The Plum Grove
Ada Reed would not forgive her mother for going into the earth. Even if Ada was the one who helped her grandmother bury her out back in the plum grove, even if Ada was the one who sprinkled loose dirt over her mother’s cloth-wrapped body. Ada had avoided looking at her mother’s face during the process, which had been shrouded in a crisp white sheet. She didn’t like the shapes that pressed against the fabric: deep-set, inverted slopes where her eyes were, the triangular point of her nose and chin, the long, stiff lines where her lips grazed the cotton.
When the work was done and her mother’s body was nothing more than a mound of soil protruding from the earth, Jo, Ada’s grandmother, wrapped an arm around Ada’s shoulders and squeezed. Jo didn’t say anything. She had spent all her words during the months that had preceded Lisa’s death in doctor visits and hospital stays, with hospice nurses who finally told her that “there is just nothing more that can be done.”
Lisa Reed died of ovarian cancer at the age of thirty-two. She is survived by her fifteen year-old daughter, Ada Lynn Reed, and her mother, Josephine Reed. That’s all that the obituary said in the local paper. Josephine didn’t have anything else to offer about her only daughter’s death. Ovarian cancer is a brutal thing. It’s tricky to catch before it’s too late, and steals its victims away quickly, but not quietly. Lisa Reed spent many nights moaning in agony as the cancer ate away her womb and eventually her brain.
What more was there to say?
There was no Reed family history of any kind of cancer, though Jo supposed it could have come from Lisa’s father’s side, a man she never really knew and had never cared to find. Lisa inherited that, at least, from Jo. She had Ada at just seventeen, and she never offered a hint to where the other half of Ada’s genetics came from. Jo had never been one to pry, so she didn’t, and Ada didn’t seem to mind being fatherless.
Now, however, Jo didn’t know what to do with Ada, fifteen and motherless.
Ada lingered in the plum grove for a while, soaking up the sticky July air, before heading back inside her grandmother’s farm house. She couldn’t help but wonder how long the cancer had existed inside of her mother. Had it been there with Ada when she was in the womb? Had it grown alongside her, like a secret, evil twin?
It was early evening, so Ada could get away with heading straight to bed. She passed Jo who was heating up a casserole in the oven. No one had brought it over—the locals knew to stay away from the Reed women who lived on the outskirts of town, occupying one of the few open spaces that existed away from suburbia. Sometimes Lisa and Ada would wander into town to get more fabric for the quilts that they made. Lisa never seemed to mind the way people stared at them.
“Let them stare,” she would tell Ada. “They’re scared of us because we live apart and don’t keep any men around.”
Ada would laugh. “It’s like we are witches.”
“Yes,” Lisa would say with a grin. “Witches.”
Ada had been homeschooled all of her life, and interacted with the townsfolk as little as possible whenever she had to go within city limits to pick up her mother’s medicine or a new pack of sheets after her mother had bled, sweat, or shit through the last set. There were only so many stains that could be washed out, only so many smells that could be rinsed away with detergent.
Jo glanced at Ada as she headed up the stairs. “You should eat.” The words were a suggestion and held none of the brisk demand that Jo usually had.
“I’m tired,” Ada pleaded.
Jo frowned. “You haven’t eaten all day.”
“I know, and I will. Tomorrow,” Ada promised.
Jo nodded once and took the casserole from the oven and placed it back in the fridge.
Upstairs, Ada crept into the room she had shared with her mother, before Lisa got sick. Lisa used to hum a low tune to herself as she fell asleep. Ada missed the sound. That slowly faded away, too. It turned into low moans and then into rasps and wheezes that became muffled but still audible as Lisa became separated from Ada through walls and closed doors. And then Lisa’s breaths winked out, one by one, as she entered her final days. Now there was only silence.
Ada curled into the lumpy mattress of the twin bed on her side of the room and went through the motions of trying to find sleep: closed eyelids and deep, slow, breaths. With each exhale the absence of her mother became sharper, until it punctured Ada’s lungs like a knife. It turned her breathing ragged and wet. Sighs became hoarse choking, and her lungs ached as if they had been filled with smoke. Tears didn’t come. Ada didn’t really expect them to. She had seen her mother die, one day at a time. There was no shock to it, no jarring ripping of her from the world. It was a slow, steady leaving, one you could plot on a graph with a smooth downward curve. You could trace the line with your finger, mark every point in its descent like the way your eyes followed a body slowly lowered into a grave.
Eventually Ada fell asleep, into that grief-slumber that is so heavy but unrestful. She dreamed of her mother’s face, but the skin had been smoothed over, taut like the white sheet that covered her corpse. The mouth moved, but only moaning came out. The horrible groans of her mother’s last days.
Ada jolted upright in her bed. Her lower abdomen cramped as her endometrium was shucked from the walls of her uterus, and sweat stuck under her arms and pooled within the cleft of her breasts. The groaning from her dream bled into reality. At first she thought it was her grandmother, the sound akin to keening. But it came from outside, somewhere in the dark.
Ada slipped out of bed and left her room. The floorboards of Jo’s old farmhouse creaked under her weight, but Jo did not stir from her room at the top of the stairs. Ada crept out the back screen door, heard it close behind her in a huff as she left the porch for the plum grove.
The trees were scattered dancers, arching and twisting in the dark. Their leaves fluttered in the cool breeze, like hushed whispers or skittering laughter. The sweat on Ada’s skin turned cold and gooseflesh rippled along her arms. The moaning transformed into croaking, as if its owner’s throat had gone raw or collapsed. Ada followed the sound, thinking maybe it was a wounded animal. Deer often wandered through the farm, and wolves lingered in the forest nearby. She grew more wary as the sound led to her mother’s grave.
As she crept closer, the air smelled sickly sweet, like fruit about to spoil, mixed with the mustiness of fresh-turned earth. The surrounding plum trees were heavy with fruit, their branches sagging toward the ground.
As Ada moved into the trees that surrounded her mother’s grave in an almost-circle, the groaning halted and Ada was left with the soft hush of breeze that caressed her neck. She knelt to the ground and lay next to the mound of dirt. There was no headstone. The gravesite would become a scar for a while, then new grass would grow and leaves would fall atop it and then there would be no sign her mother was ever laid to rest there. It was what Lisa had wanted. To leave the world with as small a trace as possible. She never explained why.
Ada lay on her stomach and pressed her face into the earth beside the mound of dirt. Down on the ground, the breeze didn’t touch her and the sickly sweet aroma was gone. It was just the musk of earth and the phantom tang of her mother’s sweat, sterile and rancid at the same time. Ada willed the ground to open beneath her, to swallow her, if only for a moment. She wouldn’t mind if dirt filled her lungs and stole her breath, if beetles tangled themselves in her hair and worms ate her eyes. At least then she wouldn’t have to feel the sharp ache of her mother’s absence every time she breathed, or see the mound of dirt next to her or the white sheet wrapped tight around Lisa’s body like a cotton sarcophagus. Ada clutched her lower abdomen as another cramp twisted through her, demanding and sharp, and wished that her mother would rise from the earth, just to run her fingers through Ada’s hair one last time.
Ada woke to the sound of crickets and the rustling of birds hopping along the branches of the plum trees around her. She sat up and stretched out her arms, relished the morning sunlight that warmed her skin.
“Ada? Ada, where are you? Breakfast is ready!” Jo called from the porch.
Ada yawned and went to stand. Blood from her menses had soaked through her nightgown in the night and stained the earth she slept on. Ada reached for the windfallen plums scattered around her to cover the blood, ashamed at having marked her mother’s burial site in such a way. As she collected plums, she was struck by how many of them were on the ground. The trees surrounding her mother’s grave had expelled all of their fruit, and the plums—which were full and ripe last night—lay about Ada in shriveled piles. Withered, stillborn fruit.
“Ada!” her grandmother called, more urgent this time.
Ada quickly left the plum grove and met Jo at the porch.
Jo frowned at Ada when she saw the state she was in, covered in dirt and mosquito bites, though more out of concern than distaste.
“Ada, did you sleep outside?”
Ada shook her head. “I went out for a walk this morning. I sat down to rest and must have fallen asleep.”
Jo pressed her lips into a thin line. “Alright…Well it’s time for breakfast.”
Ada opened her mouth to protest, but Jo cut her off.
“And don’t give me that ‘I’m not hungry’ crap. You hardly ate anything yesterday. Breakfast is non-negotiable.”
Ada sighed and sat at the table.
Jo had made a breakfast of eggs, toast with plum jam, and bacon, which Ada sniffed at but didn’t eat.
“The plums around the grave are going bad,” Ada said around bites of toast.
Jo swallowed her tea. “What?”
“I saw them this morning,” Ada continued. “They’re all wrinkled and they stink.”
“That’s strange. It’s the middle of the season. They should be ripe until at least September.”
Ada shrugged and pushed the remainder of her food around her plate until Jo finally let her leave the table.
The rest of the day went by slow, but was hard to fill. Time was a slippery thing, now that Lisa was gone. It was hard to pin down and make useful. Ada and Jo tried, nonetheless.
Jo had boxed all of Lisa’s things the night after she died. She didn’t like to see them strewn about the house. They were cruel tricks that made her forget that her daughter was dead. She’d even caught herself grumbling “Lisa, what am I going to do with you?” as she picked up countless pairs of socks that had been stuffed in between couch cushions while Lisa and Ada watched TV. The sudden realization that the use of the present tense was now incorrect startled Jo so much that she had pressed a sock-filled hand to her throat and sank to the floor. She stayed there for a while, until she heard Ada creaking along the floorboards above her and resolved to put all the reminders of Lisa away, somewhere they couldn’t play tricks on her or Ada.
Jo went about the house, cleaning and rearranging furniture, trying to fill the empty spaces her daughter used to occupy. She moved the plates from one cupboard to another that had housed Lisa’s medications, and she replaced the old, stained quilt that used to lay across the back of the couch with a new one.
Ada threw a fit when she saw that the quilt had been replaced.
“Where’s the quilt?” she asked Jo.
“Hmm?” Jo didn’t look up from where she sorted Lisa’s past-due hospice bills at the dining table.
“It was right there over the back of the couch. It was always there and now it’s gone.”
Jo finally looked up. “There is a quilt there.”
Ada clenched her fists. “She and I made that quilt. It was the last one we made.”
“Ada. It was stained and old. I put it away, but I’ll wash it.”
“You can’t just touch things without asking. You can’t just put her away and forget about her!”
Jo stood up. “Don’t raise your voice at me, Ada. I haven’t forgotten anything. ”
“Really? Well you had me fooled.” Ada stomped up the stairs and slammed a door.
Jo sighed and went back to trying to figure out how to pay the past-due bills. She’d have to sort out her granddaughter later.
After breakfast, Ada showered then went back outside without saying a word to Jo. She didn’t go to the plum grove but instead to the small vegetable garden where she weeded the carrot bed. Ada had never minded weeding. She liked being on her knees in the soil, hands dirty and the smell of upturned earth in her nose. As she worked, she hummed to herself quietly, until she realized that it was something her mother used to sing as she cooked or braided Ada’s hair. Ada quieted and focused on the large weed that she was trying to pry out. This one’s roots were deep and thick, so she dug around it with her hands, six inches or so into the ground. Ada reached into the small hole she created and wrapped her fingers around the root of the plant and tugged. The weed wouldn’t give. Ada tugged again, grunting a little.
Then something tugged back.
Ada felt cold digits curl around her wrist and pull with so much force that Ada slammed into the ground, her chest flush against the dirt, her arm submerged all the way to her shoulder. Ada opened her mouth to scream, but inhaled dirt. She started to choke and used her free hand to push away from the earth, but whatever was holding onto her tightened its grip.
Ada managed to scramble to her knees and curl her spine, using her free hand, knees, and back to pull herself out of the earth, her own limb now the stubborn root. She felt a rip from somewhere deep underground, from wherever the body of the thing that held her was. She wrenched her arm free from the ground, but as her limb started to resurface, so did the hand that held her.
And it was a hand, with pale, yellow-green skin and stiff root-like fingers. It clung to Ada’s wrist in a death grip, and as Ada finally freed herself from the earth, she saw that the hand was attached to an arm, severed at the joint where ulna and radius meet humerus.
Jo dropped the cups that she was reshelving. They clattered in the sink as she ran out to the garden.
“Ada! What is it?”
She found her granddaughter sobbing and shaking in the carrot bed, face and chest smeared with dirt.
Jo knelt next to Ada. “What happened?”
“Something grabbed me,” Ada lifted her right arm, which was caked with earth from fingertip to shoulder. A pale, yellow-green root was twisted around her wrist and forearm.
Jo gently unwound the root from Ada. “Ada, it’s just a root. From the looks of it, a pretty wicked one, but just a root.”
Ada stared at the plant in her grandmother’s hand and calmed. She was right. It was just a long root, with no fingers or forearm.
Jo stood and dropped the root on the weed pile next to Ada. “Come on, let’s eat some lunch.” Jo looked at the watch on her wrist. “Or I guess dinner. You go wash up and I’ll heat up that casserole.”
Ada stood and followed Jo back to the house. When she got to the porch, she looked over her shoulder at the pile of weeds near the carrot bed. The root was splayed atop them, long, ashen, and grotesque. From the porch it looked like an arm.
Maybe she had imagined the hand, but she did not imagine the force that tugged her to the earth, that pulled her arm almost two feet below ground.
After dinner, Ada went straight to bed to avoid the awkward silences that filled the room whenever she and Jo were in a space together for too long. Ada had the bedside lamp turned on, and studied her wrist as she lay beneath the comforter. Long, damson bruises bloomed along her wrist and forearm from where the root had wrapped itself around her. The bruises weren’t continuous. They varied in length and had gaps between them, like splayed fingers.
Ada shivered at the thought of a hand grabbing her from underground. She felt nauseous and still had traces of dirt in her mouth, like granules of sand. The longer she stared at the bruises, the more hand-like they became. Ada switched off the lamp and shoved her arm beneath the sheets.
Sleep found her a little easier that night, her body exhausted from grief and terror. Yet sleep did not keep her for long, as once more the raw moaning drifted into Ada’s room as it had the night before.
Ada’s eyes flashed open. She stood and went to her window, which was open to let in the cool July breeze. She shut the window, hoping to drown out the sound coming from the plum grove and turned back to her bed. But as soon as her back was turned the moaning grew louder, into a wail, and the breeze wove through the cracks in the windowsill in high, thin shrieks.
So again Ada left her room, barefoot and in nothing but her nightgown, and slowly crept down the stairs and out through the porch’s screen door, past the vegetable garden and the pile of weeds with the root that shone even paler in the moonlight, all the way to the middle of the plum grove, where a ring of trees circled her mother’s grave.
Ada froze at the edge of the ring.
In the spot next to the grave where Ada had lain yesterday was a pair of hands reaching from the earth. The fingers twitched and writhed.
“Mom?” Ada whispered the word, afraid to give it back the power it once held. It had slowly slipped from her vocabulary as her mother grew sicker, when Ada’s presence transformed from a comfort into a disturbance.
Yet as the word left her lips, the pair of hands turned its palms to Ada, fingers splayed so taut that they trembled. The moaning grew wild and frantic.
“Mom!” Ada ran to the hands and gripped them in her own. She tugged, pulling them up from the earth like a weed. Yet the earth was wont to keep the things it held, and Ada grunted and sweat from the effort of pulling her mother from the ground.
The earth was reluctant, but eventually it surrendered, one body part at a time. First a head, then a torso, then legs, all bare and smeared with dirt and bugs the way a newborn is smeared with blood and amniotic fluid. Plumes of dirt crumbled off the body as it rose to its full height.
Ada saw that it was not her mother, after all.
She looked to be a girl about Ada’s age, with yellow-orange skin like the inner flesh of a plum. The girl’s hair was long and dark, thick and curly. Her hair covered most of her face, so Ada could only see her lips, full and purple as the plums around them.
The girl trembled, and more dirt fell off her skin like dust. Her breath came out in wheezes and gasps. Finally, she tilted her chin up to face Ada. Her hair fell from her face and across her shoulders, revealing wide cheeks, and large, black eyes framed by even blacker lashes and thick brows.
“Hello,” the girl whispered.
The sound skittered across Ada’s skin, settled into her bones.
The air filled with that sickly sweet aroma from the night before, mixed with something else—not dirt, something more akin to flesh—but Ada could not name it.
The girl cocked her head to the side.
Ada backed away.
“Are you afraid?” the girl asked.
Ada was afraid, but her curiosity triumphed over her fear.
“What are you?” Ada replied.
The girl looked down at her own body and then looked back to Ada.
The wind weaved through the grove, rustling leaves and sending more plums falling. They landed on the ground one by one, like a series of muffled footsteps.
The girl shivered. “It’s cold out here. Can’t I come inside?”
Ada shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Why?” the girl whined.
She wrapped her yellow-orange arms around her body. Gooseflesh pricked the girl’s skin and peaked her amber nipples.
“Won’t you take me inside?”
The girl looked wounded. “How come?” Her teeth chattered as she said the words, making the sound of her voice rattle like she was speaking into one of those plastic echo microphones Ada had as a child.
“Because my house doesn’t belong to you.”
“I’ve only just arrived, nothing belongs to me yet. Except maybe you.”
Something cold and sharp twisted in Ada’s gut, threatened to crawl up her throat and choke her. “I don’t belong to you either.”
This made the girl cry. Her tears were sticky, like sap, and ran down her cheeks in thick, honey-slow rivulets. She sobbed, releasing low moans from deep in her throat, like she had been wounded and left to die in the dark.
The sound made Ada even more uneasy. The sharp feeling in her gut moved to her chest and made it hard for her to breathe.“Please don’t cry,” Ada gasped. “I didn’t mean it.”
The girl wiped at her cheeks and smiled. Her lips peeled away from her teeth, which were white and sharp, like they were made for tearing into things.
A low rumble sounded from the girl’s belly.
“Are you hungry?” Ada asked.
The girl shook her head. “No. Not yet.”
A silence passed between them. For a moment there was no wind, no rustling of leaves or creaking of branches. But the sickly sweet aroma hung strong and heavy in the air. The air seemed warm to Ada, and humid. Compressed and sticky and hot, like a womb.
A cramp seized Ada, and she fought the urge to bend over in pain.
The girl eyed Ada curiously, her big black eyes unreadable. “I want to come inside,” she said.
The pain in Ada’s abdomen and the sharp twisting in her chest made it almost impossible for her to speak. Yet still she managed to grit out a garbled “No.”
The girl’s fingers twitched. Ada noticed that her nails were long and sharp like her teeth, but instead of white they were black like her eyes, iridescent like beetle shells.
Another cramp wrecked through Ada. She felt the blood of her menses trickle down her thigh. Her eyes rolled and she swayed a little.
“Let me come inside,” the girl whispered.
Ada shook her head, dizzy now. She reached out and rested her hand on the trunk of the plum tree next to her. Its bark was hot and soft. The ground beneath Ada’s feet was warming and softening too, like fresh turned soil baking in the afternoon sun.
“Come inside,” the girl demanded. Her sentence devolved into the whine of a toddler.
The girl stepped closer and demanded, “Inside inside inside inside inside!”
“Stop it,” Ada pleaded.
The girl continued to chant and took another step toward Ada.
“Don’t come near me. Stay away.” Ada turned so that her back was flush against the hot bark of the plum tree. She put both hands in front of her, palms facing outward as if she were performing an exorcism, as if she had some supernatural ability to stop the plum girl from approaching her.
“Insideinsideinsideinsideinsideinsideinside!” The girl chanted so fast that the words ran together, coming out in bursts of breath and eventually croaks that sounded like snapping branches.
“Stop, please stop!” Ada begged. The cramping in her abdomen increased and this time she couldn’t stop herself from doubling over and letting out a strangled moan. She pressed her hands between her legs. When she pulled them away, her palms were bloody.
The plum girl was right in front of Ada now. The smell of her was noxious and dizzying. Ada slid down the trunk and collapsed on her butt on the ground beneath her. The girl crouched in front of Ada and the world seemed to tilt on its side, the trunk the only thing holding Ada up from falling. The girl crawled on top of Ada and pressed her hands on either side of Ada’s face.
“Insideinsideinsideinsideinside,” she whispered against Ada’s lips. The girl’s skin was cold and sticky. Ada jerked her head to the side. The movement pulled her off the plum tree’s trunk. She began to fall.
Her breath rushed from her lungs and left her mouth in a whispered scream, but the world tilted again so that Ada had never really fallen at all, but instead laid on her back in the plum grove.
The girl was still on top of her, her fingers knotted in Ada’s hair and her face pressed into her neck and her chant slowed into a gentle plea.
Ada sobbed and the girl wiped her tears away.
“Just come inside,” she soothed. “Just come inside.” The girl pressed a hand against Ada’s pelvis, over her cramping womb.
“Okay,” Ada breathed.
The plum girl lifted Ada’s nightgown and pushed it over Ada’s head, exposing her naked body. The air was still warm and damp, and droplets of moisture bloomed along Ada’s skin like beads of sweat.
Syrupy fingers caressed Ada’s abdomen and the girl pressed her lips beneath Ada’s navel and her breasts grazed Ada’s hips. Ada trembled in fear but lifted her head to watch what the plum girl was doing. She ran a black nail across Ada’s abdomen, tearing through the thin skin of Ada’s pelvis like she was slicing paper. Ada did not feel any pain aside from the cramping she was already experiencing, yet bubbles of blood formed along her split skin. The girl dipped her fingers into the divide she had created and wiggled them to spread Ada open.
Ada felt like she was going to be sick and dropped her head back to the ground. Her breath came out shallow and fast. As her head lolled to the side, Ada realized that she was laying atop her mother’s grave and that the mound of dirt was softening, slipping like quicksand. The moving dirt spread against her scalp like phantom fingers moving through her hair to smooth, to soothe.
The plum girl had both her hands in Ada now, elbow deep in gore. She was climbing inside Ada, tilting her head down into the cavity she had made.
The trees rattled their branches, from wind or from the ground that was moving beneath her, Ada did not know. The world hummed, a low, gentle sound. It sounded like her mother. And this ground felt like her mother, too. Soft and warm and whole. Not empty like the corpse she had buried days ago.
Ada began to hum along, and the ground began to rock her from side to side while opening itself to her.
Inside, inside, Ada thought. Just let me come inside.
Emma Roles is a writer who explores themes of entrapment, gender, sexuality, and trauma through fiction, contemporary fairy tales, and non-fiction. She is particularly interested in the ways in which environment and place embody and reflect these themes. Roles has worked as Managing Editor on the internationally-distributed literary magazine, Silk Road Review: A Literary Crossroads and has worked as Marketing and Event Coordinator for the Pacific University Visiting Writers Series. Her creative work has been published in PLUM: Pacific’s Literature by Undergraduate Magazine. Roles received a BA in Creative Writing as well minors in Editing & Publishing and Spanish from Pacific University in Oregon. She is completing an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University.