The Wind in the Willows

Submitted into Contest #248 in response to: Write a story titled 'The Wind in the Willows'.... view prompt

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Fiction Drama

Jeremiah Willow’s head hit something sharp and hard. “Oww!” He shouted, as his fingertips found a half-inch long wound and matted sticky hair. Combined with the vinegary stench of the coop, he thought for a moment he might be sick. But there wasn’t as much blood as he feared, which calmed his heartbeat and brought him back to his senses.  


His son, Isaiah, had replaced the chicken coop roofing last month, but the sixteen-year-old had his mind on baseball and PlayStation, not safety. The boy had not bent the nails. His daughter, Mary, spent the most time in the coop, gathering eggs and tending the roosts. And, although Mary was nearly six-foot tall herself, the roof was about six-foot-three, so the nails hadn’t been an issue until this moment. 


Mary followed her dad out. “I told him to bend those, Dad,” she said, “We need to clean that cut. The coop is nasty.”


Walking to the kitchen door, he could hear Isaiah hitting balls in the batting cage they’d built together beside the barn, the whine and whir of the pitching machine and the resonant metallic kink of his powerful swing, as consistent as a clock. A few major league scouts were already talking to Jeremiah about the boy. If things went Isaiah's way, he just might get drafted in two years.


They entered the house through the screen door and six-year-old Sarah was kneeling on top of a wobbly four-legged stool, tongue out, rolling biscuit dough at the kitchen island. Flour dust danced in the beam of morning sun coming through the window over the sink. Sarah had dough on her nose and cheeks. Sbe saw the red stains on her father’s finger tips and the drips of blood down his forehead, and she gasped, “Eew! What happened?”


“Hit a nail, that’s all,” he said.


“Isaiah was s’posed to bend those, right Mary?”


“Yep!”, Mary said.


Jeremiah pointed at the biscuit dough and said, “Sarah, mind your business. You do your job. I’ll do mine.”


“You don’t have a job,” Sarah said, confused. “You’re a farmer.” 


Mary snorted and said, “Make the biscuits, girlie.” She grabbed the first aid kit from beneath the kitchen sink.


“Why did you come into the coop, anyway,” Mary asked her father. 


“That,” he said, and pointed a red finger at an envelope neatly arranged with a letter opener in front of Mary’s chair at the worn, wooden kitchen table.


Mary stopped and stared. Jeremiah took the medical kit from her. “Go on,” he said.


As Mary approached the letter. Jeremiah felt his stomach tighten. He’d dreaded this day just as much as Mary had been anticipating it. He could see the widened eyes, the flush in her cheeks, the racing of her heart beat making the top of her apron flutter. His own heart was jumping as well. What was he going to do? He had no idea.


And Mary. A woman now, really. Her blond hair in a tight bun, and her long blue dress protected by the full apron, which she was using to wipe her neat and tidy hands. He marveled at how the girl could work the chickens and pigs and still keep her nails clean. She was so much like Elizabeth.


Mary studied her father’s eyes and in that moment Jeremiah knew she had guessed his thoughts. But she smiled and picked up the white envelope embossed in blue ink. She ran her long, thin fingers over the Columbia University logo. Jeremiah would bet good money Mary had worn that blue dress today on purpose. 


The screen door squealed, then banged as Isaiah clacked across the wood floor in his dirty cleats, sweaty and smiling, “Dad, I—”


He saw his Dad holding the gauze on top of his hair, the drips of blood unwashed from his forehead, the red stains on his Dad’s fingers.


“Your roofing nails,” Jeremiah said, using upturned eyes to indicate the obvious wound on his head.


“I told you to bend those,” Mary said. “We’ll be lucky if it doesn’t get infected.”


“Shit,” Isaiah said. “I’m sorry—”


“Watch your mouth, son.”


“Yeah,” Sarah said, wagging a doughy finger, “watch your mouth!” She was giggling. 


Then Isaiah saw the envelope in Mary’s hand. His already long face fell even more. He watched and waited. 


Mary picked up the letter opener and, in a practiced motion, slit the top of the envelope. She pulled the papers out, unfolded them, and stared.


Jeremiah read over her shoulder. He kissed Mary on the top of her head. “Congratulations, baby.” 


Sarah lurched from the stool, causing it to crash to the floor, and ran to hug her sister around the waist, squealing and hopping in bare feet, nearly knocking Mary over. Mary side-hugged Sarah and smiled.


Isaiah lowered his eyes and studied his muddy cleats. Jeremiah knew the boy was doing the same math he had just done. 


“Congratulations, Mary,” Isaiah said after a few silent moments. “You deserve it.” 


“Thank you,” was all she said, and she refolded the papers and placed them back in the envelope. 


She turned to Jeremiah, eyes glistening, voice unsteady, “let me see your head.”


Jeremiah allowed her to guide him into a chair, but grabbed her hands once he was sitting. 


“Mary, I —”


“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, tearing up, but pushing his head down. “Let me see,” she choked out, drying her eyes on her sleeve.


Jeremiah gave Sarah a shooing motion with his hands. She quietly went back to the biscuit making. 


As Mary poked at his head, Jeremiah heard Isaiah by the door, knocking his shoes together to break the mud free. Then he heard the broom. 


“We should celebrate this,” Jeremiah said. “Your mom would—”


“You don’t need stitches,” Mary said, holding fresh gauze tight on her father’s head. “But you need to keep pressure on it until it stops bleeding. And you need to wear a hat.” Her voice was thick but controlled. 


Jeremiah’s stomach was in knots. He felt light-headed and confused. Did he have a concussion? He thought not. This was how things went for him when he was out of his depth with the kids.


He grabbed his daughter’s warm hands again, and looked up into her blue eyes.


Mary kissed him on the forehead, and said, “Don’t worry, Dad. This will work out the way it’s meant to be.”


She freed herself and went to help Sarah finish the biscuits.


********


The church lawn after Sunday service was crowded with colorful dresses and handshakes, and talk of sewing and sowing, and expectations of weddings and funerals and baseball scores. The voices were carried in bursts, sometimes clear and high, sometimes low and mumbled, the wind scattering anything not tied down.


Sarah led Jeremiah down the church’s staircase, tugging on his hand and heading towards the family pickup truck. She’d been still for over an hour, he realized. 


The Willows made their way through the rows of cars and trucks to the family’s faded green Chevy Silverado. Jeremiah tossed the keys to Mary. Isaiah groaned.


At that moment, the cool wind lifted Jeremiah's wide-brimmed hat from his still-aching head and sent it tumbling across the parking lot to the amusement of everyone. Sarah gave chase so quickly that Mr. Willow almost missed the grab at the back of her light jacket that kept her from bumbling into the after-church traffic. 


"Daaaaad!" she complained as Jeremiah lowered her, wriggling, to the ground. He kissed the top of her golden braids. Mary did a fine job on her hair this morning, he thought.


"Easy there, tiger," Jeremiah teased. 


"Dad, look," said Isaiah, his hands jammed deep into the pockets of his khaki pants, elbows tucked tight to his sides. Mary looked in the direction the hat had blown, then smirked in recognition.


Cantering across the lot, holding the brim of Mr. Willow’s hat in her left hand and keeping her own from blowing away with her right, was Mary's high school English teacher, Holly Bennett.


"Mr. Willow!" Ms. Bennett shouted, as if the entire family wasn't at that moment watching her approach. "I've rescued your hat," and she waved it over her head, nearly losing her grip on it in the process.


Jeremiah’s wife, Elizabeth, used to say, Holly Bennett was 'a lot'. Tall for a lady, Ms. Bennett had shiny, braided red hair corralled into a straw gardening hat neatly ringed with wildflowers in a purple band. 


What had most amused Elizabeth was Ms. Bennett's manner. The woman had boundless enthusiasm and endless words with which to express it. Her conversations were boulders rolling down hillsides - 'avoid her or join her!’ That's what Elizabeth used to say. 


Jeremiah watched and listened as the lanky woman approached, already holding forth.


"Why, Mary, you look so lovely in that dress," she exclaimed as she slowed to a stroll. “You’re a beauty.”


"Thank you, ma'am," Mary said. “I just love your hat.” 


“Thank you,” Ms. Bennett said, and looked at Jeremiah, “she is such an amazing young lady, Mr. Willow. You must be so proud.”


Jeremiah smiled, looked at his daughter, and said, “She is something else.”


"And Isaiah, you are the very image of your handsome father," Ms. Bennett continued, admiring them both. "I think you might even be taller than Mr. Willow."


"Yes, ma'am," Isaiah said, standing as straight as possible. "I passed him up just this year!"


Jeremiah gave the boy a smile.


“Um, thank you, ma'am," Isaiah said.


Jeremiah nodded, "And this one here nearly got herself runned over before you grabbed my hat," he said, patting Sarah on the shoulders. She was standing on top of his shoes, scuffing the shine.


"Sarah, right?," Ms. Bennett said. "My, my, you do look so much like your mother."


Jeremiah swallowed hard. He saw the glitch in Ms. Bennett's expression, and, forcing a smile, rushed to say, "Yes ma'am, she sure does."


Unperturbed, Sarah looked at the tall woman, "You're Ms. Bennett the english teacher! Mary says you’re hard.”


"Well, I think what Mary means," Ms. Bennett offered, winking at Mary, whose mouth was open and eyes wide, "is that I work very hard to find ways for Mary to improve her already fabulous writing."


Mary closed her mouth, but continued to glare at Sarah, who was oblivious.


“Where do you think you’ll decide to go to school, Mary,” Ms. Bennett asked. The word about Columbia was out, and many folks in town now knew Mary’s options.


“I’m still deciding,” Mary said, smiling, glancing at Jeremiah. 


“Well,” Ms. Bennett said, “Columbia has a world-class writer’s program. And didn’t your mother graduate from there?”


“Yes,” Mary said. “Dad did two years there, too, before coming home to the farm.” 


“So you’re a legacy!” Ms. Bennett’s enthusiasm cooled when she saw the forced smile on Jeremiah’s lips. “Of course, Iowa has an amazing program as well. And it’s so close to home. Tough decision. It’s a good problem to have.”


“I’m very thankful,” Mary said.


Ms. Bennett just smiled, then let out a short puff of laughter, and said to Jeremiah, “Oh, and here’s your hat! I nearly forgot!”


Jeremiah accepted the hat, "Thank you, ma’am.”


"Please call me Holly," she said, her green eyes locked on his, her head tilted up against the wind, her hand still holding her own hat down.


“Yes ma’am…Holly. Then I'm Jeremiah."


There was the briefest pause.


"Well," Jeremiah put in, "thank you for the hat. I think Sarah’s patience has worn out."


“You’re most welcome, Jeremiah,” she smiled and held his gaze for a moment longer. 


Jeremiah felt an unease that he had not felt around a woman in some time. He stumbled for what to say next. 


“Daddy,” Sarah interrupted, dancing . “I need to pee.”


Everyone laughed.


Holly offered her hand and Jeremiah shook it. Her nails were neat and painted pink, and her skin was soft and warm, the hands of someone who did not work on a farm. And he noticed for the first time the sweet smell of her perfume. 


*********


Later that Sunday evening, when Sarah was in bed, Jeremiah brought Mary and Isaiah into the kitchen.


He had no idea how to start, so he just did. “Mary, I think you should go to Iowa.”


Mary examined her hands, chewed her lip, and waited. Isaiah looked back and forth at his father and sister like he was watching tennis.


“First, Iowa is a top journalism school. Second, they gave you a full ride. Third, it’s a forty minute commute—”


“Commute?! Are you fucking kidding me!”


“Language, Mary,” Jeremiah said.


“Goddam it, Dad,” she was yelling now, “can we just get serious, here.”


Now it was Jeremiah’s turn to wait it out. 


“It’s Columbia, Dad. New York City. The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal. Internships with the biggest names in the business. You went there, Dad. You met Mom there. You know. Iowa cannot compete with all of that. They can’t compete with any of that. It’s not the same thing, not even close.” 


She was crying, which Jeremiah knew almost never happened. He waited for her to finish.


“Have I not done enough, Dad?” She was sobbing hard, now. “Have I not fucking done enough!”


Isiah was studying his hands, his left knee bobbing up and down.


“You have been amazing,” Jeremiah replied, voice low, almost talking to himself.


“And why is Isaiah here?” She said, wiping her nose with a tissue.


“I’m part of—” he stopped, seeing Jeremiah’s upraised hand.


“I want Isaiah to listen and learn because we will go through this again in two years. He knows to keep his mouth shut,” Jeremiah said, eyeing his son, who nodded.


“It’s not the same,” Mary said, looking out the kitchen window into the darkness.


“What does that mean,” Isaiah said, his mouth now open.


“Isaiah, I told you—”


“It means,” Mary said, voice flat and cold, “I have busted my ass in school and at home, taking care of Sarah, taking care of Dad, taking care of the house,” she was now pointing at Isaiah, “and you have been screwing freshmen girls and playing goddam baseball!” Mary stormed out the screen door, which slammed.


After a moment, Isaiah stood. “Dad, I —”


“Not now, son.” Jeremiah rose and walked out back to find Mary.


*******


He found her sitting on the tailgate of the Silverado, kicking her legs slowly, staring up at Orion. 


“I’m going to Columbia, Dad.”


Jeremiah folded his arms and stared at Orion, the hunter. At his head was Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in the night sky. 


“Did your Mom ever tell you what I was studying at Columbia?”


“Physics?”


“Astrophysics. I wanted to become an astrophysicist and study exoplanets.” He wiped a tear, hoping Mary didn’t notice.


“Look, Dad—”


“I’m telling you this,” he said, smiling, “because I’m just remembering it. You’ve made me remember.”


Jeremiah walked closer to his daughter, placing his hands on top of his head and breathing deep, tracing the path from Orion to the Pleiades.


“You’re going to Columbia,” he confirmed at last, to himself, to Mary, to heaven and Elizabeth. It was a whisper and a prayer.


He could hear her toughness break down into short, joyful sobs. He grabbed her hand.


“Yeah," she said, her voice uneven. She was sniffling. "I’m going to Columbia."


They stood like that for a few minutes, Jeremiah enjoying the connection and allowing Mary a moment to feel her accomplishment.


“I'm proud of you," he said 


"I know. Thank you, Dad."


They were quiet for awhile, and Jeremiah wished he had his binoculars. He'd like to see the Orion nebula tonight. Were stars were being born.


Mary broke his reverie, "Dad?".


"Yeah."


"We talked about it, Isaiah and Sarah and I."


"Talked about what?"


"Ms, Bennett."


Jeremiah chuffed a laugh, "What about her?" But he knew.


Mary said nothing. She was so smart. Just like her mom.


"I'm not ready," Jeremiah said.


"I know," Mary said. "Maybe just coffee or something someday."


"Maybe."


She let it sit for a few moments, then, "We like her."


"OK!" he said in mock irritation.


With perfect timing, Mary sealed it. "You're welcome"

May 03, 2024 07:36

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