A Willful Girl
Stones Mill, Virginia
There were spies everywhere.
Around her feet, the chickens were milling – a mass of feathered brown and white bodies, clucking noisily in anticipation, and Grace tossed feed to them. This everyday occurrence was mundane. And it needed always to appear as such. Anyone could be watching her – and listening, hoping to catch her in a quiet moment.
Observance. Constant observance. No secrets.
It was part of the mountain culture – part of life, like the mighty Shenandoah River, or the coal mines that gave prosperity to the wealthy and employed the poor. A person’s words and actions were not entirely their own. The company that they kept – the way they dressed. All were the business of the community.
From somewhere behind her, there came a sound.
She straightened herself at the noise, instinctively tensing up. There were brothers that could be about – she had three older and three younger than herself. One could never be certain when they were playing a trick. The voice called again, still hushed, but slightly stronger.
“Gracie Ellen, it’s me!”
The wary line of her mouth softened, turning into a smile of relief. Glancing about for any watching eyes – they could be hiding in the thick clusters of trees behind her, or anywhere else – it seemed there was no one. Going through the gate, moving cautiously to avoid being seen, she dashed into the slight protection of the trees, where she greeted her favorite cousin most warmly.
“Ollie,” she said, kissing her cheek. “I’ve been waitin’ long enough for you.”
Ollie hugged her, kissing her in return. “I was helpin’ mama with the preserves. I can’t stay away long.”
Olivia, or Ollie as she was called, was her youngest cousin. There was a four year difference in their ages – Grace being twenty, Ollie being sixteen – but they were more like sisters than cousins. There were times, like now, when they conspired together just as they had as children. Grace tugged at Ollie’s arm.
“So give it, you silly goose! You know I don’t like to wait!”
From under her arm, Ollie produced a square package wrapped in brown paper. Her hazel eyes were shining with curiosity – as brightly as Gracie’s blue ones. Ollie peered over Grace’s shoulder.
“What do you figure it is this time?”
“Got no idea,” said Gracie, pulling at the strings.
“Maybe it’s some of those mint chocolates like they sent before? The ones in the pretty green box? Oh, they were so good!”
“I think the package is too small for that.” She tore away the paper, revealing a plain brown box, and a smile of pleasure came to her lips as she opened it.
Ollie was not as impressed, giving a sigh of disappointment.
“Another book?” she said, frowning.
“Oh, Ollie!” Grace softly scolded her. “You know how much I love these kinds of presents! They’re better than any old box of candy.”
“I’d rather have the chocolates.”
Grace just smiled. There was much they had in common. They were dishwater blonds, the both of them – their hair being red-gold during the summer and dark blond in the winter. Both were skinny - the result more of a hard-scrabble existence rather than the hand of nature. But when it came to schooling and books, Ollie’s interest was minimal at best. Shaking her head, Grace went to a fallen log to sit down, and Ollie came to sit beside her. Taking the book in her hands, Grace ran her fingers over the smooth brown leather of the book and the gold lettering of the title.
“It’s beautiful. Just look at it.”
Books were a treasure that no one else seemed to appreciate. Even Ollie, her dearest friend, often questioned her love for the written word. Especially the one tale she loved above all others. Ollie shrugged as she glanced at the book.
“You’ve read that same story a hundred times. How come he sent you another one?”
Sighing, Grace’s response was a dreamy-sounding one – an air of romance in it. “I can never have enough copies of Jane Eyre.”
Ollie smiled. “You mean you wore out the last copy, so you needed another one.”
“Somethin’ like that,” Grace replied, the corner of her mouth turning up a bit higher. “My brother and sister-in-law sure know me well.”
From the box, Ollie took out an envelope. “Here’s a letter from them. Let’s see what they’re up to in the fancy world of Chicagoland.”
For Grace, only a letter from Jack and Alice could be of more interest than her favorite book. Tearing open the envelope, she was all anticipation as she unfolded the paper and started reading.
Here's a brand new copy of your favorite book. I hope Uncle Nathan and Aunt Em got it into your hands without much trouble. I know they're pretty good about getting my mail to you, but you never can tell.
By the way, Alice says to tell you not to wear this copy out so fast, and she's smiling as she says it. Speaking of my dearest, I'm sorry to say there's nothing to report in the way of baby news. We keep hoping and praying, but it doesn't seem to do much good. Maybe if we stop thinking about it so much, it'll happen. That's the way it usually works, right? But you can't keep a woman from thinking about such things. And I'll be honest. I think about it every day myself. I suppose we'll just have to keep trying.
I really wish you could be here. Alice would be tickled pink to see you. But I know how the old man still feels about me, and you know how I feel about him. Maybe one of these days you'll find a good man and have a home of your own, and then we can figure out a way to visit. Until then, I guess these letters will have to do.
Take care of yourself and write back soon.
Your loving brother,
Reaching up, Grace wiped a tear from her cheek, and she felt Ollie’s arm around her shoulder.
“I know you miss him a lot.”
Grace sniffled. “I do. I really do.”
Jack, the oldest of the Langdon siblings, had been gone from home for nearly seven years. But it seemed like so much longer.
“He was always so good to me. And Alice – she was the only one who really knew me at all.”
“You say that all the time, Gracie. But I know you, don’t I? I’ve known you since we were little girls.”
You hardly know me, she said to herself. Hardly at all.
Ollie was, in truth, her closest companion. And yet, even she was not entirely privy to her inner-most thoughts – wishes and hopes that she dared not express to anyone. Not even her dear cousin.
The quiet was broken by a shout, familiar in its harshness.
"Gracie Ellen! What'd you do, fall asleep out there?”
Rachel Langdon. When one saw her playing her role as a wife and a member of the church, they saw her as she was expected to be. Demure, with her eyes most often cast down. Plain, as her looks indeed were. Her hair, once a striking color of gold, was fading into a more sensible shade of silver, and in the public eye it remained in a perpetual matron’s knot.
As a mother, she was someone else entirely - impatient, quick to anger, and quick to strike a blow.
As Grace and Ollie rose, both of them hurrying to restore the contents to the box, Rachel came around the corner of the coop – drying her hands on a towel as she eyed the two of them. There was an odd sort of fear associated with such a towel or a large rag, for it was often used as a means for scolding. When used to strike someone across the face, it was surprisingly effective.
Looking Grace up and down, Rachel’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“I’ve been calling you, girl. Why didn’t you answer?”
Ollie took a small step forward. “It was my fault, Auntie Rachel. I came to call and we got to talkin’ about the chickens and such.”
It was hard to tell if the tale was believed or not. For a moment she looked between the two, and then she let out a slow breath.
“Y’all say your goodbyes now. Supper’s gotta get made and I can’t do it all by myself.”
Grace nodded. “Yes, mama. I’m just gonna walk Ollie down to the gate”
“Well, make it quick. And then get on back here and do what you should. Your daddy and the boys will be home from the mine pretty soon, and you know he don’t like to wait for supper.”
They waited until she had gone far enough away before they started to walk. Grace kept the box securely tucked under her arm.
“I’m glad she didn’t ask no questions about the box. If she knew about the book, she’d take it from me and I’d never see it again.”
Grace felt the slow linking of Ollie’s arm to hers. She knew that sign well. It often proceeded a gentle correction of some kind, as Ollie was often prone to giving.
“You know Gracie, you really shouldn’t keep things from your mama. It ain’t right.”
She just smiled. “You’re not gonna tattle on me, are you?”
“Course not,” Ollie said with a little laugh. “I’ve always kept your secrets. You know that. It’s just that we’re growin’ up now, and keepin’ secrets is for little girls. Once we get married, we won’t be able to do that no more.”
Grace raised an eyebrow, skeptical. “Why not?”
“A wife can’t keep things from her husband. That’s what the good book says.”
“What if I don’t want a husband?”
Ollie stopped, looking genuinely shocked. “You’re jokin'. Right?”
Grace shrugged in reply. “Maybe not. I’ve been thinkin’ about it a lot. For a long time, really. I don’t see why a woman has to be married at all, if that’s how she feels.”
The look on Ollie’s face was one of shock – almost fear. Her eyes grew wide with it.
“Don’t say something like that, Gracie! The Lord might strike you down where you stand. And if he don’t, then your mama and daddy will wear you to a frazzle.”
Grace was silent for several long moments. She lowered her eyes, a troubled look on her face.
“How can I trust a husband, Ollie? How can I be sure he’ll be good to me? How can I be sure he’ll be good to my children?”
Ollie answered with tenderness. “Trust in the almighty.”
The reply was meant to comfort. But somehow, it left her with an empty feeling. A brief silence passed between them before she spoke again, and they walked on.
“Do you ever dream, Ollie?”
There was a little laugh in response. “Of course I do, silly. But’s what has that got to do with a husband?”
Grace glanced up, seeing the blue and cloudless summer sky above them.
“Sometimes I wish I could fly away like a bird. On my own. Nothin’ to hold me down. The world is such a big place. There has to be more to life than getting married and raising a family.”
“I don’t like this talk, Gracie. It ain’t right.”
“But it’s true, you know. Being married don’t seem to me like something to look forward to. What are the men around here, anyhow? Just a bunch of old farmers and miners without a pot to piss in and a window to throw it out of.”
Ollie’s tone became motherly – harsh, almost.
“That’s ugly talk, Grace Langdon. The meek shall inherit the earth, and these men might be poor as church mice, but they’re good Christian souls. And one of them might be your husband someday.”
For a long moment they stood still, looking at one another. Until Ollie looked down in a sheepish way.
“I’m sorry, cousin. We almost got into a quarrel there, and I don’t want that.”
Grace smiled. “It’s all right. And don’t mind me. I was just talkin’ foolishness, you know?”
The seriousness gone between them, Ollie smiled back. “I sure hope so, cousin.”
After a hug, and words of farewell, Grace watched until Ollie was over the hill and out of site before turning back to the house.
The sting of the towel was nothing new. But it still smarted.
“I told you to be quick!”
Grace rubbed her cheek, keeping her eyes lowered. “I know, Mama. I’m sorry.”
“Knowin’ you and Ollie, you were gossiping and snickering about those danged old books of yours.”
“We were just talkin’ about…”
“It don’t make no difference now. Go on and help Bessie with them apples.”
Turning her head to look, she saw their neighbor sitting there, and greeted her as she was expected to do. Politely, whether the company that had come was welcome or not.
"Hello Mrs. Green." Reaching for one of the apples, taking up a knife, she started to help with the cutting.
Mrs. Green didn't look up, but gave a cool and polite reply. "Hello Miss Gracie."
As she cut into the fruit, Grace glanced up at Elizabeth Green - a childless widow and self-appointed judge of all things moral in the community. Portly, and long in both the face and the tooth, Grace found the sight of her repulsive. It didn’t help that the old hag had a chin covered in whiskers. Seeing the tiny smirk on Elizabeth’s face, Grace swallowed the impulse to curse aloud. Instead she let her inner voice speak. It was always reliable for venting such frustrations.
Old Cow, she thought. I wonder if I could bounce an apple off of her head?
The idea was tempting. But she kept herself from it, knowing the consequences would not be pleasant.
The room was quiet for a moment...until the silence was broken by a metal pan falling heavy on the stove.
“That woman. It's all her fault.”
Grace felt the heat of her mother’s eyes – a familiar glare of displeasure.
“She's the one who made you this way. Turned you into the most willful girl there ever was. Head always in the clouds.” She leaned forward slightly, both hands resting on the edge of the counter. Then her tone suddenly softened, a quiver coming to her voice when she spoke. "Your brother would still be at home if it weren't for her."
Grace watched as her mother's lip trembled...and then Rachel turned away, rushing out to the little storage room just off the kitchen. Mrs. Green followed close on her heels. Alone now at the table, Grace put down her cutting knife, letting out a troubled sigh as she rested her head in her hands.
The store room off the kitchen was a dusky little space, stocked with Mason jars of vegetables and fruits, sacks of flour and corn meal, tins of sugar, and other such things. The room was quiet and dim...and Grace knew that in that room, her mother often wept in silence.
While Mrs. Green tried to be of consolation out there, Grace stood up and went to the cupboard. Behind the glass was a small faded picture, tucked into a corner of the wooden pane. She took the picture out, looking down at it...and she smiled, as she always did when she saw her brother's face.
Good old Jack. The firstborn, and the eldest son. A brave man in many ways. In the war, he had fought courageously in service to his country. At home, he had fought other battles – for himself, and for her.
A hero, she said to herself. A true hero.
Ollie was right about what she had said. Jack was the only man she had ever trusted. And why not? He had never made fun of her, or embarrassed her in front of other people. He had always listened to her when she spoke, and he had been the best playmate – a mischievous fellow who loved to joke and wasn’t afraid to make a fool of himself.
But most of all, he had never hurt her.
As she put the picture back in its place, she sighed - missing him dreadfully. He had been her friend, but also her protector, often enduring their father’s cruelty on her behalf. But in the end, the cycle of violence had driven him away, and he taken Alice with him. Why would they stay here? Alice was the love of his life, and there was nothing for them in Virginia.
The years had hardly dulled the pain of his loss. Not for her, and certainly not for their mother, who still grieved over the departure of her eldest child. But the tears that she often shed were about more than loss.
Under her breath, wary of who might be listening, Grace spoke aloud a phrase that Alice had often used among her students. Grace repeated it in a whisper.
“How tedious is a guilty conscience!”
Their mother was guilty. How often had she walked away from the sight and sounds of a switch or a strap being used? The cries of pain – the pleas for help. To each strike, she had turned a blind eye, and given a deaf ear.
Grace sighed deeply, her brows knitting together as she struggled to control her emotions. She had become a master of it over the years. It was a useful strength to have, especially when the switch came down on her own back. Timing was essential when taking a blow. One had to tense themselves at just the right moment to lessen the pain.
Angry tears welled in her eyes, but she wiped them away.
Mama, she said silently. You've only got yourself to blame.
* * * * *
The day was done. On the front porch, the men and boys were spread out with full bellies - her father and brothers, as well as two of her uncles.
Between the whole bunch – and besides her father - only Raymond was married. At twenty-five, he had finally succumbed to the pressure to find a wife and start a family of his own. And yet, he seemed to prefer spending time with his parents and brothers rather than being with his bride.
Poor Genevieve, she thought. The poor young woman was eight months pregnant with her second child, and humiliated into spending most of her time at home. They only saw her at church, where her appearance was considered acceptable for “polite” society.
Walking away from the house and its satiated occupants, carrying her book under her arm, she relished the chance to be alone - except for her dog, who followed in loyal step behind her. A handsome canine he was, with a dark head and amber eyes, and the rest of him white with black specks. She preferred his quiet company to that of any person. He was certainly a better soul than most.
“Sweet Pilot,” she said to him, crouching down to repeatedly kiss him on the head. He wiggled with joy, his stub tail shaking madly, and he followed along after her as they hurried away.
If there was any contentment to be found in Virginia, it was the beauty of the foothills and the woods. There was great pleasure to be found in the rushing rivers and streams, and standing on the ridge of a nearby mountain, one could almost sense the presence of the Almighty.
But such joy was always fleeting, it seemed. Her mood had not passed into sadness, but rather into something different and not quite describable.
It was the constancy of troubling thoughts – thoughts that never left her mind for long.
Marriage, marriage, she said to herself, sighing in frustration. The subject was inescapable. She had only two choices – finding a husband, or accepting spinsterhood. And Lord above, neither was a pleasant prospect. Here in her small part of the world – or rather, in her own view of it - marriage and spinsterhood were equal sentences of servitude. Being a bride, one was shackled to a husband without the expectation of love and happiness. Even if it followed after the vows, one was not encouraged to express it openly. And as for spinsterhood – well, it did offer freedom from husbandly demands. But in place of such freedom would come constant ridicule for not finding a mate, and a lifetime of scorn for not bearing children.
A flock of birds came into view at that moment. She watched them as they moved across the sky, the setting sun behind them as they made their way to their night roost.
“Oh, that I had wings of a dove!” she said aloud. “For then would I fly away and be free.”
She felt the cold nose of Pilot, who nudged her hand. Pulled from her pondering for another few moments, she smiled at him and scratched behind his ears, moving on.
At last they reached the top of a hill, situated near the edge of a wood. There, between two massive oaks, was a hammock she had long ago fashioned for herself. She knew that way out here, there was little chance she would be disturbed. Falling into the hammock she let out a sigh of ease, and taking up her book, she read to her heart's content until the last of the daylight began to fade.
When the sky grew dark, she clutched her book to her chest, drumming her fingers absently as she looked up at the stars. How enormous the heavens were! And if Alice had spoken the truth, there were other worlds out there – ones that made the earth seem minuscule in comparison.
Dear Alice, she thought. Sweet, feisty, wonderful woman.
Her sister-in-law, who had once been her teacher, had opened her eyes to all manner of things - to so many thoughts and feelings. For some, those very ideas remained incomprehensible. But with each passing day, Grace felt her soul crying out for the expression of every possibility, every idea that her teacher had instilled in her.
Never bend your head. Hold it high, and look the world straight in the face.
The words of Helen Keller were just one of the many quotes of strength she had memorized, and often turned to. But none gave her more strength than the prose written in the book she now held.
The greatest gift Alice had ever bestowed upon her – a present she had received for her ninth birthday. It was the story of a woman who she might have been in another time, in another place. Her alter ego, as Alice called it.
From a thousand readings of her most beloved book, she said aloud the words she knew so well.
...Women are supposed to be very calm generally. But women feel just as men feel. They need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, just as their brothers do. They suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer. It is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom had pronounced necessary for their sex...
The right to live. The right to be free. The right to love.
Love, she thought. What was it like to know the passionate affections that could be shared between two people? It was more than the feelings expressed between Jane and Rochester – the fictitious words written on a page. That couple, etched into the eternity of literature, had stirred feelings and emotions in her that she had never known before. But she was quite aware of the difference between imagination and reality, for she had seen the love shared between her brother and sister-in-law – the reality of it. It was more than two people giving vows and having children. What they shared, she longed for. More than anything in the world.
Love is one soul inhabiting two bodies, she said to herself, quoting Aristotle. Smiling to herself, she felt a sense of great pride in remembering the words, and for knowing who had said them.
Someday, she vowed, she would have love. And she would have it on her own terms.