-Published in COG Magazine, Issue 17.
During part of their journey, the Lewis and Clark party subsisted for a time solely on pawpaws, escaping starvation by eating them until they could reach a settlement some one hundred fifty miles away. If they could do it, so can I.
I inspect the grayish-green oblong resting comfortably in my palm. It is a good eight ounces. I squeeze gently and it gives a little, like a perfectly ripe peach. What color will the flesh be? It could be anything from creamy, pale yellow to bright gold or orange. How will it taste? Some taste like banana-mango, some more like pineapple-cantaloupe. Two things I can count on: a wildwood tang and the slick smoothness of thick pudding.
My stomach rumbles. Ripping away the stem end with my thumbnails, I slurp the pulp of a perfect pawpaw, not stopping until the skin is sucked dry and seven brown seeds the size of lima beans lie at my feet.
Mama likes to tell the story of how my first food other than mother’s milk was when Daddy poked his little finger into pawpaw pudding and put it in my baby-bird mouth. She says I sucked hard, waving my arms and legs wildly and crying when it was gone. I have no reason to doubt it. We had two pawpaw patches on the old home place, and every farm I ever visited had at least one. I guess they’re still there. Every fall I waited impatiently for the fruit to ripen, and as long as they lasted, we gorged.
I pick another, easily snapping the stem from the branch. This time I savor the flavor. I roll the pulp around on my tongue and breathe deeply, the whiff of citrus enhancing the taste. The pawpaws from this patch taste of banana and mango. One of the patches at the old home place tasted like this.
Maybe that first taste of pawpaw marked me for life, for it’s always been my favorite fruit. In school, when we had to write papers or research something, I almost always chose a topic related to pawpaws. I read everything I could get my hands on.
Reaching for a third fruit, I check the position of the sun and realize that more than six hours have passed since breakfast. I left as soon as his truck cleared the long, winding lane. Going back now would probably be safe. I could probably do it, if I was to hurry, and get most of the chores done. I could take pockets full of pawpaws, and he’d believe I couldn’t forego the harvest. He hates pawpaws but knows that I love them. He wouldn’t like it but he’d never know I intended to leave again.
Pawpaw goo has stuck my fingers together, so I kneel at the nearby creek, dipping my hands into rippling water, every muscle stiff and sore. A patch of sunlit grass beckons me to rest. A light autumn breeze lifts my hair. I listen for birds and insects, but none are discernible over the sound of leaves rustling overhead. But then there wouldn’t be much to hear anyway because most animals avoid pawpaw trees, put off by the fetid, rotting-meat scent of the flowers early on, followed by the disagreeable-smelling leaves and toxic bark. Deer, rabbits, goats—all leave pawpaw trees well enough alone—although I did see a mule eating pawpaw leaves in Maryland that one time. Even loving pawpaws as I do, when they flower I only check on them from afar and upwind.
On the other hand, pawpaw fruit is another matter entirely. Squirrels, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, wolves, and black bears all feast on ripe pawpaws. It’s all a matter of the time being right. If I’m still here after dark, maybe I’ll have some nocturnal visitors. A shudder ripples down my back. I can do without the companionship of any of them.
The rustling leaves and burbling stream are peaceful and pulling me toward sleep. I’d had none last night, tied to the kitchen chair till it was time to make breakfast. He’d untied me then and handed me the list of what he expected me to do today. He’ll be furious if he comes home and finds nothing on the table but the breakfast dishes.
Thinking of him, a shot of adrenaline yanks me to full consciousness. He said he loved me. Back then, holding hands, feeling his arm drop across my shoulders as we walked around the town, I felt loved and protected. Probably he was just staking a claim, warning other men off. He still says he loves me. But when he puts his arm across my shoulders now, it’s to hold me back. He holds my hand to pull me in the direction I will walk.
I don’t mind not having running water or a refrigerator. Truly. But I hate that our only vehicle is his truck. He says I can’t drive the flatbed and hides the keys for good measure. He drives when we go to church, takes my elbow to guide me in, and sits close enough that our thighs touch. When we go to town for flour, sugar, and such, he drives, pushes the cart, and pays cash. The only money I have is change found around the couch cushions. Once he found $1.04 in my stocking drawer and slapped me around a little—just enough to remind me who’s in charge and warn me not to do it again. Now whenever I find a coin, I sew it into the pockets of my favorite dress.
I’m only ever alone at the house. How did he come to control every minute of my every day?
This time I won’t go back. I’ve left six times already, and he’s always fetched me back. But those times I went home to Mama, to my sisters’ houses, to my best friend from school. This time I won’t go to any of those places. Everybody likes him—always have, ever since he was the town football hero, ten years ahead of me in school. When they ask whether he’s a drunk or stepping out with another woman, I have to say, “No.” And I never see any of them when I have visible bruises. And I don’t tell them—too embarrassed to admit I’m a failure as a wife.
Now the time to leave is right. Getting up, I find loose bits of pawpaw bark and rub the underside over my skin to ward off mosquitoes and bluebottle flies. I start walking west to where I can follow Route 33. At the next pawpaw patch, I pluck another fruit, savoring the new flavor, pineapple.
Between pick-up jobs waiting tables and pawpaws as I walk, there is nothing between me and freedom but time and miles. Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois—all are good pawpaw country. My steps feel lighter as I turn west.
About the Author
Vivian Lawry’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than fifty literary journals and anthologies, from Adanna Literary Journal to Xavier Review. For a full list of her publications, visit her website, http://www.vivianlawry.com. In addition to her short pieces, she has three books: Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart—installments in the Chesapeake Bay Mystery Series—and Different Drummer: a collection of off-beat fiction.