Nov 14 ● BY C.P. Etienne
The footsteps were so quiet I knew it was Papa making his way to the kitchen. Mama’s walk was the scrape of her house shoes along the floor, the soles snapping up to hit her heels with a pop. Papa hardly made any noise at all; sometimes the only way you could hear him coming was from the quiet rustle of his clothes.
When he rounded the corner, I could tell they had been at it again. Papa’s mouth only drew down at the corners like that after he and Mama’d had a talk. One of those hushed talks with the doors closed that seemed to be more silence than words.
When he saw me, I was still in my Sunday dress. He smiled, but it wasn’t his smile. Papa was somebody who smiled with his whole face: mouth, cheeks, and eyes framed by creases. But not this time. This smile left his face unmoved.
On Sundays we would usually come home from church, and Mama would go straight downstairs to take a nap under the ceiling fan. The heat drained her strength, so she would sleep through the hottest hours of the day if she could. Papa usually came into the kitchen, sidled up next to me at the oak table, and watched her ease down the steps. He’d nudge me with his shoulder, exaggerating his eye roll to make me giggle quietly.
“That’s what I get for taking up with a prima donna,” he’d always mutter. Then he’d grin. “You’ll come help me out back, June-bug?” And I would spend the afternoon helping him with the garden, or his truck, or whatever else he wanted until Mama called me in to help with supper.
But today was different. Papa just stood in the doorway without a word, shoulders hunched.
The quiet made me antsy. “You need help out back?”
It was a long time before he spoke. “Not today.” He turned to go out the kitchen door.
“Where are you going?”
“A walk, I think. Clear my head some.”
“I’ll go with you!” A walk outside with Papa, no matter his mood, was better than being cooped up in the house, scared that any little sound would wake Mama. I hurried past him and out the kitchen door before he could even fix his mouth to say no.
He followed me out with a flippantly drawled “Yes ma’am.” But he chuckled, and it made the lines come to the corners of his eyes. That was all I wanted.
We walked out, past the flower beds and the little vegetable garden, until we reached the end of the property. Instead of turning around when the backyard ended, Papa kept going, starting the incline up to the hill.
I had trouble keeping pace with his long legs. Mama had said I was tall for twelve, but Papa was just tall, period. Every step of his ate up three of mine. The grass on the hill was so high it caught the hem of my dress, dragging it against my shins. I gave up on trying to look like a lady and hiked the skirt to my knees, running to keep up. Mama wasn’t here to fuss about it anyway. I panted, a little out of breath as I pulled even with him. That far up the hill the incline was steeper than I was used to. I was never allowed to go to the hilltop—too many wild animals in these parts, too much fickle ground underfoot—but that had to be where he was headed.
“Just a bit more. We’re almost there.”
My calves and thighs were starting to burn, but I didn’t dare let on. He was letting me make the walk with him. I could count on one hand the number of times in my life that he’d brought me even part way up the hill; I wouldn’t spoil it all by complaining now.
He started to whistle quietly and I chimed in once I recognized the song. I wasn’t the best whistler, so I just sang. He seemed to like that. Eventually, he began to talk, haltingly at first, as was his way. He asked if I had seen the catalog with the parts for an antique pickup he was trying to restore. I had. We talked for a while about the finishing touches for the cab, which was mainly just me trying to convince him to splurge on the extra shiny chrome. He shook his head. “Always got to have the glitz and glam, just like your mama.” I scowled at him, which made him laugh outright. He rested his warm, long-fingered hand on top of my head. “But you’re my girl too, right?”
“My favorite girl,” he said, smiling that smile I knew so well. “Just don’t tell your mama.” He winked, making a joke of it.
We both laughed as if it wasn’t true.
The farther we walked from home, the more relaxed he became. Once we crested the top of the hill, his shoulders weren’t hunched any more. He looked like he could finally breathe. The breeze felt like it was bringing in a storm, but nothing loomed on the horizon, just puffy, white clouds scattered as far as the eye could see. The summer sky gleamed a bright, cheerful blue. I couldn’t resist the urge to look back the way we had come. I knew we had been hiking the hill for some time, but seeing our house so far below, nestled into the endless stretch of trees and grass and sky, really made it sink in.
“What are we doing, Papa?”
He just stood there, silent, at first—a dark and lanky figure silhouetted against the perfect blue sky, watching me with a look I couldn’t quite place. “Picking berries,” he said finally. “I thought I saw some last time I came up here.”
I tried not to frown at him. We could have picked berries in the bushes around the house without having to come all this way, but he needed the walk. So I lowered my eyes and started to search the low-lying shrubs and clusters of leaves. I don’t know how long I looked, but I never saw a splash of crimson or deep blue-purple.
“I don’t see any,” I said after a few minutes, heaving an irritated sigh.
“Really? I got a whole heap over here.” And he did. A mound of plump berries was piled so high in his hand that he had to cup it against his stomach so it didn’t overflow.
I gaped at him, and he chuckled. “But I didn’t see—”
“Come here.” The fingers of his free hand were dyed bright red as he grasped my shoulder and positioned me just in front of him. “You see that tree over there?” I could hear the rustling of his clothes behind me as he bent to put his face on level with mine. He took my hand and curled all but one of my fingers into a fist. He aimed my pointer finger like the barrel of a gun and my eyes followed it, sighting on a tree that stood just a little ways out from the rest, skirted by bushes.
I nodded, slowly. “Yeah.”
“Look at the bushes.” I could feel the puffs of air against the back of my neck as he spoke.
I squinted, straining my eyes until I could make out the little dots of color. Once I knew what to look for, I saw plenty of the small, deep red clusters. I couldn’t be sure from that distance, but they looked like wild strawberries. I looked back at what he had cradled in his hand. Yes. They were strawberries, small and brightly colored. I grinned and took a running start to the leafy bunches. I don’t know how long I picked them, hopping from one bush to the next until I had so many strawberries that I had to carry them cradled in my skirt. At some point, Papa had gone to sit under the tree, all the berries he’d carried in a pile on the ground next to him. Once I thought I had gotten enough, I did the same: gently heaping my berries on the ground and sitting down beside him.
“Attagirl.” His grin was broad, folding his face into the familiar creases. I could never help grinning back at him when he smiled at me like that. “You must have cleaned out the whole hillside!” It was cool under the tree and the shade wrapped around us, a great blanket keeping out the sun. I shifted against him, unable to find a comfortable position on the lumpy ground. I shuffled and shifted, but eventually gave up.
He saw me struggling and snorted. “Just lay down.”
So I did, curling up on my side and using his leg as a pillow. It wasn’t so bad. I stared down at his feet in their dark, dusty shoes, his legs crossed at the ankle. I felt him chuckle.
“You’ve got leaves in your hair, June-bug.” I could feel the delicate motions of his fingers as he tried to make me presentable. He plucked at it for a second, but eventually lost his patience for it. I felt the tension against my scalp slacken as he removed one of the pins securing my braids. “Nothing else to be done for it.” His voice was low with concentration. The coils of my hair spilled around my face as he undid one braid, then the other.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of his hand as he worked. I reached out and caught his calloused palm. It was stained in splotches and clusters of pinkish red. “It’ll take forever to scrub this clean,” I said.
He grinned, taking his hand back to continue unraveling my hair. “I don’t know. I may keep it. Like a tattoo.” He thought about it, then nodded. “That’s what I ought to do. I ought to give you one, too. So we’ll both have one.”
“So we’ll both get fussed at by Mama, you mean.”
I could hear the smile in his voice. I don’t remember closing my eyes, but I didn’t mind sitting there with Papa, letting his long fingers comb through my hair. “There won’t be none of that. I’ll make it real pretty. I think I’ll do a rose. The color’s right, don’t you think?”
“Mama said that ladies don’t have tattoos.”
“Well. I say this lady can do whatever she wants. Forget what your mama says.” He gave one section of hair a playful tug.
I swatted his hand away half-heartedly, thinking. Mama didn’t say much anymore except to fuss. Hadn’t for some months. But even her fussing was better than the look she got sometimes. A look like everything good in the world was gone. When she looked like that, she closed herself up downstairs to rest. She didn’t want to be bothered. As time went on, it seemed like she spent more time down there by herself, and less upstairs with us. Sometimes, I wondered if she wished we weren’t there at all. I tried to think back to how things were before, but all I could remember were her sad eyes and her silence. Maybe that was all Papa could remember too.
“Papa,” I said finally.
“Why did you fall in love with Mama?”
I felt his hands go still in my hair, and I wondered if I had asked the wrong thing. I squinted one eye up at him, but he wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were far away for a long time, and it made my chest hurt.
“She was gentle,” he began. His fingers went back to detangling my hair, as delicate as before. “And as kind as the day is long. She used to sing all the time, too. I’d walk past her Ma and Pa’s house when she was singing in the kitchen, and I’d just stop and listen. She had a voice like a baby angel, I tell you. Never heard anything like it.”
The braids were gone, now. His fingers smoothed easily through my hair, massaging little circles against my scalp. I closed my eyes again, settling back against him. “She doesn’t really sing anymore.”
“No, she doesn’t.” His fingers faltered again, for just a second. “But you sing enough for both of y’all, and you got a voice on you too. Sweet like honey. Or spring.” He paused for a moment. “I think I will give you that tattoo. A flower for my girl. It’s perfect.”
I started to complain. “Pa—”
“Hush up now, and hold still. Where do you want it?”
I rolled my eyes. Once he got it into his head to do something, there was no use trying to get him off it. “It doesn’t matter.”
“You say that now, but if I put it in the middle of your forehead, you and your Mama will both be after me.”
I couldn’t help laughing, but I shrugged.
I cracked open an eye. “Hmm?”
“Right here.” He tapped my shoulder. “That’ll do just fine.”
I gave a snort, letting my eyes fall shut again and batted his hand away. “Quit playing.” The sunlight shone peach through my closed lids.
“Who said anything about playing?”
I felt the barely cool sensation of juice against my shoulder. I jumped, and he laughed. “I told you I’d do it.” When I looked up at him, his brow was furrowed. He crushed a berry between his fingers and put on more juice, barely missing the strap of my dress. I must have looked distressed, because he just chuckled again. “Not much to be done for it now, June-bug. Might as well let me finish.” I frowned up at him but didn’t say another word. He knew, just like I knew, that Mama would have a fit if she saw it. But, like he said, there was no point in getting upset about it now. The damage was done.
I don’t know how much time passed with him working at his art, shifting every once in a while to get the angle he wanted. I just recalled the liquid sliding between my skin and the tips of his fingers, the lightly textured grit of the seeds.
“Such a pretty color on you,” he muttered, fingers trailing in slow, deliberate movements.
“Huh?” I didn’t bother opening my eyes, and he didn’t bother responding. He was like that sometimes, my Papa.
I felt his fingers brush along my cheek.
“Papa?” I opened my eyes and saw him watching my face seriously.
His eyes were too focused, too intense. Then one solemn, berry-coated finger traced the curve of my bottom lip, light as a feather. He continued, sweeping the juice over my top lip as well. I could smell the berries, ripe and sweet. Reflexively, my tongue flicked out to catch the juice before it could spill over, brushing the tip of his finger just as he finished applying the color.
It suddenly felt like something was looming there on the hilltop. Some great, invisible thing that sprang up between us. For the quickest second, there was something in his face that I didn’t understand. Something so pained that I wanted to ask him what I could do to fix it.
Then Papa’s face shut down, all of the amiable lines smoothing away. His eyes lingered first on the drawing on my shoulder, then on my berry-painted lips. Then they darted away. He shifted, gently raising me out of his lap and easing himself away. He stood and took a long time dusting off his clothes, though I didn’t see any dirt. “We need to get going before your Mama has a fit.” The words were short. I climbed to my feet, wanting to say something, anything to make him smile at me again, but I couldn’t think of a single thing.
Papa started down the slope to the house without a backwards glance. “Come on, June.”
I licked my lips and tasted wild strawberries.
His sharp tone made me jump. I scurried down the hill behind him, the berries forgotten. When we got back to the house, the sun was starting to sink toward the horizon and Mama was just stirring from her afternoon nap. In a few minutes, she would be coming upstairs to see about supper.
Papa gave me a sidelong glance, then gestured farther into the house. “Go get cleaned up.” He didn’t really look at me.
I nodded and cleared my suddenly dry throat. “Yes sir.”
He was already walking away before I finished the words.
I made my way to the bathroom and examined myself in the mirror. I looked different, somehow. My hair rioted around my shoulders in curls and coils, but that wasn’t it. I leaned over the sink and peered into my eyes. There it was. I couldn’t explain how, but there, things were different. No, not just there. I pulled down the strap of my dress to get a better look at what Papa had given me.
It was a rose. Or, rather, it looked more like a rose than anything else I could imagine. There were at least a dozen finger smudges of berry that formed the flower. It rested on a vine that curled back around my shoulder. I was all marked up in his fingerprints, the berry hues blooming against the summer bronze of my skin. My lips had been painted with the same care and attention. A peculiar feeling began to churn in my stomach. My reflection was frowning at me, juice stained lips pulled down. I set about washing the red off of my mouth. After a moment of hesitation, I took a washcloth to the vine and rose on my shoulder too. It was impossible to get it off completely, but after working at it, I was at least able to get it to fade.
I braided my hair again, fingers quick and nimble, and checked my reflection one last time. There. Respectable. I straightened my dress before going to help Mama with supper.
“I see y’all been out there rolling around in that grass again.” She sighed, putting down the wooden spoon with a solid thunk.
My heart thrummed against my ribs. “What?”
She reached over and plucked a blade of grass off of my dress. “I swear, I couldn’t get the country out of you if I tried.” She glared over my head. “And you aren’t helping.”
I glanced behind me, and saw Papa leaning in the doorway. His gaze rested on my shoulder. I could feel his eyes there, just like I could still feel the phantom brushes of his fingers. His eyes flicked to my face, and then away. Had I not gotten all of the red off my mouth? I scrubbed a hand across my lips when Mama wasn’t looking.
I kept waiting for him to tell her to leave me alone. June-bug’s gonna be what June-bug’s gonna be. But he remained silent, his face blank and unreadable. It felt like my chest went just as still, just as empty. He turned around and went back outside, never turning back to look at either of us.
“Come over here, June.” She handed me the spoon and nodded to the half-mixed bowl of cornbread batter that sat by the stove. I obediently began stirring without a word. When the bowl started to blur, my throat constricted and my eyes burned hot. I remained silent.