LATE AUGUST 1857
“It will not always be summer: build barns.” Hesiod
I do what I do every barn raising, I watch Alex work. To me, even after ten years of marriage, he is the most handsome man here.
My lord and love most wondrous fair.
Hannibal runs up to him, Alex squats down briefly to speak to our son. Then, Hannibal’s hat is removed, hair ruffled, and the hat replaced on the back of his head, before he is sent out of the way of the working team. Alex stands and stretches. His shirt sticks, so as he extends his arms and rolls his shoulders to ease them, I see muscles flex then relax under the clinging cotton.
One of the other ladies talks to me. I smile in all the right places, but my eyes drift over. I glance at the sun and try to work out how many hours until this is over. Until we are home. Until Hannibal is asleep. Until…
He undoes a button and pulls the material away from his damp skin. Away from where the hollow of his throat gives way to the top of his chest, to allow the breeze to kiss the place I love to kiss. Is he doing it because he knows I am watching? I cannot see his face, so I cannot be sure …
I do what I do every barn raising watch Alex Heyes work. He prefers ‘Alex’, at least that is what most folk say. SHE says ‘Alex’. Maybe – maybe he WOULD prefer Alexander but no one asks? Out loud, of course, I still call him ‘Mr. Heyes’.
Inside, I used to always say ‘Alexander’. First, he would be someone like Ivanhoe and I would be Rowena. Then, once he was defending her, I would switch and be Rebecca. As I grew older he would be more like Bois-Guilbert – me still being Rebecca, obviously. Because, as I grew older, I liked the scenes where Bois-Guilbert swears he cannot live without – having – Rebecca. The scenes where he is driven mad by passion. Of course I changed it a bit, I did not threaten to throw myself off a tower. Or – if I did – only until I understood I was being offered marriage, which is different to what Rebecca got promised. I mean threatened with. So, I suppose, I let Alexander mix up the best bits of Ivanhoe with the best bits of Bois-Guilbert.
I do not have THOSE daydreams anymore. Much. Mostly now, I just dream about someone falling in love with me. Madly in love. Getting married. A home of my own. I try not to let it be Alex. (I mostly say ‘Alex’ now, inside.) Because, if I let myself think about him that way too much I get embarrassed when he talks to me. Or when SHE does. I mean Mrs. Heyes, his wife. I glance over at her. She looks older than him, I wonder if she is? I wonder if he is still madly in love with her? They have been married years and years so probably not. Though, in my daydreams HE stays madly in love with ME forever. HE though is not Alex. HE might look and sound like Alex but, that is not the same thing.
I decide the sensible thing – the grown-up thing – is to stop watching Alex.
I will! I will watch one of the other teams.
Then then I see him stretch, outlined against the clear blue of the sky. His hand moves to loosen the top of his shirt…
This is my first week in Larson Creek. Mr. Mueller, a member of the school board, is introducing me to townsfolk and some of the surrounding farmers. I do my best to catch and remember names, wanting to make the best impression I can, but there are too many. The noise of sawing, hammering and shouted instructions does not help. Nor does the fact that Mr. Mueller tends to tap the next new acquaintance on the shoulder, rather than face me as he says, the names.
“…’Ster Alexander he’s …Farm, ‘bout …Miles north.”
The fifteenth – twentieth? – introduction of the day, turns round, tucks his hammer into his belt and holds out a gloved hand. I look up at a smile so charming, my own widens involuntarily. My first thought is … No! I push away my first thought. I am not far off thirty and a staid school ma-am, NOT a silly schoolgirl.
“This…New school ma-am…Caro…Field,” Mr. Mueller is saying, over the hammering. “But…” he starts to smile. I brace myself, because well meaning, but not sensitive, he has made the same little joke nearly every time. “But, I think…Mistake…Lost the last teacher…Miss Collins …Be married. Another pretty woman … Lose …Heye … Within the year?” One of those sudden inexplicable lulls common to noisy situations occurs. It leaves Mr. Mueller repeating loudly.
“I said, don’t you think it’s a mistake hiring another young an’ pretty teacher? Some lucky man’ll steal her away! Give it a year we’ll be back where we started?”
I blush. As I say, it is not the first time I have listened to Mr. Mueller’s kindly meant, though laboured humour. But it IS the first time it makes me blush. I am annoyed – not with Mr. Mueller, with myself. I am annoyed with myself for reacting differently to Mr. Alexander hearing me described as young and pretty when in fact I am no longer so young and was never more than ‘tolerable’ than to all the other men I have been introduced to today.
His – Mr. Alexander’s I mean – smile deepens. But, I feel he is smiling with me not at me. Not even AT Mr. Mueller.
“Now Miss Field,” he says, hands moving to his hips, “I call that a trick question! If I answer ‘yes’ it implies our school board made a mistake hiring you. And, wouldn’t you agree, at least while Mueller’s listening, the school board is always right, huh?” He raises his eyebrows.
I laugh despite myself. “Until I get my feet firmly under my new desk in September, the word of the school board is LAW.”
“AND,” he continues, “If I answer ‘no’ it implies I think you’ll still be single this time next year. Now, I suspect that pretty much rests with you, ma-am, and as I don’t know how highly you think of either men nor matrimony – I’ve no way of calculating the odds.” I am surprised at the quotation. Perhaps he sees this, for he gives me a quizzical look as if to say ‘even on a farm I do have books’. “What do YOU usually say, when there is no right answer?” he asks.
I purse my lips. “Mostly I choose that moment to ring the bell!” I am pleased when he laughs. The hammering starts to build again. I raise my voice over it. “Do you … Children in school …?” A lull, “Mr. Alexander?” His name comes out too loud in the moment’s quiet. Perhaps that is why another sudden grin dimples his face. He is shaking his head, as once again the banging of nails into wood and joints into joists dominates the air.
“No,” he begins, “I…”
One of the younger men on his team, throws a rag at him and shouts, “Hey…S…Quit with … Sweet talk! Back to work!” He shrugs, raises a hand in farewell and swings himself, easily, up onto one of the support beams.
My escort is already leading me across to trellises where food is set out, carefully covered, for later. I do NOT allow myself to glance back.
Away from the noise, I am made known to one lady after another. No Mrs. Alexander I notice and I frown that I can still be so silly. But, it was not just the handsome face – though of course it helps. It was that tug of rapport. I have lived long enough and started fresh in a new town often enough to realise that is rare and to be valued.
Mr. Mueller leaves me in the ‘capable hands’ of an Elizabeth Curry. She has children already in school and more to start. She points out one daughter, Esther, off at a distance, playing some boisterous game with a dark lad around her own age and a curly headed younger boy, clearly another of the Curry family.
Mrs. Curry is very agreeable – intelligent, kind, making me feel welcome without any gushing. Her neighbour, both here and on their farms, a Mrs. Heyes, is still more likeable. No, that is not quite what I mean to express. With Mrs. Heyes I fall into talk about books, we make each other laugh and the conversation gets eager and easy. She tilts her head on one side and her upper lip lifts just a fraction, as she listens so you feel she truly wants to hear what you have to say. With Mrs. Heyes I begin to hope I have found more than a pleasant acquaintance. Once more, an involuntary tug of rapport impossible to conjure if it does not spark naturally. There is a chance I have found my first friend in Larson Creek. Again I have lived long enough to know an actual ‘friend’ rather than ‘friendly companion’ is rare indeed.
He is coming over! I realise I am ignoring whatever Will Myers is saying. Of course he is not coming to talk to me. At any rate, only because, I man the barrel of lemonade, washing mugs, keeping the cover on, making sure no child over indulges.
“…Shall I go pump some fresh rinsing water, Louisa?”
“Huh?” It sinks in and I smile, “Sure, Will. Thanks.” It is not until he walks away, bucket in hand – I SWEAR it is not till then – that I think, ‘Good. He’s gone.’
He – Alex, I mean, not Will – takes a drink. Thanks me. Smiles that smile. I ask how his team is doing, is he winning? Because like every time, there is a competition – though that is not really the point. He says he doubts Nathanial’s – he means Mr. Curry’s – team, that’s the one he’s on, will win. Because they drew the main door and that wall hardly ever wins. I say you never know! And he says never mind, winning is nice but not really the point. I cannot think of much else to say about that. He is about to go. So, I say what I really wanted to say, ever since he walked over.
I say, “Happy birthday, Mr. Heyes.”
He looks surprised. He grins and pushes back his hair, which he does a lot.
“How did you know?” Then, he pretends to look worried. His fingers are still in his hair and he kind of, lifts a bit of it. “You’re not counting greys are you? There isn’t a fresh one, since yesterday?”
I giggle. He has not GOT any grey.
“You TOLD me,” I say. He looks blank. “You remember!” I say, “You admired my dress an’ I said it was a birthday present, an’ you asked when that was, an’ I asked you when yours was – an’ you told me.” He smiles, but I do not think he does remember. Well, it was years ago. I think I was only twelve.
Will is back. He heaves the bucket of fresh rinsing water onto the trellis.
“Louisa,” he starts, “after the pig roast is over are you walking home? I mean, is anyone … I mean, I know you’re here with your folks anyway, but …” He is blushing. He catches Mr. Heyes’ eye. I think he – Will, I mean – had been planning what to say so hard, though you would not think it, to hear him, he had not noticed Alex standing there.
Alex smiles. Not laughing at Will, just nice. He IS nice.
“I better get back,” he says. His smile deepens, he has dimples when it does that, and adds, “Get out of your way, huh?”
Alex is walking along the top beam. No! Strutting along it.
“He stalks up and down like a peacock, a stride and a stand, a stride and a stand.”
He is many things, but ‘modest as the morning’, is not one of them.
He swings down, still showing off. Oh, he knows alright. Knows I am watching! Knows what I am thinking. He always knows. A smile wreathes my face.
He flashes me a grin. Though the distance is too far to see, I know the look on his face is wicked. I lower my lashes, so Miss Field, who seems delightful, does not see sudden laughter in my eyes and think me strange. He raises his hand to me.
Mrs. Curry is telling me about the activities of the ladies committee. I smile, nod, but my eye is caught by the blue shirted figure walking easily along the high narrow beam, in the distance. A grown man who has not yet lost the boyish urge to – well, to show off! Do they ever? And, if they do how much else must they have lost first? He swings himself back down to the ground. I wonder, is he vain enough to think anyone is watching? I smother a rueful grin. If he DOES think that, he is – after all – only too right.
He is looking over, smiling. Is he looking at me? He raises a hand. It seems churlish not to respond. I make a tentative gesture.
I clear my throat and casually say, “Mr. Alexander seems to throw himself into the spirit of the event. Is his farm any great distance from yours, Mrs Curry?”
She follows my eyes.
“I don’t think I know a Mr. Alexander. Of course…” Her brow puckers. “There have been new arrivals over the past months. Or maybe someone has recently hired a new hand?”
“Oh, I had the impression he had his own farm,” I say. “And, when we chatted I – well – I thought he had lived here some time. Else why did Mr. Mueller introduce him? It was not as one of the parents, he said he’d no children.”
Mrs. Curry and Mrs. Heyes wear expressions indicating they know my enquiry is not QUITE so casual as I would have them believe. Curious, they look over toward the building area. My cheek flushes but they are neither disapproving, nor pitying. I feel both realise the day men and women take no interest in each other will be, pretty much, the other side of never. So, it is hypocritical for ‘ladies’ to pretend otherwise.
“He is the dark haired man, in the blue shirt,” I say. I nod towards him then hastily look away. I look away, because he is striding over.
Mrs. Curry rolls her eyes. Mrs. Heyes lets out a peal of laughter. Then, she covers her mouth and flashes me an apologetic look.
“Alex,” she calls over, “I hear you claimed to have no children! Have you finally managed to trade Hannibal for something useful? If you have, where’s my share?”
As if on cue, the three children race over. The older boy is in front – just. Esther Curry is giving him a good run for his money. Even before he shouts “Pa! Pa!” it is obvious, to any one with eyes, whose son he is.
I hope my face is not so scarlet as it feels. I explain, in an undertone, “No children IN SCHOOL. That is all I meant. None in school.”
What did I say? How bad was it? She – Mrs. Heyes, I mean – is clearly not offended in the slightest. I recap. Nothing TOO bad. Not really. If one of my adolescent pupils, as they sometimes do, poured out fears that she had made a fool of herself and had said nothing worse, I would reassure her confidently.
‘Everyone will forget it by this time next week, if not by tomorrow.’
‘Everyone thinks too much about their own mistakes, to worry long about yours. Put it out of your mind.’
It is good advice. I try to follow it.
By this time the younger boy has reached – I lodge the name firmly in my mind – Mr. Alexander HEYES. He is swung high into the air.
“You’re getting too heavy for this,” he is told.
“No! Again!” yells – is it Jed? – yes, Jed Curry. He squeals in delight as, once more, he sweeps through the air, curls and bootlaces flying at either end. “Again! Again!”
“ME!” complains Hannibal, “My turn!”
“No chance!” smiles his father, “You were too heavy last year!” But he does swing the boy. Then, he turns him upside down. “You reckon I could trade him?” he asks his wife, “Sounds too good to be true! Hannibal,” he looks down at the boy now using his father as a kind of prop, for a handstand, “we’ve decided to swap you for something useful. Failing that, maybe a puppy. Is that okay with you?” Mr. Heyes smiles over to me. “I’m sure that’d be fine with you, Miss Field, huh? I’m sure the last thing you want next year is this one…” He tips Hannibal back the right way up, setting him on his feet. “‘Whining and creeping like snail, unwillingly to school’!”
“Especially as the ‘shining morning face’ never lasts more than five minutes!” adds his wife. “Hannibal,” she says, “Come say, ‘hello’, to Miss Field. She’ll be your teacher once you start school.”
“You two as well,” says Mrs. Curry.
“How do you do?” says Hannibal. He looks at his palm, holds it out, but warns me, “It’s kinda dirty.”
“That’s alright,” I answer, shaking hands. “I planned on washing this week anyway. Next week at the latest.” He thinks about this then grins. “Are you not coming to school in September, Hannibal?”
“We thought probably AFTER Christmas,” says Mrs. Heyes. By this time, Mr. Heyes has settled on the grass by her seat. He lays back to watch the clouds, but at this they exchange a tight little smile.
“‘Cause he ain’t six yet!” butts in Esther Curry. “Hello, ma-am.”
“Isn’t,” correct all three adults, in chorus. No four, I join in without thinking.
“I’M six!” she continues, supremely satisfied. She holds out her equally grubby hand.
“I’m NEARLY six!” protests Hannibal. “I’m MORE than five an’ eleven twelfths …”
“That IS close,” I say impressed. “So your birthday must be…?”
“The seventeenth of September!” he pronounces.
“Still only five!” triumphs Esther.
A small hand tugs my sleeve. Two very blue eyes meet mine. I bend my head to listen.
“Mine was June. I’m four an’ a bit!”
“Four and a bit!” I marvel. “That’s still pretty old!” I receive a solemn nod of agreement.
“BUT,” says Hannibal, as if trumping the other two, “My Pa, his birthday is today!”
“Say ‘my father’,” murmurs Mrs. Heyes.
“Why? What’s wrong with saying ‘Pa’?” queries Hannibal, “Zach says ‘father’ sounds sissy. Pa!” His father, eyes closed, is not attending, “PA!” The brown eyes open, meet their duplicates, “Do I hafta say ‘father’? It’s sissy! You never say nothin’ when I say ‘Pa’.”
“Anything,” he corrects automatically. “Call me what you like,” the eyes close again, “as long as you don’t call me ‘pigeon pie’ and eat me up.” He receives a sharp nudge from a spousal foot. The eyes open. “Ow! What was that for?” A mute message is sent. He sits up. “Let me rephrase that, Hannibal,” he grins, “whenever she’s around we BOTH say whatever your mother wants, that being easier on my ribs. When it’s just us two, or when you start school, THEN anything will do.”
“What IS wrong with sayin’, ‘Pa’?” he persists.
“It sounds…” Mrs. Heyes stops short. Mrs. Curry raises a quizzical eyebrow, a little smile lurks at the corner of her mouth. Mrs. Heyes flushes.
Her husband’s grin widens. “Go on, my First One! Light of my life! We’re all waiting. It sounds -what?” She is becoming redder every second. “No need to be embarrassed,” he urges. He kneels back on his heels, so he can dodge and peer into her averted face. “Just tell us. You think children saying ‘Pa’ sound…What IS the word you’re searching for? Does it by any chance start with a ‘C’?”
“Oh! Shut up!” she explodes. She hides her scarlet face in her hands, “I KNOW! You think I’m a dreadful snob! Shut UP!”
He throws back his head and laughs. “A snob but not dreadful!” he says, “A delicious snob! And like that other ‘delicious snob’, ‘faultless despite your faults’.” He raises himself up – still on his knees – and opens his arms to present his rib cage. “Free kick?” he offers.
“Aren’t you supposed to be over there hammering something?”
“I’m on a break!” he protests.
“You’ve HAD a break! Go fall off a plank!”
Still grinning, he gets up. He drops a kiss on her head, says, “Elizabeth. Ma-am,” and strides away.
‘THANKSGIVING’ NOVEMBER 1857
“Yet one rich smile, and we will try to bear
The piercing winter frost, and winds, and darkened air.” William Cullen Bryant
It has gone well. I think so anyway. Larson Creek, I found, has its own rituals for marking the gathering in of the final late corn and sorghum. This celebration appears to shake together an English Harvest Festival, a German Erntedankfest, a good helping of New England Thanksgiving History and a leavening sprinkle of Irish Céilidh. It was explained to me the school provided the history. Fair enough. I was concerned, however, to learn I had to find a small role for any younger siblings my pupils wished to bring along. Organising a performance involving a whole class, ages ranging from six upwards, is hard enough. Adding close to a dozen younger children, some hardly past toddling, seemed a recipe for disaster. But it is over now. No disaster. All the parents appear pleased. Of course parents and grandparents are not a discriminating audience. We lost any reference to the Mayflower. Despite my hissed prompt to Kurt Mueller, the pilgrims apparently sailed on. “The – the… Great big boat, bigger’n a steamer. Kinda like a pirate ship.” Now I receive polite thanks and sip my, disappointingly innocent, cider cup. Ladies congratulate each other on their contributions to the food spread out at the far end of the hall. Chairs are cleared. Fiddles are tuned.
There is a tap on my shoulder.
“Brava! I was on the edge of my seat. Drama! Suspense! Pathos! And Pirates! It had it all!”
“Alex,” I smile, “Glad you could make it. How’s Sarah?”
“Not too bad,” he says. “Just very tired. She says she feels much better than usual this late, so…” He breaks off and finishes with a hopeful smile.
They expect another child before Christmas. Sarah has not told me – and I do not ask, because she so obviously does not want to talk about it – but I gather they lost a baby last year. Alex is clearly anxious. He tries, they both try, to stay positive. I suppose, the worst thing he could do, would be to openly fret. That would only burden Sarah, with having to reassure him.
“I’ll be off home soon,” he says, “but we couldn’t BOTH miss Hannibal’s triumph.” He grins, “Speak of the devil…”
Hannibal and Jed scamper up. Jed lifts his arms. Alex shakes his head.
“Sorry Jed! I don’t think there’s room to swing you, without knocking out a neighbour. That’d never do, would it?”
“I was good, wasn’t I? Told you I would be!” says Hannibal, coming straight to the point.
“You were both outstanding!” pronounces Alex, “The best portrayal of sheaves of wheat I have ever seen.”
“BUT,” stresses Hannibal, “I was HEAD sheaf. I was the leader!”
“Hannibal was centre sheaf,” I explain. “He set the pace for the swaying. Do you see?”
“I think you mentioned that, son,” says Alex, frowning as if trying to remember, “Yes, I seem to recall it coming up in conversation a couple of dozen times.”
“Did you notice the gusts?” asks Jed. He holds his hands, still clutching his ‘wheatears’, high and bends deeply to the right.
Alex and I exchange a glance. I shrug. Gusts?
“I decided,” sighs Hannibal, “instead of just swaying all even, like you said, I’d have a proper windy day. So we did,” he demonstrates, “Sway, sway, sway, big gust from the left! Sway, sway, sway, ‘nother big gust from the left! Didn’t ya notice? I made ‘em all rehearse it extra! As a kinda bonus for you, ma-am!”
“I knew it needed something,” I marvel, “Thank you, Hannibal! And Jed, too!” I see Hannibal begin to scowl, “It may have been your idea, Hannibal,” I say, “But even the best ideas need someone to make them work. I’m sure Jed demonstrating to the others, what you wanted, helped a lot!” He does not look completely convinced, but gives a ‘maybe’ shrug.
“Are you still comin’ for lunch, Sunday, ma-am?” he asks.
“Er,” I hesitate. I look at Alex. “Will Sarah be…?” I do not want to say ‘well enough’, in front of Hannibal.
“Oh! Don’t cry off,” he says, “Sarah wants to progress this community library idea you’re both so keen on. She means to spend the afternoon drafting fundraising plans and, more importantly, listing books, in strict order of literary merit.”
“Is she confident,” I smile, “that literary merit can be objectively ranked? If – heaven forfend – we disagree, do you get the casting vote?”
“Not a hope,” he shakes his head, “I think I’m relegated to sharpening pencils and taking notes. Possibly making coffee. Like Jed, I’m expected to weigh in on the practical side – leave the real brains free for the creative stuff.”
“Shall I bring anything?” I ask, “Other than my – undoubtedly wise – opinions and possibly a spare pencil?”
“Bring pie,” says Hannibal.
“Shall I bring EVERYTHING?”
Alex laughs. “No! You can relax! I’m cooking, not Mrs. ‘Just leave the burnt bits.’ But, I will – quite falsely, by the way – plead masculine incapability of pie. So, feel free.”
“Can Jed come?” asks Hannibal.
“May Jed come?”
“MAY Jed come?” the boy parrots.
“If he asks his mother, first,” says Alex, “And as long as you find something quiet to do afterwards because your mother will be busy.”
“We won’t be STAYING!” dismisses Hannibal, scornfully, “We have plans!”
Jed treats us to a last gust. They run off.
I cannot hear what Hannibal says to Doc Wallace but suspect it is a variation on, “I was good wasn’t I?” Jed’s arms whip up, he sways.
I try not to keep glancing round but it is hard not to. I lay down my cider cup, then come back to stand beside – rather than facing – Papa. This gives me a better view of the room.
He is still talking to her, Miss Field, I mean. Little Hannibal and the youngest Curry boy are repeating their “wheat” act. I assume it is wheat, anyhow. But, I thought Tommy Bauer, in a costume covered in feathers, was a Brave. Apparently he is a turkey. She should have written labels. Still talking to her. Smiling. Laughing. Not that it is any of my business who he talks to. I do not think about him any more. I decided.
Oh! He is coming over! He smiles at me, says ‘Hello, Louisa,’ but has come to talk to Papa. He is saying how well the boys did. Papa makes a remark about pirates and – gently, just joshing – clips Kurt. Kurt scowls.
“Never even noticed,” says Alex. “Too busy listening out for ‘Land Ho!'” Kurt, still embarrassed, shrugs, half smiles, slouches off.
Papa spots Doctor Wallace, standing by himself over by the ham. “Excuse me, Heyes,” he says, “I just want to catch…” Off he walks.
“I – I loved the wheat field, Mr. Heyes,” I say. “I thought it was real, real cute!”
“Well, I’m biased, but so did I,” Alex smiles at me. “I don’t think I’d let Hannibal hear you call him ‘cute’, though. He prefers outstanding! Or breathtaking!”
I try to think of something else to say. Little Beth Curry sidles up to Alex. She slips her hand into his – tugs.
I slip my hand into Mr. Heyes’ and tug. He bends down to listen. “Did you like my song?” I whisper.
“It was lovely, Beth,” he tells me.
“Good as last night?”
“Well,” he says, seriously, “last night was kind of special, because then you sang it, just for me.” I like that. I squeeze his hand tight and keep hold.
“I thought it was real nice, Beth,” says Louisa Mueller.
“You weren’t in it this time, Louisa,” says Mr. Heyes. “Weren’t you ‘Catherine Carver’ last year?”
“No!” she says. “That was the year before!” Her face falls, as though Mr. Heyes said something real bad. Why? He only asked a question. “I’ve been outta school years! Near TWO years!” She has gone – all pink. “You know I have, Mr. Heyes!” Her voice sounds like Esther’s, when she complains something is not fair. “You must know! I’ve served you in the mercantile.”
Mr. Heyes’ dimples appear. I think he is trying not to laugh. I do not see why. Louisa said nothing funny. But, that IS how he looks trying not to laugh.
“I do apologise,” he says, “Am I forgiven? Or shall I slink away to a dark corner?”
She goes even pinker. “Don’t be silly!”
“You do know,” he says, “you’ll soon be delighted if someone knocks a couple of years off! I would be, Louisa. Or, since I’m in disgrace – and you’re all grown-up – is it Miss Mueller, now?”
“Don’t be silly!” she repeats, “You can’t do that after more’n ten years. Don’t be silly, Mr. Heyes.”
“That many?” he says, “Sheesh, no wonder I lose track. Tell you what,” he is smiling again, “since we’ve been friends so long and you’re NOT sending me off to skulk in a corner, why don’t you even things up a bit? Drop the ‘Mister Heyes’?”
She goes pink again. But this time is different. This time, I think she is pleased. I tug hard on his hand. He looks down.
“Can I do that?” I ask, “Can I just say Alex?”
He squats down, I am just a TINY bit taller when he does that. “You’re one of my three best girls,” he pinches my chin, “YOU can call me anything you like… As long as…?” He raises his eyebrows.
I laugh, because I know what comes next. He has said it before. “Long as I don’t call you ‘pigeon pie’ an’ eat you up!” I say. Then I frown, “Three best girls! That’s silly! That’s not grammar!” He beckons me with a finger.
I bend my head so he can whisper in my ear. “You were first. So that makes you number one. But you must NEVER tell Esther and Ruth that. Okay?” I nod. “Promise?”
“Promise,” I say.
“Promise – what?”
“Promise,” I giggle. I cover my mouth, “Promise – Alex!”
Mr. Heyes stands up. The fiddles are playing now. Some people are dancing.
I see Walt Bauer coming over. His jacket sleeves are just a bit too short because he has got a lot taller real quick and it is last year’s suit. I think Walt is real nice. Once, I fell over, coming out of school and was bleeding. He strode over from the lumberyard where he works and took me to the pump to get washed up. So, although Mama says I am shy, I give him a smile. He smiles back. He is nice. It is a shame his face is so red, he must be real hot. I think he is coming to ask Louisa to dance, he is looking at her. But, Mrs. Wallace catches him, talks to him. He shuffles from foot to foot. He is nice but not very good at thinking of things to say.
Mr. Heyes is talking to Louisa again. “Ten years, huh?” he says. “And the same tunes every Thanksgiving. Not that I’m complaining.”
“You used…” She blushes. She has something to say, but he is not really listening. I think he is looking round for Hannibal. I look too. He and Jed are over with Mrs. Bauer. She is cutting them both slices of chicken pie. Neither is doing anything wrong. I tug Mr. Heyes’ hand and point. He looks. He sees. He smiles.
He turns back to Louisa Mueller. “Huh? Sorry. What were you saying?”
I see her take a deep breath. “Do you remember? You used to give me a dance every Thanksgiving.” She takes another breath, “Alex!” She giggles. Like I giggled when I said it.
He is looking at Hannibal again. Mrs. Bauer is pouring the boys a cup of apple cider each. “There’s nothing in that cider is there?” he asks.
“You wish!” says Louisa. He laughs. She has made him laugh properly, not just being polite.
He looks at her. “Would you like to dance now?” he asks. “Keep up the tradition?”
She is pink again. She looks real pretty when she goes pink. She nods. I tug his hand.
“Me first?” I ask.
Walt Bauer has made his way over. He is shuffling his feet, clearing his throat.
Mr. Heyes says, “Do you mind Beth having first dance?”
I can see Louisa does mind. But she tries very hard NOT to look cross. “Sure,” she says. She manages a smile.
“Maybe later, huh?” he says.
Walt Bauer clears his throat again. Louisa notices him. “Er – er…” he starts, “Wouldya … I mean … Please may I have this dance?”
“I knew you could do better than me,” says Mr. Heyes. “Come on, Beth.” He lifts me up and takes me onto the floor.
Mrs. Mueller talks about the boys. I nod but my eyes drift toward the dancers. Alex is dancing with Beth Curry balanced on his feet. I think how good he is with children. I hope – I really hope – nothing goes wrong with the baby this time. The dance ends. He delivers Beth back to Mrs. Curry. I watch him collect Hannibal, quell protests at an early departure, wrap him up, leave. He lifts his hand to me and mouths, ‘see you Sunday’. I nod and raise my cup in farewell.
Oh! He is leaving. He said, ‘Maybe later?’ but he has forgotten. I feel the little bubble of – of something inside me deflate. I tell myself firmly it does not matter. It does not matter because – as I said – I never think about him any more. I decided.
I feel silly, just standing there watching him button Hannibal’s coat. So, I go over to Mama. She is talking to Mrs. Bauer. Miss Field is only half listening. I follow her eyes. She is watching HIM the same as me.
“Have you heard?” Mama whispers to Mrs. Bauer, “Mrs. Wallace told Mrs. Myers that Mrs. Heyes might not – might not make it!”
“No!” breathes Mrs Bauer. She looks over at him too.
“Just fancy,” continues Mama, still low, “them both so young. Him left all alone with the boy to raise.”
I have not heard THAT before! I knew she – she was not well. She was real poorly last time. But I have not heard it was as bad as all that!
I had not heard anyone suggest Sarah was in that much danger. Of course women DO die. Maybe – maybe it is just gossip. I am, after all, overhearing something at fourth hand.
Poor Sarah! Human nature being what it is, I selfishly add – poor me! I do not want to lose one of the best friends I have.
Poor Alex! What would he do? Maybe, after a while, he would…? No! The depths to which human nature, mine anyway, can sink even if only for a fraction of a second, shakes me.
No! I will not even THINK about that.
I am in my bedroom, brushing my hair before the glass. My sister is already asleep behind the curtain, which turns our small room into two tiny ones.
Usually, when she is asleep, so I am sort of on my own, I enjoy brushing my hair. I watch myself in the candlelight and dream about – Alan. He does not really exist. I made him up. He is just a name for the man who falls madly in love with me and marries me. He is tall and dark and handsome. He is smart too and talks real nice. He is older than me because I am not real likely to dream about someone like Will Myers or Walt Bauer, am I? Girls grow up faster, everyone knows that. I heard a bride should be half her husband’s age, plus seven. What would that make Alan? I try to work it out. It takes a while because I have to keep picking a new age and starting again. No! That is FAR too young. I must have got it wrong. Maybe – maybe it was not seven you are supposed to add.
In any case I am not thinking about Alan tonight. I try not to think at all. I am definitely NOT going to think about what my Mama said. If it is in my head I cannot help that, that is just remembering. It is not the same as thinking about it. I am NOT thinking about it.
And I am definitely not even for a moment – never, never, never – going to let myself hope, I mean, think…
I look in the glass. Usually I enjoy watching myself curl the hair around my hand as I brush it, seeing how pretty it looks where the light catches. Tonight though I stare into my own eyes, all wide and shining and, for once, I do not like what I see one little bit. I blow the candle out real quick. I go to bed, pull the covers right over my head and try not to think at all.
JANUARY 1858 (N.B. Sarah Heyes died 19th December 1857)
“Every Winter, When the great sun has turned his face away, The earth goes down into a vale of grief, And fasts, and weeps, and shrouds herself in sables.” Charles Kingsley
I am in my bedroom. I am supposed to be downstairs tidying the stockroom. I sigh. I wish – I wish something would happen, so I never had to stack another shelf as long as I live.
Mama shouts, “Louisa! Stop mooning around up there. Customers!”
Then I hear a deep voice. It is HIM! I am SURE it is him. I have not seen him since well before Christmas. Since before Mrs. Heyes…
Suddenly, I do not feel excited any more. I feel – I feel real ashamed of myself. I decide, all over again, to just grow up! I will go downstairs and behave the same as I would if Mr. Myers or Doc Wallace were there.
I get as far as the landing. Then I hear his voice again. I run back. I pull open my drawer, take out my new velvet ribbon. My bottom lip is clenched between my teeth as I look in the glass to fasten it. I pinch my cheeks and quickly fluff out the little curls, which fall over my ears. I stare at myself for a second. I run downstairs real quick – before I have time to think about what I saw.
He turns round as I run in. He looks so …
I forget all about what I look like. He looks…
His eyes are…
I think about Mrs. Heyes….
And the baby…
Suddenly, I just cannot bear the sadness of it all. “Oh, Mr. Heyes,” I say, “Oh, Alex…”
I am in the store with Mr. Heyes, Hannibal and my Ma. Supposedly, Mr. Heyes is doing Ma a favour driving her in to pick up our provisions while he fetches his. But really, I think she is helping him out, making sure he does not forget anything. He tries to pretend he does not feel so bad when Hannibal, or any of us are around. Especially Hannibal. Ma suggested Hannibal stay at our place with Jed while we drove in. But Hannibal likes to be with his Pa all the time just now. I know why. He wants to look after him, stop him getting too miserable. It sounds silly – because obviously, it is really his Pa’s job to look after Hannibal, not the other way round.
I am here because Ma is buying a length of cloth to make me a new winter dress and Esther will have this old one. Ma says I can pick any colour so long as it is practical. Once Mr. Heyes hands over his order and Ma is busy with Mrs. Mueller, I tuck my hand into his and pull him over to where the rolls of material are stacked.
“Which do you like?” I say. He blinks at me. Just now you sometimes have to say things twice, because he is thinking about Mrs. Heyes.
“Huh?” he says, “Sorry, Beth.” He bends down to look with me.
“Maybe blue?” I whisper.
“To go with your eyes, huh?”
“I want YOU to pick,” I say.
Ma glances over. So does Hannibal, I think to check I am not pestering Mr. Heyes. But they can see, he does not feel pestered. I overheard him, back at Christmas, tell Ma he did not want us children asked to treat him all careful. ‘Even five minutes of slipping back to normal helps, Elizabeth,” he said.
“I have to pick?” he checks. I nod. “You know Beth, I think you might suit this honey colour. Shall we ask Mrs. Mueller if we can have the roll out? So we can see it better?” I nod again.
Then, we hear footsteps – real quick – on the stairs. Louisa Mueller runs in through the door behind the counter. It catches in the draft bangs shut behind her. She is all flushed. Mr. Heyes turns round when the door bangs. Louisa stares at him. Her mouth falls open. She sort of gasps and goes real white.
“Oh, Mr. Heyes!” she says. “Oh, Alex…” She claps a hand over her mouth, so you cannot tell everything she says next, but it sounds like. “I’m so sorry…I can’t…It’s so awful…I’m so sorry about Mrs. Heyes…I wish…Oh, God!…I wish…Please – I was so sorry…”
By now, you REALLY cannot tell what the words are, though they go on and on, because, by now she is crying. If grown ups blubbed, I would say she is blubbing.
Mr. Heyes looks… I think the best word might be startled.
Most people – I mean neighbours – say pretty much what Mrs. Mueller said when we walked in. She said, “I was so sorry to hear about your wife, Mr. Heyes.” He said, “Thank you,” and they left it at that. Even that much made Hannibal scowl! Now – now he looks furious.
Mrs. Mueller looks cross too and embarrassed. She is still packing things on our lists, but hisses, “Louisa! You’re making an exhibition of yourself! Stop it!”
Louisa CANNOT stop it. She looks terrible. Her nose swells up the way it does when you cry and cry, her face is mottled red and her mouth is all pulled out of shape. She is still trying to say words but they are just noises now. She has little spit bubbles on her lips and as we all watch, she is groping at her pocket, then at her sleeves. She gives an extra loud sob and wipes her nose on her hand.
Mr. Heyes goes over and gives her a handkerchief. “Here, take mine,” he says. She does. She tries to mop herself up – tries to stop. Another sob shakes her. “Hey, shush,” says Mr. Heyes, real gently. He puts an arm round her, “Shush, shush…” It is what he might say to me if I were blubbing like that. He looks over at my Ma, gives a little shrug. I do not think he knows what to say. He is not angry though, not like Hannibal. I think – I think he feels sorry for her. Which is silly – because she is trying to say how sorry SHE feels for HIM.
She blows her nose hard, takes a few deep gulps of air. She is TRYING to stop. She is saying, “I’m so sorry…I didn’t mean to…Oh, Mr. Heyes…I couldn’t help it…I’m sorry…”
“It’s alright,” he says, “Never mind.” He looks over at my Ma again. His eyes widen. He wants her to help.
Ma goes over. Mr. Heyes moves away as she puts her arm around Louisa. Ma hands her another handkerchief, the one she has is soaking now. “Louisa,” says Ma, kindly, “Why don’t you go bathe your face?”
Louisa, still murmuring, “I’m so sorry…” nods and goes back upstairs.
Mrs. Mueller looks tight lipped as she finishes our order. “Please accept my apologies for that – that scene, Mr. Heyes,” she says.
“Oh,” he shrugs. He does not know what to say. Then, “Poor girl! I’d no idea she was so fond of my wife. No idea at all.” His eyes go misty, “Still, everyone who met her, loved Sarah.”
Mrs. Mueller shoots a sharp look at him. She lowers her head. I see her raise her eyebrows and roll her eyes.
As we put the packages into the wagon, I see Hannibal scowl up at one of the windows above the mercantile. Louisa is half hidden behind the curtain. Ma and Mr. Heyes glance up to see what we are looking at. Mr. Heyes gives Louisa a little ‘don’t worry’ smile. Because she made an awful fool of herself, blubbing like that. She dodges back, out of sight.
“Poor girl,” he says again. “She’s real embarrassed.” He helps Ma up, “Her heart’s in the right place – don’t you think?” As he climbs up, he says to Ma, “When she ran in, did you think she’d a look of Sarah? I mean – how she used to look, when we first married?”
Ma does not answer. She says, “Er…” and tells Hannibal to button his coat.
I cannot believe Mrs. Heyes EVER looked like Louisa Mueller. Louisa is tall and her hair is golden and curly. Mind you, last week Mr. Heyes told me the way I fed chickens reminded him of Mrs. Heyes. And there IS only one way to feed chickens.
END OF APRIL 1858
“Youth is like spring, an over praised season more remarkable for biting winds than genial breezes…” Samuel Butler
Late afternoon into early evening.
Alex is taking down the platform he made. Mr. Mueller and Walt Bauer help. Other fathers – well, some of them – and older boys move chairs. Mothers – again, some of them – carefully take down pupils’ work, which has been displayed around the hall. Other parents take an early opportunity to slip away. I am, supposedly, handing tools. I say supposedly because I am in the process of being dismissed.
“For Pete’s sake, Caroline! I said a claw hammer! It has a claw! The clue’s in the name.”
“Er…” I scrabble. “This one?”
“No! Sheesh! Walt,” he calls, “Is that panel you’re holding heavy?”
“Nope,” says Walt Bauer.
“Swap places with Miss Field then. Seems despite all her education she can’t tell a claw from a ball. I’m kinda dying from the dust under here and I can’t let go of the edge without it falling.”
Sheepishly, I go and take the left panel from Walt. As he said it is not heavy though it is more awkward for me than him, as my arms are shorter.
“Have you got that, ma-am?” says Walt, “‘Cause it’s goin’ to give him a nasty knock if you drop it.” I nod.
“Don’t tell her that!” comes the deep voice from under the platform. “You’re making it sound too tempting!”
Walt moves round, passes a hammer to Alex, of whom we can see no more than a pair of disembodied legs.
“We could just rip it down, you know, Mr. Heyes,” Walt says tentatively. “Wouldn’t take more’n a minute.”
“I built it to last!” comes the voice. “It slots together and unslots to pack away flat! It’s designed to be so simple a child can do it, single handed.”
“Shall we call a child, then?” I say, “Since four adults aren’t doing so well.”
“Mueller,” he calls, “Right panel’s free! Walt take the edge.” Mr. Mueller pulls away the right panel and takes it to lean against the wall. Alex, flat on his back shuffles over to my side. “Can you shift your skirt?” he asks.
“What with?” I protest, “My third arm!”
“Let me take that, ma-am,” offers Mr. Mueller, coming back over. I stand aside. “And, congratulations on another success.”
“Were the school board happy?” I ask.
“More’n happy,” he replies.
“Never thought no one could teach my little brother so much history as all that, ma-am,” says Walt from where he is still holding up the platform to stop it falling on Alex.
“Left panel’s free!” calls Alex. “Don’t forget to hold the edge!” I bend down to support the edge as Mr. Mueller pulls off the panel.
“Hurry,” I squeak, “It’s slipping!” He slithers out, just as the base crashes to the floor. Grinning, Walt places it with the others.
Alex sits up and runs his fingers through his hair to get rid of some of the dust. He stands up. I start to brush his back, then I see Mrs. Mueller and Mrs. Godfrey both watching me and stop. I flush. I am annoyed with myself, for allowing them to make me feel embarrassed.
Hannibal runs up with Esther Curry. “I was good wasn’t I?” he shouts.
“And me? And me?” says Esther. “Did you hear? I stamped on the platform real loud! For – for hoof beats!”
“Marvellous!” Alex says. “You had me looking around for the horses.”
“The British are coming!” shouts Hannibal, “The British are coming!”
“TheBritisharecoming…TheBritisharecoming…TheBritisharecoming…TheBritisharecoming!” joins in Esther.
“THE BRITISH ARE COMING!” Hannibal tries to drown her out.
“The British came for – oh – a solid ten minutes,” Alex smiles at me, “Never realised there were quite so many! Made it more of a surprise when we won, huh?” He twists to look at his back. “Am I still filthy?” I nod. I glance over at Mrs. Mueller. She is watching me with an appraising look. I do NOT brush his back. I let him do the best he can himself.
I understand why the observing eyes make me self-conscious. It is because – deep down – I know the truth of what those ladies think. They think. “If she could she’d like to catch Alex Heyes.”
I try to be the same friend to him, as when Sarah was alive. I HAVE been a good friend. I KNOW talking to me – about her – about how to make things as easy as he can for Hannibal HAS helped. Not much. But a little. He is still – I want to say heartbroken. But hearts do not break. It might hurt him less if it would just break. Stop aching and bruising afresh and catching him by surprise with a sudden spurt of pain. You cannot tell when he is like this in a group. But you see it, sometimes, when it is time to leave. He told me the worst time is after Hannibal is asleep. That is why he volunteers for things like making the platform. Why he throws himself into preparing for the debates a few of us amuse ourselves with. It is something he can do between eight and – and whenever he is tired enough to sleep.
Mrs. Sayers, a widow, maybe a year or so older than him, still very attractive, walks up. She picks up his jacket from where he draped it over a chair. She brushes his back. She holds up his jacket – I mean holds it up the way a man usually helps a woman into a coat. Female eyes watch her covertly.
“There you go, Alex,” she smiles.
“Oh,” he says, “Thanks – er – Kate.” He adds the Christian name awkwardly. He does not put his arms in the sleeves. he just takes it from her.
Ha! I think.
Heavens! I am as bad as Mrs. Mueller! All the woman did was pick up a jacket! Everyone knows she calls on him though. Taking round pies, cakes – supposedly for Hannibal. Supposedly being neighbourly. It IS neighbourly I tell myself, firmly. I overheard a whispered male comment about her, last month.
“Wonder if she fell straight on her back, or if Heyes had to snap his fingers first?”
I watch him. Is he awkward with her because he has heard the gossip? Or, because something has happened between them? I am never going to know, am I? However close our friendship – and how close is that, when now I cannot go to his home, nor can he come to mine – it is a topic, which cannot be raised between a man and a single woman. Not unless he asks me to marry him. And, if he does that, I will be so happy, I will not care two cents what did, or did not, happen.
He is talking to Miss Field. Smiling. Sometimes laughing. He is ALWAYS talking to her.
Now he talks to Mrs. Sayers. No, she TRIES to get him to talk to her. He smiles – says ‘excuse me’. I cannot hear but can tell it is something like that. He turns away. He – he is coming over.
He always – well, nearly always – comes over to talk to me, now. It started after I made a fool of myself, in the store. The first time I saw him after that I went bright red. I wanted to sink through the floor. He never mentioned it. He came over and just talked about ordinary stuff. Just being nice. I know he did it because – because he felt sorry for me. At first I was all embarrassed. But then he said something that made me laugh and I did not feel so bad after that.
Sometimes, I think he comes over because he – he likes me. Maybe. Sometimes I think he does. Sometimes not. It is very hard to tell. He is not exactly going to blush or stammer – like Walt or like Will, is he? I mean – I can TELL they like me. And he would never look at me the way some men do. All horrid. Maybe he does like me a little. He talks real nice, but he does that to everyone.
Anyway, he comes over and says, “Hello Louisa.” And I say – hello – back.
“Will you be there Wednesday?” he asks.
Miss Field has set up a – a debating circle.
That is what he means by Wednesday. He goes. Mostly. If he can. Hannibal stays over with the Currys and he goes. She asked if I would like to join. Not just me. She asked a lot of young people. I do not mean her pupils. Not that young. But younger than her. She did not ask just her friends. That is what I mean. I suppose it was quite nice of her. I go. Quite a few of us – I mean us younger ones – go. I do not completely see the point. I like getting ready – and I like afterwards. I especially like it when it is my turn to take cake or cookies because I like to think of something extra nice to make.
But, I do not quite see the point of the debates.
Of course I do not quite see the point of patchwork either – but I still go to the quilting circle. I would rather get ready and go sit with Mary and Laura and sew patchwork than sit home and sew my brothers’ shirts. Be honest, in Larson Creek, those are pretty much my choices. Mama does not mind me going. It is not late. She and Papa do not go. Some couples do, but they do not. Papa said he gets all the arguing he needs at home.
“Oh, yes!” I say. I need to say something else. Otherwise he might walk away. I pluck up my courage and say I do not quite see the point of the debate.
“You mean the topic?” he asks, “A touch abstract, huh? But, don’t you think that throws the focus back on the skill with which the argument is made?”
He waits for an answer. I do not know what kind of thing he wants to hear. So I just frown a little bit. I do not mean cross frown, I mean thinking frown. And I nod. A slow nod – the kind that does not have to mean yes. Just in case the answer is not yes.
“Anyhow, we agreed, ‘nothing too contentious’ no current politics, nothing like that,” he says. I nod again. And smile. “Did you prefer the previous topic?” he asks, “You can’t say you didn’t see the point of that!” He smiles at me – that smile. I smile back and nod.
“Oh yes,” I say, because I can tell ‘yes’ is what he wants to hear this time.
Miss Field comes over.
“Louisa is saying she preferred the topic last time,” he says. “Less abstract.”
She turns to me. “But what did you think of the result, Miss Mueller?”
She calls me Miss Mueller because I was never at school while she was teacher there. And, I have never said call me Louisa.
I think, then say, “You deserved to win, Miss Field. You spoke real well.” That sounds polite. And she did win. And – she sure can talk.
He throws back his head and laughs. “She looked like she’d been sucking lemons when she got the result though, huh, Louisa? I’ve only seen her look so sour once before and that was when she pulled ‘Against’ out of the hat! Poor Caroline. So convincing! So fluent! When she SO wanted to lose!”
You see they do not get to choose whether they argue for or against. If you offer to speak you pull a side out of a hat then have to prepare the best argument you can.
“You were no help!” she says.
“How do you know I wasn’t genuinely moved, by your stirring use of rhetoric?”
“Because you couldn’t keep that smirk off your face. You do realise Mrs. Godfrey took all that stuff you spouted completely straight. She was practically mouthing along! You think you’re SO clever…”
She is always arguing with him. I think she is silly. Everyone knows, men do not really like that.
“Cleverer than YOU!” he says, “Too clever to stick my name in the hat for that one! The only thing funnier than watching you was watching Godfrey try and pick up the opposition. Louisa,” he says, turning to me, “check her hands. See if she left a nail or two in that chair she was gripping, to stop herself leaping to her feet and doing both sides!”
He laughs. I laugh back.
I see Walt Bauer try to pluck up courage to come and join us. Well to join Louisa Mueller. I cannot blame him. She is very engaging. Her head tilts to one side as she listens and her upper lip lifts just the slightest fraction. Her eyes look serious when the conversation is serious – sparkle when it is light. I catch Walt’s eye and give him an encouraging smile and a tiny jerk of my head. He shuffles his feet – then comes. Poor lad, he cannot think of anything to say. Not that it matters, Alex is still in full flow.
At a pause, I say, “Will we see you on Wednesday, Mr. Bauer?”
“Guess so,” he shrugs, grins. “But I guess ONLY see me. I never think of nothin’ to say, ma-am. Don’t know how you all do it!””
“Me neither,” says Louisa. “I’d – I’d sink through the floor if I had to get up an’ talk. In front of everyone, I mean.”
Walt goes red as she speaks to him.
“Least you ask questions, Louisa,” he says.
He is right. She usually asks at least one question. She must take it seriously because they are not spontaneous. She prepares. A couple of weeks ago Laura Wyatt spoke against Alex. Louisa must have had a special interest in the topic, because she borrowed a book from me and that week, had three questions all ready. Or, maybe she did it to encourage Laura. I believe they are friends.
Gently, I say, “I’m sure you’d both do fine if you tried. It’s only for fun. No one minds if you keep it short.” I flash a glance at Alex. I smile, “Did you hear, Alex? No one minds if you keep it short!”
“Talk about a pot calling the kettle black!” he says. “Walt,” he appeals, “Be honest, do I talk more than Miss Field, here?”
“Er,” says Walt. He grins, “Dunno there’s much in it, Mr. Heyes.”
“I – I like just listenin’,” says Louisa.
“I – I like just listenin’,” I say.
He smiles that smile.
“You know, Caroline,” he says, “I read once about a musical society that did its level best to attract members who didn’t play and didn’t sing because, what they were really short of was listeners. I think we ought to be real grateful to these two. They are invaluable.”
Did he just pay me a compliment? Did he? He is still smiling at me. I blush. I wish I did not keep blushing. He must think I am real silly when I do.
I watch Louisa talk to Alex Heyes. Or rather listen to him. I watch his reaction. I have made enquiries. The land is all his, no mortgages, no debts. I catch Josef’s eye, fetch him over with a tiny jerk of my head. I nod towards our daughter.
“You should ask him what his intentions are.”
“It’d move things along,” I explain.
“Well I don’t mean Walt Bauer, do I?” I snap. “It’ll be years before he can have any intentions!”
He stares. “Heyes?” He sounds incredulous. Men! “His wife’s not been dead six months. They were devoted.”
“All the more reason,” I say. “The more happily men were married the quicker they’re back at the altar. Everyone knows that. Think of it as a compliment to the first wife. They want to get back to the way it was.”
He shrugs. He accepts I probably know what I am talking about there. But he is still unconvinced on the detail. “Heyes and – Louisa?”
“He’s walked her home,” I hiss. “More’n once! And look at him now!”
“He’s walked along the same street at the same time,” says Josef. “It’s not quite the same. And I’m looking. I see a man standing two foot away, leaning on a wall, yakking!” He looks at me, “Until I see something a bit more than that I’m not asking any dang fool questions about intentions.”
Mrs. Mueller comes over. “We’re leaving now, Louisa,” she says.
“Oh!” says Louisa. She looks at me, “Don’t you still need a hand clearing away? Can I help, Miss Field?”
That is very nice of her.
“Thank you,” I say. “So long as Mrs. Mueller doesn’t mind.”
“I could – could see you safe home, Louisa,” gulps Walt.
“Oh!” she says, “I don’t wanna keep you, Walt. It’s not dark nor nothin’. Besides, I was thinkin’ of goin’ to Laura’s after. She wants me to help get her new calico finished.”
“Don’t be late,” says Mrs. Mueller. She gives me a tight little smile of farewell and flashes another appraising look at Alex. He is checking his watch.
The Muellers leave.
“I must be off, too,” says Alex. “I promised to go see Fowler about that lumber. Hannibal!” he calls. Hannibal runs over. Little Jed Curry is at his side. “Hannibal,” says Alex, “You’re okay having dinner over at Jed’s, huh? Like we said? I have to go see Mr. Fowler but I won’t stay long. I’ll pick you up before nine; probably earlier. Is that okay?” He is double-checking Hannibal knows when he will be collected.
For a while, after Sarah died, Hannibal resisted leaving his father for so much as an hour, let alone an evening, let alone a night. You can never tell what goes on in a child’s mind, but it was probably a mix of not letting him out of sight – ‘in case’; and a wish to protect him from anything making him feel still worse. Trying to protect each other helped them both of course. It distracted each from concentrating solely on his own grief. Now Hannibal is reasonably relaxed so long as Alex is not later than he promises and, he is sure in his mind Alex is not too sad.
“Would you – would you like to stay longer with Mr. Fowler?” asks Hannibal. “If you could, I mean.” He flashes a glance at Jed, who looks hopeful. “If you didn’t hafta come get me?”
“Er,” Alex turns just a little away. I can see his eyes. He wipes the blow of another, suddenly achingly empty, evening and morning away so swiftly I wonder if I imagined it. “I suppose I would. It’s always nice to have time to chat with a friend.”
Mr. Fowler is not a friend. He is perfectly friendly but not a friend. He is inarticulate as Walt Bauer without the excuse of being still a few months short of nineteen.
“Did you want to stay over with Jed?”
“We kinda had somethin’ we wanted to – to do. Before I hafta leave for school in the mornin’.” He is still not quite sure he should ask. “It COULD wait till Saturday. If you need me home.”
“But it – it mighta moved by then,” pipes up Jed. He receives a sharp nudge and subsides.
“You’re not trapping anything?” Alex checks.
Two heads shake vigorously.
“Just trackin’!” puts in Jed. He dodges Hannibal’s elbow and hangs his head.
Louisa gives Hannibal a wide smile.
“Are you playin’ ‘Hawkeye’, Hannibal?” she asks. She has an extra bright – kind – voice for talking to him. “That’s so cute! My brothers used to play ‘Hawkeye’ when they were little.”
“We’re not PLAYIN’ nothin’!” he scowls, “We’re not babies!” Her face falls.
He receives a meaning look from his father. Hannibal moves his scowl from Louisa to his boots.
“I mean – no ma-am,” he says, keeping his voice this side of civil. Alex’s eyebrows rise, just a little. “Sorry, ma-am,” adds Hannibal.
Alex is clearly reviewing if any animal, dumb enough to stay put while being stalked by two noisy boys, is likely to pose any danger.
“Don’t get bitten,” he gives permission.
As they run back, we hear Jed say, “Do they have teeth, Han?”
And the initially confident, “Nah!” followed by a more hesitant, “Leastways – don’t think so.”
Of course, my heart sinks when he says he has to leave. I offered to stay and help Miss Field, because if I leave with her he often walks along. Then once she goes in he will walk me home.
I do not mean he actually says, “May I walk you home?” He is not – exactly properly – walking me home. He is going most of the way anyway. So it would be pretty rude if he just strode off and left me. But, when we get to the turn where our ways part he walks as far as the yard behind the store. I suppose just being polite. Once or twice, he just said ‘Good-bye’ and went. But more often he leans on the post and carries on with whatever he is saying. Two or three times he stood for ages, talking. He does not often talk about his wife. Once he did early on. I do not think he meant to. He talked for a while, then went quiet.
He said, “You should go in, you must be cold.”
I said, “Oh, no!” I WAS cold of course. But – sheesh! I would freeze to the floor, turn blue and have my nose fall off, before I would go in, if Alex is standing in the yard!
He was still quiet. I do not think he wanted to go home.
“She was about your age, when we met,” he said.
I tried to look sympathetic. I do not mean I did not feel sympathetic. I did! Whenever he looks sad, I feel a little of what I felt that first time, in the store. My chest feels tight and my throat feels tight and I wish – I wish he was happy again. So I suppose what I mean is I tried to LOOK how I felt.
Then I said, “I – I wish there was something I could do.”
“You have,” he said, “you listened.” Then he went home.
The last couple of times he has – not ‘walked me home’, but walked home with me. I have wondered if he might – might say something. I have wondered if maybe – just maybe – he might kiss me. I suppose I am hoping so hard even if he says, ‘Wet night,’ I wonder if it means anything.
TWO MONTHS LATER…
“I know I am but summer to your heart, and not the full four seasons of the year.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
MRS. ALEXANDER HEYES
The early morning light filters in through the curtains. The window is open an inch or two so every so often the breeze flutters the sprigged cotton.
I snuggle down just a little closer, if that is possible, my head on Alex’s chest. I hear his heart beating, slow and steady now, under my ear. His arm is circled round me hand slowly stroking the curve from my waist to my hip, over and over.
“That was just…” I break off and sigh happily.
“Go on,” says my husband. “It was…?” I cannot see from where I am nestled, but know he is wearing that smile. “I’m hoping for ‘breath-taking’, or ‘awe-inspiring’. He drops a kiss on my hair, before carrying on, “Of course , if you were about to say, ‘not up to standard’ please do continue with the tactful silence.”
A contented pause.
“IS this a tactful silence? Or are you still searching for a sufficiently flattering adjective?”
I hug him tight, then pull myself up to kiss first the little hollow at the base of his throat, then his lips. “Will just perfect do? Or did I say that last night? Do I have to think of a new one?”
“I think last night I was ‘wonderful’,” he says.
“Well you always think that,” I venture. He laughs. I love it when I make him laugh. I am stroking back his hair. His eyes meet mine and hold. I feel my throat tighten with happiness. I lean forward and whisper in his ear, “I always think that, too.”
The words are still joking, but his voice has thickened as he says, “Well, a couple should agree about these important points, huh?” He kisses me, lightly at first, then more seriously.
I love him. I love him so much. I love him so much that…
I love him so much, that I cannot think of any way to end this sentence…without it sounding – lame.
BACK TO APRIL 1858 – THE EVENING AFTER THE SCHOOL SHOW
I have worked this saloon for must be near two years. Not much money around. But steady. Not much trouble, neither. Not yet, anyhow. Small town so I pretty much know every man in the place. It is mid-week, still early. Say a dozen customers. More drift in, ones and twos. John Fowler walks in with Heyes. Fowler is a regular – of the saloon, not of mine. I have not seen Heyes here since – must be last year. They buy a couple of beers then a couple more, clearly talking business. Carrie – she has left now, usual trouble – once made a real play for a little custom from Heyes. She was stupid. Had a soft spot for a smile and a handsome face. I look at him. Maybe I can understand stupid. It was ‘no dice’ anyhow. ‘Happily married’. I laughed when she repeated it. If you took away my ‘happily married’ customers I would starve.
Fowler gets up, shakes hands and leaves. Heyes still has a full glass in front of him. He checks his watch. His shoulders slump. He takes a pull at his drink, then sits with his hands either side of the glass staring at it. He looks… I do not usually waste sympathy on men but even I feel a twinge looking at him. I saw them sometimes with their little boy. They did look happy.
Perhaps he feels my eyes on him, because he glances over. He meets my gaze. Oh! His eyes flick on me only for a second. But it is enough for me to see he is – stirred. He looks away. Over I go.
“Need a little company?” I breathe, in my professional voice, slipping onto the next stool. He gives a little smile at the word ‘company’. I trace my finger slowly over my neckline. He does not look at my breasts. He so obviously and deliberately does NOT look, that it is perfectly plain he made an effort to keep his eyes on my face. I am not so hardened that I cannot still appreciate the courtesy.
“It’s Alex, isn’t it?” He looks surprised. I am not sure if I have ever spoken to him before. If I have it would only have been to say, ‘here’s your drink.’
“Wanna buy me a whiskey, Alex?” I purr. He glances at the nearest customers and Tom, the barkeep. Sheesh! Does he think anyone is taking notice?
“Er – sure,” he says. He gestures Tom, who pours two drinks.
“Thanks, Alex,” I smile.
“Lucille,” I supply.
“You’re welcome, Lucille.”
I throw back my drink. He does not touch his. I look at him expectantly. He nods at Tom who refills my glass. Mine is not whiskey, obviously. The girl’s bottle is practically water. Tom keeps a tally of all the drinks bought for us and it comes off the charge for our rooms.
I let my leg press against his. His hand tightens around his glass. I see the veins move under the tanned skin. He looks over at a movement in the far corner. Bill Wyatt is tapping Liza on the shoulder. She stands up without a word. His hand on her backside, they go upstairs. No one except Heyes so much as turns round. He does not meet my eyes again after watching that. But he does not move his leg away from mine as I press closer. A pause.
I lean forward. “It’s two dollars,” I murmur, making sure I am close enough for my breath to warm his skin.
He still does not look at me. I can tell he does want me. Well, not me. It. He swallows. Still not looking. Another long pause.
He turns to me, moves his leg away. “I have to leave now, Lucille,” he says. His tone is real civil. He stands up, pays Tom and adds, “Give the lady another drink on me.” He picks up his hat and is walking away.
“Mr. Heyes,” I say. My ordinary voice not the one I use for customers. And his proper name. I suppose to show I can still respond to good manners with the same. He turns round. “I was real sorry to hear about your wife. I know she was a real nice lady.”
He looks at me. His eyes mist up. “Thank you, Lucille,” he says.
LATER THE SAME EVENING
It is dusk as I finally lock up and leave for home. I see Alex walking away from the town. He is not heading in the direction of his farm. He appears to be making for the water. He does not see me, but even in the fading light I see how downcast he appears. That fleeting, aching expression I caught earlier, comes back to me. He does not want to go home. He does not want to go to an empty home.
Would he welcome someone to talk to? I know him well enough to know the answer to that. Yes. A good friend would not hesitate to go offer a sympathetic ear. But I do hesitate. Partly because – because I do not want him to misinterpret my motives. I am frightened of losing what I have, by seeming to reach for more. But the main reason is even less admirable. If I saw him head down there – did other watching eyes? Will I be seen following? I look around, the streets are quiet but not empty. I remember the whispered gossip about Mrs. Sayers. If anything like that were so much as hinted about me, however untrue, I would have no choice but to resign before I was asked to leave.
If I were a true friend though, would I let abject timidity hold me back? I glance around again. It does seem quiet. Still, I hesitate…
It is dusk when I leave Laura’s place to head home. I go the long way round, because – well, because I am in no hurry. If I go home there is nowhere to be by myself just to think. Not until my sister falls asleep behind the curtain.
I see him. I see Alex. Heading for the water. He looks real sad. I glance around it is pretty quiet. Besides I sometimes go down to the water’s edge to sit and think anyway. I might have gone this evening. It is not dark yet – I might have gone down to the water even if I had not seen Alex. If I do go it does not mean I have followed him.
“O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day!” William Shakespeare
Alex is just sitting there. Staring at the water. He does not hear when I turn the corner. I expected him to look round – smile, say ‘hello’. I do not know what I expected to happen then. I have not really thought. Maybe we will chat for a while, then maybe he will walk me home – or at any rate walk home with me.
Maybe I should go away. He did not look round; so if I stay it is obvious I am staying because he is here. I do not go away. I stand there. He looks so sad. I take a pace or two forward. A twig cracks, he turns round, sees me standing there. He looks startled. No! More than that! It is as if for a moment he does not realise who I am. Who did he THINK was standing here? The startled look goes. He blinks, closes his mouth.
I move forward. “Are you alright, Alex?” I say. He turns away as I approach. He rubs a hand over his face. I hear him swallow, see his shoulders brace. As soon as I say it, I want to bite back the words. I say, “You’re not cryin’ are you?” By the time I have said it – and regretted it – I can see that he is. He turns still further away.
Then I hear his voice all choked up. “Pretty pathetic, huh? A grown man sitting, crying because he doesn’t want to go home.”
“No!” I say. I do not really know what to say. I just want him to feel better. “Please don’t!” I say, touching him on the shoulder. Then I think that sounds like maybe I do think it is pathetic. And I really do not. So I say, “I mean – no it’s not!”
“Humph!” he says. Still looking away, so I cannot see his eyes.
I sit next to him. I am not thinking anything just then except wanting him not to feel so bad. “It’s NOT!” I say. “Besides,” I try and look into his face so he can see I am smiling, “I can hardly talk can I? You’ve seen ME blub my eyes out!”
“It’s a bit different!” he says. I suppose he means because he is a man.
“Sure it is,” I say, “You’re bein’ quiet about it – I made enough noise to raise Cain. An’ I didn’t make it to somewhere nice an’ private like this first! Well – private until I stomped up!” He does manage a little smile at that. His shoulders relax, as he puts the heel of his hand into first one eye then the other. He has stopped crying.
He looks up at the sky, then at me sitting beside him. “It’s getting late,” he says, “I’d better see you safe home.” He hesitates, “Er – can you tell?” He means does it show, that he has been crying.
“A bit,” I say. “Give it ten minutes or so.”
He looks at me again. “You’ll get damp sitting on the ground,” he says. He is sitting on his jacket.
I stand up, take off my shawl and double it over. He stands, picks up his jacket. I spread the shawl. He holds up his jacket, says, “Slip this on.” I do. As he helps me into it that is when I stop thinking ONLY about wanting him to feel better. I still do want that but part of me is now thinking – Alex is touching me. Only to put a jacket on, but still – he touches me. I am about to sit on the ground next to Alex, and we are all alone. There is even – by now – moonlight, shining on the water. We sit down. He tips back his head a little, perhaps to let the evening air cool his eyes.
Now I am self-conscious, I am back to not being able to think what to say. I try my very best to stop imagining he might say something. I try to think what would I do if he were just anyone. “What is it?” I say, “I thought …” I am floundering, “I mean – you seemed okay earlier.” I look at him, “Were you just pretending?”
He looks back at me. “No. Not pretending,” he gives a little smile and shakes his head. “Maybe the first five minutes or so – but, no. It’s not just pretending. It might be an effort sometimes but it usually works.” His eyes are on the grass, “Bits of me are pretty much okay.”
He is quiet for a minute. Then he starts to talk. It is like that one time, a couple of months ago. He just stares at the water and talks. Saying stuff about what he has lost. No! He starts off with stuff about what he still has. How he lost the mother of his child but he still has his son. So the bit of him that is a father, that part is nearly whole – it can be alright. He does not say ‘alright’ though – he says, ‘expressed’. How he has lost his best friend, but he still has other good friends – so he can still be some of the man he was…
It goes on. It has been longer than ten minutes. I do not mean I mind. Of course I do not! As he speaks he keeps looking at me. His eyes are all warm and I think how glad I am I followed him. Mostly because I think he is glad to talk. But also because – well – he would not sit with me like this if he did not like me a little bit, would he? Would he?
He is still talking. Now about the Curry children. How being a kind of – he says ‘honorary uncle’ helps, because that part of him hardly had to change at all…
His hand is resting on the shawl near mine. I do not plan it I just put my hand over his. Once I see what I have done I feel embarrassed but it would make it even worse to snatch it away. So I leave it. He does not seem to mind. He does not seem to notice. I miss whatever he is saying until I take my eyes off our two hands and look at him again.
He is talking about bits – though he says ‘aspects’ – of himself only his wife shared. He is saying it is as if a part of himself has been buried.
I do not know quite what he means. He stops. He goes very quiet. There is a silence. If I say the wrong thing now – I will just die. He looks at me. He does not smile and he does not look away. I feel something well up inside me. He glances down at my hand lying over his. I blush but I do not move it because that would make it worse. He turns his hand over palm uppermost and laces his fingers through mine.
“You are so…” Is he searching for the right word? “So good and so…” He smiles. “So sweet, to listen like this.”
I gulp and smile. I can feel my smile waver. I hope he cannot feel my hand is trembling. ALL of me is trembling. I know he is only thanking me for listening. I try hard to push away the thought ‘maybe, just maybe he will kiss me’ when suddenly – he does.
I have dreamt about this hundreds and hundreds of times over the years. Now I realise all my ideas about what it would be like were just childish and silly. Alex kissing me is nothing like the wonderful, marvellous thing I imagined. It is so much better.