A Short Story by TA Barnes
The fog had settled in mid-afternoon, turning the world beyond her front porch to a soft white. It was comfortable. She didn’t mind the slight chill that came with it, but wrapped her sweater tight round her shoulders, rocking without thought.
Not entirely without thought. There were the frays on the sleeves of her sweater that troubled her. She needed to mend them. She could mend them, couldn’t she? Well, for pity’s sake, of course she could mend them. Where were her needles and her yarn? In their basket, naturally, where they always were, just back of the wood stove, out of the way but within easy reach in the long evenings. She’d get them in a little while.
Something moved not far from her feet, emerging from the thick white fluff that had crept up her front steps to lap at the wooden floorboards like a soft, quiet sea. She peered without alarm, squinting through these terrible glasses that someone insisted she wear. Eddie, of course, she could see his gray-striped face now as he topped the last step and strutted as only cats can do to her feet, where he brushed against her legs, just above the little white socks that seemed to always sag and annoy her.
“Oh, you bad cat, where have you been? I called you just a minute ago. I’ve been looking all over for you.”
It was true. She spent a large part of almost every day looking for Eddie, who seemed never to mind one way or another, simply showing up when it suited him, as cats do.
“I’ll feed you in a minute, you bad boy.”
She reached to pat his head as he rubbed against her leg. He purred briefly, then plopped on the planks by her feet for an elaborate bath.
There was no need for more thought for a little while. The fog might have thickened. She certainly couldn’t see a thing beyond the porch rail. Had she brought in the wood for the evening’s fire? It might be difficult to make her way to the woodshed now, mightn’t it? Of course not. Hadn’t she walked that path at least once or twice every afternoon of her life for … how long was it?
Oh, it didn’t matter. Long enough. She could certainly find the silly woodpile if she wanted to. And hadn’t she already brought in the evening’s wood? Or did that boy do it now? He seemed always to be hanging around. Was he Sally’s boy—no, Sally’s boy never came home from the war.
Billy never came home either, but that was a different war, wasn’t it? Oh, there was always a war somewhere.
“You bad cat. Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you.”
There was no breeze to clear the puffs of white that seemed to roll this way and that out in the yard beyond the porch. If there had been a breeze, it would have pushed this silly fog on up the hollow and further up the mountain. Then she would have been able to see her pretty yard, the picket fence encircling it just beyond the old pear tree, the hard-packed gravel of the lane just beyond her gate.
Well, she didn’t need to see it to know it was there. It’s good to know what’s around you. She had thought it a thousand times if once. A shadow passed somewhere, an unpleasant suggestion of a thought.
That boy. Had he said something today or maybe yesterday? He wanted to take her somewhere didn’t he?
Well, it wasn’t going to happen. She had been born right here in this little house by the road and when it came time to move on into the next world, she’d leave from right here. She wasn’t going anywhere.
What about Eddie if she went away?
“Eddie, where are you, you bad cat?”
Eddie moved to rub against her leg and she jumped a little. “There you are, you scoundrel. I’ve been looking for you everywhere. I’ll feed you in a minute. Let’s just sit and enjoy the evening, shall we?”
She ruffled the hair on his head and he purred briefly.
Maybe she dozed. That was how it worked these days. Moments rose from nowhere. Like waking up. She lectured herself about getting lazy.
The afternoon chill had sharpened. She drew her sweater tight above her breast, shivering. There was something she needed to do. Had she brought in the wood? She would go look in a minute.
“Eddie? Where are you? Kitty, kitty? Come here, you bad boy. Where’ve you been?”
Eddie leaped easily into her lap and she smiled, stroking his head with a fine white hand lined with thin ribbons of blue. “You mustn’t go wandering so much, Eddie. I miss you when you go.”
And Billie. What of Billie? She missed him, too. When would that terrible war be done?
Eddie purred and she scratched his ears and stroked his fur, rocking. She could see across the road now to her crooked old mailbox on its cedar post. How Daddy would chuckle if he could know that old box still stood. He’d been worried that those blasted automobiles flying along there would bang it. Now a horse-drawn vehicle would never hit it, even if the driver was stone drunk because any horse that wasn’t blind in both eyes would steer well clear of it. His only comfort had been that with the passing of this silly craze, the automobile would go the way of all unnatural things and the world, including their country lane, would return to normal.
Daddy would be coming along through the mist from the Johnson’s field up the road at any moment, wouldn’t he? My, was it that late? And she sitting here like a southern belle, no supper fixed, no fire burning. But Mama would….
Mama was gone, of course, and Daddy, too. How long now? It was good that Daddy hadn’t stayed around to see what happened to their little road—all those cars now and almost never a horse.
That Billy was a horseman. Daddy always said the young man had a touch. That made it easier to accept him coming round to sit on the front porch with his rough hands clasped between his knees, that old felt hat beside him on the swing and him stuttering and stammering in answer to Daddy’s questions. She usually stood outside the front door at times like those, one hip cocked against the clapboard wall, ready to spring to bring him more iced tea, or to follow to his horse tied under the maple if he stood to leave.
Daddy never meant to be mean, but he just dearly loved to talk horses and Billy was his man for that. He’d sit there in his favorite chair at the corner of the porch, carving away at a piece of ash, leading them through forty years of working with horses. She’d fret and watch the sun move from beyond the pear tree to the far corner of the yard, knowing how long each story would take and which one would follow, feeling each moment with Billy draining away, wasted in useless talk about horses. She didn’t have it in her to hate Daddy, but she wanted to just sock him sometimes, when he’d forget himself and monopolize her young man that way on an otherwise perfectly delightful Sunday afternoon.
Mama usually rescued her, coming out to drag Daddy off for some chore she’d made up for the occasion. Mama understood. It hadn’t been that long since she was just a thing of a girl, too.
Mama liked Billy. She’d been happy for her when she came flying home that Saturday afternoon to fling her hand in Mama’s face to show off the shining new ring. May, wasn’t it? They’d ridden up to Panther Falls and spread a blanket on the flat rock above the waterfall. They ate in the warm sunshine and smiled and talked about nothing and she had wondered why he kept fidgeting so. Billy was never a talker, and he did seem to get muddled sometimes when they were together, but today he just couldn’t keep still. He’d looked at her like there was something he wanted to say. Then of a sudden he’d spring to his feet and pace to the edge of the rock, looking into the deep pool, talking about some silly trout.
Finally he’d whirled to face her, hands clenched at his sides, his face contorted like he had a bellyache. “Well, Annabelle, I’ll be good to you, I swear I will. I’ll work hard and we’ll get ourselves a little place and raise some good horses and you can have one of those Sears and Roebuck machines that does your sewing and….”
“Billy Halverson, whatever are you talkin’ about,” she had stammered, her breath gone out and her face feeling hot because there wasn’t much mistaking what he was trying to say.
“You just gotta marry me, Annabelle. I can’t think straight and I can’t do anything right anymore and all I want to do is be with you. You just gotta.”
She had risen to her feet without knowing it and found herself moving to him, moving fast as a young mountain girl can do. Then he was in her arms and she was hugging him and he was hugging her and she worried she would cry until she realized they weren’t on the ground anymore but in the air and falling fast.
They hit the water still entwined and sunk together and came up spluttering and gasping and howling in laughter until they sank again and had to come to their senses enough to swim to the shallow end of the pool where they dragged up onto a rock and lay gasping, tears in her eyes and joy as big as the mountains in her heart.
It was cold. It wouldn’t do to sit here all day blubbering like this and thinking about the past. She pulled her sweater closer and shuddered a little. They’re going to take me away. That’s what that boy said. He’s a hateful boy, always hanging round when he’s not wanted.
Eddie didn’t like him. He’d run when he saw him coming, his ears flattened and the ruff of fur on his back straight up. Sometimes he’d growl deep in his throat as he stalked away.
And this business of taking her away. It would never do. This was her home like it was Mama’s. Hadn’t she stroked Mama’s forehead in her lap on the big couch just in there, in Mama’s Company Room; stroked her forehead and told her Daddy was waiting for her? Hadn’t Mama smiled and told her this was her home now and that she needed to find a nice young man to share it?
Hadn’t she told Mama that she had Billy just as sure as ever and it would be just fine? Billy didn’t come back from that war and they both knew it but it seemed better to let her go off that way, believing he’d be round to take care of her.
My, it had gotten chilly. There were things to do. A body shouldn’t sit around all evening trying to see things through the fog. The Lord knew there was always work to do. Sitting was for old folks who couldn’t do for themselves.
“Eddie? We have to get up now, Eddie. Got to get some wood in. The evening’s going to be cool. I’m going to fix you a special treat tonight. I think I have some of that tuna you like and we’ll just split a can, you and me. How about that?
“So you get on down, now, you bad cat. We can’t be sitting here all day like rich folks.”
Eddie ignored her as cats will do, licking a paw and rubbing it behind his ear, squirming a little on her lap to get more comfortable.
The fog was falling back again, making it hard to see past the mailbox, so it was the sound of hooves out on the road that drew her attention. She cocked her head and listened hard. Two horses, traveling easy.
Laughing, first a girl, then a young man. Silver in the evening, the ring of it. Like music. Like she remembered so well.
Dark shapes moving along the lane from up the mountain. Two horses, she could see them now, hear their shod hooves on the gravel, the squeak of leather in their saddles, the jingle of their bits; could even smell their scent, thick and moist, blowing toward her through the mist. Riders now, outlined above their mounts, one with flowing hair like hers had been once. The young man wore a battered hat and sat the horse with ease. He didn’t see her there on the porch with Eddie cleaning his whiskers on her lap.
She leaped to her feet in a joy that felt new to her, leaped and ran to the railing, flew down the steps and out across the flat stones of the walk to the gate. She caught herself as she started to throw it open. It wouldn’t do to burst out like that as though she had no upbringing. But who was that pretty girl, long hair flowing, riding skirt shimmering above her boots, gloved hand reining in to smile at her standing there?
She knew that girl, but Lord she was forgetful these days.
“Who’s that you’ve got with you?” she asked him as they passed. She strained to hear an answer.
“Don’t be long,” she called after them, two shadows disappearing down the road.
She knew that girl.
She turned and moved to the porch, glanced back to the silent road before she climbed the steps. She was smiling.
The fog was thicker now, even here on this old porch.
Eddie paid no mind. He just kept sitting on her lap, in their chair, as though waiting on something.