You know, she says, chopping the carrots into coins, your uncle called this morning. Hes convinced hes under surveillance. Hes being buzzed by black helicopters. Hes counted thirty-six since yesterday. She wipes the hair from her forehead with the back of her wrist. And, she says, he thinks Ronnas mind is being poisoned. Ruth looks up. Because she uses aspartame, not sugar. She pushes the carrot coins to the side of the cutting board and reaches for an onion.
The kitchen opens onto the family room, the rooms themselves separated only by the wide counter where Ruth stands. She looks up over the counter and into the other room, where her daughter sits at the table, her head bent low over her sketchbook, a pencil clutched firmly in her hand. She looks stern with concentration, and Ruth can tell by the whiteness of her fingertips that she is pressing the pencil hard against the page. She is framed by the picture window, and her silhouette is dark against the sky behind her, its steely canvas broken only by the jagged limbs of the apple tree, Ruths favorite. Bare long before the other trees this fall, the apple tree is dying, Ruth knows. Wilson wanted to cut it down, but she wouldnt let him.
Its dead, Ruth, hed said.
Its not dead, shed said. Its dying. Lets just let it die.
The winter will kill it, she suspects. Its meant to be a bad one.
Do you know what my mother said to me on her deathbed? Ruth asks, flaking the onions skin away. I asked her, I said, Mother, what am I going to do about Jimmy? And she looked at me, and she smiled, and she said, Ruthie, I dont know, but he is your problem now. And, my God, words have never been truer. She picks the knife back up and holds it above the onion, then she pauses. Im just not quite sure what Im supposed to do. She lowers the knife onto the onion. What do I say about thirty-six black helicopters, for instance? Do I say I see them, too? That everyone does? Or do I tell him hes delusional?
Ruth steps back from the onion to dry her eyes. Isabelle has not looked up. A large pot of water on the stove has finally come to a boil, and Ruth pours several bags of split peas in. There, she says. That should last us for a couple months at least. Maybe even all winter. Though Id like to make lentil, too, at some point. She turns back to the cutting board. Her daughter hunches over her sketchbook, very still except for the slow and deliberate movements of her drawing hand.
Id like to see what youre drawing, Isabelle, Ruth says. When youre finished, if you want to show me.
Her daughter says nothing, though Ruth didnt expect an answer. Isabelle hasnt spoken for nine months now. She has been to countless doctors and psychiatrists, but nothing seems to help, to penetrate the silence. Ruth is sure that she is somehow responsible. There are images that haunt and tease: Isabelle at two, sitting alone on the edge of the sandbox in the same blue overalls every day, watching as the other children play; Isabelle at four, sitting small among her preschool classmates, glancing often at Ruth with her book in the corner to make sure she hasnt left her there alone; Isabelle in tears on her first day of kindergarten when finally Ruth arrived to pick her up, ten minutes late. Isabelle had taken literally her teachers joking threat to turn the stragglers into chicken soup, and she had nightmares for months. Of all days, on that day, Ruth should have been on time. And maybe she shouldnt have stayed with her daughter at preschool, the only parent, until April, when Isabelle was finally ready to let her go. Maybe she should have gotten into the sandbox with her daughter and helped her to make friends instead of allowing her to sit as a spectator until she was comfortable. Shes read countless books on parenting, trying to figure out just where she went wrong, and how she can make it right. Each book tells her something different: she should discipline, she should tolerate, she should encourage independence, she should allow for dependenceand each book points to a mistake. Where she should have tolerated, she disciplined instead; where she should have disciplined, she didnt.
Excerpted from December by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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