Jul '02 [Home]


Never Go Barefoot
by Bertha Rogers

I don't go barefoot; rarely did, even as a child, even in the sixties, when most of my friends discarded shoes for what they called freedom. I grew up on a farm, and hardly anybody goes barefoot there—too many old tools, parts of machines, thorns, broken glass; and too much work, with dangerous tools, to be done.

My sister, or was it I? —in a fit of barefooted carelessness, stepped on a shard at Uncle Dan's farm one hot summer day, and we all watched that foot, pad sliced wide, its blood burning the grass, watched as the hurt child (How is it that I don't remember which of us was the victim?) was lifted up in someone's blue-shirted arms and rushed, in Dan's old black car, to the doctor's office for stitches and the requisite tetanus shot. It was a hot day, and the grass appears, in my memory, unusually dark and green, almost black; quick blood staining its jack-knifed blades.

Aunt Marge, Dan's immaculate Norwegian-American wife, still stands, mouth pursed, on the porch. I know the words she holds between her lips: Such a mess, and how will I ever get it out of the towel?Everyone cries or groans or whirls around—my sisters and cousins, my mother and Dad and Dan—if indeed all were present, if Dad and Dan weren't out haying, or in the barn.

Aunt Marge's place—it seemed to be her place, even though Uncle Dan brought her to it, farmed it, and even though it belonged to my Grandpa, which meant that they were sharecroppers, just like us—was spotless, lawn always mowed, garden neat, chasm of comparison to our detritusewn yard, barn, outbuildings. Aunt Marge even owned a mangle, a cryptic white cylinder on a white stand, in the laundry room off her kitchen, where, surrounded by unpainted yet profoundly clean walls, she alchemized her sheets into milk glass ribbons—they were that smooth, folded in piles on the counter; gingerly carried to the linen closet.

We never could compare to Marge's kids, either—Lois, beautiful and blonde, with high, sharp cheekbones, and Eddie, quieter but more fun (one exotic day he showed us girls how boys can pee so far, hitting our outhouse's outer clapboard wall and the hollyhocks leaning there, though I never saw his held penis). Naturally he didn't get caught; Eddie never got caught.

Lois was perfect. She swept and scrubbed the floors, washed dishes and clothes, and never whined or sulked, never wanted what she didn't have. After a while, Dan and Marge and those pale cousins moved away, to another county and their own farm; and now I see that Dan must have been trying to get away from Grandpa and his many dominions; or maybe it was Marge, pushing him on. They moved, their blond excellence intact. Then, one day, they relocated again, this time all the way to Denver, Colorado, Dan taking a job as a mechanic with an airline. My parents helped them make that change, driving the U-Haul in a blizzard. It wasn't until many years later that we learned that flawless Lois, only 14, had forced the change with a scandalous pregnancy.

We were forbidden bare feet, too, anywhere near the creek that meandered sluggishly through Dan and Grace's farm, then ours, then into the Wapsipinicon, which in turn sluiced on down to the Mississippi. If you took off your socks and shoes and slid down its steep banks you were in danger of losing a toe or more to the snapping turtles that prowled the underbanks; not even ducks sailed these waters. Only in winter, when the creek was a glassy white serpent, was it safe.

If you went without shoes in the pasture, your foot could be impaled on low-growing thistles. You could step into a yellow jacket's nest, or on a king snake. In the cornfield, the stalks could gouge your feet and scrape raw your whole leg. We wore our old school oxfords become summer shoes. Sometimes we wore bought sandals with narrow white straps and thin soles, toes peeking out like pale slugs. We looked for Indian tobacco under the sparse tall oaks and pretended to smoke it.

When I was a teenager, escaping home and my mother's chronic fury, I ran along the banks of the dangerous creek, up to a copse of trees I called my own true home. I took off my shoes and, lying down among the barbed grasses along the creek's bank, recited, over and over, "No man is an island." (I had a vague clue about the meaning of Donne's words, words I'd read in one of the books I always carried). The copse was allowed to thrive because it was in the midst of a wild pasture, an expanse of broad hummocks and boulders, treacherous clots that would surely have broken the plowshares. Waiting for my dad, my certain rescue from that safe place, I watched hawks, the sky, the sun, and plotted my own deliverance.

I never go barefoot even now. I don't even walk barefoot in my own home—there's the threat, in a house of cats, of stepping on a mouse's abandoned kidney or head, bird's yellow feathers still attached to its rent wing. I wear sandals in the summer but I prefer my foot protected.

The foot's not so pretty anyway—odd implement stopping the leg's progress, not elegant at all—toes wedge-shaped, the second one too long, impediment to the shoe that must protect it, hem it in. Though I know that some love to have their feet touched, even luxuriate in the pleasure of a massage, I cringe at the thought of anyone caressing that somehow indecent appendage. Some things, I know, are meant to be hid.