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Punishment and Prayer

            Every summer, at Grandma’s house in the country, where dust kicked across the yard with each passing car, we brothers spent two parched, Godforsaken weeks as her slaves, mostly in the garden, her pride and joy and our hangdog dread, because the fertile soil sustained corn and beans, squash and tomatoes so perfect they might have stepped out of one of her seed catalogue pictures, but that same soil nurtured weeds so numerous we could not learn all their names and insects so diverse we called them all “squash bugs” because that was our job, unless they were already on the plants and Grandma, in her sundress, socks rolled down over her clumping boots, her grin perfect but for two missing teeth, came out with a coffee can half-full of kerosene so that we could gather what we called “pick bugs,” because we had to pick them off the plants and drown them, and she might be standing at the door, hairy arms crossed over her ample bosom and inspect the can, sending us back until she saw only bugs floating on the kerosene and none of the greasy liquid itself, and even if we passed inspection the can would simply be exchanged for a hoe and one more hour hunched row after row—the same job Grandma had shown us could be done expertly by her in fifteen minutes, her strokes sharp and sure as if each weed was the head of one of her chickens in need of being cut off—or she might hand us a trowel, the handle as gnarled as her old knuckles, that looked like oversized marbles, and tell us to get the little weeds, saying, “Lift em out where they’re squeezing up against the tomato vines”—or she might point to a shovel, leaning next to the chicken coop, and tell us to carry some composted chicken and horse manure to the freshly cultivated garden, where, after we’d made it fresh each day for those two weeks, she’d haul in a metal lawn chair and just sit, eventually snoring while we finally rested until she startled herself awake, searched the garden for the perfect vegetables and went inside and soon called us to supper, eaten by lamplight, the wick resting in the same  kerosene the bugs had drowned in, the flame sometimes popping with an unstrained grasshopper part—or so we imagined---and the smell reminding us of our day under the flaming sun and the stern eye of Grandma, and after dinner, by that same murderous kerosene light, we read the Bible and said our prayers and went to our room where the only coolness would come after midnight, when Grandma snored, dreaming of her garden, and the old house would begin to breathe night air and we could finally sleep, and just before rest took us, we might say, one to the other, “Prayer sure smells like kerosene,” and the other, “But heaven must sure taste like sweet corn,” each of us dreaming of a garden that would assure us the same pure taste each summer of our lives.

"Punishment and Prayer" first appeared in Flint Hills Review






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