...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.