Birk Changes Shirts
The acrid smell of smoke hung in the humid morning air when Birk woke up. He lay on top of the bed to enjoy the gentle breeze that came through the window. Even in just his undershirt and underdraws it had been another night where it was too warm to sleep with covers on. He had woken a couple of times feeling the floor give way beneath his feet. Clancy, with just a pillow case over his behind, was still sleeping on the other side of the bed with his back to Birk.
Birk could hear his mother in the kitchen downstairs singing, “Bringing in the sheaves. Sowing in the sunshine.” Her voice getting louder each time she sang ‘sheaves’ and ‘sunshine.’ His sisters would join in on ‘sunshine.’
Through the open window he heard people talking on the street. He caught small bits of conversation as they passed.
“Terrible about that fire.”
“What ya think the company will do?”
“She run up them stairs faster than a cat on fire.”
He sat up, swung around and reached for his shirt. Even though he had rinsed it before he went to bed it still smelled strongly of the fire. He’d have to leave it on the clothes line for a day or two to let the wind blow the smouldered stench away. The shirt was spotted with little holes where the scattered embers of the fire had showered on him when he ran up and down the stairs to rescue Miss McTavish. Most of the burns were along the shoulders. A few of the holes were large enough for his little finger to poke through.
“Ruin’t” he whispered. He took a clean shirt from the ones hanging on hooks along one wall. He had three other shirts, an old white, dressy one with thin black pinstripes, that Blackie out-grew, which Birk wore for only special occasions; the final one was his usual canvas mine work shirt. It was also hand-me-down from George. The once dark blue canvas was soft and faded pale from all the washings it had had and the patches on the elbows would soon have to be replaced. What was left of the cuffs was beyond repair. At least it didn’t smell so strong of the fire. He put it on and started to do up the mismatched buttons.
“Come on lazy arse.” He gave Clancy a playful push.
Unlike Birk, Clancy was happy to sleep in the nude. He was also not shy about being seen completely nude. Clancy rolled to his back.
“Another day and no dollars.” Clancy stretched his arms to the ceiling.
“Don’t we know it.” Birk pulled on his pants.
“Fishin’s today?” Clancy reached up and pulled Birk on top of him.
“At’s right.” he half-heartedly pushed himself up.
“Feels as if your little feller’s ready to catch something.”
“Yers too.” Birk grinned sheepishly as he rubbed against Clancy. “But we … “ he didn’t want his sisters coming in to find them this way. Bad enough that Clancy was naked. “… better get crackin.”
“Didn’t we bring home enough last night?” Clancy got out of the bed and got dressed.
“Needs something to go with it.”
When Birk came down to the kitchen with his damaged shirt his two sisters sat wide-eyed and silent, staring at him.
“What is it?” he asked them. “I grow anudder head?”
“Mrs. Malone was here.” Maddy said.
“She says you saved a babby from burning up the fire.” Sal said rocking her doll in her arms. “No fire going to burn you up my little one.”
“You said nothing about that last night.” His mother pushed the loaf of bread toward him.
“Didn’t think much of it.” Birk cut off a slice of the bread and sat at the table. “I ruin’t my shirt in the fire though.”
He handed it to his mother. “You think it can be fixed.”
She took the shirt and held it up the sunlight coming through the window. “I guess I could put a patch on these two big holes but not on all them little ones. Might just as well make a new shirt. Pity as it was good shirt.”
Blackie took the shirt. “Good thing you didn’t catch fire yourself.”
“You think I wants to hear things about my son from folks next door?” His mother twisted his ear.
“Ow! Ma I didn’t think much of it. I had enough of m’mind getting myself in and out of the company store with stuff you. Wasn’t that flour and such enough for you?”
His sisters grabbed at the shirt and each of held a sleeve to her nose to smell it.
“You wore this when you saved that babby?” Sal asked as her eyes grew big.
“Of course he did.” Maddy said looking though the burn holes. “I can see the flames now as they come down on me. Ow! Ow! Ow!” She ducked under the table.
“Ow! Ow! Ow!” Sal echoed as she ducked under the table.
“Let me check your back.” Blackie said. “Time’s I’ve been caught in a flare from the boilers and not seen how burned I was till I laid on m’back.” He began to help Birk unbutton his shirt.
“Not in my kitchen.” His mother pushed them to the back door. “Take him out back. There’ll be sun enough to see better, anyway.”
Before they could go out Clancy came into the kitchen.
“I suppose you know’d all about it, too?” his mother said to Clancy.
“Bout what. Mrs. N?”
“Birk saved a babby.” the two girls said almost in unison. Then began to dance around the kitchen singing. Each holding one the the sleeves of the shirt. “Saved a babby. Saved a babby.”
“Maddy! Sal! Quiet down.” Birk’s mother took the shirt from them. “If’un you tear this up there’ll be no way to fix it.”
“That’s not all he did.” Clancy helped himself to some of the bread. “He saved a gal too. You know, that one from away. Boston.”
“One that lives with the priest, that Father Patrick?” Birk’s mother asked. “That sort always looks to be the centre of things.” She sniffed derisively.
“Din’ matter to me who she was.” Birk pushed the backdoor open. “Caught her apron skirt on th’door tryin’ to get that babby out of the fire. That’s all. She done the saving. I only got her away from the fire. Let’s go out, Pa I do feel something on m’ shoulders.”
“Birk, sometimes I feel you have a whole life outside these walls I know nothing about.” His mother said as Birk and Blackie went into the back garden. “Here take this salve out with you. It’ll help with the burns.” She took a glass jar out of the cupboard. She handed it to Clancy. “I uses this when I get a little burn tending the stove.”
Out in the sun Birk fidgeted while his father examined his arms and back in the light.
“See much?” he asked.
“Lot’s a hair.” Chancy gave a little laugh.
“Yer not too bad.” His Dad said. “A few blisters though …”
“Where the embers didn’t bounce off your hair.” Clancy opened the jar and took a gob of the lotion out. He rubbed it along Birk’s neck. “Worse along here.”
“I’ve had worse sun burns.” Birk flinched as Clancy rubbed the lotion into him. The lotion was a thick petroleum grease that had a slight camphor smell to it. He could feel it cooling his skin here it was rubbed in.
“Some along here too.” Blackie said, rubbing some of goo into Birk’s forearms. “Sometimes I get so used to the heat I don’t even feel it burn me.”
“I didn’t feel anything at all.” Birk said. “There a spot along here?” He gestured to his lower back.
“Felt nothing? Not even her kiss?” Clancy asked as he rubbed lotion where Birk had indicated.
“Kiss?” Blackie said.
“That priest’s niece was sure happy to be rescued.” Clancy said. “She threw her arms around Birk and kissed him right on his mouth.” He put the lid back on the jar of salve.
“And crushed the baby?” Birk’s mother was standing on the porch with the two girls.
Sal had wrapped her doll in Birk’s shirt.
“Kissed a girl.” They broke into a song. “Birk kissed a girl.”
“Nothing of the sort happened.” Birk pulled his shirt back on. “She was grateful but the baby’s mother was right there and that Father McTavish. There was no kissin’. Her uncle shook my hand.”
His sisters kept up their chant. “Birk kissed a girl.”
“You stop that.” Birk swung his open hand playfully at them. “Or next time there’s a fire you won’t be getting no candy.”
“Don’t be scared.” Sal said to her doll. “He’s trying to save you.”
“They’re having you on b’y.” His father said.
“Now, here’s something t’eat while you are up there fishin’” His mother plunked his lunch tin on the porch rail. “There tea in the jar. Made fresh with what you saved from the company store.”
Birk flipped the lunch tin open and there was more of the bread, some cheese and a couple of cookies, still warm.
“You ever sleep. Ma?” He bit into one of the cookies.
“This hot, only time to cook is at night. Here’s for you Clancy.”
“Yeh, but you don’t ever sleep Ma.” Birk said. “I can never remember seeing you on the bed.”
“That’s enough of that talk.” she pulled her wooden spoon out of her apron pocket and shook it at him. “I gets rest enough in m’chair in the parlour.”
His mother had an over stuffed armchair in the parlour with a foot stool where she would sit when she had done her chores or when she was waiting for something to finish cooking. The flowered print had worn off from her hands smoothing the sides and the pillows before she sat in it.
His sisters sat on the back porch bench giggling and whispering to Sal’s doll about Birk kissing a girl.
“We best be off.” Clancy said.
“Sky’s clouding over so keep an eye for it.” Blackie warned.
“Yeh. We’ll try to be back before the streets are mud.” Birk said. “Then we can fish for mud suckers.”
“Bring us back a babby if you catch another one.” Maddy said.
“Bet those burns are where her kisses burned you.” Sal said and the two girls burst into laugher.
Birk’s face flushed. “There was no kissin’” He shouted at them and glared at his mother and father.
“Means nothing if there were.” His mother said gently. “Birk they mean nothing by it.”
“Yeah.” Maddy piped up. “Who’d want to kiss a hairy monkey like you anyway.” She grabbed Sal by the hand and the two of them darted into the house. The tail of the shirt caught in the door as it swung closed. His mother frowned as it tore as it was yanked divot the house.
“I know that Ma but still … it was bad enough with George makin’ fun of me. I was doing the right thing, wasn’t I.”
“Of course you were,” Blackie said. “Don’t think we are aren’t proud of you for doin’ it, while others stood around watching.”
“It happened so fast I can scare remember what I did. I saw her up there strolling. I can’t even say if she screamed for help. Did I run up them stairs?” he asked Clancy.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t paying that much attention to you, until I saw you up there with her. Could be you jumped up there from the ground for all I know.”
“Maybe m’ sisters are right that I did let that gal kiss me.”
“She did get your name though. I remember that. Asked who you were after she smothered you with kisses for recusing her.”
“Sounds like your sore because she did ask who m’friend with the bags of flour was?”
“Candy. I had those jars of candy.”
“Doesn’t matter now.” Blackie said. “Today’s another day. We have to figure out what to do now that there’s no store in Castleton to deny us credit.”
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