He took me cause I was one of the few women of marriage age. There were too-young ones and too-old ones, some ugly, some deformed, but I had all my limbs and was half-decent to look at, so we were wed. He was ashamed about my mother and would not talk about her, and cautioned—no, warned me not to visit her. But she was my mother, and I loved her, and I wanted to see her. So when he took the long rifle and marched into the woods for meat, I would watch and wait, and if he didn’t come back right away, I knew he’d be gone a spell, and I would wrap a dark wool blanket around me and slip away from the cabin, allowing the night to hide me.
It wasn’t a long walk to the village, and I knew how to get to my mother’s tent. She lived solitary, having escaped from my father some years back, and she had no wish to take another husband, even though she was still strong and could easily do a day’s work. At first my father tried to drag her back, but she left each time and he finally gave up. I think she endured some beatings, but she never talked about it. Besides me she had two other children with him, both boys, who died in infancy. Cholera was bad then and many of her people died as well. But I lived. My hair had my father’s auburn cast to it and I got his green eyes. My skin was darker than husband, John Ellis, didn’t feel it necessary to teach me anything. He wanted me to cook, and sew, and keep the cabin warm. And he wanted me to bear him children. Boys were preferred, to help him with the farm work. It was the only time he referenced my mother. “Do you think that woman—” she was always “that woman” “—can concoct something to make you fertile?”
I stood by the fire, my hands crossed in front of me. He sat in our only rocking chair, tamping a pipe full of the vile tobacco he preferred. There was better smoke but he would only get the half-rotten, half-moldy import, even though I knew he paid dear for it and waited months for the ships to arrive.
“I can ask her, but I’ll have to go see her.” I waited for him to struggle through his dislike of me visiting my mother and his desire to see if she could give me something to have his child. He didn’t know I’d seen her already, and she pronounced me fit to bear a child. We’d been married six months and he was getting impatient. It was her opinion that the fault was with him, but never would a man admit to such.
“Go tomorrow.” That was all he said. I knew he had no more need of me, so I pulled my wash bucket outside and started working on my fire. Winter would be upon us soon, and I wanted to clean as many clothes as I could before doing laundry meant bitter cold and icy hands. I didn’t have but the one other dress, but John Ellis had many clothes. He was particular about them too, so it took me a long time to satisfy him.
As I stirred the water and cut pieces of lye, I smiled inside. I was already with child, I was pretty sure. Mother would confirm it tomorrow. John didn’t know I would lie to get an extra visit with her. The child within was at most a month, but Mother would confirm my belief. It was easy to fool John Ellis.
I would ask for something, but I did not yet know what I wanted. There was a merchant in town with fresh bolts of cloth, so maybe another dress would be practical. I saw that Hightower girl the same day I saw the blue cloth. We passed on the walkway and she smelled pretty, like spring lavender flowers. She had several suitors, I knew. They fancied her pale skin and her golden curls, and the money her daddy would levy on her when she picked her husband.
Her house would be fine. It would have many rooms and there would be servants to bring her things and carriages parked at her front door to keep her feet out of the mud. As I swirled the water and wet woolens around, I dreamed of Maggie Hightower’s life.
* * *
I went first thing in the morning to the camp to see Mother. She was outside her tent, frying something in a pan. It smelled good and reminded me I’d left with no food.
“Daughter, you are early this day. Did that worthless husband leave?”
“No, I’m afraid not. He sent me to fetch a charm to make me pregnant.”
She laughed. “He doesn’t know.”
“I didn’t tell him yet.” I stopped. “And how do you know? I only just figured it out myself.” I was a bit indignant. It was hard to surprise my mother, and I thought I’d finally found a secret she didn’t know.
“I dreamed holding your baby. It’s going to be a girl, and she’ll look more like me than you.”
I pulled a piece of venison out of the pan. It was hot, succulent, and filled my mouth with juices. “He won’t be pleased. He wants boys.” I knew better than to question my mother. If she dreamed it, it would be true.
“In time. In time. But first there will be this girl.”
We chatted, as mother and daughter should, about all manner of things. She told me things that I have now forgotten and I wished I’d listened better. But, after all, I was still but a girl then, and some things diverted my attention, such as the scent of lavender water. I went home before the sun passed behind the trees to the west. John Ellis didn’t like his meals late.
“She give you something?”
He ate his soup noisily, wiping the bowl with the hard bread I’d made. It was the last and tomorrow I’d need to make more. “I need to buy flour.”
From his pocket he pulled some coins and handed them to me. I scooped them up and into my own pocket. Later that night he pulled my nightgown up to my waist and busied himself for a few moments. As he usually did, he collapsed in a smelly heap upon me and started to snore a few moments later. I squirmed out from under him, and my hand went to my private parts. I was wet and his seed always smelled funny to me. Mother told me nothing about pleasure for myself, and no one talked about such things. Later I would find out about that, but for now it was merely duty. I did not love John Ellis, but I didn’t know about love either.
The next day I walked to the town and spent a good deal of time in the merchant’s shop. I bought flour and salt. In the cloth goods, I fingered a soft piece of red cloth. It would never be mine, I knew, but it felt good between my fingers. The cloth made me realize how rough my hands had become. Before marriage my hands were smooth, like the petals of the flowers. Now I could feel the burrs on the pads of my fingers. I heard the sound of laughter. Maggie Hightower and a friend of hers had entered. I’d seen the new girl but didn’t know her name. They tittered and giggled, selecting sweets from ajar. They didn’t notice me. The new girl glanced my direction once, but I could see in her eyes I was dismissed as of no account. I couldn’t blame her. In my plain brown dress, I could have been a part of the wall. My long, auburn hair was braided in long pigtails and wound about my head. I pulled my feet beneath my hem; I’d walked to town barefoot. John Ellis had bought me shoes but they hurt my feet. I wished I’d worn them, however, as Maggie and her friend had fine little boots that looked like soft butter leather, the color of eggshells.
I tucked my purchases close to me and inched by the girls. Again I caught the scent of lavender.
Inexplicably Maggie turned to me. “You’re married to John Ellis?”
“Do you do cleaning?”
“I can clean.”
“Well, I need a new maid. Can you work for me?”
“I’ll have to ask.”
She looked me up and down. “I require you wear shoes.”
I felt my cheeks go red. “Yes. I have shoes.”
As I left the store, I thought I heard her whisper to her friend that I was an ignorant half-breed.
Tears cooled my red cheeks as I walked home.
* * *
I told John Ellis the minute I got home about Maggie Hightower’s suggestion. He was silent for a while, then, pulling his chin whiskers, he spoke. “I suppose it would be all right. Might teach you something about how a lady behaves. I’ll speak to Judge Hightower tomorrow and see what they offer for you.”
So, it turns out, I was worth a dollar a week. John, of course, took my money. I never saw a part of it, but Maggie would once in awhile give me a few coins for special favors. Some favors included lying to her father. In a month I had to admit to John Ellis that I was with child. He was pleased but saw no reason for me to quit being Maggie’s maid. He thought I was learning to be a lady, but I was really learning to be free.
* * *
I spoke little in the Hightower house. My first rule was from a dark, elderly knot of a woman who’d been with the Hightowers for many years: Don’t speak unless someone asks you a direct question. At first I thought she was a slave, but I learned that she was a servant, like me, except she’d managed to stay attached to the family for most of her life. Mother would not have liked her, would have called her proud and spoiled, and Mother would have been right. But Bettie Angels was useful. She told me what to do to make Maggie happy, and a happy Maggie meant the house was peaceful.
When I told the household I was with child, I told Bettie before I told Judge Hightower. She looked me up and down, and her only comment was whether I would stay. I told her that was my intention if they’d have me. She nodded and ambled off to the kitchen to terrify the cooks.
The judge didn’t care. His sister seemed piqued but I couldn’t figure out why. I was a married woman. Mrs. Hightower, Maggie’s mother, had died when Maggie was five, and, other than a large painting in the dining room, I had no sense of what the woman could have been like. Sometimes, when I passed through, I glanced at the picture. She had a small, triangular face and a heart-shaped mouth. Her hair was tucked up under a wide bonnet, but it appeared dark in the painting. She wore a dark dress but it wasn’t black, perhaps a deep blue, but sometimes, when the sunlight touched the corner, it looked purple.
She wasn’t smiling. She looked sad. I was standing at the picture when I felt a hand on my hip. I jumped away, startled.
“Now, don’t be skittish, girl.” Judge Hightower wobbled, a drink in his hand sloshing from his unsteadiness. Bettie appeared in the doorway like an apparition. “Maggie is looking for you, girl. Get upstairs.”
I left hurriedly, the two of them glaring at one another.
Later that evening, before I walked back to my husband’s house, Bettie cornered me out by the woodshed. She slapped my face. Hard. My hand flew to my cheek; I couldn’t think what I’d done to deserve it.
“I know what you’re thinking, girl. You thinking you ain’t done nothing wrong, and I had no cause to smack you. But I wanted you to remember what I’m telling you. It’s important and your life could depend on you remembering.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Now she had me all spooked. What terrible thing could it be?
“Judge Hightower is an important man. He’s got money, and respect, and nothing you ever say against him would be believed.”
I nodded. My mind whirled in confusion.
“He’s a bad man, child. He does things. Those things he does were the death of Mrs. Hightower. She was a saint, that woman.” Bettie paused to spit on the ground. “I stay because of Maggie. That’s the only reason. She don’t know the evil in her father. But I seen it. I know. He knows that I know, and I’m probably the only person in this world that he fears. Heed my advice. Stay as far away as you can. If he catches you unaware, make yourself sick. You’re with child, it shouldn’t be hard. He’ll leave then.”
“Should I leave?” I tried to ask if I should just leave the household, although there would be a powerful lot of explaining to my husband. He seemed to like me working and out of the house.
Bettie misunderstood me. “Yes, you go home now. Remember what I tole you. I think that Miss Maggie may have a proposal in the next month or two. When she marries, you got no reason to stay. Go back to your husband and raise babies.”
My throat was so dry I could hardly swallow. After Bertie’s delaying me, it was already dark when I reached the house, and John was in a pet by the fire.
“My dinner’s late.”
“Yes, I know. It won’t take long.” I paused. Part of me wanted to tell him, tell him about the evil judge, tell him about Bettie’s tale of bad things, but even as I looked at him, I knew John wouldn’t believe me. He didn’t take stock in gossip and had no reason to put any faith in poor Bettie. I hurriedly sliced potatoes and dropped them into a pot of water. I cut my thumb and it hurt. As I sucked on the wound, I decided that I would tell my mother instead. She, at least, would believe me and offer good advice. I fried up a venison steak and cut an onion into the pan.
We sat at the table. John bowed his head and blessed the food, then ate in great chewing gobs. I watched as his jaws worked, gnashing away at the meat. I could feel the bile in my throat and ran outside to lose the bits of supper I had eaten into the edge of the forest. He didn’t follow me and, when I went back inside, he merely glanced at me, unconcerned. “That happen much?”
“Not much.” I picked up my plate and covered it with a cloth. “I’ll eat later when my stomach settles.”
“I’m going out. Don’t wait up.” He grabbed his coat and was out the door.
It was probably at that moment that I reached a state of rare insight. My mother might have called it a vision. I saw my future, my long, ugly future stretching out before me. I saw my body racked by the pain of childbirth and my spirit broken. I saw myself as old and withered and used up. Inside my stomach my baby girl wrenched, as if she knew my pain, knew what I saw. And I knew the pattern would repeat itself, over and over and over again.
* * *
I packed my one other dress and a few small things and walked through the dark to my mother’s tent. She was awake. “I knew you’d return to me. Don’t worry, it will all be fine.” In her hands, she worried some bones between her knuckles. I could hear them click together in the dark.
That night I told her about the Hightower house and what Bettie said about the judge. My mother didn’t say anything but I knew she heard me. I knew she listened. John came back the next day, but my mother lied and said I wasn’t there. She said he must have beat me and I ran away. He tried to protest but it was no use. She was like a stone, my mother was. I stayed in the village through the winter. My baby grew large in my belly, and I was like a sloth, only wanting to eat or sleep. Someone came from the town one day to trade and that was how we heard about the death of Judge Hightower. It was damned mysterious how he died, they said. Just turned white, keeled over in the middle of the street, like he’d seen a ghost or something, clutched his chest, and fell like a mule in the muddy gutter.
I was inside the tent, listening to the men talk. Across from me my mother’s eyes bored into mine, and I could sense the mystery of her being, and knew I had much to learn.