I went to the farmer's market on a hot Thursday morning. The breeze did little more than circulate the warm, humid air; it shifted and sweltered, and I wiped far too much sweat off my forehead. I started toward a tree to take refuge in the shade, where an ancient-looking truck with rust and chipping paint sat, the back filled with jars, as well as a figure. I got closer, and she looked up to meet my eye.
"Hello there," she greeted me, bare feet swinging back and forth above discarded slip-on shoes, made of worn leather and splotched with mud.
"Hi," I replied. "Are those jellies?" I was referring to the mismatched glass jars surrounding her, but my eyes were tracing the wild brown curls that framed her face like a lion's mane, huge and unruly.
"And jams. Any kind you could want." She didn't break eye contact as a brown rat with a white belly wiggled up from under her overalls and took refuge in her hair.
I was surprised, but didn't stray from the conversation. "Oh, really? Any kind?" I challenged.
She raised an eyebrow confidently. "Any. Apricot, dragonfruit, apple, rose, jalapeño, rose-jalapeño-"
"Rose jalapeño?" I hated to interrupt, but I couldn't help it at that.
"My personal favorite," she answered proudly.
Sounds pretty gross, I thought. "I'll take some." She began to rummage through her jars, which I noted were oddly unlabeled. Her rat popped out of her hair and returned to the worn, mossy cotton overalls. "So, how do you make so many different kinds of preserves?" If I was being completely honest, I didn't care about jelly. I just needed more excuses to talk to her.
"Ah," she sighed with satisfaction, holding up a jar of a reddish-pink color. "I can grow anything," she answered me, once again looking content and proud of herself.
Something about the sparkle in her eye and the way the grass seemed to grow towards her made me believe her.
"Wow, that's a lucky gift," I complimented her, suddenly aware of how disgusting I must look, all covered in sweat. I swiped at my face with the collar of my t-shirt.
"It isn't luck," she said, rolling the jar between her hands and smiling. "You just have to listen. Everything speaks. Sometimes it's just in another language."
I smiled, a little overcome by just how charmed I was by her. It seemed silly. She set the jar of jam beside her in the truck bed, and I stepped forward suddenly, having forgotten my excuse for continuing the conversation. "How much?" I asked, beginning to reach for my wallet.
"You don't want that." I looked back up at her. I was clearly confused, but she was smiling in a knowing sort of way, which only confused me more.
"What do you mean?"
"You don't even like jelly, much less rose-jalapeño," she stated as though it were obvious.
My eyebrows knitted together in confusion. "Wh— how do you know that?" Jesus Christ, I thought. Can she read minds?
She laughed a hearty, joyous laugh. "It was written all over your face," she explained, her bare feet still swinging vigorously back and forth. "I'm not going to charge for shade and conversation. I hate money, anyway. Horrible invention."
I slowly processed what she had said, my confused expression slowly turning into a small smile. "Can you really read me that easily?" I asked eventually.
"I told you, all I do is listen," she said, her voice so warm that it rivaled the day's temperature. "Every living thing will tell you what it needs in its own way."
I crossed my arms and gave her a smirk. "Well, if I don't need jam, what do I need?" My asking was part my never-yielding challenging nature, and part a hopeful attempt at flirting.
She considered me for a moment, squinting her eyes just a touch in a studying look that made me blush, despite myself. I dropped my arms to my sides.
She then turned around, reaching behind her where I couldn't see and retrieving something with her left hand. She swung back around and opened her palm. I stepped forward to see the object she had presented. It looked like a small nut, and it had cracked open to reveal a tiny green sprout.
"What is this?" I continued to examine the plantlet.
"It's a hickory nut." Once again she used a tone that made it seem as though the answer was obvious, yet somehow didn't seem condescending in the slightest. "One day it'll be a hickory tree. You just have to plant it."
"But..." I began, then trailed off as a realization hit me. Lately, I had been agonizing over picking out the right name for myself. I was terrified to pick wrong and then change it later. Correcting people of one name change was enough to make me anxious. Doing it twice or more? Horrifying. I had tried out at least twenty names in my head, but none ever seemed just right. I had around four that I liked more than the others, and Hickory had been among them.
Hearing it now, it suddenly clicked into place. It felt right somehow, and for the first time in nineteen years, I felt like I had a real name. Tears-to-be pricked at my eyes, and I breathed in sharply to ward them away.
My gaze snapped up to the girl in the overalls. "How did you know?" The question came out a bit more accusing than I intended. I hadn't told my name considerations to anyone.
She wasn't smiling anymore, but her expression was still soft as satin. "I just thought you looked like you could use a hickory nut," she replied. Her legs had stopped swinging. The corner of her mouth turned up in a hopeful expression.
In spite of myself, I laughed. It was ridiculous. From beginning to end, the whole encounter had been ridiculous. I couldn't tell what this girl wanted. I took the little seedling from her, my hand brushing her own that was calloused with what I could only assume was her work in the garden. I chuckled nervously. "So, what, do you just go around carrying hickory nuts, just in case someone looks like they need one?"
She hopped down from the truck bed. I had wandered closer and closer since we had begun talking, and her sudden jump down left us quite close. I blushed.
"You sure do ask a lot of questions." She tilted her head and looked deeply into my eyes as she grinned. I had experienced a wide range of emotions since she had given me the hickory nut, including suspicion, but looking at her warm brown eyes now, so full of light, somehow I knew I had nothing to fear.
"Well, you sure do, uh, well, you sure are mysterious." I fumbled, my cheeks hot and my head feeling just a little buoyant.
She giggled. Her rat, which I had admittedly forgotten was a silent witness to our strange conversation, popped out of her overalls again and settled down into their front pocket.
"What's your name?" she asked, and the question seemed to have just a little more weight to it than usual. Was it the inflection of her voice, or just my own previous struggle?
"It's...Hickory," I answered timidly.
She beamed. "I like you, Hickory," she said, and I reddened further. "My name is Faye."
I scratched the back of my neck bashfully. "Well, Faye, would— would you mind some company for the rest of the morning?"
"Well, I do already have Sweet Pea here to keep me company," she began, motioning to the rat in her pocket, "but the more the merrier." She looked at me teasingly, and I chuckled.
"Oh, of course, as long as Sweet Pea doesn't mind the crowd," I replied with a grin.
We sat down in the back of her truck, and she reached back and grabbed a basket I hadn't noticed before. She retrieved what seemed to be fresh-baked bread. "Want some?" she offered.
"Yes, please, I'm starving," I realized. Then I looked up at her. "But...you knew that, didn't you?" I couldn't decide whether to be terrified or enthralled. I was probably a bit of both.
Her eyes sparkled. "You're starting to catch on."
She handed me a hunk of bread, which I happily took a bite of. "You're really going to have to teach me this listening thing."
She smiled warmly at me, and I felt my heart beat a little harder. The sun had climbed higher into the sky, and the dappled light filtering down through the tree illuminated her brown hair, which turned golden in the light. She offered me a drink of water from the bottle beside her, and promised, "I will."