With the gray, cold, clay-like mud up to her calves, Clarice took slow steps along the Cheyenne River. The mud clung to her feet and made sucking sounds each time she lifted a foot. The narrow band of water that flowed between where she walked and a steep, small incline to the pasture was more the size of a large creek than a river.
She held her floral-patterned cotton skirt above her knees with one hand. while carrying her pumps in the other. Movement was more difficult than she thought it would be. The exertion made her lungs ache with every breath. Stopping, she shook her long, brown hair out of her face and looked up at the baby-blue sky. A flock of terns were heading northwest toward the Badlands.
“You'll catch pneumonia,” her mother yelled to her from the road.
“I'm enjoying it,” Clarice shouted back, though uncertain if she was.
After a few more steps she leaned against the trunk of a dead tree that like all the others, were tilted as if weighed askew by their long, thick, tendril-like limbs. Watching the rapid currents of the river she thought about how the snow melt created it somewhere, but had no idea where that was.
“It's time to go home,” her mother yelled.
Clarice stepped out of the mud into the cold, shallow water. She kicked her feet splashing water onto her legs and watched as the mud was carried downstream. The rocks and stones on the riverbed pressed into her soles.
“I'll meet you upstream,” she shouted to her mother.
Coming out of the water onto a bank of freshly sprouting grass she shook the water from her feet and put on her pumps and walked to the road. There she met her mother who draped a sweater around her shoulders.
Placing her hand on Clarice's forehead, her mother said, “You've caught a chill. It's home and to bed for you.”
“I'm not a child,” Clarice said.
Walking side by side on the road heading into town, Clarice took hold of her mother's hand. They walked home saying nothing.
# # #
Clarice sat in her bed with a cup of hot tea on a small try on her lap. Looking out the window she watched their neighbor, Jack Jenson, trim the scraggy hedges in front of his mobile home. They hadn’t been taken care of since the first snow fall in the middle of December and their appearance was an eyesore. Small green leaves had begun to sprout on the thin, twisted branches, and as he cut them they fell on the sidewalk where they were being scattered about by the breeze.
She took a sip of tea and grimaced. Green tea was not her favorite and without sugar or honey it was too bitter.
When her mother came into the room she asked, “How's the tea?”
“I don't like it,” Clarice said.
“It's good for you. Drink it up,” her mother said. “I should never have let you near the river so early in the year.”
Her mother smoothed the quilt that lay across Clarice's legs. “I'm going down to the store to pick up a few things. Is there anything you want?”
“Some of those small chocolate cookies.”
“Chocolate makes you break out.”
“I haven't broken out in years.”
“I'll get you cookies when you're feeling better.” She placed her hand on Clarice’s forehead.
“I'm not sick,” Clarice said.
Her mother plumped the pillows behind Clarice's back and kissed her on the top of the head. As she left the room she said, “Your Aunt Lenora is coming to stay for a few days.”
When Clarice heard the front door open and close, she kicked aside the quilt and got out of bed. She looked out the window and saw her mother going down the street and wondered why her mother always walked like she was carrying huge rocks on her on shoulders. She opened the window and poured the tea on a bed of light pink tulips.
“When we going for that drive?” Jack called up to her.
Blushing, Clarice closed and turned away from the window. She sat down at the card table at the end of her bed and began pushing puzzle pieces around with her fingertips.
# # #
Sitting at the kitchen table, Clarice held the spoon of chicken noodle soup to her lips and blew onto the steaming liquid. Not certain it had cooled and unwilling to risk scalding her mouth again, she looked around the kitchen. The wallpaper with the small bright red rosebuds had yellowed in spots and was peeling from the wall behind the stove. Fading sunlight streamed in through the window above the sink casting a pastel gold on the white refrigerator and irreparably dingy white tiled floor. Finally putting the spoon to her lips she slurped the soup into her mouth.
“Clarice, didn't I teach you any manners?” she said.
“I don't know why you have to make the soup so hot.”
“The hotter the soup, the more cold germs that are killed.”
“I don't have a cold,” Clarice said. “I haven't sneezed or coughed or felt achy at all since coming back from the river.”
Her mother scooted back from the table, scraping the legs of the chair on the floor. “Haven't I taken good care of you all these years?”
“Yes,” Clarice said.
Her mother stood up. “Don't I know what's best for my little girl?”
Her mother carried her empty bowl to the sink, ran it under water and put it in on the drain board. Looking out the window, she said, “It hasn't been easy being both mother and father to you.” She turned around. “I don't know where you get these little streaks of rebellion.”
She left the kitchen.
# # #
In the middle of the night, Clarice stood at her bedroom window watching how the moonlight shone on Jack's fire engine red pick up truck. She opened the window and inhaled the warm, moist air fragranced with the prairie grass and damp earth aromas of the nearby prairie.
Nothing moved on the street. The Lewistons who lived in the small weather-beaten house across the street had left their porch light on and the pale light of the bulb cast shadows across their dirt lawn, making it look more barren and stark than usual. With only eighty-two people in the entire town, Clarice pondered why she knew so few of them. She knew the Lewistons, an elderly couple, and that was it.
She closed the window and went to the card table and in the dim moonlight held up a puzzle piece of what looked like an orange. In the picture on the box the puzzle showed fruit hanging from the trees; she assumed by their color and shape they were oranges, but wasn't certain. She turned it over in the palm of her hand several times and without giving it any thought and much to her surprise fit it where it belonged in the puzzle. The puzzle had been a gift the previous Christmas from Aunt Lenora and had sat unopened in her closet until her mother had given her permission to begin working on it.
“The picture on the box is practically obscene,” her mother had complained.
Clarice climbed back into bed and lay on her side looking out the window until she drifted into a fitful night of sleep.
# # #
Lenora placed her suitcase on the bed and released its latches. When she raised the the top the scent of lilacs wafted out. She took out three folded blouses of different colors and styles and two pairs of jeans. She put them in the open dresser drawer, then did the same with several pairs of panties and two bras. She closed the drawer and removed a terry cloth bathrobe and a pink gauzy nightgown from the suitcase and laid them out on the bed. She put a pair of fuzzy pink slippers on the floor. With the suitcase empty she slid it under the bed then sat on the edge of the bed.
“What are you going to do with yourself now that you're out of high school?” she said to Clarice who had been quietly sitting on an old trunk at the foot of the bed.
“Do?” Clarice said. “I guess I'll do what I've always done.”
“You're not going to go off to college or find a job?” Lenora said.
“I might get a job down at the store,” Clarice said. “Mother needs me around here though.”
“To do what?”
Clarice played with the belt around her skirt. “Yesterday we took a walk along the river. Mother was certain I had caught pneumonia or something, but as you can see I'm perfectly well.”
Lenora bent down and brushed a piece of dirt from her boot. She gazed at Clarice and said, “I left Wasta when I was your age. I've never regretted it.”
“I'm not you Aunt Lenora,” Clarice said.
Lenora lay back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. “When your mother and I shared this room growing up I sometimes thought I'd suffocate if I never got away from here.”
Clarice stood up. “I can breath just fine,” she said sharply.
“I'm sure you can,” Lenora said, looking at her. “That's what worries me.”
Clarice's mother came into the room carrying three glasses of lemonade with ice on a tray. “It's going to be a warm spring,” she said. “I made us some lemonade.” She looked at Lenora, than Clarice. “Did I miss something?”
“No, Jen, you didn't miss anything,” Lenora said, sitting up and taking a glass from the tray.
“I thought we might play some rummy after dinner,” Jen said as she held the tray out for Clarice.
Clarice walked around her mother and left the room.
From her room and seated at the puzzle she couldn't make out what was being said, but she heard her mother and aunt arguing.
# # #
Sitting in the porch swing, Clarice slowly rocked back and forth while swatting at gnats with a fly swatter. “The bugs are already bad and it's barely spring,” she said.
Sitting on the top step with her legs stretched out, Lenora said, “It's not so bad in the city. It's all this new growth and wet earth out here they like.”
“Mother said you want to go to the cemetery tomorrow,” Clarice said.
“I thought it might be nice to go make sure your father's and grandparents' grave sites were being kept up,” Lenora said.
Jack pulled up to the curb in his truck. He waved at Lenora and smiled broadly as he got out.
She smiled and waved back.
“Miss Thorton, it's nice to see you again,” he said as he came up the walkway and stood at the bottom of the steps.
“It's good seeing you too, Jack. How have you been?” Lenora asked.
“I've been fine,” he said. “I guess you heard my mom died on New Year's Day?”
“I heard and I'm sorry,” Lenora said. “Your folks moved here after I left so I didn't know your mother very well, but she was always nice to me every time I saw her. You getting along okay living alone?”
“Yeah, but it sure does get quiet sometimes,” he said.
When the porch swing squeaked he looked up. “Hi Clarice. I didn't know you were sitting there.”
“Hello Jack,” she said. “I noticed you've been keeping your truck polished.”
“That's so you'll think about taking that ride with me sometime,” he said.
Her cheeks reddened. “Sometime, maybe.”
“I should be getting in,” he said. “I hope to see you again real soon Miss Thorton.” He turned and walked down the walkway and jumped over his hedges when he reached his place.
“He's getting to look just like Mercury in that puzzle,” Lenora said.
“Who?” Clarice said.
“The nearly naked young man in the picture wearing the red cloth,” Lenora said. “That's Mercury.”
Clarice rocked back. “Mother put duct tape over it on the cover,” she said. “I haven't completed that part of the puzzle yet.”
# # #
The dirt road to the cemetery wound through a stretch of open prairie on the outskirts of the Badlands National Park. Clarice sat in the back seat with the window open. She leaned forward with her arms resting on the back of the front passenger seat where her mother sat.
Her hands tightly gripping the steering wheel and staring out the windshield, Lenora said, “The grass is so green. Winter seems so long ago already.”
“You should roll up your window Clarice, the moisture blowing in isn't good for your lungs,” Jen said.
“I'm fine Mother,” Clarice said. She pointed through the windshield at the Badlands formations. “Look how the sunlight brings out the colors in the rock.”
“The scars on your lungs . . .” her mother started.
“She said she's fine,” Lenora snapped at her sister.
They rode in silence until they reached a small rusted gate between a wood rail fence. Lenora stopped the car, got out, opened the gate, and then got back in the driver’s car. “The sign to the cemetery is gone,” she said.
There were a dozen headstones in a cleared area within the fence. A meadowlark perched on an angel on a headstone warbled a brief high pitched melodic chirp then flew off.
Once out of the car they went straight to Clarice's father's headstone. Jen placed a small bouquet of wildflowers at its base.
Clarice knelt down on the grave. “Imagine being shut inside a box for all eternity.”
Her mother knelt down behind her and wrapped her arms around her daughter and began to rock back and forth.
“I can't breathe,” Clarice said, suddenly pushing her mother's arms away and standing up.
“It's your lungs,” her mother said in alarm.
“No, it's not her lungs,” Lenora said.
# # #
A warm breeze blew in through Clarice's open bedroom window. Lenora sat across from Clarice at the card table.
“I was just a little older than you are now when I visited the Uffizi Gallery with a young Italian man named Piero,” Lenora said. “We had spent the morning with him showing me the sights in Florence. I had known him only a short time but I had fallen madly in love with him. It was of course in the gallery that I first saw this painting, La Primavera. ”
“I don't understand the painting, ” Clarice said.
“It's about earthly and divine love, and the fertility of the world,” Lenora said. “It's a depiction of spring. La Primavera means spring.”
Clarice laid her hand on the completed figure of Mercury. “He does look like Jack,” she said.
# # #
Standing in front of the mirror on her vanity dresser, Clarice wrapped the sheet around her naked body. She pulled a vine with small bright green leaves from a brown paper bag and draped it around her neck. She then pulled out three pale purple spiderworts and using pins, attached them to the folds in the sheet. She did the same with a dozen white phlox, a dozen pale pink prairie roses, some white evening primrose and placed a lily in her hair.
“La Primavera,” she said as she breathed in and out with great ease.
Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 270 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by Clarendon House Publications. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.