Sow the Field with Roses
By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: Nina Karsh lives in a small house in the Malibu Mountains of California. The house is owned by Tomas Novarro, a sad and morose man of great wealth, who brings his withdrawn and motherless son Joseph and asks Nina to take care of him. Nina agrees to look after the boy temporarily. She is visited by Tommy Benedict, a young boy from an unhappy home, on the beach. Nina tries to help him into a better life adjustment. Dr. Craig Jonathan comes to check p on Joseph’s health. later, Nina goes to the Novarro home to find out all she can about Joseph’s background and the origin of the boy’s problems.
The wind blew hot from the desert. At the beach it was a fierce 110 degrees. Doctor Jonathan drove up carefully between the perilously dry eucalyptus trees and the equally perilous oak. The whole canyon could go up by spontaneous combustion. he looked up to the hills where the bright houses leaned into the sky. People were idiotic to build here and more idiotic to stay.
It had been three weeks since he had seen Joseph Novarro. Doctor Jonathan felt guilty about this, especially since Tomas made a point of calling him every Sunday evening to find out how the boy was doing.
Craig had relayed the telephone conversations he had with Nina. Not that she told him much. He had the feeling about Nina of an impish holding back, that all sorts of exciting things were happening at the hilltop house. Women! Doctor Jonathan wiped his forehead with a large, immaculate handkerchief and took off his glasses. Women! Especially women who reminded him of Edith, and Nina Karsh reminded him very much of that lost and early love.
Recklessly, he nosed the car through the dusty bouldered road and found the parking place beside the garage. He climbed out and looked toward the house. Oasis. Sprinklers were sending geysers of coolness over the trees and lawns. The smell of wet earth and brush was exquisitely fragrant. Again, he thought of Edith. Edith had been cool and fragrant. Edith had been laughter and all promise and all a man could ask of beauty. She had lacked only one thing – love. Hearing from this one and that about Edith’s rise from wealth to wealth had given him to know that she would never have been happy as the wife of a community doctor. Still he grieved for her, thought of her, and let the empty years pass and the emptier years come, making no effort to change or fill them except with his work. He had grown so accustomed to his nothingness that he felt anger with Nina Karsh for reminding him of it. She was another one, swept on the banks of the mysterious river, while the great and the proud and the loved ones rode its crest.
He made his way through the gate, turned at the sound of voices. They were in the garden, Nina Karsh and the boy. Nina was wearing a blue smock. She was standing beside her easel, palette and brush in her hands. But it was the sight of Joseph that brought Doctor Jonathan to an absolute halt. He took out his glasses and settled them and stared again. Joseph was playing, actually playing in the sand as any normal child. He was filling the tin bucket painstakingly with the toy shovel and then in the immemorial way of small boys, pouring the sand over himself and laughing at his cleverness. Doctor Jonathan blinked. The sound of Joseph’s laughter was not quite believable.
He must have made an exclamation. Nina and the child both turned and looked at him, the laughter like light on their faces. It faded. Nina’s became decorous.
Doctor Jonathan walked crisply down the path to them. “I see you have made a slight progress, young man.”
How cold and dry he sounded. He hadn’t meant the tone. He reached for Joseph, and the child screamed and flung himself on Nina, clinging to her neck.
Nina flashed Doctor Jonathan an apologetic smile. “It’s a phase,” she said, “he’ll get over it. He’s afraid I’ll go away from him.”
Doctor Jonathan asked humbly, “How did you do it?”
She rocked Joseph and kissed him, murmuring small assurements. “I felt Joseph might have lost an age in his life …” Seeing Craig’s blank stare, she quickened her voice, trying to explain. “I knew a man who had to go to work very young. He lost his boyhood, then later on he did very foolish things, or what seemed foolish to others, but he was trying to find what he had lost. I’m afraid I am expressing myself badly, but I feel that Joseph has lost his babyhood. Everyone wanted him to be terribly grown-p and wonderful very fast, and he missed the beginning part of life and, having lost the assurance that comes with being babied, he didn’t have the courage to go on and be the next stage …”
Her voice trailed off. She looked guilty. “I could be terrible wrong, but I just took Joseph back to his babyhood and let him start all over again.” She looked at him questioningly.
It was one of those odd tangents people got off on. He didn’t know whether it was a profound discovery or not. He only knew, looking at Joseph, that the child was well on the high road to recovery. Doctor Jonathan sighed. He hated to feel frustrated, and Nina Karsh was forever doing this to him, unsettling him, sending his mind down channels he had no wish to explore.
She said, “His silence and immobility were the sands he tried to hide in … you know, like the ostrich. Joseph pretended we didn’t exist, that way we couldn’t bewilder or hurt him.”
“He hasn’t tried to hide from you?”
She lifted her shoulders. “After a while he knew it wasn’t necessary. I did not ask him for anything. I only gave …”
She walked toward the house, making comments as she moved, and doctor Jonathan walked behind her measuring with a professional eye the weight and height of Joseph, his clearer color and, above all, the fierce and open attachment he felt for Miss Karsh.
Once in the house, Nina left them alone, and Craig was able to coax Joseph away from Nina long enough to give the examination which told him what he already knew – that the boy was forging ahead in every way.
Doctor Jonathan sighed and sank down in the big wing chair. He watched Joseph turn the pages of a picture book and call out proudly the names of the animals. Craig was tired and thirsty and puzzled. What had brought it about? Had Joseph been ready for the transition, and had Miss Karsh been there at the psychological moment? or was it the mysterious healing influence that some women have, that power within themselves to enter a discordant household and put it to rights?
Doctor Jonathan had known some nurses who possessed it to a remarkable degree. They could listen with the proper cluckings of sympathy to a tortured nerve-ridden patient and give him peace. Nina Karsh had it. He found himself wondering if women in the beginning before the swift strides of modern science, had possessed it even more richly. Perhaps women had surrendered more than they knew in these days of nursing homes and institutions.
Nina brought in a tray of cookies and lemonade. “It’s so hot,” she said, “and it’s such a long drive back.”
Doctor Jonathan drank the lemonade gratefully. It pleased her to serve him, her face grew bright and young. Looking at her, he realized how much she occupied his thoughts. He put down the glass abruptly, disturbed by the realization. “You were doing some painting when I came, Miss Karsh. I interrupted.”
She poured more lemonade for Joseph. “It was a child’s portrait.”
“Could I see it?”
“Of course.” She rose at once.
He walked beside her down the path. She came just to his shoulder. When he looked down, he saw that her hair was darker in the center but lightened towards the ends from long hours in the sun. There was fragrance all around them, whether of the flowers or of her, he did not know, but it confused him, the fragrance, and when his arm brushed against hers, he drew back and became stern with himself.’
The painting troubled him. It was of Joseph, and yet it was not. The child in the painting had great, over-brilliant eyes, wide, strained, and haggard. The face was pinched, as if from hunger, yet the child was carefully dressed in a white silk shirt and white linen shorts. He held a cat in his arms, Siamese, sleek and expensive. In the background were the muted gray ruins of a bridge.
Nina stood with her head down, not looking at the painting, but touching the brushes to the paint daubs on the palette.
“The eyes,” he said at length, not wishing to hurt her, and yet angry with her for making it necessary.
“Yes? You don’t care for the eyes?”
“I don’t either,” she said.
“But the rest is excellent. It would take only a little effort …” he broke off.
She said, “You think I would be better off copying one of Reubens’ children, or Romney’s, perhaps?”
What was she trying to tell him? He said irritably, “Who would want to have those eyes following him about?” He pointed to the canvas.
“Not I,” she said gently, “they accuse me.”
“I am tormented,” she said, “by the children of our time, by the eyes of children. They are stuffed with murders for pacifiers, and violence for playthings, and drunkenness for amusement. They cry out to me, the children, for bread.”
“Nonsense,” he said heartily, glad to be on familiar ground. “Our children are the best fed in the world.”
“The bread of sunsets,” she said, “and mountain mornings and walks in the Sunday parks.”
He was silent, looking down into her eyes. Her words made a desolate beauty against his ears, like a violinist playing to a deserted house. He said, uncomfortably, “Oh, I agree that youngsters nowadays get a little too much of television and movies and things, but, on the whole, they are a lucky lot.” He was suddenly impatient. “After all, they have to live in the world. They might as well get to know what it’s made of.”
She dipped the brush in black and deepened the lines around the child’s eyes. “Then, if we insist upon feeding them with these bitter breads, we have no right to complain about the size of their eyes, have we, or the shapes of their souls?” She looked past him to the sweep of the valleys below. “What is the heaviness about our necks these days, Doctor Jonathan? Is it the millstones we wear?”
“We are much kinder to children than in former times. I can remember my father telling me about the whalings his father gave him.”
“Did he hate him for it?”
“Hate him? Certainly not. Grandfather Jonathan was a terrific old gentleman. When I was a child, I had the sneaking feeling that he was of the same cloth as Moses or Abraham, one of the old prophets.”
She put the brushes away and hung a cloth over the painting. “A child need not fear a Moses or an Abraham. A child has great need to fear us who give him, day by day, the glittering corruption.” She moved back to the house. “Have you heard from Tomas Novarro?”
“Yes. I am to call him tonight.”
“And what will you tell him?” She walked beside him.
“I will tell him that his son is well, and that he can come and take him now.”
Better to make the operation quick and final. But he turned away from the whiteness that ran raggedly into her cheeks and the stricken narrowing of her eyes.
“You knew this was a temporary thing.”’
“Yes.” her voice was scarcely audible. “But it is so soon. Somehow, I did not think it would be so soon.”
“You have opened the door,” he said brusquely, “but Tomas Novarro has the right to enter the room.” He turned in the direction of his car. “I will let you know what he says.”
But he did not call Tomas until the next day. Then swiftly, savagely, he put in the call for Quebec and waited. Tomas called back at once.
“Yes? The boy? He is well?”
“He is very well,” said doctor Jonathan heavily. “The woman has done the impossible. You owe her a great deal.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Tomas was impatient and jubilant. “I will return at once. He is completely well?”
“No, but he is responding as a normally sick and frustrated child, not like a zombie. It will take time, much more time. But it would be wise if you came and siphoned off his affections, or he will never be able to leave Miss Karsh.”
“I will take him away at once.”
“I wouldn’t, Tomas. It would be too much for the boy to take. He’s found a bridge back to people, but you’ve got to be sure he is all the way over the bridge before you burn it.”
“Of course … of course.” Tomas was shaken with joy. “I will do anything you say, anything, and of course, I will pay her well. You need not fear about that. Don’t worry about Miss Karsh for a minute.”
Doctor Craig Jonathan hung up the telephone and say back. Worry about Miss Karsh? Why should he? She was definitely “way out,” all that talk about children, and the painting. He rubbed his eyes. The painting haunted him, the memory of the child in the portrait, with the glazed, distended eyes. It seemed that he saw those eyes in every child he met. Doctor Jonathan sighed and picked up his hat and bag. Haunted eyes, hungry eyes, eyes that searched – for what? He answered himself. They hunted for the stuff that Nina Karsh possessed in such rich abundance, the pure and flowing love, that asked nothing for itself, that gave and was replenished form the deep and secret springs of her being.
Dr. Jonathan plunged for the door. He had better get Nina Karsh off his mind, or he wouldn’t know whether he was looking at a case of measles or hives.
In the late afternoon Tom Benedict climbed the hill. Nina, running to answer his whistle, saw traces of tears on the boy’s dusty cheeks. She put her hands behind her back. One does not offer comfort to a boy almost thirteen.
“Hot today.” She pushed back her hair with her forearm.
“Yeah, sure is.” He slumped down in the wicker chair on the patio. Nina chose the rocker. They sat in silence. Nina fanned herself with the pages of a magazine.
“It sure is an empty sort of day.” He looked around. “Where’s Joseph?”
“Sleeping.” She studied Tom. “I was just about to have some lemonade.”
He brightened a little. “Can I help you fix it?”
On an impulse she sank down again into the rocker. “Would you mind fixing it? After all, you know this house as well as I do.”
He was off like a shot. She heard him whistling in the kitchen. After more long moments, he returned in triumph with her best silver tray in his brown hands. The silver pitcher tinkled with ice, and the cookies were arranged in mathematical splendor.
“Tom! Honestly! Nobody else knows how to do things so special.”
His sigh cleansed him of grief. He drank in great noisy gulps and stuffed himself with cookies. “They left dinner for me,” he explained, “but I wasn’t hungry.”
“Your mother’s gone away?”
“Yeah, she and my brother to Frisco, for the day. They said I was big enough to stay alone … and I sure am. I’m sure big enough. I get along fine.”
Nina leaned back in the rocker. What was the old saw about it takes a thief to catch a thief, and it takes a person who has eaten, drunk, and lived with loneliness to know it at a glance. Nina shivered. His pain pierced her like a thousand separate thorns. She saw the specter of loneliness come out of the shadows to stand over them, the discarded boy, the forgotten woman.
He said, “Heard any more good stories about David lately?”
“The one with the slingshot.”
She sat up straight. ‘Tom, would you do me a big favor?”
“Come along to church with me tonight, and help me with Joseph. He’s getting to be such a handful.”
Tom’s face fell. “Well, I had sort of planned …”
“We could go to a drive-in afterward for hamburgers and malts.”
“Great … when do we leave?”
Tom Benedict was puzzled but polite during the evening. “Never been to one of these before,” he confided. He found the pages for her in the songbook, and he sat quietly during prayers, but he was plainly relieved when the services were over. Nina tried to hide her disappointment. She had hoped … for what? A miracle? Yes, she said stoutly to herself. That’s exactly what I hoped for, a miracle for Tom. “That’s why I brought him to you, Lord,” and then, afraid that she had been murmuring, she hastily added, “but of course you know best.”
She followed Tom to the car. “How did you like it?”
“It was just fine, Miss Karsh.”
“Mamma Nina, Mamma Nina,” murmured Joseph, clinging to her hand.
“He heard the boy next to him call his mother ‘Mamma,’ he’s trying it out on you,” Tommy explained.
Don Jonas, in the act of backing out his car, halted when he saw them. “How are you tonight, Miss Karsh?”
“Just fine,” said Nina quickly. She was in no mood to be asked to donate four dozen cookies for a scout cookout.
Don Jonas cocked an enquiring eye on Tom. “Haven’t seen you at Scout meeting.” He grinned. “Better come.”
“No, thanks,” said Tom with finality.
“You’d still be in time for the surfboards.”
Tom froze like a setter. ”Surfboards?”
“We’re making them,” Don Jonas said. “Most of the fellows have started. I’d take time out to get you going, though.”
“A surfboard of my own … I’d be right in with the big boys …” Tommy peered at Don Jonas. “You’re not kidding?”
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow at six right in front of the Malibu Hardware. Okay?”
They drove in silence along the coast highway. The evening was just darkening. The moon came up like a giant orange ball and made a glistening road upon the sea.
Tom sighed and turned to her. “That was one lucky day for me, Miss Karsh … that day I went to see old Dominick.”
“For me, too,” she assured him, “and I guess Dominick wouldn’t lose you for anything in the world.”
He settled back. “You know, it’s the funniest thing, but when I climbed that hill up to your house I just felt real awful, like the end of the world or something, and now …” he sat back in astonishment. “I feel just like licking tigers.”
But Nina, turning the sharp curves to the hilltop house, did not feel like licking tigers. She looked at Joseph, sleeping against her side, warm and heavy. The thought of losing him moved chill into her mind. “I can’t!” she whispered. “I can’t go through it again … losing the people I love … and not Joseph. I can’t lose Joseph.”
He turned restlessly, awoke. “Mamma Nina!” He was frightened.
Nina soothed him from the troubled dream. “It’s all right, Joseph. I am here … I am here.”