As the woods grew darker along the path into the valley and up to his family’s cabin, Waldo’s mood darkened as well. His uncle’s look of doubt at Waldo being able to attend school echoed what was already lurking in the back of his mind.
Owls called to each other. Waldo called back the sounds he had so often practiced with his brothers. He stopped for a moment to listen for the sound of fluttering wings. What was the value in calling owls anyway? The flutter came, but Waldo had already moved on.
The dank, little cabin came into view as he turned up the drive lined by sagging pine boughs whistling lonely tunes. The shadow of Pa’s hunched profile passed the single window lit by a lone candle. Waldo was too young to remember the time before his father’s cool blue eyes were not far away in search of cures for his many ailments. The pond people whispered sometimes that Joel Potter suffered under God’s rebuke for his recklessness in youth and marriage to the equally wild newcomer Fanny Foster. Just after the birth of Albertus, Joel’s joints had been seized by rheumatism that had left him defeated ever since.
Joel very rarely ate meals with the family, complaining that Fanny’s stews were too rich. He usually waited until after supper was cleared to begin his own meal of corn cakes toasted by the fire, yet he was just the burly man he had always been. Waldo felt certain Joel ate at Uncle Phylander’s place just down the road, but what did it matter to him where his father ate? It only mattered that he lied to his mother.
Waldo cleared his throat as he tossed his hat on the bench by the front door and pushed through into the house. He nodded at Joel whose eyes looked glassy and lifeless in the candlelight. His mother smiled at him as she finished washing the last supper dish. She motioned for him to sit and brought him a tin plate of beans and turnips with a thick slice of bread and bacon grease. Joel had sold almost all their milk and cream to the cheesemakers this year, so butter was in short supply. Fanny came beside Waldo and drizzled a scant amount of maple syrup over his beans.
“Has Mr. Pudney paid ye?” she asked.
Waldo addressed his father from across the room, an ocean between them even in this tiny cabin. “Mr. Pudney says he’ll send my pay on Tuesday.”
Joel shook his head, refusing to look up from his whittling. “And didn’t I warn you off him? Well, Tuesday hain’t a far off so …”
“And he sent along some apples and potatoes; on the porch I put em.” Waldo took a spoonful of mealy beans. A familiar and painful anxiety settled in his chest as he swallowed.
Joel sat more erectly now. He tossed the clothespin he’d carved into the basket beside him with his big, hairy hand. “Apples and potatoes? Hmm. And how much is he giving you in actual pay?”
Waldo turned to his mother now. “Mother, he says I ate his apples, but I hain’t never. Not a one.”
Joel grumbled. “I told you both never trust that Pudney.”
Waldo was relieved. His father’s reaction was less than Waldo had imagined it might be. He brightened a little. “Mother, Uncles Charles asks a favor from you.” Waldo paused when his father stood with his hand on his sore lower back. He took a quick bite of bread to fortify his courage.
Fanny had fed the fire more wood than usual after Dan had complained of the chill. Albertus watched a hazelnut he’d set in the fire burn blue.
“Will ye look at that! The boys at school say it means a ghost is near!” he said.
“Bertie, you stop about that!” Joel scolded, turning his attention back to Waldo. “When did ye have time for visitin’ today?”
“I only walked the road home and uncle was moving his cows and hailed me.”
“What kind of favor?” Fanny asked, her nervous eyes darting between her husband and son.
Waldo glanced at his father. “Wall, he wondered if I mightn’t come work for him.” His heel tapped nervously. “For money – so’s we could pay our debts.”
Joel came to the table now peering down at Waldo. “And is it your uncle’s business to worry you about debt? You see what your brother’s doing, don’t you, Fanny? Did you tell him about …”
Fanny blushed. “No.” It was obvious that she was lying.
“Uncle Charles said nothing of debt,” Waldo said. “T’was only what I thought.”
“By gosh I bet Charles loved to have the boy grovel to him. I won’t have it, Fanny.”
“And how do ye suppose poor Dan will live off the rotten apples ye’ll make Waldo bring home all winter from other people’s well-tended orchards?” Fanny said, turning from her husband back to her cleaning, such as it was.
“And whose fault is it that you don’t keep our trees in order?” Joel ran his hand through his thick white hair. “Hain’t Charles got Lucian for doing chores? Waldo is needed home with our herd.”
“We only got the two cows now so it hardly takes me any time to keep ‘em and I could learn some from Uncle Charles till school starts that’ll help us in future mebbe.”
“The boy has things all figured out, Fan.” Joel retreated to his chair again with a wince, took up his whittling knife and said no more. Waldo turned to his mother.
Fanny’s black eyes flashed. “Tell yer uncle ye may work for ‘im.” She glared at Joel. “But not if it interferes with school.”
Dan called to Fanny from the loft above. She grabbed a small bottle and climbed the ladder with a sigh. Waldo did his best to hide his surprise as he quickly finished his meal. His father grumbled as he flicked bits of soft wood into the fire.
“Waldo, why do you want schooling when you already know how to keep a ledger and read fair enough? It makes no sense. We haven’t money for you to be anything but a keeper of cows.”
“And I like it enough – the animals and all – but I want to know what everyone else gets to know about life.”
“And you can read all about it in the Bible without wasting time.”
“It hain’t been a waste for Dan and Almira.” Dan hoped to go off to a big school in a faraway city one day and Almira, his sister, was already teaching school in Virgil.
Joel shook his head showing his lack of interest in the conversation. He picked up a week-old newspaper and flipped it open.
Waldo took his plate to the bowl of soapy water and rinsed it. His father’s attitude mattered little to him now. Imagining spending time in his uncle’s clean barn with excellent animals and polished tools would make it difficult to sleep.
His mother had unexpectedly made a stand for him. He promised himself that he would learn all he could so that one day his mother would be able to be young again – in spirit. Everyone always said that Fanny had been so different long ago, and Waldo so wanted her to be different and happy.