first steps were attempted in this field. Every precious and punishable memory of hers is rooted in the wholesome filth of her family’s farm. It seems impossible that there could be another life waiting for her, somewhere beyond the horizon.

And yet another life seems almost mandatory. Perhaps it lies fetchable and free, far across the plain stretch of nearness that surrounds her, a nearness that bursts with familiarity. Or maybe it isn’t as far away as all of that. Maybe it broods and sleeps deep underground, waiting for her to wake up and understand.

An hour passes, then glosses into two. The best crops have been gathered. The sun pulls shadows across the farm and the late wind frets at her neck, mentioning the time. Marjoreen joins her mother at the side of the house, where they wash the crops in the outdoor sink, comparing their hauls. Her mother looks more tired than usual, but Marjoreen’s energy has picked up so she decides to offer to make dinner—actually, she’ll bake a pie instead. Dessert feels essential, and the last of the season’s strawberries wait for her in the freezer.

After their simple dinner of leftover crop stew, as she waits for her pie to finish baking, Marjoreen wanders into the sitting room to rifle through the family albums. As she opens one dusty album after another, she finds herself fanning through her childhood. There’s Baby Marjoreen, standing knock-kneed in the field, holding her mother’s hand. How young Mama looks! There’s five-year-old Marjoreen playing dolls with Granny in the attic. There’s a blurry shot of the roses in the front yard, taken by Marjoreen when she was seven.

She moves on to her mother’s albums. She’s only looked at these a few times—it’s always made her a bit uncomfortable to imagine the world before she came into it, and to imagine her Mama before she was subsumed with motherhood, before she was Mama at all—a free thing, a true person all her own.

Her mother’s albums are bound in thick leather, unlike the flimsy beige and floral plastic of her own albums. There’s Mama when she was a baby, holding Granny’s hand out on the farm—curious, she never noticed how similar the photo looked to her own first baby photo. Her grandmother stands, almost unrecognizable, but with the same look of doting solemnity that her own mother wears in the Baby Marjoreen photo. Then the oven dings, and her pie is ready.

After the three women enjoy the pie—two slices for Marjoreen, one for mama, a few bites for Granny—the clock in the hallway announces the sleeping hour with its buoyant chime. Granny goes right upstairs. Marjoreen had been so occupied with observing her mother’s fatigue that she hadn’t noticed how pale her grandmother looked. Perhaps the flu was circling through the house. All the better for Granny to rest.

Marjoreen helps Mama clear the table, and the two of them wash and dry the last of the dishes in silence. She kisses her mother on the cheek, and Mama nuzzles her in return. Then Marjoreen starts toward the stairs. Her own energy suddenly feels drained, and she’s looking forward to reading in bed.

She almost shouts when she reaches the staircase. Granny is standing on the first landing, her nightgown partially unbuttoned, her gaze pushing past Marjoreen and out into the red and blue half-moons of the window on the front door. Marjoreen murmurs for her mother, but Mama is letting Ginny out one last time for the night.

“Granny?” Marjoreen’s fingers reach silently upward, as if she might tap the moment and make it burst like a soft bubble. Her grandmother doesn’t answer. She moves up one step. Granny’s arms seem almost translucent in the moonlight that ghosts through the window by the landing.

Marjoreen marches up the rest of the stairs, pulling on the bannister to steady herself against the yellow fear that warms her throat. She reaches her grandmother, whose gaze is now fixed on the first step. Then she turns to her granddaughter, as calm as a lily in a pond.

“You look just like your mother.” There is a twinge of grief in her words—for who or for what, Marjoreen doesn’t know. She takes Granny by the elbow and leads her back to her room. She won’t let Marjoreen put her to bed, so Marjoreen watches from the hallway as her grandmother moves into the blue dark of her bedroom, joining the shadows.

Marjoreen just about forgets her grandmother’s mysterious behavior once she gets to her bedroom. She has her runt crop to play with. She draws some cool water from the sink in her bathroom, filling the glass bowl she snatched from the kitchen earlier. She sets the bowl on her bedside table, and gently lowers the withered plant into the water. It seems unaffected as it floats on its side.

After she brushes her teeth and dresses for bed, Marjoreen tries to recall the songs she would sing when she was a girl—each crop was usually gifted its own hymn. She gazes at the runt. Its leaves are beginning to brown from its uprooting. She remembers no melodies.

Oh, well. She presses herself against the comfort of her pillow. She wanted to read, but sleep, in all its perfect silk, falls over her as the night’s pitching shade descends.

Mama watches as her daughter strides, head held high, across the glaze of sun and pale sky. She is ready.

Marjoreen wakes in the final splash of early dawn. Her window—knocked open from the night’s wind—smacks the wall with a tender tap tap that reports the old age of its hinges.

The runt, having thirsted most of the water during the night, lies on the bottom of the bowl, heaving with fluid and young death. Marjoreen smiles, and decides to make pancakes for everyone.

Mama is surprised to find her daughter awake so early, busying herself in the kitchen. It’s only 6:30, and pancake batter is already crisping on the griddle.

“Morning, Mama!” Her baby never looked so bright. Mama frowns wonderingly at her daughter, pecks her cheek, then goes to let Ginny out. When she comes back, the pancakes are buttered and plated.

Mother and daughter enjoy their pancakes while they let Granny sleep in. It is Sunday, after all. After breakfast, they clean up together as Marjoreen cheerfully insists that they pick some extra crops. They almost never pick on Sunday, but Marjoreen can’t help but feel like she needs to be out in the field.

They take Ginny with them. Marjoreen pulls the little wagon as the dog bursts forth into the simple canine joys of eating earth and terrorizing shadows. The fatigue that had been plaguing Marjoreen for what felt like months is finally dissolving, and she’s eager to juice the day of its flavor. Mama watches as her daughter strides, head held high, across the glaze of sun and pale sky. She is ready.

Unsure of where to begin, Marjoreen starts frisking the second row of its best crops. The sun presses down on her neck, summoning an internal freedom that leaves her almost manic. She chatters away as Mama trods along in silence, stopping occasionally to stretch her back. Four rows south, Ginny nips and whines among the plants.

Finally, Marjoreen wanders over to Ginny, whose cries have grown high and urgent. The yellow Labrador looks up at her then starts eagerly pawing at one of the crops. It’s larger and rounder than its neighbors, and its thin outer layer is peeling off like old paper. A milky white fluid trickles down from its tip. Then she notices that it’s moving.

“Mama!”

Her mother looks over her shoulder. The sun casts ill-fitting shadows across her face, and Marjoreen sees it—how her mother will age like gentle dust into a grandmother, and how her grandmother will cease, then burrow back into the earth to become a critical patch of crop (for who?). She chins off the thought. They never really told her what would happen when the farm died. The trajectory of a person—that she understood. But the farm itself seems too ancient and critical to ever see its own end.

Marjoreen calls for her mother to hurry. Her mother responds with ease, as though her daughter were whispering and not shouting. She clucks her interest, gently pushing Marjoreen out of the way to get a better look at the rumbling, leaking crop.

Marjoreen has never known her mother’s name. It has never occurred to her to ask.

It is perfect in shape—like an uncontained, youthful breast—but it gifts the air with a rancid stench. Probably coming from all that milky stuff, Marjoreen reasons. Must be rotten.

Except that it doesn’t look rotten. It’s almost glowing. The crop’s smooth, crisp leaves look just about as edible as the rich, blooming heart that lies at its core. The hearts of these crops have nourished Marjoreen for her whole life, appearing on the dinner table in the form of soups, roasts, salads, and even once as an ill-fated pudding. Only a fraction of her family’s crops have edible hearts, and those are only enjoyed when they’re picked and prepared at just the right time.

Her mother freezes, her eyes shadowed by some blank secret. Then she fixes a smile at Marjoreen. A frenzy of wrinkles conduct her mouth and crease her brow. Marjoreen has never noticed the depth of her mother’s lines.

The sound—

As the crop brushes against itself, squishing out its own juice and nearly bursting clean out of the growling earth, it discharges a wicked sweet voice, tiny and high, grating and clear. The crop, it can be said, is mewing.

Marjoreen first feels the tingling in her fingers, then her belly. Then her wrists, her temples, her toes—it doesn’t make sense how the pleasurable sharpness purrs its way erratically through her body, and it doesn’t matter. She knows what to do.

Under the taut dayspring sky, Marjoreen unearths the howling, frothing fruit. It is quickly losing its resemblance to the neighboring crops, which look on like cross soldiers. She hushes the dear mystery under her shirt, against her breast, where safety lies plenty.

Marjoreen runs toward the house. Mama follows her daughter, but in no particular hurry. She remembers.

Marjoreen, unable to caress the moment with much sanity, grabs for the nearest bowl in the kitchen so she can bathe her viable crop and clean it of its own curd. The growling under her shirt has succumbed to a soft gurgling. The shape of her precious newly conscious vegetable is beginning to grow.

Alarmed, she rushes upstairs to the bathroom. The tub, the water—too hot, this should be a cool bath—the warmth under her shirt. She rips open her blouse, careless to the smack of buttons landing on the ancient wooden floor. When she looks down at her chest, she cannot scream.

Her baby’s face has pushed through its leafy prison, and its thrashing agitation suggests an abundance of limbs. The crop has grown, and now it sings for Mama.

Blessed by a remembered faculty, Marjoreen siphons clarity from rust: she knows what to do, and just as imperfectly as every time she has done it throughout her layers of lineage. She tempers the bath and places her daughter in it. The baby girl floats in a web of crop, the leaves engorged and veiny with the influx of water.

That thumping chamber in Marjoreen’s chest—or is it her mother’s still-booted feet against the harsh stairs? Mama rushes, but not to her.

Her figure blurs past Marjoreen’s doorway and into Granny’s room. She doesn’t hear it, but she knows her mother is gasping in the empty room she will now occupy as her own.

Marjoreen has never known her mother’s name. It has never occurred to her to ask.

Her own name has always felt like an oversized sweater, a miniature habitat to crawl about in as she grew into and out of herself. In this woven moment, she cannot remember it. She commands her mind to form the syllables and her tongue to drag them into the word that is her name, but the bathing crop bleats mama-mama-mama.

And that is all she can hear.

 

 

Virginia PetrucciVirginia Petrucci is a writer and artist and author of two poetry chapbooks (The Salt and the Song and Recipes and How To’s). Her work has appeared in 805, Mom Egg Review, Avalon Literary Review, and Best New Writing, among others, and her writing has been nominated for the Best Small Fictions and Best American Short Stories anthologies, as well as a Pushcart Prize. She lives in California with her children.

Header photo by gillmar, courtesy Shutterstock.

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