Fall 1992, Volume 9.3
Story

KENT GARDIEN

Parting

Medora Ott's hair was as red as the Brazilian earth. She was tired of the comparison and fearful of blending into ApariÁ‹o's dirt. From the cart seat she was calling to her daughter Cordy to come join her, but Cordy's pa clung to his nearly grown girl, clasped her to his big belly and sunken chest. "Cordy!" Medora's voice cut through other noisesthe shifting of the oxen, the restless movement of the children in the cart, crockery clattering in the outdoor kitchen behind the house, and Cordy's soft sobs merging with her pa's murmurs: "My baby, my baby."

*

As I remember it, it wasn't that I wanted to leave my pa and stay with Ma, but I wanted to leave any way I could. In ApariÁ‹o we felt that we were sinking into the red dirt, into poverty, and into isolation from other Confederate families, isolation that grew increasingly absolute. Pa's work-swollen hands pressed into my skinny back as we merged in the sad intimacy of parting until Ma's sharp voice called me to her. When I pulled away I smelled sugarcane brandy on Pa's breath.

I joined my brothers and sisters sitting on the floor of the cart. My half-brother Harry, the reins in his teeth, was ready on the seat next to Ma. He was older than she by several years. As I got up on my knees to wave good-bye to Pa, my brothers and sisters gathered around me. Pa was a mountain of endurance overtaken by quaking. The only parts of him that tumbled off were a few tears, and us, you might say. Slowly turning as the cart jolted off down the rough road, my brothers and sisters and I watched Pa grow smaller until a curve in the lane put him beyond our view forever.

*

Medora forced herself to take one last look at her husband as the cart shook with the children crowding together to wave good-bye to their pa. She deplored what she saw, a human ruin trembling in the hot sun, drunken tears pouring from rheumy eyes. Finally the oxen pulled the cart like a tree from its roots and dragged the family down the lane. Medora didn't acknowledge her husband but turned and concentrated on the red dirt from which she was escaping.

Beyond the curve in the lane Harry's house appeared on the right. He had built it himself. It was a two-room wooden structure with a kitchen to one side and no porches. There was no fence between the house and the road and no tended yard. A manioc patch grew unfenced at the back, near the grazing ground of the milk cow and her calf. Medora did not look forward to passing by. She hoped that circumstances would not force her into any recognition of Harry's mulatto "wife" and dark progeny. She hadn't been able to keep her smaller children away from their nieces and nephews, all born in the same span of years, and she was afraid Harry's brood was waiting to bid them good-bye, and maybe their mother as well.

In fulfillment of Medora's fears, she saw the mulatto woman standing outside the kitchen, staring at the lane and at her children, who were running towards the cart. "Adeus! Adeus!" they called, and Medora's children echoed them. Harry's ten-year-old called to Medora's, "Fica mais!"her round blue eyes in the dark face earnest and imploring. Medora took no notice either of Harry's children or of her own. Nothing of what was happening made any difference, she told herself. In a matter of minutes she and her children would pass beyond the trials of unwanted relations forever.

*

Harry Ott's squinting gaze is fixed on the spine of one of the oxen until the beasts start veering to the right, the direction of the shed and lot near the manioc patch behind the house. He lifts himself out of the torpor the parting family's sudden, dismal silence has cast him into and haws the oxen to the center of the lane. As the cart's wheels jolt back into the ruts and Harry's children come running and shouting up to the lane's edge, he and their mother look at one another with a slight movement of acknowledgement. His eyes and mouth touch lightly on a smile when he hears his youngest calling, "Fica mais!"

Stay longer! The cry of a child trapped by birth to another who is escaping. Harry smiles at its innocence, a sad smile fading into the gloom Medora casts over the cart and its passengers. Harry has never taken to this woman his father chose to fill the vacancy left by his mother's death. Medora imposes her mood on every room and on every space she enters, and now she is carrying it with her back to Texas. Stay longer there!

Farther on, the cart passes between two houses facing across the road, one belonging to Dr. Peter Dromgoole and the other to his brother-in-law Anthony Welch. These are freshly painted houses protected by fences and surrounded by swept dirt yards with curbed flowerbeds. To Harry the tidiness is a visible, critical comment on his own disordered way of living. At neither house is there sign of life apart from barking dogs that chase the cart, one darting towards an ox's shank. "Git!" Harry shouts. "Git off! Git away!"

*

What was left of Medora's pride was assaulted by the sight of the Dromgoole and Welch places. She and Regina Welch and Elmira Dromgoole had been school friends in Georgia before Medora's father had moved the family to Texas. Their friendship had been renewed when the refugee Confederate families had gathered in ApariÁ‹o, but as Medora's husband had taken to sugarcane brandy and her step-son had manifested a taste for dark women Regina Welch and Elmira Dromgoole had become cool until now finally they cut Medora in public.

From these hostile houses the lane led to the railroad and ApariÁ‹o station. Other Confederate families had built nearby, and there were Baptist and Methodist chapels and a few shops selling groceries, dry goods, hardware, and farm supplies. Medora took one long, last, bitter look at the Taberna da Santa Familia, purveyor of sugarcane brandy and other spirits; it was the enterprise of a Brazilian Catholic who did not scruple at blaspheming the Holy Family while contributing to the ruin of profane ones, especially the family of Medora Ott.

While Harry halted the cart beside the stretch of track where the train to Santos was to stop, Medora caught sight of Elmira Dromgoole's two daughters waiting in the shade of the depot. While the family got off the cart and Harry unloaded their bits of baggage, the Dromgoole girls approached them. "Good morning, Miss Medora," they said. "Mr. Harry. Cordy."

*

As we drew near ApariÁ‹o station, we passed the tavern where Pa consoled himself at times on account of his poverty, on account of his poor judgment in joining the thousands of Southerners who accepted the Brazilian government's offer of asylum to defeated Confederate families. At the depot my heart rose, then sank to greater depths, when I saw the Dromgoole girls waiting in the shade. I knew that they had not come to mock me but came out of friendship from the past to bid me a friend's adieu. Nevertheless, I felt mocked, shamed, more cast out than ever. This perverseness of nature tracks me through life.

"Cordy," Mary Dromgoole said, "we'll miss you."

"We miss you," Frances Dromgoole said.

We withdrew to the shade of the depot and chatted there until the train arrived. Once the family had boarded and the train began again its halting journey to Santos and the ship that would carry us home to Texas, the Dromgoole girls waved to us from the shade. Then suddenly Brother Harry's children came running alongside screaming, "Adeus! Adeus! Adeus!" I looked at them with the dismay their existence perpetually inspired in me. When my eyes returned to the depot I saw that the Dromgoole girls had withdrawn even from the shade.

*

In the midst of unloading the cart, Harry nods to the Dromgoole sisters in response to their greeting. Medora precedes him onto the train and picks a place to sit, while he arranges the bags where she directs. "Good-bye," he says.

"Good-bye, Harry."

He gets off and helps the two boys and two girls to board, hugging each of them. When the conductor announces departure, Cordy leaves her friends and comes up to her brother Harry, kissing him lightly on the cheek. He hugs her and lifts her onto the car's step.

While the train is pulling out, his children come running like dogs in a pack. "Adeus! Adeus! Adeus!" they call. He looks at the coach window where the family's heads crowd together and sees Medora's scornful face shrink to final disapproval.

As black smoke streaming from the engine stack, diminishing, vanishing in the distance, disperses itself in the vastness of the Brazilian sky, Harry turns his cart and oxen around to leave the station, and his children tumble in, laughing and bumping against the cart's sides and into one another. They fall briefly silent at the Welch and Dromgoole houses until the dogs come barking out, and the children, in imitation of their father, call, "Geet! Geet!"

Once more the oxen, in sight of the shed and lot, quicken their pace and veer homeward across earth of a color no one resembles. Harry lets go the reins, as the children jump down and sing to their father, "Adeus! Adeus! Adeus!" Their mother steps out of the kitchen smiling, then laughing, then echoing, "Adeus!" The older children dance around her, while the youngest breaks away, running back to her father, bounding onto the cart, bouncing to the seat beside him, confronting him with her wide grin and her glad blue eyes inherited from him himself who meets her merriment glee for glee.

 

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