by E.N. Wilson
The sigh of a scythe whispers through the wheat, hushing the birds. Long Man is in the field beneath her window. For a moment, there is only Long Man and thoughts of skinny. Skinny wheat, skinny legs, skinny scythe. Then Bellabel remembers what day it is, and her heart squeezes.
Grammy is going into the ground today.
Bellabel doesn’t want to go to the strange house. She went there once before when Uncle Clem passed. Ma pulled a new dress over her head. The cloth was scratchy black with skinny white lines. Pa drove them to a strange house, and Bellabel cried when they stood on the porch because the house thought that she was a thief. She tiptoed from room to room and the floorboards creaked beneath her so the house knew where she was.
Inside, the house looked like a big dollhouse. Bellabel wanted to sit on the red velvet furniture and open the lace curtains, but the house watched her. In one room was a doll of Uncle Clem, a big, white doll made of wax. The doll slept in a shiny wood box, prettier than the shoeboxes that Bellabel’s dolls slept in. Bellabel poked her finger into the Clem doll’s hand, but the wax was hard and didn’t budge. Slippery cloth like a wedding dress lined the box, nicer than her dolls’ newspaper sheets and blankets. She stroked the frothy edges of the pillow and thought how nice it would be if her dolls had one, but she wasn’t a thief. The house watched her until she left, just in case.
Long Man sings a low song with no words, and Bellabel remembers something forgotten. It slips away when Ma yells up the stairs.
“Bellabel, get your butt down here.”
She slides her feet to the floor and dresses in her regular clothes. No scratchy black with skinny white lines until Ma says so. Patter, patter past Grammy’s room, down the stairs, into the kitchen. No eggs today, no bacon. Red eyes over the newspaper, then Pa disappears.
Ma slaps a bowl of Cheerios onto the checkerboard tablecloth. Bellabel slips into her chair and tucks bare toes over the rail so dust bunnies don’t crawl out and nibble them.
A fork stabs at Pa, but he’s safe, hiding behind the newspaper.
“She must be spinning. Day of her funeral and you half-drunk. She never liked you. Said I was throwing my life away. If only I’d listened. I wouldn’t have a damn drunk at my breakfast table, that’s for sure. Bell, eat your damn cereal and be quick about it.”
Bellabel pours milk. A new lost boy looks at her from the carton. Pa mumbles something behind the newspaper and laughs.
The fork jabs a picture of a football player. “What did you say?”
Pa throws down the newspaper and knocks over his chair. “I said you’re ruthless.” The screen door whines and claps. Bellabel hears Pa laughing in the yard, then the car door thuds and everything is quiet. Ruth was Grammy’s name, but Bellabel doesn’t see what’s so funny. She laughs anyway.
A hard hand cuffs her, and Bellabel’s shoulder knocks over the milk carton. The lost boy looks more lost lying sideways with a white trickle pouring out of the top of his head.
“Damn it, you’re as worthless as he is. Clean up that mess and be quick about it. Money don’t grow on trees and milk costs money. I can’t stand the sight of either of you. When you’re done, get yourself upstairs and stay there until I come up.”
No kisses today, no lavender hugs. Bellabel pulls off a length of paper towels and sweeps the milk into a white whirlpool. Another cuff rocks her.
“Leave it. Can’t you do anything right? You wasted a whole roll of paper towels. Just get out of my sight. Lord, help me get through this day.”
Bellabel runs into the yard. Her face is hot and little prickles stab her eyes. “Won’t cry, won’t cry,” she sings. Long Man whispers in the field and she remembers the forgotten.
Last Sunday, Kitten went into the ground. Pa backed the car over her by accident. He wouldn’t let Bellabel touch her, but Bellabel screamed so loud that he fetched a spade and scooped Kitten’s white and red body into a shoebox, tamping her down until she fit. Bellabel covered her with magazine pictures of pretty girls who might be angels and buried her in the wheat field.
Long Man might step on her.
Pa sits in the car, holding the steering wheel like he’s driving. As Bellabel passes, he calls out her name, and she veers to his side. She wishes she was tall enough to rest her elbows on the door.
“How’s my girl?” Pa’s face is red and furry and his head nods like he’s going to sleep.
“Fine. Long Man’s in the field with Kitten. Are you coming to see Grammy?”
Pa’s eyes close, and Bellabel thinks he is asleep until he says, “I’ll be there. Lord help me, I’ll be there. Promise me something. Promise you won’t take none of it to heart. She don’t mean most of it.”
“Good girl. Guess you’re feeling blue about your Grammy. It gets easier. Just remember that she’s looking down on you from heaven and she still loves you. Your ma loves you too, she just don’t show it all that well. Don’t grow up hard because of it. You can always come to me if you have to.”
“Love you, darlin’.” For a second, Pa looks like one of the lost boys, one that never was found, even after he grew up.
Long Man whistles.
“Love you, too. I have to go. Long Man might step on Kitten.” Bellabel reaches through the car window and pats Pa’s arm to make him smile. He holds her hand so hard it hurts a little, then turns away. No smiles today, no songs.
Bellabel runs around the corner of the house. Long Man swings like a pendulum above the golden sea of wheat. Kitten is in the middle of the field with a popsicle-stick cross. Long Man might not see it in time.
“Long Man! Long Man!” Bellabel plows through the wheat, tufted kernels lashing her chest.
Long Man stops swinging and draws his skinny body high so his head touches the sun. He brushes grains of wheat from his shoulders. Long Man is the color of an eggplant. He soaks up the light and flashes it from his eyes and teeth. “Well, if it isn’t Miss Bellabel. I haven’t had the pleasure of your company since … I believe it was Saturday.”
His voice makes Bellabel think of plums rolling across black velvet. Saturday morning, Long Man appeared in a cloud of dust at the end of the road. Bellabel sat in the yard, teasing Kitten with a piece of string, and he strode right up to her and said, “Excuse me, young lady. I am seeking employment. Perhaps you can direct me.” Bellabel thought he must be a prince in disguise, so rich were his words.
“My pa’s looking for someone to help harvest the wheat. He’s inside.” She watched as her mother came to the door and looked the stranger up and down. Long Man didn’t go in the house – Pa had to come outside. Bellabel lay on her back and pretended Kitten had wings as she listened to the dance of voices, soft and low. Pa moved a cot into their shed, and the next morning, Bellabel awoke to the sighing in the fields.
Long Man smells dark and clean like outside dirt full of rain. The scythe shifts and the blade hides his eyes as he mops his forehead with a sleeve. “My condolences on your recent loss.”
“Grammy’s not lost. She’s going to heaven after she goes in the ground.” Bellabel tugs on Long Man’s hand. “I have to show you where Kitten is so you don’t step on her.”
The blade lowers and light flashes from Long Man’s eyes. The air smells like dried sun as Bellabel pulls him deep into the wheat. In the center of the field, Bellabel stops and looks at the cleared patch of ground. Long Man had scythed the shape of a cross around the popsicle sticks.
“You did see her. I was worried you were going to step on her. She’s sleeping. That cross looks pretty. She likes that.”
“Thank you, Miss Bellabel. It seemed a fitting tribute for such a fine kitten.”
“She was fine, wasn’t she? Finest kitten I ever saw.” Bellabel thinks the cross is about the finest thing Kitten could have. The angels would see her right away and Grammy too, when she looked down from heaven. Bellabel’s stomach rolls over when she remembers Grammy. “Long Man? When Grammy’s in the ground, can you give her a cross, too?”
“I don’t expect she’ll need it. They’ll give her a fancy headstone of marble with her name on it. It’s more fitting for a lady.”
“I suppose. A cross in the wheat is more fitting for a kitten, though. Kitten thinks it’s about the best thing anybody ever gave her. She wants me to give you something for being so nice.” Bellabel gropes in a pocket and rolls her most prized possession in her palm one last time before offering it to Long Man.
A cloud tears away from the sun, and the marble glints like a ruby. A flash of red and a flash of white, and the marble disappears into the curl of Long Man’s hand. Bellabel feels a little sad, but inside her head, Kitten is smiling.
Long Man smiles, too. “I do believe that’s the best present anyone’s ever given me.” He turns the marble like he’s never seen one before.
“I won it from Clay Higgs. He’s the best shooter at school, but I won it from him fair and square. It was his lucky taw. He sure was mad when he lost it.”
Long Man pulls a handkerchief from a pocket and wraps the marble in it. He tucks it away gently as if it is a jewel or a robin’s egg. “My eternal gratitude. I will treasure it forever.”
A voice like a sandstorm blows around the corner of the house. “Bellabel! Get your butt in here. It’s time to get ready.”
No dolls today, no shoeboxes.
“I have to go. Grammy’s going into the ground.” As Bellabel turns toward the house, Long Man catches her hand.
“Now that I think about it, I’m quite sure it’s the best present I’ve ever received. I’d like to give you one in return. Quid pro quo.”
The words sound like magic. “Quid what?”
“Quid pro quo. It’s Latin. It means something for something. Tit for tat.”
“I’ve heard of tit for tat. You don’t have to give me nothing. You made Kitten smile.”
A hand brushes over her face like a sun-warmed cobweb. “The present is already yours. Remember, quid pro quo. You get to choose.”
“The something for something. Your dreams will know.”
Bellabel thinks that it’s a strange present, but she doesn’t want to hurt Long Man’s feelings. “Tit for tat. That’s a fine present. See you later, Long Man. Thanks again for Kitten’s cross.”
In her room, she pulls the scratchy black dress over her head without any help. Pa drives them to the strange house, and this time she doesn’t cry, even though the house still thinks she is a thief. Grammy lies in a box – a metal box, not as pretty as Clem’s. Grammy’s hair is fluffy and her lips hold a secret smile. The smile doesn’t budge, even when Pa lifts Bellabel to kiss it.
Bellabel whispers in Grammy’s ear. “I’ve got a secret, too. Tit for tat.”
Grammy goes into the ground in a green place. The grass is too short to scythe, but Bellabel thinks the pink headstone is more fitting for a lady anyway. Her fingers trace the gold letters. They don’t spell “Grammy,” and Bellabel hopes the angels recognize her when she gets to heaven.
Pa is in the doghouse, even though he’s in the car.
“Everybody was looking at you. I wanted to jump in that hole with her. My ma’s funeral and you can’t even show up sober. I wish to God I’d never laid eyes on you.”
Under her breath, Bellabel rides the rails of Long Man’s words and doesn’t listen. Tit for tat, tit for tat, tit for tat.
Supper is franks and beans. No roast chicken, anymore. No biscuits. Forks and knives shout instead of voices.
The crickets sing a hymn and Bellabel wanders into the field. Long Man is gone and so is the wheat, except for a cross-shaped patch in the middle. Bellabelle lies inside the cross and waves at the stars. She hopes Grammy is looking at her.
A squeal of tires tears the night and when Bellabel goes inside, a hard hand cuffs her. Wheat clings to the scratchy black dress and the hand cuffs her again. Bellabel is sent to her room and the dress tears as she pulls it over her head. She stuffs it under a loose floorboard in her closet.
No stories tonight, no lullabies.
Bellabel dreams that Long Man is in the field beneath her window. For a moment, there is only Long Man and thoughts of skinny. Pa laughs and sings, then his face is on a milk carton. Voices yell and Pa is in the doghouse with a chain around his neck. He has a bowl of whisky with “Pa” written on it. Grammy pulls an apple pie from the oven and gives Bellabel a spoon of icing to lick. Hard hands snatch it away. Grammy bakes a wedding cake. The two wax dolls at the top are Pa and Bellabel. Voices whisper and Pa is in the doghouse.
The birds sing and Bellabel remembers what day it is.
Ma is going into the ground today.
From the windowsill, Kitten purrs.
E.N. Wilson is a freelance writer. She lives in a swamp with her husband and a cat, and wrestles alligators in her free time. Fortunately, she doesn’t have a lot of free time.
Story © 2005 E.N. Wilson. All other content copyright © 2005 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish