She won’t let me go.
My mother digs her fingers into the flesh of my upper arm, her grip so hard I’m certain it’s gone down to the bone. A dishcloth dangles from her other hand. She wouldn’t dare crush the dishcloth like this—not something embroidered with a blood-orange poppy. I stitched it when I was six years old. The fact that I made it gives it none of its value. The flower is everything. Flowers are always everything.
“The city? Again?” Her quiet words match the buttery sunlight coming in through the double panes over the sink. The light splashes against the heavy wooden table that takes up most of the kitchen. Early summer, and everything outside blooms lush and green. From here, I can’t see the fence surrounding the house and my mother’s fields. I can’t see much of anything with her standing so close. “I already told you it’s too dangerous. Besides, you have the spring planting to do.”
I plant my feet on the floor and visualize being a tree. This is the yoga pose I’m shittiest at in general. I’d rather be walking, but if I move at all, she’ll only hold tighter.
Pain throbs through my arm. I want her to let go, but I want her lightning-bolt attention too. I want her to love me enough to let me go.
She’ll leave marks if this goes on much longer.
Why do other girls get to live in the city? I want to ask. She let me go to school for three years. I only saw the city once. Once, and I paid for it dearly. One time, I went with two friends to an antique bookstore that sold first editions and rare prints, owned by three women whose long dresses reminded me of uniforms with subtle differences. An asymmetrical hem. A bright red scarf. A gold headband twining into chestnut hair. You’re hurting me, I want to say. What comes out instead is “You don’t need me to do the spring planting. There are employees for that.”
Her grip becomes a bruising cymbal crash of pain, and then she releases me. Steps back. Takes a long breath in. A pang of disappointment vibrates through the center of me like a strike on a tuning fork. How am I possibly disappointed by getting what I wanted? Probably because nobody looks at me the way my mother looks at me. With intensity.
Not until recently, anyway.
A match strikes and flares, hidden beneath flesh and bone. I don’t let my mother see the warm glow of hope.
She’s not the only one anymore.
There’s a boy. A man. His existence is what gave me the courage to bring up the possibility of leaving one last time.
My mother watches me, eyes huge and silver and incredulous. “You think my precious flowers should be planted by employees?”
My hand goes to my arm in spite of myself, and I rub at the tender heat, craning my neck to see if she left a mark. Red fingerprints—that’s all I can see. It’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll darken into shadowy bruises or fade away in the sunlight. “No, of course not.” I cover them with my hand. “Going to the city was just an idea I had. You’re right. It’s too dangerous.”
She whips the dishcloth onto a hook below the sink, the set of her jaw apocalyptic. Once, she let slip that men in the city knew her for her beauty. I believe it. If she went there now, they’d talk about her. Her hair is gloriously bronze, curls springy and full. She gathers that hair at the nape of her neck and glares out the window while she pushes it into an elastic. My heart flutters beneath the skin of my neck. She could be a figure in a painting, standing tall and proud at the window, the sun kissing her face.
But a painting would only capture the fine burgundy of her outfit and the way her tunic pinches in at the waist. The way her pants fall in a graceful line over shapely legs. She has the tunics specially made to match her image as an earth-mother, a lady of the dirt and plants. The opposite of all the businesswomen in the city, with their pantsuits and silk shells.
I would kill for a silk shell, honestly. I’m tired of linen, linen, linen, linen for miles.
My mother’s legs, in linen like everything else she wears, are a direct result of all the work she does, also part of her image. There are some farms where people hire out all the work, but she gets her hands dirty. I’ve seen the brochures she keeps in the tiny room she calls an office—thick, white paper, a photo of her on the front. In the photo, she’s grinning in a wash of golden-hour sunset and holding a handful of dirt. That could be me. So, so easily. Wouldn’t she love that, if I stepped up and took her place?
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