Summer Solstice 2021- Cancer at 0°, by Jessica Nettles (PG)
“You get the stone circle ready yet, Pickle?”
Delia stopped at the bedroom door and almost dropped the tray holding her Daddy’s breakfast of watery oatmeal and flavorless coffee. It had been weeks since he’d last said anything that made sense, and even longer since he’d called her by that particular name. She pasted a smile on her face and sat the tray on top of the blanket chest. He glared at her as she set up the breakfast table and she moved the tray to feed him.
“It’s almost ready.”
The old man slapped the table hard enough to make the oatmeal splatter across his arm. “Don’t lie to me, Delia!”
She never could hide things from him.
“They don’t matter. Time’s getting’ short. I need to be ready.”
“For what, Daddy? For what?” Delia picked up the spoon to feed him, but he waved her off.
“Never mind. You just think I’m off my rocker just like that doctor you got in here yesterday.”
Delia had no idea how he knew the doctor had been in the day before. He’d slept through the entire visit.
“I’ll make sure everything’s just right. Now don’t you worry.”
The coffee cup shook in Cyrus’s hand as he brought it to his lips. His green-gray eyes pierced down to her essence as if mining out the truth she wanted to obscure.
After that, they sat in silence for the rest of the meal. When she took the tray from the table, he grabbed her arm. “That’s my Pickle.”
He’d started talking about “going home” back last August after the initial spell while he was picking purple-hull peas in the backyard. If Miz Hollis hadn’t seen him go down between the vines from her kitchen window, Lord only knows what would have happened. Delia raced to the house and found sitting on a gurney having words with two men half his age.
“Ain’t no need for y’all to take me to no hospital, son.” He said to the dark haired EMT. His stocky blond partner shrugged and Cyrus shook his hand as Delia approached.
Before they left she pulled one of them aside, ”I’ll call his cardiologist in the morning, promise.” She led Daddy back into the house. He sat in his blue recliner and she brought him some iced tea.
“Won’t be much longer.” Cyrus had never been particularly religious, so this kind of talk surprised her. He took a long draw from the tall glass,
“What are you talkin’ about?” She sat next to him in the Shaker rocker they’d restored together a few years before.
“Gotta get ready to go home soon.”
“You been talking to ‘The Prophet’ lately?” She kidded him about one of the regulars at the Waffle House around the corner who always turned the conversation to Revelations and the return of Christ. She and Cyrus used to humor him and then laugh about it on the way home.
He stood up and took her by the hand. “Now you know that man is crackers. Let’s go downstairs a minute.”
She followed him into the dimness of the basement where he built furniture and repaired guns. The smell of smoke and metal rose around his darkened forge as they passed it. She had to step around piles of wood and sawdust. Her t-shirt caught on the corner of the tablesaw as if it had reached out. After making their way down a few more half-blocked paths, he stopped in front of a green metal cabinet.
“What? You found a magical door to somewhere else?”
He laughed. “Not exactly.” He removed a rainbow-striped bungee cord from the handles and the doors popped open. Inside, round garden tiles were stacked in two towers of six each. The top two were shiny and smooth.
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to. This ain’t about you, Pickle.”
“If it’s about you, then it is about me.”
“Very soon, things are gonna change around here. That fall in the garden is just the beginning. I need you to help me get ready.”
“Daddy, are you sick and didn’t tell me? You promised to tell me if you got—”
“Consider this me tellin’ you. Now, listen! You gotta put those stones out in the back lawn when I tell you to. Don’t argue or mess around. Just do it.” He’d not used that tone with her since she was a child and helped him in the shop.
She looked down at her sawdust coated Keds. “Why don’t we do this now, while we can?”
“Cause it ain’t time yet.” He closed the cabinet, wrapped the cord around the handles, and walked away.
She didn’t know how to argue with that. “Okay.”
By October, the cardiologists had done their tests and scratched their heads. His heart was strong and there were no blockages. The neurologists thought it may be a tumor somewhere in his brain, but Cyrus refused to let them do a biopsy or start treatment. Delia held back her panic until they were in the car.
“Those doctors back there could help you if you’d let them.”
He patted her arm as she gripped the steering wheel tight so it anchored her in the seat. “They wouldn’t have any idea what to do if they cut me open.”
“It’s what they’re trained to do. They didn’t just fall off the Walmart truck in Paulding County.”
“Have I ever gone to the doctor?”
Daddy’s health was a given in her mind. He never slowed down even as he moved into his 80s. She, and especially Momma, had always gone to the doctor, so she assumed he had too, but now that she thought about it, she couldn’t remember a single time he’d been sick or needed to go.
His voice broke through her thoughts. “Folk say to me, ‘You don’t act your age,’ and I say, ‘What am I supposed to act like?’”
“But you’ll die.” She stared out into the parking lot, not wanting to let him see her cry.
“They have no idea what’s gonna happen. Take me home.”
She pushed back the tears and cranked the car. She dared not argue. Instead, she drove him back to the house. She moved back home in November.
On December 21, he sat down at the kitchen table while she rolled out red and green dough for Christmas pinwheels. “Six months left.”
She didn’t look at him. “What are you talkin’ about, dad?”
“You gotta get those stones set by June.” He drank from the same Jadite mug he’d sipped coffee from her whole life.
She put the red dough on top of the green and pinched the edges together. “It’s Christmas. I don’t need to hear about how you’re goin’ home soon.”
“Sometimes, I see it in my dreams now. The veils are thinner, and I can see.” He rocked a little and his eyes grew distant.
Somewhere she’d read that when people with brain troubles or tumors get like this, you should just go along with them. Let them talk. “What do you see?” She didn’t expect a coherent answer. In fact, she kind of expected that kind of Heaven talk that “The Prophet” spouted over greasy bacon and half-done waffles.
“A large house with hanging gardens. There’s a sparkling blue river flowing at the back of the yard and smooth skinned blue people fish at the edges. They bring me food every day. In the evenings the sky is purple and gold and we dance on the patio and drink from crystal tubes.” He began to hum a tune she didn’t recognize.
He swayed in his chair hummed some more.
Before she could stop herself, she said, “And there are angels and gold roads, right?”
He stopped mid-hum and slammed down his cup. “If you’re gonna make fun of me, I’ll keep it to myself.”
“But Daddy…well, shit.” She punched down into the layers of dough, not caring that it blended the red into the green.
In February, Delia sat him down at the same table to look at the new seed catalogs he’d ordered back in September. They could have looked on the Internet, but he preferred flipping through the pages and circling what he wanted to order with a black Sharpie. This year, he couldn’t hold the fat marker without his hand shaking. Instead, he pointed, and she circled.
“You ought to pick what you want. I’m gonna be gone by the time harvest comes.”
“Well, until we’re sure, I prefer having a few things you want this year. It’d be a shame to not have any vegetables you like if you do end up staying around longer than you plan.”
Once the seed and supplies arrived, Delia had prepared the solar planters for his usual wave of tomatoes, which would be put in the ground at the end of May under the Flower Moon.
Her days were now filled with helping Daddy and working through the fifty years of clutter he and Momma gathered during their time together. Cyrus hadn’t said a word about the stones or his dreams since before Christmas. On good days, he helped her go through a closet or showed her one of the cardinal pins he carved to give to the waitresses at Waffle House. After the New Year, she left her job. Her boss filed it as a “sabbatical” so that she’d get some compensation, but there was an unspoken understanding that a return was not imminent.
One evening in late April, she came into the living room and plunked a tray in front of Daddy. He grabbed her arm hard.
“It won’t work if they ain’t laid out.”
She tried to extract herself, but he held on tight. “You gotta let me go if you want me to do this for you.”
He looked puzzled for a moment and then laughed and released her. For a moment he looked like the young man who raised her, hugged her when she was scared, and rescued her when she needed it. “I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important to me.”
“What’s there to be afraid of? They’re stones.”
“The way you talk about them. The dreams. You being sick…”
“I’ve been here a long time now. Longer than I expected.” He took her hands and squeezed them. “It was your momma, you know.”
“You saw her at the beach…”
“With her sister and I was new. . .in town.” The way he paused toward the end was odd to Delia even if she’d heard the story a million times. She shrugged it off because his speech pattern had been changing since the fall.
“Momma told you her Daddy could fix...”
“My vehicle because it broke down near the beach.”
Usually, he said my car or my truck (the story shifted over the years but no one called him on it because the story was so adorable). Then she recited, “He towed it to his basement at the edge of town.”
He laughed, almost as if cued by the universe. “By the time he figured out how to fix it, I didn’t want to leave because of—“
“Momma.” She added, just where she was supposed to.
What he said next wasn’t part of the ritual. “But now, I can’t stay any more. It’s time to go back. It’s been time.”
“Go where, Daddy?”
He waved his hand at her to stop her from going further and dug into supper.
She sat in silence as her pasta grew cold. She picked at the bread a little but didn’t look at her Daddy again. “I’ll get the stones set up once it gets warm outside.”
The dogwood and azaleas bloomed and faded, and the days grew longer, but Cyrus withered,and his cognizant times shortened. Delia had never seen him so small. She had to hold his shaking arm when they went to the Waffle House, and he often didn’t want much more than coffee when they went. He also kept quiet as if he knew he didn’t make much sense to anyone else.
She let “The Prophet” pray over them even if she doubted that those prayers helped much. When Daddy had aware times, he would smile and pat the man on the hand and thank him. Other times, he sipped his coffee and stared out through those huge panes of glass up at the sky. By mid-May he spent most of his time in his bedroom with his nurse.
Delia shut the door behind her and let Tony the nurse handle the remains of breakfast. Tony promised to calm Daddy down. Wiping her eyes, she made her way to the back porch to look out over the backyard. The end of May had arrived with a few storms and a rather sudden rise in temperature. A mid-June haze rose around the farm on Memorial Day
She needed to gather tools for planting in a few days, so she went to the basement. Before she’d made it to the garden equipment, she heard something buzzing deeper inside. She grabbed hornet spray and moved toward the drone. The hum got louder as she moved toward the back. She gazed up at the bottom of the house without paying attention to where she’d gone. She turned on lights and looked up in the shadowy corners where wood met cement walls. She backed into something covered with a half-rotten tarp.
The hornet spray dropped from her hand, and she screamed. The rhythm of heavy footsteps moved above her and the upstairs door to the area popped hard.
“You okay down there, Miss Delia?”
Tony’s warm voice cut through her mild panic.
Her heart raced, but she managed to respond. “I just…tripped on some of Mr. Cyrus’s junk down here. Thought I heard some hornets buzzing around.”
Once the the door closed, she touched the edge of the brown tarp. The entire side cracked and crumbled like stale wafers. Delia coughed as a mixture of wasted spiderweb, sawdust, and old-house grime wafted around her.
Beneath the ruined tarp a crumpled ball of metal and fused glass. Cyrus was fascinated with all sorts of oddball things and collected them, so this was no real shock. The shock came when a light from somewhere inside the half-melted scrap started flashing – first green, then yellow, then purple, then swirling all three. It did this three times in succession, then stopped, then another pattern of three.
She dropped the cover back over the abandoned project and scrambled toward the light of the basement door.
Without a word, she picked up the garden tools, put them in the wheelbarrow, and marched to the backyard. She came back long enough to get her mini-tiller and slide the basement door behind her.
Delia didn’t start the actual garden work until after supper that evening. Daddy always planted this way, so why not. He’d set out all the tools first, and till the plot. She did the same. Then she did like Momma and made supper with the last of the vegetables from the freezer. Instead of the usual family feast, she ate alone, trying not to even consider what she’d seen in the basement. After that, she went back out to prep the seedlings and line off sections of the soft ground that would feed her for the next year.
Right at sunset Tony appeared on the porch. “He wants you right now.”
She brushed the dirt off her hands. Without a word, she followed him.
Cyrus sat up in bed and ate toast with peach jam he’d made last June. He grinned.
“It’s the Flower Moon! Tonight we plant and lay the stones.”
She had no idea how he knew what night it was but went with it. “What’s this ‘we,’ Daddy?”
He patted her hand and gave her instructions about planting the garden that night which totally opposed what she’d already planned, but once again, she humored him. Around ten or eleven that night, he fussed until Tony rolled him out onto the porch to watch Delia plant his tomatoes and her sweet peppers under the last full moon of May. He also insisted that she plant the marigolds around the edge of the plot. Finally, she put out the purple hull seedlings.
“While you’re out there, you may as well put out the stones like I’ve told you to a million times.”
“Daddy, it’s late.”
“I ain’t leavin’ this porch until you do what I say. It won’t take nothin’ for you to do this one thing for me.”
She said nothing as she put up the last of the cages around the tomatoes. It was already after midnight. He cleared his throat the way he always did when he dug in and stood his ground. She grabbed the handles of the yellow wheelbarrow at the edge of the garden and pushed it down the hill to the side of the house where the basement door waited to be opened again. She set the wheelbarrow down and couldn’t help but cry a bit. Then she thought about how he dug in back there and had to laugh. Some things don’t change. She’d resist, but in the end, he’d get his way about most things.
If he wanted these stones placed now, so be it.
She loaded the wheelbarrow with the twelve stones that looked a bit like the cement garden stones that you could find at the garden shop. Not a speck of dust covered them, and the tops looked like they had been polished in some way. They weren’t as heavy as they looked and were warm like they’d been sitting in the sun. She slid that door open and pushed her load out into the clear, silver light of the Flower Moon and around to the garden at the back of the house.
“Where do you want them, Daddy?” Her voice echoed in the darkness.
“Listen to them. You’ll know what to do.”
His response didn’t surprise her. He’d said the same when she learned to drive, rented her first apartment, and interviewed for her first career-level job. She shook her head and picked up a stone. A sigil shone silver on the surface, as if lit by the moon. The soft cool of early morning air rolled away from her, and the backyard glowed golden and bright like a summer afternoon. She rode on Daddy’s shoulders and they both laughed. The scent of Aqua Velva and cigarettes embraced her. She felt safe and loved. Momma came out from the house with cups of homemade peach ice cream. He swung her down to the ground and they sat in a circle on the soft grass near the ever-present garden. When the vision faded, she saw indentations in the grass and dandelions. Something opened in her mind and the sigil read as “five.” She placed it in the fifth indentation at the top of the circle.
The second stone brought her to the beach and the time she and Daddy spent all day swimming and catching crabs from a pier. Her momma cooked them up and Daddy showed her how to pick out all the best meat from the shells. Then they played with the larger-bodied shells like they were spaceships. The number eight rose in her mind as she placed it in the circle.
The next stone didn’t change anything at first, but then the world flipped, and she fell down down down. Green and yellow and lavender lights flashed around her as the whine of an engine rose behind her. Everything went dark again. Cool air flushed around her as a face surrounded by golden sunlight leaned in and said, “Are you alright?” The vision ended, and Delia returned to the garden with a stone that signaled “one.” She didn’t remember this story, but the need to set stones overwhelmed any questions.
Stone after stone shared a piece of their lives. Some she didn’t remember, like Daddy cradling a baby swaddled in a blanket Delia sort of remembered while singing in words she didn’t understand. Others she cried over, like when he’d picked her up at that gas station when Lenny Freeman left her because she refused to run off to Ringgold with him.
All of his love and worry and pride in her was documented in these things.
The final stone took her to a shining white building she’d never seen. She stood at a massive transparent, arched door that revealed a room lit by pale sunlight and furnished with tables and chairs like Daddy made. A person in a gauzy gown padded across her view but didn’t notice her. Their skin was the palest blue and their movement and figure reminded Delia of someone familiar but out of reach. She leaned closer and almost dropped the stone. The blue-skinned person turned toward her and put their hand to their mouth. Delia fumbled the stone again and the vision faded before she could learn this person’s identity.
When she lifted the stone again, the vision did not reappear. She laid it on the grass where she knew it went. She hugged herself. As usual, Daddy was right. She’d figured out what to do.
The sky shifted from deep cobalt, to navy, to indigo and now to a sort of soft gray-teal while she worked. The sun would be rising soon enough. She made her way to the porch where Cyrus slept in a green lawn recliner. The smile on his face made him look almost boyish. Tony wanted to carry him inside, but Delia stopped him. Instead, she pulled up a boxy lawn chair and held her Daddy’s hand until the sun rose and gave the moon respite.
During the next three weeks, the tomatoes, peppers, peas, and marigold grew and blossomed in a splash of white, gold, red, and lavender. The scent of earth and organic fertilizer wafted onto the porch on the first day of summer. Delia sipped some iced tea and hummed a half-remembered song from the radio. She sat on the back swing enjoying the humid heat of the evening. Most folk couldn’t take it much past the first week of June, but she loved the thick warmth of this part of the year. It invigorated her and made her feel like a child again.
Cyrus spoke less and less since the Flower Moon, as if he’d granted all of his best energy to the garden. Tony said it wouldn’t be long now, but he hadn’t needed to tell her. There were so many things she wanted to ask Cyrus and now, he wasn’t talking. On Memorial Day, she asked about the metal thing downstairs and what she’d seen with that one stone, but the words didn’t come out right and she sounded crazy, so she stopped. He didn’t say a word, but his green-gray eyes sparkled for a second, and he squeezed her hand. For a moment, his hand looked bluish under his wrinkled skin, like he’d bruised himself somehow.
She drank the last of her iced tea and watched the light go off over at Miz Hollis’s house. Funny enough, the old woman hadn’t come over to find out what the stones were about or anything else. Before she could wonder how her neighbor was, she heard what sounded like a bit of a scuffle from inside her own house and then Tony rolled Cyrus out onto the porch with her.
“What are you doin’ sittin’ around, Pickle? Tonight’s the night!”
The nurse locked the wheels. “He woke up and started asking to come out here like nothing is wrong. Never seen the likes…”
“Daddy, you don’t get to determine when it’s time.”
“I know I don’t. They do.” He pointed to the backyard and the stones. Lavender, indigo, and pink painted themselves across the sky even though it was nearly nine. The hair on Delia’s arms stood up as if there was a storm brewing, but no clouds spread across the sunset. “Now get me out there!” Cyrus unbuckled himself and used the arms of the wheelchair to push up to his feet.
She put her arm around his small waist and steadied him. “Slow down. We’ll get you down there.” Tony took one arm and Delia took the other. Together they led him down the stairs and into the backyard. She started to lead her Daddy to the stone circle, but he pulled toward the garden. “Gotta make sure you got plenty for later.”
They walked through each row. The plants nodded toward them as they passed. The scent of flowers, fertilizer, and new grown life embraced them as they made their way through to the end of the rows.
“Daddy, what about that metal thing in the basement?” She sputtered it out, afraid her chance to learn was waning.
He laughed. “Don’t need it now, but wrecking it was the best thing ever happened to me.”
He led them to the circle, and then embraced Delia. “You know, everyone told me this was some sort of backwater place and we didn’t need to be here. It’s been a fine home, especially for raising young ones.”
With that, Cyrus stepped inside the stones. Delia tried to follow him. He stopped her and held her hands. His own hands were pale blue and frail.
“This ain’t for you. Not now, Pickle.”
Delia didn’t know what to do or say except, “I love you, Daddy.”
He winked at her like he always did when he was up to something.
The stones reflected the colors of the sky, but the last one was silvery white. The house and the garden and even Tony faded for a moment as the light rose around them. She squinted enough that she could turn and face where Cyrus was standing. Instead of a withered old man, she saw a willowy blue figure with dark, broad eyes and flowing gauze robes. He grinned that crooked way Cyrus always had and then disappeared.
Delia found herself lying in the grass next to the circle and gazing up at the starry night sky. From nearby she heard Tony grunt, “Woah.” She sat up and found the circle empty. How long had she been there?
The big nurse stood over her in his usual green scrubs. Tony offered his hand. “What do I tell the folks at hospice?”