Chapters One & Two from Enduring (a novel)
MY DADDY DIED ON A DAY IN JANUARY so cold, colder than a banker’s heart, that he lay preserved from spoilage for nearly three weeks before he was discovered. It was his miserliness that saved his body: he’d had a habit every night before bedtime of turning off the furnace and keeping himself covered with several old quilts. So he hadn’t yet begun to stink of death when he was found. George Dinsmore, driving along the road a good ways down the mountain from Dad’s place, happened to look up and notice that no smoke was rising from the furnace’s flue pipe, and he drove up there to investigate. Nobody hereabouts locks their doors of a night, so George had no trouble getting into the house, where he found my daddy smiling real big but clearly of a bluish pallor that could mean only one thing: his old friend Hank Ingledew had taken leave of this life. George whipped out his cell phone and called the governor’s office in Little Rock to speak personally with the governor, my brother Vernon, and tell him that his father was no longer alive. And then, instead of phoning me, he drove on down to my house, in the heart of what’s left of the village, where I’d been living for several years with my husband Larry, to tell me face to face the solemn news. “Eighty-six is a good age to go,” George said. “I just hope I can last that long.”
For the rest of the day I was busy making phone calls, keeping busy in order to keep from feeling guilt or shame because I hadn’t been to visit my daddy once in the three weeks he lay dead or for that matter the three weeks before; I hadn’t seen him since Christmas, when Larry and I stopped by his house to give him his present (one more shirt) and listen to his same old poor excuse for not wanting to join us or anybody for Christmas dinner. I am the only one of his six kids still living in this town, so it behooved me to make the funeral arrangements and, once a date had been set, get in touch with my four sisters, scattered around the country, mostly California, and then to call my brother Vernon, Governor Ingledew, and let him know the date and time. I made a few more phone calls, to the few residents of the town and county who might be interested, and only after I had called everyone I could think of did I realize that I hadn’t called the most important resident, my grandmother, who was my daddy’s mother-in-law. Why hadn’t I called her first? Because it was no secret she’d never lost any love on her son-in-law? Because I was afraid she might even express gladness over his death? Because I didn’t want to bother her, to make her have to get up and answer the phone? Surely not because I had simply forgotten her? No, after discussing my negligence with Larry, I decided that I was simply reluctant to give Gran this memento mori. After all, she had held out for a hundred and six years and, although she had been known to declare that she would outlive us all, she didn’t need to let her thoughts dwell on the demise of the last Ingledew of his generation, the last male Ingledew except for his son Vernon. But when I phoned her she took the news well, without any great expression of either sorrow or elation. I offered to give her a ride to the cemetery. “Sharon,” she said, “I can walk.”
Which she did, although it was a couple of miles, and still so cold she had to bundle up in her best coat and scarf. The funeral was fairly-well attended. The newspapers had given the obituary unusual space, not because my daddy was important or even historic (he had installed the first television sets in the county) but because he was the father of the popular Democratic governor. During the Second World War, he had been an officer in the U.S. Navy, so there were military honors at his funeral, with a flag draped over the coffin, and some sailors firing off their rifles. Vernon was just a little late, riding up in a state trooper’s car. In front of everyone he gave me a hug, first, before he gave hugs to his other four sisters. We six children of the deceased huddled for a while to argue quietly, because Patricia, who had joined the Pentecostal church in Kansas City, had imported a minister from Harrison and had been up all night preparing the basic facts for his eulogy, and she wanted to be sure that we approved of the selections of scripture for him to read. Eva, the second oldest, had joined a Church of Scientology in Van Nuys, California, and said that since Daddy had already entered a new life her creed didn’t believe in funerals, only in memorial services. Latha, the oldest of we sisters, named after that wise, ancient grandmother, and like her in many ways although she’d moved to San Francisco and married a Buddhist thirty years before, and was dressed all in white because the Buddhists believe the family should wear white to funerals, reminded us that Dad, like all the Ingledews of every generation running back as far as anyone knew, maybe even into the 17th century, did not believe in God, and therefore would not want a Christian service. June and Vernon and I nodded our heads in solemn agreement, and Vernon said, “But he didn’t believe in Gautama Siddhartha either.” Vernon, in his political, persuasive voice, suggested that we might as well let the Pentecostal preacher go ahead and deliver the eulogy, since Patricia had put so much trouble into it, and that he personally had no objection to the singing of the religious hymn, “Farther Along,” in fact it was to be expected, but that there should be no other religious ceremony at the graveside, no prayers, no preaching.
So that was it. The Pentecostal minister unfolded some sheets of paper and read aloud the bare facts of Daddy’s life: John Henry Ingledew was born in 1920 in Stay More to Bevis Ingledew and Emelda Duckworth Ingledew, he was known to everyone as “Hank,” and attended the Stay More public school. At the age of twenty, he married Sonora Twichell and to them were born the following children, etc. His wife had preceded him to Glory by forty-five years. He made no mention of Daddy’s running away from home at the age of ten to join the circus, or of his keeping company with the legendary peddler Eli Willard at the time of his death or of Willard’s gift to him of the magic chronometer wristwatch to keep for his son who had not yet been imagined, let alone conceived or born. Such fanciful facts of Daddy’s life, and there were dozens more, and I wondered if Patricia had mentioned any of them to the preacher, seemed to belong to a time and a way of life that no longer existed in the modern world, and this preacher’s eulogy made Daddy appear dull and ordinary and safe. Finally the man folded up his sheets of paper, and looked at me and said, “Sisters, and Your Excellency, don’t mourn for your father. He has gone to a much better place. God has called him home.” He was about to go on, but I had raised my finger to my lips, and so had Vernon, and so had June. The preacher stared at us silently for a long moment before it dawned on him why we were shushing him. Then he looked pained, and was uncertain what to do next. There was a long silence. It was Gran who began singing first, but it took only the second syllable of “along” before most everybody else joined in, and sang that hymn which has been sung at so many funerals in this cemetery that it might as well stand as the civic anthem for the town or what is left of it. There isn’t much room left in the little cemetery but I do believe that when my time comes there will be room for me near that double headstone of Daddy and Mother, and that if anyone at all is remaining who has not failed to heed the injunction to stay more, they will raise their voice in song to express the certainty that farther along we’ll know all about, farther along we’ll understand why.
The funeral dinner was held at my place. Where else would have been suitable? Not everybody stayed for it, but those who did expected the traditional groaning board of potluck dishes, to which all of them had contributed something, at least bread or salad or pie, and there was plenty of fried chicken and of course the Ingledew ham that George still turned out at the plant down the valley. Extra card tables had been set up in the kitchen to accommodate all the food, and the main part of the house, which had once been the store and post office Latha Bourne Dill had run as storekeeper and postmistress, was still as much like the original as I could keep it, and contained for this occasion enough chairs to seat about half the guests; the others had to eat on the porch in the cold, sitting wherever they could find a spot or standing up. Every last one of them, before they left, felt obliged to give me a hug or at least shake my hand, and say what a good man Daddy had been, and how we would all miss him terribly.
After all of them had gone, we children of the deceased sat around a while and visited, for at least an hour before the governor had to get on back to the capital. Larry obligingly took the other four husbands into his study to watch a professional football game on TV. I was nervous, expecting that one or more of my siblings would take me to task for the fact that Daddy had remained dead without being discovered for three weeks, but nobody mentioned that, possibly because each of them also felt some guilt: why hadn’t any of them called him? We did discuss our various reasons for not keeping in close touch with him. He wasn’t easy to chat with. Eva claimed that she couldn’t even understand him any more. “The older he got, the worse he started sounding like an old hillbilly, talking in that outmoded country-boy dialect that nobody speaks anymore. What are ‘lashins and lavins’? He’d say something like, ‘I just got lashins and lavins of time to beguile.’ What does that mean?” None of her other sisters knew; Vernon said he’d heard Daddy say something like that but wasn’t sure what it meant. I offered the opinion that possibly it was just his way of saying that he had a lot of time on his hands.
Patricia raised the subject of why Daddy was found with a big smile on his face, and each of us conjectured about the possible reasons for that. June, who was named after her mother Sonora but referred to as Sonora, Jr., said she was sure that Daddy in his last breath of life might have caught sight of his long-departed wife waiting for him. Vernon scoffed. “Waiting where?” he said. “Heaven? No, and I’m not so sure he would have been happy to see her if he had.” Patricia said that of course it was commonly believed that in the last moment of existence one’s entire life flashes before their eyes, and maybe Daddy was amused, or at least pleased, to have that fast-forward – or fast-backward -- look at his whole story. Eva insisted that the smile was proof of the Scientology belief that we enter a new life at death, and that Daddy was smiling at the prospect of his new life. Vernon told us about the Etruscan sarcophagi, on which sculptural images of the dead usually have big smiles on their faces. From my training as a nurse, I offered the opinion that the smile might just be a kind of reflex as rigor mortis sets in. In hospitals I had seen several people who died with smiles on their faces.
“Did Daddy love us?” Patricia abruptly posed that heuristic question, and each of us (Vernon had to leave) had a chance to offer variations on the opinion that although Daddy hadn’t been very good at expressing affection he treasured each and every one of us. When I concurred, Patricia said “But you were the last girl before Daddy finally got the boy that he always wanted, and I know for a fact, since I was the next-to-last, that Daddy didn’t like having so many girls, and he probably held it against us.” Latha agreed, pointing out that even though she was the oldest, he had made his dislike of females obvious long before I was born. But I had to point out, as they seem to have forgotten, that all Ingledew men, through countless generations, were congenitally shy toward females, and it wasn’t that Daddy had actively disliked us, he was just uncomfortable in our presence. “Amen,” two of them chorused, and that was the end of our discussion of Daddy.
There was one other topic of discussion, as long as all of us (except Vernon) were still together, and who knew when we would ever be together again with a chance to talk? What were we going to do with Gran? Most women not nearly her age who aren’t dead are confined to bed in a nursing home. But Gran insisted on staying at the old dogtrot log cabin which her husband’s grandfather had built and where she had lived ever since the post office closed down and she left this house to me. Vernon had insisted on paying to make a number of improvements, “modernizations,” to the dogtrot, including plumbing, electricity, telephone, television, a fully equipped kitchen with refrigeration, garbage disposal, and even a handy microwave. Gran had resisted the idea of having a computer, not because she was afraid to learn how to use it but because she didn’t have room for it and its printer and scanner, etc. She still raised chickens, for their eggs, and had only recently given up her latest cow (named Mathilda like all of the cows she’d ever had) because she couldn’t comfortably squat to milk her. Vernon had tried for years to persuade her to move into a very nice new “assisted living facility” in the county seat, Jasper (she hated the name nursing home because she had no use for nurses, except me, but me not as a nurse, just a friend and, as my sisters knew too well, a favorite granddaughter).
“Doesn’t she have anything wrong with her?” her namesake Latha wanted to know. My sister Latha herself was now sixty-six years old and was decrepit in ways her grandmother had never been. I said that physically Gran did not have a single complaint, although she had never permitted me to use my stethoscope on her, so I could only assume that her heart and lungs were as strong as they always seemed to be.
“But mentally?” Eva said. “Isn’t she showing any signs of Alzheimer’s or just plain memory loss?” I said that I, in my fifty-fifth year, the youngest of the sisters, had worse problems with my mind than our grandmother did. Her only mental problem was that she still had not fully recovered from the loss of her long-time companion, a big shaggy dog named Xenophon, called simply “Fun” or sometimes “Funny,” who had simply disappeared some years before at an age which in human years would have exceeded that of his mistress.
“But doesn’t she still feed a bunch of cats?” Patricia wanted to know.
“Dozens,” I said. Our grandmother had always had an overpopulation of felines on the premises, and had never thought of having them fixed by a vet.
June wanted to know, “Hasn’t she ever even fallen down?”
“Yes,” I had to admit. “Last summer she was out picking blackberries and tripped over an old barbed-wire fence – anybody would have tripped on it – and fell hard. She didn’t break anything, but her knee hit a rock and was cut open and skinned up, and she had to let me put three stitches in it, the only time she has ever allowed me to treat her.”
“She’s been lucky,” Latha said. “But how long can that go on? How long can she endure? Living alone like that….” I pointed out that Vernon had had installed, against her wishes, something called “Lifeline,” a system of buttons in each of the rooms of her cabin, and all she had to do was push a button to summon aid…and also set off an alarm in my house and the governor’s mansion in Little Rock. And I still phoned her at least twice a week, not to check up on her but just to chat.
“But,” Patricia said, “yesterday June and I tried to visit her, and we couldn’t even find her house! The road is all choked with trees and brambles, and George told us it isn’t possible to get a vehicle there. What if she needed to summon an ambulance, and it couldn’t reach her?”
This question was addressed to all of sisters but Patricia stared at me as she asked it, so I felt obliged to reply, “She wants it that way. She wanted the road to disappear. The few of us who are her best friends know how to reach the cabin on foot. The rest of the world can go fuck itself, as she likes to say.”
Patricia said. “She must get awfully lonely.”
“Not at all,” I said, and named those best friends: myself, George, Bending Bear the Osage Indian, Day and Diana Stoving-Whittacker. “Trust me, she is the most unlonely person I’ve ever known.”
Eva asked, “What do you chat about? Does she ever talk to you about her life?”
“Not unless I ask her something, and I don’t usually do that.”
Latha said, “You know, just for the record, you ought to write down anything she tells you about her life. It would make a book.”
Her sisters eagerly nodded their heads in agreement, and Eva said, “I’ll bet there are all sorts of things that have happened to her in those hundred and six years that nobody knows about.”
June said, “Mother once told me that Gran when she was a young woman was locked away for several years at the state hospital. That’s the nuthouse, right? What was she doing there? She’s one hundred percent sane. One hundred and ten percent.”
Patricia said, “Ask her about the state hospital.”
Eva said, “Ask her about those seven missing years after she escaped from the nuthouse before she showed up here again.”
Latha said, “Ask her about everything.”
“It will give me something to do,” I allowed.
My earliest memory, the first prosaic awareness of consciousness that manages to keep itself in the cluttered store of my head, is of walking at the age of three down the main road of Stay More, holding the hand of my grandmother, the heroine of this book, who was giving me a guided tour of the little village or what was left of it. I knew that my grandmother was important, not just because she owned the building called the store and P.O. where people had once got groceries and letters, but also because she seemed to know everything about anything and could tell me the story behind every building we passed. Although I had been born in California, I had no memory of that place, which, according to my grandmother, was under a curse placed upon it by my ancestor, Jacob Ingledew, the founder of Stay More, who lost his firstborn son in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of western pioneers.
“That was my first memory, and you were in it,” I said to Gran one day in February, not long after Daddy’s funeral (his will had left all he had, the house, in equal shares to his six children, but although the house was listed with a real estate agent and for that matter is still listed, nobody has bought it.) “Do you remember your first memory?” It was my way of prompting her into the beginning of the story of her life. I knew she had been born in Stay More, in a cabin on the east side of Ledbetter Mountain (my house is at the foot of the south side of the same mountain). I knew that her father, Saultus Bourne, was a poor farmer just barely raising enough to feed his family, and her mother, Fannie Swain Bourne, although descended from one of the original settlers of Stay More, had come from an even poorer family, and had given her daughter Latha only her good looks and her engaging smile (but, oddly, had not given these to her other two daughters, Latha’s sisters Barbara and Mandy).
Gran smiled, as she often did, that Swain smile (she did not, to the best of my knowledge, wear dentures.) “My first memory, huh?” She stared out across the road as if she could see all the way to the Bourne cabin, which no longer stood, but would not have been visible from the Dill dogtrot if it had, what with all the wilderness she had allowed to grow up around her. “I was three years old. I was walking down the main road of Stay More, holding the hand of my grandmother, who was giving me a guided tour of the little village or what was left of it.”
I was more puzzled than annoyed, and wondered if indeed she was verging into Alzheimer’s. “No, Gran, that’s what I was just telling you. I want to know what your first memory is.”
“That’s it,” she said. “One more thing that you and I have in common. The difference was that I walked you from south to north on the main road; my grandmother walked me from north to south, and the first building we came to was the same building which I was destined to take possession of eventually as my store and post office, your house now, where the tour I gave you as a child ended up. In the time of my grandmother, it was Jerram’s general store, one of four in the town, but I had never seen a store before and didn’t know what it was. ‘Is a store where you get stories?’ I asked Grandma, who was a great storyteller. She laughed and said why no but a right smart of stories sure do get told at stores. She didn’t take me into Jerram’s. She showed me each of the other buildings and told me what they were: two doctor’s offices, blacksmith shops, a dentist’s, and the gristmill. I had never seen any buildings other than our cabin and our barn and our outhouse. Seeing all these buildings so close together must have been like your first view of Chicago. I don’t remember what thoughts were running through my little head, but I must have been struck all of a heap at this display of metropolitan goings-on. We came to the biggest house in town, which was Ingledew’s hotel, that actually had a second story on top of the first! And across from it Ingledew’s big general store, also two stories. It was the first of all these buildings that she took me into, the first time I’d ever been inside a commercial establishment. She led me to the candy showcase and gave me a penny, which might have been all she had to her name, and told me to pick out one piece of candy. She had to leave me alone during the long, long time that it took me to make up my mind, trying to choose among the gum drops, chocolate bars, jelly squares, licorice sticks, mint kisses, cinnamon balls, caramels, cream wafers, marshmallow bananas, rock candy, bonbons, cracker jacks and I don’t know what. It seems hours went by, but my grandmother was lost in chitchat with some other ladies. Finally I picked an I-don’t-know-what, a chocolaty thing with nuts inside, and pointed to it and Mr. Ingledew fetched it out of the case for me, and I handed over my penny. I had never tasted chocolate before, and I can remember it to this day. Then while I greedily consumed it I just wandered around the store, looking at all the stuff. They sold clothes and shoes and dry goods and hardware and all kinds of groceries. They even sold toys (play pretties we called them), among which were figures of small, pudgy people that were called, I would soon learn, babies, although I had never seen one before. I searched for Grandma to ask her to buy me one of the babies, and I found her among a group of women who were holding and admiring a real live baby. They let me get a close look at it, and even to touch it. It looked just like those figures of babies I had been admiring except that it moved and looked at you with real eyes. I asked my grandmother if babies came from stores. She laughed harder than when I’d asked about stories coming from stores. But she never did tell me where babies come from.”
Little Latha would not hear an acceptable answer to that question for several more years. As she squeezed from infancy into childhood, she would keep asking that question, whenever she saw a baby or whenever a baby crossed her mind, even when her sisters Barb and Mandy allowed her eventually to hold one of those figures of babies that they had come into possession of, which they called a “dollbaby.” When she asked her sisters where babies come from, they said that this one had belonged to Eunice Whitter and before her to Violet Duckworth, and little Latha said yes but not a dollbaby, one of those babies that really cry and look alive. Barb, the older sister, said that babies come from under a gooseberry bush. There was only one gooseberry bush, out behind the cabin, and Latha explored it thoroughly and watched it for weeks and weeks without ever seeing any sign of a baby. Sister Mandy agreed with her that that was a pretty dumb notion, and she knew for a fact that you could order babies from Sears Roebuck the same way you could order anything else. Latha waited until the next time a catalogue from Sears Roebuck arrived in the mail (the previous issue had been used up as toilet paper in the outhouse). She hunted and hunted through the pictures in it until finally, way off toward the end, she found two pages covered with babies! She showed it to Mandy but Mandy hadn’t learned to read yet so they had to take it to Barb. Barb read aloud but slowly the words about “double riveted patent joint hip and knees, fine bisque head, pasted wig, comes in three sizes,” and Barb said, “These here aint but dollbabies. There’s not no real baby. As usual, Mandy don’t know what she’s talkin about. Real babies are found under gooseberry bushes.” Latha waited as long as she could stand it, checking that gooseberry bush nearly every day, until finally she asked her mother why their gooseberry bush didn’t have any babies under it. Her mother laughed and said that must be some old wives’ tale.
“But where did I come from, Momma?” Latha wanted to know. Her mother explained that she had been brought by a granny-woman, not Grandma Bourne, bless her heart, but a woman who lived way back up in the hills and had to be called whenever a baby was expected, and who brought the baby in her tote-sack. Some folks who had no modesty but had money could afford to call in Doc Swain or Doc Plowright, who brought the baby in their doctor bag, but most ordinary folks like us has to make do with the granny-woman, who’s just as good as them doctors anyhow and don’t embarrass the mother. “But where did the granny-woman get me?” Latha asked. Her mother said, “In the barn, of course.” Latha told her sisters what their mother had said. Barb allowed as how the barn might be more private and protected than the gooseberry bush. Mandy said that probably the baby came from Sears Roebuck anyhow but the postman couldn’t stuff it into the mailbox so he left it in the barn. The Bourne’s barn wasn’t much of a structure, just big enough for one cow and enough hay to feed her through the winter. Latha gave it a good looking-over, and found several places where hens had laid their eggs in the straw, and Latha gathered these up and took them to the kitchen. But there was one place where a hen had made a nest, with several eggs in it, which she was sitting on. The hen pecked Latha’s hand when she tried to reach under it to get the eggs, so Latha left those alone. Latha was watching closely on the day when the eggs hatched, and she studied all the baby chicks. She wondered if a woman would have to sit on a big egg in the barn for the baby to be born. Or did the granny-woman just find the baby in the hay and take it to the mother in the house? Latha spent a lot of time in the barn, and by and by their cat, Jasmine, gave birth to a litter of seven kittens, and Latha watched each one of them come out of the cat’s bottom. Latha was taken aback because it looked like Jasmine was doing her business, only making kittens instead of do-do. But it was unmistakable that both chicken babies and cat babies were born in the barn, so it stood to reason that people babies came from the barn too, and thus her mother had been correct. “We caint feed them kitties,” her mother announced, “so I reckon Paw had best put ‘em in a tow sack and drown ‘em.” Latha had to pester her sisters, her mother, her grandmother and finally her father to find out just what this meant and why it was necessary. “I’ll wait till they’re weaned afore I do it,” her father declared, and Latha had to pester her sisters, her mother, and her grandmother to find out what “wean” means. Granny Bourne explained that it’s bad luck to kill a cat, unless the cat is drowned in a running stream. Latha tried to puzzle out just what “luck” means, and how it is that if you do certain things a certain way it will affect the outcome of your life. She had serious dreams and some bad dreams trying to get it all straight. When the kittens were weaned but before her father could put them in a tow sack, Latha snatched the prettiest one and hid it in a dark corner of the hay in the barn where each day she took it something to eat. She gave it a name, Cutey-pie Face. Its mother Jasmine found it and bit it on the back of the neck and tried to bring it back to the nest, and Latha tried to explain to Jasmine why she had to keep the kitten hidden. But this went on for several days, Latha hiding the kitten up in a dark corner of the hayloft and Jasmine dragging it back down, until finally Jasmine just seemed to give up or maybe got it through her head that her other kitties had been drowned and Cutey-pie Face was all she had left. So Jasmine took to sleeping up in the dark corner of the hayloft where Latha kept her kitten.
If any proof were needed that babies come from the barn, the day came when Mathilda, their cow, had her calf in the barn, and Latha spied from her hiding place while her daddy pulled the calf out of Mathilda. While she was convinced that babies did indeed come from the barn, she also was certain that they had come from inside their mother, even the eggs of the hen, and she did not understand what the granny-woman brought in her bag…unless the mother actually gave birth in the barn and then the granny-woman put the baby in a sack and took it to the house. That made sense. And it left only the question, how did the babies get inside of the mother in the first place? Did the mother have to eat something? The day finally came when Latha had to tell her mother that she knew she had been inside of her at one time but she would like to know how she got there. Her mother told her that she was much too young to think about such things, and she ought to think about something else.
She had found something else to think about anyhow. It had started when she was studying some bugs while making mud pies. She liked to pretend that she was making real pies like the ones that Grandma Bourne kept in the pie safe in the kitchen, a big walnut cabinet with panels of black tin perforated in star patterns, which always had a custard pie or an apple pie or a gooseberry pie in it. Latha’s favorite was vinegar pie, which nobody makes anymore. Latha liked to pat those blobs of mud into shapes that she called vinegar pies, and even pretended to eat, yum yum. One day while she was busy patting her pies, she happened to notice two bugs, probably beetles, that were joined together, one on the back of the other. Then there was another pair of them. And another. Although she studied them for a long time, they remained stuck together, and she didn’t try to pull them apart. When she asked Mandy about it, Mandy said that it was just a kind of bug which has two heads. Latha wasn’t satisfied with that answer, because these bugs didn’t have just two heads, they had two whole bodies, one body on top of the other’s. She asked Barb about it, and Barb just shrugged and said that one bug was giving a piggyback ride to the other bug. But that didn’t make too much sense either, because they weren’t going anywhere. She was reluctant to bother the grown-ups with her trivial questions, but she really needed to know why those bugs were attached like that. Grandma Bourne said it sounded to her like one of the beetles was probably killing the other one. Latha’s mother just told her to stay away from bugs because she never knew when one of them might bite her or sting her. Latha’s daddy asked her why did she want to know? She said she was only trying to understand how the world works. He said well, that was just the way that bugs behaved, it might not make no sense but it happened everywhere all the time and there weren’t no use in worrying about it, you just had to take it for granted and let it go.
Latha wasn’t able to let it go but in due time she grew tired of studying bugs attached to each other, who didn’t go anywhere, and she began to study, at night, before they made her go off to bed, the tiny creatures that flew around in the night air and twinkled with light. For a long time Latha thought they were miniature people or fairies, although she didn’t know that word yet. Grandma Bourne said they were called lightning bugs, and they sure were pretty. “Purty as you,” Grandma Bourne observed, “and you’re the purtiest Bourne ever they was.” Grandma also explained how lightning bugs are signs: when they fly close to the ground it means there’s a big rain a-coming; when they fly high up in the air, it means we can expect a long drought. Latha was fascinated by the idea that there were signs in the world which would tell you if something would happen, and she pestered her grandmother to tell her all the signs she knew, such as rain is good for funerals but terrible for weddings. Grandma said, “Happy is the bride that the sun shines on; Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on.” If the dog Rouser starts eating grass, if means it will rain; if Jasmine sneezes, it will rain. Latha kept a close watch, but Rouser never ate grass, and Jasmine never sneezed, and nobody had a funeral, and the lightning bugs flew high in the air.
Latha was more interested in why they flashed their lights. One time Mandy and Barb caught a bunch of lightning bugs and put them in a glass jar, where Latha could study them. None of them were attached to each other, or showed any inclination for becoming joined. Latha asked her sisters why they flashed their light. Mandy said, “Well, silly, it’s cause they have to see where they’re a-going in the dark!” Latha wondered why they didn’t just wait until daylight. Barb said that lightning bugs were like the stars in the sky: what’s the purpose of stars other than to make the sky pretty to look at? When Latha asked Grandma Bourne why the lightning bugs light up, Grandma just said, “Well, wouldn’t you, if you could?” So Latha didn’t bother to ask the question of her mother or father.
She was about ready to give up asking questions anyhow. But there was one other question she wanted to know the answer to, which also involved a kind of joining. “How come,” she asked Mandy, “roosters jump on the backs of the hens and whack and smack ‘em like they do?” Mandy said she reckoned it was because the rooster’s job is to keep order amongst the flock and he was punishing the hens. But why was he punishing them? Latha wanted to know. Barb offered the opinion that the hens was just too gabby, a-clucking and a-cackling all over the place, and the rooster was just trying to get them to shut up. That answer didn’t satisfy Latha completely but she was forced to live with it for a while. But then one day a strange dog wandered into their yard and their dog Rouser barked at it and then went out and sniffed its bottom and pretty soon climbed up on its back just like those roosters climbed the hens, and tried to poke his pee-pee into the dog’s bottom. Somebody – not Mandy or Barb but probably Grandma Bourne – had long ago answered Latha’s question about that thing that Rouser had between his legs, which he peed out of, and is therefore called simply a pee-pee. Neither Latha nor her sisters nor her grandmother nor her mother had a thing like that, although it was thought that possibly her father did. The purpose of it, as any fool could plainly see, was just to make water in such a way that it didn’t splash on your leg. But now was Rouser making water inside of the other dog? It was certainly baffling. And it didn’t take long for Latha to realize that the two dogs were joined together in the same way that the bugs were and also, briefly, the rooster and the hens. Probably the lightning bugs too, although you couldn’t see them in the dark. It took a while for the dogs to finish whatever they were doing. Maybe, Latha wondered without voicing her theory to her sisters, Rouser was squirting some eggs into the other dog which would turn into babies! Latha smiled real big with the realization that she was finally beginning to understand the mystery of life.
She had just been taking Rouser for granted. He was just a dog, a good old dog, and friendly; when she was younger, whenever he was sprawled on the porch he had let her sit on his head as a cushion. He was supposedly helpful around the place, and he barked to let them know that somebody was coming, if somebody ever did. Sometimes, especially after a rain, he smelled bad. And he spent an awful lot of time, especially when it was hot, just sleeping. But now he was real busy, pumping his bottom against that strange dog’s bottom and filling her up with eggs. Latha had other questions, for instance, how did Rouser know to tell the difference between pee and eggs, to squirt the right one? She didn’t ask these questions of anyone, convinced now that the others simply didn’t understand the mystery of life the way it was revealed to her. She knew that in time she would learn the answers on her own. From that day forward, she never asked anyone a question ever again.