Prose by Corey Morrell
Art by Aiza Bragg
Mrs. Adney lived on her own in a small farmhouse, not ten minutes down the road from us. In the spring she had become ill, and by the time summer came around she was mostly bedridden. Her pain was so bad we could hear it from the road up; at night the wind brushed through the cornstalks and carried her cries above the open fields all the way to my window. All Mama and I could do was ignore it the best we could. Eli, who I shared a bed with, always slept right through it, and I sometimes hated him for that.
One morning that summer while sitting at the kitchen table, wolfing down my All Bran, I asked Mama why Mrs. Adney didn’t bother to get help from a doctor.
Mama was at the sink with her back to me. “Henry,” she said, “there ain’t a doctor in the three nearest counties who could help that woman. Nor is there one she’d let near her.”
Mrs. Adney had always seemed to manage well enough on her own; her house was always kept and her fields were always worked and plowed. For as long as I’d known her, she’d never had help on the farm. I once asked Mama why she didn’t have a husband to help her with things. She told me she had, but that he died drunk out in the field one evening before Eli and I were born.
“Fell off the tractor and ran him right over. Crushed his skull in,” she had said. Other than that, the only thing she’d ever mention about him was that he was a cruel bastard and that the world was better off without him. “Since the day he died,” she always reminded me, “I ain’t seen a bruise on that woman.”
But now, with her illness, I wondered how she was getting anything done at all. I asked Mama, regretting it as soon as the words left my lips.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Mama said. “She sure could use a hand, though. Wouldn’t hurt you to help her with the hoeing and such, would it?”
I slurped the milk from my spoon. “I don’t think she’d want my help,” I mumbled. “I’d just slow her down, I really would.”
I felt the sting of a palm on the back of my head and spit out a mouthful of cereal.
“It wasn’t a question,” Mama said. “And don’t eat with your mouth full.”
Mama was right. As I peddled up to Mrs. Adney’s driveway that first day, I saw how bad it was: the grass was tall and wild; boards from the surrounding fence lay scattered about, blown off by a storm and forgotten; the crops were overgrown with weeds.
When she met me at the door I almost didn’t recognize her. She had a cane, and was older than I remembered—her face lined with sun spots, neck and shoulders bowed forward. Despite this, she still talked with the same reserved firmness I had always known her for.
“Did your mama put you up to this?”
“You’re an awful liar, son.”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” she said. “Just do it better if you’re gonna do it.”
“Okay,” I said, unsure if she was joking. Behind her the kitchen counters were littered with dishes. Dust floated abound in splintered rays of sunlight coming in from the windows. I gestured to the kitchen. “Do you need some help with the dishes?”
She turned slowly and looked behind her, then back to me. “You’ll want to work your way up to that. Start with the fence.”
And that was that. Every day at 7:00 a.m., after tending the coops with Eli, I’d bike to Mrs. Adney’s house to help with her morning’s work. After the fencing it was mostly weed removal and hoeing until it got too hot out. Then I’d try to look busy sharpening the hoes and diggers before coming in to clean around the house.
Around noon she’d call me into her room and have me make us lunch—tomato soup, usually—then I’d help her out to the kitchen. We sat together at her little table. It was draped with a red and white checkered cloth. Over the months, my side became increasingly spotted with tomato paste. Her side was always spotless, and we always ate in silence with only the odd smile or utterance between us.
After lunch I’d rush home to help Mama with the fields where she’d be waiting for me, hoe in hand. The work went well into the evenings, with the hazy sun lingering on that faraway horizon for hours. I sometimes wandered off into the deep of the field, away from her and the work, and lay face up in the narrow stretch of dirt between the cornstalks. Always the skies were blue with lazy clouds floating on by. Every day on the hour the same airliner would pass above. I often wondered if it was heading to wherever my daddy was. I closed my eyes and listened to the jet engines streaming overhead, and daydreamed about one day flying one myself. With a plane like that, I thought, I could find my daddy anywhere.
It was a Sunday night in July when the crying stopped. I lay sprawled in bed, almost asleep, when my door creaked open.
“Henry,” Mama said softly.
I turned over. “Yes, Mama?”
“Are you awake?”
“I need you to go check on her.”
“But it stopped. I think she fell asleep.”
“She don’t usually stop like this in the middle of the night. It’s been nearly an hour. I need you over there, okay?”
“Can’t you call her?”
“Why do I have to?”
“Because I said so. Besides, it’s a quicker bike ride for you than for me to get the car out of the barn. Up now, c’mon.”
I got out of bed, shoulders slumped, head hung. Eli lay asleep, cuddled up to the wall, his blond hair lit by the moonlight.
Mama and I went out to the kitchen.
“Don’t be too long.” She sat down at the table by the window and pulled out her pack of menthols. She lit one and took a drag. The ashtray in front of her had a pile of half-smoked butts spilling over the sides. She crossed her arms, chewing on her thumbnail. “If you knock and she don’t answer, just go right on in, okay? If something’s wrong, you call me.”
“I will.” I slipped on my boots and opened the screen door, then went out to the porch. The lazy July breeze was cool against my skin.
“You might want a coat,” Mama said from inside the doorway.
“I won’t need one.”
“Just in case.”
She came out holding my daddy’s coat, the one he’d left me. It had rips and tobacco stains and was far too big for me, but it was my daddy’s coat, and I liked it better than mine.
“Fine,” I said.
A scornful look washed over Mama’s face. “Don’t you give me that.”
“Yes, yes, sorry.” I put it on. It smelled like motor oil and sour beer, the way I imagined my daddy smelled.
“Kay, hurry up now,” Mama said.
She kissed me on the cheek and shoved me off. I wiped off the kiss then went down the steps and got on my bike. Mama went back in the house.
Mrs. Adney’s kitchen light was on when I arrived. I got off my bike and leaned it against the apple tree near the driveway and went up the steps to her door. I slowly turned the handle and poked my head in.
“Mrs. Adney?” I said in a small voice.
Next to the table, a can of soup lay upended on the kitchen floor, thick tomato paste spilled out onto the linoleum. On the far side of the floor to the left was Mrs. Adney. She lay on her side with her arm bent behind her like a chicken wing. My mind couldn’t make sense of it. Was she looking for something on the floor? Taking a nap?
I crept up, wanting to say something, but my throat tightened. I slowly shuffled around her, not wanting to look. I couldn’t help it. We locked eyes, and in a low voice, she said my name.
I jerked back.
“Henry,” she whispered, “don’t be affright.”
I got down on my knees and put my hands out to help her. She shook her head and winced.
“What happened?” I asked.
“A setback.” Her voice was raspy, as if her throat was full of gravel.
“Mrs. Adney, I have to call Mama, or the ambulance… or something.” I got up to go to the phone.
“Get back here, boy,” she said. “Sit down.”
I hesitated then sat, cross-legged.
She had gotten worse since my last visit. Her paper-thin skin sagged from her arms, her face sunken and pale. I wondered how she wasn’t screaming in pain then realized her voice must have given out from the hours of wailing and bawling. The cries I had heard earlier were not of her usual nightly routine but from the fall. She’d been on the floor all night screaming for someone—for me or Mama to help—but we’d heard it and only waited for it to go away.
I put my daddy’s coat over her.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I don’t know, helping.”
“Boy, take this damn filthy thing off me. I’m hot as a pancake on pavement.”
“Don’t be,” she said. “Go put it on the coat rack if you like.” After a moment, she continued, “I knew you’d come, Henry.”
I went and put the coat on the rack then came back and sat with her. “Mama was worried. I thought you were… you know.”
“Not yet, heavens. Only in a great deal of pain. Your mama was right to worry, though. You’re a good boy for listening to her.”
“Can’t you move?”
“No. My legs gave out, and I fell; they don’t work none. Hit my head on the way down and knocked me out cold. I don’t know for how long. I think my arm’s broke.”
“What do I do?”
“Go into the living room and get me a pillow, will you? The purple one. My head hurts.”
I went and got the purple pillow and came back and slowly lifted Mrs. Adney’s head. There was a small mess of blood under it, wet and matted in her weightless locks. I didn’t say anything; she knew. I placed the pillow down and gently lowered her head.
“Stay here with me.”
“There has to be something else to do.”
She closed her eyes and let out a deep, laboured breath. A thin sheen of sweat coated her forehead. “No, this is what there is to do.”
“Mama said I should call her if something’s wrong.”
“Henry, there ain’t a hospital near for a hundred miles.” She said this sternly, the way only grown-ups talk to each other. “Even if there was, all those doctors are going to do is pump me full of drugs so I can die the way they see fit.” She paused and looked straight at me. “I’m going to die on this floor tonight, and you’re going to sit here and stay with me until I do. Is that okay?”
I only wanted to leave, to bike home as fast as I could and go to bed, where Mama would be the next morning to tell me it was only a bad dream. “Mama said not to be too long,” I said.
“It’s fine, dear. Your mama will understand.” She closed her eyes, wheezing as her chest moved in irregular intervals. “I need you to tell her something for me.”
“Promise me, boy.”
“You tell your Mama this, and no one else.”
I let out an exhausted groan. “Yes, I promise.”
“Bill’s accident. Tell her—” she coughed, her throat hoarser now, “tell her, I wish it didn’t have to happen like it did. But I’ve lived with it a long while now, long enough to know I don’t regret it. Waited for it to seep in—the regret and the guilt—but it hasn’t come, and looks like it won’t get the chance. What pain he caused me, your mother… God knows he deserved it. But God has a way of making things right. He always does, and maybe this is His way of evening things out. And I think I’m okay with that. I don’t regret it none, and it was the best thing I ever did for me. You tell her that, will you? That part’s important.”
“I don’t regret it, and it’s the best thing I ever did for me.”
“Just tell her, Henry. That’s all.”
“I will. Promise.” I sat slouched with my fists under my chin.
“Can you fix my pillow?”
I adjusted the pillow. She clenched her teeth and winced.
“She’s a good woman, your mama. Been through a lot. You treat her kindly, don’t you?”
“When she’s not mean.”
Mrs. Adney almost laughed, but her dry, pasty lips quivered as they worked to hold back the pain. “That’s part of the whole thing, I suppose. Your mama has to be that way sometimes, to you and your brother, so you two don’t grow up to be like your—”
I waited for her to finish.
“Henry,” she said. Her gaze moved to the far wall, distant and confused. “I used to sing, you know. Did your mama ever tell you that?”
“She said you were a ‘true talent.’”
“Did it make you money?”
I scooted closer.
“I was a soprano,” she said, “like Maria Callas. Better looking too.” She tried to clear her throat, unsuccessfully with only rough heaving. As much as she tried to mask the pain, every word betrayed her resilience. Yet she said more to me that night than she had the entire summer.
“There’s maybe no greater feeling, Henry, than standing on stage in front of folks who come from all over the country to hear your voice. Not Maria Callas’s but yours. It rivals love, I think.”
“How come you stopped?” I asked. “Did you want to work in the fields? I wouldn’t have stopped. If I could do something else, I would do it.”
Mrs. Adney cleared her throat and tried to lift her voice above a whisper. “I was only a girl at the time. I fell in love. That’s when the singing stopped. People do silly things when they fall in love, Henry. Things that go against every ounce of rationality in their body, but they do it anyway because that’s what people do. I don’t know why this is, but it’s the truest thing I know.”
“You’ll get it one day,” she said. “It will be the most beautifully stupid decision of your life, to fall in love.”
“It sounds hard.”
“It’s the easiest thing you’ll ever do.”
“So, you didn’t love singing anymore? When you fell in love?”
“Oh, no, dear. I loved it very much, and still do. I had to make a decision, though, and I chose to give up my career to buy this land here with Bill.”
“But it’s so boring here.”
She moaned as she tried to move her arm. “I don’t think so. One day you’ll move far away, to college, I hope, and it’ll be gone, and you’ll never get it back. Maybe in snippets of memories, but that’s all. You’ll miss the evenings playing in the fields with your brother; the April showers that stay for weeks to make all this land here thrive. The skies—bluer than all the oceans—the sparrows that come to the window in the morning to sing their songs… no stage can give you these things.”
“Well, it sounds okay when you say it like that. Maybe you made a good choice.”
Mrs. Adney stared blankly at the floor, almost drifting off. Her chest rattled with each breath.
“Almost forty years I’ve lived on this land.” She licked her dry lips. “About eleven of those years on my own. If you’d of asked me twelve years ago if I made the right decision, I’d of said no. But these past eleven, well, I think they may have been my best.”
“So, I guess you did make a good choice.”
“I guess I did. You can tell your mama that too.”
The linoleum under me was cold. Mrs. Adney was trembling.
“Are you cold now, Mrs. Adney?”
“Do you want me to get my coat for you?”
“Could you, please?”
I was about to get up when she asked another question.
“Henry,” she said.
“What would you do if you didn’t have to work the fields for your mama?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said before, if there was something you could do besides fieldwork…” She paused and took a few deep breaths. Her eyes were desperate, longing, searching. “…what would it be?”
I got up from the floor. “Well,” I said, “I guess I would be a pilot. Or maybe a wrestler. But probably a pilot.”
“That sounds like a fine job. Not the wrestler.”
“I think so too,” I said as I went to the coat rack. “But not like a small plane pilot—like the crop dusters ’round here—one of those big ones that fly all over the world. I would fly to Egypt and see the pyramids, and go to Mount Everest, too, unless it was too big to fly over. Then I would just go somewhere like Philadelphia and see the crack in the bell. I heard it’s bigger than Eli.”
I grabbed the coat then went back to Mrs. Adney. I moved around her and plopped back down in my spot. “It wouldn’t be too hard with a big plane like that.”
Mrs. Adney didn’t say anything. Her vacant eyes fixed toward the floor, her face halfway off the pillow, mouth sagging. The kitchen was quiet except the constant hum of the fridge. A chill swept over me. I shuffled back.
I wanted to say something but only waited. For what, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps for her to speak first, for her to ask me to fix her pillow. Or maybe for Mama to call and tell me to come home so she could put me to bed. Instead it was only deafening silence, goading me to get up and run away. I gently placed my coat over her. That kitchen was the loneliest place in the world, and not even Mrs. Adney could tell me otherwise.
But I stayed. For a while at least. I sat with her in the quiet of the night, with only that soft hum and the whisper of a breeze swimming through the cornstalks outside. I’m not sure how long it was before I heard a knock at the front door.
I got up and crossed the kitchen. I opened the door. Eli stood on the porch—his hair ruffled and face sweaty. One of his blue pyjama leggings was tucked into his untied boot.
“Mama sent me,” he said.
Without thinking about it, I gave him a hug. It was the only thing there was to do. A sense of overwhelming comfort came over me, the kind only a brother’s embrace could offer. It was reassurance against the unknown.
“Is Mrs. Adney okay?” He tippy-toed, trying to peer over my shoulder.
“No, she ain’t.”
“Mama wants you back at the house.”
“Yeah, I know. Hold on.” I went back in, half-heartedly closing the door behind me, but Eli stuck his hand in the door jamb. I looked back and saw him peek his head in. His eyes widened, and he shrunk back out the door.
I went to the sink and found a wet rag, then picked up the can of soup off the floor and used the rag to sweep the spilled contents into the can. I put it on the table then went out to meet Eli. He stood on the front lawn, a safe distance from the house.
“Why’s she like that?” he asked.
I didn’t answer and only pointed to his bootlace. It had a habit of wandering away from its lace hooks. I went to him and got on one knee and tied it, slow enough for him to take note.
“See?” I said. “Did you see what I did this time?”
I got up and tousled his hair. “No you didn’t.”
As I went back up the stairs, Eli crossed to the apple tree where his bike leaned against mine. I was about to close the door.
“Aren’t you getting your coat?” he said.
I took a last look at Mrs. Adney, Daddy’s coat still draped over her, and turned away. I wondered if she had a brother or a sister somewhere out there who was thinking of her. Or a daughter, or a son. Maybe grandchildren. I thought about Mama. She’d be waiting for me when I got back home. She always did.
“I don’t need it,” I said.
A blanket of soft, morning-blue sky covered the wide land as the stars above sunk back one by one, disappearing with the fading moon. We got on our bikes and rode along that stretch of dirt road, inching ahead of each other as we went. Gravel spit up from under our tires. We peddled hard and whizzed past rows of stalks lining the side of the road. I sped up. Sparrows flew about, diving in and out of the crops. I let Eli beat me to the house, only barely.
Eli went straight to bed, and Mama called 911 after I told her what had happened. We sat at the kitchen table and waited for the sirens to come. I could only recall one part of the promise I’d made to Mrs. Adney—the important part.
“She told me to tell you she doesn’t regret it,” I said.
Mama took a drag of her menthol and pressed it into the ashtray. “Regret what?” Smoke seeped from her nostrils.
“I’m not sure what she meant. I think it was about her husband.”
Mama stared out the window and crossed a leg over the other. She smiled, only from the corner of her lip, and shook her head slightly.
“She was an old lady, Henry, and very sick. Who knows what she meant by it. Probably many things.”
The crest of the sun peeked over the horizon, and the blue tinge was now met with a dashing red and purple canvas cloaking the endless, open fields. Mrs. Adney’s farmhouse was a small shadow alone in the distance. A chuckle escaped from Mama’s lips.
“You should get to bed, honey,” she said, then forced a smile. “I’m gonna have to go over there soon to meet the medics.”
“I’m pretty tired.”
“You look it.”
I said goodnight, and Mama pulled me in and gave me a kiss. I wiped it off then went to my bedroom.
Eli was asleep. I got into bed and stole some of the flannel sheet from him then cozily tucked myself in. A few minutes later, the whirling sound of faraway sirens made their way down the road. Eli never flinched. A rooster crowed, then another. I closed my eyes. Outside my window the birds flapped about and sang their morning songs, and as I drifted away, I wondered how it ever took me so long to hear them.