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.
"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)