The North Country

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Children Stories  |  House: Booksie Classic
In this sixth installment of the Honeybee series, Emma Winberry's world turns upside-down when Papa announces that the family is moving.

Submitted: January 24, 2019

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Submitted: January 24, 2019

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The North Country

 

Chapter 1

“We might be moving out of the Valley.”

It was June of 1962 and Emma had never thought she would be hearing those words. Not from Papa. Not when they were living on the most wonderful piece of land in the whole San Fernando Valley. For more than three years, Emma had called the old Kester farm her home. Its fenced-in acreage had everything that she had ever dreamed of: fields and orchards, chickens and rabbits, and a big red barn complete with a horse and a pinto pony. All this, just a short walk from their old neighborhood, their church, and their schools.

Would Papa really uproot them?
The whole Winberry family sat stock-still at the dinner table, where Papa made most of his important announcements. No one touched the lemon pie – not even Papa, even though it was his favorite dessert. His dark eyes were very serious and Emma could tell from the deep furrows between his brows that he was expecting trouble in the ranks. Biting her lip, she glanced from face to face.

Mom was in her usual spot, just left of Papa. She looked lovely and serene, like a golden-haired angel. Obviously, she knew all about Papa’s plan and was not the least bit upset by it.  At thirteen, Emma was old enough to realize that Mom might actually like the idea of moving. After all, this old farmhouse held many unhappy memories from her marriage to the late Carl Kester. For the same reason, Susan and Tommy might also welcome a change of scene. Little Nathan was only eighteen months old – too young to care, either way. But Emma cared. She cared more than anyone at the table.

Though quiet by nature, something in her exploded. “No! I don’t want to move! Susan and I are graduating next week. In September, we’re going right down the street to your high school, Papa. I’ve always dreamed about that and you said we could. You promised!”

But Papa had never actually promised anything, and as he began to explain the situation, Emma understood why the whole question of high school had remained so vague.

“There’s a teaching position I might get up north,” he said, “and the State of California has been wanting this property for a long time. All we have to do is sign the papers.”

“What do they want it for?” asked Tommy.

“An office complex for the Department of Motor Vehicles.”

Emma’s cheeks flushed with anger and she came out of her chair. “You mean they’d tear down this house…and the barn? And all the land would be paved over? No, Papa—don’t!” In her distress she felt her chest tightening from asthma and she tried hard not to cough. But maybe it would better to cough and wheeze. Maybe then Papa would feel sorry for her and give up his terrible plan.

As Mom and Papa exchanged a troubled look, Susan cautiously said, “But Emma…it might be fun. Up north, out of the city.”

“Yeah!” Tommy agreed with sickening enthusiasm. “When can we go?”

Forgetting her asthma, Emma turned on him. “You shut up! We’re not going anywhere!”

“Emma Rose!” Papa’s voice was like a thunderclap. “Young lady, you are not in charge here. Now sit down and listen.”

“No,” Emma said in open defiance, “I won’t! You’re ruining everything!”

With a sob she ran out the kitchen door, to the barn, where she climbed up into the sweltering hayloft and coughed until her chest hurt. There was no one to hear her, no chance for sympathy now. Alone with her misery, she thought about all the hurts in her past life. Worst of all was Mama’s death and the more recent loss of Great-Aunt Daisy and little Barry O’Brien. But nothing – not even death – had made her feel as furious and betrayed. She could not believe Papa was doing this to her – deliberately tearing her away from the place she loved, and condemning it to certain destruction.

The horse nickered and Tommy came poking around the barn, looking for Emma. Finding her in the loft, he stood on the ladder and pleaded with her to come down.

“Papa sent you, didn’t he?” she grumbled. “I’m staying right here.”

“But Mom saved your lemon pie,” he said as if any food would tempt her.

You eat it!” she snapped.

Next, Susan showed up and scolded her for “making everyone feel bad”.

“Don’t you think I feel bad?” Emma countered. “Leave me alone – I’m never coming down!”

But as dusk settled over the farm, the barn grew dim and Emma heard a scurrying in the loft that made her leap down and run for the house. Facing Papa was preferable to mice. Pulling bits of straw from her long brown hair, she sneaked through the kitchen door. Susan and Tommy must have gone to bed, for the living room was silent. Mom and Papa sat close together on the couch. When they saw Emma, Mom straightened and Papa removed his arm from Mom’s shoulders.

“Honeybee,” said Papa. “Come here.”

How dare he use her old nickname at a time like this? Fighting angry tears, staring at the floor, she told him, “I can’t leave this place – I just can’t.”

“I know it’s hard,” Papa said quietly, “but we have to move.”

Emma’s head came up and her blue eyes challenged him. “Why? To make money?”

Papa sighed and Mom squeezed his hand. She was the one who answered. “It’s because of the smog, Emma. It’s giving you asthma, and now –”

Emma was quick to interrupt. “I don’t care. I’ll just keep using the inhaler.”

Patiently Mom said, “It’s not just you, anymore. Haven’t you noticed Nate coughing? He’s showing signs of asthma, too. He’s starting young, so it will likely be severe.”

Emma stood silently absorbing the news. It was true, Nathan had developed a strange-sounding cough.

“I’m sorry,” said Papa. “Maybe if my research had been successful…”

Emma thought about her father’s dream of a clean-burning fuel for automobiles. Year after year he had experimented in his home laboratory, with nothing but a ruined Ford to show for it. But no one tried harder than Papa. There was no reason for him to take the blame.

Swallowing hard, Emma said just above a whisper, “It’s okay, Papa. I didn’t know about Nate.”

But it wasn’t really okay. The thought of leaving the Kester farm was almost more than she could bear.

All week, the family talked about little else. Papa had said, “We might be moving”, yet it seemed to Emma that his mind was already made up. But first he had to secure the new teaching position, and she secretly prayed that he would not get the job, after all. An interview was arranged for the week following graduation. Since Papa wanted the whole family to come along, Uncle Lars would be caring for the animals while they were gone. Emma begged to stay behind with Lars, but on the day of the trip everyone rose early and piled into the station wagon. Partway up the coast they left Nate with Grandma and Grandpa Norquist, who lived in Santa Barbara. Once again, Emma wanted to stay put, but Papa would not hear of it.

Emma’s mood darkened with each mile. The interview was scheduled for the next day, so Papa was in no hurry to reach their destination. Now and then they caught sight of the coastline. In rugged areas, the waves crashed against black rocks, but there were some sandy beaches, too. They stopped at one of them and Mom snapped pictures of the other children playing in the surf. But Emma just stared at the water, feeling miserable.

It was well after lunch when Papa left the interstate highway and started along a winding back road. It was called the Redwood Highway. Papa had told them about the huge old redwood trees, some so ancient that they were growing when Jesus walked the earth. Emma had not been very interested then, but as the car moved deep into a thick misty forest, she rolled down her window for a better look. The trees grew straight and tall among the ferns, with rough red bark and green feathery branches. Never in her life had she seen anything so lovely. The air was fresh and cool and damp; she could not seem to get enough of the sweet woodsy fragrance.

“Papa, stop!” she pleaded, clinging to the back of his seat. “I want to get out. I want to walk in the forest. Please?”

Susan and Tommy added their voices to hers.

Papa glanced over his shoulder and gave Emma a wry little smile. “So,” he teased, “the North Country’s not all bad, is it?”

The words warmed Emma’s heart. He was such a good father, putting up with her moods when he had every reason to be annoyed. “I didn’t know it would be like this,” she admitted.

The family spent a magical hour parked at the edge of the forest, exploring the mossy woods. When it came time to leave, Emma was eager to drive on and visit her new town. Every mile of the way was beautiful. She was getting hungry for dinner when they arrived at their destination: a picturesque little town on Humboldt Bay. Weary from the long trip, they stopped at a motel with a kitchenette and ate canned ravioli. After a good night’s sleep, Mom cooked pancakes on the little stove. Then they prayed the rosary and drove down to the ocean before Papa’s interview. During the night Emma had heard foghorns, but now the sun shimmered brightly on the restless water. It seemed like a good sign, and she was not surprised when Papa was promised the teaching job for September. Now that she had fallen in love with the north coast, she could not wait to settle in. But first there was a lot of work to be done, and not a moment to waste.

 

Chapter 2

Back home in the Valley, Emma felt like a sleepwalker – going through the motions of each day while her heart was already dwelling in the lush, misty redwoods. Despite her new eagerness to move, there were many sad moments. It was hard watching new owners load the horse and pony into trailers and drive off. Emma’s rabbits went to a breeder in Burbank, and the new summer crops were left to shrivel and die in the fields. Mom sold the windmill built by her late husband, but the old Kester farmhouse and barn would be demolished.

Saying goodbye to friends and family came hardest. There was old St. Germaine Church, which felt like a dear friend to Emma, and her graduation class from the parish school. Her best pal, Franny Brocado, tearfully promised to write letters and even visit, sometime.

There were many days of sorting and packing. Everything worth saving went into cardboard boxes, with the delicate items carefully wrapped in newspaper. Then movers came to pick up all their belongings and put everything in storage until they found a new house. It was hot work. While Papa and Mom gave instructions to the men, Emma and Susan kept the boys safely out of the way. As the last boxes went aboard the huge moving van, Uncle Lars rumbled up in his old truck. Lars was Mom’s brother, only a step-uncle to Emma, but she loved him with all her heart. She fought tears as he made the rounds, hugging everyone – even Papa. Never again would she hear his broken muffler as he dropped by to work in the fields. Never again would he enliven the family meals with his funny stories. From now on, they would live hundreds of miles apart. Like Franny, he promised to write letters and visit – and then it was time to go.

Snug in a carrier, Emma’s cat was stuffed into the cargo area of the station wagon. Buddy, their German shepherd, squeezed himself into the backseat with Emma, Tommy, and Susan. Papa started the engine. In the carrier, Puff meowed in displeasure. Emma and Susan hung out the car windows, waving at Uncle Lars until the car turned onto the boulevard for the very last time.

“Well,” said Papa, “we’re on our way.”

Except for the yowling of the cat, all was quiet. Emma’s heart felt as heavy as a stone. Then Papa began to sing and she remembered the redwoods awaiting them.

It was a Friday, and because of their late start, they would spend the night with Mom’s parents in Santa Barbara. Grandma and Grandpa Norquist had a big crab salad waiting, along with homemade apple pie. After eating their fill, the three older children played catch outside and threw the ball for Buddy. Tommy played hardest of all. He had grown so used to his prosthetic leg that he rarely gave much thought to his handicap. As Emma pitched, she remembered the terrible day he had chased a ball into the boulevard, where a car struck him. She would never forget that moment. How could she? Tommy had only wanted to tag along with her, but Emma’s mean-spirited words had made him so angry that he hurled his ball at her…and missed. And then the ball had rolled into traffic.

In the years following the accident, Tommy had never once blamed Emma. He was a brave and generous little boy, with lots of red hair and freckles like his sister Susan. Of course, they were all Winberrys now, but only Emma and Nate had their father’s deep dark hair—the Carmona hair, from Papa’s Italian side. In his younger days, Papa had been dashingly handsome. Now his lips were still perfectly chiseled and his near-black eyes were as penetrating as ever, but only a fringe remained from his once-thick head of hair. Emma did not mind. She thought his receding hairline gave him a distinguished look, which was a good thing for a teacher. She was sure that he would fit right in at the new high school.

That night, the family crowded into the Norquist’s spare room. Little Nathan between Mom and Papa in the big bed, while the other children lay in their sleeping bags on the floor. It felt strange to Emma, not having a house of their own, but soon they would be looking at all kinds of houses as they decided which one to buy. Emma was hoping for a house with an attic room, just like the one she had left behind. As she drifted off to sleep she saw it clearly, sitting on a little hill, surrounded by misty redwoods…

It seemed like only a moment before Papa and Mom were moving around, talking in low morning voices. Nathan let out such a happy squeal that Emma had to open her eyes. By the pale light of dawn, she saw Susan sleeping nearby, but Tommy was strapping on his leg, getting dressed. A mouthwatering aroma chased the cobwebs from Emma’s mind. Someone was frying bacon.

Soon everyone was washed and combed and seated at the table. There were blueberry muffins hot from the oven, along with platters of bacon and eggs. Papa and Mom lingered over a second cup of coffee before anyone said goodbye. Then they piled back into the station wagon and resumed their journey.

Driving up the coast took all of Saturday. It was half past five when they arrived, so they ate at a restaurant before Papa took them over to a friend’s house. Mr. Wallace was the man who had told Papa about the job opening. He had offered them the use of a travel trailer parked in his back yard, so the family would be staying there until they got settled. The trailer had a heater and a kitchen and just enough room for everyone to sleep, if they crowded together. As for a bathroom, the Wallace family would leave their back door unlocked. Emma and her family would have the hall bathroom for their own use, any time of the day or night. Papa insisted on paying weekly rent, but it was less than a motel would cost, and there was a nice grassy yard where Buddy and Puff could spend time out on their leashes. Perhaps best of all, the Wallaces had a son close to Tommy’s age and the two boys showed every sign of becoming friends. Everything was working out perfectly.

When they awoke on Sunday, Papa converted one of the beds into two bench seats facing a table. From now on, this would be their dining area. While Nathan ate a banana, Mom ironed the worst of the wrinkles from their good clothes. Then they drove off through the morning mist to St Catherine’s Church. Emma nearly gasped when she stepped inside the beautiful old building. Holding her missal to her heart, she gazed with wonder at the vaulted ceiling, the lifelike statues, and the ornate sanctuary. After they found a pew, Papa went forward and lit a candle for the success of their move. God seemed very near.

When the Mass was over, Papa found a donut shop and they drove back to the trailer, where Mom made a pot of oatmeal. The sun was breaking through the chilly “marine layer”. To Emma, this ocean-generated fog seemed pleasant and mysterious, not at all frightening like the fog in the San Fernando Valley. There, the thick mist had always reminded her of her mama’s lingering sickness and death when Emma was just a little girl. But now the bright shafts of sunlight drew her thoughts back into the present…and to tomorrow morning, when Papa would be signing his teacher’s contract. She could hardly wait. Right afterward, they would start hunting for a house.

Bright and early on Monday, Papa put on his tweed suit and his placed his best fedora on his head. He smelled of after-shave lotion as the family accompanied him to the high school. While he was inside the office finalizing his contract, Mom and the children explored the school grounds. The campus was just as big and stately as Papa’s old school in the Valley. Emma was trying to imagine her first day as a freshman when Papa came walking up. It seemed much too soon, and the minute she saw his grim expression, she knew there was a problem.

“Christina,” he said quietly, and removed his hat. When Mom met his troubled eyes he told her, “They’ve changed their minds.”

Mom sucked in her breath. “About the job?”

Papa’s nod brought an ache to Emma’s stomach. “But Papa, they promised! They even shook your hand!” Everyone knew that a handshake was as good as a contract – at least, among gentlemen.

In a tired-sounding voice, Papa explained, “The former teacher had a change of plans. She’s not leaving, after all.”

“But,” argued Emma, “you even lit a candle at church…”

Susan’s green eyes grew large and she reached for her mother’s hand. For a moment Tommy looked as if he might cry, and Emma was not far from tears, herself. Only Nate was unaffected by the news. Romping about in the grass, he did not have a care in the world.

The family stood silent while seagulls wheeled overhead, shrilly calling to each other. Emma scarcely breathed. Would Mom be angry with Papa? Would she accuse him of putting too much trust in a handshake?

Finally, Mom drew in a deep breath and said, “It’s alright. Our bills are paid off, there’s plenty of money in the bank, and we have an inexpensive place to stay. You’ll find another position, Robert.”

Papa put his arms around her and for a long moment they held one another close. Then they reached out to include the children, offering warm words of encouragement with every hug. “Don’t worry,” Papa said. “No prayer goes unanswered. The Lord has something else in mind for us, you’ll see.”

Emma was relieved to see the love between her parents, but the situation still worried her. She had not wanted to leave the Kester farm, but she had fallen in love with this beautiful little town and now they would have to move again. She was thinking how unfair it was, when suddenly she remembered something. Back in the Valley she had prayed hard that Papa would not get the job. If no prayer went unanswered, then this was all her doing.

Papa must have noticed her dismay, for he looked her in the eye and said, “Emma, I know how much you like this area. I’m going to look for another opening on the north coast, but there might not be any.”

Full of guilt, Emma nodded. She felt an ominous tightening in her chest. Then she began to cough and wheeze.

“Let’s get you home,” said Mom.

Papa placed his fedora on his bald head and scooped up Nathan.

On the way to the car Susan grumbled in Emma’s ear, “Perfect timing with the asthma attack. You just want everyone to feel sorry for you.”

Emma blushed. There had been a time or two when she used her asthma to get sympathy, but that was not the case now. Gasping for breath, she snapped, “You think I…I do it on purpose?”

Girls,” warned Mom, and they fell silent.

 

Chapter 3

Though Mom called Mr. Wallace’s backyard “home”, it did not feel like home to Emma. Emma thought she had severed all her ties with Southern California, but the human heart does not forget quite so easily. All day long she felt a miserable yearning for the Kester farm and her old neighborhood in the Valley. Papa had said that they were moving because of problems with asthma. Well, here they were, seven hundred miles north, and Emma was still using an inhaler. Maybe she would need medicine for the rest of her life.

That night, as she lay near Susan in the cramped trailer bed, she thought about her old imaginary tunnel from younger years. The villains who populated that tunnel were long gone. Though Emma was nearly fourteen, she began to imagine a different sort of tunnel – a friendly refuge, a direct underground link to better days and better places. Right down below, there was a pure white stallion ready to carry her through an endless network of passages. In her mind Emma galloped bareback, with her hair flying free. The happy fantasy lulled her to sleep, but when morning came she was still in the trailer.

At nine o’clock sharp, Papa went in Mr. Wallace’s house to use the telephone. Since yesterday’s disappointment, he had been calling school districts up and down the coast. He had also spoken to the pastor of St. Catherine Church about openings in the Catholic high schools. That same week he began to make day trips, driving off by himself to fill out work applications or be interviewed. Once he was even gone overnight. But the week passed without any results, and though Emma prayed fervently, a second week went by.

Meanwhile, Emma shared in the daily chores. Even in the little trailer, there was work to do – helping Mom watch Nate, caring for pets, making everything neat and clean. Diapers and other dirty clothes normally went to the public laundromat. If Papa needed the car, Mom used Mrs. Wallace’s washing machine, leaving Emma and Susan to hang everything on the clothesline. But as summer progressed, there were days when the sun never broke through the stubborn marine layer. Instead of getting hotter, the weather grew almost as chilly as winter. Yet one could clearly tell that it was summertime. The trees were lush and green, and flowers bloomed everywhere.

Before the move, Emma had dug up one of the pink geraniums that grew outside the farmhouse. There was also a bit of the ivy her mother planted on Arbor Street, long ago. Emma had made sure to get a cutting before the old house sold last December. These two little pots were her prized possessions. Here in Mr. Wallace’s backyard, she placed them on the tongue of the trailer where they got a dose of sunshine in clear weather. The ivy thrived in the cool moist climate, and the geranium was putting out buds. Each day, Emma watched over them carefully. In her free time there was little else to do. There was no television in the trailer. When she felt herself growing bored or depressed, she curled up with a good book from the library or dreamed of her invisible white stallion.

Shortly after Susan’s fourteenth birthday, the Wallaces barbecued hamburgers for everyone. It was the Fourth of July. Later that night, the two families went out to watch a local firework display, but Emma did not feel like celebrating. Susan called her “mopey-faced” and Emma thought Susan was just plain irritating. At bedtime, their bickering made it hard to fall asleep, lying so close together.

Papa still had not found a teaching position, and to make matters worse, Emma was coming down with a cold. As usual these days, it settled right into her chest and began stirring up her asthma. Mom ordered her to stay in bed where each painful breath made her wonder, yet again, why they had ever moved.

“What good did it do?” she fussed to Mom on more than one occasion.

“Just be patient,” Mom said. “Things will get better, you’ll see.”

Emma was drowsing all alone in the trailer when Mom and Papa quietly came inside, poured mugs of coffee and sat apart from, her talking in low voices. Papa mentioned two “immediate choices” – a job offer at the cannery where Mr. Wallace worked, or a teaching position down south, in Sacramento. Emma did not like either possibility. If they could not return to the Kester farm, she wanted to stay in redwood country. But Papa should not be canning fish, not when he was the best science teacher in the world. Surely there was some other choice!

As silent tears dripped on her pillow, she remembered Susan’s accusations about self-pity and tried hard not to feel sorry for herself. At her Confirmation last October, she had taken the name of her favorite saint and parish patroness, Germaine. Young Germaine had suffered many hardships at the hands of her cruel stepmother. Emma had to admit that her own life was nothing like that. Her stepmother, Christina, was as kind as could be…and Papa would never allow any cruelty under his roof. As for Susan, Emma usually got along fine with her; they had been friends even before Papa met Susan’s mother, and it was fun having Tommy for a brother. From the first, he had adored Emma, and now there was little Nate, full of cuddles and kisses. The more Emma thought about it, the luckier she felt.

From her bed, she heard Mom and Papa finish their coffee and put off their decision just a little bit longer. Rising up on one elbow, Emma said, “Papa, I’ve been praying…praying hard that someone up here will want you to teach.”

Papa smiled at her. “Good. I need all the prayers I can get.”

Emma’s conscience stirred uneasily. “But…but back in the Valley…I prayed that you wouldn’t get the job. And it fell through.”

Papa rose and came over to her bed. Gently feeling her forehead for signs of fever, he said, “Honeybee, you didn’t make me lose that job. The lady changed her plans, that’s all. God saw her need and He understands our needs, too. Just wait and see, He’ll get us settled somewhere.”

Emma was reassured by Papa’s calm faith, and a couple of warm days helped her shake off her cold. Sunday afternoon she was sitting on the metal trailer step, basking in the sun, when the dog perked up and began to bark. A man wearing a black suit was walking into the backyard. As Emma recognized the visitor, her heart gave a jump.

“Quiet, Buddy!” she ordered. “Hush – it’s only Father Welch.” Strange as it seemed, the old pastor of St. Catherine Church was heading straight for the trailer. Rising to her feet, Emma shyly greeted him. “Hello, Father.”

“Good afternoon.” The slender, white-haired priest smiled at her and sniffed the mouth-watering aroma drifting through the open trailer windows. Mom was inside with Papa, cooking up a big pot of chili.

“Smells good enough to eat,” Father said with a twinkle in his blue eyes.

Papa must have noticed the priest’s arrival. He popped out of the trailer so suddenly that he forgot the stained towel tucked at his waist as a makeshift apron. Father Welch pretended not to notice the towel as Papa welcomed him. Everyone knew that the hands of a priest were sacred because they touched the Holy Eucharist at Mass, but Father reached out to Papa and they shared a handshake, just like ordinary people. Emma found the whole situation embarrassing.

She was slowly turning around, about to escape into the trailer when Father Welch said to Papa, “I was up in the mountains today, at our little mission church. One of my parishioners teaches English at the local high school. He told me that the science teacher is putting in his resignation tomorrow. You might check with the Humboldt County office, first thing in the morning. That is, if you’re interested.”

Papa’s face brightened and his eyes began to dance, but Emma did not share his excitement. If Papa got that position, they would be leaving the coastal redwoods and beautiful Humboldt Bay.

After thanking the priest, Papa said to him, “You must have been driving all day. Won’t you stay for dinner? We’re having chili.”

Emma froze. Never in her life had she eaten dinner with a priest, and here they did not even have a proper house or a proper table. What was Papa thinking?

But Father Welch gave the air another appreciative sniff and said, “Chili! Smells great. I’d love some.”

Papa went inside to warn Mom, which left Emma all alone with the old pastor. Her heart pounded and her chest threatened to cinch up as Father Welch asked her the usual questions about her age and progress in school. Then his friendly eyes noticed the flower pots on the tongue of the trailer and he questioned Emma about them. Almost before she realized it, she was telling him about the Kester farm and the house on Arbor Street where her late mother planted English ivy by the porch. Father was so warm and kindly that she almost forgot her shyness, but she was glad when Papa came back outside, minus the towel.

Dinner was not the awkward, solemn affair that Emma had pictured. Along with Susan and Tommy, she sat on the floor holding her bowl of chili in her lap. Nathan perched on a stack of pillows between Mom and Papa, while Father Welch had the other bench seat to himself. All through the meal, there was good talk and laughter.

Emma listened carefully to every word about Hidden Valley, where the mission church and the high school were located. When Father Welch mentioned snow, she realized that living in the mountains had one definite advantage over the seacoast. Come winter, there was sure to be a blizzard or two – maybe even a white Christmas!

Papa and Mom planned a trip to Hidden Valley for a firsthand look. They would leave in the morning, right after Papa contacted the county office. When Father Welch left, Mom prepared a picnic lunch and Papa’s road map came out. Even before seeing the valley, Emma found herself hoping that Papa would get the job. That night, after whispering her hopes to Susan, she mounted her noble stallion and rode the secret tunnels deep into the mountains.

 

Chapter 4

Papa filled the station wagon with gas and they began the drive to Hidden Valley. The narrow road twisted and turned until Tommy became so queasy that he moved into the front seat. Big trucks rushed past them in the opposite lane, heavily loaded with logs or wood chips. The summer sun broke through the clouds and the day grew so warm that Emma rolled down her window. For an hour and a half, she gazed at thick pine forests and dizzying river gorges while Papa drove on. And from time to time she imagined a white stallion galloping.

Suddenly they were descending down a steep road into a narrow valley – just one mile wide and seven miles long, divided into neat little parcels. Along the easternmost edge, the wild Trinity River flowed like a cool, smooth ribbon of blue. They reached the valley floor and drove past a lumber mill. Then Emma saw a gas station, a post office, and an old-fashioned country store. Just down the road, they came to Hidden Valley High.

Papa parked the station wagon by the main entrance and everyone got out. The county office had phoned ahead, letting the custodian know they were coming. The man must have been watching for them. Wearing coveralls, he emerged from an open doorway and led the family on a tour. The school was larger than Emma had expected, with an auditorium, gymnasium, and outdoor sports field.

The friendly, talkative custodian knew all about life in Hidden Valley. He said that the high school students were bussed from many miles around. It was the same for grade-school children who rode busses out of the valley, to the nearest mountain town. Most of the people worked in the two lumber mills. Although the valley was quite small, it had a tiny hospital and a landing strip for small airplanes. The custodian had heard of St. Anthony’s, the mission church served by St. Catherine’s Parish.

“There’s a Mass every Sunday,” he said, “and on Christmas Day, too, if the road is clear.”

Papa asked, “What about housing?”

The man shrugged. “A couple of motor courts that cater to fishermen. A trailer park. For real estate, check at the store. Mac’s an agent; he handles most everything in this neck of the woods.” His forehead wrinkled and his eyes squinted. “Of course, it might not seem like much after living in Los Angeles, but we have three things aplenty – fresh air, open spaces, and good-hearted country folks.”

Everyone was getting hungry. After the tour, they went back to the car and ate their picnic lunch. Then Mom and Papa talked privately while the children took Nate out to the track. Emma knew that Papa would have liked a Catholic school for Tommy and for Nate, when his turn came. She also realized that housing could be a problem. What good was a teaching position if there was no place to live? She had a sinking feeling that this job would not work out, either.

When Papa whistled them to the car, she said, “I like it here. We’re not going back yet, are we?”

“Not yet,” he answered.

Mom smiled. “Anyone have room for ice cream?”

A happy shout went up, for the sun was high overhead and the day had turned hot. At the store, everyone went inside and chose an ice cream bar. While Papa studied a bulletin board, Emma and Susan wandered the chock-full aisles. Emma had never seen such an assortment of merchandise crowded into one place. In addition to the usual groceries there was hardware, clothing, toys, paperback books, and all kinds of animal feed.

After Papa spoke to Mac the storekeeper, they were off again.

“Where are we going now?” asked Tommy, beating Emma and Susan to the question.

“You’ll see,” Papa said mysteriously.

This time he continued up the valley. Consulting a hand-drawn map, he turned from the main road and drove west until the land grew hilly. They entered a thick pine forest. Papa slowed down before turning onto a graveled lane where a sign was posted. “For Sale”, it read. When Emma saw the words, her pulse quickened. At the end of a long curve, they came to a grassy clearing. Nestled among the trees was a beautiful little house, all made out of natural-looking wood. Nearby, a grazing deer lifted its head in curiosity before ambling back into the forest.

“Wow! Look at that!” exclaimed Tommy.

Emma could hardly wait to get out of the car. While Papa was parking, Mom doled out instructions to the backseat. They were going to look at the house together. All children would keep their hands to themselves and remain perfectly quiet.

Papa left his hat on the dash. Using his fingers, he smoothed his short, dark fringe of hair before leading them up the walk. Emma noticed that the grass was a little damp, as if it had recently been watered. Bright green moss grew between the stepping stones. Emma dearly loved moss. Though Mom had warned them not to touch anything, she stooped low and felt the velvety growth. Nearby, a blue jay scolded her. She looked up and saw a stylish crest on his head, different from the plain-looking jays back home. Then she ran to catch up with her family.

A middle-aged woman met them on the porch and ushered them inside the pleasantly cool house. No doubt she had seen their car through the huge picture windows in her living room. The view was just as lovely as anything that Emma had imagined, and turning around, she discovered a big stone fireplace just waiting for a pile of winter logs. All her life, Emma had wanted a fireplace with a friendly curl of smoke rising from the chimney.

Now if only there was an attic bedroom…

“Children, come on,” said Mom.

They explored a big kitchen, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a spacious “den” that would work nicely for Papa’s experiments. The move had deprived him of his beloved laboratory; all his scientific gadgets were somewhere in storage, but when new ideas came to him, he jotted notes on a pad of paper. Out came the pad now, and Emma followed along as he paced off the den and recorded its every dimension.

“Papa,” she said low, “isn’t there an attic?”

Overhearing her, the owner said, “No attic, but there’s something interesting out back.”

The woman led them to a service porch and out the rear door, where a purple clematis vine grew on the porch rails. Down the steps they went, crossing an open yard, to a “guest cabin” where Susan whispered in Emma’s ear, “It’s just like a doll house!” Though Emma had never been doll-crazy like her stepsister, she had to agree. The cabin was almost better than an attic room. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have it all to herself? Or maybe Papa would let her and Susan take turns living there…

Then Emma remembered that Papa did not even have the job yet.

With a sigh she followed the others out of the cozy cabin. They were heading down a well-worn, sunny path when she heard the sound of running water. She would have liked to sprint ahead for a look, but she had to contain her impatience as she walked behind the slowly ambling adults. At last they reached the source of the delightful noise. At the wooded edge of the property, a little brook gurgled its way to the river below. Emma was picturing a glossy white stallion stretching its neck to drink when Susan broke the edict of silence with a shout.

“Look, Mom! Chickens!”

Emma turned around. In the shade of a big oak tree stood a solid-looking hen house with a wire-enclosed yard. Nearby, half a dozen fruit trees grew near a flourishing vegetable patch. The garden had a high fence to keep the deer out.

Mom reached for Papa’s arm. “Oh, Robert – look at those tomatoes! And artichokes, too!”

“It’s the river loam,” said the owner. “I had it hauled up from the valley floor. That stuff will grow anything.”

There was a look of yearning in Mom’s green eyes. Yes, she wanted the house, and Papa knew it, too. Very softly he said to her, “We can make an offer…put down a deposit…but if I don’t get the job…”

All the way back to the coast, Emma wondered what would happen to their deposit if Papa didn't get the job. She had a pretty good idea, because when she asked about it, Papa said, “Nevermind, Emma.”

That probably meant they would lose the money.

While Papa drove the winding roads, Nate slept like a snug little puppy between Emma and Susan. It was a strange ride, with bursts of excited conversation followed by long stretches of silence when everyone retreated into their own thoughts.

Once Emma said, “They’ll hire you, Papa. They have to. It’s just so beautiful there!”

Glancing at her through the rear-view mirror, Papa smilingly remarked, “First you didn’t want to leave the San Fernando Valley. Then you didn’t want to leave redwood country. Now, it’s Hidden Valley. Emma Winberry, you are one fickle Honeybee.”

At the sound of her special nickname, Emma’s heart warmed. Maybe it didn’t really matter where they lived, or what sort of work Papa found, just as long as the family was together. As the station wagon swayed around the mountain curves, she reached down and stroked Nathan’s dark wavy hair. Her baby brother was perfectly content sleeping in a traveling car or in a borrowed trailer. He never wasted any time or energy fretting about his circumstances. The more Emma thought about Nate, the more she wished that she could be more like him, happily accepting whatever the future brought.

The following days passed in a flurry of activity. When Papa was not at the County Office of Education, he was helping Mom fill out a stack of papers pertaining to the Hidden Valley house. Everything depended on Papa getting that teaching job. Father Welch was praying for them, and each day as Papa led the family rosary, he asked that he would find a good job and settle into a new home before the school year began. He never once asked to settle in Hidden Valley, but Emma did.

Then, one morning, Papa came back from town with a bag full of surprises. For Tommy and Nate there was a spinning top made of redwood. Susan received a small redwood box for keepsakes. When Papa handed Emma her gift, she stared at the damp knot of wood enclosed in clear plastic.

“It’s a burl,” explained Papa, “a living outgrowth from a redwood tree. See the little green sprouts? If you set the burl in a shallow dish of water, it will grow a whole miniature forest. That way, you can take the redwoods with you.”

Emma’s heart began to thump with anticipation. “Papa…do you mean…”

His dark eyes sparkled as he turned to include the whole family. “I’ll have you know, you are looking at the new Hidden Valley science instructor and vice-principal.”

Everyone cheered for Papa and gave him a hearty hug – all but Nate, who placidly glanced up and smiled before going back to his wobbly top.

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2019 M. C. Pehrson. All rights reserved.

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