white dandelion flower shallow focus photography

Jolene McIlwain

              My wife leans into her pappy―Macon, she said yesterday―in this photo we found folded in a hankie in a box next to a creased paper and envelopes of dried seeds. We’d agreed she’s five then, though she didn’t need me to concur, since she still had baby teeth and it was before the scar on her forehead from the burn she said she would get at seven.

              Her tiny hands clutch to the chamois shirt he wore that morning before she went with her Aunt Caroline. He’d probably just been picking quince the color of the ribbon in her hair and sipping cool spring water, and his mouth shows a stalled grin that hadn’t yet pursed into a committed and enduring frown. 

              His eyes stare. His arms don’t cradle her. They don’t know how. They never would. Never had. He knew only how to plant seeds and watch them grow—to plant a life and watch it live, thrive, or die prematurely. He could bend and weed, graft even trees, and deadhead; he could handle over-ripened tomatoes without bruising them, but he couldn’t hold her without feeling as though he would explode, fall inside of himself, rot. 

              Her weight pushes him off center, or was it the news he’d finally had no choice but to hear just before they said they were taking her? That it would be best for her, that he couldn’t handle her without a mother to look over her. He hadn’t really been invested, they said.   

              Or, had he already heard that she would not recognize him when she turned fifteen and was beaten speckled plum by a stepfather, her aunt’s poor choice of a new and flashy husband? Perhaps he felt in her that day an aching that would push man after man away in disgust of her neediness? He couldn’t have known she’d meet me, who’d wanted someone to pot and hold dear in the sunlight on a sill so narrow as it was for her that she would need medicines, and doctors, and talking to keep just wide enough so as not to slip from. 

              He looks into the shutter like he might find her there instead of beside him. She might live forever, he thinks, in a happy picture, instead of this unhappy place that never seemed real after she, after both of them, were taken from him. 

              But he won’t look to his right, at her, because he sees, by the way she breathes and waits for the camera to blink its indifferent eye, that she doesn’t know that the little ride she’s going on will be fifty years long without him, that she won’t be permitted to see him at her mother’s funeral two weeks later because, Macon, it will be too hard on the girl. So she, in anger, will not go to his funeral when she is sixty-seven. And she will call him by his first name, not Pappy, even on the day before she, childless, married to me, dies of an empty uterus that grew cancer since it never could hold a child. Why have children, she said, when she met me at twenty-three, when you only let them go?  

              He doesn’t want to give any of it away; he resists letting her fall into that knowledge. I think, from where I stand, that he was planning then he would leave the photo for her in a box with a broken rosary and a scratched diagram of a garden, with one baby tooth that was loosened just after the picture was taken. I told her that yesterday. And her same dashed eyebrows raised, and she smiled.

Jolene McIlwain’s work appears online or is forthcoming at New Orleans Review, Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, West Branch, Prime Number, Litro, and elsewhere and was selected for the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories and novel set in western PA where she lives with her husband and son. Find her on Twitter @jolene_mcilwain.