When you think you have everything, or at least everything you need, you do. But the first time someone says, “You have nothing,” it makes you — or at least it did me — pause and think. So…this is where the story begins. At least, I think it’s the beginning.
For the first thirteen years of my life, all I knew were city streets and loud noises, pinging even into the dead of night. Why would I think anything about it…it’s all I ever heard. There was school during the day, and I’d walk a couple of city blocks to get there. Tall, brown-brick buildings lined my path, and somewhere along the way Jimmy and Susan would rush from their apartment and the three of us would finish the walk to school together. We’d pass donut shops and meat shops, and my stomach would growl. After school we’d stop and split something sweet if one of us had a penny or two to pay Mrs. Sweet — that’s what we called the old lady who ran the candy shop — and we’d sit against her building (quite warm on a fall day) and slowly eat whatever treat it might be. Then we’d say good-bye to each other, and I’d walk home. Home was an apartment over our hardware store. Mama and Papa ran it. I’d do my homework, and then start dinner. Mama would check on me. By eight, we’d eat. Then we’d go to bed.
And everything would start over, just the same, the next day.
Except for when it didn’t.
I don’t remember much, except there was a fire, and I woke up in a hospital. Someone said my parents were dead, only I wasn’t sure if I was awake or dreaming. “She has nothing,” I heard a woman whisper. “Absolutely nothing.”
It was October, 1933.
The next month, I was in a different state. Uncle Rendell took me in. When I laid eyes on him for the first time, he shook his head and frowned. He said he expected me to help out both on the farm and with his practice, because he was the only doctor around for miles. He said I’d come in handy feeding the chickens and making him breakfast and dinner, because it would save him a lot of time.
I was kind of tall and gangly for a thirteen year-old, but Uncle Rendell was much, much taller. When I looked up at him, I imagined him being as tall as the Statue of Liberty, only he wasn’t pleasant to look at. He had a round face and a bald head, only that wasn’t the bad part. It was his eyes that got me, because they were small and black and empty looking. He reminded me of his bulldog, Dog, that seemed to do nothing but sleep all day by the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Dog had no energy. My uncle had no energy, even though he was a doctor, and I had assumed doctors had energy. The only one I met did, anyway, back in New York. I wanted to ask my uncle where school might be held, but I didn’t get around to finding out for a very, very long time.
I had a plethora of questions, really.
But my uncle gave me a bedroom right off the kitchen (so I could keep the stove burning, he said), and the room had pink curtains and a quilt full of pretty colors, that suited me just fine. There was a bureau for the few clothes people managed to collect for me after the fire, and I had a pine table with a kerosene lamp by my bed. No pictures hung on my bedroom wall, but I saw a few pictures in the sitting room. It wasn’t much.
But it was all I had.
“I see patients from eight to four, every day,” Uncle Rendell told me, “except weekends. Weekends, we do chores together outside. I expect you to gather eggs every day, and you can do that on your own, and I’ll show you how to milk the goat. Fresh milk every morning.” I thought I saw Uncle Rendell’s eyes light up when he mentioned the milk. “Do you understand me, Vivian Lorraine?” His eyes narrowed, and for a moment I didn’t know what to say. I nodded. I wanted to ask him about school, again, because school was very important to me. Once, I heard someone say it was against the law not to attend school. I didn’t want to break any laws.
“Yes, Sir,” I replied. “But I’ve never seen a real goat before.”
My uncle seemed annoyed.
“My sister never showed you a goat?” He shook his head. “Let’s go outside. I’ll show you the goat.”
So we went outside, toward an old, run-down barn. We were on the edge of town, so I felt a little better, knowing there were people around. But it was still a long way, in my mind, from anything.
I saw a bunch of chickens. A lot of chickens, really. And one goat.
The goat was a dirty-white, like the majority of the chickens, and when I walked toward her pen, she bolted away. My uncle swung open the pen door, and motioned me in, as if she might escape. He cornered her, and held her to the fence so I might get a closer look.
She smelled funny.
“She won’t bite,” my uncle grumbled. “Come over and give her a pet.”
“I need to know her name,” I said.
“That’s absurd,” he grumbled again. “Seriously, Child. Give her a pet.”
“What’s her name?” I demanded. “I mean, I need to know.”
Uncle Rendell looked confused, and then I remembered he never had kids and he really had no idea how to interact with me. That knowledge gave me a bit of comfort. I’d have to teach him.
“Goat. Her name is Goat.” He frowned and cleared his throat as I approached the somewhat scared animal.
Confession. I had never petted an animal in my life, except for dogs. A cat once or twice, maybe. There was a part of me that was very scared of Goat, but I swallowed hard and reached my hand toward her face. She had little, dirty cheeks and scared eyes.
“It’s OK,” I whispered to her, which was more for me than the goat. “I’ll take care of you, Fern.”
“Fern?” Uncle Rendell shook his head. “Her name’s Goat.”
“It’s Fern,” I said. Then I heard a horse whinny.
“There’s a horse, too?” I swallowed, hard. Looking at my uncle’s face, I saw him roll his eyes.
“Of course there’s a horse, how else can I get around, Vivian Lorraine? My car is broke, and I don’t have the means to fix it.”
“So I have to take care of a horse, too?”
My uncle released Fern, but all I could see was the horse.
“Can I call him Fred?”
Uncle Rendell threw his hands in the air.
“Why must everything be named?” He took my arm and led me out of Fern’s pen.
“Everything must be named,” I said, “because otherwise, I won’t know what to call them. You can’t keep calling everything Goat and Horse.”
“Fine, fine, but Dog remains Dog.”
Happiness washed over me, but only for a moment. The animals needed me. And maybe…I needed them.
“Let’s get dinner, Vivian Lorraine,” Uncle Rendell said, flatly. “Do you know how to cook?”
“A bit,” I sighed. “But call me Lory. Everyone calls me Lory.”
I’m not real sure what to say now, but I’ll give it a go. Just know that I wasn’t really myself the first few weeks at my uncle’s home, and I was very out of place. I was a city girl living in the country and my parents were dead. There was no school, and every day a stream of patients came to the house. There were two front doors, and the front door the patients came into was kind of a living room, closed off by a door that led to the rest of the house. They waited in this little room with wooden floors. It was very sorry looking, so I added a few items I found in the attic, like a basket or two, and a few paintings that looked might be falling apart. When my uncle saw the paintings he sighed. I think Aunt Alice might have painted them, before she died.
I kept the fire burning very well, and I noticed that sometimes our log pile was low but at the end of the day, it was high again, after the last patient left. Every few days, my uncle would kill a chicken or two, so that we could have a nice chicken stew, but in a few days we’d have more chickens than we had before. I didn’t understand, but I didn’t ask, either. I also didn’t ask him why the milk was almost always gone by the day’s end. There was always enough for two small glasses of milk at night, but that was it.
Sometimes if there weren’t patients waiting to be seen, I’d look through my uncle’s medical books. I loved looking at the pictures. And every time a patient left his exam room, and they were gone, I’d ask my uncle, “What was wrong? I want to know.” I’d leaf through the medical journal. “It could be a number of things,” I stated. “I want to know!”
“Collywobbles,” Uncle Rendell grumbled. “Most of them have Collywobbles. Honestly, Girl. It’s none of your business, Vivian Lorraine.” “Lory,” I whispered. “It’s Lory.”
And I’d pull on my overcoat and walk to the barn, where I was starting to get used to Fern and Fred.
It was when I visited Fern and Fred that I’d let my eyes leak a little bit. It just happened, really. I’d crawl up onto the fence and Fern would prance her way toward me, followed by Fred. Fred was big and wide, with a coat the color dirt. His mane and tail were as black as night. Fred would poke his large face into mine and I’d breathe in his horsey-smell, which was starting to grow on me. I’d scratch his ears and he’d nudge me a little harder. Sometimes I’d feed him grain, and he’d follow me all over, wanting more. When there was no more grain to give Fred, he’d lick my hand clean and whinny softly. Fern would nudge up closer, and we three would stand there, in the middle of dirt. And just stand. They’d press into me, like I was holding them up, only they were holding me up. I felt the animals breathing in and out, and it was like life was breathing onto me. Yeah, I know that sounds strange but I liked it. It made me feel alive, I guess.
Days turned into more days. I cooked. I fed Dog. Every evening when my uncle was finished seeing patients, we’d eat dinner together. Sometimes someone knocked on our door in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I’d sneak into the waiting area and press my ear against the closed door to the exam room. I wanted to know what was wrong that couldn’t wait until the sun came up.
Our days were always like this, varying only a little bit. I began to get bored. And angry. And resentful.
One day, I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t care. I missed my Mama and Papa, and here I was, in a place I had never been before. I lay in bed all day long, waiting. Waiting for Uncle Rendell to come in and talk to me, to tell me to get up. But he never came in. He called through the door once, and I told him to go away.
So he did.
I became more angry.
Day Two came. By that evening, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I ran into the kitchen.
Uncle Rendell was at the kitchen table, eating. Dog was asleep. I slowly went to the kitchen table. I sat down.
“Have you decided to join the world again?” Uncle Rendell took his milk, and pushed it toward me. “Goat and Horse have missed you.”
Reluctantly, I took a sip of milk.
My eyes began to fill. I hated my life. I hated being here. Nothing was right.
“I’ve missed you.” My uncle cleared his throat. “And do you know what else we missed?”
I shook my head. Tears seeped from my eyes.
“Thanksgiving was over two weeks ago. We never gave thanks.” Uncle Rendell scooped up a spoonful of beans. “Two weeks, it’s been. I was so busy, I forgot.”
“So what,” I whispered, my tears flowing freely now. “I don’t care. I hate it here. I hate this place. I hate everything. My life…this farm…you!” I regretted my words as soon as they were said. But my words felt true when I said them.
Uncle Rendell put down his spoon.
His shoulders trembled, but only a little.
We sat in silence for the longest time. Dog inched closer to the stove.
Finally, my uncle spoke.
“‘We’ are all there is. At least, it’s all there is for now.”
I stared ahead, my heart pounding.
“Tomorrow, we will have our Thanksgiving.”
I shook my head.
“I told you. I hate it here.” I pushed the glass of milk aside. “There’s nothing. Nothing at all.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my uncle close his eyes. Then he opened them, as if a light came on.
“Things don’t always happen for a reason, Vivian Lorraine. Sometimes…things just happen.”
“I’m going to run away.” I looked at my uncle, and he looked back at me.
“You aren’t running away. Tomorrow,” he continued, in a slightly higher voice, “We will have our Thanksgiving. I’m going to get us a chicken to cook, and we’ll have mashed potatoes because Mrs. Silverman gives us potatoes because she cannot afford to pay me any other way. We will have bread because Mr. Jacobs gives us flour because he cannot afford anything else. We will have milk because we have Goat. And we will have carrots and turnips and beets because of Mr. Klein, and other patients! That’s the way it is. Do you understand, Vivian Lorraine? We eat because others feed us. Do you understand?”
Looking at my uncle, I nodded. I was too afraid to do anything else.
The next day, we had our feast.
When the last patient was seen, my uncle helped me complete our Thanksgiving meal. After the potatoes had been mashed, and the last beet boiled, we sat down at the kitchen table.
I noticed a candle in the middle had been lit.
“We will give thanks, now,” my uncle said. And he prayed a short prayer.
I hadn’t eaten so much for a very long time, but I think I was starting to understand. We ate in mostly silence, but silence wasn’t a bad thing. The wood in the stove popped, and Dog sighed every now and then. Wind blew and whistled through the clapboard walls. It was going to be a cold winter.
When I walked outside into the crisp night air, after the dishes had been done and dried and put away, I looked up and the stars were in the thousands above me, twinkling. Full of light. The dark night sky was alive, and here I was, a dot in the universe. A small dot.
I climbed over the fence and found Fern and Fred. I had saved a piece of apple one of the patient’s had brought over, and I offered it to them, and they ate greedily.
The two animals pushed against me, and my eyes began to fill. I put an arm around Fern as Fred pushed his face into mine, and I looked up. The stars shone even brighter. The wind blew, and it was cold. I didn’t know why anything was the way it was, but I knew at that moment that I had a home and I had an uncle, and I had Fern and Fred. I knew that there were a million stars in the sky, and probably more. I knew that at this moment in time, I was OK.
Looking up, I saw the moon. It was a flat, orange plate. I wondered how old it was, and at that very moment, I felt love envelop me like a soft blanket. I can’t explain it. I wish I could.
Fern broke loose from me and Fred gave me a soft nudge.
I heard my uncle calling me to come in.
So I went inside, and closed the door.
I’m sure there’s more, but that’s all that mattered, really.