by AMANDA YANOWSKI
Fifty years ago, on the fifth of July, Birdie Sanders wakes up in her closet of a room on the second floor of the farmhouse thinking about the fields. Washing up in the bathroom, Birdie resents the clean fingernails and soft feet that set her apart from her three siblings—two sisters and a brother—who are already farmers in their own right. The Sanders family always starts walking beans on the fifth of July, unless it is a Sunday, and now, at six years old, Birdie is finally tall enough to dirty her fingers and manage her own row.
In the kitchen Birdie is met by the best version of her mother, the one that manages to make it out of her housecoat before the men finish milking. Decades from now, Birdie will look back on her mother in these years and see a woman trapped on the edges of illness—incapable of finding the middle ground in her own mind.
Dot sits at the table, poring over the schedule of crews she has set up for her family’s bean walking season. First, a week working their own farm. Then two or three days at the big Sanders farm down the road—the one Birdie’s father grew up on, where the work would be longer and faster, the little ones half-running to keep up with the line. After the family farms are picked clean of weeds, the crew will move on to the paying jobs.
This is the thing Birdie knows Dot does best: creating the intricate schedule that defines the middle weeks of summer, the weeks that add change to her children’s pockets and protect the family farm from ravenous weeds.
Birdie is already planning how to spend the earnings from her first bean walking season—two dollars a day at the Martin County Fair and five dollars total for the annual family camping trip the weekend before Labor Day. She figures that will leave enough to cover the cost of a store-bought outfit for the first day of school.
Not wanting to disturb her mother’s concentration, Birdie sets to packing the lunches. She washes apples and takes care not to rip the soft bread with the cold refrigerator butter. After a few quiet minutes, Dot notices her daughter.
“Morning, baby bird,” she says. “You hungry?”
Dot slept well, and it shows. She kisses Birdie’s forehead and lifts the girl high into the air before twirling her down from the metal step stool she was using to reach the countertop.
“The early bird always wants the worm,” Birdie says and smiles, proud of the secret joke.
“Just bread and jam this morning, but tonight we feast on sweet corn until our teeth turn yellow!”
A few minutes before sunrise, the teenage sisters are seated on the front stoop in their bikini tops, knocking last year’s dirt from their bean walking shoes. Birdie stands at attention in the dewy grass, bare-belly, waiting for her father and brother to walk out of the cow barn and wave the girls toward the field and the start of work.
Last year she had been in training—walking through the fields behind her father, stepping in his boot prints and shouting out when a weed brushed his leg.
“Daddy, stop! You missed one!”
“Better tackle that one, and quick! Can’t let it go to seed.”
They were always pig’s weed—the weeds her father purposefully missed—satisfyingly gigantic, but shallow rooted and easy for Birdie to unearth with her bare hands.
But this year she has her own hoe, purchased new from the hardware store and cut down to size. This year, she will walk her own row.
The family walks beans for six days on their own farm—the older ones covering three rows at a time, Birdie managing just one with her short arms—a half-mile up a row, and another half-mile back to complete the round. In the mornings the family plays twenty questions, shouting guesses across the sixteen rows that separate them. They drink water from a shared thermos after each round, wiping the spout with dirty hands before passing it to the next person.
At lunch, the family kicks off their muddy shoes and hangs socks, soggy with dew and sweat, over bean plants to dry out. The teenage sisters wiggle out of their shorts, revealing swimsuit bottoms underneath. They lay on their backs, flat, white bellies pointed to the sun, and pick at ham sandwiches.
Birdie lets her potato chips dissolve on her tongue and feels rich. When she is finished, she folds the sandwich bag in quarters and tucks it into her pocket. She uses her extra lunch minutes to make mudpies in the sloppy row ends—the water is for drinking, not washing, so the mud dries and cakes on her hands, left to fall away with the afternoon work.
In the weary afternoon, conversation and games give way to the work. Hoes cut at waterweed and wiry lamb’s quarter, hands pull foreign grasses from the ground with muffled snaps. Birdie frowns and wrinkles her nose at the cockle-burr that smells like unfriendly earth—manure and Japanese beetles wafting and crawling into her nose. She wrestles with the leaves that do not poke or prick, but scrape and tear raw her bare belly and arms.
She always pulls the buttonweed by hand, rolls the velvet leaves between her fingers. She thinks it a shame to rip something from the ground that smells so floral, so richly healthy—a weed so content with itself that it poses a threat.
Birdie struggles not to weep at the waste of the volunteer corn, worth so much if it would only grow where it belongs.
“It’s noxious,” her father says. “Can’t be helped.”
Birdie is seventeen, the only child left on the Sanders farm, the year she walks beans for the old Hanson couple down the road. The job only pays in meals, but Dot insists Birdie help.
Birdie rinses the potato pot and looks at the side of her mother’s face, searching for that old, favorite version somewhere in the slope of her nose, the twitch of her cheek. Birdie feels a sigh that Dot does not breathe and wonders how long her mother has been this shadow in a housecoat.
“Someone has to help them,” Dot says. “And it might be you, well as anyone else.”
Unlike her siblings before they moved out and on, Birdie does not resist walking beans. She relishes the ritual—her blood warming and waking in the morning as she bashes clumps of dried mud from her shoes, pounding the yesterday away on the front stoop until the echoes of the hollow stone steps overlap and the shoes are pliable enough for another day. She even enjoys the actual work—walking the rows, putting order to the disorder, evicting the trespassing weeds from the field one-by-one. In the focused rush that is walking beans, Birdie pauses at the end of each round to appreciate the visual, tangible proof of progress—the field to her right satisfying in its sensible order, the left side a wasteland to be tamed.
As she approaches the Hanson farm on the first day of the job, Birdie scans the fields and notes the swarming seas of cockle-burr that will take hours to dig out if the crew is as small as she is expecting. And it is: three kids so short they will need to hold their arms above their heads for most of the day if they want to avoid bean-rash, and one boy about her age—Dave. He is a doughy Hanson grandson, clearly raised in the city.
Birdie ignores Dave on the first morning of the job. After lunch, though, when she is full-bellied and sun-drunk, when she has relaxed into her place in the fields, she gives in to his conversation. Dave’s jokes are funnier and his shoulders are broader than they had seemed in the morning. Her thoughts soften as her mind steams in the humid afternoon. Together they become masters of inefficiency—not maintaining straight lines, forgetting to call out the noxious patches.
Birdie feels Dave listen to her describe buttonweed, with its perfumed and velvety leaves—how it is a shame that the plant never manages to find its place or purpose. She wants to ask if he thinks buttonweed would survive being transplanted, but doesn’t.
In the middle of the week, twenty questions turns into something like truth or dare without the dares.
“So, city Dave, how many girls have you been with?” Birdie asks. She feels emboldened, this deep into the field and the game.
“That’s a stupid question.”
“Zero, then. You can just admit it. Fine, another question—”
“One—one girl,” he says.
“And how many boys, then?”
“Oh shove it, Birdie.”
The girl’s name is Jane, Dave says. They met up under the bleachers three times during football games his senior year and fooled around until they stopped—until he got bored with her, Birdie hopes in her head. She tries not to imagine the details.
“How did you meet her? Were you just trolling around under the bleachers?” Birdie asks.
“She was in my class, so she was always kind of around. I asked if she wanted to smoke one night during a game and, well, that’s all it took, I guess.”
Dave’s story trails off and the conversation falls away for a while. As they work the rest of the day away, Birdie wishes Dave would offer her a cigarette.
On the last day of the job, they talk without pretense, and Birdie tries not to worry over the bloodied handle of Dave’s hoe and the ripping blisters on his hands.
“They’ll callus up eventually,” he says when he catches Birdie staring.
“I didn’t think you could get calluses from beer bottles and books,” Birdie teases. But then she asks what he means—if he plans to stay on the farm, or come back someday—more curious about his answer than she will admit to herself.
“I don’t know. Maybe. The farm’s just here, you know? Waiting for someone.”
He surprises her with this, and she is annoyed at being surprised. And so she kisses him, partially to upend his confidence, and partially because it is the last day she will know him. His right hand holds the hoe stuck into the earth as his left traces a path down her spine, pausing on the small of her back, landing on the bone of her hip—rooting in. Birdie’s back arches, and aches. The dead smell of the cockle-burr muddies her mind.
They open their eyes and match stares. Birdie stands still as Dave rests his forehead against hers—but when his body follows, she inches away.
She looks at him a moment too long, this city boy with the bleeding hands, and now sees only volunteer corn.
Birdie does not notice when she stops thinking of herself as a farmer, the change happens so gradually. She moves to Mankato, the nearest small city, for junior college. She thinks she will be a teacher, maybe, and work on the farm in the summer. She decides to quit two semesters in—a decision she will never fully understand. Every time she visits home she waits for her mother to ask her to stay, for her father to tell her that she is needed in the fields, but the plea never comes. So, she returns to her one-bedroom apartment after every trip home. She makes money washing dishes in diners and cooking cornbread in nursing homes, and tries not to feel betrayed by her parents, by the field, by her even tan and disappearing calluses.
After a few years she moves to Minneapolis to waitress and wait for the boys to turn into men. She dates—stops drinking coffee after lunch—works as a secretary for a small insurance company—takes up jogging—marries the first man she meets who has a career instead of a job—gives up jogging—starts calling supper “dinner,” and begins wiping her face with actual napkins instead of paper towels while she eats it.
Her soft, city husband would remind her of Dave if she ever paused to think about him. But life has pushed itself forward, seemingly without her permission. She has babies—four of them—that she stays home with. When the kids are six, five, three, and one, Birdie starts smoking and stops changing out of her housecoat before noon.
Now the kids are grown—not really hers anymore at all. She is fifty-six, but worries that she is stunted, feels that she stalled somewhere in her adolescence.
She travels home, pulls up in front of the farmhouse just after sunrise, and sees her mother staring at her through the kitchen window. Dot will turn eighty-six soon, and with each visit Birdie finds it more difficult not to notice the weight of time drooping her mother’s shoulders. Can her milky eyes even see Birdie standing alone in the dark?
Her mother’s kitchen—in the center of the table, where an empty bread basket usually sits, there is a tall vase filled with dried roses, almost perfectly preserved in their decay. A peace lily, waxy-leaved and without blooms, is on the counter to the right of the sink—the best place in the kitchen for medium sunlight. Everything, Birdie realizes, preserved exactly as it had been after her father’s funeral last month.
Birdie is back at the farm, now, because of her sisters.
They had found the idea—let’s walk the beans ourselves this year—at the bottom of a bottle of cheap Merlot the four siblings shared in the old machine shed after the funeral. Birdie wishes she knew her sisters well enough to be either surprised or not when they backed out, one at a time, in the weeks before the start of the work.
The brother agreed to help, too, but they all knew he didn’t mean it. The weight of his guilt—the guilt of not agreeing to take over the farm when their father had asked him decades ago and then, again, in the last weeks of his life—will keep him away until the place is finally sold and he can drive by, once or twice a year, without being recognized.
Birdie wonders what she would have said if her father had tried to give her the farm, if she had ever been asked to return.
“Great crew this year,” Dot says as the women pack lunches. “Pert near the best I’ve ever put together.”
Birdie nods and waits a beat, all her mother needs in the way of conversation these days.
“You, your sisters and brother, and that nice young man from down the road.”
Dot has already been told that her other children are not coming, but Birdie is not yet willing to tell her mother everything twice and three times and as many times as she asks—is not ready to be always patient or forever redirecting conversations—so she just cores another apple, butters another slice of bread.
A knock on the door. The nice young man—young to her mother, Birdie supposes—from down the road, here to walk beans. As often happens during encounters with someone from the cast of her youth, Birdie effortlessly sees through the years. This is Dave—the soft city boy who was playing farmer in his grandfather’s fields and overalls so many years ago.
She steps toward him, almost reaches her arms out, before remembering this is a man she never really knew. Dave touches a thumb and pointer finger to the brim of his baseball cap, Birdie runs her tongue across the front of her teeth.
They walk to the fields and settle into the work—each of them covering three rows, calling out buttonweed, cursing at cockle-burrs.
“I wrote you a letter once,” Dave says. “That fall, a few months after we met.” Birdie remembers reading the letter, but not what it said, so she just smiles her response.
She tries to recall those dusty, almost forty-year-old conversations—the ones she and Dave had during their days walking beans at the Hanson farm. She has forgotten his words, but remembers that he made her blush—remembers a moment when she wanted him to say more, to do more, but that he passed her over, moved ahead in the row. She remembers kissing him later in the week before walking away herself. She hates that she can’t clear the haze from her memories and worries about how much of her past has already disappeared. She tries, as ever, to not think about her mother’s rapidly dimming memories—her mind fading in illness and falling into decay.
She pushes her mother away and studies Dave. The years of sun have weathered and aged his skin, but his body is solid and his voice is mild—he is the sort of man she used to imagine the boys of her youth would turn into. Their mingling laughter is easy, comfortable. Birdie notices the deep lines around Dave’s mouth and imagines the moments, the women, that helped etch them. She wonders what stories the lines on her own face tell—of the crying children, city smog, and expensive night creams.
Laughter gives way to a real conversation—the only one people seem to have after turning fifty—of ailing parents, disease, gloating over successful children and whispering about the wayward ones. Birdie talks about her husband, but tries not to think of him—not yet ready to leave the farm, even in her mind. Dave speaks of his wife, a woman Birdie knows she graduated high school with but does not remember beyond a shadow of a face and a wisp of a voice. The wife loves him but hates the farm—they fought for years about where they would end up, what kind of life they wanted.
“Somewhere along the way, I guess we realized we were too far down this road to worry about looking far forward or back, and the fighting just sort of stopped,” Dave says.
“I suppose it’s easier to let everything fall into place when you stop caring about where things land,” Birdie says. She sucks out a sliver of apple skin stuck between her front teeth and tastes a bit of blood that drops from her gums to her tongue.
“I don’t know. I wonder sometimes if every fight resuscitated us. When the arguing stopped, everything else did, too.”
Birdie does not really know Dave, but understands the meaning behind his gaze. The space of years between them begins to close until, after a few long moments, Birdie stands up and rips it open again.
Dave stands too, moves toward her, asks if she wants a smoke. She knows he means does she want him—does she want to throw things out of place.
“Yes,” she says. “But no thanks.”
After another long moment, she returns to the field.
The work in the afternoon is harder than Birdie remembers. Her muscles recall the old motions—feet plow through dirt, calves crouch, waist bends, hands grip the hoe, arms yank misplaced life from the earth. And as the afternoon rounds fatigue her muscles and mind, even her memories ache.
The ghost of her youth lurks in the rows, sprints ahead of her in the fields, ordering the disorder, reveling in the smallest moments of progress—confident and adept in a way she almost remembers being. Birdie races her taunting memories through the rows, blister blood soaking into the hoe’s wooden handle—like Dave’s did, she remembers, in another field in another life, when she looked at him and saw volunteer corn.
She wants to tell him to leave. She wants to strip off her shirt and walk bare-belly through the fields—she wants the fields to be hers. She wants to sleep in her tiny room at the top of the farmhouse steps, wake up in the morning to her mother slicing chocolate cake in the kitchen, wave at her father, alive and able-bodied, as he returns from milking. She wants to knock all of the yesterdays from her bean walking shoes.
Birdie pulls up buttonweed, slows down to breathe in the velvet earth perfume. She walks a few more paces and feels something brush against her leg, knows—as her father would have known without turning around—that it is shallow rooted pig’s weed.
A native of Minnesota, Amanda Yanowski currently lives in Denton, Texas, where she teaches writing, literature, and theatre. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of North Texas.