In the shower I stood, no sense of the hour, rinsing the hard-scrubbed soap from my body’s plains and crevices. Jorgine is humming inside my head – a Danish jingle about a country boy and a village girl. She comes to me wet or she comes to me dry, or day or night, winter in the snow or summer in my bed as I awaken bathed in sweat just after the noon hour when the heat is breathless. This was that day after the death of her kind husband, as if there had been no time between; in the shower I look straight at her and she looked the same: small face, hair pinned back, vivid flashing eyes, the way we all want to grow old become lean and mean. In the shower, I was transported to the two acres where she lived in a village in northern Illinois, spent the winter that year with Gabriella her cane, a good conversationalist, and Toots the black cat, who accepted good boiled potatoes that winter as survival rations. I remembered it all clearly now: how Jorgine had ordered through the mailman a perforated box full of baby chicks, early chicks, to keep until spring, when they’d have feathered enough to be outside during the day. They were White Rocks, fifty of them, in an outbuilding nailed together, when Soren was alive, for a cow and a pig. The cow and the pig were gone by the time Jorgine decided on a chicken crop. And Soren was long gone, too. Now the chicks were three weeks old, grown with feed too costly, and they began disappearing from the shelter. Every night a wild varmint would enter the building to snatch two or three fuzzy yellow chickens. Meticulously, Jorgine examined the place for rat holes, sealed the windows with newspapers and old stockings, jammed corncobs into cracks in the ceiling. “If it is God’s will,” say Jorgine, “the rat will not take all the chickens.” I was twelve year old. In the shower, transfixed by her presence, I burned again with the astonishment and anger I had felt at her complaisance – her faith in an unhearing God. For soon, every chick was dead, some not even devoured toward the reckless last, but, left as an indifferent finishing touch in a gruesome game, to rot and dry up. I watched her pick up the chicks with their immature spotty feathers, necks extended permanently, and stiff with death, using the spade in place in Gabriella that morning, digging down a foot into the soil of the garden for their final resting place, surrounded by the protective, but tardy, white picket fence. Jorgine’s face without remorse, her eyes tearless. But Jorgine was old then and had learned to accept.
Standing in the shower, the water coursing over me as if over a statue in a summer storm, I was certain I would never get as old as that, certainly I’d never be humble enough, no matter how old, to accept fate and injustice passively. As a twelve-year-old, I’d have slept with the chicks if I could have forestalled the slaughter. As an adult, I’d have waited through the night for the predator to appear and I’d’ve found a club, a car jack, a fencepost, and I’d’ve brought it down when the time was right, down on the rat’s head. Smashed the rat’s head. Because I’d even then had experience with rats. They sometimes lay dead near the granary. If you picked up a rat by its tail, the skin would tug completely off the body; most of the animal would slip out; you’d look at your fingers still holding some skin. I knew they were mortal, even as they were awesome.
In the shower, I swallowed down the taste of old sadness, as well as one ever can – not well at all – and my hands explored over my body aging, to find bruises and sore legs and achy arms, all caused mostly, I thought, by challenging the odds. “You get hurt either way,” I said to Jorgine, “but it’s better to get hurt by reaching for what’s meaningful.” Then I thought, to myself, but maybe that’s what she’s been trying to tell me. She always was one for taking the secret entrance.
I stepped from the shower into the silent steamy house. My whim was to return to the barn, drink in the evening air, spend an hour in the company of Louise as she adjusted to us far from the place she had spent every day of her life. I was still coasting along in sweet freedom, but there was twine to be picked up and bagged, watercups to clear, cobwebs to brush from windows, with a long week coming when there would be no extra time. My skin was still wet and sharply sensitive as I left the house; breathing in the evening air. I thought some more about Jorgine who came to me like a spirit on the breeze.