The Buried Leaf
by JESSAMYN WEST
MATTIE was sitting on the upping block, murmuring, she thought. “Muttering” was what Labe called it, passing by. “Talking to herself, poor child,” her mother noted while going to the springhouse on an errand for supper which Mattie should have run. “Playing possum” was Josh’s opinion as he drove to the field for a last load of clover. Only Little Jess, hunting eggs with side trips pretty far afield, gave her no thought. He didn’t see her. She was a part of his landscape — African at the moment — and the sounds she made were animal — tiger or rhinoceros as the fortunes of stalking demanded.
It was an in-between time: afternoon bygone, night not yet come; neither summer nor fall. Leaves had had a six months’ term, but still they hung, dusty and frayed, to the trees. Blooming was past, though. A rose that very morning, round and firm to the eye as an apple, dropped its petals at Mattie’s feet as suddenly as if winter had exploded in its heart. Days began brisk — were finger-cold in the mornings, as Jess said; but by noon there was June heat and coats were a nuisance; and now, Mattie thought, lukewarm and funky, like the last cracker at the bottom of the barrel.
“‘Gladys,’” Mattie said in a soft, lingering voice. There was a flutter of yellow across the driveway in the orchard — a butterfly, Mattie supposed; but no, it was a leaf falling from the Rambo tree. “Good,” she thought. “Summer is ending.”
“ ‘Gladys,’” she murmured again, in a voice she believed to have broken accents, for it was thus he had spoken, his voice breaking on the sweet syllables of her name. “’Gladys, do not do this thing to me.’ ”
“No,” Mattie said, lifting her face to the scorned and lukewarm air, “I will not.”
Behind the barn she heard her father’s voice, quite unbroken, very strong and clear. “Piggy, piggy,” he was calling. “Here, piggy, piggy. Sooy, sooy,” he shouted, enjoying, Mattie knew, the sight of his animals fattening toward butchering time.
A man who could do that, — call to his pigs like friends, scratch them behind their ears until their pink eyes closed and with no other thought in his mind than butchering, — what could thee expect of such a person? It was horrible. “I will never eat meat again,” Mattie decided instantly. “Pork, anyway,” she amended, thinking twice.
“Hey, piggy, piggy, piggy,” her father called.
“And he won’t let me change my name to Gladys.” A pig killer and quibbling about a name. Mattie clenched her hand until her short nails hurt her palm to help her to remember that her father was an unfair man. “Thy own father,” she told herself, for she was easygoing and believed she forgave too quickly. She intended to forgive. Not to do so would be unChristian; but she did not intend to do so soon, nor to forget how much she had to forgive.
“Batty,” she said dispiritedly. “Catty. Fatty,” she wailed after a little pause, and then, as if really suffering, “Ratty.” Except for those who were used to her name, that was how “Mattie” sounded — and what it might as well have been. “Tatty,” she said with disgust.
Little Jess, eggs delivered to the house, paused beside the upping block. He had left Africa and needed company. “ What’s thee talking to thyself for?” he asked.
“I’m not,” Mattie said.
“Who’s thee talking to, then?” he asked, peering about like an old man with failing sight.
“Thee looks simple-minded doing that,” Mattie said tartly. “Staring at the empty space. A stranger passing by’d think thee was crazy.”
“He’d think it run in the family, then,” Little Jess told her promptly. “Thee talking to thyself.”
“I was talking for anyone to hear. Anyone who wanted to. It’s not my fault nobody wants to hear me.”
“Other people,” Little Jess said, “are working.”
“What’s thee doing?” Mattie asked. “Thee don’t look very busy to me. Carrying a pick around don’t make thee a worker.”
“I’m going to dig,” Little Jess said.
“Dig a hole,” Mattie said. “That’ll be a great help. Catch rain water. Break horses’ legs. Undermine things.”
Little Jess was undisturbed. “Who said dig a hole? I’m going to unearth something in the ruins.”
The “ruins” was what Little Jess called the cellar, which, since the log house had burned at the beginning of summer, still stood, unfilled, beyond the carriage house.
“ I had a dream last night,” Little Jess told her, but would say no more, hastening off, pick across one shoulder like a man late for work and with no time to spare.
Mattie believed in dreams — at least in her own dreams; but she had scant faith in anything Little Jess might do in that line. What would he dream of finding? Money, she supposed, or a buried map, or even a skeleton; some far-fetched pirate dream. What would she dream of finding? A ring, a heartshaped brooch, “Thine” engraved upon it, and a lock of crisp hair curling inside. What would Little Jess find? A button maybe, a tarnished spoon, or the handle from some broken cup.
Since she could remember, the log house had been used as a store place, filled with sacks of grain, old furniture, unused gear, boxes of keepsakes; but before the “big white house” had been built, it had been “the little white house,” raised by her grandparents in the days when trees had to be felled to make a clearing in which it could stand. Two rooms, a loft, and a lean-to were the whole of it, but Mattie had heard her grandmother speak of it with pride, a show place in the woods, whitewashed, with puncheon floors, sound chinking, a clapboard roof overhead, and a dry cellar beneath.
Mattie would see it as her grandmother spoke: there in the great dark woods, the small house with red honeysuckle at the door and morning-glories laced through the snake fences. A stranger coming upon it, her grandmother said, could not believe his eyes, and would sniff the honeysuckle and pat the whitewashed logs, as if to make sure his three-day fever hadn’t returned to make him imagine the house and its flowers.
THE thuds of Little Jess’s pick, few at first and far between, — his dream telling him, Mattie guessed, not only to dig, but to dig easy, — were quickening as if he had come upon a toe of the skeleton or a coin from the treasure. Mattie slid from the upping block and, without seeming to hurry, yet moved with speed enough to fan the lukewarm air into some freshness about her face. On the rim of the ruins she paused and watched Little Jess probing into the gray, deadlooking earth of the cellar. He had scratched here and there but was now sticking to one spot, not swinging his pick but prying with it.
“Thee coming to something, Little Jess?” she asked.
Little Jess’s freckles were shining with sweat, the effort to combine speed with care telling on him. “Just a hole for rain water,” he said. But Mattie could hear as well as Little Jess the strange hollow sound his pick made against the earth, and she jumped into the cellar.
“Give it to me,” she said taking hold of the pick. “I’m stronger.”
“Thee hold thy taters,” Little Jess said. “Strength ain’t needed now.”
Mattie dropped to her knees, and though the touch of the dry, gritty earth shivered nerves as distant as her teeth, she lifted away handfuls Little Jess had loosened. “There’s something here,” she said. “A stone maybe, but not more dirt.” Scrabbling, prizing, she was coming to something. “Did thee really dream to dig here, Little Jess?”
“No,” said Little Jess, full of confidence as always, “down by the branch is what I dreamed, but this seemed likelier.”
“Here,” said Mattie, tossing dirt to each side, “here it is. Here’s something, anyway.”
Both scraping, both lifting, they got it out, and both held it as if its weight might be too great for one person, though what they held was only a small box, book-shaped, weathered and earth-colored but still solid, unrotted, and firm; each glad the other was there, so that he could say when questioned, “It’s just the way I’m telling thee. Mattie (or Little Jess) was watching when I dug it out.”
Little Jess stared with round eyes, humbled by his own powers. “It was put here,” he said. “Buried on purpose, not lost. No telling what.
“Pa!” he cried with great urgency. “Pa! Come quick. Hurry.”
“Pa!” Mattie screamed in a voice which spoke no longer to herself alone, but asked a whole township to harken. “Pa! Hurry, hurry.”
Jess, feeding pigs, dropped a full bucket and ran. A copperhead snake was his first thought; then, locating the source of the noise, he said, “Fallen into the old cellar. Backs and legs broken. A judgment on me for not filling it.”
On the rim of the cellar he paused. “Is thee hurt?“ he asked first one, then the other. Then, seeing so much noise could not come from anyone seriously harmed, he said, “Hush that yippering, Mattie. Thee’ll wake the dead — rouse the neighbors.”
Mattie hushed and Little Jess held up the box. “We unearthed it, Pa. I dreamed to dig, and here it is.”
“Thee dig that out of the cellar?" Jess asked.
“Right here,” said Little Jess, lifting the loosened dirt with his toes.
Jess leaped down into the cellar, took the box, turned it round and round. “An old-timer,” he said. “A box of the kind they used to carry maps and deeds in. A place of safekeeping for things they treasured.”
“Open it! Open it!” Mattie was saying to herself, but her father fondled the box as gently as if it had life, turning it slowly from side to side.
“Call thy mother,” he told Little Jess. “Call the boys. This is no happenchance. This is something buried a-purpose for our later having. Something set in the earth with foresight.”
“Don’t screech,” he commanded, as Little Jess sped, screeching, toward the house. “Don’t frighten thy mother out of her pleasure.”
“What’s thee think it is, Father?” Mattie asked. “Money?”
“Not money,” Jess said. “The little they had them days was needed.”
“Letters?” Mattie asked. “Love letters,” she said before thinking, but her father took no note of it.
“Why, yes,” he said. “Letters, it could be, though not many. This is mighty light.” He tapped the box. “Has an empty sound.”
“Oh, Pa!” said Mattie. “Who’d bury an empty box?”
“A man might,” Jess said. “In those days a man might do so. Times was hard enough them days to make a man do strange things.”
“Hard,” Mattie repeated.
“Thee don’t think this grew?” Jess asked, nodding toward the farm and all its paraphernalia. “Buildings sprout like toadstools, and seeds plant themselves? Trees die away without being deadened and windmills rise up and flap? No,” Jess said, turning the box like a wonder in his hands, “this could be empty, set here by a man, his mind touched by work without end.”
He tried the little catch on the box and moved it, Mattie could see. “I ain’t so far from those days not to know a man plowed the earth then with his heart as well as his hands. It ain’t always been ingrain carpets and celery vases, Mattie, and thee’s not to forget it.” He moved the catch again.
Mattie, watching, said, (his time out loud, “Open it.” But her father answered, “We’ll wait for thy mother and the boys.”
When they were all about him, standing where the first house in all that stretch of virgin forest had once stood, Eliza looking solemn, Labe and Josh with their hands in their pockets to keep them from the temptation of helping their father in his slow opening, Jess moved the catch, lifted the lid from the buried box. Mattie tried hard to see reflected in her father’s face whatever it was he bent his gaze so steadily upon; but there was nothing to be read there except calm pleasure.
Jess lifted from the box a little roll, something wrapped close about in oiled silk or waxed cloth. Then, handing the box to Eliza, he unwound the cloth.
“A leaf,” he told them. “A buried leaf. A page from the Bible.” And putting it between his hands, he smoothed it slowly and carefully flat.
A leaf from the Bible, Mattie thought. Who’d want to bury that? A book they all had. Bibles for each person in the house and copies to spare for strangers. Mattie hoped she wasn’t going to cry. A brooch, a lock of hair, a heart, engraved; now nothing but a buried leaf: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, Jacob begot Joseph. What kind of treasure was that? But her father was saying in a joyous voice, “Fifty years this has lain beneath our feet. Half a century.”
He held the page low so that all might see t he faded writing on the margin. "’Laid here on the twelfth of August by Jordan Birdwell, aged 74.’ Well, well,” said Jess, “thy great-uncle Jerd. Signed his name and age and set it in the ground. Left it as a legacy for us to come.”
What kind of legacy was that, Mattie asked, looking upward out of the cellar where, against the darkening sky, swallows were hunting their supper. A page fallen from some old Bible, set in the earth like a seed.
“Light the trash heap, boys,” Jess said. “ Build us up a bonfire. Bring down a seat for thy mother. Let’s celebrate a little. Let’s have a look at what we’ve heired.”
THE boys lit the trash heap in a corner of the cellar; they ranged the makeshift seals about the fire. Only Mattie stayed aloof, not sitting in the circle with the others, watching her father as he stood feasting his eyes upon the page he held.
“Old Jordan Birdwell,” he told them in a voice that sounded as if he were recounting a miracle. “Thy great-uncle Jerd. When the Friends in South Carolina came to see they’d hit upon a poor unfertile spot, they moved westward, all of a body. Sold their farms and set forth in a wagon train together. Thy uncle Jerd was taken sick on the day of leaving, he a widower with one unmarried daughter. The wagon train waited two days and he worsened, so there was naught for it, the season growing late, but to leave him behind.”
“Alone,” Little Jess asked, “without a home?”
“Why, no,” Jess said, “his daughter caring for him, and well lodged with neighbors. Well taken care of, only sorrowing at being left behind.”
“Did he die?” asked Little Jess.
“Die!” Josh rebuked his brother. “How’d he bury this page if he died?”
“No,” Jess said, “he didn’t die. By spring he was fluting and flying again, sprightly as ever. Anxious to be heading west. And head west he did, he and his daughter aged sixteen.”
Mattie moved nearer the lire. She leaned against the box her mother sat on. “They said he’d never make it. One old man, one girl. A team of middlin’ oxen, a second-rate wagon, and a fair to middlin’ saddle horse. Leaving South Carolina they was bid good-byes like they’s heading for a graveyard. They was baptized with tears and parted from as if the next meeting place would be Beulah Land.”
“Was there Indians?” Little Jess asked.
“Not Indians,” Jess said, “ but every other let and hindrance. Swamps, ague, broken axles, meal turned bad, fords washed out, unmarked crossings, torrential downpours. And the forest so thick them days it was like traveling in a cave.”
Mattie saw it all, her father’s words making pictures that opened one into another like rooms giving onto rooms beyond. The fire of trash burning in the cellar became for her the fire of this girl one year older than herself, burning at night in the unending forest, only it between her and whatever animals — or Indians, unseen—lurked in the deep shadows. She moved nearer the fire and looked back across her shoulder, but there was only lessening light and the familiar outlines against the streaked sky: house and windmill, sheds and barn. Buildings, she reminded herself, that had not sprouted.
“It’d rain all day,” Jess said, “and they’d be soaked to the skin, the old man and his daughter, and at night the wood so wet they’d be hard put to coax a blaze.”
Mattie could feel her dress, cold and wet, cling to her, and could see the fire die down to a heat less steaming.
“Thy uncle Jerd was at all times a high-flyer, paying no heed to his years. Following a deer, he went head foremost over a log and tore something loose in his leg, so he was wagon-bound for the rest of the trip.”
“How’d they make out for food?” Labe asked. “Meal gone bad, Uncle Jerd laid up?”
“The girl,” Jess said, “thy cousin Mattie, turned out a prime shot. Kept fresh meat on hand and didn’t break her leg in doing so.”
Mattie listened, came nearer, settled onto a corner of her mother’s upturned box. She held one hand toward the fire and looked about the circle of faces: her father standing, holding the buried leaf; the others seated, looking upward as he spoke — Little Jess winding his fingers through his red hair, eyes shining; Josh dark and serious; Labe’s round face smiling; her mother gazing up at Jess as if she’d never heard such fine words as those he spoke.
Overhead the sky had faded to a cold, gray green, and three large birds flew swiftly across it, silent now, no longer hunting, bound for their night’s resting place. “Thy cousin Mattie” — the girl’s name had been Mattie.
“Well,” her father said, “they made it. Man and beast they made it, pulled in when all hope had been given up — they and another wagon they’d met up with.” He smoothed the page he held in his hand. “And when they come to build the house that stood iiere, I can see just how it was. Thy uncle wanted to make a kind of offering — say a kind of thank-you to the Lord for leadin’ them, and make a prayer for this house.”
“What’d he bury, Jess?” Eliza asked. “What page did he choose?”
“Couldn’t have chosen a fitter,” Jess said heartily. “Kind of flighty old fellow, I’ve always heard, but wise-hearted. A better heritage than a farm,” he told them, his eyes running along the page. “I’d rather unearth this in my back yard than spade up a crockful of rubies.”
“Read it, Jess,” Eliza said. “We can’t see it, the way thee can. Read it out to us.”
Jess’s eyes followed the lines. The fire the boys had lit was burning low, but there was still enough light to read by. “This is what he left for us — what he picked out for us to read,” he said. “‘And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand,’ ” he read in a strong and proud voice, “‘and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders: And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey.’
“Yes, yes,” Jess said, “even then, even in the wilderness, the old man saw how it was to be. Laid this leaf in the earth as a remembrance of what’d been done for us and given to us.”
“Read on,” bade Eliza. “It’s like the dead speaking to us.”
“’Look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven,’” Jess read, “’and bless thy people Israel, and the land which thou hast given us, as thou swarest unto our fathers, a land that floweth with milk and honey.’ There’s more,” he said, “there’s more.” But he seemed not inclined to read further, looking down for a spell into the embers.
THE fire had sunk now and coldness seemed to be gathering in the cellar, as it will in low places. There was a rustling of dry leaves in the gum. tree, and the wind, newly sprung up, sent a few leaves over the edge of the cellar and one into the dying fire, where it burned suddenly, lighting all their faces. “Fall has come,” Mattie thought. “It is here. It came while Pa was reading.” Then, not thinking of Greatuncle Jerd or the Bible, she asked, “The girl — what became of the girl? Did she take care of her father — be an old maid?”
Jess blew his nose. “Wind coming up blows the smoke in my face,” he told them. He handed the buried leaf and its wrapping to Josh. “Thee handle this carefully,” he said. “ It’s precious. Thee’ll never happen on anything more valuable.” Then he turned to Mattie. “Most juberous lot of young’uns I got. I declare, I don’t know where they get it. ‘Did he die?’ says Little Jess. ‘Was she an old maid?’ says thee. Far from it, far from it,” he said. “Married Seth Jenkins, the driver of the second wagon — and a blade he was, too. Married out of the church, a non-Quaker, but later Seth seen the light, was a Friend by conviction. Married right here, in this house, on her seventeenth birthday and headed west next day.”
In this house, on the floor boards that had rested overhead, this girl who had come overland, driving the oxen . . . bone wet . . . bringing in the meat . . . fording the streams . . .
“She was of a dark turn,” Jess said, “chunky, but handsome to look at, I always heard.”
She had met this driver, this blade, Seth Jenkins. “Mattie,” he had said. “Mattie,” he had whispered. What had he said then, what further words, this blade, this traveler, a reckless man?
“This Seth Jenkins could hold a pole, I’ve always heard tell,” Jess said, “a hand at either end, and leap backwards and forwards over it twenty-five times without breathing hard.”
Had they stood, after the wedding, on the doorstep, Seth and Mattie? Was the honeysuckle planted yet — did the bleeding hearts run then, as her grandmother had told her, in a double line to the lane? Did they walk between them for a last look at the stars overhead? Seth and Mattie . . .
“Young people,” Jess said, “deep in love, they headed west next morning.”
Mattie rose from the box where she sat with her mother; she ran quickly round the last embers of the fire and took her father’s hand in both of hers. “Oh, Pa,” she said, “I do forgive thee. With all my heart I do.” Then she flashed up the cellar steps and was only a gray blur, speeding toward the house in the dark.
Jess gazed after her in astonishment. He looked down at Eliza for explanation. “What’s come over the girl?” he asked. “What’s she forgiving me for? Thy daughter addled?” he asked.
Eliza, too, arose, faced Jess, and smiled. “It’s just her Birdwell blood, I don’t misdoubt. Just her flighty Birdwell blood,” she said. Then she followed Mattie toward the house, walking quickly at first, then slowing her steps, so that Jess had no trouble overtaking her.
The three boys, left alone, sat for a time looking at the last of the coals. Then Little Jess took up his pick and, going to another corner of the cellar, began once more to dig. “Might be lots of things buried here,” he said.
Josh stirred the gray embers with the toe of his boot. “Fifty years ago, they headed west,” he said. “And we still here. Sitting in a cellar they dug.”
Labe threw a handful of twigs onto the dying fire. They caught and blazed so that finger-shaped points of light wavered uncertainly across the dark floor of earth, almost but not quite reaching him. “‘Look down from thy holy habitation and bless thy people.’” He wrapped the buried leaf, once more, with its covering. “This is a thing I’d like always to keep,” he said to Josh — or Little Jess — or anyone who cared to listen.