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.


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