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."

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