Irritating as a Grain of Sand
My brother Wilbert tells me that I’m like the grain of sand in an oyster. Someday I will be a Pearl, but I will nag and irritate the poor oyster and everyone else up until then.
Wilbert has found me here on the Baby Island where I have to come to hide from Pappa who is Spitting Mad at me. I washed out the jar of yeast starter and we won’t have bread for a week. Pappa says I’m Just Plain Stupid because I Never Pay Attention and that he would rather have one boy than a dozen May Amelias because Girls Are Useless. I don’t know why he would want any more boys seeing as he already has seven.
These are my brothers:
Matti is nineteen and he ran away not that I blame him.
Kaarlo is eighteen and our cousin, although we think of him as a brother. We also think of him as cranky.
Isaiah is seventeen.
Wendell is sixteen.
Alvin and Ivan are twins and fifteen.
Wilbert is fourteen, and my Best Brother.
May Amelia Jackson is twelve. That is Me.
We live on the Nasel River in the state of Washington. It is 1900 and I Am in Trouble Again.
Wilbert is always telling me that I need to find my sisu or I will never make Pappa proud of me. Sisu is a Finn word that means to have guts and courage. I want to say that it is very hard indeed to have sisu when you’re the only girl on the Nasel.
Come on out of there, May, Wilbert says. You got to stop running away.
But I am content where I am in the old sorcerer tree. It is a hollowed-out tree that fits a child like me just fine and is my secret spot. Not a soul knows about it except Wilbert and he is my Best Brother and would never tell anyone, not even the nosy wind.
You can’t stay in there forever, Wilbert says.
I can so, I say.
May, he says.
I ain’t budging.
It’s suppertime, he says.
Fine, I say and crawl out of the tree.
Out here in Washington there are no roads but we have the Nasel so we take rowboats everywhere. I learned to navigate when I was only five, although none of the boys let me steer except Wilbert.
The Nasel stretches out before us like a winding snake. On either side, the mountains rise green and thick. It’s spring, and the sky is gray as the slates we use at school. It’s only ever sunny in my dreams.
Uncle Aarno is sailing down the river in his mail boat, the General Custer. Uncle Aarno is a gillnetter and he is Pappa’s brother. He looks just like Pappa, except that he smiles and has laughing eyes and a kind way about him.
Give that to your mother, he says, passing me a letter. Don’t let your father see it.
I take the letter from him and ask, Thought up any new ways to die lately?
Uncle Aarno is always talking about How He’s Going To Meet His Maker. He keeps a list of ways he might die:
Drowned in the Nasel.
Swept out to sea in a storm.
Poisoned by a bad oyster.
Shanghaied to the Orient.
Bludgeoned in a back alley in Astoria.
Bored to death by the preacher in church.
Uncle Aarno nods and says, Eaten By A Cougar.
That’s a good one, I say. Some mean cougar has been picking off our sheeps and if he keeps it up, we ain’t gonna have any wool socks this winter.
Sounds like a job for Wild Cat Clark, Uncle Aarno says.
We best be going, Uncle Aarno, Wilbert says. We got to milk the cows and May Amelia can’t get into any more trouble with Pappa or he’ll disown her.
What did you do this time? my uncle asks me.
I was washing dishes and I washed out the yeast starter.
My brother does like his bread, Uncle Aarno says sympathetically.
It was An Accident! I say and Wilbert says, Poor May is the only person who can make An Accident out of washing the dishes.
Uncle Aarno chuckles and says, You better get going then.
Our farm is in the middle of nowhere and there is nothing but land and trees and cows and sheeps and bears and brothers. There are no other girls here to play with me. My baby sister Amy died over the winter and she is buried on the Smith Island along with a piece of my heart. Just thinking about her makes me sad, and then it starts to rain, misty-fuzzy rain that sticks in your hair and makes you feel clammy. It rains so much here that our poor horses have rain rot on their hides.
May Amelia! a voice cries.
It’s Berle Holumbo coming down the Nasel after us in his boat. Berle’s my age and has got a droopy eye, and is missing one of his front teeth from where he fell out of the hayloft. He sure ain’t much to look at. He pulls his rowboat alongside ours.
Hi Berle, Wilbert says.
Hi Wilbert, Berle says and turns to me and smirks, Hiya May Amelia.
What do you want, Berle? I ask.
Eating a lot of bread lately? he asks with a smirk.
How’d you hear about it? I demand.
Isaiah told my ma what happened and she sent me along to give this to you, Berle says, holding out a jar of yeast starter.
I take it from him.
Ain’t you gonna say thanks? Berle asks, scratching his neck.
Ei, I say, which means No in Finn.
As we row away, Berle hollers, Your sister ain’t got no manners, Wilbert!
Least I ain’t got lice! I shout back.
Our neighbor’s boy, Lonny, is at the farm when we get home. He is wandering the yard looking nervous.
Hiya, May Amelia, Lonny says.
The front of his shirt is wriggling around. Bosie, our scruffy dog, is standing at Lonny’s feet, barking at him.
What you got in your shirt, Lonny? I ask.
Shhh, he says. Then he reaches inside and pulls out a tiny mewling kitten. It’s from our cat Buttons’s new litter.
Isaiah said I could have him, he says. But don’t tell no one.
Why you keeping him in your shirt? I ask.
To hide him from Daddy, of course.
Lonny’s a bit soft in the head on account of an accident he had when he was little, but his thinking is straight on this. Mr. Petersen doesn’t like cats one bit. I once saw him drown a whole sack of them in the Nasel.
What’re you gonna do with him when you take him home? I say.
Keep him in the shed, Lonny says with a lopsided grin.
I sure hope Mr. Petersen doesn’t plan on going into the shed, Wilbert says under his breath.
May Amelia Jackson! a voice growls, and I whirl around. Pappa is standing there looking cranky as an old bear wearing a scraggly tangle of a beard.
Where Have You Children Been? Have you been Getting Into Trouble Again, May Amelia?
May got a new yeast starter, Pappa! Wilbert says quickly.
Humph, Pappa says, his two brows frowning like angry caterpillars.
Lonny pipes up, I been here the whole time, Mr. Jackson!
I know you have, Lonny, Pappa says and then narrows his eyes. What’s that in your shirt, boy?
Ain’t nothing in here, Mr. Jackson, Lonny says, but then the button on Lonny’s shirt pops and the little kitten tumbles out and falls to the ground.
Ruuuf! Bosie yips at the kitten and the kitten turns tail and runs off and Lonny hollers, You Leave My Kitten Alone Bosie! and chases after them both.
Pappa sighs and barks at me, Go Help Your Mother, and then stomps away.
Mamma is peeling potatoes with a small paring knife. Her hands are fast; she is always in motion. I have never seen my sweet Mamma sitting still. I think she even works in her sleep.
There’s my best Helper, Mamma says. She does not abide Hinderers in her kitchen.
I saw Uncle Aarno, I say and pull out the stained letter from my pocket. He wanted me to give you this.
Her eyes widen when she sees the handwriting on the letter.
Matti! she gasps.
Everyone thought my handsome oldest brother, Matti, got shanghaied out to sea when it turned out he just ran off with a local girl which was a real disappointment to me. I think for sure being shanghaied would’ve been a lot more interesting than eloping.
Mamma stares at the letter.
Open it, Mamma, I say.
Her hand trembles. When she finishes reading, she smiles. Thank Heavens he’s fine! He and Mary are living in San Francisco and he’s got a job working on the docks.
Is he coming home?
Your Father, she says and she doesn’t have to say another word. Pappa would never understand Matti marrying an Irish girl. Pappa still thinks Matti’s off somewhere in the Orient.
Mamma takes the letter and sticks it on the back of the shelf in the cupboard, behind the blackberry jam that she keeps for special occasions. She’s got tears in her eyes when she turns around.
Are you all right Mamma?
I just worry about Matti. Your firstborn always has a special place in your heart.
I was your seventh-born. Do I have a special place in your heart? I ask.
Of course, May Amelia.
Am I special enough not to wash dishes after supper?
She laughs. Nobody’s that special, May Amelia.
I cup my hands and holler for my brothers. Wilbert-Wendell-Isaiah-Ivan-Alvin-Kaarlo suppertime!
Bosie’s the first one to come running. He’s a dumb dog but he’s smarter than all my brothers put together. Alvin and Ivan come ambling up a minute later. They are as alike as can be and they are both stinky.
Been mucking out the cow stalls? I ask.
Ivan wipes an elbow across his nose. Don’t worry, May Amelia, we saved some for you.
And then Alvin grabs me and rubs me up against his overalls and then passes me over to Ivan who smears some manure in my hair.
Isaiah comes walking up and says, What’re you doing to May Amelia, Ivan? Isaiah is my gentle brother and cannot bear any fussing or fighting. I don’t know how he survives in this family since that’s all the boys do.
Let me go! I yelp.
Wilbert walks over and says, Leave Her Be, Alvin.
Alvin lets me loose and I stagger back right into Wendell who pushes his glasses up and sniffs. You smell like a cow, May Amelia.
That’s just her natural perfume, Alvin cackles.
Ivan guffaws, Cow Perfume!
Wilbert can’t help himself and a small laugh escapes his throat and Wendell has himself a chuckle and soon they are all laughing at me, saying Cow Perfume! Cow Perfume!
I stomp off. I should just go and live with the cows. It would be easier than being with all these useless boys.
Supper is boiled potatoes, lutefisk, and Noise. When all the boys are in the house, they shout and wrestle and argue and there is hardly space for a body to think. Sometimes I would rather live in the barn just so it would be quieter.
Lonny and his father, Mr. Petersen, come for supper as they often do since Mrs. Petersen died. It’s the only way poor Lonny gets a decent meal. Mr. Petersen needs to find himself a wife but women are scarce here.
Since I am the girl, it is my job to help Mamma so I serve everyone. Not a single boy thanks me when I put the lutefisk on his plate and I know why. Lutefisk is fish preserved with lye, and a more terrible thing I have never tasted. It smells like a dead animal that’s been left in the sun to rot and then dipped in soap and looks even worse. None of us children can bear to eat it.
How much pasture you think I oughta set aside to make hay? Mr. Petersen asks my father.
Pappa considers this for a moment and then says, I’d do the whole north pasture. That should set you up fine.
All the other farmers are always asking Pappa for his opinion on things. They say my pappa has sisu because he scared a big bear out of a hollowed-out stump with just a look and lived in it when he first came to the valley. I’ve always felt sorrier for the bear. Pappa is pretty scary in the morning.
I slip a big chunk of my lutefisk on the floor under the table for Bosie.
Delicious supper, Alma, Mr. Petersen says with a burp.
Poor Mr. Petersen must be half-starved if he thinks lutefisk is delicious.
You’re too kind, Oren, Mamma says with a smile.
There’s riisipuuro for dessert! I tell Mr. Petersen. Riisipuro is Finn rice pudding.
Wendell holds up his empty plate. Can I have my dessert now? he shouts. Wendell’s ears went soft after an illness, and now he cannot hear unless he can see a person’s lips.
Yeah, Kaarlo says, frowning at the lutefisk. Can we have dessert first?
Your mother worked hard to make this so Eat, Pappa growls, and everyone falls silent.
A fella came to see me, Mr. Petersen says. He told me some folks are putting together money to build a town and that the train will come to it.
A train? Here in Nasel? Kaarlo asks in a shocked voice.
Mr. Petersen leans back. The man said we’ve got a good harbor. They’re looking for investors. They say we’re perfectly situated. They’ve even got a name for the town all picked out—Stanley. Has a nice ring to it!
Pappa grunts. Don’t have any money to invest. I just finished paying off the new barn.
You don’t need money when you got land, Mr. Petersen explains. Just mortgage it. The fella swears we’ll be rich.
Mamma puts her hand on Pappa’s. Can’t hurt to listen to what the man has to say, Jalmer.
I start to clear away the empty plates, and that’s when I see the little piles of lutefisk under the table by all the boys’ chairs. I guess Bosie’s not such a dumb dog after all.
The boys look around excitedly.
Pappa, if we get rich, can we get rid of May Amelia and get a new girl? Ivan asks. One who can cook good?
And mend clothes, Alvin says.
And clean, Ivan says.
And knit socks, Alvin adds.
But I do all those things already! I say.
If we get rich, we can get a new girl on one condition, Pappa declares.
What’s that, Pappa? Kaarlo asks.
He gives a slow smile and says, She’s gotta not stink like a cow.
The boys hoot with laughter and Kaarlo pounds on the table.
Isaiah turns to me and says, I think you smell real good, May Amelia. But then I sure do like cows.
© 2011 Jennifer L. Holm