Nancy Wayson Dinan

To Where She Was Set Loose

 

Esther Marie Greenhall received the news of her father’s death on a Friday afternoon in March as she sat alone in the schoolhouse, smelling the hickory smoke from the heating stove and resting her feet on the riser underneath it. She sat in the chalk dust and ate Miss Lydia’s brown bread spread thick with currant jelly. She did not eat with the students at the dinner hour, because their hungry gaze made her feel guilty, and she relished the few minutes in the afternoon after the students left but before she closed the door to the little board-and-batten schoolhouse behind her. She would have shared with the children if there had been enough, but she was not our Lord and Savior who could feed the many with a single slab of bread.

The knock at the door troubled her, and not only because her afternoon meal was interrupted, or because it seemed to her that there was no real refuge. No, the knock on the door troubled her because she knew its brisk rap as the knock of a messenger, and she could think of very few messages she would receive. Just the one, she thought; just the report that her father did not finish the winter. When she’d returned to Gonzales in December, she’d held out hope he’d survive the snake bite he’d received in the last warmth of October summer. One look at his leg had revealed there was no hope to be had. It had shrunk, was dead weight, and swung at an odd angle. When he’d pulled his trousers up, she’d put her hand to her mouth in both surprise and revulsion; the poison had rotted him from the inside and his leg had been black-gray and shriveled, ashy like a log burned on a hearth, caught in that moment before disintegration and collapse. She’d said: “Father,” and he’d only nodded.

“Survived one,” he told her. “Thought I’d survive this one.” Later, but before she’d returned to Cuero and to Miss Lydia’s brown bread, Esther’s brother Jeremiah had told her about the hoodoo her father had tried, catching a toad and tying it to his leg with a bit of twine. When the toad died, her father told Jeremiah the poison had gone from his leg into the frog, and that he’d be fine now. “But it didn’t work,” Jeremiah said, and Esther had been furious with her father. Not only didn’t he amputate when he should have to save his own life, but he’d opened the Greenhall family to further speculation about insanity, and the busybodies of Gonzales, Texas had already had a feast on that line of gossip.

The knock again. She slid the clasp back from the latch, and when the door swung open, Uriel Meyer stood on the threshold. “Letter came,” Uriel said, and he took off his hat and twisted it in his hands.

He didn’t need to say more. She turned, damped the fire in the stove, smoothed her dress with the heels of her hands. She was aware of her posture, of the lines of her face, of the sobriety of her expression. People would be watching her, looking for signs of the madness that had taken her mother. But not her, she thought. She took Uriel’s hand as he led her out of the schoolhouse.

Miss Lydia pressed preserves on to her, plums and peaches and pears put up in the new glass Mason jars that Esther knew were so expensive. Between Cuero and Gonzales there was a rail line, and so Esther could take an extra trunk, unlike if she’d taken a stage coach. She marveled at the light within the jars, at the way the glass captured and pooled the sunlight until the very last second when the trunk lid winked it out. She was carrying last summer in Cuero, and the thought eased her mind. She was returning to a mess, to the black shell of a house her mother had burned, to a shack of cedar planks and tarpaper, to her young brother who had recently lost both mother and father. But she was returning with money in her pocket. They would rebuild. Their land was black, good for anything really, sandy down along the creek bed. They’d plant cotton in the black earth, melons and squash down by the sand. They’d run Charolais cattle in the bottomland, and get a Jersey for milk. They’d build a house, too, and it wouldn’t be as nice as the one that had been licked by the flames, the one that had blackened and crumbled just like her father’s leg, but it would be fine.

            Joseph Snyder, the town doctor, met her at the depot, and helped load the trunks on to his buggy. He’d been the one to send the telegram, and was waiting for her train. “Sorry about your daddy,” he told her, hoisting a trunk up to the backboard. “He wouldn’t let me take the leg.”

Esther took his hand and sat beside him at the front of the buggy. He clicked the long reins and the bay gelding set off with a jerk.

“Dry bite,” Doc Snyder said, and Esther noticed he was completely gray through his beard. He was nearing fifty. Two years ago, before she’d left for Cuero, he’d asked her to marry him, and she’d refused. Now Dr. Snyder was married to Mae Evans, and Esther wondered if being Mrs. Dr. Snyder would have been such a bad thing.

“Pardon?”

“That first bite was a dry bite,” Doc Snyder continued. “No poison. Rattlesnakes don’t always poison when they bite you. That’s why he didn’t die the first time. But I couldn’t convince your father that that was the case.”

“No, I imagine not.” She felt him watching her, and she looked away, out over Caleb Williams’ sorghum fields.

“It’s not crazy for a man to believe a little in that stuff,” Doc Snyder said.

“How’s Jeremiah been?” she said at last, for she knew her brother must have struggled as her father had waned.

“Oh, he’s fine,” Doc Snyder said. “Still wanting to go to seminary, but knows he can’t. It’s been hard on him being out here all by himself, but he’s fifteen now, and a young man.”

For a moment there was only the creak of tack leather, the slow plodding of the horses, the pop of gravel caught under the buggy wheel. The sun was slipping in the west, but there would still be light when she got home, and she’d show Jeremiah how those glass jars caught the sunshine. She’d even open one, she thought, maybe peaches, and if there was any flour or meal, she’d make biscuits.

“How long you going to do this?” Doc Snyder asked her. She smelled the linseed oil he’d used on the board, and she ran her hands over its smooth surface.

“Do what?” she said absently. She wished he’d be quiet again, because she liked him better that way, and right now, she was paying more attention to how her body knew she was almost home, the way she vibrated slightly, like a struck tuning fork. She closed her eyes, and still she knew she was home, and she sucked in a long breath.

“Live out here by yourself. You and Jeremiah.” She could tell he wanted to say more, but he didn’t.

“Oh, I don’t know. Long as I can, I guess.”

He clucked his tongue in disapproval, and she thought that was very doctor-ish of him. He’d been a surgeon and a dentist in the Confederate Army, and every once in a while, she caught a glimpse of that man, of the soldier hiding behind civilian clothes. “You won’t make it. You likely won’t make it through the summer. You sure as hell won’t make it through the winter.”

She tried to hide her irritation. “Oh, I don’t know. Not much of a winter in south Texas.”

“You ain’t gonna make it, Esther,” he told her. “And it’s not just you. It’s your brother, too, and starvation’s a slow, miserable death. People starve to death every day in this county, so don’t pretend you don’t know. Why don’t you sell your piece, and send Jeremiah to seminary? You’ll never be able to do anything with it, just the two of you.”

“And what should I do?” Esther said, at last letting her irritation show. One bend, a long stretch through a bottomland, and another turn and she’d be home. “Should I teach school in Cuero all my life?”

“Hey now,” Doc Snyder said gently, and she noted the wedding band on his finger. His wife was one year older than Esther, but Doc Snyder was older than her father had been, an age difference of nearly thirty years.

“I got a brother in Blanco County,” Doc Snyder said at last. “He’s a widower, too, with three children. Been wanting to marry again. Name’s Paul.”

“I just got back, Doc Snyder. I’m not about to leave Jeremiah and go marry a man in Blanco County.”

“Well, that’s fine,” Doc Snyder said. “You let me know when you change your mind. When you’re ready to sell your land, I’ll buy it. Mae’s always loved your spot down there in the pines, and we’d sell the rest in parcels. Give us some place to get away, just the two of us.” She imagined Mae Snyder walking down near her bit of creek, tearing down the ruins of the house, and she bit her tongue.

Jeremiah waited for her at the gate. He was taller than she was for the first time ever, and sharply thin and her schoolteacher’s eye noted that he was dirty.

Doc Snyder tipped his hat to Jeremiah. “Mister Greenhall,” he said.

“Hi, Doc,” Jeremiah said, and she hugged him tightly to her. He returned the hug, and then helped her with her two trunks. When they were safely deposited in the yard of their temporary home – how it hurt her to lose their real home – Doc Snyder hitched up his trousers and climbed back up. “Remember what I said, now, Esther.” She nodded, biting her lip, and watched the old bay gelding slowly plod his way home. The light was fading, and Jeremiah lit a kerosene lamp, and she went inside and watched the sooty coils climb toward the ceiling. “Oh, Jeremiah,” she said, running her fingertips underneath her lashes, brushing away the tingling feeling that told her she would soon be sobbing. “He wants to buy this land. He wants me to send you to seminary, and marry his brother.”

Jeremiah sat back on his tick mattress, and Esther recognized a quilt her mother had pieced. “Well,” he said. “I guess we can’t let that happen.” And she was so grateful that he agreed, that he hadn’t insisted that he go to seminary, or that they should give up the hard life they’d been dealt. She sat in the rude one-room shack, on the bed that had once been her father’s, and she thought about how far they’d fallen, and about what a mighty effort it would take to lift them back up.

It was almost April, so Esther got a late start on the cold frame vegetables, but Jeremiah had started some kohlrabi and some cabbages, and they ate dandelion greens and purslane, and they had Miss Lydia’s preserves yet, and plenty of last year’s oats. She started tomatoes in the cold frame, rolling her sleeves far up to her elbow, and she had Jeremiah mend fences so they could get a dairy cow right away. When she looked around, she could hardly imagine how her father and her brother had lived here for the nearly two years since her mother had burned the house down. The bricks that had once been the chimney still teetered at an odd angle and threatened to come down, and knowing Greenhall luck, they would land on something Esther didn’t want them to land on, the few Rhode Island reds that still ran about the place, maybe, or Jeremiah’s head. “We need to pull that down and clear out the root cellar,” she told Jeremiah, but every morning they woke with too much to do, and every night they sat at the rough table for supper, then washed their faces in the cracked basin, and lay down on their beds to sleep the sleep of the overworked.

“We’ve got to make a plan,” Esther said one day at the noon meal. She’d fried six eggs in the cast iron skillet and opened a jar of chow-chow, and they were sopping it all up with the rest of the sour cornbread from breakfast.

Jeremiah nodded, taking a long drink of water. His nose was sprinkled with freckles and his dark hair fell into his eyes.

“You need a haircut.”

“I’d like to go back to school after summer,” he said after a minute.

She sat back in her chair, her elbow resting on the edge of the table. She’d meant they needed to think about rebuilding, about filling the barn with hay for the winter, about saving seeds for next spring and planning a cotton crop for some spending money. She hadn’t meant school, and at fifteen, Jeremiah would be the oldest boy in the schoolroom, by far. “Why?”

He looked up at her, his mouth full. “Just want to, is all.”

She washed up while Jeremiah went back to mending fence and she thought about what he said. Ever since her father had taught Jeremiah to read, Jeremiah had been nose deep in his Bible. He’d learned the Greek of the New Testament from the Gonzales school teacher, Mr. Purdy, and often at night, she heard him chanting declensions under his breath as he went to sleep. When Mr. Purdy’d left to go to Austin, he’d given Jeremiah a small volume of the Gospels in Greek, and even Esther liked to look at this book, because though she couldn’t read Greek, she understood the letters and could piece out the pronunciations. It seemed such a shame for him to not go to seminary, when he had wanted it for so very long.

But what about what she wanted? She wanted to stay here on this piece of land, the place that had nurtured her father, and the place where her mother, father, and her infant sister had all drawn their last breaths and were buried, and she wanted to prove to Gonzales and to herself that the Greenhall madness had only been Greenhall bad luck, and that she and Jeremiah were nothing to be afraid of. The house was gone, but that was even more reason for her to stay: she was the link in this chain and it was her responsibility to rebuild, and especially not to allow Mae Snyder to divide up her family’s property.

After she’d been home for ten days, she used some of her money to buy a Jersey cow from Caleb Williams. The cow had recently calved, so there was plenty of fresh milk, and even though it wasn’t time to milk her, Esther thought she’d give it a try anyway. She tied the rope to a post in the barn, and gave the cow some feed to keep her busy.

She grabbed the milking stool and the tin bucket hanging from the nail, and she sat down to milk, just as she always had, only this was a new cow, and it had been at least two years since Esther had milked. This was a Jersey cow, known for its rich milk, and the richest bit came at the end of the milking, after all four quarters of the udder were emptied.

When she sat down on the stool, she scraped the legs against the barn floor, and the sound spooked the cow. The cow bucked, jerked the rope tight, and pulled until the post threatened to give. The rope frayed under the strain, but the cow continued to pull. When the cow’s eyes bulged, and its tongue flopped heavily to one side, Esther knew the cow was choking, and she tried to get her hand between the rope and the cow’s neck to get some slack.

The cow set its feet and pulled back, fighting Esther, fighting the rope. It lowed pathetically, and Esther was near tears as the cow, in panic, continued to choke itself. Esther pitied the poor dumb beast, but was even more afraid to lose the investment she’d made. At last, as the cow began to cough and sputter, Esther recalled enough of her wits to untie the rope from the post, instead of working on the part of the rope looped around the cow’s neck. When she walked behind the cow to get to the other side of the barn to free the rope, she bent to lift her skirts over the rope, and the cow kicked her square in the cheek. She felt her jaw crumple, and she tasted the iron taste of blood and felt the sharpness of broken teeth.

She pulled the rope free of the post, and the cow backed away. She thought for a minute that maybe she was ruined, that maybe this would kill her. Lots of people died from jaw injuries, from the loss of teeth, from an inability to eat. She’d have to go into town to Doc Snyder, and get him to fix her tooth.

She walked up to the house, wadded a hunk of muslin, and stuck it in her cheek, and then she headed out to the kitchen garden where Jeremiah was transplanting the kohlrabi from the cold frame. He knelt in the dirt, and when he looked up at her, she saw his eyes go wide, and she said, with her mouth full of cotton: “Get the wagon and take me to town.”

“What happened?”

“Cow,” she said, and let it be.

When they got to town, he headed straight to Doc Snyder, and she dug her fingers into her forearm to keep the pain at bay. Inside her mouth, the muslin was heavy, and the tooth shards were in her side pocket.

Doc Snyder came out in a waist coat, took one look at her, and rushed down the steps to grab her by the elbow. “You’re all right,” he told her, pulling her up the steps and into his house. “Jeremiah tells me you had a run-in with a cow.” She imagined his calm voice had had this lulling, soothing effect on scores of men, men on the battlefield in faraway states like Virginia and South Carolina. He sat her down at his kitchen table, and she saw Mae Snyder in the parlor, pretending she wasn’t staring. “Now let me take a look,” he said, pulling her hands away from her face.

When she opened her mouth, blood ran over her chin and down onto her throat, and for a second, she panicked and clawed her throat, because she didn’t like the tickling feeling of the blood, and she wondered if she had bit her tongue and didn’t know it. Her jaw was broken, mashed to jelly, and the teeth were in bad shape. Doc Snyder pulled out the muslin and looked at it with interest. Behind him, Jeremiah looked on with the same wide-eyed expression he’d worn during the entire drive into town.

“You broke two teeth. They’ve got to come out. We leave them there and they rot, do you understand? They rot this whole jaw.” He ran a light finger from her ear to the tip of her chin. “They’re coming out.” He left the room. After a minute, he returned with his doctor’s bag.

“Esther.” He set the bag on the table, pulled out a glass vial and a wire frame. “I’m going to administer ether while I take out your teeth. It won’t hurt at all.” He rested a hand on her shoulder. “Mae,” he said to his wife. “Why don’t you take Mr. Greenhall to the parlor and then get my table ready?”

He helped her to her feet. “You must be on the table when I give it to you. You will sleep immediately, and I won’t be able to move you.” He led her down the hallway into his examination room. Mae laid a fresh white sheet on the table, and beside the table, Esther saw all manner of instruments on a silver tray. Doc Snyder caught her looking.

“It’s a turn-key,” he said, holding up one of the instruments. “Forceps, molar forceps.” He pointed to the other instruments. “Stump screw. Lancet. You’ll be asleep, Esther. You’ll wake up, and I’ll have fixed everything.”   She noticed his straight white teeth for the first time. He took a case bound in patent leather and when he opened it, she saw rows of porcelain teeth, lovely to look at almost, but hideous all the same. “It’s just some broken teeth. Worse things happen all the time.”

He took her hand and helped her on to the operating table. Behind him, Mae Snyder held a handful of gauze, but Esther couldn’t see very well. He laid her down, and took a length of gauze from his wife.

“I’m going to bind your hands loosely,” he told her, still in that same calm voice. “To keep your limbs in place once you fall asleep. If you were to move during surgery, you could hurt yourself. Or wake up.” He folded her arms across her chest, and then bound her hands together. “Now your legs.”

Mae came forward and wrapped a length of gauze behind and around her knees. Esther’s legs were stiff, because Mae’s touch was awkward, but Mae managed just the same.

“Now the mask,” he said, and he fitted the mask into place. Across the wire frame, he drew four pieces of gauze, but there were several inches still between the gauze and her face. He frowned. “The mask won’t work,” he said. “It covers the tooth. Don’t you feel this?” He pressed lightly on her mangled jaw, and her stomach turned. “Mae, we’ll just damp a cloth,” and he took the mask off of Esther and handed it to his wife.

Mae came forward and stood beside Esther, resting her hands calmly on the side of the table. She held a piece of gauze, and Doc Snyder cut a groove on the cork of a bottle. “Now,” Doc Snyder said, and he took the gauze and a wicked-smelling liquid dripped out. “Cover her eyes, Mae. To protect them,” he added to Esther. The battlefields, she remembered somewhat incongruously. She wasn’t that different from those young men, scared and vulnerable.

Mae covered Esther’s eyes with a towel, and soon Esther felt the liquid burning her throat and nostrils. “Breathe naturally,” Doc Snyder said, and soon she drifted away, past mere sleep, drifted out to where there was no tether, to where she was set loose.

She woke in the twilight, her head fuzzy, and her jaw throbbing, and she didn’t know where she was. She reached for her mother, expecting her to be near, as she had been when Esther was a child, but her mother was not close by, not sitting beside her, reading Psalms and Proverbs in a soothing, susurrus whisper, and Esther felt the loss of something bigger even than this, but there was no measure for it, no word, and so after a moment, the loss diminished, and she felt the tears well up, because she missed even that empty feeling, because it told her how she’d once been filled. She moved her hands, loosened the gauze tie, and she covered her face with them, feeling gently that corner of her mouth the cow had kicked, and the whole drama with her mother played out once more: the abandonment of the Old Testament and the Gospels, the embracing of Revelation, the nights they would find her mother down by the willows preaching and ranting. The obsession with fire, and then finally, the last of it: her mother had lain down on the parlor floor in their old house, placed the Bible on her chest, and reached her hand into the hearth. The flames had spread up her sleeve, had giddily, gleefully consumed her, and Esther’s father had hardly had time to get Jeremiah out of his bed and out into the yard before the house had begun to crumble. Esther had been in Cuero then, in her first year as a schoolteacher, and Esther thought now that even in Cuero she had realized that something had happened in Gonzales, that something had slipped and gone off its track.

“You’re awake,” Doc Snyder said.

She jerked to see him. He was in full shadow, in a gilt mahogany chair, and his elbows perched on the arm rests. His hands were folded underneath his chin. When he saw her reaction, he spread them in a calming gesture, and said: “You’re fine, Esther. You have two new porcelain teeth, and I filled a carie with lead. You’re better than you were yesterday, before you met the wrong end of a cow.”

Her head ached, and her mouth felt fuzzy, and she wasn’t sure that she agreed with him.

“Do you believe in God?” he asked her after a moment.

“Pardon?” she said, still shaking the memory of her mother, and for a moment, she confused Doc Snyder with her mother, and the thought comforted her.

‘I just wondered, with your history, what you believe will happen to you when you die.” He uncrossed his legs and came to stand next to her, and he untied the gauze strip around her knees, on the outside of her skirts. He held a hand out to her, but she was not ready to sit up just yet. “Not everybody comes out of the ether, you know.” His eyes were dark in the shadows, but she felt his gaze on her. “But you were never in any real danger, I think. I was here.” He turned away, and she felt her legs where the gauze had been, not trusting this body that had come out of the ether, not sure she was all there.

She was silent, feeling the new teeth with her tongue, feeling the raised place where Doc Snyder had filled a tooth with lead. She did not know how to respond, because she did not know the answer, and she was not even sure what he was asking, and whether his questions were tenderness or threat, or even only his bedside manner.

“I don’t think you do, Esther.” He kept repeating her name, she thought, when nobody had said her name in a long time. She could not tell what was real and what was shadow, and she hated the feeling, hated the fact that she was born into a family whose blood line carried seeds of madness. She closed her eyes and did her best to ignore him, rolling away toward the wall, one hand placed still on her jaw, the other wrapped around her waist protectively.

“I know only a few people who truly believe in God,” he continued. “Your mother was one, and look at all the good that did. Your brother is another.” Esther felt his insinuation, that she was being foolish and should send her brother to seminary. “Other people,” he said, and he inclined his head in a way that let Esther know he meant her, “are mad in different ways.” He was punishing her for that refusal two years ago.

He clapped his hands, changed his demeanor. “Well,” he said. “I think I’ve sat too long in the dark. Jeremiah’s waiting for you, drinking all our coffee at the kitchen table.” He reached his hand to her again, and this time she took it.

She stood, swaying slightly on her feet, and her hands ran along her hips, making sure her body still moved, was still connected. “I’m not leaving,” she told him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He spread his hands in a motion that said he surrendered. “Well, I’ll leave it alone, then,” he told her, and when he opened the door, the light from the hurricane lamp in the parlor spilled out over the carpet, and cut through the haze.

When Jeremiah saw her, he stood and took her hand, and she squeezed it back and told him: “I’m all right. But I want to go home,” and he helped her out of the house and down the steps, and she never told him what Doc Snyder had said as she was coming back from the ether.

She reclaimed the kitchen garden, and Jeremiah fixed the broken blade on the plow, and they thrashed enough hay for the winter for their Jersey cow, and for the old mare, and their peach trees produced, and Esther sliced peaches and laid the slices on a blanket on the roof for three days until they were dried. She turned her attention especially to preserving, to getting the two of them through the winter, because if they survived this one, then they would be fine. They’d start next spring early, setting out seeds in the cold frames in February, and they’d be ready to plant cotton for spending money, and then after next summer, they’d be ready to rebuild the house.

She bought one hundred and forty four pint jars, and one hundred and forty four quart jars, and it had taken nearly all her teaching money, but by the end of August, she was convinced of the wisdom of her investment, because those jars would last forever. They did not have a cellar anymore, because the old house had caved in upon it, and the chimney balanced precariously even above this, so Jeremiah made rough shelves along the windowless walls of the shack, and she lined them with beans, with pickled cucumbers and beets, with chow-chow, and mustang grape jelly. She spent hours bent over the stove, canning in a water bath while her hair was tied up in a cloth. Jeremiah kept her woodpile stocked, and every jar on the shelf was a bulwark against starvation, and she watched with satisfaction as the stock on the shelves grew each day.

One night, as the weather grew cool again, she fried greens and radishes in grease, and they sat down to supper in the dusk. Jeremiah hummed an old hymn, and it was like they were strangers, but in a good way, like they had worked so hard all summer long that they hardly knew each other, and like they had the colder months to get reacquainted. Winter in south Texas was brief, and it rarely froze, but it was hard to coax anything green from the land, and they’d spend the time with seed catalogs, and repairing tack, woodwork, clothes. But they wouldn’t starve to death, she thought, despite what everybody had told her, because she and Jeremiah had worked hard. She didn’t know what she wanted just yet, but she thought it was okay anyway, and thought she had a few years until Jeremiah was ready to marry, and that by then they’d be settled. She thought about Paul Snyder, and she thought she might never marry at all, and that seemed like a good thing to her. When they built the house over the coming years, she’d make sure there was plenty of room for Jeremiah and his wife and children, but plenty of room for herself as well, because she could see, in the distance, a time coming when she would be able to relax a bit, would be able to rest and read. In the old house, there had been a piano, and her mother had taught her to play, and it seemed there were worse things in life than to play piano and read and take care of nieces and nephews.

Thinking about the piano, and how heavy it was, made her remember the time her mother had made her father carry the piano outside, into the dirt of the front yard, because a photographer had been coming, and they had taken a family portrait. That photograph was gone, burnt up in the fire, but she remembered it still, remembered how she and Jeremiah had been barefoot and clinging to their father, and how their mother had leaned solemnly on the piano. The piano was her mother’s most prized possession, and her mother had wanted it in the photograph. At the very edge of the photograph, at the edge of the porch, her father had placed an empty chair for the child who had died, for Esther’s older sister, whom she had never met.

They had had to be still for a long time, and the photographer instructed them to relax their face. She remembered all of this now, even though she hadn’t thought of it in a long time. The idea of the empty chair spooked her, the thought of her sister’s ghost, and she thought of the ghosts who had been added since then. Jeremiah kept eating, crunching the radishes in his teeth, and she wondered if he remembered the piano, too.

Esther didn’t crunch the radishes in the same way, as her teeth were still tender. The porcelain teeth didn’t seem to sit quite right, and Doc Snyder had told her that the lead filling would take at least six months or more to be smooth. The more she chewed, he told her, the smoother it would be, but she couldn’t bring herself to bite too hard because she feared the pain. “Jeremiah,” she said at last, breaking their companionable silence. “Are you going to be happy if you spend the rest of your life on this farm with me?”

He looked up at her, his eyes quick and flashing, and she felt for a moment her selfishness. But it wasn’t selfishness. Few people got to do everything they wanted to do in life.

“I guess so,” he said after a minute.

She watched him. “You could marry, you know. You could bring a wife here, after we build the house, and she could live here, too.”

“Why don’t you marry?” he asked her.

She snorted lightly. “The only real prospect I have is Doc Snyder’s brother, and he’s a hundred miles away in Blanco County.   If I marry him, I’d never see you again, or this piece of land. I’d leave one day and never come back.”

He smiled at her, almost like he was the older sibling. “You’d see me again. You’d come back, too.”

She shook her head. “There’s no rail line between here and Blanco. I’d have to take a stage coach. The trip would take a week,” she said, thinking of how miserable that week would be, shut up inside a coach. “You and I both know that would be it.” Jeremiah made no reaction, so she thought for a moment that that might be what he wanted.

She sighed heavily and picked at her food. But Jeremiah heard the sigh, and he said: “No, I don’t want you to do that. We’ll make it. We’ll rebuild the house.”

“We need a root cellar again,” she said. “We need a place to store all of these jars” – and again she felt that swelling of pride –“and potatoes and winter squash.” She heard the wind whistle through the cedar boards, and she looked around her. “This can be the summer kitchen,” she said.

Jeremiah smiled again, but this time the smile reached his blue eyes. “A big front porch with a swing,” he said.

“Pressed tin siding,” she said. “Painted white, with black shutters. A screen door, too, painted black.”

“Gingerbread trim,” Jeremiah said, and she didn’t know that she wanted gingerbread trim, but she didn’t say so. “We’ll drive into town on Sundays, go to church again.”

“Does that bother you? That we don’t do that anymore?”

He nodded, almost imperceptibly, ashamed to admit that it bothered him.

“Well, then,” she told him. “We can go back to church this Sunday if you like.”

“They’ll talk,” he warned her.

She shrugged. “They’ll talk anyway. We just have to ignore them.”

“Can’t stop them from talking,” Jeremiah said.

“But we do need a root cellar,” Esther said again.

“And a smokehouse,” Jeremiah added. “We’ll raise a pig next year, have bacon all next winter.”

“Jeremiah,” she said, and she loved him so much at that moment, almost as if she was his mother and not his sister. “Thank you,” she said, cradling her slowly healing jaw in her palm.

And he just nodded, but she knew he understood. He knew she needed him, just as much as he needed her.

The winter came and they braced themselves, shut the old mare into the barn, and let the Jersey cow’s milk dry up so she wouldn’t need so much hay. The Rhode Island reds stopped laying, and for a month or two, some of them went into the stew pot on Sunday afternoons.

At first, the tongues wagged when they returned to church, and she and Jeremiah took an out of the way spot in one of the rear pews. It bothered her, but she saw how it affected him, how he watched the preacher, how he closed his eyes tightly when the congregation prayed, and how his fingers followed the verses in his Bible. Jeremiah especially loved the most ancient stuff, the stories of the patriarchs and of the Exodus, and she couldn’t help but find comfort in the idea of a land of milk and honey, even though she couldn’t bring herself to believe in it exactly. She warmed clay bricks in the fire as they ate their early morning breakfast, and wrapped them in flannel blankets for the ride to town. It was not yet very cold, but she wanted them to be comfortable. Doc Snyder was Lutheran, and attended a different church, and she had no need to see him all that long winter, and she wondered if his brother Paul had ever found a bride.

In December, she was in the barn feeding the animals, and when she closed the door behind her on the way back to the house, she saw the ring around the moon, and she remembered what her father had once told her: how such a ring meant that the moon was encased in ice, that a hard freeze was coming. Her father had been dead for almost a year, and the fact caught her sometimes, made her put her hand to her chest to check for her own heartbeat.

“Jeremiah,” she said, when she came inside. He sat at the table burning a coal oil lamp, his Bible open to Leviticus. “It’ll be cold tonight.”

“I know,” he told her, not looking up. “I felt it when I was out there, too.”

“I hope the animals are safe,” she said. She was worried but she didn’t know why.

“They’re fine,” he said, raising a hand as if to silence her, and she didn’t want to bother him, so she left him alone and busied herself with blankets. He had not returned to school that fall, and she knew he wanted the evenings so he could study. She washed her face in the basin, and then she went to sleep, with Jeremiah still studying at the table.

When the first sound woke her, the house was dark and still. She heard a high whining, as of a swarm of bees, but she could not place it. It was freezing, and she didn’t want to get out of bed.

“Jeremiah,” she whispered, but he did not respond.

She laid there a bit longer, listening to the sound, and then she heard a pop, and a liquid sound, and the sound of glass tinkling. She sat up straight in bed, letting cold air underneath her blankets, imagining that they were under attack, that somebody had come to rob them.

Another shattering pop, and another, and she started crying, though she didn’t know why. The cracks were so loud, and sounded so much like glass exploding, and then she realized that the little shack had no windows, and that the only glass in the house was in the kitchen, and then she knew the sound for what it was.

“Jeremiah!” she yelled, leaping from bed, gasping from the sudden cold. It was dark, but she could see the faint mist of her breath in front of her face, and she knew the jars had gotten too cold, and that they were exploding because they were freezing.

She stoked the coals on the hearth, trying to fan the fire, and beside her, she heard Jeremiah loading wood into the stove. “The ashes, Jeremiah,” she said, grabbing a jar and burying it in the warmth, but as soon as the jar was in place, she heard the shattering sound, and she knew the ashes were too hot for the cold jars. Around her, the jars continued to splinter and break apart, and each pop made her jump.

She fetched the blanket off her bed, and Jeremiah managed to light the kerosene lamp, and when she saw her work in the light, and what it had been reduced to, she began to cry in earnest. Jeremiah took her by the shoulders, and they stood as the last few jars froze and exploded. It took another hour for all of those jars to bust open, and every new shattering sound broke something inside her as well.   She didn’t know what she could have done differently, because any attempt to warm them up had been useless. It was the boards, she thought, the way they’d stored them, all lined single file against the walls. In a root cellar, they would never have frozen solid and expanded, the transformation so violent and strong that it undid all of them. In a root cellar, they would have been protected, unexposed, but the root cellar was gone to her and Jeremiah, and they had not yet excavated it nor dug another.

The last three jars were the worst, because it was done, but it wasn’t over. Jeremiah led her to bed, and sat beside her while she cried, and after a while, he laid down, too, and he held her, because they both knew it was over, that there was nothing left to do but starve to death.   In the morning, she stayed in bed, listening to Jeremiah sweeping up the glass.

“What do we have?” she asked him, and her eyes hurt because they were swollen.

“Not enough.” He didn’t say anything else all that long morning.

Around noon, she got herself out of bed, washed her face, put on the same woolen dress that she had worn home from Cuero that day almost a year ago, only now it was threadbare and ragged, as if the year had been extra tough on it. When Jeremiah saw her harnessing the old mare, he came to help, but she waved him away. “No,” she said.

She led the mare out into the yard, and when she climbed into the wagon, she covered her lap with blankets. She clicked the reins on the horse’s back, and she set off at a brisk trot to Doc Snyder’s, and the thing she hated most was that the thought that she had lost a little bit of dignity, that if she had just taken him up on his offer a year ago, then she wouldn’t look like such a fool now, a woman with a bandaged face who had once thought things could be different. She tried not to think about the ghosts on her farm, and how they were her ghosts, and about how she was about to be set free in a world full of the ghosts of strangers. For the last time she wondered if she shouldn’t have married Doc Snyder when she had the chance, because she didn’t trust them, these stranger’s ghosts. They were from different country, from different air, but not for long. Now every bit of air was hers, every bit of country, or none of it at all.

 

Nancy Wayson Dinan earned an MFA from the Ohio State University in 2013 and is currently a PhD student in fiction at Texas Tech University. Her writing has appeared in The Journal, Watershed Review, The Fiddleback, and elsewhere.  She can’t resist old cemeteries and historical markers, and has been known to drive several hours for good barbecue.