The Silent Boy

Page 7

"They want to be by themselves," I complained to Mother, feeling left out.

She was in the little room at the end of the upstairs hall, the one we called "the sewing room" though no one ever sewed there. Mother was at the pine table with an album open on it, and she was carefully pasting things in what she called a "memory book." It was where the postcard of Niagara Falls was, and the newspaper account of Mother and Father's wedding. A dried and flattened flower was attached to one page, with a note in Mother's careful penmanship describing a tea party where a vase of pink roses had been part of the decoration. It was hard to imagine the brown faded thing as one of those roses.

Mother listened for a moment to the noises from Peggy's bedroom. She smiled. "I'm glad we got the quieter of the Stoltz sisters," she said. "Mrs. Bishop says that Nellie's a good worker but she has a very frivolous side."

"What's frivolous?"


"I don't think Nell is silly. She's very serious about wanting to be in pictures."

Mother raised an eyebrow. I knew she disapproved of the pictures, and I was sorry I had mentioned it. "What's that?" I asked, and pointed at a wisp of hair gathered and tied with a ribbon and attached to the page.

"That's yours, Katy," Mother said, looking at it fondly. "You were two years old and I trimmed your hair. You didn't have a lot, but it was in your eyes until I snipped it back.

"And look at this!" She pointed to a picture. "You might remember this. You and Jessie Wood were both four that summer, and Jessie's father had a new camera."

I peered at the photograph of two solemn little girls, side by side, wearing hats, and gradually I remembered that day at the lake. It was summer. It came to me in fragments, in little details.

Jessie had black shoes, and mine were white.

The air smelled like pine trees.

A cloud was shaped like my stuffed bear. Then its ears softened and smeared, and it was just a cloud, really, not a bear at all (I knew it all along); then, quickly, the cloud itself was gone and the sky was only blue.

And there were fireworks! We were visiting at the Woods' cottage there. Cottage sounded like a fairy tale: a woodcutter's cottage. Hansel and Gretel and their cottage.

But the Woods' cottage was not a fairy-tale storybook one. It was just a house. They invited my family to come to their cottage for the holiday called Fourthofjuly, which I didn't understand, and for fireworks.

I remembered the scent, the sky, the heat, the wide-brimmed straw hats we wore to protect our faces from the sun, and the white shoes and black. The shoes and stockings and dresses—even the hats—were removed, at some point, because my memory told of Jessie and me, wearing only our bloomers, wading at the edge of the lake. We chased tiny silvery fish—minnows! Someone told us they were called minnows, and we said that to each other, laughing: "Minnows! Minnows!"

After a while we were shivering, even though the day was hot. My fingertips were puckered, pale lavender. Our mothers rubbed us dry with rough towels. Jessie fretted because there were pine needles stuck to her damp feet. We played in the sand at the edge of the lake.

The parents sat on the porch, talking, while Jessie and I amused ourselves, still half-naked in the sunshine, digging with bent tin shovels in the damp sand. Jessie had a pail and I didn't. I pretended that I didn't care about her pail, though secretly I wished it were mine, with the bright painted picture printed on its metal side: pink-faced children building castles, green-blue water, foamed with white, curling behind them.

Stealthily I followed a beige toad that hopped heavily away into tall grasses edging the small beach. Soon I could no longer see the toad (I had begun to think of him as "my" toad) but when I waited, silent, I saw the grass move and knew that he had hopped again. I waited, watched. I followed where the grass moved. It was taller than my head, now, and I was surrounded by it and was briefly frightened, feeling that I had become invisible and not-there with the high reeds around me. But the world continued to be close by. I could hear the grownups talking on the porch, still.

"Where's Katy?" I heard my mother ask, suddenly.

"Jessie, where did Katy go?" Mrs. Wood called in an unconcerned voice.

"I don't know." Jessie's voice was not that far away from me.

"She was right there. I saw her just a minute ago." That was my father's voice.

"It's amazing, how quickly they scamper off, isn't it?" Mrs. Wood again. She was using a cheerful voice, but I could tell that now she was worried, and I was made pleased and proud by the worry.

"Katy!" My mother was calling now. "Katy!"

I should call back, I knew. But I liked the feeling of being concealed there, squatting in the moist earth, with the high grass golden above me. I liked hearing things happen around me, being an observer, but hidden. The breeze blew the grass and it closed above my head, creating a small, secret place where I fit. I had already forgotten my toad in the new excitement of being lost to the grownups. So I held still.

"You go that way, Caroline," my father said. "Check over there behind the woodpile and by the shed. I'll look in this direction."

"She wouldn't have gone into the house, would she? She would have had to pass us, to go into the house. We would have seen her. Katy!"

"Jessie, are you sure you don't know where she went?" Mr. Wood sounded angry, as if he were scolding his little girl.

Jessie began to cry. It pleased me somehow, that she was crying. She deserved to cry, because she owned a tin pail with bright paintings on its side.

"Katy! Katy!" My mother's voice was quite far from me now.

"Let's think." Jessie's mother said this. "Hush, Jessie." (Jessie was still crying loudly.) "She wouldn't have gone far because she was barefoot. It's stony out there beyond the house. It would hurt her feet."

"Kaaaaty!" It was like a song in my mother's voice, when she called it that way. "Henry," she called to my father, "she isn't over this way."

"Everyone be absolutely quiet for a moment," Mr. Wood commanded. "She might be calling and we wouldn't hear her."

It was silent except for Jessie, who was now howling. In my mind, I scolded Jessie for not obeying her father. "Shhhh," Mrs. Wood said to her angrily, and finally Jessie was quiet.

Now, into that important silence, was when I should have called out. "Surprise!" I should have shouted. "Here I am!"

But I didn't. I waited. There was a bug near my toe, and I watched it waddle across the slick surface of wet earth. I put my hand near it and hoped that it would mount my finger and walk on me. But carefully it found a path around my hand. I began thinking very hard about the bug, and I forgot my family and their worry. I crouched there, and then lay down, slowly curling into the warm mud that was as soft and private as a bed. The sun was hot on my head and back, coming down through the curtain of grass that surrounded me, and things became dreamlike.

I woke when they found me, and now my mother was crying, so I was vaguely sorry that I hid. But I liked the attention. I was the heroine of the story, now: the little lost girl. The one in danger.

We were given cookies. Mrs. Wood must have made the cookies, because they had raisins in them, and my own mother knew that I disliked raisins. Meticulously I picked each raisin out and dropped it into the bushes beside the porch. My mother saw me doing this and smiled, creating a secret between us.

Then we were re-dressed. Jessie was upset still. I recognized her feeling, the feeling of being left out, overlooked, angry at things that you don't even understand, so that you cry in frustration and look for something to blame. I should be the one crying! I thought. After all, I was the one who might have drowned, who might have been eaten by a bear! Instead, I smiled, and it was Jessie who whined and made the grownups impatient. She wailed when her stockings were pulled on, worried that there may be pine needles—oh, yes! I understood, now! She was troubled by the word needles. The mothers, both of them, kept reassuring her that her feet were clean and dry. But it wasn't dirt or dampness that frightened her! It was needles!

Later there were the surprising bursts of color in the sky, and the alarming sound of the fireworks display. I curled up on my father's lap on the cottage porch, watching. I was sleepy, puzzled by the sounds and explosions of light, but not frightened. My father's shirt was soft against my cheek, and he smelled as he always did, father-smells of shaving lotions and shoe polish and pipe tobacco. (Mother was cologne and powder and the laundry starch ironed into her shirtwaist.)

I suppose Jessie was there on her own father's lap, but she was not part of my evening memory, which had grown small to enclose only my father and me. And mosquitoes. There were mosquitoes buzzing on the porch, and Father brushed them away from my bare arms and slapped at his own neck from time to time.

"Yes," I said to Mother, as we looked at the photograph together. "I do remember it."

From above, still, there came the sound of low voices murmuring. I looked again at the photograph of the two little girls, Jessie and me, and pretended for an instant that they were Peggy and Nell. One quiet and watching, tidy and careful. The other, banging a shovel against a bright tin pail. Eager. Brash. Impatient. Shrill.

7. FEBRUARY 1911

Winter dragged on, and soon enough we tired of snow. January came and went, and February. Mornings were still dark when I dressed for school in February, and the dark of evening came much too early. Father built a fire after supper and then while Pepper, the dog, slept on the rug, he read aloud to us in the parlor while Mother's fingers flew over her knitting. Upstairs, in a drawer, baby clothes were folded and waiting.

Peggy sat, sometimes, and listened. Upstairs, her room was very cold, and Mother said she should stay down in the warm parlor with us, evenings. So she took the dark green chair in the corner and mended. Father read David Copperfield and I saw Peggy cry a little at the sad parts.

In the afternoons Peggy read to herself while Mother napped. Once each week we went to the library, the two of us, and sometimes, if she promised to behave, Jessie came along.

Early one Friday evening the telephone rang, and Father was called away to the hospital. Mother sighed, set her knitting down, and took up the book. But her voice was different, and she didn't act the parts like Father did, using comical voices. Even she said so.

"I just can't do it as well,"Mother said regretfully. "I hope he gets back early."

But Father was gone all night, and in the early morning came in smelling foul and went right upstairs for a bath. There had been a terrible fire at Schuyler's Mill.

"Some of the men are laying blame on the Stoltz boy," I heard Father tell Mother in their bedroom as he dressed. "Peggy's brother. He hangs about the mill often; he loves it there. And the men make fun of him because of his affliction. Now they're looking for someone to blame."

Mother's voice sounded very worried. "Might it be true?" I heard her ask. "Is he responsible? Oh, that would be terrible news to give Peggy."

"No, no. One of the late workers lighted a cigar and the dust burst into flame like an explosion. People saw the whole thing. The Stoltz boy wasn't even there."

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