Ann Landsberger – Peacocking on Barbed Wire

Climbing a barbed wire fence in your church dress is high art.  At least that’s what my Momma says as I perform my latest feat of barefoot daring.

Sometimes she whispers in my ear, reminds me that we have that in common; that we are both performers of the highest order.  I know we look like it, too, there in my Grandmother’s world.  We are rainbow girls stuck in a stormy washed out painting where everybody knows both can’t exist at once.  She’s the red and I’m the yellow, and for the life of me, I can’t understand why God ever lets the clouds crowd in front of the sun.  Doesn’t seem fair to me, to a yellow rainbow girl, but I wouldn’t dare question it out loud.  God does not make mistakes here.

My Momma smells like night flowers and vanilla in that afternoon sun and I rub my wrists against hers to steal some of her sapphire sophistication.  She laughs and rests the tip of her nose on mine and baptizes me, saving my sorry soul with sparkling aqua irises. Then her black lashes fall like a whisper and she breathes in hard before stamping my cheek with a scarlet kiss.  She kicks off her shoes as if she’s about to climb the fence, but when she grabs the top line, she shudders back, eyes frozen, mouth wide open, jerking and seizing until her tortoise shell headband flies right off.

She falls to the ground peeping at me with one eye, nose scrunched up, her aria of giggles filling the treetops, rising to the mountaintops before falling back down on me like shooting stars.  I collapse onto her belly, into her long thin arms. Shalimar rapture. She rocks me side to side, too tightly, lightly singing: I heard it in the wind last night.  It sounded like applause … Chilly now. End of summer … The moon swept down black water like an empty spotlight. She sits up and crosses herself in the name of The Father, The Son, and Joni Mitchell.  I do it, too, and she laughs deep from her heart, her watch hand over her mouth.  I crawl under and scurry up the fence-wire to the third line and take a bow to her wild unladylike applause.

Back in the kitchen, she pours us a glass of sweet tea and offers to help make the chicken for lunch.  I sit under the table and finish circling all the words I know in the Baptist bulletin and then turn them all into flowers, a garden of yellow pencil happiness filled with squiggly wiggly purple Bible worms.  Maybe my Momma forgot that nobody helps in this kitchen unless it’s to clear or wash the dishes, but I doubt it and I already know that today there will be help … good-girl, seven-millimeter-pearl-help, all southern-charming and polite and happy-faced.  Good Lord, help us all.

I can’t actually see their faces, only their feet, but I hear their hornet-stung voices swelling up in their mouths until the conversation turns from cone flowers and red onions to nothing but grunts and mumbles.  Their feet move around the table, both of them taking the long way, dancing like the animals on Wild Kingdom about to eat each other even though everybody watching pretends they won’t.  I think about making a run for the back door, but I suddenly hear the buttermilk scream my name in the hot oil and I think I ought to stick around in case my Momma messed up and put a leg in the first batch again.  One thing I know for sure – God didn’t make a mistake on a chicken’s leg, but no matter how much you want it, you have to cook the big pieces first.  That’s The Way.

More mumbling and grunting and the back door slams.  The skinny black capri pants and red toenails are gone.  The beige shoes with the pinky-side knife slits picks up the pace, placing plates and forks and butter biscuits above my head.  I just sit there under the ancient oak, sipping my tea and waiting for her to pull that leg out of the grease. It smells about done. I can see my Mama through the screen door, out there by the fence, smoke swirling around her jet black hair, and I think for a minute that she’s going to try some climbing, but she doesn’t.  She just sits down and lies back on her elbows letting the sun shine full on her dewy face.

I probably ought to go out there and tell her that peacocking on an old pasture fence is tricky business; it requires a girl to be brave and steady so she won’t cut herself, or worse, rip her good dress.  Hands positioned on the top line. Feet carefully set on the bottom. Ruffles stuffed under the elbow; stand straight up tall like a stiff red Mississippi maple.  Climbing a barbed wire fence is just like living – you can’t bend a bit or everything will go slack and the only grace that can break your fall will also cut you to the bone.  But I reckon she already knows all of that.