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A Dance of Two Lives

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980

Mrs. Ruth Harmon heard scratching at the stable door. She looked up from her cow. Her young tomcat was sharpening his claws. “You stop that,” she whispered, “you be patient.” At the sound of her voice the other cats roused, peering between the log foundations of the barn.

“Then Sims says,” this was Mrs. Harmon’s sister, Miss Margaret Alien, R.N., speaking from the opposite stable. Miss Allen paused. She had just begun to warm to her favorite topic, her colleague, Alice Sims, and wanted to make certain she had Mrs. Harmon’s attention.

“Well,” Miss Allen continued, “Sims says to me, “I’ll tell you something about that Dr. Huff. He’s more than just particular. He’s downright queer. Can you imagine,” she says, “him taking a bottle of rubbing alcohol out of the glove compartment and wiping the fenders where I touched them?” I felt like saying that I certainly could imagine it with a hussy like herself but I didn’t, Ruth. I just said that was Dr. Huffs way, he just happens to be a very neat person, very refined, and Sims says, “Refined,” she says, “Don’t make me laugh.” SAW now! STAND up there, cow!”

Beyond the door, Mrs. Harmon heard the clink of a hoof against a pail. The tomcat yawned, his restless tail flicking up motes of dust.

“This cow will NOT give her milk down,” Miss Allen called from her stable. “You SAW there, Betsy!”

“It may be her teats are going bad,” Mrs. Harmon replied.

“I don’t know why you don’t keep better cows, Ruth,” Miss Allen said.

Of course, the cow’s teats were not going bad. It was simply Margaret. She had never liked milking. From the time they were girls, she had complained about what it would do to her hands.

The torn went to the feedbox, lapping at stray pellets. The Holstein snuffed and tossed her head.

“Saw Belle,” Mrs. Harmon murmured. The cat moved out of range and crouched. Belle returned his stare.

“Well,” Miss Allen said, settling into her story, “Sims says, “don’t tell me about refined. Because I’ll tell you,” she says, “what he did when we had lunch at the Homestead,” which in the first place is a lie, Ruth, because Dr. Huff would never take that woman out to a nice place, but” There we were,” she says, “and one of those Jamaican waiters seats us and Dr. Huff orders cocktails and he’s chatting away and before you can say boo,” she says, “he has popped one of those rose-shaped butterballs they press there at the restaurant into his mouth thinking it is an hors d’oeuvre.”

“I’m sure, Ruth, the whole thing is a lie anyway. “Refined,” she says, “why I have never been so humiliated in my life with the nigra rolling his eyes and Dr. Huff had turned absolutely green” —you SAW NOW!”

The clatter of thrown kickers preceded a metallic thunk and slosh Mrs. Harmon recognized instantly as the sound of a cow leg placed fetlock deep into a pail of milk.

“I declare!” gasped Miss Allen.

Mrs. Harmon rose from Belle and patted gently her big knob of hipbone. The cats swirled at her feet. “Scat,” she said, a little crossly. Her knees were stiff.

“I’ll finish the Guernsey, Meg,” she called. “Just let her stand.”

It had been this way, more or less, for 25 years. That thought struck Mrs. Harmon as she opened the stable door. Belle kicked once at the torn to emphasize her politics regarding felines. “A quarter of a century,” Mrs. Harmon whispered, to herself. The blow fell short and wide, and the torn did not move a whisker. His eyes expressed a disdain that was sublime.

“Go on, Belle,” Mrs. Harmon said. The cow shuffled through the opening.

“This creature has ruined your milk, Ruth.” Miss Allen was exasperated. There was a fine bead of perspiration at her temples and she lifted a delicate hand to touch back her hair. As a girl, her hair had been slick and raven black; now it was coarser, with bold strokes of gray. If anything, the contrast made her more attractive. Her hand fluttered at her brow. The Guernsey stood, chewing the cud, a hind leg nestled in the bucket.

“We’ll strain it out. This grade just goes into feeds, anyway,” Mrs. Harmon said.

A quarter of a century. Time surely must conspire to pass so unobtrusively. There had been changes, of course. The children had grown up, moved on, married. She had even become a grandmother. It was seven years now since her mother passed away. With her mother’s death, her widower brother had moved out, built a house of his own.

So it was her and the old homeplace. She worked in the same garden, hauled rocks to the same piles, drove cattle to the same pastures she had as a girl. She enjoyed it. She even enjoyed Margaret’s frequent visits, her gossip, her finicky and overbearing nature.

She had not always been content. Her first years back, she could not contain her restlessness. She had shown up at the farm with two tired children and no money, having left for the last time a husband who could not control his drinking or the rages the drinking inspired. She woke each morning to the sound of roosters and cattle, her head aching from dreams she could not remember.

There were calves to feed, eggs to gather, garden rows to hoe, clothes to hang out. Nothing was enough.

Her project became the marsh in front of the house. She worked there in the evenings, after the supper dishes were washed. She invented all sorts of reasons: the mosquitoes would not breed, the cows would not mire up when they sought water. These things were true, to a degree.

Her purpose was abstract. Sometimes as she took up the mattock and hoe, she would say as a kind of tribute, “My life has come full circle. There is nothing but emptiness in the middle.”

She knew that was maudlin. She knew equally well that she had springs of bitterness in her heart which she must allow to flow.

So she hacked and dug at the muck, ripping the white roots of the sawgrass from the slime, cutting with the hoe the pink and sweet-smelling calamus roots, the clumps of sod heaving up with the smell of decay. Through her ditches the cold sweet spring water flowed, washing until the bed was sand and clean stone.

Sometimes in the dusk a spark would fly from the hoe blade as it struck rock, and she would pause in her labor to hear the children’s voices beyond the house and her mother’s voice from the porch. “Ruth,” she murmured, quiet and gentle as a drowsing bird, “come to the house, girl. Rest now.” Then she would see the orange arc of her brother’s cigarette slice the night and notice that the muscles in her shoulders were trembling.

That had been the beginning.

Now Mrs. Harmon pushed at the Guernsey’s hip until the cow teetered and lifted her leg from the bucket. Drops quivered on her hoof, and the tomcat was unable to restrain himself. The hoof thumped against a log as the cat darted for the safety of the chinks, licking his whiskers.

“You!” Mrs. Harmon said, “Jeremiah!” She flipped the large specks of dirt from the foam with her finger.

“Well,” Miss Allen said, brushing the lap of her immaculate uniform which she hadn’t had time to change, “to get back to Dr. Huff—Sims looked at me as though I should be thoroughly shocked, Ruth, but you could see how a person could make such a mistake, so when I didn’t reply she says, “I was mortified, I can tell you, until he finally managed to swallow the thing and then to save face in front of the nigra do you know what he did?” she says, “do you know what that dirty so-and-so did? He tipped the bowl and said “Won’t you have one of these? They’re delicious,” with a perfectly straight face and even the nigra had a hard time controlling himself. Well I’d reached my limit I tell you so I stood up and told him why didn’t he soak the damn things down with his damn rubbing alcohol and have the whole bowl himself and I took a cab home, can you imagine, all the way from the Homestead. If I go out with that so-and-so again, may lightning strike me,” Sims says.

“As if he would ever ask her out again. Lord, Ruth, can you get over that woman? “Don’t tell me about refined,” she says. Someone certainly should. Of course I don’t believe a word of it, although it does sound like Dr. Huff in a way.”

It sounded very much like him. Ruth had been hearing about him and other doctors, their odd habits, their medical brilliance, about the nurses with whom they dallied and Miss Allen worked, these 25 years.

She had met many of them personally when they were interns or residents, had climbed with her classmates out of the windows and down the trailing ivy of the dormitory where Margaret was proctor and would allow the students to go out with no townsmen who were not unmarried and associated with the hospital in an official way. That considerably narrowed the field. Miss Allen, of course, was seeing the most handsome surgeon in the ward, who, incidentally, had recently celebrated his wife’s successful term of yet another son. One did not point out such things to Miss Allen. It was far more prudent to risk the ivy.

Mrs. Harmon slipped the kickers over the Guernsey’s hocks and tightened the chain. Her cheek brushed her flank and the cow’s hide rippled. “There now, Betsy,” she said. She stroked the cow’s rump. The Guernsey heaved a sigh and took up her cud.

“Thank goodness,” Miss Allen paused and sucked her teeth, “we had some patients. So Sims stopped that chatter. Then right as I was taking a patient’s blood pressure I heard her catch her breath the way she does when she thinks of something to tell. I was careful not to look at her because if you do, sometimes it’s like a chemical reaction with that woman and the things blurt out of her, no matter who’s in the room. So I gave the patient his reading and he left and then just to egg her a little I was very slow putting away the manometer and by the time I turned she was positively gasping.

“”Alien,” she says, “do you know who I saw today?”

“”Doctor Huff and several patients,” I told her.

“She put her hand on the front of her uniform and started fanning herself with a bandage.

“”Not that, not that,” she says.

“”Well?”I said.

“”Paul Chewning,” she says, “Ruth’s old boyfriend.”“

The Guernsey’s milk was yellow and rich, its jets cutting the froth with a sound like paper tearing. Ruth studied the dark veins of her wrists.

“Well, I said to her,” Miss Allen was growing quite dramatic in her gestures now, “that I didn’t realize that was anything to get so excited about. After all, Ruth, the man moved back to Clifton five years ago.

“”It was where I saw him,” she says.

“”Sims,” I said, and I was very firm about this too, Ruth, you know I have always been firm about this, “Sims, ” I said, 1 will not be party to any idle gossip. If there is one thing I despise it is the injury of the innocent by a vicious tongue.”

“”It was the courthouse,” she says.

“Honestly, why the simple fact of someone walking out of a public building should be immediately recognized as an act of extreme significance, I don’t know. So I started arranging the appointment book.

“”Well?”she says.

“”Well what?”I said.

“”Aren’t you going to ask me what he was doing there?” Ruth, the woman looked perfectly hysterical.

“”I wasn’t aware that you knew what he was doing at the courthouse, Sims.”

“”He got a divorce,” Sims says. “He got his final papers. You know Beulah’s sister, Gloria, the colored girl that does the windows in the city offices? Beulah says Gloria told her that she saw it on the docket.” Can you believe what that woman will stoop to, Ruth? She’d pry into a coffin.”

If time could pass so unnoticed, it could also stand still. For a moment it did just that. What Mrs. Harmon was seeing was not a butter-colored cow and the sunlight falling in bars through the barn clapboards. What she was seeing was a black-and-white photograph of the trim young woman she once had been balanced on the broad shoulder of a young man with Clark Gable’s chin but not, fortunately, his wing-flap ears.

The problem was that now that time had stopped she could not tell if what was filling her heart was love for that forever grinning young man or envy of that forever perched young woman.

She concentrated on finishing the Guernsey. She had not noticed how the arthritis had settled in the joints of her right hand.

“Well?” Miss Allen said.

“Well what?” Ruth said, moving clockwise: one-pumptwo-pump-three-pump-next: so around the teats.

“Don’t you want to hear about it?”

Ruth turned. There really was hurt in Miss Allen’s fine green eyes.

“Of course I want to hear, Meg. I always enjoy your stories.”

Miss Allen hesitated. The folds of skin at her jaw quivered imperceptibly. Light touched the down of her cheek in such a way that it might easily have been the down on the neck of a young girl.

“Well, I,” she demurred, “I did a little investigating.” Her finger tapped at her chin, tentative. Then her face calmed. “I did some snooping, that’s what I did.”

So she was off on her tale—how she had tried to run into Paul by grocery shopping at different hours, buying gas at filling stations she had hardly visited before, doing clothes at the laundromat at the oddest times.

Ruth listened and milked. The joints of her hands bothered her, yet her grip was strong. The milk sang in heavy streams into the pail. She loved this. Sometimes it was like music for her, a sort of dance of two lives, the slow animal rhythms coupled with Meg’s bright clipped words.

How could one blame, after all? How could one judge?

Even for a stern father with a heavy hand, it had not been easy. Who could know what the girl might do? Because she had begged Ruth till she finally agreed, the two of them in their upstairs bedroom, Meg with the magazine opened on her lap so Ruth would have a guide. It was difficult to see as she bit her lip to hold back her tears. She lopped off strand after strand of the beautiful black hair. The “bob” was the latest thing, and Meg would have one, no matter what their father said. She had quite a severe one when they heard the sound of his big shoes on the front porch, his deep voice, and in a state of panic, Meg snatched the scissors from Ruth’s hand as she jumped from the chair, the dark locks of hair whispering against the pages of the magazine as it settled in the floor.

No one caught her before she got to the new car. It sat in the shade of the woodhouse, its fenders still covered with quilts to protect it from the chickens, and though Meg had never driven, had never asked how one drove, she managed to drive just long enough to back the car out, whip it around, and crash head on with the electrical pole in front of the house.

Still no one caught her, the water gurgling from the punctured radiator, as she ran back up the porch steps and into the house where, sobbing, she pushed Ruth from the bedroom and locked herself in. “I must escape! I must escape!” she screamed behind the panels of the door.

When their father appeared on the steps, Ruth took the whipping with hardly a whimper. She had already cried herself out during the haircut. When her father finished and set her down, she said simply, “She has got the scissors.”

That vanquished him. He spent the rest of his afternoon on his knees before the keyhole, coaxing Margaret out. She was never spanked for the incident. It had vanquished Ruth, too, though she did not know it at the time.

She knew it when she stood facing her sister, then a handsome young woman, and said, “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to be a nurse.”

“But you could just try school. See if you like it.”

“I can’t.”

“But Ruth.”

“I told Paul I would marry him.”

“I can’t go alone. You have to go.”

“I told Paul.”

She went, of course. Who could judge these things? She agreed on the third night that she listened to Margaret cry herself to sleep. She and Paul were young, it was true, and he needed to establish himself, and Meg, everyone knew, had been the brightest student in the county, so how could she, Ruth, allow that talent and intelligence to go to waste? Who could judge? It was simply a matter of a little time. Paul would wait.

Yet when she stepped on the bus, bound for Clifton Forge, she paused, looking at Meg who had settled in her seat, her eyes sparkling with happiness now, and then looked back as the door hissed and shut tight. Paul stood outside, waving, in the way of country people, broad sweeps, as though she already were at a distance. He was handsome and tall. He was crying now. She loved him.

Then she felt it, with a terrible wrench. Her soul stepped right outside her, and her heart felt an awful chill, as though ice had entered its chambers. She sat down.

Her soul did not step back.

“Well of course that was my mistake,” Miss Allen said, with an audience of cats at her feet as she sat primly on an upturned feedbox, “because you never run across anyone pursuing the necessities of life. So one Saturday I had invited Sims to the movies and afterwards I suggested that we have some ice cream, so we went into the drugstore and who should be sitting at the counter drinking a milkshake but Paul and his youngest boy. He has three children, didn’t I tell you?

“Well, he stood up right away with that smile of his and the boy was the politest little gentleman you ever saw. So we chatted a while with Sims ogling Paul the way she does anything in trousers over the age of ten and when I told him we were just about to leave he asked”Do you ever see Ruth?”

“And I told him I saw you quite often, that you were living here on the old homeplace.

“Then he said,” Would you send her my regards?” and I said that why of course I would.”

Mrs. Harmon removed the kickers and hung them on a nail. The cats looked, then returned their attention to Miss Allen. Anything so white, while obviously not milk itself, must surely be intimately related. Time was out of joint, after all. They should have long ago been fed at the springhouse.

Ruth placed the milk pails together in a corner and covered them with a cloth. Then she started for the gap. She had to lay aside the bars to let the cows out.

“Do you want me to do that?” Miss Allen asked. This was routine. Ruth did not respond. Miss Allen once had hooked a fingernail to the quick on a board the night before a large banquet for the Industrial Nurses Association.

So she had already started for the buckets, cats trailing at her white shoes. By the time Ruth let the cows out, she would have the milk halfway to the spring. As she removed the covercloth and lifted the pails, the cats purred and rubbed each other frantically, delighted their logic had proved correct.

Ruth pulled the bars back and whipped her switch in the air. The cows ambled to the gap. The Guernsey was a short cow, stepping daintily through. The Holstein dragged her hoofs over. Whap. Whap.

“You pick up those feet, Belle,” Ruth said. This, too, was routine. Tall cattle were careless about such matters. The cows started to graze. Dew had begun to gather in the meadow. The grass squeaked as the cows picked.

She laid up the bars and rested her elbows on the top board. Her hands really ached this evening.

“I reckon I’ll give up the milking soon,” she mused.

That was usually her way of saying it had been a long day. This evening the statement was literal. Mrs. Harmon looked beyond the cattle, beyond the meadow with its tall grasses and the clumps of skunk cabbage by the creek, beyond to the dark line of woods by the rail fence.

She was angry. In the meadow, fireflies winked with cold fire.

It was a fact. She would not always be able to do the milking. “Please send her my regards,” he had said.

“Roo-oo-ooth,” Miss Allen called from the gate, “Ruth, aren’t you coming?”

She looked a moment longer at the meadow. She had made peace here. Was the earth betraying her? Was it unable to fill the emptiness after all?

She started for the house.

The story was so familiar, it had always been a disappointment to her. The two of them were deeply in love. She left for school with her sister. Went out a bit. He felt abandoned. He visited. They argued. It was dancing and gin, a cigarette with the girls. That was all, she insisted. His letters stopped. She despaired, then waxed sullen. She had a right to a little fun. Her mother wrote. His engagement had been announced in the paper. She consented to a marriage proposal. She hardly knew the fellow. It was simply to spite Paul. They were both married before they realized what they had done.

“You scat!” Mrs. Harmon said. “Scat, Jeremiah!” The torn had been weaving between her steps, brushing her legs deftly. He shrank back.

She had passed her nursing boards, had practiced for a while. She disliked it. She gave it up to be full-time wife. She discovered that her husband’s good humor came from a bottle. She was unable to feign love. The good humor turned nasty.

Perhaps if it had all been played out against a backdrop of Brazilian jungle or Sahara desert, it would have been less disappointing. Well, it was just life. Just time. Who could judge these things?

Mrs. Harmon stooped at the gate. “I’ll take them from here, Meg.” As she bent for the pails, she looked at her hands. The fingers were gnarled. Her knuckles were swollen.

Margaret held the gate for her as she lifted the buckets. They were four-gallon pails, and they were nearly brimming. She carried them easily, if slowly. A jay scolded the cats from the gloomy branches of the hemlock her father had planted. It towered over the roadway.

The jay quieted after they passed. Margaret remained silent. Once or twice she sucked her teeth as they walked. A breeze rustled the grasses of the marsh. Then it was still. Ruth heard the thump of a big Winesap apple dropping in the orchard. In the woods by the house, a thrush called.

As they neared the spring, she could hear the steady flow of water as it issued from the pipes set deep in the cove among the maples. The cats scurried ahead to the springhouse.

Miss Allen unlatched the door and pushed it back. Ruth stepped in. The springhouse smelled of moss and wood. The sweet, heavy odor of the milk was cloying. She set the buckets by the basin. The water was dark and still in the cooling channels.

Ruth grunted as she pulled one of her milk cans from the channel and balanced it on the edge. Her skin tingled as the water soaked her trousers. She took a flat rock placed on the sill for the purpose and tapped the lid free. Then she lifted her strainer from its nail.

Here, in the springhouse at the woods border, the twilight was deep. Miss Allen stood in the doorway, her hand on her hip. Ruth centered a gauze strainer pad on the sieve, then snugged it into place with the cap.

“Ruth,” Miss Allen began, “I wanted to tell you.” She hesitated.

Mrs. Harmon poured a bucket of milk in the strainer. Its streams sang loudly inside the milkcan, driving the cats to a frenzy.

“Tell me what, Meg?” Mrs. Harmon poured the froth along with a bit of milk into a pan. The cats dove at it.

“I thought I’d drive into town tomorrow morning to buy some groceries.”

The torn shouldered his way in, plunging his nose so deeply he choked himself. Ruth set the empty pail by the basin and took up the full one. She poured this more slowly, since there was still milk from the other bucket in the strainer.

“There’s no use, Meg. We have plenty for the weekend. You have to be back Monday, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Miss Allen said.

“Well, then,” Mrs. Harmon said, “there’s more than enough.”

“I thought I’d get something special.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Harmon said. She topped up the strainer, then poured the remaining milk in the pan. Froth splattered the cats” heads and ears. Ruth listened to their lapping. It was so rapid, it sounded like the runneling of water among stones.

“I wanted something special because I invited Paul to drive up for a visit and supper. His children,” Miss Allen was losing her nerve, so paused unnaturally, “won’t be with him.”

The empty pail dangled at Mrs. Harmon’s side. She looked at her sister, disbelieving.

“I did it for you,” Miss Allen said. Her voice betrayed the slightest tremble. “I thought you would want to talk to him.”

Mrs. Harmon did not reply. She set the bucket on the floor. She took a box of soap crystals and sprinkled some into the pails. A heavy scouring brush hung from a nail by the strainer pads. She removed it, dipped it in the water, and began to scrub.

“Wouldn’t you?” Miss Allen said.

Mrs. Harmon was bent from the hips, her cropped hair falling about her face. She twirled the brush in the basin, then fell to work on the outside of the buckets. They clanked and jangled on the concrete.

Miss Allen implored. “Wouldn’t you?”

“What on earth would I have to say to him?” Mrs. Harmon snapped. She splashed the brush in the water, then doused the buckets, spinning them to rinse off the suds.

“I thought—” Miss Allen quavered.

“You thought,” Mrs. Harmon said, thumping a pail onto the drying board, then straightening herself, gesturing broadly with the dripping brush, “You thought you’d destroy all this, too.” Her sweep took in the springhouse, took in the orchard, the expanse of marsh, the pastures and woods. “That’s what you thought.”

She slammed the other bucket bottom up on the board. The cats started at the sound, cowering, their whiskers flecked with foam.

Miss Allen was quiet. Mrs. Harmon removed the strainer pad and squeezed it into the catpan. She began to wash the strainer itself. The cats purred, licking themselves desultorily.

Miss Allen snuffled. “It’s awful,” she whispered, to no one in particular, “it’s just awful growing old.”

She sobbed once, dryly. Then she began to arrange the skirt of her uniform.

“I’ll go fix sup—supper,” she said, A shiver passed through her. She turned for the house.

Mrs. Harmon watched her sister’s small white figure as it moved through the twilight. It looked bent and frail.

She felt tired as she hung the scouring brush back in place. She replaced the lid on the milk can and eased it into the channel. The black water swelled, spilling onto her shoes, onto the floor. The cats skittered from the path of the water.

She felt tired, and she felt ashamed.

The tomcat followed her as she stepped outside. She latched the door. The evening was very still. She could hear the clatter of pans in the kitchen.

She knelt as the cat arched against her leg, his handsome tail flickering. She ran her fingers slowly through his rich, damp fur.


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