However, when he walked down the aisle towards his family’s pew on Sunday, he caught sight of a blonde braid at the back of the church.
They passed on too quickly for him to catch a look at her face. He couldn’t turn around to see her - nor could he have seen her through the crowd - once he was seated, and there might have been fifty other similar blonde braids in the church, but Nat knew it was her. He just knew it.
When the last words of the final hymn were sung, Nat jumped up on the pew and looked eagerly over the crowd. His father pulled him down.
“Nathan Under, I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You were fidgeting all through the sermon! You’re lucky I don’t pull you outside and tan your hide,” Mr. Under said, jaw set in the way the signaled Nat had gone too far.
“Oh, Alex, give him grace,” Mrs. Under said soothingly. “He’s just a boy. Now, Nathan, you mustn’t act like that again.”
“All right, but just this once. Next time I see this kind of behavior, young man …”
“Yes, sir,” said Nat, forcing himself to meet his father’s eyes instead of craning his neck towards the door.
“Very well. Run along now and find Joshua if that’s what you were trying to do.”
Nat nodded and walked as quickly as he could to the door. He broke into a run as he exited the building, glancing about him wildly … but he couldn’t find the blonde braid he was looking for.
“Where are you?” he mumbled to himself. “I just want to talk. You needn’t run from me every time like I’m the Grim Reaper or something.”
“Grim Reaper, ha!” drawled a voice behind him. “You know it’s just God that takes the soul and us humans that buries the body.”
“I know. Just talking to myself,” Nat said, glancing at Josh briefly before returning to his search.
“What’s up with you, Nat? You know as well as I do you’re too young to go courting,” Josh teased.
“I don’t want to court her. I want to be her friend. Is there anything wrong with that?”
“Nothing. She’s a strange one, though.”
“Well, I might be the only one besides her family and the teachers who’s talked to her in years! Would you talk if no one talked to you?”
Nat considered this. “Yes, but I wouldn’t, and you know it. Some people just naturally don’t speak unless they’re spoken to.”
“Wouldn’t I give anything for that talent,” Josh said. “My mother would sure appreciate it, anyway. ‘Children,’” he quoted in high-pitched, uppity voice with a Carolina drawl, “‘Are to be seen and not heard.’”
Nat offered him a brief smile. “I guess she just ran home.”
“Never noticed her at church before.”
“Well, you never noticed her at school either.”
“Fair enough.” Josh straightened his posture and pulled his hands out of his pockets. “Was her sister with her?”
“Didn’t know she had one.”
“Sure. Runs wild all over the streets. Can’t help but notice that grubby little ginger. She’s everywhere all at once. Gotta admire her spunk, but you also gotta wonder where her mamma is.”
“Well, Polly seems to be busy with housework all the time … maybe her mother’s dead and she just doesn’t want to say anything,” Nat suggested.
“That’s the silliest thing I ever heard,” said Josh.
“Well, we don’t know any different, do we?” Nat gave up his search and turned to face Josh. “Ever seen her mother?”
“Out shopping. At the green grocer’s. With my mother. Last Tuesday.”
“Was Polly with her?”
“Then how did you know it was Mrs. Farjon?”
“Because Susan was with her and we talked.”
“Polly’s sister.” Josh shrugged. “She’s a bright kid, even if she is only … oh, three or four.”
Nat saw right through his downplaying. Josh often decided kids was his little brothers and sisters in spirit and big-brothered them. Josh had a couple younger sisters, and he seemed to think that taking one or two others on was no problem. “She’s seven, I think,” Nat said carefully.
“Not until June,” Josh said.
“Ha! You did know.”
Josh sighed heavily. “What does it matter if I didn’t or I did? So, I keep an eye on her. She needs a brother. The one she’s got is only a toddler, and her dad’s dead. Someone’s got to do it.”
“I guess that’s all right,” Nat said slowly. “But she is pretty little.”
“Baby sisters are supposed to be little! Take a look at Polly, for instance. She couldn’t be my baby sister. She’s almost the same age as me. Susan, though? Ah, well, she can be my baby sister.”
Nat rolled his eyes. “And you call me soft?”
“I’m just a gentleman, that’s all,” Josh said imperturbably.
Nat sighed. There was no getting around Josh when he was in this mood. “Anyway, I suppose I’ll go over to her house again this afternoon.”
“Why? She obviously doesn’t want to see you. Maybe she just likes to be left alone.”
“Nobody likes to be left alone,” Nat protested.
Josh shrugged. “If that were true, there wouldn’t be hermits. Or monks.”
“Well, that’s different,” Nat replied.
* * * * *
Polly pulled Susan off the table and began setting it. Mrs. Farjon cut another slice of bread off the loaf before her. It was store-bought. Of course. Everything they owned was store-bought now.
“What are we having?” Susan asked.
“Again?” Susan muttered, scuffing her Sunday shoes against the floor.
Polly scowled at Susan and motioned her towards their little brother.
Susan sighed heavily, took Colin’s hand, and dragged him out the back door into the tangled yard that had once been Mamma’s garden.
Mrs. Farjon fixed a large plate of sandwiches and poured four glasses of lukewarm milk. And that was lunch.
It wasn’t that they were poor. They weren’t, really. It was just that she cared only to see that her children’s stomachs were full, not that they enjoyed the food.
Mrs. Farjon placed the plate of sandwiches in the middle of the breakfast nook table - they never used the big dining room anymore. Polly put the four glasses of milk on the table and rushed to fetch Susan and Colin.
After everyone had been seated, Mrs. Farjon whispered a quick grace while the others bowed their heads, and they began to eat.
“Mamma?” Susan said.
Polly glared at Susan.
“Yes?” said Mrs. Farjon, not raising her eyes from her plate where an untouched sandwich rested.
“This afternoon we could do something together.”
Mrs. Farjon took a while to respond, as if her brain was slow to process the words Susan had spoke. “I was going to … read this afternoon.”
Polly sighed. If only that were true! It would at least mean that her mother was taking an interest in something. But it wasn’t true. Mrs. Farjon might pick up a book and skim over a few pages, but she would soon set it down and stare listlessly at nothing again.
“But Mamma, you always do that on Sunday afternoons! I want to do something different. Please, Mamma? Please?”
Mrs. Farjon hesitated for a suspense-filled moment, then shook her head. “No … I don’t think we’d better. I’m tired. I want to stay at home.”
Susan nodded resignedly and finished up her sandwich. “Can I go play in the street?”
Mrs. Farjon nodded, obviously distracted. “Polly, I need to run to the store sometime this next week,” she said. “Is there anything we need?”
“Well … just write it down if we do,” Mrs. Farjon said with a sigh. “Is there anything going on at school?”
Polly shook her head. She wished she had something to tell. After all, it was rare that her mother tried. But Polly really had no response. Nothing ever happened at school. Nothing she could share with her mother, anyway. Reports of loneliness and bullying would only distress Mrs. Farjon.
They finished as quickly as possible, and Mamma took Colin up to her room for a nap. It was clear Colin wanted to run and play, not nap, but he had no choice. Same as Polly had no choice but to clean the house.
Mamma didn’t think the house needed cleaning anymore. She’d let most of it fall into ruin. But Polly knew better. Every house needed cleaned and tidied, even if very few people came over. In fact, the only person Polly knew who had come over was Dr. Engall. Even that had been less and less over the years, as Mamma’s problem wasn’t really a physical ailment as it had been at first, during those dark months when everyone whispered and no one told her what was going on.
Just as she put her dusting cloth away and picked up the broom, she heard a knock at the door. Who was it? It could be those boys again. She wondered why they were bothering her. For the most part, the children at school gave her a respectful distance. A few teased, tormented. But no one ever wanted to play with her. She wasn’t sure what to think about it.
She hurried to the door, wiping her hands on her mother’s old apron, and opened it. Behind it stood Dr. Engall. Then Polly remembered that he sometimes came over on a Sunday to check on them.
He was a tall man with dirty-dishwater-blond hair and great hazel eyes, crinkled at the corner from frequent smiles. He had little Sadie, his youngest, in his arms. She was just a few months older than Colin, but she wasn’t nearly so stubborn or half so opinionated. She was quiet and shy, her thumb in her mouth and her face hidden in her father’s shoulder more often than not. Polly liked her.
“Hello, Polly,” Dr. Engall said. “How are you?”
Polly offered a brief smile and stepped back from the door.
“Where’s your mother?”
Polly flickered her eyes towards the stairs, hoping he’d get the message.
He nodded, offering a cheerful grin. “I’ll just check the pantry. Belle and Ellen met Susan in the yard; I imagine they’ve run off to play. Hopefully none of Susan’s wild nature will rub off on my sweet girls, eh?” He winked. “Well, I admit Ellen is worse than Susan on some counts, though I imagine she’s a little less sneaky … right?”
Polly shrugged, trying desperately to match her stride to his.
“Yes, I wouldn’t venture an opinion on the subject, either.”
They entered the kitchen, and Dr. Engall set Sadie down. She clung to his pant leg, whimpering, but he gently disengaged her. “Just a minute, Sadie-my-sweet. I’ll pick you up in a minute.”
In Polly’s opinion, Sadie was just a tad spoiled between Dr. Engall and his good-natured elderly housekeeper, but it wasn’t her place to say so. Not that she would have had it been her place. She simply took Sadie into her lap and rubbed her back until she quieted.
Dr. Engall went through the cupboards, pantry, and larder. “You have bread and meat, and you get milk every morning. But you’re dangerously low on flour, sugar, and all those different spices and such that women use.”
His eyes momentarily darkened. “I know, Polly. I know. But we’ve got to keep trying, all right? Maybe … someday … she’ll cook again. We don’t know. And when she’s ready, we’ll be ready. All right?”
Polly dropped her eyes, allowing her head to rest on Sadie’s golden curls.
“Don’t lose hope. Remember, God’s in control. He knows what your mamma’s going through. And someday, she’ll let Him shine into her life again, just like she used to. She just has to give the darkness permission to leave.”
Polly nodded. It was hard to believe those things when Mamma spent her days in black, when she let the house fall to ruins, when she seemed to disregard all the things she used to love. But it had to be true. It had to be.
“I wish she’d learn that she can’t grieve forever,” Dr. Engall mused further. “It’s just self-pity now. It’s about time she wanted to have with him that she didn’t. You can’t let yourself die just because someone you love does. You need to live on, and not because of yourself, but because of God and those He’d left in your care.” He shook his head. “Oh, well. I can’t pretend I haven’t had my bad times, too.”
Polly didn’t think so. Dr. Engall always seemed so cheerful, and he always took care of his house, even if it was only through a housekeeper he hired. His daughters were loved; he lived for every life besides his own. And he had lost someone - Mrs. Engall, who Polly barely remembered as a laughing woman with gray eyes and a gorgeous dress.
“Well, I’d better go to the store,” Dr. Engall said. “Can you watch Sadie?”
“I’ll be back in half an hour.” He turned and walked off. Polly heard the front door open and shut quietly as he left.