by Phyllis Martens
Hard times had come upon Mrs. Elizabeth Gunter. "-As if your other troubles weren't enough," the women told her in Stoesz's General Store, standing between the counters in their square heavy coats and woolen head shawls. The pleasant odor of coffee, pinewood flooring and new cloth hung in the air.
Tante Lieze closed her purse and picked up her shopping bag, ready to go home. "Et gheyt," she said in Low German. "It goes."
"But-in the basement! It's too damp. It isn't good. And what about Lentya?" The women shook their heads and clucked their tongues.
"You can't leave her alone, surely?" Mrs. Dickman asked.
"Na nay, Frieda is with her."
Tante Lieze left the store and walked down the road, slowly because her knees pained her. Her hands, too, crooked and knobbed at the joints, reddened from much washing, hurt incessantly. Well, the women were right. It wasn't good, she knew that herself. It would have been better, much better, to continue living upstairs. It was much warmer and lighter up there. The basement was certainly damp, and not enough light got in-it was really almost dark when the snow piled up against the small high window. She frowned, remembering that the renters had let the water run over again; the linoleum under the sink was getting rotten, already breaking off in crumbling pieces showing the black soaked wood underneath. If something wasn't done even the flooring would soon rot through. She determined to speak to her brother Heinrich about it-he knew carpentry and would know what to do. He could also speak to the renters with more authority than she could.
She stopped thinking about the renters and walked with heavy steps along the muddy sidewalk, past the city park, deserted except for a dog sniffing about in the mud, and along a row of white frame houses, each with a front porch reached by two or three wooden steps. The yards were a tangle of blackened bushes and dried brown stems. Under the hedges lay small frozen, dirt-speckled patches of snow. Farther down, the sidewalks ceased and she had to walk on the gravel road, avoiding the muddy slush in the ruts left by carriage wheels and the thin tires of cars. Now in the late afternoon, a brilliant sunshine glanced off the white houses and the wet trunks of trees.
When she reached her own house she paused to admire the blue cedar growing tall and shapely in the front yard. She twisted off a small sprig and put it in her bag. Then she went around to the back and descended the cement steps into the basement.
She stopped by the woodstove in the outer room to make sure the fire had not gone out; stirred up the coals smoldering under a layer of ash and moved the kettle forward to heat; then walked past the drain in the center of the floor to the washing machine, where she inspected bundles of clothes piled in a large basket, to be ironed yet tonight for Mrs. Eytzen. Satisfied that all was in order, she moved toward the inner room and opened the door-carefully, so as not to bump into Lentya, who would have heard her coming and be waiting by the door.
But Lentya was not at the door. She had found a bright spot of sunlight in the middle of the floor and was sitting in it, laughing, her blind eyes lifted toward the little window above. She can tell there is light, at least, Tante Lieze thought. The cat was curled up in Lentya's lap, asleep.
Frieda was sitting at the table drinking coffee. Near her elbow a pile of dirty bowls, spoons and plates lay ignored. She nodded in greeting when her mother entered. She wore a dress of yellow print, cut low at the neck and adorned with a ruffle, badly sewed on. Bright pink rouge covered the hollows of her cheeks back to her ears.
Tante Lieze set her bag on the table, took out the sprig of cedar and put it into Lentya's hand. The girl immediately put it to her nose.
"Jah, cedar smells good," Frieda remarked, watching with interest.
"You fed her, then, Frieda?" Tante Lieze asked.
"Jah." Frieda began turning her cup round and round in the saucer. "Tante Tina went home from the hospital. I heard it at the dimestore from Mrs. Henshaw."
Tante Lieze took off her coat and shawl and hung them on a hook beside the curtain which hid the bed. Then she sat down on the sofa to take off her wet shoes, putting on instead a pair of shabby bed slippers broken through at the toes.
Frieda continued in her flat voice. "They opened her up but they couldn't do nothing. They just closed her up again and said she could go home. Doctor Schulte said he would operate again when she got more strength. But she won't get no better. They didn't tell her about the cancer. She thinks she'll get better and have another operation."
Tante Lieze looked at her sharply. "You don't go and tell her. That's for the family to do."
"Na, nay, I won't tell her." Frieda was now arranging bread crumbs in little rows on the oilcloth. "Martha's having a terrible time. Tante Tina won't eat. The rooms smell something awful . . . she don't always call them in time. Martha has to wash the sheets every day."
Tante Lieze was silent. She had found out from her sister Helena in town that most of this was true. She got up and began clearing away the dirty dishes into a small tub to carry into the other room for washing. "You should have cleaned up, you had time," she told Frieda crossly.
"Jah, I had time." Frieda watched her with interest. "I thought it would be nice to bring Tante Tina a new washcloth from the dimestore. A nice new soft one with red and blue stripes. They got new scarves too-silk ones, black silk scarves with nice fringes. You need a new scarf."
Tante Lieze retorted, annoyed, "I don't need a scarf."
"Jah, jah, you need a new scarf," Frieda insisted. "The embroidery is all coming out of your old one." She pointed to the frayed green shawl hanging on the hook.
"It's good enough," Tante Lieze said shortly. She wished Frieda would go. Frieda was a brizzel-meoul, a blabber-mouth. One daughter couldn't talk at all, the other rattled on all the time about nothing.
"I heard Helena got a new set of dishes," Frieda remarked. "Mrs. Kunkel saw them yesterday when she went up for coffee. A glass set-a nice new pink glass set. You should tell Helena to give you her old set. All your cups have cracks." She showed her mother the crack in her cup.
"Ach, vas!" Tante Lieze exclaimed. "I won't ask her for anything. You don't have to, either." She found an old rag in the corner behind the cupboard and began to wipe off her muddy shoes. Last week Helena had wanted to give her a coat some visitor had left behind long ago, but she had refused it-she would much rather wear her own coat even if it was old and much too thick-she didn't need anybody's castoffs. She had not told Frieda about the coat, or by tomorrow every farmer's wife and even the geese and pigs would know about it.
She went into the other room to set the shoes near the stove to dry. Returning, she asked, "Was Lentya quiet?"
"Na jah, she was quiet. She likes the sun. It's warm. You should put the cookstove in here, to keep her warm."
Tante Lieze looked at her, exasperated. "What nonsense. If we put the stove in here she'll burn herself. You better go now."
Frieda made no move to get up but sat running her finger up and down the crack in the cup. "I heard Mrs. Jauntz the preacher's wife from the Corner Church say God was punishing you. She said Dietrich was a sinner, and now the child is suffering because of it."
"Nay! That she did not say!"
"Jah. She said it. I was standing near by her at the bakery, by the cookies. I heard her tell Mrs. Jake Braun that God is punishing you because of Dietrich. I heard her say it. Jah." Frieda nodded emphatically.
Tante Lieze was silent. Perhaps it was true. She had often wondered if God was punishing her, or Dietrich, or both of them, for their sins. She had not, in her youth, paid much attention to God. Her dreams had been of a large fine house, elegant gowns with trains and ruffles, fancy meals served on gold-rimmed china plates. But it had not worked out. It was Helena, her younger sister, who had the fine house. Dietrich's sins, however, had not been committed in his youth, but later. She never spoke of him to anyone. If the women attempted to commiserate with her for his desertion, she said merely, "Dey es schwach . . . that one is weak"; but her voice had an edge to it.
Nevertheless she answered Frieda firmly, "Lentya is not a punishment for your pa. She was born two years and more before he left." She looked again at Frieda. If God was punishing her, this empty-headed daughter with her shiftless husband and wild dirty children was more a punishment even than Lentya, who couldn't help being what she was.
The cat jumped suddenly out of Lentya's lap and sniffed at bits of bread fallen on the floor near the table. Lentya dropped her twig and felt around for the cat, uttering hoarse cries.
"Here, take your spoon," Tante Lieze said. She put a spoon from the drawer into the girl's hand.
Frieda piled up crumbs on the oilcloth and looked wise. "She said God was punishing you."
"Frieda," Tante Lieze said wearily, "don't repeat everything people say. It's time for you to go home and do your work."
They heard the outside door slam, running feet. The door to the room burst open and a small black-haired boy rushed in. "Is Mamma here?" He ran to the kitchen cupboard, flung open the doors and began searching through the crowded shelves.
"Jah, I'm here," Frieda said. She got up and took a coat from the couch.
Tante Lieze shut the cupboard doors with a bang. "Rudy, if you want something to eat, ask for it decently," she ordered.
The cat had run behind the couch. The boy, dashing after it, leaped on the couch, hung over the back, and thrust his arm down behind it to grope for the cat. Lentya banged her spoon on the floor and whimpered.
"Rudy, go outside-you're bothering Lentya," Tante Lieze commanded sharply.
"She's a baby!" he exclaimed. Abandoning the search for the cat, he jumped off the couch and grabbed at her spoon. Lentya spit and screamed. She would not let go the spoon but lashed at him with one long arm. Her shriveled legs dragged helplessly.
Tante Lieze caught the boy by the shoulders. "Shame on you! That's her spoon, she screams if she doesn't have it. Now go out! Right away! Your mother is going home too."
"Lentya's a silly baby!" he repeated; but turned and darted out the door.
Lentya was howling now in blind fury, throwing herself about on the floor. Someone thumped loudly on the ceiling above them. Tante Lieze hurried to the cupboard and took from a drawer a round white peppermint, which she thrust into the girl's grasping hand. Lentya instantly quieted down and put the peppermint in her mouth.
"They don't like it when she screams," Tante Lieze told Frieda angrily. "I told you to keep your children away. They're much too rough-who can stand it?"
"Jah, jah, I told them not to come here," Frieda said. She lingered a moment, then slowly walked out the door.
Tante Lieze tied a cloth around Lentya, who was slobbering from the peppermint. Slowly, for her knees hurt badly now, she finished putting away the foodstuffs from her bag and then wiped the crumbs off the oilcloth. Seeing that Lentya was quiet, she brought in the laundry from the other room. She spread the clothes one by one on the table, flicked water from a bowl evenly over them using her fingers, then rolled them up tightly and returned them to the basket. Taking a pan of leftover borscht from the cupboard she put it on the stove in the other room to heat.
After supper she set her irons on the stove to get hot. When Lentya had at last fallen asleep on the couch-a sagging wine-colored wreck brought down from the upstairs back porch-she got out the ironing board and started ironing Mrs. Eytzen's washing, ignoring the pain in her hands.
She wondered if God was indeed punishing her, as Mrs. Jauntz had said. Mrs. Jauntz had probably heard it from her husband, a minister, who should know about such things. She had thought briefly about this after Lentya was born, but in the main had accepted her child as one accepts the difficulties of life. Was it true, after all? Was God mean in spirit, like some of the people in this town? After a while she remembered the man who had been born blind, not because of his own sins or those of his parents, but so that God's glory would be made known. She turned the thing over in her mind. At last, thinking of God's grace and glory, she became sure that something good would come of this deformed child. Lentya was born thus, she concluded, not as a punishment for anybody's sins, but because it was God's will. Why, she did not yet know, perhaps to teach other people compassion. Something good, for the glory of God. As for Frieda, that was another matter.
She ironed until very late-many pillowcases embroidered with delicate blue roses, ruffled petticoats belonging to the little girls, a man's starched white shirts; and then went to bed.
The next time Frieda stopped by, wanting a crochet pattern, Tante Lieze told her, "Lentya is not a punishment, I don't believe it. It is God's will she was born this way. Something good will come from it. You can go tell Mrs. Jauntz that. Tell Mrs. Jake Braun too while you're at it."
But Frieda looked wise. "Nay, she said it was because of Dietrich, he was going out with that woman in Mankato."
Tante Lieze shut her mouth and turned away. It was useless to argue with Frieda, once an idea got in her head it was anchored in cement, there was no getting it out again.
The weather was unseasonably warm for several days. The roads dried, and people put their fur hats back on the shelf. Two women, the Heppner sisters, came to visit, bringing with them a small accordion and a jar of canned apples for Lentya. "Viel mal dank' schon...thank you very much," Tante Lisa said. She knew Lentya would spit the apples out all over her bib, but it was nice of them to bring something.
Lentya, knowing from the sounds that visitors were in the room, began to show off. She giggled, made loud noises, threw her arms about, and ducked her head in grotesque gestures. The women drew back. They looked at the girl, at the vacant eyes, drooping drooling mouth, dull yellow hair tangled on the misshaped head. "She won't let me comb her hair-the comb hurts her, she jerks away," Tante Lieze explained, ashamed.
The sisters shook their heads. "You have a heavy cross to bear, Mrs. Gunter."
"God made her this way," she replied after a moment. "Something good will come of it."
Marie Heppner asked doubtfully if she should play the accordion. Tante Lieze said it would be fine, Lentya liked any kind of music. At the first wheezing sound Lentya stiffened, then turned her head and sat erect, listening. Her body sank into utter stillness, the thin useless legs folded under her. Watching her, Tante Lieze remembered that once when she was scarcely two years old, Lentya had listened thus to a small music box Helena had given her for Christmas. Towards the end of the song Lentya started jerking her spoon in time to the music.
When Marie stopped playing, Lentya began rocking her body restlessly. "Goh-gud!" she shouted, banging her spoon on the floor. "Goh-gud! Goh-gud!" The sisters, not comprehending, looked at Tante Lieze.
"She wants you to sing 'Grosser Got, Wir Loben Dich,' Tante Lieze explained.
"Oh, no, we can't sing," they exclaimed. But out of pity for the child they sang in their thin elderly voices. Tante Lieze, thankful in the thought that God was not punishing her, joined in. Then the sisters left, promising to come again soon. They were greatly pleased that Lentya had liked the accordion.
(To be continued)