Chapter 1 part 1
I didn’t dare follow Mama, but I knew I needed to keep an eye on her. The boys from church weren’t coming until after 7:00, whatever Mama was doing, I could tell she wanted to be done by then. When she was far enough ahead of me, I quietly eased out the screen door, and crept to the edge of the yard where she couldn’t see me.
She wasn’t in the barn long before she emerged with the wheelbarrow. It was loaded up with the butane can Daddy and Taffy sometimes brought with them on hunting trips, a dirt shovel, a hammer, nails, and two
long pieces of scrap wood. The wood looked wet, as if it had been soaked in something. I didn’t know what she was up to; I only knew I was too afraid to move. She headed towards the wheat field without glancing back at the
She loosened the earth with the shovel, nailed the two pieces of wood in the shape of a cross, and drove it into the ground right there on the spot where Daddy had been killed. The top of the cross landed near her shoulders,
the same place the top of my head landed whenever I stood next to her. She must’ve decided that Taffy taking the engine out to the junkyard wasn’t enough to get rid of the demons the tractor had put into the ground, because
she pulled a box of matches out of the pocket of her house dress and set the cross on fire.
I could barely tell there were flames at all at first, and only a thin string of smoke rose from the cross. I walked out in the yard and looked toward the field. The house was much too far from the field for me to see Mama’s face, but I could feel her staring at me, warning me not to interrupt whatever she was doing. Mama lit match after match feeding the flames. I went inside and called Taffy who was just getting up for work.
“She started a fire?” he asked. “Sweetie, it’s not going anywhere near the house, is it? Is it spreading?” It hadn’t rained for days, and the wind was picking up, so I knew what Taffy meant. The fire was spreading, but not
toward the house.
Taffy told me he was on his way, and told me to stand outside the door and scream as loud as I could. Mama would have my head if I stood on the porch and screamed like a maniac, I told him. He said to do it anyway; it might knock her senses back into her.
Taffy hung up, and I did as he said. I screamed. I screamed Mama’s name, and then Daddy’s, even though he was gone. Mama didn’t even look. It didn’t matter, before my lungs even got sore I saw a car slowing down and
pulling to the side of the road.
The Johansens were driving, probably on their way to visit their baby niece in Iowa City like they had every month since she was born back in April. They stopped at the cloud of smoke coming from our farm. They pulled over on the side of the road, half climbed out of their car and saw Mama there in the middle of the wheat field in her green calico house dress. She was staring at the burning cross as the wind blew the pin curlers from her hair.
I went back out to the edge of the yard, close enough to hear the Johansen’s attempts at a rescue, far enough away where the autumn air was not overtaken by the heat of the fire.
“Mother of God, Mrs. Halifax! What are you doing?!” Mr. Johansen gasped.
“She won’t hear you, Ernest,” Mrs. Johansen told him before trying to ask Mama about me. She had worked with Mama on a couple of bake sales to benefit St. Anne’s, but when nothing she said could bring Mama out of her
trance she ran to the house to check on me.
Mr. Johansen stayed, tried to calm the fire, save Mama from herself. It didn’t work. Mama had hypnotized herself, and Mr. Johansen couldn’t get her to budge.
Mrs. Johansen wasn’t much help when she got to the house. She’d known Mama ever since I could remember, but this was the first time she’d been out on the farm, and it didn’t exactly qualify as a visit. She yelled at me to “think,” as if I held some magic key to get Mama back to normal. She almost had me believing I should.
My screaming hadn’t worked, and I was starting to hear police and fire engine sirens. Taffy was right with them along with the St. Anne’s boys who had already planned on coming to help. They left almost as soon as they came. A vast heap of fire overtook Mama and Mr. Johansen, and I couldn’t see either of them. They managed to pull Mr. Johansen out of it, but not Mama. She fought too hard against them, and they sent Taffy in to tell me. Mrs. Johansen and I could tell from the way the tears were welling in Taffy’s eyes that the news was not good.
“You better let one of the officers take you to the hospital, Gloria,”
Taffy told Mrs. Johansen. “He’s going to make it, but it doesn’t look good.” Mrs. Johansen left quickly, and I was glad. I didn’t want to listen to her anymore; telling me how Mama was crazy, how if I didn’t watch out, I’d be next. It wasn’t the first time someone had said something like that to me. I knew Mama was a little off balance, but it wouldn’t happen to me. Daddy and Taffy wouldn’t let it.
“What about us?” I asked. “Are we going?”
Taffy shook his head. “No, Jennie,” he said. “We’re not.”
“She’s gone, isn’t she?” I said.
Taffy nodded. “But don’t worry, Sweetie. I’m going to make sure you’re okay.”
Taffy cried, and I knew I should too, but I couldn’t. Everything whirled at me hard and none of the meaning had a chance to absorb. In that moment, I wasn’t worried. Taffy would make sure I was okay. He had promised, after all, and he always watched out for me before.
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