April 13, 2013 by Meg.Lacy
A Simple Legacy
The yellow wheat stocks followed the swirling patterns of the wind. They bent and swayed, creating a vibrant golden sea beneath a slate gray sky. The braided tips were wet beneath his fingertips as he split the field with his footsteps. He stood facing the boiling clouds, the wind swept across his face and he stopped to remember all of the battles he had fought with this familiar adversary. It was as much a partner in his plight to create something from nothing as the earth. Its moods declared the growth of his children, the prosperity of his home and the weight on his back. He had envied its freedom for a long time.
Like a faucet the rain came. It pummeled the ground, quickly seeping in to release the rich smells of growth and death. The thick denim shirt he wore grew heavy and clung to his arms as the rain seeped into the ground at his feet. He threw his hips forward, like the boxcars in a train, to get himself going as he made his way home, turning his back on the clouds and the wheat that depended on them. As the pace of the rain quickened, his steps stayed steady.
The path he walked was a familiar one, dirt and rock , dirt and rock. He was grateful that the pattern didn’t flow into the fields that surrounded it. There was plenty left in them to grow the crops that were needed. The knowledge that the earth would not wear out as he had soothed his mind, but each step brought the jarring pain in his knees, the dry scraping of his joints, the stiff pain in his back. Still, his walk was steady.
He felt the coolness that comes with the wet sink into his hands and halted suddenly in the middle of the path to stare at the course and beaten skin. Each nail was cracked and yellowed. His fingers were twisted and swerved into points that had been crushed into flat shovels or blunt stubs. They had been broken, torn and mangled. Whether from the dirt or the deadened nerves, gray traced them, as if they were constantly in shadow. He had not felt the weather in his hands for a long time, only the sharp pain that movement brought. He smiled to himself and considered it a good sign.
His home mirrored the life he had lived. Built by other men from its foundation to its shingles, the house was strictly for use. The solid covering of the porch cut off the rain and his feet fell silently across it as the thunder broke the sky. Normally the door would have been open and he paused staring at the marred white surface. It felt like a beginning, or an ending. He had lifted his calloused hands to this door with the weather beating on his back hundreds of times. Each time, he had looked at them and recognized each subtle change. Every day had brought another scar. But, this time, he didn’t look. The knob tingled in his hand as a streak lit up the sky behind him, leaving his silhouette against the white washed walls.
Low voices drifted through the house as he set his hat on its hook, his boots on their planks. He wondered what they would think when he told them the news. A vice slowly tightened on his chest. What would they think of him? Some men had money; he had callouses. What was he without them? He pushed the thought away when he saw the picture on the mantle. Her face was lit beneath an oversized cowboy hat, probably one of his, she sat bareback on a horse who had died long before she had. He smiled at her and felt his legs go steady again. His eldest son and daughter were sitting laughing with his daughter-in-law. He knew that the two small children that filled the house with playful noise had been put down hours before. The women raised themselves from their chairs but continued the lively banter as he walked into the room. He watched them from the doorway. Plates were pulled from nooks and food from ovens. Charlie, his son, sat with his head resting on the back of the chair, hat tipped forward. He still remembered those days, when he thought the extra five minutes could make up for the hours lost at night over missing colts or dying crops. He smiled and walked over to his boy to place his hand on his shoulder. Used to the gesture, the younger man didn’t wake until his slight wife gently tapped his boot off of her chair.
“Should we start or do we need to wait until your siesta is over?” Mary said to her husband in flirty chiding.
Charlie lifted the brim of his hat and winked at her before removing it. When the boy was younger he had been rebellious; he had often quarreled with his siblings and his mother. The hat had always been one of their issues. During dinner his mother had asked him to remove it but he had refused, saying he didn’t have to if he didn’t want to. Charlie had been indignant when he was ordered onto the porch. The old man’s face split in a smile as he remembered Charlie’s boyish face contorted in stubborn indecision. It had been hard not to smile then too, the boy had always been strong willed. They had leaned against the white railing together, father and son, for a long time while he considered how exactly to scold him. But, instead of scolding, he had told him that his mama deserved respect just as he did. They all carried their weight in this house and just because he worked outside against the heat didn’t mean he had to let it sweat the manners out of him. The boy hadn’t done it again and he smiled at that too.
A gentle tingling let him know that Patsy had trained her sky blue eyes on him. He turned to take in her face; so much like her mother’s. The girl had a sixth sense; he had always said so. And now she was exercising it on him and, he knew, she would continue to do it until he acknowledged its power. He turned to her then and smiled before dropping his eyes back down to their almost touching knees. The table had grown too small as the children had morphed into adults.
“Daddy?” she asked too softly. It was something she hadn’t called him in a long time and he bit back the emotion that it evoked.
He patted her knee and kept his head titled down. Charlie and Mary fell silent, taking their cue from Patsy. They didn’t prod him any further. They knew him too well for that. He simply sat taking slow breaths, gathering control over emotions that very seldom surfaced through the planting and the plowing and the mending. They probably thought it was about their mother again, or about the farm. And it was. But not the way they thought. It was about him. To his deep shame; it was about him.
“Its about time… “ he started gently… “that you three started making a few more decision round here.” He continued without looking up. “I know Charlie’s been fixin to modernize the place and Patsy has been itchin to expand the barn to make room for broad mares. And I’ve been stopping you.” He swallowed and pressed his lips together. “Not without reason. But none the less.”
The three of them started to protest in unison. He would have been disappointed if they hadn’t but he lifted his hand for silence. Thunder boomed around the house as if it were protesting along with his children. He paused and let is speak, waiting until it rolled over the fields into silence before he began again.
“I have given this land, our land, everything that God gave me to give it and then some.” His mouth was dry and the words that escaped from it sounded dry too. “I’m proud to say that.” He rubbed the course skin of his thumb against his forefinger while he swallowed and cleared his throat.
“But, God only gives so much.” He waited for more protests. They didn’t come. He looked up. The three of them sat leaning slightly back, their mouths loose. He decided this was a good sign too, and so he continued on.
“I can’t climb into the seat of a machine anymore, or lift the weight of bale without strainin’ my back. I can hardly grip a shovel nonetheless milk the girls in the mornin’. My eyes are going soft. My knees creak.”
He stopped to search their faces, wondering if they understood or if he would have to say it. Their hurt expressions told him he ought to or the hurt would be permanent.
“I’ve given all I can to this land and these animals. I have no more left and I don’t serve it well anymore. Its time for me to let it go… and for it to let me go.”
Charlie stood quickly and put his hat on before walking out of the room. He saw the boy who had turned into a man run his hand down his face as he walked out the front door into the rain. Mary leaned forward to flitter her delicate hand across his gnarled one before following her husband.
He and Patsy sat together and listened to the thunder roll over the house and through the fields. Her voice fell softly between the pops and cracks.
“What does this mean then?… Are you going to leave?….. Go to that old folks home in Wichita like Mrs. Johnson did?” He let her ask one question, and then the next. The thunder slipping its opinion between each one. He looked at the ceiling and wished he could have left his hat on at the table, it was easier to hide leaking eyes beneath its rim.
“If you don’t mind a freeloader, I’m happy to stay.” He said softly. She gave him a sideways glance with a smile that was only working to fight back the type of tears that follow change. He hadn’t worked the farm alone for a long time, but working the farm without him seemed definitive.
They sat silently together, her hand holding his old one as if he were the child and she were the parent. His coarse fingers scraped across the backs of hers. She had always been self conscious about her hands becoming rough with farm work but they seemed soft in comparison to his.
That night he slept like he hadn’t slept since he was a child. He woke early as he had always done. But, this time, he stayed where he was and watched the early morning light stream through the window. He already missed it. The smells and the quite were like old friends who beckoned him. Instead he turned over to look at the pillow he still kept for his wife. He lifted his hand and pressed it to the soft cotton, sometimes he still thought he could smell her soft scent on the cloth. He closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.
When he woke, he woke with urgency. He dressed with the eagerness of a young man on a first date; pulling his pants and boots on all at once before he strode out of the room. But, something stopped him. He turned to his dresser drawer and pulled out a weathered piece of paper. He stood and looked at it for a moment before slipping it into his back pocket.
The first apple tree they had planted had not survived. He had bought it for their first anniversary and they had planted it behind the barn together. It had died before their second anniversary and so he had bought her another. The tradition had nothing to do with the tree as much as it had to do with the planting and so they had spent one afternoon together a year in the same spot. He often went back to talk to her since she had gone. The final tree they had planted had lasted the usual few years but instead of dying like the rest, it had persevered. Despite the weather, it had survived longer than she had. It was that tree that he slowly lowered himself to sit beneath. A soft chuckle escaped his lips as he compared it to the first time he had lowered his body, and hers, to rest beneath the tree they had planted.
He sat in the comfort of its shade; the black clouds had disappeared in the night and left the day to swelter on with its usual vigor. It was the first day he hadn’t lifted a hand to yield something or another in two decades and he skimmed the horizon in search of Charlie. He was out there… as he would be for the remainder of his life.
He forced his eyes to drop to the paper he had pulled from his pocket. It was creased and soft but still showed her as he had last remembered her. He let their memories wash over him as he drifted off to sleep.
They weren’t surprised when they found him with her picture in his hand. It seemed fitting somehow; this tired man sleeping peacefully beneath a tree. Its simplicity made it okay, a kind way for them to say goodbye. The three of them hovered as the sun started to set, hands laced together unwilling to leave to call a doctor, or the pastor, because they knew that if they walked away, it meant he was really gone; he had finally separated himself from the earth the only way he had known how. They stood and considered what would happen to them when the earth had taken and they had given all that they had. A taciturn understanding fell between them that someday they would all be under that tree too, mourning someone they missed in a body that could no longer hold them. The sun dipped into the horizon, igniting the fields into brilliant yellow and orange, before slipping away.