The Dictionary

by Rob Mahan
Copyright © 2010

Note: This story is dedicated to Helen’s two grandsons.

A rooster crowed outside.

I know it’s time to get up. I’m just going to lay here with my eyes closed for a little longer. Maybe Sylvia won’t wake up right away. It’s nice and quiet when she’s asleep.

“Helen, Sylvia, wake up!” John called. He ran past the thin wooden door to my room and pounded on it a couple of times for good measure.

Sylvia sat up and yawned. She flopped back down pulling the covers off me and up over her head. “Can I go to school today?”

“You’ve been asking me that all summer. School doesn’t start until next week. You’ll be in first grade. John will be in third and I’ll be in fifth. Now it’s time to get up.”

I pulled the covers off of her but she just pulled them back up and giggled.

“Stay in bed then. I’ll tell Mother you’re sick. She’ll come in and give you medicine.”

My little sister’s feet were on the floor before you could count to three. None of us liked the potions Mother had brought with her from the Old Country. I helped Sylvia get her clothes out of the dresser.

“Da, ele vin!” I heard my father say all the way at the other end of the house. It wasn’t really very far.

“Nu, ele nu sunt!” my mother said, even louder.

When I got to the kitchen door, Papa turned and gave me one of his biggest smiles. “Bună dimineaţa, Leno. Ce mai faci? În cazul în care sunt fratele tău şi sora?”

“Oh, Papa. Good morning. I’m okay. Sylvia is getting dressed. I don’t know where John is. He’s probably out in the barn already.”

Just then, the back door opened. John walked in carrying a basket with about a dozen brown eggs in it. He grinned and handed it to Mother who gave him a big hug. “Mulţumesc, Johnny. You good boy.”

Sylvia ran past me toward Papa. He scooped her up with his big hands and twirled her around until she cried for him to stop. They were both laughing when he set her back on her feet.

“Sylvia, get the milk bottle out,” I said. “John, put the dishes on the table.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to make Papa his coffee.”

Papa sat quietly at the head of the table while we all worked at making breakfast. When I set the cup of hot black coffee in front of him, he smiled and put his arm around me.

“Papa, what were you and Mother fighting about this time?”

“Nothing for you to worry about. Some of my friends want come to see me. She doesn’t want them to.”

“Oh. Are they from the city? Where we used to live?”

“Yes, they are.”

“Do they speak English or only Romanian?”

“Both. Why you ask?”

“We have to speak English in school. Most of our friends only speak English. You and Mother always argue in Romanian.”

“Sometimes we forget.”

“I don’t like it when I have a friend over—you fighting—or speaking Romanian.”

“I know. It’s easier for me. Not so easy for her. I learned to read and write before I went to war in Romania. When I joined American Army, I had to learn English. But when I went back to Old Country to get your mother, we no speak French.”

“I don’t understand. Why did that matter?”

“Your mother and I stopped in Paris for a while. It’s alright. We didn’t do much talking there,” Papa said. His teeth showed through his moustache.

“Oh, Papa. We learned about the Eiffel Tower in school last year. Did you see it? I would love to see it.”

“Time for eat,” Mother said.

John and I sat down and Sylvia ran to get the old pillow she used at the table.

Mother set a steaming bowl of scrambled eggs in front of Papa. I reached for an orange from the basket in the middle of the table. John poured Sylvia milk from the old milk bottle we kept in our little refrigerator. We took turns milking the cow every day so the jug in the corner stayed full.

We ate quietly until Papa broke the silence. “Maria, my friends coming to see me on Saturday.”

“Nu! They not come here!”

Papa’s face got red and they started arguing in Romanian again.

“They are coming! I invited them. I’m not telling them they can’t come now. We’re going to talk about old times in the Army. We’re just going to play cards.”

“They’re bad men. Cards, pah! They’ll bring whiskey. They’ll want to bet on the cards. You’ll get drunk. You’ll lose what little money we have … just like you did in the city.”

“How much money do we have, Papa?” Sylvia chimed in, bouncing up and down on her pillow.

“Hush, Sylvia,” John said. He looked at Papa then at Mother before he dropped his eyes back to the empty plate in front of him.

“You forced me to buy this farm, Maria. You can’t tell me who to be friends with. We fought in the war together.”

“Yes, I can. If we were still in the city, we’d all be starving now. I’m right about your friends, too. They’re drunks and gamblers. You would have been, too.”

A knock at the kitchen door interrupted their fight. Mother opened the door and I saw an old man standing there holding his hat in his hands. He didn’t say anything but his face was sad. No, it was ashamed. His clothes were dirty. One of the pockets of his jacket was torn most of the way off. He looked like the men I saw through the open doors of the boxcars. The train tracks were right next to our field. Whenever we heard the train’s whistle from far away, Papa said it was going to rain.

“Go!” I heard Mother tell him. “Go to barn.” She still sounded angry, but when she closed the door she picked up a plate and heaped it with food from our table.

Papa sighed and pushed his chair back from the table. “I’m going out to barn.”

Mother shoved the plate at him and he kissed her on the cheek. She gave him the faintest of smiles before she pushed him toward the door. “Go to barn, too.”

Papa’s patience with Mother always amazed me. She’s wasn’t easy for me to get along with. We’re both stubborn. They yelled at each other a lot but I know he loves her. They don’t talk much about the Old Country but I know her parents died. She never got to go to school. She had to go to work for some rich people she didn’t even know. She was just a little girl then. Papa went back and brought her to America, so I know he loves her.

John helped Sylvia down from her chair and they started piling the dishes next to the sink. Mother washed them and I picked up a clean rag to dry them.

“Mother, you should speak English to Papa, even when you are arguing with him. We all have to in school. You’re not in the Old Country anymore.”

“I know, Leno. English, she’s not so easy for me.”

“Leno, Leno!” Sylvia chanted. She knew I didn’t like to be called that. My name was Helen.

“I told you to hush, Sylvia,” John said gently.

She just skipped out of the kitchen, laughing and calling, “Leno, Leno!”

“See, Mother? If you called me ‘Helen’, maybe Sylvia wouldn’t tease me like that.”

“I know, honey.”

It was obvious I wasn’t going to get her to change any time soon. I decided to try a different subject.

“Mother, I’d like to buy a book and some material before school starts. My old dress is getting too small for me.”

“No money buy material. We fix old dress.”

“Then can I buy a book?”

“We have book. No money buy new book. Need money buy salt. Buy de zahăr şi a little carne.”

“Why do I always have to go without? You made Sylvia a dress for school. You made John a new shirt.”

“I know, honey.”

Sylvia popped out from under the table where she had been hiding. “I have a new dress! No new dress for Leno!”

I lunged for her. I would have caught her and whipped her, too, if John hadn’t stepped in front of me. She ran out the room giggling, “Leno, Leno!”

“She’s just a little kid, Helen. Don’t be mad at her. She doesn’t know any better.”

“You’re both just little kids,” I said. I really didn’t mean it about my brother, though. He was younger than me but I loved him almost as much as I loved Papa. I knew John would grow up to be a good man. I knew he would grow up and make lots of money. He would take care of us all.

“Mama, maybe we can sell some of the early corn in town. Would that get us enough money so you could make Helen a new dress for school?”

“You good boy, Johnny. I sorry. No sell porumb. Winter come.”

Even at eight years old, he knew she was right. She might not be able to read or write but she would keep us all from going hungry after it got cold out. I knew she was right, too. But I still wanted a new dress … and a book.

“Don’t worry, Helen. I’ll think of something.”

I watched out the kitchen window as John walked to the barn to help Papa with his chores. The dishes were done. Sylvia had decided to leave me alone for a while. The house was quiet.

“Mother, what was Paris like?”

“I no remember much, Leno.”

“But you have to remember something. Did you see the Eiffel Tower? Did you eat in a restaurant, like rich people?”

“I was girl then. I sorry. I no remember tings.”

“What was riding the train like? Didn’t you and Papa ride on a big boat to get here?”

“Train come to village with you Papa. Lots people. Chickens. No see window. We go long time.”

“You must have seen something. All I ever see is this farm.”

“I know, honey.”

I didn’t want Mother to see me cry so I went into the front room. Sylvia was playing with some old wooden blocks on the floor. She looked up at me and started to open her mouth.

“Don’t you dare!”

Sylvia looked at me then she looked around the room. John wasn’t here this time. She was only six but she wasn’t stupid. She went on playing in silence.

I looked around the room. On the bare wooden shelf beside the old couch were the two books we owned. One was a Romanian Orthodox bible Mother had brought with her from the Old Country. The other was a tattered American dictionary Papa had gotten when he was in the Army.

With the dictionary under my arm, I peeked around the corner into the kitchen. Mother was outside hanging up clothes to dry. I opened the breadbox and took out a crusty heel of bread. I lifted the cover off of the milk jug and used the bread to scoop off a thick layer of sweet cream.

Like a thief, I snuck out the kitchen door and around the corner of the house so Mother wouldn’t see me. I knew she would be mad about the cream if she found out. Once I was in the garden and out of everyone’s sight, I took a big bite of bread. The sweet cream filled my mouth. I closed my eyes in the warm sunshine and tried to imagine I was someplace else. Maybe a restaurant in Paris … someplace exciting … someplace where people lived who could buy whatever they wanted.

I found my favorite place near the tomatoes and sat down with my back against a mound of dirt. I ran my fingers over the old dictionary. The cover moved back and forth. Part of it was so worn the threads inside of it were sticking out.

Where will you take me this time?

I let the pages fall apart. The first word practically jumped off the page at me:

Jacobean ja-kə-bē´-ən adj. – of, relating to, or characteristic of the reign of James I of England or his age (1603-1625). From Jacobus, Latin for James

England. Three hundred years ago. I wonder what kind of dresses the girls wore then. I bet that old King James had lots of books. Were there even books back then? I don’t know. Maybe I can ask my new teacher next week.

I closed the dictionary and let the pages fall apart again. I looked down the page for a good word to read. opossum—opportune—opposition—

oppress ə-pres´ verb – 1 a archaic: suppress b: to crush or burden by abuse of power or authority 2: to burden spiritually or mentally : weigh heavily upon

That’s what Mother does to me … sometimes even Papa. I don’t like it. But what can I do? I’m just a girl. Maybe someday I’ll be strong like Mother. Nobody will oppress me then.

Hours must have gone by as I read word after word. It would have been wonderful to have a real book with real stories. But the dictionary had lots of interesting words. I learned new ones and made up my own stories. It was quiet in the garden. No arguing, no teasing. Just me and the dictionary.

Someday I’m going to have my own books. Lots of books. Lots of stories about exciting things. About rich people that live in exciting places.

I reached up over my head and picked a red tomato off the vine. I bit into it. It was warm from the sun and the juice dripped down my chin. I had to be careful not to get any of it on the dictionary.

It was late in the afternoon and I knew Mother would be looking for me to help with dinner. I always wanted to get the last word in, so I turned to the z’s and let the pages fall open one more time. A word I had never seen jumped off of the open pages:

zoology zō-ä´-lə-jē, zə-wä´- noun – 1 a: a branch of biology concerned with the classification and the properties and vital phenomena of animals 2: animal life (as of a region) : fauna

Who would want to study animals? We have a cow and chickens. We milk the cow and Mother cuts off the chickens’ heads. She cooks them and we eat them. Sometimes there are cats in the barn. Papa says they eat mice so they can stay. I think I would rather study people. They can talk and tell stories. Mother says some people are fools. I still think they’re more interesting than animals.

When I walked out from between the cornstalks, I saw Papa working in front of the barn. He looked up at me and smiled his big smile.

“What are you doing, Papa?”

“I’m fixing the harness for the plow again. It’s old. The leather is dry but I can fix it okay.”

“You should buy a new one.”

“I wish I could. What have you been doing?”

“Reading. In the garden.” I held up the dictionary so Papa could see it.

“Ah. I see you’ve been eating tomatoes again, too.”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Someday when tings are different I’ll buy you a proper book. I’ll buy us a new harness and maybe a new plow, too.”

“When will things be different, Papa?”

“I don’t know, Helen. Nobody does. I do know three other tings, though.”

“What, Papa? Can you tell me?”

“Come and sit here with me, Helen.”

I sat on the rough wooden bench beside Papa and held the dictionary on my lap. Papa took his old pipe out of his pocket and packed it with some of last year’s tobacco. He struck a wooden match on the bottom of his shoe. He made a big ring of smoke and then he chased three little rings through it. They looked like magic to me.

“Your mother is not an easy woman to get along with. Her life hasn’t been easy either. She’s hard on you because you’re the oldest. She loves us all very much. Sometimes it’s just hard to tell. That’s the first ting.”

“I know, Papa.”

“It makes me sad that I can’t buy you all the dresses and books you want. I want a new plow. A new horse would be nice, too. Do you know what makes me very happy, though?”

“Tell me, Papa.”

“It makes me happy that none of my children ever have to go hungry. It makes me happy that I don’t have to go hungry. We have your Mother to thank for that. That’s the second ting I know.”

“I know, Papa. I’m glad we’re not hungry but I still want books and a new dress. Does that make me bad?”

Papa clamped his pipe between his teeth and chuckled. “No, Helen. That doesn’t make you bad. I think that just makes you Papa’s little girl.”

We sat on the bench for a little while without saying anything. Papa made more smoke rings while the chickens scratched in the dirt near our feet. The cow sounded like she needed to be milked. I closed my eyes. I could feel Papa beside me and the warm sun on my head.



“You said you knew three things. What’s the third thing you know?”

Papa took the pipe out of his mouth and put his arm around my shoulders. The wool of his shirt was scratchy. I could smell the apples he put in with the tobacco when it cured in the barn.

“The Eiffel Tower is so tall it goes up into the clouds. On clear day, you can see all of Paris from top. You can even see Napoleon’s monument, Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées … if you squint your eyes. That’s the third ting I know.”

“Oh, Papa! You did see the Eiffel Tower. I want to see it someday, too!”

I started flipping the pages of the dictionary, looking to see if there was an entry for ‘Eiffel Tower’. Before I could find it, I heard Mother’s voice calling from the kitchen window.

“Leno, vino aici!”

“Your mother needs you, Helen. She came out for a chicken a little while ago.”

“I know. Thank you, Papa.”

“For what?”

“For telling me about the Eiffel Tower in Paris.”

“You’re welcome,” Papa said, smiling his big smile. “Don’t forget the other tings we talked about, too.”

“I won’t,” I called over my shoulder. I ran up the steps of the back porch but they were really steps up a great tower that reached into the clouds. I pushed the door open and heard someone laughing in the kitchen.

“Hello, Leno.”

“Hello, Uncle Gligor. What were you and Mother laughing about?”

“I was telling Maria about your neighbor, Mr. Drăcescu. I saw him at market this morning. He was crying. He crying for three days now.”

“That doesn’t sound funny. Why was he crying?”

Uncle Gligor looked at Mother. They were both grinning.

“Because he slaughtered his two pigs for market last week!”

Uncle Gligor and Mother both started laughing again. I couldn’t help myself. I started laughing, too. Mother waved her hand like she was slapping an invisible person in front of her.

“Mr. Drăcescu is foolish man. No cry … pig for eat. Dat’s all. For eat … like chicken.”

We were all still laughing when I thought about the chicken heads in the dirt around the log near the barn. They didn’t bother me but sometimes I did think Mother should use a sharper knife to saw off the heads. Maybe they wouldn’t run around so long afterward if she just used a sharper knife.

Papa walked in through the back door.

“Hello, Joseph.”

“Hello, brother. Did I miss a good joke?”

“Mr. Drăcescu slaughtered his pigs,” I said.

“Ah,” Papa smiled. “Same ting every year. What brings you around, Gligor? To tell us who slaughter pig today?”

“No, no. I was drive by. Smelled Maria’s tocăniţă de pui cu ceapa.” Uncle Gligor spread his hands out and shrugged. “I had stop.”

“You’re always welcome at my table.”

Mother gave Papa a sharp look from across the kitchen.

“You’re always welcome at our table,” Papa corrected himself.

“Leno, time for eat. Get Johnny. Get Sylvi.”

We all sat in our regular places around the table, with Uncle Gligor across from Papa. The only light was from the low sun coming in the small window over the kitchen sink. All the cooking had made the kitchen warm. Steam rose from the mound of mămăligă on the board in the middle of the table. My mouth was watering at the smell of the hot chicken stew and onions in the big pot beside it.

Papa asked us to bow our heads. As he was saying the blessing in Romanian, Sylvia tried to kick me under the table. She missed and nearly fell off of her pillow. When I looked up, John was smiling at me and Mother was shaking her finger at Sylvia, but she was smiling, too.

I reached for a piece of string beside the mămăligă but Papa put up his hand to stop me.

“Before we eat, I would like to make toast,” he said.

Papa and Uncle Gligor picked up the small glasses of red wine Papa had poured from the jug he kept in the top cupboard. They held them out in front of themselves.

“To life in America. Have farm. Have food. Have family … have freedom.”

Papa reached across the table and touched his glass to Uncle Gligor’s. They drank the wine and Mother dished stew onto everybody’s plate. The grown-ups talked about when the potatoes would be ready to dig. John helped Sylvia with her fork.

My stomach growled as I twirled a string of melted cheese around a spoonful of mush and dipped it into the stew on my plate. I barely remembered eating that warm tomato in the garden, but I remembered the new words I had made friends with. I tried to picture what Papa and Mother must have seen from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

My old dress will be just fine for school this year … but I would still like a new book. Maybe two … or three.

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