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Fiction Historical Fiction American

— 14 APR 1727

It had taken Margaretha a week to find the strength to ink those few characters into the family Bible, squeezing it into the space left after her husband Peter’s small, neat handwriting recorded their first son Michael’s birth eight years prior. An improvement, she thought to herself with a grim half-smile (what else can you do in the face of such despair?), on the thirty-seven days it took to inscribe Peter’s death into those pages. But in the future you must do better, she chastised herself. You never know when it will be your turn...and who might be forgotten if you have not summoned the will to do it before then?


Margaretha closed the Bible and leaned back in the rocking chair worn down at the spots familiar to the curves of her flesh, watching the shadows of her tableside candle flicker against the featherboard panel wall. She wondered if she could ever again take solace in the words that filled the rest of that book. For the past few years she felt that God had abandoned her, and her only use for His sacred text was to document what she lost in the pages inserted to the front by a printmaker. Her father, solemn Lutheran preacher, would never have approved of the thoughts in her head, and truly, she felt the legacy of his disappointment in the force of her own self-disapprobation.  How truly lucky she was to have three healthy children, a large and sturdy house full of life’s necessities, fields in good cultivation, and a doting elder sister who had just left an hour ago after making her daily call to this poor, wretched widow...


Enough. 


She lingered for just a few more seconds, mesmerized by the dance of the shadows and her own thoughts. With a heavy sigh, she extinguished the candle and then retreated to her bed. 


***


From the light outside, Margaretha could tell it was around 6:30, and she wondered how she had slept so long, deeply, and dreamlessly. She looked to her side and, sure enough, Elisabeta’s tiny auburn braids were just barely poking out from under the quilt, and her head was nestled in the crook of her mother’s arm. She turned up this way most days since her papa’s death. At first she would come into her mother’s bed chamber at night, wailing and screaming about made-up things or real traumas or both in her baby babble, waking Margaretha so she would pet her hair and tell her happy stories that would lull them both back to sleep. Eventually, it became so everyday a ritual that the wailing never even started, as Elisabeta was consoled by the mere knowledge that her mother’s arm would be there to comfort her. Nighttime tears started up again after Michael’s death, but only lasted for a few days. The whole family was worn so thin from melancholy that it seemed as if it had become easier to just not feel anything. 


Margaretha’s gentle awakening was cut short by a quiet yet heavy-fisted knock on the front door. Who is already about right now? 


She righted herself and put her feet on the cold wooden floor as silently as possible so as to not trouble her sleeping child. She got up, lifted Peter’s rifle from its wall mount, and scrambled out of the room to the parlor. It was still dark in the north-facing room, and outside the wind tossed the trees’ branches about, casting fearsome shadows on the walls inside. For a moment she was transported back to the night she first met Peter. They were barely fourteen years of age, and their friends had gathered around a big bonfire at harvest time to terrify themselves with ghost stories. Peter’s was a particularly outrageous tale about a haunted evening in a house that, upon reflection, seemed a bit too much like the one she now lived in with his ghost. 


Snapping out of her momentary slip into memory, Margaretha realized she had been holding her breath in anxiety. She dashed to the window, pulled back the curtain little more than a inch, saw the horse of Mr. Leonhardt Cassel tethered out front, and released her breath in relief. In a second, the rider appeared on the street, having been obscured by the fruit trees in the front yard. What could that silly man have wanted so early? Margaretha put down the rifle on her table and rushed to the door. She quietly removed the crossbar and pulled it ajar only enough for her face to be revealed, as she was dressed in nothing but her chemise. 


At the sound of the heavy wooden door opening, Leonhardt turned, bearing an earnest grin which quickly gave way to a deep red blush encircling pursed lips and wide eyes. He must have determined that she was wearing only her underclothes by the sight of her bonnet and those visible bits of fabric. Margaretha narrowed the gap of the open door till her eyes were just visible, and shuffled her feet to the side to entirely obscure her body behind the door.  Doing his best to recover his manners, he called out to her at a volume meant for her to hear, but not loud enough to wake the children sleeping in adjacent rooms.  


“Good morning, Mrs. Umberger!”


“Good morning. And how are you today, Mr. Cassel?” 


“I’m doing so very good this morning Mrs. Umberger, because, well...certainly we will have beautiful weather today!” He motioned dramatically towards the sky, where the clouds were just beginning to release the sun, then cleared his throat in embarrassment, leaving a long, too open pause before continuing.

“So, ah, I can see from out here that your cabbages are coming up marvelously, nearly twice the size of my own! Well, yes, em, I am here because I did hear of the trouble you had with foxes and your chickens. As it happened, the Lord blessed me with some very productive chickens this morning—oh my, how they laid overnight!—and since I know they can be a bit withholding after such a fright as yours had, well I brought you some of my abundance. Please, enjoy them. And God rest the soul of young Michael. Little Thomas, Samuel, Elisabeta...they must continue to grow strong and hearty!”


 Margaretha looked down at her doorstep and saw a full crate of perfect brown speckled eggs. She couldn’t restrain the broad smile that transformed her face. Her chickens had only laid three eggs since their disturbance, and her family’s meals were beginning to suffer from their absence. 


“Mr. Cassel, oh, you are generous to us, thank you so very much. We will assuredly have many great meals thanks to your kindness.” Margaretha clasped her hand to her head. She was overwhelmed as all of the rich meals the eggs would provide flooded her mind’s eye. Casseroles, breads, pies, and oh, so many noodles! “My goodness, why not come back at dinnertime? With this much, we can all enjoy a large helping of savory pudding. My goodness!”


You fool, why did you just say that? Are you so lonely that you invite this odd bachelor into your home? As you stand before him in your nightclothes?


“Truly...oh no, I could not possibly impose. Please, do not assume that I expected such an invitation with this visit! Yes, it is true, I often miss the comfort of a well-cooked meal, but I have mastered a few dishes on my own, and on the Lord’s Day I enjoy a meal at my brother’s place...”


“No, no, I insist. Please come back at about 5 o’clock.”


“I will be here, Mrs. Umberger. Thank you.” His face brightened like it had been washed by the heavens. Or maybe it was just the sun rising behind the early morning clouds.


Margaretha shut the door and from the window watched Mr. Cassel mount his horse and ride off down the lane. “Why, why, why?!” she raged at herself in a loud whisper. 


“Mama? Does this mean I do not need to go collect eggs this morning?”

Thomas was standing in the doorway, bleary-eyed but obviously alert enough to have understood the whole exchange. 


Margaretha chuckled. “No, darling. We must retain the usual rhythms of our lives so that the chickens do not become even more confused than they already are! Go on out and then come in and wash up. We will have dippy eggs for breakfast!”


“Yeah!” Thomas, encouraged, ran out to perform his morning chore. 


***


“Aunt Baba!” Samuel’s shriek alerted the petite woman digging in her garden to the arrival of their party. Margaretha was so concerned to ensure that her sister was present before Mr. Cassel’s arrival that she sacrificed vital productivity on their farm in order to call on her at her home. 


“Barbara, Mr. Leonhardt Cassel came by this morning to leave me with a full crate of eggs. In my surprise, I offered him an invitation to join us for dinner. Please, can you come by early today?”


“Mr. Cassel, eh?” Barbara smirked. “That peculiar poet-bachelor with nearly a hundred acres in cultivation along the south road? Well, well, well. Maybe you have finally found the odd man who will indulge your old needlework habits!” Barbara laughed, angling to rile her sister. 


A ball of nerves heaved in Margaretha’s stomach. “What? My...no! Heavens, no! It was an extraordinarily kind gesture from a neighbor. Father would have said he was behaving like a true man of God.”


“Father didn’t care for Mr. Cassel’s family.”


“You know well that none of us are exactly like our parents!”


Flustered, Margaretha internalized Barbara’s comment. As a girl, Margaretha was more interested in the words she embroidered onto towels and tapestries than the quality of her stitchwork. She often prepared poems of her own creation and designed embroidery projects around them. Ultimately, those projects were locked away in a chest rather than displayed anywhere. But she always found words stitched in bright silk thread on fine linen much more beautiful than when they were just scribbled onto a piece of vellum with a pen. It was a hobby she hadn’t engaged in at all after Michael’s birth. Since then, her needlecraft had been purely decorative. Beautiful and worthwhile handiwork, but not the same. Briefly remembering the joy of stitching her own words onto fabric jolted Margaretha with strange energy. It was jarring for this woman who had felt for the past several years that she was merely going through the motions of life without much pleasure or excitement, aside from the natural pleasure of a mother in watching her children grow and discover the world with their fresh shining eyes. 


Recovering her senses, Margaretha poked back at her sister, still laboring at removing deep-embedded grubs from the soil. “Rather, I believe he’d make a nice match for you! Both quite old to be without a marriage, and he could provide you something much sturdier than this slight shack you have thrown up and still deign to call a home! You know how I worry for you every time we have the slightest breeze!” Barbara narrowed her eyes at her sister in feigned contempt, then her face turned serious. “I worry for you too, all alone with small children in that big house on a dead-end road.”


Margaretha knew perfectly well that Barbara had no interest in marriage. Father had alotted a portion of his five hundred acres to each of his children upon his death, and though he wished for nothing more than that all his girls find kind and steadfast Christian husbands as soon as possible after they were of age, he knew when he wrote his last will and testament what Barbara would do with her inheritance. Young, energetic, and bold, she had made everyone in their corner of the township aware that she intended to open a school for the local children, where they would be taught to read, write, sing in praise of the Lord, and cultivate good morals and manners. Father accepted it, acknowledging that her plans had great value for their growing settlement, and would allow her to support herself as a single woman.


“Alright then, I will be there in no more than two hours. Let me guess, it will be pudding? Spring wheat bread? Hurry back, and prepare the oven before these precious worms eat any more of my good soil!“ Margaretha turned around and saw that her children had been hurling mud at each other. Elisabeta had decided to see how it tasted, and her chubby hand was lodged in her mouth, her back teeth chomping on clumps of sandy dirt. 


“We just washed up for the day! What are you all doing?” Margaretha groaned, running towards Thomas. She frantically wiped his face and shirt with her apron despite knowing it was hopeless, started on Samuel, whose little blond curls were caked with mud, and then exhaled an exasperated sigh before giving up. 


Barbara laughed. “You should observe that my choice to forego a husband ensures problems such as these are never mine to bear! If a child eats earth in the schoolyard, I just send him home to be tended by his dutiful mother!”


Margaretha shook her head and felt a slight pang of envy, which was quickly pushed to a far recess of her mind when she glanced back at her youngest and saw her round mud-smeared face with wide brown eyes looking up in complete innocence. She reached down and picked up Elisabeta, foisting her over her shoulder. “Well, as you can see, we have a great amount to accomplish in the coming hours. Until then.” 


Back down the lane to her own home was a scant ten minutes, but it was a ten minute walk burdened with memories for Margaretha. She was constantly reminded of the absence of those she loved by its familiar sights. She recalled the day she walked with Father to the site she and Peter had selected for their home, and Peter was already waiting there with an armful of daisies he’d plucked from the sides of the lane for his bride-to-be. And when they carried Michael, shrouded in the best white linen and lace they could afford to order from Philadelphia, to be christened at Father’s church, then Thomas, Samuel, and Elisabeta all in that same dress. When Margaretha, huddled together with her sisters, wept as they followed her brothers carrying Mother’s coffin to the churchyard. When they did the same for Father, but without their brother Friedrick, who had drowned in the river the year prior. And finally, to the burial of Michael last week, his small body again shrouded, but differently,  to be interred just feet from his grandparents.


Arriving at home and seeing it from the visitor’s perspective along the street was no release from the agony of her memory. She recalled the day the carpenter shook Peter’s hand and left them in front of their newly finished house, two rooms with high ceilings that felt almost cavernous in their emptiness, still smelling of fresh chestnutwood. Wide smiles as they held each other’s hands in front of the windows that would lack sashes for another year, watching swallowtails and monarchs dance outside in the late afternoon August sun. And a flash forward to the last time Peter smiled at her. Standing atop their house, intent to repair a fracture in the roof framing himself so they could save money and raise it to a second story in a few years. They had expanded their two rooms to four, and added an additional wing to cover their well and pump and provide greater comfort for Margaretha as she cooked in all seasons. It was already a grand house for their area. The nearest two-story house was many miles away in Philadelphia. Their farm was productive and the Lord had blessed them. Then, He took away Peter and their security in an accident so ridiculous that Margaretha occasionally felt on the verge of laughing about it, but never did, since the pain immediately punched her in the stomach so hard that it made her feel like vomiting. 


Peter had repaired the frame, and done an excellent job: it was still holding up to this day. He grinned at Margaretha with pride from the roof. She was nearly seven months pregnant, bloated, and angsty. “Alright, alright, yes, you did very well. Please come down now, Peter, I need your help moving the pot to the stove. You know I cannot even reach it when I bend over now!” “Very well, but can you just give me a moment to contemplate my great range of talents from way up here, like a bird, or, aha!, like a king on his throne? Yes, I doubt even the Emperor knows such fineness!” Peter joked as he had already begun to move down towards the ladder. Steady-handed, he descended until he reached the bottom third of the ladder, where a rung cracked; in a split second, Peter slipped, and the broken rung was driven straight through his chest. 


Their baby, who would have been christened with the name Catharina in honor of Margaretha’s mother, came into the world eight days later. The tiny babe died in her mother’s arms within minutes, having struggled so hard to breathe that Margaretha would have smothered her as a mercy if the midwife hadn’t been present to judge her. Margaretha, already completely numb from Peter’s death, scrawled ‘Baby Girl 5 NOV 1724 — 5 NOV 1724’ in the Bible three hours later. 


Onward, in duty to her family and the God who had forgotten her, though she still paid her respects to him each Sunday, if for whose benefit she wasn’t certain. And at this moment, duty as well to the kind and strange neighbor she had impulsively promised a handsome meal in just four short hours. 

May 08, 2021 03:33

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2 comments

Richard Stillman
02:42 May 11, 2021

Hope you expand on this! Can't wait to see where it goes.

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18:35 May 12, 2021

Just wanted to leave some background about this story: I'm a professional genealogist, so I spend a lot of time trying to get into the heads of people from the past. Some of these people left barely a smudge on the historical record, and sometimes the same can be said for whole classes of people. My direct matrilineal immigrant ancestor (my mother's mother's mother's mother's mother, who came to America from Germany) belonged to one such class of people, and my first story submission here was loosely based on what I imagine her life might ha...

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