© M.E. Brinton Spring 1941 — My cousin, Fred, and I walked under a tree from which two hawks flew. I shivered, as if a cold hand touched my arm. I didn’t know whose grasp it was or the reason it held me back. I remember asking Fred what he was thinking. Did he feel this? Maple trees lined the […]
© M.E. Brinton
Spring 1941 —
My cousin, Fred, and I walked under a tree from which two hawks flew. I shivered, as if a cold hand touched my arm. I didn’t know whose grasp it was or the reason it held me back. I remember asking Fred what he was thinking. Did he feel this?
Maple trees lined the streets of this village, and birds took shelter in them. Fred stopped as my heart froze, and watched these hawks. They battled the west wind from the mountains, flapping hard against its force. The wind drove them towards the sea.
He said it was a sign that he must leave for the coast. He was following their direction.
From what are you escaping? I wondered, not daring to ask him. Fred is my older cousin. I am sixteen.
Gray clouds passed these hawks. Bare branches tried clawing them. The birds rose, untangled, gained strength, returned west, over the white saltbox houses on Main Street—back to the hills.
“They’re gone,” he said, fixing me with a look, which I could not interpret. Why was he worried? What reasoning did his voice hold in its tight tone of fear? “Gone,” he repeated.
Was I supposed to comment or continue on the street, past the courthouse? Its bell tower chimed three. We went up hill, past the familiar white clapboard homes I knew and to our grandmother’s. A horse neighed in a yard. I threw the apple in my pocket. Dust, blown by wind twists, followed the apple. Brown leaves from last year swirled in rings around this dust.
When I look back on this now, I realize that was the last walk together of our youth. First, it was the last we saw Gram because she had a heart attack that night, and then second, had I been able to see the sea, I’d have seen the tide pulling out. There’d be storms meeting that fleeing tide.
Fred left inland Maine, headed for the sea. I received a postcard from him, saying,
Dear Cousin Dawn,
I took the train without telling anyone, knowing none of you wanted me to go. From the coast, I took the ferry to a remote island. I am safe here. I’ll let you know more when I’m settled. Please visit my mother.
I went to visit his mother; knocked on his parents’ door. Someone had brushed barn mud from the steps. It lay in cakes on the walk. A curtain moved behind the window, and a little cousin’s face appeared. I heard her screech, then the door opened.
I looked up into gray eyes, which seemed to scrutinize me first before any familial recognition gleamed in them. They belonged to Fred’s father. His mother rushed past her husband to pull me inside.
“Do you know what happened? The neighbor’s house where the Nazis lived—was blown up,” she gestured towards the valley. “Fred was there. Did he tell you?”
I shook my head. Not until after the war did the bombing detach itself in my mind, so that I was able to review each ensuing event. The village conspired to take matters into its own hands. Bomb the house, destroy the immigrants’ ability to live in our town. The government must not have believed Nazis lived there. The village did. People may ask now, were they Nazis or Nazi sympathizers? Yet, they were foreigners, and their house was gone. Simply done.
“Fred will be arrested. Sure, he will, if they think he did the bombing,” Aunt said, as I stood in their home.
The old house shook with winds, but it was warm in the kitchen with its low ceilings. This is a Cape Cod home built by a settler who came from the Cape long ago. The kitchen has a woodstove, long table. Small windows to keep in the heat. I recall looking out to what I love—the endless mountain ridges to the north. The barn is attached to the house. The cows stand close to its walls, out of the winds.
My eyes felt hidden; lids closed over them. The door rattled against the chain as my uncle bolted it. Aunt, weeping, pulled at her hair. Her eyes became larger than her husband’s hard ones. My cousin Sarah stood waist high beside me. I remember thinking, I can smile for her. Someone needs to look less dismal.
I made a face, rolled my eyes, as if to say, “Whatever will your brother do next?” Sarah giggled. Astonishing, I thought, how making light of something like that does wonders for the spirits. My aunt took a deep breath into her sagging chest.
She took me aside saying, “Sunlight entered with you.”
In a flash, I replied, “I’ll live here with you, ma’am.” I put my arms around Sarah.
Since Gram died, I’d be needing a new place to stay, but I didn’t say that to them; figured they’d realize that.
“I’ll be a help to you, do Fred’s chores. You’ll let me?” What else could I say to convince my Aunt. I could see her calculating one more in the family for feeding.
No one spoke. I remember they finally placed a shawl around my shoulders, took my bag and led me to the kitchen table. They placed a soup bowl in front of me.
I heard Uncle say fence rails were tottering. Who would fix them with Fred gone? I could fix them: I fence Fred out—in a different field. Glare at him from a distance with these dark eyes. Comfort his mother, then fence in our women woes. Let the troubles out to wider pastures.
Sure, I was strong to lift real fence rails, but they’d find someone to do the physical labor.
I sat back in my chair, reflecting on this dinner talk; I needed a sense of how this family ran its business from the inside. I often had visited here, but it was different coming to live with them. I told them Fred wrote me a postcard. They murmured things about Fred being on an island. They could have spoken of a remote planet. You see, in those days, when you lived inland as the western foothills, it was farther than the stars to reach an island. At least you see stars. An island could have been fantasy. I knew nothing, up until Fred went to an island, of life off the coast.
Fred’s brother, Jeremy, threw boots and coat on the kitchen bench. Carefully moving into the chair, as if he ached, he said, “With Fred gone, I got more cows to milk.”
“Wrong. I am here to milk his,” I said.
“You acting as hired help?” He grinned.
“I am no hired help. Shut your mouth.”
They put a soup bowl for him, and Aunt laid out freshly baked cornbread. Sarah sat beside him; the attention was off me. I wrapped the shawl more tightly over my shoulders and looked out the window. A raw wind blew with showers sweeping the meadow. Cows lay in the mud. I’d have to see they got inside. Not good to have dirt over them. Fred wouldn’t like that.
Childhood best friends we were. Secure in this, I was sure Fred would wait for me to grow up, catch up to him in height, and be my closest ally the rest of my life. I had the misfortunes of life hit me early. After my mother died years ago, my father left for the West Coast. I refused to go with him. Yet I missed him because his was the shoulder I cried on. Gram tried to help me, only she cried dreadfully after Mam died.
I leaned over to Jeremy and asked him if he had seen the house explode. He quickly looked at his father.
“I did. It rose up in the air, ten feet—boom.”
“Where were you?”
“In the barn—watching from the door.”
“Talk more softly. Uncle will hear,” I said. Didn’t want him hearing.
“The fiddlers kept playing, but the dancers stood still and screamed.”
“Was Fred at the dance?”
“Yep, but he went out before that house went up in the air.”
That was enough to hear. I leaned away from him, observing the spring shower coming from the mountains. Weather comes in, altering things.
As the family conversed in the kitchen, rain slashed against the windowpane. The cows headed to the barn. They tottered against the fence whose railings barely held them. These railings needed mending. Uncle is right, I thought. Yet I am standing in the field where the fence keeps Fred beyond me. He can look at me but no longer tell me how I am.
Fred’s cows trotted into the barn. Cows don’t like to hurry. They must be exclaiming their dislike of this belting-down rain. Following them with my eyes, inside to dank darkness, I could hide tears for Mam. For Fred, none came at all. I pondered what I wished to become, alone without him. I could measure inches to shoot up, like yellow birches in wispy heights.
I could cut twenty-four inches off my hair. It is sand-colored like rock flecks. Gets in my way when I bend over the shallows along the riverbanks. The river will be high from the rain, not a good time to find its gold.
I pan for gold there. My hair twists in the current, messing with my hands. “Swim away, silly, and chase your hair downstream,” Fred would say. He panned with me. Sifting for this mineral people said could buy a future.
My hair is below my waist. I can’t cut it—why, it’s a weather vane! I let it loose for the air to waft its seasons. I used to tell Gram: “If wind blows through things, stirs them up, changes come.” It is a way of knowing things about me. Times when it is straight, it has nothing to say—and neither do I, except to know the winter will be long, cold, and thinning out its thickness. Straight hair is unresponsive. I am silent in winter. Lack words to say anything, but I read books. Spring brings the needed herbs, sun to make my hair dense, shine. I am warmed then, bursting with ideas and projects for Fred and me to work on.
I wanted Fred to live in this village. We’d find gold, build a farm together. Leaving was never an idea. What sword—like Uncle’s hanging in the living room, beyond the kitchen—pierced this tranquil farm landscape? This sword was from my great grandfather’s sojourn in the Civil War. I quickly looked away from it. Its edges and stories hurt.
Fred at home: my cousin gave me kinship with someone who understood me. “You’re growing too well,” he would grin. That helped unfetter the sorrow of Mam gone.
Fred, who vanished like the hawks—as if neither he nor the birds had any business being with us. I might have stopped him, quizzed him on his plans for spring. These were regrets; they left me no peace.
The nurses bring me water; the night shift arrives. I lift an arm, looking at it as if it is not belonging to me: wrinkled, leathery, with purple blue bulging veins. I think I sigh, but the staff doesn’t ask me what makes me sad. At this time of night, words get confused. “Rest, old gal, recall these stories,” I tell myself. “Stare out the dark window; you are not vacant in your little head. You can remember this life clearly . . . Sure, I do.”
I thrash around with vivid memories returning. A nurse gives me an extra sleeping pill; I saw that coming. I spit it into the wastebasket when she leaves.
Wish I could tell her come, be part of this past. I am young; do you believe I was beautiful? Chestnut hair curled to my ankles. Walking into morning. Come smell the grass. Put your feet into the river water with me. I even see my mother once more.
I went through the woodshed linked to my aunt’s kitchen by a narrow door, and from there I trudged into the barn, ducking through the stirred-up dust. The barn connected to the farmhouse, so you could access it in all weather. Spiders and dust came into the house; skunks found ways to come in and sleep in closets at night.
I carefully tucked my hair into Fred’s old tweed hat he’d left hanging on the wall. Despite this, my hair would spill out. Mam would shake her head and say that I must not have spiders dropping on my hair. They will stay in it, for it is thick like heavy grass wet by rains. I can barely brush it.
My job of milking cows before breakfast brings me to early morning. If I groaned about waking, I only had to think of the cows waiting; I got up. Then, after that, I fed the kitchen wood stove. Foot-long slabs started a fire in no time. After this, I cooked porridge and brewed the coffee. Since the Depression, our coffee was mixed with chicory. “Southern-like,” folks said. No one thought it would last after the Depression, but it did. A substance and flavor would stay in the north for a long time. Sharp, root-like, which caught on, and people liked. It was cheaper to buy than regular coffee.
Milking a cow is mesmerizing. You watch cows flick their tails, and flies buzz on sticky tapes. Cobwebs move from wooden rafters. Rusty shadows pry into where light tips on long, worn shovels.
I found a trick to keeping myself at peace with this kind of work. I sit back on the stool, give my hands rest from milking, dream a bit; trick is, lean against their belly, be inside the cow’s mind, imagining their meadows; then you don’t get ornery and grungy feeling from staring at their udders and the manure and straw.
As I supported my head on the cow’s side, I felt my anger rise ten feet with that Nazi house. My anger could have been a hundred feet higher, but by some reports of the dynamiting, the house did only rise ten feet.
That is how high then I feel in my emotions. I can brood over Fred in this barn—churn over his lack of courage.
Or, I asked myself, was it the reverse—he had the courage to flee?
The cows shifted, moaned. An underworld of deep smells tried to choke me. Their movements made a cat jump. I reached for a broom to knock a spider from landing on me. After I stirred it all up, milk, dust, anger, after putting the milking equipment away, the dust always settled back in the barn. Things went back to how they were. You can never clear out a certain kind of grime.
Thus I was on that milking stool, peering through the barn window at the near morning forest. I was swift at milking. The velvety tits crushed as I pulled down on them. It was smooth skin, so delicately thin, that I feared my nails might pierce it, but then, the cows tell you when to stop milking. Turn heads to your shoulder. Sometimes they shoved me because I didn’t pull hard enough to get their milk down, for they want to be milked out. It is a heavy weight for them to carry bags of milk.
As I milked them, the soft squirt of the liquid rhythmically landing in the pail, the beasts drooled. The slurp dripped from their mouths, and the smell of it is something you never can forget. The sweet grain, mixed with hay and saliva—how could Fred leave this?
On that kind of day, when I reflected on my job, sunlight barely moved in the barn of this early morning.
The ruins of the bombed house lay in charred timbers while smoke continued to rise from the remains. It was down in the valley from my uncle’s farm. It would become an honored relic in the village, one which you walked around, trying to piece together its past repeatedly. I knew Fred’s supposed connection to it, yet it took time for me to digest this kind of violence. The dynamiting—it was told in hushed tones in the village.
News back then was deliberate. There was a large effort to keep it local, and no one wished it revealed further than our village, particularly those who saw it happen or heard the loud explosion. Yes, Fred had fled rather than remain to answer questions about it.
I knew Fred thought of us back home. His presence like a fleeting smile, hung around the farm. And no wind was in the barn—only a still air that weaves with your hair and soul. This foreboding is in place of a sudden departure.
So are the barn cobwebs always there. They reminded me to brush aside loose sad threads. I watched the webs too much, as the milk bucket filled up. My hair broke out of the confines of Fred’s hat.
If I mention this hair of mine it is because its memory is so strong. You want to remember a detail of something lovely about your youth. It is fine to hold your head a little high remembering, yes, I was beautiful. No one told me such back then. Beauty is hard to have. You hide it because it could get you in trouble, people said. It was as if I were fey. A cloud of chestnut hair walking down the hill.
My aunt was church religious. She said about self-praise: “Let another praise you and not your own self. A stranger and not your own lips.” It came from her Good Book, she said.
I understand it now. Back then, the only strangers in our village, when I was sixteen, had met with confusion. Terror.
“Don’t talk to strangers,” Mam would say. How could you then trust a stranger’s opinion of you?
The young men back then—all mostly hard-working and honest, never seeing beyond their cow patch—oh no, young men were not used to giving praises to young ladies. Aunt usually frowned at me.
Now, an old lady’s hair gets fine like threads. The hairdresser comes often enough to trim our hair, put it up nicely for us old gals. I am done with all this, glad to have had a carefree time long ago, of not caring about my looks. But hair was worrisome unless you cut it. And I eventually did, oh my yes.