By Karen Brode
Winnie had already had a hard morning. She had a lot of responsibility for a twelve-year-old. People said that she had been born old, born knowing more than most people ever learn. And it did seem that she had uncommon sense about people and the world.
She stopped by her mother’s room to look in at her mother and the baby sleeping. He was almost one year old now and Winnie loved him more than her heart could hold. He snuggled next to her mother. Winnie covered them both with a blanket.
“Come on, Albert, it’s time to leave for school,” Winnie called into the back of the house. She had been hoping Albert would come without argument this time.
Albert was eight years old and her cross to bear. He was the one who made her seem stodgy and ridiculous for obeying the rules, for trying to do what was right. He made fun of her and his friends made fun of her. She wished Albert would just leave her alone. But her mother had put her in charge of everyone, it seemed.
Winnie tip-toed through the rooms until she reached Albert’s room. He was nowhere in sight and his bed wasn’t made! She didn’t dare holler because it would wake her mother and the baby.
In a stage-whisper, she said, “Albert! Albert! We’re going to be late for school!”
At just that moment, Albert jumped from behind the door with a grass snake in his hand and threw it at her. There was nowhere for Winnie to go to get away from the snake. It was everywhere she looked, everywhere she thought about. Her mind ran away for a second, then it came back to this room where she knew the snake was.
A snake was in her house! A snake was maybe in her bed and her skin began to quiver and crawl. She might never feel safe again. Albert watched her from behind the door, then he grabbed the snake up, and put it in the cigar box that was lined with grass.
Winnie grabbed the cigar box away from Albert and ran through the house as fast as she could, her pigtails flying behind her. She did not want to be holding the box, but as long as she kept it closed tightly, she could almost stand it. She ran all the way to the burn barrel where she tossed it in with the trash to be burned. Albert sulked at the back door when she got to the house.
“Get your asafetida, and let’s go!” Winnie told him.
Their mother, Effie, had an unnatural fear of illnesses. She had read that asafetida was helpful in warding off cholera as well as diphtheria. She believed that her children were safer at school wearing it around their necks. Kids often asked Winnie what she was wearing that smelled so awful. She was certain that she might have had more friends if she didn’t have that infernal asafetida necklace hung around her neck, but she couldn’t disobey her mother!
Albert picked up the necklace and carried it while Winnie put hers on and straightened her collar in the mirror. They had only walked a little ways through Marlow’s woods when Albert hung his necklace on a bush.
“You know you’re going to be in big trouble if Momma ever finds out!” Winnie warned him. Albert made a face and stuck his tongue out at his sister.
“You wouldn’t know what to do if Momma didn’t tell you every move to make!” he chortled.
Winnie didn’t know what to say. Was it true? Did other people laugh at her, too, just for being a good girl, a girl her mother could trust to take care of things, a girl who handled way more than any other girl her age? She had to go home right after school and fix supper. Her mother hadn’t been feeling well and had stayed in bed the last few days. It seemed as if her mother was always sick, and Winnie was a little nervous about that. What would she do if something happened? She pushed the thought away as they arrived at school.
Kids ran across the playground to get inside the school and Winnie grabbed Albert by the collar to propel him into the school. He and Dewey Johnson had gone fishing instead of going to school a few days last week, and Winnie had been blamed.
“Why didn’t you see that he went to the classroom?” her mother had asked her later. Winnie had thought that school might be the one place where she was free, the one place where she wasn’t over-burdened with responsibility, but she guessed not.
School was a place where she felt that she belonged. The answers came easily to her, and the teachers liked her. She wasn’t one of those simpering girls who giggled and flirted with boys. She thought they were so silly, and she wouldn’t lower herself to that level. She ate her lunch at a table with Clara Miller, the quiet daughter of the local preacher. Winnie and Clara didn’t talk much, but they both understood that they were different, better somehow, than the other children. They often ate with a book open by their lunches.
Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.