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My Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book I: The Shimerdas
I DO NOT REMEMBER our arrival at my grandfather's farm
sometime before daybreak, after a drive of nearly twenty miles with heavy
work-horses. When I awoke, it was afternoon.
I was lying in a little room, scarcely larger than the bed that held me,
and the window-shade at my head was flapping softly in a warm wind. A tall
woman, with wrinkled brown skin and black hair, stood looking down at me; I knew
that she must be my grandmother. She had been crying, I could see, but when I
opened my eyes she smiled, peered at me anxiously, and sat down on the foot of
`Had a good sleep, Jimmy?' she asked briskly.
Then in a very different tone she said, as if to herself, `My, how you do
look like your father!' I remembered that my father had been her little boy; she
must often have come to wake him like this when he overslept.
`Here are your clean clothes,' she went on, stroking my coverlid with her
brown hand as she talked. `But first you come down to the kitchen with me, and
have a nice warm bath behind the stove. Bring
your things; there's nobody about.'
`Down to the kitchen' struck me as curious; it was
always `out in the kitchen' at home. I
picked up my shoes and stockings and followed her through the living-room and
down a flight of stairs into a basement. This
basement was divided into a dining-room at the right of the stairs and a kitchen
at the left. Both rooms were plastered and whitewashed--the plaster laid
directly upon the earth walls, as it used to be in dugouts. The floor was of
hard cement. Up under the wooden
ceiling there were little half-windows with white curtains, and pots of
geraniums and wandering Jew in the deep sills.
As I entered the kitchen, I sniffed a pleasant smell of gingerbread
baking. The stove was very large, with bright nickel trimmings, and behind it
there was a long wooden bench against the wall, and a tin washtub, into which
grandmother poured hot and cold water. When she brought the soap and towels, I
told her that I was used to taking my bath without help.
`Can you do your ears, Jimmy? Are you sure?
Well, now, I call you a right smart little boy.'
It was pleasant there in the kitchen. The sun shone into my bath-water through the west
half-window, and a big Maltese cat came up and rubbed himself against the tub,
watching me curiously. While I scrubbed, my grandmother busied herself in the
dining-room until I called anxiously, `Grandmother, I'm afraid the cakes are
burning!' Then she came laughing, waving her apron before her as if she were
She was a spare, tall woman, a little stooped, and she
was apt to carry her head thrust forward in an attitude of attention, as if she
were looking at something, or listening to something, far away.
As I grew older, I came to believe that it was only because she was so
often thinking of things that were far away. She was quick-footed and energetic
in all her movements. Her voice was high and rather shrill, and she often spoke
with an anxious inflection, for she was exceedingly desirous that everything
should go with due order and decorum. Her laugh, too, was high, and perhaps a
little strident, but there was a lively intelligence in it.
She was then fifty-five years old, a strong woman, of unusual endurance.
After I was dressed, I explored the long cellar next
the kitchen. It was dug out under the wing of the house, was plastered and
cemented, with a stairway and an outside door by which the men came and went.
Under one of the windows there was a place for them to wash when they came in
While my grandmother was busy about supper, I settled
myself on the wooden bench behind the stove and got acquainted with the cat-- he
caught not only rats and mice, but gophers, I was told. The patch of yellow
sunlight on the floor travelled back toward the stairway, and grandmother and I
talked about my journey, and about the arrival of the new Bohemian family; she
said they were to be our nearest neighbours.
We did not talk about the farm in Virginia, which had been her home for
so many years. But after the men came in from the fields, and we were all seated
at the supper table, then she asked Jake about the old place and about our
friends and neighbours there.
My grandfather said little.
When he first came in he kissed me and spoke kindly to me, but he was not
demonstrative. I felt at once his deliberateness and personal dignity, and was a
little in awe of him. The thing one
immediately noticed about him was his beautiful, crinkly, snow-white beard. I
once heard a missionary say it was like the beard of an Arabian sheik.
His bald crown only made it more impressive.
Grandfather's eyes were not at all like those of an old
man; they were bright blue, and had a fresh, frosty sparkle. His teeth were
white and regular--so sound that he had never been to a dentist in his life.
He had a delicate skin, easily roughened by sun and wind.
When he was a young man his hair and beard were red; his eyebrows were
As we sat at the table, Otto Fuchs and I kept stealing
covert glances at each other. Grandmother
had told me while she was getting supper that he was an Austrian who came to
this country a young boy and had led an adventurous life in the Far West among
mining-camps and cow outfits. His iron constitution was somewhat broken by
mountain pneumonia, and he had drifted back to live in a milder country for a
while. He had relatives in Bismarck, a German settlement to the north of us, but
for a year now he had been working for grandfather.
The minute supper was over, Otto took me into the
kitchen to whisper to me about a pony down in the barn that had been bought for
me at a sale; he had been riding him to find out whether he had any bad tricks,
but he was a `perfect gentleman,' and his name was Dude. Fuchs told me everything I wanted to know:
how he had lost his ear in a Wyoming blizzard when he was a stage-driver,
and how to throw a lasso. He promised to rope a steer for me before sundown next
day. He got out his `chaps' and silver spurs to show them to Jake and me, and
his best cowboy boots, with tops stitched in bold design-- roses, and
true-lover's knots, and undraped female figures. These, he solemnly explained,
Before we went to bed, Jake and Otto were called up to
the living-room for prayers. Grandfather
put on silver-rimmed spectacles and read several Psalms.
His voice was so sympathetic and he read so interestingly that I wished
he had chosen one of my favourite chapters in the Book of Kings. I was awed by
his intonation of the word `Selah.' `He shall choose our inheritance for us, the
excellency of Jacob whom He loved. Selah.'
I had no idea what the word meant; perhaps he had not.
But, as he uttered it, it became oracular, the most sacred of words.
Early the next morning I ran out-of-doors to look about
me. I had been told that ours was the only wooden house west of Black
Hawk--until you came to the Norwegian settlement, where there were several.
Our neighbours lived in sod houses and dugouts--comfortable, but not very
roomy. Our white frame house, with a storey and half-storey above the basement,
stood at the east end of what I might call the farmyard, with the windmill close
by the kitchen door. From the windmill the ground sloped westward, down to the
barns and granaries and pig-yards. This slope was trampled hard and bare, and
washed out in winding gullies by the rain. Beyond the corncribs, at the bottom
of the shallow draw, was a muddy little pond, with rusty willow bushes growing
about it. The road from the post-office came directly by our door, crossed the
farmyard, and curved round this little pond, beyond which it began to climb the
gentle swell of unbroken prairie to the west.
There, along the western sky-line it skirted a great cornfield, much
larger than any field I had ever seen. This cornfield, and the sorghum patch
behind the barn, were the only broken land in sight.
Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough,
shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I.
North of the house, inside the ploughed fire-breaks,
grew a thick-set strip of box-elder trees, low and bushy, their leaves already
turning yellow. This hedge was nearly a quarter of a mile long, but I had to
look very hard to see it at all. The
little trees were insignificant against the grass. It seemed as if the grass
were about to run over them, and over the plum-patch behind the sod
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the
country, as the water is the sea. The
red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of
certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in
it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
I had almost forgotten that I had a grandmother, when
she came out, her sunbonnet on her head, a grain-sack in her hand, and asked me
if I did not want to go to the garden with her to dig potatoes for dinner.
The garden, curiously enough, was a quarter of a mile
from the house, and the way to it led up a shallow draw past the cattle corral.
Grandmother called my attention to a stout hickory cane, tipped with copper,
which hung by a leather thong from her belt.
This, she said, was her rattlesnake cane. I must never go to the garden
without a heavy stick or a corn-knife; she had killed a good many rattlers on
her way back and forth. A little girl who lived on the Black Hawk road was
bitten on the ankle and had been sick all summer.
I can remember exactly how the country looked to me as
I walked beside my grandmother along the faint wagon-tracks on that early
September morning. Perhaps the glide of long railway travel was still with me,
for more than anything else I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh,
easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were
a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping,
Alone, I should never have found the garden--except,
perhaps, for the big yellow pumpkins that lay about unprotected by their
withering vines--and I felt very little interest in it when I got there.
I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of
the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that
the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went
a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into
them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on
the grass. While grandmother took the pitchfork we found standing in one of the
rows and dug potatoes, while I picked them up out of the soft brown earth and
put them into the bag, I kept looking up at the hawks that were doing what I
might so easily do.
When grandmother was ready to go, I said I would like
to stay up there in the garden awhile.
She peered down at me from under her sunbonnet. `Aren't
you afraid of snakes?'
`A little,' I admitted, `but I'd like to stay, anyhow.'
`Well, if you see one, don't have anything to do with
him. The big yellow and brown ones won't hurt you; they're bull-snakes and help
to keep the gophers down. Don't be
scared if you see anything look out of that hole in the bank over there. That's
a badger hole. He's about as big as
a big 'possum, and his face is striped, black and white. He takes a chicken once in a while, but I won't let the men
harm him. In a new country a body feels friendly to the animals. I like to have
him come out and watch me when I'm at work.'
Grandmother swung the bag of potatoes over her shoulder
and went down the path, leaning forward a little. The road followed the windings
of the draw; when she came to the first bend, she waved at me and disappeared. I
was left alone with this new feeling of lightness and content.
I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes
could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow
pumpkin. There were some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of
fruit. I turned back the papery
triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few.
All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen,
were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. The gophers scurried up and
down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltered draw-bottom the wind did not blow very
hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could
see the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled
it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow
squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots.
I kept as still as I could. Nothing
happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay
under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything
more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps
we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it
is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge.
At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete
and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
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