Like Leaves, Like Trees
I stepped off the back steps onto the muddy grass behind the house. I looked around quickly to see if Daddy pulled up to the shed next to the house. He would’ve killed me if he saw that I hadn’t cleaned the shed yet. He worked on farm equipment during the week and used the shed to buy and sell scrap metal on the weekends. My job was to clean it up before he gets home on Mondays after school. I hated it. I had something else to do anyway.
I walked quickly through the tall weeds towards the bean field. As muddy as it was, I still made quick, smooth steps through the yard so no one would notice that I intended to race away from the house that seemed more like a dog pen to me.
I made it to field and took off running. The mud flew up from my chilled bare feet onto my back as I ran through the rows of endless green blurs. I liked to imagine that I was flying in a Mustang over Germany. I could see the green forest in perfect lines under my wings. I would rush through the wind and see the world from my position in the sky. I soon forgot about Daddy and the shed and even my real reason for running off from the house, but that all came rushing back as soon as I saw her black hair bobbing up and down behind a far row of soybeans.
I rushed up and stumbled as I jumped a high row of beans in a stupid try at impressing her. I sat down on a grassy spot by the windbreak. Her name was Ayaka. I just called her Aya. Her family moved from Japan to California, and her father was a pretty good businessman until last December. I guess they got scared with the war and all and moved to the Bootheel. He now works for Bill Henderson’s boys over by Caruthersville picking cotton. It must have been a change for him being that he was fancy at one time and now hunkering over in the hot sun like us real folk. But Aya, she was the opposite. She seemed to fit right with us in here. While she didn’t know much about cabbage and cornbread and baseball, she wasn’t afraid of mud. Just like me. Being that I am the muddiest in Seventh Grade, that’s pretty good.
She sat with her dark black hair whipping in the wind around her face. I didn’t think she saw me at first until she said, “konichiwa!”
“It means hi,” she said with her brown rolling eyes.
Her eyes were like nothing I’ve ever seen. They were small but could stare right through me.
“I was wondern’ if you’d be here today,” I said.
“Here I am. You are late.”
“I know. I had to make the shed look like I tried to do something to it in case he gets home early.”
“I can come help clean it before he comes home,” Aya said with a gleam of excitement in her eyes.
I looked at her with excitement, too, but I knew that would not be the best idea. Daddy hates the Japanese. He calls them “Japs” or “slanties.” I didn’t understand, but I wasn’t about to backtalk him about Aya being sweet, pretty, and muddy like me.
“You better not. Daddy doesn’t like—people coming over if he’s not there.” I had to think of something. I couldn’t tell her Daddy didn’t like her, or her daddy, or anything about her.
I just sat there at first noticing the small things about her. I could see that she had been here for a little bit from the dirt under her small fingernails. She would smile, and I’d see that big gap between her teeth. No one has money to fix things like that when picking cotton. But it’s ok. I thought it looked funny. Both of us didn’t care about the stuff our teachers and parents wanted. We stayed away from bath water if at all possible. We didn’t mind church clothes though, but we liked nothing more than meeting under this tree in the windbreak.
“So…is this our spot?”
As she asked this, her hair blew from in front of her face to behind her head. I looked away at first. It seems so real and demanding that my stomach burned with nervousness. But I would never have told her that. When I looked back up, her entire face was there staring at mine as if I better give the right answer.
“I hope so. I like it.”
How could I say anymore than that? I couldn’t just tell her that I loved her, that I wanted to marry her. She’d run off, and I’d be home cleaning that dumb shed. I’d rather say nothing and just stare at the gap in her perfect teeth.
We sat for a few minutes flicking dirt clods around and listening to the storm far off to the west. My legs began to burn from sitting cramped together, so I leaned toward her to stretch. As I was close enough to rub shoulders, she leaned and kissed my cheek through her long black hair. I knew then how much I loved her. I didn’t care about Japan, Daddy, “Japs,” or “slanties.” I just wanted to watch her keep pushing the hair out of her face only to see the wind pull it back.
“You embarrassed?” she asked.
She was better than most with English in school, but she couldn’t remember some of the verbs. None of us could really.
“Na. I think you are, though.”
“Hush!” Her pale cheeks turned a different shade of red right then.
“I know—” she said before she stopped.
“Are we married now?” she finished.
“I don’t know. I never asked Daddy what that really means, but I know this is what married folks do. Sure.”
“This is great!” she yelped. “They will give us a celebration, or party. I will wear my kimono, and we can all stay up late and—” she stopped.
“I forgot I not home anymore. I cannot have a marriage in a field like this?”
I was a little mad at that. I happen to like the field.
“It’s fine, but we need big room, not mud,” she said with a reassuring tone.
For a moment, I was caught in her ideas and dreams. I could see all the white-faced warriors in the pictures at school dancing around me and Aya. They kicked with bare feet and swung their curvey swords in the air. Aya sat with her hair in a wad on top of her head with a bright red dress that looked like Gramma’s curtains. But I came back to the field. It was as if I was dropped from that high Mustang straight onto my back. The breath left me and I felt a bit of fear inside. Daddy would never allow me to do this. He would probably get his farm buddies together and storm in the wedding with their white pointy hats and shotguns running everyone off into the field. But then I saw her face. She was fighting her hair again. This time it was in her mouth as she made an unflattering hacking noise to get it out. I laughed and truly believed inside that I would love to be with her always, I would hold her hair back in the wind, and try and stop the wind from even getting to her face. I didn’t care about Daddy. I loved Aya. I know that deep within her dark marble eyes, she thought the same. I wasn’t afraid when I sat with her. I wasn’t scared of getting smacked on top of the head because of not picking up my shoes by the front door, or not cleaning the shed after school.
It was quiet. Even though the wind blew and the shadows of the leaves above us danced over her face, all I could hear was her voice over and over saying—
“What’s that?” she said, interrupting my daydream.
I stopped to hear what she heard.
“Huey! Huey, where the hell are you. I know you’re here. The back door’s wide open!”
“It’s Daddy!” I said with a frantic whisper. “You need to run home. I won’t tell him you were here.” I whispered so hard that I could feel my throat vibrate with terror. A tremor of horror filled my voice like a flooding valley. I knew what was coming for me. I couldn’t stand seeing it happen to her, too.
Right then, a rustling came rushing onto our spot like a herd of mules was charging over us. Daddy came through the row of beans and grabbed me by my hair. He slammed his palm into my right ear. He looked over to Aya and screamed, “Get goin’ girl!” Aya knew what to do. She had seen the fire in many men’s eyes before here in America. She turned and ran. I remember her hair flowing like the black waves of the Mississippi at night when I would be scraping for crawdads with Daddy. It waved to me as if I knew that it was our last time together. The fluid waves of her fleeing wake told me farewell in a quick moment just before the second blow bounced across my face.
“What are you doin’ with her? Why were you out here? I told you to stay away from her!!” he yelled at me from about an inch from my face.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t meet her. I ran into her out here. I swear Daddy!”
“Don’t gimme that! I’m callin’ Bill and takin’ care of this,” Daddy said with what seemed to be a subtle smirk of satisfaction.
I wanted to congratulate him. He won; he beat up a twelve-year-old boy. He ran off a young Japanese girl from a field. What terrible hell we could have brought on everyone if we would have stayed out there any longer. Good thing he was there to stop us.
Afterwards, he dragged me by my collar, at times faster than I could step behind his long, striding legs. We went to the shed where I busted my knuckles over and over, cleaned until the sun fell behind the gray storm clouds that me and Aya listened to earlier. They didn’t seem as comforting as before. I almost thought of them as soft gray blankets of dirty cotton floating over to take me and her far away like leaves, like trees being picked apart in the middle of a tornado. It grew darker instead; it was dirty cotton turned to dreary stones suspended above my head as if they were waiting to be just above our spot to crash down like bombs that were too late for the Mustang to stop. But then again, our spot was already gone. Our marriage is over before we even got to have a wedding.
Aya wasn’t at school the next day. I didn’t go back to the place, and I figure she didn’t either. Daddy got a call a couple nights later. I didn’t know what was going on, but he seemed pretty happy.
“Oh yeah? So they did leave? I told you that slantie wasn’t worth your time. I’m sure our little meeting didn’t help matters either,” Daddy said with a small giggle.
“Yeah, I’ll come out and pick a little until you get someone else.”
I guess the wind did take Aya. For a split second, I saw her floating above the perfectly aligned trees with her hair waving around her face. I saw her eyes squint just a bit more from the wind as she glided right over my house and looked at me nailed to the same tree. I never lifted from the branches.
Jason Hancock teaches in the Literature and Language Arts department at Central Baptist College in Conway, Arkansas. He was raised in northeast Arkansas and spent much of his life in the Bootheel of Missouri. His experiences with the Mississippi River Delta culture and people have inspired him for much of his published work. He has also published numerous poems and has just completed the first edition to his first writing textbook for Pulaski Technical College in Little Rock, Arkansas.