by Allison Whitehead
Where I come from, we call daffodils buttercups and buttercups daffodils. It just makes more sense: what they call daffodils are buttery-yellow-cup-shaped flowers, like a trophy atop a thick green stalk. Of course they’re buttercups. When I got the call that Mrs. Eldridge had drowned herself in our swimming hole, my first thought was of her ridiculing my botany degree by insisting that daffodils are buttercups. Narcissus — that’s their scientific name — after the man who, like so many cream-colored flowers lining the edge of the creek, spent his life bent over his own reflection in the water.
“Ain’t that like men?” Mrs. Eldridge said of my story.
I came home for the funeral, not because of a personal relationship with the deceased, but because Mama sounded so defeated on the phone. “I was crocheting a pillow for her, because she gave me that nice quilt last year,” she told me. Her voice warbled, and as she paused to collect herself, I heard the cracking of tea pouring over ice; it was a familiar sound. “And the policeman said just as I was doing that she was in the yard walking to the creek.” She caught a sob in her throat. I heard the hiss of sugar packets emptying. “I just keep thinking, if I’d looked out the window, if it hadn’t been so dark, I could have stopped her. I could have shown her the pillow.”
The irony was too awful to ignore, so I went South. The homecoming felt different this time. Since my move North, the drive back to Tennessee had become symbolic of a spiritual journey to me. As I turned my back on the suburbs, I felt myself – the marketing analyst, the woman with the overflowing flower boxes, the one with the accent – tugged by two knotted tangles of roots. By the time I crossed the Mason-Dixon line, I was my different self, my childhood self, the girl who romped barefoot through the creek. My accent dropped with the latitude, so that by the time I stopped for gas in Charlottesville, the clerk didn’t even ask where I was from. In Boston I got asked at least once a day.
This time, the drive felt different. No roots resisted in Boston; I didn’t even water my plants before hopping in my car. All I could think about was narcissus, about the bowing buttercups who hadn’t looked away from their own reflections as Mrs. Eldridge walked into the swimming hole to die.
As kids we’d called the creek Root Beer River. It ran brown, like root beer, but it was no river. We traced it upriver farther than the abandoned house full of vultures, farther than the rusted-out car parked in the middle of the woods, all the way to the graveyard at the back of old Mr. Dickson’s property. There, my sister told a story about a woman in white who haunted our woods. So we returned home. Walking barefoot over round stones, ankle-deep in cold water, we went downriver until we reached the overpass, where our creek joined a wider river that would, in turn, join the Harpeth River.
Once, after I read Huckleberry Finn, we made a raft out of cardboard wrapping paper tubes and duct tape, and we floated it downstream with a deck full of plastic dolls. The cardboard warped with the water and slowly sank, scattering crawdads as its belly dragged against the rocky creek button. My sister and I splashed into the water to rescue the dolls.
The swimming hole was a section at the edge of the creek at the edge of our property, ten feet deep and twenty feet long, murky and dark blue. Mama didn’t let us go there alone until I was thirteen. While other kids spent their summers at the community pool, we would put on our bathing suits and walk down to the creek. Mama sat in a folding plastic chair, put on sunglasses, and read cheap romance novels while my sister and I played mermaid, always circling because the minute we stopped, little silver minnows nibbled our bare toes. Before coyotes ate the dog, he’d come with us too, and he would swim in circles around us, his mouth wide open to lap water as he went, before clambering back onto the muddy bank and defizantly shaking water over Mama and her book.
When we were teenagers, I would tag along with my sister’s friends and we’d all go to the swimming hole to drink. The water shone oily-black at night, looked like an unending, unfathomable abyss. My vision hazy with alcohol, I stood on the bank crushing narcissus flowers under my feet and stared down into inconceivable abyss. No reflection greeted me. It was like I didn’t even exist. Maybe it was just the drink, but I imagined I looked into the Underworld. I wonder if that’s how Mrs. Eldridge saw it, too.
She caught us that night. My sister was lip-locked with some boy from her Chemistry class, and I couldn’t stand the sight, so I sank into the water and swam across to the opposite bank, onto Mrs. Eldridge’s property. I army-crawled up the muddy bank and rested my chin in my hands to look into her village of Mayapples (podophyllum): leafy green trees, eight inches tall, with wide green palms interlocking to form an unbroken carpet of green. From above, they looked like a mosaic of green pinwheels, crowded together. From this angle, I could see under them, into the dark, cool forest floor beneath them. They hedged another world, a fairy world. As a child, I gazed at Mrs. Eldridge’s Mayapples for hours on end, watching the population of ants, beetles, and high-stepping granddaddy longlegs creep under the shade of the Mayapple forest. That night I wanted to see the glowing fairies of my imagination burst into light, to weave their houses out of Mayapple leaves, to sip sweet nectar from honeysuckle, to harvest the bulging green fruit beneath with delicate hands. Suddenly I started to cry.
My sister heard me and shouted up at me to come back. Light beamed at me suddenly, and Mrs. Eldridge stood over me in a white nightgown that I could see through. “Sweet Jesus,” she said, as I’d frightened her. “Are you drunk, little miss?”
My sister cursed and called for her friends to scatter. She called my name, but under Mrs. Eldridge’s old gaze I lay paralyzed, my elbows in mud, looking at the giant in the Mayapple forest.
Mama said the Mayapple bank was too steep for Mrs. Eldridge to descend, which is why she’d crossed the creek onto our property. I thought it was funny, in a terrible way, that her forest of podophyllum had been her hedge against death. It was only through the crowd of vain buttercups that she reached the water.
After the funeral, and after Mama showed me the pillow she’d been making Mrs. Eldridge, Mama settled down to take a nap like she always did after church. I went outside and crossed the yard to the woods. Darting gray squirrels rained acorns down at me, and I imagined they were celebrating my homecoming, like spectators throwing confetti before a parade. But I knew better. Mrs. Eldridge called the squirrels little demons, and on hot summer nights, she would sit on her porch with a jug of sweet tea and a shotgun, picking off any bushy tail she saw. One night I was out catching lightning bugs in my hands when a shot rang out and blew through our mailbox. From across the creek I heard her holler “Sorry.” After that Mama didn’t let us outside when Mrs. Eldridge was in a squirrel-hunting mood.
Root Beer River bubbled and laughed quietly over the brown and yellow rocks littering its bottom. It kissed my questioning fingertips in an icy-cold greeting. As I knelt by the bank, I saw orange-and-black crawdads skittering backwards through the creek, flicking their tails to race, vanishing into their underwater caves. Where I come from we know how to catch them: that is, we know to pinch our thumb and pointer finger on its sides just behind its big claws, so it can’t pinch you. Not that it hurts. I’ve been pinched by enough crawdads to know it feels like nothing but a little squeeze.
Why was I here? I thought of the meetings I was missing, of the money I’d spent to get here, to attend the funeral of a woman I barely knew. Though she’d lived across the creek from us my entire life, I could count on one hand the number of conversations I had with her. After I moved North, Mama started playing cribbage with her. “She’s so lonely in that old house, you know,” she’d told me. I thought Mama was lonely, too. But it was true. At church I heard that when she received her terminal diagnosis, Mrs. Eldridge had no one to call with the news. She had to drive herself home from the hospital, and later that night she walked by herself to the swimming hole. Maybe it was the aloneness that haunted me so much. Maybe it was the creek, the thought of this laughing water closing around her lips.
I traced her path. The afternoon, made up of the droning song of summer bugs and the heady scent of blooming honeysuckle, welcomed me in a warm embrace. June bugs worshipped so loudly in the muggy nights that when I moved North I couldn’t sleep without a noisemaker. Humidity gathered at the nape of my neck and dripped down my back, a warm finger tracing my spine. The death of strangers affects us differently. I was six years old when I caught Mama weeping in front of the TV, watching a news story about a little girl killed in a horrible accident two hundred miles North. I felt like that now, like I was watching something terrible in total helplessness, only able to wonder if such things could happen to me.
I reached the swimming hole, the place of death. Creamy, cupped flowers bowed their heads at their own reflection in the still water. Mimicking them, I folded my legs and sat on the bank, bowed my head to listen to the hymn of the june bugs.
A few months after I moved to Boston, when I came home to visit Mama, I joined their cribbage game to see why Mama bothered putting up with this old lady. Mrs. Eldridge’s mouth barely closed from the moment she came through the door to the moment she left the porch. Mama, an excellent host, smiled, poured tea, and listened to her stories about nothing. She spoke in a drawl as soft as flower petals, as old as the unmarked graves in the woods. She talked about squirrels, quilts, church. Genteelly, she never mentioned catching me drunk. I had never seen a woman so grateful for a game of cribbage, but then, loneliness like that was rare. Even that day she’d looked sick. I noticed it when she derided the obnoxiousness of Northerners and looked at me pointedly. Her eyes had been a glassy yellow, like a film of cobwebs had descended over her, as it descended now over her house. She had one foot in the water even then.
Dusk settled over the swimming hole while I sat in reverence. The june bugs droned louder, a constant, steady note filling my ears like soft static. Lightning bugs woke, flashing pinpricks dotting the trees. One landed on my upturned palm and crawled across my skin inquisitively, its back glowing and fading with a rhythm all its own. My mind fixed upon that bulb of light even as it spread its wings and zipped across the creek to the Mayapple kingdom. The woodsy smell — wet earth, leaves, cool water — filled me up and satisfied me. Here my journey ended. Here my roots untangled and dove in finger-like strands deep into the earth below me, weaving around the bulbs of daffodils, nourished by Root Beer River. Lightning bugs landed on me freely. The june bugs incorporated my name in their song of the night, their I am, I am, I am.
I thought of Mrs. Eldridge, sitting in the doctor’s office with her cheap purse clutched in her lap, listening as she heard the end of her life read to her from colorless charts and silent machines. I thought of her calmly driving home, making her dinner, quilting until the sun set. As if haunted, but not afraid, I stood and followed her path, peeling off my shoes to wade into the water.
Cold hugged my waist. The swimming hole was not as deep and black as I remembered. My reflection looked at me like an old friend, surrounded by a halo of white stars millions of years away. Water trailed under my palms. Honeysuckle dangled in a pale green web hanging over the bank, and I plucked a white, swan-like bloom. Lonicera, the plant was called. Where I come from we know how to drink honeysuckle. Gently I plucked the white string from its center, saw a perfect drop form in the moonlight, and put it to my tongue. Shy sweetness coated my throat. I tossed the rest of the bloom away, watching its pale underbelly turn up to the rising moon as it floated, motionless, in the swimming hole.
Mrs. Eldridge was a tea-drinking, church-going, squirrel-shooting, cribbage-playing, quilt-making lady. I drove to Tennessee because of it — because I couldn’t understand why she had waded into the creek that night. Mama thought it was loneliness, but as I felt minnows kissing my calves, I knew she was wrong. Mrs. Eldridge could not stand in this summer night, could not hear the droning symphony, feel the minnows’ kisses, watch the lightning bugs play, and feel lonely. This place was a hub of life, the center of the deepest universe, the place where her roots drove underground. She must have smiled at the vain little flowers admiring their own reflections; she must have chosen this place to die because it was the place where she was never alone.
She hadn’t wanted to die in white hospitals, in a stranger’s nightgown, in silence far from the june bugs. In the laughing water she’d come home. She could have navigated the steep bank opposite the creek, I knew, but she’d chosen to walk to the buttercups. I wondered if, as she felt the caress of their petals against her ankles, she had remembered my insistence that they were daffodils. I felt sure that she had died calling them buttercups.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m all right.”
She called my name. The sweetness of honeysuckle still clinging to the back of my teeth, I thought of her asking me, “Are you drunk, little miss?” She stood among the daffodils, her white nightgown glowing in moonlight, her face an already-fading memory. She asked me if I was all right, and I saw that it was Mama.
The june bugs sang here I am, here I am, here I am. I made my way back to the shore, back to the buttercups that never raised their crowned heads.
Allison Whitehead is an undergraduate student at Mercer University. She has been published in the Dickson Post as well as the Dulcimer, Mercer University’s literary magazine, for which she is a staff member. She was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and currently resides in Macon, Georgia.