short story    
photo of Maxine Swann

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  maxine swann: Flower Children

They're free to run anywhere they like whenever they like, so they do. The land falls away from their small house on the hill along a prickly path; there's a dirt road, a pasture where the steer are kept, swamps, a gully, groves of fruit trees, and then the creek from whose far bank a wooded mountain surges--they climb it. At the top, they step out to catch their breaths in the light. The mountain gives way into fields as far as their eyes can see--alfalfa, soybean, corn, wheat. They aren't sure where their own land stops and someone else's begins, but it doesn't matter, they're told. It doesn't matter! Go where you please!

They spend their whole lives in trees, young apple trees and old tired ones, red oaks, walnuts, the dogwood when it flowers in May. They hold leaves up to the light and peer through them. They close their eyes and press their faces into showers of leaves and wait for that feeling of darkness to come and make their whole bodies stir. They discover locust shells, tree frogs, a gypsy moth's cocoon. Now they know what that sound is in the night when the tree frogs sing out at the tops of their lungs. In the fields, they collect groundhog bones. They make desert piles and bless them with flowers and leaves. They wish they could be plants and lie very still near the ground all night and in the morning be covered with tears of dew. They wish they could be Robin Hood, Indians. In the summer, they rub mud all over their bodies and sit out in the sun to let it dry. When it dries, they stand up slowly like old men and women with wrinkled skin and walk stiff-limbed through the trees towards the creek.

Their parents don't care what they do. They're the luckiest children alive! They run out naked in storms. They go riding on ponies with the boys up the road who're on perpetual suspension from school. They take baths with their father, five bodies in one tub. In the pasture, they stretch out flat on their backs and wait for the buzzards to come. When the buzzards start circling, they lie very still, breathless with fear, and imagine what it would be like to be eaten alive. That one's diving! they say, and they leap to their feet. No, we're alive! We're alive!

The children all sleep in one room. Their parents built the house themselves, four rooms and four stories high, one small room on top of the next. With their first child, a girl, they lived out in a tent in the yard beneath the apple trees. In the children's room, there are three beds. The girls sleep together and the youngest boy in a wooden crib which their mother made. A toilet stands out in the open near the stairwell. Their parents sleep on the highest floor underneath the eaves in a room with skylights and silver-papered walls. In the living room, a swing hangs in the center from the ceiling. There's a woodstove to one side with a bathtub beside it; both the bathtub and the stove stand on lion's feet. There are bookshelves all along the walls and an atlas, too, which the children pore through, and a set of encyclopedias from which they copy fish. The kitchen, the lowest room, is built into a hill. The floor is made of dirt and gravel, and the stone walls are damp. Blacksnakes come in sometimes to shed their skins. When the children aren't outside, they spend most of their time here; they play with the stones on the floor, making pyramids or round piles and then knocking them down. There's a showerhouse outside down a steep, narrow path and a round stone well in the woods behind.

There's nowhere to hide in the house, no cellars or closets, so the children go outside to do that, too. They spend hours standing waist-high in the creek. They watch the crayfish have battles and tear off each other's claws. They catch the weak ones later, off-guard and from behind, as they crouch in the dark under shelves of stone. And they catch minnows, too, and salamanders with the soft skin of frogs, and they try to catch snakes, although they're never quite sure that they really want to. It maddens them how the water changes things before their eyes, turning the minnows into darting chips of green light and making the dirty stones on the bottom shine. Once they found a snapping turtle frozen in the ice, and their father cut it out with an axe to make soup. The children dunk their heads under and breathe out bubbles. They keep their heads down as long as they can. They like how their hair looks underneath the water, the way it spreads out around their faces in wavering fans. And their voices sound different, too, like the voices of strange people from a foreign place. They put their heads down and carry on conversations, they scream and laugh, testing out these strange voices that bloom from their mouths and then swell outwards, endlessly, like no other sound they have ever heard.

The children get stung by nettles, ants, poison ivy, poison oak, and bees. They go out into the swamp and come back, their whole heads crawling with ticks and burrs. They pick each other's scalps outside the house, then lay the ticks on a ledge and grind their bodies to dust with a pointed stone.

They watch the pigs get butchered and the chickens killed. They learn that people have teeth inside their heads. One evening, their father takes his shirt off and lies out on the kitchen table to show them where their organs are. He moves his hand over the freckled skin, cupping different places--heart, stomach, lung, lung, kidneys, gall bladder, liver here. And suddenly they want to know what's inside everything, so they tear apart everything they find, flowers, pods, bugs, shells, seeds, they shred up the whole yard in search of something; and they want to know about everything they see or can't see, frost and earthworms, and who will decide when it rains, and are there ghosts and are there fairies, and how many drops and how many stars, and although they kill things themselves, they want to know why anything dies and where the dead go and where they were waiting before they were born. In the hazelnut grove? Behind the goathouse? And how did they know when it was time to come?

Their parents are delighted by the snowlady they build with huge breasts and a penis and rock-necklace hair. Their parents are delighted by these children in every way, these children who will be like no children ever were. In this house with their children, they'll create a new world--that has no relation to the world they have known--in which nothing is lied about, whispered about, and nothing is ever concealed. There will be no petty lessons for these children about how a fork is held or a hand shaken or what is best to be said and what shouldn't be spoken of or seen. Nor will these children's minds be restricted to sets and subsets of rules, rules for children, about when to be quiet or go to bed, the causes and effects of various punishments which increase in gravity on a gradated scale. No, not these children! These children will be different. They'll learn only the large things. Here in this house, the world will be revealed in a fresh, new light, and this light will fall over everything. Even those shady forbidden zones through which they themselves wandered as children, panicked and alone, these, too, will be illuminated--their children will walk through with torches held high! Yes, everything should be spoken of in this house, everything, and everything seen.

Their father holds them on his lap when he's going to the bathroom, he lights his farts with matches on the stairs, he likes to talk about shit and examine each shit he takes, its texture and smell, and the children's shits, too, he has theories about shit that unwind for hours--he has theories about everything. He has a study in the toolshed near the house where he sits for hours and is visited regularly by ideas, which he comes in to explain to their mother and the children. When their mother's busy or not listening, he explains them to the children or to only one child in a language that they don't understand, but certain words or combinations of words bore themselves into their brains, where they will remain, but the children don't know this yet, ringing in their ears for the rest of their lives--repression, Nixon, wind power, nuclear power, Vietnam, fecal patterns, sea thermal energy, civil rights. And one day these words will bear all sorts of meaning, but now they mean nothing to the children--they live the lives of ghosts, outlines with no form, wandering inside their minds. The children listen attentively. They nod, nod, nod.

Their parents grow pot in the garden, which they keep under the kitchen sink in a large tin. When the baby-sitter comes, their mother shows her where it is. The baby-sitter plays with the children, a game where you turn the music up very loud, Waylon Jennings, "The Outlaws," and run around the living room leaping from the couch to the chairs to the swing, trying never to touch the floor. She shows them the tattoo between her legs, a bright rose with thorns, and then she calls up all her friends. When the children come down later to get juice in the kitchen, they see ten naked bodies through a cloud of smoke sitting around the table, playing cards. The children are invited, but they'd rather not play.

Their parents take them to protests in different cities and to concerts sometimes. The children wear T-shirts and hold posters and then the whole crowd lets off balloons. Their parents have peach parties and invite all their friends. There's music, dancing, skinny-dipping in the creek. Everyone takes off their clothes and rubs peach flesh all over each other's skin. The children are free to join in, but they don't feel like it. They sit in a row on the hill in all their clothes. But they memorize the sizes of the breasts and the shapes of the penises of all their parents' friends and discuss this later amongst themselves.

One day, at the end of winter, a woman begins to come to their house. She has gray eyes and a huge mound of wheat-colored hair. She laughs quickly, showing small white teeth. From certain angles, she looks ugly, but from others she seems very nice. She comes in the mornings and picks things in the garden. She's there again at dinner, at birthdays. She brings presents. She arrives dressed as a rabbit for Easter in a bright yellow pajama suit. She's very kind to their mother and chatters to her for hours in the kitchen as they cook. Their father goes away on weekends with her; he spends the night at her house. Sometimes he takes the children with him to see her. She lives in a gray house by the river that's much larger than the children's house. She has six Siamese cats. She has a piano and many records and piles of soft clay for the children to play with, but they don't want to. They go outside and stand by the concrete frog pond near the road. Algae covers it like a hairy, green blanket. They stare down, trying to spot frogs. They chuck rocks in, candy, pennies, or whatever else they can find.

In the gray spring mornings, there's a man either coming or going from their mother's room. He leaves the door open. Did you hear them? I heard them. Did you see them? Yes. But they don't talk about it. They no longer talk about things amongst themselves. But they answer their father's questions when he asks.

And here again they nod. When their father has gone away for good and then comes back to visit or takes them out on trips in his car and tells them about the women he's been with, how they make love, what he prefers or doesn't like, gestures or movements of the arms, neck, or legs described in the most detailed terms--And what do they think? And what would they suggest? When a woman stands with a cigarette between her breasts at the end of the bed and you suddenly lose all hope-- And he talks about their mother, too, the way she makes love. He'd much rather talk to them than to anyone else. These children, they're amazing! They rise to all occasions, stoop carefully to any sorrow--and their minds! Their minds are wide open and flow with no stops, like damless streams. And the children nod also when one of their mother's boyfriends comes by to see her--she's not there--they're often heartbroken, occasionally drunk, they want to talk about her. The children stand with them underneath the trees. They can't see for the sun in their eyes, but they look up, anyway, and nod, smile politely, nod.

The children play with their mother's boyfriends out in the snow. They go to school. They're sure they'll never learn to read. They stare at the letters. They lose all hope. They worry that they don't know the Lord's Prayer. They realize that they don't know God or anything about him, so they ask the other children shy questions in the schoolyard and receive answers that baffle them, and then God fills their minds like a guest who's moved in, but keeps his distance, and worries them to distraction at night when they're alone. They imagine they hear his movements through the house, his footsteps and the rustling of his clothes. They grow frightened for their parents, who seem to have learned nothing about God's laws. They feel that they should warn them, but they don't know how. They become convinced one night that their mother is a robber. They hear her creeping through the house alone, lifting and rattling things.

At school, they learn to read and spell. They learn penmanship and multiplication. They're surprised at first by all the rules, but then they learn them too quickly and observe them all carefully. They learn not to swear. They get prizes for obedience, for following the rules down to the last detail. They're delighted by these rules, these arbitrary lines that regulate behavior and mark off forbidden things, and they examine them closely and exhaust their teachers with questions about the mechanical functioning and the hidden intricacies of these beings, the rules: If at naptime, you're very quiet with your eyes shut tight and your arms and legs so still you barely breathe, but really you're not sleeping, underneath your arms and beneath your eyelids you're wide awake and thinking very hard about how to be still, but you get the prize anyway for sleeping because you were the stillest child in the room, but actually that's wrong, you shouldn't get the prize or should you, because the prize is really for sleeping and not being still, or is it also for being still . . . ?

When the other children in the schoolyard are whispering themselves into wild confusion about their bodies and sex and babies being born, these children stay quiet and stand to one side. They're mortified by what they know and have seen. They're sure that if they mention one word, the other children will go home and tell their parents who will tell their teachers who will be horrified and disgusted and push them away. But they also think they should be punished. They should be shaken, beaten, for what they've seen. These children don't touch themselves. They grow hesitant with worry. At home, they wander out into the yard alone and stand there at a terrible loss. One day, when the teacher calls on them, they're no longer able to speak. But then they speak again a few days later, although now and then they'll have periods in their lives when their voices disappear utterly or else become very thin and quavering like ghosts or old people lost in their throats.

But the children love to read. They suddenly discover the use of all these books in the house and turn the living room into a lending library. Each book has a card and a due date and is stamped when it's borrowed or returned. They play card games and backgammon. They go over to friends' houses and learn about junk food and how to watch TV. But mostly they read. The read about anything, love stories, the lives of inventors and famous Indians, blights that affect hybrid plants. They try to read books they can't read at all and skip words and whole paragraphs and sit like this for hours lost in a stunning blur.

They take violin lessons at school and piano lessons and then stop one day when their hands begin to shake so badly they can no longer hold to the keys. What is wrong? Nothing! They get dressed up in costumes and put on plays. They're kings and queens. They're witches. They put on a whole production of The Wizard of Oz. They play detectives with identity cards and go searching for the kittens who have just been born in some dark, hidden place on their land. They store away money to give to their father when he comes. They spend whole afternoons at the edge of the yard waiting for him to come. They don't understand why their father behaves so strangely now, why he sleeps in their mother's bed when she's gone in the afternoon and then gets up and slinks around the house, like a criminal, chuckling, especially when she's angry and has told him to leave. They don't know why their father seems laughed at now and unloved, why he needs money from them to drive home in his car, why he seems to need something from them that they cannot give him--everything--but they'll try to give him--everything--whatever it is he needs, they'll try to do this as hard as they can.

Their father comes and waits for their mother in the house. He comes and takes them away on trips in his car. They go to quarries, where they line up and leap off cliffs. They go looking for caves up in the hills in Virginia. There are bears here, he tells them, but if you ever come face to face with one, just swear your heart out and he'll run. He takes them to dances in the city where only old people go. Don't they know how to fox-trot? Don't they know how to waltz? They sit at tables and order sodas, waiting for their turn to be picked up and whirled around by him. Or they watch him going around to other tables, greeting husbands and inviting their wives, women much older than his mother, to dance. These women have blue or white hair. They either get up laughing or refuse. He comes back to the children to report how they were--like dancing with milk, he says, or water, or molasses. He takes them to see the pro-wrestling championship match. He takes them up north for a week to meditate inside a hotel with a guru from Bombay. He takes them running down the up-escalators in stores and up Totem Mountain at night in a storm. He talks his head off. He gets speeding tickets left and right. He holds them on his lap when he's driving and between his legs when they ski. When he begins to fall asleep at the wheel, they rack their brains, trying to think of ways to keep him awake. They rub his shoulders and pull his hair. They sing rounds. They ask him questions to try to make him talk. They do interviews in the back seat, saying things they know will amuse him. And when their efforts are exhausted, he tells them that the only way he'll ever stay awake is if they insult him in the cruelest way they can. He says their mother is the only person who can do this really well. He tells them that they have to say mean things about her, about her boyfriends and lovers and what they do, or about how much she hates him, thinks he's stupid, an asshole, a failure, how much she doesn't want him around. And so they do. They force themselves to invent insults or say things that are terrible but true. And as they speak, they feel their mouths turn chalky and their stomachs begin to harden as if with each word they had swallowed a stone. But he seems delighted. He laughs and encourages them, turning around in his seat to look at their faces, his eyes now completely off the road.

He wants them to meet everyone he knows. They show up on people's doorsteps with him in the middle of the day or late at night. He can hardly contain himself. These are my kids! he says. They're smarter than anyone I know, and ten times smarter than me! Do you have any idea what it's like when your kids turn out smarter than you?! He teaches them how to play bridge and to ski backwards. At dinner with him, you have to eat with your eyes closed. When you go through a stoplight, you have to hold on to your balls. But the girls? Oh yes, the girls--well, just improvise! He's experiencing flatulence, withdrawal from wheat. He's on a new diet that will ruthlessly clean out his bowels. There are turkeys and assholes everywhere in the world. Do they know this? Do they know? But he himself is probably the biggest asshole here. Still, women find him handsome--they do! They actually do! And funny. But he is funny, he actually is, not witty but funny, they don't realize this because they see him all the time, they're used to it, but other people--like that waitress! Did they see that waitress? She was laughing so hard she could barely see straight! Do they know how you get to be a waitress? Big breasts. But he himself is not a breast man. Think of Mom--he calls their mother Mom--she has no breasts at all! But her taste in men is mind-boggling. Don't they think? Mind-boggling! Think about it too long, and you'll lose your mind. Why do they think she picks these guys? What is it? And why are women almost always so much smarter than men? And more dignified? Dignity for men is a completely lost cause! And why does anyone have kids, anyway? Come on, why?! Because they like you? Because they laugh at you? No! Because they're fun! Exactly! They're fun!

Around the house there are briar patches with berries and thorns. There are gnarled apple trees with puckered gray skins. The windows are all open--the wasps are flying in. The clothes on the line are jumping like children with no heads but hysterical limbs. Who will drown the fresh new kitties? Who will chain-saw the trees and cut the firewood in winter and haul that firewood in? Who will do away with all these animals, or tend them, or sell them, kill them one by one? Who will say to her in the evening that it all means nothing, that tomorrow will be different, that the heart gets tired after all? And where are the children? When will they come home? She has burnt all her diaries. She has told the man in the barn to go away. Who will remind her again that the heart has its own misunderstandings? And the heart often loses its way and can be found hours later wandering down passageways with unexplained bruises on its skin. On the roof, there was a child standing one day years ago, his arms waving free, but one foot turned inward, weakly-- When will it be evening? When will it be night? The tree frogs are beginning to sing. She has seen the way their toes clutch at the bark. Some of them are spotted, and their hearts beat madly against the skin of their throats. There may be a storm. It may rain. That cloud there looks dark--but no, it's a wisp of burnt paper, too thin. In the woods above, there's a house that burnt down to the ground, but then a grove of lilac bushes burst up from the char. A wind is coming up. There are dark purple clouds now. There are red-coned sumacs hovering along the edge of the drive. Poisonous raw, but fine for tea. The leaves on the apple trees are all turning blue. The sunflowers in the garden are quivering, heads bowed--empty of seed now. And the heart gets watered and recovers itself. There is hope, everywhere there's hope. Light approaches from the back. Between the dry, gnarled branches, it's impossible to see. There are the first few drops. There are the oak trees shuddering. There's a flicker of bright gray, the underside of one leaf. There was once a child standing at the edge of the yard at a terrible loss. Did she know this? Yes. The children! (They have her arms, his ears, his voice, his smell, her soft features, her movements of the hand and head, her stiffness, his confusion, his humor, her ambition, his daring, his eyelids, their failure, their hope, their freckled skin--)
o henry awards
Bold Type
    Copyright © 1997 by Maxine Swann. "Flower Children" originally appeared in Ploughshares. Used by permission of the author.