Uncle T shows up in the dirt yard with his battered leather bags. The girls are drying plates, stacking them on the shelf above the woodstove, and they see him out the smudgy kitchen window. Sister Estrogen is in the pantry, wiping jars of peaches. Sister Estrogen! Say the girls. There’s a strange man in the yard. He’s covered all over in dust and he doesn’t have a hat.
Uncle T takes the bedroom at the top of the stairs. There’s always been a bedroom at the top of the stairs. The girls share the room at the end of the hall, the one that faces the orchard. Sister Estrogen said the empty room was for company, but they never had any.
Uncle T puts his battered leather bags in the empty room at the top of the stairs and he doesn’t say anything. Sister Estrogen tells the girls to kill miss maddy, their oldest chicken, and they make chicken stew and biscuits, and slice cucumbers form the garden in a bowl with white vinegar and onions. They put the checkered picnic cloth on the formica table, and the cow salt and pepper shakers, and the wooden napkin holder with its bleached paper napkins.
Uncle T eats without saying anything. His face looks windburned or sunburned or both, and he gets chicken grease on his jaw. His hands are like steaks, the fingernails dull and grey, and they pinch threads of chicken from the chickenbones. Uncle T’s sleeves are rolled up, and his forearms are covered all over in coarse black hair. The girls eat a little of their stew, trying not to stare, and then they forget, and put down their spoons to watch.
Do you like the stew, says Sister Estrogen. Uncle T does not respond. Sister Estrogen looks down at the tablecloth, and then tears open a biscuit and covers it in butter. She eats every part of the biscuit, and then sighs. Do you like the stew, she says.
It’s fine, says Uncle T. Sister Estrogen gets up from the table and drops her bowl in the sink. She leaves the room, mounts the stairs, and the girls hear the door to her room close quietly. The girls are stunned. Uncle T continues to eat. Then he stops, and pushes his bowl toward them. Is there more stew, he says.
The girls cannot move. Uncle T’s voice is like a sea monster who has swallowed a lot of gravel. It is not like the dog’s voice, or the chickens or the pigs, or Sister Estrogen. It is like rocks grinding together, deep in the ground.
Is there more stew, Uncle T says again. The girls stand up, and fill his bowl from the pot on the stove.
In the morning, when the girls wake, there is cold breakfast in the kitchen. Sister Estrogen is in front of the house, working in the garden. Uncle T comes through the doorway and grabs a stack of stiff pancakes in his fist. In his other hand is a hammer. He stuffs the pancakes into a pocket of his overalls, opens the fridge, takes out the glass bowl of eggs, and cracks six raw eggs into his mouth. The kitchen door slams open as he leaves, bringing in a breath of air that smells of dry straw and clover. The girls stand on the stoop and watch as he leans an aluminum ladder against the old wooden barn, climbs up onto the roof, pulls nails from his pocket, and begins to hammer. His hammering echoes over the quiet fields like the lake cracking in the wintertime.
The girls can hear Sister Estrogen and Uncle T shouting in the kitchen. The girls have been kneeling in the dirt, playing with a black and white kitten, and now, as they listen, Sister Estrogen begins to cry. It’s hot mid-afternoon, and the heat wafts off the wooden boards of the house. Uncle T stops shouting for a moment and Sister Estrogen’s cries grow into wails, and the wails unfurl into the empty space around the house, settling down upon the girls like snow. Then the door skrees open and Uncle T steps out into the yard, looking over the girls, at the fields and the line of poplar trees and the dull blue sky.
How long have these fields been fallow? Says Uncle T.
What? Say the girls. They cannot remember a time when there has been anything but wild asparagus and clover in the fields beyond the house.
We ought to grow alfalfa in these fields, says Uncle T. A waste of good land.
The girls are hungry, but Sister Estrogen will not cook. She is laid out on the sofa beneath the big picture window that faces the road, the brown and yellow crocheted afghan bunched up around her face. What can we eat? Ask the girls. Make yourselves some toast, says Sister Estrogen. We’re out of bread, say the girls. Will you make us more bread?
I’m too tired to cook, says Sister Estrogen. She looks at them. Her eyes are like watery marbles and she smells bad, like rubber and yeast.
The girls find raw potatoes in the pantry and a box of saltines, and in the freezer is a tub of cream puffs. They eat the cream puffs until the feel sick, sitting at the formica table, rubbing their fingertips along its glassy surface. The rose-colored light outside the window dims to black, and then Sister Estrogen is standing in the doorway, the afghan wrapped around her like a coat. Her hair is bunched up at the back of her head, and she is barefoot.
“I’m going away for awhile,” says Sister Estrogen. The girls do not know what to say. Their fingers are sticky and their hearts are pounding with sugar. The bright overhead light of the kitchen glares off Sister Estrogen’s sallow skin.
Where will you sleep? say the girls, at last.
In thickets next to the lake, says Sister Estrogen. In poplar trees.
What will you eat?
Rabbits. Wild asparagus.
Sister Estrogen once taught the girls to catch crayfish in the ditches along the road by waggling their fingers in the water. She showed them how to make a fire in a pit of earth and roast the crayfish with the shoots of young cattails. Another time, when the girls had fallen from a tree and then hidden their injuries out of shame until the cuts had turned to festering, poisonous wounds, Sister Estrogen had drawn out the poison with a poultice of chewed-up plantain leaves.
The stairs creak as Uncle T lumbers towards the kitchen. The door shuts quietly, and Sister Estrogen is gone.
It’s hot, and the girls want to swim, but the pool is all covered in leaves. They pull aside some of the leaves, and find that the water beneath them is murky and brown. The girls look closer, lying flat on their stomachs, leaning their bodies over the edge of the pool. Beneath the surface they can see tiny, clear worms, writhing through the water as though it were gelatin. The water smells stagnant and sour.
Uncle T is in the clover, flinging up shovelfuls of earth. Every now and then he hefts a stone from the ground, and adds it to the wall that has begun to meander along the edge of the field. The girls stand next to him, watching.
What happened to the pool, they say.
What? Says Uncle T.
We wanted to swim in the pool, say the girls. Uncle T leans on his shovel and squints at them, as though he is trying to decipher what they are saying. There was a little man who came once a week, and fished the leaves from the pool with a long-handled net. Sister Estrogen paid him with coins knotted up in the fold of her apron. The money she made selling eggs at the market.
We don’t need a pool, says Uncle T.
We LIKED that pool, say the girls. We liked to SWIM in it. Uncle T grunts as he plunges the blade of the shovel into the ground. The pool is useless, he says. What we need is to turn this field into alfalfa. Goddam rocks. Uncle T picks up a rock and shows it to the girls. You girls help me pull these stones out of the ground. The girls bend over and claw at the ground, looking for stones. They find a few small ones, and add them to the wall at the edge of the field.
One day Uncle T is gone. The room at the top of the stairs is empty, only bits of straw on the hardwood floor where his boots would sit. The sisters are gripped with fear. They run through the woods to the lake and circle its edge, calling Sister Estrogen’s name. At noon they have not found her, and hunger drives them back the house, where they eat cold boiled eggs and leftover Halloween candy. Then the kitchen door bangs, and Uncle T sets his bags against the wall. At the sink, he fixes himself a tall glass of tap water. He drinks it down, looking out the kitchen window at the clover fields, where tiny alfalfa sprouts shoot from the raw black earth. I was thirsty, he says.