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Excerpt

Beneficence

Meredith Hall

September 9, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Meredith Hall's new novel, Beneficence. Hall's memoir Without a Map was a New York Times bestseller and a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus. Hall's work has appeared in Five Points, The Gettysburg Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The New York Times, and many other publications. Hall divides her time between Maine and California.

The school play was coming up and Dodie and Beston had parts. Sonny was growing up and wouldn’t participate, which I was sorry about, his unwillingness to pretend for one hour that he was someone or something other than 13-year-old Sonny Senter. But Best and Dodie were still just children and believed in that kind of play and so that Saturday was a day of excitement around the house. Dodie let the chickens out of the coop and fed them without any reminders, and swept the door yard and shed, running from task to task. Beston filled the crock in the outhouse with lime, lugging the heavy bag between his legs, and ran to me to ask what he was supposed to do next. They were both going to be poor villagers in a play the students wrote called Tomorrow, and I told them we would choose their costumes and wash their hair after noon dinner. We dug around in the closet in the upstairs hall. It’s a place that gathers boxes of outgrown clothes and wool coats that are too frayed to be worn. Tup says I shouldn’t collect things we don’t use. I tell him that we can’t be certain that we will always have the shoes and clothes we need, and at least we will be warm, no matter what comes. He snorts and tells me that his wife and children will never need to wear rags.

But today those rags were handy. The children were very pleased with themselves. They ran out together to show Sonny their getups, and then refused to take them off until I called them in for hair washing. I cleared the counter by the kitchen sink and laid down a big towel.

“Who goes first?” I asked, and Dodie said she would.

They pulled off their jerseys and my daughter climbed from a chair and lay down, her soft dark hair trailing in the sink and her skinny legs stretched out along the counter. I told her to close her eyes and ran the water until it was warm. As I lathered her hair, I watched her beautiful little face, somehow so like mine and Tup’s all at the same time, her hands, clasped on her chest, so familiar. How can I love such a simple chore, one among hundreds in a week? I rinsed the soap down the drain and wrapped her head in a towel, and she let me hold her to me while I rubbed the water out of her hair. I combed it out and lifted her down, and we were done.

And then I lifted Best up and he laid his little boy’s body out on the counter so earnestly, another job to be done in his day, and I offered him a washcloth for his eyes because he is frightened of the soap, but he said no because, I knew, Dodie had not used one, and he closed his eyes tightly and let me scoop the warm water over his short dark hair. Here was a face I knew less fully, my youngest and most mysterious child. Beston asks so little of me. Of Tup and his brother and sister. He watches and smiles and knows how to be by himself. While Dodie chatters to me and Sonny makes his way to his father’s side to work, Best is always on the edge of things, it seems. I often have the urge to gather him up and tell him that he is as important as the noisier, older children, that Tup and I love him and admire him just as much, but he doesn’t seem to need to hear that, and the days go on with all of that just a thought. This child’s face is open, guileless, and I was flooded with a feeling that I had unwittingly withheld something from him that a mother owes her children.

“You’re a very good boy, Best,” I said.

“Yes,” he said, his eyes still closed, his arms relaxed at his sides, trusting me.

I don’t remember the play now, only those minutes in the old closet and Dodie and Best prancing around in their costumes and their little bodies stretched out on the counter for their hair washing. I remember pulling Best to me as I had Dodie, his willing lean into me as I rubbed his hair dry.

Last Saturday, Dodie asked Marion to come for the day. They would clean out the henhouse as Tup had asked, and then have the rest of the day free to play. Marion arrived as Dodie helped me wash the breakfast dishes. Dodie was very excited to have her town friend visiting. Marion is a nice girl, very polite with Tup and me but not a goody-two-shoes. She is an even match for Dodie’s strong sense of herself here at home. When the dishes were done, I found chore clothes for Marion to wear, and the girls headed to the henhouse. They were little girls, happy to start their day of play together with this unpleasant task.

Dodie had already put the hens out before breakfast but left the eggs for Marion to collect in the wire basket. They shoveled the litter into the wheelbarrow and swept, cleaning the nesting boxes and then laying clean shavings. I could hear their chatter as I worked in the garden. When they were done, I praised their work and told Dodie they could go play for the rest of the day. The girls changed in the shed, dropping their dirty clothes into the basket. Marion worried that the boys might see them in their underwear, something that doesn’t worry Dodie one bit. I made them a bag with sandwiches and cookies, and Dodie and Marion rode their bicycles along the tractor road to the creek. I felt a flow of quiet apprehension watching them ride away together.

Our children love us, and they love our home. I need to share them, I know that.

When Tup and the boys came in for noon dinner, I said what I knew I should, that I was very pleased that Dodie had a best friend.

“May I have Daniel over next Saturday?” Sonny asked.

“And Hovey?” asked Beston.

I felt a pang, resisting the expansion, the opening of what had been, for all these years, solely mine and Tup’s.

“If you do your chores and don’t leave them to Daddy,” I said vaguely.

“I’ll save something you can all do together,” Tup said. “It’s good to have friends around.”

I thought of my days at my father’s store, rushing home from school, preferring the store to being with friends. I hadn’t felt lonely. But Tup was right. There was no reason to hold so jealously to my children. They need to know how to make their way among people. But these invitations felt somehow like a threat, like a crack under a door letting in an unwelcome chill. I pushed away the sudden creep of dread. Our children love us, and they love our home. I need to share them, I know that. I had felt such pride watching my young daughter teaching her friend how to work in the henhouse. Watching her carefree enthusiasm and kindness. Her unguardedness. Dodie was so ready to love. It was time to start sharing that around.

The girls came back late in the afternoon with muddy feet and legs. They washed off at the hose, giggling in pure silliness. I listened from the well cover where I was sitting in the warm sun, snapping string beans.

“Can Marion spend the night, Mum?” Dodie asked.

“May,” I answered.

“May she,” Dodie said. “We want to make my room into a theater with a stage and pretend we are singers.”

Dodie was brimming with excitement, I could see that, but I felt something else, too, something about the long afternoon off with Marion, plans now for an evening, a night over, the intrusion into the family’s quiet that settles in after our day of work.

“What kind of singing?” I asked, and regretted it as soon as I said it. I added quickly, “Yes, of course, but you need to do your chores and ask Daddy if he will drive you to ask Marion’s mother.”

Dodie and Marion were silly during supper. They offered to wash all the dishes themselves, and Beston said he’d help. I stayed in the kitchen watching, aware that I was looking for trouble. I kept busy sorting the odds and ends that had collected on the shelf by the door, listening to the children laugh and tell small stories on each other. Tup and Sonny were in the front room, working at the table on a model plane Sonny had ordered in the mail. I wanted us all to be in our places in that room. Wasn’t there enough companionship here without prematurely bringing in the world? The children finished with the dishes and I thanked them.

Marion said, “Thank you for a very nice supper,” and I smiled, a kindly smile, I am sure, and told her she was very welcome. “I like it here,” Marion said.

I could see Dodie and Beston felt very pleased. They know they are farm children, different from the children in town, and sometimes, I think, they wonder if their differences will cost them anything.

The girls went up to Dodie’s room, Beston tagging along, and I went to my chair in the front room. I took up my mending and watched Tup and Sonny with their heads close together, the smell of the airplane glue sharp and comforting. Several times I got up to stand at the foot of the stairs and listen. Dodie’s singing stood out, a voice unusually low and smooth for a child, Marion’s and Beston’s wavering and thin above it.

I recognized some of the songs from the radio station Tup plays in the barn. Then he came to me and said quietly, “Leave them alone, Doris. They’re having fun.”

I felt embarrassed. What was I resisting here? Somehow the presence of someone else’s child in my daughter’s room, the muffled sound of songs I did not know the words to, pressed at me with a feeling of real sadness, as if something was being lost even as I listened. Their shrieks of laughter tumbled along the hall and down the stairs, and I felt myself stiffen with helplessness.

I finally said to Tup and Sonny at seven o’clock that I was going to get the girls and Beston off to bed.

But Tup said, “Let them be for a while, Doris. It’s a special night for them.”

I allowed them another hour and then called up that it was time to get washed and turn the light out. When I went up to kiss Beston good night, I could hear my daughter whispering to her friend in the dark, a conversation that was far outside me.

I opened the door and said quietly, “Good night, you silly things. Be quiet now and go to sleep. No more talking.”

Dodie said, “We won’t, Mum. We promise.” But I could hear their whispers even after Tup and Sonny came up to bed.

I lay awake after Tup fell asleep. The girls had given themselves to the night, and the house was quiet. I thought of Daniel and Hovey coming in a week, and what I would say when Dodie asked if Marion could come again. Why was there a sudden interest in these outside friends? This is all just new for us, I thought. That’s all. I have to get used to it. I let my thoughts go to the animals in the barn, the grass in the hayfields growing tall and green, the water in the creek sliding in its old and familiar course through our land. I turned to Tup’s steady back and said my prayers, thanking God for my husband and our children, so contented and undisturbed.

The morning came, Sunday, and before church we dropped Marion at home. After church, we spent the day at our routines of Sunday dinner and chores and rest. I found my children and Tup several times during the day, wanting to be near them. They did not seem to notice, for which I was relieved. At dinner that afternoon, we all laughed with Beston and Dodie as the children replayed their music show from the night before. I felt the watchfulness lift. It was as if we had managed to relock a door we needed to guard. I understood that my hope was not reasonable, but the release from vigilance was a great relief. We’ve been too much a family, I know. Whatever is beyond us must come. I’ll get better at this.

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From the novel Beneficence by Meredith Hall. Reprinted by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher.




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