No Certain Home

No Certain Home

by Marlene Lee

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781910688007
Publisher: Holland House Press
Publication date: 04/01/2016
Pages: 340
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author


Marlene Lee has worked as a court reporter, teacher, college instructor, and writer. Her poems, stories, and essays have appeared in numerous publications. She currently lives in Columbia, Missouri and New York City. 

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

China 1937

"Your father," the American woman said, getting to the point of the day's interview. "Tell me about your father."

Dark and stocky, Commander Zhu De got up from his small table. The burning candle illuminated his smile and sharpened the creases of kindness around his almost simian eyes. Like the woman, he was wearing army fatigues. The only concession to the late hour was soft slippers in which he padded about the dirt floor of the cave as he listened to her inadequate Chinese.

"Was he a good father?" she persisted.

Zhu De turned his face away from the candle and did not answer.

The American woman, too, lived in a cave. Hers was next to that of several lovely young actresses who belonged to the Red Army theatre troupe. No longer young and lovely, she had already spent eight years in China. Now she had come to Yan'an to live with the Red Army and to send out a constant flow of articles to the Western press from the remote headquarters.

"Did he love you?" She pushed her cap back from her high forehead.

"Father not a happy man," Zhu De finally answered. He simplified his Chinese so that Agnes was able to understand. "Cruel temper. Violent habits." He rubbed his eyes. "Very poor. Half our grain went to Landlord Ting. We went hungry, yet on holidays we gave up chickens, eggs and pig. We called landlord 'King of Hell.' All tenants hated him. My father grew tobacco but he was too poor to smoke one pipeful himself." Zhu De stared into the dark at the back of the cave. "Love did not enter our thoughts. We tried not to die."

Lily Wu, a beautiful actress with expressive eyes, entered the general's cave. Her hair was parted in the middle and hung to her shoulders like thick silk. Progressive women of China did not wear queues; they did not bind their feet.

"Ask him about his mother," Agnes said in English. With Lily present to translate, the interview went more smoothly. But Mao Zedong had seen Lily enter the cave and followed. Each evening he interrupted, ostensibly to discuss America and world politics, but really more interested, Agnes felt, in asking Lily Wu oblique questions about love and relations between men and women. Agnes disliked these interruptions. She disliked Mao. He was spiritual, remote, lascivious. Zhu De, on the other hand, was a plain man like her own father. A man of the earth.

Zhu De's face settled into repose. "My mother was too poor to have a name," he said. "There was no food. My mother drowned her last five children at birth."

Agnes gripped her pencil. Tenderness for the mother and dead babies overwhelmed her. Imagining childbirth made her feel ill. She swayed on the hard-packed dirt floor of the cave until Zhu De moved his straight chair from the table and insisted she take it. He waited for a sign to continue.

"My mother sang to me," he said. "I picked wildflowers and fished in the stream. I did not know we were poor. I often stood at the great road that passed through our village, the great road that ran from the south of China to Xi'an and northeast to where the Empress Dowager, 'The High,' sat on the Dragon Throne. I watched merchants, and salt coolies carrying salt, wedding processions and funeral processions. I stood at the edge of the great road and China passed before my eyes."

When the day's interview ended, Agnes Smedley returned to her cave and began typing up notes on the portable typewriter that rested on a table, covered with a cloth to keep out the yellow dust from the loess hills. It was in these hills of Yan'an that the Chinese Communists ended their Long March. It was here Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De and his army dug in to rest and regroup after the beating they had taken from Chiang Kai-shek.

She frowned in the candlelight. She knew exactly what she wanted to say and how to say it, but small things still tripped her up, like the spelling of a hard word, or a confusing bit of grammar. She felt her lack of knowledge bitterly.

CHAPTER 2

Missouri 1900

"By God, this is a fine way to start off the new century!" Father shouted.

Agnes looked through the sunflower stalks at the man in the fancy buggy waiting outside the cabin. Two bluebirds flitted from an oak to an elderberry bush; a woodpecker, quick wooden clapper in the bell of summer, rapped on the trunk of a walnut tree. Inside Mother was crying.

"You've been busy while I was away! Who is he? Who's the father? Just tell me that! Everyone's wonderin'!"

Agnes ran to the well and pumped a stream of water into the tin cup that hung on the post. She wet her face, then dried it with the floursacking of her skirt. Sometimes when she and Father stood here after supper he would point to the Missouri hills rolling one after another, like waves on an ocean, he said, and when she asked if he'd seen the ocean he said no, but he didn't need to. He already knew what it looked like. He told her about his Indian blood which he'd passed on to her, then spit with contempt at the Rallses, Mother's people, farmers and church-goers who would always be poor.

The Rallses didn't bother to think about what was beyond those hills, he said. The Smedley line was different. The Smedleys, now, they had some imagination. Some spunk. And Father would tell about the opportunities farther west, how you could jump on the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul and be out of Missouri before you knew it. Farther west there was a fortune to be made in any number of enterprises.

The man in the buggy hadn't moved. In one hand he held the reins to Father's fine white team and listened to the shouting in the cabin. He was a doctor, Father said, and he was teaching Father to be one, too. Agnes replaced the tin cup on its nail. Mother's people would perk up their ears when they heard about a doctor in the family, and they wouldn't feel sorry for Mother anymore. All the Rallses in Sullivan County would see the long line of sick people coming from Osgood out to the Smedley cabin and raise their eyebrows the way people do when they're interested in something. The line would stretch from the depot in town, across the tracks, over Medicine Crick, along the road, up the hill, all the way to the cabin door. People would be limping on canes and crutches, they would be carried on stretchers, like in pictures Agnes had seen in the church at Campground where a man in a long white dress with a sissy face and big blue eyes put his hand out to feed a crowd with just three little fishes.

When the team suddenly stamped the ground and started for the barn, the man in the buggy nearly fell backwards. He yanked on the reins and swore. Agnes laughed and he swore at her, too. He didn't look or act like a doctor. Agnes tried to picture him helping people, but couldn't. She went back to her dream about Father being a doctor in a doctor's office, say, next to Milsteads' Mercantile. In fact, she and Father might move to Osgood by themselves and live over his office the way the station agent lived over the depot. Every Saturday she and Father would drive out home, bring food and clothes for Mother and the children, then drive back to Osgood late at night under a moon that showed the rolling hills as far as anyone could see. He would cover her with a lap robe and put a pretty foot-warmer on the floor beside her like one she'd seen in town that slowly burnt little blocks of coal all night without a blaze. And while he loosely held the reins of the finest team in the state of Missouri, he would talk about the future, about far-away places, about train trips, horse races, gold mines — and Mother would be nowhere around with her sad eyes that Agnes could not bear.

"There's stories goin' around!" Father's voice was ragged now. He'd lost ground. His temper sputtered out and his words fell like flies on the first cold day. Agnes crept to the cabin door.

"Oh, Charles, speak the truth!" Mother said, and fell forward. Father caught her, and then they were hugging and crying and kissing each other, Mother wetting Father's throat with her tears. Beside the door Agnes cried, too, and hid her confusion behind her hands. Father wheeled around.

"Agnes! Take the young 'uns outside!" Agnes' face burned. Father and Mother were going to go to bed in the daytime. It was like this sometimes in the middle of the night, too, only worse because she couldn't get away. She would be woken by sounds, animal sounds, coming from their bed. Next day Mother acted like nothing had happened in the night, and went back to whipping Agnes for lying.

Agnes half-carried the younger children across the wagon path up to the barn where she waited until Mother and Father were finished. Finally Father stepped around the corner of the cabin and came walking toward the buggy. From the south side of the cabin Agnes could hear Mother working the pump at the well.

She took off at a run. When she reached her father she threw herself against him.

"Here!" said Father, trying to disengage himself. He grasped her wrists and pulled her arms from around his waist.

"You can't go to St. Joe!" she shouted into his fancy belt buckle. There was a strange smell of bleach between his legs.

He pushed and twisted until he held her at arm's length. "Go back with the other children!"

Mother came around the cabin, hesitating and fiddling with her hair that straggled out of its bun. Agnes suddenly sprinted in her direction, then stopped halfway between her parents.

"You can't go away again!"

"Maybe we'll all go," her father said. He gave an odd, sideways glance at the doctor.

"I won't go!" shouted Agnes. This time she ran and didn't stop until she stood beside her mother. "We won't go with that man! He's not a doctor!"

Mother jerked her by the arm. Agnes grew quiet and ashamed.

"How old's your little filly there?" the man asked.

Agnes scowled. "I'm eight!"

He picked up the reins. His lip curled. "Better stay with your women folk, Charles Smedley," and he "gee'd" father's horses. They made a wide turn, re-entered the wagon path, and set off downhill toward the road that ended up in St. Joseph. Kansas City. Farther, even.

Agnes gave Mother a fierce hug that threw both of them off- balance. Mother moaned, grabbed Agnes to steady herself, then pushed her away.

"Such a selfish girl," she said. "Such a talker." And she marched into the cabin. Agnes ran to her father where he stood in the wheel ruts. She started to say something, tell him how happy she was he was staying. But when she saw his face, angry and hopeless, she turned, walked toward the storm cellar, and lay down under the sunflowers. Hugged the ground. Pressed her face against the earth. It smelled of dirt. Spicy weeds and grasses. Tough, green sunflower stalks.

CHAPTER 3

Kansas and Colorado 1904

"Close that window, Agnes," Mother said, squinting against the stream of dirty smoke and soot blowing past from the engine. "Your pa's the one who wanted fresh air and he's gone to the smoking car again."

Agnes settled back on the plush seat facing Mother, who doled out bread and ham to the younger children. The only time Myrtle, John and Sam sat still was when they chewed. In the silence Agnes watched the flat landscape move backward in the window, miles and miles of wheat and milo fields, with a stray cow here and there grazing too close to the track. Occasionally she could see farmhouses in the distance, not forty acres apart like the farms in Missouri, but more like forty miles, lonely specks trying to populate the empty horizon.

The clicking of the wheels lulled Sam to sleep in the corner beside her. Earlier, to the conductor's disgust, he'd been sick in the aisle. But he wasn't the only child to be sick. The train was full of immigrant families going to the mines, and more than one thin child with enormous dark eyes had been rushed, pale-faced, up the aisle to the lavatory at the end of the car.

They hit a rough section of track and Sam stirred. Mother half- stood, ready to hold him up to the window before he could throw up on the beautiful seats. Myrtle handed him part of her sandwich.

"He hadn't ought to eat any more ham," Agnes said. Like the younger children, her eyes were large, though from excitement rather than illness. And they were blue, vivid, large-pupiled, darting from person to person, thing to thing. Sam bellowed, but stopped when Agnes gave him a piece of the hard candy Father had bought her in Kansas City. In the seats behind them Agnes heard a strange language being spoken.

"Italy-an," Mother said. Agnes asked how Mother knew.

"Because they eat meatballs morning, noon, and night," Mother said. She put her finger to her lips and whispered, "They're Catholic. The old lady rattled her beads all night long."

"What's Cath'lic?" asked John. He stood up to peer over the back of the seat. Agnes grabbed him by the leg and pulled him down on her lap.

"What are 'beads'?" she whispered. "What do you mean, 'rattling her beads'?"

"So many questions," said Mother. "Ask your pa."

Agnes looked for a long moment at her mother and felt something unpleasant, something like a dough ball stuck between her throat and stomach. Mother could scold Agnes, shake her, but she didn't know how to answer her questions, and she didn't like it when Agnes told stories to make things more interesting, the way Father did: lies, Mother called them. Here in the train, traveling to their new home in the West, Agnes realized her mother didn't know much. She almost pitied the helpless ignorance, the wisps of hair falling in Mother's face, the rough, red hands that picked nervously at the children's clothes. Pity was harder to bear than anger. Agnes could not swallow the lump stuck just below her throat.

Nellie, swaying with the motion of the train, returned from the platform between cars where she'd gone to stand, less to watch the country go by, Agnes thought, than to look for boys. Myrtle stood up.

"Where are you off to, young lady?" asked Mother.

"To wash my hands."

"You just washed them."

"She likes the gold handles," said Agnes.

"Nellie gets to wash her hands whenever she feels like it," Myrtle pouted. "I want to wash the ham off."

"Take Sam with you," Mother sighed, "and wash him up, too." Nellie moved so they could get by. At the same time, she looked over her shoulder in the direction of the loud party at the far end of the car.

"They're talkin' about the Exposition," she explained.

Mother sniffed and closed the lid on the shoe box of food. "They play cards," she said, tying up the string. "I saw them last night."

"What's the Exposition?" John asked. He laid a piece of ham on the arm of the seat. Mother picked it up and wiped the red plush with her handkerchief.

"It's the World's Fair in St. Louis," Nellie said. "The 1904 World's Fair."

Agnes leaned forward. "We're headed the wrong way." She was proud of her directions. "We're goin' west. We'll miss it."

"Father says —" Nellie began.

"What does Father say?" asked Father himself, back from the smoking car. He took the empty seat across the aisle.

"That the St. Louis Exposition has got nothing on Trinidad, Colorado," Nellie said smugly.

"Trinidad" — Father paused to re-open the window, cross one leg over the other, and smooth his glossy mustache — "has people from every spot on the globe." He grinned at the children and flicked away a cinder thrown up from the roadbed. Across the aisle Mother's thick, red hands fiddled with the string on the shoe box.

"Italy, Germany, Russia, England, France, Brazil," Father enumerated, and would have gone on if he hadn't run out of countries.

"Canada?" asked Agnes.

"Canada," said Father, "and Mexico, and other countries too numerous to mention." The children looked at Mother who gave a small, apprehensive smile.

"God, woman!" Father said. He recrossed his legs the other direction. "Everybody in the world wants to be in Trinidad. That's where the money is."

"Are you hungry, Charles?" Mother asked.

"Nah," Father said. He was in a happy, magnanimous mood. The smoking car was also the drinking car. He rose. "Think I'll take a stroll."

"You just got here."

"Then I've just left." He stood and walked back along the aisle, his rolling gait as much a part of the train's sway as the train itself. At the end of the car he pushed open the door. The clatter of wheels on rails, the shriek of the train's whistle swept through the car like a wind.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "No Certain Home"
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Copyright © 2016 Marlene Lee.
Excerpted by permission of Holland House Books.
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