Eve got off the bus in tears the day her third grade teacher scolded her for using a hankie. “It’s not sanitary,” she said. Miss Pauley had no notion of what a handkerchief means to us: reusable tissue, wash cloth, gripper of lids, wiper of smudgy glasses, emergency bandage, keepsake we carry to the grave. Peekaboo with a hankie triggered Eve’s first laugh, and later she sat through sermons watching Grandma Yoder fold a flat square into a butterfly or mouse. Now Eve does that for her sister and knots Ruth’s Sunday pennies in a corner like a hobo’s sack. She irons and stacks all the hankies in our drawers and brings a bandanna drenched with cold water to her dad who ties it round his neck. Last Christmas she gave me a set of four lacy kerchiefs embroidered by her own hand, each with my initials and a leaf or flower to signify the season. Straight from a city college, Miss Pauley could only count the virtues of a Kleenex. “Like a lot of things, hankies grow softer as they age,” I said, using one to wipe Eve’s tears.
They’re the riddle in my garden What has eyes but cannot see? Like a stone, they fit my hand as I turn their other cheek. With love but no regrets, I mash them into mounds or whip them, scallop them, dice them for rivel soup. Cancer could not lessen Dad’s affection for them fried. He tells how they clustered like sleigh bells in the sand where nothing else but winter squash and zucchini thrived. His mother, Fannie Mishler, fixed them for every meal like some cultures live on rice. My son-in-law from St. Louis splashes hot sauce on their skin, but I fancy even their pockmarked faces that shrivel as they age.
That’s what’s left of it— six safety pins from a chain I once wore beneath my dress to Saylor’s School and Forks Mennonite Church. Who’d suspect vanity in a girl so shy she seldom spoke? I liked how each pin clicked shut to link to the next and how they encircled me like a charm of daisies I counted round and round. Some would have said that was a sin. The same folks who’d pocket a shiny buckeye against the ache of rheumatism. I took my necklace off when I joined my life with Pete’s. I needed pins for diapers, school notes, lost buttons, loose straps— catastrophes only the quick clasp of hidden silver fixed.
It begins in a cow lane with bees and white clover, courses along corn, picks up tempo against rocks. It rises to a teetering pitch as I cross a shaky tree-bridge, syncopates a riff over the dissonance of trash—derelict ice box with a missing door, mohair loveseat sinking into thistle. It winds through green adder's mouth, faint as the bells of Holsteins turning home. Blue shadows lengthen, but the undertow of a harmony pulls me on through raspy Joe-pye-weed and staccato-barbed fence. The creek hums in a culvert beneath cars, then empties into a river that flows oboe-deep past Indian dance ground, waterwheel and town, past the bleached stones in the churchyard, past the darkening hill.
Behind us, the channel half-clogged by bullhead lilies slips back into the smoke of yellow tamaracks clouding the shore and we glide on the silk of a dream so deep, herring break the surface from eighty feet below.
I am this hand skimming the water. I am these eyes dazzled by light.
I am you whom I loved before the seas were parted.
Sunday afternoons, she rolled off her stockings to cross beams girding my grandfather’s barn. She was fifteen and longed for something in the dark leafy boughs she couldn’t quite reach. Balancing on a hand-hewn rafter was nothing more than stepping out on a limb and the humid hour held its breath, the twittering sparrows fell silent. Dust shivered suspended as she passed through shafts of light austere as a coronation. This was before she coiled her braids under a covering and took her place in a kitchen with its slick checkered floor and the tick of a clock she had to rewind. For one immortal summer, girders hung taut as strings her steady feet could strum.
You will be blessed if you ever catch a glimpse of their plain feathers, the gray of slate shingles in the rain, and their bright black eyes shining with every good secret they will never tell. They preferred the thickest brush along our creek bed and what was overgrown around the abandoned shed. My grandfather as he lay dying recalled the hidden catbirds from his childhood, how they sang in the thicket of an empty house every morning as if their hearts would break, as if they knew the treasures of heaven lay in every clear note they tendered to the world.
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