Dicey’s Song: Chapter 12

THEY BURIED MOMMA beneath the old paper mulberry tree at the front of the house. James and Sammy dug down into the earth at a place where two big roots forked apart. Gram, Dicey and Maybeth stood and watched. The boys took turns lifting shovelfuls of the dark, soft earth. All around, the ground was carpeted with yellow leaves. A cold wind blew at their backs, from the east. In the west, the sun was setting, behind long streamers of clouds that lay like bars along the line of its descent.

Nobody said anything. Dicey could hear the wind soughing in the distant pines and creaking through the paper mulberry. She looked up into its bare branches.

Clearly visible now were the thick wires that the leaves hid during the summer. The tree had four main trunks, growing out of one base, spreading apart as it grew taller. The clumsy wire ran like a fence between these branches, about fifteen yards up. If the wire weren’t there, Gram had told Dicey, the tree would spread out and split, broken apart by the weight of its own growth. Gram told Dicey that the first day Dicey ever came to the farm. “That tree is like families,” Gram had said, and Dicey, looking up now at its branches, wondered what, in that case, the wire was like.

Up beyond the branches and over the roof of the house, the sky was a pale, remote blue, across which long clouds drifted.

But on the ground, the sunlight still painted the bare trees and the dry grass with light. When she looked across to the west, she could see the splash of the sun’s colors, pink and red, and the brightness that burned behind the long clouds and made them glow around the edges. Dicey knew how the surface of the Bay would look under this early winter sunset, like cloth-of-gold.

The last shovelful of dirt plopped onto the ground. James put the spade down. Gram took the wooden box out of Dicey’s cold hands and knelt to place it in the hole. Then she stood up.

Dicey wondered if they should speak words or sing something. She looked at the faces of her family, trying to decide. Maybeth and Sammy stood shoulder to shoulder, with identical wide, hazel eyes, watching Gram. James, like Dicey, stood away. His eyes met Dicey’s, as if he, too, was wondering if they should speak or sing.

But Gram, with her curly hair wild and her mouth stiff, bent over. She picked up a handful of dirt and dropped it back into the hole. It sounded almost like rain falling. James followed Gram’s example, then Sammy, Maybeth, and at last Dicey.

It was Maybeth who took up the shovel to refill the hole. Dicey took the shovel from her when the job was about halfway done.

Dicey patted the last shovelfuls of dirt with the back of the spade. Then she picked up a few of the faded yellow mulberry leaves. She scattered them on top of the bare place, as if they were flowers. She stood there, in the cold shadowy wind, holding onto the shovel. The last light of the day flowed around them.

“She’s really gone now,” James said.

“You might say that,” Gram answered slowly. “Or,” she said, “you might say she’s come home now. Maybe it’s both. I don’t know.”

James took the shovel from Dicey and walked back toward the barn to put it away.

“I still love her,” Sammy said.

“I should think so,” Gram answered him briskly.

Maybeth moved over to stand beside Gram. She reached out to take her grandmother’s hand. Gram reached out for Sammy, resting her free hand on his shoulder. They went slowly around behind the house, following the path that led to the back door, and inside.

Dicey stood alone and unmoving. But inside her head her own voice spoke clearly: “Gone and home.” Those were all the words to speak over Momma, all the songs to sing.

Home and gone. It didn’t seem possible that both of those words could be true, but they were. Dicey shivered in the wind and went inside.

She found the kitchen empty, but the sound of music from the piano drew her to the living room. James was poking at the fire with a long piece of kindling, stirring up the flames. Sammy lumbered into the room, staggering under an armload of logs. He and James put a couple onto the fire and piled the rest beside the hearth. The flames leaped up.

Dicey went to stand behind Maybeth. The music came out under Maybeth’s fingers, strong and orderly, the notes mingling, the melodies winding together. It was that Bach again, Dicey saw. When Maybeth finished, she put her hands in her lap and turned around to look at Dicey. “I wanted to sing something, but I didn’t know what.”

“I know,” Dicey said. “Where’s Gram?”

“She went upstairs,” Sammy said. “She said to wait here. I heard her pulling down the stairs to the attic,” he announced. “James says it wasn’t but it was.”

James didn’t look around to contradict this. He just shrugged his shoulders. James, Dicey thought, said it wasn’t because he hoped it was.

They heard Gram’s footsteps coming down the stairs. When she entered the living room, she carried a pile of thick leather albums, a pile so tall she had to peer over the top to see where she was going. She put them down beside her usual chair.

Gram had taken off her stockings and loafers and was wearing a pair of heavy socks on her feet. Her cheeks were streaked with dust.

“I found these,” she said, wiping her hands on her skirt. “I thought you might be interested.”

“Pictures!” cried Sammy, jumping up.

“There’s some other stuff up there — toys and I don’t know what-all. You ought to take a look, some day when it’s sunny. It’s cold enough up there now to freeze off a mouse’s ears. You hear me?” Gram demanded, as if they were all in trouble.

“I hear you,” James answered. Dicey smiled.

“That’s settled then,” Gram said. “I thought you might like to look through these, while I get us some dinner. Won’t be much. I haven’t looked in the refrigerator.”

“But Mr. Lingerle said he was going to get some pizza for us,” James protested. “He’s going to bring it by, in a little while.”

“Why would he do a thing like that?” Gram asked.

“Because we never had it,” Sammy said. “We told him and he was surprised. Did you ever?” he asked Gram.

“Never wanted to. Who could want to eat something that looks so oozy?”

“I could,” Sammy told her.

“Because he’s our friend,” Maybeth answered Gram. Gram nodded.

“It’s not oozy,” Dicey argued.

Gram snorted.

“It’s succulent,” James suggested.

Gram snorted again.

“And he’s going to have things on it,” Sammy told her.

“Things on it?” Gram asked. “Things?” she repeated, as if the word squirmed in her mouth.

Dicey giggled.

“Pepperoni and sausages, he said, and mushrooms and onions,” James told her. He was trying not to smile. “Smothered in melted cheese. Succulent,” he said again, with satisfaction.

“Oozy,” Gram repeated. “Oozy with things on it.”

“Tell you what,” Dicey offered. “I’ll make you a couple of scrambled eggs, there must be eggs in the ice box. And a nice piece of toast.”

Gram’s mouth twitched.

“And there’ll be more pizza for me to eat!” Sammy cried, clapping his hands.

At that, Gram laughed aloud. “Then let’s look at these pictures. Where shall we start?”

“With the oldest,” James suggested.

“With Momma,” Sammy said.

“You choose,” Maybeth said.

“The big brown one, second from the top,” Gram said. Sammy rushed over to get it. He joined his brother and sisters on the floor. Gram sat behind them. They crowded their heads together, to see better. James opened the album.

The first photograph showed three children, dressed up for the picture. The girl was in the center, wearing a dress with a sailor top and a pleated skirt. Her yellow hair showed up pale in the black-and-white picture. She was a happy little girl, with round cheeks and a shy smile. On one side of her stood a boy who was wearing a suit. He looked about ten, and big for his age. He had short, light-colored hair, and his hands were held behind his back. His dark, angry eyes looked at the camera. On the other side of the girl was a boy younger than she was, dressed in a sailor suit that had short trousers. This boy was dark and slender, and he looked as if he had trouble standing still for the camera. His eyes had mischief in them.

“Where’s Bullet?” Sammy asked.

“There,” Dicey pointed to the little boy.

“But he’s supposed to look like me,” Sammy protested. “And he looks more like James.”

“There are other kinds of resemblances,” Gram said from behind them. “Like wanting to get his own way and not giving up, ever.”

The children thought about this, studying the pictures. Dicey considered her Uncle John. She wasn’t sure, any more, about what she ought to do, if she ought to try to do anything, to find him. She wasn’t even sure about what she wanted to do. She let her eyes fall from the page and rested them on her hands, as if — she was a boat and dropping anchor to let the storm blow itself out. The confusion was like a windy storm. And then she smiled to herself, because she had a suspicion that the confusion wasn’t a storm that would blow itself out, it was going to be a permanent condition. Well, she guessed she could get used to it. She guessed she might even get to like it. She might as well try to like it, she thought, since it wasn’t going to go away. About Uncle John, she would wait and see — wait a week, a month, a year, and see what she thought then.

It was Sammy who broke the silence and answered his grandmother’s remark: “Does that mean,” he asked solemnly, “that I’m going to get chickens?”

Gram snorted.

“Are they going to a party?” Maybeth asked. “Momma looks like she’s going to a party.”

“Yes, they were,” Gram said. “Bullet — he didn’t want to go. He wanted to do some fishing or crabbing or anything that would prevent him from spending the afternoon indoors being polite. Now I notice, John doesn’t seem too happy about it either, does he? Did I ever tell you how Bullet didn’t go to that party?” she asked.

Well, of course she hadn’t, and she knew that as well as they did.

So Gram began the story.


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