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.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Chapter Three--part two

...her heart sunk with the weight of Vannah's hard life.  But then Phia saw her sailing by in that brand new champagne-colored Cadillac and all she could think of was one of Auntie Riona's cliched expressions:  Vannah had made her bed, now she had to lie in it.
     When the eggs were ready, Annie dumped them into a bowl and spun Phia toward Mama.  As she dipped the spoon into the flowing yellow yolk, Mama asked, "How does it feel to be home?"
     "I don't know yet," Phia answered, though she felt a shudder trying to climb up her backbone.
     "You'll be fine," Mama whispered after swallowing another bite.  Then she raised her hand to her mouth to stop Phia from giving her the next bite. "I need to talk to you about Tommy, Bairn."
     Phia dropped the spoon into the bowl and looked into Mama's eyes, which looked more gray than green in the late afternoon light. "Aunt Annie does seem mad at him."
     "She didn't hide that for long, did she?" Mama took Phia's hand.  "She's been annoyed every since he--" Her voice slackened and her eyes drifted away to look out the window.
     "Since he what?" Phia squeezed Mama's hand, wondering for a moment if her mind was not as sharp as it had always been.
    Meeting Phia's gaze, Mama's eyes were clear and bright. "Since he moved in."
     Phia's eyes instinctively sought Annie, whose back was bent over the stove, scrubbing furiously.  "Tommy's been living here in the house with you?"  Annie stopped scrubbing and Phia lowered her voice.  "How--where--since when?"
     "Oh Bairn, where do you think?"  She patted Phia's hand, a smile playing at her lips.  "He's been so good to me."  Her eyes roamed around the room and she lay her head back on the pillow.  "So unaccountably good, Phia."  CLosing her eyes, she squeezed Phia's hand again.  "I knew I could count on you, Bairn--you've always loved him, too."
      Then Annie was behind Phia, taking the bowl from her hands, insisting, "Come on, Dee, just one more bite," but Mama couldn't keep her eyes open.  Annie bit her lip, a sign of displeasure Phia had first seen the winder after Papa died, when she'd come to visit on a break from teaching in Western Washington and found Mama wearing her green robe and slippers all day, her house filthy, and Susu and Phia living on the fried-egg sandwiches Phia cooked for dinner every night.
     "She's been so anxious about you," Annie said, wadding the frayed strings on Mama's blue calico apron into a tight ball.  Her lip was white where she'd been biting it.  "It's taken a lot out of her."
     "Anxious about me?  It seems to me she was anxious aobut Uncle--"
     "Now don't get all prickly," Annie cut in, bustling off to the kitchen with the the bowl and plunging it in the sink.  "We're just glad to see you home where you belong."
     Moments later, Susu brought in her chubby baby, Justin, freshly bathed, all wide-eyed and darling.  He perched in her arms like a little bird in a nest and when Phia looked at him, he bent his head down into his mama's shoulder and stared back at her with one blinking eye, the other hidden under his blanket.  Phia wan ted to reach for him, but the baby didn't know her, and she was built more in the shape of Aunt Annie--all sharp angles--rather than the curving softness of Mama and Susu.  Still, Phia wanted to have a stake in this youngest nephew's growing.
     "You've done well, Susu.  He's a keeper, as Uncle Tommy would say." Phia glanced down at Mama, whose gray hair fanned around her head like a halo, and felt a lump in her throat.  So Mama had found love again, after all these years.  There was something familiar about Tommy in their house, Tommy helping muck out the barn, Tommy teasing Mama until her face turned as red as her hair had been.  Tommy was all light and straightforward, not brooding and silent like Papa.  The whole family had always through it too bad his long-divorced wife, Ellen, hadn't appreciated that, instead of loathing then leaving, as surely as Papa had, the work and dirt and repetitiveness of the life Tommy loved.
     "Jack is so crazy about his little man," Susu was saying.  "He makes lists of all the things he wants to teach him--starting with through a ball, of course."  Susu's eyes lit up as she pulled back the blanket to peek at Justin.    "My lists are about people--who I want him to know--you, Mama." Her voice trailed off and she kissed his soft dark hair.
     Then the back door opened and a booming voice called out, "There are some wild dogs out here--should I let the coyotes get them?"
     Phia looked up and the long and lanky frame in the doorway, a work-day's dirt on his face, and a grin cracking through it, was as comforting as it was familiar.  "Uncle Tommy," Phia said.  He placed his metal lunch pail on the counter, a pail she recognized from all the times she'd ridden in combines with him during harvest.  She'd dug through the pail for cookies, which he always let her eat, then she'd fed him a steady stream of unshelled peanuts or sunflower seeds, which he'd cracked with his teeth, spitting the shells out the window and chewing the meat without ever using his hands.  Looking at his weathered face, Phia knew Mama was right, she was happy for her and for Tommy--who wouldn't be?  His arms opened and, after a moment's hesitation, she walked straight into them.
      "It's about time you got here," Tommy said.  "Now the party can begin."
     "You're the party, Uncle Tommy,"  Phia told him.  And he was.  At dinner, he told them how the Warrens' cows had gotten loose, and Mrs. Warren had chased them down the road in her Buick, blowing her horn, which had just spooked the poor things.  Then she'd gotten out of her car and stood in the middle of the road in her robe and curlers, yelling at them.  When Tommy and Marty (another brother) had slowed down to offer their help, Mrs. Warren had raised her fist and hollered bfore they even got out of the car, "You boys better get these cows back in the pasture, and fix the fence while you're at it." Then she'd turned and marched back to her house in a huff.
     "She left the car running, right in the middle of the road.  Marty had to drive it back, left it, and hightailed it out of there before she could clobber him for stealing her car.  Shoot, you'd have thought it was our fault those cows were out, when everyone in the county knows it's the Warrens fences that haven't been repaired since that woman drove poor Earl off."  Tommy shook his head.  "If she had any more bite, they'd have to cage her and take her to the zoo."  Even Mama laughed until her cheeks turned rosy.
      Then Auntie Riona and Uncle Marty came swooping in from their house down the road.  Uncle Marty was the middle of Papa's brothers and Riona was Mama's only sister, making their kids, Moire and Daire, Phia's double cousins.  Riona did everything with a swoop and the cake she baked for Phia's homecoming was all white confection with pink roses.  She'd dressed her short rotund form in the exact hues of her cake, from her rosy fingernails to the raspberry tinge of her gray hair.  The older Riona got, the more red and curly her hair became.  But she did short and perky well, even in her sixties.  The whole house brightened up with her in it, even with Mama lying in a hospital bed right there in the dining room.  They sat down to cake and tea and family gossip Riona sprinkled like sugar in the cups.  Riona had always been lively, but that night she darted around like a firefly, lighting here and there to hug Mama, coo at Justin as Susu nursed him in the rocker next to Mama's bed, corner Phia in the back hallway so she could run her fingers through her hair.  "Tsk, tsk," she said, fingering the straggly length.  "You come down to the shop tomorrow for a shampoo and cut."
     After dessert, Phia crept out to the back porch to catch her breath while the others cleaned up the dishes.  Sitting in a cedar Adirondack chair, bleached gray from wind, rain and use, Phia stared at the clear night sky, remembering the spring before she turned twelve, now Mama had awakened all the girls in the middle of the night to see the Aurora Borealis.  At the top of the hill Papa had read the poem, "The Northern Lights," by Robert Service while they all snuggled under blankets until dawn broke over the hill and set Mama's hair on fire, as Papa described it.  It was one of Phia's last memories of the whole family being together.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Chapter Three--part one

Halfway across Washington on I-90, Phia stopped at the Rye Grass rest area and dialed home.  The dogs clamored at the end of their leashes, sniffing the dried weeds in the pet area, as she shifted her cell phone from one ear to the other, waiting for someone to answer at the other end.
     "Dee Daly," Mama said at last, her voice raspy. Three days earlier when Phia had talked to her, she'd sounded tired--but not like this.
    "Mama, you sound good," she lied. "How are you?"
     "Oh, I can't complain." That was Mama, all right.
     "Are you by yourself there?"
     "Ah Bairn, I haven't been left alone in about a century," she answered, the familiar Irish lilt in her voice lifting her sentence into a question. "Susu just went to put the baby douwn--she's on Mama watch at the moment."
     Mama watch--that was Vannah talking, probably thinking Mama didn't know.  "I'm about three hours out," Phia told her. "I'll be home for dinner."
     Driving down the hill at Vantage and across the Columbia River, Phia remembered the stories she'd heard about Mama when Papa had first brought her, his bride, to the Palouse, from her home in Ireland--how he'd met her while working in a used bookstore owned by some cousin-several-times-removed, the only year he'd spent away from the Daly farm, the one year of his life he'd spent doing work he truly loved. 
     When Phia was little, she loved to sit in Papa's book-lined study while he read at his desk, filtered light streaming through the windows on autumn days.  If she was quiet enough, Papa would let her pull books off the high shelves and run her fingers down the uneven ridges of the binding, pressing them against her nose to smell the musty pages, as well as the tobacco from his pipe across the room.  Phia shifted in her seat, suddenly remembering another smell--the sharp smell of smoke for his shotgun, the way that smoke had hung in the air of his bedroom as she'd stood with her sisters in the doorway, watching Mama try to pour his blood back into his still body.
     Rage and longing carved a familiar hole in Phia's belly, and her arms felt suddenly weak.  She pulled onto the shoulder, shoved the gear-shift into park and hunched over the steering wheel. Clutching her stomach, she cursed the image of her father's face staring at her across that study, his eyes sad; and sadder still as his gaze touched her from the kitchen door.  When Phia finally lifted her head, pushing her hair from her face, her eyes in the rear-view mirror were puffy and bloodshot, as if she'd been weeping from hours, though she hadn't shed a tear. Sighing, she shifted back onto the road.
     As Phia drove into the rolling hills of Whitman County and entered the Palouse, the grain was corduroy in the fields, the newly sprouted wheat a green tint in the undulating ridges of dark dirt as far as she could see.  The sky, full of cotton candy billows, was broad and blue.  The road ribboned through hills she could drive with her eyes shut.
     Passing the last rest area, Phia thought of her twin sisters, Selena and Sierra , as she always did at this point in her drive, wondering what they would be like, what they'd be doing now, if they'd lived past their sixteenth birthday. Phia couldn't even picture them separately, only together, sitting on that window seat in the kitchen, sealed in her memory of that one afternoon as completely as the haunted eyes of Papa's face.
    She passed a barn with a couple of John Deere combines sitting beside it and remembered watching her uncles as they felt the earth, scanned the sky, touched stalks of grain, and counted days until the wheat was tall and golden across the horizon.  One harvest, when Phia was about ten years old, Papa's youngest brother Ben, his face drity and gritty  from a long day behind the wheel had stopped her at the bottom of her driveway, asked if she wanted to ride a while.  She hopped in and Ben, his mouth set in a slash across his face, drove the turck into the bottom-land of a field, and, as they stared up at the wheat at the top of the steep hill, Phia heard the noise of engines churning, and suddenly over the hill came four giant green combines, bearing straight down at them--Papa and his brothers racing to cut the field before a storm hit. Phia thought of the smell of wheat as it poured through the shoot of a combine, fresh and earthy. Now, the hills were a velvet dusting of mint and chocolate, and harvest was a long way off.  Opening the windows wide so the smell of the land could seep into the car, Phia let these memories wash over her and drive away the unbidden ghosts of Papa, Selena, Sierra.

As she turned off the pavement onto the gravel road that led home, Phia's pulse began to quicken.  Reaching the crest of the hill, she glimpsed the white farmhouse with the faded red barn on its right, the unplowed hill behind it, a tree-lined drveway running all the way to the road she was on.  Coasting down the hill, she braked at the bottom and stared at the house.  Two stories tall with a porch wrapping around all sides, the house looked stately and strong, its back up against the hills.  In the twenty-four years since Phia had moved to Seattle, she'd never spent more than a weekend a year sleeping inside those walls.  She didn't know how long she'd be staying on this trip, but she knew what was waiting for her.  Mama sick, Vannah angry, the Aunts squabbling with each other, Susu, caretaker and peacemaker, always cautious to take sides.
      Then a Cadillac sped out of Mama's driveway and turned toward Phia.  Pulling over, she rolled down her window as the Cadillac honked and drove past, spraying gravel and dust into her car.  Vannah, Phia thought. Nice welcome.
     After parking in front of the barn, Phia opened the car's tailgate to release the dogs and they took off through the fields like lit fuses.  Susu came bursting through the back door as Phia pulled out her suitcase.
      "You're home," she said, a small smile flitted over her face, and her arms stretched out.   
     "Vannah just passed me," Phia said. "She didn't even stop."
     "Can you at least say hello before you start complaining about her?"
     "Sorry, it's good to see you." Phia hugged Susu back.
     Susu held on tight. "I know this is hard," she said. "Try to remember that you're not the only one."  She took Phia's hand, led her through the gate, up the steps and into the back hall by the kitchen.  Phia took a deep breath and Susu placed one finger between her shoulder blades.  "Go on, Phia," she whispered.  "She doesn't look great, but she'll be better again before she's really worse."  Phia walked through the kitchen to where Mama lay beside the fireplace in a hospital bed.
      Mama looked up, smiling, her lips retracted against her teeth, her skin stretched tightly over the sharp bones of her face.  Phia swallowed hard, trying to fight the impulse to run.  Mama was wearing a brightly flowered nightgown and looked small under the tattered heirloom quilt that covered her, one socked foot sticking out the bottom.  Phia reached out, hating how sluggish and heavy her arms felt, and hugged Mama's bony form, buried her nose in the wiry gray hair.  Then Phia felt Mama's arms wrap around her back and relaxed in the familiar embrace.
     Mama put her hands in Phia's and Phia remembered how Mama used those hands to plant vegetables, bandage scrapes, brush hair, and dance with her five daughters.  Her hands were older now, the skin wrinkled and covered with purple bruises on the backs, but they were still Mama's hands.  "Don't tell me I look well," she said. "I'm sick of hearing lies."
     "I'm glad to see you, Mama," Phia said, feeling the lump in her throat dissolve.
      Then Aunt Annie was at Phia's side, arms outstretched, gathering Phia into her whippet frame.  Phia kissed her rough cheek and smelled leather and horse lather.  Nearly sixty-eight years old, and she's still galloping off her troubles, Phia thought.  After her hug, Annie ushered Phia over to the stove to poach some eggs for Mama.
     "How's everyone?" Phia asked, standing beside Annie at the stove, glancing over at Mama, whose eyes had fluttered closed.
     "Fine."  Annie sprinkled pepper with a heavy hand on the eggs.
     "Any news?"
     "Not much.  The boys are still working--too long and hard, if you ask me."
     "Uncle Tommy and Uncle Marty are old enough to retire--you should probably stop calling them boys." Phia laughed.
      "That Tommy acts like a boy--always has," Annie said. "Don't even get me started."
     "You have a fight with him or something?" Phia asked.
      "It's just like you to pry before you've even unpacked," Annie answered, pursing her lips.  "Just pour the water, would you?"
     "Well, excuse me." Phia poured water from the tea kettle into the pan and covered it with a lid.  She wished Susu was in the room to roll her eyes at the edge in Annie's voice, but Phia figured she'd learn what was brewing between Annie and Tommy soon enough--if not from Annie, then from Susu, Mama, Mama's sister Riona or Tommy himself. "What about Vannah--where was she off to in such a hurry?"  Phia asked, pouring herself a glass of orange juice.
     "Rudy called, so she left.  You know how it is."
      Sipping her orange juice, Phia realized she knew exactly how it was with Vannah.  Rudy had probably come in from the shop and only their daughter, Dana Rose, had been home, so he'd lifted the phone, his fingers black with grease, and bellowed for Vannah to get home where she belonged.  Phia could picture her standing in front of her stove, trying to put together dinner while Rudy sat in his relciner with a beer in his hand.  Then she imagined Vannah tiptoeing past him on her way to bed as he slept in his recliner that night, a pile of beer cans crumpled on the table beside him, and for a moment, Phia's fury subsided, and her heart sunk with the weight of Vannah's hard life.  But then she saw Vannah sailing by her in that brand new champagne Cadillac, and all Phia could think of was one of Annie Riona's cliched expressions: Vannah, she'd made her bed, now she had to lie in it.

To be continued--- (tomorrow)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chapter Two

Phia's feet pounded in rhythm as she ran around Green Lake, weaving in and out of the traffic of women pushing strollers, children stopping without warning, dogs on leashes--everyone edgy to be outside, enjoying the budding trees, blooming daffodils and glistening lack on this unusually sunny March afternoon.  It was her first day back from Spain and the familiar path was welcome after a long, jet-lagged day at work, but now she felt hemmed in by the crowd clogging the paths.
     Sprinting the last three blocks from the lake to her ranch bungalow, Phia unlocked the door and heard the phone ringing over the barking of her dogs, who were impatient for a game of catch.  Walking past the phone, she opened the back door and Harli and Spring bolted outside, still barking as the machine picked up.
     "Phia, are you there?" It was Vannah, her older sister, sounding irritated as always.
     Tossing balls out the door to the dogs to stop their noise, she picked up the phone. "Hey, Vannah."
      "Where have you been?"
     "Running," Phia said, squatting to untie and kick off her shoes.
     "Why weren't you at work?"
     "I left early to get a run in before dark." Sliding the water pitcher out of the refrigerator, she poured a mug and gulped it down.
     "On vacation for tow weeks, then checking out early--hope your boss likes you."
     "I went in early this morning to catch up." Phia hated herself for explaining, but couldn't bite back the words.
     "Well, I've been calling you at both places for over an hour and your cell phone's turned off."
     Phia leaned against the refrigerator and pulled her Achilles taut, picturing Vannah at her immaculate table in her tidy brick house, drinking tea, reading a romance novel, with nothing to do for the whole day but call and bother her sister.  "So--what did you need, Van?"
     "Didn't you get my message?"
     She pushed away from the refrigerator.  "I just got in, remember?"
     "You need to come home," Vannah said. "It's Mama."
     Phia froze.  "What about Mama?"
     "The cancer's back, in her liver."
     Phia stared at the answering machine, its blinking light an incessant reproach.  "Did you hear me?" Vannah asked. "Are you even listening?"
     Bending her head against her knees until her hamstrings began to burn, Phia imagined the muscles ricocheting up into her groin. "I heard you, Vannah."
     "I told Susu you wouldn't come," Vannah said. "That you'd have some excuse--as if she doesn't have enough on her plate already with Mama and the baby."  She laughed, a brittle sound that made Phia cringe.  "We'll do our best to explain, but really--after all Mama's done for you, I'd think--"
     Phia threw the mug against the wall.  "You think I don't love Mama, that I don't appreciate her?" She tried to inhale, just take one mouthful of air, release, then another.
     "Look," Vannah said with a sigh, and Phia could just see her rolling her eyes, shaking her head.  "Mama's really sick, but if you can't handle it, you should just stay there."
     Staring at her hand, Phia willed it to stop shaking and tried to steady herself against the counter, but couldn't hold the phone anymore, so let it drop, left Vannah's voice dangling, all coiled and caught up in that long, loopy cord.
     Stumbling into the bathroom, Phia shed her clothes and adjusted the shower until it was as hot as she could stand.  As the water beat against her scalp, she was stunned by a sharp memory of Vannah's fingers pulling gently at this very hair as she French-braided it; then another of her at sixteen, bent over the desk in the room Phia shared with Susu, Vannah's long dark hair hanging over her face like a veil as she let it air dry, cutting out paper-dolls for Susu, who was in bed, sick with the flu.  She used to be so loving, Phia thought as she massaged conditioner into her hair.  Where had all this bitterness come from?
     Waiting for the conditioner to soak in, Phia picked up the shell she used as a soap dish, remembering the spring Mama had come to stay in this house for her cancer treatments at the Seattle clinic.  Taking the ferry across Puget Sound to Whidbey Island the afternoon before Mama left, she'd leaned against the railing, a knit cap covering her bald head, her arms spread wide to catch the mist coming up off the water.  "It's like the Irish Sea," Mama'd said, "only the trees are bigger and the rocks on the coastline are missing."  Phia remembered her finding the shell as they'd walked along the beach, holding hands.  "Keep this so you'll remember to pray for your Mama when you're in the shower each day," she'd told Phia.
     The shower's spray turned suddenly cold, and Phia's hands shook as she dried off and dressed, then made a cup of tea and dialed home. If Vannah answered, she vowed, teeth still chattering, she'd hang up.
     "Susu," she whispered when she heard her baby sister's voice.
     "Phia, I've been worried." Susu's voice dipped.  "Vannah said that telling you didn't go well."
     "Did she mention that she told me not to come home?" Shivering, Phia watched clouds roll in over her back fence.
     "Phia--Mama needs you.  She needs all of us."
     "Vannah doesn't want me there."
     "Focus on Mama," Susu said, her voice sharper than usual. "Can you please try to make peace with Van?"
     "That depends on her," Phia said, wincing as she cut her foot on a piece of the broken mug.
     "She's here," Susu said, "if you want to talk to her."
     "I wanted to know about Mama," Phia said, hobbling back into the bathroom.
     "She's just settling in.  We brought her home from the hospital earlier."
     Pressing a cotton ball against the cut to staunch the bleeding, Phia listening to the sound of water running and dishes clanking over the phone.  Mama was in the kitchen, tidying up, just as always.  "Why didn't anyone tell me?" She asked as she spread disinfectant on the cut, savoring the intense burn.
      "You were in Spain, and it all happened so fast.  Mama didn't want to worry you." Her cheerful sister sounded so tired.  She pictured Susu's hand cupped over the mouthpiece, trying to keep her from hearing whatever she was saying to Mama. "Here she is, Phia," she said with a sigh, and Phia pictured her massaging her temples, as she'd done so often when she was a teenager with migraines.
     "Bairn, you're home," my mama said, her voice hoarse.
     "How are you, Mama?"
     "Fine now that I'm home." She heard Susu and Vannah and others--my Uncle Tommy?  Auntie Riona?  Aunt Annie?--chattering in the background.
     "You entertaining folks your first night home?"
     "No, just family," Mama said, sounding even more tired than Susu.  "How are you, Bairn?"
     "Wishing we could take a ferry across the Sound."
     "I remember that day.  It was good.  I love the sea."
     "You could come back."  Phia pressed a bandage over the cut on her foot.  "I'd take care of you again."
     "Not this time, Phia," she answered with a yawn in her voice.  "Tell me about Spain, the marathon, Robert."
     Phia twisted her hair into a braid, holding the phone between her chin and shoulder.  "We broke up." Robert's face rose in front of her eyes, the angles sharp and rigid, his eyes always ready to pick a fight.  She shook her head, shattering the image, replacing it with Mama's soft smile.
     "He wasn't the man for you," Mama said. "He was like a fence, stiff and straight, and didn't let you out.  Your man's still out there."
     "I'm not so sure."
     "You come on home, Bairn," Mama said.
     Looking down at her bandaged foot, Phia stood tentatively, testing her weight.  Outside, the clouds hung low and a spring rain began to pelt the roof.  "I'm coming--as soon as I can get away."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chapter One

     "This reminds me of storms at home," Phia told Robert, pointing at the huge, splattering raindrops pelting the Plexiglass airplane window.  The clouds over the JFK runway hung low, crowding the sky like steep, black hills. obscuring any view of the city.
     "This is not Seattle rain," Robert snapped.
     "I wasn't talking about Seattle," Phia answred.  Robert had been irritable since an early morning argument in Barcalong, when he'd wanted to go to Bar Ra, one of the trendy cafes from the guidebook that they hadn't tried, a last tick on his all-important list.  But Phia had insisted on eating in the hotel resaurant, wanted a simple, relaxing meal before having to catch the airport shuttle.  Robert had let her win, but Phia'd been paying for that victory all day.  It will be good to get back to our separate houses, Phia thought as she closed her eyes and tried inhale kind thoughts about Robert.  But traveling over the past two weeks had left little to recommend him, except for the sight of his long legs when he ran.
     "So are you from Seattle?" the man sitting in the aisle seat asked Phia.
     She shook her head. "The Palouse--in eastern Washington."
     "She's is from Seattle," Robert said, looking up from his magazine.  "She hasn't lived in eastern Washington for twenty-five years." He wet his finger, then flicked the page.
     "I've never heard of the Palouse," the man said after an awkward silence.  "What's it like?"
     Phia pictured her family's wheat farm.  "Deep rolling hills that turn from rich brown to bright green to gold as the wheat grows.  Real seasons--you know, winters with snow, and hot, dry summers."
     The man smiled.  "Sounds great.  I moved to Seattle from Pittsburgh six months ago, but I haven't been out of the city yet--haven't seen much of anything except rain."
     The plane's engines roared and Phia reached into her purse for gum.
     "So you have family there, in the Palouse?" the man asked, unwrapping the gum she offered.
     "A whole clan," Robert cut in.  He snapped his gum, a habit that had annoyed Phia for the past two years.  Two years too long, Phia thought bitterly.  "She never goes home, though," Robert continued.  He smiled, his teeth white against the dark tan he carefully cultivated.  "But why would she? We have mountains, the ocean, the original Starbucks." Robert lifted the long, dark braid off Phia's shoulder and stroked it down her back.  "Sure, it rains now, but wait until summer--you'll see.  You run?"
     "The man shook his head.  "Not much."
     "You should," Robert said.  "We just ran the Barcelona Marathon.  Did pretty well--PR for me.  Phia here could have done better--needs to pace more evenly, I keep telling her.  You know, I could get you hooked up with our club."  He pulled a card from his wallet. "Running would do you good, if you don't mind me saying."
     "Robert!" PHia slapped the card to the floor. "Sorry," she mumbled to the man.
     He raised his eyebrows and opened the book on his lap, some self-help guide, Phia noticed with a measure of disgust.
     Robert returned to his magazine.  His hand on her back made Phia's skin crawl, and she let her weight fall back on his hand until he had to wrench it from behind her back.  I am from the Palouse, Phia thought as the place raced down the runway and surged into the storm.  Watching the rain pummel the window, she thought of how much she'd loved watching thunderstorms roll over the hills in the Palouse, surrounded by her family huddled together on the front porch.  But here, the plane was moving through a dark cave of menacing clouds and there was nothing familiar to anchor her.  Phia pressed two fingers into her temples, beating back the panic as the plane hit an air pocket and lurched.  In the turbulence there was a blinding flash off the wing, then a sudden crack.  Several passengers screamed as the plane dropped. "Mama," Phia cried as the lights in the cabin dimmer and eery shadows fell over the faces.
     "For god's sake!" Robert hissed.  "Stop calling for your mother."  He held out his hand but Phia didn't want his perfectly clipped fingernails to touch her.  The hands she wanted were rough with dirt beneath the nails, Mama's hands.
     The plane dipped again and Phia clutched the arms of her seat, knocking Robert's elbow off.  He shook his head in disgust.  "You'd think you'd never flown before," he said.
     Suddenly the plane punched through the storm into blue sky and bright sunlight, then leveled off and settled on top of rolling banks of clouds that looked like the Palouse hills in winter--all covered with deep, fresh, ice-blue snow.  Looking over those snowy clouds, it was hard to imagine the dark fury just beneath them.

Hours later, Phia's head had stopped aching and she opened her eyes, stretching.  "Can you open the shade?" she asked Robert, leaning forward.
     "Nothing to see but farmland."
     She reached past him, raised the shade and stared at the patchwork quilt of flat land shadowed by puffy clouds far below them.  Where were they? she wondered.  What was growing down there--corn? wheat? grass? "See what I mean?" Robert asked, blocking her vision.  Get out of my way, Phia wanted to tell him, but bit back the words and clenched the arm rest to keep herself from pushing him.  Beside her, the man from Seattle had head-phones on, watching the in-flught movie.
     "I'm really tired," Phia told Robert.
     "You just slept," he answered, closing the shade.
     "Of you.  Tired of you."
     He stared at her, his eyebrows knit into a thick black line.  "Phia," he cajoled.  "We just had a great vacation--think of all the people we met, the things we saw."
     She sighed.  "I love running with you.  But--"
     "Don't say it." Robert put a hand on her arm.
      "This is exactly what I mean," she said, shaking off his hand and waving her hand in front of him.  "You have me pinned to a butterfly board, don't let me move."
     He opened the shade again and made a noise in his throat.  The plane was again flying on a bed of clouds, obscuring any vista.  "I'm disappointed in you," he finally said.
     Phia reached up and turned the know to let more air flow.  She felt hot, sticky. "Your life revolves around work and running."
     "And you spend your days pining for you precious Palouse hills."  He stared at her, his eyes cold. "That life obviously wasn't enough for your father."
     Feeling nauseous, Phia bolted out of her seat and down the aisle into the restroom, trying to breathe with her head between her knees, gagging as the toilet disinfectant burned her throat. What does he know about the land, she thought, her chest heaving. What does he know about Papa?  Pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes to stop the tears, Phia saw her father's face as she'd last seen him--standing in the kitchen hallway, crying, before he walked away.  And just as she had every moment of her waking and dreaming life, ever since that October afternoon thirty years ago, she wondered who she'd be if that memory had only been a nightmare.  If Papa had stayed in his study that day instead of climbing the stairs.  If he were still there now.  If she'd never seen Mama cupping his blood in her hands, never seen him lying in a crimson pool on his bedroom floor.
     Lifting the seat, Phia threw up the salad she'd picked at while Robert wolfed down a burger, fries and beer in the JFK food court, a meal bristling with all the tension and discontent that had been brewing during their two-week vacation.
     Standing in front of the tiny stainless-steel sink, running her fingers under the icy water, she kept her head down, avoiding the mirror, not wanting to see Papa's eyes in her own reflection.  Stomach clenched, she sunk onto the toilet seat, taking one deep breath after another, until a flight attendant jiggled the door handle, asking if everything was alright in there.
     "What happened to our friend?" Phia asked when she returned to their row and found Robert in the aisle seat.
     "You scared him off," he glared.  "Traveling has always made you sick, hasn't it?"
     Squeezing past Robert's knees, Phia sat next to the window.  "Look, Robert, I didn't plan for any of this to happen." She shivered and reached to close off the air valve, feeling dizzy and nauseous againa, hemmed in by Robert's long legs.
     "I've been very understanding," he said, leaning into the empty seat between them, his face so close his minty breath blew across her face.  "You come with a lot of crap."
     "You're probably better off without me," she murmured, reasting her head against the window, yearning to slide it open and free-fall into the pillowed clouds, away from Robert, this trip, her father's face streaked with tears, the past that haunted at every turn.  The clouds scattered and she could see striped brown fields following the contours of the earth, beckoning her to follow their curves, calling her home.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


It is an early October afternoon in the Palouse and I am riding home on the late bus, which is empty, since our house is the last stop on its route.  Out the window, I see a man on a tractor plowing a dark circle around the contour of an empty field.  I squint, wondering if he is my father or my Uncle Tommy, since from this distance, they're hard to tell apart.  The bus driver, Mr. Olson, honks and the man on the tractor waves.  Uncle Tommy, I decide.  Papa wouldn't wave.  He keeps his head down when he's working.
     Trudging up our steep driveway, my violin bumps against my hip and the leaves on the trees rain vermilion, maize and puce over my head.  Clouds tumble in from the west, foretelling he autumn storm that will break at dusk.
     Standing at the back kitchen door, I watch my mama knead bread dough at the scarred oak table, her head turned to my baby sister, Susu.  The twins, Sierra and Selena, whisper and giggle on the long, low window-seat in the kitchen.  Vannah is playing something bleak and mournful on the piano, music she plays when she's been fighting with her boyfriend, Rudy.
     Mama lifts a hand to swipe hair out of her eyes, and flour, like a smear of whitewash, streaks her forehead.  "Phia," she says when she sees me, "Come sit."  At the table next to Susu, I munch on a handful of popcorn from a large yellow bowl.  Susu has her head bent over a sheet of math facts and is carefully turning all the minus signs into pluses. When I ask her about it, she says she likes adding things, but taking them away makes her sad.  Mama rolls, punches and sways with her kneading. "Here you go, Bairn," she says, placing a hunk of dough in my mouth.
     Then Vannah presses a single, haunting note in the middle of her piece, and there are tears on my face.  Looking up, I see Papa standing right outside the kitchen door--home at 4:30 in the afternoon, when he should be working in the fields until dark.
     He backs away from the door, gazes around the room and when he looks at me, I see that he is crying too.  My papa--crying.  He turns, walks down the hall and the study door opens, then closes.  Mama is too busy working the bread to notice.  Flipping open a book, I lower my head and read.
     Later as Mama sets the loaves of bread in the oven to rise, I realize that Vannah is studying beside me.  Mama walks to the sink to wash off her hands, and then I hear a sharp crack from upstairs.
     We all look at Mama, then tear after her as she flies through the kitchen and tumbles up the staircase, smearing the the banisters with bread dough.  Bunching into the doorway of her bedroom, we see her kneeling next to Papa, clawing at his chest, moaning, "Please, Duncan, please," cupping a ruby river and pouring it back into Papa's shirt, but it's pouring off his chest, pooling over the old braided rug, the shaft of Papa's smoking .22 rifle, the dark folds of Mama's skirt, which look like the hills above the river.  I hear the pounding of feet, see Papa's brother, Tommy, kneel next to Mama, place his fingers against Papa's neck, lift Mama's hands from Papa's chest. "It's no good, Dee.  You see that, don't you?" he says.
     Mama stands, her hands gloved in blood, and the country in her skirt floods the floor around Papa.  Uncle Tommy closes Papa's eyes, smears the blood from his hands onto his jeans.  Mama walks toward us, whispers, "Not this house," then raises her bloodied hand and swipes it in a wide arc over the doorway.
     "Oh Papa, " I whisper, creeping down the stairs after my mama, then sneaking through the door to Papa's study, my heart pounding, my palms sweaty.  But the study is dark and empty, the curtains closed.  There is an open book on the bare desk, Papa's pen in the crease.  In the dim light, I read the words, "Remember me," written in his bold script, and I turn and run out of the study, down the long corridor to the back door.  I fling open the screen and stumble out onto the porch.