What Morning Brings

by Rebecca Beck

Ruth usually started her mornings in the kitchen, cleaning the dirty percolator with its leftover grounds that had dried in the pot’s basket. She used her mother's antique hand mill to grind the day's fresh beans, turning its cast iron crank while taking in the sun reflecting off the crystal jar that received them. She anticipated Ben lifting his mug, taking in the waft of ancient earth and undertones of cocoa, his eyelids closing halfway in pleasure as her elixir brought him to a better place.

This morning, as Ruth glanced out the window, she was surprised to see that Ben was already in the yard, struggling to attach the mower blade to their father’s ancient tractor. Every few seconds, he'd pause, turn in a half circle to catch his breath, and then haul himself up against its weight. Even from the kitchen window, Ruth could see the veins in his forearms straining with the power of someone much younger than his seventy-three years.

After what was surely a miracle, she saw him heft the mower onto the tractor's hitch, and follow that triumph by reaching into his rear pocket for his threadbare golden bandana—the one she had recently washed and ironed for him. She felt a small dose of pride at witnessing him make good use of it. While gazing across the field to the horizon, he ran the soft cloth over his closely cropped hair and down his face. As if he had restored himself by the simple act of wiping away his sweat, with a dancer's easy motion, he stepped onto the running board, grasped the steering wheel, and swung into the high metal seat. Casting his eyes one more time around the fraying landscape of their parents' farm, he rotated the wheel a hard right and backed the rattletrap all the way to the side porch.

“Morning, Sis,” he said as he entered the kitchen, wiping his boots on the pink-besotted rug.

“Good morning, Early Bird. What emergency caused you to fire up that old death trap?”

“I'm going to mow the south field before summer hits. I want to be able to sit on the porch without mosquitoes carrying us away.”

“That rusted old blade won’t even cut one thatch of alfalfa, let alone the entire field!”

“Hell it won’t—I sharpened and oiled it last fall!”

Ruth thought quickly, and then tried another tack. “Wouldn’t it just be easier to hire the landscapers like we have in the past? They can bring their own machines. For the price of dinner and a movie, it would be done, and you could drink iced tea and watch them from the porch while they sweated out there instead of you!”

“Hiring a service has always cost more than a movie and dinner.”

Ruth didn’t want to remind him of his age, and that this was the true cause of her worry. Not only would it insult him, it was a moot point. After all, Ben was still strong. Maybe she was concerned over nothing. Getting out and mowing an entire field at his age, well, it would give him something to brag about the next time they ran into neighbors.

“Well, okay,” she said. "But will you eat some breakfast first?”

As if to answer her, Ben sank into the bentwood chair at the kitchen table, letting both his forearms rest on its edge. He traced his fingers around its curling vine pattern that Ruth had painted. Ruth figured he was picturing the work that lay ahead of him in the field.

In an attempt to make small talk, she broke the silence. “I saw Mary Ellen at the SaveMor yesterday. She’s walking around pretty well for someone our age. She asked about you.”

“She’s ten years younger than me as I recall,” said Ben.

“Yes, I guess you would remember her age. She always looked so pretty in her slim skirts and bobbed hair when she'd come around. I’m sorry things didn’t work out between the two of you. I know you were lonely after your divorce, and she was a promising new catch.”

“Are you really sorry?”

“Of course!”

“Seems to me, you did everything you could to drive her away in, when was it, eighty-six? I was already forty-two. With her, I felt maybe love hadn't abandoned me after all.”

Ruth saw how when he said this, his face sank beneath his hollowed eyes. She hadn't been prepared for the intensity, the honesty, of his response and the blame he directed at her. Yes, after all these years, she thought, and Mary Ellen still had the ability to wallop him with a single thought. Ben didn't know how lucky he was when she left. After all, it was Ruth herself who had been with him since their childhood, except when he got married and she went to nursing school, then did her tour in ’Nam. She knew him better than anyone. He must know, deep inside, how much he needed her too.

She wrung her hands and turned toward the sink so he couldn't see her face. An old sense of shame bubbled to the surface—the double bind of needing another's devotion in order to survive, competing against her deep-seated desire not to burden him or anyone else.

Turning toward him again, she asked, “You really believe that I drove her away?”

“Come on, Ruth. I couldn't leave the house after Mom died without you fretting! You always expected something terrible to happen; you'd literally crouch down at unexpected noises. It was always up to me to be here in case you had one of your spells—always, even when I wanted to be anywhere but here. Mary Ellen wanted no part of that.”

Ruth felt her stomach clench and heat rise on the surface of her skin. How could she have deluded herself? All these years, she had thought he stayed because he too, was lost. As he looked at her, his face a mix of disdain and worse, pity, she saw her fragile illusion—that they had mutually wanted to be together—collapse before her eyes.

Trying to recover her dignity by inserting some logic into their argument, she asked, “Ben, how does any of this even matter now, at this point in our lives? And now, after forty years under the same roof, you're telling me you didn't want to be here?”

Ben's chest curved over the table as he lowered his face into his hands.

"I'm sorry Ruthie. I shouldn't be saying these things to you, especially now. You needed help; I was the likely guy for the job, seeing as how my marriage had failed and I needed a stable place to live too, a place far from booze in a dry county."

"Yes," she replied, "when you showed up, you were as much a wreck as me!"

As if he didn't hear her, Ben continued, "I know Vietnam just about killed you. Nursing wounded soldiers while violence raged everywhere inflicted fresh wounds on you with each body you had to stitch together. When you came home, it killed us to see the way your eyes would dart to every corner of a room when you walked into it, always looking for danger. When we couldn't get you out of the house, even to visit Georgia and Allen, and you adored Georgia and Allen, well, you were too far gone to notice how Mom would have to leave the room just so you wouldn't see her break down. You just didn't know the impact it had on us too, Ruthie."

He doesn't know the half of it, Ruth thought. Waking in a cold sweat, images of men writhing in pain, the helplessness of it all. Dancing with sleeping pills, the grace of a chance escape from a suicide attempt, then, years where healing trickled in, so tentative, leaving a semblance of a life, narrow and utterly dependent on him.

“I don’t know what got into me just now Ruth. You bringing up Mary Ellen, well it opened up a wound that has probably been festering beneath the surface for too long. Lately I've been hounded by more stress than I can name. This farm in all its beauty has come at too high a price—the isolation, the relentless work for unpredictable outcomes; when does it end? And now, talking about Mary Ellen, I feel like a big fool for not realizing how I let my life waste away. All those years—so many of them."

Ben half-smiled, then went on, "Maybe there's still a chance for me to have a different life, maybe to rekindle Mary Ellen's interest. Maybe I'm not finished with love yet. What do you think Ruthie, are there still some years left for both of us to live normal lives? We can sell this dying stead and each of us get a place in town. I think you're strong enough for that now. We could get you a new car so you could come and go as you pleased!"

With a start, Ruth realized this was why Ben was trying to cut costs by mowing the field himself. He wanted to get the place ready to sell, and that would bring additional expenses. Before she could control her voice, it rose to the pitch she hated to hear.

"Normal? How can you say what we have isn't normal? We're keeping our parents' legacy alive—their years toiling this paltry homestead, the ways they transformed the house, the yard, the trees that now tower and form a glorious roof of green, the half acre of cinnamon ferns and daffodils beneath them. Have you lost your mind? We can't let this place become a subdivision and end up like the Avers' land. This is our land and our life!"

Ben rose abruptly and without waiting for a response, walked out the back door.

And now, while cleaning up after breakfast, trying to calm her guilt, she watched a breeze pick up the curtain in the open window, and a blast of much cooler air hit her straight on. She smelled the ozone, and could feel the storm’s approach. It would be here before they knew it.

She glanced through the window, past the barn and the knee-high field to the mountains for a dose of comfort. Despite their seasonal changes in color or degree of cloud shadow, they never failed to anchor her.

As a child, she recalled standing on the same cracked vinyl step-stool that now rested beside the sink, right before a storm, looking out the same open window to study the mountains, the very same lace curtain lifting to an unexpected gust of wind, its hem slapping her cheek, and then suddenly, a bomb-blast of thunder shaking the house.

Terrified, yet transfixed, she watched the moving clouds set the mountain range in motion. She saw the ridgeline transform into a roiling serpent. The monster began to coil, to arch its mid-section, then turn its head toward the house. An enormous bald outcrop of alabaster became its unblinking eye, and its gaze found her, zeroed in on her miniscule shape, her eyes wide as she stared back as if through the wrong end of a telescope.

And then Ben would enter the room, calling her back to herself in his calming voice, taking her six-year-old hand in his to guide her off the stool, leading her to the safety of the basement.

She saw him now, the tractor jerking into view from behind the peeling barn as it strained against the dry tufts of alfalfa. It wasn’t right for him to be mowing that field, damn it. He knew better! The way the field angled downhill, its treacherous, unexpected depressions nearly impossible to see from up on the tractor, how the land dropped all at once to the creek—it was ridiculous to think he could manage it, especially after letting it grow so high. She had to get to him, to remind him of the real danger of that ancient machine on the perils of that deadly slope.

Ruth dropped the sponge into the soapsuds, dried her hands, and rushed for the rear screen door. Moving faster than she had for a long while, she miscalculated the momentum she was building, and rushed headlong into its flimsy frame. It gave way easily and there she was, stumbling through its opening, losing her balance, banging her forehead on the iron railing as she toppled onto the concrete stoop.

Shocked at how quickly she had fallen, Ruth gave herself a moment to catch her breath and to survey the fall’s impact. She was trembling, and knew she’d have to will her limbs to stand. Grasping the railing, her face knotted, she started to pull herself onto her knees, but the railing began to waver before her eyes, and nausea hit her full force. She smelled blood before she felt it ooze down her forehead and trickle into her eyes. Well, now I’ve done it, she thought.

As if on cue, the sky opened and a torrent of rain began its rapid soaking of everything in view. Ruth’s cotton shirt clung to her frail form. She tried raising her head high enough to be able to look across the yard, to the field beyond for a glimpse of Ben, but she only heard the tractor; it sounded like it was still moving at full speed. Wouldn’t Ben have stopped his mowing as soon as the storm hit? What on earth was he thinking? Good Lord! Ruth thought. That man even needs me to tell him to come out of the rain!

The engine kept churning. It wouldn't stop.

Heart pounding, Ruth lowered a tentative foot down one slick step, then met it with her other. The interminable wail and strain of the tractor became a battlefield from her past, reminding her of other means of destruction she had witnessed, filling her with the echo of those terrors. Her breath shortened, and a sob welled up; still, she willed herself to take a second step. She had to get to Ben.

She grasped a dead branch that had been thrown against the railing by the wind, and then leaned her weight into it, testing it before taking her next step. She felt as if an eternity of effort had wedged itself between her weakness and the force of her will, yet she pushed herself forward, the grass beneath her feet now a saturated sponge.

Suddenly she saw him: his sodden body, his hair plastered on his head as if he had been caught in an unexpected rainstorm during a picnic. But his body was bent and crushed under the weight of the tractor. The machine was lying on its side, its upper rear tire moving at full speed, its lower twin grinding into the unforgiving swale.

He was gone. But she felt she should make her way back to the house, force herself to push against the plastering wall of rain, get to a phone, dial 911, dial a neighbor. She should do anything to get the tractor off of him—rush to the barn, hook the chain to the pickup, and drive down the slope to lift the tractor off his lifeless body. She desperately wanted to save him from this humiliation. But a dead weight, ancient and beyond the grasp of naming, anchored her to the spot. A deep ocean of helplessness engulfed her. She only wanted to fall to her knees beside him, take his hand, stroke his hair, and let the brutal elements have their way with her.

Rebecca Beck is a former elementary educator and literacy consultant. She has focused a major part of her life on exploring the beauty of the written word as it's rendered in fiction. Rebecca draws on inspirations around her to weave contemporary themes of alienation, loss, and justice. Rebecca is currently a marketing director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in the School Division, where she works to develop narratives for K-12 curriculum materials across multiple channels.

About What Morning Brings—A passing few words with a spry ninety-four-year-old woman, while on my daily walk up the side of one of Asheville's lush mountains, sparked my desire to write this story.