Friday, October 12, 2012

Chapter 1: Sarah

Red Iris (c) Nel Jansen

Sarah lay down in the wheat, her hair liquid and glistening in the late afternoon sun. The farmhouse, where Mother prepared the evening meal and Aunt Ann hung the laundry out to dry and baby Beatrice played on the mossy slope by the storm door seemed like a memory to her in this moment, so enveloping was this secret place.

Between her fingers, she lightly held a red iris. Samuel had left it for her on the stone walkway before dawn, as he did every morning, and she quickly retrieved it before prying eyes could see. Each day she tucked the bloom (so brazen in color, in size!) into her apron pocket. It nestled there against her belly as she squeezed out her father’s socks and handkerchiefs; beat them against the washing board and hung them to dry stiffly on the line. Mother washed his underthings and breeches, for Sarah was too young to handle such things. At day’s end, she retrieved the flower, limp and crumpled, and squeezed it between the pages of her Bible for safe-keeping.

Now that Aunt Ann was here, she had taken over some of Papa’s washing. He was, after all, her brother. Because of her stout figure and ruddy face – so much like Papa – and perhaps her childlessness, she seemed to him less of a woman. And so, when she left her husband’s farm to visit him, it was Ann who had changed Papa’s bed sheets, she who bathed him when he came down so very ill last year. She could handle the mules if called upon. And she hauled in bushel baskets of rose tinted apples from the orchard without a complaint. Papa said she was nearly as good as having a brother.

Sarah, on the other hand, took after her mother. Slight, fair skinned and dark flowing hair, she had a delicate constitution. Mother had seen to it that Sarah had never been called upon to slaughter a lamb or chicken for Sunday supper. She had spent the bulk of her 15 years divided between two basic tasks: her chores – mending, weeding, baking and washing – and sitting in services on the woman’s side of the church.

Here at her hiding place, her face flushed at the thought of him, of Samuel.

After services their eyes had met, and it was here she had dared allow him to visit her that first time. He had sat with his hands on his knees and smiled shyly, talking of the crops and the weather, unable to look at her, forgetting to remove his hat. Though tall, he was slight and fair like she. To outsiders, the English, they would have been thought brother and sister.

On the second secret visit, he brought her a red iris and told her she was prettier than a flower bud could ever be. They had lain side by side: unclothed, only looking at each other. She allowed him to touch her on the third night. He caressed her soft, ivory curves, admiring her in the moonlight. When they had at last joined themselves, he had let out a gentle moan and murmured praise be, and hallelujah, as a preacher’s son might do upon the reading of the scriptures. This time, he remembered, at least, to take off his hat.

When Sarah grew large, mama did not scold, she said nothing at all. She simply stitched fuller skirts and aprons and slipped Sarah extra bread and cheese after Papa had gone to bed. When Sarah was too round to hide, she had traveled to Aunt Ann’s under the guise of helping her aunt give birth to her first child after more than a dozen years of God withholding offspring. Papa had easily obliged despite the cost, cheered that his sister and her husband would at last have a child.

It was Sarah’s first time to ride a train, her first time to mingle with the English, and she felt strangely shy. Her full cheeks flushed, awkward in her hand-sewn blue-grey dress, which seemed so fine before but now felt shabby. So out of place in her best black lace head-covering, firmly bobby-pinned atop her head, crowning a loosely-wound chestnut bun.

The season turned quickly and fall was again near. The three of them – Ann, Sarah and baby Beatrice – stepped off the train and into Father’s embrace, which for Papa meant an enthusiastic squeeze of Ann’s shoulder, a rare touch between brother and sister, and a broad smile and back-pat for Sarah. As he beheld the child, his cheeks flushed with the joy of it.

“Next time a boy, yes?” he had said, laughing, and both women had simply smiled.

Mother rang the dinner bell. Sarah rolled onto her back, contemplating the wilting plucked bloom, disintegrating, it seemed before her eyes. She closed them and could almost feel the shudder of the earth from the train passing through, rumbling gloriously across the flat lands, to places faraway, to worlds unknown.

The sun slid behind the wheat tassels, golden streams of light piercing the cool wafts of autumn. She breathed it all in, momentarily suspended, moved only by the sound of a baby’s cry.

by Allie J.
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