W HEN my mother gasped, a china cup dropped out of my soapy hands and shattered in the sink. She moved faster than I've ever seen her, out the kitchen door. I wiped my wet hands on my jeans and followed, not sure what was happening but knowing it was bad. She loped out toward the barn, her long legs gleaming white. The air was so clear I could see a range of snowy mountains in Montana, across the Idaho state line. At the back gate my mother raised her hand and stretched her fingers out as if she meant to press her hand into clay. She shoved her whole arm forward in the sign for "Stop!"
"Clara," she called, trying not to show that she was scared. My little sister stood out in the pasture. Her grimy T-shirt was too small, and her diaper sagged. Our Angus stood just beside her, his head lowered to her height. He looked like a sculpture made of black boulders, one for his neck and hump, one for his chest, another for the muscles bulging on his ribs. While we watched, hardly breathing, Clara turned her back on the bull and gazed at us. She took a small step toward my mother.
"Clara, no!" my mother screamed. "Clara, watch the bull. Back up. Back up all the way to me." My mother climbed over the gate and began to walk, one slow step after another, as if Clara were stranded on a patch of thawing ice. The bull stretched his neck and sniffed so hard at Clara's diaper that she fell down. She stumbled up, her face dark with mud and manure, and, as if she'd just decided to come in for lunch, walked straight over to my mother.
My mother was so mad she yanked down Clara's filthy diaper and smacked her wet, bare skin. She hit Clara as if that alone could make sure that my sister would never, ever scare her again -- as if my mother's fury could force Clara to be safe.
Half dragging Clara by one arm, my mother made her trot back into the house and dumped her in her crib. I waited until she had gone back to the kitchen and I could hear water running in the sink before I lowered the side of the crib to change Clara's diaper. Clara was past four by then, way too old for diapers or a crib, but it was easier on all of us to treat her like a baby. The crib kept her from wandering through the house at night while the rest of us were sleeping. She could have climbed out any time, but she never did.
My parents thought Clara was "slow." She had been slow to walk, and she hardly ever talked, though we knew she could. My mother's hand had left a red mark the shape of a crooked valentine heart on Clara's bottom, but she wasn't even whimpering. While I washed the mud and manure from her face and tangled hair, she stared at me with round blue eyes. Her hair was golden, not blonde but darkly shining, like spun maple syrup. It was damp with sweat and pulled back off her forehead with a broken pink barrette. I think my mother was terrified by Clara's backwardness, and at the same time convinced that Clara was purposely trying to thwart her. At times I thought that my mother believed Clara was some kind of monster.
My dad had been out to a cattle auction, and when he got home, he sat down in his lounger and called Clara to climb onto his lap, checking first to make sure she was dry.
"Give your dad a kiss," he said, "a wet one," and Clara made a sloppy smack on his lips. While my mother told him what Clara had done, he looked at her in a way that said "Why can't you keep an eye on the kids?"
"Bulls," he said to Clara, though he was really talking to my mother and me, "are unpredictable. You never want to be on foot in front of one. They can be as nice as can be one day, and for no reason take you out the next. They can go crazy in the spring. Holsteins are the worst -- pin a man in his corral for no reason whatsoever. Now, a Hereford's different. I've had a Hereford bull come after me until I tripped and fell down in a snowdrift, and then stop. Stop and wander off. But you can't trust a bull."
My father always talked like that, like he thought everybody had just been born. My mother grew up on a ranch, and for the most part I did too. I called it "Don't stick beans up your nose" advice. But you still had to sit and listen. My dad had a lot of sayings he thought were full of wisdom, and any time you had the slightest complaint or argument, he pulled one out.
My favorite was "Least said, soonest mended." When I baby-sat for Clara, I'd ask her questions like "You finished with your milk?" and "Have you gone to the bathroom?" Or, just to tease her, "Well, whadda ya think?" Her reply was always the same -- nothing. We knew she could talk because once in a while she shocked us by saying "No" or "Sure." If my parents weren't around, I always beamed and said right back to her, "Good girl, Clara. 'Least said, soonest mended!'"