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My Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather

 

Book II: The Hired Girls

Chapter XIV

 

THE DAY AFTER COMMENCEMENT I moved my books and desk upstairs, to an empty room where I should be undisturbed, and I fell to studying in earnest. I worked off a year's trigonometry that summer, and began Virgil alone. Morning after morning I used to pace up and down my sunny little room, looking off at the distant river bluffs and the roll of the blond pastures between, scanning the `Aeneid' aloud and committing long passages to memory.  Sometimes in the evening Mrs. Harling called to me as I passed her gate, and asked me to come in and let her play for me. She was lonely for Charley, she said, and liked to have a boy about. Whenever my grandparents had misgivings, and began to wonder whether I was not too young to go off to college alone, Mrs. Harling took up my cause vigorously.  Grandfather had such respect for her judgment that I knew he would not go against her.

 

I had only one holiday that summer.  It was in July. I met Antonia downtown on Saturday afternoon, and learned that she and Tiny and Lena were going to the river next day with Anna Hansen--the elder was all in bloom now, and Anna wanted to make elderblow wine.

 

`Anna's to drive us down in the Marshalls' delivery wagon, and we'll take a nice lunch and have a picnic.  Just us; nobody else. Couldn't you happen along, Jim?  It would be like old times.'

 

I considered a moment.  `Maybe I can, if I won't be in the way.'

 

On Sunday morning I rose early and got out of Black Hawk while the dew was still heavy on the long meadow grasses. It was the high season for summer flowers. The pink bee-bush stood tall along the sandy roadsides, and the cone-flowers and rose mallow grew everywhere. Across the wire fence, in the long grass, I saw a clump of flaming orange-coloured milkweed, rare in that part of the state. I left the road and went around through a stretch of pasture that was always cropped short in summer, where the gaillardia came up year after year and matted over the ground with the deep, velvety red that is in Bokhara carpets.  The country was empty and solitary except for the larks that Sunday morning, and it seemed to lift itself up to me and to come very close.

 

The river was running strong for midsummer; heavy rains to the west of us had kept it full.  I crossed the bridge and went upstream along the wooded shore to a pleasant dressing-room I knew among the dogwood bushes, all overgrown with wild grapevines.  I began to undress for a swim. The girls would not be along yet.  For the first time it occurred to me that I should be homesick for that river after I left it. The sandbars, with their clean white beaches and their little groves of willows and cottonwood seedlings, were a sort of No Man's Land, little newly created worlds that belonged to the Black Hawk boys. Charley Harling and I had hunted through these woods, fished from the fallen logs, until I knew every inch of the river shores and had a friendly feeling for every bar and shallow.

 

After my swim, while I was playing about indolently in the water, I heard the sound of hoofs and wheels on the bridge. I struck downstream and shouted, as the open spring wagon came into view on the middle span.  They stopped the horse, and the two girls in the bottom of the cart stood up, steadying themselves by the shoulders of the two in front, so that they could see me better.  They were charming up there, huddled together in the cart and peering down at me like curious deer when they come out of the thicket to drink. I found bottom near the bridge and stood up, waving to them.

   

`How pretty you look!'  I called.

 

`So do you!' they shouted altogether, and broke into peals of laughter. Anna Hansen shook the reins and they drove on, while I zigzagged back to my inlet and clambered up behind an overhanging elm. I dried myself in the sun, and dressed slowly, reluctant to leave that green enclosure where the sunlight flickered so bright through the grapevine leaves and the woodpecker hammered away in the crooked elm that trailed out over the water. As I went along the road back to the bridge, I kept picking off little pieces of scaly chalk from the dried water gullies, and breaking them up in my hands.

 

When I came upon the Marshalls' delivery horse, tied in the shade, the girls had already taken their baskets and gone down the east road which wound through the sand and scrub. I could hear them calling to each other.  The elder bushes did not grow back in the shady ravines between the bluffs, but in the hot, sandy bottoms along the stream, where their roots were always in moisture and their tops in the sun. The blossoms were unusually luxuriant and beautiful that summer.

 

I followed a cattle path through the thick under-brush until I came to a slope that fell away abruptly to the water's edge. A great chunk of the shore had been bitten out by some spring freshet, and the scar was masked by elder bushes, growing down to the water in flowery terraces.  I did not touch them.  I was overcome by content and drowsiness and by the warm silence about me. There was no sound but the high, singsong buzz of wild bees and the sunny gurgle of the water underneath.  I peeped over the edge of the bank to see the little stream that made the noise; it flowed along perfectly clear over the sand and gravel, cut off from the muddy main current by a long sandbar. Down there, on the lower shelf of the bank, I saw Antonia, seated alone under the pagoda-like elders.  She looked up when she heard me, and smiled, but I saw that she had been crying. I slid down into the soft sand beside her and asked her what was the matter.

 

`It makes me homesick, Jimmy, this flower, this smell,' she said softly. `We have this flower very much at home, in the old country. It always grew in our yard and my papa had a green bench and a table under the bushes.  In summer, when they were in bloom, he used to sit there with his friend that played the trombone. When I was little I used to go down there to hear them talk-- beautiful talk, like what I never hear in this country.'

 

`What did they talk about?'  I asked her.

 

She sighed and shook her head.  `Oh, I don't know!  About music, and the woods, and about God, and when they were young.' She turned to me suddenly and looked into my eyes. `You think, Jimmy, that maybe my father's spirit can go back to those old places?'

 

I told her about the feeling of her father's presence I had on that winter day when my grandparents had gone over to see his dead body and I was left alone in the house. I said I felt sure then that he was on his way back to his own country, and that even now, when I passed his grave, I always thought of him as being among the woods and fields that were so dear to him.

 

Antonia had the most trusting, responsive eyes in the world; love and credulousness seemed to look out of them with open faces.

 

`Why didn't you ever tell me that before?  It makes me feel more sure for him.'  After a while she said:  `You know, Jim, my father was different from my mother.  He did not have to marry my mother, and all his brothers quarrelled with him because he did. I used to hear the old people at home whisper about it. They said he could have paid my mother money, and not married her. But he was older than she was, and he was too kind to treat her like that. He lived in his mother's house, and she was a poor girl come in to do the work.  After my father married her, my grandmother never let my mother come into her house again.  When I went to my grandmother's funeral was the only time I was ever in my grandmother's house. Don't that seem strange?'

 

While she talked, I lay back in the hot sand and looked up at the blue sky between the flat bouquets of elder.  I could hear the bees humming and singing, but they stayed up in the sun above the flowers and did not come down into the shadow of the leaves. Antonia seemed to me that day exactly like the little girl who used to come to our house with Mr. Shimerda.

 

`Some day, Tony, I am going over to your country, and I am going to the little town where you lived. Do you remember all about it?'

 

`Jim,' she said earnestly, `if I was put down there in the middle of the night, I could find my way all over that little town; and along the river to the next town, where my grandmother lived. My feet remember all the little paths through the woods, and where the big roots stick out to trip you.  I ain't never forgot my own country.'

 

There was a crackling in the branches above us, and Lena Lingard peered down over the edge of the bank.

 

`You lazy things!' she cried.  `All this elder, and you two lying there!  Didn't you hear us calling you?' Almost as flushed as she had been in my dream, she leaned over the edge of the bank and began to demolish our flowery pagoda. I had never seen her so energetic; she was panting with zeal, and the perspiration stood in drops on her short, yielding upper lip. I sprang to my feet and ran up the bank.

 

It was noon now, and so hot that the dogwoods and scrub-oaks began to turn up the silvery underside of their leaves, and all the foliage looked soft and wilted.  I carried the lunch-basket to the top of one of the chalk bluffs, where even on the calmest days there was always a breeze. The flat-topped, twisted little oaks threw light shadows on the grass.  Below us we could see the windings of the river, and Black Hawk, grouped among its trees, and, beyond, the rolling country, swelling gently until it met the sky. We could recognize familiar farm-houses and windmills. Each of the girls pointed out to me the direction in which her father's farm lay, and told me how many acres were in wheat that year and how many in corn.

 

`My old folks,' said Tiny Soderball, `have put in twenty acres of rye. They get it ground at the mill, and it makes nice bread. It seems like my mother ain't been so homesick, ever since father's raised rye flour for her.'

 

`It must have been a trial for our mothers,' said Lena, `coming out here and having to do everything different. My mother had always lived in town.  She says she started behind in farm-work, and never has caught up.'

 

`Yes, a new country's hard on the old ones, sometimes,' said Anna thoughtfully.  `My grandmother's getting feeble now, and her mind wanders.  She's forgot about this country, and thinks she's at home in Norway.  She keeps asking mother to take her down to the waterside and the fish market. She craves fish all the time.  Whenever I go home I take her canned salmon and mackerel.'

 

`Mercy, it's hot!'  Lena yawned.  She was supine under a little oak, resting after the fury of her elder-hunting, and had taken off the high-heeled slippers she had been silly enough to wear. `Come here, Jim.  You never got the sand out of your hair.' She began to draw her fingers slowly through my hair.

 

Antonia pushed her away.  `You'll never get it out like that,' she said sharply.  She gave my head a rough touzling and finished me off with something like a box on the ear. `Lena, you oughtn't to try to wear those slippers any more. They're too small for your feet.  You'd better give them to me for Yulka.'

 

`All right,' said Lena good-naturedly, tucking her white stockings under her skirt.  `You get all Yulka's things, don't you? I wish father didn't have such bad luck with his farm machinery; then I could buy more things for my sisters.  I'm going to get Mary a new coat this fall, if the sulky plough's never paid for!'

 

Tiny asked her why she didn't wait until after Christmas, when coats would be cheaper.  `What do you think of poor me?' she added; `with six at home, younger than I am?  And they all think I'm rich, because when I go back to the country I'm dressed so fine!' She shrugged her shoulders.  `But, you know, my weakness is playthings. I like to buy them playthings better than what they need.'

 

`I know how that is,' said Anna.  `When we first came here, and I was little, we were too poor to buy toys.  I never got over the loss of a doll somebody gave me before we left Norway. A boy on the boat broke her and I still hate him for it.'

 

`I guess after you got here you had plenty of live dolls to nurse, like me!' Lena remarked cynically.

 

`Yes, the babies came along pretty fast, to be sure.  But I never minded. I was fond of them all.  The youngest one, that we didn't any of us want, is the one we love best now.'

 

Lena sighed.  `Oh, the babies are all right; if only they don't come in winter.  Ours nearly always did.  I don't see how mother stood it. I tell you what, girls'--she sat up with sudden energy--'I'm going to get my mother out of that old sod house where she's lived so many years. The men will never do it.  Johnnie, that's my oldest brother, he's wanting to get married now, and build a house for his girl instead of his mother. Mrs. Thomas says she thinks I can move to some other town pretty soon, and go into business for myself.  If I don't get into business, I'll maybe marry a rich gambler.'

 

`That would be a poor way to get on,' said Anna sarcastically. `I wish I could teach school, like Selma Kronn.  Just think! She'll be the first Scandinavian girl to get a position in the high school. We ought to be proud of her.'

 

Selma was a studious girl, who had not much tolerance for giddy things like Tiny and Lena; but they always spoke of her with admiration.

 

Tiny moved about restlessly, fanning herself with her straw hat. `If I was smart like her, I'd be at my books day and night. But she was born smart--and look how her father's trained her! He was something high up in the old country.'

 

`So was my mother's father,' murmured Lena, `but that's all the good it does us!  My father's father was smart, too, but he was wild. He married a Lapp.  I guess that's what's the matter with me; they say Lapp blood will out.'

 

`A real Lapp, Lena?'  I exclaimed.  `The kind that wear skins?'

 

`I don't know if she wore skins, but she was a Lapps all right, and his folks felt dreadful about it.  He was sent up North on some government job he had, and fell in with her. He would marry her.'

 

`But I thought Lapland women were fat and ugly, and had squint eyes, like Chinese?'  I objected.

 

`I don't know, maybe.  There must be something mighty taking about the Lapp girls, though; mother says the Norwegians up North are always afraid their boys will run after them.'

 

In the afternoon, when the heat was less oppressive, we had a lively game of `Pussy Wants a Corner,' on the flat bluff-top, with the little trees for bases.  Lena was Pussy so often that she finally said she wouldn't play any more. We threw ourselves down on the grass, out of breath.

 

`Jim,' Antonia said dreamily, `I want you to tell the girls about how the Spanish first came here, like you and Charley Harling used to talk about. I've tried to tell them, but I leave out so much.'

 

They sat under a little oak, Tony resting against the trunk and the other girls leaning against her and each other, and listened to the little I was able to tell them about Coronado and his search for the Seven Golden Cities. At school we were taught that he had not got so far north as Nebraska, but had given up his quest and turned back somewhere in Kansas. But Charley Harling and I had a strong belief that he had been along this very river.  A farmer in the county north of ours, when he was breaking sod, had turned up a metal stirrup of fine workmanship, and a sword with a Spanish inscription on the blade. He lent these relics to Mr. Harling, who brought them home with him. Charley and I scoured them, and they were on exhibition in the Harling office all summer.  Father Kelly, the priest, had found the name of the Spanish maker on the sword and an abbreviation that stood for the city of Cordova.

 

`And that I saw with my own eyes,' Antonia put in triumphantly. `So Jim and Charley were right, and the teachers were wrong!'

 

The girls began to wonder among themselves.  Why had the Spaniards come so far?  What must this country have been like, then? Why had Coronado never gone back to Spain, to his riches and his castles and his king?  I couldn't tell them. I only knew the schoolbooks said he `died in the wilderness, of a broken heart.'

 

`More than him has done that,' said Antonia sadly, and the girls murmured assent.

 

We sat looking off across the country, watching the sun go down. The curly grass about us was on fire now.  The bark of the oaks turned red as copper.  There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river. Out in the stream the sandbars glittered like glass, and the light trembled in the willow thickets as if little flames were leaping among them.  The breeze sank to stillness.  In the ravine a ringdove mourned plaintively, and somewhere off in the bushes an owl hooted. The girls sat listless, leaning against each other.  The long fingers of the sun touched their foreheads.

 

Presently we saw a curious thing:  There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky.  Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it.  In a moment we realized what it was.  On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field.  The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

 

Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.

 

 


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