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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book I: The Shimerdas
SEVERAL WEEKS after my sleigh-ride, we heard nothing from the Shimerdas.
My sore throat kept me indoors, and grandmother had a cold which
made the housework heavy for her. When Sunday came she was glad to have a
day of rest. One night at supper Fuchs told us he had seen Mr. Shimerda
made himself a rabbit-skin cap, Jim, and a rabbit-skin collar that he
buttons on outside his coat. They
ain't got but one overcoat among 'em over there, and they take turns
wearing it. They seem awful scared of cold, and stick in that hole in the
bank like badgers.'
but the crazy boy,' Jake put in. `He never wears the coat. Krajiek says he's turrible strong
and can stand anything. I guess rabbits must be getting scarce in this
locality. Ambrosch come along by the cornfield yesterday where I was at
work and showed me three prairie dogs he'd shot. He asked me if they was
good to eat. I spit and made
a face and took on, to scare him, but he just looked like he was smarter'n
me and put 'em back in his sack and walked off.'
looked up in alarm and spoke to grandfather. `Josiah, you don't suppose
Krajiek would let them poor creatures eat prairie dogs, do you?'
had better go over and see our neighbours tomorrow, Emmaline,' he replied
put in a cheerful word and said prairie dogs were clean beasts and ought
to be good for food, but their family connections were against them. I
asked what he meant, and he grinned and said they belonged to the rat
I went downstairs in the morning, I found grandmother and Jake packing a
hamper basket in the kitchen.
Jake,' grandmother was saying, `if you can find that old rooster that got
his comb froze, just give his neck a twist, and we'll take him along.
There's no good reason why Mrs. Shimerda couldn't have got hens from her
neighbours last fall and had a hen-house going by now. I reckon she was
confused and didn't know where to begin. I've come strange to a new
country myself, but I never forgot hens are a good thing to have, no
matter what you don't have.
as you say, ma'm,' said Jake, `but I hate to think of Krajiek getting a
leg of that old rooster.' He
tramped out through the long cellar and dropped the heavy door behind him.
breakfast grandmother and Jake and I bundled ourselves up and climbed into
the cold front wagon-seat. As we approached the Shimerdas', we heard the
frosty whine of the pump and saw Antonia, her head tied up and her cotton
dress blown about her, throwing all her weight on the pump-handle as it
went up and down. She heard our wagon, looked back over her shoulder, and,
catching up her pail of water, started at a run for the hole in the bank.
helped grandmother to the ground, saying he would bring the provisions after
he had blanketed his horses. We went slowly up the icy path toward the door
sunk in the drawside. Blue puffs of smoke came from the stovepipe that stuck
out through the grass and snow, but the wind whisked them roughly away.
Shimerda opened the door before we knocked and seized grandmother's hand.
She did not say `How do!' as usual, but at once began to cry, talking
very fast in her own language, pointing to her feet which were tied up in
rags, and looking about accusingly at everyone.
old man was sitting on a stump behind the stove, crouching over as if he
were trying to hide from us. Yulka was on the floor at his feet, her kitten
in her lap. She peeped out at me and smiled, but, glancing up at her mother,
hid again. Antonia was washing
pans and dishes in a dark corner. The crazy boy lay under the only window,
stretched on a gunny-sack stuffed with straw.
As soon as we entered, he threw a grain-sack over the crack at the
bottom of the door. The air in the cave was stifling, and it was very dark,
too. A lighted lantern, hung over the stove, threw out a feeble yellow
Shimerda snatched off the covers of two barrels behind the door, and made us
look into them. In one there
were some potatoes that had been frozen and were rotting, in the other was a
little pile of flour. Grandmother murmured something in embarrassment, but
the Bohemian woman laughed scornfully, a kind of whinny-laugh, and, catching
up an empty coffee-pot from the shelf, shook it at us with a look positively
went on talking in her polite Virginia way, not admitting their stark need
or her own remissness, until Jake arrived with the hamper, as if in direct
answer to Mrs. Shimerda's reproaches. Then the poor woman broke down.
She dropped on the floor beside her crazy son, hid her face on her
knees, and sat crying bitterly. Grandmother paid no heed to her, but called
Antonia to come and help empty the basket.
Tony left her corner reluctantly. I had never seen her crushed like
not mind my poor mamenka, Mrs. Burden.
She is so sad,' she whispered, as she wiped her wet hands on her
skirt and took the things grandmother handed her.
crazy boy, seeing the food, began to make soft, gurgling noises and stroked
his stomach. Jake came in
again, this time with a sack of potatoes. Grandmother looked about in
you got any sort of cave or cellar outside, Antonia? This is no place to
keep vegetables. How did your
potatoes get frozen?'
get from Mr. Bushy, at the post-office what he throw out. We got no
potatoes, Mrs. Burden,' Tony admitted mournfully.
Jake went out, Marek crawled along the floor and stuffed up the door-crack
again. Then, quietly as a
shadow, Mr. Shimerda came out from behind the stove.
He stood brushing his hand over his smooth grey hair, as if he were
trying to clear away a fog about his head. He was clean and neat as usual,
with his green neckcloth and his coral pin. He took grandmother's arm and
led her behind the stove, to the back of the room.
In the rear wall was another little cave; a round hole, not much
bigger than an oil barrel, scooped out in the black earth. When I got up on
one of the stools and peered into it, I saw some quilts and a pile of straw.
The old man held the lantern. `Yulka,' he said in a low, despairing
voice, `Yulka; my Antonia!'
drew back. `You mean they sleep
in there--your girls?' He bowed his head.
slipped under his arm. `It is
very cold on the floor, and this is warm like the badger hole.
I like for sleep there,' she insisted eagerly. `My mamenka have nice
bed, with pillows from our own geese in Bohemie. See, Jim?'
She pointed to the narrow bunk which Krajiek had built against the
wall for himself before the Shimerdas came.
sighed. `Sure enough, where
WOULD you sleep, dear! I don't doubt you're warm there.
You'll have a better house after while, Antonia, and then you will
forget these hard times.'
Shimerda made grandmother sit down on the only chair and pointed his wife to
a stool beside her. Standing
before them with his hand on Antonia's shoulder, he talked in a low tone,
and his daughter translated. He wanted us to know that they were not beggars
in the old country; he made good wages, and his family were respected there.
He left Bohemia with more than a thousand dollars in savings, after their
passage money was paid. He had
in some way lost on exchange in New York, and the railway fare to Nebraska
was more than they had expected. By the time they paid Krajiek for the land,
and bought his horses and oxen and some old farm machinery, they had very
little money left. He wished grandmother to know, however, that he still had
some money. If they could get through until spring came, they would buy a
cow and chickens and plant a garden, and would then do very well. Ambrosch
and Antonia were both old enough to work in the fields, and they were
willing to work. But the snow
and the bitter weather had disheartened them all.
explained that her father meant to build a new house for them in the spring;
he and Ambrosch had already split the logs for it, but the logs were all
buried in the snow, along the creek where they had been felled.
grandmother encouraged and gave them advice, I sat down on the floor with
Yulka and let her show me her kitten. Marek slid cautiously toward us and
began to exhibit his webbed fingers. I knew he wanted to make his queer
noises for me--to bark like a dog or whinny like a horse--but he did not
dare in the presence of his elders. Marek was always trying to be agreeable,
poor fellow, as if he had it on his mind that he must make up for his
Shimerda grew more calm and reasonable before our visit was over, and, while
Antonia translated, put in a word now and then on her own account.
The woman had a quick ear, and caught up phrases whenever she heard
English spoken. As we rose to go, she opened her wooden chest and brought
out a bag made of bed-ticking, about as long as a flour sack and half as
wide, stuffed full of something. At sight of it, the crazy boy began to
smack his lips. When Mrs. Shimerda opened the bag and stirred the contents
with her hand, it gave out a salty, earthy smell, very pungent, even among
the other odours of that cave. She measured a teacup full, tied it up in a
bit of sacking, and presented it ceremoniously to grandmother.
cook,' she announced. `Little
now; be very much when cook,' spreading out her hands as if to indicate that
the pint would swell to a gallon. `Very good. You
no have in this country. All things for eat better in my country.'
so, Mrs. Shimerda,' grandmother said dryly. `I can't say but I prefer our
bread to yours, myself.'
undertook to explain. `This
very good, Mrs. Burden'-- she clasped her hands as if she could not express
how good--'it make very much when you cook, like what my mama say. Cook with
rabbit, cook with chicken, in the gravy--oh, so good!'
the way home grandmother and Jake talked about how easily good Christian
people could forget they were their brothers' keepers.
will say, Jake, some of our brothers and sisters are hard to keep. Where's a
body to begin, with these people? They're wanting in everything, and most of all in
horse-sense. Nobody can give 'em that, I guess. Jimmy, here, is about as
able to take over a homestead as they are. Do you reckon that boy Ambrosch
has any real push in him?'
a worker, all right, ma'm, and he's got some ketch-on about him; but he's a
mean one. Folks can be mean
enough to get on in this world; and then, ag'in, they can be too mean.'
night, while grandmother was getting supper, we opened the package Mrs.
Shimerda had given her. It was
full of little brown chips that looked like the shavings of some root. They
were as light as feathers, and the most noticeable thing about them was
their penetrating, earthy odour. We could not determine whether they were
animal or vegetable.
might be dried meat from some queer beast, Jim. They ain't dried fish, and
they never grew on stalk or vine. I'm afraid of 'em.
Anyhow, I shouldn't want to eat anything that had been shut up for
months with old clothes and goose pillows.'
threw the package into the stove, but I bit off a corner of one of the chips
I held in my hand, and chewed it tentatively. I never forgot the strange
taste; though it was many years before I knew that those little brown
shavings, which the Shimerdas had brought so far and treasured so jealously,
were dried mushrooms. They had been gathered, probably, in some deep
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