February 2, 2016

Fiction By Jenny Sturgill: "The Torn Dress"

Jenny Sturgill is a nurse living in Louisville, Kentucky. Publications include:
Page&Spine, Long Story Short, The Enchanted File Cabinet, Ky Story, Kentucky Explorer, and The Pink Chameleon.

IVJ Feb 2016 Sturgill Fiction

The Torn Dress

        Rose leaned to one side and stumbled over rocks as she struggled to carry the heavy aluminum bucket of water up the steep hillside. The cold liquid splashed out onto her dress and seeped down her legs and into her socks and she felt a chilly gush between her toes. Where was that Robbie? He was supposed to help her carry water today. He was always getting out of work. Her lips thinned and her brows furrowed. She couldn't rely on him to ever help her. She really was telling Poppa on him this time. She spied her brother standing in the shadow of the woods. "Get over here." Her hot breath billowed fog. "You're supposed to help me; Poppa said so."
    Robbie tilted his head back and laughed, and then he turned and ducked into the underbrush. Rose felt fire in her cheeks as she saw him vanish into the woods. She staggered and weaved, splashing water out onto the ground, the bucket too heavy for a ten-year-old to carry. It soaked into the thirsty earth, making mud puddles under her feet. She slipped and slid trying not to fall. The bucket swung and spilled more water onto her clothes. Her hands throbbed and her fingers turned white from its weight. Her mother was waiting for her to bring the water so she could use it for rinse water for their clothes. She had carried three buckets already and spilled water onto herself with each one. She shifted the bucket, grasped it with both hands, finally wobbled up the two steps to the porch, and heaved the bucket down, slinging water out onto her shoes and the bare wood planks. She fell into the rocking chair sitting by the door. Her breath came quick, like a panting dog.  
      "This should be the last one for today, Rose," her mama said as she picked up the bucket and poured the fresh water into the wash tub. Rose jumped up and ran into the house intending to stand in front of the fireplace to get warm, but her dog Sam lay stretched out in front of the hearth, enjoying the heat. Mama marched in, grabbed Sam by the collar, and shooed him out. Rose backed up as close to the sputtering flames as she dared. She felt the heat of it prickling the backs of her legs. Her fingers tingled and throbbed in response to the warmth, and it soon dried her plain, thin blue gingham dress and jacket that hung loose from her small frame.  It had been handed down from one of her brothers. She looked down at her big toe.  Even it was finally warming up.  It stuck out of the hole that had been cut out to accommodate her growing feet.  Her dingy white socks were bunched around her thin ankles.
     With dry clothes, she stepped out the door and trudged up the hill to the graveyard. This was her favorite place and it offered a blanket of peace for her. She followed the weedy path up the hill, stooping beside a patch of daisies growing along the way to pluck flowers for Grandma's grave. Rose remembered how Grandma had smiled as she opened their petals flat against the print of her old worn bible.
        She found her grandmother's grave and carefully, silently she slumped down onto the cool earth, draping her arm around the modest stone. She gingerly placed the flowers next to the headstone, and pulled away the ropy vine that had climbed the stone, twisting itself round and round until it strangled the pillar. The warm, bright sun flooded her face. The aroma of fresh earth triggered memories of many days spent with her sweet grandmother working beside her in the garden. "Grandma?" Rose bowed her head, rubbed her hand against the cool earth, and spoke in a gentle whisper. "Why is life so hard and unfair? I have to do all the work here. My brothers are never around. They're lazy, Grandma. Other people have a chance to learn, get what they need and live comfortably. All I have is hard work. To me life is dull, a drudgery. I really can't call it a life. I call it an existence. I don't get to make choices. I only get to do what I'm told. Mama never listens to me and I get spankings for things I never did just because my brothers said I did. I'm not allowed to explain anything, and I feel like a mouse trapped in a tin can. Oh, I miss you so, Grandma."  A tear slipped from her eye, rolled down her cheek, and her voice broke. She'd come to love her grandma even more in death. Just then she felt her grandma's hand rest on her shoulder and heard her voice as clearly as if she had been sitting close beside her.
           "Rose, honey, don't let those rough boys take advantage of you. Stand up to them, and you watch; they'll back off. Never let people, no matter who they are, run over top of you. You're smart and strong; I know you can do it," her grandma whispered in her ear, her voice as soft as the breeze sweeping over the tops of the tall grass. Rose embraced the peace that settled over her tired body. She squinted her eyes and a smile played at the corners of her mouth and slowly stretched across her face.
           Suddenly the sun disappeared behind a dark cloud. A breeze came down from the north and swept her clothes against her, whipped through her hair, and sneaked up her sleeves, raising goosebumps on her arms.
    She heard a rustle of leaves behind her. Her brother Robbie had been listening to her conversation "The dead can't hear you, silly girl. You're wasting your breath. Talking to the air, that's all." He let out a belly laugh.
       "That's not true. Grandma can hear me, I can feel it. She watches over me and protects me." Rose spoke with determination as she stroked the stone. She squatted and straightened the flowers, just so, against the headstone. She was aware of a bustle of activity behind her. She turned her head and saw Robbie laughing and teasing a black snake with a stick. The snake raised its head and coiled its body. She had always been told that black snakes were harmless but this one hissed and wagged its tongue at them. She froze, wide-eyed, then jumped up and stood on her tiptoes. Even Robbie  lost his teasing grin.
    "Run sis, run," he shouted and took off down the hill. Rose followed close behind. They came to a barbed wire fence and dived under it. Rose felt resistance and heard a rip. Pain shot up her arm where the barbs' sharp edges had torn her skin. She landed on her belly in the soft grass.
    Robbie reached down to help her up, and Rose took his offered hand. It was cold but firm and safe. She felt the callouses on his palms against her soft skin as he pulled her to her feet. She came up to his square shoulders and he had a lanky way about him. She hoped he wouldn't start teasing her again about her grandma. He never took anything too seriously. "You tore your dress. Mama will be mad," he said, dusting the leaves from his clothes.
  "She'll really be mad when I tell her what you did, and Poppa will give you a lickin' for not helping me carry water. You just wait," Rose said, and jerked her hand out of his. She held her elbows away from her body and thrust out her chest, her eyes cold, hard and flinty. "If you hadn't teased that snake I wouldn't have torn my dress. It's all your fault."
   "Tattle tale!" her brother sneered and walked on ahead of her back down the hill.
    Rose stood and looked around for snakes then chased down the hill after him.
    She tiptoed into the bedroom and found her sewing box, opened the lid, pawed around for her needle and the right color of thread, laid them down on the table beside her bed, and slipped her dress off over her head.
     She turned her dress wrong side out, sat down on the bed, and stitched together the raw edges of the tear. Mama would never pay attention to the mended edges. With so many children to look after and all the work she had to do, Mama didn't have time to notice a repaired dress. She inspected the wound on her arm. The bleeding had stopped. She slipped the dress back over her head and went into the kitchen where everyone was seated around the dinner table.  It was laden with fried chicken, corn bread, and canned peaches from the cellar. The scent of baked pies rose in a steamy mist from holes cut in the crust and the sound of voices and the clatter of forks against plates filled the room.
   So far Rose had held her tongue about the day's events. Robbie avoided Rose's eyes. He laughed and chattered, cleaning his plate of the very last crumb. He wiped a buttery finger on his napkin and laid it across his empty plate,  rose from his seat, smiled at Rose, and took two steps toward the door.
   Rose cleared her throat. "Wait, Robbie, didn't you say you would do the dishes tonight?" Her mouth spread into a broad grin. Robbie hesitated and glared at Rose squarely in the eye.
 "Me do the dishes?" He stopped, turned around, and placed his hand over his chest, "Me?"       
 "You are doing dishes tonight." She raised her brows and glanced from Robbie to Poppa who sat at the head of the table, his arms crossed in front of him as he watched the scene with his eyes full of questions, then back to Robbie. She stared Robbie straight in the eye. "I'm going outside to play with Sam."  Robbie watched as she headed out the door with a shocked look on his face, then he slumped and his arms fell to his sides. Reluctantly he turned back to the table, took in Poppa's stern look, gathered up the dishes, and headed toward the kitchen.
~Jenny Sturgill

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