Saturday, November 25, 1899
Caleb’s finger travels the black swirly lines on Stella’s white tablecloth.
“Hands off the table.” Stella holds two plates. “Make room for breakfast delivery.”
Fingers walk to the edge and onto Caleb’s lap. Giggles at funny stuff Buddy did yesterday.
She sets down Caleb’s and Father’s plates of bacon and scrambled eggs.
…Didn’t tell Father to move his folded hands.
Father says, “Let us pray.”
Stella takes Caleb’s hand and makes the Sign of the Cross for him. He could do it by himself since he was four. Says the prayer in his head and signs without help when Father and Stella finish praying aloud over their meal. Yells, “Amen.”
“A little softer with your amen, please.” Stella cuts bacon into little pieces. She pours Father’s coffee and prepares a third plate of bacon and eggs.
Knocking at the door makes Father groan. “Now, who is interrupting breakfast?”
Stella sets down her plate and goes to the door. “It’s Saturday, Father. The crew from Cunningham Implement is scheduled to build Caleb’s bedroom.”
Father says, “It’s the guest bedroom, Stella.”
She opens the door. Mr. Cunningham stands holding his hat.
“Come in, Cunningham. I’ve been expecting you.” Father points to the chair across from him. “Sit with us while we finish breakfast.”
Mr. Cunningham stands behind chair. His eyes find plates of food.
…He can have Caleb’s.
“Clara prepared Quaker Oats for me this morning, so excuse me if I start to whinny.” Head back, teeth show, laughs like Milk Man’s horse.
Stella says. “Room left for scrambled eggs and bacon, Walt?”
“I shouldn’t.” He sits.
Stella says, “Take this one while it’s still hot. I’ll prepare another.”
“Oh, I couldn’t take yours. I can wait.”
Father breaks piece of bacon in half. “Will someone please join me?”
Takes a sip of milk.
Oma says, “At least drink your milk if you’re not hungry.”
Another knocking at the door. Mr. Cunningham stands. He has piece of bacon stuck in teeth. “I’m sorry. Schmidt was supposed to wait outside until I called for him.”
Father pushes his plate back. “Bring him in Walt, and let’s get on with it.”
Walt opens the door. A man walks in wearing an apron with big flat pencil sticking out. Hammer dangles from loop in pant leg. “Which way upstairs?”
Father’s and Walt’s eyes find each other. Stella sets her eggs and bacon on the table. “This way, Mr. Schmidt.” She leads him to the stairway. “How is Mrs. Schmidt, this morning?”
…Mr. Schmidt doesn’t like to talk.
Mr. Cunningham looks at egg left on plate. “I better show Schmidt what the committee has in mind for Caleb’s room.”
Father shouts, “It’s the guest room, Walt.” He looks at food left and makes sour face at Stella.
…Doesn’t like bacon and eggs, too.
Stella picks up coffee pot. A horse whinnies four times.
…Thinks of Mr. Cunningham’s laugh.
Father says. “Only Dowdy’s mare makes that calling card.”
Stella glances into Father’s full cup, and sets pot back on stove. Her eyes look down. “Emma has changed her mind and wants to ask Matt and Mary Gerhard to take Caleb.”
…No, Nana! Tears make eyes see funny.
“She wants Caleb and me to ride out with her to their farm this morning.”
Father looks sad at table and shakes his head. “I must advise against such a plan.”
“Maybe seeing Caleb will soften Matt’s heart.”
“Let’s be practical.” Father pokes fork into little bit of egg. “The boy would be isolated. Even his teacher wouldn’t be able to stop by for a meal with the family, as I understand those country schoolmarms do.”
“Emma doesn’t really believe Matt will let Mary take another child.”
Father smiles funny. “A fool’s errand, Stella?”
…Father says Emma’s words from the meeting.
Nana opens door a little bit. “This isn’t a good time, Emma.”
Emma talks loud. “Are you and Caleb ready to ride along to Matt Gerhard’s farm?”
“Father thinks we shouldn’t—”
“Let me talk to him.” Emma comes in and steps around Nana. “Good morning, Father. Sorry to barge in like this, but Buddy’s outside holding Dowdy’s mare. She’s a bit frisky this morning.”
Man-in-White says, “You can rub my horse’s nose, Caleb.”
Father says, “Stella and I discussed the situation, Emma. It’s probably not a good idea to go there.”
Emma says, “It would be a business matter, not a social visit.”
Father glances up at ceiling. “That part would be covered.” His eyes move to fork. He sets it down. “Would the rest of the Council agree with your action?”
Emma shakes her head. “They didn’t reject the idea at the meeting.” She opens door. “I’ll be waiting outside with Buddy and the horse.”
Father nods. “It might soften Matt’s heart.”
Father likes Nana’s idea. He picks up piece of bacon and looks at it. “The kid would just be under Schmidt’s feet if he stuck around here.”
…Not kid. Makes sad face.
Nana scrapes food off plates and stacks them in sink. “Come on Caleb. We better hurry.”
Father puts bacon in his mouth. He makes the Sign of the Cross.
Wind hitting the buggy stings Caleb’s face. Hides under Mother’s quilt.
Nana says, “Come out, come out where ever you are. You’re missing a winter wonderland out here.’’
Peeks out. Buddy’s mother grips armrest with one hand and hat with other hand. Blinks away tears. Shields his eyes and blinks again. “Nana, look. Emma isn’t driving the horse. Buddy’s got the reins.”
“She knows when to take over, I hope.” Nana tugs on Emma’s coat and talks loud. “Do we have to be in such a hurry?”
“I promised to bring the horse and buggy back before sundown.”
“I’ll hire a horse and buggy to bring Caleb back.”
“But, so what if we keep the rig a bit longer?” Emma grabs Buddy’s hands. “The horse can find its way in the dark.”
Buddy yells, “Let go, Ma. I can do it.”
…Buddy can do it.
Emma hold hat on head. “Don’t worry. The mare will tire and slow down any minute now.”
Scoots forward on his seat. Tree branches drooping with snow whizz past. Looks for polar bears. Spots rabbit, maybe. Eyes closed, imagines sitting next to Buddy.
Emma grabs the reins and slows the buggy. She turns the horse onto a path, snow piled up on both sides. “After each storm, Matt has to shovel through deep snow-drifts across his driveway. And almost a month to go until winter.” She shakes her head. “I don’t imagine he ever shoveled his way out after last Valentine’s Day blizzard.”
Nana makes the Sign of the Cross. “Many people got lost during that storm and froze to death.”
…Buddy can make horse find way back to town.
They stop by house, tops of other buildings peek over white mounds. A dog barks and horse rears.
Emma jerks the reins. “Whoa. It’s only us, Rex. Crawl back into your dog house.”
A man in a red plaid shirt and gray suspenders comes from house. He holds horse’s head, steam bursting from its nose.
“Hello, Matt.” Emma drops the reins. “Rex must be pretty old by now.”
“You’re two dogs behind, Emma. Been almost fifteen years since you and Pa got hitched.”
Their eyes stay together until Buddy stands. Emma says, “This is my son.” She grabs Buddy’s coat and yanks him down to seat. “Say hello to Uncle Matt.”
Oma says Uncle is a bad man.
“Hello.” Buddy shakes Uncle’s hand. A glare aimed at his mother, he jumps down into snow. Uncle Matt’s eyes follow. Buddy makes a snowball, but white powder falls apart when he throws it. He kicks snow.
Buddy’s uncle looks hard at him. “Lucky for me, you’re the spittin‘ image of Bud Kroft and don’t resemble Pa.”
“Check the arithmetic, Matt.” Emma pulls off her gloves one finger at a time. She shows her open hands and hides one thumb. “It takes this many months to make a baby, and I lived with you and your sisters eight of them after Felix died. We’d had to have done it on his death bed.”
“As always, Emma, you’re such a polite woman.”
“I can no longer stand by as the polite woman.”
She points to back seat. “I don’t suppose you’ve met Stella Reinhardt, Father Busch’s housekeeper. I know Mary has spoken to her off and on.”
“Pleased to me you, Mr. Gerhard.”
…Nana hides hand under the quilt.
Uncle Matt reaches and pulls arm back. “Miss Reinhardt. From our names, we must have a common ancestry.”
Emma blurts, “With her freckles and hair the color of a rusty milk bucket, a similar name is all you two share.”
…Nana hides face in the quilt.
“Now, who else have we here?”
Grabs at Nana’s arm. Mittens slide off.
Man’s loud rumbling laugh. “The boy and Miss Reinhardt are a matched set. Could be brother and sister.”
Oma says Little Sister looked just like Caleb.
“That’s Caleb. He doesn’t have a last name, yet.”
“Still talking in riddles, Emma?”
“Can we go in the house and discuss a matter with you and Mary? She probably knows quite a bit about the topic already.”
“Come right in.” Shrugs his shoulders. “I won’t mention your visit to Alexis Busch next time we casually bump into each other. Be aware, you’re risking the fires of hell.”
Oma says, “I’d sooner burn in hell.”
Emma climbs down. “I ain’t the one condemned, too stubborn to meet with a priest. You know he only wants to save face.”
“Alexis Busch is always welcome here at the farm if he wants to talk.” Uncle Matt looks at Buddy climbing the gate but doesn’t scold. “Mary’s in the house and the kids are doing their chores.”
Emma shakes her head. “They’re not even in school yet. You’re still the slave driver, making me and your sisters back then work our tails off.”
“When Pa died, we were mostly teenagers. Didn’t have a clue how to run a farm or a household.”
“You embarrass me. I’ll have you know, I was twenty when I went to town to live on my own.”
And did quite well for yourself, Emma.”
The man reaches into the buggy. Nana pushes Caleb forward.
…Nana doesn’t like Buddy’s uncle.
Matt lifts Caleb and drops him butt-first into soft snow. Wipes nose with back of mitten. Man’s big smile chases Caleb’s tears back.
Emma says, “It’s all a matter of personality, Matt. I like to be with people, you don’t.”
Matt pulls Caleb out of snow and holds him high in air. Giggles when man swirls him around and plunks him back in snow.
Matt talks to Emma. “Not much chance to socialize when neighbors are condemned to hell if they ever stop to visit.”
Oma tells Man-in-Black, “I’m already in hell.”
Nana climbs down from buggy. Matt grabs Caleb’s hand and they jump-step to the house.
Matt asks, “Does Father Busch know you guys are violating the terms of my punishment?”
Oma says, “The hospital is punishment enough.”
“This is a business matter, not a social call.” Emma opens the door and steps inside room with table but no chairs. She taps on another door and goes in without being told to. “Hello Mary.”
The room is warm and smells like bakery on Nana’s Street. Mary sets down knitting needles and stands. “Hello, Emma. Nice to see you. And Stella, hello. Please come in.”
…Nana closes door and keeps standing.
“Make your policeman sit down. I’m not running away.”
Buddy’s uncle sits in arm chair on other side of stove from Mary’s rocking chair. “Maybe you boys should join Earl and Rose out in the barn.”
Buddy runs out the door.
…Doesn’t want new friends. “I stay with Nana.”
“Nana was his grandmother.” Nana’s hands feel hot on his shoulders. “Caleb finds it comforting to address me as her.”
…She tells people his secret.
“For a while, he confused Emma with his mother, calling her Oma. He seems somewhat over that for now.”
Emma hangs her hat and coat on a hook alongside the door. “Let the kid stay inside the house.
…Not the kid.
“The adults have talked openly in front of him so far, why stop now?”
…Big people talk dumb.
Mary tells Nana, “Give me your coats.”
Nana opens her buttons. “Thanks, but I’m okay this way.”
Mary kneels. “Well, this boy is getting warm.” She opens Caleb’s coat and pulls off stocking cap. Shakes loose mittens. They dangle from yarn Nana strung through sleeves. Mary hangs his coat over oven door. Clumps of snow drip and sizzle. “I’ve been waiting to meet you, Cal.”
He whispers, “My name is Caleb.”
“That’s a lovely name. I’ll tell the other Christian Mothers.”
Nana stoops and whispers, “Thank Mrs. Gerhard for the Mother’s quilt.” She glances up. “We cuddled under it on the way out here.”
“And now you’re looking for a family.”
“My family is in heaven.”
“I’m sure they want you to find another one to live with.”
“No.” Stamps foot.
Oma says she put her foot down.
“I stay with Father and Thella.”
Emma and Stella look surprised at each other. He repeats, “S-stella.”
“I agree with Caleb.” Matt stands and claps hands. “The business part of this meeting is over.” Big smile. “Now, if you’re willing to risk going to hell, Mary can serve some of that fresh bread Caleb’s been sniffing.” His eyes find Caleb. “Maybe a glass of eggnog. After all, the holiday season is just around the corner, Thanksgiving next Thursday.” He picks up Caleb and swings him around. “Have you ever been to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve?”
“Well, you’re in for a real treat, if you can stay awake. I’ll be there.” His smile goes away. “Just outside the door. I arrive a little late and leave a little early to miss the crowd coming and going.”
Emma says, “You have the best seat in the house.”
“Not in the house, but out on a snow bank.”
“How about some bread and eggnog?” Emma sits at the table without being told.
“I think Father Busch needs to hear Mr. and Mrs. Gerhard’s answer right away.” Stella lowers her eyes. “So he can come up with another plan.”
“Stella, sweetheart, you are plan “B” even if you and the priest don’t realize it.” Emma cuts a slice from the loaf Mary set on the table. “Breaking of bread could be considered part of our business.” Eyes find Mary. “We haven’t heard from Mrs. Gerhard yet.”
“I would love to take the boy—”
“I’m sorry. Already, I hurt his feelings. I’m afraid his staying with us would isolate him. We already fear for Earl and his little sister.”
“Why don’t Caleb and I go outside and join the kids?” Stella glances at his coat on the oven door. “You have a lot to talk about, and we’ve never experienced a real farm.”
Lets Mary put on his coat. She pulls yellow and brown scarf from box by stove. “This matches your hair and shows off those pretty green eyes.” She covers his mouth and nose and ties it in back.
Matt holds the door and calls after them. “The path to the barn is the one with the rope. Didn’t need it during this recent storm, but last February it was a life saver. Many farmers got lost on the way to their barn.”
As they walk outside, Stella says, “I remember that blizzard. Father even missed morning Mass. Much worse out here in the country.”
Stands on tiptoes. “Can’t see.”
She laughs. “Even these drifts are taller than you. There’s hardly any snow up ahead.” She points. “That double door must be for horses. Hoof prints are leading up to it.”
“I like horses.”
“We’ll probably see them inside.” She lifts lever on a smaller door. Only the top half opens. “Well, of all things.”
A child’s voice from inside. “Just reach over and pull up the hook. I have to lift Rose to open it.”
The bottom half of the door swings out and the warm, moist air slaps Caleb’s face. Yanks scarf down and pinches his nose. Eyes water. Forces back a gag. Through floating dust specks, sees two kids holding hands.
Stella says, “Wait a minute until our eyes adjust. The afternoon sun is still quite bright out there.”
“I’m Earl and this is my little sister, Rose.”
Stella unclenches Caleb’s fingers. “Earl and Rose, this is Caleb.”
“My Little Sister died.”
“Golly, that’s sad.” Earl drops Rose’s hand and presses fists to his hips. “I would never let that happen to Rose.”
Stella puts her hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “We can’t always control certain things.” She peers deeper into the barn. “Where’s Buddy?”
“He’s ridding a calf. I showed him how.” Faces Caleb. “Do you want to try? It ain’t really ridding. The calf just stands dumb-like. But you can pretend.”
Stella says, “I’m not sure Caleb is up for it. He just arrived from a big city.”
Rose puts hands on hips like Earl. “Momma says he’s from New York.”
“How old are you, Honey?”
“She’s four. I’m just about six.”
“Your Daddy said you two were doing chores. What sort of jobs do you have?”
Rose talks and Earl’s head bobs. “Feed the calves and put straw under the cows’ bellies. Sometimes they push it away and sleep in their own poop.”
Caleb shakes Stella’s hand off his shoulder and points at two large horses’ heads breathing down on them. “I want to ride a horse.”
“Only the calf without Pa going along.” Hand-in-hand, Earl and Rose lead past a row of cows’ heads locked in place. At the end of the aisle, Buddy stands by table with small cross of Jesus.
Rose steps in front of Buddy. “That’s Pa’s altar. He doesn’t pray at the one in church.” She looks up at Stella. “Tomorrow, when Ma takes Earl and me to High Mass, he’ll say his prayers out here in the barn.”
Oma tells Man-in-black, “You can’t keep Caleb away from Mass on Sundays.”
“I sing with the sisters at that Mass. Caleb will be with me. Maybe we’ll see you there.”
“If you take him to church, people will begin to suspect.”
Earl tells Stella. “You might have to set him on the calf.”
Stella watches her feet as she lifts Caleb. She sets him on the calf, his fingernails dig into her wrist.
Earl grabs his sister’s hand. “You guys want to help me and Rose gather eggs in the hen house?”
Buddy yells, “Yippee,” and follows.
Scared to tears, Caleb falls into Stella’s arms. She says, “I think we’re ready to retire to the house.” She pulls the scarf over his face. “We’ll each certainly need a bath when we get back to the Rectory.”
In the room with no chairs, Stella taps on the kitchen door. She opens it and Peers in. “Caleb and I will out here in the porch.”
Mary says, “No such thing. You come inside where it’s warm. I’ve prepared apple-butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches.”
Pulls down scarf and looks at table.
“I’m sorry, but I must wait outside in the buggy.”
Mary opens her mouth and Matt holds up his hand. “Stella has to do what she thinks is right. Take off Caleb’s coat and sit him at the table.” He chuckles. “I think that boy made a few decisions today that could affect the rest of his life.”
…It’s okay that he didn’t say Caleb’s name.
Uncle Matt grabs two pans stuck facing each other from stove. “I understand your situation living with Father Busch. He’ll expect to hear your Confession tonight after Devotions.” He hands Stella funny pans. “This bed warmer will work nicely on the Christian Mothers’ quilt out in the buggy.” He opens the door. “I’ll fetch it when I bring Caleb out.”
After two peanut and jelly sandwiches, Caleb glances around, “Where did S-stella go?”
Matt says, “She’s outside waiting. I’ll take you to her when you finish eating.”
Mary lifts her apron, wets a corner with her mouth, and wipes sticky jelly tongue couldn’t reach. A gust of wind follows his three new friends into the house. Earl carries bucket heaped full of eggs and Buddy holds just one. He throws it.
The egg hits the floor and rolls under the table.
Mary says, “Matt, either stuff something into that crack in the henhouse wall or move the nest away from it.” She picks up the egg and taps it on the table. “Frozen solid.” She hands it to Caleb. “Would you like to take this for your breakfast? It’ll thaw by morning.”
He touches it and pulls his hand back. “Cold.”
“I have just the thing.” She smiles. “Two things.” She reaches into a bag of needles and yarn beside rocking chair. She takes out two brown and yellow stockings. “I knitted these to match the scarf I gave you.” She holds one in each hand. “Cary the frozen egg inside one of these. Or would you like to wear them now?”
“Okay.” Lifts legs for Mary to take off shoes and put on new stockings. “I show Nana.” He giggles. “S-stella.”