Friday, March 17, 2017

From Ashes

Cicadas sing in a rise and fall chorus of summer outside my office window. Along with a slight breeze, the open window lets in the sound of children laughing, shrieking, hollering from the park across the street and the bright green smell of fresh cut grass.

My hands stick to everything on my desk. Humidity wilts the pages in my notebook and a slick sheen of sweat covers my skin. I long to be outside, running with those kids, hurtling between the grassy park and the cool waters of the public pool.

Instead, I’m trying to make out the near indecipherable cursive of long dead census takers on my laptop screen. My eyes ache with the effort.

My little office, crowded with stacks of papers and books left behind by others like me over decades, is not air conditioned. A fan creaks back and forth, pushing hot air around, ruffling papers.

The cafĂ©, two doors down, makes wonderful cold iced tea and lemonade. The thought of a glass, beads of condensation sliding down, is almost refreshing enough. I’ll go after five pages. Friday afternoon and I bribe myself to finish my work like a recalcitrant child.

I’ve been here since late spring. I’m part of a multidisciplinary team studying the town. Our study has been going on since the 1960s. I’m a historian by trade, interested in the untold lives of women in small rural communities. My colleagues are geneticists, sociologists, anthropologists, fertility experts. We’re a strange mix of the sciences and humanities. The last few years, we’ve experimented with adding artists to see if they can, with their different eyes, find something we’re missing.

All children born here are female. The pattern has held for over a century, maybe longer. No one knows why. Careful, probing interviews reveal none of the women are practicing sex selection. Genetic tests have been unhelpful. Any men or boys in the community are brought in from outside.

It’s a strange world of its own. Rural enough that it’s somewhat cut off from the larger trends and tides of the world, but large enough that you almost never need to leave town to get anything.

When I proposed joining the study, my advisor had looked at me owlishly over his reading glasses. He has a sad, jowly face like a bloodhound. People who don’t know him assume he’s a melancholy person. He’s not. 

But he did look melancholy that day.

“Don’t you go falling in love and staying there,” he said. And I laughed and asked him how, exactly, that would happen in a town full of women, where the men, according to statistics, were all married, or at least cohabitating.

He shook his head and pushed his glasses up his nose. “Not with a person. Although that happens. We lose some of the men and a few of the women every year. I mean, don’t fall in love with the town.”

I’d grown up in a small town and spent my teen years beating against its boundaries. I dreamed of living in a city, surrounded by people, anonymous. Back in the winter, I couldn’t imagine staying in a town so small.
I can see what he meant. I like it here. The girls are bold, confident in a way I’ve never seen before. My roommate in university had gone to an all-girls private school and the girls in this town remind me of her stories.

But what I really like is walking at night. I’m a night owl. I don’t sleep well and I think better when I’m on the move. Instead of pounding out miles, going nowhere on a treadmill or stationary bike, I wander all over town, feeling completely safe.

A knock on my office door interrupts my reverie. When I call the person to come in, my visitor surprises me. She’s an elderly woman I’ve seen around town, but I’ve never actually met. She’s wearing a tailored, white suit in summer weight wool. It looks soft to the touch. Her soft, finely wrinkled skin is made up, but not heavily as some old women do because they can’t see. She can definitely see. Her sharp, bright eyes roam over the stacks of papers and books in my office. She’s like a crow, sharp-eyed, searching for something shiny. Her gaze lands on me.

She approaches my desk, hand out. I shake her soft, cool hand. She carefully moves a stack of papers off the spare chair and brushes the upholstered seat with her hand. Her posture, seated, is excellent and I find myself pulling my shoulders back and sucking in my stomach.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” she says. “I’m Elsie Donovan. I used to be in charge of the museum before they retired me and replaced me with a professional.”

Ah. Yes. Mrs. Donovan. The museum’s curator told me about her. Mrs. Donovan is the grand dame of town, one of its oldest citizens and involved in nearly everything. Her sharp eyes miss nothing and she has no compunction about setting things to rights.

I introduce myself and she waves me off. Of course she knows who I am.

“I heard that you were going through the old census records and I thought, well, I can probably save her hours of tedium. You’re trying to see if a man has ever been born here, right?”

I nod. Folk knowledge says the last man was born here in the early 1800s, but there’s no proof.

“The last male infant born here was Edward Cummings, in 1815. He died before his tenth birthday.”
I scribble this into my notebook so I can verify it later. She’s so confident, but I need to check her facts.

“I’m going to tell you why we only give birth to daughters here,” Mrs. Donovan says. Her smile is wide, her teeth are white and strong, but it’s not an especially warm smile.

"Jacob Cumming and his brother Eben founded this town. They were deeded the land as thanks for some service or other. That’s not important to my story.

Back then, the land around here was all forest. Eben was a romantic and he hated that they were going to clear the land and bring in farmers. He’d come to Canada to escape the boredom of his life. He saw himself running through the forest, learning its ways. Jacob was more practical.

They say Jacob chose the town site to placate Eben’s soul. Perhaps so. The river is beautiful, with its rushing waters. But Jacob likely chose the spot for the power offered by the water. They cut down all the trees. Eben convinced Jacob to leave a few.

You’ve seen the old oak in the park? That’s one of Eben’s trees. Little did he know what would happen there.

Eben died. Drowned in the river he so loved. Jacob had no one to warm his heart after that. His pile of money grew higher. People came to the town, attracted by his prosperity. I will say, he built a neat, orderly town. His work is visible yet in our wide streets and beautiful old buildings.

But a man wants to leave a legacy and Jacob was no different. He was a handsome man. No doubt you’ve seen his portrait at the museum. Even though he was older, he had no difficulty in finding families willing to give him their daughters. But before he married, he wanted to be sure that any woman he took for a wife would give him sons. He had visions of a large family of strong, intelligent sons. They’d grow the family’s wealth and found other prosperous towns in this new land.

But how to be sure a woman will give you sons? Jacob didn’t know. Because a family would have needed to have made one daughter in order for him to have a wife. Immediately, he eliminated any potential wives who had sisters. He took a mistress to test himself. She had three boys. But he couldn’t marry her. She was not suited to building an empire. Those boys he apprenticed off to far away towns and all traces of them have been lost.

Eventually, he found a wife. Charlotte Gibbons was the youngest of twelve children. The other eleven were all boys. Every single one of her brothers was tall and strong and excelled in his studies. They were perfect specimens and if Jacob could have married one of them, he likely would have.

Charlotte was beautiful, they say. No one knows though because Jacob destroyed all images of her.
She had a child almost one year after they married. A daughter named Rebecca. Charlotte doted on that child. Everyone spoke of it. Jacob never minded that child. It was as if she didn’t exist. He waited a decent time, but before Rebecca was a year old, Charlotte was pregnant again.

That summer was hot and a pregnant woman can be so uncomfortable in the heat.  Charlotte had taken to lying in sleeping porch, keeping little Rebecca close by. One afternoon, Charlotte had dozed off and when she woke up, little Rebecca was gone.

Search parties scoured the town. Even Jacob joined them to look for the child. They found her body in the woods several days later. Charlotte was inconsolable. Her grief hastened her labour and her son was born early.

The little boy survived though. Jacob hired nurses to care for the child and sought medical advice from everywhere. Charles was never strong, but he did live. When he was old enough to toddle around, his father took him everywhere. What a loving father Jacob was! People said it was because he’d lost the first and was not about to make the same mistake.

A few years later, Charlotte gave birth to another son. Again, Jacob doted on the child, hiring extra help. Charlotte was still beautiful, but some joy had gone from her. She loved her little sons, Charles and Edward, but she was not a happy woman.

If Jacob was disappointed that he did not get eleven sons from his wife, no one ever heard him say it. He seemed content enough with the two. Anything they wanted, they had. When it came time for the boys to go to school, Jacob hired the best tutors and they had small classes at the Cummings home with other sons of powerful men.

Life back then, even for the wealthy, could be a precarious business. Charlotte had already lost a daughter. Jacob had lost a brother. Others had losses too. When a fever swept through, no one was surprised, but everyone prayed that their family would be spared.

Charles and Edward died.

At the funeral, as the sexton lowered their double coffin into the grave, Jacob tried to leap in. He was frenzied in his grief. But, eventually, he began to speak of how he and his wife were still young. They could have more sons.

Charlotte gave birth to a daughter, Ruth, the next year. The joy came back to her, a little. She was not the same, but she took comfort in this new baby. After all, so many women she knew had lost their children. Her sorrows, while severe, were not unique.

Ruth was taken from her cradle in the night. Again, a search party was called. Again, the wee body was found days later. But this time, there was a mark on the body. A bruise in the shape of a hand over the little one’s face.

People began to whisper. How could it happen again, in almost the same way? Both times, the child had been snatched while the mother slept. Women said to each other they’d never sleep while a stranger was in their homes. They’d know.

One night, while drinking with the other town leaders, Jacob let his suspicions of his wife slip out. He wanted more children, but he was afraid she was not right in her head. How was it his children could not survive? Did the fever take his boys? Or was it their mother, jealous her daughter was gone while his sons survived?

This would have been the time to bring in a magistrate or coroner. But the town closed up on itself. The whispers grew louder. Charlotte began to hear them and her heart broke. She’d wanted her babies more than anything in the world. Long after she lost any affection for Jacob, she’d wanted her little ones.
When they came for her, she let them take her. They dragged her to the big oak tree, Eben’s tree.

The fire was already burning.

They said she was stealing the lives of her children. They said they were protecting their own. The little ones said they saw her in the night, standing over their cribs or leaning down, sucking the breath from their bodies.
She let them tie her to the stake. Jacob came to her. He whispered in her ear. No one heard what he said, but they saw the hate in her eyes. “My girls!” she’d wailed and tried to lunge at him, but she was tied too securely. “I didn’t take your sons,” she hissed, “But I will.”

It was Jacob who put the torch to her. She never took her eyes from him.  

What happened next, who’s to know if it’s true? But it’s how it’s told.

The flames grew higher. Charlotte was entirely consumed. The fire roared up with a whooshing sound, like a fire in the hearth will when you blow on it. The heat forced the people back and back. Yet Eben’s oak tree was untouched.  Some say the flames changed colour, going from orange and yellow to a deep blood red.

And then, it whirled up, high into the sky and something shot out into the sky like a comet. Some said it looked like a giant bird, others said it was a demon, others said it was an angel. I think it was Charlotte, fueled by the love for her children and her hatred of Jacob.

When the flames died down, there was no body. They threw the ashes into the river.

Many years later, when Jacob was an elderly man, he was in church beside his new wife, praying that the baby she was carrying would be a boy. No boys had been born since his Edward. While mouthing his prayer, Jacob burst into flame, burning without heat until only his shoes and a greasy streak on the pew remained.”

When Mrs. Donovan started speaking, I grabbed a pen. But at some point in her story, I set the pen down.
I can’t believe her. And yet the images are so vivid in my mind.

“Have you told anyone this before?” I ask.

She grins at me.  Her teeth bright against her deep red slash of lipstick. “Every few year, I tell one of you.”

“How is it I’ve never heard it before?”

She shrugs. “We townsfolk don’t like letting outsiders know too much.”

“But I’m not one of you.”

She lifts a painted eyebrow. “Aren’t you?”

Mrs. Donovan stands. For a woman over ninety, she is remarkably quick in her movements. She yanks on her jacket to straighten it and puts a hand to her cloud of white curls. “This weather, murder on the hair.”

At the door, she pauses, “Welcome. You’ll love it here.”

The door closes behind her. I stare down at my notes. The cicadas begin another chorus in their summer song.

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