ALSO BY RICHARD PECK
Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt
Through a Brief Darkness
Representing Super Doll
The Ghost Belonged to Me
Are You in the House Alone?
Ghosts I Have Been
Secrets of the Shopping Mall
Close Enough to Touch
The Dreadful Future of Blossom Culp
Remembering the Good Times
Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death
Those Summer Girls I Never Met
Voices After Midnight
Unfinished Portrait of Jessica
Bel-Air Bambi and the Mall Rats
The Last Safe Place on Earth
Lost in Cyberspace
The Great Interactive Dream Machine
Strays Like Us
A Long Way from Chicago
A Year Down Yonder
AN INVITATION FROM AUNT EUTERPE
It was the last day of our old lives, and we didn’t even know it.
I didn’t. It looked like any old day to me, a sultry summer morning hot enough to ruffle the roofline. But then, any little thing could come as a surprise to us. We were just plain country people. I suppose we were poor, but we didn’t know it. Poor but proud. There wasn’t a blister of paint on the house, but there were no hogs under the porch.
I was sitting out in the old rope swing at the back of our place because the house was too full of Mama and my sister, Lottie. I wasn’t swinging. I thought I was pretty nearly too old to swing. In the fall I’d be fourteen, with only one more year of school to go.
I was barefoot, bare almost up to the knee. And I wasn’t sitting there empty-handed. We were farmers. We were never empty-handed. I was snapping beans in the colander.
After I’d gathered the eggs and skimmed the milk, I’d been out in the timber with a pail for raspberries, wild strawberries, anything going. I’d kept an eye out for mulberries the raccoons might have missed. They loved mulberries. I’d worked up a sweat in the cool of the morning. Now I was enjoying a little quiet here in the heat of the day.
It was all too peaceful to last.
My brother, Buster, was creeping up behind me. He meant to scare me out of my swing and send my beans flying. I snapped on like I was alone in the world. But I knew when he was lurking behind the privy. I knew when he made a dash for the smokehouse. Now I could hear him come stealing up behind me.
Twigs broke. Birds flew off. You’d have to be a corpse not to know. But a boy will pull the same fool stunt over and over like he’s just thought of it. He’d be carrying a dead squirrel.
By and by I felt boy-breath on the back of my neck. My hair was in braids. On the nape of my neck I felt a tickle. It might have been a woolly caterpillar off the tree. But it wasn’t. It was the tip end of a squirrel tail. It itched powerfully, but I didn’t let on.
He kept it up as a boy will. Presently something hot and clingy dropped over my shoulder. I looked aside and I was eye-to-eye with a dead squirrel, draped there with his little paws dangling down.
As if I hadn’t seen every kind of dead animal there is. Many’s the time I’d watched Dad gut a pig.
I brushed the squirrel off into the weeds and went on with my work. Buster darted forward, showing himself, and grabbed the squirrel by the tail.
He wore bib overalls and not a stitch else. Fumbling in his pocket, he drew out a folding knife. He had to hold the squirrel by the tail in his teeth to get the blade open.
Squinting, he gripped the squirrel upside down by its hindquarters and made a cut with the knife just above the tail. Then he dropped the squirrel on the ground and tramped his bare foot on the bushy tail to keep it in place. He stooped over, working his fingers into the slit he’d made. Then he stood up right quick, lifting the skin off that squirrel in a single move. A squirrel skins easy. The carcass, pinky-white like a chicken thigh, fell back in the tall grass. Buster held up the pelt, all in one piece like a doll’s winter coat.
He was testing me.
Skinning an animal never had fazed me. Neither had killing a snake or shooting a rat in the rain barrel. But I was getting on for fourteen now. Buster wondered if I was getting like our older sister. Was I about to start twitching my skirts and telling him how dirty his ears were? Was I going to get skittish and ladylike?
Lottie herself could wring a chicken’s neck off with her left hand while whistling “Dixie.” And nobody had yet called her dainty. But I knew what Buster was thinking. I always knew. He wondered if I was fixing to grow up and leave him behind.
He flung the squirrel pelt away. There was no use for it. He killed squirrels for the tails. He sold them a penny apiece to the Mepps Lure Company to make spinning lures for fishermen. We’d eat the squirrel, of course—have it with the beans.
Now Buster was digging around in another pocket of his overalls. What next?
He opened his hand, and there sat two hollyhock blossoms—one pink, one lavender—bruised from riding in his pocket. And two hard little hollyhock buds. We had a stand of hollyhocks over by the blackberry briar.
I used to make hollyhock dolls. You needed a full blossom with the petals for the skirt. For the doll’s head you fitted a peeled bud where the stem had been. There you had your hollyhock doll. I’d make them in all colors. Lottie showed me how.
Without offering them up, Buster let me see the flowers. But I just shook my head and kept snapping my beans and throwing the stems. I’d grown past hollyhock dolls, and he just as well know. Buster let the breeze take them, as if they didn’t matter particularly.
* * *
He liked to think he was a quiet man like Dad. But there was too much of Granddad in him. He was never quiet for long. “Shift over, Rosie.”
“It’s too hot for two in the swing,” I said. “Sit on the ground.”
So he squeezed in next to me. He wanted to swing, but I planted my feet. “You ought to be out in the field with Dad,” I told him. “You’re seven, pretty nearly eight.”
Dad and the neighbors were in the field that day. I thought Buster ought to be helping, coming along behind to shock up the wheat. He carried water out to them, but rarely lingered. That was my brother all over. Never around unless you didn’t want him. He was quicksilver, there and gone again before you knew. Dad himself said he’d never make a farmer out of Buster.
He sat there against me, close as a corn plaster. He’d cut the tail free of the squirrel and was fiddling with it. We sat listening to Mama and Lottie up at the house. You couldn’t hear words, but they were getting into the upper register.
Lottie was seventeen that summer, pushing eighteen. She’d gone to all the school she ever meant to. And something had come over her here lately. One of the hired men working for our neighbors the Shattucks was calling on Lottie, and Mama didn’t like the turn things might be taking.
They’d been over it many a time. How often had I heard Mama say, “He’s a drifter and probably a grifter. We don’t know a thing about him. He’s not from here. And he’s nothing but itinerant labor.”
Lottie could fire right back at her, and they’d gone at it hammer and tongs since the late spring when Everett turned up in the district to work for the Shattucks. Though none of this grown-up business was suitable for Buster’s ears.
“Do you reckon she’ll marry him?” Buster asked. “She’d have to run off.”
“Little pitchers have big ears,” I said. I didn’t want Lottie to haul off and get married any more than Buster wanted me to grow up. But I made the impatient sound sisters make in their throats.
I didn’t know if Lottie was thinking of marrying Everett or not. She wasn’t talking to me about it.
“If he asked her, she could say no,” Buster mused. “It’s a free country.”
“She doesn’t have anything else to do,” I said, “but help Mama.”
“She could hold off for somebody else.”
“Who?” I said. “We live five miles out.”
“Maybe he don’t want to marry her a’tall,” Buster offered.
“And that’s another worry,” I muttered under my breath.
I didn’t suppose anybody would want to marry me when the time came. I had year-round freckles, and my red hair corkscrewed if it was raining in the next county. And I could be a little bit spunky if I had occasion to. I didn’t know if men would like that.
But then Buster and I forgot all about Lottie when we saw a dot in the distance. It was coming up the road from the Bulldog Crossing with dust boiling behind. We got very little traffic even in dry weather.
It’d be Granddad Fuller coming back from town in his terrible old wreck of a buggy. Mama wouldn’t ride in it. On the slab seat beside him would be Granddad’s dog, Tip, who was mostly German police. When they came up to the wind pump, you could hear the clop of hooves. Granddad had his own horse he wouldn’t let Dad use. She was a little old gray mare where she wasn’t bald. I thought she and Tip were both the same age as Granddad in animal years. The mare was named Lillian Russell.
Granddad went into town every day but Sunday unless we were snowed in. He did our trading for us, and he went for the mail since we didn’t have Rural Free Delivery in those days. We no more dreamed they’d bring mail to the house than they’d string electricity out this far. But then we had Granddad.
We didn’t get two letters a year, and no bills because we paid cash or bartered. But that didn’t keep Granddad at home. He was in town every morning when the postmaster opened up.
He took our butter and eggs to sell. If we didn’t have mail, Granddad brought the neighbors theirs. If anybody in the district wanted something from the store, he’d bring that. Or if somebody got something they’d ordered out of the Monkey Ward catalog, out that would come. Or he’d carry a message for whoever didn’t want to spend a stamp. He came in very handy, and he was the biggest nuisance in the county.
Now he was coming up by the garden at a spanking pace. The spoked buggy wheels flickered past the woven-wire fence. A whip rode in the whip socket, but I never saw Granddad take it out. He used a snaffle in Lillian Russell’s mouth because it didn’t hurt her like a hard bit. He cared more for that horse and that dog than he cared for the rest of us, as Mama often remarked.
Sometimes he took notice of us. More often his mind was way off in olden times or on other people’s business. Today he saw us because he sat up as straight as he could. In the band of his floppy straw hat was a buzzard’s feather to ward off rheumatism and the epizootic. Tip looked around him at us.
“Your maw’s got a letter!” Granddad hollered out. You could hear that cracked old voice all the way back to town. “It’s from Euterpe!”
Buster and I sat on in the swing, taking in this news. Euterpe, Aunt Euterpe, was Granddad’s other daughter. She lived in Chicago.
We couldn’t imagine such a place, though there was a steel engraving of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 hanging in the schoolhouse. Aunt Euterpe never came for a visit, and she didn’t write from one year to the next. She rarely came up in Mama’s conversation. Somehow I had the notion that Aunt Euterpe had married an old man and vanished from view. She’d never brought her husband home to meet us, and we’d heard tell he was dead.
Buster slid out of the swing and wandered off, like he did. He could just ooze away like a barn cat and not be there. Aunt Euterpe’s letter was for Mama, and we’d hear about it when Mama was ready to tell us. Pestering her about anything never worked.
Besides, it might not be good news.
THE CURVE OF THE EARTH
Though Dad came late from the field, we had our supper in broad daylight. I still see the sunset slanting through the corn rows and across the kitchen table where we sat.
We pulled back, replete with all the squirrels Buster had bagged—squirrels and beans, buttermilk biscuits and a blackberry cobbler. Dad had washed his upper half and put on a clean shirt after his labors. His cheekbones were fire red from the sun, below a forehead white where his hat had been. Granddad hadn’t worked up enough of a sweat to change his shirt.
We scarcely spoke while we were at our meal. Aunt Euterpe’s letter, propped against the vinegar cruet, was a silent presence. Now Granddad was drawing out his flick-knife, so Mama said, “Papa, you either mean to pick your teeth with that knife blade or you’re going to pare your fingernails. But not at my table.”
Granddad looked suspiciously around like we were all in cahoots against him. “When we was settlin’ this part of the country,” he said in his high croak, “all we had to eat with was a pocketknife for cutlery and a tin plate. That’s all we had, and we were happy to have it. I don’t recollect when I saw my first fork in this district.” His gaze swept us, skipping over Mama.
Buster sat next to me, and something in the side pocket of his overalls jumped. I didn’t think much about it. There was at all times something living or dead in Buster’s pocket. Lottie sat across from me next to Granddad. The sun was behind her, so I couldn’t read her face. But we were all curious about the letter from Aunt Euterpe.
Granddad said, “Ida Postlewaite got a letter from her son today. I brung it out to her.” He let a short pause linger, now that he’d brought up the subject of letters. But Mama seemed deaf to him, though her hands worked the napkin in her lap. “That’s the Postlewaite boy who lives down by Cahokia,” Granddad said, soldiering on, “the one who got that girl—”
“All right,” Mama said. “We know who you mean.”
Dad stifled a smile.
Another long moment took place. We never lingered idle around the supper table. But there we all sat, growing roots.
Mama folded her napkin, lining up every crease in it till you wanted to scream. She reached into her apron pocket and drew forth her spectacles.
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