RAVEN IN THE GRASS
by Kelly Ann Jacobson
A single blade of grass. Long and thin, streaked like the drag of paint left behind by a brush. A singular shade of green, like the color of nothing except itself. Among others it is just a pinpoint in a larger plane, which we see the way a child draws grass, scribbled shape colored in with the nub of a crayon. But up close. Up close, near the nose so that your eyes draw inward and cross, that blade is one entity. Albeit picked and soon to be sun-withered, it is whole.
Marilyn lies beneath her husband’s green army blanket. Her arms hug her sides so that her body, beneath the wool, looks straight and stalky. Her feet are small, two doll feet barely rising from the flatness of her chest and legs, and the blanket covers them and hangs off of the cot like pie crust not yet crimped. The chest rises and falls with effort, almost mechanical in its singular purpose, emitting only the whisper of stale air through her partially parted lips.
The room is covered in light blue paint, so that when Marilyn wakes, she thinks for a moment that she floats through the cloudless beyond of the sky. She has already died, and risen above the city. The window is not a window to the real night sky but the other way around, the early polka dot moon peering in the glass panes to glimpse the expanse of Marilyn’s walls.
The clatter of pans brings her back to herself, and the pressure of her weight and the bones of her shoulders digging into the hospital cot ground her. They bought it for her, she remembers, and when she returned from the hospital there it was, in place of the four poster. They placed her in the open mouth of the sheets and left her there, alone, with only the problem of gravity to solve. That and the mystery of her missing bedside table, the set of drawers where she kept her nighties and silk stockings, the mirror above the dresser. Do they fear this will draw her to suicide, the simple slice of a sliver of glass right to the vein? Or that she will stumble, clutching at air, until she falls onto whatever sharp corner has been left in her path?
How could the decorations be dangerous when she lies pinned down to this cot, unable to change for dinner or do her hair the way she likes it, in the loose bun pinned at the nape of her neck? She is subjected to the torture of her children’s clumsy fingers rambling through her scalp and pulling the hair too tightly into the braids of a little girl, one on either side of her face. The little ones are better at braiding, but pull at the hair afterward like a cat’s tail.
Occasionally, one of the children brings her something to eat and feeds it to her like a bird. Something warm, like pudding, that slides down her throat in a wash of cocoa powder and milk, or cold, like pieces of frozen fruit. She is their doll, as lifeless and false skinned.
The seasons do not move here in this sky room, except for the changing of hot and cold. Of sweet mango or warm apple pie.
Penelope lies splayed out on the grass, her backpack on one side and her book, A Wrinkle in Time, split open on the other. She does not read; she waits. Spring tickles her eyelids and the skin on her exposed forearms, the little bouts of warm breezes and seed pods carried on their waves. She rolls her jeans up and removes her shoes, the socks with white polka dots too, so that her toes can massage the moist earth beneath the grass. Soon she has weeded herself into the dirt; when the boy finally comes, she is surprised to find herself still able to detach.
Bobby pleads with her to reconsider their breakup. Penelope has already forgotten the many nights in the back seat of Bobby’s Toyota—the pressure of the car door on her back, the steamy air, the unbearable heat that, even with her hair pinned back, sent beads of sweat into the crevices of her back. The tears, when she told him she did not want a boyfriend anymore. This summer she will spend a week at camp, and does not want to be tied down.
Now he seems so far away from her, as though he floats over her like a balloon, or maybe it is Penelope that floats.
She imagines returning to her book. Penelope likes the character of Meg, who, unlike Penelope, manages to be wearisome yet wise. Penelope is never wearisome; she is the perfect student, ballerina, and daughter, three unrelated and yet similar things. All three require great discipline, and quiet submission. On the inside, however, Penelope yearns to fold into the fabric of time like butter into batter, to go back or forward or anywhere but outside her school, where Bobby grasps at her arm.
After shaking him off, Penelope returns her socks and shoes to her feet. Then she stands and moves toward the parking lot, where her mother waits, reading a magazine about home décor or perhaps filling in a crossword puzzle.
If she had not turned to take one last look at Bobby, she would not have seen the bird behind him. But she does turn, and there it is, dead and rotted and covered in flies. The bones like teeth in a black mouth. Suddenly she knows she must not let him see the bird, that one look at the bird would be too much for poor Bobby to handle. He is fragile, easily consumed. And there is something about this raven, this large-beaked bearer of death, which sends a chill up the girl’s spine.
“Come,” she tells him. He wipes his snot on his bare arm and follows her to her car.
Richard cannot bear the scent of newly cut grass, the chocking grip of allergenic pollen. As he passes Bobby, the boy from down the street who cares for Richard’s yard, he brings his shirt up to cover his face, creating a polyester screen. Is the boy purposely whacking away at his petunias? Richard wants to call out, but ends up clutching at his throat and running for the door. Damn his asthmatic lungs, the constriction of his chest and the accompanying wheeze. The feeling of drowning, again and again, in air. If he could, he would cleanse the air like a pool hand with his skimmer net, until the whole world was a sterile, scentless known.
He arrives home early, before Molly, and relishes the quiet calmness of the house. Richard takes time removing his tie; he kicks off his loafers at the stairs and pads through the living room to the kitchen. At the sight of the red voicemail light he remembers that Molly will be at her brother’s tonight, tending to her mother while the older sibling and his even older wife take a night off, which in turn gives Richard a night off—no arguments, no waving of thermometers and plastic sample containers.
Still in his work trousers, Richard treks to the gas station across the street. At the refrigerated beverages he pauses and considers; he likes to feel spontaneous, though he always picks Pennsylvania’s pride. A worn ten dollar bill slides one way across the counter, and the six-pack, now bagged, slides the other way. Richard walks back down Main Street carrying the beer like a child, balanced on one hip.
By the time that Molly gets home, six empty beer bottles lie at the bottom of the recycling can Richard carts out to the curb every Tuesday. On her walk to the door she finds a bouquet of beheaded petunias piled on the step, and pauses to gather them in her arms. Only the hanging planters remain unscathed, their pink and purple faces turned away now that the sun has disappeared. Inside, Molly divides the petunias into three vases: one in the dining room, one in the kitchen, and one in the bedroom where she leads her inebriated husband by his belt loops. On the way, Richard steadies her when she trips on a careless pair of leather loafers.
Penelope should be sleeping, but after her parents’ bedroom light goes off, she creeps down the hallway to her grandmother’s bedroom. Though the Marilyn lying in the hospital cot looks nothing like the Marilyn who used to feed freshly bakes cookies off the pan to her only grandchild, Penelope still feels connected to her, like she might just bolt up in bed and ask when the next episode of Jeopardy starts.
The girl brings her book. Sometimes she reads to Marilyn, if her grandmother’s green eyes wander along the surfaces of the walls; other times Penelope reads silently while Marilyn sleeps. Tonight Marilyn dozes with her eyes closed and her mouth open, propped up against the pillows like a queen. Occasionally she calls for her husband, or for her daughter, Molly, though only Penelope is there to place her palm in the wandering hand.
Penelope has grown accustomed to Marilyn’s strange breathing, the raspy struggle to inhale and exhale. The girl imagines the cancer like a stain on her clothes, embedded in the very threads in her grandmother’s own faded fabric.
Only when the breath stops does Penelope glance up from the page, so quickly that the words seem to superimpose themselves on the walls. Then she closes her book and tucks it under the hand that has taken on weight like a sponge its water, a book that for Penelope has come to an early end.
Through squinted eyes, things that once had distinct shape blur until they are only splotches of color. Spills of green and blue. In one room, Marilyn closes her eyes; in another, her daughter opens them, sensing the change. From this distance, despite the folding in of one stalk and the start of another, the shade of the grass still looks the same.
Kelly Ann Jacobson is a fiction writer and poet who lives in Falls Church, Virginia. Kelly is the author of the literary fiction novel Cairo in White and the young adult trilogy The Zaniyah Trilogy, as well as the editor of the book of essays Answers I’ll Accept. Her work, including her published poems, fiction, and nonfiction, can be found at www.kellyannjacobson.com.
Image credit: Sylvia McFadden on Flickr