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The Lessening

By L. P. Sloan


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Rose taught herself to read that summer and by autumn when she started first grade was suggesting that her mother use words like determined and brave instead of stubborn as a mule” and “disobedient little shit”.  But Rose did things the hard way.

          She sat in the swing her father had hung from almost the highest branch of the sycamore in the yard at the side of the house.  Like the long pendulum of a grandfather clock she nudged the swing into an unconscious rhythm, measured in small arcs as unnoticed as the wet black mud on the bottoms of her white socks.  Each brief forward glide raised the starched skirt of her oxblood dress and lifted the ribboned corkscrews of her mahogany hair, but she didn’t consider herself to be swinging.

The day before her father read a story to her.  She’d sat on his lap and paid close attention as he slowly ran his finger under the sentences and announced each word in turn.

Sometimes he stopped and asked a question.  “See, Rosebud?  There’s the fishhook letter again.  Do you remember what it’s called?”

Rose closed her eyes and wrinkled her face.  “J?”

He laughed and said, “Right!  And how about this one?  The sideways lightning bolt letter?”

No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t remember.

“N, Rose, N!” he said, and laughed again.

His big brown leather grip sat next to the door so she knew he’d soon leave for work and be gone again for weeks.  She pressed her head harder against his shoulder and wondered if she could memorize the story; if she could, then maybe she could learn to read it by herself and surprise him when he came home again.

The morning passed as she sat in the swing and imitated her father’s motions, running her finger under the words while trying to connect the symbols to their recollected sounds.  She didn’t notice when her mother came to stand behind the swing.

Rose flinched when she saw her mother but pretended she hadn’t and said, “Look!  I’m givin’ myself a reading lessening!”  She turned and held the book out so her mother could see it too and read from a random page…the chipmunks watched as Estelle broke open a peanut...  “Did I do it right?  Am I reading?”

But her mother asked, “Where are your shoes?”

Rose closed the book.  She’d taken her shoes off and left them in the orchard but didn’t want to use that word, so said, “Out by the whetstone.”

The whetstone was on a worktable next to the rhubarb patch at the edge of the orchard.

“You’ve been in that orchard, haven’t you?  You disobedient little shit!  How many times do I have to tell you about goin’ in that orchard?  Go get me a switch.”

“The shoes hurt, Mother.”  They were too small.  Her mother had pounded them onto Rose’s feet that morning.

“They match your dress.  Now I said go get me a switch.”

“I’ll go get my shoes!”

“You’re right you’ll go get your shoes, and you’ll keep ‘em on your feet, too!  And you’ll stay outta that orchard, Little Miss Priss.  I’m gonna stripe them little legs o’ yours ‘til you don’t know which end of you’s turned up in the air!  An’ I catch you takin’ off your shoes again, I’ll shake your head clean off your shoulders!”

“Lemme go get my shoes!  I promise I won’t take ‘em off again.  I promise.  Please?”

“Don’t argue with me!  God Almighty you’re stubborn as a mule!  What’s wrong with you anyway, arguin’ with me like you do.  Tell me what in the name of God is wrong with you?”

Rose didn’t know what was wrong with her and couldn’t answer, but wondered too.

She laid the book on the grass next to the swing and walked to the forsythia bush near the well.  The wood was green and it took a long time to twist and rip free one of the long branches.  It was her job to strip off the leaves, too, but finally she handed her mother an acceptable switch.


After her mother had gone back into the house, Rose sat motionless on the swing for a long while.  Sniffing and wiping her nose in long swipes with the back of her arm from her elbow to her wrist, her upper lip stung and her cheeks crinkled with dried mucus.  But finally her thoughts began to wander away from injustice and misery and she began playing an old game, the one in which she relaxed the focus of her eyes in just the right way to make everything appear as though it were far away.  She couldn’t remember when she’d discovered the game.  Usually she played it in her bedroom with the maroon-and-gray-flowered wallpaper, but as she looked at her legs through the illusion of distance the hatch marks could have been made by someone playing a hundred games of tic-tac-toe below her knees with a red inked pen.  Refocusing her vision and leaning forward to examine her legs more closely, she saw that the droplets of blood that had oozed along the center of each long raised welt had dried and turned black the way blood always did: a curious phenomenon to Rose.

She avoided looking directly at the book lying on the grass, but she could see it from the corner of her eye and it had been a long time since she’d played with her only friend Rachel.  So once again she conjured her presence and soon, Rachel appeared at the big white gate at the bottom of the hill.  Both giggled as Rachel walked up the hill toward Rose.  They were dressed almost identically and knew the other was thinking how like twins they were, except Rachel had pale tan hair and eyes as big and China-blue as the eyes of a Christmas card angel Rose had once seen.

“Hi, Rose.  Wanna play?”

“Yeah, but my shoes are in the orchard an’ I’m supposed to go get ‘em.  I don’t wanna to go by myself, though.  Will you go with me?”


“Hey, Rachel!  I’m learnin’ to read!  I’m learnin’ to read Down the Chipmunk Hole.  Wanna hear me?”

“Never heard of that one.  You can read it by yourself?”

“A lot of it.”

“OK.  Read it to me in the orchard after we get your shoes.  Are the apples ripe yet?”


Rachel looked relieved and said, “Good.  Then we can eat some apples too.  I’m hungry,” but then smiled sideways and added, “You’re not allowed in the orchard!  You’re too little!”

“I can go in the orchard if I want to!”

“You’ll get another switchin’!”

Rose knew Rachel might be right and had to make a decision quickly.  “I don’t care.”

Rachel laughed.  “OK.  No skin off my teeth.”

“And we can climb one of the trees close to the woods and watch for the Indian again.”

“There ain’t no Indian livin’ in the woods, Rose!  Have you ever seen ‘im?”

“No, but my brother says he has.”

“He’s just makin’ it up.  You’re a dummy!  You believed it when he told you iodine was chicken blood!”

“I did not!  How do you know?  And maybe he ain’t makin’ it up this time, Rachel.  Maybe there really is an Indian out there.”

“OK…OK…let’s go.”

Rose picked up the book and wrapped it against her chest with her arms.  Running as fast as she could through the orchard all the way to the far end, she decided to ignore the mud and get her shoes later.

They sat on a sturdy low branch, eating green apples, each keeping an eye out for Rose’s mother and the Indian, while Rose read a lot of words from Down the Chipmunk Hole to Rachel.


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