Wild Things

by Heather Newton

Many plants use wind or water to carry their seeds. In some species of annuals, it is the parent plant that leaves the child, the dry stalks blowing away, leaving seeds in the soil.

Edible Wild Plants of North Georgia by Simon Fisher

Prince Charles’ investiture as the Prince of Wales would take place Tuesday, and Sarah had no place to watch it. All she wanted was a color television, with decent reception, in the company of someone she could stand, to see Queen Elizabeth crown the young Prince Charles on the lawn of Caernarfon Castle. Their home didn’t have a television because Sarah’s husband Richard, the headmaster of the McMullen Boarding School, thought television rotted the brain.

Sarah walked along the circular paved road that ran in front of the school’s administration building and ringed the rest of campus. Faculty houses along the circle faced inward so teachers could see any student trying to sneak away from the dorms, but the students were on break and she was alone on the road. She had a book in her hand, Edible Wild Plants of North Georgia, but she wasn’t reading it. She wanted to see the coronation, or investiture, whatever it was called. Sarah had been to Caernarfon Castle. When she was sixteen, and in North Wales as an exchange student, she had leaned against the cold stone sill of one of the castle’s tower windows, with a young man named Owen, the son of her host family, standing behind her with his arms around her waist. Light braided silver on the sea beyond the castle, and the grass was an impossible green in the courtyard below. She remembered the “Keep Off the Grass” signs in Welsh, Piedwch a mynd ar y borva, as Owen traced the curve of her breasts with his thumbs. She had felt exotic and lovely then, something she didn’t feel now, and she wanted to see that place again.

She reached her own house. Her nine-year-old daughter Bobbie Jean was in the front yard, showing her friend Chase Robbins how to do a back bend. Bobbie Jean was wearing shorts and a tie-dye T-shirt with purple nylon socks Sarah hadn’t been able to talk her out of that morning. When Bobbie Jean bent backward her hair trailed the grass and her shirt came up, showing her ribs.

“I’ve got a job for you,” Sarah said.

“We don’t want a job,” Chase said. Bobbie Jean struggled up from her back bend.

“A fun job,” Sarah said. “I’ve got this book about wild plants you can eat. I thought you two could pick some dandelion greens for me. They’re all over the backyard. You can pretend you’re gathering food to survive in the wilderness.”

That got Chase interested. “Well okay,” he said.

They walked around to the backyard, Sarah showed them how to pick the newer greens, and then she went inside. She laid the edible plant book on the kitchen counter and looked out the window. Bobbie Jean and Chase had found a plastic flowerpot to collect the greens in. They were at it in earnest, kneeling on the ground with Bobbie Jean’s brown hair nearly touching Chase’s red.

Sarah was having an affair with Chase’s father, Art Robbins, the chemistry teacher. Or had been having an affair. It was over, though she hadn’t told Art yet, and he still mooned after her whenever they crossed paths on campus. Sarah had opened a flirtation with Art because there was no one else available. She’d played him, reeling him in over a period of weeks with a skirt slit just so, hair tossed to release the smell of her shampoo. By the time she got him alone he was drooling. They screwed in the riskiest places she could find, once on the empty concrete bleachers of the football field at midnight, another time standing up against the tiled wall of the boys’ locker room, with the smell of chlorine from the swimming pool stinging her nostrils. Art was nothing special. He mouth-breathed when they had sex and she could hardly bear to kiss him, but he served a need. He added an illusion of excitement for a while, and gave her something to hurt her husband Richard with.

Bobbie Jean and Chase brought their full container of greens inside. Sarah put them in the sink to wash. “Do you want to stay for lunch, Chase?”

Chase eyed the greens. “No, thanks,” he said. “See you later.”

Sarah heated up tomato soup and fixed a salad with the dandelion greens. On top she shaved cucumber and radishes from a neighbor’s garden, and garnished it with nasturtium blossoms. It was really very pretty. She heard Richard come in the front door, and called Bobbie Jean to the table.

Richard walked into the kitchen and washed his hands at the sink. His white shirt was buttoned at the sleeves and neck and he was wearing a navy blue tie fastened with a McMullen School tiepin, even though there were no students around to see him. She had once found that formality attractive, when she was a freshman at St. Mary’s, a two-year college in western Pennsylvania, and he was her professor. She had talked him into having an affair, which cost him his position even though they waited until the end of the school year to reveal it, and got married to legitimize it. It was too awkward for administration to handle—if he’d done it with one girl, what was to stop him from doing it with another? The college gave him a good reference to help him move on. Once Sarah’s girlfriends weren’t around to admire her seducing the professor, it wasn’t fun any more.

She put the soup on the table, and broached the subject of a television. “I was wondering if we might rent a color TV, just for a day, so I can watch them crown the Prince of Wales.”

“It wouldn’t work,” Richard said. “The reception’s so bad up here. You’d need an outside antenna.”

“I suppose you’re right.” The school campus was encased in stone, the buildings themselves made from rock quarried out of the mountain behind them. Without an antenna, installed with arms outstretched in a T on the roof of the house, airwaves couldn’t get through.

Richard and Bobbie Jean sat down to eat. Sarah put the dandelion salad in the middle of the table.

“What’s that?” Richard said.

“Wild dandelion green salad, from a book I picked up at the health food store,” Sarah said. “I thought we could try something new.”

Bobbie Jean picked a leaf out of the bowl and tasted the tip.

“How is it?” Sarah said.

“Okay,” Bobbie Jean said loyally. “A little fuzzy.”

Richard reached over slowly and lifted some salad onto his plate. Sarah watched him try it. The greens were tough and he chewed for a long time.

“It’s a bit late in the season,” Sarah said. “They’d be more tender in early spring.”

He got up and went to the refrigerator, took out a head of iceberg lettuce and a bottle of Thousand Island dressing, and sat back down.

Bobbie Jean looked at Sarah.

“You don’t have to finish it,” Sarah said.

Later that afternoon Sarah walked over to the stone patio in front of the administration building, where the younger faculty couples held happy hour when the students were on break. From the patio they could look down on their children playing on the broad, sloping lawn below. Shade from tall hemlocks kept them relatively cool. Richard allowed it even though he didn’t come, afraid it might erode his already tenuous authority. Sarah was a regular.

Art Robbins had pulled a blue plastic baby pool up onto the patio and hosed it full of water. Sarah, Art and his wife Patsy, and Catherine Mayhew pulled their lawn chairs close so they could put their feet in. Catherine, whose husband Craig taught math, was seven months pregnant. She tucked her short blond hair behind her ears and swished her feet in the water. “This feels so damn good.” Across from Sarah, Patsy Robbins sat stiffly in her chair next to Art. Patsy and Art were mismatched, though not as much as Art liked to think. Patsy didn’t have a college education like he did. They’d married when Patsy was seventeen and got pregnant with their daughter Mandy. Patsy was one step out of the western North Carolina coves and Art made fun of her, though he was only a generation from Georgia dirt himself, and not as worldly or interesting as he thought he was.

Sarah looked at all their bare feet in the water and decided hers were the best. They were slender, tanned on top but pale between the toes, and she had painted her nails a pearl pink. Catherine’s feet were cute, but her ankles were swollen. Patsy’s were pedicured, but stumpy, the toes too short. Art’s feet looked terrible, the toenails yellowed by some fungus, calluses on the heels. Sarah lifted her right foot out of the water to better admire it, and saw Art staring at it. She pointed her toes at him slightly and gave him an amused smile. Patsy saw, and took her feet out of the pool, crossing her legs away from Art.

Art had brought a cooler of beer and a big bottle of cheap gin for gin and tonics. He poured their drinks. Catherine couldn’t drink because she was pregnant. “Give me a goddamned tonic water,” she said, not really sounding perturbed. Catherine’s husband Craig was down on the lawn, running around with the kids, his long body stretching as he chased them. Craig would have been Sarah’s first choice for an affair, but he was ridiculously in love with his wife.

Art handed Sarah and Patsy gin and tonics in plastic cups. Patsy got out her cigarettes, and Art held out his hand for one.

“I’ll give you one if you’ll actually smoke it,” Patsy said. “I hate when you light it and just hold it up letting it burn.”

“Just pass me the cigarette,” Art said.

“What I wouldn’t give for a smoke,” Catherine said. “Two more months.”

Sarah sipped her drink. Down on the lawn Craig Mayhew had lined the kids up in front of the chapel, where the chapel bell had its own open-sided shelter about eight feet tall. He had tied a plastic jump rope to the bell’s regular rope so the smallest kids could reach, and was letting each one have a turn ringing the bell. Bobbie Jean was in line in front of Chase. Bobbie Jean danced from one foot to another. When it was her turn, instead of ringing the bell herself, she handed the rope to Chase and ran under the bell so she could see what the clapper mechanism looked like when he rang it. “Pull harder!” she called. She was a little scientist, always taking the backs off things, wanting to know how they worked. Sarah loved her daughter with a fierceness that sometimes terrified her, but she didn’t always understand her.

Sarah turned back to happy hour. “Is anyone planning to watch the Prince of Wales on Tuesday?”

“I wouldn’t miss it,” Patsy said. “It’s so exciting. I remember when they crowned Queen Elizabeth. And when she got engaged. My aunt was making toast when she heard the news, and she mailed the toast to Princess Elizabeth for a wedding gift.”

Art snorted. “Why are American women so obsessed with monarchy?”

Patsy ignored him. “I always thought I’d marry a prince.”

“Where were you going to meet him?  The Hicksville Polo Club?” Art said.

Patsy took a drag on her cigarette. The corners of her mouth sagged and she looked sad. “Well, I sure as hell didn’t marry one,” she said.

Art could smirk at Patsy for thinking she would marry a prince, but Sarah, too, had imagined she’d marry a prince. Not Prince Charles, who was nine years younger than she, but there were other princes. Grace Kelly had found one. There were all manner of minor kingdoms out there, Liechtenstein, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. She would have made a good princess. Instead she’d married Richard.

Her toes were getting shriveled. She took her feet out of the water. “I’m looking for someone with a color TV to invite me over to watch it,” she said.

“All we’ve got is black and white, and it rolls so badly it’ll make you nauseous,” Catherine said.

“Watch it at our place,” Art said.

Patsy glared at him. “We might not be here. I’m thinking of taking the kids to my mother’s.”

“I’ll be here,” Art said.

Patsy’s face pinked. Sarah knew Patsy suspected the affair, though she couldn’t prove it. Sarah reveled in it, goading Patsy when she got the chance. She couldn’t help it, though she always felt bad afterward, that she could be so mean.

She looked out at the children playing on the school lawn. The far side of the lawn curved down in a steep hill, with a stone retaining wall at the bottom. The children were running down the hill full speed and then leaping off the wall, a good five-foot drop. She watched Bobbie Jean run down the hill, her long brown hair flying out behind her. The muscles of her calves formed hard shelves on the backs of her legs. Bobbie Jean reached the wall and sailed off, suspended in air long enough for Sarah to imagine a hundred bad landings, a hundred ways she could lose her child, before Bobbie Jean landed expertly in a crouch and ran around the wall and up the hill to do it again.

Sarah turned back to the circle around the pool and gave Patsy a sweet smile. “I’ll think about it,” she said, just to watch Patsy squirm. She finished the last of her drink and tipped her ice cubes into the pool. It was entertaining to panic Patsy Robbins, but it made Sarah feel bereft. She had no friend to watch a damn television event with.

The next day Sarah had promised to take Bobbie Jean to the county fair. She walked over to Richard’s office in the administration building to get the checkbook. When she got there, Mrs. Dolores Vaughan Parke, president of the Atlanta women’s club that had founded the McMullen School, was sitting in the chair opposite Richard. Mrs. Parke was in her eighties. Large moles showed through the white hair on her scalp. Her father had donated the land for the school, and she still exercised a proprietary interest, driving up on a regular basis unannounced to complain to Richard about one thing or another. Sarah could see Richard’s left eyelid flicking with the strain of dealing with her.

“Excuse me,” Sarah said. “I didn’t know you were in with Mrs. Parke.”

“Don’t apologize, dear,” said Mrs. Parke. “We were just finishing up some Board business.”  With effort, she turned her stooped body toward Sarah. “Richard tells me you’re looking for a place to watch the investiture. You can watch it at the hotel with me. I once met the queen, you know. Or almost. Mr. Parke and I attended a garden party at Windsor Castle. We were twenty people away from her in the receiving line and it started to rain. They bustled her away.”

Sarah didn’t want to watch the investiture with Mrs. Parke. She could have killed Richard for mentioning it to the old bat.

“They won’t be photographed eating, you know, the royal family,” Mrs. Parke said.

“Oh? Afraid of being caught with spinach in their teeth?” Sarah said, and watched Richard’s face flush. “Thank you for offering, Mrs. Parke, but I’ve made other plans.”

“Suit yourself,” Mrs. Parke said.

“Richard, I need the checkbook,” Sarah said.

“What for?” he said.

“The fair.” She challenged him to ask her any more questions in front of Mrs. Parke. He scrutinized every penny she spent, making her get his approval in advance. To spite him she had started writing checks at the grocery store for five dollars over, squirreling the money away in her lingerie drawer where she knew he would never look.

Richard glanced at Mrs. Parke, then reached in his desk and handed Sarah the checkbook.

“Lovely seeing you, Mrs. Parke,” Sarah said, and stepped out the door.

Sarah and Bobbie Jean arrived at the fair early, before it got too hot. They walked down the midway. Bobbie Jean had brought her own money, dollar bills stuffed into a denim change purse with butterflies embroidered on it. There were two things Bobbie Jean liked to do at the fair that Sarah wouldn’t give her money for because she didn’t approve. One was a rip-off dart game where the darts bounced off balloons instead of popping them. The other was the freak show. Bobbie Jean was fascinated with freaks: the world’s largest horse; the world’s smallest goat; two-headed sheep. The largest collection of freaks was housed behind a tall canvas fence that ran in a ribboned maze so that no one who hadn’t paid the admission fee could see the freaks. Elaborate posters outside promised a viewing of Mermaid Girl, Bird Boy, The Devil’s Son.

“I’m not paying two dollars for that. It’s not a good use of money,” Sarah said.

Bobbie Jean shrugged and handed two dollars to the carnie at the entrance. She disappeared into the canvas maze. For a moment Sarah could see the shadow of her feet through the small gap in the bottom of the fence, then Bobbie Jean disappeared from view.

The sun was overhead now, and it was starting to get hot. Sarah watched a man at a concession stand across the way pour an elaborate squiggle of dough into his deep fryer. Behind his booth a Ferris wheel rose, full of screaming children. Next to the freak show a teenaged boy managed to pop enough balloons in the dart game to win his girlfriend a stuffed bear. Sarah wiped sweat from her upper lip.

A child who had gone in to see the freaks behind Bobbie Jean emerged from the maze. Sarah felt her heart freeze. Bobbie Jean had been in there too long. Who knew what these carnies were up to? Someone could have snatched her and taken her out the back without Sarah seeing. Panic rose in her throat. Another child emerged. Sarah started for the entrance, ready to bully her way past the man taking money, and Bobbie Jean walked calmly out of the maze.

Sarah took a deep breath and let it out. “How was it?”

“Good.”

“Worth two dollars?”

“Oh yeah.”

“What was it like?”

“Well, The Devil’s Child and Mermaid Girl were just dolls with a bunch of dirt on them, they weren’t alive. Bird Boy, too.”

“Not like the posters?”

“No.”  Bobbie Jean didn’t sound disappointed. “They said Mermaid Girl washed up a beach and that’s how they found her.”

“Were any of them alive?”

“Most of them were just pickled, like the Cyclops Pig, but the six-legged cow was alive.”

“And it was really worth the money?” Sarah said.

Bobbie Jean gave a happy little jump. “I loved it. Next year will you come in with me?”

“Yes.” Sarah rested a hand on the top of Bobbie Jean’s head, and steered her up the midway. She could not live without this child. She had been to see a lawyer in Clayton, who stared at her breasts the entire consultation and had no hope to offer. If she left Richard he would fight for custody, and in this part of Georgia in 1969 fathers always won. She would have to lie to him, tell him she was taking Bobbie Jean to visit her parents in Pennsylvania, and just not come back. But then how would she support the two of them? Sarah didn’t have a college degree. Before her abbreviated stint at St. Mary’s, she had gone to modeling school. Charm school, really. She learned poses, posture and poise. She learned how, before sitting down in a chair, to slide her left foot over parallel with her right, press her knees together prettily and then sit, an amazing skill that had captivated men ever since, but which wouldn’t transfer to the workplace. She didn’t do the foot slide for Richard anymore. She had considered teaching it to Bobbie Jean, but Bobbie Jean was made of more substance than that. Sarah could imagine Bobbie Jean’s response, her questions about why she needed to learn to sit down that way, her wise old eyes seeing everything but not judging. Yet.

“Will you come in the House of Mirrors with me?” Bobbie Jean said.

“Yes,” Sarah said, not wanting to let Bobbie Jean out of her sight again.

In the House of Mirrors, where all the mirrors were fogged with the greasy handprints of groping children, Sarah saw something and leaned closer to get a better look. It was a single gray hair, bending coarse above the brown on the right side of her head, refusing to lie down. She twined it around two fingers and yanked it out, angrily shaking it off her fingers so it floated to the floor.

With the edible plant book in hand, Sarah wandered outside to the stone patio behind her house. All along the waist-high stone wall that separated patio from mountain daylilies grew, some planted by the previous headmaster, some she’d planted herself. They were just budding, some partially opened. With her kitchen scissors she gathered the buds, snipping them cleanly off the way the book instructed, each bud making a pinging sound as she dropped it into the metal bowl.

Back inside she heated a sauté pan and watched the butter melt, and stir-fried the buds. She tried one. It tasted like asparagus, only wilder somehow, a clean air smell around its edges. She was pleased, and as she heard Richard come in the front door, she tipped the buds into a white china bowl that would set off their bright orangey-green color. Bobbie Jean came in and sat down, and Richard followed. Sarah brought the meal to the table, proudly setting the bowl of daylily buds down in the middle.

“What are those?” Richard said.

“Daylily buds. They taste exactly like asparagus,” Sarah said.

Bobbie Jean spooned a bud out on to her plate and tried it. “It’s good. Buttery.” She ladled a few more onto her plate.

Richard stood up and went to the back door, looking out. “Sarah. You cut off all the buds. You didn’t leave any.”

“I needed enough for a meal,” she said.

Richard turned back around to face them. “Bobbie Jean, where do daylily flowers come from?”

“From buds,” Bobbie Jean said, pulling the tough end of a bud out of her mouth.

Richard looked at Sarah. “You’ve destroyed the daylilies. We won’t have any flowers this year.”

“Just eat the goddamned meal I prepared,” Sarah said, angry, but she knew he was right. She cut up a bud and put it in her mouth. It was stringy on her tongue. She had exterminated her favorite flowers.

The day of the investiture, Richard went into Clayton and bought more daylilies. He and Bobbie Jean worked together in the backyard, planting them intermittently among the ones Sarah had decapitated. Sarah watched them through the screen door. Richard was showing Bobbie Jean how to divide the roots of a particularly thick cluster. There was something tender in the way his body bowed slightly over hers, his normal stiffness and reserve put away. Bobbie Jean held the plant’s bulb up close to her face to examine it.

Sarah had finally figured out a place to watch Prince Charles be crowned, remembering the televisions in the school’s classrooms. She stepped out onto the back steps. “Bobbie Jean, the coronation is in ten minutes.”  She said it tentatively, afraid Bobbie Jean would turn her down so she could continue planting with Richard. Bobbie Jean looked up at Richard.

“It’s okay, we’re at a good stopping place,” he said.

Bobbie Jean ran past Sarah into the house to wash her hands.

Richard stood looking at Sarah, his dirty hands hanging at his sides. He started to say something, then closed his mouth and shook his head slightly, turning away.

Sarah and Bobbie Jean walked over to the main school building. It was built into the rock, and the empty classroom they chose was cool. Bobbie Jean helped Sarah pull an audio-visual cart out of the closet and plug the television in. They sat down at desks to watch. Sarah’s knees pressed against the underside of the desktop.

They watched the guardsmen process in their red uniforms and brushy hats. The lawn of Caernarfon Castle was as green as Sarah remembered, and there was Queen Elizabeth, all alone in a chair on a low circular stage, at its center, waiting for her son. The queen’s short yellow dress matched her hat. She pressed her pudgy knees together. The camera panned for a moment, accidentally turning toward the castle towers. Sarah scanned the tower windows for the one where she had once stood. She wanted to see movement, a girl’s hand resting on the ledge, but the windows were gaping black holes. The camera returned to queen and prince. The prince, looking too young for the huge crown on his head, took his mother’s hands and began to speak. Microphones picked up the sound of wind from the sea blowing around his voice.

I, Charles, Prince of Wales, do become your liege man of life and limb and of earthly worship, and faith and truth I will bear unto you to live and die against all manner of folks.”

“What’s that mean?” Bobbie Jean said.

“Nothing,” Sarah said. “It’s nonsense.”

Back at the house she fixed Bobbie Jean a pimiento cheese sandwich and sent her outside to eat it on the steps. She could hear Bobbie Jean out there through the screen door, singing “Hey Jude,” her voice endearingly off key. Sarah went and leaned against the doorframe, looking at the back of Bobbie Jean’s head. She tested a thought in her mind, of walking out the door, up the road. It would hurt but she could do it. She braced herself for the pain she would feel, as with the pulling off of a Band-aid, but it didn’t hurt as much as she thought it would, and her imaginary self walked through the front door and down the school’s steep approach road, out onto the highway heading north.

Heather Newton is an attorney in Asheville. Her novel, Under the Mercy Trees, is forthcoming from HarperCollins in the spring of 2011. She blogs about writing and legal issues for writers at www.flatironwriters.com.

About Wild Things—This is one of a collection of linked stories about the intertwined lives of faculty families at the McMullen Boarding School in Tonola Falls, Georgia, in 1969-70. I like to sew three or more unlikely elements together in my stories, in this case the investiture of the Prince of Wales, a natural foods cookbook, and a character trapped in a time when women’s options were limited.

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