It was the kind of morning when the sun hung weary in the sky and the grown-ups, surrendering to its incessant rays, baked and blistered in lawn chairs, cooling themselves with fat pitchers of Aunt Vera’s lemonade. Even the birds were plain tuckered, sticking to the leafy parts of the trees, their morning songs dulled by the swelling heat.
“’Tain’t no place for a child,” Aunt Vera said to Mama, heaving her large, lumpy self off of a stringy, frayed chair. Jessie Jean stood with Mama on the lawn of the small green farmhouse in the way out back corner of Threadgill Depot, at the other end of the state. She squeezed Mama’s hand.
“I got my work,” said Aunt Vera, “got to cook, clean house, take care of all them kin who planted themselves like weeds in my garden. Can’t take care of no child, too.”
“Ain’t no one else, Aunt Vera,” said Mama, shaking her head. “You know there ain’t.”
Aunt Vera looked at Jessie Jean, her thick face a maze of lines and sagging skin, her gray hair going every which way to avoid her bun. Everything about Aunt Vera was gray—even her small, round eyes.
Jessie Jean stood up straight. If she made herself taller, maybe Aunt Vera would forget how young she was, forget she might be any trouble at all. Jessie Jean had heard Mama loud and clear. There wasn’t no one else but Aunt Vera.
Aunt Vera turned back to Mama. “What about the tall grass?” Her gray eyes narrowed, her voice plunking the words like acorns caught in the wind. She looked out the window. In the distance, maybe a hundred paces, was a field of tall, spindly grass growing out from the earth on Aunt Vera’s land. “It’s still there, you know. Don’t never go away.”
“I know it.” Mama’s nose twitched the way it always did when she was nervous. She kneeled down in front of Jessie Jean and put her thin hands on Jessie Jean’s face. Her eyes were wide open. “See that patch of tall grass out yonder, Jessie Jean? You stay away from it, understand?”
“Yes, Mama.” She tried to smile back, but her lips just wouldn’t budge.
“I mean it, Jessie Jean. You stay away.” Mama placed a warm, bony hand on Jessie Jean’s cheek. “Jessie Jean’s a good girl, ain’t you, darlin’?”
Jessie Jean curled into Mama, her eyes stinging like they’d been soaped. Mama smelled of dime storetoilet water and cigarettes. She hugged Jessie Jean for a long time, squeezing the peas out of her. Then she moved back and held onto Jessie Jean’s face.
“I’ll be back for you soon as I can, darlin’,” she said, smoothing out Jessie Jean’s bangs. “Soon as I can.” Mama stood up and pushed some of her own thick hair behind her ears. Then she turned on her worn heels, leaving Jessie Jean and Aunt Vera alone on the faded brown lawn.
Jessie Jean wanted to watch Mama go, wanted her eyes to soak up every last detail of Mama, so that even if they were closed, she’d still see Mama’s willowy shape behind her eyelids. But she kept her head down so Aunt Vera wouldn’t notice that Jessie Jean’s eyes were filling up with something else entirely.
Aunt Vera turned her gray-spectacled eyes down on Jessie Jean. “You’ll be all right here. Just mind you stay out of the tall grass.”
“Why, Aunt Vera? You got snakes?” Mama was always telling Jessie Jean not to ask so many questions, but she couldn’t help herself.
“Ours is not to ask why,” said Aunt Vera. “Just mind you stay out of that grass. I catch you near it, I’ll get the switch. That clear?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jessie Jean rubbed her bottom.
“Hmph,” said Aunt Vera. She patted Jessie Jean on the head like she was patting a field dog and went off to her chores.
Jessie Jean looked out across the field. “What is it about the tall grass?” she said to herself. “Looks like plain old grass to me. Plain old grass just begging to be trimmed.”
Then, something started to happen. A moment ago, the tall grass had been still, high and motionless over the dry patchy earth. Now it moved, just slightly, side to side, as though dancing on a late summer breeze. Dancing, waving maybe, welcoming Jessie Jean. Only, funny thing, there was no breeze. The patch of sunflowers just left of the tall grass was perfectly still. There was no breeze at all. Not even a hint of movement in the stale summer air.
The next morning, Aunt Vera made eggs and griddlecakes for breakfast. Jessie Jean sat at the table with Nelson, Zeb and Old Hank, distant cousins or old family friends; Aunt Vera couldn’t remember. “Our family tree’s so riddled with decay,” she’d said, “all the branches got twisted up.”
Aunt Vera wiped her brow as she placed breakfast on the table. “It’s like the furnace was left on. Can’t even get relief at night.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Jessie Jean, carefully taking her plate. Best to stay on the right side of things. Old people were cranky enough. Hot old people were another thing altogether.
“Hmph,” said Aunt Vera, without looking up.
No one paid much attention to Jessie Jean at breakfast, but Old Hank had kind, sleepy eyes and a hearty appetite. When the others left, she and Old Hank sat staring at each other across the wooden table.
“So, young’un’,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “Got plans for today?”
Jessie Jean shrugged. If she’d been home with Mama, they’d have cleaned up breakfast and then Jessie Jean would’ve hunted for potato bugs behind the Chesterville greasy spoon while Mama waited tables.
“There’s a nice swimming hole up past your aunt Vera’s fields,” said Old Hank.
“Hush up!” Aunt Vera turned sharp eyes on Old Hank. “Any fool knows that’s a frog’s leap from the tall grass!”
Old Hank nodded, licking his fingers like a wounded barn cat. “Yes, ma’am, I’d forgotten ‘bout that.” He sighed. “Been so long since we had a child around here.” His eyes were far away, like they were looking at Jessie Jean, but not seeing her.
“I know it,” Aunt Vera said, shaking her head. “’Tain’t no place for a child.” She clanged around some more in the sink and Jessie Jean watched as Old Hank put away another griddlecake in one whole bite.
“Aunt Vera,” said Jessie Jean. “Ain’t there any other kids around here?”
Aunt Vera frowned. “No, no there ain’t.” She went back to her dishes and mumbled something under her breath.
Jessie Jean was used to being alone, but she’d hoped that maybe there’d be someone to play with on the farm. “Guess I’ll find me some potato bugs,” she said. “I had a real big collection back home. Kept them in an old detergent box.”
At the mention of home, Jessie Jean got a sour taste in her mouth, as though her orange juice were making for a return trip. “Yes, sir,” she said, swallowing. “I lined the bottom with grass and poked some holes in the box top.” Those bugs were long gone now. Jessie Jean had set them free the day before, depositing them under rocks and into crevices behind the Chesterville greasy spoon. She was sure they’d want it that way. Even bugs had a right to stay put.
“Potato bugs are nice,” said Old Hank.
“I think so,” said Jessie Jean, clearing her plate off the table. She made sure to be real helpful so Aunt Vera wouldn’t find her a bother.
Aunt Vera nodded as Jessie Jean placed her dirty plate and fork into the big sink. “Hmm,” she said.
“May I be excused, Aunt Vera?” said Jessie Jean. “I’ll keep real busy, I promise.”
Aunt Vera looked down at Jessie Jean over the top of her glasses. She reached for an old detergent box on a shelf above the sink, then handed it to Jessie Jean. “Go find your bugs,” she said. “But stay out of the tall grass, you hear? I ain’t afraid to use the switch on a tender bottom.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jessie Jean took the box from Aunt Vera.
Aunt Vera grunted, already elbow deep in greasy dishes. Jessie Jean headed out onto the dry, brown grass of Aunt Vera’s land to look for potato bugs.
Old Hank stumbled out soon after. “Happy hunting,” he said, lighting up a pipe.
“Why can’t I go in the tall grass, Old Hank?”
Old Hank coughed. “Not sure I’m the right one to answer that for you.”
“Aunt Vera won’t,” said Jessie Jean. “Aunt Vera says, ‘It’s not ours to ask why.’”
Old Hank puffed on his pipe. “That sounds like fine advice.”
Jessie Jean frowned and leaned back against the old farmhouse. She brought her knees up to her chin. “Looks like plain old grass to me,” she said. “Just needs someone to take a razor to it.”
Old Hank nodded. “Done that myself,” he said. “Years back. Makes no difference.” He took another puff and then brought his pipe down to his side. “’Tain’t no ordinary grass.”
“Looks like it to me,” said Jessie Jean.
“You’re old enough to know things ain’t always what they seem.” Old Hank puffed again on his pipe. “Listen to your Aunt Vera. She’ll take good care of you. Takes good care of me.” He patted his stomach and smiled, then walked off with his pipe.
After what seemed like hours, Jessie Jean had found only one small potato bug. Usually, she could spot a few digging in around the rim of her house, or better yet a whole family of them hiding on the cool underside of a rock. She wiped the sweat from her forehead and plunked herself down against Aunt Vera’s faded green farmhouse. The humid air pressed against her.
“It’s too hot, even for the bugs,” she said out loud to no one in particular. “Maybe I’d best set up your house, little bug, so that when I find you some friends, we’ll be good and ready for them.”
She pulled up some grass. It was brown and scratchy, and it crinkled when she held it. “This won’t do,” she said. “A bug’s got to have green grass. Soft green grass, the kind that tickles your toes. Ain’t that right, little bug?”
Jessie Jean knew exactly where she might find that grass. Straight ahead of her, on the other side of the sunflower patch, was just that kind of grass, swaying back and forth, like the other day. Tall grass, green, wispy and soft, somehow growing out from the parched earth.
“That’s what we need, little bug,” she said to the tiny creature in the detergent box. What could it hurt to take just a little?
Jessie Jean peeked into the house. Aunt Vera was still busy in the kitchen. Old Hank, Nelson and Zeb were parked on lawn chairs, snoring like hogs at high noon. No one would miss her. No one ever did, only Mama, and Mama was far away by now. Had left her on this dull-as-dirt-farm with a bunch of old folks! Thinking of Mama just then tied Jessie Jean’s stomach into a real good knot.
She looked around one more time, then got up off the ground and set out for the tall grass. The air grew thick as she made her way across the field, and it pushed against her like she was walking up a steep hill, only there was no hill, just yards and yards of flat, brown, sun-scorched earth. Jesse Jean stopped every twenty paces or so just to catch her breath and wipe the sweat that dripped from her forehead and stung her eyes. It was almost as if there was no air at all in Aunt Vera’s fields, no air at all, but for whatever small breeze rocked that tall grass.
Up close, the grass was high, real high, at least a few feet higher than Jessie Jean. It seemed to go on forever, miles of tall, soft spindly things, thin but dense, so that Jessie Jean, try as she might, could not see through to the other side.
“This sure would be a good place to hide,” Jessie Jean said to the potato bug as she neared the tall grass. “Maybe that’s why I’m s’posed to stay away. Maybe crooks and cat burglers hide here during the day and then jump out when someone gets close.”
Jessie Jean backed up. She shouldn’t be here. She was a good girl, like Mama said, and almost always obeyed the grown-ups. Just the thought of Aunt Vera’s switch made her bottom hurt. But Aunt Vera would never know—she was too busy anyhow to pay attention. And it was grass, for gosh sakes! What harm could come, really? What was all the fuss about? She took a step closer.
Then she felt it, cool, crisp air, gently kissing her face, wrapping around her, pushing into her lungs. Jessie Jean breathed deep. The fresh, cool air soothed her insides and chased off the unbearable heat.
“Well, now what is so bad about this place?” Jessie Jean said to the potato bug, but mostly to herself. “All this nice grass keeps it comfy and cool. No need to fry like griddlecakes on Aunt Vera’s front porch.”
Jessie Jean reached out and caught a few strands of grass in her hand. It was soft all right, like fresh spring pasture, the kind of grass you’d expect to find after a few weeks of rain. Jessie Jean rubbed it between her fingers, enjoying its velvety feel. “Just you wait, little bug,” she said looking down inside the detergent box, “a few blades of this fine stuff, and you’re going to live like a king.”
Jessie Jean grabbed a handful of grass and gave it a real good tug. Only, the grass didn’t budge. It remained firmly planted in the dry soil. “Maybe I need to hold it lower, towards the root.” Jessie Jean bent down this time, and yanked one of the blades as hard as she could. Nothing. That grass was as stubborn as a two-headed mule.
“Old Hank was right,” she said. “This ain’t no ordinary grass.”
She moved forward, so that now she stood in the middle of the patch, the tall grass surrounding her. “Sure is nice in here,” she said. “Real, real nice.”
She sat down on the silky grass and lifted her face, soaking up that fine breeze. For the first time since Mama had left, Jessie Jean felt at ease, felt calm, like everything was going to be all right. She stretched back, knees to the sky and rested her head in her hands.
“Know what, little bug?” she said. “I’ve a mind to spend the rest of the summer right here.” The grass began to sway again, tickling Jessie Jean’s arms and cheeks.
She closed her eyes and let the gentle winds wash over her. It was then she heard the voices. Soft at first, whispers, really. Children’s voices.
She came, one of them said.
I knew she would, said another.
Come play with us, said the first voice. We’ve waited so long…
Jessie Jean sat up. “Where are you?” She scanned the large patch of tall grass, but there was no one, only grass as far as she could see.
We’re here, said the voices. Come with us. Come play.
“I would,” said Jessie Jean, looking around, “if you’d show me where you are.”
Just then something squeezed her ankle. Jessie Jean sprang up, and her heart bumped against her ribs. The voices were gone. There was a hard tug on her leg and Jessie Jean was pulled, feet first, out of the calmness of the tall grass.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Old Hank let go of Jessie Jean’s leg, his kind face now dark and stormy. “You been told to stay away!”
Jessie Jean scrambled to stand up. “I, well, I was just looking for nice soft grass for my potato bug. And catching a breeze. It’s so hot back by the farmhouse.” Maybe making some friends, too.
“Potato bug!” Old Hank shook his head. “No, no, no! Don’t you see? That thing gets a taste of you, it’ll want more, it’ll….” He shook his head and pursed his lips. “You get on back to your Aunt Vera,” he said.
“Old Hank, what thing?” said Jessie Jean. “I was just lying in the grass. That’s all. Talking to the children.”
Old Hank’s sleepy eyes woke right up. “Children?”
“That’s right,” said Jessie Jean. “Playing out there in the fields, I guess, because I couldn’t see them.” She grinned. “I could hear them, though, and they were having an awful good time.”
Old Hank shook his head, shook it so much it might’ve fallen off if it wasn’t on tight enough. “There ain’t no children, here, Jessie Jean. No children here besides you.”
“But Old Hank, I—”
“It wants you to think that, but it ain’t real. You understand? It ain’t real.”
Jessie Jean shrugged. “Sure, Old Hank.” She knew better than to argue with a grown-up. Especially a grown-up as spooked as Old Hank. Had to be the heat. After awhile, some people just couldn’t take it.
Old Hank frowned. “I won’t tell your aunt this time. Can’t bear to think of a little girl getting the switch. But I catch you here again, I’ll tell her, I will.”
“Yes, sir.” Jessie Jean wiped some dirt off of her behind.
“Go on,” he said. “Get!”
Jessie Jean ran all the way to the farmhouse. She turned back and looked across the field at the tall grass. It had settled down, stopped moving entirely, in fact. She took a few deep breaths, just now realizing how hard she’d been breathing.
I know there were children there, she thought. I just know it.
It was getting hotter by the day and the grown-ups had taken to sponging themselves on the porch while they drank lemonade and snoozed.
“Heat like this ain’t natural,” Aunt Vera said the next morning while she mopped the kitchen. She stopped and leaned on the mop, shooting Old Hank a long, hard look. Old Hank, who was just finishing off his griddlecakes, shoved in the last bite and seemed to catch Aunt Vera’s eye for a moment. He looked quickly at Jessie Jean and then back at his empty plate.
“Just a bad spell, is all,” he said. He wiped his mouth. “Guess I’ll go outside now and have my pipe.”
“Don’t know how you can even stand to light that thing in this heat,” said Aunt Vera. She kept her eyes on him for a short while, then said, “Hmph,” and went back to mopping.
“I’m going to find me some bugs,” Jessie Jean said, and she slipped out of the kitchen. She waited on the front lawn until the grown-ups stopped to catch some late morning winks. Then, she crept silently into Aunt Vera’s field, towards the tall grass. She was going to find those children.
The grass was still, but almost as soon as she arrived, it started to move, back and forth, ever so slightly. Jessie Jean poked her head through the blades, a sweet breeze catching in her hair.
“I’m back,” she said. “Are you here?” The breeze picked up some more and it felt good against Jessie’s Jean’s sticky face.
We’re here, said a voice.
We’re glad you came back, said another.
“Where are you?” said Jessie Jean. She held out the detergent box. “Do you want to see my potato bug? I brought him to show you.”
The grass began to sway again, tickling her arms, her neck and her cheeks. Jessie Jean giggled. She brought her hand up to her face, and as she did so, a soft strand of grass began to wrap itself around her wrist. Jessie Jean moved to bring her arm down to her side, but the grass continued to coil around her, tightening its grip. She tugged at her arm, but the grass just pulled tighter around her. A second blade looped itself around her ankle. She kicked it off, but another strand caught her by the other ankle and several more curled around her knees.
“Hey, what’s going on?” she said. “Stop that!” Her cry was stifled by the grass that wound itself around her face, closing in over her mouth. She could taste it now, green and bitter, poking its way up into her nostrils, stealing her breath. Jessie Jean struggled against the pull of the grass, but the more she thrashed about, the tighter the grass’s grip became. She dropped the detergent box and, with it, her little bug. The cool breeze grew into a wind that blew against her, rushed through her ears.
Don’t wriggle so much, said one of the voices.
Jessie Jean tried to turn her head, but the strands of grass held it tight.
It won’t hurt, said the other.
And then you’re like us.
And we can play.
Here, it’s almost here….
Jessie Jean was aware of a low, dull rustling sound in the distance. Shhhh… Shhhh… Shhhh…. It sounded as though something, something slow, something soft were pushing its way through the grass.
Green stems wrapped themselves around her eyes until she could only see shades of light between the slits of grass. Jessie Jean spat hard and pushed some of the grass out of her mouth. “Where are you?” she yelled. “If you’re there, help me already!”
We are here, said the first voice. We are the grass, forever and always. We once lived and breathed like you, a child, a small lonely child.
We aren’t lonely anymore, said another voice.
“I’m not lonely,” said Jessie Jean, “and I don’t want to play with you!”
Shhhh… Shhhh… Shhhh…. The sound grew louder.
Where’s your Mama? said a voice. Where’s your Aunt Vera? No one even knows you’re here.
Or cares, said the other.
“My Mama’s coming back soon!” she said.
Poor, poor girl.
Shhhh… Shhhh… Shhhh….
Jessie Jean continued to struggle against the encroaching stems. “My Aunt Vera’s got her chores, but she took me in and even gave me a detergent box for my potato bug!”
There wasn’t no one else, said a voice eerily like Aunt Vera’s. No one else…
“Old Hank, he pulled me out of here the last time! And I even got me a potato bug for a pet, and he and I look out for each other!”
None of that matters. You’re with us, now. You’re part of the grass.
Shhhh… Shhhh… Shhhh…. The rustling noise was so close, the dry earth crunching beneath it. Whatever it was, whatever was coming, was there. Almost there.
“Am not!” Jessie Jean yanked as hard as she could and freed her left arm. She used it to rip the tendrils of grass off of her face and, at the same time, she kicked her right leg with all her might.
You’re hurting us, said the voices. Wait, wait, it’s almost here!
Shhhh… Shhhh… Shhhh….
“You’re not children!” said Jessie Jean. With a large surge of strength, she ripped free her arm. The grass continued to coil around her, but she was moving so quickly, it couldn’t take hold. She scooped up her bug and tossed it into the detergent box. With one last strong kick, she freed her other leg and scrambled out of the tall grass. The grass shook, shook and shuddered, and it sounded loud and angry.
Come back. The words trailed behind her long after she’d escaped. We need you….
Jessie Jean ran toward the farmhouse, her heart knocking hard against her chest. She pushed against the lifeless air of the field, which felt even heavier than before, as though it was piled high with logs and rocks and bales of hay, everything and anything that made it difficult for her to move through it. Her breath came in short, hard spurts, the hot air searing her lungs. She didn’t look back again until she was square on Aunt Vera’s front lawn, the worn-out, lolling grown-ups still snoring under the summer sun.
“Aunt Vera!” she called, gasping for air. “Aunt Vera!”
“What is it, child?” Aunt Vera jumped up from her lawn chair and ran, quick as she could, thumping down the rickety front steps and out onto the lawn. Old Hank, Nelson and Zeb ran after her.
Jessie Jean grabbed onto Aunt Vera and buried her face in her aunt’s soft middle. Aunt Vera held her tight.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Vera,” she said. “I was in the tall grass and it had me and it tried to keep me, and—”
“Hush, child,” said Aunt Vera. “You’re here now and you’re safe and that’s all that matters.” Her small gray eyes were wide like silver dollars.
Jessie Jean held onto Aunt Vera as tightly as she could. Aunt Vera squeezed her, too, and she smelled of cinnamon and soap. After a time, Jessie Jean looked up at her.
“Aunt Vera,” she said. “Is my Mama coming back?”
Aunt Vera wiped her brow and tightened her lips. She sighed. “Your Mama loves you, child.”
“But is she coming back?” said Jessie Jean.
Aunt Vera brought her hand down onto Jessie Jean’s chin. She looked down at her. “Your Mama will find her way back.”
Jessie Jean nodded, the sting of tears burning up her eyes far worse than any old hot air could.
Aunt Vera looked down at Jessie Jean, her gray eyes warmer somehow, like bowls of oatmeal. “This is your home now, darlin’, as long as you need it to be.”
“But Aunt Vera,” said Jessie Jean. “You’re so busy. You got your chores, got to take care of everyone else, got to—”
“Hush up, child,” said Aunt Vera. “Ain’t nothing more important than taking care of a little girl. Even your cranky old Aunt Vera knows that.” Aunt Vera smiled, and at that moment she didn’t even look so old or cranky.
Old Hank, Nelson and Zeb, all gathered ’round, smiling at her, and even though Mama wasn’t there, and Jessie Jean missed her in every which way, she was sure she could be happy here, and maybe not even so lonely. She still had her little bug, too, and that was something. Jessie Jean looked down at her detergent box, and it was then she noticed her missing sneaker.
“For Pete’s sake,” she said, eyeing her foot. She wiggled her big toe through a hole in her sock. “I must’ve lost it when I ran off. Probably somewhere in the field.”
Aunt Vera loosened her grip and turned from Jessie Jean towards the field. “Oh, Hank,” she said, her words escaping in a burst of air.
Jessie Jean looked across the field, and sure enough, she could make out a splash of red-and-white-striped sneaker poking out from the tall grass. The grass began to sway again, rhythmically, back and forth, waving, bending gently in the airlessness of Aunt Vera’s land. The sneaker lay there for a moment, lost without its twin, then slowly but certainly disappeared into the grass.