"Perhaps she’s changed her mind. Perhaps she’s not coming."
Excerpt from Because I Loved You, used with permission from the author.
October 16, 2016
It is a cool, blustery morning. Caleb McGrath boards a train at Grand Central Station heading north to Wassaic, New York, the last stop on the Harlem River line.
The week before, Caleb saw his brother, Hank, for the first time in forty-two years. Caleb knew Hank had his own well of secrets. It turns out he’d been keeping one of Caleb’s, as well. One Caleb didn’t even know he had. They are a burden, secrets. Sooner or later we have to leave this world. The fewer secrets we carry, the less bound we are to it.
Sitting upright on the hard, creaking seat, the dog-eared and yellowing diaries and sketchbooks Hank gave him heavy in his lap, he watches the city give way to low-rise suburban houses, clapboard or stucco, and small businesses. Gyms and hair salons, auto repair and lawn mower sales give way to thickets of trees, already yellow and orange, and an occasional bloom of red.
There’s no station at Wassaic. Just a platform, not even benches. Though still unaccustomed to it, Caleb’s grateful he brought his cane. Something to lean on as he waits and watches the last passenger bounce down the platform steps with her overstuffed knapsack and ukulele and hop into a squat yellow Fiat that barely stops before scampering out and south on Route 22.
Perhaps she’s changed her mind. Perhaps she’s not coming.
Her mother’s native tongue snaps and spews, skimming after her across the dry goatweed and brush.
“Madeleine O’Hare! Come back here. Reviens! A cet instant! Écoutes-moi! Arrêtes! Arrêtes!”
But she and Foggy are gone. Galloping beneath the dove-gray sky to the far rise in a frantic waltz—one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. She imagines clods of dirt and grass from her dappled mare’s hooves, like one of Foy’s fastballs, lodging in their mother’s throat. That would shut her up. No more talk of selling Leni’s prized mare.
At the top of the rise, Leni glares back at the patchwork of paddocks circling their barn, like pieces of the stupid quilt Maman makes her work on week after week, scraps of their old clothes and dishtowels, nothing wasted, everything to be used and reused until it’s shreds.
Mad all over again, she gives Foggy more rein, urges her on. The mare stretches her neck and lengthens her stride. The saddlebags with grain for Foggy, and the few clothes and whatever else she could grab, jostle behind her. The tall switchgrass passes beneath them like rushing water. Faster and faster, over the crest of the small hill and down toward the river. But even by the river, with the beating of Foggy’s hooves across the dry ground, her mother’s shouts seem still trapped between her ears. “Dieu to vois. Remember that! God sees you!” Leni tightens her legs around her mare as they jump ditches and dodge one hawthorn bush, then another, desperate to shed her mother’s curses, because she’ll be as wide and open as this Texas chaparral. Infinite, maybe. Not pockmarked and scarred by her mother’s curses, like Evan Holt’s face since he came back from Da Nang with shrapnel from his navel to the crown of his head, and now Marguerite—perfect, buxom Marguerite with their mother’s dark curls and her always starched blouses and smoothly pressed skirts—won’t marry him like she’d promised.
Beyond the bend, across the Old Tram Road, the river widens into a small marsh. Leni pulls Foggy up to a jog, then a walk. Sweat lathers the mare’s neck, runs down Leni’s neck and back, too. They are both puffing hard.
With the reins loose now, resting on Foggy’s neck, the mare picks her way lightly over the dry grasses. Leaves and twigs crunch beneath her hooves as they follow the river north. Exciting to be on her own. And away—finally—from her foolish mother, in her homemade hats, lace-up shoes, and white socks, insisting Leni give up her horse and barrel racing as though she’d ever be prim and prissy and boy crazy like her sister.
The river winds calmly here, especially lazy now since there’s hardly been any rain since spring. Dry as a turkey’s gullet, her daddy says. The air, though, is moist and thick today. Foggy’s ears spin forward, watching a jackrabbit dash out from a cluster of cottonwood trees and weave into the tall grass.
There used to be more people here between the creeks, back when most folks were farming. But the small farms with one or two dairy cows and a few pigs and laying hens gave way to ranches raising beef cattle for the feedlots in Midland or stockyards in St. Louis. The McGraths run the biggest ranch. Her daddy says Mr. McGrath’s been buying up land for more than thirty years to run his cattle on, and he’s got himself wells pumping out oil from here to Oklahoma, too. Leni sees him on occasion at a rodeo or the feed store. He’s built like a tree stump. His older son, Hank Junior, looks just like him—dark-haired and thick all over. Only he’ll smile on occasion. At girls, mostly. The younger son, Caleb, is in Foy’s grade at Pewitt High, a year ahead of Leni. They’ll be seniors this year. Caleb’s built like a sapling, tall and smooth. He keeps to himself mostly, from what Leni can tell. Like her.
Cal had finished his chores and was waiting out the worst of the August heat in his room, tinkering with the miniature ham radio he kept tucked inside his desk drawer in case someone—namely his father—were to barge in. Hank Senior strictly forbade the radio enterprise. Cal figured it was more because he couldn’t understand it than because a ham radio was illegal to operate. Cal built a small one anyway. Using sardine tins for the transmitter and transceiver, hammering the tin lids into shape. Scouring ads in the back of Popular Mechanics, he sent away for the coils and tiny transponders, paying with money he earned giving roping lessons to the ranch hands’ kids and anyone else who’d ask. The radio operated at about two watts, enough to tune into Mexican operators at night and north into some of Oklahoma most days.
The back door off the kitchen slapped shut.
“Molly!” his father’s shout ricocheted through the newly-remodeled kitchen and across the open dining room where the heels of his boots struck the stone floor like matches on flint.
Cal’s mother was tall and slender. She wore her hair, which was the pale brown color of winter wheat, in a short bob. Her fingers would often flutter up and smooth stray strands behind her ears. She was a native to Texas and ranching, but she would fit right in in the suburbs of Dallas or any southern city. There was an elegance about her, and grit. She stood eye to eye with her husband, and had a look—with those pale green eyes—that was about the only thing that could stop him, tightly coiled and ready to spring as he was, in his tracks.
“Where’s that boy?” Cal heard his father growl, his ire up. Nothing new about that.
“The one you named?” his mother replied, likely extracting a cigarette from the pocket of the small scalloped apron she wore, over her customary cigarette slacks.
She Writes Press
ISBN 97810647422981, paperback, 408 pages
April 4, 2023
A former screenwriter and retired attorney, Donnaldson Brown currently writes fiction and teaches trauma-sensitive yoga and somatic experiencing to veterans, first responders, and others coping with post-traumatic stress. Her novel, Because I Loved You, will be published in April 2023 by She Writes Press. Her spoken word pieces have been accepted for performance by the Deep Listening Institute and the Berkshire Theatre Festival. She and her corgis divide their time between Brooklyn, New York and Western Massachusetts. Find her online at donnaldsonbrown.com.