A NEW ORDER
Thelma preferred Father Reinhardt’s explanation, “Your mother is a new star in the sky,” over the angel story the nuns told during catechism class. If Aunt Martha became an angel, Ma must be one, too. Iggy believed in angels. When Ma said they’d cry if he disobeyed, he completed his chores and hardly complained. Maybe the star Father Reinhardt suggested was a window into heaven for her mother to watch over her family and to listen to her daughter’s evening prayers. The night of Liz’s funeral, Thelma chose a star visible from her bedroom window.
“The women said you looked real nice in your black dress, Mama.” Thelma sat up and pulled the tattered blanket over her shoulders. “They brought food and said the rosary and tried to make us feel better.” She leaned forward and put her elbows on the windowsill. “Iggy’ll miss you the most. He said he’d sleep on the couch in the front room forever right next to where you were laid out. He felt bad because he was too scared to stay alone with you. The rest of us took turns so you were never by yourself even for one minute. Pa said it would give each of us a chance to say good-bye without anyone watching. I sat with Iggy, and when he fell asleep, I touched your hand and your face.” She squeezed her eyelids shut. “I whispered what Pa and I did the day he hurt his leg.”
She wished there was a better name to describe what she had done to her father than the term her brothers used when they joked about doing it to themselves. Sometimes throughout the day, her memory of it became too vivid and she had to force it out of her mind.
She opened her eyes and peered at her mother’s star. “Am I forgiven?” Pa, too, needed forgiveness, but she accepted the blame for what happened. “I’m very sorry.” The star continued to twinkle but she needed more. “Did you hear me?” With her chin on the sill, the warmth from her breath created a fog on the cold glass. “I wanted to tell you when we were still together, but I was afraid you might not understand. Please, don’t be mad at me.” She wiped away the moisture and her mother’s star disappeared behind black lace. “I was trying to be grown up like you told me, and Pa needed help. I didn’t want to be grown up that way.” She plopped onto her pillow and stared at the ceiling. “It was a woman-thing, wasn’t it, Mama?”
She sat back up and checked the sky with the blanket pulled tight under her chin. “I did everything you told me to do. I cried real hard at first, but I think a woman can cry if she needs to. I love you and we’ll talk real often. Help me be the best grown up woman in the whole world.”
The star reappeared from behind the cloud, and a sense of confidence replaced Thelma’s doubt and guilt. Leaves rustled in the wind and the rain gutter tapped against the eaves. She felt her mother’s approval.
From somewhere inside the house, she heard sobs. She sat up, slid her feet into slippers and listened at her brothers’ bedroom door. She peeked in and saw all but Iggy sound asleep. At Arnie’s door, she heard familiar gasps and raspy breaths. The disturbance came from downstairs. In the front room, Iggy lay uncovered and shivering on the couch where he held his belated vigil. He wept in his sleep.
Thelma covered him with the quilt Ma stitched with patches cut from his outgrown and worn-out clothes. She rubbed her fingers across soft red-checkered squares from a shirt handed down from one brother to the next as each out-grew it. Of all the boys’ quilts, his was best.
Liz had promised Thelma’s quilt would be the most colorful with so many pretty dresses, but she needed to wait for the one she’d wear on her last day of school. The summer she graduated from country school, Thelma cut squares from her baptismal dress, from her first communion dress and from the new dress she wore at graduation. She stacked them according to size and showed them to her mother working in the garden.
“What have you done?” Her mother’s eyes were hidden behind the brim of her straw hat.
“I made squares for my quilt.”
“Not your new graduation dress! It could have been worn to church.” She continued to chop weeds with her hoe. “Guess I’ll have to find time to make you another one.”
“I’m sorry. I thought . . .”
“Don’t worry. I’ll stitch them together this fall when the gardening is done.”
Four years later, squares prepared for Thelma’s quilt remained bundled in the bottom drawer of the buffet in the front room. She felt a tinge of envy and anger as Iggy snuggled under his quilt. She would finish hers as soon as she found some time.
Thelma realized why her quilt had been put off and would have rushed back upstairs to tell her mother, but sobs alternating with rapid gasps of air came from her father’s bedroom. She crept in and checked Freddie sound asleep in his crib. It was too cold for him upstairs in her room, but Pa promised to wake her if the baby fussed. Light from the moon outlined her father beneath a single sheet rising and falling with each rasped breath. He faced the window, and she wondered if he, too, talked to Ma’s star.
She whispered, “Pa,” then picked the quilt from the floor and covered him and her mother’s side of the bed. He pulled it tight around himself and mumbled, “Come to bed.”
“Ma’s not here any more.” Her father’s snore, the buzz saw she and her brothers laughed about, sounded comforting just like her mother claimed.
She sat on the edge of the bed and remembered the secrets her mother shared after Thelma’s first period. “In bed, a man and woman can talk about things and do things that could never happen in the daytime. Husbands listen to their wives and sometimes tell them how they feel.”
Thelma wanted to tell the star that she understands what her mother meant, but couldn’t face Pa who slept between her and the window. She rested her head on the pillow and sensed her mother’s presence, but was unable to explain why she was lying next to her father in her nightgown. Scared and cold, she pulled some of the extra covers over herself and felt like a child stealing into bed with her parents. She snuggled under the quilt, relished in its warmth and softness and drifted off to sleep.
Thelma couldn’t separate her dream from reality. The edges of each blurred one into the other. She dreamed a hand reached under her nightgown. In reality she felt her father touch the soft flesh of her inner thighs. In her dream, the hand gently encouraged her legs to spread. In reality, her father pressed his heavy weight on her body. She could neither accept nor reject his advances. In her dream, the fantasy figure invaded her body. In reality, she endured sharp pain. In dream and in reality, a hot sensation rose deep inside.
The dream and reality merged when her father whispered her mother’s name and rolled over. She felt desperate to escape but didn’t want light from her mother’s star touch her and the bed she was lying in.
Svez awoke early the next morning and went outside to urinate. The chilled morning air and the cool wet grass beneath his bare feet startled him fully awake. A realization of what happened the previous night struck him. His fear was confirmed when he returned to the bedroom where his sixteen-year-old daughter snuggled in her mother’s quilt. He grabbed his clothes and ran out the door. On the barn silhouetted in the predawn light, color began to emerge. Louvers in the cupola flapped, and gears on the windmill screeched as the north wind drove crystals of snow prickling against his face.
Two sexual encounters with his daughter confronted his conscience. The first one had been an accident. Neither meant for it to happen and no real harm was done. But this time, he couldn’t wash away the guilt far greater than he felt the night Father Reinhardt encouraged Liz to admit she was dying. The unbearable sadness they shared in bed that night began to well up in his chest. They had cried and he promised to stand by her and the family. He apologized for the time he hurt her when he still drank hard liquor but omitted his offense with their daughter.
At a board meeting, the men of the township had gotten together to decide if a road should be built north of the east-west intersection past Svez’s farm. He needed one to reach the meadow where he could cut hay in the dry years. When it was approved, Svez and his neighbors celebrated.
The Clapboard Brothers were disappointed because it would make their moonshine operation too obvious to the revenuers. They harbored no ill feelings and even passed around a crock of their best hooch. Svez wrestled with a demon soon after the second or third swig. He made a few swipes at the phantom and enjoyed making everyone laugh. He couldn’t remember the rest of the night.
The horses knew the way home which probably saved his life. When his eight-year-old son brought the horses back to the yard, and Liz came out of the house to meet them, Svez sat in the wagon and stared at her badly bruised face and scratched arms.
“Did I . . .?”
“It wasn’t your fault. When I climbed onto the wagon, my white nightgown made me look like a ghost. You started swinging and yelling, and the horses bolted. I fell off the wagon but, luckily, I didn’t get run over.”
As they lay in bed discussing her dying, Svez touched her face distorted with grief and remembered the bruises he had caused so long ago. She had forgiven him and praised him for many wonderful things he had done over the course of their marriage, but he couldn’t shake the memory of her battered body. Until an image of her cold features as she lay in her coffin emerged. He began to sob. Every emotional pain he ever repressed surfaced. He cried out of remorse and shame. He cried for all his losses.
He had kept his promise to never touch liquor, and now he needed to make another. Facing the sky as if he were gauging the weather, he vowed never to touch his daughter again. He no longer had liquor to blame for his behavior, and he made no other excuse.