From the Relief Society Magazine, 1962 –
Sow the Field with Roses
By Margery S. Stewart
She was lost. She was lost somewhere in the Malibu mountains, in country new to her, on terrain inhospitable and bleak. Nina Karsh reined Dominick in, and the mare came to a dancing halt. Nina braced against the jolts and patted the damp mane. Dominick whinnied, pleading to be allowed the reins. Nina rubbed the arching, golden neck. “You are beautiful, Dominick, but you are not clever, and I do not think you know the way back any more than I do.”
Her voice was pushed against her by the silence. Nina took off her gloves and looked about.
There are different ways of being lost, she thought. Within myself I have been lost – since Father died, since Laura and David moved to Milwaukee, and terribly lost since Danny went away. The thought of her nephew made him rise in the brush, a tall and vital mirage.
A fox yipped in the underbrush, down in the canyon a heavier body crackled its way. Nina trembled. Who would know if anything happened to her? How vulnerable she was in her loneliness.
She looked about. She had been so engrossed in her problems, so busy thinking of Danny and wondering what he was doing, and if were happy at the medical school, that she must have come miles inland without noticing. She scanned the hills about her. If she could just get to the top of one and find a view of the sea. But, with the sun gone down over the ridge, it was difficult to tell which way was west.
The canyon was narrowing, the hillsides growing more steep. perhaps she should go back the way she had come, but there had been cross paths here and there. She noticed in the hillside ahead a narrow, twisting path. She coaxed Dominick toward it. Dominick was not eager, but he was amiable.
“I shall most certainly buy you,” Nina promised, “and you and I will live on that absurd hilltop and make it beautiful for Danny when he comes home this summer. I shall learn to live there,” she continued briskly.
But at once all her defenses crumbled, as they had a habit of doing, and she found herself crying inwardly, Danny! Danny! Why don’t you write? Are you so glad to be gone from me, then? Was it lonely and awful for you all the years of being brought up by an aunt instead of a mother and a father? I tried, oh, Danny, how I tried.
The years seized at her, Danny on roller skates, then a bicycle, then the car. Danny with the Mother Goose books, and then the Tarzan books, and the science fiction, and suddenly nothing but the sober tomes of anatomy and science, Latin and German … “I’ve decided to be a doctor … as my father was.” Fiercely telling her this, as if she would snatch his desire from him.
She hadn’t wanted to do that at all. She had only wanted to help him achieve his desire. But Danny had gone alone into the world of medicine. He had closed the door between them. He wanted to walk the path by himself, which, after all, was only a normal desire. Only … only it left her so suddenly empty. She had made Danny her whole life.
The earth is treacherous by the sea, given to sudden slides. Dominick plunged on the slipping earth, rocks rattled past them. Nina held the reins lightly. What a dolt she had been to ride so far without thought of where she was going.
Dominick climbed up the steep slope, picked her way over a barbed wire fence that had been cut and trampled. Nina sighed with relief as they left the edge of the gully, where the earth crumbled under the horse’s hoofs. She took a deep breath and looked about her, and saw that the sun was almost lost in the sea. It would be dark very soon, even here on the hilltop. She saw, to her dismay, that she should have climbed the other side of the gully for the great chasm was now between her and the coast.
She lifted her head to the sudden sound of galloping hoofs. Dominick wheeled in the direction of the sound. Two men rode hard toward them. Against her will and her quick pride, Nina felt a wave of fear. The men did not look friendly.
There were two of them. The taller of the pair reached her first. He was a great, gaunt rock of a man with a carved granite face and extraordinary eyes. The eyes, piercing her own, were gray and chill. His hair, under the dusty black hat, was red, as were the hairs on the backs of his hands. Something familiar in the turn of his face caught Nina.
“You are Tomas Novarro?” She looked form him to the wide sweep of land and mountain, gully and plain. “You own all of it … I was just reading …”
Novarro swung off his mount and knelt by the trampled fence. He picked up a strand and eyed her accusingly. “You did this?”
“Of course not. I wouldn’t know how to cut a fence.”
His aide galloped up and stared suspiciously at Nina. He clambered down from his horse and went to kneel beside Tomas Novarro. Together they examined the fence and the ground. “This is the third time, Mr. Novarro.”
“It was done by a crowd.” Tomas Novarro stood up angrily. “Look at their footprints. I think it was part of the rioters at the beach. Boys!” He turned to glare at Nina. “What business do you have up here, anyway? This is private land! Mine!”
Nina smiled in what she hoped was a winning way. “I’m lost. I had to climb up from the gully to see where I was.”
“Where do you live?” he demanded.
She was forced to confess, “I’m not terribly sure. I just moved into the house. The agent told me it was one of yours.”
The two men consulted each other wordlessly. The aide snapped his fingers. “Your grandmother’s house.” He looked coldly at Nina. “It is a small house,” he stated, “with much bougainvillaea, and a bell?”
Nina sighed with relief. “Exactly.” She took up the reins briskly. “Now if you’ll tell me what direction to take to get there.”
Tomas Novarro pointed down the gully. “Go back the way you came. When you reach the road, turn left. After a while you will recognize your surroundings.”
“But, Mr. Novarro!” The smaller man was plainly disturbed. “Your grandmother’s house is only down this plateau a little way. She is right about getting lost in the gully.”
“Be still, Manuel.” Novarro’s voice was curt. “This will do two things. It will teach this lady that I meant what I said about trespassers, and it will keep another fence from being cut.”
Nina sat back on Dominick. “You are joking, Mr. Novarro.”
Novarro’s eyes met hers levelly. “I have little sense of humor, but I do have a strong feeling for what is mine.”
She said coldly, “Let the thought occur to you that it might be dangerous to send me back down the hill. I am not an experienced horsewoman, and I am even less equipped to spend the night in the canyon.”
“You will be much wiser in the morning … Miss …”
“Ah!” Interest leaped into the cold yes. “You are the nurse whose picture was in the paper.”
Nina wet her lips. All the brief confidence she had forced into herself vanished. “I am not a nurse …” She had to take a breath. “I am an aide. The whole thing was greatly exaggerated.”
“Now I know!” Manuel regarded her with warm interest. He lapsed into a furious Spanish.
“It wasn’t true … what the papers said.” Nina leaned forward, the familiar helplessness engulfing her. “I wasn’t out of my mind … It was the nurse who was hysterical.”
Tomas regarded her with a calm, searching scrutiny. “But you did thrust her into the closet and lock the door. You did leave her there?”
Nina felt ill. He phrased it so badly. I suppose it will go on as long as I live, she thought, people hearing the story and looking at me and wondering … She said fiercely to herself, I will not try to defend myself again ever … no one believes me.
“I left her there,” she said aloud. She lifted her head. “I am, or rather I was … an aide … I was to take the child to surgery. When I went into the room the nurse, Miss Pincus, was trying to give her a shot – the little girl fought it, and Miss Pincus became hysterical …”
She looked at their faces, which revealed nothing. “We had had a long outbreak of flu. Miss Pincus had been on duty double shift, and was tired and upset. It wasn’t really her fault. I meant to back and unlock the door and … and help her. But it was too late. Miss Pincus said I … had suddenly done this … they believed her.”
A thin smile pulled at the corner of Novarro’s mouth. “And for this humanitarian gesture they discharged you?”
“I had taken matters into my own hands. I had taken the child to the sun room to talk to her and quiet her before I took her upstairs. I … was … insubordinate … but the newspapers decided to make something of it.”
Manuel listened intently. He said in English, “My cousin Donna says this lady is a painter, with many canvases and much colors.”
Nina moved uneasily on the restless back of Dominick. It was absurd, the whole thing, sitting here, waiting for the tall man’s judgment. Why didn’t she got? She could move in the morning. But the mere thought made her limp. The little house, on its lonely hill, had seemed sanctuary and haven. She could not bear to go. It was a place where she could paint and hide … yes, hide, until the wounds were healed.
She lifted her chin. After all, what could this Tomas Novarro do to her? She had paid her rent for months in advance. She had signed the option that said she could, if she wished, purchase the little house. So why should she be leaning over Dominick’s golden neck, tense and anxious, for the tall man’s verdict?
Thomas Novarro lifted his head. His face had changed. It had grown almost warm, almost gentle. “Follow me. I’ll take you to your house. Manuel, ride ahead and cut the fence for her.”
“Oh, thank you.” Gladly she turned her horse at his gesture and rode after him.
Novarro reined in his horse. “You come from the East?”
“Yes. My father was ill. We had just lost my sister and her husband in an accident, I had their little boy, Danny, to rear. This climate has been very kind to us.”
“He died … and Danny is a grown young man. He’s gone East to medical school.” She bit her lip. “Danny was … is … a wonderful person. I miss him very much.”
“You are not married?”
Her patience was at an end. “No,” she said curtly and galloped ahead after the disappearing figure of Manuel. What right did this man have to ask all these questions? Did he expect her to turn and say, “Yes, once there was a boy I loved … very much. But when my sister and her husband were killed, when my father’s health failed, when Danny cried in loneliness and fear, I could not leave them, and the boy could not wait.”
She looked about her at the fast darkening hills. The pain had never gone away. The years had made no difference to that first and terrible loss.
Tomas Novarro galloped up. “Was it important to you … the child’s crying? After all, she was a stranger to you? Why didn’t you pass by? You could have returned after a discreet interval.”
Nina regarded him steadily. “I am thirty-nine years old,” she said, “and that is a nice distance into maturity. I have learned many things, but not yet to be a bystander where a child is involved. I’m sorry …”
“That you, Miss Karsh.” He pointed down the hill. “There is your house, and Manuel has cut the fence.”
Nina slowed down to a walk. “It must be wonderful to own so much.”
Novarro gave her a brief smile. “All this has been my people’s for a very long time. It was one of the first great Spanish land grants. My father lost most of it. My mother never quite forgave him for that.”
“Nor have you,” she said and bit her lip.
His face darkened. “I have made up for it. I have lands in Mexico and in Texas and in Canada. No one will take anything of mine away from me.”
Nina looked at his red hair. “Not all your people were Spanish.”
“My mother was English. She had pale hair, like yours, but her eyes were brown, not blue, like yours … she had a beautiful skin.”
“I freckle easily,” Nina said, burning under his glance.
She got down from Dominick and led him around the barbed wire. But when she would have mounted him again, she found herself without a stump or a rock to stand upon and she was too short to reach the saddle.
Novarro came to her, dismounted, and held out his hands.
“”No, thank you.” She was furious at the prim sound of her voice on the dark evening air.
“Nonsense.” He took her in his arms and lifted her into the saddle. “You are a very thorny young woman, Miss Karsh.”
He was laughing at her. For one long angry moment Nina fought the impulse to lean down and strike the smile from his face. “Good day, Mr. Novarro.”
“Goodbye, Miss Karsh. It has been most interesting.”
Arrogant, horrible, impudent man! Nina breathed other descriptions under her breath as she unsaddled Dominick and locked the gate of his small corral.
She walked slowly toward the darkened house. How beautiful it was here in this fast darkening night. The wind was making a song of its own in the chinaberry tree and the jasmine at the corner of the house mingled its heady fragrance with the orange blossoms, waxy and new, on the small bright tree. The long, pillared porch, with its ancient wicker furniture, welcomed her. She touched the chairs in passing. Had Tomas Novarro’s grandmother sat here in the long spring evenings, watching the lights spring up in the houses far down in the valley, listening to the wild things moving in the thicket?
A great bell hung in the last arch. Nina moved her hand lightly on the cold surface. The agent had hinted at some romantic reason for the bell, but grim realism had pointed out the necessity for such a bell in a region so lonely and so prone to fires. Nina swung the bell a little. She had never heard its tone. So large a bell would make a ringing that would bring the canyon people for miles around.
She went into the house, turned on the lamps. That was the worst of living alone, coming home to darkness and to shadows that whispered and stirred. There was always a tense moment of standing still when the lights were lit, until a quick peering into corners gave the feeling that all was well.
The living room was long and narrow, with a great stone fireplace at the far end. Nina went to it, gladly took a match from its box and lighted the shavings under the logs. The fire leaped up. The room became rich with gilding light and flame.
In the small kitchen Nina made herself a bowl of bread and milk. She brought the frugal meal back to the hearth. She sat in silence and ate. It had been a long day … and a strange one. How Danny would have listened while she told him about it. She missed him so much. But soon he would be here. All summer long his whistle would plague the mockingbirds. he would be delighted with Dominick.
On impulse she put aside her bowl and went out of the house, down the long, dark, winding path to the road where the mailbox stood. He had not written in weeks, but when she thrust her fingers into the box she was at once rewarded with the rustling of an envelope. She raced back to the house. The letter was from Danny. How foolish she had been to fret and worry. She tore open the envelope and read the hasty lines.
You would love Joan, Aunt Nina. She is so tall and beautiful. Her people have lived in Philadelphia since Benjamin Franklin, and the way they talk, you would think he was still alive. So we’re going to be married, at the end of June … Invitation on its way … So we’ll live here. Her uncle is in pediatrics, and I rather think that will be my line … He seems to want me to go in with him, and he is getting on in years …
Nina let the paper drift to the floor. The fire had settled down to softly flaring ashes. She stared into them. Face yourself. Someone had said that about agonies.
Nina walked woodenly to the long mirror by the door. Her pale hair, as that man, Mr. Novarro, had described it, was bright around her face. Her blue eyes looked back blankly; the freckles were very clear in her pale face. She was thin and not beautiful as women were beautiful today. She was too slight … too understated … people had difficulty remembering her name. That was why they had looked at her askance in the hospital. She did not look like a woman who would do a rash, impulsive thing. She had nothing of talent … well, perhaps her painting. She looked at the canvases on the wall. Were they good? Were they bad? her father and Danny had been loudly approving, but she had not summoned courage to display them.
Once she had read that when a door closes it is then that another door might open. But since Danny had gone, there had been only a succession of quietly closing doors. She had not known how wide a world he had given her.
Nina looked around the room curiously. It was all in perfect order. Then why did she have the impression of ruins about her feet? Why was there suddenly terror in the sound of the wind and the falling pods from the eucalyptus tree? Where does a woman go, when there is no place to go? What does she do with the empty years, when she is no longer important to those she love?
Suddenly through the house rang the imperious summons of the great brass knocker on the ancient heavy door.
Nina stood frozen, waiting for the sound to repeat itself, trying to envision the hand that lifted the knocker at this late and lonely hour.
(To be continued)