Emmaline West

            Good wives, proper wives, are to see to the comfort of their husbands and the business of running the home. Percival was most comfortable with his sweets and newspaper, in front of the fire in the parlor. 

            Percival West, Esquire, county judge, wonder-boy. If all had gone as planned, they had picked him to be governor by 45. But, now he’s dead. Cold in his grave, and I, the poor widow, without even a child to comfort me after all those years of marriage. 

            The women are in the kitchen, prattling on about the service, then there’s long periods of silence as they talk in hushed whispers about me, and what will I do now, without Percival?  I am ready for them all to go home. The right and proper missuses of town, I know they mean well, but as long as I can get through today, I will be fine. 

            Percival waited to marry until he found the perfect woman to benefit him publicly. What better way to do that, than to create her? The ladies of the church society all find it so romantic. The way they see it, he rescued me when my father died, he saw that I had a proper upbringing, then fell in love and married me. He swept me off my feet with his exciting life and charming speech. There was absolutely nothing about my life with Percival that was romantic or charming. A young girl, legally under his guardianship, I was trained to be his wife from the age of 13. Cold and relentless in his demands, he dominated my every waking moment. He thought me too feeble, too weak minded and foolish, to ever defy him. Perhaps he was right. But his dogmatic attention to my domestic training, was in the end my salvation. I could run a household, cook every one of his favorite dishes, clean and shine his shoes, stitch and starch a perfect cuff or collar. By the age of 16, I was, the perfect wife. 

            I think it was the first winter we were married, that I discovered Percival used needles. An old injury from the Indian wars, he told me. Indeed. It took me over a year to increase his dosage without him noticing it. After that it was just a matter of time. All those campaign trips made buying it so easy. Doc knew his secret, but he stood to gain too much from Percival’s political connections to ever tell a soul. Doc did try to talk Percival into a sanitarium at one point, but of course, he refused to even discuss the possibility. 

            Good wives, proper wives, see to the business of their home and their husband’s comfort. My husband was always most comfortable with me preparing him all his favorite sweets, ones I was never allowed to eat, “Sweets make women fat and ungainly, Emmaline.” So yes, yes, I did see to Percival’s comfort, and in the end, mine as well. 

FLORA

 What year is it again? I forget sometimes. I forget so much. It’s spring again, every spring they bring my Louise to visit. Where did the time go? “Grammy, let’s go to the garden!” Louise, she loves the garden. 

“Tell me about how my Great Grand Pappy dug it up for you again?” Louise begs. 

What year was that? I forget so many things, anymore. Standing and watching my Louise skip over to the perfect rows of lettuce and radish greens with the onions standing like sentinels along the outer edges. Every year, everyone asks, “What is the magic in your garden, Flora?” Magic? Indeed! Is that what I should call it? 

How many years ago was it? I can’t even remember no more. My boys were barely weaned, toddling around, crying fer milk getting’ into everything they could see. Thank God fer the earth and the store Harold’s family owned. The mountains were fertile, we could grow enough to get by, along with fish from the river and a rabbit here and there. The store paid fer itself at least. I don’t think it had made Harold or his daddy a profit for years, by that time. Many neighbors insisted on them fancy tractors and loans to pay fer them during the war and they got nothing now, banks done took their land when they couldn’t pay up anymore. 

Feeling sorry fer my neighbors, the right Christian thing to do, was the cause of it all. Irene Cassidy already had too many mouths to feed. Could I take her cousin Alice’s girl in? “She can work for room and board, barely eats a scrap and can watch those boys of yours.” 

Hefting baby George on to my hip and taking Little Harold’s hand, I said, “Well now, that might be right handy.” 

Alice’s girl, Ruby, showed up gaunt and quiet just three days later. The spring was started. She wasn’t much to look at, all bones and such, but we would get some meat on her soon enough. And that Ruby, she could work. Never one to get in the way, she did her duty then went out to her room in the lean-to part of the house. She was good in the garden too, asking questions about herbs and such as she never saw in town. That first year or so was right good. Looking at my Louise dancing around me I shiver a bit, she’s so happy to be here. 

I woke up late that spring night. I saw the light in the lean-to and figured Ruby left her lamp burning again, blast that girl, she’ll burn the house down yet. Walking in, the tangle of legs and blankets, the metallic scent of sex… O, my! Is that my Harold? 

In the mountains, people run off all the time. We don’t ask too many questions not wanting to be indelicate and all. Neighbors were kind, giving us meat in exchange for my vegetables and such once they realized Harold was gone, and Ruby with him. I was able to get a little meal and flour as the store could provide, until my boys were old enough to contribute, and it was all made livable. 

It wasn’t so bad, dragging them out to the garden, why I barely remember it. I’ve won the blue ribbon every year at the county fair since then. Juiciest tomatoes, biggest pumpkins in these here mountains. I like to think my prize winning garden is Harold’s way of apologizing.

Cassie

Gray skies and cold winds. It feels like that’s all there ever is here. The autumnal glory always gives way to the crispness of the first snowfall. The fairy lace of ice on the water bucket announces the disappointing gloom of deep winter on its way, and out here, winter is so long. 

            No matter how hard we work from spring to fall, there is never enough wood. There are not enough trees to provide the wood and in those darkest months, we burn the hay and manure and sometimes, even our furniture. Last winter I lost a few pieces, but better to sit on the dirt floor than to freeze to death in the soddy. The winter here will settle in your bones, it sucks the warmth from your soul, or so it feels. These are the months I have come to dread. Each year, as the night gets longer and lowering clouds on the horizon dim the sun, my fear of it increases. Sometimes, in January or February, we will get a surprising sunny day, where the ice seems like a jewel on a rich man’s lapel, but it’s only for a short while, then the sun goes back to her winter hiding place and we sit and wait for the kiss of spring in the air. 

            The bad air and blizzards keep us housebound most of the year, even after the spring thaw the mud is so thick and the streams flooded, it’s not safe to venture out for more than a short spell. 

            Last year, old Mrs. Gardner tried making a trip to the post, to see if there was a letter from her son. A blizzard blew in fast and they found her froze to death in the drifted snow two weeks later. Had her bulls not broke through and started bothering Mr. Hansen’s cows, no one would have known until May. The Postmaster says she came in right sprightly enough that day. He says she thought she could make it home before the wind and the snow but once it starts, its blinding swirls confuse the mind and there is little hope; it’ll make you wander aimlessly in circles, until you lay down in exhaustion for a sleep you never waken from. 

            Taking our chances on the land, sometimes seems a fool thing for us to do. This is nothing like home. Back east there’s towns and neighbors, churches for when you get so poor you can’t put beans in the pot, family and friends to help pass the times together. Dressmakers and hat shops and ribbons by the yard. Here, we wear our outdated dresses and patch our men’s shirts with flour sacks and canvas wagon covers. There’s no company except your kin in the room with you and the wind roaring across the grassland. Our next nearest neighbor is about 4 miles from here, sometimes I can see the smoke from their chimney, like a thread of black on the prairie. Town? Well the general store and post, a mill and the main wagon trail are about 7 miles from us. A person can feel lost in the vast space, some lose their minds out here. I heard one woman say her mother thought the wailing of the wind was her baby she lost in a fire, crying for her to come find her in the other world. One night she went looking for her and never came home. It’s a frightful place. 

            My mother and father worried about us coming this way. Further west was dangerous, it was barely inhabited, but Ben said the Indians are gone and the land is ripe for the taming. We sold everything and left our dependable life and home. Ben left a good job in charge of the sawmill. Me, being married, I was no longer teaching school and we were hoping for tots of our own, soon enough. We left with high hopes and promises of a land so bountiful it literally handed us grain. We found the trip to the territory grueling and arrived without our souls in our body. Seeing miles of people’s lives discarded along the trail, laying there, broken, on the ground. Dishes, empty cradles, furniture and horse carcasses, the refuse of the traveler’s imaginings, just tossed aside. Worse are the graves, mounds of rocks and dirt, piled halfway to nowhere. I left my own heart in the wasteland of western dreams. I was keening for the wind to sing her lullabies, so she wouldn’t be afraid without me. The nights get so dark and the coyotes and wolves dig up the graves. 

I don’t know that I ever could have left there had Ben not dragged me away and dosed me with the last of the brandy we had. There’s no time for mourning on the trail, you just keep moving. The others in your train just shake their heads and stop making eye contact, while you desperately scrabble at the rocks, hoping to keep the animals away. If heartbreak doesn’t kill you, the sicknesses might, or the starvation and lack of water. There’s plenty to break your back and kill your spirit. 

Ben says we can make our fortune here. I am not so sure. We seemed fine back east, I never really wanted a fortune. A comfortable parlor, coffee for the grinder, a couple of babies in the trundle, that’s all I wanted, but a man, he says, has bigger dreams. I wouldn’t understand it. 

            Last year was good, we got a good haying season in and the cattle did well, there’s sweet grass for miles to fatten them up while the grain ripens. The real test will be getting them to market. The trail is long and dangerous. There’s rustlers and disease, the weather can destroy your herd or husband, all depending on how fickle nature is feeling. We can’t lose a single head, we need this herd to do well, if it doesn’t, we’ll lose everything. It’s taken three years to get them grown enough to sell, and the last of our coins were used up recently. 

There’s no glass in the windows out here, how I miss sunlight streaming through glass, filled with dancing dust motes. I miss wood plank floors and wool rugs. I miss a chimney and proper walls. Dirt floors, dirt walls, dirt ceiling… smoke everywhere. Lard and tallow makes for poor lamp oil, and the smell turns my stomach. Kerosene is a luxury we can seldom afford. 

            If the cattle make it to market, Ben says we can start a cabin. A real above ground cabin. One room to start, but a floor, he promised me a proper plank floor, and a brick chimney. Most likely, the glass will have to wait. But oiled paper would work if the floor was real wood, right? I can live with it a little longer? I just want to be above ground again, not shivering in some hole in the ground, like a rodent, waiting for the winter to leave. 

Today, its twisting grass until my hands bleed, eating three-day-old beans and just waiting for the sun to come back. It’s the sun that brings back the hope and warms our bodies again. It’s the sun that wakes us from this nightmarish stupor and rekindles our dreams, and eventually, it always comes back. 

Ginny

           

TRIGGER WARNING: this story describes issues of domestic violence. If you are in a situation where you need help because of domestic violence, please go to https://www.thehotline.org for help. There is NEVER an acceptable excuse for violence!

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I try so hard to do right, being properly submissive and all, like preacher says. Otis’s momma says it’s just the way of hard workin’ men, they don’t mean nothin’ by it but last night, Frannie woke up. His momma took Frannie out to look at the stars and sat with her under the tree, told her the heat got us all stirred up. But we both know that ain’t truth. I don’t get stirred up these days, I don’t feel nothin’ anymore. 

            I don’t know what it is that stirs Otis up so crazy sometimes. Last night it was cuz I didn’t stop baby from spillin’ his cup at supper. “Can’t be wastin’ milk, Ginny,” Otis said with a grin, then outta nowhere, he punched me in my side. I don’t make no noise anymore, it makes it worse and I reckon I can stand more than most women. He stopped going for my face, since Frannie started askin’ questions but a couple weeks back, he pinched my bosom and twisted so hard it near broke the skin. It’s like he finds his pleasure when I finally cry out from the hurt. 

            Before the big bust, before babies and this shack and the long work lines and the soup kitchens, when we was just young, Otis worked hard to get out them mines. He weren’t a’right going underground in the dark, like a mole, he said, so he teached himself at night, to do sums, with his sister’s primer. Got him a job as teller at a local bank, he did, wearing suits and smelling like aftershave from the drug store. I was right shocked when he chose me out of all the girls in town, at the church picnic. I were shy and unsociable compare to Mary Thomas and Grace Turner, and they both had eyes for him. But he said my plain face and simple ways were more to his likin’ and he near swept me off my feet. We was married and settled before summer ended. Not like my ma wanted me to stick around anyways. Since Pa left to find his fortune, Ma could barely feed us, so settin’ me up with the likes of Otis was a mighty fine plan to her. 

            It started when when we was courtin’, Otis would get stirred up ‘cause I talked all ignorant like a ‘backwoods imbecile.’ He said I needed to be startin’ to sound like a banker’s wife. He’d squeeze my arm or hand til it hurt just enough to make me whimper, then he’d let go. He always smiled and patted my hand afterwards, like he didn’t mean it, so I was thinkin’ it weren’t purposeful. After we got hitched, we set up in a rental in town and I were happy keeping house. But Otis didn’t right like how I kept house at all. Right after the wedding, he came in while I were doing the supper dishes, and watched me run the water to redd-up. Told me I were wasting the water and shoved my head in the sink and held it there. I thought my lungs would bust before I could get out of his grip and come up for a breath. He never did do it again, but I never let the water run too long either. 

            All the banks crashed in ’29 and Otis’s Da passed, right soon after. When his Momma moved in, things got worse. I thought maybe she would soften him some, but she don’t see no wrong with him, says it’s just his disappointments and all, and these days we all got a lot to feel disappointed ‘bout. But I fear for the little ‘uns and how their father may come at them. I try my best to keep peace though and maybe, when times get better, he won’t always be so stirred up. 

Amelia

As young girls, everything was a contest between me and Amelia. How many more names on my dance card than hers? How many more valentines did Amelia receive than me? Who had more boys call on her in the front parlor or sit with her on the porch swing? It was a sisterly rivalry, it wasn’t mean spirited and when it came to the men, Amelia was usually the winner. But Amelia owned my heart as much as theirs. Of course, I was smarter than her, she was a bit daft and had no interest in anything beyond boys and ribbons. And my how she drew the boys to her without even trying. They couldn’t resist her. Her pale skin and lively, dark, eyes that darted around the room looking for fun in every corner. Her smile always looked like she had a secret and her long hands looked so elegant, even without gloves. 

            We weren’t sisters, at least by blood. My parents took Amelia in when mama’s cousin died giving birth. We had the means and mama was insistent that it would look bad to leave her to charity since her father was no good. We were barely 4 and with only a few months difference between us, we grew up thick as thieves. I never needed any other friend, I always had Amelia and she always had me. I was a brash and bossy child, demanding, and mama said, troublesomely curious, but My ‘Melia was gentle and sweet, and she was mine. I believe to this day, it is my god given calling to protect her, but hard as I tried, I couldn’t protect her from everything. 

            I guess of all the fellas that came through our parlor, I considered Thomas the least likely candidate to pique Amelia’s interest let alone to win her hand. Thomas was my beau first, but Amelia was never one to let any man slip out of her grasp. Slightly effeminate with a disdainful attitude, I didn’t think Thomas would interest her because he bored me. After a few socials together I found Thomas to be rude and too much a dandy for my liking. For some reason though, Amelia took notice of him, and once Amelia took notice, there was no distracting her from the object of her attention. Thomas was eager, maybe too eager, to jilt me and court her but I wasn’t terribly peeved. Any boy who was so fickle his head could be turned right in my parlor wasn’t really worth any effort to me anyways, and I wasn’t needing to find a husband. 

            Amelia, she loved the fussiness that was Thomas. He was clean and never smelled of sweat she said. His clothes were pressed and his hands smooth with clean nails. His family was up and coming in manufacturing. He had the makings of a gentleman she said, and she wanted a gentleman. Thomas’s father was a self-made man and he felt Thomas should know how to work and how to live on the wage he earned and so, to us all, it seemed Thomas was gainfully employed, had a level head, with a bright future. Mama knew of my fondness for Amelia and she humored me by making sure she was treated as my social equal in public, but she made sure Amelia knew her comfort was dependent on our benevolence in private. Maybe that is why Amelia was so eager to land a “good” husband? 

            Mama did settle a tidy sum on Amelia as a wedding gift, but it certainly wasn’t a fortune in anybody’s eyes, especially Thomas’s, he had expected more. Amelia and Thomas set up house in a nice little neighborhood across town. I was able to go and stay with her and play house whenever I liked. Thomas was ever so pretentious and made sure everyone knew they had electricity, a telephone and he had his ice delivered every day. But before the end of the first year, Thomas had begun a pattern of misuse with Amelia. He would ignore her even when she spoke directly to him, as if she was not even in the room. At social events or in public he would act overly solicitous of her every word while being ever so critical of her housekeeping and manners, even of her voice and elocution, to whomever was around them, shopkeepers, friends or family, it did not matter. He would say in that imperious tone of his, the ugliest and most mean-spirited things to crush her soul. 

            By the second year, Amelia began to lose her rosy color and cheerfulness. Mama said it was the baby, but after a while there was always a crease on her forehead, as if everything was too bright and she was bewildered by the world around her. 

            During the summer months of that third year, I spent most of my days with My ‘Melia and baby, trying to cheer her up and coax her happiness back out. Sometimes for a few, brief, moments she would forget her troubles and the harshness of her situation, and be a girl with me again, but that ended every evening as it was time for Thomas to come home. Each evening she ran through the house making sure everything was done as Thomas liked it. I’m not sure why it mattered to her, at this point she had to know he was never going to be happy with anything she did. Corinna, the day girl was quick to leave as soon as Thomas came in so she wouldn’t have to listen to him belittle his wife to her. I wanted to run with Corinna sometimes, but I refused to let Thomas bully me, or keep me away and I am not above confessing, I knew I got under his skin and I wanted it that way. Sometimes I would do things to aggravate him on purpose so that he would turn on me and not Amelia. By this time, I had my Papa’s money and my mother’s snobbishness. I could handle myself. 

            That July was so hot. Thomas would send Amelia to draw him a cool bath in the evening and make her stand there with his towel while he bathed. Some days he would make her hold the electric fan he had bought himself and tell her which way to direct it for his comfort while he bathed. The fan was plugged into the light, like everything was in those days, and Amelia had to be careful to keep the cord away from the water and Thomas luxuriated in her discomfort and humiliation even more than he did in the cool the water. 

            To this day I don’t know what happened that night. I know that the lights began to flicker in the house and then everything went dark while I was laying baby down. I went into the hall to see what was wrong and ran into an ashen faced Amelia who was shivering as if she was having a fit. Grabbing my hand Amelia began to pull me down the hall while repeating over and over, “I didn’t mean to do it…” 

            I followed her not conceiving what she meant or what was to come. Walking into the bathroom, Thomas was still in the large, formidable white tub. I pulled back, not sure why I was going into a man’s bath. Amelia continued to babble hysterically as she tugged me forward so I could see Thomas’s face, his eyes were protruding strangely, and his mouth hung open in terror. I could see the fan hanging from its cord, lying in the water near Thomas’s leg. Grabbing Amelia by the shoulders, I shook her, and asked her what happened. 

            “I didn’t mean to do it…” she cried. 

            What? What had she done? How did this happen? As reality hit me, I knew I had to protect My ‘Melia from whatever came next. Amelia grabbed the towel and draped it across Thomas’s naked body in the tub, as if she was not willing for him to be exposed to prying eyes just yet and turned to me crying and needing me to fix this for her. 

            Taking her hand, I guided her into the hallway and gently pulled the bathroom door shut. “Melia, I need you to calm down now. I have to get the constable and the doctor. Can you tell them there’s been an accident?” Shaking her head no, Amelia stared at me with red rimmed eyes. “Amelia, listen to me, we have to tell the constable Thomas has had an accident while he was bathing. He’s had a terrible, terrible, accident.” 

In those brief moments we both understood, as only sisters can, that we must be united and protect each other. I never asked her what happened, and we’ve never spoke of it in these 30 years since, but I’ve never let her out of my sight over these many years, either. 

Ida Mae

IDA MAE 

            Old Mr. Lally used to say if you’re always losing your keys, you’re afraid of your own front door. I laughed it off then, but standing here waiting for Jesse to come back from the locks, I realize I can’t remember where my key is… Again. 

            Mam says, “Don’t worry girl it’s a good job. What’s a few months gone, when it means meat on the table twice a week?” I noticed though, I only lose my keys when Jesse’s home. 

            Lizzie and I, we keep a quiet room, nothing fancy. A small stove, a table, a couple rocking chairs, and a bed, that’s all we really need. Jesse says no wife of his will be working, he’s more than able to support his family, so we sit, a lot. I really hope Lizzie doesn’t get fussy this time. Last time Jesse was home, he said her crying was enough to make his head bust, but I think it’s all the drink. 

            I see the barge docking, only another minute or two and the riverbanks will be bustling with workers unloading, and the crew tying off before their week at home. It’s hard work, it is. A rough crew, but it’s honest work. We might live simple but we’ve enough to eat and a little to set aside, that’s more than I can say for my sisters. If only Jessie wasn’t always so angry

            Jessie’s mam says he was such a happy little boy, our Lizzie is like that too, she says, but when Jesse came home from France, Mam says he wasn’t the same anymore. The war changed everyone. He never talks about it, but at night he screams, his thrashing makes me sit in the rocking chair with Lizzie sleeping on my shoulder. Her sweet sighs and even breathing are so different from his tormented moans and mad twitching. Even in his sleep, he is angry. 

            I see Jesse’s head over all the others, he’s standing on a metal box waiting for the crew to finish up. From a distance I can see the tightness in his shoulders, the strong lines of his body, as if every muscle is tensed and ready to spring at something just outside his line of vision. Lizzie wiggles in my arms, at nearly a year, she’s a healthy little scrap and made it through the first year without a scare. It’s blessed, we are. 

            I look up from Lizzie’s trusting stare and see Jesse striding down the length of the barge, I’m pinned in place by his gaze. Is he happy to see us? I never know. As he leaps from the barge to the dock, I begin to smile a little, he is so good to look at! But I still can’t remember where I put that key!

MARY COOPER

            Indeed! Mary Cooper! Always one to go too far, she never knows when to stop! Doesn’t she realize what she’s doing? This isn’t St. Louis! If her Bob wants to keep moving up, she will quit crossing her legs and put that cigarette out. My soul! What is she thinking? As if Mrs. Broward wants to hear about dance halls and her tipsy escapades. 

            I’ve tried to tell her this is not how we act. Our job is to be sure our husband’s look good. My Teddy, he didn’t make branch manager by me being a fool. White sugar in your best china bowl, a bakery cake no one will ever know I didn’t bake, a little fruit, and on holidays a sip of sherry. 

            In a way I envy her, licking frosting from her fingers and throwing back her head to laugh. Like it doesn’t matter what she does and if her husband is put on notice. True, she’s got a heart bigger than the vault at First Bank of Topeka, and bosoms to match! Really! Why do we see so much of her bosom? 

            I don’t want to admire her when she shrugs off the icy stares and tight-lipped smiles. I don’t want to like her. I don’t want to like her stories but, secretly, I do. Did she really empty a flask into a church social punchbowl? Oh, to see the Reverend after that! 

            When Mary comes in the room, it’s like a wind rushes before her as whispers move from woman to woman, heads turning, to watch her enter. Maybe we all thought we could tame her, make her one of us. Her Bob is such a circumspect young man. My Teddy, he says Bob could go far, if he plays the game right. It’s like she doesn’t care. Why does he put up with it? 

            But, to be so… so, alive! When she speaks it’s like static electricity, and everyone is drawn to her without even realizing it. I can’t decide if she immoral or immortal? Do the ideas and adventure she participates in come from the devil, or some sort of playroom for the gods, that allow her to come out unscathed? I’ve always loathed a lack of lady-like discretion, but she makes it sound so fun. 

            Mrs. Broward looks a little flustered. Should we offer her some more tea? I see her staring as Mary once more stretches like a cat and crosses her bare legs like a showgirl. I can almost hear her thoughts, “…didn’t this child’s mother teach her anything?” 

            I have to give her credit, unlike all of the other wive’s socials, not one of the gals was missing from Mary’s turn to host. Sarah Pipkin said she changed her shopping day to be here. When Mary brought up the orphan’s home, charity project, her appeal was so sincere she got a donation from everyone. That had to impress Mrs. Broward, just a little. 

            Teddy says keep my distance, she’s going to be trouble and he’s up for promotion. Being friendly with such a loose wife, how would that look on him? 

            This little cake, what’s it called again? Like Mary, it’s a bit surprising. So different than our normal fare, but I could eat them all day. She says have all we want, but getting a second plate? That just looks wrong. Such a shame all these pretty little cakes will go to waste. 

RUBY

RUBY

I love the spring! New leaves, new lambs in the barn and fresh dresses that float in the breeze like the down of the baby chicks all around the yard. Not like the damp and chilling days of winter. Winter in the mountains is so long, the short days make the nights feel endless. It gets a person feeling all crazy, ‘specially in late February when the earth don’t know if it’s done with the snows or not. Being from town we had spelling bees, meet ups and the like during the cold months, but there’s not much of that in these parts. Some days it’s all I can do just to keep the boys busy. Mrs. Flora, she says in real bad weather it’s better to stay put and so they miss a lot of schooling and it’s my job to keep them up. 

            A few weeks past, Mrs. Flora took advantage of the changin’ weather to visit with a sickly neighbor, “Ain’t right not to check in when we can,” she said crisply, ‘it’s a right long walk and already getting’ late, so I’ll just bed down over there for the night. I’ll take Little Harold with me, to cheer up the Widow Campbell. The beans are on the back of the wood stove and the wood’s by the door. Mr. Harold’s out working and will be hungry when he comes in.” 

            Their house is so inviting, with Mrs. Flora’s jars lined up on the shelves, the warm colors of summer preserved in their bright vegetables and sauces. The wood stove keeps it all cozy. Mrs. Flora says wood ’s the best way in the cold and damp months; can’t nothing warm your bones like a good fire made with ash and oak. Baby was napping and since I didn’t have Little Harold to care for, I didn’t right know what to do next. Picking up the mending basket I sat by the stove and started mending. Busy hands make the time pass a little faster. 

            As I bit off the thread from the last replaced button, I heard stomping out front. Mr. Harold came in brushing snow off his hat, “Hey there, Ruby Girl, Where’s my Flora?” 

It was twilight already? Why didn’t baby wake up? He’d been feeling puny past two days, maybe he just needed the rest. “She went to check in on Widow Campbell. Is it snowing? How did I not notice it started snowing?” 

            “Sure ‘nuff girl, ‘coming down sideways and all. Looks like a big feather bed done bust. It’s gonna be a bad storm alright but good for the sugaring. Guess old man winter had one more gust left in him after all. Mrs. Campbell’s? That’s right far for a night like this.” 

            Picking up the still sleeping tot, I stroked his face to wake him, “Come on baby, let’s get some supper for you and yer Pa.” Looking over my shoulder I said to Mr. Harold, “Mrs. Flora said she’ll bed down there and head on home at first light, since she left so late in th’ day.” I told Mr. Harold as I patted baby to try to wake him. 

            Mr. Harold’s eyebrows rose in surprise and he smiled kinda, strange-like. Why does it make my stomach all knotted up when he does that? Baby started whining in a feeble way, so I turned to tend him while Mr. Harold got his boots off and hung up his outer clothes. I set bowls of steaming beans on the table and went to the dry pantry to grab some bread. As I turned around, I was startled to see Mr. Harold right behind me, “Lordy! Mr. Harold you gave me a start!” 

            Mr. Harold reached around me to grab the butter crock, grinned at me he said, “Why Ruby-girl, it’s all right, it’s just me.” 

            Baby started fussing in his seat and I went to try to coax some food into him. His eyes were too bright, and his cheeks flushed. Mr. Harold looked at him and said, “I’m thinking he’s getting them big teeth in the back. A little whiskey in his milk should help him sleep it off. Not much just a few drops for medicinal.” 

            I looked at him unsure what to do. I didn’t know Mrs. Flora kept liquor in her house. Mr. Harold reached on top of the hutch and brought down a bottle of amber liquid. He put a few drops in baby’s milk then handed it to him. We ate in comfortable silence while baby began to get drowsy. After our supper I put him in a clean nappy and settled him for the night. 

            Coming back into the big room, I saw Mr. Harold had a glass with a little whiskey, too. “To take the chill off from being out all day.” He said. “Ruby-girl, how old are you now? I can’t right remember.” 

            “I was sixteen, late in summer past.” I said.
 “Sixteen, eh? Now that’s a woman age. You starting to think like a woman, Ruby-girl?” 

            Something in the way he asked, well it right-turned my head. Why do all these butterflies get loose in my insides when Mr. Harold calls me Ruby-girl? “I don’t reckon so Mr. Harold. I don’t know how a woman thinks but I’m pretty sure I don’t think like one, yet.” 

            “Not sure? Why Ruby-girl, they be thinking of dances and courting and hand holding. Getting married, having little one of their own,” he chuckled.

            “I ‘spose I’d like that someday, but I don’t right know how to dance…” I said sheepishly. 

            “Ruby-girl! Every woman has to know how to dance. Turn on that wireless and I’ll show you how it’s done,” he said as he slapped the arms of the chair and stood up right quick. Before I could think, Mr. Harold was towering over me with one arm wrapped around my waist and the other holding my hand. “Ruby-girl, a fella like his girl close by, wants to be able to hold her tight. Makes him feel more like a man ya know?” 

            I’d never been that close to any man, ceptin’ my Pa. Mr. Harold smelled like wood smoke, pipe tobacco and sweat with just a hint of the whiskey. It wasn’t a bad smell. He started swaying with me, humming to the music on the wireless and I started to feel warm, very warm. Not wanting to be impertinent I let him lead me. Suddenly, I was sure I felt his hand rubbing the small of my back. As I looked up in shock, he bent his head down toward mind. I’m right certain he kissed me. Real soft and such, but it was a kiss. 

            I jumped back like a scalded cat and tried to pull away. “Now, now Ruby-girl, it’s all right. I’m just treatin’ you all woman like.” 

            “I’m not sure I’m a woman, Mr. Harold.” I said as I turned away quickly. 

            “O, indeed, Ruby-girl, you are. You sure enough are.” 

ADELINE HULBURT

ADELINE HULBURT 

            Most likely, I’ll never be buried in the church cemetery although, they’ve yet to turn down my money in the collection plate, but I’m good to my girls. Today everyone gets a chance to be out in the fresh air. Laughing together and enjoying God’s creation is good for the soul and anything that ails ya and today was just perfect after a long, dusty, summer. You could kinda feel the fall nipping at our heels, but the sun was bright and the leaves ain’t turned just yet. Tomorrow it will be business as usual, but today was our treat. Like I said, I take care of my girls, we ain’t clap infested, crib whores, we are ladies.  Cultured and clean ladies who smell of rose water and wear silk chemises. 

            My girls work hard, even if it is the devil’s own work, and they attend to their deportment in their free time. I won’t have slacking women. There’s a reason they talk about us all along the Santa Fe Trail, my girls know how to make a fella feel comfortable. Why we even get ‘pokes to bathe before they spend the night. They’re good girls, all of them. They’re making an honest living if you ask me, even if it’s not all that respectable to our “good citizens” of Trinidad. Occasionally, even I take a special customer, despite the fact that I’m getting a bit long in the tooth. A girl can’t work all of the time, if you know what I mean? 

            Like as not, Mama would roll in her grave if she saw me today, all my finery and fancy digs, but I’m not sure how she’d feel about how I earn my living. Mama scrubbed so much laundry her hands bled all the time; her skin peeling and sickly looking from all that ash and lye. I can still smell the damp of the hot water and wet wool in the tenement apartment we lived in with its suffocating heat and steam year ‘round. 

            Mama insisted there’s no shame in being poor if you were working hard; an honest job lets a man sleep peaceful at night, she said. But I’d had enough potatoes and cabbage in watery broth to last a lifetime. I’d rather give a man a smile and spread my legs for a few dollars than for a tenement on the East Side and gristly meat every Sunday. Maybe if I had stayed there, I’d have died birthing a squalling child who would waste away in the putrid air of the city. But I ran as soon as I could, as far from there as I could get. It doesn’t take a girl long to figure out how to use her assets to get some coins. I was lucky, I wasn’t pox scarred and I looked innocent. I learned to use chicken blood and every customer was my first. A girl needs to have some security in her purse, how she earns it is up to her. 

            I met Arthur heading west, I helped him bury his wife on the trail. He needed looking after and I needed protected. It was a business arrangement. Arthur never suffered for having taken me on. Out this way, we all got pasts we try to run from so most people don’t ask a lot of questions and just accept you at your word. Even out here, I couldn’t own his house if I wasn’t his widow, and so his widow, I became. All Arthur left became mine, this house, his debt and a stash of silver under the floorboards. Only ways I could keep a roof over my head was to do what I knew how to do, and I never learned to like scrubbing laundry. Can’t no one prove I’m not the real Adeline Hulburt and Arthur never said otherwise when he was living. 

To My Reader

Dear Reader,

Voices was born out of my curiosity about the many pictures I came across in antique and junk shops, and the truths of the lives they represented. Disembodied faces captured in black and white and sepia tones, wives, mothers, daughters and sisters that were lost to memory with no one to tell their story.

Voices in part, is my story and in part, the story of so many women lost to time. The curiosity I felt when looking at old photos in antique and collectibles shops, triggered a desire to begin researching women’s lives in particular. I found so many random, interesting, facts and yet there was a lack of intimate detail about their day-to-day life. One afternoon I grabbed a handful of pictures that piqued my curiosity more than the others and I began telling their stories. In short, I was going to be their voices. These women, what were they thinking at the time of photographs? What incident went through their mind as the picture was being taken? Was it what had happened the night before? The week prior? Were they just musing about the person across from them? Some women posed and some are candid snapshots, but all photos tell a story. I chose to tell their tales in short essays, inspired by Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, so that their stories could be read in their entirety, one after the other, or one at a time, in no particular order.

Life was not always pleasant despite our romanticized views of the past. Some of the things women did to survive, or to be their own person, could be considered morally questionable by many today, but in actuality there weren’t many options available to women. So, I focused on creating stories that reveal truths; stories that talked about the hard decisions and tough lives many women lived and the choices they made, to endure in a country and culture where they had little power. Using criminal records, diaries, vintage women’s magazines, books and a multitude of online resources, I pieced together these stories.

Few of us will ever understand the hardships women tolerated and the emotions felt, suppressed, and ignored. I wanted to find the voices and speak the narratives of these forgotten women who languished in baskets and bins, under layers of dust, forgotten perhaps, even by their families. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

Colleen Saffron