“Dorothy! What in tarnation is going on here? Why is there a truck from the Hardesty Farm and a yellow convertible doing in our dooryard? It looks like gypsies struck rich and picked our farm to settle at for the Summer!”
Emily Gale sat in the car, passenger-side window cranked down, a reversal of the priest in a dark and quiet confessional, accusing rather than listening. Uncle Henry sat behind the wheel, resigned to awaiting further instructions. Tom’s truck, ‘Hardesty Farms’ painted on the sides, held his attention in a grip that even his wife would have trouble breaking.
Putting her hand briefly on Eliza Thornberg’s arm, a gesture of friendship, support and warning, Dorothy walked from her friend’s car towards the still idling black sedan. By chance she glanced to the right of the small cottage that Hunk called home and noticed the pair of wooden-slat doors, built into the side of a small rise in the land. She immediately looked towards the west, puzzled why she should care, as the sky was the same actinic blue all the way down to the heat-blurred horizon. As she approached the ground-shadow of the black sedan, she noted that her Aunt Emily’s voice had taken on a characteristic tone. It was her ‘summoning’ voice. As familiar with its grating as she was with the biting cold of December on the Plains, Dorothy hesitated and stopped. It felt every bit like being called before a tribunal of one, and it was all the spark her jumbled emotions needed.
Puzzled by the sight of her daughter stopping and standing in the middle of the parking area, Emily Gale turned, (her voice more than her body), towards her husband,
“Henry! I told you to have this car fixed! That muffler is so loud I can’t hear myself think! No, don’t bother parking it, you can come out later, just turn it off,” Had she looked at her husband’s face, Emily Gale might have been concerned. Not that she ever was concerned with how her Henry took her suggestions, but this time he wore an expression that not only would she have been unable to remember ever seeing, but it did not belong on the face of her kind, gentle and complacent husband, Henry Gale. Anything but gentle and complacent. Instead of attending to her drivers concerns, she opened the passenger-side door and stepped towards her adopted daughter.
“Dorothy!! What is going on here?”
Watching her Aunt cross the yard, she felt a sudden double memory, not so much déjà vu as it was, ‘(a) memory of a dream that reflected the real life events of the day before.’ She felt a tensing of her shoulders and legs, every animal’s instinctual preparation for fight or flight, the decision still seconds away. Something about the unwavering look in her eyes that triggered a memory, heard in the voice of the nurse at the Hospital,
‘They live their lives believing that they know all they need to know and never realize how much more there is to the world. Surely, of all people, you can appreciate that.‘
The decision that ‘flight’ was her best option was neutralized when, from behind her,
“Mrs. Gale! It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you! Dorothy has told me so much about how you’ve transformed this Town.”
Eliza Thornberg stepped past Dorothy, her right hand-held out, and intercepted Emily Gale. Dorothy noted the position of her friend’s hand, palm down, fingers bent and watched as her aunt just barely avoided curtseying as their hands touched.
“You must tell me everything about Dorothy’s childhood. She’s such a tight-lipped girl when it comes to herself. Yet, I feel like I grew up here. The sun is doing nothing for my complexion, come, let’s go inside. Do you think we might have some some fresh lemonade?”
Eliza put her arm lightly around Aunt Em’s waist and started walking to the house, turning to catch Dorothy’s eye and winking a smile at her friend.
“Hey, Hunk! you bring Tom out of the barn, It looks like we’re all going to be staying for dinner.” Dorothy walked towards the house, Uncle Henry remained behind, still sitting in the black sedan, both hands tightly gripping the steering wheel.
Almira Ristani was worlds away from the brown couch in a drafty apartment in the Mill section of Lawrence, Massachusetts on a winter’s blizzard evening. She was dreaming of flying, which was her favorite type of dream. Her dream-body, healthy and un-marked, swooped over fields of grass, close enough to touch the green blades. She had the sense of being in a dream, without the temptation to try to control her own actions and impulses. Content (and exhilarated) simply to be loose of the world, she moved through the air without thought. Suddenly there was a change, up ahead in the un-seen distance, something was beckoning, demanding yet not threatening. The girl’s path through the air shifted of its own accord, drawn to this wordless call. With this change, a new feeling grew within her. It shaped itself as an urgency, a thing that she wanted and at the same time knew that would change her, not all to the good. Almira thought, ‘…like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding under a child’s soft blanket‘. In trying to understand the source of this feeling, her aimless swooping became more deliberate. She realized that she was entering a bank of clouds, towering on the horizon. As she drew closer, lightning bolts rooted themselves in the earth and tore at the guts of the clouds that gave birth to them and the rumble of thunder grew, like waves in an approaching storm crashing on a shoreline.
The thunder of her dream transformed into a most common, (and often annoying), sound of banging on the door of Annie’s apartment. Eyes still closed, the sleepers last-ditch attempt to stay where they preferred, Almira pulled the well-worn, pale blue robe closer around her body and let her legs slip off the far end of the sofa. Like a child tentatively sampling the temperature of small lapping waves at a beach, she let her feet test the commitment of the floor to being a solid and reliable surface. As if to insist that it was up to the task of supporting her, the cold of the floor pulled itself into her soles and up her legs. Resigned now to being awake, she counter-levered her legs to raise the rest of her body into an upright position in the middle of the couch. She felt the cold creep up her legs as her sleep-weighted arms desperately practiced feeling and flexing, touching and holding. Almira Ristani was now more earth-bound girl, than sky-flying angel, even the sadness of leaving the night world evaporated like morning frost in the sunlight. Resisting the impulse to rub her eyes, a bright aurora of yellow and green still encircling both, she settled for burying her fingers in her hair. Sleep-tangled, it fell down over her face, a virgin’s marriage veil, brushed away each morning, un-claimed by anyone other than her own duty to continue on through the world alone.
Looking up, Almira saw the door slowly open, a spasm of adrenaline coursed roughly from her center outwards, her muscles tensed in primal action. She relaxed as Sterling Gulch’s head projected through the opening, announcing his arrival. Almira was stunned into motionlessness as a sudden, nearly incomprehensible image appeared in her mind. It was, somehow meaningful enough to cause her dream-self, (delaying her return to the night), to laugh soundlessly and wave as she vanished before the light.
“Anyone home? Oh, hey! Almira! Sorry! I didn’t know you were asleep!”
Sterling Gulch, a shelf of fresh fallen snow avalanching off his broad shoulders down onto the threshold, walked into the apartment, talking,
“Annie told me that she had to work today, so she asked if I would stop by and check in on you. Between you and me and the gate post, I told her that you were one of the strongest girls I know and probably not in need of being checked-up on. Being Annie, she said. ‘For such a bright young man you’re sometimes very dense. Don’t ask, just do as I say.'”
“That sounds like my friend Annie. And, for what it’s worth, you’re both right.”
Almira smiled, felt a newly familiar tug on the skin at the bridge of nose, and became aware that her robe’s light cotton fabric that made it so comfortable to sleep in, did nothing to make her feel anything other than slightly un-dressed. From the corner of her eye, she watched her left shoulder creep out from under the robe, a rebel leaving its hidden refuge in hopes of learning the enemies position. Her brow furrowed, chasing her smile back inside her. And with what she hoped was a confident, un-self-conscious gesture, Almira pulled the blanket around her shoulders. Her efforts were undone by the absurd mental image of a queen being ceremoniously draped with the royal robes.
“Well, it’s good to see that you’re feeling better. And, looking better.” Sterling seemed to be making himself at home, putting his coat over a kitchen chair and then moving the chair to bring the back of the chair and coat closer to the stove.
“Not that you were looking bad….anything but! You’re really a pretty girl… it’s just compared to the…”
“My face is still pretty bruised and my nose, well, I don’t think I’ll ever have the same face that I had…”
“Stronger is what you look like now. Your nose is, somehow, better. Thats only because your eyes were too deep, they look out from a place that, if I say so myself, is pretty scary. Like the coals of fire, burning and hungry, both at the same time.”
Almira pulled her blanket and robe tighter and was confused to find that her body was tingling with un-sourced energy, more sensitive, as if suddenly resenting the protective covering. She started to pull at her hair, which apparently decided to move about on its own, throwing itself down across her brow.
Almira heard sounds coming from her mouth and heard a quote from Oscar Wilde run through her mind, like an unruly child,
‘I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.’
She brushed her hair impatiently from her eyes, just as the young man said, with sincerity that was just barely more frightening than it was exciting.
“After the bruising fades, and you put on some weight, you’ll go from being ‘pretty’ to flat-out, howl at the moon, beautiful.”
“Alright you can go over and play with the other children on the swing, just don’t wander off.”
Ephraim Hardesty watched as his son ran towards a car-tire suspended from a branch of tree that grew alone, by itself in a small meadow. It grew nevertheless, abandoned by the others of its kind, reaching into the earth, putting down its own roots. There was a small group of boys and girls of Ethan’s age gathered around the swing, members of the families currently living at Almira’s Keep. The farm was refuge for the dispossessed transients, wanderers and other victims of a society in transition. Like the snake that sheds its skin, nature’s harsh requirement for growth and maturity, people and families and in some parts whole communities, found themselves no longer a part of a life they knew and depended. And so, they wandered and looked for a place where they might be useful, welcome, even valued. Until then, like the dried and lifeless scales of a shed snake-shaped husk, they wandered, blown across the countryside by chance and the rumour of opportunity. Almira’s Keep was not on any Rand McNally or Shell Auto Atlas, but was as well-known as it needed to be to serve this community, which spread along the dusty roads and secondary highways of the country’s mid-section.
Seeing his son Ethan welcomed by the other children, Ephraim relaxed. Watching as the largest child, a girl with blonde hair who appeared to be about 10 years old, pointed to each child when it was time for them to climb on the swing, he thought that the fundamental principle that provided order among people is also the simplest. The largest child saw to it that the smaller children were not brushed aside. Thinking wistfully that perhaps the country would benefit if there was more of this kind of childish concern and wisdom, Ephraim walked towards the small farmhouse. Although not nearly as large as the barns or building that served as extra living quarters (for the visitors), it was clearly the nerve center of the farm.
“Miz McCutcheon? Are you here?” Ephraim stepped into the kitchen, holding the screen door to prevent the spring that held it closed from slamming shut. In the kitchen, girls and boys, ferried platters of food out through double swinging doors, into the large dining room. The sounds of conversations from the 20 or so people, echoed back into kitchen in waves, each time the doors opened and closed.
“Yes? Who it it?”
Ephraim walked towards the small room off the kitchen and stood in the doorway. The sole occupant, a woman in her early 30’s, was seated at a battered, green metal office desk. She turned to face him, but did not get up. The office was converted from a pantry, and therefore had no window. The only light came from a gooseneck desk lamp that stared down at the wide and cluttered workspace. It’s single bulb, focused by the chopped-off cone of its shade, created a pool of light, defined by loose leaf paper shores. Two yellow pencils and one well-worn eraser seemed to float on the pond of artificial light.
“Mr Hardesty! Hello! I didn’t recognize your voice!”
Phyllis McCutcheon looked up in an absent-minded surprise. She then seemed to retreat into thought, and as quickly, she returned with a laugh,
“But then, I don’t believe I actually heard you out there calling me.”
She seemed to enjoy her joke, and continued to laugh until a frown crossed her face,
“Is it that time of month already?”
She smiled with an openness that was at once endearing and worrying. Ephraim found himself returning her smile. He realized that it was his brief interactions with her that he enjoyed most about doing business with this farm.
“I beg your pardon?” his smile reflected an anticipation that her explanation of her statement would be sensible, but in a way that would never have occurred to him.
“The hogs. I have you here on my ledger as, once a month, deliver 2 hogs for slaughter,” without looking, she reached to her right and pulled a clipboard off a hook on the wall and glanced at it briefly. So briefly that Ephraim was certain that she already knew, to the last decimal, what was written on the sheet. Her practiced glance clearly was meant to reassure whoever she was talking to that they could trust information. Even if they didn’t want to trust this woman’s mind.
Ephraim stepped further into the room and, putting his right hand on the back of her chair, placed the unfolded piece of paper on the desk.
“Here’s the invoice, for the hogs. They’re already in the pens out behind the main barn. Though, for the life of me, I don’t understand why you want me to write out an Invoice, seeing how this really is good, old-fashion bartering. But, they’re here and I’ll let you know a couple of days ahead of when I’ll need the extra men for the fence repairing at my farm.”
A barter economy has always enjoyed a healthy popularity in the agricultural strata of most societies, even in America in the 20th Century. Although not exclusively the domain of the farmers, it’s use is a more integral part of the agrarian economy than the manufacturing or service industry sectors. During the first half of the century, the use of the barter system became essential to allowing farms to continue to function. Although, to no credit to the traditional financial institutions, bartering increasingly resembled the clandestine culture of an occupied people. Membership in the barter network served it’s constituents as much by those it kept out as anything else.
Phyllis sat and watched Ephraim, as if seeing him was critical to understanding what it was he was there to say. She nodded when he mentioned Invoice, her right hand unconsciously moving several papers into a more orderly stack.
“And a good evening to you.”
Ephraim Hardesty turned and walked towards the back door of the kitchen. His left hand hit the wooden frame of the screen door when he stopped. He could see his son standing with the other children, dressed in clothes that were neither better nor worse than those of the other children. Ephraim could see the laughter in his son’s eyes. clear across the gravel parking area. Always reading, happy to watch his father work, he suddenly realized that Ethan was his son, just as his brother Tom was surely his mother’s son. One was restless always looking for whatever he thought he lacked, the other content to be with the people he was at the moment, ever curious, yet without the need to find more.
‘You could have done worse, Ephraim,’ he thought, still standing half-in and half-out the door. Two sons, a farm that, despite the sly offers to help, managed to stay a going concern. ‘You could have done worse.’ looking at the children that Ethan clearly enjoyed playing with, ‘you could have your son and your worldly possessions all here, a stopover on a road with no end, only places to rest.’
He turned and walked back into the kitchen, to the door to the small office,
“If you don’t mind my saying, for all the time you spend in this kitchen, I can’t say I’ve seen you sit down for a dinner with any of the people I see on my visits. The Keep won’t shut down if you take time to lift your feet, have a meal with company and set down the burden you’ve carried since Mrs. Gulch took ill.”
“Mr Hardesty! I didn’t hear you come back. Yes, I do seem to work a lot, but it is as I would want it. In fact, I’ll say to you that I’m grateful for the chance to work as much as I do. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.” Phyllis McCutcheon remained seated, but turned in her chair to face Ephraim.
“You need to set the ledgers and the accounts and inventories aside, for just a little while, as the good lord says, ‘man does not live by work alone’.”
She looked puzzled.
“No, I can’t recall which Chapter or Verse I got that from,” Ephraim laughed and continued,
“My son Tom is off somewhere, left me note this morning saying that he was ‘going to be spending the day exploring’, whatever that means! Though he’s still very young, I thought it high time that my son Ethan come with me and learn part of what it is to run a farm. I don’t think Tom will be taking over, there is too much of his mother in him, hearing the calling of the world out there, to settle down for the life of a farmer.”
“… uh, I’d enjoy your company for dinner.”
“Lillian, Mrs Prendergast and the boys will be remaining in Boston, the snow is quite bad.
“I will be dinning alone. No, nothing special. If you’d be so kind as to prepare something warming for my dinner, you may take the rest of the evening off. This snow is not letting up. You should spend the evening with your own family. I can fend for myself, but if you insist, ask Grace if she wouldn’t mind having everything ready for me when I return home. Now, since the twins won’t be back tonight, she’ll have little to do. I need to attend to a few things here at the office and will be arriving home at 6:00. Be certain that she gets my message.”