by JESSAMYN WEST
IT WAS deep in May. Fingers had lifted the green strawberry leaves and had found fruit beneath them. The bees had sYvarmcd twice. Cherries, bright as Christmas candles, hung from the trees. Wheat was heading up. The wind was from the south and sent a drift of locust blossoms like summer snow, Mattie thought, through the air.
She left her churn on the back porch and stood for a minute by the springhouse with uplifted face to see how locust snow felt; but the wind died down and no more blossoms fell, so she went back to her churning.
She counted slowly as she moved the dasher up and down. She was keeping track of the least and most strokes it took to bring butter. This at any rate was not going to be a least-time. “Eightyeight, eighty-nine —” Josh and Labe were putting horsehairs into the rain barrel to turn into worms. The hired man stuck his head out of the barn door, saw her, and directly pulled it in again.
“Mattie,” called her mother, “get finished with thy churning and ride over to the Bents’ with some rocks.” Mattie could smell the rocks baking: raisins and hickory nuts all bedded down together in sweet dough.
“Lavony Bent’s as queer as Dick’s hatband,” her mother called above the slap and gurgle of the dasher, “half Indian and a newcomer. She needs a token to show she’s welcome.”
Listening, Mattie slowed her churning. “Bring that butter humping,” her mother said. “Thee’ll have to get a soon start or it’ll get dark on thee.” She came to the kitchen door, rosy from the oven’s heat, bringing Mattie a new-baked rock.
“Day fading so soon,” she said. Mattie looked at her mother because of the sadness in her voice, and felt uncertainty and sorrow herself.
“There’ll be another to match it tomorrow,” her mother promised. “Its equal or better, Mattie. That red sky’s a sure sign.”
The butter was slow coming — only five strokes short of the most she had ever counted. “Thee’d best go as thee is, Mattie.”
“In this?” said Mattie.
“Who’s to see?” asked her mother. “None but Bents and hoot owls at this hour.”
Mattie wouldn’t have named them together — hoot owls and the black-haired, brown-faced boys she had watched walking riverward with fishing poles over their shoulders.
“Once thee starts combing and changing, it’ll be nightfall.”
So Mattie rode as she was to the Bents’, barefoot and in her blue anchor print which had faded until the anchors were almost as pale as the sea that lapped about them.
She carried the rocks in a little wooden box her mother intended to make into a footstool. So far, it, was only painted white, with cranes and cattails on each side. The brown cattails were set onto the box with so much paint that they curved up plump as real ones beneath Mattie’s exploring thumb.
Old Polly walked like a horse in a dream — slow — slow. Tonight, a short way on the pike and then across the wood lot. Mattie ate a rock, pulled down a limb to see it spring back in place, remembered what she had heard about the Bents.
“Never seen a more comfortable sight in my life,” her father called one day, and there on a padded chair was Sile Bent riding down the pike in his manure wagon, sitting and reading like a man at ease in his parlor. “Wonderful emancipation,” her father said. “Thee mark it, Mattie. The spirit of man’s got no limitations.”
Sile Bent read and farmed. His boys, all but Gardiner, fished and farmed. “Gardiner’s a reader like his pa,” said Mattie’s father. “Off to Normal studying to be a teacher. He figures on getting shut of the manure wagon and having just the book left.”
BUT the day she rode through meant more to Mattie than her destination. In the woods it was warm and sheltered and the sun, setting, lay like butter on the new green leaves.
At the far edge of the woods she stopped for a minute at the old Wright place. A little white tumbling-down house, empty for years, stood there — a forgotten house; but flowers still came up about it in the patterns in which Mrs. Wright had planted them. It was a sad, beautiful sight, Mattie thought, to see flowers hands had planted growing alone in the woods with not an eye to note whether they did well or not: the snowball bush where the front gate had been, spice pinks still keeping to their circle by the steps, and white flags, gold-powdered now at sunset, by the ruined upping block. A pair of doves, as she watched, slid down from the deep shadows of the woods and wheeled about in the sunlit clearing as if coming home.
Mattie stretched a hand to them. “Thee don’t act like wildings,” she said.
She slipped down from fat Old Polly and, carrying her box of cookies, went to pick some flags. These flowers and buildings have known people for too long, she thought, to be happy alone. They have grown away from their own kind and forgotten the language of woods and doves and long to hear household words again. To hear at bedtime a woman coming to the door for a sight of stars and saying, “There’ll be rain before morning. A circle round the moon — and hark to that cock crowing. It’s a sure sign.” Or a man at morning, scanning the sky as he hitches up his suspenders, “A weather breeder. Have to hustle the hay in.”
Mattie talked for the house and flowers to hear as she gathered the flags and laid them across the top of the cookie-filled footstool.
“If it’s a dry summer I’ll bring thee some water,” she said. “I couldn’t bear to lie abed a hot night, and you parching here. I’ll carry buckets from the branch if the well’s dry, and some night I’ll come and light a candle in the house so it’ll look like olden times. I’ll sing a song in the house and it’ll be like Mrs. Wright playing on her melodeon again.”
“Sing now, why don’t you?”
She was bending over the flags, but she wasn’t frightened, the voice was so quiet. It was a young man’s voice, though, and she dropped the flags in her hand onto her bare feet before she turned to face him.
“No human would enjoy my singing — only maybe an old house that can’t be choosy.”
“I’m not choosy, either.”
“No, I’m on an errand to take some rocks to Lavony Bent. I only stopped to pick some flags.”
“Well, I’m Gard Bent,” the boy said, “and I’ll walk along home with you. What’s your name?”
“Martha Truth Bird well. Only I’m mostly called Mattie.”
“Martha Truth Birdwell. That’s as pretty as any song. If he had known you,” — and Gardiner Bent held up the book he was carrying, — “he’d have written a poem called ‘Martha Truth.’”
Mattie saw the name on the book. “He mostly writes of Jeans and Marys,” she said. Now maybe this Bent boy wouldn’t think she was a knownothing, barefooted and talking to herself. “Thee take the rocks on to thy ma. I’ve dallied here so long it’ll be dark going home through the wood lot.”
“No, I’ll walk back with you to the pike. Ma’d never forgive me if I let you go home with your box empty. The boys have been on the river this afternoon. They’ll have a fine mess of catfish. Can I help you onto your horse?”
Mattie would dearly have liked being handed onto her horse had she been rightly dressed and Old Polly saddled, but that would have to wait for another time. She would not be hoisted like a sack of meal, plopped barefoot onto a saddleless horse. She stood stock-still, the flags covering her feet, and said nothing.
“I’ll get the rest of my books,” the boy said.
While he was gone Mattie led Old Polly to the upping block and set tled herself as sedately as if she were riding sidesaddle, one bare foot curled daintily beneath her.
Old Polly stepped slowly along in the dusk down the back road that led to the Bents’, and Gard walked beside her. There wasn’t much Indian about him, Mattie thought, unless it was his black hair and his quiet, toed-in walk. But his hair wasn’t Indian straight, and his eyes weren’t black at all, but the color of the sandstone in a go-to-meeting watch fob. It was a pleasing face, a face she did not tire of regarding. Her eyes searched its tenderness and boldness in the May dusk.
“I thought thee was away at Vernon, studying at the Normal.”
“I was — but it’s out. Now I’m studying to take the teachers examinations. I’ve got the promise of the school at Rush Branch when I pass. That’s why I come to Wright’s — to study where it’s quiet. If it gets dark on you, you could see your way home by the fireflies, they’re so thick,” he finished, as if ashamed of telling so much of himself.
“Fireflies. Is that what thee calls lightning bugs?”
“Elsewhere they’re known as fireflies.”
IT WAS full sunset before they reached the Bent place. Lavony Bent was cleaning fish on a stump at the edge of the yard. Sile Bent was on the back steps getting the last of the light onto the book he was reading. Two black-haired boys were rolling about on the ground wrestling; a third was trying to bring a tune from a homemade-looking horn. There weren’t any flowers or grass about the Bents’ house. The yard was trodden flat and swept clean.
Gard called out, “Ma, this is Martha Truth Birdwell come to bring you some cookies.”
Mrs. Bent didn’t stop her fish-cleaning, but looked up kindly enough. “Light down, Martha Truth, light down. I knowed your folks years ago when we’s all younger than you are now.”
Sile Bent closed his book on his finger and walked over to Mattie. He was a little, plump man with a big head of red hair and a silky red mustache. “If it isn’t Spring!” he said. “Spring riding a white horse and with flowers in her hands.”
Mattie was too taken aback to answer, but Gard laughed. “She’s got a box of cookies under the flowers, Pa.”
Mattie handed the box of cookies and the white flags to him. “Spring for looks and Summer for gifts,” said Sile Bent, and took a rock in two bites, shaking the crumbs from his mustache like a waterdrenched dog.
Mattie was afraid to talk to this strange man who carried a book as if it had been a pipe or a jackknife, and spoke of her as though she were absent, or a painted picture.
Mrs. Bent took the head from a still-quivering catfish with a single clean stroke. The boy with the horn started a tune she knew, but he couldn’t get far with it. “Lead her like a pigeon — Lead her like a pigeon —” he played over and over. Mattie’s ears ached to hear the next notes, to have the piece played through to its ending, not left broken and unfinished. Her mind hummed the tune for him: —
Bed her like a dove.
Whisper when I’m near her,
‘You’re my only love.’”
But the horn could not follow. “Lead her like a pigeon,” it said once more, then gave up.
The wrestlers groaned and strained. They t urned up the earth beneath them like a plow. A catfish leaped from the stump and swam again, most pitifully, in the dust.
“I’ll have to be turning homewards,” Mattie spoke suddenly. “Could I have my box? Ma’s fixing to make a footstool of it.”
Mrs. Bent sent Gard into the house to empty the cookies; then she lined the footstool with leaves and filled it with fish.
“There’s a mess of fish for your breakfast,” she said. “Tell your ma she’s so clever at sharing I can’t hope to keep pace with her.”
As they went out of the yard, Mattie once more on Old Polly, and Gard walking beside her, Sile Bent called after them, “Persephone and Pluto. Don’t eat any pomegranate seeds, Martha Truth.”
“What does he mean?” asked Mattie. What Mr. Bent had said didn’t sound like English to her.
“Persephone was a girl,” Gard said, “the goddess of spring, and Pluto, another god, stole her away to live underground with him. And while she was gone it was winter on earth,”
“She’s back on earth now, isn’t she?” Mattie asked, watching the wink of lightning bugs among the dark leaves.
“Yes, she’s back again,” Gard said.
THEY parted at the edge of the woods, where Mattie could see the lights of home glimmering down the road. Supper was over when she brought her box of catfish into the kitchen, and the dishes half washed.
“Sit down, child,” her mother said, “and have thy supper. What kept thee?”
“The Bents all talk a lot,” said Mattie. “It didn’t seem polite to go and leave them all talking.”
“They’ll not be hindered by thy leaving, never fear. Eat, eat. Thy food will lose its savor.”
“I can’t eat,” Mattie said. “ I don’t seem to have any relish for victuals.” She got the dish towel from the rack and started drying.
“Was thee fanciful,” asked her mother, who never attributed fright to anything but fancy, “crossing the wood lot?”
“No. Gardiner Bent came with me.”
“The Normal School boy?”
“Yes,” said Mattie. “He’s learned. Flowers. Fireflies. Poetry. Gods and goddesses. It’s all one to him,” she declared ardently. “He can lay his tongue to anything and give thee a fact about it. Oh, he’s full of facts. He’s primed for an examination and knows more than he can hold in.”
Mattie made the plates she dried fly through her hands like thistledown — as if they were weightless as thistles and as imperishable. Her hands were deft but they had not her mother’s flashing grace, and they were silent; they could not play the tune she envied, the tinkling bell-like song of her mother’s wedding ring against the china; the constant light clatter of gold against glass and silver that said, “I’m a lady grown and mistress of dishes and cupboards.”
Behind were the dark woods, the shadows and bosky places and whatever might slide through them when the sun was set; here the kitchen, the stove still burning, sending a wash of light across the scrubbed floor boards, the known dishes in their rightful stacks, and Ma’s ring sounding its quick song of love.
Mattie hummed a little.
“What’s thee humming?” her mother asked. “Seems like I’ve heard it.”
“‘Lead Her Like a Pigeon,’” Mattie said, smiling.
“Play-party tune.” Her mother held her hands above the soapy water and looked far away. “Weevily wheat. Once I was tempted to lift my foot to that.”
Lift her foot! Mattie looked at her mother, the Quaker preacher, whose foot now never peeped from beneath her full and seemly skirts. Once tempted — The wedding-ring music began again, but Mattie was watching, not drying. A long time ago tempted; yes, there was something in the way her mother would bury her face in a cabbage rose, or run to the door when father’s spring wagon turned off the pike, that showed her the black-haired girl who once listened to that music.
“Who does the Bent boy favor, Mattie?”
“His mother, I reckon. But handsomer. He’s got a face to remember,” Mattie said earnestly. “A proud, learned face. He’s got eyes the color of sandstones. When he walks there isn’t any up and down. It’s a pleasure to watch him walk.”
Mattie’s mother put a washed skillet on the stillwarm stove to dry. “After a good heart,” she said, “the least a woman can do is pick a face she fancies. Men’s so much alike and many so sorry, that’s the very least. If a man’s face pleasures thee, that doesn’t change. That is something to bank on. Thy father,” she said, “has always been a comely man.”
She turned back to her dishpan. “Why, Mattie,” she said, “what’s thee crying about?”
Mattie would not say. Then she burst out: “Pushing me off. Pushing me out of my own home. Thee talking about men that way — as if I would marry one. Anxious to be shut of me.” She cried into her already wet dish towel. “ My own mother,” she sobbed.
“Why, lovey,” her mother said, and went to her, but Mattie buried her face more deeply in her dish towel and stumbled up the back stairs. “My own mother,” she wailed.
“What’s the trouble? What’s Mattie taking on about? ”
Eliza Birdwell looked up at her husband, filling the doorway from the sitting room like a staunch timber. “Well, Jess,” she said, “I think Mattie got a sudden inkling of what leaving home’ll be like.”
“Leaving home?” asked Jess. “Getting married? Thee think that’s a crying matter, Eliza?”
Eliza looked at the face that had always pleasured her. “Thee knows I don’t, Jess,” she said.
Jess smiled. “Seems like,” he said, “I have a recollection of some few tears thee shed those first —” But Eliza would have none of that. “ Tsk, tsk,” she said, her wedding ring beating a lively tattoo against the last kettle, “tsk, tsk, Jess Birdwell.”
“Thee happy, now?” Jess asked, smiling.
Eliza wouldn’t say, but she hummed a little raveling of a song.
“Seems as if I know that,” Jess said. “A long time ago.”
“Like as not,” Eliza agreed, and handed him the pan to empty.
Jess went out with it, trying the tune over. “Tum-te-tum-te-tum. I can’t name it,” he said when he came back, “ but it runs in my mind I know it.”
“Thee knows it, Jess, never fear,” Eliza said. She took the empty pan from him, her wedding ring making one more musical note.