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Chapter Four

The next morning, Mona Gilbreth opened to the editorial page of the Central Illinois Farmer with a mixture of dread and disgust. The ongoing battle between environmental interests and business—her business—had become an embarrassment. She hadn’t even known there were environmentalists in Sullivan before the paper-borne tirade had begun, about a year back. It had started with a letter about dumping of industrial waste in the local watershed, and gone on from there to veiled and then not-so-veiled suggestions of guilt. Customers were asking pointed questions about whether the allegations against Gilbreth concerning dumping and toxic waste were true. This wasn’t national politics, where the querists were reporters she’d never see again who could be put off with a press release from one of her assistants. She was forced to make expensive changes in her business practices, though she could hardly spare it from her campaign. She had won the nomination for Representative, but it would take careful management and a lot of fundraising to see her all the way through the November election. There was a chronic shortage of donations for the smaller candidacies. None of the big sponsors seemed to be interested in getting behind a single Democrat from Central Illinois. Mona Gilbreth yearned for the day when her political dreams would be realized, she would be elected to her House seat in Washington, and she could shake off the stinking dust of her father’s business and her hometown. After she left, she could disavow any knowledge of how the business was being run.

At first she wondered if her political opponent was behind the mudslinging. Nastier people were beginning to call them Kill-breath Feed. It was hard to get a stereotype out of people’s mind once it was set. Small towns had long memories, she thought, remembering her grammar school nickname of “Treetop.” Once a year, someone from her year at Sullivan High School was sure to bring that up again. It wasn’t her fault she grew taller than anyone else in fifth grade, finishing up at a quarter inch short of six feet before her thirteenth birthday. It was enough to make any sane person take to the top of a church steeple with an M-16.

“Has anyone in the plant been talking to anyone from Hollow Tree Farm?” Mona asked her manager, Jake Williamson.

“You know us,” Williamson assured her, leaning back with his thumbs in his hip pockets. The khaki overalls that was the company uniform looked like a prison guard’s on his bulky, well-muscled body. Mona was comfortable with him because he was one of the few people at the plant who was taller than she was. “We don’t talk to strangers.”

“Then how are they so sure the stuff’s coming from here?” Mona wondered, folding over the page and creasing it with her fingernail.

“It is, isn’t it?” Williamson asked, showing his teeth in amusement.

She ignored him. “These results couldn’t have come from an EPA analysis, because we’d have been notified, and that would mean reporters all over the place. Are they following our trucks?”

“Couldn’t be. Some of them county routes are as flat as an ironing board. We’d have seen anybody. What’s wrong? This H. Doyle write another letter full of insults to the editor?”

Without looking up, Mona nodded. She crumpled the edge with her fingertips, began to tear scraps of paper loose and scoot them around the desktop. She hated keeping up the discussion in public. Always protesting that Gilbreth was innocent of any wrongdoing, that the management was interested and involved in environmental issues. All the petitions were signed and the national convention was over, but she still needed the grassroots support to keep her campaign alive. She just wanted to win the election so she could go to Washington and stop worrying about her constituents. It would have been easier if there were two of her, one to pound the campaign trail and tell lies to voters, and the other to stay here and crack nitrogen.

The election was timely, so that was where she turned her attention. In the meantime, the business was running badly without her continuous intervention. She wished again her father hadn’t died. His timing was so inconvenient. The last thing she needed was to be involved with a business whose waste products pushed so many buttons among her constituency. There were loud supporters on both sides of the issue, pro-farm and pro-environment, and sometimes they were the same people, but silence was better than noisy debate any time.

She ran her finger down the page to the end of the letter. There was the signature Mona had been dreading: H. Doyle. The gist of the letter above it was typical and predictable. Unnatural growths of algae had been observed in artesian ponds and marsh water, suggesting that phosphates and other organics had been dumped in the sensitive headwaters, giving rise to explosive and unwanted growth. H. Doyle was angry about the pollution of the groundwater, suggesting that if organic pollutants were disposed of with so much secrecy, might not PCBs and dioxins have been dumped as well? Didn’t the name Times Beach render any reaction?

Mona ground her teeth. It did. It was true, Gilbreth Feed and Fertilizer had dumped a lot of its waste on abandoned property. Money was the problem. If for no other reason than to keep her nose clean for the inspection of her political foes, she would cheerfully have paid for proper dumping sites and disposal. As it was, the Gilbreth Company couldn’t afford it and still take care of payroll, advertising, and all the other expenses it took to run a company. H. Doyle of Hollow Tree was exacerbating her troubles by humiliating her in public. Mona could feel her temper rising, getting her dander up, as her old grandmother used to say.

“We’ve got a load of stuff, and the bills aren’t paid yet,” Williamson said, almost as if he could read her mind. “Got to get rid of it. There’s no more room in the tanks, and Browning-Ferris won’t make a pickup until we pay.”

“Empty the tanks into our trucks. There’s a dumping site I want you to use,” Ms. Gilbreth said, without looking up from the Op-ed page.

Dola appeared at the door of Holl and Maura’s cottage. “There now,” she said disapprovingly, drowning out the unhappy cries. Holl turned toward her, his face full of undisguised relief, his arms full of wet, bare-bottomed baby. “You can hear her nearly all the way to the barn!”

“Bless you, lass, can you do something with her? She’s soaked through, I’ve got a full day of tasks to finish, and I can’t put her down!”

The girl’s hands were on her hips, and the expression on her face was an echo of her great-grandmother Keva’s. “She’s all to pieces, and you’re no help, are you?” she asked. She took the wailing baby in her arms, and whispered a little song to her. Asrai, recognizing Dola’s voice, stopped crying and gurgled. Holl, amused, stood back from the powder-strewn changing table, and let the girl take charge.

“Well, you know me, don’t you?” Dola asked, her tone softening as she laid the child down. With deft hands, she cleaned up the spilled powder, swabbed Asrai clean with a moist cloth from the bowl on the table’s edge, and dried her. She straightened out a fresh diaper, the loose edges smoothing into a snug fit around Asrai’s waist as if it had always been thus. “It’s easy to see you need me,” Dola said, picking Asrai up against her shoulder and regarding Holl fiercely over the infant’s head as she wrestled Asrai into a loose, lightweight smock of fading red-flowered cloth.

“We rely upon you absolutely,” Holl told her gravely, with a little bow. “I’ve promised to help Tiron and Enoch repair the big loom today, and there’s a handful of other things that need looking into. Maura has promised that if the weaving turns out well, she’ll make you a new winter coat with the first lengths on her sewing machine. Tiron and the Master agree you deserve it.”

Dola seemed placated by Holl’s adult regard of her. Her small chin relaxed, and she smiled up at him. “It’s no worry to me. I’ll take care of her as long as I’m needed. Only, Mama wanted me to help with the vegetables for dinner.”

“One of us will be back here long before that,” Holl promised. He checked his toolbox to be sure his good working tools were inside, and picked it up. “She’s just been fed, so she won’t need feeding for a while. You grant us a few hours of needed respite every day, and we’re not forgetting that. We’re grateful to you, Dola. If you get tired, find us in the house or the barn,” he said from the door. “There’s sweet cake in the cupboard.”

Acknowledging his last statement with a bare nod, Dola was already seated comfortably with the baby beside the unlit fireplace, making pictures in the light for Asrai’s amusement. Holl smiled at his daughter’s happy coo and glided away between the cornstalks.

It was not as satisfactory as it might have been to have such important employment, Dola found herself thinking as the baby dozed on her knee. It was a fine day, what she could see of it. The sun was warm and golden. Anyone could tell the corn crop was a fine, thick one. Her mother, who had a way with green and growing things, was well pleased. Dola herself was glad that their first real summer’s planting would feed them easily during the winter to come, but it did block out the scenery so completely. How hard it was to think of the winter, months and months away, new woven coat or no! It was boring to stare out at the crops, and she had not brought a book along. The only reading matter she could find in the cottage were on the bedside shelves, and those did not interest her. Holl favored technical manuals of Big Folk science, and Maura’s stack had novels, but in foreign languages. There was not even tidying up to be done to keep her mind occupied. A pity Asrai’s screaming made her unwelcome in the general household. She might have been kin, but their clan-leader Curran had a minimal tolerance for noise. It came of spending too many years in enforced silence.

“You’d think we were a lot of Trapped Monks! Well, he didn’t say we might not go elsewhere, did he?” she said out loud. “Just to be back before time to make supper.”

On a hook next to the baby’s cot was a sling woven like a fisherman’s net. Made for full grown Folk like Maura or Holl, it was too big for Dola when she first tried it on. She tied the top fold in a square knot. It stood upon her thin shoulder like a fist, but the carrier now lay correctly with its bulge upon her hip. Dola fitted the sleeping baby into the sling and arranged her so that her head was supported by the upward curve of cloth against Dola’s side. It felt sufficiently secure. Dola tucked her vision cloth into her tunic pocket, and they went outside into the sun.

The rhythmic disturbance of moving from one place to another woke the baby to dreaming wonder. Dola caught sight of her gentle blue-green eyes wandering from one bright spot to another in the gardens. For a moment, she was afraid the baby might start crying. Asrai started when a crow burst like black cannon-fire from between two stalks of corn, and Dola held her breath, but Asrai laughed out loud. Dola explained to her very carefully what it was she was seeing.

“Maybe you’ll remember some of this when you’re grown,” Dola said thoughtfully. “I wonder just how much it is babies can understand.”

Birds sang and swooped overhead in the bright sky. Dola followed their song out of the cornfield and into the meadow behind it. She hopped across the narrow cut of the stream, and followed the curve of the earth uphill. There was a good spot just over the crest of the gentle rise that was always sheltered from the wind, like the palm of a cupped hand. The two of them were completely alone here. The great farmhouse and barn were hidden away behind a stand of trees as the cottages were concealed among the corn. No habitation, for Big or Small Folk lay within sight. All around the edge of the meadow was a curtain of trees. Most of it belonged to the Forest Preserve, owned by the state, so Keith Doyle explained to them. It meant that never would a house be built there. The Folks’ privacy would remain absolute as long as they lived in this place. That knowledge gave her a feeling of hitherto unimaginable freedom. It was glorious.

She sank into the tall, cool grass and spread out a soft blanket for Asrai to lie upon, face up. The infant, her face protected from the sun by an overhanging dock leaf, inspected the nearby weeds and pulled a handful of plant stems toward her toothless mouth. Dola glanced at them to make certain none of them were harmful or poisonous, then let her taste them. She looked around at the splendor of the day.

Only a few feathered clouds streaked the sky, far above her. It would be bitterly cold when night fell. Aylmer, who read the weather better than anyone else, said rain wouldn’t fall for several days. Dola was glad. She’d give all she had for more golden days like this. The privilege of sitting out in the sun seemed an unimaginable gift. She shut her eyes and breathed in the heady scent of growing corn, grass, flowers, trees, and listened to the quiet whisper of the stream.

How life had changed. Before last year, she had never seen an open field. Now she and her people owned this fine stretch of land—owned it safe and secure, thanks to Keith Doyle. Dola sighed. If only he were not quite so Big, nor so old. She was his favorite among her people, she knew, but if they were more on a level, he would act less like a kindly uncle toward her and more like a—what? A boyfriend? Dola felt her cheeks burn. Such things were beginning to intrude themselves on her consciousness as stealthily as the growing changes in her body. Her mother smiled indulgently at her when they had little, private discussions. Why were her own feelings always in such a turmoil these days?

She knew the time had come to turn her back on childhood, but it was such a long, long path to becoming a woman. One day, she’d have a babe of her own. For the meanwhile, it was good practice for her to care for one like Asrai, who was so good.

The baby, fistful of hay stuffed into her mouth, was watching her.

“Well, what are you staring at, then?” she asked, her voice caressing and indulgent. For a moment, Dola heard the echo of her own mother asking the same thing. Perhaps she was further along the path than she thought. Would it really be so hard a journey? “Little one, look at this!”

Dola spread out the vision cloth between her two hands. The scrap of cotton was growing ragged after many years’ washing and folding. Now that the loom was assembled, she might have a new cloth woven to her taste. She wanted a piece of white percale, just like the soft, old sheets Keith Doyle had once given the Folk. Or perhaps she would have a brocade, with a white on white pattern and a looser weave to let the dreams through. In the end, it wouldn’t matter what it was, or how it was made, so long as the cloth fit between her two hands.

The scant, thread-bare weave disappeared in the heart of the vision she imagined. White was the sum of all colors, the Master had told her, so she was merely separating out each from the others when she made her illusions. It was a talent, he explained, like the ability to paint. Practice would give her more scope for her visions.

Asrai only seemed to see bright colors, so the image of flowers and horses Dola created was exaggeratedly brilliant. A hot, red blossom, then one of deep violet, and one each of sun-yellow and orange-yellow spun in the center of the cloth, surrounded by green leaves and small royal blue blooms. The baby’s eyes flitted from one image to another, her damp, rosebud mouth tilting up in the corners. Dola made a shocking pink horse dash from one edge of the cloth to the other, scattering the flowers, eliciting a shriek from her enchanted audience. The horse’s image grew in the center of the cloth until only its head was visible, its huge, long-lashed eyes blinking soulfully at Asrai.

“I saw that pony on the television when we lived beneath the library, before you were born,” Dola said, delighted. “Perhaps by the time you’re grown, we’ll have a horse like that here on the farm.”

The horse shrank and began to run across and back on the white field of cloth. Asrai’s wide eyes followed every passage. Orange and sea-blue horses followed the pink one onto the insubstantial track, legs floating in rhythmic sequence like the beating of a heart. When the baby kicked her small legs and gurgled happily, Dola brought all three horses back onto the cloth and made them race around in a circle. She gave them wings, and they began to glide. Asrai let out a happy shriek.

Movement among the trees at the edge of the Folks’ land distracted Dola. Concentration broken, she let the veil fall to her lap. Deprived of her entertainment, Asrai exclaimed a note of protest.

“Hush, little one!” Dola whispered suddenly, putting a gentle hand on the baby’s chest. She peered down the hill into the trees.

She couldn’t discern shapes through the thick stands of pines, but a metallic boom told her it couldn’t be animals crashing about back there. Big Folk did sometimes drive up and down in the roads of the Forest Preserve, but the predominant sounds were almost always engines running. This was different. The baby cooed again, demanding attention.

“Be silent, little one,” Dola begged Asrai, and gathered her into her lap.

A big brown truck with a cylindrical tank backed out of the forest and onto the land at the top of the meadow, just beyond the Hollow Tree property line, not far from the head of the marsh waters. Dola stared at it as a Big man climbed out of the passenger seat. He walked around to the back and opened a pipe that began to dribble dark liquid underneath the body of the truck. Dola sat frozen, clutching the baby in her arms. Suddenly, she realized she was visible to him. Her eyes and the eyes of the man met.


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