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But Mattie persisted. "This isn't just hypothetical. It's actually happened before that people got caught."

"I don't know why you're worried about me," I told her. "Esperanza and Estevan would get a whole lot worse than prison and a fine."

I did suggest to Mattie, though, that it might be a good idea to fix the ignition on Two-Two, my VW, now that we were setting out across the country again. She looked at me as though I had suggested shooting an elected official.

"You are not taking that old thing," she said. 'You'll take the Lincoln. It's got a lot of room, and it's reliable."

I was offended. "What's wrong with my car?" I wanted to know.

"What's wrong with it, child, I could stand here telling you till the sun went down. And just about any one of those things could get you pulled over by a cop. If you think you care so much about Esperanza and Estevan, you'd better start using that head of yours for something besides thinking up smart remarks." Mattie walked off. I'd seen her bordering on mad before, but never at me. Clearly she did not want me to go.

The night before I was to leave, Virgie Mae Parsons came knocking on the door. It was late but Lou Ann and I were still up, going round and round about what I ought to pack. She thought I should take my very best clothes in case I might have to impress someone with my financial security. She was sure that at the very least I ought to take a pair of stockings, which I would have to borrow from Lou Ann, not being in the habit of owning such things myself. I pointed out to her that it was the middle of summer and I didn't think I'd need to impress anyone that much. We didn't notice a timid little peck at the door until it grew considerably louder. Then Lou Ann was afraid to answer it.

I looked out the window. "It's Virgie Mae, for heaven's sake," I said, and let her in.

She stood looking befuddled for a second or two, then pulled herself together and said, "Edna said I ought to come over and get you. We have something the children might like to see, if you don't think it would do too much harm to wake them."

"What, a surprise?" Lou Ann asked. She was back in less than a minute with Dwayne Ray in one arm and Turtle by the other hand. Turtle trailed grumpily behind, whereas Dwayne Ray chose to remain asleep, his head bobbing like an old stuffed animal's. In the intervening minute I had not extracted any further information from Virgie.

We followed her out our front door and up the walk to their porch. I could make out Edna sitting in the glider, and in the corner of the porch we saw what looked like a bouquet of silvery-white balloons hanging in the air.


A night-blooming cereus, Virgie Mae explained. The flowers open for only one night of the year, and then they are gone.

It was a huge, sprawling plant with branches that flopped over the porch railing and others that reached nearly as high as the eaves. I had certainly noticed it before, standing in the corner in its crumbling pot, flattened and spiny and frankly extremely homely, and it had crossed my mind to wonder why Virgie Mae didn't throw the thing out.

"I've never seen anything so heavenly," Lou Ann said.

Enormous blossoms covered the plant from knee level to high above our heads. Turtle advanced on it slowly, walking right up to one of the flowers, which was larger than her face. It hung in the dark air like a magic mirror just inches from her eyes. It occurred to me that she should be warned of the prickles, but if Lou Ann wasn't going to say anything I certainly wasn't. I knelt beside Turtle.

There was hardly any moon that night, but gradually our eyes were able to take in more and more detail. The flowers themselves were not spiny, but made of some nearly transparent material that looked as though it would shrivel and bruise if you touched it. The petals stood out in starry rays, and in the center of each flower there was a complicated construction of silvery threads shaped like a pair of cupped hands catching moonlight. A fairy boat, ready to be launched into the darkness.

"Is that?" Turtle wanted to know. She touched it, and it did not shrivel, but only swayed a little on the end of its long green branch.

"It's a flower, dear," Virgie said.

Lou Ann said, "She knows that much. She can tell you the name of practically every flower in the Burpee's catalogue, even things that only grow in Florida and Nova Scotia."

"Cereus," I said. Even its name sounded silvery and mysterious.

"See us," Turtle repeated.

Lou Ann nosed into a flower at eye level and reported that it had a smell. She held Dwayne Ray up to it, but he didn't seem especially awake. "I can just barely make it out," she said, "but it's so sweet. Tart, almost, like that lemon candy in a straw that I used to die for when I was a kid. It's just ever so faint."