Although the children don’t agree on the righteousness of their mother’s anger, they do agree that it’s best not to turn her sharp gaze on themselves. So when they’re in the barn feeding the chickens and collecting eggs two days later, they don’t go running to the house to announce that the black hen has once again escaped the pole-latticed chicken pen and is in the hayloft.
Instead, Alma dumps the rest of the feedgrain into the chickens’ narrow cottonwood trough and follows Andrew out of the pen. She latches the door behind them, then pushes the sides of her sunbonnet away from her face to see into the loft above the chicken enclosure. The hen is trotting along the edge of the loft. “Tarnation!” Alma says. “We’re going to have to go get her.”
Andrew is carrying the woven willow basket of eggs. The yellow barn cat rubs against his feet. He looks down at her. “You’d just love to have an egg to eat, wouldn’t you?”
“Cats don’t eat eggs,” Alma says absently. She’s still watching the black hen.
Andrew eyes the cat, who looks much thinner than she did a few days ago. “I wouldn’t put it past her.” He turns and studies the barn interior. “There ain’t no place really safe from a cat, is there?” He lugs the basket to the tack room at the other end of the big dusty space, unlatches the door, sets the basket down next to Old Pete’s gear, and pushes the peg firmly back into the latch. Then he nods at the cat. “Try to get into that, why don’t ya?”
Alma looks over her shoulder at the closed barn door and jiggles impatiently. “We’re wasting time. If Mama comes in, we’ll have to tell her about the hen.”
“Come on, then.” Andrew scrambles up the ladder and she follows close behind. As he swings into the loft, the hen begins to squawk angrily.
“What’d you do, step on her?” Alma laughs. She’s on the top rung now.
But Andrew is still next to the ladder and the hen is in the far corner, hopping along a small ridge of hay and peering at something behind it. She flaps her wings irritably.
Andrew begins unbuttoning his shirt. “We need something to cover her head.”
“She’ll scratch your bare chest with her feet,” Alma says. “Just a minute.” She swings into the loft and reaches for her sunbonnet. “This stupid thing turns out to be useful after all.”
She hands the floppy cotton to Andrew. He grasps a side flap in each hand and moves cautiously toward the chicken. She’s too busy scolding the hay to notice him. He swoops the sunbonnet over her head and bundles it tight against her wings before she can react. Her feet scrabble at empty air as he lifts her, then she goes still. Alma grabs the dangling strings, wraps them around the hen’s enclosed body, and ties them in a neat bow. “That should do it.”
Andrew grins and hefts the chicken in his arms. “Maybe this will teach her to stop trying to get out.” He turns and leans to look into the space she’d been fussing at. “Oh look! It’s kittens!”
The children have their heads together, examining the blind babies in their nest, when a door hinge squeals below. They look at the trussed hen in Andrew’s arms, then each other, and sink onto the hay-strewn loft boards so whoever is below can’t see them.
“We need to talk.” Their father’s voice has a grim weariness to it. The children look at each other apprehensively. There’s only one person he speaks to in that way.
“How could you not tell me?” Their mother’s voice is low and furious. There are no tears in it. Alma looks at Andrew, who has closed his eyes. He looks like he’d put his hands over his ears if he wasn’t still clutching the hen.
“How dare you not tell me such a thing?” their mother continues. “How could you keep such a thing from me? Why, what you’ve done is downright criminal!” A hand slaps the side of the empty cow stall, rattling the boards. “You lied to me! Not with words, but with every action you took!” Her voice rises. “You lied to me! How dare you!”
“Suzanna—” He sounds almost like he wants to plead with her. Alma leans forward, wishing she could see, but Andrew jabs her ribs with his elbow. His eyes are wide open now. He shakes his head at her urgently.
“Don’t you touch me!” their mother snaps.
There’s a shuffling sound, as if their father is moving as far away from her as he can without actually leaving the barn. “I’m sorry.” His voice is stiff now, not pleading.
“That’s all you can say?”
“If you’ll recall, I tried to tell you.” Then his voice changes, becomes sadder. “I was a coward. I see that now. But I didn’t want to lose you. And you said you didn’t care about my past, my background. That it was me you wanted. That my character was all that mattered.” There’s a long silence, then he says quietly, “And I wanted to believe you.”
A piece of harness jingles as he paces past it. The children look at each other and smile slightly in spite of the tension. Papa paces when he’s thinking. “Enoch Jones would have told you all about me,” he says. “Given half a chance.”
“Is that why you tried to kill him in the Gila wilderness?”
He stops moving. “Of course not! Jones was attacking Gregorio Garcia. I had to do something to stop him. Then when he came at me, I had no choice. You know that. I told you what happened.” He begins moving again. Another piece of harness jingles as he brushes past. “I’m surprised he didn’t tell you about me when he attacked you in the cornfield six years ago. But I suppose he had other things on his mind.”
“He did say there was something about you I didn’t know. But I thought he was just trying to distract me. I never expected anything like this.” She snorts. “And I was in no position to give him a chance to explain.”
There’s a short pause. Then her voice hardens. “All right. I suppose I invited you to not tell me the truth. But the fact remains that you’ve been living a lie all these years, letting me believe your Irish mother was married to a man of the same race. That you simply had skin that tanned well and stayed that way. Not bothering to explain just where Alma’s skin color and those so-called freckles on her face came from.”
She pauses as if she’s waiting for him to answer. When he doesn’t, she says, “But now it turns out that you’re negro, of all things. Son of a man who’s a runaway slave.” Her voice rises. “What in tarnation did you expect? That I’d simply say ‘oh my goodness, what a pleasant surprise’?”
“My father isn’t a runaway slave. His mother was. His father was Cherokee.”
“It’s still in the blood.”
“What, the runaway part or the African part?” There’s a harshness in his voice that Alma’s never heard before. She bites her lip.
But then he seems to catch himself. His tone changes. “I wanted to tell you,” he says quietly. “So many times. But when that first opportunity passed and you didn’t seem to care, well, I thought I’d wait a while, until we’d been married a bit.” He begins pacing again. “I thought you’d guessed and that it truly didn’t matter. That it wasn’t something even worth discussing. That with your own Navajo grandmother, you’d understand.”
There’s a long silence. When he speaks again, there’s bitterness in his voice. “But it’s not the Cherokee part of me that’s the problem, of course. It’s the negro, the blackness. Not telling you was sheer foolishness. I should have known you were just like all the others.”
“What others?” she snaps. “What in tarnation is that supposed to mean? And skin color has nothing to do with this! You lied to me!”
“And if I hadn’t? Would you have married me anyway?”
There’s a long silence. “I—” Her voice catches as she speaks. “I don’t know.”
“But you’ll never know, will you?” Her voice rises. “Because you didn’t have the courage to find out!”
Alma’s breath catches. Her mother has just called her father a coward.
In the barn below, his hand thuds against a board. “What the blazes, Suzanna? You said then that you didn’t care where I came from and now you say that if you’d known, you wouldn’t have married me! I gave you what you said you wanted and now you throw it in my face! What’s a man supposed to do?”
There’s another long silence. When she speaks again, her voice is icy. “We have clearly come to a parting of the ways in terms of our perspective on this matter. I think—”
But just then, the outer door rattles. Alma cranes her neck. A sliver of light dances upward from the opening.
“Children?” Ramón’s voice calls. The door swings farther open. “Ah, perdóneme,” he says. “I sent los chamacos to gather the eggs and they have not yet returned.”
“Those two are so irresponsible,” their mother says irritably, though her voice sounds oddly relieved.
“They’re probably down in the canyon watching beaver,” their father says.
Their mother’s skirts swish as she crosses to the door. It swings farther open. “Alma!” she shouts. “Andrew!”
Andrew’s mouth opens instinctively. He leans forward, but Alma grabs his arm and pulls him back. She shakes her head and he nods reluctantly and sinks back onto the floorboards.
“Ah well, they will return when they are ready,” Ramón says. “Perhaps the black hen has escaped again and they have gone in search of her.”
“I wouldn’t put it past that hen to keep trying to get out,” their mother agrees. “She ought to go in a soup pot, then we wouldn’t have—” Her voice fades as the three adults leave the barn.
The hen clucks nervously and twitches her feet. Andrew chuckles as he strokes the cloth. “Don’t worry, I won’t let them eat you,” he whispers.
Alma moves cautiously to the edge of the loft and sticks her head out far enough to see the dim interior below. The door is firmly shut.
“Did Ramón know we were up here?” Andrew asks. Alma shrugs. She suddenly doesn’t want to talk anymore. She touches the heart-shaped freckle on her face. Light flickers from the roof and she glances up. There are holes between the wood shingles. Like her heart. “Let’s get out of here,” she says.
from No Secret Too Small