Thousands of seasons of deciduous rot in the sandstone ridges of this Ohio valley yielded wheat fields that brought farmers begging to buy Brubaker land. My great-grandfather convinced a Brubaker to sell him three hundred acres, not revealing to anyone he had discovered a spring-fed patch of land. Land that would never go dry. So while our land never rivaled the Brubaker’s in size, my great-grandfather made a name for the Connells. And names could last for generations.
In winter, this valley belonged to no one. Snow covered the fields and then drifted over our fences. I wrapped my scarf around my head and stepped into my boots on the black rubber mat by the door. The snow from last night’s milking puddled between a row of boots that promised seasons to come: my mid-calf green rubber boots for spring, the tan suede hiking boots with yellow laces for summer.
Quickly lacing my boots, I worried Zela’s daughter would wake before I returned from milking, or, worse, that Zela would arrive and find her alone. Zela had never left her only child in my care. Most women assumed I had no instinct at all if I didn’t have the sense to marry and give birth to my own children.
Reaching for my thermos on the kitchen counter, I noticed a neatly stacked pile of cloth next to the telephone. I flicked on the light. Zela’s aprons. Starched and pressed. This was the second time Zela had left her aprons at my house. Yet she knew I would never use them. Cooking could not stain my work clothes any morethan transmission oil, so I never bothered.
In November when she first left these aprons, I folded them over a hanger and kept them near the door,hoping to prompt her to explain why she hadn’t simply tucked them in a drawer or donated them to her church’s rummage sale. Only a month later, she slipped in the side door quietly. By the time I came into the hallway, her coat bulged slightly from the aprons tucked inside. Her silence encouraged my silence. If I noticed her taking them, she didn’t want me to mention it.
“What does he say to make you stop wearing aprons, and then make you startwearing them again?” I asked.
Zela rubbed her hands on her legs as if she already woreanapron that could absorb the nervousness in her palms. I knew she wouldn’t answer. Our friendship was based on old secrets, not new ones.
“I changed my mind. Look at this one.” She took an apron from her purse. It was imprinted with small Jersey cows, causing her to laugh more with her mouth than her eyes. “How could I stop wearing this?”
“You always have a place here.”
Zela’s smile snapped off as quickly as she had snapped it on. No one defended a man better than a woman defending him to herself. Zela seemed to love Nathaniel most when I implied what I really thought of him.
“He’s a good man, Dottie,” she said. “He takes care of Mattie and me. Think of where I’d be without him.” Then she hesitated.
“Here,” I said for her. “You’d be stuck in the valley.”
Zela had always known she would marry and move to doctors’ row in Mansfield as I had always known I would farm my father’s land and pay a debt he should not have owed. One could say we both succeeded.
In our twenties, Zela still talked about my living alone in this valley, because we both believed it would change. But when my farm hands stopped winking at me and started calling me ma’am, I knew something had passed me by. As I neared my forties, I made little effort to remain attractive. The random freckles on my forehead and cheeks darkened from working outdoors. My face always looked flushed, whether from sunburn, windburn, or exertion. Work had carved its designs on my body, stocky from eating well and sturdy from relying on my own strength.
Yet my appearance was not the only reason farm hands called me ma’am. I had become too accustomed to carrying myself as one already spoken for. Men expected me to say no. Zela had not teased me in years for having men work for me. And I would not ask her why she used aprons to hint at conversations she wouldn’thave.
Snow covered the path to the barn. Few of us in the valley kept animals, but I kept three cows because I hated empty barns and slow winters. I sold the excess milk to neighbors whose barns housed International Harvesters instead of Holsteins. Zela must have known I would leave Mattie asleep and alone come milking time. Yet Zela had left before I thought to ask.
The night before, as I ate stewed tomatoes from a jar and worked on my crossword puzzle, Zela rang the doorbell. Those who knew me well enough to drive down my lane knocked, so I opened the door expecting astranger. But there stood Zela with Mattie holding her mother’s hand between both her hands as if she might slip. Zela did not seem to notice me until I asked, “What areyou ringing the bell for?”
Zela was not one to ask favors. So when she asked us to give her a few moments alone in the sitting room, I asked Mattie to help me make supper. Mattie interrupted the cadenced work ethic I had inherited from my mother, who had worked to an unseen metronome as she thrust ashirt along the washboard. With Mattie, I could not attain this rhythm as I chopped potatoes and beets to prepare a small meal for them. She pestered me with questions about where I kept my television, why I lived alone, why I did not eat supper with my hired man. Mattie had Zela’stight-lipped smile, which could convey pleasureor disdain. As with Zela, I found myself smiling more, hoping to draw out of her a real smile, one I could trust. Eventually I went to the sitting room to tell Zela I didn’tknow how to occupy an eight-year-old.
Zela sat in the dark. I paused beforeflipping the light switch. The sitting room had always made Zela prefer my mother to hers and made me prefer Zela’s mother to mine. After giving up on me, my mother decorated the room the way her Victorian mother had dressed her. Over the windows, she hung lace I would have shredded climbing my oak tree. She covered a chair in fabric too fine to sit on, let alone dress up a daughter prone to wading through the creek.
Zela sat on this chair that I had neither the time nor money to replace. I hesitated at the sight of my childhood friend staring at the farm that once belonged to her family. The brick two-storyBrubaker home still stood, though it was now owned by Zela’s distant relative. Unlike other farms in the seven-mile stretch of Maplewood Valley, our farmhouses shared a curve in the road.
The sharp right-hand turns and steep hills hid the other farms from view of one another, so it seemed that one’s small nook in the valley was all that God created.
“Men should have to work with their hands,” Zela said suddenly without turning to face me. “Makes them better men.”
I waited, stiffening as if I’d approached a horse too quickly from behind; any sudden movement could frighten her and cause her to run off.
Then she said, “I need to leave Mattie here tonight.”
Iwished now that I asked her why, though when Zela slipped out the side door without telling us good-bye, I didn’tworry. Our friendship stood on an understanding that sometimes it was better to let someone be.
Zela still had not come by the time I finished the milking, and the spareroom was still dark, so I considered walking as I did every winter morning. Mattie would not have brought clothes warm enough to join me.
Folks in the valley coped with winter in their own way. Evelyn volunteered at the hospital. The Goswells and the Russells had fierce euchre competitions. The cold created an instinctual desire for warmth that sent Retha into a knitting fit that could outfit the valley in mittens by February. I felt lonelier at night, and night lasted longer in the winter.Winter nights could make me forget why I gave up everything to farm this land. Walking my back forty acres helped me remember. Though I had cleared many acres, the back forty had been my first. I had mined the limestone rocks and tilled thenew field’s virgin soil, thick with humus, abundant with earthworms.
As I walked past the heated machine shed, I heardthe telephone ringing. I waited a moment to see if Stanley,my hired hand, would answer it. He had spent the last few days in the shed fiddling with a dying carburetor. After the phone rang a third time, I remembered asking him to tap a few maples. I jiggled the shed handle, pockmarked with rust.
The shed’s warmth seeped between my long underwear, T-shirt, and turtleneck. I worked off my jacket while picking up the phone. My hello, gruff from the cold, startled someone on the other end.
“Sorry to interrupt your milking, Dottie.”
It took me a moment to place the voice of Garret Hamilton. He was still called “Champ” more often than “Chief.” None of his efforts in law enforcement had surpassed his winning shot in the basketball state championship in ’39. Even his clout as police chief seemed to rest on that shot.
“Check your watch, Champ. I finished a while ago.”
With a few cows of his own, he should have known this. Aslow cool settled on my shoulders like an evening dusting of snow.
“Have you talked to Zela recently?”
“Sure, she came over last night.”
“We’re looking for Mattie. Did Zela mention leaving her with someone?”
Dread coursed through me like blood into a hand numbed from awkward sleep. I felt terribly alive. “She’s herewith me.”
His voice was muffled as if he’d covered the receiver. He sounded relieved, and I exhaled, realizing I had held my breath.
“Should have tried you earlier,” he said. “Her Uncle Morris was convinced she was visiting a friend in town.”
“Why couldn’t you ask her?” I paused and asked again, “Why couldn’t you ask Zela?” as if the question could delay the answer.
“Dottie, there was a fire.”
And then he told me what he knew. I heard little and remembered less. I only knew at the end of the conversation that a shell of the house remained, and Zela and Nathaniel had not made it out.
I wished at that moment that Morris had called instead. I had never experienced death without him, and the ache sank faster into my bones. Even though we had not spoken in seventeen years, I wanted him to sit with me next to Mattie. We would wait quietly until she woke, agreeing by our silence to give her a gift she would never know we had given.
When she stirred, he would hold me as I held her. I would tell her simply what happened without any details, because details carved pockets for the pain to settle into and take root.
I slowly slid to the ground and wrapped my arms around my knees. “Zela,” I whispered.
The sharp clang of a bell echoed a hollow imitation across the fields. The pattern brought comfort until I realized it was my dinner bell. I ran out of the shed, leaving my coat on the nail. Mattie stood on the picnic table on the porch, leaning over to reach the knotted rope. I had shown her the bell two summers earlier and had told her how my mother called us back to the house by ringing it. Mattie’s bare feet were planted in the mound of snow covering the table. She looked frightened. Nothing I said that day diminished that expression.
The Mansfield Journal ran the story on the front page with photographs of the neighbors holding their children wrapped in blankets as they watched the house crumble. Zela’s neighbors rushed onto their front lawns at three in the morning. By then the roof had already collapsed. The firemen came to contain the fire, not to save the twostory brownstone that dripped fiery green awnings like melting icicles. A child in the photograph gazed at the sight with awe. The story quoted Chief Hamilton repeating what he said to me when he learned Mattie was alive. “Mothers have a mighty powerful intuition.” Iwondered if he believed it either time.