33 comments

American Historical Fiction Coming of Age

I open my eyes to sunlight trickling through the curtains and my little sisters standing in my bedroom doorway. “Mama says you got to wake up. The fire’s going out.”

I groan and stumble into a pair of long johns, then head into the living room. Ma is crouched by the woodstove, poking at the dying fire and muttering something under her breath about me getting enough beauty sleep. Both girls are running in circles chanting a nursery rhyme until Kate stops and presses her doll’s face to Ma’s ear, making it pretend to talk in a singsong voice. “Mama, we want pancakes!”

Ma closes her eyes and lets out a whoosh of air. “Here, Peter.” She hands me the poker and stands up. “See if you can get it going again. I need to start breakfast.”

Something in her tone says I’d best not argue, so I feed the stove a new log and some crumpled sheets of newspaper—it’s all bad news anyway—and then I just sit there a minute, waiting for the fire to take. A flame catches the edge of a grainy photo of soldiers gathered beneath a giant swastika, and I stare until the whole page melts and turns to ash.

Then Ma screams.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” I slam the stove door and rush into the kitchen just as Ma hurls something into the sink. Her face is twisted and red and coated in a layer of white powder.

“Ruined!” She yells.

“What? What’s ruined?”

She reaches back in the sink and lifts a bag of flour in the air, and now I can see a hole in the corner where the flour is slowly sifting out and falling onto the floor.

“A whole bag wasted!” She ducks her head in the pantry and starts rifling through the shelves, pulling out boxes and bags of food and piling them on the countertops. “It’s everywhere! The mouse has been everywhere.”

The girls look at me wide-eyed, like they're afraid to move. Then Kate lifts her doll in front of her face and says in a quiet voice, “Pancakes.”

Ma freezes and runs a hand through her frizzy hair, and for a moment, none of us talk. “I’m trying, Kate. Just give me a minute.” Then, without another word, Ma turns and walks out the front door. From the window, we watch her grab the milk pails and storm off into the barn.

“I don’t think we’re having pancakes today,” I say.


***


I was ten years old when the twins were born. Shortly after that, Pa started waking me at the crack of dawn and making me follow him to the barn for morning feeding and milking—said it was time for me to get used to hard work. I hated it—the cold, the wet grass on my boots, the smell of animal dung and moldy hay. And I hated that Pa was always so cheery, just working effortlessly from one stall to the other, greeting the animals like old friends while I stood there shivering, swearing that when I was grown, I’d move to the city and never touch a pitchfork again.

But then the war that we thought was staying on the other side of the world made its way to us, and Pa got on that train and told me to keep the place up as best I could, that he’d be back once things were put to right again. That was about a year ago now, so I guess that means the world’s still broken, and most of his chores still fall to me. I still hate them, but I guess I wouldn’t mind them so much now if Pa was here, making his silly conversation with the dairy cows and making us all laugh with his stories—making Ma laugh again.

Because I’m getting a little worried about Ma.

Lately, she just seems so fragile, and I have never thought of my mother as a fragile woman. Sometimes, she kind of terrifies me. I’ve seen her kill a snake with her bare hands, put out a barn fire in her nightgown, and fend off a rabid dog in between Sunday services—knocking him straight in the head with a hymnal. But something about the war has worn her down, as it has most everyone. All the talk of fighting and killing, the shortages, and especially all the not-knowing—about when it’s going to end, when Pa’s coming home, or even if Pa’s coming home. I know it’s all she thinks about—when she’s standing there at the sink beating the same egg for nearly five minutes. I just know she’s looking at the road imagining Pa walking down it.

I know it cause I do it too.

Whenever we get a letter from him, Ma gathers us all together and reads them out loud, over and over. He tells us to stay strong, that he believes the war is going to end soon and then we’ll all be together again. That always makes Ma cry. I know she tries to keep it all inside and put on a smile for me and the girls, but it's like she’s been shrinking down a little bit each day under the weight of it all, and I think I understand now what folks mean when they talk about the little bit of straw breaking a camel’s back. That maybe, under that last little piece of straw was a whole farm and three kids and a house full of mice.


***


In all my thirteen years, I have never heard my sweet, proper, church-going mother utter a dirty word. But one day while mucking stalls out in the barn, I hear her in the house spewing such foul curses that I think for sure she must be facing off with the devil himself. So, dragging a dung-covered pitchfork behind me, I race across the yard and past the girls playing in the sandbox. I burst into the house, ready to spear whatever demon or robber or unsavory wanderer is here tormenting my mother, but she’s alone, perched on the kitchen table with a hammer in her hand.

“Ma! Ma! What is it?”

She shakes the hammer at the floor, where the metal lard can lies on its side. None of it makes any sense to me, but I rush over, pick up the can, and see a mouse half drowning in 16 pounds of slick, white pork fat. He’s just a little guy, not much bigger than my thumb, but Ma won’t get down from the table. Her face is all pale and blotchy, her fist tight over the hammer, and for a second, I worry that she might still try and crack a swing at the mouse whether I am in the way or not.

“It’s okay, Ma. I’ll take care of it.”

She shoves the hammer in my hand and covers her mouth, gagging as I walk past. Once outside, she watches me at the kitchen window, her eyes wide and her hair poking out every which way. I wave the hammer at her and then turn behind the barn where can’t see me anymore.

I fish the mouse out by his grease-slicked tail and let him hang upside down, wiggling and squirming. Then he twists around and looks at me, and his eyes are like tiny drops of molasses, dark and shiny, pleading for me to let him go. Suddenly the mouse in my right hand feels as heavy as the hammer in my left.

So, I drop both.

By the time I get back to the house, Ma’s shut herself up in her room and won’t come out. When night falls, I make the girls and I toast for dinner and tell them a story about a goat who finds a tuxedo and goes to the opera. It’s not as good as Pa’s stories, but they listen quietly, for the most part.

“Peter, why was Mama so mad at the lard?” Sarah asks once I’ve finished the story.

“Because there was a mouse in it.”

“But I like mouses,” Kate says. “Can we keep one for a pet?”

“No. These mice don’t make good pets. They like to eat all our food and don’t wash their hands first.”

The girls are quiet for a moment, then Sarah says, “Well, sometimes I don’t wash my hands neither.”


***


When I wake up the next morning, there’s a miniature bed, dresser, and table and chairs from the girls’ dollhouse arranged on the pantry shelf next to a jar of pickles. The bed’s even been made up with an old rag and a wad of cotton for the pillow. I start to clear it all away, and then Ma steps through the front door and drops a stack of mail on the table.

“I already saw it,” she says.

I finish cleaning up the toys anyway and shut the pantry door.

“Anything from Pa?” I ask, pointing to the mail. From the look on her face, I already know the answer.

“Nope. Nothing.”

Ma moves to the stove and grabs the pitcher of coffee—at least that’s what we still call it, even though the real stuff ran out months ago. She pours two steaming mugs and sets them on the table next to a pitcher of cream, or “Dorothy’s war contribution” as I like to call it. Milk can be hard to come by, and we’re lucky to have plenty. And a little cream sure goes a long way in a hot cup of mystery root-vegetable coffee.

She squeezes my shoulder and smiles, but her mouth is pinched, and her eyes already seem focused on something within her, some dark place I can’t see.

“Thanks for the coffee.” I take a sip and gulp it down, trying not to think too much about the flavor. I can’t stand the stuff—think it tastes like burned potato skins—but when Pa first left, Ma kept making two cups out of habit and it didn’t feel right to let her sit there alone. I didn’t mind the real coffee too much, but this stuff upsets my stomach. And now, well, now I’m in too deep.

“If you’ll stay with the girls for a bit, I’m going into town to see what I can get. Before everything runs out.” She scowls at the stack of ration coupons on the table like it’s a bad hand of playing cards.

“Why don’t you let me go? I don’t mind the lines.”

“No, Peter, you have school.”

“It’s one day. I won’t miss much.”

She’s staring at me, mouth open as if she’s ready to say it again, when we hear a scratching sound coming from behind the stove, like something scraping against wood. The sound grows louder and seems to fill the whole kitchen, and we both know exactly what’s making it. Ma’s jaw tightens and she lets her head fall into her hands. Her voice is muffled behind her fingers, but I hear her words clearly, “I can’t do this anymore.”

I swipe the rations from the table, grab Pa’s coat off the hook, and I walk to town.


***


My eyes open to a room as dark as the back of my eyelids. The house is cold and silent, but even under the layers of quilts, I can feel the edge of morning tugging at me. I pull on trousers and a flannel shirt just as the grandfather clock down the hall chimes four times. I tip-toe past Ma and the girls’ rooms, trying to step where the floors don’t whine and creak so much. Ma needs her sleep.

The fire in the woodstove is dying, so I feed it a new log and get it blazing again. I sit there for a minute, soaking up the warmth and watching the fire grow.

And then I shut the door and get to work.

First, I check the traps in the pantry, as that’s where the mice most like to come in and set up camp it seems. I’ve tucked two up on the top shelf where Ma’s too short to see them, and two more behind the canning supplies, since she won’t use those much until summer. But they’re all empty today, still set and baited with raisins and cornbread and a bit of peach jam.

Then I check the traps I’ve hidden behind the stove and in the cupboards, and then the ones down in the cellar. I can feel the rush of cold air from the top of the stairs and smell the musty, hardpacked dirt floor as I take the steps down deeper into the dank space. There’s a shrill squealing sound echoing up the stairwell, followed the sound of wood and metal scraping against ground. The single dim bulb reveals one my traps being dragged across the floor, a mouse half caught in it by one foot.

I carry the trap outside and cross the well-worn path from the house to the barn, where Pa’s tools hang neatly from nails along the wall, the hammer stored between the saw and the shearers. I remove it quickly and walk to the edge of the field. The world is dark and quiet but for the mouse’s piercing shrills. Then, with the drop of the hammer, all is silent. 

I reset the trap down in the cellar and return to the barn. Dorothy lifts her head and moos gently, greeting me as I fetch the milk stool and pail. Her musky warmth fills the small space, and soon streams of milk ping against the bottom of the bucket. By the time I finish with the other animals, the black and blue sky looks like it’s melting above an orange flame. Scraggly trees take shape on the horizon, mist hovers between the ground and sky, and the barren fields look dressed for a Christmas party, all covered in a sparkling, white frost.

I’m tired, I’m always just a little bit hungry, and my feet are stiff and cold in my too-small boots, but on mornings like these, standing at the edge of night and day, I feel like I’m being let in on a secret, something just between me and the dawn—another side of the ordinary that fades with the daylight. And it makes me believe that things are going to get better. 

I make it back inside and start the coffee just as Ma comes down the hall.

“Morning, Peter.” She yawns and points to the pail of milk on the counter. “You should have woken me up. I could have helped you with that.”

“It’s alright. Dorothy and I are good friends now, and she’d be pretty disappointed if I didn’t show up.”

“Is that so?” Ma raises an eyebrow.

“That’s right. We have the best conversations together.” I pull two mugs off the shelf and set them next to the pot.

“And what do you and Dorothy talk about?” Ma asks.

“Oh, she just likes to gossip, you know. Just goes on and on about how the rooster is a real meathead and how the goats have no manners.”

“Oh yeah? And what does she say about us?”

“She says my hands are always too cold.” Ma laughs at this. I fill both mugs and set them on the table. “And she also says she’s happy to see you smiling more.”

Ma wraps her hands around the hot mug and tilts her head. “I don’t know what it is. Guess I’m happy we’ve finally heard some news from Pa, and that he’s doing okay. And maybe it’s the weather, but I haven’t seen a mouse around here in a good while.” She takes a sip of her coffee and gasps, eyes wide as quarters. “Peter, is this real coffee? Where’d you get this?”

“Traded it for a mean rooster.”

Sunlight trickles through the window, pink and gold like a ripe peach. It rests on Ma’s hair, making her whole face glow. She takes another sip. “I think it’s the best cup I’ve ever had.”

November 18, 2023 04:33

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

33 comments

Michał Przywara
21:40 Nov 23, 2023

It's a lovely story, even if the backdrop is horrible. War is a heck of a time to be forced to grow up during. “Peter, why was Mama so mad at the lard?” Kids are *always* paying attention, aren't they? :) “standing at the edge of night and day, I feel like I’m being let in on a secret” I like this section. I think more than anything, the stress comes from “especially all the not-knowing”. If you have an answer, for better or worse, you can figure out a way to move on. But without one, you're stuck in a holding pattern, with your imagin...

Reply

Aeris Walker
04:08 Dec 08, 2023

Thanks for reading, Michal! Always appreciated :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mindo Sihite
05:51 Nov 24, 2023

Lovely story and it's beautifully written

Reply

Aeris Walker
04:09 Dec 08, 2023

Thanks, Mindo! :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Stella Aurelius
15:03 Jan 18, 2024

Your way with imagery is just incredible. I really felt for the whole family here. Amazing job !

Reply

Show 0 replies
Lucas Mark
11:00 Nov 29, 2023

BEST BITCOIN RECOVERY EXPERT / WIZARD LARRY Getting Missing Money Back From Internet scammers /Bitcoin Mining / Bitcoin Recovery / Boost Your Credit Score and Get Approved for Remote Mobile Spy Control Authorization. Bad record extraction from both private and public database systems. Reach out to WIZARD LARRY by Email : Wizardlarry@mail.com Email: Support(@)wizardlarryrecovery.com Visit website: https://larrywizard43.wixsite.com/wizardlarry Mark Lucas recommended you.

Reply

Show 0 replies
John Rutherford
08:43 Nov 23, 2023

Wonderful story.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Sophie M.
15:17 Nov 22, 2023

It was so fun to read another WWII story! I wrote one too! I think this was an excellent story and I liked how Peter was different than most boys. Most boys during that time did their chores because that's what they grew up doing and they never mentioned not liking it. Because we know Peter hates working on the farm, it makes it even sweeter when he does so for the wellness of his mom. Overall it was good and I liked reading it. I'm glad it had a happy ending too!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Graham Kinross
12:10 Nov 21, 2023

This is beautifully written. The words paint the whole picture. Perseverance is important for all of us.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Marty B
02:53 Nov 21, 2023

I loved this line- "That maybe, under that last little piece of straw was a whole farm and three kids and a house full of mice." This story is about perseverance, facing the weight or day to day reality when nothing is easy, and the days are long. The mouse is just as persistent, fighting to keep her family alive too. 'but on mornings like these, standing at the edge of night and day, I feel like I’m being let in on a secret, something just between me and the dawn—another side of the ordinary that fades with the daylight' Thanks! And ...

Reply

Aeris Walker
00:59 Dec 09, 2023

Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Marty! Much appreciated :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Kailani B.
17:13 Nov 19, 2023

A good story told by a skilled writer. Thanks for sharing!

Reply

Aeris Walker
19:03 Dec 08, 2023

Thanks for reading, Kailani!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
02:39 Nov 19, 2023

Beautiful story, a young man takes the responsibilities as war disturbed their family.

Reply

Aeris Walker
18:45 Dec 08, 2023

Thanks for reading, Syed!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Janet Severn
01:11 Nov 19, 2023

Great story! Short but powerful, great coming of age

Reply

Aeris Walker
18:42 Dec 08, 2023

Thanks, Nick!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
AnneMarie Miles
22:59 Nov 18, 2023

I love the whole analogy of the straw. I imagine during WWII, everything either felt like the last bit of straw. But I also imagine the last little bit of straw being the small things that make life a little more bearable. Like hearing from Pa, and having real coffee after enduring a mystery alternative. You have such a way with details and can write such beautiful historical fiction, Aeris. Thanks for sharing!

Reply

Aeris Walker
18:42 Dec 08, 2023

Thanks so much, AnneMarie!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Bob Long Jr
18:39 Nov 18, 2023

A wonderful story. Puts our little problems into perspective. Funny .. the mouses not washing their hands ! Thanks .. keep on writing !

Reply

Aeris Walker
18:29 Dec 08, 2023

Thank you so much, Bob!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Eileen Turner
17:51 Nov 18, 2023

How well you've shown us how a person can get to the very edge of falling apart; how they can deal with so much but then be brought down be something that might seem so unimportant or bearable to others. I enjoyed your little phrases like: "I can feel the edge of the morning tugging at me." Very nice.

Reply

Aeris Walker
19:15 Nov 29, 2023

“The very edge of falling apart,” yes that’s exactly it. Thanks for reading, Eileen!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Shirley Medhurst
17:50 Nov 18, 2023

Very poignant and well told story, Aeris. I thought this especially powerful: “under that last little piece of straw was a whole farm and three kids and a house full of mice.” You illustrate Peter’s maturing ever so well in the way he gradually takes on the mantle of responsibility: he learns to cope with looking after the entire family, deals with the mice, the milking & farming chores etc then culminates in the grand & thoughtful decision to treat his ma the best way he can… Lovely!

Reply

Aeris Walker
19:03 Nov 29, 2023

Thank you for reading, Shirley :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Bendickson
17:22 Nov 18, 2023

Harsh realities handled with insight and care. Wonderful telling.

Reply

Aeris Walker
11:22 Nov 22, 2023

Thanks for reading, Mary!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Helen A Smith
16:45 Nov 18, 2023

A great story Aeris. So well written from the boy’s perspective. Brought to life the mental hardships the family were going through, in the absence of the father and scarcity of news; particularly pertinent was the emotional strain felt by the mother. That was so well illustrated. The boy was forced to become a man, as evidenced by how he had to deal with the mice problem, amongst others. No matter how nice a person is or how much they love animals, the presence of mice is not easy to cope with so this rang true. Loved this piece of histor...

Reply

Aeris Walker
20:25 Nov 21, 2023

Thanks, Helen! I’ve been reading a lot of WW2 fiction lately, so the setting felt fairly easy to jump into for a short story. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment :)

Reply

Helen A Smith
20:57 Nov 21, 2023

What I found particularly interesting was the experience of WW2 from the point of view of an American boy. My mother was nine when the war ended and was living in London until the family had to leave. She has always hated loud noises such as fireworks. I find it interesting hearing her stories, as you can imagine.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Michelle Oliver
11:40 Nov 18, 2023

A lovely coming of age tale. The growth of the narrator from boy to man was very clear. It’s a painful thing too, to lose one’s innocence and the image of the mouse was so good. At first he was enchanted by the little creature, its eyes looking at him so beseechingly. The weight of the hammer was too much and he did not kill the poor thing. By the end the boy dispatches the mouse without flinching. I can’t help but feel sorry for him, forced to grow up and face the realities of adulthood because of the circumstances of his life. Thank you fo...

Reply

Aeris Walker
20:03 Nov 21, 2023

Thanks so much, Michelle!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
11:29 Nov 18, 2023

Excellent story.

Reply

Show 0 replies
RBE | We made a writing app for you (photo) | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.