(Copyright, Susan Hunt)
A squirrel sat in the branch outside her window. His wispy tail (he was a young one) was curled into an S-shape against his back. He was chewing something -- an acorn left over from the fall perhaps--and he rolled the nut between his paws, took a bite, and munched reflectively. He was thinking, thought Emma. He was thinking how nice it was to be a squirrel in Bethesda, Maryland, where there were so many big oak trees and, consequently, so many acorns. Yes, it was very clear that the squirrel was thinking that, or something like that. And Tommy said that squirrels couldn't think. Ha! It was boys who couldn't think.
At the moment Emma hated boys, even Tommy. Here it was full summer and Tommy and his friends were playing baseball in the backyard so she couldn't go outside because, although she was four, her mother said she was too little and might get hit by a ball.
There was nothing to do. The squirrel just sat there nibbling and thinking, and he wouldn't say if he was thinking what Emma thought he was thinking or something else altogether. Downstairs her mother was probably ironing and from time to time she probably looked out the window to see if the mockingbird was there. The mockingbird came to the window for the raisins her mother put there. But the mockingbird would not come now when the boys were being so noisy.
Emma's mother was very beautiful and could play the piano. She had long slender fingers because she played the piano. Tommy played the piano too and he had long slender fingers too. He had talent. Emma had no talent. She had short stubby fingers like her father's. It wasn't fair. Tommy didn't care about playing the piano.
When her mother played it was magic. Her mother got even more beautiful when she played the piano. When her mother played, the notes rippled and tripped and did little dances of delight, and when she stopped, laying her large long hands in her lap, smiling, a little silence lay between the piano playing and the real world, and it was not unlike the way Emma felt after her bath at night as she lay between the cool clean sheets of her bed and her mind tipped her gently into sleep.
Emma went downstairs, putting each foot flat on the step, loud but not stomping. Her mother smiled at her but Emma did not smile back. It wasn't easy -- this not smiling back. Her mother's smile was too much like the sunshine. You had to be warm when the sun shone on you, you couldn't help it, you couldn't be cold if you wanted to. Emma's mother's smile made everything that was wrong come right again. But still Emma did not smile back. After all, here she was inside in the middle of a summer day while her brother and his stupid friends took up the whole backyard. She just wanted to watch them anyway -- not get in the way or anything like that.
"Mommy," she said.
"Mmm?" Her mother ironed the crease into a white linen napkin, folded it, ironed again. The iron made a noise, whomp, as it hit the napkin.
"Mommy, I'm bored," said Emma. "There's nothing to do."
"Do you want to make lemonade for the boys?" said her mother.
Emma thought about that. Last time she had made lemonade for the boys, and it had been fun, sort of, though the most fun had been taking the glasses outside to them and making them stop playing to come and drink the lemonade and then watching them drink it. But after all it hadn't been that much fun. On the other hand, she didn't want to hurt her mother's feelings.
"Well," said Emma doubtfully, "I s'pose not." She sat down and sighed deeply. There was nothing to do if you could not go out in your own backyard. And there was nobody to play with. Willie Jarvis, who was also four and lived in the house at the corner and had a sliding board and an electric train, had gone to visit his grandparents so there was nothing to do except what could be done in the backyard. There was lots to do in the backyard. There were two apple trees that you could climb up in and one had a branch that was perfect for sitting on. There was the hammock that Emma's father took his after-dinner nap in. There was the Three Sisters -- an ash that had grown from the base of its trunk into three separate parts. And there was the swing.
The swing was probably the best thing in the backyard. It was certainly the best swing Emma had ever seen. It wasn't a metal swing in a swingset either. Her father had made it long ago -- she couldn't remember when it had not been there -- and it was made from rope as thick around as her arm and it had a notched wooden plank which her father had sanded for a seat that had then been further polished by little kids' bottoms till now it was smooth as glass. One side of the swing was attached to one of the Three Sisters and the other to the tulip poplar. In the spring the tulip poplar had flowers like tulips on it and the squirrels ate them, and if you found a flower that had fallen before it opened you could open it yourself to see the folded up flower inside, it smelt fresh and green but it didn't taste good so you couldn't eat it. When Emma's father pushed her in the swing he ran all the way underneath it and Emma flew high in the air and everything melted away leaving nothing but happiness.
There was also a swingset in the backyard. Only little kids liked to swing in the swingset swing but the swingset did have a crossbar on which you could hang by your knees or skin the cat, if you could skin the cat. Emma could. She had taught herself how to do it by doing the first part over and over again. The first part was easy but during the second part she always fell off, landing on her head in the pebbly dirt. After awhile Tommy came over and watched her. When she was getting up from the ground he said, "Hey, stupid, you're supposed to keep on holding on. You're not supposed to let go with your hands."
"Oh, shut up," said Emma. Because Tommy was ten he was always telling her what to do. He shrugged and went away. She fell off again. But this time she saw she had let go with her hands. After that it was easy. Now she could skin the cat without even thinking about it.
All the interesting flowers were in the backyard. The front yard had the flowers for show -- roses and peonies and canna which were pretty but not interesting. But the backyard had jack-in-the-pulpit, May apples, violets, snapdragons, pansies, and, of course, honeysuckle. Right now was the height of the honeysuckle season, and the little drop of amber honey would never be sweeter.
Surrounded by the honeysuckle in the wildest corner of the yard where the compost pile was (where Emma helped Tommy find the biggest and best worms for Monster, the water turtle) was the playhouse. Like the swing, her father had built it himself. Emma could not remember when it had not been there. It had a window that opened and closed with a latch and a door that could be locked with a hook from the inside. There was a little red broom to sweep it clean when sand got inside. And there was a chair and a table, and if it weren't so dark inside (Emma's mother wouldn't let her have a candle) it would have been perfect for reading. But Emma couldn't read yet and the time when she would be let learn was so far away there was no point in even thinking about it, and Tommy almost never went in the playhouse anymore though Emma's mother said it had been built for him. Emma found that hard to believe. Of course if her mother said it she knew it to be true. But she couldn't see a picture of it in her mind when she tried. Tommy little? Tommy sitting on her mother's lap? Sleeping with Mother Cottontail, the big stuffed rabbit that was now Emma's? Playing in the playhouse?
These things were true -- although Tommy himself denied them -- because Emma's mother said they were. Still Emma could not see them in the pictures of her mind. Just as when Emma looked at the framed series of photographs of a little girl just Emma's age with a wide bow in her dark hair, holding a doll and looking out of the photograph (at Emma) with various expressions, the last of which said as plainly as Emma herself often did, "But why -- ?", she couldn't really believe that this little girl wasn't herself but was her mother so many years ago, more than Emma could count. Emma's mother and father were old, of course, and Emma felt sorry for them because they were grown-ups and not children to whom the best is always given -- that is unless they are forbidden the delights of the backyard.
Outside there was a crack as a bat met a ball, and boys could be heard yelling "Run, Corbrey, run" and "Over here, Pete, throw it here!" and somebody, seemingly impartial, shouted "C'mon, c'mon." Emma and her mother looked out in time to see Tommy lumber home just ahead of the ball. Huffing and puffing, his face red and his glasses lopsided though held on (because he could not see without them) by a black elastic across the back of his head, he received his team's thumps on the back and pokes in the arm with a pleasure that for some reason made Emma feel like crying.
Tommy was fat. His stomach bulged beneath his T-shirt, and these days he thought most of the time about trains, not baseball. And not toy trains either, like the one Willie Jarvis had on an enormous table that folded up against the wall when he wasn't playing with it. Willie's train went through a miniature town with trees, houses, bridges, and even a tunnel, and it whistled like a real train, a1d you could make it go forward or backwards or stop, depending on which button you pushed. But Willie liked to push the button himself and only once in awhile would he let anyone else do it.
Tommy had had trains like that and much better ones too though Emma couldn't remember them very well (having been real little at the time or maybe not even born yet) but now he was interested in real trains. Before the war they used to take train trips and with the brownie camera Tommy would snap a whole roll of pictures of the locomotive from different positions and if Emma tried to get in one of the pictures he would yell at her and wait to take the picture until she moved out of it. When the pictures were developed he would show them to everyone, even Emma, and they always looked all the same to her, even when he pointed out the differences. Tommy was funny that way, like a child and like a grown-up at the same time, because he got excited like a child but what he was excited over was a grown-up thing.
Her mother whomped creases into another napkin and added the napkin to the pile. She unplugged the iron and wrapped the cord around it and set it on its edge on the kitchen counter. She folded up the ironing board which was wooden and had a white sheet wrapped around the top.
Emma thought her mother looked a little cross. Emma worried about her mother a lot. Sometimes she was tired and got headaches and then you couldn't complain about things and you had to pretend to be cheerful when you were not.
"Mommy?" said Emma, being careful not to whine.
"Mmmm?" said her mother in a way that made Emma know that everything was all right.
"Oh, Mommy, there's nothing to do."
"But there's lots to do," her mother said with a laugh. And Emma was happy again. Her mother was going to find some thing for her to do and, like all the things her mother found her to do (or nearly all of them), it would be filled with magic.
Outside there were cries of joy and cries of despair. Someone had struck out. The other side was coming up. Emma's mother called to Tommy through the open window. "Emma and I are going for a walk," she said. "We'll leave a pitcher of lemonade in the refrigerator for you boys, and you can have it whenever you want it."
Emma's mother made the lemonade and then she put on her big white floppy hat which shadowed her face, and Emma put on her sandals which weren't new anymore but they still had some of the bounce in them, and they went outside and walked up the sidewalk past Mr. Morris's house. Mr. Morris had been a policeman when he was younger. Now he was retired and he didn't do anything. He was very nice and had a wide grin which Emma's father said made him look like Teddy Roosevelt so that when she was little Emma had believed that Mr. Morris was related to the president -- or was the president -- but it wasn't true. He was just Mr. Morris.
Mr. Morris hated bluejays when they got into his victory garden and he shot at them whenever he saw them. Once he shot one in the air and it fell over the fence into Emma's yard right at her mother's feet. After that Mr. Morris was more careful about where he shot the bluejays.
Emma and her mother passed the Bennetts' house where Mr. Bennett was sick a lot and hated children and they had a little dog named Susie who would bite you if she got the chance. Then people from the Health Department would kill her and cut off her head to see if she had rabies, and if she did you might die. And past Willie Jarvis' house with its front yard unusually neat because Willie was away and there was no bike or wagon, no rusty cans filled with marbles, and no shovel with which Willie sometimes dug up the sick looking flower or two his father labored day after day to cause to bloom in his front yard. (Mr. Jarvis didn't have green thumbs like Emma's father did. Emma's father had only to look at a plant, her mother said, for it to grow and bloom and be beautiful.) And around the corner and down the long shaded street went Emma and her mother. Emma had to walk fast to keep up with her mother who was holding her hand because sometimes there were cars on this street where they were building the new houses but hadn't done the sidewalks yet.
And at the bottom of the street was the sweet smell of clover and of grasses and the gentle rumblings of cows in the distance, and Emma and her mother climbed over the stile and they were in the pasture of the dairy where the milk was made and then delivered in a horse-drawn cart (because of the war).
Everywhere there were bees kissing the clover and gold-finches fussing over the purple thistle flowers. Emma's mother pointed up. Holding onto her mother's large cool hand with the slim beautiful fingers that could do anything, Emma shaded her-eyes and looked up. The floating, high-flying, considering bird shape wasn't a bluejay or a mockingbird or a cardinal or a crow or anything that you would see in your backyard.
"But what is it?" said Emma.
"It's a hawk."
The hawk soared in silence, above speech, above bother, so that the bright dash of blue, the indigo bunting, and the chattering goldfinches chasing each other through the air like graceful puppydogs paid it no attention. The sun struck burning orange from its feathers. Perfect happiness flowed from Emma's mother to Emma, through the perfect golden shape so high above that Emma's mother had caused to be there for her to see on that sunny summer day when she was four.
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