247. Sunday Evening: The Dishes

Plates and cups had piled up
Since last weekend, since
The news had gotten out.
Not much–all they had, though–
Bowls jagged at the rim,
A saucer, chipped.
Damned if he would
Wash those, Thomas thought–
Each night Riah wandered
To the porch, and
Next day scraped off grease
To spoon on beans.

But tonight!
Her eyes lit on the mess
Like it were new–
She blinked, amazed.
Clean it on her own,
Thought Tom, and steered James
With him to the sitting room–
He’d been hanging by the sink.
“Needs help,” James objected.
“No, she don’t.”
Mama, Tom judged,
Needs to think.

For a little while, as
Thomas read the news,
They could hear her as
She soaped the dishes–
He could see there–why’s she
Wasting it? he thought.
White billows, to her armpits–
Each time she wiped her face,
Suds streaked her hair,
And then went running–
Heck!–he sniffed,
Clear down her dress, from
Wrists and elbows
To her shoes.
After half the stack was done
Her clothes were sopping,
Leaden folds.
Gooseflesh spread her arms,
Her legs, her neck.
Moreover–did he see right?–
She would take the same dish,
Wash it once–then twice–
And, sometimes, more.
Tom began to stretch, uneasy,
In his chair.

And then she stopped.
He was not sure just when.
Her sodden back was
To them. No
Wash, no scrub, no dry:
Simply, nothing.
Her two hands made
No movement, nor
Her feet.
Tom tried to read a column,
But kept glancing over.
There she stood, the same.

Maybe scratching
At some dirt? But
No: he strained his
Ears. No scratch–just
Water, dripping to the floor.
Drip, drip. Pause. Drip.
He read again. The story
Seemed to drag.
His eyes must roam–
No signal, gesture,
Nothing. Was she breathing,
Even? Her hands,
At her sides,
As dead as stone.

He forced his gaze down,
And scanned an ad.
She did not move an inch,
Or lean, or sway.
James stared at him.
How long?

Tom began to sweat.
His cheeks grew warm.
Had it been half an hour?
Less? Quarter hour, then?
The clock beat loud.
She’d wound it–when?–he thought–
She’d let it slide….
That water, dripping–
And her back, too straight–
And James, still staring, with
Enormous eyes.
Could she have had
A stroke? No,
That was crazy–

“My mother.”
James jumped–Tom froze:
Riah’s voice.
“My mother,
When they first left home, the town.
Went to the plains.”
Riah never talked of Mother,
And not since the fire
Ever spoke the word.
James could not say Grandma.
Tom’s hands tensed.

“Mama said,
They was the only
Ones who settled.
Built a sodhouse.
Oh, it was two years–
Three–before us kids.”
The voice, from far away.
She’s looking hard, he thought,
But nothing’s there.

“She used to count the months
Between the mail.
Got it once in summer.
Once in spring.”
She spoke flatly:
“Weren’t no other houses.
You could ride a day,
Or two, or three.
Not see a chimney.
Once a year,
She’d go to town.
Took a week to go,
That’s with the wagon.
Only time she heard a voice
Except for Daddy’s.
He’d be gone,
On trips,
For seed….or flour….
Anyhow, never
Had much to say.”
They did not stir.

“She said, when he’d been gone,
A couple nights,
Why then, it’d start to seem
To her, the wind made
Words….’The wind
Made words around me,’
Round the house.
One winter, in
The blizzards, Dad
Just couldn’t make it
Back, with flour and meal.
She smoked mice
Out the woodpile,
And ate those.
Next night–snowed–she
Heard the howling. Wolf
Busted through the shutters.
She beat it to death.
She’d made a club.”
James’ eyes were on his dad.

“She wasn’t a big talker.
That’s not it.
No, she wasn’t.
Hardly told no stories.
Mostly worked. That’s
How folks was, then.
Told me one, though–
I was young as
James. Guess I was
Surprised, because
I listened”–
A flicker of a smile
That faltered, died.
“She said: ‘Hungry’s not
The worst. I’ll tell
The worst. I’ll tell you,
So you’ll know,
And not forget.’
Well, she kept saying,
‘It had been so long….
Your dad was gone for feed.
It was so long.’
She meant, so long since
She’d seen–oh, a face….”
Riah’s hands, no motion
At her sides.
“She said: ‘Mariah–
I walk out that house,
Off to the field.
Walk fast and faster,
Didn’t have no plan.
Well, it’s ten below–
The sun is setting.’ She said,
‘Frost creeps up my scarf–‘”
Riah halted.
“She told me–
She laid down with the sheep.
They kept a few to graze,
For wool, for warm.
She laid there
On the ground.
And talked to them.”

Tom’s face was bowed.
With two quick motions,
Riah dried her arms.
“James, come.”
She headed out the door,
And toward the truck.

Tom did not try to stop her.

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