It was a sticky end-of-summer dog day in Missouri. Bottom land was crazycracked. Heat came down like a hot skullcap, and the only sound under the brassy sky was the lonesome locust hum. I was preparing to go after the mail—about a mile’s distance, through fields and thickets, across creeks and a river, from our farmhouse, in which three generations of my family lived.
“Take the bucket with you,” my grandmother said, handing me the very familiar half-gallon syrup bucket.
“What for?” I asked, petulantly. The berries had been picked, and it was too early for wild grapes, too late for roasting ears.
“You’ll find something to fill it with,” she said, her blue eyes sparkling with anticipation.
I didn’t want to take the bucket. It would be a hindrance to me. I might want to skip rocks on the river, or wade in the spring branch. I was nine years old, and I’d had to carry a bucket a good portion of my life. Twice a day I’d lugged a pail for milking. With it I’d carried feed to the chickens, salt to the cows, molasses to the neighbors. Some days it seemed as if a bucket were an appendage growing out of my aching palm.
Nevertheless, I took the bucket. Halfway to the mailbox, I set it down beneath a pokeberry bush. I needn’t carry it the whole way, I reasoned.
There was no mail, and nobody at the cluster of mailboxes to talk to. A dust devil moved across a distant field, and I wished I were in the middle of it—to have my shirt puffed up and my hair blown about.
When I got back to the bucket, I saw that a few ripe pokeberries had fallen into it. With childish ill humor, I picked off enough clusters to fill the pail, even though I thought they were good for nothing.
“Aren’t they just lovely!” Grandma exclaimed admiringly when I set them on the kitchen table. “We’ll make some pokeberry ink.” She brought a container, filled one of Grandpa’s little tobacco sacks with berries and squeezed out the juice. We used the lovely magenta ink to paint intricate rings on our fingers and pen letters to distant cousins.
When I went to mail the letters the next day, Grandma again told me to take the bucket along. The sultry heat hadn’t changed. Its haze simmered up ahead of me around the limp ragweed and drying foxtail. Hot dust squirted up between my bare toes. I carried the bucket a little farther than the previous day before setting it down.
There was only a sale catalogue in the mail. When I got back to the bucket, I dropped it in. But I felt vaguely uncomfortable, remembering the pokeberries. I caught sight of a clump of peppermint growing close to the path. Funny, I had passed it every day and never noticed it before. Peppermint just doesn’t spring up overnight. I picked a bucketful, its pungent aroma seeming to cool the day.
Grandma was pleased with the peppermint. She liked to chew it, make tea with it, crush it in her hands.
The daily admonition to take the bucket along was repeated for several weeks, and I began to see other things. How long had that jewel weed been in bloom along the river bank? How long had the abandoned oriole’s nest dangled from the high elm limb?
One day, through the blue mist that gathered on our hillsides in late summer, I saw something brilliantly red. I found it to be a clump of sumac, shaped like a big, open umbrella waiting for autumn rain. When I described it to Grandma, she looked at me a long time and chuckled. “A red umbrella, eh?” Somehow I knew I’d pleased her more about the sumac than with the bucket of pennyroyal I’d brought home for the dog pens.
Then, for the first time, I noticed the monarch butterfly migration. Dozens and dozens of monarchs drifted over, bright orange and black will-o’-the-wisps, with all the time in the world to get where they wanted to go. As I watched, it seemed that I myself had emerged from some cramped chrysalis to free and airy flight. When I finally went home, I didn’t have anything in the bucket. “I forgot about it when I saw the butterflies,” I told Grandma.
The next day, when I picked up the bucket before leaving for the mailbox, Grandma’s hand closed over mine and gently loosened my hold. “Honey,” she said, “you don’t need the bucket anymore.”