BY LIZ McADAMS
Copyright is held by the author.
SADIE MORRIS wiped the sweat from her brow with a dishtowel and leaned back over the sink, stuffing the towel back into the strings of her apron. Bone-weary and tired beyond tired, she propped her hip against the counter and struggled to lift the canning pot above the sink, positioning it over the metal colander without scalding herself.
Arms straining, she hoisted the pot upward, tipping out steaming water and boiled peaches.
Today was canning day, tomorrow would be jam, everything scrubbed and boiled up and set into jars, and boiling them again to kill the germs; for cleanliness was next to godliness, and heaven knows a whole family in the next township took ill from a bad batch of jam. So Sadie scrubbed and boiled and boiled again.
“Don’t you come in here — I just mopped the floors.” Sadie didn’t even turn around, her hands still gripping the canning pot, she ducked her head to avoid the steam.
“But Ma —”
“Now what?” Setting the pot back on the stove, Sadie turned toward the voice and forced a smile at her oldest. A fine child, with sandy red hair and hazel eyes, so much like her own.
“Uh, just wanted to let you know we’re going down to the creek.”
“Are your chores done?”
“Fine then. Take the dog with you.”
“But he scares all the fish away.”
“Take ’em or you don’t go.”
Back over the sink, Sadie watched the two figures cut across the yard, the dog bouncing ahead, and then stopping to sniff something or other as chickens scattered in their wake. Her hands were busy peeling the skins off of peaches. Slimy in the heat, her fingers moved unseeing, dropping shrivelled skins into one bowl and the fruit into another.
The peaches would be chopped into slices and ladled into mason jars with simple syrup, secured with metal rings and then the whole thing boiled again.
Dampness trickled down her neck. Sadie wiped her forehead with the back of her arm, her hands still covered in steaming peach slime.
And that’s the way it was. Boil, chop, boil again, and again. The syrup was easy enough, she made it this morning while it was still cool out, and she boiled the lot of jars then too; but now in the heat . . . .
The ceiling fan circled overhead, a cluster of bluebottle flies bumped at it lazily, caught in the breeze and to dumb to remember where it was, they bumped it again and again.
They were bad, but the flies outside the window screen were worse, bumping and buzzing and trying to get in. Sadie sighed. Stupid flies, if they had any sense, they’d just stay outside where they belonged.
There was nothing for them in here.
She squinted out the window; late afternoon sunlight bounced off small stones in the dirt yard. The kids used to think they were diamonds, and collected them, only disappointed a few years later when they found out they had a load of quartz covered in chicken shit.
Piling up peaches, skins to one side, fruit to the other, she smiled at the memory. That was the way things went – like the damned flies, things looked good if you were far enough away, but up close was a whole other story.
Now the fool dog was barking — he sounded a long way off, and she leaned forward, trying to figure out where they were. Nothing but the barn and shed, and a bunch of chickens wandering around.
She didn’t need to worry, but . . . .
Last day she was in town, there was a gathering of folks around the general store, men and ladies together, all fanning themselves in the heat. Sadie didn’t pay them any mind as she lined up to pay for her order – ten pounds flour, two pounds sugar, and a tin of baking powder.
It was Bud Johnson who tapped her on the shoulder as she was leaving with her arms full of packages. He blushed and stammered, “Uh — Sadie, if you could wait — uh, hold on a minute.”
She stopped on the wooden porch, and smiled at him. Bud was a nice enough looking fellow, one of her old school chums, now married to Hettie Harris. A quiet man, Bud always seemed to find an excuse to talk to her, but Hettie’s voice could be heard clear across the next township.
His eyes were wide with concern as he leaned toward her. “Did you hear about them, Sadie?”
Heads turned in her direction, and she flushed.
“Hobos, wandering around the creek. Seemed to have set up camp not far from your place.”
“Few of the men are going by, checking on things and pushing them along.” Bud smiled at her, “Maybe George’d come out.”
“Maybe,” she nodded, and then, George caught her eye from across the street, waving at her to hurry it up. She smiled at Bud. “I’ll be sure to let him know.”
As Sadie climbed into the pickup truck, she nodded at George. “They say there’s a camp of hobos not too far from us. Some of the men are dropping by there, trying to get them to move along.”
One hand on the steering wheel, George shrugged. “They’ll move along soon enough. Nothing to keep ’em around.”
The truck lurched over the dirt road, hitting a pothole, and then bouncing out. Corn fields flew past, and Sadie stared at the rising hills in the distance, carpeted with thick forest. Trees and fields and farmland stretched as far as she could see.
“What’s over those hills?”
George looked at her funny. “Same as what’s on this side. Farms. Next town or so.”
Sadie shifted in her seat. “Dunno. It’d be nice to go somewhere different.”
He burst out laughing. “What’re you thinking Sadie Morris — next thing you know, you’ll turning into a hobo.”
She stared down at the floorboards.
“We got everything you need here. Don’t know why you’d want to go anywhere else.” He shrugged as he turned the truck down the gravel driveway, a row of poplars standing alongside, the farm house came into view.
Sadie looked up as the house came toward her, its darkened windows edged with lace.
The sound of the dog barking in the distance caught her attention, and Sadie leaned over the sink again, the steam still coming off the peaches and wrinkling her housedress. Dog was nowhere to be seen, and it’d been a while since she’d heard about the hobos. Maybe they’d moved on already.
The boys’d be fine with the dog, and if they had any trouble, they’d just run home.
Lifting the bowl of peaches onto the counter, she pulled out the cutting board and started chopping, prying out the pits with calloused fingers, and barely feeling the heat coming off them. The knife edge caught the sunlight as she sliced the peaches in half and then again, finally dropping them into a glass bowl.
It must be something in the way the light caught them, she thought, staring down at the fruit, now lit up golden in the sunlight.
They glowed like buried treasure.
She wiped her forehead again, this time with the dishtowel and laughed at herself. Look at her, mooning over canned peaches, she had enough to do around here, no time for such silly nonsense.
A sudden clattering from outside broke through her thoughts, Sadie leaned toward the window. The chickens were in an uproar, white feathers flying in the air as they raced around, squawking loud enough to make you deaf.
Must be something in the yard, Sadie stared out. Too bad the dog’s gone, he’d take care of it.
Then she saw it.
A fox crept along the edge of the shed, its tawny coat blending in with yellowed grasses, a half-dead chicken in its mouth. Sadie watched as the chicken flopped in its jaws, wings beating uselessly, scattering feathers around.
Blood dotted its breast; red droplets gleaming against white feathers.
That bird was a goner.
The fox froze, as though suddenly aware it was being watched. Golden eyes met hers, and she felt a thrill of excitement; predator and prey wrapped together. Hot tangy blood somehow flooded her senses, the dying chicken flopped again, pulse slowly fading away. Sadie watched from the window as the fox turned and vanished, disappearing into the grasses with the chicken hanging from its mouth.
She stared after it for a long time, and then cringed as a heavy footstep approached, dull thuds of thick soles hitting linoleum; George wearing his boots in the house again.
As the floorboards creaked behind her, she turned, “I just mopped —”
“What’s going on out there?”
She shrugged. “Fox got a chicken.”
“And you didn’t stop it?”
Sadie shook her head, unable to explain.
George bent over the icebox, pulling out a pitcher of sweet tea. “Don’t know what’s getting into you Sadie — we coulda had it tonight.”
“Maybe.” Sadie looked down at the peaches, still gleaming in the afternoon sun, and then picked up a ladle and a quart jar. The row of freshly boiled mason jars stood waiting, steam clinging to the glass even in the heat.
“Why didn’t you chase it off — get the bird or something?”
She said slowly, “I think we have enough, too hot for chicken anyway. I was gonna do up a cold ham.”
“It’s a shame to lose it, you coulda stopped the damned thing.” Turning, George set an empty glass on the counter top beside the sink. “Anyway, I’m going over to Anderson’s for a bit. See you for supper.”
As the door closed behind him, Sadie stared at the glass for a real long time before finally reaching out and knocking it off the counter, watching it shatter into a million pieces on her freshly mopped floor.
That evening, the heat wasn’t going anywhere, even with the sun down, the heat clung to a body, lingering, like it was trapped inside the house with them.
In bare feet and a cotton nightgown, Sadie stood at the kitchen sink wiping off dinner dishes, the ceiling fan keeping her company. Faint echoes of the radio drifted in from the living room, voices from far away. George sat in his recliner listing to the evening news.
Everything seemed to be about somewhere else.
Sadie stared out the window, trying to see the first stars come in; but the glare of the overhead light was blocking her view. Her hands still covered in dish soap, she walked over and pulled the chain on the ceiling fan, sudden darkness surrounded her with only the soft whish of the fan going ’round let her know it was still on.
Standing back beside the sink, she looked out the window and smiled at the Big Dipper. What was that children’s rhyme about? Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight —
She heard the radio snap off and floorboards creaking, then stop.
“You’re doing dishes in the dark?”
“Its just cooler that way.”
“You’re getting odd, Sadie, but have it your way.” George’s heavy weight shifted in the doorway, “I’m heading up to bed.”
“I’ll be along shortly.”
She listened to the sounds of his footsteps on the stairs, and the soft creak as he settled into bed. And then quiet.
Moonlight flooded the kitchen, bouncing off the plates and gleaming as she wiped them. Sadie smiled at herself, maybe she was getting odd, doing dishes in the moonlight.
A sharp bark caught her attention, Sadie glanced around. Dog was inside for the night, sleeping right under the kitchen table.
The bark rang out again, Sadie leaned toward the window; bright moonlight threw heavy shadows across the yard, buildings rose out darkness. Everything was still, the livestock away for the night.
Then she saw it.
A low shadow scurrying, its body close to the ground; the moon caught it, backlighting a long tail and pricked-up ears.
The fox had returned.
The fox paused, standing in the middle of the yard. Probably wondering where all the chickens went, she thought. Strange that it was back so soon, she wondered it if was feeding kits.
She turned and opened the icebox, and lifted out the leftover ham.
Easing open the back door, she stood on the stoop with a ham in her hands. If George could see her now, she smiled, he’d think she was odd for sure, standing in the moonlight holding a leftover ham.
She looked around expectantly.
The fox was gone.
Her stomach sank with disappointment. No matter. It probably took off to the fields for mice or rabbits. Sadie sat down on the stoop, still holding the ham as the house stretched out, quiet, behind her. Stars and moonlight hung above; crickets and other creatures chirped and buzzed together, outside, the night was getting pretty loud.
She shivered in the heat, pulling her nightgown over her knees. What was she waiting for? — and if George found her like this —
A snuffling noise rustled in the weeds beside her, and Sadie froze, scarcely breathing. Pointed ears rose out of the dead grass, followed by a sharp face and slim shoulders.
The fox was there — right beside her, on the stoop.
She held out the ham.
The fox paused, sniffing the air, and stared at her. Amber eyes meeting hers, and flashing in the moonlight; it stood staring for a long moment.
Like it’s thinking about something, Sadie thought.
Slowly reaching in, the fox took the meat in its jaws, gently lifting it from her hands. “There you go,” she whispered.
Holding the ham in its mouth, the fox stared at her; Sadie held her breath.
A sharp bark rang out from across the fields, the fox swivelled its head toward the sound.
The fox turned back toward her.
“Take me with you.”
Ham still in its jaws, the fox turned and trotted across the yard, dissolving in the heavy shadows.
“Wait,” Sadie stood up.
A second bark echoed in reply, this one closer. Sadie took a step off the stoop, and then another, picking her way through the yard, sharp gravel cut into her bare feet.
She stumbled as she approached the shed, dead grass rustling around her ankles, and holding out her hands at waist height, she tried to avoid bumping into the old plough buried in the weeds. Suddenly the plough came into view, as though lifted from the shadows. Circling around it, Sadie heard another bark.
She turned toward it. Picking her way through darkness, objects somehow became clearer. Sharper. Blades of grass illuminated in crisp detail, she paused, listening at a rustling noise, followed by a faint squeak cutting into a squeal — then silence.
Sniffing the air, the tang of blood wafted by, followed by the rot of entrails.
Grasses swept past her as she hurried, her feet no longer thudding noisily; long grasses flowed past, scarcely moving in her wake.
A breeze picked up, causing the grass to sway. The leaves, oh the leaves rustling, it was like music to her ears, and she leaped with the joy of it all, her body somehow twisting upon itself, in spritely motion, and then landing softly on all fours.
Her tail twitched, a flickering of fire; and up ahead she caught a glimpse of two pricked-up ears and a pointed face rising from the tall grass.
Leaping toward it, Sadie called out in greeting, and her voice sounded like a sharp bark.