1:2 | Fiction |
"Surprise!" yelled a familiar voice, and Hallie McCreedy
nearly dropped the flower pot on the blue egg she was just about to cover.
She tried to turn, but the hands over her eyes held her head steady.
"Is it the Easter bunny?" she joked.
The warm hands released her, and she pivoted to see her cousin. "Hey, Will," she chirped,
looking up into his sea green eyes.
Eight or nine years ago, when she was a little girl and Will a handsome
teen-ager, she had thought there should be a crayon that color.
"Hey yourself," he replied.
"I thought you were the one who finds all the eggs."
"Too old," Hallie declared.
"I'm 13 next month."
"Oh, well," said Will, "that is old."
"Yeah, so Aunt Cora said I could hide 'em instead."
Will smiled. "Well,
that seems right, since you know all the hiding places."
The Easter egg hunt was traditionally preceded by lunch, which was
a complicated affair now that the family had reached its present size. Adults sat around the big oval table in
the formal dining room, children
of all sizes rimmed the farm table in the kitchen, and parents constantly
ran back and forth. Hallie sat
on a stool at the kitchen bar with her ten-year-old cousin Wendell and watched
for the children at the table to drop food on the floor or spill things. She didn't much feel like eating, but
she put one deviled egg, a few green beans, and some jello salad on her plate
and moved them around with her fork.
She'd eaten only a few beans when her great-aunt Cora came in and said
passing, "Honey, you sure ain't eatin' much."
"I ate some," Hallie replied, spooning some jello into her
Ruth, who'd followed Cora to the kitchen, took her aunt aside and whispered
something. Cora smiled and, leaning
into Hallie's ear on her way back through, whispered, "You got the cramps,
Aunt Cora!" the girl exclaimed, glancing over at Wendell. "I told you I ate some."
and returned to the dining room carrying a big bowl of mashed potatoes.
"On your mark, get set, GO!" yelled Uncle Curtis after lunch,
as a wave of children broke loose from the front sidewalk and washed across
the yard carrying baskets and sand buckets and plastic ice cream tubs to hold
"I found one!" yelled Hallie's six-year-old cousin Lindsay,
waving a pink egg in the direction of her mother, Lila.
"That's a real pretty one, honey," Lila replied.
"I got four, Mama!" shrieked Wendell at Lila.
"That's real good, honey.
Now you let the little ones have a turn," his mother admonished.
Cora turned to Curtis on the front steps, and Hallie heard her say,
"This'll prob'ly be his last year. He's too big for it.
He'll have to help you and Hallie hide 'em instead."
"Oh, I don't know," said Curtis.
"He who hides the eggs must keep the secret.
"At least 'till after lunch," Hallie said, grinning.
little cousin Esther stood in the middle of the yard with her finger in her
mouth, looking up into the oak tree above her. Will hurried down the steps and steered her toward the side
yard. "Go look under that
flower pot, sweetie," he told her.
cheatin'!" yelled Wendell. "He
said his mother, "she's three, honey.
You go on back around the house and see what you can find along the
"Well, if Will's cheatin'," smiled Cora, "he comes by
it honest. I don't believe an Easter went by when
his daddy didn't drop hints to Miss Hallie, here."
Curt snorted. "I
don't know what you're talkin' about," he said, winking in Hallie's direction,
and everybody laughed.
Later, as Wendell and a few of the older children prowled around the
cinder-block wall behind the house with Curtis yelling "warm" or
"cold," Hallie sat on the front porch glider with her mother and
Cora. "Mama," she said,
"am I gonna feel like this every month for the rest of my life?'
"Well," her mother said, laughing, "not for your whole
life. Just until you're too old to have babies anymore."
Hallie thought about this, remembering the discussion she and her mother
had when she was eight and her brother, Henry,
came along. "When will that
be?" she asked.
"Oh, a long time, " her mother replied.
"Don't you worry, honey," her Aunt Cora said, patting her
knee. "One of these days, you'll have you
a pretty little baby, and you'll understand."
Hallie thought about this. "I'll probably have two babies,"
she decided. "Grandmama Lucy had two babies, Mama
and Naomi. Mama had two, me and
Henry. Aunt Naomi had two, Esther
and Ronnie. Aunt Lila had two,
Wendell and Lindsay. And you
had two, Aunt Cora, Will and Linda.
Seems like everybody in this family has two babies."
Cora and Ruth exchanged a look.
When Ruth nodded slightly, Cora said, "Well, actually, honey,
I had three babies."
"Three?" said Hallie with surprise.
"Who's the other one?"
"Well," said Cora, taking a deep breath.
"When your cousin Will was born, he had a brother."
"You mean they were twins?" Hallie asked, turning her head
sideways a little.
"Yes, identical twins," her aunt replied.
"Will was the first-born."
"What was his brother's name?" ask Hallie.
Cora looked at her such a long time before answering that Hallie thought
her aunt might have forgotten. "His
name was Phillip," she finally said.
"He was named after your uncle Curtis. Curtis Phillip Reed, Jr." She glanced across at Hallie's mother. "And your cousin Will was named after
my father, William Ezra."
Hallie studied her aunt's face.
She heard a bird singing off near the clothes line.
Finally, she asked softly, "What happened to Phillip, Aunt Cora?"
"Hallie, that's a lot of questions," her mother said.
"No, Ruth, it's all right," said Cora.
"She's gettin' to be a big girl now. She's old enough to know it."
Hallie listened while Cora told about how happy she and Curtis had
been to have twins, two green-eyed boys who could be playmates for each other
and help their father with the chores.
After their birth, Cora would linger after hanging the wash, imagining
the lines hanging with two sets of matching
socks and underwear and dungarees. She'd
sit on the porch picturing the boys walking off down the lane, dressed identically,
to meet the school bus. Cora sighed, and Hallie waited for her to continue.
Then, that winter, the children in the holler started falling sick,
and soon everyone learned a new word:
polio. Cora had taken a basket of food to the
McConnell house, where all four children had been out of school several days
with fevers and sore throats. The
worst case was five-year-old Walter, who lay on a chaise under the big front
window, unable to move his arms or legs.
Cora remembered how the boy stared listlessly out the window as his
mother knelt beside him, stroking his damp bangs away from his glazed eyes. I hope that sickness doesn't come to my
babies, she had prayed.
But within the week it had come, first to William and then to Phillip. She would never forget the afternoon that
she'd laid her hand on William's cheek and tried to believe he wasn't hot. Then she'd tried to reason away his heat,
but she couldn't argue with the thermometer Curtis brought in from the medicine
cabinet. For the next two days,
she'd kept the boys in separate bedrooms, and she always washed her hands
with bleach water when she went from one to the other. Curtis had mostly looked after Phillip,
she after William.
"Except of course for feedin' him," Hallie said, then glanced
quickly at her aunt. Was that too personal? she wondered.
"Yes, except that," said her aunt weakly.
By the evening of the second day, Cora had stood looking out the window
over the sink at Curtis coming across the yard from the chicken coop with
the egg basket. Just as she had
decided to ask him to call for Dr. Jenkins in the morning, she'd seen snowflakes
falling against his blue work shirt.
By the time they had finished supper, there were two inches on the
ground, and by the next morning, Curtis had to shovel out the gates to get
to the animals.
After breakfast, Curtis had walked down the lane to the grocery for
corn meal, sugar, shortening, and news.
He'd returned with fresh snowflakes on his shoulders to tell Cora that
Walter McConnell had been taken to Charlottesville to be put in an iron lung. The McConnells had just beaten the snow
out of the holler. The outlook,
everyone said, was not good, but someone had telephoned Dr. Jenkins, who promised
to come as soon as he could get off his own ridge.
Cora remembered a picture she had seen in Life magazine of a teen-aged
girl encased in a metal cylinder, her head sticking out the top. Something about it reminded Cora of the beetles she swept off
the porch steps every spring.
She thought of little Walter in the antiseptic hospital, little Walter
who carried a crawdad or a little lizard around in his overalls pocket every
summer. For the first time since
the boys fell sick, Cora cried.
After lunch, they sponged the boys with alcohol, and by four o'clock,
William had taken a turn for the better.
He seemed hungry and let Cora nurse him without fussing for the first
time in two days. Phillip had
also stopped crying, but he wouldn't take her breast, and by the time Curtis
went outside to milk the cow and bed down the livestock, the child was burning
up with fever.
Cora sat rocking Phillip slowly, staring out across the front yard,
where a lone junco hopped about in the snow, searching for anything not white. Phillip was strangely quiet, and for a
time Cora wished he would begin crying again, just to show some sign of life.
She tried putting his mouth to her breast again, and just as she thought
he might begin to suck, his whole body stiffened, as though he might cough
hard. She looked down and saw him going blue
in the face, and she opened his mouth to look for a sign of something lodged
in his throat.
The next thing she knew she was hanging out the back door, clutching
Phillip to her, watching Curtis run from the barn, milk sloshing from the
bucket that he couldn't think to put down.
Her bodice was still unbuttoned— she'd felt the icy wind against
her chest and thought her heart might be giving out.
Curtis had laid the baby out on the table and examined his mouth again,
then flipped him over and patted his tiny shoulders firmly, over and over. They thought the stiffness seemed to be
going out of him, but for the first few minutes, they did not realize why. It was only when Cora noticed Phillip's
eyes fixed, empty, on the adjacent wall that she knew he would not be saved.
She covered his small body with her own, and Curtis slumped into a
Long into the dark night, Cora sat trying to rock life back into Phillip,
but she was not sure he ever breathed again.
Curtis sat helpless on the bed nearby, holding William. For the first several hours, neither of
them moved, and sometime later Curtis asked if she'd like something to eat.
But she took nothing that night, and nothing but a cup of hot tea the
next day. By the time Dr. Jenkins finally got through, she was going
on forty-eight hours without food. As
he explained that the baby's throat had apparently become paralyzed, choking
him, she just sat staring into the fire, his deep bass echoing like the voice
of God in her head.
She didn't remember anything between that conversation and the crowd
of people in the house, all the women asking her if she couldn't eat something,
and all the men patting Curtis's shoulder solemnly.
Finally, late that afternoon, she'd stood alone on the hill below the
church, watching Curtis and some other men shovel dirt and snow onto the tiny
casket. It was still snowing
some, as if to spite her.
As Cora neared the end of her story, her eyes rimmed with tears. Curtis, who'd come up partway through,
sat with his big brown hand over hers.
"It was a hard time," he said.
"A real hard time. For
a spell, I thought Mommy here had left me, too."
"But we got through it,"
she said, bringing her apron tail up to wipe her eyes. "We came to understand," she said, looking right
at Hallie, "that the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Ain't that right, Curt?"
Hallie thought Uncle Curtis looked startled, then noticed him looking
across the yard, past the clothesline.
She decided his attention must have wondered off.
"Yes," he said finally.
"Yes, we did get through it."
Hallie wanted to ask what her aunt meant about God and the mysterious
ways, but Curtis stood so quickly it startled her.
"I'd best go see that Wendell hasn't led them little ones off
into the weeds," he said, starting down the steps.
Hallie scooted half a seat over on the glider so that her thighs were
right against her grandmother's. She
looked at Cora's face, searching for something like the scar on her own knee
from the deep cut she'd had when she was five.
But all she saw was her own aunt, and the woman in the story began
to seem like someone in a book she'd read or seen in a movie on t.v., someone
she felt sorry for but didn't really know.
While Cora and Lila and her mother were in the kitchen washing the
lunch dishes, Hallie and Wendell and the younger children sat on the porch
rubbing ink from a pad on their footsoles and stamping their footprints onto
pieces of paper from a drawing tablet.
Hallie had learned to make her footprints in kindergarten, and she
still liked examining the curves and whorls of her skin's texture. She held out her hand and studied it, thinking that it looked
like a tiny map with roads running off in many directions.
Wendell laid his footprint over next to hers, noting, "Mine's real different from yours, Hallie."
"Of course it is, son," said Will from the porch swing. "No two people have the same fingerprints or footprints."
"Not even identical twins, Uncle Will?" asked Hallie, looking
up at him.
Will looked briefly surprised;
then his face softened. "Not
even identical twins," he said.
"Make your footprint, daddy," said Wendell.
"All right," said his father, kicking off his right loafer
and pulling off his sock. "But
I'm going to have trouble getting my foot on that stamp pad."
Hallie lay on her aunt's bed, clutching the hot water bottle to her
abdomen. She looked out the window and across the
side yard, imagining it covered in
deep snow, imagining her Cora staring across it, trying to rock the life back
into her baby. Hallie's eyes
roamed the room, coming to rest on Cora and Curtis's black-and-white wedding
picture. They smiled down from
the front steps of the church Hallie had passed on every visit to their house.
Cora wore a light-colored jacket and skirt, and the jacket had something
that looked like fur around the collar.
Curtis's hair gleamed wet and slick, and his wire-rimmed glasses looked
a little too narrow for his eyes. He
wore a dark suit, a light shirt, and a narrow tie.
He stood on Cora's left, with his right arm hidden behind her and his
left across his own body, clutching her left elbow.
He looked as if he were pulling her away from Hallie's grandparents,
who stood to Cora's right. His
parents were at his left, and the preacher was just a head floating above
them at the center. Across
the top of the double wooden doors, a sign read, "Daniel Boone Freewill
Baptist Church." Curtis
and Cora looked happy, Hallie thought, and she was glad they could not foresee
the sadness that lay only a few years ahead of them.
It seemed funny that she had been in this house so many times and yet
had no idea there had been another child.
She glanced about the room for evidence of Phillip's existence, and
her eyes stopped at the framed photographs on the bookshelf beside the closet. Hallie sat up and flopped over on her
stomach, leaning off the foot of the bed to study the pictures. All those were William, she guessed —
well, certainly the one of him in the high school graduation gown, in his
basketball shorts so much shorter than any she had seen, then with Lila in
his wedding picture, and in a Scout uniform standing proudly beside a tent. But what about the babies? Were they all William? Hallie studied them for any sign, anything
she didn't recognize, but they all looked like the cousin she knew.
She remembered the baby books in the cedar chest and pushed herself
up off the bed. William's she
had seen before, but farther down in the chest, under a quilt top and some
dress patterns, she found another scrapbook she did not recognize. She drew it out and stepped to the bed. Opening the book toward the center, she
leafed backwards through what she found there — only three or four pages
with anything on them. One was
an announcement from the local paper.
"Curtis Phillip Reed, infant son of Curtis and Cora Reed, died
Wednesday, January 6, 1943, at the home." Hallie scanned all the family names she recognized, thinking
of all the people who had known about Phillip longer than they had known her.
Her mother, and surely her father, her grandparents, her aunts and
uncles. She felt somehow separated from them all now, as though they
and she were on opposite sides of a creek with no crossing in sight.
She turned the page backwards and found a picture of Cora and Curtis
and two babies, sitting on a couch in the same living room she knew so well. Under the picture, in Cora's handwriting,
Hallie read the words "First Christmas." And last, she thought — but for which one? Hallie stared at the baby in Cora's
arms and thought, "maybe that one." After all, when Cora had said, "he was named after your
uncle," there was something in her voice that Hallie had never heard
before, something close and private.
Surely the one she was holding would be him, Hallie thought. But she couldn't be certain.
There were a few more black-and-white photographs, and, on the first
page of the scrapbook, a birth certificate with a tiny set of footprints. Hallie measured them between her thumb
and forefinger and marveled that they were smaller than the feet of most of
the dolls now hibernating in her parents' attic. Her eyes followed the pattern of the swirls across the arch,
and suddenly she had an idea. Crossing
back to the chest, she took Will's baby book from the chest and laid it on
the bed. She opened it to his
tiny footprints, and arranged the books so that the two pages were side by
side, Phillip's on her right, Will's on her left. She studied the curving lines and noticed that although they
were alike in many ways, there were some faint differences. As she began to trace a line below Will's
left toe, Hallie heard a soft knock at the door.
Shuffling Phillip's scrapbook quickly under the other one, she called,
Her mother opened the door a foot and stuck her head in. "How you feelin', honey?' she asked.
"I still have the cramps and my head hurts."
"When have you had your Midol?" Ruth came into the room.
"Right after lunch. It
helped a little."
"You can probably have another one," her mother commented,
feeling Hallie's forehead with her hand.
No matter what her ailment, Hallie's mother always felt for fever.
"Mama," said Hallie, "it's sad about Aunt Cora's baby."
"Yes, honey, it is." Her mother sat beside her.
"Why didn't you ever tell me about it?"
"Well," said Ruth, "a person has to be old enough to
understand a story like that."
"Am I old enough now?"
"I think so. Your
Aunt Cora must think so. She
"How do you know if someone's old enough?" asked Hallie.
"Well, you don't always."
Her mother ran two fingers through Hallie's bangs.
"Sometimes you take a chance, telling family stories. But the fact that someone tells you a
story like that should make you feel like they love you, like you're their
own flesh and blood."
"Sometimes family stories make you feel funny, though," said
Hallie "Sort of like when my friend Tracy's
brother died and I never knew he was in Vietnam to begin with."
"You mean that it's strange to find out something important about
the people you love that you didn't know before?" asked her mother.
"Yeah," said Hallie.
After a moment's thought, she added, "Did you ever have any other
babies besides me and Henry?"
Her mother smiled. "No,
sweetie. You and your brother are enough for me."
"Do you think Will and Linda are enough for Aunt Cora?" Hallie
looked her mother straight in the eye.
"Well, now she has Wendell and Lindsay, too," her mother
replied without hesitation. "And
she and Curt have always been crazy about you."
Hallie smiled. "But
I think she still misses Phillip."
Ruth studied her daughter's face.
"Wouldn't we miss Henry, if something happened to him?'
"Well, I guess so," admitted Hallie, wrinkling her nose. "Most days."
"I'm going to get you another pill," said her mother, getting
"I'll get it." Hallie unfolded her legs.
"I have to get something else anyway."
"Okay," said Ruth, moving toward the door.
"But don't get all involved in one of your Nancy Drew books. It's nearly time for supper."
When Hallie returned to the bedroom, she pulled the smaller scrapbook
back out and studied the patterns again.
Then she took the pages she'd retrieved from the front porch and decided
to play a little game. She'd
pretend she was Nancy Drew, looking at all the footprints and trying to match
one of them to Will's baby book. She took the magnifying glass out of Cora's
sewing box on the chest of drawers and laid out all the footprints on the
bed. With her feet on the floor
and elbows on the bed, she leaned across the pages, studying each pattern.
She looked at Esther's, then Ronnie's.
She expected Wendell's and Lindsay's to be more like their father's,
but they were no closer a match than hers and the other cousins.
If she had just picked five strangers off the street, she couldn't
have found more differences.
Finally, she aligned the paper with Will's left foot alongside the
scrapbook. She moved the magnifying glass over
the inked image, studying the curves and lines. Then, she moved to the baby book, scrutinizing its patterns.
There was a distinctive deep swirl just under the toe line, and Hallie
traced it with her eye to the outside of the foot, where it curved back inward
toward the arch like the top of a question mark.
She put the glass down on her knee.
Something about the big image reminded her of the map of Africa she'd
traced in Mrs. Wing's class, labeling each carefully copied country, ending
with "South Africa" where the heel was.
She glanced back over at the baby book, and suddenly her breath stopped. How could she not have noticed the name
under the picture? Curtis Phillip
Reed. Jr., it said. Phillip. She had the wrong footprint. She pulled Will's scrapbook to the
top and placed the big stamped footprint beside it, then repositioned the
magnifying glass. She studied
every corner of the smaller print, but she could not find the swirl. Time after time, she moved the glass between
the paper and the baby book, but every time, she reached the same conclusion:
they just don't match. Hallie
check Phillip's scrapbook one more time, her forehead wrinkled. She put down the glass again and looked up at her aunt's wedding-day
image on the bookshelf. "You
couldn't even tell your own babies apart!" Hallie said aloud. "You put their footprints in the
wrong books." She shook
her head, laughing softly. It
made her feel a little better about not being able to pick Will out of the
Hallie replaced the books in the trunk
and the magnifying glass in the sewing box, then turned the doorknob. Just wait 'till I tell them, she thought.
She could hear the intermittent tapping of checkers on a board from
the front room, as she turned toward the back of the house.
In the kitchen, her mother washed a head of lettuce and Cora arranged
rolls on a pan. Curt sat at the
table, pulling on his barn boots. Lila,
stirring a pitcher of iced tea, looked up as she came in. "Hi, sweetie," she said, and
noting the look on Hallie's face, added, "you still feel bad?"
"I'm all right," Hallie said.
"Guess what, Aunt Cora?
I found Phillip's baby book."
"Well," said Cora, "it's been a while since I've seen
"Yeah," said Hallie, "I hope you don't mind if I looked
"No, that's fine, child," Cora said, brushing the roll tops
"Well," Hallie went on, "I wanted to ask you about something
I found there." Curt, his hand on the doorknob, stopped
to listen. "You see, we
were making our footprints on the porch earlier, and—"
Just at that moment, Wendell burst into the kitchen, pursued by his
shrieking sister. He held Lindsay's
doll out in front of himself, as she wailed, "Gimme it!" Halfway to the oven, Cora turned to see what the commotion
was about, and the doll and the pan collided, scattering dough everywhere.
"Wendell," began his mother, "how many times have I
"Hey, Hallie," called her uncle, by the door.
"Why don't we clear out of here and start the chores?"
"But Uncle Curt," she said, "I wanted to ask Aunt Cora—"
"Maybe later," he said.
"I'll bet ol' Nellie wants milkin'.
Besides, you don't really want to watch Wendell get lectured, do you?"
She didn't, and besides, she loved gathering the brown eggs even more
than finding the brightly colored ones.
So she followed her uncle. It
was cooler than during the egg hunt, and she was glad she'd put her shoes
back on. When they reached the shed at the end
of the yard, Hallie went into the first room and carefully lifted eggs from
the nesting boxes. She
took down a basket from a hook on the wall and placed six or seven eggs inside. Then she washed and refilled the waterer
and sprinkled some corn on the ground. When Curtis finished counting the hens, he declared, "They're all here. So what's the score today?"
twenty-two, fox zero," Hallie obliged.
She followed her uncle over to the barn, handing him the metal bucket
after he positioned himself on the stool beside the Holstein, Nellie. But she was surprised to see that
he didn't begin milking right away.
Instead, he turned to her and asked, "Hallie, what were you going
to say in the kitchen, about the footprints?"
on his face scared her a little. "Well,"
she began, "I found their
footprints in the baby books, Will's and Phillip's. The thing is, the one Will made this afternoon
doesn't match the one in his book."
"Are you sure?" Curtis asked.
"It takes some know-how to read them things."
"I looked at it through the magnifying glass, Uncle Curt." She looked at him, her eyes bright.
"Will said no two people in the world have the same footprints,
not even identical twins."
"Sweetie, I think you've read too many of them junior detective
books," he said.
"No," she said more forcefully.
"I saw the little line that looks like a question mark. I just realized Aunt Cora must have switched them."
Her uncle looked at her a long time without speaking. Hallie felt her heartbeat speed up, and she knew then she shouldn't
have said anything. Or perhaps
she should have told her mother later, at home. She looked at her uncle, but he still
didn't say anything, just sat staring at her, a sad expression on his face.
Finally, he breathed a deep sign, nodding.
"That's what I thought," he said.
He took a bandana from his hip pocket, mopping his face, and said,
like the beginning of a tale, "Hallie Elizabeth." She looked up,
surprised to hear her whole name, and, after another long pause, he continued,
"Hallie, you heard a story about our family this afternoon, a story you
didn't know before. I'm going to tell you how that story ended."
"But I know how it ended, Uncle Curt.
Phillip died." Hallie
was puzzled. Hadn't he been there
when Cora told her?
"Yes, the baby died," he said.
"But that's not the end of the story.
I'm going to tell you something I've never told another soul. You must promise me that you will not
tell anyone else."
"Not even Mama?' asked Hallie.
Hallie thought this over. She'd
never kept anything secret from her Mama.
But she looked back into her uncle's face, and she saw she had no choice
if she wanted to hear the rest of the story. "I promise," she said
in her most grown-up voice.
He took a deep breath and put his big hands on his knees. "Your cousin William was always Cora's
favorite. Oh, she'd deny it,
of course. But he was her first
baby and named for her father and all.
She'd even taken to calling the baby William when she was carryin'
'em, until she found out later that there was two. When he took sick, it like to killed her. It wasn't really worse when the other
one took it, because it seemed like it couldn't get any worse. But it did. The boy died, and when she lay over him on that table in there,
I thought I'd have to bury her, too."
"But Uncle Curt, it wasn't William.
William was her favorite. If
William got better, why did you think —" Hallie stopped, frozen by the awful look on her uncle's face.
Curtis looked her straight in the eye and said two words: "William died."
Hallie's mouth went slack. No
words took shape in her head, and her uncle took her right hand in his and
rubbed the back of it while he said again, more softly, "William died."
"How —" Hallie
looked down at her hand. "Why
— I mean how — " Hallie sank onto the floor and looked
up at Curtis again. How is this
possible? she thought. Who said
those words? She said, "But
William is my cousin. He always
"Yes," said Curtis gently.
"Yes, that's right."
Hallie shook her head. "He
can't be both," she said. "He
can't be dead and my cousin I've always had."
Curtis rubbed his hands and squeezed his lips together tightly. "Like I said," he began, "he
was her favorite. William, I
mean. After he went—" He cleared his throat. "After he
died, she sat in that front room just rocking him until long after dark. She rocked and rocked, lookin' down at
his little face, and she never said a word. Off and on, she cried some, not enough that I'd've heard it
if I hadn't been right there with her.
The mantle clock struck midnight, and still she hadn't said a word. I dozed some, and when I woke up, I figured
I'd better check on Phillip again. And as I passed the back of her chair, she said to me, she
said, 'Bring William to me,' just like that. At some point, she'd just made up her mind to it, and that
was her way of tellin' me. I'll
never forget her sayin' that so long as I live."
"At first, I was confused," he continued.
"I looked at William there in her lap, and I walked back around
the chair and looked at her. 'What
did you say?' I asked her. I
thought maybe I hadn't heard her right, or she was confused. But she said it again:
'Bring William to me.' Well,
I knew her mind then. So I got
Phillip, and I gave him to her." He swallowed hard. "I
put him in her lap. I dreaded
the doctor comin', but he never suspected a thing, them bein' identical and
all." He looked up at Hallie.
"Two days later, we put William in the ground, and later we set up a
marker that said 'Curtis Phillip Reed, Jr.'"
He wiped his eye and looked at Hallie again. "The good Lord help me," he said, "I just didn't
see what harm it would do."
Hallie put her arms around her uncle's neck and squeezed. She felt him shaking softly. Should she tell him she'd only meant she thought Cora had switched
the footprints? Would that make him feel better, or would he only think he'd
told her a big family secret by mistake? Hallie held onto him a few seconds more, trying to decide
what to do. Finally, he pushed
her back gently and took out the bandana again. As he wiped it around his brown face,
Hallie somehow felt her time to tell him had passed. Instead, she said in her most serious voice, "Don't worry, Uncle Curt. I won't never tell anybody. Cross my heart."
smiled at her. "Well,"
he said, "you might someday, when we're all gone.
You might change your mind, maybe when you have you a grandbaby."
His eyes became serious again. "But
Hallie," he said, "you
must never tell your Aunt Cora what you found today. I don't think she could stand it."
nodded. "Uncle Curt,"
she said. "Can I ask you
one more thing?"
He stuck his bandana back into his hip pocket. "Well," he said, "go on."
She didn't breathe for two seconds, and then said, "She had you
put Phillip's name on that gravestone.
Your own name. Curtis
Phillip Reed — Junior." She
studied his face, as though waiting for the answer.
"Well," she started.
"I mean . . . . Didn't you . . . ."
Hallie looked down at her hands.
"Hallie," he said gently, "look at me.
One thing you will learn about being a grown-up is that sometimes how
other people feel has to come before how you feel.
Sometimes it's because you know something they don't. Sometimes it's because they need what
they want more than you need what you want. Do you understand what I'm tellin' you?"
Hallie remembered the times when her mother said Henry was too little
to understand, but she wasn't. "I
think I do," she said.
"The answer to your question," said her uncle, "is that,
to me, it didn't make a bit of a difference what name she put on it."
He and the girl sat and looked at each other for what seemed to her
like a very long time. Then he
turned to the impatient cow, so Hallie went in search of the abandoned egg
basket. She could hear the hens in the coop behind
her murmuring their sleepy noises. She stepped out of the shed and looked across the dusky
yard, the same yard Curtis had crossed all those years ago only to find his
baby dying. How hard it must
have been, she thought, for a man as strong as her uncle to watch his baby
die before him, and him powerless to stop it.
And how hard it must have been for him to keep this story to himself
all these years.
tinny sounds of milk spurting in the metal bucket slowed behind her, and soon
Curtis emerged from the shed. Hallie
fell in beside him, and they walked across the yard side by side, so close
she could have touched him. But
she kept the basket between them. She
was getting too old, she thought, to hold his hand.