QUEENS NEVER MAKE BARGAINS
1912 - 1919
"Ten o'clock," my mother said, and frowned. She was standing by the scullery range, a cup of chamomile tea quivering in her hand. She'd seemed unwell all day, her face pale under the tight braids that looped about her head and stretched the skin so tight I thought it might snap from the pressure. There'd been a letter, I knew, from Americaprobably from my Aunt Grace, who was pregnant for the fifth time with nothing, Mother said, but two bairns and a raggedy uterus to show for it. Wallace should keep his trousers buttoned, she'd complained, and then told me to forget what she'd said.
"Ten o'clock?" I said, not wanting to ask about Grace. "But it's hardly dark then. Even the singing won't start until ten."
Tonight was my class celebration, down at the beach on the Firth of Forth that flowed from Leven, Fifeshire out to the North Sea. There was to be a bonfire and games, and better still, a full moon. The July affair marked the end of schooling for all but a few lucky lads who would go on to university. St. Andrews had opened its doors to girls over a decade ago, but though Mother said she wanted everything for me she never had for herself, she'd dismissed the idea. Even if I could get a bursary, she said, there'd be no extra for clothes or books. I could go straight into teaching at Leven Primary and learn for myself.
"Ten-thirty then," she said over the rim of her cup. Her eyes matched the thick brown of the tea. "You're not eighteen yet."
"Eleven o'clock?" I was stretching my luck but I'd take the chance. "I'm sure you celebrated when you left school."
"That was the spring my father diedyour granddad. We were all in mourning. There was no celebrating then."
"Aunt Grace did. There are pictures."
Aunt Grace was the youngest of Gran's living three, and the liveliest. I knew her only by the wedding portrait in Gran's house up in Weem: a young woman of frail prettiness with a smile full of small even teeth, her shoulders sloped under a coppery-brown Paisley shawl and the large square hands of her bridegroom. At nineteen she'd married Wallace MacAdam, stepson of the Weem minister by his second wife, who was a Murray, and had gone to America. Wallace wanted to be a preacher but settled for a job in a machine tool shop. Twelve years later he was still working there, in a place called Cherry Valley, Vermont.
"A quarter to eleven then," my mother said, and dropped her hands like small stones into her lap. "Enjoy the bonfire. For both of us." She sighed, an unmarried woman who'd borne a daughter in Gran's box bed up in the highlands and then gone to Leven, through a gauntlet of gossip to teach, her chin stuck in the air (Gran said) as if she were some widowed Queen Victoria.
"You could come," I said. "Some of the mothers watch from the benches."
"I don't take to those women, you know that."
"All right then." I felt guilty for being relieved.
We stood a minute longer; then Mother clapped her cup into its flowered saucer and went into the parlor. She moved slowly, shoulders pulled back as if she were carrying something breakable on her head. "I have my book," she said, "that's company enough." But when I looked back from the gate, she was slumped at the window, her jaw gone slack as if she didn't care who looked in to see her. I'd inquire later. For now I was on my way to the fête.
They were lighting the bonfire when I got to the beach. "Watch out!" someone shouted, and the place shot up in flames. It was as if they'd lit a match to the students, too; we shrieked and hugged one another like the Druid worshipers of Baal my mother lectured on at the local museum. Ian Thomson, a thickset, broad-cheeked lad who I knew was sweet on me, grabbed my arm and together we hopped about the sands. The ribbon came off and my hair swung loose: thick unruly hair that Ian called the color of catsup. Shoes heaped up by the boardwalk steps, mine among them. I was swept with Ian into a snake dance, led by wild Maggie Stool. Down the beach and round the fire we went, the chain growing longer as more youth joined. As long as we held hands and the fire burned we wouldn't grow any older, Ian shouted.
I held on tight.
The chain dipped down into the sea; the hem of my skirt got soaked but I kept on. Until Ian dropped out with a bloody howl and drew a flask from his pocket. He tilted back his head to pour the whiskey down his throat and then into Jimmy Willson's mouth. Jimmy gargled and spit it out in a thin high streamit was "rot got," he said. Behind me Agnes MacLean fell, still clinging to my wrist. "Tide's going out!" she wailed. Together we struggled up to the shore. The circle had broken everywhere now. Time was rushing forward: in one minute I'd be middle aged. In two, a toothless hag.
"They're dipping the apples," Agnes shouted. The apples were from her father, the town's greengrocer. "And there's hot chocolate, come on."
Jimmy Willson raced past, crazy-legged in the sand, shaking sea water on my starched blouse. "Which of you wants my favors tonight?" he crooned at us girls, and we turned away, ignoring him like the proper lasses we'd been brought up to be. All except Wild Maggie, who had nothing to loseshe'd lost it first, she told us, in Spinkie's Den. By Willie Crow, whose plunging member grew huger and purpler with each telling (our cheeks purpled as we listened, horrified yet fascinated).
"Who'd want any of yours, eh?" Maggie lashed back at Jimmy. "A shriveled bit of a peanut?" and we girls flew into a giggling huddle.
"Candied apple?" Aggie said.
"I want one, but you know where it'll go." I patted my belly. I was built like my mother, an inch taller maybe, but the same robust figure with a sloping back that curved into wide-boned hips I tried to hide with yards of flannel.
"Breasts like halves of a pomegranate," Aggie quoted from Solomon, and ducked my fist. "Well, don't complain, Jess," she went on, "I been eating five bananas a day and they're still like flat stones."
"Try candied apples," I said, and stuck two onto her shirtwaist. One of the girls shrieked, fearful I'd do the same to her, and the chaperone ran up to restore order.
After that the singing begin. Annie Laurie. In the Gloaming. All the old Scots songs, led by Mr. Kennedy the music instructor, his two chins wagging. I sang the harmony to Aggie's warbly soprano, while the grownups on the benches waved their arms, their eyes misting over to hear the sentimental words. For me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lo-ho-mond-dd.
The bittersweetness of the occasion washed over us all. It was the last we'd be together as a class, the swan song of our youth. Housework was ahead, and babies, and for most of the boys, hard labor in the mines or on the docks, and maybe a war it was hopedthey longed already for that break in the routine. They scanned the newspapers daily for signs of conflict in Europe.
"They're crying because Jimmy Willson was a coward," Wild Maggie yelled after the singing was over, "and nobody lost her"
She said no more, a handful of sand was shoved in her mouth. But a couple of the girls who'd started down the sands with their lads turned back to the fire so none would think the worst of them. I wiped my eyesI had no declared sweetheart. Ian Thomson was mostly drunk with Jimmy. I gave Aggie a tearful hug though I'd see her the next day. Then forgetting my shoes, I shuffled up through the sand. It was twenty to eleven I saw by the clock on Scoonie Kirk steeple, my mother would have ten fits.
"Jessie Menzies," a voice called as I passed the kirkyard, and I paused to see Angus Proutfoot, leaning against a gravestone. In one hand was a cigarette, in the other a pair of shoeshe held them by the thin black leather straps. They were mine. He giggled at my surprise.
Angus lived three doors away from me, on Henderson Street, with the Misses MacIntyre. My mother had got him the room. He complained each time he saw us. "Herring for breakfast," he'd say, "herring for supper, and me smelling like a fish as 'tis, what with packing herring on the docks all day. She'll be cooking me next."
I knew him well, his mother worked for my gran up in Weem. He came summer mornings to Gran's croft to help with the washing, and we'd chase after the sheep together, or play at marbles on the scullery floor. When he came to Leven, though, I saw what a rustic he was and tried to avoid him.
"What'll you give me?" He crushed his cigarette on a gravestone and swaggered forward.
"Give you for what?" I said, disdainful.
"A kiss, a kiss for the shoes." He dangled them in front of me and puckered his lips.
"They're old shoes. I don't need them that bad," and I walked on, swinging my arms.
"There's nae hurry," he said, and thrust them at me. "Your mum's in bed."
When I looked skeptical"Ay, I called on her I did, about getting me a new place." He made his herring face. I laughed, he did look ridiculous. He crooked out an arm to lean on while I put on the shoes.
"So I'm thinking as it's your special night you'd take a wee walk. Oh not far, just down to Spinkie's Den. The swans come out in the moon and turn into angels just. I seen one t'other night, I did." When I hesitatedI didn't feel like going to bed, it was true: "Fifteen minutes, that's all. I wager you never seen the swans in the moonlight? You're ay shut up in that but-and-ben. I pass by the window and there you be, nose in some old book. It's bad, all that reading. Makes for an old maid."
"I'm due home this minute," I said, annoyed at that part about the old maid, and started on.
"Ten minutes," he begged. "We'll see the swans and come right out. Your mum'll hardly know. When they says eleven they ay mean eleven-thirty. That's to put you off, eh?" His eyes pleaded. He had small eyes, black as peat, and hair to match. He was a true Pict, my mother said Short but finely muscled, handsome in his own crude way.
"I take a walk in Spinkie's every night, alone," he said in his soft thick voice. "Just once, I'm thinking, to have Jessie with me. To see the angels?" He dropped his hands at his sides to indicate he meant no mischief.
I hesitated a minute longer. I didn't want him to think I really wanted to go with him. "Ten minutes then. No more. If Mother looks out the window"
"There's a brave lass," he whispered.
Spinkie's Den bordered on the kirkyard. The ochre pits glowed blood red in the moonlight as we passed. The monkeys squealed inside their cages. I let him take my arm down the wooded path that led to the burn. "Now watch," he said, "and they'll come." He pressed a handful of crumbs in my palm. I flung them into the burn, but half landed back on the bank. He chuckled in my ear.
"Quack, quack," he said, reaching into another pocket. "Here swannies, come here, come, come." And they did, a pair of white ones, heads up high, sailing huge and shining into our vision, like the Viking ships in Mother's history books.
"Wait," he said, though I hadn't moved. He drew a piece of herring from his pocket and threw it in the water. The swans dove for it, shrieking, their wings wide and flashing in the moonlight. When they'd devoured the bit of fish they began on each other, rising together in the water, bugling, beating their wings, their necks craning at the moon. The male leaped on her back, his wings plunged down on her. He hammered at her neck. You could see the bit of blood bubbling on the white feathers.
I felt the blood up in my cheeks
"See the angels?" Angus said. He'd almost forgot me in his concentration. When it was done and the female had heaved herself on the bank to rest and the male sailed off triumphant down the burn, Angus turned a smouldering gaze on me and said, "It's made in heaven love is, oh ay, I may be an uneducated lout but I feel these things, I do. I know an angel when I sees one. I'm not speaking just of the swans, Jessie Menzies."
I turned away, uncomfortable.
"I've no right to be speaking to you like this," he said, moving close to me, "and me the poor Proutfoot's lad and you related to the Weem castle itselfthough not direct, so to speak, if you know what I'm saying."
"Angus," I said, moving quickly up the path, "the ten minutes is more than up."
"Now I've gone and said all the wrong things. I didn't want it this way, no. If you knew how many nights I walk past your door and I think, Jessie's in there and I'm not worth her little finger, I'm not, no. If I could walk alone with her once I'd die in peace, so I would."
My shoe caught on a root and he shot out a hand to my elbow. Then retired it quickly and trudged beside me to the entrance, his hands respectful at his sides. I felt sorry for him then, and touched his arm. I saw the moon caught in the piney trees, the swans were still with me. He pivoted slowly until he faced me, his eyes full of the moon. He edged closer, smooth and slow, as if he were on skates. I knew what he was about but I didn't stop him. His face was inches from mine now. I could see the coarse grain of his skin. He brushed my lips with his and I allowed it. His body pressed closer until I could feel the swelling in his trousers. I was flooded with sensation, I could hardly stand. I made a sound in my throat and suddenly he dropped his hands and said, "Now I've gone too far, oh I could kill meself." He wheeled back into the street. A man and woman peered at us, coming our way, and ashamed, I ran home.
The timepiece on the wall struck a quarter past eleven when I entered. Mother was still dressed, slumped in her chairAngus had lied, I might have known. A half dozen books lay at her feet as though she couldn't decide which one suited her evening mood.
"I'm sorry, it was my graduation," I began, crossing the parlor toward the chamber we shared. I didn't look at her, I was afraid she'd guess what I'd been doing.
"You've been bathing, I see," she said. Her voice had a ragged edge, her chin dropped as if fate had dealt her one more blow.
"I got dragged a bit in the water, is all," I said, relieved at her words. "I took off my shoes." I was suddenly exhausted. I wanted to go to bed, though I doubted I'd sleep.
My mother gave one of her groaning sighs. "You had a nice time then. Well, I'm glad for you. Put on your nightgown now and dry your hair. I've news. Better to say it at once so I can have some sleep tonight." Her cheeks were puffy-white: she looked like the parlor portrait of the late Victoria. One russet braid had come undone, and hung frazzled in her face.
I changed out of my damp clothes, hung up my petticoat and stockings to dry. My hair was gritty with sand. A strand of seaweed, I saw in the glass, hung from one earlobe. My eyes were bottle-green in the lamplight, my breasts pale as swans. An angel, Angus had called me.
But Angus was nothing to me, I neither liked nor disliked him. It was Ian Thomson I pretended was standing behind me, Ian's eyes I wanted on my back. I slid my hands down my breasts and belly, pretending they were Ian's hands. And breathed in, deep.
The glass misted over with my breath until I could see nothing at all, as if I had no reflection, was no person but a spirit, waiting to be born.
"Are you coming out, Jessie?"
I propped myself in the doorway, in my nightgown and robe now, expecting the news. Mother was leaning back in her chair, her legs spread under the wide, brown woolen skirt as though she would root them into the rug.
"There was a letter from America," she began in a toneless voice.
"I know. I saw. Is it the new bairn?" The guilt swelled up inside. I hadn't thought of Aunt Grace all evening.
"She's had it, ay. Six weeks premature. And shemy sister's gone now. Oh, I knew it! We warned him, your Gran and I."
"Gone?" I whispered, my arms numb against the sides of the door. Notdead?"
"Dead, ay. What do you think? Of course, dead."
If I moved my arms I'd fall, my legs were useless under me, like Uncle Chae's up in Weem. I tried to picture the bonny Aunt Grace of the wedding portrait, stretched out in an iron bed, copper pennies laid on her frail blue lids.
"Ten days ago already, it was. She was thirty-two just," my mother said. Tears glittered in her sparrow eyes. "They carved a thistle on the stone."
I tried to imagine the stone. I saw it huge, like a wall between Mother and me. "Does Gran know?"
Mother snuffled back the tears. "Wallace asked me to break the news. It's like him to ask that of his sister-in-law! I'll go up to Weem tomorrow. It should've been me that died. I've just the one."
I was shocked. "If Gran didn't have you, there'd only be Uncle Chae. And he's…" I didn't know the right words. Uncle Chae was different.
"So?" Mother was determined to be a martyr. She thrust up out of her chair on thin, stockinged legs. Her book fell face down on the Turkey carpet The freckles stood on her face and hands, like large pennies.
"I'll go with you," I said, "to Weem, can't I?" I followed her into the scullery but she didn't answer. She stood with her face pressed into the dark window glass. Her lips curved up in an odd little smile. The skin flushed darkly red down to the high collar on her cotton waist. She dropped down suddenly to squat on hands and knees, making scrubbing motions as if to wash the floor, though one could eat off it now.
I tiptoed back to bed, something caught in my throat like a fishbone. I coughed and coughed until I was sick to my stomachcandied apples and all, and eventually I slipped away into sleep.
Meinnearach Drumdogha, Gran's place had been called as long as anyone could rememberin Gaelic it meant "Menzies of the ridge of thistle." Most, though, just called it Drumdogha, since half the crofts and houses in the shire were named Meinnearach something or other. The place looked down on the castle, I told my friends back in the lowlands. The whole valley spun at its feet: pastures, braes, burns; the old houses and trees of Weem and Aberfeldy, Dull and Fortingall. This had been Menzies country since the thirteenth century when Sir Alex Menzies (pronounced Ming-us) was granted the lands and became in loco paternis to the people, renting them land in return for certain favors. It was the 'favors,' Gran said, that spawned our branch of the family.
Today was Grace's memorial and Gran was darting in and out of the mourners, a dozen keys jangling at the wide belt of her stiff black skirt. She was stubborn but shy, she seldom looked direct at folk; less from shyness perhaps as from some inner preoccupation. It was Uncle Chae who received most of her attentions. He sat rocking by the peat fire, one of Gran's five cats on his lap, his wizened legs dangling from the stool like corn stooks. He'd had a fall as a child, been left with a broken body and brain to match. They'd tried to take him away but Gran would have none of it. She cared for him with the affection and good humor one might lavish on a favorite puppy dog.
Chae swiveled his head from one to the next, a toothy grin on his face as if the gathering was in his behalf. "Grace?" he said. "Grace?" with a puzzled look. Then clapped his hands. "Toddy!"
This time Gran was busy with the Reverend MacAdam. He was a full-bellied man with silvery hair combed forward to hide his bald pate and iron-blue eyes creased at the corners from his habit of winking at folk. To him the memorial at the kirk was a grand success. Grace MacAdam was his daughter-in-lawor had beenthe eulogy went on for thirty minutes. It was no Grace I knew. The castle laird was present, in his Menzies red and white; the piper played a heartbreaking pibroch. Piobaireachd Uaimh it was called, and we all weptexcept for the reverend himself who knew, he said, "ay, knew," that Grace was happy and fulfilled this day, "in God's embrace up in heaven." For myself, I could only see Grace stone-cold under that carved thistle.
At a nod from Gran I got up to fix Chae's toddy: whiskey poured into cranberry juice. This was his third but he seemed wider awake than ever, clapping his hands and hollering "Finger stones!" a pattycake game he liked to play. Or "Ceiligh!" Gaelic for party, or "Pansy," his pet name for my mother, Florathough it hardly suited her. If she'd ever bloomed in her youth, someone, I thought, had forgot to water her. Then Chae would waggle his head and bare his stumpy teeth in a gleeful giggle.
Mother had taken a toddy too, the bottle was low. She was spinning about the room, pushing shortbread and oat cakes at folk who still had food on their plates, her face blotchy under the roots of the tight hairdo. There was ever the lift of the chin, the sparrow eyes that darted beyond the person she was addressing and never quite landed anywhere. Only Mistress Proutfoot, Gran's neighbour and Angus's mother, looking like an eggplant in a purply-black watersilk with a broad white pique collar, stared at her directly and asked if this meant that Wallace and the bairns would be coming home now. She kept her small eyes fixed on my mother's face as though she would read something there. But Mother just smirked and said she misdoubted it; there was nothing here for Wallace now. He'd never return to Weem. "Losh, no. Why on earth would he want to?"
Mother whirled away from the Proutfoot, her tray high in the air. There was a crash, and when I ran to the scullery there she was, scooping up oat cakes and marmelade, her eyes running with fat tears. I pushed her aside as carefully as I could and cleaned the mess myself, while she dipped her face in cold water and rubbed it scarlet with a tea towel.
Back in the parlor Chae stood up on his stool, his arms supporting his frail body. He let out a bellow and everyone turned to stare at him. Then he smashed his glass on the floor, opened his pants and wee-weed. The stream arced up and struck the widow Watts in the cameo brooch (her shriek would wake the dead), then sprayed back to darken the threadbare carpet. A cat shot between the Proutfoot's stumpy legs and she kicked it.
The guests began chattering again, their cheeks bright with embarrassment while I helped to get Chae up. Gran said, "I don't know what's got into him," and led him off to bed. He was still yelling "Ceiligh! Toddy!" as she removed his trousers, clucking and shaking her head. He calmed down then and I left the pair to their work. Gran seemed relieved to have Chae to care for.
When I returned, Mother was at the door, accepting good-byes and condolences like offerings of sweets she didn't need. The widow Watts was already hurrying down the hill toward her croft, sopping with pee. The Reverend MacAdam was the last to go; he put a clawlike hand on Mother's shoulder. She stood there in her black shirtwaist like an animal playing dead while he went on about his son Jack and wife away in Australia and then more about Grace, who'd been "an angel in life as well as death." Mother broke away at that, leaving him alone in the doorway. He winked over at me as if we'd been in some holy conspiracy together. And left the house, thank God, latching the door behind him. I waited until he was out of sight, then ran outside.
It was a Menzies laird who planted the weeping larch behind Gran's croft. Willowy leaves wept into roots that dug in the ground like old fingers, and came up new and febrile. But the long ago laird had nothing to do with the marshy loch on the ridge beyond where I was standing now, that was rimmed with burr thistle and woodrushes, and gave the croft its name. The "drowning loch" it was called because of the way the wind funneled between two hills and whipped the waters to a mad froth. At least two Menzies of recent memory had drowned there: one by accident, and one of thwarted love. And how many others, I wondered, for the loch had been here long before the coming of Sir Alex.
The drowning by accident had been my own granddad, Gran's husband, who was a weaver of Paisley shawls until the machines came in, and then turneddisastrouslyto sheep. He'd gone out one spring day when he was forty-nine years old and got mired in the muddy waves. No one was there to hear his callif he did call. Mother claimed it was no accident. "You can believe that or no," she'd said. But then she and Gran looked at life through different eyes. As for the thwarted love drowning, no one said whose love it was. Was it my father? I wondered. For I was sure he must be dead, else he'd come forwardhe'd want to know his daughter, wouldn't he? Mother had got herself with child, I imagined, and then spurned him, and full of melancholy he'd flung himself into the spring-swollen loch.
Or maybe he didn't know about the pregnancy at all. A young man with luminous eyes and a dark heart (in my imagination), he was too sensitive for the world. A Shelley, I envisioned, doomed to drown. Was Mother sorry?
She never said. And at any rate, I never knew my father. I was a natural child. A chance child as some called it. One day I'd seek him out.
I swung up into one of the larch roots that crawled down to the loch. I took a certain morbid pleasure from staring into it, imagining the thick waters closing about my own head. Though I was at heart an optimist, a romantic, at times the loch would swell up inside me, for no reason at all, and turn my mood dark and cold. "Do you think I was born with a drowning loch inside?" I'd asked Mother once. But she only snorted and said, "Foolish thoughts make a foolish girl."
The sun shifted with the passing clouds and across the water I saw what looked like the figure of a woman, her arms holding a motionless child. I lowered myself out of the larch and crept toward the loch. I pulled in my breath. Was it Grace? I thought so. I believed in anything and everything when I was by the loch: fairies, ghosts, elves, vampiresand yet the woman was dark haired, with large hollow eyes that bore in on me until I had to turn away to keep from wanting to enter the waters myself.
When I looked again from a safe distance there was nothing. Only a slender willow, thrusting out of the water, fluttering in the wind. On the far side of the loch a sheep, heavy-lidded with sun, her lamb lolling at her feet.
Mother's call brought me back to the house, and reluctantly, I went.
"We've been discussing the bairns," she said when I entered the room, and cleared her throat. "Grace's three, the oldest not seven. And now a newborn. Victoria, he calls itas if the birth was a triumph and not a tragedy."
"It was Grace, I believe, who wanted the name," said Gran. She looked at me for support. She and Mother didn't always agree on things.
The two women were in the kitchen, having a nip of claret. I had one too, at Gran's insistence, though my mother disapproved. It tasted bitter at first, but then settled in warm and thick in my veins. Mother was speaking of Wallace, holding up a letter that came a fortnight before the birth that caused Grace's death. "Things are hard in the tool plant," she said, "he works overtime. There's a union, but it hasn't done much to improve things. Some of the men are afraid to join."
I sucked on the rim of my glass of chocolate. Gran had put hers away, and was concentrating on her knitting. The needles flew furiously in and out of the gray stuff.
"The point is," Mother said, "he hasn't time to look after the young ones. Oh, there's a Polander girl helping now, but he can't afford to keep her."
"Havers, that's not the point!" Gran cried out, dropping the knitting in her lap. "The point is, the bairns need family, that's the point now."
I glanced at my mother. Our eyes caught, and fell again. "There's the museum," she said, "I'm in the heart of the Norse collection. There's no one else to do it proper. Besides" She was flustered, her eyes darting about the room.
"Your mother thinks," said Gran, "that Wallace should come here to Weem if he needs help, and bring the bairns. That's what she'd like him to do."
My mother flushed and gave Gran a warning glance. I looked from one to the other.
"And I don't blame her just," the old lady went on "Any man who'd ask her all the way over the high seas with no reason than to take care of her sister's three young ones when her own daughter"
"Well, what did I say?" demanded Gran, glaring at her.
"She's not a child any more. She's first in her graduating class." My mother glanced at me with a tight-lipped smile.
"There. You see, Jess? She admits it." Gran smiled at me, but my head was spinning from the claret, the lack of sleep. I'd shared a three-quarter bed for three nights with my mother, who was a restless sleeper, always heaving sighs and turning over violently in the night, making the bedsprings clamour.
"But he won't. Can't, he says. But you, Jessie, you're at the right time in life for travel," Mother said. "Schooling's over, the new job'll wait. I'll explain to Mr. MacBean. A young woman needs to get away. I ay wanted to. But then it was too late. I never got beyond Leven, the coast. But you. You're young."
I looked closely at her, then at Gran. Neither would return my gaze. Mother's foot was tapping under the black merino skirt. "Enough for a third class ticket. To sail from Port Glasgow," she was saying as if it had all been settled without a word from me.
"But that's where Ian Thomson works now," I cried out. "In the shipyard there. The morning I'd left Leven for Gran's he'd come over to ask if he could see me now I was to be a teacher, and on my own. "Yes," I'd said, a hand on my chest to quiet its beating. We were shy and careful with one another. He apologized for getting drunk that night with Jimmy. He wouldn't touch the stuff when he was with me, he said, and I flushedbut more from the thought of that time with Angus. I would make Angus swear never to tell about Spinkie's Den. I would threaten if I had to.
My mother's stare was scalding my cheek.
"For a year just," said Gran, her mouth rigid. "And there's more Menzies over there in North America. John Menzies, your granddad's ancestor, took ship to Canada back in the 1700s." She waved her hands to describe the direction he took. The yarn slipped off her needle. She held it up under her nose to push it back on.
"Bring us another, Jessie." Mother held up her glass. "There's a bottle in the cupboard."
"Do you think you should, Flora?" said Gran.
Ignoring her, Mother thrust the glass at me. I poured the wine, spilling it on my hands. The glass was still too full and I sipped at it, then spit out the liquor in the sink, my stomach had gone sour. Back in the parlour the women were speaking of the Proutfoot, how she was into spiritualism now, wanting to summon up Grace. How Gran had told her to get out of the houseshe wanted no spirits here. "I don't hold with that foolishness," Gran cried, "leave the dead in peace!"
"She's a fat fool, the Proutfoot," said my mother, "and her son's a dunce. But not dunce enough to keep out of trouble. You watch. He's talking of America, I hear tell." She snatched the half-glass of claret from my trembly hand. Then she reached into an inner pocket and held up a single ticket for New York. She drained my claret in three gulps.
As for me, I couldn't summon up a single word.
Port Glasgow was wrapped in fog, the tiny figures of Gran and Mother floating in space where they waited below the black hull of the ocean liner. Any minute, it seemed, Gran might rise up with the black parasol Mother made her carry against the hot July sun, to land on the deck with one more present for Grace's bairns. A pair of stockings dyed brown from walnut root, a sweater yellow with bog myrtle, a family of stuffed dolls, shortbread and scarvesall to be crammed into the two homemade cases that, at Gran's urging, I carried myself onto the ship.
And there had been advice. "Ay, ay," I'd replied to the torrent of words my mother had flung out on the way to the docks, while Gran patted my head like Uncle Chae with his fingerstones. "Have him give you your own room. Lock your door at night See that you've time for reading. Don't speak to strangers." And so on and so on, as if Mother, who could sit in the house of an evening and not say more than ten words, had saved it all up for this parting with her only daughter.
At the last even Mother had blinked out a tear. I alone was dry-eyed as I kissed her on the cheek, then folded myself numbly into my grandmother's flour and cinnamon embrace. I pushed my way up the gangplank to the third class deck and flowed with the tide of humanity until I found myself inside the ship: an airless limbo between land and sea, the old world and the new.
The Campania was a middle-aged ship, Clyde-built a decade before. A turn-screw, steel structure with a Turkish bath and veranda café for the first class, she would move through the seas, a steward said, at twenty-two knots and in a mere eight days time arrive in New York. Other two-stackers might be less expensive, Gran allowed, but the Campania had three stacks, and was to her mind, the safer for it. After what seemed an eternity, passengers and spectators holding out hands to one another as if the Campania were a deathship bearing the dead off to Hades, there was a hoot from the black-banded funnels, the streamers snapped, and the dock itself seemed to pull away from the ship. Already Gran and Mother, and Ian Thomson, who'd run up the last second to hand me a red rose and a Robbie Burns' verse and tell me he'd be waiting for my letters, seemed something of the past I was leaving behind. Leven and Weem and all the Menzies of the cemeteries there. And the crumbling castle itself, and the grand Sir Hugh, whom I sometimes fantasized was my father, though I knew in my rational mind it wasn't so.
"Times change," I'd heard the laird tell my mother at Grace's memorial and I knew that he was thinking of his own death, and the end of a line that had stretched for over six centuries. But mostly of the former, Gran had said: "That's what funerals are forto keep us in our place. Else we'd all try to fly now, wouldn't we?"
We were four in the cabin. Two were Scots: a sad-faced highland girl of fourteen and her faded mum. The father was in men's steerage. They were on their way to a place deep in the Midwest. "There's land to burn there," the mother said with a fierce wiggle of her pointed chin. "Jock's brothers is there already. He got out in '84 when the famine come to Kinlockewe. We shoulda gone then." She fixed her washed-out eyes on me. I felt ashamed for the new straw boater and brown linen travel suit made over by my motherthough it was still tight across the chest. "You'll lose a few stone over there," she'd promised. "It'll fit better then and let's hope so." Mother was referring, of course, to my hips and breasts that she called "robust."
The fourth cabin mate was a genteel-looking Frenchwoman with a coal scuttle hat perched on her frizzy head. She had a furry brown mustache, and an outsized bosom pushed into place by her outmoded stays. Mademoiselle Hélène Sicot her name was. She was going to be a teacher in New York City"Une école exclusive pour les jeunes filles," she said with a nod of her coiffed head.
"Enchantée, Mademoiselle," I said in my schoolgirl French, and the woman seized my hands.
I chose an upper berth beneath layers of hissing pipes, to get away from the older women. Young Sheena MacLeod had the same idea. She hoisted herself up in the opposite bunk and flung herself down with a clang of metal. Sometime in the night I woke to the sound of her sobbing. But when I reached a hand across to comfort, she just rolled over to face the wall. I lay long awake after that, listening to the thud of the engines, the whisper of the pipes, the shuffle of feet on the deck aboveuntil monotony overcame my thoughts of home and Ian (his rose lay squashed under my pillow) and toward dawn I fell asleep.
The next day I stood by the railing with the mademoiselle to watch a group being escorted onto the ship from Belfast, Ireland. A woman glanced up, her eyes round with fear, her belly bursting with child. "Zey do it on purpose," Mademoiselle said. And when I raised my eyebrows, "Mais si, ship's doctors are better zen any poor village zey come from. So zey get passage before ze baby arrive, tu comprends?" Her lips formed a pink O.
Two days later the woman had her baby. "A girl," Sheena Macleod whispered, her face coloring she'd heard it from her daddy, down in steerage. "She's named it after the ship, Campania O'Shea." We giggled, but when Sheena left, summoned to the cabin by her mother, I felt the drowning loch inside again. The ship gave a lurch and I held onto the railing, then leaned over, my body numbed. It was as if no one else was real, not family or friends, Ian nor Wallace MacAdam, who would be waiting for me on the other end of the voyage. There was only the monotonous roll and pitch of the gray ocean, unblessed by sun since we'd left Glasgow. The swell of the sea, fresh paint and tar, and some pungent antiseptic they lathered all over the ship. We were beyond all land now. The gulls that had followed our progress since the start of the voyage had turned back and left us only one another for companions.
It was the next day at lunch as I choked down the sea pie that steamed on my plate like a heap of mashed sea weed, that Mademoiselle whispered that something terrible had happened in steerage. "I thought it was in ze ports zat I see all ze life. Hélas, is at sea too. Peut être more at sea. Ze emotions, zey explode. Poof!" She held out her open palms. "Like zat Irish femme who had ze bebe. Eh bien, ze bebe is gone now. Overboard."
"Mais si! Not wed of course. Just wanting a baptism for ze infant. Oh no one can prove is on purpose. She claim it slip out of her grasp. She back in ship's hospital. Go a leetle cra-zy."
Later that evening on deck, Sheena confirmed it. Her father had been one to help the woman back into steerage. I looked down, amazed, at the slick sea that had received a live baby and then closed up again without a scar.
Sheena said, "My dad says they'll no let her land in America. She'll be brought right back again."
"And then what?" I cried, tapping the girl's arm for more. "What will happen to her?"
"I don't know," she whispered, and looked over at me with pale, frightened eyes.
That night I dreamed of the woman and child, only it wasn't Grace but my mother, Flora Menzies, lying on her back on the deck, belly heaving, thighs wet and gleaming. And no father there, only my mother and the deck and the sea. It was the sea that took the child when it slipped out between her legs and through the railing and my mother let it, her proud eyes focused on the clouds. When someone asked who was the father, her lips sealed shut.
The next three days I seemed to float free, bodiless. Then one morning after a bad night when I'd hardly slept for thinking of home and the unknown America that was drawing closer now, Sheena pulled at my covers to waken me. I leapt out of my berth, wrapped myself in a shawl, and with Sheena, raced for the deck.
It was land there, across the horizon, shimmering green in the frosty dawn. Gulls whistled and swooped overhead. It was journey's end, a man explained, quarantine, and the portthough I hardly believed him. It was as though the ship must go on sailing through the seas for all eternity.
A while later there was a slow roar from the lower deck. We rushed to the forward railing. Below, crammed in like apple dolls among the mountains of trunks and luggage, close to six hundred of them, looking alike in kerchiefs and shabby hats, the steerage folk stood waving their arms and shouting. It was the Statue of Liberty, a torch lifted through the floating swirls of fog. And then the tall buildings of New York thrust through into a sky shredded with ribbons of blue smoke. The harbor was bathed in a queer pearly light and a sweet sea wind blew. Below to the right on the water's edge, long low buildings and jetties stretched on and on. Tugs and steamers approached, their captains waving greetings, and flat barges and rafts, with refuse floating in their wake: bits of wood, straw, old bottles, and something that looked like a dead dog, its bladder swollen, its paws held up stiffly in the churning water.
I glanced away. The ship's gong was sounding, but not for breakfast. We'd be landing soon, the mademoiselle shouted. We were in America. The fact of it burst on me like a rocket at the late queen's jubilee. I was thrilled, frightened sick at my stomach. The mademoiselle came in, in her old leg o'mutton sleeves, to scold: "Petite, you all right, eh? We have to go now. Viens, viens!" In the washroom I saw my skin blotched and blue-veined under the mass of hair I'd swept up to look like a proper niece.
The next I knew we were in a lighter, a large open barge, gliding away from the pier where the upper classes had disembarked. Borne out to Ellis Island, we were herded into dim narrow passageways. A registry clerk asked questions about my destination, my occupation. "G-governess," I stammered. ‘Governess' sounded more like respectable work than ‘nanny,' which was undoubtedly what I would be.
He smiled, there was nothing to fear, he said. My papers were in order. I had the requisite twenty-five dollars in my purse, didn't I? A card was pinned to my lapel. I peered down but the words blurred. It was the others, the officer assured me, the diseased, the malefactors, the non-English-speaking ones that gave the trouble. I remembered the Irish girl and my nose filled. The man motioned me onward. I passed into a vast hall with the American flag sprawled across one wall. Under it thousands of immigrants waited for the examination that might end in deportation. "Stay calm," the mademoiselle had warned. "Keep your head up. Look smart." I tried, though Mademoiselle was nowhere in sight. My nose was running, my arms too burdened with luggage to dig out a handkerchief.
The health exam was brief. The official's small eyes examined my clothing, my face, his fingers tightened on my wrist. We neither of us looked at one another. Dismissed with a vague nod, I was sent through a maze of corridors, down a flight of steps, dragging my heavy cases. "The kissing post, that's what they call itsee? There at the end," a cockney voice hissed. I reached a wide doorway, a battered beam stretched across the top. Outside the breeze blew pebbles across a foggy landscape. A woman ran shrieking into a man's arms. I held back, drew long breaths until I was dizzy. Dropping my bags, I gripped the sides of the door. Folk swarmed down behind me, smelling of garlic and smoke and cheese and urine and I was swept out onto the foreign soil. I peered down once more at the card on my lapel and tried to focus my eyes. "Jessie Menzies, % Wallace MacAdam, Cherry Valley, Vermont," the printed letters read.
I looked up. A stoop-shouldered man in a brown checkered suit came striding toward me. I couldn't see the expression where the bronze colored mustache hung down over the edges of his mouth. A few feet away he stopped, peered at the card, then gazed up with sunshot eyes.
"So you're young Jessie." He picked up my bags in his thick fingers. "This all you got, eh? Well, I expect you'll fit into Grace's things. Though I see you carry more weight."
When I stood there, my feet rooted to the ground: "Well, come away then. I've taken two days from work as ‘tis. If I lose my job it's the end for all of us." And he plodded ahead down the path toward the steamer landing.
I was in the cramped kitchen of a third story flat, sifting and sneezing, making an angel food cake for Wallace's October birthday. Angel food was a favorite: he had a sweet tooth. The baby Victoria scowled up as I worked from her wicker basket. The older ones were upstairs with the SnecinskisI was glad of the peace. For the bairns were accustomed to race through the flat all day, banging on pots and pans, walls and plates, making a hollow noise like rattling bones. I wondered how they could be so raucous with a dour father like Wallace and a mother who smiled wanly out of the daguerrotype on the breakfront as if she'd given up already on the world. For that's the way my Aunt Grace set about her day, according to the Polander servant Tessa. With no more than an "ay, if you please," and a "thank you so much," and now and again, Tessa said, a wan smile that would tug the heart out of you.
Nothing seemed to compensate for the loss of Grace. Wee Vicky would frown out of Wallace's grey eyes, her mouth a frozen rosebud. Duncan, the oldest, would go limp in my embrace, like a cat biding its time until you released it, then race off to his room and pound on the walls with homemade drumsticks. It was only three-year-old Winnie who hugged back now and again, making my throat swell with thoughts of wooly-bosomed Gran, or my dear friend Agnes. Aggie had gone walking in Spinkie's Den with Ian Thomson, she'd written in her last letter. My stomach cramped as I read. Ian said nothing of her, but his letter seemed cooler to hold in my hand than usual.
As for Wallace, the sweet tooth was the one pleasing trait, to my mind. Luckily though, I saw little of him. At five a.m. he'd sit down to porridge and the Bible, his fingers pushing down the wordy page, lips moving, then promptly at six march out the door, his head lowered as if he'd do battle with the day but be sure to approach it slow and wary-like. There would be a blessed reprieve until supperthe children's noise was more bearable than their father's long droning prayer that set them to giggling and myself to a series of quick fleshy pinches under the table.
I resented having to do this. I wanted to giggle, too. I felt I was being turned into someone else, an old maid, as Angus had put it, a housemaida nobody of a female, scorned by all. But I couldn't have the children sent away from table, myself left alone with Wallace, his eyes on my face like a rain cloud over Scoonie kirkyard.
Two months from my arrival I knew no more about the man than when we'd met at Ellis Island. He'd sat like a leaning tower the whole dreary train ride to Vermont, staring through the sooty window glass, his lips moving as if he were rehearsing a sermon. I'd tried to sleep. I was dizzy from the rushing landscape and some smelly lotion he'd got on. But my head was a jumble of anxieties and by the time we reached home in the southeastern part of Vermont that bordered on New Hampshire and Massachusetts. My temples were beating a tattoo on my brain.
And what was home but three flights of shaky outside steps broken by a series of porches threaded with clothesline. At the third, a door led into a squarish room with a scullery beyond and a hallway with three small rooms and a curtained toilet at one end. Winnie and Duncan slept in the center room, Wallace to the south, and myself and the baby in the tiny north room. Nights I listened to the erratic breathing that would erupt now and then in a shrill scream as if the children's dreams held some hint of bad things to come.
If I saw little of Wallace he was seldom far from the flat. From the kitchen window I could see the Douglas Chuck Grinding plant where he worked (Black Douglas the workers called it), a low brick building with a charred stack that belched pillars of smoke up out of its yard. Behind, the Black River wound past, its surface greasy from the fulling mills that fed it their residue. A triad of machine tool plants lined the banks, and then the river dropped a hundred feet and rolled through the town. It erupted into a waterfall that thundered under a bridge and echoed as far away as the town square where I often walked Victoria.
The ingredients mixed according to recipe, I shoved the cake in the oven and sank into a chair, my legs splayed out like an old woman's. The old woman who lived in a shoe, I thought. I sighed, and heard my mother's sigh. Then gave a short laugh that came out like a bark. What was I doing here? I should be dancing with Ian Thomson. I couldn't let Aggie have him, could I? No! How long must I stay here? I was making no wage, and I depended on Mother to buy me a ticket back to Scotland.
Restless now, I decided to take a walk. I put the baby in her pram and pushed her out into the town center. In the square, with its rectangle of grass and iron benches filled with chattery folk, I felt almost at home. But today I decided to go beyond, up Manse Hill where the rich folk lived. The street rose steeply out of the square like the curved stem of a lily, the millowners' houses trumpeting out into grand white and pale yellow blooms on both sides. At the summit was the Whitehorn Manse, grandest of all. There I stopped to gaze down on town and river, then looked up to see the seven steep hills that surrounded the valley. Beyond, the highlands heaped mountain on mountain far up into the state of Vermont. I lifted the child to see, then in spite of myself, burst into tears. A shade flew up in a big house and a face frowned out. We were out of place, we belonged at the foot of the hill, not on it. So down we went again, like a ball of yarn unreelingwet yarn at that, the child whimpering and myself moaning till we reached bottom and a kind lady got us turned round on our path home.
Back in the flat the girl began to holler and I gave her a ginger cookie. But it wouldn't do. The tiny fists hammered, the feet scissored in the yellow booties. The face was a radish, the eyes angry slits, and Tessa not due for an hour. "There, there, there." I danced the child around the kitchen. The screaming only increased. I warmed a bottle. It bounced on the floor and broke into a hundred shiny pieces of glass, the milk a spreading puddle. And it was Wallace's birthday, and not even the dusting done.
"Yell then," I cried. "There's nothing I can do to please you. Go on and yell your lungs out, you miserable wee imp!"
Perversely, the child stopped crying; in seconds, she was sound asleep.
It was a surprise party for Wallace. Ruth Leysath and I arranged it, though it was Ruth's idea. The Snecinski couple came down from upstairs, and Ruth and her mother from the first floor flat. A spinster in her late thirties, Ruth looked almost pretty tonight in a rose muslin dress with cheeks to match. She was clearly smitten with Wallace. Her violet eyes feasted on him where he sat in the plum velvet chair that had come from the Whitehorn manse by way of the Salvation Army. And he did look handsome in his dour way with his prominent nose and thick eyebrows, the bronze mustache freshly clipped, the hair slicked back from his broad brow. I crossed my fingers inside my lap. In Ruth I saw an escape from Cherry Valley, a way back to Ian Thomson.
But Wallace wasn't cooperating; his eyes were on the cake I'd set before him. The beeswax candles sank into the sugar frosting. "Not a bad looking cake at all," he allowed as he plunged in the knife to cleave it in two.
The children clapped and I laughed aloud. After all, it was a real ceilidh, my first since Scotland. Old Joseph Snecinski, a short squat man with the pocked face of a toad and as much English at his command, produced a bottle of claret: "I give, you take," was his greeting. His plump wife giggled. "Come, come, come," she said, waving her arms.
The claret was accepted with a half smile, a lift of the eyebrows. An elder in the Presbyterian kirk, Wallace allowed himself a single glass of spirits on Saturday nights. This was Tuesday. But then, it was his birthday Ruth reminded him. "Birt-day, birt-day!" Joseph echoed, laughing, and Wallace gave in with a slight shrug. The women, he said, motioning me up to fill the glasses, would want lemonade.
Afterward the children were consigned to Tessa, a young woman with a heavy coil of yellow hair and a pear-shaped body wrapped in an apron from neck to ankle bone. Tessa had come to Cherry Valley at the age of fifteen to work for the family of a Russian engineer. She labored from dawn to midnight with no wages and no time off except Sunday morning, for mass. It was the Whitehorn woman on Manse Hill, she told me, who had her removed and brought to Wallace.
"I'll help," I said, leaping up after Tessa. We were of an age; I looked on the Polander girl as a fellow exile and ally (we were both servants, weren't we?). Tessa was cheerful and capable; she handled the children like small animals. She flung Victoria over a shoulder, and shooed the others ahead like so many chickens.
"Sit down, Jessie," said Wallace, and I sat. The blood thickened in my cheeks. I sipped the claret. I didn't care, I wasn't having lemonade.
With the children in bed, the conversation waned. The Snecinskis sat shyly in the highbacked kitchen chairs, their wrinkled hands folded into wrinkled laps. They'd been met at the boat by slavers, herded up to Cherry Valley "like beasts," old Sophie Leysath had confidedwith their feather pillows, teapot, coffee grinder, domes of smelly cheese that they ate for breakfast, downed with thick bitter coffee.
Now they looked to Ruth for help, but the latter was gazing at Wallace. Seeing herself observed, she blushed furiously into her lemonade.
It was Sophie Leysath who saved the day. Out of a voluminous knitting bag she drew her gift, wrapped in five thicknesses of tissue. "It's a teacup," she blurted out before it was even out of the wrapping, "I've worked all day on it. Open it, open!"
It was a teacup indeed, as she'd said, with a handpainted thistle on the rim. Wallace thanked her for it, placed it on the breakfront beside Ruth's volume of Burns, the handkerchief I'd embroidered, and Winnie's drawing of himselfa red stick figure enveloped by a huge black book. Winnie had caught her father all right. The drawing was Wallace's favorite; it leaned against the wedding portrait, even blocking out Grace.
Wallace kept his gaze on the door as though if he looked long enough it might open of itself and let the visitors out. He gave the barest yawn, the whiskers wiggled on his upper lip. Joseph Snecinski peered at his pocket watch, his jowls folding accordion-like into his neck, and then at the bottle of claret that was still half full. His wife poked him with a drab gray elbow and the pair stood up. Ruth pulled old Sophie out of her chair, then folded up the chair itself and stuck it under her arm. With everyone standing Wallace grew more animated, as if to show he was really a hospitable fellow and hoped they'd come againbut a year from now perhaps. At the door he said he'd meant to offer Joseph a second glass of claret. The old man said he might like that, and then shook his head and smiled, after a prod in the ribs by his wife.
"Good night then. And many happy returns," said Ruth, the last to go. Her voice was high and tart like green apples. A flush of red crept over her neck and face.
"Good night, Miss Leysath," Wallace said, but his eyes gave no hint of interest. He nodded at Sophie where she teetered on the outer step in black button shoes, and shut the door.
He'd caught Ruth's skirt. "Och, I'm sorry, did I"
"Oh no, not at all. It's my fault. I wasn't quick enough," said Ruth. She stood, disoriented, while Sophie shouted at her to hurry. My hopes for a return to Scotland and Ian dimmed with the retreating clack of Ruth's heels on the iron staircase.
The hour after the children were in bed was thankfully brief. I would clean up the kitchen, then sit in Grace's rocker with a book. Wallace would bury his head in some religious tome or view a life of Jesus through the stereoscope, his face anguished as though it was himself nailed to the cross. After a while he'd thump his book shut or put away the stereoscope and stand up. "I'll be getting some shut eyes now," he'd say, and stride out of the room without so much as a goodnight. I'd turn down the wicks and go to my room to write in my diary, or just stare out the window at the Black River where it churned below, invisible, between the high granite ledges.
Tonight, I saw, would be different. Here came Wallace out of the kitchen with a third glass of claret. "I'm forty years old today," he said, sitting down again, like in kirk after he got up to read scripture.
When I nodded, not knowing what to say, he pointed at the handkerchief I'd given him. "I know you did it with your own hand," he said, and smiled to show he truly was magnanimouseven if he didn't have time or inclination to show it.
"Och," I waved away the thanks. I didn't tell him it was Tessa who had done most of the work.
"Well, see now, Jessie," he said, "I know it's hard for you here and away from your mother. Tending three bairns, none of them yours. And you just seventeen." His face pinkened with the effort of what he had to say.
"Eighteen," I murmured. "In three weeks just."
"Well, well, ay, think of that." He held up his glass as if he'd propose another toast. "We'll have to have a ceilidh, eh?" His voice was almost gay. A thick finger stroked his mustache. He swished the wine in the bottom of his glass. "What I mean to say is I sometimes worry I might be taking advantage. Now, I wouldn't want to do that, Grace's own kin?"
His eyes travelled to Grace's portrait on the breakfront, then to Winnie's drawing. He yanked the watch from his vest pocket. "Why, it's only nine o'clock," he said.
I watched him carefully. Nine o'clock was his bedtime.
"A man should celebrate his birthday, eh? An extra hour can't hurt. I'll turn in at eight tomorrow."
When I nodded: "Well, then," he said, and strode over to the hat rack. "A wee walk might be bracing just, down by the river. It's a warm night. A warm night indeed."
I waited for him to leave.
"You might want a wrap," he said. "The breeze can be cool off the river."
When I looked up at him, my hands gripped in my lap: "A man oughtn't to walk alone, eh, on his birthday? God knows I've been alone enough since Grace passed on."
I followed him out; a walk couldn't be for long, not with the children left alone. On the way he spoke mostly of Grace, how anguished he'd been when he found she was having another child. He said ‘she' as if he'd nothing to do with it. On and on he went (while I followed a step behind) as if excusing himself for being a manand by doing so, I thought, rooting the guilt in his breast.
"We none of us blame you, Uncle," I said. Then remembering Mother, I crossed my fingers in the folds of my skirt.
"Thank you, lass," he whispered, and stepped back to touch my arm. "Call me Wallace now. We're not related direct, are we?"
I smelled the lotion on him, felt my hands cold, my stomach cramped. He released my arm, strode along so fast I had to run to keep up. The street turned into a dirt path that passed alongside the river. There it became a ravine with granite walls rising almost perpendicular. We were beyond the street lamps now. The stars were a dull swarm in the night sky. Wallace stopped short and peered into the water. He might have been made of granite himself.
"I wonder," he said, "if it was right to bring you here to America."
"You need family." I couldn't bring myself to say his first name to his face. He was my uncle by marriage, not even a blood relation, no. But Grace was my mother's younger sister, my true aunt. I had to call him ‘family.'
"I needed family, ay, that's a fact." He pulled up a deep sigh out of his lungs.
"I want to help," I told him. "But the children miss their mother. It breaks my heart when Winnie looks up and it's me she sees in place of my aunt."
It was the first time I'd spoken of my frustrations except to Tessa. In my letters home I tried to sound cheerful. I imagined my mother taking them into her bedroom as she'd taken Grace's letters, holding them in her lap a long moment with her eyes shut, preparing herself for any bad news.
He shook his head and started on. I followed, my cheeks still hot from the outburst of words. The path was full of roots and holes. I pulled at my skirt where a briar had caught it. I'd never been this far down the river path, I didn't know where it led. The night was growing blacker, the stars blurred beyond the cloudy moon. I almost ran into Wallace where he'd stopped, blocking my path. His hand caught at my arms, locked in. I opened my mouth but couldn't speak. The arms slid around my back and pulled me against him For a moment, the claret still warm in my chest, it felt good. My mother never huggedthere was only Gran to hug, smelling of old clothes and cats, of pee and Uncle Chae. Then Wallace gave a terrible groan, and my ribs pushed against the cage of my chest till my breath was gone.
And in its place, fear.
He squeezed, and I froze in his arms like an animal, playing dead, but its heart half breaking through its chest.
He suddenly pushed me off. "I must be daft, daft," he hissed, taking a step back. We stood facing one another as if we'd box. "Forgive me, girl, I'm not myself tonight. Go home now. Go, I said. Lock your door!"
I turned and ran back down the path. I glanced back once, hearing footsteps. But it was only the pounding of my heart, the surging river in my ears. At the top step of the tenement my legs buckled under. I dragged myself through the door and dropped into a chair. When my vision cleared I saw the rack of Wallace's pipes, his Bible beside his chair. Winnie's stick drawing leaning against Grace's portrait.
I thought to myself: I've run in a circle.
There was no lock, but I dragged a chair up against the bedroom door.
By late April I thought I'd discovered a means of escape. I had found an occupationvolunteer to be sure, but it brought me out of the house two evenings a week.
"I leef in Cherry Valley, Vermont, U-nited Stats of Amer-ee-ca," the immigrants recited each Tuesday and Thursday. They gazed at me with round eager eyes, rolled their r's with gusto. "A town of forty-seven hun-ret folks, eet lies between de Black Reeber und de Connec-tee-cut Reeber. Dere isareseven heels und seven meells#133;."
"Hills. Mills. Repeat, please. Hills." I was a schoolmistress after all. Mrs. William Whitehorn, a tall gaunt woman with razor blue eyes and a mission to raise up and assimilate the immigrant poor (I was one, wasn't I?) needed volunteers for her Neighborhood House. Ruth Leysath had applied, it was she who made me go. Housed in a converted warehouse across from the town square, next to Tony's Barbershop, it was a place to teach English to the Polanders and Russians who had come over to work in the mills.
"Two nights a week?" Wallace said to the Whitehorn herself who'd come to make the demand. His cheeks were stretched to incredulity.
"Jessie's a bright young woman," she informed him in her shrill, aristocratic voice. "She needs the time off and I need her. This is your contribution, sir, to your fellow man."
Subdued with a fierce look, what could he do but acceptwith a martyred sigh.
"Thank you, Wallace," I said, not looking at him. We'd neither of us looked direct at the other since that night by the river. I called him Wallace now, though, because I wasn't going to be his servant.
I put my hair up in a bun, for I was younger than most of my pupils, and I let out the seams in Grace's skirts. I lost three stone the first two weeks of my tutelagefrom worry I think, and a sense of inadequacy. But had no time to take in the seams again. In any case, I was better dressed than my charges in their shiny threadbare suits and outdated frocks and Salvation Army coats. I had a sense of mission, of worth, walking into the drab, sparsely furnished room with a notebook under my arm. I welcomed their eyes on my face, the warm spittle of their "goot eefenings" on my cheek. I was their teacher, their visa to the world. With Englishnever mind my rolled Scottish r's and the ‘eh' and ‘oh' they learned to preface their phrases withthey might gain money, friends, a wringer washer, or even one of those new automobiles. The possibilities were limitless.
A paper was being shoved under my nose where I sat at the oak desk after Thursday class. I looked up to see a tall lanky young man with a thatch of light brown hair that draped over his forehead like a hood. His face was fine-boned, the lips full and sensuous. He wore a drab blue suit with a green cravate. One hand clutched a worn woolen cap.
"Pavel?" By luck the name came to me. I'd been correcting his dictation. He had missed one of the n's in Connecticut. His last name I couldn't pronounce, just knew it began with an L, had ten letters.
His eyes caught mine, a squint of brown-goldI caught a glint of blue in the right eye. He slapped on his cap, then shoved it up off a high bony forehead. The brows slanted in as if he'd been born with a frown. I smiled. I'd learned to smile through the moods of these European immigrants, learned how to suppress my own. Just as I reached for the paper he was holding out, he jerked it back and wheeled about.
"Pavel," I said, annoyed.
He turned; the eyes darkened. "You don't read this," he said. The paper shook in his handa hand scarred across the back, I noticed, as if some machine had gone berserk. "You haf enough."
I held out my hand for the paper. I was determined to show authority. I'd been warned by the Whitehorn. "They resist," she'd said, "they're terribly proud, some of them." Pavel didn't wholly resist, though I sensed an inner pride. The way the lines were arranged on the page, it might be a poem. His fingers let go. He gave a brief laugh and, yanking the cap forward on his head, he whirled out again. I felt exhilarated, watching him go.
After that I began to dress more carefully for class. With Tessa's help I took darts in Grace's muslin skirts, wore stays that cinched in my waist. (I later abandoned them, I hated the confinement.) I stopped eating the gravies I made for Wallace, the cookies I baked for the children. My skin that had broken out in blotches and pimples when I arrived, began to clear.
Pavel's poems multiplied. Where the others kept a journal he passed in four or five verses each class. I was no critic, but I found them poignant. I wondered where he found the timehe worked a twelve-hour shift in the Douglas Grinding Mill. There were home chores, he said, where he boarded with his mother and sister on a farm outside of town. He walked to and from work along with the farm women, most of whom worked in the shoddy mill. Like the others they'd been lured to the town with the promise of steady wages, healthy working conditions. Cherry Valley, Vermont was an Eden, the hustler told them, after the exploitations of Lawrence and Lowell.
Maybe, but Pavel's poems wove a different tale:
Shuttles scream on weaving loom, he wrote with the aid of a Polish-English dictionary:
Live steam scald in finishing room
Metal fly from grindstone
Grind small the workers bones.
I taught him to use possessives and form plurals. I kept one jump ahead of him in the more demanding grammar at which I needed refreshing myself. He learned quickly. After a while he didn't come to class with the others but worked on his own. He began to demand private sessions with me and for some reason I allowed it. "You're working late," Wallace would say. "Victoria was crying. I had to take time from my bible study." And he'd pat the good book in his lap like a pet cat.
"I think you're a poet, not a millworker," I told Pavel. "Why do you stay in that factory? Why not work on a farm instead? Where you can see the mountains?"
He would only shake his head, the thatch of hair would collapse in his face. The farm he lived on was marginal. The money was in the mills. "You should know that," he'd say, a pet phrase. He had a mother and sister to help support. They made half the wages he did, for the same amount of time. His look was indignant. "We all of us trapped," he'd say, waggling his head like a child deprived of his supper.
Ruth and I got up a social night. It would be good for Pavel, I decided, and Tessa and I altered another dress of Grace's. It was to be a Saturday nightWallace, Ruth hoped, clasping my hands, might be persuaded to come. When I dared ask what she saw in Wallace"He's lonely," she replied, flushing, as if loneliness were a virtue in itself. Ruth had once loved a boy her father disapproved of, our neighbour Mrs. Snecinski told me, and discouraged, he left town. Her father died shortly afterward, but the boy never came back. Ruth knew loneliness.
"Grace never festooned herself," Wallace said on the afternoon of the seven o'clock social as I sat sewing lace on the dress collar of my aunt's dress. "A plain collar was sufficient." He thumped out of the room. I yelped, I'd stuck my finger. Winnie squinted up from the floor, where she sat cross-legged, cutting out paper dolls. "You got a hurt, cousin Jess?"
"I don't know, I just don't." I banged my fist on the chair arm. "I can't seem to work out my life right. Please everyone who wants to be pleased."
"I don't please everyone," the child said. "I never please Duncan, and sometimes not even Daddy."
"Your daddy loves you though, even when you're naughty." I knew it to be so. Wallace gazed at Winnie the way he looked at the child Jesus through the stereoscope: as if the child were an immaculate conception, sprung from his own loins. Humph, I thoughtwhen my aunt Grace gave her life for him and that child. Mother still waxed bitter in her letters about that sister's last pregnancy, and I'd caught the resentment from her.
Wallace looked at me in a different way, though, when he thought I wasn't seeing: more squinty, breathy-faced, a muscle trembling in his cheek. What was passing through his mind, I'd wonder. And then swear my independence.
"Absurd," I told Winnie. I cut the thread with a snap of my scissors.
The child held up a paper doll she'd cut out of blank white paper. "It's you, cousin Jessie," she said.
"Well, color it green then," I said, and went to change into the dress.
The dress was a rich jade challis that brought out the green in my eyes, "the shine in your hair," Ruth said when she arrived a half hour laterwe'd walk over together. I'd let my hair go loose, except for a wide satin ribbon out of Sophie's trunk.
"It's too tight," said Wallace, back in the room now with his Bible.
"Do you want me to take it off?" I stared at him, hands on my hips. He retreated into his book. His retreat made me bold. "Have you seen Ruth?" I asked. "How pretty she looks? She made the dress herself."
Wallace peered over at Ruth, who was standing in the doorway in a lavender linen with a lace jabot. He nodded. Her cheeks were radishes. "Oh, mercy," she said, wheeling about to leave, and tripped over an iron steam shovel Duncan had left by the door. I ran out, smiling in spite of myself, to help her up.
"You shouldn't say such things," she said, rubbing her chin.
"I don't care, Ruth. He looks right through you sometimes. As if you were one of the leaves on your mother's teacups."
"He saw me," she said, taking me literally. "Of course he saw me!" She hurried down the steps, holding on to the iron rail for balance.
Pavel didn't arrive until ten o'clock, just before the fiddlers were to fold up their instruments and depart. I was dancing with a floury-faced Russian when I saw the lad poised wide-eyed in the doorway, one shoulder thrust forward, like a swallow about to take flight. I pushed through the dancers, and caught his arm as he was turning to go.
"Pavel! Where have you been?"
He stared, as if he'd never seen me before. His lip curled. "I don't know youlike that. In that dress."
I lifted my chin to ignore the remark. "Would you like to dance? I felt flushed and frivolous in my lace collar and my hair down over my shoulders. Pavel shook his head.
"If that's all you got."
Ruth poured the lemonade where she stood at the refreshment table, and raising an eyebrow at me, went smiling off on the arm of Thomas Ashworth, a widower and Neighborhood House volunteer who played organ at the Episcopal church. He didn't seem to find Ruth invisible at all. I blew her a kiss.
"I got a poem I want you should read," said Pavel, his feet planted wide on the scuffed floor. He was wearing the same shiny serge jacket he wore to class, but with a yellow shirt, carefully patched at the elbow. His face was clean shaven, his hair slicked back to his scalp. One hand, I'd noticed, had a slight tremor when he took the lemonade. He drained it in a gulp.
"This is a social, not a class, Pavel."
"I don't write about the mill this time. You don't want to see?"
"Let me take it home. I can concentrate on it better there. At my leisure."
"Leisure? What is leisure?"
But I was the hostess. I went off with a Czech who galloped me about the room. I was as young as Pavel, younger; I hadn't danced since Scotland. I didn't care that the young Czech was half my height. And when I got back, flushed and breathless, Pavel was gone. The room seemed empty, despite the crowd of immigrants still dancing or standing about in groups, conversing in Russian, Polish or Hungarian. Pavel was punishing me for not reading his poem.
At ten o'clock I decided to walk home. I was too full of adrenalin to ride, I told Ruth. "Not through Immigrant Row!" Ruth cried. "Come with us." She and her mother were riding home in Thomas Ashworth's gig.
Immigrant Row was a section of rickety tenements where the lower caste of millworkers lived. It was a scant three blocks wide, but even in the daytime I felt eyes staring out cracks and windows, and I'd quicken my step. There was a rumor, too, that a slaver lived here, ready to spirit young girls away to Boston to the brothels there. An old woman would scurry out her front door, shouting that her iron had caught fire, to "please come help!" Then she'd offer you a cookie that was laced with a sleeping powder. When you were overcome, a man would gag and handcuff you, shove you into a van and drive you, half naked, to a city brothel where six ugly old men were lined up to penetrate you. It was more than rumor, according to Ruth, who'd spoken to a fifteen-year-old girl who "barely got away."
"I know a way around," I said, and waved the gig off.
I had lied to her. I wanted to take the risk. I was tired of being safe. I didn't feel alive being safe. I didn't believe half those old wives's tales anyhow. It was a chill night but bright with stars. I hardly felt the cold with my granddad's paisley shawl draped about me like a plaid. What was out of fashion in Britain was exotic in what Sophie Leysath called this "barbaric outpost." And I had on the amber beads that had belonged to my great-great gran, who was said to have the second sight. On moonlit nights, like tonight, I believed in such things.
My coffin shall be black, Six angels at my back: I chanted the old fisherfolk rhyme as I turned into the row, walking briskly, swinging my arms. Two to sing and two to pray and two to carry my soul away. In spite of myself, I picked up my pace. A man appeared in a doorway and I hurried past. A woman screamed in an upstairs room and I started to run. Then telling myself I was being foolish, I stopped at a corner and calmed my breath. I looked up at the moon that was drifting out of a cloud, full and white, like a woman's face. Great-great gran, I thought, warning me of what lay ahead. Butfoolish, I told myself, and I slowed.
Then I heard footsteps coming rapidly behind me and gave a cry.
I wheeled about. "You frightened me, Pavel!"
"Should see yourself, standing like a cat howling at the moon."
He slouched there, hands on his slim hips, lean and hungry looking, like a feral cat himself. His belt buckle gleamed in the moonlight.
I was both glad and peeved to see him. The Whitehorn advised that we keep our friendships inside the classroom. "They get attached," she'd warned with a little moue.
He fell in step with me as I crossed the street. "How old you are?" he asked.
"Eh?" I was startled. The question sounded brash and impudent. But he was demanding an answer. "Oh, twenty-one," I lied. I wasn't going to tell the truth.
"Ah. Then how come you not married?"
"I don't intend to marry. Not for some time. And what business is it of yours, please?" Why was I answering these brash questions I asked myself. But found no answer. There was something shy and outspoken about him, all at once, that appealed. Or maybe it was simply that I found him physically attractive, for all his shabbiness.
"Why not?" He sounded genuinely surprised. "My sister now," he said, quickening his step to match mine. "She sixteen. My mother worry about getting Zosia a husband. She make me bring home young men from the plant. But then my sisterhow I should sayis fat. Fat, yes. Too much pork and potato. Fat. No color in the cheekis like white flour. And so shy. The young men eat our food and then leave. And Zosia, she weep and hate them all and then eat some more!"
I murmured sympathy and peered over at him. His skin, stretched tight over fine curving bones, looked veined, like marble, like a sculpture my mother had of the biblical David. Pavel, according to his file, was half Catholic, half Jew. I'd known few Jews in Scotland, but I had read about Moses in bible class: wrapped in a cradle of bullrushes and set afloat in a stream. I'd felt a rush of love and sympathy, reading about Moses.
"I'm following you," he said, "because you don't take my poem. You don't give me a chance to give it. You dance off with that ugly Czech. Is a poem for you, Miss Menzie. Now take." His hand with the paper was almost in my face.
I took it, what else could I do? "Thank you." I pocketed the scrap of papernot even a whole sheet, as though he would conserve the paper for another poem. The Paisley shawl lay hot on my shoulders. We were deep in the slaver section now. The connected houses hunched against the blue-black sky like the spine of some primordial beast. Instinctively, I moved closer to Pavel.
He wanted to learn how to dance, he told me. "Where you learn to do that, hey?"
"Oh, from my friend Agnes. Over in Scotland. My mother never danced at all. Her only free day is the Sabbath, and one doesn't dance on the Sabbathnot if you're a Presbyterian. Though for her that's only an excuse. She doesn't go to kirk. She and I, we're freethinkers." I felt daring to say that word. An abominable word, according to my mother, for a proper lass.
"You got a mother," he said, nodding with satisfaction. "A father too, hey?"
"No, he's alive." At least I thought so. Anyway, that was all I was going to tell him. I wanted him gone now. I didn't want to talk about my fatherwhoever he was. Mother had sealed herself up tight since that natural birth and I must too, she said. It was a small, close, disapproving worldeverywhere, she said, and "full of spies."
"I turn up there, by the corner house," I said loudly.
"Don't I know that? I follow you home before."
"Och." This fellow was becoming all too familiar. I drew my shawl close as we turned the corner. The moon was a pale yellow disc, shrouded in cloud.
"That man you live withthe tall one with the solemn face. I see him at work. That your father?"
"Losh, no. He's my uncle. But he's not mean. Not intentionally. He's just awfullyserious. It's because he lost his wife, my aunt. Less than a year ago."
"A year ago I'm in Poland, burying my father," he said hotly. "He is beat to death. By the goyim solders. He was educated, my father, a pacifist Jew. He taught me languagesto speak, not to writethat your job, Miss Menzies. They want him in the army and he won't. And your solemn uncle never smiles again?”
"Do you, Pavel?" I was feeling braver now. We were out of the slaver section, almost to Wallace's house (I still couldn't call it home). "I seldom see you smile, except now and then a glimmer. In classwhen somebody makes a mistake. Or you did, before you stopped coming."
"Sure, I smile. Sure, I laugh, too. When they something to laugh about. Not so much lately though. You teach me to dance, hey? Then I laugh. Maybe. No promise." The moon was bursting out of a cloud. I could see the lines wrinkle around Pavel's eyes. He was laughing. At me.
I looked up at the tenement and there was Wallace. I saw his form on the outer staircase. He was peering into the dark like a sailor out to sea. "Is that you, Jessie?" Each word a small stone, hurled at me.
"Best I go," Pavel said, twitching, as if a stone had hit his leg, and hurried off into the dark.
"Who was that?" Wallace called down before I could get to the top. "Ruth and her mother got back long ago. Why were you walking? It isn't safe for a female."
"It's a grand night, that's all," I said. I stumbled on the hem of my skirt and held on to the iron rail.
"You had an escort."
"A student. A Polander from my class. He was coming this way. He lives on a farm."
"Polanders," he said with a sneer. "Polanders are not so" He tapped his forehead.
"How can you say that?" I faced him on the upper porch. He seemed agitated, his hands were clasped across his chest.
"I didn't say all. Mostly the ones that emigrated. The lower class."
"Everyone emigrated, didn't they? You did. I did." I stared him down. "Well, this Polander is bright. I'm teaching him to write English."
When he didn't reply, just kept rotating his hands as if they were glued and wouldn't come apart: "I'm teaching him to dance, " I said. I whirled past him and kept going until I reached my room.
When I heard Wallace's door shut, I came out again into the parlour and sat down with my book. It was a novel by a writer named Galsworthy, the Whitehorn had lent it to me. But I couldn't seem to concentrate on it. Around half past eleven, young Duncan came out for a glass of milk. "A bad dream," he said. He was stumbling, still half asleep. He couldn't tell me what the dream was, he only knew it had scared him. Coming back from the icebox he lost his balance and banged against the breakfront. There was an old blue vase near the edgeit crashed into a dozen pieces.
Wallace strode out in his nightshirt. His eyes went to the mess. He knelt down as if at prayer. "It was my grandmother Murray's," he said, holding up the pieces like an ancestor's bones. He wrapped them carefully in a handkerchief, and snatched the wedding portrait. "This will be next," he said with a terrible frown, and marched his treasures to his room.
Duncan drank his glass of milk. He and I tiptoed past Wallace's door.
"Good night, laddie," I said. I gave the boy's hand a squeeze.
And felt a soft pressure in my own palm.
© Nancy Means