Every Summer


By Liz McLaughlin

You were there to help in the garden that day. Cinnamon was chewing oats, Pap had just rewired her electric fence. The horse kept her distance. Pap let you feed her—she ate oats right from your hand, her lips prehensile.  

Your cousins take turns touching the fence with long strands of tallgrass. A grasshopper sits on one thin wire, not grounded, not fretting from the pulse. And now it’s your turn. Here is your thick blade of tallgrass. Touch it to the fence. But first breathe. Everything slows. The tallgrass hangs heavy in your hand, bends toward the stiff metal wires, descends. And then connects. You feel the vibrations pulse through you. You are alive.

Pap told us not to go into the garden, he’d just tilled and it had rained all week. As soon as he closed the door, we went out. We meandered our way up the hill. We played on the swing set—you can still smell the rust on the chain. But eventually we made our way up to the top and we splashed, leapt, trudged into the garden, and we started sinking and sinking and sinking. And before we knew it, we were up to our little-kid waists in the mud, visions of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on repeat in our heads. And we screamed out loud and in silence and we watched the house sitting at the bottom of the hill and so we screamed some more. Our uncle coming out, in cut-offs, a beer in one hand and a rake in the other. He fished us out, one by one, by the handle. You sat in the basement, in an oversized shirt, listening to your clothes gallop in the dryer. 

And you are drawn to the blackberry bush. Deep in the center. All protected from the outside with thorns—a hollowspace. You want to sit in there—live in there—stay in there, but only the rabbits come here now. They eat all of the berries that hang near the ground. The largest purple pregnant berries bursting with juices, droplets pressing through their skin. You reach. You see the path to them. And you somehow manage to evade all of the thorns for a while and then you dig deeper, parting the sea of stems with your forearms, cradling the bush in your embrace. You reach the innermost berries, the ones that erupt with the sweetest black water. You press them between your fingers and they pop, deflate, the purple juices run down your hands, stain your palms. The sugary sap maps indigo track marks on your wrists, crisscrossing your small blue veins. But now you are trapped in the bush, and with every attempt at retreat, each tiny thorn catches and digs deeper. First in your shirt and your shorts and then piercing your skin. You feel the burning and the ripping. You can’t sit still. You have to pull against it. And the purple juice stings where it enters your body, where it meets the redness of your blood.  

The tomato fight at the end of summer we were all covered in seeds and guts and skins and red that earthy smell of dirt the way the leaves and stems were coarse green and very unlike the juicy softness of the tomato plants and you threw one and that started it all and everyone just kept throwing and laughing and splatting and by that point we didn’t care the evidence was all over us we didn’t care about getting caught we were just living in the moment and you swear it was so hot that day the sun was baking the red juice evidence into our skin like a potter’s glaze and we ran and we rolled in the dirt in the earth we were wild we were free in the destruction of the harvest. 

Cinnamon crunching apples, her horse teeth huge and white, mouth frothing as we tossed her apple after apple, the tree had birthed so many, her horse teeth snapping and catching and chewing, lips frothing and whinnying and she butted her haunches as close to the fence as we’d ever seen her, wild with plenty. 

The smell of the root cellar, that almost-moldy darkness. How the floor was made of dirt. The firmest dirt you’ve ever felt, it could have been cement. And if you went down there and you closed the door, not a single drop of sunlight would slip through.  

Liz McLaughlin lives in Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in Forbes & Fifth, Three Rivers Review, and Collision Literary Magazine. Her short fiction has been featured on WESA’s Prosody: Pittsburgh Radio for Contemporary Literature. She was a recipient of the University of Pittsburgh’s Taube Award and Monty Culver Prize for Undergraduate Fiction.