When he was done, she offered him the drink.
I sat under the mustard bush until he was finished drinking. I thought there must be another way for men and women to be with each other if people fell in love. I knew I must do as she’d told me. I ran back to the bench where she had left me. She didn’t come for me that night. I ate the bread and cheese she’d given me. I didn’t answer when men passing by made comments. Early the next morning my mother appeared. She looked tired and she had a suitcase with her. Some people stared because of the mark of the belt on my mother’s face, but she said she didn’t mind if people stared, as long as they stayed away. We took the ferry to Manhattan, under the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, which I had hoped to walk across when it was finished. We walked to the train station. We went to Albany because it was the next train scheduled. That was how we chose our fate, quickly, ready for whatever happened next. We sat in our seats and didn’t speak as we watched the city fade away. I took my mother’s hand, and she laced her fingers through mine. We saw green fields, forests, blue skies. We got off in Albany, which wasn’t much of a city compared with Brooklyn. We stayed one night in a house where rooms were rented out. We could hear people talking all night in the room right next to ours. I heard a woman laugh, and the sound shone through the darkness, brighter than any light. I was glad we had gotten on that train.
WHEN WE SET out the next day, we did so on foot. The roads were empty and long. Sometimes we went where there were no roads at all. Days passed. Everything in bloom. Birds startled as we went through the grass. I began to like being out in the country, hiking for miles through the fields and on the winding roads. We reached a pretty town called Lenox where everyone was friendly. A woman let us stay in her garden shed. My mother said she was a schoolteacher in search of a job and the woman suggested she try Blackwell, where they were looking for a teacher. My mother told me to stay in Lenox. It was easier for a woman alone to find a position. She would come back for me when everything was settled.
I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if she needed me. When she left, I followed her again. She walked all day and so did I. I ate little berries that grew along the path. My skirt tore on thorn plants, but the air was fresh and warm and bees were everywhere. I was quiet as I went along. No one knew I was there. Even the meadowlarks that slept in their nests among the thistles didn’t wake when I ran past.
When we came to a river, my mother took off all her clothes. She washed her hair, then combed it with the tortoiseshell comb she used to pile it atop her head. She walked more slowly now. Soon the town of Blackwell came into view. It was on the other side of a huge apple orchard. The pink and white blooms had not yet unfurled, but the leaves were green. I thought the sea of apple trees was a good sign, there to replace the waters of Sheepshead Bay. I stood outside the meetinghouse while my mother went inside, then traipsed after at a distance when a man took her to see the cottage where the schoolteacher would live. It was right behind the oldest house in the village, the Brady estate, a rambling place with rooms added on, white with black shutters. The owner had donated the cottage for the use of the schoolteacher for the good of the town. Maybe that was why my mother’s scar didn’t bother the school committee. They thought she’d never find a husband because of it, and that was fine with them. I heard the man who had interviewed my mother say that the town council always hired a single woman to be the teacher because a married woman would think of her own children before she would the children of Blackwell. I imagined the root cellar at home and I missed it for a moment. I missed my mother saying Don’t listen. Close your eyes.
That night there was heavy rain. I slept in the barn, where there were two horses. The horses were surprised to see me, but when I offered them some hay they quieted down. I wished I had a dog to keep me company. I’d seen several collies in town; a few had gazed at me, but none had barked, and I started to think maybe I was lucky if the dogs took a fancy to me. Maybe I was in the right place at last. I slept beneath a blanket that smelled like grass. In the morning, a man came in and fed the horses and told them they were good boys. He laughed gently when they butted their heads against him, straining to get close to him. He was older than my father, but he wasn’t like a tornado. He was more like the horses. Quiet. He was one of the tall men in Blackwell whose families had known hardship and sorrow, a descendant of the town founders, people who’d lived through blizzards and famine and faced their hardships with the same sure demeanor. It didn’t surprise me that after he’d left, the horses whinnied for him to return.