“Get started picking up the leaves,” uncle Carl commanded his niece Marianne. “You don’t ever get started. Here’s a rake and some garbage bags.”
The leaves were certain to grow back, Marianne thought. So she hesitated to pick up the fallen ones.
Uncle Carl felt the tequila tilting him to one side then another and so couldn’t lead by example.
Marianne surveyed the yard. It had rained. It seemed like a sea of leaves swam in and out of the shadowy barn like a slimy, unmanageable beard. Many leaves flapped like bird or bug wings on account of the wind. The soaked ones were stationary.
Marianne sensed her uncle just standing there wobbly, then darted a glance at him.
Uncle Carl, at his most depressed, especially now with fear growing for his sister Anna’s condition and the kids–they would have to be taught, raised, watched after if she were to . . . –, forgot about shaving, something he had cherished in cheerier, more productive times.
Now his jaw had disappeared in a twisted black and gray shrubbery like the remains of a burnt forest. Sometimes food got lost in it or depended from whiskers like fruit on a bough. Anna had teased him, saying he looked like one of the coal miners she had seen in a book.
Little dewdrops of tequila quivered from his moustache and the coarse tuft beneath his bottom lip. Marianne hated to look at him. How his face reminded her of the uncouth outlaw on the wanted poster that appeared as an illustration in the cowboy novella she was reading. She was eleven.
But uncle Carl stood there, and so Marianne got busy.
Her first three strokes with the rake were unsteady, resentful. The wooden handle when held erect climbed at least four heads above hers. She heard her uncle breathing behind her and kept raking. Part of a prayer her mother Anna had taught her caught a rhythm from the leaves and a mild breeze that brushed her ear: . . . protect us from all anxiety as we await in joyful hope the coming . . . .
The prayer cut out before naming the savior, because the only person Marianne was anxious to see was her mother who lay in bed. Christ was just somebody in the prayers her mother brought home from the bible study–he could have been anybody.
Marianne was more excited about how her mother lit up when teaching her the words. She wished badly for her mother to be just half as alert and spirited as she was a week ago.
Marianne was tempted to throw the rake into the pit of the barn and run into the mansion up to her mother’s room. But the huge outlaw had his hands on his hips and was breathing boar-like, just watching, not as wobbly as before.
Marianne desired nothing more than to run to the house or, if that couldn’t happen, to bury herself in a pile of leaves and hide.
Given a recent fall, uncle Carl had insisted that her mother mustn’t be disturbed while resting in bed with an ice pack on her head.
Unmarried, uncle Carl had a temper and a fat gut. He drank tequila like a suckling pig but tried to keep order.
Anna never kept order, as far as he was concerned. In fact, she couldn’t care less about it so long as she could see her little boy Marco at work with a sketchpad, squiggling his best (though disproportionate) people, cats, dogs, squirrels, houses and horses. Marco also made many promising rainbows of his coloring books, and Anna had to laugh.
And now that Marianne was tracking with the gifted and talented middle schoolers, reading several books a month of her own choosing (especially ones about the Wild West), Anna granted her considerable freedom in the hope that it would keep the girl leafing through literature. One day Anna had surprised Marianne with a tiny purple bible and light blue rosary with plastic beads and a white crucifix. She imagined that soon enough Marianne would be writing her own stories, prayers and poems. Anna’s job was to inspire, encourage and step back.
Things were different now that she was so sick. Uncle Carl thought it best to keep the kids occupied so they would not worry and give their mother added suffering. Dr. Loren was coming tomorrow. He would monitor her until then.
Uncle Carl had set Marco up with a Halloween coloring book and some crayons before putting Marianne to work.
In the course of raking and dreaming, Marianne noticed that the bestial breathing had stopped. Uncle Carl must have gone to look at the cornfields, she imagined.
Marianne prodded the dead leaves, pulling the malodorous humps toward a black trash bag she had opened. She discovered worms and grubs drowning in an autumn brew of drenched leaves.
What had they suffered? was not exactly a question she asked, but their muddied situation and changed colors made her think of her mom. She could not bag the leaves up. She had to look at her mom, and sadly she did not think that prayers could do anything. But she was determined to say them anyway.
She didn’t bag them up the way uncle Carl had asked her to.
Now the leaves were covered with snow and ice.
You don’t ever get started. It’s hard for me to pick up where your mom left off. Uncle Carl’s words piled up and froze like icy leaves in her mind. He left her alone with them.
Marianne was still praying for her mom, praying to her. That hadn’t changed.
Winter thrashed the barn with snow hammering the roof and windows. Little Marco in his not so warm blue jacket went back in the mansion. It was not a mansion, but it was a giant house, and the kids called it a mansion.
The weather clobbered the barn mercilessly. An owl sat up in a nearby tree in the cold, rotating its judgmental head. Accumulating frost in its feathers, the owl puffed up like a little snowman with an icicled beak.
“Whooooo!” came from the owl, and the wind collected the chatter and whistling of an invisible madhouse.
Marianne, in faded green boots and a ballooning Pepto-Bismol colored coat with a hood, began singing church hymns (mom’s music) as she scuttled her way to her mother’s site in the churchyard.
The snow had snaked all along the path. Snow encumbered the graves in the churchyard. Marianne went to pray as usual for her deceased mother. Cold could not stop her routine of kneeling at the headstone. She cleared snow from her mother’s name. No one around, she mumbled a long prayer she had learned.
Icicles jabbed miserably out from pine trees like unclipped nails. Marianne felt that the air was sadder and more tearfully wet than her eyes had ever been. She had the rosary in her hands but it could take her nowhere other than through the same beaten loop of words and beads to count the words. It was then she started thinking in poetry–her own . . . .
When her mother’s lovely head filled with fluid, the angular nose transformed into the widening rubber of a Halloween mask, and her eyes spun like lottery balls before the numbers settle.
Anna’s unaccountable seizures seemed to Marianne like exaggerations of the goofy dances she did to get a laugh out of little Marco. But such dances were weird to see because she did them supine on the floor or in bed, her arms doggy paddling about her chest, and her head and neck about to twist off.
“Mom, stop! That’s not funny,” Marianne cried.
Marco smiled dumbly but instinct goaded him and he kept reshaping his little mouth–more serious, half-smile, dead serious, puzzled, panicking on account of his sister’s crying.
“Mom! Stop! Uncle Carl, come here. Mom won’t stop freaking us out. It’s not funny.”
“Let me take you to your doctor,” uncle Carl had pleaded.
“No,” Anna told her brother, “it isn’t anything serious.”
She believed she had simply been having occasional migraines since her husband’s death. Dizzy spells and blackouts that could be attributed to recurrent grief and longing for one who was no more. Uncle Carl understood that Anna didn’t want Dr. Loren prescribing her therapy or a combination of drugs and therapy. She could get through four years perfectly on her own, if a little battered, bruised, raw.
Another time, Marianne was disturbed by her mother’s sleepy inattention as she tried to read her part of a cowboy story, where the cowboys wake up to find that Indians have stolen their horses and are racing away up the mountains. Anna appeared to be leaning as into the warmth of a fire. Drool collected at the corners of her lips. It made it hard for Marianne to keep reading.
“Don’t stop, Marianne. Trust me, I’m listening. Just closing my eyes so I can picture the Indians bolting up the mountains. Keep going.”
Then came Anna’s hard fall down the stairs, leaving a huge lump and bruising that dominated the right side of her forehead, above the eye.
Uncle Carl was at his wits’ end with his sister’s worsening condition. This wasn’t because of some damned broken heart. He first sought some tequila, because he would need that on hand. He filled a flask and then got on the phone with Dr. Loren.
Dr. Loren could visit Anna at home on Sunday. This was Saturday afternoon.
“Monitor her. Have ice for her to place on her head. But by all means if she starts to feel faint, call for an ambulance. I’ll be over tomorrow morning.”
Uncle Carl made it a point to keep the children out of Anna’s sickroom, but Marianne and Marco still slipped in to sit at her bedside.
Marco wouldn’t stop rearing a gold-painted, wooden horse toy in his mother’s face, each gallop seeking the fire beyond her eyes, the light of burning leaves or a campfire. He was staring at the bruise and the ice pack.
Marianne read her book but not aloud to her mother. She didn’t want uncle Carl to hear them in there. In her book the cowboys were at camp for the night, singing by the fire and drinking.
Anna was motionless except that every once in a while her eyes opened or closed.
She smiled at the kids.
Uncle Carl then called both Marianne and Marco, from downstairs in the kitchen. Marianne kissed her mom, and the two children quickly sneaked back out of her room before uncle Carl could tell where they had been.
They hurried downstairs.
That’s when uncle Carl set Marco up with the coloring book and tasked Marianne with the leaves.
Uncle Carl had been thinking that he would make the mansion and the yard as safe and decongested as possible, so that should his sister have another accident . . . .
He thought it would be awful for Anna to go to the high school where she was an art teacher with an eggplant of a bruise on her forehead. If it looked like abuse to him, Carl feared what her colleagues might think.
When uncle Carl started looking for things to fix or clean up, his eyes set upon those auburn leaves piling up in the yard, slipping like frogs into the barn, raising a mildew stench.
They had to go. He thought all the decay must be promoting illness, which the house didn’t need any more of.
Marianne was old enough now to take on chores.
Anna died in her bed that night.
She was breathing when Marianne ditched the leaves and came in to see her. Marianne sat with her and observed her mother resting peacefully. She read to her from her book. Then when her mother closed her eyes, Marianne clasped her rosary and said a prayer. She tried to feel it helping.
Then uncle Carl called her for dinner. It was roasted eggplant which she liked. Uncle Carl and the kids went to bed thinking Anna was going to be well again once Dr. Loren saw her in the morning.
Uncle Carl still had Dr. Loren come over, but it was because his sister had passed.
It was particularly strange for Marianne to see her mother’s body taken away in a bag. It caused her to cry, seeing strangers take over.
Dr. Loren explained it was likely meningitis. She expressed her condolences to Carl but couldn’t bring herself to look at the children.
Four years earlier, Marianne’s father Randy, a respected sheriff, died of a shotgun blast in a deadly raid on the notorious Slug House. A shootout with cornered, heavily-armed traffickers resulted in the deaths of two deputies and sheriff Randy Delmar.
By the time the officers killed two of the suspects and advanced on the doors and windows of the house, two of their men had also been gunned down.
When they forced their way inside, Randy led the search. Like a spider in the web, Big Christmas–the last of the Three Wise Men–sat in the closet of the master bedroom, with his shotgun readied. Christmas had no nerves, a man of lightning-fast reflexes; he nested on a beanbag chair’s worth of cocaine. Beneath that was a trapdoor to a spider hole full of the lucrative product.
When Randy advanced into the bedroom, Christmas fired blindly through the closet door. Randy’s blood sprayed the mirror above the bed on which Big Christmas screwed his woman.
Fighting back nausea, officer Turner vanquished the enemy with his pistol.
The lights, cameras and journalists outside the Delmar mansion following the murder of the sheriff made young Marianne afraid that her whole family had come under fire. She cried into her mother’s skirt as Anna talked to one or two reporters. She couldn’t stand more.
“Anna, let me stay with you. I can help you through this nightmare,” uncle Carl proposed.
Anna agreed it would be good. She had always loved her younger brother. Not only would he help to hold her together, but admittedly his presence added security for she feared the possibility of a reprisal from the Three Wise Men’s close friends and affiliates.
She also acknowledged Carl’s troubles and wanted to help him. He was single and needed a place to feel welcome. A family was among his few ideals. He had had a good job at a lumberyard but lost it because he started to screw up. He had been operating dangerous equipment tequila-drunk and was caught smoking pot.
The mansion and barn had belonged to Randy’s parents, wealthy immigrants who were successful corn growers and makers of farm implements.
They both passed. They were older. Victor had a stroke in the cornfield farthest from the barn and the woods, and Cecilia’s relentless smoking reeled in cancer.
To the right of the barn, the woods cast hirsute shadows on the dirt path leading past Saint Ursula’s, a small church, to cornfields that belonged to the Delmar property.
Back when Randy and Anna inherited the estate, they knew that they had neither the time nor skill to maintain the cornfields that were Victor’s gold. They sold the farm implements business, and they didn’t care to keep planting corn. The fields grew wild.
“I can get the corn growing again, Anna,” proclaimed uncle Carl as he walked the dirt path with his sister and the children, having seen the fields. He was ecstatic about having a new home and enjoyed being part of a family. Now he needed a purpose to keep on the up-and-up. He desired to make himself useful as soon as he could, and the prospect of a profitable harvest gratified his ambition.
“I know you all gave up on it years ago, but it’ll give me something to do for you. You’ll never have to worry about any of it.”
Living there, uncle Carl had a way of keeping Anna from worrying. For one thing, he kept the tequila out of sight.
True, he managed the corn’s revival, but his way of doing it was half-assed. He was still a professional drunk on the job.
Carl started out gung ho with a two-crop rotation of corn and alfalfa. He had read the notes set down in Victor’s almanac–Anna gave it to him. At the suggested times he drove a tractor, getting deep tillage with the chisel plow. He led the war against corn earworms and fall armyworms.
At harvest time he would boil two ears for himself to be sure he had done right by his sister. Then he would make a buttery plate of the corn for the family. He had to ensure a profitable season for the small roadside produce stand Anna and the kids were able to set up in memory of the Delmars–thanks to uncle Carl.
Carl’s deviation from Victor’s methods was of course his insistence on swigging tequila from a flask during all stages of the operation.
Being orderly and getting wasted were not mutually exclusive at first. With drink in hand, Carl thought he was a genius for having read deep enough in agriculture to discover the miracle of no-till farming. Three good seasons at market had made him cocky enough to try new things. At least he wouldn’t have to plow drunk anymore.
He didn’t have the method worked out. The corn was nowhere knee-high by the Fourth of July, and it was disappointing. Weeds and diseases began to show like a rash.
Uncle Carl then had no idea how to get things under control. The harvest was pitiful–nothing to impress or feed the family. Nothing to sell. The fields had suffered and the corn was full of foul worms.
Anna told Carl not to worry about it; she said she had been planning to close the market. She wasn’t feeling well.
Then when Anna suffered her fall in the fall, uncle Carl noticed the swamp of leaves in the yard and trailing into the barn. Their mess disturbed him.
He had gained weight from sitting, drinking heavily, and downing sausages, hamburgers, potato chips and pies. He had lost his taste for corn. He was depressed, but he tried to keep the kids active and the estate orderly so that no one else would feel as low as he was feeling.
I’m a screwup. But this damned family needs to be held together.
The ring was still in uncle Carl’s ears from when little Marco screeched because his mother had crashed down the stairs.
Watching Marianne begin raking the leaves, uncle Carl thought ahead to a time when he wouldn’t be wasted and would want to work again. Sobering a bit, he felt distracted and excited. It dawned on him to examine the cornfields to see how he might improve them next year.
Marianne raked until uncle Carl turned down the dirt path to the cornfields. Then she stopped to look more closely at the leaves. Death floated uncoiled on fallen leaves–several pale slender worms and upturned bugs. The rain had fallen hard the night before.
She took the trash bag and suffocated the teeth of the rake, pulling down until rusty incisors punctured black plastic gums.
Marianne ran to look at her mother’s face to store it not in a barn but in her eyes, in her constant thoughts.
A season of deep freezing was approaching, asking in no human voice for the fallen and the hibernation of the living. Still it did not come fast enough.
Down in the snow, Marianne worked through a poem while seeing the leaves from the fall pile up in her mind. She knew they were covered with ice now. Her poem fell across seasons and connected thoughts, memories, sensations and images freed from time but frozen and preserved in a block of ice. And then she saw her mother’s face, and she remembered other faces like uncle Carl’s, her dad’s, and little Marco’s.
Jared T. Fischer is a journalist, grant writer, poet and playwright from Baltimore, MD. He is trying his best to get his groove back by writing and submitting more. Find his work at Baltimore City Paper, What Lit, Thought Catalog, and his blog rainbowkolor.