Christie Shary

Short Stories - The Promise

The Promise

I sit at the kitchen table, a cup of tea cradled in one hand, my father's obituary in the other. The black type is smudged with the fingerprints of a hundred such readings. This little paper, now frayed around the edges, is all I have left of him.

Tears soak my eyelashes. Turning, I gaze beyond the blue and white gingham curtains framing the window. The leafy green abundance of my vegetable garden lies in one corner of the yard. Three apricot trees stand like sentinels around it, their blossoms vivid, like my memory of that special spring.

I'll always remember the muddy spring of my eighth year. It seemed as if the popcorn-like apricot blossoms would never burst forth in our mountain valley. Even the crocuses were too timid to poke their delicate shoots up through the late snowfalls, blanketing the valley far into April.

"Daddy," I kept asking, "why haven't the apricot trees popped yet?"

"Be patient, Sarah," he told me. My father turned to once more gaze out the front window and across the valley at the small, white church. It was perched on a distant hilltop, set against the backdrop of the purple-blue heights of the Rocky Mountains.

"But, Daddy . . . " I went on, although I knew he wouldn't hear me. He was in that other place-the place of strawberries and laughter; the place of love, then tears.

A moment later, he looked back at me and blinked. "What honey?" He walked to where I sat on the braided rug before the river rock fireplace and tossed a log on the fire.

"I said, why haven't the apricot blossoms popped yet?"

"They will. You have to be patient."

I tugged at one of my long braids. "I can't be. I want it to be spring."

Daddy dropped into the rocking chair and stared into the flames. I scrambled to his side and he scooped me up, although his eyes still belonged to the fire. Together we watched its warm golden tendrils spread their glow throughout the room. They warmed the lingering winter wind that shot through the cracks in the floorboards. I leaned my head against Daddy's firm chest and inhaled the smell of his cherry-scented tobacco.

I loved the feel of his arms around me, the way he held me close. Now, years later when I think about it, I realize he didn't really hold me. He held the past.

"You just have to wait for some things, honey." He patted my head like he would a puppy. "God is working slowly this year." He stared into the fire and stuffed his pipe with more tobacco from the small, rough leather pouch he kept tucked inside his front pocket. "But spring will come-it's part of the promise."

I thought briefly of my mother, then snuggled closer to him. "Mommy always said the butterflies dance on the daffodils in the spring."

His face took on a faraway, lonely look. "They do . . . that's part of the promise, too."

I glanced out the window at the snowflakes sifting from the dull gray sky and sighed. Turning back, I stared deep into my father's green eyes. He looked down at me and forced a smile. It held the warmth of a distant summer sun.

"I want to plow the orchard and the garden!" I told him, an event I heartily anticipated throughout the long, frozen winters when I'd tired of seed catalogs and Montgomery Ward's new spring merchandise. "I want to see the butterflies and the blossoms on the apricot trees."

"You will soon." Daddy reached to stoke the fire. "I'll happen all at once."

And Daddy was right. One morning when I awoke and crept from beneath the calico quilt on my bed and looked out the window, someone had turned spring on! All of a sudden, the swollen branches on our apricot trees were covered with white fluffy flowers. Snow from the previous day had melted away as if someone had shoveled it off the edge of the earth. In its place was the sweet lime-green spring grass that Jessie, our cow, loved so much.

"It's spring!" I called out, dancing through the fields and orchards. I felt light as a cloud in the pink pinafore Aunt Tilly had made me for Easter, graceful like the butterflies whirling in the air. I watched them land on the fragrant purple lilac blossoms on the bushes beside the front porch, then skirt across the reds and yellows of tulips and daffodils bordering the dirt road. "It's really spring!"

Determined to make sure it was true-not some dream buried in the midst of my winter mind-I stretched on tiptoes and plucked a bouquet of apricot blossoms.

Suddenly, the memory of walking hand in hand with my mother through the orchard, inhaling the sweet perfume the previous spring still lingered. Somehow I knew it always would. But I forced the thought from my mind and hurried toward the house, clutching the flower-covered tendrils spilling from my small arms.

Daddy stood at the door of the old wooden farmhouse, his profile back-lighted by the morning sun that poured through the kitchen window. Faded white paint peeled in little rivulets down the exterior walls and down the eaves. He gazed at the distant hills, then across the Smith Fork River toward the church. Hearing me, he looked up and waved.

I dashed into his arms and drenched him with blossoms. Some clung to the branches, but most landed on his arms then fluttered toward the ground like twirling angels.

"It's time to plow the orchard!" I sang out, at the same time skipping around him.

He grabbed my hand, then bent down and kissed my cheek. A warm feeling tingled through me. I felt a flush creep across my face. Daddy smiled, yet I saw moisture collecting in the corners of his eyes like it did so often when he looked into my blue eyes-those of my mother.

"It's time to plant the seeds," I added. I touched his rough hand and squeezed it hard.

Wiggling from his arms a few moments later, I ran to find the flat, black seed my mother had tucked into the ginger jar on the cupboard the previous fall.

"Didn't I tell you spring would come, Sarah?" Daddy said, as he watched me.

I smiled at Daddy, and he smiled back, but only half-heartedly. I wanted him to be as happy about spring as I was. I wished that he would snatch me up and twirl me round and round like the carousel at the state fair. Instead, he patted my head in the usual way.

"Get your overalls on." Daddy motioned toward the door, then headed out back beyond the two Box Elder trees toward the old shed, which was covered with the scars of too many winters. "It's time to plow," he yelled back, opening the squeaky door.

I ran into the house, took off my pinafore, and tossed it on the bed. Then I dashed toward my mother's cedar chest and rummaged for my overalls. The old chest smelled of cinnamon, lavender, and dried rose petals. Faded photographs seeped from its top, mixed with valentines and stacks of letters tied with velvet ribbons.

Finally a found what I was looking for. Beneath the green and yellow star-patterned cross-stitched quilt at the bottom of the chest, I found my overalls. They were smashed and creased, but I pulled them out and gawked at them.

What if they don't fit me anymore? I can't plow in my new pinafore.

Grimacing, I started to close the lid, but then I noticed a portrait in the far corner of the chest. Picking it up, I stared at my parents' wedding portrait. Mommy smiled up at me, and for a moment I wanted to cry.

I remembered the songs she sang when she tucked me into bed. Her soft, echoing voice. I began to tremble and felt my eyes fill with tears. Then I heard Daddy's footsteps approaching, and made myself stop. I can't disappoint Daddy. I can't cry.

He plodded into the house just as I dropped the lid of the cedar chest and it shut with a loud plunk. I looked up at my father.

He stooped and picked up my overalls from the floor and held them up in front of me. I scowled when I realized that they reached far above my ankles, but just the same, I took them from him, slid them over my feet and inched them up.

"Don't worry, these old things are made to grow with you," Daddy said, as he lengthened the worn denim straps over my chest.

"Then I'll wear them forever!" I pranced from the house like a newborn cold, almost tripping on the rickety porch steps.

"Careful," Daddy called out, hurrying after me. "Spring will wait."

"I want to make sure!" I ran toward the shed. Out little red tractor stood out front puffing like a dragon. I scrambled onto the pile of compost Daddy had loaded in the small trailer attached to its rear. It was full of carrot tops, leftover bits of wood and other tidbits which we saved throughout the winter, to fill our garden with nourishing strength when spring finally arrived.

"Hold on tight," Daddy told me, leveling a spot on top of the pile where I'd be secure. "You can throw the compost in the furrows as we go along the rows.

The sour smell crept into my nostrils and I grabbed my nose with one hand. Daddy laughed at me, then looked at the church again before easing the tractor into gear. It soon puffed along the dirt path to our garden spot, over in the south field next to the orchard. Chickens raced from our path and Jessie looked up from her perpetual munching, pieces of fresh, green grass spilling from the corners of her mouth.

"It's spring!" I yelled out to her over the tractor's roar. "It's finally spring!" But Jessie ignored me and went on chewing, as if nothing in the world mattered but her mouthful of grass.

Arriving at the garden plot, Daddy guided the tractor up and down the furrows, balanced on his knees at the back edge of the trailer. The rich, spongy earth turned under the tractor's blades and soaked up the last bit of the prolonged winter.

Perched on top of the large, dark pile, I threw handfuls of the compost into the furrows as Daddy plowed. He whistled a sad Irish folksong. I wanted to sing along with him, but I wanted to sing a happy song-a song as beautiful as the day.

Just before the sun dipped into dusk's pocket, we started to plow the last furrow. I leaned from the tractor, hoping that a passing butterfly would land on my finger. Suddenly, I felt myself become top heavy. I grasped for the sides of the trailer, but could not catch myself. I tumbled headfirst and plunged into the soggy dirt just in front of the tractor's tire.

Daddy didn't see me fall. His mind was in that 'other' place.

The last thing I remember was staring into a huge, dark piece of rubber. It clouded out the pastel sky. Spring left as suddenly as it arrived as my arm slipped between the tire and the soft soil and sunk into its sogginess as the tire rolled over my arm.

My mind spun. I saw a vision before me. It was my mother's coffin. It sat by the altar at the small village church across the valley. A wreath of wild columbine stood next to it. A small girl, ringlets tumbling down her back, wept by its side. A tall, dark-haired man clutched her hand.

"Sarah! Sarah! Oh, my Lord, no!" I heard Daddy yell. My eyes popped open and I saw him scramble from the trailer. He struggled to lift the tire from my arm. He shook his head and his dark brown hair fell across his forehead. "Sarah, Sarah!"

Finally, he was able to raise the tire and ease my arm from beneath it. He picked me up and held me in his strong arm. I felt the warmth of his flannel shirt against my cheek, smelled the sweat from his body. But then a sharp pain shot through my arm and I wanted to cry, but I couldn't. I can't cry in front of him. It would break his heart.

"You okay?" Daddy's soft words eased my pain as he held me with the same gentleness as he did the yellow baby chicks just hatched. He searched my muddy body for injuries, then bowed his head. "Look what I've done to you. I'm so sorry, my Dear Sarah."

"It was an accident, Daddy," I told him, still trying not to cry. "I'm fine. I was just too excited about spring." At the same time, I felt the tears begin to dribble down my face.

By this time, Daddy's eyes were also filled with tears. "No excuse, it was so careless of me. I wasn't paying attention." He pulled me closer and I hugged him as hard as I could and began to sob.

"I love you, Daddy. I love you so much."

"And I love you, Sarah. More than I can ever say."

"I know you do. I think it's part of the promise."

I peeked up at him. His eyes were still tear-filled as he ran his fingers slowly through my hair. His other arm tightened around me and he looked down, and wiped the tears from off my cheek with his hand.

"Yes, I think it's part of the promise, too."