Stonecoast Review Issue 5

Shady Places

Written By: Kari Shemwell

Clara remembered one thing about 1949: Elwood Carter brought his brand-new wife to town that summer and she took to the August sun like a fish to water. That particular year the heat had become so oppressive that even the butterflies and wood bees disappeared into the grass, forced down out of flight by the weight of the air.  The birds stopped whistling and crawled away into knotholes out of grief, sometimes ten or twelve in one. Yet each afternoon Elwood Carter’s wife got stark naked in the backyard with a bottle of baby oil and a magazine sent from her sister in Nashville, and every creature in the county woke up to watch her.

Come late summer, Clara said, the whole town wished they could follow the animals into their shady places, bury themselves in the cool dirt, or crouch down inside a damp gourd, but they had to gather the courage to withstand because the kids still needed clean underwear and the sawmill had to keep splitting. But whenever Opal May Carter took her cantaloupe knockers out of the towel and stretched out in the backyard for the world to see, the birds flew back out of their hiding places and turned tricks in the sky, trilling with the quick-rhythm of a bluegrass band. By the end of the season, Clara had learned the color patterns of every type of butterfly in the western half of the state, for they all met in her neighbor’s backyard to dance the ballet over Opal May’s bare ass in the afternoons.

 

The first time it happened was a Sunday afternoon and Jim was sleeping off the discomforts of honest work on his only day off. Clara was boiling down a chicken’s bones and had the windows open because she could hardly stand to breathe with the sun and stove resembling each other so. The old share-cropper’s cabin she rented from the Carter family looked wildly disproportionate next to Elwood’s brick-lain home with an indoor washroom, ceiling fans, and a screened sunroom that kept the mosquitos out.

She had just sat down to string some beans when a herd of small butterflies and bumble bees spilled through the kitchen window. They garnished her green beans with powdery puffs of blues and blacks and dipped their hairy legs into the ceramic dish of fresh cream.

“You’ll never believe what happened today,” she told Jim when he woke for supper.

He had not witnessed the drama, naturally, because he slept like a stone on Sundays.

“Mr. Carter brought his new wife home,” Clara continued.  “She stripped right down in the backyard and laid out in the sun.”

“It’s silly to lay down in the sun,” Jim said.

Though evening had begun to fall, they both sweat into their seats. No one could expect a drop of rain this time of year and Clara had no choice but to water the ground herself to save the season’s last tomatoes.

“The bees and butterflies came out of the ground to watch and fly around her,” Clara said. “Some got away from the pack and came in through the kitchen window.  Even the grass straightened up and the dead asters in the planter by the hedges started to bloom.”

Jim chewed a bean. “She must be a looker.”

 

Opal May was as fine as any magazine centerfold when she spread out on a polka dot towel. Clara noticed that her torso had the look of two Bosc pears laid stem to stem, then dunked in hot butter. Once, when she was hanging the whites, Clara saw Opal May crushing strawberries into a bottle of shampoo, and she could nearly smell the color off Opal May’s head. She wanted to take an Indian smoke bath in the fumes. She wondered if Opal May also used strawberries to make her lips so red, or perhaps a poison berry to make them pout. Nobody in town had ever seen a thing like Opal May, and the sight started to attract as many human visitors as animals once word spread of Opal May’s strawberry-blonde pubic hair on display like the queen of Sheba every day come high noon.

Elwood Carter, stricken by his new wife, could hardly raise a bad word. He fretted over Opal May and pickled up when she traipsed around in the backyard.

One afternoon, Clara was pruning in the garden when Opal May stormed out the back door already naked and dragging her towel.  As soon as her polished toes hit the grass, the whole lawn rose to greet her with a hula wave, and the squirrels came down from the trees to cluster around her in bouncy formations.  She smarted over her shoulder, spitting tart words at her fresh husband, who had stopped at the top of the steps just outside the screen door. Clara creeped closer to listen, curious to glean a bit of the knotted words the couple stitched between them.

“I didn’t ask to be brought here,” she said. She stomped through the yard, smashing some of the butterflies beginning to rise from the dirt.

“I’ll get you any suit you want, sweetheart. I’m just trying to make it more comfortable here.”

“The girls didn’t wear one in Vieques last summer and I won’t wear one now.”

Elwood watched her lay down in the yard on her stomach and poke her round bum into the air like a baboon in heat. She filled her palm full of baby oil and began to rub it all over her rear with a sweet smile just as the electricity man from Monroe came by with his tool box.

Elwood swatted at a pair of wood bees mounting each other over his nose. “You’ve got to leave something to the imagination.”

“Oh, please. I bet he’s using his.” Opal May tilted her nose towards the electricity man standing motionless on the road with one hand resting on his paunch belly and the other shielding his eyes, which were fixed on the shady place where her cheeks and inner thighs kissed.

Elwood pounded down the steps and put his fist in the air. “Get out of here, Wally, and don’t pay her no attention. You’ve been in town three times this week and we’ve only got one line.”  Elwood looked clammy. Wally picked up his toolbox and hurried on.

Opal May had already opened her magazine and pulled down her shades. She didn’t take her eyes from the page. “Don’t worry what your mom and daddy say, Mr. Carter.”

While watching the argument, Clara shifted her weight and accidently kicked a tin bucket. It clattered against her shoe and Elwood Carter looked at her standing by the hedges across the yard. She withered, feeling humiliated for spying, but Elwood Carter looked away, back towards Opal May, as if nothing but a nameless wind stood at the bush staring. Clara wondered if she was too indistinct to even be a nuisance.

Elwood scratched his head.  A big black-and-blue swallowtail floated from the sky and landed right on Opal May’s porcelain rump.  Soon ten, then twenty more butterflies landed with it, covering her rear in a colorful, fluctuating bikini.  Elwood walked over to his wife and ran a hand through her thick hair. He kissed her on the forehead. She didn’t respond, and he returned to the house, letting the screen door slam behind him.

 

After Opal May’s arrival, Clara had to get used to the people coming by her house. The women in town hadn’t shown much interest in visiting before, but they were suddenly very concerned about Jim and Clara’s salvation.  Every woman in town stopped by carrying loaves of sweet bread.

Louise Sweeney brought a jar of Amish honey when she came, dragging two children, a boy and girl, along with her. She was dressed as if going to a statesmen’s dinner with her hair in an up-do and her makeup thick.

“You going somewhere special, Louise?” Clara scratched at her neck; she felt uncomfortable making fake friendly.

Louise looked at her cold, then smiled. “This is just how I dress sometimes.” She kept her boy close by her side. Louise put her hand over his eyes and said, “It’s indecent to look into the Carter’s yard.”

Clara was sure that Louise hadn’t stopped glancing into the yard since she came within an quarter mile of it. She had heard everything under the sun about Opal May from the women in town, who had taken to calling her Magdalene.

Louise fanned her neck. Her hairline wept sweat down her forehead, tracing muddy paths through the concealer. A pair of birds flew overhead, navigating crisp figure eights while couples of conjoined dragonflies buzzed through the hedges. Louise watched the display with her nose pinched like she smelled something rotten. They were quiet for a moment, until Louise noticed that her daughter had crossed through a break in the hedges and removed her shoes. The girl stood wiggling her toes in the curling grass. The blades wrapped around each piggy with tender kisses, and the girl laughed as the soft green slivers moved against her skin. Louise stomped around the bushes and grabbed the child by the back of her dress. She called the boy along, snatched up the shoes, and pulled the girl away, scolding her all the way down the front walk.

 

The women in town were barking mad, Clara said, when their husbands started taking their lunch breaks at home instead of carrying a pail in the mornings. The mill was on Carter property and the road to town led straight past Elwood’s front door. It was all the women could talk about at church group, what with the birds and the bees and the vulgarity of it all; it was all the men could talk about at work, what with that pretty peach hair and a pair of tits that could make you go blind in one eye. But Opal May never even glanced at the passersby or the nature parade from behind her custom turtle-shell shades.

“You’re the luckiest man alive,” Oscar Winthrop yelled from the road one late morning.

Clara poked her head out the front door to see the migrant train of workers heading home and Jim coming up the path.

“Well, save for Mr. Carter,” Marion Townsend added.

Jim looked over his shoulder and shushed the men with one finger to his lips and the other hand waving towards his boss’s home, which stood very nearby.

Clara felt heavy in the middle when Jim opened the door and entered the kitchen.  In that moment she took first note of the thick smell of fish fluids that clung to her hair and clothing from a pair of trout she had cleaned in the shed that morning.  She imagined the odor lifting away and floating out the window, causing a whole different sort of bug to pucker up than Opal May’s sweet butterflies, but then she lost confidence in the thought of her own natural scent being left behind without any excuses. The din of the lighthearted workers had faded into the distance.  Jim sat down and pulled out the wrapped cheese sandwich and cup of blackberries that Clara had packed for him.

Clara joined him at the table. “I didn’t expect you home.” Her voice was a whisper in the daytime kitchen, where conversations were rare. She pushed a glass of water towards Jim.

He took a drink, unwrapped his sandwich, and began to eat.

“You didn’t need to carry the pail along,” Clara continued.

Jim shrugged. “I didn’t plan to come home.”

“Should I expect you from now on?” She smiled.  “I can have your lunch ready.  I didn’t think you’d have the time.”

“Everyone else has found the time.”

“Why?” Clara knew why.

“They want to see Mr. Carter’s naked wife.”

“Now is the time then,” Clara said. She knew that Opal May was outside at that very moment. The grasshoppers had hummed all morning and she had begun to feel it deep behind her eyes.

Jim got up to wash his hands. From the window, she knew he could see the energy of the neighbor’s yard.

Clara busied herself with sweeping a patch of floor by the door.

“Is that why you’ve decided to come home?” she asked.

Jim waited.

“It is a sight to see,” she said.

“How so?”

Clara probed the ground with the broom’s straw. “Beauty,” she said. “You know, everything coming alive over there in this dead heat.”

Clara watched Jim’s back as he dipped a teaspoon into the clay honey bowl by the sink.  He placed the spoon on his tongue, releasing the handle and letting it stick out of his mouth like a hummingbird’s beak.  She thought back to the day they married. Jim had gone completely stiff in front of the small crowd, as if he could not conform to the weight of their gazes.  He swayed back and forth like his feet were rocking chair runners.  During the ceremony, he reached out and grasped Clara’s hands. He held them throughout the entire ordinance. For Jim, it seemed, the plywood platform on which they stood was the deck of a tossing ship.

Clara said, “I don’t mind if you want to come home.” She could see the appeal. “Mrs. Carter carries a lot of fresh air along with her.”

Jim shook his head and turned away from the window. Sweat had collected around his collar and left a v-shaped watermark down the front of his shirt. He looked at Clara and she felt foggy and far away. Jim was her favorite oak tree that had dry-rotted and fallen down twelve years ago in the front yard of her childhood home.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve seen butterflies before.”

 

It was a Monday, Clara said, when the muddy brown field mutt smelled a storm on the air and climbed up into her flower box.  The dog often wandered around the coop licking chicken shit through the wires, and he had a bad case of nerves when he felt the heft of rain wafting in from the south. He sometimes scratched the window glass and whined to come inside. His paws crushed the dry petals in the garden to grit.

Clara went outside to shoo the dog away from the window.  She clapped her hands and waved him out of the yard, then began to gather the laundry from the line in heed of his warning.  Opal May was lying on her towel, as stark as L’Origine du monde, and Clara noticed a distinct resemblance between her spread legs and the jonquils swaying at the edge of the yard with their petals peeled back from a hollow golden center.

“Mrs. Carter?”  Clara tried to catch Opal May’s attention, but the birds drowned her voice with a jamboree in the sky above. She felt like a frumpy ball of covers kicked to the end of the bed with her arms full of damp sheets and pillowcases.

“Mrs. Carter?” she said louder.

Opal May looked toward Clara but didn’t lift her head from the ground.

“There’s rain coming in, Mrs. Carter. It’s probably not but a few miles off with the way the dogs are acting.”

Opal May looked at the fragile brown grass in Clara’s yard. It didn’t dance or shake and wouldn’t arise from under Clara’s footsteps when she lifted them. Then she looked up at the airborne creatures that swooped and ascended overhead. They paid no attention to any approaching weather as they organized into color patterns. “I don’t think so,” she said.  She turned away from Clara to comb her hair with an ornate brush.

By the time Clara had finished hanging the sheets over the kitchen chairs and returned outside to grab the last linens from the line, the blue sky had spoiled and a trio of nasty winds plowed from the woods into town. The poplars reeled and the winds spilled through the clearing, whipping the tails of the rollicking birds and sending a shower of feathers down into Opal May’s hair. Opal May swiped at the butterflies streaming by like loose newspaper. She jumped up and ran into the house, her bare white feet hardly glancing at the flat-blown grass.

Clara felt sour for smirking at Opal May’s jiggling haunches making a run for it. She had begun to turn towards the house when she noticed that Opal May had left her expensive brush on the ground. Clara hated the thought of such a costly item marrying with the red-clay mud out in the rain, so she left the laundry in the peeling Adirondack and crossed into the Carter’s yard to rescue it.

The sky was churning gray when Clara picked up the brush, but she couldn’t insult such a finely-crafted item by not taking the time to admire its ivory backing. It was solid and light, made of bone, no doubt. Clara wondered what creature’s bones Opal May dragged through her hair. At a church potluck a week before, Hattie White rumored that Opal May’s mother got the brush from a voodoo shopkeeper on one of their big shopping trips in New Orleans. Wanda Taylor claimed the bones were human.

Clara ran her fingers through the brush’s teeth, trying to deduct which human bone might be shaped just so. She pictured the tamed, straight hair between Opal May’s legs and imagined that she combed it out with the voodoo brush and rubbed it with strawberry shampoo. Clara thought about taking the brush home and having a go at her own curly brown downstairs.

She crossed the yard to the porch.  Before setting the brush under the overhang out of rain’s reach, Clara placed the cool spine on her cheek and stroked it down the side of her face once, just to remember the feeling. She heard the screech of the back door and looked up to see Opal May standing above her, behind the barrier of the screened sunroom. She looked strange cloaked in a yellow dress.

“Geez, I thought there was a coyote scrounging around back here.” Opal May scrunched her nose and didn’t come outside.

“No, ma’am.” Clara pulled her hands away from the brush.  “I was just putting your brush up here so it wouldn’t get rained on.”

Opal May sat down on a painted wicker chair and lit a cigarette. “You wish you could have it?”

“No, ma’am.”

Opal May looked at Clara with a bland expression. “I wasn’t offering.”

“I know.”

“Listen.” Opal May flicked ash. “The brush would be a start but you’d need at least a year to work out the kinks and buff your knees and elbows.”

Clara crossed her arms, cupping each elbow in the opposite hand.

“Even then, there’s an element of breeding. A little hassle goes a long way, though.”  Opal May blew puffs of smoke at the ceiling fan in the sunroom.

Clara wished she had worn a better dress that day, though she had the feeling that Opal May thought this input was kindness.

Opal May cracked the screen door and tossed the half-smoked cigarette into the hedges, then closed the door again. “Hey, you want a Coke?  Elwood ordered me an icebox from Memphis.”

“That was very thoughtful of him.”

“Oh, please. Well, do you?”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”

Opal May opened the door again, grabbed the brush, and went inside.

Clara returned home with the coke and a bright orange Satsuma from Opal May’s pantry. The storm clouds dissolved without a single drop of rain and the winds passed by leaving plant debris all over town.

From that point in the afternoon on, Clara didn’t feel much like housework.  She hung her dress in the bedroom and took off her panties, intrigued by the animalistic propensity she felt with the humidity on her skin and the scent of citrus in her nose. She sat down in front of the only mirror they owned. It was the type that swung end over end and had been lain flat to serve as a table for Jim’s socks. She flipped it upwards and began to look at her breasts.  They appeared to have stopped trying to float and settled for resting in teardrops on her chest. She discovered a mocking blue vein on her nipple and it caused her to feel flustered in front of her own reflection.

She examined her flesh like a man would, noticing the way her muscles moved when she stood and squatted like a monster in a bell tower. She considered the lack of softness around the edges. Her hip bones jutted out instead of curving in an unbroken line and evaporating into a waterfall of thoroughbred legs. She poked at a squishy mole over her navel and was unable to stop smooshing it well into the night as she lay awake, long after redressing.

 

The heat became unbearable, like a nasty punishment that didn’t know where to land.  Clara and Jim began to talk too often of snow and the promise of winter, forgetting how they had wished for the greasy feel of sticky summer in the bitter cold just half a year before. Even Opal May disappeared from the yard one afternoon. Clara had looked for her in astonishment, searching to find her in the sea of whirling pink dragon blossoms that had taken over the Carter’s yard. But the grass and flowers had gone still and foreign, leaning in unison towards the screened-in porch. Clara followed their lead with her eyes, and then she had found her. Opal May was naked and silky with sweat under the porch fan, lying on her towel where the sun could not find her. Red centipedes and jealous pill bugs climbed on the screen, pricking at the wires to come inside. Clara felt sad to discover her view of Opal May obstructed.

When Jim came home for lunch, they sat at the table together.

“Where’s Mr. Carter’s wife gone?” he asked.

“She’s moved to the porch. I guess she got so much sun that she couldn’t hold anymore.”

“Did you ask her about it?’

“No, but her skin has gone sort of pink,” Clara said.

Jim nodded. “That’s to happen with one so fair.”

Clara put down her fork. “Take a moment, Jim, and let’s talk.” She paused as Jim stopped eating and met her gaze. She was startled by the authenticity of her own voice. “I would say that it has been a while since my skin was so fair, but what’s true is that it never was. And I never even dreamed of having Mrs. Carter’s figure.”

Jim sighed. “She won’t stay, Clara. She’ll go back where she’s come from. She’s not the type of woman for out here.”

“That’s not the point.” Clara didn’t want to sound taken back by the thought of what kind of woman qualified for life “out here.” She imagined one with large hands, sharp fangs, and lumpy features. “I don’t care if she stays. It’s a beautiful thing to look at.”

Jim put his hands flat on the table and became stern. “What is this about?” he asked. His words were horned. “Are you saying you want to lay around in the sun, too, exposed? Are you really so unsatisfied?”

Clara shrank. She looked into her lap. “Is that why you dislike her?”

Jim exhaled and his face relaxed. “Yes.  She’s lazy and weak.”

“I don’t know if that’s all true.” Clara said.

Jim shrugged and returned to his food.

When he left for work, Clara was confused about how she felt. She went outside to watch the rabbits hopping up and down the concrete porch steps trying to peek at Opal May, but she couldn’t see well enough. She became more and more frustrated by her conflicting feelings towards the sounds and smells of her neighbor’s lawn. Finally, she grew restless and crossed into Mr. Carter’s yard. The creatures paid no attention to her and continued scratching at the screen in desperation. Clara crossed her arms and stood still outside of the porch, looking in through the door like one of the animals.

“You’ve gotten sunburned, Mrs. Carter,” she said. “I can bring you a wax balm to help soothe it.”

Opal May opened her eyes and blinked her long lashes as though she had expected Clara all along.  Her pink skin, which would cause most women to appear puffy and wounded, only seemed to flatter her more, blending with her scented oils and casting her in the glaze of a rose.

“I’ve been sleeping,” she said and stretched her arms above her head. She carried herself without any shame of her nudity.

“I know.”  Clara looked down when she felt the smooth, dry roll of a small garden snake sliding over her feet towards the porch. It did not frighten her.

“I’m bored of this heat.” Opal May sat up and placed her hands upon her breasts.  She pinched her nipples softly. “There’s nothing to do but lie around.”

Clara thought of the many things she had left to do for the day.

“Let’s go down to the river,” Opal May said. “A change of scenery, for once. You know the way, I’m sure.”

Clara nodded.

Opal May wrapped her towel around her torso and knotted it in the front. They crossed the yard, entered the woods, and followed the dirt path that led to the river. Opal May chatted the whole way about things that Clara didn’t know anything about, things like French tips and deep treatments.

When they approached the river bank, Clara said, “No one swims down here, Mrs. Carter, on account of the moccasins.”

“Oh please,” she replied. “No snakes are going to bother us.” It was the first time Clara had seen any inclination that Opal May was even partly aware of her influence over the world around her.

Opal May dropped her towel and tip-toed over the flat sandstone. When she reached the water, she dipped her toes first, then stepped in. “Get your clothes off and come on.”

Opal May went into the water. She swam to the middle where the river was deep and dark and cool, where it dipped neck-high and the floor suckled at your feet like infant lips. She walked through a school of rainbow trout.  They boiled around her, breaking the surface and kicking up splashes of water, fighting each other for the chance to touch their mouths softly to her skin.  Brightly colored tree flowers began to fall from their branches and float around her before slipping away on the current, and the air was filled with hovering white droplets of Queen Anne’s lace.

Clara stood still on the shore. Her clothes felt like the only thing protecting her from the elements. “I’ll just watch from here, Mrs. Carter.”

“Don’t be silly. You’re made of skin and bones just like me.” Opal May looked down at her body. “Well, not quite like me,” she laughed, “but you should be fine.”

Clara thought of her elbows and the blue vein. “Maybe another time.”

“Oh, please,” said Opal May, “like you’ll ever do it if you don’t do it now.”

Clara looked down at her feet in the black dirt of the riverbank. Naked, slimy earthworms pushed themselves out of the soil. They squeezed out from under heavy stones and inched towards the water, where they would surely drown trying to reach the white light of Opal May’s skin.

Clara closed her eyes. She put her hands to her chest and began unbuttoning her dress. She dropped her clothing to the ground, arched her back, and narrowed her eyes, thinking that this was the way a beautiful woman would carry herself. Opal May clapped and splashed water towards her as she crept down the bank. The air was glossy on her bare skin.

She still felt unsure when she stepped into the cool water. She imagined explaining to Jim how she was bitten on the rear by a moccasin, if she even survived to tell the tale. So many fish had gathered that Clara couldn’t move without assaulting their ranks. They pushed towards her and touched her body. She put her hands into the water and the fish swam over one another to nibble her fingertips.

“See, they’re smarter than you think,” Opal May said. “They’ve been around millennia before we were even a thought, scientists say.”

Clara began to laugh. White, lacey blossoms fell into her hair. Her skin glowed with just the right warm tone and each angle of her body caught the attention of something different. The vines from the trees knelt down to stroke her back while green tree frogs latched onto her legs with orange toes. She laughed so hard that she thought she might begin to cry. She placed her hands on her stomach and felt its softness.

Opal May had stopped swimming. She stood staring at Clara with her brow furrowed.  Clara was sure, she said, that Opal May had never really looked at her before that moment.

“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” Opal May whispered, but her words had the tart bite of an insult.

Clara was so caught up in the beauty of it all that she couldn’t stop laughing. Water droplets rose out of the river flowing around her, floating upwards, straight into the sky.

Opal May backed away from Clara, her face twisted up in confusion. She wrapped her arms around her body, covering her breasts. She hunched over, drawing in upon herself and rounding her back as though it were a shell in which she could crouch away.

Clara saw Opal May’s shame and stopped laughing.  She adopted the same look of confusion that had clouded Opal May’s face.  They stood staring at one another in silence as the fish scattered, the water droplets fell to the ground, and the blossoms sunk beneath the surface.

Opal May turned and stomped towards the bank. Clara didn’t know what to say or do, so she stood watching as Opal May grabbed her towel, marched up the path, and disappeared.

 

The temperature crept higher each day through August. The widow Mary Jones, who could still chop her own firewood, died in her bathtub at 109 years old and her family swore she would have lived another ten years if she hadn’t sweated out all her resolve that summer. September arrived and Clara kept pushing through the heat. She lost so much salt moving up and down the garden path that she feared the plants would never again grow.

Yet, on Labor Day morning, when Clara awoke on the bedroom floor where they had taken to sleeping, she felt like a blanket had been lifted into the sky. It was a lightness like that felt when one is suspended at the crest of a cliff dive. She touched the air with her fingertips and turned it around in her hand, and just when she felt she could float right off the ground, she went to wake Jim.

“The summer left,” she told him.

Jim had to get up and go outside to orbit the house a few times before he believed her words. He returned to the bedroom with an exotic expression.

“Well, I’ll be,” he said.

Clara slipped on a dress, ran outside, and scraped the sky with her fingernails.  She laughed, and scraped again at the air in front of her face, but the heat had moved on and no humidity curled up like pudding under her nails. Elwood Carter’s yard was silent and empty, but the color of everything seemed more pure without the blur of water washing everything.

That evening, Clara went outside again. The air, which had been so controlling during the past months, was so light she had to keep double checking to be sure that it was there at all.

When she stepped into the shady place beneath the Magnolia tree, she noticed Opal May watching her from across the lawn. It was almost a shame to see her so covered, wrapped in a knit cardigan, like dropping a crinkled blue tarp over Venus de Milo. Clara tried not to stare. She grabbed a broom and began sweeping stiff butterflies off the walk. Opal May continued watching from the back steps and Clara thought that something must have changed about her. Something frail inhabited the space on the steps, and she wondered if Opal May had always been so quiet beneath the clutter of the birds and bees.

“Will you visit with me?” Opal May called from her porch. Before, her words would have been lost in the watery air. But today they were thin spider silk slipping through the weightless atmosphere, floating to land sticky on Clara’s ears.

“When I finish sweeping,” Clara called back.

“I can’t wait that long.”

Clara set the broom against the house. “Yes, ma’am.”

Opal May stood on the steps with her arms folded. She invited Clara inside the screened porch and they sat across from one another on the wicker chairs. Clara smoothed the wrinkles on her lap. The lashing of air from the ceiling fan caused a chill on her skin.

“It’s been so hot here.” Opal May frowned. “I’m going back home.”

“It will get hot in Nashville sometimes, too,” Clara said.

“No.” She shook her head. “My father’s house has a pool.”

“Is there something you want me to do, Mrs. Carter?”

“Oh, please,” she said.

Opal May sat hemmed up in silence.  Clara did not press her to speak.  She wouldn’t have known what to say, anyhow, to address the way the honey suckle had bloomed and filled the yard with a sweet, waxy smell at the sight of Opal May, then curled in on itself and shrunk away when she retired. They rocked in the wicker chairs, refusing to mention the dust that would come with autumn, and Clara thought about what Opal May would do if the butterflies ever stopped perching in her hair, folding and unfolding with her breath.

Kari Shemwell is an MFA student at Sierra Nevada College. Though she was born and raised in Western Kentucky, she now lives in New Orleans, where she works in the film industry.

Twitter: @KariShemwell