"Mama," he said. Tears rolled down his sunken cheeks and still he smiled.
"Allen," she whispered, pushing toward him through air grown suddenly thick and heavy as moss.
She awoke panting, as if she'd been chased, a hand to her mouth to silence the name she feared had escaped it, her mind swirling with images of her child all mixed up with her long-lost love Allen. The memory of his leg, taken in another war, had somehow inserted itself into the Pandora's box of puzzle pieces she carried in her head, severed pictures of Jack's paralysis and miraculous recovery, his enlistment last spring. Her son was headed for Italy under General Patton, he recently wrote. Not yet eighteen and already hunting Germans.
"Holy Christ, Annette, he's a survivor, if anyone is," Victor said, the day he'd signed the papers allowing their son to enlist. The day he'd lied--lied-- about Jack's age and put him in harm's way. "He survived infantile paralysis, woman, for Christ's sake. Let him fulfill his destiny."
The taste and smell of her anger--sharp and metallic, earthy and blood-like--engulfed her. She might have struck him, she later thought, had not Father LaRoy's advice come boomeranging back to her: "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph stop me from doing this sin."
The priest's incantation had intervened in her behalf innumerable times in their marriage, through the loss of two babies, the burning of their barn, the Depression, bouts of scarlet fever, her son's paralysis, their eight-month quarantine, and nearly losing the farm to the bank. But try as she might she could not form the words in her head that day last spring when her exuberant son twirled her around the kitchen before kissing her goodbye. Giddy with the thought of striking out on his own, as if off to build a railroad.
Two seasons later, she still could not bring herself to utter Father LaRoy's words--the words she knew would bring her the gift of forgiveness. Instead she pressed through the long days washing and mending their clothes, tending her chickens and the vegetables in their garden, putting up corn and beets and jam and pickles for the long winter. Cooking and baking and helping Honora and Annette with their lessons and tiptoeing around her husband, eyes glued to her feet, as if avoiding a muddy puddle in her Sunday shoes. All the while carrying the sin of bitterness in her heart, pressed jewel-like between her breasts beneath her sternum. And now Allen had surfaced in her dreams. You could not trick the Lord. He saw right through you, his vision illuminating all the earthly treasures you would value over his love. He saw, and he punished.
She pushed up out of bed, the dream still sticky upon her, running her hands over her netted hair, her face, and neck as if displacing persistent cobwebs, the only sound now the drone of her husband's snoring. At the window she pushed back the gingham curtain she made last month from cloth left over from the girls' back-to-school jumpers. The stars had faded, leaving a milky sky awaiting the first flash of dawn. On her fingers she counted the time difference between New York and Italy. Would her son be taking lunch--eating spaghetti in a vineyard out of his helmet, the fugue of mines and gunshot momentarily interrupted? She fell to her knees. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph . . ." she began, pressing her mouth against her folded hands. But her lips would take her no further.
She stood and relieved herself in the pot in the corner, walked over to the vanity, poured water into the bowl and splashed it over her face again and again, shivering.
Honora stood at the stove stirring a pot of corn meal mush when Rose came in from the chicken house carrying a bowl full of eggs, dressed in a housedress shiny from many washings, a buffed look about her face from the scrubbing she had given it. Try as she might these days she never felt clean.
"Where's Annette?" she asked.
"I sent her out for a pitcher of milk," said Honora.
Rose studied her niece, her brother Raymond's child, who came from Braeburn to live with them when her mother died despite Victor's anguish about another mouth to feed. She had proven a good girl, helpful and hardworking and God-fearing, until the last year or so, when boys seized the territory of her once sharp mind. Rose tried to remember herself at sixteen but found she could not. Even the memories of Allen's attentions had blurred to the point they seemed transformed into photographs from someone else's past.
The girl's auburn hair grazed her shoulders in loopy curls she had set with bobby pins the night before. She had grown again and her breasts and hips heaved against the cotton shirtwaist dotted with tiny bluebells. A real leather belt that once belonged to Mother Trambeaux bit into her narrow waist. She was beautiful. Curious, Rose had not noticed it before.
Annette exploded through the door, pounding her feet on the rug, beads of milk strafing the wall and stove from the overly full pitcher.
"Annette," Rose said. She pronounced the word like her deceased mother-in-law, the child's namesake: "An-ETTE," with a little chomping French poodle bite at the end. At eleven, her daughter's gangly body served only to confound her, every movement fraught with hazard.
"Sorry, Mama," said Annette, placing the pitcher on the table and mopping her hands on her already spattered dress.
"Please cut up some bread for toast," said Rose.
"As I was saying," said Honora, spooning hot cereal into bowls. "There is a box dance Friday and I wondered if we could kill a chicken this time and I could fry it up and make biscuits. Cassie Hogan brought fried chicken and biscuits to the last dance and she had the whole school bidding on her. It had to be the food, Aunt Rose. You've seen her, she looks like a horse."
Annette threw back her head and whinnied in appreciation and the two girls got to giggling, holding their sides, as if Jack Benny himself had spoken.
"Sit down, the two of you, right now," said Rose, her voice shrill in her ears.
She did not like to speak to them like this, had never warmed to the role of disciplinarian, but someone had to keep them placing one foot in front of the other, mindful of the assaults lurking around every corner in this world. Worshipping God in every moment so that if, in his wisdom, he decided to pluck you from this earth you would be ready--with clean under garments so to speak--to join him in heaven.
She placed a bottle of molasses on the table to sweeten the girls' cereal, set to frying eggs in lard for Victor and her eldest, Franklin, due in from milking at any moment. If only she could have the house to herself for a moment. She craved news of Jack, longed to turn on the radio and hear what Edward R. Murrow had to say about the war in Europe. But it did the children no good, these stories that seduced their brothers into combat. She wanted to shield them from the high cost of democracy. And for that, too, she knew she had sinned.
"So what do you think, Aunt Rose?" Honora was saying. "Can't we kill a chicken?"
"We'll see," said Rose.
"That means no," Annette mumbled.
"That means, we'll see," said Rose, voice rising in irritation. The children seemed gunning for her lately, the shrapnel of their demands lobbed from all directions. Maybe it was just the change of life; Mother Trambeaux had had her moods, too, although she never mentioned the bleeding that could go on for weeks. The bleeding caused Rose, at times, to keel over from the simple exertion of lifting a frying pan, the girls buzzing over her with wide frightened eyes, hot peas ricocheting across the floor.
Still, her father would have taken her to the barn and paddled her for such a tone in her voice. A vague feeling that she had failed them washed over her. A wave of milky tea backed up in her throat. The eggs smoked on the griddle. She flipped them onto plates. Victor would not complain about their scorched, ruffled hems. But he would stare at them a long time before lifting his fork to make sure she knew he had noticed.
"Hey, Mamo," said Franklin, lurching up behind her and grabbing her by the shoulders. "You're looking glamorous as usual. Watch out Rita Hayworth."
The girls chortled.
"Mercy," said Rose, swatting at his long limbs as if at a giant fly. Three years Jack's senior, Franklin defied the stereotype of an oldest child. Of course, he had not actually been first; their stillborn daughter Loretta had taken that honor. Rose sometimes couldn't help imagining her grown into the perfect, compliant child, pillar of responsibility, tireless listener, infinitely sensitive to her mother's complex feelings. The understanding friend and companion that had eluded Rose.
Injured on a PT boat in England last year, Franklin had been discharged and shipped home to a rehab center in Albany. That's when Jack had gone to his father. The Trambeaux family needed representation, he insisted. Franklin likely would have reenlisted had his brother not beaten him to it--Victor could not run the farm without at least one of his boys. Now he walked with a hitch from the bullet in his hip they would not risk removing. To Rose's chagrin, he had taken up with Anna Wyatt, a fast, young Presbyterian woman with hennaed hair who worked in the mill outside Waynesburg.
Victor pushed through the door, nodded, and took a plate.
Franklin slid into a chair beside his sister. "Hey, Annie, hey curly," he said.
"Honora wants to kill a chicken and fry it up for the box dance so Gabe Dumont will buy her," said Annette.
"Shush," said Honora, elbowing Annette in the ribs.
Victor carried his plate to the table.
"Tommy Dumont's little brother?" said Franklin. "That little worm?"
"Clear your plates and grab your lunches, girls," said Rose.
"You just shut your trap if you want me to keep mine shut about you and Anna and . . ."
Franklin dove at his cousin as she passed.
"Stop it, all of you," shouted Victor.
The girls grabbed their sack lunches and scattered.
Franklin slathered more of the pasty white margarine on his toast.
An overwhelming desire to swallow a whole lump of real butter--the kind she churned every morning before the war--nearly took Rose's breath away.
Victor stared at the charred egg on his plate a while longer before lifting his fork and knife.
Rose stood at the counter crimping the edges of two apple pies. Her crusts were the county's tenderest--she took two blue ribbons last year at the fair, a victory that left her puffed up with pride no amount of Confessional penance could deflate. Through the open window, the unseasonably warm October air carried on top of the usual manure a whiff of smoke from the men burning remnants of corn stalks in the field, mingling with the aroma of cinnamon and vanilla into a pungent perfume she would never forget.
The doorbell rang.
"Mercy," she said, wiping her hands on a tea towel and smoothing her apron.
Her hand flew to her heart when she saw the Western Union man standing there.
She shut the door behind her and carried the telegram to her rocker beside the piano. It needed dusting, she noticed; she had not played since Jack went away. She sat down and studied the elaborately painted Asian vase Mother Trambeaux had left her, its pebbled, wanton surface swelling like a woman's hips from a tiny waist holding a clutch of Black-eyed Susans. The smell of pie and smoke clung to her nostrils. She worked her thumb across the envelope, unfolded the message, and read:
The Secretary of War desires me to express his deepest regret that your son Private John D. Trambeaux has been reported missing in action since ten October in Italy. If further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified.
Ten October, she thought. One day shy of his eighteenth birthday. They had celebrated in his absence with his favorite lemonade cake.
"Thank you, Father," she whispered, running her finger over the unevenly typed letters and repeating the words out loud. Missing, they said. Missing did not mean dead.
She knew she should call Victor and Franklin in but to what purpose? Instead she sat in the rocker, for once indulging in the extravagance of complete inertia. After a while, she plucked the rosary from her pocket and began worrying the beads with her fingers, lips moving soundlessly, eyes riveted on the swing outside the front window. Suspended from the sprawling oak, it moved back and forth, back and forth, as if all by itself through the Indian summer air.
Rose and Annette had been out in the henhouse another Indian summer day when Jack, just home from school, came shuffling out in his overalls rubbing his neck.
Annette charged his legs.
He grabbed her wrists and swung her around, her cotton dress catching the wind like a parasol.
"Your father would like you to go feed the horses," Rose said.
"OK, Mama," said Jack. "Want to come with me, Annette?" he asked.
The child panted like a dog in affirmation. Almost two, she still had little need to speak, what with her brothers constantly translating for her.
Resting on her knees, Rose had their old rooster, Charlemagne, by the neck. Time to show us what you're made of, she thought. He had been a good husband to the girls, a hearty sire. She would stew him for tomorrow's dinner while he still had some meat on his bones, use his juices for soup.
Jack took his sister's hand. They'd been thick as thieves, those two, since Annette's birth. "Mama," Jack said, turning back over his shoulder.
She glanced up.
"My neck," he said. "It really hurts."
Of its own volition her hand relaxed around Charlemagne's gullet. The exonerated chicken hobbled away toward his favorite hiding spot under the back porch, wagering the cats were still in the fields.
"Come inside," she said, yanking her son by the wrist with such force that Annette started to cry.
Rose smoothed a quilt across the kitchen table. Victor swung their undressed son up like a baby and placed him there.
"Mama," Jack said, coppery eyes pleading.
She took his hand. "It will only last a second," she said.
"We have no other choice," she said. The serum might save his legs, his life, the doctor said. It was their only chance. "Remember how brave you were when you had scarlet fever? They thought it would weaken your heart but it didn't, did it? You came through with flying colors. You'll come through this, too, you'll see. Pray to God. God is with us."
She made her voice as soothing as she could, hoping to drown out the sounds of the doctor's tools scraping in the sink behind them. Even though he was too old for lullabies, she longed to sing to Jack as she had when he was little, and might have, too, had Victor and the doctor not been standing there. Had Franklin not been pressed against the wall clutching Annette to his chest. What if they got it, too?
"We're ready, Victor," the doctor said.
He had come from Waynesburg, been up all night, he told them, what with five new cases of infantile paralysis diagnosed in the county in just one week.
"Take your sister out of here," said Rose.
"But Mama," Franklin protested.
"Turn over on your stomach, son," Victor said.
"Mama!" said Jack.
"I'll be right here," she said.
"Hold his legs, Victor," the doctor said. "Get his shoulders, Rose."
Rose had never seen so large a needle. She pressed down on her son's bare shoulders, squeezed her eyes shut, summoning Mary in her blue robes, a cloud of bleached light.
The sound her son made when the serum shot into his spine was not of this earth. It didn't last long, though, thank God. He passed out from the pain.
Annette and Honora raced through the door and flung themselves at her, rousing her from the trance she had slipped into watching her invisible son swing.
"What are you doing home so early?" she asked.
"They announced it at school," said Annette, bounding into her mother's lap. "Jack, and Davy Donovan, and Harold McIntosh. What does that mean, 'missing in action?'"
Honora pressed a finger to her lips but Annette had eyes only for her mother.
Rose struggled for composure. "There was a battle I suppose," she said. "They could be hiding somewhere."
"Or captured," said Annette. "Captured by the Germans!"
"Come on, Annette," said Honora, pulling her cousin to her feet. "What can we do to help, Aunt Rose?"
Rose sighed. Of course he had been captured, captured or dead. She refused to think about it. God had spared her child twice before. Rose had prayed endlessly to Saint Catherine of Siena, her mother's namesake, who intervened in Jack's behalf. She had named Annette's twin sister after her as promised when Jack recovered from scarlet fever. Unlike her first child, Catherine at least lived long enough to receive the last rites. Later, Jack walked again at Saint Catherine's bidding, taught his little sister to dance.
"Catherine," whispered Rose.
"Aunt Rose," Honora said, almost touching her hair. "What can we do?"
"Go get your Uncle," she said.
Chalky as corpses Victor and Franklin stomped into the kitchen behind the girls. For once Annette did not remind them to remove their boots. She shot Honora a questioning glance but the girl shook her head. She had not told them. She didn't have to.
Annette held out the telegram. Franklin lunged for it--Victor could not read. But her husband shook his head. "Read to me, Rose," he said.
In the early days of their marriage, before the children came, reading poetry aloud, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in particular, had helped bridge the jagged chasm between them. Now she read without looking up, unable to meet his eyes.
It wasn't so much a cry as a howl, the sound detonating from Victor's throat that blasted the children, even grownup Franklin, from the room, sent them pounding up the stairs, cowering, ears pressed against the grate above the kitchen stove to eavesdrop in safety. Her husband collapsed into her and did something she had never seen him do, not even when his mother died. He cried, great wracking sobs that reverberated in her solar plexus. She held him, stroking his face and neck, red and ridged as corduroy from his time in the fields. She could almost hear the children holding their breath upstairs. She might have forgiven him right then and there had his tears turned themselves into words. Instead he dried his eyes with the back of his hand and headed out to the barn. In the morning his thick head of black hair had gone completely white.
The doctor said Franklin and Annette would be fine if they got through a day or two without symptoms. Victor and Rose pulled Franklin's bed out of their sons' shared room and converted the long hallway into a bedroom. They moved Annette, who really had grown too big for her cradle, onto a mattress on the floor near her big brother. By the time Rose knelt beside Jack's bed that first night, he could not move at all and lay terrified, eyes roaming the ceiling, unable to sleep. She crawled in beside him, smoothed his damp hair. He drifted off at last to the rustling sound of her prayers, but Rose lay awake hours longer, begging Saint Catherine to spare her son. She did not allow herself to think about the disease claiming anyone else in her family. She could not permit that thought to surface in her mind and still hold on to her sanity.
In the morning, she woke before dawn, padded down the hall and covered her other two children. Franklin lay all tangled up in his quilt, long limbs jutting out at impossible, reassuring angles. Annette squirmed under her mother's touch. Rose went to her own room, pulled on her robe, and descended the stairs.
Victor sat at the kitchen table still in his work clothes from the day before. He rubbed his face. "What will we do, Rosette?" he asked. "How will we live?"
The doctor had placed the farm under quarantine. They could not sell their milk, could not leave their property.
Touched by the use of his dead mother's pet name for her, Rose grabbed wood from the pile, went to the stove, and stoked the fire; she bent over the sink and pumped water into the kettle, Victor's question echoing in her head. She didn't know how they would live. She hoped God might. Jesus and Mary and Joseph and Saint Catherine.
"I'd better get to milking," Victor said.
"I'll go with you."
The cows still needed milking, even though they would have to spill their sweet, white livelihood back into the earth. She could not let him do it alone.
A silence settled over Victor those weeks after that first telegram. He shuffled through the house like a sleepwalker, falling into their bed each night and rising in the morning, shoveling food into his mouth and heading out to turn the fields for winter, all without speaking. After a while, the children replaced their strategy of trying to engage him with jokes and stories with the equally ineffective tactic of trying to avoid him all together, a maneuver Rose, who insisted on keeping up the normal rhythms of life, would have none of. They would all sit down to supper as always, thank you very much, would partake of the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion. Honora would go to her box dance; Rose even killed a chicken for her. Franklin would go out on the town in his questionable girlfriend's new car. Annette would read with her mother and work on her sums and play the piano when Rose saw fit.
Swept up in the illusion of normality, the children took on their roles with gusto, converting their most mundane activities into a heightened, more idealized set of routines that years later would gleam brighter than the rest in their arsenal of memories. Only Victor remained aloof, conspicuously absent from Saint Andrews, wolfing down meals and leaving the table without so much as bothering to excuse himself.
Rose prayed. When she wasn't praying, she wrote to the Adjutant General who had notified them, keeping her letters brief, avoiding overly emotional displays she sensed would do her no ultimate good, appealing instead to the Army's sense of justice.
"I would just like to know more about the circumstances of my son going missing," she wrote. "Has he been captured? What was he doing when he disappeared?"
Reasonable questions, she thought, questions that took her mind off possible answers.
In early November, another telegram confirmed their worst fears.
Through the longest winter of their lives Rose prayed. Every day after the morning's milking and disposal, she bundled the children, hitched the horses to the sleigh and drove a mile-and-a-half through tunnels of snow that threatened to collapse on their heads to where the road intersected with the road to Quebec. Every day, a different neighbor left them food: a sack of flour, a slab of bacon or stew meat, jars of wax beans and stewed tomatoes. Rose and the children dug the box out of the snow, thanking God for their neighbors' generosity, and headed back home.
Franklin and Annette lived outdoors--digging out snow villages until their clothes soaked through and their teeth chattered. Then they headed for the barn, tormenting the cows like the feral cats, climbing the silo and hurling themselves into bales of hay. Rose worried they'd catch their death but had neither the heart nor the energy to restrict them, grateful they had found a way to entertain themselves while she tended to Jack and their salvation.
Now and then, Victor roamed the house like something caged--glaring at her--before huffing back out to the barn.
One day, kneeling at her sleeping son's bedside, Rose dozed off.
"I have not forsaken you," her mother said, in her dream.
Rose was small again, Jack's age, sitting in her mother's lap before the fire, leaning her head on her broad shoulder, inhaling the smell of white flour and lavender that clung to her skin and her nest of yellow hair. And then Rose was falling, as if from a tree, every muscle in her body contracting in fear of impact, until she opened her eyes and saw the wraithlike figure of Saint Catherine floating before her, bony hand extended. Rose grasped the surprisingly solid form.
"Mama," Jack said, as Rose opened her eyes for real to find herself clutching her son's hand. "I can move my leg Mama--help me up."
Rose pursued the task of unearthing the circumstances of their son's death as she had once launched the mission of teaching him to walk again, tirelessly subjecting the War Department to a barrage of written inquiries. Rewarded for her efforts with sketchy dispatches light on details though heavy on excuses, apologies, and promises of referrals through the lengthy chain of command. At last a response came from the Catholic Chaplain who laid Jack to rest in a United States cemetery in Northern Italy.
"Jack was well liked and admired. His comrades will miss his companionship and friendship," he said, in a way that made Rose's throat contract with the certainty that the Chaplain had not known her son at all. People flocked to Jack, their deepest hopes and fears tumbling from their mouths. He lit up a room, left a calmness that could only be described as grace in his wake. He would have entered seminary upon his return; she would have found a way to make it so. If only Victor had not lied.
Then came a copy of a unit citation describing the battle in which Jack had died the same day he'd been reported missing.
. . . Committed to attack along Highway 65 in the drive beyond enemy Gothic Line, the 3rd Battalion in seven days of continuous fighting over rough, mountainous terrain, decisively defeated elements of three German divisions and captured the town of Livergnano . . . successfully repelled several strong enemy counterattacks, and advanced continuously through the heaviest type of enemy mortar and artillery fire. . . . This small force of only eighty men gallantly repelled fanatical, tank-supported enemy counterattacks for eight hours, even after every machine gun had been destroyed by enemy fire and the ammunition had been exhausted . . .
Victor sat erect on the couch as she read, his eyes moving up and down and all around as if following his son's hillside progress on a moving picture screen. He flinched, his own nerves registering the mine that took him.
The enraged voice in Rose's head competed with a whisper of compassion. For a moment, watching her husband, the two voices babbled away, words jumbled, unable to speak over each other. She shut her eyes. Saint Catherine appeared immediately, looking exactly like that painting in the book Mother Trambeaux had given her, ascending the stairs of her home in Siena, hands clasped, feet dangling above the earth, eyes rooted in heaven. With relief Rose realized the other voice--the accusing voice that held Victor responsible for their son's death--had somehow vanished.
Her hand waded through the air and settled on her husband's shoulder.
Franklin shot up out of his chair. "I'm going back," he said.
Annette sucked on the paintbrush of her braid. Honora hung her head.
"The hell you are," Rose heard herself say.
"The hell you are," echoed Victor, his fist hitting the pedestal table like a ham.
"I have not forsaken you," whispered Saint Catherine.
May, her favorite month, the month during which she and Allen had once taken to the river hand in hand, a bundled lunch swinging between them, the fields embroidered with violets. Through the open windows the sound of the doctor's cart clattered up to their porch. She went for Victor.
The doctor smiled, ducking down the stairs back into the kitchen from Jack's room. "He's fine," he said. "He's going to be fine. You're a free man, Victor, your milk is cleared."
Rose had not cried, not when Jack came home from school that day, not when he passed out on the kitchen table, not when she'd tipped can after can of milk into the field that first morning. She had not cried. She did not plan to start now.
"Rosette," said Victor.
She shook her head and raced upstairs, grabbed a handkerchief from her dresser drawer. Then she stared into the mirror at her seamed face, struggling to equate the girl she started out to be, the picture her mother carried in her locket to her grave, with the woman gazing back at her. The spring had given her son back his legs. But it had taken the last remnants of her youth.
"Mama," said Jack, striding toward her into the rockets' red glare of his future.
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