Read The Sunflower Forest Online
Authors: Torey Hayden
n that year what I wanted most was a boyfriend. I was seventeen and had never had a date. I had the rest: breasts, hair under my arms, my period, the desire. I certainly had the desire.
Once, when I was little and not too informed about the mechanics, my best friend and I had pretended to make love, our legs spread apart scissor-fashion, until we were crotch to crotch, one person’s sneaker under the other person’s nose. My grandmother had caught us at it. She sent Cecily home and spanked me with a wooden mixing spoon and made me sit in the pantry to say Hail Marys. There was no doubt in her mind, she said: I got such interests from my mother. Perhaps I did. However, even at that tender age, I had decided that they weren’t such bad interests to have.
Nonetheless, I had reached seventeen with nothing more than a valentine from Wayne Carmelee and three kisses stolen by a Danish Eagle Scout under the bleachers at the county fair in Sandpoint, Idaho.
This was a source of great personal dismay to me and not helped at all by my sister Megan, who was nine that year and always willing to confirm for me that I was just as ugly as I assumed I must be. She also suggested that I probably smelled bad to boys.
My father told me that all I needed was patience. It was a natural thing, and you couldn’t stop nature from catching up with you. My time would come, he said. I replied that if we hadn’t moved around as much as we had, perhaps nature would have already located me.
So, in the end, it was Mama I went to for comfort. I asked her when she first fell in love.
‘Hans Klaus Fischer,’ she said to me. She was scrubbing the floor in the kitchen when I found her. Down on her hands and knees on the linoleum, her hair tied up in a red bandanna, she paused and considered the question. And grinned. Reaching up on the kitchen counter for her cigarettes, she sat down again on the floor and leaned back against the counter next to the sink. She crossed her legs and balanced the ashtray on one knee. ‘That was when I was living in Dresden with Tante Elfie. You see, I wasn’t supposed to be seeing boys. I was just turned fifteen and Tante said I couldn’t go out yet. They were very strict in those days, you understand.’ She lit the cigarette and over the top of it, her eyes were smiling. We both knew that what Tante Elfie said probably never had much effect on what my mother did.
‘He was the baker’s son. I met him because Tante Elfie made me go after the bread every day. If she’d sent Birgitta, who knows? Perhaps I would never have met him. But Birgitta was the lazy one.
‘Anyhow, he was at the back of the shop each day, taking down the loaves.’ She paused and her eyes were still on me. ‘And do you think he was handsome?’
‘Was he, Mama?’ I asked. You always prompted Mama with her stories. That was half the fun.
‘Was he handsome? Well, I will tell you. His hair was maybe the colour of yours. A little darker, perhaps, and combed down like this. That’s the way the boys wore their hair in those days. His eyes were blue, well, maybe more a blue-green. And light. A light, light blue-green. Like the colour old glass is sometimes. And he had very fine lips. Thin. Normally, I don’t like thin lips on a man, but with Hans Klaus Fischer, they gave him such a very …what can I say? …important expression. Haughty, that’s the word for it. He would stand in the back room and take down the loaves, and I would think, “Mara, you
have that boy for your boyfriend.” You could tell how important he was just by looking at him.’
She grinned at me. ‘I was very much in love with him. I went every day for the bread, and while I waited, all I could think of was kissing those fine, important-looking lips.’
‘And did you?’
‘Well, in the beginning it was very hard to get him to notice me. I was just one girl, and there were many girls in love with Hans Klaus Fischer.’
‘But you did get him to fall in love with you, didn’t you?’ I asked.
She was still grinning. With one hand she stuck long strands of hair back up under her bandanna, and she said nothing. Mama didn’t have to. She just grinned.
‘What did you do? How did you get him to notice you when there were all those other girls?’
‘I began to come in wearing my
Bund deutscher Mädchen
uniform. Every day. Even when there wasn’t a meeting. You see, he was a group leader with the Youth Movement.’ She paused, reflecting, and studied the end of her cigarette. The smile came back to her lips. ‘Sometimes I would see him in the back of the shop, and he would have his uniform on. He was very handsome in that uniform. He had a sort of strut in his walk when he wore his uniform; I could tell he thought it made him somebody. So, I thought to myself, Mara, he’s going to like you if he thinks you’re a good member of the
‘And did he?’
She winked at me.
‘What did Tante Elfie say then? Did she mind that you were seeing a boy when you weren’t supposed to?’
‘Well, she did a little. At first she did. But I told her what a fine family Hans Klaus came from. I told her what a good boy he was. He was very clever at his studies, you see, and I heard his father tell Frau Schwartz once in the bakers that Hans Klaus might be chosen for the Adolf Hitler School. It was almost a sure thing, he said. So when Tante knew that, she said I could go dancing with him on Friday nights. If Birgitta went along. You know.’ She laughed. ‘To make sure I never really found out much about kissing those fine lips. They were very strict in those days. Not like now.’
‘But how did you make him love you, that’s what I want to know. How did you get him to ask you out for a date in the first place?’
Holding the cigarette out, Mama gazed at it before finally snuffing it out in the ashtray. The floor all around us was still wet, and we sat together, barricaded behind scrub brushes, the pail and floor rags, our backs against the kitchen cupboard.
‘I did a rather naughty thing,’ Mama said. Her voice was low and conspiratorial.
‘What was that?’
‘Well, when he came to the front of the shop once to talk to me, I told him I was really the granddaughter of the Archduke.’
I laughed. ‘You did?’
‘I told him my grandfather was the Archduke and that I had been sent to Dresden for my safety. To live with Tante Elfie, who wasn’t really my auntie at all but just a nanny my family paid to take care of me.’
That struck me as amusing, just the sort of thing I could picture Mama doing with such melodramatic realism that poor Hans Klaus Fischer no doubt never knew what hit him.
‘Why on earth did you do that?’ I asked.
Giving a shrug, she giggled. ‘I don’t know. It was just something I did. I wanted to make sure he liked me. I was afraid he wouldn’t.’
‘But it was a lie, Mama,’ I said, still tickled with the mental image of it.
Another shrug and she pursed her lips in a pensive expression. ‘No. Not really. Just a story. I didn’t mean it to hurt. There just weren’t enough interesting true things to tell him.’
‘So, you told him the Archduke was your grandfather?’
‘Well, you see, you must understand, I was quite desperate about him. I just wanted things to be nice. I thought if he believed that, then he would certainly want to go dancing with me. And once he knew me, then it wouldn’t matter any more who I was related to.’ She looked over at me, and the joke of it sparkled in her eyes. ‘You must understand, I was only fifteen. Everyone’s a little mad when they’re fifteen, believe me.’
‘Did he ever find out the truth?’
She shrugged and rose up on her knees to finish the rest of the floor. ‘I don’t know. After I went to Jena, I never saw him again.’
I was dreaming. It was about the house on Stuart Avenue where we had lived before Megan was born. I was upstairs in the small attic room that my father had made into a bedroom for me. I was standing in front of the little window, looking down on the street below. But instead of the elms that had lined either side of Stuart Avenue, there were sunflowers. The avenue was empty but the sun was shining and it was very beautiful.
However, even though it seemed like the house on Stuart Avenue, I knew it actually wasn’t. It was the apartment in Detroit where we had lived for a while when I was very young. While the bedroom upstairs belonged to Stuart Avenue, I knew that the stairway would lead down into the apartment in Detroit.
In the dream I could hear Mama crying. She was sitting on a cardboard box in the gloomy little storage area under the stairs. But I was still upstairs in the house on Stuart Avenue.
‘Lesley, are you ever going to get up?’
I jerked awake.
Megan was standing in the doorway of my bedroom. She had nothing on but her underpants and an oversized T-shirt that said ‘NASA Johnson Space Center/Houston’ across the front. Leaning against the door frame, she braced one foot against the shin of her other leg. ‘Daddy says you have to get up right now, Lesley. He has to go to work for a while this morning and he says you got to come down and stay with Mama while he’s gone.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Almost nine o’clock. Daddy says he’ll be back after lunch.’
She turned and left without shutting the door behind her.
I closed my eyes. I could still remember the dream. I had awakened so abruptly that it clung to me and seemed very real, even as it faded.
By the time I’d dressed and come down to the kitchen, my father had already left. Megan was there, still eating breakfast. She had her chair pushed back from the table, her legs drawn up under the generous folds of the NASA T-shirt. Mama was clearing away the breakfast dishes and putting them into the sink. The radio was playing very loudly.
Saturday Morning Swap Shop
. My mother was addicted to the show, relishing all the bargains she dreamed of getting.
I reached over and took a slice of bread to put into the toaster. It was a wholemeal type, full of crunchy little wheat berries. Although it made wonderful toast, it was messy to eat because all the wheat berries tumbled everywhere. And Megan, who already had a piece, wasn’t helping things. She was picking wheat berries out and carefully setting them atop her knees, which, pulled up under the T-shirt, formed a knobby platform. Then she licked the wheat berries off with the tip of her tongue. Each one, one by one.
‘Honestly, Megan, you eat like a pig,’ I said.
Megan set another wheat berry out, looked over to make certain I was watching and then languidly pulled it up with the tip of her tongue.
‘Mama, look at her. Look at the disgusting mess Megan is making with her toast.’
My mother turned from the sink. She regarded Megan a moment and shook her head. ‘You’re making crumbs everywhere,’ she said. ‘Sit up and put your feet down where they belong.’
I went to the cupboard for Rice Krispies.
‘Megan, Mama said put your feet down,’ I said when I returned to the table with my bowl of cereal.
‘So? You’re not my mother.’
‘Well, she is. So, do it, Megan. Mama said to.’
‘So, make me.’
Annoyed, I sat down.
When Megan continued to pick at her toast, I reached over and grabbed one of her legs. I yanked it down to the floor.
Mama ignored us. She kept her back to us and continued to do the dishes. She had a Brillo pad in one hand and the old cast-iron skillet in the other and was really giving it hell. Occasionally, she would pause and put to her lips the cigarette that was burning in the ashtray on the windowsill. Once she turned the radio higher. But she never turned around.
When Megan reached for another piece of toast, I clamped my hand over her wrist.
‘Stop it!’ Megan said, rather louder than necessary. ‘Stop bossing me around all the time, Lesley.’
‘The way you’re eating that toast is nauseating and you know it. Now, you can’t have another slice. You’re making a mess on purpose.’
‘Leave me alone.’
‘Mama? Make Megan stop. She’s still picking at her bread. She didn’t listen to you at all the first time.’
‘Lesley, let go of me. Let go of my arm! I mean it.’ Megan leaped to her feet to yank her arm free. The motion knocked her chair over backwards with a resounding bang.
Mama turned around.
We both looked at her. She picked up her cigarette and snuffed it out in the ashtray with great care. The room went so quiet that I thought I could hear the sound of the cigarette against the glass of the ashtray, in spite of the clamour of
Saturday Morning Swap Shop
Wearily, Mama raised a hand to run through the hair alongside her face. ‘What is the matter with you two? You’re sisters. How can you always argue?’
We didn’t answer. There was no point in answering.
‘I can’t understand you,’ Mama said. ‘Why aren’t you happy? You have such good lives. O’Malley and I, we love you. We give you everything. And still you aren’t happy.’
‘We’re happy,’ Megan said.
‘We were just horsing around, Mama,’ I said. ‘We didn’t mean to sound like we were arguing. Did we, Megs? We were just playing.’
‘I cannot understand you.’
happy, Mama,’ Megan said again and there was soft desperation in her voice. ‘See? See? I’m smiling. I’m happy. Me and Lesley, we’re real happy. Don’t cry, OK?’