Barn swallows pierce the air around the porch in jagged arcs. They’re out in numbers in the twilight, feasting greedily on the flies that have bothered the girl all day. The fading sun, long and low on the horizon, covers the land in yellow and pink. It is neither too hot nor too cold in the porch’s shade, and this comforts the girl some as she rocks on the big swing.
The girl is smart enough to take advantage of this while she can. July in these parts is often too hot for her to be outside long, but the shade and the hose she rinsed the peas with earlier have cooled her down and allowed her to rest. This is the perfect hour. She could be out here forever, if only her belly didn’t hurt so bad.
She gives the porch another sandal-footed shove, sends the swing back a bit—not too much, or it might upset her belly again, which has been quiet for a couple minutes now. The movement and soft creaking of the swing reassures her. So does the aroma of autumn olives all around. So does the view—second highest in the county, according to her grandma—whole forests of maple and ash and cottonwood, tiny white farms and tinier trailers, fields painted by the fading light. Yes, she could be out here forever, if she just didn’t feel like she wanted to throw up.
Her grandma comes around the corner of the house, pulling a wooden-slatted Radio Flyer. An empty orchard basket and two full paper bags of sugar snap peas jostle in its box, the work of just over an hour in the garden. Grandma parks the wagon off the lip of the porch and grabs one of the bags. She heaves herself up the three steps and settles onto the porch swing. She drops the bag in front of her, and the girl grabs the other bag for herself. Now they’ll snap.
“Hand me that basket,” says Grandma. They’ll toss the ends into it, and later take them to the compost pile. “I’m always forgetting something.”
The girl bends over the side to grab it, and a sharp twinge in her side almost stops her. She holds her breath and grabs the basket and places it between them. It brushes against Grandma as she does.
“Shoot,” says Grandma, grabbing her arm and looking at it.
“Darn handle caught me. Must have had a splinter in it.” She looks at her arm again. “No harm done. It’s not bleeding, and that’s good enough for me. Just a poke, is all. I’m not mad.”
The girl smiles, though it’s more of a wince, and starts snapping. This is her favorite chore, her favorite part of living with her grandma, really—its repetition and efficiency, its easy satisfaction. The next best thing about living out here is how far away it is from everything—no people, no cities, no shopping malls, no hospitals for miles. Just her and Grandma, like they’re alone in the universe.
“Well,” says Grandma, looking out towards the road, “I think tomorrow you might have to wake up early and take the pellet gun out and shoot some grackles. They’ll scare off the swallows before too long if you don’t, I expect.”
Shooting things is the girl’s least favorite part of living here. Some things need done, though, and her grandma’s aim isn’t as steady as hers.
She makes the mistake of looking at Grandma now. Grandma, plump and homely and warm, is normally the picture of self-composure, but now she is just a wet mess. Liquid seeps from her arm in a thick stream, almost like blood, except with a yellowish tinge.
“I think your arm’s leaking.”
Grandma looks at it and smiles. “Oh, the scratch. It’s nothing.” She wipes it off with her bare hand and keeps snapping. She pops the top, breaks the pod in half, pops the bottom—three snaps and into the basket. “What do you say about those grackles? I know you don’t like that chore, but I’ll give you fifty cents apiece.”
The calls of the swallows and the drone of the crickets fill the gloaming. On the horizon, the barest sliver of golden sun peeks over the hills. Day is dying in the west.
A swallow flies up to the telephone wire that leads from the house and sits on it close enough so that the girl can see it in detail. Dark blue on top, tawny yellow on bottom, tail poking out behind it like a pair of scissors. It holds a horsefly in its mouth and stares at her coldly. It lifts its head and eats the fly, then flies off to hunt more.
The girl shivers and holds her belly as another twinge comes. She’s getting good at predicting them, now. This one lasts just a second longer, is just that much more painful than the last. She can handle it, though. Grandma’s always said she’s tough.
She turns to Grandma again, and again her attention goes down to her arm. The flow of water hasn’t stopped. “It’s leaking really bad. What’s going on?”
Grandma chuckles. “The basket must have nipped me a little harder than I thought.”
“But it’s not bleeding.”
“Well, it’s lymphatic fluid, honey. The doctor has me on new medicine. It makes me retain a little bit of water. Don’t you worry about it.”
As if to prove that it’s nothing to worry about, Grandma squeezes the wound a little and increases its flow. Then, grinning, she wipes all the fluid away with her t-shirt, a green freebie from a grocery store’s grand opening. The shirt soaks all the way through.
“It’ll stop eventually, honey. Don’t you worry, and I mean it.”
But now, with the porch swing swaying and her stomach heaving and her breath coming in little jags, the girl isn’t quite so sure it will stop. Grandma might go on leaking water forever, might become as parched and withered as the grass behind the barn in August. Is this what will happen to her, when she reaches Grandma’s age? Will she puddle and fill, swell and heave, get pricked and bleed with blood that is not blood, get squeezed for every drop?
“I don’t want to get old,” she says, and the side of her belly leaps with pain again. She can handle it. Yes, she’s tough.
“You’ve got a long time ’til you get there.” Grandma looks at the girl, then changes her tone. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you blanch. My land, you do look white as a sheet.”
The girl stifles a gag. There’s a throw up coming on, very soon.
Her grandma must see this, too. “Okay, honey. You drive a hard bargain. I’ll give you a dollar per grackle, tomorrow.”
The girl manages a weak smile, and Grandma smiles, too. Together they rock in the day’s dying light, and Grandma puts her arm around the girl. A little bit of the fluid gets on her, but by this point, the girl doesn’t pay attention.
“Sunsets and life can both be pretty good sometimes,” says Grandma after a few seconds, chewing on a pea.