6. Cream, Eggs and Ham

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There was a squeaking of wood as the old man leaned forward in his chair to take the hand of Berla's grammy. "You're hot as a firebrand!" he exclaimed. "Have you been to see a physician?"

"I don't need a physician to tell me what I already know. And I don't want any of that wormwood they pass off for tonic in these parts. The last time I drank some, I wore a trench from the basin to the chamber pot. When it's my time to go, I want to be lying right here in this bed, staring out this very window and looking at these same clouds."

"I don't see any clouds," replied the old man.

"You're not looking from the right spot. Here, lie down next to me." The oaken bedframe creaked under the added weight. "Lay your head back on the pillow. That's better. Do you see them now?" Her voice took on a dreamy quality. "They look just like they did on the day they brought me the news of your death. I shut myself up in my room and refused to come out. I had this big pitcher for washing, and I got this notion that every day I would fill it up with my tears and pour it out on the roses that grew outside my window, causing them to grow until they twined their way up the wall to me. It would have been a lovely gesture, don't you think? Fit for a ballad. Only it was a bad day for collecting tears. The clouds were breaking up and the sun was showing through in places, sending down these great golden shafts. How can you be expected to weep on a day like that? Before I knew it, I was pretending that we were down by the Horseshoe Pond again, staring up at the clouds and seeing the most magnificent visions take shape in the sky. See there where it billows up?" She pointed. "There's a white castle sitting on a hill. Below that, there's a blue lake with three swans floating upon it. And over there, hills covered in queen's lace with horses galloping among them. White horses."

Berla gazed up at the clouds. It was a game they often played, she and her grammy. Berla was very good at it. As if for her own personal enjoyment, the clouds arranged themselves into the most whimsical shapes whenever she turned her gaze upon them. It did not take her long to locate a towering white castle, a blue lake, hills of snowy wildflowers, and leaping white horses.

"Now tell me what you see," her grammy said.

Forgetting herself, Berla was about to answer when the old man spoke up. "I see a small roadside inn in the hills with smoke rising from its chimney. The snow is deep on the ground, covering the land like a newly laundered linen. A girl in a snowy gray coat is trudging back from the barn. She has a pail of fresh milk in one hand and a pail of eggs in the other, and she's singing sweetly to herself, How does the wind blow? How does it blow-ee-oh-oh?"

"Hm-hmmm-hm-hm-wo. Hm-h-hm-wayo-wayo," her grammy hummed along, just as she had hummed to Berla on so many dark nights. "Hm-hmmm-hm-hm—" Her voice broke off in a violent spasm of coughing. Worried, Berla peeked over the windowsill to see her grammy doubled up on the bed, her head flung repeatedly forward as if an invisible foot were kicking her in the gut. Berla had never seen her look so shrunken and frail. Her eyes were swollen, and her matronly face was haggard with pain. The old man sat beside her with his hands resting on her shoulders, holding her steady as each successive wave of coughing passed. Gradually, the coughs wore out, and she began to take shallow, choppy breaths. The old man gently pressed a cup to her lips. She took a couple sips, swallowing with difficulty. "Go on," she said breathlessly. "What else do you see?"

"Ah, yes, let's see..." continued the old man. "I see a boy hiding behind a woodpile. He's shivering, and the tips of his ears are pink from frost-nip. He's pressing a ball of snow between his bare hands even though it stings most dreadfully. He's waiting for the snow-girl to come along so he can give her what she's got coming."

"He'll cause her to break her eggs," she protested.

"And send her crying home to boot if he's lucky. Can you believe she had the gall to trade away the blue cut-stone he gave her? Traded it to that clod Barmey Blithestone, no less. For a beaver's tail and a useless blue jay feather. You see then, he had no choice. He had to show that wretched little lass what's what."

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