Katherine, affectionately called Lily by her father, braced when the force of the earth shifted, and, as when she was a child, landed her in this once thriving farm community to which she returned only when someone died. She sat on her father’s living room floor alone, thirty-nine years old and unable to speak.
As if she were a child she remembered the smoke from incense mixed with smells of baled hay then strengthened by manure and the metallic odor from farm implements. She saw the early morning steam rising from the livestock, heard their deep breathing and the periodic snorts from the single bull that stood well-hidden behind the heifers near to the barbed wire of her father’s fence.
There had been no sirens, no long black vehicles. No public officials in uniform. Only the church, cemetery, rectory, convent, and school across the road.
St. Mary’s Church had been on that corner since 1881, first as a frame building, now a steepled limestone structure. Its sanctuary walls festooned with things to make people feel secure. Her father never much liked the eye level, full-sized, punctured Jesus hanging with blood dripping from wrists, feet, and ribs. His exposed heart wrapped in thorns, and a hand-carved wooden sign on the wall next to it, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Behind the church was the cemetery with distinct sections for First Settlers, Catholics, non-Catholics, and across the narrow dirt road the unconsecrated section for suicides.
Next to the church was the priest’s rectory where Lily’s father had greeted new pastors with an envelope full of cash and a fifth of Jim Beam.
One early pastor said, “I don’t drink spirits.”
Her father replied, “Would you like coffee?”
“Well, hell, then. Would you like a holy card?”
That priest didn’t last long.
South of the rectory was the convent, where, if her cousin is correct, her father met the woman who became Lily’s step-mother. Lily attended the grade school south of the convent.
For three days, twenty-four hours a day, an eight-year-old Lily watched while people drifted in and out, whispered, looked at her, turned silent. Visitors in black clothing and red eyes brought food and flowers, then dominated the house. She sat on the floor and watched while strangers bunched heavy black drapery around her mother’s open casket.
On the morning of the third day, her father woke her, “Lily, come, get dressed. They’ve taken momma across the street.”
Lily sat in her heavy wool dress in the front pew and endured the dirge slowness of the liturgy and attempted to hold her breath as the odor of incense merged with the smell outside the church. She stiffened when her father held her hand, led her from the church to the cemetery and stood close to the deep hole — dark, narrow, frigid — down which her mother disappeared.
As if more could be eaten after dinner in the church basement, their dining room table – the one upon which her mother laid for three days – grew even heavier with all the food brought by relatives. Smells blanketed the house – garlic, roast beef, and gravy. Lily heard the snap of chicken frying in her mother’s cast iron skillet.
She sat on the floor and her lungs heaved with a deep burn that forced prolonged, inflamed coughs, and she heard, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“John will have to marry again.”
“Who will take care of the children?”
Lily recalled she asked, “Why?” Not about the previous question but about her own.
“For her soul, mein kind,” said an aunt who understood Lily’s abridged question.
Pray for Momma’s soul? After all her suffering? How bad could she have been? Lily remembered only snippets of the past weeks – the coughing, the doctor, days alone, trips with her father to the rectory.
Lily felt the warmth from the floor furnace and glanced at the galvanized metal tub filled with water simmering atop the furnace grill, then raised her head to look at the pictures.
She had grown up with old pictures. In the living room. The dining room. A few in the bedrooms. Most in the hallway amidst photographs of young children or weddings. Cracked and peeled photographs. Some black and white. Others sepia. Some were silhouettes. A few were tintypes with eyes smudged as if drawn by a child. Great-grandparents, grandparents, her mother, her aunts and uncles, and all the others on that continuum from Germany to Russia to America.
And it was only two o’clock in the afternoon.
“Poppa, tell me some stories,” Lily asked. And despite the death of his wife, he did.
Stories about Germany, or Russia or America, kings and czars, and always with his soft, resonant, liquid Volga-German voice molded by harsh winters, dry summers, bleak harvests, high winds, and limited contact with the outside world. A voice generations in the making, each “w” pronounced “v”. Each “v” an “f”. Every “j” a “y”. And “z’s” like the “ts” in nuts. Lily floated for years with her father’s voice inside her – through schools, then marriage and a child.
Their last name translated into English as barley farmer, and that’s what they had been in Germany, Russia, and now in America. Every few years overproduction led to low crop prices that begat low farm incomes. The farmers responded by increasing the land under production which resulted in increased crops with increased yields. The inevitable collapsed prices were compounded by the high cost of manufactured goods, the higher the cost of transportation, and the lack of governmental protection.
The family spoke a language last heard in seventeenth-century Germany. In Russia and America, they were isolated, culturally unified, and suspicious. They arrived in America, more akin to nomads than immigrants.
One week after her mother’s funeral, Lily sat next to her father while he drove her to see Dr. Bethausen — the same doctor who treated her mother.
Lily inhaled and caught the scent of her father’s Palmolive after shave lotion mingled with smoke from his Camel cigarette with ash unflicked. She couldn’t remember when her father did not have a cigarette clinging to the right side of his mouth – each new one ignited from the stub of the one about to be snuffed out. She pictured the dual faucets in the bathroom behind which rested his aftershave. On the right, a leather strop hung next to the sink with the straight edge, boar bristle brush, and soap mug within reach.
She sat in the exam room with its peeling white paint and attempted to read the only wall hanging that the doctor said was “my sheepskin”.
The doctor asked questions Lily knew were to be answered by her father.
“How long has she had this cough?”
“Has she run a fever at home?”
“Does her cough burn?”
Dr. Bethausen said, “She has whooping cough. Keep her inside the house. Nothing more can be done for her,” which, except for the diagnosis, were the exact words he said about her mother.
The doctor asked, “How’s she doing, since-”
Her father interrupted, “She talks to me. No one else.”
Lily would grow into a student who sweat profusely when called to recite. For years, she sat in class and worried about diarrhea, adopted a calming device of shaking her head sideways, often so hard it caused severe headaches. When nervous, she would squint to shut-out her environment. In nursing school, she would take voice lessons but avoided public speaking.
Her father’s second marriage was as idyllic as most were back then. Her father, a widower with five children who needed a mother; and his new wife, an ex-nun, was pregnant and needed a husband fast. A stern woman whose duty was to care for her own children, raise her step-children, and satisfy her husband, which, she did with Volga German precision.
For years after her father remarried, the family lived as if there had been an armed truce. Jaws tight, eyes dead, voices silent, but ever vigilant to seize upon the slightest transgression as an excuse to unleash their weapons.
It was early April and Lily had just returned with her father from his medical appointment. Their roles have changed. Lily chose the doctor, and she drove her father’s two-door Kaiser Custom 6.
Her father shuffled from car to front porch, turned, and stared at the street. His eyes squinted against the wind. He pulled his glasses off, rubbed his eyes, “Scheisskopf. That’s what happens when you got more yesterdays than tomorrows.“
Lily watched as he exhaled a lung full of smoke. “No,” he said as if still in the doctor’s office. “I know my family history. It won’t be six months. Our people live until they’re eighty-eight.” He stood quietly for a moment.
“Poppa, when do you plan to tell them?”
“Not today.” He looked at her, “And I will be the one to do it.”
“Okay, but when?”
“A couple of weeks. Maybe a month.”
“Why so long?”
“Because of the family reunion next month.” He inhaled, squinted, exhaled. Smoke the color of morning fog surrounded his face.
“I want to be with you when you do,” she said.
Years earlier, at the first family reunion, Lily sat with her father while he ate a dinner of roast beef, peas, mashed potatoes, gravy, apple pie, and coffee. After dinner came his nip of Jim Beam straight from the half-pint bottle usually hidden behind the icon of the Last Supper which rested on the kitchen counter behind the Napoleon Clock.
Her father regaled the reunion with stories from three countries – some historically accurate, some enhanced. Lily sat enthralled with pride and wished she were as fearlessness.
Three weeks after her father’s medical appointment, Lily sat behind the wheel of the Kaiser. Once again, her earth had shifted. She wiped the sweat from her eyes, placed her hand on her chest to quiet the pounding, then squeezed the steering wheel to hide her shaking hands. “This is terrible. I’ll be next.”
St. Mary’s parish had long since merged with the large parish in Berdan, the county seat. The school is now closed, the convent vacant, the church unlocked only for special occasions. All are old, out of date, barely functional, and smell of neglect.
Before arriving at the church, she heard the stories she loved – of crystal sets, overheated radio tubes, distant voices that carried tales. Of her father propping her on pillows and telling her stories until they both fell asleep. Of holding his hand as they walked to the park.
“You always wanted to scatter off to look at something. And I’d grab your hand. When you got older, I thought you might not want to hold hands.” Her eyes on the road, she thought she saw his cigarette. “So, I asked you to hold my hand because I needed you to guide me. So, I wouldn’t wander.”
“And I believed it?”
“And you accepted it.”
Her father’s voice continued, “Lily, speak for me.”
“You know I hate it. I can’t.”
“But I know you. And I want you to speak for me. Promise me. Nobody else. Just you.”
“I can’t. I don’t know stories the way you do.”
“Then make some up.”
And she tried. And she waited. And nothing came. And she freezes. She is eight years old again and on the living room floor.
Nevertheless, her father’s voice continued. Gentle. Slow. Persistent.
She jerked the wheel to show her displeasure; then, just as he taught her, maneuvered the car into the crowded church parking lot, found a space, and, as her father did when she was a girl, said, “We’re here.” She stressed the “w” as a “v”.
Lily sat inside the car with her wet hands gripping the steering wheel. Her head echoed with the questions she asked for years. What do I say? How much will I embarrass myself? Will I have an accident? How many are going to laugh at me?
Her father looked at her, and said, “Lily, now you tell the stories.”
Lily’s hands shake. She dreaded public speaking, nevertheless, he insisted. Nevertheless, she decided she will not speak.
When she entered the church basement, waves of faces surged forward as if in platoon formation.
She had seen them all her life, in school, at church, framed and on the walls of her father’s house. Some in funeral homes eyes closed, mouths shut, faces pasty — at once brittle and damp — as if they had been rained on then left to dry. Her mother. Even her great-aunt, Sophie, across the table, smiled for approval. Her uncles, Alex and Leo, sat on her right side. Each face unusually smooth and unblemished by sun and wind, each spine remarkably flexible. Not a limp, shuffle, or unfocused eye in the crowd.
His eleven children had begotten multiple grandchildren, who had spawned countless great-grandchildren, and it appeared to Lily as though every one of them swarmed forward. Farmers, teachers, a school principal, doctors, dentists, lawyers, a Marine Captain with two purple hearts, a late-blooming CPA, one Nashville musician, and a Registered Nurse.
“Who are these people? They look like my brothers, or aunts – some look like your grandmother.”
“They’re your grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” she whispered. Well past the stage of calling everyone by name, Lily smiled at the faces last seen on walls.
“Mein Got, she looks like little Cathy,” Lily heard her father’s voice. When another walked by, “That’s Mary Ann, no, it’s her grandmother,” but to Lily, Mary Ann looked like a photo of her own mother.
Then, Lily heard, “That’s my grandfather,” and, as if her father stood, he pointed to her,
“No, she’s you. And all those over there.” Each one a replica of one of the pictures on the wall. “They are us.” She felt her father turn and look at his own face – the framed picture on the easel.
When the priest nodded at Lily and tugged her arm, she pretended to tap the half-pint of Jim Beam, rose from her chair, walked past the priest. When she reached her father’s framed photograph, she wanted to tell him, “Thank you. You told me stories, when …” “Without you I couldn’t have …” “Because of you I could…” Instead, she pretended to take the cigarette from his mouth, then held out her right hand as if she and her father were walking together toward a new discovery. Up three steps, she turned left, positioned herself behind the podium, looked at the crowd, smiled.
Her father listened as Lily began. “First, I want to thank all of you for coming to my father’s funeral dinner. And now I have some stories to tell you.”
Each time her earth shifted Lily would return. She would return again, and again, and a few times after that, to walk across the dirt road and join the others at the cemetery. She would return to the house, and, as she did when a child, look at the pictures. Lily would continue to return to this dusty town until someone else returned to look at her picture and tell stories about her.
Thomas Elson’s short stories have appeared in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Oracle, Red City Literary Review, Avalon Literary Review, Calliope, The 3288 Review, Lampeter Review, and A New Ulster.