Monday, February 20, 2012
Ptarmigan Feathers (Part Two)
Ever since he had left the old country and came to America, all those many years later, now when he was an old,old man, Johnny could only remember three things. The dark, and the cold and the hunger. They were the only memories he had. He knew it couldn't always have been like that. In the four years that his father had been gone there had to have been warm, sunny, light filled days. There had to have been days when they had food to eat, fresh vegetables from the garden, summer berries, sometimes some meat, but he could not remember them. All he could dredge up from those years were the dark and the cold and the hunger. When his children had grown up and gone off on their own, they had asked him if he wouldn't like to make a trip back his old home. Johnny had shuddered. There were no good memories. There was nothing for him to go back to. It was kind of them to think of him, but he had no wish for such a thing.
America had been good to him. He had been able to give his own sons the happy carefree childhood that he himself had not had. That was the one thing he had wanted for his children. The thing he had worked so hard for. Sometimes his old memories would come back and plague him. His dreams would be full of the awfulness of those four long years. Sometimes he thought if he could just sit there and close his eyes and live that time all over again, those days would fade away and give him some peace.
At first when his father had gone off to America, it had been exciting. They knew they would hear from him soon. The mail would bring a big fat letter, and the tickets would be enclosed. The tickets that would get them on a ship, and they would all set off to that land of plenty. A lot of the men had already gone. They had gone to America, and before long the whole family had followed. Those that were left were envious, and hoped and prayed that their own fathers might also take this chance.
Johnny was fourteen that spring. How proud and responsible he felt when father had taken him out to the barn and gravely told him that now he would have to be he man of the family. It would be up to him to see that mother had full wood boxes. That the cow would be milked, that the animals would be fed and cared for. That his sister Lainey was safe. Father had said that his best friend, Jonas, would help them out and anything that came up that he wasn't sure about, he should go to Jonas for advice. It was with great pride then, that Johnny had watched his father walk off into the sunset, heading for town and from there to the sea, where he would set off on his journey.
The summer went by. The garden had not done well. The cow was dry. Johnny worked for Jonas making hay, but the dry weather made for a sparse and stingy crop. The winter set in early and froze the land and the water. The snow fell heavy and fast. Every day was worse than the one before. The wood pile was dwindling. Mother scrimped on the fires and the house was cold. They wore as many clothes as they could, to try to stay warm. Most times,he could not walk to town. His boots had holes in them and he wore one of his fathers old jackets, because his had gotten too small. The vegetables were almost gone from the cellar, the flour bin was beginning to look rather empty. Still they had not heard from father.Mother went around with a closed look on her face. A look that said "Don't ask any questions". He could hear Lainey crying in the night.
Johnny felt helpless and tried his hardest to make things go easier. He rigged up some snares to catch ptarmigan out in the hills. When he caught some, Lainey would pluck them clean and mother would make a warm stew. Lainey was saving the feathers to stuff a quilt. She longed for warmth, anything warm, she would say. One night after he had already fallen asleep, Johnny heard a knock on the door. He sat up, listening to hear if mother would answer. He heard the door open and mothers voice, and Jonas's . They went into the kichen and he could hear the murmur of their voices, but he could not catch what they were saying. He lay there listening until he heard Jonas go out the door. Then he waited to hear mother go back to bed, but she stayed in the kitchen. He couldn't hear a sound, so he finally crept out of bed and tiptoed to the kitchen. A candle sputtered on the table, almost ready to burn its self out. The fire had died down to ashes in the stove. His mother was motionless, her head in her arms on the table. Johnny touched his mothers shoulder, gently. "What's wrong, mother?" he asked. "You should go to bed and warm up." His mother looked at him with unseeing eyes. They were full of unshed tears, "Has something happened to father?" She shook her head, but didn't move. "Don't worry about it"was all that she said. She put her head back down on the table, as if he wasn't there at all.
The next morning, Johnny went over to Jonas' as soon as he could. He found him out in the barn. Johnny could see the tenseness in his face and in the way he gripped the pitch fork that he was holding. He knew that things were hard for Jonas and Milly, too. They never had any children, but that didn't help keep the wolf any farther from the door than anywhere else. He hated to bother him with any more problems, but he had to know why mother was so sad. "Please, Jonas, I need to know what you said to my mother last night. She won't talk, but something is really troubling her." Johnny stood waiting for an answer. Jonas stood without moving for the briefest moment. Then he turned and looked at Johnny sadly."I have had a letter from my brother in America, John. He says your father has gotten in with some friends who are not so good. He has been drinking and living a very rough life.That is why he has not sent any money to help you over here. People have tried to talk to him, but it hasn't seemed to do any good. I'm sorry, Johnny. I wish you didn't have to know this."
Johnny hung his head with the weight of those words. He felt angry and betrayed. How could his father be doing this awful thing? Anger boiled up in his throat like a physical thing. Now what? He clenched his fists. He wished he could go find him, and pound the daylights out of him. Thoughts rolled around through his mind like sharp stones. Stones with ragged edges that scoured his head and his heart. Jonas put his hand on Johnnys shoulder. "He was my friend, Johnny, " was all that he said.Then he turned and went into hs house.
Johnny took off, walking swiftly across the pasture and in to the hills and the wood lands. He wished he could walk fast enough to leave his thoughts behind. But it was impossible. His thoughts came right along with him. They even seemed to run on ahead of him. He not only couldn't run away from them, he just ran right up to them. He slowed down the pace. He stood on top of a small hill, where he could see the countryside around him. He felt invigorated and strong. I cannot change what is, he thought, but I can change the way I was thinking back there in the barn. He didn't want to be like mother, who had closed herself off from sunshine and kindness. And, anyway, for Laineys sake he needed to be wise and strong. Jonny headed back home, stopping to check his snares. Maybe a nice meal would cheer them all up.
. So, another year was passing without any letter from father. Mothers looks had even changed. Her dark eyes looked slanted in her thin, thin, face. They held a wild exotic gypsy gaze, as if her mind was brittle and far away. Her cheekbones were high in her gaunt face. She tied her hair back in a severe little bundle. She never went anywhere any more. Of course, she had no decent clothes to wear. None of them did, so they didn't go to church or school. She didn't even go over to Jonas and Millys any more, where she used to go every day. If anyone came over she wouldn't go to the door. Johnny supposed she thought they were all gossiping abut the news of father.It was natural that they would. There wasn't much else exciting to talk about.
At first Lainey had gone to the post office every day. At ten years old she waited happily to get a letter. But as time went on without one , she went less frequently, although she still bounced in happily with her lopsided smile and her gay laughter. Sometimes, once a month or so, there would be a letter from mothers sister, Margrit. Lainey would skip home with it, under the illusion that it was something that would make mother happy. At first mother would read the letters, then silently get up and put them in the stove. That they knew of , she had never answered them ,like she always had when father was still at home.
Now, after the ugly news about father, she didn't even open them. Did she think Margrit was writing something awful, that she couldn't bear to read? One day when Johnny and Lainey were out harvesting their meager garden, Lainey told him that she was going to write Aunt Margrit a letter and tell her what was going on. She went over to Jonas and Millys to get some paper. Milly helped her out, even finding her an envelope and she had even taken it to town and mailed it for them. After that about once a month a package would come from Magrit, with hand-me-downs from her family . Mother never said anything about it, but the joy in Laineys face over the warm things was worth whatever feelings mother might have about it.
The second winter somehow passed. You could get used to the darkness. They had nothing for light, so they hurried to get everything done in the brief, gray daylight. You could sort of get used to the cold, moving around as much as possible and thinking warm thoughts. But you could not get used to the hunger. It gnawed and ached inside of you when woke up in the morning and when you went to bed at night. It gnawed and ached inside of you all through the day and even at night when you were sleeping. It was there. Sometimes Johnny was so hungry he felt too weak to chop the hole in the ice to get water. Then he would think hard about his father and that would make him angry so he could swing his axe and get water and peace at the same time.
On the coldest days, they would wrap up and sit near the window to make the most of the daylight. Lainey would sew on her Quilt. During the summer she had done some work for someone and had gotten paid in fabric. She would sit in the pale winter light , her blonde head bent over her sewing. Her needle would flash in and out. Sometimes she would prick her finger. Johnny would watch her out of the corner of his eye and see her quickly put her finger in her mouth before the little drop of blood could fall on her precious fabric. He knew he would always carry that picture of her in his mind. Sometimes, she would look up and laugh her sparkly little laugh, and say, "You know, Johnny, if it wasn't so dark and cold, and I wasn't so hungry, this wouldn't be so bad at all." Then they would laugh together, Sometimes they would laugh till tears came, just because it so rediculous, and so very, very true.
Another long year went dragging by. Still there was no word from father. Still only the same bad news came from other letters. Johnny and Lainey were used to the silence of their mother by now. They went about doing the things that needed to be done. The things that mother should be doing. The things that mother somehow did not have the strength of body or mind to do. They so seldom heard her voice, that they were startled that one August day, when she came into the kitchen dressed in a clean green dress that Aunt Margrit had sent. It had come months ago already, but she had never worn it. Now, her hair was brushed and tied back with a brown scarf. She had taken a deep breath. "I'm going to take a walk" she had said. Johnny and Lainey had looked at each other in disbelief. They stood at the door and watched her walk on up the path and out of sight. She seemed like some strange ad colorful bird that had just been let out of a cage, unsure of how to go about it, because it had not used its wings for so long.
When mother came back, she seemed more at peace. She whistled softly while she made supper, just like she used to do , so long ago, before things had fallen apart. Mother still didn't talk much at all, but she went walking every day and she whistled old familiar tunes as she flitted about the kitchen. The sun and the wind had painted a little color back into her cheeks. Once or twice she had walked over the forgotten path to Jonas and Millys'.If only the summer would stay longer, thought Johnny. He was afraid that when winter came things would go backwards again.
Jonas had told Johnny that he was finalizing plans to leave for America. It gave Johnny a scary feeling to think about not having them nearby. He was almost eighteen now, so he supposed he could carry off being the man of the house, all on his own. Often now at night he would hear Jonas came and sit talking in the kitchen with mother. He would fall asleep to the comforting sound of their voices murmuring in the darkness. He felt good that mother was actually carrying on a conversation with someone. He supposed that Jonas was telling her things about how to go on when he and Milly left. Hopefully, they were planning for Jonas to find father and get things straightened out.
Jonas and Milly left in September. It was one of those beautiful fall days, when you could not help but feel that this world was good.You really could not think that soon you would be shivering and starving. It was one of those days that Johnny should have remembered when he was old, and he thought about the old country. He should have been able to feel the brightness and beauty of that day, even when he was an old, old man. He could not bring it back, though. Jonas had gravely shook his hand, no longer a man saying goodbye to a boy, but as a man to a man. Milly brushed a wisp of Laineys golden hair, and kissed her tear streaked face. Jonas looked at mother. He did not say anything. He just looked at her for a long moment, as though he wanted to remember her face forever. Johnny pondered that look in his young mans heart for a long time. When he was an old man, he could still conjore up that look, and feel his eyes grow wet with tears.
As winter came inevitably on, Mother seemed ill. Sometimes she was really sick. Johnny didn't know what to do. He could see her sliding back into her closed in walls. He wondered if he should say anything about it to Lainey, but he didn't want to worry her. One day when the two of them were out shoveling the path to the outhouse, Lainey looked up from her shovel. "Johnny," she said, " I think mothers going to have a baby." She immediately went back to her vigorous shoveling. Everything Lainey did, she did vigorously, whether it was work, or play, or talking or laughing, or crying. Johnny was so stunned he didn't know what to say. How would a thirteen year old girl know that? Were girls born knowing these kind of things? "But, how...what.." Johnny was at a loss. Lainey shrugged, "I'm sure really. There's nothing else. I'm sure though, that she didn't tell Jonas."
"Jonas!" Johnny was shocked. "But how... what... Oh! How could he? How could they? Now what will we ever do?" The words were full of anguish. Johnny felt the anger rising up inside of him. This was worse than hearing about father drinking and carousing and forgetting about his family. This was a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, and the gorge rose up in his throat. He thought he was going to throw up. "I can't think about it, Lainey," he said." I can't believe they would both betray us like this. Just leave us and never look back!" Laine put her hand on his arm. He shook it off roughly. "You can't make me feel better about this" he shouted. "No. No matter what you say."
"I know,Johnny," Lainey said quietly. "It's just another burden for you to take on your shoulders. But we can't change things anymore. We'll just have to do what needs to be done".She was looking away from him, giving him space to collect his thoughts, just as Jonas had done when he had told him about his father. Johnny wanted to be angry with her, too. Why did she have to be so wise and right about it? She was supposed to be the little sister who looked to him for advice, not giving it. Johnny threw his shovel down and stalked towards the barn. Lainey watched him take down his skis and strap them on. She picked up her shovel full of snow and flung it on top of the snow bank. Well, she had had time to think about all this and assimilate it already. She knew it had taken Johnny completely by surprise. She really was frightened. What would they do? She surely didn't know anything about babies being born, or taking care of them afterwards. If mothers mental state was bad before, what would it be like now? When she closed them all out, it was like feeling your way around in the dark, trying to find your way, when you didn't even know where you were trying to go.
Lainey looked up at the snow leaden sky. "Please God." she shouted out loud, to the freezing winter afternoon. "Please, just show me what to do, because I do not have a clue. And I don't think Johnny does, either." Lainey felt better after that. She knew Johnny would, too, when he came back from the snowy hills. Maybe he would have a ptarmigan in one of his snares, and they could have a good supper.
Now Lainey worked tirelessly on her quilt every spare minute of daylight. A new baby would need a warm blanket. As soon as she had a large enough piece for a babies blanket, she sewed three sides together and filled it with her stash of feathers. She sewed up the fourth side and sat there with the blanket over her knees. She examined it critically. In spite of poor light and cold hands and rough fingers and her overwhelming sense of hurry, the thing wasn't so bad. Of course a new baby should have some nice, new, soft things to welcome it into the world. A new baby should have all kinds of small sweet things, lovingly made by its mothers own hands.What was to become of this baby? If it were to survive its mothers womb, the mother who was cold and hungry and whose mind was taken over by darkness? Lainey sighed, from deep down within her young soul. She knew it was no use wishing for things that never could be, but sometimes, life as hard to bear.
"You know, Johnny," she said suddenly, looking up from the blanket on her lap. Johnny was whittling a new broom handle. He glanced up. "If it wasn't so dark, and I wasn't so cold and hungry, this wouldn't really be so bad" She laughed her silvery laugh. Johnny looked down at the piece of wood in his hands. "Even if it wasn't so dark and I wasn't so cold and hungry, this would still be pretty bad." He laughed, too, but it was a hard, brittle laugh, one that Lainey had never heard before.
They both covertly watched mother when she came out of her room and sat with them. Lainey would always go to her door and say "Come have something to eat mother." They only ate one meal a day, because that was all they could do if they wanted their meager supplies to last through the winter. They saw how thin and frail their mother looked and the growing swell of her stomach. They tried not to look at it too obviously,but it was hard not to. Lainey had not written about this to Aunt Margrit. Somehow it seemed too secret, too shameful,too sad, too unfair. It seemed that to write the thing down on paper and send it over land and sea, where who knew who would read it or hear about it, would be betraying mother.
Lainey had asked God to give her forgiveness toward mother and father and Jonas. She felt she could not go through too many days with that angry, hateful feeling in her chest. It ruined her ability to enjoy what she could of the days and to enjoy snuggling into her covers at night. It ruined her ability to sleep soundly in the delicious warmth of them, once her body heat had warmed them up. Gradually peace had crept through her being, once she had flung all her wrath and sorrow upwards to God, and had asked Him to deal with them. She didn't have the strength to do it. Now that the blanket was done, Lainey had fabric left, so she worked on a pillow to match. It was fluffy with feathers, and she gave it to mother, hoping it would give her restful sleep in the long nights.
Winter gave up at last and spring came joyfully across the countryside. Mother looked sick and tired, and unwieldy. Lainey wished she would open up and talk to them. After all, she was their mother. They loved her, no matter what. They, of all people, knew what she had gone through all these years. They desperately wanted to help her. Finally one day Lainey could stand it no longer. "Mother," she asked, "what shall I do when it's time for the baby to come? Shall I let Rachel the midwife know to be waiting for us to get her?"
Mother looked up at Lainey quickly, and then looked down again. Two tears slid down her hollow cheeks. "No!" It was vehement. "No. You must never talk to anyone about this. What I have done was wicked. No one will want to to help such wickedness. No one can help me." Then she sunk back into her chair and went back to her brooding thoughts. Lainey was shocked. She didn't know what to do or say. "But, Mother, you always told us that our sins can be forgiven. You told us how Jesus was born and died for sinners. How can you talk like that?" "No, Lainey, do not talk about it anymore", mother whispered. "But, please, mother, what will I do?"Lainey felt despair seeping over her. "I can't help you deliver a baby. I don't know the first thing about it."
Mother turned away from her and sat staring out the window. Lainey went and sat down on the doorstep, letting the sun warm her face. There they sat, back to back, two people, so close together, yet so far apart. I guess I won't worry about it, thought Lainey. It doesn't do any good and there's nothing I can do about it anyway.
One day, mother did not get up in the morning. "I think it will be today, Johnny," Lainey said while they ate breakfast. Johnny had gotten some eggs and Aunt Magrits money had boughten them some flour and yeast. Lainey had made some raised bread, and picked some wild strawberries. It felt like a celebration, with such good food sitting before them on the table.They both started when they heard a low moan from mothers room. Johnny looked around wildly. "What shall I do?" he asked. He wanted so badly to bolt from the house and disappear. Another moan trembled in the air.
"Get me some water, "Lainey said, stoking up the stove. "Then go far away from here and do something to keep busy." "But I feel bad leaving you alone with her..." "Just go," she said, softening her words with a shaky smile. Johnny turned and ran down the path toward Milly and Jonas's. Why he chose there, he never knew. His feet just had fled there of their own accord. Lainey looked after him longingly. If only she could run off after him and leave that awful sound behind. It would serve them right, she thought, if she did. She shouldn't have to be responsible for these grown up mistakes. But she turned her back from the sunshine and the clean fresh morning air and went to her mother.
Mother had her face turned to the wall. She was breathing hard and clenching her fists into the sheet. Lainey sat beside her. It seemed hours, or days maybe, that she had been sitting there, though she knew it couldn't really have been that long. When mother was quiet, she would wipe her face with a cool cloth and rub her hands. When mother cried out, she tried to shut out the sound, thinking of anything but what was happening . The angry feelings came back. Lainey was clenching her fists, too. Where are the people that did this to you? Why aren't they here helping you? Her mind was shouting. She felt very helpless and very frightened. At the end, mother had made no sound. She silently put all her strength into pushing out the baby. She even told Lainey how to cut the cord, and pick the baby up. The tiny little boy let out a thin, reedy wail. Lainey felt her heart melting. She wrapped him up in an old shirt, and handed him to mother. Her mother looked frightened, as if she didn't know what to do. Lainey went about cleaning things up. The baby wailed pitiously. Mother just lay there,as if he were not there at all.
Lainey picked him up and put him against his mothers breast. He began to suck, his little fists waved and pounded on his mother. Lainey couldn't help but laugh he looked so funny. "What will we name him, mother?" she asked. "He has to have a name. We can't just call him baby. Some day he might grow up!" Mother looked at her with that frightened, pathetic look. "I don't care" she said in the loudest voice she ever used. Then she burst into tears, rocking herself and crying bitterly. Lainey covered her mother with a clean blanket. The day was warm. She took the baby and went into the kitchen. Johnny was sitting out on the step with his elbows on his knees. Lainey came out and sat beside him. Together they admired their tiny little brother. He had wispy blonde hair and his eyes were squinched shut against the glare of the sun. His face was red and blotchy. Johnny thought he was terribly ugly, but to Lainey he was simply the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She breathed a silent prayer. "Please help me take care of him. Bless his days on earth. Please make my mother get well." She glanced over at Johnny. She knew he was praying, too. "One last thing, God," she said out loud. "Please answer Johnnys prayers."
Johnny and Lainey discussed a name for the baby that night. He was like a secret child. Johnny thought he was rather like Moses,only instead of his mother hiding him from harm, his mother was hiding him from herself. Surely, Lainey was like Moses sister, who had to watch over her brother and care for him by the riverside. Lainey watched over and cared for her baby brother by his mothers bedside. She even took him to bed with her at night, carrying him to mother and putting him to her breast when he began his keening cry. Mother fed him when Lainey brought him to her, but she paid no attention to him otherwise.She never talked to him, or cuddled him or sang to him. She only looked at him with that frightened, haunted look, as if she had no idea where he had come from or why he was there.
Johnny and Lainey were working hard to get things ready for another winter. Another winter with another mouth to feed. There was no choice but to leave the baby with mother while they worked in the woods and the fields and the garden. Lainey would hear that endless crying everywhere she went. She didn't know if she was really hearing it or if she had heard it so much that it just stayed permanently in her mind. In a way it was comforting,though, that it was always in the background. If she didn't hear it for a few minutes, she would run quickly back to the house to see if he was alright. One afternoon as they were harvesting potatoes, Lainey stood up and rubbed her aching back. "Why don't we call him Seth Michal?" she asked of Johnnys bent figure across the row. "Maybe if he has a name, he won't cry so much" Johnny grinned a tight, thin grin. "It's worth a try." he said. Although, I think he's crying because he's starving. Starving for food and starving for a mothers love." Tears stung in Laineys eyes. Johnny happened to look up and he saw the heartbreak that shimmered there. He went over and hugged her, patting her back. "You do a good job of loving him, Lainey," he said. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
Lainey smiled through her tears. She knew that Johnny spoke the truth. It was just the way it was. There didn't seem to be anything that anyone could do to change it. When she had washed up and come into the house to make supper, Lainey went into mothers room. Mother and the baby were both sleeping, not touching, just side by side. The baby looked exhausted. The poor thing is exhausted from living, thought Lainey. Well, so was she sometimes, like today. Her back was aching and her hands were rough and dry from digging the crumbly earth around the potatoes. She had to remind herself that those brown lumps that she was prying from the soil would be the mealy white, warm nourishment that would sustain them through the winter. She tried to remember to be thankful for them, but she was too tired, As soon as supper was over and cleaned up she fell into bed and slept the dreamless sleep of the work weary.
"Shall we call him Seth Michal, Mother?" Lainey asked the next morning. Mother looked up at Lainey and then down at the baby. Surprisingly, she answered, almost as though she was back in her right mind. "That sounds nice," she said. She handed Seth Michal to Lainey and actually got out of bed. She walked into the kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee. Lainey held her breath, in shock. She watched mother, not quite believing what she was seeing. She wondered if she dared to ask mother if there wasn't something else she could feed Seth Michal. He really didn't seem to be getting adequate nourishment from his mother. He cried all the time when he was awake. Sometimes Lainey thought that she could not stand it anymore. She made him some thin, warm gruel and held him, trying to spoon it into his tiny mouth. Seth Michal quieted down some after that. Now, in between feedings, he lay there , small and motionless, staring at things with his shiny brown eyes.Mother was getting up now and helping out with things a little bit. She still didn't talk except for things that needed to be said about day to day living. She didn't seem to notice that Seth Michal was too quiet and unresponsive. At least she didn't appear to notice or care.
The harvest was finally done. The wood piles stood straight and clean in the wood shed. The vegetables were in the root cellar, hopefully enough to get them through until spring. Lainey sighed when she went through their clothes though, their shoes were small and the soles paper thin. She knew there were holes in Johnnys shoes. She had used all her feathers for the pillow, and for Seth Michals blanket. How were they to survive another long, cold , dark winter? Lainey would not let herself dwell on it. It was too depressing "I think I'll run to the post office" she said that afternoon. "Maybe there will be a letter from Aunt Margrit.
Johnny saw her coming back. She was walking quickly. Her shoulders were squared. She looked like she was ready to burst. As she got closer, he could see that she had a rather fat envelope in her hand. Lainey saw him watching her and she ran over to him. She was too out of breath to talk. Johnny snatched the envelope from her hand, reading it quickly. It was addressed to mother., "Elizabeth..." and it was most definitely from father. Johnny and Lainey stood looking at it as if it might suddenly bite them. Johnny wanted to take it and fling it as far as he could. Who knew what it might contain? What sadness? What words that might turn their world upside down again? He had been thinking that perhaps it would be better if they never heard from him again. If they could just get on with things the way they were with out him. What right did he have to abandon them for so long, to not care whether they lived or died, and then suddenly think he could just come back , as if none of this had ever happened?
Johnny handed the letter back to Lainey quickly, before he really tore it up and pretended that it had never come. Lainey took it gingerly and went to the house to give it to mother. A soon as she handed it to her, she picked up Seth Michal and went back outside. He was wrapped in his down blanket and he blinked at the clear, cool sunshine. Finally, Laney had to go back in to make supper. Mother was sitting at the table. The opened envelope sat in front of her. A letter lay across it and some other square pieces of paper were there, too.
"Can I read it, mother?" Lainey asked. Mother looked at her and nodded. Her face was set in harsh lines. Lainey thought that she looked old and worn. Funny that she had not noticed it before. Laney took the letter. She was almost afraid to read it. Nothing in mothers expression told her whether it contained good news or bad. She took a deep breath and began to read. Father was so very sorry for what he had done. He had had the grace to repent of his wicked ways and was now living a good clean life. The kind he should have been living all along. Now, he hoped that they could find it in their hearts to forgive him. He knew he was asking a lot of them, but if they could truely forgive him, as God had surely already done, then maybe they would be willing to come to America and start things over with a clean slate. He had sent three tickets for the ship that would sail in December, and some money so they could buy some good food, and new warm clothing and shoes and whatever supplies they would need for the journey. He was waiting anxiously to hear from them and he would be there in New York City to meet them. He had bought a nice farm in a place called Michigan. It was where Aunt Margrit and many other old friends of theirs had settled. He did not say anything about Jonas and Milly.
Lainey put the letter down. "Well, mother," she said, "that's good news, isn't it? Tomorrow you must go to town and start doing all the things father wants you to do. It's October now, so we won't have to scurry around. We can take our time to get ready to go." She really didn't know what mother was thinking or how she would react. She hoped with all her heart that this was what mother needed to get her back to her old self. She tried not to think about those three tickets. Evidently father did not know about Seth Michal. Well, hopefully there was enough money to get passage for him, too. They could just scrimp on some other things, so that they could do that. After all, hadn't they been scrimping and scrounging on everything all these years? Lainey began to hum a little tune as she began getting supper on the table.
Johnny heard her clear sweet voice burst into song as he came into the house. He had not heard Lainey sing for a long, long time. He really couldn't remember when he had last heard anyone sing. It sounded so nice. So like what it was supposed to sound like when a man came in from work, cold and hungry. So homey and comforting. So like it used to be, before all this had happened. Only, then it had been mother and Lainey singing together as they put supper on the table. Only then it had been him and father coming in to supper. It had been a boy and a man, and a girl and a woman. Where had those people gone? What had time done to them? Now he was a man himself, and Lainey, although young, had definitely become a woman before her time.
Johnny scrubbed his face and hands and came in the door. He glanced at the peaceful scene. Mother was sitting at the table. Her face was worn and blank looking. Laineys back was toward him as she took something savory smelling from the oven. Seth Michal lay bundled in his blanket, looking at them with his shiny brown eyes. His face was serious, his mouth in a straight line. Suddenly the thought came to him....What does he know, that makes him so still and quiet? What does he see, that he cannot smile at us? What things does he know, that he cannot speak, even the soft gurgling sounds of a baby? What does he feel, that he annot even cry anymore? Johnny went over and touched Seth Michals cheek. The shiny brown eyes bored into his, as if he knew what Johnny was thinking.
The fall was soft and cool that year, the winter long in coming. As they tidied up their home and got things ready to leave, a sadness seemed to fall over them. Only mother seemed almost happy now. She walked with her old quick step. She gave them orders. Like she should have been doing all along. Like they had wanted her to do for so long. Now they were so used to being on their own, that they resented it a little when she started taking over. Now she seemed to have forgotten that Seth Michl was even there. Lainey had sole care of him. It was nice to be able to have enough to eat. Mother even made bread some days. It smelled so delicious when it came out of the oven and they could eat it without worrying about saving some for later.
At last they were ready to head for the city. Mother said she would buy them clothes and shoes there. It was pitiful, the small amount of worldly possessions that they had, when it sat in a pile ready to go. Mother shut the house door for the last time and they walked down the same road father had walked down so jauntily four years before. Lainey and Johnny stopped at the corner and stood looking at the only home they had ever known. It looked so poor, and lonely and dilapidated. It seemed to already have forgotten them. A tear welled up in Laineys eye. She let it spill down her cheek. The morning sun turned it into a prism of color for one brief moment, and then it slid down and disappeared. Johnny blinked rapidly. Then they turned and walked after mother, who never looked back. Seth Michal slept in a sling over Laineys shoulder, so light of a burden that she barely knew he was there.
Elizabeth pondered the whole ride to the city. What was she to do about this child? He didn't seem like he was really hers. She had made herself believe that he was just another thing that she had to decide what to do with. Her husband did not know that she had this burden. He had asked her to forgive him for those four awful years of wrongs. It was a lot to ask of anyone. Surely he would also forgive her of this one mistake. If he had truly changed his life, he should be able to accept her and this child who seemed to have sprung from nowhere. She had somehow blocked out the golden days when she and Jonas had lived a dreamy life in the woods and the meadows,and had slept those dreamy nights out under the falling stars. She blocked out the dark, and the cold and the hunger. She blocked out the frightening day of giving birth to the baby with the thin, hungry wail. She blocked it all out, and decided to live from this moment on. She had money to buy them warm things and supplies for the journey. There had been nothing in that letter about warm clothes for a baby. Well, she couldn't buy anything for a baby, then. Once in town, Elizabeth set about resolutely, getting things for Johnny and Lainey and herself.
They stood in a group at the dock that afternoon. Johnny gazed in awe at the huge ship that they would be living in for so many days. For the first time in so long he was actually warm. He pulled his new cap down farther over his ears. He couldn't help noticing the shine of his new shoes sticking out from the hem of is wool trousers. He tried to be thankful. Lainey could not think about her new warm clothes. She still had Seth Michal in the sling, and he still wore only a shirt she had made him from one of Johnnys old ones, and the blanket that she had sewn during those cold winter days when the weak sunlight had gleamed in through the window. "Mother," she finally dared to say, "what about Seth Michal? You need to go get him some warm things."
Elizabeth looked at the baby as if it were the first time she had seen him. "Here, Lainey, give him to me. You two stay here with the trunk and I'll see what I can find." Lainey handed him over. His shiny brown eyes looked at her sadly. She kissed him, and he turned his head and looked back at her until she was out of sight.
Elizabeth had seen an Orphan Home when they had been coming into town. It would take her a while to walk all the way back there, but the ship was not leaving until the next morning, so she had plenty of time. She walked until she was tired. She stopped at a little shop and had some tea and toast, resting her feet. The new shoes were rubbing against her heels. She continued walking toward where she remembered having seen the Orphan Home. The afternoon was waning and the air was cold. Elizabeth heard the childish voices of children singing Christmas carols. She turned the corner, following the sound of the voices. She came to a schoolhouse with a small grassy place in front. There was a manger filled with hay that held a doll about the size of Seth Michal. There were two wiggly boys under a camel suit that someone had made from smooth brown cloth. A real sheep stood quietly by, letting a small girl curl up against it, sucking her thumb. A host of small angels stood in the background. They were belting out "Glory to God in the highest" when one little angel suddenly flipped over and stood on his head. Elizabeth saw the teacher smile a funny little lopsided smile that lit up her plain face. You could see that she loved the children and loved what she was doing. Elizabeth stood watching until the pageant was over. She had heard about Christmas Pageants, but she had never seen one. She liked it. She stood in the background, watching the parents gathering their children and hustling them home. The children were excited and jumped and skipped around wildly. The teacher magically got them all out of their costumes and into their own coats and hats, and handed over to the right parents. She did it all with the utmost patience and kindness, and stood there waving as the last stragglers left. "Good night, Miss Sylvie," they all called as they went their various ways.
Elizabeth watched from the shadows as the young woman pressed her back against the door jamb. She saw her close her eyes for a moment, as though she were beyond weary, but she knew she still had so many things to do before she went home. It was at that moment that Elizabeth felt in her pocket for a scrap of paper and the stub of a pencil. She scribbled hurriedly, squinting in the semi darkness. She found the pin in her pocket. She had been using it to hold her old coat shut and she had taken it off and put it in her pocket when she had put on her new warm one.
For a moment Elizabeth nestled her hands in the warmth of that pocket. It had been so long since she had had warm hands. Then she pulled herself up quickly and looked around. The teacher was looking around at the mess, thoughtful, as though she were waiting for someone or something. Elizabeth seized her chance. The note was pinned on the down blanket. She walked quickly over to the manger and placed Seth Michal in the hay. Turning swiftly, she ran across the grass. She heard her new shoes clop as they hit the hard road. She didn't turn to see if anyone had noticed her. She just calmly and purposefully walked away. Faintly she heard someone call out, "wait...come back..." but she closed her ears to the echo of the sound and hurried back down to the dock.
Johnny and Lainey, used to taking care of themselves, had found their way down to the bottom of the ship. Steerage, they were called. They found their spot and set up heir meager housekeeping, It was noisy and crowded.. Children milled about and frustrated mothers called out to try to rein them in before they got lost. Johnny went exploring to see and hear everything that was going on. Lainey made up the bunks with their new warm blankets. She placed her down pillow on her blanket, smoothing ad straightening. She put a cloth on top of an upturned box and placed the copper tea kettle and a loaf of bread on it for a cupboard. The tea kettle shimmered with its coppery glow in the lamp light. She sat on her bunk to admire the effect of it. It seemed to make everything homey and familiar.
She put patchwork quilt on top of the trunk. They could use that as their table. If only mother would get here soon. She would feel safer when they were all here together. She could snuggle down under the covers with Seth Michal and together they could dream about America. Of course, he was too small to know anything about anything, but she had been talking to him about it ever since they had gotten their tickets. Lainey knew mother was worried about having to explain him to father, but, surely he would understand. After all, they had forgiven him for a lot, and anyway, who could not love Seth Michal?
Soon she saw mother making her way through the crowd. "Over here, mother " she called standing on tiptoe and waving her hands over all the heads. Mother looked weary but peaceful. She looked at Lainey with a kind but severe look in her eyes. "He was too small to make this journey, Lainey," she said, in her don't argue with me voice. Lainey felt her heart stop in her chest. For a minute she couldn't breathe. She could not think. She could not talk. She sat there as if someone had knocked the wind out of her. She could not believe her mother was really saying this. It could not be true. She looked at Johnny with huge pleading eyes. Johnny felt his heart break for her. "But, where is he, mother? Where did you leave him?" the words came out in a hoarse whisper. "You saw that nice, big orphanage on our way into the city," was all that mother said.
Lainey felt that he had turned to stone. She was unable to move. Mother briskly boiled water for tea and cut them slabs of bread and cheese. Laineys stomach churned within her. She turned her face away from her mother, who sat there eating supper as if this was the most normal night in the world. Lainey wanted to rage and scream and cry. Instead she got stiffly up and crawled into her bunk. She pulled the blanket up over herself and turned her face to the wall. Johnny could see her shaking with sobs, but she made no sound. It was the worst thing Johnny had ever heard, that silence of Lainey crying with no voice. It was worse than the moans when mother was having the baby. It was worse than the helpless, hungry wailing of Seth Michal living without enough food or enough love. It was so silent and awful, that he could not stay and hear it. He took himself off to where the young men were hanging out, talking over their plans for the future. There they stayed till deep into the night talking over the American dream. Johnny didn't say much. He was sad and emotionally exhausted, but he let their voices wash over and around him, trying to drown out Laineys sorrow.
In the early hours of the morning Johnny stood on the upper deck watching the business of the huge ship slipping from the dock and heading out to sea. Wearily he made his way back down to where his family slept. He looked sadly at mother, sleeping peacefully. He guessed that Seth Michal would be a secret that stayed in the old country, never to be spoken of in the new. A forgotten dream child from those nightmarish days in the dark and the cold and the hunger. Johnny looked at Lainey. She slept with her face to the wall, and under her head was the ptarmigan feather pillow, wet with tears.
Next, Part Three. It's hard for us to understand, how it was in those times and those places, It's easy to judge. Ask yourself, if you really had lived this, then, would you be a bigger or better person? What about now? I think we can learn from our history, even if it is only compassion and forgiveness.