The Silent Boy

Page 11

Then we bowed our heads while Peggy's father asked the blessing. Even little Anna bowed her head, but I saw her peeking.

Mrs. Stoltz served us oatmeal and honey, as Peggy had promised. The cream was thick and golden, still warm from the cow.

"Did you milk the cow, Jacob?" I asked, feeling shy.

"Sure, Jake milks," Mr. Stoltz said.

To my surprise, Jacob began to make a rhythmic sound: not the shoooda, shoooda of the millstone, not the song of the horses, but a psssss, psssss that he repeated again and again. Anna giggled.

"Enough, boy," his father said sternly. Then to me he explained, "That d be the sound of the milk into the pail."

Peggy helped her mother wash the dishes, after, but they wouldn't let me, though I offered. Instead I played at the table with Anna. I folded and rolled the napkins into dolls, and we walked them around and made them say hello and goodbye to each other, with bows and curtsies that made the little girl laugh. She climbed down from her chair after a moment, ran off into another room, and came back carrying her own doll to show me. It was sewn of rags, with hair made from yarn and two buttons on it for eyes. I could tell it had been loved. Parts were worn and frayed from holding and, even as she showed me, Anna put her thumb into her mouth and began to stroke the doll in the way little ones do when they are tired. Then she giggled again and set the doll aside in her father's chair.

Mr. Stoltz and Jacob, with his cap firmly back in place, had gone back outside. "We ' ll water your horses," Mr. Stoltz had said, and I was glad that Jacob would be caring for Jed and Dahlia, who knew him well by now.

Peggy showed me around the little house: the parlor, with its stiff chairs and worn rug. Back home, in town, we used our parlor every night, sitting there to read, or sometimes Mother played the piano. Gram played Patience in the parlor, and the fire crackled in the fireplace on chilly nights. But this room was cold and unused. The kitchen was the warmth of the Stoltz farmhouse.

Jacob slept in a tiny room behind the kitchen, and upstairs were two cold bedrooms, one that Peggy and Nellie had shared—it was Anna ' s now—and the other where their parents slept. I shivered and Peggy laughed. "It ' s spring now," she pointed out. "In winter it ' s really cold! But see? The comforters are stuffed with down. They're warm enough."

I felt the softness of the down-filled bedding. The rooms were dark, their walls bare of decoration, and the floors were splintery wide boards. No rugs; no flowered wallpaper; no silver-backed brush and comb.

"Where is the bathroom?" I whispered.

Peggy pointed through the window to the privy behind the house.

"Peg," her mother said as we passed through the kitchen on our way outdoors, "Floyd Lehman asked when you was to be at home. You want I should tell him? There's a telephone at the Fosters now, and they d call him to it."

Peggy blushed and said no. It was the first I knew that she had an admirer.

When we went outdoors, the spring air was warmer now than the early morning had been. Birds sang, and flowers were coming into bud, curled pink and white. A chipmunk ran across a stone wall and jerked its tail before disappearing into a chink. Anna trotted behind us as Peggy walked with me down to see the creek.

The water was deep. It moved past, swirling and foaming lazily around the rocks. Peggy held tight to Anna's hand as the little girl leaned forward curiously to see. We threw in some pebbles and watched the circles they made. A familiar-looking dog, brown with a white face, appeared, running toward us through some nearby tall grass, and Peggy stroked its head and spoke to it.

"It's Jacob s dog," she said, but I knew it already. The white-faced dog with floppy ears always sat by our stable and waited when Jacob was there, and then followed him when he left.

"He raised it from a puppy," Peggy explained. "Its mother died when she had a litter, and all the pups died but this one. We didn't even know for a long time. Jacob hid it in the barn and fed it cow's milk, dipping a rag in so the puppy could suck. Pa said he probably had to do it ten times a day, to keep the pup alive."

I looked down at the dog. It was sitting, now, in the grass beside Anna. Its tail wagged and it looked back at me with huge dark eyes.

"Does it have a name?"

Peggy chuckled. "Jacob don't name things," she said. "We all just call it Pup."

"Good Pup," Anna said solemnly, and patted the dog's back.

"Go find Jake!" Peggy said to the dog, and immediately it rose and trotted toward the barn. We followed. "I ' ll show you the animals," Peggy said.

"Lambs!" Anna announced. She ran ahead.

"Yes, there are new lambs. They always come at the end of winter. And there's a calf."

I followed Peggy into the cool darkness of the barn. For a moment it seemed silent inside, but then I began to hear the stirring of animals: the thump of shifting feet, the swish of a tail, the deep breath of living creatures. A sudden snorting grumble nearby startled me, and Peggy laughed when I jumped in surprise. She pointed to a penned area near the barn door, and I saw the huge pig, with its whiskery face, inside.

In another pen, lambs stood quietly next to their thick, silent mothers.

One mother had two little ones; I pointed and whispered, "Twins," to Peggy. But she shook her head.

"Sometimes they do have twins," she said. "But these aren't. The small one? Its ma wouldn't take it when it was born. Sometimes that happens. The ma just turns away and wants nothing of it. And the lamb would die, too, with no ma to suckle it.

"But Jacob took this one and put it with this ma, since she had milk for her own, and coaxed her till she would feed it with the other. And now she does. See?"

As I watched, the smaller lamb nudged at the mother with its head and searched under her until it found milk.

"It's runty because it was awhile till she took it for her own," Peggy explained, "but it will grow now."

Mr. Stoltz appeared, wiping his hands on a rag, and he took Anna by the hand. "We'll go feed the hens," he said to his little girl, and she walked beside him happily off to the hen house on the other side of the barnyard.

"Jacob's above," Mr. Stoltz called back to Peggy and me. "He's waiting for the girl."

The girl? I thought he must mean me. Peggy ' s face confirmed it. She was smiling at me. "You ' ll have to climb," she said.

"I can climb. I climb with Austin all the time. We can go to the very top of the apple tree," I told Peggy.

She pointed down to the end of the barn, where a ladder led up to a dark hay-fringed opening.

"He's up there," she said.

"Why is he waiting for me?"

"He has something to give you," Peggy explained.

The cows shifted where they stood, as I passed them.

"Jacob?" I called from the bottom, though I knew he wouldn ' t answer. "It ' s Katy! I ' m coming up!"

The ladder slanted and wasn ' t difficult to climb. Hay caught on my stockings and itched, and I knew it must be in my hair as well. It made me sneeze. I pulled myself up rung after rung until I reached the top and climbed into the loft. It was warm there, thick with bundled hay, and Jacob was standing by an opening in the wall so that light from the spring day was on him. Though he didn't look at me, I knew he knew I was there. He hadn't looked at me during breakfast, either, but I had felt that he followed every spoonful of oatmeal to my mouth. There was an awareness to Jacob's being.

He was looking, from under his familiar cap, out at the meadow behind the barn, toward the creek.

"Peggy and I went down to the creek with Anna and Pup," I told him. "It ' s beautiful today."

He didn't turn.

"Thank you for watering Jed and Dahlia."

He stared down at the meadow. "Peggy pointed out your family's horse, in the pasture. She said his name is Punch. That's a nice name for a horse." I thought perhaps to express my sympathy, because Peggy had also told me that Judy, the other horse, had died not long before. But it was hard to express something of that sort to a person who looked away.

I waited. Finally I said, "Peggy told me you have something to give me."

He rocked back and forth a little. I had seen him do it before, a motion that I knew by now meant that he was pleased. Finally, he hummed a little—that was no longer a surprise to me, either—and he pointed down into the hay near his own feet.

I saw it then, and knelt down and picked up a small kitten the same color as the hay. Though small, it wasn't newborn; its eyes were wide open, dark brown, and when I stroked its soft golden fur, it began to purr.

Jacob rocked and rocked with pleasure.

"Oh, Jacob, thank you!" I said to him. "You knew I wanted a kitten, didn't you? Peggy must have told you." He looked away, back out toward the meadow, but his face was flushed with embarrassed excitement.

"Peggy!" I called down from the loft into the barn where she waited. "Jacob gave me a kitten!"

She came halfway up the ladder. "I know," she said. "He's pleased, doing it.

"Jacob?" she called gently to her brother. "You made Katy very happy."

"Thank you, Jacob," I said again. Then I lifted the kitten away from where it was cuddled against me, pulling its tiny claws loose from my pinafore. I leaned down and handed it to Peggy so that I could use both my hands on the ladder. At the bottom, I took it back from her and held it against me, feeling it purr.

"It's prettier than most," Peggy said, looking carefully at it. "He must have chose it for that.

"You'll have to give it a name," she said. "Jake don't, but you should."

I nodded. "But not yet. The right name will come."

At the midday meal (at home we called it Sunday dinner) there was chicken roasted so the skin was crisp, all manner of vegetables from the farm, and thick bread. We sat at the same table and bowed our heads again for the blessing, and when I peeked down to my hands in my lap, I could see the kitten sleeping there. Peggy had pinned up the corners of my pinafore to make a kind of carrying sack, and my kitten had been there the entire morning.

The telephone rang several times, and each time the whole family jumped; it was new to them, and they weren't used to it yet, and had to count the rings. Their ring was four-two, Peggy explained. That meant four long rings and two short, and they should answer.

Each time it rang, we all stopped talking, and counted. "One-three," Mrs. Stoltz said. "That ' s the Fosters." And later: "Two-two. That ' s for Mr. Ledbetter at the feed store. He won ' t be there on a Sunday."

Then, suddenly, while we were eating a dessert of apple brown Betty with cream poured over, the telephone rang four-two. At home I always answered and said, "Dr. Thatcher ' s residence," politely, but of course this was their home, not mine.

Mrs. Stoltz, looking a little nervous, picked up the earpiece from the box on the wall. "Stoltz," she said loudly, leaning over to speak into the box.

"Oh my, yes," she said, after a minute. "Yes, she ' s right here." She glanced over at me. "We ' ve had a lovely time with her. Yes, I'll tell her that."

She began to hang the earpiece back on its hook, then looked confused, listened again, and finally said "Goodbye" uncertainly into the telephone. "My land," she said to us, laughing. "I ' m not used to it yet."

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