Fiction slider — 04 May 2015

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Sun Jelly Pastures
by
Kristyna Mazur Landt, MD
Drawing by the author
Editor’s note: Winner of our 2015 short fiction competition.

Enid’s lazy eye wandered intently across the weathered formica tabletop, temporarily shifting her focus from the torrent of salt her husband, Maynard, was showering over his corned beef hash onto an old wicker Easter basket that, under normal circumstances, she’d use to gather vegetables or eggs or flowers. She sighed wearily, massaging the tight, shiny skin that now enveloped her cankles. Back in the day, she’d been what Maynard considered “a real looker”: petite and short-waisted with long black hair and legs up to there, sporting a nice-sized pair of melons that efficiently diverted attention away from her rather unfortunate ophthalmologic condition.

“That eye of yers is gonna trouble certain folks, Enid,” Mama’d warned on her first day of kindergarten. “They cain’t tell if yer lookin’ at ’em or not.” She coaxed a renegade lock of Enid’s hair into place with a dab of spit before guiding her through the classroom’s door. “Don’t pay people like that no nevermind, ya hear? Long as yer minding yer own business, praising Jesus, and tellin’ the truth, it don’t matter if yer lookin’em in their eyes, their ears, or their bee-hinds,” she said, gesturing flamboyantly, pointing at her own head and rump. Mama’s animated pep talk gave Enid the giggles. “Mama, don’t you worry ’bout me,” she countered reassuringly. “Like Daddy always said, I got me the skin of an armadiller.”

“We’re gonna hafta do something about this,” Enid complained, fixing her good eye firmly on Maynard, letting the afflicted one dance violently upon the tangle of bluish stained mushrooms spilling out over the basket’s edges. “I seen them college kids ag’in yesterday, moseying around our south pasture. They was about to help themselves to these here good-for-nothin’ mushrooms, but I done chased ’em off and picked ever’ last one a these up offa them cow pies myself. And that hippie freak doctor from the cancer center turned up th’other day, nosing ’round the property like he’s lost or somethin’. I surely do wish you’d salt the herd’s sweet feed to get ridda these damn nuisances.”

Maynard seemed more disinterested than usual. Raising his eyes slowly from the plate of overly-salted, half-eaten hash sitting before him, morsels of it clinging for dear life to his unruly neck beard, he glanced first at the framed portrait of George W. Bush adorning the wall behind Enid, then stared at her hard. “What kinda nonsense you talkin’ here, Momma E?” His tone was frustrated. “How many times do I hafta remind you that our business is down ’cause people ain’t eatin’ beef like they used to, and the only way we gonna turn that around is to go strickly grass-fed? That’s as close to organic as Sun Jelly Pastures’ gonna get without payin’ for a certificate.”

Sun Jelly was the nickname they’d given their only son, Arliss. Born too late and taken by the Lord too early, Arliss’s enormous head had gotten stuck in Enid’s birth canal for so long that he was half-blind and retarded by the time he popped out. Bless his heart. Poor thing could barely lift his head, much less suckle her tit, but to his mama and daddy, he was a true miracle. From the moment that child was born, he was justa grinnin’ from ear to ear. “Don’t his smile remind you of sunshine?” Enid observed as Maynard cradled sweet baby Arliss in his arms for the first time. “It’s like sun jelly spread all over a slice a Wonder bread.”

They both knew Sun Jelly wasn’t long for this world. Enid would park him outside in his stroller while she worked in the garden, and in the afternoons, she’d take him down pasture to visit the cows. He’d get so tickled, cooing and babbling, trying to say “moo.” He went home to Jesus on the night of his third birthday, and though Enid rejoiced in knowing he was one of God’s angels, his passing left a hole in her heart that never quite mended. Maynard’s, too. Not being one to talk about his feelings much in the first place, Maynard drew up into himself even further. They tried for another child, but Enid had one miscarriage after another. Finally, they just gave up.

On many an afternoon, Enid would wander out to the wild muscadine grove bordering the south pasture where Sun Jelly was buried, wondering what he was doing up in heaven. To her, the pasture seemed heavenly, so green and blessed with God’s beauty. She thought about her precious son, and how he’d come out smiling. Whether he was smiling at being alive or smiling because it was the only thing he knew how to do, she’d never really know. She decided to talk to Maynard about changing the farm’s name. “Whistlin’ Dixie Acres sounds kinda rednecky, don’tcha think? Whaddya say we change it to ‘Sun Jelly Pastures’?” she’d asked, confident that he’d ridicule her suggestion. “Well, I’ll be,” Maynard said quietly, looking pensive, his eyes welling up with tears. “That’s the best idea I think I’ve heard in years.”

II
Whether Help Come
Homer Owl Song was a fixer of folks an’ other things that was broke. He didn’t much care to admit it, but he had hisself a reputation as a legend, one a them there folk heroes. The man had a knack fer showin’ up in the right place at the right time. Ever’one knowed about ‘im, but ain’t too many’d ever seen ‘im up close. For a fella who hadn’t never set foot in church, the Holy Spirit done smote Homer good. He was, as high falootin’ Pastor Bob liked to say, “a casual intercessor of people and situations that seemed downright hopeless.” Now, Homer didn’t go a-lookin’ fer folks that was downtrodden, but darned if they didn’t find their way ta him. Maybe he done swallered hisself a charity magnet or somethin’. Most folks’d agree he had the Midas touch ’cause ever’thing he done seemed ta turn to gold. Some thought he was pert near off his rocker. No two descriptions of Homer ever matched up, and that raised a few eyebrows from time to time. The holier’n-thou goody two-shoers all thunk he was nothin’ more’na renegade dodger of Johnny Law, but Sister Louisa and her lazy dimwit son, Tater, was dead sure Homer was one a them shape-shiftin’ bearded wizards, after a vision they seen in her Bedazzled crystal ball. Botha them spit swore on the Holy Bible they seen Homer transform hisself into a serpent that had itseff wrapped up around a walkin’ stick. It warn’t that Homer believed hisself above the law, he didn’t believe in law, period. He had no use for authority. Homer ‘splained it thisaway: “Why subscribe to the laws of men when Nature’s order is so accommodating?” Lord only knows.

The way Homer seen it, rules was “designed by people who didn’t trust their own hearts.” Instead of bringin’ about order, he declared that “rules create fear, distrust, and more rules, and people who live by the rules are only trading the chaos of uncertainty for the entropy of expectation and disappointment, thinking they’re getting a better deal. They don’t like surprises. That’s why they keep schedules and agendas, to ward off the unpredictable.” Some a his ideers flown smack over peoples’ heads, but alott’ve ’em made sense. He’d get to talkin’ and soundin’ real poetic, but he warn’t uppity or nothin’, he just got folks to thinkin’ on things they ain’t never thunk about afore. Like the notion he had that people get drunk offa control, same as moonshine. They’s under its spell all right, but control don’t loosen ’em up like hard liquor, no indeedy, it puts their minds ta sleep to where’s they cain’t think fer theirselves, and pert soon, they ain’t whatcha call a individual no more. It’s sorta like when a hard-headed caterpillar winds hisself up in one a them cocoons, only he don’t never turn into a butterfly. He’s in there all right, justa fightin’ with Mama Nature, stubborn as all get out ’cause he wants to be the one callin’ the shots. What he really is is scared; his fear a change done got the besta him. He done missed his chance, an’ all he’s got to show for his orneriness is a never-been butterfly and a has-been caterpillar. Just goes ta show, there ain’t no need fer playin’ it safe when ya trust in the way things are.

That’s why uptight types is so miserable; they ain’t never satisfied with what they got, ’cause they done throwed the baby out with the bathwater. Homer was sure a lotta folks’s problems in life was rooted in fear.  The way he put it, “fear of the unknown is a consummate grifter. It leaves a person short-changed, afraid of oneself, which ironically is the greatest unknown of all.” Homer was one big mystery, most’ve all to hisself. Ya know how a dog gets all excited when ‘is people come home from work, actin’ like it’s the first time he’d ever seen ’em? Well, for Homer, ever’ moment of the day was brand spankin’ new…maybe that’s why he was never bored. Life’s plumb fulla surprises, and so’s ever’ last one’ve us. Homer reckoned no one could really know theirselves, other’n how a baby knows it’s hungry or cold or wet or feels its mama’n’daddys love, ’cause each’ve us is a work in progress. Alls we can be sure of is what our bodies’re tryin’ to tell us, and then try’n listen to them gut feelins’ down deep inside. The rest is hearsay n’hogwarsh. Ain’t none’ve us the same person we was even a minute ago.

Even though Homer come acrosst as some sorta mystic philosopher, he really wasn’t much’ve a thinker. “Thinking puts a damper on experience,” he’d say. When a person’s all caught up in hisself, he ain’t gonna notice mucha nothin’ else. A tree ain’t just its roots and bark and branches, it’s the sunshine that’s streamin’ twixt its leaves and the wind that comes a-rustlin’ through ’em. There’s more ta that tree than meets the eye. It’s got sap runnin’ ever’ which way up and down its trunk, roots lookin’ for a drink, branches branchin’, and leaves turnin’ sunlight, air, n’water into vittles. It don’t hafta think about none a that; it’s just being what it already is. People ain’t no differ’nt, really. We grow ourselves same as that tree, ain’t no one else doin’ it for us. ‘Cept somewhere’s along the line, we got the ideer we ought not take credit for doin’ what comes natural, that we’s just s’posed ta set back  and watch it all happenin’ from over yonder. Sorta takes the wind outta yer sails, don’t it? If we ain’t the ones responsible for walkin’ our legs and speakin’ our voice, then who is?

Pastor Bob summed Homer up as such: “He’s an enigma, a curiosity, and a threat.” Fer sure, he was one a them free spirits that wasn’t real concerned with what people thunk a him, a travellin’ man who never met a stranger, and called ever’ place ‘is home. That was the Injun side a him—he done growed up on a reservation in New Mexico, the son of a medicine woman. He learnt the old ways first, then he went off ta Harvard. Got hisself a MD and a PhD in ethnobotany, then come back to the reservation ta become a full-fledged healer, just like ‘is mama.

Traditions like healin’ don’t get taught in medical school. Regular doctors ain’t too concerned with keepin’ folks well. They got a pill or a fix fer darn near any ailment, an’ don’t none of it involve a person helpin’ hisself.  Problem is, they think’ve people as parts that ain’t workin’ right, parts that ain’t necessarily connected to each other or nothin’ else. There’s a whole lot more to Bubba than just his bad heart. Injun healers get that. To them, health is harmony ‘tween the physical body and what’s surroundin’ it, and disease is whatever’s disturbin’ the peace. The big differ’nce ‘tween doctors and healers is their attitude toward patients. A set of symptoms with a few pills chucked at it cain’t help itseff no how, but a person whose body is tellin’ its own story most surely can.

Homer believed in helpin’ people help theirselves. There warn’t a person alive that was beyond help, neither, whether help come as recovery or deliverance. He was a cancer doc afore he gone inta palliative care, so he seen his share a death. Most’ve us ain’t walkin’ around ponderin’ our deaths, even though we all know we’s gonna die some day. Folks that’re terminal ill ain’t got that luxury; the hand a Death’s done reached out to grab ’em. Homer knew he warn’t gonna save ever’one that come ta him, but he didn’t think dyin’ meant a person had to suffer. Like the law, sufferin’ don’t serve no real purpose in life, lest it’s overcome. The differ’nce ‘tween a good death and a bad one’s as simple as dyin’ in the comfort a home amongst loved ones or dyin’ sterile and alone in the ICU, hooked up to a buncha tubes and machines. A good death is knowin’ when to let life take its course.

Dear Lord, please let Homer deliver Momma E, even though she done chased ‘im off our property. She didn’t know she was et up with cancer.
—Maynard

III
Jesus-Hair Grass
Maynard’s first inkling that something was terribly wrong with Enid occurred shortly after they’d replaced the “Whistlin’ Dixie Acres” sign out front with a new one that read “Sun Jelly Pastures.” Enid had painted it herself, and he had to admit, it was…”innerestin’.”

Shocking was more like it. “What’re the neighbors gonna thank?” he wondered, trying hard to contain his bewilderment. Delivering what he hoped would come across as helpful praise-a-cism, Maynard observed, “Momma E, you done a real nice job on this sign, what with this here mama and baby cow eatin’ the Jesus-hair grass and all. I never knowed you was sucha arteest.” Indeed, Enid’s painting depicted two cows consuming meadow grass that appeared to be growing straight out of Jesus’ head. Considering how much she loved the Lord Almighty Above, this didn’t seem all that odd to him. Ill prepared for the response he was about to receive, he proceeded with his surprisingly gentle inquiry. “But, why’s he dancin’ barefoot on top a one a them mushroom-tainted cowpatties, shootin’ a peace sign with Sun Jelly settin’ on his shoulder?”

When Enid turned to answer him, he immediately noticed the dilated pupil in her lazy eye. Had it been like that before? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d really looked at her up close. “Somethin’ goin’ on with that eye a yers, Momma E? It don’t look right today.” Matter-of-factly, she offered the following explanation: “Welp, Jesus’s been using this here eye a mine as one a them there mind-readin’ portals ’cause Sun Jelly done got hisself all tangled up inside the roots a my hair just like a dang turnip, and we need the Lord’s hepp gettin’im out. Lately, I been seein’ that child ever’where, inside a the dishwarsher, betwixt the onions and taters in the vegetable bin, and up under our bed. I been tryin’ for ’round about a week now to dry mop them dust bunnies that’s growed and multiplied theirselves under there, but ever’ time I get around to it, his head pops right up outta the floor, just like a gopher, an’ then Jesus whispers, ‘Shhhh…go back to sleep now, ya hear?'” Equally perplexed and frightened by Enid’s incoherent rambling, her newly crazed eyeball, and calm demeanor, Maynard carried her over to Earl Busbee’s office that afternoon. He and Earl  had gone all the way from kindee-garten through high school with each other; now Earl was the town’s internal medicine doc. “I’m gonna admit her to the hospital for some tests,” Earl informed Maynard dutifully. “She’s got me a bit worried.”

Enid spent a week in the hospital, undergoing one test after another: CT scans, MRIs, and bloodwork. At times, she was clear as a bell, back to her regular old self, which made Maynard hopeful that her condition was only temporary. Maybe it was that new fertilizer he was using. Maybe she’d had some sort of reaction to it. She was only 34; how bad could it be? She’d never been sick a day in her life. Healthy as a horse, she was. Maynard hurried to Enid’s room, having made the last of that day’s 40 mile round trips back to the farm for chores and feeding the cattle. Maybe they’d hear something today. Exhausted yet hopeful, he walked in to find Earl and his team of white coats crowded around her bed.

“I’m afraid the news isn’t good, Maynard,” Earl said. “Enid’s got stage IV ovarian cancer that’s spread to her brain. Her dilated pupil and these hallucinations are both from little seizures she’s having in her right temporal lobe. Hers is a very unusual presentation. Normally, a woman with this type of cancer would have symptoms that are more localized, like indigestion, belly pain, or having to pee a lot. Had she complained of anything like that, we might have been able to diagnose her cancer earlier.” Putting his hand on Maynard’s shoulder, he continued. “I’m so sorry, old friend. I’ve arranged a consultation with an oncologist, but even with treatment, her prognosis isn’t good…a few months at best.” Pressing a business card into Maynard’s palm, he continued, “I’d really like for y’all to meet with Dr. Homer Owl Song, who’s in charge of our hospice program. You’ve heard of him, right? He’s a bit unorthodox, but I think he’ll be able to help y’all in ways that I can’t. Please consider giving him a call.”

Cancer? Hospice? Homer Owl Song? Maynard felt as if he was in the middle of a bad dream, only this was all really happening. To him. To her. To them. First Sun Jelly, now Enid. They’d only just gotten their grass-fed beef business up and running. Neither of them had health insurance; they’d never been able to afford it. Now, they never would. Lord, what’s she ever done to you? he lamented silently, frustrated by Enid’s stoic reaction to the grim news.  She done spent ‘er whole life, givin’ you nothin’ but praise and glory, and you gonna treat ‘er thisaway? If you wanted some-boddy ta pick on, I wurshed you’dve picked on me instead. His thoughts turned to Enid. Maybe if she’d of been more of a complainer, the cancer wouldn’t a gotten this far. He’d noticed her weight gain and swollen ankles, but chalked it up to grief chased away with female hormones and too much ice cream. He cringed, realizing suddenly how indifferent he’d been, always looking right past Enid to that damn picture of George W. Bush that was hanging on the kitchen wall. Maybe if I’d of given her the time of day

Amidst Maynard’s private contemplation, Enid had fallen asleep. They hadn’t spoken a word since Earl Busbee and his clinical posse left the room. There were things he’d sorely wanted to say to her, but couldn’t. Talking was hard for him. Feeling his feelings was even harder. His parents had taught him to be a man, after all. “A real man keeps to hisself, no matter how sensitive a soul he is,” Mama’n’Daddy’d said. Lord only knows how many times he’d heard that.  The way things were going so far, this was gonna be harder on him than it was on Enid. She don’t seem to have a care in the world no more. Sitting quietly next to her, Maynard turned the card Earl had given him over and over between his trembling fingers, then finally reached for the telephone.

IV
Happily May They All Return
Georgia’s impenetrable red clay contrasted sharply with the loamy penistaja of New Mexico, but both were fertile and held onto water tenaciously, almost as tenaciously as the image of a certain chestnut-maned hippie girl that was permanently inked within the nooks and crannies of Homer’s cortical folds. Yesterday became always the moment he first laid eyes on Venus, and that was over forty years ago. When the road-tripping bus she and her friends had chartered from New Jersey to San Francisco broke down outside of Huerfano, New Mexico, their worlds collided in delicious surrender amidst the badlands hoodoos, painted sand, petrified wood, and the soaring golden eagles and shy cottontails of his ancestral wilderness home. Sometimes now, if the wind was blowing just right, Homer could still smell her perfume.

Venus tumbled into town like rogue thistle hitchhiking on a waft of patchouli, a quietly unconstrained adventurer in search of she-didn’t-know-what, heartbreakingly old-souled and free-spirited with a real penchant for grilled cheese. She’d just bitten into her sandwich when Homer asked her to pass the salt. Outside, it was raining in torrents which instantly melted the rusty sun-baked earth beneath his bare feet into a creamy slip that squished up between his toes, and since Winona Yazzie’s Mighty Fine Luncheonette was as good a place as any for riding out a storm, he’d ducked inside after rinsing off his muddy soles for a little people-watching and greenthread tea. He’d noticed the ancient tour bus parked out front, a pretty strange sight on the rez. It was even weirder to see every seat at the lunch counter, save for the one at the end over by the pie case, filled by shaggy-haired, fair-skinned college kids. Every table and booth was taken, too. He figured they’d probably gotten lost on their way to wherever they were going. Winona, who always worked alone, was running around like a chicken with her head cut off, furiously scribbling down orders and cooking up heaps of frybread, mutton burgers and grilled cheese, pinto beans, and dried-corn and pumpkin stew. After letting his feet dry on the woven floormat, Homer made his way toward the empty stool through the hungry, boisterous crowd.

As it turned out, the stool wasn’t vacant after all. Just as he was gathering up the tops of his denim pantslegs to sit down, two young women came out of the bathroom. The strawberry-blond plopped herself down deliberately into the waiting lap of a guy who appeared to be her boyfriend, and the chestnut brunette, whose seat Homer had obviously taken, stood awkwardly next to the pie case. In an unsolicited game of musical chairs, seats and laps were spontaneously rearranged to accommodate both Homer and the brown-haired girl. To say she was lovely would be an understatement. A poet may have been able to describe her penetrating green eyes, the luster of her long flowing hair, the stunning marriage of her slender frame, wide hips, and strong coltish legs, and the radiance of her toothy smile, but there were no words that could adequately capture her abundance or the primal stirrings she evoked. Carnal yet pristine and otherworldly, she was Venus personified.

Winona set a plate of frybread, beans, and stew in front of Homer, interrupting his not-so-casual daydream about the woman sitting next to him. “I’ve got your yabanah tea coming,” she said. Gesturing with her eyes toward Venus, who was clearly lost in her sandwich, she leaned in toward him and whispered, “She’s not gonna bite, you know.” Homer tore off a hunk of bread, dipping it into the fragrant stew. “That stew might need a little salt, Homer, whaddya think?” she suggested, motioning at the salt shaker directly to Venus’s left. Oh, for Pete’s sake, Homer thought. He and Winona had known each other since they were babies, and although she was like a sister to him, it unnerved him to be treated like a child, especially since she knew he was a man of few words. Rolling his eyes, Homer acquiesced. “Miss, would you mind passing me the salt?” Gracefully concealing her mouthful of sandwich with a wad of napkin held in her right hand, Venus grabbed both the salt and pepper shakers with her other mitt, offering the pair to Homer as if they were frankincense and myrrh. “Here you go,” she giggled, sounding embarrassed. “Sorry, I’ve been sitting here stuffing my face. I’m Mary Magdalene, Maggie for short. And you are…?” Homer turned to her, transfixed by the lyrical timbre of her voice, and replied, “Name’s Homer. Homer Owl Song.”

Not surprisingly, Maggie was easy to talk to. She told Homer all about her trip from New Jersey, how she’d decided to up and leave one day with little more than the shirt on her back, dreaming of a new beginning in Frisco. Everyone else on the bus had variations of the same story. They’d been headed for a camp-out in Chaco Canyon when their bus broke down, and though the bus company was arranging for the repair, it was going to be at least a day or two before it was roadworthy again. Nelson Tsosie, the town’s mechanic and self-designated tour guide, had graciously invited them to pitch their tents on his property which bordered the badlands, intriguing them with mystic descriptions of the geographic otherworldliness they’d soon experience. After reassuring them that the rain would most definitely stop, he made a few calls to other locals to organize a welcoming pot luck dinner under the Bisti stars.

“You ought to come hang out with us tonight, Homer,” Maggie proposed. “Sounds like the whole community’s gonna be there.” Upon overhearing this, Winona flashed one of her stern looks at Homer, nodding her head and mouthing the word “yes.” A night in the wilderness sounded really good to him. He’d put his internal medicine residency on hold to complete his ethnobotany dissertation, and after years of short visits back to rez from Harvard, his time was his own again. Glancing at Winona from the corner of his eye while fixing his gaze on Maggie, Homer replied, “Sure, I’ll come.”

The Navajo prayers that Homer had grown up with took on new meaning that night in a communion enhanced by open sky, fire and ritual drumming, peyote, and the love of his Venus, Mary Magdalene. Pierced by rainbow lightning, he walked with beauty, and beauty was before him and after him, hovering above and below him, surrounding him, immersing him, restoring him. Doorway and pathway, the rainbow rose within him, passing through him, and all the seasons returned with him. He was mountain, cloud, and morning mist, now sitting with Pollen Boy and Grasshopper Girl, now singing bluebird, now the voice of yellow twilight, always walking, always wandering, always finished in beauty. Happily as they scatter in different directions, happily may they all return…

Watching as Maggie’s bus lurched down the road, Homer knew that’d probably be the last time he’d ever see her. He stood in the street, waving until she disappeared over the horizon, gone but not forgotten. The memory of that moment and the evening before—his own encounter with inexplicable attachment and its ensuing sense of loss—ultimately influenced Homer’s decision to specialize in palliative care. People needed help saying good-bye. Ironically, there’d been a recent flurry of research suggesting that naturally-occurring hallucinogens, such as the psilocybin in magic mushrooms, could assist the terminally ill in this process, allaying fear of mortality through the transcendent realization of unity, similar to what he’d experienced by taking peyote.

After ten minutes on hold, Homer’s cell phone finally clicked over, and his thoughts immediately returned to Maynard. “Uh, sorry, Dr. Owl Song, that was Enid’s mama beepin’ in. Enid’s out wanderin’ around in the cow pasture ag’in, only this time, she’s nekkid.” Homer wasn’t too worried about how Enid would handle her imminent demise; she was already in a different world, blissfully psychotic with Jesus at her side. No, he was more concerned about Maynard, who was also a man of few words and deep attachments. “How have you been feeling about all of this, Maynard?” Homer asked. A long, pregnant pause followed. Homer thought he could hear Maynard’s muffled sobs, as if he were covering the phone’s mouthpiece with his hand. “I reckon I ain’t doin’ so good,” he replied, sounding defeated. “Enid’s all I got. God’s honest truth, I thank I may be more afraid a her dyin’ than she is. I cain’t hardly sleep no more, and I done lost all a this weight. My pants is practically fallin’ offa me. I’m so tired a fightin’ this.” Homer thought for a moment. “Maynard,  I’m coming over. Tell Enid’s mama to keep an eye on her. I’ll help you finish your chores, and then you and I are gonna go down to your pasture to watch the sun set,” he instructed, adding emphatically, “and rise.”

V
The Most Terrible Sad Rainbows of Love Left Behind
It warn’t long after we got the news about Enid’s cancer spreadin’ to ‘er brain that babysittin’ ‘er become a full-time job, what with her constant babblin’ an’ wanderin’ out into that dag-nabbed south pasture. It was sorta like how me’n’Enid had ta keep our eye on Sun Jelly so’s he wouldn’t tip hisself over outta his baby chair or turn blue from chokin’ on his spit, only he didn’t know no better. Maybe Enid didn’t know no better no more, neither. The situation had got ta where’s I couldn’t hardly pay no attention t’other thangs that needed ta be done ’round here. Them cows and chickens needed tendin’ to somethin’ fierce, and Enid couldn’t help me no more. So, I done called up Enid’s mama, Dottie, ta see if she’d mind comin’ down here ta set with Enid for a spell. Once Mommy Dottie seen the shape Enid was in, I thank she jus’ didn’t have the heart ta leave ‘er. She come down ’round about a month ago, an’ much as I hate ta admit it, havin’ ‘er here’s been a real big hepp ta me.

Course, the apple don’t never fall too far from the tree, an’ just like Enid, Mommy Dottie shorely does love her some Jesus. She goes an’ gets ‘erself all worked up into a tizzy, yammerin’ on about His Divine Grace and how He performed all a them wondrous miracles, healin’ the sick, walkin’ on water an’ turnin’ it inta wine, an’ how he done raised ol’ Lazarus and even His own self straight up from the dead. Her carryin’ on riles Momma E up ta where she’s combing ‘er fingers all crazy-like through what’s lefta her hair, strippin’ down ta her underbritches a’ singin’ “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” at the toppa her voice out the kitchen winn-der. Good thang our neighbors’ houses is so spread out, otherwise someone might’ve already notified the po-leece. Lord knows we wouldn’t wanna give Buford Calhoun, good-fer-nothin’ sheriff that he is, no more reasons ta stick ‘is nose up into our business, ‘specially since word about them blue-stemmed mushrooms in our south pasture done got out to the college kids.

When Mommy Dottie first seen Enid’s paintin’ of grass-haired Jesus on the fence out front, she couldn’t hardly believe ‘er eyes. In a New York minute, her jaw went from flappin’ to slack. “Well, I’ll be,” she declared. “If that don’t take the rag offa bush. Baby Girl done painted The Son of God, tiptoe-in’ barefoot on a cow patty with a coupla heifers chewin’ on His Bless-ed Hair.” Big ol’ tears was rollin’ down ‘er cheeks. “She ain’t right, is she, Maynard? Bless ‘er precious heart, Enid’s crazier’n a bedbug.”

What Mommy Dottie didn’t know was that, here lately, I been doin’ some cryin’ myself. It ain’t nothin’ I’m proud of…my mama’n’daddy didn’t raise no sissy. Honest ta God, if I had a nickel fer ever’time Mama told me, “Boys don’t cry,” I shore as hell wouldn’t be slavin’ away on this here farm. The first cryin’ jag come over me when Enid was cooped up at the hospital, bein’ poked and prodded all day long. No one was tellin’ us nothin’, an’ I had no ide’er what was wrong with ‘er. I ain’t gonna lie: I was scared. I was settin’ in my truck, drivin’ back home ta git all my afternoon chores did before dark, when Patsy Cline come on the radio, sangin’ that song “I Fall To Pieces.” Welp, I fell to pieces right then and there. Had ta pull over ’till it passed.

There ain’t no right way a’deliverin’ terrible news; it don’t change what’s done happened. I reckon it was as hard fer Earl Busbee ta look me in the eye an’ tell me my wife had incurable cancer as it was fer me ta hear it. Him bein’ my old friend didn’t help none, neither. From there on out, ever’ second run slow as molasses. It was like bein’ inside one a them nightmares where yer tryin’ ta scream or shout, but nothin’s comin’ out. Worst part is, there ain’t no wakin’ up from this ‘un.

Enid’s dyin’. There ain’t nothin’ I can do about it. My heart’s broke, thankin’ about how sweet she’s always been ta me. I shore ain’t done nothin’ ta deserve it. All these years a me payin’ her no nevermind, and she still took care a me best she could, even when she had ‘er hands full with baby Arliss. She loved bein’ his mama, even though he was blind and retarded. Poor ol’ Sun Jelly. I couldn’t give her no more children after he died. Truth be told, I was afraid a havin’ more kids. What if they was defective, too? I knowed I let Enid down, but she didn’t never fault me for it. She just went on with ‘er life. An’ now, we’re countin’ her life in days. After she’s gone, I’ll be alone ag’in.

Before I started talkin’ ta Homer Owl Song a few weeks back, I couldn’t hardly git nothin’ done ’cause I was so tore up about Momma E. We pretty much got her squared away with hospice an’ all. She’s so out of it most a the time anyways, I don’t thank she really knows what’s goin’ on. It’s better this a-way. Me, I become a nervous wreck ever since we brung ‘er home, and ever’ passin’ day, it kep’ gettin’ worser fer me. I ain’t never been emotional like this before. Homer’s been real good about checkin’ in on us, but even so, I felt funny talkin’ to ‘im ’bout my private feelins’. It don’t make no sense, ’cause my pride ain’t never done me no favors. But, what’s a man to do?

One afternoon, not too long ago, Homer come over. Told me ta have Mommy Dottie keep ‘er eye on Enid, so’s we could git chores done. Then, him an’ me was gonna set out in the south pasture from nightfall ’til the sun come up next mornin’. Knowin’ what I knowed ’bout Homer, I didn’t put up a fuss. I knowed my prayers was bein’ answered. We moved the cows outta the pasture for the night, an’ then we built us a fire an’ set up camp. It was the first time I ever just set out there, doin’ nothin’. Once we got the fire goin’ good, me an’ Homer laid in the grass, talkin’. He had a lotta innerestin’ stories, bein’ 100% Navajo an’ all. First off, they call theirselves Dineh, which means “The People.” Their creation legend was sorta like Adam an’ Eve, only their First Man and First Woman led ever’one inta this water-covered world by walkin’ up a reed from the bottom of a lake deep inside the earth. Then, after the winds blowed to clear off some land, them an’ their two kids, The Changin’ Twins, made all the mountains an’ rivers an’ all the plants’n’animals an’ ever’thing else folks needed to live here in harmony with nature. After that story, Homer turned kinda serious.

“Even though my people accept death as a part of life, Maynard, we don’t talk about it at all. It’s taboo. Now, we’re not afraid of death itself; we accept it as part of life. What we are afraid of is the devils people leave behind called chindi. These evil spirits are all the ways in which a person was out of sorts with the world, and we steer clear of them. They’re thought to make the living sick. This is why prayer chants and purification rituals are central to our way of medicine; we’re restoring nature’s balance and our spiritual connection with the universe. Talking about death is thought to bring it on, so we keep to positive conversation. After someone dies, those evil spirits disperse. Because of that, we prefer for people to die outdoors. If someone dies at home, his home and possessions—anything personal the chindi might attach themselves to—are all destroyed. You’ll never hear us speak the name of a dead person because the chindi might hear it and bring disease. We don’t cry or outwardly mourn our dead, either. Too much emotion might interrupt the spirit’s passage to the underworld.”

The fire done died down, so I got myseff up’n’ give it a stir, then Homer throwed a grate he’d brought with ‘im on top a the coals. I thought maybe we was gonna fix us some coffee, ’cause he set down a kettle a water ta boil. Then, he went on with what he was sayin’.

“For my people, letting go isn’t an option. If we don’t forget the dead, their spirits will trap us in ways we’ll never understand. But, as autonomous and self-determined as we are, in this day and age of life-prolonging technology, our fears of death have become self-defeating. With all the taboos we have on talking about death, along with the advances in modern medicine, how can I ensure that someone’s autonomy is preserved when he or she becomes terminally ill? Given the option, some folks choose heroic measures, while others prefer to let nature take its course. Every individual has the right to determine what’s best for him, whether it’s quantity or quality of life. If death is the end of all experience, then my job is to change the way in which dying people and their families experience life, whether it’s in months, weeks, days, or minutes. I think I can help you, too, Maynard.”

Homer explained about how them magic mushrooms was bein’ used by researchers ta help dyin’ people overcome their fears about death. I already knowed all about him bein’ a full-fledged Navajo medicine man an’ havin’ that fancy ethnobotany degree, so’s I asked ‘im if he thought whatever was in them mushrooms could help someone like me who was havin’ so much trouble lettin’ go. “Yes, Maynard, in my hands, I believe it will.” He told me about how peyote’s a sacred herb for the Navajo, an’ how it brings on a spiritual experience. Said he’d taken it a time or two hisself. I asked what it was like, an’ he said it’s like a real peaceful oneness with nature. “These mushrooms will work the same way, Maynard.” Hell, it sounded perty good ta me, I was so miserable. “Let’s do it,” I said.

Me’n’Homer walked aroun’ the pasture, lookin’ for a clump a them mushrooms. It was just before dark. The sun was settin’ real perty, just as yeller-orange as the yolk from one a Enid’s guinea hen eggs. We come up to this one cow pie that had ‘shrooms growin’ out of it ever’ which way. Homer picked one’ve ’em, and showed me how the cap was tan in the middle an’ dark blue ’round the edges. The stem bruised blue when he squeezed it, an’ he pointed out how the ring around the top a the stem was stained purple’n’brown from the spores. After pickin’ about ten nice-sized ones, Homer swished ’em around in a pan a water, then dumped ’em into the kettle. He throwed in a buncha differn’t herbs he said’d keep me from gettin’ sick at my stomach, lettin’ it cool down fer a spell, then he squeezed some honey an’ quite a few oranges into it. Poured half’ve it into a coffee cup, give it to me, an’ said, “Here, my friend, drink this.”

I’d be lyin’ if I told ya that there tea tasted good. It was more like drankin’ bitter wood chip dirt, but I choked it down anyhow. Homer was busy sprinklin’ some kinda colored powder in the clearin’ by the wild muscadine patch, near where poor ol’ Sun Jelly was buried. Soon as I finished his tea, I put my cup down, an’ walked myself over ta see what Homer was up to. He was singin’ to hisself in Navajo, makin’ a big ol’ drawin’ with sand that was black, blue, yeller, red, an’ white. “This big circle is water, Maynard; it represents Earth. And, inside the circle is First Woman, the Great Mother, surrounded by all she’s created in complete natural balance.” He waved me closer. “Come and sit down anywhere you like,” he said. Then, he started up singin’ ag’in, an’ even dancin’, too.

I set myself down smack dab in the middle a that there circle, an’ then, the circle swallered me, an’ I was back inside my mama’s womb. It was dark an’ warm inside a her, soft as buckskin, quiet as the calm before a storm. Sunshine Greedy Fingers reached up inta her an’pulled me out, but outside was all Dark Cloudy Lightnin’, an’ I fought ta git back inside, but Mama done closed ‘erself up. I wandered ’round by myself, blind as Sun Jelly, cryin’ me a river ’cause I was so lonesome, when I seen Enid, young an’ nekkid, ‘er hair blowin’ in the wind, ‘er belly fat with our child, ‘er heart big as Texas. I wanted to crawl up inside a her with our baby, but there warn’t no room.  She held out her breasts fer me like two Georgia peaches, an’ I suckled at ’em till the milk a her motherly love run all through me, an’ she petted my head an’ loved on me like ‘er own child. Because a her, I warn’t alone no more. I fell asleep fer a long time, an’ I didn’t take no notice’ve all the thangs she done fer me.  She might as well been invisible. When I woke up ag’in, a rainbow smile come across Enid’s mouth, an’ Sun Jelly ran ‘tween ‘er teeth on rainbow legs, an’ that rainbow wrapped itseff real tight around me ta where’s I was all bound up in it. I seen both a ’em disappearin’ into the green grass a Heaven, an’ there wasn’t nothin’ I could do ta stop neither of ’em from becomin’ the most terrible sad rainbows of love left behind. When I couldn’t see Enid an’ my boy no more, a bluebird sung to me, an’ I unnerstood ever’ word a his song:

“Be joyful!

Be happy!

Get up, it is dawn.”

The sun come up pink as a breakfast radish, an’ the mornin’ mist hung over the pasture like a sheet a Cut-Rite wax paper. I seen that Homer’d put a rainbow-striped blanket acrosst my shoulders. He was smilin’ to hisself. “It got a little chilly out here last night. How you feelin’, Maynard?,” he asked, handin’ me a steamin’ hot cuppa black coffee. It smelt so good. He was fryin’ up what looked to be corn pone in a cast iron skillet; he musta kep’ that fire goin’ all night. “I feel good, Homer. I thank I done found my peace with all a this.” I went over ta set by the fire, an’ Homer kicked around at the sand paintin’ ta get rid’ve any a my leftover devils.

After we got done eatin’, we broke camp, an’ headed back ta the house. Mommy Dottie come runnin’ out in a panic. “Enid ain’t wakin’ up, y’all. She’s breathin’ funny.” When we got up to the bedroom, Enid’s eyes was open, but I don’t thank no one was at home. Homer’n’Mommy Dottie set theirselves down on Enid’s hope chest, an’ I climbed up inta the bed with ‘er. I cradled Momma E in my arms, same as I done with Sun Jelly, an’ prayed I warn’t too late, tellin ‘er all them thangs I hadn’t never brung myself ta say to her before.  Homer started singin’ in Navajo again, an’ I reckonized it right off. It was that bluebird song I done heard not an hour before.

Enid passed around lunchtime, an’ I’m pert damn sure she clumb Jacob’s Ladder straight up inta the Good Lord’s tabernacle. She done right by Jesus an’ the Holy Spirit, I reckon. We buried ‘er a coupla days later in the south pasture, over by the muscadine patch next ta Sun Jelly. They’s keepin’ each other company in heaven now. Physically, I’m alone, but I ain’t lonely. The memory a Enid’s love’s alive, an’ I’m movin’ on with life, just like she done so long ago. Homer didn’t make it to the funeral, but I unnerstood why. It ain’t his way. Besides, he said he had a girl waitin’ on ‘im back in New Mexico. Someone he called Venus.

short story contest Kristyna Mazur Landt is a free ­spirited, wild­ at ­heart Polish-­American woman, who also happens to be someone’s mom/wife/physician. A practicing anesthesiologist in Atlanta, GA, she lives with her husband in an old elementary school library, and is the proud mother of 24 year old identical twin musician sons and 2 brown German Short­Haired Pointers. She enjoys spontaneity, painting, creative writing, working out, and figuring out what to do with leftovers. Her personal blog, Channeling Hippocrates, has been an instrumental means of self expression and revelation, especially within the context of being a woman who sometimes wears too many hats.

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