Four-Leaf Clover

Peter Wallace

Peter Wallace

Peter Wallace’s first novel, Speaker, was published in 2020. He has received a number of fellowships, and got his MFA at Yale School of Drama. He has directed and taught extensively, including a stint as Chair of Theater at Eugene Lang College at New School University. Through Bard College, he taught writing practices in Myanmar, Turkey, and Russia, and is also on the Language and Thinking faculty there. He has been a fisherman, a motorcycle bum, an interfaith minister, a sculptor and a bodywork therapist. He now lives in Oregon, where he teaches playwriting, and answers the phone at the suicide hotline.

The four-leaf clover should not have been there, caught in Esteban's hair. It was a surprise there was any clover at all. The cows had already been through twice that week, pulling at the remnants of dry grass. They mostly got mouthfuls of root and grit that wore their teeth down so much my husband John was worried he'd have to get the vet to do something, and we all knew that was out of the question. The vet lived a half day away down by the interstate and cost what he cost. The feeble rain from three weeks ago hadn't replenished even the shallow well down near our creek bed. How could any plant find grace in that hard, brick-red dirt? Sometimes it felt like the earth was just aching to be done with the back and forth struggle and simply let desert rule everything. Its mercies would be lost in an endless series of rough etchings by wind and hoof, and no one would care. The few pines left after the fires of '97 strained to live, scattered only on the north sides of meager hills, the southern exposures having long since baked to gray and pink. The whole place was receding, emptying. John Junior and Chloe had taken flight even before high school ended. John kept on saying we should leave because the kids would never come back, but we stayed, year after year.

But there it was, that clover, green and sure of itself. It had come from that small patch Esteban had found behind the hay barn. That's where I had first found him a month ago. He came back every day to sit in the shade and smell the animal and dry grassy barn smells. His English didn't exist, and in the whole month I'd only gotten a few whispered words out of him, glad one of them was his name. I couldn't have stood this little boy going into the system and never coming out. My Spanish was thirty-year-old high school Spanish, but I had loved this poet Neruda, some guy from Chile in South America, so I got pretty good for a while. It came back a little. Esteban always smiled a wan smile at my attempts.

That day I found Esteban behind the barn plucking out the green clover, shrieking with each tug. It scared the hell out of me, his voice razor-cutting through the sides of my head. I came to sit beside him, and I plucked and shrieked, too. Plucked and shrieked, plucked and shrieked. We plucked faster and faster and shrieked louder and louder, seeing who could be the fastest and loudest, and I let him win so we could roll back with a giggle. First time in a month. That little giggle was music to my ears. I wanted to hug him. Maybe he wouldn't freeze. I started to.

His mouth was still open, but instead of another laugh, a howl came out. Never heard anything like it. His eyes filled with water that wouldn't stop flowing. The howl didn't stop, hardly, not even for breath. How his seven-year-old body stood it I don't know, but it had lasted through that hundred-mile journey north from the border, so I imagine it could do just about anything. I reached towards him. He didn't flinch away, but he didn't come toward. He just screamed as though all his insides needed to come out all together, all now. His beautiful brown eyes didn't blink. They just stared through the water they made, stared through me, stared right through the world behind me and into something only he could see.

The scream ran out like an avalanche ending. His mouth was still open and he panted shallowly. I scooted slow so I could put my arms around him. He shuddered when I touched him, and we sat there for a long while. Swallows banked and cheeped above us, darting swiftly through the air. The white sky pulsed beyond the dark shadow of the barn. There were shreds of green over the both of us.

Esteban suddenly collapsed onto my lap, his skinny arms wrapping around my thigh and his face buried between my knees. I stroked his back and smoothed his hair. I hummed a lullaby I could remember. And that's when I found the four-leaf clover, stuck in his black hair. I couldn't believe it and held it up close to my eyes because I didn't have my glasses, but sure enough, the genuine article. Kind of magical.

I lifted him up to carry him into the house. He was so light it made me afraid I hadn't really gotten him. But he snuggled into my chest, reaching his arms around my neck. It was a beginning, at least. It was how he finally came to me.

The clover went with the photo of his mother in the album, the only thing he'd had with him besides his clothes and an empty plastic water bottle.

I sometimes wonder where she is.
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