I thought I was kneeling before the last angel of the Lord, knees crimped in a puddle of Oklahoma dirt, feet swole in my least pair of shoes.
“I am done being exhausted by you,” I cried out. “I have lived my years as well as I knew. I have worn my face as honest as I could, and if you don’t like what you see, you should remember me as a boy. I was not pretty or handsomely carved, but my sinew was as strong in sleep as it was awake. I never ran from a fight I thought I mightn’t win, and I never cheated when I knew I would be bloodied. So you can pierce me with whatever sword you carry in your scabbard, and I’ll lay down as humbly as I can. And the next time you see Him, after you’re finished stripping me of my guts, you can tell Him I wasn’t a bit sorry about crying out a little when you cut into my heart.”
But it was only Ma, come to ask me if I could fetch her that bucket of elderberries she’d been bullying me about for the past fifty-some years. She stepped out from behind the dense honeyed sunshine and revealed to me her homely face. She has held onto that expression — half exasperation, half astonishment — for all her life, and I never did figure if it was exclusive to me, or if it was for the world at large.
“You came back early,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting you ’til Sat’day. You can lift yourself from your knees now, go bring me my berries. Bucket’s beside the hand pump. You know where.” She shook her head, unsure. “You came back early.”
“I wasn’t particularly busy, but am disinclined to pick elderberries today,” I said. “It has been a long while, Ma.”
“It has,” she said, and she poked at a cold sore below her swollen lip. She looked frailer in her graveclothes. “I wasn’t complaining. You know I don’t complain.” She smiled, and then she asked me: “Did I really look like your angel?”
“I was expressing a confession, Ma,” I said. “You frightened me.”
I watched the morning fall from the branches of the old sweetgum tree. It clutched at the leaves and left its debris at Ma’s feet. The tree had grown tall in the years I was away, and it was untidy with pale green flowers. There was a litter of old seed pods along the muddy driveway and surrounding the rotted flowerbeds. Time had halted, sped up, and halted again. Ma had not moved, and neither had I. Was I ten years old now, or almost seventy? I wasn’t sure, because both ages felt the same.
“You brung me my berries? It has been an age since you brung me anything I wanted. There’s still ice cream in the ‘frigerator, your daddy purchased the vanilla especially for me.”
Daddy made his escape when he was still in his thirties, but he would not go away in her mind. She always had a story about him regarding the purchase of ice cream, or how he once buried a dog the wrong way, or that he was fucking that divorced woman in Eufaula back when I was still diapered, and how her hands were too unsteady to clean me when she found out. The curse words sounded like gravel coughed from her throat, but they almost brought her back to life. These were the memories she purchased for her old age. She was of an age when the scars didn’t care much about the damage that caused them.
“The house has gone to ruin,” I said.
“It has always been a difficult house,” she said. “The hardware store never kept the same colors of paint, and your daddy would not change his mind about it. He liked a particular shade of white. Funny, isn’t it, that white can be sold in so many shades? Some day, it will probably be invisible, and sold in a can just as plain as they want. They’ll sell you an armful of air, likely.”
“Mama, you need to get on,” I said. “ You don’t need to be locked to this place. Everyone is gone.”
“That’s not so. You’re still here. Not all the time, but you visit.”
“Because I have to remind you it’s time to move on. This place is an anchor.”
“You think your daddy liked that woman?”
“Mama, I was a child, I can’t remember him much. It’s been so many years. So many.”
“You gonna bring me my bucket? I can’t remember where I put it.”
“Mama, the elderberry bushes are all gone. They’ve been gone as long as me, you just don’t remember.”
She kicked at the dust underneath her. “This place has become so lonely,” she said. “Nobody visits no more, and you scarcely remember me. But where else is there? I don’t know any other place. Where do you go when you’re not here?”
“I don’t know,” I said, as honest as I could. “For a time, I’m here, waiting on the last angel to take me somewhere, and for a time, I am nowhere. I suppose I still don’t know how to lay still in death, and I still don’t know how to move through it.”
“I am sorry I brought you here,” she said, and I saw a shape fall before me.
My knees were crimped in a puddle of Oklahoma dirt, feet swole in my least pair of shoes.
“I am done being exhausted by you,” I cried out. “I have lived my years as well as I knew,” and it was the very first time for everything I knew.