Copyright ©2016 by Marge Rogers Barrett
QUEEN OF EVERYTHING
Whenever Monsignor Neudecker visited our classrooms at Holy Redeemer grade school for a talk about Jesus, he ended with a big smile: “All right, let’s see today, hands up, how many boys want to be a priest? How many girls want to be like Sister?”
I never raised my hand. In fact, I’m sure mine was the only sour face: wearing that heavy habit, going to church, praying, teaching kids? Not that! I liked that Monsignor at least mentioned the three different vocations open to women: religious, married, and single. I figured I’d either be single or married like my mom, but I didn’t worry or even think about it much. I had things to do.
That was in the 1950s, when my family lived on the edge of a small farming town in southwestern Minnesota, close to the Iowa and South Dakota borders, Little House on the Prairie land. My parents believed nothing would harm us and let us wander the neighborhood, and, as we grew older, roam all of Marshall. Raised with legroom and breathing space, we’d be off for hours discovering, marching to places that no longer exist.
We were in the mud on that first day of Easter vacation. My brothers, Jim and John; my sister Mary; and I had dug our boots in, sinking them with a squish squish. We smelled fresh dirt as we pulled one foot and then the other out of the sticky earth. I stomped water straight up. “Hey, you guys, Old Faithful.”
It had been winter a couple of weeks before. The wind had blown snow so high around our house we couldn’t see out the windows and had to tunnel out the back door, but on this day the phoebe called, “Come see, come see.” The sun in the green-blue sky shone so bright it hurt our eyes; it sparkled off the last melting snow. The backyard, crisscrossed with our tracks, looked like a relief map of holes and hills. We watched the holes fill up with water and splashed around some more; then we needed to go farther out.
John said he had something to show us, but it was really far away. Mary asked Mom if she’d pack us a picnic lunch with peanut-butter sandwiches and apples. We left on our journey, walking single file. Jim and John, their caps over their eyes, were old, ten and nine; Mary, carrying our lunch, was seven; and then me, the tail end, just five. The boys walked fast, and Mary skipped to keep up. She turned back and shouted, “Hurry up, Me-Too.” She called me that sometimes. My brothers’ friends called me Little Rogers. I shook my head, scowling; I wasn’t just a Rogers, not just a Too.
I followed the others down Minnesota Hill and across Highway 19. We walked on its shoulder out of town, past the auto repair shop, listening to the workmen shouting orders: “OK, Gus, go ahead, bring it in.” “Check the motor on this one.” “Whoa. Whoa. Back it up.”
We passed the flower nursery in its milky white bubble of a building. Steam poured out from two holes on its top—a giant ghost breathing. The ghost wore black patches covering holes made by hail and heavy snow.
We walked past the Van Maes farm. There was no sign of Mr. or Mrs. Van Maes. He wouldn’t let us sled down his hills in the winter, and she would say to me, “Are you another Rogers?” or “Is your mom wearing an eternity dress again?”
Their cows stared at us from behind the fence. “Hey, hey, dumb cows,” we shouted. They mooed and moved away. The sheep had already bunched together in the pasture. We walked on, kicking an old Campbell’s pork and beans can back and forth. The sun was warm. I looked right up at it and then remembered that my grandmother wouldn’t be happy with a new batch of freckles. “Clear fair skin, that’s beauty,” Muzzy always said.
Soon tall thistles scratched my face and big burrs caught on my pants and jacket. I lagged behind looking for a fallen branch, a walking stick, a cane like my daddy’s shillelagh. I found a perfect one and named it Howdy, my partner for the road, my friend. “I’m tired,” I told it, “let’s stop and rest.” I looked up at the floating clouds. “Look, Howdy,” I said, “whipped cream and marshmallows. Would you like some?” But Mary turned around, calling, “Come on, slowpoke.” “Come on, tag-a-long.” I caught up and didn’t complain because I wasn’t a baby.
After a long time, Jim shouted, “Over here.”
“Look! It’s a slough,” John yelled.
I peeked through high, skinny buffalo grass—carefully separating blades to look through because they could cut. What I saw was something strange in our dry, flat prairie land: open water. Brown and gold foxtails with their caterpillar buds, and black soggy logs, smelling fishy and moldy, surrounded the pond. Chunks of ice floated in its center.
On the bank, I stooped to pick some crazy grass, the reed kind I usually tore into pieces. One green-and-black striped piece would fit perfectly into the ragged edges of another—until I pulled it apart—then I couldn’t get it back together again. Like Humpty Dumpty. The boys could get these reeds to whistle, but I couldn’t.
The grass was tough to drag out because its roots were buried in magic ice, rubber ice that bends, bows, but hardly ever breaks. Under sheets of it, clear as glass, I saw sticks, leaves, and stones. In some places, it reflected trees back up to the sky. I noticed myself in the ice, a bundled-up figure: dark pants; red jacket with black buttons; black, furry hat tied over long black braids; big, heavy galoshes; and red, homemade mittens from Muzzy. A pale face with tons of freckles, blue eyes that watched me teeter-totter on the ice, dipping the wet ends, the bubbles gurgling underneath my feet. I swayed back and forth: a trickle, a trickle, then—crack—it did break. The hole swallowed my boot. I leaned to my left side, lifted my right leg with both hands, and yanked my boot out of the ice and mud.
On firmer ground, I clomped through dried-up milkweed pods. I tugged one out to play He loves me, he loves me not, picking seeds apart from the core, blowing and scattering them far, far away. A gentle breeze floated some back. Their soft puffy parts tickled my nose. I attacked big, brown cattails, squeezing the stuffing out of them, and snapped off some pussy-willow branches to build a huge bouquet. Hearing something in the mud, I knelt down to check for frogs, to see if they were still winter nesting, when the boys cried out.
I dropped everything and ran toward the water. It was something. A raft! A real one made out of old lumber pieces and huge nails. The boys leaped on it and with two giant sticks pushed out, leaving Mary and me behind. We watched them smoothly glide across the water. “Hey, we’re Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn,” they shouted.
Soon Mary begged, and then I did, too. “Come and get us. Let us go out, please. Let us try it, pleease, pleease.”
The boys poled back to shore, whispering to each other. They grabbed our hands, helping us on, then hopped off and shoved the raft out. Mary and I looked over the slough. I stood tall, the Queen of the Water. Queen of ponds, lakes, rivers, oceans, and seas. The Queen of the Swamp.
Kneeling down on the raft, peering into water world, I studied slippery, stinky slime. I saw the long stems of lily pads. Too early for the flowers—either yellow or white—the dark-green, almost black stems grew deep, deep down, so deep down they probably grew all the way to China. I reached to drag one out but stretched too far, and my jacket got wet. The icy water spread to my shirt, to my arm. My knees felt damp. I looked hard at the wood raft riding low in the water.
“Hey, Mary, we got to go in. I’m all wet,” I said.
Mary looked at me. “You are? Why?”
“It’s getting deeper. We got to go in.”
“OK, where are the sticks?”
We looked, and then I moaned, “Ohhh, nooo,” realizing Jim and John had jumped off with the paddles.
We screamed, “Jim! John!”
Stickless, brotherless, we shrieked, “Help! Save us! Help!”
Crows, sweeping over our heads, echoed our cries back, their calls resounding through the slough. Caw. Caw. Caw.
We looked up. Caw. Caw. Caw.
Around. Caw. Caw. Caw.
Then spun at each other.
“It’s your fault. Why didn’t you get the sticks?” Mary said.
“Why didn’t you?” I said.
There was nothing more to say.
The sun started to sink. The only sounds now were the swishing of the grasses and the water lapping, lapping, lapping over the sides of the raft. The sky turned gray, throwing scary shadows on and off the water. Clouds grew into ghostly sheets, swaying, haunting. Wolves spied from behind bushes. An octopus peered out of the deep, tendrils sucking, ready to spray us with black ink.
Shivery goose bumps popped up on my arms and legs. I started to cry, thinking we might drown before anybody knew we were missing, this cold, dirty water covering our boots . . . our knees . . . our shoulders . . . our heads. I hollered, “I want to go home. I want Mommy and Daddy.”
Then I spread my legs apart, right foot out front. I lunged. The front of the raft dipped under but moved. I did it again. The water splashed over us, and Mary cried, “Stop!” but I didn’t stop. Right foot—push. Right foot—push. Right foot—push. Mary, feeling us move, began to help. We nudged the raft, pushing it down, letting it come back up. We rocked and rocked, doing our strange foot dance, until finally the raft bumped into the mucky edge. As we jumped off and crawled up the hill, we heard giggled shouts, the boys calling.
“Pickle, you’re supposed to come home.”
“You’re late for supper, Fats.”
We started marching toward home. When we met up with the boys, hiding along the path, we said nothing. We had won. Proud of ourselves, Mary turned up her nose, and I did the same. We could tell on Jim and John later. It was something to hold over their heads, aces up our sleeves. Besides, no one likes a tattletale.