Pink Peonies by Alexis Kelleher

Photo of stacked pots
Photo by Claudio Fonte on Unsplash

 

 

Aunt Maggie laughs with a Marlboro Red clamped between her lips. A metallic party hat sits atop her matted, white hair, fastened with a cheap elastic band under her turkey-wattle chin. Today she’s eighty, and while sitting in the shade of the big farm house, has overheard people say more than once they can’t believe she’s still “kicking”. They say it with astonishment, they say it with disdain. Somehow, she was forgiven by her siblings for selling the surrounding acreage, the family legacy, to a developer who put up McMansions with lightning speed. Somehow, she hopes, she’ll be forgiven by God for something far worse. But it’s the sinners who outlive the good ones, to face the circumstances of their own folly.

A beer rests on the arm of her plastic lawn chair – the white ones stacked in the shed for eleven months of the year, and sprayed with a hose to get rid of the black mold and spider egg sacs hidden beneath. She has captured the interest of her nephew’s fiancée, or just captured her. The fiancée is too polite to interrupt, too well dressed for this party, where her cork-soled espadrilles are a better fit for a game of croquet than beer-fueled Cornhole.

“We rode horses to school,” Aunt Maggie says, tapping ash on the fresh-cut lawn. “I’d set my younger sister, Anne-” she points to a pear-shaped woman unwrapping potato salad, forgetting Anne is this girl’s future mother-in-law. “I’d set her up on Bo, a giant of a horse, and slap his rear end. He’d be off at a gallop with Anne screaming like hell!” Aunt Maggie’s raspy laugh turns to violent cough and she braces her palm on her knee. The fiancée leans forward ready to catch her, scanning the crowd with pleading eyes. No one seems to be concerned, and to her relief, Aunt Maggie recovers. “Anyway, that’s when there was four of us.”

“Four of you?” her nephew appears and places his hands on his fiancée’s shoulders. She tilts her chin up to him with a smile.

Aunt Maggie counts on her fingers, “there’s Jimmy, me, Aaron, and Anne.”

“Who’s Jimmy?” her nephew says.

“Who’s Jimmy?” The name feels thick and unpracticed. “Well, Jimmy’s . . .” She starts as if he should know, but he wouldn’t know. It’s a name the three siblings rarely said after the incident, until it disappeared from their vocabulary as if Jimmy never existed. “Excuse me, sweetheart,” Aunt Maggie heaves her heavy frame out of the brittle chair, “my peonies need watering.” There’s an uncontrollable shake in her arm and her nephew offers help, but she waves him off and shuffles to the garden. She turns the rusty spigot with difficulty. The sprinkler jumps to life with an oscillating crown peppering the heavy-headed flowers with fat water drops. She rubs her arthritic joints. Her hands were once so strong they gave life and took it, now they’re paper thin and mapped in bright blue veins.

 

Sixty years earlier, Jimmy and Aaron left the house before the pre-dawn mist burned off to go hunting – a country boy’s version of a stag party, with, if all goes well, an actual stag. Maggie was glad to have them out of the way, there was a mountain of food to cook, and she didn’t want anything less than perfect for Jimmy’s wedding to her best friend, Claire. Even Bo got a bath and his tail braided for pulling the carriage to the ceremony.

Hours later, Anne and Pa sidled up to the kitchen table for breakfast.

“Find something to eat along the way,” Maggie huffed, and handed Pa a to-do list including delivering flowers to the congregational church. “Make sure he stays on track,” she winked at six-year-old Anne, who accompanied him to town.

Maggie set out fresh mixing bowls and confectionary sugar for the white icing. The cake she baked yesterday – an almond cake dyed pink using fruit gelatin, an idea stolen from Betty Crocker. It was a surprise for Claire who adored the color pink.

“Does Jimmy even know your favorite color?” Maggie had asked Claire on a full-moon evening after Jimmy proposed.

Claire shrugged, and said, “it’s okay if he doesn’t.” But Maggie didn’t agree. What good was a husband if he didn’t know what made his wife happy? Maggie knew Claire. Knew she hated maple syrup, but loved cinnamon spice. Knew what she wished for when a ladybug landed on her slender, freckled arm.

Knew how she liked to be kissed.

Claire had said, “you should find someone, too. I’m so happy we’ll be sisters.” She left it at that. Maggie convinced herself she wouldn’t mind seeing Claire and Jimmy together every day. She would do her best to ignore the marital noises coming from their bedroom across the hall after she moved into the big farmhouse with the rest of them. Claire’s assurance they were still best friends gave her hope.

Maggie turned her thoughts to the cake and picked up the whisk when Aaron burst through the door.

“Help him!” Aaron cried, dragging Jimmy over the threshold by the armpits. Vomit dribbled from Aaron’s chin, no doubt from the sight of the bullet wound in his brother’s stomach. It took both of them to heave Jimmy up on the table, sending measuring spoons and Pyrex crashing to the floor.

Jimmy floated in and out, groaning when Maggie rolled him on his side and prodded his back for an exit wound. There was none. She pressed her apron to the center of the blooming red flower saturating Jimmy’s shirt. Blood was streaked across the cabinets, the sink, the front door – a trail of Aaron gathering towels and water at Maggie’s command. Maggie screamed for help. In a house usually teeming with people it was her fault no one was around, having sent Anne and Pa away. She reached for the phone, dialed Dr. Ashford, then three of their neighbors on the party line, biting the skin on her top lip as the rotary ticked back around from each digit. No one answered.

“I thought he was a rabbit,” Aaron said, pacing on the other side of the table. “The bushes shook, they shook! I turned and fired.” He raised his arms in aim replaying the moment. Living where they did, and being Dr. Ashford’s assistant, Maggie had seen a few hunting accidents. Aaron used a small caliber rifle, so there was hope.

“It’s okay,” she said to Aaron, to Jimmy, to herself, to take the reassurance however they needed. Aaron’s movement in her periphery was distracting, and Jimmy was dying in front of her.

“He was just taking a piss!” Aaron sank to his knees.

Maggie looked up, first at Aaron, then the grandfather clock chiming eleven. If Pa completed his errands, which was unlikely, he would be at the bar while Anne searched for stones in the creek nearby.

“Go,” Maggie said through gritted teeth from the effort to stop the bleeding. She climbed on the table and knelt on Jimmy’s stomach to achieve more pressure. Jimmy yowled with a new recognition of pain. “Get Dr. Ashford!”

Aaron ran out the front door, slamming his shoulder into the frame, bouncing off it like a pinball off a bumper. He stumbled across the lawn toward the road, past Bo, who could have taken him there faster. By the time Maggie noticed, he was too far to call after.

Aaron was pulled from school at eleven-years-old, and often struggled with the simplest of tasks in the years that followed. But he was needed on the farm after Ma died giving birth to Anne and Pa became useless with grief and drink. Jimmy took charge, though at sixteen, he was barely a man. Maggie, two years younger, was thrust into the role of matriarch, which she took on with solemnity. Claire, far more maternal, babysat Anne so Maggie could work and, later on, attend nursing school. Maggie told Claire getting her degree was their ticket away from this place. They could even take Anne if that’s what she wanted. “We’ll have a small cottage near a stream and a big garden for your peonies,” Maggie promised, and Claire had smiled. They were making plans, or at least Maggie was. She didn’t know Claire was also spending time with Jimmy.

Jimmy grabbed Maggie’s rolled up shirtsleeve with a quaking fist and pulled her close to his face. His eyes darted around the room as if he wanted to make sure they were alone, and they were. “I’m in so much pain,” Jimmy moistened Maggie’s ear with seething breaths.

The grandfather clock chimed noon. To Maggie, time bound ahead as blood dripped at the pace of the second hand. She prayed for time to be suspended and focused on a single, pale eyelash on Jimmy’s unblinking eye. When his face blurred, she looked to the large granite landing outside, sparkling with mica, wishing for the brown wingtips of Dr. Ashford to appear.

Maggie exchanged her apron for a towel, making the switch as if Jimmy’s belly button were a balloon from which she didn’t want air to escape. Jimmy’s fist clenched in response to the change, making his forearm muscles bulge – the arms that enclosed Claire when they thought they were alone in the fields.

Maggie frowned at the spilled confectionary sugar clumping at Jimmy’s side, turning bright pink, and the scalloped cake plate in triangular shards at her feet.

“I want Claire,” Jimmy said through violent coughs, recapturing Maggie’s attention.

“She likes pink,” Maggie said.

“What?” Jimmy said, blinking the sweat out of his eyes.

“You ruined everything.”

To break free of this place, of the responsibilities she never asked for, she had to first set Claire free from her brother. Maggie dismounted from the table, the pressure on Jimmy’s stomach lessening. Where once blood pooled on the table top, now a thin stream trickled to the floor. She went to his feet and elevated his legs to accelerate the bleeding. He began to speak, eyes wide in confused pain, but his breath labored. He reached for her, but she didn’t move to take his hand and watched for the inevitable dimming of life. He gasped, writhed, and spit, and still she stared, detaching her mind from what was happening in front of her eyes. He gripped the edge of the table, the back of his hand like the anatomy drawing in her textbook – the tendons surging, fat blue veins rising. Then his arm fell slack. His head lulled to the side.

Bo whinnied at a car roaring up the dirt drive. Maggie set Jimmy’s feet down and resumed her place at his side, theatrically pressing a towel to his abdomen. A light wheezing escaped his lips – not so much with breath, but a convulsion, a reaction to life’s slow escape.

“Jimmy!” Claire dove to his side. She held his hand to her bare cheek, the mucus of her nose and tears further wetting his sweat-slick skin. Her hair tumbled out of their curlers. One cheek was rouged, the other pale with freckles – a scattered constellation Maggie often traced with her finger in the light of dawn before they had to relinquish fantasy to reality.

Maggie furrowed her brow at Claire’s body-jolting distress. Her stomach soured and threatened to throw up the rising bile, like the bile leaking in Jimmy’s gut infecting his other organs.

Claire’s heart was breaking in front of her. Jimmy dying didn’t fix anything. There would be no cottage, no garden, no full moon nights on the porch no matter what. Maggie was trapped, raising Anne, and stopping Aaron from running the farm into the ground.

Jimmy was still alive.

“Where is the doctor?” Maggie shouted. Not at Claire, poor Claire, who was so full of anticipation just this morning. But to herself, and to Aaron who wasn’t there.

“He went to get his medical bag,” Claire said, and upon looking up, rouging her bare cheek with Jimmy’s blood, like bright red lipstick.

“Press here,” Maggie reached across and had Claire put pressure on Jimmy’s wound. Then she tilted Jimmy’s head back, pinched his nose shut, and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, a new life-saving procedure. She tasted salt from the sweat above his lip. His chest rose and fell, yet he was listless. Dr. Ashford and Pa arrived. The doctor slipped on the blood-smeared floor. Pa guided Claire away from the table. Anne stared from the open door, mouth agape. She dropped a fistful of birch twigs.

The life Maggie breathed into Jimmy returned unused and smelled of the metallic tang of blood. She huffed harder, pressed firmer, pinched his nose so brutally, a live man would have groaned. Dr. Ashford pulled Maggie away by the shoulders and whispered she had done all she could. Claire wept coiled against Pa’s chest. Anne was gone from the doorway. Aaron was nowhere to be found.

 

Aaron did not get Dr. Ashford that day, nor did he get Pa at the bar. It was his intention until he found Anne at the stream and delegated the task to her. She worried Aaron’s frantic hand washing would scare away the minnows, and frowned at the ribbon of red traveling toward her in the clear water. She wanted to know what that was, if he was hurt, why did she have to get the doctor? He said, “I have to go,” and ran off. Anne did as she was told, but only after she collected a jar’s worth of birch twigs for which Maggie would pay her a penny and turn into medicine.

After Jimmy was laid to rest, Claire took a job in the city, moving in with another girl who worked in the same office. Maggie visited twice, but was a country mouse that couldn’t shed the smell of farm that repelled Claire so visibly. In time, Claire stopped answering Maggie’s letters, and Aaron’s letters from Vietnam began arriving.

Maggie did not cry when Pa died, a blessing after a decade of decline that threatened bankruptcy with every fall or bout of pneumonia. She did cry when the mature elms were felled and replaced with twisted topiary trees in the development rising around her. But if she was to send Anne to college, the farm had to be sold.

 

Photo of pink peonies
Photo by Teo Zac on Unsplash

“You still with us, Maggie?” Anne cracks a beer and holds it out for her sister to take, jolting Aunt Maggie out of her thousand-yard stare. Children shriek joyously, jumping through the sprinkler in bathing suits and birthday suits, their cheeks lobster-red from the sun. The flowers are over-watered, their heavy blooms bowing to the saturated ground. But Aunt Maggie lets the water flow at the big farm house where the pink peonies grow.


Alexis Kelleher
Alexis Kelleher’s short fiction was published in Raven’s Perch Literary Magazine’s February 2021 issue, and a personal essay on living with Crohn’s Disease in Apple in the Dark’s April 2021 issue. She lives in Connecticut and is seeking agent representation for her first novel. Follow her on Twitter: @AlexisKwrites.

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One thought on “Pink Peonies by Alexis Kelleher”

  1. Love this story! It seems so natural with these characters on the farm, often faced with difficult family members and situations.
    I hope Ms. Kelleher continues to write more compelling stories.

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