She stood at the window framed by rabbits. Had always hated everything about them. The colors; weak yellow and stingy white. The texture, barely woven and stiff fabric impossible to name, too thin to be muslin, too flimsy to be duck, no nap but susceptible to pilling when washed (and that happened infrequently; the yellow hadn’t the strength to stand up to even mild detergents and the white–that that defined the creatures that hopped –it had been dyed by a miser and threatened to run even in the back spray from the sink). Oh, yes, she hated everything about those curtains. She hated even the birth of them.
As a young bride standing here at this window she’d gushed about the things she hoped to do to brighten the kitchen. It was her new home but decades old to those who had stood behind her listening to her plans for buttercup yellow paint and pastel spattered linoleum. They–her new husband, his sparsely bearded father, his loudly built brother, silent as a brook in winter sister-in-law and his flushed faced mother–they had become solid behind her like a bullet chipped brick wall. She’d thought she’d insulted them. Again. It seemed to be all she’d been doing since Matthew had brought her to them and named her wife, insulted or offend deep enough to make them cruel; as dense and as hard as that brick wall she felt behind her.
Everything she said or did was taken as a judgement that was vulnerable to appeal. Trying to be helpful, she’d sweep the floor. She’d hang the broom up on its hook and face lips pinched with indignation. The “helpful” act was obviously her new daughter-in-law’s way of saying the floor had been dirty. Mama Hillman would take the broom down and find crumbs she’d missed.
Trying to be sociable, she was too formal. “You mean Bar?” The sister-in-law had squeaked when she called the brother Bartholomew.
She did not know the plants. “They don’t teach you much in the city,” the brother had guffawed when she’d asked the name of some wild flowers she’d picked for the kitchen table and he’d shook his head and he’d walked away and he didn’t mention the toxic nature of the plant until she complained about the rough and seeping rash on her hands two days later.
“Speak plain, woman,” was what she got from the old man any time she tried to engage him in conversation beyond a greeting.
Grimaces and winces were what Matthew gave her as if everything she did, every utterance she made, was a stomp on a tender corn on a broken toe.
She had a yearning to be somewhere else. It was never clear how she had gotten from this dusty corner to the city blocks she walked in her fantasies and by the time her mind began to work out the actions that would make it real she was almost certain she was pregnant. Before she had decided if she even wanted to be, her mother-in-law had used some farmwife magic to confirm the pregnancy and used her matriarchal power to announce it at a Sunday dinner.
Handing her husband the platter of pot roast her mother-in-law had said that the family kitchen was now Matt’s bride’s kitchen. Bar’s wife had tried to pry his eyes from the tabletop but his ears were heavy with blood and he could not lift his head as his mother continued to say that her daughter through Matt needed to make this a place for she and Matt and whatever came from she and Matt now that there was something actually coming from she and Matt. It had been as convoluted as that and they had all taken a moment to work out what the old woman was saying before they were sure if ‘congrats’ were due the couple. Matt had been stunned, his face looking as if it had donated all the blood that flushed his brother. It had frightened her. Angered her, too; being robbed of the right to share that moment with her husband (and robbed of the time to adjust to the newness of what her body was doing seemingly without her permission). Yes, she was angry but most of what she had felt was fear and hurt. The way Matt’s eyes came her way but never quite settled on her said that maybe he, too, wasn’t sure if he wanted something that came from their union. Fear made her nervous and she had been the first up to clear the table.
She had stood at the sink running dishwater and listening to Bar tease Matt about not lifting a hand to help her in her delicate condition. Bar’s wife had asked her back what changes she would make and she had started sharing plans for paint and floors and curtains until she had felt the bricks being laid behind her. “It’s a lovely view,” she’d assured them gesturing out to where the land ran green to a line of trees and a hint of valley beyond, a fence and a horse just visible to the left. “It’s a wonderful view. Curtains would just frame it. You know like a…”
The old man had snorted a whinny of distain.
“Like some godawful picture in a gallery.” Bar had dragged the gal away from alley and stuck in a rough belch of laughter.
“We ain’t never had no curtains up there before,” Matt had sounded apologetic to his family; as embarrassed as he would have been if her suggestion had been to removing all the doors– interior and exterior–and bring in the chickens.
“Mama Hillman always said–”
“I can speak for myself, Daughter Bar,” Mama Hillman’s voice was never raised, it was oil on the water of the others. “Curtains are a nuisance in a working kitchen, true to God that is but I’ve given over the kitchen,” She’d looked around as if she too did not think it much of a gift. She’d shrugged. “The kitchen and the house given to Daughter Matt. If she wants her some curtains then…” Another shrug and a sigh.
Matt, the man who had courted her with fresh flowers, small presents, moderately expensive meals and cab rides, had questioned the expense. His bride reminded him gently that she was the thrifty one and could sew. And before he could find another excuse Mama Hillman had recalled she had just the thing. Fabric she’d saved for her girl’s Easter dress. Yellow to match the walls if they ever got painted. And who said rabbits meant to dance on young girl’s thighs could not frolic around a kitchen window?
Though she in reality she actually preferred the openness of the curtain less window, and could not imagine where her foolish design plans had come from, the new owner of the kitchen had had to bite her tongue and accept this gift of cloth from a woman who had only produced boys.
Mama Hillman had died shortly after that. It had nothing to do with the curtains of course but it was why the curtains still hung there fifteen years later. Any time she suggested removing them Matt had to remind her that it had been his mother’s dying wish that those curtains be there.
Matt recalled past, present and future as they were in his fantasy. And where Teresa Gains Hillman might have corrected him, Daughter Matt no longer bothered.
Except today, she thought pinching aside the hated curtains. Today she was going to have to relinquish Daughter Matt. Only Teresa Gains Hillman could bring some reality into his world. It was going to crush him as if had her but it was a weight of stone she could not bear on her shoulders alone. Not like letters from school about Matt Jr. Or hiding the true price of a pair of shoes for Virginia. Or how she cut and stitched and patched income to match outgo like the reworking she did to her own dresses so that Virginia could have those new shoes.
Out the window she saw the plume of chestnut as the stallion flicked his tail and ran along the fence.
Her hand dropped from the rabbits and brushed against her pocket. She felt the hard cylinder inside it. Did not reach in but washed her hands as if she had. As if the thing was still wet and fresh and dirty. She heard a honk of a distant horn. The school bus down the road complaining about the Gravens children being late again no doubt. She thought about her own children sitting there on that bus. Matty was probably not sitting though. Her twelve year old son was probably squatting in the aisle, one eye on the driver’s back, the other on a girl’s budding front while he planned some mischief with the Dooland twins. And Virginia…she hoped the senseless girl had enough sense to smile when smiled at, answer when called on, pretend. Today she would need to pretend that she was yesterday’s Virginia still.
Well, maybe not yesterday’s. Maybe not even last week’s Virginia. Who knew how long the girl had been holding this secret now evidenced by the wand in Teresa’s sweater pocket. It had been yesterday morning that Teresa had found her crying at this very window. Some silly girl thing she had thought shaking her fourteen year old around to look at her.
And she’d known. Just by the clarity of Virginia’s cheeks, the intensity of her eyes in the reddened puddles, the feel of her flesh when she pressed her fingers into her child’s shoulder. Virginia had wailed, “Oh, Mama, Oh!” She’d forced her mother’s arms into a hug like she was again a toddler. Teresa had smoothed her hair and could only whisper, “You sure?” As she thought about being awakened by the sound of water over the sound of retching two or three days. “You sure?” And she thought about how a boy’s name and giggles had been all she’d heard from Virginia a month ago and then three weeks ago only the name and two weeks ago nothing at all. She seen how her Daddy’s girl had hidden herself away from his teasing and hugs. Had seen her daughter abruptly shut down the monitor screen when someone entered the kitchen. Had noticed how her whispers on the phone shifted to loud homework questions when someone was close enough to hear. “You sure?” And Virginia’s head had shook cupped in her hand. “No, but…Oh, Mama. I’m so…”
Teresa thought of years of bedtime stories, piano lessons, scrimping to save for camps, insisting that there be a chemistry set under the Christmas tree when Matt thought a pretty doll was enough, coaching for spelling bees, stacking index cards for tests, the glow of the computer set in the corner of the kitchen where there was no room for it but where it could be seen, the rules, the consequences, the compliments on how smart her baby girl was, her own smugness with Bar and her delight in adding a name under Bar’s daughter’s name in the family Bible when there was a blank spot after the line that should have linked married pairs, all the awards and certificates and combing the hair. Teresa almost choked on that thought-baby fine to shiny curls to narrow braids to the heavy silk it now was–she thought of combing the hair she stroked when she said, “Let’s not say there’s wind until the vane twists.” And she’d sent Virginia up to wash her face before her father and brother returned from their morning chores.
They sure could say wind now. The truth of the twist was in her pocket. Her pocket was the safest place for what she did not want Matthew to see and there was that white stem next to the drugstore receipt and a final warning from the school district about Matty’s bus privileges. And lint and some gum wrappers. She squeezed it all against her hip hoping something there could erase the lines that made a negative positive but knowing it was impossible to stop an iron cock spinning away from the coming hurricane.
The outer door squeaked. The rattle of a jacket being hung. Heavy footsteps meant he was agitated enough to have forgotten to remove his boots. The inner door. A rattle. A clearing of throat. Matt crossed behind her to the coffee pot.
“We need to talk, Matthew.” Teresa cringed. It had slipped out. If he was in a mood he’d remind her that Matthew had written the first gospel and she had not married a disciple.
But he didn’t say that. He didn’t pick it up like something she’d thrown down as accusation. He poured his mug of coffee and walked away. She heard the banging of drawers and shuffle of papers. “Talk. Damn right we do,” he said from outside the room. Irritated but not directing it at her. He held his green book of notes when he came back.”When was that? How long ago?”
Teresa looked at the rabbits on the curtains. “When was what?”
He was trying to do several things: gulp coffee, turn pages, shake out the earpiece of his glasses so he could put them on, pull out a chair at the table so he could sit. He paused all that to look at her and she saw the eyes of the young man who had caught her arm in a restaurant and asked if she could possibly, maybe, if he wasn’t being too forward to ask and it looked like she was unescorted but gosh she was just, would she maybe let him buy her a cup of coffee? Maybe? And the smile he gave her mirrored the one she’d gotten when she said yes, coffee sounded just wonderful. But then he put on the glasses and was Matt again. He sat and still paging through his book of notes grinned shaking his head, “Gettin’ old, Ter’sa. Of course how could you know what? What? When? Damn it all. That stallion getting in to the pasture with Glenda. When was that?”
She watched him flip pages. Her hand touched her forehead and then she touched her pocket. She glanced behind her and was surprise that they were alone. “Matt Hillman, I don’t –”
“Course you do. I told you. Didn’t geld that stallion soon enough.” His wicked laugh said that even though he was disgusted he was proud of the animal. “Skipped on out of his paddock and went to visit old Glenda. Told you that.” He studied a page intently but frowned not seeing what he hoped to see there. Flipped back a few more pages. “I didn’t think much could have happened. Her too old, him too green but…”
She watched him settle into a page of his chicken scratches with his mouth open, his eyes attempting to look above the spectacles but through them too. She only realized she had sat because faint dizziness had not sent her to the floor. “What are you saying then?”
He blinked her into focus. “Saying? Was it a month ago? Six weeks?” He closed the notebook and left the room.
She cleared her throat. Some things were perhaps easier to say with a wall between them. “Matt, we need to talk about–”
“A month and it’s an easy fix. Timing is everything.” He came back with the wall calendar that Virginia had given him for Christmas. A girl’s club project having pictures and quotes about fathers and daughters. Very professional looking. Teresa had helped Virginia select the photos and find the quotes. Matt had held it for a long time on Christmas morning and made constant use of it. “If ain’t been more than six weeks, a shot of that stuff will…or two or three shots.” He looked up at his wife shaking his head. “Damn durn it, Ter’sa. You reckon it’s the alhammers?”
She smiled so he would laugh at the shared memory of what Matty had called his grandfather ailment. And he did laugh squaring the edges of his notebook and calendar as he removed his reading glasses to look out the window. “More than six weeks and I’ll have to get Doc Volger to pinch it.”
Matt’s raised eyebrow asked if she was the one with alhammers. “Yep. Doc Volger. The vet,” he said slowly with a lilt and half grin.
“The vet?” Teresa mindlessly repeated thinking about the money. And only after she repeated it a second time did she get a sense of what he was saying.
“Can’t be helped. Got to spare old Glenda that. Six weeks and I can give her that post… ah …prosta ….postum ….whatever it is. Have to call Ken and ask him about that. He had that mismate with one of his and missed a whole season breeding that mare but it came out all right. And it can’t be helped. Got to spare old Glenda that especially the way she likes to pop up with twins. End up having to pinch one anyway. Imagine her with even one foal? As contrary as she’s gotten? Kill me and the horse.”
“Foal?” Teresa’s little laugh stopped his bigger one. Hers did not have anything like humor in it. Hers was like the sickening sound of an axle breaking, or a foundation slipping, or a table of heirloom china collapsing. It hit him somewhere in the chest, dropped his lungs to his knees or lower, somewhere air could no longer reach them. He coughed and when she said that they had to talk, that it was important, he said over her words. “Got to call Ken. Find out the name of that stuff …prostrate? No, that’s what killed old Harry. What the doctor checks when he puts on those rubber gloves and tells you to bend over.” He shortened his laugh. “But you women wouldn’t know anything about that.”
No, Teresa thought, we wouldn’t know anything about that. Can’t understand the indignity and discomfort of a finger or two up our asses. Try a fist up you with a baby’s head at one end and a grown man’s hairy wrist at the other and then let’s talk about what women know. She felt sick. Her hand fluttered from the lip of her pocket to pinch the lips of her mouth closed. She held her tongue with her teeth for a moment as she listen to Matthew try out some more words that might be that magic shot to spare poor Glenda and him the trouble of a foal. She drew in breath through her nose and held it. Meant to release all she was holding when she exhaled but only got out, “Virginia…” before she was stopped by the quality and quantity of moisture in his eyes. Ocean deep it appeared to be, fathoms of it before you could see his irises. So much moisture that even though they stared at each other neither of them was able to say they saw each other before they looked to opposite corners. And yet both of them could not deny they saw each other clearly and completely even though they both stared at yellow walls for a moment.
Of course he knows, she thought. His ears were better than hers. He’d never been the first to rise in the night when one of theirs cried out or coughed but he’d frequently been the one to nudge her out of exhausted sleep to tend to the noise. He would have heard all that she’d heard. Seen all that she’d seen. He’d asked her, “What do we know about this boy?” when the boy had been all that Virginia had spoken of. In their darken bedroom he’d asked her, “You have had those words with Ginny? Those mama words?” when Virginia no longer spoke the boy’s name. She had seen him stand with raised empty arms looking after his retreating daughter. She knew he knew. He knew she knew. He knew what she’d propose doing too. And she knew what he would say about that. He’d already said it in their darkened bedroom when Bar’s situation had happened. “Never my child. Never that. Never any girl stupid enough to let that happen. Murder is what it is and I won’t have you suggest it to Bar.” Of course at the time his Ginny had been still in overalls following him out to pasture and corral with not even a hint of swelling above the pudge of her tomboy belly. And they both knew the good girl they had raised would always be the good girl they expected.
Still a good girl but…
And still “never my child” was what she would hear if she spoke the possibility of a reprieve that even old Glenda was going to get.
Her hands were in her pockets and she thought the white plastic might snap so tightly was it held in her fist. She stared at the window and the rabbits running around it.
Matthew picked up his coffee mug and stared in to it. He stretched after setting it down. “Burning daylight here, Ter’sa. Guess I need to call Ken. Call Doc Volger. Probably end up doing that pinch. I think it was almost two months ago. Yeah. Damn stupid me. It is the alhammers for sure I think. Old Glenda was in season two months ago so…” After the show of hitting his forehead with his fist, he made the concession of taking her hand. “No telling what that pinch is going to cost. We’ll manage. Always have. Ginny’s gonna have to do without that dress she wanted for that dance. That’s what you wanted to talk about. Saw you two conspiring through the window. Sorry to break her heart but it will not be the only time she has to wear last year to this year but…we will manage.” He raised her hand almost to his lips before letting the chair legs screech back so he could stand.
Inner door. She listened to the pause that said he thought about putting on the boots he was already wearing. Outer door squeal. Firmly shut.
She looked at the rabbits. How she hated those curtains. One day she was going to rip them down. One day.