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The Attic

by Edna Faye Kiel

    Emma Ten Kley watches her mother’s panicked exit out the back door just long enough to initiate an escape up the stairs to her hideaway in the attic. This is the place to which she always retreats when the family cows, unhappy at the weaning of their calves or eager for sweeter grass, break loose. Unfenced farm animals engender in Emma a terror more severe than any nightmare. She can’t explain her reaction, but they threaten such powerful unpredictability that her lungs feel ready to burst.
It’s odd perhaps that, although Emma is growing up in a farm, she knows very little about its life. It isn’t that each year’s crop of calves, chicks, and piglets is kept hidden from her, or even that she is not expected to help her mother tend the large vegetable garden. It’s just that the mystery of life is kept a secret. Life on the farm appears in one form and disappears to appear again as food on the Ten Kley table.
That’s why spring and summer are such frightening times to Emma. All that life overwhelms, and farm demands are so much harder to manage. Her parents, especially her mother, work like harried jugglers about to drop their twirling plates. Emma is expected to carry on without getting into anybody’s way. Even her afternoon story time gets abbreviated, with time allotted for only a chapter from Catherine Voss’s Children’s Bible Story Book. Emma longs for the winter time leisure when the Bobbsey twins and Black Beauty also have their turns and her mother even volunteers to ‘read the pictures.’ Emma loves the way her mother’s make-up stories connect Emma’s own life with the imaginary world in which she feels so much at home.
Breathless, Emma plops among the old trunks and cartons full of forgotten oddities. The attic is truly a storeroom of comfort. Here are objects whose lives have all been used up. Here is history that can be relived but is powerless to reshape the present. Nothing changes its place unless Emma decides it should. Today her father’s World War II souvenirs provide the solace she needs until the kitchen sends up the familiar clatter of her mother’s return.
‘Up in that old attic again,’ Emma’s mother correctly guesses when the five-year-old reappears in the kitchen.
‘For the life of me, I can’t figure out what you find so fascinating about that dusty old place. You know, you’re old enough to come give me a hand with those blessed cows.’
‘Did they get into the garden?’ worries Emma.
‘No, thank goodness. But I got a nasty nettle sting by heading them off through the tall grass. I swear it’s that old Guernsey Bess that gets the rest of them all riled up. I must ask your dad to separate her from the rest of her herd. Refuse her new grass for a few days and see if she doesn’t behave herself better.’
That resolve, however, soon gives ways to other chores. The beans need picking, the boysenberries are ready for the freezer, and the cucumbers are the right size for making sweet pickles. Old Bess stays on the new grass, but for several days, Emma has no need to retreat into the attic.
Emma’s older sisters are at it again, flinging orders and insults around with the potato peels and frying hamburgers. As teenagers, they not only hold down summer jobs, but are also expected to get milking. This added responsibility to their eight-hour shifts contributes little to the serenity of the household.
‘Get the phone,’ snaps Sylvia.
‘I’ve got to turn the meat.’
‘You get it. I’m still making the salad, and, besides, you’re closer,’ comes back Ruth.
‘I got it last time. It’s your turn.’
‘Since when do we take turns answering the phone. For gosh sakes, Syl, don’t be such a simp. Just lift up the receiver.’
Most evenings, Emma’s role as the baby sister helps her avoid getting caught in the middle of these fights. She doesn’t even need the attic. She can escape outside to her swing suspended from the Gravenstein-apple tree or her playhouse in the grove at the end of the driveway or to the barn to discuss her day with Mr. Ten Kley. Any of these places nurtures the rich feasts which sustain Emma’s imaginary world. Much to her delight, Emma’s father never expects a factual account of her day, and he has a great memory for all the names of the characters who live within her imagination: her husband, Jimmy Hogarty; her best friend, Sarah Jane; and the horrid neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Pigglestump.
Tonight, however, the phone call prompts Sylvia to send Emma to the barn with a message for Mr. Ten Kley. The foreman at the Farmer’s Mutual Telephone Company is calling their father back to work. Some kid has shot a beebe through the cable serving a doctor’s line.
Emma dawdles a bit on the path from the house to the barn. She dreads the consequences of this message. Since this is also the night Mrs. Ten Kley attends Marys and Marthas, a ladies-aid meeting at church, Sylvia and Ruth will be left in charge of the house. When both parents are gone, the quarrelling never stops.
Emma helps her dad lace up his climbers while he reminds Sylvia and Ruth about what he needs to be done.
‘Don’t forget to shut the door to the chicken coop. Those roosters are just about ready for the frying pan. Make the lunches for tomorrow, and if I’m too late, check the calves to see if they’ve settled in for the night.’
Emma already feels the next clash coming in the bickering glances her sisters are exchanging.
‘And, Piker,’ Mr. Ten Kley lifts Emma’s chin up to look directly into her worried eyes, ‘tonight, you’re the supervisor. You see that your sisters do their jobs, okay?’ Then, with a wink and quick kiss on Emma’s forehead, he heads to the back door with one more request for Sylvia and Ruth: ‘Leave something warming for me in the oven, please, girls. Who knows how late I’ll be.’
Emma, adjusting to her unexpected authority, trots behind him to the army-green ’52 Chevy outfitted for a linesman, proud of the shine her dad keeps on the company pick-up and of his newly bestowed trust in her. With a farewell of ‘Thanks for your help, kid,’ he throws gravel as he winds up the long driveway and out of Emma’s sight. Mrs. Ten Kley soon follows after in the family Ford.
Knowing the dishes will keep her sisters busy for a while, Emma delays her supervision, deciding to visit her playhouse. The ‘playhouse’ is a nursling log that lies in the midst of some small alder and oak trees between the driveway and a small hayfield, some distance from the house. The glory of the space is that it can become any place Emma wants or needs it to be. Tonight the grove is at its summertime best with a hint of an early August breeze to filter out the heat of the day – a perfect setting for a ladies-aid meeting of her own. Emma sings hymns, recites the Lord’s Prayer, and organizes the hostesses for the next meeting before guessing that the dishes must be done and her sisters available for other tasks. But to make sure, Emma takes her trike the long way around the driveway, the section generally only used by the milkman and deeply rutted from the truck’s large tires. But the time in the playhouse has left Emma calm, and she enjoys the challenge of manoeuvring her trike around all the potholes. She is almost to the dairy when she spots Old Bess’s calf running circles between her and the house. Forgetting for the moment that she’s in charge, Emma screams, ‘Sylvie, Ruuuth, come quick! A calf is out. Come quick!’
But Emma’s command is no competition for KPUG’s hit parade her sisters have left blaring in the kitchen. Giving in to her usual terror, Emma dismounts her trike, running the opposite direction from the calf around the garage and into the front door of the house. Now nothing blocks the way to the attic until her father’s charge brings her involuntary muscles to a halt. She has to make something happen.
‘Syyylvie. Ruuth. Come here.’
The request carries the appropriate authority, and both sisters run to the kitchen, Ruth down the stairs from her bedroom and Sylvia from the bathroom, a large white towel surrounding her just-washed hair. She speaks first.
‘What in the world is the matter, Emma?’
By this time Emma is out of breath and words. All she can do is point out the back door and gasp, ‘…calf…Bessie’s calf.’ In spite of her wet head, Sylvia heads to the porch first and - momentarily - takes control.
‘Ruth, get out here quick. A calf is out. Oh brother, he’s running straight for the garden.’
‘You do it,’ comes back Ruth.
‘Bruce said he’d call about 8.30. I can’t miss his call.’
‘Ruth. I just washed my hair. You’ve got to do it.’
‘I won’t.’ Ruth is shouting now.
‘Just because you’re the oldest, you think you can boss everybody around. I won’t miss out on a change for a date this Friday night because of a stupid old calf. If you’re so worried about the garden, you go catch the calf.’
Ruth’s tirade and bad memory about who is in control are lost on Emma. Being denied access to the attic by her father’s order, Emma’s terror mounts. She is certain that the garden will be ruined and they’ll all starve in the winter. Or worse yet, the calf will do some deed so terrible they’ll all be destroyed before winter comes, before her parents come home that night even. Or worse yet, she will disappoint her father with her inability to supervise.
‘Well, Emmiekins,’ Sylvia says, kneeling in front of her little sister, ‘I guess it’s all up to us.’
She stands again, taking Emma’s hand, pulling them both toward the back door and the runaway calf.
Emma discovers some courage in her partnership with Sylvia, but the two of them are no match for the frisky calf. They manage to divert him from the garden, but are unable to direct him back to the calf pen in the barn. The situation worsens again when he spots his mother grazing at the far end of the hayfield. Running back past the garden, he leaps the electric fence, leaving Emma and Sylvia with a bigger problem to solve.
‘I’m getting really tired, Syl.’ Emma’s voice pleads for a way out.
‘I know Emmiekins, but hang in there. You know Dad would want us to get the calf back to the barn.’
Emma nods, feeling once more the uneasy responsibility assigned to her and wishing she could escape to the comfort of the attic.
‘So, what bright ideas for catching a silly little calf are hiding behind those bangs of yours, Emmie?’ Sylvia brushes a few stray hairs from Emma’s face.
Emma looks out toward the field, seeing the calf trying to take hold of Bess’s depleted udder.
‘Maybe he’s thirsty.’
‘Emmie, that’s it. The sucking bucket. That’s what we need. What a brilliant idea!’ Sylvia is already running towards the barn. A bewildered Emma tries to keep up with her.   
‘Emmie, if you bring the bucket over to me, I’ll pour some milk into it straight from tonight’s milking.’
Slowly, Emma understands what the plan is and gathers excitement in the control it gives back to her.
‘I can hold the bucket for the calf, Sylvie. I know how to. Sometimes Dad lets me help feed the calves.’
‘Right, Emma,’ Sylvia accepts the suggestion, ‘but let’s carry it between us up to the field, okay?’
As the two make their way across the pasture, the other cows move aside with disinterest. Except for old Bess. The look she gives them suggests they’ve been too long in coming for her bothersome calf. The calf, on the other hand, recognizes the bucket as an old friend.
Emma holds out the nippled side of the bucket toward the calf, who grabs it readily. Sylvia quickly positions herself at the rear, giving directions to Emma and urging the calf forward. The precess takes time and their movements are far from graceful. Some of the milk spills, and Emma’s small hands ache from keeping hold of the bucket, but eventually, all three of them get back to the calf shed. Emma gladly fetches a rope, but is more than willing to let Sylvia tie up the calf on her own. The escapade has left the calf too tired to resist.
‘We did it, Emmiekins,’ Sylvia breathes out.
‘Congratulations. You’re a great little supervisor.’
She holds out her hand again.
‘C’mon. I’ll help you into you pj’s, and you can sleep with me tonight.’
The invitation pleases Emma, and she will accept, but not until she has given one last order for the night:
‘After we have hot chocolate, Sylvie, with oodles of marshmallows in it.’
The two race each other to the house and giggle their way past Ruth, now talking on the phone, into the kitchen.
The rest of August offers less excitement. As life on the farm wanes into the aftermath of harvest, Emma relaxes. Things are becoming more predictable again. When Mr. Ten Kley invites his youngest daughter to accompany him to check the hayfields one last time, she readily accepts.
She doesn’t even think about the bull, the only animal left in these fields. In the farthest corner of the high field, he seems very intent on his grassy meal. Emma even drops her father’s hand, comfortable just in his presence and in the connection she has for him. Her heart feels as big as the field and as expensive. There is no fear in this wide open space. Emma’s father breaks the silence.
‘Well, Piker, you’ll soon be off to kindergarten. What do you think of that?’
‘Mommy’s going to make me a new dress for the first day.’
The nonsequitor doesn’t ruffle him.
‘Oh, she is, is she? That’s nice.’
They walk on, Emma’s hand now back in his.
‘Kiddo, will you do something for your old dad? Like school. Like school a lot and get smart. That’s what your daddy should’ve done.’
Then a tenseness, abrupt and quivery, stops his advice. His arm rises in instinctive protection across Emma’s chest.
‘Emma, get behind me.’
The tone more than the words moves Emma. She understands immediately that obedience, not questions, is the only acceptable response.
‘Back up, slowly,’ he says carefully.
Emma moves only her legs. Her upper body remains rigid, arms straight at her sides, head focusing on the narrow of her father’s back. Her father keeps talking.
‘That’s a girl. Keep moving. I’ll tell you when we get to the electric fence. Then duck down and roll under, keeping your head down until you’re well under.’
Emma knows that they are heading towards the spot where the strawberry patch borders the hayfield. The wire there is fairly low. She will have to lie down nearly to get under.
‘Now,’ says her father, no less urgently.
‘Here’s the fence. Crawl under.’
Emma squats first, dropping face forward to her knees, which gives her the view her father’s back has been blocking. The bull is bearing towards them, head down and forelegs pawing the ground. Emm’s lungs tell her that the old terror has again seized control of her actions. Falling flat to the grass, Emma rises up again, neglecting, however, to roll over in a complete turn. Her head lifts directly against a wire. The jolt pierces her tender scalp, throwing Emma’s shocked body into the strawberry vines. Her father hurdles the fence and scoops her in his arms.
Back in the kitchen, Emma breaks from his embrace and races to the attic. Once inside, she shoves boxes, suitcases - anything of bulk that her five-year-old strength can manage - against the attic door. Finally, she collapses, bracing her feet against a steamer trunk and her back against the makeshift fortress. It takes her father almost an hour to coax her down to supper.


Taken from ‘Viewpoints’ (1995), pages 49-55.

Edna Faye Kiel

Mary McGannon