She saw them gather like birds on a telephone wire; her children. Off at the edge of the pasture, first her middle daughter Valeria, with her long legs and dirty knees, her hand-me-down violet dress soiled and too small. Then a moment later, her two youngest boys–four and five–flanked their sister, their bare feet planted resolutely, eyes wide in smudged faces. She didn’t rise or stop her work. She didn’t say a thing as she crawled on all fours, then squatted while she used her linked arms to pull the soil where she wanted it.
Her oldest and youngest daughters appeared, the setting sun flaring behind them, rays beaming like halos around their brown hair. Then her oldest son, thirteen-year-old Daniel, joined the line, shading his eyes. He was dressed in his blue-jeans and his school shirt, which now hung untucked, the tails lifting slightly in the stiff breeze of a warm early evening in May.
“Momma,” Daniel called. “Watcha doin’?”
She leaned heavily on her knuckles, balancing on her knees. The long skirt of her pink-striped dress bunched up so that her slip was showing. She breathed the pungent odor of the earth mixed with dung, straw, and the winter hay scattered about for their two horses. Sweat made crooked tracks through the dirt on her cheeks and chin, it dribbled down her bony sternum, between her small breasts. Her bodice billowed. She waited for a moment, catching her wind. She rotated her head so she could see them; little Charity looked like a flamingo perched on one bare foot, the other braced against her thigh. She stared at her babies, inhaled deeply, and wiped her forehead with the crook of a bare arm. She saw the bruises. The round stains where cigarettes had been pressed to her flesh. She flinched her eyes shut and clenched her jaw so tightly she thought her teeth would shatter as flashes of memory battered her.
She turned her head to the left once more. All six of them remained in front of the rail fence, the Western sky lavender, pink, and flamingo behind them. Her mouth was dry. She coughed, then continued her task, using her fingers to rake dead vegetation mixed with soil so the whole area would look natural. Her wedding ring glinted once, then seemed to become dark and heavy as the sunset washed out, fading behind the mountains that surrounded their log and plank home. She sat back on her haunches and surveyed her work. The ground looked fine, the recent furrows of the pasture replicated. She took filthy fingers and carefully hooked strands of hair behind her ears. She watched the two brown geldings not far away who gazed at her with glassy eyes as they munched hay.
“Momma, what are you doing? What’s going on?” Daniel’s voice was so close it made her jump.
They were all there now, clustered around her; twelve-year-old Regina held the youngest Sam with his legs and arms wrapped around her, his ear resting on her shoulder. He was whimpering.
“Whatever it is I’m doing, you haven’t seen nothing, you hear?” She rose to her feet and staggered briefly, regained her equilibrium. She shook her skirt, smoothed it down into position.
Charity saw the bruises like bracelets around her mother’s wrists, and her face turned red as she began to cry, memories of the previous night like her father’s hands choking her, giving her no place to hide.
They’d seen everything, her children. They’d experienced it too. Not even school was a refuge, when their father stumbled into the schoolhouse in a drunken rage. There was no respite, no help from the law. There was no other way out. She fell to her knees once more, this time to hug her small, sobbing girl tightly. “Now don’t you worry,” she said, leaning back and taking Charity’s face between her palms. “We’re going to be okay.”
“But … but….” Daniel tried not to cry. “I don’t understand, Momma. Where’s Daddy?”
She came to her feet more steadily, blotting her own tears with an inner arm. “He’s gone, Dan. He left us. He’s done gone. Now, listen, he showed you how to drive the Model-T, right?” She faced the boy, almost her height, and laid her hands on his shoulders.
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” He looked up at her with soft hazel eyes, pain and confusion playing across his features.
“‘Cause you’re the man of the house now. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’re going to stick together like glue, and no one, not anyone, is going to take any of you away from me.”