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Pa Smoked A Pipe And It Smelled Fine

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I draw a circle with a stick, so big I have to walk a ways to join its ends. Dust rises as I drag: steam from a train, smoke from a pipe.

Pa smoked a pipe and it smelled fine.

My circle is a farm for my animals. Right now they live in my dress, in a pocket. I collected them from the bed of the old roadside stream. I'm going to keep all sorts. Pigs and cows and chickens and mice. I’m going to keep a tiger too, in a special place inside my farm. If pa was ever to come back, he’ll help look after it and if anyone comes to take him away again I'll let the tiger out and it will eat him and lick its lips after. But the tiger will let me climb on its back and stroke its fur. It will purr like a cat and let me ride him until I fall asleep. I will teach it to read and write, and it will tell me stories of the wild.

I got a name for my farm: Silver Linings.

I drop my animals inside the circle. Those yellow stones? They’re the chickens. This dark one with a stripe, bigger than the others? That’s my tiger. The tiger goes in the middle.

Just when I'm dragging my stick to the top of the circle to finish my farm my way is blocked. Ma's foot is there. The stick stops right at it. I look up.

She says, ‘Charity, what you doing?’

I’m making a farm for animals.

She says, ‘You play later. We got fixing and clearing to do and I need a helper.’

Gamma used to help, but ma says gamma can’t do much ‘cept holler. Ma said to my brothers last night that gamma sounds like a set of bellows, the ones with a hole in them that can’t hope to raise a flame. James, my brother, he disagreed. He said the noise was more like a kettle on a stove coming close to the boil. John, my other brother, said that wasn’t right. What she sounded like was a finger finding its way across a window. This morning I ran my thumb across the window and John was right. Just like her.

When they had stopped laughing I asked ma why gamma hadn’t been taken ahead of pa. Ma pretended not to hear, though everyone was quiet enough, so she looked at me stern and said not to say such things.

Gamma was sitting out front, with her head back, mouth open like a cave that flies could just wander into and say how do you do. I asked ma, quiet as I could, how old gamma was. Ma didn’t know. Maybe a hundred was her best guess.

You die when you’re a hundred. A fact. So later when ma was busy again I went out front and asked gamma if she really was a hundred years old.  At first I couldn’t tell if she heard, but after a while she licked her lips and breathed like a finger across a window. She said, ‘Not a hundred years old, child. A hundred years young.’

My pa can’t help for the reason that he’s dead. He wasn’t anywhere near a hundred, but he went without a by-your-leave. Ma sat me down and said if it makes it easier think of it this way: think of it as God taking him. That’s what a silver lining is. The comfort you get from the saddest things. I said if God took him why don’t he just – 

But she was away again, other side of the room. Quick as you like.

Later Ma put some biscuits on the table and stood in front of me. She wiped her hands and said we need love and faith in each other and sometimes the answer to a question takes a long time in coming even when you pray all night. God took him and one day by the grace of Lord Jesus Christ, we'll join him, but we won’t rush if we can help it. This is what she said, close enough.

I didn’t ask more. The way ma was speaking didn’t sound like ma and it sucked the questions away from me. But she kissed me on the ear, near made me deaf.

Pa took me everywhere. Sometimes when I think about how close I got to the sky and the clouds on Pa’s shoulders; the way that every time, sooner or later, though I never knew exactly when, he bucked and I’d hold on upside down and he said he’d stay like that until sense worked its way into my head. When I think about that my body bubbles inside and when I tell ma that, she says there’s no president for feeling the way we do. We just have to carry on.

That’s why I help. In the fields I pick what I can reach though sometimes it’s a stretch beyond my means, ma says. I wear gloves that make my hands like a tiger’s paws. I sweep the house and help wash plates. I’ve got my own block to stand on to reach things. Ma says I’m shorter than a minute, but growing every hour.

Today ma says we have to cut down the plants and till the earth. I'm not strong enough for tilling so my job is to carry. The others pile the bits on, sometimes so high I can't see; other times the stalks itch until I drop them. Ma says at those times I'm a skitter, not much more than a hindrance.

But she says nothing now, looking down at me as we walk along, looking at my feet and the dust around them, slipping between my toes and tickling up my legs. Ma don’t like the dust the way I do.

‘Yes,’ she says, when I ask her if that’s true. ‘I admit I don’t like it as much as you.’

She takes me to our bit of crop and I help collect. When the sun gets high ma waves at me to sit under the Yonder tree next to gamma, sitting catching all sorts in that mouth of hers. Once I saw a whole beetle crawl in and crawl right back out again and from there down her chin and who knows where else. From under the tree I watch ma and my brothers. No-one watches back and when they talk it’s too low to hear. Ma used to sing songs so lovely. Voice you could dance on, was what pa said.

In the afterground I come to help again though I’m hot as a bear. While I'm carrying I can feel my sweat running a river down my back and almost wish I could stop and turn around into myself and drink it. Maybe I actually try because ma comes over and hands me water from a can and says lay down for a bit more. Go back under the Yonder tree.

When the sun gets low and makes the field look like it’s covered in gold, ma comes to me again. She's smiling and this time I see all her teeth; it’s a real smile. She tells me I've half the field in my hair and she takes a time to pull the bits out. She says I've been good and we walk back onto the road home. It is still hot under my feet and they want to dance, though my legs are so heavy they won’t so much as jigger. But the wind is cool and throws up scuds of dust and bits ahead of us. They rise in the air. God is pulling them up to make a bed for pa.

We walk through the bits together. I hold tight to ma. Our shadows are in front of us, tall giants, but I’m too tired to catch them.

When we get close to our home, I see my farm again. My stick lying where I left it. I pull ma towards it and ask if I can get it.

She isn’t looking, but she says, ‘That's fine, Charity.’

As soon as I reach down to pick it up, ma pulls me on and as she does her feet go through my farm wall. Her toes scatter my chickens and let my tiger out. Ma doesn’t realise what she’d done. She’s looking ahead at the sky, says, ‘Those are rain clouds, Charity, sure as the road we’re standing on.’

I look up too and see those clouds. All dark. But around their fringes they are brighter.

So I hitch my lip and don’t say nothing about the farm or the animals or the tiger I wanted to ride on. They seem awful small now. I hold ma’s hand, rough as a stone. I look to ma and back at the silver linings of the clouds that ma is looking at, and I decide I want it to rain too.

Written by Pnin
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