The Silent Boy

Page 5

"Look!" I told Peggy, when she came into the parlor with a dust cloth. I pointed to the picture. "Do you think Mother would ask Miss Abbott to make me this? It has a rosette. I know it's too elegant for school, but I certainly could wear it to birthday parties.

"If I ever have a birthday party," I added, grumbling. My eighth birthday party the month before had been canceled because of my chicken pox.

Peggy studied the picture and smiled.

"Jessie's birthday is next month," I told her. "I'm older than she is, but she was a Christmas baby, which is nice, don't you think? I could wear it to Jessie's birthday party."

"It's pretty," Peggy agreed, "but you'd better turn the pages back to where your mother had it open. She's going to have some clothes made for herself."

"For herself? She doesn't need new clothes! I do! I've grown three inches this year!" Grumpily I flipped the pages away from the little girls in their lace-trimmed party dresses. "I don't remember which page it was on," I told Peggy.

"She'll be needing new clothes soon," Peggy said, and took the catalogue from me. "Here. This is the page." She laid it open again on Mother's desk.

"Those aren't very pretty." I peered at the drawing of ladies posing in their ordinary dresses. "What's this word, Peggy? I can't read it." I pointed with my finger to a word I'd never seen before and that didn't sound itself out easily.

Peggy looked. "'Stylish,'" she read. "It's a hard word for a second-grader, even a good reader like you. Can you read the rest?"

"'And,'" I read. "That's an easy word." I faltered on the next one.

Peggy helped me. "'Practical. That means 'useful."

"'Stylish and practical,'" I read. "Wait. Don't help me with the next one. It's long, but I can do it." I made the sounds under my breath and put them together. "'Maternity, " I said. "Is that right?"

"Yes. You are a good reader."

"'Dresses,'" I finished. "Now listen. I'll read it all. 'Stylish and practical maternity dresses. " I looked again at the catalogue page, where six women were standing in poses with their hands on their hips and their feet in pointed shoes, arranged as if they might begin to dance. Their smiles were forced and foolish, I thought, not at all like real smiles.

"What does maternity mean?" I asked Peggy. She had moved across the room and was pulling at the heavy draperies, rearranging their folds and shaking out dust. I could see the dust specks float slowly in the light from the window.

"Motherhood," Peggy said. She retied the heavy gold cord that held the draperies back. "Those women in the picture are going to be mothers."

"How do they know that?" I asked, looking again at the stupid smiling women in their stylish and practical maternity dresses. "Isn't it always a surprise when you find a baby? Austin's mother said she just happened to find Laura Paisley in the garden."

"Oh!" Peggy said, as if she were surprised. "Oh, I didn't mean—" She came over quickly and took the catalogue from me. "Look. I wanted to show you the pages where they show books. See here?" She sat down beside me on the sofa and pointed to the lists of books in the catalogue. "Here's one called Card Tricks! Imagine that! There wouldn't be a book about card tricks in the library, do you think?"

I laughed, thinking about the librarian, Miss Winslow, at the public library on Main Street. Peggy had a library card now, and she took me with her sometimes, on Thursday afternoons. Miss Winslow would disapprove of card tricks, I knew. But I thought Father would like the book. I wondered if we could get it for him for Christmas and decided to ask Mother.

And maybe, I thought, I would ask Mother, too, about the ladies in their motherhood dresses and how they knew that such a surprise would come their way.

But it was Father who explained. Mother was so flustered when I asked that she almost dropped her knitting. "Well, my goodness!" she said. We were in the parlor after supper, and it was almost time for me to go to bed. "Did you hear that, Henry? Did you hear what Katy asked?"

He hadn't, because he was reading the newspaper, but when I repeated the question, he smiled. Not a flustered, nervous smile like Mother's, but his usual quiet smile, the one that moved his mustache into a curve. "You just come along with me, Katydid," he said, getting up from his chair. He folded the paper and put it on the table. "We'll go into my office and I will show you something wonderful."

"Henry, do you think—" Mother began. But I had already taken his hand.

"Well, put her coat on her, dear," she said. "It's cold out."

But it wasn't very cold, just nippy, as Naomi always said, and Father didn't bother with my coat. We had to go out the front door and across the yard, then into the side entrance that was just to his office, though it was still attached to our house.

Our house was never locked, but Father's office always was. He opened the office door with his big key, turned on the lights, and led me in. I loved Father's office. There was his large, important desk, and two chairs where sick people—they were called patients, I knew—could sit. And there was a long, narrow table where they could lie down, if he had to poke at their stomachs. One time, two summers before, he poked Paul Bishop's stomach and then sent him to the hospital and took his whole appendix out. Austin and I wanted ours taken out, too, so Father sat us both on the table together and poked at our stomachs so much that it tickled. Then he said we were fine, and he gave us each a taffy to eat.

There were cabinets where Father kept medicines and tools. Sometimes he gave me wooden tongue depressers to play with. I drew faces at one end and wrapped the other part with clothes scraps to make a dress. They weren't as real-looking as my doll with the bisque head, the one I called Princess Victoria, but Jessie and I could make a lot of them and then we held balls and cotillions and danced them around together.

I climbed up in one of the patients chairs and watched while Father opened a cupboard and took out something like a statue. It was the stomach part of a lady. He set it on his desk, and then carefully he opened it up! It came apart just down the middle, and there inside you could see an upside-down baby with its eyes tightly closed and its little hands curled up. It was wonderful, just as he had said; and when he began to explain it to me, how the baby grew there, I could see that it all made sense; it was exactly right, much more right than finding it in the dirt with the cutworms and slugs under the tomatoes and summer squash.

"Me?" I asked him. "I grew like that?"

He said yes.

"And Austin? And Laura Paisley?"

He said yes.

"And Peggy? And Jessie? Jacob Stoltz? And—" But he could tell that it was like when I tried to think of more people to bless, so that I wouldn't have to go to sleep. "God bless the postman," I would say, "and my cousins in Cincinnati—"

He closed the woman back up and hid her baby away. But I liked knowing it was there, and knowing now too that there was one like it inside my mother. "When?" I asked him. "What kind? And how long?"

He said spring. It took a long time. And we wouldn't know until it was born whether it would be a sister or a brother.

Then we turned out the lights and he took me home again, through our own yard and up our front steps, past the porch swing, and in through our own front door to where Mother was still sitting in the sitting room with her knitting in her hands, the white yarn going up and around, up and around. I could hear Peggy finishing the dishes in the kitchen. Naomi had hung up her apron, put on her jacket, and gone home, carrying a basket of leftovers for her own family.

"May I tell Peggy?" I asked.

Mother smiled. "She knows."

I ran to the kitchen anyway, to tell Peggy that now I knew, too.

It was Jacob in the stable. I knew it when the stable boy told Father. But I knew it for certain when I saw him there myself.

It was early evening, and I had been playing skip-rope on the front walk with Jessie until her mother called her home for supper. It was chilly out, Thanksgiving-soon weather, and there were still dead leaves in the yard, the last fallen not yet raked up. I thought to go in by the back door instead of the front so as to walk through the leaves, because I liked the feel of them on my feet and the sound of the whispery rustle they made.

When I neared the stable I saw a dog by the door, one I did not know, not one of the neighborhood pets. This one was brown with a white face, and it sat patiently the way dogs do when they are waiting. From inside I heard sounds: not just the stamp and snort and shiver of the horses, but the sounds of a boy's voice, a kind of singing.

Levi was already gone. After he fed and watered the horses each evening he always left to do his other odd jobs around town before going back to the little ramshackle house down near the railway station where he lived with his widowed mother and a great many younger brothers and sisters. A downright shame, Naomi said, that Levi's father had died two years ago of pneumonia, leaving that poor woman with all those little ones to raise alone and no chance, now, of any of them being educated.

It was not dark yet outside but I could see through the kitchen window that our lights were on, and I could see the figures of Naomi and Peggy moving by the stove and sink.

The stable door was partway open, and I pushed it further. Surely Jacob must have known I had entered because of the creak of the door and the whoosh of nippy outdoor air that blew in with me. But he didn't look over. He was stroking Jed's big, soft face, humming. From her stall, Dahlia watched; then she tossed her head and turned her dark eyes on me in a kind of question. So I went to her.

I wasn't afraid at all. Being with Jacob the day we took him to the mill, my father and I, had made me familiar with his gentleness, and Peggy, too, had spoken of his special way with animals, so I knew he was nothing to be wary of.

And I liked the sound he was making, a kind of singing that wasn't real singing at all. I wondered if he would mind my joining in, so I watched his face, tried to catch onto the same note, and kept at it when I saw that it didn't make him uneasy.

The horses seemed soothed by it. They stood quietly, and I stroked Dahlia as the touched boy was stroking Jed, so that we made a kind of rhythm with our hands and our humming.

I knew I would hear Mother call very soon and that I would have to go. So I went over to the oat barrel and took two handfuls. I knew I shouldn't, for horses must not have too many oats or they sicken. But the handfuls were small. I gave one to Jacob, pouring them into his open hand, and then we each gave our oats to a horse, the two huge wrinkled mouths opening and the long pink tongues coming out, eager and pleased.

"No more, though," I whispered to Jacob. "They mustn't have too much or they'll come down with colic."

Then I felt embarrassed to have said it. "You know that already," I told him. "Peggy says you tend the animals on the farm. It was foolish of me to remind you. I'm sorry."

But he paid no attention. He was back to stroking the great quivery nose of the horse.

"Katy! Supper!" My mother's voice came from the porch.

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