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.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Women's Work

We had enjoyed a cozy chat over tea in her somewhat old-fashioned, but beautiful parlour. My editor had warned me that the old woman was still sharp-witted despite her advanced years and I found this to be true. We had whiled the afternoon away, talking about her experiences as an emigrant to Canada more than sixty years before and her subsequent literary career.

“In Europe, autumn and winter evenings are for ghost stories,” she said in response to a passing remark I made about the afternoon turning to evening quickly, a reminder of the coming winter.

“Well, then,” I answered, “Perhaps you can tell me about the origins of the ghost on Lakeshore Road, since you were one of the first settlers.” While researching Mrs. Parr’s long life, I had come across a small note in an old edition of the newspaper about sightings of a ghost.

She seemed not to hear my question. Instead, she turned away from me to instruct her maid to draw the curtains and light the lamps. My editor had told me this was a famous trick Mrs. Parr used to gather her thoughts or to avoid a question she did not care to answer. He said the best method was to simply let the silence fall, unremarked upon.

Finally, she set her teacup on the table. “First, you must promise me that you will not publish any of what I am about to tell you until I am dead. I’m an old woman. I’ve lived almost a century. You won’t have long to wait.”

I knew, then, that what she was about to tell me was going to be a cracker of a story, whether it proved to be true. I had long since learned in my journalistic career that the best tidbits came off the record. I turned to a fresh page in my notebook and took up a sharp pencil.


Late autumn was always my favourite season when we were living in the bush. I gloried in the colours of the trees, the crispness of the air. Nothing satisfied me more than taking stock of everything I had preserved for the winter. And yet, there was always a worry in the back of my mind. Had I done enough? Were we ready for the long, cold nights? Even now, so many years later, I think of those days.

Strange to think, but our little string of houses that clung to the old shore road, was a world of women. My husband and my brother often left me and my sister-in-law Anna to manage our joined farms as they pursued more fitting employment for two gentlemen. Further down the road, there lived a woman whose husband left her behind to pursue his game and drink. He had been briefly in my husband's regiment and was the sort of wastrel whose family was all too eager to dispatch to Canada.

Anna and I would often take baskets to this poor woman, Maude. Sometimes, I would feel a pang of guilt as she eagerly took whatever scraps we could spare. While my sisters at home would sneer at my rough hands, Maude let me feel superior. Anna and I would spend hours talking over Maude's situation. Neither one of us would say aloud that while Anna was pretty, young and accomplished, she had ruined her life by marrying for love.

I knew little of traditional accomplishments as my father had given me the classical education he would have given a son. At thirty, I married to avoid spinsterhood and escape the genteel poverty of home. Anna was the daughter of a local farmer. My brother had decided a wife familiar with the land and the work required would be a much better match than any impoverished gentlewoman he could have found in England.

Were Anna and I truly Maude's friends? It shames me to say that we were not at first. She was our Christian duty, abandoned by a profligate man, left to starve with her children. She couldn't afford any help and knew nothing of managing a household, let alone a half-cleared farm on the edge of the wilderness.

But that day, helping my little daughter string apple slices for drying, I didn't think of Maude. I was spinning out schemes for leaving our farm for town life. I missed concerts and teas and not fretting about preparing for winter. I wanted to meet with other writers and read newspapers when they were new and not months old. The smell of snow in the air put a chill in my heart.

I was surprised when Maude came into view, bare-headed, without a shawl despite the coolness of the day. She was practically dragging her oldest child behind her. The little boy stumbled and staggered to keep pace with her. Her other child, she clutched tight to her chest.

"Maude? What a surprise. Come inside and I'll get you a cup of chicory coffee,’ I said, hastily putting my apple slices to the side.

Maude's wild glance frightened me. I whispered to my daughter, “Run and get your aunt. Tell her Mrs. Thursby is here and is ill.”

I put my arm around Maude's shoulder and guided her inside. My servant girl took Maude's children to another room to ply them with fruit preserves and bread and butter.

Maude's hands shook as she took a cup of coffee. “Oh, Jane. I need your help. Something terrible has happened.”

"Are you ill, Maude?” She began to shake and I covered her with one of my shawls.

"Jane, is your husband at home?”

"No. He and Mr. Stacey went to town to inquire after some government posts. You don't seem yourself. Are you quite well?" My usual superior satisfaction with myself evaporated in the face of her very real distress.

"Good. Can you come back to my house with me? Please. I need your help." She took my hands and looked into my eyes with such naked earnestness that I was a bit ashamed for her.
Anna bustled in. "Now, then, Maude. What is the trouble?"

Maude repeated the same vague details that she had given me. Anna was relieved to find that Maude's children were happily playing with my daughters. Anna pressed for more information; she always had a more forthright manner than I. However, it was futile. Maude would only say that something terrible had happened. Finally, Anna proposed that we take the cart over to Maude's cabin.

The little cabin was the last one before the road petered out into a trail. Maude's husband had been able to host a bee to get it and the barn built because he had plied neighbours with plenty of liquor. But it was all a slapdash job and nothing had been done since the building to improve the cabin. It was painfully cold in winter. Maude's upbringing had not prepared her properly. Nor had mine really. But she had only learned to be ornamental and amusing. I, at least, was able to earn a living with my pen and also had abundant common sense. Maude had none of these and had chosen her husband poorly. She had no recourse but to rely on the kindness of people such as Anna and me who looked down our noses at her.

When we arrived, Maude sprang from the cart and ran to the door of her cabin. She turned to us, "I want you to help me, but I will not be judged. Can you promise me that?"

Anna cleared her throat. I blushed. We promised not to judge.

Trembling, I followed Maude into her small home. Anna gasped and gripped my hand so hard I felt as if my bones would break.

Lying in a pool of blood was Maude's husband. A clothes iron was on the floor beside him. I won't describe what else I saw. It was too horrible. Anna ran back into the yard and sat down heavily on the grass. Her face was pale and sweaty.

Maude, strangely, was much calmer now that she had shared her trouble with us. "Do you think they will hang me for this? I did not mean to kill him. I only wanted him to stop. You see, he was trying to choke me." I had not noticed before, but she had a muffler around her neck. She pulled it away to show me the bruises.

"Maude, dear, what happened?"

"He came back, looking for money. He always believed that I had hidden some of my fortune from him. My uncle had tried to write into the marriage settlement that I should have my own income, safe from Roger. But Roger had refused to sign and I was too stupid to know better. But Roger suspected my uncle sent me money."

"Did he? Send you money, I mean?"

"No! Do you think I would let my children nearly starve on what meagre handouts you brought us? No. The only thing I had was my mother's pearl set that I had hidden from him. I so wanted Julia to have it to wear when she married," Maude began to cry. "He was so angry that I didn't have any money to give him. He flew into a rage."

I looked about and saw her furniture was tossed around and even broken. She had so little left for that brute to take. "And he told me that he had another wife. In America!" She began to sob in earnest. "He told her that he was a widower. I thought a thousand times of pretending he was dead and moving away from here to start again as a widow. But I had no money! And I couldn't profane the vows I made before God."

I sighed and avoided looking at the terrible corpse. "You were defending yourself? Did your children see?"

"No. I sent them out as soon as he came in. They don't even know him."

Anna came back in, restored to her usual brusqueness. "We must go to the magistrate. Tell him exactly what happened. Perhaps he'll be merciful," she said.

"And if I go to jail or even hang, will you care for my children?" Maude asked.

"Yes, of course." Anna said.

"But does it have to come to that?" I asked. "No one but us knows he was even here. He won't be missed. He's nothing but gaming debts and liquor."

"And if we're caught? Then we may hang too," Anna said.

"We won't be caught. Think. What do we need to do? We need to dispose of Roger. And then get rid of all this blood. What if we set fire to the cabin? Remember when the fire came through two summers ago? The Smiths’ cabin burned to the ground. Nothing was left. Fires happen all the time."

Anna shook her head. "No. Bones don't burn like that. There would still be something left of Roger. I remember a fire when I was a little girl. Nothing was left of the house, but they found the bones of the people still inside." She paced about for a while. It was her habit when thinking. I had always thought it a shame that she had no schooling beyond learning enough to keep her household accounts.

"The lake. It's vast. We could take him out there in the rowboat and sink him. There's a huge pile of stones at my farm from the when the masons built the new stone house. We can use some of those. Then we burn the cabin," Ann said.

"And in a few months, Maude, we can tell people that you had received word from America that your husband has died. Then you're free," I said.

Maude clapped her hands. "Thank you. I knew you'd be able to help. Do you really think I'm still pretty enough to get married again?"

I felt a chill in my heart, but I brought myself to say, "Yes. You'll find yourself a rich widower within the year, I should think."

We carried out our plan just as we had described it and were back to our farms before our husbands returned. Maude concocted a story of her flight from the fire and her children were small enough that she was able to tell them the story enough that they believed it.

Yet, it weighed on me. We had helped a murder go unpunished. Was it the right thing to do?

For many nights after, I couldn't sleep. One day, my husband asked me what I had on my mind.

"I am happy that we've made a success of our bit of land here in the bush," I said, "But I would like to put my education to use and found a girls' school. It's a new country. I'd like girls to be able to earn their own way in life rather than rely on marriage to protect them."

My husband, bless him, kissed my cheek and said, "A wonderful project. Not too many people have our luck, do they? Such a pity."

“Was his body ever found?” I asked at the end of Mrs. Parr’s tale.

“Oh yes. But it washed up so far down the shore that the no one ever thought it came from our area. I only saw the notice in the paper because I had published a story in the same edition. It was a ghost story, naturally.” She laughed.

She and Anna had founded their school. It had been part of my research for this story. I had talked to former students who spoke of the well-rounded education they had received.

“And what about Maude?”

“She regained her health. She was still quite a young lady. And men were always so plentiful out here. Very few women were brave enough to emigrate in those days. I was wrong, though. She did not marry an old widower. Instead, she found herself a nice young bachelor. He was a merchant and they lived quite well. She died quite a long time ago. Her children still write me.”

“And you never told anyone about Roger?”

“Oh, well, I’m a terrible liar,” Mrs. Parr answered. “My husband knew almost immediately that something had happened. I confessed it all eventually. He said it wasn’t right that anyone should hang for relieving the world of Roger. I married a good man. It was always a true partnership.”

Mrs. Parr died several weeks later. On the way back from the memorial service, I thought of how she had seen this part of the country change.

I decided not to publish her story. But I did take a trip down Lakeshore Road in the late autumn.