He sat on the platform near the top of the windmill and squinted at the sun. The rotation of the fan broke the light into manageable segments, explosions of sunlight momentarily blocked with the tack of the following blade. He covered one eye and when the other began to water and his vision blurred, he moved his hand to the other side of his face. The wind shifted, and the fan no longer filtered the light. With both eyes open, he spread his fingers and peered between them as he waved his hand back and forth. Additional fingers magically appeared, fluttering and dancing in the sunlight.
A cool breeze brushed across his face. He closed his eyes, and imaginary creatures from his nightmares playfully floated across a blood-red sky. A trick to fool him until nighttime when they’d again become dark monsters. Thelma said they were animals searching for a place to sleep. If he could tame them critters, they might never again frighten him.
He opened his eyes and scanned the horizon. He could see so much at one time, and it was all safely far away. The distant woods, crisscrossed roads and farm buildings looked like those in the coloring book Thelma gave him for his fifth birthday. He was always careful not to color outside the lines.
A giant black finger pointed to a bright red tractor. The tractor stopped and the finger drifted away. A new one came out of the tractor, puffed up and disappeared into the clear blue sky. Magically, the color of the ground behind the tractor changed from gold to black.
The wind shifted and the rotating blades swung like a door opening. A vast cornfield appeared. Tassels swayed gently and created a sheen of ever-changing shades of green. They shimmered like the tinsel on their Christmas tree.
He heard Thelma call his name. He refused to answer. He didn’t want her to find his hiding place. She might not let him climb there anymore. He wanted to be away from the world below.
“Freddie.” Thelma shielded her eyes and gazed around the yard. “Freddie, where are you?” She paused and listened. “Answer me, Frederick!”
After searching all his usual hiding places, she visualized the unthinkable. The road. The creek. Wanting to run both directions at once, she checked the gravel road past their farm even though she told him never to play there. He usually obeyed. Relieved to find no broken body, no cars and no unsettled dust from recent traffic, an even more horrible image emerged; Freddie drowned in the creek and carried away by the current. But, the creek was low that time of the year, and two fences separated it from the yard. He was merely playing hide-and-seek, the only game he ever played with her and Iggy.
She tried a new strategy. “Ninety-nine, one hundred. Ready or not, here I come.” She listened carefully for the rustling sounds that sometimes gave away his hiding place, but only heard the wind turning the windmill and the water swishing as it pulsed through the pipes to the horse trough. Desperate, Thelma gazed at a wisp of clouds, but her mother’s star wasn’t available.
If Iggy were home, he’d know how to find the boy. Freddie never asked anyone to play with him, but he usually enjoyed the game of hide-and-seek. When she had time to join them, Freddie and Iggy, hand in hand, would run off together.
Her father could make Freddie laugh by pretending to steal his nose, pull things out of his ears and romp on the floor. George, Herman and Ralph sometimes made him giggle when they teased and played rough. When the games ended, Freddie always pulled back and never begged or even asked for more playtime. Often, she’d forget about him until he’d wander into the kitchen to eat. Today, he failed to come in for his afternoon snack.
Frightened and frustrated, she went into the barn and sat on the three-legged milk-stool her father used twice every day. Her brothers’ chairs had only one leg, and they strapped it to themselves. Like beasts of burden, they moved from cow to cow, wooden tails protruding from their rears. If she entered the barn at milking time, they’d swing the chair forward, point the tail toward her and ask if she wanted anything. On a dare, Iggy left the barn with his stool on backwards, and Liz caught him. He got scolded and the boys agreed to stop their game.
Being an only girl among brothers and mostly male cousins, Thelma was subjected to bawdy comments and rude behavior. The sound of their laughter varied depending on what the men thought was funny. Her father’s short bursts encouraged others to join him and got loud when bawdy jokes were exchanged. When he released little puffs of air that curled into a tight giggle, Thelma figured he was embarrassed, frightened or angry. Rather than admit these emotions, he reacted as if something had amused him.
She distinctly remembered an afternoon when he came in from the barn and noticed her mother tenderly coddling an infant. He stood with his thumbs in the straps of his overalls and gave his not-so-funny kind of laugh. After an uncomfortable silence, he released one thumb and with index finger pulled the blanket from the baby’s face. He said one word, a question.
Liz nodded. He left the house and didn’t return until suppertime.
Thelma heard his same laugh another time when Freddie’s pa stopped by while they were eating breakfast. Henry sneered when she stood to greet him, plopped down on her chair, grabbed her half-empty cup and held it toward the stove. She dribbled hot coffee over his fingers as she filled what had been her cup. He set it on the table, licked his finger with a tobacco-stained tongue and flashed her a toothless grin.
He slowly moved his gaze toward Svez. “You got all dem boys. Why don’t you let me have one for a while? Herbert left me to work in town, and with just Clyde I’m a bit short handed.”
“Boys ain’t like a piece of field machinery.” Her father produced his false laugh. “You just can’t borrow one from relatives.”
“You got to keep Freddie.”
Svez grimaced. “He’s just a baby.”
“Babies grow up.”
As Thelma sat on her father’s stool, she pulled her dress over her knees and parted her legs, the normal position for holding a milk pail. Seeing the cream-colored flesh of her thighs, seldom exposed in broad daylight, frightened and titillated her. She remembered her terrible fear the one time her period came late. Had her father gotten her pregnant, her child would be a year younger than Freddie. Suddenly, the chair under her felt white-hot.
She jumped up and screamed, “Pa.” Knotting her clenched fists into her lower abdomen, she ran from the barn and yelled, “Freddie! Frederick! Where are you?” She cupped her ear, but she might as well have called the cats.
She whistled for Freddie’s dog, Podue, and he meandered from under the corncrib. “Find Freddie.” She made an arcing gesture with her arm, and the dog followed the movement with his head.
He understood fetching the cows but had no idea she wanted him to find a lost five-year-old. Bewildered, he returned to his spot in the shade. Thelma sauntered back into the house and continually peered through windows hoping Freddie would get hungry enough to come in for a snack.
Arnie reined the team and climbed down from a load of hay. “I ’spect he’s atop the windmill,” he explained as he unhitched his horses, removed their harnesses and let them trot off to the corral behind the barn. “Goes up there some times.”
Thelma rushed to the tower, pulled her dress to her knees and reached for the lowest rung of the ladder. No way Freddie could have reached it without cat walking along the cross braces.
“Iggy gets him down, usually.” Arnie gestured toward the field-road. “Him and yer pa is just ’round the corner.” He walked into the barn, closed the bottom half of the door and watched.
Thelma stepped down, ran toward the oncoming wagon and shouted, “Pa, Freddie’s up there.” Svez tilted his head the direction she pointed. “Arnie said Iggy’s gotta get him down.”
“I’ll be darned.” He glanced back at Iggy, then gestured with his head toward the small face peering down at him. “Go up and help him.” He slid down from the load, wandered into the barn and doused his face in the cooling tank.
“Hurry, before he falls.” Thelma’s voice quivered.
“Soon’s I get the team unhitched.” Iggy peered down at his sister and jumped off the load. “There’s no hurry.” He slung the harnesses over the gate and slapped the horses’ rumps. They trotted off. “Won’t come down ’til he’s ready, anyway.”
Iggy understands more’n any of them, Arnie thought as he climbed the ladder to the haymow and traipsed across mounds of hay. Between the slats in the cupola, he watched Iggy’s head poke through the opening in the platform on top of the windmill, and then his arm reach out toward the boy. Freddie shoved Iggy’s hand back.
Boys, yer little secret’s out. Now whatcha gonna do? Arnie felt the breeze that drove the fan, heard the gears meshing and observed the arm of the cam driving the rod up and down. He muttered. “I ain’t never gonna climb up there. Folks on the ground kin see a body up there.” Safe in his cocoon, he watched Freddie follow Iggy down the ladder. Iggy aimed Freddie toward the house, slapped his rump and then disappeared into the barn.
Arnie waited until Freddie entered the house before he crawled down to start his chores. He stood by the calf pen, listening to the boys’ reaction to Freddie’s accomplishment.
George, Herman and Ralph, foreheads pressed against the bellies of the cows they were milking, laughed and yelled back and forth above the swoosh-swoosh of milk splashing into pails.
“Freddie just broke your record, Ralph.” George grabbed his cow’s tail as it slapped him in back the neck. He raised the tail above his head and peeked out at his brother across the aisle.
“Yeah, I was seven ’fore I climbed up there.” Ralph stopped milking, stood and peered over his cow’s back. “I guess Freddie ain’t no baby no more.”
Herman, tucked his cow’s tail between his leg and the half-full pail of milk and said, “Too bad Ma ain’t here to give him his proper scolding.”
Arnie held his breath when he heard Liz mentioned.
Herman paused, stood and then stooped as he massaged his cow’s udder. The leg of his stool drooped toward the gutter. “Ain’t that so?”
George and Ralph froze, hands clasped to their cows’ teats. Neither said a word. Slowly the rhythm of milk spurting into milk began, first two beats, then four. Soon Herman sat back down, grabbed two teats and added to the harmony.
Arnie crawled out from the calf pen, wandered to the half-opened barn door and stared at the house. The kid don’t need Liz for scoldin’ or for nuthin’ else. He’s got Thelma now.
A year later when Thelma enrolled Freddie for the first grade, the experience turned out to be more unsettling for her than for him. After introducing him to Miss West, she helped him locate his assigned desk. He raised and lowered the seat before climbing on to it. He slid his hands along the edges of the desktop, across the surface scarred with initials carved by previous students and fingered the hinges. He lifted the lid, faced Thelma and grinned. She handed him a tablet, color crayons and pencils, and he aligned them side by side. When another student approached, he stopped coloring and stared at the paper.
Miss West gestured for Thelma to return to the front of the room and sit alongside her desk. “How have you been these past few years?” She capped her ink pen and placed it alongside the inkwell. “So often, I’d been tempted to stop at your place after school but didn’t want to interfere. I know how busy you must be. My mother passed away when I was young, but I wasn’t left with the responsibility of caring for a family of men. You’ve been too involved to properly grieve your loss.”
“I cried when she died.”
“Crying is a noble effort to clear out some of the hurt we sometimes gather inside ourselves.” Her eyes rolled up toward the ceiling, and she shook her head. “If only men would express their pain. I wish the boys in my class would cry rather than get angry and throw things.”
Thelma agreed about the anger, but couldn’t imagine her brothers crying. Iggy might after being teased, or when Larry Collins hurt his feelings.
“How are your brothers accepting the loss of their mother?”
“Okay, I guess. It’s been four years.”
“I am anxious to begin teaching another member of the Rastner family.”
“Freddie’s last name is Tate. Pa thought it proper for him to keep it.”
“Of course. He shall be Frederick Tate. I insist on calling my students by their Christian names, and Frederick will learn to accept it. I hope you and your family continue to use his nickname. It’s more intimate.”
Thelma excused herself when she noticed a student waiting to talk to her teacher and walked back to Freddie’s desk. He opened the lid and showed her his tablet with crayons on one side and pencils on the other, all pointing forward.
“I’m going home to make lunch for the men.” She touched his shoulder. On the way to school, he warned her not to kiss his forehead like she did at home. “You be good now for your teacher, and she’ll help you if you need anything.” She glanced back from the front of the room, but Freddie’s face was hidden behind his opened desk.
Miss West said, “New students aren’t expected to stay on their first day.” Freddie glanced up, arranged each item in his desk and closed the lid. He lifted the seat and walked to the door. “Frederick, I want to see you tomorrow at nine o’clock sharp.”
Freddie clung to the folds of Thelma’s dress. “Thank you, Miss West.” He grabbed Thelma’s hand and pulled her through the door.
Thelma beamed with pride as she held his hand and began their mile-long walk home. “You were a very polite student this morning, Freddie. Miss West really likes you.”
Freddie pulled his hand away and stuck it into his pocket. “But why does she call me Fredik? I’m Freddie.”
“Frederick,” Thelma corrected. “Your full name is Frederick, but we call you Freddie because,” she fumbled to find the correct reason, “because we love you.” Freddie seemed to mull her over her words, smiled and kicked a loose stone into the ditch. “Remember when you climbed up on the windmill, and I called and called. I finally yelled, ‘Frederick, where are you?’”
“Didn’t you love me when I climbed the windmill?”
A pheasant flew out of the grass from where Freddie’s stone landed. Thelma touched his shoulder and they watched the bird settle in a near-by cornfield.
“Of course I did. I was frightened because I couldn’t find you. I thought you were hiding from me.”
“Does my teacher think I was hiding?” He took Thelma’s outstretched hand. “I was just putting things away in my new desk.”
“Miss West loves you, and she knows you weren’t trying to hide. She calls all students by their proper names.” She recalled a similar discussion seventeen years earlier. “Miss West wouldn’t call Iggy by his name either.”
“What did she call him?”
“Ignatius. She called him Ignatius, and Iggy liked it once he got used to it.”
“Iggynis?” He squinted and his lips tightened.
She laughed, but encouraged him to keep trying until he pronounced it correctly.
“Iggy’s coming.” Freddie shook his hand free from her grip.
Thelma glimpsed a lone figure stroll out of their yard and head toward them. “How do you know it’s Iggy?”
“Because, I can see him. He’s coming to ask me about my new teacher.” Freddie ran ahead, stopped and turned. “How do I say my new name again?”
“Fred-er-ick.” Thelma barely had the name pronounced when he ran toward his big brother. By the time she caught up, they were calling each other by their special school names. Thelma knew Miss West earned Freddie’s trust.
The next morning, Freddie ran out of the house without his lunch pail. She had put two sandwiches and a candy bar into a lard can that Iggy fitted with a wire handle and wooden cover. She stood on the front steps and yelled, but when he glanced back she said, “Have fun.” At noon when she brought it to him, he was at his desk busy with his colors and tablet.
He set the pail under his seat. “You can go home now.”
Freddie’s courage pleased her, and she thought about him often throughout the day. After school, she watched as George, Herman and Ralph run to meet him at their driveway.
“Hey, Freddie, let’s play football,” George yelled as scooped him up and ran toward the house.
“Where’s the ball?” Freddie giggled. “We don’t got one.”
Herman grabbed George’s arm but got hit by a swinging lard can.
“Pass me the ball.” Ralph held out his arms.
“Catch.” George tossed Freddie to Ralph before Herman knocked George to the ground.
“Got ’im.” Ralph ran through the gate yelled, “Touchdown,” and handed Freddie to Thelma. She tussled his hair and carried him into the kitchen for milk and cookies. He sat at the table, ate his snack and worked on his homework until his brothers came in from the barn.
He turned the paper face down and said, “No one can see until Svez and Arnie get here.”
Thelma wondered about Miss West’s reaction to Freddie’s calling their father by his first name.
At the supper table, Freddie displayed his artwork. “My teacher told me to draw a picture of my family.” He pointed to stick people of various colors and said, “Here’s George and Herman and Ralph.” At the end of each of their arms extended five short lines for fingers. “This is Svez with the pitch fork.” As if practicing for his presentation the next day, Freddie carefully pronounced their father’s difficult name. “Arnie’s milking a cow.” A round figure reached under a balloon-like creature standing on four stick legs. “Iggy’s in the hay barn and Thelma’s in the house.”
Iggy pointed at two square boxes on the paper and nodded. “Yup. Here’s the barn and that’s the house.”
Thelma said, “This is very nice, but I don’t see you in the picture.”
“Miss West wants to see my family.”
“You’re one of us,” Iggy said as he grabbed the pencil. “Here, let’s draw you in the empty space at the top.”
“You let Freddie draw his own picture.” Thelma took the pencil out of Iggy’s hand and gave it back to Freddie.
He drew a round featureless figure in the spot Iggy suggested. “This is me.”
Iggy grabbed the pencil, pinched it between finger and thumb and drew a curved line on the face of the small figure. “Here, Freddie. You gotta look happy.”
As the smile appeared on the picture, it disappeared on their little brother.