Peppers! – Bea Holdstock
The boy sat on the rocks facing the sea, watching as the waves tumbled and crashed against the shoreline. His bare feet dangled over the pebbles and sea glass, the fantastical glittering colors clouded as the sea washed over the bank until they were revealed again, somehow brighter than before. His wide eyes peered down over the rock on which he sat, not far above the ground but to him, it felt like a mountain. His gaze roamed the beach, delighted by the sounds the glass and rocks made as they clinked together from the gentle force of the waves. Behind him stood a small cottage with peeling green paint that ran along each railing; the years of salty wind had eroded it away, revealing the warm tones of wood that lay underneath. The house was stout and inviting, its once harsh edges now softened by the sea. A small curl of smoke lifted from the chimney, the delicate scent of baking bread mixed with the ocean air, a warm melody of sharp salt and sweet yeast. The smoke drifted along the wind, bouncing and dancing through the air to meet the boy’s eager nose. He inhaled deeply, letting the aroma swell up inside him until he tore his attention away from the beauty of the beach and leapt to his feet, bare soles meeting the cold damp of the rock. He made his way gracelessly through the tide pools, jumping and skipping clumsily to avoid sinking his foot into an urchin-filled cavern. When he reached the grass he began to run, the last warmth of summer shining down on his back. He could smell the crisp of fall in the air as the blades of grass tickled his ankles, the warm dirt sinking slightly with his weight. Reaching the gate already flung open from his exit earlier that morning, he crossed the garden that seemed to stretch infinitely toward the house. He stepped over cabbages and carrot sprouts, beet roots and celery stalks, only once coming up short and plunging his heel into a head of lettuce. The boy knelt quickly, haphazardly trying to correct his mistake, fluffing the green stalks back to their natural state in the hopes his grandmother wouldn’t notice. The warmth of the house called to him, beckoning him away from his blunder; the leaves remained wilted and bruised, falling flat when the boy’s supporting fingers slipped away.
He took the steps two at a time, his little legs barely extending far enough to reach the next wide board. He stumbled only once, gripping the railing for support. Brushing off the small flakes of paint that had stuck to the sweat of his hand, he leaped over the threshold, running square into his grandmother, spade in hand ready to tend to her most prized possession. Her dress was long and floral, barely brushing her ankles where her gardening boots started; they were too big for her feet, large and clunky as clown’s shoes. Her graying hair was piled wildly on the top of her head, pinned in place by a pencil to create the perfect nest for a roosting sparrow. She stumbled backward with a slight sound of surprise. When she had regained her balance, she surveyed the boy, looking from his ruffled hair down to the wet mud that caked his feet. She frowned slightly, lifting the boy by his arms and sitting him on a stool where she handed him a towel. She then turned and made her way out the door with a huff, tottering down the steps like a doll without joints in her legs.
The boy watched from the window as his grandmother approached the edge of the garden, his elbows resting on the sill. The smell of bread was stronger in the house, and the boy inhaled deeply, relishing the memory of how the first bite of fresh bread melted on his tongue. His grandmother was stooped near the carrots, inspecting each perfect stalk. Her vegetables were never overripe and her fruits were always bursting with the sweetness of summer. She surveyed each one with care every afternoon, inspecting any disturbances she may find, each leaf handled with the care of a nurturing mother. The boy’s eyes grew hazy with sleep from the warmth of the house. His lids began to droop and his elbows slid slowly on the windowsill, his cheek now resting flat against his folded arms.
The boy thought lazily of the garden with its herbs and peppers and lettuce and strawberries, the promise of an afternoon dream inching closer to reality. He jolted upright, his little hands gripping the edge of the window sill, his knuckles slowly turning white from the pressure. His eyes grew wide with terror as he remembered: the lettuce. He rushed to the door and stood in its frame, unsure of what to do. His grandmother was hunched over a patch of soil, inspecting each plant as usual. She turned her head toward the boy standing in the doorway, her hand supporting the crumpled leaf that he had stepped on not twenty minutes ago. Her wrinkles seemed to deepen as she looked at him, her hair growing whiter despite the now fading light. The boy looked desperately past her toward the sea, where he knew the moon would rise soon. His grandmother returned to her inspection and the boy backed slowly into the house and sat on the floor near the oven, letting the smell of rising bread fill his brain, forcing out every other thought.
The boy stayed by the oven that held a loaf of bread that would never burn. His grandmother stayed outside far longer than she normally did, but the boy was too afraid to peer out the window. Finally, he grew so hungry that his stomach ached with emptiness, grumbling in complaint. He stood tentatively on the porch and watched his grandmother huddled over the lettuces, muttering and mumbling words he couldn’t quite hear. He watched as she began to dig a sort of trench around his ruined lettuce, muttering all the while. He watched as she reached into her pocket and sprinkled some sort of dust onto the soil. He watched as she knelt, her floral dress fluttering in the evening breeze, and took someone’s hand. He watched as the girl’s head emerged from the dirt, the wilted sprout falling gently from her hair to the ground. He watched as the girl stood, her satin dress sparkling like a pearl. Where dirt should have caked her face her skin shone, scrubbed clean by some unseen sponge. He watched as they both turned to him, their eyes sad as his grandmother beckoned him closer. When he reached them, the girl took his hand in hers and squeezed it gently.
“I really thought you would be the one I kept,” His grandmother cupped his cheek, but her sad eyes showed no sign of tears. She led the girl into the house and the boy stood alone as he heard the oven door open and the soft crunch of a knife cutting into fresh bread. He knew that soon the girl would feel the first bite of bread melting on her tongue, that she would sit on the rocks by the ocean, watching the pebbles as they shifted gently in the tide. She would soon be maneuvering through the garden like so many children before her, taking extra care not to step on the lettuce.
The boy turned to the rocks and began racing toward the beach, his feet dragging behind him. He ran as if in stuck in tar, sinking slowly into the soil until he was waist deep. He could see the ocean, the waves crashing softly against the seaglass. He struggled against the earth, pushing it away from him as it gripped him tighter until he was plunged into the damp dirt, the sliver of light above him closing into dark.