My Ántonia, by Willa Cather

Book IV— The Pioneer Woman’s Story

I

TWO years after I left Lincoln I completed my academic course at Harvard. Before I entered the Law School I went home for the summer vacation. On the night of my arrival Mrs. Harling and Frances and Sally came over to greet me. Everything seemed just as it used to be. My grandparents looked very little older. Frances Harling was married now, and she and her husband managed the Harling interests in Black Hawk. When we gathered in grandmother’s parlor, I could hardly believe that I had been away at all. One subject, however, we avoided all evening.

When I was walking home with Frances, after we had left Mrs. Harling at her gate, she said simply, “You know, of course, about poor Ántonia.”

Poor Ántonia! Every one would be saying that now, I thought bitterly. I replied that grandmother had written me how Ántonia went away to marry Larry Donovan at some place where he was working; that he had deserted her, and that there was now a baby. This was all I knew.

“He never married her,” Frances said. “I have n’t seen her since she came back. She lives at home, on the farm, and almost never comes to town. She brought the baby in to show it to mama once. I’m afraid she’s settled down to be Ambrosch’s drudge for good.”

I tried to shut Ántonia out of my mind. I was bitterly disappointed in her. I could not forgive her for becoming an object of pity, while Lena Lingard, for whom people had always foretold trouble, was now the leading dressmaker of Lincoln, much respected in Black Hawk. Lena gave her heart away when she felt like it, but she kept her head for her business and had got on in the world.

Just then it was the fashion to speak indulgently of Lena and severely of Tiny Soderball, who had quietly gone West to try her fortune the year before. A Black Hawk boy, just back from Seattle, brought the news that Tiny had not gone to the coast on a venture, as she had allowed people to think, but with very definite plans. One of the roving promoters that used to stop at Mrs. Gardener’s hotel owned idle property along the water-front in Seattle, and he had offered to set Tiny up in business in one of his empty buildings. She was now conducting a sailors’ lodging-house. This, every one said, would be the end of Tiny. Even if she had begun by running a decent place, she could n’t keep it up; all sailors’ boarding-houses were alike.

When I thought about it, I discovered that I had never known Tiny as well as I knew the other girls. I remembered her tripping briskly about the dining-room on her high heels, carrying a big tray full of dishes, glancing rather pertly at the spruce traveling men, and contemptuously at the scrubby ones — who were so afraid of her that they did n’t dare to ask for two kinds of pie. Now it occurred to me that perhaps the sailors, too, might be afraid of Tiny. How astonished we would have been, as we sat talking about her on Frances Harling’s front porch, if we could have known what her future was really to be! Of all the girls and boys who grew up together in Black Hawk, Tiny Soderball was to lead the most adventurous life and to achieve the most solid worldly success.

This is what actually happened to Tiny: While she was running her lodging-house in Seattle, gold was discovered in Alaska. Miners and sailors came back from the North with wonderful stories and pouches of gold. Tiny saw it and weighed it in her hands. That daring which nobody had ever suspected in her, awoke. She sold her business and set out for Circle City, in company with a carpenter and his wife whom she had persuaded to go along with her. They reached Skaguay in a snowstorm, went in dog sledges over the Chilkoot Pass, and shot the Yukon in flatboats. They reached Circle City on the very day when some Siwash Indians came into the settlement with the report that there had been a rich gold strike farther up the river, on a certain Klondike Creek. Two days later Tiny and her friends, and nearly every one else in Circle City, started for the Klondike fields on the last steamer that went up the Yukon before it froze for the winter. That boatload of people founded Dawson City. Within a few weeks there were fifteen hundred homeless men in camp. Tiny and the carpenter’s wife began to cook for them, in a tent. The miners gave her a lot, and the carpenter put up a log hotel for her. There she sometimes fed a hundred and fifty men a day. Miners came in on snowshoes from their placer claims twenty miles away to buy fresh bread from her, and paid for it in gold.

That winter Tiny kept in her hotel a Swede whose legs had been frozen one night in a storm when he was trying to find his way back to his cabin. The poor fellow thought it great good fortune to be cared for by a woman, and a woman who spoke his own tongue. When he was told that his feet must be amputated, he said he hoped he would not get well; what could a working-man do in this hard world without feet? He did, in fact, die from the operation, but not before he had deeded Tiny Soderball his claim on Hunker Creek. Tiny sold her hotel, invested half her money in Dawson building lots, and with the rest she developed her claim. She went off into the wilds and lived on it. She bought other claims from discouraged miners, traded or sold them on percentages.

After nearly ten years in the Klondike, Tiny returned, with a considerable fortune, to live in San Francisco. I met her in Salt Lake City in 1908. She was a thin, hard-faced woman, very well-dressed, very reserved in manner. Curiously enough, she reminded me of Mrs. Gardener, for whom she had worked in Black Hawk so long ago. She told me about some of the desperate chances she had taken in the gold country, but the thrill of them was quite gone. She said frankly that nothing interested her much now but making money. The only two human beings of whom she spoke with any feeling were the Swede, Johnson, who had given her his claim, and Lena Lingard. She had persuaded Lena to come to San Francisco and go into business there.

“Lincoln was never any place for her,” Tiny remarked. “In a town of that size Lena would always be gossiped about. Frisco’s the right field for her. She has a fine class of trade. Oh, she’s just the same as she always was! She’s careless, but she’s level-headed. She’s the only person I know who never gets any older. It’s fine for me to have her there; somebody who enjoys things like that. She keeps an eye on me and won’t let me be shabby. When she thinks I need a new dress, she makes it and sends it home — with a bill that’s long enough, I can tell you!”

Tiny limped slightly when she walked. The claim on Hunker Creek took toll from its possessors. Tiny had been caught in a sudden turn of weather, like poor Johnson. She lost three toes from one of those pretty little feet that used to trip about Black Hawk in pointed slippers and striped stockings. Tiny mentioned this mutilation quite casually — did n’t seem sensitive about it. She was satisfied with her success, but not elated. She was like some one in whom the faculty of becoming interested is worn out.

II

SOON after I got home that summer I persuaded my grandparents to have their photographs taken, and one morning I went into the photographer’s shop to arrange for sittings. While I was waiting for him to come out of his developing-room, I walked about trying to recognize the likenesses on his walls: girls in Commencement dresses, country brides and grooms holding hands, family groups of three generations. I noticed, in a heavy frame, one of those depressing “crayon enlargements” often seen in farmhouse parlors, the subject being a round-eyed baby in short dresses. The photographer came out and gave a constrained, apologetic laugh.

“That’s Tony Shimerda’s baby. You remember her; she used to be the Harling’s Tony. Too bad! She seems proud of the baby, though; would n’t hear to a cheap frame for the picture. I expect her brother will be in for it Saturday.”

I went away feeling that I must see Ántonia again. Another girl would have kept her baby out of sight, but Tony, of course, must have its picture on exhibition at the town photographer’s, in a great gilt frame. How like her! I could forgive her, I told myself, if she had n’t thrown herself away on such a cheap sort of fellow.

Larry Donovan was a passenger conductor, one of those train-crew aristocrats who are always afraid that some one may ask them to put up a car-window, and who, if requested to perform such a menial service, silently point to the button that calls the porter. Larry wore this air of official aloofness even on the street, where there were no car-windows to compromise his dignity. At the end of his run he stepped indifferently from the train along with the passengers, his street hat on his head and his conductor’s cap in an alligator-skin bag, went directly into the station and changed his clothes. It was a matter of the utmost importance to him never to be seen in his blue trousers away from his train. He was usually cold and distant with men, but with all women he had a silent, grave familiarity, a special handshake, accompanied by a significant, deliberate look. He took women, married or single, into his confidence; walked them up and down in the moonlight, telling them what a mistake he had made by not entering the office branch of the service, and how much better fitted he was to fill the post of General Passenger Agent in Denver than the roughshod man who then bore that title. His unappreciated worth was the tender secret Larry shared with his sweethearts, and he was always able to make some foolish heart ache over it.

As I drew near home that morning, I saw Mrs. Harling out in her yard, digging round her mountain-ash tree. It was a dry summer, and she had now no boy to help her. Charley was off in his battleship, cruising somewhere on the Caribbean sea. I turned in at the gate — it was with a feeling of pleasure that I opened and shut that gate in those days; I liked the feel of it under my hand. I took the spade away from Mrs. Harling, and while I loosened the earth around the tree, she sat down on the steps and talked about the oriole family that had a nest in its branches.

“Mrs. Harling,” I said presently, “I wish I could find out exactly how Ántonia’s marriage fell through.”

“Why don’t you go out and see your grandfather’s tenant, the Widow Steavens? She knows more about it than anybody else. She helped Ántonia get ready to be married, and she was there when Ántonia came back. She took care of her when the baby was born. She could tell you everything. Besides, the Widow Steavens is a good talker, and she has a remarkable memory.”

III

ON the first or second day of August I got a horse and cart and set out for the high country, to visit the Widow Steavens. The wheat harvest was over, and here and there along the horizon I could see black puffs of smoke from the steam thrashing-machines. The old pasture land was now being broken up into wheatfields and cornfields, the red grass was disappearing, and the whole face of the country was changing. There were wooden houses where the old sod dwellings used to be, and little orchards, and big red barns; all this meant happy children, contented women, and men who saw their lives coming to a fortunate issue. The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea. I recognized every tree and sandbank and rugged draw. I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modeling of human faces.

When I drew up to our old windmill, the Widow Steavens came out to meet me. She was brown as an Indian woman, tall, and very strong. When I was little, her massive head had always seemed to me like a Roman senator’s. I told her at once why I had come.

“You’ll stay the night with us, Jimmy? I’ll talk to you after supper. I can take more interest when my work is off my mind. You’ve no prejudice against hot biscuit for supper? Some have, these days.”

While I was putting my horse away I heard a rooster squawking. I looked at my watch and sighed; it was three o’clock, and I knew that I must eat him at six.

After supper Mrs. Steavens and I went upstairs to the old sitting-room, while her grave, silent brother remained in the basement to read his farm papers. All the windows were open. The white summer moon was shining outside, the windmill was pumping lazily in the light breeze. My hostess put the lamp on a stand in the corner, and turned it low because of the heat. She sat down in her favorite rocking-chair and settled a little stool comfortably under her tired feet. “I’m troubled with callouses, Jim; getting old,” she sighed cheerfully. She crossed her hands in her lap and sat as if she were at a meeting of some kind.

“Now, it’s about that dear Ántonia you want to know? Well, you’ve come to the right person. I’ve watched her like she’d been my own daughter.

“When she came home to do her sewing that summer before she was to be married, she was over here about every day. They’ve never had a sewing machine at the Shimerdas’, and she made all her things here. I taught her hemstitching, and I helped her to cut and fit. She used to sit there at that machine by the window, pedaling the life out of it — she was so strong — and always singing them queer Bohemian songs, like she was the happiest thing in the world.

“’Ántonia,’ I used to say, ‘don’t run that machine so fast. You won’t hasten the day none that way.’

“Then she’d laugh and slow down for a little, but she’d soon forget and begin to pedal and sing again. I never saw a girl work harder to go to housekeeping right and well-prepared. Lovely table linen the Harlings had given her, and Lena Lingard had sent her nice things from Lincoln. We hemstitched all the tablecloths and pillow-cases, and some of the sheets. Old Mrs. Shimerda knit yards and yards of lace for her underclothes. Tony told me just how she meant to have everything in her house. She’d even bought silver spoons and forks, and kept them in her trunk. She was always coaxing brother to go to the post-office. Her young man did write her real often, from the different towns along his run.

“The first thing that troubled her was when he wrote that his run had been changed, and they would likely have to live in Denver. ‘I’m a country girl,’ she said, ‘and I doubt if I’ll be able to manage so well for him in a city. I was counting on keeping chickens, and maybe a cow.’ She soon cheered up, though.

“At last she got the letter telling her when to come. She was shaken by it; she broke the seal and read it in this room. I suspected then that she’d begun to get faint-hearted, waiting; though she’d never let me see it.

“Then there was a great time of packing. It was in March, if I remember rightly, and a terrible muddy, raw spell, with the roads bad for hauling her things to town. And here let me say, Ambrosch did the right thing. He went to Black Hawk and bought her a set of plated silver in a purple velvet box, good enough for her station. He gave her three hundred dollars in money; I saw the check. He’d collected her wages all those first years she worked out, and it was but right. I shook him by the hand in this room. ‘You’re behaving like a man, Ambrosch,’ I said, ‘and I’m glad to see it, son.’

“‘T was a cold, raw day he drove her and her three trunks into Black Hawk to take the night train for Denver — the boxes had been shipped before. He stopped the wagon here, and she ran in to tell me good-bye. She threw her arms around me and kissed me, and thanked me for all I’d done for her. She was so happy she was crying and laughing at the same time, and her red cheeks was all wet with rain.

“‘You’re surely handsome enough for any man,’ I said, looking her over.

“She laughed kind of flighty like, and whispered, ‘Good-bye, dear house!’ and then ran out to the wagon. I expect she meant that for you and your grandmother, as much as for me, so I’m particular to tell you. This house had always been a refuge to her.

“Well, in a few days we had a letter saying she got to Denver safe, and he was there to meet her. They were to be married in a few days. He was trying to get his promotion before he married, she said. I did n’t like that, but I said nothing. The next week Yulka got a postal card, saying she was ‘well and happy.’ After that we heard nothing. A month went by, and old Mrs. Shimerda began to get fretful. Ambrosch was as sulky with me as if I’d picked out the man and arranged the match.

“One night brother William came in and said that on his way back from the fields he had passed a livery team from town, driving fast out the west road. There was a trunk on the front seat with the driver, and another behind. In the back seat there was a woman all bundled up; but for all her veils, he thought ‘t was Ántonia Shimerda, or Ántonia Donovan, as her name ought now to be.

“The next morning I got brother to drive me over. I can walk still, but my feet ain’t what they used to be, and I try to save myself. The lines outside the Shimerdas’ house was full of washing, though it was the middle of the week. As we got nearer I saw a sight that made my heart sink — all those underclothes we’d put so much work on, out there swinging in the wind. Yulka came bringing a dishpanful of wrung clothes, but she darted back into the house like she was loath to see us. When I went in, Ántonia was standing over the tubs, just finishing up a big washing. Mrs. Shimerda was going about her work, talking and scolding to herself. She did n’t so much as raise her eyes. Tony wiped her hand on her apron and held it out to me, looking at me steady but mournful. When I took her in my arms she drew away. ‘Don’t, Mrs. Steavens,’ she says, ‘you’ll make me cry, and I don’t want to.’

“I whispered and asked her to come out of doors with me. I knew she could n’t talk free before her mother. She went out with me, bareheaded, and we walked up toward the garden.

“‘I’m not married, Mrs. Steavens,’ she says to me very quiet and natural-like, ‘and I ought to be.’

“‘Oh, my child,’ says I, ‘what’s happened to you? Don’t be afraid to tell me!’

“She sat down on the draw-side, out of sight of the house. ‘He’s run away from me,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if he ever meant to marry me.’

“‘You mean he’s thrown up his job and quit the country?’ says I.

“‘He did n’t have any job. He’d been fired; blacklisted for knocking down fares. I did n’t know. I thought he had n’t been treated right. He was sick when I got there. He’d just come out of the hospital. He lived with me till my money gave out, and afterwards I found he had n’t really been hunting work at all. Then he just did n’t come back. One nice fellow at the station told me, when I kept going to look for him, to give it up. He said he was afraid Larry’d gone bad and would n’t come back any more. I guess he’s gone to Old Mexico. The conductors get rich down there, collecting half-fares off the natives and robbing the company. He was always talking about fellows who had got ahead that way.’

“I asked her, of course, why she did n’t insist on a civil marriage at once — that would have given her some hold on him. She leaned her head on her hands, poor child, and said, ‘I just don’t know, Mrs. Steavens. I guess my patience was wore out, waiting so long. I thought if he saw how well I could do for him, he’d want to stay with me.’

“Jimmy, I sat right down on that bank beside her and made lament. I cried like a young thing. I could n’t help it. I was just about heart-broke. It was one of them lovely warm May days, and the wind was blowing and the colts jumping around in the pastures; but I felt bowed with despair. My Ántonia, that had so much good in her, had come home disgraced. And that Lena Lingard, that was always a bad one, say what you will, had turned out so well, and was coming home here every summer in her silks and her satins, and doing so much for her mother. I give credit where credit is due, but you know well enough, Jim Burden, there is a great difference in the principles of those two girls. And here it was the good one that had come to grief! I was poor comfort to her. I marveled at her calm. As we went back to the house, she stopped to feel of her clothes to see if they was drying well, and seemed to take pride in their whiteness — she said she’d been living in a brick block, where she did n’t have proper conveniences to wash them.

“The next time I saw Ántonia, she was out in the fields ploughing corn. All that spring and summer she did the work of a man on the farm; it seemed to be an understood thing. Ambrosch did n’t get any other hand to help him. Poor Marek had got violent and been sent away to an institution a good while back. We never even saw any of Tony’s pretty dresses. She did n’t take them out of her trunks. She was quiet and steady. Folks respected her industry and tried to treat her as if nothing had happened. They talked, to be sure; but not like they would if she’d put on airs. She was so crushed and quiet that nobody seemed to want to humble her. She never went anywhere. All that summer she never once came to see me. At first I was hurt, but I got to feel that it was because this house reminded her of too much. I went over there when I could, but the times when she was in from the fields were the times when I was busiest here. She talked about the grain and the weather as if she’d never had another interest, and if I went over at night she always looked dead weary. She was afflicted with toothache; one tooth after another ulcerated, and she went about with her face swollen half the time. She would n’t go to Black Hawk to a dentist for fear of meeting people she knew. Ambrosch had got over his good spell long ago, and was always surly. Once I told him he ought not to let Ántonia work so hard and pull herself down. He said, ‘If you put that in her head, you better stay home.’ And after that I did.

“Ántonia worked on through harvest and thrashing, though she was too modest to go out thrashing for the neighbors, like when she was young and free. I did n’t see much of her until late that fall when she begun to herd Ambrosch’s cattle in the open ground north of here, up toward the big dog town. Sometimes she used to bring them over the west hill, there, and I would run to meet her and walk north a piece with her. She had thirty cattle in her bunch; it had been dry, and the pasture was short, or she would n’t have brought them so far.

“It was a fine open fall, and she liked to be alone. While the steers grazed, she used to sit on them grassy banks along the draws and sun herself for hours. Sometimes I slipped up to visit with her, when she had n’t gone too far.

“‘It does seem like I ought to make lace, or knit like Lena used to,’ she said one day, ‘but if I start to work, I look around and forget to go on. It seems such a little while ago when Jim Burden and I was playing all over this country. Up here I can pick out the very places where my father used to stand. Sometimes I feel like I’m not going to live very long, so I’m just enjoying every day of this fall.’

“After the winter begun she wore a man’s long overcoat and boots, and a man’s felt hat with a wide brim. I used to watch her coming and going, and I could see that her steps were getting heavier. One day in December, the snow began to fall. Late in the afternoon I saw Ántonia driving her cattle homeward across the hill. The snow was flying round her and she bent to face it, looking more lonesome-like to me than usual. ‘Deary me,’ I says to myself, ‘the girl’s stayed out too late. It’ll be dark before she gets them cattle put into the corral.’ I seemed to sense she’d been feeling too miserable to get up and drive them.

“That very night, it happened. She got her cattle home, turned them into the corral, and went into the house, into her room behind the kitchen, and shut the door. There, without calling to anybody, without a groan, she lay down on the bed and bore her child.

“I was lifting supper when old Mrs. Shimerda came running down the basement stairs, out of breath and screeching:—

“‘Baby come, baby come!’ she says. ‘Ambrosch much like devil!’

“Brother William is surely a patient man. He was just ready to sit down to a hot supper after a long day in the fields. Without a word he rose and went down to the barn and hooked up his team. He got us over there as quick as it was humanly possible. I went right in, and began to do for Ántonia; but she laid there with her eyes shut and took no account of me. The old woman got a tubful of warm water to wash the baby. I overlooked what she was doing and I said out loud:—

“‘Mrs. Shimerda, don’t you put that strong yellow soap near that baby. You’ll blister its little skin.’ I was indignant.

“‘Mrs. Steavens,’ Ántonia said from the bed, ‘if you’ll look in the top tray of my trunk, you’ll see some fine soap.’ That was the first word she spoke.

“After I’d dressed the baby, I took it out to show it to Ambrosch. He was muttering behind the stove and would n’t look at it.

“‘You’d better put it out in the rain barrel,’ he says.

“‘Now, see here, Ambrosch,’ says I, ‘there’s a law in this land, don’t forget that. I stand here a witness that this baby has come into the world sound and strong, and I intend to keep an eye on what befalls it.’ I pride myself I cowed him.

“Well, I expect you’re not much interested in babies, but Ántonia’s got on fine. She loved it from the first as dearly as if she’d had a ring on her finger, and was never ashamed of it. It’s a year and eight months old now, and no baby was ever better cared-for. Ántonia is a natural-born mother. I wish she could marry and raise a family, but I don’t know as there’s much chance now.”

I slept that night in the room I used to have when I was a little boy, with the summer wind blowing in at the windows, bringing the smell of the ripe fields. I lay awake and watched the moonlight shining over the barn and the stacks and the pond, and the windmill making its old dark shadow against the blue sky.

IV

THE next afternoon I walked over to the Shimerdas’. Yulka showed me the baby and told me that Ántonia was shocking wheat on the southwest quarter. I went down across the fields, and Tony saw me from a long way off. She stood still by her shocks, leaning on her pitchfork, watching me as I came. We met like the people in the old song, in silence, if not in tears. Her warm hand clasped mine.

“I thought you’d come, Jim. I heard you were at Mrs. Steavens’s last night. I’ve been looking for you all day.”

She was thinner than I had ever seen her, and looked, as Mrs. Steavens said, “worked down,” but there was a new kind of strength in the gravity of her face, and her color still gave her that look of deep-seated health and ardor. Still? Why, it flashed across me that though so much had happened in her life and in mine, she was barely twenty-four years old.

Ántonia stuck her fork in the ground, and instinctively we walked toward that unploughed patch at the crossing of the roads as the fittest place to talk to each other. We sat down outside the sagging wire fence that shut Mr. Shimerda’s plot off from the rest of the world. The tall red grass had never been cut there. It had died down in winter and come up again in the spring until it was as thick and shrubby as some tropical garden-grass. I found myself telling her everything: why I had decided to study law and to go into the law office of one of my mother’s relatives in New York City; about Gaston Cleric’s death from pneumonia last winter, and the difference it had made in my life. She wanted to know about my friends and my way of living, and my dearest hopes.

“Of course it means you are going away from us for good,” she said with a sigh. “But that don’t mean I’ll lose you. Look at my papa here; he’s been dead all these years, and yet he is more real to me than almost anybody else. He never goes out of my life. I talk to him and consult him all the time. The older I grow, the better I know him and the more I understand him.”

She asked me whether I had learned to like big cities. “I’d always be miserable in a city. I’d die of lonesomeness. I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here. Father Kelly says everybody’s put into this world for something, and I know what I’ve got to do. I’m going to see that my little girl has a better chance than ever I had. I’m going to take care of that girl, Jim.”

I told her I knew she would. “Do you know, Ántonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of any one else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister — anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.”

She turned her bright, believing eyes to me, and the tears came up in them slowly. “How can it be like that, when you know so many people, and when I’ve disappointed you so? Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? I’m so glad we had each other when we were little. I can’t wait till my little girl’s old enough to tell her about all the things we used to do. You’ll always remember me when you think about old times, won’t you? And I guess everybody thinks about old times, even the happiest people.”

As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cartwheel, pale silver and streaked with rose color, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world. In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.

We reached the edge of the field, where our ways parted. I took her hands and held them against my breast, feeling once more how strong and warm and good they were, those brown hands, and remembering how many kind things they had done for me. I held them now a long while, over my heart. About us it was growing darker and darker, and I had to look hard to see her face, which I meant always to carry with me; the closest, realest face, under all the shadows of women’s faces, at the very bottom of my memory.

“I’ll come back,” I said earnestly, through the soft, intrusive darkness.

“Perhaps you will” — I felt rather than saw her smile. “But even if you don’t, you’re here, like my father. So I won’t be lonesome.”

As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30