(excerpt from the novella, The Jossy Farm)
By Lisa Brognano
Derb walked across the acreage through a wild patch of light green stems but the orange flowers were closed in triangular shapes anticipating the storm. He passed a border of grass and came to a steep slope and looked up it. Then he removed his hat before climbing Square Betty, a hill like a box.
“Huh ah oh,” he said, standing on top bent over panting. With his hands on his knees, he mumbled, “Who wants to own land?” He lifted his head and looked out.
The land was a loaf of bread one way and a loaf of bread the other. Everything below and behind him was smeared-robin sky, red-brown, and somewhere the downpour bounced off bean leaves. The air had a cinnamon smell and the coming rain mixed the scent of hens into it. Thick gray and thicker black clouds filled the sky, except for a dazzling blue line on the horizon. Since the hill pushed her corners halfway above the horizon, this line was level with the middle of the slope, coming into it on the left and coming out on the right. If Derb had been standing on the ground he would have called it The Sword Through The Box Trick. This was Nanahoma, though, a place with more farm chores than men wearing hats to do them, and nobody could understand his fascination with the circus.
His head hung down, and the beats of his heart became the bottom of his chin. He stared at the hill, stared at his boots. All the hills on the place were waxy orange that could be dented down deeper to red and black and even purple layers. He uncrossed his arms and lowered one hand and clutched these colors—soft soil suffocated—but he uncurled his fingers as he stood up and scraped them across the jut of his hip. The dirt hit his boots. He liked to let go of the earth.
The rain was fixing to come, and he needed to be on his way to the chicken coops; he turned sideways and slapped on his hat. His posture was flat bone. He had a sunken-in stomach and a pushed-out pelvis. His legs were not the straight kind; his thighs veered backward and his calves curved forward. His knees were onions embedded with pebbles. Tan trousers were obliged to cover what they covered, latticework, and he never rolled them up to walk through a creek. Under his hat his hair was shiny gray with comb marks. He adjusted the brim and looked at the sky.
What crooked square dance did it matter if folks called him lazy old man Jossy married to robust Rita, the only woman who could make a mean corn casserole? Sure, during the dry spells the bean fields needed watering and so did the lettuce beds. Some afternoons he hunched himself on a stump to carve twigs. Tomatoes need straight poles, people told him, and plants will wilt while you look on. In all his years of farming he had never planted a crop on time. On the back porch he strummed the ukulele at midnight if he was restless. Hissing cats came out of the woods. He had never taken one lesson.
Plain and simple he had a pure burden: a brown patch of farm. It had a limp lawn that surrounded a white wooden porch. From the porch you could see five sections of field coming together like patchwork. Squash was sown every third year in the far field because of the angle of sun, and from the porch any crop sown appeared to grow on the horizon. Derb knew how far farming had thrown him from the horse he actually wished to ride. He used to talk to the cows about it. They mooed as he whispered with his head against their bellies, milking them the old fashioned way. “A man like me was never meant to enjoy this soil, this brown heap here.” If he had told Rita the things he discussed with the cows she would have said no man has revelations while milking.
No more milking, though. Not since his thick-as-an-oak decision. He had sold their cows, calling them dizzy cows, for hens, which he called bolstering animals. The cows had lost their sympathy for his predicament of being tied to the land and he had lost his patience milking them. A long time ago he had come home sweating after going through with the sale, and when his wife saw a net of hens against his back, slung over his shoulder, she swung up her apron and piled biscuits into it and went outside, aiming one after the other at the oak. For more than thirty years Rita had been disgraced, not having an equal number of cows as her friend Ida Mae.
Over the years the eggs had become oblong understandings between man and hen, but not between his wife Rita and the whitest chicken. Eggs were fragile or they were beyond that and broken or they were in between that and cracked. Stiff hay made a bed for the brown speckled ones being brought to town; the hay was in a crate with straps for carrying. This morning the farmer set out as the sun curled through the sycamores. Rita reached him as he kicked his first stone up the main dirt road. The hen with the rough feathers had mocked her by laying late, after Derb had already gone. “Hold your stride, you skinny man!” Her bosom hung over the apron band and she wobbled off the grass onto the gravel with a single brown egg.
Breathless, she dug her fist into the hay and felt for a spot to put Betsy Lou’s eleventh-hour oval. Warm to the touch, the egg was rather small and Rita set it deep down out of sight and withdrew her hand from the scratchy hay. On the side of the crate she pressed three quick pats as good luck for the eggs; the hay sticking to her wrist loosened and fell onto the gravel. She walked back on the grass, wringing her hands until a fine mist of hay powder floated down the length of her apron. She had left biscuits baking in the oven.
Outside the house, she drew her eyes along the arrows of sun coming over a diamond-shaped patch, no strawberries yet. She pushed back the screen door and took the sun as her blindness into the house.
By midday she stepped onto the porch and closed her eyes. The noon sun always warmed her throat and she could smell the booty of the breeze, the white and pink flowers that smelled like roses. She stood on a loose, moaning plank, and if she shifted her weight, it moaned more. When her throat felt melty she placed one hand above her eyes to shield them as they came open. Quickly she flung that hand down, smacking it against her other fingers and clapping. She clapped, clapped, clapped until the hens danced off the porch.
“That Derb gives me hens,” she shouted. “Good cows all gone.” If she clapped extra the hens would step up their waddling and trip on the long bumpy roots of the oak in the bluish matted grass. Some of their feathers swayed into the grooves of the tree and got stuck there. “Don’t he have no sense to keep a cow? His whole ancestry,” she said and licked her lips, “ain’t worth a twig.”
True as the rain and dirty as the mud, Derb had never been seized by booklearning. He had a hereditary mental famine. His relatives used to bump along in the bed of the farm truck past the schoolhouse. At a slow roll they eased out their arms to pat the bark of at least forty trees touchable from where they sat on the hay bales in the Ford. Their fingertips would bleed on the way back to the farm and their eyes would be sore from the line of gleam they had seen on the steeple bell.
Same as now, Derb had been fencepost narrow as a boy. His teacher did not reckon that such a narrow human being could hold food and water and learning all in the same rod of flesh. She took all the books away from him and told him not to worry. He had grown up with his own way of doing things, relying on his hands.
Derb could spend his time, easy he could, just carving and learning new tricks to perform with Son, his knife. To see the new tricks, the children from the close farms would leap over lush brush and run through a pack of weeds, jumping over stumps, sticks, and underground storage cellars. They would skid through the creek and get their wet ankles caked with dirt on the backroads. They would never run around things, but only through them or overtop. When the tallest boy in the group was able to see the Jossy farm over the next hill, he would shout for everyone to stand still and rub their ankles together until the dry dirt flaked off. Derb could always sense that they were on their way and would head to the barn to find his old fashioned book strap. Without nicking a single binding, Son could cut the strap, and not one book would tumble down as it fell away.
The closest thing Rita had to a knife that never nicked a book was a needle that always stitched a quilt. Her wrists quivered while she quilted. Arthritis. It revolted against her. She would clear her throat and sigh, and with a curled fist floating in the air, pull the quilt away from her bulbous eyes. After hours of stomping fabric against one palm to flatten it, her fingers felt like crippled miniature elephant legs.
All farmwomen quilt. All farmwomen cook, tend kitchen, wash trousers. They adore quilting over cooking, mending, washing, tending.
Ida Mae, whose pigs and geese glowed under moonlight, lived on the next acreage twenty miles south of Right Angle Farm, the Jossy’s place. Rita and Ida Mae quilted together on the white wooden porch twice per week while they bickered about butter. Both their great-grandmothers had churned as children, winning contests. Derb usually stayed under a far off tree and paid the women no mind, though their voices shot to him, fresh and tart, and broke the peace he was feeling from having the warm sun on his elbow and a good gray shade on the bird he was carving. He would hear them talk about their lazy husbands and then they would hush.
When something occupied a woman’s hands she did her talking at the same rate as she did her sewing; if she stopped to knot the thread, she broke off her story, and the moment she poked the needle into the fabric again she would say, “So you see, it didn’t matter none that she put the pie down in front of him because he just looked glum down at it and asked why was his coffee cold.” Some women could say a few words while wetting the thread between their lips and some had to keep quiet. It all depended on their level of skill.
With or without cows Rita was a better quilter than Ida Mae. Of course she wanted beasts, her own fresh milk, but homely poultry was what came up on her porch, not cows. At the end of their visits Ida Mae would gather up her patches and put them into a square box that had a floppy rope handle: “Got to get home to my cows, dear, and you best wait on your hens till their morning laying, I reckon.” Rita would say, “Don’t trip down the stairs, dear.”
Once Derb had nicked a twig in the wrong place because the women had said goodbye so loudly. They had been cackling about melon rinds and canning berries and then the conversation had stopped short. Ida Mae had hobbled down the stairs with her basket banging against her big round hip, and when she had come to the tree where Derb was carving a small barn, she paused and watched him carve the door. Then she shook her head and said, “You fool.”
How many times had Rita said to Ida Mae You got the better farmer and I got my hopes washed through?
“Married a fine, finer man than yours, I reckon yes,” Ida Mae would reply. “And butter needs its beating if you ask me.”
Six rusty horseshoes were nailed on the wall above the sofa. The cushions were sunken in at opposite ends but the middle one was plump and not a bit faded. Rita sat at one end examining what she had sewn yesterday. “Oh gee my no,” she said and ripped out the stitches. She would destroy to a certain extent, and then hold herself back. She moved into the kitchen and found something else to do.
The Jossy home was small and simply furnished. The kitchen had a round wooden table and not much else. Through the window the sun spread over the biscuits that had been set aside to cool, warming them again. She never felt the urge to break off a piece and nibble at it like some women did. Derb was out at the silo and she would send him a fat meal when the little children arrived to take the tray. A boy with buck teeth and a girl with blonde braids came each day and tapped on the door; Rita paid them by lowering gigantic cookies onto their small open hands. Lately the boy had had a long face, so Rita had decided that when they came today she would peek out the window.
Within the hour she was watching them go down the porch steps and walk over the bumpy roots of the oak and stop under the branches. Then the girl kissed him and he gave her the cookie. With a cookie sticking out of her pocket and one shoved in her mouth, she walked ahead with the tray while he reached up and yanked a leaf off the low branch, tore it in two, threw it down, and then ran to catch up with her. The two children would start school next season and then Derb would have to come up to the house for his juice and bread and pork.
Into a deep copper pan with dull iron handles she boiled a handful of flat beans. They were from last season’s crop, one of the few bags left in the freezer. As the water heated the pan rumbled.
Soon she drained the pan and set the beans in a bowl. She crammed corn into a metal food tub and covered the kernels with water to soak out the silk. To poke out any remaining silk she used one of her longer needles. She grinned and boiled the corn. Whenever she boiled the needle by mistake, it became shiny and warm.
While the corn boiled she polished the chrome of the toaster. The toaster only heated the left slice, leaving it pale and flimsy. “But that’s no waste of time,” she said of polishing, “for it keeps the kitchen.” She lifted her bosom and dented her waist to curl a towel through the apron band. “And if a woman don’t keep the kitchen, the kitchen ain’t kept, and then the farm folds.”
By peeking over the pot through the steam at a surface of slowly erupting bubbles she could tell the corn needed to boil longer, and so she replaced the lid, immediately making the rumble less loud. Singing in a high whisper she moved over to the counter and touched the biscuits which had cooled to her satisfaction; she tilted the pan until half of them were piled on a blue tin plate.
With the towel wedged in her apron she hobbled back to the den to take up her quilt. Everybody said the den was a sluggish den, a small space that would just as soon trip you to enter it as leave you be. The highlight of the room was a handmade chest. It was three-feet high and six long with a farm scene on two of the three door panels that went across the front, the middle panel plain. The chest was under the window and light slanted onto it.
Rita remembered how the woodworker and his son had carried the chest unevenly down the hall, with the father’s end higher than the boy’s, both of them wiping their brows when it was put down in the den. She recalled that day clearly. Feelings don’t die in three short years, this much she knew, and not this alone, for wise folks say good memories stack up the same way fruit in a basket does. She knew why feelings did not die. It was because a genuine feeling could not be stabbed by any of the organs inside of a person, on account of the heart being shaped like a strawberry and just as soft.
It had happened three years ago, a sort of sweet fuss, and the weather had been gray-yellow. In front of her stove she had stood watching the mill man’s muscles easing the low chest through the screen door and setting it down on one end, for his boy to rest. He had tipped his hat in the direction of the stove but his boy had not worn one and had just nodded.
“Watch it there—turn it thettawez, boy, that’s it, you’re doing fine, come on now—easy, easy—under the window—easy, easy—thud.”
The whole town stood in their shoes. Folks used the phrase standing in your shoes to mean everyone stopped what they were doing and hurried to some new event, driven by their own sense of witnessing all the spunk in farm life. They arrived and eyed her deluxe doll of a thing, surprised that the wood of an Osage orange tree could be tamed. Rita had already filled it with spare candles and linens and handwritten crop-planting calendars, which a little boy happened to find when he tried all the doors. Then he showed his mother the paper with all the dates on it, and she told him to put back other folks record-keeping and hush up.
The four short legs of the chest squatted on the rug and people were tightly packed, either standing or kneeling. By the way the older women were angling their necks, Rita believed they were noticing how well she had shampooed her rug, and was not surprised to see some odd sandals pressing into the fluffiness of it. A few foreign women wore small crate shoes with antler buckles because they had come from the creek where they had been washing the clothes of their husbands, sons, and male relatives. These refugees wanted nothing to do with any modern advances that were less precise than human hands, and for some reason they referred to washing machines as small post offices. One of them removed her peasant shoes, knelt down, and dragged her apron over the wood. The look on her face was wide and smooth. If she had known the etching would be as bumpy as a washboard she would have lugged her basketful of trousers into this room. All the damp clothes were on the porch in the sun and she fretted they would get moldy or dry wrinkled.
The mill man tucked himself close to the curtain to watch everyone. The heat from the window came onto his shoulders. He smacked his lips together.
The woman put her shoes back on and turned to him. “Dear mill man,” she said, “you’ve outdone what your papa used to do.”
All the town knew that he kept his work inside his heart, just like he stored his tools in a sack. And even though he loved difficult woods, he had suffered this time, more than any other. His heart was sinking and would not stop sinking. If he had told the woman in her awkward shoes about his sinking heart, she would have said, “You’ll die standing up,” and then she would have stamped her feet to prove it.
It was Artisan Pang—that deep feeling—that hollow feeling of having worked hard without reaching a level of calm love for what the wood had become. He had given Rita Jossy the chest with two beautiful panels and one blank one. His mind was blocked.
For the entire first year that the chest was in Rita’s possession, he had come once a week to stare at the empty panel, choosing to walk the distance from his mill to their farm when it poured, thundered, and the world looked purple-gray. How many times had he refused to wrap himself in Rita’s quilt, though he was soaked to the bone? He would tip his soggy hat and go down the short hall. Kneeling on the rug, he would rub the smooth panel from the top to the bottom like stroking the nose of a horse. Then he would pull his hand away. Then he would thrust it forward to slap his own work. When he was ready to leave, the world was black, and the rain was white against it. Putting on his wet hat he would stand on the porch saying, “No, I don’t need any, thank you,” to the coffee she was holding out to him, to warm him before he jumped into the rain.
For the duration of the second year, he had come only once a month, on days when the sun went haywire and the clouds blocked it in short spurts.
At the start of this year, the third since she had received the chest, Rita had wondered how often he would come and in what kind of weather. That was nine months ago. He had been keeping himself away. It was obvious that the prayers of the peasant women had not yet been answered. For three years they had been gathering down at the creek not only to wash their clothes but to hold hands and ask God to inspire the mill man so that he could finish what he had started. They would appoint a different woman each time to stand on a rock and shout, “The crafty man’s all tortured, Lord, not having nothing to carve in that bare, bare place. So we pray for him now because we love our neighbor.” Most of them had known an empty feeling at some point in their lives.
To the right of the empty panel was a little wooden farmer with his hands on his hips surveying the leafy crops. Rita called him Pawnee Bill because her great-grandmother had grown up in the Wild West era. “My granny had me climb up and hear,” Rita whispered to the walls. “Folks sure did call him spectacular. He even called himself darn good. He was full of confidence like a cowboy is.”
All alone in the den she talked out loud as if it was good for memories to come alive once in a while. “Granny stole something of Pawnee’s. His poster right off the side of a pig farmer’s barn.”
The fabric in her lap was curling up and she stretched it out. “But the menudspit,” she said. “They’d spit on the tops of their boots because Pawnee Bill was so handsome.”
The quilt twisted over her wrists as she threw the lower part over her ankles. “When I was born granny wanted Pa to name me after Pawnee Bill’s wife. Pa said I’m calling the girl Rita for no reason but I like Rita and want it Rita. His mama’s mama’d seen May ride the broncs. Brave,” said Rita, “like a hill knows it’s higher than you are.”
She looked across the room at the chest. The farmer on the left she called Guthrie since her sister lived there, old and unmarried. “Guthrie,” she said, “I’ve got to tell you my sister has no pretty side.”
Guthrie was crouching holding a hat no bigger than three watermelon seeds. It had a purpose, though, a darn fool fine one. The mill man had been trying to depict the act of fanning the underbellies of two hot oxen. He had done it too sweet precise, Rita thought, too sweet precise. It seemed that every time she kneeled on the rug and got close to that hat, her eyes were swept cool, as if the little etched man got her, too, with his dandy fanning.
In about three months she would bake a Lemon Lopside cake and top it with curling slivers of lemon rind. For the past two years she had marked the anniversary of the chest by driving down the right number of candles into gooey gold frosting. With her mouth open above the candles she would laugh and the flames would flicker and go out without having been officially blown on. A shallow dish of potato hash would be simmering on the stove as she shoved the spatula into her apron and picked up the phone. “While I’ve still got me some breath in this old body,” she had said last year, “I’ll bake that chest a cake.” She had also said, “Bring your boy. We need a strong boy to help with the candles.”
The mill man had held the phone aside to call out to his son over the roar of the rip saws asking his boy about taking a break for a silly old party. Putting the phone back on his ear he had shouted: “We’ll do our best to come, thank you, Rita.”
Neither of them came and Rita always had the party alone. “Oh my King of Heaven,” she would roar, “I got the furniture of a queen. Sit me down, somebody. Oh Lordy, sit me down.” After plopping herself on the couch she would stammer, “I reckon he’ll come this year.”
For the past two years the party had lasted about an hour while Rita sat on the couch across from the chest quilting and recalling the shape of the mill man’s head. She knew that a man’s head got much more oval as he got older and that a man’s face wandered between satisfied and hungry all his life. (His pockmarks would not have grown deeper in nine months.) It comforted her to know that he had the prayers of the peasants, but other than those kindhearted people, nobody made it their business to bless Rita’s furniture. In fact, she continued to suspect jealousy from the other farmer’s wives by their manner of shucking peas in her presence; the peas would practically bounce out of their bowls. The only real hope these other women had was that the passage of time would weaken Rita, until she took her furniture for granted like the rest of them.
The screen door squeaked. Derb had come in from the barn’s dim light to square himself in the den’s jamb. His cheeks were like long pear halves. His teeth were short and neat. He always stopped at the door to fill his eyes with the sight of the chest. Rita did this too but for another reason. From the jamb, the couch did not exist, only the chest. A person standing at the door bending a twig through his fingers would not have seen a person sitting on the couch quilting. That twig was going to be a little ladder for a trick.
Derb walked into the room and sat at the opposite end of the couch. He put the twig in his lap while he took off his hat and set it on the plump middle cushion between them. He could see a sparkle in his wife’s eye. He almost didn’t see it, but then he saw it because he had to reach at his ankle and itch the bone. While tilting his head beside his knee, he plainly saw the sparkle in his wife’s eye.
Rita saw Derb watching her. How different, she thought, that he’d finally found his eyes in a haystack.
Rita had been remembering the very last time when the mill man—who was almost as thin as Derb—had squeaked in through the screen door. He had knocked, but she had kept herself so still. It had taken all her courage just to uncross her ankles as he came down the hall.
“Oh, I came to see you,” the mill man had said, standing in the jamb. “I came to touch you.”
“Well my gracious,” she’d said from the couch, “well my gracious.”
He came into the room and saw her there, with a spool on her knee, and his face got red because it had been so quiet as he came down the hall. He said, “Oh you’re sewing,” and tipped his hat. When he took it off, the tops of his ears were red but starting to fade to their normal color.
He turned his hat in his hands, gripping it in different places along the rim. He thought he had been staring at the wood nonchalantly, until she said, “You got your eyes glued.” Then she parted her lips in the same way a teacup is pulled away from its saucer. “I’ve got fresh lemonade and it’s cold.” Before he could shake his head to say no, no, I best be getting back, she dropped the spool. He held it out to her.
“Is it mine? You’ve given me so much already. Maybe that’s why you’ve come. To take it all back. Yes, I reckon you have. Do you smell my corn loaf? I set it out to cool.”
About the Author:
Lisa Brognano has two master’s degrees, one in English and one in Art. She has taught high school English and Art. Fifteen of her poems and seventeen of her articles on the arts have been published. Currently, she lives with her husband in New York.