By Patty Wilber
CHAPTER FIVE. THE ACCIDENT
“Well,” said Uncle Bob, as he washed the last dish and set it in the drainer. “How’d Callie do today?”
“Pretty well, I think,” replied Aunt Martha. “She rode most of the morning with Jeff and spent the afternoon unpacking and reading.” Martha gave the table one last wipe, and straightened up. “She fell asleep about four-thirty, and I just let her sleep. She’s probably exhausted.”
Uncle Bob paused and wiped a hand across his eyes. “You know how her mother disliked everything associated with this ranch. Did she pass that on to Callie?”
Aunt Martha put her hands on Uncle Bob’s shoulders. “Bob,” She said. “Don’t be too hard on Ellen. The accident changed her. It could have changed any one.”
“You’re right,” Uncle Bob sighed. “She always was the quiet one, even before that. Dad used to say she took after Mom, until that day.” His work roughened hands reached up and covered hers. “Is Callie like that? Can she be happy here?”
“She was raised in Chicago, but you heard her yesterday, when she saw those wild horses. And Jeff told me today that she couldn’t saddle ‘worth a bean’, but could ‘sorta’ ride.” Aunt Martha gave Uncle Bob’s hands a squeeze and they walked into the living room. Uncle Bob looked at the ranch paperwork on his desk for a moment, but sat instead on the couch with Aunt Martha.
“This whole thing is going to be a big change for Jeff, too,” Uncle Bob said.
“I know,” Aunt Martha agreed. “But I think it’ll all work out. All Callie could talk about this afternoon was the Outlaw and his band of mares, and you know how Jeff loves the horses. They’ll have that in common at least.”
Uncle Bob rubbed his chin, thinking, and nodded. “I don’t think she was ever told about the accident.” Martha leaned forward, reaching for the newspaper on the coffee table.
“What accident?” asked Callie. Her voice was scratchy with sleep and her face was lined with pillow case wrinkles.
Aunt Martha sat back, newspaper left on the table, and looked at Uncle Bob.
“C’mon in and sit down.” His voice, low and quiet, sent a shiver down Callie’s spine.
“What accident?” she repeated.
“It was a long time ago when your mother was young, Callie,” Uncle Bob said.
Callie let a breath of pent-in air rush out. Her eyebrows quirked upwards in question marks and then drooped down. “Mom,” she said. Her voice caught. She picked up a blue pillow off the seat of a big soft arm chair and sank in. She hugged the pillow tightly and rested her chin on it.
Uncle Bob took a deep breath, and Aunt Martha put her hand on his. He began.
“When Ellen was about sixteen, Callie, she was in a very bad wreck. She and our sister Sally got caught in a herd of spooked cattle. Your mother was thrown from her horse and was knocked unconscious. The doctors said she was unlikely to wake up, but if she did, she would have serious brain damage.”
Uncle Bob ran his fingers through his hair. “Mom or Dad stayed with her around the clock. For a week there was no change.” Uncle Bob’s voice was so low that Callie had to strain to hear his words. She barely nodded.
He sat motionless, wrapped in a shroud of memories, for a long moment. He shook his head to clear it, and continued. “When Ellen finally did wake up, at first she was like a person that still half dreaming, but she could speak. She wanted to see Sally.”
Bob gripped Martha’s hand. “When your grandmother had to tell her that Sally was dead, Ellen became inconsolable.” Martha squeezed back.
“Ellen surprised the doctors and she did recover. Her body got better, but she just seemed to quit on everything related to the ranch.”
Bob put his head in his hands. “I was in college. I still wonder if I should have quit and come home.” He stopped again.
Callie shifted in her chair. “That is why we lived in Chicago?” she asked softy?
Uncle Bob nodded. “As soon as she was eighteen, she took a stack of index cards. She wrote the names of fifteen cities on them in big red letters. She shuffled the cards, laid them out and picked one. It said ‘Chicago’, so that’s where she went. She said she’d never be back. She married soon after, and then you were born. We never met Eli, but when he left Ellen, you were barely six months old.”
Callie nodded. That much she knew.
“Your mom did not ask for anything, but your grandpa offered to bring you both home. Your mother was pretty hardheaded, Callie. She said, ‘No’.
They sat as the evening darkness deepened until Callie’s hoarse voice, muffled by the pillow, poked the silence.
“She never told me,” Callie said, “And now she’s dead.” Her voice cracked at the last word, and tears streamed down her face. Aunt Martha came over and squeezed her shoulders.
“She just didn’t want to burden you.” Martha hugged her tighter, and Callie laid her head against Martha, letting her aunt’s warmth try to heat the cold spot deep inside her.
Finally, Callie stood, and said in a quavering voice, “I’m going back to bed.”
“O.K.,” said Aunt Martha softly. “We are glad you are here.”
CHAPTER 6. THE DREAM
Callie pulled the covers close around her and a bottomless sorrow engulfed her. When she finally fell asleep, she dreamed she saw her mother’s laughing face, framed by the green irrigated pasture and the rocky juniper studded hill beyond slowly fade away, leaving only a shriveled husk against the stark white of the hospital sheets.
Then she was riding bike slowly home after hospital visiting hours through the gray streets of Chicago. As she rode, the buildings grew rounded and took on a yellowish hue. The street became rough and her bicycle changed first into a merry-go-round horse hurrying in circles, and then into Cloud, trotting his determined trot, toward home. The wind whispered in her ears, softly at first, then louder and louder. “Be careful. Be careful. Be careful.”
It began to whip into a gale, screaming at her and trying to pull her from the horse. She twined her hands into Cloud’s mane and it twined them, securing her to his back.
“Let me be!” she tried to shout, but her hair blew into her mouth, muffling her voice. She tried to spit it out, but it wouldn’t go. She was crying in frustration and fear. Her tears dripped to the ground, forming tiny men that got taller. Their hands stretched toward her and they grew larger as they got closer, closing the gap between them.
“We are Eli,” they said. “Come with us.”
She was tied to Cloud, and her legs urged him forward. He flowed into a lope and her hair blew back, away from her mouth.
“NO!” she screamed, at the grasping hands. The howling wind seemed to gather her words and fling them at the men, knocking them to the ground where they faded into the tan of the soil and became damp hoof prints.
“Let me be!” she yelled. The wind suddenly stopped swirling around her and became a quiet breeze.
Callie awoke with a jerk and lay frozen in the bed, afraid to move, lest the wind begin to howl about her again. Her cheeks were damp, and one hand was entangled in the sheets. As she pushed the image of the grasping Elis from her mind, her body began to thaw from its icicle of fear. But she could still hear “Be careful. Be careful. Be careful.”
She untangled her hand from the sheet and rubbed at the grits of sleep in the corners of her eyes. “I try,” she said. She could imagine the heavy thud of hooves around her that her mother must have known, and she shivered. But then she remembered Cloud’s nose on her arm and his soft brown eyes.
She rolled onto her stomach and buried her head in her pillow. Finally, she grew tired and wandered back into sleep.