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