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The Grove

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The boy whips a green hickory nut across the shaded yard, and Dog—a hundred and ten pounds of furred muscle—launches after it. His little sister laughs at the rooster tail of sand thrown by the dog's hind feet. The boy shushes. The little girl claps both hands over her mouth.

The boy is thin and tall for his age, his skin smooth and sun browned. He is barefoot and shirtless in cutoff Sears Toughskins. He trots toward Dog in one rut of the long sandy driveway that runs beside the house, a cluster of tiny black gnats pursuing him. Dog drops the slobbery hickory nut at his feet.

"Good boy," he says. The little girl, like the gnats, always pursuing the boy, catches up with them and throws her arms around Dog's neck. The boy throws the nut again.

Dog patrols their nine acres of pasture, their few cattle and horses, and the old tin-roofed house set back in the hardwoods beside the big orange grove. He chases away the coyotes and stray dogs that sometimes emerge from the grove to harass the livestock. Dog killed a stray once when it tried to attack a new colt barely on its legs. The boy had buried the dog in the pasture where it had fallen with its throat torn out. Sometimes Dog disappears into the grove for a long time. The boy waits for him until he returns with sand spurs in his coat and rabbit's blood on his muzzle.

The grove hums like a single organism with the buzzing of honeybees, audible two hundred yards out from the first row of dark, squat trees. The boy marvels at the deep sound the tiny creatures create. The drone resonates inside his body like electric current. Last summer he'd panicked when a bee landed on his ear. When he swatted, the bee tangled herself in his hair and popped him in the side of the head. He ran to the house with his scalp on fire, sister on his heels.

"Bees don't want to sting," his mother said, pulling his hair away from the painful spot. "It kills them. If one lands on you, be still. Let the bee be."

The boy and his sister had laughed at the rhyme, and their mother smiled for a moment at their happiness. While he pressed a lump of wet baking soda against his head, the mother showed him the tiny stinger she held in silver tweezers. The stinger looked ragged, torn loose from the bee. He thought he saw it twitch.

It's a fine summer afternoon. His mother's words, and her smile, echo in his mind. He says the words out loud, be-bee, and snorts with pleasure at the sound. Dog returns in a spray of sand and leaves and drops the tooth-scarred hickory nut at the boy's feet.

"Bee-bee-be," sings the little girl, right behind him. "Let a bee-be."

The boy laughs in a high, musical voice at his sister, Dog's dangling sand-coated tongue, and the sweet scent of a million orange blossoms. His voice carries, echoes off the house.

Too late, he presses his lips shut.

The thump of the stepfather's feet on the floorboards inside is instantaneous. The bedroom door slams open. The boy's bowels turn to water. Before he can think to move, the stepfather is upon him, rage on his face. Dog barks.

"I'm sorry, Daddy."

"I told you not to wake me up." This close, the stepfather's breath smells burnt and sour like the cigarette butts with the cartoon camels on them he leaves floating in the toilet bowl.

"I forgot!"

"I forgot." The stepfather backhands the child, and the boy sits down hard in the sandy rut. Dog growls. "I don't want to hear 'I forgot' again."

The boy's head rings like a crystal bell and feels about to burst. He detaches from the world, an observer. He sees Dog barking but hears only the ringing in his ears. The stepfather stomps back into the house, stocking feet kicking up dust. His sister peers from behind a tree trunk with eyes like brown marbles rolling around in china saucers. The boy grabs another hickory nut out of some infantile reflex and hurls it in her direction. The hard nut glances off the top of her head. She yelps and disappears. There is no crying. Dog licks the boy's face, and he recoils in pain. The blood from his split lip is like metal and salt on his tongue.

He sucks breath in a great, intermittent spasm and lets it out as silently as he can. He rises to his feet and walks on shaky legs toward the three strands of barbed wire separating their property from the deep white sand of the farm road, and beyond that, an infinity of bees and orderly rows of citrus trees. He staggers, stops, and creeps ahead. His head feels lighter than it should, and the world spins slowly around him in a counterclockwise direction. His grandmother's high-pitched voice carries from the house.

"Hold up, let me look at you."

The boy collects himself and turns toward her. A sharp breath, and she covers the few steps between them, pulling a dishtowel from her apron. Her arms are lean and muscular and powdered with flour to the elbows.

"Beats all I ever seen." She touches a corner of the towel to her lips and daubs at the blood running down the flinching boy's chin. "Ought to be horsewhipped."

"I'm sorry, Granny."

"Not you." She tilts his head up and looks down at him through her bifocals, shaking her close-cropped gray head.

"You go on and play in the sand." She looks at him for another moment before heading to the house, murmuring to herself. The screen door slams, and the boy moves toward the grove without waiting to see who it is.

"You got something to say to me?" the stepfather says.

"I know he ain't yours, but that's not his fault. You're too rough on him."

The boy runs to the fence, ears burning, tucks his arms, drops, and rolls neatly under the bottom strand of barbed wire into the white sand of the road that borders the grove. The surface of the sand is dry and crumbly. Underneath, it's cool and damp, good for tunneling and building. He kneels in the sand and spends a few minutes building a tower with protective walls. He gathers acorn soldiers and posts them inside. When it's done, he tiptoes into the first row of orange trees. The bees don't worry him anymore, but the young green branches have long thorns and big red ants live among the fallen leaves.

The immature summer oranges are hard as baseballs, and he picks as many as he can carry, avoiding the red and black crab spiders and their fine sticky webs. He dumps all but one of the oranges in the sand a few feet from the tiny castle and launches it with all his might toward the sand tower. He misses by a dog's length, picks up another and another, and throws until his ammunition is gone and his throwing arm aches as much as his head. He has missed the castle every time.

The direct sunlight is too hot, so he ducks again under the outer branches. The shadowy space beneath the trees is like a long tunnel with branching columns stretching into infinity. He suspects the grove ends someplace, but it's so vast that he thinks the far side must be in another country.

The pickers who come in the fall speak differently. They bring wooden ladders and wear sacks on their backs they fill with fruit and empty into huge wooden crates. He likes to watch the flatbed trucks that come to pick up the full crates with long mechanical arms. Those men must be from the other side of the grove.

His head spins and his stomach lurches. He sways, groping for a branch, and catches a thorn in the palm. He winces and recoils, falls to his knees squeezing out a tiny drop of blood, and something squishes beneath him. A moldy orange with bluish fur growing on it. He vomits between his knees, once is all, spits on the ground and wipes his mouth on his bare arm. Drowsy, he considers taking a nap under the tree.

Behind him, Dog starts growling. The boy hadn't heard Dog walk up behind him because Dog is stealthy. The boy's mother says so. The grandmother calls him Egg-Sucking-Dog, and the stepfather says Dog is shifty and not to be trusted. The boy likes the way his mother's word sounds. Dog is stealthy.

"What you growling at, boy?"

Dog drops the hickory nut from his mouth and crouches low to the ground. The growl becomes a snarl. The boy scans the space under the canopy, vision still adjusting from the glare of the white sand. Color and movement catch his eye, in the decaying leaves at his feet, no more than an arm's length away. A banded snake peers up at him, no bigger around than one of his sister's jumbo pencils. The boy's mother has taught him the difference between the two kinds of banded snakes. The snake tilts its head to get a better look at him, and he nearly bolts. But he doesn't, because despite his throbbing head he remembers that's how you get bit. Dog keeps on growling but stays perfectly still.

How does it go?

Red on black, friend of Jack,
Red into black, venom lack,
Red into yellow, kill a fellow.

The boy tries hard to see a king snake, but no matter how he squints, the red and yellow bands touch. The coral snake blinks, and time stretches longer and thinner like carnival taffy. The boy freezes as his mother taught him. This is the first time he's seen a coral snake outside a library book. It could bite him now. It's beautiful, a fraction of his size and powerful enough to kill him before he could get help.

"I won't bite you," the snake says in a voice like a child's whisper. In reply, the boy sticks out his tongue. "Sssssss."

He holds his breath and his body still until the snake slithers out into the space between the first and second rows where its colors are deep and saturated with sunlight. Dog has stopped growling, and the little serpent disappears beneath the broad, green leaves of a citron melon plant. When the snake is out of sight, the boy breathes.

Dog retrieves the hickory nut and settles down just inside the cool shade of the tree to gnaw on it.

Thunder rumbles in the distance, and the boy ducks out into the road to look at the sky. The sand warms his feet, sifts between his toes. Gray clouds squat now on the horizon.

"There it is," he says automatically. He's heard grownups say it over and over at the first sign of the daily summer thunder-boomer.

He kicks the crumbling sand tower to oblivion and picks up a green orange for each hand. Taylor Road is three hundred yards away. He follows a deep rut up the road to the last tree and lies on his belly under its branches, in a place he thinks is out of sight of passing vehicles. He waits.

It's a pickup, like most traffic out here. When it's only a few yards away, he pitches the two green oranges, one after the other, toward the spinning wheels. The first one is premature. The second rolls under a rear tire and explodes in a spray of juice and pulp.

The boy smiles, but not too much because of his lip. He looks back at Dog, lying behind him. Dog seems to approve. If the driver noticed the sneak attack, he didn't care enough to stop and investigate. They never do.

The boy's head doesn't hurt any more, but he's sleepy, so he puts his head down on folded arms to rest his eyes for a minute. He hears his name called and rolls onto his back. Sand and leaves stick to his belly. His mouth is dry and sticky. Dog pants beside him and watches him sit up and stretch. A flight of startled finches burst from the tree overhead. He smells raindrops on hot asphalt, rises and walks toward the house. He hears his name again. It's his mother calling. He runs.

The kitchen smells of garbanzos and sausage. The grandmother is chopping greens on a wooden cutting board. The boy's stomach rumbles. He squeezes the hickory nut in his hand.

"Where have y'all been all day?" asks the mother, setting down the piece of mail she had been looking at. "It's almost six o'clock."

"I been in the grove with Dog."

"What about your sister?"

"I don't know."

The grandmother puts down her knife and wipes her hands on the blood-spotted towel.

"Ain't she with you?"

"No, Ma'am."

"When'd you see her last?" asked the mother.

"When Daddy—after Daddy came outside."

The boy helps his grandmother search the house while the mother goes outside to consult the stepfather, who has recently returned from a trip to the feed store. The boy spots him through a window, on his way to the barn with a fifty-pound sack of horse feed on one shoulder.

When she returns, the mother picks up the telephone and dials both neighbors. She asks the neighbors up the road if her kids had been playing there. That house is almost a mile away. She asks her uncle across Taylor Road if the little girl has been to visit. The boy hears the uncle say over the phone, "What? By herself?"

"We can't find her," the mother says, her voice shaky. "We looked everywhere around our place."

Some commotion begins. The uncle shows up with his two sons in the back of the truck. Another uncle arrives from Thonotosassa as the sky decides to empty on them. The wind kicks up, so hickory nuts are smacking against the house's tin roof. That's why people in the woods wear hats, Granddaddy used to say. They start by searching the property again, everyone calling for sister. After a while, they all meet back at the house, and the stepfather, who is the little girl's father but not the boy's, looking a little scared, organizes a wider search. He puts Dog on a leash and says he'll walk up Taylor Road. The mother will take the mare the other direction. The uncle and his boys will search their own place, including the overgrown sinkhole where kids have played since the first time one of them found a flint arrowhead down there. The boy hasn't seen so many relatives since Christmas. Should he be more worried? Lighting flashes. Thunder claps, and the mother says to herself, "Oh, Jesus."

"You go look in the grove," the mother tells the boy. "Mama, will you stay here, in case she comes home?" The grandmother nods and says she'll ring the old iron dinner bell.

Soup simmers on the stove. The boy's stomach groans. They all go their separate directions. Everyone is soaking wet. The boy considers getting a shirt from inside, but the rain is warm, and he'd only have to hang it out to dry later. He walks back to the grove, blinking away the rain, wishing Dog were with him instead of with Daddy.

The sky is so dark, and lightning flashes every couple of minutes. The thunder that follows sounds like the end of the world. He's heard stories of cattle electrocuted while eating grass with their heads stuck through a fence. The boy never touches the wire. He drops into the soggy leaves and rolls under the fence and splashes through the twin rivulets running down the farm road.

This is the first time his mother has told him to go out into the rain instead of hollering at him to have the sense to get in out of it. It's fun to be out in the weather, but then he thinks of his little sister out in it too. She must be lost. And scared. He looks under their favorite tree in the first row. Their rusty Tonka trucks are there, but no sister. He watches for snakes. It's really dark under the trees now. The rain drips under here rather than pours. He calls his sister's name as loud as he can. Grownup voices are calling all around him.

He repeats his mother's words, "oh, Jesus," but it doesn't help him feel as worried as he thinks he should be. He imagines what it would feel like if there were no more little sister, then pushes that away and tries again to feel more worried.

He exits the other side into the space between the first and second rows. He has always been forbidden to go beyond this line. The boy and his dog have ventured into the second row several times but never without the mother's stories about escaped convicts and man-eating panthers playing out in his head. Sister has never gone this far. How big must the grove must be? What if he kept going, counting the rows? He could pack some food and water. But not without Dog. Maybe tomorrow.

He steps under a second-row tree, calling his sister's name over and over. All the rows look the same. He jogs up the path between the trees, away from Taylor Road. He calls and calls but hears no answer. What if she answers, but he doesn't hear her over the storm? The wind rustling the leaves makes as much noise as the rain falling in the ankle-deep water running between the rows. He stops and listens again. Nothing. The boy crosses into the third row of trees and remembers throwing the hickory nut at his little sister. He stops at the realization that it's his fault she ran away.

The sound of the other searchers fades as the boy moves deeper into the grove. He steps over bowling ball–sized citron melons, thinking about the coral snake. Lightning reverses shadow and light under the next row of trees, dazzling him. The thunder rolls almost incessantly now, and the rain falls in sheets.

He spots movement, expecting anything, and chases after it, calling his sister's name. Another row, and another. He's counting them—fourteen, fifteen. He sees the movement again and thinks maybe his sister is teasing him. He's a faster runner than she is. So why can't he catch her? He crosses into another row of trees. Sixteen.

A branch whips him across the bridge of the nose, narrowly missing his eyes, and he bends over double until the stinging subsides. When he stands erect again, he doesn't know which way he came from. Everything looks the same in every direction, and the rain is too heavy to see where the paved road is.

Lightning flashes, illuminating a flash of red-orange, yellow, and black. The coral snake swims across the stream of rainwater from one row to the other. Barely audible over the weather, the snake says, "Go home."

The dinner bell rings from the boy's right. He takes off toward the sound, sprinting across the gaps and ducking under the trees with his arms over his face. He counts down the rows until his feet sink in the wet sand of the farm road. Sixteen rows. His bare feet are full of sand spurs, and the barbed wire scratches him on his way under the fence, but it doesn't matter because somebody found his little sister, and he has been sixteen rows deep in the grove.

At the kitchen table, the mother holds the girl in her lap, rocking her. The mother is shivering. The little girl is dry, except where she touches her drenched mother, whose clothes drip into a growing puddle on the linoleum under her chair. The boy realizes his mother is crying. He didn't notice at first because her weeping is silent, and her tears blend with the rainwater. He has seen her cry only once before, when Granddaddy died. "Raining bleedin' entrenchin' tools out there!" Granddaddy used to say in the accent he brought back from the war.

Boots on the back steps. The screen porch door screeches open and slams, followed by the flapping, jingling sound of Dog shaking himself. The stepfather strides in, his weight clinking the wedding china. The grandmother hands her daughter a blood-smeared dishtowel.

"Where was she?" the stepfather asks.

The silent mother towels the rainwater from her cheeks.

"In the back bedroom closet. Burrowed under blankets."

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