High Ambitions

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Maggie Greene walked through the school’s lobby, bold as hot molasses on cold grits. Many of the students were waiting in that old, dusty lobby, lingering outside their classroom doors until the clock struck 8:19. There were no warning bells in the Clayton Elementary school. It was an old tottering edifice that once housed nuns before they moved on to a bigger, and more lucrative, county. The clocks barely ran on time, if they ran at all.
Maggie stood, whereas the other students outside of Mrs. Clarke’s classroom sat, looking defeated by the clock and by the dread of another school day. It was Spring and many of them had grass and scuff and mud and manure on their boots. They all longed for Summer, even if it meant hard work for long hours on the farm.
“You got a shine today,” Laura remarked to Maggie.
“Summer’s comin’ up soon,” Maggie said. “And I’m gonna’ have the loveliest flowers in the whole county.”
“How’s that?” Laura asked.
“The fairies promised me I would,” Maggie said. Absently, she tucked a stray blonde hair behind her ear.
“Fairies?” Laura said. “You’re not talkin’ right.”
“I’m tellin’ you they said so,” Maggie said. “And the fairies keep their promises.”
By now several other students waiting by Mrs. Clarke’s classroom were listening intently to Maggie, and raising their own objections.
“You must of got kicked in the head by a cow,” Tommy Peterson said. “There ain’t no such thing as fairies.”
“There are, too,” Maggie said, looking with disgust at Tommy as he picked his nose. “They have wings and they fly around your head like horseflies. Only they don’t bite. They talk to you and tell you things.”
“You’re talkin’ about angels,” Brittany Blanford said, authoritatively. “Angels have wings and tell you things. They even save your life, if you’ve got a good soul. My momma says so.”
Maggie stood solidly in her belief, and no one could rock her with his or her opinion, even as more and more students gathered round to listen to her and to doubt her and question her.
“You wait and see,” she said. “I’m gonna’ have the loveliest flowers in all the county. It ain’t that hard, anyhow.  You just gotta’ get down in the dirt to grow good flowers. You got to use the right fertilizer. The flowers will do the rest of the work.”
The students were so caught up in Maggie’s talk that they failed to enter their classes at 8:20. Mrs. Clarke came out to fetch them, and to berate them.
“You children are supposed to have more sense than this,” she said, gesturing them inside as if she was corralling calves into a pen with her brawny arms. “Get on, now. We got your arithmetic to work on.”
“I won’t need to know no more,” Maggie boldly declared, the last to enter the class. “The fairies promised I am goin’ to grow the loveliest flowers in the whole county.”
Mrs. Clarke rolled her eyes. “Stop your nonsense, Miss Greene, and get on in there.”

***

At recess Maggie’s class went outside to play. There wasn’t much of a playground— only a field behind the old schoolhouse, or nunnery hall, and a few things to play with. Jump ropes. Kickballs. The grass was not maintained and grew riot to the knee. Wildflowers grew there, too, and many girls simply spent recess trying to outdo one another’s bouquets. Maggie normally tried, also, but saw no sense in it now.
“My flowers will be the loveliest in Clayton county,” she said while the other girls picked dandelions and phlox and whatever else they could find. “The fairies said so.”
The other girls scowled at her as they stooped and plucked at the stems. The sky was overcast above. Boys shouted and laughed and cried nearby, playing dodgeball or climbing trees at the border of the field.
“It ain’t so hard, really,” Maggie said, walking around with her nose held high. She looked like a prancing doe in a field of clover, too happy to notice the coyote sneers of her peers. “The earth’s got to settle just right,” she continued to say. “But you can’t be too upset about the outcome, otherwise you won’t appreciate what good all of your hard work’s done. Not every seed’s gotta’ grow up big. Sometimes it takes the smaller ones to let the bigger ones shine.”
“You talk all nonsense,” Laura said, plopping down in the grass. She was a tomboy, and so wore jeans instead of a dress like the rest of the girls. “You don’t know the first thing about growing flowers. You’re a do-nothin’ princess. You don’t like to work.”
Maggie’s smile did not falter even a moment. “But I won’t have to do nothin’ to grow my flowers,” she said. “The fairies said so. The flowers will do the growin’ for me.”
“And what kind of flowers are those?” Brittany Blanford demanded.
“Every kind of flower,” Maggie said. “Daisies and petunias and lilies and tulips and lilac. I am even going to grow orchids. The fairies promised.”
“Orchids don’t grow around here,” Brittany said. “My momma’s tried for a long time, but they never do right.”
“Your momma never had fairies promise her nothin’,” Maggie said. She was about to say more, but then she saw Billy Throne approaching. Maggie hated Billy Thorne. He was always teasing her and pulling her hair and slugging her arm and giving her kisses on her cheek. He had a fancy for her, and she had a disgust for him.
“What’s this I hear about you growin’ flowers?” he said, crossing his arms.
“Fairies said I will,” Maggie said, full of sass with her hands on her hips. “Loveliest flowers in the county.”
“You don’t know nothin’ about growin’ flowers,” he said. “You couldn’t even grow weeds.”
“Don’t matter what you say,” she said. “Fairies said I could. It’s the most natural thing to do.”
“Well,” he said with a grin, “I guess if that’s true then they’d be good for the wedding.”
“What wedding?” Maggie said, confused.
Our wedding,” he said. “You and I are gettin’ married.”
Maggie snorted. “That ain’t ever gonna’ happen. I got my flowers to grow. Nothing else matters.”
“We’ll see about that,” Billy said, grinning as he walked away.
“He ain’t ever gonna’ be my prince,” Maggie announced resolutely.

***

The schoolday passed slowly, as it always had done for the children in Clayton County Elementary. Eventually the time for studies was done, though, and the school let out. Maggie was happy and satisfied as she rode the bus home, staring out the window at the blooming fields of corn and wheat and wildflowers passing by.
“It’s a good time to start growing flowers,” she said. “The fairies said so.”
Maggie arrived home. Like the other Clayton county children, she lived on a farm. Her daddy was on his tractor, tilling a field so he could plant carrots and broccoli. He waved at her from among the drifting dust. She waved back.
Maggie met her mother in the kitchen. She was preparing that evening’s supper: cooking beans and biscuits and bacon and peas. She was stirring the beans in a pot.
“See to your chores, Maggie,” her mother said.
“They don’t matter anymore,” Maggie said. “The fairies said so.”
Her mother took instant umbrage. “Now you know better than to sass me, Margaret Greene. You are gonna’ do your chores or your daddy’s gonna’ tan your hide.”
“But the fairies said it doesn’t matter anymore!” Maggie said, wrenching her hands as if to grasp the reason that was so obvious to her and make it visible for her mother. “Nothin’ else matters except me havin’ the loveliest flowers in all of Clayton county.”
Her mother shook her head slowly, ruefully, wrath written all over her sun-stained face. It was a face that had not smiled often in its whole life, and the mind behind it had had all childish thoughts and habits burned out of it with hard work and hard luck and hard labor out in the fields.
Maggie’s father came into the kitchen just then. His hair was soaked with sweat under his hat and his blue eyes gazed from faraway, as they always did when he had been working in the heat too long and he needed some cool shade, a nice chair, and a glass of lemonade. His wife brought him the latter as he sat down at the table and fanned himself with his hat. His hair was going white prematurely with work. After he had drank enough, and sighed enough, he grinned at the two most important women in his life.
“Now what’s all this arguin’ about?” he said lightly.
“Your daughter’s refusin’ to do her chores,” his wife said, pointing the bean spoon at Maggie. “And she’s gettin’ mighty high about it!”
“Is that so?” he said. He squinted at his daughter, taking the full measure of her. “But I’d say she hasn’t gotten too high. She’s still pretty short yet.”
Maggie laughed and her mother scowled.
“Joe,” his wife warned, “you need to take this seriously. Half of her problem is that you indulge her too much. My daddy would have belted me good just for speaking out of turn.”
“I know, Patty,” he said, “but your daddy was also one mean son of a bitch.” His smile slipped sideways. “Maggie, don’t repeat that.”
“I know not to, daddy,” Maggie said obediently.
“It’s not bein’ mean to discipline your daughter,” Patty said. “Life is mean, Joe, and if we don’t let her know it she won’t be ready for it. She’s gettin’ all sorts of silly notions in her head. Fairies and flowers? Life ain’t fairies and flowers!”
“The fairies are real!” Maggie said. “And my flowers will be the loveliest in all of Clayton county!”
Her mother was apoplectic with fury; she looked ready to smash the bean pot on the floor. Maggie’s father just chuckled lightly, then sighed.
“Those sound like some mighty high ambitions,” he remarked. He motioned for her to come sit on his knee. Maggie did so happily, for she was a daddy’s girl through and through. “How’d you get such mighty high ambitions into your head?”
“Because nothin’ pretty grows around here,” she said, looking sideways at her mother. “Momma even says so. But the fairies say it’s the easiest, naturalist thing in the world to do.”
“Nothin’ was ever done easily that was worth doin’,” her mother said. “And nothin’ worth doin’ was ever done to be pretty. That’s why flower gardenin’ is a waste of time, Maggie. All that soil and toil ought to be used growin’ useful things, like squash and radishes. Things that keep you from starvin’.”
“I won’t have to worry about starvin’ no more while I’m growin’ my flowers,” Maggie said.
Mother and daughter glowered at one another for a long silent moment. The dust motes swirling around the light through the kitchen window even seemed to feel the tension in the air, for they were sluggish with caution. At length, Maggie’s father spoke, breaking the silence.
“Go on outside, darlin’,” he said. “Your momma and I need to talk.”
Maggie hopped off of his lap and headed down the hall, toward the front door.
“And do your chores!” her mother called after her. She returned to stirring the pot of beans, and stirring her anger at her husband for the proper flavor. She began berating him before Maggie opened the door. “Damn it, Joe, you’re gonna’ ruin her! They already call her princess in church. What’s next? Queen? Her imaginary friends were embarrassing enough, but now she’s goin’ on and on about fairies! It’s that damn fairytale book you got for her.”
“Hey now,” her husband said calmly. “It’s good for her to be readin’. Maybe she’ll be able to get a better job with her readin’ than either of us could have.”
“Oh yeah,” his wife said. “‘Princess of the fairies’ sounds like a great job…”

Maggie left the house. She did not do her chores. Instead, she went directly into the woods. She knew the way by heart. She had been shirking her chores on the farm for weeks and coming to the glade to see the fairies in their ring of toadstools. If she had been sleepwalking or blind she would have known the way.
The fairies greeted her with enthusiastic laughter, flitting around her gaily. Their diaphanous wings sparkled in the scant rays of the sun that punctured intermittently the dense foliage and penumbral shadows. Their bodies were the colors of all kinds of flowers: tulips, daisies, lilies, roses, bluebells. Nearby a tree stood that was different from the oaks and ashes and elms. Red berries hung from it like jewels from the gown of a princess. Only birds could eat them, but many had been plucked.
“Is it time?” Maggie asked the fairies.
The little creatures nodded eagerly, every one of them grinning with mischief. Their grins glistened and their bodies glittered. Many of them were quite small, so it took several of them to carry the wooden cup to Maggie. They were not coordinated well, and the sour red liquid sloshed and spilled here and there. Maggie took the cup carefully from them. They all hovered around her, smiling in expectation.
“So I drink this and I can have the loveliest flowers in all of Clayton county?”
They nodded wildly, glancing sidelong with amusement at one another.
Maggie lifted the cup and drank it dry.

***

Maggie’s father found her just before suppertime. He scooped her up and ran to the house, sobbing and praying to Jesus to return color to her pale cheeks. She was announced dead at the hospital. They buried her in the Clayton Catholic Church graveyard the following Sunday.
It was said that the loveliest flowers grew up from her burial plot, but they all looked like weeds to those who loved her.

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