||Kasımpatları - The Chrysanthemums
The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the
sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid
on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot. On the broad,
level land floor the gang plows bit deep and left the black earth shining
like metal where the shares had cut. On the foothill ranches across the
Salinas river, the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold
sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December. The thick
willow scrub along the river flamed with sharp and positive yellow leaves.
It was a time of quiet and of waiting. The air was cold and tender. A light
wind blew up from the southwest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful
of a good rain before long; but fog and rain did not go together.
Across the river, on Henry Allen's foothill ranch there was little work
to be done, for the hay was cut and stored and the orchards were plowed
up to receive the rain deeply when it should come. The cattle on the higher
slopes were becoming shaggy and rough-coated.
Elisa Allen, working in her flower garden, looked down across the yard and
saw Henry, her husband, talking to two men in business suits. The three
of them stood by the tractor shed, each man with one foot on the side of
the little Ford-son. They smoked cigarettes and studied the machine as they
Elisa watched them for a moment and then went back to her work. She was
thirty-five. Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as
water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man's
black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print
dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets
to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she
worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she
She was cutting down the old year's chrysanthemum stalks with a pair of
short and powerful scissors. She looked down toward the men by the tractor
shed now and then. Her face was eager and mature and handsome; even her
work with the scissors was over-eager, over-powerful. The chrysanthemum
stems seemed too small and easy for her energy.
She brushed a cloud of hair out of her eyes with the back of her glove,
and left a smudge of earth on her cheek in doing it. Behind her stood the
neat white farm house with red geraniums close-banked around it as high
as the windows. It was a hard-swept looking little house, with hard-polished
windows, and a clean mud-mat on the front steps.
Elisa cast another glance toward the tractor shed. The strangers were getting
into their Ford coupe. She took off a glove and put her strong fingers down
into the forest of new green chrysanthemum sprouts that were growing around
the old roots. She spread the leaves and looked down among the close-growing
stems. No aphids were there, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms. Her terrier
fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started.
Elisa started at the sound of her husband's voice. He had come near quietly,
and he leaned over the wire fence that protected her flower garden from
cattle and dogs and chickens.
"At it again," he said. "You've got a strong new crop coming.
Elisa straightened her back and pulled on the gardening glove again. "Yes.
They'll be strong this coming year." In her tone and on her face there was
a little smugness.
You've got a gift with things," Henry observed. "Some of those yellow chrysanthemums
you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you'd work out in the orchard
and raise some apples that big."
Her eyes sharpened. "Maybe I could do it, too. I've a gift with things,
all right. My mother had it. She could stick anything in the ground and
make it grow. She said it was having planters' hands that knew how to do
"Well, it sure works with flowers," he said. "Henry, who were those men
you were talking to?"
"Why, sure, that's what I came to tell you. They were from the Western Meat
Company. I sold those thirty head of three-year-old steers. Got nearly my
own price, too."
"Good," she said. "Good for you.
"And I thought," he continued, "I thought how it's Saturday afternoon, and
we might go into Salinas for dinner at a restaurant, and then to a picture
show--to celebrate, you see."
"Good," she repeated. "Oh, yes. That will be good."
Henry put on his joking tone. "There's fights tonight. How'd you like to
go to the fights?"
"Oh, no," she said breathlessly. "No, I wouldn't like fights."
"Just fooling, Elisa. We'll go to a movie. Let's see. It's two now. I'm
going to take Scotty and bring down those steers from the hill. It'll take
us maybe two hours. We'll go in town about five and have dinner at the Cominos
Hotel. Like that?"
"Of course I'll like it. It's good to eat away from home."
"All right, then. I'll go get up a couple of horses."
She said, "I'll have plenty of time transplant some of these sets, I guess."
She heard her husband calling Scotty down by the barn. And a little later
she saw the two men ride up the pale yellow hillside in search of the steers.
There was a little square sandy bed kept for rooting the chrysanthemums.
With her trowel she turned the soil over and over, and smoothed it and patted
it firm. Then she dug ten parallel trenches to receive the sets. Back at
the chrysanthemum bed she pulled out the little crisp shoots, trimmed off
the leaves of each one with her scissors and laid it on a small orderly
A squeak of wheels and plod of hoofs came from the road. Elisa looked up.
The country road ran along the dense bank of willows and cotton-woods that
bordered the river, and up this road came a curious vehicle, curiously drawn.
It was an old spring-wagon, with a round canvas top on it like the cover
of a prairie schooner. It was drawn by an old bay horse and a little grey-and-white
burro. A big stubble-bearded man sat between the cover flaps and drove the
crawling team. Underneath the wagon, between the hind wheels, a lean and
rangy mongrel dog walked sedately. Words were painted on the canvas in clumsy,
crooked letters. "Pots, pans, knives, sisors, lawn mores, Fixed." Two rows
of articles, and the triumphantly definitive "Fixed" below. The black paint
had run down in little sharp points beneath each letter.
Elisa, squatting on the ground, watched to see the crazy, loose-jointed
wagon pass by. But it didn't pass. It turned into the farm road in front
of her house, crooked old wheels skirling and squeaking. The rangy dog darted
from between the wheels and ran ahead. Instantly the two ranch shepherds
flew out at him. Then all three stopped, and with stiff and quivering tails,
with taut straight legs, with ambassadorial dignity, they slowly circled,
sniffing daintily. The caravan pulled up to Elisa's wire fence and stopped.
Now the newcomer dog, feeling outnumbered, lowered his tail and retired
under the wagon with raised hackles and bared teeth.
The man on the wagon seat called out, "That's a bad dog in a fight when
he gets started."
Elisa laughed. I see he is. How soon does he generally get started?"
The man caught up her laughter and echoed it heartily. "Sometimes not for
weeks and weeks," he said. He climbed stiffly down, over the wheel. The
horse and the donkey drooped like unwatered flowers.
Elisa saw that he was a very big man. Although his hair and beard were graying,
he did not look old. His worn black suit was wrinkled and spotted with grease.
The laughter had disappeared from his face and eyes the moment his laughing
voice ceased. His eyes were dark, and they were full of the brooding that
gets in the eyes of teamsters and of sailors. The calloused hands he rested
on the wire fence were cracked, and every crack was a black line. He took
off his battered hat.
"I'm off my general road, ma'am," he said. "Does this dirt road cut over
across the river to the Los Angeles highway?"
Elisa stood up and shoved the thick scissors in her apron pocket. "Well,
yes, it does, but it winds around and then fords the river. I don't think
your team could pull through the sand."
He replied with some asperity, "It might surprise you what them beasts can
"When they get started?" she asked.
He smiled for a second. "Yes. When they get started."
"Well," said Elisa, "I think you'll save time if you go back to the Salinas
road and pick up the highway there."
He drew a big finger down the chicken wire and made it sing. "I ain't in
any hurry, ma am. I go from Seattle to San Diego and back every year. Takes
all my time. About six months each way. I aim to follow nice weather."
Elisa took off her gloves and stuffed them in the apron pocket with the
scissors. She touched the under edge of her man's hat, searching for fugitive
hairs. "That sounds like a nice kind of a way to live," she said.
He leaned confidentially over the fence. "Maybe you noticed the writing
on my wagon. I mend pots and sharpen knives and scissors. You got any of
them things to do?"
"Oh, no," she said quickly. "Nothing like that." Her eyes hardened with
"Scissors is the worst thing," he explained. "Most people just ruin scissors
trying to sharpen 'em, but I know how. I got a special tool. It's a little
bobbit kind of thing, and patented. But it sure does the trick."
"No. My scissors are all sharp."
"All right, then. Take a pot," he continued earnestly, "a bent pot, or a
pot with a hole. I can make it like new so you don't have to buy no new
ones. That's a saving for you.
"No," she said shortly. "I tell you I have nothing like that for you to
His face fell to an exaggerated sadness. His voice took on a whining undertone.
"I ain't had a thing to do today. Maybe I won't have no supper tonight.
You see I'm off my regular road. I know folks on the highway clear from
Seattle to San Diego. They save their things for me to sharpen up because
they know I do it so good and save them money.
"I'm sorry," Elisa said irritably. "I haven't
anything for you to do."
His eyes left her face and fell to searching the ground. They roamed about
until they came to the chrysanthemum bed where she had been working. "What's
them plants, ma'am?"
The irritation and resistance melted from Elisa's face. "Oh, those are chrysanthemums,
giant whites and yellows. I raise them every year, bigger than anybody around
"Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?"
"That's it. What a nice way to describe them."
"They smell kind of nasty till you get used to them,"
"It's a good bitter smell," she retorted, "not nasty at all."
He changed his tone quickly. "I like the smell myself."
"I had ten-inch blooms this year," she said.
The man leaned farther over the fence. "Look. I know
a lady down the road a piece, has got the nicest garden you ever seen. Got
nearly every kind of flower but no chrysanthemums. Last time I was mending
a copper-bottom washtub for her (that's a hard job but I do it good), she
said to me, 'If you ever run acrost some nice chrysanthemums I wish you'd
try to get me a few seeds.' That's what she told me."
Elisa's eyes grew alert and eager. "She couldn't have known much about chrysanthemums.
You can raise them from seed, but it's much easier to root the little sprouts
you see there."
"Oh," he said. "I s'pose I can't take none to her, then."
"Why yes you can," Elisa cried. "I can put some in damp sand, and you can
carry them right along with you. They'll take root in the pot if you keep
them damp. And then she can transplant them."
||"She'd sure like to have some,
ma'am. You say they're nice ones?"
she said. "Oh, beautiful." Her eyes shone. She tore off the battered hat
and shook out her dark pretty hair. "I'll put them in a flower pot, and
you can take them right with you. Come into the yard."
While the man came through the picket fence Elisa ran excitedly along the
geranium-bordered path to the back of the house. And she returned carrying
a big red flower pot. The gloves were forgotten now. She kneeled on the
ground by the starting bed and dug up the sandy soil with her fingers and
scooped it into the bright new flower pot. Then she picked up the little
pile of shoots she had prepared. With her strong fingers she pressed them
into the sand and tamped around them with her knuckles. The man stood over
her. "I'll tell you what to do," she said. "You remember so you can tell
"Yes, I'll try to remember."
"Well, look. These will take root in about a month. Then she must set them
out, about a foot apart in good rich earth like this, see?" She lifted a
handful of dark soil for him to look at. "They'll grow fast and tall. Now
remember this. In July tell her to cut them down, about eight inches from
"Before they bloom?" he asked.
"Yes, before they bloom." Her face was tight with eagerness. "They'll grow
right up again. About the last of September the buds will start."
She stopped and seemed perplexed. "It's the budding that takes the most
care," she said hesitantlv. "I don't know how to tell you." She looked deep
into his eyes, searchingly. Her mouth opened a little, and she seemed to
be listening. "I'll try to tell you," she said. "Did you ever hear of planting
"Can't say I have, ma am.
"Well, I can only tell you what it feels like. It's when you're picking
off the buds you don't want. Everything goes right down into your fingertips.
You watch your fingers work. They do it themselves. You can feel how it
is. They pick and pick the buds. They never make a mistake. They're with
the plant. Do you see? Your fingers and the plant. You can feel that, right
up your arm. They know. They never make a mistake. You can feel it. When
you're like that you can't do anything wrong. Do you see that? Can you understand
She was kneeling on the ground looking up at him. Her breast swelled passionately.
The man's eyes narrowed. He looked away self-consciously. "Maybe I know,"
he said. "Sometimes in the night in the wagon there--"
Elisa's voice grew husky. She broke in on him. "I've never lived as you
do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark--why, the stars are
sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed
star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and--lovely."
Kneeling there, her hand went out toward his legs in the greasy black trousers.
Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to
the ground. She crouched low like a fawning dog.
He said, "It's nice, just like you say. Only when you don't have no dinner,
She stood up then, very straight, and her face was ashamed. She held the
flower pot out to him and placed it gently in his arms. "Here. Put it in
your wagon, on the seat, where you can watch it. Maybe I can find something
for you to do."
At the back of the house she dug in the can pile and found two old and battered
aluminum saucepans. She carried them back and gave them to him. "Here, maybe
you can fix these."
His manner changed. He became professional. "Good as new I can fix them."
At the back of his wagon he set a little anvil, and out of an oily tool
box dug a small machine hammer. Elisa came through the gate to watch him
while he pounded out the dents in the kettles. His mouth grew sure and knowing.
At a difficult part of the work he sucked his under-lip.
"You sleep right in the wagon?" Elisa asked.
"Right in the wagon, ma'am. Rain or shine I'm dry as a cow in there."
It must be nice," she said. "It must be very nice. I wish women could do
"It ain't the right kind of a life for a woman.
Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth. "How do you know? How
can you tell?" she said.
"I don't know, ma'am," he protested. "Of course I don't know. Now here's
your kettles, done. You don't have to buy no new ones.
"Oh, fifty cents'll do. I keep my prices down and my work good. That's why
I have all them satisfied customers up and down the highway."
Elisa brought him a fifty-cent piece from the house and dropped it in his
hand. "You might be surprised to have a rival some time. I can sharpen scissors,
too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what
a woman might do."
He put his hammer back in the oily box and shoved the little anvil out of
sight. "It would be a lonely life for a woman, ma'am, and a scarey life,
too, with animals creeping under the wagon all night." He climbed over the
singletree, steadying himself with a hand on the burro's white rump. He
settled himself in the seat, picked up the lines. "Thank you kindly, ma'am,"
he said. "I'll do like you told me; I'll go back and catch the Salinas road."
"Mind," she called, "if you're long in getting there, keep the sand damp."
"Sand, ma'am?. .. Sand? Oh, sure. You mean around the chrysanthemums. Sure
I will." He clucked his tongue. The beasts leaned luxuriously into their
collars. The mongrel dog took his place between the back wheels. The wagon
turned and crawled out the entrance road and back the way it had come, along
Elisa stood in front of her wire fence watching the slow progress of the
caravan. Her shoulders were straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half-closed,
so that the scene came vaguely into them. Her lips moved silently, forming
the words "Good-bye--good-bye." Then she whispered, "That's a bright direction.
There's a glowing there." The sound of her whisper startled her. She shook
herself free and looked about to see whether anyone had been listening.
Only the dogs had heard. They lifted their heads toward her from their sleeping
in the dust, and then stretched out their chins and settled asleep again.
Elisa turned and ran hurriedly into the house.
In the kitchen she reached behind the stove and felt the water tank. It
was full of hot water from the noonday cooking. In the bathroom she tore
off her soiled clothes and flung them into the corner. And then she scrubbed
herself with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest
and arms, until her skin was scratched and red. When she had dried herself
she stood in front of a mirror in her bedroom and looked at her body. She
tightened her stomach and threw out her chest. She turned and looked over
her shoulder at her back.
After a while she began to dress, slowly. She put on her newest underclothing
and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness.
She worked carefully on her hair, pencilled her eyebrows and rouged her
Before she was finished she heard the little thunder of hoofs and the shouts
of Henry and his helper as they drove the red steers into the corral. She
heard the gate bang shut and set herself for Henry's arrival.
His step sounded on the porch. He entered the house calling, "Elisa, where
"In my room, dressing. I'm not ready. There's hot water for your bath. Hurry
up. It's getting late."
When she heard him splashing in the tub, Elisa laid his dark suit on the
bed, and shirt and socks and tie beside it. She stood his polished shoes
on the floor beside the bed. Then she went to the porch and sat primly and
stiffly down. She looked toward the river road where the willow-line was
still yellow with frosted leaves so that under the high grey fog they seemed
a thin band of sunshine. This was the only color in the grey afternoon.
She sat unmoving for a long time. Her eyes blinked rarely.
Henry came banging out of the door, shoving his tie inside his vest as he
came. Elisa stiffened and her face grew tight. Henry stopped short and looked
at her. "Why--why, Elisa. You look so nice!"
"Nice? You think I look nice? What do you mean by 'nice'?"
Henry blundered on. "I don't know. I mean you look different, strong and
"I am strong? Yes, strong. What do you mean 'strong'?"
He looked bewildered. "You're playing some kind of a game," he said helplessly.
"It's a kind of a play. You look strong enough to break a calf over your
knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon."
For a second she lost her rigidity. "Henry! Don't talk like that. You didn't
know what you said." She grew complete again. "I'm strong," she boasted.
"I never knew before how strong."
Henry looked down toward the tractor shed, and when he brought his eyes
back to her, they were his own again. "I'll get out the car. You can put
on your coat while I'm starting."
Elisa went into the house. She heard him drive to the gate and idle down
his motor, and then she took a long time to put on her hat. She pulled it
here and pressed it there. When Henry turned the motor off she slipped into
her coat and went out.
The little roadster bounced along on the dirt road by the river, raising
the birds and driving the rabbits into the brush. Two cranes flapped heavily
over the willow-line and dropped into the river-bed.
Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew.
She tried not to look as they passed it, but her eyes would not obey. She
whispered to herself sadly, "He might have thrown them off the road. That
wouldn't have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot," she
explained. "He had to keep the pot. That's why he couldn't get them off
The roadster turned a bend and she saw the caravan ahead. She swung full
around toward her husband so she could not see the little covered wagon
and the mismatched team as the car passed them.
In a moment it was over. The thing was done. She did not look back. She
said loudly, to be heard above the motor, "It will be good, tonight, a good
"Now you're changed again," Henry complained. He took one hand from the
wheel and patted her knee. "I ought to take you in to dinner oftener. It
would be good for both of us. We get so heavy out on the ranch."
"Henry," she asked, "could we have wine at dinner?"
"Sure we could. Say! That will be fine."
She was silent for a while; then she said, "Henry, at those prize fights,
do the men hurt each other very much?"
"Sometimes a little, not often. Why?"
"Well, I've read how they break noses, and blood runs down their chests.
I've read how the fighting gloves get heavy and soggy with blood."
He looked around at her. "What's the matter, Elisa? I didn't know you read
things like that." He brought the car to a stop, then turned to the right
over the Salinas River bridge.
"Do any women ever go to the fights?" she asked.
"Oh, sure, some. What's the matter, Elisa? Do you want to go? I don't think
you'd like it, but I'll take you if you really want to go."
She relaxed limply in the seat. "Oh, no. No. I don't want to go. I'm sure
I don't." Her face was turned away from him. "It will be enough if we can
have wine. It will be plenty." She turned up her coat collar so he could
not see that she was crying weakly--like an old woman.