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The Prayer Chest
A Tale about the Power of Faith, Community, and Love
By August Gold, Joel Fotinos
New World LibraryCopyright © 2007 August Gold and Joel Fotinos
All rights reserved.
Easter Day, 1883
It was a moment filled with hope, the moment Daniel was born.
"Not one Hutchinson man has made it to middle age," Joseph whispered into the ear of his sleeping newborn son, "... yet."
Many Hutchinsons married, some started families, all worked the farm, but none made it farther than a few years past their twenty-first birthday.
Everyone in the small Long Island town whispered under their breath that it was God's will. Some shuddered, saying it was a curse or the evil eye. Others insisted it was simply plain, old bad luck.
No explanation made sense because the Hutchinsons were the best kind of people you'd ever want to meet. There was nothing they would not do for you, and everyone in town had a story to tell about a good deed done for them by a Hutchinson. But for all their good deeds, in the end, the Hutchinsons could not keep their boys out of harm's way.
On the day Daniel was born, all his ancestors' unfulfilled dreams shifted onto him. The accumulated hopes of generations were laid upon his innocent shoulders before he had taken the first drink of his mother's milk. Maybe with him the spell would be broken, and the Hutchinson men would live into old age. Joseph Hutchinson was counting on it.
"You have a lot to live up to, Daniel," he said, rocking his son in his arms, if indeed he was to live at all.
Joseph's father died at twenty-five years of age. It was a straightforward fall off a horse that should have given him nothing more than some scratches and a good story to tell the children at the noon meal.
"There's no reason for the fall to have taken his life," the doctor had said.
But there it was, he was a Hutchinson, and his time had come.
Ten years later, Joseph inherited the farm from his mother, who had worked so hard to keep it afloat by herself that it was probably more the cause of her fatal illness than the "weak heart" the doctor blamed. Plain and simple, she was worn out.
A week after laying his mother to a well-deserved rest, Joseph took over right where she had left off. He quickly learned that he would not be working the farm; the farm would be working him.
"You had better be strong." Joseph addressed the baby he cradled protectively in his arms, his firstborn son whom he had helped his wife, Miriam, birth twelve hours earlier.
Miriam had not recognized the labor pains that grew worse over the course of the morning. She shrugged them off as a bellyache from a bowl of oatmeal too hastily eaten at sunrise. After all, the baby wasn't due for a month.
Moreover, she was preoccupied with her work in the field. Farmwork was exacting; everything was precisely timed in preparation for the harvest. Neither she nor Joseph could afford to take a morning off, as the land hardly provided enough for them to make it through the year.
It was for this reason that Miriam's mother had pleaded with her not to marry this boy. Miriam could recite their argument by heart ...
"I don't mean to meddle, sweetheart, but if you ask me —"
"But I haven't asked you, Momma," Miriam sighed.
"Honey, Joseph's prospects are dim," she lowered her voice lest she be overheard, "and he's cursed. All the Hutchinson men are. Everyone knows it."
"I don't care about everyone." Miriam was convinced that her love was strong enough to save him from the Hutchinson fate. "Nothing matters but that I love him."
"I'm sure you do. Joseph is a handsome young man, but marriage is for life." She knew that death was only a concept to her daughter; Miriam was still a baby when her father died. But she pressed on anyway. "Who will take care of your children should he ..." She searched with care for the next words, "pass unexpectedly?"
"The Bible says that love is stronger than death, Momma. Are you saying that the Bible isn't true?"
"I won't argue the Bible with you —"
"Then maybe you've just forgotten what it is like to be young." Miriam tried every argument she could think of.
"Don't put me in the grave just yet. I am not that old."
"Joseph has dreams, Momma. One day he's going to be more than a farmer — so much more!"
"I'm all for dreams, Daughter, but it is reality that puts food on the table."
Miriam stopped arguing and put her whole heart into begging. "Please say yes, Mother."
All the women in Mother's family had minds of their own, and her daughter was no different. Yet she couldn't help but smile. For all Miriam's timidity, once she set her heart on something, it was already hers. "He seems to be a good man, that Joseph Hutchinson."
"Oh, Momma, thank you," she squealed with relief. "From the day I set eyes on him at the county store I knew that he would ask me to marry him." And she knew, too, that she would say yes.
"It sounds like love ...," Mother said, drifting back to the moment she had laid eyes on the dashing gentleman with the pencil-thin mustache thirty years her senior who had taken her heart. "Love at first sight."
"Exactly," Miriam exclaimed. Love at first sight was exactly what it was with Joseph Hutchinson ...
Miriam was surprised when her water broke in the cornfield, and by the time she reached the house she did not have the strength to make it up the single flight of stairs to her bed. Other than her feather mattress, the Hutchinson farmhouse had little to offer in the way of comfort. The inside, like the outside, was a study in simplicity and efficiency. There was the front room where they sat and the kitchen (with a cellar beneath it) where they ate, with a stone fireplace covering one entire wall. On the second floor there were two bedrooms spacious enough only for sleeping and dressing, and atop that a cramped attic nestled beneath the steeply pitched roof. Miriam lay down on the cushioned bench in the front room and waited for her husband to come and wash up for the noon meal. She could do no more.
She did not have to wait long. Forty minutes later Joseph sauntered into the kitchen, clenching a raggedy bunch of wildflowers in his fist.
"Miriam," he called out, "I have a gift for you." One day he promised himself he'd be able to afford real gifts, not ones stolen from the earth.
Miriam's mother had tried to prepare her for the pain of childbirth, but nonetheless Miriam cried out with the intensity of it. "I'm here."
She did not want to be doubled over in front of Joseph, but the contractions were coming faster and were harder to bear.
Though she was only in the next room, her answer sounded weak and far away. He moved toward her voice, and when he saw her chalky white complexion and her lips drained of color, he ran to her side, dropping the flowers and falling to his knees.
"It's just labor pains, Joseph —" Her words were cut short by another contraction that shot through her body.
"It can't be. It's a full month early," Joseph explained, as if declaring it made it so. He laid his hands on her swollen belly that felt near about to burst. But what if she was right? He shuddered with an animal fear that all men feel at such a time, when they know they are powerless to stop nature from taking its course. "Miriam, I am telling you it is too early."
She couldn't help but laugh — at seventeen, her husband was still a boy. "Early or not, our baby is coming."
"But, Miriam," he said, trying to reason with her, "you don't understand. There is no time to get the midwife. Even if I fly, I won't return with her in time."
He stood up and began to pace the length of the front room. "What shall we do?" he asked, his voice cracking with emotion.
"You will have to do what has to be done, Joseph." She said it just like that, as if birthing a baby was something Joseph had done just the other day.
He looked at her incredulously.
Miriam knew her man; he was capable of rising to the occasion.
Joseph's panic increased, but he knew she was right. "There's something I must do first, and when I come back, I will be your manly midwife." With something to do he no longer felt powerless.
She smiled at his attempt at humor, envisioning Joseph in an apron doing her bidding.
When Miriam first laid eyes on him in the county store, it was she who was wearing the apron, and she doing his bidding. Naturally, she had heard the gossip about the curse, but here was Joseph standing before her just as handsome as he could be. "Can I help you find what you're looking for?" she asked.
"I think I might've already found it," Joseph responded with more boldness than he knew he possessed. "I'm Joseph Hutchinson," he said, offering his hand.
She took his hand in both of her own as if it were a prize she had just been awarded at the fair.
Her gentle touch urged him on. "Would you like to take a walk with me on Sunday afternoon?"
"I'll have to ask permission from my mother."
"Do you think your mother will like someone like me?" he asked with the confidence of a man twice his age. The last time Joseph had been smitten by love he'd lost his senses, but with this girl he seemed to have full dominion over them. "What do you say?"
"I'll have to let you know ..."
His forwardness scared her and thrilled her. "Tomorrow?" she stuttered.
The blush coloring her cheeks encouraged him. "That means I'll have to come back into town tomorrow."
"I suppose it does," Miriam said. "I'm sorry." "No, you're not! You're not the least bit sorry."
Miriam broke into a glorious smile. She liked him. No, she more than liked him.
Her smile expanded until Joseph felt its warmth envelop him. He, who spent his days beneath the dark Hutchinson cloud, found himself unexpectedly standing in the presence of a bright sun. And it was shining directly upon him.
They stood for a moment, face-to-face, silently contemplating each other.
Maybe her light was bright enough to burn away the black Hutchinson fate. "Then, I will see you tomorrow, Miss ..."
"You may call me Miriam."
"Miriam." The soft vowels felt nice against his hard life. "Then I'll see you tomorrow, Miriam. And the day after that, and the day after that!"
"That's too much," she said, responding with words more proper than accurate. "What will people think?"
"What they think won't keep me from coming back day after day'til I'm sure that you won't change your mind about me between now and Sunday."
She sensed that Joseph saw right through to her soul — saw that she would go walking with him on Sunday no matter what her mother said ...
Joseph knelt down beside Miriam and took his wife's hands in his own. He pressed them hard, trying to transfer his strength to her. "I will come back," he said. "Just give me a few minutes." Then he stood up and ran out of the front room.
He hurriedly climbed the first flight of stairs, rushing past the two small bedrooms and hall storage cubby and then the final steps to the attic door. He unlocked the plain unpainted pine door with a key that only he possessed and entered the small space that was his refuge, his stronghold.
He locked the door behind him and walked the few steps to the chair in the center of the dimly lit room. He sat down, closed his eyes, and tried to concentrate. But who could concentrate at a time like this?
Without money to pay for a doctor and without time to call on the midwife, Joseph placed the fullness of his faith in this stuffy little attic that had served as his holy temple since the day it answered his first prayer years ago.
When Joseph was a boy living in a house full of Hutchinsons, he shared his small bedroom with two brothers; he had no place to call his own. No sooner had he set his sights on the cellar than his mother declared in a tone that left little room for discussion, "The cellar's no place for a boy."
It was his older brother, Luke, who suggested the attic. "Ma doesn't go up there at all except to pile up stuff that nobody wants." That very day Joseph claimed it as his own and soon he labeled it his "thinking through" place.
Despite the limited space, this attic housed all things Hutchinson — a collection of broken furniture and crates filled with clothes, toys, nonsense, and whatnots. They were all consecrated artifacts to Joseph; all imbued with the special power that ancient history accords things. It was amidst this history that he found his security in times of need.
One lonely night, on a lark, he had prayed to the power of the attic for love. A few months later he was hired to work on Grace Brown's farm, and he soon fell in love with the beautiful and kind Mrs. Brown. The attic had answered his prayer. After that Joseph unquestioningly trusted in the power of this room.
"Help me to deliver my firstborn child." His current prayer was simple and to the point.
Only two minutes of silence passed before Joseph said, under his breath, "Thank you," and swiftly exited the room, locking the door behind him. Once he was outside the room, his wife's cry quickly brought him back to the reality at hand.
Three hours and twenty-two minutes later, his baby boy with black hair and blue eyes was born. Joseph cut the umbilical cord perfectly and left the two of them alone only after they had fallen sound asleep in each other's arms. He tiptoed out of the house to begin his search for the perfect piece of wood. Working with wood brought him happiness and peace of mind like nothing else. Less so now with the responsibilities of manhood, but when Joseph was younger, there had always been a piece of wood for carving in one of his many pockets.
By the time his son's first cry for food and attention and love reached his ears, Joseph had carved his son a toy he knew would delight him. It was a soldier that moved its arms and legs in unison when you pulled the string at the top of his little helmet. But no matter how hard Joseph laughed at the sight of the silly, dancing soldier he dangled before Daniel, the single crease across his forehead, a trademark of all the Hutchinson males, never lessened.CHAPTER 2
Upon fifteen acres of farmland (that had at one time been thirty-five) sat the Hutchinson farmhouse. Constructed of wood — pine primarily, with oak used for the shingle siding and roof — it was built simply and sturdily. The foundation and the large chimney were made of stone. A long lean-to porch provided dry space to store the firewood and left enough room for a bench and two rocking chairs upon which to pause and catch one's breath between chores. The square attic window, the small diamond-shaped windows (all with shutters), and the large garden enjoyed the light and warmth of the southern exposure.
Joseph and Miriam were on their knees in the garden picking vegetables for the noon meal. Miriam was days away from birthing their second baby. "I didn't marry you, Joseph, to live a life of luxury."
"I know you didn't, but I thought that with time things would get easier."
"That's because you're a dreamer, Husband." Miriam smiled. "And I would not have it any other way."
"A lot of good my dreaming does us."
While the Hutchinson farm had grown in heart over the years since it was settled by his ancestors, it had shrunk in acreage. One after another of the Hutchinson men had died young, leaving the working of the land to their wives and small children. Each generation either borrowed money against the farm or sold off parcels of land to make ends meet.
Miriam ran a fingertip across Joseph's perennially furrowed brow, leaving behind an earthy smudge. She laughed at her artwork. "Haven't you noticed that it's too beautiful a day to be worrying about anything?"
"A wife big with child on her knees in the garden, and me with a curse over my head. How can I not worry?"
"Will you ever believe me when I tell you that love will prevail?"
"You and your faith," he said, reaching toward her for an embrace. But Daniel's cry from the kitchen took precedence.
Miriam instinctively pulled away. "Our son is hungry, Husband."
"So is his father!" Joseph said playfully to Miriam's back as he watched her disappear into the house.
Joseph Hutchinson returned his thoughts to weeds for a moment before jamming his fists into the soil in frustration. "I wasn't born to be a farmer," he growled resentfully. Not a single moment of his life was his own. The crops dictated his life and ordered his days from sunrise to sundown, season to season. The farm, the farm, always it was the farm that came first.
The following morning at breakfast the Hutchinson men ate their morning meal with unusual gusto: Daniel atop Miriam's lap and Joseph sitting beside her. Joseph loved nothing more than her pan-baked flatbread smothered with warm pumpkin-apple butter. So even though a day of backbreaking work in the fields awaited him, at the moment he was exceedingly happy.
"Are you ready for a visitor today, little one?" Miriam asked her son at her bosom. She tried but could not suppress the hint of a smile upon her lips.
Joseph turned to her. "A visitor?" Sabbath was the day for visitors, not midweek.
"Two visitors, actually — the midwife and our new little girl." No one had to tell Miriam that it was a girl she'd carried these past nine months.
Excerpted from The Prayer Chest by August Gold, Joel Fotinos. Copyright © 2007 August Gold and Joel Fotinos. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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