Authors: Cynthia Rylant
Tags: #Ages 9 and up, #Newbery Medal
Table of Contents
WINNER OF THE NEWBERY MEDAL
When May died, Ob came back to the trailer, got out of his good suit and into his regular clothes, then went and sat in the Chevy for the rest of the night. That old car had been parked out by the doghouse for as long as I could remember, and the weeds had grown up all around it so you didn't even notice it unless you looked, and for years I couldn't understand why Ob didn't just get rid of the awful thing. Until I saw him sitting in it after the funeral. Then I knew that even though nobody in the world figured that old car had any good purpose, Ob knew there was some real reason to let it sit.
And when May died, he figured out what it was.
I never saw two people love each other so much. Sometimes the tears would just come over me, looking at the two of them, even six years back when I first got here and was too young to be thinking about love. But I guess I must have had a deep part of me thinking about it, hoping to see it all along, because the first time I saw Ob help May braid her long yellow hair, sitting in the kitchen one night, it was all I could do not to go to the woods and cry forever from happiness.
I know I must have been loved like that, even if I can't remember it. I must have: otherwise, how could I even recognize love when I saw it that night between Ob and May? Before she died, I know my mother must have loved to comb my shiny hair and rub that Johnson's baby lotion up and down my arms and wrap me up and hold and hold me all night long. She must have known she wasn't going to live and she must have held me longer than any other mother might, so I'd have enough love in me to know what love was when I saw it or felt it again.
When she died and all her brothers and sisters passed me from house to house, nobody ever wanting to take care of me for long, I still had that lesson in love deep inside me and I didn't grow mean or hateful when nobody cared enough to make me their own little girl. My poor mother had left me enough love to go on until somebody did come along who'd want me.
Then Uncle Ob and Aunt May from Rest Virginia visited, and they knew an angel when they saw her and they took me on home.
Home was, still is, a rusty old trailer stuck on the face of a mountain in Deep Water, in the heart of Fayette County. It looked to me, the first time, like a toy that God had been playing with and accidentally dropped out of heaven. Down and down and down it came and landed, thunk, on this mountain, sort of cockeyed and shaky and grateful to be all in one piece.
Well, sort of one piece. Not counting that part in the back where the aluminum's peeling off, or the one missing window, or the front steps that are sinking.
That first night in it with Ob and May was as close to paradise as I may ever come in my life. Paradise because these two old people - who never dreamed they'd be bringing a little girl back from their visit with the relatives in Ohio - started, from the minute we pulled up in Ob's old Valiant, to turn their rusty, Faking-down place into a house just meant for a child.
May started talking about where they'd hang the swing as soon as she hoisted herself out of the front seat (May was a big woman), and Ob was designing a tree house in his head before he even got the car shut off. I was still so sick to my stomach from traveling all those curvy West Virginia roads that all I could do was swallow and nod, swallow and nod. Try to smile without puking.
But when we got inside the trailer, it became plain to me at once that they didn't need to do any great changing to make a little girl happy. First thing I saw when May switched on the light were those shelves and shelves--
seemed every wall was covered with them--of whirligigs. I knew what they were right off even though they weren't like any whirligigs I'd ever seen.
Back in Ohio people had them hooked to their fences or stuck out in their gardens to scare off the birds. And they'd be mostly the same everywhere: a roadrunner whose leg, spun in the wind, or maybe a chicken or a duck.
Cartoon characters were popular-Garfield was in a lot of gardens with his arms whirling like crazy in the breeze.
I'd seen plenty of whirligigs, but never any like Ob's. Ob was an artist--I could tell that the minute I saw them--though artist isn't the word I could have used back then, so young. None of Ob's whirligigs were farm animals or cartoon characters. They were The Mysteries. That's what Ob told me, and I knew just what he was talking about. One whirligig was meant to be a thunderstorm and it was so like one, black and gray, beautiful and frightening. Another was Ob's idea of heaven, and I thought his angels just might come off that thing and fly around that house trailer any minute, so golden and light were they. There was Fire and Love and Dreams and Death.
Even one called May, which had more little spinning parts than any of the rest of the whirligigs and these parts all white--her Spirit, he said. They were grounded to a branch from an oak tree and this, he said, was her Power.
I stood there before those shelves, watching these wonders begin to spin as May turned on the fan overhead, and I felt like a magical little girl, a chosen little girl, like Alice who has fallen into Wonderland. This feeling has yet to leave me.
And as if the whirligigs weren't enough, May turned me to the kitchen, where she pulled open all the cabinet doors, plus the refrigerator, and she said, "Summer, whatever you like you can have and whatever you like that isn't here Uncle Ob will go down to Ellet's Grocery and get you. We want you to eat, honey."
Back in Ohio, where I'd been treated like a homework assignment somebody was always having to do, eating was never a joy of any kind.
Every house I had ever lived in was so particular about its food, and especially when the food involved me. There's no good way to explain this.
But I felt like one of those little mice who has to figure out the right button to push before its food will drop down into the cup. Caged and begging.
That's how I felt sometimes.
My eyes went over May's wildly colorful cabinets, and I was free again. I saw Oreos and Ruffles and big bag, of Snickers. Those Little cardboard boxes of juice that I had always, just once, wanted to try. I saw fat bags of marshmallows and cans of Spaghettis and a little plastic bear full of honey.
There were real glass bottles of Coke looking mid ice in the refrigerator and a great big half of a watermelon taking up space. And, best of all, a carton of real chocolate milk that said Hershey's.
Whirligigs of Fire and Dreams, glistening Coke bottles and chocolate milk cartons to greet me. I was six years old and I had come home.
May was gardening when she died. That's the word she always used: gardening. Everybody else in Fayette County would say they were going out to work in the garden, and that's the picture you'd get in your mind--people out there laboring and sweating and grunting in the dirt. But Aunt May gardened, and when she said it your mind would see some lovely person in a yellow-flowered hat snipping soft pink roses, little robins landing on her shoulders.
Of course May never owned a flowered hat in her life, and her garden was as practical as anyone else's. In place of roses it was full of thick pale beans and hard green cabbages and strong carrots. It was a reliable garden, and friendly, and both Ob and me finally thought it right that May should have down up out of her body right there in that friendly garden, among all those cheerful vegetables, before she waved good-bye to us and went on to be that bright white Spirit Ob had known all along she was.
Only this part of her death seemed right. The garden. All the rest of it seemed so wrong, and it has been nearly six months--we have gone through two seasons--without her, and still I don't know what kind of life Ob and I are going to come up with for ourselves. We have not done much of anything since, except to miss May and hurt. I never would have thought us to be so lost. We used to be tougher than this.
Winter's not helping. February's a grim time in these mountains. It is pitch black in the morning when I set off down the mountain for the school bus, leaving Ob behind, watching me out the picture window. I feel adrift. When I was younger, either Ob or May would walk me out to the road and stand there freezing with me in the dark, making me stomp my feet to keep the blood circulating till the lights of the bus would finally bounce off the trees up the ridge and somebody could hand me over to the roaring heater of Number 56.
But now I am twelve, and expected to go it alone out to the stop. It isn't fear that this bitter February darkness starts working up in my stomach. I never have been afraid of anything since I came to live on this mountain. It's just lonesomeness. Ob behind me all alone in that old trailer full of sleeping whirligigs and me on this black road, and both of us needing May so much.
It's worse needing somebody in the dark, in winter, of an early cold morning.
But most amazingly, most miraculously, now Ob is insisting that May was, is, right here with us. That she came back a few days ago and is truly right here with us.
It was on Sunday, and we were outside cutting open some milk jugs to make into bird feeders when suddenly Ob straightened up, put down his knife, and like a dog who thinks he's heard something move, pricked up his ears and listened.
"Ob?" I said.
Ob drew up his nose and got this foolish look on him, like he was about to sneeze.
"Ob?" I said again and beginning to get a little nervous.
Then his head snapped up straight like a soldier at attention and he said,
My heart was beating fast.
"What is it, Ob?"
Ob ran his bony fingers through that last bit of hair on his head and looked down to the ground in stupefaction. He pulled a gray handkerchief from his back pocket and blew into it. Then he folded the cloth up neatly, gave his nose one more confident swipe, and jammed the hanky back in his pocket.
He looked hard at me. I'd seen that look on his face before. It was the look that always announced he'd gotten some kind of revelation. Ob was a deep thinker and he was often getting revelations.
"May was with us," he said, with the same certainty he might have used telling me it was February.
"Huh?" I put down my knife beside me.
"May was right here with us, just now. I swear to God. I felt her, Summer, all up and down me like I'd just poured her in a glass and drunk her."
He stared off in the distance, shaking his head again. Ob didn't look so good. Well, he's never looked real good. Ob is one of those Ichabod Crane types in looks. May's passing had just made him look more scarecrow than ever.
But it didn't cross my mind to doubt him.
"Well, how'd she feel?" I asked him.
He looked back over at me.
"How'd she feel?" I repeated. "Did she feel, like, light, like an angel? Did she tell you anything?"
Ob's eyes moved off to the bag of birdseed beside him as he thought.
Finally he answered.
"She felt like she did when we was packing up to go to Ohio," he said.
"Like she was going to Ohio?" I couldn't fathom May taking the trouble of dying just so she could go to Ohio.
He slowly shook his head.
"All those years," he said, "every time we'd be packing up to go see the folks in Ohio, half of May would want to go and half of her would want to stay here. Couldn't make up her blame mind. She used to be afraid she'd lose this place if she left it for very long. Afraid it and the 'gigs would burn up or be washed away. She just didn't want to let this trailer out of her sight.