The late August sun hung hot in a bare blue sky. Matilda picked up a tattered straw bushel basket and trudged into the garden with it. The rows of beans were dusty green, the corn stalks tall, their leaves edged with yellow. She settled on a stool between the lines of green beans and pulled off the pods.
“Hey, mom, look at me!” Willy had yelled at her. His short hair was sun-bleached summer white.
She’d watched him as he rode his tricycle between the radishes and lettuce, bright green leaves catching in the wheels. Had she laughed or had she told him to stop? She couldn’t remember now.
She stood up, stretched, then pushed the red stool forward a few feet. She threw each dry bean pod into the basket. The air was thick with cricket chirps, the faint buzz of insects. Another year of harvests, the beans today, then the corn, later the stalks plowed under to rot in the soil all winter. She looked across her flat land. It pleased her to work in the dirt, to receive its bounty.
“I’m off,” Willy had said, the car keys dangling between his fingers. “How come you’re always out here working?” His hair was combed back and glistened dark brown.
“Oh, it gives me space to think,” she’d said. He’d seemed tall standing next to the corn stalks and she’d been surprised that he was grown up now.
She pulled the filled basket along the dry dirt path toward her house. Dusty dandelion leaves clung to it and she pulled them off and threw them aside. She left the basket at the bottom of the steps, dragged a weathered Adirondack chair down from the porch and thumped it next to the beans, then fetched a blue enamel pot she'd left by the front door. She sat down and snapped beans into the pot.
“Mom, I’ve decided what I want to do with my life. Listen, it’s really important to me,” Willy had said. He’d stood so resolutely, his hair a short brown crew cut, his face tanned.
“Talk, son,” she’d said. “I’m listening.”
“After 9/11, I want to join up. Become a Marine like Dad. My heart says I need to.”
She held a dry green bean between her fingers and looked out and down the dirt driveway that wove around her garden, halfway thinking that someone might drive in. The telephone rang inside the house but she didn't go to answer it.
Throngs of pink, red and purple petunias and impatiens knelt at the edges of the close-clipped lawn.
She went back to snapping beans in a steady rhythm, flicking their pointed ends into the grass. It wasn't until she sat in the shadows, the sun behind the house, that she realized she’d been sitting there just thinking, the pot of beans next to her feet, the old bushel basket empty. The sounds of dusk drifted in, crickets harmonizing, doves cooing. A spark of a firefly flitted a few feet away from her. She climbed the stairs to the porch, her hand gripping the weathered white wood. She kept glass canning jars lined up against the house, handy for emptying her apron pockets, for Willy when he’d wanted something to hold a treasure, for the red roses she’d set on the table tonight.
“Don’t put the fireflies in a glass bottle, Willy. Without their freedom, they’ll die,” she’d said.
“I want them to light up my bedroom. With enough sparks, I can use them as a nightlight.”
The next morning, he'd held the locked jar in his hands. “They all died,” he'd said. His blonde hair lay tousled over his forehead. “Why did they have to die, Mom?”
“I told you they would,” she’d said and pulled him close. “But that’s how we learn, trying out things and sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.”
She picked up a dusty jar, its lid gone, blackened bits sticking to its bottom that she tapped out, and she walked back down the steps and rubbed the jar in the grass to clean it. From inside, the telephone rang again, ring after ring. She counted them, twenty-one, same age as Willy. A firefly spark fizzled out and she stared at the black space where it had been.
She pulled a pair of rusted garden scissors out of her apron pocket and walked to the roses blooming on the arbor, touched their soft petals, smelled their fragrance; an evening bee buzzed among the blossoms. She clipped a half dozen perfect crimson flowers.
Willy and Louise had stood in front of this arbor on the thick green grass when they’d exchanged wedding vows, their voices solemn, he in shirt and trousers, handsome, his blue eyes flashing with joy, then fear, freckles splashed across his face; Louise a cloud of white lace, a bouquet of roses in one hand; the two of them holding hands.
Matilda put the roses in the jar and walked back toward the house, sat down in the chair, the jar tight in her hands. Headlights bobbed up and down along the dirt driveway and she smelled the dust the car lifted, heard the soft whine of the engine as the car drew closer.
The car stopped with a thump, and Louise slid out and ran toward her, crying out, “Ma, ma, I’ve been trying to get you all day. I wish you’d answer your phone.” She stopped and turned away, her shoulders shaking. “It’s about Willy.”
Matilda didn't move. “Louise, I know Willy’s gone,” she said. The setting sun cast darkening shadows across the yard and she searched them for a single firefly spark. The glass jar rolled off her lap and the roses scattered at her feet. “I’ve been with Willy all day.”
Brigitte Whiting lives in Maine and often uses settings and experiences from her backyard in her writing. She earned Fiction Writing Certificates from Gotham Writers Workshop and UCLA-Ext and is working on her WVU-MFA Certificate. In addition to facilitating WVU classes, she meets weekly with two local writers' groups.