Authors: Gayle Rosengren
What the Moon Said
G. P. Putnam's Sons
An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA)
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
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Copyright Â© 2014 by Gayle Rosengren.
Illustrations copyright Â© 2014 by Jonathan Bean.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
What the moon said / Gayle Rosengren.
Summary: When Esther's family moves to a farm during the Great Depression, she soon learns that there are things much more important than that her superstitious mother rarely shows her any affection.
[1. Farm lifeâWisconsinâFiction. 2. Mothers and daughtersâFiction. 3. SuperstitionâFiction. 4. Family lifeâWisconsinâFiction. 5. Depressionsâ1929âFiction. 6. WisconsinâHistoryâ20th centuryâFiction.] I. Title.
In loving memory of my mother and my grandmotherâ the real Esther and Maâ whose lives provided the inspiration for this story.
ESTHER PLANTED HER FEET ON THE CURB.
Her older sister Violet tugged at her arm and said, “Come on! We're going to be late for the matinee.”
But Esther wouldn't budgeânot until a streetcar had clattered past and the street was empty in both directions.
“Ma said to be extra careful today,” she reminded Violet as she finally stepped off the curb and crossed the street. “She saw a ring around the moon last night. That means something bad is going to happen.” Almost without thinking, Esther glanced upward. But the only things above the tall buildings were a few puffs of clouds and the sun. No moon with a ring around it. It had been there last night, though. Esther shivered.
Violet sniffed. “Ma thinks everything's a sign. Don't take it so seriously.”
Esther stopped dead. “Vi! How can you say that? Didn't Ma know Mrs. Straus had her baby before Mr. Straus came to tell us, because she dropped a spoon at supper? And didn't she say someone had died just before we heard about Mr. Bell's accident? She had a dream about a wedding and that always means a death. Andâ”
“All right!” Violet gave in, raising her hands in surrender. “Ma can read signs. I know that. But if something bad is going to happen, I don't want to know about it ahead of time. Why worry before you have to?”
Esther toed a bit of sawdust that had been tracked from the butcher shop onto the sidewalk. “But,” she said slowly, “maybe if you know, you can be so careful that the bad luck passes you by.”
“And gets someone else instead,” Violet suggested with a laugh, starting to walk again.
Esther followed Violet, frowning. She had never thought of it that way before, but she was proud of Ma for knowing things that other people didn't. She learned growing up in Russia, and it made her special.
If only she were more like Mrs. Rubinstein, Ma would be perfect.
Mrs. Rubinstein was Shirley Rubinstein's mother, and Shirley was Esther's best friend. Shirley sat next to Esther in Miss Monksburg's class. They giggled over lunches, jumped double Dutch at recess, and played jacks and hopscotch after school. Shirley wasn't snooty like a lot of the other girls who lived north of school in nice houses instead of south, in dark apartments. Shirley had dolls and puzzles and books she didn't mind sharing. She even had a miniature china tea set for her dolls. Best of all, though, she had a beautiful mother who hugged Shirley and kissed her cheek every time she went away or came home.
The first time Esther saw this, her heart swelled with envy. Ma did not give kisses. She hardly ever gave hugs. Esther was determined to change that.
When she went home from Shirley's after that first visit, Esther had gone straight to Ma and flung her arms around Ma's waist. Unfortunately, Ma had been washing dishes and hadn't heard Esther coming. The surprise hug startled her. She dropped the pot she was washing and it splashed water all down the front of her dress.
“Esther! What is wrong with you? Look what you did,” Ma had scolded.
Esther took a faltering step backward, but she didn't give up. “I just wanted to give you a hug. That's all. Didn't you like it?”
Ma frowned. “Now I must change my dress.”
“I'm sorry,” Esther said. “Let me give you a kiss to show you how sorry I am.” She reached up to grasp Ma's neck and pull her head closer. But Ma pulled away.
“Esther, stop this foolishness! You'll get all wet. If you want to show me how sorry you are, wipe the water off the floor.” Then, muttering something in Russian, Ma had gone to her bedroom to change.
Esther still remembered how her cheeks had burned and her eyes had stung as Ma walked away.
Since then, Esther had done a lot of thinking and a lot of watching. She noticed things that had slid past her beforeâlike how Ma did hug the older girls, Kate and Julia. She even hugged her little brother, Walter, and Violet sometimes. Not often, but sometimes. With a jolt that had shaken her heart, Esther realized that she couldn't remember the last time Ma had hugged
Didn't Ma love her as much as she loved Walter and Violet?
Esther tried to think why this would be. Was it because Violet and Walter and the older girls looked like Pa, with his lighter hair and gray eyes? Esther couldn't help it if she had dark hair and eyes and looked more like Ma's family. Once, Aunt Olga even said that Esther could have been the twin of their little sister Tatiana. Ma's face had gone white and she'd snapped something in Russian that made Aunt Olga bite her lip and apologize. Why? Esther had wondered. Hadn't Ma liked Tatiana? But Esther couldn't imagine Ma not likingâ
her own sister. There had to be a different reason why Ma had gotten so upset and why she didn't want to hug Esther.
In the end, Esther decided that the reason didn't matter. The important thing was to change Ma's mindâto
her want to hug Esther. But changing Ma's mind was never easy.
Esther knew she would need all the help she could get. So she made lots and lots of wishes. She wished on first stars. She wished on chicken wishbones whenever she won the larger half away from Walter or Violet. She wished on a penny she found glinting in the school yard one sunny day. She even wished on a four-leaf clover she discovered poking up through a crack in the sidewalk in front of the library. Best of all, soon she would wish with all her might on her birthday candles. She would wish for Ma to hug her just like Mrs. Rubinstein hugged Shirley. Then Esther would know for sure that Ma loved her as much as her brother and sisters.
“Hurry up, Es!” Violet said. “Why are you so slow today? We're going to be late.”
“Sorry,” Esther said, and she quickened her pace.
The girls turned the corner onto Clark Street. A long, straggly line of people was blocking much of the sidewalk. At the head of the line, two ladies were serving up bowls of soup and slices of bread. Most of the people shuffling forward for food were grime-coated men. They had hunched shoulders and shaggy heads. But a few were women. Their heads were bowed as if their scarves were too heavy. And there were children in the soup line, too, squirming and whimpering, impatient to get to the food. One of them reminded Esther of Walter. The boy had the same wiry hair and stick-out ears. But his face was pale and thin, not rosy and chubby-cheeked like her little brother's.
“I wish they'd never opened this ol' soup kitchen,” Violet muttered, taking Esther's arm to steer her firmly around the line. “All the beggars in the city come here now.”
Esther wanted to say it was good that the hungry people were getting food, but she kept silent. Violet was only repeating what Ma had said so many times. Ma thought it was shameful for people to take charity instead of earning their own food.
Esther was glad when they left the soup line behind. Seeing it always made her feel guilty. Her family had plenty to eat. Most Saturdays she and Violet even got to see a movie. Now the Diversey Theater was just ahead and the matinee was about to begin.
Esther and Violet hurried past the bakery, past the shoemaker's shop, and past the secondhand store. They paid their nickels to the man at the door of the theater and scooted inside.
When the screen flickered to life a few minutes later, Esther laughed along with everyone else at the Marx Brothers' silliness. But later, when the film ended and some people in the audience left the theater, she sat up straighter. Her favorite part of the matinee was about to beginâthe adventure serial, starring Rin Tin Tin the Wonder Dog.
Rin Tin TinâRinty for shortâwas a hero. He risked his life to save people. Today's episode, “Jaws of Peril,” began with him rescuing his mistress Delores from a burning building. She'd been trapped there in the last episode by crooks who wanted to steal her father's gold mine. Rinty saved her, and then he saved Buzz, the neighbor boy, from a well where he surely would have drowned.
All the while, the bad guys were after Rinty, because he was the only one who could lead them to the gold mine. They came up with a cruel plan to get rid of Marco, the mysterious stranger who had fallen in love with Delores. They captured Rinty and tied him up. Then they left a wild dog in his place. When Marco returned, the wild dog attacked him!
The audience gasped.
Across the hall, Rinty heard Marco's cries for help. Esther watched breathlessly as he clawed and scratched and finally wrenched himself free of the ropes that were holding him. Then he raced to where Marco was fighting for his life.
Rin Tin Tin leaped on the wild dog. The two of them rolled and wrestled and snarled.
Esther jumped up. “Get him, Rinty! Get him!” she screamed.
A hard yank on her skirt tumbled her back into her seat just as the screen went still.
The announcer's voice boomed, “Don't miss the next episode of
The Lone Defender
with Rin Tin Tin the Wonder Dog!” Music blared. The lights came on.
Esther blinked against the sudden brightness. “I can't wait!” she wailed. “I have to know if Rin Tin Tin will be all right.”
Violet snorted. “Of course he'll be all right. He's always all right. He got himself and Delores out of the burning building from last time, didn't he?”
Esther shrugged, not wanting to agree with her older sister. Twelve-year-old Violet didn't love Rin Tin Tin the way Esther did. She only stayed to watch him because of Esther. And now she was buttoning her coat. Time to go.
“Let's stop by the laundry,” Violet suggested, joining the crowd leaving the theater. “Maybe Pa will give us money for ice cream.”
Esther's mouth watered even as she shook her head. “Ma only gave him enough for the streetcar. And she told him he should walk and save the nickel if he could.”
Violet sighed. “Ma's getting worse and worse,” she grumbled. “If it weren't for Julia, we wouldn't even have money for the movies.”
Esther nodded, smiling as she thought of good-natured Julia. She was always doing nice things for her younger sisters. She was never too tired, not even after she'd worked a long shift at the telephone company. She curled Esther's flyaway brown hair. She helped Violet with her arithmetic. And she gave them the nickels and dimes Ma would not. Ma held tight to every spare penny. “Making a nest egg,” she called it.
“Let's go see Pa anyway,” Esther said. “He likes it when we surprise him.”
Violet bobbed her head in agreement.
“And maybe Old Nick will be there,” Esther added. She saw Violet roll her eyes, but she didn't care. Mr. Zeigler's black terrier was such a friendly little dog. While she was petting him, Esther pretended he was hers. When Esther grew up, she was going to have a dog just like Rin Tin Tin. She'd have a cat, too, and maybe even a horse. But until then, she had to be content with petting other people's animals. Ma had grown up on a farm. She said animals belonged outside. That meant no pets for Esther.
Esther had to take little skips every few steps to keep up with Violet. She was small, like Ma, and she hated it. She'd be ten in a few weeks, but people always thought she was younger. Pa said her eyes were the only big thing about her. Now those eyes caught sight of a car turning the corner just ahead. Esther squinted to see it better.
“Look!” she cried. “That's the Rubinsteins' car. So Shirley
still in Chicago. That Leo Bartello and his stories! Just because she was absent the last few days, he said Shirley had moved away.” Esther made a face. “I told him she wouldn't move without telling me.”
Violet stopped. She was frowning. “I'm sorry, Es,” she said. “I thought you knew. That may have been the Rubinsteins' Studebaker, but that wasn't them. Something went wrong with Mr. Rubinstein's business. They sold their car and their house and moved away, just like Leo said.”
Esther couldn't believe it. Many families she knew had moved away in recent months. Their fathers had lost their jobs and they hadn't been able to pay their rent. They'd had to move in with relatives or friends. But these had been poor families. The Rubinsteins were rich!
Esther glared at Violet. “You're wrong!”
But Violet shook her head. “No, it's true. Remember Ma sent me to buy stew meat this morning?”
Esther nodded impatiently. “So?”
“While I was waiting in line at the butcher shop, I heard Mrs. McGuire and Mrs. Pulaski talking about it.”
Esther's lip quivered. Mr. McGuire was a policeman, so Mrs. McGuire always knew everything that was going on in the neighborhood. “They really moved away?”
Violet squeezed Esther's shoulder. “I'm sorry,” she said again.
“I never even got to say good-bye,” Esther said around the lump in her throat.
At Zeigler's Laundry, Esther's sadness over Shirley was forgotten for a while when Old Nick ran up to her, wagging his stubby tail. He remembered her! She crouched down to pet him. “Nice dog,” she crooned. “Good Old Nick.”