Mr. Harris

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I close all the windows.  The wind is picking up & the dust will blow in.  In the streaming sunshine, a man walks alone on the dirt road.  From the kitchen, Mother calls, “Opal, have you got those windows closed up?” 

“Yes, Ma,” I call back. 

“Go tell the boys to get washed for dinner,” she says, coming in & drawing the curtain aside.  Seeing the stranger in the road, Mother leans forward for a closer look.  Could it be? she’s thinking.  But no, she realizes. It isn’t him.  Her eyes are gentle when she says, “Another one blowing in hopeless & hungry.  Set an extra place before you fetch the boys.”

Everybody jostles around the long kitchen table, getting seated, keeping their hands in their laps with Mother’s pork stew & dumplings before them.  Father is on the back porch with the stranger who holds his cap in his hands.  Mother & my oldest sister, Nessa, bring the food.  I sit on a bench between the little girls, Martha & Clara.  Our brothers, George & Merle, are across the table ribbing each other.  There’s Baby sitting up in his cradle.  He holds his hands out & cries as Nessa goes by with a bowl of potatoes but he’s okay.  I try to hear what Father is saying to the stranger, but there’s too much noise.  I see their mouths moving.  Hate to ask you, the man is saying.  Welcome, Stranger, say Father’s lips.

Father leads us in prayer.  Come, Lord Jesus, be thou our guest.  Let these, thy gifts to us, be blest.  “Amen,” replies the table.  We wait until Father has taken a ladleful & served the stranger before we move.  As the plates go around, I help the little girls.  Baby is on Mother’s lap while Nessa spoons out their stew. 

Mother speaks first.  “Tell us your name, Stranger,” she says with a smile. 

“Name’s Harris, Ma’am,” he says, “And I’m pleased to meet you all.  Thank you for the meal.  Been a long time since I’ve seen a spread like this.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Harris,” says Mother, “Where do you hail from?” 

“I guess you’d say I come & go as I please.”  As the stranger heaps his plate with seconds & then thirds, George & Merle throw him resentful gazes.  Nessa never looks his way at all.  She helps Mother with Baby, brings more bread, & fills our glasses with creamy fresh milk.

She crosses the room

to close our window

which faces the barn,

lamplight glowing

in the hayloft.

Harris sleeps in the hayloft on a sprung mattress under an old quilt.  It’s clean if worn.  Mother gives him a towel to wash his face & a pillow for his head.  Father gives him an oil lamp & a Bible to read.  “Hayloft’s near empty this time of the year or I couldn’t let you take a light up there.  Even so, you’ll be careful with this.”  The boys scowl after Harris as he disappears into the dark.  I am nestled in bed between Martha & Clara, both asleep, when Nessa looks in. 

“Time to put out your light,” she says & I obey.  She crosses the room to close our window which faces the barn, lamplight glowing in the hayloft. 

“Leave the curtains,” I say, “I like to watch the moon go by.” 

“There’s no moon tonight,” says Nessa leaving a gap in the curtains anyway.  “Good night, Opal,” she says. 

“Good night.” 

In the barnyard next morning collecting eggs, I know right away that something is wrong.  The dogs are nowhere in sight.  Approaching the chicken coop, I find blood & feathers around the little doorway.  “Get in here with those eggs, Opal,” Mother shouts from the kitchen window but I don’t move. 

Father passes with a pail of fresh milk.  “What is it, Opal?” 

“There’s a dead chicken,” I say, pointing to the mess. 

Father looks stricken.  “Where are the dogs?” he asks. 

“Nowhere.” 

He groans.  “Don’t touch it,” he says, “Get the eggs; the boys & I will clean up after breakfast.”  I nod & make my way in.  My stomach heaves as I step around the gore.  I swallow hard hearing Mother’s voice in my head, Don’t be a ninny, Opal.  You’ll cut the heads off dozens of chickens when you’re a farmer’s wife.  I get the eggs fast & go back to the house.

Harris sits beside Father at the head of the table.  Come, Lord Jesus, be thou our guest.  Let these, thy gifts to us, be blest.  “Amen.”  We pass platters of eggs, bread & sausage. 

When they come his way, Harris says, “Not so much for me this morning.” 

George & Merle exchange satisfied glances hearing that the newcomer is learning his place.  Meanwhile they heap their plates until Mother says, “Leave some for the rest of us.”  

“Well, Harris,” says Father, wiping his chin, “We got a fence needs mending down by the creek.  Could use an extra hand if you’ll be around a while.  Can’t pay you, of course, but you’re welcome to stay & board with us if you like.” 

“Thank you,” says Harris, “I believe I will.”

At night, I lay in bed between the girls & watch the moon.  Night by night, it grows from a sliver rising over the barn until it reaches full bloom, a great yellow circle glowing behind the corn silo, lighting up the barnyard.  In the black dark barn, the oil lamp flickers in the hayloft.  It’s late when I hear something in the yard.  I get up to close the window.  In the bright moonlight, nothing moves.  The animals are restless in the barn.  The dogs are whining, penned up to keep them out of the henhouse.  I hurry back to bed.  For a long time, nothing happens.  It’s a struggle to stay awake but I keep watch, shadows changing shape as the moon drifts overhead.  The flame flickers in the hayloft.  In the morning, there’s another dead chicken.

“Why do you let him stay,” I ask Mother as we’re kneading bread dough at the floured work table.  We’ve rolled up our sleeves, our dresses covered by long aprons. 

“Why shouldn’t he stay?” Mother asks, “Father says he’s a good hand.  He does the chores Bill used to do.  Before he went away.” 

Yes

Nessa is knitting new

sweaters for winter

while eavesdropping

on the party-line phone

out in the hall.

We put the bread dough in loaf pans & cover them with flour sacks to rise.  I fetch a pail of water.  Mother is feeding Baby when I return.  Nessa is knitting new sweaters for winter while eavesdropping on the party-line phone out in the hall.  “You shouldn’t listen in,” I exclaim.  She shushes me & waves me away.  I wander out to the barn & give a dish of cream to the cats.  I visit the dairy cows whose milk Father sells to the grocer in town.  I look up to the hayloft & wonder.

From the top of the ladder, I can see Mother’s quilt folded on the mattress, the oil lamp on an upturned milk crate under the window.  I note the Bible with a red satin marker tucked into its pages.  His knapsack lies in the corner near an old pitchfork.  I wonder if I’m brave enough to open it.  I step forward looking around, searching for signs.  There’s nothing.  I pick up the Bible & read from the marked page.  …a generation that curseth their father, and doth not bless their mother.  There is a generation, O how lofty are their eyes! And their eyelids are lifted up.  There is a generation, whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives, to devour…

“Opal, I’m surprised to find you here,” says Harris.  My heart leaps as I turn to find him standing at the top of the ladder, his face obscure in the dim light.

“Mr. Harris,” I say stammering, “I’m sorry to intrude. I don’t know why I came up here.” 

“In search of something to read?” he suggests motioning to the Bible in my hands. 

“No, no,” I say & put the book down, “I’m so sorry.” 

“Please don’t apologize,” says Harris, “Will you be going?” 

“Yes, yes,” I say aware now that I’m frozen in place.  I’m clumsy getting to the ladder. 

“Careful now,” says Harris.  He watches me all the way down, sees me disappear around the cow stalls.  His eyes are on me from the hayloft as I cross the yard but when I reach the kitchen door & turn to face him, there’s only an empty window.

Baby has come down with a fever & Nessa is tending him when it’s time to put the light out.  “The Baumbach twins are down, too,” she says when she comes in to check on us, “I heard Lyddie call the doctor this afternoon.” 

“Mother says it’s wrong to use the party-line to snoop on people.” 

“It’s not snooping,” says Nessa going back to Baby. 

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A breeze comes through the open window.  There’s no moon.  The lamp lights the hayloft as always but tonight Harris is there, too, reading beside the window with his back to me.  His eyeglasses glint in the light from the lamp.  He never stretches, never turns, never moves at all.  What are you? I think to myself.  Baby cries out from his fever & I’m startled awake.  The window in the hayloft is light but empty.  Harris is gone.  The animals stir & a wind picks up in the yard.  I rush to close the window & see Harris there in the dark, disappearing around the back of the chicken coop.  He turns & looks up at me as I slam down the sash.

At breakfast, Nessa does all the cooking.  Mother is upstairs with Baby, swabbing his brow as he sweats & fusses.  I steal glances at Harris sitting next to Father.  Each time I do, he turns to meet my gaze.  I look away.  Still, I notice that his plate is full & at the next glimpse, empty though he seems to have eaten nothing.  Then Clara spills her milk & before we finish mopping up Father, Harris & the boys have all left for morning chores. 

“What do you think of Mr. Harris?” I ask Nessa as we clear the table. 

“Why should I think anything about him?” she asks, “He’s nobody to me.” 

“Nobody.” 

“I don’t care for the way he looks at me,” Nessa says, “As if he would eat me up.” 

“He seems to know my thoughts.” 

“Men always act that way,” says Nessa.

Mother is watching over Baby while he tries to sleep, mending a pair of Harris’ work pants.  “Men never mind their clothes,” she says.  I’m putting a button back on Father’s Sunday shirt.  Nessa is working the foot pedal on the Singer sewing machine, taking in one of my old dresses for Martha.  “Maybe some of Bill’s old work clothes would fit Mr. Harris,” says Mother reflectively, “Bill wouldn’t mind.  He’d be glad to help.  Of course, he would.”  I finish the button & pick up a sock to darn.  “Maybe Mr. Harris will stay through haymaking this fall,” says Mother, “Of course, he can’t sleep out in the barn when winter sets in.  By then, he’ll have to go.”  Through with her mending, she looks up & says, “Do you suppose some family is looking after Bill like we take care of Mr. Harris?  I hope so.  Wherever he is, I pray someone is feeding him & giving him work.  Do you think so, Girls?  I think so.” 

Yes

By the end of the summer, we’ve lost Baby.  His fever never breaks.  Mother neither sleeps nor eats, keeping watch night after night.  After weeks of nursing him, Baby slips away in her arms.  Nessa stands in the doorway her eyes soaked with tears.  There’s a graveyard outside the country church.  We lay Baby in the ground next to an infant brother & the stillborn who came between me & Martha.  We mourn with solemn faces while the pastor says the words.  Wind sweeps over the ripe fields.  Harris comes down from the hayloft as we rumble into the yard in Father’s pickup truck.  “My condolences,” he says, joining us in the kitchen where we find that our neighbors have been round to drop off casseroles & stews, salads & desserts.  We collapse onto the benches.  Baby’s cradle is empty by the window.

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After a day of quiet mourning, Father & Harris take their axes out to the back acreage to clear tree stumps.  George & Merle go along planning mischief & hoping for a chance to sneak away.  Mother is resting in bed with the door closed.  Nessa won’t come away from the party-line phone.  I climb up to the hayloft & thumb the pages of the old Bible to mark the page which begins, We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.  When the men come in, I’m at the worktable under the window cleaning the oil lamp.

“Opal, that’s Mr. Harris’ lamp,” says Father.

“Yes,” I say, my voice level, my eyes on Harris “And it was kind of you to bring it down, Mr. Harris, with all your things now you’ve decided to leave.” 

“Are you leaving, Harris?” Father asks surprised.  I take Father’s arm saying, “He’s brought all his things here to the kitchen & the hayloft is swept clean.” 

“Hope it’s nothing we’ve done,” says Father.  Harris’ dark eyes follow me. 

“Don’t worry, Father,” I say, “I’m sure Mr. Harris knows how we’re missing Baby & feels it’s time to move on.”  Harris’ gaze hardens.  I lift his knapsack from the table & offer it up.  Harris takes the bag with Father looking on. 

“Hate to see you go,” says Father, reaching out to shake his hand. 

“Perhaps Mr. Harris will find his way back sometime,” I say, “Isn’t that so, Mr. Harris?” 

“I come & go as I please,” says Harris. 

Yes.  “You’ll be wanting to take this with you, too, won’t you,” I say, handing him the old Bible with the newly placed page marker.  As he takes it, his eyes grow wide & he shrinks from me. 

“Yes, yes,” he says hurriedly, “I wouldn’t like to go without it.” 

“Wise words,” says Father.

In a moment, Harris is gone.  Father & the boys are settling down around the table.  I serve them cold meats & brown bread.  I pour out glasses of our own good milk cool from the icebox.  Nessa comes in listlessly & sits in her place beside Mother’s empty chair.  She is pale, but she eats.  I help the little girls with their meals & bring out more food to fill my brothers’ plates.  I clear the table & wash the dishes while Nessa dries.  “Are you glad he’s gone?” I ask. 

“Opal,” cries Nessa, “How could I be glad?  Baby’s dead.  How can you even ask me?” 

“Not Baby,” I say, “Harris.” 

“Oh, him,” says Nessa with disdain, “Well, if he wouldn’t take me with him, he may just as well be gone.”  She sighs & looks disgusted.  With the dishes done, I go around & close all the windows.  When the wind picks up, the dust blows in.

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Mr. Harris appeared first in Deracine, Summer 2020

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