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|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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They said it was bad for everyone, but nobody else the boy knew had to live in the woods. Even all these years later, with histories aligned — his own, the country's — his dreams can still erupt in this welter of buggy heat, the leaf-rustling prowl of dark creatures a canvas thinness away, and stars, millions of stars so brilliant through the slant of the flap that with all the night sounds and sourceless shadows in wait the stars crackle around them as if the tent is an enormous boiling cauldron. And yet, they sleep, his father and sister on cots across the way. Everything they own is in this tent, most important the knives, cleavers, and saws. Without his slaughtering tools, his father says he has nothing.
Supposedly the bad times came from New York City when the stock market crashed. But it seemed to Thomas that everything really started a few years later on the wintry morning his mother left them at her sister's house in town. Irene was awfully dressed up just to run a few errands, Aunt Lena sputtered that night to his father, Henry — as if she hadn't known, when she'd been the one who'd called the taxicab to take her sister down to the bus depot.
So here it was summer and his mother still wasn't back. His father said she'd ridden the bus from Vermont down to Massachusetts to get a job in one of the big mills there. Why? Margaret kept asking. You work, why'd she get a job? Well, for extra, to help out the family, his father explained. Some ladies do that. Not any she knew, Margaret said. Not mothers anyhow.
She won't be gone long, was the most his father said in the beginning. Thomas heard his father tell his friend, Gladys Bibeau, that she was working temporary — just long enough to help get the farm back. That was a waste of time, Gladys's father couldn't wait to tell them the next day. Old Bibeau said he knew for a fact the bank was selling the mortgage to their neighbor, Fred Farley, who'd been after the land for years. Thomas understood his father might have to twist the truth and dress it up for others, but Henry Talcott wouldn't lie to his children. Never had, anyway. Soon, all talk of their mother ceased.
Once morning came living in the tent was swell again. They had set up camp in old Bibeau's woods out by Black Pond. Some days Thomas and Margaret rowed to the middle and just floated in the rippling stillness while he caught sunfish with his father's pole. His sister didn't care much about fishing. She'd end up either crying or inventing wild stories of how they should just hitch a ride down to Collerton, Massachusetts, and bring their mother back whether she had enough money saved or not — it didn't matter to Margaret. She didn't care if they stayed poor and had to live in a tent forever so long as they could be together again. It was important for Thomas not to get too caught up in her fantasies. More and more lately, it seemed he was the only reasonable one in the family. His father had always been a quiet man, only now his intractable silences were fueled by sadness and anger.
Henry Talcott butchered livestock, some cows and lambs, usually pigs from farm to farm. The work (mostly now, the looking for work) took him all over the county. He'd rattle off in his old truck before the sun was up and wouldn't get back until nine or ten at night. Gladys Bibeau came by the tent most days to see how things were going. If Henry hadn't returned by suppertime she'd drag the boy and his sister back to eat with her and her father. Margaret didn't like old Bibeau with all his grunting, belching, and gassing, but every now and again she needed to be near Gladys. That's when Thomas missed his old life most, sitting at the table with pea soup simmering on the stove while the plain, gaunt woman whistled through the gap in her teeth and pressed bowls of buttery mashed potatoes and stewed tomatoes on them. His mother might have been a terrible cook, but she was the most beautiful lady he'd ever seen, with the softest hands and a voice so sweet when she talked it came like singing.
Everyone agreed Irene Jalley was the prettiest girl in town. Her attraction to taciturn Henry Talcott had caught a lot of people off guard, especially Gladys Bibeau. Gladys and Henry had been childhood friends; then when Henry was fifteen his mother died and his father just kept on walking out of the cemetery, never to be seen again. Old Bibeau took Henry in, not from any kindness of heart, he liked to say, but to keep the damn dogs from barking every night the boy snuck into his barn to sleep. Grateful as Henry was, he hadn't been raised to be anyone's burden. The War came and, soon as he could, he joined the Army.
Henry and Gladys got engaged after he returned from France, nothing but gray skin and lanky bones, his lungs seared by mustard gas. He tried to get right back to slaughtering work, but couldn't walk more than a few feet before he'd be so winded he'd have to sit down. Most days were spent on Bibeau's porch in worn army pants, whittling as he stared out at the dirt mountain road. It was old Bibeau who took the wheezing ex-soldier aside and pressed Gladys's mother's yellowing pearl engagement ring into his hand. After months of Gladys's care, Henry was strong enough to start back to work. It took a couple years but soon Henry had his own truck and tools and a house he was building on land he bought from old Bibeau with a bank loan. Those were twenty choice acres because they cut between Farley's dairy pastures and the main road up to Burlington. Someday that land would be worth a hell of a lot of money, old Bibeau predicted. As soon as the house was finished, Henry and Gladys were going to have a church wedding and a honeymoon to Niagara Falls.
Then one spring day Henry Talcott butchered Irene Jalley's father's three lambs. In spite of his gory mission Irene must have known instantly that this plain, rugged man would never fail her the way her own father had constantly failed her bitter mother with all his whoring and gambling, driving her to an early grave. Irene had had just one more course to go for the business college correspondence certificate that would deliver her from under her father's thumb. But her father refused to give her the seven dollars he owed her; then when she announced she was moving out he piled her books and clothes in the front yard and burned them for everyone to see.
Aunt Lena said the reason her baby sister Irene set her sail for Henry Talcott was that she wasn't used to being so completely ignored. Especially by a man.
"He climbed down from his truck and walked right by me on into the barn without a word or even a tip of his hat, like I wasn't even there," she would tell her children later, always with a note of surprise, of wonder almost, as if she too were still trying to figure out how it had all come to pass. He was a good man, respectful and hardworking, she would continue, as if testifying to them and herself what everyone already knew. If he had any faults they were just the result of who he was, a man's man who often ended a job with a drink after a long day, made longer still by his appreciation of the farmhands' bawdy tales and corny jokes. It was the life he knew best, having worked from the time he was twelve.
Irene was lonely on the little farm in rural Belton miles from Atkinson, the bigger, busier town, where she longed to live. She wanted to walk down sidewalks, on paved streets where she could talk to people on their front porches. She wanted to go to her sister Lena's beauty parlor and have her hair done and shop whenever she felt like it, instead of waiting until Henry could bring her into town, which was usually on Sunday when everything was closed. And that was another thing, she wanted to learn how to drive like Lena and work in an office where she could put her business skills to profitable use.
But she had fallen in love with Henry, who loved her back so much he couldn't think straight sometimes, much less understand her skittish ways. A few months after they married, Thomas was born. Margaret came almost four years later. Then, Jamie. He was the last, the difficult pregnancy Dr. Creel refused to help her end. It was ten thirty at night. Crying all day, the baby grew sicker as night came on. Nothing would bring his fever down. He vomited and convulsed. She couldn't get help. The nearest phone was Farley's, three miles away. And Henry had stopped in at the Dellicote farm on his way home from Bennington to see if they had any work, which they did. Then came supper and a few beers with his old friend Bob. Before he knew it, midnight was long gone and Jamie was already cold in Irene's arms.
She never got over it, Aunt Lena said. She never forgave him. After that she didn't want any more babies to bring into this world and then lose. Henry understood. His own pain was all the more unbearable because he had loved that blue-eyed boy more than life itself. And he had only himself to blame. From then on Henry slept in the little sewing room/nursery off the kitchen and watched his wife turn into someone else.
Margaret's kitten was the start of all the trouble that summer after his mother left. It was the day Thomas and Margaret had been playing Indians, tracking the men who were putting up poles that would bring new electric lines farther up the mountain. The crew had no idea the children stalked them through the woods. Suddenly one man ran behind a thicket of birch. The minute he undid his pants, Thomas leaped on top of his sister and pushed her face into the ground. Margaret hollered and the man yelped, and then, soon as he was able, began to look for them. His search, if even there was one, proved useless. By that point in the long summer the children ran those woods, every gully, rill, and copse as if it were their own backyard, which of course it had become. Panting, they galloped down the last hill and darted past the tail-switching cows in the hot, hummocky pasture behind Farley's rambling red barn. Fred Farley was the biggest dairy farmer around. He had five hired hands, a truck with his name on the door, and a shiny black sedan his wife usually drove. Round little woman that she was, she'd back the car right up over the curb in front of the movie theater, then haul their sickly son's big wheelchair out of the trunk to get Jesse-boy inside. Afterward she'd push him down to the drugstore for lemon phosphates from Leamings soda fountain.
Last week Thomas had seen them through the drugstore window after he and Margaret had walked all the way into Atkinson. Margaret's feet hurt. She wanted to go in and sit at the next table. She thought if they looked thirsty enough Mrs. Farley might buy them a soda. Margaret was like that then, not minding a bit if someone wanted to give her something for free. She kept trying to pull open the door, but he held it shut. All he had to do was say Aunt Lena's name to get her to mind. Neither of them wanted to end up in that messy house with beery Aunt Lena and her creepy husband, Max.
Anyway, in their flight from the lineman, Thomas and Margaret were hurrying alongside the barn when Mrs. Farley came down the ramp carrying a cardboard box. She called to Thomas. She knew him from the brief time Jesse-boy had gone to their one-room schoolhouse. At first the Talcott children thought she was angry they were on her property, but she only wanted to know if they'd like a kitten. There were three in the litter and they could have first pick. Before he could say no, Margaret scooped up the gray and white one. It had black-tipped ears and a black M over its nose.
"M for Margaret," his sister said, nuzzling the kitten's neck.
"Thank you, but we can't take it." Thomas dug his elbow into Margaret's dusty brown arm.
"Yes we can," Margaret countered, moving away so as not to be nudged again. The kitten perched on her shoulder, its big eyes like hers, bluely defiant.
"You know we can't," he said, narrowing his hard stare. Backing Margaret into any kind of corner could be dangerous.
"Is it your father, Thomas? Doesn't he like cats?" Mrs. Farley asked.
"He likes them all right." He tried not to squirm. "We just can't right now."
"Oh," Mrs. Farley said as if she were beginning to understand. "Well, with the barn cats there's always a new litter, so when you can have one just let me know and I'll be sure and save you one." She reached for the kitten.
"No! She's mine now and I'm keeping her."
"Margaret!" Mrs. Farley seemed amused.
That was the way people often reacted to his sister. Small for her age she made up for it in spunk. Even old Bibeau, crank that he was, knew not to push her too hard. Instead he'd address his complaints to whoever else was present: "Gladys, tell the girl to stop thumping the table." Or to him, "Tell your sister she's had enough chicken. That wing's mine."
Mrs. Farley was telling Margaret in the cautious tone people used around kids stranded on broken ice that she should listen to her big brother: Thomas was just trying to do what his father would want. She should go home and ask permission. If her father said yes Mrs. Farley would bring the kitten by herself. She asked where they were living. And the minute she said it her face clouded. Stammering, she inquired if they were staying at their Aunt Lena's. That was the thing about backing Margaret into corners — she sucked you right in with her.
"No. We're out at Black Pond. In a tent," Margaret added, sending flares of color into Mrs. Farley's cheery, round cheeks.
"Oh, well then." Mrs. Farley plucked the purring kitten away by its scruff and returned it to the box. "When you're more settled then," she sniffed, as if she couldn't send one of her cats to go live in a leaky tent with dangling spiders and quick green snakes slithering along the damp dirt floor.
"We are settled." Just as surely, Margaret plucked the kitten from the box. "That's where we live." Hugging the purring curl of fur, she headed toward the road with Thomas swept along once again in his little sister's wake.
Because the kitten followed Margaret everywhere, they had to be careful not to go too far. Once, after hours fishing in the boat, they returned to the tent, but the kitten was gone.
"Kitty! Please come back. Please, kitty, kitty, kitty!" Margaret screamed, thrashing through bushes and trees.
They dragged back to find the curled-up kitten hidden in the blanket-tangled mess that was Margaret's cot.
Henry Talcott didn't mind the cat one way or another. If anything, he seemed glad Margaret had found something to take her mind off missing her mother so much. Neither Thomas nor his father talked about Irene, and whenever Margaret burst into tears demanding to know when she was coming back father and son retreated even further, each into his own cave of loneliness.
The wall of silence grew higher. Because Margaret was afraid to leave her kitten again, she stopped going on adventures with her brother. Thomas was tired of playing by the tent or rowing alone on the pond. The little cat was far more attached to his sister than to him. As the summer days passed, he felt more alone. His father drove even longer distances to find the few farmers left who could afford to raise animals for slaughter. After the cows or hogs were gone, they usually weren't replaced. The price of feed and hay had gone too high.
One sunny morning after a rainy week of sodden confinement, Thomas told Margaret they were going into town. Gladys had paid him ten cents last night for helping clean out her back shed and he knew exactly what he would buy with it: the Palomino, the nickel-plated, double-blade jackknife in the window of Whitby's Hardware. Margaret refused to leave her kitten alone that long. All the way into town he knew he should have made her come. If his father got home early and found her alone there'd be hell to pay. But what harm could possibly come to her? Margaret was sensible enough, and besides, who would bother with her? Especially if she stayed near the tent as he'd told her to.
Creaking toward him along the rutted road was a wagon pulled by a swaybacked, blinkered horse. Gypsies? He froze. Sometimes they crept through the woods looking for children to steal. Or, worse yet, to murder. For a while after his mother disappeared, gypsies were one of the possibilities he and Margaret had considered. At first no one would tell them anything. But now Thomas was realizing it wasn't any great mystery, just his father's deep secret — and theirs. The driver was an old woman in a red-checkered dress. Thomas raised his hand to wave just as she leaned to one side. A long brown gob of tobacco juice hit the dusty road. There weren't any gypsies. Margaret would be fine.
The minute he came out of the store he sat on the curb and opened the jackknife. Both blades were rusted. He rubbed them on his shirttail, but nothing came off. It took all his courage to go back inside. A dour, hairless man, Mr. Whitby didn't like many people, especially children. Thomas showed him the pitted blades and Whitby made a great show of examining the jackknife at every possible angle under the thin light of the hanging bulb that made his bald pate glow.
Excerpted from "The Lost Mother"
Copyright © 2005 Mary McGarry Morris.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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