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HARVEST

 

by Jessica Halsey

        

                                                                                          

Though the golden Autumn sun peeked through the blinds, the smell of pumpkin pancakes traveled from the kitchen to my bedroom, and the soft clatter of my parents filled the home with comfort, I felt as if I was uprooted. Not entirely here, wherever that was, but instead an observer and no longer a part of the world that surrounded me. I could not shake this feeling as I sat in the kitchen, patiently allowing my mother to use the hot comb on my hair, sneaking sips of her highly caffeinated coffee. I could not understand the strange feeling I had and did my best to push it to the back of my mind, a small wooden box that I could place my unidentified worry in and hopefully never return to. I did not have this privilege, and instead had to let this feeling sit in my lap, forced to let it follow me to the bathroom sink where I brushed my teeth and combed my hair, felt it on my shoulders as I slipped into my black, velvet church dress.

I watched my reflection in the mirror as my mother braided my hair, seeing her lips moving but not hearing any sound. I noticed my small nose and almond eyes, and I looked at my mother's reflection, feeling confused. Suddenly I became very small in my chair. 

"Beth, are you even listening?"

 

Her pensive eyes stared at mine through my bedroom mirror, and I felt seen. I was brought back into the world. "Sorry mom, I was just thinking. Do we really have to go to this thing?" I slightly adjusted in my chair, and my mother attempts to straighten my body as she continues braiding my hair.

 

"Please make sure you listen when I talk," she sighed, "And yes, we have to go. You knew Mr. Gourd, remember? He fixed your bike that one time, and would help with the yard when your father was sick."

 

Yes, I knew Mr. Gourd. I remember when we first moved to Birmingham, it was July and the trees were full of beautiful green leaves. As we struggled to bring the boxes into our new home, we heard a deep, groggy voice come from the window of the neighboring house. "Damn, y'all sure do have a lot of boxes." I turned and saw a tall, old man wearing overalls and a plaid shirt. He was wearing garden gloves and had smudges of earth on his knees. My initial glance at him led me to believe he had lived and experienced life and was now here to tend to his garden and the people around him. I hear my mother chuckle behind me, her exhaustion showing when she said to him, "Oh, is it that obvious?"

 

Mr. Gourd laughed at what my mother said, and the sound had stuck with me for many years. It was a laugh so full of life, of understanding, of contentment. Not long after, he helped us move in. A few days, weeks, months later, he had become a stable and warm person in our life. Many days were spent where Mr. Gourd would bake pies for us to enjoy on cold winter evenings, days where he was helping rake the leaves as I sat on the porch steps with a mug of cocoa. It is strange how quickly things change. Mr. Gourd was no longer here to help with yard work or give us slices of cherry pie. The leaves were no longer vibrant and are instead muted shades of brown. The trees were almost bare. The leaves piled up on the soft earth, and Mr. Gourd was no longer here.

 

"Yes mom, I remember."

#

The drive to the church felt as if it would last forever. As my mother and father made small talk up in the front, I was accompanied by the quiet hum of the car radio and the way in which the trees blended together, creating a vivid, picturesque image. I sat in the backseat ruminating over the absence of Mr. Gourd. We were going to see him, right? So how could he be gone? These thoughts kept me occupied until we arrived, and I felt my stomach drop as I realized that I would soon see him. But who would I see? The crisp air and the crunch of the leaves underneath my shoes somehow reminded me of Mr. Gourd, and this thought stuck with me as we walked through the church doors.

Someone was playing the organ with a slow and thoughtful pace, and the sanctuary was illuminated with extremely warm light. The pews were already pretty full and would only get fuller as the line in front of the casket got shorter. My mother grabbed my hand and I looked up at her in confusion, only to see a few tears fall from her eyes and down her cheek. Every couple of seconds, we would slowly shuffle up, closer and closer. I saw several people I didn't know walking away from the casket, eyes full of tears and pain on their faces. He was there, wasn't he? What was there to miss, to be sad for? More questions piled on top of each other in my mind, and they all crumbled once we finally arrived. The two people in front of us walked away, slowly with sorrow, and the organ seemed to quiet down.

My mother loudly choked on a sob and placed her hand on her mouth. My father tightened his jaw and looked, just looked.

"Wow," my mother begins, "He looks very peaceful."

My dad nods in agreement, continuing to stare into the casket. When I looked, I saw nothing. I saw a soft, white material and the shiny brown wood of the casket. I didn't see Mr. Gourd. As my parents mourned, I was lost in my confusion. Suddenly, the room felt very warm and I felt the brightness of the lights. I wanted to move, not stand in front of a casket where there wasn't a body. My parents reluctantly walked away, I gripped my mother's hand, and we sat down in an empty pew. I knew that my parents were upset as that was the last time that they would see Mr. Gourd, even though he wasn't there. Why was everyone crying for something that was absent?

I felt frozen as the church members wept and moaned around the empty casket. The dusty and humid air along with the chilling melody of grief and pain caused a sickness inside of me that I was unable to communicate with anyone. Through their grief, I felt a deep sigh that made its way through the noise. I turned my head, afraid, perhaps, but I couldn't tell where my fear originated from.

Beside me, on my right side, sat the missing corpse that everyone wept for. Mr. Gourd was dressed in his finest tan suit and smelt of earth and stale air.

His body seemed to deflate as a balloon in the church pew, and his face melted into his faded brown skin. My hands felt extremely warm and damp from the nervous tears falling from my almond eyes.

 

"What they hoopin' and hollerin' fo?"

My eyes squeezed shut and I became even more frozen. I was afraid to see what I knew was there.

"Oh come on now, Beth, I know you hear me talkin' to you. You don't understand either, don't you?"

How did he know? I looked at my parents, and they were focused on the funeral service. They did not seem to notice Mr. Gourd beside me, his rubbery skin and flat face. I felt alone as everyone mourned someone that was not in that casket; he was sitting right next to me. Hesitantly, I turned to whisper, "What do you mean?"

He let out a loud laugh that filled the sanctuary, even louder than the organ and the murmurs of weeping in the church pews. Yet, no one noticed. I flinched at his laughter, but no one else made a move.

"You know me, kid. I am here. Ain't I?"

"Yes," I whispered, "So are you gone?"

"You see me, don't you?"

"I don't…understand." I admit. I turned and saw the familiar wrinkles on his flat face. "Where did you go?" I asked.

"I'm still here. You see me, you remember me, right? I didn't go anywhere."

 

I thought of the pies and the early Sunday mornings when he would help my father cut grass. The person who did these things for me was sitting right next to me.

"When we pass, someone will collect the harvest from our lives," the pastor was saying. I turned and Mr. Gourd was no longer there. He was in the casket. I caught a peak of his face as the casket was being closed, and the air smelled of baked cherries and fresh autumn leaves.

Jessica Halsey is a graduating senior from McCalla, Alabama majoring in English. During her time at Tuskegee University, she was a journalist for the TU Campus Digest and served as a University Ambassador. As she is extremely passionate about 20th-century African-American literature, Jessica has also presented at numerous academic conferences and is a 2022 cohort member of the Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program at UNC Chapel Hill.  In the fall of 2023, she will pursue her MA in English at Virginia Tech and be a member of the Juneteenth Scholars Program.

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