Three | Hemlock | Bryan Howie

Hemclock

 
 
 
Grace shows up before Momma. I don’t wake up until I hear a kettle boiling. No whistle, but the sound of the stove buzzing and water splashing. I don’t know I’m awake until Grace is kneeling down beside me with a cup of steaming, yellow liquid.

“Mish, wake up,” she says.

A hand brushes my hair off my face as I roll over. Grace has a cup resting in her hand, the handle pointing toward me. I lean up. The sun and a soft breeze come through an open window. Gramma doesn’t like drafts in her house. She says the wind carries germs.

“Drink,” Grace says. “It’ll wake you up and make you healthy.”

“What’s it?” I say, leaning up against the wall.

“It’s tea made from things from the forest,” Grace says. “Healthy things.”

I take the warm cup from her hand and blow on the liquid. Grace brushes the hair out of my face, stroking the side of my head as she does so. There’s earth beneath her fingernails. The tea smells like citrus and dirt. As she strokes my head, I blow on the tea. I test the heat with my lips and it’s cool enough to drink but warm enough to stop me from guzzling it down.

It tastes like mud. The tea numbs my mouth a little.

“Grace?” Gramma yells. “Grace, are you cooking out there?”

Grace says, “I’ll be back sweetie.” She gets up and walks to Gramma’s bedroom. There is a dog yapping from the house two acres away. It’s a little coyote-looking thing that has to be loud because it ain’t big. That’s what Gramma says.

“I’m making you breakfast,” Grace says.

“I don’t want no breakfast,” Gramma says back. “My back hurts and my mouth tastes like skunk. Get me a candybar and my medicine.”

Grace sing-songs, “I’m making scrambled eggs, toast, and sausage, Marie. And you’ve got to eat, or you won’t get better. And you can’t have your drink without food.”

“I can have my drink any time I want,” Gramma says, and she says it like she’s talking to me. My shoulders tense up. Grace is going to leave us.

“Get me a drink and a candy bar,” Gramma says.

“If you’re feeling that good, you can get it yourself pretty easily.” I can see Grace’s face in my head. Not a wrinkle of concern. Just a happy suggestion. “Otherwise, I’ll make us some breakfast and you can even eat in bed if you want.”

“I’ll fire your ass,” Gramma says. “I’ll fire your ass.”

“If you don’t like sausage, just say so,” Grace says. “I can fix whatever you want, honey. You’ll love a good bite before you take your medicine. Just the thing for it.”

Gramma is gonna start screaming. My heartbeat pounds in my ears. Grace is going to go and I’m gonna be stuck with Gramma alone.

“I’m gonna want something to wash down my breakfast,” Gramma says.

“Of course, honey.” Grace skips down the hall into the kitchen. She calls out, “Coming right up. Breakfast is my specialty.”

Her face is as steady as a spoon. She pulls groceries out of a brown paper sack sitting on the counter. She must have brought that, because they ain’t candybars. “And you, little girl, are my helper. Get your shoes on and grab me those pans from the backseat of my car. We got some fixins to make.”

I look at the cup and drink it fast. I want it out of my mouth as soon as possible. It warms me, and the tingling in my mouth goes down my throat. There are bruises across both my hands, already yellowing. I put the empty cup aside, pull a lightweight long-sleeve shirt on, and grab my tennyrunners.

7

“I take care of five people right now,” Grace says. She’s wearing a tight purple shirt and doesn’t have a bra underneath. “I’ve been doing it for a long while. End of life stuff, mostly. It’s sad because I usually only see them at their worst, when everything is just falling apart one piece at a time.”

“You had to see them die?” I ask. I take a spoonful of eggs and a chunk of sausage and let it just rest in my mouth. The eggs are fluffy like nothing I’ve ever imagined. Grace put milk and some flour in the eggs and then sprinkled a tiny bit of sugar in before she had me whip it into a froth with a whisk. We’re eating off the plates she brought.

“In the end, it’s hard to let go. I try to help them feel comfortable. It’s a very special moment. You only get to die once. She crunches her toast and talks with her mouth full. “But it’s before they die that matters. I want them to be happy. And I do my best.”

“What if they’re mean?” I say.

Grace takes a drink of her bottle of soda. She offered me one, but I reminded her I’m not allowed soda. She says this one has good sugar in it, but I still didn’t take it.

I whisper, “What if they’re mean like Gramma?”

Grace twists her lips to the side and raises an eyebrow. “There’s been worse. One old man, he’d pinch my bottom and call me names the whole time. I couldn’t get him nicer than a rabid bulldog on his best day. He cussed and threw things until the very end.”

“How’d he die?”

“Mean,” Grace says. “He died mean.”

I take a drink of ice-water. The tingle from that tea is in my head. My arms and stomach don’t hurt like they should after that caning. “You think Gramma’ll die mean?”

“I don’t think that’s something we need to worry about,” Grace says. She eats like she’s hungry. Don’t hardly seem to taste the food, she chews and swallows so fast. Gramma’d slap me for eating like that.

“Today, I’m gonna take you over the field to the river,” Grace says. “I’ve got some rooting to do and you can help me pick some flowers. There’s lots of good stuff in the ground over there. It’ll be fun to be out in the sun.”

“Can we leave Gramma alone?”

“I can’t think of a better thing to do,” Grace says.

The door opens and Momma pops her head in already apologizing for being late, but she stops when she sees Grace. “Oh, you’re here already?” Momma looks at her watch. “You’re early.”

“I had the morning open, and I wanted to make breakfast,” Grace gets up and goes to the stove. She dishes up a plate. “I’ve got some here for you, too. Mish made the eggs. She’s a natural.”

“I can’t stay long,” Momma says. “I’ve got to get to work.”

“Just sit on down for a second. If you don’t taste these eggs, you’ll be missing out.”

I look from Momma to Grace to Momma. Momma relaxes and that worried look she was wearing melts. She looks so pretty. “Well, I gotta try the eggs, at least,” she says. Then she looks at me and winks. “Mish.”

“Grace calls me that.” I bite my toast and say, “I guess I like it.”

Grace puts the plate on the table and pulls out a chair for Momma. They both sit down and eat.

“This is really good,” Momma says.

*

“This is called yarrow.” Grace squats next to a plant with a white cluster of tiny flowers at its top. The leaves look like small ferns. She cups the top of the plant and puts her nose over it, inhales deeply. “It smells like chrysanthemums.”

Grace has a woven basket with a lid at her side. When I first saw the basket, I thought maybe we were going to have a picnic. Gramma is asleep, passed out after breakfast. We left her snoring loudly. I touch a yarrow next to me and inhale. My nostrils clear with one sniff. It’s really smelly. “What’s it good for?”

Grace looks up. “What?”

“You know, what’s it do?” I sniff my hand and the scent is more tolerable. Sweat beads at my hairline, but a cool breeze blows up from the creek every once in a while.

“Lots of things,” Grace says. “That’s the good thing about plants. They do so many things. People forget how to use them sometimes. They have different names in different places, and that’s one way to figure out what they do. Yarrow is also called soldier’s woundwort and nosebleed, so it was used for healing hurt people. It can help stop bleeding or actually make you bleed easier, depending on how you use it. It’s a miracle. Stops headaches, reduces fevers, and helps with bruises.”

I nod. “Do you eat it?”

“These leaves taste good in a salad,” Grace says. She reaches in the picnic basket and pulls out a knife. The blade is double-edged and shines like silver in the sun. There are etched symbols running up the middle of the knife. She takes the plant apart with the knife, grouping the flower parts into small piles. Then she moves onto another. The pile grows. She hums while she does this.

“I like these ones.” I grab a dandelion. I pull off the yellow top and pop it into my mouth.

“Piss-a-beds,” Grace says.

I spit the flower out.

“No, it’s okay to eat. It’s not bad for you. That’s just a name for them because they make you pee if you eat too many. They make good salad toppings and great wine.”

Grace comes to my side and starts cutting the tops off the dandelions and making a pile of them. I pop the heads off with my thumb and add to the pile.

Grace grabs a willow branch and cuts off a switch. My back arches. She does this a few times, gathering enough for a little fire. When she’s done, she brings them over to where I have a huge pile of dandelion heads.

“That’s probably enough of them.” Grace sets the sticks down by the basket.

“What’re those for?”

“Are you okay?” Grace says. “You look nervous.”

“The willow branches. What are they for?”

She picks one up and I flinch. She says, “Oh, you can make a tea out of it, but mostly I use it to make baskets.”

“This one is water hemlock.” She points at a flowering weed that looks a lot like the yarrow. “It’s poisonous. People think it’s a wild carrot, which looks just like this, except the wild carrot has a spot of red in the middle of the flower. They call that Queen Anne’s Lace because they say that Queen Anne pricked her finger with a needle and a drop of blood fell on the flower. Don’t ever confuse the two.”

I walk in a circle around the small meadow that leads down to the creek. Groundhog berms run in wavy lines through the open dirt. A mosquito lands on my forearm and I let him drink his fill. His butt turns red and swells. My arm itching even before he flies off, but I concentrate on not scratching it until he buzzes off.

I reach down and grab another yarrow flower. The wispy hairs that cover the stalk are soft.

“Careful, Mish,” Grace says. “You shouldn’t pick that one without gloves on. It’s a bit of a bitch.”

I pull my hand away and my fingers feel a little numb. “I thought it was yarrow. What is it?”

“That one is cow parsnip. It’s good and bad for skin. It can make you blister.” Grace motions me over to her. “Look here at the water hemlock. See how the veins in the leaves run into the teeth of the leaf instead of going all the way to the tip of the leaf? That’s the easiest way to tell what it is. It’s another one you don’t want to touch too much. It’s got a lot of poison in it. Very strong magic.” Grace cuts into the ground around the water hemlock and takes the plant out, roots and all. It looks like little white carrots hang from the roots.

Grace, kneeling down, whispers to the plant. Her eyes are half-closed.

“What are you saying?” I ask.

She keeps moving her lips with no sound for a moment before answering. “I guess I’m praying.”

I take a willow branch and place it next to Grace. I remove my shoes and pull my shirt over my head. I set both to the side and kneel next to Grace.

Grace opens her eyes. “What you doing?”

“Praying, too,” I say.

Grace looks at my back, traces a line across my scars. “And where did these come from?”

“Gramma knows when I’m not praying hard enough,” I say. “So she helps me pray harder.”

“Does that work?” Grace asks.

“I don’t know. Mostly it hurts.”

Grace pushes the stick aside. Still kneeling next to me, she pulls her shirt off, too. “There are other ways to pray,” she says.

I keep praying hard, though. I want Grace to see how good I am at praying. I don’t even scratch my white swelling mosquito bite.

When I open my eyes, Grace has finished praying. Her skin glows white, but tinted in green from the reflection from the grass around us. She separates the bundles of flower parts and puts them into the basket.

“About lunchtime,” she announces. “We better get back and check on Marie.”

Graces fingernails are definitely greenish, tinted from the stems she’s sliced through. Her eyes are even brighter green than any other time I’ve seen them.

Grace and I pull our shirts on and the breeze blows up from the creek like a blessing.

*

“I can’t come after work tonight,” Momma says. “I’ve got an extra shift I can pull, and tonight is going to be busy. I won’t get off until late, and then I’ll be at the other job at six, so I can’t stop in the morning, either.”

I cradle the phone on my neck and listen with the other ear to the thrashing sounds of Gramma. She’s been in a mood since Grace left. “That’s okay, Momma.”

“Did you eat? Has Gramma been nice to you today?”

“I ate. Grace made us a cassyroll. It had green beans and onions in it, and she made Gramma eat it or she wouldn’t give her none of the gin. And Gramma even said it tasted good.”

That was the last nice thing Gramma said. Since then, she’s been raving about sinners and fire.

“I’m so sorry, Michelle honey. I don’t know what else to do right now except buckle down and take as much work as I can. We’ll be living good in a few weeks. I promise, we’ll be doing real good.”

“You sound tired, Momma.”

“I need to eat and get my energy back, that’s all. I feel good. And you promise you’re good?” Momma whispers, “Gramma ain’t running you down?”

Gramma is cursing about sluts, but Momma doesn’t mention the yells. Maybe she can’t hear them. With all she knows about whores, Gramma could teach a class on them.

“Gramma’s fine,” I say. “She’s just like she is. She isn’t much fun.”

Momma laughs. “She never was.”

“But Grace took me out to the river and showed me all the plants and she knows the names for everything.”

“That’s good, honeygirl. You just keep watching Gramma and this will all be over soon. You got breakfast taken care of?”

“Yeah, Momma. I’m gonna make eggs again. Grace left some. We’ve got milk and eggs and flour and sugar.”

“I’ll be over in the afternoon. I’ll have to take a nap between shifts. I swear this is good for me, but it feels like torture. We’ll get all caught up. Maybe even get ahead of the bills.”

“Good night, Momma.”

“Sleep tight, Michelle.”

I hang up the phone and rub a kink out of my neck.

 
 
 

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