blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Buggy Ride, from Salt

(reprinted by permission of Picador USA)

Thinking of something that happened when she was very small was to her like finding a jewel in the grass; better even, since jewels in the grass turned into nothing more than flecks of mica and drops of dew. But the thoughts were colored crystal windows. You picked one up, held it to the light from whatever source you had and a tiny scene leapt to full-sized life. All at once there Anna was beside her father, riding high in the swaying buggy on a green and gold day. She was so short-legged her feet didn't touch the floor and every curve around the mountain moved her toward or away from her father.

In the valley the road ran straight and open, the earth dark with damp, with new-leafing forest to one side and to the other a grassy bank and meadows edged by rail fences of fresh split wood. A spring wind with the coolness of a shower promised, or just past, blew across their faces. Where they were going and when they would arrive she did not remember.

T. A. Stockton, Anna's own papa, sat tall and dressed in his best suit and white shirt, not a hair or dust mote to be seen on the hard-brushed black wool, not a single scorch mark on the bleached linen though her mother used an iron hot enough to raise steam from her testing spit and the sprinkled clothes. He wore his red silk kerchief tied around his neck and drove as always, holding both the reins and the whip. He would not put the whip down, would never put it in the socket. He might have been saying something serious to her. She had forgotten his words, not having heeded them. Perhaps they had only been about the early flowers that were blooming beside the wet ditches. He ought, he often said, to know the names of all the plants and what they were good for. His mother had tried to teach him, hoping he might make a doctor. His mother, he would tell her, had been a fine horsewoman and an herbalist of note, more practiced in both than her mother, Tina, could ever hope to be. Tina did not know enough of the true English names for such things and never had advantages like a well-trained saddle horse. His mother could "kill or cure," he would say. It always sounded backwards to Anna.

Shouldn't it be cure or kill? she wanted to ask, but did not, knowing how he would have looked at such a question, turning and glaring down at her challenge, his thick eyebrows nearly meeting. His face was always fierce, cut across twice, once by his eyebrows and again by his mustache. He would look like the man with the pistol in his belt, Major DeHaven, her mother's first husband. Major DeHaven actually was much younger, but he was frowning that way in the picture her mother kept in the paper-covered box, along with the letter from the major's commander and a strip of fern-sprigged muslin from a wedding dress. He had been an officer. Her father, who had carried a rifle, had had no real rank that she knew of, only his fierce upright carriage and his anger. She wondered, if Major DeHaven had lived, would he have frowned at her like that? Or would he have smiled and told her funny things? But if the major had not been killed in his very first battle, she would most certainly not be who she was.

As her father spoke, a strange, lively glow had played over everything. So their journey must have been after a rain. The light was the sort that follows water, making all colors change, evergreens darkening and the sky yellowish. Heavy bright grasses flowed down the bank, thick and straight, like hair newly brushed, ready to be braided. He had been telling her something she couldn't remember. Maybe he was leaving again. She didn't know why he had taken her out riding alone, without her sister Nell. Had she forgotten something necessary to her very life? Or had it been nothing more than a short drive through the country? How could she forget when she needed to remember everything?  

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