The girl in the yellow bonnet followed me for days. She darted in and out of the shadows cast by the fading summer sun. She sat under the willow trees near the cabins, played Cat’s Cradle with her bony fingers by the back shed, followed me with her heavy-lidded eyes as I walked up the front driveway after school. We did not speak. The shadows grew long and heavy, the wind sharp in the cotton plants freshly stripped by the spindle picker. There is always a ceremonial feeling to this time of year, when life and death mean the same thing.
Today I woke before my alarm after a night of fitful sleep in the empty house. Nana has been gone a year now, buried up on Vinegar Hill where she can survey the sweep of time: sowing, growing, reaping. Dying. Today, Mama woke in a hospital bed, veins full of the medicine they pump in after removing cancer and womanhood with it. The air was cool, but I dressed for the heat of the oven, wrapping myself in Nana’s favorite apron, the one dotted with mustard stains, red sauces dried like blood, faint streaks where she wiped bacon grease from her fingers.
The meal was nearly done by noon. I surveyed the oven in one of those rare moments when food requires nothing but time. Corn casserole. Ham and dumplings, a side of succotash. Nana’s favorites. I figured I would start the boiled custard when room opened on the stovetop.
The girl peered at me through the window on the back door. I wondered if her mama made her clean her plate like mine, lima beans and all, if her nana made her birthday flapjacks, if she ever stood in this kitchen with kin and prepared this sort of meal: the food of the living consumed by the dead.
I know you’re hungry, I said to her. Smells good, don’t it?
This was the first we had spoken. There was never a particular date, nothing penciled on the calendar hanging on the refrigerator, but it comes around this time every year. Nana would rouse me early, set me to work fetching preserves and jars from the cellar, working the ancient can opener, watching bubbling sauces while she fried cod and boiled snap beans and spooned maple sauce over apple dumplings with the care of a monk sweeping monastery steps. She would point her wooden spoon at the embroidered Old Testament passage framed over the oven:
There is a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
He has made everything beautiful in its time.
Waste of perfectly good food, Mama would mutter to our backs as we cooked. All this time and effort for your silly witchcraft.
We feed them, Nana would reply, so they don’t go feedin’ on something else.
Mama said that Nana spoiled me, filled my head with nonsense. Said I needed to get off this plantation and into a good college. Do something with my life, be somebody.
She is somebody, Marlene, Nana would say. She’s got the gift, like me.
The phone rang, bringing me back to the kitchen: someone from the hospital, a soft-spoken woman named Beverly, looking for Marlene Jackson’s daughter.
That’s me, I said. My heart throbbed in my chest.
There were complications, Beverly said, followed by more words I couldn’t fathom — something about a reaction to the anesthesia. Rare, one in ten thousand surgeries. Your mother might not wake up.
Lids collected steam, concealing the contents of the pots simmering on the stove. The orange light on the oven glowed like an eye, watching me try to decide whether to turn it off. How much longer? I asked.
Could be days, Beverly said slowly, could be hours. We just don’t know. You should be here. (What she wants to say: you should have been here.)
An hour passed as I pulled everything out of the oven, off the stove, spooned it into Tupperware, packed it away in the pantry and the fridge. I sped to the hospital, praying the dead will grant me time for the dying. Women in badges led me to Mama’s bedside, rested their hands on my shoulder. Their eyes were kind, their smiles grim. Pastor Tom came with a potbellied man from the funeral home. Everyone murmured condolences, but all I could think to say was don’t bring me food, please, for God’s sake, nobody bring me food. My fridge is full, my cup runneth over.
That night, I drove home from the hospital under south-flying birds and stood in the kitchen, reeling. In my short absence, the house had become cavernous and cramped at the same time, full of food smells, lingering oven heat. Two of them watched me through the back door: the girl in the yellow bonnet, and beside her a tired-looking woman in a gingham dress with nicotine-stained fingers. Mother and daughter. They had led hard lives.
Was it because I made you wait? I asked. They did not answer.
I snapped a blanket on the front lawn like Nana used to and set out the cold containers of food, Styrofoam plates and bowls, plastic forks and spoons, a pile of cheap napkins. Serves them right. I lay on the empty part of the blanket and waited. The moon rose full and bright in a cloudless sky. I recited the names of stars without asking for them. I felt the life of every cricket around me singing love songs in the dark. After a while, they joined me. I closed my eyes and cried for the first time, listening to the snap of hungry jaws and the gnashing of teeth.
EMILY WEBER’s work has been published in Bartleby Snopes, The Adroit Journal, Glassworks, Soundings East, and elsewhere. She lives in New Jersey and works in public relations.