Frenzied, Desperate Birds by Ra’Niqua Lee
This opening excerpt of Ra’Niqua Lee’s Frenzied, Desperate Birds is the third-place winner of the 2022 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, guest judged by Maisy Card.
Anthem is a seventeen-year-old girl raised by her grandmother in a peach orchard in rural Georgia. In the opening scene, Grandma Robbie, known throughout their community for the accuracy of her visions, informs Anthem that she must prepare for her death at the end of the summer. Anthem, not privileged enough to shut down, has to figure out how to grow up over the course of the summer while helping to prepare for the harvest that their livelihood depends upon. I was drawn in by the contrasts present in the opening chapters. The author paints the setting as idyllic while clearing a path to explore the grueling and exploitative conditions of farm labor. Frenzied, Desperate Birds thus far is a moving coming-of-age novel poised to highlight some of the harsh realities of premature adulthood and grief, all while maintaining a hopeful tone, one steeped in magic and faith. —Maisy Card
Grandma Robbie led Anthem heart-center of the peaches, a quiet intersection between four groves, perfect as the holy cross. The trees weren’t much taller than Anthem. Tall as the big sister she never had. Growing up an only child had its advantages, in that she often compared herself to foliage instead of people. At seventeen, not much had changed.
Humming in soft tones, Grandma Robbie clutched her cotton sleeves and looked skyward. She was a music box, sang hallelujah glory first thing every morning, had cooking and cleaning hymns, ironing and driving hymns, hymns for going to the toilet. The song she hummed now sounded sinister, like the preamble to an electric fire.
“I want the funeral here,” Grandma Robbie said, matter-of-fact, book closed.
“Whose funeral you talking?” Anthem asked, confused.
A funeral service on the orchard instead of in a sanctuary? That part made perfect sense. Couldn’t find a place more peaceful. No place more inviting. Better to end here than anywhere, but it was the surprise of it all that stopped Anthem. Surprise had her rooted to the dirt path like pine.
“Funeral when, Grandma?” she asked.
“End of summer.”
“Oh,” Anthem said again.
The orchard offered up its own music. Cawing birds and gentle wind in some other woods. Without chatter from cicadas or the crawdads, this was the only kind of silence to be found.
Then it didn’t matter how well the last doctor’s visits had gone, and it didn’t matter that Grandma Robbie probably wasn’t even sick. She was called the visionist because she was never wrong. Not ever. Even if it started to seem that way, and someone phoned to second-guess, it always turned out that the time just hadn’t come yet. The nonbeliever would be so ashamed for doubting, they would send pies, cards, and brand-new, golden-edged Bibles. If Grandma Robbie saw herself dying at the end of summer, it was going to happen, and Anthem needed to get prepared.
“What else? I know it got more to it than that,” she said. “Make it plain.”
Grandma Robbie shook her hand. “Not ready to say yet.”
When she held out her hand, Anthem hurried to grab it, taking it in both of hers. She held tight to the bones and veins beneath brown skin, all of which held her so well. No tears, just questions. She swallowed it all for now. Some visions were like that, akin to the peach trees. The information came in parts and seasons, all of it revealed with careful progression, knowing progression. The visions were truth crafted with potter’s hands.
“It’s all still too much, Little,” Grandma Robbie said. Then she turned and began leading Anthem back to the big house on the hill with the promise that more would come.
It had been a week since the trees first popped new green bulbs, tiny baby peaches on the slow swell to full grown. Anthem had been watching them pull that trick her whole life, and it still brought the pop out of her, the need to see more and do more before the last harvest day in September.
She organized cards into suits on the porch rail. Face cards down first. Hearts furthest from her. Clubs closest to where the rail split her thighs and a new ant bite had been itching her terrible. At the orchard, she was always getting bit up by something. If she didn’t have at least one mosquito bite giving her hell, she knew she had been spending way too much time at home, with no one to talk to but her Grandma Robbie and her best friend, Easy, if he even bothered to call. Victory Orchard was flipside of anything resembling the old apartment she shared with her grandmother. There, Anthem had to open a window just to breathe, pull a lawn chair out into the parking lot to soak in sunlight like the TV women. Then, she had to pretend she didn’t see the old heads watch her watch telephone poles and sky.
The orchard was miles away from all of that, no telephone poles in sight. It sat at the dead end of a two-lane street that never got any traffic, not that there was much traffic to get in Blackshear, Georgia, a little blip of a town on a state highway that led to Florida, eventually. Being on the orchard with peach fuzz under her fingernails, juice dripping, staining the T-shirts she got three to a pack at Dollar General, made Anthem feel like a sticky wild thing so stuffed up with contentment she might burst.
Grandma Robbie was going to die.
A person thinking that sort of thing had to have something else to go along with it. A diagnosis. An accident. A trigger-happy goon’s angry threat. Anthem had nothing but the prediction, and no doubt, it was enough.
She moved her sunglasses into her tight curls as Earl’s truck came in the side way, a quarter mile short of the big house. This entrance, tucked into a thinning wood, might pass unnoticed by anyone who didn’t already know it existed.
Earl’s truck crept to a stop at the porch; a red cloud of dirt settled behind it. Three new workers rode in the bed. These strangers were the first of the season. In the next hours, Earl would pull up to the Greyhound bus station and offer housing and employment for interested travelers. Then, summer would start, a marvel of thinning, picking, sorting, and shipping. Three months of new people, and new stories, and so much to love.
But Grandma Robbie was going to die.
Anthem nodded as Earl got out and let down the bed.
“Where Stanton?” he asked.
“Somewhere else,” said Anthem, shooting sarcasm from the hip. “If I’m guessing.”
The first new worker shuffled down from the truck, clutching a duffel to his barrel chest. A second man followed, thinner and taller than the first. He grinned ugly and winked.
“There’ll be more.” Earl watched the workers unload their belongings with apparent disinterest. “Sunnyvale’s been turning folks away left and right. The old man got another sorting machine. He don’t need the hands.”
“Good for the old man,” Anthem said.
Sunnyvale was the largest fruit farm in their part of the state. If their old man didn’t need the extra hands, Victory Orchard definitely did.
The last new worker gave her hands to the grinning man so that he could help her. She inhaled sharply when her foot touched the ground. “Lenta, lenta,” the grinning man said. The words buzzed sharp inside Anthem’s head, trying to pin themselves to something. Lenta, lenta. Then they were lost.
“You alright?” Anthem asked.
Earl held up his sun-worn hand as if to tell Anthem not to bother. “They no speak-y.”
He meant that speaking English wasn’t a requirement of the job. And Anthem’s English wasn’t all that great either according to her literature teachers. Too much AAVE. They warned her it would be her biggest roadblock, that no one would ever take her seriously if she kept leaving the nouns and verbs off her sentences. No concern of hers. Most of their employees spoke English like Anthem spoke English, correct enough to be understood. Ms. Sabra, one of Anthem’s favorite picking partners, came every other summer, spoke Haitian Creole and French, joked about the batty men who had stolen her heart, and made a game out of comparing tans, sunspots, and moles to points on a map. It was in her exaggerated plotting of the South Pole of her ankles and the islands around her neck and tete that Anthem had learned to love her own brown skin. If she had gotten to pick her mother, she would have chosen someone like Ms. Sabra.
After Earl returned to his truck, he leaned out the window and let out a low whistle. “This the season to beat.”
“You say that every year.” Anthem began backing away from the truck. “Were you lying last year, the year before that, or the year before that?”
“Every season’s the season to beat in the small farm business. One bad summer’ll kill all the ones to follow shit sure as Stanton is bald and Black. Can’t trust nothing in this economy. Better to keep a knife to the throat. Folks work better under pressure.”
Earl slapped the side of his truck like the hind part of a horse and shot into reverse.
Anthem waved him off. Talk of dead seasons had a place and a time. She knew dead seasons. Winter was a dead season. Summer on the orchard was the stuff of heartbeats and deep breathing.
Except Grandma Robbie was going to die.
Her feet felt lead-light as she directed everyone to the flat-roofed duplex with hanging window screens and wood siding turning green. This would be their home for the coming months, free of charge, provided they pulled their weight. To Anthem, they were lucky.
The men got to the twin doors labeled A and B first. The woman looked young, uncommon for summer workers who often looked older than they were. She swept dark hair back from her face, had on long sleeves and a vest over dark jeans. Too much for the heat.
“I speak English just fine,” she said, staring daggers.
Anthem wasn’t scared of much, not ghosts, nightmares, or walking the orchard alone at night, but right then, she shook something deep.
The grinning man spoke again, following with a burst of his laughter. Then, Anthem felt all of seventeen. She was a hundred and fifteen pounds in shorts and dusty sneakers. One tired inch above five feet, she got called Little by most everyone, or Small. The largest thing about her was her curly, coily hair, sticking out at all angles if not for the sunglasses. Nothing at all qualified her to be in charge.
And Grandma Robbie was going to die.
Of the paths forked in front of them, one led back toward the main house, high on the hill, overlooking everything. The other led to the peach trees, neat rows of trunks and branches weighted with ripening fruit that needed thinning.
The afternoon’s hot-stick kept Anthem still, that and fear of what she knew and couldn’t know. The workers’ clothes had sopped through with sweat. Two steps closer, and Anthem might’ve caught the sharp stink of exhaustion steaming from their bodies. She wanted them to rest in the air conditioning as much as she wanted to rest herself.
“Welcome.” She unlocked A-side and then B-side. She handed out paper bags of soap and toothpaste and returned to her deck of cards and the porch rail. Waiting in case the workers had questions they might venture to ask, she placed numbers in their respective stacks: 10, 9, 8, 7…. Hearts, diamonds, clovers, clubs.
They expected it when Anthem’s Great-Aunt Anna Mae died. Grandma Robbie predicted that death too. Anna Mae fell into a coma shortly after the prediction, and her organs failed her one by one. Kidneys, liver, lungs, heart. Anthem was five at the time, had only seen death in turned-up cockroaches and strays ground into meat on roadsides. She’d imagined Anna Mae’s organs shutting off like there was someone running through her body flipping light switches, slowly putting her to rest that way. They buried her two days later. The casket and her cheeks were an ugly shade of pink.
When Anthem was fourteen, the first lady of Praying Hands Baptist Church died during a tropical storm. Out of the Florida Everglades, the storm had emerged half fumbling and half spinning, a dizzy windy mess. For reasons Anthem would never know, First Lady Diana had decided to take a drive. Grandma Robbie didn’t predict that. No one could have predicted that. That type of recklessness, going out in a storm, made more sense for stupid kids and white women in made-for-TV films. If death was flipping light switches, First Lady Diana turned her own lights out.
They found her Ford Explorer after the rain stopped. People from all over the South came to see her buried. Anthem sat beside Easy at the back of the sanctuary. Even there, she could see the white brim of the first lady’s hat arced above the casket. The out-of-town preacher went on about eternal life and eternal salvation beyond the reach of Category 4 winds.
Eternity was fine for Anna Mae, who was a decade shy of a hundred. Even for First Lady Diana, who was only in her forties. She’d married a preacher. The old by-and-by became her fate the minute she let Pastor Harmon put the ring on her finger. Anthem didn’t think about eternity when her little cousin Martrelle was killed. They said a stray bullet did it. One to the head. No light switches involved at all, more like an exploded bulb.
Anthem took a phone call from her mother before the funeral. “Trust your momma,” Sunflower had said. “Ain’t no such thing as a stray bullet. No bullet up and strays on its own. They go where they aimed, and I would know.”
Martrelle’s casket had been closed, and Grandma Robbie had called that one too—that is, you keep running around in the streets, the streets will catch you by the belt. The bullet caught him before the streets did.
After Grandma Robbie predicted her own death, Anthem started taking the Cadillac. At first for little things. She printed her college applications at the stationary store, did the grocery shopping, and picked up extra cleaning supplies for work, all with nothing but a learner’s permit and two hours total of road experience.
“I don’t have time for driving lessons,” Grandma Robbie had said one morning at breakfast. “I got a whole church to turn around before the summer’s through. I’m looking at big-picture business. You know enough road rules to get by.”
Soon, Anthem moved on to taking the car at night. A broken rule. She wasn’t supposed to stay out past nine. Except nine was just when the anxious tingles started in her feet. She tried to smother them with blankets and distract herself with the internet, but nothing worked as well as steering the old Caddy into the blue sliding night.
Mostly, she found herself at the orchard. She entered near the employee lodging so Mr. Stanton wouldn’t notice. She found the spot for the funeral to come, left the headlights on, and walked the intersection until she got tired and had to sit on her heels. Arms folded over her knees, she took in the orchard smells, hoping for peace. Hoping for answers. Wishing she could know what the trees seemed to know.
There was nothing more orderly than a peach grove. So many straight lines all growing in the same direction, never crossing and yet, one tree couldn’t ever wither and die without taking one or two more down with it. The loss was always multiple. Loss was always multiple.
Having a grandmother who could predict the future had kept Anthem in line for the most part. Fear of her grandmother knowing her moves before she could make them. It happened throughout her childhood. Anytime Anthem thought she was slick enough to swipe extra cookies or stay up late watching TV, she would find carrots in the cookie jar, or the cable box confiscated. Sneaky was never sneaky enough, but the first time Anthem took the car at night, the car started without any trouble. When she woke up that first morning, Grandma Robbie said nothing. So Anthem began staying out later, sometimes just parking at the orchard, leaving the car running and trying hard not to drift off or dream behind the wheel. She started getting home right before daybreak. Instead of trying to sleep, she cooked her own grits, chewed them down at the dining table, and said it was good when Grandma Robbie asked. She tried to mend her own jeans and make her own hair tie. She kept on driving, and she did not tell Grandma Robbie she was scared.
Anthem swiped a hand down a single branch, pulling soft on underripe fruit. When she was done, about a third had been purged. The last green bulb hit the ground, and she turned to face the summer workers. An interesting bunch of eleven, they watched with arms crossed or dangling.
“Any questions?” she asked.
It was her first time handling demonstrations. Usually, this was Easy’s job, but he hadn’t made it home from university yet, and even though she was still in high school, a rising senior, Anthem knew enough.
A woman raised her hand, the one who dressed in too many layers for the heat. A long-sleeved shirt and vest combo, a ball cap pulled low over darker curls.
“What’s your name again?” Anthem asked.
“Haley,” the woman said. “Can you tell us the point of this? It just seems like waste.”
Anthem nodded and looked down at the fruit she had just tossed away.
“Waste,” she mused, at a loss for any helpful answer. It wasn’t wasteful to thin the trees, but she couldn’t remember why they needed to do it. Her skin went clammy as she searched expectant faces and found herself without words.
“Good question, Haley,” Anthem said still stuck on what to say next. Easy made this look easy. His nickname fit him better than any she’d ever heard.
“We thin for the trees.” Mr. Stanton appeared from behind the others with all the certainty Anthem lacked. “And for the peaches. The branches produce too much fruit on their own. The trees don’t have enough energy to keep up. If we let them all stay, none of the crop will be edible, let alone worth anything.”
He lumbered to Anthem’s side and asked again for questions. He had just celebrated his fifty-third birthday, and it seemed overnight that his beard had sprouted patches of gray.
No one had any questions, or if they did, they didn’t ask them. Instead, they went to work on the process of removing the extra fruit from the tree branches.
“Good work, Anthem.” Mr. Stanton nodded, talking in his careful way. “I might have you doing instruction when harvest time starts, too, if you’re up for it.”
“I’m up for it,” she said.
“That’s your grandmother in you. Always down to help.”
He said it, and Anthem’s skin turned from hot to cold.
“She didn’t tell you about her latest vision?” she asked.
Mr. Stanton shook his head, but the gravity of the situation immediately settled into his features, smooth and brown, handsome in a great-uncle kind of way.
“Is it big?” he asked.
“You’ll have to ask her. Until I turn eighteen still technically have to keep my nose out of grown folks’ business.”
Mr. Stanton laughed and said, “If I were you, I’d wait until at least twenty-five before I tried mucking around in all of that mess.”
“Don’t think I’ll have a choice,” Anthem said, still deadly serious. Her eighteenth birthday was at the end of August. She was no longer certain that her grandmother would be alive to see it.
Mr. Stanton promised he would talk to Grandma Robbie and then asked Anthem to follow him to the packinghouse. There, he showed her his latest pet projects. The peach wine, all barreled from last summer, cases of peach preserves, and an industrial oven for making peach pies, breads, and cookies.
“I think I might have found a distributor this time,” he said. “I’ve been trying for years, and it still hasn’t worked out for me yet.”
“Grandma Robbie said this place would be successful, a tourist destination, but you know how it all works. The timing doesn’t always line up, but when she says it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”
There was enough proof of Grandma Robbie’s abilities to fill a big book. Five years before, she’d told Anthem that she would meet her father for the first time on her birthday. It took two birthdays before Anthem finally saw her father greeting people at the Mega Mart off the highway. The meeting had been brief and unremarkable, but it had happened.
“That’s what I mean by keeping your head out of all this mess,” Mr. Stanton said. “It’s fine to believe in magical thinking when you’re young, but when you get to be my age, you need the cold hard facts. Fact: If I don’t find a way to double our revenue by the end of June, I’m going to have to sell this place.”
Anthem wasn’t fazed.
“Grandma Robbie isn’t magic. She’s stronger than that.”
Mr. Stanton smiled and shook his head.
“I hope you’re right, but in the meantime, I need you to take inventory of everything we got here. Get the numbers down. I want to pitch some proposals to the local grocery shops, see if we can get some of this stock on shelves.”
Mr. Stanton walked toward the exit, big sliding barn doors, and Anthem called after him, “Victory Orchard has the best peaches around.”
He put his fist in the air.
“Best peaches and the most heart,” he said but didn’t turn around before he left.
Anthem faced the boxes, stacks half the height of the wall. Her grandmother had a hand in this. The preserves were her recipe, and the wine was her idea. Keeping the orchard running was a communal practice, and Grandma Robbie did more than her part. She had predicted that the orchard would succeed, but she had also predicted her impending death. Anthem couldn’t see how she could be right and wrong at the same time.
Anthem remained at the orchard after hours, waiting on Easy. Mr. Stanton adopted Easy when they were both kids. Easy had been the one to teach her fractions with a bundle of underripe peaches. They’d rolled two-thirds, three-fourths, and five-fifths back and forth between themselves until she got the idea. He administered her first and only driving lesson—made her switch seats with him while the car was still running, directed her into four-lane traffic, and then panicked when she tried to overtake a big rig. They laughed about it now.
Easy was on his way back from his first year at university, and Anthem needed to talk to him bad. He lost both of his parents before the age of seven. He could tell her the best way to handle the death and dying stuff.
Footsteps crossed the back porch, and Mr. Stanton stepped inside. As he knocked the mud off his shoes, a box of spaghetti dropped from a shelf for no visible reason and landed on the scuffed wood floor. Mr. Stanton put it back without hesitation. The sound his back made as he bent and then righted himself was like fingers snapping. He twisted at the waist and his bones cracked a few more times.
The orchard had ghosts. Anthem was sure of it, although she had only seen the one. A flash of a spirit perched on the settee, regal and dead as she imagined all ghosts to be. Anthem found the thought of haunting delicious like honey. Folks around the South loved to talk about history like it was a mountain in their own backyards, but few knew how to hold it, to make it felt, licked, tasted and all. Mr. Stanton didn’t seem to be one of those people.
“I’m glad Easy’ll have you here to meet him when he gets back. I’m too tired to do it myself,” Mr. Stanton said on his way up the steps. “Have to get up right early. Shout if you need anything. Help yourself to whatever.”
Mr. Stanton disappeared upstairs, leaving Anthem alone at the table with a book she had read too much for her own good. The Conjure Woman, a story about chaos and ghosts. She could not have a visionist for a grandmother and not believe in ghosts.
Anthem shivered despite the heat and moved to put away clean dishes. Other than a good read, distractions at the orchard had to be earned—picked, scrubbed, or dusted.
A few minutes shy of midnight, she met Easy at the front door. Even in the dark, she could see that two semesters in Wisconsin had taken the tan from his skin. Dark hair waved down to his shoulders, and he had a beard to match. When she asked him why, he said, “No good barbers in Wisconsin. No good anything in Wisconsin. Also, January up north? The more body hair the better.”
He hugged her, squeezed her breathless, and set her down on unstable feet.
“Let’s walk,” he said.
“Now?” she asked.
“Now. Why not, Fanning?”
They’d walked the orchard together too many times but rarely at night. The vein, the access road that split the orchard down the middle, was as good as paved thanks to the flatbed truck that transported peaches to the packinghouse, but Anthem still made Easy find a flashlight before they set out.
“Nothing’s changed,” Easy said of the peach trees, hundreds of shadows rising to meet them. “The whole damn place is exactly like I left it.”
“But that’s a good thing, right?” Anthem asked. “The one thing in the world that never changes, and it’s ours.”
She could try to see the trees through the darkness like he seemed to, but it wouldn’t make a difference. He was right. Nine months or nine years. Summer to summer. Pruning, thinning, harvest, repeat. It was so cyclical it might as well have been minted in gold foil, a beauty that was easy to predict. And yet. She wanted to tell him what she knew about Grandma Robbie or to ask him why he didn’t call as often as he’d promised. Instead, she said, “Let me on your back.”
“Shit, for what, Fanning?” he asked.
“For old times.”
“You seventeen, girl. Got two good feet as good as mine? Here I was thinking a year apart would grow you up some, give you a last kick in the ass to get you through puberty, but here you are, still flat chested and asking me to carry you around like a baby. I bet you still don’t have a friend in the world besides me.”
He jerked the flashlight as he ranted. The beam tagged everything from the trees to Anthem’s two good feet.
“You know I got friends besides you.” She looked at him straight even though she was telling a lie. “Angel, Clarice, and Bitty. They dull as bricks, but they answer my text messages. And since when do you care about the size of my tits?”
Easy turned the flashlight on her face, and she squinted into the brightness with her arms crossed, unsure of why he waited. The staredown ended with him letting her on his back. The only thing surprising about that was the way his new beard tickled her arms and the aftersmell of fruity shampoo in his hair.
Easy bent to hike her up a little bit higher in an abrupt movement that knocked her breathless. He began to sprint, running with her piggyback and gasping. He ran like she weighed less than a sack of flour. They were deep in the trees when he finally slowed. By then, he was gasping too, but he held onto her legs so she couldn’t squirm free.
“Welcome home,” he said between deep breaths and heavy laughter.
Anthem squeezed his neck and hissed, “Asshole.”
Easy set her on her feet, leaving his sweat in her clothes. It was too dark to tell whether they were near the packinghouse, the employee lodging, or if they had looped around and returned to the main house.
“I know you missed me, Fanning,” Easy said, teasing-like.
Anthem was tired of the fuss, his and hers. She threw her arms around him and held him tight for a long time. So much she needed to tell him, but it could wait. There was still time, although not quite enough. Never quite enough.
RA’NIQUA LEE writes to share her particular visions of love and the South. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cream City Review, Split Lip Magazine, Indiana Review, Passages North, and elsewhere. Every word is in honor of her little sister, Nesha, who battled schizoaffective disorder until the very end. For her, always. Ra’Niqua’s flash collection For What Ails You is forthcoming with ELJ Editions in 2023. You can find her on Twitter @raniqualee and Instagram @muddahoney.
Featured image by Natasha Makhija courtesy of Unsplash