A Little Poisoned, by KJ Hannah Greenberg

Jennifer, a tall girl child with brown pigtails and liquid eyes, all of eleven years old, did not need to know about the murder. Rather, my partner and I covered it up with the mention of an extended vacation. As expected, she responded by running room to room, in search of her stuffed rabbit; our home was much larger than had been the tiny apartment from which protective services had lifted her.

Flooding tears, Jennifer wedged herself behind our L-shaped sofa. Kathy, small feet stepping loudly on our wooden, circular staircase, came running. Although two years Jennifer’s senior, she was still round of face and straight of body. She wore girls’ clothes, whereas Jennifer had already graduated to the junior miss department.

Meanwhile, Sandy slipped out the front door with sleeping bags, a few rifles, and crates of chow. We had occasionally visited our cabin while fostering our girls.

“Jen, Jen, don’t cry. We’ll make a party. Mr. Bunny has a birthday this weekend. Did you forget?”

“No.”

“We can invite the girls in your class and the girls in mine. We’ll have cake and candles, eat ice cream and play silly games. Sa-am, can we have a party?”

Instead of answering, I retreated to the kitchen. The two were to eat healthy. Our social worker made sure we fed them brown rice, chard soup, and tofu burgers. Without asking so much as a please or a where-by-you, that professional regularly walked into our kitchen and opened our cabinets, fridge, and freezer. Unscheduled visits also found her banging our bathroom medicine closet and the clothes cupboard in the girls’ room.

“Can we invite the twins?”

“Michelle and Mary?”

“Yup.”

“Sure. I think Judy and Rose also like ice cream and sprinkles. Let’s invite them, too.”

“Will they make fun of Mr. Bunny?”

“No.”

“Okay.”

“Take my hand. There are spiders back there.”

“Who’ll clean up?”

“We’ll ask Sam and Sandy.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Years ago, I had relied on wilding for rent money. Boutique restaurants loved the dandelion greens and sprigs of chickweed I offered. I loved sourcing income from the weeds growing in our city’ cracked sidewalk and vacant lots. I supplemented that money with the profit I made at green markets, where I sold extracts derived from my urban harvests. I transformed green lovelies into poultices and salves. Weekend athletes paid a lot for my offerings.

I didn’t meet Sandy, a carpenter, until I was in my late forties. By then, I had become the eponymous “green healer” of Green Street. I wasn’t looking for a companion. A potluck at a community-based agriculture collective, situated an hour away from my highrise, had put me in the sights of that gorgeous hunk.

Sandy’s next load was our kerosene heater, some tarps, some ropes, and a well-used shovel. Sandy enjoyed camping and hunting. I used to be a vegetarian. I’m still an herbalist. Our common language was woods and fields.

Kathy was successful. She and Jennifer sat on the sofa, hunched over a lined tablet. They were making a list. I joined them a few minutes later with a small package wrapped in tissue paper.

“What’s that?”

“Gift for Mr. Bunny.”

“Do I have to open it now?”

“No.”

“There’s not going to be a party, is there?”

“I’m sorry. We have to get up to our cabin.”

Jennifer’s lip wibbled.

Kathy rallied; “Can we take Arfli?”

“Leash him.”

Mr. Bunny in tow, the girls sought our mongrel. I knew that he was fast asleep on the dirty laundry piled next to our washing machine and that the girls would not think to look for him there for long minutes.

Sandy had wanted and was able to afford a freestanding home. Sandy, too, had wanted a family. Likewise, it had been Sandy who had shot the trespasser.

A few hours earlier, at our kitchen table, Sandy had stared at the columns of a spreadsheet. There seemed to be no way to mask the discrepancies. What’s more, lately, our debt counsel had been asking difficult questions lately about Sandy’s fast food lunches and regular newspaper purchases.

Personally, I never worried over budgets. I had been self-sustaining and figured I could go back to my ways. After hooking up with Sandy, true, I worked less with green allies and worked out more. My schedule evolved such that I swam during the day, using the time that the girls were in school to complete laps. Sandy had hinted about my exposed bits’ Plutarch-like variations.

Similarly, it had fallen to me to refinance our home. There were also repairmen to reimburse and utility bills to square. Whatever Sandy was doing for that construction company was drying up. So, I took to using whichever of our bank caches was most fluid to dribble out payments. Had I not set aside a separate fund for our mortgage, we would have had trouble sooner.

After the girls fell asleep, Sandy carried them into our van and tenderly covered them with unzipped sleeping bags. We had enough cans of food and jugs of water for a while. Arfli rested in the footwell by my feet.

In the morning, Jennifer said nothing of school, resolving, instead to collect berries. Our girls knew where the best patches grew.

“Can I have that empty peanut butter jar?”

“No, it’s still dirty.”

“Kathy took my pail.”

“Tell her to give it back.”

“She’s in the woods. I’m not allowed alone.”

“Take Arfli.”

When first fostering our daughters, I’d chased them around and around our livingroom until they realized I could catch them. We’d fall down in giggles and fits and begin again and again.

Sometimes, I wondered if I had baked meatloaf instead of bean casseroles, and if I had religiously sorted the delicates from the whites, then Sandy would have shed some of her anger. My partner was the sort who took turns, at night, when the girls were sick or were otherwise needy, willingly missing sleep, only to gallop away to job sites where a knowledge of framing and drywall was needed. Other times, I thought I was at fault for having failed to be more grateful that Sandy would also make school lunches so that I could squeeze in time to tincture rose petals. I walked around resenting being stuck with laundry, dishes, and dog walking.

“He’s missing.”

“Who?”

“Arfli.” Jennifer cried for four days. Even Mr. Bunny failed to calm her. When, at last, Arfli turned up, looking dirty and smelling more like fox than skunk, she once more smiled.

Information about weapons is widely available on the web. Also, there seems to be a proliferation of armed contests held in virtual reality. Internet soldiers, worldwide, vie for imagined glory. I think our intruder was one such fighter, who held a grudge against my dear one. That fellow, I think, was determined to take his bitterness to a new level. I think, too, his death was accidental.

A few weeks into our newest campout, I traveled to the closest post office. I still had food stamps to redeem; while Child Protection counted us as a couple, Welfare did not.

At the entrance to that building, I paused. The orange braid I wore along my cheek, as well as my shirt, which billowed from even a slight wind, seemed out of place. Exhaling, I entered. The clerk pushed my stamps toward me faster than a cat cleans its private parts. Thereafter, she motioned for an assistant to mop up my puddles. I think he took a picture of me with his cell phone.

In the cabin, Jennifer and Kathy were playing freeze with Sandy. “Charades got old,” was all that my partner said.

Jennifer’s ponytail bobbed in agreement. Kathy ran to hug me, saying nothing.

“A talent show!” suggested Sandy.

“A treasure hunt!” countered Jennifer. Mr. Bunny sat sagaciously on an overturned carton and watched.

“How ‘bout a relay race?” said Kathy. She looked around the room. “Oh, not enough people, I guess. Climb on Sandy!” The girls charged.

“Pizza?” I asked.

“And hot dogs.”

“And French fires.”

“And pickles.”

“And chocolate cake.”

“None here. Just Tang and peanut butter sandwiches.” Seeing the frowns, I produced, from an inner pocket of my backpack, little hotel soaps, and shampoos, the stuff of concierge nightmares, and the byproduct of the single getaway Sandy and I had made over the years.

Jennifer cried. Kathy cried. Arfli wagged his tail and sniffed the small items in my outstretched palm.

“I want to go home.”

“We are home.”

“Nooo.”

Sandy looked from the girls to me. Ever since getting up to our cabin, she had been treating me with the same disinterest as she treated our kerosene lamps and crated food. Two days ago, it was me, not my woodsy partner, who had successfully rescued Arfli from a baby snake.

I am stupid, entirely naïve, and something of a pushover. There is no reason why Sandy, left to her own choices, will turn herself in. It would have been far better for me to have become an office worker, pole dancer, or drug pusher than to have entered into this union. It would have been far better if we had never fostered the girls or rescued Arfli.

“Take my gloves,” I offer our daughters. “Go to the nettle patch. We can make tea and tincture and, if you find enough fresh shoots, salad.”

Decades ago, I was a nanny. I grew intimate with the baby for whom I cared, moreso than did his mother. Although I never experienced engorgement, mastitis, leaks, or any of the many challenges of breastfeeding, I cried whenever that little one scraped his knee and sang whenever he used the potty correctly. The day when he entered kindergarten and I, suddenly an unneeded appendage, was fired, was a dark one.

“You hate me,” Sandy hissed.

“No. Just tired of washing up and cooking and such. Householding is drudgery, even on these green acres. Maybe carpentry’s boring, too.”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe you’ve been fired and you spent your last ‘work’ week involved in virtual wars.”

“Maybe.”

“Why’d you put rat poison in Arfli’s dish last night?”

“He’s a bother.”

“The girls and I take care of him. You never had to . . . .” I ran.

First, I saw Mr. Bunny. He reclined on a flat rock, his ears dangling over the side.

Next, I saw two pairs of feminine shoes. Sam had not packed Jennifer and Kathy’s boots.

Last, I saw the two prone figures.

I remembered the time, when I taught wilding at the extension service, that instead of a sheaf of freshly printed notes, I had pulled a stack of Jennifer’s artwork from my pack. Oddly, no one had complained. In fact, some of the older women hugged me and smiled at me as though they had found a long lost friend.

When she had courted me, Sandy had worn fine clothes. She drove a new car. She always tipped the milkman and the newspaper boy generously. I had to look away, though, when she regularly let our shopping carts roll down our grocer’s sloping parking lot into other people’s vehicles.

Kathy’s face looked worry-free. Her brows were not scrunched. Her mouth was not pursed. She clutched Jennifer’s smaller hand in her own. A few flies buzzed over their heads.

Arfli lay on his side nearby. He panted. His stomach was swollen and his eyes were glazed. I shoved Mr. Bunny off of the flat stone and brought that stone down on Arfli’s misery.

Sandy had hated hearing about the girls and me jumping in the piles of leaves, which she had carefully raked. She reddened at our stories of discovering, in a local park, mummified squirrel bodies. She abruptly left dinner whenever we talked about making hopscotch grids on the asphalt in that same play area.

I thought it had been work fatigue, which, given my spacious bosom and green witchery, I could ease away. I was a healer. I was wrong.

Sandy, I guess, could not be healed by the likes of me. Unlike our daughters, she had never been successfully fostered. She grew up in institutional halls, where, I suppose, her preciousness became increasingly corrupt. Although her woodwork knowhow was welcomed at building sites, no one thought to assess her heart.

I wouldn’t be able to get to the post office, to the small main street, to any of civilization’s representatives, since doing so would mean traveling past our cabin. Instead, I’ll go deeper into the woods. At least, that part of the forest is filled with false hellebore and larkspur. A little poison can go a long way.

***

Dr. KJ Hannah Greenberg has been playing with words for an awfully long time. Initially a rhetoric professor and a National Endowment for the Humanities scholar, she shed her academic laurels to romp around with a prickle of imaginary hedgehogs. To wit, she’s been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize in Literature, has had more than a dozen of her books published, and has served as an editor or a reviewer for several publications.

_YIF1895

KJ Hannah Greenberg

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: