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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book I: The Shimerdas
THE AFTERNOON of that same Sunday I took my first long ride on my pony,
under Otto's direction. After
that Dude and I went twice a week to the post-office, six miles east of
us, and I saved the men a good deal of time by riding on errands to our
neighbours. When we had to borrow anything, or to send about word that
there would be preaching at the sod schoolhouse, I was always the
messenger. Formerly Fuchs attended to such things after working hours.
the years that have passed have not dimmed my memory of that first
glorious autumn. The new
country lay open before me: there were no fences in those days, and I
could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting the pony to get
me home again. Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads. Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that
country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution, when they
left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where
they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first
exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seed as
they went. The next summer, when the long trains of wagons came through
with all the women and children, they had the sunflower trail to follow. I
believe that botanists do not confirm Fuchs's story, but insist that the
sunflower was native to those plains.
Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind, and
sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom.
used to love to drift along the pale-yellow cornfields, looking for the
damp spots one sometimes found at their edges, where the smartweed soon
turned a rich copper colour and the narrow brown leaves hung curled like
cocoons about the swollen joints of the stem. Sometimes I went south to
visit our German neighbours and to admire their catalpa grove, or to see
the big elm tree that grew up out of a deep crack in the earth and had a
hawk's nest in its branches. Trees were so rare in that country, and they
had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about
them, and visit them as if they were persons.
It must have been the scarcity of detail in that tawny landscape
that made detail so precious.
I rode north to the big prairie-dog town to watch the brown earth-owls fly
home in the late afternoon and go down to their nests underground with the
dogs. Antonia Shimerda liked to go with me, and we used to wonder a great
deal about these birds of subterranean habit. We had to be on our guard
there, for rattlesnakes were always lurking about.
They came to pick up an easy living among the dogs and owls, which
were quite defenceless against them; took possession of their comfortable
houses and ate the eggs and puppies.
We felt sorry for the owls. It
was always mournful to see them come flying home at sunset and disappear
under the earth. But, after all, we felt, winged things who would live like
that must be rather degraded creatures. The dog-town was a long way from
any pond or creek. Otto Fuchs said he had seen populous dog-towns in the
desert where there was no surface water for fifty miles; he insisted that
some of the holes must go down to water--nearly two hundred feet,
hereabouts. Antonia said she
didn't believe it; that the dogs probably lapped up the dew in the early
morning, like the rabbits.
had opinions about everything, and she was soon able to make them known.
Almost every day she came running across the prairie to have her
reading lesson with me. Mrs. Shimerda grumbled, but realized it was
important that one member of the family should learn English.
When the lesson was over, we used to go up to the watermelon patch
behind the garden. I split the melons with an old corn-knife, and we lifted
out the hearts and ate them with the juice trickling through our fingers.
The white Christmas melons we did not touch, but we watched them with
curiosity. They were to be
picked late, when the hard frosts had set in, and put away for winter use.
After weeks on the ocean, the Shimerdas were famished for fruit. The two
girls would wander for miles along the edge of the cornfields, hunting for
loved to help grandmother in the kitchen and to learn about cooking and
housekeeping. She would stand
beside her, watching her every movement. We were willing to believe that
Mrs. Shimerda was a good housewife in her own country, but she managed
poorly under new conditions: the conditions were bad enough, certainly!
remember how horrified we were at the sour, ashy-grey bread she gave her
family to eat. She mixed her
dough, we discovered, in an old tin peck-measure that Krajiek had used about
the barn. When she took the paste out to bake it, she left smears of dough
sticking to the sides of the measure, put the measure on the shelf behind
the stove, and let this residue ferment. The next time she made bread, she
scraped this sour stuff down into the fresh dough to serve as yeast.
those first months the Shimerdas never went to town. Krajiek encouraged them
in the belief that in Black Hawk they would somehow be mysteriously
separated from their money. They hated Krajiek, but they clung to him
because he was the only human being with whom they could talk or from whom
they could get information. He
slept with the old man and the two boys in the dugout barn, along with the
oxen. They kept him in their hole and fed him for the same reason that the
prairie-dogs and the brown owls house the rattlesnakes-- because they did
not know how to get rid of him.
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