“After the final no there comes a yes,
and on that yes the future world depends.”
The response to Louisa Pratt’s request arrived in the morning post addressed to Sophia. It offered Sophia a position described as ‘all general help in the running of Starks Boarding House located in New Riverton New Jersey.’ The letter had further outlined the already made travel arrangements, and was signed, ‘Safe journey in God’s protection, Mrs Elizabeth Stark, Proprietress.’
“Why did she write to you?” Louisa asked as Sophia finished telling her most of letter’s contents, then returning it carefully to the envelope.
“You will have to ask Mrs Stark.” Sophia replied, stepping back and smiling at her mother with affection. Sophia paused, allowing her mind’s eye to embrace her mother’s smooth porcelain skin, a hint of rouge on high cheekbones. Shining hair brown with gold running through it, captured in careful coils around her head, with a dozen curls framing her face. Her mother was laughing and her blue eyes were laughing too. She was wearing “the oyster frock,” her father called it. A spring marsh of color, with seed pearls, hundreds of them, sewn into the bodice and long-fitting sleeves, her mothers slight waist defining the point where the smooth silky folds of green fell to the floor and swayed in her walking as gently as young spartina would move in a light breeze. And always, the scent of lemons. A fragrance her father brought from Italy created just for her mother.
“Don’t you sass me, Sophie. What did she say about money? Give me that letter.” Louisa lunged at her, grasping.
Sophia sidestepped to the back kitchen door, pocketed the letter, and turning looked her mother over carefully.
At her mother’s dull, furrowed, corrupted face framed in oily strands of grayed stale hair. At the dismal color drained rag she wore, patched in the center to expand the waist. The now sleeveless top with patches sprouting hundreds of frayed empty threads where once pearls had been securely sewn. The barely attached skirt now used as a dishtowel, a handkerchief, an anchor for small hands to cling, and to cover the belly which held yet another child on the way.
The mother standing before her. The mother of After. After the Earthquake in far away San Francisco claimed her father and her grandparents’ lives. After his business partner looted Connor & Reed. After Marcus Briggs moved into their home, then moved out to Delaney Street. After her one true sister Frances died. After all these squalling bastard babies arrived. Sophia had watched her mother riding this fearful After downward, every detail of it being recorded in her mother’s tragic face. A face Sophia now hoped to never see again.
Sophia stepped out the back door, surveying the woodpile. The oak, maple, and walnut wood were all gone to the winters stove ash. What remained were the great curves and crotches of buttonwood. Hard, twisted grained, and contrary as the tree itself. A Nor’easter had pushed that tree until it’s trunk groaned , splintered, and spiraled down onto the rotting sheds behind the house. Ax scarred billets she had tried and failed to split. Sophia looked at the stone block creamery, with walls and door so thick that not even God saw or heard what happened inside. She fought the tremor and turned away. The laundry needed taking in. One of the little bastards had run his muddy hands along the sheets she had spent most of yesterday getting out the stink of his pee. She eyed the remaining garden which was waiting to be turned, and the section of peas which needed hoeing, the onions thinning. There were broken crates, sticks, and muddy boards, the debris of the boys’ war play. Among it was what remained of her and Frances tricycles, wheels gone from one, the other bent and rusted. Brought over from their home to be ruined here on Delaney Street.
She pulled the letter from her pocket, reading it again.
Out now onto Delaney Street with it’s line of hard life shanties where the men too old for the war lived, where the soldiers’ wives and children were hungry, where the leftovers- those men and women who had no one and no place would rent rooms when they could. Sophia running quick through the muddy rutted street towards home.
She reached familiar Oak Hill within minutes, barely out of breath. Interlined with clam and scallop shell, tree-lined and sedate. It was the best part of town, the high ground, where the floodwater could never reach. The homes were surrounded with ornate ironwork, formal gardens, and porches filled with wicker and ferns. Houses which spoke of the comfort and success of the families who lived there. Houses where servants cared for and tutors taught the children. Gardeners cared for the grounds, cooks made the meals, and craftsmen came and went as required. Lives of order, safety, contentment and even happiness lived in those houses. Houses who had husbands and fathers, grandparents and friends. Sophia knew well of that life, knew the interiors and details of most of the people in those beautiful homes. She had been their neighbor and welcomed guest, a playmate of the children, and she had, briefly been the focus of their concern, pity, and charity. She became the object of some suspicion, though no accusation had ever been made out loud. They opened their door with caution to her now, let her read to their old ones, hired her to serve for their parties, or mend their fancy clothes. Always under the watchful eyes of their trusted house servants.
Sophia rested a few minutes, then began the run east towards the wharves, where the proof of Mrs Starks words would be. According to her new employer Noah Pratt could have arrived yesterday on the schooner Miss Wren, to take on a cargo bound for New Riverton, and one passenger, Noah Pratt’s niece, Sophia Connor.
She came to what her old neighborhood friends called the Ledge, where the street drop suddenly downward, and the view opened to show the town below. Running close along the bank of the river on one side, and across the water, fields and marsh stretching back to where a deep woods joined the sky. On a clear day, your eyes could follow the river all the way down and just know you were seeing Delaware Bay, the first door to the world her father called it. Sophia focused her attention to the Wharves. ‘The Miss Wren has two masts’ , and a fancy fish carving on her bow” the letter had said. There she was, along with horses, wagons, crates, dollies and the crane swinging something long and large out over the heads of the men. Hovering over the deck of the boat, not touching the masts. She could hear the workers muffled shouting, their calling out to one another. Were they calling out to her? Which one of them was her Uncle, for surely he was there. Sophia watched it all as a miniature play from her place at the oak. This is where, when five and six, she stood watch to see her father return. Even when he had been late, she had trusted he was coming. It had been over ten years now since he had not come home. Five years since she had stopped coming here with her hope that his death was just one of a thousand lies. Now it is where she kept the things she stole from the adults and children who no longer accepted her. She watched the two masts below, fingering the letter in her pocket. Today was Saturday. Monday morning she was sailing away on that twin masted schooner below.
Sophia’s body began to tremble. She could not breathe. She was staggering against her beloved oak tree, her vision blurring, her chest seizing and painful. Feet caught up in her petticoats, she fell to the ground. Every hair on her body raising, her skin stinging, the smell of sulfur gagging her already constricted throat. She saw a flash of blue light, then for five long seconds her body convulsed; flailing, writhing, twisting about. Then stillness, then blackness, then deep rolling thunder roaring from her mouth as the sorrows broke loose from her heart to the sounds of her sobbing, her shrieks, and her rage. Her fear and defeat flowed out of her with the haunt.
From the stern of Miss Wren, Noah Pratt paused, his hands and concentration interrupted off lashing the metal conveyor line secure. Unsettled, he turned round to see who called him, then glanced up Big Oak Hill. He remembered he needed to fetch Louisa’s girl, before they left for New Riverton. He would need to inquire where Delaney Street was.
Sophia woke covered in her own vomit. She had soiled herself, and looked about quickly, relieved that no one was near. She was beneath Big Oak. She propped herself up against it’s trunk, letting the exposed roots caress her while she rested. She was in need of a bath, clean clothes, and hot tea.
She decided to go to the Wainwrights. Their cook, Miss Jane, had once been her family’s cook. Sophia stood, steadied herself and choosing to not think about her current foulness, began to walk quickly, head down, towards the Allen Estate at the very end of the street. A carriage hurried, then the rattle of a delivery truck braking. She passed two gardeners and a well dressed young man. Then a girl on a bicycle and the mail carrier returning from the day’s delivery. They called their greetings. Sophia held aloft one arm in a wave of response and kept walking, not once raising her head until she was behind the Allen property, up the back drive, through the kitchen gardens, and standing at the rear shed door that was attached to the main house. Tears came to Sophia’s eyes, as her knock was answered by the cook herself, who had one glimpse and whiff of Sophia, then quickly stepped outside closing the door behind her.
“What in the name of Jesus happened to you gal? You ailin? ”
“No Mame. I am not sick, nor injured. I need a bath, clean clothes,
and some hot tea. Will you please help me?”
“Well, I surely ain’t sendin you away like that. You git back to my cottage, to outback it, and git those clothes off and start gettin some water on you. I’ll be there direct.”
Which is exactly what Sophia did. The pump primed easily from the pitcher full and readied at it’s base. Though the water was ice cold and the slate where she stood in bare feet colder, it felt wonderful to be shed of those clothes and shoes, and to be cleaning every sort of nastiness but blood off of her naked body. With clean hands she reached into the pocket of her fouled skirt, retrieved and set aside the envelope with her letter, her pencil, and sharpener, then turned her back on the foulness of those clothes.
Sophia returned to the cast iron pump handle working it furiously until the water flowed again, then kneeling she let the water cascade over her head for a full minute or so. This was how the cook found Sophia.
“Oh dear Jesus, Mary, and Elizabeth.” Cook called out, but not too loud lest that nosey Jackson were pruning or raking nearby. She surveyed
Sophia’s naked body, pale skin barely holding in sharp bones. A scrawny bit of a full woman now.
“ Jesus, Mary, and Elizabeth,” Miss Janie prayed. “I thank you for this child, and for the trust you have in bringin her to me safe. I’m promisin to help you git her clean and fed Lord. I got soap and soup, Lord. Bless this child, Lord. Keep her clean. I say Amen.”
“Thank you.” Sophia said quietly.
Cook gave another “Amen.” She laid out onto the arbor seat the contents of a bucket she had brought. There was a jar of saved soap pieces in glycerin, a cake of yellow naphtha, a comb, rags, a jar of grape seed oil, a bottle of vanilla, and one fresh lemon. She had also brought a stack of clean towels and a shovel.
Using the shovel, she scooped up the soiled clothing and shoes, walked them away to the barrel where the trash was burned. Covering it all with house trash she had brought out just for this, she lit several matches to the paper, spoke again with Jesus, then turned her back on it and
returned to the girl.
“Now let’s get you clean missy. Stand up straight.”
Cook pumped buckets of water, pouring them over, tossing them against, or slowly trickling them down Sophia’s body. In between the frigid dousing she scrubbed every inch of Sophia twice with the yellow soap, tossing away and picking up a new rag with each round of suds. She used the soap chips and glycerin to lather her hair, having her kneel down onto the cold slate twice as she rinsed the tangled mass of curls and began again.
Next, she put the vanilla into the grape seed oil, squeezed juice from the lemon in, shook the jar hard, and lathering up her own hands with the mix, ran her fingers through Sophia’s hair until it hung smooth around her shoulders.
“You stand right here,” Cook instructed Sophia, then returned to her cottage. She came with a steaming corn pot of warmed water that she used to slowly rinse Sophia’s hair one more time, the feel of the warmth coming through Sophia’s head and into her body. Cook picked up a towel and went to work on Sophia again.
“Augh, Miss Janie! You’re hurting me,” Sophia cried out, grasping her breasts protectively. The cook wrapped a dry towel around Sophia, and pulled her forward into the cottage.
The interior of the cottage was warm and close. Cook had a low fire in the stove despite the spring weather, and the smell of beef soup, yeasty breads, soaking laundry, and starch was thick in the air. Cook pointed her towards a curtain.
“I don got you a set of clothin from the house. Miss Nancy’s passed to Jesus, her clothes packed to the attic. She won mind. Git them on. Corset too, missy.”
There was a full set of undergarments. Sophia asked for help to put the corset on, as she wanted no fuss with Miss Janie today. The skirt was dark brown ankle length with a wide black linen waistband. It matched a long sleeved tailored linen shirt of horizontal brown striping. The outfit fit well, Sophia did not even mind the faint smell of camphor and lavender from storage. There was a felt hat of brown and pink feathers, and a pair of leather lace up the front boots that covered her calves, and were perhaps a size too big, but they thrilled Sophia, who hoped she could keep them.
She stepped out from behind the curtain, did a twirl for Miss Janie, then walked quickly to the table to retrieve her letter, pencil, and sharpener, then sat down with a sigh of relief.
“Some body hurt you Sophia?” Cook sat the bowl of soup in front of Sophia, sat herself down and looked hard into the girl’s eyes.
“No mame, no one has hurt me. I am not sure what occurred, but I feel like myself now, and these clothes are so pretty. Like mamma used to wear. May I keep them?” Sophia turned her attention to the soup, careful to say an out loud hands folded grace before touching the spoon.
“Don’t lie to me Sophia. That no good Marcus Briggs hurt you?”
“No body hurt me today. May I keep the clothes? I got something important to tell you.”
“They yourn Sophia. When you don we will fix yer hair. Git that hat off the table.”
While Cook combed and braided Sophia’s hair, Sophia read her the entire letter, asking the cooks thoughts on what to take, what her Uncle Noah was like, and how thankful her father would be she had employment, and could she keep the boots?
“Yer Daddy might be thankin God if yous war takin those boots to som fancy schoolin.” Cook replied.
“Will you help me get ready?”
“You go home Sophia, help yer momma tonight, git what yous want from there, tell her you leavin in the mornin. Say you goodbyes wit love, Sophie.
Give each of them young ones prayer and strength. You do this leavin right, Sophie. You listnin to me You do this leavin right?”
“ Yes Miss Jane. I heard every word.”
“I have some things from Before to take along with you. More soup child?”
Miss Jane stood quiet watching her little Sophie walk down the street, carrying a full and beautiful red, gold, and blue tapestry bag that had once belonged to her father. Her head was up, her stride strong and determined. Sophia walked past her old home without a pause, past the turn that would take her to Delaney Street. She stopped at the Big Oak at the end of the street, then vanished from Miss Jane’s life, down the hill to the Miss Wren.
“ I ain’t foolin round wit you Jesus. Git yerself down to that boat an stay wit her cause I am close to bein done.” Miss Janie turned around twice, and paused at the trash-bin to insure what remained of Miss Sophia Connor had burnt to ash, then returned to the main house to make sure the Mister had his whiskey and slippers at four.