Old Mrs Croft was grateful for the babbling little girl. She was good company and kept her from sobbing out loud, as she feard she might just do, any minute.
“Mama killed another snake this morning, Mrs Croft,” Annie announced, stepping out of the slab bark hut, into the autumn sun. She made her way quickly to the table in the shade of the blue gum and dropped her heavy copper pot there with a bang. Down in the valley, past the little mounds of sorrow, the mournful crack of wood chopping, echoed through the eucalyptus trees. Mama, sitting in the shadow of the ironbark verandah, fixed her eyes achingly on what she would never touch again.
Up to her elbows in chopped fruit, the neighbor, kept her head down as she prepared the quince harvest for jelly. She didn’t bother to stare or gasp. Snakes were regular visitors in bush kitchens, as were dust storms and dingoes on the horizon.
“Papa and the brothers have been felling trees today. Only Mama and me were inside. And the baby, in his basket on the floor,” Annie added.
“Lucky for you both, that your Mama was there then.” Mrs Croft said, eyes on hands as she rhythmically worked her knife and the last of the fruit.
“She’s looking after us,” Annie smiled.
Scooping quince pieces into the pot, Mrs Croft wiped plump hands on her long apron and glanced at Mama, nursing the baby in the doorway of the house.
“You’re a chatty kookaburra today Annie,” she said. “I always say, ‘That blue-eyed Annie gets more and more grown up every time I see her,’ I truly do.”
Annie flashed her 7 year old grin of teeth and toothless gums.
“And I’m learning my letters and numbers and stitches too. Papa says my sampler is just as pretty as the ones Mama made. Here, I’ll show you.....”
Digging into her apron pocket Annie pulled out a rolled linen rectangle.
“These, are all the English letters and numbers to 10,” she said pointing to the top half of her work. “And here is my name, Anna Mary Bayley, and my birthdate, May 15, 1871,” she said, looking up. “And, here is where I learn my words by stitching a verse, and these are the buds and leaves Mama’s showing me to make.”
Mama’s smile almost reached her sunken eyes as she slowly joined them under the tree. Resting a hand on Annie’s shoulder Mama whispered. “Why don’t you show us what you learned yesterday?”
Sitting on a wood stump, Annie fanned out her chambray skirt, legs crossed at the ankles. Clearing her throat, as if for a performance, she picked up a needle threaded with blue ribbon, and began to stitch.
“This is called lazy daisy stitch. Down like this,” she poked her needle into the material, lips pursed in concentration, “and....... up.” Her elbow appeared like a wing about to flap. “Like that! See?”
Annie repeated the stitch. “Up and down......up and down.......up and down, until you have a daisy!”
A small tear slipped down the face of Mrs Croft, vainly attempting to keep herself from crying as she read the verse stitched by young fingers.
Little daisy, bright and blue
Grew up my garden path and through
The village, and then down the dale
Reminder sweet, along life’s trail.
Eventually she spoke, very softly. “It’s beautiful Annie. Your Mama is a very clever teacher.”
“It’s to remember little sister. She went to pick flowers for Mama and got lost and never came back, until when Papa found her next day, but she was already gone. Because of the adder.”
Matter of fact words tumbled around the two women like a sting, striking and piercing afresh.
“Yes Pet, I do remember,” she choked.
Mama gazed across the meadow. There, under the ironbark trees, the children she would never teach, lay silent in the ground. They called to her each day, sometimes louder than the ones seated at her table. First Eliza, then Sarah, and now, buried only weeks ago, three year old Daisy.
Mrs Croft’s arm reached out to enfold Mama and draw her up. Breathing in deeply the blue gum scented air, Mama rested her head on her neighbor’s shoulder.
“I think we should stitch a Scripture verse too,” Mama mused.
“One of my favorites is Psalm 145:15,” shared Mrs Croft.
“The Lord upholdeth all that fall,
And raiseth up all those that be bowed down.”
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