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For various reasons, I am moved to reprint this piece I wrote way back. It originally appeared in Xanadu 3, from Jane Yolen and Martin H. Greenberg, Tor Books.


Nettie's Garden

I was hiding in the tomato patch when she caught me
C'mere, she said
not unkindly
got something for you, she said.
And the little kid I was shuffled up
     cheeks and fingers sticky
     popsicle painted, smudged with dirt
     my pixie-cut hair
     like a silver helmet.
Here, she said
     digging around in the pockets
     of her tent-like dress
     making the cotton calico bulge and shift
     beneath it, her thick legs
     were like columns
     if old stone could have mosquito bites
     and varicose veins
     (remembering, I'm surprised that
     I didn't envision them gray, ribbed
     mossy
     Yeah, she was a monument, all right).

I put one foot into the carrots
Kid, she said,
     holding out a dull brassy disk
Take this
What is it? I asked
around one bitten fingernail
Stubbornness, she said
Temper
Pure cussedness

My eyes flicked side to side
not sure
but her voice had none of the edges 
I was used to
Just a kind of immense weariness
like the expression
in the eyes of the doctor
who patched my brothers and me back together
whenever our dad tried
to take one of us apart.

Take it, she said again
and my hand went out
received the token
the size of a coin it was,
with strange letters
heavier than it ought to be
I was trying to puzzle out the pictures
She was still talking
Can I keep it? I asked
She laughed and pointed to my hand
The disk turned bright copper
then glowed cherry pink
dissolved
sank into my palm with a soft hiss
leaving behind a smell of roses and hot tar
You couldn't lose it if you tried
she said
so much the better for you.
They'll call you selfish, child
     Ornery
     Ungrateful
     A stone bitch
You just close your hand around that
and pay 'em no mind
don't give 'em the satisfaction.
You hold onto what I give you
     and you be okay
What is it? I asked again
     rubbing the spot carrying the echo of heat
     on my unmarked palm
Survival, child
     she said
Never mind
I know you don't understand me
But you keep your fists closed tight
around that heart of yours
and someday you win through
to where you can open 'em up again,
     you be okay.
Now get the hell out of my garden
She said
with no less rough affection
than her previous words had carried
if you want to live
to be seven, kid
and she bent to her work again
hiding what looks from here
like the fierce pride of a mother hawk.
 

(c) 1995 Elise Matthesen. All rights reserved.  (Contact me at lionesselise at gmail dot com to ask about reprints; I'm often pretty amiable about it. Permission is hereby granted to make one copy for personal use, if you find the story helpful.)

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Elise Matthesen

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