With a pinch of Lavender

Thesis Segment Three

December 13, 2009
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We got up early in the late spring to pick berries in Lincolnville. My mother paid twenty dollars for a pallet of berry baskets. My mother told us that everybody eats about a bucket of dirt in their lifetime, so a little fertilized soil on the berries wasn’t going to hurt us. Beatrix was the littlest, so she got to ride in the backpack, her head covered by a flowery hat. My mother would hand her the smaller berries, so she wouldn’t choke. She would squeeze them before putting them in her mouth. My mother’s long hair would have seeds in it all day. Beatrix’s face was gummy and red. The raspberries were the best, when my mother found a farm that bred pricker-less ones, the berries grew fatter, and they squished in our fingers. The juice reached our elbows by the end of the morning. The farmers never charged us for the berries we ate, mostly because my mother would talk to them about what kind of tractors they used, and where they got their manure from. She used to be a farmer, she told us, after college, and before she married my father.  When we got home from berry picking, my mother made us all take off the clothes we were wearing. We would change and she would pour boiling water all over our clothes. She said it was the only thing to get berry stains out. It didn’t work for any other stains, like jam.

On the days my mother made jam, we weren’t allowed in the kitchen. There were too many things to burn ourselves on. She said that. One time I snuck in, keeping low below the counter. She was boiling the jars in one pan, and the cut up fruit and sugar in the other. I watched as she pulled the jars out of the boiling water with the barbecue tongs, and set them up on the old stained dish towels. Then she ladled the hot berry mush in, trying not to spill. I put my hand into the open bag of sugar. She didn’t see me, because she was trying not to burn herself through the oven mitt. I put the sugar in my mouth, but it was wriggling. Over my forearm crawled black ants. I must have made a noise, because my mother looked at me, the bag of sugar, and my arm sticking out of it. “Spit it out.”

I spat ants on the counter, and their brothers ran down my arm to meet them. My mother picked up the bag and threw it through the door. It landed in the sandbox. She brushed me off, and the counter. “Are you ok?” She asked while she pushed my hair back on my forehead like when I was sick. I nodded.

“I swallowed some.”

“I’m sorry sweetie.” She kissed the top of my head. “I’ve got to finish this before it burns. You sure you’re ok?” She turned the burners down to settle the jam. She called it a rolling boil, the kind where it hasn’t boiled over yet, but you can’t stir it, and it won’t stop unless you leave it alone for a long time. It can burn you easily if you aren’t careful.

My mother was careful. She finished the batch, screwed on the lids and flipped the jars to cool. When the ant bodies floated, she stirred them back in, called them seeds. “They’re full of protein.” “They’re good for you.” “You know, in a lot of cultures people eat bugs, because of the protein.”

Chester and I ate ants. We did experiments. The red ones were salty and spicy, and the black ones were sweet. We ate them like sunflower seeds; we bit their bodies and sucked out their insides, spitting the shells. We trapped ants from the hills in the yard, and the ones that came out from between the bricks of the kitchen door walkway. We caught them and took them to the tangled apple trees between the hill and the pond, far behind the house. It was shaded and a stream ran though the roots. We sat under the trees and ate the ants, and when we were done we poured vinegar on the hills, to keep them from telling their neighbors. We took our sandwiches under the trees on hot days when my mother said the sun would spoil mayonnaise. It was cool and covered, our fort, with our feet in the stream, the cold water freezing our toes even in August.

We were barefoot. Our feet were tough, our mother told us not to wear shoes when we could. When she and my father brought home baby Beatrix, they didn’t put shoes on her. Relatives always buy baby shoes, but babies don’t need shoes. My mother wanted our feet to be tough. She told us that she once walked over broken glass, and she didn’t feel it, it didn’t cut her. The beaches in Havret were made of rocks. The sand was hard, sharp, and grey. The beaches reached the woods, or the road, or the dirt. Flowers grew near beaches. The nicer ones had sand trucked in for the whiteness. It didn’t last, and every year a new truckload came, and filled the air with sandy dust. Out-of-staters didn’t know about the beaches. They brought towels and flip flops that did’t stand up to punctures. In the postcards that tourists sent their families, the beaches looked soft and warm. My mother said in the southern parts of the state, August was hot, and their sand was white. In midcoast, the wind came off the water, which was breezy until chilled and wet skin met it after a swim.

My mother used to be one of the tourists with the cut feet. She and her family summered. My grandmother lived in Connecticut. My mother drove us down, all eight hours, to see our grandmother, and to become more cultured. Once we got to go to New York to see a ballet.  We pulled into the driveway late. The car was hot, even with the windows open, and Charlie the dog panted wet breath on our necks. Chester was already asleep, and my mother had to carry him and Beatrix inside. My grandmother had fallen asleep on the sofa in the living room with the lights still on. When we came in through the front door, she straightened her hair and gave me a kiss. There were cookies on the kitchen table. I snuck one while my mother was putting Chester into a bed and my grandmother was looking for a spare toothbrush. We never remembered our toothbrushes. The cookies were old, and tiny brown moths flew out of the box when I opened it. My grandmother gave me a toothbrush, and my mother brought my bag into the room. I climbed into the tall twin bed, Chester sleeping with his mouth open a few feet away. The sheets were stiff and the tiny bb’s I felt near my feet were probably mouse poops. I went to sleep listening to my mother sing Beatrix to sleep in the pink room down the hall.

My mother was giving Chester a bath when I woke up. His sheets were wet, the little blue flowers on them shiny, piled up at the foot of the bed. I went to the kitchen, excited because my grandmother let us have more than seven grams of sugar per serving cereals. Chester liked the kind that was supposed to taste like waffles, I preferred the kind that were Rice Krispy Treats that you were supposed to eat like cereal. My grandmother had some left from the summer before, but they tasted good stale. I got one of the bowls that was shaped like a melon-half, and poured my cereal into it.
“I thought your mom got theatre tickets.” My grandmother got up to pour herself more coffee. “Your uncle said he got them for her.” She said as she stirred her coffee. I ate my breakfast while my grandmother made plans to tee off at noon. I asked what we should look for. “Look for bridges. Bridges can tell you a lot.” My grandmother lit a Now 100. “Bridges are built for the people, you know, your grandfather is an architect, that’s a lot like building bridges.” She opened the because my mother didn’t like it when she smoked in the house when we were around. “You know lots of men die when they build bridges? Lots of Irish men, your father is part Irish, any of his relatives build bridges?” I shook my head. “Well that’s good, I like the Irish. I suppose you look a bit Irish, with your freckles. Your sister, now she looks Irish, reddish hair and all. You’re one of those, what’s it called, black Irish? With those dark eyes and hair. Must be.”  My grandmother took a sip of her coffee. But you know that bridges, they’re important, you know they help people get places, you should go see the bridge, elephants have crossed the bridge and my own grandson has never been there jesus shit.” My grandmother plucked a dead leaf from one of the plants on the window sill.

“Why were elephants on the bridge?”

“Nobody told you that one?” I shook my head. “See, there was this woman, and she starts screaming on the bridge right? And everyone thinks she died or something, so they all start running. Well wouldn’t you know, they crushed a whole mess of people, and a bunch of them died. So nobody uses the bridge for a while, because they think it’s not safe anymore. Then there’s this man who owns the circus, and he decides, I’ve got elephants, why don’t I walk them across? So he does, all twenty one of them, nice as you please, just strolling over the bridge. Fantastic.  My grandmother got to see, that was before my mother was born you see. Just fantastic.”  My grandmother put out her cigarette, and I carried my bowl of milk to the sink. Chester walked over to my chair in a big pink bath towel. My mother brought in his clothes, leading a sleepy Beatrix still in her nightgown, my mother’s front wet and soapy. Chester sat at the low stool, his tangled brown hair dripping into his cereal. Beatrix wanted oatmeal, she was three, too little for much sugar, so she thought maple brown sugar oatmeal was sweet.

We got off the train at Grand Central. My mother told us to look at the ceiling, see the constellations. She took us by the hands, I held onto Chester, as we crossed the big floor, still looking at the painted sky. We walked to the theatre; my mother called it a matinee. She told us we were really lucky. “This is something you can tell your kids about. You got to go to the ballet and see famous ballerinas. This is special.” She squeezed our knees. We were early, and there weren’t too many filled seats. She made us dress up. She said that no one dressed up for theatre anymore, and that was too bad, because it’s so exceptional, and dressing nice meant we were respecting it. I hated it. I wanted to see the bridge, or go to the place with the tiny turtles. Chester and I had to wear ties, but Beatrix got to wear her old purple tutu. My mother said this was important for us all, just watch them.

When it was dark and the music started, I tried to pay attention. “Why aren’t they talking?” I asked. My blazer was hot.

“This is a ballet, they don’t talk, and their dancing says everything.” My mother whispered back. It didn’t. They danced, I thought a few times that a few would fall, which would make it much more interesting. I liked the parts when they ran in their ballet shoes. They looked like ducks. I just kept hoping one of them would trip over their shoes. My mother told me earlier that their shoes are full of wood. I wanted them to slap the stage, which they did, but there was no sound. Chester liked it. He kept asking if I saw the jumps. All the way back to my grandmother’s house, he talked about the jumps.

“He’s jumped so high! I bet I could jump that high!”

“I bet you could too sweetie! You’ve got my long legs.” My mother beamed. Chester was going to beat me at being ‘well rounded.’

“I’m going to show you, look how high I can jump!” Chester leaped off his chair, and continued leaping across the large dining room.

“Later Chester, we’re eating.” My grandmother said with her mouth full, a hand held up to shield her chewed steak. He sat down, eating his macaroni and cheese. At my grandmother’s house, the adults ate adult food, and the children ate children food. Beatrix had the orange cheese on her tutu, and her face, and in her strawberry blonde curls. She was mostly asleep, her hand clutching a fork, her wrist in the macaroni. Chester finished, and leaped his empty plate into the kitchen. He slipped, because my grandmother made him wear socks indoors. My mother took him upstairs to wipe the blood off his nose.

“Your uncle used to get the worst nosebleeds.” My grandmother said. Beatrix was asleep, her head rolling against the chair back.

“Which uncle?” I asked, my grandmother had two sons.

“Your uncle Gregory. He used to get the worst nose bleeds, and it wouldn’t stop. I hope your mother is holding his head back, that makes the blood go down the throat. That’s the best way.”

“Did you eat blood?” I asked Chester when we were in our beds.

“A lot.” He smiled.

“Was it gross?”

“It tasted like nose-run.”

“Nose-run?”

“And blood. There was a lot.” Chester still had a tissue in his nose. He told my mother that it might start again, he could feel it.

Beatrix was in the bath. She was screaming. Beatrix had a bad habit of getting messier when she was tired, and that was no time for a bath. Chester was fairly consistently messy, while I thought of myself as pretty clean. My mother didn’t agree. She didn’t like it when I kept dead fish in my pockets. I only kept minnows in my pockets. She said that was disgusting.

Beatrix was getting toweled off, her whimpering alternately muffled by my mother’s ruffling of her short, previously cheesy hair. Chester pulled the tissue out of his nostrils. “See, it’s still bleeding.” He reached the tissue towards my face in the dark.

“Ew.”

“I bet I can jump like that guy today.” Chester said as he stuffed the tissue back up his nose.

“Sure.”

“You think so?” Chester leaned his fluffy head towards me.

“Yeah, but then you’d have to be in a ballet class. They don’t have ballet for boys in Havret.”

“Says who?”

“Well, Beatrix’s friends moms are talking about sending their kids to the little kids ballet class. And mom made us take that modern movement class last summer.”

“That was fun, I liked the part where we painted the cardboard windows.”

“Yeah, me too. But you didn’t see any ballerina boys there did you?”

“No.”

“Plus, you don’t want them to cut off your penis do you?” My mother called it castration.

“Why would they do that?”

“You saw that man today, did you see his penis?”

“Mom said he was wearing a cup.” Chester said slowly.

“Yeah, they put a cup down your tights, like the kind you drink out of, but it’s cut in half, they think it looks better.”

“That’s not true. Mom said that man today had five kids.” Chester looked at the tissue again.

“Yeah, from before he was a ballerina. Before they cut his penis off.” It was the only thing that could possibly make sense. Then Chester called for my mother and she told him that no one was going to cut off his penis, so just go to sleep.

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Riptide

February 3, 2009
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Mercer kept salt water in a jar next to the window over the sink. It wasn’t the same as the water she scooped it from. This was clear, with sand in the bottom and bits of seaweed or fish parts settled. Mercer liked the thick glass, with the smooth letters that spelled a cursive ‘mason.’ The jar was clear, and the water was clear, and it was wrong. Her mother Hannah kept old bits of china and sea glass. They were splayed with gray rocks that had white veins in them. They were wrong, sitting on wood instead of being polished and smoothed and worn down to bits of sand. Mercer thought of what should have been little piles of sand on her mother’s dresser.

Mercer secretly climbed a tree. She wanted to look over the pond, see where it met the ocean. Her grandmother’s house was mildew and pine. Hannah spent her summers there until an orphan burned it down along with five other houses near the beach. The fireplace was old; the rest was rebuilt while Hannah was in school. Mercer climbed down, the dry bark crackling. The beach was past the pond, but she had seen snapping turtles crawl onto the lawn. She climbed up the rock face instead of walking around the house to the lane, and closed the faulty screen door that let mosquitoes in. Lucas poked a snapping turtle with a stick on the front lawn, smiling up at the living room and reaching his foot toward the turtle’s mouth. She didn’t watch him taunt their mother.

The kitchen was connected to the living room by a slate pathway shouldered by windows. Her grandmother had jars with nothing in them. Mercer fit the jars into each other like Russian dolls. She slipped her sandals on in case her grandmother came into the kitchen. Her feet were dirty, and scratched between the light calluses.

Mercer went to the beach with Hannah, her grandparents stayed under the overhang of the clubhouse. Hannah told her about diving off the elephant with the boys, her swimsuit snapping when she hit the water, spending the entire summer with her bikinis held together with safety pins. Mercer wanted to climb the elephant. To see what the beach looked like from up there. To step around dried barnacles and touch the warm rock with her hands as she maneuvered up the tail and onto the back. To shoo the sea birds off, trying not to step in their droppings, thirty years of baked seagull scat.

* * *

She tried to swim to the elephant when she was little, with Lucas, both of them in life vests. Hers had dolphins on it. The undertow started, it was hurricane season, and the jellyfish were coming to the shoreline. The sign on the beach said that they were only allowed in the water if accompanied by at least one other person. Hannah held Mercer and Lucas by the nylon tethers on the backs of their life vests. They were floating on their stomachs, paddling, tipping right and left to crawl, necks sticking out as far as they could go to keep their chins out of the water. Lucas had a red life vest with yellow piping, she knew it was red, because Hannah’s feet got knocked by a wave, and she didn’t let go. Mercer saw Lucas’ red life vest through the sand and the seaweed. She saw Hannah’s blue swimsuit and her own white life vest with the pink and purple dolphins on it. They all looked darker under the water; the sand was between her and the sky. She saw legs and sand and sand again. When Mercer’s head came out of the water, Lucas was crying.

“Why do you want to kill me?” His cheek was already pink from where his knee hit.

“I didn’t try to kill you.” Hannah pulled her yellow hair out of her face.
“Yes you did! I saw! You went under and wouldn’t let go! I was going to die!” His other cheek was blushing, and his eyebrows arched in a ‘why?’
“If I let go, then you’d be dead. The riptide would pull you out far, far out to sea, and you’d be gone. You’d go one way and Mercer would go another way, and I’d lose you both. Would you prefer that?” Hannah turned them back to the shore.
“Yes! My head wouldn’t be underwater.”

* * *

Mercer left her sandals by the door, and closed it slowly. In the dark she almost couldn’t see where the tears were in the screen were. The dog stared at her, pacing. She hoped animals could receive telepathic messages, because she promised him a treat if he didn’t bark. Apparently he could, because he sat and tilted his smooshed face to the side to ask ‘now?’

Every pad of her toes slicked with the dew on the slate stairway. She walked in the grass until the driveway met the road, and took a right. The honeysuckle draped itself over the stonewalls like balloons filled with dough. She pulled the flowers and sucked the stamens clean, leaving empty petals. Her red brown hair was littered with leaves on the right side where it snagged twigs. She passed the sleeping beach houses with road bikes in the front yard. Mercer walked through the hurricane damage from before her grandmother was born, over the felled chimneys and sunken bathtubs. The fence on the dunes was missing a section where the pallets were stacked end to end around the clubhouse. She folded her shorts and shirt next to the lifeguard chair, the sand fine and cool, squeaking against her metatarsals. She retied her bikini with a double knot, the dark green matching the dune grass.

Mercer planted herself at the edge, the water sucking the sand from under her, leaving foot shaped pools, the pale and lacy foam ankleting. The elephant was between her and the lights from the harbor, glowing, the beached side black and wrinkled. She squatted, picking up a hollow green crab, flicking it onto the beach for the gulls. She climbed into the ocean, her arms sunk to her elbows, toes curling into the sand and shells at the shore. She gripped the bottom, the shells and old seaweed clinking against her bracelet, crawling.


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