When they found the land, it seemed the perfect compromise. Benny longed for the country life of her childhood on a small West Virginia farm. Mike wanted a place closer to his job in Bethesda. On the Maryland land she could make the farm she’d always wanted and he would be able to get home by at least half past six.
Once it was decided, they packed the kids in the station wagon and took them to see the land. A spring rain stopped just before they arrived, but the trees were good and soaked, their lines charcoal dark against tender green undergrowth. Mike jumped out and untied the rusting metal gate, lifting it out of the grass and walking it open. He was a squarish man in his late thirties who’d been growing thicker by the year, but in that moment he was almost dashing. He got back in and drove them up to the crest of a hill.
The kids were wide-eyed and a little unsure of the plan. In the way that a child will connect only some of the dots, the boy thought this meant leaving their toys at the current house. He had a brief picture of how his mound of stuffed animals had looked just before he left his bedroom that morning. He was pretty sure the fluffy green dragon he called Baby Jesus had been wearing a worried expression. Pressing his lips together, he said nothing for a while.
Benny spread out a big piece of paper on the hood of the car to show the kids their scheme. On it she and Mike had painstakingly drawn the footprint of the land and then they had drawn in the house they wanted to build, some outbuildings and garden paths. The paper was fuzzy in spots from erasing thoughts, but they were so sure of the final outcome, Benny had started to color things in with marker. With excitement she pointed first to the vegetable garden plot and then to the bridge they’d build for crossing the creek. The garden was rows of cloudy little tufts, some colored orange, some green, others yellows. The bridge was a brown rectangle spanning a wavy band of blue.
The littlest girl noticed that they’d drawn a cat and two dogs standing in the front yard. She smiled shyly, “It’s Sandy and Buster.”
“That’s right, Burpy,” Benny said, mussing her daughter’s fine blond hair.
“And Marmalade,” the boy said, fiercely defending the cat only he liked. “We’re not leaving her!” He turned away and scowled into the distance.
Benny and Mike gave each other a secretive smile. They thought their boy was a bit peculiar. At six he was something of the grumpy old man of the house, though at times he was as light and sweet as any child. Mike picked him up and gave him some tickles along the ribs and soon he was giggling despite himself.
They turned back to the drawing on the car hood. Chewing on a strand of her hair, their oldest leaned in closer. “What’s the inside of the house look like?” she asked.
Benny took a rolled up magazine out of her big purse and opened it to a dog-eared page. In vivid water color tones, there was a drawing of a farm house with a fancy glass door and a deep porch. Just below it was an overhead view of the layout inside the house.
“We’re going to change the porch,” Benny said. “And make it a wrap around.”
The kids gathered closer. She pointed out the big bonus room over the garage. “I thought this would be a fun place to set up sleeping quarters if we wanted to have the aunts and uncles and cousins over for the holidays. Wouldn’t it be fun if everyone could cozy in for Thanksgiving and no one had to drive home?”
Thinking of the book she was reading him at night, The Little House in the Big Woods, the little boy pictured snow on the ground and a Christmas tree strung with cranberries. He forgot to worry about his stuffed animals. The little smile that tucked into his face made Benny’s heart skip. Little Crosspatch was on board. With surprisingly little fuss, they assigned the bedrooms and talked a little bit about what color they might paint the walls.
It was a perfect and beautiful day for the family; the magic of the dream pulled the children in as the last clouds rolled off. Mike opened the back of the station wagon and took out a picnic basket they’d hidden under the car blanket. Inside were sandwiches, bags of chips and bottles of juice. The oldest pulled the crust off her bread and ate the rest slowly, laying on her back and staring dreamily out over the rolling hills. Little Burpy took everything off her sandwich, closed it again, and ate just the mayonnaise and bread. The boy eyed the abandoned ham and cheese jealously and was about to reach out and purloin it, when his father’s blunt-tipped fingers dropped from above, plucking up the discards. He watched the food disappear into Mike’s mouth, the whole of it in one bite, like a snake on the National Geographic show eating a mouse. The thought made him momentarily lose his appetite, but soon enough the salty chips lured him back.
Benny watched her brood closely, happy they were behind she and Mike on the plan. It was important that they all believe in this together. This was the first thing she and Mike had cared as much about in a long time. She’d forgotten the feel of being close. The farm dream was going to save them.
It was hard to be in a marriage that was slipping loose from its tethers, harder still in a house with children. There were nights when they cursed at one another in the kitchen, muzzling their rage into sharp whispers as not to wake the kids. Falling asleep exhausted, holding each other, she’d woken with more headaches than she could count. Yet the children still needed to be fought out of bed, coerced into their clothes, watched from the window until they disappeared into the black mouth of the school bus. Then and only then could she settle enough to explore her feelings. Usually by then she just wanted to be with Mike, to feel out where they stood, to see if he really had forgiven her the things she said in anger. He was a good guy, a steady father. She often felt like he deserved better than her, except when they were fighting – then he needed to be reminded of just how lucky he was to have her.
They had been working on it more this year, trying to make it better, since they found the oldest standing in the kitchen doorway late one night, her eyes saucer wide, spilling tears at the things she’d heard them say. Some instinct in motherhood was much stronger than whatever vanity had spurred their argument. In an instant, her anger at Mike had vanished and her only thought was to remove the white mask of horror from the girl’s face.
Benny stole a glance at her now. A freckled strawberry girl about to become a woman, her Julie was by nature quiet and pale. She fought herself not to project judgment in the girl’s silence. Even before she had discovered the ugly underside of their marriage, Julie had been this internal. She was at times ethereal. Benny reached a hand out over the gingham blanket and smoothed the girl’s long auburn hair. A pair of soft grey eyes looked up into hers, sparkling in the sunlight.
Gently, Benny admonished her, “Stop chewing your hair. It’s filled with germs.”
The girl shrugged and looked away. Shortly after, they started to gather up the wrappers and bottles. Mike suggested they walk the property line together, but Julie said she had a headache and wanted to stay in the car and read. Clamping her mouth closed, Benny turned away, folding up the blanket. Mike gave her arm a squeeze.
The little ones were quick as lightning along the hills and through the forest of the property. Benny and Mike had trouble keeping up with them. They came to the creek and he helped each of them over before crossing himself, careful on the stones, arms out to keep his balance.
When they got back to the car, Julie was sitting on the hood, Indian style, chewing a strand of hair and reading a romance novel. Mike was laughing as they approached, as Benny tried to answer the little boy’s string of questions.
“Of course Marmalade won’t drown in the brook.”
“The brook is another word for creek.”
“Why’d you call it that?”
Mike said, “Someone will gets tickles if he doesn’t button up.”
They climbed in the station wagon and Mike turned it around slowly, heedful of getting the tires mired in the soft Spring earth. On the county road, they came to a bend from which he and Benny had long ago noticed one could see the land. He stopped the car and pointed out the view to the kids.
“The house will be at the top of that hill.”
Benny felt her breath catch. Every wish to make things work out, to erase the sour moments of the past – it was all possible on this farm. The kids peered out the dusty side windows with their lips a little parted, eyes wide and bright. It seemed they caught the dream, too. She folded her hands in her lap and there they stayed all the way home, shaped in a silent prayer.