Note: I wrestled with this one, following as best I could Prompt 4 (a character defined by action).

Late Late Afternoon

The child leaned against the doorway between the kitchen and the parlor, while her aunt hovered over the counter, holding potatoes up to the sun. One by one she nestled them in the green and white speckled colander, the thick tin smothering the plunk of the tubers as they crowded against one another.

Down we go, the aunt said. She held out her hand.

The child gripped the kitchen doorframe and asked To the ground? With them?

The aunt dropped her hand. The potatoes need washing. So do you.

The child dug her heels into the floor.

Get a move on, said the aunt. She licked her finger, ran it across a potato, held it up to a beam of light. See? You wouldn’t want to eat that, now would you?

The child bit her lip and twirled a lock of hair around her finger.

The aunt handed her a potato the size of a turkey egg. This one looks lonely. It’ll be your job to wash it.

The child held the potato close to her chest but not too close. She took a step or two, then stopped.

Time, said the aunt, is wasting. My sister’s child, she thought. Shit damn hell damn. Lord give me strength.

With a sudden burst of determination, the child followed her aunt down to the water. Wait, she said as they passed the ice house and the swing and the water came into view. The aunt picked up her pace, stopped at the water’s edge.

The water slapped the dock, the rowboat groaned. The late afternoon sun beat down on them, as if to say This is my body, for you.

The aunt bowed her head, waded in up to her knees, submerged the colander and shook it under the rough surface. Watching from shore, the child held up the potato.

Please wash it said the aunt.

The child threw the potato in the water.

That’s your dinner said the aunt, lifting the colander out of the lake. Water streamed from the holes like tears from a thousand eyes. She walked back up the hill, stopped, turned around. Go on, now.

No swimming alone, said the child. That’s the rules.

The rule, said the aunt. Fair enough. She sat down on a boulder.

The child started up the hill and the aunt shook her finger. The girl fell to the ground, braising her cheek. Later she would say the soft moss felt like her mother’s smooth shoulder, that the sweetgrass tickled like her father’s beard. That the scent – she did not know that word then–lifted her like a prayer.

She stood up and walked to the water. Slipping out of her best sundress, she dipped a toe in the water. She looked back at her aunt, whose eyes were lifted to the sky, where an osprey soared cloud to cloud.

The aunt did not cry.

Hunger belted the child’s gut. She waded into the water, squatted like a duck, closed her eyes, felt the rocks and light fronds of seaweed dancing on the current. A voice reached her from far away. My girl, my big brave girl.

She opened her eyes and spotted the potato, her potato, her dinner. She grabbed it, fell, and went in face first. When she came up, her aunt stood on the shore.

My girl, she said, shaking the colander. In here. Let’s go feed ourselves, shall we?

The child plopped the potato in the colander. I’m brave, she said as she ran back to the water.

That you are, said the aunt. Shit damn hell damn. Lord give me strength.

6 Comments

  1. Sarah Freligh

    Oh, the conflict in this one, Catherine, and all of it spinning out from a potato! It’s clear from the get, from those great telling actions that their relationship is fraught, that this is out of necessity and duty–the anger’s tight-lidded rage, the child’s truculence do such a good job at illustrating this. In fact, try the story without that slide into the aunt’s thoughts, where third objective slides into limited omniscience. I’m betting you won’t miss a beat.

    My one suggestion is to get them down to the water more quickly. Once you’ve established who they are, set them in motion — and that sure as hell does!

  2. MaxieJane Frazier

    Catherine, I’m afraid I might rub up opposite of what Sarah said in that I love being witness to the aunt’s internal frustration and the child’s internal shift. Omniscience seems the only way to do this, and I feel like the best kind of voyeur bearing witness to what patience looks like from both sides. Maybe if we had another glimpse or two inside the child to balance with the aunt’s interiority? Just a small thought. I love that the aunt compares something she’s about to wash and cook to a child– You wouldn’t want to eat that, now would you?–and does that mean the child herself should want to be eaten?

  3. Mikki Aronoff

    Oh, no, now I’m caught between Freligh and Frazier! I shouldn’t have read what they said. 🙂 All I can say is that I was there with the aunt and the child all along, swept away into the story, and I kept saying to myself, “That’s how you do it! Pay attention!”…So many things to love. The hardship of getting potatoes washed, the hardship of training a child. The aunt needing to figure out how to reach this young girl, the colander crying for her. The child’s reaction to the aunt’s lesson (one of many), the finger dirty from swiping against an unwashed potato. I could go on and on. A powerful ending….Only suggestion from me is to maybe think of a title that references potatoes?

  4. Chelsea Stickle

    This whole paragraph: “The girl fell to the ground, braising her cheek. Later she would say the soft moss felt like her mother’s smooth shoulder, that the sweetgrass tickled like her father’s beard. That the scent – she did not know that word then–lifted her like a prayer.” I love the specter of the girl’s mother. How she haunts the girl and her aunt.

  5. Kathryn Kulpa

    I also love the moment Chelsea pointed out, with the memory of the parents. This is a ghost story, albeit one that’s gentle and melancholy rather than scary. That scene with the mother’s voice saying “My girl, my big brave girl” echoed unknowingly by the aunt’s “My girl.” So much loss and longing embodied in these small actions! I like the way the parents’ death (perhaps by drowning?) is never stated, only implied, and how the girl holds onto the remembered rule about not swimming alone until she makes the choice to let go.

    I think this works well with the distant, objective narrative voice that only occasionally swoops closer to the child’s POV. I don’t think we need the one excursion into the aunt’s inner thoughts (“My sister’s child…”); her spoken words and her action convey everything we need to know.

  6. Catherine Parnell

    Thank you, everyone, for your wise and helpful feedback. This is a brand new, very rough draft of a story that circles around two people dealing with the absence created by death. The death of the child’s parents (“To the ground” With them?”) is never directly addressed. As you all pointed out, the POV needs to rise above both characters. Again, many thanks. Your feedback is empowering, as was this workshop!

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