by Miriam N. Kotzin
Miriam N. Kotzin

Miriam Kotzin's fiction and poetry have been published widely in print and online in such places as SmokeLong Quarterly, Eclectica, Frigg, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, Thieves Jargon, The Pedestal, and Southern Humanities Review. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a founding editor of Per Contra. This is her third story in Amarillo Bay.

Two collections of her poetry have been published: Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press, 2008) and Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press, 2009). A collection of her flash fiction, Just Desserts, is slated for publication in 2010, also by Star Cloud.

When I got home from the Food Lion, Tom was striding across his lawn, a good ten feet ahead of Faydene, who had a green plastic leaf bag slung over her arm. He got to the small tree on the berm between their sidewalk and the street, nodded to me, and began plucking the leaves without waiting for Faydene to catch up. Faydene called out to me that Tom was "sick to death" of raking, and they were "going to get the last leaves before they fell."

She caught up to Tom and held open the bag. Without looking at me, she said, "I hear you've met our Beau."

I'd learned enough about living here so that I knew better than to ask how she'd heard. Tom dropped the handful of leaves he was clutching into the open bag. Was this how all of Carthage dealt with fall? I gestured to my lawn and promised I'd be getting to mine that afternoon. I had to. Tom's leaves would be all accounted for, and any new ones might as well have had a return address stamped on them.

By the time I went back out, Faydene and Tom had gone. I set to work, raking and bagging the leaves. As I finished, a few more leaves drifted down, landing so far from one another that it made no sense to rake. Racing dusk, I walked the lawn and picked up each leaf, until my fists were full. I jammed the leaves into the bag and when I'd got the last of them from the lawn, I stood for a while contemplating the few left on branches. I could use Tom's method. It wasn't better than raking, but it would be better than what I'd just done.

I went in and got a cardigan. I tied up the bag that was full and held an empty bag, snapped it open, tore a hole near the top and slipped my arm through it. I began picking leaves from the first branch of dogwood and whispered, "He loves me, he loves me not."

All the colors dissolved in the evening air. Behind me my porch light glowed, and a full moon just cleared the trees. He loves me, he loves me not. I tried not to have anyone in mind. I wondered how long it would take before Beau heard I was outside in the moonlight plucking leaves from my dogwood tree. I kept on task. He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me.

I knew there'd be leaves enough for me to get it right.

# # #

Beau had acted like my own private welcome wagon. Not long after we met, he came by with a big sack of pecans from his tree. He'd washed and dried them and brought them with a nutcracker and picks. We spent the evening cracking enough for two pecan pies with plenty left over.

He brought along what he said was his family recipe, which uses both brown sugar and corn syrup. And he brought the brown sugar and a bottle of Karo. Two glass pie plates, too, brand new with the labels still on the bottom. And two bottles of chilled white wine, one with the label soaked off. He said it'd make a good rolling pin "in case I hadn't had a chance to unpack mine."

Even now, I have to give him this: Beau always wiped his feet at the door, and he never walked around my house in his stocking feet.

# # #

The day Beau took me to get mistletoe, whatever hope I had was as pretty as an antique Christmas ornament. I was treating it like that, too, as something bright and shining, but hollow and fragile.

I thought we'd be going to the farm market on the highway, the one they keep open all winter, with the wood stove going in the middle and heaps of colorful citrus in the aisle bins, with winter squash, green and orange, down near the potatoes and waxed turnips.

We drove right by, didn't even slow down. I'd been quiet, thinking about how I would stay here for Christmas this year, try to make myself think of Carthage as home, hang lights, invite friends, invent my own traditions. Beau hadn't said much either. He talked in spells--some days he'd be like he was the day we'd met, saying things I would've had to work hard to think up, using more similes than a Surrealist poet on amphetamines. I hadn't trusted that wit at first; it seemed insincere, like he had a writer somewhere feeding him lines through some invisible Bluetooth.

I whipped my head around when we passed the store. "We can stop on the way home, if you need something, Sugar," he said. "But first, we get the mistletoe."

"Where?" I asked, though I didn't care. I was happy just being with Beau.

"I have friends," he said, "with woods on their property." My failure to understand must have showed, because he went on. "Look," he said, "It grows all through here, those green things way up in those oaks? Mistletoe."

"You're kidding, right?"

"What did you think that was up there?"

"I hadn't noticed," I said. "It's so expensive, I can't believe it just grows . . . wild."

"Not just wild." He paused. "Mistletoe, Sugar, is a parasite."

"If it's way up on the trees, how do you get it down?"

He laughed again. "The way everybody does. How do you Yankees get it down?"

"We always went to the store to get it," I said.

"We shoot it."

It took a while before I understood, and he seemed to enjoy my being puzzled.

After a visit with his friends, a couple whose flair for simile was as natural as moss on the north side of the trees, Beau and I headed out. The fallen oak leaves rustled as we walked. He'd taken his shotgun from its case at the car, and he carried it on his shoulder, whistling the theme from Peter and the Wolf.

This was the first time I'd been in woods without a path to follow. I was uneasy even with Beau, maybe because of him.

From time to time he'd stop and look up, then walk on again, until he stopped, pointed up and said, "Perfect."

I saw mistletoe in the upper branches of many trees. I didn't understand what was so special about this one. "You're going to shoot it?"

"Not from here," he said. "The angle's wrong. I'd have to shoot straight up. Too dangerous."

"Then why?" I asked.

"Tradition," he said. He took my chin in his hand and tilted my face up to kiss me. Once. "We don't need a great big red ribbon tied on the mistletoe for that, do we?"

"I guess we didn't," I said. It wasn't our first kiss, and I had thought we didn't need the mistletoe, but I hadn't wanted to say as much myself.

Beau took me by the hand and led me over to a tree and told me to stay there. He walked off a bit, sighted up at the mistletoe and shot. It took a few tries. He looked and said what he'd got was female. Berries. "Toxic," he said.

He brought down three of these. We left one with his friends, and we took the others back to town. He gave me a whole one to divide and give to my friends. I knew he'd do the same, and I wondered how many kisses he'd be getting and from whom.

I tied the mistletoe bunches with red velvet ribbons. Tom and Faydene got one, of course, and I mailed some home with a note, but I left out the detail about my sending used goods. The kiss in the woods wasn't something they needed to know.

Even though he had plenty, I gave Beau a bunch I made up with red ribbon and silver bells. I wanted him to think of me when he got kissed under that mistletoe. And I'm pretty sure he was, at least the one time it mattered.

# # #

When I was just about feeling settled, Beau brought me branches of red camellias. I bent to smell the blossoms. Almost nothing. He laughed. "They are what they are," he said.

I put the branches in a cut glass vase. Beau stood leaning against the kitchen counter while I did the arranging. In the language of flowers, scarlet camellias mean "you're a flame in my heart." His hands jammed into his pockets, he intended nothing of the sort.

Within days the camellia blossoms fell whole from the branches. I floated the fallen flowers in a wide shallow bowl of water, and they sailed with nowhere to go, bumping up against the side of the bowl, darkening scarlet rafts adrift in currents too faint for me to see.

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