In this year of no rain, I planted pumpkin seeds along the creek like my grandmother taught me. The boys’ work in the fields brought nothing; the corn stalks were dry. I tended the hard fruit, leaving the kitchen to carry water when I should have been helping Cook. Each weekend more boarders went home as the school ran out of food. I was the only girl left in the upper grades.
Friday I slipped behind the barn on my way to the creek, passing mounds of blackberry until their hot green smell pulled me close. The berries fell into my hand, and I tasted dust before they burst warm and sweet on my tongue.
A rabbit rustled in the brambles. If I snared it, I would bring it to Cook. Usually Miss Sophrony didn’t approve of girls hunting, but maybe these days any meat was welcome.
I tucked my skirt between my legs and moved closer to the canes, reaching above my head for a fat cluster. A White man’s arm appeared above my head, red hairs on the forearm, fingers taking the berries. I stepped backwards, bumping into him before I recognized Tim with his smell of wood and sweat. He held the berries out.
“You want these?” Tim was the school’s carpenter. “Did I scare you?” He began adding more to his palm. “You haven’t come to see me for a while.”
I picked another berry and held it. When my mother died and they brought me here, I wandered, found kittens living in Tim’s shop. I picked up curls of oak and touched the boards he planed. But he had started watching me too closely and the air between us changed. When he asked me to go home to Kentucky with him, I stopped visiting.
“This school’s closing,” he said.
I couldn’t talk to him easily, even after those hours of listening to his stories while he worked the drawknife.
“I’m going home,” he said.
I stood waiting for my voice to come, for the blackberries to tell me what to say. My mother told me to marry a Cherokee boy outside our clan. She married a Kiowa, and he was gone before she died.
“Come away from this sorry place.” Tim’s arm moved toward the clutch of cabins up the hill.
“Why’d you leave if it was so good?” I asked. He always said Kentucky was a too-small farm, his mother and a married brother.
His laugh stopped short, and there was only the hum of insects. “So I could meet you.”
I remembered picking blackberries with my mother on a rolling slope on my grandma’s allotment, all of us laughing, our fingers stained purple. Some of the berries fell and were food for the mice. The land was sold; no one knew where my father was.
“Who will you visit when I’m gone?” he asked. I looked at him sideways. He held out a palm full of berries, but I shook my head.
He let them fall and wiped his hands on his thighs.
“Come see me,” he said and waited till I looked at him. In his blue eyes and the flat plane of his forehead, I understood what he was offering. We stood for a long moment until a kite whistled overhead, and then he started up the path.