Rooted


ago
4 min
115
readings
2
Finalist
Jury
It's been a year since I've seen my daughter.
I thought she'd never come back. The strawberry field withered beneath the heavy snow, but when I blinked the snow was gone and tender leaves pushed hungrily toward the sun.
She's taller now, and her hair is a lion's mane as she skips through the field. I would've tamed that mane into pigtails, but Roger doesn't know how. He shuffles between happy families, never taking his eyes off her.
Maddie's tiny wooden basket is overflowing. It's a shame they can't bring our strawberry bag, the yellow one stained sunset-red at the bottom.
I call out to them, shouting their names over and over. Maddie freezes. I know she's listening, but Roger puts a hand on her shoulder and tells her it's time to go. A trail of strawberries tumbles from the basket as they walk away.
My daughter is six years old. She doesn't see me, but she has returned. The thought fills me with hope.
This is the first lesson I learn: I cannot stop the world from turning, even when I no longer turn with it.
Next year I make the strawberries heart-shaped, just for her.

There is motion to the motionlessness, patterns invisible to anyone except the most rooted. Sun, snow, green, red, black. Families leave and come back. They say the berries here are the biggest and juiciest, and Mr. Baker, the owner, declares the secret is in the fertilizer.
It feels like I'm always waiting for her.
Maddie's a big girl now, nine years old. She's reading Through the Looking Glass and I'm so proud, even though she nibbles the strawberries when nobody's watching. Roger is grey-haired and tired. I didn't think I'd married a tired man.
I reach for them and the leaves reach, too, lacing themselves between shoelaces and fingertips. The land holds them because I cannot.
This year Roger talks to Mr. Baker as Maddie races about.
"Days like this, she'd be out here with her sunhat, bustling about the garden," Roger is saying. "Maddie said she looked like Anne of Green Gables with that hat."
"I remember," Mr. Baker says. "Such a shame." He keeps licking his seed-yellow teeth when he says my name. He does the same thing when he's watching Maddie from afar. I hate him.
"You should be watching Maddie," I remind Roger, but he doesn't hear me.
She hasn't noticed she's dropped her book amongst the rows. It's open to my favorite poem. My beautiful smart girl.
Using all my strength, I mash a strawberry and smear the juice over the best lines, highlighting them bright pink. Maddie grins when she sees it.
"Look!" she cries, holding it up to Roger. He is silent, but tears are brimming beneath his wire-rimmed glasses.
Maddie is stunned. "Are you mad? I'm sorry I got strawberry on my book . . .!"
"It's not your fault, Mads," he murmurs, hugging her tight. They're both crying now, but for different reasons. "C'mon, let's go home."
I've never heard her called Mads before. Does he always do that?
I'm so alone.

At thirteen, Maddie doesn't come. I wait and I wait. Each sunny day is a disappointment.
This is it, I think. They've finally moved on.
This summer, brambles and poison ivy grow more copious than fruit. Visitors say if this keeps up, they'll have to go somewhere else. Mr. Baker tends the soil every day. I can see in his furrowed brow he's worried he'll have to sell the farm, and he can't afford that, not while I'm here.
Just when I'm giving up hope, there's Maddie, and my whole world ignites.
The strawberries grow again, of course. Plants are harder to kill than people.

It seems like things only move when you're not watching them. Kettles boil when your back is turned, flower petals unfold in bashful freezeframe. I spend all my moments wondering how much my daughter grows when I'm not around, but that doesn't make her come to me any faster.
Maddie is fifteen now. A young woman. She brought a boyfriend last year, but he's not here now. God help me if he broke her heart.
Some days I ache for her to slow down, even though it's a selfish thought. Soon she'll be too big for strawberry picking, and then . . .
Maddie doesn't want to talk today. Roger tries anyway—school? camp? friends? boys?—and I thirst for her clipped answers. Unlike Maddie, he's never brought anyone else.
Then Roger loses her in the field. She bends down to pick a strawberry and just for a second she's gone, and panic overtakes him. He's shouting her name and people are staring, and Maddie's reddening as she yells, "I'm not a kid anymore, okay?!"
Frozen, he watches her flee towards the farmhouse. He looks ready for the ground to swallow him whole. Instead, I hold it steady.
"It's okay," I tell him. "I'll find her."
Maddie sits crying on the farmhouse stoop as I approach. Mr. Baker is already there, patting her shoulder in long strokes as she tells him every tearful word. His fingers are vines twining beneath her bra strap. Dread chokes me.
"Everybody needs space, even pretty young things," he says, eying my daughter like a wolf. "Anybody ever mention you've got your mother's eyes?"
Maddie hesitates. Good girl.
"Wanna see something special? I'll show you where the best berries are."
Her flickering eyes rest on the bag of tools slung across his shoulder: a faded yellow tote bag, stained red at the bottom. She can't remember why it's familiar. Something about an old sunhat . . .
She stands up abruptly. "I should go . . ."
"Now be polite, like your mama." He reaches out, grasping.
My beautiful girl is so smart. She knows when to run.
She darts past him towards the open field. She's quick but he's big, and she'll be no match for him—I should know.
Just as he grabs her shoulder, I scream and his foot catches on a vine, throwing him to the ground. She glances back and, in one breathless moment, her eyes meet mine. Then she runs.
My heart is full of fiery pride.

I let everything burn.
One by one, the plants shrivel and die in the hot sun. Families leave for better fields, and after too many summers, Mr. Baker sells the farm.
For a moment everything stops, just like I wanted it to. Somehow this feels worse than the waiting. Sometimes, though, plants grow dormant, and their roots run deep. Nothing stands still forever. The couple who buys the farm is kind, and they work hard, and slowly the land pities them and grows anew.
I've lost track of time when I see her next.
Maddie looks like her father now, tall and freckled, not so young anymore. The children with her look like Roger, too, and also like her, and a little like me. The man with them looks nothing like any of that, but he speaks gently and gazes at her with love, and I adore him instantly.
She doesn't see me across the field, but when she secretly nibbles on a strawberry she smiles like she knows someone's watching, and I smile right back.
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