Issue #54

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Mud Beetle Summer

The crop dusters used to roar overhead in the spring and early summer, so low my mom said they sometimes crashed into telephone lines. They were spraying the wheat, my parents told me, so no weeds could grow. When August came the heads turned golden and bowed beneath their loads as if in prayer, waiting for the combine’s ripping blades. We’d ride next to my dad in the combine sometimes, and he’d show us how the gears worked and how to raise and lower the header, cut a clean line into the grain. He’d let us hold the wheel, but he never let go himself. He couldn’t let the combine turn astray or miss a single head of grain. Money in the field, he said. Even when his hair fell out from chemo and he couldn’t drive any more, he’d go out to the field to fix the combine, sit in a plastic chair beside the truck, tell the hired man to slow down and lower the header. Money sitting out in the field, he’d say, running his hand through the chaff.

Sometimes we’d run from the front yard to the back, or back to front, to watch the planes wheel overhead. Like model airplanes, red or white against a too-blue sky, they’d buzz over the house and circle back towards the croplands. I imagined that they might see us running back and forth beneath them, waving. They seemed like strange visitors to us, like the swans and pelicans that sometimes migrated through in the springtime. I used to tell myself that one day I’d ride in a plane like that.

In the summer, my little sister and I would wade in the driveway’s mud puddle up to our ankles, dig our toes into the silky slime that layered the bottom and then lift out heavy mud shoes that the dust and grass stuck to. One summer there were water skippers in the puddle, and long sticklike water striders that ran across its surface. There was even a sleek black water beetle the size of an olive my sister found one day, bobbing in the water. “Her name is Priscilla,” she told me.

That summer we played two-person baseball in the evenings to the hum of crickets and skidded in the damp grass. Our parents would take us to the old tennis courts in Sprague sometimes in the evening, and afterwards we’d run through the sprinklers. We swam in our plastic pool our parents helped set up and issued all the chickens grades after a rigorous bout of testing. “Eating, Singing, Flying, Perching, Homing,” read the report cards, which we postmarked and sent to my older sister at her camp counselor job. The average G.P.A. was a 1.5.

One day my little sister came to me in a state of panic and hauled me over to the remains of the puddle which was just a thin sheen of chocolate mud surrounded by cracked earth. The water runners had long since gone, the skippers had flown away weeks ago, to a larger pond I assumed, or wherever it was they came from.

“She’s still there.” She spoke softly, and knelt to point out Priscilla’s back, a round half globe just barely visible beneath a thin layer of muck.

I held my breath as I dug my fingers beneath the body and lifted it from the puddle. I thought she might be dead, but she wriggled in my hand and we both let out a breath. “What are you doing here?” I asked her. As if in reply she heaved herself forward along my hand, her rowing legs brushing my palm like tiny paintbrushes.

I filled a tin can with water and we both hopped on our bikes, bombing down the hill to the dirt road, my sister in front and me careening behind, one hand on the handlebars, the other holding the can. “Hold on,” I tell her. My sister is flying; she’s worried Priscilla won’t make it.

At the bottom of the hill I hit a bump and my tire wobbles; suddenly I’m not attached to the bike anymore, I’m skidding through the gravel, and I come to rest still clinging to the can with my outstretched hand. Somehow it is upright. Ahead of me my sister skids to a stop as well, but when she sees the beetle, safe in her can, she relaxes, and in that moment, I am a hero. We release Priscilla into the swamp alongside the road. My sister wants to know how long water beetles live, and if we might see her again.

I tell her I don’t know. “She had to go,” I say.

I’ve followed my older sister to college now, and I don’t go home in the summers anymore. Most of the kids who graduate from the high school in Sprague leave it forever. Some go to college, others to jobs in Spokane or Seattle or elsewhere. A few of them stay, but there are no jobs there, save a few positions at the school, the grain elevator, the gas station.

My sister used to write me a letter every week. She’d make elaborate plans whenever I came home and begged me to stay longer. But when I do go home I find the place has changed, or I have. I feel like I’m suffocating. I pack my things up in the night and leave a week early.

My little sister is leaving for college next year. My mom bought a house in Spokane for when she goes. She doesn’t want to live in the empty farmhouse by herself.

I know I’ll come back to this place sometime to see the house, the fields, to the cemetery where my grandma took me when I was younger. She tells me the names: Rose, John Henry, Gladys. Don’t forget Gladys, she says her grandmother told her. She was a little girl too once, on the windy cemetery hill above Sprague. You can see the high school from there. You can see where we rode a fishing boat on the seven-mile lake.

But the image that is burned into my mind is of my father, serving buckets of balls in the evening before the courts became too cracked to play on. A dead man on the condemned courts, practicing a serve no one will ever hit again. His daughters watch in awe as the balls catch in the chain link fence on the other side.

I had forgotten.

One day my father came home from work uncharacteristically early and the five of us piled into the pickup to see the swans that had landed on the lake. They came once a year, maybe, in the springtime, but I had never seen so many. The surface of the lake was covered with their pearl white bodies, and as we piled out of the truck again they rose up as one and left us. I can still see them circling overhead, then wheeling northward, over the wheat fields. The blue house is a small rectangle set up on the hill, the world dropping away on either side like a crumpled handkerchief that someone dropped there. The land is empty, open, it stretches forever. The clothes on the clothesline flap like prayer flags.

Tributary

From Seattle to Samoa