July 26, 2023
Our writing group continues to work on short stories for our Potpourri Project. The assignment for this meeting was to emulate Zane Gray’s descriptive style to create a short story of up to 3,000 words.
Doing genealogy, Margaret has always been a mystery. She is listed by herself under “Miscellaneous” in her family’s genealogy. The only known fact is that she married in Charlestown in 1658, then gave birth to her son a few months after her husband died the following year. Because I know so little about her, the following piece is purely historical fantasy. I may some day use it as an opening chapter of a new novel about this ancestor. I hope you enjoy my short story!
A blast of cold air wakes me. Cook struggles against the wind to close the door. Leaving my straw pallet, I rush across the kitchen to help her.
“Thank you, Miss. It do be terrible out there. Devil of a storm be a brewing.” She shakes raindrops from her dark gray cloak then pegs it on the hook by the door.
I pick up the iron and poke the remaining embers until they glow before adding logs to the fire. Finished, I fold my almost threadbare patchwork quilt then place it at the foot of my bed. I am re-braiding my red-gold hair when Cook says, “Miss, may be best to bring in more wood. This do be a nor’easter. Use my cloak. It’s heavier than yours.”
I don’t know why Cook always uses the Miss honorific when she speaks to me. I have often asked her, but she won’t explain. She only says, “When you do be old enough, I may tell you.” I know I am a simple scullion, so I cannot figure this out. I find this mysterious. I sometimes daydream of a better life.
Nodding, I tie my bonnet strings, then put on her wrap. Once I step outside, she helps shut the door behind me. Each step is a battle, more so when I reach the corner of the house. Here, the fierce wind whips open the cloak. I tug it closer to my body then brace it somewhat closed with logs. The wind pushes and almost unbalances me as I head back. I thump the door with one foot.
She raises her voice to be heard over the howling wind. “Just drop those here. Go get more.”
Because I can only carry four logs at a time, it takes several more trips to satisfy her. On my last venture outside, I can barely see Captain Hunt closing and latching the rear shutters though he’s just a few feet away. Dawn should be lighting the sky. Instead of its rosy glow, a sickly, dark greenish-black fills it. He shouts something at me, but I cannot understand him. I’m surprised to find him behind me as I turn back to close the door. He drops a bigger armload of wood on the floor then, without saying a word, goes back outside.
After we manage to shut the door, Cook takes the cloak from me, shakes it, then puts it on the peg. Everything below my waist is drenched. Shivering, I pick up the scattered logs and stack these beside the hearth.
Though it seems nigh on impossible, the room darkens even more as the captain latches the kitchen shutter. The candles in the wall scones gutter as the wind gusts inside when he enters a few minutes later with another armful of logs. As he dumps these on the floor, he says, “Not a fit day for man or beast out there.” He pushes hard then latches the door. “Goodwife Winslow, I’d like a cup of hot tea and breakfast in the dining room as soon as you can.” Turning to me, he says, “Margaret, I strung a rope so you can tend the chickens and cow.”
I stifle a sigh as he drips water plus muddy footprints across the floor and heads into the family area. I again put on Cook’s cloak though it is damp and won’t provide much protection. After picking up a wooden bucket and woven basket, I thread those over my arm. She helps shut the door, then I grope my way to the shelter.
The milk cow bellows her displeasure at being shut inside. I pat her neck until she grows calmer. This allows my eyes to adjust to the many shades of darkness within. At last, I can see the stool. I pull it closer then milk the cow. Leaving the filled bucket by the door, I search the wall for the quirt, take it from its rack, then slowly make my way over to the chickens.
From their squawking and fluttering, I know something is very wrong. None of them are nesting. More feathers than usual litter the ground. The rooster screeches and strikes its beak at an even darker area. I glimpse a tiny glimmer of white as the rat snake raises itself up to strike back. With every ounce of strength, I flail at the serpent. “Hyyah! Yah! Hyyee!”
The already frightened chickens scatter away from my yells and swinging quirt. It takes several seconds before I realize this dark shape no longer moves. I gasp, then take several deep breaths. Cringing, I pick up the reptile carcass, struggle with the door, then toss it outside. I peg the weapon back in its place. Inching my way back to the nests, I double check each one and find nothing but emptiness.
Straightening the cloak which has come askew, I sling the empty egg basket over my arm, then pick up the bucket. Outside, I have to set this on the ground as I struggle to latch the door. Trying not to spill any of its contents, I find it even more difficult to make my way back. Driving rain obscures my sight of the three-story clapboard house. With my hands filled with bucket and rope, I cannot even try to keep the cloak closed. The wind torments me pushing the hood then bonnet from atop my head. Its strings now strangle me, and I gasp for every breath.
A thunderous boom almost causes me to drop the bucket. A quarter of the milk sloshes out. Every hair on my body stands up as a blinding flash of lightning hits a nearby mighty oak and I scream. The ground shakes as a huge limb crashes to the earth. Dim light from the now open doorway guides my final trembling steps. Cook takes the bucket and basket from my shaking hands and sets those on the floor. “Help me get this closed.”
I add my weight to hers as we push and shove. When we finally get it latched, I slump against the door while I untie the strings from my sore neck.
“I do be worried bout you. That one hit so close I be scared it got you.” Cook takes the dripping cloak from my shoulders. She wrings it over an empty bucket before spreading it to dry over a rope which she has strung near the fire. “You be so bedraggled.” She points. “Set your shoes here on the hearth.” The rotund woman makes a clicking sound. “Miss, maybe you should don your Sunday clothes. These do need drying. The family and servants ate. No one should come while you do be dressing.”
Teeth chattering, I quickly do as she bid me. As I discard each article of clothing, she pegs it to the line. She doesn’t say another word, but I know she notices my budding breasts. Uncomfortable with my nakedness, I rush into my only other petticoat. Face reddening, I speak to break the awkward silence. “Sorry, but a rat snake got every single egg. That’s why the basket is empty.” I shudder as I slip on my dress. “I did manage to kill that nasty thing.”
Cook’s right eyebrow raises with her question. “How?”
“I beat it with the quirt.”
She nods then retrieves the comb from my apron pocket. The matronly woman pulls a chair closer to the fire then motions for me to sit. Unbraiding my hair, she says, “’Twill dry quicker if you leave it down.” She is combing out my tangles when the governess enters the kitchen.
Cook glances up at her but continues what she is doing.
The haughty young lady scowls. “Mrs. Hunt and I would like a cup of tea. You better make a fresh pot. Bring it to the drawing room.” With a swirl of skirts, she flounces out of the kitchen.
With an almost inaudible “tsk,” Cook hands me the comb. After retrieving the teapot from the hearth, she fills two mugs with the leftover tea and places one on the table near me. She rinses the dregs from the pot before filling it with boiling water. I take out the silver tray then place the sugar bowl, creamer, and two fine porcelain cups on top. Cook places a small colander filled with fresh leaves into the teapot. While it steeps, she adds a dollop of honey into our mugs. Removing the colander and setting this on the table, she motions toward my mug and says, “Do be better while hot.” She takes the tray into the family area.
I don’t remember being given this to drink before today. I take a small sip and savor it. After a burst of sweetness, an earthy nuttiness remains on my tongue. I find it delightful and want to gulp it down. Instead, I allow myself a deeper sip.
Cook returns and ladles porridge into two wooden bowls which she places on the table. She sighs as she sits down. Stirring her mug with a wooden spoon, she says, “Be no sense wasting this wonderful brew. I be going to enjoy this before we start fixing dinner.”
After eating breakfast, I mop the muddy mess from the floor before I wash and dry the dishes. When something crashes into the outside wall beside me, I scream and fumble a porcelain bowl, barely managing to shelve it. “Ooh! Thank goodness I caught it.”
“I be glad you did Miss. You do no deserve another switching.” Cook sighs. “’Tisn’t right.” She doesn’t explain why she thinks so. Instead, she points to the table where she has placed vegetables. “Those potatoes do need peeling. First, check if your clothing do be dry. Do no want your Sunday clothes stained.”
Everything is still damp. I flip each one over, so its other side faces the fire. After sitting down, I braid my hair and put on a bonnet before picking up the peeler. Cook finishes kneading and shaping sourdough into loaves, then uses a paddle to place these on the oven shelf at the rear of the fireplace. She sits across from me and chops yesterday’s roast venison into small chunks. When I finish peeling and dicing the potatoes, I prepare the other vegetables.
We don’t talk as we work, but the room is not quiet. Pellets of rain beat against the walls, a constant drumming sound. Roaring wind, booming thunder, and lightning blasts break the silence. Downed tree limbs sometimes thump onto the siding. I grow more frightened with each occurrence as the nor’easter continues to wreak havoc outside. I cannot hold back a small scream when the house shakes as a nearby tree falls to earth.
The kindly matron stands up then comes around the table. She wipes her hands on her apron then lays a hand on my shoulder and gives it a hearty squeeze. “We do be fine inside.”
When we finish chopping and dicing food, she says, “Do need this clothing out of our way.”
I remove each item from the rope and lay those on my pallet then return Cook’s cloak to the hook by the door. I am changing clothes when the captain’s eldest son comes into the kitchen. I squeak and turn my naked back to him. He slowly fills his arms with logs, and I can feel his stare. Finally, he leaves the room. I am finished dressing when he returns three minutes later and takes more. My cheeks heat when he glances at me on his way out.
Cook ignores my blush and says, “We do need to get this a going.” She pulls the huge iron cauldron next to the table then holds it up, so I can sweep the stew ingredients into this pot. After I ladle water to the top, she lifts it onto a hook then pushes it over the flames.
“The Missus told me she wanted custard.” Cook clicks her tongue. “But we do no have enough eggs.” She thinks for a moment. “Since there do be two left from yesterday, I’m thinking corn pudding be good.”
She reaches up and removes several husks from the rafters. While I use my fingers to de-kernel the corn, she beats the eggs, milk, and maple sugar together in a large wooden bowl, then adds some cornmeal to her mixture. She pours this into a large kettle then motions for me to add the kernels. As she stirs this, she says, “I do think a bit more milk be needed.”
I lift the bucket and slowly pour until she nods. After this I wipe down the table with a dishcloth then towel it dry.
Busy constantly stirring the pudding, Cook says, “Check the bread. It do look close to done.”
I use the paddle to pull one loaf out then place it on the table. Wearing an oven mitt, I flip it over and thump its bottom. It rings hollow, so I remove the other loaves from the oven and test each one. The stew is bubbling, so I hook the cauldron away from the flames. Using a long-handled wooden spoon, I stir the contents, making sure food isn’t stuck to the bottom. I push it back near, but not over, the fire.
Ten minutes later, Cook removes the pudding kettle to cool. I get out the trays, cutlery, and dishes for the family’s meal. She puts on fresh tea to steep, then slices the bread and puts this in a basket along with a small container of butter. She takes a tray filled with tea things into the family area. While she is gone, I ladle venison stew into one bowl then spoon pudding into another. Cook carries the first food tray to the dining room. By the time she returns, I have another one ready. From the look on her face, I can tell she is vexed. When she picks up the final tray, she says, “Miss, bring the breadbasket.”
I am startled because I’ve never been to the dining room. I follow close to her heels. The captain motions for it, so I hand him the basket. At the other end of the table, Mrs. Hunt shrieks. “What are you doing in here? You know you belong in the kitchen. Get out!”
Tears stream down my cheeks as I flee the room.