This would be easier if I were writing about someone else. Then I could change it, fatten up the thin parts and leave out the dull ones, turning them twice like frayed collars and cuffs, making them over into something more romantic than they really were, but then the remembering would be neither so painful, nor so sweet. I suppose you can't have one without the other. . . Evangeline Glennon knows plenty about life's highs and lows. Still, she feels lucky, surrounded as she is by people who care deeply: Papa, who's never lost his Irish brogue or the twinkle in his eye; endlessly practical, generous Mama; and steadfast best friend Ruby. Romance would be too much for a girl like Eva to expect. Then again, love has a tendency to find those who aren't looking for it. . . Out of a clear blue sky, a dashing young aviator makes an impossibly gentle landing in Papa's Oklahoma wheat field. After taking her up in his plane, "Slim" leaves Eva with an exhilarating new perspective--and an even more precious gift that changes her forever. But that's only the beginning. The world is changing, too--and only the strongest in body and spirit will weather what is to come. Now, while tracing from afar the progress of the brave young barnstormer she knew so briefly, Eva stitches her heart and soul into intricate quilts whose images take extraordinary form from the heartbreak and joy of parallel lives. . . "A lyrical, lush, and lovely novel from a clever and talented new writer." --Jane Green "A gripping, heartwarming story. . .complete with fascinating characters and a page-turning plot." --Dorothy Garlock Marie Bostwick Skinner was born and raised in the Northwest. Since marrying the love of her life twenty-three years ago, she has never known a moment's boredom. Marie and her family have moved a score of times, living in eight U.S. states and two Mexican cities, and collecting a vast and cherished array of friends and experiences. Marie now lives with her husband and three handsome sons in Connecticut where she writes, reads, quilts, and is privileged to serve the women of her local church.
Release date: July 27, 2009
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corp.
Print pages: 320
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Fields Of Gold
“Eva,” Mama called from the kitchen window, “when you’ve finished picking the tomatoes, bring me in some of those cucumbers too. It’s so hot I believe we’ll just have salad and bread for supper. That sound all right to you? “
“Don’t forget to get all the ripe ones. Pick up the vines so you can see the little red ones underneath. You don’t want to waste them.”
Actually, I didn’t care if I wasted them or not, but there was no use arguing that we already had more tomatoes than we could eat in a month of Sundays. The tomatoes were ripe and had to be picked. It was part of Mama’s creed. Just as Papa had been firm that naming me was his right, Mama was firm that she be in charge of my religious and moral training, which included those good Christian virtues, hard work and thrift. On that score, Mama was working toward sainthood.
She saved everything: bacon fat, paper sacks, bits of twine, and the smallest scraps of leftover fabric that she kept in a bag and used to make quilts. When I was young it seemed silly, saving every little thing, but now I’m glad she did. If not, I would never have started quilting. Trying to imagine my life today without a number ten needle clasped in the fingers of my right hand would be like trying to imagine myself mute.
My first quilt was a wobbly-seamed nine-patch in bright spring greens and yellows. Mama kept a sharp eye on me, making sure I didn’t throw away even the tiniest patches of leftover fabric, urging me to experiment with my own patterns where smaller and smaller bits of cotton could be used. Eventually, all those scraps became the mosaic of my imagination, but in the beginning I was just trying to please Mama. “Economy is nothing to be ashamed of, Eva,” she moralized. “I won’t have you growing up to be a spendthrift.”
For years I didn’t even know what a spendthrift was, but the way Mama said it made me pretty sure it led down the path to hell, so I stitched tiny patches and picked the vegetable plot clean, both without complaining, at least not out loud.
It was so hot that day. Our farm was never a particularly beautiful place, not like those clean and green farms from out East like you saw on Currier & Ives cards, where the barns were painted to match the privies and the sheep never got mud splattered on their wool. Nobody would have ever thought of making a picture postcard of our farm. The house was small, just four rooms before Morgan was born and Papa added on a third bedroom. Except for those few dustbowl years when it was impossible to keep ahead of the dirt, it was always clean and neat, with crisp blue gingham curtains that Mama took down to wash, iron, and starch every spring. We had a few pictures on the wall, an average number of crocheted doilies and painted china figurines, and far more books than our neighbors, but we weren’t exactly weighed down with ornaments.
We were too poor to think of wasting time and money painting fences and outhouses. All the farm outbuildings, except the barn, were weathered silver gray. The barn had been an honest midwestern red at one time, but the pigments had faded so much in the sun and the prairie winds had blown so hard that the boards now mostly matched the color of the barnyard, a deep, dull mahogany.
The barn itself was too close to the house, and there was no yard to speak of. Every inch of ground was used to grow crops; there was none that could be spared for decoration. Of course, Mama always planted a few petunias by the front porch each spring, about the same time the wildflowers came out and dotted the hills with specks of pink, blue, and gold for a few precious weeks, but by July the sun had burned all the wildflowers to straw and Mama’s petunias had grown leggy and brown in the heat. August was worse. In August even the house looked dusty and oven-baked, as though if the temperature rose one degree higher the chipped white paint on the siding would crackle and peel off like the skin of an onion and the little blinking windowpanes might shatter in the shimmering heat.
Normally I loved working in the diligently tended half acre that was our garden, the only green space for miles around. Working among the tender stalks and curling vines seemed to give rest to my eyes and soul, but that day it was too hot and the rows too long to think of gardening as anything but a chore. I wanted to lie down in the shade of our one big oak tree and ignore the vegetables; I knew I couldn’t, so I picked up another vine and continued plucking at an epidemic of ripe tomatoes. At least I was outside, I thought a little guiltily. Mama was stuck in the house, standing over a mess of steaming canning jars, making sure every last one was filled with tomatoes against the coming winter. The shelves were already full of jars of stewed tomatoes, pickled beets, green beans, and yellow corn, but boxes and boxes of empty jars still sat on the kitchen floor waiting to be filled. How would we ever eat so many? And yet, come spring all those jars would be empty again, just like every year. I popped a tiny, fully ripened tomato into my mouth and crushed it against my teeth to feel the sweet, summery juice spill onto my tongue. Nothing ever changed, I thought with a sigh. Not in Dillon. Not to me. I wished it would.
With the taste of the wish and the summer still lingering in my mouth, I heard a faint, buzzing noise coming toward me, growing louder by the second. It was a sound I couldn’t place, not like a bee or a locust, but more machine-like, though I knew it wasn’t a car or a tractor.
The noise got louder, and I wondered if maybe I’d been in the sun too long and was going to faint. I’d heard of girls who fainted at school say their ears started buzzing just before everything went black, but I didn’t feel dizzy. For an instant, a shadow shielded me from the sun, and I looked up to see a great sapphire bird soaring across the still, white sky—a flying machine! It moved so fast, faster than any car. I could see it clearly, right down to the riblike supports in each double wing and the cables that were strung between them. It was just like the planes I’d seen on the newsreels and in a book Papa had about the Wright brothers, but I’d never imagined them to be so loud and bright, vibrating like a living thing.
Mama stepped out onto the porch to see what all the noise was. We waved as the pilot dipped his wings and raised his arm to greet us. For a moment I could see him, his chin and the sharp line of his jaw jutting below a pair of goggles, like eyes on a grasshopper. In another moment he was gone, over the roof of our barn and toward the edge of the hill where Papa’s fields lay. The humming grew fainter and fainter until it finally stopped and I remembered to breathe.
“Did you see that, Mama!” I marveled. “Did you ever see anything so fast?”
“I never did. That was something, wasn’t it? Up in the air like that.” We both stood and watched the sky for an expectant minute until Mama murmured distractedly, “Well, this isn’t getting supper on the table, is it? I still need those cucumbers, Eva. It’s nearly five o’clock.”
“Yes, ma’am. Right away.” But I didn’t move. I stood very still in the middle of the garden, holding my breath and listening for the hum of a plane engine, wishing he’d come back.
Twice in a day my wish came true. Suddenly, there he was, wiping his feet on our front mat as Papa held the door and urged him to come in and make himself at home.
I knew him. I recognized the tanned curve of his face clearly, as though he’d been standing next to me and not soaring two hundred feet overhead, but in the plane I hadn’t been able to see how tall and slender he was. He was a good head taller than Papa, thin but strong, like a tree you could cling to in a hard wind. Papa was grinning even wider than usual, bursting with the surprise.
“Look what dropped out of the sky and into our field! One minute I was alone, minding my own business, and the next minute a flying machine appears out of a cloud and lands on the wheat stubble, easy as you please, right where I’d been working not an hour before!”
The young man smiled shyly and pushed a blond curl off his forehead. He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, tall and blond with serious gray-blue eyes and cheekbones so perfect they seemed chiseled out of marble and brushed over and over again with the scarlet feathers of some exotic, magical bird until they glowed pink and hearty. He smiled in my direction, showing teeth so white and straight they might have been crocheted in place, like one of Mama’s lace doilies. My eyes clung to his face as though he were talking just to me. For a moment, I saw a spark of recognition in his eyes, like he remembered me from somewhere. I felt the same way. I’d known him for all my life, but I didn’t realize it until just that moment. If only I could stand still and not move a muscle, maybe he’d leave thinking, “What a pretty girl.” Maybe that night he’d dream about me, as I knew I would about him. He broke our gaze and turned to greet Mama.
“Well, the landing wasn’t as easy as I’d have liked, Mrs. Glennon. I’m afraid I bent your fence a little in the process. Did a fair bit of damage to the Jenny, too.”
“The Jenny?” Mama asked.
“That’s my plane. She’s a surplus trainer left from the war, a Curtiss JN4-D. Short name is Jenny.”
“Don’t you worry about the fence. It was due for some work anyway,” Papa said offhandedly. “And if you need any tools to fix your plane, you’re welcome to borrow anything I’ve got.” Still grinning, Papa took off his hat and sat down at the table. “Clare, I told this young man we’d love to have him to supper, that is, if we’ve got anything to eat.”
“I think we might come up with something. Eva?” Mama wiped her hands on her apron and shot me a look that said we’d need to scour the kitchen to find something suitable for a company supper. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want him to see me walk, but I couldn’t just stand there forever. Slowly, trying to be as quiet as possible, I limped to the pantry to see if there was any pie left from Sunday. I could feel his eyes following me, and I kept my head down, not wanting to see his reaction to my twisted gait. The thumping of my cane against the wooden floorboards seemed like a pounding drum in my ears. I was grateful when Mama spoke.
“Tomato salad and fresh bread and cold fried chicken sound all right to you, Mr ... ?”
“That would be wonderful, ma’am. Thank you. You can skip the mister, though. Everybody calls me Slim.”
He stayed at the farm, camping in our field next to his airplane for three nights. I didn’t see much of him, but I thought about him all the time. Every hour it grew stronger, the feeling that I was being pulled toward him, inch by inch, and there was nothing I could do to stop it even if I’d wanted to. The breeze was full of sparks no one but I could feel. The night shimmered and crackled just because he was nearby, out of sight over the hill. I’d never talked to him, but I loved him. I knew it. I knew him. Better than anyone else ever could, ever would. It was real, like an electricity experiment we did in school showing how different things will or won’t let a current pass through them. I was metal and copper wire, a perfect receptor for his every thought, dream, and longing.
He was full of ambition, I knew that, but it was the kind of ambition that didn’t need an audience. He only cared to be tested against his own standard, because no other measure of merit could be as rigorous. He was a poet, saw music in the natural movements of life that other people missed, and wrote down his thoughts in a little book, transparent and completely honest because he thought no one else would ever see his words. I knew, too, that he was often afraid, but not of death or gravity. When he woke in the night, sweating and startled by the vapors of a bad dream, it wasn’t twisted metal and flame that brushed across his memory, but a vision of a stretched white ribbon across his path, a finish line that he could never quite reach, no matter how hard he ran.
Oh yes, I knew him, every bit of him. Though I can’t tell you how.
Two days later, the Jenny was fixed, and people started coming past our house, in trucks, wagons, on horseback, and on foot, to see Slim fly his airplane. If they were richer than we were and had five dollars to pay for the ride, they could even climb in beside him and see what Dillon looked like to the birds.
I watched the parade all day from behind the front-porch screen where I sat snapping the stems off a mountain of just picked pole beans. People waved as they went by, smiling and yoo-hooing like they were headed to a church picnic. I wished I could go too, but Mama had to get the beans into jars while they were still fresh. Of course, I wasn’t missing all the fun. I’d seen Slim fly over five or six times that morning. Every time he did, my heart pounded with excitement and I craned my neck to see him soaring overhead like a proclaiming angel with a message just for me. Still, I longed to go out to the field with the rest of the crowd. Maybe just to see how an airplane got off the ground, to be where he was. Maybe to say hello.
Another cloud of dust rose on the road. It was Mr. Walden’s ice truck bringing our order. My best and only friend, Ruby, was with him. I called to Mama that the ice was here and heard her shaking the baking-soda can she used for a bank, looking for a dime to pay for the ice. She came out onto the porch, smoothing her hair back, just as the truck pulled into our yard. Ruby leaped out of the cab and ran toward the house while Mr. Walden hoisted an ice block out of the back of his truck and onto his shoulder.
“Hello, Mrs. Glennon,” Ruby said politely. “Hey, Eva! Mr. Walden gave me a ride out so I can go see the flying machine. You want to come?”
“I can’t. I have to get these beans done.” Mama opened the screen door to let Mr. Walden pass.
“Afternoon, Mrs. Glennon.” Mr. Walden moved his hand toward his head, as though to tip his hat, but when he did, the bag of ice balanced on his shoulder shifted and threatened to fall, so he settled for a stiff nod of greeting instead. “I brought you a bag of extra chips, no charge. Thought they might be good for tea. It’s been so hot.”
“Thank you, Mr. Walden,” Mama said with a smile. “That was thoughtful of you. Now I’ve got something cold to offer you. Can you sit and have a glass of tea? I’ve got a pound cake, too.” Mr. Walden pretended to think about the idea and pronounced it a fine one, as he did every week. We were at the end of his Wednesday route, and his visits were a kind of tradition. He always stopped to eat something and visit before heading back to town, and we always got extra ice by way of thanks. Sometimes I’d tease Mama about it, calling Mr. Walden her secret admirer.
“Hmph,” she’d grump, though I could see a smile play at her lips. “The only thing Cyrus Walden admires is a well-browned piecrust and there’s no secret in that. He costs me more in flour and sugar than I save in ice with all those ice chips. I’m just being polite.”
Still, I knew she looked forward to those Wednesday chats. Visiting nearly every farm in the county, Mr. Walden was a reliable source of news, and he wasn’t shy about sharing it. Of course, Mama would never have actively engaged in gossip, but if the iceman wanted to talk while enjoying her hospitality, well, there was no help for that.
I got up from my chair to help Mama set out the tea glasses, but she shook her head at me. “That’s all right, Eva. Why don’t you go on with Ruby and see the airplane?”
“Are you sure?” I asked, not quite daring to hope she really meant it. “What about the beans?”
“They’ll wait.” She smiled and her eyes twinkled knowingly. “You don’t want to be the only girl in town doesn’t see that young Mr. Slim in action, do you? Besides, if I have to stand over that stove one more minute I’ll probably steam all the wrinkles out of my face and your Papa wouldn’t recognize me. That wouldn’t do, would it?” She patted me on the shoulder. “Go on, you two. Have fun. Don’t be too late.”
I grabbed my cane and walked with Ruby across the yard toward the field where Slim’s plane was.
Ruby and I became friends six years before when I was eleven and Clarence Parker, who was known as Clay, ran up to me on the playground and kissed me on the mouth. His lips felt stiff and chapped on mine, but I concentrated very hard so I would never forget what my first kiss felt like. When he let go of me, I took a step back, blushed to the tips of my ears, and looked up at him to smile, but he was turned around to face a group of boys who were watching near the swings. “There!” he shouted. “Y’all owe me a nickel! I told you I’d do it! For a dime I’ll kiss your old man’s pig!”
From then on I spent my recesses inside, reading books, traveling in my mind to places far away from Dillon. Ruby spent a lot of recesses inside as well, but not by choice. She was just my age, a freckled, redheaded girl with a father who drank and a mother who was too sickly to make sure her daughter’s dresses were as clean and well-starched as they might have been. Ruby’s red hair was no lie. Her short temper and general lack of interest in schoolwork meant the teacher frequently assigned her long punishments writing “I will nots” on the chalkboard. None of this curbed Ruby’s behavior, but she did come to have the prettiest handwriting in school.
Not long after my humiliation with Clarence Parker, Ruby was in disgrace yet again and stood at the blackboard scratching out her latest penance while I read about Dorothy’s trials in Oz. The teacher was distracted by some argument on the playground. While her back was turned, Ruby drew a caricature of Clay Parker puckered up to kiss a pig he held in his arms; the pig was squirming away with a face of chalky disgust. A balloon over its head read, “I wouldn’t kiss ClareDUNCE for Five Dollars!!!!”
I covered my mouth to keep from laughing out loud. Ruby shushed me, but her eyes twinkled in fun. When the dismissal bell rang, she walked me home and we talked the whole way about what a fool Clarence Parker was. From that day and forever after we were fast friends, two outcasts united against the world.
That day, as she always did when we went walking, Ruby slowed her pace to mine. That was one of the things I liked about her. Normally, Ruby trotted everywhere, like she was hurrying home to a good meal, but the minute we were together she fell into my pace, meandering next to me as though it were her natural speed. I slipped my hand into hers, and we walked together in perfect rhythm.
When we were far enough away from the house so no one could hear, Ruby started peppering me with questions. “Tell me all about him! What’s he like? Is he handsome? I heard he looks like a movie star. Were you scared when you rode in the plane? I would be! What did your mama say when he landed in your yard?”
“Landed in the yard? Ruby, you really are a goose. He landed in the field. I’ve never even seen his plane, let alone ridden in it. I barely know him at all. He came and had dinner once, but he spent the whole time talking with Papa about crops and engines. I’ve never even spoken to him.” There was no use trying to explain to her how I really felt. She would insist on details and conversations and facts, things you could only feel with your skin on. I couldn’t tell her that sometimes you can know a person inside and out without ever having passed a word between you. How could I explain? A week before I wouldn’t have understood myself.
“Well, you’re practically famous now.” Ruby nodded sagely. “Everybody says he landed right in your front yard, almost hit the henhouse, and that he’s been staying with your family and gave you all rides to pay for his keep. I was coming out of Garland’s store yesterday and a bunch of the girls from school practically jumped on me asking me was it true that he was actually sleeping in the room next to you and that he took you flying every night. They were excited, but Mary Kay Munson was pea-green jealous! She said she didn’t believe a word, that something like that could never happen to ...”
Ruby blushed, embarrassed to have nearly blurted out whatever ugly name Mary Kay had called me. Poor Ruby. She was in such a rush she didn’t always stop to think before she spoke. I pretended not to notice her stammering.
“I just can’t stand Mary Kay,” Ruby grumbled. “She thinks she’s the queen of Dillon or something.”
“Well, if I were going to be made queen I hope I’d be queen of someplace better than Dillon. What did you tell her?” I enjoyed the idea of the other girls being envious of me. If they were, it was surely a first.
Ruby smiled and opened her eyes wide with innocence. “I told her it was all true, of course.”
“Ruby! You didn’t!”
“Yes, I did!” she whispered excitedly, even though there was no one nearby to hear. “I told them he’s staying in your house and the walls are so thin between your rooms that when he goes to bed at night you can hear him taking off his clothes and after he’s done you hear the sound of water pouring into the basin so he can wash the sweat off his bare skin. I told them that he grabbed you and kissed you out behind the house and asked you to fly away with him, but you said no because you couldn’t break your mama and papa’s heart like that, but even though you’d probably never see each other again, you’d always love him.”
“Ruby! That’s terrible.” I giggled with pleasure. “How could you tell such a lie?”
“Because it sounded so much better than the truth.” She shrugged. “Besides, Mary Kay deserved it for being so nasty. She got so mad thinking about it she stamped her foot and dropped a perfectly good triple-scoop ice cream cone into the dust and ended up stepping on it and falling right on her behind.”
I knew she was making that part up to please me, just like she made up my romance with the mysterious Slim to tease the other girl’s imagination, but it was still a funny picture. We both laughed until tears came to our eyes thinking of Mary Kay and her ice cream lying, humiliated and melting in the dirt on Main Street.
When we finally calmed down Ruby looked at me with disappointed eyes. “So, you really never even talked to him? You don’t know anything about him?”
“Well, maybe one thing. Everybody calls him Slim, and you’re right, he is handsome,” I whispered, which started us giggling all over again.
And there’s a least one grain of truth in your fairy tale, I thought to myself as I squeezed Ruby’s hand. Though I’ll probably never see him again, never talk to him, I will always love him.
It was afternoon by the time we joined the small crowd of people, a few waiting to take a ride and many more just standing and watching the excitement. Slim saw me and waved as he helped boost a big backside that turned out to belong to Mr. Miller up into the cockpit. I was so surprised my heart jumped in my chest. Ruby dug her elbow into my ribs and hissed, “Wave back, you ninny! Ha! I thought you said he never even noticed you. I think he likes you. Look how he’s smiling at you.”
I could feel heat on my face and arms as I raised my hand shyly to acknowledge him. “Don’t be stupid,” I returned sharply. “You know it’s nothing like that. He’s just being polite, that’s all. He ate dinner with us.” Ruby didn’t argue with me because she understood what I was really saying, that someone like him would never be more than just polite to someone like me.
We found a comfortable spot on a little knoll and sat rubbing heads of wheat in our hands and chewing on the kernels while Slim and the Jenny, loaded down with five-dollar copilots, landed and took off and landed again. I could have watched forever, the way the wings dipped and sliced through the sky, dancing on an invisible tide. I nearly did watch forever, or at least for hours and hours. Without my realizing it, the afternoon had passed and the crowd began thinning out, heading home to supper. Ruby stirred next to me, “Eva, I’ve got to go. Shall we catch a ride with someone?”
“No. You go on,” I answered without looking at her, my eyes transfixed by the sapphire miracle soaring overhead. “I’m going to stay a little while longer. I can walk back. It’s not far.”
“You sure?” she asked uncertainly as she stood up and smoothed out the wrinkles in her skirt. “Won’t your mama be worried?”
“No. It’s hours until dark. You go on. I’ll be fine.” And I was. Ruby left reluctantly, but I felt fine and free sitting alone on the hill, a part of the late summer sky, at once warm and cool as a light afternoon wind blew across my face and the folds of my cotton dress while the heat of earth seeped into my body. The silky dance of the plane was even more beautiful silhouetted against a twilight sky, a poem not yet written, at least not by me. When the last rider climbed out of the cockpit, shook hands with Slim, and drove back toward town, it seemed like an instant had passed instead of an afternoon.
I rose to leave too, but Slim came bounding up the hill toward me. “Hey, there! Eva, isn’t it?. . .
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