Sneak Peek

The following story is part of a novel that I am working on set in rural Nebraska in the 1940s. I’m not sure where the story is going yet but it’s been fun letting the characters take over. What do you think? As this is just a sneak peek at a larger piece, I would love to hear (read?) your reactions so far…

 

Marguerite closed her eyes, picturing herself floating on her back as cool waves lapped against her warm skin. In her mind’s eye, she saw a deserted beach in the distance, palm trees gently waving above the white sand. She felt something wet nudging her thigh and looked down to see a school of dolphins spread out in the water around her, their noses joyfully bobbing up and down in the water. She smiled at them, and they squealed back at her before turning to swim and jump through the waves. Marguerite leaned back, imagining the sun turning her fair skin a deep golden brown as she breathed in the smell of her sweat mixing with the salty ocean water. She opened her mouth slightly to sigh, convinced that she had finally found her paradise.

As soon as the thought formed in her mind, she knew it was a mistake. As if on cue, the rocking intensified, the waves around her growing larger and more threatening. The playful dolphins had been replaced by a dark grayness that was speeding across her peaceful scene. She squeezed her eyes more tightly closed, no longer able to picture the cool blue water or white sand reflecting the afternoon sun. Even the palm trees were disappearing into the distance, dissipating into the darkness of her imagination. Only the rocking remained, becoming stronger and stronger. She felt water splashing on her forehead, drops sliding down her temples and into her matted hair. A hot gust of stale air erupted into her face, blotting out all smells of her paradise with the smell of soggy onions and hot beer. In the next instant, she felt a heavy weight on her stomach and chest, wet, sticky, and suffocating.

Marguerite opened her eyes to darkness, but she knew exactly where she was. She allowed a single tear to escape the corner of her eye, mourning the loss of her idyllic beach. The weight on her stomach shifted in the darkness, lifting off her, pulling her sweat-soaked skin with it, then finally separating from her completely as it moved away from her. Able to breathe again, Marguerite inhaled sharply, only to be overpowered by a wave of nausea.

“Gonna start harvesting the north field in the morning,” a voice said in the darkness.

Marguerite reached down and pulled her night dress back down over her hips before swinging her legs off the bed.

“Got my nephew up from Kansas City to help out this year,” the voice continued, now moving about the room. “I’m leaving something extra this time. Treat him well if he comes around.” The voice then moved out of the room, and Marguerite listened as boots hit the stairs. With each footfall, she could breathe a bit more easily.

When she heard the back screen door slam shut, she finally got out of the bed and shuffled to the bathroom, where she washed herself down with the water she had hauled up from the pump that afternoon. She stood in a small tub and scrubbed at her skin with the lye soap her mother had taught her to make, scraping at all the beer-drenched sweat he had left on her. When she had rubbed her skin raw, she poured a pitcher full of water over her head, quickly followed by another. Only then did she feel that he was no longer stuck to her.

She got dressed in a clean nightgown and quietly moved through the darkness back to the bedroom, which still smelled like the old farmer. She lit a lantern on the dresser, then moved to the windows. She opened them wide, wishing for a breeze to wash out the rancid room, but the Nebraska night was still, thick, and humid. She turned to escape the room once again, grabbing the money on the dresser as she passed. In the hallway, she turned and headed to her parents’ bedroom. She never brought the men into her parents’ bedroom. That was where she slept, her sanctuary. It was where she would have slept with Walter, building their own family, had he not died in the war. She said a quick prayer that he was not looking down on her from heaven. What he must think of her now! Then she said another prayer that her parents would never see what their little girl had become in the wake of their deaths.

Reverend Jones would be proud of her, praying so much in one night. She threw in another prayer for those less fortunate than her as she counted out the money—$3 tonight—and placed it in her grandmother’s jewelry box from Germany. She would never become rich, but she could at least pay the bills, and the beer and onions farmer would bring a side of cured beef to her in the fall to help her survive the winter.

Marguerite climbed into her parents’ bed and desperately sought her deserted beach paradise, but even when the sun peeked above the horizon a few hours later, she still had not found it.

***

Marguerite got up when the sun was just starting to light the eastern horizon. She had been awake for hours. She rarely slept anymore, and never for more than an hour at a time. She always told herself to stay in bed until it started getting light out, just in case she fell back asleep again. She never did. Not like I have anything to get up for, anyway.

She grabbed her work clothes from the hook in her closet and moved to the small bathroom, where she used the remaining water to wash the night from her face. She slipped into her work clothes, then grabbed the dirty sheet off the bed she hadn’t slept in and threw it down the stairs. She dunked a rag from the bathroom in the used water, then wrung it out and quickly wiped down every surface in the bedroom, pushing the memory of last night further from her mind as she did.

When she was done, she took the pail of used water from the bathroom and headed downstairs, sloshing water along each step as she walked. At the bottom of the stairs, she dunked the rag once more, then moved back up the stairs, wiping down each step.

When she made it back to the bottom, she pushed the sheet into the pail of water, lugging it across the tiny kitchen and out the back door before returning to the kitchen o wipe down the floor kitchen door handle, and even the screen door. She placed several small wood logs in the stove, lit a fire, then went outside to do her chores, letting the screen door slam behind her, the loud crack shattering the stillness of the morning.

The entire cleaning process had taken her ten minutes. Ten minutes to wipe away every piece of physical evidence. Her memories took much longer to wash away.

She scurried to get the morning chores done, keeping herself and her mind as busy as she could. She had learned long ago that the mornings were the worst, especially the mornings after a visit from Joe Sr. She focused on washing the sheet in a second pail with fresh icy cold water from the pump, scrubbing it against the washing board until her fingers were a glowing red. She wrung the sheet out, hung it out on the line, then lugged the pails of used water to the chicken coop.

The large rooster emerged first, a payment from Joe Sr. He had said it would fertilize her chickens’ eggs for her so she could grow her flock. So far, the rooster had done nothing but kill her most prolific layer. She was looking forward to the day that she would kill and eat it. She would make it a feast, with dill-roasted carrots and potatoes, just like her mother used to make.

Marguerite shook her head. She couldn’t let thoughts of her parents infiltrate her morning work. It would just ruin her entire day.

After the last of her hens moved out of the coop to roam and forage for food, she went inside to gather the few eggs she could find. She then scraped the manure from the floor of the coop, dumping it on the compost pile, and used the pails of water to wash out the entire floor. Finally she went back to the pump, filled up one of the pails, and took it back inside the house to the upstairs bathroom.

The sun had finally risen above the horizon when Marguerite sat down to eat her breakfast of fried eggs, bread, and dandelion root coffee. She noticed a tiny brown spider cowering in the corner of a window. She set her fork down carefully, trying not to startle the spider, which was trying to make itself even smaller in the corner.

“What are you so scared of, little guy?”

She used her butter knife to create a bridge from the window sill to the table, then backed away from the table. She’d give it time to escape on its own. “Everyone deserves a chance to escape,” she mumbled.

She heard a commotion in front of the house and headed out the back door once again. She hated using the front door. Her mother had taught her that a lady should answer the front door with poise, grace, and a welcoming invitation to come in the house. Marguerite didn’t really like having people in her house.

As she edged closer to the side of the house, she leaned forward to see who was in the lane leading up to her property. God help me if it is Joe Sr. back already.

She let out the breath she had been holding when she saw it was Thomas Carter and his mobile store. She rushed out to greet him, nearly giddy with excitement. Thomas was four years older than she was. His father’s family had lived on the other side of town and had farmed 80 acres until after the first Great War. His father had never taken to farming. After returning from the war, a new French bride in tow, his father had quickly sold the farm—the rumor was that he had sold it for two cows, a horse, and a wagon, but Marguerite couldn’t believe that—and built a general store in town, claiming that his wife Rose was “too delicate of a flower” to handle the farming life.

Marguerite’s mother and Rose quickly became friends, as they could share so much of their homeland together. They met every Saturday afternoon in a room above the general store, where they would drink hot spiced tea. When Marguerite was old enough to start school, her mother had started bringing her along for her Saturday teas, and Marguerite would sit and listen to the women speak rapid French the way only native speakers can do, broken up by sparkling laughter and occasional bouts of silence, during which they would sip their rosemary or mint tea from Rose’s fine china.

For Marguerite, the Saturday afternoon teas were a chance to escape her chores at home, cleaning up after the chickens or digging in the garden. Her mother always made her wear a pink lace dress that her grandmother had sent from France, which Marguerite wasn’t really fond of because it was stiff and smelled like moth balls. But she endured the dress and the bumpy ride into town that always left her bottom bruised and tender for church on Sundays because she got to listen to the musical sound of her mother’s voice. Every Saturday she would watch her mother transform from a farm wife into a French socialite, and it made Marguerite hunger for more information about her mother’s homeland and why she left it to marry a German man and become a farmer.

The Saturday teas were also where Marguerite met Thomas for the first time. Thomas helped his father in the store on Saturday afternoons. He would take the shopping list from her mother before escorting them upstairs to the tea room. Every time he would slip Marguerite a piece of hard candy right before he left to go back downstairs to help his father. When he found out that the lemon candies were her favorite, he would slip her two pieces and wink at her. During town celebrations, he always managed to find her and slip a piece of candy to her without her mother seeing. It was a tradition that he had continued until she became engaged to Walter.

Thomas was climbing down off the wagon as Marguerite approached him. He turned to smile at her, and she suddenly berated herself for not brushing her hair or wearing more appropriate clothing for a lady farmer.

“Well hello, Miss Marguerite,” Thomas said, his smile showing a row of perfectly formed pearly teeth.

“Good morning, Thomas,” Marguerite answered, her hands absently smoothing down her father’s old shirt and breeches that she wore while working. “You’re out early today.”

He did a half bow, winking at her. “That I am, fair lady.” He whirled around to grab several sacks off the back of his wagon. “I figured you might be stocking up on the essentials, what with winter in the not too distant future.”

“Oh, Thomas,” Marguerite said, faltering. She knew she wouldn’t have the money to pay for everything he was pulling off the wagon—several sacks likely filled with flour or sugar, two sacks of apples, a bundle of thick wool, and several wrapped packages that she knew contained hunks of smoked meat. “I–I don’t know where I could store all this. No, I can’t take this.”

“Nonsense,” Thomas said as his pulled out several smaller sacks. “I’ll haul it down to the root cellar for you. Don’t worry.” He smiled as he hefted a sack of flour on each shoulder and headed to the root cellar by the back door.

Marguerite followed quickly behind him, wiping at the tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. She knew she couldn’t pay for all this food—food she knew she desperately needed to survive the winter—and pay for the property taxes as well. She opened the root cellar for Thomas, then stood at the top of the stairs, her mind racing as she clutched at some way to pay for what she was sure was almost $10 worth of supplies.

Marie,” Thomas said, interrupting her thoughts with the name her mother had always used with her. “Is everything alright? You look pale as a sheet.”

She nodded quickly. “Oui, I am fine, bien sur.” She smiled at him, but she knew that he wasn’t buying it. “Thomas, would you like to have a cup of tea with me?” she asked suddenly. She needed time to figure out how she was going to pay him.

Thomas smiled. “Mais oui, Marie. I was hoping you would ask.”

Marguerite went back into the kitchen to heat up more water while Thomas finished taking supplies to the root cellar. After putting the water on to boil, she raced upstairs to count the money stored in her grandmother’s music box. She counted it three times, but each time it was the same: If she paid for the supplies, she would miss the property tax payment, and Joe Sr. would be in the county land office the next day to pay the overdue taxes and claim the homestead as his own.

As Marguerite made her way back downstairs, the tears streamed down her face. She would have to tell Thomas to take all that food back. She wasn’t worried about surviving the winter anymore. If she didn’t survive, so be it. Now she was ashamed of having to tell Thomas about her dire financial problems.

She went into the parlor to remove her mother’s china from the display case. She sneezed several times from the dust. Lovely, she thought. A crying, desperate fool who can’t stop sneezing. What a mess I will look like to Thomas!

No, she wouldn’t let him see her like this. She placed the china on a silver tray and carried it into the kitchen, where she used a clean rag dipped in water to wipe everything down. Then she rinsed the rag again and scrubbed at her own face. Goodbye tear-stained face, hello rosy glow.

She pulled down a glass jar of dried herbs and put a spoonful in the china teapot. She then poured the hot water over the tea, put the lid back on the teapot, and draped a small towel over it to let it seep. She loaded the teapot, two tea cups, a small bowl of sugar, several slices of thick bread that she had made yesterday, and silver spoons on the tray before heading out the back door once again, carefully walking around the house to the front porch, where Thomas was just sitting down.

When he saw her, he jumped back up to help her with the giant tray. “Mmm,” he said. “Spearmint? My mother used to make this tea for us whenever we got sick. I haven’t had it since–”

He cut himself off and moved to the small table on the front porch. Marguerite’s father had made the table for her mother so she could sit and drink her tea in the afternoons during the summer, but she was usually too busy helping him with the farm or tending to the horses and other farm animals or preparing meals to have her cherished tea time. As Marguerite moved to sit down on the tiny stool opposite Thomas, she noticed several small packages and jars on the table.

“I thought you might like some sweets for your tea,” Thomas said, “so I brought you some honey and other goodies.”

Marguerite immediately burst out crying again, unable to stop the sobs that wracked through her. She dropped her head into her hands, ashamed that Thomas would see her like this, but unable to move from where she sat. What must he think of her and what she does to survive and now not to be able to even pay for a few sweets. She was selling her body to filthy old men and farmers who smelled like manure and dirt, letting them ride on top of her because their wives wouldn’t, but what was the point if she couldn’t pay the taxes or buy food. She couldn’t even afford a piece of candy! Her mother must be horrified, looking down on her from heaven and seeing what she had become. Marguerite sobbed harder, gasping for air as she choked on her tears.

No, she realized, no—her mother would not be ashamed of what she was doing to survive. Her mother had never been afraid to do anything if it meant protecting her family. She had worn pants and ridden horses bareback like a man in order to break the horses and ensure the family’s survival as horse breeders. She had butchered hogs, hanging them to drain the blood before cutting them up into pieces and smoking them to cure. She had stitched up her father’s leg when he had accidentally lodged a machete in it while clearing the land to the north, sewing through muscles and skin because the nearest surgeon was two hours away. And she had married a German man and moved halfway around the world, leaving her entire family behind, to help her parents get out of debt after the Great War had destroyed most of what they had owned. The German family had purchased her mother to be the wife of their only son, whom they wanted out of the country and out of the picture when the land was divvied up after the patriarch of the family died. Marguerite wasn’t doing anything that her mother hadn’t done, and her mother had lived a happy life with a man whom she had obviously cared for, if not loved.

Marguerite wiped at her eyes and looked up sheepishly, taking several deep breaths to calm her racing heart. Thomas sat across from her, sipping on his tea and looking out over the prairie extending for miles before them.

“Oh, Thomas, I am so sorry,” she finally said, her voice cracking. “You must think me an absolute fool.”

He looked back at her, smiled, and set his tea down. “Never, ma cherie,” he said, sliding two pieces of lemon candy across the table to her.

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