Windmill, by Teresa Fasolino
In the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum
“I don’t see nothing except the same old windmill,” her husband answered.
Idale glared at him. “It’s because you ain’t looking high enough.” She flicked the flowers she held in chapped red hands. “Higher up. It’s hard to see cause you’re looking into the sun.”
“Oh yeah. I do see some pink. That’s her? And she’s been up there since yesterday noon? Don’t seem possible.” There was a tone of admiration in his voice that Idale didn’t like. Nor did she like the way he put his right hand over his eyes to shield them from the sun, a way that looked like he might be saluting the patch of pink.
“There she’s parked herself, Little Miss I-Ain’t-Never-Coming-Down. They say they may have to delay her daddy’s funeral because of her stubbornness.”
“Serve him right. Not many people mourning a man mean as he was. Little gal must be hungry. All that time up there. I know I’d be hungry.”
“Well, her brother takes her sandwiches and such. She’s spoiled! So’s her brother spoiled!” Idale nodded her head for emphasis.
They pulled off the road behind the line of cars parked in the ditch across from the windmill, tires crushing the goldenrod, a gift of beauty planted by God, Idale liked to call it. She was at the gate before her husband got out of the car. By the time he crossed the tomato field, she had already placed her flowers in a bare spot between two peony bushes at the base of the windmill, beside those brought by their neighbors’ wives from their gardens.
Feet planted, arms crossed, Idale tilted her face to look up at the pink. “Young lady, we’ve had about enough of your nonsense. You get down here right now.”
Of course, the good-hearted people gathered would have liked to see Hattie safely on the ground, and perhaps, as Idale did, appropriately punished, but her words caused many a hand to cover a mouth to hide a secret smile. Many an elbow bumped a nearby neighbor. The small crowd stirred and shifted and continued to wait.
“I’m going inside to ask Olive a question,” Hattie’s grandmother, who had assumed the role of hostess, announced. Her daughter was resting in bed, undoubtedly filled with mixed emotions over her husband’s fatal fall. Grandma parted the curtain over the bedroom doorway. “Do you want me to start another pot of coffee for the folks out there?”
“Why yes. Coffee might be a nice thing to do. They were kind to come. They might appreciate another cup of coffee.” Olive stared at the ceiling, not noticing a burned-out bulb overhead, not aware there was a small crack in the plaster, not aware of anything at all. “Poor Hattie. Send Ralph up with a blanket for her. It don’t matter what bed you get it from.”
“I know it’s hard for you to talk now, but do you have any idea where your brother might be?” Grandma asked. “Someone should tell him his sister’s husband is dead.” She paused. “Hattie’s been saying she wants to see her Uncle Nathan.”
Olive stirred. “Why, I didn’t realize she even knew she had an Uncle Nathan.”
Grandma was silent in the way the guilty, if they can keep their wits about them, are silent. She stared at the small rug covering a worn spot in the carpeting where years of bare feet had landed when getting out of bed. Olive gave her an inquisitive look, reason enough for Grandma to turn and hightail it out of the room.
She had meant no harm the times she’d talked about Nathan to Hattie. It’s just that it would have been impossible, even deceitful, to leave him out of their family history which she loved to tell on Friday nights, Hattie’s long-standing night to sleep over. Grandma fancied herself a great storyteller; Hattie only had to ask one question and Grandma would ramble on for hours, or at least until after Hattie fell asleep.
The story of how Uncle Nathan had climbed that windmill when he was a little shaver was just one of several she told, but it was the one most pivotal to their lives, the story Hattie most often asked questions about.
They’d snuggle up together under the blankets, their heads resting on Grandma’s large pillow. Grandma’s telling went like this:
“Well your grandpa was hitching up the horse to take your mother to her piano lesson.
“Was she any good? I mean at the piano.”
“Good enough to be invited to parties,” Grandma answered. “Now be quiet and listen.
“Well, Grandpa’s horse was high-strung and ornery, but he refused to get rid of her because she could best the other farmers’ horses in their Sunday races. She was so wild Grandpa didn’t allow Nathan to even go near her. Your grandpa did think that boy was perfect.” Here Grandma shook her head, still marveling after all these years at how much her husband loved his son, and Hattie felt turbulence in the pillow from the shaking.
“Little Nathan grew bored waiting for Grandpa to finish harnessing the horse. He had been curious for some time about a ladder that was built into the windmill itself; he decided this would be a good time to see where it took him. ‘Hi, Daddy,’ he called in a proud high-pitched voice when he got to the top. Ed looked up and shouted at him to get down. His shouting startled the mare, and she kicked him in the leg. Even with an injured leg, your grandpa climbed the windmill to rescue little Nathan, but the child seemed to like looking down on a watermelon cooling in the horse tank, a cat stalking some small creature out by the barn, the view of the dump at the edge of the woods filled with rusting discarded machinery. He wrapped his small arms around the metal flag up there and held on tight. The more Grandpa pulled and pried at his fingers, the tighter he held on and the harder he kicked until Grandpa Ed lost his balance and fell, which would have been about forty feet. Most people, and I am one, believe his leg must have been already broken for him to lose his balance in that way. Others said it more likely was the fall that broke his leg. No one bothered to check since he was dead anyway. In a few minutes, not yet aware that my Ed had fallen, I came out with a plate of cookies, and Nathan climbed down all by himself because he wanted one.
“Either I gave him a cookie, in which case he ate it, oblivious that he had just killed his father, or I did not give him a cookie, in which case he probably stomped his little feet and cried. I don’t remember which it was,” Grandma admitted, “only that Olive was screaming, and I hurried over to my dead husband, and then I commenced screaming too.”
Hattie was sure Uncle Nathan was real because Grandma would never lie, and besides, he sent them a card every Christmas.
Now it was Hattie clinging to the windmill’s flag. A gust of wind swung the flat metal rectangle to the right and Hattie with it.
“Ooh!” the crowd held their breath and shifted along with them.
“That child needs a good whipping,” Idale felt compelled to say.
A squad car from town descended the hill, Constable Tiny Irons at the wheel. He passed the line of cars and pulled up beside the gate. The amazing thing about Tiny was he never stopped growing. He’d buy a reasonably well-fitting uniform, but in a few months it’d be too tight – same as the last one.
“Do something, Tiny! Go up and get her!” someone called.
“No, her mother said to wait and let her come down on her own when she was ready,” someone else said.
Tiny thought it prudent to stay on the ground. “Well, if she was a bank robber, I could shoot her. Then she’d sure come down. But she’s a little girl.”
He turned his attention to the patch of pink. “Come down, girlie. I just want to ask you some questions.”
No amount of coaxing made a difference, and soon the constable was as silent and useless as the rest.
After a while the Methodist preacher showed up. He was tall and lanky and looked like he wouldn’t know how to change a tire. Still, the crowd heaved a collective sigh of relief at his arrival, then one of disappointment as he veered to the right and walked to the house. In a very few minutes he returned.
“Hello, Hattie!” he shouted “Your mama said for me to tell you come down. It’s time to stop this silly business.”
“Mama didn’t say that.”
“She did. No one blames you, and God wants you down here. It wouldn’t be right if you missed your daddy’s funeral, and I’ll be at a conference for two days after that. We need to have the funeral tomorrow.”
“Ask Mama if I can have another sandwich and maybe an apple,” Hattie called.
Great Uncle Chuck, who was deaf, raised his head and smiled slightly at the sound of the preacher’s loud voice. He had lost his hearing, but he had not lost the bossiness endemic to farmers who have so much time alone to ponder how things should be. “What did she say?” he asked.
“She wants a sandwich,” a kind soul answered.
“A tuna sandwich,” Hattie called down.
“Don’t you remember? There’s no tuna left. You ate the last of it for lunch. Peanut butter is plenty good enough,” Uncle Chuck shouted.
“No. Just an apple then, and only Ralph can bring it up,” Hattie said.
Ralph glanced at the faces around him to see if Hattie’s trust in him had registered with the neighbors.
“Starve, then,” Uncle Chuck shouted.
In no time at all Ralph handed Hattie an apple; the crowd watched in silence as she took each bite.
Soon the late afternoon sun was disappearing behind a walnut tree, reminding the men there were chores to be done, and the women that their families would need to be fed. They had grown bored by the inaction of the day anyway.
They spoke softly as they walked to their cars. “What a pity! Her left to raise those children by herself.”
“She’s better off without him, the way he slapped her around.”
Heads nodded in agreement, though few understood just how bad it really was. The father’s cruelty had created a tension in the house that built up until it pressed on its walls, making them swell like a waxing moon. Anything might set him off.
Walking in from the barn on a Saturday morning, he saw Ralph and Hattie listening to some program or other, still in their pajamas. He strode to the radio and shut it off.
“Hey!” they said.
“What the hell are these kids doing lying around the house at this hour? Send them outside. They can clean the barn or sweep the shed.”
“But Lee, kids like to listen to the radio on Saturday mornings.”
“It’s okay, Ma,” Ralph cautioned.
“They’re wasting time. They’re wasting electricity,” their father said.
“No more than you waste electricity listening to the news,” she argued.
“Be quiet, Ma,” Ralph warned again, but it was too late. Her husband raised an arm and took a step toward her, and she fled to the dining room. For a while she kept the table between them. In the end she panicked, or maybe she just wanted it over. She made a break for the kitchen. A butcher knife was on the counter. She picked it up, but made no move to use it, and offered no resistance when he took it from her. He hit her with the back of his hand and then the palm. “You would stab me! You would stab me! Damn you! Damn you!” They lost count of how many times he slapped. Her glasses flew off right away and were not damaged, but her dentures were broken, so there would be a hefty bill for fixing them; when it came it would set him off again.
Mother took Hattie and Ralph, and ran across the road to Grandma’s. “Help me!” she cried.
“What happened? Did Lee do this?” Grandma wanted to know, and Hattie wondered why she asked when the answer was so obvious.
That night Grandma fixed a bed for Mother on the couch and loaned her a nightgown to wear. The children slept in their clothes on blankets Grandma spread out on the floor.
“I’m going to kill him,” Ralph whispered.
“I’ll help,” Hattie whispered back.
Grandma prayed all night, and in the morning she announced her decision. “The Lord works in mysterious ways. We don’t always understand Him, but we must obey. You made a vow before him. You must go back.”
“No! For Christ’s sake!” their mother pleaded.
There was nothing the three of them knew to do but trudge back home.
Mother swallowed her pride and called the preacher. He came that evening. “Let the children be children,” he said, sending them outside where they huddled by the chimney.
Eventually their mother called them back in. They stopped in the living room doorway. It was obvious from the pride on the preacher’s face he felt he had accomplished a marvelous thing. “Come now. Stand up. Show the children,” he said. Their father stood, and for the first time in her life Hattie saw her parents kiss, and Ralph had to put his hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming.
“Go ahead. Say it.”
“I’m sorry I hit your mother, and I won’t do it again.”
“I forgive you.”
Their words were stiff as lumber, and they brought no comfort to the children who sensed the walls swelling even as their parents spoke.
“Did you think about how you’re going to kill him?” Hattie asked Ralph that night and several times the next day.
“No. We’ve got to do it right.”
“We could get one of his guns and shoot him and say we were playing, and it was an accident.”
“But lots of people get shot, and they don’t die.”
“Maybe you could run over him with the tractor.”
“Same thing. It’s got to be something sure.”
Hattie was at Grandma’s the next time their father exploded. Grandma stood at the kitchen window listening, and with great tenderness Hattie put her arm around her waist. “Don’t worry. Ralph is going to kill him,” she said.
Grandma backed away. “He’ll do no such thing!” She bristled from the room.
That night, after Lee left for the livestock auction, the preacher pulled up the gravel driveway. Grandma was in the passenger seat. Grim-faced and solemn they led Ralph and Mother out to the sun porch. Hattie tried to squeeze through the doorway too, but the preacher blocked her way. She heard Ralph crying, and when they came out he didn’t look at her. Later when he went to cover the rabbit cage, she grabbed her pink jacket and followed him.
Ralph, his head down, was walking too fast for her to keep up. “Nothing, only I found out you’re a stool pigeon. Now I can’t do it.”
The relief in his voice alarmed her.
“But you can,” she said, her voice shaking as the truth dawned that he never would.
On Sunday the children were invited with their mother to Grandma’s for dinner. The table held Hattie’s favorites, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and yams, but Hattie’s chair was empty. They called. They searched.
Outside they could hear their father’s tractor in the distance. Then it stopped. They raced for the road.
Looking across the tomato field, they could see a little patch of pink clinging to the flag at the top of the windmill. Climbing toward it, like a cat after its prey, was the burly form of their father.
“Stop! Wait! She’s like Nathan!” they shouted. But, if anything, he just climbed faster.