[a short story by Sha’Tara]
“What are you doing up there, sleeping?”
“Finishing the boys’ room ma.”
“Leave that, come down. I need you to go to the Bellamy’s and get me fresh produce. We’ll have payin’ guests tonight.”
A pretty young woman of about fifteen, with thick auburn hair adorned with a couple of ribbons, comes down. Her heavy footsteps indicate how reluctant she is to obey her mother.
“Mom, can’t you send Petee?”
“Pete’s in the lower meadow with your pa, he’s working. What’s wrong with you?”
“I hate the Bellamy’s mom. Joram is always shoving his hands into my dress, feeling me. I hate him. I hate what he does. And he smells like something dead.”
“Well, look who’s so high ‘n mighty now! You’re a woman now an’ Joram, he’s grown into a fine young man and he fancies you! Do you have any idea how much land the Bellamy’s own, or lease?”
“That’s not the point, mom. I don’t like him and I don’t want him. I hate it when he touches me and breathes on me.”
“That may be girl, but it’s time you learned some facts of life. How do you think I fed you and your oldest brother when your pa was in the Lord’s wars?”
“They did that to you?”
“Well, Mr. Bellamy did. He was a fine looking young man then, exempt from the war, and for convenience sake I was called the widow Lacey. I was still beautiful then too.”
“You’re still beautiful, ma! But that’s not right, what they do, is it? I read in a book at the butcher’s last week that it’s wrong. The book was on the corner table and I was waiting for my cut. It was called a “digest” and had many stories in it. This one was by a woman. She wrote that we shouldn’t be “sexually molested” she called it, and we should be able to vote.”
“You read that did you? I warned your pa not to teach you to read, that it would only cause us all trouble, and here we go. You read what other people think. Can’t you think for yourself? Joram Bellamy is sweet on you and he makes sure you always get the freshest produce, and he gives you more than we pay for. Last Fall they sold us their best pig, no extra charge. Don’t you understand anything?”
She points to her breasts: “It’s time you realized the value of these in a man’s world, Anee. And the lower part of you as well. We have a certain value and there is an exchange. It’s been that way forever, don’t you go questioning it and upsetting things for us. The Bellamy’s are much richer than us; they’re our neighbours and it’s you and I that keep things good between us. Your pa doesn’t question my loyalty to him, but he well knows how I kept our small farm and fed my children during those years he was gone. I started to talk about it once, long ago. He put his hand over my mouth, then took it off and kissed me, long and sweetly, and he thanked me. That is the kind of man your pa is.”
“I know pa is good, ma. But this is about me. I don’t want to settle with Joram. I don’t like him at all and certainly not that way.”
“He’s young, what, seventeen? He’ll grow up, mature, be more like his dad.”
“Well that settles it then: I don’t like his dad either. He’s done it to me too, you know. And he smells bad too!”
“Yeah, I know how he smells. But some of it is the smell of success and money. We’re lucky some of that smell has rubbed off on us, girl. Don’t be so particular. One would think you were born in the Lord’s castle with a silver spoon in your hand.”
“You don’t care do you! I want an education and I want to become a teacher, see? I can’t have a man if I’m to be a school teacher.”
“Oh, a teacher is it? Listen to the professor. Miss Radick has a lot of years in her yet, there won’t be any need for a new teacher in these parts for many years, girl.”
“I don’t mean around here, mom. I mean to go and teach in the coal mining country. They can’t get, or keep, teachers up there. I’ll be needed, for sure.”
“The coal country? God help us! You’ve taken leave of your senses, girl. Half the people there don’t even attend services. Men are drunkards and beat their wives. The children are half naked and starving most of the time. And the dirt, it’s in everything there. What an idea Anee.”
“I read about that too, ma. They need teachers like myself, girls with farming and gardening experience. I can teach them to grow food and I can explain about basic hygiene.”
“What are you talking about! Who is Basic Hy-Gene? Is that somebody you met at the butcher’s also?”
“Ma, hygiene means cleanliness. Basic means plain. Plain cleanliness. It’s not just the job, ma, it’s something I’ve known for sometime that I want to do. I need to do it. It’s a calling, see? Like a vocation? Do you understand that?”
The mother stopped, turned to face her daughter – they were the same height and their eyes met. There were tears in her mother’s face. Then she reached for her daughter and embraced her.
“Oh Anee! Of course I understand that part. I was there too, and I turned away to marry your pa. He was so good to me, and I knew I would be forever safe with him. But I was afraid also; afraid to learn how to read n’ do numbers; afraid it would change everythin’ for me. I hid from my calling in my family. I wanted security, not adventure.
I suffered a long time over my choice and now it’s come back to me in you. I suppose that’s fair enough; that God would give me you so you could go and do what I chose not to.
I will go with you to Bellamy’s and if Joram is there I will explain your choice to him. It doesn’t matter what he says, you will be a teacher, Anee. Your pa will be so proud, I can’t wait to see his face when you tell him.”
They both put on their long grey coats and boots to ward off the damp air and residual dew of a sunless day and walked silently, hand in hand, to their rich neighbour’s farm. A keen observer would have noticed there was a certain lightness to their steps.