*please note that I really don't like this song. I can't even get through one full play. I'm burning it off for an existing story idea that won't leave me alone. The main character gets endowed with a name inspired by the title but that's pretty much it.
Allison placed the bucket of warm milk on the kitchen floor and closed the back door. The milk was steaming slightly. The fires hadn't been lit yet and the house was could.
"Allison?" said her mother. She was in the room at the front of the house. Allison could not see her from where she stood. She wiped her hands on her apron and walked to the doorway. She saw her mother standing very still near the window. She was wearing her nursing gown. The dawn light illuminated the gown to show the outline of her mother's blooming figure.
"Yes mother?" she asked. Her mother turned and looked over her shoulder, then looked back at the empty cradle in front of the window. "What is it?" Allison prompted.
"They took him in the night," said her mother quietly. She hugged her shoulders and sighed.
"Yes, I know," said Allison. Upstairs her sister started singing to herself. "We knew it was coming time."
Allison moved closer, looking down at her dirty shoes to make sure they didn't make any footprints across the threadbare carpet. She stopped just behind her mother and put her arm over her mother's shoulder. Her mother tapped Allison's fingers in acknowledgement.
"It's still warm," said her mother.
"It's not for us to dwell on it," said Allison. "He is with his father as he should be at this age."
"No. Sons are just shadows to mothers."
Allison looked at her mother's face. Her expression was lax, tired. Her eyes were dark and the cheeks underneath were sallow.
"It'll be fine. Maybe the next one will be a girl." Allison smiled and patted her mother's swollen belly. "Then you can name her and she'll be a member of the family."
Her mother looked up at Allison, wrinkling the space between her eyebrows slightly. She looked back down at the empty cradle and traced a finger across the folds of the rumpled sheets within.
"I had a name for him, in my head," said her mother.
"Mother!" whispered Allison. "That is a sin!"
"If I never speak it, I don't think it is."
Allison's sister, Pia hopped down the stairs two at a time, skirts flaring, still singing a hymn. At the bottom she stopped to tie her bonnet tightly and shove stray hairs under it. Pia noticed Allison and their mother looking at her.
"He's gone today," said Allison, sparing her mother from repeating it.
"Yes. No more squealing for awhile," said Pia brightly.
Their mother turned abruptly and walked into the kitchen.
"Pia," hissed Allison.
"What?" Pia mouthed silently. "It's just a boy," she added, whispering. "And we can do with some quiet before the next one comes."
Pia sat down on the bottom step and started to pull on her work boots. Allison walked over to the stairs and stood over her sister.
"Wait until you're bred!" she whispered with force. "Maybe you'll change your tune when you're a mother too!"
Pia hastily finished with her laces and stood quickly.
"I'm only going to have daughters!" She said, grinning. Then she walked to the front door and opened it wide. "Mr. Norris is already coming up the path. Look, he's limping again. I think someday soon his bones are going to crumble to dust. We'd better get going."
"Hello, girls!" said Mr. Norris panting. "Ready to help?"
"Yes sir," said Allison. The sisters left the house and closed the door behind them.
"Good, good," said Mr. Norris. "We'll have a storm by this afternoon, so we have to get the haying done by lunch time. It's good to have strong young things like yourselves to help out." He smiled, with a dribble of saliva at the corner of his mouth.
"Of course we're happy to help," said Allison as they headed off to the Norris barn. The horses and haying wagon were already hitched up and standing in front.
"My brothers and I couldn't do it ourselves, not in one morning. Oh and we have a new fellow living with us, perhaps you heard. He'll help out too."
"A new purchase?" asked Pia.
"A gambling debt paid, as rumor has it," said Mr. Norris.
"The master always wins at cards," said Allison.
"I wonder what those parties are like, that they always go to," said Pia. "People cost a lot. Their card games must be very...intense."
"We shouldn't speculate," said Mr. Norris. "Remember that gambling is a sin."
"I don't understand why it's okay for the masters to do it then," said Pia.
"The masters are above sin," said Mr. Norris. "They are immortal after all. They will all stay on in this world well after we leave it. They do not need to worry about the destination of their souls. You know this girl."
"Yes, but I often need to be reminded," said Pia laughing.
"You are very bad," laughed Allison. Mr. Norris chuckled with them.
"What is his name?" asked Pia after they had calmed down and enjoyed a moment of silence.
"The new fellow?" asked. Mr. Norris.
"Yes! Of course the new fellow," said Pia chuckling.
"Oh, let me see," said Mr. Norris looking down at the long grass giving way beneath his shoes. He removed his hat and scratched his head. "You know I'm not sure I asked." He laughed and replaced his head.
"Mr. Norris!" said Allison with mock shock.
"Well it was very late at night that he was delivered. Frightened thing. No one wants to spend too much time in the company of the masters of course. No." Mr. Norris sighed. "I remember when I was transported here to be with my father. I was three--older than most of course, but things were done differently then. I was seated between two of them in one of their motor cars. They had the smell of death on their breaths, and barely twitched a muscle. Said nothing at all. Odd creatures they are."
"Did you see anything between the farms?" asked Pia.
"No, it was dark and moonless night," said Mr. Norris.
"I'm surprised you remember it so well," said Allison.
"Yes..." said Mr. Norris. "Well here we are girls."
They had arrived at the Norris barn. Mr. Norris' brother walked shakily around the end of the wagon, leaning against it for support. He was even older and more decrepit than the first Mr. Norris. He shook a finger at his brother.
"We should have hayed our share when the other menfolk did theirs yesterday," said the second Mr. Norris.
"But the girls couldn't be spared from their chores," said the first Mr. Norris.
"Hmmph," said the second Mr. Norris. "Girls. Won't get done any faster with them!" He glared at Allison and Pia in turn.
"Don't mind him," said the first Mr. Norris, "he's been cranky all morning."
"He's cranky all the time," whispered Pia in Allison's ear. Allison poked her sister in her side with her elbow.
"Where's the new fellow? Up yet?" asked the younger Mr. Norris.
"Yeah," said the older Mr. Norris, turning to look into the darkness of the barn. "You there! What's-yer-name, we're ready to get going!"
A figure moved in the darkness, and started running dutifully to the wagon. A young man, tan but scrawny, perhaps twenty. His cheeks bloomed with color, either from the cold of the morning, his newness in their social circle (especially in the presence of women), or both.
"Yes sir," he said quietly, and came to stand next to old Mr. Norris.
"Help me up into the driver's seat," commanded old Mr. Norris.
"Are you sure? I can drive a team of horses and--"
"NO! I've driven this heap for sixty years, and I'll drive it for sixty more if I have my way!"
"Best to let him have his way there boy," said the younger Mr. Norris.
The new man help both old and young Mr. Norris's into the seat at the front of the wagon. Pia and Allison climbed onto the back of the wagon, each taking a corner so they could let their arms rest on the side walls and their legs dangle. When the new man came around the back again he saw the space between the sisters but hesitated.
"Come on then," said Pia. "Unless you want to walk." She held out her arm.
"I'm not sure it's proper," said the new man. The horses whinnied under the crack of a whip and the wagon started to move slowly. The new man started to follow at the same pace.
"You'll be exhausted before we even start haying," said Allison. She too held out her hand.
"I know what you're thinking," said Pia.
"You do?" asked the new man.
"You're worried one of the masters will see you," said Pia. "But they only come out at night."
"I'm not worried about them so much as all the new people here. People talk," said the new man.
"Of course they do, when they have something to talk about," said Allison. "This is clearly work. No one will fault you for riding next to us."
"Mmm," murmured the new man. "Thanks but I'll walk just the same."
"Suit yourself," said Pia, dropping her hand to her lap to fiddle with the fabric of her skirt. She started to hum a hymn and looked off in the distance. The new man shoved his hands in his pockets and looked down at the grass passing below him.
"We've trying to find out your name sir," said Allison. "Mr. Norris couldn't recall it." The new man looked up at her but was silent. "I'm Allison, and that's my sister Pia," she said pointing. "Our mother is named Ada. We're neighbors of the Norris's. I suppose we're your neighbors now too."
"Yes," said the new man.
"Well, what is your name?" asked Allison.
"Mr. West," said the new man.
"Well, it's nice to meet you Mr. West," said Allison smiling. Mr. West smiled back, then dropped his head again to observe the grass. Pia stopped humming and looked at him.
"But what is your first name Mr. West?" asked Pia.
"Pia!" admonished Allison.
"What? We know they have them," said Pia. "I'm just curious."
"It's not proper or polite to ask. To give a boy a first name is a sin! To acknowledge such a sin openly is a sin in and of itself!" Allison grew red in the cheeks. "Don't embarrass or impugn Mr. West."
"It's all right," said Mr. West. "It's common for brothers to have names for each other, and fathers for sons. It's confusing to call each other by the same name."
"But you won't tell us yours?" asked Pia. Her sister shot her a glare.
"I can't tell you because I truly don't have a first name," he said.
"Your father and brothers didn't give you a name?" asked Pia.
"I don't have brothers," said Mr. West.
"What, none at all?" asked Allison.
"No," said Mr. West. "And I don't have a father either."
"Really?" asked Pia, her face beginning to fill with delight.
"How is that? Who raised you?" asked Allison.
"My mother," said Mr. West. "I was with her until yesterday." He sighed heavily and rubbed his eyes.
"And what of your father?" asked Pia. "Why didn't he raise you?"
"He died before I was born. I heard that it happened when he was fixing a wheel on a wagon loaded with ice. The wheel broke and the wagon came down and crushed him. That was his farm though, and all I heard of it was rumor so it may not have happened exactly that way."
"And you weren't sent to your uncles or cousins or grandfather?" asked Allison.
"No. The child debt is forfeited in the case of a death of the father, and the child remains on the mother's farm until sold independently."
"I did not know that," said Pia. "But Mr. Norris said that you were payment for a gambling debt, that you weren't actually sold to our farm."
"I think that's roughly the same thing Pia," said Allison.
"Not to pry or anything Mr. West, but do you know what the sum of the debt was?" asked Pia.
"Half what the older Mr. Norris would fetch at auction," said Mr. West.
"That doesn't say much about your masters," said Allison after a pause.
"They were kind," said Mr. West smiling, "but not wise. I'm worried that my mother might be sold off soon. She would surely miss her house and her things. She's never known any home but that farm."
"That would be unfortunate," said Allison. She looked down at her hands.
"And sisters," said Pia. "Did you have sisters?"
"Yes," said Mr. West. "Five. All older. Most have their own houses now. Only one still lives with my mother, and she will probably be allowed to stay to take care of her. She is old. My mother I mean."
"Yes," said Allison. She smiled slightly at Mr. West. The wagon stopped.
"I'd better help Mr. Norris," said Mr. West, and he started towards the front of the wagon.
They cut the grass in the field the rest of the morning. Mr. West and the younger Mr. Norris swept the scythes, and Pia and Allison piled the cut hay in the wagon with pitchforks; all were glazed in sweat. The older Mr. Norris drove the horses and cursed the tall lumbering thunderheads dwarfing the horizon. Allison watched Mr. West swing from side-to-side in efficient rhythm. He took far fewer breaks than younger Mr. Norris.
At ten in the morning the hay wagon was full. They drove to the girls' barn and deposited the load of hay within. The sisters fixed lunch for them all and they ate on the way back to the field. Mr. West once again walked behind the wagon.
"Do you think you'll like it here?" asked Allison.
"I haven't been here a day yet," replied Mr. West.
"Our farm is peaceful," said Pia.
"I would guess they all would be," said Mr. West.
"Mother once said to me, when I was little, that there used to be cities," said Pia, then whispering with a grin on her face, "with no masters!"
"Pia!" hissed Allison.
"She only said it once," said Pia. "I don't know for sure if it was true."
"Well..." said Mr. West. The went in silence for a few minutes, looking at the cut grass or looking at the storm building, and eating their lunch.
"Going to be nasty storm this afternoon, I think," said Allison after a while.
"That's the best kind," said Pia smiling. "Maybe we'll have a tornado that will whisk all the houses away."
"With you in one!" exclaimed Allison. "I don't know why you have such dark thoughts."
"We lack...regular excitement," said Pia between mouthfuls of sandwich, leaning down towards Mr. West.
"Yes," said Mr. West.
"Yes?" said Pia, her eyes brightening. "You agree?"
"No!" said Mr. West a little too loudly. "I mean, about cities. What your mother said."
"What? But we've always lived on farms," said Allison.
"Why would we have the word? Why would we know what it means?"
Allison looked down at her hands, her palms reddened by the motion of the handle of the pitchfork against her skin.
"Yes!" said Pia. "That makes sense."
"Shhh," said Allison. "I doubt our ancestors did, and anyway it's a sin to speculate on such things as history."
"Practically everything is a sin," said Mr. West under his breath.
"Surely you don't mean that Mr. West?" asked Allison. Mr. West stared at her and cocked an eyebrow. Pia laughed and clapped her hands, then fell on her back to rest on remnant straw.
"I am glad you have come to our farm!" shouted Pia.
"Sit up!" said Allison. Pia continued to lay, staring at the sky. Allison sighed grumpily and turned to Mr. West. "We have been given guidance by our masters for our own good! We are only moral because they made us so--taught us modesty and temperance and cooperation. We owe them our lives and our love. We are their lambs, as lambs are to us. They are everything to us."
"We only know what they tell us," said Mr. West.
"And yet you're concerned enough with sin that you worry about riding next to us in the wagon?" said Allison. Mr. West turned his head and looked into the distance.
The wagon came to a rest and they began haying again. By noon the wind picked up and the day grew dark. When the girls flung the hay into the wagon, most of the straw flew back onto the cut grass. The hay wagon was only half full when the Mr. Norris's decided to head back to their barn. As they unloaded the hay, hail began to pelt the boards of the barn.
"Come on you!" shouted the older Mr. Norris at the storm. He stood bowl-legged at the opening of the barn and shook his fist in the air.
"Let's get to the cellar girls," said the younger Mr. Norris. "I don't think there'll be a tornado, but I don't think it's safe for you to run back to your mother's house. Let's wait it out."
The younger Mr. Norris ushered them to the floor in the middle of the barn. He swept aside stray straw to reveal a wooden hatch. He bent slowly down, some of his joints popping and creaking, towards the handle before Mr. West knelt and grabbed it and flung it open.
"Ah, thank you boy!" said the younger Mr. Norris. "You make a delightful and useful addition to our home! Come brother! Get out of the wet and join us in the cellar."
They all descending into the cellar and the younger Mr. Norris lit an oil lamp that hung from a hook near the staircase. The cellar had a table and chairs and a single bunk. The older Mr. Norris immediately took the bunk and started a nap. Pia and the younger Mr. Norris sat in the two chairs and Allison sat on the second lowest rung of the stairs. Finding no place to sit, Mr. West leaned against the cement wall.
They listened to the barn creaking above them, the howl of the wind, the baying of the animals frightened by the storm, and to old Mr. Norris' snoring. Pia tapped on the table with her fingers. In the closed space, Allison noticed the unfamiliar scent of Mr. West's sweat.
"Isn't this your day to go to the clinic girls?" said Mr. Norris.
"Yeah," said Pia. "I really hate needles. That's the only good thing I can see that comes from being pregnant; they don't draw your blood."
"Pia..." admonished Allison.
"Yes, that is one benefit," said Mr. Norris. "Mr. West, perhaps you should go to. When was the last time you went?"
"Last week, Thursday," said Mr. West.
"Then you are overdue. Yes, definitely go," said Mr. Norris. "They'll have you on a schedule then."
"Overdue?" asked Mr. West. "But it should be a month between or you'll get too weak to work!"
"A month? Boy, how much did they draw on your farm?"
"A pint," said Mr. West.
"A pint?" asked Pia.
"Boy, our master only has us give a quarter pint each week. He prefers a steady, fresh supply over refrigeration."
"Wow, to only give once a month instead of every week!" said Pia. "Three less needles."
"You still use needles?" asked Mr. West.
"What else?" said Mr. Norris.
Mr. West rolled up his sleeve past his elbow. He showed Mr. Norris his arm; on it was a small tube and valve, partly implanted. With his other hand he pulled out a tiny plug and twisted the valve. A tiny dribble of blood ran down his arm and dotted the dirt floor, then he twisted again and the flow stopped.
"No needles!" exclaimed Pia. "Why don't we have that?"
"I don't know," said Mr. Norris.
"Let me see," said Allison. She stood next to Mr. West, and touched his arm. His fingers twitched and he inhaled sharply. "I'm not going to hurt you," she said. Mr. West relaxed his arm. "May I?" she pointed to the valve.
"Sure," said Mr. West.
"Don't spill too much," said Mr. Norris. "Spilling blood is a sin. Plus the master will be sniffing around her tonight if too much comes out. I like to keep him out of the barn so his doesn't get any ideas about my horses."
Allison gently twisted the valve and blood spurted out onto her dress.
"I'm sorry!" said Mr. West, quickly turning off the valve. "The valve is uh, sensitive."
"Sure it is," said Pia deadpan.
"I got it installed six months ago. All of us on my farm, my old farm, had them installed. Maybe your master will do the same soon."
Mr. Norris rolled up his own sleeve and looked at his pockmarked arm.
"Wish they had those fifty years ago," said Mr. Norris.
"I don't think I want one," said Allison.
"Why not?" asked Pia.
"What if you roll over in your sleep and switch it on; you could bleed to death!" said Allison.
"And you say I have dark thoughts," said Pia smiling.
"Well, no one's had a problem with it, best I can tell," said Mr. West. He wiped his arm with a kerchief from his pocket and rolled his sleeve back down.
...to be continued...