A Bad Day in the Promised Land


A dozen framed drawings of a farm hang in the entry hall of my New York apartment. One is of a farmhouse; the rest are of outbuildings, animals, a field. Clearly, in the pictures, it is winter. A few of the drawings are of a horse. A big, wide horse with a tangled mane – definitely not a thoroughbred. Two of these are of the horse’s eye. Just one eye, large, heavy-lidded, heavily lashed. It looks straight at the viewer. The drawings are very good, if I do say so myself. I did them, more than sixty years ago, when I lived in Bishop, Tennessee, when I was Eleanor Claire Aaronson, nicknamed Nell at birth. My friends here in the city admire the drawings and, over the years, I’ve told them delightful tales about my childhood, about the time spent on that farm, riding the plow horse, jumping out of the hayloft onto a pile of hay, gathering eggs with my grandmother Clara, and about my eccentric grandfather, Justin Selig, the Jewish farmer. But the real story of the day of the drawings, the not-so-delightful tale, lies in the folds of a heavy black opera cloak that hangs in the coat closet of that same entry hall. I never wear it, but just about every time I catch a glimpse of it hanging darkly back there, something about that winter day comes back to me. Sometimes it’s something I had forgotten about, some small detail – like the nail that tore into the hem of the cloak as I climbed over a stile and ran for my life.

 

I was twelve the winter that two feet of snow fell over a January night, froze and buried the town of Bishop and most of West Tennessee under a thick sheet of ice. That much snow falls seldom in that part of the world, and back in ’48 Bishop didn’t even own a snowplow, so a couple of days before the storm hit, when a tentative dusting littered the fields and the front yards and slicked the roads, school was closed. My father thought I should use the time to practice the piano. An amateur musician, from a family of musicians, he was convinced that I was born to be a pianist. But I had taken piano lessons every Thursday for six months now and my stomach had hurt every Thursday, hurt every time I sat down at the spinet in the living room to practice. I wanted to be far from anything resembling a piano, so I suggested that I be allowed to visit my grandparents until school reopened. My mother, who never wanted me underfoot anyway, said, “What a good idea,” so she telephoned her mother and the next morning, my father left his pharmacy in the care of his assistant and drove me out to Promised Land Farm.

The farm was a scatter of buildings – some sturdy and bright white, some weathered and tumbledown – on sixty-five acres of fields and gardens and orchards fifteen miles outside the Bishop town limit. My grandparents, Justin and Clara Selig, grew corn and peas and figs and peaches for the family tables and raised pigs, chickens, and dairy cows that became bacon and eggs, butter and milk for the market. Pictured on the white egg cartons was a green field over which “PROMISED LAND FARM” was printed in green ink, in an arc, as if it were a rainbow. Printed underneath the field was: “VITAMIN EGGS. IODIZED and MINERALIZED.” However farfetched the claim, and whatever it actually meant, once upon a time Promised Land hens had laid a good two thousand eggs a day. But the Depression, bad luck, and bad judgment had reduced the chicken population by two thirds, and half the three-story chicken house was closed off. Failure struck my grandfather frequently. I had heard Granny Selig say, “He thinks that the God who let the Germans forbid Jews to own land – never mind the ovens – owes him something. He also thinks that because he’s smart, he can do anything he wants. He’s wrong. You have to have a feeling for the land.” Over time, an experimental strain of cotton failed, pigs rolled over and smothered their piglets, the cows got mastitis, the bull became suddenly impotent, and as I was being driven to the farm, the vet was diagnosing the latest strain of avian flu in what remained of the chickens. They would have to be destroyed immediately.

 

“Your grandparents have a surprise for you,” my father said, as he maneuvered the Chevy over the slippery road.

“Is it a new horse?” I said. The only horse left on the farm – the others had been sold long ago – was an old plow horse called Charley by my father. “Charley Horse, get it?” he’d say, and laugh. The horse had never had a name. Grampaw Selig and Cal the hired man just said, “Giddup horse,” when they wanted him to move. I had been riding him since I was a toddler. Sometimes I called him Charley, to humor my father.

“No. You just wait.” My father bumped the car over the rails of the cattle guard and headed up the long gravel drive, and as he always did at this point in the forty-five minute trip, he sang in his shaky tenor, “Aaronson… Get it? Aaron’s son? … is going to the Promised Land. Yes, Lord.”

A huge cloud of smoke blew over the car. It came from the chickens’ fenced-in yard and at first it seemed that the chicken house was on fire. “Let me out!” I yelled as we rolled through the smoke. We stopped next to the farmhouse and I jumped out and ran back down the drive. It wasn’t the chicken house. The smoke came from a huge bonfire set in the middle of the yard. The smell of charred chicken swirled in the cold smoky air and white feathers floated about like snow. My grandfather, bald, paunchy, in coveralls and an open black jacket, stood back from the fire and watched it, his hands behind his back, as if it were none of his doing.

 

The surprise was a piano. My father and I walked into the farmhouse and into the dining room where lunch waited (“Don’t worry, it’s not chicken,” my grandmother said, wanting me to laugh) and there it was at the end of the room where the massive old mahogany sideboard had always sat with the silver tea service on top. The sideboard had been relegated to a side wall, crowding the room; the piano, an old upright, was in its place, the keys yellowed and crooked like teeth.

“No. Not here too!” I blurted.

“What on earth!” my father said.

My grandfather came into the room. “It’s for you, Eleanor, so you can play while you’re here. So you can be ready for the concert in New Orleans next year.”

“I don’t want to play a concert in New Orleans,” I muttered.

“What is that?” my grandfather said. “Of course you do. You are a pianist! You will make the family proud!” Anger exaggerated the German accent that had never left him despite forty years in Tennessee. He had fierce round eyes that would widen and seem to pop when rage, lately increasingly frequent, gripped him, and I, always wary of him, now did my best to stay out of his way.

“Justin, Justin,” my grandmother said. “The child has just begun lessons.”

I ate my lunch in silence, would not look at the piano, did not contribute to the conversation, which focused on my cousin Ben Aaronson’s having been accepted at the Juilliard School of Music. As my father left the farmhouse for his return drive to Bishop, he said, “You practice, Nellie. You could sound like your cousin Ben if you’d just practice.”

 

It seemed that when I began piano lessons just six months before, my father stopped taking me to his drugstore, where I liked to take salt and pepper and sugar from the soda fountain counter and pretend to mix prescriptions. It was as if I could no longer be a child and be a musician at the same time. And now, here at the farm, my favorite place in the world despite my strange and fearsome grandfather, my favorite person in the world, my grandmother Clara, was so preoccupied that she did not think to include me in the day’s chores, something she had always done – she had taught me how to sort and package eggs, untangle and prune the sweet-pea vines, check the cows’ udders. She paced about the kitchen and talked to Cal the hired man about a snowstorm that seemed to be headed our way, and what they might do to protect the animals if it did snow, and how they would have to scald out the chicken house before they went down the road to Bessie Babcock’s place to buy some hens and a rooster so they could start over. “The old man’s no use these days,” she said to no one in particular. “He’s off wandering and dreaming.”

 

I decided not to cry and instead went to the screened porch at the side of the house where I had always played. I rummaged about in a trunk holding old clothes that I had used for imagining other lives and lifted out a hooded cloak of black wool that I had always ignored – it was too heavy for Bishop’s normal winters. I wondered if my grandfather had brought it from Germany, and for a moment was afraid of touching it. But it smelled familiar, like the cold, and old moth balls, and I put it on and headed outside, grabbing a pad of paper and a pencil from my grandmother’s desk as I went through the farm office near the back door. I would be useful. I would make a list of everything that had to be done and give it to my grandmother.

I walked all the way down the drive to the cattle guard and back, and instead of making a list, I found myself sketching what I saw. Although the day was cold and damp, my drawing hand felt as if it were hot and the pencil fairly raced over the paper. I had discovered only a year before that I could draw; I had been complimented on my sketches by my art teacher at school. When I showed them to my parents, they looked briefly, said, “That’s nice,” and turned their backs. For them the only art was music.

I drew the big black bull leaning right up against the wire fence; the devastated chicken yard and the empty chicken house; the long, low farmhouse; the twisted branches of the fig trees lining the fence of my grandmother’s garden. I turned down a rutted wagon path and went into the small stable, now, after a fire some years ago, no more than a rickety shed, with a corrugated metal roof loosely attached to charred and rotting beams. The horse stood in his stall, lazily munching hay. He shifted his bulky body and snorted when I rubbed his nose. I eased into the stall and put the pad and pencil on a ledge. Then I stepped up on the ledge and swung myself onto the horse’s deeply swayed back. For a few moments I lay on him, the cape draped over my body, and idly stroked his neck. Then I reached down and picked up the pad and pencil. I drew the top of the horse’s head, his mane, his ears. He turned his head and looked at me and I drew his profile, then just his eye. I climbed down and stepped outside the stall. I drew the eye again. And again. Just the one eye.

 

As if I were drawing some pictorial map, I drew the hay wagon in the dirt road near the pigpen; the pigs huddled next to their trough, their hooves stuck in frozen puddles; and just beyond, the weathered stile in the fence bordering the fields. I climbed over the stile and walked along the path to the abandoned cotton field. The field had not been plowed and what was left of the plants looked like skeletal fingers pushing out of the earth. And there was my grandfather stamping about in his rubber boots. I hid behind the scrub at the edge of the frozen field and watched him. He was waving his arms about and shouting. “Justin Selig curses You,” he cried, his arms stretched up to the leaden sky. Then he turned toward the edge of the field where I was hiding. I stood up. He walked toward me and called, “What are you! What do you write on that stone? Are you Death come for Justin Selig?”

“It’s me, Grampaw! It’s me, Nell!” I pushed back the hood of the cloak. “See? It’s just me!”

“What are you writing here?” He snatched the pad of paper from my hands. “Vas is zis eye? Vas is zis eye!” He tore the page out of the pad and ripped it up and scattered it into the air. Then he threw the pad of paper to the ground and took me by the shoulders and shook me as hard as he could. “Why aren’t you practicing the piano? You get back to the house and practice, right now!

I struggled out of his grip, stooped and grabbed the pad, and then turned and fled.

 

I will remember, until the day I die my frightened run back to the farmhouse. As if in some terrifying dream, I seemed unable to move quickly. The cloak was too long and dragged behind me, scraping up pebbles and dirt, and it caught on a nail in the stile as I scrambled over, clutching the pad of drawings. I had to rip it loose. It had begun to snow, sharp stinging flakes, and I raced to the house and up the steps to the narrow back porch, hung the cloak on a hook, and ran into the kitchen. My grandmother sat at the big plank table and stared out the window above it.

“Bessie Babcock telephoned,” she said. “She says her sister in Little Rock told her the snow storm is a real blizzard.” Her voice trembled.

“I… I drew some pictures for you,” I said, and I thrust the pad into her hands.

“Oh?” She shook her head as if to clear it. “Oh!” She looked through the pad and smiled at me. “Nell, honey, these are good. I particularly like the ones of the horse. You can really draw.” She set the pictures down on the kitchen table and, looking up, was immediately distracted by the sight of the snow falling swiftly beyond the window.

I turned and left the kitchen, went into the dining room and did as my grandfather had ordered. I played my scales and made my way haltingly through the simple pieces I had learned by heart over the last six months. My hands, both cold and unskilled, moved clumsily and my stomach hurt as usual. I stared through the big window next to the piano at the winter-dry front garden. A few patches of old snow lay on the shrubbery and the flowerbeds and the stone walkways, and as the day wore down, new snow covered the old, and by dinnertime, the garden had disappeared.

 

Early the next morning I was awakened by a startlingly bright day and by intense cold. The clock read six. I rose, shivering, and wrapped myself in a quilt and looked out the window. Everything was white, the ground, the trees, the outbuildings. Drifts had built up their sides. The sun was barely showing through a thin layer of cloud and the whole farm gleamed and shimmered, as if made of glass.

I dressed and went into the kitchen. Only my grandmother was there, seated at the table, her head in her hands. “Ice. It all turned to ice. It got warm, and it rained, then it got cold again and everything froze. You can’t walk out there. You just slide around. The bull is barely alive… Some of the pigs…” Then she raised her head. “Nell, honey. The horse… Two feet of ice on the roof of his shed… It caved in… Nellie… Ah dear… Broken legs… Your grandfather has gone out…” Her voice trailed off. I opened my mouth, but was unable to make a sound. I ran from the kitchen to the back porch, grabbed the cloak from its hook, and dashed out the door. Light sparkled on the ice and bounced around in my eyes. I stared for a few moments at the still, white scene then I began to run toward the shed. I slipped, and as I fell, I heard a shot. The sound echoed endlessly, and then there was a second shot, and a third.

 

I picked myself up and slid and skated down the path, the cloak ballooning behind me like a sail. As I neared the shed, I heard the moan of a motor.

Cal sat at the wheel of the tractor, which was straining to move forward. Long chains were attached at the rear of the tractor; they were taut and pulled at something in the pile of ice and ragged sheets of tin and splintered wood. My grandfather stood and watched, a shotgun held loosely at his side. Suddenly, the tractor shot forward and the body of the horse appeared. He was wrapped in chains. His eyes had been shot out. What was left of his big head twisted awkwardly back and bounced along the ground, leaving a trail of blood. Cal stopped the tractor. The horse lay there, huge and still.

And then I screamed, something I had never done before and have never done since.

“Go away,” shouted my grandfather. “Go away!”

I turned without a word and slid and stumbled back to the farmhouse. My grandmother was still sitting motionless at the kitchen table. She did not look up when I came in. I began to shudder. I went to my bedroom and, still wrapped in the cloak, sat on the bed and held myself rigid until I stopped trembling.

My grandmother came in and sat next to me. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m so sorry. It’s been a bad day in the Promised Land. Your grandfather doesn’t like to think he’s failed. I think you know what I mean.”

 

When my grandfather did not come in for supper, Cal was sent to look for him. My grandmother and I waited in the kitchen. Cal reappeared, half dragging the old man with him. Justin Selig did not know where he was or who he was. He did not recognize his wife or his granddaughter. Cal told us that he had found him wandering in the cotton field and crying and shouting at the sky, and cursing God, saying that the eye of God was on him, had judged him. An ambulance was summoned to take him to the hospital. The next week, he was put into a nursing home in Memphis. Although he lived another two years, he never returned to the farm. My grandmother had my drawings framed and hung on a wall in his room. All except those of the horse.

When I married, my grandmother gave me all the drawings. I put them up on the staircase wall in the house my husband and I built on the farm property. When we divorced, the drawings went with me into a new life in New York. Along with the cloak.

Needless to say, I never played a concert in New Orleans.

Newburger
Author’s Comment:
“A Bad Day in the Promised Land” is one in a series of stories about the Selig and Aaronson families and centered on Eleanor Aaronson. They are in part autobiographical and were inspired by an older relative’s tales of the checkered and colorful history of my Southern Jewish family, the Newburger branch having arrived in the South from Germany before the Civil War. Giving form and meaning to fact by turning it into fiction is for me one of the great joys of story telling.

 

Joan Newburger grew up in Memphis, happily spending time on her grandparents' farm 15 miles outside town. She started writing in her forties, when, on impulse, she took a fiction writing class. Her first story took place on a farm. She has an M.A. in English with a Concentration in Creative Writing from NYU. Her work has appeared in The Hamilton Stone Review and The Salt River Review.

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