Something about the day reminded me of back home, in Bohemie. It seemed to be a warm day at first, but after I had been outside for long enough the cold reached me. It was in the breeze and the shadows. So I made Jim lay on the sun-warmed earth with me so I wouldn’t be cold. The grass waved all around us and I thought about the days of my childhood when winter was just beginning and I had to go into the forest with maminka. I would wrap up in my thick wool shawl, which I left behind because we could not bring all of our things, and kiss father on the cheek before I went. That is when his cheeks were full and had color in them.
Remembering Bohemie put me in a cheerful mood, and I started telling Jim about the badger dogs. Jim seemed impressed, so I embellished as I told about our neighbor’s dog. He killed two badgers, but I told Jim it was many, and there was a star for each one on his collar, like the stars on the American flag. His eyes got so wide, even though he was trying to seem important. I had trouble not laughing.
Eventually, one sad little insect crawled out of the grass. He was so thin and pale, but still beautiful. I have a soft spot for these creatures in my heart, because at night when Marek is making his noises and maminka is snoring, I send my mind out to the sound of the insects and let it lull me to sleep. When I am listening to them I don’t feel the straw scratching my arms, or Julka squirming beside me, and I don’t think about the fact that my father is sitting at the table and looking at his hands instead of sleeping. His hands are different now. Already they have calluses and cracked lines. His friends who are musicians and weavers would laugh at those hands, or tell him he needs a better wife who rubs lard on them at night. Maminka does not do this, she bothers him because he brings home only small rabbits, not like the game he used to find. It’s as if she doesn’t realize that we used to live at the edge of an enormous forest and now we live in an endless field of grasses, like a farm field that God forgot to tend.
This is what the little insect made me think of. It crawled into my hand obediently because it was too broken to care. I spoke to him so Jim couldn’t understand. Hello, little bird. You’ve given up on singing? Come. Little one, it’s not too late. When he began to sing it startled me, even though it was a weak little chirp. I missed that song, and I would be missing it all winter. I knew this was the last time I would hear it. But I smiled so Jim wouldn’t know what I was thinking of.
“I tell you about Old Hata?” I asked. Jim said no, scornfully, like no one important could have a name like that. I always thought of Old Hata when winter was coming, because she sought out our fire when the cold came. “She had many story.” She always smelled like the herbs that she sold, sweet and earthy, like something dug up after the first rain of spring.
I didn’t want to tell Jim how cold I was getting as the sun went down, but he noticed that I was shivering and suggested we leave. But I couldn’t leave the insect behind. I wasn’t ready to let go of him yet, because then he would surely die and the song would be over for good. Jim had his pockets, and I had my dress, but I knew the insect would be afraid in those strange places. My hair was close to grass, so that is where I put him. I could feel his thin legs trembling on my scalp.
As soon as we stood up, I didn’t feel like I was in Bohemie anymore. The grass was tall and beautiful, as golden as Jim’s hair, but it cast long blue shadows in bare patches. We saw my father from far away and my heart skipped a beat. I would not have known him if I saw him walking out of the forest in Bohemie. He was so thin, he could have been a sapling on the horizon. His head was bowed. I tugged Jim along and we ran to him. I caught up his hand and he showed me the rabbits at his belt.
“I shot them all,” he said, with a small smile. “I will make a hat for you and one for Julka. To keep your lovely heads warm.”
Jim couldn’t understand what we were saying, so I told him, and he smiled but still looked put out. It bothered me when he looked that way. There was so much more that I didn’t understand, but he couldn’t bear to miss one conversation!
My father laid his hand on my head but I gasped and pushed it away.
“Careful!” I said. “I’m keeping an insect there.”
He looked at me strangely, so I explained in a tumble of words.
“I found him in the grass. He’s old and ready to die, but it’s not winter yet. It’s not cold enough for Old Hata yet, she would still be out in this warm air. He can still sing, too, when I hold him in my hand. He’s not done with the summer yet.”
“Old Hata,” father murmured. His fingers were still nimble, and he untied my handkerchief and looked down upon my hair. I felt the insect stir, and then I heard its chirp, and tears came into my eyes again. It made me think of father’s violin, which hadn’t sung since we arrived in America. This little bird sang and sang, I hoped he would never stop. For a moment I forgot Jim was there, and I was alone in the world with my father. His hand lay gentle on my head, still the hand of a weaver and not of a farmer, and his dark eyes shone down on me. He was proud of me learning English, but I knew that it warmed his heart to hear my true language on my tongue. I wondered if my voice sounded like maminka’s when she was young. Her voice his high and sharp, but I don’t believe it was always that way. She could say things softly back home, when she taught me prayers and tied my handkerchief before I went out. If only I could be a whole country for my father, so he could be himself again.