by Phyllis Martens
In the afternoon Tante Lieze washed the Dunsmore clothes. With a long wooden spoon she lifted the heavy wet things in and out of the near-boiling soapy water and ran them through the wringer. The hot water scalded her hands and ran down her arms so that her sleeves, though folded back to the elbow, got soaked. She hung the clothes outside to dry in the wind. Afterwards she sat down at the table to sew up a rip in Lentya's nightgown; but her hands pained her and she put the nightgown aside.
Lentya was pulling herself around on the floor from table to cupboard, cupboard to sofa, tapping her spoon in queer little rhythms on the legs of the furniture. The cat lay on the back of the couch, watching through slitted eyes.
Someone knocked on the door. The footsteps had been so light that even Lentya had not heard them. It was little Katie, Tante Tina's grand-daughter. She would not come in but peered through the half-open door at Lentya. "My mamma said, can you come to see grandma as soon as you can," she said.
"Today?" Tante Lieze asked in surprise.
Katie didn't know. After a moment's thought Tante Lieze said, "Tell her I will come tomorrow about four o'clock, after I go to the store. Wait, Katie." She took the coin purse from her handbag, found a penny and held it out to the child. "Here, buy some candy at Uncle Klaas's drugstore. But don't take long, your mamma wants you home."
The child advanced timidly into the room. She was wearing a bright red coat and a striped knitted cap with a white tassel. Eyes shining, she took the penny and immediately ran out.
When Frieda arrived next day to look after Lentya, Tante Lieze had already put on her coat and the frayed shawl. A small jar tied into a cloth stood on the table. "Keep Lentya quiet," she told Frieda. She put the jar in her handbag and started for town.
The air was fresh with the scent of the evergreens along the street, pure and cold. The sky was overcast-it would snow again soon.
At the store Tante Lieze bought sugar, flour and coffee and asked the boy to deliver it to her house, to the back door. Then she set out for Tante Tina's. It was half a mile west beyond the creek. She didn't know if her knees would hold out. She wondered why Tante Tina wanted to see her. They were not good friends, though everybody knew the old lady: she had been the only midwife in town for years until Dr. Schulte finally came. Well, it was too bad, she wouldn't live long, they said.
When she reached the creek she stopped on the little bridge and leaned on the rail to rest. A few weeks ago the creek had been frozen over; a thick sheath of ice covered with twigs and dirt had stretched from bank to bank. But now a clear rill was flowing down the middle between the sheets of ice. She could see pebbles and dark masses of weeds. It made her think of Lentya and the something good that was going to happen, like the clear water flowing in the midst of the dirty ice.
She found Tante Tina's house, a very small one set well back in an untended yard. She climbed the wooden steps and knocked. Martha, the daughter, let her in.
The room was a kitchen and very hot. A fire was going in the old iron range at one end of the room, and baking pans were set out on the big table along with an enormous brown crockery bowl in which a lump of white dough was rising. Across one end of the table papers lay scattered-Katie's school papers, Tante Lieze saw, with drawings on them and large crooked words printed in crayon.
"Mamma wants to see you," Martha said, and showed Tante Lieze into the bedroom.
The sickroom smelled of old sheets and medicine. Tante Lieze sat down on a small wooden chair and looked toward the bed, where Tante Tina lay, so shrivelled she scarcely made a hump under the heavy quilt. Her gray hair straggled over the pillow. She glanced at Tante Lieze, then turned her head away as if she did not want to see her, after all.
"It's not going so good, Tante Tina?" inquired Tante Lieze.
"Not so good," Tante Tina whispered, and began to cough. Martha came in to give her spoonful of medicine from a bottle on the dresser and went back out without speaking.
At length Tante Tina turned toward her visitor and looked at her with dim, watery eyes. She began to speak in great haste. It was about Lentya, she said. Something had gone wrong when she was born. It had been her fault, she had not been experienced, and the labor had been so difficult, so very difficult. She stopped.
"Ja," Tante Lieze said. She remembered well enough.
Tante Tina went on, her weak voice urgent. It wasn't going right, she hadn't known what to do. There had been no doctor in town. Finally she had used an instrument to pull the baby out. There were hollow places, Lentya's head had a wrong shape? Yes. She should have waited and let the baby come of itself, that was always the best way. But Tante Lieze had been in such pain, the labor had already been so long, she was afraid Tante Lieze would die, or the baby, maybe both . . .it was her fault that Lentya was the way she was. Her voice died away.
Tante Lieze clutched her handbag with both hands, troubled. "It was a hard birth," she said.
"Yah, a hard birth, very hard." Tante Tina's dim eyes searched the other's face. At last she said, her hands moving restlessly on the quilt, "I was afraid to tell you . . . I thought maybe . . .it might be the child would grow out of it . . .I thought Dietrich would be angry . . .I should have told you."
"It wouldn't have changed her," Tante Lieze said.
"No, it wouldn't have changed her." The old woman shrank together; water welled in the corners of the faded eyes.
Tante Lieze heard a door close. A moment later, looking out the window, she saw Katie in her red coat run down the path toward town, the white tassel of her knitted cap bobbing above the bright brown hair. She watched until the child turned the corner.
Then she turned back to Tante Tina and said firmly, "I brought you raspberries from my garden. You can eat, ja?" She took the jar from her handbag and untied the cloth.
Tante Tina's face twisted as though she would cry. "I can eat a little... I didn't expect ...."
"Martha can give them to you for supper," Tante Lieze said. "Try to eat, you need the strength." She stood up and went to the bed. "You did the best you could, Tante Tina. You helped many people. It is for God to forgive our mistakes, yours and mine and... everyone's." She held the thin hand briefly, nodded goodbye and went out of the room.
In the kitchen, Martha was stuffing Katie's school papers into the stove. She looked very tired. "These are for your mother," Tante Lieze said, giving her the raspberries. Martha thanked her and went with her to the door.
"Thank you for coming. She wanted to see you-she was worried about something."
"Tell her it's all right, what she told me," Tante Lieze said. "Tell her not to worry any more." Martha nodded and closed the door quietly.
Tante Lieze walked slowly with bowed head. She paid no attention to the road. It had not been God after all, but Tante Tina-an accident, a thing that need not have happened. Lentya could have been like Katie. She could have been like her father, quick in speaking and thinking. God had not intended this misshapen child. It had been the steel instrument in the panicked hands of Tante Tina. At the bridge she rested and looked at the water. The clear running rill mocked her. It would snow, the creek would freeze over again and become ugly, covered with dirt and twigs, forever. Nothing good would come of Lentya's misfortune, she thought, it had not been God's will at all. After a time she walked on. She did not notice that the way home was long or that her knees ached.
She picked up the bag of groceries standing at the back door and started down the basement steps. Lentya in the other room began shouting "Taybah! Taybah!"
"Sshh, I'm coming," Tante Lieze said. She took off her coat and saw Frieda on the couch crocheting. Frieda immediately began to ask questions. How did Tante Tina look? Did she have blotchy brown spots on her face like Mrs. Sukau had before she died. Did the room smell bad? What had she wanted Tante Lieze to come over for? Lentya wouldn't eat, she said, because there wasn't any sugar for the zwiebak, she always had to have sugar on them . . .
. Tante Lieze shut her off angrily and sent her home. She saw that Lentya had pulled everything out of the cupboard again-the baking pans, blue enamel ladles, big mixing bowls, everything lay scattered on the floor. Lentya was rocking back and forth, crouched on the carpet.
Tante Lieze gave her a piece of bread to pacify her until supper could be prepared, but Lentya threw the dry bread away and started to rock and whimper.
Tante Lieze hurried to make coffee; then put zwieback in a bowl, poured hot coffee over them and sprinkled them with sugar. She tied on Lentya's bib and lifted her into a chair-the bib was made of flour sacking and covered the girl like a barber's cloth.
She fed Lentya spoonful by spoonful, giving her coffee to drink. Lentya slobbered happily and tried to grab at the bowl, but Tante Lieze slapped her hands. By the time supper was finished the bib was soaked. Tante Lieze shook the wet crumbs out of it and hung it up to dry. Lentya, satisfied, settled down on the couch with her spoon and crooned softly to herself.
Tante Lieze knelt beside her then and felt her head-the familiar lumps and hollows, the flat slant where the head should have been round. She felt carefully through the tangled hair until Lentya jerked away. Then she put Lentya to bed, straightened up the room, brought in the Dunsmore clothes from the line, sprinkled the shirts and blouses, and began ironing.
As she ironed she saw, not the huddled figure asleep on the couch, breathing with a hoarse snoring sound, but a shiny-eyed child in a red coat and gay tasselled cap running through the trees. Oh, she would have ironed day and night to buy Lentya a coat, a new one trimmed with fur, a blue coat with a hood . . . they would have run together to Uncle Klaas's store . . . the child would have been like Dietrich, bright and quick, able to make beautiful things with her hands, she would have learned singing, arithmetic . . . .
Her heart smote her that Martha had burned little Katie's school papers. It was true that she had thrown away Frieda's papers, she had not thought much about them. But if she had even one from Lentya, with her name written in straggling childish letters . . . Martha should not have burned them, she was burning treasures.
Tears were running down her face. She had to wipe them away so that they would not drip on the ironing. Her hands pained, but she ironed steadily, the blue and white striped shirts, a child's dainty nightgown, a tablecloth with tatted insets. She noticed that one shirt had a dirty streak at the collarband-she would have to wash it again.
As she ironed she wept as she had in the early days when she first knew the child would never be right, and when Dietrich left her. Dietrich, who could never bear to be near anything ugly, a maker of fine furniture. When Lentya was a baby he had looked at her vacant eyes, her crooked head and slobbering mouth, and said, "that is no work of God," and refused to touch her. He had gone to Mankato to find work, leaving her to struggle at home half out of her mind with worry. She had begun to hear rumors that he had taken up with a woman in Mankato; then he had disappeared, they said to the Cities. Well, Dietrich had been right, Lentya was no work of God.
She tried to recall what had happed at the labor, but she had been too dazed with pain to know what was happening. Later on everyone had remarked on the misshaped head but had consoled her that the baby would surely grow out of it, lots of babies looked that way at birth.
She finished the ironing and put away iron and board. Finding the leftover coffee still warm at the back of the stove, she poured it into a cup, then got out her German Bible to read before going to bed, as was her custom. But instead of opening it she put her folded hands on it and forgot completely what she had intended to do. She leaned her head on her folded hands and sat a long while without moving. The coffee grew cold in the cup, the yellow lightbulb burned steadily, casting shadows into the corners. Lentya breathed hoarsely on the couch. And still Tante Lieze sat at the table.
At last she raised her head and said aloud, "Eck kaun dey nicht f'yeva..I can't forgive them." She spoke softly so as not to wake Lentya, but her words traveled back through twenty years of trouble and forward through the gray days, who knew how many more? God of course forgave their mistakes, she knew, but it seemed to her too great a debt these two owed her, Dietrich and Tante Tina. She had forgiven Tante Tina in the afternoon, seeing her distress, but now that she had thought about it, understood the enormous loss she and her child must bear all their lives, the bitterness had become too great to carry. Yet forgive them she must.
In the end, whose fault was it? Was it Dietrich's fault that he could not find work in this town, that he lived in a small house with two troublesome children, one slow and foolish, the other deformed, with a wife whose hands were red and rough from scrubbing other people's houses? He had come from a rich place in the Old Country, the handsome son of a furniture-maker, an artist. Could she blame him for leaving what he could not bear? And TanteTina, she had done the best she could, she had borne her own bitter thoughts all these years, poor thing. Where was the fault, then? Whom must she, in the end, forgive for this burden that had fallen on her like a mountain never to be moved? It seemed to her that God could have helped them all a little.
And if God had not willed Lentya to be misshaped, had created her perfect, but through a mistake she had been ruined, did God now have power to bring something good out of that mistake not willed by him? She did not know. As for Frieda, who knew what had gone wrong to make her the way she was? Perhaps God had not intended her to be that way, either.
At last she arose and with heavy steps prepared for bed. As she pulled aside the curtain to find her nightgown, she remembered suddenly that the last time Dietrich left home, one of his shirts had been dirty-she had found it rumpled on the floor of the bathroom and in anger had thrown it in his suitcase that way.
She pout out the light and sat down on the edge of the bed and wept again in the dark-this time not because of Lentya or Tante Tina, but because Dietrich had liked things nice and she had let him go like that in anger, with a dirty unwashed shirt.
When Tante Tina died a few weeks later, Tante Lieze went to the funeral, taking with her a sack of buns for the lunch.
In the months that followed, when visitors came to encourage her and inquire after Lentya, she no longer said to them, "It is God's will, some good will come of it." When they tried to console her with such words, she turned away and was silent or began speaking of something else.
She found herself speaking less sharply to Frieda, and accepted from her one day a gift of a tea towel Frieda had decorated with a pink crocheted edging clumsily sewed on. Frieda was inordinately proud of her handiwork and made sure, on subsequent visits, that the tea towel was hanging where it could be seen.
While she was ironing one evening, Tante Lieze pondered the fate of Frieda's unruly children, thinking that they too lived in an imperfect situation not of their own making and that possibly their little heads, like hers, were full of unsolved problems. She began inviting the children to the basement for supper. She washed their clothes from time to time, and showed them how to turn the wringer-they thought it great fun. When spring softened the ground, she gave Rudy a little garden plot and showed him how to plant radishes and carrots. To her surprise, he showed interest and came by often to make sure no weeds were growing in his plot. One of Frieda's girls found a soft brush and brushed Lentya's hair . . . Lentya did not object to the soft touch; and the girl woudl tie up the dul hair with a ribbon and cry out that Lentya was pretty. Tante Lieze would look up from her ironing . . .yes, she was pretty, ganz schon . . . and smile a little.
Of what Tante Tina had told her she said not a word, either to Frieda, or her sister Helena, or anyone else in the village.