Catherine Grow

        Pop figured the best time to catch the geese would be before dusk. He said those impudent devils would be full of Hazlett’s corn by then and settled near the pond: fat, content, and not inclined to move. “No, I do not need help!” he bristled at my initial offer of assistance. It was my thirteenth summer then—the summer when, want to or not, I was being pulled toward womanhood.
         “No, Hallie Jo, I do not need help,” Pop repeated, a tad bit more civil. “I can take care of this myself. Just leave me alone to do what needs doing.” He sighed loudly and looked as if the weight of the world was pressing down on his shoulders, as if he had too much to bear, though he’d always maintained that the Good Lord never gives a body more than can be handled.
        The pond was Pop’s sanctuary, one he’d sectioned off from the rest of the farm that held within its depths a multitude of fat, gray catfish, blue-finned sun perch, and anything else with the will to survive. He’d sit on the bank holding the Zebco rod and reel he’d had since a boy and fishing for hours—so long I’d feel compelled to fetch him a pitcher of lemonade and a hat. More often than not, he’d look bewildered when I’d arrive, as if I'd jarred him back from some distant place in his mind where I didn’t even exist. “Here, Pop,” I’d say, setting my offerings beside him. He’d nod, and I’d slip away quietly, so he could return to wherever he’d come from. He'd always throw back whatever he caught.
        The geese occupied our lives that summer: a good half-dozen or so that had been abandoned at our farm and soon began crossing into our neighbor’s property to pillage his crops. I could see them from the top window of our house every day about mid-morning: plump, white shapes gliding along the surface of the dark pond, looking like popcorn in a popper. At some point, they’d surreptitiously form ranks and waddle in a file to the edge of Mr. Hazlett’s fields.
        Something had to be done about those geese, seeing’s how our neighbor kept phoning us about them eating his corn. At first, he was polite—probably because Pop was an ordained minister. Pop apologized and promised to take care of the problem. And he tried. God knows he tried! First, Pop and I built up the fence surrounding the pond. Then we reinforced the bottom of it, burying small-gauged chicken wire deep in the ground so the geese couldn’t sneak out underneath. We even built up a portion of the barrier between Hazlett’s and our acreage.
        But there was no fencing them in. Those geese always found ways to escape and feast upon our neighbor-farmer’s plantings.
        After a few weeks of this, Hazlett ran out of patience. “Damn it, Wyatt!” he bellowed over the phone. “Them geese is in my crops again! Hard earned cash down the gullets of them god-damned, stinking bastards!” He yelled so loudly I could hear him clear across the kitchen by the sink where I was washing our supper dishes. I wrung out the dishrag, draped it over the sink, and ambled over to the phone, leaning against the wall to listen to fragments of the conversation and offer moral support to Pop.
         “I think I’m a patient man,” our neighbor kept on, his voice somewhat lowered. “You been promising you’d take care of them . . . And I know you been trying . . . But them geese is wiping out my corn! That’s my livelihood, Man! You gotta do something about it! And damn quick!” There was a fit of coughing at his end of the line then a “harrumph,” and he came back on: “I hate to cause trouble, but . . . well . . . shoot the bastards, if you have to . . . else, I’ll be forced to call the sheriff.”
        Trouble was not what we needed. We were barely making ends meet on that farm. Pop had recently taken up preaching again—filling in at a local church until its congregation chose a new minister—to supplement our meager income. On top of that, in the past year, we’d had to deal with a number of disasters. After each one, Pop seemed more disheartened.
        Several nights before borrowing a shotgun—a twelve-gauge pump, from Old Man Morrison, a friend who lived to himself in the middle of a ridge a mile or so from us—I heard Pop thrashing around in his bed in the room adjacent to mine. This was nothing new. After a while, he’d get up and walk downstairs, then head for his office at the end of a hallway off to the right of the kitchen. Lying in bed, I’d trace his path inside my head while every nerve in my body cried out for me to go to him to make sure he was all right.
        But, I knew he’d be in no mood for talk or comfort. Times like that, Pop’d draw deep into himself and want to be alone. So I’d lie awake in the darkness, wishing I could make things better and praying to God he’d be all right.
        And I’d think about Mama. She’d have known what to do. She’d always had a way with Pop; she’d had a way with us all.
        Some mornings, I’d tiptoe into Pop’s office and find him asleep, folded over piles of invoices on his large oak desk or crumpled like a wad of old newspapers in the decrepit overstuffed rocker that dominated one corner of the room. I’d tiptoe up behind him and rub his shoulders and neck the way he always seemed to like; then I’d run my fingers through his shaggy, graying hair, watching sections of it shimmer in the shafts of morning light that streamed through an un-curtained window. “Mornin’, Pop,” I’d say.
        He’d wake up, not knowing where he was for a moment and feeling for his glasses: thick-framed, horn-rimmed ones that made him look like the wise old owls I’d seen in the picture books Mama used to read to me. More often than not, I’d have to find them for him; he was half-blind without them. Pop’d slip on his spectacles, and I’d watch the series of facial calisthenics that seemed requisite before his eyes would focus; the irises were a deep blue-gray shade that varied, depending on his mood, between charcoal and navy.
        I’d bring Pop a mug of coffee then, and we’d talk. Once in a while, he’d hold me on his lap as he did when I was little. I’d feel his breath blowing through my hair like warm gusts of early summer wind and believe that nothing terrible could ever happen.

        Shooting the geese was one of the last things in the world Pop wanted to do, but there seemed to be no other way to stop them. No matter what we tried, those creatures wouldn’t abide being confined. The day he decided to do it, I walked with him as far as the pasture gate. The gun looked grotesque in his hand—he held it away from his body, as if transporting a dead skunk—and he gave me a pitiful glance when I swung the gate closed behind him. I climbed the sturdy metal slats and stood staring at him while he shuffled through the field, his head bobbing above the tall grass that had turned brown and brittle in the blistering late August sun. We hadn’t had any rain to speak of for months, so everything was parched. The well water was so low that Pop had cautioned us to take care how we used it. Crops, for serious farmers, were suffering real damage.
        Thank the Lord we were only part-time farmers! At that time, we grew enough in four large gardens for our own needs with a little extra to sell at the Farmer’s Market. We’d moved to the farm three years ago, before Mama died: Cancer. Breast. Doctors caught it too late. There was nothing any of us could do except try to make her comfortable and watch while she faded to nothing, right before our eyes.
        The farm had been Mama’s and Pop’s dream. They’d already located it when Mama was diagnosed. In spite of her illness, Mama made Pop promise to go ahead with their plans. She maintained that the farm was where we belonged . . . and where she wanted to die. Originally, every member of the family pitched in and helped with the work. And, as long as Mama was alive, this plan worked well. But following her death, Eddie, who’d just turned sixteen, and Drew, almost eighteen, decided to work at jobs in town that came with the immediate gratification of a weekly paycheck; in time, Drew joined the Navy.
        That left me to help Pop with the outside chores. Though my brothers teased me about being a tomboy, I wanted to do my part to ease Pop’s burden. Over time, I ended up taking over most of the cooking, cleaning and laundry duties, too. Before she died, Mama had begun to teach me what I needed to do to keep together our household.

        When I could no longer see Pop from my lookout atop the gate, I hurried into the house and ran, two stairs at a time, up to my room. I leapt onto my bed and knelt there, my knees creasing the worn pink and white chenille bedspread Mama had bought for me when I graduated from a baby bed to a twin; my arms—as lean and tanned as the rest of me—rested on the window ledge as I looked out over our forty acres of farm. I located Pop, still moving slowly down the tamped path that led to the pond, and watched as he shoved one of the sows, curious and nosing up to him, out of the way with the tip of the gun. He had to do this again and again; that sow just wouldn’t quit.
        How those hogs frightened me! They looked like phantoms from Hell—huge and mean and ferocious—when they’d come barreling down on me, bare-barelegged in cut-offs, making my way through our field to take refreshments to Pop at the pond. I was convinced those beasts would’ve liked nothing better than to bite off a major body part and swallow it whole.
        Truth be told, there’d never been any love lost between Pop and the sows—call it temperamental differences—though those animals earned us a decent chunk of cash-money. What had been a relatively impersonal dislike intensified when, one morning six months before the geese arrived, Pop found Cookie dead outside the barn.
        How he loved that mongrel pup! He’d discovered her, skinny and starving, scavenging through garbage at a truck stop where he’d stopped one day on the way back from Jeff City for coffee and a cheeseburger. He’d coaxed her into the pickup with bits of a second burger and brought her home. She fattened up nicely—looked to be a cross between a cocker and a collie—and was Pop’s constant companion.
        Cookie had been killed by something; what, we never really knew. Pop said it might have been the one old sow that always pushed through the gate, if we forgot to tie it securely, and got into the yard and feed house. One afternoon it'd demolished three sacks of corn and nosed into a couple of others before we got back from getting groceries in town.
        It’s a wonder Pop didn’t go after that sow after Cookie was killed, but we couldn’t be sure that’s what got her. A number of things could have done it. Strange how we found no tear marks on her.

         “He must be furious now!” I thought as, with one final shove and a yell loud enough to carry to the house, Pop pushed the sow away. He unhooked the hog fencing and stepped over the chicken wire reinforcement into the area surrounding the pond. By this time, I could barely see him. In his khaki work shirt and faded Levis, he pretty well blended into the background of scraggly buck-brush and dusty brown earth. The creamy shapes of the geese stood out boldly against the murky green of the pond. “God,” I began a whispered prayer, “please don’t let him shoot himself.” I couldn’t bear to watch him anymore, so I got busy cleaning some cobwebs I’d noticed in one corner of my room. Soon, I heard two loud blasts. Then another . . . and another . . . and another.
         “How can he do this?” I asked myself. This was Pop, who couldn’t bear to hurt any living creature. He kept no real weapons around the farm and was even squeamish about killing spiders and mice—insisting that we catch them in a Mason jar and let them loose outside. He’d been forced to kill something once before, though, shortly after Cookie’s death, when he and Eddie cornered a wild cat in the barn.

        I’d gone out to feed the chickens and found half our new flock of pullets—Rhode Island Reds, a good fifty or so—slaughtered and flung all over the concrete floor of the barn. They were the ones we’d been counting on to raise for laying eggs to sell at the Market. I trembled at the thought of telling Pop. It’d been barely a month since Cookie had been killed, and he was still so shaky I thought another tragedy might make him shatter. So, before he could see the pullets, I piled the bodies into feed buckets, lugged them to the edge of our field, and dumped them out of sight. Like Cookie, they had no marks on them; in fact, they looked as if they might have been smothered.
        Pop blanched when I told him about our latest crisis, then demanded to hear the details. Afterward, he checked the barn for openings and spent a good part of the day tacking up wire over gaps and holes so small you’d swear even a mouse couldn’t squeeze through. I watched from the garden where I was picking snap beans to put up come the cool of evening.
        Everything was quiet that night, but around ten o’clock on the one following, we heard squawking coming from the barn. “Stay in here!” Pop commanded as he galloped out the kitchen door. Eddie, who’d come downstairs to investigate the racket, ran after him. So did I, though at a distance. Pop disappeared into the tool shed and came out carrying a shovel. Eddie armed himself with a pickaxe. I picked up a two-by-four I found lying near the house and crept up to the barn.
        When I got there, the door was closed, and the light was on: a single bulb that illuminated the straw scattered in the middle of the main floor but didn’t shed light into any corners. Only a sliver of light sifted through the crack in the door. From where I stood, I could barely hear Pop’s muffled—and non-ministerial—curses, punctuated sharply by directions: “Something’s moving . . . Yes, it’s over there! In that corner! Damn! Can’t see!”
         “Need a lantern?” My voice trembled with fear that I’d be found out.
         “Who’s out there?” Pop demanded in a voice so threatening that I kept silent. “Who’s there?”
         “Me,” I quavered.
         “Hallie? Damn it! I thought I told you to . . .” His voice was pitched high, agitated.
         “Do you need a lantern?”
         “Yes!”
        I raced to get the lantern—one of those large, battery-operated outfits—then sprinted back and handed it to Pop through the partially opened door. “Do you need this, too?” I pointed to the two-by-four with the toe of my sneaker.
         “Hold it over this crack here in the door,” Pop said, sounding in command of his faculties, if not the entire situation. “I want to be sure whatever’s in here doesn’t get out.” The crack was, at most, an inch and a half wide. It was clear to me that no creature large enough to slaughter pullets was going to slip though it, but I kept my counsel and did as I was told.
         “My god! It’s a cat!” Pop shrieked. “A wild cat! The biggest I've ever seen!” He resumed his hissed instructions to Eddie; with my ear pressed against the door, I caught snatches of it: “We've got to corner it, Eddie . . . Now you go . . . Hell! There it went! . . . O.K., now! . . . Yeah, there! . . . Damnation! There it went again!”
        I was so nervous I almost wet my overalls. “Can I come inside, Pop? Please! Please! I know I can help.”
         “No, Hallie Jo! You stay out!” Pop roared in a voice hundreds of times more ferocious than Mama’s when she acted out the giant’s part in Jack and the Beanstalk. “I don’t want you to see any of this!” he added.
        I heard clubbing sounds and an angry yowl, then sounds of an animal body trapped into a frenzy, throwing itself against the walls of the barn, accompanied by the most god-awful screeching ever imagined: long, drawn-out wails in an ever-heightening crescendo, reminiscent of the cry of the banshee in a Disney movie I’d seen with Mama before she became so ill. That cry had haunted me so much she’d had to comfort me for weeks.
        Pop screamed again, a hideous cry that came from some primal place inside him; then he half-sobbed, “Help me, son! We’ve got to kill this thing! We can’t let it go! . . . Oh, God! God! What am I doing?” His sobs unnerved me: ragged wails, now coming in earnest, which ripped through the insect symphony of the night. I’d never heard him like this; he never cried in public, not even at Mama’s funeral.
        I tried the door. It was locked. He’d locked it. Locked me out. “Let me in! Let me in!” I howled, hooking my fingers through the opening and rattling the frame of the door.
         “No! For God’s sake, Hallie, stay out!” Pop was beginning to sound deranged.
         “No!” I shrieked. “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!” I beat my fists against the rough wood of the door until the sides of my hands were bruised, bloody, and full of splinters . . . and cried harder than ever before in my life.
        Pop staggered out, shying away from me as if he were a leper. I was so wounded by his behavior that I didn’t call out or try to stop him as he made his way back to the house. Eddie appeared, carrying the remains of the cat slung over the end of the shovel. “How’d you like this?” he inquired, shoving the mutilated animal toward me. Directly, I lost my supper.
        I returned to the house and entered the kitchen, glancing around the immediate vicinity and beyond, already knowing the door to Pop’s office would be closed. The quart of Jack Daniels he kept hidden behind the canned tomatoes in the pantry was missing. I knew it would be. Though Pop was never a real drinker, there were times when he felt the need to imbibe. I felt confident that Mama, looking down from Heaven, would disapprove, but there was nothing I could do to stop him. Once, in a fit of self-righteousness, I’d poured a half-bottle of the stuff down the sink and nearly “got my britches dusted” for my effort. Pleading only made Pop become defensive. One thing I knew for certain: neither Pop nor I would sleep that night; he would brood alone, soothing his pain with liquor in his office, and I would lie alone, worrying and wide-awake in my bed.
        Life disintegrated after that. For weeks, about all Pop would—or could—do was sit in his easy chair in the living room, feet propped on the ottoman, staring into space. He’d respond to my questions in monosyllables. Each day, I managed to persuade him to eat something, but he wouldn’t take much. It was as if he’d given up on life.
        And worse: he seemed to have lost his Good Christian Faith, mumbling to himself, day after day, about how there was no God—at least not one he could believe in: How could there be? No just and merciful God would have allowed a truly good woman such as Mama die . . . or any of his faithful servants like him to suffer and struggle to keep going while enduring month after month of disasters. I resisted the urge to remind him about Job.
        And me? Sometimes, I’d become downright angry at Pop, to say nothing of my escalating fury toward Eddie, who was doing little or nothing to help. What did they expect? I was twelve and a half years old—not even a teenager!—and trying to do both a man’s and woman’s work: taking care of the farm, the house, and the family as well as any grownup could under the circumstances . . . Maybe even better! Inwardly, I raged at my brother for his obliviousness to my situation, and I puzzled over how Pop could just sit when there was so much to be done. Didn’t he realize he had responsibilities?
        Outside, while feeding the livestock, I’d have conversations with God. “Why?” I’d beseech Him. “Why do I have to do it all? And why am I taking care of Pop instead of him taking care of me?” Then, I’d feel ashamed. After all, I was a big girl now, and Mama would expect me to manage things no matter what.
        At night, I’d be so exhausted I’d fall asleep soon after my head touched the pillow—only to awaken later, almost too achy to move, crying from nightmares in which Mama would accuse me of not taking care of the family the way I’d promised when she was ill.

        I remembered those times well: smoothing her forehead—her face so thin with skin as fine as gossamer—and her hair still stubbly as it grew back after the radiation treatments and chemotherapy. As sick as she was, she’d invite me into bed to lie next to her. There, she’d hug me so close that the bones of her poor, emaciated body would clank against my lanky, little girl frame. She’d look at me and say, “Little One, I’m afraid you’re going to have to be the woman of the house. Your father and brothers will need someone to look after them.”
        After she’d say this, I’d sob, “Mama, you aren’t going to die, are you? You’re not going to die?”
         “Promise me,” she’d say, wiping the tears from my face with her cool, slender fingertips.
         “But, Mama, I don’t want you to die! I won’t be able to stand it!”
        She’d cup my face between her hands and, with an expression on her face worthy of an angel, she’d murmur, “No matter what happens to me, never forget how much I love you and always will. You are my Own Dear Girl.” She’d kiss me on the forehead and repeat, “Now, promise me.”
        I’d nod, never realizing what this would mean: the day-to-day consequences of trying to fill her role as well as the guilt I’d feel when I couldn’t succeed. Sometimes, Pop would appear in my dreams, shake his head sadly, and whisper, “I’m sorry Hallie Jo. I don’t love you anymore.” Mornings, I’d wake up puffy-eyed and too used up to get out of bed. But I knew I had to; who else would keep the place going?
        One day, I walked into the living room and asked Pop straight out: “Don’t you love me anymore? Don’t you even care?” It was one of the rare occasions when I voiced what had become my profoundest fear. Immediately, Pop’s face crumpled; then, without a word, he rose as stiff as an old man from his chair and shuffled out of the room. He continued down the hallway, then disappeared into his office and closed the door. I tiptoed after him and put my ear against the door. I heard Pop crying; I began to cry, too. At first, my sobs were as soft as his; when they deepened to a wail, I ran outside and climbed high into the arms of my favorite oak—a gnarly old giant growing behind the barn—and stayed there until I’d cried myself out. Then, I hurried back to the house. It was nearly suppertime; I had no idea what to fix, and soon everyone would file in, expecting to be fed.
        When I arrived, Pop was making sandwiches. He told me not to fret about supper; this night we could all eat picnic-style. Later, he sat me down, and we talked. After that, he began to return to life.

        This was a couple of months before the problem with the geese began, followed by Pop’s lame attempts to do them in. I walked downstairs after I heard the shots and, not knowing what else to do, got busy mixing tuna with celery and pickle and mayonnaise for lunch—all the time, trying to block the visions inside my head of bullets belching out of the muzzle of that shotgun and exploding into the sides of those unfortunate, but offending, creatures . . . followed by gradually expanding pools of scarlet.
        I heard Pop’s step on the porch. Then, the door swung open, and he entered the house. In the middle of the kitchen, he stopped, inhaled deeply, and declared that he’d probably winged one or two of the geese and, surely, had scared hell out of all of them. He said he’d seen them disappear into our woods and felt satisfied they’d never return to grace the pond or Hazlett’s field again.
        This was magic thinking. Sure enough, about mid-morning two days later, I spied those saucy devils fluffing their tail-feathers on the pond. “Pop will have a fit when he finds out about this!” I said to myself and started to rehearse ways to announce the troubling turn of events. As it turned out, he’d already spotted the geese and responded a whole lot calmer than I’d expected.
         “Too bad those damned little bast . . . er . . . stupid creatures didn’t take off for good like those dumb, young turkeys did,” he grumbled between bites of that noon’s grilled cheese. “Remember the ones we were trying to raise last spring that never would stay put?” He gestured vigorously with half a sandwich, then eyed it and flung it on his plate. He grasped the tall glass of lemonade I’d set in front of him, raised it to his lips, and took a long swallow. Then he sighed: a pregnant sigh that hung in mid-air as heavily as a rain cloud before a torrential downpour. I held my breath, wondering what Pop would say or do next. “Hummmhhh,” he said and reached into a nearby bowl of Fritos, grabbed a handful, and deposited them in a heap next to the remains of his grilled cheese.
        I picked up my sandwich and nibbled at it. I remembered those turkeys all right: combing the woods for hours, looking for five chicks that had pushed beneath the poultry-house fencing. We never did find them, though managed to hold onto the other three in the coop, plus their mother.
        Late that afternoon, we got a call: Hazlett. I heard Pop trying to calm him. After he hung up, he paced the kitchen floor, his hands flexing and un-flexing nervously. “I guess I’m going to have to get serious and actually shoot those creatures,” he kept repeating to no one in particular.
         “Too bad we can’t just give them away,” I mumbled as I rummaged through the vegetable bin to see what looked promising for supper.
        Pop stopped in his tracks. “What did you say?”
        I sat back on my haunches and looked at him: “I said, ‘Too bad we can’t just give them away.’”
         “That’s it! That’s it!” Pop grabbed my shoulders and gave them a shake. Then, he pulled me clear up off my feet and swung me around until I was dizzy. In no time at all, he went to find the phone book, then dialed The Plainfield Journal to advertise: Six adult geese—free for the asking. Call Reverend William J. Wyatt, 436-7802. “Why I didn’t think of this before, I’ll never know,” he said jubilantly. “It’s such a simple answer . . . if only it will work!”
        A day or two later, just after I’d drained the potatoes and was about to mash them for supper, I answered a call from a woman up Winona way, looking for an opportunity to increase her flock with little or no outlay of funds. “I’ll be by real soon to take them geese off your hands,” she stated as matter-of-factly as if she did this sort of thing every day of her life. That meant all of us had to stop whatever we were doing and head for the pond to round up the geese. Praise Be to God that it was near suppertime and everyone was home!
        As we approached, several of the geese ducked under the bushes. The rest glided with a flurry of wings toward the middle of the pond. “SSSSSSTTTTTT!” Pop sputtered. Then, since I was the smallest, Pop directed me to slither under the brambles, grab hold of each goose, and haul it out for Eddie and him to stick into a gunnysack. The very thought of this made me testy.
        Sure enough, I’d no sooner crawled under the first bush then I felt something rip. “Shoot!” I said under my breath, thinking of a much stronger word—the one I suspected Pop had hissed just moments before—and feeling guilty about it because, for girls, cursing wasn’t allowed. I knew, without looking, I’d just torn my favorite blouse: the white one with hand-embroidered red and pink roses around the neck that Aunt Margaret had sent Mama from California for her last birthday. Mama had given it to me to wear when I grew older; she said she couldn’t bear to have something so lovely hidden away in a drawer. I’d put it on that afternoon with my newest pair of shorts to see if it fit. It was still too large, but I’d left it on, anyway, because it made me feel grown up and pretty. Also, for some inexplicable reason, I’d felt shaky all day and needed to feel Mama close to me. Not for a single moment did I think I would end up belly-down in the muck, scrambling after geese. I cursed the fact that there’d been no time to change into my usual hand-me-down T-shirt and overalls before Pop rushed us down to the pond.
        I kept crawling, full of resentment for having to go underbrush at all. Couldn’t Pop see that I was growing up and this was no fit activity for a respectable young lady?
        Those geese twisted and squirmed and honked and pecked. Everywhere I turned, my hair got snared on overhead branches and tangled with dead leaves and twigs. My arms and legs became smeared with goose droppings and crisscrossed with scratches. Sweat got into the scratches and made them sting. I was furious. Fure-ee-ous!
        And there was something else: a dull ache, throbbing low in my belly. It had gone on the entire day and felt as if I was starting to get sick, but not exactly. My breasts—what there were of them—were sore, too, and itchy almost to distraction. Crawling in all that filth didn’t help.
        We caught all the geese hiding under the brambles; then Eddie threw stones at those in the middle of the pond. When they came off the pond, they ducked underbrush, and, once again, I had to haul them out. After what seemed to be an eternity, we captured all the geese and carried them up from the field.
        As we approached the house, a stout woman in a red checkered blouse and tight Levis jumped out of a battered, black Ford pickup and began pulling crates out of the back of it. She straightened up when we came near, then smoothed her blouse and ran a hand over her crisp, jet-black curls. “Mae Daniels, here,” she said. She strode toward Pop and held out a large, tanned hand.
         “You have no idea the pleasure, Ma’am,” Pop shook her hand, grinning like an idiot.
        She smiled back at him, breaking eye contact only long enough to notice Eddie and me and get things moving. “Just put ’em in there,” she directed with a jerk of her head to indicate the crates piled near the pickup. She shifted her weight and inclined her head in our direction. “Those your kids?” she asked Pop. He nodded, still full of smiles for her, though by now he'd at least stopped clinging to her hand. She looked me over closely, her dark eyes dancing, and inquired, “What you been doing? Rolling in the mud?” It took considerable self-control to keep from spitting at her. “Oh-oh!” she added, “Looks like you tore your blouse, Honey.” She turned to Pop, shaking her head and chuckling: “Tomboy girls! Aren’t they something?”
        Pop chuckled right along with her, nodding his head in agreement and not even bothering to tell her how hard I’d worked and why I was so dirty—working hard and getting dirty to help him collect her geese—or to inform her in no uncertain terms that I was not a tomboy but the woman of the house who, though young, kept things going for the whole lot of them. I looked down: the tear was clear across the front of Mama's blouse, and it was smeared with mud and droppings. “Damn!” I shouted. “God Damn!”
        Everyone stopped talking and stared at me. Pop looked shocked. Fortunately, I’d already grabbed together the front of the blouse, so no one could see anything. Fighting back tears—I wasn’t about to give Pop, that woman, or my brother the satisfaction—I ducked my head and stumbled to the house, seething all the way: Why had Pop let this woman insult me? Why hadn’t he stuck up for me? He could have at least explained! . . . He was my father, for God’s sake; it was his job to defend me!
        I stomped into the house and down the hall and into the bathroom. There, I slammed the door so hard the frame rattled; then I yanked off the blouse. “Damn! Damn! God Damn!” I screamed. I knew I was going against Pop’s teaching by taking the Lord’s name in vain, but it felt good. Damned good! I was sick of following his rules and sick of working so hard to take care of everything and everybody. Besides, I felt sure the Almighty would excuse my lapse into blasphemy under such trying circumstances.
        I wadded my blouse into a ball and threw it into a corner so hard my shoulder joint cracked. Next, I shrugged out of my soiled pink shorts and filthy white sneakers, then the white lace bra and matching panties I’d fought mightily to convince Pop to let me order from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. I hurled the bra into the corner and picked up the panties, getting ready to do the same, when I noticed a large, rust-colored stain.
        My scalp prickled; then I felt queasy. I’d heard about this. Two years before, all the girls in my class had been given booklets. That stain could mean only one thing: I was now officially a woman.
        But I didn’t want to be a woman—not now, not yet, not until I could manage everything else. “Mama!” something whimpered inside of me. “Mama! Mama! Mama!”
        But Mama wasn’t there. She hadn’t been there for years . . . and never would be . . . and this was definitely not a matter I felt like discussing with Pop.
        I shuffled to the tub, swatted back the shower curtain, and turned on the water: full-blast. With shaking fingers, I unbraided my hair—coppery-brown, thick, and wavy—then shook it out, combing my fingers through the length of it that reached to the middle of my back. A mass of stray leaves and twigs dislodged and fell to the linoleum. I turned and glanced at my face in Pop’s shaving mirror. Then I looked closer; there were more freckles than I’d remembered as well as a long, ugly scratch across one cheek. My eyes—large and round and dark brown like Mama’s—dominated my face, and I was so worn out, I looked as if I had bruises beneath them. “Ugly,” I thought. “Truly ugly. Not even close to being as beautiful as Mama.”
        I stepped into the tub and pulled closed the curtain; then I released the shower and let water stream all over my body. It beat on my back and shoulders and spilled onto my front. It drummed on my head and saturated my scalp. I grabbed my bottle of Prell and poured a large, viscous green puddle of it into my hand. I lathered my hair and rinsed it, inhaling the sweet fragrance of the shampoo and watching the suds cascade down my arms, concealing, for a moment, all the scratches. Suds bubbled around the swells of my breasts, past my belly, and between my legs. Something tight broke loose inside of me then, and I lifted my face to meet the soothing jets of warmth: water and tears. “Damn him!” I wailed, beating my fists against the slick, smooth squares of wet tile. “Damn him, damn the geese, and damn being a woman. Damn every, single, solitary thing to Hell!”
        I used water that evening, lots of water: all the hot water. And I didn’t worry about the drought. Nor did I worry about Pop watering the garden or us not having enough to wash with, cook with, or drink. I just let that water pour down all around me—as comforting as a mother’s hug and as melodious as her lullaby—and felt the concerns of my little girl life slough off like old skin and wash clean and clear away.

“Geese” was published in the 2012 edition of The Labletter.

©2009-2017 Labletter LLC. All rights for individual pieces reserved by contributing writers and artists.