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By C. H. Petersen
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2013 C. H. Petersen
All rights reserved.
Simon walked through her parents' kitchen and the door that led to the enclosed walkway to the barn. Her mother stood beside the stove, her hands under her apron, folded over her flaccid stomach. She avoided Simon's eyes, and Simon did not look at her. Both knew what was to come.
The barn was used only as a storage place for trunks and tools and as a home for Tom, the huge scarred tiger cat who kept the field mice down. The walkway still smelled of barn—an acrid smell of dusty silage and long-forgotten animals.
Simon walked to the wall with the wooden pegs. Outdoor work coats and sweaters hung from them limply, tossed carelessly up after a walk to the post office or an afternoon in the garden. Simon moved her mother's gray sweater with the holes in the elbows down to a farther peg. Ruth's old ski jacket with the broken zipper, Simon almost flung into a far corner, thought better of it, and moved it down beside her mother's. Laura didn't have a work coat. Simon smiled to herself. Laura didn't work. Her own stained green cloth coat, now too short in the arms, moved over. Her father's grass-stained plaid parka, heavy to lift, again moved down. There were now two pegs directly in front of Simon, empty now.
Father had gauged the time well. She heard his heavy footsteps in the kitchen, his heavy voice, and Mother's lighter one. Father's again, sharper. Silence. He came into the walkway carrying the thick black leather razor strop.
It was hot and close in the walkway. Simon's thick dark hair clung to her neck and curled against her forehead. She looked up at her father into intense blue eyes, the color of her own. She tried to meet his stare calmly, but the eyes, his stare, overpowered her. There was so much in her head she was afraid would show through her eyes. She dropped her gaze and stood before him, head bowed. He took this for contriteness. Satisfied, he spoke as he did in the courtroom, each word separate and slightly elongated. It struck fear in the courtroom. It did not strike fear in Simon, but she kept her head bowed.
"Are you ready, Simon?" he asked.
"You know I must do this. You cannot be allowed to disobey me."
"I know, Father."
"I have burned the book." The word burned seemed to sizzle and smoke as he pronounced it.
"Then turn around, Simon."
Simon turned back to the empty pegs and grasped one with either hand. She braced her feet and drew in her breath. She sensed more than heard the leather strap as it cut through the air and landed with a sick crack across her buttocks. Simon did not cry out. She let the pent-up air out in a shuddering sigh and drew in another breath. Ruth always hollered after the first crack, and Father would stop. Laura cried before, during and after one halfhearted swipe, but Simon did not cry out. She knew her father would give her no more than five strokes. She could stand five. Two. A hard breath escaped. Three. I will read what I like, she told herself. Four. Her legs felt numb now. Five. Damn you, Judge Harkins, she cursed in her head. Father stopped. The blue eyes had grown harder. With a voice tight with fury and frustration, he ordered, "Go to your room." Stiff legged, trying hard not to limp, and dry eyed, Simon walked past her father, back into the house, and up the stairs, painfully, to the room she shared with Laura.
Laura sat on the big lumpy bed waiting for her. She had a corner of the patchwork quilt that was the spread, crumpled into her hand nervously.
"Simon, are you all right?"
"Yes, Goose, throw me a pillow."
Laura fluffed one of the bed pillows and handed it to her. Simon lowered herself down gently and took a place beside Laura on the bed.
"Why did you read that awful book, Simon?" Laura's voice was teary as she reached over to take her sister's hand.
"Because I wanted to."
"But you knew Father would beat you when he caught you."
"I didn't intend to get caught."
"Father always catches us, Simon." A tear rolled down Laura's cheek.
"Oh, silly Goose, don't cry for me." Simon reached over and rubbed the tear away. "Father doesn't always catch us. You know that. Remember the time we had measles, and I couldn't stay cooped up in this room with the shades down and the lights all off?"
Laura nodded. "And you went out the secret way and ate most of Mrs. Wentzel's strawberries before you came back in."
Simon laughed. "I even brought some back for you."
"Yes, and when you threw up all night, they thought you were having complications."
"But you didn't tell, Laura. I was proud of you."
"We swore an oath, remember?"
"Yes, I remember." Simon intoned the words in a deep voice, wrinkling her forehead and tucking her chin under.
Sisters two by Harkins' blood
Twined in mind and heart.
Secret oaths forever more
From our lips ne'er part,
Lest God strike us senseless
For violated trust.
We will ne'er bespeak them,
E'en we turn to dust.
Simon laughed again. Laura laughed, but the laugh took her breath and changed it to a deep, strangled asthmatic cough. Simon moved closer quickly, painfully at the sudden move she had made, and placed her arm around her sister's heaving shoulders.
"Quiet. Shhhh. It's all right, Laura. Easy, breathe easy."
The spasm passed. Simon pressed her lips to her sister's throbbing temple. Oh, Goose, she thought, what will become of you? She had nicknamed Laura Goose when they were both little girls. Laura was older than Simon by two years, but she seemed light-years younger and was physically so frail. Her skin was more than pale—a transparent white—and her auburn hair was as soft as down. She had the Harkins' blue yes, but they were pale blue, not the deep blue of Simon's or the flint blue of Father's. And she was always frightened. Silly Goose. But she was dearer to Simon than anyone on earth. Anyone. Anyone except Nick. But Nick was different. Laura was as fragile as rare crystal. Nick was as tough as granite.
Laura was breathing normally again. "Where did you get the copy of the book, Simon?"
"From Professor Blake's daughter, Suzanne. He doesn't care what she reads. Father calls him a heathen, but Suzanne calls him a liberal. I just enjoy his library. I'll have to think of some way to pay him back for the book. Father burned it. Father's forbidden me to go there ever again."
"Oh, Simon, I hate it when Father beats you, and you let him. Why don't you yell, like Ruth?"
"Never!" Simon's blue eyes took on a glint of the flint-blue color. "I will never let him win. He may own everyone else's soul in this town, but he will not own mine. Besides, Ruth is a toad."
"Simon, don't talk that way about your own sister," Laura admonished.
"She is. She's ugly and squat and slimy."
"Simon, God forgive you!"
Simon, whose arm was still around Laura's shoulder, could feel her trembling. "Goose," Simon snapped and stood up. She tried a few steps. The numbness had worn off. The pain was still there. "God forgive her for being a toad. Listen, Laura, I'm going out the secret way tonight."
"Oh, Simon, no!" Laura clutched at her. "Please, no." She started to breathe faster, and a trickle of a cough started.
"Stop it, Laura. I'm going."
"I'll cry. I know I will! I'll be so frightened for you, and then I'll start to cough, and Ruth will come in and find you gone, and she'll tell Father again!"
"Then don't cry," Simon ordered, "unless you want me to get caught."
"You are so cruel sometimes, Simon," Laura whispered.
Simon pulled her sister up from the bed and to her in a quick hug. "I'm sorry, Laura. Honestly, I am. I didn't mean that. I know you'd die before you'd let them catch me. I have to go. Nick said I had to. He said he had something important to tell me. You know there's no other way. Father thinks he's trash. Father thinks any boy who's interested in me is trash except Edwin Marsh."
"I know," Laura agreed. The teary voice returned. "Simon, what am I going to do when you and Nick decide to get married, and I'm left here alone with Mother and Father and that—that toad!" Laura exploded.
Simon laughed and hugged her again. "We'll just have to find a gentleman for you, dear." Simon looked down at her sister and thought, A gentle gentleman.
Ruth walked in and announced curtly, "Mother needs help with supper."
Laura and Simon looked at each other and grinned. Arm in arm, they slowly descended the stairs amid gales of laughter.CHAPTER 2
Ruth was already at the sink peeling potatoes when Laura and Simon walked into the kitchen. Ruth turned her unsmiling face to them. "I don't know what's so funny, Simon Harkins. If I'd just got a beating, I wouldn't be laughing."
"You wouldn't be laughing anyway, Ruth," Simon sighed.
"You are a wicked girl, Simon," Ruth leveled at her. "And you will surely burn in hell."
"You are probably right, Ruth. And the worst part is that you will be right there beside me." Simon heard Laura's sharp intake of breath, but she continued. "There must be something in the Good Book about it being sinful to want to see people get in trouble and actually helping the job get done."
Ruth's face turned very red, the chronic acne sores making her, indeed, look scaly and puffed like a giant wrong-colored toad. "I feel it is my duty to tell the Judge when he's being disobeyed by a willful child." Ruth seldom called her father by any name other than the Judge. She always made it sound as if the Judge and God were one and the same. Simon knew that Ruth felt the only way the Judge would even acknowledge the presence of his homely oldest daughter was for her to be message bearer, spy, and informant. She hated Ruth not for what she did but for her need to do it.
I don't care how ugly or miserable I become, Simon thought to herself. I will never grovel for a pat on the head. "Your duty to see that your sister gets the strap?"
"If that is what my sister deserves."
"Your sister deserves a more understanding older sister."
"Your father deserves a more obedient daughter."
"Enough!" The girls' mother, who had been stirring up and cutting out biscuits at the counter, turned toward her three daughters. "Enough," she repeated more quietly. Ruth resembled her mother in stature. Her mother was a round little woman, short and broad through the hips. Her hair was light and wispy, and the heat of the kitchen had wilted the neat bun of hair she fastened at the nape of her neck each morning. The first forceful word had stopped Simon short. Her mother seldom raised her voice. Almost never spoke unless spoken to; was not dour as Ruth was but was not given to laughter. Since she had grown beyond childhood, Simon had hardly thought about her mother. She helped her cook, clean, iron, sew, garden, and wait for her father, much the same way as Ruth did, but without the most perfunctory conversation or communion. The Judge was the force to be reckoned with in the house, not her mother. When Simon was a child, her mother had been then much as she was now, someone who taught her what to do and then expected her to do it; but then, unlike now, there were smiles and an occasional word of encouragement. And at night, in the dark, seated beside the big lumpy bed when childhood illnesses had come and were leaving, there was the soft voice of Mother, singing. The old Spanish-American war songs that had been her grandmother's songs had mingled with the songs from the War to End All Wars and had lulled Simon to healing sleep. She hadn't heard her mother sing in years. She didn't know what had changed, only that somewhere in time, something had silenced the sweet voice of her mother.
Her mother looked directly at Simon. "Simon, you and Ruth will never agree on the truth of what is right. It does no good to hurt each other more than you both have already been hurt." And for a third time, as if to finalize what she had just voiced, she said, "Enough."CHAPTER 3
Simon had discovered the secret way when she was about ten. One night after being sent upstairs to her room, she lay staring up at the ceiling and, for the first time, really noticed that there was a square cut with a wooden cover almost directly over the head of the bed. Logic told her it led to the attic. With Laura's help, she balanced herself on the high round metal headboard of the bed, gave the wooden cover a shove, and could see a way into the attic. She was too short to pull herself up, but she could reach the edge of the wooden cut. She readjusted the wooden cover.
The next day, she gained entrance to the attic by the pull-down stairs in the hall entryway, rigged up a piece of old clothesline to a beam, and trailed it to the edge of the wooden cover. That night, she once again shoved the cover aside, felt for the rope, and pulled herself up into the attic. With a flashlight she had taken from the toolshed in the barn, she explored the possibilities. Laura kept whispering from the room below to hurry and to be careful. Laura was too weak and too frightened to pull herself up with the rope. Simon finally crossed over, quietly, to the large circular porthole window that overlooked the front of the home. Very close to the window, a giant oak spread its many branches in what seemed to Simon obvious invitation. She tried the window latch and finally wiggled it loose. With a gentle shove, the window swung out on its hinges. It was a large round window, large enough for Simon to slip through and sit on its ledge. With little effort, she dropped on an outstretched limb of the oak. Gleefully, she turned around, reached for the window, tiptoed to the hole above the bedroom, dropped down unto the bed frame, pulled the attic cover in place, and hugged Laura to her in delight. A way out! She had found a way out of the house!
She used it very seldom as a child. The time she had the measles, a Halloween when she had been forbidden to go out, she determined to try the supreme test of boldness. Wrapped in an old sheet that had eyeholes cut out, which she had carried with her through the porthole, she knocked at her own front door and took a stick of candy from the Judge himself. Laura nearly died when Simon brought the candy stick back to prove her disobedience.
As Simon had grown older, and taller, the rope was no longer necessary. She could pull herself up into the attic without any help. And as she grew older, the need to use the secret way became more and more necessary as the Judge became stricter and more adamant about her choice of friends, especially the boys she befriended.
Nick, of course, was the best, and therefore, in the Judge's eyes, the worst. She often escaped to him through the attic and the oak. It was only necessary to be very quiet and very cautious and to wait until the Judge and Mother had gone upstairs to bed since their room was at the back of the house. Laura was the only one who knew her secret, and Laura wouldn't tell.
The night was dark. There was no moon, and it was cold, even for March. Simon loved the New England spring. She had been born in April, and the freshness of March, the melting snow, and new buds on the winter stark branches made life quicken in her. She smiled more, felt more open, and realized the earth around her. But spring was late this year. She waited behind the big maple in back of the elementary school. It was their meeting place. She hugged herself to keep warm as involuntary shivers ran through her with every gust of wind.
She heard his whistle. It was their signal. "I'm here," she whispered.
"God, you're cold," he said as he hugged her to him.
She loved the feel of him. Loved his smile, his good humor, his carelessness. He bent down and kissed her forehead. "Come on," he said. "Let's walk. I have something to tell you."
There was a grove of trees in back of the schoolyard and beyond that an old, abandoned sugarhouse. "Did you have any trouble getting away?" he asked.
"No, I came out the same way I always do."
"One day, he'll catch you."
"It doesn't matter. I'm not going to be here forever. What did you need to talk to me about that couldn't wait until tomorrow?"
"I'm going away."
Excerpted from Gathering Honey by C. H. Petersen. Copyright © 2013 C. H. Petersen. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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