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"How about a wheelbarrow ride?" Sam asked. He tamped the earth around the base of the dogwood tree he had just planted.
Maddie looked doubtfully at the dirty wheelbarrow. Is that the way people got around in the country? In Manassas, she and her mother took the bus.
"Where to?" she asked.
"Mrs. Tompkins' house, just down the road," Sam said. "She wants to meet you."
The window in Maddie's bedroom screeched up. Her mother poked her head out. "Sam, the tree is beautiful. Maddie, did you know Sam dug that wild tree from the woods?"
"Mom, I'm riding in the wheelbarrow to Mrs. Tompkins'!"
"Oh, Maddie, I'm afraid it will rain."
Maddie hoped her mother wouldn't say no. "I don't care if I get wet."
Her mother glanced at Sam. "Doesn't it look like rain?"
"Let's ask Abraham. He'll know." Sam bent down to the big black cat that lay stretched in the grass.
Maddie laughed. "Ask a cat the weather!"
Abraham sat up and glared at Maddie with slitted eyes. She stopped laughing.
"Cats know more than people give them credit for," Sam said.
"How do they tell us?"
"They have ways." In a loud voice, Sam said, "Abraham, will it rain this afternoon?"
The cat yawned, then scratched behind his left ear.
"Sunny!" Sam declared.
Maddie's mother laughed. "If Abraham says so. Have fun, you two."
"What if it was going to rain?" Maddie asked Sam. "What would Abraham do?"
"Scratch his right ear," Sam replied.
Maddie looked at the cat with new respect. "I wish Abraham would sleep on my bed. But he doesn't even come when I call him. He doesn't like me."
"He doesn't know you yet. Give him time."
Before they married Sam, Maddie and her mother used to have Perfect Days. On Perfect Days, Maddie shared a maple walnut sundae at Rudy's, visited the library, and rubbed the left hoof of the horse statue in the park, for luck.
Now Maddie had a new father, her own bedroom in a real house, and a cat that could tell the weather. It was a lot to get used to all at once. She wondered if she would have Perfect Days in the country.
Sam tipped the wheelbarrow and brushed out the loose dirt. "Ready?"
"Can Buckingham come too?" Maddie never went anywhere without her stuffed donkey. Patches of gray fur had been worn away. Buckingham's legs hung like old socks. One arm dangled from a few threads.
Maddie worried that Sam would laugh at her about Buckingham, like the kids at school did. "Sissy-baby," they called her.
But Sam said, "Buckingham would probably like a change of scenery." He steadied the wheelbarrow so Maddie could climb in.
"Am I too big?" she asked.
"You're just the right size."
Maddie crawled into the wheelbarrow. "Mom says I'm small for eight. And my feet never grow. Other kids make fun of my feet."
"You just don't have as much turned up on the ground," said Sam.
Was that supposed to be funny? Should she laugh? Maddie bit her lip. She wished she knew what to say.
"Here we go." Sam lifted the handles and rolled the wheelbarrow across the yard.
Maddie tucked Buckingham between her knees. She gripped the sides of the wheelbarrow as she bumped down their driveway and onto the side of the road. The fat front tire bounced over gravel. It was hard keeping her rear end from bouncing, too.
"Okay?" Sam called.
"Ye-es-es-es!" Her voice juddered over each stone. They rolled past two houses and a barn. A pony with a shaggy mane stared at them. Maddie wanted to wave, but couldn't let go.
Sam turned at a battered mailbox. A white clapboard house sat on a tiny lawn. Ruffly pink flowers bloomed along the fence. A battered pickup truck hunkered in front of an old garage.
Sam stopped the wheelbarrow by the back porch. Several red hens flustered around, chuckling at their arrival.
A woman wearing an apron over men's pants stepped out of the house. She drew a handful of corn from her apron pocket and scattered the kernels in a wide arc. The hens waddled over to gobble their lunch.
"You must be Maddie," the woman said, smiling. "I'm Eliza Tompkins."
"Hi." Maddie climbed out of the wheelbarrow with Buckingham.
"Sam, why haven't you brought this child over sooner?"
"Sorry, Miss Eliza," he replied. "Between the garden and my orders and moving Maddie and Sharon's things into the house-"
"You could have come by for ten minutes," she chided. "Well, you're here now, Maddie. Come inside."
Maddie followed Mrs. Tompkins into the kitchen. It smelled like wet wool and woodsmoke, even though it was late summer. She looked around. A heavy wooden rocking chair draped with sweaters was pulled up to the stove. A leather Bible, bristling with bookmarks, rested on the table. Plants with purple flowers and fuzzy green leaves lined the windowsill.
Maddie liked this room. In their apartment in town, the kitchen was dark, with ugly yellow walls that stayed greasy no matter how hard her mother scrubbed them. Maddie touched one of the plants' fuzzy leaves. It was soft as a kitten's ear.
Sam came in and hung the red ballcap he always wore on a nail by the door. "I unloaded that sack of feed from your truck and put it in the chicken house."
"You're an angel." Mrs. Tompkins set a meringue-covered pie on the table. "I dropped a fork this morning, so I baked a pie."
"What?" asked Maddie.
Sam grinned at her as they sat down. "There's an old saying, 'Fork falls, lady calls.' Miss Eliza means she knew a lady was coming to visit."
"Oh." She was worried about the kind of filling under the blanket of meringue. What if it was lemon? She hated lemon.
"Butterscotch?" Sam asked Mrs. Tompkins.
"What else? Butterscotch is Sam's favorite." Mrs. Tompkins' knife sliced through a cloud of meringue. Underneath lay soft, brownish-yellow custard. She gave the first piece to Maddie.
"I've never had this kind before," said Maddie, taking the smallest bite possible. With her tongue, she smooshed the meringue against the roof of her mouth. It was good!
"How do you like living in the country, Maddie?" asked Mrs. Tompkins.
"I've only been here a week," Maddie said. She wasn't sure she liked living in the country, but didn't want to say so.
She did miss drawing with chalk on the sidewalk in front of their apartment building. And riding her bike. But there were no sidewalks in the country. And she couldn't ride her bike on the busy highway.
Mrs. Tompkins nodded at Buckingham, who was sitting quietly in Maddie's lap. "We haven't been properly introduced."
"This is Buckingham. I've had her since I was four." Maddie didn't say her father had given her the small donkey the morning he left Maddie and her mother.
"Her?" asked Mrs. Tompkins. "Isn't Buckingham a boy's name?"
"My Buckingham is a girl," Maddie said patiently. She always had to explain about Buckingham's name.
Mrs. Tompkins took Buckingham's paw, the one that was loose, and shook it gently. "Pleased to meet you." To Sam, she asked, "How's your garden doing?"
"I need to plow that last acre," he replied. "I saw that flat of cabbage plants by your shed. Better get them in the ground soon."
"Is it going to rain?" asked Mrs. Tompkins.
"Abraham says it will be sunny," Maddie said.
"That cat is never wrong," said Sam.
"Maddie," said Mrs. Tompkins. "I notice you came in the wheelbarrow taxi. Can you carry a piece of pie and an African violet for your mother?"
"Is that what those fuzzy plants are called?" Maddie asked.
"I've been raising African violets for forty years." Mrs. Tompkins went over to the windowsill. "Which one do you think your mother would like?"
Maddie considered the row of pots. Some were deep purple, some a lighter shade. Some had single blossoms, while others grew clusters of blossoms.
"That one." She pointed to a plant with light purple blooms.
"Good choice." Mrs. Tompkins ripped a paper sack in half. Then she set the pot into it. "Now you won't get dirt all over."
"Need me to do anything else before we go, Miss Eliza?" Sam asked.
"Thanks, Sam. Can't think of a thing right this minute."
Maddie lingered in the doorway. "Is this a farm?"
"Used to be," Mrs. Tompkins said. "Back when my husband was alive. We kept cows and goats and raised a truck garden. We were never blessed with children, but I had nearly a hundred laying hens. I still keep a few around for company."
"After Mr. Tompkins passed," Sam said, "Miss Eliza didn't need such a big place, so she sold most of the land. I bought five acres after I came home from the navy. She saved the prettiest parcel for me."
Maddie watched Mrs. Tompkins cut a large wedge of pie and wrap it in a see-through square of paper. Mrs. Tompkins handed the bundle to Maddie.
"This stuff is weird," Maddie said, touching the smooth paper. It felt like an almost used-up white crayon.
"It's wax paper," said Sam. "In the fall, we'll find leaves and make wax paper pictures. We'd better skedaddle. Your mother will think we joined the circus."
Mrs. Tompkins followed them outside. Tipping her head back, she studied the sky. "I still think it wants to rain."
"Here come your chickens," Maddie said.
"Did I call you?" Mrs. Tompkins asked them, her fists on her hips.
Unconcerned, the chickens eddied around her feet, hoping for more corn.
"Your chickens have names?" said Maddie.
"Of course. Chickens are all different, just like people." Mrs. Tompkins counted the milling red heads. "Somebody's missing. Maisie ... Sadie ... Lula ... Gert!"
"Gert's always fooling around," said Sam.
"Gert!" Mrs. Tompkins called. "Gertie Tompkins! Get over here!"
A chicken flew out from under a bush, yellow legs flying.
Mrs. Tompkins sighed. "Miss High-and-Mighty has a mind of her own."
Maddie was amazed. In the country, animals came when they were called! Though Abraham didn't come when she called him.
"Let's shove off, Maddie," Sam said.
"Thanks for the pie," Maddie said to Mrs. Tompkins.
"Tell your mama to come by. And don't you be a stranger neither."
How she could be a stranger after they'd met and even eaten pie together? Maddie scrambled into the wheelbarrow and held Buckingham between her knees. Sam put the plant and pie along one side.
The ride home seemed shorter, the way it always did when you had already been someplace.
"Look how fast we got here," she told Sam.
"It may seem fast to you, but not to me," he said, puffing up their driveway. "Going home it's uphill."
Maddie thought about her afternoon. The wheelbarrow taxi. Butterscotch pie. Wax paper. Meeting a chicken with a mind of its own. She never did those things in town.
Sam rolled the wheelbarrow into the shed.
They walked across the yard to the dogwood tree outside Maddie's window. Their shadows were caught in the branches of the tree's shadow.
Taller trees grew beyond Sam's workshop and the garden. The woods. Maddie's looked back at her dogwood. "How did you roll the wheelbarrow through the woods?" she asked.
"I couldn't," said Sam. "I carried the tree on my back."
A whole tree! That must have been heavy, Maddie thought.
"My tree doesn't look so good," she said. The leaves hung loose, like Buckingham's arm.
"It just needs to get used to living here," Sam said. "Once it sets roots, it'll be fine. You'll like this tree. It has white flowers in the spring. And red leaves in the fall with little red berries."
Abraham ambled over. Maddie wondered if the cat answered other questions besides the weather. Sam said his cat knew everything. Would Abraham know if she was going to like having a father again? Could he tell her if she would have Perfect Days in the country?
The cat sat on his haunches and scratched briskly under his chin.
"Look!" Maddie said. "Abraham is scratching in a new place. What does that mean?"
"Probably means change is in the air," Sam said.
Maddie still wasn't sure she could believe a cat.
"Maybe," she said, "Abraham has fleas."
"Sam, would you pick up some paint chips at the store today?" Maddie's mother said one morning. "We're painting your room this weekend, Maddie. What color would you like?"
"I don't know." Maddie had never picked out paint colors before. She'd never had a bedroom, either. In the apartment, she slept in the living room on a fold-out sofa.
Sam was writing out the bill for an oak cabinet he had finished the day before. He made furniture in his workshop.
"How about sky-blue pink?" he said to Maddie, rechecking his numbers.
"That's not a real color."
"It is a real color. Haven't you ever seen sky-blue pink?"
Maddie gave him a suspicious look. She still couldn't tell when Sam was teasing her. "Is this another one of those trick questions?"
He laughed. "You mean, like who is buried in Grant's tomb? What color is George Washington's white horse?"
Maddie couldn't believe she had been fooled by those silly riddles. A baby could have figured them out.
"Ready to work in the garden with me?" he asked.
"Let me get my shoes." She ran down the hall and into her bedroom.
Maddie loved her room. One window faced mountains Sam said were the Blue Ridge. She could make out gentle bluish hills through the branches of her dogwood tree. Sam watered her tree every night, and now the leaves were green and bright.
Her bed was tucked under the other window. If Maddie crawled to the foot, she could see Sam's workshop, the garden, and the woods lurking beyond.
At night Maddie pulled her shade to the windowsill. That's what she did at the apartment.
After her father went away, Maddie and Buckingham waited for him every day by the window. Maddie stared down at the street, but her father's car never rounded the corner.
Then her parents got a divorce. Maddie drew the shades near her fold-out sofa to keep out leaping shadows.
Here, the black trees reminded her of goblins. She wondered if the trees crept forward in the dark. If snakes and bears hid behind their trunks.
Buckingham leaned against Maddie's pillow.
"C'mon, Bucky. Let's go to the garden." She grabbed Buckingham, her tennis shoes, and raced back to the kitchen.
Maddie's mother was packing a lunch.
"Two sandwiches, peanut-butter crackers, brownies, and oranges," said Maddie's mother, putting napkins in Sam's gray metal lunch box. "Plus a thermos of sweet tea. That should hold you two." She clamped the thermos into the humped lid.
Maddie admired Sam's grown-up lunch box. Kid lunch boxes with cartoon characters on them seemed dumb to her. But this! This was a lunch box worth carrying.
Sam scooped the lunchbox off the counter. His arm swung down as if he'd just picked up a great weight.
"We're only going to plow that back acre, not half the county," he said.
Maddie's mother gave them a playful shove toward the door. "Maddie, be careful on that tractor."
Maddie ran out into the morning sunshine. A mockingbird fussed at them from the clothesline as they walked past Sam's workshop to the tractor shed.
Sam set the lunch box in the shade of the persimmon tree, then unlocked the door. A red and gray tractor dozed in the cobwebby gloom.
"What an old tractor," Maddie remarked. "It should be in a museum!"
"Lots of people would give their eyeteeth to own old Gray Goose."
"Who?" She didn't see any goose, old or young.
Sam slapped the tractor hood. "My Ford Ferguson. They don't make 'em like this anymore."
Everything, it seemed, had a name at Sam's house. Even his pickup truck was named Chester.
"Hop up," he said.
Maddie hesitated. She was to short to reach the step. And she wasn't a good jumper.
"The running board is kind of high." Sam lifted Maddie and Buckingham with his two hands, swinging her up onto the step.
"There's no place for me to sit," she said.
"Hang on to the fender," Sam said. "The best view is behind, anyway." He hoisted himself into the driver's seat and turned the ignition key.
The Gray Goose coughed twice, then sputtered to life. The tractor chugged out of the shed, across the yard, and into the patch that Sam had already cleared of bushes and weeds. He pulled a lever and lowered the plow.
Gripping the fender, Maddie watched the plow bite into ground. Waves of red earth parted on either side of the blade.
She was afraid she would get sick riding backward, but she didn't. She was too busy noticing things that churned to the surface. Rocks, worms, rusty bottle caps.
The Gray Goose plowed in circles that became smaller and smaller. The sun climbed into the sky. It grew hot.
Excerpted from Seeing Sky-Blue Pink by CANDICE RANSOM Copyright © 2007 by Candice Ransom. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 3, 2009
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