Published: Fall 2011 in Feature Story

Low Swing and Sweet Cherries

by Jamie Wells ’12

We often smelled like leaves and mud and sweat, then—we even showed up at church carrying the trees on our faces and elbows. And you’d sing in that voice I’ll always remember as more of a chirp than anything else, hoisting the tune way up high where it could drift freely out the windows, into the clouds. You were always freeing things, Lily. I wonder if you knew it.

I wonder if you remember when we started to go walking, and why. It was July, I think, three years ago; I was eight and you were six and the only girl for a while. Mom had died that May, but neither of us noticed her dying, didn’t hear the cancer slink down the hallway and kill her, she was just gone one day and we spent the rest of our afternoons together leaving, leaving, so we wouldn’t hear Daddy drink and say things were going to be just fine. You’d talk as we went, painting fond memories of our old school in the city with whatever splashes of good you found among all the things we didn’t miss about that place. Single file, over big granite rocks and up in trees, collecting bugs and staring at the sky until we were afraid we might go tumbling into it.

You always had some tune going. You’d whistle or hum or sing or drum, or make that squawking sound when you held a clip of grass tight in your thumbs and blew hard, heaving frustration out of your lungs with its strange music. “Davey,” you’d whisper, “sing with me.”

Because Daddy always used to sing around us. I never joined you, just raised my eyebrows, then you’d raise yours and skip off ahead, laugh-singing the wrong words to some memory of our mother in that clean apartment in Boston.

We’d left the city, now living in what Daddy says is a “nice house in a nice town,” but the floor crackled under my toes that summer, since nobody swept up the dirt we stamped everywhere after we’d been flopped in the grass all day.

“Swing low, sweet cherry-ott, come at four to carry me home,” you’d chirp, and I realize now—now that I know the real words to that song—how we formed a summer out of those lyrics. Those days, when we first moved to Concord, we’d walk the same damp, leafy trail every day for the whole month of July, and most of August, too. We’d scramble under that sad lavender-painted fence into the cherry orchard and snatch handfuls of fresh, fallen cherries, then scramble back and run like fugitives to our favorite spot on the river with the low tire swing. We’d hold the rope tight, swing by faith, fling ourselves into the water, laugh. Late afternoons, we’d head back, and about halfway home you were so sleepy I’d carry you, which I got pretty good at come August. Then we’d scramble under that fence for more cherries and eat them on the pile of granite or in the winding maple next to it.

That pile reminds me of a time you probably don’t remember, years before, when Mom gave us each a hammer, and the three of us walked down our Boston street while the T stormed beneath our feet. I was cautious with my hammer, and you were swinging yours around, so Mom said to me, like she always did, “Davey you’ll have to keep an eye on her—she’s got some spirit.” In spite of the laugh in her eyes and the way she skipped and spun just like you, I got tangled up in those words. She stopped us somewhere along the granite curb, which was dirty with time but still magnificent in its sparkling way. She knelt to show us how to use the backs of the hammers to chip away at the outside of the granite. We were so small, neither of us got very far, so she put her hands over ours to add some strength.

Mom was different, I know—like how Aunt Tina never hears you when you need help, and how here in Concord Mrs. Eshel hears and comes quick but doesn’t know, and how Daddy would come if he was able, but can’t, and how Jade’s quiet or just distracted, I don’t know which. But Mom always helped, before we even knew what to ask for. And she showed us, there at the curb, how if you chipped away the outside of the granite, there was always more underneath that was even whiter, with flecks of glitter that dazzled us, like she knew it would.

Well, Mom never said why she showed us that, but I remember it, because ever since I’ve noticed how the surfaces of things are usually covering something ugly. Like how her kitchen cupboards were worn so the old layer of brown paint peeked through the top layer of white in places, the way regret tends to peek through grace and speckle it with old, hard things if we let it. And things like that—ugly things peeking out through some flimsy top layer—bothered me, especially that first Concord summer.

My memories of you smell like those cherries. We’d leave trails of pits the whole way to the tree swing, the whole way back, the whole way through July and August and grief and change, and the quiet nights when Daddy didn’t come home—but we were small, then, and the only blood we knew was the juice on our chins and the scratches on our knees.

We were a mess of scrapes and mud and cherry juice, clambering. We scratched out a mud tunnel under that orchard fence with the fading lavender paint, because we were afraid to climb over for fear it might collapse. If we’d known Daddy was chipping away just like that fence, maybe we would have done less clambering that summer. But he’d always talk at dinnertime about new friends at work and how everybody liked him at our new church and all the exciting trips he would take us on, to Maine, to Nantucket, since there was money again. He often had that harsh smell on his breath that made me feel tingly and a little afraid, but Mrs. Eshel from next door told us it was just the smell of the grieving process.

We knew he wasn’t granite when Jade came. Remember that afternoon? It was September, then, and you and I were at a new school. You made friends quickly. I remember hoping they wouldn’t steal your hair ribbons and gummy worms like the kids at our old school had, even though you’d always claimed, tears in your eyes, that you just gave them away as presents. And I, in those first weeks at Concord Elementary, had become a sort of writer. I’d folded a handful of binder paper and stapled it to shape a notebook, so I could record things. Only true things, because I wanted it that way, and because I was terrified of all the untruth around me.

That morning I’d written, Daddy told me he’s been at work meetings in Boston all week, and so he sleeps on the sofa at Aunt Tina’s downtown and that’s why Mrs. Eshel brings dinner and tells us to call her anytime. Mrs. Eshel had the kind of accent that made you feel cozy inside, saying “David” so gently I thought it might end in a T. I liked hearing her talk, but I didn’t like how the smile on her cheeks stuck around a while after the smile in her eyes was gone. I’d make a face at you, Lily, or point somewhere, so you wouldn’t see that and worry.

But after school that day Daddy was home, leaning on our outside fence, waiting with a sort of squeamishness in his shoulders. I hated that squeamishness, and I tried not to look at it; I tried even harder to block it from your view. But you saw, I bet. He wore it a lot. I wondered in that innocent moment if it was his week with Aunt Tina that made him so squeamish, because my clearest memories of her were an angry face and headphone ears that never listened and a hand that smacked when she wasn’t pleased and you were nearby. But that wasn’t it.

“I have news for you!” he said. Those words, and what followed, dizzied me with how unreal they seemed. Unreal how his face twitched between worried and excited; unreal how he jumped up, ran over, tore open the screen door, pranced back out, hand in hand with a woman whose hairstyle was too young for her face and whose violet pantsuit was the loudest thing in sight. Jade. And when she dropped her shiny-lashed eyes on you, something dark and heavy slid down her face and settled around the corners of her mouth.

“Jade, meet David and Lily.”

He never said “David and Lily, meet Jade,” and the lack of it, the falling in my stomach and the hair over her eyes and the knowing who came first now, not me, not you, never again Mom, the echoing lack of it was even louder than her purple clothes.

They showed their shiny rings and Daddy asked us to help carry in her shiny suitcases and her box of DVDs. You struggled to drag the first bag up to the house from Daddy’s jeep, so he jumped back into himself for a moment, slung you onto his shoulders—you weren’t so little anymore, but he did it anyway—and carried you and the bag inside. “Whistle with me, Daddy!” you yelped, but he didn’t.

More like that lavender-painted fence than anything else, really—because he was chipping, like when one of his little lies crumpled and flaked and he’d hastily push the flecks together to cover whatever was still hiding behind his words. More like that fence because his spine sagged almost as much as his face, tired from pinning stories together and resting only in the familiar shock, then daze that whiskey promised.

Lily, I can’t believe how bold you were from the very start. Daddy insisted that you call her “Jade,” just “Jade,” the funniest name we’d heard, but you insisted on saying “Miss Jade” like she was your teacher. She’d scowl and click her shiny fingernails together, and I’d hope her bangs were hiding those prickly eyes from your view.

“Miss Jade, where did your name come from? Is it a pretend name?”

Jade wouldn’t answer your question, she’d just say in her slow, slick way, “Just Jade, please. I’m married, anyway.”

You didn’t quit. You’d sit on the couch when she was watching one of her movies and tell her things, in your piping voice that the highest volume on our system couldn’t dull.

“Miss Jade, have I told you about my mom? She played piano, and soon I’m going to learn so Daddy will want to sing again. Her piano is in my room, you know. Do you play piano, Miss Jade?”

So bold. I hardly spoke most days, though I told myself it wasn’t for lack of courage but for lack of things to say, since my words drained out with the ink in my pen before my mouth got to speak them. But you, Lily—you spoke a lot, and you didn’t mind toying with lies at all. You’d shift the truth until it was less real but a lot prettier than what my journal said. I didn’t correct you. I sort of hoped you believed your version, sort of thought you might actually be as safe from hard things as I’d always tried to keep you.

But I was tangled that autumn, my thoughts snagging on things I heard and saw, and I stapled more chunks of paper to my notebook until I had to snap a rubber band around it to squeeze all those true things together.

Daddy told us Jade was from a nice place we’d never been to before, but he wouldn’t say where. She had one of those jarring Boston accents that you didn’t come across so often anymore, so I knew she came from right where we came from, where you would end up again. Daddy seemed like he wanted us to think of her as an adventure, but she was just more paint, covering up the way things used to be.

On that heaviest day, you were back in our room staring at the piano, like you did a lot of those November Saturdays, unsure if it was really yours, unsure if it wanted you to play it, you once told me. I’d leave the room, annoyed—It’s just a piano, Lily; play it or don’t, but don’t act like it’s talking to you or something. You were always saying music was magical, and it bugged me because I didn’t know it yet.

Anyway, you weren’t around, but I was, when the loud fight started. It was in the living room, back when we still had the white quilt Mom made when you were born, and it was usually folded on the sofa. I was all curled up in it, because winter was wandering in but Jade didn’t like having the fireplace going while one of her movies played. And I was flipping through my notebook, trying to find something I’d written a while back, on some day when I caught some spits of hushed conflict between Daddy and Jade in the kitchen. It was about you, but I couldn’t remember what the words were other than that I hadn’t made sense of them. A lot of my notes attempted at whispered things that didn’t make much sense, then.

That’s what I was doing when Daddy came home looking tired but not drunk, his voice startling us over the clatter of the film:

“Jade, you’re watching this shit in front of my little boy? Why the hell can’t you pay attention?” I looked up from my notebook to see the shit, and it was something sweaty and uncomfortable I’d never seen before, and it creeped down my stomach and sat there, anxious and sticky. Jade was yelling and I missed the first part of what she said, but now it wasn’t about the movie anymore. It was about some picture on the wall on the other side of the hallway. I wanted to go look at it, because I didn’t remember which pictures went where, as attentive as I tried to be, but I stayed, listening hard so I could write it later. I pulled the blanket close, questions scribbling across my mind, like Why does she keep saying my sister’s name and Where is my sister and Oh! My sister is running down the hallway towards us all and there you were, standing in between them, shouting too:

“Wait. WAIT! What about the sunset? Let’s go outside and see the sunset. You can argue all night long, if you want.”

I’d seen you do it before—jump into a conflict and turn everyone’s attention to something nice—and it usually worked because you were a cute kid and everybody smiled at your tiny, chiming voice. But Jade was still yelling.

“And THIS one, this one’s even worse than that picture. And you know it, don’t you, sure you do.” I was distracted by her shiny nails, but then she made a fist and used her knuckles to rub some tears away. Not an angry fist, just a rubbing fist, like you made sometimes that summer when you popped your face up out of the river after a hold-your-breath contest.

“What the hell kind of man persuades a woman he’s ready to remarry, re-begin his life, and then makes her live surrounded by images of his dead wife? You still won’t tell me when she died. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was under a year ago.”

She said it like she was joking—but even under the sharp accent, I could tell she really didn’t know when Mom died. We were all quiet—all, because Daddy didn’t know how to stop lying and you weren’t counting how much time had passed since Mom died and I was always quiet. I found the page I was looking for in my notebook. It was from a few weeks before, and it was only Jade’s words, chopped, mixed, but somehow clear now: “Gives me the creeps, identical, photograph, Lily.” I climbed out of that still, silent air to walk over and see which picture hung in the hallway.

It was Daddy and Mom’s wedding picture, Lily. You were so short then that you probably couldn’t see it unless someone lifted you, and nobody did, so I wonder if you ever knew why all this happened. Your brain was probably shifting all of those hard things into prettier things, like it always did, and I could already see your toes tapping the beat of a happier song, as if your soul were charged with a rhythm that no quiet fury like that day’s could challenge. Then I grabbed your elbow and our coats and we ran outside, you even faster than me, to our trail that was now whirling in autumn’s hot colors and cold breaths.

There weren’t cherries anymore, and the river was too cold for swimming, so we climbed up that heap of granite to sling ourselves into the big maple tree overhead, then sat crumbling leaves as the sun fell. And in that moment I wanted everything to be bare—I wanted to shred each leaf on that great tree until its naked, grey-brown bones were entirely exposed; I wanted to tear all the paint off that fading fence to see what sort of wood it wore and why it insisted on hiding it; I wanted to tell you, Lily, you look exactly like Mom and you remind us of her so much, and it’s hard, hard and funny but Jade can’t bear it; I wanted to run back to the house and give Jade my notebook and say Here it all is, the truth, and you were lied to, she only died in May and it’s too soon so you can leave now, leave because he lied and you should just go; I wanted to go find Daddy and smash the bottle over the kitchen counter as loud as I could and say Stop lying, Stop because it hurts and Lily shouldn’t have to hurt like that and pretend she doesn’t, and why don’t you sing anymore because we liked it a lot.

I didn’t do those things, Lily. None of them, only sat there crumpling at the leaf in my hand. And you were whistling “Swing Low,” and I was wishing—in one of the rare moments when I let myself wish this—that I could just figure out how to carry a tune and let the music drift over and wash me until I was clean from this itchy knowledge of truth and untruth from which you were so comfortably free.

In all my trying to protect you, I never really learned how to do it, because that next day you were gone. We ate eggs that Sunday morning—Daddy made your favorite, with tomatoes and cheddar cheese even though the rest of us like Swiss better—and you and I left earlier than Daddy and Jade because we walked to church, just like always because we preferred the forest trails, the smell of fresh and cool tugging us awake. But we got there and I went to my Sunday School classroom and you went to yours, and then later in big church I couldn’t find you or Daddy, so Jade said to come sit by her. I remember how her shiny fingernails were clicking, clicking. I didn’t ask where you or Daddy were, just watched her face until she looked straight at me and told me an answer more reliable than anything I’ve heard about it since, I think.

“David, we think it will be better if Lily goes away for a little while. Your father is taking her to stay with his sister Tina in the city, and she’ll go right back to the school you both went to last year. It’s been tough, having two girls in one house wanting your father’s attention. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

She patted my arm, offering me a sort of kind smile, really—a kinder one than I’d gotten from her before, I think. For a moment I even found comfort in the Boston way that she pulled her A’s so tight but lazily fell off on the R’s—olduh, olduh, olduh. There was music in her words, sort of like the warmth in Mrs. Eshel’s accent, so I wrote down that Jade was real, shiny or not, from a place, Boston or not, and she was near, like it or not. I remember the sad in her eyes, how I wondered if it was for herself or for me, how I kind of thought it might be for you. And that’s right—she was right—I didn’t understand, and I still don’t, though I’m eleven now and I know things are more comfortable between Daddy and Jade, and neither of them drink so much, and she’s careful about what movies I get to see. But Daddy still lies, and Jade still doesn’t know a lot of things, though I’ve lost track of which. It’s probably easier for me to be around here than you, for that reason, because I never talk anyway so I can’t jumble Daddy’s stories.

When we got back to the house that day, the photograph was gone from the hall and the white quilt was gone from the sofa and there wasn’t any trace of you in the room we used to share but Mom’s piano that you never learned to play. I pulled the little bulging journal from my coat pocket, and opened it to the next empty page, ready to write that you weren’t here anymore. But I realized, chewing at my pencil and thinking about how gone you were, that I wasn’t going to write anything this time. Wordless now, from all the true things I’d always written but never spoken, I snapped the rubber band over it and slid it into one of your empty drawers, where it sat, never opened again until I took it out this morning. I guess I sort of knew I’d want to try to tell you all of this someday.

And I remembered, staring at your gaping closet, how the day before, up in that tree, you’d whispered, “Davey, you’ll never sing with me, will you?” I raised my eyebrows and scrunched my face, so you just kept peeling your leaf apart. Then you said, “Mom never sang either, Daddy says. But it wasn’t because she didn’t like music—she just didn’t know how to sing. But remember how she used to play piano every morning, Davey? I bet you could do that. I bet you’d smile more if you did.”

Lily, I think I do smile more now. And I’m glad you left Mom’s piano, though whenever I imagine her figure seated there I end up with yours. You wrote me letters, and I wrote you letters, but yours were a whole lot longer than mine and mine were a whole lot truer than yours. And I’d visit—Daddy would flip me some coins for the T and tuck an envelope in my jacket for Aunt Tina and I’d spend an afternoon in the dark sticky of the underground train, then climb out into Boston’s shock of bright and rumble and brick. Aunt Tina always had headphones in, but she would buy us roasted chestnuts from a street vendor in winter, or lemon Italian ice in summer, a tiny band crashing around her ears against the city. She didn’t ask, didn’t hear, just bought us the treat, ears already full with the music she preferred. Then she’d leave, her shadow slicing the granite walk, the envelope in one hand and a bottle in the other.

We’d walk in the gardens and along the Charles and you’d tell me how you loved school and how clean and pretty your bedroom in the apartment was and how there was a forest trail, just like ours, right behind your building, where you’d go exploring. And I noticed, Lily, that some days you had big bruises and some days you looked really pale, and you wore long sleeves in August last year and I wondered what kind of trouble went on in that apartment or at that school that you might never share. I noticed we never went to Aunt Tina’s when I visited, though I somehow knew from a fading memory that it was small and poorly lit and messy, that it smelled like cigarettes, that there wasn’t an extra bedroom, so you probably slept on the pull-out where Daddy said he slept for those work trips he didn’t really take.

I’m telling you all this because I’m learning piano, now. A lady at my junior high gives lessons during lunch. It’s hard, but it’s nice, too. I’m telling you all this because I don’t really worry about you anymore, Lily. I know you don’t have a forest trail nearby and I know you won’t get to come to Nantucket with us (Daddy says we’re finally going this weekend), though you say you have adventures with Aunt Tina anyway, but I think all that’s okay as long as you still sing—and you always will, won’t you?

I’m telling you all this because in your last letter, you said you went and saw Mom’s grave at the cemetery, the one Daddy says he’ll let me see when I’m old enough but that you can walk by after school, and that there were fresh Gerber daisies there, and that her stone was the most brilliant granite you’ve ever seen, it turns out. I’m telling you all this because I know all the words now and I can even play it on piano, and it’s not about cherries or me carrying you back toward the house around four, and that’s okay too because it’s actually about Heaven and how we’re not really home anywhere, cherries or no cherries, Mom or no Mom, music or no music, chipped paint or forever granite. So Lily, I won’t be there at four, and I probably can’t carry you anymore anyway, but that’s all right.


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One Response to Low Swing and Sweet Cherries

  1. Diana Gruber says:

    “Jamie Wells” – a name, an author, I will want to remember. This is one of the best short stories I have every read. I almost chose not to read it, when I saw it was written by “just” a college student. I am so glad I read the first sentence… the rest carried me. Excellent writing! Well done! I hope to read more of your work in the future. Do you post your stories online?

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