In life, Augustus Speier wore a straw hat like it was a crown. He walked the rows of apple trees, estimating how many pecks and bushels he believed his orchard would yield. The old farmer shouted numbers: Twenty-five or twelve or ten. The teenage girls hired to pick apples rolled their eyes as he walked by, leaning away from their ladders, straining for a glimpse of the boys working on the other side. Momma and I went to see him in September, three weeks before he passed.
“When we arrive,” she said as we slowly walked just up the gently sloping hill to the Speier farmhouse, “you will say you are sorry he is sick.”
I stood in front of the dying old man’s bed. Even the air around him felt like death. I wasn’t sure why we were there to see him, or why my mother pushed me forward to touch his hand.
“Daisy? Daisy, is that you?”
Daisy was the name of his daughter. She had died many years before I was born.
“No, Augustus,” said Mrs. Speier. “It’s Tonya.”
“I’m sorry you’re sick, Mr. Speier,” I said, just as my mother had instructed me. He turned away from the striped wallpaper of his bedroom to face me.
“Don’t… go down… to the water…”
My mother quietly led me out of the room by the hand.
After Mr. Speier’s death, Mrs. Speier would call to me as I played in the yard.
Mrs. Speier would call me by the names of other children from long ago: Frieda? Nancy? Ada? And once, which made me suck in my breath: Daisy? Eventually she solved this problem by just calling me child, as if I were a tiny ambassador from a different country.
One day my mother knelt down and held my shoulders. “I don’t want you asking Mrs. Speier about her daughter, do you understand me? It doesn’t matter that it happened a long time ago.”
My mouth went suddenly dry, because I was lying. “I won’t.”
Daisy was ten when she died, the age I would reach in June. Daisy’s favorite thing to eat was apple strudel, which was my first choice for dessert. She liked to jump rope and solve jigsaw puzzles, and so did I. Pictures of Mrs. Speier’s daughter stared at me from the walls of the living room and the small table on the porch.
“She drowned in the old pond,” Mrs. Speier said every time I asked her how it had happened. “No one was watching her.”
“I’m sorry that she died, Mrs. Speier.”
The old woman answered by looking out the window.
“How are your goats?” she asked finally.
I described what they were eating, and something funny they did the day before.
“Ach,” she said, patting me on the head, “such a little farmer. Come Child, look how my roses are coming up.”
There were small green rosebushes with red tips in front of the farmhouse. They surrounded a small plaster figure of a woman, shielded from the elements by a tiny wooden hut.
“Our Lady seems to like them,” Mrs. Speier said, staring at the figure.
I did not know what to say about this. Even children younger than me knew a statue wasn’t able to feel anything. Her hand lightly touched my cheek.
“God doesn’t punish a child for who their mother is.”
I would have asked her the question if I had the words for it. She turned away, her gently curved back blending into the rolling hills and overcast gray of the world outside.
Momma sewed for me so I would have something to wear to birthday parties.
“I am sure plenty of little girls will invite you.”
The last party I had been uninvited from was Tracy Peyton’s. She told me on the playground as we watched a game of kickball. “My mom says you’ve never been baptized, so I can’t have you over,” Tracy said. I nodded sadly. Tracy shrugged as if to say: There’s no explaining what they do.
The dress hung in the closet.
On Mondays the Wallen twins, Vanessa and Tina, came over after school. Their momma paid my own to watch them on Mondays when she worked late. Our silent understanding was that Monday nights would be easier if we acted like we were friends.
“Let’s play house. And I should get to be Mother,” Vanessa announced, “because I’m the guest.”
“Look,” I said, gesturing in the same way my mother did when debating with a bill collector. “We all know Tina is the Baby.”
“Goo goo goo,” Tina added eagerly, to show she was perfect for the part.
“And I can’t play Father, because I don’t have one.”
“Well, ours doesn’t live with us!” shouted Vanessa.
“But you have met him, “ I said, shaking my head at her weak argument. “You see him at Christmas. Am I right?”
There was a pause as Vanessa tried to think of a way out.
“You don’t get to come to our birthday party,” she said, her face contorted with anger. Vanessa was a sore loser. Her mother would make her invite me, I reasoned as I took the Mother apron from the play clothes pile. I wouldn’t sit at home alone.
The next day during recess Vanessa and Tina approached me on the playground and asked me why I wasn’t a Catholic.
“Because my mother isn’t one.”
I returned to tracing my initials in the dirt with a stick.
“You need to go to church, or the best you can hope for is limbo,” said Vanessa. “You’ll be stuck, between Heaven and Hell. And nothing much goes on there. It’s like a big waiting room. You just sit there and wait and wait. Like a ghost.”
“That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
“There is a limbo, Tonya!”
“Come on. Why would God choose me to go there?”
“You aren’t supposed to question the people God chooses,” Vanessa said. Her sister Tina leaned forward and smiled condescendingly.
“Take this up to Mrs. Speier,” said Momma, handing me a basket just before dinner. There was time for me to pick apples before the sky turned dark. “Remember what I told you. About appropriate conversation.”
My hands gripped the basket as I moved up the hill, past the Our Lady statue. Out of the corner of my eye there was a shimmer of blue. I saw a single tear was rolling down the figure’s robe, causing a small rainbow to reflect off of her plaster skin. I walked closer, to examine its face. Was it a trick of the light? When I looked away I caught the edge of a little girl’s dress and a small leg, turning the corner of the house.
“Daisy,” I called, and turned the corner after her.
No one was there. The apple trees stood unnaturally still.
I ran back to Momma as fast as I could.
“But I saw her,” I said, standing next to mother at the stove while she boiled potatoes.
“You know you didn’t. Stop talking nonsense.” Momma’s voice softened a bit. “Don’t you see, Tonya? You imagined it. You wanted it to happen, and so you thought you saw that poor child.”
She grabbed me lightly by the collar of my jacket. “Have you told anyone else this?” Her eyes squinted at me, as if she saw something she found startling, like a bird flying straight out of a bush. I shook my head no.
“Don’t play about such things,” she said. “The old people will believe you.”
I stared in surprise. Was I being asked to keep a secret to protect old people? She took the basket from my hands.
“I will return it,” Momma said, not disguising the annoyance in her voice.
At recess I told the Wallen twins about the Virgin Mary crying in the garden. I left out the part about Daisy, since I couldn’t bear another person telling me she wasn’t real.
“Well, I mean, what was it like?” asked Tina breathlessly. “Did Our Lady talk?”
Vanessa hit Tina in the arm. This happened so often I was surprised Tina had not developed a huge callous below her right shoulder.
“You did not see the Virgin Mary weep,” said Vanessa. She looked as if she was about to cry out of jealousy herself. “You’re lying.”
“I know what I saw.”
“You aren’t even Catholic,” Vanessa hissed.
“You aren’t supposed to question the people that God chooses,” I said, turning to Tina. “Isn’t that right?”
Tina looked down at the ground silently.
“You better stop telling lies,” Vanessa replied, “or I will uninvite you from our birthday party.”
Unless I uninvite you,” said Vanessa, yanking Tina by the arm.
The day of the party Momma reminded me of what was polite.
“Don’t slouch at the table. Don’t start eating before the birthday girls do.”
I nodded, looking out the car window. My hand rested on my nervous stomach.
Vanessa and Tina’s house looked different. Instead of clothes all over the house and Mrs. Wallen yelling at the girls in German from the foot of the stairs, the downstairs was quiet and clean. Mrs. Wallen had perfectly curled hair and lipstick.
“Come in, Tonya,” Mrs Wallen said, smiling so big as if she thought the party was her own. There was a card with Tonya written on it in fancy letters on a chair at the table.
“The other girls should be here any minute,” said Mrs. Wallen. She left the room to talk with the other mothers gathered in the kitchen.
“Is that one Anna’s girl?” I heard a mother say to Mrs. Wallen.
“Yes, and she’s a very nice girl,” Mrs. Wallen replied, in a way that made it sound as if I shouldn’t be nice at all.
Vanessa and Tina sat next to each other in identical outfits. I handed them each a necklace made out of wooden beads.
I nervously smoothed the front of my party dress.
“Thank you,” the twins said, their voices together sounding like a bell chime.
Sarah Timms, a girl from our class, entered next. She placed her gifts on the table. Vanessa grinned. Her green paper birthday crown was perched on her head at a reckless angle. Sarah and I put on party hats as Vanessa counted her presents.
“Ten,” she announced in a pleased tone. Three more girls came in and sat down.
“I didn’t think you would come,” one of the girls said. “My mom says you don’t leave your house except for school.”
I squinted at her. Where else was there to go? Everyone began to look at me. My eyes shifted to focus on our identical party hats.
“Why didn’t your mom stay for the party?”
I began examining a cluster of balloons hovering over our heads.
“You never had a dad,” Sarah continued.
“You can’t miss what you’ve never had,” I said, quoting Momma’s favorite saying to the birthday table.
“She could get a new dad, since her real one’s gone for good,” said another.
“My mom said that old man never could keep his hands off the apple girls,” Sarah announced.
Mrs. Timms stepped out from the kitchen and smacked her daughter on the back of her head. Sarah began to cry as Mrs. Wallen stepped out of the kitchen with a cake in her hands, candles lit, the first notes of Happy Birthday filling the room. I heard myself say things like please and thank you. But the words used were just barriers that shielded people from the kindness of quiet. As the cake was cut I slipped outside and began walking in the direction of my house, to the pond, near the umbrella of sloping old trees, silent witnesses with leafy bowed heads. We could finally find each other. There she was waiting for me, among the leaves rustling and calling for the lost.
Ranee Zaporski’s writing has been featured on the CBC radio show, WireTap, and the online journal, The Tusk. Her poetry has been featured on the Poydras Review website. She currently lives and writes in Chicago.