The Snowball Bush
by Rebecca Elswick
It was still there. Proof time can forget.
When I allowed myself to think about it — and I hadn’t very often — I saw a patch of bare ground. Nothing left. Not even a root sticking up out of the mound of earth. I reasoned that after twenty years it was a casualty of the bitter winters, disease, or insects. Not so. I surveyed the house — weather beaten and careworn — it bore the years like a badge of honor. But not the snowball bush. It thrived. It stood next to the sagging back porch; a pink apron of blossoms spread across the banister, dropping a deep curtsy.
I go down on my knees and gather the fragrant blooms in my arms. Their scent intoxicates me. I lie down on my back and scoot under the blossoms until I’m hidden. I caress the clusters of tiny flowers and let the memories escape their hiding place.
The snowball bush was white back then. Lush and full, a tribute to its name — looking for all the world like dazzling white snowballs. Somehow, I always associated my daddy with the snowball bush. I guess it’s the picture I have of him holding me up to touch the blossoms. He’s smiling at me and for years I pretended to remember that day, when in truth I don’t remember him at all. All my memories I borrowed from the stories Mama and Granny told me.
I close my eyes and see Mama, her eyes as blue as tomorrow, her skin the color of fresh cream. Standing next to her, I see Granny, who like the snowball bush would sway in the strong wind but never — ever break.
I lie still and breathe in the sharp and tangy scent of my childhood. I hold it in and listen to the bees hum a lazy song. My breath bursts out in a whoosh that stirs the blossoms. If only I could mark this place in time like placing a bookmark between the pages, then I wouldn’t have to remember my stepfather. But that’s impossible. I know that now; that’s why after all these years, I’ve come back home.
I was six when Mama married Jack. He was what Granny called a mean drunk. I lived two lives back then – the one when Jack was gone and the one when he was home. He’d go off for weeks at a time, and Mama and I would roll up the rug in the front room and sing and dance to her Elvis records.
Then he’d come home.
When Jack brought groceries and presents for Mama, it meant he had found work. For a few days, or a couple of weeks if we were lucky, he went around hugging and kissing on Mama, and the light would come back on in her eyes. One time he brought me a doll. It was made of hard plastic – cold and stiff – its eyes blue and empty. I hated that doll. Its eyes closed when you laid it down, so I put it on the floor of my closet and threw an old blanket over it.
From the day Jack entered our lives, I tried to disappear. When he was home, I played beside the stove in the kitchen, the one room he avoided. This was Granny’s domain, and it was like she’d drawn an invisible line across the threshold that Jack wouldn’t cross. The house belonged to Granny, and Jack knew without her, none of us would have a roof over our heads. He was forever telling Mama he was going to this place — or that place — to get a job. He bragged about getting a big house for just us, but he always came back with his pockets empty and the smell of liquor on his breath. Granny said men like Jack couldn’t stand to be beholden to a woman. He blamed all his problems on us. That’s why Mama and Granny knew the day would come when he would let in on me.
It got worse in the spring. If we were lucky, and there wasn’t much rain, Jack stayed gone and sometimes found work. If the rains set in and he was home, sooner or later, he would throw a big drunk. The spring I turned eight, the winter had been bitterly cold and dry, so when the spring rains came, it was like the heavens opened the floodgates. That was when Granny taught me about sanctuary.
For three days and nights, we tiptoed around Jack, who hardly moved from the couch in the front room. That smell. Sweat and whiskey. Whenever I caught a whiff of it, my stomach churned and every cell in my body went on alert.
On the fourth day, he took to drinking beer right after breakfast. By dark, he switched to whiskey. Around midnight, he started in on Mama. Over and over he hollered, “It’s all your fault. You and that brat. You’re the reason I ain’t got nothing.”
When I heard the lamp crash to the floor, I knew it was time. I eased out of my hiding place, gripping the flashlight Granny had given me. When Mama screamed, “No, please,” I bolted for the door and ran right into Jack.
“Well, lookey here.” He grabbed my arm and yanked me up against him. I struggled against the stench of whiskey and the cold metal of his belt buckle that clawed at my lips. “Where you think you’re going?”
I dropped the flashlight. It rolled across the uneven floor, the light revolving in smaller and smaller circles until it disappeared under a cabinet. When the light went out, I knew my childhood was over. I tried not to cry. It just made Jack madder. But when hope disappears, there’s nothing left but tears.
“You ain’t going nowhere. You hear me!” Jack shook me until my head snapped back and I cried out.
Mama grabbed for me, her fingers brushing against my hair. She clasped her hands in front of her like she was praying. “Please, Jackie, please let her go!”
He laughed and shoved Mama away, tightening his grip on me.
Granny burst into the room. A sound like distant thunder poured out of her. “Let go of her.”
He staggered against the wall, trying to turn around, but kept a tight grip on my arm.
“Go to bed, old woman.”
He took a step toward Mama with his fist balled up, dragging me with him. She cowered on the floor. He laughed and shook me again. With his free hand he unhooked his belt and pulled it free. Mama sobbed and folded into herself — her head down on her knees.
“I’m going to give this little brat a good’un.”
He raised the belt and my eyes followed it. That’s when I saw the flash of the knife coming down between Jack’s shoulder blades.
“Sanctuary,” Granny said.
Jack fell forward and I was free. Just like Granny had taught me, I ran through the kitchen and out the back door. I didn’t slow down, and I didn’t look back. Jumping down the porch steps I landed face down in a puddle of muddy water. I scrambled up and rounded the corner of the porch where the snowball bush hunched over in the pouring rain. I dropped to my knees and lifted the sodden blossoms, their sweet perfume strong even in the downpour. Lying on my back I scooted under the blooms until I was hidden. I closed my eyes and tried to slow my breathing, terrified Jack would be able to hear me. I’m safe. Just like Granny said. This is my sanctuary.
It felt like hours passed before Granny came for me. But she did — just like she promised. The back door slammed and she called out, her voice rising above the rain, “Sarah. It’s alright. You can come out.”
She came down the steps, her flashlight bobbing across the snowball bush. I crawled out and grabbed Granny around her knees. “Oh, Granny,” I sobbed. “I was so scared.”
She lifted me to my feet, wiping the rain and tears from my face. Shining the flashlight up and down my body, she tried to examine me while I struggled to fold myself into her arms.
“Are you hurt? Sarah, did he hurt you?”
I shook my head no and wrapped my arms around her waist.
She ran her hand down my back before gently pushing me away and shining the flashlight so I could see her face. “Sarah, listen to me. Take this flashlight and go to the shed. There’s some rope hanging on a nail on the wall. Get it and my shovel.”
I ran across the yard to the garden shed. The ground was so wet great jets of water splashed straight up with each step. At the door of the shed, I looked back and saw Granny’s shadow at the woodpile. She had pulled the big brown tarp off of it and was dragging it toward the house. When I came back, she and Mama were waiting on the back porch. Mama ran down the steps and took the shovel and rope from me. The beam from my flashlight glanced off her face and I gasped. One of her eyes looked like a big blue plum and blood was crusted on her swollen bottom lip.
When she spoke, her voice sounded like she was talking with her mouth full. “Go around the house and in the front door. Stay in the front room and wait for me and Granny.”
“No! Mama, Jack’s in there.”
“Listen to me, Sarah. Jack’s gone. He’s never … ” Her voice faltered and she put her hand on the porch rail to steady herself. “He’s never going to hurt us again. Now, go in the house and don’t come out. Granny and I have something to do.”
Granny came down the steps and took my face in her hands. She wiped the rain from my eyes. “It’s alright now, Child. Go inside. Stay in the front room until I come for you.”
I ran around the house, opened the front door, and eased inside. The lamp lay broken on the floor. The only light in the room splashed across the floor from the kitchen doorway. I could hear Mama and Granny, banging around in there.
Water ran down my arms and legs, dripped off my clothes and hair, and pooled on the floor. I pulled an afghan off the back of the chair and wrapped it around me. My legs were shaking so bad I was afraid I would fall, so I curled up on the rug just inside the front door. The last thing I remember before I fell asleep was a sound like a shovel scraping on a rock.
I woke up sometime in the night — safe in my own bed — with Mama’s arms wrapped around me. The backwash of light from the hallway lay on her hands – her nails broken and caked with dirt.
When I woke again, ripples of sunlight danced across my bed. I smelled bacon frying in the kitchen and smiled. Granny had made everything alright, just like she promised.
Granny and I sat together in the kitchen, eating our breakfast, the back door propped open so the sweet smell of the snowball bush wafted into the kitchen and mingled with the smells of coffee, bacon and pancakes. “Do you want me to wake up Mama?” I asked.
“No, I reckon she needs to sleep.”
Granny didn’t stop me when I put on my rain boots and ventured outside. I stood for a moment in the backyard surveying a new world. I squinted against the brightness. Tiny droplets of water bounced around in the sun like light passing through a prism. For a while, I splashed around in the backyard before venturing around the house. I stopped at the corner of the porch where the snowball bush blazed in the sunlight. “Granny,” I shouted. “Come quick!”
Granny stepped out onto the porch like she was expecting me to call for her. Her gaze followed mine to the snowball bush, but her brow was smooth and her eyes stayed steady.
“Oh, Granny, look at the flowers!” I stared at the blossoms that yesterday had been as white as spun sugar. Overnight they changed to cotton candy pink. I cupped my hands around one of the enormous blooms. Raindrops trickled through my fingers. I raised the fragrant blossom to my face and let the rain tickle my nose. The clusters of miniature flowers were now pink with deep rose colored tips. I pulled off one of the tiny flowers and held it up. “Look, Granny. It changed colors! Why?”
“Snowball bushes come in all different colors,” Granny said. “What’s in the soil under them determines their color.”
I stared at the bush, my hands playing with the wetness. “But why did it change now?”
A smile broke across Granny’s face. “Did I ever tell you my daddy called me his ‘Why Child’?”
I shook my head.
“Well, he did, because I was always asking why. And do you know what he told me when I asked why?”
Again, I shook my head.
Granny crossed her arms over her bosom and leaned forward so she was against the porch railing, like she was going to tell me a secret.
I cocked my head to one side and leaned toward her.
“He told me that when I grew up I’d know why.”
I looked from her to the snowball bush. “Do you mean, when I grow up I’ll know why the snowball bush changed colors?”
“Yes, I believe you will.” Granny said. She walked down the porch steps and came to stand next to me. She reached out to the blossoms but stopped short of touching them. “What I mean is, when you grow-up, you’ll understand why a lot of things happened. Things you don’t understand now.”
Granny smoothed an errant curl behind my ear. “Did you know your daddy had curly hair the exact same color as yours?”
I mulled this over, then lifted my eyes to her face and said, “Why was Jack so mean to us?”
Granny took my hand and led me over to the porch steps. She sat down on the bottom step and pulled me into her lap. For a while, we watched the insects dart around the snowball bush, their movements like silent music.
Before she spoke, Granny shifted me on her lap so I could see her face. “Sarah, I don’t know why.”
“But you’re a grown-up. You’re supposed to know.”
Granny sighed and tightened her arms around me. “I just know he’s gone for good and he’s never going to hurt you or your mother again.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Do you promise?”
Granny slipped me off her lap and turned me around so I could face her. She clasped my hands in hers and looked into my eyes. “I promise,” she said. “I promise Jack will never come back, just like I promised your daddy before he died, that I would take care of you and your mama.”
I climbed out from under the snowball bush, brushed off my clothes with my hands, and walked up the steps to the back porch. It was time to say good-bye. I opened the door and stepped inside. The empty kitchen had lost the smell of home. I walked through the front room, my steps echoing on the worn wooden floors. It was in Granny’s bedroom that her presence lingered like the last note of a grand symphony. Still hanging on the wall was what I had come for – a framed Bible verse – cross-stitched by Granny many years ago.
Locking the door, I stepped out into the sunshine.
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. – 1Peter 4:8.
Rebecca Elswick is the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners. She lives in the coal fields of southwestern Virginia, where she was born. She has a M.Ed. degree from East Tennessee State University and is a former high school teacher of advanced placement English, creative writing and Appalachian literature. Elswick has published short stories and creative nonfiction in numerous journals and anthologies and has won first and third place in the 2010 Appalachian Author’s Guild Short Story Contest; first place in the 2011 Sherwood Anderson Short Story Contest; first place in nonfiction in the Golden Nib Writing Contest in 2012 and again in 2013; and first place in the 2013 Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest.
In 2011, her award winning first novel Mama’s Shoes was published, the result of winning a publishing contract from Writer’s Digest Magazine. She is currently a teacher consultant for the Appalachian Writing Project (AWP) at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.