My mother cleared her throat, bidding me try harder. “Bewwry,” I added softly.
“What color flower?” My father prompted me patiently.
“What color rock?”
“What kind of berry?”
“Strawberry,” my mother corrected me softly. I looked at her. Did she know I could say it correctly? I was not sure if I wanted to speak that clearly for my father. Not yet.
My father smiled at me. “Good. Good, Bee. You got them all. Shall we play again?”
I scooted closer to my mother’s feet. I looked up at her, pleading with her to rescue me.
“It’s an odd game,” she ventured, sensing my unease.
My father made an amused sound. “I suppose it is. I used to play it with Chade. He’d add more and more things to the tray, or he’d add something and take something away, and I had to say what was missing. He was training my eyes.” He gave a small sigh. Elbow on knee, he cupped his jaw in his hand. “I don’t know any real games. I didn’t have much chance to play with other children.” He looked at me and lifted a helpless hand. “I just wanted to …” He sighed away the rest of his words.
“It’s a good game,” my mother said decisively. She stood, and then surprised me by sitting down on the floor next to him. She drew me close to her side and put her arm around me. “Let’s play again,” she said, and I knew she sat by me to give me courage, because she wanted me to play with my father. And so I did. We took turns, my mother and I, as my father added more and more items from a leather bag behind him. At nine items, my mother threw up her hands. I played on, forgetting to fear him, my focus only on the tray.
There came a moment when my father said, not to me but my mother, “That’s all I have.”
I lifted my eyes and looked around. My parents seemed hazy, as if I saw them through a fog or at a great distance. “How many was that?” my mother asked.
“Twenty-seven,” my father said quietly.
“How many could you do, as a child?” my mother asked softly. There was trepidation in her voice.
My father took a breath. “Not twenty-seven,” he admitted. “Not on my first try.”
They looked at each other. Then they returned their focus to me. I blinked and felt myself sway slightly. “I think we are past her time to bed,” my mother announced in an odd voice. My father nodded mutely. Slowly he began to return his items to his bag. With a groan for her aching joints, my mother clambered to her feet. She led me away to my bed, and that night she sat beside me until I fell asleep.
On a day of wide blue skies studded with fat white clouds, with a soft wind blowing the scents of lavender and heather, my mother and I puttered in her garden together. The sun was past noon, the flowers breathing gentle fragrance all around us. We were both on our hands and knees. I was working with my little wooden trowel, carved by my father to fit my hand, loosening the earth around the oldest beds of lavender. My mother had her shears and was pruning the runaway sprawl of lavender plants. She would stop now and then to catch her breath and rub her shoulder and the side of her neck. “Oh, I am so tired of getting old,” she said once. But then she smiled at me and said, “Look at the fat bee on this blossom! I’ve cut the stem and he still won’t get off. Well, he can just ride along for a while.”
She had a large basket to save the trimmings in and this we dragged behind us as we crawled through the lavender bed. It was pleasant, sweet-smelling work, and I was happy. So was she. I know that. She spoke of the odd bits of ribbon she had in her sewing basket, and told me that she was going to show me how to make lavender bottles that would hold the fragrance and could be stored in my clothing chest and hers. “We need to cut the stems long, because we’ll fold the stems over the blossoms, and then we’ll lace the ribbons through the stems to hold it all together. They’ll be pretty, fragrant, and useful. Just like you.”
I laughed and she did, too. Then she halted in her work and took a deeper breath. She rocked back on her heels and smiled at me even as she complained, “I’ve such a stitch in my side,” rubbing her ribs and then moving her hand up to her shoulder. “And my left arm aches so. You would think it would be my right, for that’s the hand that’s doing all the work.” She took hold of the edge of the basket and pushed on it, intending to stand. But the basket overturned and she lost her balance and sprawled into the lavender, crushing the bushes under her. A sweet fragrance rose around her. She rolled herself over on her back, and frowned, small lines crinkling her brow. She reached with her right hand and lifted her left and looked at it in wonder. When she let go of it, it fell back to her side. “Well, this is so silly.” Her voice was mumbly and soft. She paused and took a deeper breath. With her right hand, she patted my leg. “I’m just going to catch my breath for a moment,” she murmured to me, the edges of her words gone rounded. She took a ragged breath and closed her eyes.