The Breath of Innocence

A short story by Eileen Brener

“We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because…  .”   My brother, sisters, and I bellowed out that song from the back of the station wagon on trips with my parents.  Long before the requirement of seat belts, the four of us with backs against the tailgate, followed our tradition of backseat singing; we always began and ended with our favorite—the one that boasted that we–the Grahams–were here in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early 1950s.

Our family had been here from Atlanta’s beginning, building stores downtown and houses on Peachtree Street fifteen years before Sherman burned most of them; then after the war we rebuilt them.  More recently our grandfather had developed a lawn treatment called “Feed Don’t Weed” that revolutionized lawn care and proved very popular in Atlanta where the average yard was a half-acre of rolling green.  Following the lead of the admired DuPont Corporation, we—Grandfather Patrick Graham, our uncle and father—considered our product as contributing to “better living though chemistry” for our weed-killer kept the residential sections of Atlanta beautiful.

People knew us: our handsome uncle who ran the lawn business, my athletic dad, a former Olympic swimmer, my mom, a scion of the venerable Candler family who’ve marketed Coca Cola for generations, and we four—new bubbles in the heady family drink.  We were sometimes featured in advertisements drinking Cokes around our family pool— Patty and Joey, my older sister and brother, diving into the water, my twin sister, Sue, and myself, Sara, splashing each other and our parents.  We were a lucky bunch, people said, and we agreed.  That is, until the word lucky no longer applied, and people shook their heads when they thought of us.


We lived in a rambling yellow cottage wrapped by a porch cluttered with bicycles and skates, white wicker rockers and baskets of ferns.  Our own yard, the deepest darkest weed-free green, was maintained by our devoted long-time gardener, Old Amos, so called to distinguish him from his son, Young Amos, also a gardener, but the young man died quite suddenly a few years ago.   The cause of his death remained a mystery.  He had spent an ordinary day working with his father in our yard.  Then he went home and collapsed.

Every Sunday our family had an adventure:  an outing we all participated in; it could be a visit to a museum, a ball game, or a movie.   On the day I’ll never forget, our adventure was a climb up Stone Mountain, the granite monolith about twenty miles south of town that looms over neighboring farmland.    We brought a picnic lunch to enjoy at the very top.  Our parents, Alice and Andy, had made this climb many times, Patty and Joey, now ten and eight, had climbed the mountain twice, but it was a first for Sue and me who were five and whose legs were finally deemed long enough and strong enough for the mile uphill hike.

As we pulled into the parking lot, we crescendo-ed into a final chorus of our driving song: “We’re here because we’re here … .”

“Hush, dears,” Mama pleaded, being seen rather than heard as she leaned toward us over the front seat of the station wagon.  Patty and Joey shushed but Sue and I gave it another round because we could.  We were accustomed to receiving only smiles from Mama who was proud of our twinship and regarded it as additional evidence of our family’s good fortune.

“It’s a straight-up walk, steep as can be, but from the top you can see miles—even as far as Atlanta,” Patty said.

“What if I fall down, can I stop before I get to the bottom,” Sue asked.

“Walk in front of Mama,” Joey advised, and we smiled for we all shared his faith.

On the day of the picnic nobody fell straight to the bottom, but we twins jockeyed to stay directly in front of our mother.  Once Joey slipped on loose pebbles and started sliding but Daddy caught him right away.   Finally we got to the top where the cool breeze carried a faint sound of bells ringing.

“This mountain sings like the one we climbed in Switzerland where it was the cows’ bells ringing in the distance that we heard,” Daddy said to Mama, reaching to take her hand.  Remembering this day in later years, I’m always struck by how young and innocent my parents seem.

“This mountain looks like pictures of the moon to me, “ Joey said, surveying the granite dome, “just a bald rock.”

“But look at the pools and the little fairy shrimp,” Mama pointed to a puddle in an indentation in the rock where tiny, translucent creatures were moving.

“Oh, they’re all twins and they swim upside down,” Sue commented, “Can we take them home?”

“They live here where their food and family are,” Mama answered.

“I’m a fairy shrimp,” Sue danced between the small pools, “I’m here with my food and family.  Please, let’s take some home.”

“We could dip a cup in there and catch them.” I said, picking up on Sue’s idea.  Our thoughts were so similar we would often finish each other’s sentences.

“Ok, Sara, get clean Tupperware with a top and dip it into the pool.  Get some of the stuff floating around because that’s what they eat.”  Daddy said.

The next morning the fairy shrimp in their Tupperware on the kitchen counter weren’t swimming upside down anymore.  Sue and I wondered if the shrimp had eaten every thing they liked in the water and needed something more.   I had a brainstorm:  we could give the shrimp some “Feed not Weed.”  When Sue agreed, I went to the carport where a gallon jar of the green liquid was shelved.  I poured a glass full and carried it to the kitchen.  Sue and I watched with fascination as the water in the Tupperware immediately turned a deep aqua.

“I might have used too much,” I said, wiping the liquid from my hands and arms on my shirt.

“They don’t like it.  Look they are wiggling on the very bottom.”  Said Sue, whose eyes were at counter level just even with the bottom of the container.  “Let’s pour it out and give them new water.”

Sue climbed up on a chair, pushed me out of the way and took over the project of catching the small creatures.  Reaching down into the green mixture, she splashed the liquid over her face and chest.  It left green spots all over her.

Then Patty came in.  “What are you guys doing?  Is that yard food?”

“Trying to get these shrimp out of this water.” We said in unison.

“You guys are going to get it!” she said.  “We can’t mess with that stuff.”

“Help us save these little ones.” Sue said.

Patty got a spoon and filled a clean jar with water; she began to lift the small fish from the green to the clear water.  Some seemed to be swimming.

Old Amos, our gardener, poked his head into the kitchen and asked, “Who’s been fooling with this yard food?”  Then he noted the three of us with hands and arms stained green.

“Lordy, you chillen, get away from that stuff.  That stuff take my breath away, make my hands itch, and work on my nerves.”  He walked into the den calling,

“Miz Alice, Miz Alice.”


Mama, always calm, walked into the kitchen, caught sight of us, and in one motion grabbed us all and rushed us outside.  Old Amos turned on the hose and began spraying our hands and arms.  Sue started coughing and her face became swollen and red.  Mama turned pale, picked up Sue and carried her inside.  She put Sue into the bathtub.  Patty and I, who felt itchy on our hands and arms, had no other complaints.

Dr. Johnston was called.  Suddenly everything turned upside down.  Daddy arrived; he, Mama and Sue left for the hospital.  Only Mama and Daddy came home.


Here my life divided into chapters.  The lucky part ended that morning when Sue had a fatal reaction to the “Feed Don’t Weed” we had been using.  The doctor thought she swallowed some of it and the poison had caused her to go into shock; she couldn’t breathe and she died.   The unlucky chapters—my life without Sue—began that day.   I remember sleeping in her bed and wearing her clothes that fall.  I started first grade that year and I remember thinking that Sue was starting in heaven.  I didn’t know which was worst.  I stared out the classroom window at the colors of leaves and wondered if she missed me in heaven..  I couldn’t begin to explain my grief and beneath it my perpetual sense of guilt.

That year we moved from the yellow cottage with the wraparound porch into a standard white clapboard, black-shuttered house—its rooms often chilly.   Patty went off to boarding school leaving Joey and me to sit like adults in the back seat of the station wagon.  Rather than shouting out songs from the tailgate, we now spoke in soft tones with our parents.

Our father and uncle, devastated after losing Sue, were shocked when they realized their product could cause untold harm.  They closed the business.   A decade after our tragedy, everyone was talking about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the hazards of DDT but my family already knew too much about toxic chemicals.


Like a great tapestry, the story of Atlanta continues to grow, but we—the Grahams–have lost the sense that we occupy a special place in that picture.  Looking back we see the years of Sue’s life as our own Eden where life glowed rich with promise.  When she died, our family tapestry was ripped apart and rewoven–drab in color and design.   Years later, I still think about life in the yellow cottage and I know the others do too, but somehow we never talk about it.


Eileen Brener:  As an appellate court staff attorney in my pre-IRP days, I wrote proposed opinions and occasionally taught—lord help me—legal writing.  Now, thanks to IRP, I’ve left lawyerly letters for fiction—dark stories and light poems.