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 aid from the local hospital, and Nina explains the circumstance. Novarro brings his motherless, withdrawn son Joseph and asks Nina to take care of him. Reluctantly, she agrees to look after the boy. She is visited by Tommy Benedict, a young boy from an unhappy home who has taken a great liking to Nina, and enjoys riding her horse Dominick.
Doctor Jonathan edged his car up the perilous roadway to the hilltop house. He looked coldly at the pandemonium of color and line and vista stretching to his right. People ought to leave hills for trees or goats. Tomas Novarro’s people must have been made to have built a house so high and so far.
Another thing that made Craig Jonathan feel pettish was his errand. He wanted nothing to do with Nina Karsh. The Valley Hospital was still buzzing with her dismissal, people took sides.
Doctor Jonathan remained utterly aloof. It was an unfortunate matter. He liked the hospital to maintain its starched monotony and let the troubles come in with the patients. He took off his glasses and slipped them into his pocket. It was an absent-minded gesture that made the nurses smile. Without glasses his face was younger and less stern. The immaculate crew cut of his graying hair sprang austerely up from his wide, lined brow. His eyes were gray and tired. To be in pediatrics was to surrender such luxuries as sleep.
He nosed the car into the narrow plateau beside the garage and reached for his bag and got out. Tomas Novarro played chess well and the dinners at the big house were unfailingly interesting, but the care and keeping of Tomas Novarro’s son was a nagging and painful thorn in Doctor Jonathan’s mind. The case made him feel helpless and he very seldom felt helpless. Tomas Novarro himself was often as painful a problem as his son, and more unpredictable, such as leaving the boy with a strange woman, especially a woman like Nina Karsh, leaving him and going off somewhere without seemingly another thought. It was all wrong, completely wrong. Doctor Jonathan shrugged his displeasure. Novarro would save himself and his son all this upheaval, if he would consent to place the child in an institution and, well … forget him was a strong phrase. Doctor Jonathan avoided it. But this! He looked abut him at the long low lines of the house, at the bougainvillea spilling its purple profusion along the rooftree and around the stone chimney.
What did Novarro expect to gain by leaving his son with Nina Karsh? Frm what Doctor Jonathan had seen of her at the hospital, she had nothing of fire or brilliance. As he vaguely recalled Nina Karsh, he had a quick vision of a small white person, who owned nothing spectacular in the way of figure. Her hands, as he recalled, were square and capable and she did have rather nice eyes, tender, intelligent, and a fine shade of blue. But she was an ordinary woman … a composite of dozens one saw daily, single women, gentle faced, a little humble, a little puzzled by the complexities of being forty and alone. He pressed his finger with unnecessary vigor on the bell.
The passing wind brought him the sweetness of orange blossoms and pinks, a hummingbird darted around the hanging basket. Despite himself, Doctor Jonathan felt peace invade him.
The door opened. Nina Karsh smiled at him briefly. “Yes, Doctor?”
He eyed her sourly. She was prettier than he remembered, and her hair was quite remarkable in color and sheen. He found himself staring at it, trying to decide if it was more gold than red or rather a particularly brilliant brown.
Her gaze was blue and direct. He found himself straightening his shoulders. “Tomas Novarro asked me to look in on his son. I am Doctor Jonathan.”
“I remember you.” She flushed but did not lower her eyes.
It was embarrassing. What did she expect of him? Comment? Commendation? Belief in her? He cleared his throat. “Quite, quite.”
She lifted her chin. She was a proud woman then, not accustomed to the role of being questioned.
“He is in here.” She led the way to the living room.
He followed her slowly, looking about him. The room was charming, no doubt of that, cool, peaceful, boasting flowered chintz slip covers and polished tables which mirrored the low bowls of pansies and pinks. He peered at the bookshelves and at the paintings on the walls. They were boldly initialed. “Yours?”
She nodded. “A hobby of sorts.”
More than a hobby, he would say. He felt an unwilling respect nudge aside his preconceived opinions. The woman had talent, real talent.
The boy was lying slackly in the big chair by the window. She knelt beside him, took his thin, stiff fingers in her own. “Doctor Jonathan is here, Joseph.”
Doctor Jonathan forced heartiness. “How are you, young man, enjoying life?”
He opened his bag, not waiting for a reply, which he knew by past experience, would not be forthcoming. He made his examination carefully, pleased to note the faint flush on the thin cheeks. “You’ve had him in the sun?”
“This morning, for a little while.”
“Excellent.” He watched her with the child. She quick but sure in her touch. Joseph submitted without tenseness. “No … don’t bother to undress him. I gave him a thorough checkup two weeks ago. This is routine. Does he eat well?”
“No, very little.”
He rose, frowning. He tapped the stethoscope on his palm and looked about him. The portrait above the fireplace caught his eye. It was of a man in his late sixties.
“My father,” she said, “one of his last good days. I didn’t really capture him, but then what canvas could?”
“It’s quite good.” He was dismayed at his own tone. He sounded stuffy.
“Kind of you.”
He sighed. There would be then no rapport between them. Best to get the business over with. “The boy is quite a handful for anyone, and I’m afraid the case is hopeless.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Never matured … doubt that he will.”
She said quietly and with great firmness. “Joseph will be entirely well.”
“Indeed?” He was instantly alert. he placed his glasses on his nose and looked at her closely. She tilted her chin.
“I said Joseph will be well.”
She plunged into a hurried account of the boy and an encounter with a butterfly. He listened impatiently. That was the trouble with women like Nina Karsh, they rode their own off-beat theories with the vigor of a small boy on a horse. It was that same impulsiveness that had led to the incident at the hospital. “You live alone?” he asked.
“Yes. My nephew, Daniel Brooks … I reared after his mother died, but he’s away at school now. I don’t believe he’ll be coming back, so I suppose I am quite alone.”
He pulled at his lip. It was an obvious situation. Lonely, unhappy, she jumped at the chance to do something challenging, to be needed. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Doctor Jonathan felt pity flood him. She would give all she had, and she would receive nothing in exchange. Nothing. There was only disillusionment and bitterness ahead for her.
He found himself saying, “Don’t ask for the impossible, Miss Karsh, and don’t” – his voice was firm – “give too much of yourself.” He cleared his throat. “Don’t waste yourself.”
She met his gaze with a hot anger plainly visible in her eyes. “Forgive me, Doctor Jonathan, I do not agree with you on any single point.” She was emphatic. She looked young, terribly involved, standing there beside the boy. She made him feel old and, yes, cruel, neither emotion conducive to well-being.
She knelt beside the boy, capped his chin in her palm. “We’ll walk in the hills, Joseph, in the mornings, early, and after it rains. We’ll find wonderful things … you and I … and I’ll tell you stories. I know a thousand stories.”
Doctor Jonathan wrote out a prescription and gave it to her. She rose and went with him to the door. “How long have you known Joseph?”
“And he has always …?”
“Always,” he said firmly. “Don’t hesitate to call me, and I’ll be dropping in again in a few days.”
Doctor Jonathan drove slowly down the hill. He fought against an urge to turn and go back, find out what she was up to. There had been a squared determination about her. She was, without a doubt, a woman determined on a course.
Tom Benedict brought a frolicsome Dominick back to the corral. He stabled her and made his way to the kitchen to voice his thanks.
Nina drew him inside. “I’m afraid there’s a hitch to it, an hour of baby sitting?”
“Sure I would. Have you got a television?”
“In the den, just off the living room. I won’t be long.”
Tomas Novarro’s house was old and large and very beautiful. Nina was enchanted by the beauty of its Spanish lines. The tile roof was richly red, the blue painted iron scroll work against the white stucco walls made her think of pictures she had seen of Spanish castles.
Manuel came to the door. He looked troubled at the sight of her, but not surprised. “Come in, Miss Karsh, you have troubles?” He looked at her anxiously.
“No troubles, Manuel, just questions.”
His breath exploded in relief. “Questions?” I answer! I answer.” He led her across the wide hall to a large room, rich with gilding and red velvet.
Nina followed him silently, testing the lushness of the rugs under her feet and trying to identify from afar the painters of the great dim canvases, gold framed, on the wall. “A Goya!” she marveled, and forgetting Manuel, went to stand before it.’
“Mr. Novarro brought it home with him some years ago, from Paris, I think.” Manuel pointed to a brocade chair. “Would you sit here, Miss Karsh.”
Nina sat primly on the rich fabric, crossing her feet precisely, folding her white gloved hands in her lap. She should have worn her navy blue, this light sprigged cotton see4med countrified and simple in the great elegant room..
“You wanted to ask me about Joseph?”
She leaned forward. “Mr. Manuel, I want to know everything about him.”
Manuel sat back. “I am sorry. I do not have all the reports … all the papers.”
“Reports? Papers? Who took care of him?”
Manuel shrugged. “Many.”
Nina lifted her brows. “I don’t understand.”
“Tomas Novarro wished nothing left undone for his son. There were many nurses. They did not like it here. Too lonely. There were many maids. There were schools. There were clinics.
“But what were they like, all these people?”
“There was an English nurse.” Manuel counted on his fingers. “No baby should be picked up. There was a young lady from Santa Monica, who was studying psychiatry. She was very efficient. We did not speak to the child, because we were all giants and terrifying to him, she said.”
Manuel nodded. “We did everything they said. We had scales to measure lunches and suppers, special clothes and special blocks and special disciplines.
“Disciplines? What sort of disciplines?”
Again Manuel shrugged. “It was behind closed doors. The child cried. We could not enter. Then Mr. Novarro became afraid. He sent for my mother.” Manuel moved restlessly. “But she was very old, my mother. She fed the child and bathed him, but she was tired. It was all out of her, the tenderness. She had had many children and many grandchildren. She was tired.”
Nina stood up. “Mr. Manuel, would you please show me Joseph’s room.”
He looked puzzled, but rose with alacrity and led the way upstairs. Joseph’s room was in the left wing. Manuel explained the distance by saying that Joseph had cried a great deal, in the beginning, and the brilliant young woman, the one from Santa Monica, had said he must not be held or pampered in any way, because the wise men had discovered this was not only unnecessary but harmful.
“Indeed,” said Nina frostily, “and what did Mr. Novarro think of that?”
“He was too lost in grief to notice,” Manuel said gently, “besides, child raising is for women.”
With effort, Nina restrained the caustic comment leaping to her lips. A remembrance of her own father’s tenderness and concern loomed tall in her mind. She felt an icy disdain for this Tomas Novarro.
Joseph’s room was dark and impressive, with somber Spanish chests and a great carved bed.
“There is a closet full of toys,” Manuel said hastily. “We have put them away, but you may have them, if you like.”
“Who played with Joseph?”
“Played with him? He had his toys, Miss Karsh, everything that money could buy.”
“Thank you,” Nina said, “you have been very helpful. That is all I wish to know.”
Manuel followed her out to the car, helped her in with grave courtesy. “You may come any time, Miss Karsh, Mr. Novarro said you are to have whatever you like. he said we’re to send you Elissa, the second maid. She is a very good cook.”
“Fine,” said Nina. “I can use her.” She started the motor with a roar that sent Manuel leaping for safety and spun down the driveway in the direction of her own hilltop.
Tom Benedict looked up reluctantly from his cowboy and Indian show. “He didn’t even wake up.” He looked at her narrowly. “You got something moving in your sweater, Miss Marsh.”
Nina laughed and drew out the small, white, fluffy kitten. “I bought him … on the way back.”
Tom cried out and reached for the small squirming puff and held it, mewing plaintively, against his face. Nina watched the tenderness melt away the wise old look that had been there before. If a kitten could do this for a boy, a big boy like Tom!
She could scarcely wait for Joseph to waken from his nap. Then she dressed him, fed him milk and crackers, and led him outdoors. Joseph obeyed her mutely. He allowed himself to be placed in the blue canvas chair. The afternoon sun made a nimbus of his light hair.
Nina knelt beside him. She took the kitten from her pocket. “Look, Joseph, look!”
The boy seemed unaware.
“Joseph, it makes a singing.” She rubbed the small body against his cheek.
Joseph put up his hand and touched the kitten. He let his hand drop, all interest gone. The released kitten leaped, mewing, to the ground. Nina sat back on her heels, bewildered and disappointed.
The kitten rubbed against her ankles. She picked it up and held it in her hands. “There … there,” she crooned to the plaintiff cry, “it’s all right …” She sat suddenly still, aware of Joseph’s interest. But Joseph was looking at her, not the kitten. In his face was an expression she could not read, but expressive it was, a shadow, a movement. Trembling, she placed the kitten back in his hands. He paid no attention. When her vice stilled, the light went out of his face. What was it? Not her imagination, surely. There had been a flicker of life, of interest. But when she looked at him again he was inert, dull, and heavy. It was when she talked to the kitten. Nina took the kitten back. She crooned over it, but she watched Joseph’s face.
Tell me, Joseph, she asked herself, is it because I talk to the kitten? Is it amusing? No, that isn’t it. It’s something I’m doing with my voice. But what? What is it? What reaches him? She held the kitten to her face, making a little wordless song. Joseph held her with his eyes, large, misty, infinitely sad. Nina put the kitten down and took Joseph into her arms. He said no word; he made no outcry. He burrowed against her, his eyes closed. Nina held him in silence, trying to understand.
Leaves dropped from the chinaberry tree, a squirrel frisked from the juniper, to the left the windmill turned lazily over the well, from far below came the faint echoes of car horns and motors. Nina was oblivious to all around her. Something strange was happening between her and Joseph, a communion between them, a warm peace in the burden of his head, a stirring in his hands like the tendrils of a young plant reaching up.
How strange, she thought, our emphasis on words, our insistence that communication be in syllables and sentences. Joseph is talking to me without any sound. He is telling me that he must begin from the beginning, from the baby part of it. She held him in aching tenderness. I am telling him, by my holding him here, in the sun, in the afternoon, that I understand him, that I will not fail, that he can begin to believe and to open, for there is nothing to make him afraid.
(To be continued)