Violet always had a thing for one of Ella’s brothers, but not John, the one who twinkled for her. He was coarse in a way that reminded her of cows and manure and all the grime under his nails made him look poor and unkempt like he’d turn out drinking himself to sleep and spend his nights in the hayloft instead of tumbling with her. She’d seen enough of that with her uncles and Daddy and the way her Mama and aunts seemed to shuck corn and snap beans with spite, cursing under their breath, ain’t no man any of us is married to worth a damn. Violet would have plenty of tumble. Yes, she would.
“Go off in the world, Violet. Don’t get married young. Go see what’s what,” Aunt Janey said.
Aunt Leitha piped in, “Lord, yes, girl get out while the getting’s good before you wind up pregnant and milking more than cows.”
“I’m never getting married,” Violet said. “I aim to finish high school. When I’m through, I’m going to California.”
“Planning to be in pictures, are you, gal?”
“Well, you got that strawberry blond hair they ought to love.”
“Hell, Janey—red hair turns out gray like everything else on screen.”
“Well, I know what I know,” Janey said.
“You talk to that brother of Ella’s?”
“Which one?” Violet asked, running her fingers through her curls.
“That John has a shine for you, don’t he?”
“He watches when me and Ella jump double dutch and lay out in the sun. I don’t like it.”
“Well, I guess you better get used to folks looking if you’re going to be in pictures,” Leitha said.
“You think Bette Davis is shy like that?”
“Y’all don’t understand. It’s only his eyes I don’t like on me,” Violet said. The air was sweet with corn and the wet heat of summer. Tonight, she’d catch fireflies with Ella. They’d already taken two canning jars and filled them with bits of twig and lettuce, some corn silk because surely fireflies needed a soft bed like anyone. They’d lie in Ella’s twin bed while her younger sister whimpered in her crib, and watch the bugs call out for love, talking until they fell asleep.
In the morning, they unscrewed the lids to free them and found them dead. Neither of them knew what to think about that, if the insects’ faded light spoke to their futures. Maybe bug death didn’t mean much, but they worried. Neither spoke.
Henry, the brother Violet thought looked like Gary Cooper, saw them lay the creatures in rose petals.
“Shame,” he said. “Next time you should poke some air holes in the lid.”
“I didn’t think about them needing air.”
“Every living thing needs air, darlin'.”
Ella ran off into the cornfield. The stalks shushed as she swerved back and forth and hooked left like someone was chasing after her, but Violet and the brother who looked like Gary Cooper stayed behind talking about air and light and how the world is hard to figure out. Violet watched his hands, how he folded and refolded a leaf like art. Creases in the green, living thing that ain’t alive for long. He pointed at the moon at the horizon. “It’ll be full by next week’s cookout.”
“Mama and Aunt Janey say full moons make you crazy.”
“They’re telling you tales, little Violet.”
“I’m not little anymore.”
“You are to me. You’re a sprite. You know full moons are good for sprites and fairies, don’t you?”
“Who’s telling tales, now, Mr.?”
“Please call me Henry. You know what full moons are good for, little sprite?”
“No, girl. A full moon’s the best time to plant.”
“But the corn’s grown.”
“We got to plant for fall, too.”
“Don’t you get tired of dirt?” she asked, looking at his pressed trousers, greased back hair, and rolled up shirtsleeves.
“Mama and Aunt Janey say you got drafted–that you’re going to Germany to kick some Nazi ass.”
“Your Mama and Aunt Janey didn’t say it like that, sprite.”
“Well, ain’t that what you’re going to do over there?”
“I suppose that’s part of it.”
“Are you excited to leave Cabarrus County? I can’t wait to leave.”
“What you don’t know, little sprite…I could build skyscrapers.”
“Can I write you when you go to war?”
“I’d love that, sprite. Send me only news about you and Ella. Your fairy ventures. And look out for those who try to trap you. They’ll only make you lonely, put out that light you got glowing in that red hair of yours. Ella says you’re going to California. Write me from California and tell me what those hills smell like cause I’ll bet it’s something better than manure and corn.”
Ella kept running, knocking cornstalks this way and that and by the time she came back Violet was flat out in love with Henry. He stood to roll his pant legs up. He danced a little, just a brief twirl as he kicked his shoes off.
For four years, Violet carried his dance, his leaf folding, how he held his fingers pointed at the horizon, in the cocoon of her belly. She wrote him of dancing with Ella at the USO. The big bands, the brass and strings, the attention from big men and short, the time one of them got too fresh with his sister and she punched him in the stomach, how she still hoped for what she thought would be the jasmine smell of southern California, but how she hoped, more than anything, he would come home safe, come home soon, come home her Henry. She never knew he couldn’t read her letters, that he’d run his fingers over the script and dream of her tall tales, of perfume, of her grown up, her hair curled down to her shoulders by now, of roundness, of home, of corn silk and the way she made him twirl once.
About the Author: Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (forthcoming 2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. Her work has appeared in Quiddity, Ambit, The Minnesota Review, Literary Orphans, and Synaesthesia Magazine, among others. She lives in Charlotte with her husband and enough rescue pets to make life interesting.
Story Song: "Carnival" by Shovels & Rope
Photo Credit: Emily Abigail