Edwina pressed the button next to the back door of the church. The harsh buzz, like metal tugged around the edge of a rusty cog, reverberated inside. After a while the thick oak door swung open and a man in a sweater and tie stood before Edwina. She guessed he was maybe sixty, maybe twenty years older than her, though she often found it hard to know the age of Americans. “The palms,” she said. “Oh good,” he said. Their words stumbled over each other. Then he said, “You’ve arrived.” He held out his hand. “Russ. I’m a lay minister.” Edwina put her hand in his and left it there while he shook it. “Edwina,” she said. Russ bent down, grunting a little, for the baskets. She knew she should get on the bus, go home, collect the stacked baskets of palm fronds looped into crosses, take them and sit outside of her train station, sell them for a nickel a piece. This would be her best sales day of the year, the crosses laid out next to her everyday products, palm frond kittens and bears. People heading in and out of the train station, guilty for not being at a church, compelled by the weigh of Jesus’s impending suffering, would purchase her crosses, handfuls of them to take home or to put in their pockets during work. “I can help,” she said. “Oh. Thank you.” He picked up three baskets overflowing with thin palms arching lazily over the sides and she picked up the other two filled with crosses made of woven fronds, the baskets light and large. They made their way through the church and Russ chatted at her and she responded as best she could in her new English. “You are a long way from home?” he asked. “No,” she said. “This is home now.” Life had prodded her northward as if she were a ball floating on the ocean’s surface, the tides and waves lapping her farther and farther out to sea. She and her husband eventually bumped against the U.S. border and then, after bobbing there for a while, walked days and nights through the desert and continued north. Later he asked, “Are you married?” “No,” she said. Her husband had died in an emergency clinic a year before, a year after their trip through the desert, his heart unable to perform its duties. “Me neither,” he said. “Or, not anymore.” They arranged the baskets of palms next to the entranceways to the sanctuary. Edwina enjoyed the rustle of leaves in the velvet-and-marble silence. “Stay for the service,” he said. Russ had hazel eyes the color of the hills around the city in late summer, when the grasses started to dry and crackle and lie down flat against the earth. “Okay,” she said. When the service ended, everyone out lining the sidewalk where the choir had walked, palms in their hands, Russ invited her to the church parlor and they ate small sugar cookies from tangles of plastic grass and drank cups of coffee. Russ introduced her to parishioners, people chatting, circled into knots. He broke apart the tight groups to say, “This is Edwina. She joined us for the first time today.” “Welcome,” the people said. Edwina nodded her head. The groups recinched when she stepped away. Once, when he brought her cream for the coffee, she touched his wrist. Twice he put his hand on the small of her back to guide her through the room. She watched children sit on the floor, tired of their pretty lace dresses and starched slacks, unweaving her crosses, stripping the fronds down into leathery ribbons. He offered her a ride home. “Thank you,” she said.
Normally she would have said no, taken the bus, but when he asked, “I’m driving home. Can I give you a ride?” an enormous exhaustion flooded her body and she could hardly stand and after she said yes she could hardly move her legs, so heavy, stone and iron.
The air in his car was chilly. “Here,” he said. “Heated seats.” They made comments about the weather. They talked about birds and described to each other the people they saw through the windows. “I’m going home to eat lunch. Would you join me?” he asked. Edwina closed her eyes into the exhaustion that had become delicious. She felt how far she had sunk into the warm, smooth seat. “Yes,” she said. They ate tuna salad with pickles on large pieces of toasted bread. He spooned the tuna salad from an opaque plastic container he retrieved from the refrigerator. “I made this yesterday,” he said. “I’m always hungry when I get home from church.” After they ate they stood next to one another at the sink, circling water over their plates, handing the dish cloth back and forth, the cups, the spoon. She ran her finger, wrapped in the soapy cloth, around the ridge in the plastic container where it snapped onto the cupped lip of the bottom section. She watched water drip off the plates, out of the dish rack, while she dried her hands. He touched her shoulder and then, when she looked up, he touched her wrist. In his hazel eyes she saw square flecks of gold. Scalloped-edged circles of deep brown ringed his pupils like a child’s drawing of the sun and a fan of deep-cut lines ran back from each of his eyes and she thought how much hard work he must have put into smiling throughout his life. They took off one another’s clothes and fell asleep together in his bed. When it was dark they woke and Edwina felt refreshed and sluggish. They caressed each other’s bodies slowly and he ran his lips over her shoulders and breasts and licked her nipples and belly and down between her legs. She put her hands on his head and rocked her hips and then pulled him up and kissed him and they made love quietly, with passion but without urgency, as if they had been sharing a bed for years. Russ invited her to stay and Edwina thought about the stack of baskets filled with palm crosses waiting by the door to her room, about the palm fronds waiting to be shaped into rabbits, boxes, puppy dogs, about her daughters who did not want come north, wanted to stay with relatives and husbands and boyfriends who lived back along the trail that had brought her to America and asked to be taken home. She said, “I will see you at the church.” When she entered her room it felt more spacious. There was more room for air. Through the week she took breaks from weaving, stood in the middle of her room and closed her eyes, stretched her fingers into the vast expanses around her. She allowed herself to feel giddy. “Russ,” she said and rolled the first letter along her tongue, against her teeth, like a purr and the last letter seeped out in a long sigh. The next Sunday she returned to his church, arrived just before the ceremony started, and took a seat in the back pew, a palm-frond frog she had made while thinking of Russ in her pocket. She stood and sat and stood and kneeled with the congregation, the rhythm of the ceremony, if not the words, familiar from childhood. She did not see him. When it came time to pray for the souls of the sick and the dead, she heard the cantor say, Russ, one sharp sound. In the parlor after the recessional, everyone smiled, for Christ had risen. Edwina found the priest. “Russ?” she asked. “You were here last week, weren’t you?” said the priest. “Yes.” “I’m sorry. Russ passed away on Monday.” “Passed away.” “Died. A stroke.” “Stroke.” “Yes. His brain.” The priest did not put his hand on her shoulder to comfort her and she was relieved she not to have to endure the weight from his body. “The funeral is tomorrow.” She did not understand most of what they said at the funeral. In the pew in front of her a teenage couple whispered through the ceremony. When the congregation processed forward to see Russ for the last time, the boy said, “I’ve never seen a body before.” “Me neither,” said the girl. Edwina wondered how they knew Russ and who could be so old and never have seen someone dead. There was a program printed on vanilla paper. On the front it said Russ’s name and To deliver their soul from death and to keep them alive in famine and I go to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. She went home and did what she had done her whole life whenever anyone died, cousins, brothers, her father, grandparents, aunts, friends, neighbors. She took everything that reminded her of Russ and burned it. When her husband had died she filled up two suit cases and a several plastic grocery bags with his clothing, the sprigs of purple flowers he gave her, dried and pressed between sheaves of tissue paper, photos, the dollar crime novels he liked to read, his pillow, and hauled them, her back aching and fingers turning plump and red where the plastic grocery bag handles wrapped around them, to a thin strip of sand next to the ocean. She dumped the remnants of her husband’s life out and turned her back to the wind, cradling matches to her belly, shoulders humped. After she sheltered the fire long enough for it to spread, after watching it curl back pages and magic delicately expanding holes into work shirts and jeans and the plastic bags, Edwina took the suitcases to the water and filled them with waves. She dug up handfuls of sand and scrubbed the insides of the cases, rinsing and scrubbing and rinsing and scrubbing until the fabric linings began to tear and her hands burned in the salt water. She propped the luggage open to the fire and lay down as close to the flames as possible. When the last embers turned gray and the wind scattered the ash out over the sand, Edwina closed up the suit cases and carried them home, their empty bodies rattling against her legs. For Russ, she sat on the floor of her small rented room and burned the palm crosses left from the week before. She lit each one over a steel cooking bowl, held it until her fingers started to singe and then touched a match to the next one. Each time she felt tears break through the soot on her face and clean a track down to the skin she reached into the bowl and dammed the tears with a smear of ash. After the last cross burned she was weary from the smoke and the sorrow. She placed the frog she had woven for him on top of the ash and then lay down, cradling the full bowl to her stomach, and cried till she slept. When Edwina woke she burned the frog. “Done,” she said. If she kept things from her husband, the cousins and brothers and all the dead, her room would be full, with no place for her to live.
* * *
She went to a bustling hospital after a few months to make sure she was pregnant. She waited in the exam room for the tired doctor, her lab coat saggy with books and pens, to come back. “You are pregnant,” the doctor said. Edwina thought about a time, before they crossed the border, when she had gone to a clinic set up in an empty school house and run by foreigners who came south to work for a few weeks at a time. Edwina was twenty and had had two children and two miscarriages. She did not want to be pregnant again, did not want another child, did not want to worry about her husband, who would love the child, bounce it on his knee and let it ride on his shoulders, but also complain about the expense and that breast feeding made her so skinny. She went to that clinic pretending to need confirmation of her pregnancy, answered questions about menstruation and peed in cups. The young doctor, in a t-shirt and jeans, smiled so happily, “Congratulations,” she said in faltering Spanish, “You are pregnant.” She continued to smile, full of joy and Edwina tried to stop but broke down crying. The doctor looked confused and slightly panicked. Edwina wondered if that were the first time the doctor had ever told anyone they were pregnant. Edwina tried to explain that she didn’t want it. Wasn’t there something they could do? Something safe? “No, no,” the foreigner said. Here in this bright American hospital the tired doctor with the slumped shoulders said, “You are thirty-nine with a history of miscarriages. Do you want to keep the baby?” “Yes,” said Edwina. She rubbed her belly and thought, “My little frog.”
* * *
Until the end of the pregnancy Edwina still climbed up a palm tree once a week at 3 AM to harvest fronds. She had started weaving palms just after they settled in the city, when she and her husband spent each day looking for work. Once she helped a woman up the hall weave Palm Sunday crosses for two cents a cross. That night she took some of the fronds home and taught herself how to work them into boxes and then little tables and stick figure humans and then bears and doll houses and tulips. She set up a blanket outside the nearest train station and sold her figurines for as much as she could get. She took requests from the police and made their wives and husbands and children delicate models and no one said anything about a vendor license. In heavy winds she had to pick up the corners of the blanket, all the figures clattering together, to keep her work from blowing away. Sometimes a man selling CDs laid a blanket next to hers, sometimes a woman who sold wool hats. With other odd jobs here and there she got by, enough to rent her room and to eat. When she climbed she hugged her body to the lower leaves, dry and sloughing off, and cut tufts of the limber green fronds that grew above. Generally she went up the low, squat palms with long combs of branches, the ones that dotted wealthier neighborhoods. She carried her palms home and kept them in buckets of water along one wall of her room. Throughout the week she selected fronds, testing their thickness and elasticity, and wove the figures in her imagination. After he was born, she and Walter lived together in the room she rented. In the evenings she sang and wove palm fronds while he played on the floor with scraps of the leaves. During the day he stayed with a neighbor or came with her while she sold the figures. He had hazel eyes and she called him Frog. He started to talk and they played a game where he asked her to make things, “Mama, can you make a dog?” “Mama, can you make a truck?” “Mama, can you make a dragon?” “Mama, can you make a triceratops?” and then Edwina spent some time thinking about how to bend and tie the fronds and, eventually presented him with a dog, a dragon, a bulldozer, a dinosaur. Frog played with the figures, staging battles and building empires, until they became frayed and started to crack in on themselves and he returned to his mother to ask, again, “Mama, can you…” He went to Even Start and Head Start and Kindergarten. She took English classes. She thought of going back south but then thought about his citizenship and education. A woman who wore jewelry made of large stones and who owned a boutique started selling Edwina’s figures. The sign next to them said they were made of organic fibers and every time someone purchased a tulip or a picture frame, Edwina made ten times as much as she did when she sold from the blanket. She though of moving them into their own apartment. Sometimes Edwina woke the Frog in the early morning to come and watch her cut palm branches. It was his favorite thing she could give him. He watched, always in silence, while she attached a rope to one ankle, passed it around the side of the tree opposite her body, and tied it to her other ankle. He watched her use the rope to brace herself as she accordioned her way up the smooth trunk, arms clinging, knees bending and stretching out again and again. He ran to catch the strips of palm she cut down and giggled when she said hello from the high branches. One night just before second grade started he begged her to let him climb a tree. “Just a little way,” she said. Edwina tied the rope to his ankles and was surprised how quickly he inchwormed up the tree. In only a few seconds he started to move away from where her arms could reach, and she said, “Come on down my little Frog.” When he whined, she said, “Now,” and he went limp and let her slide him down the tree. She helped him untie the rope from one skinny ankle. “Take off the other one, Son,” she said and turned to collect the palms. After she had them piled on the ground she would tie them together with the rope. He screamed for just a second as he fell. At the sound she knew he had not listened to her and had scurried up the tree once again. When she got to him there was no blood. His fractured scull and his arm and leg bones, twisted into dizzy shapes, had not sliced through him, as if his thin, soft, child skin had been far stronger, more resilient, than the fragile bones it encased. The end of the rope she had tied to him still bound his ankle and the other side remained palsied in the rings of the knot he had retied too loosely. His eyes looked up at her, dull green. For days she worked to weave a figure of her son out of fronds. When she finished it was the size of a boy, perfect with each finger and toe. Frog, she called it and it hardly weighed anything. Edwina laid it in her bed each night, slept next to it until early one morning, after it had dried pale and brittle, she rolled against the boy, crushed it and woke to the fronds slicing into her arms and face. The next day she took the pieces and scattered them near his school and began to weave a new boy.
KATHRYN KRUSE completed her Master of Fine Arts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she founded and currated the NeonLit reading series and ran collaborative art projects. Prior to that she lived on several continents and worked in violence intervention and public health. She now works as a freelance writer in San Francisco. Her work is published in Indiana Review, SPECS and The Manchester Review.