Willy was born delighted in the middle of a rainstorm that threatened to flood the root cellar where they were hiding from the lightning. She had wide-open blue eyes. Her tiny expressive face soundlessly oohed and aahed and grimaced and startled with each feeling from the very beginning and, soon, she had a coo of contentment that nurtured her mother and then a three-tone song of a laugh that always made her siblings smile. Thunderstorms and floods threatened them so often but Willy’s birth let Mama engage with them easier from then on.
By age two, she had become the sixth oldest for the second time when her mama got sick in child birth and by four she was fifth oldest again when she stopped seeing Ezreel, who used to feed the pigs. She knew every inch of the farmyard and garden, had her own names for every chicken, pig, cow and horse on the place and could boil water on the stove, if mama was there.
Soon, she was feeding the pigs, Dolly and Lolly, and learning to milk Mr. Honey, the Jersey cow with one blind eye. Sometimes she would make up a reason to say the cow’s name, just to get a reaction: “I’m going out to give Mr. Honey some oats.” “Boy’s name!” someone would call out, playing her game and she would bounce with delight, the notes of her laugh like music to them, who were all usually serious as dirt.
When Willy was six, Mama got big again and by seven, there were new twins. A third baby came out dead, her older brother told her, and was in the little box they were burying on the hill of the acorn tree. To the other crosses, they added this fourth one and when Willy finally got her Mama to bend down and say “What?” while they stood under the great arms of the tree, she said: “You haven’t said its name, Mama.”
“You name it, girl,” said Mama.
“How ‘bout Moses?” she asked, since his little box reminded her of the bulrushes story.
“Fine,” said Mama, with two little ones and a farm, too tired to tell her daughter that was a slave’s name.
Willy took on new chores, singing songs she made up. She walked the water and midday basket to the fields for her pa and brothers, watered the garden by pumping the bucket full over and over and gathered eggs. She held funerals for the hens that disappeared after Papa chose them for dinner. She learned to card the wool from the two new sheep, Basil the girl and Rosemary the boy. With some of the wool and some sticks, she made dolls and talked to them and had them talk to the twins in the morning shade of the porch or by lantern light after dinner, the twins’ belly laughs touching off her own musical laughter and each building on the other until they collapsed in a panting, giggling heap.
By the time she was eleven, she had the twin boys and three-year old Miriam and two-year old Homer hanging on her and getting into things, while Mama was in bed. Papa gave her a pony for her twelfth birthday and it became her favorite job to ride the fences for him frequently and learn to help move their little herd from field to field. She cooked most dinners now, her songs and cajoling of the children as much a flavoring to their food as the precious salt. The big boys returning from the field at the sound of the triangle stepped into smells of bread and beans and maybe chicken and pork and always greens and cold milk in tumblers. She’d have a couple of them bring Mama to the table carrying her right in her chair, if she was poorly and they’d listen to Pa talk about Injuns or riverboats or the big rock they found in the field they were plowing today. She hungered for every syllable and pondered every new bit of story for it amazed her that lives could be lived so close together and be so different.
Her cousin, Orn, who was attracted to her laugh, attacked her at Pa’s brother Hank’s farm on the Fourth of July in the barn. They were going to swing off the rope in the hay loft, he said, but he shoved her down, sat on her, and pushed a thick rope scrap in her mouth, scratchy and bitter, and said he would push the same rope down her pony’s throat and kill it, if she told anyone. His big hands forced her and he crushed her song while her body twisted helplessly.
When she was fifteen, Mama died giving birth to her newest brother, who Willy called Caleb since her Pa wasn’t going to talk about it. Willy delegated most of the chores but the baby. She still cooked and preserved the food, grimly taught even the young ones carding and candle making, spinning and mending. Pa and her older brothers were working harder than ever, with the herd growing. The lightning fire damage to the barn needed fixed before winter rains and they had to keep rifles near them all the time. The whole family learned to shoot. And Jezreel had gone off one night. The day before he had asked Pa in the field for his leave to go to Louisville, to look it over, and Pa’d said no. Now he was gone and they didn’t have time to fetch him, said Pa. God go with him. Dinner stories stopped and, though the twins showed the toddlers how dolls could talk, they couldn’t get a good laugh going.
When she was attacked a second time, it was four in the afternoon as she came down the boardwalk from the Mercantile. A stinking slab of a hand suddenly clamped over her mouth and she was hoisted off her feet and shoved between two buildings so close together they must have had trouble nailing the siding on the second one. Forced along by some unseen hulk, she suddenly threw both feet way up to catch some of the wood trim on both sides and pushed back hard, landing on top of her attacker who grunted and tightened his grip on her middle, but released her mouth briefly. She had no air to scream. Then he held a knife in front of her eyes and moved it to her throat so she felt its edge.
He was foul and huge, one of the dim drones who poled keelboats upriver for cargo and floated back down endlessly. He smelled like dung and drink and sweat and puke and she exploded. Her delight had been shoved down with a scrap of rope three years ago, and now it raged back white-hot, not gone but changed. She screamed a piercing scream like a new steam whistle and he jerked back. He thrust toward her throat with her knife, but cut her down the length of her cheekbone and she continued to shriek while she bled. He backed off this Banshee, stumbling backwards out the back of the passage, while voices on the street side were yelling: “What’s going on?”
The blacksmith stitched her as carefully as he would a fine horse and used some iodine in the wound. She sat silent through the searing pain, and welcomed the chance to focus on it as one trustworthy real thing. At that moment, she felt she knew the world and had paid her debt to it and the farm in every way. She no longer belonged to it.
She rode back one last time with her basket from town. It was the middle of the night. As she passed the old oak, the little crosses reflected the moonlight, her ma and four young ones and eleven more for the chickens she had accounted for.
Pa was dozing in his chair on the porch by a lantern, waiting up for her. When she walked her pony to the rail, he nodded to her and raised his hand wearily to say goodnight and went to bed, leaving her the lantern. She took the basket in and set it on the table and got out the sheep shears and cut her hair as short as she could down to the scalp. Then she got Pa’s razor and shaved even the stubble off. She piled the hair in a bowl, thinking the kids might make something out of it. She wrote on a scrap of paper from the store packages: “GON.” Taking off her dress, she put on her buckskin trousers, tied her breasts down with strips of cloth from Mama’s trunk and pulled her buckskin shirt on. She gathered some things into a roll and saddle bags and rode off without looking in on the kids. Didn’t dare. She pulled on her hat when her head got cold and rode back toward town.
She spent the night thirty feet off the road near a stream she remembered. She wiped Sam down and threw a blanket over him, then rolled herself up like a cigar in her bedroll and just lay there without eating or drinking. She was spinning worse than if she had just tumbled down the grass hill behind the barn. Her awareness settled on Pa. He was supposed to be beside her. Pa, with his dirt and distant eyes set for the long haul up the hill of his life, dealing with what come, without a jot of energy that wasn’t measured or rationed or parceled out like potatoes in the drought. And Mama! She pictured her with her thin shadow arms draped over thin child shapes. Willy gasped. No warmth was left in those arms.
Her belly tightened and her fists clenched and pulled the blanket fiercely around her. She drew her knees up to her chest in her nest in the bracken, feeling exposed and chilled and wanting the worst, to be done with it, to see it all, to have it out.
She imagined he stood there, the huge boatman attacker. He didn’t advance or gibber or menace or hide or attack. He was just there, like the shadow of a huge stump, like Pa was there and Mama. He was looking at her, but with nothing in his eyes, nothing personal, nothing personal at all.
She hardly slept that night.
It was close to noon and the forge was hot. Orville, the smith, pumped the bellows with his right arm, while twisting the flat irons he had to join into a hotter part of the coals. The rivets glowed ready in a pocket of coals, waiting. He looked up as a shadow blocked part of the daylight streaming in from the doorway. A lad, looked to be fifteen or so, was fingering the white wash flood mark on the doorpost two-and-a-half feet off the ground. Another foot or two and there’d have been no town left. A reminder of the worst storm anyone knew of.
The kid turned and peered through the dark inside toward him.
“Can I help in here?” Willy asked, everything in her life piled up behind the words without trying to sound hopeful.
The smith took help from time to time: drifters, blowing toward the South or the West one town at a time; polemen off the river who drank too much to make it back to their boat on time and waited for another; farmers’ sons whose dads had no cash but needed a new hayfork or some wagon repair. He needed help now and then in the surgery, too, but usually got the saloon boy or the storekeeper’s strong sister, Tru, if it was delicate.
He recognized the red line of his handiwork on her cheekbone. He paused before he said: “What’s your name?”
“Can you pump this steady, in time, like I’ve been doing?”
Willy reached up and grabbed the handle and pulled, first with one hand, then with two, and got the rhythm back. The forge pulsed and shushed through each stroke.
The smith alternately pulled the glowing flat irons from the coals and guided by marks on the anvil face he repeatedly pounded the chosen spots with punch and hammer till he had two evenly spaced holes in each. Letting them both reheat, he watched the girl heaving down on the bellows, sweat darkening her leather shirt, her breath coming ragged and noisy and her expression a moving picture of pain and grit.
“Here we go,” he said.
He pulled out and trapped one iron in a jig with its holes above the anvil and fished a rivet out of its bed and, with a second tong, got it to protrude pin up through the first hole. Moving quickly, he positioned the hole of the second iron over the rivet, clamped the pieces and beat the rivet down until its glow dulled to purple. As he put the now partly joined affair back in the coals to heat for a final time, Willy said: “So hot,” like she was surprised, took a step back and slumped to the floor.
The smith smiled and used her armpits to drag her back up against the wall and pulled her hat off, surprised to find no hair at all. He pumped the bellows a couple of times, and, with a dipper of water, splashed her head and face. He plunged an empty flour sack into the trough and arranged it around her neck like a scarf that supported her head a bit.
While Willy recovered, Orville installed the second rivet and dressed both, then tempered the repair to completion. As he was shutting down the forge, Willy groaned.
“Drink this,” he said, holding out a dipper from the well bucket. She gulped and drooled. “You hungry?” She shook her head slowly and closed her eyes.
When she woke up, it was dark and piano music filtered down from the saloon uptown. Her shaky body, the strange shadows of the forge, her absolute aloneness were overwhelming and she tightened into a ball for a minute or two. Then she stepped outside and looked up and down the face of the smithy, panicking. She whistled for Sam. He answered from inside the smithy in a stall off the forge she hadn’t noticed before. His saddle was on the rack and he had a blanket on him. The kindness to her horse pushed a gulping sob out of her throat, which she caught behind her lips.
Bright lines of kerosene light glowed through boards at the back of the smithy. As she felt her way closer, she smelled fish cooking. Looking through the boards, she saw the smith peeling a turnip at a table in a room half the size of her kitchen back home.
“Mister?” She knocked on the wall.
“Door’s outside,” he called without looking up. “Around to the right. Step wide of the trough.”
She found the door with the metal latch and stepped inside to find the table was set for two. Half the turnips were on what must be her plate; there were two enormous fish in the skillet and two tumblers of cider.
“Come on in, Will.” Said Orville. “Take a load off.”
Orville’s fingers were so big his eating fork looked like a toy. How did he ever do such fine suturing on her face? He cut an apple in half and gave her a piece.
“Thanks for taking care of Sam.”
He nodded welcome and just watched her face appraisingly. She didn’t feel threatened.
“I don’t think I was ever so hot,” she said.
“We don’t wear leather britches in the forge,” he said. “Or jackets or hats.” He smiled.
“What’s the white line on the door post out front?” she asked. She’d stared at it awhile this morning before she braved up and stepped into the smithy.
“That was the high water mark from last year.” Said Orville.
“But this is a hill!” The smithy looked out over the river 100 yards away and the path to town also sloped down.
“More of a rise,” he said. “More water than anybody had seen in three or four generations and it floated everything short of the second story all through town. Dunstinay looked like a town of keel boats, with folks splashing around like crazy salvaging things.”
She remembered the washout of the stream on the farm as it widened and deepened and spilled over and filled the orchard, took out some fence causing the cows to wander till they got it fixed. All that rain undermined then collapsed the bank into their crawdad hole, too. “It ain’t personal,” said Pa, as Zep complained about it at dinner one night. “It’s just water,” he said. “Nothing personal about it.”
She slept good that night in a pile of hay near Sam “till we work out something different,” as Orville put it. She woke up to the sound of Orville loading the forge with fuel for the day. Alternating slats of light and dark decorated the wall of the stall near her.
Before anything she borrowed some suture thread from Orville and stood against the smithy’s doorpost. Pressing her leg parallel against the post, she pushed the needle into her leggings where her pants rubbed against the two-foot high white wash stripe at the flood mark. She stepped away to sew a small white line across the leather and tie it off.
“High water mark,” she said, when Orville stopped to look at her handiwork. He nodded.
“What needs doing?” she asked.