Authors: Sharon Creech
very evening after dinner, Aunt Jessie and Uncle Nate used to swing slowly back and forth, back and forth, on the porch swing, gazing out at the ash tree and the rose garden in the front yard and at the river far in the distance. Railroad tracks ran alongside the river, and at six o'clock the mournful song of the train's whistle drifted through the valley.
Sometimes I sat with them on the swing. One evening, shortly after the train passed below, a male cardinal swooped to the ash tree. The brilliant red bird sat there a minute or two, looking around, as if he were waiting for someone, and then he plunged to the feeder which hung on a nearby branch. He snatched seeds, tapping them against the perch, breaking them open, and snipping out the soft insides with his beak. Seeds that didn't appeal to him were flung to the ground with a toss of his crested head.
“Where's his mate?” Uncle Nate asked. “He's all by his lonesome. Poor old thing.”
After Aunt Jessie died, Uncle Nate sat alone on the swing. One night, from my upstairs window I heard the train whistle below, softly, then louder, then fading into the distance. I saw a flutter of red as the male cardinal approached the tree and settled in it. He sat there for several minutes looking around. And thenâ
âthere she was, fluttering down beside himâa pale-brown female with red streaks on her head and wings.
The male flew to the feeder, selected a few seeds, and returned to the ash tree. He broke one open, snipped out the insides, and passed them to the female.
Uncle Nate stopped swinging. He leaned forward, watching. “You lucky thing,” he said. “You lucky old thing.”
At the sound of his voice, the female sprang from the branch and drifted across the yard toward a birch grove. The male waited behind in the ash tree until she had nearly disappeared from view, and then he plunged from the branch, swept close to the porch where Uncle Nate sat, and rose in the air to follow his mate.
“Lucky old thing,” Uncle Nate repeated.
Beyond the ash tree was a rose garden: twenty bushes planted by Uncle Nate the year that baby Rose died. Aunt Jessie loved those roses. She could see them from her bedroom window, and that summer, she and I would walk through them, counting the blooms.
When the first frost came in November, Aunt Jessie fretted. She stared out the window at the few remaining blossoms, stiff and matted with frost. “They'll all die soon,” she said. It sent a shiver through me.
Each year after that, she was thrilled in the spring when the first rosebud appeared, and each year, with the arrival of winter, she became dejected all over again, as if she didn't believe or didn't remember that spring would come again.
Several years after Uncle Nate had planted the roses, I was with my family one Saturday at a store in Chocton. Each of us kids had a dollar. The boys were sifting through the candy, May and Gretchen were at the makeup counter, and Bonnie and I were wandering around the store, unable to make up our minds what to choose. Then I saw it. It was perfect: a red plastic rose on a stiff green stem. I bought it and kept it in my closet until October, when I snuck it into the rosebushes in the yard, tying it to a branch.
When Aunt Jessie started to fret over the frost and the dying buds, I'd say, each morning, “There's still a few left,” and, finally, “There's still
left.” She didn't seem impressed and said, “It'll be dead soon.”
By December, after we'd had two snowfalls, she could no longer ignore the single rose still blooming in the garden. On one of our walks, she headed for the bushes. “I want to see this rose,” she said. I tried to discourage her, tried to pull her in another direction, but she was determined. She reached across the bush in front and touched my plastic rose.
“What?” she said, tugging at it. “Whatâ?” She pulled it loose, and the look on her face I'll never forget: such disappointment, such dismay. She threw the rose to the ground. “It's fake! Who would do such a mean and nasty thing?”
My own face must have betrayed my guilt.
“You?” she said. “You did that? How could you?”
I ran to the barn, ashamed and confused.
Later, she apologized, saying that she knew I hadn't meant to hurt her, that I must have thought it would please her. She didn't know why she had reacted the way she did. “I so much wanted that rose to be
,” she said.
Shortly afterward, she restored the red plastic rose to the rose garden, and it has bloomed there year round ever since, faded nearly to white, but still there. When Aunt Jessie died, Uncle Nate bought a second plastic rose and added it to the other one in the rose garden.
One day shortly after Jake had visited, I came around the side of the house and saw Uncle Nate sitting on the porch. I heard him say, “Now whose little baby are you, sugar pie? Where's your mama? Ain't nobody keeping an eye on you, little darlin'?”
He was talking to Poke, the turtle, who was sitting in the middle of the porch.
“It's a turtle, Uncle Nate,” I said.
He leaned over and examined it. “I knew it,” he said. “Where's the other one?”
“What other one?”
“Don't be a noodle,” Uncle Nate said. “This-here turtle is all by his lonesome. He needs a mate. You tell Jake I said so.”
Two days later, Poke was missing, and Ben was frantic. “The box is empty! Someone stole Poke!” He looked under bushes, trees, and the porch, as if Poke might have suddenly taken wing and flown out of the box.
I was under the porch trying to coax Ben out, when Uncle Nate thumped on the floorboards above us. “What're you looking for down there?”
I scrabbled out. “Poke. Ben thinks he might haveâ”
“Foot! That old turtle isn't under there.”
Ben crawled out from beneath the porch, brushing clumps of dirt from his shirt. “He might be. He might be hidingâ”
“Listen, tadpole,” Uncle Nate said. “He ain't a-hiding. He's down at the creek this very minute searchingâ”
“For what?” Ben asked.
Uncle Nate thumped his stick firmly on the porch. “For his sweetheart, that's what!”
Ben made me go with him to the creek to see if we could find Poke. We searched all along the bank, but didn't see any sign of him.
“How does Uncle Nate know Poke is down here anyway?” Ben asked.
“Maybe he brought him here.”
On the way back to the house, I found a cricket, which I took to the tree outside my bedroom window. I didn't see the one Jake had put there, but I figured it was around somewhere, because I'd heard it each night.
Mom called from an upstairs window. “Bonnie? Zinny? Is that you, Zinny? Have you seen Uncle Nate?”
“A while ago, on the porch.”
“Go see what he's up to, will you?”
Uncle Nate wasn't on the porch or up at the barn. Dad was in the field, weeding the tomato patch. “Seen Uncle Nate?” I asked.
“Not lately.” He stood and looked around. “Wait a minuteâthere he goesâ”
Cresting the hill and waving his stick at our invisible Aunt Jessie was Uncle Nate calling, “Wait on up! Wait on up!”
“Follow him, would you?” Dad said. “Make sure he doesn't hurt himself.”
Uncle Nate ran down the hill, around the barn, through the squirt gardens, and around the house, circling the ash tree twice. Ben and I caught up with him as he started down the drive.
“Come on!” he shouted. “Help me get her.”
We ran down the drive behind him. He had a funny, waddling gait, but he could run pretty fast. He turned and plunged into the bushes, where he was soon tangled and flailing. “Dag-blasted branches!” He whacked his stick against the bush. “Got away again.”
To Ben, I whispered, “Did you see her?”
He nodded, his eyes wide open. “Yep, I did, didn't you?”
couldn't I see her?
On our way back to the house, a truck crunched along the gravel drive behind us, and we stepped to one side as Jake pulled up. “Hey!” he called. “Get on in, and I'll give you a ride up to the house.”
“No thankee,” Uncle Nate said. “Things to do.”
“Zinny? Ben?” Jake said.
“Have to keep an eye on him,” I said, watching my uncle cross the drive and head toward the ash tree.
Jake turned off the engine. “I brought you something, Zinny.”
“'Cause I like to.” He shoved a small brown paper sack at me.
Uncle Nate was off and running again. “I've got to go after him.”
“ZinnyâZinny!” Jake called after me. “Don't forget to open it. Hope you like 'emâ” He drove up to the house, backed up, and turned around, leaving the way he had come.
Ben stood in the drive, yelling, “Bring
something next time!”
“Zinny!” May called from the front door. “Was that Jake?”
our smooth, white lucky stones were in the sack Jake had given me. I slipped one stone into my pocket and hid the rest upstairs in my closet. Bottle caps, a cricket, a turtle, and lucky stones. These might sound like innocent presents, and they were, but they were the last of the innocent gifts.
The next day, he brought me a beagle puppy. It's hard to resist a puppy.
“Do you like him?” Jake asked.
I stroked the puppy's back. “Of course I like him.” I handed him back to Jake. “But I can't keep him.”
“What? Sure you can. He's yours.”
“Why? Why for
? Why not for someone else?”
Jake looked down at his feet. “I know I'm older than you, Zinnyâ”
older,” I said.
“I know it, butâI just want you to have him, that's all.” He jammed his hands in his pockets. “You're a hard nut to crack, Zinny Taylor.” With that, he jumped off the porch and headed for his truck.
“Take it back!” I shouted. I'm not sure whether I meant the puppy or what he said about my being a hard nut to crack. Maybe it was both. You might think that I would've been convinced by this puppy, that I'd believe that Jake really did like me and not May. But I wasn't convinced. Tommy Salami had gone on giving me gifts for a long, long time. So had the others. You couldn't trust boys, I had decided, no matter how nice they seemed, no matter how many gifts they shoved into your hands, no matter what they said. I guess you could say my mind was pretty much made up about Jake Boone and what he was up to.
May was fit to be tied. “What'd he go and give you a
for? What in the world are you up to, Zinny? Are you out of your ever-loving mind? You don't have a lick of sense, Zinny. What you know would fit in a nutshell.” She yanked all her ribbons off her dresser and threw them on the floor. She was really piling on the agony.
“Don't see what you're having such a conniption about,” I said. “I didn't
Jake to bring me these thingsâ”
May gathered up the ribbons. “Who said anything about Jake?”
“You didâdidn't you?”
“I never.” She threw the ribbons back on the floor and looked wildly around the room. I thought she was going to blow a gasket. “Look at that bed of yoursâwhy, look at it! Why can't you make up your bed like a normal human being?”
At dinner, all anyone could talk about was the puppy, who was curled up on an old blanket in a corner of the kitchen. Everyone took turns jumping up to see if he was okay. We hadn't had a dog for two years, not since our last one was hit by a truck. Dad said he didn't mind having a dog around, but he wanted to know who was going to take care of it. Ben, Will, Sam, Gretchen, and Bonnie all assured him that they would.
“What about you, Zinny?” he asked. “From what I can gather, this dog belongs to you.”