Call It Sleep II

AT THE beginning of April, David began hearing rumors of an aunt, Bertha, a younger sister of his mother, who was coming to this country. When at first, his mother had suggested that Bertha be permitted to live with them awhile, his father refused to hear of it. Had he not thrown himself at his wife’s feet and begged her to permit Luter to live with them? May fire consume Luter now, but hadn’t he? She had refused then; well he would repay her now. Bertha wouldn’t be allowed in the house.

But David’s mother persisted. “Where could the poor creature go alone in a strange land?”

“Poor creature!” His father had scoffed. As far as he was concerned, let her find a home under earth. He would have nothing to do with her. Did she think he had forgotten her, that gross, ill-favored wench with her red hair and green teeth. And heaven preserve him—her mouth!

But she was only a girl then, forward and flighty. She would have changed by now.

“For the worse!” he had answered. “But I know what you want her here for. You want her here so you can spend the entire day clacking your tongue with an endless he-said-and-I-said.”

No, there would be very little of that. Bertha was handy with the needle. She would soon be working and not at home at all. And hadn’t he himself come to this land alone and a stranger? Had he no pity on another in the same plight? And a woman at that! Could he be so inhuman as to expect her to turn away someone of her own blood in this wilderness?

At last, he had been won over and finally growled his consent. “Talking won’t help me,” he said bitterly, “But don’t blame me if anything goes wrong. Remember!”

It was some time in May that Aunt Bertha arrived, and the first thing that David thought when he saw her was that his father’s sarcastic description had not been exaggerated. Aunt Bertha was distressingly homely. She had a mass of rebellious, coarse red hair, that was darker than a carrot and lighter than a violin. And the color of her teeth, if one had to decide upon it, was green. She used salt, she said—when she remembered. The first thing David’s mother did was to buy her a tooth brush.

She had no figure and no vanity about her appearance. “Alas!” she said. “I look like one butter firkin on another.”

A single crease divided fat fore-arm from pudgy hand. Her legs landed into her shoes without benefit of ankles. No matter what she wore, no matter how new or clean, she always managed to look untidy. “Pearl and cloth of gold would stink on me,” she confessed.

Her ruddy skin always looked as if it were about to flake with sunburn. She perspired more than any woman David had ever seen. Compared to his mother, whose pale skin always had a glossy look that no heat seemed able to flush, his aunt’s red face was like a steaming cauldron. As the weather grew warmer, she began using the largest men’s handkerchiefs, and at home she always tied a napkin around her short throat. “The sweat tickles me at the bend,” she explained.

On those infrequent occasions when his mother bought herself a dress, she sometimes frankly preferred to stand rather than sit down and wrinkle it. His aunt, on the contrary, made hers look like a limp rag so quickly that she would take her Sunday afternoon nap in a new dress to get over the feeling that she had to be solicitous about it.

Apart from their complete difference in appearance, David soon observed that his mother and Aunt were worlds apart in temperament. His mother was grave, attentive, mild in her speech: his aunt was merry, tart and ready-tongued. His mother was infinitely patient, careful about everything she did; his aunt was rebellious and scatter-brained.

“Sister,” she would tease, “do you remember that Salt Sea that grandfather used to speak of—by Judah or by Jordan, where-ever it was—no storms and it bore everything? That’s how you are. You use all your salt for tears. Now a wise woman uses some of it for sharpness.” Aunt Bertha used all of it.