Sophia Corvo quit school the year before the great quake, when her mother took up her disease like a blessing and entered the Belmont Sanatorium for Working Women. Rosa Corvo’s sickness arrived during a damp and warm California winter, a cold and a small, hacking cough that left her too weak to get up for a day. Several weeks later, another cold came upon Rosa, and weeks after that another. After each cold, she would rise again, thinner and more tired, but convinced she was at last well. She didn’t see a doctor until after her sixth cold, when she began to feel pains in her back, and went dizzy any time she bent over, and couldn’t keep food down.
After the doctor pronounced that she had tuberculosis, Rosa began to think only of her disease. She talked to it, questioned it, seemed more intimate with it than with her husband or daughter. Sophia sometimes caught her mother in quiet conversation with her own body, and when she asked anything of her, Rosa made her feel like she was intruding. She told Sophia that she didn’t know why God had chosen her for this disease, but she knew there was a reason for it that they would all understand in time.
Sophia tried to win back her mother’s attention by being the perfect nurse. She gave Rosa sponge baths, and rubbed her body with rough towels, and pestered her to drink a quart of milk with every meal, and eat raw eggs by the half dozen. She applied plasters that raised long liquid-filled blisters on the skin above the lungs, to increase heat and circulation. But none of it brought her mother back to her, and when a place opened for her at the sanatorium, Sophia tried to ignore the pleasure Rosa seemed to show.
It wasn’t common for anyone but the well off to enter a sanatorium. There were tuberculosis hospitals in the city, where people went to die, and few sanatoriums where people went to heal. But Augusto Corvo, Sophia’s father, was the foreman at Beau Pays Vineyards, and the vineyard owner had arranged it. They were living rent-free on the vineyard property then, in a crooked house with low ceilings and tiny windows, and Augusto at times blamed the dankness that hung in the house for his wife’s illness. Sophia heard him say that Paul Tourneau, the owner, had arranged for the sanatorium out of guilt.
Rosa left in early autumn, after the crush. Sophia waited with her that morning at the edge of the gravel drive below the vineyard house, one small grip at their feet. The grip held only those items the sanatorium had told Rosa to bring: three pairs of flannel pajamas, one wool robe, sweaters, three wash cloths, and a metal hot water bottle. The rest of her clothes would be fumigated, and all the bedding she slept in would be burned.
From the verandah of the vineyard house, the owner’s wife Pascale looked down on the two of them. Whenever Pascale looked at her, Sophia felt as though she should be ashamed of her dark and glossy hair that curled naturally, and her deep hips, and the new breasts that pained her a little with their growing. She didn’t know why Pascale made her feel that way, but even here, about to say goodbye to her mother, she felt that glare fall on her.
Sophia reached for Rosa’s hand as her father slowed the carriage in front of them, but her mother pulled back from her and clasped her hands under her chin. She wore a black cloth handkerchief over her face, so that only her eyes showed.
“Don’t touch me,” Rosa said. “I’m not ready to be touched yet.”
She climbed up to the seat next to Augusto, and Sophia imagined she was smiling behind the black mask.
“This won’t be forever. Promise me you’ll take care of Papa and be good.”
“I promise, Mama.”
“We’ll all be together again. I saw it in a dream.”
Her mother touched two fingers to her lips through the black cloth and held them up in farewell. Then Augusto flicked his reins, and the carriage rumbled around the drive and took the dirt road down from the vineyard. Sophia stood and watched it disappear as the road slipped between blocks of harvested vines.
She glanced up toward Pascale, who gave her a vicious look and turned away, hawkish and disdainful.
After her mother was taken, Sophia had to leave off schooling and keep house for her father. She spent long days alone in the dark house, swept the floors every day and ran an old silk cloth around the windowsills and baseboards and across the tabletops, straightened up until she could look anywhere in the house and feel everything was perfectly in place and under control. Once a week, she scrubbed the floor on her knees, dipping a large, stiff-bristled brush into her pail of water and running it up and down the floorboards, putting her weight into it and scouring the rough grooves and gaps in the wood. She always aired out the house thoroughly afterwards, so that it would be clean and dry and wholesome for when her mother came home.
Some days, the ocean air crept over the ridge of the Coast Range and hung in the trees, close and moist. Her father returned in a bitter mood on those days, complaining about the dankness of the house and asking Sophia what she did with herself while he was working. She could feel him wanting to blame her for the state of the house, the house that had sickened his wife and taken her from him. She answered softly while he talked himself into an anger that allowed him to leave Sophia alone and go looking for drink.
She waited up for him because she did not want him to hurt himself by tripping and falling on the uneven floor. She had learned, listening night after night, to judge how much he had drunk by the weight of his footfalls, the scuff and stumblings over the warping boards, the strength of his mutterings. She wanted at least to get him off his feet and out of his boots before she left him alone. Then she could feel he was safe for the night.
When he came back, no matter how drunk he was, he always apologized to Sophia, called her the best daughter any man could have, and said he would be lost in the world without her. She held those words close to her, repeated them to herself while she waited for sleep to come and repeated them again the next day. Being blamed and berated didn’t seem to sting so long as she had those words.
Once, when her father had left without eating, she stepped to the doorway and heard his reedy voice float over from the vineyard house. It was a dark evening after a short November day, and her father was on the verandah talking with Paul Tourneau. Sophia waited and listened for a moment. It was not a complete surprise that her father was with the vineyard owner. As foreman, Augusto went over from time to time to taste vintages and talk about the vines, and Tourneau respected his opinion. And she would rather have him there than down in town or with other vineyard workers, because he usually came home earlier, and more sober.
Then she heard her name spoken. She couldn’t make out any other words, but the two voices rose, and then mixed in laughter. Sophia strained to hear what they were saying about her, why they had laughed after her name was mentioned, but she couldn’t understand anything.
Sophia, she heard again, but the rest was lost, and she went back inside and closed the door. If her mother had been there, she could have told Sophia what it meant when two men said a girl’s name and then laughed. Her mother had always interpreted the world for her. She had always tended Sophia, telling her how to test if a bread dough was too stiff, what it meant if the lilies bloomed early or late, teaching her to judge the butcher’s mood by the pattern of red on his apron, and to know one kind of woman from another by how they dressed. Now her only presence was a letter that arrived once a week, written on a single sheet of paper, cheerful and vacant. The pattern of lessons was broken by that other bad daughter, the illness that took away all of her mother’s care and attention.
Sophia waited until near midnight before she went to the vineyard house to retrieve her father. The verandah was dark, but she saw lights on in other parts of the house. She walked cautiously along the path that led beside the kitchen garden, now only empty turned earth, and went to the kitchen door at the back of the house. The kitchen was in a low room that jutted out from the main part of the house and had a ventilator poking through the shed roof to carry away the heat of cooking in the summer. Sophia had helped there at times, and she naturally headed for that door, not the house’s main entrance.
The kitchen door had a large rectangle of glass in the upper half covered with lace curtains, and when she knocked, she saw Pascale sweep aside the curtain with her long-fingered hands and inspect her for a moment. Then the curtain fell back into place and the door swung open.
Pascale was standing in the doorway with her six year old son Gilbert standing beside her. She didn’t move aside to invite Sophia in.
“How old are you now?” she asked Sophia. Her face was thin and angular, shadowed in the cheeks and eyes.
“Fourteen,” Sophia said.
“Hmm,” Pascale sniffed. “Wait here.”
She left Gilbert in the doorway like a sentry. The boy was dark-eyed and unsmiling, and he watched her silently. Sophia couldn’t remember ever having seen another boy his age come to play, and she wondered if he was as lonely up on the vineyard as she had been since she quit school. She smiled at him, and he opened his eyes a little wider.
“My mama says you’re prettier than you oughta be,” he said.
“What?” Sophia kept her smile in place.
“You’re prettier than you oughta be. That’s what Mama said. I heard her more than once.”
“I don’t feel pretty,” Sophia said.
The door into the kitchen was shoved open, and Paul Tourneau walked in with his arm around Augusto’s shoulders. Tourneau was large and bearish, with a black beard fanning across his chest. Gilbert stepped out of the way, seeming smaller in his father’s presence, and Sophia suddenly knew that Gilbert would always be smaller, would never grow as tall and broad as Tourneau.
“Good evening, Sophia.” Tourneau spoke in a weighted and steady voice, sober-sounding, and his smile made his red cheeks round above his beard. “Your father had a little too much brandy tonight. Shall I help you walk him over to the old house?”
“I can walk,” Augusto said querulously.
Sophia knew that her father would hate it if he were helped back by Paul Tourneau. It would hurt his pride in a way that being helped by his daughter would not.
“I’ll take him,” she said.
“You’re sure?” he asked, and then Sophia saw the wine he’d drunk shining in his eyes.
“I can walk by myself,” Augusto insisted.
“I’m sure.” Sophia stepped into the kitchen and slipped her arm around her father’s shoulders from the left. He leaned his weight against her and they slumped out together. Tourneau followed them to the door. Sophia felt him watch them make their way across the yard.
As they passed the kitchen garden, Augusto began to tell Sophia how she was the best daughter in the world, and how much he needed her.
“I wish you’d think of that before you drink too much,” Sophia said, but she spoke so quietly that he didn’t hear her. She walked him to the sofa and took off his shoes, and she wrapped a blanket around him just as she imagined her mother would.
That December, the sky settled down gray and close over the vineyard. The vines were black and dripping and leafless, shorn of all the year’s grand growth, standing like gnarled dwarfish trees with four or five pointy arms twisting out from the small trunk. When Augusto went to the winery in the morning, he simply vanished from Sophia’s sight amidst the headstone rows of vines, as though the heavy sky had lifted for a moment to let him pass beneath, and then slapped down over him. Alone, she re-read her mother’s letters, but they seemed slight and distant. She couldn’t find in them the mother who had taught her where to find poppies in the spring, who told her that the Franciscans had seen in the flowers Christ’s holy chalice, the calce de oro. One day, Rosa had told her, when we are ready, we’ll see the holy chalice as well.
Sophia ran her finger over the return address in Belmont. She understood that the name meant beautiful mountain, and the letters often described the view from the porch, and made it sound like the San was always warm and open and sunny. Belmont, a place where you could see clearly and beautifully.
Augusto returned at night, muddy and glum. They talked about the work he had done, indoor work now in the winery, racking and fining and bottling. Sophia tried to find ways to draw out the conversation, to keep her father talking to her by asking him to explain the details of what he had done, and the reasons behind a certain decision about blending champagne or leaving wine to age in barrels, but his talk died into short tired answers that made her feel that her questions had been ignorant.
Then it rained for three days straight in mid-December, a steady rain from a big storm that had sailed across the entire Pacific Ocean. The earth was too wet and heavy to plow, though Tourneau wanted to badly, and the indoor work was slow. On the third day, Augusto didn’t leave the house. He had stashed half a dozen bottles of wine, green bottles without labels, and at the time he normally would have left for the winery, he pulled the cork of one and poured himself a glass. Sophia didn’t know if work had been cancelled that day because of the weather or if her father had just decided he wasn’t going that day, but she was afraid to ask. Outside, the sky fell in slanting silver lines, breaking onto the dark rows of vines.
“It’s a good day to stay home, Papa,” she said.
“If you can call this home,” he said. “It’s a wonder we all don’t have the T.B.”
Sophia spent the morning acting as though nothing were different. She dusted as she always did, made dough for bread and left it to rise in a ceramic bowl with a dishtowel over the top, swept the floor. Her father sat by the fireplace that heated the house, holding a glass and looking into the fire, and Sophia worked around him. She wanted him to notice how well she worked, how clean everything turned out, how wholesome she was making the house even during a Pacific storm. But he only rattled at the fireplace with an iron poker, every once in awhile going outside for another log that hissed and steamed when it was thrown on the fire.
When she stopped to make a cup of tea for herself, Augusto got up from his chair and began to prowl around the house. He felt the windowsills, muttering at the moisture that came up on his index finger, and looked outside at the colorless landscape. As Sophia watched him cautiously, he dragged a round-backed kitchen chair to the center of the house. He climbed up on it, and Sophia stood up and moved to his side to steady him if he needed it. She could see that he had drunk enough to be not quite balanced.
“What are you doing, Papa?”
He reached up, felt along the beams up toward the ridge. The beams were hewn redwood four by fours, and the ridge was a two by six inch plank that ran the length of the house. He worked his fingers along the joint between a beam and the ceiling, carefully feeling his way up toward the ridge, then he stopped and tapped the wood.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s it.”
“A leak in the roof. I can feel where it starts. Then it runs down the beam, and spreads everywhere!” He jumped down and steadied himself with a hand on Sophia’s shoulders. “That’s what’s making the house so damp!”
He walked to the back storage closet and pulled out a canvas bag of tools. The bag had small leather loops around the outside that held several kinds of hammers, and pouches of nails sewn inside. Then he rummaged around and found some tarpaper, and sheet tin, and some shingles.
“I’m going to fix this roof,” he said. “Right here and now.”
“You can’t fix it now,” Sophia said.
“Yes I can.” His eyes were wide, reddened with wine. “I’m not going to let another drop into this house. Not with Rosa getting better and wanting to come home.”
“It’s pouring outside,” Sophia said. “And you’re drunk.”
“Don’t tell me I’m drunk.” He smiled at her furiously. “Write your mother while I’m on the roof. I’m no good at writing. Tell her what I’m doing.”
Augusto plunged out the back door and into the weather. Sophia watched from the doorway as he dragged a wooden ladder from the hooks that held it against the wall and walked it dizzily out under the rain. The tip of the ladder spiraled in the air as he stepped its legs one by one through the weedy ground, rocking it back and forth until he could let it slap against the eaves opposite where he had located the leak. His hair was wet when he came back under the eaves for the tool bag, and his blue work shirt was blotched darkly with the rain.
Sophia caught at the sleeve of his shirt, but he shook her off, and she followed him outside. As he climbed the rungs, she put her weight against the foot of the ladder to keep it from moving.
“That’s my girl,” he said. “That’s making yourself useful.”
She watched him go up into the gray and featureless sky, her face painted with rain and her hair beginning to stick to her cheeks. He turned back to her when he stepped onto the roof, twelve feet above the ground.
“Go inside,” he shouted. “Write your mother.”
He disappeared past the edge of the roof. Sophia backed to the end of the cleared land and she saw him probing the shingles with his fingers. Then she wiped the water down her cheeks.
From the kitchen, it seemed there was a madman on the roof. Sophia punched down the bread dough, and she tried to chop onions and peel carrots for a stew, but she couldn’t concentrate on anything except the manic hammering that went on overhead. She found herself waiting for the hammer’s sudden silence, the slide, the fall. She didn’t believe he was really patching a leak. The pounding of the nails was too random and antic, happening at various points on the roof. It was simply lunatic grief, loose on the peak of her house, attempting to batter the world back into shape.
After a time, the hammering slowed. One blow at one end of the roof. Heavy footsteps. Two blows at the other end of the roof. More footsteps. The creak of settling weight. Quiet.
Sophia went back outside and found her father sitting at the edge of the roof beside the ladder, boots dangling over the eaves. His wet shirt was pasted to his skin, and he still held the hammer in his right hand. When he saw Sophia, he raised the hammer and banged on the roof a couple of times.
“Time to get off the roof, Papa,” Sophia called up.
“Your mother wanted something more than this,” Augusto said. He rested his head clownishly on his left hand, let the hammer dangle from his right.
“I don’t care what she wanted. I want you off the roof.”
“Something more than me being a foreman on someone else’s land.”
“You won’t even be that if you fall,” Sophia said. “And I’ll have another sick one to nurse.”
“Damn it,” Augusto said, “she’s ten years younger than me.”
He scooted his butt back and stood up at roof’s edge, tiptoeing to keep his balance and taking several quick steps to the right. Then he flung the hammer underhanded toward the woods behind the house. The hammer disappeared silently into the dark trees and brush.
Augusto frowned. “Lost a good hammer, there.”
He turned to the ladder and climbed slowly down, and he walked with Sophia back into the house. She made him undress and get into bed, and while he slept, she braised beef for the stew, punched down the bread dough and put it into the bread pan to rise once more, and poured out the wine from all the bottles her father had left around the rocking chair, except for one large glass that she drank herself.
Early the next morning, while Augusto was still sleeping, Sophia pulled a heavy wool shawl around her shoulders and set out down the curving dirt road that led to San Natoma, three miles distant, where she could find a train to Belmont. The sky had lifted into a broad steel plain high overhead, smooth and rainless, but the road was wet from the previous days’ rain, muddy in spots. As Sophia walked, the polish on her shoes dulled and the hem of her dress picked up a dark stain. She wondered if she would be able to find somewhere to rinse off the worst of the stain before she saw her mother. She wanted to look perfect, fresh-faced and healthy, when she saw her.
The Southern Pacific Depot lay a little north of San Natoma, near a ravine said to be inhabited by hobos. From a distance, Sophia could see a steam train waiting, the black engine puffing out white smoke that quickly blended into the gray sky. Only locals stopped at San Natoma, and she could see from the way the engine pointed that the train was headed in the right direction.
The ravine appeared, a dark line between her and the train. She hurried over the bridge, not pausing until she had passed under the depot’s glazed brick portico and stood at a barred ticket window. The fare to Belmont was two dollars. Sophia took a scarf from her purse where she had tied up all her dimes, nickels, and pennies, and spread it open on the counter. The coins jumbled together in overlapping stacks, silvery on the coarse cotton cloth, and she began to count them up. They came from the change she received from trips to the butcher or the grocer, small coins she had kept for herself. Anything a quarter or more she returned to her father. Sometimes at home, she weighed them in her hands, and they felt heavy and important. But now that she was on her own, away from the vineyard, they seemed fewer.
She placed them in groups of ten and counted them several times. It came to two dollars and thirty-seven cents. The ticket seller scraped the coins through the shallow brass dish and slid a ticket out to her. She had no idea how she would return, but she decided not to think about the return trip until later.
The train stood tall at the platform, steaming and unquiet. Sophia mounted narrow iron steps and found a seat on the side of the car furthest from the station. The bench seats were pebbled green leather, spacious and comfortable, and she slumped back and lowered her head, suddenly exhausted. She felt a blister burn at the back of her right heel, and she unlaced that shoe and slipped it halfway off.
Just before the conductor called for all aboard, Sophia saw Eugenia Cunningham, a schoolmate of hers, get on the train with her mother. As soon as Eugenia spotted her, she waved and guided her mother to the facing bench seat. When they sat down, Sophia instantly felt self-conscious about the thin stain of mud around her hem, and her simple shawl. Eugenia and her mother were both dressed for the city, wearing gloves and flat round hats with narrow brims and flowers around the hatband. Eugenia had never been particularly friendly to Sophia. Other girls said it was because Sophia was prettier than her, and she knew it. Eugenia was the kind of girl who invited other girls to speak with her in order to queen it over them, and compare them publicly and unfavorably with herself. And girls flocked to her, even though they knew they might be humiliated, because her family owned more than two hundred acres of prime orchard land.
The engine huffed loudly and strained against the static weight of the cars, paused as it gathered them up, then moved forward. The sign that read San Natoma sailed past the window, and the metal wheels of the cars clacked out of the station. In a minute, the train was up to speed, and they watched orchards give way to truck farms as the tracks curved closer to the bay.
“Going to San Francisco?” Eugenia asked.
“No,” Sophia said.
“We are. We’re going Christmas shopping, for Papa and my brothers, and a little bit for me. I’m not supposed to know what I’m getting.” She looked sideways at her mother. “But I might drop some hints.”
Her mother smiled at her indulgently.
“That will be fun,” Sophia said.
“It will be. It will be so much fun.” She began to talk about the streetcars and cable cars they would ride, and the stores they would visit, and where they would have lunch. The bright focus of Eugenia’s attention on her made Sophia want to play her part as audience, nodding and asking simple questions from time to time. It was good to talk with a girl her age. At the vineyard, she always felt cut off from her school friends, certain that their lives were continuing on perfectly well without her.
Sophia herself had never seen San Francisco, but she pretended familiarity with Market Street and Union Square and Nob Hill. And as she listened, she began to wish she were going to the city as well, to see the glittering store windows, the marble floors and shiny brass handrails, the high ceilings and chandeliers. She imagined the busy crowds downtown, imagined herself one of them, in a world where sickness had no place.
Eugenia’s mother finally interrupted her daughter. “And where are you going, my dear?” she asked Sophia.
“Oh,” Sophia said, startled. “Belmont.”
“That’s the next stop.”
“It is?” Sophia reached down and slipped her shoe back on. She grimaced at the quick pain, and she saw that Eugenia’s pointed eyes had taken note of her muddy hem, her marred shoes.
“And what are you doing there?”
“Sophia’s mother is sick,” Eugenia said.
The train began to slow down, and Sophia looked at Eugenia. She realized that Eugenia had known all along, had known Sophia wasn’t going to San Francisco.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m going to visit my mother.”
“I’m sorry to hear she’s ill. Please tell her we sympathize, and hope for her speedy recovery.”
Outside the window, the station platform came into view, with the name Belmont painted in gold letters on a black background. Sophia stood up with her purse clutched in one hand, and her other hand balled into a fist.
“Have a wonderful time,” Sophia said.
“You too.” Eugenia smiled, and her face seemed to sharpen like a fox.
On the platform, Sophia sat on a bench and waited until the train closed its doors and slowly began to pull north. She watched until the caboose grew small and vanished down the tracks. And watching the train sail off, she suddenly hated anyone untouched by the wasting disease, anyone who could say from a great and cool distance that they sympathized.
At the ticket window, Sophia learned that the sanatorium lay at the end of a spur road some two miles west. A sign marked the turnoff. She wrapped her shawl tight around her shoulders and walked out of the station, through the graveled streets of the town, and onto the dirt road that led up into the hills. The sky was the same steel gray here that it had been in San Natoma. She had imagined it might be sunny in Belmont, though she realized now that was foolish. As she walked, she felt the stiff shoe leather scrape across her raw right heel, and she began to lift that foot up awkwardly to keep it from bleeding. She was sure she had worn through her stockings and would have to darn them when she got home.
Less than mile out of town, just as the road began to climb, Sophia heard the bells of a horse team come up the road behind her. She turned and watched a two horse spring-wagon spin up to her, the horses well-groomed and wearing blinders, with a line of five bells of different sizes perched above their horse collars. The wagon was painted blue, with the words Pump and Machinery Repair written on the side in gold script, and the driver pulled back on the reins when he was alongside Sophia and waved her up. He wore jeans and a work shirt, and had a yellow feather that seemed too bright tucked in the band of his plug hat. When she had settled herself, he snapped his reins against the haunches of his horses.
“Where’s a lovely girl like you off to by yourself?” He smiled, and his teeth were very large and white.
“The San,” she said. “My mother’s there.”
“That’s a shame.” He bowed his head in condolence, pointing his yellow feather forward. “Puts quite a burden on you, doesn’t it?”
“That’s a world of trouble for someone so young,” he went on. “My own mother had polio, so I can understand.”
“Did she get better?” Sophia asked.
He looked at her silently for a moment, and the bells on the horses jingled. “She never walked again,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s not right, is it? Not fair.”
“That’s right,” Sophia said. “It’s not fair.”
She felt odd and powerful as she spoke. “It’s not fair,” she said again, to see how it felt. Nobody had told her before that it was all right to think that.
As they rode, she began to tell him everything that had happened to her since her mother fell ill. Putting her father to bed, the way Pascale looked at her, the way Paul Tourneau smiled at her. Her isolation in a house that itself seemed ill and threatening. The way she felt abandoned, while her mother seemed to grow closer to her disease than she was to her daughter.
They wound between hillside orchards with rows of bare trees, and some rounded uncleared land green with annual grasses. The man nodded from time to time as Sophia spoke, asking sympathetic questions. She felt he was understanding her better than anyone else had. When they approached the spur road, Sophia saw a sign that read Belmont Sanatorium for Working Women.
He brought the horses to a stop. “You’re having to grow up too fast,” he said.
“That’s right,” she said.
“Having to take care of everyone, before you’ve had a chance to live yourself. You should be able to live a little before you have to do all that.”
“Sure.” He reached over and took her hand in his. “You don’t want to go right to the San, do you?”
Sophia gently tried to pull back her hand, but he gripped it tight.
“What do you say?” he continued. “Don’t you think you might want to head into the hills a ways, have a little something? I’ll treat you good, promise I will.”
“I want to see my mother,” she said.
“What’s the rush? You escaped. Make the most of it. You’re sixteen, aren’t you?”
“I’m only fourteen.”
“Fourteen!” He dropped her hand. “Well, you little bitch. What are you trying to do, get me sent to San Quentin?”
“I never tried to do anything to you,” Sophia said.
“The hell you didn’t. With that grown-up ass of yours sashaying down the road like a red light.”
“I thought you were just being friendly.”
“Ha ha. As though you didn’t know what you were doing. Well, go on. Get. You’ve had your free ride.”
She got down from the wagon, and the driver snapped the reins. As the horses stepped smartly away, he hawked up some saliva and spewed it back toward her. Then he snapped the reins again and adjusted his hat with the yellow feather.
Sophia limped to where the road spurred northward. After a quarter mile, the sanatorium appeared on the crest of a hill too steep for vines or orchards. It was a low, long building with shingled sides and a lean-to roof. Two wings spread out from a squarish central building, each wing with a long open porch facing southeast toward the morning. She didn’t wait to check in with anyone, and didn’t think about her stained dress, her dirty shoes or windblown hair. She hobbled straight up a short stairway to where she thought her mother would be.
On the porch, twenty patients were lying back on steamer chairs, all spaced about four feet apart. They were wrapped in heavy rugs, bundled tightly from their feet to just below their arms, and they all had wool scarves wrapped around their heads and covering their shoulders, so that only a pale oval of face showed. There was a sign on the wall above them that read Everything that is not Rest is Exercise. Sophia hesitated at the top of the stairs. None of the women moved, none spoke. The two women closest to her wore padded black eyeshades, and none of the others turned their head to notice her. She couldn’t tell which one might be her mother, and she didn’t want to believe any of them were because they all looked already dead.
“Mama?” she called quietly.
Her voice shocked the dense silence. A patient five chairs down sat upright and glared at her. The patient’s eyes were rimmed red and set deep in her wasted face, and her skin was pale and waxy. She drew her thin lips back from her teeth, and she began to cough. Her cough began as a dry hack, then grew thick and ripe. She coughed eleven times, still watching Sophia through lidless eyes, and she picked up a cardboard sputum cup and spit into it. Then the woman lying next to her began to cough, raising her shrouded body slightly from the chair, and then the next one. It was as though the need to cough spread from woman to woman, each body rising in its wrappings, coughs bursting out sharp as bombs. Sophia tried to listen for her mother’s distinctive cough, the cough that had been her companion for months at home, the cough of that bad daughter, but she didn’t recognize it.
“Mama?” Sophia called again.
Some of the women had dry coughs, and others bent over their cups and spit and pushed green curdy matter past their lips. A loud, liquid-filled cough wrenched a patient at the far end of the porch, and one of the women with black eyeshades cocked her head with interest.
“There’s Phoebe,” she remarked. “She chucked a ruby, sure.”
“She’ll be next,” the other woman with black eyeshades replied. “You wanna bet?”
Then a nurse, broad-shouldered and dressed in white, stood beside Sophia and took her by the arm.
“Ladies!” the nurse announced. “You can and you must control your coughs.”
At her word, the outbreak of coughing began to die down. The nurse watched the patients who were holding their sputum cups to their mouths and waited until they were once again lying back on their steamer chairs, motionless. Then she shook Sophia’s arm and asked her who she wanted to see.
“Rosa Corvo,” Sophia said.
“Right.” The nurse led Sophia back down the stairs, not letting go of her arm, and stood her by the door of the central building.
“Now wait here, you,” she said. “You’ve caused enough mischief for one day.”
She disappeared inside, closing the screen door and the heavy wooden door behind her. Sophia looked to the southeast, the same direction the open porches faced. Hills mounted past hills with a steady sameness, round and green, then ended into the line of grayish sky. The sanatorium was set too far back for the patients to glimpse the orchards, the valley, the town, the railroad. While they spent hours out on the porch, wrapped against all weathers, hoping that the clean outdoor air would heal the wounds inside their lungs, they would gaze out on this monotonous rolling landscape that hid all possible destinations.
The wooden door opened behind her. She turned to see her mother standing behind the screen door, her outline dim and soft. Her mother looked taller than she had been, as though she were growing thinner and escaping upwards.
Sophia grabbed at the doorknob, but it wouldn’t turn. She rattled the door in its frame, tried to force it open. Her mother stood a step from the door, smiling and serene.
“You can’t come in,” she said.
“I just want to touch you,” Sophia said.
Her mother put her right hand up against the screen, and Sophia matched it, feeling the pressure and warmth against her own hand. She peered in. Her mother’s face was smooth and lovely, jets of rose in her cheeks and her eyes were black and lustrous.
“My brave girl,” her mother said. “Did you come all by yourself?”
“I wanted to see you so much.”
“And Papa’s hard at work in the cellars, isn’t he. He couldn’t get away.”
“No,” Sophia said. “No, he couldn’t come.”
“He will next time. I’m sure of it.”
“Did you come on the train, then?”
“Yes,” Sophia said. “I rode part of the way with a friend from school.”
“That’s nice,” her mother said. “That makes me happy.”
“Papa really misses you,” she said.
“I know. I miss him too.”
“He started to drink more,” Sophia said. “Since you’ve been gone. Sometimes I hear him come home late, tripping on the porch and falling into chairs.”
“Do you make sure he’s safe? Do you get him to bed?”
“Sometimes I can just get him to the sofa.”
“Do you take his shoes off? Do you make sure he’s covered?”
“Yes, Mama. I do what I think you would do if you were home.”
“That’s my good girl.”
“But he acts a little crazy sometimes,” Sophia said. “I’m even scared of him.”
“You have to take care of Papa,” her mother said. “You have to take care of him. It’s the most important thing you can do. Do you know why?”
Sophia shook her head.
“So that I won’t worry about him.” Her mother withdrew her hand from the darkening screen, and Sophia watched her reach into her left sleeve and pull out a square of cheesecloth. The cloth was white, and Sophia didn’t see any chucks of blood on it yet.
“You mustn’t make me worry,” her mother said. “You need to be happy, and take care of Papa, so that I don’t have to worry. If I’m worrying, I’m not healing.”
Her mother smiled, and her smile seemed calm and patient and distant. Sophia wanted to tell her about missing school, becoming strange to the girls she had known. She wanted to talk about her confusion with the changes in her own body, and Pascale’s forbidding scorn, and how alone she felt. But her mother’s smile behind the screen looked like the smile on a painting, one that wouldn’t change or respond.
“How are you, Mama?” Sophia asked. “Are you getting better?”
“Yes, every day. Sometimes, when I’m lying on the porch, I feel like I’m in the palm of God’s own hand. I’ve never felt that way before.”
Sophia watched her mother’s face as she talked about her days. Her eyes looked past Sophia, up toward the sky, and she smiled open-mouthed. A little gob of spit nestled in one corner of her mouth as she spoke, and her face was brighter and more animated than when she first came to the threshold and saw her daughter.
She described the comfort of being bundled up and settled for the day in her steamer chair. She could spend the whole day still, breathing gently, watching the wind. She’d learned to see the wind move the air by lying so still. She never read a book because it might stir up the blood. She never talked with the women on either side of her for the same reason. They couldn’t risk getting agitated. Still, as she lay there, visions came to her that were thrilling.
Sophia found herself gazing at the spittle while her mother spoke, telling herself that if it turned red, her mother would stay in the San, but if it stayed white, she would be able to come home. Her mother’s mouth worked the gob as she talked, frothing it larger.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” her mother said at last. “I haven’t been able to write you all about this. And it’s so good to know that while I’m taking care of my illness, you’re taking care of everything else.”
The spit on her lips was still white. “Mama, when will you be able to come home?”
“I just have one little shadow on each lung that needs to heal over. I’m working on them every day.”
“But you look wonderful now.” Sophia bit her lips. “You look well.”
“I will be soon.”
“You look beautiful,” Sophia said. “Can’t you just come home with me now?”
“Oh, Sophia.” Her mother smiled calmly.
“Think how happy Papa would be if he saw you. Think how surprised he would be.”
“I’m right where I need to be,” her mother said. “I’m doing something important.”
“But you’re well now,” Sophia said. “I can see it.”
“You need to keep doing just as you are,” her mother said. “Without you, I’d be worried sick every minute. But I know you’re there.”
She wiped her mouth with the square of cheesecloth.
“Someday,” she continued, “we’ll be together, and we’ll be able to tell all our tales to each other with nothing between us, and we’ll find our blessings in each other.”
“Someday. Someday soon.”
Sophia put her hand back upon the screen, and her mother pressed her own against it, then pulled it back.
“Write me,” she said. “I love your letters.”
Sophia watched her mother fade into the dark interior. When she was a dozen steps away, Sophia saw her pause and hold the cheesecloth to her face and cough three times, dry, quiet coughs. Sophia tried to imagine that she recognized the coughs, that they were different and special, that her mother did not sound like one more woman on the porch.
She leaned against the screen as her mother disappeared, laid her face and chest against it and breathed in, breathed deeply.