River Polak

I

FOR one week in the spring the Niobrara River jammed its bed with broken ice. Its gray floodwaters rose over the bottom lands, piling trash at the feet of the ash and box elder along the bluffs, with here and there a bridge plank or a drowned hog in the willows. From then until fall the tepid little stream flowed tranquilly past the old cottonwood leaning from the cutbank of sandstone, making a soft, friendly little sound as it ran past the Polanders’.

On quiet June evenings a blue plume of corncob smoke rose over the Smolka house in the little ash grove and hung in thin threads along the shadowing bluffs. Now and then a bell tinkled somewhere, not loud or often, for the cows had learned not to disturb the clapper overmuch.

But this evening there was no hand cupped to the ear for cowbells. Instead, Yonak Smolka was squandering his time on Indian Bluff, at the feet of the barelegged little American girl, Eckie Mason, making a wreath of wild flowers for her. And as he selected one sprig of bloom after another from the girl’s apron, he forgot that his tongue had a way of escaping his lips when he worked, that his shoes were manure-yellowed and too large to pass in a plough furrow.

At last the boy shook his hair that was bleached and unruly as weathered binder twine from his eyes. Then he arose, unbelievably long and awkward, holding the thick wreath of purple and yellow wild peas like a thing of fragile china on the palms of his broad hands before the waiting girl.

‘I — c-crown you,’ he stammered, breathing hard, ‘I c-c-crown—’ But his voice broke and he jammed the wreath down hard on the girl’s dark hair, glad to be rid of it. There it hung, over one ear and the delicate nose as on a post.

Seeing that Eckie still waited, he fell awkwardly to one knee, touched his lips to her extended hand, and sat back on his haunches in relief.

‘The glass,’ Eckie prompted in a whisper.

Yonak wiped a bit of broken mirror on his overalls and held it up. The girl straightened the wreath, and, seeing only a blur of purple and gold and no sunburned face, she sighed. ‘ I wisht I could be like this all the time, with no sick baby to mind and no cows to get.’

At the mention of chores Yonak let the glass clink down his overalls to the gravel as he straightened up and peered under his palm toward the shadowed grove across the river. ‘Gee, I bet Pa be home and I have not the cows. . . . Maybe he knock me down.’

But the sun stood large on the bluffs, powdering the quiet evening air and spreading a bright path over the moving water. And suddenly for him there was no angry Polish father with eyes red from the jug under the bed of Ignaz Kodis.

‘Look it!’ he cried, wanting Eckie to see that the water was like mice running under a golden sheet and that the purple stealing down the draws was the flying veil on his sister Olga’s new hat. But before his thick tongue could move to it a woman’s voice called up the bluff. ‘Eckie! — Eckie! — Come away from that dumb Polak and mind this baby!’

Holding the wreath to her head and without a look or a word for the boy, Eckie ran down the shadowing slope to throw clods at the two milch cows switching indolent tails in a patch of sandburrs where she could not follow barefooted.

With the bright sun still upon him, Yonak watched the girl vanish along the path through the brush. Then he kicked a pebble bounding after her and plodded down the slope toward the river. Dumb Polak — dumb, left-alone Polak. Sometimes even Olga wanted to be American, with an American name, Ollie Smith, not a greenhorn Smolka. But only when she was angry with her father. Other times she laughed and strutted a little, like her black Leghorn rooster, saying, ‘Pretty good for dumb Polander, no?’

II

From the time Yonak’s thick baby legs could keep his sister in sight they had played together. Often it was games like going to the market in the Old Country, under the cottonwood leaning over the Niobrara River. They played selling syrup buckets full of wild flowers, the cat and her kittens, their pet rooster or the runty pig that would n’t stand still and so fell off into the water and had to be dragged out. And once, when the house was dark and empty, they sneaked out their mother’s black Sunday shawl. And then Olga was the queen of the market and made music with the accordion like a fine big dance with many rich city people.

When she was fifteen the father heard that his countrymen down the river took in much money from their sons and daughters who worked for the Americans. He got Olga a job at Union, waiting tables, and once a week he stopped at the back door for her pay.

It was during his first summer alone that Yonak found the American girl across the river. She was watching a bull snake try to get the bulge in his middle that had been a gopher into a mouse hole. It was very funny and they laughed together. After that they were what the Americans called friends, and so she took the Polish boy up to her house and showed him how to make good races with the Leghorn roosters. Her mother said it was bad, but she did n’t think so. The roosters liked it. Yonak found it truly so.

After that he often hit the wire fence between the two places with a stick and made it sing to let Eckie know he was going down by the river. Sometimes she could get away and came running, dodging barefooted through sandburrs and rosebushes. Then Yonak cut whistles if the willows were sapping, made bows and arrows for them both, or scalded crawdads to a blood red in an old tomato can to eat with salt.

And now, to-day, he had made the wreath.

When the house was filled with warm, dark silence, Yonak lay in the little halfdugout bedroom under the picture of the thorn-crowned Christ, and thought about it. Gradually he forgot the throb of his head from Big Steve Smoika’s willow whipstock and the hurt of the American woman’s words, calling him a dumb Polak. The memory of the girl’s hand against his lips was like sweet, gritty bumblebee honey from the nest in the meadow. And below the grove the river made its soft, busy little sound as it ran past the Polanders’.

The next day Olga came home for her birthday. She was seventeen now, dark hair short, eyes swift and blue as the kingfisher’s, and with only red-lipped contempt for the old bachelor Ignaz Kodis who hoped to trade a daily drink from the jug under the bed for the highheaded Smolka girl. She would give Ignaz a bellyful of fight, Big Steve promised loudly after the third tipping of the jug. She was a bad one, that Olga, standing up to her father like the August thunderhead, making the ground to shake with a great wind and fire and noise, until the little mother hid her face in the headcloth.

And Ignaz licked his brown lips and passed the jug once more.

A week later Steve Smolka brought home a full bottle of whiskey and walked so straight that there must surely have been more. He filled a cup half full of cold coffee and brimmed it over with the paler liquid.

‘To-morrow I get Olga from the town and the next day it will be a wedding,’ he said through his floating moustache.

With shaking hands the mother wiped up the ham fat she spilled on the hot lids and moved quickly to put the supper on the table. Once or twice she coughed into a white rag that she Hid in her slit pocket. Steven talked big. No more cutting corn by hand, Yonak! From now on it would be the binder of Ignaz Kodis, and perhaps a ride to the town in his car on Saturdays.

After supper Yonak slipped through the dark trees to the soft-looking gray clumps of buffalo-berry brush. They were really not soft at all, but stood thick and thorny about him, shutting out everything except the fragile lace of the fireflies and the square of yellow that was the window of the Americans across the river.

Before the sun stood man-high the next morning Big Steve was gone. A sad murmur as of fall insects rose gradually from the darkened bedroom where the mother knelt before a dim candle. Yonak put the milk away quickly and went into the yard where he need not hear. His pet rooster gave a high cackle and fled. When there was no pursuit, he came back curiously, looking sidewise at the boy, scolding. Slowly Yonak roused himself and the rooster was gone again, under thistles, over fences, dodging, scolding, squawking. At last the boy caught him, stroked his gleaming black neck, and watched the American girl, the baby across her hip, come to the bridge to fish in the deep hole at the pilings. He threw the rooster a handful of wheat and made business at the sweet-corn patch across the river. With the doubletrees balancing across his shoulders he stopped on the bridge.

‘What you using?’ he asked casually.

‘Grubworms.’

‘Grasshoppers is better.’

‘Maybe,’ the American girl admitted, flipping a silvery chub from the water, ‘but I bet you couldn’t catch many grasshoppers neither with a sick kid like Dickie hanging onto you.’

‘Oh, I dunno.’ Yonak spit into the water and went on, his big feet clapclapping on the planks like a horse, pretending he never made a wreath for an American girl, never a purple and gold wreath, and that there was no soft, sad noise in his mother’s bedroom.

That night there were violent words over the oilcloth-covered table in the Smolka kitchen. Once the mother dared remonstrate, but Steve sent her back into the shadows with the flat of his hand and Yonak had to lead her away to cry in the outside darkness. Olga better give up; only get a smashed mouth for her wedding.

And at last she tossed her short black hair out of her eyes and, grabbing her red accordion, played like drunk or crazy. Her teeth, white as corn in milk, flashed; sweat beaded her forehead. Finally she went to bed. Yonak lay tense and still as she crept into the cot across the dugout from him. Until the rooster crowed she cried softly.

In the morning she was gone. It was Yonak who found her, hanging from the cottonwood over the river. When Ignaz came in his old car to the wadding Yonak had to tell him. Red moustache bristling, the man swore that Big Steve had cheated him. Without going in to look at the girl laid out in her new white dress he went home to his corn, A dead woman is no good to a man and the sunflowers do not wait.

All the June day Steve Smolka sat with his fingers over his face while his Polish neighbors hammered together a long box and covered it with black cloth. That evening they buried Olga near the little white church on the Flats, where the roads going in and out cross, as was fitting.

Yonak stayed behind in the dusk at the leveled grave. Suddenly the American girl was there with him. Softly she laid a wreath of bluebells on the new earth and ran away. Yonak put his hand out to the flowers. They were cool as the waters of the Niobrara.

After Olga was gone the mother leaned lower under the sacks of weeds she carried home for the pigs; she huddled closer into her dark headcloth. Big Steve drank less and went to church, but the river Polanders avoided him. It was not right, this that Steve Smolka had done. Olga was sweet as the chokecherry blooms in the spring. Here it was not like the Old Country. One must use less of the club and more of the sugar on the colts.

The mother coughed steadily from the days of the black frost to the white. By spring she lay still in her dark bedroom. Because she would not have a doctor Yonak steeped camomile and brewed wild-sage tea in an iron pot, but it was as nothing. Na, what must be must be, she tried to tell this boy with the man bones pushing through his round cheeks. Only fifteen and already high as Big Steve, and no catalogue shoes big enough.

Then one night when Steve was in town with the fat pigs she called the boy to her. He cleared away the bloodsoaked pillow and washed her white face. She smiled up to him, like a tired little child. He must not be afraid.

When the father came Yonak left him alone with the still, white woman on the bed. He walked fast to the old cottonwood. The tree still leaned a long arm over the river. Somewhere far in the high blue of the sky a bobolink sloped and sang. Only to him and to his father was everything different.

A sound of running feet came up the cowpath and Eckie stood before the Polish boy. He turned his light eyes upon her. ‘Why you come to bother me?’ he cried, and could have bitten his tongue out.

Mutely the girl pushed something hard into Yonak’s hand and ran, her faded blue dress flying across the bridge and into her own yard, and on the boy’s calloused palm lay a round, shiny disk, — a pyrite, a sheepherder had said, — Eckie’s lovely gold dollar.

The next day Mrs. Mason brought the geranium blooms of all the Americans for miles around in a washtub to put over the town-bought coffin. Yonak scarcely knew that, or heard the good words she made for him now. He stared straight ahead, gripping the gold dollar until it cut his palm.

III

That summer Yonak looked often toward the house across the river. Sometimes he sneaked through the brush to watch the American girl pick black currants or gather wood. She was growing straight and fine like the young cottonwood, and her hands were gentle as the night winds in the leaves. But he never spoke to her after her sick little brother died. There was nothing he could say to the American girl. And soon she was going to Union to high school, to work for her board, be a teacher.

Once she saw him there and stopped him outside of the trading store to ask how it was with them on the Niobrara. Two of her classmates, scrawny in their dirty corduroys, saw them. ‘Migod! Look at the big Polander!’

The girl tried to laugh up at Yonak, to make it good. ‘They’re just sorry they ’re such little runts.

But the boy turned away and went down the middle of the dusty street, to where the team was eating from the wagon. He hunched down on the tongue and kicked a hole in the ground. Town was no good. And the American girl had no business talking to him, not with a dress the color of wild-grape wine, her short black hair like wild geese flying before the wind.

IV

In the summer Yonak and Steve worked the fields and watched the windstreaked sky. If rain came, like long blue brooms sweeping across the dusty flats, it was money in the bank. If not — chickens one year, feathers the next. Anyhow, the Polanders still had the river.

But to Yonak the Niobrara was not just water for grass and cabbages and sweet corn. It was something to see suddenly from under a fork of hay, to hear in the aloneness of the night. It brought a fine hurting to his arms when he looked down upon it in October, the cottonwoods lemon yellow, the ash trees slim golden flames against the gray of the bluffs; or when he came down the spring slope, walking behind the deepbreasted mares, the chain tugs rattling.

When Big Steve’s wife was dead three years he got a gallon jug for under his bed, sent for a new suit and a tie, shaved his moustache, greased his shoes, and started to Mass again. Several times he drove to the Polish settlement on Snake River, to come back smelling of bad alcohol and cursing the American Poles as pigs.

Yonak, eighteen now, looked on in silence. At night, lying where the mother had died, he had to hear the heavy breathing of Big Steve beside him. Dark thoughts came to the boy, partly because his father breathed so, like the boar pig in the pen, but mostly because he was writing to a countryman in Chicago for a mail-order wife.

It was said that the matchmaker was a good one. For forty dollars he got a wife for Ignaz Kodis, not too old and only a little lame. She worked well and gave him strong children, one a year.

In a few weeks Steve was talking big of the wife he too would get, with the good name of Jadwiga Hajek, only thirty; and if a little older, what matter? Sixty dollars down for the match and one hundred for the wedding garments.

She met Steve at the depot in a pink silk dress like a costly American woman. Her kiss brought another red than that of the wind and the jug to the Polander’s face. But she would not marry yet. ‘ Be better to wait and see if we fit together,’ she told him in awkward Polish.

Na, it gives bad talk so! ’ he protested, which was enough.

But it was not enough for the woman from Chicago. She laughed with open mouth, her gold teeth and the black stuff on her round parrot eyes shining, free for all the loafers to see.

She did not laugh when she saw Steve’s place. Did rich farmers here live in dumps like that, she asked, pointing a red-nailed finger at the two-room soddy with its dugout lean-to. Seeing the man’s flush of anger, she kissed him on the mouth, her round eyes already seeking the son.

Not until dark did Yonak come to the house, and slowly then, seeing a woman with hair that was burnt cornsilk, and a mouth like blood, on his father’s knee. He stopped in the doorway, the light from the high lamp spilling over his hair, over the smooth tan of his face and the faded blue of his overalls. The woman sucked in her breath. She went to him, close to him, and looking up under greasy lids, she asked, ‘You are Yonak?’

Standing on tiptoe, she mussed his blond hair and ran her fingers down his cheek line to his lips. They smelled like flowers in the late spring, flowers wilting.

‘Big, strong man,’ she said. Turning the lamp down, she pulled him to the bench beside her. ‘Now you are not Yonak, Polak, but Jack, American,’ she told him.

Afterward Yonak tried to forget the violence of that week between his father and Dolly Hall, as Jadwiga Hajek would be called. She was no greenhorn Polander, she told Big Steve, standing up to his anger. But always her eyes, her hands, were for the young Yonak, so tall and fine, even with the dirt of the milking pen on his shoes.

It was the son she would marry.

Steve threw his head back and opened his mouth wide. A good joke, good Polish joke.

But already the son was gone, out into the night. The woman was after him, holding to the doorknob, looking into the blackness. The father stopped his laughing and his anger broke like the gray floodwaters of the Niobrara, but the woman stood against him like the pilings of the good-built bridge. Yes, it was the son she would have. The son. The son.

And then it came over Steve that he could not let her go. So he became sly. Yes, yes, the son. Ah, he was a young fool, this Yonak, but if she would have him, phutt, so it should stand. Let them talk of it to-morrow.

No. To-night. Now.

But Yonak did not come when Steve called from the doorway, not the next morning or all the next day. Steve cursed; the cows bawled. At last, when the woman went to call from the hill that it was only a joke, American joke, Yonak crawled out of the buffalo-berry brush, his face gaunt, his eyes light and hard. He came in for the milk pails and went out again. In the morning he looked down upon Steve, still in a sour, drunken stupor, and then he went away to the field.

And when the son returned in the evening the woman met him at the door in a fresh house dress, with a nice red drink for him. It was cool to the dusty throat and he had another, many more, until the woman’s words were gentle upon his ear, her hair sweet to his lips.

The next morning Yonak roused himself as from the muck of a river flood. When his eyes cleared a little Ire ran out across the bottom land that smelled of dew, the boggier portions blue-tinged with violets. A coyote slunk away from a handful of feathers, all that was left of a Leghorn rooster out too early because Yonak had forgotten to close the henhouse. He kicked the wet feathers sadly and went to stand at the old cottonwood over the river, his head against the rough bark, his face shiny as wet, gray clay. This time Eckie would not come. Last week she had finished the high school. In the fall she would be a teacher.

After a while Yonak fell to cutting into the old tree with his knife, far back under the bark. He let the sun play on the bright disk that was Eckie’s gold dollar before he pushed it out of sight under the bark and painted the spot with mud.

Then he tried to look over into tomorrow, but it was dark as the smoke of a prairie fire. And so he washed his head at the river and was surprised that the water could still be cool to him.

V

It took Dolly Hall just one day to spread the news, laughing at the Polish women who stood away from her when they spoke of their part, in the wedding feast. The next day she got Steve to take her to town. They came home singing through the dusk, in a new car that the woman drove. Yonak plodded up from the milking pen between two brimming pails to the house. Ah, but there was news, Dolly cried to him. They were sold out — land, cattle, horses, everything. They were all going to Detroit in the morning, to Dolly’s brother working in the automobile factory. He would make the wedding feast.

Yonak set the milk pails among the cats and walked away, up the hill and through the corn, his boots bruising a fragrance from the young, green leaves. It still smelled the same, like his field, his home. He belonged here, with the river and the ploughed land under his feet, deep-rooted in good soil.

To-night he did not go to the cottonwood, although he knew the little winds were in its leaves. Instead he went to the bridge, so white in the moonlight, and sat on the willow-grown approach where he could see the light in the Americans’ kitchen.

After a long time someone came along the railing toward him. Suddenly it was Eckie, there before him, in a light dress like river mist. She turned away when she saw him.

‘You don’t have to be afraid of me,’ Yonak said bitterly through his fingers.

‘Oh, no,’ she answered quickly, but without returning.

‘We go away.’

The light oval of the girl’s face moved, indicating knowledge. She wished them luck. It would be fine in the great city.

‘It will be bad — bad like a sickness and a dying!’ the young Polander cried, and stumbled away into the brush.

And when he did not return to the Smolka grove that night or the next morning there was much talk. So! — like his sister. But they could not find him hanging from a tree anywhere.

Dolly Hall was angry. Greenhorn Polak! But she did not wish to lose everything, and so she married Steve at Union — Steve and his three thousand dollars cash.

VI

Yonak, working in a packing plant in Chicago, knew nothing of the wedding, not until the three thousand cash had vanished and Old Steve, hearing of his son through a countryman, came to him. Na, it was bad. The American Polish woman was worse than two or ten of the English-speakers.

He brought word, too, of the Americans across the river, the Eckie and her people. The mother was dead and the girl she must come home to care for the sick father, sick from a horse kick in the back — not walk for a long time.

Yonak listened and then went out through the town, to the bridge over the river that did not smell like the Niobrara in the spring. A long time he looked into the oily water.

The next day they rented a little house and Steve cleared away the cans from the back. He would grow the cabbages and the onions for his Polish neighbors.

After a few months Dolly came too, for Steve still held a five-year mortgage for half his place. Greenhorns, she called the men when they would not move to an apartment. But she stayed, entertaining her drunken friends in sleazy satin pajamas. It was not good, Old Steve grumbled, but there was none to listen.

If Yonak hoped that the stench of the fertilizer dumps that was close as his skin would rid them of his father’s wife, he was mistaken. She complained about it and her friends made fun, but that was all.

Then, one night in late April, Yonak lay on his hot bed with the moonlight across him and thought how fine it would be to walk along a fence once more, making the barbed wire hum under a tapping stick while his shadow grew long on the evening grass. How fine to see the faded blue dress of the little American girl come running through the brush. And soon it would be time for the purple and yellow flowers he had once made into a wreath.

The next morning the heat was like a dirty featherbed to the face. At noon a wind grew up from the far land, cool, gentle, wet as the mists of the spring Niobrara. To Yonak it brought the smell of new ground, warm horseflesh, and slopes snowy with wild plum and chokecherry bloom. A joy ran through his dead arms like the first cracking of winter ice in the river. He sent his unopened lunch pail against the shed so the wood splintered and broke, the tin flattened, and the gray coffee splattered out. But Yonak did not stop to see. He ran like a wild animal, wild with spring.

Two days later the young Polander was headed across the Flats to the Niobrara and knew, from the curious look the mail carrier gave him, that in spite of soap and hot water and new clothes he was still a packing-house stinker. He looked away over the shaggy prairie moving past as slowly as the flow of earth into the valley. Everything was so small, so drab, the Flats like a palm dusty with the thin green of early spring. Many homes were gone, broad fields unworked, gray with weeds. Three years’ drouth, hand-running, the carrier said. That, with seven years’ hard times, just about cleaned up the farmer. Old Phipps closed out most everybody across the river.

Yonak nodded. He knew Phipps and bad times. Chicken one year and feathers the next. He was watching a curlew drop whistling to a knoll, pinkish-brown wings folded over the back like praying palms. There was still time to clean the rusty ploughshare with sand and coal oil, put in corn. The rains would come.

‘The whole damn country’s for rent,’ the mail carrier told him. ‘There’s your old place, empty. The renters could n’t raise the money and was put off. On relief up to Union now. Old-timer down that way too, crippled bad.’

He rambled on, but Yonak did not hear. He got off at the graying, deserted little church, the mail carrier shouting back that he ’d be along again in a couple hours, glad to pick him up. When the truck was gone, Yonak went to his mother’s grave, level now, the little wooden cross down in the weeds. And over the spot where the roads going in and out of the cemetery crossed, where Eckie had brought the wreath of bluebells to his sister, dead sunflowers rattled in the wind.

Heavily Yonak started through his old field, mangy with patches of spreading rye grass. Poor farming. It was not good to do the land so.

At the brow of the bluff he looked down upon the Niobrara and his sadness grew. This was not the river that had come to him on that rare, soft wind over the soiled city. This was little more than a creek, with a deep canyon of greening trees tucked against bare sandstone. And across from him was a bald knob, the Indian bluff where he had once made a wreath for an American girl.

Then he saw that Eckie’s house was gone, the gray stones of the foundation scattered like dirty chickens over the bare yard. Suddenly afraid, he ran down the hill toward his own home, the shadow of a hawk circling over the ground before him. Only a dozen cattlerubbed ash and box-elder trees were left of the grove. The sod house stood vacant-eyed as an old woman, the windows gone, the floor covered with newspapers, not yet yellowed, and fresh chicken droppings.

VII

At last Yonak moved to plod past the sagging door of the henhouse and to the old cottonwood. It, too, was gone. Undermined by spring floods, it had crashed into the water, the branches catching trash until the river turned its back and shifted the channel to the other side, leaving only a rain-dappled sand bar around the bleaching old trunk, with the lacy tracks of a turtle across it.

Slowly Yonak started away, along the river to the road that led over the bluffs and off toward the railroad. The water rippled past him over yellow sand wavy as a woman’s hair, but he did not see it. The tangled swamp grass caught at his shoes and he did not feel it.

Suddenly there was a high cackle at his feet, and a bunch of black and russet feathers rose from the water’s edge and fled squawking past him. It was a rooster, a brown Leghorn, the tail gone, probably lost to some coyote. But the fowl did not go far. Under a buffaloberry clump he stopped to look back, scolding.

With a whoop Yonak was after him, his heart pounding with excitement as the rooster ran and flew toward the grove. He turned the corner of the henhouse in time to see the Leghorn flutter off the ground and scramble into a rusty oil barrel through the six-inch bung, just wide enough for the scrawny body. Yonak leaned against the rooty old sod wall, puffing, laughing. The little devil! He was tailless, bedraggled of feathers and with frozen comb, but he stayed on.

Inside the barrel the cackling had died. Yonak tried to look into the blackness and was met with a vigorous clatter of claws on metal and an alarmed squawk. He started to shake the barrel a little, and stopped. Under his hand, across the dirty metal of the top, was a name — E. C. Mason. It was the Americans. Eckie.

So that was how the rooster could race.

Then Yonak remembered what the mail carrier had said. Old-timer, crippled. And Phipps closing everybody out for his cattle. So it happened that the Smolka field was grass. She who was slim and fine as a young cottonwood trying to hold the plough.

Once more he began to laugh, harder this time, like a March wind that clears away the dead things of a long, long winter. To the cackling rooster he promised Eckie, the American, and her father back. ‘I make them come,’ he said, ‘and once more it be good farming and fine racing, no?’ Then he started toward the road again, walking very fast, to catch the mail truck for Union. And behind him the Niobrara flowed tranquilly on, making a soft, friendly little sound as it ran past the old grove of the Polanders.