The spasm supervening on a wound is fatal.
The doctor saw omens everywhere that morning—in the plume of steam trailing behind the locomotive, in the cottonwoods shimmering by the creek, in the red dog silently watching the doctor’s carriage drive out Elbart Road. Even the tears the wind brought to the doctor’s eyes warned him. So his first sight of the Pine’s house—across a cornfield and through the orchard—did not surprise him: it looked abandoned, the front door flung open to wasps and flies and sparrows.
The doctor had visited many a home where death preceded him. He recognized its wake, or believed he did. The houses of the ill were astir, but the houses of the recently dead—though cluttered with the same medicaments, the same vials and bottles and pans, the same piles of sweat-soaked sheets and nightclothes—were still. And as Dr. Peary passed from the back porch to the kitchen, he detected that stillness in the Pine’s home.
He was surprised to find Jack Pine sitting on the parlor floor, a hatching crate facing him. The boy must have been sorting his rocks, for pieces of quartz were ranked by one knee, isinglass by the other. He wore overalls but no shirt and took no notice of Dr. Peary. Yet when the man asked where everyone was, the boy said without surprise, “I don’t know.”
“Now, how’s that? Didn’t your brothers feed you this morning?”
The boy held a piece of rose quartz up to the light. “No, sir.”
“What about your father?”
Jack set the quartz gently into the crate. “He didn’t feed
The doctor knelt. “I mean, do you know where he is?”
“Upstairs with Mama. I don’t think he’s ever coming down.”
“You don’t, do you?”
For the boy’s sake, Dr. Peary did not take the stairs two at a time. He walked calmly and entered the room cautiously, noticing the light from the uncovered windows and then the stench from the pile of sheets. He turned toward the ell and saw Alma. She lay on bare ticking, under the coverlet. Her hair was tangled on the pillow, and she seemed to stare quizzically toward the foot of the bed, as if she had a question for Dr. Peary: why? why? The pyrexia must have been terrible, he thought, as high as 110. Though he presumed heart failure or a final breath-stopping spasm, reflexively he touched her wrist and placed his palm before her mouth.
The paradox was that Alma seemed calm. Not yet rigid from death, her body was no longer rigid from tetanus. Her lips didn’t sneer; her fingers didn’t clutch the air; and her feet were not flexed, though her back arched slightly, as if she were trying to levitate—or scratch a hard-to-reach spot. The position thrust her hips up, and Dr. Peary was embarrassed to find the sight of her aroused him. Perhaps that’s why he turned away and at last saw John Pine sitting dully in the chair by the bed.
The man didn’t answer, and in the moment he remained silent, Dr. Peary gathered up the paraphernalia of pain—the brown bottle and the lisle mask—from John’s lap and checked his vitals. Never should have let the man have the chloroform, Dr. Peary swore to himself, never will again. Good way to lose a license.
“Doc,” John said.
“Well, hello. What damn thing have you done here?”
John gazed at Alma and then at the doctor. “Nothing.”
“This is nothing?” Dr. Peary held up the mask and bottle.
“Just trying to sleep.”
“Better ways to do that.”
“Gave myself funny dreams.”
The doctor nodded. John’s four-day beard was rimed with salt, his mouth weighted under the eaves of his mustache. “They couldn’t have been too funny.”
John thought before he answered, and thinking took time.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor had to say. “Looks like Alma passed in
“Did she?” John regarded his wife again.
“Come on, man, stand up.” In the small space between the bed and the wall, Dr. Peary helped John to his feet. “Let’s go downstairs.”
“Not yet,” John said, louder than the doctor would have liked. “I don’t want to go.”
“I know you don’t, but you got to.”
“Let me stay.”
Dr. Peary paused, glanced down at Alma. There was nothing so terrible in the way she looked. Life had withdrawn, that was all. Still, he couldn’t let the man remain. He’d sat there long enough, hadn’t he? “We’ll come back, I promise. We’ll come right back.”
Dr. Peary’s sister, who kept his accounts for him, liked to say, “Your business is with the living. No one pays you to console him.” The doctor wished he could agree, for already he could feel a thirst coming on. But he couldn’t. Paid or not, he had to console, at least until the neighbors arrived, and if he couldn’t console the grieving, he could console himself by setting the living in motion again.
And so the doctor busied himself. He walked John through the parlor and into the kitchen, nodding (as John did not) at Jack, who now sat on the hatching crate, his rock collection packed away. The doctor settled John Pine in a chair and ladled him a cup of water. He rang the Brennermans, who promised to come right over, then stepped outside to look for the boys. Not finding them, he stepped in again and—having smelt the dirty linen on the back porch—left a message with the Trimbles’ nearest neighbor: “There’s two day’s work at the Pine house, if Beatrice wants it.”
The Brennermans arrived, and still the doctor had to stay—for Hap couldn’t carry Alma down the stairs alone, and it seemed cruel to ask John to help. That meant the doctor had to wait until Ida Brennerman and her sister Althea were done tending the body. Choosing to leave Hap and John alone in the kitchen, Dr. Peary retreated to the back parlor, where he thought he might sit by himself some minutes, but there he found the Pine’s good dining table—where Alma’s body would have to rest—covered with catalogues and ledgers and stacks of Wallace’s Farmer. He cleared the table, then pushed aside the curtain and stepped into the front parlor, meaning to busy himself with a smoke. Yet the boy Jack hadn’t carried his rocks upstairs. He remained in the room, standing on his crate and reaching for the mantel clock. Though it wasn’t yet ten, the clock read 3:43, its ornate arms open wide.
Jack, who’d been studying the clock face, turned toward the doctor. “It stopped.”
“Yes, it did.” Dr. Peary wanted to laugh: he should have known right off why the house was so quiet: no damn ticking clock. “But we can fix that, child.” He slipped the key out from under the base, gave the works three good twists, then stepped away to fill his pipe with tobacco.
“No, you can’t,” the boy said after a moment. “It stop stopped.”
“That so?” The doctor canted his head and gave the works another good twist and, when the hands still didn’t budge, said, “Guess it has.”
“Clocks don’t die,” the boy declared.
“No, they don’t,” Dr. Peary said. “That man Rubin, I bet he can fix it.”
“Some things can’t be fixed, can they?”
“Some things,” the doctor said, uneasily, “but most can.”
“How do you fix a clock?”
“Way you fix most anything. Open it up and see what’s wrong inside.” Ruing his answer, the doctor tried to divert the boy. “You want me to take the crate upstairs for you?”
“How about a game of checkers then?”
Jack turned around on his upended crate and said, “Mama died
“Yes, she did,” the doctor said. “I’m sorry.”
Jack’s brow rumpled. “Who’s going to make us breakfast? Daniel can’t hardly cook at all.”
“I suppose he can’t.”
“Think Mrs. Brennerman will take care of us?”
The boy’s overalls were dirty at the knees, and his bare shoulders seemed both knobby and tender.
“Someone will,” the doctor said. “Someone will.”
By the time the doctor helped Hap roll Alma onto the camp blanket and carry her down to the back parlor, she looked nothing like herself: her hair was tied in a blue ribbon, her cheeks and lips rouged (Althea’s doing), her eyebrows greased with Vaseline (also Althea’s doing). If John Pine objected, he didn’t say. He pressed himself up and followed Alma into the back parlor, watching silently as Hap and the doctor laid his wife on the table and slid the army blanket out from under.
He dug in his pockets and said, “I have no pennies. Will nickels do?”
Hap nodded, and John gave him two, then left the room and lowered himself like a cripple into his Morris chair. The Brennermans traded wary glances, at last turning to Dr. Peary and casting him a look he recognized from his years in practice: you’re the doctor; you take care of it.
“No medicine for his troubles,” he said. Still, they silently begged him to do something, so he walked over and leaned close, offering John a sleeping powder for the night.
“I don’t need any damn potions.”
If John didn’t, the doctor did. He’d long ago begun thinking he’d pick up a powder or two at Pogue’s. (Surely that woman who suffered the hard birth needed something to ease her pain.) And while Ben Pogue ground the compounds in the back, the doctor would help himself to the bottle of whiskey Ben kept under the counter.
“Suit yourself,” the doctor said, then grabbed his bag and jacket from the peg under the stairs. What more could he do? The less he had to do, the stronger his thirst. He stepped into the back parlor to take his leave of the Brennermans. Althea and Hap had taken posts by the body, but Ida stood with her notions—her scissors, needle, and thread, Althea’s tins of rouge and Vaseline, the ribbons Ida had collected over the years—gathered in her apron. “You wouldn’t mind if I rode with you?” she asked.
“Not at all,” the doctor said, though in truth he did: the Brennerman farm was out of his way and keeping him from his drink.
“I’m grateful. Althea’s staying, and Hap too, lest John become unruly, but I got to go before my children burn house and barn to the ground.”
“That’s fine, Ida,” the doctor said, and to show he meant it, grasped her elbow. He nodded to Althea, her own head nodded in prayer, and then to Hap, who sat cross-armed, chief of the gallon can of formaldehyde between his feet. (Wise of Hap to bring his own preservative. Somebody had to keep Alma’s face from turning purple before they buried her.) The doctor managed one last glance at Alma, which reminded him to say: “You’ll want some ice in here, Hap.”
“Ice?” Hap said. “Lucky the man’s still got some, ain’t he?”
Hap wanted to shout to the boys he reckoned were somewhere in shouting range, “We need ice in here.” But he couldn’t shout in front of the doctor, and once the doctor had driven Ida away, he found he couldn’t shout in front of the dead, either. So Hap offered his pardon to Althea and headed for the front porch. As good a place as any to look for the boys, he figured, though he couldn’t really say where he’d last seen them. He hadn’t given them a thought. No one had, not even John, who sat in his Morris chair, eyes closed. Hap gazed from the porch toward the orchard, the apple and peach trees, the few cherry trees he coveted, and then east toward the windmill, the brooder and chicken houses, the hog yard and oat bin. The boys’d be in the barn, if they weren’t lost in the cornfields, so Hap figured. But as he climbed down the front steps, he heard a small limb crack, and dead ahead young Daniel dropped from the leafy arms of a peach tree, followed by young Will. Hap went straight for the boys and they straight for him, meeting halfway between the orchard and the house.
“Dan! Will!” Hap said, offering a sharp nod to each, then paused, not knowing what the boys knew nor where to begin. “So where’ve you two been?”
The boys wore hats against the sun, and in their shade, he couldn’t see the look passing between them. Daniel said, “We been doing our chores,” and Will added, “Then we climbed some trees.”
Hap nodded and tried to tug his hat, forgetting he’d forgotten the damned thing. He rubbed his head instead, pondering how the boys could be so ignorant of the goings-on in their house. Hard to imagine them climbing trees when the doctor and the Brennermans themselves were coming and going. But the boys were just boys, dusty, barefoot boys, working and loafing and pranking like boys. So Hap said, “Dr. Peary talk to you?”
“No, sir,” Daniel said.
“He didn’t, eh?” Hap braced himself (damned doctor), then blurted, “I am so sorry about your mother.”
Both boys stared at him, but Will said, “She’s going to get better, isn’t she?” causing Daniel to turn and gawp.
“Oh, brother.” Hap wished he could slap his hat across his knee a time or two. “Boys. I got to tell you, your mother died.” The boys neither cried nor spoke, though Hap was certain their eyes filled. “I’m so sorry. She’s a good woman. Or she was. Uncommonly good.”
And still the boys stood dumb as damned immigrants, and Hap didn’t know what to do. Daniel at last said, “Thank you, sir,” and
And a good thing, too, for Hap had begun to think they’d gone daft. He gazed past the boys, to the inviting shade of the orchard, and remembered why he’d come searching. “I’m sorry to ask, boys, but we need some ice.”
“Ice?” Daniel said.
“For the back parlor, where your mother lies.”
“To keep her cold,” Will asked, “like a carcass?”
“Yes, to keep . . .”
Hap thought better of saying more, but it didn’t matter, for what he feared had already happened. Will was crying—not whining or moaning or wailing but weeping silently, tears streaming down his face. Hap shook his head and ran a hand through his thinning hair. Why did he have this terrible job, telling the boy he’d lost his mother?
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Hap clapped his arms around Will, but he may as well have slapped him, for the boy began to sob, big gasping sobs that Hap could do nothing but watch the way, from the shadow of his porch, he could watch lightning cross the countryside. Once the squall passed, Hap handed Will his handkerchief, then dug into his pocket for peppermints or licorice or horehound. (Candy had been known to pacify Hap’s children.) When he found nothing but a cigar stub and two bits, he gave the boy the coin, and Will accepted it as if it were nothing more than an acorn or a button.
“I’ll get you some ice then,” Daniel said.
Hap had all but forgotten the older boy. “You’ll want to bring three or four blocks, boy.”
“Yes, sir,” Daniel said, and set off for the icehouse.
Hap laid a hand on Will’s shoulder and guided him past the rose bushes, up onto the porch, and through the parlor where John Pine still sat in his Morris chair, eyes closed and mouth agape. Hap settled the boy at the kitchen table and, needing to do something for him, set out a plate of crackers and preserves. He waited until Will took a bite (had Hap done enough? could he possibly?), then patted the boy’s head, pushed aside the damask curtain, and resumed his place beside the body.
Daniel hauled four fifty-pound blocks from the icehouse, one at a time, setting each on the porch. Ignoring his brother, who sat at the table pushing Hap’s quarter around with one finger, Daniel hoisted a block to the back parlor, rapping on the jamb before he entered. He looked first at Hap and Althea sitting against the near wall and then across at the open window, where a breeze played with the white curtains. Only then dared he eye his mother.
“Yah,” said Hap, “that’s exactly what we need here.”
Daniel said nothing. His mother was dressed in her best waist and skirt, her good shoes laced on. Her head was tipped forward, as if supported by an invisible pillow, but a rag steeped in formaldehyde covered her face.
“I guess we need a crate or something to set that ice on,” Hap said. “Althea! Why don’t you root around and find the boy a crate or two for the ice.”
“That’s all right, Mr. Brennerman. I can find one.”
Still hoisting the ice, Daniel grabbed an egg crate from the porch and brought it into the back parlor, where he set down his load. Althea opened the chest, searching for linens or towels to catch the drip, while Daniel rounded up two more crates from the cellar and used the kitchen step stool for the fourth block.
“Maybe we ought to close the window now,” Hap said. “Keep the room cooler.”
Althea rose to shut the window, but Daniel stammered out, “Excuse me,” and she stopped, as if it would be rude to move when a man, or even a boy, spoke. “I believe I’ll bring my brothers in here.”
“Well, I don’t know.” Hap rubbed his head, once and then again. “What do you think, Althea?”
“You know I don’t know a thing about raising boys.”
“This isn’t exactly a matter of raising them.”
“Near enough,” Althea said, and stitched her lips together.
Hap turned toward the boy. “Maybe you should ask your father.”
“He said we could.”
“What do you mean?”
“He said we could come see our mother.” Daniel lied and didn’t care.
“Well, I don’t think it’s right,” Althea said, and smacked the
Which cinched it for Hap. “Aw, go on. Go fetch your brothers,” he said, leaving Althea to stare her reproof into the floor.
Here is the truth. At dawn, Will woke Daniel, whispering. Ma’s getting better. Daniel rolled onto his back and called his brother a liar.
“Am not,” Will said, and to prove he wasn’t led Daniel up the stairs and into the room where their mother lay. “Look!” Will pointed to the bared windows that meant their mother could endure light again. “Look!” He gestured toward the bed. Daniel did look, and the instant he saw her—her skin gray, her mouth rigid in a bitter grin—he understood. Of course the windows were bare. Of course his mother could suffer the light. Daniel would have struck his brother, but Will’s knees buckled as if he’d already been struck.
From a chair crowded in the corner, their father peered at them. His eyes for once were not glinting and inscrutable but wide as ponds and dark as sorrow. And yet, as if everything were ordinary, Father pulled the coverlet up to Mother’s chin, saying, “Don’t worry, boys. We’re fine. I’m fine, your mother’s fine. Just . . . a long night. It’s morning, isn’t it? Haven’t you got chores to do?”
They did. They went from the barn to the hog yard to the chicken house, until no chores were left to do. Though they could never explain why, not to their own satisfaction anyway, they couldn’t return to the house, so they walked a detour through the cornfield behind the orchard and took lookout posts in the branches of the trees, sometimes sitting, sometimes lying, sometimes climbing higher or lower or moving to another tree. They’d seen the doctor come and go and changed their perches a handful of times, when Will said, “Ma didn’t look
like that before.”
“I know,” said Daniel, and those two admissions became a pact between them. And then Mr. B stepped onto the front porch and scanned the out-buildings, and trading a glance, the boys dropped into the grass and walked, hat brims lowered, across the open yard toward Mr. B.
“What’ll we say?” Daniel asked.
“Think I know?” Will said.
In the kitchen, Will spun Hap’s quarter on the table and Daniel weighed what to say. His brother was pale from crying, and their mother would have given him hot milk with molasses. But Daniel wasn’t his mother. He asked, “You done crying?”
“I don’t know,” Will said. “Ma never died before.”
Daniel laughed, despite himself. “You son of a weasel.”
“You want the quarter?” Will slid the coin toward his brother.
“Course not,” Daniel said.
“Neither do I,” Will said, and let the quarter gleam on the table. “Does she look different now?”
“She’s dressed nice,” Daniel said, “but her face is covered.” Will hid his face in his arms, so Daniel added, “Mr. Brennerman said we could see her.”
“I don’t think I want to,” Will said.
“I had to ask special,” Daniel said. “I had to lie.”
“So?” Will said, and lifted his head. “So what?”
“What about Jack? Think he knows?”
Will said, “He doesn’t, then you got to tell him.”
“I’ll give you the quarter if you do.”
“I don’t want the damn quarter.”
Saying no more, they rose together and walked to Jack’s small room, Daniel barely minding when Will pocketed the coin. Upstairs, they found their brother kneeling, Mother’s mantel clock before him, the back pried open, gears and bolts and coils spread across the pine planks, like an ancient alphabet spilled onto the floor. Jack lifted his face, his hair sifting across his brow, and said, “It stopped.”
“Of course it stopped,” Daniel said. “No one wound it. What did you think it would do?”
“You’re wrong,” Jack said. “I wound it.” He held up the key for his brothers to see. “The doctor wound it. But it still didn’t tick.”
Daniel and Will stared at the jumble they believed could never be reassembled—a large hoop and tiny, spoked wheels; a flat disk with miniscule continents carved from it; curved hooks, and screws that ranged from teensy to tiny—and then at each other. The clock had been a wedding present to their parents, as they’d heard many times, and now the present lay in ruins.
“We’ve got to go downstairs,” Daniel said.
“Why?” Jack asked.
Daniel glanced toward Will, who said, “Because Ma died.”
“I know,” Jack said. “But why’ve we got to go downstairs?”
“Because,” Daniel said, “maybe we won’t get another chance
to see her.”
In the back parlor, the window remained shut, and the damask curtains that served for the back parlor door had been pulled to. Althea and Hap sat with their heads bowed. The room was dimmer now and cooler than before, and the smell of formaldehyde—far worse than the smell of chloroform—sidled into the boys’ heads and seeped into their clothes. The boys waited expectantly, yet their mother kept still, her arms taut, her hands cupped as if she meant to scoop bathwater over their heads—a stillness that changed her more than the cloth or the smell or the odd cant of her neck and hips.
Hap coughed, to suggest the boys leave, but Will took it as his cue to break rank and lift the rag from his mother’s face, which he did before Daniel could stop him. As quickly as he lifted it, Will dropped it to the floor. He reached to lift the nickels that mocked his mother’s gray eyes, but Hap said, “Son,” and Will took her hand instead. It was cool but not limp (it was beginning to stiffen), and sure her hand was squeezing his, he began to weep again. A long moment he held the pose of a son saying farewell, the tears his brothers could not cry guttering down his face. Then Hap thought to cough again, and Will stepped back.
Daniel eyed his brother askance, then picked up the rag and re-covered his mother’s face. Jack said, “Ma’s hair looks real nice.”
Althea said, “Doesn’t it?”
That night, Hap and Althea took turns sitting up with Alma. Truth be told, it was Althea who remained awake most of the night. It was awkward, because all night John Pine remained in the front parlor, sitting in his Morris chair, which was where Hap, for one, wanted to sleep, and Althea, too, not that she admitted it. Instead, they slept in the kitchen, on those hard wooden chairs. A damned uncomfortable way to sleep, Hap later told Ida.
First light, John rose and walked through the kitchen and out the back door on his way to the privy. Poor Hap, he thought. Just look at him sprawled on the kitchen table. Returning, John put a hand on Hap’s back, murmuring, “Good man, good man.” Then he pushed open the curtain to the back parlor. (He remembered Alma ordering that damask. “Just tablecloth goods,” she said, “but it’ll make nice curtains, don’t you think?”). He saw that his wife still lay where he’d left her, and then he took in the rest of the room, the white curtains Alma had made, trimmed with lace she’d tatted. Her Chicago writing machine standing on its small desk, and crowded next to it, the Singer he bought her before the first baby, the mending piled atop it. It struck him odd at first, the four bricks of ice sitting atop three crates and a kitchen stepstool crowded around the table. Then he saw the soaked towels and linens beneath them. (Even the crumb cloth was drenched.) And he remembered who had died; he understood the need for ice.
Althea looked at him from the straight-back chair where she had sat most the night, a coal-oil lamp casting a greasy light on the prayer book in her hands, and said very quietly, “Good morning, John.”
He gazed again at Alma, then pulled the curtain shut behind him and went down to the icehouse he was so proud to build last year, with its cement walls and its tidy drains—an icehouse so thick, so impervious to sun and rain it would keep the ice harvest until the first snow—returning with a block of ice, which he set on the back parlor floor. He went down again and returned with another block he set next to the first. After his third trip, Althea said, “John?”
“Althea?” he said, and headed back to the icehouse.
“What are you doing, man?” Hap asked.
Hap woke slowly, his back achey, his mind scarcely turning, but he was alert enough to watch his neighbor bring three blocks of ice through the kitchen and into the back parlor. The fourth provoked the question. “Did the ice melt down?”
“Near to,” John said before heading out again.
“Well, I guess it might have. It was a hot night.”
Hap pushed himself up from the table, dimly thinking that his wife would drop by to fix breakfast and wouldn’t that be nice after this long night? He went to the back parlor to say good morning to his sister-in-law and saw not the four blocks he expected to see but blocks and blocks of ice set on the floor and stacked atop each other, a low but growing wall.
“What in God’s . . . ”
“Hap,” Althea said.
“Well, you’d curse, too, Althea,” he said, then added, “why aren’t you cursing?”
“What good would that do?”
“You’ve been watching him do this?”
“Well, I’m not blind. Not last time I looked.”
“How long’s he been at this?” Hap asked.
“Long enough for you to wake up and notice.”
“Why didn’t you stop him?”
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
John pushed back the curtain, another block of ice on his shoulder, and Hap asked again, “What are you doing?”
“Bringing up the ice.”
“All of it?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
“You could have told the doctor and me. We would have put Alma in the cellar.”
“I don’t want my wife in the cellar. What do you think? She’s a potato sprouting from its eyes?”
John shouted this into Hap Brennerman’s face loud enough the boys lying in their beds heard it, loud enough the dogs sleeping under the porch and the chickens scratching in the yard heard it. Then John swung the ice down, a bit too close to Hap’s face, and set the block
near Alma’s feet.
“I’m just being practical, John. You don’t have ice, you won’t be able to keep butter.”
“No reason to keep butter if there’s no one to make it.”
“All right, all right,” Hap said, and sat down next to Althea. “I won’t argue that. But let me ask, why are you doing this? You want to wait a couple days for Alma’s sister to get here? You want to bring your mother down from Abilene?”
“Why would I wait for them?”
John let the door slap behind him, but when he returned, this time precariously carrying a block on each shoulder, he said, “I just want to keep her, Hap. That’s all. I just want to keep her.”
So John did. He kept his wife as long as he could. Hap and Althea had to excuse themselves: they couldn’t hold but one night of this vigil. Hap had his wife and children to consider, Althea had her sister, and they both had the farm to worry about. They’d be pulling corn soon, and hadn’t John better be thinking about that himself? Althea did offer to cook meals twice a day. The children had to be fed, after all. But John said, no, he would take care of Alma and the boys, they would take care of the stock, and the crops would have to wait, even if the corn wasn’t pulled and the wheat not sown. And who cared what they ate, anyway?
Hap and Althea drove away in the wagon, while John continued bringing ice from the icehouse. (“Must have been a ton of it,” Hap Brennerman told the men at Ward’s.) John closed up the Singer and removed the Chicago writing machine from its desk, setting blocks on top of them. He hoisted ice atop the linen chest and onto the corner piece where Alma stored her mother’s dishes. As best he could, he filled the room with ice, even padding blocks in old sheets and placing them gently next to his wife.
Despite the protests of his neighbors, despite the counsel of his pastor, despite the stories he knew were told in town, John and the boys accepted no visitors all the days the ice melted and soaked through everything—warping the corner piece and the linen chest and the sewing machine cabinet and the writing desk, warping the very table on which Alma lay. They lived in isolation, but for the Trimble girl—who, after getting word from her nearest neighbor, set up a washtub on the far side of the barn (where John Pine wouldn’t see her) so she could tend to the reeking bedclothes someone had tossed into the yard. And they lived in silence, but for the sound of water dripping—from the table or desk or cabinet to the sodden floorboards, from the sodden floorboards to the stone cellar below. All those days, John Pine forbade his boys to answer the door when Ida Brennerman knocked or the pastor stood in the yard shouting, “Anybody home?”
John made only one trip to town. Having used up Hap’s formaldehyde, John went to Ward’s to buy a gallon, so he’d be sure to have a fresh rag every hour for Alma’s face. That’s when the rumor started that John Pine shared this duty with his boys. That he asked them to dip and wring the rags and spread them over their dead mother’s face.
It must have taken ten days for the ice to melt. Date of death and date of burial—those are recorded. Though she died September 8th, Alma May Pine was buried in the Promise Township cemetery September 19th, 1913. As grown men, the boys claimed they remembered none of this. Only Jack allowed as how he might. “And, really, I’m probably remembering what I was told over the years. And what medical school taught me. She was beginning to bloat, you know. But we couldn’t see that, because of her clothing. Father lifted her as gently as you’d lift a sleeping child and laid her in that casket he’d built. The town had by then a lacquered black wagon with glass windows and brass lamps, and she was carried in that hearse to the Promise cemetery and laid to rest in an improper service. Father paid his plot fee all right, and he paid the carting fee for the hearse, but no pastor presided, no relative was invited. Just us, standing under those elm trees long since deceased.”