Rose by Shari Barnett
At night her father kept vigil beside her bed. The boys were tended by Mama and Aunt Lila — three of the eight had come down with it – but as Rose thrashed and carried on about needing to wash her dolly’s hair in the stream, it was her father who replaced the wet cloths on her brow. She was his golden haired wood nymph who could move so lightly through the leaves and fern she could appear from nowhere, folded down like a tiny rabbit watching them, the hem of her flowered frock the same color as the red earth below. “Now where did you come from?” Red would say, leaving the saw poised in the middle of the chestnut’s trunk to wipe his brow with a dark green handkerchief. “Ain’t you got nothing better to do than watch us work?” Ralph would ask drying his face with his shirt shoulder. Rose would smile and wrinkle her little nose and dart off like a bird back toward the house. Red would laugh silently, nod to his son, and take up his end of the saw once again.
“Buy why?” she had asked, last Tuesday, before the flu came, “Why do you have to cut the trees? Why can’t you grow the tobacco around them?” One hand reached behind her head, stroking his beard as she always did, the other tight around the middle of her gingham doll making it sit up stiffly on her lap. “Matching laps”, she’d say to her father “Me on you and Baby Girl on me.” And he’d oblige, lifting her slight body, so warm through her thin cotton dresses, onto his heavy brown trousers. They would read a book together, or sing, or just watch the rest of the family.
Mama would be mending a shirt or pants, leaning slightly toward the lantern next to her to keep the stitches tiny and even. The younger boys, lit yellow by the firelight, would be sprawled on the floor playing checkers or silly games with a deck of cards so old Rose knew each one by heart from its particular crease or bend. Her brothers were always amazed when she would play pick-a-card and name it correctly, but that’s just because boys don’t pay attention. Aunt Lila might be at the desk correcting homework, her back straight and her hair in a tight bun. A map and hand-drawn school calendar clung with tiny nails to the timber wall in front of her. The map had faint streaks of soot extending up from the bottom edge from when the lamp on the desk had burned a little too low.
Ralph might be out. He did that a lot now. When Rose asked her father about it, he told her that a man starts leaving his home at Ralph’s age to make his way. When she asked when she would be old enough to make her way, her father laughed and nuzzled his nose through her hair whispering in her ear that girls never leave their fathers. “Never, ever, ever,” he said, squeezing her a little with each word.
But now his tiny girl lay on her bed, her cheeks bright pink, amidst a nest of damp tangled hair. “How’s she doing, Red?” Cora asked from the doorway of the tiny room, hardly bigger than a chicken coop. It had been added onto the side of the house when she was an infant. The boys shared two larger rooms, but the minute Rose appeared, rosy lipped with that sweet tuft of blonde hair, her father started building the additional room.
“Hot and cold. And her lungs are getting full.” Cora tightened her black shawl a bit and took a step closer to her daughter who was rasping sips of air. She lifted the cloth and laid the back of her hand on Rose’s forehead, turning the cloth before placing it back on her head. “She’s burning up,” Red said to his wife, his eyes not leaving his little girl.
“The boys are better,” Cora said. “I’m pretty sure John and Tommy are out of the woods now.”
“That’s good,” Red said flatly, lifting the cloth to dip it again in the bowl of water on the tiny table next to him.
“I can take over here. You should go get some rest,” Cora said. She watched her husband wring the brown cloth and lay it so gently on Rose’s brow, letting his fingers linger and then travel down her flushed cheeks to push a couple strands of hair away from her parted lips. He lifted a tiny limp hand into his and gently, so gently, rubbed his thumb along the white skin across her knuckles. Cora watched his thumb slide slowly along her skin, trying to think of the last time he had touched her like that — like she was fragile and exquisite.
He was grateful for her – she knew that. Cora would lay tired and sticky with a new bundle in her arm and he would thank her for another boy — another boy to help cut and pull and plow and harvest. Another boy to help their farm grow, to take the land and shape it to provide for them. She was his queen who bore him many sons and kept them fed and clean. He and the boys would sing to her and bring her wildflowers and honey. They would surround her at the county fair, glaring at the judges who tasted her sweet potato pie. And then, after she thought no other child would come, Rose came along – a breech birth so they had to fetch Doc Wilson to wrestle her into the world and work for three hours to stop Cora’s bleeding. He cried on her hand that time and then took the bundle from her arms and gently, so gently, rubbed the back of Rose’s tiny hand with his thumb.
“I really can take over, Red,” she said again. He shook his head slightly, his eyes never leaving his daughter. Finally, Cora turned to leave, intending to return to her boys. Instead she went and sat by the dying embers in the fireplace. She took a piece of wood from the small stack on the hearth, and poked at the glowing chunks, finally laying the stick at an angle on a smoldering log. She watched wisps of steam rise from the bark and then a tiny flame flare up, fueled by the sap in the layer below. She loved her daughter. She did. She was so much sweeter and lighter than the boys. From the beginning she seemed to just be part of the flowers and trees and animals that made up their world. As a toddler, she waited patiently, holding a bunch of grass, as a rabbit hopped tentatively to her and nibbled it right from her hand. When she was five, she came home with hands sticky from honey and said that if she sang to the bees, they would let her break off a tiny bit of comb to eat. While the boys climbed the porch steps with bites and blisters and rashes, Rose seemed impervious to the insects and nettles and animals that might fear her.
At the same time that Cora was amazed by the things her daughter could do, having raised eight boys who preferred to view nature down the barrel of a shotgun, Rose’s abilities also struck her as strange and a little bewitching. But Red didn’t see it that way. Spellbound is how Lila had described him once. The two women watched Rose and Red out on the porch one Sunday morning, him crouching to be at eye level with her. She stood barefoot, holding a cricket in cupped hands. Slowly, she pulled her hands apart but the cricket didn’t move. She seemed to hold the insect’s gaze as she lowered her hand to the porch, and only when she looked away, did the cricket hop back to the garden. She always thought a daughter would be a blessing – a kindred spirit to help her with the chores, and unending work of a farm mother. Rose would try – scrubbing a pile of shirts alongside her mother, but a hawk or line of ants would catch her eye and her hands would slow to an ineffective rhythm that would prove to be no help at all. The boys protected her, but eventually found that she needed no protection – she could float through the forest leaving barely a footprint and welcome by all the creatures that lived there.
She was Red’s light. She provided his first smile each day and his last one each night, as Cora had, long ago. She loved her daughter. She did. But it was her third son Jake who rubbed the back of her hand now as he read passages from the Bible to her. Red was the man who laid next to her at night, and brought home deer to eat, and could plow rows straighter than any man for 3 counties, but he was laid completely bare by the labored breathing of his sick little girl. She would pull through, Cora was sure. She was half of the size of her next older brother, but twice as strong. Red did not know this though, so he sat for the rest of the night, her hand in his, rubbing his tears into her skin, as he would never do for his wife again.