Green Hills Literary Lantern

Harvest Party

 

 

 

 

As Delmus sharpened the knife for tomorrow, I looked out across the August vineyard where I sensed Eddie Dodge lay waiting for my daughter. 

If I took the rake and walked out into the weeds, or climbed on the tractor with the terracer behind me, drove up and down the long leafy rows, I knew I would never find him. 

But if I spun and grabbed the knife from Delmus without getting cut, without aiming threw it right now way high and far so it somersaulted, silver, the blade catching the evening sunmaybe it would fall in the dirt at Eddie’s feet, as he leaned against the blue fender of my mother's old Cadillac—

Now it was too late to toss the knife like a dart at a map—

I heard the diesel engine’s howl and the peacocks, saw the truck’s white cab and load of raisin bins sail above the vines, the grape canes blew, across the barnyard the house’s windows rattled. The catalpa leaves stirred and I felt the rippling ground wave through the rubber soles of my shoes.

I winced, nearly raising a hand as the blast of hot air swept by me.

            “Those big trucks feel like an earthquake,” I said, again the vineyard going still and the powdery dust beginning to settle, the peacocks’ cries falling back into Mrs. Watkins’ walnut grove.

            “Or the Bomb,” Delmus answered. “Reagan says he’s going to drop the Bomb.”

            “When?”

            “Said so the other day, on the radio.”

            “I hate to see those rigs go by,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense—”

            For a week, since Sun Damsel’s default, I’d watched the truck-and-trailers pass in what seemed an endless column, delivering raisins to the Dutch and Portuguese dairies beyond Laton and Riverdale and the big feedlot farther west.

            “You need to ask ‘The Gipper’— Nowadays it’s trick or treat.”

“He’s senile,” I said, turning from the bright vineyard to look at my husband. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore—”

            For a moment, I couldn’t find him in the shade.

“‘It’s Not Morning But Midnight!’” Delmus intoned, imitating the actor’s voice from the Reagan ad on TV, it was his new joke.

Or he’d say, “‘It’s Mourning in America,’ you know, like the dove.”

            Now I saw him, dressed in camouflage—same faded Levis and a blue denim shirt to cover the scar, the Sun Damsel co-op cap bleached the color of a sun-shot leaf. Against a bank of plums he’d grow mottled and blend with the branches and green shafts of light until only his movement picked him out from the trees. He was becoming the ranch, like a defeated Indian disappearing into shadow—

            But in place of his usual mud-caked laced work boots, his dead father’s high-heeled cowboy Justins worked the grinder’s pedals.

            Walter Rhodes, I thought, used to wear those boots.

            “Gonna drop it, that’s what he said, on the radio,” Delmus went on, bent forward to watch where the blade bit the wheel. “‘We begin bombing Russia in five minutes.’ Hell, who needs Star Wars?”

            Why aren’t you using the electric grinder in the barn? I nearly said, holding the rake. A minute of whirring, a shower of sparks, and the job would be done.

Instead Delmus had wrestled the old machine from the weeds along the corral, dragged it out from tangled plows and harrows and wagon wheels, spent two hours oiling and mending the grinder before he’d touched the knife to the sandstone his grandfather, Ford Rhodes, had worn smooth as a rock from Zion or Bryce Canyon in Utah.

Delmus mumbled something I couldn’t hear.

“What’s that?”

            “Eckhart lost his place,” he said.

“When?”

“Yesterday.”

            “Land Bank?”

            “B of A.”

            “Who told you?”

            “Wes.”

            The thick three-foot disk turned and wobbled between his lifting knees, as if Delmus were pedaling the Earth instead of the wheel.

            “When are we picking?”

            “Yesterday,” Delmus answered, studying the blade’s edge. “I mean Wednesday— What does it matter?”

            “The grapes taste sweet,” I said carefully.

            “They’re plenty sweet, plenty of sugar.”

He examined the knife closely, turning it over in his callused hand, now raising an eyebrow, his mouth slanted in a crooked grin.

“The cows like ’em— Makes the milk sweet, the New York steaks.”

            “No,” I said, “I just mean you can feel things getting close.”

            “It’s starting,” Delmus said, nodding to himself. “Like a war.”

            It’s true, I thought, Reagan or no Reagan, looking back at the vines across the yellow apron of barnyard scored by the even chicken-scratchings of my rake.

            Already the steady torrent had begun, the isolated early morning roads suddenly busy as freeways as the harvest started to the west, on the dry sandy vineyards out by Caruthers, before it worked its way east to Lemas. The markets and clothing stores in town would be packed, families buying pants and shirts and shoes, tortillas and milk and beans and eggs.

            And beer, the white car and the men drinking Budweiser under the walnut tree, before the orange bus pulled in . . . .                

            “Red sold his new tractor to a dairy, took a big loss—”

            Once the pickers had come from Texas and camped in the barn, sleeping on cots and cooking at the two kerosene stoves and the sink with fresh pump water, using the sun showers and the whitewashed outhouse, their letters from the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso arriving in the mailbox out front. The families returned every year, I had known all their names, given them dishes and clothes. The kids played with Kate on the swing in the yard.

            “I guess Gus Emory had a heart attack,” Delmus said behind me. “Wes said Martha’s trying to run the harvest.”

            I took Eduardo Junior, the handsome boy with the tragic crumpled ear, to a doctor I’d trained with at the hospital in Fresno, made beef broth when Dolores was pregnant and anemic, put tomato juice and pickles in the square Kelvinator. In my own way I had loved them as family and regretted their backbreaking work, reading the numbers and their fluent old-fashioned signatures on each row’s last brown paper as I bent to tally their picked grapes, the lines of trays making green windows in the earth—

             183 Esmeralda Concepcion DeSoto. 213 Agapino Perez. 199 Cruz Latran. Never once did I think of my mother’s name: Dolly Mable, alias Mrs. Grayson.

Or Reverend Randy Hobbs

Again I worried for the sick child on the church bus that had parked in the barnyard half an hour after the white car had left—

            “Did I tell you Hawkins took a load of peaches to Monterey last week, to the farmers’ market?” Delmus asked. “A woman asked him if he were a grower. He said, ‘I used to be, Ma’am. Now I’m just a clown—’”

            The cooler ocean wind that might bring the rain blew my hair. Now the workers were illegals, from Old Mexico. They drove new pickups with campers and rearing chrome horses on the hoods, or rundown cars, exotic children with red hair and green eyes at the windows, saints’ statues and toy Mexican flags on the dashboards, Catholic medals and sponge dice hanging from the rearview mirrors.

Mariachi music filled the air with celebrating trumpet flourishes that were also dying falls: “La Paloma Blanca” meant “The White Dove,” “Volver, Volver” said “Return, Return . . . .”

            At night the city park would be jammed, and on Sunday the theater would show peliculas, Two Mexican Hits, the old marquee would announce. There would be drinking, car wrecks, drivers who couldn’t read the traffic signs, strange men in a white station wagon under your walnut tree, staring up at the house—

            A sudden V of pigeons whooshed overhead, throwing out speckled wings as they lit in the barn’s dark loft.

The yellow sun was lowering, shining at a golden angle off the surface of the grape leaves that shimmered like mirrors. A clump of eight-foot Johnson grass trembled in the rising evening breeze.

            “I guess it is a war,” I said, watching the weeds sway.

            “That’s for sure,” Delmus said, pedaling, busy with the screeching steel. “They ought to give us combat pay.”

            The wind picked up and the weeds changed color, a sudden deep crimson as my stomach cinched tighter and I realized the harvest always reminded me more of a ravishing, with the hundreds of cars left along the road and people with wide hats and curved knives invading the fields, thick books of trays like blank Sunday newspapers clutched under their arms.

            “Flak and fighters every mission,” Delmus said.

            In a storm of flying leaves and shaking canes the heavy yellow-green bunches would drop into the broad pans and be poured and quickly spread on 100,000 rectangles of khaki-colored paper.

Day and night for two weeks the grapes would lie open to the sky on the flattened ground between vine rows as the air turned heavy and metallic, almost sickly sweet, with the scent of drying raisins. September 1st dove season would open, at sunup the blasting shotguns and the pellets rattling like hard rain against the trays of brown shrinking grapes, gray breast feathers floating and drifting across the vineyard—

            “They’re going to have to stock body bags at the farm supply,” Delmus said.

            Ten days of clear weather and Delmus would start the crew turning the trays, flipping the grapes over, then four days later begin rolling them into snail-shaped biscuits or long cigarettes as nervously he watched the sky and listened to the next day’s report, the dried grapes deep blue and the shriveled stems red-brown and sharp as rose thorns in the hot autumn wind.

Finally the picking up and the boxing if everything went right, the used trays flaming orange in quick fires and the whole year—a trillion dark raisins more numerous than stars—a river flowing under your cut palms across the deafening shaker and into the waiting box— 

“Munson’s throwing in the towel—”

“I don’t think it’ll rain this year,” I said.

The heavy sprays of Johnson grass seeds swung and flickered in the light, from red to purple to blue, then white again and I remembered you could play for dishes and electric frying pans and blenders on rows of colored shelves, tossing quarters toward a table of matching painted saucers to win the prize—the VFW would have its Fun Fair after picking ended and the farm workers would be tempted to spend too much of the money they had earned.

In one booth each stuffed animal had a string that ran through a hoop into a barrel, 100 tightly gathered strings to choose from and pull, but always the string yanked the wrong way and only a whistle or roll of caps came out of the barrel . . . .

            “Looked like showers this morning,” Delmus answered behind me just as a horn honked, the patch of weeds stood up like a breaker, shining a brilliant royal blue like my mother’s tall ’36 Cadillac from Acacia lumbering up the driveway that strange afternoon four months ago in early May. 

Now purple, sparkling with gold seeds, the velvet dress with rhinestones draped across the bed—any second Dolly Mable will slip it on to go dancing or ask Kate to wear it, after Dolly pulls the string to the lock and Kate sneaks in to talk about Eddie Dodge, Dolly’s chauffeur who now owned the blue Cadillac, about what Kate and Eddie did last night—

            “I was thinking the other day we ought to get some ducks,” Delmus said. “Either that or dig a hole, plant catfish—”

He began to sing, murmuring, “‘It’s raining, it’s pouring, / The old man is snoring, / Bumped his head and he went to bed, / And he couldn’t get up in the m-o-o-r-r-n-ning . . . .’”

            Before the second awful rain Delmus had never let the Johnson grass take hold—a stalk or two with their fans of countless feathery seeds could infect 100 acres of vines. The roots went deep in networks and were shiny, white and thick, jointed like skeleton hands. Johnson had brought the hardy grass from Australia for pasture because it could find and draw water from the sandy ground.

            “Rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry . . . .” Delmus sang.

The plague of weeds overran all the farms, suffocated the vineyards and orchards and clogged all the ditches, and the early settlers had threatened to hang Johnson. I read about it a long time ago, in Larry Jones’ Raisin in the Dust—his other book was named Wayward Song, about the bandit Joaquin Murrietta, his murdered fiancée Belle Solar, and the buried treasure.

            A scrub jay screeched greedily from the Black Mission fig.

Delmus was right about the weather.

I shivered as the grinder whined and whispered something, the grass seeds glinted like standing water and I saw again the overcast sky out the bedroom window when I woke at daybreak, already my heart quickened by the nightmare of rain.

            Today had been humid, cloud cover until 11, threatening a downpour on the yellow unpicked grapes, before the sky cleared and the temperature shot back up, great towers of cumulus piled high above the Sierras, above Kings Canyon and Sequoia and the giant redwoods alive when Christ was born, named for General Grant and Sherman.

And the wind had come up, this steady wind now in the afternoon, the barometer falling, the Valley lying open to the sea and all its weather—

            “It can’t rain three years in a row,” I said, half-turning to Delmus, away from the kaleidoscope of blowing Johnson seeds. In my dream the steady rain wouldn’t stop and finally the house had creaked and begun to lift, bobbing and then floating away on the rising tide as Kate and Dolly in the purple dress with rhinestones climbed out onto the roof with Eddie Dodge.

            “I don’t even want to guess.” Delmus put the knife back to the wheel, the sudden grating running in a thrill at the back of my neck.

            “No, I don’t either,” I said.

            “No way to know.”

            I looked back at the walnut saplings that seemed multiplied, grown taller and tilting above the vines, seedlings sprouted from nuts dropped by birds, crows flying from Mrs. Watkins’ trees—Delmus had let them spread as thickly as the Johnson grass, for a second the vineyard looked more like a forest, the blue gum grove.

            “It’s a gamble. Put the whole year on one spin of the wheel. Safer to go to Reno.”

            But Delmus was good at telling the future, or at least finding things that were lost or hiding—

“Do you remember, a long time ago, when Moore came over that day?” I raised my voice above the slow scraping of the knife. “The time he asked you to hunt for his wallet?”

No answer and I turned, watching Delmus, now the walnut yearlings were behind me, no longer swaying slightly to the grate of the wheel.

“Ed Moore. Remember?”

            “Wallet?” He looked up, lifting the knife, the grinder spinning free.

            “And the ring,” I said.

Delmus stared at me, his eyes shaded by the cap’s faded bill.

            “The ring.” Delmus grinned now, looking back at the knife. “And his check for 40 grand.”

            “Moore sold the restaurant that morning!” I’d forgotten that.

            “He lost them both, checking for boll weevils, the ring and the wallet with the check.”

            “And you found them,” I said quickly, “with your doodle bug. In ten minutes, in the middle of 60 acres of high cotton—”

            “He gave me a reward—the foam cushion for the tractor seat. Fell apart in a week.”

He shook his head, again laying the knife against the stone.

            Delmus had kept the varnished peach fork on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen, getting it down and holding it over a map when Aaron Winters or Professor Larry Jones came to drink coffee and talk about oil or the cave where Larry had found Joaquin Murrietta’s ivory-handled pistols.  

Half an hour ago as I traded rakes in the barn, the iron for the bamboo, I noticed the peach divining rod hanging from a nail, above Delmus’ makeshift shelf of dusty books (The High and the Mighty. Isis Revealed. Thin Red Line).                    

            “Use me,” the Y-shaped branch seemed to say from its cobwebs, “I’ll find water.”

            But now Aaron wasn’t well and Larry Jones had died, there was no oil or gold, Murrietta’s treasure was never found, water fell as out-of-season late summer rain spoiling the raisins, trucks hauled last year’s crop to hungry cows, orange buses and white cars with winking sponge dice pulled up the drive instead of Briggs bringing the empty bins for harvest.

In The Fresno Bee this morning, the young woman who modeled at 18 for the picture of the Sun Damsel, the glowing Raisin Maid, passed away, age 93.

Mrs. Watkins said Baylor Clark, Delmus’ uncle, was working hard on a new story for The Lemas Irrigator, “An old-timey piece about this famous lady from Acacia—”  I remembered, watching Delmus turn the wheel like a white tire made of stone.

Now Baylor and Mrs. Watkins were after Mrs. Grayson.

            In the morning the black-and-white pig would die.

            A sharp horn honked twice and I glanced just in time to see a spindly arm raised from the window of a battered blue pickup. I could make out the frozen grin like a bite taken from an apple, before the scarlet face was lost in the walnut grove’s deep shadow.

“Was that Earl Green?”

            “Yeah.”

            “He looks awful.”

            “He doesn’t look good.”

            “Is he drinking?”

            “Who isn’t?”

            “How many men are coming tomorrow?”

            I’d heard honking all day, from every car or truck that passed the farm—Bill Woody, Bud Clark, Tarsan Khan, Frank Silva and his hired man pulled in before the white station wagon and the bus, asking about the harvest party.

A yellow crop-duster, a biplane from Ace Flying Service, had flown low over the barnyard buzzing the house.

I half-started to count backward, half-remembering where I’d stood each time I heard a horn, each I a different younger Kyla who heard it—

            “I don’t know yet.” Delmus turned the knife in the air, so it flashed once and went gray. “Not many.”

            “How many?”

            “Ten, maybe 12.”

            “Well, maybe I’ll go into town with Kate. Get a bite and walk through a store. I’ll give Mrs. Grayson an early lunch.”

I looked back toward the road and Mrs. Watkins’ dark walnut trees.

“She’ll be all right for a couple of hours.”

All summer Mrs. Grayson’s—Dolly Mable’s—fan turned back and forth across the wall, blowing the dry clippings of Geraldine Ferraro tacked above the night table where the monogrammed silver mirror and brush lay beside the book like a yellow bible—The I Ching or Book of Changes—that held the secret of Dolly’s eternal youth—

“Go ahead,” said Delmus. He’d begun to pedal again, the grindstone wobbling and squeaking. “It’ll just be a bunch of men.”

            I knew that was all it would be: A bunch of men, middle-aged, disappointed, most of them frightened, half-paid for last year’s short crop, all of them in debt after two ruined harvests, maybe now facing their last. 

            Supply and demand? Free tonnage? Import ag tariffs in Japan?

There would be some drinking, complaint and argument and agreement about a problem that had no solution.

Why did the raisin price go down, Sun Damsel sell off the reserve for cattle feed, when two years of rain had spoiled half the crop, the moldy grapes hauled away for rot-gut brandy?

A few fanciful, off-color stories—a little harmless boasting about conquests in vineyards or orchards or along ditch banks 40 years ago—after they helped Delmus butcher the hog.

So why did the words bunch of men make me flinch as the walnut leaves bent brightly in the wind?

            “By the way,” Delmus was saying, “can you tell me who’s been cutting the paper to shreds?”           

            The walnut leaves rippled like water and I saw The Fresno Bee’s black headline instantly form and disappear across the big trees:

MISS AMERICA RESIGNS AFTER NUDE

PHOTO WITH WOMAN IN PENTHOUSE

            “Kate,” I said, watching the green leaves darken as the breeze let up. “She’s cutting clippings.”

            “What for?”

            “For Mrs. Grayson. She thinks Ferraro is some kind of savior.”

            “Can’t they wait,” Delmus complained, “till I’m finished? I was reading something the other day, about the Eskimos, how they made the windows for the igloos. I turned the page and there was a hole. I never found out how the story ended.”

“She’s got them up all over her wall, pictures of Ferraro—” I hesitated. “Mrs. Grayson said it was Ferraro who told her to come to the ranch.”

“How’s that?”

“She said she had a vision—”

"What d'you mean?"

“I’ve been so busy, I guess I forgot to tell you—”

“Vision of what?”

"I told you her heart acted up, in Acacia, the night before she came here with Eddie Dodge. She was scared she was going to die.”

“Yeah.”

“I guess at sunup she saw this light, this woman standing by the bed in a shaft of light, telling her to find me.”

“Who’d she say it was?” 

“She calls her ‘The Gold Lady,’ at first she thought it was me. Then she saw Ferraro’s picture on TV. Now she’s sure Ferraro’s the angel who told her everything would be all right, that finally a woman would be president—if she and Eddie Dodge could find our farm—”

“She said that?” Delmus asked.

“She said she’s waited all her life for the Gold Lady, since she was a girl—since somebody named Ambrose kidnapped her—from the Acacia Harvest Fair—and took her to San Francisco, in 1915—”

Again the tall Johnson grass bent and folded like a wave, red, purple, blue, and stood straight again, bright white and gold—

            The strips of newspaper showing Ferraro flickered, rose and fell with the fan, like candle flames above my mother’s framed beautiful picture on the night table, the young gorgeous girl wearing the purple dress, on the steps of the white mansion with the leaded-glass double doors that reflected the sea.

            “One day I came in and she was having a nightmare, talking about Ambrose and some Dr. Bolger, about a tattoo with colored wings.”

            “Who did?” Delmus said. “Kate?”

            “No,” I said with irritation, turning back toward the vines. “Dolly Mable.”

            “Who’s that?”

Suddenly, the breeze was gone, it had died—the looming eight-foot weeds, the scattered walnut seedlings, all the 10,000 grape canes were still, waiting.

“Kyla?”

            “Mrs. Grayson,” I said at last.

With Baylor and Mrs. Watkins hot on Dolly’s trail, it was time Delmus knew the truth. Or part of the truth—

“Her real name’s Dolly Mable.”

             Now the wind was back, crossing the vineyard, and the paler undersides of the grape leaves turned over in a moving wave.

            “She’s old and confused.”

            “I know that,” Delmus said.

            “She said the rhinestones in her dress were really diamonds, that Ambrose had found Murrietta’s treasure.”

            “I wish it was true.”

            “She won’t even let me open a window.”

            “That’s what you said.”

            “She keeps playing the same record over and over. Nat King Cole. ‘Mona Lisa.’”

            “Does she?”

            “Last week she said she’d sell some house, some ‘Butterfly House,’ help us pay the loan.”

            “What’s that? Butterfly House?”

            “I don’t know.” I watched the white wake the wind made across the vines. “I don’t  know if I want to know—”

            “Well—”

            “Now she’s rigged a string to the lock. I have to wait for her to let me in.”

            Delmus didn’t answer and I started to say, “She waved a gun at me,” then didn’t.

            On any country road like our Linda Verde—especially during bad times like Reagan’s Depression—every other farmhouse might hide a crazy woman (who talked of diamonds and tattoos and enormous butterflies), an unhappy boy-mad teenage girl, a broke farmer who drank and like my mother spoke nonsense words in his sleep—

Someone like me—

Down a vine row, a black-tailed jackrabbit loped in creaky, long-legged bounds. Now it stopped, nearly standing, its long kangaroo ears straight up in the wind.

I’d told Delmus already, last Monday at breakfast, the morning after Dolly Mable aimed the gold gun, staring wildly, her arm trembling as she cried, “Ambrose?”

I’d smelled smoke and run up the stairs, throwing open Dolly’s door.

“No, it’s mine!” she cried. “You can’t take the butterfly!”

“Mother, it’s me, Kyla,” I said.

“Don’t open the window, Kyla!” she said, still terrified, but at least she’d dropped the gun on her lap. “Promise me?”

She reached with her hand and gripped my wrist.

“I’m afraid the butterfly will leave. There’s a tear in the screen.”

“I won’t open the window,” I said. "I’ll get Delmus to fix the screen. I thought you were on fire.”

“No, I was smoking a cigarette—I had a bad dream, about San Francisco, Dr. Bolger—”

“It was just a nightmare, you’re safe. No one’s going to hurt you.”

Then I reached for the gun and she tightened her hand on my wrist.

She said not to worry, the gun wasn’t loaded, she’d only shot it once, a long time ago, anyway it wasn’t loaded—

It just made her feel safe, she said, when she heard Mrs. Watkins’ peacocks crow toward morning and she’d think for a second a woman was being attacked, that the “Standpipe Strangler” was out in the vineyard—

“Even if he was, he couldn’t get into the house.”

            “Someone might,” she said. She let go of my wrist and leaned to take up the purple dress at her feet.

            “I have to protect Murrietta’s diamonds—”

            I came back to bed without the gun and Delmus was talking in his sleep, this time about someone named “Naomi” as I lay down shaken and on edge and remembered my stepparents, the Lawrences, and their Old Testament:

Naomi was the mother-in-law of Ruth—

“She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.’”

            “Be careful,” Delmus said the next morning, “she’s unbalanced. She’s older than she looks.”

            “I don’t know why I let her stay—”    

            “Because you have to,” Delmus said, staring past the platter of cold bacon toward the porch, and I knew he was right, again I saw the youthful old woman without a wrinkle, in the purple dress, lying on the back seat of the stifling antique Cadillac car that had pulled down the drive into the barnyard on the first of May—

            —“Miss Mable? Miss Mable?” Eddie Dodge had called, knocking at the fogged window.

            “She says she knows you,” Eddie Dodge whispered at my shoulder as I leaned forward and peered in, looking backward in time, raising my hands to block the light and the sudden winking gleam of the purple dress’s scattered rhinestones.

            “We came from Acacia. She wouldn’t let me open a window.”

            Saved for 50 years in some dust-covered trunk, or lost and the scattered pages all flying back—each colored picture flipping before my eyes—the storybook of the bluebird lay open again on my mother’s lap.

            “‘Wait a little longer, / Till your little wings are stronger—’”

            With a pang sharp as the sting of alum I heard my mother’s so tender young woman’s voice tell the story of the mother and child about to separate forever.

            Before Dolly could read that part I’d always reach a child’s hand to cover the words like an epitaph, where the baby bird said goodbye and prepared to fly from its nest, as the mother bird wept and lifted a blue wing in farewell.                    

            I’d tapped lightly at the glass and saw confused tangled-haired ageless Dolly Mable open her large eyes green as Kate’s in terrified bewilderment, and with sudden relief begin to smile, recognizing her lost only daughter Kyla—

            The jackrabbit listened, now in a puff of dust and a gray and black blur it was off down the vine row, running scared, every third or fourth sideways bound leaping higher, like a gazelle, ready to jump to the moon that tonight would shine on the orange church bus and Reverend Randy Hobbs—

            “I saw Mrs. Watkins today, out by the mailbox,” I said, watching the rabbit. Her and her dogs. Yesterday they had Kate’s red dress. Now I can’t hang out clothes on the line anymore.”

            I waited but behind me Delmus didn’t answer.

            “She asked about Mrs. Grayson. Where she came from. I guess Baylor’s writing another story. ‘The Way It Was.’ About some famous woman from Acacia—”

            The catalpa leaves rustled overhead, no response, just the knife against the grinder. The rabbit was gone down the west-running aisle of vines.

            “Watkins mentioned the petition again. About putting Reagan’s head on Mt. Rushmore,” I added. “She and Baylor are taking names.”

            “If that owl doesn’t get ’em, one fine day I’m going to shoot those peacocks.”

            “And her wine contract,” I said. “She’s safe from the rain, not making raisins. She’s a witch.”           

            “Listen—”

The wheel creaked twice more and went still.

“While I was in town, what did Briggs say about hauling out the raisin bins?”

            “Briggs didn’t call. Was he supposed to?”

            “Weren’t you here when he came? I was going to ask you before and then I forgot.”

            “He didn’t come,” I said, watching the vineyard rise and fall in a crossing line of canes and white leaves blown backward.

“I would have told you first thing. I know you want to get the boxes before picking starts.”

            The wave reached the barnyard, raising swirls of dust, the wind trying to write a message across the raked ground—

EXTRA: BAYLOR CLARK UNCOVERS

MRS. GRAYSON’S SCARLET PAST!!!

“I just saw the tracks—” Delmus said behind me.

            For a moment I studied the blonde spring-toothed dirt between the vine rows. Before the pickers put down the grapes, Delmus would scrape each 12-foot aisle at an angle with the terracer blade, so the tilted land would catch the southern light and let a soft rain run off the trays.

            “Kyla?” Delmus asked.

The slanted surface would be so smooth, like a shelf or tabletop, like clean paper itself. In the pressed, molded dirt you could see the clear night-tracks of rabbits, the massed three-toed prints of quail.

Peacocks, pheasants, roadrunners—called a “chaparral bird” or “ground-dwelling cuckoo” Delmus said—gophers emerging from their mounds, maybe the endangered San Joaquin kit fox waiting, itching to spring—

“Kyla?”

The tracks crisscrossed, circled and veered off, angled west with the quarter moon while you dreamed of rain. Here a cottontail changed rows, a weasel hesitated, sat up and listened to the hush of wide wings as the great horned owl from the elm swooped and ended the small-footed journey of a mole.

And the paw prints of coyotes, Mrs. Watkins’ “Dobies” dragging Kate’s red dress they’d stolen from the line, now the coyotes had it in the blue gums, every so often the delicate necklace trail of a snake—

“Kyla?”

The flattened ground was like a newspaper, a clear record of all comings and goings in the dark.

And one morning instead of reading The Fresno Bee about the weather and foreclosures and the raping Standpipe Strangler still at large I would rise from my kitchen chair and walk out into the cool vineyard down a vine row at the edge of the formed powdered loam.

Past the claw marks and the long unbroken line where a ’possum had walked home dragging its tail, now stopping, looking back at some noise, falling down in the sand and playing dead like my lost father—one of Dolly Mable’s 10,000 forgotten lovers—I would find Kate’s naked footprints beside Eddie Dodge’s, like Adam and Eve’s in the dew-moistened earth where soon the picked grapes would stretch in green rivers far as the eye——

            “Kyla!”

            Now again I heard the sandstone scrape the blade’s edge, but distantly, maybe someone sharpening a hatchet for a Thanksgiving turkey two farms away.

The million sun-bright grape leaves looked foreign, more numerous, rocking on a wind different from the breeze that a few seconds before had blown the dust and lifted my hem.

The sun had dropped lower.

            “The tracks. Before you raked the yard. Where his truck pulled in—”

            I heard Delmus’ words like a sudden flock of cawing crows as I winked and realized I was holding the rake handle—

Syncope: A seizure and collapse into a dreamless slumber.

I could see the printed words on the crisp white page.

I’d studied the condition in the expensive black-bound textbook at nursing school—the least excitement could trigger a sudden swoon into deep unconsciousness. I’d helped a patient who had narcolepsy, among the head wounds on the neurology ward in Fresno, at the Veterans Hospital where I met Delmus.

Lieutenant Landon would doze off eating an apple.

“Wake up!” Delmus always said. “Everybody’s asleep!”

            “I saw Briggs go by with a load a while ago,” Delmus went on. “He waved but he didn’t stop. I wondered what he told you. About the empty bins.”

            The light had altered. It was true, for a little while I’d been away, like Rip Van Winkle. Like Reagan. In my absence the world had changed, the Earth kept spinning.

            “It was a bus—” 

Saying it I felt guilty again. And afraid. Dust whirled at my feet.

            “Bus?” Delmus said.

            “A church bus, on the way to the mountains. To a camp. The driver wanted to use the phone.”

            “What for?”

“A child was sick.”

            “Bad?”

            “I don’t know.”

            Was the little child all right?

            When the old orange school bus drove in with sleeping bags and suitcases tied to the roof and Dear Jesus by the Waters / Rev. Randy Hobbs painted in black letters along the side I’d clutched the rake and recalled the Lawrences, my guardians after Dolly Mable had sent me away from the Butterfly House in Acacia—for a heartbeat I’d half-expected Mr. Lawrence’s pained face behind the wheel of the bus, he and Mrs. Lawrence come to take me and re-baptize me in the Kings River.

Again I could hear their voices and my own:

            “It’s named after the Wise Men, isn’t it, Father?”

            “Yes, Mother, it is. Who were they, Kyla, the Kings from the East who honored the baby Jesus?”

            “Gaspar, Melchior, Balthazar.”

            Then I’d seen the line of frightened children’s faces at the bus’ windows.

“He wouldn’t let me get a bag of ice,” I complained, grasping at an alibi.

The grape canes lifted like a sea of green arms and now I felt ashamed I hadn’t done more. I was trained, someone used to dealing with emergencies—  

“You tell him you were a nurse?” Delmus asked.  

            “He wouldn’t listen. I offered to drive the child to the hospital. He said it was just a stomachache. Too many sour apples.”

            “You look at the kid?”

“I didn’t have a chance—”

The perspiring heavy red-haired driver couldn’t allow it, the church would be liable. He knew what it was, he had a Red Cross certificate that allowed him to give diabetes shots and practice resuscitation: “We call it CPR.”

He was Hobbs—the preacher!

“Naw, it’s only colic,” Hobbs answered impatiently when I mentioned appendicitis, after he told the camp gatekeeper they’d be late.

“Well, what happened?” Delmus asked.

I hesitated. 

“God’s sacrificed Son will take the hurt,” Hobbs snapped when I asked if the pain were sharp and low, on the left side, before he insisted Jesus had “pretty good hearing”

“He said he’d have the children on the bus lay on hands and pray—” I said.

Mr. Lawrence always had me say a prayer over Mrs. Lawrence, when she had a cold or flu, when she needed the hysterectomy and the horned devil was at the door.

“Falwell,” Delmus mumbled, the wheel turning again. “Moral Majority. Damn religious nuts!”

“This is the only medicine we need,” the preacher trained in first aid said, reaching toward his shirtfront and I was confused.

Pinned to his pocket was a Reagan ’84 button.

For a tie tack Hobbs wore a gold crucifix.

I looked above the vineyard, squinting into the sun.

Hobbs’ prayer remedy had made me shiver, again I was ten years old and Hobbs was Mr. Lawrence telling me to stand straight, holding me too tightly by the arm as he led me down the line of brown tents, through the crowd of strangers to the bank and out into the Kings’ swift current of snow melt, where Reverend Qualls waited in a soaked white sheet and his black tie showed through like the scabbard of a sword.

            Kidnapped, I’d thought, Chowchilla, 1977, recalling the rich boys from San Francisco who hijacked the country school bus and buried it underground for ransom, until the old driver escaped and led the children to safety.

What could I do, except call the sheriff?

The orange bus like a crawling caterpillar made the tight turn in front of the barn and swayed back down the drive and I knew I couldn’t help—our pickup had a dead battery and Delmus had taken the car to town.

            “No sense worrying about the bins,” Delmus said, “if you don’t have raisins to put in them.”

            “No way to know,he’d said earlier, when I said it couldn’t rain three years in a row.

            “I don’t think it’ll storm,” I said, staring at the Johnson grass and the clouds of seeds rising and bending flat, blue then white as now Mrs. Watkins’ dogs and peacocks howled, a horn honked from the walnuts, a diesel with forty tons of raisins for the milk cows, the ground and windows shook and the catalpa leaves stirred, the wheel hissed against the knife and somewhere a Valley quail called “Chich-chich-coo!” above the vines rattling dryly like paper trays.

            “Old Aaron Winters could probably tell you,” Delmus said. He was always a walking Ouija board.”

I gripped the rake tighter—in the crackling breeze now everything seemed connected, suddenly intertwined and cinched tight by a clear web that reached everywhere, forward and back, crossing sideways, yesterday and tomorrow, tying everything together that moved or stood still—

This morning’s gray clouds, Reverend Hobbs’ orange bus and the sick child I never saw (“Do you think it hurts more than the scratch of one thorn?”), Delmus’ dead battery and the bottle and marked sex book hid under the hay bale, Kate’s red dress and Mrs. Watkins’ Dobermans by the clothesline and her with Baylor’s petition for Reagan’s stone head, Baylor’s column “on this famous lady from Acacia,” the yellow airplane the color of Dolly’s raised gun, raisin trucks and alcoholic men in honking pickups and white carsunder the walnut by the road the Mexican father and his friends—the one in the red shirt—drinking beer and laughing as they pointed up at Kate’s windowthe afternoon’s sudden westerly, Delmus’ grinder and the knife and tomorrow his drunken party and the black-and-white pig to be slaughtered, the black-and-white circle on my mother’s strange yellow bible, Sunday’s weather, Monday’s weather, Tuesday’s weather, five-thirty Wednesday morning when the 60 pickers come with pans and knives, maybe lightning and heavy rain, foreclosure, Kate with Eddie Dodge like Dolly Mable with my father I never met—

“We could write Yes and No in the dirt like the Romans,” Delmus said. “Drop two kernels of corn and watch the one the rooster eats first.”

The breeze brushed my cheek and moved my hair, the wind that blew across the wide acres from the foothills and the sea.            

In the mornings when I stood alone at my kitchen window as the water steamed and ran in the sink, the sun a little lower than this, nearly dead-level with the vines, I could make out the ten thousand strands stretched like gold thread just above the vineyard, each slender cord sparkling and shining and reaching toward infinity and once I’d read a story of floating spiders spinning filament 50 miles across the ocean and reeling back to land.

“You know at Walker Lake the Ghost Dancers had a song to stop the rain,” Delmus said.

Blink and the webs of the good predator spiders disappeared, it took a certain angle of light and eye—I imagined I caught a glimpse of the secret ties that bind, the glinting lines crossing and re-crossing, slackening and tightening and billowing out, the hidden woof and warp that underneath connected everything.

            One string, one string only holds the prize, I’d almost whisper, that sudden shining one, like sun on a distant wave or leaf. If only I knew which one to pull—

            The gleaming silk across the vines was like the fruit of the deadly nightshade, the belladonna growing with the spent tomato plants behind the barn by the stalled blue pickup. Even though you knew by heart the black purplish berries were poison you were still tempted to pick and taste one on your tongue.

            Good comes sometimes, and sometimes bad, and both for a reason, but it’s too much to ever figure out, I’d told myself a thousand times—

            “Someone else came by. Earlier,” I said, pushing away the dark clusters and the vineyard’s maze of webs, the heavy string Dolly Mable tied to the bedroom door Monday morning after she waved the gold derringer Sunday night, sure I was “Ambrose,” the kidnapper who wanted “the butterfly” that would escape if I opened the window with the torn screen.

Now I had to knock and wait with drinks and plates of hot food for my mother like a bright blue spider to pull the cord and open the lock.

            “Who’s that?” Delmus asked.

            “Somebody in a white station wagon. It had a silver horse on the hood.”

            “Did he want to pick?”

            “I don’t know,” I said.

Again I saw the men in the shade, the thrown beer cans scattered under the tree.

“He leaned on his horn. He wouldn’t get out of the car.”

            “What’d he want?”

            “He said he needed a battery.”

            “You tell him to go to town?”

            “He asked to rent the house. He wanted to know who lived here. I told him you were asleep, that he should come back tomorrow, after breakfast. He just sat there, looking at the yard.”

            “Anybody with him?”

            “His wife, and two little boys, and an older girl. The kids were neat, all dressed up. I sort of felt sorry for them. But then he came back, with some men.”

“What for?” Delmus asked.

“They sat out under the big walnut by the road. Drinking beer. They left the cans.”

            “It’s getting crazy.” Delmus started to pedal the grinder. “It is like a war.”

            I told the man with the mustache to come back in the morning and he had lingered, staring ahead through the station wagon’s windshield as the radio played “La Golondrina,” in Spanish it meant “The Swallow.”

His pretty wife looked forward blankly, unwilling to meet my eye. A girl about Kate’s age, with reddish hair and green eyes, sat in back with the two little boys. They were cute, hair neatly clipped and combed.

            I’d gone to the barn and got the iron rake, then started in by the corral, now and then glancing over at the white car with white Texas plates and the black sponge dice that dangled from the rearview mirror, the foil dots sparkling sharply in the sun.

            Finally the man started to drive out, slowing as he passed the porch, looking up toward Dolly Mable’s north window where I thought I saw her standing, raising a hand, her blue oriental gown parted in front.

            I felt a moment of remorse. Where was the family’s home? What was it like? Green lawn and cool shade? Did they have one, even far away, in another country?

            I imagined myself and Delmus driving from farm to farm, begging the Anglo farmers for the privilege of picking grapes, 13 cents a tray, while Kate listened silently, staring off toward some other place in the distance, past the watery mirage floating a mile down the asphalt where a blue car glinted and Eddie Dodge pulled Dolly Mable's Cadillac from a vine row, ready to meet Kate when she climbed down the rose trellis and ran through the vineyard toward the blue gum grove—      

            Once in a little market on the edge of Lemas I asked the grocer why he stocked so much dog food, the 50-pound sacks reached almost to the ceiling.

“In the winter you mix it with beans, frijoles,” he said. “It makes pretty good chili.”

The grocer grinned in his white apron.

What good could come, I’d wondered, if you treat people like dogs?

            Forty minutes later the white station wagon returned, parked out under the walnut tree. I set the rake against the catalpa and started down the driveway for the road, before I noticed the man’s wife and children were gone.

He and three friends sat in the shaded car drinking beer, a bearded figure in back threw an empty can and pointed up at the house, toward Kate’s window, and all of them were laughing—

            The husband saw me watching and caught my eye. He smiled from the shadows, not turning his gaze.

            A younger long-haired man in a red dress shirt got out. He turned his back and began to urinate in a high arc against the tree trunk while the others yelled catcalls and I quickly swiveled for the house—

            Mrs. Watkins phoned and asked who they were and should she call the sheriff or get Baylor to come over.

“Delmus’ll be home soon. Just lock the door.”

            And then the men disappeared, as if they’d heard Mrs. Watkins on the phone.

I went out and picked up the cans. Budweiser. I saw the moist acrid-smelling stain on the walnut's broad trunk and remembered the Standpipe rape-murders in The Fresno Bee.

            And later a woman with a wide sunburned face walked past along the road, in a t-shirt and long wool skirt and dragging a burlap sack, three ragged towheaded children behind her as she searched the shoulder for pop and beer cans to sell for scrap.

Dust Bowl, I thought, 1933.

After that Reverend Hobbs drove in with the sick child, hitting the orange bus’  horn—

            “Caw!”

            The crow cried harshly, crossing the vineyard with heavy stiff wings catching the angle of the sun, for a second gleaming oily colors, green, yellow, blue, like a magic parrot escaped from a cage. From 50 feet I could see its black eye.

            “Caw!” it called again, “caw!”, opening its beak like a thick pair of pliers.

            “Ping!”

            The hilt of the knife raised to his eye, Delmus sighted the bird along the shiny blade.

            “Black Raven,” Delmus said. “That was Sam Houston’s name, when he ran away to live with the Cherokee.”

            I expected the crow to answer, to croak “Nevermore” as it flew toward Mrs. Watkins’ freshly painted pink castle in the walnut grove. Another raisin truck barreled past, the ground buckling under my shoes. The peacocks crowed.

            “I was just thinking,” Delmus said.

            I turned, watching him lower the knife toward the vineyard, to locate where an old shed once stood or oil or Eddie Dodge lay hidden.

            “Look at the Coast Range,” he said. “You forget they’re there until the sun goes down.”

            I felt disappointed, as if Delmus had failed to solve a problem neither of us had mentioned.

“It’s the smog,” I said.

            “Remember Benjamin Franklin? At the Constitutional Convention, when he pointed to the picture on the wall? He said he wondered if it were a rising or a setting sun.”

            “It sounds familiar.” I turned back into the light, examining the hills’ vague outline. “From a long time ago.”

            I’d read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven alone, when Mrs. Lawrence wasn’t watching.

            “They were all Masons.”

“Who was?”

“The Founding Fathers,” Delmus said. “The Committee on the Great Seal. ‘Out of Many, One'?”

            A skeletonizer floated past head-high like a bit of ash, a jet-black lacewing. The infernal insects would strip a vineyard to the veins so the leaves looked like x-rays.

“Statue of Liberty. The Lincoln penny.”

            I stiffened at Delmus’ mystical insight, as usual its meaning veiled, obscure, as I forgot the ruined statue and looked toward the hills for relief.

It worried me, he was drinking and reading too much in the barn after dinner, collecting weird scraps of worthless knowledge, a thousand nutty odds and ends (“On one cheek Crazy Horse drew a yellow lightning bolt”), he’d become too involved with politics and the election, which he couldn’t do anything about—

And turning, talking in his sleep the way he’d done years ago after the war when each night he’d sweat out the mission over Nagoya.

Always the headwind blew and the bombers stood still above the rising flames, Delmus shooting the Zero’s passing yellow tail with the 7, then his friend Brawley waving and the Evangeline exploding, the fiery metal blasting Delmus’ turret on the Beau Geste—that was French for “beautiful gesture”—

Carefully, I’d touch his arm to lift him from his seat and blazing guns over burning Japan.

            But now he dreamed about Indians, his history was all off, I knew that—

“Sitting Bull died at Little Big Horn and Custer at Wounded Knee.”

And who were Nauvoo, Wovoka, Fair Rosamond? 666, 777? Roma?

            Maybe he was gambling at Las Vegas or Reno in a dark casino at a slot machine, hoping for a jackpot, numbers instead of red apples and cherries spinning before his sleeping eyes. His closed lids were radiant, lit by the late white moon through the gauze curtain.

Then I remembered the Lawrences and the crazy deacon’s Sunday school—666 was the Sign of the Beast, from “Revelation,” the Lawrences’ favorite book of the Bible.

In the dictionary I found “Nauvoo,” a town in Illinois, in Hebrew it meant “to be beautiful,” and I looked up “Naomi,” which said “my delight—”

Three nights ago when his talking wakened me for the second time I lay listening to his voice rise and fall and rise again suddenly in the dark as if he neared the climax of some vital presentation:

“Now the dying dancer enters the circle, now the white eagle flies her to heaven to see the ghosts—”

I’d read There Is A River, about Edgar Cayce, The Sleeping Prophet—I nearly got up to get a tablet and pencil to write it all down, thinking maybe that Delmus spoke an omen, the names and numbers had something to do with the future, September and October, with Kate and the raisins and the weather.

            But they didn’t:

“Inferno. Tracer. Angels are bees.”

            I turned from the blurred foothills, searching Delmus’ face, one half of it.

Carved from warm stone his profile was etched in amber by the sinking light and I felt a wave of tenderness for him.

What secret troubles do you have, separate from me and Kate and the ranch?

Delmus was the smartest person I had ever met.

He resembled someone legendary, with his forehead furrowed and his gaze cast down, looking at the knife, his billed cap in shadow, like an older Jack Kennedy in a candid photograph during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (“JFK prevented an atomic war with Russia but Oswald came home from Russia and killed JFK and Officer J. D. Tippet—and Colonel Paul Warfield Tibbets dropped the A bomb on Hiroshima—” he’d said a week ago.) 

            “It’s Germany,” he’d declared Thursday night, his finger pointing at the set, at Reagan, who was beaming as he accepted the nomination in Dallas. “Just like Germany right before the war. Nuremburg, ’36. He keeps talking about the ‘Big D.’”

            I looked up from my needlepoint butterfly and for a second it seemed that way, all the banners and shouting and signs jumping on sticks.

            “They elected him,” Delmus said, rocking his head. “He didn’t have to take over. They all went to sleep.”                       

            Delmus didn’t understand—he did, but he didn’t. All the ones like the Lawrences and Mrs. Watkins and Baylor and the people in town really loved Reagan, heart and soul. They always had.

            The summer’s been too long and hot—I could read on Delmus’ wrinkled brow—too busy and close and sad—

Sun Damsel’s collapse and the daily foreclosures and auctions, the Lynville farmer’s suicide, presidential campaigns and the Democratic convention in San Francisco. The Olympics in L.A. with the maddened driver plunging into the crowd, Reagan speaking at the 40th D-Day anniversary at Normandy on Omaha Beach, mentioning the daggers of the Rangers who climbed the cliffs. Mass murder at the McDonald’s in San Ysidro, the selenium poisoning of all the birds at the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge near Dos Palos.

And the mysterious death of the famous racehorse Swale, that Delmus said ran just like Ride Away . . . .

            Richard Burton died, Liz Taylor was in mourning. The Miss America scandal, three Amtrak crashes in three weeks, one in McBee, South Carolina, then Queens, New York, where Ferraro was from.

            This morning’s unsettled weather, the orange bus and white car—

            If I turned quickly I was half afraid I’d see banners from the Bee strung like black-winged clouds piled above the vineyard:

SUN DAMSEL DIES

FIFTH PROSTITUTE VICTIM OF “STANDPIPE STRANGLER”

L. A. RESIDENTS SUFFER OLYMPIC “PSYCHOSIS”

HELL’S ANGELS HELP CARRY TORCH

IRAQ-IRAN WORLD WAR I REPLAY

DIABLO N-PLANT OPENS

“BIG D” LOVES REAGAN

FARMERS’ ANGUISH:  MORE RAIN?

            Each morning the paper’s headlines were new epitaphs from a constant war. I’d raked around the catalpa and heard Delmus talking to himself as he fixed the broken grinder, murmuring the names of the dead:

“Walt. Raymond. Endicott Lowell—”

            Delmus’ father Walter died of a heart attack, the same night Brawley was killed over Nagoya, when the turret blew up and Delmus broke and burned his arm—

            Raymond, Delmus’ uncle, owned Mrs. Watkins’ place, before the Depression hit. He died from breathing the poison gas in World War I and the bank took the farm—his wife and four kids moved away, to Canada, and Delmus said goodbye to his cousin Jimmy who fell with the Marines on Iwo Jima—

            Endicott Lowell was Walt Rhodes’ friend, the black man who took the old horses to the rendering plant and was gored dead by maddened bulls, chili powder under their tails, as he worked as a clown at the Clovis Rodeo and afterward no one was arrested—

            KKK? Was Baylor Clark still in the Klan?

            “Del,” I almost said now, “what’re you thinking of? Can you tell me?”

            “Chich-chich-coo!” a quail called from the vineyard. “Chich-chich-coo!”

            “Too late! Too late!” it sounded like. “Fly away!”

            “Have you heard Baylor’s writin’ a new one for The Irrigator, for ‘The Way It Was?’” Mrs. Watkins asked at noon by the mailbox. “An old-timey piece about this famous lady from Acacia— Baylor says it’s going to be his best story yet!”

            “I guess I’ll go start dinner,” I said.

            I leaned the bamboo rake against the catalpa’s trunk and hesitated—above my head I heard the rustling of the broad heart-shaped leaves and the long pendulous pods. It was blooming again, the last time before winter, the white flowers delicate as orchids, a mottled purple inside. You could only see them clearly when they fell.

            The leaves live in the house of the tree, and make its roof, I thought suddenly, reaching out and tracing the raised, reptilian bark, rough and yet intricate.

I could feel the pulse of my fingers against the living wood, like the pull of roots bringing water deep from underground, the water going under my fingertips up the trunk, to the branches, out each stem to each leaf with its pattern of veins.

            The tree felt cool, dense with water.

            “This is Kate’s tree,” I said, letting my cheek rest against the bark. “Remember?”

            “What’s that?”

            “Kate’s tree. We planted it when she was born.”

            “Sure,” Delmus said.

            We had tried and tried to have a child, then tried to adopt, until at 40 I had become pregnant with Kate. I’d watched the tree grow, marking its progress against the power line that ran from the house to the barn.

            “Look at Kate’s catalpa,” Delmus would say, “it must have its roots in some underground river.”

            I would smile and go on about some chore, knowing Delmus spoke about our life, about his and mine and Kate’s, and I knew then that everything, every moment, had fit together, that nothing, not a fallen leaf, had been an accident. Not Dolly Mable, the Lawrences, the war, Walt Rhodes dying and Brawley getting killed the same day, Delmus’ burned arm . . . .

            And then another spring and summer and the tree had grown another three feet, almost higher than the wire, then ten feet and Kate cut her jaw when Delmus dropped her against the iron bedstead and the catalpa was taller than the barn.

            “Now it’s nearly tall as the elm,” I said. My ear pressed the trunk, listening.

            “Yes,” Delmus answered.

            “Eddie Dodge,” the leaves whispered and I lifted my head, glancing behind me at the vines drenched in golden sunlight, row on row.

            And above it, as if the vineyard were a blue ocean after a storm, a bird was flying, a mourning dove, its gray wings moving in and out of light as it flew toward its haven, the darkening grove of eucalyptus in the distance.

            “‘Wait a little longer, / Till your little wings are stronger—’”

            If it rains, Kate’ll run away.

            “I’m going to start dinner.”

            “Thanks for raking the yard.”

            “I wanted to. For the party.”

            I stepped from the shade into the light, the hot sparkling dirt warm through the bottoms of my shoes, the evening sun yellow and close as I started across the wide barnyard toward the house beneath the elm.

 

 

Nels Hanson grew up on a small farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley and earned degrees from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Montana. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation's James D. Phelan Award and a citation in its Joseph Henry Jackson competition. Hanson's short stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, South Dakota Review, Starry Night Review and other literary journals. His work currently appears in The Sixers Review and stories are in press at The Iconoclast, The 13th Warrior Review, Caveat Lector and Offcourse Literary Journal.