A Stitch in Her Heart
Just three days before Honey June finished fourth grade, she and her daddy moved into a cinderblock house at the dead end of Boggy Creek Lane, where there were only four other dwellings scattered along the country road. And not a single kid. But there was a lake, Daddy said, somewhere back in the woods, and he promised he’d take her fishing at some point. She’d never done that before.
While he unpacked in the kitchen, she sneaked out the back door; nothing there but overgrown elephant ears, and scraggly oaks crowding out the sunshine. She’d have a long bus ride, once her new school started in the fall, and thinking about it caused a pain to spring up in her chest, like a stitch in her heart. Today was the last day at PineCreek Elementary, and Teacher Emily was probably handing out awards this very minute. Maybe she could mail hers. Did she know the address? Honey June didn’t.
Sighing through the gap in her front teeth, she studied the trees until she spotted a path, skinny as a deer trail. She followed it, ferns brushing against her bare legs and thorns grazing her ankles, until she reached the lake. It was really more of a pond, filmed over with green algae, but it sparkled in the wet Florida sunshine. Cypresses clustered along the shore, and turtles sunned on their knobby-kneed roots. And, off to her left, a wooden rowboat banked in the mud, two fishing poles abandoned in its prow.
She made her slow way to it, and ran her hand along the rough edge. Okay, so Daddy had been serious, but where’d he get a boat? And how’d he drag it out here? She’d never seen it before. And yet, here it sat, just for her.
She climbed into the stern, rested her hands on the oars, and pretended to row. Picking up one of the poles, she traced her fingertip down the line, curved it over the hook, and imagined her daddy beside her, holding out a worm. Probably she should wait until he really was with her, but she didn’t want to waste another second. Leaning back, she casted, and it soared over the water graceful as a bird. “Wow,” she whispered. “How’d that happen.” She wished someone had been there to see it. She reeled in, and it all felt so familiar, as if she’d been doing this her entire life.
As she cast again, someone shouted, “Hey!” and Honey June whirled around. An old man with a long white beard appeared at the edge of the trees, followed by a younger man, more her daddy’s age. The old one pointed a gnarled finger at her, and she put the pole down and stared at him, her heart pounding.
The younger man reached her first. He looked like an adult version of the kids in Special Ed, nose too big and eyes too small, half-mooned and chalky. “What’s your name?” he asked, his voice like those kids, too. He shook her hand, and kept shaking it until she finally stammered, “Honey. Honey June.”
He let go and petted her hair. “I’m Freddy. Wanna be friends?”
She ducked away, but smiled back at him. A friend would be nice, she thought, but the old man clomped up then, and ordered, “Get out of my boat.”
“It’s mine,” she said.
He laughed. A bark.
“My daddy bought it for me,” she said.
“Out,” he said, and jerked his thumb at the woods.
“You can’t tell me what to do.”
“I sure can, seeing as you’re sitting in my boat.”
She jutted her chin and glared at him. “Then take me out fishing with you,” she said, though her daddy would spank her good if he caught her talking like that, not showing a bit of respect. She didn’t care. He was stealing. She stuck out her tongue at him, and he grabbed her shirt collar and pulled her right up to his craggy face. “I told you to get,” he muttered, his breath like soured milk, and his eyes so pale it seemed the blue had faded out of them. Freddy watched wide-eyed, rocking back and forth, hands clasped over his head.
When the old man let go, she stumbled backward, almost falling out of the boat. Her legs trembled and her breath came in short gasps. Still, she stood up and said, “I just want to fish. And I can bring you worms.”
His fingers tangled in his beard, he watched a red-breasted bird skitter over the spongy bank. He studied it, and scratched his cheek. “Only ones worth anything come straight out of a robin’s beak. You bring me some of them crawlers, and maybe I won’t involve the law, I find you trespassing again.”
“Deal,” she said, scowling at him, and jumped to the shore.
“Come on, son,” the old man said, sitting on the bench she’d just left. “Let’s go.”
Freddy shoved the boat into the shallows, clambered in, and they rowed away. Honey might have hurled stones had there been any; instead, she swung into a cypress, and gazed out at the men. She imagined herself and Daddy out on the lake, casting and reeling and casting again, catching so many bass and carp and bluegill that they’d stayed together all day, talking and laughing and telling stories until the sun sank and the mosquitoes whirred over the water.
“That’s my boat,” she yelled, but it came out a whisper.
At home she found her daddy under the kitchen sink, smacking pipes with a wrench.
“Daddy?” she said, nudging his shoe with her toe.
“What the—” He jerked up, banged his head, and dropped back down. “You trying to kill me?”
“Sorry,” she said, and sat down cross-legged. She peered into the cupboard, where a desk lamp shone orange on her daddy’s sweaty face. He hadn’t shaved for a while.
“Damn thing’s all clogged up and rusted shut,” he said.
“I can’t believe you got us a boat!” She inched her feet forward so her toes touched the edge of his work boots.
“What?” he said.
He walloped the pipe again.
“So you’re really going to take me?”
He scooted out from the cupboard, and said, “Take you where?”
He draped his arms over his knees. “Oh. Yeah, of course. Sometime we’ll go. We’ve got to get a couple of rods first, reels and tackle.”
“Come on, Daddy, you don’t have to try and surprise me. I already found them.” She wanted to throw her arms around his neck and kiss his hairy cheek, to thank him, but he fished through his toolbox for a screwdriver and then eased back under the sink.
“Honey baby, I ain’t got time for pretending right now,” he said, his voice tinny. “This whole place is falling to shit, and I’ve only got a couple days before the new job starts up.”
“But we have to go! You said we could, you promised.”
“The lake’s not going anywhere, kiddo. Go take a bath, you smell worse than me.”
She stood, crossed her arms, and stomped out of the room. She tripped on the lamp cord, and the kitchen went dark.
“Plug that back in,” Daddy hollered.
She didn’t turn around.
The next morning, Honey June padded into the kitchen, where Daddy leaned against the counter, a coffee mug in his hands. “Can we go to the lake?” she said. When he didn’t answer, she poured herself cereal as noisily as she could, and splashed milk onto the table.
“Clean that up,” Daddy said.
“We don’t have any towels.” She took a bite of Marshmallow Matey’s, and swirled her fingertip in the puddle of milk.
“Sure we do.”
“They’re all packed.”
“How’d you dry off after your bath?”
“My clothes,” she said, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. He shook his head, plunked his coffee on top of the microwave, and lumbered into the living room. She followed. There were boxes everywhere. Daddy’d only labeled them on one side, and they had to flip most of them around before finding KITCHEN and BATH, but the towels weren’t in either, where they should have been. Daddy got all hot and sweaty, said the damn air conditioning wasn’t worth a shit, and then yelled at her after almost slicing her fingers with his box cutter, even though she was only trying to help. She closed her eyes and thought of the boat, baited pole in hand, and cool air blowing over the water. Daddy found the towels in with the tools (something light to fill up the space, he remembered), and she snatched one out, raced to the kitchen, and sopped up the mess.
“Can we go now?” she asked.
Daddy poured his cold coffee down the drain. “What we can do is get some work done around here. So don’t sneak off again.”
They spent the entire day unpacking, the boxes as endless as Mary Poppins’ magic bag, and it was near evening by the time they stopped. Honey June went outside, sat on the front stoop. Robins hopped and pecked through the ragged yard, their breasts sunset red in the dusky half-light. A plump one paused just a few feet away, head cocked, then shot its beak into the ground and popped up with a fat, long worm. Imagining pinching it between her fingers and easing it onto a hook, she rushed inside, pulled a Tupperware from one drawer, a serving spoon from another, and dashed back out.
She knelt exactly where the bird had been, and dug with the spoon. Within seconds she found her own crawler, soil-studded and wriggling. She dropped it in her container, and continued excavating until she had seven more.
She left the yard and trooped down to the lake, the Tupperware tight in her hands. When she stepped into the clearing, there were Freddy and his dad, settling into the rowboat. The old man scratched his bald spot, then raked his fingers through his dingy white hair. Maybe he had lice. She’d had them last year, and Teacher kept her back at recess and picked the nits out one by one, her fingers gentle and strong. Honey June cleared her throat, kept on smiling even when the old man turned and glowered at her. She’d be polite today. No sticking out her tongue.
“I got ‘em, mister, just the way you told me,” she said, holding out the container. He didn’t take it, and she shoved it against his stomach, right next to a hole in his shirt, white curls poking through. He grunted, studying the worms. Then he dumped them on the ground. Freddy climbed out and poked at the pile.
“Think you can lie to me?” the old man said.
“I’m not lying.”
“Don’t pull a stunt like this again,” he said, his mossy eyebrows knitting together. “Push us out, son.”
As Freddy shoved off, Honey June ran into the shadow of the trees. Her face burned, and she felt that heat passing through her chest, out to her fingertips, and down into her toes. She’d catch a robin, a hundred of them, and she’d yank the worms straight out of their beaks. Then the old man would have to relent, and she’d bring home every single fish she caught, and she’d show her daddy and say, “See, you should’ve been there.”
Crouched in the tall weeds surrounding her mailbox, Honey June watched a robin jab at the lawn, its feathers soft in the pale morning light. She inched forward, shoulders tense, quiet. When it tugged up a worm, she leapt with outstretched fingertips, almost touching its tail feathers. She punched her thigh, kicked a clump of weeds, and then gasped: the biggest crawler she’d ever seen wiggled in the crab grass. Nestling it in her cupped palm, she traced her finger over its bumpy sections, then ran all the way to the lake, cradling her clasped hands against her chest.
When she found the shoreline deserted, her pulse quickened: she could use a pole without the man ever knowing. But the boat was empty. So she wandered along the shoreline, every now and then peeking at the crawler to make sure it was all right. Maybe she should’ve left Daddy a note so he wouldn’t worry, though he was probably so busy working on the Shit Pit that he hadn’t even noticed she was gone.
“Hi, there,” called Freddy, crashing out of the trees, waving as he loped toward her, the rods bouncing against his shoulder.
“I got one,” she said, grinning and nodding at her hands.
“Now you can come!” He gave her a thumbs up, then herded her toward the boat. But right then the old man appeared, and blocked her way, his legs wide, arms crossed.
“Go away,” he said.
“But I’m really going with you today, see?” she said, stretching out her hands. He didn’t even glance down, and she said, “Cross my heart, it’s straight from a robin.” He glowered at her, locking eyes until she blinked, and confessed, “Well, he dropped it, but it was right there in his beak just a second before. Then I picked it up and it was…”
“No.” His eyes narrowed to slits like snake nostrils, and she edged away. Without looking back at her, he sat down and grasped the oars. Freddy pouted, but pushed the boat out anyway. As they rowed off through the lily pads and algae and out past the cypress knees, she flung the crawler at the old man, hoping it would pelt him in the back of his bald head. It landed in the bottom of the boat, and Freddy skewered it with his hook.
It stormed that afternoon, lightning surging across the dark sky, and thunder rattling the window panes. Daddy couldn’t work on the yard, so he reclined in the La-Z-Boy, a beer propped on his belly. Honey June sat crosslegged on the carpet next to him, and they watched the deluge gush through the street gutters.
“Look at those loonies,” Daddy said, nodding at the street. “Carrying all those fish when only one’s worth keeping.”
Freddy and the old man trudged past, heads bowed under the downpour. Most of the fish that dangled from the metal stringers slung over their shoulders were nothing but silver flickers in the storm light. Except for one of Freddy’s, as long as his back, and slapping as if still alive, its bright scales glittering like stars. She couldn’t take her eyes off it, imagining its sleek scales in her hands, the firmness of its flesh against her fingertips. Saliva rose in her mouth. She’d give anything for a catch like that.
Honey June woke at dawn and begged a length of screen from her daddy, who was repairing tears in the back porch. She molded and hot-glued it to a needlework hoop, and attached a long stick for a handle, a net to whip over a robin’s head. It worked first try, and she held tight as the bird struggled and screeched. She felt terrible, but after the bird flew away, she told herself she didn’t care: she’d won, and this crawler the biggest yet. A few minutes later she caught another.
As Freddy and his dad sat on the shore, eating lunch from a styrofoam cooler, Honey June stomped right up to the old man. “I got two,” she said. “Right out of their beaks.”
“Hand ‘em to Freddy.”
She tightened her grip, and squinted at him. “You going to stick to the deal?”
“Son, take them.”
Freddy dropped his sandwich, and eased the container away from her. He poked the dirt, smiling.
“Get my hat and you can come,” the old man said. “Storm blew it off yesterday, somewhere back there in the trees.”
She kicked through palmettos and ferns, burrs and thistles, and yet she hardly noticed. She thought only of that giant fish, its scales shimmering like a kaleidoscope light flashing through the darkness of the storm. Today she’d catch one for herself, if only she could find that hat. She started back toward the old man, but he was already rowing across the lake with her worms.
“No!” she hollered, but neither Freddy nor the old man turned back.
It stormed again that afternoon, and she sat on the front porch, watching the rain and waiting for the men. That’s it, she’d tell them, deal’s off.
Gusts blew water in sideways sheets, and the men appeared suddenly, ghostly in the dim light. Again their catch hung from stringers over their shoulders. This time two of the fish were huge, longer than Freddy’s torso, and a silvery-pink light radiated from their rainbow scales. Honey June stepped into the rain. She did not run at the old man, but simply held out one hand, reaching for those fish, as still as a red-breasted robin eyeing a worm.
That night she dreamed a giant school of them surrounded her, thousands and thousand of them, leaping and arcing through the blue sky, all glitter and glimmer in the bright-shining summer sun. She woke sweating, and rushed to her daddy’s room, where he slept in boxers and a sweat-stained tank top, the sheets tangled around his ankles. When she shook his arm, he grunted and rolled over. “Daddy, wake up.”
His eyes popped open, and he grasped her hand. “What is it? Are you okay?”
“Please, can you take me fishing?”
He sat up. “Goddamn it, Honey June, never wake me up and scare me half to death to ask something like that. No. Get out of here.”
She ran from the room, cheeks hot and ears flaming, and sprinted out of the house, and all the way to the lake, where she waded thigh-deep, trailing her fingertips through the algae. The rising sun barely peeked over the tree line, and she shivered. She wished she’d never wanted to go fishing in her life. Daddy wasn’t going to take her, she saw that now, and the boat had never been hers. She splashed water on her face, but it didn’t soothe her, and she slogged ashore, and climbed into the rowboat. She curled up in the prow, and pressed her cheek to the wooden seat, rocking back and forth as if she were out in lapping waves.
She did not hear the men approaching, and gasped when someone touched her head. Freddy leaned over her, brow wrinkled and mouth agape. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Staring into his clear, half-moon eyes, she said, “Nobody will take me fishing.”
“It’s okay,” Freddy said, stroking her hair. “You can come with us.”
“I’m already pretty goddamn tired of you,” the old man said, but this time he did not send her away.
Freddy pushed them off, and they rowed out to the middle of the lake. Honey June could hardly believe it. She lifted her face to the rising sun. On his first cast, the old man caught a small perch, which he dropped into the styrofoam cooler at his feet. Freddy clapped and laughed.
“Can I have a turn?” Honey June asked.
The old man handed the pole to Freddy, and she coaxed him, “Let me try.” He passed it to her, forgetting he still held the hook, and it stabbed his finger. He howled and thrashed, and the boat rocked side to side.
“Quit moving,” shouted the old man. He yanked the hook out with a flick, and glared at Honey June, his eyes bloodshot and watery. “I ought to toss you overboard,” he said, and she gripped the bench. All she’d wanted was to fish with her daddy, and now she was going to be thrown in, and maybe left to drown. She looked up, blinking back tears, and three robins circled overhead. As she watched, one broke away and glided down right in front of her. It landed on the prow, its black marble eyes locking with hers.
It sounded a long, piercing call, and robins poured silently from every tree surrounding the lake, and circled above the boat, spinning and spinning, pulsing like a massive beating heart. The wind of their wings dried Honey June’s tears, and cooled her burning cheeks. It was as if their flapping had stirred up the clouds, and the sky darkened now as shadows fell across the water.
Freddy giggled and clapped, but the old man fell to his knees and covered his face with his hands. Without a sound, the birds danced on, the circle tightening and widening, flashes of red breast and grey wing, until they dropped from the sky as one and flocked around the boat, landing on its gunwales, on the jutting oars, on Freddy’s head and shoulders and outstretched arms, fat earthworms in their beaks. They dropped them, hundreds and hundreds, into the boat, where they wriggled and writhed around Honey June’s bare feet. A robin lighted on her knee, placed a worm in her hand, and broke the silence with a cheer cheer cheerily cheer up cheer up. The others joined in, the air tremulous with birdsong. And still more flew down, dropping their gifts, until the hull was alive with the twisting.
And then there came a stirring from below. When she leaned over the edge of the boat, the worm dangling from her fingers, a burst of silver shot up from the depths, snatched the crawler, and landed at her feet. It was the biggest fish she’d ever seen, a splendor of silver, pink, and green, and it flip-flopped in the tangle of worms, opening its large mouth and swallowing whole one after another.
Freddy shouted, “Whooee!” as another flung itself into the boat. Then another and another, arcs bursting from the dark. The old man cowered as flying fish smacked him in the head and neck, shoulders and chest. When another flipped across his lap, he heaved against the oars, but the water was so thick with fish that the rowboat would not budge.
Inside the boat, a continuous twist and flit of motion, bursts of color and light like swiftly moving water. Honey June ran her hands over the smooth, slippery, firm back of one, feeling the ripple of scales against her skin. It bucked at her touch, and its sharp dorsal pricked her palm. It arched its back and slapped her with its tail, gills flapping open and shut. She held it to her chest as it fought and flailed. Rising to her feet, she stood rooted in the thick tangle of worms, and gazed out at the shore, where her daddy stood, his hand lifted, calling her name. She touched her cheek to the silver coldness of the fish’s starlight scales, and laughed as she released it into the shining black water.