The Wash
by Donna Sparkman
       Mary loved the way the laundry dried in the afternoon sun.  She watched the wash hanging still upon the lines before gazing at the clear sky, wondering if there would be wind today.  When the wind blew down through the trees, she imagined that she could feel the wash wrap around her and fly her over the valley.  Sometimes as she sat looking at the sheets and the breeze, she thought she could feel what it was like to limply hang until the breeze came circling around, calling "Come play with me."  Sitting on the back steps, Mary waited for the wind as her fingers tugged at the loose threads of her denim cut-offs and her feet, wrapped inside muddied cotton canvas shoes, tapped the wooden steps.

       This one day every week she would sit on the back porch and watch the lines hanging heavily with the wet sheets, their layers clinging and barely swaying with the slight early morning breeze.  She watched as they dried in the summer sun and moved with the winds that filtered down the hillside behind her house.  As soon as her chores were done and her family disappeared to do whatever they did on this day, she would escape to the back steps, watching and waiting for the feeling of freedom that the windıs dance with the wash always gave her.

       Yet today was different.  Her brother Zeke waited for Mary to come out the door and sit in her normal place.  Zeke stood in the yard tossing a rock into the air, twirling before catching it in the hand he held behind him and then dancing around the steps like a miniature version of a victorious warrior.  Mary watched him.  Most days she played all day long with Zeke around the farm.  They splashed through creeks and climbed hills.  They told ghost stories in the barn loft when it rained.  They dipped their feet in the cold water at the mill and watched the wooden buckets fill with water as the wheel turned.

       Today Zeke waited for Mary to fish with him.  She knew he was bored, but she ignored him as a breeze slowly lifted the folds of the sheets.  A bluejay flew over the lines and sat singing from the brush hidden behind the wash.  Any other day she would have been fascinated by the bird, and she, along with Zeke, would cross the long line of broken railing tracing the hillıs edge behind her house and search for the exact branch the bird rested on.  She would have raced after the bird as it escaped to sing from the tall branches of one of the four apple trees that separated the back yard from the vegetable garden.  Mary and Zeke would run around the small benches wrapping the treesı base, calling to the bird to come and sit on their hands.  But today, her fascination was with the two wire lines stretched tight between the wooden cross-ties as blue with age as the rail fence.  Rather, her fascination was with the sheets clipped to the line that would sway with each breeze.

       Zeke disappeared from her mind before he disappeared around the small knoll that led the last few feet to the creek.  The wind picked up and the sheets danced.  At first only a few moved with the flirty breeze, but as the sun warmed their bodies, the lines became filled with sheets waving and moving to the windıs command.  Like the spring sky makes shapes of airy clouds, Mary watched as the wind bent, molded, and sculpted the cotton cloth into flying dragons, laughing clowns, and pre-historic birds.  Sheets shaped like tall sails formed and billowed as the wind gushed across the open back yard.  Mary grinned as one flattened and waved like the magic carpet of some old fairy tale.

       She watched as the sheets played hide-and-seek with what could be hidden behind their walls.  They whipped around and pranced on the line.  Sometimes they parted to reveal a bunny hopping threw the tangled briars at the fenceıs feet.  Other times, the sheets teased Mary's mind with images of a mountain cougar she had heard her father mention he had seen as a youngster.  She had laughed out loud when her kitten Polly came walking under the sheets, her tail playing hide and seek with the material.  She believed she saw a huge deer once, but it was only tree branches piled together from a previous storm.  As the wash wrapped around the lines, Mary caught a flicker of something and held her breath as the wind once more moved the sheets.

       Zeke leaned against the wooden brace that held the lines of clean laundry mid-air.  Mary saw his mud-covered body near the clean sheets.  The wind waved the fabric slightly, occasionally hiding Zekeıs small frame.  Mary groaned as he grinned and cracked the dry mud caking his face.  Bits of the brown earth fell to the ground.  She held her breath as Zeke slowly raised a hand as if to caress the white sheets that surrounded him.  She watched him grin at her as she sat, her body ready to spring from the steps.

       "Whatıs wrong, Sis?" Zeke said, his hands dusting himself off as he walked toward the house.  "Whereıs Mom?"

       It was late afternoon, the time their mother always gathered vegetables from the garden.  He came closer.  As he walked, large patches of dried mud fell and marked his path between the clothesline and the kitchen steps.  As Mary watched, the white sheets danced on the line.  Zeke's presence was already forgotten as the cotton material danced in the wind.  The wind blew and twisted the sheets, topsy-turvy like, over the line before the breeze stilled and the sheets hung waiting.

       Zeke let the screen door slam as he sat down near Mary, handing her a bowl of ice cream.  They watched the wash begin to blow in the wind as they ate.  Mary ignored Zeke as her ice cream melted in the untouched bowl.  Her eyes waited for any sign of wind.

       "Pretty, ainıt it?"

       Something in his voice made her look at him before shaking her head and placing her chin on her knees.  Mary watched the wooden brace fade and resurface as the white material hid it from view.  The only sounds were the slight whip of the sheets on the breeze and Zeke slurping the last of his ice cream.

       Mary heard Zekeıs sigh as he placed his empty bowl on the steps.

       "What do you see when you watch this all day?" he asked.

       Mary's tiny shoulders shrugged. She didn't look at him.

       "I don't get it," he said as he knocked the mud from his legs.

       Zeke watched the wash as it moved back and forth on the line.  Mary believed that all he saw was the cloth attached to the line.  He shook his head as he asked Mary, "What - do - you - see?"

       Looking at her brother from the corner of her eye, Mary grinned as she saw his right index finger point at the clothes with each word like her mother pointed at Zeke and herself when she told them they couldnıt do something.

       Mary looked at her brother and then at the lines. She lowered her head and whispered, "I see all kinds of things."

       "What things?" Zeke asked as he turned and squinted his eyes at the laundry as if trying to see these things that his sister saw.

       Mary watched the wash on the lines.  A faint smile traced her lips as she saw the shapes form with the wind.  She sighed because she knew Zeke would not leave.

       She said, "See the sheets open and close."  She stopped and pointed toward the lines.  "Watch how they seem to fly. Remember the baby robin who fell out of the tree and was flapping her wings. Donıt you think the one in the middle looks like her."

       Mary stopped to give Zeke enough time to see the robin. Mary watched as he sat with a blank face.

       "Or," she bit her lip, " see how the ends move," she said.  "Remember, like that boy's kite at the beach.  The one that was shaped like a butterfly, but wouldn't work because its left wing always folded over."  Mary stopped and pointed toward the third sheet on the first line.  "Watch how the last one, the pink one, stands up as the wind tries to flip it over the line.   It acts like that soldier, the nutcracker, you know, the one in the book Grandma reads to us.  Look.  Look at those."  She stopped and pointed to the two twin printed sheets at the end of the line as a fresh breeze caught its dried fabric.  " It's dancing.  Remember how Grandpa would dance Grandma around the room before he died.  See, they're dancing."

       Mary stopped and held her breath as a rebel wind came racing down the hill and made the lines billow like the top sail of the old boat in the glass jar Mary helped her father place on the mantel in the living room.

       "See how the wind lets them fly, almost like they're free.  Sometimes . . ." Mary stopped as she blushed.

       "What?" Zeke asked.

       "Sometimes," Mary shrugged her shoulders.  She gave a long sigh.  "Wouldnıt it be nice to fly like they do. To move with the wind above the ground."

       Mary watched Zeke look at the lines, but she knew by his vacant eyes that he could not see their magic.  Mary knew to him the laundry wasn't free. She knew he only saw the wash clipped to the line.  Mary gazed at the sheets as they moved with the wind.  For a moment she tried to feel how they must feel, but she couldn't.  With Zeke watching, she could not feel the wind and the wash.  She lowered her head and tugged at the loose string on her shorts.

       When she raised her eyes, she saw him looking at the laundry.  She waited for him to leave.  She tapped her feet on the steps as she heard the wind begin to blow through the trees at the top of the hill.

       "Hey, Mary," said Zeke.  He turned his face toward her and grinned.  "Want to race the wind?"

       Mary's blue eyes widened as her mouth gaped open.  She watched as Zeke raced through the two lines of sheets, his hands out-stretched and raking their material over his tiny arms.  At the end of the lines, he turned and back-tracked.  Making sounds like an airplane, his arms see-sawed through the cotton fabric as he ran.  Mary stood as he stopped at the brace holding the wash from the ground.  Slowly, he walked around the pole once before stopping to look at her.  Mary heard her mother latch the garden gate on her way back to the house.  Zeke walked around the pole for a second time and with a smudged hand tugged one sheet until the line vibrated with the motion.  The third time around his hands grabbed the brace and tossed it into the air.

       The lines snapped free.  The clothespins broke, and the sheets flew through the air like a group of migrating birds on their first attempt at flying together.  Dried and almost weightless, the wash sailed with the wind across the yard.  Some dipped and covered grass, bikes, fences, and apple trees while the pink twin caught the edge of the house and snagged on a nail as others completely escaped the yard .

       As the sheets dipped and rose with the breeze, slowly turning mid-air before diving to cover the tomato plants in the garden or to clutch the old tree limbs, Mary stood with her mouth open, her feet tingling.  Nothing had ever been as beautiful as the wash whipping in the wind until today.  Not the autumn leaves whirling in shades of bold colors or the Dogwoods blooming in spring.  Not the winter snow draping and bending the trees like magical canopies.  Mary did not fall with the sheets.  She did not hear Zeke as he raced from the yard.  Nor did she hear her mother call for her father.  In her mind, Mary escaped with the wind.  Her heart floated with the breeze over the hills and valleys, dipping down and dancing atop the flowers before rising again to dance free in the sky and whirl as young birds grasping life with new wings.