A to Z: Zenith

James McClane followed his mother back to the house, dipping his fingers into his amber waves of grain, letting his fingers get rough and covered in fine fibers of barley.

Back at the house, his mother helped him unpack his little bag. The pot, the loaf of bread, the handful of raisins. She helped him silently, not chastising his lack of preparedness, only rushing so they could finish before his father woke up.

James munched on the raisins and broke off an end of the bread. He could hear his brothers upstairs, milling about, and his sister whining at them for being too loud. The kitchen looked and felt like a dream. James really hadn’t expected to be back so soon, if at all. His journey hadn’t even gotten him off the property. So much for mountains.

James worked hard, diligently, every day into every night. His family grew older around him, all left the farm but him. He married Betty on a Sunday and went back to work on Monday. They had their son, who went to college in New York, the first time James ever left the state. Michael graduated, lived happy with his beautiful wife. They didn’t want any children, it seemed. James fell ill.

Betty fed him hot soup that helped warm him very little. They had lots of hope, so much it spilled out their home and filled their field. It was their best crop in years, and James was too sick to harvest. Michael had come home to help them pick it, and he even brought his old girlfriend Susie Q. and her daughter to pitch in.

“They look like a nice little family out there, don’t they?” James whispered to his wife, watching the three of them out the window. Betty smiled at the soup. “Bonnie won’t like that.”

“Sure,” Betty said, stroking his hair, a faraway look in her eyes. “Ah, it’s just like when they were kids, isn’t it?”

“Just like when we were kids, too.”

The barley swayed in the breeze. The little girl crushed a head of barley in her hand and tossed it in the air, dancing in it like rain.

“I’m going to let you rest and go out to help them,” Betty said and kissed his forehead. She opened the window. “Holler if you need anything.”

James smiled after her as she left the room, and then he was alone. Betty appeared out the window moments later with an armful of apples. The lot of them sat and munched them together on the patch of grass, wowing as Michael tossed his apple in the air and caught it behind his back. The little girl tried to repeat it and ended up throwing it too high, but Susie Q. caught it just before it hit the ground—they laughed and cheered.

As the sun climbed closer to the center of the sky, James wondered if he too had ever had a zenith. His life seemed to have run in a straight line, just like his geometric rows of barley. Did he ever peak? His proudest moments seemed to have all been about his wife or son.

For the millionth time he wondered if life would have been different if his mother never stopped him from running away to the mountains and the sea.

“Would have starved,” he muttered, then chuckled at himself. He must have thought the country was much smaller than it was. Raisins and a loaf of bread, a pot without matches. Yes, probably starved. God, he didn’t even bring water.

But what if he hadn’t starved? Would he have liked the mountains, and the ocean? Would he have still been a farmer for his whole life? Would he have lived in New York, like his son? Would he even have a son? He probably wouldn’t be married to Betty.

The little girl laughed, drawing his eye back down to his little family. His wonderful wife, so caring and loving, so happy and sociable. His son, so successful, smart, perfect. His friend and her daughter, close enough to be family to James, both also so compassionate.

The barley swayed, glimmering like gold under the midday sun. “Probably,” he whispered. “There was probably a better life somewhere. Probably a worse one, too.”

James felt rather calm, a strange sort of happiness. He liked his life. It wasn’t remarkable, but also wasn’t terrible. He had a good family, a good farm, and lived in the middle of amber waves of grain, and while things perhaps would have been different if he had run away he realized then, in the sunny bedroom, that he didn’t mind that.

Peace filled his lungs. His family’s laughter filled his ears. A smile eased itself across his face.

The wind blew bits of barley through his window. A normal life, but a good one. Maybe, James thought, rubbing the barley between his finger and thumb, his whole life had been his zenith.