For as long as we could remember we had been together in the house which established the center of the known world. When we were younger we woke in the mornings while it was still dark. Grandad would be clumping out of his back room and down the hall to the bathroom, phantom-like in his long underwear. He wore it because he was a farmer, which was why he got up before first light to do the chores. In the two iron beds in the attic room there were the four of us — Celia and Jenny, who were sisters, Anne and Katie, sisters too, like our mothers, who were sisters. Sometimes we watched each other, knew differences. But most of the time it was as though the four of us were one and we lived in days that gathered into one stream of time, undifferentiated and communal.
Beyond the window glass the spruce trees were black and the sky ran silver around their silhouettes. The day smelled like clear water coming in through the open window which our mothers said must be raised at night for health and inspiration. Our mothers believed in nature, its curative and restorative power, trusted its beneficent guardianship. We were given fresh-squeezed juice with breakfast, two vegetables with every dinner, and were put to bed early. Other than that, we were left alone. They spoke among themselves in whispers, they who had their own mysteries, concerns; they left us to the tutelage of the wild and natural world. The doors of the house were always open to the drive, which turned at the lilac and rose hedges, and led to the barn at the head of the ravine and woods, the barn there like an outpost, mysterious and alluring.
One thing was forbidden. Any fighting among ourselves was punished consistently and severely — no listening to "She did this," or that. We were to protect each other, they seemed to say, for who else would? So we bit and scratched each other at night in bed under the covers, hiding the marks from our mothers.
When we heard Grandad again, the stairs creaking, we slipped out of bed, snatching our jeans and cotton shirts off the floor, nothing more to dressing than that. We were mixed up as sisters, Jenny and Katie with dark skin and eyes and Anne and Celia redheads; but we were alike in other ways, tall for our ages with long legs and large hands, like our Grandad. Passing along through the second-floor hall we saw bad-tempered Rossie asleep in his bed. If we woke him, later in the day one or all of us would pay for it. We tiptoed by; Rossie's head was a silky brown fluff on the pillow, snuggled like a little creature out of the woods. Katie thumbed her nose. Anne grabbed her as though she'd made a noise.
Next to Rossie was Aunt Rachel's door, closed; all the doors would be closed until late morning if no one disturbed the sleepers: Aunt Libby, Celia and Jenny's mother, asleep in another room, soon to be alone because Uncle Dan would leave for the store. Gram in her room, alone, because she and Grandad had two separate rooms at opposite ends of the hall. And then Aunt Grace, Anne and Katie's mother, alone too because her husband, Neil, was at their home in Illinois. She had come back to the farm for some reason we didn't know. All the sleeping around us: we were aware of the peacefulness like a transforming mist, the waiting house rapt.
Down the drive we hurried after Grandad, still fastening our pants, pulling on a sweater. We could see him in his black barn boots taking great strides, which Katie mocked. When we moved alongside him he didn't say anything and we didn't either. Grandad did not talk to girls or women. Unless he was fighting with Gram — then he yelled. That was one of the reasons we weren't allowed to fight. "We've seen too much of that," our mothers said.
Grandad picked up his hickory stick from the lean-to shed and opened the wide-boarded gate, letting it swing for us to come through, showing us that he knew we were there. We fastened it with the tied sock. He was watching for that. Once we'd forgotten and the pigs got loose; for a long time after, Grandad wouldn't let us near the barn. "Damned little hellions," he'd snarl at us. Now we went behind him into the pasture although we couldn't keep up and he never waited. We heard his voice calling out, "Sucky, sucky," suppliant on the morning's silence, seeming to originate from the wooded hollow; but already the waiting cows heard him and were coming toward us out of the faint dawn light, answering back to Grandad's call, coming like his love-tamed creatures out of the mist. Other times we were afraid of the cows and ran from them, climbed high up into trees, shivering at their wild rolling eyes, but with Grandad we stayed close, letting them come all around us, and then we turned with him and started up the incline of pasture, going back to the barn that was still dark, with the lighter sky banking it.
"Ho now," Grandad would say every little bit, talking easy so as not to disturb them. His breath lifted into the air with the cows' steamy breath, with ours, veils drawing from the earth, its sleeping solitude removed. "Blow away the morning dew," we could remember Aunt Elinor singing.
"Sweet Sal, Daisy, Belle, Matty," they were Grandad's gals; we could hear it as he urged them along, although they were going forward, as anxious as he. Golden brown or spotted black and white, they all looked pretty much alike to us. Gradually, as it lightened up, he said more to them and it was peculiar at first, always hard for us to know he was the same man who was otherwise so silent — sitting in his window corner up at the big house, listening to the radio and playing endless rounds of solitaire.
From During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase. Copyright 2014 by Joan Chase. Excerpted by permission of New York Review Books Classics.