The Ripening

Her Mama wouldn’t come to the wedding. A deserter she was. Traitor to the family.


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What with that daddy of his already a dead letter in a box or a bar or a field aways off over the horizon, Sparrow took to sleeping in the storeroom GB’d occupied back in the day. Sixteen he was. Ripe. Ready. And the girl? A barefoot jobber on the overland path, back and forth every day between a shack in the woods and a grove in the season of harvest. From out a family of scrappers she come, seven children and she in the middle somewhere, the whole enterprise a tumbleweed of tinder and chaff. Not what you’d call a pretty girl, but then again Sparrow not the face on the box of Wheaties or the mug on the cover of True Romance. Serviceable is what they were. He come across her in the spring, at the side of the trail they run up the bed of the old rail line from Brooksville to Ocoee, pitching rocks at a couple boys been ragging her bout the lack of shoes. A good arm. Threw like a man.

At the trail he pointed. “Ocoee?”

“Maybe. You gimme a lift?”

“I don’t got no car but I can walk.”

“I know how to walk.”

“We can make like it’s a car. A slow car.”

So they walked. Next day the same thing. The third day he asked if she could be his girl. She said it depends.

The fourth day she said she got a question for him. He stopped. Unstoppered his pockets to free his hands.

“What you said. Being my girl. What do you mean?”

“I walk with you.”

“We done that. What else?”

“I tend to what you need.”

“And that’d be what?”

“When it rains. I got me an umbrella for you.”

“Yesterday, like.”

“Yesterday, today, tomorrow. And that dog. I run off that dog the other day.”

“That you did. You done it. I weren’t even your girl and you done it.”

The fifth day she stopped. At the place where the river shallows and you cross from rock to rock or, if the water’s high, you clamor up the trestle and onto the tracks. Sat herself on a rock in the middle of the river. He waited. On the far bank he waited, then, rock to rock, made his way back. Sat. The water rolled up and around and away in a wake, as if it were the rock on the move and not the water.

“You already done for me the — everything you done. And what with … you ain’t even got a claim on me. So me being a girl of yours, being your girl — what’s it mean?”

“Makes it official.”

“But we already done everything.”

“Not everything.”

“I ain’t a child. I know what you mean.”

“But that ain’t what I mean. What I mean is we say it. Like say it out loud.”

“And that’ll do what?”

“Make it real. Make it more real.”

Then up kicked the wind. Ferried the clouds out over the dome of the sky. They hurried off, not but a step ahead of the rain.

Day number six he kissed her.

Day number seven she kissed him back.

By the end of the summer it was official.

There’s something about a wedding jars the people get the invite, even when the wedding’s at the County Clerk and you could fit the whole of the congregation in the back of a cab. Maggie stood in for the girl’s Mama, who chose not to come on account of family matters but in point of fact — and made no secret of the fact to those with the ears to hear — the girl was a traitor. To abscond with a fry-pan, filch a comb, abandon her duties as a baby-sitter, debauch herself with a outsider when she oughta been tending the stove, and fetching water from the well, and serving up comfort to a mother beset with the woes of a Job or a Lincoln. Desertion the charge.

So you got the couple, and Shorty the cabby a witness, and the Justice (chipper as a tomb) in a suit of black serge, and Maggie, and — oh. And the part where they give away the bride? Well, what with the Father of Record on the road up north somewhere, at the wheel of a flatbed all a-jostle with a ziggurat of grapefruit, or chasing a lead on a sure deal, or a skirt up the stands at the track, or a swig of beer at the back end of a shot of whiskey, it was GB into the breach, GB the daddy of the day.

Alongside of Maggie he stood. Measured the distance in increments of years, an inch for every year they been civil. It stirred him to see her so — motherly would be the word. Go figure. Of all the people.

Maggie busied herself with the hem of the dress, the veil, the fixings. She’d sewed the dress herself, from out a bolt of white she pulled from God knows where. Shook the mothballs out the veil, and off the folds of that ribbony thing they loop at the waist. A sash, right? Even bought the girl a pair of shoes, patent leather white and with heels, the high kind, the real deal, duct tape on the soles and tissue in the innards the idea being (the receipt at the ready) you return ’em a day later — they don’t fit or the bride she died or the groom run off with the wife of the preacher. Get your money back, right? Or even better, trade for a pair of boots, Husky Hi-Cuts with the rubber soles. Or even better, your top-of-the-line Wolverine barnyard stompers with the cordovan liner from off the rear end of a horse, cushy but tough, Guaranteed to last a thousand miles.

The ceremony began. The Justice held a rubber stamper in one hand and a sandwich in the other. BLT. The fly arrived. Landed. Processed up the aisle between the lettuce and the bacon to arrive at the blit of mayo in the gleam of the virginal white. He (the Justice not the fly) pointed with the stamper. “You sign here. And here.”

Sparrow hovered with the pen, then handed it to the girl to sign first.

A wonder to watch, the way Maggie — with her eyes and her breath and the flash of the fingers at a hook or a seam or a crease in the fabric — tended to a girl who, for all the ruddy vigor of her youth and the bustle of a world eager to receive what she had to offer, stood there, stout as a cow, nary a twitch. The girl was a girl. What was a puzzle was Maggie’s demeanor. Avid she was, thought Barnett. That’s the word. Like when she’s baking a pie.

Bam. The stamp. Click. The Notary seal.

GB gave Sparrow a clap on the back.

“I do hereby pronounce you,” said Maggie, “man and wife.” Said it with a music in her voice, with a lilt. The old Maggie woulda — and then he remembered the old Maggie. The day he dressed the wound, stitched her up, and the song. Now and again he’d hum it to himself. In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty. A singer. That’s what she was. Maggie the Unmerciful? That Maggie? Who coulda ever guessed it? Nobody, that’s who. Nobody but him.

“You may kiss the bride,” said Maggie.

You take what you got in the moment, no? Give us this day our daily. With the lightest of breath, not much bigger than what you do when you breathe, Barnett hummed:

In Dublin’s fair city

Where the girls are so pretty

’Twas there I first met

With sweet Molly Malone.


Just the tune is all. The kids too busy kissing to hear it. Shorty uncorking a salute from a jigger of gin. The clerk had already shuffled the license into the bin labeled “out.” He stood at the water cooler, rubbing the spot on his tie with a wet handkerchief and the inky stub of a thumb. Immortal. That’s what mayo is.

Maggie? Not a word. Looking at the lovers. Stone the face. Breathing. A catch in the breath. He keeps up with the humming and then he hears it. Her not breathing. He rolls up onto the chorus and — what’s that? She — face frozen on the girl — joins him. A hum even softer than his own.

Crying cockles and mussels alive a-live O!

A-live a-live O! A-live a-live O!

Cockles and mussels alive a-live O!


A moment is what it was. Not but a moment. Would it be enough?

The summer done. The day quickens. At hand, behold, the season of harvest.

So. And so it was. And when the baby came, as babies do, in the fullness of time, and Sparrow tucked her in the fleece, and cradled her in the hollow of his hands, cupped her as you cup a nest and offered her up to Maggie, Maggie stood with her palms pressed to her sides, stood like a soldier at the ready. The baby arched her back. Wriggled in the fold. Sparrow stayed his hand. It was in his nature, Sparrow, to wait. The bud to bloom. The sky to break. Out over the void he held the tiny cosmos.

“Margaret we call her. Maggie for short.”

Outside, on the porch, in the company of the squirrel and the jay, the spider and the fly, the far bark of the dog, the silent boom of the cloud, the mother in the rocker with the wide eyes and the placid hands — GB paced. Filled the air with a fervor of words. Evangelled away at the sun and the moon, the land and the sea, the tin of the roof and the wood of the rail and the stone at the root of the house he — with these hands of his — built. A godfather he was, and by God a godfather he would be. Him and Maggie, and Sparrow and the girl, and now the baby. A tribe is what it was. A charge to keep. You’d think it was him the one bore the baby the way he strode the boards — like a foreman, like a roofer stamps across a span of rafters, like a mapper stakes him a claim with the print of a boot. Go said the voice of the river that ran within him. Pave an ocean. Pocket a moon. Twist a comet to make a bow.

Maggie? Maggie stood. Looked down at the red blossom of the body. Looked down at the face. Simple the face. From out the mind of God, she thought, a scrapper true. Without thinking she — with the one hand — reached out to straighten the blanket that framed the baby’s face. The hands a life of their own. The baby followed the path of her hand. Reached up. Seized her by the little finger. Tiny the fist. Fierce.

Outside, the voice of GB, that man in the making, all thunder and piss and volcanical blather. Him in the wind, always in the wind, in the face of the rage of the Maker with a question why, and what does it mean, and what is it for, and all the while it’s the mother who, from out the flesh and the fire and the blood, puzzles out a answer in the form of a person no bigger than a bowl of pudding.

With a finger, Maggie — gentle now, like you tend a pastry, a baker’s touch — stirred. Tugged. Back the baby tugged. Grappled.

She wondered how it — the all of it — came to be. From outta nothing a something. The spring air singing up over the rafters to land, with a whisper, on the fleece, the face, the fist. GB gray of a sudden, and Sparrow a man, and the house a haven, and here now the gift, the crib they — GB and her — conjured up out a crate of melons. Hickory the slats, and the sleeves of brass. Pride of a cabinet maker, or a cooper, and embossed with Sunny Slope Brand, Fresh from the Sunny South the ribs.

The current of flame that ran within her rose. She reddened. Not with the rage of old, but with a feeling fearsome in its own right. Wilder than rage. That rebel heart of hers. Ready now to — come what may, without a pledge or a parley — yield.

It takes a fire to crack the cone that carries the seed of the lodgepole pine. Fire of a size to fell a forest. The pine dies but the cone survives. Promise of a day to come.

Tight the grip of the tiny hand. Maggie unlimbered. Lowered her face. Face to face now, the old and the new, not but a breath apart. Never one to waste a word when a gesture would do, she whispered in, her lips just brushing the baby’s brow, her eyes bright with the promise of battle.

“Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

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