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My Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather

 

Book I: The Shimerdas

Chapter XIX

 

JULY CAME ON with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world. It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odoured cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green. If all the great plain from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains had been under glass, and the heat regulated by a thermometer, it could not have been better for the yellow tassels that were ripening and fertilizing the silk day by day.  The cornfields were far apart in those times, with miles of wild grazing land between. It took a clear, meditative eye like my grandfather's to foresee that they would enlarge and multiply until they would be, not the Shimerdas' cornfields, or Mr. Bushy's, but the world's cornfields; that their yield would be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war.

 

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The burning sun of those few weeks, with occasional rains at night, secured the corn.  After the milky ears were once formed, we had little to fear from dry weather.  The men were working so hard in the wheatfields that they did not notice the heat--though I was kept busy carrying water for them--and grandmother and Antonia had so much to do in the kitchen that they could not have told whether one day was hotter than another. Each morning, while the dew was still on the grass, Antonia went with me up to the garden to get early vegetables for dinner. Grandmother made her wear a sunbonnet, but as soon as we reached the garden she threw it on the grass and let her hair fly in the breeze. I remember how, as we bent over the pea-vines, beads of perspiration used to gather on her upper lip like a little moustache.

 

`Oh, better I like to work out-of-doors than in a house!' she used to sing joyfully.  `I not care that your grandmother say it makes me like a man.  I like to be like a man.' She would toss her head and ask me to feel the muscles swell in her brown arm.

   

We were glad to have her in the house.  She was so gay and responsive that one did not mind her heavy, running step, or her clattery way with pans. Grandmother was in high spirits during the weeks that Antonia worked for us.

 

All the nights were close and hot during that harvest season. The harvesters slept in the hayloft because it was cooler there than in the house.  I used to lie in my bed by the open window, watching the heat lightning play softly along the horizon, or looking up at the gaunt frame of the windmill against the blue night sky.  One night there was a beautiful electric storm, though not enough rain fell to damage the cut grain. The men went down to the barn immediately after supper, and when the dishes were washed, Antonia and I climbed up on the slanting roof of the chicken-house to watch the clouds. The thunder was loud and metallic, like the rattle of sheet iron, and the lightning broke in great zigzags across the heavens, making everything stand out and come close to us for a moment. Half the sky was chequered with black thunderheads, but all the west was luminous and clear:  in the lightning flashes it looked like deep blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it; and the mottled part of the sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid seacoast city, doomed to destruction. Great warm splashes of rain fell on our upturned faces. One black cloud, no bigger than a little boat, drifted out into the clear space unattended, and kept moving westward. All about us we could hear the felty beat of the raindrops on the soft dust of the farmyard.  Grandmother came to the door and said it was late, and we would get wet out there.

 

`In a minute we come,' Antonia called back to her. `I like your grandmother, and all things here,' she sighed. `I wish my papa live to see this summer.  I wish no winter ever come again.'

 

`It will be summer a long while yet,' I reassured her. `Why aren't you always nice like this, Tony?'

 

`How nice?'

 

`Why, just like this; like yourself.  Why do you all the time try to be like Ambrosch?'

 

She put her arms under her head and lay back, looking up at the sky. `If I live here, like you, that is different.  Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.'

 

 


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