Summer House: Ch. 12

jam

Sonya set her hat, upside down, like a basket, on the table. It was full of blackberries.

“Oh, that’ll stain!” I said.

“There are so many berries!” she replied. “Out by the edge of the woods? All growing wild. So, so many! Why, it took me only fifteen minutes to pick these!”

I poured them into a colander and rinsed them.

“Your hat, though!” I laughed. “It’ll take some scrubbing to get the juice out!”

“You think I mind a sweet-smelling purple hat? You forget I’m country?”

We laughed. I dished us each up a bowl of berries and poured coffee. We sat at the kitchen table.

“We could sell berries,” she said. “At the market. They’re ripe now.”

“We could.”

“Or jam. Why, my grandma made the best jam! They got anybody selling jam at the farmers’ market? I didn’t notice anyone.”

I hadn’t either, not this year. Last year, and for years before, Mira Simpleton sold raspberry and blackberry jam. But she moved to the mainland this past winter, to live in an independent living center, since she was getting on in years and the isolation of island living was becoming a hardship for her. Her doctors were on the mainland.

That meant no one was selling jams and jellies.

“How much you think we could get? Per jar?”

“Oh,” I thought back to last year’s prices, remembering as best I could, “I’d say five dollars for a small jar, and ten for a large?”

“That adds up!” she said. “There’s enough berries for hundreds of jars. Green berries, too, and even flowers, too! There’ll be berries through to Labor Day!”

“At least.”

“And huckleberries. I saw a huckleberry bush growing out of a stump. You ever had huckleberry jam?”

I had. It was like no other–sweet, tart, bright red. My grandmother used to make that, in this very kitchen. Grandpa would spend all day picking huckleberries. They aren’t like blackberries, growing thick all over the edges of woods. They’re forest plants, and the berries are tiny. To get enough for a batch of jam, you’ve got to know where they grow, and you’ve got to be willing to walk through the woods to find every old stump that might nurture a bush.

“You could charge a lot for huckleberry jam,” I said. “It’s such a delicacy.”

“I think I’ll go start picking!” she said. Then she stopped. “It’s all right to sell, right? It doesn’t take any kind of special permit? Since it’s home-made?”

I didn’t know. We headed over to the computer. Five minutes later, we were looking through the state regulations for Cottage Foods.

“I need a food handlers permit,” Sonya said.  We read a little more, and she nodded. “That’s OK. I can get that online.”

“Here’s the list of permitted foods,” I said. “Look, jams!”

“And pies! And breads! We can bake scones, for sampling the jam!”

“And cookies.”

“We need a permit,” she said. “And there’s a kitchen inspection.”

“We should use your kitchen,” I said. “We’ll keep the dogs out of your place. And we can sterilize everything. Really clean it up well.” I felt a little nervous about the state of the kitchen in the place next door. The appliances were old and the sink was splotched with hard water stains. But I had faith in lemon, vinegar, baking soda, and bleach.

“Look at those fees,” she said. “Well. There goes that. It was a nice dream, while it lasted.”

She turned from the computer. Processing fee, application-review fee, inspection fee–it totaled $255.00.

“I don’t have that kind of money,” she said. “Then there’s the mason jars, the paraffin, the sugar. I don’t know what I was thinking. I should not let myself dream. It’s that simple.”

“I’ll front the expenses,” I said. She darted a glance at me. “I’m serious! Look. We’re already partners with the veggies and flowers. And they aren’t near the money-makers jam is! This is a good plan. We do OK, and you’ll pay me back after the first day! Or two. Then, everything after that is profit.”

She sat quietly, looking out the window past the meadows and out towards the bay. “It’s not in me to accept help,” she said. “It goes against everything I’ve taught myself about being strong and resilient and independent. But there’s time a person needs it. Tough times make us change our codes, I guess.”

She said that more to herself than to me. I sat quietly, too, also gazing out the window. Sometimes you can be with a person, and you don’t have to look at them to connect. You can just sit together, in the same space, breathing the same air. It’s like feelings rolled off of her and into my skin.

I’d made a decision early, that first night that she and the kids showed up, that I wouldn’t ask questions. It wasn’t right. I knew there was a power differential between us: I was the landlady. I had resources. I held the bank account that had the deposit her husband had made for the summer house, and I was the one who’d received the rent. It wasn’t up to me to ask. It was up to me to listen.

I listened with my skin, with my eyes, with the way my gut felt, with my shoulders. Right now, when I listened, I felt a stinging pressure behind my eyes. There was a wide ocean of pain waiting for the tide to crest. And there was that worry. And around my shoulders, I felt the sense of something crumbling–big stones were falling off of walls in rubble all around me. This was what it was like to be Sonya.

She stiffened and shook her head.

“All right,” she said. “My pride’s got nothing left to hold onto. I will accept your offer. Thank you.”

She reached out and shook my hand.

I chuckled, surprised at the formality. And then she laughed. She laughed and said, “I will become the best jam-seller this island has ever seen! And I’ve got the purple hat to prove it! We’ll have people lining up, wanting to invest in Sonya Minor’s Famous Jams, and I will just shake my head at them and tell them all that you beat them to it.”

And that was how I became a partner in Sonya Minor’s Famous Jams.

<< Previous | Next >>

 

Summer House: A Gardener’s First Lesson

lavender

A Gardener’s First Lesson

Out by where the lavender grows
my grandfather planted rows
and rows of carrots,
parsnips, radishes
and beans.

Out by where the lavender grows
I asked him how he chose
which seed to bury.
Was it simple as
it seemed?

Out by where the lavender grows
he said, “Listen. Your finger knows.”
He set a hard round
nugget in my palm,
brown and green.

Out by where the lavender grows
I felt a spark through my toes.
Soil can sing. Listen.
A seed bursts with light,
a sheen.

<< Previous | Next >>

 

Summer House: Ch. 11

garden

While we waited for the soil to dry enough that we could work it, I ordered seeds, picked up two barrels’ full of well-composted manure from a neighbor who kept goats, and filed for a permit for a stall at the Farmers’ Market. To ensure local produce and stimulate island economy, county voters had passed an ordinance allowing only residents or property-tax payers to sell at markets and fairs. Filling out the form, I smiled when, this year, I was able to check both boxes: tax-payer and year-round resident. I filled out my voter registration when I was at the county buildings, too.

Island resident. It had been a dream I hadn’t even let myself realize I’d had until now that it was fulfilled. I’d wanted it that badly, to belong here, not just in soul and spirit, but in citizenship, too. A voting member of the community, a merchant at the Farmers’ Market: with the soil of this island under my fingernails, I belong.

Elise used my computer to draw up intricate plans for the garden. Her biology class included a botany unit last year, and her research project had been crop rotation and integration.  She’d laid out a bed for micro-greens, a bed for kale, one for parsley and lettuce, one for edible flowers, and one for carrots. The north side of each bed was to hold a trellis for peas or beans. Zinnias, nasturtiums, cosmos, and bachelor’s buttons were to grow along the edges.

“It looks sound,” I told her.

“It’s very scientific,” she said.

Bernard was excited when, after a few days of sun, we got out the old shovels from tool shed. We had a child-sized one I remembered having used when I’d help my grandfather with the digging. The four of us dug together for about fifteen minutes, then Elise wandered inside for a glass of water, and Bernard ran in after her shortly after “to check the dogs’ water bowls.”

Sonya laughed. “City kids,” she said.

“But you’re not,” I observed.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m country.”

We fell silent again, scalping the sod, tossing it in a pile, digging down the depth of two shovel-blades, laying the sod back over, tossing on the next layer of soil, spreading a layer of manure, tossing on the next layer of soil, topping it off with another sprinkling of manure, raking it all in. It was a good few hours of work, punctuated now and then with stretching, looking out over the bay, squinting at the clouds coming from the horizon, sipping the water Elise carried out to us, and laughing when we caught sight of Bernard chasing the dogs through the obstacle course.

“He’s having such a summer,” Sonya said. “He loves dogs, and you know, we’ve never had them.”

It was evening when we finished: five beds double-dug and fertilized.

“This was good work,” I said. I went in to fix supper. Sonya cleaned the shovels and put away all the tools.

While I washed green beans at the kitchen sink, I saw her standing at the edge of the meadow, looking out over the bay. Sometimes, you can see a person’s feelings in the way the stand, catch a glimmer of their thoughts through the tilt of their head. I felt it all in a wave: Loneliness, abandonment, fear, and worry. But also, pride, strength, resilience, and hope. She came inside as I was chopping the carrots, and she smiled, a real smile that reached her eyes.

“I’m bone tired,” she said, “and it feels so good. So good. I will sleep tonight!”

The next morning, Sonya and I were up before the kids. Clouds hung heavy in the sky.

“We gotta get out there and plant!” she said.

“Won’t the kids mind we’re not waiting for them?” I asked.

“Early birds!” she shouted. “Naw, they won’t mind. Elise is more theoretical, and Bernard will just be happy to help when the harvest is ready.”

I laughed to see Sonya so excited.

A few hours later, after breaking for a morning meal and coffee, we strolled back out as the drizzle fell to survey our work.

“Timing’s perfect,” she said. “Let nature water the seeds.”

It smelled delicious out there, with the soil, the piles of mulch waiting alongside the beds, and the fresh light rain.

Sonya threw her arms out to the side and tilted her head up to the sky. The tiny drops clustered on her dark curly hair and pearled her thick black eyelashes. I joined her in the gesture, and the rain ran off my eyebrows.

“I never thought,” she said. “I never thought this summer, alone like this, without him, I would end up feeling so alive. So very alive!”

<< Previous | Next >>

 

Summer House: Ch. 10

farmers

In the Tuesday morning drizzle, Sonya and I headed to the Farmers’ Market. Elise and Bernard stayed behind with a game of gin rummy, a Harry Potter video, and a plate of chocolate chip cookies, fresh from the oven.

“My kids will be so spoiled,” Sonya said as we bundled into our rain coats and slogged down the puddled road.

“It’s good for them,” I said, remembering my summer days with cousins. “Kids need vacations!”

“I suppose,” she sighed.

We stepped up the pace and as our breath puffed, the conversation fell silent. I always like it best when I can be quiet with someone.

In spite of the clouds, the market was packed. Cars right off the morning ferry lined the gravel road leading to the center park, where the tourists’ bright rain coats and umbrellas spun through the square in a kaleidoscope.

I got us coffees from the booth that serves the best light roast organic while Sonya wandered through the stalls.

“We could do this!” she said when I caught up with her at a table loaded with jars full of sunflowers, zinnias, and Shasta daisies.

“We don’t have flowers,” I said.

“No, not at home, but in the meadows! The wild flowers! Queen Anne’s lace! And blackberries. We could sell blackberries. And what about that abandoned orchard through the woods?”

“Smith’s orchard?” The Smith house had burned one winter, twenty years ago, but the orchard was unmarred, and the wild, twisted trees still bore a good crop, ready to harvest at the end of summer.

“We could make a lot of money,” Sonya said, watching the tourists shell out five dollars for every box of blueberries, seven-fifty for each bunch of garden-fresh flowers.

I filled my shopping bags with fresh greens, a jar of honey, cucumbers, green beans, and zucchini.

The drizzle stopped, the umbrellas were folded, the sun cracked through to sparkle the puddles.

Sonya took a bag from me, and we turned back towards home.

The earth smelled fresh. We balanced along the rims of puddles that filled the narrow muddy roads.

“I’ve never had a garden here,” I confessed.

“But you’re a gardener!” Sonya said.

“Sure, a winter gardener.”

“I’ve seen the lavender,” Sonya said, “at the edge of the meadow. Somebody gardened there.”

My grandfather had a summer garden. He planted it in the late spring, before our family arrived, and harvested it after we left in the fall. The lavender lined the herb garden. For years, parsley self-seeded through the meadow, and the black swallowtails drawn to it seemed like memory-gifts from him. But a cold winter thinned them out. How the lavender survived, I had no idea.

“We could garden again,” Sonya said. “The soil’s good. I’ve checked.”

“It’s awfully late in the season for planting, isn’t it? What would grow in time for you to harvest before Labor Day?”

“Micro-greens,” Sonya said. “If we planted this week, we could harvest in four. We could charge a fortune. I’d do all the work. I’d plant. I use the French-intensive method, so we wouldn’t have to waste time weeding. I’d mulch, so it won’t waste water. I’d harvest. I’ll take the crops to the market and sell them. And I’d split the profits with you. All I’d need is for you pay for the seed. It’s a reasonable deal, isn’t it?”

When we got home, after the unbounded greetings from the anachronisms, the unenthusiastic welcome from the kids, and the unpacking of the produce, we wandered out to where my grandfather’s old garden used to stand.

I dug my hand into the wet soil and smelled it. It was sweet and crumbling, full of humus.

“See?” Sonya said. “It’s fertile. It’s a shame to let it set fallow any longer. It’ll be like digging butter.”

<< Previous | Next >>

Dr. Jasmine’s Casebook: Rowenna’s Gardens

thirdmay

This story was written for the May 2016 Monthly Short Story Writing Challenge held by our writing community at the EA Forums. If you write SimLit, we’d love to have you join us! We have a new challenge each month!

Dr. Jasmine walked a street she seldom traveled. At the corner stood a garden full of deep red hollyhocks, blue irises, purple pansies, magenta roses, and, in the middle, a willow tree whose green boughs touched the ground.

“What a magnificent garden,” she said to an old woman who bent amongst the plants.

row12

“Thank you, dear,” replied Rowenna. They talked about the roses. Were aphids a problem? Not really–a strong blast of water washes them right off. And how did she get such deep hues from the hollyhocks? Oh! They were heirlooms from the gardener’s grandmother, so many, many years ago.

“That was the first garden I knew,” Rowenna said.

“Really?” said Dr. Jasmine. “Tell me about it!”

“Oh, that will require a pot of tea!”

As the afternoon sun settled behind the willow, Dr. Jasmine sat at the table surrounded by blossoms with Rowenna, two cups of Makaibari tea, and a plate of oatmeal cookies spiced with Ceylon cinnamon.

row19

i. Shoots

Never had I seen such flowers!

The city where I lived as a little girl was asphalt and cement, smoke and fog–maybe a patch of daisies or peonies, but nary a bloom except for stragglers. When I was eight, all that changed.

My mother and aunts decided I needed fresh sea air and open spaces. I was a sickly little thing, so they shipped me off to my gran’s in a last-ditch effort to bring roses to my cheeks. With so many flowers around me, I was bound to bloom, too!

I spent hours among the snapdragons and pansies. These were my friends! I loved to pinch the snapdragon blossoms to make them talk, like purple puppets, and each pansy, with its blue lion’s face, seemed to chatter in reply!

Gran knew to let me be for long hours every summer day. Oh, the adventures I had! Rescuing princesses, fighting pirates, living with tigers! In Gran’s garden, I found worlds full of friends and foes!

row06

I didn’t know then the concept of labor: everything, even tidying the garden, home to so many fairies and wood elves, was play! Gran loved to say, with a twinkle in her eye:

“Fairy gold, and fairy wine,
Catch and hold this child of mine!
Stay today and always play
Keep woe and worry far away!”

Sometimes, I think that Gran was half fairy herself! And for me, as a little thing who’d been lost in the harsh city, the freedom of the wilds combined with my gran’s own magic to help me grow strong and well.


row17

“What a magical childhood!” Dr. Jasmine said. “And I think that your grandma must have passed her fairy heritage on to you!”

“Oh,” laughed Rowenna, “Mortal and mundane, I belong in the every day! But at least, with my garden, I can still play with the fairies, can’t I?”

ii. Catkins

Daydreams replaced adventure.

row05

Early summer afternoons, I lay on the grass beneath the willow tree and looked up at the catkins dangling their full pollen sacks towards the hungry bees. At the bee’s weight, a cloud of pollen burst into the air, and the sun dazzled each tiny golden orb. Those long summer days opened inside of me, too, with a heart that ached for something undefined, and eyelids that felt golden and heavy, as if I were covered in the shower of pollen.

That was the summer I met Len, who’d come to the island to work for the fisherman.

I felt his shadow, first, before I met him. I opened my eyes, and he stood in a halo of sunlight. “Are you real?” I asked, full of drowsiness.

row04

“I was going to ask you the same thing!” he said.

In the afternoons, after Len delivered the catch and stowed the nets, he came like a hungry bee to the garden, to find me lying on grass, full and heavy with the weight of the sun. We spent long hours lying together, not saying much, not touching, just drinking in the midsummer warmth of the garden and spinning together our dreams.


row18

“You were lucky to fall in love in a garden,” Dr. Jasmine said.

Rowenna laughed. “It would have been impossible not to–the sun, the grass, the heady scent of flowers. And Len. If you could have seen that boy! He was made for falling in love with.”

iii. Pussy Willow

After Len and I moved to the mainland, I missed Gran’s garden so much.

Oh, we were happy and very much in love, but I still had a deep homesickness lodged within me all through our long first winter.

One summer day, Len took me back to the island, and Gran loaded us up with starts, cuttings, and brown envelopes full of seeds. Len helped me dig out the garden, and we planted it by moonlight.

Len and I couldn’t have any children of our own, but we ended up raising the half the family’s children: nieces and nephews and second-cousins and shirt-tail cousins–all the wild or sickly kids who were too much or too frail for their parents. When that wasn’t enough, we took in foster kids.

row01

They grew well. The wild ones gained discipline, and the sickly ones gained strength.

“They’re all our children,” Len used to say. And he was right. He was right.


row21

“You must have been very happy,” said Dr. Jasmine.

“I can’t think where those years got to,” said Rowenna. “One day we were planting our garden under the full moon. The next, the children had grown and moved out, and Len stood with his back to the house, watching the sun as it set, and my! How his shoulders did stoop. Where had my fine young boy gone?”

iv. Weeping Willow

After Len passed, all I could do for well over a year was dig.

Couldn’t clean house, couldn’t cook, couldn’t wash dishes. I’d neglected the garden during his long illness. A few stubborn irises still grew. A few snapdragons self-seeded. But mostly, the garden lay choked in weeds. I couldn’t do much, but I could dig. And then, after a day of digging, I could sleep at night, if I was lucky. When I woke, that pain would shoot itself through my heart, but digging helped it soften. This went on for well over a year. One day, I looked out over the yard and everywhere were beds of rich dark loam, waiting for seeds.

row10

That’s when I took the ferry to the island, and I found my grandma’s old cottage. Nobody lives there anymore, but the flowers have self-seeded, all over the island! Hollyhocks, daisies, irises, and pansies, and more! I gathered baskets full of rhizomes and seeds, and brought them back here, where I planted them one by one.

I must have watered my garden with tears, but they were the cleansing tears, that leave you feeling healed inside.


row22

“Can I have a cookie, Auntie Ro?” a tiny girl with long dark braids asked.

“And who is this?” asked Dr. Jasmine.

“Oh, this is Rebekah,” replied Rowenna, “my cousin’s granddaughter. She lives with me now, don’t you, Becky?”

“Yes, Ro,” said the tiny girl.

Dr. Jasmine smiled. “What a good life you’ve lived, Rowenna,” she said.

“It’s a gardener’s life!” laughed Rowenna.

“It’s a good life,” said Dr. Jasmine. They sipped their tea, and the sun set. A full moon rose to spread her silver light over the willow tree, and Dr. Jasmine looked into her new friend’s face, with its furrows and paths and hazel eyes that reflected moonlight and the wisdom of fairies.

row14

Credits: Rowenna’s Newcrest home and garden were created by Pronterus. Rowenna’s grandmother’s island home and garden were created by TheKalinotr0n. Both homes are available on the gallery.