Holly waited for the door to close behind the woman she called Grandma, and once the crunch of the woman’s car against the gravel had faded to nothing Holly jammed her pockets full of cardamom seeds and cloves. He said he would bring the mortar and pestle, but she took the marble one from the curio cabinet—just to be sure. She hurried out the screen door and cut through the pen where a few nasty hens had decided to hold a grudge against her the day she was taken into that small house in South Carolina. She figured that they were jealous—that she could walk wherever she wanted in that swamp-turned-dust-heap town and then came to steal their eggs without even talking nice to them.
They flew at her, pecked her ankles, and she half-heartedly kicked them away. Couldn’t blame them, though—everything was ornery in the heat of this drought. She’d return later, and they’d repeat the whole act as if they could keep her from coming and going as she pleased, from taking the eggs they thought were theirs, and the woman she called Grandma would hear them squawking and then yell from the window, You let them hens alone, Hol.
When she arrived, he was sitting there, his back to the oak tree. He smiled at nothing, at the day and his own idleness. He could afford that kind of smile. Its arrogance made him handsome, despite not having shaved and the bit of dirt on his wide forehead. She felt a thin layer of sweat that gave her own face sheen. She rubbed it hard.
Hot day, Kyle said.
Is that all we’re going to talk about? she said.
Here, she said and thrust the mortar and pestle onto his lap. I figured you wouldn’t remember.
The way he was sat there, not minding the heat or anything else, not standing to say hello, but training those brown eyes over the pasture where a mamma cow waited for its calf, well, it made her itch. She did the work of hiking out to his family’s farm, pockets full of what did not belong to her. He could have at least been appreciative. If that’s the most someone can do, she figured, then it wasn’t that bad. There were worse ways to say thank you.
He pointed to the canvas bag propped against the tree.
You figured wrong, he said.
She emptied her pockets, made one pile of cardamom, the other clove. She going to notice something’s gone from her kitchen? he said. He picked a clove and sucked on it.
Doesn’t noticed a whole lot, she said. She looked up. The sky was bone dry and had been for weeks now. She wished for a cloud and some rain—just enough so the ground could hold it and draw out the worms that had burrowed deep to avoid getting baked into the dirt.
Whose going to go first? she said.
She knelt and filled a mortar with cloves, ground them to dust. The smell made the season feel wrong, made her embarrassed for the sweat on her forehead and small of her back. Her wrist burned.
It was your idea, he said.
Well, that doesn’t mean I’ve gotta do it, she said.
He wouldn’t do it if she didn’t give him the satisfaction of going first—that was plain to her. He’d absorbed his daddy’s sense of business. He needed something first—everything was a transaction.
Fine, she said.
He handed her a silver spoon, which was engraved with the letter B, and she filled it with clove dust, and without thinking too hard wrapped her lips around it. He clutched his gut, laughing, even before she spat it out into a brown cloud. Her mouth was desert dry, and the air around them smelled of how she remembered Christmas before this town, when she lived in a house with windows that kept out the cold nights and the mosquitos; when she didn’t have to go walking to get in the stupidest kind of trouble she could think of because it found her no matter where she went. Trouble had sniffed her out like a hound, had swelled her belly and made her back, her feet, ache for nine months, but she hadn’t cared to learn anything from it. Trouble had gotten rid of that swelling and all that came after it, too, swept it away like some drowned animal in a flood. If there was shame in being happy with that outcome, she came up against it like a pest buzzing into the screen door, blind to what kept it out and too stupid to change its tactic.
Kyle filled the spoon for himself and spit it out like she had done. But the joy of it evaporated and left her feeling gritty and small, small, small.
• • •
Six hens lived in that coop, but when the woman came home and screamed fit to cleave the sky, Holly knew at least one of them had gone missing. Sometimes, the lazy birds got the notion to fly and flung themselves over the fencing. They made a hell of a noise, those birds did, even at night when the bellies of foxes grumbled the loudest, and they should have known to be quiet. Holly couldn’t blame them for making noise, being cooped up and all, but she knew enough not to pity them either.
Hol, the woman called. You get out here.
Holly did her best to accommodate her. The woman hadn’t need to open her door, put food on the stove, and turn down the sheets of that small bed, but she had. Let the questions drip out of her like the spigot out back that shed one drop every few hours. That didn’t mean they weren’t human in their impatience or anger. And, if there had to be an argument, then Holly knew she better stow her rash of complaints because it was, for the most part, a luxury to live like she did. The woman did everything half-way, but when it came to Holly, there was a full affection that neither questioned.
She set the mortar to soak in the sink. She had scrubbed and scoured it, but the clove dust had snuck its way into the marble in dark brown streaks.
Holly! the woman called.
Holly went, wiping her hands on her jeans.
She thought the woman was cradling the biggest hen she had ever seen against her breast, but then Holly saw a limp neck dangling out of each side. Two of them, with not a drop of blood on either. Her eyes tracked past the woman—who cooed and rocked as if sending those hens off to sleep—to the dirt in the pen where four neat piles of white and brown feathers slumped as useless as piles of dirt.
There’s been a blight on my hens, the woman said.
Grandma, Holly said, but she stopped.
Tenderness was appropriate between her and the woman, but the name cut her tongue, dried it out with resentment and its fake, plastic sound.
The woman pulled the hens tighter.
A blight on my hens, she said. The words foamed her speech. A blight on my hens.
Holly inspected a pile of white feathers. The birds eye stared, glossy and black, up into the sky. Clouds were gathering—finally.
We need to bury them, the woman said.
Holly’s eyes had taken in dead things, but only ever at half angles, in quick glance, and not all at once like this where there was no doctor sweeping it out of sight before she could cry out that she’d changed her mind. No use keeping what was dead.
We need a shovel, the woman said. Go get a shovel.
In the shed, underneath a push lawnmower that hadn’t been used this season because the drought trimmed its own grass, where the shovel should have been, were leaves that trapped themselves up in cobwebs and the few dead spiders that couldn’t get enough food and didn’t think to leave.
Going to the Barrow’s, Holly yelled at the house, but the woman inside could not hear her. She was busy lining the hens up on the kitchen table and checking if their necks had been snapped.
• • •
Of course, it was Kyle who came to the door. Kyle who smiled when he saw her standing there arms crossed and angry as all hell. She did not want to need his help.
I’m not here for you, she said.
She would have said anything to rub that smile off of his mouth.
I need a shovel, she said.
A shovel? he said.
You going to repeat everything I say?
He set to laughing and she whipped around. She thought she had seen a shovel leaning against the barn, and she didn’t need to be polite anymore. He chased after her, yelled, Hol, oh come on. Hol!
She couldn’t make a clean snatch of it, and the shovel bounced out of her hands. By the time she had bent over to get it, he was running towards her as if she were after something more than a rusted, bent shovel. He tripped and knocked them both over. He wouldn’t stop laughing at every little thing.
That woman needed the shovel, and Holly had it, the rough, splintered wooden handle, in her hands. When Holly had arrived at that woman’s house with less than that in her hands, and she was not even poor. The way she figured it, you had to have even a little of something to be poor, but she was worse, poorer than a grave. Dressed in whatever clothes didn’t fit the church people, smelling like moth and cedar. Her repayment to that woman would be slower than raindrops wearing down rock, especially out here where rain didn’t dare to land, but she wanted to make a start somewhere. She pushed Kyle off of her.
You get off of me, she said.
What do you need a shovel for anyway? he said. He rolled onto one side and ran his fingers through the dry grass.
There’s been a blight on her hens.
No such thing as chicken blight, he said.
Shows how much you know, she said and yanked the shovel from him.
That’s when she could smell it—the cloves still under his fingernails and the heavy, sweet scent of rain. She looked up. Clouds sealed the sky.
Shoot, he said.
I’ve got to get back there, she said. You going to help me or not?
He considered it and looked into the clouds as if his answer was a shape swirling there. A dogged smile split his mouth.
What do I get? he said.
Trust had never entered their friendship, so she did not feel betrayed. Holly knew the way the Barrow men needed something first, a deposit, to make their time worthwhile. A kiss on the cheek or the mouth, a nighttime walk out to behind the barn. And then another grave to fill. She gripped the shovel tight.
What do you want? she asked.
• • •
Rain choked the ground, and as Holly ran home, half-blind from the way the water fell in thick sheets, she avoided the puddles where small animals—voles and anoles had drowned and already taken to bloating. Her body tied itself together with loose string. She stung all over from what he’d wanted. But she had the shovel.
The henhouse sulked in its lonely corner of the yard, and the woman, soaked with rain, sat with the chicken shit under the shelter. Knees drawn up to her chest, hands hidden under thighs, small as a girl, she looked like she was forcing herself to dissolve. It wasn’t right—how small she felt to Holly, how heavy the shovel was in her sore hands. All she could do was pay that woman what she owed. The healing would be slow, for both of them.
Got the shovel, Holly said.
The woman nodded and pursed her lips as if her disappointment were something clear and smooth as glass, and she could see straight to the other side of it. Her mouth moved, but rain beat the ground, pummeled it, and Holly couldn’t hear what the woman said from across the pen. Water rose up to her ankles. The ground was rejecting all of it.
You’re too goddamn late, the woman shouted. Her anger was vague, turned outward, and buzzed through the air. The woman stood, frozen, her eyes lost over Holly’s shoulder.
Holly saw the mess of her hands. Each finger chafed. Nails chipped to shit or just plain gone. She followed the woman’s eyes.
In her own hurry and bittersweet triumph, she had passed the upturned mound without giving it her attention. In this rain, all the dirt looked freshly dug and rich. But there it was—the grave she had dug herself, breaking each one of her Sunday nails and scraping her fingers to hell. Despite all that work, the hole was only half-deep, and what she had buried there found its way up again. Six feathered masses floated two inches off the ground, their top-heavy bodies pulling them down, their legs pointing to heaven.
But I got the shovel, Holly said.
Yeah? the woman said. Go give it back.
Holly held that shovel with a cat’s pride. It was a dead mouse that she had chased out from under porch. She had given too much to get it—again. And the woman looked at the shovel with a Thank you, but no, frown. Anyone, Holly thought, who believed that people knew what they wanted was a fool; they liked mouthfuls of the things, and when they glutted themselves, they moved on to something else. She looked at the ground that had killed everything green growing out of it for want of water, and now that it had all the rain it could drink up, decided it was no longer thirsty.
Sam Simas is a queer fiction writer and poet. His fiction has either appeared or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, F(r)iction, Waccamaw, Flint Hills Review, Steam Ticket, and other literary magazines. His short stories have been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology and the Pushcart Prize. He holds an MLIS and an MA in English from the University of Rhode Island, and he works as a librarian at a university in Rhode Island. Sam lives in Providence with his partner.