Sarah knew it wasn’t really about the mail truck, but, when she looked out the kitchen window that morning after Matt left for the clinic and saw the rusted truck in the corner of the backyard, it was all she could focus on.
She and Matt didn’t argue often, and never with raised voices or ultimatums. Disagreeing about the mail truck probably hadn’t been an argument at all.
“You’ve got to get rid of that eyesore before my parents come,” she’d said. We’ve already started our own collection of junkers.”
“One vintage mail truck is not exactly a collection.” Matt sat at the kitchen island, spreading butter on his toast. Sarah was scrubbing the scorched rice from the bottom of the pan she’d left soaking overnight.
“I bet when you run your Jeep into the ground, you’ll line it up right beside the mail truck. Isn’t that how it goes?” Sarah dried her hands and took a sip of her coffee.
“I’m not sure I can get rid of it,” Matt said. “It’s more than a truck. It’s a historical artifact. Molly was conceived in that truck.”
“Oh, come on.” Sarah sat down on the stool opposite Matt.
“I guess the only way to make you happy is to shove it down the hill into the woods so it doesn’t offend your parents or interfere with your pastoral aesthetic,” Matt said. He refilled his coffee from the pot on the stove. Filled Sarah’s mug too.
“My pastoral aesthetic?” Sarah said.
“It’s not like I’m putting nuclear waste in the landfill. We could put the truck out of sight, and let it return to the earth.”
“It’s an eyesore. Wherever it is.”
“Why don’t we turn it into a playhouse?” Matt said. “We could paint it, make flower boxes.” Matt spread blackberry jelly on his second piece of toast.
“You’re kidding? Right?”
“It’d be fun.”
“Imagine how it feels when I’m up in my studio, looking out on the views we planned so carefully when we built the house, and there it is?”
“One of the best things you taught me about art is to look for the surprise in the composition, the object or color you don’t expect.” Matt walked over to the window.
This was one of Matt’s more infuriating habits, making a joke during a serious discussion. It always made Sarah feel more strongly about her position than she had when the conversation started.
Matt looked at his watch, finished his toast, and put his mug in the sink. “Love that new bread you baked.” He gave her a quick kiss and ran his hand through his curly hair. He’d promised he’d get it trimmed before her parents visited.
There was a time Sarah could have simply changed the focus. She had learned to do it when she studied painting. Blur out the truck and focus on the mountains, tier on tier of ridges, leafing trees the softest green, some pink with buds about to burst, faint fingers of lavender from the morning light reaching into the cerulean sky. Or she could have found a different foreground focus—maybe the weathered gray shed with the red tin roof. The azalea, rhododendron, forsythia, or beyond that the orchard, the two white beehives, where the bees were beginning to stir. She might have focused on the white chickens scratching at the edge of the newly-plowed garden. What she saw was the mail truck.
She wanted everything to look its best for her parents. They hadn’t visited in almost two years. Spring was beautiful in Tanner’s Gap with everything coming to life. It was the best time of year for them to visit. Her parents had never challenged Sarah’s and Matt’s decision to settle in such an isolated place, even though Sarah was sure they hoped it was a stage and that Sarah and Matt would one day move back to “civilization.” Her parents thought the way she and Matt lived was quaint, like living in a Little House on the Prairie theme park, her mother once said.
Things were coming together for the parents’ visit. Over the weekend, quite likely, Matt would invite Tom and Larry over, and they’d make the truck disappear. They’d drink some of Tom’s home brew and plan how to hook up chains and tractors, and pull it over the hill and into the woods. They’d have a great time, turn it into a game, the way guys do.
Matt and Sarah had bought the truck in Chicago—he’d finished his medical residency, and she’d graduated from art school. They’d fixed it up with a bed and a table hinged to the wall. They put in windows and cut skylights in the roof. Sarah stretched blank canvases and attached them to the walls. They drove across Canada, down through the Rockies, along the California coast, through the Southwest. Wherever they thought they might consider living, they stopped for a few weeks, found odd jobs to earn money for food or gas. They harvested apples in Washington, grapes in California, sunflowers in Minnesota. They helped split and load firewood. In Oregon, where they ended up staying for six weeks, they helped rebuild a porch and paint the trim on an elderly woman’s home. She was so fond of having them around that after a few weeks she invited them to stay in her house. Sarah did a painting for her. By the time they finished the trip and parked the mail truck, all of Sarah’s blank canvases were filled with images from their travels—mountains, rocky coasts, forests, the desert blooming in spring. The finished paintings stretched all the way around the inside of the truck, a mural. When they built their house, Matt and Sarah designed a wall for the paintings.
The trip had been a great adventure. Even five years later, every week or so, Matt or Sarah would bring up some memory. A few days ago, after Matt put Molly to bed and read her Yurtle the Turtle, he came out to the living room, where Sarah was reading The Whole Earth Catalogue, trying to find out when it’s best to start tomatoes inside from seed.
“You remember the time the truck broke down on the Transcanadian Highway? I’m surprised we survived.”
“Yeah” Sarah said. “We’re sitting there and it’s almost dark, and we’re hardly off the road over the crest of the hill where no one could see us. We’re risking our lives, and all we could do was laugh.”
“If that trucker hadn’t come by and set up flares, someone would have plowed into us, no question.”
“The whole trip, so many things could have gone wrong,” Sarah said. “But it all worked out.”
Finding Tanner’s Gap was one of the things that worked out. The first time they drove over Cheat Mountain and down into the valley, they saw the store and stopped for bread and coffee before they went to camp in the state park.
“Where are you folks from?” the storekeeper had asked.
“Chicago, but we’ve been traveling all over,” Matt said.
“What line of work you in?”
“Just finished med school,” Matt said.
“You’re a doctor?”
“Isn’t that something?” the storekeeper said. “Funding just came through for our clinic. We’ll be looking for a doctor.”
That’s how it started. They found a piece of land for sale on the ridge outside of town and bought it with money Sarah inherited from her grandmother. Eighteen acres and the fallen down buildings on it. They talked for hours about their dream house, and Sarah drew the designs. She’d never studied architecture, but her sketches gave the builders a good idea of what she and Matt had in mind. At first they lived in the mail truck while they fixed up one of the cabins. They found local carpenters to work with them. Many of the materials were salvaged from the old buildings. The builders remilled timbers from the old barn and used them for the post and beam construction; they used old wood for the countertop on the island in the kitchen, for trim pieces and doors. The carpenters built in the stained glass pieces Matt and Sarah had collected all over the country and packed carefully under the bed in the mail truck. When the house was finished, a couple months before Molly was born, Matt and Sarah couldn’t believe how perfectly it fit their vision. Friends visited from all over to help them celebrate. Overflow guests stayed in the mail truck. It was hard to believe all the pieces of their lives had come together the way they had.
Neither Matt nor his family had money for med school; he’d gotten financial aid which required him to commit to working in a medically underserved community for five years. The opportunity in Tanner’s Gap practically dropped in his lap.
They hadn’t planned to start a family, but it happened. When Molly was born, they couldn’t imagine a better place to raise a child.
Molly came scuffing out from her bedroom, dragging her blanket and teddy bear. Sarah was skimming cream off the gallon of milk she’d taken from the refrigerator. One of Matt’s patients brought them fresh milk each week. She put some of the cream in a pint jar, some in a quart, and screwed on the lids.
“Morning, Sweetie,” Sarah said. “Time for breakfast.”
Molly climbed up on the stool, put her blanket and teddy bear on the stool beside her. Sarah peeled an orange and spread the slices on a plate. Molly ate the orange while Sarah mixed up the oatmeal, added milk and honey. She put the bowl in front of Molly and started shaking the smaller of the jars of cream.
“Soon as you have breakfast and get dressed, we’ll make butter. How about that?”
“Goody,” Molly said
Sarah shook the cream, giving it a head start. It took a lot of shaking to turn cream into butter. Molly’s arms got tired long before it happened if she did it all on her own.
After Molly dressed they took the jars of cream outside and marched up and down the front porch, through the yard, around the garden and down the lane toward the main road.
“A butter parade,” Molly said, as they splashed the milk back and forth.
When they reached the end of the lane, a car went by, slowed down and stopped. It backed up to where Molly and Sarah stood holding their jars of cream. Etta, an older woman who lived in town, rolled down the window. Her son was driving.
“Hi there,” Etta said. “Long way from home to be making butter.”
“Such a nice day. Thought we’d take a walk while we did it,” Sarah said.
“When I saw it was you,” Etta said, “I told Harley to stop. I said, ‘I have to tell Sarah what a saint her husband is, an answer to our prayers. A lot of us wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for Dr. Matt. I hope he brought home that pie I made for all of you.”
“He sure did,” Sarah said, “and we enjoyed it. Thanks.” She didn’t tell Etta they’d each only had a sliver and threw the rest away. It had way too much lard and sugar in it.
Etta and Harley drove on, and Sarah and Molly went back to shaking their jars. Molly stopped to look at flowers and bugs as they walked back up the lane.
Everywhere Sarah went in town, she heard how much everyone loved Matt, what a good man he was. Of course she agreed, but she never knew what to say in response. She would usually say something like, “He’s so happy to be here,” which was true. Being a doctor in a small rural town was his dream, had been ever since she first met him when he was almost through med school. “I want to be an old time country doctor,” he’d say, and she’d humor him, joking about getting a covered wagon, retrofitting it as a clinic and traveling through the West. She never imagined such a thing as a country doctor was still possible, but here he was. They’d never had a doctor in the area before, always had to drive an hour over twisting mountain roads to the nearest doctor and hospital. No wonder they were so thrilled to have Matt.
Matt worried that Sarah and Molly spent too much time together, that either Molly would become too adult too quickly, or Sarah too much like a child. He thought it might be good for Molly to spend more time with other kids. Sarah wasn’t worried; she was surprised she never tired of Molly’s company.
They walked up the lane, Molly singing some song to the tune of “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” adding butterflies and ladybugs to the list of farm animals as she shook her jar of cream. When she stopped to look at a bug on a flower by the side of the lane, she stopped shaking her cream. A yellow clump of butter floated in the milk.
“Butter,” Molly said. “It’s magic.”
Sarah could never have explained how much she learned from seeing the world through Molly’s eyes. She wouldn’t have tried some of the things she did if it weren’t for Molly’s questions. Molly was curious to learn about everything—seeds and gardens, birds and bees, flowers and trees. Sarah read to Molly from the Whole Earth Catalog and Foxfire Books. She didn’t stop to simplify the words for her anymore, and still Molly seemed to understand. Almost every day, Sarah and Molly spent time outdoors. They called it their adventure time. In winter, when outdoor activities were harder to come by, they made up stories about cloud shapes or looked at animal tracks in the snow and tried to match them with the pictures in one of Molly’s books. When the weather was nice, there was no end to what they could find. Often they packed a picnic and went off exploring a new corner of the property.
On one of those adventures the summer before, they had packed a picnic and spread their blanket up by the fence row separating their property from their nearest neighbors, Arnold and Doris. Sarah and Molly ate their sandwiches and fruit and were picking blackberries along the fence row when Sarah saw Doris hoeing corn in the next field. Doris’ young daughter Ivy followed her down the row. Molly chattered as she picked blackberries.
“Hello,” Sarah called. Matt and Sarah had gone over to introduce themselves when they first moved in, but had scarcely caught a glimpse of Arnold or Doris since. Sometimes they saw Arnold walking along the road to town. Arnold and Doris had two kids, and Ivy was a little older than Molly.
Doris looked up and waved, but kept hoeing.
Sarah squeezed through a break in the fence and held it for Molly to get through.
“Glad I ran into you,” Sarah said. “I’m not sure who these blackberries belong to. They’re on both sides of the fence.”
“Plenty for everybody,” Doris said.
“I wanted to get some to make jelly,” Sarah said.
“They’re good for that.”
Molly chased a butterfly down the row of corn. Ivy looked at her.
“Hi,” Molly said, “you like butterflies?”
Ivy didn’t say anything.
After that, they invited Ivy over to play one afternoon. Ivy followed Molly around from one thing to the other, Molly talking to her, showing Ivy her toys, Ivy saying scarcely a word. Sarah wondered if there was something wrong with her. Maybe she was just shy. After Ivy left, Molly said, “I don’t think Ivy likes to play.” Molly never asked again about having her come over. That may have been the first time Sarah started thinking about who the kids were Molly would be going to school with.
Molly’s life was so different from the one Sarah had when she was young, growing up in the affluent suburbs. Sarah was more inclined to art and music than to outdoor life. Even when she was sent to summer camp, Sarah disliked the outdoor part of it. In high school, she was more interested in cultural activities than she was in nature. Other girls were tanned from time spent outdoors playing tennis or swimming, and she was pale from being indoors painting or reading.
Her mother was bemused by Sarah’s new incarnation now that she was living in West Virginia. “So glad you’re getting in touch with your inner girl scout,” she’d said in a recent conversation. Sarah was glad Molly wasn’t like the privileged kids she knew growing up—Sarah was one of them—who thought food came from stores and never even considered or cared about the rest of it. Molly knew the names of the chickens out back who laid their eggs. She knew the bees collected nectar from the flowers and turned it into honey. Sarah had never given any of that a thought when she was young. She’d felt pressured by her parents to do all that was required of a privileged child—ballet, piano, tennis, drama. She was determined not to do that to Molly. And yet? If Molly was interested in any of those things, would they be an option for her if they lived in Tanner’s Gap?
A few days before, after Matt had put Molly to bed, he came out to help Sarah in the kitchen.
“You’ll probably be hearing from Phyllis soon,” Matt said. “She said she’ll be calling about getting Molly registered for Kindergarten. They need to know how many teachers to hire.
Sarah dried the last plate and put it in the cupboard. “I don’t know if Molly needs to go to Kindergarten.”
“What do you mean, she doesn’t need to go to Kindergarten? She’s almost five. Isn’t five when kids start school?”
“I’ve been thinking of teaching her at home,” Sarah said.
“Are you serious? You’d have time to do more painting. I thought you were counting the days.” Matt took wine glasses from the shelf and poured a glass for each of them.
“Art can wait. It’s not as important as Molly right now.” Sarah wiped crumbs off the counter.
“I don’t get what the problem is with sending her to school,” Matt said.
“I’m not sure the schools exactly encourage curiosity in kids her age.”
“Don’t you think she’ll feel left out when the other kids get on the bus with their book bags and lunch boxes and get to go play with their friends?”
“What’s she going to know about buses or lunch boxes?” Sarah said. “You only care about the things you know.”
“Someday she may want to play with someone other than her parents.”
“I think we’ll know when that happens. We can make sure she sees other kids.”
The signal on the dryer beeped, and Sarah got the clothes from the laundry room. She spread them on the counter to fold. Matt matched the socks and rolled them together.
“If we keep her back, my patients might think Molly’s too good to go to school with their kids,” Matt said.
“If that’s how they see it, it’s their problem,” Sarah said.
Matt walked over to the coffee table, sorted through the mail strewn there. He flipped through the Time magazine. Sarah took her wine into the living room, gathered the pieces of Molly’s animal puzzle and fit them together.
“I don’t think you understand how a small town works. It’s about community. Isn’t that part of why we decided to stay here?”
“How does homeschooling Molly for a few years ruin a sense of community?” Sarah said.
Sarah walked over to the window in the kitchen. The evening breeze blew in, and she smelled something sweet blooming. Maybe apple blossoms. She could scarcely admit it, even to herself, but part of her resistance to sending Molly to school was the feeling it would commit them to staying in Tanner’s Gap. When it was only her and Matt, choosing to stay because of the angle of the light in late afternoon, because the air was clear and the land cheap—all of it made sense. When Matt finished his five years, they could leave if they wanted. But now there was Molly, and making the commitment to stay felt different. If she started school and made friends, leaving would be harder. Sarah wanted Molly to have every opportunity, to be whoever she wanted to be. What if she wanted to be a dancer, a musician, an athlete?
Sarah could see it happening, Matt settling in more and more. He’d found his purpose, and everyone loved him. She didn’t feel a part of the place in the same way he did, didn’t think she ever could. He even looked different, slowly replacing his button downs with plaid flannel shirts, his hair and beard not as groomed as he’d kept them when he first started working at the clinic. All those years she was so enchanted with his “hippie doctor” persona, she realized she didn’t think it could last. She always assumed he would eventually be on staff at a hospital or part of a traditional medical practice.
After Sarah and Molly finished the butter, they had lunch, and Sarah put Molly in for her nap. It was Sarah’s only time to go up to her studio, a circular room at the end of the house, windows and mountain views almost all the way around. “Mommy’s tower,” Molly called it. It was all Sarah had ever dreamed of in a studio. These days, she only occasionally took out her watercolors or made a few quick sketches to save an idea for later. She hadn’t done any oils in years, but she’d thought of paintings she might do for Molly’s room. Some of them were inspired by Molly’s stories. When she looked at the paintings she’d done while she and Matt traveled, it seemed like a long time ago. A friend of her mother’s had a gallery in Chicago and sold a few of her paintings. He’d offered to hang more, even offered to frame them for her. Sarah had hoped she’d have a few pieces ready to send back with her parents.
One of the last oils she’d worked on was still sitting on the easel. It was nothing like her usual impressionistic work with soft colors and delicate strokes. She’d used a big brush, painting with bright colors in bold swirls. She’d watched Molly play with her paints one day. Her painting was playful and free; Sarah tried to imitate her style. It felt good, and some day she’d try it again.
Molly napped, and Sarah worked on painting and lettering labels for the jars of honey she had ready for her parents. She’d almost finished when she heard Molly calling from the bottom of the stairs. Sarah did the last strokes on the labels, put away her paints and went downstairs.
“Want to help Mommy plant seeds in the garden?” Sarah hoped some of the seeds would be sprouted and the first shoots poking up by the time her parents visited. It was part of the spring landscape she had in mind for them.
“I’ll get my hoe,” Molly said.
“Before we plant the seeds, we need to be sure the dirt is smooth. The seeds need a soft place to sleep before their roots go down,” Sarah said. “We need to take away the rocks.”
When Derwood plowed the garden, he turned up rows of rocks. They’d been adding them to the wall at the edge of the orchard.
Sarah and Molly went to the shed for the tools, Molly her small hoe, and Sarah the hoe and shovel. She needed a rake, but it wasn’t hanging where it belonged. Matt probably left it somewhere.
“Can I make the wall?” Molly said.
Molly carried the smaller rocks, one by one, and placed them on the wall by the orchard. After she’d delivered each of them, she ran back for another. The rocks rattled as Molly dropped them on the wall. Sarah tried to smooth the garden with a hoe when a rake was what she needed. She looked for it and found it near the flower garden, leaning against the mail truck.
Molly was out of sight when Sarah heard her piercing scream. She dropped the rake and ran. Molly was running too, a cloud of bees swarming around her. Sarah picked her up and sprinted toward the house, hardly noticing the bees stinging her own arms. She stopped on the porch and took off Molly’s shirt and pants in case bees had crawled inside. Molly whimpered as Sarah carried her into the house and laid her on the sofa. Swollen welts appeared on her arms.
“I’m cold, Mommy.”
Sarah grabbed the blanket from the back of the rocking chair and covered Molly. She called the clinic. Mandy, the nurse, answered, and Sarah told her what happened. Matt had already left, Mandy said, should be home soon.
“What can I do?” Sarah said.
“Keep her warm. Get out as many stingers as you can.”
Sarah wet a washcloth, pulled out stingers and sponged Molly’s swollen arms. Molly stopped whimpering, and Sarah heard Matt’s Jeep coming up the lane.
Sarah ran out to meet him. “The bees got Molly, but I think she’s all right. I called the clinic, but you were gone. Mandy said to get out the stingers.”
Matt hurried over to the sofa and looked at Molly’s arms, checked to see if there were stings on her neck or face. “What happened, Sweetie?”
“The bees hurt me.”
“You’ll be fine.” Matt found more stingers and took them out. Sarah stroked Molly’s arms with the cool washcloth, and Matt sponged the stings with alcohol. “Lucky she didn’t get any stings on her face or in her mouth,” Matt said.
Molly sat up and looked at her arm. “What made it puffy?”
“It’s a special juice bees have if they think someone is going to hurt them,” Matt said.
“I wasn’t hurting them,” Molly said.
“Of course not. The bees were confused,” Matt said.
Is their special juice sweet?”
“No, it’s not like honey,” Matt said.
“Mommy, why did the bees hurt me?”
“They didn’t mean to.” Sarah couldn’t think of anything better to say. She didn’t want to teach Molly that there was some random pain that nature could inflict on you for no reason. She wanted only to teach her that nature was good and constantly fascinating. She’d been excited to teach Molly about bees spreading pollen, collecting nectar, keeping flowers and trees healthy. Where did a swarm of stinging bees fit into that lesson?
Getting bees had been Sarah’s idea. The year before, when she’d brought it up with Matt, he said, “Do you think bees are a good idea with Molly?” and Sarah said, “Of course, they’re no riskier than butterflies. It’ll be such fun to have our own honey.”
Matt wouldn’t tell Sarah it was her fault. She almost wished he would. He wouldn’t tell her he was right all along. She knew he was.
While Matt was taking care of Molly and her stings, Sarah tried to work the stingers out of the throbbing welts on her own arms.
When they all sat down to dinner, Molly had bright band aids, with pictures of balloons and stars, lined up on both arms. “Daddy fixed me,” she said.
When the phone rang, Sarah jumped up to answer it. Probably her mother confirming plans for the trip or Mandy checking to make sure Molly was all right.
“Hi, Doris,” she said. “Yes, this is Sarah.”
“No, I haven’t gone to register Molly for school.”
“I might be able to give you and Ivy a ride, but can I call you tomorrow?”
Sarah sat back down.
“When can I go to school?” Molly said. “I can’t wait.”
“We’ll see, sweetie,” Sarah said.
Matt got Molly ready for bed, and Sarah cleared the table. She looked out toward the orchard. The sun was already setting behind the far ridge. It was time for the bees to be back in their hives. She could see the rake lying in the shadow where she had dropped it by the mail truck, and Molly’s little hoe lying next to the garden. She wanted to grab the rake and beat the hives until they were nothing but sticky splinters.
Sarah heard Molly chattering away to Matt in her bedroom. She should go in to say good night and tell her she was sorry about the bees. She should tell her she wouldn’t let anything like that happen again, as if that was anything she could promise.