Sunday
Feb022014

The Lady

Jill Stukenberg


 

The first Andres came from Belgium to live on a peninsula in northeastern Wisconsin at the time it was coming to be called Wisconsin. They crossed an ocean for a place that barely had a name. They crossed an ocean when to cross an ocean was to take a step through a one-way portal into another dimension.

One hundred years later there'd still be Andres living on the original homestead, the land if not the house, some retaining remnants of the old language in their dreams if not their daily lives. One hundred years is not so much time for one family to live in one place, though it can seem so with enough accretion of family names on the stone markers in the tidy, fenced corner of the yard.

In Wisconsin the Andres died in many of the same ways they had back home. Upright in a field. In bed asleep after remembering their prayers. Here they died also of bitter cold—lost in their own yard in a blizzard. Or of bear or by childbirth, two pains Tellie Andre—who'd mother twelve—would equate with clawing.

Headstones accumulated in the plot even when Andres died on water, even when Andres died on ice. Half the year the bay froze the peninsula to the mainland, like two well-pitched joints of a house. Antoine Andre—one of the Antoine Andres—would go through as a young father, stepping out from this world on a day that was between seasons, between wars. His son, Antoine again, at an age twice that his father had lived to, would pitch from a dock on a warm summery day—a slice of lime from the glass he went in with left to lap at the beach.

The Andres didn't recycle family names on purpose, but there were enough of them needing christening, and how many names were there in the world? In the twenty-first century another Tellie Andre would board a plane with a boyfriend for a fellowship in China, unwittingly echoing her ancestor who'd set off as a newlywed for life in the new world.

The first Tellie journeyed across the ocean with her first child on the way, travelling with Edwin at the urging of former neighbors, Alan and Sarah Delcroix, who'd gone first and reported back on the lumber, if they didn't know yet to mention the cholera.

On the same boat crossed Isabele and Adele Brise, Adele with the lye-splattered face and damaged eye.

Adele, who saw the Lady.

 

 

There were so many trees in Wisconsin. And dry, crackling leaves. They pitched on the wind, swooped over the remnants of Tellie Andre's garden and floated by her ears and hair where she couldn't see them. They clung close, persistent, both leaves and reaching, naked-armed trees like children in a certain mood, children wanting to be held when being held would just prolong the work.

"Shh. Shh. You are going to see Isabele. Leave me be," Tellie said.

This would be their third winter in Wisconsin. Tellie's two children had never seen even the small steamer that had brought them up from Milwaukee, much less the ship that had left Antwerp to shrink in the distance.

First the bees had disappeared and then the birds that made more of a production of it, kicking back against the trees to create showers of red leaves, re-revealing the next closest home, the Delcroixes', its doorstep crossed with debris. Winter would bring the forest closer still, the ground rising with snow and the dark sky lowering.

"Leave me be." Tellie pushed Antoine's arms away again, setting the boy on the ground next to his brother. She bent to the sack of wheat she'd gathered, lowered her head. Only for the first mile, to the house of Adele and her sister Isabele, would she have to carry the baby, shoo along the toddling boy, the bushel of wheat attached to her head.

"Antoine, you bring my shoes." They were always hacking back at those woods, cutting not just for the lumber, the shingles that could be carried out and sold in town, but to eke out space to live. It was too easy to imagine the smoke pressing back down their chimneys, roots growing up under their door in the night, trapping and snuffing them, making of them more mulch for the forest.

It would make sense to Tellie later, after she'd hear it at the mill, after she'd race back the four miles in her bare feet to the home of the family where she'd just that morning left her babies, that it had happened to Adele Brise in the woods. The Lady, the Queen of Heaven, showing herself.

Tellie's wooden shoes on their long string beat her backside as she ran.

She skirted the Delcroixes' cabin, its blackening sickness that could turn a healthy woman, a mother, overnight into a dead one.

She could tell they were home at the Brises', but was too shy to go inside where Isabele and her mother, and perhaps even Adele herself, were maybe praying. Discussing what was to be done.

Panting, Tellie scooped her children from where they were playing with the others in the browning grass.

The truth her great-great, and great-great-great grandchildren would not perceive, reading in the New York Times of Adele and the official sanctification of the little church in Champion, the formal papal recognition of the only Marian sighting in all of the United States, was that there was a reason a teacher had been needed to travel among the Belgian settlers' homes, their children taught, again, how to make the sign of the cross.

 

 

Edwin came home late many nights, even later than Tellie on the days she took wheat to the mill. Some days the men cut the shingles and other days they carried them to Green Bay.

The Queen of Heaven in the woods of Wisconsin! Her husband's shadow came up the path behind him, bringing the dark of the forest.

He had not sold all his shingles today. Not yesterday, either. The ones he'd cut already were piling and in the meantime the price was dropping.

"Did you hear then?" Tellie asked her husband. The cabin consisted of one main room, with cooking hearth and chimney and table. They slept with the children in the loft. They'd first stayed two months with the Delcroixes. Now Tellie didn't even like to look through the window that faced their direction.

"Everyone in Green Bay has," said Edwin.

Tellie herself hadn't yet heard the exact words of Our Mother, the ones she'd whispered to Adele, the woman who was just about Tellie's own age but without a husband. She'd wanted to take orders in her own country but had been brought here instead by her parents.

Now it seemed she was going to make the life she'd wanted anyway, just here in the Wisconsin woods.

What had Adele's father reported? What did the Lady say when she appeared to the young woman in the woods? Tellie asked.

Her husband told her. All of the sinners, the settlers, were chastened to pray.

"We're going to build a chapel," Edwin said. "Right on the spot. Her father wants my help tomorrow."

"Then who will go to sell shingles?" Tellie demanded, before she could help herself.

 

 

Tellie knew heaven was far away. What seemed more unreal was that Our Lady would have travelled all the way here from the old country.

She pictured, shivering to herself, the woman in flowing white robes and star crown flying alone over all that black ocean. Over all these black trees.

It did not seem as unreal that she had chosen Adele, who didn't have a husband. Adele who, as a child, had lost her eye. Perhaps all those years ago, Our Mother had prepared Adele for viewing Her Blinding Self.

But it was not thinkable that Our Lady had known, those years back in sunny Belgium, a time would come when her people would be dying in these distant woods. Sarah first, and then the rest of the Delcroixes one by one, corpses to be lugged back into the trees, all that wood everywhere but not always time, a free hand, to build a coffin. Not always a near enough priest to say a prayer.

Tellie slid down lower under the blanket, inched nearer the body of her husband in the dark.

 

 

In the morning, Edwin left so early that Tellie only felt him in her dream—his heat seeping from the bed and the cool creeping in to wake her. His weight shifting so subtly from the loft to the ladder, disappearing down, down, down.

Sleeping, she forgot how high she hovered, that, come morning, she would descend back to the world—to fire and table, jars, twine, sack cloth, and hooks.

The babies were carried down one by one. They were sleepers. They were quiet ones. Their mother spoke to them only seldomly so as not to interrupt that great silence they still clung to.

Suppose the men saw the Lady while they were building Her shrine? She wondered. Edwin would tell her, wouldn't he? Tellie's hands shook on the kettle. Of course he would tell her. Then it would be their job to tell the whole world.

Or suppose that the men scared Her away, or that Our Lady didn't want a shrine, didn't want to be thought to live here in Wisconsin, where the settlers were sinners, where they weren't teaching their children or attempting to convert the wild natives. Where instead of working in the Lord's vineyard, they'd grown idle and lax.

Idle? Inwardly, Tellie flared.

She had dug the root cellar herself, the third and deepest layer of her home. Like a grave. One they could reach into for sustenance.

 

 

Why had She come?

Tellie imagined Sarah Delcroix would ask this, were Sarah accompanying Tellie, her babies, and her load of shingles into town. The long lane of trees like a tunnel, winter still coming, Lady or not.

It wasn't like that, Tellie would assure Sarah. Sturdy Sarah! If she were here walking with Tellie now. The Lord and his Mother did not work against one another.

But what she had said to Adele was in warning, no?

Oh Sarah! She had been such a doubter! Were she here now, walking with Tellie, keeping her company on the road into town, Tellie would comfort her.

The voice that was Sarah but wasn't Sarah said, She'd said Her Son would punish the sinners who didn't convert.

So like sons. To go against their mothers. Antoine and Bernard did not yet defy Tellie, not often, but she could already feel the time that they would. Come along, Antoine! Tellie urged him with a small kick.

Tellie didn't allow herself very often to think of her own parents, her mother's grave in Belgium, the wooden cross she would never again lay eyes on. The one her brother, alone, would have to put up for their father. As children, she and Francois had prayed the rosary while they did chores, when they'd woken in the night and couldn't sleep.

Here in Wisconsin she had last prayed the rosary on the steamer from Milwaukee.

There were just too many trees in Wisconsin. There were more trees than beads and they blotted out the sun.

"What if She takes him?" Sarah was at it again.

Tellie's breath was coming in deep now, working up a hill with her load, following the long path into town.

"Why would She take him? She wants him to build Her shrine," Tellie said. She had come to a place the cleared road rose. She set down her shingles, unstrapped Bernard, and told Antoine, plodding at her side, to sit.

"What if She takes the boys?" Sarah asked next, her hair a fright of dead leaves and mud, the tiny yellow crocuses that Tellie had last strewn over her blackened face.

"You're afraid of the Lady." Tellie laughed. Was it the first time in months she had laughed? But never had she laughed with a sound like this one. "Then you must believe She's real," she told Sarah Delcroix, her floating corpse.

The bay stretched before her, not blue like the lake. Its rotting summer smell reaching her even here on the rising road.

"Let's see if the Lady wants them, then. I'll leave them right here to make it easy." Tellie picked up her load of shingles. She arranged the bundle on her head. She began walking away from her babies, leaving them both in the trammeled grass.

Her wooden shoes on their long length of twine knocked against her hip. They knocked again—her own shoes kicking her. Well, she'd leave them too. Walk into town with her bare feet just like she walked everywhere here.

But down the road, Tellie stalled, began to dawdle. Idle thing that she was, that she was becoming. A bird shot from a tree branch directly past her face, one edge of its wing clipping her nose.

Adele with the lye-burnt face! This winter she'd come trudging through any snow, any dark and woods, rosary beads like hot coals in her pockets.

She'd grab for the children's hands, Tellie and Edwin's too, pull them in to those pockets, pull them in past the snapping teeth of wolves.

Quietly, Tellie stepped off the road. She stepped further into the undergrowth, not a sound beneath her padding feet.

A little wind came. She could hear the water lapping. It was the smaller, stinking, emerald-shimmering bay.

Circled back, now lower than the road, she looked in on them from the woods. Quiet as any animal, expectant.