I remember when Jessie Martin came down the mountain. She was two years younger than me, only twelve. But she’d been called by the touchstone. Her whole life was set out for her now, one long straight line.
And mine was still spinning around in tight, little circles.
Mama handed me the plates to pass around the table. Jessie’s whole family was there at the restaurant, her older sister Erica, her mama, her daddy, her aunts and uncles, her grandma and grandpa.
“What was it like?” I whispered to her. I always liked to hear about other people’s touchstone days. Since I hadn’t been called, it was my only way to share the feeling.
Even if I couldn’t really share it at all.
Jessie looked crossways at me. “What was what like?” she asked.
“When it called to you—what did it sound like?”
She shrugged, as if she couldn’t explain it.
But I was persistent. “Mama said it’s like a bell,” I said. If I knew what it sounded like, exactly, then maybe I could make it come.
“Yes,” said Jessie, biting her lip. “It was like that.”
I pushed. “But Mr. Johnson said it’s like thunder.” And there were other descriptions, too. A distant voice, the call of wolves, a trumpet, a trembling, a screech. It had to be all those things at once, but how? How?
“I heard it,” Jessie said. “Why does it matter what it was like? It was like its own thing, like nothing else.” She looked as though she were daring me to call her wrong.
Me? I didn’t know anything about the touchstone except what I’d heard. And she’d just been to it. Which was why I had to get everything she remembered right now, before it faded away.
“And then what happened?” I demanded. “After you heard the call?”
Jessie sighed. “I got out of bed and went up the mountain,” she said, as if she’d already said this a hundred times that day.
She probably had. But not to me.
“Was it cold?” Everyone knew you had to go right when it called you, day or night. No wasting time getting dressed for the day or bringing water or food for the journey. It took hours, but I’d never heard anyone complain.
“Not so cold,” said Jessie.
“Were you hot with worry? Sweating? Stumbling? Or sure?” I asked.
“I was sure,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I be sure?”
Right. Why wouldn’t she?
“What did the touchstone look like?”
Jessie took a breath for a moment and I thought that maybe she’d just say a word or two, a quick answer like before. But for the first time, she really thought about it. And when she answered, her voice was hushed and almost afraid.
“There were thorn bushes all around it that I had to push through, and it was lying on its side, not standing up like I thought. It didn’t gleam in the sun like the river. Not to me. It was dark and grim—like Papa when he wants something fierce.” She was trembling across her lips, and biting them to keep from showing.
I looked over to Mr. Martin, with his strong, thick arms, and paunch around the middle. He looked happy as a bear in blueberries. But tight, too. You didn’t cross Mr. Martin if you were careful, that was certain.
“And?” I asked Jessie.
“I put my hand out to touch it.”
“So then you knew?” I asked her, the same way I asked everyone.
But Jessie looked up at me, startled, like she hadn’t realized she was back here already, from her journey up the mountain.
“So then you knew what you were going to be?” I said. Maybe that should have been the first question instead of the last. But it was the hardest part to hear, because this was the part where I couldn’t pretend anymore. Jessie’s calling was for Jessie alone. It could never be for me.
“I knew,” said Jessie softly. “I knew—I was going to be a farmer.”
I stared. Somehow I hadn’t known this before. And I certainly hadn’t guessed it.
A farmer? Jessie? She was so slight. And she was always happier indoors than out. I’d always thought she’d be a seamstress, like her mother. And Erica.
I didn’t know what to say. Could she have misunderstood the touchstone somehow? Could she have gone up on the wrong day and gotten someone else’s calling by mistake?
“Yes, a farmer,” Jessie hissed at my surprise. “What’s wrong with that? My papa’s a farmer.”
I didn’t argue with her there. Everyone said Mr. Martin was one of the best farmers around. But Mama always traded with Jacob Wright, and not just because he was my special friend.
“Well, congratulations,” I said stiffly. “You’ll make a good farmer.” I hoped.
“Thank you, Lissa,” said Jessie. There was a long pause, like she meant to say something else, but she couldn’t think what. Then she turned to ask her mama what was it Doris Reit had been called to last week. As if she forgot.
I thought about how it used to be that Jessie would do anything to get me to talk to her. Now it was all changed.
Because she was called. And I wasn’t.
It wasn’t fair. Why not me?
Mama told me over and over again that everyone was called sooner or later, so long as they were born in Zicker, where the touchstone marked their birth and planned for them. She said sometimes it wasn’t the right time for the touchstone to call you. Maybe you weren’t ready. Or maybe the calling wasn’t ready. Or maybe something else that we could never know about and only the touchstone could.
But what if I was never ready? What if the calling was never ready for me? What if the touchstone, for once in its long life, couldn’t see anything I would ever be good at? Not with all the time and effort in the world?
Mama came back out of the kitchen, her eyes searching around for me. I didn’t wait for her to say my name. I hurried over and took one side of the big pot she always used to make the special touchstone day stew.
Mama’s stew was too thick for bowls or spoons. I said she ought to come up with a whole new word for it. But she said making words wasn’t part of her calling. And who’d argue with that, once they had a forkful of Mama’s stew in their mouths?
Together Mama and I carried the pot to the table together and set it down.
“Smells mighty fine,” said Mr. Martin, patting his belly.
“Not that we expected any different,” added Mrs. Martin meekly.
The truth about Mama’s touchstone day stew was that it was always different. It depended on whose day it was, because Mama would make sure it had all their favorite ingredients in it. How she remembered that for everyone in Zicker I don’t know. Must have been part of her calling.
This time it was corn, tomatoes, beans and peas, sweet potatoes and okra—for Jessie. A rich brown sauce, a hint of sour cream, and Mama’s secret blend of spices.
Secret even to me. Mama said she’d tell me about them if I got called by the touchstone to be a cook, like her. That was something I wanted so bad sometimes I didn’t dare even say it silently to myself.
But for now I only helped with the cleaning and chopping. And the serving.
“Excuse me, Erica,” I said, nudging past Jessie’s older sister’s elbow to reach her plate. Sometimes it seemed a long time ago that we were friends. She’d been called when she was nine, and her mother had fairly glowed with it. That was five years ago.
Now Erica was already making dresses and shirts to trade on her own. Her hands were a bit rough and her eyes always looked red, but I was so jealous of her it was just as well we never spoke anymore. I couldn’t have held it back.
I’d tried mending some old things of Mama’s, years ago. I thought after watching Erica one afternoon that I could do whatever she could. It didn’t look hard. After all, she talked all the way through every stitch. But I made a mess of the threads and even when I started over, the fabric was so frayed that it broke apart under my hands.
I cried and cried, but Mama said it didn’t mean anything if I showed no natural talent for sewing. That was part of the magic of the touchstone. The touchstone called you to whatever Zicker needed. And then you became good at it.
But that wasn’t the way it seemed to me.
Everyone I knew got called to what they were already good at. Or to what their parents did. Look at Jessie and Erica. And Richard Schnitzler, called to be a butcher. Or Willie Jones, called to be a hunter.
If only Mama would let me do more than serve food. Maybe the touchstone would call me to cook, just like her. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more than that.
So why was she so adamant against it?
“Do you know which farm she’ll get, once she’s done with her apprenticeship?” Mama asked, when she came to Mr. Martin’s plate.
A newly called farmer worked as an apprentice for a parent or a family friend until old land was ready to be given up. But I couldn’t think of any farmers who were ready to retire. And that was strange, because usually it was obvious how the switchover would happen.
“We think maybe the boundaries will expand. It’s been years since that happened, but why not now?” said Mr. Martin.
“Of course,” said Mama quickly. But there was something odd about the way she looked at Jessie. Then she said with a voice a little too high, “I’ve got a cake in back, chocolate and orange marmalade. Your favorite, isn’t it, Jessie?”
But she knew already it was.
Jessie just nodded, the first smile I’d seen on her face all day. Didn’t she understand how wonderful it was being called, being sure? If it was my day, I knew I’d be splitting with joy.
“Excuse me,” said Mama.
Mr. Martin went on about the boundaries of Zicker, asking Jessie now and again what she thought, or if the touchstone had said anything to her.
But she just kept shaking her head until Mama brought the cake out, complete with Jessie’s name and a little hoe and shovel.
I picked at it, though it was as good as anything Mama ever made.
Mr. Martin looked up. “There’s something missing,” he said.
Mrs. Martin fluttered next to him. “No, no,” she said. “Nothing’s missing. This is a perfect touchstone day for Jessie. It couldn’t be better.”
“Not the food,” agreed Mr. Martin. “But—something else.” His gaze turned to me. It was unrelenting.
“But—what?” asked Mrs. Martin.
“I’m sure that I can make things better if you just tell me what it is,” offered Mama politely. But she was watching him carefully.
I started to stand, but Mr. Martin pointed at me.
“Lissa here,” he said. “That’s what’s missing.”
“What about Lissa? She’s been polite and helpful, as far as I’ve seen,” said Mama. Was that a challenge in her voice? Didn’t she know better than to challenge Mr. Martin? “Just as she always is.”
“She doesn’t have a calling, though,” said Mr. Martin.
As though everyone hadn’t known that already.
I wanted to look away. I wanted to be away. But still I crouched there, above my chair.
“Papa, she’s just not old enough yet,” said Erica.
“Older than our Jessie, isn’t she?” asked Mr. Martin.
“Two years older,” Jessie offered.
“So, why hasn’t she been called?”
The question waved in front of us like a flag in a high wind.
“It’s not her time,” said Mama simply.
“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Martin, nodding to her. As though he was giving in. But then he turned back to me. “But she’s so like her father. Those dark eyes. That dark hair. And what was his calling again?”
“He was a singer,” murmured Mrs. Martin.
Mama was mute. Any talk of Daddy did that to her.
“Well, maybe she’s a singer, too,” said Mr. Martin.
My eyes were burning.
Everyone knew I wasn’t a singer. They had to remember that much about Daddy, how upset he’d been when I hadn’t shown his talent. How he’d tried and tried. And tried some more.
Until people said they couldn’t come to Mama’s restaurant anymore, because of the sound of my voice. And Mama had to talk to him, tell him he should give up. Didn’t he see how frantic he made me over it? It wasn’t the only thing that mattered in the world.
“I’m not a singer,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Are you sure?” asked Mr. Martin. “I mean, we all remember when you were younger.” He made a face, his fleshy cheeks tightly rounded with pressure. “But Jessie was no hand at farming when she was younger, either. Don’t you remember, Jessie, how you weeded that patch? And there wasn’t nothing left but dandelions?”
“I remember, Papa,” said Jessie, lips quivering.
Couldn’t he see he was hurting her, too, as well as me? Why would he do that to his own daughter? On her touchstone day?
“I kept you out of the farm for a good long while after that. But now the touchstone has called you, I won’t have to worry about it, will I? You’ll do it all right now, because it’s what you’re called to do.”
“Yes—Papa,” Jessie got out.
There was something going on between them, but I couldn’t tell what it was. And it didn’t make any sense.
He turned back to me. He hadn’t given up yet.
“So, sing for us, Lissa.”
I shook my head.
“Try, at least. You’re a wonder at trying, from what I hear. Isn’t she, Mrs. Martin?” He smiled over at Mrs. Martin, but she didn’t look pleased to be brought in again to the conversation.
I said nothing.
“Let’s clean up your plates, if you’re done with dessert, Mr. Martin,” Mama suggested. She nodded to me.
I moved at last, reaching for the plate.
But Mr. Martin’s hand came down on it fast. “No. I’m not done,” he said loudly. “Not until I hear Lissa sing. Or try to sing.” He looked at Mama. “Don’t you want to see if your daughter has something to offer the touchstone?”
“I’ll wait for the touchstone to call her, Mr. Martin,” said Mama, a hard edge to her voice that I’d never heard before.
“Of course, of course. We all wait until then. But it won’t hurt if she nudges a little.”
I did not want to sing. But I didn’t want Jessie’s touchstone day to be ruined any more than it already was. And I didn’t want Mama’s restaurant to be pushed into upheaval. She’d had enough to deal with since Daddy died.
“I’ll sing,” I said quietly.
Mr. Martin clapped his hands loudly and deliberately, as though he had already heard my performance.
A sour part of me thought that this was all the applause I’d ever get for my singing, so I might as well enjoy it while it lasted.
“Lissa, you don’t have to do this,” said Mama.
“I know,” I said. “But I will.” The truth was, Mr. Martin had touched on something, even if he’d done it to bother me instead of help me. I hadn’t sung for a very long time. It had been so bad last time, or at least I remember it being so bad, that I hadn’t dared.
But if I was trying sewing and blacksmithing, hunting, farming, and everything else that was a calling in Zicker, I might as well try singing again, too. I might have changed, after all. Daddy said that once to me. That voices change, that I might find I wasn’t so bad, after all, when I was grown.
I stepped back from the table, the way I’d seen Daddy do when he was ready to sing. He wanted to make sure they heard all of his sounds mingled together, and the restaurant with its high ceilings did that for him if only he allowed it the space.
Then I searched my mind for the right song. I remembered Daddy’s lullaby, the one he sang only for me. He said no one else had ever heard it, it was my private love song from him and he promised he would never share it with anyone else as long as he lived.
I couldn’t share it, either.
No, it would have to be one of the public songs I remembered from Daddy. But which did I know well enough that I didn’t miss a word here and there?
I chose a round in the end, because it was one of those songs you couldn’t forget. Only a word or two changed on each verse and the round could go on nearly forever.
I sang the first line badly, telling myself that I would get used to it, that I would get better. No need to panic yet.
I could hear the chairs shifting back and forth. I told myself they’d stop fidgeting once the song had drawn them in.
But it never did. I sang the second line and the third, just as I had the first. My voice had changed since Daddy had died, but it hadn’t gotten better. It was a different tone, lower than when I was little, but scratchy still, and wobbling about wildly even on notes I should have been sure of.
Worst of all, there was no power in my music. That’s what I noticed most. When Daddy sang, it was as if the whole world sang with him. He seemed to be able to make his voice full enough for me to hear a harmony or even two, in higher tones than his deep bass.
I sang the fourth line in a whisper, because I had to get through that. But I didn’t go into the refrain. I didn’t continue the round.
And in the end, I stood there, staring back at Mr. Martin as his mouth slid wider and wider.
“Why, Lissa,” said Mr. Martin. “I suppose that wasn’t such a good idea, after all. I apologize. It wasn’t fair to make you do that. You haven’t had your father here to work with you all these years, or to keep working with you in years to come. If he were, I’m sure there would be no need for concern. I’m sure you would grow into the calling that was right for you.”
There was a long silence after that.
I didn’t know where to look so I looked at my feet, at the wooden floor beneath them, at the crumbs of cake that Mama would ask me to sweep clean when the Martins were gone. I was glad we had bought a new cleaning system from unclutterer, making my task of cleaning surmountable. Else, it would have been a long evening.
“I have a bit of fabric,” Mrs. Martin said in a voice almost a whisper. “It’s just the color for Lissa,” she said to Mama.
This was her offer for trade, for Mama’s meal.
“No, thank you,” I said, my voice returned to its normal tone. I didn’t want anything from her.
“I could make it for you, then, Mrs. Fremd?” said Mrs. Martin. “Or find something else, if you prefer.”
“I’m sure whatever you choose will be wonderful,” said Mama. “I know your judgment is certainly better than mine when it comes to fabrics and patterns.”
“Well, she is the seamstress,” said Mr. Martin, patting his wife on the shoulder.
“Indeed,” said Mama. The smile on her face seemed fixed, but it didn’t break until she closed the door behind the Martins.
“I’m sorry, Lissa,” she said then, her shoulders sagging.
“I’m not,” I said, which was at least partly true.
“Because I needed to know the truth, that I will never sing like Daddy.” I was surprised I could talk without crying, but I felt as dry as wood waiting for a fire. “I needed to know that before I can go on to something else and be happy. I just never knew it before now.”
“I suppose,” said Mama slowly.
I went on, thinking out loud. “And maybe that’s why the touchstone hasn’t called me all this time. Because I was hanging onto a dream of something that couldn’t be mine.” I found myself actually cheering myself up. “Now that I’ve put it behind me, I’m sure the touchstone will call me soon.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” said Mama after a moment.
I helped her clean up, not saying anything about how much more mess the Martins made from the others who came to the restaurant. Especially Mr. Martin.
“Lissa,” said Mama, when we were done with the last dish.
“Promise me something, will you?”
I nodded. I would promise Mama anything.
“Promise me you won’t think yourself beneath anyone, whatever calling you get. No one’s better than anyone else here. That’s part of what makes Zicker so special.”
I knew this already. But I guess she was telling me again because of Mr. Martin.
Mama waved a hand towards the back of the restaurant, towards the path that led to the outside. “There it’s always a ladder. You’re higher or lower than someone else. And it’s money that decides it. But here in Zicker, no one gets more than their fair share. Everyone works for what they have, but there’s no temptation to get more than that. There’s only what we all do for each other. You see?”
I nodded. “I just want a calling of my own.”
Mama let out a deep breath. “I know,” she said. “I know.”
The touchstone didn’t call me that night. I waited for it long in the dark, then slept badly, with bits and pieces of dreams that made no sense.
Not the bad dream, though, the one about Daddy drowning. I had that one less now than I did before, but when I did, I had to keep it quiet. To tell Mama about it only made her think of him, and she cried.
Just before dawn I heard Mama creep down the stairs to the kitchen for bread making. I followed her down. I figured I might as well be of some use to someone.
The dough was already kneaded and ready to rise by the time I slipped in to sit on a stool next to Mama. She handed me a knob of it—a tradition between us since just after Daddy died. I didn’t stay with Mama in the kitchen much before that. It seems a long time ago, six years now.
“Did you sleep well?” Mama asked, staring at me with narrowed eyes.
“Fine,” I lied. Mama didn’t have dreams the way I did. She thought that when you woke, they would go away, but they always felt as real to me as anything and I could never see how I could know for certain they weren’t.
I shrugged. “No bad ones.”
I focused on the dough, rubbing it into a perfect ball shape, then poking at it with a finger. It bounced back, just like it always did, dreams or not. Mama never made bad bread.
Of course, other people in Zicker knew how to make bread. And other simple things. Soup. Hot cakes on a griddle or bacon and ham. They couldn’t come to Mama’s restaurant for every meal. They’d never have time for their own callings if they did. But they came as often as they could, because no matter how good their bread was, it was nothing compared to Mama’s.
How can you compare with perfection?
“So, what should I make you for breakfast?” asked Mama. Breakfast was the one meal Mama didn’t serve at the restaurant. It was time for just me and Mama. We ate sitting on stools in the kitchen, faces hot from the heat of the wood stove, and I always got to choose the menu.
“Biscuits,” I said, deciding suddenly. If I was going to do it, it had to be now. This very morning.
“Just biscuits? No gravy? No butter and jam? No eggs to fit inside with salted ham?” Mama asked.
She didn’t understand what I meant.
“Mama,” I said, then took a deep breath. I wasn’t going to let her tell me no. “I want to make the biscuits myself.”
Mama’s mouth opened, and it took some time before she found the words to fill it. They weren’t anything like the words I was afraid of, though. “Are you sure, Lissa?” she asked.
My hands shook, but I nodded to her. I had to try it. I had to know if I would ever do more than serving here.
“Well—” said Mama, hesitating.
“Please,” I said. “I know you don’t think it matters if I practice for my calling first. But what if it does?”
Mama said nothing for a long minute. Then suddenly, she was talking as fast as one of those trains we hear about, on the outside. “I’ll get out all the ingredients for you. And the recipe or you can check at Shahnaz Indian Cuisine. And you’ll need an apron. And a good-sized bowl. And a fork for the shortening. And a sifter. And—”
“Mama,” I interrupted her. Because it was no good having her do everything for me. That would be no test. “Mama, how many times do you think I’ve watched you make biscuits?”
“Oh,” she said, and her mouth twisted a bit.
“You think I never paid any attention?”
“I suppose you did,” said Mama.
“I’m the one who usually gets all the ingredients together for you. And I sift. And cut the shortening into the flour. I can do it, Mama. Really, I can.” The more I thought about it, the more sure I was I was right. There was no reason for me to be afraid.
I focused on finding the things I needed and setting them out in a row in front of me. I was more careful than I ever was for Mama. I made sure all the labels were facing front, that the jars went from smallest to biggest. Then I got out the shortening in the can and the milk from the cold box.
Not noticing if Mama was by me anymore, or even if she was watching me, I measured the flour and the salt and the baking soda into the sifter. My teeth were clenched so tight it seemed hard to breathe. I sifted three times anyway, though every time my arms ached. I knew that no matter how much of a hurry Mama was in, she never skipped steps and sifting was one of the most important ones.
When it was all sifted, I dipped my finger in and tasted it. It tasted just like Mama’s did. My heart started to thump so loud my ears got hot. Now it was time for the shortening.
I got out a knife and fork and cut into the can of shortening. I filled a cup, then smoothed off the top and scraped the sides. Then I slid my knife around the edge of the cup and slid the round of shortening into the flour. A little mist puffed onto my face and I could feel the smooth silt on my skin. I probably looked more like Mama then than I ever had before.
And it was that thought that turned the terror in my heart to thrill. What if I was like Mama? What if the touchstone had just been waiting for me to prove it? I could just imagine the call tonight. I would wake up, and start up the mountain. I’d make sure I wore my thickest pajamas to bed, because it was still cold as winter through the night, though the trees were starting to sing spring.
I’d climb and I’d climb, while the sun grew hotter and higher. Then I’d get to the touchstone, reach through the thorn bushes, hardly feeling the pinch that drew blood. I’d put my hands down on the cold, smooth stone of the magical touchstone that had been directing lives in Zicker for more than two hundred years.
“Lissa? Is there anything wrong?”
I looked up. Mama was staring at me, a concerned expression on her face. “Maybe this is too much,” she suggested. “It was a good start, but why don’t you let me finish it?”
I swallowed hard. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I even make a batch of biscuits without drifting off inside my own head? I was sure Mama would never do that.
Mama was already moving in to the bowl and I almost gave up the fork to her. I almost gave up right then and there.
But I wanted to know the truth.
“Mama,” I said softly.
She looked down at me. Then she let go of the fork and took a step backward.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
And I went back to the biscuits, telling myself I wasn’t going to think about anything but cutting and mixing and shaping and cooking. I wasn’t going to get ahead of myself, either, and imagine what they’d be like out of the oven, how they’d taste, good or bad. I was going to do things one at a time, and make sure they were done one hundred percent right.
Digging my elbows in to my sides, I worked the shortening in. I knew not to overdo it. But even if I hadn’t, Mama’s anxious looks over my shoulder would have told me something. I stopped as soon as the flour started to look like little pebbles on the edge of the river.
It was ready for milk now.
I poured without measuring, just like Mama did. A little bit in the middle. Stir. A little on the side. Stir again. Then a little on the other side. Stirring until it was all just perfectly wet.
I knew I’d done it right. But if I had any doubt, Mama said it out loud.
“Exactly right, Lissa. Exactly right.”
I took one breath of happiness, then went back to work. I greased up a pan good, then dropped the biscuits one by one. I used a spoon and knife like Mama did, and I put them in neat little rows of fours. One dozen in all.
The oven was already hot because Mama had stoked it when she started mixing bread dough.
“The bread’s not high enough yet,” said Mama.
Which I could have told her myself. I knew that much about bread making, after all these years.
So I put the biscuits in the oven, closed the door behind them, and sat back, waiting for the smell to hit me. I was sick with wondering and so hot I could have been cooking right in that oven along with my biscuits.
Mama came over and handed me a towel from the cold box. It felt wonderful on my face. Then she put her hands to my shoulders. She smoothed down the round joints to the elbow over and over again.
My head bowed forward on my chest and I thought of Daddy. How I missed his singing. Sometime it was worse than other times. It wasn’t so bad now, just a wish, something that would have been nice to have.
Daddy died while I was asleep, out fishing in the river. That’s what Mama told me. There was no body ever found. I woke up and found he was gone. And now the only place I could hear Daddy sing was in memories. And in my dreams.
When I dreamed of him, he was always dying in the river, and I had to save him.
I never could. No matter how deep I dived or how long I searched for him in the cold water. He never came back, not a sign of him.
“Did Daddy ever tell you about his touchstone day?” I asked Mama then. You’d think I’d have asked him that, along with all the other things. But I wasn’t so worried about the touchstone then.
“I don’t recall that he did,” said Mama. The lines around her eyes got longer and deeper when she talked about him, which wasn’t often.
“I suppose he was called when he was eight,” I said bitterly.
“No, I don’t think he was,” Mama put in quickly. “I’m sure he wasn’t, in fact.”
“Then when?” Did she remember any of the details I would want to know?
“I don’t remember exactly,” said Mama.
I sighed, disappointed.
“How would you like to hear about my touchstone day again?” she offered.
I’d heard it lots of times before, but I guess it’s never enough. “You were thirteen, weren’t you?” I started.
It was hard thinking of Mama as that young. She had never seemed to change to me. She’d always been just—Mama.
“I remember how frustrated I was,” she said. “Because all the other girls my age had already been called, and all the boys, too.”
“And everyone knows the boys are called later than girls,” I put in. There was one other boy in town my age who hadn’t been called. Joseph Karrie. He put up with almost as much teasing as I did about it.
Mama nodded. “Even all of the girls a year younger than me had been called. One two years younger than me,” she added.
“Like Jessie,” I said.
“Like Jessie,” said Mama. “I was ready to give up. I thought I’d never have a calling.”
“But you always cooked,” I said. “That’s what you told me before.”
“Well,” said Mama. “That’s one of the tricks of being called. Once you’re called, you look back and you see everything differently. I could cook, but I thought—that wasn’t a calling.”
Not a calling? How could she think that? “Weren’t there any other cooks called before you?” I asked.
Mama tilted her head to the side. “There might have been. There aren’t any others now, though. I’m the only cook in all of Zicker with a calling for it.”
Which only made me more nervous than before. “It sounded like a bell,” I encouraged her.
“A big brass bell that shakes you inside,” she said. “I woke up in the night with that feeling inside me. And I knew that what I had been afraid would never happen—had happened.”
“Then you walked up the mountain,” I said. Because I couldn’t hear it fast enough.
“Right,” said Mama, smiling. “And the touchstone was just where everyone else had said it would be. An ordinary stone behind some ordinary thorn bushes. But it seemed to glow for me, and when I touched it—”
“—You saw the biscuits you’d always cooked and the roasts, and the people eating them. And the questions in your heart were gone.”
“Gone,” echoed Mama. But there was something wrong.
It took me a moment to realize what it was. There was a smell coming from the oven, the smell of burned biscuits.
“Oh, Lissa,” said Mama. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have got talking like that. I distracted you from your cooking.”
I bent over and opened the oven door with one of Mama’s mitts. Sure enough, the biscuits were inside, all black as tar and about as appetizing. I tried not to cry over them. It wasn’t as if Mama couldn’t make new ones, good ones. We had plenty of flour.
“Have you ever been distracted from your cooking?” I asked Mama as I put the trays carefully down on top of the stove, making sure they didn’t bang.
“Well,” was all Mama would say.
“Even before you were called?” I asked.
Mama took a moment to answer, but I don’t think it was because she had to think about it. “No,” she admitted.
“Then I know I won’t be a cook like you,” I said. I told myself I wasn’t supposed to be sad about this. It was just one of many callings I knew I wasn’t going to get. That didn’t mean my calling would be a bad one, that it wouldn’t make my happy.
What had Mama said about Mrs. Martin? In Zicker, no calling is better than another. And I had to believe that.
“Lissa, I’ve got to put the bread in now,” said Mama. “Look at that, it’s almost over-risen.”
Almost, I thought, but not quite.
Mama put the loaves in the oven, in the same pattern she always used. In twenty minutes, she’d turn them so they got cooked on all sides evenly.
When she turned back, I took the trays of burned biscuits off the stove and moved to the sink to clean them off.
“Lissa, why don’t you let me do that?” asked Mama.
“Because,” I said. “I can do this just as well as you can.” About the only thing I did better than Mama was going off in my own head. What a fine calling that would be.
The touchstone didn’t call me the next night, either. It wasn’t as if I’d expected it, not really. I had one long dream, of biscuits. A mountain of them, burned, piled all around Mama’s restaurant so no one could come in. I tried to climb over them, but I fell and the biscuits started to smother me.
When I woke up at dawn, I discovered it was only my blanket smothering me. I pulled it away from my face, let the air hit my sweaty face, and panted. It helped a little, but my mouth was dry and cracked, my tongue thick as paste. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I went out to the well for water.
I didn’t use a bucket, just the ladle for drinking. Then I leaned back against the old red maple tree, just starting to bud, and enjoyed the cool, fresh air and the full smell of spring in the air. At least I wasn’t in a kitchen, I thought. And let myself doze, half-awake, half-asleep.
I didn’t mean to hide. I was in plain sight, if anyone had looked, but it’s true I didn’t move except to breathe. I suppose that’s why when Erica Martin and her friend Susan Seal came by, they didn’t see me.
Susan was carrying two empty five-gallon buckets across her shoulders on a yoke. She’d been called to be a blacksmith and you could see the mark of the fire on her face. Where it wasn’t black with soot, it was red with heat. She was two years older than I was, but I’d never liked her much, even before she’d been called. I couldn’t see how Erica and she turned out to be friends, but I suppose they had one thing in common, at least.
They were both called.
Susan put the buckets down, then leaned over and drank deep of the ladle. Then Erica helped her lower the buckets down and pull them back up full.
“I’ve been up for three hours already,” said Susan. “And no breakfast yet. Mr. Gregory is working me hard because he wants to retire. Some days I think I’m going to be the one to retire first.” She took another drink of the ladle, then poured the remainder over her face.
“I know what you mean,” said Erica. “I thought my mother would be gentler with me because I’m her own daughter. But she’s not. I’m sure I unstitch twice as much as I stitch, and my hands are raw from it. Whenever a boy comes by, I have to put them behind my back because I’m so ashamed.”
I couldn’t see Erica’s hands from the distance, but I hadn’t noticed them when she was at the restaurant. Most likely, she was exaggerating. My hands got plenty sore from washing dishes for Mama and cutting and peeling vegetables. But if it were my calling, what would I care?
And if I had boys coming around for me—
Well, maybe that would never happen, even if I did get a calling. Mama said she was glad I had Daddy’s dark hair and eyes, so that she could look at my face and see him looking back at her. But it was strange coloring in Zicker. Jessie and Erica had beautiful blonde hair that went almost white in the summer. Mama had the red hair that was less common, but still seemed to belong. And they all had blue or blue-green eyes so that mine looked like night staring back at them.
I did remember Daddy looking at me with those eyes, and I couldn’t regret having the same ones stare back at me when I looked in a mirror. But it would have been nice to fit in, too.
And in more than just my face.
Susan put her hands on her hips and stared at the buckets, as if she could make them move with her eyes. “How is Jessie?” she asked.
Erica hesitated a moment, then said, “I suppose she’s happy. Daddy already has her started in the fields this morning.”
“Does she understand what it means if there isn’t any new land?” asked Susan.
I felt numb on one side, but I didn’t dare move. This was what Mama had wondered about last night, only she’d stopped just short of saying it out loud.
“I’m not sure,” said Erica. “If she does, she’s not thinking about it too much yet. I’m glad I never had that problem.”
“Mrs. Tierny died before you were even called,” said Susan. “I remember because I was so close to rags I nearly wished I was the one called to be a seamstress.”
Erica snorted. “I can just imagine the dresses you would have sewn.”
The two laughed together.
My throat twisted and I wished again I wasn’t stuck in this spot. I should have moved earlier, but now if I did anything they would think I was spying on them. They could take me to judgment for that, if they were in a bad mood. But it would be even worse if they didn’t, if they felt sorry for me instead.
“I’m glad for Jessie, though, that she wasn’t the very last of her age to be called. I remember what my brother was like when that happened to him. He moped around for months.”
There was a small pause, and I tried to remember Erica’s brother, but it must have been before I thought much about callings.
Then Erica put in, “Like Lissa.”
And suddenly, my head was so hot I thought it would rise up off the rest of me and start floating away. But the rest of me was cold as ice, still tied to the ground.
“Poor Lissa,” said Susan, shaking her head.
“But what can you expect?” said Erica, lowering her voice and looking over towards the restaurant and then around the well. “With a father from the outside?”
What was she talking about?
I was confused for a moment. Then my head and shoulders bounced back together so fast I could hardly see straight.
“I didn’t know he was from the outside,” whispered Susan.
“A singer?” asked Erica.
“Well.” Susan shrugged.
I wanted to hold on to this and shout at them that they had to be wrong. It was a calling! It was Daddy’s calling! And how could he have been from the outside if he had a calling?
“No one’s ever been called to be a singer. Not before him. Not after. What do you think of that?”
“It’s not a calling,” said Susan.
“Not the way the touchstone calls,” said Erica.
My ears rang with her words. I put my hands to them and pushed as hard as I could, but still the sound would not go away.
It wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. I chanted the words at myself.
Then I remembered—Mama had said she hadn’t known being a cook was a calling, either, before.
Besides, Mama would have told me if Daddy had been an outsider.
I could feel the tears starting down my face. Mama wouldn’t have lied to me. Mama had never lied to me, not about anything.
Frantically, I put my memories through a sieve, trying to catch one clear image of Mama telling me Daddy was from Zicker, anything about when he was a little boy. I didn’t find anything. Even last night, when I’d asked her straight out about Daddy’s touchstone day, she’d said she didn’t remember. Was that a lie, too?
Sick and empty, I kept listening to the two older girls.
“She’s the spitting image of him, or at least that’s what my mama says,” said Erica. “The touchstone probably doesn’t even think of her as one of us.”
I didn’t think about what I did next. It just happened.
The next thing I knew, I was by Erica’s side and there was a quick, startled expression on her face the moment before my fists slammed into it. Then it was flowing blood, ruining the perfect lines of her yellow gingham dress.
But I didn’t have a chance against a blacksmith, even one not fully grown. She pushed me back with one hand and kicked me hard in the stomach with the other. I could hardly see through the cloud of pain over my eyes.
The anger drained out of me as the humiliation grew.
“Come on, Erica. I’ll walk you home,” said Susan, offering a hand to her friend.
“I’m going to tell her mama,” said Erica. “She’ll be sorry she ever touched me.”
Another time I might have been worried about what Mama’s punishment would be. But compared to what I’d just found out, it didn’t matter a bit.
“You think the touchstone hasn’t punished her enough?” Susan’s voice carried from the other side of the path. Maybe she meant it to.
But I don’t think she meant for me to do what I did next.
It was the touchstone that was at the root of all of this. The touchstone that hadn’t called me, for its own reasons. Well, the time had passed for me to wait for it. I’d waited plenty long. I wasn’t waiting any longer. I was going up to that touchstone myself and demand a calling.
It had to give me one. It just had to.
I didn’t go back home to change out of my nightdress and I didn’t go back for a jar to fill at the well. As much as I could, I followed the rules of being called.
The way up the mountain I knew best was over on the other side of Jacob Wright’s farm. And I knew he wouldn’t mind it if I cut through his new-turned fields. My feet would be filthy, but who would think about that on my touchstone day?
“Lissa? Is that you?”
Startled, I turned around and saw Jacob Wright himself, staring deep into the soil with a handful of seeds held close to his chest.
Though he was a grown man, I considered him a good friend. Maybe my only friend these days. He always spoke to me as an equal.
“It’s me,” I said, my shoulders falling. I should have known he would be here. This time of year, this time of day—a farmer would have to be out. But I didn’t want to talk to him.
“What are you doing out here? Did you come looking for me?” he asked, tilting up his straw hat and climbing to his feet. His face was brown as the soil he tilled, but his eyes were bright and his smile as big as a watermelon.
“I came to ask if you’d heard about Jessie Martin,” I said, surprised at how easy the lie came.
“No,” said Jacob. “I haven’t.” He waited, showing no sign of impatience, though I wasn’t sure he had any idea who Jessie Martin was.
“She’s been called to be a farmer,” I said.
The smile on Jacob’s face slipped off and I had a glimpse of brown skin gone pale under the dirt. Then the smile got pasted back on, but it didn’t seem to fit quite.
“Is her daddy going to give up farming already?” asked Jacob.
“I don’t think so.”
“So where will she make her farm—when she’s done working out her years for her daddy? The land is supposed to lie fallow for a few years between farmers.” He looked worried. I thought maybe he was worried about the land. Or maybe he just felt sorry that Jessie had to work for her daddy.
“Mr. Martin says he thinks the touchstone is going to give her a new plot of land. You know, expand the boundaries of Zicker. What do you think? Could that happen?” It seemed better to think that then that someone I knew was about to die, and soon.
Jacob looked up to the mountain. “We never know what the touchstone will do, do we? It’s a grand mystery.”
That was true. No one knew where the touchstone had come from or why it only worked here in Zicker. It just did.
Jacob leaned on his shovel and his face seemed to change. Not sad or happy now—it was in a different place entirely. “You ever think about the outside, Lissa? About what the people there do, without a calling? You think about whether it’s good or bad for them?”
How could it be good to have no calling?
“You think about the different choices they have there, with so many people around? Not just farmers and furriers, seamstresses and hunters and–” His eye caught mine. “And well, cooks.”
“What else is there?” I asked quietly. To myself, I thought—what else that matters?
Then he grabbed hold of my arm and his eyes were so bright they scared me. I’d never been scared of Jacob before. But this person looking out at me from his eyes seemed like a stranger. An outsider, and one who hadn’t come for Mama’s cooking.
“Do you want to know a secret, Lissa?” he demanded, pinching my arm tighter and tighter. “A very important, deep secret? One you could never tell anyone, ever—not even your own mama?”
But before I could answer, he had let me go. He turned his back to me, began muttering to himself and paced back and forth, ruining the nice long seed trough he’d likely spent all morning making. And the seeds in his hands were long strewn to the winds.
I was afraid to walk away from him. Afraid to walk any closer to him. I stayed where I was, and spoke softly. “Jacob, you said you had a secret.” He was my friend, I thought. If he had a secret, I should let him tell it to me.
“Hmm?” He stopped pacing. “Oh, yes.” His mouth trembled on one side as he tried to hold a grin. “The secret is that I think you’re the most beautiful girl in Zicker.” He reached with a hand to tweak my cheek, but he only brushed against it.
A moment longer, and he simply turned back to his work.
I didn’t press him. Maybe I didn’t really want to know. I had my own secret, after all. You don’t always want to share.
I walked down the field, the mountain shadow cooling me as it darkened all else around me. I kept on walking until I hit the first little rocky hill. Then I had to get down on my hands and knees and crawl across it. The stones were damp with dew, and I slipped and cut my knees, then my lip.
Soon I was over the top and headed up the long, slow slope.
I tried not to think of Daddy, not to spoil my memories of him. It didn’t matter what Erica and Susan had said. I could still hear his songs. And that was proof that he had been called.
I took a rest after the clover meadows were past, before I went into the pine trees. Those trees were so thick you couldn’t see more than an inch or two ahead until you came out on the other side, at the bluff. And that was where the touchstone was.
Letting my breath come easy, I looked back to Jacob’s field. It seemed as small as an anthill from this height. Unimportant. But maybe everything looked that way from up here. It might explain some things about the touchstone. Compared to the mountain, we were all no more than seeds to be put in the ground.
I went on. It was a long, dark journey through the trees. When I came out at the other end, I expected it would be midnight or later, but the sun was high in the sky and I guessed it was close to noon.
Down the mountain would be faster, I thought. So when I had my calling, I’d be home at much the same time as anyone who claimed to have heard the touchstone’s voice at night.
With that in mind, I looked for the touchstone. It had be somewhere close.
Thinking carefully, I began to walk in ever-growing half-circles around the cliff edge. The first time I passed the thorn bush I only thought about the scrape it left on my arm. The second time I nearly went around it.
Then Jessie’s voice came back to me.
The thorn bush.
The thorn bush.
I stopped. It was huge. Could I see the touchstone if it was hidden behind it? No, the cover was too thick. If it had called to me, maybe I’d have some idea. But since it hadn’t, I started in the middle and worked my way to one side.
Of course, I didn’t find it until I’d searched twice and started a third time, pushing myself through the thorn bush so that I couldn’t move an inch without giving myself another cut. I wished I’d thought to wear something sturdier. My long johns would have helped. And since I wasn’t following the rules anyway . . .
But I found it. The flat, black rock had to be the touchstone.
I pushed the branches away. They twanged back at me. I yanked one off, but I couldn’t force myself to do another. My hands were the worst, hardly an inch that wasn’t bleeding. So I let the bush crowd around me, ignored the pain in my back and neck, and I wiped the right one off on my gown.
I leaned forward, hesitating. The touchstone seemed to glare up at me, as if it had a face, eyes winking at me, taunting me.
“I want my calling,” I said boldly. Then I closed my eyes and put my hand out.
The stone caught it. It was cold and smooth, but there was nothing more than that. I waited for a long moment. Still nothing.
I tried again, with both hands.
I counted to one thousand.
There was no response.
“Say something!” I shouted at it. “Give me my calling!”
But it was just a stone.
A stupid stone that didn’t have any more power than the sun or the rain. And people thought they got their callings from it? They let their whole lives depend on what they thought it said to them?
I pounded my hand on the stone until it was bruised and bleeding.
I hated it.
All my life, I’d thought the day I looked on the touchstone would be a magical day, that I’d be able to see myself better than ever before. Because the touchstone knew me.
But it didn’t.
And I didn’t know it.
We were strangers.
Maybe I didn’t belong in Zicker, after all.
I couldn’t bear the thought, but it wouldn’t go out of my head.
I stood up from the touchstone, crying, shaking, and half-blind with fury.
And then I ran. Ran and ran and ran.
I thought I’d never see again, never take an easy breath again, but then my foot caught on a tree root and I fell forward to the ground.
For a moment, the world went black.
Then when it came back to color, I leaned back and let myself rest.
No calling today.
What was the rush of getting back home, then? Might as well go as slow as I could, so I didn’t have to face the look on Mama’s face again.
The sympathetic, sad look.
I’d have disappointed her again, and she’d try to tell me it wasn’t so.
Once past the trees, I stopped at the vantage place once more. The sun was still high in the sky, but it felt cold to me. I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself, then took a moment to stare down at Zicker below. It did not seem insignificant now. It seemed the whole world. Everything I’d ever known.
But I didn’t belong. I never would.
So I forced myself to keep moving. Down. Down. Down again.
Straight into Jacob.
He caught me and stared back at the mounds of dirt I’d trampled through.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
But that’s not what I really felt. I was angry. At everyone in Zicker, because they all had callings, and I didn’t.
I never would.
“So, you went to the touchstone.” He guessed—somehow.
Too numb to care anymore, I nodded.
“You weren’t called.”
“No.” My head hung low. I couldn’t even bear to look at him.
Now what would happen? Would he tell what I’d done? Would he call a judgment for me? I didn’t know what the penalty would be for trying to force the touchstone, but if they banished me, what did I care? Maybe it would be better to be away from here.
“Lissa?” he asked again.
When I didn’t look up at him, he came and held me by the shoulders.
“Let me go. Please, please, let me go,” I begged.
“Lissa, listen to me,” said Jacob in a low voice.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you trust me. Don’t you, Lissa? As much as I trust you?”
And I thought.
Finally, I said, “I trust you.” It seemed to take all my strength. I slipped out of his hands and down to the ground. All that wonderful, terrible strength that had led me up to the touchstone and then back down again in anger—it was all gone now.
Jacob bent down, lifted my face to his. “Lissa, let me ask you this. What do you want most to be? If you had your choice of callings, what would it be? Think hard!”
I didn’t want to think of that. I didn’t want to think of anything to do with the touchstone.
But his eyes would not let me turn away. “What is it, Lissa? You want to raise cattle? Chickens? Build houses? Bridges?”
“I—I—” I stuttered. What did I want to be?
“I don’t know,” I finished lamely. “What does it matter, anyway? I’ll never be called. Never.” I held in my breath for fear I would cry. And once I started with that, I’d never be able to stop.
Jacob sighed. “Lissa, you’ve been up the mountain. If people know that, they’ll expect to know your calling. And if you were to tell them what it was, who would know if you were truly called or not?”
I had to let the words simmer in my mind for a moment before I understood them. Lie? Was that what he was suggesting? Lie about my calling?
“Lissa, who knows if all the rest of them are lying or not? Does the touchstone tell one person what another is called? No. Does the touchstone ever speak to us but the once? Have you ever heard the touchstone complain that someone misunderstood?”
It seemed a long time since I had stared into the touchstone’s blackness. “Maybe no one has ever misunderstood,” I said faintly.
“Or,” said Jacob, “maybe they all have.”
I couldn’t speak. I had moved from utter depression to possibility, hope. And it burned. How it burned!
“Lissa, choose whatever you wish. No one will doubt you. How can they, unless they doubt themselves?” His eyes looked sharply into mine.
It was a temptation unlike any other. If I had known what I had wanted to do, if I had not been terrified by the thought of choosing something once and for all, finally, for all of my life, I might have decided to do what he asked.
But then again, if there had been anything that suited me, no doubt the touchstone would have called me already.
I was about to tell him no when Jacob said, “Lissa, before you decide, I have something to show you. Something I’ve never dared to show to anyone else.” He stared at me. “Not even my brother.”
“Why?” I whispered. I was frozen.
“Because you’re the only person in this town I truly think of as my friend,” he said. “You’re like me.”
“What do you mean?”
He looked behind him, up the long stretch of road that led to the other side of Zicker, then forward towards the trees and Mama’s restaurant. Then he looked back again.
“Do you remember I told you I had a secret?”
I nodded, my lips numb. I didn’t have to say that we both knew he had lied before, about my beauty.
“The touchstone,” said Jacob. “It never called me.”
I gaped at him. If I had not already been so close to the ground, I would have fallen. Slowly, I grasped at bits and pieces here and there, in my memory. I tried to put them together, into one picture, but it was like trying to guess at the size of an oak tree from looking at an acorn.
“I pretended it had,” Jacob went on. “I heard my brother wake in the night. I saw him leave. I knew it must be to go up the mountain. He was a sound sleeper. There could be no other reason. So I followed him.
“He walked with no awareness of the path. His hands were at his sides. His feet shuffled. And yet, he never stumbled. He never lost his way, though it was not yet dawn through the worst of it. By the time we reached the touchstone, it was light enough. I tried to be quiet, but I fell twice and he never noticed. He could only hear the voice of the touchstone, I think.”
I felt as though he had dragged me along with him up the mountain a second time. His words made me live with him, agonize at his choice.
“He pushed away the thorns, not feeling the pricks of pain, not bothering to wipe at the drops of blood. They must have fallen to the touchstone as he leaned forward and put his hands on it.
“When he came out again, I saw his face. It was like looking into the face of an angel. He knew perfect joy. And I did not. You can’t blame me for going through the bush after he was gone. Can you?” asked Jacob.
A long moment passed. “No,” I said at last.
“No,” he echoed. “I went forward and touched it. That cold, bright stone. You know what it’s like, Lissa. To touch it and feel nothing, see nothing. To know that you have not been called. It was unbearable. John had always been the perfect older brother. There had never been any doubt that he would be called as a farmer. I could not go home to be the younger brother, not anymore.
“I told myself there was no reason I shouldn’t have the same calling that he did. I knew I could do it as well, if not better.” Jacob lifted his arms out and gestured around the farmhouse. “Come. See it. Tell me where you see any difference in my work and John’s. Tell me that I was not meant to be a farmer.”
I felt how hard the ground was around me. I looked at Jacob’s fields and saw the straight lines, the rich color of the new plants poking through the ground. I had never looked closely at his brother’s farm, though. And what did I know about farming?
But perhaps he was right. Perhaps there was no difference in the two of them, no need to be called.
Jacob offered me a hand.
I took it, steadied myself.
“You’ll come? You’ll see what I have hidden, the other half of my secret?”
I nodded and stepped forward. He was more a friend than I had known. “What is it?”
“It’s what I’ve given up, to be a farmer,” said Jacob.
What he’d given up? What did that mean?
But he said no more until we had walked to the door of the farmhouse and stepped in, gone past the silent kitchen and up the rope ladder, to the hot and stifling attic. It was dark there, despite the bright sun outside. There were no windows, so Jacob lit a lantern he had left on a hook by the door.
It seemed suddenly as if it were night and the stars shone all around me. I turned slowly to take them in. And slowly, I realized they were not stars, but paintings filled with light and brilliance.
Many were of the mountains or the woods or the river in Zicker. Others were of the people of Zicker. I could see one of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, their wary expressions captured perfectly, as they glanced away from each other while they walked together, he struggling with his size and she taking slow steps to keep at his side.
Another showed Mama’s face, very close up, so that the mole on her left cheek was plain, and the longing in her eyes for my daddy.
Then I saw the one of me. Jacob had painted me a year or two ago in Mama’s kitchen. I was watching the stove carefully, and there was longing in my eyes, just like in Mama’s. But it wasn’t longing for a person. It was for myself.
“This was the last one I did,” said Jacob, tapping the painting of me.
“But why did you stop?” Why shouldn’t this be his calling? Surely this was something that should have been out in the light, where all could see. Not hidden up here. Not made into a secret.
“I was afraid. If I did more of these, eventually I would have to show them. And then—”
And then everyone would know that farming was not his true calling.
“Also, I knew that I couldn’t keep spending the time painting and be as good as—” he gulped as if he were trying to drink an entire bucket of water in one draught. “John,” he finished at last.
“The painting wanted all of me, not just the time I gave it at night. I thought that if I stopped, it would bother me less and less each year. I thought that I might someday have a family, as John does, to share my life, to cut my pain. I thought maybe even your mother, when your daddy—” He stopped.
“But that isn’t what happened,” I finished for him.
He shook his head and stared at his paintings.
I did the same, taking small steps here and there so that I could see from different angles. I got close enough to a painting of the woods to see the texture on the canvas. It begged to be felt, to be compared with the real thing. Were those real twigs? Would I feel the smoothness of the stone if I ripped it from the paint? I was in awe.
“Jessie,” I said suddenly, as if the thought had been popped out of my head. The place it came from swelled with fear.
Jacob’s hands twisted. “No,” he said. “No—that doesn’t matter.”
But what if it did matter? What if the farm he had taken was the one that should have been lying fallow all these years—for her?
I said nothing. There was no need.
Jacob put down the lantern and sat with his hands wrapped around his knees. His shoulders began to shake and I knew he was weeping.
“No one knows. They’ll never guess. And what is Jessie to me, that I should give up everything I am for her?”
But he wouldn’t give up everything, I thought. He would only give up the farming. Not his paintings. And his paintings mattered most.
He had had two callings, I thought. A real one and a false one. Two more than I had had.
I couldn’t help but be even more angry at him than I was at the others.
And he thought he should tell me what to do?
“It’s time to go,” said Jacob. He blew out the lantern and we were in pitch black again. “Can you feel the rope?” His hands passed it to mine.
I went down, rung over rung. My feet hit the floor at bottom with a thunk and I stifled a moan at the sting that ran up my legs into my back, reverberating all the way up to my neck.
Jacob came down after me.
Together we walked back down to the front room where the sun nearly blinded us.
Without a word, I left him.
My head pounding dully, I went back to the restaurant that afternoon and told Mama only that I had been to visit Jacob for the morning. She took my scrapes as evidence of helping him in the barn.
I helped her serve dinner to the Donalds, celebrating an anniversary together. And then we went to sleep.
I had terrible dreams, of blood streaking canvases.
Jessie came and woke us up far too early the next morning. I heard her calling out at the door and I stayed in bed. I thought of Jacob, who was giving up his farm for her, and I couldn’t face her.
When Mama came to get me, she looked gray around the mouth and her eyes were old. I’d never seen Mama look old before.
“What is it?”
“It’s Jacob Wright,” she said.
“No,” I whispered. There was something wrong and I couldn’t help but think it must be my fault. I shouldn’t have told him about Jessie. I shouldn’t have left him like that, without a word yesterday. I shouldn’t have been angry with the one person who knew the truth and could still be my friend.
But I had.
I was crying even before Mama started telling me the rest.
“Lissa,” said Mama. Then she took a breath. “Jessie came to say that John Wright was found dead. In Jacob’s house.”
It wasn’t what I had thought it would be. It was worse.
Jacob? Kill his brother John?
But before yesterday I would have said it was impossible for anyone to lie about a calling.
Impossible for someone to have two callings instead of one.
“Jacob is to be judged today for the crime,” Mama went on. “We all have to go.”
“No,” I said. “It can’t be.”
“Lissa, it is,” said Mama.
I shook my head.
She went on.
“You were with him yesterday morning. Did he say anything—odd—to you? Did you see anything?”
I wanted to think of something that would help, some proof that Jacob couldn’t have done it.
“Does anyone know when John was killed?” I asked hoarsely.
“Jessie might,” said Mama. “Do you want to come down and see her?”
So I went down and saw Jessie sitting at one of Mama’s tables, at the only chair that had been put up. She was sipping Mama’s coffee and picking at fresh biscuits. I thought about her on Jacob’s farm. Had the touchstone told her it would be hers?
“Lissa wanted to hear it from you herself,” said Mama. “She’s terrible broken up over it.”
Jessie nodded eagerly, proving she didn’t care. “Of course she is. Everyone knows she was friends with him.”
She told me what she knew. It wasn’t much. John Wright’s body had been found in Jacob Wright’s house, after his wife had been searching for him through the night.
“Where in the house?” I asked.
Jessie looked at me with her head tilted to one side. “Why does it matter?”
“It does,” I insisted.
“In the kitchen,” she said.
I breathed. Not in the attic, then. Not with the paintings.
“He was stabbed through the heart with one of Jacob’s knives. It’s still there, on the floor. He didn’t even try to hide it.” Jessie’s mouth twisted and I thought there was something wrong with what she said, but I couldn’t tell what it was.
“And then?” I said.
“And then his wife called for a judgment.”
“What about Jacob?” I asked. “What does he say?”
“That he’s innocent,” said Jessie.
And if he said that, it was good enough for me. “When is the judgment to be?”
“Today,” said Jessie. “At the house. John Wright’s body is still there. You’re all called to see it, to make your own judgment.”
I nodded. I was going, I knew that much. Even if I wasn’t allowed to vote yet. I was going to make sure Jacob had justice. Somehow.
“That will make two farms that will need working on,” said Mama. Her voice sounded far away, but I felt as though the force of them were pressing me back, back.
I clenched my fists hard. How nice for Jessie, I thought.
“Will there be sharing afterwards?” asked Mama. She was thinking ahead, to the end of the day. To people needing to eat, and wanting something good after a day of bitter judgment.
I didn’t want to think ahead.
“Can you bring some more orange marmalade chocolate cake?” Jessie asked.
“I will,” said Mama. “If I don’t have too much to do.”
“I’ll help,” I said heavily.
Jessie jumped to her feet. “Thank you, thank you!” She kissed me on the cheek and for one moment, we were back to where we had been before she was called. But the moment faded and slowly the knowledge of her calling seeped back into Jessie’s eyes.
“I’ll see you then,” she said with a nod.
“Yes,” I said simply.
Then Mama held the door open for Jessie to leave.
“Lissa, I’m sorry. I know he was your particular friend,” said Mama softly.
“He didn’t do it,” I insisted.
Mama didn’t say anymore then, but went directly to the kitchen. She started on an enormous batch of dough first.
“You’re going to whip those eggs to froth and let them float away,” Mama said, taking the fork away from me.
I handed the bowl to Mama and she poured them into the batter.
Then it was time to cut up chicken for filling. I brought her celery and onions and pickles to add in, but Mama didn’t ask me to chop and I didn’t offer. I’d probably have chopped straight through her best cutting board and broke her best knife in two.
“Do you remember Jessie on her touchstone day? She was happier about your cake than being a farmer. It’s not right for her. Anyone can see that,” I burst out.
But Mama wouldn’t agree with me so easily. “You can’t say what is right for other people, Lissa. That’s for the touchstone alone.”
That afternoon, the Johnsons came to get me and Mama and her food. As we drove on through the woods, I kept expecting to hear the noise of people ahead of us. But it came all at once, like opening a door. One moment we were still in the forest and the next, we were twenty feet from Jacob’s front door. What had been Jacob’s front door.
No one was called to be judge in Zicker. It was a task we all had to do together, everyone who was called, that is. Children were exempt from the duty, and all around they were playing, running and chasing each other. Except for me.
Mr. Steel stood beckoning us up the porch steps.
“You don’t have to come,” said Mama to me. “No one will think anything if you don’t.”
“Because I’m still a child,” I said. “Uncalled.”
Mama shrugged and walked forward. I did, too. I was not a child, even if I had no calling, and I was going to be part of this judgment.
The smell once inside was overpowering. It was like a piece of wood hitting you in the head. Hot and fetid. I breathed through my mouth and still it was there, clutching at my throat.
The kitchen was only steps ahead.
Mama was waiting for me.
Then there he was. The smell was worse, but it wasn’t that I gasped at. It was the sight of John Wright lying on his side, tumbled onto the floor in the corner, a hand over his stomach as if trying to keep away the knife. It hadn’t worked. The knife was still in his chest, gored in black blood that spilled over his neatly ironed plaid shirt.
“What a shame,” said Mama. “He was a handsome man.”
Perhaps, but he looked so little like his brother that it was hard for me to believe it was true. And Jacob was the only one I had ever cared about. John was so stern, so unforgiving. He had never spoken to me that I recall and his relationship with Jacob had always seemed strained.
“Where’s Jacob?” I asked.
We walked around the kitchen to the sitting room and found him on a sofa by the back window. He wasn’t moving. I couldn’t even see his chest rising and falling to breathe. He could have been one of his own paintings.
“Jacob?” asked Mama.
It was Jacob’s chance to say anything he wanted to in his own defense. But I could see he was so upset over his brother’s death, he wasn’t going to say anything at all. He seemed so trapped inside his own grief I didn’t know if he even saw us there.
I went over closer to him. I didn’t touch him or try to get him to talk to me, just stood there at his side so he’d know I wasn’t afraid of him even if others were.
While I was there, I heard him muttering to himself so softly I didn’t think anyone else would hear. “Got to burn the paintings,” was what he said.
Burn the paintings? The thought made me sick inside. All that work, all that beauty—destroyed? I had to think of a way to save them.
“Lissa, you ready to go now?” Mama asked.
I nodded and stepped back from Jacob. He still didn’t look at me.
Outside, the sun glared into my eyes and made them sting.
“Are you all right?” Mama asked. She put an arm around me and patted my shoulder. It felt good, and I took in her baking smell. It took away some of the smell of death.
“I’m all right,” I said.
“What do you think?”
“I think I’ve never seen someone so close to being broken.”
Mama nodded, and bit her lower lip. “But—did he do it?”
I didn’t believe it any more now than I did before. But it did not look good. Who else would have wanted to kill John Wright? And why would they do it in Jacob’s house?
The paintings, I repeated in my mind. Focus on the paintings and getting them to safety.
Mama’s restaurant was big enough that I was sure I could find some place to store them where Mama wouldn’t look, at least for a while. And by then, maybe it wouldn’t matter anymore that I had them.
It wasn’t long until the last of the town had come through the house where John Wright lay dead. Then came time for judgment. There was a long, uncomfortable moment as we all waited for someone else to begin.
Mama looked at me. I had always been the one to talk when no one else would. Mama said I liked words as much as anyone else liked apple pie and whipped cream. But I wasn’t going to talk first. Not here.
Finally a hand was raised, and Mrs. Wallace said she’d always liked Jacob Wright, but that he’d had a temper, even as a boy.
Then one of the other farmers, Mr. Stephens, raised his hand. “He was always fair when it came to farming. Never tried to cheat anyone out of a good price. And he worked hard.”
That was the best any of them could say of him, I suppose. Would Jacob be ashamed to know that this was what was remembered of him?
Not one of them knew about his paintings.
It was my turn now. I stood up and waited until I felt all eyes on me.
“Jacob is my friend,” I said. I was tired of hearing him talked about in the past tense. John was the one dead, not Jacob.
People turned to stare at me. It seemed that I’d become the center of a circle, everyone jostling in their positions to find a better spot.
“I can’t believe that the Jacob I knew would do this to his brother. Not unprovoked, at least. But I have no proof of it. And Jacob will not give us any of his own.”
I spoke calmly, and I could see heads nod around me. Far better to speak this way than to point an accusing finger and scream threats. All around me, I could feel a shifting of more than bodies.
I remembered suddenly the way that Daddy could change the atmosphere of a room from joy to sadness or from horror to love with just a few notes.
Maybe I had inherited something of Daddy’s, after all.
I went on, more fluidly.
“What all of us should remember is that Jacob has lived with us all these years and he has been one of us. We know him and we cannot believe he would do this. It could just as easily have been a passing stranger, an outsider, who came into the house. Perhaps John was there defending it in Jacob’s stead, and he paid the price for his loyalty with his life.”
My audience was listening, rapt.
And I dared to go on.
“Once there were two brothers,” I said. “And they were as different as sheep and dog. As different as salt and pepper. As different as called and uncalled.”
I was dripping sweat already.
I didn’t know how I would finish this thing I’d started. And what was I doing telling a story at a judgment? It didn’t make sense. I didn’t know where this story would go. I did not feel as though I were leading it. Is this the way Daddy had felt when he began a new song?
“The older brother liked to spend time in the sun, feeling the sweat trickle down his brow, hearing the sound of the world around him. The younger brother spent his time in the cellar, preferring thinking to doing. He ate well, and liked to let his food sit. His brother called him lazy, but he said he was joyful in the quiet moments of life.”
This was like Jacob and John Wright in a way. We had all known that the two did not get along well.
“As the two brothers grew to be men, the older complained more and more that he was doing the lion’s share of the work, that his brother did nothing but eat the proceeds of another’s labor. What did he produce? Nothing but the butterfly’s wings of his thoughts, and no one could eat those.”
Now I was telling of myself as much as of Jacob. But I was also the older brother, too. I could be both at once, and I wanted the same of my audience. Even of John’s wife, who stood at the edge of the audience, trying with her hard face not to listen to my story, not to feel what I meant her to feel.
“The younger brother, on the other hand,” I said, “complained that the older brother knew nothing of satisfaction. For all he worked, the older brother did not spend a moment taking in the beauty of his creations. He simply moved on to another task, and then another. Nothing was enough for him, and so it was that the younger brother excused his weaknesses.
“But at last the day came when the older brother would have no more of the situation. He threw the younger brother out of his home and refused him even a loaf of bread to make his journey to another town. The younger brother had only the shirt on his back and the fork in his hand to bring with him.”
There was a bit of laughter at this, which I did not understand until I looked over at Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. Mrs. Johnson stared at her stout husband and poked his stomach with every description of the younger brother.
It was working, I thought. She thought I was speaking to her and her husband. The story was about them, too. About us all.
The words came more quickly now, like a waterfall that I was not meant to hold. They sprayed out, beauty shared with all.
“The younger brother moved slowly at first, surprised at how difficult it was to make the mass of his body take steps. He had not realized how long it had been since he had walked more than the distance from his cool hideaway under the house, where it was easy to access his food and easier still to think lofty thoughts without ever trying them in action.
“After only a dozen steps, he had to find a tree to rest under. He walked a dozen more, and found a berry bush to eat from. Then a dozen more, to a stream to drink from. On and on he went, offering himself tiny rewards for his efforts. But it was dark before he reached the end of town and he had no interest in asking for lodging other than at home. So he stayed where he was, slumped next to a tree, and let the night pass.
“In the morning, he woke stiff and sore, and kept moving. His pride demanded that he not ask for help. And so he left the town where he had been born and he did not look back. He followed the path of the stream so that he would always have water to slake his thirst and trees to shade him when he needed to rest body and mind. And there were always berries to be picked and roots to be dug near the stream.
“Days went by, and then weeks. Then summer was gone and even autumn was waning. The stream had turned into a river. The river into a sea. And the younger brother had grown thin and strong. His face was tan, his eyes bright. He had met many other travelers on his way. But he found that he still liked a cool, quiet place where he could think his thoughts.”
There was a gentle breeze that blew down the mountain, as if the touchstone, too, were asking for more of the story.
“Sometimes the younger brother shared his thoughts with others. More often, he did not. The stream took care of his needs. He wandered back up the stream and years later, found himself home once more. He was not recognized by any who knew him, however. His own brother greeted him warmly and invited him to come home and sup with his family, never once uttering the younger brother’s name.
“The older brother had grown old and gray with his worry. His hands were gnarled; his knees ached; his skin sagged. But it was true that his home was larger and better than ever. His lands were rich with bounty and all who spoke of him knew of his wealth.”
John’s wife looked satisfied at least with this description in the story. Her husband had done well by her and their son. But I had the feeling her satisfaction would not last long.
“The younger brother stayed many days. He ate as he had not eaten in years. He began to grow fat once more. And it was not many weeks before his brother stared at him from a distance and knew him once more. The older brother raced towards the younger then, ready to embrace him.
“But the younger brother was afraid. He was certain his brother would set him out once more. And though he was glad he had gone on his first journey, glad that he had learned what he had, still he remembered how difficult it had been. He did not yearn for it to begin again.
“But the older brother only wept and said that he was sorry, that he had missed his brother all these years and was glad he was back. He could have all he wished, could think his thoughts and do no more than remain where he was. The older brother would be happy with that.
“Astonished the younger brother agreed to this offer, and stayed. In time, he grew fatter than ever he had been before.”
I stared at Mr. Johnson, and felt suddenly as though I understood him now. I had been Mr. Johnson, just as I had been the younger brother.
“He thought he was happy. He and his brother spoke at night, when it was cool. The younger brother shared his deepest thoughts. The older brother considered them carefully and with great thanks. But one day, the younger brother asked if the older brother had in fact done as the younger brother suggested.
“The older brother admitted he had not. And when asked why, he said that it was a fine thought, but it wasn’t a useful one.”
There was a cough from John Wright’s wife, and her son began to weep.
The attention of the crowd was split, then drawn entirely away from me.
I tried to wrest it back, but suddenly I found that the story wasn’t coming out of me freely as it had been before. I hesitated, then saw the faces around me waiting, and knew I had to continue. There had to be an ending, but I did not know what it was.
I pushed towards it, working hard as I hadn’t before, the words coming slowly and with my feeling that they could not be right.
“The younger brother was angry with this, and told the older brother that he was only pretending to listen. He said that the older brother had never wished him to come back and that he still thought of him as lazy and useless.
“The older brother couldn’t deny this. He enjoyed his brother’s company and he had enough that he did not mind sharing it. But he did not value his brother’s thoughts.”
Still there were eyes that drifted away from me, towards the widow and her poor son. But I could not give up.
What could happen next? It seemed there were only a few choices. I struggled with them, then went with the one that had come to my mind first. Did that mean it was right?
I had no more time to wait. I had to go forward, right or not. Any end was better than none at all, I thought.
“This time, the younger brother set himself out of the house. The older brother followed him to the other side of town, begging him to rest, to take some food, to stay. But the younger brother kept on, his heart leaping in his chest until he thought it would leap right out his throat.
“At last, the older brother gave up and the younger brother did as he had done before. He followed the stream to the ocean, eating berries, and growing thinner and stronger with each step of the way. When he stopped to rest at last, he sat and watched the shore licking at the sand for a long time. His deepest thoughts focused on that simple repeated action and gradually, he understood what it meant.”
I had to end with a moral, and I had to show that this story was connected to Jacob and John Wright, for it was a judgment we were at. So the story that had grown to mean many things had to be pressed back to one. I felt as though I had been running a race and was coming to the end, my heart pounding in my chest as my feet throbbed.
“He could never go back. For he and his brother were as the water and the shore. Where the one increased, the other decreased.”
It was too brief, too bold. What did it mean? Everything and nothing.
I looked around at my audience. Did they know, too, that the story was lacking? It was not entirely useless, but I could see people looking at each other in confusion. And I felt the same. Whatever I had hoped to achieve with my words, I had failed.
“Lissa,” I heard Mama say from the side.
I turned to her. Her face was pale and shining. “That was a beautiful story. Your daddy would be so proud of you, if he had been here to see this day.”
But he wouldn’t be proud, I thought. He couldn’t be, not when I’d ended the story so badly. Daddy would never have done that. He had always known the ending of a song before he started.
Now Anne, John Wright’s wife stepped forward with her little boy clinging to her skirts as she moved. “Maybe it isn’t my place to talk yet,” she said. But there was steel in her voice that said it was. And something else—something that sneered at the story I’d just told. I was just a little girl, not even called yet. What did I have to say that mattered?
And besides, she was the one who’d been hurt. It was her loss. They had to be on her side for that, if for nothing else.
“I want you all to remember me and my son and what we’ll be missing the rest of our lives because of what Jacob Wright done to my John. And for what reason? Sure, they might have fought plenty, but it wasn’t ever meant bad by John. He tried to help his brother time and again, and did Jacob show a bit of gratitude for it? No.
“He was always surly, never taking advice if he could help it, and complaining afterwards. As if it were my John’s fault. But if Jacob didn’t want to hear him, he could have just turned away. There was no reason for my John to be killed. No reason at all.”
And my story had said nothing about a death at the end, given no explanation for it. It was only about two brothers who did not get along, and as she said, if Jacob had not wanted to listen, there were other things he could have done.
I had not once in my story offered another explanation for the death. I had not once mentioned another who might have done it. But there was one person who had a reason to wish John dead, and Jacob accused of the murder. More than one person, really. A whole family.
I looked around for Jessie and the Martins. They were here somewhere. I’d seen them during my story, but now they’d moved. Away from me and towards Anne Wright.
Jessie was looking the farmhouse up and down, but her mother pulled her face back to the front. Erica didn’t look my way at all. I waited for one of them to speak, to support Anne Wright and her anger. It would have made me more sure that they were part of this.
But they didn’t say a word.
In the end, it was Mr. Steel who stood up for Anne’s side. “I don’t see any doubt in this,” he said, rubbing a hand over his chin. He looked towards me, apologetically, but without any guilt in his eyes. He was being kind to a young girl, no more than that.
“Brother killing brother, that’s what it is. We all saw the anger before now between them. We all know what the judgment should be. Who says Jacob is a murderer who will be banished from Zicker til the end of his days?”
Jacob could be buried here, but that would be his only chance to come back. It was the worst punishment that could be given at a judgment. Outside it might be different, but here in Zicker, that’s the way it was.
People started raising their hands to vote.
Then I remembered the paintings. It was the only thing left I could do for Jacob. I had to get to them.
I ran from Mama. I heard her calling for me from behind, but I headed towards the woods, back to the restaurant, so she’d think she would find me there when it was all over.
Then I doubled back and went back inside Jacob’s house. The smell seemed ten times worse than before. I breathed through my mouth and it felt like John’s thick blood had filled my throat and I could not get it out.
I passed right by Jacob, stood in front of him for a long moment, thinking that now at the very end, he would have to say something. And when he did, I’d tell him what I was there for, and he’d tell me the paintings were mine if I wanted them.
But as the silence drew on, I was afraid that he would tell me to destroy them instead. And I couldn’t do that.
So I hurried to the attic and the rope ladder. I think I half-expected the paintings to be gone. But they were still there. I stared at the one of Mama, then touched the canvas gingerly, as if it would burn my fingers as they rolled it up. The others I did the same with, rolling as tightly as I could, then putting on roll inside another until I had all of them. Together, they were about the size around of one of Mama’s buckets, but they were a lot taller. Could I put them in the wagon without anyone noticing?
I looked around and saw a big burlap sack that looked like it had come from the barn. But it didn’t smell of the barn when I got close to it. It smelled of paint and sweat and dust.
Jacob must have left it here long ago.
I tugged the paintings into it one by one. In the end, it was bigger than I was and I doubted how easily I would be able to get it to the wagon alone. My heart beat in my throat as I considered what I would say if I was caught.
I just couldn’t be caught.
I dragged the burlap sack down the ladder with me, a cloud of dust accompanying us both. We went past Jacob once more, but this time I did not even look at him.
I went out the front door, because the judgment had been around back. But the judgment was over and already there were half a dozen people coming towards wagons to bring out the food for the sharing.
What difference did it make? I asked myself. They didn’t know what was in the burlap sack. They couldn’t guess, either. And if anyone were going to steal from this farmhouse, it would be something valuable.
So, pushing and pulling, I got it to the wagon. Then I lay on top of it, panting, feeling Jacob’s dreams surround me.
I’d done it. I’d saved his paintings. Mama would let them come out later, one by one. And if people asked what they were, maybe she’d even tell them the truth.
“Lissa, what’s that you’ve got there?”
It was Jessie.
“Nothing,” I said.
She climbed up on the wagon. “Nothing?” she said.
I moved away from the rolled-up paintings and brushed my hands from the dust. “Did you see the chocolate-marmalade cake?” I asked.
She nodded. “Had two pieces already. Daddy said I could eat whatever I wanted, now I’ve been called.”
“Lucky you,” I said. I eased away from the paintings, to the edge of the wagon bed. “Mama will probably make me eat my vegetables first.”
Jessie climbed off the wagon bed with me.
I almost thought I’d done it.
“Those aren’t yours,” said Jessie, pointing to the sack. “They should be Anne Wright’s, you know.”
“No,” I said. “They’re Jacob’s, and he said I could have them.”
“He’s been banished,” said Jessie. “Nothing is his no more.”
I closed my eyes. They really had banished him, then.
My mouth twisted hard. “You keep quiet about those or else,” I threatened her.
“Or else what?” asked Jessie, eyes wide.
I had no idea what I was saying. I spewed out the worst thing I could think of. I wanted to hurt her, because it was her fault this had begun. All her fault, and the touchstone’s. “Or else I’ll tell that you never were called. You just said you were, so you could be a farmer like your daddy. You pretended the touchstone came to you at night, and then you went up the mountain—”
“No!” shouted Jessie, catapulting towards me, throwing me back in the wagon. She pummeled me. I kicked at her.
Mama came and pulled us apart. “What’s this all about?” she demanded of me.
“It’s not hers,” said Jessie, pointing to the sack. “It’s Anne Wright’s. She was trying to take it away.”
Mama looked to me, giving me a chance to explain. Her own private judgment, but it was no more fair than Jacob’s had been.
I sagged. “They’re Jacob’s,” I said. “He wanted me to have them.” I hoped she would not ask him personally. I doubted he would confirm my words.
Somehow things had fallen apart since my story. The power of my words had faded, falling out of my hands like water.
“If they are, we’ll ask Anne if we may have them,” said Mama, her arm steel on my neck, leading me forward on what seemed the longest walk of my life. At the end, there was Anne Wright with her son at her side.
“What is it, Lissa?” Mama pinched me for the truth. “What’s in the wagon?”
I lowered my head, conscious of my defeat. “Paintings,” I said. “Jacob’s paintings.”
But that wasn’t enough for Anne. She had to go to the wagon and see them. She had to take them out one by one and let everyone view them.
No wonder Jacob had wanted them destroyed, I thought. Far better that than to let this happen to them.
Each one was displayed and snickered at. The colors were made fun of, and Jacob’s eyes. Did he see that red in the mountain? No wonder he’d killed his brother then. He was crazy as an outsider who stayed too long in Zicker.
It was Mama who ended it. I will be forever grateful to her for that much, at least.
“I think they are lovely,” she said. “They are just like us, in a way. In Jacob’s way.”
“I thought he was a farmer,” said someone else.
“What did he waste time on all these for?” asked another.
But there was no answer for it, no more than the story they’d already heard.
“They’re mine anyway,” said Anne Wright, taking hold of the burlap sack and dragging it to the end of the wagon so she could jam the paintings back in.
“What are you going to do with them?” I asked, my stomach churning.
“That’s not your business,” said Anne, a gleam in her eyes like the fire that I knew she would throw them to.
“Wait,” said Mama.
Everyone looked to her. Except for me. I did not imagine she could do more than she already had.
“You could trade them,” she said.
“Trade them to who?” asked Anne dismissively.
Mama lifted an arm out to take us all in. “To the ones in them. We don’t have much chance to get portraits painted, now, do we?” She stared around. “I want mine, at least.”
“What will you offer for it?” asked Anne.
“A dozen meals, perhaps?” asked Mama. She clutched my hand and pulled me closer to her. “And a dozen for Lissa’s?”
“Make it two dozen for each painting,” said Anne, bargaining shrewdly. “Four dozen in all.”
I did not expect Mama to agree to it.
Neither, apparently, did Anne Wright.
“Done,” said Mama.
And Anne Wright gaped.
But Mama nodded to me and I bent to pick up those two paintings. How desperately I wanted to touch the others, but my fingers were ice-stiff. I could not even roll the two up that I had. I put them in the wagon open.
A few others volunteered to take the paintings they recognized, at prices John’s wife agreed to. The rest were bundled up, put back in the burlap sack and handed into her own wagon.
It was all that could be done.
“Now I will be on my way,” said Anne Wright angrily. And she left us all behind.
There was no point in pretending anymore then. I wept bitter tears. I could feel the people shift around me. No one had the heart to remain any longer, not even to finish Mama’s food. It was packed back in the wagon, Mama’s first leftovers, because of me.
“Get in the wagon,” said Mama then. “I will sit back with you.”
We waited for the Johnsons to climb in front and then we were off, feeling the jolt of every bump along the way. When we were back at the restaurant once more, Mama took the paintings inside and laid them out on two tables.
“I don’t know quite what to do with them, Lissa,” she said.
I didn’t argue with her.
All I had to do was remember the look on Anne Wright’s face, and the fact that no one else had offered anything for their paintings.
The next morning, I went back up the mountain the way I had gone the first time, passing through Jacob Wright’s fields, seeing his farmhouse in the distance, now empty and dark. His cattle had been spread out to other herds. His fields would be harvested by another, but not cared for as he would have done.
I’m doing this for him, I told myself. To make sure that what he went through will never happen again.
It was a long climb. I thought that it would be easier the second time, but I stumbled more and the rocks seemed steeper than ever. Even the sky seemed to be against me. Instead of a clear blue sky and a sharp sun shining down on me, the sky was dark and moody, the wind gusting up roughly now and again, when I was least expecting it. And despite my sweating, I shivered and wished I had thought to bring my coat.
Finally, I reached the top. My heart was beating so fast that I nearly fell over with light-headedness. But I stood still for a long while, thinking of the other touchstones I had heard. I couldn’t expect this one to speak to me so clearly. But I would hear something, I was sure of it.
And yet I trembled as I pushed through the thorns, my hands stretching out to reach the cold black I knew was there. I could not find it—could not find it—half-wondered if somehow Mr. Martin had moved it to a different location, or destroyed it altogether.
Then it was there, under my fingertips. I breathed, and felt a sudden calm.
Not my own calm.
“I came back,” I said out loud. I did not expect to hear an answer, but I did.
“You need no calling,” said the touchstone. “None of you, and you least of all.”
My ears seemed to ring.
“You know already who you are and what you are meant to be.”
“What are you talking about? I have no idea.”
“You are the storyteller. You have been from the day you were born and you discovered it yesterday”
I lifted my hand from the stone, trying to gather my swirling thoughts back to myself.
“You will know what you must do. When the time comes,” said the touchstone.
“When what time comes? What do you mean—what am I supposed to do?”
But the touchstone would not answer me.
I stepped away from the thorns.
I could still hear a buzzing sound in my head, but it was indistinct. I grasped for the meaning of it, but caught only a hint of a word. It might have been, “Return,” but that could have meant so many things that I did not trust it.
I went back down the mountain as heavily as I had gone down the first time. My hopes were as crushed as before, and they had been larger hopes.
At the restaurant that night Mama had more leftovers than she knew what to do with. I felt guilty that it was my fault, for what I’d said about Jacob. Finally, as she looked around at the cooked food, she suggested that I go out and around Zicker and knock on doors, offering the bread she’d baked that day, along with some of the barbecued pork.
“Please,” she said. “I don’t want it to go to waste.”
I couldn’t say no to her. I went up past the Wright farms, where things were still and dark, across to the valley where most of the houses lay at the mouth of the river. It felt chilly enough that I wished I’d brought a sweater, but I tried to walk as fast as I could from house to house.
The first door I went to was Mr. Dour, the blacksmith. Susan opened the door. It was the first time we’d met since she’d hit me by the well, the morning I’d gone to demand a calling from the touchstone. She seemed smaller somehow. Wiry, but not as big as I remembered.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, fists tight. When she saw Tristan, though, she lowered them.
“I came to bring some of Mama’s food,” I said.
“I can’t spare anything to trade today.” Susan reached for the door, but I put my foot in to catch the door.
“There’s no trading for this. It’s a gift from my mama.” I put it down on the porch and walked away, so that if she refused it, she would have to know I wasn’t taking it back.
She stared at me, then held out her hands and I put the bread and pork into them.
I went to the next house, and the next, and on down to the river. Only one person took the bread gladly and said thank you. The others were furtive in their acceptance. Mr. Lin, the wheelwright, refused the bread altogether. And when I left it on his doorstep anyway, he kicked it into the dirt, then went out and stamped on it with his foot as well, and spat at me for the trouble when he passed back by me.
As I turned back home, the sun was falling behind the mountain where the touchstone rested. The sky went from purple to gray to black in a matter of moments. It was the most beautiful thing I could imagine, and I wondered if Jacob had tried to capture that on one of his canvases.
Then the stars came out one by one, blinking to us.
Jessie Martin was waiting at the door to the restaurant when I came back.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, because she was shivering and rubbing her shoulders with her hands, up and down, up and down.
She shook her head and I could see a faint stain of blood on her lower lip, where she’d been biting is so hard. Was she trying not to talk? What was it she didn’t want me to know?
I ushered her inside and told Mama that she was here, and in a bad way.
Mama was cleaning in the kitchen, but she came out to see Jessie for herself. Then she glanced at me, her eyes shadowed in worry.
“Jessie, would you like to come in the kitchen and wait while I make some hot chocolate?” she asked. “After you drink it, maybe you could go to sleep, at least for a little while. And in the morning, we might all be able to think with clearer heads.”
Jessie nodded and led where Mama gently took her. I followed them and helped with the hot chocolate. It was soothing, though, doing the simple steps that led to hot chocolate. Hot milk on the stove. A spoon of cocoa, a dash of cinnamon and salt, then lots of sugar. Jessie’s face went from cool to a normal shade of pink to almost rosy when she held the cup of steaming cocoa under her nose.
She tagged after me up to the spared bedroom overhead, but I could hear her tossing and turning all night long. She woke early enough to catch Mama making bread the next morning in the kitchen.
After Mama turned back to the stove to get out the next batch of bread, I moved to start with the dishes. Jessie stopped me with a touch to the arm.
“I did pretend to be called,” she said simply to me. “I didn’t know how you knew, and I couldn’t admit it then.” She waited, looking at me.
She licked at her lips, then closed her eyes briefly and went on, as if she was forcing herself to do something that she’d thought about many times before. “I was too terrified of what he would do if I wasn’t called to be a farmer. But I didn’t know he would go that far—” she stopped.
I desperately wanted to hound her to finish. Instead, I held my tongue and bided my time.
“He was the one who killed John Wright,” she finally got out, half in a whisper, half in a rush.
I should have been more surprised, but I wasn’t.
I knew Jacob Wright hadn’t done it, after all. And Jessie’s family had benefited from it.
“When did you find out?” I asked.
“Last night,” said Jessie, swallowing hard. “I told him that you knew the truth, that I hadn’t been called to be a farmer. I said I should wait until my real calling came, that there wasn’t any shame in waiting a few more years.”
“But he didn’t agree?”
Jessie shook her head violently. “He asked me how I thought Zicker would get along, now that it was missing two farmers. He said there was no way of knowing if the touchstone would ever call anyone to take over those plots. And then what would become of us? He made it all sound like it was my fault.”
He would, I thought. He was good at that.
“But when I wouldn’t promise him to stop talking about the touchstone’s real calling for me, he told me about John Wright. He told me every detail of it. How he planned it, to make sure that Jacob Wright would be blamed for it. How he sent a note to John Wright to ask him to meet there with all the other farmers, to discuss my calling. Only there weren’t any other farmers there. Only him and John. And the knife from the kitchen.”
It was like she was in a trance, telling a story that had nothing to do with her. Her voice was monotone, but the words were chilling. I could see it all happen in my head.
“And Jacob?” I got out.
“Papa made sure he wasn’t there, at the time. But that he’d come back and see his brother on his own kitchen floor, killed with his own knife, surrounded in blood. Papa said he was sure he wouldn’t flee, that he would be too stunned to try to cover up the crime. He said he knew Jacob Wright too well.”
But he hadn’t known Jacob at all. That was part of what made me so angry, that none of us had. Only the bits and pieces he let us know.
I tried to get Jessie to come outside with me after that, to play by the river or climb the trees, but she was too afraid.
Finally, Mama offered to show her some cooking skills and Jessie brightened up immediately. I watched for a little while, but then it was too painful. It seemed that they moved so well together, as though Jessie had been the one at Mama’s side for all these years, instead of me.
Why had I never guessed that Jessie’s calling ought to have been Mama’s? Jealousy?
I left them talking about the perfect pie crust shape, kept cool and little-touched, and went outside to gather berries.
There was no sign that Mr. Martin knew where Jessie had gone or even cared. No one came to the restaurant asking after her. No one came at all, to get even a glimpse of her.
Jessie seemed calmer the next day, or perhaps she was only distracted by her happiness to be working with Mama. She woke up, hands stained with berry juice and went straight to the kitchen without a word. There was even a smile on her face and she did not touch the purpling marks on her neck as she had constantly at first.
It was the next morning, just before dawn, when they came, Mr. Martin and the others.
I could hear the noise of them from some distance away, and sat upright in the room that Jessie and I were sharing, wondering if I should wake her or let her sleep. Was there any hope that Mr. Martin would go away without her?
“Lissa?” Jessie was awake, after all.
“Shhh,” I said, straining my ears to hear any hint of what would come next.
“He’s come for me, hasn’t he?” Jessie whimpered, hugging her knees to her chest. The little girl again. She seemed to have lost years since her touchstone day.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said immediately. “He’s not going to hurt you. I promise you that.”
There was a sudden cracking sound downstairs, and Tristan’s voice crying out. They’d forced open the door. We had to get away!
Then Mama came in, closing the door behind her.
I got up and Mama came in, closing the door behind her.
“Can you go out the window?” she asked.
“And then where?” Was there no place in all of Zicker where Jessie would be safe?
“Outside,” said Mama. “You go with her, Lissa. Make sure she gets across the river safe. Then stay with her.”
I didn’t take Jessie across the river, though I had promised Mama I would. I took her to the cover of trees nearby, helped her climb to the top and made sure no one could see her. Then I ran back to the restaurant.
It was already burning.
The flames shot up out of the roof like dancers to some song I could not hear. I ran for the door, which was still open. I don’t know if I thought I could save Mama and or if I wanted to die with her, but a strong arm pulled me back.
I struggled, kicking and scratching, then felt a sharp pain to my head. I blacked out after that, and woke again to the smell of smoldering ruins. I could see the restaurant in the distance, but the silhouette had changed entirely. The roof had fallen in the middle and there was only a skeleton of beams left.
Except for the kitchen. Mama’s kitchen with its huge iron stove and ice box, had been unwrapped from its wooden packaging, but seemed unharmed.
Jessie, I thought. Had Mama known she would die? Had she left this for Jessie? What about for me?
“You’re lucky I didn’t strangle you.” It was Mr. Martin, standing over me.
I could not get to my feet. I felt blood in my mouth, spat it out at him, and missed him by a long way.
Then he came closer, within arm’s reach. “Try it again,” he threatened me.
But I had lost my taste for revenge. It did not matter. He did not matter.
Mama was dead. There was nothing left to fight for.
“Where is she?” demanded Mr. Martin, coming close enough now that I could smell the alcohol on his breath. Bought from the outside, for it couldn’t have come from Zicker.
“Where is my daughter?” Mr. Martin asked, again, as if I hadn’t understood the first time.
I shook my head.
He hit me again, in nearly the same place he had caught me before. I teetered on the edge of falling unconscious again. I wished that I had. Instead he pulled me up sharp against his chest and began to twist my arm back.
The pain was more than I could have imagined, and I had always thought my imagination was immense. No dream could hurt like this.
“Tell me where she is and I will let you go.”
“No,” I said through clenched teeth.
He twisted harder. I couldn’t hear if he said anything then, but I kept shaking my head to make it clear I would not give him what he wanted, what he had already killed for, three times over.
It wasn’t until he let go of me, disgusted, that I fell with my face to the dirt.
When Mr. Martin went away, and I saw a few other men cross between me and the restaurant with him, I dared to crawl towards the fire once more. I just had to go there, see what it was. Something about knowing the truth so that I could tell it.
The roof was still falling in flakes with the light wind. It felt like fall as I walked through the door. The sunlight streamed through overhead, as though I were in a clearing in a forest.
Mama’s body was in the doorway, on her back, her eyes up to the sky.
“No!” I cried out. “No!” I fell over her and wept. Her body was still warm, but warm from the fire, not from her own life.
I thought of all the moments that I would never share again with Mama. Seeing her in the kitchen with her hair askew, and oblivious because she was with her bread. Mama in her beekeeper’s outfit, with honey dripping from the combs. Mama picking crabapples, and peaches, covered with fruit and sugar from the jam.
Mama holding me in bed when I was sick, giving me drinks though I threw them back up. Mama telling me of her touchstone day, and assuring me that I would have mine, one day.
Well, it had come. Mama knew what I was, and the touchstone day stew hadn’t mattered then.
Mama would have wanted to hear my stories the rest of my life. I knew that. She would have been proud of me. She would not have understood me anymore than she understood Tristan and his songs, but she would have stepped back and applauded for me. She would have—
But she would not.
I felt the sobs rising up in my chest. My throat ached and my head felt heavy and as filled with fire as the restaurant had been that morning. I let one sob go, but I held the rest. I saved them. For the story.
Then I turned and went back the way I had come.
The stairs crumbled beneath my feet as I moved down them. I went outside to the river, to drink and cool my face. Then I went back to the tree where I had left Jessie and told her to come down.
“It’s time for a judgment,” I said. And together we walked towards the other end of town, knocking on doors and calling for a judgment. I was afraid of the outcome, but it was our way. And Mr. Martin was only one man. He had not had so many with him as I had imagined. Only a few. The rest were just afraid.
But they came when we called. They came because of what they saw in our faces, and because of what many of them had seen that morning, the streak of fire above the restaurant. And they came for Mama.
I found Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and made sure Jessie was safe with them. Then I moved through the rest of the crowd, answering questions if they were asked, and assuring people that the judgment would soon begin. No one had had time to bring food to this judgment. It seemed to me a kind of memorial to Mama, that we would all go hungry. But it was also a reminder that this was not like any other judgment.
It was close to noon when I saw Mr. Martin being pushed forward, towards the now cold and lifeless restaurant. One of the men who held him had been here this morning. He had changed sides quickly, I thought. Perhaps there would be a judgment for him later, and the others. But not now.
Mr. Martin sneered at me, pretending he did not care about the judgment. “The accused speaks first,” he reminded me.
“Speak, then,” I said. I did not let myself feel fear. I had not told the story well at Jacob Wright’s judgment, but I had learned since then. I knew who I was. And I knew who he was.
It would be different this time. This time my story would win.
Mr. Martin spoke loudly, as if to me, though I knew he was speaking to everyone gathered. Those who were trying to pull him closer to the restaurant stopped. We were by Mama’s shed. If I opened the door, I thought, and let the bees come out—but no, that would not be punishment enough for him.
“Your mother took my daughter away from me,” said Mr. Martin. “I knew she wouldn’t let me speak to her. I was terrified for her and for the lies that your mother poured into her ears. Everyone knew what she was saying, but they didn’t believe it. They know me too well.”
I nodded, not bothering to interrupt. He would have his chance and I would have mine.
Mr. Martin’s face was very dark and he wiped frequently at the trickles of sweat running down his face. “I came this morning to ask once more if I could see her, but she met me at the door and began to shout at me. She threw herself at me.” He gestured at a scar on his face.
This was his story, I thought. It was not a poor one, as far as stories go. There was emotion in it, and he tried to make his listeners feel for him. But Mr. Martin did not understand that the story might have had more power if it had its own life. He tried to keep it too firmly attached to himself.
I thought again about the story I had told at Jacob’s judgment. It was when I had been afraid and tried to force the words that it had gone so wrong. I had wanted it to say what I wanted it to say, and you had to trust the story to do that, to come out of yourself and be part of you. If you did not, then it never could do what it was meant to do. It could not change anyone.
“Then we went up the stairs because I could hear sounds up there. I was sure Jessie was there. I knew she would want to see me, her own father. But the door was locked against me.” He looked around, his eyes trying to find another pair to anchor on. But they kept slipping away. Too light for the load.
“I kicked the door down at last, and I saw two beds inside. Jessie had been there, but she was gone. I asked the woman where my daughter was, but she would not answer me. I asked her again. I shook her.” Now he was the one shaking. “But she would not say.
“Then I thought I saw movement outside, on the ground. I moved to the window. I meant only to smash out the glass. But she stepped in my way. The hammer struck her in the face.” He winced at this, but I had seen my mother’s body already. I knew where he had hit her.
“I did not mean to kill her. I swear it. I will give whatever reparations are judged necessary, to her daughter.” He swallowed, as if he really cared. “But I did it all for my daughter’s sake.” His voice had drifted away.
He did not know that endings are the most important of all. Or perhaps he did, and found no way to twist it the way he wanted, in the end.
Perhaps there was no way to twist a lie to sound like truth for long.
I waited until he had given up, and then I took my place, feet firmly apart, directly below the window where my mother had been killed. I looked out into the faces that I had known every day of my life, and they waited for me to tell my story.
They knew it, too, I thought. They knew I was a storyteller. It did not matter what the touchstone said. They could see it in me, a calling as sure as any other.
I told about Mama, about her cooking. Her bread. Her barbecued pork. Her hot chocolate and berry pies. Her biscuits dripping with hot butter. Her sugared tea with cream. Her fried okra and her greens with bacon. Her twice baked potatoes and gingerbread.
Then I told about her and my daddy, about how much she’d loved him and he’d loved her. How he’d died in the river and she’d had to come home to tell me. And to go on with her life, because she believed that it was still worth living. Because she loved me, yes, but also because she loved herself. And the restaurant. And the two of Zicker itself.
I told about how I asked her often about her calling by the touchstone, and why I hadn’t been called yet. I tried to make my voice sound like hers when she spoke gently to me, reassuringly. “There’s time yet for that.”
I pointed at Jessie and said that Mama hadn’t known taking her in would end in her death. “But if she had, she’d have done it just the same. Because she was always the kind of person who knew what was right. She didn’t need anyone to tell her what was right. Just like she didn’t need the touchstone to tell me I wasn’t meant to be a cook, or that I wasn’t meant to be a singer like Daddy.”
Only I was like Daddy, more than I’d ever understood. I didn’t have the music he had, or at least not the pleasantness of it. But there was music in my story, in the rhythm of the flow and the way that my voice changed and grew louder or softer, more strident, or more harsh.
“She wasn’t the one who told me that there are too many people who go to the touchstone and call themselves to what they want, but I think she knew it. She loved Zicker more than she loved that stone up on the hill. She loved all of you. As much as she loved me, I think.” That was what helped accept her death, the idea that she had died to make Zicker live on.
“We don’t need a stone to tell us who we are. We should be telling the stone, all of us, and not pretending about it. In the end, don’t we all call ourselves? If we didn’t, we’d be miserable. It’s time for us to choose our own futures, and not make excuses anymore.”
I knew there was a danger in this. Jessie’s father wasn’t the only one who’d try to force his child to accept a calling that wasn’t in their heart. But it was time for us to stop assuming that we only ever received one call, or that we couldn’t have two calls at once, as Jacob had. One that was for others, for Zicker, and one that was for ourselves.
“Do you understand?” I asked.
I looked into their eyes, and I knew. I’d found my own calling. I’d given it to myself. This was it. I spoke, and others listened. Call it storytelling. Call it music. Call it changing people’s hearts or inventing a new future. This was who I was.
“Come with me!” I cried, and led them up the mountain to the touchstone, to return our callings to it. It would never have power over us again, if we all stood before it and took our power back.
Copyright 2019 Mette Ivie Harrison
About the Author
Mette Ivie Harrison writes The Bishop’s Wife mystery series for Soho Press and has written many YA fantasies, including The Princess and the Hound. She holds a PhD in Germanic Languages and Literatures from Princeton University, is an All-American triathlete, and is working on several autism positive books.