Prelude – In Margaret’s House
Over that winter, which was the fifty-third year of her life, and the last winter of the war that folk had begun to call “The War Between the States”, a slow creeping paralysis at last confined Margaret Williamson to her bedroom. It was not her original bedroom, upstairs in the newer wing of a sprawling house in a park of meadows and fruit trees, which were all that was left of the farm that her father had established when the nearby town had been called Waterloo on the Colorado. Cruelly, the paralysis had advanced over the last two years, remorselessly taking control of her body and her life – she who had always appeared to be a domestic general in command of a small army, a whirlwind of activity in her vast, sprawling house; a hostess of no small repute, with many friends and the mother of sons. It was a particularly cruel twist of fate that her body should be first and worst affected, leaving her mind, her will and her memory unaffected. Margaret resisted being transformed into a helpless invalid, fighting as she had always fought, with resolute calm and by giving up as little as possible, every step of the way. When she could no longer climb the stairs, when she could no longer command her own lower limbs, and sat most of the day in a chair with wheels, in which her maids pushed her from room to room as she saw about the business of running a boarding house, she ordered that the room next to the private family parlor be cleared out, and that her own bedroom furniture and all her private possessions, her clothes and ornaments be brought downstairs and installed there.
“You and poor Daddy Hurst cannot be put to the bother of carrying me upstairs, morning and night,” she said to Hetty, who was her cook and long-time friend.
“I wish you would do as the doctor advises, Marm,” Hetty answered, “And take the water cure… sure and ‘tis the best thing…”
“Too much trouble,” Margaret answered, with indomitable cheer, intended to comfort Hetty as much as herself. “This way, I need not tire myself, and perhaps I may begin schooling Amelia in the art of keeping a large house full of guests and boarders… as well as being a political hostess.”
Hetty mumbled a Hibernian rudery under her breath, and Margaret sighed. Blunt, practical and Irish, Hetty had about as much in common with Margaret’s daughter-in-law as a wild mustang from the Llano did with a pedigreed Kentucky racing horse.
“She is my son’s wife,” Margaret answered, “And the mother of my grandson. So I do have some hope of her. I want so much for her to take my place… for her sake, as much as anything else.”
“An’ them as are in Hell want ice water,” Hetty riposted. Margaret sighed again and patted Hetty’s work-worn hand.
“As I can testify, Hetty - there are so few respectable avenues for a woman of good family to provide for her children, for her family,” Margaret said, momentarily distracted. Her hand felt numb, stiff and lumpish, as she moved it. There was a new chill striking her to the heart. So had her good friend Colonel Ford warned her – he who had once practiced medicine, who had worn himself ragged attending on the wife that he loved so dearly. So might her own husband have seen to her needs and to her care… alas that he had been twenty years older than herself, and struck down by camp-fever two years ago. Margaret had mourned for him as she saw to the necessary rituals, for she had loved him – not as dearly as she had loved the husband of her youth, the father of her sons, but she had loved him well… and he would have recognized and mapped the progress of her affliction. That was his way, for he was a logical man. She took her hand from Hetty’s and surreptitiously flexed her fingers. No, it was only a momentary, fleeting thing – but so had it seemed those many months ago, when she began to feel that numbness in her feet and ankles, began to stumble and falter. So had it progressed, relentlessly over the months, independent of events… which were as catastrophic to that world outside as these small, inexorable limitations that her illness placed upon herself.
In the end, as winter turned haltingly to spring, as the fortunes of the Confederacy began to falter, it seemed that Margaret’s body, her strength – and her very will, as indomitable as the will of the men who fought for glory, for the bonny star-crossed flag of the Confederate States - all began to fail at once. Which Margaret, in that private corner of her mind, found ironic in the extreme, for she had always been a Unionist. In her secret heart, she was an abolitionist as well – a dangerous sympathy, indeed, which practically none in her wide circle of friends had ever suspected. Margaret had much skill and long experience in keeping her true feelings veiled. The old black fortune-teller had said as much, the conjure-woman with her hands like wrinkled monkey-hands, who looked into the lines of Margaret’s hand and revealed the future mapped in them for her, sitting on a weather-bleached tree-trunk cast up on the muddy shore of the river. That very day that Margaret’s father had brought his six yoke of oxen, his heavy-laden wagon, and his family, across the great River at Nacogdoches and come to take up the land that had been promised to him by Mr. Austin and by Alois Becker’s friend, the Baron de Bastrop.
“I was just ten years old,” she remarked one chill day in February. A bitter cold wind stirred the bare grey limbs of the trees outside. The sun cast their eldritch shadows on the scrubbed pine boards at the foot of the French doors that led out to the verandah. Margaret’s daughter-in-law Amelia had wanted to draw the curtains against the icy draft that seeped around the cracks. But Margaret had demurred, saying that she wished to see the outside, not be closed away like an invalid. Amelia did not say anything in reply, but Margaret read her thoughts, as she settled Margaret against the pillows. Amelia rustled away – even her crinoline sounded disapproving, Margaret thought.
“When were you ten years old, Gran-mere?” asked her grandson. Little Horace, just four years old; although the smallest, he was yet the most tenacious of her attendants these days; like a particularly devoted and affectionate lap-dog. He laid on his stomach on the hearth-rug among his toys, heels in the air and carefully setting up a row of painted tin soldiers.
“When we first came to Texas, Horrie,” She answered. “And the conjure-woman told us our fortunes. Well, my fortune, for that day was my tenth birthday. That is why I remember so well. My brother Rudi was just eight, and my little brother was three, a little younger than you are. The conjure-woman did not tell much of my brothers’ fortunes – I thought that I was being especially favored, since I was the oldest… but later I began to think that perhaps she did truly see their futures and wished not to tell us of what she had seen.” Horrie’s eyes rounded in astonishment.
“Where did you live before then, Gran’mere?” he asked, breathless with curiosity. “and where did you meet the conjure-woman?
“We lived in the North, Horrie,” Margaret answered. “The conjure-woman… I don’t know where she came from… we met her the day that we crossed the river into Texas. Only it was part of Mexico, then.”
Horrie’s eyes rounded even more.
“You lived in the North, with the Yankees?” He breathed, as if this were the most horrible circumstance imaginable. “Gran’mere… was your papa a Yankee?” Margaret added hastily, “It was a very, very long time ago, Horrie. Before the war was even thought of… there was no talk of Yankees and Rebs, then. We thought of all as one country, the United States.” Margaret sighed a little, for Horrie’s father, her oldest son had fallen on the first day of battle at Gettysburg, not fifteen miles away from where she and her parents had lived, long ago. “It seems a little unreal to me… that time before. Sometimes I think I was not really born until then, that all before we crossed the river were just dreams.”
Across the River
The river flowed smoothly, as wide as an ocean, dark with mud in the shallows, but shining silver, in those places where snags and rocks did not interrupt the water’s flow. The wagons had crossed that day, a train of wagons belonging to Mr. Sullivan of Georgia, and some other prosperous men, come to take up lands offered by the impresario, Mr. Austin. When the wagons had been all conveyed across, most of the folk in the party decided to make camp, for the traverse of the river had been muddy, exhausting work, both for the ox-teams and for their drivers.
Margaret Becker and her younger brother Rudolph were dispatched by their mother to gather firewood along the riverbank, within sight of the camp that had begun to blossom in a wide green meadow, a scattering of canvas tents and hastily piled brush arbors among the wagon tops and neatly piled harness and tack. “And take the baby with you,” Maria Becker added. She spoke to the children in the language they used among themselves, the German of the district settled in during the last century. She mopped perspiration off her forehead as she set down a box of dishes. Two heavy wagons full of household goods and tools had the Beckers brought with them from Pennsylvania, a pair of long freight wagons, with tall canvas covers sloping forward and aft. Alois Becker was a careful man, who had gone out to Texas two years before and returned to bring his family to his promised new holding in Mr. Austin’s land-grant, along with all that he felt needful. Six yoke of draft-oxen pulled each wagon; the front of the largest was fitted out as a tiny cabin for Alois Becker’s wife and three children. But still, unless they stayed at an inn, or with friends and kin as they had earlier upon this road – they must set up a camp at night. Maria and Margaret must cook over an open fire, under a sky that might arc overhead, sequin-spangled with stars or drizzling with rain falling from cotton-wool grey clouds. “Don’t go far from the wagons,” Maria added in warning, as Margaret lifted her littlest brother up and perched him on her hip, trying to do as her mother did so capably. But she was ten years old, and had no hips, and not the strength to carry a heavy three-year old that way for long, especially not a sturdy toddler like Carl. He smiled tranquilly up at her, as she set him down and led his faltering footsteps, following after her brother Rudi, who carried a length of canvas over his shoulder. Margaret, like her brothers, had fair hair, as pale as sun-bleached wheat-straw. She had a firm chin, a face as oval as a bird’s egg and serious blue eyes.
“Don’t walk so fast, Rudi,” she begged, as the three children picked their way among the rocks and drift, half-sunk on the muddy shore. She yelped as her right foot sank suddenly through a tangle of short grass and squelched in the mud underneath. “Mama said to not go out of sight of the wagons. There’s plenty of wood, close enough.”
“I want to see more, Grete,” Rudi pleaded, “We’re in Texas proper now… Papa said.” He was the adventurous one, completely fearless, charming and the apple of their father’s eye.
“It doesn’t look any different than the other side,” Margaret answered, firmly. Rudi scowled; he might be Papa’s favorite, but Margaret was the oldest and utterly reliable when it came to remembering and minding what Papa and Mama said. Curiously, only Margaret could make him obey. Mama might try, but Rudi would then appeal to Papa, who would always let him do as he wished. “There’s plenty of wood here.”
Rudi spread out the length of canvas on a mostly-flat bank, packed tightly with tree-mast and litter brought down by the highest floodwaters. She and her brothers began to gather up armfuls of small branches, cast up far enough above the present shoreline to be well-dried, piling their finds onto the canvas. Margaret, trailing Carl by the hand ventured a little farther along the bank, where a huge dead tree stretched whitened branches against the sky; a skeleton of a tree, clawing at the sunset-apricot sky. A chorus of birds started up from the branches, cawing and cackling noisily.
“You chillun come from a far place,” said a voice, in strangely accented English. Margaret started up short; how could she have not seen the woman, sitting as if on a throne on the tall knees of the bleached tree roots, reaching into the earth at her feet. It almost seemed as if the woman had sprung out of the earth herself, “And be goin’ to a farther place… so de loah tell me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Margaret answered, politely and in English, “Our father has been granted lands in Texas, and brought us here to settle.”
“’Gwine t’be Mexicans, hey?” The woman chuckled, a rich cynical chuckle, “Swear t’be the king’s man, an’ foller after de old church, make an ‘x’ onna piece o’ paper.” She shook her head, still chuckling, “What de blanquettes won’ do for a piece o’ lan’!” Margaret stared frankly at her; she supposed the old woman was a slave, for she her skin was brown as polished walnut wood. Margaret had hardly ever seen a person with skin so dark, before leaving Chester County in Pennsylvania so many months ago, although she had seen many since. Mama had said such people were slaves, owned like Papa owned his cattle. She also had murmured to the children in German that such things were wrong. Margaret wondered many things; if the old woman favored being a slave and where had she come from? Some of the other settlers in their train had brought slaves with them, people with dark skins, of all colors from ebony-black to brown and the color of coffee with cream in it, but Margaret didn’t think this woman was among them. She was too old. Her hands looked like stems of grass, with painfully knotted joints. She had a long cloth wrapped around her head, elaborately folded and tucked, covering every scrap of her hair. There was a cloth-covered basket and a long stick, like a cane made from dark wood at the woman’s feet, as if she had been gathering greens and roots, or mushrooms in the damp places by the river. Carl tugged his hand out of Margaret’s; she let him go toddling towards a pile of drift at the river’s edge, were the water was muddy and shallow, no current to draw in a small and adventurous child. Margaret shook her head solemnly at the old women’s skepticism.
“Papa says that we will be left to our own ways and our own church, and that it is only an oath of paper, not an oath of the heart. All we need do is obey the laws of their government. Papa says the laws are very alike anyway.”
The old woman chuckled rustily, “An’ if dey laws change, who will yore Papa obey, den?”
“I don’t know,” Margaret answered, much puzzled, “That is a matter for Papa, I reckon. Carl!” She called after her brothers, “Rudi – don’t let Carl get into the mud!” The old woman looked at the boys and smiled in amusement, watching Carl solemnly tugging a sodden length of tree branch out of the shallows. Rudi set down an armload of bleached dry sticks, and hovered at Margaret’s elbow, clearly fascinated by the old woman’s answer.
“Don’t you fret, girl – de spirrets tell me, dat chile wuz born under a sign… de hangman will chase arter, but de water protec’ an’ nebber do him harm.”
“Spirits?” Margaret asked curiously, “Like angels?”
“No, chile,” The old woman looked amused, “De ol’ sperrits, de loah, like Baron Cemetary, an’ Erzuli ... . Open yore heart to de sperrits… dey tell you tings. Dere be no secrets, when de loah ride dis ole Nigra. My mama, she had de power, look into a pool o’ watter, a candle lit at mid-night, she know tings. An’ so do I know dese tings, Missy Margaret!”
“How do you know my name?” Margaret asked, startled out of all countenance. She knew she had not said her name to the old woman, and if she was not one of their companions in the wagon party – and Margaret was very sure she was not, for they had been together on the road to Natchitoches for many weeks and she would have noted the presence of an old woman like this – how did she know such things about the Becker children? Even if she had ridden in a wagon all day – and who could endure the constant jolting of the wheels, over the ruts and rocks in the road – Margaret and Rudi would have noted the presence of a woman like this, around the evening campfire or at the privy pits, at any of their noonings or at hitch-up time in the morning. The old woman chuckled,
“Hain’t you ben listenin’, chile? De loah, de sperrits tell me! Dey also tell me you is ten year ol’ dis very day. Dey tell me more den de pas’… ”
“Are you a witch?” Margaret asked boldly and the old woman shook her turbaned head,
“Not de kin’ yo think, Missy Margaret. Hyer, give me yo han’s.” The old woman reached out her own hands, the long slender fingers with the joints like grass-stems knotted with age and rheumatics. Taking Margarets’ hands, she turned them palm up, and drew them towards her. Margaret did not resist, as the old woman carefully scrutinized her hands, the lines and creases across her palm. Finally, she closed her own fingers, dry and papery-feeling, only a little paler on the palms than Margaret’s own, closing Margaret’s hands and enclosing them in hers. She looked into Margaret’s wide eyes, her own eyes deep pools of ancient wisdom.
“I see de future in yo han’s, Missy Margaret… a big ol’ house, an’ a man you gwine marry fo’ love, anodder fo’ friendship.” Her voice went sing-song, and she closed her eyes, as if she concentrated on what she was seeing, “Yo will meet de fust husban’ befoah de moon waxes and wanes agin. Count ten and ten and ten an’ one day t’day… ten year an’ one will you be blessed, Missy Margaret. Joy an’ sorrow, will you have, an’ always frien’s… some o’dem pow’ful men…” Her voice died away and she opened her eyes and hands, relinquishing Margaret’s.
“What else did you see?” Margaret asked. She did not altogether believe the woman saw her future… but still, this was very curious.
“Cain’t rightly say no more, Missy Margaret… somp-times dey ain’t no good in knowin’ more. I tole you jus’ what yo have de need to know.”
“What about me?” Rudi chimed in at last, and the old woman turned her head, acknowledging him for the first time. “What do you see of the future for me?”
It seemed to Margaret that the old woman gazed at her brother for a long, long time, squinting against the low-falling sun sun. Finally, she replied, “’Cain’t see nothin’, boy. Dere be clouds ‘round you, like smoke, dark black smoke.”
“Is that all?” Rudi asked, disappointed. The old woman shrugged.
“Jes’ dark smoke, like from a bonfire.”
Margaret, looking into the old woman’s eyes, wondered momentarily if that had truly been all she saw – if there were things she saw that it were best for Rudi not to know about. Could she have seen some kind of misfortune for him, just as she saw a big house, many friends and two husbands for Margaret, but did not think she should know any more than that? Margaret thrust that thought away from her mind. Rudi was Papa’s favorite; Papa had brought them all to Texas, to make a secure future for all of them, but mostly for Rudi. The old woman made a shooing motion with her hands,
“You chilluns best be gwin back to yo mama… be dark soon, an’ yo papa, he in a hurry…” She cackled richly again, “He in a big rush to be a Mexican… don’t he know dat America gwine follow him, no matter?”
Margaret would have asked more, but for a sudden splash of water from the river’s edge.
“Carl!” she cried, for her little brother had wandered into the shallows and sat down in the water; he was thoroughly wetted and daubed to the waist of his shirt in sticky black mud. “Come out of the water at once, before you catch your death of cold!” She caught up the hem of her plain homespun dress in one hand, wading out in waters up to her knees towards Carl, who was laughing with delighted unconcern, inching away from her with a mischievous look on his face. Behind her on the bank, the old witch-woman chuckled,
“Doan you have a care foah dat chile, Missy Margaret – de watter be his savior!” But Margaret paid her no mind, although she wondered just how the old woman could be so sure. Children drowned in river water all the time; hadn’t Mama often told the story of her little cousin, swept away in the Brandywine River, when Mama was a girl? She snatched Carl’s hand with her free hand, but he pulled against her, already looking cross and mutinous and being taken away from his delightful play in the mud. “Gather up the wood, Rudi,” she gasped, “We’ve enough of it for Mama -we’re going back to camp now.” With her ten-year old strength she wrested her little brother out of the shallows. He was wet through, and filthy with river-muck. “Oh, Carl! Mama will blame it all on me, I was supposed to look after you! Papa will give us both a licking, for sure!”
“Mama won’t let him do anything of the sort,” Rudy panted, struggling under the weight of the canvas-rolled bundle of wood, and the old witch-woman shook her head. She gathered up her basket and her cane, and came to her feet by slow degrees.
“I tole you, dat chile won’t come to no harm by watter, nor you neither, Missy Margaret… you gwoine back to yo Mama and yo Papa, you heah?”
Margaret barely heard the old woman, for Carl pulled sulkily at her hand. In exasperation, she hoisted him up and carried him a little way, his soaking-wet clothes shedding water onto hers. They had come farther along the riverbank than had seemed at first, and this made Margaret cross and unhappy. Now, in addition to the baby having dirtied his clothing, Mama would be worried, and needing wood to start cooking dinner with, and Papa would be unhappy because supper might not be ready when he was hungry for it.
“I wonder what the old woman meant,” Rudi asked, breathlessly. “About the water?”
“I don’t know,” Margaret, and paused to hitch Carl higher. His wet clothing was now soaking through her dress and shift to her skin, and Margaret’s heart sank. Mama would look sad, at the extra work that wet and dirty clothes would make for her. She would worry that Margaret and Carl would catch their death of cold, and send them to bed early, in the wagon. Of course, her little brother would not mind so much: he would be half-asleep before supper was even over. But Margaret would mind very much. When she was finished with helping Mama with cleaning up after supper, she might like to linger at the edge of the circle of men around the fire, talking of land, and of governments and of the wonders to be seen in their new country. This was their first night in Texas, now that they had reached it at last. Although it did not look all that much different from the country they had traveled through; all piney woods and sloughs full of long-legged water birds and those enormous scaly lizards that the Papa said jovially were called alligators. Margaret had wanted very much to hear more of this talk, especially on this night. Overhead, it seemed as if the color was bleached out of the sky, fading from blue to something like the color of oyster shells, save where the sun set in a smear of orange and purple clouds edged with a line of silver. Birds clamored in the tree branches above their heads, swift dark shadows, darting here and there against the pale sky. With no little relief, Margaret and Rudy crossed one last stretch of pebbly shore and saw the wheel-rutted path up to the higher ground where they had come, where the wagons had been brought. “It’s not much farther, Rudy – run along and take the wood to Mama.”
Obediently Rudi ran ahead of her, his bare feet flashing, towards the half-circle of wagons. Margaret could already smell a drift of wood-smoke. In the dusty blue twilight, the flames from cook-fires were as pale as the sky. A chill breeze wandered across the campfire, creeping out as the going of the sun drained away all the warmth in the world. Carl fussed to be let down, but Margaret hoisted him higher against her, and sang a snatch of children’s rhyme to sooth him,
“Sleep baby sleep… while Mama watches the sheep… you are growing too fast, Carlchen!” Margaret sighed; back in Pennsylvania, their Opa, their grandfather had told her the story of the farmer who became enormously strong, by lifting a newborn calf every day. Eventually, so said Opa, chuckling behind his beard, the farmer could lift the full-grown cow over his head. Margaret could lift her little brother quite easily when he was a baby, so Opa solemnly insisted that she would be able to lift him just the same, when they were both grown. Margaret had agreed with him at the time, but only now was beginning to suspect that Opa had been having a gentle jest at her expense. Her arms and shoulders ached; no, there was no help for it, she would have to let him down. They were nearly to Papa’s camp anyway. Margaret’s heart lifted, for she could see Papa, hers and Rudi and Carl’s Papa, talking with some of the other men of the train, where the leaping flames of a new fire sprang up and gilded their faces and hands in the swift-falling dusk. The firelight shone on Papa’s hair, as he pushed his wide-brimmed straw planter’s hat back. Margaret could always pick out Papa, among the other men, for he was so much taller than most of them, his hair as pale as ripe wheat, and his beard like fine curls of gold wire. Back in Pennsylvania, the Quaker schoolteacher had once shown the children a book of ancient history, illustrated with engravings of heroes of old, gods and warriors and kings and such. Margaret secretly thought that some of them looked like Papa, so noble and fearless. She had wondered, looking at those pages, if any of those cloaked and helmeted men, holding their swords before them, or at their sides, were as outspoken and easily angered as Papa. To herself, Margaret thought it very likely, for they were gods and kings, not a farmer – even if Papa was the best farmer in Chester County and accounted to be a very good man when it came to doctoring cows and grafting apple trees. She set her little brother down, so that he could walk as he wished, but once his feet were set on the ground, he began fussing to be picked up again. Margaret sighed again, much exasperated. Like Papa, Carl seemed to want always what he didn’t have.
To her relief, Mama hardly seemed to notice how wet and dirty the two of them had become. Mama was chopping onions, on a tin plate held in her lap.
“Did we bring enough wood, Mama?” Margaret asked, and Mama smiled through tears from the onions,
“Yes, Liebchen, just enough for the fire tonight … will you mind the baby? Your brother has gone to remind Papa to fill the water-barrel… your Papa! He is as pleased as a dog with another tail tonight! In Texas at last…”
“Is it all that much farther to go, Mama?” Margaret asked, wistfully. “To … to San Felipe on the Brazos?”
“Some more weeks, Liebchen,” Mama answered, with a smile. Margaret thought that Mama was pretty enough, compared to other Mamas – but not as handsome as Papa was, compared to other men. She had a round face, and her hair curled into little tendrils around her face. Mama never lost her temper, and nothing ever seemed to bother her the way things bothered Papa. Even Papa’s anger didn’t bother Mama; Margaret was most sure of this, for she was the oldest and she watched her parents. Sometimes Margaret felt like she had stepped outside of herself, and she watched Mama and Papa as if they were strangers – how they spoke to each other, how Mama soothed Papa’s bad moods – and how Mama took the edge from Papa’s temper when he had spoken hastily and in anger to someone else. And no matter what, Papa paid mind to Mama’s soft-voiced admonitions. He would not be angry with Mama, ever – the same as he would never say harsh words to Rudy. He might on occasion speak so to Margaret, but curiously enough Papa’s anger did not so affect Margaret, ever since Papa had returned from his first trip to Texas. He had been away, away for a year or more, leaving Mama and Margaret and Rudi to manage with Opa and Oma’s help. When he returned, it seemed to Margaret that he was a stranger – still her Papa, of course – but a stranger, whom she could stand a little outside from and watch, without feeling a pain from his thoughtless words.
Mama had set her shawl aside – her largest and warmest - so that she could step safely close to the fire. Margaret took it up and wrapped it around herself and Carl, sitting on the three-legged creepy-stool brought out from the wagon. Margaret hugged her little brother to her, wrapped in the heavy woolen folds against the evening chill, creeping up from her bare toes. It would be so nice to have been inside walls tonight, Margaret thought – and to be warm. Now, here was Papa, with Rudi perched on his shoulders. Papa carried a water-bucket in each hand. Rudi had Papa’s hat on his own head, with the brim of it falling well over his eyes. Both he and Rudi were laughing.
“What a day!” Papa exclaimed exuberantly as he came to the Becker’s campfire, “It smells good, Mariechen, whatever it will be! And we can do it justice tonight, can’t we, lad?” He set down the buckets and swung Rudi down off his shoulders, deftly turning the boy upside down for a few moments, whole Rudi yelped and begged to be put down.
“Venison stewed with onions and juniper berries,” Mama answered, while Rudi squealed and begged to be put all the way down. Mama and Mrs. Sullivan had traded with some wandering Indian women who came bearing baskets of pecans and golden-dripping combs of honey, as they waited to cross the river that very morning, and so tonight they would eat well. Papa leaned down and kissed Mama on the cheek, while Rudi tugged on the hem of his rough roundabout coat.
“Sublime, my dearest. Such a country! A garden of Eden it will be, Mariechen, just you wait.”
“And for how long will I wait for a proper house, Alois?” Mama wrapped the corner of her apron around her hand to shield it from the heat of the fire, and stirred the sizzling onions with a long iron fork, “With a proper stove and bread-oven in it, so that I do not break my back, leaning over a fire, nor set fire to my petticoat?”
“Not for long, Mariechen,” Papa promised with great exuberance, while Rudi begged, “Again, Papa – again!” Laughing, Papa lifted up Rudi and holding him at the waist turned him upside down. Carl wriggled to be let down from Margaret’s lap, for he was as eager as Rudi to be played with, to romp as little boys did, as puppies did with an indulgent older dog. But Papa looked down as Carl ran towards them, saying in annoyance,
“Margarete, the idiot child is filthy – could you not have kept him away from the mud, if he doesn’t have the wits to stay out of it himself?”
“He was helping us with the wood, Papa,” Margaret began to plead, for Carl looked as if he had been spanked and Mama answered swiftly,
“It is of no matter, Alois – children will become dirty, with there is naught else to play with save the dirt. Play with the boy, then.”
But the bright interest had gone from Carl’s face, at Papa’s harsh words, and he scrambled back to shelter under Mama's shawl with Margaret. Papa had been entirely a stranger to Carl, for he had gone to scout out their new land in Texas when Carl was still a lap-baby. When he returned last harvest-time, to make plans to bring them all to Texas, Carl had been just old enough to walk, to begin to talk. He pulled away from Papa’s attention, screwing up his little face in distaste and almost falling to all fours in his haste to hide behind Mama and Margaret. He did not cry, like other children might have, for Carl was normally of a sunny and placid nature, but he was sullen and silent around Papa. It was one of those standing-apart flashes of insight that had increasingly come to Margaret that this made Papa very unhappy. Papa had wanted little Carl to like him, to be as open and affectionate as Rudi was. But Papa was too impatient to coax Carl into the same sort of liking, as Mama had urged him to do, and so Papa ignored him and made much of Rudi. Margaret wondered now and again if she might do anything to make Papa see this; she thought not. If Mama could not make Papa see reason and favor his younger son as much as he favored the older, there was not much that Margaret herself could do. And perhaps she didn’t mind, too much – for that left her little brother to her, like her real baby-doll.
(to be Continued. With luck, to be available by December, 2011)