An orderly hoists Rosemary Bell from her bed and into a wheelchair. “You have visitors,” he says. He deposits her by a coffee table in the nursing home lobby, and a yellow-haired boy and his yellow-haired father stand to greet her. They each take one of her hands. The boy fidgets. The man sits and produces a small leather case from which he draws a plastic flask of wine and broken pieces of bread. Rosemary tilts her head to observe him with a sagging, stroke-ruined eye.
“My son?” she asks the boy and the man, studying their eyes. Her mind flips memories like an art book she’s left open while painting en plein air, and she’s standing in a hayed field among shocks of cane. The blue of the boy’s eyes meets her as if it were the sky she’s painting. Her hand limbers from arthritis and sweeps a cirrus cloud so distant an obstruction to light that it only glimmers at an angle like a spider’s morning web, or a strand of horsehair arrayed mid-gallop. As fine as a single uncoated hair from her brush, but the paint is too thick. “You refuse the oils,” she gasps. “If I could paint in vapor.” Her husband, Adam, appears with a bundle of feed in his arms and shakes his head.
“Take a break,” he says.
“The sun won’t stand still.”
“Are you going to trap it in oil?”
“No.” She soaks her brush in turpentine and stabs the canvas. Runnels gather the painted light into beads, and the entire sky rains into the field.
“No,” cries Adam.
“No, Mrs. Bell,” says the man in the lobby. “I’m not your son. I’m Jeremiah, a deacon from the church. . . .”
At once, she’s a girl of four, straddling her father’s hip. He sings, bread that Men divide with men; And every act of brotherhood repeats thy feast again. His voice rumbles in his chest and her body rumbles too, her lungs filled with his voice. There’s a nick under his chin from shaving. The stitch of a scab. Sandalwood rises from his skin. She buries her nose in his neck, and the melody moves up his throat and across her face.
The sanctuary shrinks like the pupil of an eye under light, and she is sixteen, singing the same hymn. It comes to her ears in her four-year-old voice, as she stands beside her father. In the nursing home lobby, she creaks a groan. Her attempt at harmony.
Her groaned singing frightens the yellow-haired boy, who looks to his father for assurance.
In her mind, the stained glass casts a golden beam across her adolescent cheeks, her nose, her irises. Beyond this light her vision fills with fire-flaughts of gold, and each person singing in the sanctuary wears an aureole of light.
Mrs. Schiffer, who scolded Rosemary as a child for running after church, who will lose her feet to diabetes and her daughter to ovarian cancer, is haloed like a Renaissance saint.
Mr. Rowley, an artist who lived down the street in a tiny house with a big window, in whose living room studio the acrid scent of linseed oil became Rosemary’s early pleasure, who exists in a cloud of whispers about his lingering bachelorhood.
Rows of families purl and age in their pews. She ages again and her father is replaced by Adam. She’s pregnant. A word that quickens on her tongue and wrestles with the hymn’s lyrics. The golden stained-light becomes molten and blears and drips from her ruined eye.
Jeremiah the deacon touches her wet cheek with a tissue. He stutters, “Re-remembrance of me,” and delivers a crumb of bread to her slack mouth. Her jaw closes by instinct and she’s at her mother’s breast. A memory for which she has no image, only the motion of her lips and the glandular letting of saliva. She gags. The deacon tips a plastic cup of wine into her mouth, and the swig dissolves the bread lodged in her throat. The alcohol warms her lungs and she lies naked under the sun, covered only by her husband. Her dress wadded beneath her head. His weight on her breasts and belly. Their weight pressing down into the blanket, the earth pressing up with an equal weight against her back makes the hollowness of her lungs apparent. And his movement inside her. “I am hollow through-and-through,” she sings, “but I am filled, with breath, with you.” She’s a little drunk. Her skin feels thick, and she throws an arm in ecstasy, tipping the picnic basket. Wine spills into the wheat field.
Sandwiches and wine. She arrives at the edge of the field bearing the basket. She waves to him from the road, over the sickle teeth chewing the wheat stalks. Rows of wheat disappear into the gaping combine’s head. The machine roars, blowing chaff from the tail. The straw in the cloud rises, sun-stung, on the hot air reflecting from the field. It is a windless day. He lowers the throttle and parks and leaps from the steps, the young husband, her new groom. She spreads the blanket on the dirt road, and he wolfs down the sandwich. They guzzle wine from a thermos. This is her first harvest.
She meets him for the first time in the lobby of her college dormitory. A fluster mottles the old woman’s neck, confused as she makes introduction to a young man, and makes love to him in the same moment.
“A fraternity service project,” he says in the lobby, “to help freshmen girls move into their dormitories.” She heaves a box of books into his arms. In her flexing to lift, she also feels in her breast the weight of his body, and she feels the weightless ache of her frailty hunched in her wheelchair. Three flights of stairs, young Adam lugs those books, her easel, her brushes and portfolio, three flights of stairs, ascending and descending past open windows in the September heat, moving up and down her.
“Books,” he says in her room, out of breath. “It has to be books. Why couldn’t you study feathers and clouds?”
“Those books aren’t for class.”
“What are they for then?”
He opens one of the boxes, and takes out a clothbound volume of poetry. “I’m confused.”
She laughs. “I’m sorry. I thought that was a box of cookbooks.”
Closing his Bible, Jeremiah the deacon says, “Ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” He touches her hand. She’s suspicious of the large fingers’ grip. She feels in her other hand the sweaty fingers of the boy. The man smiles and wrinkles form around his blue eyes; those same blue eyes widen in the boy’s face. She squeezes both hands.
“You have fingernails,” she says to a fetus in a jar. The soft seed-keratin sprouting on the translucent digits the size of maggots. The baby’s unopened eyes, swollen like grapes, face her for an instant before he spins in the glass womb the nurses handed her when she had miscarried. Adam digs a grave in the field. Green shoots of winter wheat comb in the wind like the boy’s hair in the fluid. This noonday is a deep, deep blue; it might seem night if the low-hanging winter sun weren’t casting everything into glitter. The jar breaks down the sun like quartz and casts a rainbow onto Adam’s hands as he takes the glass coffin from her. He steps into the grave.
She’s alone at the edge of the grave. The land is so flat that the earth’s curve is apparent. On that horizon the funeral sky glares blue, seeing everything, seeing that she can’t keep a child alive inside of her. The eye spins. The season turns and afternoons grow hot. The wheat shows early sparks of yellow. Adam shakes the green grain through his fingers, letting it fall. Puffs of dust bloom like God’s aborted attempts at men. “Almost,” he says.
On the college library steps, she finds Adam reclined, waiting on her. He eats a sandwich from a paper bag while the vestige of summer heat slides out of October. “This might be the last beautiful day of the year,” he tells her. “Are you sure you want to spend the rest of the afternoon studying?”
“Beautiful days will come again,” she says.
He lifts the sandwich. “Once in this bread, the wheat was merry in the wind. Then man broke the sun and pulled the wind down.”
“You must’ve read my books.”
“Only the cookbooks. Recommended relish for my sandwich. This bread regrets to relish its youth, again, as grain.”
“Puns don’t suit you.”
He lifts his tie and shows her a stain of pickle relish. “Suits don’t suit me.”
“You’re too messy an eater.” She leans to wipe away the stain, and he kisses her, the summer blood knocking in her flesh. She pulls away. Wipes relish from her lips. “That was awfully forward,” she scolds, feeling the intrusion of his kiss, the rawness in her crotch during their first week of marriage, the cramping at the onset of miscarriage, the wine in her throat.
“The sun’s on the run, sweetheart,” he says. “We can’t make it stand still.” He hands the book of poetry back to her. He’d stolen it from her moving box. She flips the book’s pages and finds that he’s marked lines from beginning to end.
“Thank you,” she says to him for the book. “Thank you,” she says as an old woman to her dead son visiting her; to the deacon holding the flask of wine; to the sky for softening its glare into the unwrinkled wonder of a boy.
“Thank you,” says the deacon, ending his prayer.
“Thank you,” says the yellow-haired boy, for reasons beyond his understanding.
“Thank you,” she says again. Her aching toes curl in her orthopedic shoes.
Cover image by Brooke Cagle.