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Gardens come and go, but I find myself getting attached to certain perennials. My tulips are bridesmaids with fat faces and good posture. Hollyhocks are long-necked sisters. Daffodils are young girls running out of a white church, sun shining on their heads. Peonies are pink-haired ladies, so full and stooped you have to tie them up with string. And roses are nothing but (I hate to say it) bitchespretty show-offs who'll draw blood if you don't handle them just right.
Vangie Galliard Nepper, from her "Garden Diary," March 1952
I've always loved dirt. It's dark and moist like a lump of chocolate cake in your hand. You think it will taste sweet, but it's bitter as gall. My daddy, Major Galliard, grew cotton, and he used to say that soil was the basis of his life. Mama always laughed and said, "I thought Jack Daniel's was." The drink killed my daddy, but the soil remained firm and cool beneath my knees.
High above me, over Lake Limoges, a plane droned in circles. It made a slow loop, crawling along the backside of the sky like a bug caught inside an overturned glass bowl. I heard the noise and looked up, shielding my eyes with pruning shears. I knew the pilot from the way he drew out a check mark, his signature jettison. Sometimes the sky was slashed all over the delta, the marks widening into V's. Emmett Welch was the best crop duster in north Louisiana.
Today, though, it was too early for dusting. He was up there because he loved it. My daddy believed that sitting in a cockpit was like praying. The whole sky was his church. Sundays used to hurt Mamaall the otherhusbands sitting with their wives, fanning their sweaty babies. Daddy would be somewhere above us, his plane chewing up the blue, flying so low the stained-glass windows trembled.
My daddy taught Emmett to fly in 1922, a day that broke my heart. Emmett was a bowlegged kid working at Galliard Gin. His poor old daddy got gassed in World War I, and his mama ran off to Shreveport. Daddy was known for hand-picking his pilots, mostly orphans, training them himself. Emmett Welch had gray, close-set eyes that took in everything. My daddy knew that look. There was precious little he didn't know. He'd fought in every war that came along, even World War I. He was too old for the second one, but a crony pulled some strings with the recruiting office in Monroe. Major Galliard, they called him. A veteran who'd never seen action. Still, he had a chest full of medals, awards for perfect attendance and cleanliness. But he was an unsung hero when it came to picking pilots. He called Emmett into the knotty pine office and said, "Boy, get you some goggles and climb up in that cockpit and wait till I get ready. I'm gone teach you to fly."
I'd been sitting under my daddy's wide oak desk, carving my initials into the wood with a straight pin. I looked up, and my eyes met Emmett's. Behind him, a crowd was gathering, sweaty men with bits of cotton sticking to their necks and arms. Emmett turned back to my daddy. A rotary fan riffled through papers on his desk. "Sir?" Emmett shuffled his feet. "I ain't never been no higher than the water tower, and I didn't even climb all the way up."
"Climbing ain't like flying!" Daddy narrowed his eyes, a startling shade of turquoise, a Galliard trait. "Didn't get scared, did you, boy?"
"No, sir." Emmett shuffled his feet, glancing over his shoulder at the men. "Had to pee."
"That's good. Because you're going real high today, boy. Real high."
"Teach me, too!" I crawled out from under the desk and threw myself on Daddy's arm. My eyes filled. I worshipped him; I followed him everywheredown to the fields, the gin, and even backwater cabins where he bought whiskey. But he refused to let me ride in the plane. My brother, Zachary, was eighteen months older, a thin, solemn boy who clung to our mother. Zachary was sickly, prone to asthma, chest colds, and nightmares. The Major was bitterly disappointed. I tried to be both son and daughter to him, but he was naturally prejudiced against girls. The single time he'd tried to take my brother flying, Zachary hid under the porch. When Daddy pulled him out, Zachary went berserk. He kicked, hollered, and arched his back. He screamed for Mama, screamed for Jesus. Then he ripped away and lunged for the wooden glider; he climbed up the chains and held on like a sloth. "It's just a little old plane ride," Daddy said.
"I'll die first," Zachary said. He sucked in air and then held it, pursing his lips until his eyes bulged. Mama cried, "Oh, my baby!" She stepped forward, but Daddy grabbed her wrist. Now he was 100 percent the Major, watching everything with fierce blue eyes.
"He'll suffocate!" Mama cried.
"Let him," the Major said. Zachary's face swelled up like an eggplant, dark and shiny. One hand fell away from the chain, then the other. He fell to the porch, banging one eye on the corner of the glider. He came to in Mama's lap; the eye was purple, starting to swell. It made him look pitiful.
I thought of all this as the fan blew over my daddy's desk, wafting over to the sweaty men in the hallway. I looked up at my daddy and said, "I'm old enough to go flying. And I'm not scared."
"The hell you ain't," the Major growled. "Your mama'd skin me. Anyhow, gals can't fly."
Emmett blinked; behind him a trickle of laughter rose up.
"But girls can ride, can't they?" I looked up into my daddy's eyes. Then I lowered my voice so Emmett and the other men wouldn't hear. "I won't tell Mama."
"Hell," he said impatiently, waving one hand. "Come on, then. Get you some goggles and come on."
As soon as we lifted off, Emmett peed his pants. I was delighted until Daddy accused me of the crime. "No, no!" I cried, pointing to the stain on Emmett's crotch, but the wind ate up my words; it rushed into the cockpit, sucking my hair out of the leather helmet. Daddy just laughed. Behind his back, I knew people thought he was ridiculous. It hurt me to see him march in parades, smiling like a four-star general, waving to old ladies and children. He wore his medals everywhere, even to oversee his fields. From a distance he resembled a little dictator, Stalin or Mussolini.
"Hell, let's cross the river!" he hollered. "Just to say we been to Mississippi and back." Below us was nothing but cotton, a field of clouds, miles in all directions. Get your head out of them clouds, Vangie! old Della used to say. She was our cook until she passed and her daughter took over. My mama never turned her hand in the kitchen. She was a Hughes from Port Gibson, Mississippi; she'd been a debutante at Newcomb and married Daddy after her first semester. Marriage to a Galliard man meant babying him. She did all of the Major's workplanting, cultivating, studying fungicides, hiring and feeding gangs, calling up the exchange for daily prices. Gossiping with the planters' wives. "My daddy is a cotton king," I bragged to the pickers' children. Mama overheard and said, "No, your daddy gallivants. He lives for parades and flying. Too bad he isn't a pigeon."
Now Emmett's plane veered south, toward Legion Field, and disappeared to blue. I turned back to my roses, snapping off a sucker. I hadn't seen Emmett in ages, not since my daddy's funeral. We buried him with all of his medals. "The delta grows anything," he used to say, "but it's particularly susceptible to rice and cotton." And weeds, too, I thought, looking sideways at my garden. Weeds the size of beanstalks, with long, difficult roots. All I could do was chop them down, maybe sprinkle a handful of lime. Somebody from the garden club gave a talk about weeds and pests; through the centuries, they said, frugal women preserved their gardens any way they could. In Europe they steamed the soil, long enough to cook a medium-sized baked potato. I remember how Mama worried about boll weevils and pink bollworms, reading off names of chemicals, while the Major sat on the porch sipping whiskey from a coffee cup.
"Don't you go spraying arsenic on my cotton," he said, walking to the edge of the porch, holding the cup in two fingers. "It leaves a film in the soil. It just about ruined Europe. You can't use arsenic, no ma'am."
"Who said I was using it on cotton?" Mama said.
The sun was a powerful distraction. It hung above me like a pot of boiling butter. Like the Major used to say, there's hotter places than the delta, but the Mississippi River saturates everything. It literally takes your breath away. Today's heat was not a good sign. I glanced toward the street, hoping to see Sophie Donnell, the lady who looked after my house on Tuesdays and Saturdays. She'd been with us since Olive was a baby, 1936 to be exact. I mopped my forehead with the edge of my apron. It was just too hot to think. And noise, my Lord. Next door, Harriet Hooper started playing another Ethel Merman record, a voice that matched her own, like she'd sucked too many sour balls. I set down my shears and stood, looking up and down Cypress Street.