Read an Excerpt
The Shrouding Woman
By Loretta Ellsworth
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2002 Loretta Ellsworth
All rights reserved.
I was eleven years old when she came to live with us. My little sister, Mae, was five. She came from the western part of Minnesota, where only the hearty survived the summer's prairie fires and the winter's bitter cold. She traveled to our small white house on a buckboard, her green bag caked with the dusty road. Her dark hair was tucked under a round hat with a short brim, and a fine netting covered her face. Although she was Papa's sister, I'd never met her before. All I knew about her was from a charcoal drawing of her and Papa when they were children, both with light hair and frowns upon their faces. I remembered that she was called "the Shrouding Woman" because Papa had used those words to describe her. I didn't know what it meant, but I figured it had something to do with dying. I had just lost Mama, and I didn't want to hear anything more about death, so I took Mae and hid under the front porch, peeking out through the slits in the boards between two mulberry bushes.
We heard Papa run outside; the large wooden door creaked, then slammed shut; his heavy boots shuffled on the porch above us. He helped her down from the buckboard. She clutched a Bible in one hand, and her bag was strapped over her arm.
She had the same wide nose and square shoulders as my father, but I couldn't see her eyes under the black netting. She was a tall woman, almost as tall as Papa. She gave Papa a hug and said something about what a fine woman my mama was and how she wished she'd been here to help. Papa just nodded as he carried her green bag up to the house.
"Evie and Mae, get out here," Papa called. "Come meet your aunt Flo." Mae started to move, but I shushed her still.
Mae darted a nervous glance at me. She didn't want to get a whipping, even though Papa was always soft on her.
"Don't know where they wandered off to. I guess they'll be in later." Then we heard Papa take Aunt Flo into the house.
I squeezed a fistful of dirt between my fingers. "Mama would have known we were under the porch," I said to Mae as I looked around at the piles of rocks we'd gathered to protect us against spiders.
We sat for a long time. Mae drew pictures in the dirt with a long stick, her straggly blond hair mingling with the black earth as she bent over and hummed quietly to herself. I sat in the cool darkness, watching the hot winds blow across the plains, whipping the long grass into a graceful bend.
I remembered what Mama had told me shortly before she died, her pale lips struggling with the words as I wiped her forehead. "Love your aunt Flo and make her feel welcome, Evie. She is going to take care of you and Mae for me."
The image of her lingering sickness was still fresh in my mind. Now as I sat under the porch, I thought about Mama and I wondered how I would ever live with a shrouding woman.CHAPTER 2
It was near suppertime when Mae and I went inside. I thought Papa might be angry since we were supposed to start the water boiling and bring the potatoes up from the cellar. We usually ate salt pork and dried beef throughout the winter and early spring unless Papa killed a wild turkey or a rabbit. In early June there wasn't much left in the cellar, and it would be another four weeks before we would get any bounty from our garden. When we walked in the back door, we inhaled a delicious aroma.
"Mmmm, smells like biscuits baking," Mae said as she took a deep breath.
Aunt Flo had on one of Mama's aprons, and she was stirring gravy bubbling on the stove. She stopped to wipe the perspiration off her forehead.
"Hans, please fetch me more firewood."
Papa left, whistling a happy tune with a relaxed smile on his face. He almost walked right past us, then gave me a quick wink and disappeared out the back.
Mae and I just stood there watching this odd woman, who didn't see us standing motionless near the back door. She had a large frame, unlike Mama, who used to tie the strings of the apron around her slim waist in a large bow, and even then the ends hung low. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head, making her wide face seem even more round. Two lopsided ears stuck out from the sides of her head.
I looked down at her large black shoes that were two times the size of Mama's. When she walked from the stove to the table, I noticed that her walk was clumsy and awkward.
Suddenly she turned and saw us. She stared for a long moment, and Mae pressed her back into my skirt.
"You must be Evie and Mae. I'm your aunt Flo. Mae, you've got your father's face. And Evie, you're the image of your dear departed mother." She sounded like Papa, with the same stern inflection in her voice and the thick German accent. Then she bent over and gave us a firm hug, kissing each of us on the cheek.
Her eyes seemed more welcoming than I'd imagined. I'd pictured a woman dressed in black with flaming red hair. Instead, Aunt Flo wore a blue gingham dress with a white starched collar. Her soft wrinkled flesh was warm and held a scent of witch hazel. Her green eyes reminded me of Papa. But I sensed something about her was different, and I kept a firm grip on Mae.
Aunt Flo let out a long sigh. "I wish I'd made it here before your mother died, but we only get mail once a month. I would have left earlier if I'd known she was that sick. I had to take a train to St. Paul, then a stagecoach to Winona and a buckboard from there. I didn't even get to perform her shrouding. Enough of regrets." She shook her head. "I will fix supper, and tomorrow we'll get acquainted and you can show me your farm."
She reached over to take out the dinner plates, but I pushed in front of her. "Mae sets the table," I said as I picked up the plates.
"Oh, yes. Chores are good," Aunt Flo replied. She smiled at Mae, who shyly grinned back.
Papa brought in the firewood, and Aunt Flo fixed potatoes and biscuits and creamy gravy with bits of dried beef mixed in.
"The corn is growing well for early June," Aunt Flo said to Papa as she sat down to eat. "Your crops are having a good year."
Papa nodded. "Last year we raised six hundred bushels of wheat on twenty acres along with the corn. I'm looking to add two hundred bushels to that this year. I hired a man to work for me. I wouldn't have gotten the crops in otherwise, even though Evie was a great help near the end."
The end he spoke of was Mama's illness. Mama wanted Aunt Flo to come and live with us so we could get used to her before her time came, but Papa kept talking like Mama would recover. I fed her quinine tea for three days because her pulse was so weak, though it made her irritable. When Papa finally went to town and spent five dollars on a hat Mama had always admired, I knew her time was close. Two days later Papa spent fourteen dollars on an Atlas coffin.
"To die of consumption after God spared you all from the diphtheria," Aunt Flo said sadly.
Papa nodded. Two years earlier Minnesota had been hit with diphtheria. We felt fortunate because it passed over our house.
Papa and Aunt Flo talked well past bedtime about people I'd never heard of and the "old country" of Germany, where Aunt Flo was born. Finally Mae and I put ourselves to bed with nobody to listen to our prayers.
I didn't sleep that night, thinking about Mama's funeral.
When Mama died, Papa sent Mae and me over to stay with our closest neighbors while two women from church came to help prepare Mama's body for burial. The next day, Mama had on her best dress. She was laid out in a casket that took up almost the whole wall of our parlor and crowded out her rocking chair. She didn't look like herself at all, not the Mama I remembered.
At the funeral, I only looked at her once, then left. I couldn't cry. All I could do was sit in the garden. The neighbors brought over lots of food and hovered over Mae and me, their eyes full of pity.
We buried Mama on a cold, rainy day. Mae skipped around Mama's grave, never understanding that she wasn't coming back, even after Papa tried to explain it to her. Two weeks later Mae cried because Mama still wasn't there to fix her hotcakes for breakfast.
Now Aunt Flo was here and Mama was gone. In our prayers that night I prayed for Mama and Mae prayed for Aunt Flo.
"Don't forget Mama," I scolded her.
"I didn't forget Mama. I just added Aunt Flo. She's going to look after us now."
"I wouldn't get too taken with her," I warned Mae.
"Never you mind. We have Papa, and that's all we need. Just remember that." Then I turned away from her and grabbed all the covers.CHAPTER 3
The Wooden Box
By the next morning, Mae had forgotten what I said and was clearly taken with Aunt Flo. She was two steps behind the plump woman, following her around the kitchen like a lost kitten, showing her where everything was and acting like Aunt Flo was one of the family. She praised Aunt Flo's steamed wheat at breakfast as if it were any better than Mama's.
Later Aunt Flo braided Mae's hair and offered to make her a gingham dress. I worked on my needlepoint and cast them disapproving glances every now and then.
"What about Evie?" Mae asked, pointing to me.
"Would you like me to make you one, too?" Aunt Flo asked.
"No, thank you," I said, my voice firm. "Mama made me a green dress last year and I like it just fine." I glared at Mae as I spoke, but she was unaware of my anger. She was too busy dragging Aunt Flo outside to show her around. Mae took her down to the creek to see the crawdads, then to the garden.
I kept my distance, lingering back but still close enough to hear what they said.
"This used to be Mama's garden, but now it's Evie's," Mae said. "Evie planted it all by herself this year because Mama was sick."
"What a fine garden it is," Aunt Flo remarked somewhat loudly. "Evie must be very proud."
Mae grabbed Aunt Flo's hand. "Come, Aunt Flo. I'll show you where we go blueberrying. Last year we got almost a bushel of berries, and Papa says they should be ripe now."
That was the last straw. I sulked back to the house, hoping Mae would get the bung from the blueberries she ate.
For supper that night Aunt Flo baked a sweet bread that was her grandmother's recipe; the cinnamon aroma filled the air, and soft blueberries popped out of each piece. Papa took a deep breath when he came into the kitchen.
"Reminds me of when we were young," he said with a smile.
I ate a small bite, stuck up my nose, and made a face as I chewed. Mae and Papa finished off the rest and licked their fingers.
"Would you help me unpack?" Aunt Flo asked us after the meal.
"No," I wanted to say, but Mae was already behind her, and she wouldn't have stopped even if I'd yanked on her braid, which is what I felt like doing. How could Mae act so happy? Had she already forgotten the delicious taste of Mama's johnnycake or how Mama nursed her back to health after she ate some wild yellow sweet peas and became sick?
Mae followed Aunt Flo, but I hesitated by the door to the room that used to be mine, wishing Papa hadn't gone out to do chores.
I peeked around the door as Aunt Flo unpacked her green bag. She had hardly any clothing with her, nothing fancy or colorful. Her hair clips looked old and worn. But she placed them on the bed as if they were made from the finest porcelain. She took out a small wooden box and handed it to Mae.
"Mae, would you put this underneath the bed? Be careful with it, though. It's very special."
Mae gently placed the brown box under the bed. It was plain-looking pine with rough edges and an ill-fitting top, which looked to be homemade. I wondered what was in the box. I wondered if it had something to do with death. I wanted to reach out and grab Mae and tell her to stay away from Aunt Flo and the mysterious box.
"What else can I do to help?" Mae asked eagerly.
"You can find a spot for my lucky feather," Aunt Flo said as she handed Mae a long duck feather, with streaks of bright blue and white framed by a black tip.
"Is it really lucky?" Mae asked.
"Of course it is," Aunt Flo replied as she unpacked her clothing and placed it in Mama's bureau.
"I'll put it right here." Mae rested the feather near the front of the bureau after tickling her hands with the soft ends. She stared at the feather for a long moment. "I wish we'd had this when Mama was sick."
Aunt Flo stopped unpacking and wrapped her arms around Mae, her large body covering Mae's tiny frame.
"So do I, mein Kind." She spoke German like Papa did sometimes.
Mae helped Aunt Flo put the rest of her clothes in Mama's bureau, which Papa had moved into my room. I was now forced to share Mae's bed upstairs in the loft.
Aunt Flo noticed me lurking in the hallway. "Come in, Evie," she said. "Another pair of hands would be welcome."
"I can't," I said, flustered that she'd taken notice as I backed away from the door. "I have to help Papa." I turned and ran outside.
Papa was feeding the sheep in the pen next to the barn. We also had several chickens, three hogs, one cow, a draft horse, and two mares, one of which was expecting a foal. Pa had fixed a place in the barn for the occasion.
Behind the barn Crooked Creek twisted its way through our property and wound down into the valley. Even though we were a good fifteen miles away, Pa said if you listened hard enough, you could hear the mighty Mississippi roaring past. At least once a year we packed a picnic and spent the day at the state line of Minnesota, watching steamers make their way down to St. Louis and waving at Wisconsinites far away on the other side.
I walked over to the fence that ran along the pen. Several sheep came near, bleating in their teasing way, and I picked some grass to feed them. A small white lamb ran under its mother's legs, and an empty feeling came upon me.
"Papa," I called. I couldn't go inside the fence because Papa didn't trust the draft horse around us. The chestnut-colored Belgian seemed tame enough, but Papa said it didn't take much for a fifteen-hundred-pound horse to flatten a seventy-pound twig of a girl.
Papa finished filling the trough and came over to the fence.
"What is it, Evie?"
I hesitated, trying to think of how to put it. "I think Mae forgot Mama."
Papa looked down at the ground for a moment, as if he hadn't heard me. Papa always said it was his way of pondering what he was going to say. He scratched at his thinning hair. Then he looked up at me.
"Flo isn't trying to take your mama's place. Mae is just five years old. That's very young to lose a mother. It's natural she would take to Flo that way." Papa's eyes softened. "Evie, don't worry. We'll never forget your mother. You have the same golden brown hair and dimpled chin. You look just like her." He paused again. "Flo gave up a lot to come help us." He looked like he wanted to say more, but instead he returned to his work.
I wanted to stay and watch him feed the sheep. I wanted to ask him about Aunt Flo and the strange box and about her being a shrouding woman. But Papa was through with talk. He was a man of few words, and the words didn't come easily to him. Mama once told me that was the German way. Little talk and lots of hard work. I knew there was nothing left to do but pull the weeds in my garden.
The garden sat behind our house, opposite the barn and next to the prairie. Papa had built a wooden fence to keep the prairie at bay. Tall sunflowers ran along the sides of the garden so animals wouldn't nibble on our carrots. I dug my hoe into the dirt as I remembered Mama's words: "A garden is a bounty for the whole winter. You eat plenty well all year."
So we had a huge garden, with peas and squash, rutabagas, cabbage, beans, turnips, potatoes, sweet corn, and carrots. I worked alongside Mama every day in the garden, and Mae played in the dirt near the edge. Mama taught me to space the peas and how to tell when the carrots were big enough to pick.
Last year on my birthday she gave me a sketchbook.
"It's for the plants," she explained when I gave her a questioning look.
She walked to the garden and bent down low. "Look at this pea plant," she said. "Describe it, draw it, and write down everything you can about it."
So I wrote about the plants in our garden and then I studied the plants of the prairie, making sketches of them as I learned each name. Soon I could identify hundreds of plants, from the tall Indian grass that was home to the wild turkeys to the quaint thimbleweed. I could tell when bugs were eating the plants or drought was browning the edges of the leaves.
"You've learned well, Evie," Mama said after she'd taken ill. "Someday you'll teach Mae like I taught you."
I shook my head in disbelief, but Mama would have none of it.
"I'm a sensible woman," she said in the spring. "I won't see the harvest this year." Mama seemed to know her time was short long before the rest of us.
Now I looked around the garden and choked back tears. The sunflowers were growing tall again just like when Mama was here.
Excerpted from The Shrouding Woman by Loretta Ellsworth. Copyright © 2002 Loretta Ellsworth. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.