The morning was still and blue when the door of the great barn lurched open and his older sister emerged from the blackness with two pails of fresh milk sloshing.
“What are you doing out here?” she said in a soft sing-song tone. Then, a bit more serious, “Dad know where you are?”
“I wanted to gather up some flowers for Mom.”
“Wasn’t nothing in the house you could find to keep busy?”
The chickens now emerged from the open barn, rushing into the wilted August fields after dew-laden grasshoppers.
“No, I guess not,” he said.
He stood for a moment and observed the chicken’s careful entrance into the field. They took measured steps, inspecting the new day with their feeble eyes. The sun peaked the ridgeline throwing sharp light against their house, and the deep purple hills looked like sleeping dogs beside a fire.
“Not much by way of flowers,” his sister said. “Helluva dry summer. Deer been picking anything moist that blooms.”
“I was looking for aster. Maybe out by the fallow fields?”
“Maybe.” She lowered the pails to the ground with a steady hand. Wiping her dress flat she said, “You know, we got plenty of flowers for her earlier in the week.”
The boy tilted his head and squinted into the sunrise. “Remember that old man who stayed with us last fall? He said aster thrives in the drought. That’s why they use it in medicine. Cures fainting—”
“The Indian from way last fall? He’s still got you hypnotized?”
“He knew every wild plant—“
“If he was so goddamn smart he wouldn’t need to wait out no storm in our barn.”
“I just thought they looked nice, is all.”
“Whatever gets you away from sitting on the damn stairs all day. Bring in the eggs when you come,” she said. “And don’t be out here wandering around too long. I don’t want Dad to have to wonder where the hell you got to.”
Her pale dress bobbed into the mist as she marched with rigid arms, a single red hen following her up the path toward the house.
The boy entered the fallow fields as a startled doe exited. He watched for a moment as she bounded through the sunlit field and faded into the dark woodlot without a sound.
He followed her to the boundary and continued up a high hill. Looking back he could see the faint moon setting just beyond the house and barn, the sky whitening.
The aster was growing, sure enough, in dry and rocky soil. Sitting down among the flowers, the boy disappeared.
A memory came to him as if carried on the wind. He had asked his father why certain fields are left unused and lay fallow in certain years.
“The soil needs to replenish,” his father said. “The growing seasons take their toll.”
His father’s face was streaked with sweaty dirt, and he could remember how his dark hands were nearly rolled to a close as if gripping the handle of an invisible tool.
“Not sure.” He crouched to a knee. “You just let them lay and they come back better than ever.”
Purple petals detached and drifted to the ground when the boy handled the flowers too rough, and the wet stems were difficult to pinch off at the root. The boy was absorbed in the patience of his work when he heard a shovel being driven into the earth.
Standing, he saw his father at the far end of the field. He was digging as though he were looking for something hidden in the soil, but his body language showed no confidence in finding whatever it was. One spade after the other, a ditch sinking beside a growing mound. His head down in a patient labor.
“That man dug the well by hand,” his mother had said. “Him an’ a bucket and me with your sister in my belly. Not a complaining word out of him, your father, some ten days of working. He hit water and we made our home right here.”
The boy’s pants were soaked with dew by the time he circled around to the far side of the field, making his way back to the house without disturbing his father, who was now taking a break beside the sizeable pile of soil, his head in his hands.
The boy gripped the stems of the aster together and the heads crowded into an impressive bouquet.
There were wreaths of wilted flowers graying in a pile on the porch as he approached, courtesy of relatives that had visited earlier in the week. The sun was on its way now, hot and climbing, tucking shadows in. The shades were all drawn and he felt a cool stillness when he opened the front door.
A column of daylight and dust poured into the room behind him, until he closed the door and the light flickered out. Rattling came from the back of the house where his older sister was at work in the kitchen.
“You better not be sneaking in this house without those eggs,” she said.
His mother looked gaunt as he approached the table where she lay.
His sister’s voice rose, “I don’t mind making you and Dad breakfast every morning, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to run back and forth to the barn while you two wander around in a fog!”
He tried not to look at his mother’s face, lifting her cold hands and folding them over the aster.
He took a seat halfway up the stairwell, he waited for his mother to wake.
About the Author: Chad Towarnicki is an English teacher and writer living on an old farm in Pennsylvania. He's earned his MFA at Arcadia University, with a Civil War short fiction manuscript. He tweets @chadtowarnicki.
Story Song: "Do Make Say Think" by A Tender History In Rust.