Fall Harvest (Between Breath & Suffocation Sec. 11)

“Where are we going?” I asked Sage and Steven.
“Just get in…it’s a surprise,” Steven said.
I climbed in next to Sage. Steven jumped in behind the wheel and steered us down the road. The truck jerked each time he pressed his steel boot on the clutch. I sat back with a smile on my face, watching houses pass. Cool morning wind poured through the windows as we passed the high school then the junior high school. We passed the bakery, the library, the big water tank on Dorsen Road. We passed the post office, Ruby’s Diner. The parking lot was full; through the window I saw the tops of people’s heads as they sat on the red bar stools eating Ruby’s famous waffles. The laundromat on Dryer Street was closed for repairs. Across the street was King’s Supermarket. I remembered the last time Mother and I had gone.
She pushed me in a wobbly cart round and round the store. In every little boy she saw Basil or Yarrow. They had the same nose, the same hairline, the same ears, the same haircut, the same smile, the same voice, the same laugh, the same walk. They were the same, the children she had lost now returned.
“Yarrow has a sweater like that,” she pushed the basket faster following a boy in a dark blue and white sweater. When we reached him, she let go of the basket, letting it bump into a shelf of cleaning supplies. “Yarrow,” she asked. The boy shook his head no. Disappointment rose in her face and she walked back to the basket. “I thought that was him,” she said, bemused, wounded. She rested her head on the handrail and I played in her hair. And when she was done whispering her apologies, she was ready to shop again. She pushed the basket down each aisle, her step slow. We made it through the meat section, canned goods, boxed and packaged foods. We rounded the corner to the produce. The floor changed from tile to wood. Shoppers stuffed fresh vegetables and fruit in bags. They smelled them, squeezed them, listened to them as they thumped their hard sides. Behind us was a woman in heels and a long coat. Next to her was a little boy. He held her hand tight. His eyes darted across the room in awe. My mother studied onions and bell peppers. I pulled on her sleeve when she returned to the cart.
“Basil,” I pointed at the woman and her son.
“Basil,” Mother called. Her mind erupted with memory. “That’s my son. Wait,” she yelled. She abandoned the cart next to the melons and ran after the woman. “Wait.”
I twisted my body as far as I could to see her approach the woman. I thought that if she could find Basil she’d be okay, she’d be at peace.
“Can I help you?” the woman snapped.
“That’s my son, Basil.” My mother reached for the boy’s face and he grimaced.
“I beg your pardon?”
“That’s my…” my mother looked more closely at the boy’s face. His eyes were green. His face pudgy, dimple-free. “I thought he was my son, Basil.”
“Well, he’s not so could you please stop following us?” The woman grabbed her boy’s hand and pulled him away.
I watched my mother standing in the middle of the floor. The smell of sweet cantaloupe and honeydew layered the air. Shoppers maneuvered around us. They made planned and unplanned selections. They were too busy to notice that we were moving in slow motion, that she had fallen apart. I turned and she had disappeared. From side to side I searched the room, taking frantic sweeps of each face. A woman with six disheveled children huddled around me. She smelled like spearmint.
“Are you Betty’s granddaughter?”
I nodded.
“Is she here?” the woman and her children looked around the store. “Who are you here with?”
“Mommy.”

Steven turned onto Highway 1. The cracked dashboard vibrated; the seat squeaked.

“Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise,” Sage said.
“Give me a hint. I can take it anymore,” I squealed.
“No hints…you’ll have to wait.”

We stayed on Highway 1 for another twenty minutes. Steven took Route 19 and drove another twenty minutes when it all became clear.

“Is this the…”I looked around the grounds at the piles of pumpkins and stacks of hay. “The fall festival?”
“Yep,” Sage nodded. “I knew you wanted to go, so here we are.”
Steven slowed the truck, looking for a space to park.
“Park here,” Sage suggested.
“I don’t want to park there.”
“Why not? What’s wrong with that spot?”
“Let me do this,” Steven barked.

As they bickered I watched a family of five strolling along the path, three kids—two boys and a girl between eight and four—all pointing at the festivities. A welcome sign edged with white balloons hung between two trees, the lettering orange, green, and brown to represent the fall season. The ground was cluttered with leaves and straws of hay. Members of the welcome committee sat at a table just under the sign.

“Hey there,” the lady in a red trapeze dress sang. “Welcome to Oak Crest Fall Harvest Festival,” she said, stumbling over the word ‘festival’.”
“Thank you.”
“Is this your first time here?” She asked.
“No, but we haven’t been in a long time,” Sage confessed. She put her hand on my shoulder. Sage remembered the last time well; in fact, it was a memory she kept to herself, not even Steven knew. When I probed she said it was the last time the family was all together: Mother, Father, Yarrow, Sage, and Basil rode the same hayride, played the same games, ate from the same apple trees, and carved pumpkins from the same patch. So why was this such a private memory, I wondered.
“Okay…well, it’ll be five dollars for you two,” she pointed at Sage and Steven. “And two-fifty for the child.”

Steven handed her a twenty and collected the change. The second welcome lady handed us each a mini pumpkin and a flyer.

“What do you want to do first?” Sage asked.
“Let’s do the hayride.” I pointed at the tractor with the large red cart. “Come on,” I took off running.

We got in line and waited for the tractor to pull its cart around the edge of the grounds. I watched as hay leaked through the railings. Steven and Sage held hands as they gazed into each other’s eyes.

After the hayride we bought caramel apples and walked around. This year there was a petting zoo.
“I don’t remember a petting zoo,” Sage recalled.

I finished my apple and lined up to pet the baby sheep. Then it was time for dart throw. Sage watched as Steven and I played three games, our eye on the stuffed bear, the prize for throwing a dart in the center of the board.

“This game is rigged,” Steven said as we walked away empty handed.
“Who wants to play horse shoes? This is a game I can win,” Steven said, leading us to a giant sandbox with steel stakes in the center.
After two games he had won two stuffed pigs. “For my two little piglets,” he joked.
“Hey, watch who you’re calling a piglet.” Sage hit Steven in the side.
“Just kidding.”

We played ring toss, watched the dunk tank, neither of us willing to join in, threw bean bags at empty cans, and shot arrows from a bow. Steven got us all balloons shaped like ducks and we stuffed our bellies with popcorn, cotton candy, cheesy nachos, and cola. Music, fast-paced guitar strumming paired with drums shuffling eighth-notes and singers with deep and nasally voices, poured through short, square speakers tucked inside plastic crates. I danced; Steven and Sage laughed. I felt free, twisting, twirling, bouncing to the rhythm. Pumpkin mounds and rows of squash–every color, shape, and size–surrounded us, their rich colors soothing, enticing. I closed my eyes and thought of Grandma Betty, the time Stewart James and his wife Lucille brought a truck-bed full of pumpkins to our house. She transformed them into warm, yummy treats—pies, soups, puddings, breads, seeds, and purees. I thought about Mother whose skilled hands planted squash seeds for many years and watered them until they were ready to pick. For months wooden baskets filled with vegetables decorated every corner in the kitchen. They became a part of each meal, a welcomed addition we thanked god for.

As I danced, it struck me that this bountiful harvest we celebrated brought life and death closer together in my mind. It represented our world, colorful, misshapen, scarred, spotted, unrooted, forever ebbing between nature’s whim and memory’s playground. I understood why Mother saw her dead children in the faces of other children: love was the seed she planted and nurtured in them. Memory was the reminder that every harvest had its end, that planting new seeds could never truly replace the old; that even though forgetting often forged something that felt more beautiful and safe, the illusion was a shadow we’d one day have to face.

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