We ran naked through fields together, and we were whatever adventurous duo our imaginations could conjure: rampant Indians, African bushmen, South American Yanomamis, Australian Aborigines—anything that allowed us to take off our clothes. We learned about them in books Adam’s grandfather had in his study, where we snuck on rainy days and crouched behind the burgundy velveteen wing-backed chair in the center of the room, a dusty dog-eared book splayed between us. We giggled at the black and white pictures of the half-naked, dark-skinned people, most of them missing teeth or wearing funny headdresses. Some had bones through their noses. Some had babies pressed to bare breasts. Whatever new tribe we discovered became part of our play repertoire.
Summers were our time. Each began when the crops barely peeked through the thick, rich soil that our fathers worked, tearing it up and pushing it around from dawn to dusk. They had to accomplish as much work as they possibly could in the sixteen hours of light each summer day gave us, for the growing season is short in the northern Rockies. Dozens of expansive, golden fields separated us from the nearest town and school. School with its clothing and conforming was forever away.
Adam and I saw each other every day. We spent hours out of doors, roasting like turkeys until we were nice and brown. We ran around freely, without our mothers’ worry. We told them we were playing, they told us to be home by dark or dinner, whichever came first.
With each new summer came a new discovery; a cave when we were five, our swimming hole when we were six. Sometimes we found things we shouldn’t have. Like that summer when we were seven. We tromped through a shallow ditch in the woods, digging up snails, pretending to be Matis Indians deep in the heart of the Amazon, when we heard low moaning.
“I bet it’s a ghost,” I told Adam.
“Ghosts don’t come out in daytime,” said Adam.
I shrugged and began to climb the steep side of the ditch, Adam close behind me. We peeked over the edge of the embankment. There wasn’t a ghost, only my second sister, Madelynn, who was seventeen, and Adam’s brother, Stephen, who was nineteen. They were naked, lying on top of each other in the dirt and foliage.
“What are they doing?” Adam whispered to me.
I shrugged. “They look like worms.” The way they wiggled their pink flesh against each other made me think of the fat, juicy creepy-crawlies that emerged after the heavy rainstorms that came through the summer.
“Evie, let’s go play,” Adam whined.
“Shh!” I hushed him, and turned back to the spectacle before us. But he did the opposite of hush. He sneezed. Loud. My eyes got big as Madelynn and Stephen stopped and looked over at us. Madelynn’s eyes narrowed and I knew she was mad. She scrambled to throw her shirt on and rushed over to me before I could escape, digging her fingers into the soft part of my arm just above my elbow.
“Evelyn!” She shrieked, “How long have you been there?” My mouth gaped open as my mind scurried for words. I could only focus on the brambles caught in her tousled hair. She shook me, rocking my neck back and forth. “Well?!”
“I—I don’t know!”
Madelynn looked down at my petrified face and calmed—a little. She still gripped my arm. “Put your clothes back on, and go play.” I nodded and made to scurry away, but her eyes got hard again, and she pulled me closer, nose to nose. “And don’t you ever tell Mom about this.”
I never told our mother what I saw. I feared death by my sister; I made the mistake once of getting her in trouble. And this time, I knew because of the way she acted, she was going to get in big trouble if I told. Our mother must have found out somehow, because there was a lot of yelling and crying later on. Stephen and Madelynn were married that fall, and my sister’s belly turned round and hard, then my first niece was born that winter.
When we were eight, Adam and I discovered a patch of wild blackberries. We chanced upon it on one of our many nude escapades, pulled a few of the berries off and ran to Adam’s house to see if they were safe to eat. We scanned through his grandfather’s library, pulling out plant book after plant book, trying to find a picture that matched the slowly rotting berries staining our hands. Adam’s mother finally found us, naked and spotted with purple blackberry juice and asked what we were doing.
“We found these black raspberries and want to know if we can eat them,” I told Adam’s mother, holding out my handful of goopy fruit.
“Those are blackberries,” Adam’s mother said, “And, yes, you can eat them. But please don’t stain the furniture, and you should probably go find your clothes before a bear steals them.” Adults were always telling us to put our clothes back on. They always told us “big kids wear clothes.” They never seemed to realize that in some places, even grown-ups run around naked. Besides, our mothers were always complaining that our clothes got dirty. Without our layers, we could play in the dirt without worry of staining them.
This summer, we are nine. Some things are a little different. Adam has to help in the fields until lunchtime now. He has learned to drive his family’s tractor, sometimes I see him out there with his older brothers and father, moving hay bales and water troughs.
I now have to do chores with all my older sisters that still live with us. I am expected to watch over the little ones (my baby brother and sometimes my nieces and nephew) while my mother does laundry or cooks.
It is the end of August, when summer is the hottest. I am sitting on the floor of the living room with my baby brother, trying to get him to fall asleep. It is after lunch, and the sun has dried out the air. The baby doesn’t want to sleep. He wants to play. He wears only a diaper and his skin is pink with heat. I poke his fat cheeks until his red tongue spills out of his mouth and hangs covered in slobber. My little puppy brother. His dark hair is wet and matted from baby sweat; I twirl my fingers in it and pull it up into a point. He looks funny. Like a little fat, pink alien with a black antenna.
Someone knocks on the door. It is Adam; he knocks like a woodpecker. I jump up from the floor and run to the black walnut door.
“I’m done working,” says Adam, “We can play now.”
I nod and yell over my shoulder, “Ma! I’m going out to play with Adam!”
My mother steps out of the kitchen, dusting flour from her apron. “Alright, just be home for dinner. Give me a kiss before you go.” I run to her and quickly peck her cheek before I slip my white butterfly sandals over my feet and run out the door with Adam.
We run out behind my house, past the clothesline feathered with t-shirts, dresses and slips—all belonging to my sisters. Dresses are only allowed to drape my body on Sundays for those few hours of church. Summer is cutoff hand-me-down jeans and tank tops.
We fly past the wooden swing set my father built when my third sister, Samantha, was four. We halt to unlatch the white gate and swing it open. Golden freedom spans out before us. The alfalfa hay has turned yellow, baked by the summer sun. A gentle breeze sways the stalks back and forth like golden sea anemones. It’s time to cut it again.
My father’s red swather moves slowly on the far side of the field. It looks little from here. Like a toy. The sun scratches at our skin the longer we stand there. Adam is ready to run.
“Wait, Adam, wait!” I shout, making sure to shut the gate—I’ve been yelled at for leaving it open, since little Cassidy, my niece, sometimes runs out and gets lost in the fields. As soon as the latch falls, I leave my shoes, and we are off, racing through the tall stalks. The wind rushes in my ears. The thin tips of the hay stalks caress the exposed skin of my legs and arms as I fly through them. The over-turned soil, loose and lumpy, gives way as my heels and toes press into it.
The crops halt at a barbed-wire fence, which we climb through with much-practiced ease. On this side of the fence, it is only trees, river, and boulder-studded hills. This is our territory. This is our summer jungle gym. We step into the forest realm and the sun immediately dims. In our forest, the air is fresh and earthy; the scent of various pine and aspen trees hovers around us.
“Swimming hole!” I yell, my shouts coursing through the taciturn trees.
“I’ll beat you there!”
We are very good at not running into trees or bushes, because we’ve had races through the woods so many times. I chase after Adam in bare feet; wild tribes don’t wear shoes. The forest ground is soft and cool beneath the soles of my feet. As we run, we transform into Mowgli from The Jungle Book, darting through the rainforest, running away from Sher Khan. I am just as fast and strong as Adam, but I let him win. My sister told me boys like to win sometimes.
Our tops are off by the time we reach the top of the rock that overlooks our swimming hole. Our skin is tan, browned by the sun. We are golden-brown like perfect biscuits. I wiggle my sticklike figure out of my stonewashed cutoffs and flowery purple underwear, letting them drop to the flat, smooth surface of the black rock. I kick my shorts off my bony ankles.
The sunlight filters green through the dark treetops that stretch high above our little cove. Adam stretches out over the edge, reaching for the rope swing that hangs from the nearest branch. Leaf shadows speckle his naturally muscled back. Adam hands me the rope, pushing his dark auburn hair from his eyes. “You can go first, since I won.”
I take the thick, coarse rope in my hands and grasp it tightly. Adam holds it while I pull my knees up and hook them on the giant knot his big brother Russell tied for us last summer. Adam gives me a little push and I float out over the drop off. Once over the deep greenish water, I release my grip and let myself fall. My insides and short blonde hair float up. I give Tarzan’s whoop as I fall and plug my nose. My feet break the surface, my body shooting afterward. Cool wet engulfs me and my muscles tighten. I am suspended and frozen in time. Little bubbles slip from between my lips and dance upward toward the flickering sun. I kick my legs hard and push up, pulling with my arms until my head hits air, then I swim out of the way for Adam. He also hollers like Tarzan as he swings out.
Adam drifts down, the rope swings wildly from his release. I wait for him to resurface so I can splash water in his face. We splash back and forth, giggling. I swim away as fast as I can and climb back up the sheer face of the Jumping Rock. I stand like Peter Pan, with my feet spread and my hands on my hips.
“I’m Peter Pan in Neverland!” I announce.
“You can’t be Peter Pan,” says Adam, taking the rope in hand again.
“Because you’re a girl. You have to be Wendy.”
I frown. “I don’t like Wendy. She never does anything fun.”
Adam shrugs and hands me the rope.
“Let’s do it at the same time!” I say.
“You don’t think we’ll get hurt?” He looks at me kind of worried. He does that a lot when I come up with new ideas.
I look down. “No. I think we’ll be fine. Come on, you hold on, too!”
Adam says “Ok” and grabs on, facing me. I tell him to push off, because his feet are closer to the rock. We swing out and let go at the same time. I scream on the way down just for fun.
A few more jumps wear us out and we drag ourselves up onto the bank across the river. We lie there in the leaves and dirt, breathing hard. Mud clumps in our wet hair and on our bodies. I sit up and brush myself off.
Adam says, “I’m hungry.”
“Adam, you’re always hungry after we swim.”
“I know. Swimming always makes me hungry. Let’s go to the blackberry patch.”
“I’ll race you there!” I hop up and crawl up the slope, digging my fingers and knees into the dark, loose soil. “I’m gonna win!” I mean it, too. It’s my turn to win. But Adam grabs my ankle and pulls me back down, crawling quickly past me. I rush up behind him, knock him to the ground and stick my tongue out at him, my hands on my hips.
“No fair!” he shouts. I giggle and run away from him. But he is up in a flash and chasing after me. I still win. Barely. We collapse at the base of the blackberry bushes and laugh until we catch our breath.
I reach carefully between the brambles of the bush and pluck one of the blackish-purple berries. It is plump and juicy. I place it on my tongue and it melts in my mouth. It is sweet and tart at the same time. The juice stains my taste buds. Adam pulls a couple from the bush and shoves them quickly between his lips.
“It’s like eating fish eggs,” I say, pushing two more into my mouth.
“Ew,” says Adam, “Who would eat fish eggs?”
I shrug. “Mermaids.”
“Evie, you’re weird,” Adam says. I stick my purple tongue at him. He smiles at me. “How many do you think you can eat at a time?”
“Seventeen,” I say with assurance.
“No you can’t.”
“I can too! Watch!” I shove berry after berry into my mouth, but only get to eleven before the juice squirts out and dribbles down my chin. Adam laughs, which makes me laugh and I start choking. Half-eaten blackberries spray all over. I cough and cough. Adam’s eyes are worried.
“Are you ok?” He asks.
I cough a few more times. “I’m ok. Eating fish eggs is dangerous.”
Adam shakes his head. “You have blackberry juice all over you.”
I know. I can feel it. It’s dripping down my chin and running the length of my neck. It’s sticky and itches. I use the back of my wrist to try and wipe it away. Adam reaches over with his dirt-speckled hand to wipe the purple juice from my chin.
For some reason, my stomach flips, and my heart stops. Adam’s hazel eyes are frozen as he looks into mine. He leans forward, our noses almost touch. Adam pushes out his violet-stained lips and touches them to mine. They are sweet and sticky, slightly chapped from the dry heat of the season. My eyes get wide and my brain buzzes like an empty room. I sit very still, more still than I have ever been before.
I hear my name faintly whisper through the forest. Then a sharp and bewildered “Evelyn!” breaks through the barrier of my numb mind. Adam flinches back.
Madelynn is standing in the trees, mouth gaping. “Evie! Adam! What are you doing?!” Mother’s sent her to get me for dinner. She looks worried and angry and surprised all at the same time. “Where are your clothes?” She says as she steps quickly toward us. My mouth drops open to answer my sister, but no words come out. Madelynn grabs my arm and pulls me up from the soft earth. She bends down, brushes the dirt off my naked body and takes twigs and leaves out of my hair.
Adam shrinks away; he’s always been afraid of Madelynn because she’s “wild,” as his mother says, and sometimes she yells. But this time she’s not yelling, which worries me even more.
“Adam,” Madelynn says calmly, “Where are your clothes?” He gurgles but can’t make words. He just looks at her in shock, ready to wince if she does decide to shout. “Come on, you guys, where are they?”
“They’re at the jumping rock!” I finally blurt.
My sister tugs us both by the arms and tells us to go get our clothes. We silently obey. She follows us to the top of Jumping Rock and watches as we pull our abandoned apparel back onto our small bodies. We transform from wild natives back to American farmers’ children with each article of clothing. Once we are fully dressed, my sister takes both of our hands and leads us back out of the woods. We cross the great golden sea of hay. Madelynn sends Adam home. We watch him run across his field. He hardly pauses to glance back.
At the white gate are my butterfly sandals, lying perfectly side by side, just as they should be, waiting for me to relinquish my unrestricted feet into their hold.
At the back door is my mother, baby on hip. Madelynn whispers into my mother’s ear. Hours later, once dinner is over, the sun is gone and I have been sent to bed, I hear my mother’s and sister’s voices downstairs in the living room. I sneak from my room, down to the bottom of the stairwell and listen to them talk.
“I used to run around naked, too,” Madelynn tells my mother, “It’s probably time we teach Evie she can’t do that anymore.”
“She’s still pretty young,” says my mother.
I poke my head out from behind the wall to see my sister shaking her head. “Not for too much longer,” Madelynn says. “She’s not as young as you think, Mother. She’s not a baby anymore. She’s growing up.”
My sister is standing, bouncing her new baby daughter to sleep. My mother is sitting in the worn rocking chair, sewing a patch onto a pair of my father’s pants. She looks over at the dark stairwell and sees me sitting here. I panic and want to hurry back up the stairs, but my body won’t move.
My mother’s brown eyes are soft and sad. She looks at me in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s like she doesn’t know what to do with me. She sighs. “I guess you’re right, Madelynn. Evie is growing up; she’s not my baby anymore.”
My sister’s baby squawks and the conversation dies. My mother turns back to her sewing and I crawl back up the stairs and back to bed.
The next evening, I am drying dishes at the sink with one of my sisters. I look out the window to the expanse of golden-yellow fields behind our house. Adam is outside with his father and brothers, looking at something on the ground—a badger hole most likely. My mother’s words from this morning are in my mind: “It’s not proper for girls and boys to run around together as freely as you and Adam do.” She told me that if I want to play pretend, I should pretend to be a mother, or a school teacher, not a naked native.
The sun is setting. The sky is orange and the slivered clouds are lined with streaks of red—veins of blood. This summer, I am nine. Adam and I can’t play together anymore.
Shanelle Galloway studied Creative Writing at Utah State University. Much of her writing is influenced from her adolescence spent in rural Wyoming as the first of seven children. This is her first literary publication.