(Copyright, Susan Hunt)
Something was wrong. Emma opening her eyes saw grey light, the pink horses pale and exhausted with their night of galloping, the blue curtains curving inward with the early morning breeze. A cardinal sang "what cheer cheer cheer" but it was not time to get up. The cardinal always sang first in the morning. The mockingbird sometimes sang in the middle of the night but Emma had never heard him. She was always asleep in the middle of the night. But it was not the middle of the night now, it was the very early morning, and the sound that had awakened her had stopped. What was the sound? Had she dreamt it?
She tried to feel her way back to the sound, which had frightened her, but it was all mixed up with her dream, which had been a happy one. She rode a palomino over a western landscape. Oh, it was so beautiful, why did she have to wakeup? Oh, the purple sky streaked with pink and the bigness of everything -- you could take a big deep breath and swell yourself up like a frog and stretch your arms wide like a sail and still you were so tiny, so small and alone in the vast open spaces of the western landscape, not bumping into Willie Jarvis or Mr. Morris out mowing his lawn, though she liked Mr. Morris, liked Willie Jarvis too when he wasn't being mean. (Mr. Morris was old, very old, with a fat stomach like Santa Claus, and that was why they wouldn't let him have a uniform and go off with Daddy and Uncle Richard and Uncle Michael, wherever it was they had all gone to.) And Tommy was always tromping through whatever it was you wanted to do, scattering crayons, paper dolls, checkers this way and that because there-just wasn't room enough for everybody and there weren't any places where you didn't have other people gathering round you. Though Emma liked that, liked people around her -- even Tommy. She didn't like to be too far away from her mother for too long either. Suddenly in the middle of turning the pages of a book she could not yet read (but could imagine) or dressing Softbaby, the rag doll that had been lost in the pasture one night, but Tommy had found her, or lying in the hammock watching the birds, she would think "Where is Mommy?" and she would go through the house calling "Mommy, Mommy, where are you?" Her mother would answer, "In here, baby," and Emma would find her making cookies, or sewing, or reading in her chair in the living room.
Only now, since Daddy had gone away, her mother didn't sit in the living room anymore, though that was where the fireplace was, with the mantlepiece over it, with the holes where they put the nails to hang their Christmas stockings, and the Seth Thomas clock with tiny pictures of roses all around the numbers, and behind the clock was the mirror, and if you tried and tried maybe someday you would go through the mirror, like Alice did (only she called it a "lookingglass") and then you could see the clock backwards on the other side. That would be something to see, wouldn't it?
In the living room by the window was the bowl where Monster the water turtle lived, with a rock to sit on when he wanted to sunbathe, and in the living room was Daddy's red chair where he used to read to Emma, when she sat on his lap, before he went away to the war.
In Emma's dream she was riding the golden palomino and wearing a mask because she was the leader of an outlaw gang which had just held up a train but without killing anyone, and they took only the money that belonged to the bank which was all right to steal -- not like stealing from people who might go hungry. No. And the Lone Ranger chased them and Emma was in love with the Lone Ranger, and he was just about to catch her and make her go straight when the noise -- whatever it was -- shattered the dream into a million pieces, like pieces of a puzzle, a piece of purple sky here and apiece of slate-grey jagged rock there. Yes, the noise was the noise of somebody being sick. Somebody throwing up. Well, that was nothing to be scared about. Tommy got sick sometimes, and sometimes Emma did. Then Emma's mother brought her a pan to throw up in and she called Dr. Johnson and after awhile Dr. Johnson came and everything was all right again.
Dr. Johnson was tall and thin and had a sort of growly voice and a sort of growly laugh, and Emma's mother said he had no bedside manner and that was why she liked him. Emma liked him too. He teased her. He sat on the side of her bed and teased her. He said, "Well, what's your problem?" and he didn't feel sorry for her, like he would have if she were really sick, which of course she never was. And he said, "What's ailing you?" and he held her wrist to see if her heart was beating. And it always was.
"I keep throwing up," Emma would say and it seemed funny, not sad as she had thought at first (so sad to be so sick when she was so young, lying in bed so small and wearing the pink nightgown Daddy had given her for her birthday and how hard it was to keep from crying at the thought of poor little Emma so young and so sick). But Dr. Johnson would not let you be sick or even feel sorry for yourself. That was why he was a doctor. And when he came into Emma's bedroom, so tall and thin, carrying the bulky black bag that had the stethoscope that was always so cold and sometimes a lollipop (but not if she had been throwing up) -- well, he had only to come into the room and she felt well again. And sometimes he gave her an enormous green pill, like a cube of sugar. That was sulfa, like what they put on the ends of matches. It tasted funny but you had to swallow it, you couldn't chew it because then something bad might happen to you, you might even die. Then her mother would wake her up in the middle of the night so she could take a green cube while the moonlight poured in the window, but still she had never heard the mockingbird sing at midnight.
There was the sound of being sick again. It was Emma's mother being sick. Fear took hold of Emma. Mothers did not get sick. Mothers never got sick. And when they did, what did you do?
The sound went on and stopped and in the silence fell a single word. "Damn," said Emma's mother. She said it softly, quietly, from the bottom of the sort of weakness that always follows throwing up. Thinking Emma asleep, thinking her voice even softer than it was, Emma's mother said a bad word and said it once again. It was the word that Emma's father said when he dropped a bottle of beer and it broke, or when the squirrels ate all the heads off the tulips, or the time when by mistake he tore his paycheck in half and threw it away and they had to look through the whole garbage can to find it again.
Now Emma's mother said that word very quietly and not by mistake. It was as if she'd thought over all the words she might say and chose that one, the way Emma chose a chocolate -- squeezing it a little first to make sure it didn't have a nut in it. So her mother said "damn" which was what you said to God when you didn't like the way things were going. And when her mother said "damn," Emma, who lay in bed in a cold sweat, trembling with anxiety, felt immediately better. There were no more noises of throwing up then but only soft foot steps as Emma's mother went back to her room and the creak as she got into bed and a sort of little sigh or moan as she settled down to go back to sleep again, all alone in the wide bed because Emma's father didn't sleep there anymore because he had gone to the war.
Emma turned onto her side so her back was to the window with its long oblong of grey light -- neither nighttime when you might hear the mockingbird nor bright morning light when you could get up.
What did it mean, going to war? There were all those pictures in the newspaper, pictures of men with helmets like bowls upturned on their heads, sweaty dirty looking men and under their helmets they all looked alike. That was not where Emma's father had gone. He did not have a helmet. He had that funny hat and his uniform was clean and the buttons on it were shiny, and he was sorry to go to war but glad to be going in that funny way grown-ups had, as if they never could make up their minds just exactly how they did feel about things. Why couldn't they have gone with Emma's father, wherever it was he had gone, so they could all be together? He had gone away without them once before. Emma's mother hadn't cried that time like she had this time -- this time she had cried for days, although she pretended she wasn't. Still Emma could tell. Emma could always tell.
When her father had left them before he had just gone for the weekend, and her mother hadn't minded. She'd thought it was funny. Uncle Bill who worked with Emma's father had gone too. Uncle Bill wasn't really an uncle but Emma and Tommy called him that because he was their father's oldest and best friend. He and Daddy had grown up together in Louisiana. Uncle Bill talked like Emma's relatives from Louisiana. Emma's father didn't talk like that anymore except he did say "y'all" when he meant everybody but that was just to show the difference between you-everybody and you-one person. And he said "piller" when he meant "pillow" and "winder" for "window." Anyway, that time Daddy and Uncle Bill and other people from the laboratory where they worked had gone down to the mountains for a weekend to talk about work.
That's why Emma and Tommy and their mother couldn't go along even though Emma loved the mountains and Tommy wanted to go because you had to take a train to get there. Later Emma's father showed them a picture of everybody sitting around a picnic table and they looked like they were having fun, not working at all. The men weren't wearing suits. Even Uncle Bill who never never wore anything but a suit with a tie, Uncle Bill wore a plaid flannel shirt and a girl sat on his knee and everybody was laughing.
Emma's mother said, "That's not my idea of work. Isn't she a little too old for him?" And "Oh, now, Elizabeth," Emma's father said, because he never liked to say anything mean about anybody, even if it were true. That was because he was from the South.
But Emma's mother came from Boston and had to tell the truth whether he liked it or not.
"Forty if she's a day," she said.
"Why Elizabeth, I think you're jealous," said Emma's father.
Then her mother got this funny smile on her face and she said, "Should I be? Did she sit on your lap too?"
But Emma's father just laughed and said that he would never go away without them again, not even for a weekend.
Later Emma said to her mother, "You're prettier than that lady, Mommy."
"Who?" said her mother. She had made Emma a yellow pinafore and now with tiny perfect stitches she sewed a ruffle around the bottom. The gold thimble that Daddy had given her for a present flashed as she pushed the needle through the material and drew it out again with a long sweep of her arm.
"The lady in the mountains."
"Oh, baby," said Emma's mother, laughing. And she put the pinafore aside, with the needle stuck through it so it wouldn't get lost. And she pulled Emma close and hugged her. "You silly thing," said Emma's mother and she gave her a kiss for no reason in the world that Emma could see.
So was it like that where Emma's father had gone -- the high thin air of the mountains, everything smelling like the pine needles which, dry and brown, crunched beneath your feet, and chipmunks watched you with bright eyes but if you came too close they dashed away to hide, scolding you. "Chip, chip, chip" was what they said which was why they were called chipmunks. And you had to look in all directions at once because there might be an owl in the tree or a snake on the ground -- a poisonous snake even, you had to be careful -- and there were turtles everywhere, bumping about in their shell boxes which glowed with little squares of orange and yellow like fall flowers in the dark leaves. But they were not related to Monster the water turtle, Tommy said. They belonged to a different family, just like Willie Jarvis belonged to a different family from Emma's though they were all people.
But Emma's father had said he would never go away without them, and now he had. Then -- and Emma sat up in bed -- then he had told a lie like Willie Jarvis did after he threw Moppet over the fence to see if she could fly but she couldn't, because she was a puppy and not a bird, and she fell and broke her leg, and Willie lied and said she had tried to jump. Still -- and here Emma lay back down again and rescued Mother Cottontail who had slipped between the bed and the wall -- still Moppet was all right now, and her father hadn't really lied. He had wanted to take them with him but he couldn't. Yes, that was it. They couldn't go with him or he would have taken them. Anyway he hadn't gone to the mountains which were beautiful but to war, which wasn't.
The house was quiet now. Everyone was asleep and soon it would be morning. Offstage the sun stretched itself and began to think about putting in an appearance or maybe sending some rain instead, but the cardinal went right on singing "What cheer cheer cheer." And Emma slept.
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