After that, we go back to Stengers’ for dinner, pack up the girls’ things, and drive home. They don’t have much. Everything they owned or loved burned up in the fire.
It’s a long, dark ride back to Spruce Mountain and to keep the girls from being anxious we sing songs. As we get closer to Wild Rose Road I’m getting anxious myself, contemplating the enormity of what I have done.
I suppose the Hesters could have taken Sally, along with the twins, but it seemed too much to ask. Now here I am, a father, and if Becky agrees, she’s a mother, but are we a couple? Can we be a family?
Hester stops at the Maddocks’ first and Milt has to carry Sonya inside because she’s asleep.
“Sally and I will walk from here, Dan. It’s a nice night,” I say, standing next to the Ford.
“Sunny and Sue, give your sister a hug. Sally’s going home with Dr. Blum. We’ll all see each other tomorrow,” Daniel instructs, and when they reach over, the little girls have tears in their eyes.
“Good luck,” Daniel whispers and I know he is thinking of Becky.
It’s after ten as Sally and I amble the rest of the way up Wild Rose Road, and I’m glad that Becky will be asleep. Before I left, I hurriedly fixed up my bed for Sally and laid a little wooden doll I’d carved under her pillow.
“Does Miss Becky like me, Dr. Blum?” Sally asks in a soft voice, taking my hand. Above us the Milky Way trails like a scarf across the black sky and the spring frogs sing in the wetlands. “She loves you. She loves you like a mother and she doesn’t even know it yet.” I reach up and grab a handful of stars and give them to Sally. She takes them in her little hand and presses them to her heart.
Passing through the arched gate in the picket fence, I realize that with the hectic process of getting the adoption accomplished, I’d almost forgotten about putting it up. Becky has hung a lighted Coleman on the front porch, and I take it as a good sign that she’s seen the flowers and accepted the gift of my journal.
“Here, Sally,” I whisper. “Sit on the sofa while I take off our shoes.” Through the kitchen door, I notice that my sketchbook is gone and in its place is Becky’s leather-bound journal with the little red ribbon marking her place.
“Be quiet now. Miss Becky is asleep. I’ll show you your room.” We creep up the stairs, she changes into her nightdress, and I tuck her in, something I’ve never done before, tucked a child into bed.
“I like the doll,” she tells me. “I’m going to name her Willa.”
“Do you think you can sleep? I could sit here for a while.”
“I’m okay. Thank you.”
“I’ll be downstairs on the sofa if you need anything.” I give Sally a kiss and step out of the room.
“Isaac?” Becky calls in a soft voice from across the hall. “Isaac?”
“Isaac? Who’s with you?” Blum stands at my bedroom door in the shadows and I beckon him in. There’s just enough starlight to see each other.
“Sally Hucknell,” he whispers and closes the door.
“You brought her home?”
“I brought her to our home. I might as well get it over with. I’ve been scared to tell you. We officially adopted Sally today. Judge Wade signed the papers. The Maddocks and Hesters took the other girls. Your name’s on the document. I can get it off later if you want. Did you read my journal?”
The man can see that I did. It’s open on my bedside table and he has my journal under his arm.
“I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about the adoption.” He sits on the edge of the mattress. “Hester, Maddock, and I discussed it after the burial, but I was still getting my nerve up to mention it to you. Then the vet found out this morning that the social workers were coming today and they were going to split the girls up. We had to move fast or it would be too late. If you don’t want any part of it, I can do it alone.”
I take his hand and have him lie down. Even fully clothed his body warms me. “I guess it’s okay. We can try. She’s a nice little girl and she needs a family. Are we a family?” There are tears in my eyes, but I don’t think he sees.
What is a family? I ask myself. They come in so many different forms and it’s been so long since I had one.
“Becky,” Blum whispers again. “I’m sorry. Sorry for everything.”
I answer by turning over and pulling him around me, his front to my back, spooning together.
We sleep all night like that, neither moving, the cells of our bodies weaving together.
“Miss Myers, would you braid my hair? Mama used to braid my hair, but Mrs. Stenger had so many children with us there, she didn’t have time.” It’s Sally, standing barefoot at the bottom of the stairs, wearing a pink flour-sack dress, her long white-blond hair uncombed. She’s holding a wooden hairbrush. Blum left the house before sunrise to assist Hester with a prolapsed uterus in one of Mr. Dresher’s cows and I have been upstairs reading his journal again. What strikes me is all that silence. A year of silence.
“You can call me Becky.” I take the brush and have her sit on the braided rug in front of me. “One pigtail or two?”
“Just one, straight down in back . . . I don’t like to call grownups by their first names. It feels rude.”
“Right. I had an Aunt Petunia once who wanted me to call her Pet. I couldn’t do it. How about Aunt Becky.” The girl thinks it over.
“Should I call Dr. Blum Uncle Blum?”
“No, his name is Isaac. I think you should call him Uncle Isaac.”
This girl needs some decent clothes. I pull Sally up in my lap. She’s a big girl, not a baby, but I’m already thinking like a mother.
A mother . . . I say to myself . . . I never saw myself as a mother. Certainly, I never wanted to be pregnant or give birth. Sometimes I envied women with children, the physical closeness they had to their little ones, but here I am with Sally in my lap and the feelings of wanting to provide and protect her are undeniable.
Mother, I think. Mother is about love. It doesn’t mean the one who gives birth. It is the one who braids your hair.
The Hope River runs clean and clear again, the ash and debris from the wildfire gone. For a few weeks even the homeless abandoned it. Now, as we wind ourselves through the willows, I notice a few of the traveling people are back, but in smaller numbers; only two camps, one white and one black, constructed away from each other in ramshackle wood shelters with hobo stoves made of tin and clotheslines tied to the trees.
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