Sixteen by Jessamyn West

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“Sixteen” by Jessamyn West

The steam from the kettle had condensed on the cold window and was running down the glass in tear-like trickles. Outside in the orchard the man from the smudge company was refilling the posts with oil. The greasy smell from last night’s burning was still in the air. Mr. Delahanty gazed out at the bleak darkening orange grove; Mrs. Delahanty watched her husband eat, nibbling up to the edges of the toast, then staking the crusts about his tea cup in a neat fence-like arrangement.

“We’ll have to call Cress,” Mr. Delahanty said finally. “Your father’s likely not to last out the night. She’s his only grandchild. She ought to be here.”

Mrs. Delahanty pressed her hands to the bones above her eyes. “Cress isn’t going to like being called away from college,” she said.

“We’ll have to call her anyway. It’s the only thing to do.” Mr. Delahanty swirled the last of his tea around in his cup so as not to miss any sugar.

“Father’s liable to lapse into unconsciousness any time.” Mrs. Delahanty argued. “Cress’ll hate coming and Father won’t know whether she’s here or not. Why not let her stay at Woolman?”

Neither wanted, in the midst of their sorrow for the good man whose life was ending, to enter into any discussion of Cress. What was the matter with Cress? What happed to her since she went away to college? She, who had been open and loving? And who now lived inside a world so absolutely fitted to her own size and shape that she felt any intrusion, even that of the death of her own grandfather, to be an unmerited invasion of her privacy. Black magic could not have changed her more quickly and unpleasantly and nothing except magic, it seemed, would give them back their lost daughter.

Mr. Delahanty pushed back his cup and saucer. “Her place is here, Gertrude. I’m going to call her long distance now. She’s a bright girl and it’s not going to hurt her to miss a few days from classes. What’s the dormitory number?”

“I know it as well as our number,” Mrs. Delahanty said. “But at the minute it’s gone. It’s a sign of my reluctance, I suppose. Wait a minute and I’ll look it up.”

Mr. Delahanty squeezed out from behind the table. “Don’t bother. I can get it.”

Mrs. Delahanty watched her husband, his usually square shoulders sagging with weariness, wipe a clear place on the steamy windowpane with his napkin. Some of the green twilight appeared to seep into the warm dingy little kitchen. “I can’t ever remember having to smudge before in February. I expect you’re right,” he added as he went toward the phone. “Cress isn’t going to like it.”

Cress didn’t like it. It was February, the rains had been late and the world was burning with a green fire; a green smoke rolled down the hills and burst shoulder-high in the cover crops that filled the spaces between the trees in the orange orchards. There had been rain earlier in the day and drops still hung from the grass blades, sickle-shaped with their weight. Cress, walking across the campus with Edwin, squatted to look into one of these crystal globes.

“Green from the grass and red from the sun,” she told him. “The whole world right there in one raindrop.”

“As Blake observed earlier about a grain of sand,” said Edwin.

“O.K., show off,” Cress told him. “You know it-but I saw it.” She took his hand and he pulled her up, swinging her in a semicircle in front of him. “Down there in the grass the world winked at me.”

“Don’t be precious, Cress,” Edwin said.

“I will,” Cress said, “just to tease you. I love to tease you, Edwin.”

“Why?” Edwin asked.

“Because you love to have me,” Cress said confidently, taking his hand. Being older suited Edwin. She remembered when she had like him in spite of his looks; but now spindly had become spare, and the dark shadow of his beard-Edwin had to shave every day while other boys were still just fuzzy- lay under his pale skin; and the opinions, which had once been so embarrassingly unlike anyone else’s, were...
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