The last time Maggie made one of her semi-annual trips from the city back to her hometown in Wisconsin to visit her mother, they were watching the evening news when the newswoman reported that a 62-year-old named Henry Jankowski was caught sodomizing a calf on the Green Meadows farm. Evidently the farmer had gone out to the barn to do the evening chores and had opened the door to that very scene. He called the sheriff, and Henry Jankowski was charged with trespassing on Green Meadows farm, bestiality, and participating in lewd activities. The next story was about the widening of Highway 51.
“That’s just sick,” Maggie said, letting out a deep laugh at the very sickness of it. “What kind of —?”
She then caught herself and closed her mouth, watching as her mother, busy knitting a blanket for the annual Christmas drive for the needy, held the needle in her right hand like a pencil, letting her thumb slide under the growing strip of blanket to grasp it from below. She held the left needle lightly over the top, using her thumb and index finger to control the tip — knit one, purl two. The rows were orderly, just as straight and soldierly as the fields of corn that wove over the Wisconsin countryside like a summer quilt until harvest time.
Though Maggie’s mother could knit even with her eyes closed after all of those years, she feigned concentration on both her yarn and the story about the highway, averting her eyes from Maggie. The newswoman relayed further details about the highway construction and the impending controversies — the farms that must be bought, the wild life that must be negotiated, the riverbanks that must be protected, the drain on the budget.
There was a time when Maggie would’ve gone on and on about that cow story. She could almost hear herself, the things she would’ve said.
“It all comes clear, doesn’t it?” she would have continued. “It’s no wonder pedophiles and child sex abuse are rampant. If you’ll do a cow, I guess you’ll do just about anything. Can there really be that many sick-os out there?”
Instead she kept quiet, and her mother finally lifted her eyes from her unfolding skein of yarn and criss crossing needles and stared steadily at the television, saying, “That road really does need widening. That’s the road Martha May’s mother was killed on. She took that curve near the Oswald farm and a car in the other lane crossed over and hit her head on. It was such a tragedy.”
She dropped her eyes again to the project nesting in her lap and fed the string of yarn that was woven through the fingers of her right hand bit by bit into the blanket to be. Maggie had always thought her mother had taken up knitting so she could concentrate on something else during Maggie’s rants, which she had known her mother didn’t want to hear, couldn’t handle hearing. But it wasn’t until twenty years after she was raped at the age of seven by the much-older neighbor boy who lived in the house where her mother sent her to play on those days when she found six children too many to track and tame, that Maggie realized the events that had shredded her to the core had shredded her mother’s core even more.
Her father, now dead, had always ignored her, had labeled her a troublemaker when young; she, determined to break every rule he made. But her mother had always listened, dropped her head, and sobbed. Maggie didn’t care then, couldn’t even hear that sobbing. She thought her mother’s frame of ignorance had delivered her to her fate — like a little present on a plate — and Maggie dangled her over a bonfire of blame.
She had dangled her until she broke down and screamed one day, “If I had known, do you think I would have let you go? Do you think I would have ever let you go? But I did, and now you’ve left me for good.”
The newswoman wrapped up the story about the highway reconstruction by pointing at a mock map that traced the new route the road would take, rounding past hills and valleys, bridging over rivers, modifying many lands beyond. Just as she was finishing, Maggie’s mother sighed and the phone rang, and Maggie rose to answer it, greeting one of her mother’s oldest friends.
“Hi, Lila,” she said.
“Hi, honey,” Lila replied. “What are you two doing? I thought you might want to come over for a night cap.”
“A night cap? I’ll ask Mom. We were just watching the news.”
“I’m watching, too,” Lila said, “channel 7. You hear the story about the cow? They just caught two men doing the same thing last week up the road in Junction City. Either it’s something new or those boys have been doing it all along. M-hm.”
“They’re talking about the highway now,” was all Maggie said. “Hold on a minute; I’ll let you talk to Mom.”
“It’s for you, Mom,” she said, as she handed her the phone and bent down to kiss her on the cheek. “I’m going out for a short walk.”
“What about the night cap?” her mother asked, taking the phone.
“Not tonight,” Maggie said.
As soon as Maggie stepped outside, the cold bit her lips and curled her fingers. The light tinkling of the chimes her mother hung in the trees in the front yard mixed with the winds and created a small chorus in the otherwise silent night. The only other rare sounds were distant — the moaning whistle of the train changing tracks near Water Street, a dog in some faraway yard bellowing and barking, an occasional call from a lone night bird perched in some nearby tree. The night was so dark that even the outlines of the boney trees seemed to melt, invisible in the blackness. But if one looked up, the sky instantly delivered a mirage of star lanterns that gave off a shivering glow. Maggie started to walk and as her feet fell in rhythm, she began to hear a chorus in her head:
Suck a duck
Jig a pig
Force a horse
Plow a cow
It became a little song in her mind, and she was there in the night, silently singing to herself.
As she walked along the quiet streets, the crunch of snow beneath her feet the loudest sound around, she occasionally glanced at the houses she passed, with soft lights on behind curtains, smoke curling from chimneys, white picket fences, a cat or dog staring out of a window. She knew the quaint hominess of a small town often shielded the gross perversities hidden so secretly within and behind, as if to convince folks of their nonexistence. Stories surfaced and then faded, replaced by new tales and tattlings, each remaining just long enough to startle and snap a sigh, just long enough for people to know but not know, see but not see. Just like for a while everyone knew that sweet Sadie Lowe was her drunk father’s own delight, and that all of the children on the Jenke farm looked a bit too much alike, and that Mrs. Glazier and Mrs. Henry wore sunglasses in the evenings or on rainy summer days only when their eyes had been blackened by their husbands the night before.
Maggie knew those were the very stories her mother could not hear. How could she live in the world knowing that one of those sordid stories belonged to one of her own — a beloved? She knew her mother would have died in that world, just as she had survived in it. She understood that her mother needed her knitting.
The wind pushed and pulled her as she rounded the block to return to her mother’s home. She saw the house, nestled amidst an aging stand of stoic pines, the lights in the windows dancing between the tree branches. The closer she stepped the clearer the sounds of her mother’s chimes became, sweet and swirly. She knew the house was warm and smelled like a fresh pot of coffee, or cinnamon potpourri. She knew her mother was still knitting, focused on the blend of colors that would soon be someone’s gift, and as she walked up the front steps, she looked in the window and there her mother was — knit one, purl two.
Maggie watched her mother, wanting only to let her knit her blankets and enjoy her days. She entered the house and greeted her, kissing her on the forehead.
“I’m glad they’re widening the highway, Mom,” she said.
Her mother rested her knitting in her lap and looked up, smiling, saying, “I am, too, honey. I really am. It’s the best news we’ve had all day.”
Maggie sat in the chair beside her, and together they listened to the night around them, the calls of the wind, the hush of the blowing trees, and everything did seem peaceful, pleasant, and perfect.