Sow the Field with Roses
By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: Nina Karsh, thirty-nine, horseback riding in the Malibu Mountains of California, becomes lost. She meets Tomas Novarro, whose grandmother’s house she has just rented. he owns considerable surrounding property, and other property in Mexico and Canada. Mr. Novarro talks with Nina about the newspaper account of her dismissal as a nurse’s aide from the local hospital, and Nina explains the circumstances.
Tomas Novarro stood in the darkness. He held a sleeping boy in his arms.
“Mr. Novarro?” Nina fell back as he strode into the living room. He placed the child gently on the couch, covered him with the silk afghan Nina kept there. He stepped back. His eyes were on the boy’s sleeping face. “My son,” he said heavily. “I have brought him to you.”
Nina stood hesitantly beside him. The boy was very small, about four, she would say, the age of Danny when he came to her. But this was no robust, raucous, demanding child. Even in sleep, he was different, frail, his hair a pale drift on the pillow, unchildlike hollows under the long lashes.
“I … I don’t understand, Mr. Novarro.” Nina said.
“You are to take care of him for me. His mother was killed two years ago … an accident. She was riding and the horse fell into the canyon. She should not have been there at all, but she was very brave, very headstrong.”
Nina flung out her hands. “But you don’t know me!”
“I have made inquiries.” He leaned down to tuck the quilt closer about the boy’s shoulders. “You will have none of the usual difficulties, the child does not speak, moves very seldom, asks nothing.”
He said brusquely, “For a long time he has been like this. I have spent a great deal of money … many doctors. They have names … emotionally disturbed … perhaps … or a birth injury … or …” He shrugged. “We are not so far as we think from the dark ages.” he sounded bitter and angry.
“I’m sorry,” said Nina. She was. But she had no intention of becoming involved with this unpredictable man and his problems. “It is quite impossible.”
Novarro said curtly, “You are in urgent need of funds. I will pay you well.”
Nina stepped back. “Mr. Novarro, people don’t just leave their children with … with strangers.”
He said harshly. “I know everything I need to know about you.” He took a list from his inside pocket. “Here is his doctor’s name, the diet for the boy, my attorney, Manuel’s phone number.” He looked about the room. “You keep it very well, like she did, my grandmother … Good things happened to me in this house.”
They were silent.
“There are many very capable people.”
She had hit on a wound. He started up under it. She said quickly, “I am tired … you cannot know how tired. I have nothing to give to anyone, not now.”
The child stirred and lifted the long sweeping lashes. Nina started. The boy’s eyes were like his father’s, the same clear gray, the same shape. The eyes regarded her blankly, without curiosity. She wondered if he saw the room, really. He looked about him without interest.
Nina looked up into Tomas Novarro’s face, and the naked anguish written on it shook her as nothing else had.
“Very well … If you like you may leave him for a day or two. I’ll see how we get along.”
“I am going away. You may get in touch with my attorney, or with Manuel.” He moved toward the door. “I am like you … emptiness …” His hand swept the room. “But I am a man and I will fill up the chasm, with work. I have a great deal of work waiting for me.” He was angry, anxious to be dominant again. “I do not surrender to sterility, to brokenness … that is for woman.”
Nina said heavily. “I have told you I would take him. What is there you wish to tell me about him? What does he like to eat or do?”
“I don’t know. I have kept away from him. I couldn’t stand the pain of waiting and wondering. I don’t know.” He opened the door. “You will receive an advance check in a day or so.”
The great door closed under his hand. Nina listened to the sound of his hard footsteps on the long patio, and the sound of them grinding gravel underfoot, the sudden roar of a car’s motor.
She went back to the boy. They stared at each other in silence.
“It is time for bed,” Nina said hesitantly.
He did not answer, only waited.
“Can you walk?”
She took his hand, and the boy sat up. She urged him gently to his feet and led him to the small room across from her own. He went quietly. He did not seem to notice the room which held starkly enough only a narrow bed and a chest of drawers. The blind was up and the hibiscus bush brushed against the window. Another child would have shown fear. Joseph did not seem to know fear. Nina knelt and unlaced his shoes and drew them off. The boy’s father had brought no bag with him. He would probably send it over in the morning. She unbuttoned the small shirt and helped him out of trousers and socks. She drew back the covers and motioned him into bed. He did not seem to notice the gesture. Nina lifted him onto the sheet.
“Good night, Joseph.” She stood in perplexity above him, then she leaned over him, thinking to show him a small tenderness. He cowered away from her, clutching the blanket to him. No sound, only the hunching of his small body in the corner of the bed and his great eyes on her face.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Joseph … a kiss …”
His eyes shone in the half-light, his breath came quickly.
Nina stood uncertainly by his bed, then she left the room. She did not turn off the low lamp. In her own room she wound the clock and set it for six, undressed in the dark. It was disturbing, having the child there. She was angry and humiliated that Tomas had pried into her financial affairs. When her father was alive … when Danny was with her … it had been different. But people had a sixth sense about a woman alone. They seemed to know she had none to defend her. They took advantage in small, mean ways. Sometimes it was terrifying to be a woman alone in the world, in this fierce and cruel time.
Was there a sound from the boy’s room? Nina stood silent, listening. She moved on tiptoe across the hall. But the boy was lying where she had left him, clutching the quilt to his chest, wide-eyed and wordless.
She went back to her own bed. This was impossible! She would take him back in the morning, call the lawyer and let him come and get the child. She turned restlessly on her pillow. The wind stirred through the windows, bringing the soft whinny of Dominick, bringing the fragrance of the orange blossoms. It was life, she felt, flowing through the room, life. Life that took from one what it pleased to take and brought to her that which was far from her desire. Nina trembled under the soft quilt. What irony! She had cried out for another Danny and, instead, she had been given this sick, chained child. In the room she had the feeling that something was demanded of her, something greater than she had depth to hold. She turned on her side. She would call the lawyer in the morning, the very first thing.
Over the telephone, Mr. Anderson was sympathetic, but vague. No, he knew very little about the child, had never seen him, as a matter of fact. Tragic case. It had been a great blow to Tomas Novarro. He cleared his throat and was hearty, “A fine man, Tomas Novarro.”
“A fine man,” said Nina acidly, “does not leave his child with a stranger.”
“Mr. Novarro’s judgment is excellent. However, if you insist, I will get in touch with him, explain that you are unable to do the job.”
“Not unable,” said Nina angrily, “unwilling. I … that is, my life is extremely difficult at the moment. I don’t feel able to cope with complications.”
And the child was a complication. Nina looked across the room where the child sat in the deep wing chair in the dining room. He sat silent, unmoving. It rasped on her nerves, this silence, this unchildlike passivity. Especially since she had the impression that when she was out of the room he was different. She blew out her breath. Danny had been like a hummingbird, darting and skimming through the days, enchanted by everything.
“… as Soon as I am able to contact Mr. Novarro, I will get in touch with you.”
Nina hung up the telephone with an angry click. This was going to be one of those hurting, frustrating days. I won’t do it. She went to the great door and flung it open. The boy’s bags were there. A note was attached: “I rang, but you did not answer.” It was signed Manuel.
“Hmph! Rang indeed!”
A nicker form the corral sent Nina in that direction. How could she keep Dominick now? She would have no time to ride. She could do nothing with the child here. She would be afraid to leave him for a moment.
Even at the corral there was to be no peace. A boy of twelve or thirteen was sitting on the top bar talking to Dominick, feeding her an apple.
Nina glared at him. “Who are you? And what are you doing on my land?” She stopped. She sounded just like that Novarro man. Well, why not? Why should she be the one to keep a gentle candle burning inside herself, when everyone else she met seemed determined to be ugly?
The boy leaped down from the bar and came around to her. He was quick and dark, with wide white teeth and blue, alert eyes. “Gee, lady, I just came up to see Dominick. Frank told me you were going to buy her. I wanted to see what she thought about it.”
Nina blew the hair out of her eyes. The last thing that would charm her was whimsy. “Dominick told you she was eager for the change, no doubt?” she asked softly.
He nodded. “Gosh, yes! Why shouldn’t she be? What a great place to live.”
Nina followed his envious glance as it swept over the stretch of hills and valleys below, blue and purple and amethyst, down to the road that wound it sway from the sea.
“This is wilderness,” the boy exploded in rapture, “pure wilderness.”
“Where do you live?” When she was a child she had known women with sharp tongues like this. Now she knew why, being honed as they had been on the sharp edge of days.
The boy was subdued, “Down on the beach … in an apartment. It’s real great … or would be if I had a surfboard, or if Nicky would let me use his. He won’t.”
“Who is Nicky?”
“My half brother. His father gives him everything. Mine is stony broke. Isn’t that my luck?”
Nina said, trying to piece together the picture his words presented, “Your mother is … this is her second marriage?”
“Yes, and it’s almost over, and I’ll bet my father won’t pay three hundred and fifty a month for me, like Nicky’s does. I guess I’ll just keep on being a burden, until I can work, that is. I plan to work real soon, as soon as anybody will take me.” He looked crestfallen for a moment. “They say I’m too young.”
Nina said faintly, “Come in and have a glass of milk and some cookies. Shouldn’t you be in school?”
He gave her a quick grin. “I should, but it’s the last week, and I’m flunking out anyway. You won’t tell on me …?”
“I don’t even know your name,” she said reasonably.
The boy regarded her narrowly. Nina smoothed her skirt, at a loss to know if she should put on a forbidding air, but the sharpness of his face disarmed her. “Anyway, I wouldn’t tell.”
He relaxed. “My name is Tom Benedict, and I sure would like a glass of milk and some cookies. I’m famished.” He pointed to his bicycle circled in the dust. ‘It was real steep getting up here.”
“I should think you would be exhausted.”
He looked with unabashed love at Dominick. “I had to see her. She likes me … she really does. Dominick is a boy’s name, you know. They should have named her Susie. I like Susie.”
“I like Dominick,” Nina assured him. “You can always call her Miss Dominick, that is, if it bothers you, the name I mean.”
His laughter whooped on the soft air. He gave Dominick a last fervent embrace. “Good old Dominick, you don’t care if I flunk out, or if I’m not as smart as my brother, do you, nice old horse?”
“I’ll … I’ll make you a sandwich,” said Nina faintly. “Better leave your bicycle there.”
The boy followed her to the house. He used the side lope that Danny had favored when he was half-grown.
“Wipe your feet, Tom.”
The boy cheerfully complied.
Nina opened the great door gently, not wishing to disturb the stranger child if he had fallen asleep. She stood transfixed on the threshold, her eyes riveted on the mirror in the hall. The mirror made visible the far corner of the living room. It showed Joseph sitting where she had left him in the far corner of the living room. On his quiet lifted wrist rested an enormous butterfly. Joseph was utterly absorbed in the lovely winged thing. He lifted the forefinger of his free hand and touched with infinite gentleness the poised wings.
Nina stepped back.
“What’s the matter?” Tom whispered.
Nina shook her head for silence. She looked again into the glass, but in the brief interval the picture had changed, the butterfly now fluttered on the curtains, and the boy sat limply, his eyes on his empty hands. Nina went on tiptoe into the room. Tom followed, not understanding, but sensitive to the alien mood.
“Joseph?” Nina leaned down to him. The child regarded her blankly. “Are you hungry, Joseph?” He did not reply.
“Is he yours?” Tom Benedict was compassionate.
Nina turned to him. She took a deep, glad breath. “Yes … he’s mine … for a while.”
Tom Benedict regarded Joseph with puzzled, resentful eyes. “Lucky stiff.”
Tom swung out his arms. “Look at all he’s got! He doesn’t have to live in an old apartment with someone who …”
He regarded her with adult eyes, strangely at variance in his young face. “You sure don’t know much about things, do you?”
“But Tom …”
“You don’t know much about people either.”
Nina forgot to be angry. His words stopped her. I really don’t, she thought. I have lived in a very small country with father and Danny and the grocery boy and the doctor and the brief bright nods at Sunday school or sacrament meeting. I don’t know about people who live in this furious, feverish world. I don’t know about boys whose fathers pay $350 a month and boys whose fathers pay fifty … I don’t know about boys who live on beaches, or in back rooms, like Joseph. She stood very still … the forgotten children … Could I learn? she wondered. Is it too late to learn?
Tom Benedict ate with the innocent savagery of the young. He grinned at Nina over the tuna sandwich. “Good.”
She poured more milk into his glass. She was not hungry herself, and it was not yet time for Joseph’s lunch. “How old are you, Tom?”
“Twelve … almost thirteen … another ten months. I look thirteen already, don’t I?”
“Yes,” Nina said. He did. He seemed incredibly mature to her, a cynical bystander in a wise and painful age. He tossed her word pictures of the world … smooth, square … cool … old words with new meanings. His problem was, he confided, not only his extreme youth, but his ever-present poverty which prevented the acquisition of a surfboard.
Nina listened gravely. A surfboard, she gathered, was the status symbol of his older brother’s gang.
“… or if I could even get a switch blade …”
Having controlled her horror, having learned that the chance of Tom’s acquiring this smaller badge of maturity was extremely remote, Nina decided to treat the matter lightly. “Well, David had only a sling shot, and he made history.”
“David the shepherd, the one who killed the lion with it.”
The boy was all ears. “Never heard of him.”
“You think you have troubles,” Nina said severely. “This boy had a king hunting him, armies after him, a giant to overcome.”
“Giant?” His tone was skeptical, but his eyes brightened.
Nina told the story of David and Goliath, heartened to see that even in this new age it had tremendous appeal.
Tom paid her the supreme compliment of holding the unbitten sandwich to his mouth for the last few paragraphs.
He sighed and resumed his lunch. There was a silence in the little kitchen. He shook his head after a time. “Wouldn’t work … not now.”
“You just don’t get it, Tom. It wasn’t the slingshot, actually.”
Tom considered. “You mean there had to be that something to guide the rock … or David’s hand?”
Nina was delighted with his astuteness. “It was his believing … his faith.”
Tom nodded briskly, “The positive approach … I read an article on it.”
Nina gently let the matter rest.
Tom rose. “You got company. Car coming.” He slid out of his chair and went to the window. He turned away in disappointment. “Just old Doc Jonathan.” He turned to the door. “I’m leaving. The Doc’s always mad at me for something. He lives by us, and he raises orchids.” He turned to the door. “Thanks for the sandwich, though, and I sure liked your story, but I don’t think the kids would go for a slingshot … thanks just the same.”
“Wait!” Nina was astonished at her own appeal, transparent in her voice.
The boy paused in the doorway. He made her think of a faun, edged there in the light, with the secret kinship in him for flight and hilly places.
“Would … would you like to ride Dominick for a little while?”
Radiance and unbelief. “You’d let me?”
“For an hour … yes.”
A wild whoop and he was gone. The knocker sounded from the big door. Nina went to answer it.
(To be continued)