a short story
It was when Moses ran in the door after watering her flowers that the sky of her world fell.
The morning was one of those that no one could complain about—a giant, spring morning sweet with memories and memorable for its sweetness. Someone must have poured the leftover paint from Moses’ room on the sky, for it was the same beaming blue with only a few uneven white patches that had been missed.
In the door Moses ran, her eyes reflecting the sky and her hair blending with the marigolds overflowing her arms. “Mama!” she cried. Her feet scampered across the tiled floor of the kitchen, sliding to a stop beside the slender form by the table. She looked up—and the smile that widened her small mouth slipped away, leaving a frown that was unnatural on the childish face. “Mama?”
The young woman turned, keeping one hand on the back of a chair. Her dark hair was twisted in a bun, and her dark eyes looked first at Moses’ upturned face, then dropped to the yellow-orange flowers sticking out from the girl’s arms like pins in a pincushion. The missing glimmer that Moses had looked for shone dimly for a moment.
“Those are beautiful, Moses,” she said softly, stroking the upturned face of a blossom. “Your first marigolds this spring. Are you going to give them to Papa when he comes home tonight?”
“No. These are for you, and I’ll get more for Papa later.” Moses tried to shift her arms so that a flower was no longer tickling her chin, and one escaped, falling with a soft thud on the floor. She waited for an response, and then asked a little impatiently, “Mama?”
Her mama quickly drew back her hand, which was still stroking the flower. “For me?” she asked.
Moses’ brow curved in the middle in bewilderment. She watched her mama’s eyes for the daylight that used to be in them, but it seemed replaced with darkness. Like a flower that closed up when the sun had set.
Another yellow-topped stalk joined the first on the floor.
The small noise awakened her mama as Moses’ voice had not, and she stepped away from the table, flinching a little. “Thank you so much, Moses. I’ll get a vase for them, and they’ll bring spring right into the house. Can you run and see if Edith has my tea yet?”
Moses nodded and scampered off, pausing in the hall doorway. “I love you, Mama.”
Her mama smiled. “I love you too, Moses.”
The first door in the hallway led to a small kitchen. The large stove in the main kitchen was used when they had company and there were too many people to cook for on the small one. Moses caught herself on the door frame just in time to avoid bumping into Edith.
“Moses, Moses,” Edith chided, shaking her head, which made the dancing amusement in her eyes even livelier. “You almost spilled yourself all over with hot tea, and what would your mama say to that? I try to look out for you, child, but somehow I’m never quick enough. You’ll be the death of us both yet.”
“Mama wants her tea,” Moses said with a shrug and a smile. She knew Edith’s words were all bluff—she had been hearing them for the last four years. Edith was like a big sister, a big sister with straight brown hair that never stayed where it was supposed to, the title of housemaid to the Harlans, and a heart that enveloped little girls whether she knew them or not.
“You can take your mama’s tea, I suppose.” Edith was about to put the cup in Moses’ hands and then pulled it back. “Mind you don’t spill it now, Moses. You’d get an awful burn, and it’s a shame to waste anything. I have your breakfast here for when you come back.”
Carefully Moses took the cup and left the kitchen. She slid her feet along the floor, and even then the tea seemed ready to splash out of the cup. I won’t spill one drop, she told herself. Mama needs it all. She looked so tired when I came in.
The warmth seeping through the cup made her fingers tingle, cool with spring dew as they were. She inhaled the sweet, hot smell and closed her eyes, trying to think of what it was most like. Dandelions in August. Or…
A shattering crash from the kitchen stopped her musings. There was the sound of many little feet scuttling across the tiles, and then the creak of someone dropping onto a chair. Moses’ heart felt like it had wings and was flapping against her ribs, trying to escape. Her eyes flew open.
Sunbeams streamed through the window by the sink, making the shards of glass on the floor glint defiantly. Moses’ mama sat by the table, one white hand clutching the edge of her chair, the other hiding her face.
“Mama?” Moses queried, her voice unsteady. The teacup suddenly seemed to burn her hands. She hastily set it on the floor, and then ran across the kitchen, hardly noticing the pricks of pain in her feet. “Mama, are you okay?”
Her mama looked at her with distant, glassy eyes. “Not again,” she said hoarsely. “I can’t take it again.” Then her voice rose, sad and desperate. “Cedric, please. Please come home.”
Moses stood frozen, watching the white face of her beloved mama—but now she was not sure this was the mama she knew. This mama had eyes that did not see, and a voice so sad it burned her throat to hear it.
“Mama, Papa can’t come right now,” Moses said, finding her voice. She grabbed her mama’s hand and hugged it. “He’ll be home tonight, like you told me. But I’ll get Edith to help you sweep up the floor. It’ll be okay.”
“Not tonight,” said her mama in the same strange, sad tone. “Tonight doesn’t matter. He’s lost. Lost.” And suddenly her face was wet with tears. She drew her hand out of Moses’ grasp to wipe them away.
“Mama,” said Moses, her eyes wide. “Mama, Papa’s not lost.”
Her only answer was the whisper of a glass shard sliding across the floor when she brushed it with her foot.
“Mama! Please don’t cry.”
The sunbeam in the window faded as a cloud covered it, and the glass glowered.
“Mama!” Desperation piled up in Moses’ chest, and she had to heave to get a breath. Nothing had ever gone wrong in her life. She had always thought that life was perfect, that since she had given her life to God, He would not let anything bad happen to her. What had she done? What was going on?
Suddenly her mama tried getting to her feet, and then with a sob crumpled up on the chair.
Moses heard herself scream.
The next minutes were a panicked, bewildering blur. She remembered Edith running in, and the glaring glass as the sunlight came streaming back through the window, and seeing her mama helped to the bedroom. Edith came back a little later and ran out the door, talking under her breath about hoping the doctor was home.
Finding herself alone, Moses spent the long, dreadful hours wandering the house, hearing people come and go. She had never felt so small. She felt like a trillium, growing all alone in the big silence of a forest. The ceilings stretched above her like a thick, brown cover of clouds, stopping her befuddled prayers before they even reached the sky.
Trilliums usually have companions, she thought, wandering toward the back door as evening fell. And they don’t have mamas to worry about. They just…live, and are beautiful. She kicked at a stone on the back step, watched it plunk into the grass and disappear, and meandered down to her beds of flowers.
The day was no longer sweet and bright, but stale and lifeless. Except for her flowers. She brushed a hand across the silky, coloured tops as she walked past. Swaying baubles of tulips bowed at her touch, and daffodils nodded comfortingly at her.
What is wrong with Mama? she asked herself over and over. What is wrong? She was fine when I first came in, and then… A lump jumped into her throat, and she gulped. I should pick Papa some flowers. He’ll be home in a little while, and he’ll probably feel like I do right now.
But she did not right away. She watched the sky turn orange, then gold, then purple. She listened to hoof beats on the street. She felt the air grow cooler, and pulled her thin, blue sweater more tightly around her slight frame. Thoughts did not race through her mind as the sun sank lower, lower, lower. All she could think was, Will Mama be okay?
Flowers for Papa, she remembered as the last yellow sliver drooped behind the horizon. I wish I knew which ones he likes best, but he always laughs and says he likes them all. She had gone around one side of her garden and was back by the step, so she started slowly down the rows again, picking a blossom here and a bud there. She paused at the snowdrops, and decided that she wanted nothing to remind her of winter yet.
Then her eyes fell on the last flowers, moonlight beaming down on them, the frilled edges of their petals gleaming against the inky blue twilight.
She always started the seeds early, in the warm kitchen, so that she could have them in the spring as well as summer. Was it really just that morning she had brought her mama a bundle of them? Mama had been Mama, then. But things had changed. Now her mama’s face was white and hurting, and her eyes did not see anything around her.
The anxious call reached her ears at the same time as the creak of the door, and a moment later, her papa’s arms were around her. She rested there; someone had thought of her at last. She was not alone anymore. Papa was here, and everything would be all right. “Papa,” she said, squirming a little. “You’re squishing your flowers.”
He let go, but kept his hands on her shoulders. His face was pale and worried, and his dark brown hair ruffled. “Moses, sweetheart,” he said, his voice aching and quiet. “Mama’s not well, so things are going to have to change for a little while.”
Moses watched the moonlight shining in his eyes, eyes deep with love and worry. “What’s wrong with Mama?” she asked, clutching the flowers closer as the dimmed fear rose again.
“She…” Her papa swallowed, as if his next words all clumped together and stuck in his throat. “She’s very, very sick, Moses. And—”
“She wasn’t this morning.”
Pain crossed his face, and he shook his head. “No, no one expected it. But because it has happened, and she won’t be able to take care of you, you’re going to…go live with Uncle Nie for awhile.”
“Live with Uncle Nie?” Moses could not stop the distraught words. She had only seen Uncle Nie once that she could remember. He was really her mama’s uncle, an older man with curly, grey hair and a walking stick that he carried around but never used.
“It will only be for a time, Moses. And it’s the best we can do right now.”
“But Papa…” Moses clutched his arm, heedless of the blossoms that fell. “You’re not sick. You could take care of me.”
“Not on the trains.” Again, the pain crossed his face. “I need you to just trust me that this is best, darling. If I could have it any other way, I would.” He sighed as her chin started to quiver, and gently picked her up. “Let’s go inside.”
Moses rested her head on his strong shoulder, watching the moonlit yard as they went up the steps. The last thing she saw before entering the house was the glowing fire of the marigolds.
They would have to live the spring without her.
Moses rested her chin on the rough back of the wagon seat and watched as her papa disappeared in the clouding dust. She clutched her carpetbag until her hands turned white, and only thought to return his wave when the last sign of it disappeared.
Why does this have to happen? The dust rising on the road behind the rattling wheels seemed a mirror of her thoughts. I haven’t done anything to deserve this. God, why? Why didn’t you answer my prayer and just heal Mama already?
“Hey, lass, would you like to hold the reins a little?”
Moses turned and looked up into Mr. Kirkland’s smiling face. She shook her head, and then, afraid to disappoint him, said, “If you want me to, I will.”
He laughed. “Makes no difference to me, little one. I just thought it would be a chance for your mind to focus on other things.”
Moses watched the horse’s flicking ears, and before she could stop them, the words slipped out. “You still laugh.”
“I still laugh?” One of Mr. Kirkland’s blonde eyebrows arched. “Do you have reason to think I shouldn’t?”
Moses felt herself blushing, and she looked very hard at the horse’s ears until everything else blurred around them.
“You can’t keep me in suspense, now,” he said, leaning forward with a smile flickering at the edges of his mouth. “I like laughing, and if I need to give it up, it will be a great trial to me.”
Moses wished she had never said anything to him, and slid as far away as she could. “Dr. Derricks doesn’t laugh,” she burst out. “Even when nothing is wrong, and now when he came to see Mama he wouldn’t even smile at me.”
Mr. Kirkland thought for a moment, and then sighed, but the sigh had a very cheerful sense of resignation in it. “I suppose it’s just that I’m young and naive, Moses. Maybe once I’m a practicing doctor I’ll always be pulling long faces and trying not to act happy around people who are sad and worried.” He suddenly slapped his knee, making Moses jump. “Which is what I’m doing right now. Fooling around while you’re wondering what’s going on at home. Forgive me, little plucked-up flower,” and he held out his hand.
She shook it and felt a little better, but the gnawing nervousness in her middle would not go away. She felt like someone had shoved a bundle of nettle flowers down into her stomach. Taking a deep breath, she leaned back and closed her eyes.
“That’s right.” Mr. Kirkland’s voice came reassuringly. “Catch some sleep. It’ll be a bit of a jog to your uncle’s place.”
It was several hours later that he helped Moses down from the wagon in front of a tall, grey house. The first thing she noticed was the empty soil of the flowerbeds underneath the windows. No flowers? No springtime in this already-dreaded place?
“Thanks for the company, Moses,” Mr. Kirkland said as he handed her the carpetbag. “Hopefully soon I’ll get to enjoy your company again when you go back to your papa and mama.”
She managed an anxious smile, and turned as the house door opened. A lady came down the walk toward them, her face covered in a smile that Moses thought was only half genuine.
“You must be Mr. Morley’s great niece,” she said sweetly. “He’s been anxiously waiting for your arrival. And thank you, sir, for bringing her here.”
“My pleasure,” said Mr. Kirkland. “And since she’s safe in your hands, I’ll go. I’ve other business to attend to.” He winked at Moses and climbed into the wagon. “See you later, Moses, and we’ll have a good laugh together.”
Moses gave him a little wave, wishing she could stay with him in the wagon and be taken right back home. But the lady was talking to her again, in that sweet voice too much like her mama’s to trust.
“You must be hungry, child. Come, and I’ll get you something to eat before you see your uncle. You’ll like it here. He’s had me get a room all ready for you, right next to his, and I’ve never seen him so impatient.”
Following her back to the house, Moses’ eyes swept over the yard. The grass looked eager for spring, spiking up toward the sky in excitement. But there were no flowers—not even a dandelion to burst some yellow-gold across the peaceful green.
It was dim inside compared to the Harlans’ sun-filled house, but the dimness did not cling to Moses as she feared when she first hung back at the door. There were elegant furnishings in the rooms, beautiful, but not extravagant—nothing that her papa would not be able to afford, if he wanted it.
“You must be tired, child.” The lady stopped in the doorway to a living room, brushing back a strand of red-brown hair that fell over her face. “Would you like to rest here while I go get you some dinner?”
“Yes.” Moses found her voice, hoping the you-must-be’s would finally be over. She was not tired or hungry, she was afraid of what her life was becoming. But there was no way to go back now. Mr. Kirkland was gone, and her papa had said she could not stay home with him gone all day.
The lady left, and Moses gingerly sat down on one of the thin couches, still clutching her carpetbag as one last reminder of home, though her arm was tired from carrying it through the various hallways.
What will I do here? She brushed back the hair that fell over her face, and then, realising that it was what the lady had done, she brushed it over again. No one but her and an uncle I don’t know…no Papa, no Mama…no flowers to take care of…
The floor gleamed red in the late-afternoon sun, and she rubbed one shoe across it. It reminded her of lilies, when the sky was darkening with evening’s approach, and the crickets were starting to hum under the umbrellas of the tulip leaves.
Then she realised there was humming, down the hallway and growing louder. She hardly had time to be nervous before a man appeared in the doorway, one hand absently running through his curly grey hair and the other clutching a walking stick as if he was ready to hit the next thing in his path. His eyes lit up when he saw Moses.
“And here you are!” he said cheerily, grasping her slim hand in his own gnarled one. His voice reminded Moses of a chickadee, bouncing and raspy. “Now you’re going to have to remind me of your name, because last time I saw you, you were a toddler always tripping on the edge of your skirts.”
His words surprised Moses. She knew she must have been older, because she remembered Uncle Nie clearly, but she caught her voice and said, “I’m Moses.”
Uncle Nie’s brow crinkled in amusement. “Moses, you say? How did a bright little girl like you get the name Moses?”
“Mama said Papa chose it.” At the thought of her mama, all of Moses’ fear came rushing back, gripping her stomach and threatening a flood of tears. He grasped her hand tighter.
“Come here, Moses, and we’ll get Miss Hullender to fix us a bite to eat. And then you can go make yourself at home in your room. I had her get it all ready for you.”
He had been leading her as he talked, and Moses suddenly found herself in a kitchen much like her mama’s, only the window was much too small. The lady was by the table, slicing bread.
“Miss Hullender, feed Moses a little something, please. And I wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee.”
Miss Hullender looked up sharply at Moses’ name, and then smiled. “Of course. What would you like on your bread, child?”
Moses blinked. She did not know what she wanted on her bread; in fact, she wasn’t hungry. But to refuse food from the people she would now be living with would not be right. “I—I don’t know,” she stammered. “Whatever you’d like to give me.” Then she added in a very small voice, “I’m not actually hungry.”
Miss Hullender looked about to say you-must-be, but Uncle Nie laughed and said, “Make that just a coffee then. We’ll be around somewhere.”
He led Moses down the hall again, and up the long flight of stairs. “It’s a little cold still to play outside, but you can feel free to read in the library or spend time with Miss Hullender. And of course I’ll read to you in the evenings.”
The idea of books was a cheering one, but Moses quickly squashed it with the thought that this house was not home, and home was where books were read and laughter filled the sunny rooms.
“Here’s your room,” said Uncle Nie, opening the door across from the stairs. It was a yellow room, with pale green curtains that hung half open, and a darker green rug. A white and yellow quilt beamed from the bed. “Do you like it?”
Moses glanced around, and suddenly all of the yellow banded together and punched her stomach. Marigolds. That’s what this room was. Moses burst into tears.
“What’s wrong, Moses?” asked Uncle Nie, his face concerned. “Is it so awful?”
Shaking her head, she pulled her hand out of his, dropped her carpetbag, and ran to the window, throwing open the curtains. The yard below was as desolately green as the front. She gulped, and then turned around, looking up into Uncle Nie’s face. A little pang went through her heart at the worry there. “No,” she answered, though her voice betrayed that something was awful. “I’ll probably like it here.”
He did not look satisfied, but a call from downstairs made him turn. “I’ve got to go for a moment, Moses. But we’ll make sure to read this evening, okay?”
She nodded, but he was already heading down the stairs, his walking stick bobbing above his head like a tulip stalk. She scampered across the room and closed the door, slamming it just a little. How could her papa have sent her here? I would stay on the trains with him, she thought, running back across the room to yank shut the curtains, a barrier between her and that empty, empty yard. I wouldn’t cause any trouble. But he made me come here. He said he would have it any other way if he could, but did he really mean it?
The room was dim with the curtains shutting out the sun. Moses wished she was tired, but her dozing on the wagon seat had driven away sleep. What was she to do in this place? Uncle Nie had mentioned spending time with Miss Hullender—Moses felt she would rather do anything else. Miss Hullender seemed nice enough, but her voice was not genuine, not like the voice of Moses’ mama. And reading in the library…
She sighed and sat down on the bed, which was a little too high for her feet to be comfortable on the floor. If the library was as dim as the rest of the house, she would not be able to read in there. Even if she could, without sunshine scampering across the pages, the words would not come to life. And it was unlikely Uncle Nie had any books she would like, anyway.
Plucked up. That was what Mr. Kirkland had said. That was exactly how she felt. She remembered a time when she was younger, and she had dug up a daffodil to see what the bulb looked like, and forgotten to replant it. It had shrivelled up and died.
What would happen to her?
Eat breakfast. Wander the house. Eat lunch. Escape Miss Hullender’s you-must-be’s. Eat supper. Listen to Uncle Nie read—and ignore everything he read.
Moses felt that the shrivelling process had begun. Uncle Nie tried to be nice, but she did not want it. She wanted her mama and papa, and her sky-blue room, and her plot of flowers. Uncle Nie did have some interesting books. She blocked them out. She was not going to fit in here; this was not home.
For a while, she waited anxiously for news that her mama was better and she could go back. As the days blew away, one fluffy second at a time like a dandelion in seed, hope of hearing from home started sinking under the weight of desperate boredom.
This is not home! she cried inside. Why would God let me be plucked up and thrown away? I belong with Papa and Mama, and nowhere else. Anger was a new feeling, and its acid simmered inside her. She kicked at the yellow wall of her room. I will never look at a marigold…ever.
One morning as Miss Hullender came into Moses’ room and pulled the crumpled quilt over the bed, she suddenly turned to Moses, who sat dejectedly on the stool in the corner. “Did you leave your window open last night during the rain, child?”
“No.” Moses swung her foot and let it bang against the one of the stool’s legs.
“Your pillow is wet, and it won’t be very comfortable at night like that.” Then Miss Hullender’s grey-green eyes searched her face, and concern dimmed them. “You’ve been crying at night,” she said softly.
Turning her face away, Moses shrugged. She had been crying every night since she arrived, and she did not want Miss Hullender trying to comfort her. She wanted her papa. He knew how she felt, because he was worried for her mama, too. She stiffened as Miss Hullender crossed the room, but when she felt the gentle arms around her, she could hardly keep the lump in her throat from turning into tears.
“I know it’s hard, child.” Miss Hullender’s voice was close to Moses’ ear. “I was—”
“My name is Moses!” she burst out, jerking out of the embrace. “My home was taken away, my mama and papa were taken away, and now you want to take away my name, too!” Catching her sweater from the bedpost, she fled the room. Her shoes slapped the stairs as she ran, and her breath burned in her throat. At the bottom, her flight was halted by an obstruction—the tall, cheerful form of Uncle Nie.
“Hey, what’s this, Moses?” he asked as she stared up at him, dazed, her breath coming in gasps. “Is something wrong?”
The thought of telling him what was truly wrong tempted her for a few seconds, and then she tightened her jaw. “Nothing, Uncle Nie,” she said as steadily as she could. “I’m just going outside.”
“Good. Some fresh air might make your cheeks rosier. You can check out the garden, too.”
Moses stared again, this time incredulous. “Garden?”
“Why not?” Uncle Nie laughed. “I never get out there—keep it mostly for Mr. Bradfield’s sake; he’s been the gardener of this house forever. He’s a quiet man, but he’d probably enjoy your company. Just take the footpath from the back door all the way behind the next house[TF1] .”
“Thank you,” Moses said, turning quickly toward the hall.
“Anytime. Now you look a little more like the Moses I knew when she first got here.”
Hearing Miss Hullender’s footsteps on the stairs, Moses scampered out the back door and followed the tiled path to its end, which was in line with a hedge on the right side of the yard. From there was a faint dirt path, mostly covered in brave shoots of grass. She started down it, and then slowed.
“Probably some weedy little garden kept by an old, grumpy man, just like in the storybooks,” she pouted. “It would be just like this stubborn grey house and empty yard to have a weedy garden. If it is, I’ll turn around and go home.”
She took another two unhurried steps before she realised what she had said. She had called the grey house home. She had just abandoned the sunny Harlan house, and her papa and mama. She stomped a foot on the ground, as if it would drive the hateful words away. “This is not home!” she said loudly, not caring if anyone would hear. “This will never be home!” and she burst into tears.
Standing undecided on the greening path, Moses looked around her, wiping her face as it tickled with the rivulets running down it. Should she go back, and face Miss Hullender? Or keep going and be disappointed by what she found? She turned toward the grey house. The disappointment would be harder to bear. But then a breeze slipped around her, and the scent of lilies brushed against her streaked face.
There was no decision to be made after that. She ran down the path, noticing now the wicket fence at the end. She had been too focused on the ground beneath her feet before.
The gate swung before she touched it as if her presence pushed it open, and before she could stop, she ran into someone, just as she had Uncle Nie at the bottom of the stairs.
“Whoa!” The man’s voice, startled, held the accent of one not long off England’s soil.
Moses stumbled backward, her face warm. In one flushed glance she saw the man’s straight, grey brows, friendly eyes, and short, bent frame. They stared at each other, the man inquisitive, the girl panting from exertion and surprise. After a long minute of wondering if the man would ever say something, Moses ventured in a small voice, “I’m Moses, and…I wanted to see the garden.”
The man still waited several seconds, and then he gave a brief smile and nodded. “Of course,” he said, as if it was the most natural thing to have little girls drop in. “Come. I’m Mr. Bradfield.” Putting a hand on her shoulder, he guided her into the garden and shut the gate.
Moses sucked in a breath and put her hand over her mouth.
This was no weedy bed of sorrowing plants. It was a paradise of colours, a rainbow of scents. Other than thin cobbled footpaths, every inch was covered in flowers. Moses had to admit that it was even more beautiful than her own.
Mr. Bradfield’s serious face flashed a smile again. “Come,” he beckoned. “You cannot see it if you stand only in one place.”
In awe, Moses followed him. First were the tulips, just like her garden. It brought back the pain of homesickness that had disappeared in her excitement. Without warning, it seemed a daffodil bulb had slid up and lodged in her throat, and she gulped.
“They’re a little thick, this year,” Mr. Bradfield said, gesturing toward the large, crowded leaves. “I wasn’t able to do the work of separating them in the autumn. But they’ve forgiven me for abandoning them, and bloomed as lovely as ever.”
Abandoned, Moses thought, and bit her lip. I haven’t been abandoned, just… The thought flashed through her mind again, that she had called Uncle Nie’s house home. Mr. Bradfield’s voice slid through the horror.
“Next are the larkspurs. Do you have a favourite?”
“All of them,” Moses said without thinking, her eyes still fastened on the tulips. “They’re like home.”
“And where is home for you—” His sentence trailed as he looked closely at her. “I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t remember your name.”
“Moses,” she replied, still automatically, and suddenly she looked up. “Home is…a long ways away.” She shifted uncomfortably as he studied her. He was not the type of person who seemed to know everything inside a person by studying, but he certainly looked as if he hoped to. She turned away and went to the larkspurs, but their beauty was marred by the thoughts of home fogging her brain. Of a sudden, she knew what had happened. Her mama had died, and her papa did not want her anymore because she reminded him too much of her mama—just like in books. “But I don’t look like Mama,” she murmured.
Her face flushed again and she tried to run past him, but he stepped in front of her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Moses, there is something wrong here,” he said. “I don’t know you, but no little girl should look as unhappy as you do. Why, when you first came, I thought it was a marigold running to meet me. But I’ve never seen a marigold sad.”
“I hate marigolds,” Moses sobbed, trying to pull away. “Marigolds ruined my mama.” She had no tears left; each dry sob hurt. The pain and desperation pushed her into Mr. Bradfield’s arms, and she buried her face in his felt jacket.
“Hush, child, I meant no harm,” he soothed, stroking her back. “You will be all right. Don’t hurt yourself, now.”
Moses tried to stop crying, but she could not. Her night tears had been bitter with rejection; her sobs now were heavy with relief. At last, someone had time for her. Uncle Nie had made time for her at first, but busyness seemed to be taking him more and more. And Miss Hullender…that morning had been the first one she ever took a moment out of her duties to talk with Moses.
Mr. Bradfield cared. He was willing to stay and show her the garden. He had not brushed her off with a “Maybe later, Moses” as the others did now.
“Hush, child,” he said again, and taking her by both shoulders, he walked her to a little bench at the far end of the path. “Have a seat, and tell me what’s troubling you.”
Moses dropped onto the bench, with a huge sigh to ease the hurt in her middle. Her head hurt, too, and she felt very, very tired. “Mama’s sick, and Papa sent me here to live with Uncle Nie, and it’s not where I belong.” The last words engraved themselves on her heart. She had been trying to find them for so long.
“You belong at home?” Mr. Bradfield asked, seating himself beside her.
Her eyes darted to him. “Of course. Who doesn’t belong at home? That’s where Papa is, and Mama, unless…” Her voice wavered, and to stop it, she plunged into her sad story, starting with the marigolds she had picked for her mama. Mr. Bradfield’s marigolds were sending out the pungent odour right beside the bench, and in conclusion, Moses declared, “When I get home, I’m going to pull all my marigolds up and throw them away. They can grow somewhere else, if they want.”
“That’s not the way to go about it,” said Mr. Bradfield with grave gentleness. “Because you were picked out of your home, you want to pick others out, too. You want others to hurt because you do. But that is not God’s way.”
Moses sat silent, swinging one foot back and forth. Did God’s way really matter? He did not seem to hear her at all. And someone had to understand how she felt.
“Moses, where did you get your name?”
“Papa chose it.”
“But is it your real name?”
“Of course.” She shot him a disturbed look again.
Mr. Bradfield’s brow was perplexed, but he continued, “Do you know about Moses in the Bible?”
The useless questions burned in Moses’ mind, and she ignored him.
“He was the one who led the Israelites out of Egypt. Egypt was where he had been born and raised, and don’t you think he probably regretted sometimes that he had left it? But God had a reason for taking him out of where he ‘belonged’. And our Saviour Himself lived in heaven, but He came down to our terrible, terrible world to save us.”
“They had reasons to do what they did,” Moses interjected, her face pulled into a frown. “There is no reason for me to be here. I could have gone on the trains with Papa, or had Edith take care of me.” She did not look at him in the silence that followed. She did not want to encourage him to speak more.
“I don’t know if I believe you, Moses.”
“Fine.” Moses put her feet on the ground with a thud. “You don’t have to believe me, and I don’t have to believe you, either.” She ran to the gate, tried to lift the latch, and her heart beat an irregular pulse when it would not open.
Mr. Bradfield was at her side in a moment, and he jostled it out. “It gets stuck sometimes. Thank you for coming, Moses.”
He had not been angry with her. She thought about it as she fled down the strip of path toward the grey house. He had been kind—very kind, a little bit like her papa was. But he asked too many questions, and did not see her point.
She would go back to the garden, one day, she decided. But when Mr. Bradfield would not be there. It was only the flowers she wanted.
When she reached the house, she pulled her feet up the steps. Somehow, she had to avoid Miss Hullender. Had Miss Hullender told Uncle Nie what had happened? Then there would be no escaping questions.
She shut the door with as little noise as she could, crept up the stairs, and sat at her window. The great, bare yard stretched below, the great, blue sky spread above, and the great burden of loneliness saturated her small, aching heart. From the floor below, she could hear dishes clinking and the pantry door squeaking, protesting its use. Uncle Nie’s raspy hum filtered through the walls from his study.
They belonged: Uncle Nie, Miss Hullender, Mr. Bradfield. They were right where they should be, and they were happy. But she did not belong here.
I’m going to go back, she told herself, resting her chin in her hands as unhappiness threatened tears. I’m going to go away from this dark, lonely house. Oh, Mama, where are you? Are you okay?
The daffodil bulb lodged itself in her throat again, making her eyes blurry, and she tried to choke it down. Footsteps coming up the stair made her jump, and she grabbed one of the books off the dresser and settled herself on her bed.
“Well, Moses,” Uncle Nie said as he walked through the open door, “Did you find the garden?”
“Yes,” she said, keeping her eyes on the book so he would not see her tears.
“Did you meet Mr. Bradfield?”
Moses rubbed a hand across her eyes and looked up with a smile. “The garden was lovely.”
Chuckling, Uncle Nie stepped into the hall. “It’s nearly lunchtime, so you should run downstairs and be ready. I have something planned for you and me.”
A long-lost anticipation swam through Moses’ stomach. She laid the book down. “What is it?”
“A trip to town—with a stop for lunch.”
“I’ll be ready,” she said, jumping off the bed.
Uncle Nie chuckled again and left. Moses took one of her good dresses from the closet and put it on, her mind travelling toward all there would be to see in town. She had been to town only a few times, when her papa had business there.
She caught her breath as she scampered out the door. Maybe her papa would be by the trains, and she could see him again.
Uncle Nie was talking with Miss Hullender at the bottom of the stairs, and gave Moses a smile. “Go ahead out front, Moses. I’ll be there in a moment.”
Moses needed no second invitation. She pranced outside, admiring the ripple of her blue dress and its sharpness against the green grass, and then began spinning to make it flow out around her. She did not even notice the absence of the dandelions.
It was deliriously wonderful to be happy again.
The clop of hooves on the road made her stop her spinning and she sank onto the grass as the horizon, road, horse, and wagon tilted dizzyingly. Was whoever-it-was coming there? Would it interrupt their trip?
Her eyes finally focused on the wagon as it turned up the drive, and she started to her feet. Mr. Kirkland was driving it. He was stopping in front of the house. He had come to take her home!
With a little gasp of delight, she scrambled up and ran to the wagon. Mr. Kirkland had climbed down, and she wrapped her arms around him. “Mr. Kirkland!”
“Hey, little plucked-up flower!” He gave her a grin. “How have you been?”
“Did you come to take me home?” The words burst from her beating heart.
The house door opened and Uncle Nie strode toward them. “News, Kirkland?”
“Yes.” Mr. Kirkland gently unwrapped Moses’ arms.
Moses twisted her hair around one hand. Mr. Kirkland didn’t seem very happy to have news. Her quick pulse made her shaky.
“Come in for a minute,” said Uncle Nie. “Moses, I’ll be back in a little while, and then we’ll go.”
But if Mr. Kirkland takes me home, I won’t be going with you …
Mr. Kirkland’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “… nothing very good, I’m afraid …”
Nothing good. Actually, nothing very good. So Mr. Kirkland still might take her home. One of the horses looked at her, tugging at the rope that held him to the porch post. She lifted a hand, allowed it be sniffed and snorted over, and then wandered back to the middle of the yard.
How long had she been at Uncle Nie’s? Summer was about to take over spring already. Why had her papa not come to visit her?
She tried a twirl, tried to get back the happiness of the moment past. But it was gone, like a dying apple blossom dropped from its tree. There was no way to put it back again. She turned toward the house when the door creaked, and stopped in dismay as Mr. Kirkland untied the horses and climbed onto the wagon seat. Panic clutched her lungs. Running toward him, she gasped, “Mr. Kirkland? Are you—oh, please—” She gripped the front wagon wheel. “Did … Papa say anything to me?”
Mr. Kirkland ran a hand through his blonde hair, looking down at her. “He said he sends his love.”
There was a moment of silence. Mr. Kirkland cleared his throat. “Have a little more patience, Moses. Try to be happy here until you can go home.”
Moses swallowed several times, but the lump in her throat stayed large and painful. She could not even nod as Mr. Kirkland picked up the reins, chirped to the horses, and rolled away, but she lifted her hand in a little wave at the last moment.
She had not even sent a message for her papa.
Slowly the afternoon stretched toward evening. The trip to town was not as fun as it would have been if Mr. Kirkland had not come.
As they drove home, Moses asked in a small voice, “How is Mama?”
Uncle Nie’s mouth twisted in thought. “She’s still very ill. But she’s doing a little better than at first.” He put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “Everything will turn out yet. God’s watching over us.”
Moses looked up into the unending blue sky. Yes, God was watching them, but just because He was watching didn’t mean He was helping.
God, I know You’re up there somewhere, she said in her mind, and looked out over the road, her neck sore from craning. Do You actually really care about me, though? If You do, I don’t know why You let me be taken from where I belonged.
Moses let one leg swing back and forth as she sat at the table, her fork pushing the pieces of potato around her plate. It was another sunny day, two weeks after her trip to town. Two weeks since Mr. Kirkland had lifted and crushed her hopes.
“You must be hungry, child,” said Miss Hullender, leaning over her. “You’ve hardly eaten anything today.”
Moses shrugged, and dutifully put a forkful in her mouth. It was cold and tasteless. That was what cooked strawflowers would taste like, she decided.
“Mr. Morley gave you permission to visit the flower garden, right? Maybe you should get some fresh air this afternoon.”
Swallowing with an effort, Moses slid off her chair. “Okay.” She walked toward the back door, Miss Hullender’s voice following her.
“Don’t you want to finish your food first? You must be tired, with how little you’ve eaten.”
“No thank you,” Moses said dejectedly. She pulled open the door and stepped outside. A little breeze tugged at her skirt and twisted her hair around her shoulders as she walked down the path and turned at the hedge. If Mr. Bradfield wasn’t there, she might not be able to get in because of the latch. But it would be nice if she could get in without him. It was awful being lonely—yet for some reason, she wanted time alone.
A cardinal flew from the gate as she reached it, its crimson feathers sharp against the yellow-brown of summer. She pushed the gate. The latch rattled. Well, Mr. Bradfield had managed to jostle it out last time. She gripped two of the slats as best she could and shook the gate. It rattled again, swinging open.
The garden was full of summer noises when she stepped inside, shutting the gate behind her. Bees thrummed around stalks of alliums and clumps of pansies. Whirring among the larkspurs were hummingbirds. Sparrows, chatting with one another, hopped along the walkways.
Mr. Bradfield was nowhere to be seen.
Moses wandered down the path. The garden was different now; the tulips and daffodils were gone, replaced by snapdragons and frosty ferns. Strawflowers nodded and whispered where the lilies had been.
It was funny, the way seasons came and went, changing landscapes for a while.
By the time Moses meandered to the bench, her nose was so full of scents she didn’t think she could smell one more. But as she sat down and brushed the wisps of hair from her face, she noticed it. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the yellow and orange frills rising beside her.
A clammy sickness crept through her, then numbed to quiet desperation. Keeping her eyes forward, focused on the carnations, she slid a hand down one of the marigold stalks to its base. Then she grasped it and pulled it out, throwing it onto the path.
They could try to survive where they didn’t belong.
After the first few, she had to leave the bench. She kneeled in the dirt, yanking the plants up one by one. Mr. Bradfield might come soon, and what would he say? Fear drove her on until the patch was empty of its pungent blossoms. They littered the path, some of their leaves crushed and limp. Moses stared at them for a moment, panting, her eyes wide at what she had done.
Then she fled, her bare feet thudding on the cobbles. She opened the gate easily, but there was no way to shut it from the outside unless you were tall enough. She left it swinging in the breeze and ran to the grey-brick house.
In the safety of her room, Moses laid her head on her pillow and cried.
Papa, please take me home. Please come rescue me. Mama, please don’t die. Please …
She must have lain there a while, for the sunbeam had moved across her floor. She had just sat up and fixed her hair when there was a knock on her door.
“Come in,” she said, rubbing a hand across her eyes and hoping it didn’t look like there had been tears on her face.
Uncle Nie strode in cheerfully. “Hey, Moses. Are you busy?”
“No,” she answered slowly, smoothing a corner of her quilt.
“Mr. Bradfield stopped by and asked to see you.”
Moses froze, her eyes on his face. Uncle Nie smiled, switching his walking stick to his other hand. “He probably wants to show you something in the garden. At any rate, he said he had a question for you, and he’s waiting downstairs.”
Moses slipped off her bed with a little thump and slid her feet down the steps behind Uncle Nie. Mr. Bradfield stood by the front door, and he flashed a smile at her. But his eyes travelled over her quickly. Moses looked down to see two wet, brown spots on her skirt where she had kneeled on it in the garden. Blushing, she looked up again.
“Would you like to come help me in the garden a bit, Moses?” he asked.
She wanted an excuse, but there was none she could offer him. “Sure,” she said in a small voice.
Together they went around the house and past the hedge to the path. Moses lagged behind, watching Mr. Bradfield’s bowed back. She had ruined it now. She would probably never be allowed in the garden again … after this time.
Her dress clung to her, damp with sweat, and her eyes stung as the breeze blew her hair into them.
Opening the gate, Mr. Bradfield turned and beckoned her in. Moses walked past him, her eyes on the ground, and stopped next to the frosty ferns. A rattle said that the gate was shut.
“Over here, Moses,” Mr. Bradfield said, walking to the bench.
Moses tried to swallow the daffodil bulb in her throat as she followed. It lodged in her chest, hurting with each breath. There were the marigolds, flattening themselves onto the stones under the sun’s heat.
Mr. Bradfield leaned over and began picking them up. “I was wondering if you could help me replant these. It’s hard for me to kneel that long.”
“Okay.” Moses’ voice was even smaller. She knelt down and placed a plant in one of the rough hollows.
“Oh, wait a moment.” Mr. Bradfield straightened with a sighing grunt. “I have a new place for them.” He limped to the other side of the garden. Scrunching her brow, Moses scooped up the rest of the flowers and went to him.
A tree outside the wall hung over that corner of the garden. In its shade stood several hosta plants, only now, in the late afternoon, getting touched by sunbeams. Kneeling, Mr. Bradfield used his hand to scoop a small hole between two of them.
Moses shook her head. “Marigolds don’t grow in shade,” she protested.
Mr. Bradfield placed a wilted plant in the hole and covered its roots. Then he looked up, his grey brows tilted. “Have you tried it?”
“No.” she shook her head again. “But they always go in the sun. That’s what’s best.”
Mr. Bradfield straightened, resting his browned hands on his knees. “Plants do not always need the ‘best’ environment to be able to grow.” Then he added gently, “Neither do people.”
Biting her lip, Moses began planting the flowers as fast as she could.
“Easy does it,” cautioned Mr. Bradfield, picking one up from the path. “They do not need broken stalks as well.”
Moses sat back with a frown. “Even if they can grown here, it doesn’t mean it’s fine to put them in shade.”
“It would depend on the circumstances.”
“You’re doing all this to make me like living here,” she said resentfully as he patted the soil around the stalk.
“Not to like living here, necessarily,” he answered. “But to see that there must be a purpose for you living here.”
“Like what?” she challenged.
“Perhaps that your confidence should be in our Heavenly Father, not your parents. But I cannot tell you; you must ask God to show you what it is. You say you don’t belong here, but there is some reason God allowed you to come.”
Moses pondered it for a moment, unwillingness battling with longing. At last she said, “There’s no reason to put these here instead of where they were.”
“Ah, but there is.” The last marigold was planted now, and he turned to face her, his eyes questioning, as if he wondered whether he should say what was in his mind. “If we had planted these where they were before,” he said slowly, “I could never have told you all this. At least, you would not have listened in the same way.”
‘Ask God to show you what it is.’ The painful lump grew larger. “I tried asking God why,” she said. “He didn’t answer me.”
Mr. Bradfield looked out over the garden, squinting as the late-afternoon sun slanted into his eyes. “Did you ask Him because you truly wanted to know, or because you felt you didn’t deserve what was happening?”
“I don’t know.” She brushed the dirt from her hands onto her skirt’s muddy spots. She wanted to be happy all the time, and trust in God no matter what. But it was so hard.
“David says in the Psalms that God’s thoughts toward us are more in number than the sand. He is always watching over us, always guiding us if we allow Him to rule our lives. Is He your Saviour, Moses?”
“Yes.” Moses heaved a sigh and looked at the marigolds again, crushed and bent and drooping. “It doesn’t always feel like He’s with me, though.”
Mr. Bradfield nodded. “And yet Job said, after being more or less abandoned by everyone, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth.’” He looked at her and said quietly, “I get lonely sometimes too, Moses. But just because we feel lonely doesn’t mean we are alone. It means we are not spending enough time with our Lord.”
Her chin quivering, Moses wiped the back of her hand over her eyes. She had not thought of others she knew being lonely. But now … Did Uncle Nie enjoy working in his quiet study all day long? And did Miss Hullender wish someone would talk to her while she worked?
Maybe that was the answer. If she spent time with Jesus, she could never really be alone. And then she could spend time trying to make others less lonely.
She scrambled to her feet and wrapped her arms around Mr. Bradfield’s neck, crying a little. If only she could thank him in some way, but she didn’t know how.
“There, there, child,” Mr. Bradfield soothed, putting his arms around her.
The cardinal perched in the tree above them, trilling a few notes that swept through the garden. Moses swallowed hard and let go of Mr. Bradfield to listen.
“Stand up, Moses,” he said, “And let me look at you.”
She straightened, wiping her eyes once more and smoothing her skirt.
His grey eyes looked at her—not her height or her dirt-darkened hands or her wisps of hair dancing in the breeze. They looked into her eyes. “You have grown in the shade,” he said, and flashed a smile.
She smiled back. “I know now why I’m here,” she said.
She helped him to his feet, and he limped a little as they walked to the gate. “Come back in a couple of days. I’ll make sure to be here, and we’ll see how the marigolds are.”
“Don’t they need water?”
He jostled the latch, opened the gate, and pointed toward the horizon. “The rain is coming.”
She looked at the gathering purple clouds.
“Best run home before it catches you.”
“Yes—” she began, and realised he had called Uncle Nie’s house home. She swallowed. “Yes.” Then she turned and scampered down the path, turning once to wave. He was cutting across the field to the road, but he saw her and waved back.
Thank You, Jesus, she prayed as her feet thudded on the dirt. Thank You for showing me why I’m here.
Two days later, her feet were once again thudding on the path. The air was fresh and sweet after a night’s rain, and a few clouds hung low in the beaming sky. Mr. Bradfield was at the gate, and he flashed a smile at her.
“Here’s a marigold who’s strong and beautiful again,” he said.
Moses was panting. “How are they? Have you been inside already?”
“Not yet. I wanted to wait for you.”
Together they went to the shaded corner. Moses dropped to her knees and touched one of the blossoms, crying, “Look! They’re standing back up!”
Mr. Bradfield crossed his arms, nodding. “They won’t get as thick and green as they could, but they’ll do all right.”
“What will you do with the empty spot by the bench?” asked Moses, getting up and looking ashamedly toward the other side of the garden.
“I’ll rake it out, and in the fall I’ll separate the tulips and plant some there.”
“I’ll help you,” Moses said quickly, and then added, “If I’m here.”
“I would like that.” He smiled again.
They spent a wonderful afternoon in the garden—picking off dead blossoms, straightening a plant or two, raking the empty soil patch and sweeping the path. At last, Mr. Bradfield said they should go before suppertime.
At the open gate, Moses looked at the marigolds once more. “Thank you, Mr. Bradfield.”
“Thank you, Moses. You are wonderful company.”
Not sure why she did it, Moses held out her hand, and Mr. Bradfield clasped it in a firm, yet gentle handshake.
“Will you be here tomorrow?” she asked as he shut the gate.
“If you will be.”
“I will.” She smiled and turned down the path. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, little marigold.”
Still smiling, she ran down the path. She had almost reached the hedge when she realised there was a wagon out front—Mr. Kirkland’s wagon. Hope and fear collided in her chest, making her heart pump wildly. Was it good news … or bad? She left the path and ran to the front yard.
There he stood. Not short, cheerful, blonde-haired Mr. Kirkland; but someone taller, dark-haired, so familiar all the little details about him didn’t matter.
“Papa!” she cried, and ran into his arms. He lifted her, his cheek warm against her neck, and she thought she felt him trembling.
“Moses, sweetheart,” he murmured.
He smelled like grease and coal and sweat, but Moses didn’t mind. She lifted her head to look at his face. “Is Mama better?”
“Much, much better.” He smiled, and it erased the tiredness in his face. “Are you ready to come home?”
She sucked in a breath. “Oh, yes!”
“Let’s go say goodbye to Uncle Nie, and see if Mr. Kirkland is ready to go.” Setting her down, he took her hand, and they walked to the house.
A thought struck Moses suddenly, making her stop. “I have to leave a message with Uncle Nie for someone,” she said anxiously. She would not be in the garden tomorrow. “And, Papa … can we come back sometimes and visit?”
Her papa looked at her curiously, but nodded. “We can come back, especially when Mama is ready to come with us. How was your time here?”
Moses thought over the weeks of loneliness, of questions; she thought over her times in the garden with Mr. Bradfield, and the marigolds now standing tall and strong again.
“I grew,” she said.