When I was seven years old, Mama gave me a little seed, dropped it like a snowflake into in my chubby hand.
Back then, I was a giddy little girl who wore tattered jean overalls everyday, over a stained white shirt and hole-riddled sneakers. My hair was a brownish sandy mop, cut to a bob and never brushed, and I liked it that way. Back then, the three of us still had barbeques in the backyard, and the smell of grilled hamburgers and hot dogs was enough to make my tiny mouth water. I was small enough to use the tire swing hanging from the oak tree without making the branch creak and sway, and Daddy would push me, so high that I nearly grabbed the clouds out of the sky. Back then, I was a different girl.
I never knew where she found the seed; maybe at the grocery shop, or on the ground, or maybe she was my guardian angel, and she magicked it out of nothingness. It sure didn't look like magic. The seed was shiny and jet-black, like the ones in a watermelon no one wants to eat, and it sat in the middle of my pasty palm like a beetle. It looked lonely there, a tiny speck of dark on light, and I wondered if it might like another seed to keep it company. I looked at that little seed, looked at it hard, and the first thing my seven-year-old mind decided it was useful for was sticking it in my mouth or chucking it out the window.
"Don't you hurt that seed," said Mama softly. She was wearing a floral-print shirt, I remember that; it had a hole in the side where the moths had gotten to it. Down South where we lived, her shirts were "out of style", "cheap", "funny-looking". But she didn't have anything else. And she didn't need anything else. Mama almost blended in with the peeling, flowered wallpaper; she used to hate those walls, she did. She said they kept her from breaking free and flying away. "You don't want to hurt something special, do you? You've got to let it grow."
I looked at the seed again, squinted my seven-year-old eyes so they were little snake slits. It was small, round, charred...Smooth against the grooves in my palm, but only a normal seed. Less than normal, maybe. It was only a little black bead, rolling around with nowhere to go and no one to go with.
"But Mama, it's just a seed. And it's a bad one, too. Susan told me that if you swallow a black seed, a watermelon'll grow right in your stomach and—"
"That seed—" she said gently, taking my face in her hands, "that seed, it's gonna grow up to be something big one day. It's gonna be a watermelon, all shiny, and green, and full of life and color. It's going to be strong, and beautiful, and no one'll tell it what to do. You know why? That seed is going to become something, Emily—you just wait."
When I was nine years old, the seed still sat in the back of my closet. It had shriveled up and dried out a bit from lying in the dark so long, and I'm sure the stink of my purple gym sneakers had something to do with it. It wasn't so shiny anymore, or so beetle-like, or so alive. I wasn't even sure how it had survived for two whole years without rotting away into a tiny carcass. But it was still there, under a pile of shirts and sweat and pain. Still there, under two years of iron and brick and pain.
One time, I went into the closet to grab my thin winter jacket and saw it sitting in the corner, furry with dust. Whenever I think about that day, my stomach squeezes in on itself. I can't quite tell what the feeling is. It's a feeling that makes you want to hide your face, to turn into a wisp of smoke, to bite your lip and shout. Something like regret, but only worse.
When I saw that seed sitting alone that morning, I closed the door and walked away.
I left it all alone, in the darkness.
Daddy went away when I was twelve; I didn't cry when he left. It was strange. I stood there with Mama at the door of our tiny cottage-house, with its blue shutters and one dirty circle window that I used to peek out of in the fall when the leaves turned gold and scarlet. The night was starless, moonless, loveless. Clouds had crept across the sky to suffocate the light, and it made me feel like a piece of my soul had broken off into the air. Our neighborhood was one of the safer ones, but that night, it felt like a prison. Not a soul was out, not a TV running, not a light glowing from behind a drawn curtain.
White light was pouring out from our cottage-house and onto the withering lawn. It lit up a sort of square in the blackness, like we were poking a hole in the night. I remember my ears ringing like the church bells, and feeling my brain shake from side to side. I remember the gnarled hands of hate gripping my shoulders, tighter, tighter.
There had been yelling, for hours and hours that day, and it had crashed through all the thin walls of our house until my heart was numb. When Daddy got into his Cadillac and drove off, a puff of smoke went up in the air, and that was all we had left of him. I remember feeling it inside, too; my brain wanted to scream, to shout, to sob. I wanted to run after the car as the headlights faded into the fog, run after him and scream for him to "come back, come back!"
All that came out of my mouth was a puff of air.
The last exhaust of a Cadillac.
Mama woke me up an hour later in the living room and told me I'd collapsed on the doorstep.
I shook in her arms all that night, until the stars blinked black and the moon's shadow slid over the windowsill. She held me, her arms rock-hard and her face stony; she didn't sleep a wink, and I don't know if she has since. In the morning, I woke up to the sun smiling through the kitchen window, searing my face and smiling at my grief. Hate's claws dug into my shoulders.
"I hate you! I HATE YOU!" I shrieked to the sky, to the birds, to the grass.
Mama jerked up, and she grabbed me again. That was when I started crying. But even as silver tears poured down my face, she turned me to look at her, and said, "Do you really hate the world, Em?"
"Do you remember that seed I gave you?" she breathed. Her eyes were somewhere far on the horizon. "It was round, it was a little tiny circle. Do you know what that means, Em?"
I shook my head.
"It means 'forever'. It means love that never ends. Look, look at that tree stump in the backyard. It's got circles and circles inside it, with years crawling on every line. That's forever, Em. The world we stand on is a circle—it never ends. Life is a circle. The sun goes round and round, the galaxies go round and round—maybe even the universe! We don't believe in forever, because other people take it away from us. Forever isn't easy. But it's there. It's there in the circles, in the grass and dirt, in that tiny little watermelon seed.
"So don't you hurt that seed, Em."
When I was nineteen, I gave Mama a big hug as I walked out the door. I gripped my baby-blue suitcase with whitened knuckles; I'd packed away all my clothes, and all my posters and pain. I had a picture of my Mama in my jeans pocket, and the memories of Daddy flashing through my mind as I looked out over the street where the ghost of his headlights still wandered.
The seed, that tiny seed, I left with my mama. It was pale then, like some sort of creature kept away from the light. It was almost slimy, but if you wiped off the dust and the dirt, you could still see it shine a little, see it glint a little in the morning light. I'd asked her more times than I could remember if she'd ever replaced it—what seed could live for so long?—but she always shook her head and smiled. She asked for it, that seed, before I packed my bags.
"I want to remember, Em," she said. Her voice was hoarse and calm, like a sailor, balancing on the waves. That day, she was wearing a floral shirt, with a hole in it, bigger now, on the side. The wallpaper had greyed behind her, and the shirt didn't melt into it anymore. "I want to remember everything when you go off. And you make sure to come back and visit, all the time."
My breath puffed.
The waves roared.
When I was thirty-three, I came back to Mama during my vacation week. Just that morning, I'd done a quick surgery and ran for it to the airport, coat flapping and silver suitcase bouncing. Jim was going to come, but his own Mama was sick, so he had to go visit her instead. He promised he'd come visit the next time; we were going to try the Italian restaurant downtown by my Mama's house.
When I went to visit her, she looked a little older, and little greyer than that summer. The wallpaper had been changed out into a baby-blue color, dotted with cotton clouds. The once-stained and dusty floors had been swept and waxed. It was rather a shock, to see everything so clean, so different from the picture that had been ironed into my mind. There were bags under her eyes, and I knew she'd been thinking about Daddy again. Or maybe about me. But her eyes, her chocolate-caramel eyes, were the same.
I sat down to eat dinner with her at six o' clock, which was early for me. I usually got back to the apartment at seven from the hospital; sometimes Jim would drive me back. It was strange, though, to see the backyard again from the table. The backyard where we'd had barbeques, where I'd run amuck with my mop haircut, where I'd pulled clouds from the sky on a tire swing.
Something was there, however, that had not been before.
The grass outside was still yellow and trampled, but there was something round, something green among the ruins of the yard.
There was a watermelon there, blooming like a flower from a twirling stem that pierced the soil. It was blooming out of the ground, shiny, green, full of life and color, despite the desolation surrounding it.
Mama looked at me, and I saw the first smile to ever crease her face.
"I'm proud of you, Em," she said.
That was all I ever needed to hear.