Pure in Their Own Eyes
by James Krehbiel
Table of Contents|
Chapters: 1, 2, 3
Sweat trickled down the back of Anna’s neck and between her breasts. Her mother would have been appalled, going without a brassiere, but it was too damn hot for one, she thought. Anna finished up the last of the dishes in the sink, the cake was in the oven: orange cake with vanilla frosting, Sarah’s favorite. Her baby, she thought. Sixteen years old! Where did the time go?
“Mama?” Sarah called, as she and Daniel walked into the kitchen. “We’re going for a swim.”
Rusty came bounding into the kitchen, front paws locked out as he hit the linoleum floor and slid halfway across the room, his tongue slick and lapping at thin air.
“Rusty’s coming with,” Daniel said.
“Okay. Dinner in an hour. Make sure you’re back by then.”
“Okay.” And they were out the door, heading across the back lawn, Rusty traipsing along after them.
Anna wished she could have joined them. Anything to cool off, and she had, when they were kids. But now, she’d be infringing. When they had been little, she had to go with them, wanted to go and keep an eye on them but now they were young adults and, besides, who would want their mother tagging along?
She watched them amble across the yard just before they turned and disappeared behind the barn. Even from a distance she could hear them laughing, and she imagined the occasional elbow being lightly jabbed into one another or a finger poking one of their ribs. Their voices drifted off in the direction of the sun that tilted just above the horizon.
Twenty more minutes until the cake came out of the oven; not nearly enough time to start anything else; so she indulged herself with a warmed-up cup of coffee and what she termed as idle, mindless down-time. Her mother would not have approved. She leafed through the morning newspaper but she’d already read it, so she let her mind wander, and it came to rest on Sam Reimer, something he’d said.
She had been cleaning out his refrigerator. Half the food had gone bad, a dribble of milk, sour.
Sam had walked into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee and asked if she’d like one, too.
“No, no thanks. I’m on a mission here and want to get this finished,” she had said.
So Sam sat down at his kitchen table, took a long gulp of lukewarm coffee and started chatting away. And as he rambled on, Anna pawed through his refrigerator, assessing what should be pitched. She was hardly listening to what he was saying and, although she heard his voice, it sounded more like a talk-show host chatting away from a television placed in another room. It wasn’t until she heard him mention Daniel and Sarah that she tuned in.
“Nope,” he said, “can’t say I ever met kids quite like yours. Hell, kids in most families can’t even hardly stand each other.” He took another gulp of coffee. “Take me and my sister. Man, we fought like cats and dogs when we was young. Musta drove my parents nuts! And my sister’s kids? She’s got a boy and girl just like you. Seems like they’re always fightin’ ’bout somethin’.”
Sam stood up, walked over to the counter and refilled his cup. “But not yours,” he said. “Seems like they’d rather be with each other than any other kids. If you didn’t know they was brother and sister, you’d wonder if somethin’ was up.”
Anna’s heart skipped a beat but she didn’t turn from the refrigerator. She mumbled something about how lucky she and Joseph were that Sarah and Daniel got along so well.
It wasn’t until later, sitting at her kitchen table, sipping her coffee that Sam’s comment drifted back. They were close. That’s all, she thought. They enjoyed each other’s company, always had right from the start. From playing board games together when they were younger to training Rusty as a pup, long walks, going for a swim out back together. When they were little it felt natural to strip down and jump in the pond together. They were so innocent. Those were fun times.
Innocence, she thought, just siblings goofing around together, nothing else. But Daniel was seventeen, Sarah about to turn sixteen. Did they still see each other as they had?
The timer went off and she took the cake out of the oven. Joseph’s car pulled into the driveway.
“How was work?” she asked, as Joseph walked into the kitchen. The cake was cooling on a rack next to the open window. Anna stood at the counter mixing in the ingredients for vanilla frosting. Joseph moseyed up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. He nuzzled the back of her neck.
“Joseph Neufeld!” she said. “Behave yourself. Not now; I’m trying to get this done.” He reached his finger into the mixing bowl and swiped a glob of frosting. “I need that!” she said. “Go pour yourself a cup of coffee, sit down and tell me about your day.”
He poured a cup of coffee, black, like his parents used to drink. He held up the coffee pot. “You want some?” he asked.
“No thanks. Sit and talk to me while I do this,” she said. “What’s going on at the high school?”
“Not much. Unclogged a toilet, mopped a few classroom floors,” he said. “Oh, I ran into David Burke, too.”
“Doesn’t Daniel have him for history?”
“Yep. He had a couple of windows that were giving him problems.” He paused. “We had an interesting chat.”
“Really? What about?”
“Oh?” She turned facing her husband. “Should we be worried?”
Joseph hesitated. He looked around. “Where is Daniel? Is he in the house?”
“He and Sarah went for a swim,” Anna said.
“It’s not his schoolwork. That’s not the problem.”
“Problem?” Anna said. “Now you’ve got me worried.” She took a deep breath and held it for a moment.
“No, no... nothing to worry about. It has to do with an assignment David gave the kids. They were supposed to make up a family tree and trace it back a few generations,” he explained.
“So what’s the problem?”
“Daniel put Maria down as his mother.”
“Well, she is his mother. I don’t understand. What’s the problem?”
“David wondered why Daniel hadn’t traced back further in her family.”
Anna set the dish cloth that had been draped over her shoulder on the counter. She walked over to the table and sat down.
“And we both know why he didn’t,” she said. She looked up, expecting an acknowledgement of what he already knew.
“But he didn’t ask,” Joseph said. His voice dropped down as he spoke. Anna thought there was an apology there.
“Should he have needed to?”
Joseph pushed the coffee cup away. He gazed down at the table. There seemed a young man sitting across from Anna with that same helpless expression, that same look of regret blanketing his face that she had seen days after he returned home from his parents’ charred house.
“No,” he said. “I guess not.”
“You made me a promise... years ago. Do you remember?” Anna paused. “You promised me you’d tell Daniel the truth when he was older. He’s seventeen now. How old does he have to be?”
Joseph looked up. “But he’d never understand, especially after all this time.”
“And so you’re just going to continue to let him believe he was responsible for his mother’s death? A death that never happened? Does he deserve that?” Anna waited a moment. “You did what you had to. Maria couldn’t take care of him. She couldn’t even take care of herself much less an infant.”
Anna remembered stopping in to check on Maria and Daniel days after his birth. Sitting alone in her robe, trapped in her own pain, Maria, couldn’t even acknowledge Anna’s presence. And she was oblivious to Daniel’s wailing coming from the nursery where Anna found him lying red faced, tears streaming down his cheeks, the stench of his soiled diaper filling the room.
She thought back to the day Joseph packed Maria’s belongings up, led her out to the car and drove the hour and a half to the psychiatric hospital in Wichita. She had watched with anguish as Joseph wrestled with the decision.
“Don’t you think Maria would want her son to know about her? And it isn’t as if Daniel hasn’t asked. Perhaps not lately, but he did when he was younger.” Anna reached across the table and took Joseph’s hand in hers. “It’s funny how a lie can feel like the truth if enough time passes. But you already know all this.”
They sat facing each other. A breeze nudged the kitchen curtains; a crow called across an empty field.
“I know,” he whispered. Joseph glanced up, over to the window and back to Anna once again. He started to say something but hesitated.
“What?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s nothing, but David made a comment,” he said. “It was when we were walking out together — a comment about Sarah and Daniel.”
“What did he say?”
“He mentioned how close the kids are.”
“That was it. It just seemed strange, that’s all.”
And then, she heard Sam Reimer’s voice again. If you didn’t know they was brother and sister...
Anna rose, picked up Joseph’s coffee cup and walked over to the sink. She waited a moment before she replied. Then finally, with her back to her husband she said, “I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s nice that they get along.” She glanced off towards the pond.
In the distance, Daniel and Sarah were heading towards the house with Rusty, looking half his size, sopping wet. Joseph walked over to Anna and together, standing at the kitchen sink they watched their children in silence. They heard them talking, laughing and watched as their shoulders brushed the other’s while they strolled along, seemingly without a care in the world.
A talebearer revealeth secrets, but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.
* * *
Sarah wanted out. She hated the attic, dark, hot and humid, a place where spiders thrived and rodents bedded down. But Daniel had convinced her to help him search for the box that contained his summer clothes. “It’s up there somewhere,” Anna said. “You’ll just have to look around for it.”
Sarah sat watching her brother paw through box after box. Some were labeled, others not. There was something unsettling about them, bits and pieces of their lives, ignored for months but then relished when needed. And some reminded Sarah of artifacts, slices of history, her grandparents and their world. But most were packed with old clothes that needed to be thrown out or donated, boxes of Christmas lights and ornaments and of books, books Joseph’s parents had owned that now lived in the attic, untouched.
“How much longer is this going to take?” Sarah asked. “It’s sweltering up here.”
“Just hang on. There’s only a few more I need to look through.”
Tucked into a corner was a smaller box with an old quilt thrown over it. Sarah hadn’t remembered ever seeing it before. There was no label on the box, no indication of what it held. She watched as Daniel pulled the quilt off and slid the box out to the center of the space.
“Do you know what’s in here? I’ve never seen this one before,” Daniel said.
“Me either.” Sarah walked over to her brother and crouched down next to him. “Let me see.”
Daniel had opened the box and laying on top was a white cotton nightgown. He held it up for Sarah to see. “Is this Mom’s?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve never seen her wear it.”
Next, he pulled a pair of pale blue bedroom slippers, a tortoiseshell hairbrush and a stained off white cardigan sweater from the box. “Are these grandma’s?” Daniel asked.
“I don’t know.” Then, Sarah reached into the box and pulled a pair of pearl-colored glasses out. “These are definitely not Grandma’s. Remember? She had those big, ugly horn-rimmed glasses that made her eyes look gigantic.” She laughed.
“Oh yeah, I remember those. They were scary!” He pulled a pair of gloves from the box. “Whose stuff is this?”
“I have no idea. Hey, what’s this?” Sarah nudged a piece of tissue paper aside and beneath it was a small carved mahogany box.
Daniel lifted the box out and set it on the floor. “It doesn’t look like it’s locked. Should we look inside?”
“Do I need to even answer that?” she smirked. “Here, let me see.” Sarah slid the box over in front of her and opened it.
The first few items she pulled out were pieces of jewelry, a pair of earrings, a broach, two silver chain necklaces, one with a cross attached and a filigree hairclip. An embroidered handkerchief, unfolded and spread out as if protecting, lay over pieces of paper that peeked out from underneath. Sarah removed the handkerchief, set it aside and lifted the papers from the box.
“They’re letters,” Sarah said, her eyes widened as if having discovered some great find. For a moment, she held the stack of five or so letters, bound together with a blue ribbon in her lap. She looked up at Daniel. “Should we put them back?”
Daniel hesitated. “Who are they addressed to?”
Sarah slipped the ribbon off and read. “Daddy.”
“Is there a return address?” Daniel asked.
“Is it Mom’s handwriting?”
Time slowed as Sarah and Daniel looked at each other. Particles of dust suspended in the single ray of light coming through the oval window at the far end of the attic; the muskiness of the space pressed down upon them. Finally Sarah spoke. “Do we dare?”
“You look,” Daniel said. “If I do it and Dad ever found out, I’d be in big trouble. He wouldn’t yell at you, though.”
Slowly, Sarah picked up the top letter. “The postage date is...” She held the letter up to the light. “Gosh, it’s faded. It looks like it’s postmarked from 1994... a few years ago.”
“What’s it say?”
Silently, Sarah started reading and with each word, each paragraph, she felt a tightening in her chest. She kept rereading sentences over and over, trying to believe, trying to make sense of it. She wanted to stop, put the letters back, cover them up with the handkerchief and pretend she and Daniel had never discovered them. These letters were never meant for her or Daniel’s eyes — a carefully harbored secret. Her stomach cramped; her heart raced.
“What? What is it? Who is it from?” A mix of bewilderment and angst washed over Daniel’s face. “Talk to me, Sarah.”
“Oh, Danny,” she said, as she handed the letter to her brother, “these letters are from your mother.”
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by James Krehbiel