2. Counting Blessings

[Not part of the original Heyes & Curry Stories]
By Calico
September 1863

“It’s not FAIR!”

“Oh, for Pete’s sa…” He – my father I mean – stops.

I don’t know why he stops. He is always grumpy these days, ALWAYS. So why put on that patient face and pretend to be all reasonable? Huh? Huh? Why?

“Look, son, I know you’re cold and I know working on this Indian hole is a dull and dirty way to spend a Saturday afternoon…”

“It’s a waste o’ time too. The Indians never came when you and Mister Curry first dug the Indian holes all those years back. And, there’s been no Indian trouble anywhere near here – not for ages.”

He opens his mouth as if he’s about to say something, then, shoots a quick look at me and shuts it again. When he does speak, I can tell he’s choosing his words.

“Well, it never hurts to be prepared, huh?”

I scowl as I heft another spade full of earth out of the cavity below the barn floor. Does he think I don’t know we’re not digging extra space into this old hiding place because of Indians. I know it’s not INDIANS. It’s because of…

I only said Indians to see if he’d tell me straight out. But he didn’t. He still treats me like a kid who can’t be allowed to hear stuff.

Sure, I can see why him and Mister Curry keep quiet in front of the little ones. I keep quiet in front of David and Samuel too. But him keeping quiet in front of me is just… I’m practically grown-up. I’m twelve! I’ve been twelve since yesterday!

Besides, nothing is gonna happen. Everyone – well, all the grown-ups – have been reading the ink off newspapers as if they were the last instalment of a six-cent story paper and scanning the horizon and huddling together to talk in low voices all summer. The mothers shush each other when the children came near and menfolk are stocking up on bullets and oiling their rifles. It’s been the same for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks.
And nothing’s happened since July.
Zero! Nadir! Squat! Because – I scowl yet harder at the dirt on my spade – nothing EVER happens in this dang, dull dump of a town! NEVER!
It’s just school and chores and supper and bed .
At home it’s nothing but Samuel getting in the way ALL the time – and her asking you to do stuff – and him making you go up to bed when Mister Curry comes round and you want to listen.
And at school it’s nothing but the people you want to talk to never even looking your way.
It is NOT fair!
They just huddle with their silly friends, tossing their curls and giggling whenever they see you glance over!
Not that I care.
‘Course, I could go talk to – whoever – except that my voice keeps going all weird. It cracks and drops and squeaks, all in one dang sentence. Especially when I try to talk to – someone.
Not that I want to talk to her.
It’s just not fair – that’s all.

I raise an exploring finger to my chin. Has that spot gone down? No. In fact… Is that another one? Oh, for Pete’s sake. How can – anyone – be expected to look my way without giggling when my dang chin looks like the surface of the moon? Huh? And when they’re taller than me ‘cos I haven’t grown a single inch since July? Huh? And when…

“Pa?”

“Uh huh?”

“You know I told you I needed a new hat…?”

“Uh huh?”

“Did you – y’know – forget on my birthday.”

A sigh from the other side of the hole. “No. I didn’t forget. I’m afraid I couldn’t spare the money, son.”

I got boots – BOOTS for Pete’s sake! – on my birthday. And they don’t even count as a present because Samuel had new boots too! He said they were not meant to be a present – they were just something that we all needed for the winter. But, I NEED a hat. This old thing makes me look dumb and everyone knows it’s a hand-me-down from Zach Curry.

I got NOTHING for my birthday. Nothing.

Okay, she made me a shirt like she does every year. But even that came out of that huge bolt of material Mrs. Curry bought as a real bargain because it was a roll end. Gradually – well not all that gradually – the entire Curry and entire Heyes family, boys AND girls, are being kitted out in the same shade of gray-green. When we all walk to school we look like a giant moving puddle.

No wonder – someone – giggles.

And okay, I didn’t get exactly nothing, I got a bookshelf. It is real high up in my room even I have to climb on a chair to reach it. This is great, ‘cos all my books get covered in grubby and sticky finger prints and in scribble. Samuel and David know, KNOW they’re not allowed in my room unless I say so – but it’s always; ‘we don’ know if’n you’re there less’n we come in and look, Han’bul’ and ‘we was comin’ in to ASK if we can come in, Han’bul’ And, you can’t get as cross as you should when those eyes are blinking up at you, ‘cos… Well, just because.

But a bookshelf’s only a few pieces of wood jointed together when all’s said and done. Okay, he’s done supports at each end carved like books and when you look close you see they say ‘The Marvellous Adventures of Hannibal the Great’ on the spine – which is a bit childish, though I was kinda pleased – but, all the same.

And I got a picture from the Samuel, David and Amy. Search me what it is, but the boys were so dang pleased with it I couldn’t help but feel kinda pleased too.

And I got a cake. And she’d iced on my name real smart. But, by the time I’d cut a slice for us AND for all Jed’s brothers and sisters there was only half a measley ‘H’ left for me. My father had said beforehand it was only a small cake – ‘cos though they’d been saving the sugar it’s got so short and so dear now – and it was up to me if’n I wanted to share or not. But, y’know, that’s not a real choice is it? You kinda HAVE to share when folk have shared with you. And you kinda WANT to share too. It’s just… Oh, I dunno.

I remember when she used to bake one birthday cake for us and another for us to share with the Currys. There’s never enough of nothing to go round these days.

And, I’m told I have to set a good example and not whine because I’m the oldest.

And…

It’s all not fair.

I guess I’m scowling harder and harder as I dig the extra space we’d need to hide in these days, ‘cos these days I’ve got annoying little brothers and a squawking baby sister – none of which I ever asked for! Anyhow, I must be scowling, ‘cos my father looks over and says, all quiet, “No girl worth worrying over will think any less of you for wearing an old hat, son.”

What?

How did he know?

Not that there is anything TO know!

I feel myself go red as fire.

He is always, ALWAYS, nosing about in my life.

“Shut up! It’s none of your dang business!” I explode. Sheesh, if my cheeks get any hotter I’ll set fire to the hay.

I ought to get told off for shouting but, I don’t. Maybe he knows I didn’t mean to shout – it just came out. All he says is, “Okay” and he carries on digging.

After half a minute, he says, “Do you have any homework, Hannibal?”

You see? Nag, nag, nag! Always with the questions. You can’t have nothing private round here. Not that homework IS private, but it’s the principle of the thing.

“Yeah. Miss Field says we’ve all gotta write an essay about ‘Counting Blessings’,” I give a wry shrug, “Of all the dumb topics.”

“What are you going to write?”

“I dunno. I can’t think of no blessings.”

There’s a kinda pucker at the corner of his mouth as he says, “True enough – you do live the life of a serf, Hannibal.”

Is he making fun of me? ‘Cos if he is…

“I’m sure if you think hard, you’ll think of a few things you’d miss if they were gone.”

Pfftt! Name three!

“Anyhow, it’s a good thing that lack of matter means your essay will be a model of brevity, because I need you to get it done this evening. I’m going to need your help lining these sides after church tomorrow and it’s likely to take…”

No way! NO!

“Me and Jed have made plans!”

“So have I. I’ve made plans to get this finished tomorrow.”

“But…”

“Jed can come over and help if it’s okay with his Ma.”

“You are SO unfair! I NEVER get to do what I want!”

He puts down his spade, his hands go to his hips.

“For Pete’s sake, Hannibal! Can we quit with the martyr act? I know the natural order of things is that everyone has to act like a colossal pain in the butt when they turn thirteen, but is there any particular reason why I’ve treated to what seems like a month solid of sulking a year early, huh?” He takes a couple of deep breaths and puts on the reasonable face again. “Look, son, I know life can seem pretty hard at your age. You’re going through a lot of chan…”

I am NOT listening to all that guff again.

“Stop pretending you understand. You don’t know NOTHING. I’m NOT working on this dumb hole tomorrow and I’m not stopping around here to be nagged an’ ordered about an’…”

“Yes. You are!”

“No, I’m not! I’ll – I’ll run away to be a soldier, then you’ll be sorry!”

“So will the army! Do you reckon they have a unit for whining butt-aches who’ve grown too big for their britches?”

“I hate you! I wish you were…”

-oooOOOooo-

A LITTLE OVER AN HOUR LATER

Did I really say that? I guess I did. He knows I don’t mean it, huh? It’s just…

I did storm out – and he didn’t come after me so, I guess he doesn’t care if I DO go join the army.

I’m in my secret spot. No one knows about it – not even Jed. I found it a few months back and I come here sometimes when I need to get away from all the noise and the squawking at home. Or when I’ve had a row with my father. Which is more and more these days. He’s really changed this past couple of months.

If I stayed out all night that’d scare him. That’s show him, proper.

I won’t though.

I sigh. What I’ll actually do is what I always do; I’ll go home.

And, I guess I’ll do that dang essay.

Counting Blessings.

Sheesh. I still can’t think of none. Maybe I could turn it round, make a list of things I wouldn’t miss, huh?

I wouldn’t miss the spots on my chin!
I wouldn’t miss my voice keep dipping and diving.
I wouldn’t miss ‘her’ friends giggling and making me feel a fool.
I wouldn’t miss my mud-coloured new shirt and my dumb ugly hand-me-down hat.
I wouldn’t miss having to live in a house where’s there’s never any peace and quiet!
I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Curry telling me I should be grateful I have warm clothes to wear – and food on the table – AND a room all to myself! She’s really changed these last few months too!
I wouldn’t miss a grumpy father who spends all his time nagging me and giving me chores.
I wouldn’t miss a stepmother who fusses round asking what’s wrong and who I never asked for in the first dang place.
I wouldn’t miss annoying little brothers who follow me round and spoil my stuff.
I wouldn’t miss my baby sister squawking all the dang time!
None of it is fair.

Well – despite myself, I give a half grin – maybe he has got a point on the martyr act.

I’ll go home.

Partly ‘cos it’s getting cold and the stove will be all warm and cosy.

Partly ‘cos I’m getting hungry and though these days it’s always either hash or pork’n’beans, I don’t wanna miss my share. (Though I heard someone shooting rabbits earlier and just maybe it was him. She does a real good rabbit stew. So, fingers crossed.)

But I’m also partly going home ‘cos…

‘Cos I’m kinda sorry and I wanna make up. Okay?

And I don’t really want them all worried about me. Not really.

Yeah, I’ll go home, I might not say ‘sorry’, but I’ll show I want to be friends and he’s okay about that – he doesn’t make me grovel nor nothing. He says even though it’s shrouded in the mists of times, he does remember how bad growing up can feel. And, of course I’ll help out tomorrow – I mean, he’ll make me anyhow, but even if he didn’t I’d help ‘cos I know how tired he’s been.

-oooOOOooo-

As soon as I stride over the rise I know something’s wrong.

It’s too quiet. Too still.

I smell smoke.

And I smell …

There’s stuff strewn all over the yard.

Two gray-green rag-dolls are tossed aside, like trash, trampled into the mud. Except they’re too big to be dolls. And I know they’re not dolls. I know what they really are.

But I WON’T know – if you can understand that?

I don’t look at them – because – I know what I’ll see. Except I don’t know.

My whole mind is sort of empty. I’m just thinking ‘I’ll go get Pa from the barn’.

And I know he’s not there. Just ‘knowing’ it is not reaching my brain.

So, I walk past the trash, which smells of…

It’s like when we do it to the pigs. It’s sweet and hot – then straight away, it turns cloying and catches the back of the throat.

I walk to the barn.

I stand in the doorway.

And, I look.

I stand and look for a long, long time.

My hand curls around the wood of the door and I clutch it so tight I think I’ll never prise my fingers free again.

My legs shake under me.

And I don’t seem to be breathing – though I guess I must be.

And still nothing is actually reaching my brain – not the way it should.

Instead of thinking what I should be thinking, y’know – proper stuff, I’m thinking: ‘Told you so. I told you digging that Indian hole was a real waste of time.’

And I’m thinking: ‘So it’s true – you hafta be real careful what you wish for.’

And part of me knows, I’d better keep thinking dumb stuff like that and I’d better go on not really seeing what is around me – ‘cos, if I let this in…

If I let this be real…

If…

I unpeel my hand and go fetch the spade; ‘cos I’m gonna need it.

-oooOOOooo-

TWO MONTHS LATER – VALPARAISO

“Your essay topic today, class, is – the chalk squeaks on the board – ‘Counting Blessings’.”

My eyes come up from the chipped desk to stare at the words.

I remember. It was THAT day. THE day.

I remember sitting there thinking I had nothing to write. What a stupid dang fool!

“What’ya gonna put, Han?” whispers Jed beside me. “I can’t think of nothin’.”

“Sure you can,” I say, firmly. “We got each other.”

THE END

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