So hot in her head and a bird singing. Is it a mockingbird, mimicking tunes to fool her? The heat is liquid, like she is dipping under water, and she longs for a sweet draw of clean air. A nurse gives her pills, says one is white and one baby blue, same as always, but the swimming in her head makes her eyes watery so she can’t see. The bird sings like it is happy. She tries to float, keeps going under. She wishes the heat would cease—there is work to do, so much work always to do, and she tries to be cheerful. The mornings are for cotton, chopping weeds with the smallest hoe—her daddy gives her the smallest though she’s as strong as her brothers, she tells him. She needs something bigger. She’s as tall as Edward, see? And her arms as big around. The man standing at the edge of the field thinks she looks nice, she can tell. Just who he is, she can’t see—overalls like her daddy, though, and a rough face, like he works outside dawn to dusk like him, too. The man watches her, she feels it. She’d try to be pretty for him, but she has to wipe the sweat running toward her eyes. And the rhythm, up and down, the hoe breaking earth under the rising, fluid heat. There is the pause to pull a weed too close to the stalk to get with the blade. The wiping of sweat. The rhythm.
Then a voice telling her to eat. Is it Doris, or maybe Jean? Jean—her voice has some hint of that man’s voice, she can hear it. He’s talking to her, halting, his voice thick with smoke. She feels prettier, and the heat eases just a little. She feels cool fingers on her arms, not his, though she can see he longs to touch her, she can see it behind his slow words. She looks down at the v of her lilac dress dipping toward her breasts; she looks down toward her patent leather shoes. The color of her dress like a spring blossom against the whitewash of the church, and he is still talking, one word crawling after the other, cigarette hanging from his fingers, and he asks can he take her home today. Other boys sometimes ask her that—they do, and the sky is bluer when you’re walking toward home with a boy talking sweet. But this a man, and serious. She can tell by the way he talks. She can tell by looking his hands are rough as barn boards. She can tell he might not know how to hold her, might be afraid he’ll split her to pieces like a pullet. But doesn’t he mean he loves her, kicking up a little dust in the road, shuffling his feet to keep the walk slow? Later she can put her hands on his cheeks and kiss him lightly on his upper lip when the night is big and clear and the stars are waving like candles and he asks for the walk home.
She longs for a sweet draw of clean air. She feels in her lap—her mama’s washpan, tin, the one with the dents in the sides. She can sure snap beans, nimble fingers even in the watery heat. She hears the voice that may be Jean again. What’re you doing, Mama? Snapping beans—lord, we’ve got so many this year. Piles of beans in buckets, piles laid out on flour sacks on the porch. And her hands are working, all their hands are working, and they’re wiping their foreheads with the backs of their hands, her mama and her little sis and Aunt Nan, who sweats more than any of them, always has. It’s running off the tip of her nose while she talks. You always was a mighty hard worker, Dial, and he works as hard as your papa—a fine match if ever was. But she doesn’t say anything, she doesn’t say she’s not sure; she can’t stitch the words to each other. They tangle up in the bottom of her throat, and she swallows, and she just keeps breaking the beans, snapping so fast, keeps working the way she knows to do.
And the beans are green and firm in her hands, and the man is moving in, his cheek coming down next to hers. She cannot tell if she wants to move toward him, or should she hold back from his smell of turned earth and hay. Another nurse then, calling her honey, arm around her, such cool skin, so she can move through the room like it’s a tub of water, but it hurts to swim. She is lowered in the bathroom and pulled up again and washed clean, and Jean is talking again, or maybe it is Doris—so hot in here, she says, let’s turn on some air. Get you cooled off, get you in bed for a nap. Bits of voices she clings to, but the heat in her head keeps her going under. If she could tell the time, she would know if the man’s cheek is still moving close to hers, brown as the turned earth. Maybe he will come when she sleeps. Maybe he will never come again.
She wishes sleep were kinder. She blinks her eyes, but it bathes over her like the water, and she slips in, where it is darker and voices cease, where there is only her need for air. The man comes—she wants to squeeze his hand to tell him that she knew he would—but he sits away from her, at the foot of the bed, leaning against the bedpost like it hurts. He watches the thing against her chest. She feels; it is a quilt draped across her while she tugs the needle through, in, out, and again. It is scraps she has gathered—what colors she can put together—to make a quilt, a starburst this time. But no, her skins says it is not the quilt, it is Lewis, the first, pulling on her nipple, his soft head and neck. She can’t believe how soft, and curled up against her like he thinks he’s still inside. But no, not Lewis—Doris the third or Jean the fourth, and her breast pulled down toward her navel, her arms tired. Curled against her, yes, and she touches its head, another wanting to be inside, swallowing hard and fast like a starving bird. The man is no longer watching; she sees him through the window, in the yard, his smoke drifting up, catching on the brim of his hat. Looking out over the fields growing green. She is heavy and sinking down further into the heat, like she’s dropping with a rock to the bottom of the water. She is holding the house down, in her hands the weight of wood, nails and tin, heaps of clothes for washing, supper simmering heavy in pots. Down here at the bottom, in the darkest of sleep, the sweetness turning to stone. She struggles to wake. Jean, Jean, Doris, where’s my husband?
And soothing hands raising her and brushing back her hair, a sip of cold water. Mama, he’s not here now, Mama. When will he come back? Tell me. Nothing she can make out but blackness, but she pushes toward the surface, eases the heat. She pushes the needle in, pulls it out. Checks the tightness of her knot, but it’s not the quilt. Pants with holes, socks with holes, buttons in need of their rightful place, sashes torn off. Light at the surface, the glow of the little lamp in a circle around her. And the fingers of the man on her neck as he walks by, the only promise he ever makes, some nights when darkness is down tight over them already and the babies are sleeping. His fingers on her neck and the question he can never ask, the one she has never figured the whole answer to, but it will be with her whole body, with sighs and lightness in her fingertips, if she can only be asked. The night folds them in and she gives herself, but it is not to the question being asked. It is the warmth of his hands rough as barn boards, it is the length of him against her, trying to be soft. It is sweet, he means to be sweet, and in her christian heart she forgives him. The heat swims around them and she kisses his upper lip and cradles him past sleep, lying awake, looking into the night to work it out like a riddle, but it is only swimming dark.
She bobs on the surface, the heat only dull in the back of her head, but she still can’t breathe like she wants. She studies the riddle of her Indian pink, same as she studies it every year. I tell you, she says, the pink’s going to be pretty this time, ain’t it? Yeah, and dinner in a few minutes, hon. Somebody’ll be back to help you. The way it blooms, she says, never fails, same time, when spring is gone to its fever pitch. That red and yellow, that full red and full yellow. She didn’t do a thing to it, it was just there, natural, in its place in the side yard. Had to ask old lady Ragsdale what it was; she knows every green thing. Pink, but red and yellow, one thing but another. Why call it that? she asks. Asks every year, though she is the only one listening. Indian pink, red and yellow.
The nurse with big hands, but they are soft nighttime hands, puts her flat on her back. She wants to tell him no, that she will sink in the heated sleep, she must stay feathery and nimble. She tells him, or tries to, and then the square face of Brother Floyd beams down on her—she will have to stay awake and look at it. The sleeves of her lilac dress move against her arms in the breeze coming through the window, making her pretty. Her mama and papa and Aunt Nan in the corner, laughing and their hands moving, her brothers and sisters twirling in the room like whirligigs. The man close to her, cool and dry and tall, shaven cheeks, slicked hair, looking like he can stand to wear that suit for at least a little while. She knows the fabric like her own skin, herringbone, black. She touches a finger to it, the only suit for years, hanging in the chifforobe next to her dress. Saturday evenings she brushes it for him, starches his white shirt, keeping it soft around the neck, so white it makes his brown face browner. His rough face but today it is shining because he is choosing her. Her papa’s big girl, her mama’s best helper.
Brother Floyd asks them, and the man says he does, and she says so, too, and the man takes her fingers in his rough fingers and fumbles with the band of gold. And it is on, thin and gleaming, and he kisses her as soft as he can in front of all the people.
And the heat slides over her, and the night folds her in, and she is floating alone, and the darkness whispers husband.
And she longs for a sweet draw of clean air.