The Curve of the Earth
One day, they say, a man my grandfather knew— actually it was my grandfather—fired up his tractor early and chained on the twelve-by harrow and started across the black earth, in his wake a cloud of crows swooping down over the damp soil. He followed the curve of the earth, toward a distant boundary where, as his story went, maybe the lovers were below deck, he peeling her bathing suit off her brown body, exposing white skin, curly hair, and sighs, while the seacocks opened, popped inward, and the tractor disappeared from the earth’s round, sailing over the horizon, leaving only the crows, and worms exposed to beaks and cries and sun and the sadness of young people’s death, lovers with flowers in their hair and flushed cheeks, dying into each other. That was the sort of thing he said, my grandfather.
There were other things, too. It was the summer my grandmother got up on the roof and refused to come down or to speak to him until he promised to keep his rutting to himself, at least to ask first and to try thinking about her the way he first knew her, standing between the sunlight on the counter top and the glowing jars of apple sauce, peaches, and cherries. And the flurry of snow, holly trees, and red berries. Didn’t he remember her with lipstick, her chestnut hair in a knot and her lower lip undiscovered, her blue eyes unkissed, their breath like steam between words. Did he remember her blue eyes, the sunlight on her white aprons, the silver buttons specially sewed over the round of her breast?
When my grandfather disked or harrowed and I sat on the fender holding on, the sun circled around the field and finally dropped like a duck coming in to land—over near the bog with the rushes and herons and turtles and quiet newts. I shouldn’t tell you these things, he used to say, but how will you know if I don’t. You don’t want to be like me in every way.
The dust followed us across the field before the rains, making arabs of us, or indians, or pirates, unrecognizable to ourselves, sailing across vast planes, lovers caught below with flowers, and preserves and touchings of joy and sighs and bathing suits that fell off just when the tingling reached boundaries like the far end of the field, and disappeared just at the curve of the earth.
I saw things drown in the furrows of that sea. Thistles, mugwort, tar, small flowers, and surprised potato bugs, who didn’t know the ship was filling, too much in love, slipping bathing suits, candles, ice cream, the preserves on the window sill, still golden in the last of the afternoon’s sun.
My grandmother stayed on the roof for something like nine months. At least the whole summer. At least it seemed that way. Grandfather said she was giving birth to someone he didn’t know—to a woman who sang not only in church but also alone in the bathtub which she had placed outside at the edge of the garden, overlooking the field so that when he passed he would see her and remember what she could have been but never became, because of his intrusions at night when the fields sleep their damp sleep.
When the nine months had passed and the wheat rose and fell in swells, with us sailing before the wind on the red-seeded sea, my grandmother—who had not spoken since she first climbed the roof—all at once did speak to my grandfather when he had just switched off the tractor and stepped down over the hydraulics and jumped ashore.
“William?” she said. That was his name, and it was a question. He didn’t really hear her because of the seacocks and bathing suits and dust, I suppose. And she said it again: “William?” standing there in the claw-foot bathtub in the garden near the rhododendrons, naked, her hair up in a knot, and, as he still likes to tell it, with lipstick on her lips and the sun catching her chestnut hair, no longer twenty, nearer fifty, as I recall. And that was when it struck him, what a wonderful woman she was and he actually knelt before her and cried and apologized for his damn tractor and said other things about seacocks and dust and would she teach him to see her the way she had always been, and other things, a lot of it hard to understand after a world that curved into the distance all the way to the bog, with drowning flowers, thistles folded under, and the smell of tar weed and hope, and crows swooping down over the wake of his red tractor and the fresh earth. That’s all I remember really—with variations. Memories that come around like the morning sun, and set, and are never ever quite the same, except that they’re always true.