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The Autumn Voyage

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

On the next day they saw the frozen disk of the water, grey and thin under the tall stripping trees, with a powder of snow blown into all the small bays and harbors. Beside it the great ash tree stood stretching and barren; and frozen to tightness and bound by ice, the boat was tipped upside down, with its clumsy red prow shot upwards to be gilded by the cold sun until springtime.

“What did you do with it?” her father wanted to know. He shook her shoulders and held her face clamped in his thick wood-smelling hands. “What did you do?”

But she would not answer, and stood there with her trembling lips locked, and her young hair nipped by the wind, and shoved her hands close beside her to make them warm, but she would not tell. And later in the day she watched from the window in her bedroom, where they had locked her, and saw the winter descend; and watched her brother go away again down the new-snowed path, his grip in his hand and his head bent down; watched him go through the iron gateway, down the street, out of sight. And heard her mother downstairs sniffle in confusion, rapping in diffidence at the windowpane as she gave him a frightened farewell. And her father, she knew, stood tall and thundering behind her, his hands locked, his head bent to one side like a photograph pose and his eyes filled with rankle, as he stood in harsh deliberation of the world and sent his son down the walk and through the gateway as their only salvation, their deliverance.

Then the ways of the town resumed again and the trees tossed in the wind through the winter, dodging the rape and the pillaging of the blasts from over the lake, and at suppertime her mother set out the preserves and the bone forks and the faceted sugar-bowl of golden glass. Later her father even laughed about it, crying to the child, “What’s the matter with you?” Then he rumpled her hair with his hand in affection and told her in summer they’d go to the woods for a picnic and that would be traipsing enough. But oh, how she wanted to travel.

For one night a week ago her mother shook her late at night, and when she opened her eyes at last, reviving slowly as she darted her hands to her face because of the sudden light, she saw him standing at the bedside. She started so, that her mother burst into high laughter. “Tink,” she said, “this is your brother. Don’t you remember, your brother John? . . .”

Tink put down her hands, studying him from head to foot. He did not speak, only smiled at her. “He’s been far, far away,” said her mother in a story-telling tone. “He just came back home. He’s been gone a long while. . . . “

And the child shot out, “Where?”

“All over the world, I guess,” laughed her mother, and put her hands in contentment on her stomach.

Then she saw him approach her with ceremony like a magus and, picking up the doll he had in his lap, he shoved it toward her, saying, “Look. Where I went, little girls are very different than you.” He blushed with enjoyment.

“Why are they different?” she asked.

“They speak another language. You wouldn’t know what they call this. . . .”

Tink laughed and threw her head back and saw through his trick at once. “It’s a doll,” she said.


Her mother shrieked with laughter and wiped her eyes with her hand. “Don’t tease the poor girl,” she cried, and looked at her son with wonder.

“It’s not a doll,” he said. “Une poupce!” “Why?”

“I told you why. Do you know what brothers call their little sisters? Do you know? Mon petit chou, . . .”

The mother looked at him with amazement. “What does it mean? For heaven’s sakes, what are you saying?” And when he told her Little Cabbage, she went off into great gales of laughter, murmuring, “Well . . . well. . . .”

“Why little cabbage?” the child asked. “Who’s a little cabbage?”

And he answered. “You. You are. Mon petit chou. Where I went they have a park, where little girls roll hoops and boys sail boats all the day. . . . “

She stared ponderously, and did not feel it was wonderful at all. Why should a brother call his sister that? But she did not doubt him for a moment.

And even late at night, in the darkness, after she heard the long hours of talk between her mother and her father and the stranger, and heard him finally sent to bed, and heard her mother pouncing the pillows on his bed to freshen them up, she still did not go back to sleep. Now that she thought of it, left alone in the dark, it would be pleasant to be called a little cabbage. She could not think of the words he had said but she remembered them strangely kind. Though she could not define the sensation, they had been gentle, not harsh as the wind had been when she played in the glen today.

It would be nice, she thought, turning over in her bed, seeing the stars high through the window, to be called that.

On the next morning she was awake long before her brother, sitting down in the kitchen to watch her mother cluttering about the room with her heart sprightly, scraping the red-checkered tablecloth where he was going to sit and re-arranging the knife and fork for the hundredth time, moving the prunes and the oatmeal cakes closer to his plate. The child sat silent as dark night with her arms heavy in her lap, her face pale and fallen and her mouth open, her eyes flecked with the newness of mystery. Now she had only a vague remembrance of the stranger in her room last night—a man dark and tall, with strange words on his lips. He gave her a doll. It lay on the chair beside her and though her mother mumbled over and over again that she ought to go outside and play with it, she only looked at her and shook her head.

When he came down for breakfast she sat without moving and watched her mother shuffling about the kitchen in her heavy felt carpet slippers humming to herself and pressing John to try the fruit and sample the cakes as she pushed them closer to him. There was a clean still odor in the kitchen, a bright but chill autumn light from the sun outside. He played with his food for a long while until at last he put down his fork, hardly glancing up. “What happened to all the books I used to have in my room?” he asked.

Her mother shrugged her shoulders and said she didn’t know. Then she busied herself with needless tasks like straightening the curtains, refilling the already-filled tea-kettle. “Why don’t you go out and play, baby?” she said. “It’s nice in the sun.”

“I don’t want to.”

Her mother tapped her hand on the windowpane idly. “Well, I guess your father stowed all those books in the shed, John,” she said. “He thought you were through reading them.” She looked at him. “He’s expecting you to help him at the shop now. He says you’ve had all your fun.”

Tink kept watching her brother, and then she looked through the window, wishing they’d stop talking about books and something he won called a scholarship. He kept telling his mother he wanted to get his degree, but she kept shaking her head solemnly and looking out of the window. Tink waited for them to finish. Outside the trees showered a brilliant yellow and red, the aspen leaves tipping in the wind to show their glowing undersides. A gust of wind splattered a handful of maple leaves, seed-pods, milkweed fuzz against the windowpane. At last her mother and brother stopped talking, and she pushed her doll across the table to him, the timidest of smiles on her face. “Look,” she said.

He glanced up at her. “I gave that to you,” he said.

“I know.”

Soon he smiled and picked up the doll, grabbing its legs in his hand and making it walk toward her, toward the edge of the table until it fell into her lap. But she did not smile. Instead she looked at him, even disregarding the prostrate doll in her lap, disregarding her mother’s screech of “Look, Tink, now your baby broke her head! You’ve got to get a doctor right away!” Instead she put her hand childishly to her face and muttered, so faintly that he hardly heard, “Say that again.”

“Say what?”

“C’mon, baby, don’t bother your brother,” said her mother. “Go away now and play.”

She took on a tearful expression but she remained steadfast, and mumbled that she wanted him to say it again. Her mother said she was a little girl, disturbing the grown-ups like that; but John leaned over the table and asked what she wanted to hear.

“Say that again what you said last night. You know,” she said.

He shook his head. “No, I don’t. What did I say?” “What they say where you were. Where you went in a boat.” “Paris?”

“Yes. You said they have a park, for boys to sail boats in and girls to roll hoops.” She seemed disheartened, talking disconsolately as if she thought he had lied to her.

But he laughed. “In the Jardin des Tuileries. . . .”

She looked up. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“What do they say? What do brothers say to their sisters? You said it last night.”

At last he remembered, throwing down his napkin. He leaned across the table toward her. “Mon petit chou. . . .” Tink laughed. “Yes. Say it again.” “Mori petit chou. . . .”

And Tink nodded her head thoughtfully, though smiling. Her mother laughed and went into the pantry to get a cup and saucer, and sat down at the table to drink coffee with him. He began telling her tales of his year in Paris, but she hardly listened, setting down her coffee-cup to relate to him some bit of gossip of the town. Tink listened and watched the sun flashing on the red-covered table and the heap of butter and the rich prunes and the glass sugar-bowl, and then came beside her brother’s chair diffidently, muttering to him to look at the wind almost bending the poplars to the ground.

“You see,” her mother was saying, “your father says it’s time now for you to settle down to good, hard work. He didn’t go to college.”

But Tink no longer listened to them at all and suddenly felt very gay; and became more lively than her mother had ever seen her. She had to bring out every toy and doll she had; had to show him every possession she owned. She brought out her rabbit, a, shivering small animal she had got from a neighbor.

“Papa doesn’t like the rabbit,” her mother told John, “but we let her keep it anyway. It’s something to play with.”

So Tink rushed gleefully to the cellar and brought it up in a small wooden box, shivering in its nest of hay and bits of red wool. “Look,” she said. “This is Mutt.”

Out of a piece of pa,per John made a small hat for the rabbit. Tink laughed loudly, holding her hands to her stomach. “Say it to him,” she cried, her eyes wet with merriment. “Goon, say it to Mutt!”

And John, laughing as much as she was, said, “Mon petit chou. . . .”

All the next day she searched about the yard and the field next door, circling about with her head bent close to the ground to discover pieces of wood, her arms aching already with the pieces she carried. She glanced at the kitchen window to make sure no one watched her, and then dragged her lumber to the shed.

Because she didn’t like being questioned (it might lead to the discovery of her plans which, surely, her father or mother would halt, as they always stopped everything she enjoyed doing most), she worked in the shed where no one would interrupt her, standing on a pile of old books so that she could reach the bench. Knowing nothing of the construction of boats, or of carpentering, she worked so clumsily that already she had sawn too quickly several times, ruining the boat so that she had to begin anew. And all the while she worked she kept glancing through the doorway up to the sky, to see if she could detect signs of snow to spoil her rabbit’s journey. Once, that afternoon, shortly after the rain stopped, when she had split the boat in two with over-hasty sawing, she filled with terror; had to rush several blocks to the glen and back, lumping down the cluttered hill, rushing past the trees with their spilling leaves; until at last she reached the pond and saw with ineffable relief that it had not yet frozen.

She caught her breath when she saw her brother standing in the doorway, the late afternoon sun behind him. He came beside her, but never questioned her at all. Soon he moved away, rummaging among the pile of old books dumped in the corner, half the books opened to the wind and the dirt, the pages grey with grime. And slowly he straightened them out, never speaking, till finally he started for the doorway with a load in his arms.

Then, when her fright was over, she spoke. “Do you know how to saw?” she asked.

“Saw? I think so.”

“Will you saw this board for me?”

He smiled, and as she handed him the stick he noticed the scratch on her hand. “You’ve cut yourself!”

She shot her hand behind her back, tears welling to her eyes as she remembered the pain. “No, I didn’t!” she flared.

Without asking how she got the wound, he coaxed her to let him bandage it with his handkerchief. He set down the toppling stack of colored books; and reluctantly she held out her hand.

“Now I suppose you’ll tell,” she mumbled. “What?”

“Are you going to tell papa?”

“Of course not.” He shook his head with a half-chuckling laugh. Then, keeping his face as grave as her own, he sawed the board for her. She watched with anxiety, and directed him. When he had finished she looked up. “How far is Paris away?”

“Paris? Very far,”

She was silent for a moment. “Does it take long to get there?” “About six days.” “Six days . . . ?” “Certainly.”

For a moment they stared at each other, but then she averted her eyes, saying, “That’s a doll’s bed I’m making,” and smiled as he nodded his head and picked up his books, delighted that he had believed her lie.

So all those days, by light-time, she worked in secret frenzy in the shed, sawing and breaking and beginning again and painting to get her boat finished before the pond froze in one great disk. But one night, alone in her room, she consoled her rabbit, divulged secrets, promises. Though she was undressed, she still would not go to bed. She had been standing at her mirror, looking at her face, red from weeping, and her mussed-up hair, because she always put her hands into her hair when she wept. That evening had been unpleasant again, comfortless, with her father scolding and scornfully crying that he didn’t need a fancy degree, and he didn’t need stacks of books to fill his head with silly ideas. And her mother was quiet, solemn in her chair with her hand half up to her mouth; and John sat slumped on the thick green sofa, a book pressed close to him until his father tore it from his grip. Then her mother sighed and got her hand to her mouth at last; but floundered then, and rose from her confusion to order the child to bed.

So Tink had to hold to the top of her bureau that night to see all of her head in the mirror and she looked at herself long. But her mother’s grief did not disturb her, nor her father’s ire, for her heart bled for neither, still frozen to elderly pain. But as she trudged up the stairs to her bed, her rabbit under her arm, her father had suddenly shouted, “And that animal gets out of here too!”

So she stood in tears at her mirror; then she switched out the light so that her room filled with November moonlight, and went to the corner where her rabbit shivered and trembled in the nest made from hay and bits of red wool in a box. Gently she took him from his nest and holding him close she took him to the window to see the moon. “Look,” she whispered, bending close so that she felt the wet of his nose against hers. “Look, Mutt, the moon!” But Mutt, not knowing anything, snuggled tighter in the crook of her arm and would not look at the moon. “We’ll go to Paris on a boat,” she sighed. “John says you go on a boat.” And holding the rabbit up to the pane, she looked out to the pond far away, tossing its small surface in the moonlight with a faint gleam. And she told her rabbit to look at the moon and the pond, and told him of the fairyland they were going to, where boys sailed boats, where girls rolled hoops, where you played all day in the park.

But he would not look.

And each night she watched from her window, out to the pond in the glen, until she finished the boat one afternoon, in time to avoid the siege of snow and ice. She had added the last dab of red paint to the awkward prow with a flourish and then, hardly able to keep from weeping for excitement, she rushed to her room to get Mutt. She passed her brother in the upstairs hallway, staring white and tense with his hands pressed close to his side and his face almost touching the windowpane as he looked without moving into the yard below. But she never stopped, and laughed in her gayety, punching him with joy as she darted past him; for she had, after all, finished her boat in time.

And her joy shot high when she hurried from the house and found her father in the yard, absorbed with his bonfire of rubbish and books, piled many feet high; and barely noticed the red gleam on his face and his half-closed eyes; but rejoiced that she could slip past him unnoticed.

So with her rabbit hidden under her coat she ran past the fire and rushed to the glen where the little boat already barged and billowed on the pond, moored to a twig on shore. Kicking the dead leaves high as she ran, dodging in and out through the dying grey trees, the cold air biting her face, making her flushed, she hurried to the glen and stopped out of breath beside the pond.

She held the soft white rabbit up to her cheek. “Mobidee shoo,” she whispered, remembering her brother’s story.

Mutt looked up at her helplessly, shivering in the unaccustomed cold; and quivered again as she kissed his nose, knelt down and placed him in the cigar-box boat, covered him with a blue doll’s quilt. “Good-bye!” she whispered. “Play in the park! Good-bye, mobidee shoo!”

She gave the red boat a shove and it sped on to the pond, its white banner blowing and the rabbit crouched in it trembling. Slowly at first, then gathering speed from the wind, the boat plowed out into the child’s ocean.

Tink became joyously excited and stayed to watch Mutt on his journey until she could not see for the early darkness. Then she began slowly to climb the hill to go home, She stopped for a moment, shivering from standing so long in the cold, stopped to turn around and wave a last farewell to the dim form floating on the pond, and to call gently, “Mobidee shoo, Mutt! Mobidee shoo. . . .”


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