Fiction | September 01, 2001
Moon Over My Mountain
I. Red Cedar, Alfalfa Hay
The blanket Ina lay on was wool, a scratchy, yellow-gold cloth like her coat. Rich women wore fur coats, she knew. She didn’t know what rich people’s blankets were made of. Ina took a few minutes a day to stretch out and rest. Dinner would be easy, canned salmon and soupy potatoes, rough mashed with extra water, a family favorite. There was no need to get up just yet.
Outside, her youngest children had spent the afternoon throwing rocks at a telephone pole and drawing in the dirt by the back door, staying closer than usual, watching the road. Eddie’s voice came through the window, clear and deliberate. He was explaining to his sisters how their niece’s funeral would go.
“They gonta put Dar in a box, big as a cow trough.”
“It gots a lid, though,” Myrtle answered placidly.
“Lids can’t keep out worms, stupid.”
“Buster said nothin’s gonta eat her ’cause she’s pickled.” Myrtle’s voice was assured, the only sound at that moment in the afternoon circle of green all around and dust bouncing in the angled light. Night was far off; when it came, it would pull in darkness like a cover against a chill. It seemed full day, but it was later than that, Ina thought.
“Buster’s stupider’n you are.” Eddie didn’t sound as sure of himself as usual. “Mitch and Lydia just fed her clear whiskey, she ain’t pickled.”
The talking stopped, and the only sound was a rhythmic banging as the children kicked a tin can against the side of the house, then nothing but bootsteps. David Alva, Ina’s oldest boy, stood on the porch, talking to his father behind him, his voice grieved and tight. Ina eased herself off the bed and hobbled into the kitchen, stiff from her rest. She threw a knob of bacon grease into a skillet, dropping two lit matches into the kerosene stove before managing to get a burner alight. It was good to have the smell of cooking in the house when men came in.
“There’s money in strawberries,” David Alva was saying. “Once it’s cleared off and we burn the slash, we could plant early spring, get a little crop at least. Fast.”
“North slope won’t grow nothin’.” Royal had said the same thing many times. “We’ll be lucky to get back what we coulda kept off the timber. You’re just lookin’ for a way to throw my money away.” The boy was bigger than his father, but Royal was still the father, and David Alva was the son, so there would be no strawberries on the five acres now chopped bare and throwing up golden dust in the long July evening.
From the window all Ina could see was skidded dirt and pale yellow stumps lighted to brilliance from the west, but she could smell, too—the resins of Douglas fir and red cedar hardening in the sun. At nightfall, mown hay from distant farms, warm leather, axle grease, smells that waited all day in the heat, ripened and found a waiting window.
“That ground has too steep a pitch to fuss with,” Royal said. “It’ll wash, first rain.”
“Not if we plant it,” David Alva said.
“I’m keeping my hands out of the dirt,” Royal said. There was hate in his voice. He made no secret of it: he hated the hunched, wet cold of January, chaff-inflamed cuts, the sudden bloody slip of a steel blade on a stone sharpening wheel, the thump of the nozzle end of a milk hose against his ribs. His own father had stayed behind to die of a perforated lung in Chadron, Nebraska, but wherever the soil steamed black, or cattle ranged thin grass, the old man followed Royal Keane. It grated on Royal that his own son had fallen so far from the tree, a boy who could do anything with a motor. There was no accounting for it: bred to hate farming, David Alva liked to watch the same poplar turn the same shade of gold every fall, wanted the ridged and rain-whittled land covered with green, wanted to see his cows steaming up a cold barn in the early morning as their milk poured into the tanks. After all the months of quarrels, and labor sometimes dusty, sometimes half-mired in mud, David Alva could have endured even his father’s company for the sake of good yields in the same place, year after year.
“If we have a thin spring or two, we can always pick,” David Alva said.
“I’m not hiring my children out never again like beaners and smoked Irish.” Royal spit into the sink.
Ina set plates out, not saying a word, not calling in her girls to help. It was her way of doing things.
* * *
They had come to Oregon behind the crops and stayed, living in the apple cabins on half-rotten potatoes through two winters, the children waiting in the mud for the school bus on Okie Row. Many of their neighbors had done the same, summers at least, and into fall, through harvest. Living in the apple cabins all winter was a sign that the man of the family had given up or left for good, and all agreed that the Keane troubles began the year Royal disappeared without a word after apple harvest.
What did he do all that time? Ina knew that men like Royal drank down a whole season’s wages in Mexicali, scraped by picking cotton in Arizona, robbed men drunker than they were in Bakersfield and Riverside and Indio. All she could say for sure was that he came home after two winters, with three months’ Imperial Valley lettuce pay in his pocket—enough to lease five acres of timber with a house, his first venture. He said there had to be a way to make money off this country without digging in the dirt and waiting for bugs to slice off at the ground anything that sprouted, without doctoring dumb cattle and sterilizing cream cans.
* * *
Royal never spoke of it, but Ina could imagine the rush of relief he must have felt as he hopped a boxcar just down the road, flashing along the Columbia River in the fragrant snap of early autumn, heading as far west as the tracks went, and then south until the November nights were warm. A man could draw his pay and then cross into Mexico to stretch his drinking dollar, or step into a desert-city bar, where the first blast of swamp-cooled air and cigarette smoke would wipe out the smell of crop spray and irrigated silt, almost wipe out the memory of seven children and a woman’s hard-got silence. It was easier to provide than to forget, but she knew he hated his failure to forget. It was his last chance, and she guessed how he’d hated himself for failing again. He showed no tenderness toward Ina now.
The women from church had brought two fruit pies and a salty pink ham, but Ina had the unusually luxurious food hidden in the basement. It was for the funeral, and paltry for a bereaved family their size, though more than she had expected. She suspected the women’s manner toward her had something to do with her fingernails, which she could never make entirely clean, and with the state of her younger children, who played in the road with tin cans tied to strings and bundles of rags cinched in the middle in the guise of dolls. Ina didn’t really know their neighbors. Darlene, four years old, her first grandchild, was the first of the family to die in Oregon.
Lydia came into the kitchen and sat in the corner. She had moved home to bury her dead child and bear her next baby, sleeping wedged in with her sisters, ignoring their wide-eyed curiosity. She perched in corners and twisted the cloth of her dress, heavily pregnant, and heavy with something that looked like grief from the side but irritability straight on. Sometimes she cried about Darlene; sometimes she cried for her favorite cat. Mitch used the cats for target practice. He never hit her, she told her mother, but Ina knew there had always been something wrong in that house. David Alva had spent one night there during wood-cutting season, soon after Lydia and Mitch were married, and refused to go back. He hadn’t told Ina why, exactly, but Ina had no trouble guessing. All the children had seen too much in the apple camps, and so had she—things she hadn’t known happened between people.
Royal stood in the kitchen, looking from stove to counter. He liked to eat early. David Alva washed first at the kitchen sink, then slapped his pocket to make sure he had keys.
“I’ll eat later,” he said. “Thought I’d drive in to Mosier. Maybe grab a hamburger in there.”
Bacon grease snapped in the skillet, and Ina turned the flame down, dumping in water and potatoes cut into uneven chunks. Her back was to the men.
“You could stay,” she said. Some memory of childhood, of a coffin in the front room and people sitting around it, tugged at her. “Tonight is the wake.”
Royal snorted, but his eyes puckered, and he turned to the sink, drawing a glass of water, fixing his gaze on the treeline against the horizon. He liked seeing horizon.
“This is no time of year to set up all night. Boy’ll sleep, and so will the rest of us. We’ll have three hours daylight before time to go to church.”
It had been left to Ina to buy a plywood coffin and talk to the undertaker. Ina’s father had built coffins for her three brothers who died as children, but people out here hired it done, a woman at church had told her, taking her aside with a grudging sort of kindness. It was better times; rationing was a distant memory, electricity was cheap, and if you threw a penny into the ground, it grew back a silver dollar. That was what Royal had said years earlier, in the summer of 1948, when he came home with four brand-new tires and spit on the Nebraska dirt. Their youngest son had died on that trip. Seth. The wind in Wyoming could drive you crazy, Ina remembered. It had battered the car all night and kicked up cold and dusty as the sun streaked the sky deep rose behind them. There were towns along the way, announced by unsteady lights. At every one, Ina had asked uncertainly, “Should we stop?” Maybe a doctor? Maybe medicine there? Royal replied that he meant to make Boise by the next night. “We’ll drive some,” he’d said. The car burned oil, and they had to stop for gas, Royal banging tools and money impatiently at every obligation or delay, until, just after sunup, a gas station attendant—not much more than a kid himself-looked in the back seat at the sweating baby, turned off the pump and went for his own wired-together truck. “That baby’s goin’ a die, you don’t do somethin’,” he’d said, in the tone of a man unused to talking much. The stranger drove the child thirty miles, back the wrong way, to the hospital at Rock Springs. Royal cursed, and pushed the old Ford to keep up, but it was too late. Afterward, they told people it was polio, but the doctors said it was a bad throat. Ina thought maybe they didn’t know for sure, a little place like that.
* * *
It was just family at the funeral, and a few old folks, and town people with no hay to mow or cows to milk. Ina blocked out the preacher’s words about comfort in salvation and the certitude of the last days. It was easier to remember the other time, the humiliation of begging a strange minister, an underfed storefront Baptist in Rock Springs, for help. They hadn’t the money to pay for a coffin, not if they still meant to get to Oregon, and a nurse at the hospital had finally said, “We’ll make the arrangements. Ina did not know what the arrangements were. What did anyone do with a baby on such stony ground? . Here,
the soil was loose and heavy, always a little wet, an easy place to dig a grave.
The minister paused for prayer. From the church they could hear a tractor whining, pulling a stump or setting a fencepost. Myrtle touched her mother’s sleeve. “What’s a bale of tears?” she whispered.
After she judged that the funeral was decently over, Miss Owens, from Welfare, paid a visit. As soon as she stepped into the yard she noted that the one little boy wore ratty shoes, and the two barefoot little girls’ eyes were pink and watery. They looked as if they were being fed cheap meat stretched far with potatoes, but enough of it. Her training made her take such things into account. Miss Owens called Ina “Miz Keane” and Lydia “Miz Phillips.” She couldn’t quite manage to say “Missus”; the two syllables would have conferred on Ina and her daughter a status they had not earned as she had earned hers. It was a hard thing, but Miss Owens understood that providence exacts a tribute of gratitude, and she was grateful. She was fond of telling the younger people in her office that the government had rescued her, a near-starving high school graduate from the nowhere outside Pendleton, and given her a paying career, a National Youth Administration job at a WPA nursery school in Port-land. She had moved into the YWCA, stopped reusing tea bags and bought her first pair of decent shoes. She learned to inspect children’s scalps for ringworm and their faces for impetigo, to measure out doses of cod-liver oil in cups of government-issue tomato juice, as much a luxury for her as for the children. Toileting was done in one room, girls sitting, boys standing. Children who woke early from their naps were allowed to dress quietly, minimizing wet beds and undesirable habits. Miss Owens remembered the instructions, verbatim, from the training manual.
With her black hair combed once in the morning and the same shapeless gray suit for workdays and Sunday mass, Miss Owens was a very serious woman. She had disciplined herself to pay attention. She had twenty years of experience taking children from chaos and providing them with structure and routine. It was better to take them sometimes. There were people, she had come to admit with a certain reluctance, who were beyond help. Not even Mr. Roosevelt could have saved them, if he’d still been alive.
Sitting still at her own kitchen table, afraid to touch anything, Ina watched as the woman unrolled a pen from a felt wrapper and licked the tip. Lydia sat near the wall, silent, her pink-and-blue-checked smock dingy across her belly, her hair twisted into a single uneven braid down her back.
“Tell me your due date, please, Miz Phillips.”
She wrote it in a narrow blue ledger held open on a clipboard. “You will want to read this.” She handed Lydia a small paperbound book, rubbed soft around the edges and sized for an apron pocket:Sanitation for the New Mother.
Ina’s lips creased at the corners. “We know how to raise healthy children,” she said. “I can help Lydia.”
Miss Owens knew when to sit still. She listened, and the silence after her words and her listening made Ina continue.
“I know my mother didn’t teach me things. There are times . . .” She looked around her own kitchen: clean mostly, plates on a tea towel and jar of bacon grease on the stove. A scenic calendar from Valley Hardware, two years old, had come with the house.
“I know that some women wash their faces in the morning, every day. And washing your hands before you cook, things like that, I try to remember.” Ina lifted her hands, palms up, as if to show Miss Owens that they were clean.
In the distance, machinery groaned. It was the old Model A engine that David Alva had rigged to winch logs up the slope, but there was something wrong with it even he couldn’t fix, a bad bearing, metal fatigue. It stopped, and a bird called outside, a sound like a ball bouncing slowly and then faster. It had repeated the same song all summer. Ina heard it every day. Or maybe it was more than one bird. She’d never seen it.
Miss Owens looked around the kitchen: comfortless, respectable in its way. The calendar picture of the mountain, hard white above a field of daffodils, was spattered with grease from the stove, and the chain hanging over the sink was furred thick with damp and dust. The room had a musty odor, and something else that Miss Owens remembered from a summer she’d spent pulling flax at a poor farm and living in a dormitory with her mother: the stink of dishes and clothes washed in tepid water, never quite clean. Still, this was better than Lydia’s house, empty now except for the husband. Miss Owens had already visited there, and with rigid care documented in the blue ledger every squirrel carcass rotting in the yard, every rusting can piled under the kitchen table, every dirty magazine in the outdoor privy. What kind of woman could stand to live there? She was surprised now to find Lydia so young.
“Your husband told the deputy who visited your home that he intends to begin his military service next month.” Miss Owens stared at Lydia, searching her face. There was no sign that the girl was a drinker, but Miss Owens had seen her type before. She would pick up her coloration from any man she stood near. “The law will very likely not touch either of you. It is clear to me that Mr. Phillips committed manslaughter. Perhaps you do not agree. He will send a monthly sum out of his earnings to support your child.”
“He won’t do any such thing after he sees it,” Lydia said, her voice thick, as though her mouth were full of laundry starch. “Its daddy is a colored boy cooks for the bargemen. Its daddy is a Jap apple picker,” Lydia laughed. “Or maybe he’s a Cayuse fish cleaner with a big black greasy braid.”
Lydia laughed some more, but her eyes leaked tears. Miss Owens looked at Ina, who ran a glass of water and set it just out of Lydia’s reach.
“Talk sense.” Ina understood Miss Owens by now. She knew the woman could take the baby away, where it would be raised by strangers. The two older women looked at each other across the table, each with her own vision of disaster for Lydia’s child.
Lydia reached for the glass, gulped a sip, choked, cradled her stomach as if to support it as her body shook with coughs. Miss Owens waited.
“My baby’s daddy is Mitch Phillips,” she said. “Couldn’t be anybody else, could it? Bet you money, it’ll look just like him. Spit and image.”
Miss Owens stuck her pen back in the wrapper, tucked it in her pocket and stood. She wanted to take Lydia’s baby the minute it came, but then she wanted to do that often, more often than custom or law found suitable.
“We will review your file and visit you again after the baby is born. If you stay with your parents, the baby may remain with you. Your husband’s house is not suitable for children, or cats and dogs, as I believe you have learned.”
Lydia moved her feet, restless.
“A Hood River County caseworker will be assigned to your family—myself or someone from my office. If you choose to leave the area, you will please keep us informed.” She looked at Lydia and Ina again. “We want to help you bring up a healthy child.”
Outside, in the fresh gold air of the afternoon, cooling toward evening, Miss Owens repeated what bits of prayers she could remember to herself, slowly. Although her father’s Wobbly politics had crowded out the Catholic church early in her adolescent years, she felt sure that confessing herself heartily sorry, asking forgiveness for what she had done and what she had failed to do, was a task to perform regularly, aloud and in public. It could not but help. I ask blessed Mary ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God. Ina and Lydia had not asked Miss Owens, their sister, to pray for them. Miss Owens could hardly expect them to.
It was late, and a pale white moon, three-quarters full, hung above the mountain in the still-bright sky. It would not be dark for hours yet: limitless day, with a lightfooted night to follow. When Miss Owens had trained for her nursery work, she had visited a handicrafts studio where poor women, as poor as she was, sat through the long summer twilights sewing appliqued curtains for Timberline Lodge, a WPA masterpiece with stone fireplaces for skiing debutantes to warm their tender Portland-bred fingers, and deep padded chairs so tourists could sit in comfort and thumb Oregon motoring guidebooks written by WPA writers. It was a beautiful building, and she was proud of it, even though she had never stitched a curtain or welded a door pull. She was still a WPA girl, still part of the great work, however discredited it was by that big yokel, Eisenhower. It was partly defiance that prompted her to visit the lodge often, driving up to the treeline just to look again at the patterns: Cattail, Indian Pipestem, Shooting Star, Anemone, Fish in the Brook, Solomon Seal, Zig Zag, Autumn Leaves, Field and Stream, Moon Over Mountain.
Under the pale moon, the mountain stood, a long triangle of gray granite and snow dirty from late-summer winds, visible from all over the valley, slopes ringed by rows of Douglas fir, a tangle of larch and alder, touches here and there of apple, cherry and apricot. There were thousands of trees, miles away, but looking closely she could see them separately, each from each. Miss Owens pushed the starter on her almost-new Oldsmobile.
Still in the kitchen, listening to the car pull away, Ina turned to Lydia. “Are you proud, now?” Her voice shook, but she maintained her slow, careful Missouri diction. She had been to high school and spoke properly; her children’s drawls and innocent vulgarities dismayed her. She had never been allowed to speak like that. Perhaps her family was not fated to rise in life. It was a reminder of her own failure and Royal’s, bringing up children in the apple camps and the bean fields, where they had learned to speak like Okies, just as they had learned about men like Mitch Phillips. David Alva liked to sing a song about time slipping away, “. . . ain’t it funny . . .” Ina couldn’t see why a song, one that was written down, would have “ain’t” in it. David Alva laughed at her when she complained about it.
“We never had the Welfare to our home before this. Aren’t you proud of yourself?”
Lydia’s face, once tight and smooth and full of the dickens—she’d married at fifteen, and to heck with everybody—looked pasty and slack. She’d been living on mayonnaise sandwiches and weak coffee before she moved home. It was lean times for Mitch, who did electrical wiring and knew his job but could never seem to please a boss.
“I didn’t do anything. I was hanging clothes. Mitch was watching her, he had a jar like he always did, but he was careful, he only gave her sips. He did that sometimes; it kept her quiet. If she got too much she’d just go to sleep.” Lydia considered. “I guess when they’re four, they start having more of an appetite for it.”
“That sweet, innocent child.”
Unhappiness pulled between Ina’s eyes, not the involuntary tears she had pushed away at the funeral but a sense that her face was dragging itself into a new, permanent expression. She wondered if her younger children would someday find the one or two photographs of her in earlier years and marvel that she had not always looked so sour, that her mouth had not always turned down in that particular way. She had stood straight once, long-boned and almost smiling under light hair tucked firmly into pins. In the pictures, the flowers behind her were bleached to gray.
“I’ll take a breath of air.”
* * *
From the front step, Ina stared north, into the woods. The tangle of blackberry and vine maple absorbed all the available light, pulling it into the dark green bank. In the winter, the gray cover of clouds and the light-absorbing green on the ground made Ina think she was living in the darkest place God made, tucked in a draw behind a ridge on the north side of long twilight. Over the ridge and down a series of more folded canyons, invisible from the house and blurred by trees, the river ran to the ocean, stopped only by dams built for the good of people like herself. It took more juice to turn a light back on than to just leave it burning, Royal told her, and so the lights stayed on all the time. Electricity was almost free. Barges went by, invisible from the house behind the ridges, loaded with wheat from the dry valleys upriver, while all around them everyone got rich off fruit and grain and timber and salmon. This bountiful country, these useful people, could grow anything.
Ina turned and walked to the clearing. David Alva and Royal had the cover off the engine and were pouring gasoline through a funnel. The winch and tackle lay on the bank with a tangle of cut blackberry vines. They looked up at her as she approached, wobbling on the slashed branches and saplings in her flimsy shoes.
“I need you to drive me to town,” Ina said to her son.
“Wait two hours and I’ll take you to the store if you need to go,” Royal said, turning back to the engine.
“It can’t wait,” Ina said. “The funeral home office closes at five.” It wasn’t a lie. They did close then.
David Alva screwed the funnel back into its place on the gas can and slapped his pocket to make sure he had keys.
“I should teach you how to drive,” he said.
Royal turned on the engine and twisted the choke with the pliers, his face red. Royal had no luck with machinery—it never cooperated when the boy left him alone.
“You’ll do no such thing,” he said, speaking, it seemed, to the engine and not his son. “Car’s in bad enough shape without her wreckin’ the whole business.”
It was five miles to town and another six to Mitch Phillips’ place. Lydia hadn’t packed much when she came home.
“No sense in leaving all her things for the mice,” Ina said to David Alva, who looked away, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Mitch’ll shoot us, likelier’n not,” he said. She knew David Alva was afraid of his brother-in-law and his wild rages, his appetite for food and liquor and sex to be satisfied at once, no matter who was looking. Mitch hadn’t had the nerve or decency to turn up at the funeral. David Alva had claimed Mitch wasn’t human being enough to understand what a funeral was.
Ina told her son to wait in the car while she packed up the child’s things. Her son-in-law was nowhere in sight, and the house smelled stale, as if nobody had been inside for a while. An army cot that had been Darlene’s bed stood in the corner of the living room, covered by a gray sheet and a fuzzy pink blanket that didn’t quite reach the foot. Someone had pulled the covers over the pillow. It was the only orderly thing in the house.
The sheet wasn’t worth taking. Ina folded the blanket and set it on top of the pillow, then looked around the room. It all looked so cold and bare without the child’s bedding to cover the cot’s stained canvas. She took a knife from the drainboard and went outside.
The afternoon lay still and hot. A bird called, a rough chattering note from deeper in the woods, as Ina sawed at the branches and carried them
to the door. The green she judged too dark. It needed something. David Alva came through the house. “What is taking you?” Ina pointed to the stack of branches.
“Take those indoors for me. I’ll be in directly. Put them by the cot.”
Ina found blue flag and lupine at the edge of the clearing, and trillium a few yards into the trees, its three petals streaked faint rosy tan against the white. She cut a few sprigs off a late-blooming pink dogwood and pushed farther into the bushes, hacking Indian pipestem off at the ground, where it grew in a dry, dark patch of pine needles, and another plant growing deeper in the dark, with leafless red stalks and bracts. Spooky-looking, with no leaves or anything green, Ina thought, but nice against the cedar, for a change. She pulled handfuls of moss from the bottom of the fir, the color of green apples, a lighter contrast against the evergreens.
There was one intact chair in the house, and David Alva was sitting in it. He looked at Ina’s flowers as if they were a good idea, but with surprise, too. She realized he’d probably never known her to gather flowers before.
“Them for the cemetery?”
Ina shook her flowers, stepping on an ant that fell to the floor.
“I don’t want to get all pitchy. Put those branches on the cot so you can’t see the cut parts.”
Ina arranged the flowers and moss in clusters, one big one at the top, another smaller one at the bottom, three in a row across the middle, softening the design with moss. She worked without thinking ahead, doing what looked nice to her. She stepped back and looked, still not satisfied. It was too dark; the blue of the flags and the red of the pipestem disappeared into the cedar and the green canvas under it. David Alva stepped back, too, and put one hand inside another, as men do when someone wants to pray and they are not used to praying.
“It’s pretty,” he said.
“It’s not quite right.”
It needed something more, a yellow flower, a cluster of big orange blooms, to bring the light in from outside. Sunflowers grew wild in Missouri, all along the road through Nebraska, and stopped when the land dried out to the west. Nothing like that grew wild here, and Lydia had not planted any flowers in the cleared space around the house. A few daffodils had gone wild, Ina could see, leftovers from another woman’s care of the garden, but they had bloomed out. Nothing remained but a few long leaves wilting into the ground. Ina turned and walked back to the car.
“That’s the best we can do,” she said, slamming the door on David Alva’s reply. They were through town when he spoke again.
“That’s the kinda thing Myrna’d do,” he offered as they drove the narrow green corridor toward home. “She’s always prettyin’ things up.
Ina let him talk. David Alva loved Myrna Halvorsen, had bought her a topaz ring and smashed it with a framing hammer when she laughed at it. Myrna was one step above a lumber camp tramp, but she had a tight figure and clear brown eyes, and David Alva didn’t see the merits of plainer girls who could make him happy. Ina had been pretty once, and she knew that pretty mattered. Her own oldest girls got out of the house early because they were pretty, one living in town “to be closer to school,” as she put it, and staying with richer friends, and another in California with an aspiring preacher, gone for good to a marriage and family where no one knew her as anything but the minister’s wife.
Ina hadn’t given much in the way of advice to her daughters when they left home; she could have told them that beauty helped, but it was no protection. Ina’s ankles, thick now, ached under her tight stockings, and she’d been taken for Myrtle’s grandmother. She sometimes thought of herself that way and had tolerated the nasty comments at the hospital when her youngest children were born to an old woman. “It’s not a family, it’s a litter,” a nurse had said quietly to another, but loud enough for Ina to hear. They were a certain kind of people. All of her family, if they had not felt their lives settle on them before, would feel it eventually, she was sure.
“We could move to the other side of the mountain,” she said. David Alva was quiet. “Your father would like living in town.”
III. Lilies of the Field
The Keanes were gone, and Miss Owens had sent letters to all the surrounding school districts, asking to be notified when the children registered. A careful, conscientious caseworker, she wanted someone to keep an eye on the girl, that Lydia Phillips, after her boy was born. It would be a boy. Miss Owens had a feel for these things.
As the rains came that winter, Miss Owens pressed the starter of her car and looked through the fogged windshield for the hidden horizon. Winters were getting harder. Some years they seemed to last past June, and then the slash fires and field bums started, obscuring the sun with smoke through September, when the sun slipped from the north again. She still took a daily dose of cod-liver oil, but the glooms would come upon her anyway, making her wonder if perhaps women like Lydia Phillips shouldn’t just find their own level, descend to the depths they seemed so determined to reach, and take their hopeless children along with them. A few would get along all right, whatever anyone did. She examined the Phillips/Keane file, her last one, again and again, creasing the responses to her queries neatly in two as they came, all negatives, and tucking them into a special pocket in the folder. The children were listed in order of age. That Eddie, she suspected, would survive, and any efforts with the rest seemed futile if the children weren’t taken away, bedded down on rows of clean cots, taught a useful trade in an orderly way.
So went Miss Owens’ last winter. She was to be reassigned to an office, answering telephones; young men, college graduates, were to take her place and bring scientific methods to casework. Sometimes the sun came out, and her gloomy thoughts passed away, and sometimes after days of rain she forced herself to recall the words of Saint Teresa, not the comforting words, the ones that assure the faithful that all things pass, God alone never changes. Instead, her mind formed for itself the uncomfortable questions, the ones the nuns never spared her or anyone else. “What, Oh God, shall I do, so as not to destroy the effect of the wonders which Thou workest in me? My God, how shall I be sure that I am not separated from Thee?” What shall I do? The question was not asked for nothing, was not shouted out the window to the breeze with no likely answer, she was sure. It demanded a response, just as good fortune demanded gratitude. She would send the files to her successor, but she would keep her notes, and keep her ears and eyes open. She had an obligation to look after that Phillips baby if it was still alive, and a few others, too. She couldn’t take them away on her own, but she could cast a friendly shadow.
Miss Owens had heard the story of Saint Teresa but now could only recall the astringent questions and the image of the sweetly solemn nun with the cross and the book from a holy card wedged in a corner of her mother’s mirror. In any case, the abridged story told to children left out some of the details. One of them was this: the saint’s confessor ordered her to limit her mystical reflections to the few minutes each day when she was not at prayer or at the convent’s endless needlework. The work must have been beautiful stuff, offerings to the cathedral or commissions for wealthy patrons of the convent. The stitches were tiny, the designs intricate. All the nuns had to take their turn, had to take equal pains, or the difference would show. Saint Teresa, a Doctor of the Church, stitched altar cloths, curtains for the windows, shrouds for the widows. She humbled herself for God and wore rope sandals fit only for peasants, for the good of her soul. She stitched Cattail, Lupine in the Snow, Snakeweed, Valley and Forest, Bitter Wind, Lilies of the Field. She stitched Sun, Moon, Stars, River, Lake, Ocean.
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