CHAPTER TEN (Scroll down for ch 1-9)


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.


How Bovine, Minnesota, earned its name

Back in 1888, the duly elected representatives of the community known as Skunk Hollow had completed applications, filed sworn statements with the county and state offices, and presented the articles of incorporation to the locals gathered at the Village Hall. Melvin Trask, self-appointed chairman, cleared his throat about to call for the vote, when a tall man, salt and pepper hair sleeked and fastened at a bunch in back, pants and shirt freshly pressed, rose and requested the floor.
Melvin said in a loud and official voice, “The Chair recognizes Walt Cunningham.”
“Everyone recognizes Walt Cunningham,” Hank Sturgis, local dairy farmer, whispered to fellow committee member, Albert Wentzel. “He’s bin a pain in the ass ever since he brung his implement business here.”
Albert, Skunk Hollow’s only blacksmith, whispered back, “If Cunningham’s so damn smart, why don’t he run for the council ’stead of laying in the weeds ’til we gits all the work done?”
Walt Cunningham flashed a glance around the smoke-filled room and cleared his throat. “I feel our new town deserves a better name than what we’ve been calling it since the time of Moses.” He drew a large white handkerchief from his suit jacket and wiped his forehead. “Someday we’ll have a post office, and Skunk Hollow will be the postmark on letters to our out-of-town friends.”
Hank Sturgis and Albert Wentzel faced each other, an expression of wonderment at anyone having such friends.
“My wife’s already embarrassed to tell her family back home where we’ve established our business.” A general murmur rose from the crowd. “Mind you, I’m not complaining about the people. It’s just the name, quite frankly, stinks.”
Those with homes in Skunk Hollow probably agreed, but Cunningham was a newcomer. Most farmers such as Hank Sturgis felt the name quite aptly described the missionary settlement near the banks of the Skunk River. The young priest sent by the diocese to built St. Alphonse Parish a new church hadn’t complained about it either.
“Do you want to state that as a motion?” asked Chairperson Trask, who recently returned from a visit to the State Capital in St. Paul where he observed lawmakers in action.
“Yes,” Walt responded. “I move to change the name of our town.”
“That’s half an idea, and a dumb one.” Ben York, proprietor of York’s Mercantile, a grocery, furniture, and clothing store across the street from Cunningham’s Implement, stood and expressed his opinion of the suggestion and of the younger man who proposed it. “Ain’t that right, Albert?” He hoped the old blacksmith, a fellow businessman, would agree.
“Yer jest pissed ’bout Cunningham beatin’ you at the horseshoe,” Albert taunted back. The crowd burst out laughing.
Earlier that morning, Hank Sturgis, Albert Wentzel and Melvin Trask rehashed last year’s horseshoe tournament over coffee at Bud ’n Emma’s Café. Melvin imitated Ben York’s raspy voice challenging Walt Cunningham to a wager of a full year of coffee at Bud ’n Emma’s.
Albert speculated the addition of pie must have been Walt’s idea.
Hank, whose acreage next to the town had been swallowed up in bits and pieces by townsfolk for their new homes, said, “I heard big amounts of money hollered back and forth. My wife was standing next to Ben’s wife, and Betsy heard Clara say that she didn’t know where her husband would get five hundred dollars if he lost.”
“I tell ya, the coffee, the pie, and the money was dropped when the biddin’ got nasty.” Albert scraped away dark residue from under his fingernails with a pocketknife. “We won’t never know ’cause Walt started whisperin’ and scribblin’ on his little black book.” He blew and dark specks scattered across the table. “The one where he figures how to swindle ya on a horse trade.”
“They ain’t never been together here at the café, so I knowed that part of the deal got dropped.” Sturgis bit into a plug of tobacco and a bulge appeared on his left cheek. “Walt wid never squelch on a deal.” He poked his tongue through pursed lips, removed a tobacco stem, and stared at it. “Once I traded him a spavined horse. He got mad, but he held to the deal.” Hank wiped his hand on his pant leg.
“Ben ain’t ’bout to renege neither.” Albert switched his pocketknife to his other hand. “My guess is they called off all bets, ’cept the one ’bout the red union suit.”
“I reported the incident in Scent of the Skunk.” Melvin Trask, publisher of THE JOURNAL, paged through his notebook.
“Yeah, Betsy saved it.” Hank glanced toward the opened page and Melvin slammed it shut. “She got every Scent of the Skunk ya ever writ.”
He stared into his cup. “I kin still see Ben in his long johns, standin’ at Cunningham’s front door durin’ Walt’s open house.” He slapped the table. “Every time a customer walked in, York bent over and lifted the flap.”
“Yeah, but nobody got to see Ben’s bare ass, just a sign that read GRAND OPENING.” Melvin grinned. “I printed it for Walt at my shop.”
With his face flush with anger, Ben York remained standing and quietly waited until the laughter in the village hall subsided. He shook a finger at Albert. “I ain’t got no hard feelings ’bout the wager.” He glanced around the room and back toward Walt. “Your motion’s still dumb.” He sat down.
“Ben’s right.” Chairman Trask tapped the table, fisted the head of the gavel and pointed the handle toward Cunningham. “Come up with a name to replace Skunk Hollow and add it to your motion.”
Walt thought Cunningham Town but remained silent.
Hank rose, scanned the crowd and faced Walt. “If ya can’t hanker to skunks, maybe some other animal, like a cow might suit you. We gots plenty of ’em ’round here.” The crowd chuckled.
When someone shouted Cow Town, Gavin Dowdy, full time harness maker and part time butcher, yelled back, “Bullshit Town.”
Melvin Trask, shoe-in mayor of the new town as well as publisher of the local newspaper, banged the gavel and asked, “What are some other suggestions?”
Walt jabbed his finger at Dowdy. “I’m not even going to comment on your vulgarity, and Cow Town don’t fit either. We’re not part of the wild west.”
“Cow Town sounded okay to me. Farmers raise ’em, and I butcher ’em.” Dowdy reminded those who might need his services at slaughter time.
Walt’s face resembled a beet. “Cows around here are different.”
“Like how?” Hank Sturgis defended the cattle he no longer raised since he made more money selling his land.
Walt responded, “Well, for one thing, they’re dairy cows, not the kind you round up from the open range, brand, and drive to the railhead.”
“How ’bout Holstein Town? Them’s the most common kind.” Melvin grinned. “And, what about the bull?” He prodded for feature material. “The bull and the cow. That’s what life’s all about.”
“Bovines!” Walt scowled.
“Yeah, let’s name the town after one of them bovine critters, whatever they are.” Albert smirked. “That’d keep folks guessing.”
Walt shook his head. “Bovine’s just a fancy name for cattle, and—”
“Bovine, Minnesota.” Trask banged his gavel and people began to leave.
The decision wasn’t considered final until the following Thursday when Melvin Trask printed the minutes from the meeting in his first edition of the renamed BOVINE JOURNAL. He expected responses to his first feature, Bovine Bullshit, but only Walt sent a letter to the editor. Melvin went back to calling his gossip column SCENT O’ THE SKUNK.

David Smith Introduces His Story 1995

Roger Storkamp

When a man with grizzled whiskers sauntered into Emma’s Café, stopped near my table and stared down at me, I realized my homecoming was a bad idea.
“Davie Smith.” He addressed me as if I were a child. “I’ll be damned.” He plopped on the seat across from me, kicked back the chairs on either side of us and gestured toward two men who were filling three coffee cups at the self-serve counter. “Boys, sit down. Today, we’re takin’ our coffee break with Bovine’s favorite author.”
I felt like a stray dog about to be petted—or kicked.
“What brings you back after all them years?”
“Checking on some old acquaintances.” I struggled to recognize the face hidden behind the beard.
“Grins and me is old acquaintances.” He cocked his head toward the older of the other two men, but his eyes remained fixed on me.
The man with the identifiable nickname nodded, then squinted. “You didn’t forget who me and Joe was?”
“I meant neighbors.” If either of them lived near the farm where I grew up, their faces would be more familiar than my vague recollection of them.
“Neighbors like Thelma Rastner and her kooky brother? Those two codgers still live down the road a piece from your old place.”
“As a matter of fact, I am here to see Freddie Tate.” Joe’s mention of Thelma and Iggy Rastner jogged my memory. The Rastner family adopted Freddie as an infant, and Thelma raised him after her mother died. The day before I left town thirty years ago, I argued with Freddie here at Emma’s Café. We’d have fought if Freddie’s wife and five-year-old son hadn’t been with him. My relationship with Freddie might be the unfinished business my therapist wanted me to repair. My muscles tensed as I recalled her note scratched on yellow lined paper following an apology for missing our appointment.
Take some time to explore your roots. Revisiting key events from an earlier time in your life might help build your confidence and develop your sense of self-worth. Focus on relationships that ended without proper closure.
Returning to Minnesota to pursue proper closure wasn’t my style. I seldom even said goodbye when my phone conversations ended. My childhood experiences were unpleasant, and I was loath to relive them. However, after a triad of successful novels and as many unsuccessful marriages, my life was at a standstill. I could neither write another story nor chance a fourth relationship.
Repelled by her suggestion yet desperate enough to try anything, I left the key to my Chicago apartment with my editor and tried to make light of what might be a serious matter. “If I don’t come back in two weeks, contact the Minnesota Highway Patrol.”
He snickered, “I’ll probably be hearing from them, David, if you travel through the Minnesota hinterlands without a bodyguard.”
The tinge of resentment aroused by his comment alerted my defenses, but I chuckled to express agreement. What I discovered at the café in Bovine that morning became no laughing matter.
“Ain’t you heard?” Joe scooped sugar into his cup. “Freddie killed hisself and his wife. Long time ago.”
Shock and anger erupted inside like the aneurysm my doctor predicted if my stress level weren’t reduced. My disgust for Joe peaked when he described the effects of a shotgun blast on the human body, as he poured cream into his coffee.
When Joe took a long slurp, the younger man said, “Freddie woulda blowed his kid away too, but Teddy was at school.” He glanced toward Joe, then Grins. “Ain’t that right?” Our eyes met. “I knowed Teddy. Me and him was in kindergarten when it happened.”
Joe swiped a sleeve across his beard and moustache. “If you want the full scoop, talk to Thelma and Iggy. They still live at the home place.” He winked. “Just like they was married.” A smile emerged between dark bristles. “Freddie didn’t do the job there. He blew his head off in Henry Tate’s old barn.” He gestured toward Grins. “Me and him drove out there after work. God-awful mess.” He shook his head and grimaced. “Got the wife in the kitchen while she was eatin’ lunch.”
I wanted to tell him her name was Doris, but my voice faltered. Throughout my high school years, I bussed dishes at Emma’s Café and she waited on tables. I visualized the pained expression etched on her face years later when she apologized for her husband threatening me. I hadn’t seen or heard from them since.
With dirt-encrusted fingernails, Joe penetrated his thick beard and scratched his chin as if in serious reflection. He asked, “Didn’t you and Freddie go to the same country school?”
I shook my head. “Freddie finished the eighth grade the year before I started.” The muscles in my face began to relax. I smiled. An incongruous reaction to our discussion, but a safe haven from my past emerged.
Two columns of children faced each other on a playground in front of a white schoolhouse. I was a five-year-old who escaped the confines of my back yard to join the kids during recess.
Children’s voices chanted, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send the little kid over.”
The girl next to me shook her hand free from mine and said, “Red Rover is calling you.” The others shouted, “Run, Davie.”
They directed me to charge through the line of the opposing team who waited, hands linked. Trying to impress them with my best speed, I ran directly toward the tallest boy at the end of the line. I broke through and he dropped to the ground.
“Wow! For a little kid you sure are tough. You knocked me over.” He extended his hand. “Help me up and you can be on my team.” Freddie had imitated an adult imitating a child by falling down to please me.
That was my image of Freddie Tate, but Joe continued to assault my selective memory.
“Say, weren’t you with us the night we toppled Rastner’s outhouse?”
“Oh, no. I’d have been too young to hang with you guys.”
“Too young, hell. You worked here at the café when me and Grins dropped out of the ’leventh grade. As a matter of fact, you told us Freddie’s ol’ man kept their outside privy. Shortly after Freddie and Doris got hitched but before he made her quit her waitress job.” He furled his brow. “Remember how the little witch giggled when we told her what we done?”
Joe had penetrated my defenses.
“I remember ’cause you said they saved it for more important bowel movements.” His eyes shifted to the younger man. “Davie actually said bowel movements.”
I began to hate him.
Joe returned his attention to me. “It tickled the shit outta me and Grins.” His deep throaty laugh developed into a hack. Spittle sprayed across the table, and he wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “I meant to say, it tickled me and Grins ’til we almost had bowel movements.” He made a fist and flung it inches from Grins’ face. “Ain’t that right?”
His appropriately named buddy rubbed his chin. “Yeah, Joe, you’re right.”
My self-image as champion of Freddie’s honor was shattered by my own youthful indiscretions.
Joe added to my guilt by reviewing the details of our caper. “We drove past the farm a couple times with our headlights out ’fore we parked behind some hedges along the ditch.” His eyes rolled toward the ceiling as if a picture of the Rastner farm were displayed there. “Studied the situation a bit and then rushed the outhouse from behind.” He pointed, nearly touching Grins’ nose. “When we toppled it, this clown almost fell into the hole.” Laughing, he slapped him alongside his head and knocked off his cap. Grins merely smiled and put it back.
“The funniest part was Freddie sticking his head out through the hole and yelling his head off. Got a bit scary when Iggy busted out of the house and blasted his shotgun.”
Joe leaned back, pointed an imaginary rifle over my head and faked its recoil. “Probably the same gun Freddie used to blow hisself and his wife away.” He pursed his lips and released a gust of foul breath into the approximate area where the end of the barrel would have been.
He stood and pointed his make-believe gun at my head.
“Bam.” He laughed and aimed it at each of his two buddies. “Bam. Bam.”
I reacted with a stony wall of contemptuous silence.
Wordlessly declaring victory, he extended his hand, but my fingers remained gripped to my coffee cup. He rerouted his arm and adjusted his John Deere cap. “I’d hang around and jaw with you, but some people gotta work.” He pulled a brochure from his shirt pocket, unfolded it and tossed it in front me.
“Out behind Cunningham Implement, we’ve set up a game of Bovine Bingo. Stop by. The heifer might shit on your lucky number.” He stuck his thumbs under his belt, hitched his pants over his protruding stomach and walked to the counter, his grinning and groveling yes-men close behind. They paid the cashier, armed themselves with toothpicks and sauntered out the door.
I glanced at the paper on the table and a graphic depiction of a cow, teeth displayed in a sardonic grin, leered back at me. She stood on a grid drawn on the ground and defecated onto a single square. Dollar signs splattered in all directions. I felt insulted and humiliated, my emotions as drained as my empty cup.
I took a deep breath, stood and walked to the pay phone next to a bulletin board peppered with notices of farm auctions. From a phonebook spewed open like an accordion, I found the number I wanted. I readied a coin above the slot, and when I heard a raspy yet vaguely familiar voice on the other end of the line, “Rastner Residence,” I dropped it into the slot.

Chapter One (two chapters added each month)

(Fall 1933)

“Aunt Martha’s here. Go help her and Freddie into the house.”
Thelma realized her mother blamed Martha’s husband, Henry Tate, for her sister’s illness, but as a sixteen-year-old girl, Thelma avoided him for other reasons. “Henry scares me.” Neither she nor her brothers ever called their aunt’s husband uncle. “Let him do it.”
“He embarrassed me at the hospital and insulted Martha. I don’t want him in my house.”
Thelma stepped out to the porch and glanced through the window as Henry brought the Model A Ford to an abrupt stop but continued to hold on to the steering wheel as if it were the reins of a team of horses. He stared straight ahead and showed no concern for his wife or his infant son. Thelma’s father suggested she overlook Henry’s annoying habits like everyone in the family did with Arnie, her other uncle. But Arnie lived with them and was her father’s brother, a blood relative. She took a deep breath and pranced out the door, through the gate and up to the car. She waved at the driver, stepped to the passenger side and opened the door.
“Hi, Aunt Martha. Can I carry Freddie?” She had no intention of offering to help her aunt walk to the house as her mother seemed to think was necessary. She’d been back from the hospital a week, time enough to recover from having a baby.
Martha extended her arm marred with black and blue streaks between wrappings of gauze around her wrist and elbow. The bundle pressed to her chest and eyes peering from sunken sockets, her hand quivered, dropped and dangled over the edge of the seat like a piece of loose clothing. She slid a foot onto the running board but the other wouldn’t follow.
Her aunt’s legs splayed and face distorted from pain, Thelma couldn’t recognize the woman whose facial features everyone said she and her aunt shared. “Two times ugly”, Henry had said during one of his ornery moods at a monthly family dinner Liz hosted and he resented. Thelma averted her eyes.
“Help me.”
The weak voice from the once strong woman stirred Thelma’s compassion. She lifted Martha’s other foot, turned her body toward the door and pulled on the hem of the faded housedress in an effort to cover her knees. She slid the limp arm around her neck, reached around her aunt’s waist and lifted her from the car. They struggled to the house where Liz waited.
“I’m so sorry, Martha. I hadn’t realized how weak you’ve become.”
“Don’t worry, Liz. Your daughter has the strength of both of us. We’re doing just fine.”
The arm holding Freddie began so slacken, and Liz grabbed for the baby. “I’ll take him.”
Martha began to sob. “I guess, that’s why I came.”
To leave her baby? Thelma suspected something strange when the crib she once used to put her dolly to sleep appeared in the kitchen between the wood box and the cook stove, where her mother said each of her five children spent their first few months of life, Thelma her last baby. Until now? What she overheard her father tell her mother—that a woman can’t take another mother’s baby like it was a stray calf—began to make sense. But Pa was out in the field cutting corn for the silo with her brothers. Should she remind her mother of what Pa had said?
Arnie, the uncle with strange habits but a nicer man than Henry, came from upstairs holding up his overalls. He stopped to glare at the women, pulled the straps over his shoulders and hooked them to buttons on the bib. Thelma knew what he needed, but her mother seemed in no mood to help him tighten his truss. He trudged into the kitchen and out through the porch.

Henry didn’t release the steering wheel until Martha and her brat of a niece disappeared in the house. He envied his brother-in-law for having a strong daughter and a healthy wife. Svez don’t ever have to eat cold leftovers after slaving out in the field all day. And he’s got four grown boys to do most of his work. Henry fought back a thought that had been haunting him. Some little fieldwork during haying season ain’t what made Martha sick. Doctor said cancer runs in some families. How was he to know she was pregnant? Her smart-ass sister better not blame him.
Henry wiped at the moisture on the windshield from steam escaping the radiator, but it was on the outside. He got out and leaned against the hood to capture some of the heat radiating off the engine. He studied the length of his shadow and then checked the level of the sun above the horizon. Days were getting short. Frost last night put an end to the growing season. He pinched the peak of his felt hat, lifted it above the suntan line on his forehead and brushed back a shag of hair the color of year-old cobs. Gotta get the corn into the silo before the snow flies.
He spied the chopper, its snake-like neck reaching up and into the rusted dome on the top of the silo and listened for the chug and whirl of the gasoline engine. He couldn’t have heard it over the noise of dogs barking, chickens cackling and a gander extending his neck and trumpeting at him. On a distant hill behind the barn, he spied Svez and one of his boys, probably Iggy, loading corn stalks. The boy weren’t quite right, but Svez got a lotta work outta him. Ain’t fair, him getting his work done while Martha’s using up daylight visiting her sister.
He glanced toward the house hoping his wife would come right back as she promised. He shielded his eyes from the low-lying sun and recognized the figure ambling across the yard. Svez’s bachelor brother, Arnie, lumbered toward the barn. Liz musta tightened his truss ’cause he walked like he’s got a corncob up his ass. Why Svez put up with the old bastard all them years made no sense.
“The Missus gotta talk to her sister.” Henry rehearsed aloud what he might say when Arnie stopped and squinted back with his one good eye. He muttered, “Keep movin’. Me and you don’t got nuthin’ to talk ’bout. Bad ’nuff makin’ conversation when the wife drags me here for Sunday dinner.”
Arnie fidgeted with the visor on his cap and then rubbed his hands on the sides of his buckskin jacket already shiny as glass from manure, milk splatter and calf slobber.
Henry sent a spray of tobacco juice toward a gander and muttered, “Can’t tell the difference if it’s summer or winter by the coat he wears all the time. They’s goin’ to bury him in it.” He glanced toward the field and then the house. “I gotta get out of here.” Suddenly, he regretted allowing his wife to give up his son. He married her to get more children and to raise his other two school-age boys after their ma died.
“Now she’s gonna die on me too.” He slapped his hand against the hood of his car. He and the boys coulda raised the kid. Or, he would find another old maid who’d be needing a husband. Afraid someone heard him, he scanned the yard and barn. The louvers in the cupola flapped, and he suspected Arnie was watching him.
Liz had just placed the baby in the crib when the noise outside distracted her. She went to the porch to see if Svez and the boys had returned from the field, but the silage chopper sat idle alongside the silo. She was glad. Maybe Henry and Martha would be gone before they got back. She reckoned Svez would accept her decision to take Freddie, but he hadn’t agreed to it. When they talked about Martha dying and wondered what would happen to her baby, Liz hinted that she might take him. Filling the silo and getting the farm ready for winter kept everyone busy, and she didn’t have an opportunity to convince him there was no other option. Maybe the doctor was wrong, and she’d just keep Freddie until Martha got better.
She glanced toward the car where Henry stood rubbing the palm of one hand with the other. His cursing wasn’t audible, but his expression left little doubt he was angry.
Martha appeared in the doorway, grabbed the wall and clung until Thelma rushed to grab her. Their faces now cheek-to-cheek, a repeat of family traits Liz and her boys escaped, small gray eyes shielded by caterpillar-like brows and wide noses underlined with thin lips. Too homely to marry anyway, Martha’s father said of the daughter who remained home to care for her dying mother and later to run his household. Until he found a young bride and no longer needed a second housekeeper. Henry Tate, left with two boys to raise, had been in no position to be fussy.
Liz shook off her anger with her father, held her sister and told Thelma to look after the baby in the Kitchen. Martha grasped the pump handle at the washstand and stared out into the yard. “He said he approved but I know he don’t. Said he’d find another wife to raise Freddie. I wouldn’t want that.” She touched one of her emaciated breasts. “I got no milk.”
“It’s okay. We’ll love Freddie, and when you get better . . .”
“It’s not going to happen,” Martha sobbed. “I have to go.” She glanced toward her husband and then back into the kitchen. “If Thelma will . . .”
“Did you call me?” Thelma carried Freddie, his blanket dragging on the floor. Liz covered him.
“Yes, please.” Martha touched a tear tracking a line etched in her face. “I need help.” Liz reached for Freddie, held him against her shoulder and patted his back. Martha released her hand from the washstand, touched the blanket covering Freddie’s head and then clung to her niece. “I can’t do this alone.”
Martha’s legs buckled as Thelma helped her back to the car, lowered her to the seat and lifted her feet onto the floorboard.
Thelma ran back to the house and stood alongside her mother. Liz waved with her free hand. Martha lifted her arm but it fell back out of sight. Henry got into the car, slammed the door and started the engine. He held the steering wheel with both hands and faced straight ahead. Martha braced herself against the dashboard as the car lunged forward, maneuvered out the driveway and onto the dirt road. Liz waited to see her sister glance back but a cloud of dust obscured her vision. She stopped waving and pulled her daughter close. She held her arms around what were now her two youngest children.
Arnie’s head poked through the hayloft door and then melted back into the dark interior. A team of horses trotted from the field toward the barn. Svez leaned on a pitchfork atop the wagon loaded with corn stalks, and Iggy snapped the reins.
“The rest of the boys won’t be far behind.” Liz peeked into the blanket. “They’ll be wanting their supper soon, and we got a lot of work ahead with a new baby in the house.”
Iggy kicked at a chicken as he strolled across the yard. He yelled, “Whatcha got, Ma?”

Chapter Two (two chapters added each month)


“You guys better let the baby alone.” Thelma whispered her threat, brandished the broom handle and shoved the bristle-end toward her four brothers clustered around the crib. “Ma, they’ve eaten breakfast. Make them go outside so Freddie can sleep.”
“When he wakes up, he’ll be hungry.” Liz didn’t scold the boys. “Don’t forget to skim off some of the cream from his milk and add a teaspoon of syrup after you warm it.” She opened the medicine cabinet above the kitchen sink, moved a shaving mug and held a bottle of Watkins hair oil up to the light from the window. She put it back, grabbed a same-size bottle half-full of a brown liquid and mumbled, “Martha will probably need this.” She turned back toward Thelma. “His little tummy can’t handle much food yet.”
“What about these guys?” Thelma glared at them and with a swish of her broom, knocked all their caps onto the floor.
“Take off his diaper soon as he poops.” Liz lifted the metal plate from the top of the cook-stove and stoked the fire. Sparks flew and flames briefly surged. “The boys won’t hang around when that happens.”
“You hear?” Thelma hooked George’s cap with the broom handle and pinned it to the ceiling. “When Freddie poops, you guys gotta leave.”
“Keep his diaper off for a while so he don’t get a rash.” Liz pointed toward the sink. “Be sure Iggy dumps the slop pail and not right outside the porch.” She opened the refrigerator door, peered in and closed it. “Make the guys sandwiches for lunch and heat up leftovers for supper. If you need me, send George because Henry hasn’t got a phone.” She glanced toward their telephone, a wooden box attached to the wall above Svez’s desk, shook her head and removed the shawl draped over it.
“George put it there.” Thelma stuck out her tongue at her oldest brother. “Made it look like Father Reinhardt’s sister, Stella.”
“She holds her nose up like the mouth piece, and she don’t blink just like them two bells,” George said as he grabbed for his cap and missed.
Herman and Ralph scooped theirs from the floor and held them to their chests as if they were in church, but Thelma stomped on Iggy’s as he grabbed for it. She felt a surge of anger as her mother walked out and closed the door.
George grabbed his cap off the broom-handle, hooked it to the back of his head and pulled the visor low over his brow. “Heard Freddie peed all over you yesterday when you took off his diaper.” He squinted down at his sister. “I’m gonna hang ’round to watch.” He stuck his face into the crib.
“Freddie peed on Thelma. Freddie peed on Thelma.” Iggy danced around her.
“Good grief. Act your age.” His age gave her an idea. “Okay, let’s set some rules.” She raised her index finger. “Only one of Freddie’s brothers at a time can be in the house.” She referred to Freddie as a member of their family. “George is oldest so he gets to be first.” She started sweeping the floor, each swipe a step closer to her brothers as they backed away. “The rest of you, scat.”
“How long ’fore I can come back in?” Herman peered at her through a screen of black hair. “I’m next oldest.”
“Twenty one minutes ’cause that’s how old George is.” Thelma set down the broom and picked up a pencil and a Co-op weight-slip from her father’s desk. “I’ll mark it down on this scrap of paper.” She pointed the pencil toward Herman. “Then, you can have twenty minutes, and Ralph gets nineteen minutes.”
“Not fair.” Iggy counted on his fingers. “George gets four more minutes than me just ’cause he’s oldest.” He pursed his lips. “You’re the youngest, but you get to stay with Freddie all the time.”
“Look at Iggy.” Ralph faced his older brothers and winked. “His mouth puckers like a hen’s ass after she’s laid an egg.”
“Eggs don’t come out from a chicken’s ass,” Iggy said as he covered his mouth with his hand.
The door opened and a crispy oak leaf whisked across the kitchen floor. “I’m the oldest in case no one around here noticed.” Svez nearly filled the doorway as he walked into the kitchen and plopped onto his chair at the head of the table. “I’ll give you guys sixty minutes to get your first load of cornstalks back from the field, chopped and into the silo.” He gestured toward the stove with his cup.
“You ain’t sixty, Pa.” Thelma grabbed Iggy’s cap from the floor, tucked it under her apron and poured her father’s coffee.
“No, but that’s how long I ’spect to take for breakfast.” He splashed the black liquid into a saucer, raised it to his lips and slurped. “Get out there and harness up two teams. Arnie’s probably got his wagon half loaded already.”
Only Iggy hesitated. He stared back into the crib, wiped his nose with his sleeve and moved closer to Thelma.
“Well, whatcha waiting for?” Svez demanded.
“Thelma’s got my cap.”
She pulled it from under her apron and ran around the table. Svez kicked out a chair and Iggy ran into it. He began to pant but with his lips clamped tight, his breath gurgled and whistled through his nose. Thelma mussed his hair and stuck his cap on his head, visor facing back. He frowned, then grinned and finally laughed with Pa and Thelma until Freddie stirred.
“Let Iggy get the baby. Soon’s you get my breakfast, me and him can follow the boys with the second team.”
“But, Pa, you said sixty minutes.” Iggy turned his cap forward without lifting it. “A whole hour.” He faced the clock and backed into Freddie’s crib.
“You only get seventeen minutes.” Thelma took the paper from her apron pocket and scratched off George’s name.
“We ain’t going by age no more.” He reached into the crib and hesitated. “Which end do I pick up first?”
“Go sit at the table.” Thelma pointed and he obeyed. “I’ll bring him to you soon as I get Pa’s bacon into the pan. She lifted Freddie, sniffed and set him back down. She took off his diaper, wiped his bottom with a wet cloth and laid him on a towel in front of her brother.
“He’s a boy baby just like Podue’s a boy dog.” He pointed to Freddie’s tiny penis.
“Podue?” Svez asked.
Iggy rolled his eyes up toward Thelma.
“Yesterday, Harry Gross said he found a puppy in our mail box.” Thelma returned to the stove and cracked four eggs into the sizzling skillet. “He brought it to the house and claimed that there was postage due, so me and Iggy named him Podue.” She set the pan with eggs still bubbling in bacon grease in front of her father and pushed Iggy’s hand away from Freddie’s penis. “I think Larry Collins put him in there as a prank, but Iggy wants to keep him.”
Svez grabbed the pan by its handle and scraped bacon and half-cooked eggs onto his plate with his fork. “I ’spose we can use another dog around here.”
Thelma and Iggy jerked back as a small stream arched from between Freddie’s legs. Thelma ran to the sink, Iggy put his hand in his pocket and Pa laughed.


Iggy crouched under the eves of the house and peered through a small crack between the shingles on the porch. Svez sent him up there to chase out squirrels from nests under the rafters, and he found a tiny opening. He saw the pump, the basin on the washstand, and if he squinted he could see the hole in the floor where the mice came in. Mice weren’t so smart. Pa set his traps by their hole. Thelma weren’t so smart either to chase him outside so she could wash up in the porch when the kitchen got too hot.
Iggy wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He grinned when his sister glanced out both windows but not up toward his peephole. She returned to the sink, loosened the towel from her naked body and let it drop to the floor. He silently exhaled as he waited for her next move, something different she’d been doing since Freddie came to live with them. She cupped one of her breasts and pulled on the nipple like a baby would suck. She don’t got no milk, and it won’t do the baby no good if there ain’t nothing for him to drink.
He tried not to think of how babies were made and longed for the time when such things weren’t important to him, back when he and his sister could swim naked in the creek behind their barn. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the games of cops and robbers he and his friend, Larry Collins, used to play. Once he climbed up into the branches of the oak tree alongside the creek, but Larry spotted him right away.
“Robbers don’t climb trees.” Larry pointed and laughed. “They hide behind rocks and things.”
“I didn’t think you’d find me.” Iggy scrambled to the ground.
“Well, I did. It was too easy.”
Iggy kicked a stone into the water. “When I hide too good you quit looking and go home.”
Larry shrugged. “Sometimes, I get tired of the dumb game.”
“Let’s do something else when the game’s not fun no more.”
“It’s already not fun. Let’s swim.” Larry swooped his arms as if he was either flying or swimming and ducked out from under his shirt when it ballooned in the wind. He unsnapped his pants, spun around and kicked them into the air as they fell to his feet.
Iggy slowly unhitched the straps on his bib, let his overalls drop and stepped out of them. While unbuttoning his shirt, he felt Larry’s stare.
“You don’t got hair like me.” Larry puffed up his chest and put his hands on his hips.
Iggy brushed a few strands from his face.
“Not up there, stupid. Down here.” Larry held one hand over his penis and pinched thin strands of pubic hair with his other. “I got hair down there, and you don’t got none.”
Iggy covered himself with both hands and wished he hadn’t undressed.
“Let me see.” Larry shoved Iggy’s hands aside. “I thought so. Nothing. Wanna see what else I can do?”
That day down by the creek, he wanted Larry to stop but was too astounded to speak. He wished he hadn’t shown Larry his pubic hair when it began to grow. He worried Larry would ask him if he ever jacked off or even make Iggy prove it while he watched. But Larry only shrugged.
As Iggy crouched between the roof and the rafters to watch his sister explore her body, thoughts of games with Larry Collins faded. Touching his crotch, he glanced around to make sure Pa and his brothers were still in the barn. He remembered the time Pa caught him masturbating, and he made Iggy feel bad by laughing and shouting something to Arnie. Arnie who seldom laughed chuckled, and Iggy cringed. The next day his mother, not his father, demanded he confess his sin to Father Reinhardt. A year later, he still hadn’t told the priest.
He did tell Larry Collins while sitting on the bank of the creek. “Remember what you told me to do?” Iggy pointed at his crotch, then shoved both hands into his pockets.
“One time we went swimming.”
“We gone swimming a lot.” Larry pulled a blade of grass and slid it in and out through pursed lips.
Iggy’s face reddened. “When I showed you I had hair too.”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Ma wants me to confess to Father Reinhardt ’bout what I did.”
“Reinhardt don’t need to be told nothing.” Larry pulled the frayed stem from his mouth and grinned through teeth stained green. “Better yet, just tell him you jacked off.”
Iggy giggled, but he knew he could never say that to a priest. Larry wouldn’t either, but his mother hadn’t forced him to confess it. If Father Reinhardt agreed it was a sin and he must stop doing it, he would have a bigger problem. He avoided telling Larry about his lie to his mother. Larry would laugh but Iggy didn’t feel good about his dishonesty.
Kneeling beside his mother during Saturday evening devotions at St. Alphonse, she nudged him and pointed to the confessional. “Go tell the priest all your sins.”
“Awe, Ma, not now.”
“Go. I’m trying to say my Novena.”
Iggy stood behind three other people in line. He felt his mother’s eyes on him, yet every time he peeked around the pillar she had her head lowered with her hands covering her face. When his turn came, he tiptoed inside and fumbled with the curtain that protected him from probing eyes outside the enclosed cubicle. A window slid open and the priest’s head became faintly visible.
“I teased my sister.” He whispered a sin that wouldn’t rile the priest like telling a lie or missing Mass on Sunday. But, if the priest asked him to explain, he’d have to admit he watched her take a bath. He panicked and quickly added, “That’s all, Father.” The priest asked about additional sins, but Iggy just repeated the line he remembered from catechism class. “That’s all, Father.”
When they left the church his mother asked, “Did you tell the priest your sins?”
“Yeah, Ma. I told him.” He put his hands in his pockets, turned and stared up at the steeple.
“Did you tell him the one we talked about?” She touched his shoulder.
He nodded and faced the ground.
“Did you say your penance?”
“Yeah.” Next time he was forced to confession, he’d include this lie with the bigger one. He hated whispering secrets, listening to little bits of advice and being told to say Our Father and Hail Mary. He didn’t know all the words to these prayers, and when the priest recited them in church he didn’t understand what they meant.
She said, “You can drive. And, let’s stop at Emma’s Café for ice cream.” She slid onto the passenger seat and clutched her purse. “You did good tonight.”
When they got to the café, Iggy rushed in and sat at a booth near the front window. His mother joined him carrying two dishes of ice cream. He felt her eyes on him while he ate.
“You don’t go to Ida’s, do you? You know, to do chores and stuff.”
His face flushed, and he heard his breath as it passed though his nose and mouth, something he usually got scolded for. “No, Ma. Ralph helps her when George and Herman are busy. She ain’t never asked me to help.”
He knew something was not right about going to Ida’s, because whenever his brothers mentioned her in front of Thelma she told them to shut up. He knew why his friend went there, but Larry never talked about helping with chores.
“Pa thought you might.” Her eyes fixed onto his. “I don’t want you to go there.”
“Even if she asks for me to help? Her pa’s dead, and George said her brother’s too crazy to do any work.”
“She never asks. The boys just go.”
Iggy watched a man leave his booth, pay at the counter and walk out. Two boys got up from the same booth and followed. He licked his spoon and held it like a lollipop as he stared at them through the window. They jumped onto the front seat next to the man.
“Do you ever hang around with Ozzie?” She guided his hand with the empty spoon back onto the table.
He lifted his dish, slurped out the chocolate colored liquid and mumbled, “Who, Ma?”
“The man who just left. I hope you don’t ever hang around with him.”
“I don’t know who he is. I never come to town, ’cept with you or Pa.” He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
She brushed a shock of hair from his eyes. “You’re just like your brothers.”
“I think so but Thelma doesn’t.” He grinned and a dark trickle appeared from the corner of his mouth.
“She’s probably right. You’re different, but you resemble them with wild black hair always hanging down your forehead. You should get Thelma to cut it shorter. I hope you don’t ever take a notion to grow a mustache like your brothers. They try to look like Pa.” She shook her head and shuddered. “With your dark eyes it’d make you look like the devil.”
“I wanna be a vampire. Larry said I’d make a good one. Will you make me a black cape sometime? Larry said all vampires wear black capes.” He held up both hands, shaped them into claws and bared his teeth.
“Please, don’t do that. It makes you look silly.”
“That’s how vampires act. Larry got this paperback and we read about it.”
“At least, stop those gurgling sounds when you breathe. I’m sure it’s not something vampires do.”
“What sounds, Ma?”
“Never mind. It’s something you do when you’re excited. Try to breathe without making noise.”
“Do you like Father Reinhardt?”
“He’s all right, I guess. He don’t get mad like Father Busch did.”
“Father Busch was getting senile.”
“Just old. He wasn’t in his right mind any more. Father Reinhardt’s much nicer, don’t you think?”
Iggy nodded. “But he scares me.”
“You keep telling him all your sins, and he’ll help you be a better person. You did tell him everything, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, Ma. Can I eat your ice cream?”
“Yes, but I’m afraid you’ll have to drink it.”
“I’ll lap it like Podue.” He showed her his tongue.
“Don’t you dare.”
He sucked it back as she reached with her thumb and finger pretending to pinch it. He enjoyed his mother’s teasing.
Memories of ice cream, vampires and Father Reinhardt disappeared when Thelma moved from his line of sight. He awaited her next move and bit his lip to keep from crying out.
She returned to the mirror, held her flowered nightgown over her head and glided it past her shoulders and over her breasts. It stopped below her knees. He had watched her sew the nightgown from old flour sacks and wondered if she wore anything under it. Since learning her secret, he imagined the soft cotton cloth against his skin.
Saliva gurgled through his nose and she glanced up. He edged his way down from the rafters and plopped onto the dry grass behind the house, his legs too shaky to run and hide. Thoughts of Thelma chasing him in her nightgown excited him, until he realized how mad she’d be for his spying on her. He didn’t feel safe again until the light came on in her bedroom.
He felt lonely and wished his friend was with him. They shared their sexual fantasies, but Iggy never admitted to any including Thelma.
Once, after describing Ida’s shapely body, Larry added, “. . . not all humpty-dumpty like your sister.”
Thelma broken into pieces like the egg in the nursery rhyme was funny, but Pa and Arnie laughing at him was not.
“That’s not what it’s ’sposed to be for,” his father had scolded.
But, what it’s ’sposed to be for is what he wanted to do with his sister. Animals from the same litter tried, but his pa always kept them apart. Iggy never understood why.


Arnie stood outside the pigpen, arms crossed and rested on the top rail of the fence, and studied a dozen shoats as they grunted and shoved up to the feeding trough. One aggressive young boar alternately ate and snapped at the others, and they gave him the space he demanded. Arnie hit him on the head with the pail and watched his reaction. Selecting a few more at random, he repeated the process until he felt satisfied.
“Which one do you think?” Svez approached and being taller stooped to settle alongside Arnie.
Arnie paused. A direct answer might damage his imagined thread of authority over his younger brother on whom Arnie depended for his existence. He nodded toward the boar he had chosen. Svez would approve because selecting animals for breeding was Arnie’s specialty.
The years eroded each of their unique physical differences. Aging slightly loosened the skin on Arnie’s more rotund face, while excess flesh sagged around Svez’s once taut cheeks and neck. Arnie usually shaved near the end of the week, even though he stayed home Saturday nights and seldom went to church on Sundays. Svez shaved often and kept his small mustache well trimmed. Arnie’s hair changed from auburn to snow-white while Svez’s turned medium gray. Both men wore Oshkosh overalls, Arnie’s jacket was buckskin and Svez’s denim.
Arnie rolled his tongue over his upper gums and dislodged a flake of tobacco from the space between his two front teeth. “Him.” The end of his finger extended from a gnarly knuckle and pointed at an angle missing its intended target. “The one with the spot over the side of his face.” The eye in the center of the spot briefly met Arnie’s, and then the pig continued to chomp into a mixture of ground oats and kitchen scraps. “He’s too busy eatin’ to care when I hit him. I think he’s the one who chewed the ear off the solid one.” An all-pink pig, smaller and missing half an ear, had been squeezed out by two larger boars as they stuck their front feet into the trough. Failing to nose his way back, he wandered to the end of the line. With his good ear erect, he entered the trough with all four feet and ate his way forward and backward, his snout reaching the corners neglected by the larger animals.
“He’s too smart.” Arnie frowned, and slanted lines etched toward his drooping eyelid. “Hard to keep a boar like him penned up.” The skin across his forehead tight and shiny as the jacket he had rubbed smooth with the palms of his hands. “Gotta keep one what just eats and fucks.”
“Remember to separate him from the rest after he’s castrated.” Svez pushed himself from the rail but continued to lean slightly forward as if denying his full height. “Gotta get some weight on ’fore we butcher him.” He put his hands on his hips, momentarily stretched and then resumed his normal posture. “I’ll get the boys to move the one with the spotted eye to the barn so they don’t castrate him by mistake. Jake’ll be good for one more season, and then this one can take over.”
Since childhood, Arnie named many of the animals, especially those kept for breeding. He felt sad for the old boar he called Jake in honor of the hog buyer from Iowa who tried to cheat Svez.
“You got a name for this one?” Svez asked.
Arnie produced a tight half-smile, turned his head and looked up from the rail. “How ’bout Reinhardt?”
“The priest? Liz would kill both of us. You don’t gotta go to church with her like me and the boys. I’ll bust out laughing every time he climbs into his pulpit.” Svez paused and faced the house. “Every Sunday lately.” He shook his head. “She wants me and the boys to go to church every Sunday.” He shrugged. “You gotta think up a different name.”
Arnie considered Svez’s oldest son, George, who bragged about getting served moonshine in the back room at Bud and Emma’s Café but changed his mind. “How ’bout Buddy?”
“Good idea. It’ll get a laugh whenever George says he’s going to have a few drinks with Buddy.” Svez glanced down. “And when Herman and Ralph get the notion, they’ll be nosing up to Buddy’s pig sty like boars at a trough.”
Arnie reflected on the pig with the missing ear and thought about Svez’s youngest son, Iggy, trying to squeeze between his brothers. Would Iggy figure out a way to fit?
“The baby?” Arnie didn’t finish his question but waited for the furrows to deepen across his brother’s forehead.
Svez continued to stare into the hog trough. “Liz’s sister’s baby. Freddie.”
Arnie remained quiet.
“He’s here to stay.”
Arnie grimaced. He already assumed Freddie moved in, but wanted to hear his brother admit it. His hernia, not the new baby, bothered him, and he needed to get his truss tightened. He left Svez standing at the hog pen and walked to the house.
Although separated by a span of ten years, the two brothers had been close since childhood. They worked on their father’s farm until he died, and their oldest brother took over the family homestead. Svez and Liz became free to marry and move to their own farm.
Arnie, then a forty-year-old bachelor asked, “What about me?”
Liz said to her husband, “Let’s take Arnie with us to our new home.”
He’d been part of the family nearly a quarter century.


Liz had been darning socks in the front room when Thelma stopped snapping beans and yelled from the kitchen, “Ma, Arnie’s standing in the porch in his underwear.”
“He probably needs help with his truss.” Liz wanted him to have an operation to repair his hernia, but he found an ad in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, his source for all items not available at Cunningham’s Implement or York’s Mercantile in Bovine. Arnie, who seldom bought anything in town and never went to a doctor, asked Liz to order it for him. She joked about the cute nurse shown in the ad not part of the order. She teased that it belonged in the women’s clothing section. She reminded him that his rheumatism and arthritis would make it difficult for him to reach the straps in back. But, he remained determined.
When the truss arrived, Arnie managed to get it on but couldn’t apply the necessary pressure to hold his hernia in place. Liz realized it embarrassed him to ask for help, so she offered to take the place of the nurse in the ad. From then on, Arnie came to the house, waited for Liz to help him, grunted approval and headed back to the barn. At night and in the morning, he managed to remove and replace the unit or, as Liz suspected, slept with it on.
Liz faced Thelma through the archway to the kitchen and said. “Help him.”
Thelma glanced out to the porch and grimaced.
Liz decided to spare her daughter this embarrassing task. She scooped up Freddie from his crib near the kitchen stove and yelled to Iggy who had sneaked into his parents’ bedroom searching for Christmas gifts. Liz started buying and wrapping presents early, right after Thanksgiving, and Iggy couldn’t keep away from them.
“Arnie needs help. See what you can do for him.”
Iggy stepped out of the bedroom clutching a long slender package. “Ma, you gotta do it.”
“I’m holding the baby. Besides, this is a man’s thing. It’ll be your chore from now on.” Since talking to Martha’s doctor, Liz had been slowly delegating more and more tasks to other family members, mostly to Thelma. Iggy set the present on the couch and groaned all the way through the kitchen and out into the porch.
Arnie muttered, “Yank on the strap,” unconcerned about who did it.
From the kitchen, she watched Iggy tug and run outside, apparently forgetting about the Christmas gifts.
Still holding Freddie, Liz waited until Arnie hooked the straps on his Oshkosh overalls and then went to him. “I hope Iggy did okay with the strap. I’m sorry my hands were full, and,” she lied, “Iggy wants to be more useful around here.”
Arnie gazed at the child.
“My sister’s baby.” Liz waited for his reaction and it surprised her.
“When Svez was a baby he had dark hair. Ma said I had yellow hair like Martha’s baby. But now it’s white.”
Liz considered the differences between Freddie and her children. All four boys had dark hair, narrow faces with thin lips and small pointed noses. Freddie’s face was round with a small flat nose, similar to Thelma as a baby.
“I guess all children are different, Arnie, but this one’s special.” Liz wanted to continue their conversation, hoping it would encourage him to accept the new member of their family.
“Ma called me her special child.” He reached and pulled back the blanket half-covering Freddie’s face. “Not special no more.” As he walked away, he mumbled, “Not special, just different.”
Liz followed him with her eyes all the way to the barn. “I bet you were her special child.” She reflected on Iggy and said under her breath, “All my children are special.”
Iggy appeared from behind the large oak tree in their front yard and wandered back into the house. “Ma, I don’t wanna help Arnie no more. Let Thelma do it.” He returned to the front room and picked up the curiously shaped Christmas present. His eyes bright with anticipation and his breathing accented with a guttural sound, he shook it and pointed it toward the ceiling.
Liz decided he was a little more special than the others. Same as Arnie? What did Arnie mean, not special, just different? Had he used those differences to survive? She remembered her mother-to-son talk after Svez caught him masturbating. Would Iggy turn to Ida? Her older boys went there and gave a ridiculous excuse about her chores. Could Father Reinhardt save him from Ida? From abusing himself?
“Please don’t make those noises. They make you sound like Podue.”
“Pa says George, Herman and Ralph are tomcats. I don’t wanna be one of them.”
“I’m sorry I compared you to a puppy. Your brothers aren’t tomcats either.”
Iggy clutched the package under his arm. “Is this one for me? I think I know what’s inside. Is it mine?”
“We’ll see.” Liz pointed toward her bedroom door. “Now, put it back where you found it.” She placed Freddie in his crib and returned to her darning. Could her son learn something from Arnie? Could he gain strength from his differences, maybe even power? Or had he already figured that out?
She glanced up at Iggy still standing in the doorway to her bedroom. “Helping Arnie with his truss is your job from now on. You guys all have to pitch in and do more of the work around here.”
“It feels like a shotgun. Is it mine?”


Christmas morning, Liz sat on the couch with Freddie on her lap and forced a smile while Thelma opened her present. “It’s a store-bought dress. I hope you like it.”
“Thanks, Ma.” She stood and held it to her shoulders. “I’m gonna save it for church on Sundays.”
Iggy clutched his present and squirmed but waited until Thelma sat back on the floor next to him. He usually complained about Thelma opening hers first because she was the youngest. Liz was proud of him.
“Go ahead, Iggy. You’re next.”
He tore away the bright outer wrapper and then rounds of newspaper. “A shotgun! I knew it.” He aimed it at the ceiling and yelled, “Pow! I got me a goose. Thelma can cook it for dinner.”
“We already got one roasting in the oven.” Thelma reached under the tree and selected another present. “Some chickens, too.” She passed it to Ralph who, along with George and Herman, sat on the kitchen chairs she had lined up facing the tree.
“It weren’t a goose you shot.” George reached for Iggy’s gun. “You killed our poor little Christmas-tree angel.”
Iggy glanced toward the top of the tree. “Hey, Ma. Where’s the angel?”
“You shot him, Iggy.” Ralph tore away colorful wrappings. “But, don’t worry. He don’t wanna be stuck on a dumb tree anyhow. How’d you like pine needles stuck up your ass every Christmas?”
Herman said, “Shut up, Ralph, and open it so I can be next.”
Iggy continued to face the bare treetop. “I didn’t . . ..”
Liz wanted to protect him from his brothers’ teasing, but soon she’d be unavailable to save him from anything. Pity momentarily overcame her fear. “You didn’t hurt the angel. He’s not up there because he’s on an errand.”
“Hope he ain’t out buying more presents.” Svez slid the largest package toward his captain’s chair with his foot. He wedged his reading glasses onto his nose, studied the nametag and shoved it back under the tree. “From the looks of this pile, you can’t tell we had a bad harvest.” He shook his head and glanced over his glasses toward Liz. “Might be buying hay ’fore winter’s over.”
“I used egg money I’d been saving for a rainy day. I want this Christmas to be special. Besides, these are things you’ll be needing.”
“Needing?” Svez’s eyes met hers. “For what?”
She ignored him. “Go ahead, Ralph. Open the box.”
“Yeah, Ralph, get the lead out.” George faked another shot at the tree and handed back Iggy’s gun. “I gotta get to Buddy’s soon as we’re done here.”
Svez said, “The Café is closed, including Buddy’s back room. Folks would sic the Revenuers on him if he sold liquor on Christmas.”
“George gets in.” Herman grabbed his present from under the tree and leered at Thelma. “Buddy lets all his good customers in through a back door when the café is closed.”
Ralph pulled a jackknife from his pocket, opened it and cut the string from around the box. “Buddy let me in one time. My moustache makes me look as old as George.” Ralph tugged the few scraggly hairs sprouting under his nose.
“You keep talking smart and I’ll pull them out with a tweezers when you’re sleeping.” Herman began opening his present.
“You guys better stop talking dumb.” Thelma squinted toward the tree. “Where’d you put the angel, Mama? I took him out of the box with all the other ornaments.”
Thelma called her Mama, not Ma as usual, and the boys didn’t tease. Liz put the bottle’s nipple into Freddie’s mouth and wished her breasts magically filled with milk. She said, “The angel took Martha to heaven and hasn’t come back yet.”
Her family didn’t believe it, but the angel would never again grace their Christmas tree. It would lay beside Martha forever. She imagined an angel, pine needles and all, following Martha up to heaven.
“Your Ma don’t need no angel.” Svez stood and walked over to her and tickled the baby’s chin. “She gotta new one. A live one.”
Liz beamed.
After all the presents were opened and her family fussed with a collection of shirts, pants, tools, sling shots, one shotgun, books and a couple of baby rattles, Liz said, “Thank you for the nice shawl. I’m sure all of you pitched in to help Thelma knit it.”
“I wound the yarn from the skein,” Iggy said as he carried chairs back to the kitchen.
Liz said, “You boys take Arnie’s gift out to him in the barn while Thelma prepares dinner.” She handed Freddie to her daughter. “Take him into the kitchen where it’s nice and warm.” She pressed against the arm of the couch and struggled to her feet. “You don’t mind getting everything ready, do you?”
“Not at all.” Thelma placed the baby in his crib near the kitchen stove. “Dinner won’t be ready for a couple of hours, and I don’t want you guys pestering the cook.” She put her hands on her hips and glared into the front room. “That’s me in case you don’t know.”
Herman grabbed Arnie’s present and ran out the door, Ralph chasing after him. George followed as far as the kitchen, paused and turned back.
“Thanks, Ma.”
Liz paused alongside Svez’s chair and touched his hand. He peered over the rims of his glasses and smiled. She stepped into their bedroom and shut the door.
Lying on her bed, emotions drained, only a nagging sadness remained. She expected a lot from Thelma, but some girls her age were already married with families to care for.
Liz talked to Martha whose presence she felt. “You were Thelma’s age when Ma died, and I wasn’t free to help you. All those years, you stayed with Pa even after the boys left. And then him taking a new wife. She’s the reason you agreed to marry Henry. In your thirties, what other prospects did you have? Poor thing, attached to an old man with horrible sons.” She felt a surge of anger. “It killed you.”
Someplace between dozing and dreaming, she heard Martha’s weak voice from the hospital bed. “There are certain things I want to do before I rest in the arms of Jesus.”
Henry cowered in the corner of the room and muttered, “She ain’t dying. Don’t need to do nuthin’ in nobody’s arms.”
“I don’t want to die in the hospital.” She faced her husband. “Take me home, Henry.”
He glanced down at her as she struggled to sit up and then said to Liz, “Find her clothes. I’ll get the car.”
“You’ll have to check her out in the business office.” Liz peered into the small closet across from Martha’s bed.
“I ’spose they want money.” He stormed out of the room.
“He gets mad because I can’t make him and the boys meals anymore. I don’t think he likes our baby either. When they brought Freddie for me to nurse, he said he had more important things to do than watch me try to feed my kid.”
Liz set her clothes on the foot of the bed and brushed strands of hair from her sister’s face. “Getting sick isn’t your fault. And, you were carrying a baby, your first. Henry’s got to understand.”
“He ain’t a bad man. He works hard and wants what’s best for his two boys. He took me in when I had no place to go. I couldn’t stay with Pa and his new wife. It wouldn’t have been right.”
Henry stomped into the room and said, “Get her ready. We’re gettin’ out of here.” He jammed some papers into his coat pocket and put on his hat. “Guess a fella can’t pay for doctorin’ with a few chickens and a smoked ham like Pa did when Ma went to the hospital. They charged me more’n the rent on the north forty.”
While a nurse helped Martha dress, Liz and Henry stood in the hallway with the doctor who explained her condition. “The pregnancy probably slowed her cancer, nature’s way of favoring the unborn child inside. Her baby is doing fine, but don’t be surprised if her condition gets worse quite rapidly.” He crossed his arms around the clipboard held against his chest. “I’m sorry, but we can’t do anything for her here that can’t be done at home. Make her as comfortable as possible. Is there anyone who can help take care of the infant?”
“I’m her sister,” Liz said as Henry pushed the toe of his work shoe back and forth on the floor, his eyes glued to the track it made. “I can take Freddie for a while.” She stared at the name printed on the white coat behind the clipboard. “Martha’s only thirty-five. Isn’t she kind of young to get cancer?”
“Sometimes it runs in certain families. As her sister, you might want to visit a doctor for a checkup.”
Not sure if she had been dreaming or if she was still at the hospital, Liz asked, “What good did doctors do for poor Martha? I’m afraid they can’t help me either.”
She got out of bed, dipped a washrag into the basin on her dressing table and dabbed her face. Maybe her loss of energy was a false alarm and she didn’t have Martha’s illness. Dying didn’t frighten her as much as leaving her family to fend for themselves. Would Svez remarry and force Thelma out, or would he keep his only daughter at home never to have her own family? She told herself she wouldn’t die, ran a brush through her hair and opened her bedroom door.
From the archway to the kitchen she asked, “Why is everybody squeezed to one end of the table?”
“We all moved down to make room for Freddie. I gave him my place since I’m not the baby in the family anymore.” Thelma brought platters of meat and potatoes from the stove. “I tried to put him in my old high chair, but he’s too little. We just pulled his crib to the table instead. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course, I don’t. I see George is back from Buddy’s.” She sat at her usual place next to her husband and glanced at the new family member on her other side.
“Freddie didn’t want me to leave.” George touched the baby’s nose and then sat down.
“I don’t think you cooked a big enough goose, Thelma. Not if Freddie’s going to eat with us.” Herman grabbed the gizzard from the end of Iggy’s fork.
“You’re dumb.” Iggy glared at Herman and stabbed his fork into slices of white meat on the platter. “He ain’t got no teeth.”
“His Pa ain’t got teeth either, but he eats okay.” Ralph grabbed a drumstick, laid it on his plate and held his fork protectively above it.
“Yeah, but he keeps special-made ones in his pocket until he needs them.” Thelma glanced into the crib and sat beside it.
Ralph held the drumstick in his fist. “He’s ’bout the same size as a goose.” He ripped off a strip of meat with his teeth. “Maybe we should pass him around the table.”
“Ralph!” Liz scolded.
“Sorry, Ma. I meant just to look at, not eat.”
“Maybe he is a goose.” Herman sucked fat off his fingers. “Did you ever see the stuff he keeps in his diaper?”
“I’d sooner clean his underwear than yours, Herman.” Thelma touched the mashed potatoes, reached into the crib and let Freddie suck on her little finger.
“Herman’s underwear weren’t bad ’til I started him chewing tobacco.” George grabbed the gravy bowl, covered his meat and potatoes to the edge of his plate and handed it across the table to Thelma. “Here. Give Freddie something to go with them spuds?”
Svez said, “Enough dumb talk. Your Ma ain’t liking it.”
“I liked what George said about Freddie keeping him from Buddy’s.” Liz reached into the crib and wiped the trace of potatoes from the side of the baby’s mouth. She glanced up and noticed Arnie standing at the end of the table. “Sit with us, Arnie. It’s Christmas. I don’t want you to eat in your room today.” She pointed toward the crib. “We have a dinner guest.”
Arnie glanced toward the crib and cleared his throat. Everyone faced him as he held his plate and waited for the food to be passed. With his free hand he spooned a large helping of potatoes and smothered it with gravy. He steadied his plate with both hands and said to Thelma as she returned from the stove with a platter of meat, “Gimme a couple of them legs.” But instead of turning to leave, he set his plate on the table and sat down.
Surrounded by her entire family, Liz whispered, “Thank you, Arnie.”
Thelma realized Iggy needed to talk when he wandered over to the kitchen sink, grabbed the towel and wiped the plate she had washed and rinsed. She teased him. “I thought you’d be out shooting rabbits with your new shotgun. You aren’t sick are you? Helping me with the dishes?” She brushed a soapy hand across his forehead. “Here, let me check for a fever.”
“Hey, you’re gettin’ soap in my eyes.” He wiped his face with the towel, walked around the kitchen table twice and returned to the sink. “Was it bad to look at her?” When Thelma didn’t answer, he went on. “I don’t think I’d wanna see the body. Did you have to touch it?”
Thelma closed her eyes and returned to the day her aunt died. Henry’s oldest son, Herbert, had driven into their yard with his father’s Ford. Ma cried, “Oh, dear Jesus! It’s happened,” and she ran out to him. Thelma waited until the car drove off and then joined Liz, who stood and stared toward the barn. She said, “Aunt Martha passed away this morning. Run and tell Pa. We have to leave right away. Iggy can watch Freddie.”
“Do I have to go? I hate Uncle Henry’s dark and smelly house.” She rushed to the barn without waiting for an answer.
On the way to Henry’s farm, her mother explained what to expect. “Aunt Martha’s gone, certainly to heaven after her hard life here. But, there are things needing to be done with the body she left behind. The priest will perform what’s important, and we have to get her ready before he can touch her.”
Thelma imagined Aunt Martha’s body lying on the bed, or worse, on the floor. Surely, Henry would have at least put her on the couch. The rest of her mother’s instructions were a blur.
They found Henry sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, and he spoke to them in short bursts. “Good, you’re here. She died in bed, early this morning. I sent Herbert to get you. My phone don’t work no more. The boys are doin’ the chores. I stayed in the house. She’s in the front room. Couldn’t make it upstairs to the bedroom no more.”
Thelma wished he’d stop talking. She wanted to follow her mother into the front room but was afraid. Henry suddenly became quiet, pressed his lips together and made grotesque movements with his mouth. He resembled Iggy when he made faces to tease her.
“Damn false teeth.” Henry pressed his thumb against the roof of his mouth, and a trickle of dark liquid ran down his chin.
She heard her mother call from the front room, “I need help in here.”
“I gotta git to the barn. Go help yer Ma.” Henry leaned over the sink, released a string of tobacco juice and left the kitchen.
The memory of it made Thelma gag as she stared into the soapy dishwater. Why did Aunt Martha let the men chew tobacco in the house? Ma never allowed it. Her mind refused to go back into the room where her mother had stood over Martha’s naked body.
“Thelma?” Iggy twisted the towel and sounded frightened.
She didn’t answer but continued to wash the plates and rinse them in the basin. She placed them on the drain board for him to dry, but he stared and held the towel with both hands. He wadded it into a ball, set it on the washstand and walked toward the door.
“Yeah, it was hard to look at Aunt Martha lying cold and all blue in the face. I did touch her, but Ma did most of the work.”
“Work? What work needed doing?” He stopped and gaped at Thelma. “Was she dressed?”
“She died in her night gown, but Ma took it off, so we could wash her and put on her burial dress.” Even dead animals bothered Iggy. When Pa and Arnie butchered a cow or a pig, he hid in the barn until the meat was cut up into small pieces and ready for the smokehouse. When her mother chopped heads off chickens or geese, he covered his face until they stopped flopping and bleeding.
“Did you help dress her?” He returned to the sink, picked up the towel and wiped his forehead.
“I lifted Aunt Martha’s head while Ma combed her hair.” She hoped he’d stop asking questions. The experience still frightened her, and she didn’t want him to dwell on their Aunt’s nakedness.
He knotted the towel and laid it aside. “I don’t think I could’ve done it.” He walked into the front room and returned with his shotgun. He dug through the desk against the back wall of the kitchen and grabbed some twelve-gauge shotgun shells. “I gotta go shoot me some rabbits.”
“Thought you wouldn’t touch dead things.”
“Rabbits is okay, if I get to shoot them.” He left the kitchen and slammed the storm door behind him.
Thelma picked up the towel and continued to dry the dishes. “I didn’t think I could do it either, but I did.”

CHAPTER SIX (posted 1/27/2019)

(Summer 1933)
Svez was dumbfounded when Liz stopped the car beside the empty hay wagon where he waited for Iggy to bring the team of horses.
She rolled down the window. “I’m going to see Father Reinhardt because I want to record Freddie’s baptismal records in the family Bible.”
“You’re going to do what?” He jabbed the pitchfork into the ground and grabbed the car door as if he might yank it open.
“Freddie lives with us now, and I want everything done right. I promised Martha we’d treat him like one of our own, and Father Reinhardt will tell us how to make it proper.”
“’Course he belongs with us. You and your sister settled that last fall. I agreed and even Henry went along with it.” She touched his hand and he pulled it back. “Reinhardt ain’t got no say in the matter. It’s our business, not his.”
“I’ll be back this afternoon.” She let out the clutch and slowly inched forward as he walked alongside. “Thelma will take care of Freddie and make lunch for you and the boys.”
“What if I need you when you’re gone?”
“Well, you better get used to it.” She sped out the driveway.
He yanked the pitchfork loose, tossed it onto the wagon and grabbed the hitch as Iggy guided the horses back toward him.
On the way to the field, Iggy snapped the reins as his brothers waved and cheered from the top of their load heading toward the barn. “They beat us, Pa.”
“’Cause there’s three of them, and only two of us,” Svez said, but he blamed Liz for their late start, not the time he spent spend discussing the matter with Arnie in the barn and then returning to the kitchen for a second cup of coffee.
Liz’s strange behavior continued to bother him as he stood on the wagon and caught the hay Iggy tossed to him. Got to get used to what? There had been babies in the house before. He reflected and totaled five, running the names through his mind. He had accepted Freddie just like a real son. A priest can’t fix something that don’t need fixin’. He sniffed the air as if checking for danger when a pitchfork sailed along with a clump of hay.
Iggy squinted against the sun, small bits of leaves and dust floating in the air. “Oops. That weren’t just hay.”
Svez gasped, “I gotta get back to the house. Get up here and drive the horses. I need my hands to stop the bleeding.”
“What bleeding?
“You got me in the leg. Now get up here.”
“I can ride ’em.” He jumped on the back of one mare and slapped the other’s rump to get the team moving.
Svez fell back as the wagon jerked forward, and Iggy forced the horses to a trot faster than normal for draft animals. When they got to the yard, Iggy jumped off and brought the team to a full stop near the barn. At the water trough, the horses drank while Iggy sloshed his face to clear away the sweat and dirt.
With one hand thrust behind the bib of his overalls clasped to the wound on his inner thigh and his other hand grasping the fork handle, its tines anchored deep in the hay, Svez lowered himself down the side of the wagon.
He yelled, “Liz,” forgetting, possibly wanting to forget, his wife was away. “Elizabeth.” He still refused to admit she wasn’t home as he leaned forward and limped toward the house. He felt embarrassed when Thelma approached. “Get Ma.”
“She went to town. Won’t be back until this afternoon. What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“Iggy tossed the hay, pitchfork and all, while I was on top the load.” He had to look up at his daughter, and his stooped posture humbled him. “Soon as your Ma left to see Reinhardt, I’d knew she’d be needed. The horses are riled, and them clouds is full of rain. Ain’t gonna hold back much longer.”
“Iggy’s getting the horses settled down, and I can help you.”
He brooded. Baptismal records weren’t reason enough to make a special trip to town. When old Father Busch was still pastor, women didn’t run to him for every little thing. Matter of fact, Busch didn’t hardly see no one. Housekeeper did everything, ’cept say Mass on Sunday. Maybe she shoulda preached for him, too. Then he’d still be here with Reinhardt stuck back in the school for priests where he couldn’t mess in people’s business.
“The fork got me in the leg.” He purposely left Iggy’s part out. “I knew this would happen while your Ma’s off with that damn priest. I shoulda let Arnie have his way.” He chuckled at the idea of a boar pig named Reinhardt.
Her father’s reaction confused Thelma, and she was unsure how or if she should help him. What would her mother do? “I can help you. I’m sixteen, and Ma says I should start taking the part of a full grown woman.” By the time they got to the kitchen, she noticed blood seep through his overalls. “Come sit by the sink.”
He went directly to his captain’s chair in the front room. Whenever he sat there, her mother kept the family away to give him some alone time. Thelma waited in the kitchen.
“Bring soap and water and some of the iodine from the Watkins man. Find an old sock or towel in the rag bag to stop the bleeding.”
Thelma froze. How bad was he hurt and could she bear to look at it?
Her reaction to obey overcame her fear. When she stood beside him with the washbasin and towel in one hand and small bottle of a red liquid in the other, she panicked. His pants had to come off. Flushed with fear and embarrassment, she assured herself she could do whatever her mother expected.
“Take off your overalls.”
She played her mother’s role in a skit like the ones from country school. She was thrust onto a stage alone with her father and no audience. He stood and unhitched one of the straps from the bib but couldn’t reach the other. She hesitated, then set down her medical supplies and with both hands released the second hook easing the loosely fitting overalls down to his shoes. The blood had oozed between his fingers and glued them to his inner thigh. She gasped when she realized his hand was thrust through the inside of his boxer shorts.
“Good thing I weren’t wearing long johns.” He sat down hard, his feet tangled in his overalls. “They’d have to come off too.”
She nodded, but couldn’t help but feel her father was already naked.
“When I pull my hand away, put a rag on the cut to keep it from bleeding.” He slid his hand back through his shorts and held it awkwardly in the air.
Thelma pressed the towel to the wound, then lifted it. The sight made her weak.
“Bleeding’s stopped,” she whispered and waited for more instructions but got none. She dipped a towel into the basin of water and, careful not to reopen the cut, dabbed at the dried blood. A bulge began to appear on his shorts. She averted her eyes, fixing her gaze on his reddened hand protectively raised above her. It mesmerized her. She lifted his other hand from the arm of his chair and placed it on the rag.
“Hold this tight so the bleeding don’t start up again.” She reached up, gently touched his bloodstained hand and guided it into the basin of warm water. She washed each of his fingers and felt his hand become limp.
The image of the hand reddened with blood slowly melted into the memory of an earlier time when her sow, Tess, was giving birth. The first two piglets quickly squiggled out and Tess snapped at them. Her father explained sows sometimes kill their babies. She had been used to the harsh realities of life on the farm but not for what happened next.
Her father rolled up his sleeve and reached into the birth canal. Her shock turned to delight as he drew out a squirming piglet. He handed it to her, and she felt warm liquid pass from his hand to hers.
Washing and caressing her father’s hand created a similar feeling. She again washed blood off the piglet and relished the warm liquid as it oozed through their entwined fingers. He lifted her hand from the water and laid it on the rise in his boxer shorts.
Her hand found the slit, and she felt another source of wetness. She had hesitated to take the pulsating piglet, and now her reluctance embarrassed her. She felt his hand gently but firmly hold hers to the warm, wet, pulsating creature. She accepted the gift, hesitantly at first and then willingly, as she enclosed it between her fingers. Together they gently stroked it. She wanted to show her willingness to accept this rite of passage, but his eyes avoided hers and his whole body quivered. He leaned back and groaned.
When she realized what happened, one of his hands soaked in the basin and the other raised as if to protect her or, she shuddered, to slap her. She stared at her hands resting on his lap, cupped together as if offering or receiving a gift. She was not sure if she should show or expect appreciation. Her father gave no sign of either as he gazed toward the ceiling.
The rag covering the wound had fallen away. The cut looked ugly but it was clean. Her hands needed washing, and she placed them in the reddened and warmed water. She waited for a response, but got none.
She doused the wound with iodine, covered it with cloth and wrapped yarn around his leg to hold it in place. She hoped for some acknowledgement of their intimacy, but he only stared into space and breathed deeply. Years ago in a birthing pen, he soothed her fears. Was it now her turn to comfort him? Is this what her mother meant about becoming a woman?
“Everything’s okay. You can put your pants back on.” He stood, reached for the straps to his overalls and pulled them over his shoulders. “Ma can check if I done good when she gets home.”
She watched him limp across the yard toward Iggy who stood with the horses. She noticed Freddie’s toy on the floor alongside his playpen.
“Freddie. You’re a naughty boy. What am I gonna do with you?” She picked him up and held him so tight he couldn’t move, but he didn’t cry. Mama, am I grown up now? It don’t feel good.

Chapter Seven


“Stella.” Father Reinhardt finished his daily reading from the Breviary and wanted his morning coffee. He closed his prayer book and smiled when the tinkling sound of a bell advanced toward his office. He became a child, about to be scolded for tracking mud on his sister’s clean kitchen floor. A picture of his mother began to emerge from a depth of consciousness. Normally, these childhood memories were vague, enhanced by pictures and various stories.
This time he actually remembered his mother telling Stella, “He’s an eight-year-old boy. What do you expect?” His sister’s anger melted into a hug followed by a cookie. Tracking mud into the house wasn’t his crime this time, but would a reward follow her scolding?
Stella extended the hand not clutching her apron and flapped a small bell up and down. Following the quick back and forth motion of her head, her salt and pepper hair momentarily flared and resettled into equal halves divided precisely at a part in the middle.
“I’m sorry, Stella.” He stood, reached for the bell and placed it on his desk. “I’ll keep it in front of me so I won’t forget to use it.”
“Bring it to the dining room tonight. You do remember Frank and Gloria Lorenz are dining with you?”
His sister encouraged his relationship with this couple because they owned the only bank in Bovine—or had she considered their Spanish Catholicism more interesting than the German variety around Bovine?
“Please join us tonight. They’re quite nice people.”
“It isn’t proper for the priest’s housekeeper to dine with the guests. Just remember to use this bell when you want to be served. I’ll have the pot roast ready around six. They’re scheduled to arrive at five.”
“You’re not only my housekeeper. I hate for people to think I’m excluding or hiding my own sister.”
“Everyone knows I am here.” A light blotch of red appeared on shallow cheeks. “Don’t forget, I kept this house for Father Busch until he . . .” She made the sign of the cross.
Shamus lowered his eyes to his appointment book, but he knew they betrayed the smile he kept from his lips. Stretching to her full height, she reached the approximate level of his shoulder, his mother’s hazel eyes glaring at him.
“Father Busch served St. Alphonse Parish when it was a missionary post and the town was called Skunk Hollow. I spent twenty years with him while you were hidden away in a monastery.” She took a step back. “God brought us together, but I won’t let you discredit Father Busch.” She shook her finger. “He was a holy man.”
“Especially after his reincarnation as the patron saint he emulated all those years.”
She peered at him past her finger, no longer shaking but still pointing, crossed herself a second time and lowered her head. “It was terrible, Shamus, what happened. I realized his mind had been leaving him when asked me to call him St. Alphonse. To avoid a sacrilege, I addressed him as Saintly Father. It satisfied him, yet he insisted the entire congregation be informed of his transformation.”
“Did he really accuse Bishop Schweibach of adultery from the pulpit?”
“I’m afraid he did mention it during one of the bishop’s visits.”
“Technically, adultery’s not possible because the bishop isn’t married.”
“Well the folks of this parish didn’t make such a fine distinction, or Bishop Schweibach didn’t feel they had. He stopped Saintly Father in the middle of his sermon and suggested immediate retirement at St. Benedict’s home for old priests. If you remember, your first official task as pastor was to read his letter of apology to the congregation.”
“He didn’t deny the adultery charge.”
Stella crossed herself a third time. “Shame on you for making fun of the bishop. Isn’t it a sin to disrespect the clergy? Or, are priests dispensed from obeying God’s second commandment?” Her eyes rolled toward the ceiling. “Or does the fourth apply?”
“I’m not sure. I better ask Bishop Schweibach.” He grinned. “Perhaps I’ll show him what you gave me the day I was ordained.” He reached into his wallet, removed a tattered card and read, “I am a priest. In case of an emergency, please call a bishop.”
“It was meant to be a joke. What if you were in an accident and needed help?”
“I printed your name and address on the back side.” Lines of anger formed on her face as she abruptly turned and left the room. He summoned her back with the bell.
She returned and gave her imitation of a British butler, “You rang, sir?”
Assured he’d been forgiven, he said, “I’ll be meeting with Mrs. Sylvester Rastner this morning. She should be here any minute. Please offer her some coffee and show her in.”
Her lips formed into a tight circle, no doubt gathering tidbits of information about his visitor, but he didn’t give her an opportunity to share any gossip. He sat down and began thumbing through papers in a folder. “She said something about baptismal records, so I’ll meet with her here in my office rather than the parlor.”
“Of course, not the parlor.” She reached across his desk and retrieved the bell. “I’ll put this on the table in the dining room. Don’t forget to use it.” She flashed him a grin, turned and left.
Stella reserved the front room for special visitors such as Frank and Gloria Lorenz or the Cunninghams who owned the local John Deere dealership. When an uncle back East gave Shamus his Cunningham Motor Car, Stella arranged for Victor Cunningham and the local newspaper editor to meet at the railroad station in Harrington when it arrived. A story with pictures of the two Cunninghams, the car and the man, appeared in the newspaper and it embarrassed Shamus. Stella and Victor were ecstatic.
When Bishop Schweibach assigned Shamus his first parish he confided, “Your sister refused to leave St. Alphonse, and she might feel responsible for keeping you from a parish in a larger town such as Harrington.”
Shamus found St. Alphonse frightening enough and appreciated his sister’s decision.
“Greater opportunity to socialize didn’t appeal to her.” The bishop sipped some wine and brushed at the drop landing on his cassock. “Claimed her vocation involved the service of God’s priests, not the community. She’d struggled to establish a proper distance between herself and the people of Bovine and didn’t want to go through the process again.” He filled his glass and gestured with the decanter, but Shamus shook his head. “I do prefer priests having their sisters as housekeepers, however that’s not the main reason for my decision.” He sat back in his chair and folded his hands. “Quite frankly, it’s time you got involved with parish work, and St. Alphonse is an excellent place to begin. You’ll find it very different from St. John’s Abbey where you’ve been a chaplain since your ordination.”
Stella entered and interrupted Shamus’ reverie. Behind her, a middle-aged woman stood erect, only the flashing of her eyes betrayed the anxiety so many visitors to rectory exhibited. Shamus rose and glanced down at his appointment book, careful to address her properly.
“Mrs. Rastner, please come in.” His gaze shifted to Stella and she disappeared back down the hall. “My sister will bring us coffee.” He gestured toward the chair in front of his desk. “Please, have a seat.” Her avoidance of eye contact made him wonder if baptism had been a ruse for a more intimate issue. His experience with counseling celibate men at the monastery offered few insights into advising married women. Husbands, often the root of their wives’ problems, seldom entered the rectory. He felt relieved when Stella reentered.
Liz stared at the shiny coffeepot, matching containers for cream and sugar, and two delicate porcelain cups with saucers on an ornate silver tray. Stella’s comment, “Shall I pour the coffee, Father?” unnerved her. She couldn’t imagine calling either of her brothers, Father.
“We’ll be fine. I’ll ring if we need anything else.” He glanced at his desk, the bell now missing, and grinned. With an exaggerated movement of her head, Stella marked the direction for her body to follow and left the room.
Liz worried Stella would eves drop, but when Father Reinhardt moved from his desk to shut the door, she felt embarrassed. He returned, poured coffee into the cups and handed one to her. She accepted it, but her hand shook and she placed it back on the tray. She stared at the book the priest held out as if she should accept it.
“All priests spend about an hour each day reading the Divine Office. It’s a wonderful book of prayers, and I like to sip coffee while I reflect on each day’s message.”
The relief she felt when he set the book back on his desk turned to anxiety as he lifted the small cup and gestured for her to follow. She wished to be back at home with her family.
“Today’s reading dealt with sadness in our lives. Yesterday’s was about joy.” He held the cup against his lips but didn’t sip at. “With the help of God’s grace, joy and sadness can be quite similar, both necessary ingredients for a healthy Christian life.”
She realized he was trying to make her feel at ease, yet she couldn’t explain why she came to him.
“I hope the reason for your visit is one of the joy variety?” He sipped and placed the cup back on its saucer. “Perhaps this meeting is not about joy, but certainly happiness derived from sadness.” His smile melted into a frown. “Tell me about it.”
This command cloaked in gentle tones unnerved her. The priest assumed a posture different than when he spoke from the pulpit where shivers of fear spread throughout the congregation, the reason her husband shied away.
Unable to bear the silence, she blurted out, “It’s about Freddie.” His frown turned into a scowl. “Freddie is, was, my sister’s boy. I promised to take care of him before she died.” She weighed her words carefully, not wanting to appear insensitive or unrefined. Was dead an acceptable word, or should she refer to her sister as passing on? A shiver of relief when he nodded and his smile returned.
“I am aware of your act of charity. Your sister would be very pleased.”
Confused and distracted, she eyed him folding his hands as if preparing a prayer. He put his head down and touched his lips to the tips of his fingers, but his eyes remained fixed on her.
“Tell Father what is troubling you.”
The figure across the desk from her ceased to be a person and became a religious symbol qualified to interpret God’s plan for man, in this case God’s plan for her.
“I’m afraid I can’t fulfill my promise.” She paused, not for effect, but to regain her composure as she fought off sobs developing deep within her chest.
He extended his hand as if preparing to offer a blessing. “Sometimes God sees in us qualities and strengths we’re not aware of. Remember, He will never give a challenge too difficult to handle. With His help—”
“It’s God who’s keeping me from my promise.” Her sobs surfaced in a mixture of anger and sorrow.
“Blasphemy.” He grasped the edge of his desk. “How can you possibly blame God for your failure?”
Terrified by the outburst, she whispered between sobs, “Father, I’m dying.”
The priest closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and Liz ran out the door, past Stella and down the hall.
Blasphemy! She understood the consequences of the unforgivable sin. Her fear turned to panic. Thoughts of dying were painful, but the threat of everlasting damnation became unbearable. Suddenly, she needed Svez. She sat behind the steering wheel enveloped in the seat where his body had formed a deep depression. She inhaled his scent, pungent tobacco and acrid sweat. Finding a pair of his work gloves, she held them to her face and wiped her tears. A Scapula of the Sacred Heart dangled from the rear view mirror, but the gloves she brushed against her cheek offered more comfort.
She noticed the hazy figure of the priest through the screen door on the rectory and panicked. Overwhelmed with thoughts of her family, her house, and the animals on the farm, she jammed her foot against the starter and the engine came alive. Father Reinhardt slowly grew smaller and smaller until he and the parish house and the church and the entire town disappeared.
“Father, I’m dying,” his accusation, blasphemy, and her desire to be with Svez, whose glove had found its way onto her hand whirled about in her mind. Blurred pictures began to assemble and reassemble on the windshield. Angels and saints, the recipients of many of her prayers, chose to show themselves. An image of Martha appeared and she spoke to it.
“My dear sister, what are you trying to tell me? I see sadness and fear in your eyes. You’re beyond those earthly matters, yet I feel your concern for me and for your son. Why has God . . .?”
She gasped. Wisps of steam had created the visions. She forgot to add water to the radiator, and her carelessness jolted her back to reality. Her mind had played tricks on her. She shut off the engine and let the car coast to the bottom of the hill near a small pond. The fading images continued to frighten her as the car cooled. She craved the comfort and safety of home. Her mind continued to imagine the faces of her family in the waves of steam advancing and retreating until a final burst resembled the image of a cross dripping slowly downward. She found an empty can in the trunk, dipped it into the pond and filled the radiator. She continued her journey home where everything would be in order.

Chapter Eight


Liz studied her family seated at the supper table, her emotions rising and falling in waves of fear followed by anger. She decided her grown children could get along without her but worried about Freddie. Thelma would take care of him, but she’d have her hands full feeding and caring for Svez and the boys. What would become of Iggy?
Her anger crested and she challenged God’s plan. Why did He decide to take her when there were so many others who weren’t needed? She’d been a good mother and a faithful Christian and didn’t deserve punishment. God ain’t fair. She remembered the shocked expression on Father Reinhardt’s face and his charge of blasphemy. She feared for her salvation.
She whispered, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph, save me.” She glanced around the table, but no one seemed to hear.
Mary, mother of God, would intercede. All the Novenas Liz had made should count for something. Her faith reassured, God certainly wouldn’t abandon her. The same determination needed to survive the rigors of farm life would get her through this crisis. She’d refuse to die. God would help her destroy the demon that attacked her body.
Her fear receded, but her face remained flush with anger. Her father had raised his fist and cursed God when things went wrong. Was she becoming like him? She remembered the razor-strap and the howls from her brothers when he punished them with it. She refused to cry when he hit her, but she shed tears when he died. May God have mercy on both their souls.
Relieved her husband, not her father, sat next to her, she whispered, “Svez,” but through the din of conversation he didn’t answer her call for help. At the altar where they exchanged vows, Liz felt she merely passed from one man to another, but soon realized Svez was different. He expected a lot but never demanded anything. He even listened to her advice when making major decisions.
Another wave of fear followed by guilt. She had made a very important decision without consulting him and wouldn’t be around to take responsibility. Why hadn’t she asked permission to take Freddie into their home? At least, tell Svez what she intended to do?
She imagined him laugh, “You want another baby? Why not? There’s always room for one more.”
She glanced at him hoping for some sign of approval, but he appeared distant and unapproachable. Yet, she found comfort in his presence knowing he was a good father to their children. He offered Arnie a home when their parents died and included him as a family member. He would do the same for Freddie.
She glanced at Arnie’s empty chair and then across to Iggy. Those two weren’t so different, always got what they wanted. She realized all the men in her family got whatever they wanted, then felt guilt for the uncharitable thought.
Svez was angry for her running to the priest, and she felt bad about lying to him. Important matters like bringing a child into the family and, she shuddered, dying should be first shared with ones husband. Maybe Svez already knew. He claimed a sixth sense for anticipating animals being sick even before he got to the barn. They sort of talked to him.
She glanced his way without lifting her head and whispered, “We’re your animals, too.”
“Huh?” His eyes seemed fixed on his untouched supper.
She felt another wave of emotion, went to the stove to replenish the meat and potatoes, and wiped her eyes with her apron. Back at the table, her family discussed an incident that deeply troubled her, but she hadn’t yet sorted through the details.
“I hear Iggy almost put Pa outta commission with a pitchfork. He shoulda had some of this sticky stuff on his hands.” George poured the last of the syrup onto his bread, grinned at Iggy and handed him the empty bottle.
Iggy held it over his plate and waited for the last drip to fall.
Herman poked Ralph. “The news got to Buddy’s bar if George heard about it.”
“George weren’t there today.” Ralph grinned at Thelma. “Besides, he only sleeps there.” His eyes roved from Herman to George. “We knowed you stayed one night, and Pa fetched you in the morning.”
“When you guys dry out behind the ears, I’ll let you join me.”
Thelma said, “At least you’ll have company.”
“What makes you think I slept alone? Mildred from the bank came to spend the night with me.” Herman and Ralph laughed, Iggy giggled, and Svez grimaced.
Liz recalled Buddy’s call waking them in the middle of the night. Svez told him George paid enough rent to sleep there ’til morning when he’d fetch him on his way to the Co-op. Then he yelled at the rubbernecks on their party line to go back to bed because the show was over. They laughed and made love before returning to sleep. Bed was their place to share each other and discuss problems from the previous day. She felt blessed to be included in her husband’s business; not many other wives were so lucky. Who will he talk to about important matters when she was gone? Another wave of denial. Please, dear Jesus.
Iggy held the syrup bottle to the light and peered into it. He touched the final drop, stuck his finger into his mouth and made a popping sound as he pulled it out. “It were an accident, what happened today.” He wiped his hand on his shirt. “Thelma fixed Pa’s leg, real good.” Thelma jumped up and went into the front room.
Svez’s face flushed and he redirected the conversation. “’Nough stuff ’bout Buddy. Talk nice for a change.”
Her husband’s annoyance with the boys’ teasing surprised Liz, and Iggy’s comment brought back the unsettling matter of the accident. Earlier when she asked to see the wound, Svez claimed it wasn’t serious.
Thelma returned to the kitchen holding Freddie. “Pa hurt his leg like I told you, Ma, and I helped him fix it. I did good and he went right back to work.”
“Was Freddie fussy?” Liz stooped to pick up the end of the blanket trailing to the floor.
“No, Ma. He never fusses.” Liz took the child and placed him in his playpen. Her intuition told her something happened while she was away, but she buried her fear in a secret compartment in her mind.
George said, “Thelma, them was peaches I saw you canning yesterday. Why don’t Iggy run down to the cellar to get some?”
“Ma, tell George they’re for next winter. There won’t be any left if we start breaking them open already.”
Liz remained at the playpen and stared.
“Iggy, get some of them peaches.” George spoke with the authority of an oldest son.
Iggy said, “Soon’s I finish supper.”
Thelma shrugged and said, “You gotta tap the lids. We need to open them first that didn’t seal proper.”
“Is Arnie eating in his room again?” Svez glanced up and asked.
The sound of his voice pulled Liz back from behind her walled-in hiding place. “I think having the baby in the house makes him edgy. He might feel there won’t be room for him if Freddie stays.”
She planned to share her concern with Svez in bed, but the engulfing cloud distracted her.
“I’ll talk to him tonight in the barn.”
All conversation stopped when Arnie entered the room, paused as if he were about to say something, then passed from the kitchen and out through the porch.
Thelma said, “He didn’t bring his cup and plate down.”
“He never does.” Liz returned to the table. “You gotta fetch them.”
“He gets mad at me when I mess with his stuff, and I know he’s got a lot of dirty dishes in his room, some with bits of his supper still on them. Always tells me he ain’t done yet. Likes to save something for late at night when he gets hungry.”
George said, “You better get them ’fore an army of mice clean them for you. Counted ’bout twenty of them little critters crawl out of Iggy’s bed this morning and head to Arnie’s room.”
“Talking ’bout mice in my bed don’t bother me none. I can just keep eating.”
Herman said, “Naw, them ain’t mice. Them’s the squirrels Iggy kicked out of the rafters above the porch.” His eyes fixed on Thelma. “Still goes up there every night to see they don’t come back.”
Iggy jumped up and sulked out to the porch. He came back and said, “I gotta get them peaches.”
“Them ain’t mice or squirrels. Them’s little piggies sticking their heads out from under Iggy’s covers.” Ralph lifted his foot and touched the tip of his shoe. “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home.” His eyes followed Iggy until he disappeared through the open trap door to the basement and then fixed on Thelma. “Remember when you pretended his toes were little piggies and you squeezed them ’til he got off giggling?”
Thelma jumped away from the table, walked to the stove with her plate, but immediately came back with it still empty.
“Now what’s the matter with you? Has everyone gone crazy?” Liz tossed her hands into the air.
“Pa hurt his leg today, and I helped him fix it real good, Ma.”
Liz said, “I know.” Svez pushed his chair back and stood. “Sit back down. We got some things to talk about, as a family.”
He mumbled, “Gotta get the chores . . .,” but plopped back onto his chair.


As Father Reinhardt turned his car into the driveway, he noticed a short, stocky man wearing a buckskin jacket stand rigidly near the gate between the house and the barnyard. Must be the brother because Stella claimed Svez was quite tall. The man faced Reinhardt until the car came to a full stop. When Shamus rolled down the window, cleared his throat and said, “Good afternoon,” the man turned his head, rubbed his palms on the sides of his jacket and hurried toward the barn.
“It must be this darn car,” he muttered to himself. “Times like this I wish I had my Ford back.” The rich aroma of leather and cigar smoke blended with the earthy smells of the farm and created an inharmonious blend much like his confusion and uncertainty. He checked for dogs and measured the distance to the open door of the white farmhouse. The bare ground where chickens and geese scratched and pecked at tiny insects contrasted with the grass and shrubs surrounding the house inside the fenced area. He scanned one more time, but other than the two dogs following the man into the barn, none were visible.
As he approached the house, he saw people sitting at a table and heard the murmur of conversation. This would be his opportunity to talk to both husband and wife, and attempt to repair the injury he may have inflicted on Mrs. Rastner earlier that day. Her disclosure and quick departure left him sitting at his desk, unable to offer words of comfort, unable to say anything to this distressed member of his flock. By the time he explained the situation to Stella and agreed to say a short prayer for Mrs. Rastner’s soul, she had escaped. He should have followed her to the parking lot instead of listening to his sister.
He failed her and now, away from his element at the rectory, he felt as out of place as his ostentatious car. Yet, he was determined to do the right thing for this family. They were his parishioners, and he’d been charged with the responsibility of taking Christ’s message of peace to them. He braced himself for the strong odors from the foods popular with country folks and the sparse interiors of their homes. He entered the porch and held his hat in front of him with both hands.
“Knock. Knock.” He announced his presence and leaned forward, peering into the kitchen awash in light from the setting sun. The room quieted and everyone gawked. His black cape startled them, he decided, and wished he had left it in the car.
He opened his mouth to start a conversation about families breaking bread together, an idea he rehearsed while walking to the house, when a creak from the back corner of their kitchen distracted him. From the floor, a door opened like the lid to a coffin, and through the hole a ghost-like figure arose carrying a golden tabernacle emanating rays of brilliant light. The apparition, probably blinded by the sunlight, reacted with a high-pitched scream. Shamus produced a note two octaves lower.
“A vampire,” a teenaged boy screamed as he held a jar of peaches protectively in front of him.
Liz said, “Hush, now,” and faced Shamus. “Are you all right, Father? Would you like some water?”
Shamus spied a pail with a dipper hooked on its rim and declined. Sylvester Rastner, Shamus assumed, hunched his shoulders as he stood, craned his neck and peered over his glasses at three sons who immediately got up and hurried out of the house. He pointed to the chair closest to him.
“Please, Father, take George’s seat.” He extended his hand. “We’ve never actually met. I’m Svez Rastner.”
Shamus accepted the extended hand. “I’m sorry if I interrupted your boys’ dinner.” Svez shrugged.
Liz said, “They’ve got their chores. Can I get you anything, Father?”
“No, thank you.” He sniffed quietly, trying to identify an odor, and then blurted, “Kraut?”
“Would you care for some sauerkraut, Father?” Liz gestured toward the stove. “It’s from an old family recipe.”
His impulse possibly created the opportunity he needed to open conversation on the delicate issue of her illness. “I haven’t had sauerkraut in years. Yes, I would like to try a little, please.”
“Fix Father a plate,” directed at the girl who was clearing dishes from the table.
From the corner of his eye, he watched her take a plate from the stack, give it a quick swipe with her apron and fill it with a glob of sauerkraut, strings dripping from the ladle. A burst of strong aroma filled the air.
“How about a potato?” Mrs. Rastner asked. “The kraut is pretty strong to eat by itself.”
“Yes, thank you. I’m sure one will be necessary.” He laced his fingers but resisted cracking his knuckles. “I am truly sorry for bothering you folks at dinner time.”
The boy stood behind his sister and whispered, “It’s supper, not dinner, and we won’t get to eat them peaches.”
Shamus faced the plate in front of him and decided to get to the point of his visit. “I feel duty bound to make myself available to families of St. Alphonse Parish who are experiencing troubles God has chosen to send their way.”
Shock appeared on the boy’s face and his breathing became audible. He retreated to the porch where he stood as if being punished.
“Trouble? We don’t got no trouble I know about.” Svez grimaced as he glanced at his daughter and then back at the priest. His voice cracked. “What kind of trouble do you mean?”
Almost child-like, the girl said, “Father, after you’ve eaten why don’t you come out to the barn to see my baby pigs?”
“I should like to see all the animals and,” as an after thought, “bless them while I’m here.”
Liz said, “Thelma, you haven’t raised pigs for some years now. What’s gotten into you?” She took a deep breath. “Iggy, get the boys. Better bring Arnie, too. I’ve got something to tell everyone.”