What Matters Most

By RACHEL LAVERDIERE 

More than anything, I want to shrink down into the dirt like a tiny brown beetle. I cling to the Woolworth’s bag containing things I cannot bear to leave behind. Pushing through row after row of wavering wheat, I imagine sinking into the edge of the field where the sky swallows the sun at night. Trying to push from my mind the trail of bent wheat that betrays me, I trudge toward the line that divides gold from blue.

I want my big brother, Lynn, and Maman to cry when they see all of my things—the silver brush, the tube of grape lip gloss, and my stories—missing from the top of my dresser. Maybe Papa will be sad, too. I want their hearts to throb like mine when Roxanne bit off the pointed tip of my grape lip gloss, but I was the one who got a spanking for bursting into tears because my baby sister is Papa’s favorite. I want them to weep like I did when I saw Lynn’s hands wrapped like mummies after they froze to the flagpole.

Mama Kitty bumps her head against my leg. I set down the plastic bag and swipe my slick palms across my thighs before I crouch to rub behind her ears. Purring in time with the deep rumbles rising from my belly, she licks at the scratches on my shins. I squint into the sun until I spot a patch of green winking between waves of wheat. I adjust the angle of my path and gather the bag to my chest. Mama Kitty winds her way between my legs and takes the lead. I follow her orange tail through her narrow wake and try to ignore the pinches and grumbles in my empty tummy.

Where I’m headed, there will be heaps of food. After I packed my bag, I snuck past Maman pushing a tray of cinnamon buns into the oven. Yesterday, I overheard her on the phone with Mémère, “The chokecherries should be ripening soon.” Maman never lies. And if the tart fruit isn’t ripe, there is plenty of wheat in the fields.

Papa hardly ever talks to us, and when he does, his voice is so gruff my heart races. But weeks ago, he told us, “The wheat will turn into gum if you chew hard enough.” Then he got angry because we could not turn wheat into gum. Papa tells many lies—like when he said Lynn and I could keep the runt piglet, so we loved it until it grew fat and strong. Then Papa sold him at the market. Or like when he asked me, “Want a marshmallow?” But when I reached into his hand, the white things were his false teeth. So I think wheat gum is as make-believe as the stories they tell at church about multiplying fish and water becoming wine.

Maman says praying is magical because it makes miracles happen. I wonder how she believes that one thing can become another? Often before falling asleep, I’ve squeezed my eyes shut and wished to wake up somewhere else. But, when my eyes open, it’s my same old freckled arms poking out of the same shaggy blue bedspread. It’s my stubby little toes stepping onto the same carpet.

Maybe I have to stay me because I do not believe that I can wake up in someone else’s body. That means I do not believe Maman, so I must be like Papa. I don’t believe Maman even though she says she tells the truth, and Papa doesn’t believe me when I tell the truth either.

Weeks ago, Maman got all dolled up for a wedding in Lac Pelletier. Maman never wears dresses and Papa doesn’t let her wear makeup, but her eyelashes were thicker and darker and her lips were brighter than usual. I don’t know why I was already afraid because nothing had happened yet. The neighbor boy came to stay with us because his sister could not.

I am never scared when she comes. Her voice is soft and small like her, and she always takes good care of my brothers and sister and me. But now, the babysitter’s voice and his squinty brown eyes wobble in my head. The sun blazing down makes me dizzy. I do not want to think about what happened. My hands shake, and I grip my plastic bag and listen to the firepit crackling in my tummy. The fire creeps up my throat. Finally, I retch between the tidy rows of wheat. I spit out slimy yellow goo, but the taste sticks to my tongue.

When Maman and Papa came home I tried to tell Maman what happened, but I couldn’t find words to explain what the boy had done to me.

Papa growled, “She’s lying!”

Tears flowed down Maman’s pretty cheeks when she said, “How would she learn things like that? She’s just a little girl.”

I could not stop crying, so Papa spanked me. Everything goes black in my brain after that.

A whine rises up behind me. Mosquitoes do not come out when there are no clouds, and the sun is high. The whine grows louder. “If God exists,” I whisper to the sky because if there is a God that is where he lives, “please don’t let it be him. Please don’t let him find me.” Maybe he is coming for me, and this time his hands won’t stop tearing me open. Eying the distance to the chokecherry bushes, I know he will reach me before I find shelter. “I promise I won’t steal raisins from the cinnamon buns anymore if you make it not be him,” I whisper to the clear blue sky.

Mama Kitty scurries in front of me, and I follow. I try to run fast like Lynn, but my breath quickly grows ragged. Plus, I know he will spot me because I am wearing my bright shirt. I cannot be invisible wearing red in this field.

Most things are inescapable. Like the grasshoppers whose legs cling to my skin no matter how hard I try to shake them free. Like the rain and hail and snow. Like Papa’s anger. When he comes home, we must stay out of sight like the mice that run through the walls when everyone is supposed to be asleep. Papa’s fists catch me when I forget to creep past him. But for Maman, it is worse. When she puts broccoli on the table, Papa bangs his fist on the table and sneers, “Why are you feeding us garbage?” Sometimes her eyes are puffy in the morning and bruises bloom on her arms.

If I cry in front of Papa, I will be spanked.

It’s the same if I tell Maman the truth. When she asked why I was crying, I said it was because of what the babysitter did when I was changing into my yellow windmill pajamas. Because I tried to run away, but there was nowhere to hide. Because he pushed his hand up between my legs until it burned somewhere inside of me. Papa called me a liar and spanked me.

I am not a liar.

And if he is coming to find me, I don’t know what I will do. I think of the tiny brown field bunnies with their racing hearts Papa sometimes brings home in a box. Like me, they don’t know how to hide from danger. They just sit trembling with hearts pounding hard in their chests.

Sometimes it feels like my heart is wobbling inside my chest and the world is spinning off balance. At school, Mrs. Bratvold showed us how the world tilts as she slowly spun Earth on its metal post she says is imaginary. I don’t know many grown-ups that I’m not afraid to talk to. Grown-ups who try to answer all of the questions I can’t stop myself from asking. When I asked Mrs. Bratvold, she said that the earth will never spin off its axis. When I told her that sometimes I feel the planet twirling out of control, she patted my hand and looked at me with her sad eyes. She often looks at Maman with the same expression.

The hum has almost caught up to me. I run faster, but my feet get tangled in the bag. I tumble onto the scratchy dirt. Skin scrapes off my knees and the palms of my hands sting. Laughter booms behind me. A tire catches the corner of my bag. The sky dulls.

Then I recognize the laugh. It is not the neighbor boy chasing me. My brother’s voice booms nearby, so I pull air into my chest, and the sky brightens again. He revs the engine, does a full arc around me, and then the whining fades.

It’s possible he will run me over, so I get up and run. He’s only a year older, but maybe he will grow up to be like Papa. Maman warns Lynn when his eyes look as angry as Papa’s, but he swears he’ll never hurt us. Instead, he punches the old chicken coop or the bales. But I do not know anything for sure.

My silver scissors plunge into the dirt at my feet. Things are falling from the rip in my Woolworth’s bag. I pick them up because I will be in trouble if they are missing when it is time to gather our school supplies after summer. My things glitter along the trail I’ve trampled in the tidy rows of wheat.

I drop my bag and sink to the earth. Ripening wheat waves against blazing blue. Flattening my body against the parched ground, I slow the thudding of my heart until I am a small mouse. The whining gets close enough to land in my ear, and then it stops. Tears leak from my eyes.

Dusty shoelaces drag on the ground an inch from my nose. “You coming home?”

I don’t know. I wish he could hear me. I wish he could save me from the things in my head that chase me wherever I go. I squint through the wheat. Dirt streaks his cheek as though he’s tumbled, and his knuckles are painted with fresh blood. I imagine hugging my spilling bag to my aching chest.

Why can’t you see me? My brother used to know everything about me. He is my only friend. Lynn would never hurt me. Or would he? People aren’t always who they seem to be. Sometimes his eyes go bright and his cheeks turn red with anger. Then, Maman says he is too much like my father and that makes me afraid.

“Well,” he says, plucking a few grains of wheat, “I’ll wait thirty seconds. Maman is making mushroom soup and sandwiches.” I hear him spitting the mess out a few moments later, then his feet crunch away.

I take a deep breath and pop up. My brother acts a little too surprised, which tells me he’s known I was there all along. He takes my hand in his, and we stand silently in the wheat field, looking out at the highway beyond the golden waves.

We’ve run here together before—he understands the pull towards the chokecherry bushes. He nods towards the patch of green. “What about the coyotes?” I shrug and hug the bag to my chest.  “You walk. I’ll take your bag home.” Mama Kitty bumps up against my knee and looks up at me. I hesitate before I hand him my half-empty bag.

Picturing the creamy soup and trying to forget my promise to not to steal raisins from the cinnamon buns, I follow my rumbling belly home. The front of my shirt becomes a makeshift pouch for the prized possessions I gather again along the bent wheat trail. I choose what matters most—a Holly Hobby pencil, a purple penguin eraser and my glow-in-the-dark statuette of the Virgin Mary.

 

Inspired by the vast skies of Saskatchewan, Rachel Laverdiere anticipates that calm will erupt into thunderstorms, flocking geese will disappear into the sunset, and northern lights will traipse across the blackened stage. To read more of her work, visit www.rachellaverdiere.com.

What Matters Most

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