By Amalia Gladhart
An English drought is two weeks without rain. I read that in a gardening book. But gardening books, like other books that tell you what to do next, often lie.
Two weeks isn’t long. I’ve seen summers when the rain stopped in March and didn’t return until November. I guess that would make all of England one big desert. But drought tolerance can be more widely distributed than people expect. Climate zones shift, transplants take hold. Invasive species become native, and the other way around. People intervene. People you don’t expect to make any kind of difference, they step in when you’re not looking. For better and worse.
I can make it rain. I learned that years ago, the day I set the fire. It was just the one time, and I had reason; I’m no arsonist. That was eastern Oregon, where it doesn’t rain in August. I didn’t put the fire out, not with rain water or anything else. I didn’t see all the possibilities in time. But I made it rain later—hard, cold rain, like cooled lava out of the sky.
First, I watched. I watched and I waited and then I took out my matches. I was always too tall. I had to duck to keep out of sight by the ground floor window. The curtains were sheer, unevenly pushed open, and by mid-afternoon, the east wall no longer drew direct sun. Still, it was hot, almost as hot as the day I left. My aim was perfect stillness, but my dress was damp and caught at my skin whenever I shifted my weight.
I hardly needed to look. I recognized the tortoiseshell combs on the bureau, dusted every morning though seldom worn, and the wedding photo, stern and yellowed, hung between the mirror and the door. It had dangled askew for years, a record of the great-grandparents who had built the house. I knew the floorboards were gray, knew the bed would have been made up with a patchwork quilt, a delectable mountains pattern in blues and greens, with an incongruous red jolt near the hem. I knew my quilt patterns. One of the teachers at the children’s home did all she could to interest us girls in quilting, hoping our efforts might be sold to raise money. When I first saw the quilt on the bed, I thought it must be a sign. Of course, I didn’t know what delectable mountains were, except that they sounded lovely, and different from where I was, and necessarily far off.
Pauline Jenkins stood at the mirror, naked from the waist. A welted scar ran between her breasts down to her navel. The scar glowed like mother-of-pearl in the gray light, like a half-hidden tooth. Her face was slick. She raised her arms above her head, first one, then the other. She walked the fingers of her left hand down the scar as if picking out a scale on the piano. Once I thought she caught something, a reflected movement; she stared at the lower corner of the mirror as if trying to remember. I stood still as the cottonwoods along the drive.
I watched for a quarter of an hour, longer even. Pauline Jenkins turned by degrees, inspecting herself from every angle. She cupped one breast in her hand, let it drop. She drew a long breath, but it only made the scar stand out; she stroked down the length of the wound, hard, as if trying to stuff the scar tissue back under the skin. Finally she slid her arms into the sleeves of a thin, blue blouse. She pushed each button through its buttonhole with an unbearable slowness, as if each narrow plastic disk were written over in Braille.
I waited until after I’d seen her head out to the pasture. I waited until I was sure the house would be empty. I started the fire under the porch. I had stolen a bag of grain from the barn, because I knew it would burn, and a bottle of kerosene from a neighbor’s shed. I poured my grain behind the lattice, dripped the fuel across it. The grain dribbled down the mound in a whispering avalanche: Don’t do it. I kicked the kernels into place, poking my foot between the posts that held up the floor. When I left, it was broad daylight. Anyone could have seen me. The flames flashed orange, almost invisible in the afternoon heat. I held myself in check by imagining molasses, wading backwards up the long drive as if my feet were sugared to the ground. Even at the road, I didn’t let myself run.
I wanted them to lose something: those tortoiseshell combs warped and split, the quilt smudged with the smell of burnt hair, the porch impassible. I wanted them to remember. If they thought of me at all, they should notice the date was the same, the same day I’d left. It was a puzzle for them to figure out.
I had a room in town. I knew about the boarding house from before, or I might never have seen the notice in the window. I had persuaded the landlady to let me wash dishes in exchange for a couple of nights’ rent. I told her about an ailing mother, a sister left behind. I was good at the stories. Just like a quilt, without the tedium of those invisible stitches, I had pieced together bits I’d picked up at the children’s home. I almost didn’t go back that night, but I was afraid my disappearance might invite pursuit.
I stopped first at the schoolyard, wetting my hands in the drinking fountain mounted on the outside wall and wiping them in the parched grass again and again, afraid some scent of kerosene might linger. My hands were scratched raw by the time I finished. I went straight to the kitchen, said I’d already eaten, plunged my arms into the sudsy water in the sink. My palms smarted and I forced myself to swallow a yelp. What I needed was a cool bath, but the dishwater lapped up my forearms just like the flames against the porch swing. I stomped my feet, trying to settle the bubbles in my throat. The dishes slipped through my fingers like soap. Before I finished, I had broken three of the landlady’s pale pink plates that reminded me of embers and bubblegum and everything I wasn’t allowed to have.
I went up to bed without eating, grateful it cooled off at night. The sheets were crisp, easy as water. Bugs smacked against the screen and voices whispered on the porch, a thread of cigarette smoke and gossip: every nerve alert until they all switched off as if the power had been cut and I slept.
At breakfast, I could nod in horror and alarm. I helped serve, just to keep my hands busy. I distributed scrambled eggs and toast and wished it were hotcakes. The jam looked like congealed blood, the butter saturating the toast smelled of fuel. Everyone wanted to talk about the fire. No one mentioned the girl who had come two summers before. They speculated about the state of the marriage. They wondered about hired help, and if the wife’s relations with her in-laws were as bad as everyone said, and they stretched after an accident, some improbably placed can of gasoline or a cat knocking grease off the stove. The back porch had been nearly destroyed, the kitchen badly damaged. And a boy was missing. Mrs. Jenkins had been hysterical, one of the ranch hands had been at the store the night before, sent for matches and candles and rope, every supply she could think of. They were looking everywhere.
“Who sets a fire?” one of the boarders asked, then answered his own question: “The Jenkinses always treated their people right—I worked out there myself—and here you have someone practically burning their place down and probably killing that kid. Nice kid, too. Nephew.” An older man, he spoke as if his teeth were loose in his mouth, scrabbling them around on his tongue like marbles or sand.
I ate my eggs with the methodical resignation of a prisoner, I settled my accounts with a story about a job that didn’t pan out, and I went out to the corner and hitched a ride to the next town over, where the bus came through every three days. It was August, a month since the county fair had closed up shop, a month before the kids went back to school. People stood on the post office steps or in front of the grocery store, picking over the crumbs. A fat woman in a purple dress said the little boy still hadn’t showed up. The firefighters were afraid he might have been in the house—maybe he’d snuck in for a glass of milk when he was supposed to be out with the men baling hay.
A tall man snapped his suspenders, bit his thumbnail, mentioned a hired man laid up with a broken ankle. He’d been resting in the front bedroom after a visit from the doctor and now suffered from smoke inhalation and burns over half his body. A woman said that wasn’t true, he’d stumbled to the front door all on his own power, collapsed in the front yard gagging but sound. Someone else said the whole stable had burnt and then I knew he was lying. Invisible in my silence, I sat on the curb, rubbing my foot where the shoe pinched. I was barely eighteen, but I looked old enough to be out on my own. I thought about how to get lunch and wondered where I could sleep until the bus came the next day. I thought about Pauline Jenkins’ scar, like a mouthful of false teeth stretched down her torso. But then someone mentioned teeth aloud, small teeth found near the sink in the kitchen. The voice came from over my head—it was like hearing a brown plaid skirt and chapped kneecaps suddenly talk. Everyone said the kids must have found the teeth out in the pasture years before, one more souvenir of summer visits to the ranch. Everyone said the fire hadn’t burned hot enough to take a body down to a bare scrap of bone. But everyone wondered.
And then they wondered why it rained: August, impossible, but welcome as a long homecoming. Cold, though—I got that wrong. It should have been warm, with that dense smell of wet pavement. They might have danced in gratitude or relief, women in thin dresses laughing into the storm clouds, soft rain weeping their faces with joy. But that’s another movie, the kind I used to watch alone at the bargain matinee, back when you couldn’t just rent anything to watch at home later, when you had to find a screen and a man selling popcorn. My children don’t understand that, the sense of event, of chances missed and stories you might never hear save second-hand.
It was a different rain that day. I felt my own face cold as winter, cold as the water around me, and I understood, just barely, that I had something to do with it. That I was trying to wash it clean but getting it wrong, mud and worry and the porch just smoldering by then, or not even that. No smoke, just ashes; no fire calling out for rain.
When I first left the ranch, I took my things with me. The things I had begun to save. Things like the paring knife I found on the trash heap. The blade was chipped but the handle was intact, the smooth, yellowed bone veined gray. I was used to scouring for rinds. There was plenty of food at the children’s home, bread as soft and white as boiled fish, but nothing extra. I imagined myself slicing the roast at a banquet, using that little knife. I imagined myself as Mrs. Mathers, philanthropic beacon who, when she visited, shared out chalky mints that sat on our tongues like little toads. We circled round, not too close, darlings, silk, you know. I would be wearing one of those suits, my cherry-red lipstick would gleam. In my room, I slid the knife under my pillow.
It was the first time I’d been sent out to a family. Matron called me into the office to tell me I would spend the summer on a ranch with a couple named Jenkins. I might stay permanently, if things went well. I was to work hard and do as I was told and be a credit to the children’s home. I agreed to everything, promised my soul, packed my stingy belongings with the care of an immigrant embarking on a voyage of no return. It was 1952 and I’d lived at the Lewiston Children’s Home since my sixth birthday.
One of the orphanage trustees had business in the area and offered to drive me. The ride was slow and silent. I remember his hair was the same black as the steering wheel and his hands were as small as a woman’s. The ranch was more or less what I’d expected: the small house, the land packed against a river bank, a lonely couple in their forties. The driveway was gravel and the road, also unpaved, was shaded at the bend where the drive led down to a miniature valley. “That’s the place,” the trustee said, and I looked over a curved lobe of pasture toward a modest, peak-roofed house. To the left and a little behind stood a barn and another shed. Then the house was obscured by a scruff of bushes and cottonwood trees and then the driveway appeared out of the shade. The valley walls seemed to rise immediately behind the farm, stacked, rippled hills broken by ponderosa pine. The pasture was ready to mow.
Mrs. Jenkins stepped forward to greet me at the door, a half hug, a smile, an invitation to set my satchel in my room and wash up for supper. The windows all had soft, white curtains and the wallpaper seemed to have been faded by shadow rather than sunlight. Mrs. Jenkins had a nephew, Bobby, who was spending his summer vacation with them, but the home had an air of having seldom housed children.
Care had been taken. The bedspread was new and there was a doll on the dresser, young for me, but beautiful, with smooth brown hair and a dress the color of cornflowers. My window looked over the front porch roof, taking in the long drive and a sliver of road. Rose bushes, one yellow, one pink, grew to either side of the steps. When I arrived, I found a vase on my bureau next to the doll: three pink roses, two yellow, softly fragrant as a new moon. It was automatic, this counting to verify my share, document my just desserts in case someone tried to take them away.
That first night, I woke with a start. The orphanage had a miniature Big Ben, donated by a local visionary to instill a view of order and of our Old World heritage. Life was marked by quarter-hour chimes. Here I had only the moon, full as a heavy cheese with one slice lipped off the rim, thick and lazy, too rich to slip across the sky. I lay as still as possible, timing my breath against my heartbeat, willing it to slow, already unable to remember the full shape of my dream. I was certain I’d be awake all night, but daylight found me waking to breakfast sounds, already a little behind.
I was expected to help with breakfast—hotcakes and bacon, scrambled eggs. There were four men working on the ranch that season, but there was plenty for me, a big plate I ate at the table along with everyone else. After breakfast, once the table was cleared and the dishes were washed, Mrs. Jenkins urged me to go down to the river for a swim. “Bobby will show you where,” she said.
In my room, my own room, I pulled out my suit. It was brown, with an ugly plaid skirt and a little tear in the seam along one side. I knew how to swim, though not well. The suit puckered across my chest where I didn’t fill it out. I stuffed the skirt into my pants, wadded up at the waistband. There was no way I planned on walking all the way to the swimming hole, who knew how far, in my bathing suit for all to see.
“Bobby’s out back,” Mrs. Jenkins said, pointing me toward the door. There was a book open in front of her. I had never known a woman who would read in the middle of the morning, just sitting at the kitchen table as if she had nothing to do.
I followed Bobby on the narrow path, a groove worn out of the grass. I felt uneasy walking beside him, as if our bodies might inadvertently touch. His shoulder blades needled out of his back like fins. The grass smelled dry, a no-smell smell, as if all that were left, after weeks without rain, were the sense of something missing. We skirted the barn, threaded a haphazard orchard of apples and plums, slid down the bank to the creek. Bobby slid on his backside, then turned to find me picking my way, determinedly upright. He turned bright red up to his ears, torso and all.
“This is it,” he said, waving his arm across his domain, a bend where the creek widened to river, a shoreline cluttered with rocks and a green bowl of water flush against the far side. Summer yellow pastures rose above the bank, and then the mineral-striped hills, steep as cliffs. “Dad says we shouldn’t swim here, we’ll scare the fish, but there’s plenty of places to fish further down. I figure we just herd them along.”
I nodded, unable to respond to his borrowed fisherman’s wisdom. “Is it cold?”
Bobby shrugged. He splashed forward into the water, then slowed, stepping as elegantly as the rocks allowed until the water reached his waist and he could glide into the current. When I looked up from my white, embarrassed feet, he had disappeared. I was about to run back to the house for help when he resurfaced. Bobby spluttered the water out of his eyes and mouth and looked back at me, neither welcoming nor discouraging.
I swam in after him, relieved to have the cold water finally cover my awful suit, my skin the color of orphanage bread. My hair closed against my skull like fur in the rain, my hands became webbed. I felt graceful as an otter, the water just cool enough to feel like a second skin, like swimming through myself, as if I had been suddenly able to fly on land.
“You here all summer?” Bobby wanted to know. I wondered what they’d told him about me. Maybe nothing.
“I think so.”
“What’s the orphanage like?”
When Bobby ran ahead back to the house, I no longer tried to keep up. Behind the barn, I noticed a small pile of trash and strayed off the path, just to look. The kitchen scraps had been fed to the pigs, the burn barrel was empty. Here were the things too heavy or too solid to burn: a tangle of wire, discarded shoes, a rusted paint can. And something shinier, the chipped blade of a bone-handled knife. I wanted to have something that was mine. Something that belonged there.
When I reached the back porch, Bobby was engrossed in a game of his own. He did manage to look up. “There’s lemonade,” he said, just as Mrs. Jenkins opened the door to offer me a glass.
“Sit down,” she said. “It’s hot today. Did you enjoy your swim?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Mrs. Jenkins said, “Cora, when you’re finished, I need you to help me in the house.” And so I spent the rest of the day cleaning, beating the rugs and sweeping, mopping the kitchen floor, washing the downstairs windows. Mrs. Jenkins wasn’t a stern taskmaster, she met me always with a smile, but there were plenty of chores. It was almost time to can peaches, and then we’d put up tomatoes against the winter. There was bread to bake, the crew to feed, socks that needed mending, trips to the store.
That became my routine. Swimming in the morning with Bobby, a burst of housework in the afternoon, a rest before supper. Often we swam late as well, just before eating. Some days Bobby went off early to help the men with the hay, and then I’d explore on my own, skirting the swimming hole to walk further up stream, poking through the trash heap with a stick in search of treasures. I gathered stray buttons, stones from the creek. My best find was a daguerreotype in a leather case I found deep in my bureau. There was a tiny latch on one side, miniscule hinges on the other, and inside, a faded portrait: three adults, two children. None of the faces were clear, but someone had cared enough to pose this family. I could make out leg-o-mutton sleeves and an impression of tightly curled hair, a thin tie at the tallest figure’s neck. I tilted it against the light and back, but it was as mysterious and unintelligible as ever. Behind the family, there was nothing—no background, no props—as if they stood on the edge of the night sky. It could have been my own family, though I’d had two brothers: a baby not yet named when our mother died, and two-year-old Jacob. Then my father died, too, and the relatives shared us out; the boys went to the other side of the family.
In the evenings, Mr. Jenkins would smoke a pipe on the porch. His wife would sit in the porch swing. “I hung that up for our anniversary,” he told me. “Pauline loves it, but it makes me seasick.” So he would sit on the railing, or on a straight-backed chair he brought out from the kitchen, while his wife swayed back and forth in the swing. Sometimes she’d knit, or read, sometimes she just sat. Bobby would curl up next to her, one outstretched toe grazing the floor, making a shrick, shrick, shrick against the boards. They were a family used to silence. I grew used to the quiet as well, and to the jokes Mr. Jenkins liked to tell. On the best nights, Mrs. Jenkins would read aloud, short, funny stories about mountain men and hapless ranchers written by a man she claimed as her Great Uncle Boris, named for a Russian count on his mother’s side. I never knew whether to believe her, especially since this twinkly, leg-pulling Mrs. Jenkins appeared only on reading nights, like a wind-up doll brought out on special occasions.
One night, Mr. Jenkins said, “Cora, Bobby, let’s go into town. We’ll get an ice cream.” The town was small—six or eight houses made up the main street. There was a general store, a hardware, the post office. There was a school, too, three blocks east, where optimistic city fathers had thought the town might grow. A huge maple shaded the store, but most of the town was exposed to the heat and wind of summer, lawns brown as the dust underneath and sharp as thistles.
It wasn’t much of a town, but the store had a freezer full of ice cream sandwiches. I ate mine so quickly—the smooth vanilla slid down my throat so deliciously, I couldn’t stop myself—that Mr. Jenkins bought me another right away, and then one for Bobby, beaming at us like a proud father about to burst.
“That the girl, Harry?” the storekeeper asked.
“That’s our Cora,” Mr. Jenkins answered, waving me closer. “Cora, meet Wade Jones.”
We shook hands. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Jones,” I said. The men smiled at each other, nodding.
I learned the rules. When Bobby disappeared into the old bunkhouse with his comic books, I was welcome to read any of the books in the tight-packed living room shelves. The apple and plum trees were free for the climbing. Already tall, I easily swung myself into the branches, leaning out so that they bent and swayed. Bobby followed as best he could, but I was Queen of the Orchard. Besides the rose bushes, Mrs. Jenkins had peonies, past bloom but watered carefully for next year, and hollyhocks, daylilies. I enjoyed weeding the flower beds, cutting flowers for the table.
I thought the kitchen garden would be woman’s work, too, but Harry Jenkins was proud of his squash and melons, proud as he might have been of his own children, I allowed myself to think once. I would be that child, the cantaloupe transformed into a human girl. “Let me help you,” I offered.
“All right,” he agreed, and he let me hoe between the squash vines, showed me how to pick the blossoms Mrs. Jenkins would fry for lunch, lightly battered in flour and egg.
I was astounded. “You eat flowers?”
“Pauline read about it in Life magazine, or one of those women’s magazines she gets. It’s a delicacy somewhere or other, Mexico, I think, maybe Spain. You’ll like them.”
I asked questions, but not too many. Mostly I asked Bobby, trying to find out more about these people who might become my parents, or might not. “She went to college,” Bobby told me when I mentioned his aunt’s books. “She’s supposed to be a schoolteacher. But then she got married.”
When Bobby was sent to pick corn for supper, he came back with the bushel balanced on his head, humming a strange, minor tune and swaying in time.
“You’ll drop the corn,” his aunt warned him through the window.
“No, I won’t. Anyway, it won’t matter. It’s just corn.”
I went out with a platter, letting the screen bang behind me, and we sat on the stoop, knees and elbows tangling as we reached across each other for the next ear, racing again.
“I’ve been here four weeks,” I said aloud. Hearing the number made it real.
“Are you staying for good?”
“I don’t know.”
“They’re too old,” Bobby told me. “They couldn’t get a baby to adopt. But that’s what they wanted.” I aimed my ear of corn like a javelin and launched it into the yard.
One day, I came on Mrs. Jenkins crying in the back room. I wasn’t sneaking, and I knew I should leave, but I couldn’t look away. I must have shifted, because Mrs. Jenkins looked up, her eyes red, her face grayish like the floor. She tried to smile.
I started to turn. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“No,” Mrs. Jenkins said, drying her eyes on her sleeve. “It’s nothing.” She pointed to the bed behind her. “I was sorting through some linens, things that were given to me when we married.”
We spread the tablecloths out in the kitchen. There were two of them, embroidered with flowers and birds, peacocks and jungles of amphibious plants. They were like nothing I had ever seen, voluptuous, gleaming, each strand of embroidery floss enriching the last, like perfectly groomed hair, like rainbow-colored pelts. “My grandmother made them,” Mrs. Jenkins said. “She made the patterns up herself, my mother said. Out of a book maybe, picking and choosing.” She ran her finger along a wild fan of violet plumage. I hardly dared touch them, following Mrs. Jenkins’ finger only with my eyes.
They had been folded too long. Wear marks lined the creases in a grid. Mrs. Jenkins said, “Would you get some lemons out of the ice box and cut them in half?” She rubbed the cut lemons against the fabric, sprinkling on salt, rubbing that in as well, showing me how to help. We worked from one end of the tablecloth to the other until it was damp and gritty, heavy as a baby in my arms when I carried it outside.
“I don’t want to fade the embroidery,” Mrs. Jenkins said, “but I want these crease marks out. We’ll need to keep an eye on them.” We spread them on the shrubs beside the house, rather than on the more exposed clothesline already busy with the day’s wash. “I’ve been saving them for a daughter,” Mrs. Jenkins said, and then her face was lost behind the rippling sheets.
Once they took me to a funeral. It was the first funeral I had ever attended, the hottest day of the whole summer. The headstones at the back were steeples in a wash of seedpods, but most of the cemetery was well kept, with miniature American flags stuck into the ground and the late season remnants of lilacs. The hillside sloped softly—it was still valley, just beginning to rise—and I watched cattle inching their way along the facing bank.
The congregation sang “Amazing Grace” at the graveside, unnaturally loud out of doors and then lost. Afterward, the small gathering broke into smaller knots. Women in dark hats shook their heads, men shook hands, everyone remarked on the heat. A woman in a navy blue dress said something about how long it had been, what tragic circumstances. I still remember the texture of that dress. I could almost feel the imprint of rippled crepe on my cheek, as if it had been pressed up against my face.
“And this is. . . ?” the woman leaned toward me, not quite offering her hand.
“This is Cora. From Lewiston,” Pauline Jenkins replied.
“Ohhh,” the woman said, stretching her neck like a swan as she stretched out the word. “I didn’t think you and Harry had children,” she added.
“No,” Mrs. Jenkins agreed. I caught the hesitation in her voice and felt myself begin to blow across the lawn like a leaf in the nonexistent breeze.
In the barn, a rope was rigged as a swing out of the hayloft, a heavy cable with a knot at the end to stand on. I loved the swing, and yet the anticipation of each flight terrified me. I would hesitate on the rim of the loft, recalling the wind in my hair from last time, the queasy exhilaration of the backwards pitch, the forward rise as if the far side of the barn door were heaven and I had just been granted wings. Each time I jumped just as Bobby grew impatient, felt myself one step ahead of his gathering taunt as I flung myself into the abyss. Until once I jumped too soon. My grip was off, half-formed. I felt my hands slipping down the rope, my feet stuttering on the knot. It took a hundred years to reach the floor. Then I could smell dirt, the old floorboards soaked with tractor diesel, and then the smell of my own blood. I heared Bobby screaming for his aunt and uncle, shouting that someone was dead. Then I felt hands on my hair, smoothing it back, and heard Mrs. Jenkins’ voice.
The Jenkins’ had been enjoying a game of cards with the doctor and his wife. It was close to nine, but still light enough to play in the barn. Pauline Jenkins, everyone said later, was out of her chair like a shot. I felt the air move around me and opened my eyes. Mrs. Jenkins bent over me cautiously, afraid to break something. “Can you move, dear?” she asked as the doctor’s body filled the doorway, bag in hand. I nodded and sat up.
“Not too fast,” the doctor cautioned, but I was already sitting upright and no harm done. My forehead was bleeding, a thin stream across my eyebrow, and it seemed to be speeding up, waterfalling in front of my eye. “Lie down again,” the doctor told me, helping me to settle back onto the floor. “Get me a cold compress, Pauline,” he added, “and we’ll get this little lady bandaged up.” He grimaced, dabbed at the wound. “It looks nasty,” he told me, “but a couple of stitches and a few weeks, you’ll be just about good as new.”
Mrs. Jenkins hurried back with a compress. She was wringing her hands like another dishtowel, biting her lip. The doctor pressed the compress against the wound, then pressed gauze against it, hard. “Ouch!” I complained.
“Scalp wounds tend to bleed a lot,” he said, “but they’re usually not serious. A few stitches up here near the hairline, there won’t be much scarring.” He traced a line across my forehead. “You’ll still be a beautiful girl.”
It took a good fifteen minutes before the doctor thought they could move me. “You’re a big girl,” he told me. “I don’t think any of us can carry you, but we’ll support you either side.” He and Mr. Jenkins each put an arm around my waist, and we walked toward the house. It was dark by then, the track between barn and house just visible as shades of darkness: the garden bed a shadow darker than the grass; the cornstalks, taller than any of us, a slightly blacker black against the sky.
In the better light of the kitchen, the doctor took a closer look at the wound and pronounced it not dangerous. His wife had made lemonade while we were out in the barn. “Thank you, Mary Jane,” Mrs. Jenkins whispered. She sat down across the kitchen. I accepted my lemonade, felt the cold sweat of the glass radiate across my palm. I wanted to hold the glass against my cheek, but the doctor’s hands were busy around my face. I wished Mrs. Jenkins would sit beside me. There was something thin in her smile.
The doctor lifted my wrist, counted the pulse. “Time for needle and thread. One little shot will make the sutures hurt less,” he promised. He peered into my eyes. I wanted to be brave. The doctor threaded his needle and pulled the split skin closed.
“Keep an eye on her tonight,” he told the Jenkins’ afterward. “Maybe look in on her after she’s slept for a while. Check that her breathing is regular, color is good.”
They helped me to bed and I fell asleep quickly, but later I woke to find Mr. Jenkins standing at the end of my bed.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he whispered, “and Jim—Dr. Weston—said to check on you. I fell out of that hay loft a few times myself as a boy, so I know the routine.”
I pulled the sheet closer under my chin. “I feel all right,” I said. “It just hurts where he sewed up my forehead.”
He laid a hand on my arm, on top of the covers. “I hope it doesn’t leave too bad a scar.”
He stayed beside me, sitting quietly on the edge of my bed, until I was nearly asleep. The shift of the bed when he stood, the creak of the door, woke me again. I heard his feet on the stairs, muffled voices through the floorboards. And then clearly, “It’s not right, Harry. She doesn’t feel like mine.” I thought of all the times Mrs. Jenkins had almost touched me.
I was allowed to spend the next day in bed. I was about to get up, feeling almost normal, when Bobby looked around the door. “Aunt Pauline says you should rest a day.” I lay back on my pillows. Just as I was about to doze off, Mrs. Jenkins brought a tray with toast and warm milk, a bowl of sliced peaches.
She looked worried. “How are you feeling?”
“Pretty good. I think I could get up. I know you wanted to start on the peaches.”
“The peaches don’t matter.” Mrs. Jenkins straightened a corner of the bedspread. “We want you to be well, you know. The doctor said a day of rest would be in order, to stay on the safe side.”
She straightened the bedspread again, started toward the door, then corrected her course and crossed to the window. She adjusted the curtains, pushed the sash a little higher. She said, with an effort I could see, “Maybe you could call me Aunt Pauline.”
“Of course.” I spoke to her back, not sure if I was being asked or granted a favor.
“I’ll bring you more toast,” she said, her voice thick, and left the room.
The next morning, I had a giant bruise over my eye, and the eye itself was partially swelled shut. “If we let you go out, people would say we beat you,” Mrs. Jenkins said when I came down to breakfast. Aunt Pauline, I thought, trying out the words in my head. She turned toward the sink. “I wish there were more girls your age around here. I’m afraid you must be lonely.”
“No.” I shook my head fast enough to make my head ache. It was important that she know I wasn’t lonely. It was heavenly to be noticed for myself, without the noise of dozens of children, hurrying into line and hurrying out again. At the home, you always knew what was going to happen. Here there were surprises, good ones. But all I could manage to say was, “I’m not lonely at all.”
But I guess she wasn’t lonely, or I wasn’t the right company. She told me in the kitchen, looking out the window toward the barn as if expecting reinforcements. “Bobby’s father is coming on Tuesday to pick him up. They’ll drive you back.” She turned to me then and her face was stretched, as if she were walking into a headwind. She gripped the back of a chair with both hands.
Three days knowing I was being sent back like a dress that didn’t fit. I began to catalog everything I’d hated about these people all along but had pretended not to notice, so glad was I to be home. The way “Aunt Pauline” picked her teeth right at the table. The way her husband laughed through his nose. The way they only ever served buttermilk to drink with supper. And I looked for something to take with me. I didn’t look for money to steal, or jewelry, though I knew Mrs. Jenkins had things she seldom wore and wouldn’t miss. Still, I wanted something valuable. I found the dessert forks, seven of them, in the felt-lined drawer of the sideboard. Those would be missed, but not until after I was gone. They were heavy, the silver was scuffed. I carried them up to my room in my waistband, one by one.
People said the Jenkins ranch was the prettiest in the valley, narrow pastures above the creek and a fattening bulge toward the road, like a snake that had swallowed a gopher.
It was the prettiest ranch in the valley, everyone said so, but it was never my place. There had been moments when I thought it might be. It spun out behind me that last day, uncoiling its dusty, stubbled rows, and then the two lanes of gravel were lost in white dust, and then the town with its one-lane bridge, all of it a thread unraveling. I did not turn to look, not once, did not try to gather the thread in my hands. I clutched my hands tight in my lap, fists that might crush blood out of a turnip, as if I could somehow make my hands flint and then fire.
In the truck, Bobby kicked at the base of the seat as if he were trying to pound it backward with his foot. He was angry, but whether at me or at someone else, I didn’t know. He squirmed in his seat like he’d die if he didn’t get to a bathroom soon but was too shy to say so. I didn’t help him.
I sat nearest the window, with Bobby between me and his dad. I thought about opening the door and rolling out. Maybe I’d be killed on impact, or run over by the car behind. Maybe I’d narrowly escape death the way I had with the rope swing. Anything to get out of that pickup. The leather seats were hot as river stones in the sun. The air in the cab was at least a hundred degrees and absolutely motionless, even when they opened the windows. At least the noise from the wind made conversation unlikely. There was a crack in the seat just behind my left knee and it poked at me all the way back, no matter how I tried to rearrange my legs.
I felt impossibly older by the time we started the steep drive down to the river at Lewiston. Bobby might have been a boy I’d never seen before, foreign as a Martian, a Siberian tiger. The familiar landscape was anything but welcoming: huge thistles tall as a man and the same old summer-dry grass. The stone orphanage seemed on the verge of decay. I thought of a tomb built of wads of used gum, generations of children leaving their tasteless plugs in a heap.
As I climbed the steps, the other children melted into the background, fish scattering, ink dispersing in water. “You’ll have another chance next summer,” Matron said, not unkindly. “Perhaps sooner.”
I couldn’t stay to listen. I ran upstairs to the girls’ dormitory, running as fast as I could through shifting sand.
The second time I was sent out, it was to a schoolteacher in Spokane with an alcoholic husband. That couple sent me back after twenty-nine days. It was time they put me on the clearance rack: thirty days same as cash.
When it became clear that I was always coming back, that any reprieve would be temporary, I buried myself in tales of tragic orphans trapped in stone towers or magic knights on impossible quests. I was never beaten; I had plenty to eat. But I was miserable. When I left on my own—that time for good—I worked my way south. I tagged shirts for the laundry, carried trays of sandwiches in narrow diners that barely accommodated a lunch counter and a single row of booths. I rented an apartment, but it was the orphanage all over again—I hated the noise through the walls. I kept any thought of those flames, those little teeth, the hissing of the sliding mound of grain, well camouflaged and quarantined, at the kind of arm’s length a giant could maintain, holding hands with another giant, and another, and another, all across the ocean.
I married for safety, and out of love, but my husband—never reliable—was hit by a bus while changing a tire. Killed instantly, the police told me. By then, he wasn’t even really my husband. We’d been separated close to two years. I told the boys, when they were older, that the car Johnny was fixing was probably stolen. I wanted them to understand it not as an accident but as divine justice—they shouldn’t worry the same thing might happen to me. Still, I secretly questioned everyone I could think of, sounding out potential guardians. My worst fear was that my boys might end up like me, passed from hand to hand and then housed in a state box when the last person to take the hot potato dropped it.
When he courted me, Johnny always wore brown. “Color of luck,” he said, “color of earth. And your hair.” As if he’d grown up tilling the soil, sniffing the shadows for rain. But Johnny often said things like that, when he was in a good mood: philosophical, fancy. He did crossword puzzles to build his vocabulary. He knew the names of dozens of trees, though he couldn’t always identify them on the ground.
He liked picnics. He’d drive me out of town with a cooler in the trunk, take me to the beach or to some mild, forgotten oasis in an orange grove that no one else had heard of. He’d just watch if I went in the water. He couldn’t swim, but he always made sure there was a lifeguard. Sometimes I forgot he was there, still in his jacket and tie, poised on the sand like an owl. At home, he never cooked, but for picnics he liked to assemble what he called an “elegant, al fresco repast.” Cold meats, lots of fruit, boxes of imported crackers. He dressed as if he had more money than he did; I knew he liked to gamble. But he had the clear green eyes that Owen would inherit and he could look at me as if I were the only person on earth.
I had just begun to work in the school cafeteria when I met Johnny. He drove a dairy truck that delivered to the school, and he used to chat with me between handcart loads of miniature milk cartons. He didn’t have the right license to drive a truck, but he’d been friends with the dairy owner’s son for years. His jobs never lasted long, but he was personable. People wanted to give him a chance.
I married him because I was relieved and flattered that someone had asked. I wanted a real family, with children. I couldn’t afford a long, white gown, and I wasn’t about to ask Johnny. I knew he’d found the ring at a pawn shop, but it was so beautiful. I wore a pink suit and I bought my own corsage. I chose lily of the valley.
Johnny didn’t spend two seconds thinking about flowers, but he made all the other arrangements. He reserved the back room of a French restaurant, and the ten of us ate snails and roast lamb and fish and a cake the size of a Christmas tree.
Johnny changed jobs with the seasons. I was grateful for my cafeteria work, tedious as I found it to be held responsible for the bland, distasteful food, as if I had personally selected the menu. No one really knew me or seemed to recognize me on the street—I was the Cafeteria Lady. Sometimes Johnny watched the boys while I was at work, but usually I left them with a neighbor. Johnny didn’t seem to have any family, aside from his Uncle David, who always showed up in his good suit and dark tie, with presents for the boys and me. He was godfather to each of my sons in turn, though he fidgeted in church like a child.
When it was mine alone, my tiny apartment felt big enough to share, but then Johnny moved in. Owen was born less than a year later, Andy fourteen months after that. We moved down the hall to a two-bedroom, still not quite big enough, an apartment filled and then some by the four of us.
Surely we talked about children beforehand. Still, Johnny took the lack of sleep personally, as if Owen were waking him up just to be spiteful. Even those times when Johnny got up himself to replace the baby’s pacifier or change his diaper, the cursing, the fury I could smell in the bedroom like ozone, left me brittle for hours. I took to sleeping on a cot in the corridor so I could wake up before Johnny if the child stirred, so he wouldn’t have to hear him—and so I wouldn’t have to hear my husband’s tragic sighs. I did the same with Andy.
But Johnny started me gardening again. I’ll give him that. One day we found a bed of coral bells at a city park, bright pink and white, massed miniature blooms flickering on spindly stalks. “Cora bells!” Johnny yelled, and the next day he went to the garden store and bought one. I planted it in a window box. Soon the box was overflowing with plants I started from bits the neighbors gave me. In the late afternoon, with the scent of my geraniums almost masking the garbage barrels at the back of the alley, I might remember a dry summer vegetable bed and squash blossoms picked to batter, but I crushed the memory like an aphid.
And like an aphid, it left its residue, green and sticky between my fingers, barely visible to the eye. That’s where fungus starts, in that aphid honey.
It might have been different if I’d been able to throw him out, if he’d stalked off with a cutting remark for me to savor. But he simply didn’t come home one night, or the next, and then he called, a week later, to say he’d found a job in Los Angeles. I could hear a woman’s voice in the background, but he said he was working at a dry cleaners. He asked if he could visit his sons. He said he would speak to a lawyer. I expected official papers, but there was only silence. I let it go. I didn’t want him back, but I knew I would never remarry. He was dead within two years of his departure.
It took the authorities a while to find me. The address on his driver’s license sent the police to a rooming house; the landlady hadn’t seen him in over a year. She’d never rented out his room—not much demand—so they were able to search it, but he’d left it bare, nothing more than a couple of paperbacks and an old t-shirt. There was a picture of two little boys in his wallet, dog-eared and long out of date, as I saw when it was returned to me along with his raincoat, an empty pocket diary, the odds and ends from the car. He’d been dead four days by the time I got the call.
I had him buried in the clothes he was wearing. It was a good suit, not brown any longer (he’d left the earth behind) but a heavy slate gray that spoke of boardrooms and safe investments. There was grease on one cuff, I expect from the tire iron, but nothing you’d notice. At least I had somewhere to put him. He’d bought cemetery plots soon after we were married. At the time, the gesture seemed romantic, a guarantee he planned on spending the rest of his days beside me. It was a dry cemetery, too big for its irrigation system, the broad avenues remnants of more grandiose plans. Johnny probably bought the plots at a bargain.
There was no viewing. I didn’t know his friends and didn’t care either to host a gathering or to play the grieving widow. Or to find out he’d been shacked up with a sweet young thing in Los Angeles all along. The sweet young thing might think he had vanished off the face of the earth, she might be waiting in increasing desperation, but I wasn’t about to go looking. I didn’t quite want to dance on his grave, but I couldn’t feign sorrow.
He’d been dead close to two months before Owen asked when Daddy was coming to take him to the zoo. I never knew if Johnny had made a promise or if that was just Owen’s wishful thinking. Johnny’s visits to the boys had fallen off after the first year, when he’d show up every two or three weeks if they were lucky. “Sweetie,” I said, as if I’d just received the news that afternoon, “there’s been a bad accident.” Andy was across the room, meticulously arranging his blocks according to size, his ears pricked up to his brother’s questions, not missing a word.
The night I told Owen his father was dead, I knew it was time to go through Johnny’s things. His clothes I had long ago given away, but our dresser held a stack of envelopes I had never explored. These I took out, unfolding a copy of his birth certificate, his high school diploma, an application for a charge card (never completed), a life insurance policy. The beneficiary was Lily Fergus, same last name as Johnny. Not his mother—the birth certificate I’d just slid back into its envelope listed a Constance Maria McNeal for that honor. Perhaps this was a prior wife he’d never mentioned. It could have been a child. I might have called Uncle David, but I didn’t. Whoever Lily was, I needed the insurance money more than she did.
The policy was printed on onionskin paper, slippery and translucent as gauze. There was a seal stamped in red ink, but it wasn’t over the beneficiary’s name, only the agent’s signature, and Johnny’s. I held it in my hands for a long time that night, not putting it away until well after two. The whole building, for once, was quiet. The loudest noise was Andy snoring in the next room.
I worked on it for days. Plenty of time to reconsider, to know what I was doing with the good white eraser I bought on the way home from work. I’d started with the eraser on the nearest number two pencil, testing the waters, and immediately had a pink smear that was as hard to remove as any of the typed letters of the unknown woman’s name. The typewriter ribbon had been blessedly old, the letters weren’t dark. Still, it took me three days, every spare minute when the boys weren’t looking, staying up late after they’d gone to bed. My hand ached, but I made myself work slowly.
I didn’t have a typewriter, so I asked to use one at the school office. A simple, “Is it okay if I use the typewriter to fill in a form?” was plenty. I had a summer camp application, for cover, and I filled in half of it, just to be safe. But though I started at every whisper, every squeaking chair, no one came over to inspect my work.
With my own name typed over where I’d erased, any hint of the former beneficiary’s name was lost. I knew right off that lining up the paper to type over Fergus would be impossible, so I had erased both first name and last. But because my name, like Lily’s, had only four letters, the space was the same, or close enough, and my name neatly covered any marks of the earlier entry.
I had to brazen it out with the insurance company. It helped that I had the boys with me, that it was late in the day and everyone was tired, wanting to resolve the matter and get home to dinner. The policy had been purchased before we were married, making my claim that Johnny had changed the beneficiary but the office had never updated its files that much more believable. Andy sat himself down on the slick gray carpeting and began to spin in circles, the static elevating his hair. When I bent to pick him up, a blue spark ran from my hand to his head.
I remember the smell of that room, dust and something like barbecue sauce, as if they’d shoved the sandwiches under the desk at my approach. I faced the perfectly groomed receptionist who smiled thinly at Owen’s outstretched hand and then I met the doughy agent, his shirt stained wet at the armpits. He seemed about as new to insurance as I was. He was constantly calling the secretary in to consult, to locate, to retrieve. The secretary hunted in her files, in the agent’s files, but came up empty-handed. The office had moved, some policies perhaps misplaced, there might be some delay. I rattled the fragile paper under their noses, sniffed as if ready to burst into aggrieved and copious tears. Johnny’s death, and now this? Andy started to whine, right on cue. Owen sidled closer, his expression gaunt, eyes haunted. No, we hadn’t rehearsed. But I felt like a beggar in the street, using her babies as props.
In the end, the agent didn’t call my bluff. Maybe he played along for reasons of his own. He accepted that bachelor Johnny had made his sister his beneficiary but had naturally changed that after his marriage. He wouldn’t have left his widow, his two small sons, unprovided for. How sensible it seemed, then, not to have followed through with the divorce.
During the long hours of erasing, I’d barely allowed myself to imagine the money involved. I knew the policy might be worthless, but there was no way to inquire without showing my hand. I was surprised he hadn’t somehow borrowed the insurance into oblivion, but perhaps he’d forgotten about it. Just for an hour or two, I allowed myself to think he’d been concerned for the children.
I bought a modest house. I bought light pink plates, like the skin under a fingernail. I bought curtains. I kept my collections out of sight—the lopsided clay horses, ceramic waterfowl, a snow globe with a disintegrating Santa, an Eiffel Tower built from multi-colored toothpicks. The first few years, I expected agents of the insurance company to come in the night to turn me out.
I dreamt of Lily Fergus, bright red dress in a driving rain. She clutched a torn umbrella in one hand and a cigarette lighter in the other. I was saying something, but the words were drowned out by water and wind. I never did learn who she was.
The boys grew, the little nest egg in the bank swelled bit by bit. Once I’d told enough people that at least my no-good husband left me money for a house, I began to believe it.
I put in a garden. I grew coral bells. Without thinking, I named them “Cora bells” to my sons and the name stuck. I tried to mask the concrete patio with flowers—pots of geraniums, a cascade of jade plants, a miniature palm. I set ceramic frogs under the jade, half a dozen of them. I liked the way they peered out, ready to hop into the makeshift pool that held a single lily the color of air.
Owen hoarded his milk money to buy candy. He liked to treat his friends, buy their candy as well as his own, as if he’d inherited his father’s need to play the host. I tried to make our home a haven. I tried to bruise my own impatience into something more forgiving. Still, when Owen lingered after school, playing near the railroad tracks with other boys from his grade, it was like a slap in the face.
“But, Mom, we were just. . .”
“Don’t back talk me.” And I slapped him. It was the only time. His nose bled, but he didn’t cry. If he hadn’t been standing upright, I’d have wondered if he were still breathing. Could children die of fright before their bodies noticed?
Too late, I saw in my son’s crushed face that he had simply been playing with a friend. That hour after school should have been my triumph—I had done so well that he could truly take his home for granted. “You’re bleeding,” I said, taking refuge in the obvious. He didn’t flinch when I pressed a tissue against his nose.
It was a few months later that Owen brought home the injured bird. He nursed it in the yard with bits of food and water in an eyedropper, but he did it secretly. That angered me most of all. Not that he would care for a bird, but that he would keep it from me; that he would be worried enough to mislead and dissemble. I found the bird after it was dead and forgotten, mummified in its shoebox, rank and leathery. I screamed, and then screamed for Owen. Didn’t he know anything about germs, didn’t he worry about infecting us all? Now the bird was dead and he was probably infected with who knows what, and his brother, too, and me, and how would he feel if I died because he brought bird germs into the house, who would take care of him? I raised my hand to smack him, because after everything I’d said, he still didn’t understand. He looked at me with the blank silence of a snowfield.
I raised my hand and then pulled back; it was as if a wire snapped my hand away. I went into the bathroom, turned on the shower to drown out the sound, and cried for an hour and a half. I never knew what Owen did, if he stood outside the door, if he went out and peed in the garden, if he simply went up to his bedroom and played. For weeks afterward, I was afraid to touch him, afraid the anger would return.
Because I wanted to make it up to Owen, somehow, I fished the shoebox out of the garbage and buried it under the hibiscus. I had only the light from the porch to work by, and it was hard to find an open spot in my crowded beds. Owen’s bedroom overlooked the yard, but I never looked up to see if he was watching. His head would have been only a darker shadow against the unlit house as he knelt at the window.
I wanted it to rain then. I tried. I wanted the relief of a shower, even the jolt of a downpour. Something to settle the soil. I ground my teeth and pounded, hollered, but it didn’t make any difference.
I got the bird buried, and then I tiptoed into Owen’s room and stood beside his bed. Owen never snored like Andy, restless and loud. If Andy had let me, I’d have loved him just as much, but there was always that distance between us, almost from the moment he was born. Andy kept his guard up, even asleep. Owen slept like a tiny, furry animal. He looked so beautiful, so at ease. Just watching him, I felt a calm; it was almost like a blanket I could lean into, as if Owen were holding out his arms. I felt myself take one tiny step forward. And in that relief, I finally let loose with the rain.
This time, I got it right: warm rain, majestically out of season. I heard it sloshing against the roof and over the gutters, smelled the warm asphalt steaming. No lightning, nothing to make the boys afraid. Just rain, rain, come—as promised—another day.
Amalia Gladhart is the author of Detours (Burnside Review Press), and translator of Trafalgar (Angélica Gorodischer) and of The Potbellied Virgin and Beyond the Islands (both by Alicia Yánez Cossío). Recent poetry and short fiction have appeared in Oblong, Eleven Eleven, Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, and Literal Latté. She is Professor of Spanish at the University of Oregon. amaliagladhart.com