6. The Choice

By Calico

“…He sit in ze third School Pew at kurche…He haf blond curl…Usually – a blue shirt…” My hands try to indicate ‘checked’ for the shirt, though I cannot bring the English word to mind. “…Und – light braun hat…”

Recognition dawns in the Superintendent’s face. “Oh yes, Mister Bauer. You mean Jedediah Curry.” A slight frown creases his brow.

“You zink… I haf make wrong choize?” I say.

Mister Hardwick hesitates. The War filled his establishment to bursting point. Orphans, with nowhere else to go, now far outnumber ‘waywards’. As I sit, offering to relieve him of even one mouth to feed, to free up even one bed, he is naturally reluctant to say anything that might give me pause.

Unlike his predecessor, Hardwick is, I believe, an honest man. The townsfolk can tell. Since this man arrived two years ago, the money meant for food is spent on bread, milk, oatmeal, beans, salt pork. The money meant for clothes goes on bolts of unbleached calico, rough serge, thick socks, boot repairs. The dull diet may not satisfy bottomless boyish appetites and the drab clothes may not keep out the keenest Kansas winds…but…there are no more hollow cheeks, nor shivering waifs to be seen. Not so many scared eyes either. And, far fewer bruised faces – just the occasional fat lip and black eye. What anyone might expect from young boys jostling together.

He clearly tries to stick to the truth.

“No, no – in many ways Jedediah is an excellent choice. He comes from a farming family – and – he’s a fine, strong, healthy boy – you are right in seeing there is plenty of work in him.”

I let this pass. It is not the boy’s strong young limbs and potential for hard graft that made me single him out. It is not ME who singled him out at all. It is my dear wife, Anna. His eyes remind her of…

I do not SAY any of this. I do not want this grimly stern man to think I am – my cheeks glow warm – a sentimental old fool. Even if I am.

The Superintendent is still speaking. “I HAVE seen Jedediah work hard…” under his breath he adds, “…when he chooses.” I believe his conscience makes him go on. “He does have a – a tendency to dumb insolence and – and playing truant from work details. And – a temper. There are other boys who might suit you…”

He sees I did not like the sound of ‘a temper’. He interrupts himself to explain. Now, I think he is struggling to be fair to Jedediah.

“I only mean he gets into fights. NOT a bully! Never! Nothing like that. I don’t say he STARTS fights. Just – he’s too stiff necked to walk away.” A pause.

“I haf a few fights at his age…und shirked chores when I haf chance,” I say.

The grim face almost smiles. Hardwick strides to the door, issues a terse command. “Tell Jedediah Curry to report here immediately. Closing the door, he meets my eyes. “I believe there’s a lot of good in the boy,” he says.

We wait. Hardwick makes polite enquiries about last year’s harvest.

I am not so good at the small talk. Even after all these years, I struggle not to sound – stilted. Since being alone, Anna and I lapsed into the bad habit of never using English at home.

A knock.

“Enter,” says Hardwick.

The blond youth comes in, scowling hard. I daresay being sent for to the Superintendent’s office rarely means anything other than ‘bad news’. The bright eyes look surprised to see a stranger there.

“This is Mister Bauer, Jedediah.” Hardwick frowns, sternly, “Take that scowl off your face and say ‘How do you do?'”

For a second, an even fiercer, defiant look is shot at the Superintendent.

Shyness makes me tongue-tied, but, I hold out my hand. “How do you do, Jedediah?” I manage.

A quick glance at me. I almost SEE the boy remember the manners taught by his parents. He DOES wipe off most of the scowl.

“How do you do, Sir?” he responds.

“Mister Bauer owns a farm about six miles East of here…” starts Mister Hardwick. The glower returns, as the boy listens. “…indentured for five years… Mister Bauer agrees you attend school until at least your sixteenth birthday…I am sure you will work very hard to show how grateful…”

“No!” he interrupts. “I AIN’T goin’!”

“Be quiet, Jedediah!” barks the Superintendent.

I admit being surprised. Working for board and keep on a farm is no picnic. But, surely it beats working for board and keep here?

“The vork vill be hard, Jedediah,” I say awkwardly. I am STILL trying not to sound too – too soft – in front of Mister Hardwick. Maybe trying too hard – I sound nearly as stern as him! “…But, you vill not find me an unfair man…”

“I WON’T leave Han! You can’t MAKE me!”

“You’ll do as you’re told, young man!” The tone, so used to command obedience, has its effect. The boy shuts up, although the blue eyes continue to blaze.

I clear my throat.

“Is sad to leaf friends you make here…” I say, tentatively, “…but – you vill soon make new friends at school…You vill see…”

“I WON’T!”

“Silence,” snaps Hardwick. “The matter is not open for discussion. You leave tomorrow. Be packed by ten. That will be all. Dismissed.”

As the boy walks out, a resentful glower is shot over one shoulder. I take it this is what Mister Hardwick calls ‘dumb insolence’.

“It – shows a gut heart, no?” I venture, trying to reduce the trouble I suspect Jedediah Curry is now in. “To haf made a gut friend – und not to vant lose him?” From the window, I see the blond youth explode from the building and sprint over to a dark-haired boy, who has found a quiet corner to bury his nose in a tattered book. “Zat is…” I point. “…er…Hans?”

Hardwick joins me. We watch the animated conversation going on below. A dark and fair head look up. A glance is exchanged. The boys take to their heels and melt into the grounds.

“Hannibal,” the Superintendent corrects me. “They grew up together – neighbouring farms – practically raised as brothers. They lost their families at the same time.”

Oh! I was wrong, then, to assume they met here! No wonder Jedediah resented my halting clichés about soon making new friends!

“You still plan to collect him tomorrow?” checks Hardwick, seeing my gathering frown.

I nod – though distractedly. As I climb into my wagon – I am thinking hard.

—oooOOOooo—

“Did you speak to him? Was I right? Did he seem a nice boy? What’s his name?” Anna has some of her old sparkle back, as she eagerly questions me.

“Jedediah,” I say, answering the easiest question first.

“Jedediah,” she repeats. “I like that! Go on…” she prompts.

“I think – he will be a handful,” I offer. “BUT – I believe his heart’s in the right place.”

Anna beams. I do not return her smile. She scans my face.

“What is it?” she asks. “What’s wrong?”

“He – doesn’t want to come,” I say.

The face I have loved for over twenty-five years – and which, in my eyes, is as pretty as the day I carried her over the threshold – falls.

“Why? Johann…” she frowns at me, “…you didn’t go on and on about how hard he’ll have to work? Like you did when Mister Zimmerman asked why you were taking an…”

“He WILL have to work hard,” I protest.

“I know! And – boys enjoy their free time more, knowing they have earned their keep! BUT, you made it sound like a Roman galley-ship – not a farm!”

“I don’t want people to think I’m…” I hesitate.

“As soft as butter? A pushover?” she supplies. A crooked smile glows up at me. “Don’t worry – your secret is safe with me.”

“It wasn’t that, anyhow,” I demur.

I tell her how Jedediah’s only thought was ‘I won’t leave Han’. How they grew up together. Gently taking her hand – I explain they lost their families to the War.

Her gaze goes to the mantelpiece.

“So…” her voice is low, “…they’re all each other has left.” Our eyes meet. “Johann,” hesitating, “…are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

I give a rueful shrug.

“You ARE,” she accuses. Her eyes are warm. “I know you are! After all, you’re a pushover!”

“There isn’t really enough work for two…” I demur. Anna gives me ‘a look’. “But…” I carry on, “…I’m not getting any younger – so I will, eventually, need more help. If anyone accused me of being foolish for taking on two orphans – I COULD explain I was thinking ahead! AND…” I glance around at the evidence of Anna’s busyness this afternoon. “…you’ve baked enough pie, cake and cookies for a dozen boys, so another mouth to eat it will avoid wasting good food!”

“AND…” Anna switches languages. “It vill be much gut for our English.”

“Ja. I mean, Yes,” I say. “Ve are too much not making ourselves speak …Amer’can.”

Anna nods earnestly.

“Only English – before tomorrow…” she agrees. Her fingers tighten around mine, “Oh, Johann. How gut to haf boys laugh in ze house again. To haf someone to …to…” her voice shakes, “…muzzer.”

I switch back to our own language.

“Anna,” I caution, my voice very gentle. Part of me does not want to say this. But – it needs saying. “…you know, they cannot take Jacob’s place.”

We look up at the mantelpiece together. The polished silver frame catches the late afternoon sun, slanting through the window. The bright metal sends pinpoints of light, dancing, onto the walls. Freshly picked forget-me-nots bloom in the vase beside it. The fair-haired soldier in the photograph looks far too young for the uniform he so proudly wears. He WAS too young. Too young to go to war. Too young to…

“I know,” says Anna. “No one can take his place.”

“And…” The lump in my throat makes the tone gruffer than I mean it to be. “…WE can never take the place of the folks THEY lost. You…” My thumb strokes the back of her hand, over and over as I say this. . “…you can never replace their mothers.”

“I know.” Her eyes are very bright, as they meet mine. “BUT…I can make their favourite suppers, let down their trousers and sleeves when they shoot up like bean-poles, bathe scrapes and bruises, nag them to change their wet shoes, tut and cluck when they whine about putting on a stiff collar for church socials…” She manages a cheerful smile. “Sure, we can never be parents again – but maybe, if we’re VERY lucky – one day, we might be kind old Uncle Johann and dear old Aunt Anna.” A deep breathe. “Even if they NEVER become fond of us – at least we will have kept two other mother’s sons fed, warm and safe until this country gets back to normal!”

I lean forward, kiss her.

“No one – but NO ONE,” I say, “…could NOT grow to love you.”

I decide to stop squashing the hopeful excitement bubbling inside both of us. I pull Anna to her feet and lead her upstairs. Together, we look at the room already prepared to be occupied – again.

“I could easily add a bunk to that bed.” I check my pocket watch. “Should be enough time. I can TRY and be done before morning anyhow.”

“I’ve a spare mattress, pillows and quilt set aside,” contributes Anna. “The quilt won’t match but that’s not the kind of thing boys care about.”

“Not much space for more furniture,” I say. “They’ll just have to manage with two drawers each. Or, maybe, I can make something to fit UNDER the bed?”

“I sewed a couple of shirts ready for – for Jedediah,” Anna looks at me anxiously, “…Is Hans…”

“Hannibal. Like – with the elephants,” I correct, smilingly.

“…Is he nearly the same size?”

I screw up my face as I try to remember. “Perhaps an inch or so taller. I think he may be a little older. And …he’s skinnier.”

“Oh, well,” she shrugs, philosophically. “I was only guessing the size anyhow. If they need altering – it won’t take long.”

Back downstairs; before I fetch in wood and tools, I look at my bookcase. I remember the dark-haired lad had found himself a quiet spot with his tattered pages.

“It’s a shame all these are German,” I say. “Hannibal may be a reader.”

A thought strikes Anna. She disappears upstairs. Sounds of cupboards opening. Light steps running back down. She places something on the table.

“Would he like these, do you think?”

Oh! My hand trembles, as I reach out.

“His prize books,” I say. Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. In English. I open the front covers, stare at the presentation plates pasted there. His name – in fancy copperplate. I was so, so proud when…

No! NO! NOT past tense.

I AM so, so proud that our son – the only child we were blessed with – came top of his class two years running.

“Are you sure?” I look up at Anna. “They – they might get spoilt.”

“Certain sure,” she says, firmly. “Books are meant to be read. NOT to sit in a foolish old woman’s drawer all wrapped up!” A qualm strikes her. “Unless…unless YOU mind, Johann?”

My finger lingers on a crease. Jacob – despite my frequent tutting – dog-eared corners to mark his place. You can see where he stopped night by night. His hands touched – here. And here. And here. And…

“No,” my tone is resolute. “I don’t mind. I think you’re right. It’s time someone else enjoyed these.”

—oooOOOooo—

THE NEXT DAY

Anna cannot bear to just stay home and wait. Sitting beside me in the wagon, I am reproved – half teasingly, half anxiously – for not going back to reassure Jedediah at once, that his friend could come too!

“I had to clear it first!” I protest. “I know my place!”

She knows that is not the real reason. I was far too bashful to turn around yesterday and ask to see the Superintendent again. I needed to practise what to say first, with her.

“Besides,” I offer, “…think how happy the boys’ll be when they DO hear they don’t have to part.”

She nods, then checks inside the covered basket she clutches. It holds two cosy mufflers – because the wind is sharp today. One made days ago, the second knitted through the night, while I sawed and hammered. And fruit. And cookies.

“Do you worry,” I teased, “…they’ll starve on the drive back?”

We arrive, exchange a nervous glance.

“Johann!” Anna hisses, as I help her down. “Stop looking so serious! Did you frown at young Jedediah like that yesterday? Poor boy! He must worry he’s going to live with a grumpy old bear of a man! Smile!”

“I AM smiling! It just doesn’t show under the beard!”

“Smile harder then! In case they’re watching!”

—oooOOOooo—

We sit before the Superintendent’s desk. Alone, now. The teacher sent to fetch the boys, called Mister Hardwick out. We half heard a rapid, annoyed conversation. Then…the two men hurrying away. Then …nothing. No, not quite nothing. Distant striding footsteps. Snapped orders. Doors slamming.

The tick of the clock in this austere office becomes oppressive. I twist to look at it. We have sat here for nearly forty minutes. I glance over at Anna. The basket is still on her knee. She clutches the handle so tight her knuckles must shine white under the cotton gloves. Her eyes stare at a neat darn on the forefinger. I reach over; cover both her small hands with one of mine. She does not look up – but she gulps. The eyes close for a long moment. Then, her head drops.

This is all MY fault! If only…If only I had chosen to…

Why am I so STUPID?

Because I was too bashful – too afraid of looking sentimental – too intimidated by officialdom in the form of black-suited Mister Hardwick with his long words and longer sentences – too STUPID – to simply turn back yesterday, knock on the Superintendent’s door, tell him we could make room to stop two friends being parted; because of that…

A faded cotton glove quickly brushes – something – from my wife’s thin cheek. Another gulp.

I shift my chair closer, so I can put my arm round her drooping shoulders.

I do not say anything. There is no need. Anna knows – as do I – there will be no tentative ‘getting to know you’ conversation on the ride home.

No one to wear the carefully folded mufflers in the basket she grips so hard.

No one to eat the cookies.

We both know – the boys aren’t coming

—oooOOOooo—

MEANWHILE – ABOUT A DOZEN MILES WEST OF VALPARAISO

Two cold, damp, hungry and very footsore boys plodded through Kansas scrubland. Suddenly, the dark-haired youth stopped, pointed.

“There it is, Jed.” He summoned up a smile. “The railway track. I TOLD you this was the way! All we hafta do now – is follow it. Sooner or later we come to a station… hop a train … get well away from here. Find a town. Find work. We’re BOUND to find somethin’! Find somewhere to stay. Everything’ll be just fine. You’ll see! I reckon we’ll…”

“Han?” interrupted a voice; much less sure of itself than usual after a long, long night on the run, expecting every moment to hear the sound of pursuit, “You do think we did the right thing – don’t ya?”

‘Would-be-confident’ deep brown eyes met anxiously searching blue ones. Jed, shivering slightly, collar turned up against the wind, was trying not to show he was scared. He looked – very young. Feeling the full responsibility of being the elder by more than a year, Hannibal squared his shoulders.

“Course we did!” he reassured, squashing any doubts of his own. “…We promised to stick together, huh? No matter what!”

A second pair of shoulders squared. A boyish jaw set firmly. They HAD promised to stick together! And, here they were – together. A curly blond head nodded.

They had made the right choice.

—oooOOOooo—

THE END

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