Hannah, 91, sees a young boy, about four, burst into the kitchen, peel off his jacket, snow and ice flying every which way, and clomp up to his room. He doesn’t say a word to her. Not a word. She feels a pang, a sense of loss. It’s as if he is only a flicker of memory, an image she cannot touch. But the boy is surely real. He is. . . . The boy’s name is. . . . She must do better with names.
Startled, she sees the scene repeat itself—the snowy boy comes into the kitchen again, this time shouting “Wait for me. Hey, wait for me!” Has her mind gone queer and prophetic? She shudders, recalling an old gypsy woman—or was she an Indian? Long skirt, dark skin, bad teeth. Foretold the future—or uncovered the past. One of those scary Indians living down by the river. “Don’t ever speak to that creature— she’s not right in the head.” Her mother’s voice, clear as if from the next room.
“Did the twins come in?” Ella asks from the next room. She has been setting the table for supper and comes to the door with napkins and silver in her hand. She looks distracted this evening, a strand of moist hair across her brow. Twins? Of course. Ella’s twins. Foolish thing to do, dressing those two just alike. A confusion for everyone. But Ella, poor girl, has her foolish side. Agreeing to marry a man like Ike, for one. What gets into a woman to do a thing like that? Him late to supper again. No regard for kith or kin—none.
“Twins,” Hannah says with a nod, relieved to have placed them. She turns her mind to the carrots she’s been given to scrape and slice. Where is that knife?
“Was that them?” Ella asks.
“The boys. They come in?”
“Gone up to their room with not so much as a how d’you do.”
“I want them washed up before their father comes home.”
But instead of going upstairs and seeing to it, Ella continues setting the table. Those boys will never get ready by themselves. If Ella wants them clean, she’ll have to keep after them. Otherwise they’ll just monkey around and get into mischief. A young mother can’t afford to be lax. If Ella doesn’t keep after them, those boys will grow up wild and dissolute.
Hannah knows about boys, having raised three of them. And mostly on her own. Taught them how to chop wood and shoot better than most youngsters around there. Clifford it was who could shoot foxes in the eye to save the pelts. Well, once or twice anyhow. Dear Clifford was one of the best shots in all of Maine, judging by the prizes he brought her from the county fairs.
Good boys—all three of them. They shoveled the paths to the barn and the outhouse without waiting to be asked. Fished and lobstered as good as their father had, without hardly having known him. And tended the crops. They wouldn’t come thundering into the house scattering snow without so much as a how d’ you do. Not more than once, they wouldn’t.
How will you ever manage? someone says as she slices the carrots with meticulous care, her eye as sharp as ever. Oh Hannah, how will you ever manage? It’s the minister’s wife all in black. Mrs.. . . . Lord, what was her name? The name, with others, has been swept away, but the voice comes back clear as a June morning and Hannah repeats it to herself with a nod. It was, after all, quite a trial-—widowed after only ten short years of marriage. On her own at 28 with three boys to raise and nothing more than ten rocky acres and the sea to work.
Well, it sure wasn’t a bolt from the blue, his death. They’d warned her from the start—her mother, the minister’s wife, everyone. A girl her age should think twice before marrying a bachelor of 61. It wouldn’t be easy, they told her, tamping down her feelings. She’d have restless dreams, they said. Secret longings. After all, Saul was old enough to be her father. She’d be left a widow lady before she was 30! On and on with her just nodding because she knew all that. Knew he was as old as her dear father would have been if only he had lived. Knew perfectly well she might be left a widow. Better a widow, if it came to that, than a spinster with no children to her name and no one in this world to care for her. And better Saul than those loud-mouth bumpkins up to the general store with their private jokes and jackass laughter. To them, a hired girl was nothing more than a doe in season.
“I can’t imagine what’s keeping Ike so late,” Ella calls from the other room.
“He’s an awful busy man,” Hannah says.
“Those boys take their boots off?”
“Some men take their work a little too seriously, if you ask me.”
“I’m right here.”
“I asked if they’d taken off their boots by the door like they’re supposed to.”
Hannah sighs in exasperation. “I told you, no.” There are times when Ella just doesn’t listen. “That roast will be done to a char if he don’t show up soon.”
“It’s stew tonight, Hannah. The roast was last night.”
“He’ll have to have his all tepid.”
“Leave it cooking a bit longer. He doesn’t like us to eat without him.”
“Even a stew has its limits.”
Ike Bates rubs Hannah the wrong way. Too cocksure for one thing. And always on the go. A restless bull of a man, too quick with his jokes and too easy with laughter. Right now he’s down at his cannery trying to squeeze more work out of those poor crab-picker girls when it’s dark already and any self-respecting husband would be home with his family. Holding those flibbertigibbet girls hard at it to the last minute, then kidding and joking with them, no doubt, helping them on with their coats, playing up to them so they won’t quit or try to go union. Acting the charmer when it suits his needs. The man is not to be trusted—him with his booming voice and barnyard humor.
“My Saul,” she says, “never stayed out after dark. Came home by the sun, not by the clock.”
“Your Saul,” Ella says from the other room, “wasn’t trying to start up a new business on a shoestring.” She comes into the kitchen and starts stirring the stew. “Your Saul never had to meet a payroll. It was a different kind of life, Hannah. Times change.”
“The verities,” Hannah says, recalling a sermon on the subject. “The verities don’t change. Not one whit.”
“Those carrots,” Ella says. “I guess I’ll finish them up for you.” She takes the cutting board and half-cut carrots from in front of Hannah and works on them as if there was some frightful rush, knife flashing.
Ella can be like that—all a bustle when she wants to change the subject. Especially when it has something to do with Saul. You’d think she’d be grateful, hearing how Saul did things around that house, him having lived there all of his 71 years. There’s a knack to doing things right on an old farm, and Hannah’s done her level best to pass it on—Protect your spring seedlings during April’s pink moon or you’ll lose them to frost; cut the fields before the buck moon; come fall, bank the house with pine boughs, not hemlock the way Ike tried to do. Everyone knows how hemlock needles drop before Christmas. Basic know-how is what Hannah offers, Ike and Ella not being country bred. A lot of thanks she gets. It’s almost like they have no respect for Saul—Ike actually calling him no “count. No “count indeed! A one-dory fisherman may not make enough to stuff the mattress, but he was sure as sunup. You’d never have to ruin a good roast waiting for him.
“He’s got a lot of details to take care of,” Ella says, scrubbing out the old soapstone sink. “A man like that can’t always stick to schedules.”
Hannah holds her tongue. It’s not right to come between a woman and her husband. But the plain fact is that Ike Bates is self-centered. That’s what he is. Anyone but Ella would agree. Successful for one his age, a doer, but willful. Him and his notion that she, Hannah, couldn’t take care of the place living there alone at her age, couldn’t take care of herself. She who has been in this very house for—what?—more than 70 years if you count when she was the hired girl. Seventy years! Just because she ran out of firewood one winter and broke her hip the next, he managed to describe her in pitiful terms to some county judge and get her declared incompetent. Lord only knows what he said to social workers and lawyers to pry her house out of her hands, give it to him along with her right to live there with them—a right to live in her home! And him not a son or anything. No, just a great nephew from Portland. The final touch was his moving her out of her own bedroom— hers and Saul’s—moving her back to the very room she had as a hired girl. She’d be warmed by the kitchen right below, he told her. A fine one to be talking about warmth.
Supper that night is quiet as a death vigil. You’d think it would be a relief—not hearing about the demands of crab pickers, the cost of canning equipment, the connivance of bankers. But there’s something unsettling about the empty chair and the unused plate. Ella should have set one of the boys at the head of the table.
“You’re the man of the family now,” Hannah says to the Harry, the first-born of the twins.
“We’re not men,” Jay says, his eyes on his plate.
“Sure we are,” Harry says, an echo of Hannah’s own first-born.
“When your father’s not here, you’ve got no choice.”
“Oh for heavens sakes!” Ella says. “Their father will be back in no time.”
Hannah fixes her eyes on the polished surface of the table. She’s done shoving her stew around and hasn’t the appetite even to look at what’s left on the plate. The table, though, gives her some satisfaction. She’s rubbed that surface every other night for 70 years now, layer after layer of boiled linseed until it’s almost as black and smooth as river ice.
Harry, the brash and lively one, is talking about how the deer came down by the brook, how they pawed the snow and found apples under the frozen surface, how he and Jay crept up close to watch. The boy reminds her of her own Clifford— his capacity for wonder and delight, his ability to tell a tale. Now he’s creeping so close he can see their noses twitch. Hannah remembers being that close herself, although in spring. The spring of her life. She is there now, sitting by the brook on her one free hour as hired girl to the Bates family. It’s the afternoon lull when, regular as the tides, Mr. Bates is off hauling traps, his sickly old mother sleeps deep as the dead, and his brother, halfwit Solomon, naps, humming like a child, giving Hannah a precious hour to herself. She brings knitting with her—a sweater for the long, hard winter to come. A rustle of leaves, a snap of twig. She raises her eyes, not her head, and sees a ten-point buck come down to drink. He is a wonder to behold, so close she can smell his musk. Hannah muffles her breathing and feels a trembling excitement so perfect it flows through her even now,
“We could shoot them.” She blinks, jolted, but quickly hides her shock, buries it deep. It’s right for a boy to think that way. Instinctive. Her Clifford had a trigger finger since he was a toddler. Shot everything that walked or flew with his toy gun. He knew from the start what has to be done to get along. The living live by killing something every day. The boy has to be encouraged. He must not see her wince, must not sense a woman’s chagrin.
“You’ll be a good shot,” Hannah says. “But you’ll have to gut what you kill.” Hannah dreads the day, knowing that she’s the one who will have to show him, remembering as best she can how her father did it.
Hannah looks up and sees not her Clifford at 13 but Ella’s little round-eyed boy of five.
“All in good time,” she mutters. “He’ll learn.” As she did. Seems as if her own growing up came quick as a hard frost. Once widowed with the farm to run and the boys to raise, there was no more waiting at the brook for that ten-point buck, no time to lie down on beds of green moss, caressing her cheek against its musky skin, no more being struck speechless and trembling by the swelling of a rising sun. Hard times put an end to all that. But she made it through, and no one could accuse her of raising those boys soft.
“You know where I mean?” one of the boys asks. “Auntie, you know where I mean?”
She nods, remembering the spot exactly—close to where her Clifford later dropped his first deer. She remembers how she showed him where to cut, how to pull the skin back, flesh steaming in the autumn air, how to scrape out the entrails.
“There’s loads of apple trees there. All twisted and grown over. You know?”
Know them? She’d better. Those are the ones she and Saul set out the summer his old mother died, the summer he stammered his way into a proposal of marriage. She’d watched those apple trees grow to fruition, bear her apples for decades. She hadn’t been down there for years. Could they really be gnarled and bent so soon? But the boy said they were still bearing fruit. The sap must still be flowing.
“You know as much as I do,” Ella says to one of the boys. No doubt they were asking about their father. As well they might. “I don’t want to hear any more questions,” Ella says with uncommon sharpness.
Hannah shares her concern. The man is rarely this late. It must be more than just his flirting with the girls at the cannery. They’d all be gone by now. If he’s driven into town to talk business and ended up at the bar, it wouldn’t be the first time. Risky, driving home unsteady like that. Courting disaster. Hannah shivers as if the back door has just swung open onto the night. Could this be another death hour? She’s known more death hours than anyone around: watching dear Solomon all flushed and feverish with blood poisoning, his child’s mind filled with nameless terrors. Then Saul himself, sensible enough not to venture out in that live storm, spitting sleet and all. Don’t worry about him, they told her, old Saul’s too sensible to take risks in that kind of sea. They were right; he wasn’t a risk-taker like young Clifford. Who’d guess his heart would give out right there on the beach tending lines, that the flood tide would mistake him for flotsam?
Some death hours drag with slow expectation like dear old Mrs. Bates there in her bed. Others, like Saul’s, catch you unawares, leaving you bewildered and feeling guilty. What was I doing then? Why didn’t I feel foreboding in the air? Like the two younger sons, one with a wife up in Massachusetts, his heart failing him too for no good reason, and the other a bachelor out in California, too proud to mention cancer in letters home, the news coming from strangers days later. Not so much as a shiver of warning, their departure as silent and capricious as a leaf falling.
Then there was Clifford—she has to shake her head, smiling at the wonder of that wild young man. Clifford, the oldest and wildest of her boys and the one she scolded the most, Clifford for whom they worked up search parties twice, dragged the lake with grapnels a third time, and consoled a grieving mother on half a dozen other occasions until his chance-taking became a local joke. The boy performed miracles of survival, triumphant and grinning on a storm-raked island, in a tree after the big flood, sheltered in a house of ill repute down on Mill Street the week of the big blizzard. Clifford who would have agonized his father with his love of risk, Clifford the prodigal, always forgiven because of that smile of his. Clifford who forgot, poor boy, that even cats are given no more than nine lives.
“Boys,” Ella says, “help clear the dishes.” They groan the way children do today, spoiled with electric lights and oil-burning furnaces.
Hannah takes just her own plate. She’s been told not to take two plates or even a glass in the other hand merely because of one time—maybe two—when she stumbled. Treat her like a halfwit, they do. As a grateful hired girl she used to clear that very table all by her lonesome, stacking the plates up her left arm with glasses on top, and be proud of it. So sprightly then. And perhaps just a bit fresh, knowing even as a girl of 18 that Mr. Bates couldn’t keep his eyes off her and lit up whenever she smiled. A wonder, thinking back on those family meals, her doing the cooking and the cleaning up, whistling all the while, serving all those good people—a wonder that she should come to bury them all, one by one, in the family plot beyond the outhouse. All those dear folks lying so still under the frozen surface while her memories of them flow on like a stream.
“Mind the rug,” Ella says as Hannah makes her way toward the kitchen.
“I guess I know where that rug is by now,” Hannah says.
“No need to get snippy.”
Hannah sets her plate down carefully next to the sink and then moves it an inch further in from the edge. She doesn’t want to get blamed if some child knocks it to the floor like last time. With Ella in her dark mood, she’s apt to find fault with anyone. But as soon as the boys are back in the dining room with the rag for the table, she turns to Hannah with all the starch washed right out of her. “Hannah, I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m on edge. We’ve got to get a phone in the place. You know how he drives after a drink or two. What if something’s happened?”
A phone! She’s been talking about phones for months. First she wanted electric hot water, and as soon as Ike gave in she started campaigning for a phone. As if Hannah hasn’t told her a thousand times how a ringing bell would give them all headaches. Hannah knows from long experience that even the worst news will wait for the mail.
“There’s nothing whatever to worry about,” she says. “He may take his chances on the road, but the man’s got nine lives, you know.”
Hannah gets the dishpan out even though she’s been told not to wash, has been relegated to drying for no good reason. But she’s wound up tighter than a tick tonight and has to keep moving. She pours in hot water from the kettle on the woodstove, preferring it to that expensive electric water which turns hard stored there in the tank.
Looking out the kitchen window over the sink she sees that it is a full moon. The cold moon they call this one and for good reason. The snow-covered fields are glistening with an eerie white, and beyond them the woods are black as death itself.
“Two nights like this,” she says, “and the river will freeze to black ice.”
“What river?” Ella asks, but Hannah doesn’t answer, seeing the scene too clearly to describe. The route to school took them along the river, past the old Indian lady who told fortunes sitting there in her open door smoking a pipe when the season was mild, grinning gap-toothed at them as if she knew things they could never imagine. But in the winter when the Indian lady stayed inside, there was only the river to watch. If the season came in fast with a long, hard freeze and no snow, they could walk the river itself. Ahead of them, the surface looked as bleak and lifeless as winter fields; but when they stood still and looked straight down they could see something extraordinary: down there under maybe two or three feet of clear, black ice, they could make out the ever-flowing current moving branches, boards, whole trees; they could see the life of the river down there, flowing with a marvelous force.
“Hannah, let me do the washing.” Hannah looks at this young and harried mother and sees her own younger face, hears her own exasperation. “You’d best do the drying.”
Lord, treating her like a child. But it’s true she hasn’t even started, and how long has she been standing there with her hands in the water, her eyes fixed on the blackness of the night?
When she is through with the drying, she sits down at the kitchen table to rest, dabbing her brow with a corner of the dishtowel. The kitchen range and all that activity have left her hot and a little dizzy. Ella tidies up and the boys play quietly with trucks in the dining room. The ticking of Hannah’s old Seth Thomas clock seems to fill the room. It was Clifford who gave her that—one winter when he’d been off God-knows-where and she’d given up all hope of his being home for Christmas with his younger brothers. He thundered in on Christmas morning without explanation, wiped away her aggravation with holiday cheer, and gave her that clock which must have cost him an arm and a leg.
Odd, she thinks, how the sound of that ticking magnifies the silence. Strange, too, that it should bother her one whit after all those solitary years with nothing but noiseless memories flowing through her like some deep current. Those were good, quiet years, weren’t they? No complaints, surely. Yet now. . . . . Her thoughts are suddenly swept away by the flicker of headlights. The whole house comes alive again.
“Daddy!” the boys sing out. “It’s Daddy!” They run to the door just as he comes in, filling the doorframe, beaming like a summer sun, stomping snow all over the kitchen floor.
“Well now, how is everyone?” he booms, his voice just a bit slurred, his step just a bit unsteady. “Save some supper for me?”
“I don’t know why,” Ella says, turning up the heat again, but he doesn’t hear her exasperation as he swings each boy up to the ceiling with a whoop and sets each down light as a falling leaf.
“Cold as a witch’s butt out there,” he says, struggling to get out of his storm coat. “Nothing like a kitchen range and a family’s love to thaw you out.” Hannah stands, goes to him, takes his coat before he gets more snow on the floor. Just like a man not to notice.
The sodden coat is far heavier than she expected and slips from her grasp. Thrown off balance, she stumbles against him, almost falling. Suddenly her arms are around his barrel chest, her face against his shirt. She feels the quiver of muscles under the fabric, smells his sweat, hears the pumping of his heart, a great flow of energy. “I knew you’d come back,” she cries, “I just knew it,” and is astonished at how her arms won’t let go.