Read The Twelfth Child Online

Authors: Bette Lee Crosby

Tags: #General, #Fiction

The Twelfth Child (4 page)

BOOK: The Twelfth Child

On Thursday, that was her day off, Destiny showed up on my doorstep at about eight-thirty in the morning. She was wearing those paint-spattered dungarees and had a Dunkin Donuts bag in her hand. “I’ve brought some muffins,” she said. “We can have a nice snack together after I’ve finished the chores.”

“Forget about that nonsense,” I told her. “You just sit yourself down and I’ll fix some tea.” I was about to ask if she’d prefer to have coffee—I had some of those coffee bags that can make a single cup at a time, same almost as making tea—but by then she’d already latched onto my cleanser and bucket and was heading down the hallway toward the bathroom. “What do you think you’re doing?” I called after her, but she laughed and reminded me that a deal was a deal. “You haven’t seen the kitchen set yet,” I told her, but she didn’t seem to care, she just started in cleaning and scrubbing. In less than two hours that little devil had breezed through the entire house and had everything as polished up and sparkling as those windows of hers. Not that I would in any way compare Destiny  to the county aide woman, but lazy old Lucille hadn’t done that much work in the two years she’d been coming to help out. 

I had a crock of leftover chicken soup in the refrigerator, so I heated some of that and we had ourselves an early lunch; then for dessert we ate the two blueberry muffins from Dunkin Donuts. There was something about Destiny’s company that seemed to make ordinary food a lot tastier. When lunch was finished, she went down into the basement, cobwebs and all, and lugged up the table and chairs by her lone self. I helped a tiny bit once she got the stuff halfway up the stairs, mostly just by guiding the legs of the table around the corners as she heaved and hauled. If she told me once, she told me half a dozen times how happy she was to have such nice things for her house. Anybody else might have mentioned the burn hole in the arm of the chair, but not Destiny; she just went on and on about how lovely it would look in the corner of her living room. “It’s the perfect place to sit and read,” she said and that’s when I fetched the floor lamp out of that back bedroom and handed it to her.

“No sense in you straining your eyes,” I said.  “Anyway, this lamp
with that chair.” One by one she carted those things across the street and into her house. Everything except the overstuffed chair, it was too heavy for her to carry all that distance; so she wheeled it across the street on my trash-can dolly. That stuff was nothing more than a few scraps of furniture; but Destiny was happy and excited as a kid on Christmas morning. The odd thing was that I had the same happy feeling; anybody might think it was something contagious and I’d caught a case of zippidy-do-da from her. As for me, I knew that’s where it came from.

I never had any such feeling with Elliott, although he was supposedly a blood relative. His great granddaddy was my papa; a fact which in and of itself would have been enough to turn me against the boy, even if he didn’t have such a pricklish personality. He sure wasn’t related to Mama; she had a sweet disposition. Elliott’s great grandma was Papa’s first wife, a woman who died in 1881—almost thirty years before Papa married Mama. For the longest time, I never even knew Elliott existed and to this day I wish it had stayed that way. He came nosing around after Will sold the farm; then after Will died and Elliott found out I’d gotten all of the inheritance money, he started coming to see me. He’d show up every once in a while, just often enough to remind me that he was a relative—someone who maybe ought to be in for a cut of the pie. Anybody with half an eyeball could see it was the money he was looking to latch onto; he sure didn’t care a thing about me.  Not once did Elliott offer to so much as wheel out the trash bins, let alone clean the toilet or take me for a Sunday afternoon drive. No, his visits usually lasted about fifteen or twenty minutes, then he’d have someplace else he had to dash off to.  Well, it certainly didn’t bother me; I can’t say I enjoyed his company anyway. I certainly never watched out the window hoping he’d come by, the way I did with Destiny.

Judge Kensington never got to see that side of Elliott; all he heard was that slick-tongued story about an unfortunate nephew who had his inheritance swindled away. Nobody thought to tell Judge Kensington that Destiny was the one who’d call up and ask if I needed a quart of milk or loaf of bread when she was going to the store. He also never got to see the happy look in the girl’s eyes whenever I gave her some little thing to brighten up that empty house of hers.

I sure as hell would tell him the truth, if I were able.  



The Hard Years


n the spring of 1923, when a number of the Valley’s farmers moved off to places where there was work in factories and a man could make a decent living, the Lannigan family dug deeper into the parched earth. Livonia had a vegetable garden that for years had been plentiful, but this particular summer the string beans withered on the vine, the blackberries didn’t grow at all and the yams were small as hen’s eggs. William’s patience was shorter than ever and at times even young Will’s lack of attention would be enough to set him off. “Damn it, boy, you’re gonna grow up stupider than a mule!” he’d shout and then tear into a God-awful rage over some piddling thing such as the proper way to pitch a forkful of hay. 

“Fussing at the children won’t make the crops grow better,” Livonia would say but she could just as well have saved her breath.

It happened that summer, on a Tuesday morning when the air was so thick and heavy it clogged a person’s nose just to breathe, the awful animosity between Abigail Anne and her papa got to be full blown. It was the same Tuesday two milk cows were laboring to birth calves. William had been out in the barn since suppertime the day before. One of the heifers had slid down the chute like greased lightning and was already suckling on its mama but William’s best milker had a breech calf damned and determined not to make its way into the world. Right after breakfast, Livonia sent young Will to the barn, “Give your papa a hand,” she’d told him; but when the second cow took to bellowing like her guts was being torn out of her, the boy got sick and came scurrying back to the house with his face green as early meadow grass. 

“Please don’t make me go back, Mama,” he said. “That cow’s suffering something awful. She’s gonna die. I can’t just stand there and watch.”

“You’re not supposed to watch. You’re supposed to help.”

“I can’t.  I just plain can’t.”  

“I can, Mama!” Abigail Anne piped up. 

“You’ll do no such thing,” Livonia told her. “You stay in this house and leave your papa alone. He’s got troubles enough this morning.”

“But, I know how! I seen a book on birthing calves.”

“Book or no book, you leave your papa alone!”

For a few minutes it seemed as if Abigail had settled down and forgotten the notion of birthing a calf but as soon as Livonia’s back was turned, the girl slipped out the screen door and made her way down to the barn. “I come to help you, Papa,” she said. William had both arms up inside the cow trying to turn the breech calf and didn’t so much as nod. “Papa,” Abigail repeated, “didn’t you hear? I come to help. I know about birthing.” She moved toward the stall.

“Get out of here, girl. Get back to the house.”

“No.  I come to help. I’m not scared of the cow. See.” She stepped closer.

“You get your skinny little ass out of here, Abigail Anne; else you’ll get the switching of your life.”

Abigail didn’t back off, just stood her ground and stayed right where she was. “I can help as much as Will,” she said. 

William didn’t even answer; he just kept pushing at the guts of that poor cow. A short time later he pulled a dead calf free of the bawling mother then he turned to Abigail Anne and whacked her across the face—full force with the back of his hand. “No snip of a girl’s gonna sass me!” he roared. “Now, get outta here and stay outta here!” 

His hand had come down so hard that Abigail Anne went sprawling clean across the barn and already had three red welts rising up on her right cheek. “I hate you, Papa!” she screamed, then turned and ran from the barn fast as those little legs could carry her. 

Much as it might be something she’d never admit, Abigail Anne could be every bit as willful as her father. Halfway back to the house she spotted Malvania in the pen and, defiant as a headstrong bull, she scooted under the gate and climbed up on the gelding’s back. For a few moments the horse pawed the dirt like he was going to buck but he didn’t, just huffed and snorted. Three times the animal circled the pen, balking at first for he had never been ridden bareback. “Go, Malvania, go!” Abigail urged; her legs clasped tight to his belly. The gelding suddenly took off at a run, jumped the fence and disappeared down the road with her still shouting “Giddyap, Malvania, giddyap, giddyap!”

By that time both Livonia and Will were out of the house and moving toward the pen. “Not Malvania!” Will screamed when the horse jumped the fence; then he took off running down the road behind the trail of rising dust. “Hang on, Abigail!” he called out, “hang on!” Of course there was no way he could keep pace with the gelding and before Livonia caught up to him, the boy had fallen in the road. “It’s Papa’s fault!” he screamed, “I know it’s Papa’s fault! He’s never happy ‘less he’s beating up on Abigail! I hate him! I wish he’d never been born!” 

Livonia lifted the boy from the dirt and brushed back his hair. “Will, don’t say things like that about your Papa,” she told him. “He’s a hard man to understand at times, because he’s set in his ways, but he loves you—you and Abigail both. For a man like your Papa, a man who’s used to hard times and hard living, it’s not easy to show you the love that’s in his heart.”   

“Papa don’t love nobody but this farm!” the boy answered angrily. 

“Hush such talk. Why, there isn’t a thing in the world your papa loves more than you children.” Livonia took the hem of her dress and dabbed at a bloody scrape on Will’s chin. “Now stop this foolishness and let’s get on home. Abigail Anne will be back when she’s cooled down a bit.” As they walked along the road a festering seed settled into Livonia’s heart, it was the grain of truth planted there by the boy’s words—
Papa don’t love nobody but this farm

Will kept glancing back across his shoulder, looking down the road for Abigail. “Suppose she rides off and never comes back?” he said. “Suppose she gets hurt?”

“Abigail’s a bit high-spirited but she’ll be back.” Livonia put her arm around the boy’s shoulders and smiled, remembering Ruby’s gift which was still beneath Abigail’s pillow. “Don’t you worry,” she said, “your sister will be just fine.”

Livonia spent the afternoon trying to stay busy and keep her mind from thinking the unthinkable. Twice she walked into the bedroom and checked that the leather sack was still beneath Abigail Anne’s pillow. In the heat of the afternoon she baked bread and cooked a pot of soup for their supper. She boiled the carcass of a chicken until the bones fell apart, then added in onions, potatoes and cabbage. Cabbage was the one thing that had grown plentiful on the Lannigan farm that summer so they ate cabbage soup, cabbage stew, cold cabbage, hot cabbage and at times, even cabbage pancakes. When the children complained, Livonia told them stories of other families less fortunate—hungry families who had to leave their farms and try to eke out a living in the crowded cities such as Richmond or Alexandria. 

“I’d be happy if we lived in the city,” Will often said; but Abigail would furrow her brow and get this far away look in her eyes—it was enough to make anyone think she could see what lay in store for those who left the Shenandoah Valley. 

For hours Livonia watched and waited then when the blistering sun crossed the mountain she started to pray. Still there was no trace of Abigail. After the table had been set for supper, she went to the barn. “What happened between you and Abigail Anne?” she asked her husband.

“She’s riled up ‘cause I won’t take none of her sass.” William spoke with his back to Livonia, and kept to his doctoring of the sick cow.

“What did you do?”

“Told her get back to the house.”     

“That’s all?”

“Just about.” William turned, his face knotted tight with anger. “She’s a girl, Livonia! A girl! Instead of accepting that, you fill her head with craziness and get her thinking she can do whatever Will does. Well, it ain’t so!” he snapped. 

“How can you talk this way? She’s your daughter, your own flesh and blood!”

“Women got their place in life. Nothing you say or do is gonna change that!”

“Nothing’s gonna change you either!” Livonia said. “You’re just a stubborn old bull frog!” With that, she whirled on her heel and marched off.   

The Lannigan family was halfway through their soup when Livonia heard the clip-clop of a horse trotting up the dirt road. She said nothing but listened with a sharp ear until moments later she heard the familiar clunk of the pen latch. She was certain everyone else had also heard it, but William just dunked his bread in the soup and never even raised an eyebrow. A minute or two passed and then several more, but still Abigail did not come into the house. When Livonia could wait no longer, she left the supper table and walked out onto the front porch. The child was sitting on the top step with her head dropped down between her knees. Her face was hidden but with the youthful curve of her body and a tangled shank of chestnut hair hanging down her back there was no mistaking that it was Abigail Anne.

“You were gone a mighty long while,” Livonia said.

“I’m sorry, Mama.”  Abigail did not look up.

“Your papa’s pretty peeved about you taking Malvania.”

“I figured he would be.”

“I’ll have none of your sassiness, young lady. Your papa told you not to ride Malvania for fear you’d get hurt.”

Abigail jumped to her feet and faced her mother. “You blind, Mama? Don’t you see it ain’t just Malvania? He plain out hates me!”

Livonia saw the red welts on Abigail’s cheek. “What happened to your face?” The girl just rolled her eyes and turned away but Livonia could tell it was the mark of a man’s powerful hand. “Abigail, honey, you’ve got to get something on that. Come have some soup while I fix up a salve.”

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