Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Gift

Sally Selkirk was born in the hills of West Virginia during a storm at a time when doctors still came to your house to deliver babies.

The doctor arrived in his Model T Ford and calmed the over wrought father immediately. He set him about taking care of the older children and went in to his wife who had been laboring for what seemed like days to her husband, but was a few hours by the clock. Soon after the doctor arrived he delivered a golden child whose lusty screams echoed in the still mountain air. Her hair was like golden strawberries and she soon quieted as she was put to the breast. After her screaming entry she was the quietest of children.

Sally was a tiny baby with eyes that followed everyone in a peculiarly fixed way as if, despite newborn babies' eyes being unfocused and cloudy, she could see clearly and understand what she saw.

The doctor called to Sally's father and he stumbled into the room, weary and worn as though he and not his wife had labored to bring forth the sunny and smiling child. As he marveled at his daughter's bright blue eyes and dimpled cheeks as she nursed, the doctor quietly left. He got into his car and drove down the muddy and pitted road and into a tree. The doctor never made it home. As Sally took her first breaths the doctor took his last.

Sally grew up during the Depression, that time of want and fear when jobs were scarce and families moved west, always west, to find work and enough money to lie. But Sally's father was an itinerant minister who had a green thumb. As her family moved around from church to church, the one constant in their lives was a kitchen garden. Sally's family didn't have much money but they always had food so she grew up knowing the smell and feel of the earth in all seasons. She was a happy child of sunshine and light. Clouds, earth, flowers, scents, and mountain life drew her attention, as did the strangers who invariably came to their kitchen door looking for food or odd jobs. Strangers meant new faces at the kitchen table with tales of other roads, other meals, and other people.

Everyone who came to their door fascinated Sally, but her mother, a timid soul, was not. Reverend Selkirk was usually visiting the sick or tending to the first and last rites of the lives under his care and seldom home when travelers displaced by failing crops, lack of work, or circumstance came to their door. Sally greeted them with an insatiable curiosity and her mother, Emma, greeted them with wary fear masked by politeness.

One such morning, Sally sat at the kitchen window seat gazing up at the clouds, which, to her, were a great golden frame ready to be filled by something special. She waited for the frame to be filled when a ragged man walked up the track leading to their kitchen door. He scuffed up dust. Grasshoppers bounded out of his way. The magpies scolded him from the willow tree. As he crested the rise, Sally saw him clearer.

His battered fedora, stained with sweat and summer dust, crouched on his head. His clothes were dusty and frayed around the edges, but they were clean. Fading creases marked the line of his pants and the sleeves of his shirt. Something about the man didn't seem right. His face was drawn down with heat and strain, but Sally saw something more, something undefined about him. He looked like a summer mirage shimmering to life as if he had been created the moment she saw him on the road.

"Mama, man on the road."

Emma wiped flour on her apron and pushed a sweaty ringlet off her cheek. "Where's the Reverend?"

"Down to the Millers. Bud's funeral."

Emma stood beside Sally and looked cautiously out the window. Sally reached for one floured hand. "Don't worry, Mama," she said as the man walked up to the porch and kicked the dust from his shoes. He pulled his hat off and nodded.

A quick smile quirked the corners of his mouth. "Afternoon, Ma'am." He bobbed his head. "Wouldn't have a cool drink of water and a bit of work?"
Sally squeezed her mother's hand and nodded up at her.

Emma shook her off. "Need some wood for the stove and more water drawn." She nodded toward the pump near the back step.

"I'll show you the wood pile." Sally jumped down from the window seat.

Emma grabbed for Sally's arm, but Sally was out the screen door before she could move. The screen door banged in the still, hot air. Sally skipped off the step and around the pump, glancing over her shoulder to see if the man was following. He sketched a bow and nodded before he put on his hat and followed Sally.

Grasshoppers whirred in the grass and birds called softly from the willow at the edge of the kitchen garden. Emma softly closed the door and went back to kneading bread, ears alert for one discordant sound. She paused every few seconds and listened, punched the dough and soon fell into the rhythm of pushing and pulling the dough on the floury wooden table.

Emma scored the loaves before putting them on the bread board and shoveling them into the oven as Sally raced through the screen door. It banged against the house. Emma looked up. "How many times I got to tell you..." She stopped in mid sentence as the man shuffled through the door with enough wood for a week in his arms. "Over there." Emma gestured to the wood box beside the stove and backed slowly away, her eyes alert for any sudden moves.

He seemed to sense her barely contained fear and kept to the far edge of the table. He sidled past the sink and knelt to place the wood and kindling in the box. Finished, he rose and backed away. "I'll get the water, ma'am."

Emma nodded toward the bucket by the sink. He backed toward it and picked it up then backed toward the door. Sally held the door open and followed him as he turned on the porch and stepped off toward the well. Sally's chatter burst through the open door like a shaft of sun through storm clouds. Emma's fears eased. She pushed the oven door shut and turned back to the table. She scraped the remaining flour into a mound, added more, and broke three brown eggs into the well in the middle. She scattered salt and pepper over the golden yolks and mounded the flour over them. Emma kneaded the egg-flour mixture and patted it flat. She floured the rolling pin and flattened the patty of eggy dough as Sally rushed through the door.

Emma barely looked up as the man carried the wet bucket to the sink and carefully put it down. He hadn't spilled a drop even though Sally bounced around him like a jumping jack. Sally dropped to the floor in a heap and the man quickly knelt beside her. His fingers touched her neck under her chin.

"She's all right. Just fainted."

"She has done this before. Too much heat and excitement," Emma said.

The man closed his eyes. He cupped Sally's forehead and the nape of her neck. The grasshoppers stopped whirring in the yard and the magpies didn't argue. Emma knelt beside the man. She reached for Sally's head and felt heat rising from his hands. She gingerly touched his fingers and pulled back with a hiss. His hands were hotter than the stove.

Sally blinked and sat up.

"I'll get some water," he said as Emma reached for her child. She cradled Sally in her arms and looked up at the man's back. He turned and smiled gravely as he offered the dripping cup to Emma. "She's fine."

Emma nodded and took the cup. Sally sipped noisily and pushed the rest away. "I'm all right, mama."

"You gotta keep quiet. Doc Soames said so."

Sally nodded and smiled. "I know. No skipping, no jumping, no running in this heat." She shook her head. "No fun," she said and smiled again.

Emma helped Sally up and the man offer his hand to help Emma. She took it. "Your hands were hot as Hades."

"Gets that way sometimes."

Emma glanced at Sally's forehead and the back of her neck as she hopped up on the kitchen chair and picked up a knife. She didn't seem any different. There were no burns on her forehead or her neck, but Emma was sure there would be. "Don't cut them noodles yet. Roll the dough out more."

Sally dropped the knife and picked up the rolling pin. It was nearly bigger than she was. Flour sifted over her clothes and puffed up in her face as she bent over the dough.

"I'd like to pay you for your kindness."

" You'll eat with us," Emma said.

" I have a gift for you. I can only give it to a woman."

Emma started back, her hand reaching for the cleaver on the chopping block.

"It was give to me by a woman and I have to pass it on the same way. Man to woman to man. That's how the secret goes."

"I don't want it, mister. You keep it for someone else. Your family. Your kids."

"No kids and no family. You don't have to keep it long, but when you give it away it must be to a man. No one else must be around. Tell him he has to give it to a woman and she must give it to a man. It's very important."

"No need to give it to me. I can't use it."

"Yes, you can ma'am. And you'll need it soon." He reached for Emma's hand. She let him take it. His fingers were cool as they wrapped around hers.

"Give it to me." Sally reached out her hands.

"Can't do that, Sally. You're too young."

Emma stared into the man's green eyes. Funny how she hadn't noticed how clear and bright they were. Like a forest pool sparkling beneath the sun. She dove into the cool green waters of his eyes as he moved closer and whispered in her ear. Emma shivered as his cool words washed over her. She nodded quietly as he spoke.

She was still caught in a trance when she realized he had moved away toward the steps. "I'll sit out here in the shade 'less you need something else, ma'am."

Emma shook herself and reached for the knife.

"I'll do it, mama," Sally said.

"Don't cut them too big. They have to last for dinner and supper tonight. If you cut them small enough we can have them for dinner tomorrow, too."
Emma dipped water into a big pot and strewed salt from the cellar into it. She pulled the cover off the burner and checked the fire. Still going. She'd have to put in more wood when the bread was done, but it would do for now, she thought.

Playing in the corners of her mind was the knowledge the man had whispered. She could stop bleeding, no matter how much, with his secret. She didn't want the burden, but the Reverend would. It was proper that she give the secret to him. Didn't matter that she wouldn't know it once she passed it on. She didn't need it. It was too much responsibility for Sally, but it was too much for her, too. The Reverend would know what to do.

Emma replaced the burner on the stove and set the water to boil. She turned back to the table and shook out the thin curling folds of noodle dough into strips. Sally carefully cut the rest of the dough as Emma loosely worked flour onto the strips. Yes, she thought, the Reverend would know just what to do.

Sally slowly and carefully cut the rest of the folded dough into strips. She glanced out the door when she heard her father's voice. He was greeting the man. She knew her mother would give the secret to her father, but he would tell Sally when she was old enough. It was knowledge she kept safe from her mother.

Sally’s father never denied her anything; he’d tell her because the gift was meant for her all along, except she was too young now. That was what the man told Sally when she fainted, that it would ultimately be her gift.


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