Brianna Gamble

Elderberry Wine

The geese leap into the air in a snow-feather storm, startled by the thunder of my mother’s voice. The lightning of her words will roll between her, and her mother, until we three flee the cabin hoping that the barometric pressure of my mother’s hate will loosen. We walk the shores of Farlington Lake, one of the largest strip pits for which Pittsburg, Kansas is named. We walk along the edge of the pond, its bowels pregnant with black water, blue tar, old coal. The stink of the lake will walk with us, louder than even the queasy silence.

A little shop sits along the shore of Farlington, serving both lakeside and Route-66 customers. A pragmatic sensibility for a midwestern folk. Inside I find a smiling woman, whose years sit on her shoulders comfortably, like a well-worn, well-loved, coat.

She implores me, “Try the honey! It’s local.”

Like a dreamer remembering the waking world, I remember the man who raised me. My grandfather was a beekeeper, a farmer, oft-divorced, and ceaselessly kind. Not far from these poisoned shores, his gentle hands tended to hives, crops, wooly beasts, and the child I was—all with the same tenderness. My aunt said his craggy face smiled when he spoke up and said, “I can take the fella,” when the courtroom said my mother couldn’t. That same craggy smile would beam as he traded sugar water for comb-covered gold from amber-clad queens. He’d hum with the razor in his hands, as he used it to separate sheep from their roasting blankets, just before the summer would turn the dial of the sun so high that all living things trade breathing for baking in the oven of the world. Those same hands would tenderly, tenderly bandage my skin, boiling from the wasp stings an adventurous child tempted.

I wonder if the bees that gave the old shopkeeper her honey were descended from my grandfather’s. After he passed, and the courts passed me back to the cyclone from my past, my mother told me his hives were to be donated. If these bees were in the same line, could they know how noble their lineage?

The shopkeeper clears her throat politely, bringing my mind back to the here, back to the now.

She says, “If you’re a fan of local, the elderberry wine is good too.”

The berries are printed on the bottle in blood black with the ichor of nostalgia. Quickly I will swap cash for memories, and—abandoning mother and grandmother—rush back to the cabin alone, my hands holding treasure. The first taste is harrowingly sweet, more berry syrup than wine. The second is stupefying. I drink and I am sinking, falling, entering a place long ago. There, I watch my grandfather’s bent back as he tends to his own elderberry crop.

A hose is coiled in my hands like an emerald serpent, and the thumbs of my three-year-old self are covering the open maw of the hose. The hose’s mouth is open only a little, the pressure blasting water across the blue horizon. The water flies like a crystal arch across a cerulean sky. My eyes had seen the same shape in the metal arch of St. Louis. Here, now, in the past and the present, this arch of water is landing on my grandfather’s straw hat, splashing onto his work-shirted back.

Soaking, he turns and says to me, “You cut that out.”

Laughter bubbles out of my belly, across the years, to ring the cracked bell of my heart.

And here, now, I am laughing again, and the sun is reaching across two decades of hurt to warm me. I don’t remember the sound of his voice, but I remember the cadence, the rhythm. And I am crying, my tears arching back across the tempestuous years between us to soak his work shirt again.

And he says, “You cut that out. I’m still here ain’t I?

And when he says ‘here,’ he is pointing at my belly, still bubbling with laughter, now thick with the bittersweet of elderberry wine.

Brianna Gamble (She/They) is a student in her final semester at Monroe Community College. She studies creative writing, vampires, and how to make a mean gumbo. She has not previously been published.