Just Past the Al­falfa Fields


IT’ S THREE IN THE MORN­ING and the cof­fee pot has al­ready started to per­co­late. No­body has to be any­where par­tic­u­larly early, but this is all part of the rou­tine. A pot of cof­fee be­fore four; back to bed by nine. As if to check that the birds woke all right.

I have just fallen asleep when she screams. My heart’s rhythm quick­ens, as if caf­feinated, jolt­ing me back into wake­ful­ness. In­stantly her vol­ume low­ers as she starts into an an­gry con­ver­sa­tion. I try to lis­ten but it’s hard to hear with the shriek still in my ears. I lie on my back, in my child­hood bed, star­ing at the ceil­ing, calm­ing my heart. The at­mos­phere set­tles into an un­easy quiet. The smell of cof­fee pushes it­self un­der the closed door. There have been no sud­den move­ments. No sounds of strug­gle. I know from liv­ing through this ex­pe­ri­ence of­ten enough while grow­ing up that my mother is alone.

She al­ways told us as kids not to check on her when the cries ac­com­pany cof­fee. This is coun­ter­in­tu­itive when you hear scream­ing in the kitchen. I’m tempted to drift back to sleep, to avoid the sit­u­a­tion un­til a more ap­pro­pri­ate hour, but I can’t help but feel ne­glect­ful of my duty as a daugh­ter. I rea­son with my­self that a glass of wa­ter will help calm me down. I take time leav­ing my bed, both to give her a mo­ment to set­tle and to give my­self a mo­ment to en­joy the warmth be­tween the cov­ers. I pull on a sweater, take a deep breath, and step softly to­wards the stairs. One last pause be­fore I make the de­scent.

The kitchen is dimly lit with a warm yel­low glow. I can hear the cof­fee drip into the pot as quick as my heart­beat. A hint of cin­na­mon wel­comes me as I en­ter the room. I cross, with­out a word, to­wards the counter. My mother sits silently at the head of the ta­ble, fac­ing the

cof­fee pot, rigidly poised, with an empty mug in front of her. I open the cup­board above the sink in search of a glass. A calendar swings on a hook against the in­side of the door. The monthly pic­tures seem to look the same ev­ery year. Vast prairie sky­lines that have lost their mean­ing by the place­ment of the lo­cal gas sta­tion’s em­blem on ev­ery page. The tiny num­bered squares are a lot emp­tier now. Gone are the scrib­blings of birth­day par­ties, or­tho­don­tist ap­point­ments and school clo­sures. In­stead there is a sched­ule for when we “kids” will come home. My name, writ­ten di­ag­o­nally and tak­ing up the en­tirety of yesterday’s square, is cir­cled in a big red heart. I grab a bowl in­stead of a glass: I think, I’d bet­ter sit down.

I can feel her eyes study me as I go through the mo­tions of pour­ing the ce­real. Nei­ther of us is pre­pared to ad­dress her out­burst. I glance to­wards the win­dow, half for­get­ting that it’s the mid­dle of the night, just to see my groggy re­flec­tion fac­ing back at me. Moon­less, the yard out­side is too dark for me to see. The thick perime­ter of trees shel­ters this creaky old farm­house from any light pol­lu­tion from the near­est small town. I grab my bowl, turn to face her, and slide my back down the wall to sit on the floor. I draw my knees close to my chest and wedge the bowl be­tween to hold it there. We lock eyes and both coyly smile in a way we’ve been told is iden­ti­cal.

She breaks the si­lence. “There’s cof­fee if you want. I put cin­na­mon in it.”

I snicker un­der my breath at the me­mory of a corny sign in a ter­ri­ble diner that read: “Home, where the cof­fee is al­ways on.” My mother holds this adage to heart. “It’s a lit­tle early for cof­fee for me, I’ll stick with ce­real.”

She nods softly, then starts hard into the ques­tion­ing. “Do you have a boyfriend yet?”

“Christ, mother. Se­ri­ously?”

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain! What else do you want to dis­cuss? Those dread­ful tat­toos? You know those are for­ever, right?” “Hadn’t con­sid­ered that.”

“You used to phone more.”

“Yeah well, you used to pick up.”

“You can leave a mes­sage. The phone…it’s just…I don’t like it right now.” Her eyes dart to­wards the floor, em­bar­rassed.

I spoon up some ce­real just to drop it back in the bowl. The an­swer­ing ma­chine has been flash­ing the num­ber five since I ar­rived for my visit ear­lier that day. Or I guess the day be­fore, it be­ing so

early in the morn­ing now. Three of the mes­sages are prob­a­bly mine. The other two most likely my fa­ther check­ing in to make sure we’re managing well while he’s away. I play with the ce­real a lit­tle more in hopes to evade the guilt that usu­ally fol­lows the sub­ject of how of­ten I call. Fig­ure eights in the milk don’t help. I end up promis­ing to be bet­ter. With that the con­ver­sa­tion switches to a more pos­i­tive tone. My mother tells me sto­ries of her week. Hol­ly­hocks and horses; trel­lised green beans and tomato soup. She lists her ac­com­plish­ments by plac­ing em­pha­sis on the ones that made her leave the house.

She tells me the new­est gos­sip of the at­trac­tive young neighbour who bought a farm a few miles away. She em­pha­sizes that he’s sin­gle and prods if I’ll ever move back. We talk about her gar­den and my lack of one at my home in the city. She men­tions a few times, to be sure I’m lis­ten­ing, that she’s been tak­ing walks around the perime­ter of the yard on her good days. We joke about how when I was lit­tle I could never be se­questered within the house, al­ways fight­ing to make it past the perime­ter. I would take off run­ning from the kitchen, into the yard, to­wards the tree line, try­ing des­per­ately to cross its bor­der to the pur­ple al­falfa fields just be­yond. Usu­ally the large cal­loused hands of my fa­ther would scoop me up be­fore I had a chance to suc­ceed. My mother mused about my six-year old de­ter­mi­na­tion. She said there was only once that my fa­ther wasn’t able to catch up be­fore I made it past the bor­der. I hadn’t gone any fur­ther than the edge, where I stared at the vast pur­ple field with an ex­pres­sion­less face. “I had been scream­ing a lot that day,” she ad­mits. This brings us both back to our re­al­ity that we’ve run out of small talk and I’ve run out of ce­real.

“Have you been go­ing to the doc­tor, Mom?” She nods in re­ply. I press for more in­for­ma­tion on the shriek that roused me. The usual ques­tions fall out of my mouth: “Has any­thing changed? Does Dad know? Are you still see­ing ghosts? Have you con­sid­ered a new doc­tor? Would you go to a fam­ily coun­sel­lor with me?” She be­gins to shut down right in front of me but I can’t stop. Af­ter all the years I still can’t help but push with the same child­ish de­ter­mi­na­tion to break through her bor­der and get the an­swer I hope to hear but never will.

She snaps. “Wake up and smell the cof­fee. There is noth­ing that is go­ing to help me. Not talk­ing about it. Not see­ing a new doc­tor. Not go­ing to fam­ily coun­selling. Noth­ing.”

I grit my teeth to lock in my tongue and hide the smirk at her word­play. I did wake up to smell the cof­fee. That and her shriek

have brought me to sit on her kitchen floor ques­tion­ing why we can’t ap­proach her men­tal ill­ness to­gether. We sit there star­ing at each other in the still­ness her state­ment has cre­ated.

She sits up straighter in her chair. “Well, it’s pretty late. You should go back to bed. Bring me the pot be­fore you go back up­stairs. Please.”

I mur­mur an apol­ogy I’m not sure I mean, stand­ing to place the bowl in the sink, reach­ing for the pot to com­plete her re­quest, and kiss­ing her good­night. If she has taken it, her med­i­ca­tion will kick in, se­dat­ing her to sleep shortly af­ter sun­rise, the con­sumed pot of cof­fee be damned. I walk back up the stairs, to­wards my child­hood room still plas­tered with pho­tos of pur­ple flow­ers.

It’s three in the af­ter­noon, on a win­ter day. I sit at my par­ents’ kitchen ta­ble, half­way through my sec­ond cup of cof­fee, star­ing out the win­dow at the snow-cov­ered red barn. Foot­steps be­gin to shuf­fle softly up­stairs; my mother has risen from her med­i­cated sleep. She runs through her morn­ing rou­tine, one my fa­ther says she’s been ne­glect­ing, while I run through ev­ery­thing that’s changed about this kitchen. The side en­trance, which leads to this room that holds all my mem­o­ries, no longer has an open-door pol­icy. It re­mains firmly locked, with the blinds al­ways drawn, no longer an invit­ing door­way to wel­come the neigh­bours for a meal. This walnut ta­ble, big enough to seat a crowd cel­e­brat­ing the end of har­vest or the even­ing of the spring equinox, feels empty with only me at the head wait­ing for her to join me.

She star­tles me back to re­al­ity, smack­ing her lips while cheek­ily pro­claim­ing, “minty fresh!” just like when we were kids try­ing to prove to her we had brushed our teeth. With­out a mo­ment’s hes­i­ta­tion, she crosses the room to­wards the cup­boards and be­gins to empty out all the bak­ing sup­plies. My eyes fol­low her move­ments, rushed and care­less. The bak­ing soda top­ples over, pour­ing into a small white pile. The bag of choco­late chips, its cor­ner al­ready torn open for op­ti­mal snack­ing, spills half of its con­tents on the floor. A small glass jar of raisins gets jos­tled onto its side and starts to roll to­wards the edge of the counter. I jump up to grab it be­fore it can crash. With­out look­ing away from the cup­board she’s pil­lag­ing, she in­structs what she needs from me: bowl for hold­ing, cups for mea­sur­ing, spoons for mix­ing and so on.

“Mom, what ex­actly are we mak­ing here?”

“Cook­ies.” Her re­sponse is blunt, as if cook­ies are a part of some di­vine plan for the day.

I stand to her right, like an al­tar boy. She bakes from me­mory, fo­cus­ing on the bat­ter with such in­ten­sity I want to ex­press my con­cern that we may have added the wrong ra­tios. I think of my child­hood when I would drag a chair to stand upon next to her, as­sist­ing in her bak­ing projects. Her soft man­i­cured hands would take my tiny ones and guide them through the care­ful fill­ing and adding of the mea­sur­ing cups. Her hands are so much dif­fer­ent now. Still soft, but the al­ways-per­fect man­i­cure has been re­placed with nails that look brit­tle. Her fin­gers are be­gin­ning to dye from the cig­a­rettes she smokes to calm her mind. I watch as her hands shake, fill­ing the mea­sur­ing cups far less metic­u­lously than she had taught me to. My hands, still child­like in com­par­i­son, reach to hold hers steady just like she did mine back when we had a size dif­fer­ence.

“How were the birds this morn­ing?” I ask.

Her smile looks sad. “Oh, they were fine. Not very many any more.” She pauses to look out the win­dow with long­ing. “I can’t wait for spring.”

Win­ter is al­ways worse. It’s harder to fight off your ghosts in the dark. The tree line that holds this house safe from the dust kicked up in the sum­mer by pass­ing cars on the dirt road now acts as a prison wall. One big snow­fall and it’s im­pos­si­ble to get to town un­til the plow comes by days later. The perime­ter of the yard, both a bless­ing and a curse, iso­lates the house from the chaos of civ­i­liza­tion but traps the chaos of the mind within. There’s far to run but nowhere to go. My mother knows this from chas­ing me as I tried to make my es­cape to the pur­ple al­falfa fields. I know this from chas­ing her when she ran from things I couldn’t see.

“Spring will come. It al­ways does. You seem like you’re hav­ing a bet­ter day?”

“Sure, I guess. It’s nice to have you here. Why don’t you come visit more?”

We con­tinue to bake in si­lence as I refuse to an­swer that ques­tion. A nice mo­ment bak­ing does not need to be ru­ined by a re­gur­gi­tated dis­cus­sion we had last week. Or the week be­fore. She be­gins to lose in­ter­est in the bat­ter be­fore us. She wan­ders to the kitchen ta­ble, sits down, flip­ping open a mag­a­zine, then stands back up be­fore she’s even made it through five pages. She heads down­stairs to the base­ment to have a cig­a­rette. I’m left to sal­vage the bat­ter I know

we’ve butchered by mix­ing from me­mory. Me­mory is what she wars with the most. Cin­na­mon spills on my shirt while I’m wrapped in thought.

She re­turns to the kitchen while I place the cook­ies in the oven. I know I’ve prob­a­bly failed try­ing to save them, but I can’t help but be hope­ful they’ll come out all right, or even just ed­i­ble. I turn to face her. Her eyes are puffy from tears. Her hands fidget at the pock­ets of her zip-up sweater. She stammers an apol­ogy for her ap­pear­ance. As if that was what I was fo­cused on.

She starts into her con­fes­sion. “I’m sick of be­ing at war in my own mind. In my own home. I don’t want to be a cir­cus. I’m not sure I want to live any­more.”

The way she has phrased it is just so sim­ple. I fo­cus on the small cross neck­lace, glim­mer­ing around her neck. I find my­self pray­ing to a god I don’t be­lieve in to heal this mo­ment. The smell of cig­a­rettes and cin­na­mon makes me dizzy.

It’s three in the morn­ing and my cof­fee press is pre­emp­tively filled with grounds. A pot of wa­ter sits on the stove, wait­ing to be boiled in a few hours. I have to be at work early, but in­stead I’m sit­ting on my kitchen floor, rip­ping the la­bel off my beer, think­ing of my mother. I think of her ghosts and of my own. Some I’m sure I’ve in­her­ited, just like her smile. Oth­ers have been cre­ated through my own ex­pe­ri­ences. I think of her re­li­gion and that it may be the only thing keep­ing her alive. The smell of cin­na­mon creeps un­der the door from the hall. The walls of my apart­ment are not nearly as strong as the perime­ter of the yard. Civ­i­liza­tion, in the form of the smells of oth­ers’ cook­ing, al­ways finds its way in. I be­gin to cry.

I fid­dle with my cell phone, di­alling her num­ber. He­si­tantly I hit the con­nec­tion but­ton. It rings and rings and rings and rings. Voice­mail.

“Hi, Mom, it’s me. Just call­ing to check in. I know it’s early, but you’re of­ten up. Any­ways. Ah. Yeah. How’s your heart? Um, call me back if you get this. Bye.”p

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