My antonia, p.3
My Antonia, p.3Willa Cather
I DO NOT REMEMBER our arrival at my grandfather's farm sometime beforedaybreak, after a drive of nearly twenty miles with heavy work-horses.When I awoke, it was afternoon. I was lying in a little room, scarcelylarger than the bed that held me, and the window-shade at my head wasflapping softly in a warm wind. A tall woman, with wrinkled brown skinand black hair, stood looking down at me; I knew that she must be mygrandmother. She had been crying, I could see, but when I opened my eyesshe smiled, peered at me anxiously, and sat down on the foot of my bed.
'Had a good sleep, Jimmy?' she asked briskly. Then in a very differenttone she said, as if to herself, 'My, how you do look like your father!'I remembered that my father had been her little boy; she must oftenhave come to wake him like this when he overslept. 'Here are your cleanclothes,' she went on, stroking my coverlid with her brown hand as shetalked. 'But first you come down to the kitchen with me, and have a nicewarm bath behind the stove. Bring your things; there's nobody about.'
'Down to the kitchen' struck me as curious; it was always 'out in thekitchen' at home. I picked up my shoes and stockings and followed herthrough the living-room and down a flight of stairs into a basement.This basement was divided into a dining-room at the right of thestairs and a kitchen at the left. Both rooms were plastered andwhitewashed--the plaster laid directly upon the earth walls, as it usedto be in dugouts. The floor was of hard cement. Up under the woodenceiling there were little half-windows with white curtains, and pots ofgeraniums and wandering Jew in the deep sills. As I entered the kitchen,I sniffed a pleasant smell of gingerbread baking. The stove was verylarge, with bright nickel trimmings, and behind it there was a longwooden bench against the wall, and a tin washtub, into which grandmotherpoured hot and cold water. When she brought the soap and towels, I toldher that I was used to taking my bath without help. 'Can you do yourears, Jimmy? Are you sure? Well, now, I call you a right smart littleboy.'
It was pleasant there in the kitchen. The sun shone into my bath-waterthrough the west half-window, and a big Maltese cat came up and rubbedhimself against the tub, watching me curiously. While I scrubbed, mygrandmother busied herself in the dining-room until I called anxiously,'Grandmother, I'm afraid the cakes are burning!' Then she came laughing,waving her apron before her as if she were shooing chickens.
She was a spare, tall woman, a little stooped, and she was apt to carryher head thrust forward in an attitude of attention, as if she werelooking at something, or listening to something, far away. As I grewolder, I came to believe that it was only because she was so oftenthinking of things that were far away. She was quick-footed andenergetic in all her movements. Her voice was high and rather shrill,and she often spoke with an anxious inflection, for she was exceedinglydesirous that everything should go with due order and decorum. Herlaugh, too, was high, and perhaps a little strident, but there was alively intelligence in it. She was then fifty-five years old, a strongwoman, of unusual endurance.
After I was dressed, I explored the long cellar next the kitchen. It wasdug out under the wing of the house, was plastered and cemented, with astairway and an outside door by which the men came and went. Under oneof the windows there was a place for them to wash when they came in fromwork.
While my grandmother was busy about supper, I settled myself on thewooden bench behind the stove and got acquainted with the cat--he caughtnot only rats and mice, but gophers, I was told. The patch ofyellow sunlight on the floor travelled back toward the stairway, andgrandmother and I talked about my journey, and about the arrival of thenew Bohemian family; she said they were to be our nearest neighbours. Wedid not talk about the farm in Virginia, which had been her home for somany years. But after the men came in from the fields, and we were allseated at the supper table, then she asked Jake about the old place andabout our friends and neighbours there.
My grandfather said little. When he first came in he kissed me andspoke kindly to me, but he was not demonstrative. I felt at once hisdeliberateness and personal dignity, and was a little in awe of him.The thing one immediately noticed about him was his beautiful, crinkly,snow-white beard. I once heard a missionary say it was like the beard ofan Arabian sheik. His bald crown only made it more impressive.
Grandfather's eyes were not at all like those of an old man; they werebright blue, and had a fresh, frosty sparkle. His teeth were white andregular--so sound that he had never been to a dentist in his life. Hehad a delicate skin, easily roughened by sun and wind. When he was ayoung man his hair and beard were red; his eyebrows were still coppery.
As we sat at the table, Otto Fuchs and I kept stealing covert glances ateach other. Grandmother had told me while she was getting supper thathe was an Austrian who came to this country a young boy and had led anadventurous life in the Far West among mining-camps and cow outfits. Hisiron constitution was somewhat broken by mountain pneumonia, and he haddrifted back to live in a milder country for a while. He had relativesin Bismarck, a German settlement to the north of us, but for a year nowhe had been working for grandfather.
The minute supper was over, Otto took me into the kitchen to whisper tome about a pony down in the barn that had been bought for me at a sale;he had been riding him to find out whether he had any bad tricks, buthe was a 'perfect gentleman,' and his name was Dude. Fuchs told meeverything I wanted to know: how he had lost his ear in a Wyomingblizzard when he was a stage-driver, and how to throw a lasso. Hepromised to rope a steer for me before sundown next day. He got outhis 'chaps' and silver spurs to show them to Jake and me, and his bestcowboy boots, with tops stitched in bold design--roses, and true-lover'sknots, and undraped female figures. These, he solemnly explained, wereangels.
Before we went to bed, Jake and Otto were called up to the living-roomfor prayers. Grandfather put on silver-rimmed spectacles andread several Psalms. His voice was so sympathetic and he read sointerestingly that I wished he had chosen one of my favourite chaptersin the Book of Kings. I was awed by his intonation of the word 'Selah.''He shall choose our inheritance for us, the excellency of Jacob whomHe loved. Selah.' I had no idea what the word meant; perhaps he had not.But, as he uttered it, it became oracular, the most sacred of words.
Early the next morning I ran out-of-doors to look about me. I had beentold that ours was the only wooden house west of Black Hawk--untilyou came to the Norwegian settlement, where there were several. Ourneighbours lived in sod houses and dugouts--comfortable, but not veryroomy. Our white frame house, with a storey and half-storey above thebasement, stood at the east end of what I might call the farmyard, withthe windmill close by the kitchen door. From the windmill the groundsloped westward, down to the barns and granaries and pig-yards. Thisslope was trampled hard and bare, and washed out in winding gullies bythe rain. Beyond the corncribs, at the bottom of the shallow draw, wasa muddy little pond, with rusty willow bushes growing about it. The roadfrom the post-office came directly by our door, crossed the farmyard,and curved round this little pond, beyond which it began to climb thegentle swell of unbroken prairie to the west. There, along the westernsky-line it skirted a great cornfield, much larger than any field I hadever seen. This cornfield, and the sorghum patch behind the barn, werethe only broken land in sight. Everywhere, as far as the eye couldreach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it astall as I.
North of the house, inside the ploughed fire-breaks, grew a thick-setstrip of box-elder trees, low and bushy, their leaves already turningyellow. This hedge was nearly a quarter of a mile long, but I had tolook very hard to see it at all. The little trees were insignificantagainst the grass. It seemed as if the grass were about to run overthem, and over the plum-patch behind the sod chicken-house.
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the wateris the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colourof winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. Andthere was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to berunning.
I had almost forgotten that I had
The garden, curiously enough, was a quarter of a mile from the house,and the way to it led up a shallow draw past the cattle corral.Grandmother called my attention to a stout hickory cane, tipped withcopper, which hung by a leather thong from her belt. This, she said,was her rattlesnake cane. I must never go to the garden without a heavystick or a corn-knife; she had killed a good many rattlers on her wayback and forth. A little girl who lived on the Black Hawk road wasbitten on the ankle and had been sick all summer.
I can remember exactly how the country looked to me as I walked besidemy grandmother along the faint wagon-tracks on that early Septembermorning. Perhaps the glide of long railway travel was still with me, formore than anything else I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh,easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggygrass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalowere galloping, galloping...
Alone, I should never have found the garden--except, perhaps, forthe big yellow pumpkins that lay about unprotected by their witheringvines--and I felt very little interest in it when I got there. I wantedto walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of theworld, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told methat the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left,and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, andone would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed overour heads making slow shadows on the grass. While grandmother took thepitchfork we found standing in one of the rows and dug potatoes, while Ipicked them up out of the soft brown earth and put them into the bag, Ikept looking up at the hawks that were doing what I might so easily do.
When grandmother was ready to go, I said I would like to stay up therein the garden awhile.
She peered down at me from under her sunbonnet. 'Aren't you afraid ofsnakes?'
'A little,' I admitted, 'but I'd like to stay, anyhow.'
'Well, if you see one, don't have anything to do with him. The bigyellow and brown ones won't hurt you; they're bull-snakes and help tokeep the gophers down. Don't be scared if you see anything look out ofthat hole in the bank over there. That's a badger hole. He's about asbig as a big 'possum, and his face is striped, black and white. He takesa chicken once in a while, but I won't let the men harm him. In a newcountry a body feels friendly to the animals. I like to have him comeout and watch me when I'm at work.'
Grandmother swung the bag of potatoes over her shoulder and went downthe path, leaning forward a little. The road followed the windingsof the draw; when she came to the first bend, she waved at me anddisappeared. I was left alone with this new feeling of lightness andcontent.
I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcelyapproach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. Therewere some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit.I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berriesand ate a few. All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any Ihad ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. Thegophers scurried up and down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltereddraw-bottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singingits humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasseswave. The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it throughmy fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadronsaround me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. Ikept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anythingto happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like thepumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy.Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of somethingentire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At anyrate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete andgreat. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
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