By Kip Robinson Greenthal
Kaly came to Palo Alto when she was four years old with her mother and father from New York City. She remembers the house, painted in pure white, where she lived, and how it stood in the middle of a wide emerald lawn bordered by apple orchards, grape vines and roses. Such a change from the brick and brownstone of New York and the Hudson River. She loved to run with her feet naked on the blades of timothy. She loved to crawl beneath the squash plants and lie on her back beneath the large spongy leaves and look up through the vegetable veins and feel the hot sun pour its light on them. The smell of honeysuckle, freesia and lilac swarmed in the air that moved around her.
Often when Kaly ran on the grass, she could see her mother’s dark face watch her from the window. Her mother had brought something with her from New York City that was all wound up in the middle of her eyes. Her mother rarely walked out on the lime-colored lawn with her daughter; she rarely touched the blue delphiniums on the edge of the garden with her fingertips. Mostly she stayed in the middle of the darkness of her room. Once Kaly brought her mother a cluster of blue blossoms in a saucer of water and told her it was a gift from the garden. Want to come outside? Kaly said. Her mother smiled then.
Kaly wanted to love her mother and not be afraid of her. Often in the morning when she got up early and wanted to play, her mother slept for many hours after her father had gone to work, and the morning got heavy with the house too quiet. Kaly wanted to do some things to wake her mother up. Once she took laundry soap and sprinkled it like white dust on the wooden stairs thinking her mother might think it was pretty, but when her mother got up, she yelled at Kaly and shook her, hard, until her head hurt when it snapped back and forth, and her mother became a hurricane of fists beating her eyes and cheeks, and her nails cut the little girl’s skin.
Kaly ran away then, ran from the house over the grass and hid under the big leaves of the squash plant. It was under these leaves that she met her other voice. It lay there waiting for her, in the green hot light, and always touched Kaly’s bruised face and cuts very tenderly. Then, as though the voice became a person, it got up and went out to pick some rose petals from the garden, and squeezed them, and brought back the juice under the squash leaves and spread it all over Kaly’s skin, as though the juice were rose water, and made Kaly’s skin tickle as if she had just climbed out of a stream.
“Now no one will see how she hurts you,” the voice said, and Kaly smelled the rosewater, and believed it.
They turned onto their sides then, like twins, and they hugged each other into the earth and smelled the sour prickle of the squash stem. The sun found patches of their skin between the squash vine, and warmed them, and they pretended they’d run from their mother’s arms, not her fists, her hands, not her nails.
They heard a faraway voice: Kaly, where are you?
Their voices, from beneath the squash leaves, whispered.
“Are you okay?”
“You must be hot.”
“I am. I’m scared she’ll find me.”
“The leaves will hide you. Duck down.”
They curled their knees up into their chins.
The faraway call came again. Kaly, where are you?
Their eyes burned shut, their arms stung in the salty peat with small rocks in it. They wriggled their bodies down deep into the garden’s soil as though they were planting themselves like seeds, away from the world’s eye, wanting to swell with the heat, to start all over.
Kaly, where are you?
Years later, Kaly remembers herself as this girl. She is lying on a sofa in the living room and she is looking out over the grass that is bordered by fir and spruce. She is three thousand miles from Palo Alto. Her eyes are dark and weary, her hair disheveled. She hardly cares what she wears anymore. Every time she breathes, her chest has a sharp jab of pain that shoots up and down the back of her body. Her neighbor is coming over to bring her a cheese casserole for dinner, for Kaly has told the neighbor that she fell down the stairs and that is why her rib is broken.
Kaly lies in the silence of the room, relieved that her two children are in school and she can be by herself. She is relieved her husband is at work and will not be home until 5:30. If she can just have enough time, she can create her own world again, the way she did as a girl under the squash leaves. She burrows deep down where she is, in the soil beneath the squash leaves, she takes the dirt in her hands and touches her broken rib with loam and sand and mud.
The voice whispers: “Did you really fall down the stairs?”
“Do you want me to hide you, again?”
“Then duck down.”
But Kaly isn’t sure what to do. A part of her knows that this voice which helped all those years is now increasing her injury. She is afraid to count the times.
There is a place behind her eyes, where she remembers the night before, the way her husband pulled her over and shoved her face down in the pillow and beat the sides of her head. With each blow, a white light spilled into the middle of her brain, and she thought she was going to be killed. But then his fists centered on her back and she knew she could take it. She arched, defending herself. This must be the way the world works, she thinks. She lay there for hours, afterwards, unsleeping until morning. He always cried. She worried that her two daughters might have heard something. He always left the house in the morning as if nothing had happened. She noticed her injuries were not leaving the way they used to. She noticed that all she could hear was a ringing in the back of her ear:
Kaly, where are you?
©2003 Kip Robinson Greenthal