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The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I’ll do it! and then a woman grabbed her out from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop and shut the door and the cats went under the house. They wouldn’t let her near them anymore because she picked them up by their tails sometimes. Her arms were all over scratches, and the scratches stung. She had crawled under the house to find the cats, but even when she did catch one in her hands it struggled harder the harder she held on to it and it bit her, so she let it go. Why you keep pounding at the screen door? Nobody gonna want you around if you act like that. And then the door closed again, and after a while night came. The people inside fought themselves quiet, and it was night for a long time. She was afraid to be under the house, and afraid to be up on the stoop, but if she stayed by the door it might open. There was a moon staring straight at her, and there were sounds in the woods, but she was nearly sleeping when Doll came up the path and found her there like that, miserable as could be, and took her up in her arms and wrapped her into her shawl, and said, “Well, we got no place to go. Where we gonna go?”
If there was anyone in the world the child hated worst, it was Doll. She’d go scrubbing at her face with a wet rag, or she’d be after her hair with a busted comb, trying to get the snarls out. Doll slept at the house most nights, and maybe she paid for it by sweeping up a little. She was the only one who did any sweeping, and she’d be cussing while she did it, Don’t do one damn bit of good, and someone would say, Then leave it be, dammit. There’d be people sleeping right on the floor, in some old mess of quilts and gunnysacks. You wouldn’t know from one day to the next.
When the child stayed under the table they would forget her most of the time. The table was shoved into a corner and they wouldn’t go to the trouble of reaching under to pull her out of there if she kept quiet enough. When Doll came in at night she would kneel down and spread that shawl over her, but then she left again so early in the morning that the child would feel the shawl slip off and she’d feel colder for the lost warmth of it, and stir, and cuss a little. But there would be hardtack, an apple, something, and a cup of water left there for her when she woke up. Once, there was a kind of toy. It was just a horse chestnut with a bit of cloth over it, tied with a string, and two knots at the sides and two at the bottom, like hands and feet. The child whispered to it and slept with it under her shirt.
Lila would never tell anyone about that time. She knew it would sound very sad, and it wasn’t, really. Doll had taken her up in her arms and wrapped her shawl around her. “You just hush now,” she said. “Don’t go waking folks up.” She settled the child on her hip and carried her into the dark house, stepping as carefully and quietly as she could, and found the bundle she kept in her corner, and then they went out into the chilly dark again, down the steps. The house was rank with sleep and the night was windy, full of tree sounds. The moon was gone and there was rain, so fine then it was only a tingle on the skin. The child was four or five, long-legged, and Doll couldn’t keep her covered up, but she chafed at her calves with her big, rough hand and brushed the damp from her cheek and her hair. She whispered, “Don’t know what I think I’m doing. Never figured on it. Well, maybe I did. I don’t know. I guess I probly did. This sure ain’t the night for it.” She hitched up her apron to cover the child’s legs and carried her out past the clearing. The door might have opened, and a woman might have called after them, Where you going with that child? and then, after a minute, closed the door again, as if she had done all decency required. “Well,” Doll whispered, “we’ll just have to see.”
The road wasn’t really much more than a path, but Doll had walked it so often in the dark that she stepped over the roots and around the potholes and never paused or stumbled. She could walk quickly when there was no light at all. And she was strong enough that even an awkward burden like a leggy child could rest in her arms almost asleep. Lila knew it couldn’t have been the way she remembered it, as if she were carried along in the wind, and there were arms around her to let her know she was safe, and there was a whisper at her ear to let her know that she shouldn’t be lonely. The whisper said, “I got to find a place to put you down. I got to find a dry place.” And then they sat on the ground, on pine needles, Doll with her back against a tree and the child curled into her lap, against her breast, hearing the beat of her heart, feeling it. Rain fell heavily. Big drops spattered them sometimes. Doll said, “I should have knowed it was coming on rain. And now you got the fever.” But the child just lay against her, hoping to stay where she was, hoping the rain wouldn’t end. Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.
When the rain ended, Doll got to her feet, awkwardly with the child in her arms, and tucked the shawl around her as well as she could. She said, “I know a place.” The child’s head would drop back, and Doll would heft her up again, trying to keep her covered. “We’re almost there.”
It was another cabin with a stoop, and a dooryard beaten bare. An old black dog got up on his forelegs, then his hind legs, and barked, and an old woman opened the door. She said, “No work for you here, Doll. Nothing to spare.”
Doll sat down on the stoop. “Just thought I’d rest a little.”
“What you got there? Where’d you get that child?”
“Well, you better put her back.”
“Maybe. Don’t think I will, though.”
“Better feed her something, at least.”
Doll said nothing.
The old woman went into the house and brought out a scrap of corn bread. She said, “I was about to do the milking. You might as well go inside, get her in out of the cold.”
Doll stood with her by the stove, where there was just the little warmth of the banked embers. She whispered, “You hush. I got something for you here. You got to eat it.” But the child couldn’t rouse herself, couldn’t keep her head from lolling back. So Doll knelt with her on the floor to free her hands, and pinched off little pills of corn bread and put them in the child’s mouth, one after another. “You got to swallow.”
The old woman came back with a pail of milk. “Warm from the cow,” she said. “Best thing for a child.” That strong, grassy smell, raw milk in a tin cup. Doll gave it to her in sips, holding her head in the crook of her arm.
“Well, she got something in her, if she keeps it down. Now I’ll put some wood on the fire and we can clean her up some.”
When the room was warmer and the water in the kettle was warm, the old woman held her standing in a white basin on the floor by the stove and Doll washed her down with a rag and a bit of soap, scrubbing a little where the cats had scratched her, and on the chigger bites and mosquito bites where she had scratched herself, and where there were slivers in her knees, and where she had a habit of biting her hand. The water in the basin got so dirty they threw it out the door and started over. Her whole body shivered with the cold and the sting. “Nits,” the old woman said. “We got to cut her hair.” She fetched a razor and began shearing off the tangles as close to the child’s scalp as she dared—“I got a blade here. She better hold still.” Then they soaped and scrubbed her head, and water and suds ran into her eyes, and she struggled and yelled with all the strength she had and told them both they could rot in hell. The old woman said, “You’ll want to talk to her about that.”
Doll touched the soap and tears off the child’s face with the hem of her apron. “Never had the heart to scold her. Them’s about the only words I ever heard her say.” They made her a couple of dresses out of flour sacks with holes cut in them for her head and arms. They were stiff at first and smelled of being saved in a chest or a cupboard, and they had little flowers all over them, like Doll’s apron.
* * *
It seemed like one long night, but it must have been a week, two weeks, rocking on Doll’s lap while the old woman fussed around them.
“You don’t have enough trouble, I guess. Carrying off a child that’s just going to die on you anyway.”
“Ain’t going to let her die.”
“Oh? When’s the last time you got to decide about something?”
“If I left her be where she was, she’da died for sure.”
“Well, maybe her folks won’t see it that way. They know you took her? What you going to say when they come looking for her? She’s buried in the woods somewhere? Out by the potato patch? I don’t have troubles enough of my own?”
Doll said, “Nobody going to come looking.”
“You probly right about that. That’s the spindliest damn child I ever saw.”
But the whole time she talked she’d be stirring a pot of grits and blackstrap molasses. Doll would give the child a spoonful or two, then rock her a little while, then give her another spoonful. She rocked her and fed her all night long, and dozed off with her cheek against the child’s hot forehead.
The old woman got up now and then to put more wood in the stove. “She keeping it down?”
“She taking any water?”
When the old woman went away again Doll would whisper to her, “Now, don’t you go dying on me. Put me to all this bother for nothing. Don’t you go dying.” And then, so the child could barely hear, “You going to die if you have to. I know. But I got you out of the rain, didn’t I? We’re warm here, ain’t we?”
After a while the old woman again. “Put her in my bed if you want. I guess I won’t be sleeping tonight, either.”
“I got to make sure she can breathe all right.”
“Let me set with her then.”
“She’s clinging on to me.”
“Well.” The old woman brought the quilt from her bed and spread it over them.
The child could hear Doll’s heart beating and she could feel the rise and fall of her breath. It was too warm and she felt herself struggling against the quilt and against Doll’s arms and clinging to her at the same time with her arms around her neck.
* * *
They stayed with that old woman for weeks, maybe a month. Now it was hot and moist in the mornings when Doll took her outside, holding her hand because her legs weren’t strong yet. She walked her around the dooryard, cool under her bare feet, smooth as clay. The dog lay in the sun with his muzzle on his paws, taking no notice. She touched the hot, coarse fur of his back and her hand was sour with the smell of it. There were chickens strutting the yard, scratching and pecking. Doll had helped to start the garden, and how had she done that, when the child thought there had always been someone holding her? But the carrots were up. Doll pulled one, no bigger than a straw. “It’s soft as a feather,” she said, and she touched the child’s cheek with the little spray of greens. She wiped the dirt off the root with her fingers. “Here. You can eat it.”
There was an ache in the child’s throat because she wanted to say, I guess I left my rag baby back there at the house. I guess I did. She knew exactly where, under the table in the farthest corner, propped against the table leg like it was sitting there. She could just run in the door and snatch it and run off again. No one would have to see her. But then maybe Doll wouldn’t be here when she came back, and she didn’t know where that house was anyway. She thought of the woods. It was just an old rag baby, dirty from her hand, because mostly she kept it with her. But they put her out on the stoop before she could get it and the cats wouldn’t even let her touch them and then Doll came and she didn’t know they would be leaving, she didn’t understand that at all. So she just left it where it was. She never meant to.
Doll took the child’s hand away from her mouth. “You mustn’t be biting on yourself like that. I told you a hundred times.” They put mustard on her hand once, vinegar, and she licked them off because of the sting. They tied a rag around her hand, and when she sucked on it the blood came up and showed pink. “You might help me with the weeding. Give you something to do with that hand.” Then they were just quiet there in the sunlight and the smell of earth, kneeling side by side, pulling up all the little sprouts that weren’t carrots, tiny plump leaves and white roots.
The old woman came out to watch them. “She don’t have no color at all. You don’t want her getting burned. She’ll be scratching again.” She put out her hand for the child to take. “I been thinking about ‘Lila.’ I had a sister Lila. Give her a pretty name, maybe she could turn out pretty.”
“Maybe,” Doll said. “Don’t matter.”
* * *
But the old woman’s son came home with a wife, and there really wasn’t enough work around the place for Doll to be able to stay there anymore. The old woman bundled up as many things as Doll could carry and still carry the child, who wasn’t strong enough yet to walk very far, and her son showed them the way to the main road, such as it was. Then after a few days they found Doane and Marcelle. Doll might have been looking for them. They all said Doane had a good name, he was a fair-minded man, and if you hired him you could trust him to give you a day’s work. Of course it wasn’t just Doane. There was Arthur with his two boys, and Em and her daughter Mellie, and there was Marcelle. She was Doane’s wife. They were a married couple.
* * *
There was a long time when Lila didn’t know that words had letters, or that there were other names for seasons than planting and haying. Walk south ahead of the weather, walk north in time for the crops. They lived in the United States of America. She brought that home from school. Doll said, “Well, I spose they had to call it something.”
Once, Lila asked the Reverend how to spell Doane. What had he thought she meant? Done? Down? Maybe don’t, since she didn’t always sound her t’s? He was never sure what she knew and didn’t know, and it pained him for her sake when he guessed wrong.
He paused and then he laughed. “Mind putting it in a sentence?”
“There was a man called himself Doane. I knew him a long time ago.”
“Yes. I see,” he said. “I knew a Sloane once. S-L-O-A-N-E.” Old as he was, the Reverend still blushed sometimes. “So it might be the same. With a D.”
“When I was a child. I was thinking about old times the other day.” She wouldn’t have told him even that much except that she saw the blush deepen when she said once she knew a man.
He nodded. “I see.” The Reverend never asked her to talk about old times. He didn’t seem to let himself wonder where she had been, how she had lived all the years before she wandered into the church dripping rain. Doane always said churches just want your money, so they all stayed away from churches, walked right past them as if they were smarter than the other people. As if they had any money for the churches to want. But the rain was bad and that day was a Sunday, so there was no other doorway for her to step into. The candles surprised her. It might all have seemed so beautiful because she’d been missing a few meals. That can make things brighter somehow. Brighter and farther away. As if when you put your hand out you would touch glass. She watched him and forgot she was in the room with him and he would see her watching. He baptized two babies that morning. He was a big, silvery old man, and he took each one of those little babies in his arms as gently as could be. One of them was wearing a white dress that spilled down over his arm, and when it cried a little from the water he put on its brow, he said, “Well, I bet you cried the first time you were born, too. It means you’re alive.” And she had a thought that she had been born a second time, the night Doll took her up from the stoop and put her shawl around her and carried her off through the rain. She ain’t your mama, I can tell.
It seemed like that girl knew everything. Mellie. She could bend over backward till her hands were flat on the ground. She could do cartwheels. She said, “I know that woman ain’t your mama. She telling you things your mama would have told you already. Don’t go sucking on your hand? Like you was a baby? You probly an orphan.” She said, “I used to know an orphan once. Her legs was all rickety. Same as yours. She couldn’t talk neither. That’s probly why she was an orphan. She sort of turned out wrong.”
Mellie was curious about them, if the others were not. She would drift back to walk with them, and she would put her face close up to the child’s face, to stare at her. “She got that sore on her foot. That’s one thing. Put some dandelion milk on it. I got some here. I bet I could carry her. I could.” She’d be eating the bloom of a dandelion, the yellow part, or chewing red clover. She was pretty well brown with freckles, and her hair was almost white from the sun, even her eyebrows and eyelashes. “I hate these old coveralls. The boys about wore ’em out and now I’m wearing ’em. They’re mostly just patches. Doane says they’re better for working. I got a dress. My ma’s going to let the hem down.” And then she’d be off, walking on her hands.
Doll said, “She likes to pester. Don’t you mind.”
Lila didn’t talk then. Doll said, “She can. She just don’t want to.” It was partly that Doll gave her anything she needed. She still woke her up in the night sometimes to give her a morsel of cold mush. And Lila never even knew there was such a thing as cussing, till that old woman told her. It just meant leave me alone, most of the time. Once, she told that old woman she wisht she was in hell with her back broke, and the old woman yanked her up and gave her a swat and said, You got to stop that cussing. She’d gone off somewhere and come back with a little bottle of medicine for the sore on the child’s foot that didn’t heal, and it did smart when she put it on, but it hurt her feelings that the child would be hateful about it. Lila didn’t know where to hide, so she just went into a corner and curled up as small as she could, with her eyes shut tight. The old woman said, “Oh, mercy! Doll, come in here! She’s back in the corner again. Was there ever such a child!”
Doll came in and knelt down by her, smelling of sweat and sunshine, and lifted her into her lap. She whispered, “What you doing now, biting on that hand like a little baby!” The old woman brought the shawl, and Doll put it around her. And the old woman said, “She’s your child, Doll. I can’t do a thing with her.”
* * *
They never spoke about any of it, not one word in all those years. Not about the house Doll stole her away from, not about the old woman who took them in. They did keep that shawl, though, till it was worn soft as cobwebs. But she felt the thrill of the secret whenever she took Doll’s hand and Doll gave her hand a little squeeze, whenever she lay down exhausted in the curve of Doll’s body, with Doll’s arm to pillow her head and the shawl to spread over her. Years after she had become an ordinary child, if there were going to be people to deal with, Doll would whisper in her ear, “No cussing!” and they would laugh together, enjoying their secret. They didn’t even mention the nights they spent bedded down beyond the light of Doane’s fire, or the days walking behind Doane’s people, at a distance, as if they only happened to be going along on the same road.
They could keep to themselves because they had a bag of cornmeal and a little pot to cook it in. Every night Doll made a fire. As she walked she’d be looking for things they could eat. She caught a rabbit in her apron and killed it with a stone, and cooked it that night with a mess of pigweed. She found a nest of bird’s eggs. She found chicory and roasted the roots, which were medicine, she said, a cure for the bellyache. Then finally one morning she took up the child and walked after Doane’s people into a field of young corn and started pulling weeds in the rows where their hoes couldn’t reach, and they didn’t say a thing to her about it. The child stayed beside her, holding on to her skirt. When Marcelle brought a pail of well water for the others, she brought it to them, too. Doll thanked her, and held the cup to the child’s lips, and then she wiped her hand on her dress and dipped her fingers into the cup to wet them and rinse dust from the child’s face. Cold drops ran down her chin and throat and into the damp of her dress, and she laughed. Doll said, surprised, “Well, listen to you now!”
Marcelle was standing there, watching them, waiting to get the cup back. “I guess she been poorly for a while?”
Doll nodded. “She been poorly.”
“She could ride in the wagon. You got a lot to carry.”
“I keep her by me.”
“Then set your bedroll in the wagon.”
Doll never did put herself forward, but the next morning, when she had everything bundled up, Doane came and took it and set it on the wagon bed. He said, “We got some spuds in the ashes, ma’am. If you care to join us.”
And after that she and Doll were Doane’s people, too, most of the time, for as long as the times were decent. That would have been about eight years, counting backward from the Crash, not counting the year Doll made her go to school. Their own bad times started when the mule died, two years or so before everyone else started getting poorer and the wind turned dirty. It seemed like the whole world changed just at that time, the mule gone first, which made the wagon useless. They couldn’t even sell it, and they had to leave most of their things behind. The creature died on a lonely piece of road where they would not have been in the first place if it had shown any sign at all of what was about to happen to it. It just sank down on its knees and went over on its side while Arthur was trying to put it in the traces.
* * *
Lila heard about the Crash years after it happened, and she had no idea what it was even after she knew what to call it. But it did seem like they gave it the right name. It was like one of those storms you might even sleep through, and then when you wake up in the morning everything’s ruined, or gone. Most of the farmers that used to know Doane and Marcelle sold up and left, or just left, and the ones who stayed didn’t want any help, or couldn’t pay for it. But there were those few years when it seemed that they knew who they were and where they should be and what they should be doing. There were those few years when the child began to be strong and to grow, when Doll was still herself, when Mellie still pestered and played her pranks like some half-grown devil trying to mind its manners. Evenings Doane might be away from the camp a while, somewhere trading one thing for another for some small mutual advantage or settling terms with somebody for the work they would do. When he came back again he’d look for Marcelle, never saying a word, but when he saw her he would go and stand near her, and then whatever else might have been on his mind you could tell he was pretty well at peace.
They all thought it was a fine thing to live the way they did, out in the open like that, when the weather was tolerable. It seemed true enough as long as the good times lasted. If they were tired and dirty it was from work, and that kind of dirt didn’t even feel like dirt. Work meant plenty to eat and a few pennies for candy or ribbons or a dime for a minstrel show when they passed through a town. They never camped by a stream without bathing, and washing their clothes if the weather was good and they could stay long enough to let things dry. That was before the times when they began to be caught in the dust, and it would make them cough and cough, and the wind would blow it right through the clothes on their backs. But in those days they were proud people. If they could, they patched and mended and hemmed whatever needed it. They looked after what they had. Anybody could see that.
Copyright © 2014 by Marilynne Robinson