Lemons and Cut Sage
Humidity sheathed the corn stalks in their tight rows, leaving a still heaviness. The moist air made Bertrand feel that he couldn’t catch his breath. He walked down a row and bent down to feel the soil with his rough fingertips. It was 1959 and had rained so much that summer in Illinois he only had to open his gated pipe once a week. After checking the need for irrigation in a few more rows, each spaced a mile apart, Bertrand turned the tractor back toward the house.
The house’s gray siding bleached in the sun, and Bertrand peered inside through a window into the kitchen. Margret, his nine-year-old daughter, was spreading jam on a thick slice of bread. He entered the house and grimaced at the blare of the transistor radio on the windowsill.
“Can’t you turn it down?” he called to Margret. “Where’s your mother?”
“With Joachim?” Bertrand quickly turned from the hallway to face Margret. But she did not respond as she hummed Heartbreak Hotel.
Bertrand strode down the hall into their bedroom, catching sight of Gertrude through the open door, rocking in the rocking chair he made for her before the birth of Margret. She did not seem to hear his steps and continued to stare at the curtained window across the room in front of her.
“Gertrude?” Bertrand shook her arm as if she were asleep. Then he caught sight of the small body in the cradle, now beginning to fitfully stir. He rushed to pick up the baby, whose head was lolling to and fro, and when he held the child before him Joachim starred in a dazed fashion at Bertrand’s nose. The stillness in the room was maddening; a silence so pressuring Bertrand felt the air was quickly slipping from the bedroom.
“He’s wet,” Bertrand said softly, not facing his wife.
“He likes the music,” she whispered, and grinned.
Bertrand looked at her and stood still for a moment, gazing at her face, which was held cocked to the side, her eyes glazed and unseeing. Sighing, he shook his head and pulled a cloth diaper from a nearby basket.
A week later at church Bertrand approached a young woman with blonde hair cut in a bob, who was pulling on ivory satin gloves.
“Helga. That was some nice playing on the organ,” Bertrand said, nodding his head.
“Why thank you,” Helga nodded in reply.
“I was wondering…” Bertrand paused and looked away. He rubbed his graying beard slowly. “Do you work?”
“Work?...yes, I work, mornings in Vern’s shop.” Vern’s shop was a small neighborhood craft and sewing store where Helga was employed as a tailor and clerk.
“Mornings,” Bertrand repeated, scuffing one shoe with the other.
Helga leaned forward, tilted her head up to meet his eyes and put her hands on each hip. “Why do you ask?”
Bertrand took a step forward and spoke in a whisper. “Well, Gertrude, she’s, she’s not well. Real tired I think. Not her usual self since Joachim’s been born. I was wondering if you have time when you aren’t working—in the afternoons—to come and help with Joachim…make sure he’s taken care of. We’ll feed you supper, and work out some pay if you like.” His face shone red.
Helga was nodding. “I think I could do that for you.”
“It’s just—you’ve looked after the children before and they got on so well with you. I hope it’s not an inconvenience to you.”
“No—not at all.”
“You can stop anytime you like, I’m sure we’ll all be back to normal soon enough. It’s a busy time for me—crops, harvesting coming soon, another few weeks or so—“
“Bertrand, it’s fine.”
“Bertrand!” a strident voice called from the back of the church. A pattering of steps grew louder.
The priest was pulling Betrand’s son, Franz, along by the ear. “Your son was once again throwing stones at the birds on the gravestones. You need to teach him some respect! If you can’t control your children, how can you control anything in your life?”
Franz looked at him, waiting.
Bertrand blushed darker and shifted his weight, avoiding Franz’s eyes. “Sorry Father, my apologies.”
“Why does she have to come?” Margret whined.
“Your mom is tired. She needs a little help around the house and with Joachim,” Bertrand said curtly. He rotated the steering wheel as they approached their long driveway.
“I can help!”
“You do help, but we just need someone older for Joachim.”
“Franz thinks Helga will be a new mom for us.”
“That’s ridiculous. She’s helping for a short time. Enough of your chatter.”
When Bertrand told Gertrude about the extra help she had thrown a nearby chair on the ground and flung a glass at the wall. “Why?!” she gasped, her eyes narrowed and her jaw jutted forward. “You think I can’t care for my own child?”
“No! You think I am not a good mother! You want to give my children away!”
Bertrand rubbed the back of his neck, knowing the other children were listening.
“No, Gertrude. Calm down, there is no need to be angry.”
“Ja! Ich bin sauer auf dich, weil—“
“Nicht Deutsch,” Betrand said so quietly Gertrude became silent for a moment.
“Why, Bertrand?” she said gently. Her body swayed to one side and she looked at him like he was her child, brows lowered and softened.
Bertrand stood up and walked out the front door into his fields, the gold stalks darkened to a rust color in the dusk. He grasped an ear of corn and felt for plumpness before peeling back a corner of the husk to see the silk deepened to a burnt umber. Picking a kernel from the top of the ear, he squeezed it between his thumb and index finger until a milky liquid dripped to the ground. Sighing, he walked a few rows down and clasped the ear of another stalk, repeating the procedure with other ears. After harvest meant there was nothing for him to take care of in the fields, and that his energy could be directed toward concerns at home. Though he already knew the corn was ready, he kept walking along the rows until the silk grew black in the night.
Bertrand was surprised by how everyone settled in to the change quickly. Though Gertrude’s moods were unpredictable, she seemed pleased someone was there to do all the chores and care for Joachim, and spent her afternoons in her rocking chair, sometimes knitting or watching I Love Lucy on the new television.
The fourth day Helga was helping, Bertrand came in from the fields early. In the living room Franz was playing with his slinky and wearing the coonskin cap that he insisted on wearing day and night. Bertrand found Gertrude in front of the television.
“How was your day?” Bertrand asked softly.
Gertrude continued to stare at the television for a few minutes. Bertrand sighed and began walking to the bedroom to change his clothes when he heard glass shatter.
“My day? My day?” Gertrude sputtered. “You are planning to get rid of me! You are taking my children!” Gertrude ran at him, and struck him in the chest with her fists.
Helga, who was holding Joachim in the doorway to the kitchen, stared with wide eyes.
“Gertrude. Gertrude.” Bertrand struggled to grasp Gertrude’s wrists and pinned them at her chest. “Calm down, you don’t know what you are saying.”
“I know! I know what you are doing! You traitor! You have plans and so many ideas, you want to run away and leave and you are taking everything, you—“
“Gertrude, stop. You are being hysterical.”
She stared at him, her eyes bright and wet, and then her shoulders sagged. She glanced around the room at everyone and then walked into the bedroom.
“I’m sorry,” Bertrand said to Helga. He turned quickly and walked out the front door, stopping abruptly on the porch and breathing heavily with his hands on his hips. Absentmindedly, he fingered his father’s row weeder leaning against the siding. It was now Franz’s toy that he would drag out of the barn and use to mimic his father’s work.
The table was more quiet than usual as they passed the potatoes around. Margret’s lips shone red as a fire engine in the lamplight.
“Where did you get that?” asked Bertrand.
“What?” asked Margret.
“The lip color.”
“Oh—she wanted to see what it looked like….I, I let her borrow mine. I hope that’s okay,” said Helga, looking anxiously at Bertrand.
“You look ridiculous,” Gertrude told Margret.
One evening when Bertrand was sitting on the porch swing after supper Helga approached him. The sun set behind a shelterbelt of elms and the sky blushed like a rhubarb stalk.
“Helga. Thank you for your help today.”
Bertrand peeled the top layer of a callous off his thumb as Helga sat so still Bertrand almost memorized the line of her profile before she shifted her body.
“Did you know Hawaii is now a state?” she asked.
“I read it in the paper the other day at work. Everything keeps changing.” Helga paused and leaned forward on the bench. “You look tired…look older.”
“I am older—than yesterday,” Bertrand said with a forced laugh that he immediately tried to muffle by clearing his throat.
“No, your face—you look ancient.”
Embarrassed, Bertrand moved his hands restlessly in his lap. “Well, I am older than you.”
“No—I mean—Gertrude is not getting better. She is not tired.”
Bertrand was silent. “We should give her time.”
Helga let out a sharp breath. “It’s not just her. Joachim isn’t well either.”
Bertrand looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“He…he isn’t right for his age. His movements are clumsy. He is almost two but he cannot form any words yet—some things he does not even recognize or remember. Sometimes I go to pick him up, to feed him, and it is as though he doesn’t know what we are doing.”
“He is still young. He will learn.”
“He is my child; I will decide.”
“He needs to go to a doctor.”
Bertrand looked out over his fields, the corn stalks pale yellow and bronze in the light of the setting sun. The gold of the corn and the pink of the sky looked so delicate he wished he could walk into the horizon and disappear, become the vague forms of color.
Bertrand didn’t want Helga to know, so he took Joachim and Gertrude to the doctor himself early one morning, leaving Margret to watch after Franz. In the white waiting room Bertrand tried to calm Joachim but the child’s screeches echoed in the hallways. The two examinations lasted for hours, with nurses walking to and from the patient room to other rooms with clipboards and folders in their hands. Bertrand sat in the waiting room with his hands clenched between his knees, watching all of the movement, confused by so many rooms.
Finally Bertrand was invited into Dr. Meyer’s office, a small room with burgundy carpet and heavy wood furniture. Dr. Meyer was a short man, with tender eyes and a receding hairline. All of his gestures were long, as though he was trying to hand out comfort. Dr. Meyer sat behind a giant mahogany desk, and Bertrand sat in front of it, in a plush floral chair with curved armrests.
“It’s not good news, Bertrand.” Dr. Meyer leaned forward, placed his elbows on the desk, and sighed. “Your son appears to have suffered from brain damage.”
Bertrand felt like he was swimming in the air, in a space without gravity. “How?” he breathed.
“Well, from what I can tell it relates to your wife’s condition. After the birth of your child did she display any unusual characteristics? Crying fits? Inactivity? Changes in her habits of eating or sleeping?”
“Yes, yes, all of those. But after Margret and Franz she was emotional also. I figured it would pass with time, that giving birth just took a while for her to recover.”
“That is true. But what Gertrude is now experiencing is not simply a difficulty recovering a balance, but a break with reality. She seems to be suffering from so severe a depression that she is near psychosis.” Bertrand didn’t look at the doctor, but starred at the floor as though he were searching for something. “In the questions I asked you earlier, you said your son has not been given much attention or care by your wife. A lack of care, especially physical touch, can result in damaging the brain of the infant while it is developing. I think that may be what has happened to your son.”
Bertrand leaned to the side and clutched the armrests of the chair. “I’m sorry, Bertrand,” the doctor said. “There is no treatment for your son. As for your wife—I would like to put her on an electroshock therapy routine. Twice a week to begin, maybe increase it with time if we see major improvements.”
“Electroshock therapy makes an electric current pass through the brain. It appears to have a calming effect due to inducing convulsions.”
“I don’t know if I can afford that.”
“You can begin buying on time if you feel you can’t keep up with payments.”
“No…I don’t like buying on time. I want to pay up front. I’ll find a way. I…I should have come sooner?” Bertrand looked at the doctor.
Dr. Meyer paused and looked past Bertrand at the wall behind him. “These conditions are difficult to respond to. Don’t blame yourself.”
After supper that night Bertrand lay down in the grass beside his fields. August had pushed the sun down earlier and the moon was silvering everything, like the objects in his grandmother’s china hutch. Helga came out the front door and lay beside him and he told her everything the doctor had said. He looked up at the stars as he spoke, the words coming swiftly, as her breath heated his neck.
“I can’t ask you to keep coming here,” he said finally. “You have a life of your own.”
“You don’t have to ask,” she said quietly.
After his wife began electroshock therapy Helga still came in the afternoons to look after Joachim, and in the evening after supper Helga and Bertrand sat out on the porch talking. Gertrude stayed in the house and was beginning to talk more with the other children. She was experiencing memory loss but seemed calmer, and sometimes more alert to her surroundings. Perhaps, it is only her relief at not having responsibility of Joachim, Bertrand thought.
One night when Gertrude was pulling on her nightgown Bertrand caught sight of bruises on her wrists where the restraints were placed during her treatment. He shivered and pulled the quilt up higher over his chest.
Bertrand avoided Joachim, even making himself absent when Helga held him and was near. The chubby child with dull eyes kept speaking to Bertrand with loud voices in his head about failure. One night, Helga suggested that Bertrand go out on a date with his wife, to try and bond since the tragedy.
Bertrand looked at Helga coolly as she held her head erect, defiant.
“Good idea,” he muttered.
He took Gertrude to a family owned Italian restaurant in a nearby town. Despite the recent interest she’d shown in Margret’s homework and Franz’s drawings she seemed aloof, simply tracing the edges of the tablecloth with her index finger.
The conversation began and ended abruptly over subjects such as the fields and the weather, the children’s lives and house repairs. Its sparse and mostly silent continuation made Bertrand thought of endless plowing. Over tiramisu, Gertrude lifted her head.
“Do you remember the summer day we spent on the lake at your uncle’s farm? flying off the tire swing?” she asked.
“Yes,” Bertrand answered slowly.
“And I fell in the rocky part and was bleeding from my forehead, and you held my head to yours and whispered, ‘if anything ever happened to you, I’d never be the same’?”
She leaned back, triumphant.
Bertrand sat with his shoulders hunched forward and looked at his plate. Softly, he said, “I’m not the same.”
“What’s changed for you?”
Bertrand shifted his weight on the chair and looked across the other tables in the restaurant. He roughly itched the back of his neck and sighed. “I can’t find something…I can’t find anything to make me feel like I’m doing something. There’s—.” He noticed his hands were trembling.
“I can’t forget, not even when I’m in the fields, when I’m working.”
“You used to be able to forget anything you wanted so easily.”
“I once liked the scent of soil freshly ploughed—could feel new, new…”
“I suppose you feel I’ve taken all this from you?”
“No—I feel—.” He shook his head violently. “Why have you always wanted me to have the answers—take care of everything? Dammit, Gertrude. I don’t know.”
Bertrand began expressing himself with civility, a quiet, cold form that worked by pleasing her with performing household duties but never talking to her. She knew how he meant the transformed attitude and behavior, as a sort of mockery of what he felt she wanted and needed. But she was too tired to fight the mockery and allowed him to help her with errands or other tasks she knew he hated.
Still, she was gone, listless in his presence, and so quiet her disappearing felt intentional. She and Helga had a silent understanding, intuitive borders drawn over their land, certain geographic features they shared: Franz and Margret.
The mental retardation of his son was quickly becoming apparent, perhaps due to no other fact than the diagnosis. Suddenly Bertrand noticed his son struggled to grip the wooden horse by his crib with his left hand, and whimpered or howled more than trying to form words. At two years old Bertrand remembered Franz could speak short sentences of English, and even a few German words as a result of listening to his mother recite the Grimm Fairy Tales. She always insisted that language was necessary to the story, because it created the setting and characters. At that time, six years ago, Bertrand had only begun to feel uncomfortable when she taught their children their native language.
The incessant howling from Joachim irritated Bertrand the most. Now it seemed to him that everything—the wind, the rustling of his crops, Gertrude’s once bright voice, the chorus at church, was moaning in the same wordless way, an open mouth deep and vacant as a cavern.
Helga sensed Bertrand’s loneliness and it made her feel intimate with him during their evenings on the porch. Bertrand lately had grown interested in her future.
“You want to move away I suppose? Go to a city,” he said.
She shrugged. “Maybe. I like the country.”
“Want to keep working in Vern’s shop? Or be a seamstress elsewhere?”
“Oh…probably elsewhere. Maybe doing something else.” Helga kicked a stone into the yard. “I’d like to be married, have a family somewhere nice.”
The crickets’ rough buzz in the meadow to the left of the house grew louder, almost violent in their monotony.
Finally, Helga said, “You like being married?”
Even Bertrand, being simple, knew that wasn’t her question.
He shifted his weight. “Marriage isn’t something to like or not like.”
“Then what is it?” she asked coyly, pulling her hair through slender fingers.
“Marriage is the chance to hurt someone more than you ever thought you could,” Bertrand said.
Even as Betrand and Helga became closer to one another from their evenings talking on the porch, Betrand wasn’t worried about the possibility of infidelity. How, he thought, could he betray his wife when she was already in such pain? How could he handle feeling guilty about infidelity when he was already gnawed with guilt over his son’s condition? Bertrand believed the devastating circumstances that brought Helga into his life would prevent him from acting in ways he would regret. However, he was drunk with hope for a return to days without a damaged son and ghosted wife, and Helga smelled of lemons and cut sage, which always reminded him of childhood summer days, his mother’s lemonade and open brush pasture.
It was always in the barn because Gertrude never left the house anymore. After two months on electroconvulsive therapy Dr. Meyer deliberated that no progress in her condition had resulted from the treatment. Instead, Dr. Meyer put her on Imipramine, an antidepressant he assured Bertrand could lift even the most severe depressive episodes.
The hay scratched their skin, drawing thin red lines, but Bertrand didn’t mind because it made him feel young. Sometimes, afterwards, he held her shoulder and her hip, imagining he was beginning a new family, as if the old was swept up in the wind, and lost in a layer of dirt.
But after about a month the crisp fall air became startlingly cold, tight hands that couldn’t move very well, and they began to visit the barn less together. Or maybe it was something else that stopped it. Bertrand didn’t know, and tried very hard not to think about it.
One night when the moon was waning he lay on his side watching Gertrude sleep, occasionally lifting his hand to trace the line of her cheek. She opened her eyes as if she’d never been sleeping. In the ivory light they lay looking at each other, and Bertrand knew she was saying goodbye, knew that she had already guessed about Helga. Maybe she knew about Helga before Helga came, knew it could have been anybody, but it helped that Helga was blonde, young, and terribly healthy.
Joachim’s second birthday was in mid December and Margret took it upon herself to plan his birthday party. She made decorations and baked the day before, erasing the scent of wet wood in the house with fresh cherry pastries and a chocolate cake so rich Bertrand remembered Christmas at his grandmother’s, her house full of the aromas of fruit and fudge.
Franz helped Margret color pictures on pieces of paper and hung them from the ceiling. Bertrand smiled at their creativity as he walked through the house, looking at their picture of their Great Dane, Hunter, from two years ago that died after getting hit by an automobile on the main road near their house. Another picture showed Franz building an airplane with tools as large as his torso. The one in the middle of the room, above the kitchen table was of the family; standing in front of their ranch style house, cinder gray siding and all, with the corn fields to the right of the house, and the long meadow full of daisies to the left. Margret must have drawn this one because the family members had faces. Each one stood together tightly, as though waiting for a photograph to be taken, with smiles showing their teeth.
Bertrand stood before the image for a moment before turning around, trying not to glance over his shoulder as though it were watching him. If it hadn’t broken Margret’s heart, he wouldn’t have gone to the birthday party, would have claimed he needed to attend to an emergency in the fields, but of course, at this time, there were no emergencies; he harvested the field two months ago and the land was waiting out the winter for another planting.
So he sat in the corner of the kitchen and watched Margret prance around Joachim, who turned his head too slowly to catch her movements, as she placed pastries or ribbon wrapped gifts in front of him. Gertrude only stayed in the kitchen for the very beginning, and after an hour went back to her bedroom to read. Helga was there, and helped Margret clean up after the party. When she had first entered the kitchen she too had looked at the pictures, but with a bemused smile on her face, until she came to the one of the family. She stared at it for longer than the others and Bertrand suddenly realized she was searching for herself in it. Throughout the party he caught her watching him with different eyes than she had before, disappointed, like Gertrude’s. He downed his fourth beer quickly, and Margret laughed at how quickly. Ashamed, he went out to the porch.
“I don’t think you need me anymore,” Helga said. Bertrand was sitting on the porch steps and Helga sat beside him.
Bertrand felt heat rising up his neck and when he didn’t say anything she went on. “Margret has a handle on Joachim for the most part, and your wife is stable enough to look over the house. Besides…I’m moving.”
“I’m going up north—to Chicago.”
“I thought you didn’t want to live in a city.”
“I—I changed my mind I guess. There are more opportunities for me there. I have a friend who will let me stay with her, until I get settled, find a job.”
“I’m sorry Bertrand—it’s just, I can’t stay here forever. You have a family.”
“Why are you angry at me? When all I’ve done is help your family—for hardly anything! Did you expect me to stay forever?”
“No,” Bertrand said, dropping his face in his hands. “I didn’t think about it.”
Helga let out a quick breath. “I know. It’s not even me you want. For a while I thought it was. But you don’t want a person, you want another time, when you aren’t so caught and trapped.”
“That’s not true,” Bertrand said. “I care for you. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Helga shook her head and as she treaded softly down the worn steps Bertrand waited for another layer of sadness to descend but it didn’t. He waited for guilt to drift down upon him but it didn’t come either. He sat still, waiting for sadness or guilt, but all he felt was a chill building up his spine as wind gathered and fled from the north. A line of sparrows rose over the line of elms in his yard and curved across the field, their wings brushing shadows on the broken up field.
It was quieter when Helga left, especially since the two older children had returned to school after their Christmas break and worked on homework in the evening or watched their favorite programs on the television. During the winter Bertrand had a part time job at an automobile repair shop since there wasn’t any work in the fields. In the evenings Bertrand drank on the porch, the dark so thick he couldn’t see his hands in his lap. Gertrude never asked what he was doing, and anymore he never asked how she was doing.
One night when Franz and Margret were both gone at an evening school play and the silence became too overwhelming, the only sound being the creak of Gertrude’s rocking chair, Bertrand picked Joachim up and carried him into the barren fields, now lightly frosted with a thin layer of snow.
As his brown boots crushed the brittle blonde stalks left protruding from the hard soil, Bertrand watched his son’s movements carefully. Joachim rolled his head backwards and gurgled, salvia dripping down his chin, his condition more apparent than ever in the field and the blank white light of winter.
“What if we buried ourselves in this field, Joachim? Would anything in this world change?” Bertrand asked his son.
Joachim bounced against his hip from the attention, his smile crooked and wide.
Kassandra Montag holds an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing. She has won the Plainsongs Award and New Year’s Poet Award. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Briar Cliff Review, Midwestern Gothic, Midwest Quarterly, and other literary journals. She lives in Omaha with her husband and son.