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The Moonflower Vine
My father had a farm on the western side of Missouri, below the river, where the Ozark Plateau levels to join the plains. This is a region cut by creeks, where high pastures rise out of wooded valleys to catch the sunlight and fall away over limestone bluffs. It is a pretty country. It does not demand your admiration, as some regions do, but seems glad for it all the same. It repays you with serenity, corn and persimmons, blackberries, black walnuts, bluegrass and wild roses. A provident land, in its modest way. The farm lay in its heart two hundred acres on a slow brown stream called Little Tebo.
The nineteenth century had not yet ended when my parents, Matthew and Callie Soames, first came to the farm. They arrived newlywedded, with a teakettle, a featherbed, and a span of mules. Later they went to live in a small town, where my father taught school. Sometimes they came back to the farm for the summer. After many years they came home to stay. They painted the house and propped up the old gray barn, bought a bull and a butane tank, and lived here the year around, as happy as if they were hale and twenty instead of a frail old pair who would not see seventy again.
My sisters and I used to visit them on the farm. We came each summer—Jessica from deep in the Ozarks, Leonie from a little town in Kansas, and I from New York, where I worked in television, then a new industry, very mysterious to my family. To me, and somewhat to my sisters, these visits were like income tax, an annual inconvenience. There were always so many other ways we could have spent the time. But, old as we were, our parents werestill the government. They levied the tribute and we paid it.
Once we got there, we were happy enough. We lapsed easily into the old ways, cracked the old jokes, fished in the creek, ate country cream and grew fat and lazy. It was a time of placid unreality. The lives we lived outside were suspended, the affairs of the world forgotten and our common blood remembered. No matter that our values differed now, that we had gone our separate ways; when we met like this on familiar ground, we enjoyed one another.
I remember particularly a summer in the early fifties. Jessica's husband and Leonie's had stayed behind that year, one was a farmer, the other a mechanic, and neither could get away at the time. Only Leonie's boy had come with her. Soames was a tall, beautiful, disconsolate child who had just turned eighteen. In a few weeks he was leaving to join the Air Force, and Leonie could hardly bear it. Once he was gone, there was so much he would have left undone, so much unsaid, that neither of them would ever again have a chance to do or say. It was a sad time for them. For the rest of us, too, especially as the war was still going on in Korea. The war itself troubled us deeply, and it gave his leaving a special gravity. We could not think of one without the other. And yet, here in deep country, remote from the outside world, it was possible, for the moment, to think of neither. There was no daily paper. Nobody bothered with the radio. The little news that came our way seemed unreal and no concern of ours. Only the planes roaring over each day from an airbase on the north reminded us of danger, and soon even they lost their menace. Their shadows slipped across the pasture and yard like the shadows of clouds, hardly more sinister. The farm was a little island in a sea of summer. And a faraway war where young men were dying troubled us less than the shooting of one old man.
This had happened close to home, a mile or two up the road. A recluse farmer named Corcoran had been shot by his only son, a poor creature recently discharged from the army. My parents found the old man the next morning, rolled under a bed like a rug in summer and left there to die. He was still, though barely, alive. They drove him twenty miles to a hospital, my mother sitting in the back seat with the old man's head in her lap.
All this had taken place just before our arrival. On our last day but one, we were still talking about it.
"Poor old thing," said my mother, "be a blessing if he could die."
"Yes, it would," said my father. "Nobody to care for him at all."
"He was a grouchy old thing, but he doesn't deserve to suffer."
"How old is he?" I said.
"He must be seventy, at least," said my mother. The way she talked, he could have been her grandfather.
"Have they caught the boy?" said Soames.
"Wonder how come him to do that."
"I don't know," said my father. "Some say the old man was pretty hard on him."
"There were all kinds of tales!" my mother said. "About his daddy chainin' him in the smokehouse and all that. I never believed 'em."
"Idle gossip," said Dad. "The old man had a way of antagonizing people and they had to get back at him. He was rough and crude in his ways, but he wasn't mean."
"No, he wasn't. The boy was just odd, that's all. He wasn't quite right. I don't know how he got into the army."
"It figures." Soames grinned and got up.
"Oh, you're a sight!" Mama said, patting him on the seat of his jeans. "My goodness, we forgot to heat dishwater."
So ended the symposium on neighborhood violence. We pulled ourselves up from the table, all of us stupefied with food. We had dined on roast tenderloin, peas in pure cream, sliced green tomatoes browned in butter, and burnt-sugar cake for dessert. My mother set a country table, and dinner was at noon. The Moonflower Vine. Copyright © by Jetta Carleton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.