Tara Laghlin went home for the first time in twenty years with a new hair color, several new tattoos, and a dark, Californian tan. It was the look she’d sported for all of college and beyond, a look that fit in with her English major friends from eastern costal towns. It didn’t fit in here.
She remembered Smith’s Tavern. Back in high school, everyone called it “Joe’s.” It was the place to go for underage kids who wanted a drink without their parents knowing. Joe himself, the old bartender, would slip them a beer with a wink and keep an eye on the parties. The booze kept flowing as long as the tips came steady and the trouble didn’t get out of hand. Tara used to come every Friday night.
Joe wasn’t there anymore. His son, Nathan, stood behind the counter. With early gray hair and a blue shirt under his leather jacket, he was the spitting image of his father. He watched her out the corner of his eye as she pushed open the creaky old door and took a seat at the bar.
She and Nathan were a few years apart, but they still grew up together. The kids had to stick together in a town as small as Sitka. Tara spent hundreds of sunlit mornings running around the cornfields with Nathan and his siblings. She remembered how angry his mother got when they all came back covered in dirt. She remembered the laughter in his eyes.
The only thing in his eyes now was suspicion. She waited at the bar for a few silent minutes before coming to the horrible conclusion that he didn't recognize her. Maybe her voice would jog his memory?
“Whiskey, please,” she said. “Neat.”
His only answer was a nod. He picked up a rag and went to wipe down the counter near the other customers, in no rush to get her drink. She recognized the others as well. They were all children of farmers in town, or the older versions of faces she knew when they were middle aged. Nathan chatted with them quietly, but not one of them would meet her eye.
It was more sheltered here than when she left. Or maybe she was less sheltered. College was certainly a shock, with more people of more colors in a single building than there were in all of Sitka. It took her months to adjust.
Still, she was from here. Their blood was her blood, their land her land. Distance and time could not sever bonds tied at birth.
Her mom was the one who called when she was away. Every Saturday night at 7:00 Tara’s phone would ring and her mother’s creaky voice would lurch down the line, asking, “Found a man yet, Tara?” or “How's your roommate?” or “When are you coming home?”
It was easy enough to travel back to Sitka during breaks for the first two years. But then she had clients to tutor, exams to study for, and occasionally a girlfriend who didn’t want to meet her family yet. She stayed on campus the winter of junior year, and she took a full time internship that summer. The calls started to come every other Saturday, then every first Saturday of the month, until they finally stopped altogether.
Tara never sat down to dial her mother herself. It felt unwelcome somehow, like a crossed boundary. She didn’t want to be the unfamiliar area code on their answering machine.
“Whiskey neat,” Nathan said. He placed the drink in front of her and moved away like she was a bad omen.
She wanted to talk. There was a gold band around his finger, and a new scar on his right cheekbone. She wanted to hear those stories. But she couldn’t bring herself to speak.
Her body no longer fit right in the stool. It used to be just the right height for her to kick her feet, but now the rungs clacked against her heels and she sat too high above the counter for comfort. There were names scratched into the wood that she didn’t put there. The whiskey in her glass was sweeter than the brand she bought at home. She could barely swallow it.
Nathan never turned back to look at her. No kind words or even distant politeness. She gave up trying to catch his eye, knocked back the rest of her drink, dropped some cash on the counter, and left. The building behind her heaved a sigh of relief.
Her mother’s wake had already started by the time Tara made it to the house. All the lights were on, like maybe electricity could keep the grief at bay. Dusty pickups dotted the driveway. She wove her way through them cautiously. Everything was shadowed in the country, but city life had taught her to fear the dark. She chased the bright doorway like a distant star.
Jodi answered her knock. She was ten when Tara left for school, still in the phase where she wore tutus around town and blew raspberries at anyone who dared tell her otherwise. Now, lit from behind with the glow of the house, she looked like their mom come back to life. She had the bright hair that Tara always wished she’d inherited. When she spoke, Tara heard the same crackles in it that used to haunt her Saturdays.
“Evenin’, ma’am,” her sister said. “What can I do you for?”
There wasn’t a word left in Tara’s lungs. She’d had so many when she got the call that her mother had passed away, so many things she would say to her sisters, to God, to the privacy of her journals at home. Now they fled, receding like the tide before a tsunami. Back and back and back until the wave crashed down and drowned her.
Someone shouted from inside the house and Jodi turned back. “I’ll be right there.” She faced Tara again, heedless of the cresting wave, unaware that her own sister stood in front of her. “I’m sorry ma’am, but this here is a private family event. We weren’t expectin’ visitors.”
“Oh,” Tara heard herself say. She used to have an accent like Jodi’s. She used to call people ma’am. A lie slipped past her lips in the impersonal tone of professional speech. “I was looking for Eric Baughry. Is he here?”
“Sorry, wrong house.” Jodi stepped just out of the threshold and pointed back the way Tara had come, through the parked cars and out to the empty road. “The Baughry farm is just down the road.”
Jodi’s expression screamed suspicion. It was the same look their mother had given Tara when she faked a fever, or swiped a fresh baked cookie from the tray and blamed her sisters. It was an ugly look.
“They expectin’ you there?” she asked.
Tara forced herself to nod. “I’m an old friend.”
“Huh.” Jodi cocked her hip and jerked her head at the road. “Best be gettin’ on then.”
The tide was gone, the ocean bed dry. Tara didn’t even utter a goodbye as she turned to leave. Her heels sunk into the damp earth of the drive. They were ridiculous here, where every sensible person wore boots. Her VW bug was silly too. Next to the trucks with scratches and crowded flatbeds, her newly washed, bright blue car looked like a stray drop of paint on a graphite drawing. It unsettled her.
She sat in the car for a long while. If Jodi didn’t recognize her, would her father? Would the other guests at the wake welcome her? Would they share the burden of her grief, or would they turn from her like strangers? She didn’t want to find out.
It would be easy to drive back to California. But she couldn’t. Not quite yet.
Her headlights were the only spots of light on the road as she made her way to the back of the Laghlin orchard. It had stood on this soil for centuries. With her family watching over it, Tara hoped it would stand for centuries more.
There was a massive tree in the farthest reaches of the orchards that her mother used to love. Tara remembered how she would sit underneath its branches when she needed time away from the kids. Despite their father’s pleas not to disturb their mother, eventually Tara and her siblings would make their way to the tree. Their mom would out down her book and take Jodi into her lap, laughing as Tara prodded her knee and asked her to make them a snack.
They were underneath that tree when she told her family she didn’t want to go to the local community college. She was going to UCLA, and there was nothing they could do to stop her. Jodi cried. Their mom just looked at her with understanding. “Go,” she said. “Be happy. But come back someday.”
The branches were so thick Tara could hardly see the stars. But there they were, bright enough to dig by, same as they always had been. She bent to the earth beneath her. It was wet from a recent rain and easy to move. Tara ignored how the dirt caked under her carefully done nails. She scooped out handfuls until a large enough hole gaped up from the ground.
Three gold loops dropped into the earth, one after the other. They glittered on the way down. Then Tara began to fill in the hole, and their shine returned to the soil.
“Our blood is in the land,” her mother told her once, “and my love is in these rings.” There was one for each daughter, a band with her birthstone set in gold. Every woman of the family wore all three, always, but they chafed Tara’s fingers. She took them off to bathe and swim. After the phone calls stopped, she had taken them off for good.
“I miss you,” Tara whispered. She buried her hands in the dirt and held it. In the dark, beneath the stars, she could almost feel her mother’s calloused hands holding her back.
The illusion broke with the dawn. It was just dirt in her hands, nothing more. It was her mother’s soil, not hers. Her blood no longer ran through this land.
Sun slipped through the branches in warning. She was a stranger here, and the world bade her leave. So Tara brushed off the dirt on her slacks and made her way back through the unfamiliar orchard. She slid into her too-clean car with its too-bright color. She tuned the radio to a station her family would never listen to. Tara Laghlin did not spare a final glance to her ancestral home. She just drove away.