7. Itch where you can scratch

July 1855

By Calico

 

 

“Twenny-eight, twenny-nine,  … er,” Beth lifted her youngest brother’s arm, “Twenny-nine…”

 

“NO!” protested Hannibal, keeping an eagle eye on the count.  “You SAID twenny-nine!  That un’s – THIRDY!”

 

“Thirdy,” accepted Beth, placidly.  “Sorry.”  She examined the small armpit.

 

Jed wriggled.  “Tiddles!” he giggled. “Da tiddlesh, Beff!”

 

“Sit still!  Thirdy-one…” Beth’s fingers moved to the back of Jed’s neck.  “Thirdy-two…”

 

“NO!” This time the protest came from Esther.  “That’s where you started!”

 

“’T’isn’t!” argued Hannibal.

 

“’TIS!”

 

Beth peered closely.  “Yes, ‘tis,” she confirmed.  “There’s the pencil mark we made.”

 

Hannibal also squinted closely at the back of Jed’s neck.  He moved aside a blond curl.  There was – dang it – the pencil mark.

 

“Humph,” he conceded.

 

“So…” Beth padded – damply – to the table.  Hannibal padded – equally damply – after her.  Tongue protruding in concentration, Beth made a crooked note on a scrap torn from the paper, which had wrapped the Currys’ last order of tea.  Frowning in – again, equal – concentration Hannibal watched carefully.  She wrote ‘thirty-one’.  Correct.

 

The front door shut with a snap.  Hannibal, Beth and Esther all swivelled round.  Guilt flooded three small faces.  The fourth small face did not look guilty.  Jed beamed brightly at Mrs. Heyes and splashed happily in his bath.

 

“WHAT…” said Sarah, “do you three think you are doing out of the water?”

 

“It’s a – a chan’enge!” Hannibal explained.  “We’re…”

 

“BACK into those baths NOW!” his mother ordered.  “Tchah!  I can’t even visit the outhouse!”

 

Hannibal joined Jed in the smaller of the two tins baths in front of the stove.  To show willing he began, industriously, to scoop up oatmeal and strands of camomile from the surface and plaster it – firmly – on the spottiest bits of Jed.

 

“Stoppid, Han’bul!” protested his bath mate.  A small hand scraped off the – was it porridge?  A tentative fingerful – not the first – was tasted.  It was a BIT like porridge.

 

The two girls climbed back into their own, bigger, tub.

 

“Sorry, Mrs. Heyes,” said Beth.  She had been left ‘in charge’ and had yielded to temptation.  She gave a sigh.

 

“I know, Beth,” sympathised Sarah.  “It’s not easy being ‘eldest girl’.  I have to be ‘eldest girl’ ALL the time round at our place and I’m not nearly so good at it, as you are.  Try not to scratch Esther.  I know it’s hard but, do try.”

 

“It ITCHES, Mrs. Heyes!”

 

“I know…”

 

“Han’bul’s sc’atching!  Tell yim!  Tell yim!”

 

Sarah gave Esther a reproving ‘no tattling’ frown and then moved her eyes to the boys’ bath.  Given the pre-warning, both Hannibal’s hands were innocently still.  However, an angry red spot on his shoulder showed where a crust had been picked off.

 

“Hannibal!  Do you want to be covered in scars?”

 

“Yes,” nodded Hannibal, truthfully.  That sounded good!  Like – like Sinbad!

 

“So do I!” declared Esther.

 

“Me too!” chimed in Jed.  Though, to be fair, ‘me too’ was a favourite response of two-year old Jed’s to any statement by Hannibal and Esther.

 

“Well I don’t want you smothered in chicken-pox scars!” declared Sarah.  “And…”

 

“YOU has chicka-pox scars from when YOU’SE was a girl!  Farfer said!”

 

“Well…”

 

“So, YOU musta – sc’atched!”

 

“Hannibal, I think the apt phrase here is ‘do as I say, not as I did’!  Don’t scratch!”

 

“Where’s your scars, Mrs. Heyes?” asked Beth.  “I can’t see ‘em.”

 

“They’se somewhere only farfer is ‘llowed to look!” explained Hannibal.

 

“Hannibal…” Sarah reproved.

 

“An’ farfer counts ‘em – ‘stead o’ sheep – to get himself to sleep at nights!”

 

“Hannibal!”

 

“’Course he don’t know how many there is…’Cos he always nods off!”

 

Flushing and trying not to laugh, Sarah gave Hannibal a good splashing to shut him up.  She would have a few words to say to Alex next time she saw him!

 

The subject of numbers reminded Hannibal of the interrupted challenge.

 

“Mother, what’s…?” Hannibal frowned for a second remembering, “Twenny-seven an’ thirdy-one?”

 

“Er – fifty-eight,” said Sarah.

 

So, Hannibal thought, the boys had fifty-eight spots.

 

“And – what’s twenny-five an’ thirdy-six?”

 

“Sixty-one!”

 

Dang!

 

“Is sixty-one – us?” checked Esther.

 

“Yeah,” grumbled Hannibal.

 

“Is sixty-one…” a freckled forehead furrowed, “More’n fifdy-eighd?”

 

“Almost always,” confirmed Sarah.  “Approximately – three more.”

 

“Hah!” Esther triumphed.  “Hah! Ha-hah!  We’re spoddier’n them!” she explained to Mrs. Heyes.

 

“Really!” marvelled Sarah.  She lifted Jed out of the supposedly soothing bath and began to pat him dry.  In an undertone, “Try not to scratch, Darling.  There’s a good boy.  Girls, Hannibal – out you get.  Get dry.  Remember, PATTING.  No rubbing.”

 

Inspiration struck Hannibal, as he watched Jed’s wriggling body in the towel.

“Our boddoms!  We’se forgot to count spots on our…” Imperative tone. “Mother!  Count the spots on Jed’s boddom!  An’ – an’ mine!”

 

“Sometimes…” mused Sarah, out loud, “I worry the unremitting excitement and exhilaration of my life might overwhelm me.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“I am going to pass on that high treat, Hannibal.” Jed was helped into a nightshirt.

 

“Mother!  Why…?”

 

Once more the door opened and clicked shut.

 

“’Lo, Ma! Ma!” Jed began to run over.  Remembered.  Stopped.  “No?”

 

“It’s alright, Jed,” said his mother.  “You’re not infectious any more.”  She squatted down – as well as she could – opened her arms.  A beaming Jed ran over and got hugged.

 

“Mrs. Curry!” Hannibal turned and hitched up his towel.  “We needs you to count spots on our boddoms!  Mother…” a reproachful look, “…she WON’T!”

 

His towel was filched by the sub-standard maternal one.  A second nightshirt was popped over his protesting head.  Wriggling.  A cross dark head re-appeared.  More wriggling.  Two hands worked free.

 

“Well, it’s an offer I don’t get every day, Hannibal,” said Mrs. Curry. “But, no thank you.”

 

“Why??”

 

“My boddom’s spoddier’n your’n, anyhow!” gloated Esther, smugly.  “So, we’d still win!”

 

“’T’isn’t!”

 

“’T’is!”

 

“’T’isn’t!”

 

Esther hitched up her freshly donned nightdress.  Sticking out the article in question, she twisted over her own shoulder as well as she was able to check.

“’TIS!” she maintained.  She turned round to display the evidence to Hannibal.

 

He blinked.  That was – pretty spotty!  A nightshirt hitched up.  He too, twisted around to do a quick recalculation of the odds.

 

“Is it just me, Sarah,” mused Elizabeth, “Or – has the tone really lowered?” She clapped her hands.  “Right!  Sock time!  Then, I want every rear end – however spotty – tucked up in bed!”

 

Sarah fitted a pair of woolly socks – small enough to hold exploring fingers together – over Hannibal’s hands.  They were tied firmly in place.  Reminders were given of the dire penalties – so scary they could not be described – for removal of socks.  Hannibal was hugged.  The tip of his nose was kissed.

 

“You look so…” Sarah bit back cute.  He hated that.  “So spotty!” she substituted.  A particularly nasty blemish was ‘kissed better’.

 

Elizabeth was tying ‘anti-scratch’ socks on the two girls.  They too, were hugged and ‘kissed better’.

 

“Jed,” Elizabeth tilted up the small chin.  “Do you need a last visit to the outhouse?  Before socks and bed?”

 

Blond curls shook.

 

“Sure?” A small finger beckoned her close.  Elizabeth bent her head to listen.  A confidence was whispered in her ear.   “I see,” nodded Elizabeth.  “Try not to do that, Jed.  It’s not nice when you’re sharing, is it?” The blond curls shook once more, with just a hint of apology.

 

A dark-haired bath buddy stared, suspiciously, at the water he had just climbed out of.

 

The confiding one was socked.

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

In the Curry bedroom, two clumsy pawed youngsters were tucked into the head of their parents’ big bed.  Two more were tucked up at the foot.   Foreheads were kissed.  Soothing motherly sounds about how soon it would stop itching were made.

 

Two mothers went back out to the big kitchen.

 

Silence.  More silence.  Waiting for…

Yup.  There it was.  Murmurs of conversation.  The glug of tea being poured from the fat pot.  The mothers were no longer listening hard.

 

“Esther!” hissed Hannibal.  “Esther!  We needs a recount!”

 

“Pfffttt!  We won!”

 

“Recount!”

 

“We’ll still win!”

 

“You scared to recount?”

 

“Pfffttt!”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

“How were the boys?” asked Sarah.

 

“Nate and Zach?  Absolutely full of themselves!  If I heard,’we men’, ’the men’s house’, once, I heard it a dozen times!”

 

Her older sons had had chicken pox before Beth was born.  By the second full day of the illness, Sarah had relieved Nathanial of the hands on nursing, while the children were still infectious.    Elizabeth, like herself, had HAD the disease, but was grateful for her friend’s and husband’s efforts to limit her contact.  Doctor Wallace had said that since she was more than five months pregnant, there should be no problems.  All the same…

 

Immune, Nate and Zach had moved out to the Heyes’ place, with their father, leaving the women to care for the four sick youngsters in the Curry house, while they – the MEN – got on with the all important job of harvesting wheat.

 

“What about the other two boys?” smiled Sarah.

 

“I would LOVE to say they are missing their domestic comforts and pining for their wives.  BUT …” Elizabeth grinned, “I have a horrid feeling my visit – even bringing fresh loaves, chicken and pie – disturbed comfortable bachelor bliss.  They were contentedly toasting cheese, drinking beer with their boots propped up on the table and eating bottled plums straight from the jar.” She exchanged a glance with her friend.  “AND they STILL haven’t shaved!”

 

“After all we said!” humphed Sarah.  A pause.

 

Elizabeth wrapped her hands around her mug. “Well…” she soothed, “The novelty will soon wear off!”

 

Sarah tucked her feet up under her.  “Of course it will!” A crooked smile lifted one cheek.  “Doing what you want, when you want.  No set meal times.  Drinking beer.  Living in a mess.  Men hate that!”

 

The two friends exchanged a glance.

 

“Well,” considered Elizabeth, answering the unspoken question.  “Beth was the last one to show symptoms – and she’s definitely had three waves…”

 

“Last new spot?” checked Sarah.

 

“Saturday.  All crusted over now…”

 

“So – the last of the crusts will fall off …” Sarah furrowed her brow, “End of the week?”

 

“At the latest. And, we don’t HAVE to wait till then.”

 

“No, no,” said Sarah. She burrowed down a little deeper in the chair cushions.  “It would be cruel to leave the men to their own devices TOO long.”

 

Both women buried their noses in their steaming mugs.  Hands reached out towards Elizabeth’s honey cookies.  Dunking.  Lips being licked.  More dunking.  Elizabeth joined Sarah in tucking her feet under her amidst cushions.

 

Sounds from the bedroom.  Muffled and tentative at first.  Then childish arguing became more distinct.

 

“Twenny-seven, twenny-eighd,  twenny-nine…”

 

“NO!  ‘T’isn’!  Dat’s a big F’ECKLE!”

 

“’T’ain’t!”

 

The mothers exchanged a glance.

 

“Are we going in?” asked Elizabeth.  She made no move.

 

“’Tis!”

 

“Poke it!  See if’n it’s sore!”

 

Sarah snuggled down.  “Unless we smell smoke, or hear screaming – I vote ‘no’,” she decided.

 

“Not sore!”

 

“F’eckle!”

 

“Okay.  Twenny-nine…”

 

“Uh huh.  Stan dup, Jed!”

 

“Thirdy, thirdy-one…Keep your shir dup…”

 

“Can’ see!”

 

“You ain’ coun’din!  Keep it up!”

 

“Thirdy-two…”

 

Elizabeth met her friend’s eyes.  “Sounds real good for their mathematics, huh?” she smiled.

 

Both mothers reached for another cookie.

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

 

Notes:

Elizabeth’s concern – Chicken pox can cause congenital defects in babies if the mother is exposed during pregnancy.  However, the risk is much reduced (moving to negligible) in a pregnancy beyond its twentieth week.

 

 

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