Grandpa had said old tales were best. He said that new tales were either too dull or too painful for the recounting. Deb didn't know about painful, but he reckoned that tedium was just a plain fact of life these days. He figured if he had to clean out Hilde's stall one more time, he'd bust. He wished he knew the hex for making all that manure disappear.
Grandpa said the German folk down in Pennsylvania knew how to do it-how to throw a pow-wow that would tell the future or set a broken bone or turn a whole pile of cow manure into sunshine and air. But Grandpa was old. In reality he was Pa's Grandpa, and his mind wasn't what it used to be. He could barely recollect the cure for the wanderlust, let alone the more useful hexes.
There was no denying the old man was forgetful. Deb thought it funny that his great-grandpa should remember the things that happened to him away back in the War for Independence, but something as important as telling the future had plumb slipped his mind.
"Well maybe I'll just figure it out on my own," Deb told himself as he snuck down the path toward the creek.
He figured he'd start with the cure for the wanderlust. He could tell easy if it worked because he had that ailment something fearful. If his longing to pack a knapsack and light out through the new spring woods disappeared then the hex was sure. Not that he really wanted to heal himself of the malady. He liked dreaming of all the places he'd never been. He just figured he could always get the sickness back later when it suited him. Right now it was the hexing that had his curiosity.
He'd need a toad. There were plenty along the banks of the chattering creek-he only had to poke about through the new growth of orchard grass and the damp and rotting leaves left over from last fall. He and cousin Tam had dug for toads every spring since he could remember, but she was gone now-she and her pa moved off to Winfield along with Deb's sister Lydia and her husband Brady. Deb missed Tam. It was her that gave him his nickname, Deb. All because her baby tongue had got all tangled up around his given name-Jacob. Some folks thought his nickname a little funny for a boy, but to him it sounded just fine, like it had always been his. A gift from cousin Tam.
But all that was nothing to the point. Tam would've been scared of the hexing.
"Aha. There you are."
A big, fat toad hunkered down in the muck beneath the log Deb pushed aside. It blinked one lazy eye and then the other, then flattened itself further into the mud. Deb reached for the toad, using a handkerchief as a ward against the warts.
"Just hold still there," he said.
The toad seemed obliging enough, though when Deb picked it up, its hind legs twitched in complaint. Deb peeked over his shoulder toward the house. Ma would skin him if she knew what he was up to. She didn't hold with Grandpa's talk of magic or charms-not in her Christian house. She wouldn't even let Grandpa hide a shoe up the chimney flue to keep the bad luck from slipping in.
So despite Ma's Good Book warnings wrangling about in the back of his head, Deb crept into the orchard toward the burning place with the toad squelched up in his hand. His twelfth birthday would be next week. He might as well deserve all twelve licks Pa was going to give him.
With another look over his shoulder, he snuck out into the sun-drenched clearing. A pile of ashes marked the place where this year's prunings had already been burned. Ma said they should save the twigs and branches for kindling in the fireplace, but Grandpa was hard-headed about that. She could do what she liked with the house, he said, but the orchard was his. He insisted that the virtue of the cuttings, pruned under the last full moon of winter, be returned to the soil.
The bang of a closing door echoed through the morning air. Any moment Ma would know Deb wasn't in the barn cleaning Hilde's stall. He hadn't much time. With his heel he dug a circle in the dirt, near two feet across. He placed the toad in the center and recited the words Grandpa had taught him.
"Feet a turning..."
The toad hopped out of the circle.
f0"Dang it, get back here."
He scooped up the toad and set it in its place.
"Feet a turning, heart a churning..."
The toad jumped off toward the apple trees. Hunched over, Deb chased after it, snatching with his hands at tufts of grass and empty air.
"C'mon, you... Gotcha."
The toad squirmed out of his grip and leapt toward freedom, but Deb snagged it by the leg.
"Now you stay put."
The toad blinked its eyes. It opened and closed its mouth. Deb blurted out the words as fast as he could remember them:
Feet a turning,
heart a churning,
yearnings of a body free.
Hearth a warming,
back to domesticity.
The toad shifted about to face the morning sun. It hunkered down and squinched its eyes closed in the warmth and remained in the circle.
"It works," Deb cried. "The hex works!"
To test his own feelings he gazed down the long rows of apple trees and opened his heart to the full lure of springtime. White blossoms fluttered in the air, spinning and twirling like a sweet smelling snowfall. Sunlight dappled the earth beneath the branches, turning the splurge and orchard grass a golden-green. Deb looked up into the deep blue of the sky. A breeze touched his cheek. He felt an itching to head out, striding long-legged through the trees and over the hills to see all the wild places Grandpa had told him about.
The hex hadn't worked at all. The whole of outdoors was conspiring against him.
Deb kicked at the toad and sent it hopping away toward the creek. Maybe Grandpa had remembered the spell wrong.
"Young man! Why aren't you about your chores?"
0Deb gulped. Ma stood beneath an apple tree, wiping her hands on her apron. He hoped she hadn't heard the hex. She wouldn't wait for his birthday to use the willow switch. He shuffled his feet about in the dirt to hide the circle.
"You get back to the barn," she said. "Your pa would wear you out if he found you here, 'stead of doing your chores."
Deb breathed in relief. "Yes'm."
"Now get busy."
"And when you've finished in the barn, your pa will need you out in the field. You know he's plowing today and could use your help. Now get."
Deb followed Ma out of the orchard, lagging behind as much as he dared. As she stalked off toward the house, Deb trudged to the barn. His yearning to pack a knapsack burned stronger than ever.
"Dull," he muttered. "Just plain dull."
He led Hilde out of her stall and tied her to a post. She would be calfing soon and was kept here in the barn instead of out in the meadow with the rest of the cattle. It would be her first birth, so Pa wanted to keep an extra watch on her.
Deb pitched the straw and manure into a wheelbarrow. He wished Tam were there. At least she would understand his feelings-even if he were tempted to toss a pitchfork of dirty straw in her hair. He grinned at the thought.
Once the stall was cleaned and new straw strewn about, Deb paused to rest. He was in no hurry to get out to the field to watch Pa with the plowing-to stand ready in case Pa had something for him to fetch-or to pull another rock from beneath the plow's blade.
He shuffled over to Betsy's stall. "You're lucky," he said, stroking the old mare's neck. "At least you don't have to pull the plow no more."
And then he had an idea. "You wanna go for a ride?"
He figured he might as well earn the rest of those birthday licks.
Clear over at the farm in Winfield, Tam peeked into the root cellar. Her hand clutched fast the rickety door, like she couldn't decide whether to go in or just leave it be. It wasn't that she was scared of spiders or other creepy things. It was only that she didn't trust the dark, especially after waking up this morning to such a terrible premonition. She couldn't remember if it had been a dream or waking thought that had left her feeling twitchy inside, but she knew it had something to do with cousin Deb and trouble.
Standing in the doorway, she wished she had a lantern. A body could never be sure what was waiting inside all that blackness. Squirming bugs were one thing, but folk from the unseen world were another all together. Though a lantern would've helped, Pa wouldn't allow her to use one in the daytime. He said it was a waste of oil, and with their new farm mortgaged up to Mister Simons, they didn't dare to spare a drop. So Tam had to be quick to beat whatever might be lurking there.
She was after turnips.
The cool, damp air of the cellar brushed her face like spider webs. It smelled of moldering earth, winter-old taters, wet burlap, and darkness. The gunny-sack full of turnips was set along the far wall. Carrots were close, right inside the door, but Pa wanted turnips. She inched forward, letting her eyes get accustomed to the dim interior before she had to leave the sunlight at her back. Her heart rattled up against her insides, making her want to skinny back out into the day.
She shook her hands at her side. "Just hurry," she whispered. And so she did, but in her hurry she stumbled over a lump of something on the floor. She fell headfirst into a bag of taters. She could tell by their sour smell.
She scrambled forward, tore open a sack, and quick as a squirrel, scurried out into daylight with four turnips clutched to her chest. But her heart continued its hammering. It seemed all that darkness had chased out into the yard with her. She hurried to sit on the milking stool beneath the chestnut tree to calm herself, but missed and landed plop on the ground with her skirt flying up about her. She nearly lost the turnips.
The scared feeling wouldn't leave. It was just like the premonition of this morning-like darkness in the bright light of day. It was the same feeling she had when Ma took ill and never got any better. And no matter how much Tam shook her head and stomped her feet, the feeling wouldn't leave her be.
"Deb," she whispered. And then she fell to sobbing into the turnips for no reason she could tell.
Deb couldn't remember whether Grandpa had said a hawk sitting on a fence was good luck or bad. Grandpa knew all the portents-horseshoes, iron nails bent south, hooting owls-but as Deb rode Betsy out from the barn he couldn't remember what Grandpa had said about hawks.
Deb spied the fierce looking bird perched on the fence post clear up across the yard, beneath the twin oak trees. It looked so strong and wild, he decided it must be good luck. Still, he steered Betsy away from the house and Mama, just to be sure.
"C'mon." Deb clicked his tongue. "Move them old legs."
Though Betsy no longer had to pull the plow, she was still plenty game. Deb raced her along the fence, his knees squeezed tight to keep from bouncing off her bare back. The hawk leapt into the sky with a sweeping flap of wings. Betsy's hooves dug up muddy clods of earth that rained back to the ground behind them.
"Yehaw!" Deb cried.
They swept around the yard and galloped toward the orchard. The wind in his hair and the whipping of Betsy's mane in his face felt so grand, he didn't care whether Ma saw him now or not. He turned Betsy back toward the field and headed straight for the fence.
"Let's see if you're still a jumper," he said.
Betsy's breath came in snorts as she pounded up the hillside. Deb could feel her gathering for the leap. But then she slipped, her front legs splaying before her. She slid sideways and crashed through the fence. Deb felt himself flying through the air. He almost laughed at the thrill of it, but when he hit the ground, a jolting blow sent a shock of pain through his body.
In a daze, he tried to move, but the hurt was more than he could bear. All he could do was lie there and stare at the sky. The hawk soared high overhead, its outstretched wings a silhouette against the deep blue of spring.
Must be bad luck, Deb thought, and then his mind fluttered away with the hawk.
Copyright © 2005 Randall Wright
This text is from an uncorrected proof.