Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A word

A word from the writer: Sorry I haven't posted a chapter (or the rest of a chapter) here in a few weeks.  Be patient with me.  This is a hard time, but I'll get back to it, maybe even later today.  Thanks.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A brief note

 In case you were wondering, I'm away from home this week.  Actually, I'm sitting smack dab in the middle of the very land which is home to the Dalys of October Afternoon.  However, until I return home, I won't be posting more of the story.  Too much to do, too many people to see.  Hang in there, I'll be back next Monday. (Sorry to leave you hanging in the middle of a chapter!)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chapter Five--part two

"Don't spill anything on the clean floor," Vannah hollered as Phia pulled the lettuce from the plastic bag, lettuce covered with chemicals sprained in Chile.  Her heart ached as she remembered all the salads she'd made with greens from Mama's garden, the young leaves glistening with dew and early spring rain so that if she picked early enough, she wouldn't have to wash them at all.  Phia tried to suggest some dandelion grees to Annie--there were plenty of tender ones growing in the yard at the moment--but one would have thought she was trying to poison the whole family. 
     "Dandelions are weeds. What do you mean put them in a salad?"
     "Okay, how about strawberries or apples?" Phia had seen some in the refrigerator.
     "Phia, don't be ridiculous," Annie snapped.  "Just make a regular salad."
     So she stood at the window, tearing up good old iceberg lettuce that had not a drop of color in it, let alone an ounce of nutrition.  She watched her uncles and brothers-in-law stand out in the backyard, drinking beer, their collars turned up to protect against the wind whipping around the house and across the yard from the west.  Tommy turned steak and chicken on the barbeque while the others stood in a circle around him, warming their hands in its heat.  As Phia sliced anemic carrots, then woody radishes from Safeway, she watched Rudy grab his second and third beers from the cooler.  As she pulled pithy, pale tomatoes from a carton and began to chop them, she watched him drain his fourth beer, and mourned the loss of Mama's lush tomatoes in late summer, pulled right from the vine, which burst in her hand as the knife cut threw them.  Rudy made a flourish with his cigarette, then stuck it in an empty beer can.  Jack, Susu's husband, waved the smoke away from his face.  Opening a can of artichoke hearts she'd found in the pantry, Phia saw Tommy point toward the ridgepole on the barn, and she leaned forward, trying to see what they were all looking at.  Instead, she saw Rudy bend into the cooler for his fifth beer, blocking her view.  Pouring seasoned croutons from a jumbo bag over the bowl, Phia noticed that he'd pulled the tab on his sixth, and by the time she finished tossing the salad with a bottle of creamy ranch dressing Vannah had no doubt picked up at Costco, he was swigging his seventh.
     "Phia," Annie said, jarring her from her window gazing.  "Take this platter out to Tommy."
     "It's about time you came out to see me!" Jack said as Phia stepped off the back porch toward him.  Jack wrapped her in his broad arms, squeezing hard.
     "How's your ball team looking?" Jack was the coach of the high school baseball team in town. "Are you going to take the league?"
     "We're all right, if we can fill the hole in left field," Jack said.  "But my pitching's strong."  Then he grinned and gently punched Phia's arm. "Shoot, you had me going--I almost thought you were interested in baseball."
     Phia grinned back. "I care about your job," she said.
     "Hey," Rudy called from his post by the cooler.  "You too good to speak to me?"
     "Hey Rudy," she said, avoiding his piercing glare.
     Rudy flicked his cigarette to the ground.  "You're looking your age."
     Marty stepped between them and stamped his boot on the smoking cigarette.  "How soon, honey?" he asked, draping his arm around Phia's shoulders.
     "I think we're ready when you are," she answered.
     "Let's get 'er loaded up, then," Tommy said, filling the platter so full of meat Phia's hands began to shake.
     "Here let me carry that," Jack said.
     Marty opened the door and ushered her through the kitchen and into her place at the table, then helped her slide into her chair.  "I'll get you a glass of wine, honey, white okay?"  Phia nodded, grateful to be under his gentle care tonight.
     Laterh after they'd said grace, and the potatoes and meat were being passed, Rudy belched then said, "You Dalys think your family's the center of the universe, don't you? How do you think I feel coming home to an empty house every night--no dinner, no wife, having to take care of the kid myself?"
     There was a startled silence.  Phia glanced over at Vannah, but she was pointedly pretending not to have heard.  Across the table, their daughter, Dana Rose, had her head bowed against Daire's daughter, Brooke's shoulder.
     "But Rudy," Riona said. "Dee sick.  You know that."
     "It's always been something--Dee's garden, or canning, or you or Annie needing help.  Now it's that new baby or Dee and Van goes running.  What about me?  What if I need something?"  He slammed his fist against the table.  "I'm sick of it, I tell you."  He stood, tipping his chair over, hen tripped as he pushed past Dana and Brooke towards the kitchen, letting the back door slam behind him.
     Lowering a forkful of chicken, Phia wiped her lips with her napkin.  Vannah's head was bowed, and Riona who was sitting next to her, reaced over and clasped her hand.  "I"m sorry," Riona said. "I know better than to argue with him."
     "That man--" Annie began, then pursed her lips and shook her head.
     "I should go to him," Vannah said, rising.
     "I'm already going," Tommy told her.  "The last thing he needs is another beer.
     Dana shredded a paper napkin into tiny pieces onto her plate of food.  Forks clattered across plates but no one spoke for a long time.  Finally Phia said, "Maybe Dana could take the bus here from school."  Dana's eyes turned toward her.  There was so little light in them, Phia thought.
     "We could ride home together," Brooke offered.  Dana squeezed her hand.
     "Mama," Vannah said, as if Phia hadn't spoken.  "I'm so sorry to spoil your dinner." She wiped her eyes with her napkin.  "When he doesn't drink--"
    "Oh Bairn, I'm the one who's sorry," Mama cut in.  She leaned forward and rubbed Vannah's back.
     Food continued to be picked at until Tommy came back into the room.  "I've put him in the car to sleep it off." He place his hand on Vannah's neck.  "I'll take him home.  You and Dana sleep here tonight."  Vannah sighed and sat up.  "Come on, Dana."
     Dana carried her plate to the sink, napkin pieces fluttering as she walked.
     "Vannah," Phia stood up. "Please--stay. Don't let him ruin your night."
     "Don't!" Vannah said, sharply.
     "But every time I come home, it's the same." Phia broke in.  "He's a drunk."
     "You can't keep a man for a minute!" Vannah lashed out, her face mottled and red. "How dare you talk about mine?"
      Mama put her hand on Vannah's arm.  "Hush, Bairn, she didn't mean anything."
     "Oh yes, she did," Vannah said. "Rudy has always said there was something about you."
     Phia's heart pounded. "So he doesn't like me.  The feeling's mutual."
     Vannah stared at her, unblinking, for a long moment.  Then she picked up her purse from the coffee table in the living room. "Just remember why you finally came home--it wasn't to interfere in my life. Let's go, Dana." She swept from the room.
     As the car roared away, Annie stood up.  "The kitchen's crowed enough without you all getting in the way.  Phia will help me clean up."
     "Who wants pie?" Riona said, lining up her pies on the sideboard.  "Bring me the cream, will you, Phia?"
     "Until you've been a person for a day, you have no idea what's she's living," Annie said once she and Phia were alone in the kitchen together.  She scraped the uneaten food from the plates into the compost pail.
     "You want to sit back and watch him control Van?"  The water in the sink was so hot it burned her hands, making her flinch as she scrubbed and rinsed the dishes.  She felt burned on the inside as well, from Vannah's venom, her family's refusal to get involved--even if it might help Van. Wouldn't any of them stand up to him?
     "When you were a kid, Phia, we could hardly get you to say two words at a time, let alone express an opinion. What happened to that girl?"  Annie set the coffee brewing, then dried her hands on her apron.  "You finish up in here while I help your mama get ready for bed."
     Phia sighed.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chapter Five--part one

That night a storm rolled over the hills and Phia woke to a thunderclap that rattled the windows, followed by a blinding flash as lightning struck the rod on the barn roof.  As the thunder rumbled over the house, she sat upright in bed, disoriented, her heart pounding, her hand reacing instinctively for the comfort of Susu.  The empty pillow was cool to her touch.  Susu was sleeping soundly in her own house; only Phia was awake in their childhood bedroom.  Feeling the rungs of the familiar headboard, she squinted at the silhouette of her highboy dresser in the eerie flashes of lightning, its arched sides looking like bent arms carrying a heavy, but invisible, load.  Her feet were freezing--she'd kicked off all the blankets--and she reached down, feeling sick as she remembered the blood of her dream, flowing down the stairs, over her bare feet.  Turning on the light beside her bed, Phia gulped water from a glass on the nightstand.  Her feet and underarms were sticky with sweat.  Lifting the sheet, she peered at her thighs, knees, calves, ankles, toes.  The sheets were white, clean.  She sank back against the pillows, turned off the light and closed her eyes.  Papa's favce swam before her.  Lightning cracked again and Phia leapt out of bed, gathered blankets from the hallway closet and hung them over the curtain rods, draping the room in darkness, muting the storm's fury as it passed overhead and rolled towards Annie's.  She imagined the thunder waking Marty and Riona, before moving down the road past Grampa's place, toward the yellow clapboard house where Mrs. Warren was lying with her hair in those ubiquitous curlers in her lonely bed.  It was a real tempest, Phia thought, tumbling through the Palouse, over hills, down in the hollows, where farmhouses sat protected from the harshest western winds, gathering force as it pounded rain over Colton, before it swept down the steep grade to shower Lewiston and Clarkstonat the junction of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers.
     In the morning, thought she knew Mama was dwonstairs waiting for her, Phia could hardly lift her head from the pillow, and wasted half her day in bed, as Annie would say.  The next morning, Annie burst into the room and pulled down the blankets covering the windows.  "Your Mama hates to see you hurting," she said, folding back the comforter Phia was hiding under, the mattress dipping with her weight.
     "I don't do it on purpose," Phia grumbled, rolling over to escape the light from the morning sun.
     "Things are different now," she said, shaking out the comforter.  She took and deep breath and, as Phia watched her, Phia could see Annie's shoulder blades pressing against the thin flowered fabric of her shirt.  Phia longed to reach out and touch her right in that vulnerable spot.  "This room needs some fresh air," Annie said, opening the windows letting in the sounds and smells of spring--the steady rumble of a tractor, the smell of newly cut grass.  Who the heck was cutting the grass so early in the day? Phia wondered as she pulled a pillow over her head.
      "You know what day this is?  Your mama wants to eat breakfast with you, and we'll expect you to help with Sunday dinner."  She left the door open and marched out, saying, "I know you won't disappoint us."
     When Phia went downstairs, Mama was sitting at the table eating a bowl of steaming oatmeal.  Phia stood uncertainly, until Mama patted the seat beside her.
     "Are you feeling better?" Phia asked, ladling brown sugar and raisins onto the oatmeal, then pouring milk on top.
     "Good enough to get dressed," she said, pointing her spoonful of oatmeal at Phia.  "I woke up this morning and decided I wanted porridge for breakfast." She took a bite and smiled.  "And my bairn? not so good, I think."
     "It's been a rough couple of days, but it helps to see you up and eating."
     "Let's try to stay well together."  Mama's hands shook as she reached for the pile of pills beside her bowl.  Watching her swallow them with large draughts of apple juice, something recoiled in Phia.  She'd never liked being around sick people.  That was Susu's domain, she thought as her eyes wandered away from her to the unmade hospital bed.  Beneath it sat a white plastic hospital bag, a pink kidney-shaped bowl sticking out of it.  No, there was no pretending that Mama was well. 
     After breakfast, Phia took Mama out in the sun on the back porch.  But as soon as they sat down, Annie stuck her head out the screen door.  "Phia, those dishes won't wash themselves."
    Phia sighed.  Mama patted her hand, smiling.  "Annie's in her teacher-mode," she said.  "If I didn't have cancer, she'd be barking orders at me, too."  As Phia walked into the house, she shook her head, trying to dislodge Mama's voice saying that word so easily.
     As Phia washed the bowls sticky with oatmeal, Tommy came through the door with leaves for the table.  "Glad you're up--I need a hand," he said.
     "How many will be here today?" Phia asked, helping him slide the leaving in place to enlarge the oak table.
     "Let's see," Annie said from the stove. "Daire, Kathy and their three kids," she ticked off each name on her fingers.  "Marty and Riona, Susu and Jack, and the baby, of course.  Vannah, Rudy and Dana Rose.  Tommy and Dee." She sighed and pointed at Phia. "You and me."  She picked up a freshly ironed, white linen tablecloth.  "When you're done with the dishes, I'll give you a list."
     Oh great, Phia thought.  A list of chores.  Her hands back in the sink, Phia watched Vannah glide onto the back porch when she arrived.  As she bent to kiss Mama on the cheek, she looked gentle and tender, more like the big sister of Phia's earliest memories.  When Vannah came into the kitchen a few minutes later, Phia turned and smiled.  "Good to see Mama well, isn't it, Van?"
     Vannah frowned, a line creasing her brow.  "You shouldn't have left her out there without a blanket she was chilled to the bone."
     "I'm sorry--I'll--"
     "Don't bother," she said, filling a bucket with soapy water.  "Annie's already taken care of it." She heaved the bucket to the floor and started mopping the linoleum.
      Before Phia could reply, Riona sailed in and asked her to help unload the pies she'd baked for dessert--four apple, two maple-walnut, and two chocolate-pecan, laced--Phia knew from experience--with enough Jack Daniels to make her head spin.
     "There's enough her for each of us to eat half a pie," Phia said as she spread the pies over the counters so they could finish cooling.
     "Marty and Tommy have always loved their pie. Daire, too," Riona said.  "And his boys, Sean and Eric are just like them.  If there's any left, I'll freeze it for Tommy."  That was Riona, baking enough comfort food to keep Tommy company for the long, hard nights ahead.  Just looking at her baking soothed Phia's nerves and took the bite out of Vannah's criticism.
     While Phia set the table, Riona and Annie argued over the whirr of the electric beaters Riona was using to whip the cream.  "You know Tommy's cholesterol is going to spike after eating all this pie?" Phia heard Annie snarl.
     "Your daddy ate nearly a stick of butter of butter a day and lived into his nineties," Riona argued.  "Tommy is worrrying himself silly, and he's better off eating my pies than those frozen ones from Safeway."
       When Annie saw Phia creeping out the front door, hoping to slip off for a run before everyone arrived, she caught Phia's arm and said, "Don't you try pulling one of your famous disappearing acts.  I need you to ge on the salad right now."  When Phia saluted, Mama laughed from the bed.  She'd said she wanted to come in for a nap before supper, but Phia realized her real purpose was to watch them all ready the house as she had always done, often without any help but her girls, every single Sunday for as long as Phia could remember.  Phia helped Tommy push her bed to one side of the table so she could be near everyone when her energy started to fade that evening, as it did every night at dark.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Chapter Four--part two

Phia listened to Vannah tell Susu about the quilt she wanted to sew from a box of fabric scraps Mama had saved from their childhood.
     "We could all sew it together," Susu said, clapping her hands.
     "I'm going for a run," Phia said, turning around.
     "Of course you are," Vannah said, her head bent into a box of fabric she'd pulled out from under the stairs.
     Picking up a piece of worn green flannel from a nightgown Phia'd worn when she was twelve years old, she said, "Trust me, you don't want me to help you with this.  Remember that seventh sewing project I failed?"
     "I remember this," Susu said, taking the flannel from Phia's hands.
     Vannah looked at the frayed rectangle of Phia's nightgown and tossed it into a pile of other green fabric. "We'll do just fine without you," she said.
    Slipping on her running shoes at the back door, Phia jugged down the driveway to where it met the road.  Bending over, she kneaded her stomach muscles, trying to massage away the painful knots just being around Phia had brought.  Feeling calmed by the breeze that rippled through the wheat on the hills and over the skin of her bare arms.  Phia stood and tried to see a single difference in the land from the last time she'd been home.  But everything was exactly as it had been since she'd lived here, and for all she knew, the shape of the rich Palouse earth was tne sa e as kt nad bee when the Nez Perce rode their Appaloosa horses over these hills, long before any of the Dalys had come along to farm it.  In Seattle, her first apartment was now a parking lot, her second was a strip mall, and when she visited her favorite teashop just before leaving town, she was stunned to find it had been turned into a DVD store. But here on the Palouse, she was surrounded on every side by land her family had farmed for generations.  No matter what tragedy had come, they had kept farming.
     Whistling for the dogs, Phia began to run the two miles down to what the family still called Grampa's place, even though he'd died before Phia started school.  Annie lived there now and was probably outside, feeding her horse, tilling the garden or cleaning out the barn from the long winter.
     At about the half-way point, right at the long driveway to the house Marty had built his home for Riona back in the sixties, Phia saw her pumpkin-haired cousin, Daire, on the side of the road, bent over the engine of a tractor.
     "Hey, DC," she called. Daire stood and grinned at her.
     "Well, DC," he answered,'DC' for double cousin, which all of Riona and Mama's kids called each other, "You're a sight for sore eyes." He rolled up his sleeves and wiped his greasy black fingers on his jeans before pulling her into a bear hug.  A few minutes later, just as they were trying to find a conversation in the gravel, Tommy pulled up and handed Daire a couple of spark plugs.
     "Hop in," he said, opening the passenger door for Phia.
     She shrugged at Daire. "See you Sunday at family dinner."
     "Wouldn't miss it for the world," Daire answered.
       After a couple of silent miles, bouncing along a rutted dirt road between soaring hills in Tommy's old pick-up, Phia asked, "So how are your kids?"
     "Andrew and his wife, the model, came over to see me at Thanksgiving last year--complained about the cold as if he'd never lived here, about Dee's cooking, no television, you name it.  I just about shoved my fist through his face when he said he didn't think all this fatty food wa good for me.  Said he was just worrying about my heart."  Tommy pulled off the road.  "All three of the kids bought me a computer for Christmas, want me to use email.  Daire's boy, Aaron, showed me how, but I don't like it. Their notes always end, 'more later,' like some times they're going to say something more, but they never do, just these three-line nothings." He hit the steering wheel and turned toward Phia. "Fact is, you and Susu were always more like my kids." He cleared his throat. "I jused to love that solemn little Phia who never got enough of this land or your old uncles." He fiddled with the kids dangling from the ignition.  "Your papa hurt you all something terrible," he murmured.  Phia's eyes burned and she stared out at the sprouts glinting in the sun, desperate to push away the memory of Papa and that act that had so changed their world. 
     "Last spring, around tulip time," Tommy was saying. "Dee invited me over for dinner and checkers.  It could have been any of a hundred nights, us playing checkers, wagering on who'd win, how the loser would have to do dishes, but Annie stayed home that night with a cold.  But that night, Dee said, 'If I win, you have to kiss me.'" Tommy laughed.  Phia tried to imagine that night.  She saw them eating at one corner of the big oak table, talking to each other, just the way they always had.  And she could even hear that beautiful Irish brogue teasing about a kiss. "I dumped the checkers onto the table and said, 'You win.'  I'd waited a long time to kiss her--" His voice caught and Phia leaned forward to hear him complete his thought, but he lowered his head.
     "You and Papa were complete opposites,  and I get it," Phia said after a long pause.  "But why was I the last to know?"
    "I'm sorry about that, darlin'," he said, his hands jiggling his keys again.  When Phia didn't reply, he started the engine and, with a twist of his wrist, turned the pick-up around to head home.
     When they reached the driveway, Tommy pulled over to let Phia out.  "Tell your mama, I have to go to town."  Then he tipped his head toward the house.  "Looks like there's work waiting for you." Phia saw Vannah standing on the back porch roof, washing the windows of Mama's bedroom.  Just seeing Vannah made her shoulders tense.  Like a turtle, she wanted to pull into her shell and hide.
     "I thought you were quilting," Phia called watching the muscles in Vannah's neck bulge as she strained to reach the top of each pane.
     "I thought you were running," she hollered back.  "I saved the downstairs for you."
     "Do you ever get tired of telling people what to do?" Phia asked, picking up the bucket she'd left for me on the porch.
     "If you don't like it, leave," she answered, her face flushed in anger.  "But if you're going to hang around, you can carry your load."
     "You're going to break something," Annie called as Phia banged through the back door, her hands puckered from the vinegar water she'd used to scrub the downstairs windows.  "Why don't you help Susu with Justin? She'd giving him a bath, but she could use a break."
    Grumbling about all these bossy women, Phia walked up the stairs and into the bathroom, where Susu was sitting on the floor watching Justin splash water with his feet.
     "That was quite a run," she said.
     "I was washing windows."  Kneeling on the floor beside her, Phia squeezed water onto Justin's stomach with a toy whale.  "And talking to Uncle Tommy--he told me about Mama."
     "He's really tender with her," Susu said.  "And Mama loves hims."
     "You better not stir up trouble about Mama and Tommy," Vannah said, barging into the bathroom.  "He's making Mama happy, which is more than you've done lately."
     "I wasn't complaining about Tommy," Phia said.  Justin snatched the whale and shreiked.  Flustered, Phia tried to take the whale back to squirt him again, but he just screamed even louder.  Susu cooed at him, rubbing him with a washcloth.
     Phia sat back on the floor, and watched her sisters.  Vannah stood at the mirror, frowning at the lines on her face.  Phia imagined her trying to white wash them away the way she had cleaned the streaks off the windows.  Susu's very similar face was tilted toward laughter as she lifted Justin from the tub and wrapped him in a towel.  "So why did Annie want to keep it a secret?" Phia asked as Susu began to nurse Justin, whose rigid body instantly went slack and calm.
     "Annie's always been protective of Mama," Vannah answered, taking tweezers from a drawer and pulling a hair from her chin.  "Haven't you ever noticed?"
     "Annie didn't have her own children," Susu agreed.  "And she had Mama to herself for a long time."  She kissed Justin's damp hair and began to rub it dry as she nursed.
     "Are you saying that Annie loves Mama?"  Phia's heart pounded.
      Vannah clamped the tweezers down on the counter with a clang that startled Justin for a moment.  "Well," she said.  "It doesn't matter now.  Tommy's good for Mama and Mama loves him."
     "It matters to Aunt Annie," Phia said.
     "Maybe so, but it's her secret," Susu said as she secured a diaper on Justin and handed him to me.  She looked at her watch.  "It's time for Mama's medication.  Can you finish dressing him?"
     Burying her nose in his hair, Phia kissed his soft spot and felt his pulse fluttering against her lips.  'Gladly,' she thought.  Gladly would she hold him, dress him, lay down her life for him.
     "Don't act like Annie's the only one with secrets in this family," Vanna broke in. "I'm sure you have plenty."
     Her words gnawed at Phia, who avoided her eyes as Vannah left the room.  In the mirror, she and Justin looked like they belonged together.  His head nestling against hers was covered with fuzz exactly the same color as her hair.  Fighting the urge to carry him off to her car without looking back, to drive to a place where no one knew their names, Phia held him tightly for a moment, then lifted him to her shoulder.  He gave her a big toothless grin, his face a mirror of Susu's husband, Jack.  "Your daddy loves you," Phia told the baby.  "He'll never leave you.  You are the luckiest boy."  As she lay him back down and began to dress him, her tears fell onto his belly, and he giggled.  "And I'll be a good auntie, I promise."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Chapter Four--part one

The next morning, Mama's face had more color as she sat up with her feet stretched out beneath the old quilt.  Baby Justin sat in his infant seat on the floor beside her.
     "Will you hand him up to me?" she asked.  "I've been aching to hold him."  He stared at Phia, his wide gray eyes blinking as she lifted him.  Burying his nose in her hair, his tiny hands fluttered against her shirt and Phia felt a lump of longing lodge in her throat.
     "Ah Phia, there's nothing like a babe, is there?"  Mama asked, watching intently.
     Phia slid him into Mama's bony arms, worried she might not be able to hold him.  But he nestled his head against her chest and when she lowered her head to kiss him, he grabbed her curly white hair in his fist.  Pulling a long strand out of his grasp, she said, "Guess I should have Riona come up and cut this mess so none of you have to worry about it."  When Phia flinched, remembering Mama's pale skull from the cancer treatments three years earlier, Mama laughed. "Ah Bairn, don't worry about my hair.  Sit down and tell me about Spain."
     Perching on the end of the bed, Phia told Mama about visiting the bustling harbor in Barcelona, where a statue of Christopher Columbus stood guard.  "He points east toward the Mediterranean--not west toward the lands he discovered," Phia mused.  When she described the noisy Mecat La Boqueria in La Rambla, Mama closed her eyes and sniffed appreciatively as if she could actually smell all the lush fruit arranged artfully in row after row of wooden carts.  "I wish I could have brought you home some of those ripe mangoes," Phia said as she handed Mama a package.  "But this was at a little stand and I liked it."
     "It's lovely," Mama said, fingering the brightly painted ceramic bowl.  She looked at Phia carefully.  "Are you sad about Robert?"
     Phia reached out and grazed the fuzz on Justin's head. "No, but I wish--"
     "For a man who understands you?" Mama asked, resting her hand on Phia's.
     "Like you have now?"
     Before Mama could answer, the back door clattered, making Phia turn in time to see Vannah struggle through the door with a load of groceries.  "So you're home," Vannah said as she piled bags on the counter.  "I could use some help."  She pulled vegetables from the bags and slammed them into the refrigerator.
     "Hello to you, too," Phia grumbled.
     Mama squeezed her hand.  "It's your first morning home," she whispered.  "Let it go."
     "So, are you staying around this time--or are you leaving again tomorrow like usual?"  Vannah asked once Phia was in the kitchen.  Her hands moved deftly as she stuffed packages of pasta and crackers into the cupboards, knowing exactly where everything should go, unpacking four bags in the time it took Phia to unload a single bag of milk, cheese, eggs and ham.
     Trying to fing a light tone, Phia answered, "I took a leave."  But her words sounded clipped and measured, like she hadn't a breath to spare.
     "Those need to be frozen," Vannah said, snatching the packages of chicken Phia had just placed in the refrigerator.  "They're for the barbecue on Sunday.  I bought them on sale." She took a long sip of coffee from her jumbo plastic travel mug.  "Just let me finish in here," she said.  "Think you can manage the laundry?"
     As Phia started a load of whites, Susu came into the utility room. "What has Vannah so upset?  She's throwing the groceries into the cupboards."
    "She asked me to help, then didn't want it." Phia shook her head. "No matter what I do, she disapproves."
     "Relax," Susu answered. "Don't let her get to you."
     Vannah pushed through the swinging door. "When you're done in here, I could use your help giving Mama a bath."  She filled an old enamel basin with warm soapy water from the deep sink, then handed it to Phia.  who carried the bowl to Mama's bedside, dipped a washcloth into the steaming water and let the heated cloth settle over Mama's forehead.
     "That feels wonderful," Mama sighed from beneath the cloth.
     Phia washed her face, then dried her gently with a towel Vannah had warmed in the dryer.  After kissing Mama's forehead, just like Mama used to after bathes when the girls were little, Phia raised her arms and wiped them down as carefully as if they were fine china. Then they carefully sat Mama at the table where Vannah washed, brushed and rebraided Mama's hair. When she was finally settled back in the hospital bed Susu and Phia had remade, Susu went upstairs to put Justin down for a nap.  Vannah and Phia sat at the table eating lunch.
     "Is Derek still in Germany?" Phia asked when she couldn't bear her stony-faced silence any longer, looking for common ground by talking about her twin nephews, though she hadn't seen them in years.
     "He's where he should be--out of harm's way," Vannah answered, tearing the crust off her bread and tossing it on her plate.
     "And Dylan's in California?" Phia pressed on. "Didn't someone tell me he might be deployed to Afghanistan?"
     "I don't want to think about it." Vannah stood and began to clear the plates. "He and Ginny are expecting in September." She finally said.
     "Congratulations!" Phia said, hoping to sound sincere, as Vannah swooped around her, seeming more angry than excited at the prosept of being a grandmother.  Phia's gut felt hollow, her skin prickly at the thought of another baby in the family.  Now even her nephew would have a baby before her.  "Are you going down after the baby's born?" she asked.
     "Derek has a leave he's saving so he can go back and see Dylan's baby." Leaning in front of Phia, she wiped the table with a damp sponge and Phia was shocked to see her dark hair graying at one temple. "I don't want to get in the way." She glanced at Mama.  "Besides, I will be needed here."
     As Vannah washed up the dishes from lunch, Phia stood at the front window and looked at the buds beginning to open on the trees lining the driveway, the wheat growing in the fields across the road.  The green on the hills made her long to be outside, running in the spring wind.  She sighed and went back to watch Mama sleep. When Susu came back into the kitchen, Phia listened to Vannah tell her about the quilt she wanted to sew from a box of fabrics Mama had saved from their childhood clothing.
     "We could all sew it together!" Susu said, clapping her hands.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chapter Three--part three

Moments later, the screen door banged open and Annie, Susu, Riona, Tommy and Marty filed out, leaving Mama alone in the house.
     "Susu has some things to tell you," Annie said, directing Susu to the chair beside me and the others to the benches on either side of the old redwood picnic table.  She took her post standing by the door--ears trained to hear any sound from within.
     "Is Mama sleeping?" Phia asked.
     Susu nodded. "Just breathing takes a lot out of her these days." She leaned toward Phia, placing her hands on Phia's knees.  "Her liver is slowly fading."  With those words, Phia felt like the wind had been knocked out of her.  Leaning her head back, she focused on breathing--just as Mama was in that hospital bed--as the rest of Susu's words evaporated into the clear night air.  Her tongue felt heavy, the back of her throat dry.
     "But she'll get better?" Phia asked after a long silence, her voice distant and hollow, even to her own ears.
     "For a while," Susu answered. "But--"
     "Don't say the rest." Phia  held up a hand and blinked back tears.  "How long have you known?"
     "Just after you left for Spain.  She didn't want to spoil your trip."
     "You know your mama," Tommy said.
     "Three weeks," Phia said.  "How could she have gotten this sick that fast?"
     "She was thinner," Riona said.  "But I was jealous."  She patted her plump stomach.
     "I've been busy with Justin and work," Susu said.  "But I'm a trained nurse--should have seen it, and I didn't."  She curled a fist to her mouth.
     "She just keeps going," Annie said.  "It wasn't your fault."
     "We were all right here and none of us noticed." Tommy leaned over the step and put a hand on Susu's shoulder.  "You're taking good care of your mama, Susu."
     "I thought you'd all known and kept it from me."  Phia said.
     "We called the day after you got back," Susu told her.
     "Vannah called me," Phia said.  "She told me not to come home."
     "She says things she doesn't mean," Riona said. "It's the worry."
     Looking up at the sky, Phia found the North Star, then traced a line to the Big and Little Dippers, the only constellations she'd ever been able to find on her own.  "So why isn't she here now?" she asked.
     "I told you," Annie said. "She had to go home."
     But Phia knew that Vannah was trying to avoid her--and she knew that they all knew it, too.  She was suddenly so exhausted with the weight of all of this, angry at always being left out of things. "So how long have you been staying here, Uncle Tommy?" she blurted.
     "I'd say more than staying," Riona laughed.  "Staying you do for a couple weeks, maybe a month.  Tommy's lived here for almost a year."
     "Almost a year? No way!" Phia craned her neck to look at Tommy.  His ears were bright red and the way he hung his head, she felt as if she'd kicked him.  "Mama told me--this afternoon--" she stuttered--"I just didn't know--" With each word, she felt like she was swallowing water.  She thought of Tommy in Papa's bed, curled iwth Mama under a quilt, that brown gash hovering over the doorway at night.  She looked up at the LIttle Dipper again and smelled the crisp, dry air of the Palouse.  "No one told me--no one ever tells me," she murmured as the moon suddenly broke over the tall hill, washing the back porch in pale, cold light.  Her heart ached as she thought about how she'd shared so much about her life with Mama, realizing how little Mama had ever told Phia about hers.
     Out in the yard, Harli barked at an owl swooping low over the back field and Sprint leaped off the porch.  Phia looked again at Tommy, but he seemed more interested in the owl and the dogs.
     "Annie thought you girls would have a problem with it," Riona said, folding her arms across her chest.  "She convinced Dee and Tommy that it was better kept quiet."  She nodded her head and, in the moonlight, her carefully sculpted hair shone silver, each curl a web of dew-hung gossamer.
    "Things were fine as they were," Annie said, her lips a hard line.
     Riona opened her mouth, but Marty clapped his hands on her shoulders before she could get another word in and said, "Let it be now, Ri."
    Susu sat with her hands folded in her lap, staring down at them as if they held a secret.  She looked so much like Vannah that it took Phia's breath away, but she still glowed with hope, whereas each line in Vannah's face conveyed bitterness and sorrow.  Phia leaned toward Susu, waiting for the answer to her unasked question.
    "We've know for a while," Susu admitted.  "Since before Tommy moved in."
     "If you'd come home more often, you would have seen how things were," Annie cut in.
     "That's enough, Sister," Tommy said, and without looking, Phia knew that Annie had clamped down on her lip again, and would gnaw it until there was blood.
     "It didn't seem our place to tell you," Susu said, breaking the silence that hovered between us.  "Please don't be angry, Phia." She twirled her long hair around her index finger, a habit she'd picked up the year Papa died, whenever she was nervous or afraid, tangling the fine ends into mats Phia couldn't get a comb through.  Phia hadn't seen Susu play with her hair like that for years and her heart tightened as she remembered holding her little sister the night after Riona had finally cut that hair into a short bob.  Susu had put herself to sleep by wrapping her finger in Phia's hair, night after night of that long, dark winter, until her own hair grew long again.
     "You know this family," Susu said quietly.  "Sometimes I think there are secrets hidden in every corner.  But who can resist Uncle Tommy?"  Turning toward him, she held up her thumb, first and little fingers--the ASL sign for 'I love you,' just like Mama used to do when they were in public and she wanted to say those words without embarrassing her daughters.
     Phia didn't answer, but when Tommy lifted his hand to hers, she let him pull her into a hug.
     Then tommy went inside, lifted Mama into his arms, her nightgown floating behind her like a bridal train as he carried her up the stairs.  Her bare legs dangled free, and Phia followed them up the stairs, surprised to see that the freckles covering those legs had faded to a dull beige.  In Mama's bedroom, as Tommy held Mama, Phia pulled back the covers and watched at Tommy lowered Mama into the bed. "Bairn," Mama whispered over his shoulder.  "You are okay, aren't you?"
     Phia nodded, not trusting herself to speak.  Mama closed her eyes, and as Phia left the bedroom, she couldn't help lifting her hand to trace the broad brown arc above the doorway,  without touching the wood, shivering just as she had a thousand times before,
     The back door slammed behind her as Phia ran up the deep gash on the side of the hill where the dogs met her, jumping and barking.  At the top of the hill, she faced east, away from the house, and looked up at a cloud cutting across the starlit sky, a stroke as broad as the gash of blood above Mama's door.  Phia remembered Mama standing up here the night she wiped Papa's blood on that doorway, remembered her shaking her fists at the darkening sky, the wind whipping her long hair around her face and the rain falling in sudden sheets as she crumpled into the earth.  Turning a circle, Phia stared at the field that had lain fallow since Papa had died, the one he'd plowed that autumn day, the one Mama had insisted never be planted again.
     Over the crown of the hill, Phia could see the light of a car winding its way toward town along the route her bus had taken all the years of her childhood.  She thought of how lonely she'd been that fall after Papa died, before Annie had moved back to nurse Mama back to health, and help her and Susu navigate their first year without Papa--and Mama too.  Phia remembered watching Mama walk this callous on the hill before supper as Phia tried to prepare dinner and how Mama would brush past her after coming back down the hill, as if Mama didn't even see her. Mama would just go sit in the rocking chair by the fireplace and some nights, when Phia took Susu up to bed, Mama would still be sitting there, silent and distant, her breathing absence more terrifying than their papa's death.
     In bed each night, Susu would snuggle beneath the blankets and recite, "My mama's name is Deirdre Quinn Daly, my papa's name is Duncan Roy Daly, My sisters are Savannah Quinn Daly, Selena Bree Daly, Sierra Mor Daly, Sophia Rose Daly, and my name is Susanna Flynn Daly." Then she'd list all the uncles, aunts and cousins, as many as she could before she fell asleep, calling the world into an order she understood.  Phia--the Sophia Rose of Susu's list-- would put her head down beside Susu's and her heart would tighten with every name.
     Standing on top of the hill, looking down at the house, the memory of those days flooded over Phia. There was no peace in this darkness and the night sounds only hurt her ears.
     Phia closed her eyes and walked slowly down the hill, the uneven dirt shifting beneath her shoes, trusting her feel to know the way home.  She opened the door quietly and let the dogs in behind her.  They padded up the stairs to the bedroom Phia had always shared with Susu.  Harli stretched out in Susu's spot on the double bed and Sprint settled himself at Phia's feet.  Phia thought of Tommy sleeping in the bed beside Mama, of the space he filled in her life.  "Thomas Mitchell Daly," she whispered.  "Deirdre Quinn Daly, Sophia Rose Daly."  There were only the three of them in this big, empty house.  The names of the dead circled her head and threatened to settle in the darkness--Papa, Selena, Sierra.  Phia crawled under the covers, then reached behind her head to count the spindles on the headboard.  Vannah and her family, Susu and hers.  Aunt Annie, Auntie Riona and Uncle Marty, Uncle Philip and Uncle Ben and their wives, her fourteen cousins--beating back the shadows with each name until she fell asleep.