Hannah Farr was 16 the spring she left home to live with a strange man. Her two older brothers still living at home had been ordered to carry her little trunk down the stairs and out to Mr. Bates’ buckboard. Her mother kissed her briefly in the front hall and her gangling brothers mumbled their goodbyes, awkward in their confusion, not knowing whether to make a joke of it or treat it like a funeral. After she’d climbed up into the seat, and looked back at the house, she expected to see the three of them waving goodbye. But they’d all gone inside. It hardly seemed right, but she hadn’t much choice in the matter.
The year was 1849, and times had been hard for the Farr family since the death of Hannah’s father. He had been a lawyer with all the proper degrees, one even from Bowdoin, but as Hannah’s mother often said with a sniff, Mr. Farr lacked a litigious nature. With him gone, there was no one whom Hannah could ask what that meant, or whether it was true that his insurance company had failed. Her mother seemed to blame him for being too gentle, too kind, and too interested in botany. How could she hold all that against such a wonderful man?
What Hannah remembered best were their walks together. She, his youngest, helped him to collect leaves from a great variety of trees and shrubs. He identified them, labeled them in Latin. Later she would help him press the specimens in large volumes. During the long Maine winters they would haul out those books, pouring over them, recalling where they found each one.
Hannah’s mother explained that God was testing them all by taking their provider so early. She never blamed her sons who, after shameful indifference in school, resigned themselves to temporary work as clerks or choreboys at the livery or lying about the house between jobs in idleness. Now, jouncing on the slat-seat of the buckboard with the dour and aging Mr. Bates, Hannah decided that if the Lord was indeed testing the family, He must have singled her out for a special trial. Why else would He have sent her out to live in a strange village miles away. And not with a grand man either. A bit humiliating being picked up in a buckboard rather than a proper carriage.
“Will it be quite different,” she finally managed to ask, “where you live?”
“Winters are a tad less aggravating.”
She had noticed that when he talked with her mother he kept his eyes on the ground like the country man he clearly was. Here, he looked directly at his horse’s rump—or perhaps out at the dirt road before him. Certainly not at her.
“Is it to the south, then?” she asked.
“Nope.” And there it rested for some time. She had about decided that the conversation was over when he added, “It’s the sea what does it. We’re on the coast.”
So this was what it was going to be like. Words tossed out from time to time like throwing scraps to the chickens. She’d hoped there might be a silver lining in being free from her brothers with their roughhousing and crude jokes, but this Mr. Bates seemed like a poor trade—a hard old thing with a country accent and the faint odor of fish. Still, she mustn’t complain. As her father used to say, whining shrivels the heart.
Her mother had told her a hundred times that she was not about to be a hired girl. No daughter of hers would be sent out to be a hired girl. Mr. Bates, a lobsterman by trade, was a distant cousin. Not a kissing cousin to be sure, but a blood relative on her father’s side. And in need. Not only was his mother ailing, his brother needed guidance—whatever that meant. Since Mr. Bates was kin, Hannah would eat with the family. He had agreed to send a certain amount—never uttered aloud—to her mother. Plus a dollar a week directly to Hannah for her own expenses. There was no counting the number of times her mother assured her that she was not a hired girl.
The Bates farm was eight miles from the town of Codman where Hannah had been born and raised. She had never been that far away. She and Mr. Bates had left after lunch, and he hoped to make it by supper time. After the first half hour they had traveled farther than she had ever roamed in her berrying or leaf-hunting with her father.
The road had been fairly firm when they started—only an inch or two of mud over the lingering spring frost. But as they descended a long, gradual hill, she could see a desolate stretch of shrubby growth. Some fields had been cleared for pasturage, but the rest was a mix of juniper, chokeberry, and blueberry. It was early spring and nothing had leafed out yet. It looked to her like the Slough of Despond.
“This here’s the flats,” he said. She nodded, not knowing whether this was good or bad.”Frost don’t hold in boggy sand like this. Could give us trouble.”
He had hardly said this when the wheels began sinking deeper into the mucky ruts. The horse struggled and faltered.”Steady,” he said to the horse.”Steady, there, gal.”
For a while Mr. Bates was able to find solid ground between the road and the stone walls that ran continually along this stretch, but soon even this section proved soft. He was about to cross back when the left front wheel plunged deep into the mud and the horse stopped dead. Mr. Bates coaxed her forward—first left and then right—but there was no moving the buckboard.
“Tarnation,” he said. It came out so mild that she wondered whether it was an oath or the name of the horse.”Everyone out,” he muttered.
He swung himself down, his Sunday shoes sinking into the mud. Hannah owned two pairs—her day-to-day and her Sunday boots that laced up a good four inches. Fortunately, her mother had told her to wear these “to make a good impression.” It seemed a crime to plunge them into the muck, but he was waiting for her. And he didn’t even give her a hand. So this was what was going to be like.
“The trunk,” he said. Apparently it was up to her to get it down by herself. She tugged it to the tailgate and let it drop, splot! into the mud. Only then did he take the other end. Together they struggled with it, sliding and almost falling, until they propped it up on the stone wall like a tombstone. The hem of her dress was already heavy with mud.
Back to the buckboard, he told her to stand by the horse and take the reins up short.”When I give the word, jerk her forward real hard. She’s got an oaken mouth, she has. You can’t hurt her. But don’t let her nip you.”
Hannah felt a surge of apprehension. Back home in Codman everything was within walking distance. They had no need for a horse. As her mother said with that tight little smile of hers, “We’re not poor, but we’re not carriage class either.” As a result, Hannah was not at home with horses. Would this brute really bite?
As soon as Hannah grabbed for the reins, the creature flipped her head up.”Come on,” Hannah said sharply, “I don’t like this either.”
Mr. Bates got behind the buckboard and started pushing. “Yank her smart,” he called.”If she pulls it free, don’t stop her till you reach high ground.”
From then on it was all grunt and heave. The horse did her best, wrenching at the traces until Hannah feared that they would break. Suddenly the wheel lifted out of its mud hole and Hannah felt the horse lurch forward. Desperately she urged it on, tugging at the reins with one hand and struggling to keep her skirt out of the mud with the other. He’d told her to keep going, so she kept going, stumbling in the ruts. The horse’s hoofs slammed into the mud, sending it flying in all directions. Great clots stuck to her skirt and face.
Not until they reached high ground did she stop and look back. There was Mr. Bates, struggling to his feet. He had fallen forward, face downward in the mud and now, standing, breathing hard but expressionless, he looked to her exactly like an overdone gingerbread man.
When they had retrieved her trunk and were on their way again, she dared to look over at him. There was hardly an inch of him that was not covered with mud. He had wiped two patches from around his eyes. The weathered skin looked oddly like a mask.
She’d cut herself, but she wasn’t about to tell him. It was enough to be out of there. She took her kerchief and wiped mud from the rest of his face. Not until she was through did he speak.
“I’d been wondering,” he said, staring ahead as if nothing whatever had happened, “whether you’d take to country living. Seemed a bit peaked to me.” A short pause; then, his eyes on the road ahead, “But I guess maybe I misfigured.”
Hannah’s first week was like her darkest dreams. Mr. Bates’ mother was as old as Methuselah and bedridden. Giving her sponge baths made Hannah’s stomach clench not just from the smell but from fear that the skin would tear and her whole body would come apart like overcooked sole in the skillet.
As for “the boy,” he was a plump half-wit. He turned out to be Mr. Bates’ younger brother, an adult by years, but he behaved and talked like a child of five. He couldn’t be trusted outside by himself and had to be told what to wear and when to go to bed. His favorite toy was a filthy rag doll, and when he mislaid it, the house was filled with his wailing.
In all but the stormiest weather, Mr. Bates was either mending his lobster traps or at sea from, as he put it, kin to kaint—from can-see to can’t. Hannah’s workday was longer, starting with building a fire in the cookstove before sunup and not ending until the dishes were dried and the fires banked.
Some time into the second week, though, she realized that the family no longer looked strange to her. Mrs. B, as she wanted to be called, was a tiny creature with just a fuzz of white hair, but she was good-spirited in spite of infirmities and loved to talk about the past. There was no telling how old she was (it would be discourteous to ask), but she could remember olden times better than what had gone on the day before. When she was Hannah’s age, she cooked in an open fireplace, baking her potatoes in the ashes and simmering her meats and fish stews in the cast iron pot over the flames. At the market she either bartered or paid in pounds and pence. Her husband fought the British and even now she had nightmares about redcoats attacking and burning farms. Her husband, long since dead, had built that house with his naval pay at the end of the War. He and his sons cleared something like 40 acres—from the sea right up to the town road, tree by tree, stump by stump. Of her four sons and a daughter, all but two died the same week in a diphtheria epidemic. Mr. Bates and the half-wit were the survivors. With so few to work the fields, they sold all but ten acres. Still, she never complained. She made Hannah feel lucky to have been born when she was.
The half-wit, Solomon, was sunny-natured most of the time, and Hannah soon got used to his ways. He tagged along after her like a puppy.
For two years Hannah worked her share with quiet satisfaction, marking the days of the week with their prescribed tasks: Mondays for washing, Tuesday ironing, Wednesdays lamp cleaning, Thursday baking, Friday for firewood, Saturday for mending. Each Sabbath was marked by church for the length of the morning and then the big noonday meal. It was a pleasure to have him home for that. Her schedule was unrelenting, but no more so than his, no more so than wives she sometimes spoke with at the general store, a few with brutish husbands.
While it was true that Mr. Bates spent his daylight hours by himself lobstering or tending traps, he was attentive as soon as he returned. His presence always added a special warmth into the house. He would bring back his experiences, sharing the day’s events.
As soon as Hannah was through washing and drying the supper dishes and mopping the floor, they would gather around the dining-room table for a reading. Even Mrs. B.was wheeled in for that, bundled up in blankets and robes. Her favorite was The Book of Homilies written by some minister. Hannah preferred the familiar stories from Pilgrim’s Progress.Such wonderful adventures! She also liked selections from the family Bible, especially tales like “The Book of Ruth” and “Esther.” She had mixed feelings about the poetical passages from the “Song of Songs.” Such exotic images; such deep feelings! She had never heard them read in church and could hardly believe they were Scriptures, but Mr. Bates’s voice never varied from his sonorous tone and measured beat, so they must be acceptable. It was strange indeed how they wove themselves into her dreams.
These reading hours had become increasingly important to her— the four of them there in a quiet harmony. It was a warm side of Mr. Bates surely not known to others. What a contrast with life back in Codman! With her father gone, the house used to jangle with noisy discord—her older brothers shouting at each other in their rough way, reading penny dreadfuls and snickering with each other over jokes they would not tell their sister. They pulled her apron strings and put frogs in her bed, her mother making allowances for them as “just high spirited.” Those brothers were like stallions in a pen, constantly charging about from sheer restlessness and contributing next to nothing to the family’s income. No, her long hours and aching back were a fair trade for the harmony of this life.
Then Mrs. B. died. A week of constricted breathing, two visits from a doctor who bled her with leeches and dispensed unmarked medications from a black bag, a night of moaning, and then death. Not even a name for the malady. Just age, Hannah concluded. It was bound to come, she reminded herself, but not for a moment had she allowed herself to expect it.
The church members knew exactly what to do, the women showing Hannah how to wash the body, how to dress it; the men building a fine pine box; the minister’s wife, Mrs. Crooker, arranging for the funeral and burial. This support was a godsend since Mr. Bates was paralyzed by grief. No tears from him, no lamentations; just a terrible black silence. Even his walk was slowed. She feared for his health, but there was nothing she could say.
Hannah too was overwhelmed, but it was hard to separate her grief from the fear of what would become of her. She wrote her mother the morning after the death, trying to describe both her love for Mrs. B.and her concern for her future.
“If it is his Decision to send me Home,” she wrote, “I must find a Way not to be a Burden for you and the boys. Perhaps I should consider working at the Mill. It may be that the French and Italians are not as Crude and Unwashed as we have always assumed. As I write, I have no notion of what he plans for me. I study his Face when he is not looking, hoping that in his Expression he will reveal his Intent, but his Mood is Locked within him.”
After the funeral and burial, there was a required social hour. It was run by the women of the church at the parsonage. Hannah did her best to remain invisible. Her mother’s insistence not withstanding , Hannah was taken in the village as Mr. Bates’ hired girl, and she preferred it this way. She would have been flustered and tongue-tied if anyone had taken her for kin and offered her condolences.
Solomon sat in the corner and drew on his slate, frowning. Hannah, keeping her eye on him, noticed that his markings were not the usual swirls and spirals; they were jagged lines. He even broke his chalk. She had to give him a fresh one. If she weren’t there, would Mr. Bates have noticed? And how would she ever tell Solomon? It would be a second death for him.
Back home she set herself to scrubbing her rags that had been in soak, a distasteful task that came once a month. She rubbed in a frenzy, but she couldn’t wipe out the anxiety she felt. Suddenly she stopped, stared at the wall in front of her. No, she told herself: It simply wasn’t right, her staying there with a bachelor no matter what his age. And he wasn’t making it easy by brooding in his room, refusing to tell her what must be said. Prolonging the agony. If a boil must be lanced, she told herself, ‘tis best to do it quickly. If not by him, then by her.
She climbed the back stairs to her room. Packing was easy. She owned practically nothing. When she had taken down her clothes, her sewing, and her Bible from the shelf and her spare blouse and Sunday dress from the wall pegs, she had barely filled the battered trunk with which she had arrived two years before. She took one last look around. It would be just plain foolishness to get sentimental about her life here. It hadn’t been so rosy perfect, after all. The room was hot in August and cold in winter. The hours had been long. And that fiber mat on the floor had prickled her bare feet like nettles. Everything had to end at some point. She would apply for work at the Codman mill. It was a step down from being a hired girl, but pride was a sin. Besides, a ten-hour workday with the Sabbath entirely free from tasks would be an improvement of sorts.
She wished she could simply write a note to Mr. Bates and slip away. A brief and courteous note. She would thank him for his kindness. She would ask him to tell Solomon that she “went away” like his mother. How else would Solomon understand? Such messages were easier on paper. But no, she couldn’t do that. It would take a day to walk to Codman even if she didn’t have the trunk. She would have to ask Mr. Bates to hitch up the buckboard.
With a sigh she went down the hall and knocked at his bedroom door. Surprisingly he was no longer there. He must have gone outside. Tending traps on the burial day? Not likely. She headed for the barn, assuming he must be there.
He was not at the barn. He was over by the outhouse. When she doubled back, she saw him there with his wheelbarrow and a long-handled shovel. She should have guessed. Early June was when he cleaned out the pit, burying the contents in the asparagus patch. It wouldn’t be proper for him to be at sea, but this was a home chore.
“Mr. Bates,” she called, going to him, “I was wondering if you would hitch up Nell.”
“Are you ill?”
“Not ill, no.” She paused, furious at him for making her say it. “It’s time for me to leave.”
He leaned on his shovel. This spot was sheltered from the breeze, and flies of all types buzzed about the wheelbarrow. The barrow was half full and smell was strong. He had removed his tie, but he still had his white shirt on. Who on earth would wash and iron for him now?
“You’re not happy here?”
She felt like stamping her foot.
“I’ve never been happier, Mr. Bates. Never in all my life. But I was hired to care for your mother, and now that she’s gone, everything has come to an end.”
“I wasn’t speaking of eternal life, Mr. Bates. I meant my employment here.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking. Thinking a lot.”
“An odd place, Mr. Bates, for thinking.”
“This is when I think the best. As you know, my brother needs a bit of mothering. He’s very fond of you. And the place needs a woman’s care. And cheer. I thought perhaps you’d stay.”
“But without Mrs. Bates here… .”
“I meant, with you as Mrs. Bates. The new Mrs. , Bates.”
In the silence flies buzzed, mosquitoes hummed, and the katydids throbbed. He could not have, simply could not have said what she thought he had said.
“Marriage?” she said finally. “With me?” He nodded. “Why Mr. Bates, you’re . . . I mean, I’m barely of age.”
“And I’m over-aged, Hannah. Seems like the average between us is just about right.”
“You wouldn’t be joking now, would you, Mr. Bates?”
“It’s not a place nor a day for joking, Hannah.”
She opened her mouth in astonishment. Like an idiot, she was speechless. Bewildered, overcome, she ran for the house.
The next morning Hannah woke in the pre-dawn darkness as she did every morning to the cry of the roosters. She rose, mindless and groggy, and began dressing in the gloom to avoid wasting candles.
But suddenly she froze, shivering with a mix of wonder and anxiety. Something extraordinary had happened. She stood there in her shift, hands pressed against her breasts as if to warm them until the full recollection came flooding back—the rich odors of the outhouse, the sound of the bees and the flies, the warmth of that early-spring sun, his voice, and the explosion of feelings that left her stunned. Had she really said nothing? What should she have said?
With the scene came doubt. Had that truly been a proposal of marriage? Could she have dreamed the scene with such detail? He had not mentioned it at dinner nor all evening. She had gone to bed beginning to wonder if she had invented it; now in the chill of the morning it seemed even more fanciful.
Down in the kitchen she lit the lamp and began the fire with cones and kindling. Daydreaming, she almost let the flames die before adding the first sticks. How could a man say something extraordinary like that and then spend an evening without a reference to it?
She longed to talk about this with someone—her mother, perhaps. But by letter? How could she phrase it? “I think Mr. Bates has proposed marriage to me”? Lord, there was no guessing what her mother might make of it.
And what should Hannah herself make of it? In some ways it might not be so different from the life she had been leading, but then, surely, there would be what her mother called “wifely obligations”—a dark, ominous subject. Or would he let her stay in her little room?
Breakfast, to her increasing dismay, began no differently from any other mornings. Solomon gulped his milk—warm, frothy, and smelling barny the way he liked it—and then spooned up his flummery in great slurps. Mr. Bates came down at his accustomed time without any special greeting. But surprisingly he was dressed in his Sunday suit. This was not the Sabbath nor some holy day, yet here he was dressed for church.
“You’re going to town?” she asked.
He nodded. Just that. And then he was gone.
She plunged into a flurry of kitchen-cleaning, speaking to Solomon with a harshness that startled her.
“It’s time you helped. Sweep the floor, young man, and be quick about it.”
He looked at her with alarm. “Be quick about it,” he repeated, but he did not move.
When Mr. Bates returned that afternoon his expression was lighter. It was as if the sun was almost emerging.
“Hannah,” he said, “you’d best put some water on to boil. And dress Solomon in his church suit. We’re going to have company for tea.”
“Tea? Do I have much time?”
“An hour, give or take.”
An hour! A flash of panic passed through her. They never had folks for tea. With the weather turned warm, Hannah didn’t even keep the fire going in the afternoon.
As she thrust wood chips and pine cones into the cookstove, it occurred to her that she really should know how many would be coming. She called up the stairs: “Will there be more than one?”
“Two,” Mr. Bates shouted without opening the door. “The minister and his wife.”
Hannah sucked in her breath. The minister and his wife! Here? What for? And how should she act? Was she expected to remain in the parlor like kin or stay in the kitchen like a hired girl? But there was no time to think. There was water to be boiled and Solomon to be dressed.
By the time the Reverend Mr. Crooker and his wife arrived, Hannah was as tense as a schoolgirl at test time. Still uncertain about her status, she stood awkwardly at the door between the parlor and the hallway—close enough to nudge Solomon if he should forget to stand and shake hands, yet far enough, she hoped, so as not to be included in the conversation. Still, she felt as if she were acting like some Irish country girl—exactly what her mother warned her against.
The minister himself turned out to be even taller and leaner than he appeared in the pulpit. A looming eagle. His wife was the opposite—short and solid. She smiled easily and seemed at ease, but apparently she hadn’t been able to take the stiffness out of her husband.
The reverend had graduated from a seminary in Boston and was generally regarded to be as learned as a judge. You could tell that from his sermons which were long and incomprehensible. To Hannah’s surprise, however, the conversation turned out to be perfectly ordinary. No complicated talk about the nature of the Elect, the attributes of the Holy Ghost, or the terrible subtlety of unintentional sin. No different, really, from idle talk with the grocer or with women she met at the store.
The sonorous, deep-toned talk slid by in an lulling blur like the reverend’s sermons. Daydreaming, she was startled by an unexpected silence. The voices of the men had stopped—like a steady breeze going flat.
“Won’t you join us, Miss Farr?” The question, coming from the minister, was an order. Without thinking she dropped just a suggestion of a curtsey and sat on the footstool nearest the door. If only she had retreated to the kitchen before he had spotted her!
“Mr. Bates has told us a good deal about you.”
Hannah felt a blush rise to her face. What on earth had Mr. Bates said?
“There’s not much to know,” she said, keeping her eyes on a corner of the rug, though doubtless she should be looking him in the eye as if he were a schoolmaster.
“Mr. Bates wouldn’t agree. He says you were a blessing during his mother’s final days.”
The minister rumbled on with more details—how she had kept the •place warmer than usual, how she had bathed Mrs. Bates in fresh well water carried up the hill, not trusting the cistern, how she had changed the bedding daily. All true, but a terrible embarrassment having it focused directly on her. It was as if he had pointed her out from the pulpit.
“He has the highest regard for you. It appears he has made a… .” The minister faltered.”Made a. . . .” He cleared his throat.”He would have discussed this with your father, but Mr. Farr is, ah, deceased, is he not?” She nodded. “Ah yes. A pity.” He paused. “And you are now?”
“Ah yes. Eighteen. Well, there are scriptural precedents that I have explained to Mr. Bates. Clear scriptural precedents.”
Another silence. It was hard to imagine him faltering, but the conversation had unmistakably lurched to a stop like a wagon mired in mud. She felt sorry for him, but where was he headed?
“Well,” the wife said suddenly, “the heart of the matter is this: He has proposed marriage, but such matters take time. Since you can’t remain here, the reverend and I would be pleased to have you stay at the parsonage until everything is resolved. But there is still one remaining question.”
“Mr. Bates tells us that you have not made up your mind. Have you had time to think about his proposal? The poor man’s been left hanging.”
Clouds of uncertainty lifted from Hannah. She took a deep breath. “Oh no, it is I who was left hanging. No. I mean yes. Oh dear yes.”
And so, as it turned out, everything was arranged not by the minister or by Hannah’s mother but by the forthright Mrs. Crooker. Hannah spent two weeks at the rectory, helping there to make soap and churn butter, and then walking a dusty mile to Mr. Bates’ place to prepare lunch and dinner for the two of them before returning for the night.
Hannah’s mother agreed to the match by letter, excusing herself from the arrangements because of distance. So even the wedding itself was prepared by Mrs. Crooker. On the day of the wedding, Hannah’s mother and two brothers came to the service in an undertaker’s hired carriage, the cheapest in town. The brothers, looking hot and surly in their Sunday suits, might well have been going to a funeral. But they behaved themselves. One would hardly know how loutish they could be at home. Hannah’s mother seemed stiff and defensive. For some reason she had to tell everyone that Hannah’s father had been a lawyer.
Hannah found the service an agony because of the attention it drew to her, the family and church members in attendance, and village layabouts peering in through the windows. The louts even hooted when a yelping hound mounted a bitch in the dusty road outside. Hannah could have shot them. Still, it was finally all over, completed. The hurdle passed.
Only one hurdle remained. On their silent way back from the village in the old buckboard, Hannah brooded once again about what her mother called “conjugal obligations.” Could this be akin to what dogs do?
In the heat of early afternoon, Hannah could feel perspiration trickle down her face and, under her Sabbath dress, between her breasts. The feel of it brought back memories of her most private dreams. Not about horses or dogs, thank heaven, but disturbing nonetheless. In some she would find herself gliding like a gull on warm air currents—swooping down, up, then down again just above the fields and woodlands of Farthington Neck. From those heights the Bates farm had soft contours like the comforter on an unmade bed. The clouds through which she passed were warm and damp, and when she woke up—always with regret—the sweet, salty moisture from those clouds would cling to her arms and legs. She could taste it even now on her upper lip.
More secret still were dreams in which she found herself lying on her back in a warm lagoon. She was fully clothed, of course, but in the absurd manner of dreams she was oblivious to the damage this would do to her dress, petticoat, shift, and undergarments. Arms akimbo, legs spread like some wanton child, she rose and fell on a gentle swell while the sun bore down on her. Finally the intensity of it would snap her awake, bathed in embarrassment.
These were, surely, just wanderings of a mind lulled by sleep. Still, there was something about them that left her restless and uneasy. Were such dreams what the reverend called an unintentional sin?
Now, incredibly, she was Mrs. Saul Bates. Her hand went to her cheek where Mr. Bates had kissed her right there in public. Yes, her face was unchanged, but her inner self would never be the same. She was now transformed, a married woman, Mrs. Bates.
Or almost. The minister had changed her name, but only Mr. Bates himself could perform the final act, the consummation. Without that, a marriage could be annulled, couldn’t it? If she could just endure the first night, put it behind her, perhaps then she, Mr. Bates, and Solomon could return to the quiet, private life they had shared and treasured.
It was strange indeed returning to the farm, knowing that it was in some way her farm too. She opened the back door for Mr. Bates and Solomon, stepping aside to let them enter, and then lingered at the threshold. The kitchen had its familiar, distinctive mix of smells— wood, smoke, and vinegar. Her kitchen now. Yet she felt like a clock wound tight to the breaking point.
“I’d best do some readying up,” she said, avoiding Mr. Bates’ eyes. “There’s cleaning to do regardless.”
“I suppose. And I’ve got traps that need mending. I’ve still got three hours of light. If it don’t storm.”
After she had tucked Solomon in for his regular afternoon nap and had changed into her weekday dress, she went down to the kitchen. Mr. Bates was there in his working suit and boots, about to go down to the shore, She wanted to tell him to stay, but what right had she? He was doing his best to regain the schedule—to save what was left of the day.
“Well now, Mr. Bates, will you be wanting supper at the usual time?”
“The usual time.”
He looked at her with a shy smile—kindly and somehow apologetic too. It was the face of a man flooded with things to say but unable to uncork the words.
Dinner that night was even quieter than usual. As if to fill the terrible silence, he turned to the weather.
“Wind’s veered into the east,” he said, speaking to them both but looking at neither of them.”Looks like a line storm. Early in the season for the likes of them.” He shook his head.”Should have hauled traps this morning. Except we were busy.”
When the meal was over, Mr. Bates allowed as how Solomon had had a long day and might go to bed early. As she mounted the dark stairs with Solomon, carrying a candle and his clean chamber pot, she noticed with surprise that her hand was trembling.
Back in the living room, she saw Mr. Bates was reading last week’s Codman Courier in the fading light. She lit a lamp for him, but he made no move to get a book for reading aloud. She took up her darning. In the silence she heard the wind begin to moan around the corner of the house and rattle the doors.
Finally Saul cleared his throat and, looking at a corner of the rug, said, “I suppose you’ll be moving into my room.”
“Perhaps you’d like to do that now.”
“Yes.” But she made no move. She still wasn’t quite sure what he meant.”Should I get ready?”
“For bed. I mean, should I… .” Must she say it? “Shall I wait up there for you?”
He nodded but would not look at her.
Lighting a candle with a taper, she went upstairs. In the darkened hallway she peered into his room. It was stark, unadorned. The downstairs room that his mother had occupied for so many years would have been more inviting. It still had a woman’s touch— curtains, a rug, and a framed etching of a cow in a meadow. But he would not sleep in his mother’s bed; she knew that without asking. As she stared at his iron bed, shadows trembling in the candlelight, she heard the beginning of rain on the roof.
Back in her own little room, she packed her belongings once again. Then she dragged the trunk into Mr. Bates’ room. She would have to hurry into her nightdress. He would be coming up soon, and what if she were only half clothed? With her eye on the door, she changed into her flannel nightdress. Leaving the candle lit for him, she slid into his bed and pulled the covers up. She waited, tense. Distant lightning flashed a silhouette of windowpanes against the opposite wall, the design of prison bars.
Then, the sound of steps. Measured, heavy, echoing her girlhood dreams—the giant mounting the stairs toward her. Fee, fi, fo, fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman. It was her blood he smelled. She squirmed to the far edge of the bed, facing the wall, her breath shallow. When the latch lifted and the door creaked open, she squeezed her eyes shut.
Feigning sleep, she barely breathed, listening to his every move. First his boots, then the clank of his belt hitting the iron bedpost, the rustling of fabric—his nightshirt? Finally she felt the weight of him sit on the other side of the bed. She peeked out. He had not extinguished the lamp. He was just sitting there.
//querry? “Hannah?” He spoke softly—not at all a giant’s voice.
“No, not asleep.”
He slid into bed and lay there on his back, not touching her.
“It’s been a mighty strange day,” he said.
“Strange for me too.”
There was a silence. Lightning again flickered on the wall, and without thinking she counted as she had been taught, “One japanzi, two japanzi, three japanzi . . .” to eight before the thunder reached them. Eight miles. Perhaps it was over Codman, flashing around her mother’s house. Were they all home now, snugly tucked into their beds? How could her mother sleep, knowing that her daughter must lie in bed with a strange and silent man, must await something that would surely hurt and humiliate.
“You looked real pretty in your Sunday dress,” he said without looking at her.”Those flowers in your hair.”
“I wanted to do you proud.”
Another long pause. Then, “Some time back I saw you talking with that curly-haired fellow, young Potman, after church.” He took in a breath and let it out.”You remember?”
“I guess so.”
“Good-looking young fellow, wouldn’t you say?”
“Elijah? A bit churlish, perhaps.”
“Well, I had this terrible thought. I thought—there’s the young fella she should be marrying. There’s the man who’d make her laugh. I could see you laugh and kiss him, and the two of you with your arms around each other. . . .”
“Oh Saul!” she said, flipping herself over, looking down on him now, stroking his face.”But I didn’t. Wouldn’t. You know that. Not ever. Dear Saul.” There it was—she was using his first name without asking.”Don’t ever think like that. Ever.” Without thinking she kissed him the way she would Solomon when he was hurt, and then she kissed him again, longer.”My Saul,” she murmured. Their arms were around each other as she kissed his weathered neck.
On their sides they pressed together, rubbing faces like two horses in the field. If it could have stayed like this, it would have been sweet as a dream, but with a jolt she discovered that men grew like dogs in heat. Of course! This was what would come next. More, it must come next. If either of them faltered, if they did not manage it tonight, it would be hanging over them the next day and the day after that. She might even lose him.
Fiercely she rolled him over on top of her, gripping him. “Hannah ,” he said, startled, but she pressed her lips on his for fear that words would bog them down. She grabbed his shoulder, tugging. It was all grunt and heave now, but she would not let go. Come on, she said silently, I don’t like this either.
It hurt then, but she knew it would. It had to hurt in order to count. Consummate! Consummate! She wrapped her legs around him, forcing him into her. Eyes tight shut, she saw red sparks flash in the blackness. She’d been torn, but this was a part of it.
Suddenly he cried out. Then he was still. A great weight on her, breathing hard. That must be the end of it. Strange, lying there, pain stabbing in her, wondering why she was not appalled. Hurting, unmistakably cut, wet, perhaps bleeding, yet inexplicably wanting to keep rocking, to keep it sliding—like some terrible insect bite, already scratched bloody but still needing to be scratched. She lay there, almost still, flexing her thighs ever so slightly, tilting her lower body imperceptibly up and down in spite of the pain.
As for him, every muscle in him had gone slack. He was totally spent—like some wild squall followed by complete calm. For him there was none of this lingering need, none of this restless, stinging itch. But she felt no jealousy. As he slid off her, she felt a gush of satisfaction: She had done that for him. For them.
But what a mess! Was she bleeding or was all that wet from him? From the slippery feeling, there must be blood. How would she ever get the stains out of the sheets? And the mattress? It would be marked forever, a reminder. If this was to be repeated, she must remember to keep clean rags by the bed.
She stood up, trying to wipe herself with her nightdress. That too would have to be soaked in cold water and then boiled with lye.
It was Solomon’s voice, not Saul’s. Solomon’s cry for help. She stumbled out of the room and into the dark corridor.”Here!” she called.”I’m here.”
In the blue light of another flash she saw him at the open door of her former room, a sad, ghostly form in his nightshirt, sleeping cap askew.
She went to him and put her arms around him. His pudgy, rounded body was trembling with fear.”It’s all right,” she said.”It’s all right.”
She led him back to his room, her arm around him, feeling her way along the wall. She helped him into bed and tucked in the covers. Then she kissed him goodnight.”Everything’s all right now,” she said.
Soon she was back in bed beside Saul. “It was the storm,” she said.
“It frightened him. But he’s asleep now.”
“You’re good with him,” he said. “And you?”
“Everything’s all right now,” she whispered.
She thought he would sleep, but his hand began grazing her face. Soon it was traveling down her neck and across her breast. She could see that they would not be sleeping for a while yet. Well, she thought, it’s all right. This is what men and women do together. This is the secret they share.