Read The Twelfth Child Online

Authors: Bette Lee Crosby

Tags: #General, #Fiction

The Twelfth Child (5 page)

BOOK: The Twelfth Child
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“I ain’t hungry, Mama.”

“Nonsense.” Livonia took hold of the girl’s hand and led her to the table.

With an empty stare fixed on her own feet, Abigail sat down. Livonia brought a bowl of soup and set it in front of her; then Abigail dutifully picked up her spoon and brought it to her mouth. Her movements were slow and deliberate; the movements of a child following commands, not those of one driven by hunger.

William did not look up, but after he had emptied his own soup bowl, he pushed back from the table and started taking his belt off. “You hurry and finish up that dinner, girl, ‘cause soon as you do you’re gonna get the beating of your life for sassing me and taking that horse.”

“No, Papa!” Will shouted.

“Shut up, boy. Keep to your own business.”

“Abigail Anne, you take your time with that soup,” Livonia said then she turned and walked out the kitchen door. In less than a heartbeat she was back with a pitchfork in her hand. She looked straight into William’s eyes. “Lay another hand on this child,” she said, “and, I’ll run you clean through.”

“Are you crazy, woman?”

“Blind maybe, but not crazy,” Livonia answered. “You’ve done her enough harm. Now, you let her be.”

“I’ll do no such thing! She needs to be taught a lesson.”

“I warn you, William, harm her and I’ll make certain you never sleep through another night. Even if you best me now, I’ll wait ‘till you grow so weary that you have to close your eyes then I’ll cut your stubborn old heart out.” Livonia’s voice didn’t waver, didn’t show one iota of weakness, it was as flat and cold as the meadow in the dead of winter. “Believe me, William,” she said, “believe me when I tell you I’ll do it.”    

William kicked over his chair and stepped back from the table. “Woman, you have gone stark raving mad. I’ve half a mind to let the authorities come lock you up in the insane asylum.”  He took three long strides toward Livonia and grabbed hold of the pitchfork handle. She was a tall woman but narrow built and certainly no match for a man of William’s size, her heart started beating faster and beads of sweat rose up on her face, but still Livonia kept a firm grip on the pitchfork. “I’ve been a patient man,” he said, and pushed his face up into hers. “You wanted Abigail Anne to go to school and I let her, even though I
knew
a girl didn’t need book learning. I give in on that, then you start in filling her head with Suffragette nonsense, telling her how women now got the same rights as men—well, it ain’t so. It ain’t never gonna be so! That little she-devil ought to learn about the truth of life or she ain’t gonna grow up fit to be any man’s wife!” With that, William yanked the pitchfork from Livonia’s hand and heaved it right through the screen door. Then he banged open the door, stormed out and slammed it behind him.      

The spring had barely snapped shut before Livonia straightened her back and resumed her seat at the table. She sat there with her eyes unblinking and her mouth rigid in grim determination—it was a look of fierceness that could make an onlooker believe Livonia had been the one who heaved a pitchfork through the screen door. Seeing Abigail and her mama sitting side by side as they were left no doubt as to where the child got the strong tilt of her chin

“Can they
really
lock you up in the insane asylum?” Will asked.

“Of course not, dummy,” Abigail snapped. “He’s just trying to scare us.”

“Well, he sure enough scares
me
.”

“You children stop talking such nonsense,” Livonia said. “Your papa and I just had a family disagreement. Lots of families have disagreements and nobody ever gets locked in an insane asylum. Now, finish up that soup.”

“I’m not the least bit afraid of him,” Abigail said, her chin tilted exactly like Livonia’s but the stony set of her eyes an indication that there was something only she knew. “Papa’s got a terrible mean heart and I hate him, but I’m not afraid.”

“It was just a moment of anger,” Livonia reached across the table and touched her fingers to Abigail Anne’s face. “Your papa didn’t mean to do this; other troubles just set him off. You’ll see tomorrow, there’s no reason to be afraid of your papa.”

“Oh yes there is!” Will said. “He’s got it in for Abigail now! He’ll get hold of her when she’s sleeping and poke her eyeballs out so she can’t see to ride Malvania no more.” 

“Hush talking nonsense. He’d do no such thing!”

“He just might do it,” Abigail said. “He sure hates me enough. He hates me more than even I hate him and I hate him more than bee stings. I got enough hate for him to last long as I live!”

“Enough of this,” Livonia snapped. “Will, you go get washed up for bed and Abigail, come with me so we can get some salve on your face.” Livonia quickly dismissed the thought that William might harm the girl, but that night, and every other night for as long as she lived, she slept in the bed alongside Abigail Anne.

 

A
t a time of year when a cold wind blows through the Valley and the sky is thick with heavy clouds that threaten snow, William Lannigan once again unlocked his grandfather’s secretary and took out the family Bible. Beneath Abigail Anne’s name he wrote Livonia Lannigan, died January 1926.

Two days later, William clumsily shifted a long wooden box onto the back of the wagon. It was a simple unadorned coffin made from wood that came from the oldest orchard on the Lannigan farm; apple trees planted two generations back. The two children sat beside their father as the plow horse carried Livonia across the north plateau and down to the far meadow where the other Lannigan wives were buried. When William stepped down from the wagon, he handed his son a shovel and nodded toward the spot that would be Livonia’s final resting place, but the boy just stood there with a limp hand locked onto the shovel and a stream of icy cold tears rolling down his cheeks. Four men from the Callaghan farm were among the handful of black-clad neighbors that had gathered; it was the eldest of the boys who stepped forward and took the shovel from Will’s hand. As the men tore chunks of earth from the ground, Missus Callaghan and Cora Mae walked over to stand beside Abigail.

Missus Callaghan draped a large heavy arm across Abigail Anne’s shoulder. “Honey,” she said, “your mama was a fine woman. I know how much you children are gonna miss her; especially you, Abigail Anne. It’s bound to be a lonely old time, but if you need to talk woman talk, come see me.” The girl nodded but held fast to the stony set of her face, a lost look in her eyes, a look that reminded Agnes Callaghan of a new calf cordoned off from its mother. “You cry if you’ve a need,” Agnes said and affectionately squeezed the girl’s shoulder.

Abigail Anne didn’t cry, nor did she speak a word; she just stood there with her line of vision set to the dark thicket of scrubby pines that marked the far boundary of the meadow. Not once did she turn to watch the men wielding shovels or the mound of dirt that kept growing larger. When they lifted the apple wood box onto the ropes and lowered it into the ground her eyes looked straight past her father and focused in on a large crow perched on the uppermost branch of a black balsam. She kept staring at that crow the whole time Pastor Broody spoke, then when he closed his Bible and said “Livonia Lannigan, may you forever rest in peace,” Abigail Anne turned and walked back to the wagon.  

A hard rain started up as three wagons made their way back across the plateau and followed the ridge road that led to the Lannigan farm. January was customarily a time when most Valley people stayed close to home for it was rumored that in the first month of the year a man could lose his way in a blinding snowstorm and freeze to death hours before he was found. On this particular day there was no snow but an icy cold wind roared down off the mountain and drove the rain at a slant so that it pounded against the faces of the Lannigan family and the few others who followed along. 

The Terrells, who lived the next farm over, said their boy was feeling poorly and headed home even though Claudia Terrell considered herself a friend of Livonia. Beside William and the two children, there were only nine others: the Coopers, their boy, and the Callaghan family. Two of the Valley farmers had come to call yesterday; they delivered heaping dishes of meat and potatoes, biscuits and pies, said how sorry they were to hear of Livonia’s death, then took their leave and headed back across the ridge before darkness could set in. Those men were somber-natured and gave little more than a nod to Abigail Anne and her brother. Clifford Callaghan was different, the sort of man who usually ate with a hearty appetite and laughed loudly. Even though Cora Mae was in the eighth grade, a full year ahead of Abigail Anne, he would still lift her into his arms and swing her around like a little kid. Last summer at the Methodist Church Annual Picnic, he did just that.

It happened shortly after the Chestnut Ridge men had beaten the fellows from Riverton Creek in a hotly contested game of horseshoes. Cora Mae was over nearby the pond when Mister Callaghan called to her. “Hey, princess, come here and give your daddy a hug.” She went running to him like he was Santa Claus offering up a bag of free toys; right then and there he lifted her clear into the air and whirled around three full turns. Princess, he’d called her. It was a sight that stuck with Abigail Anne and for a long time afterward, she kept thinking of how nice it would have been if only her mama had married Mister Callaghan instead of her papa. 

“How come you married Papa?” she asked Livonia time and time again. “How come you didn’t marry Mister Callaghan?”

“Honestly, child,” Livonia would say, “you get the craziest notions.” 

Abigail Anne didn’t think it was crazy, so she kept right on daydreaming of what it would be like to be a Callaghan. It was easy enough to replace the image of Cora Mae with her own and bump Will up to being one of her older brothers, but the two oldest boys and Clifford Callaghan she had to keep exactly as they were. For the remainder of that entire summer Abigail would drift off at the most unexpected times; times such as in the middle of feeding the chickens or setting the dishes on the supper table. Her mama would ask Abigail three or even four times to set out the milk or the butter or the salt, but Abigail forgot anyway, she wasn’t paying one bit of attention because she was lost in her thoughts of the big white Callaghan house. Sometimes she’d picture Livonia standing on the Callaghan front porch calling out that supper was on the table, other times she’d see herself in Cora Mae’s room with its pink flowery wallpaper and a half dozen dolls scattered across the bed.    

On the day of Livonia’s funeral, Mister Callaghan didn’t have a hearty appetite, nor did he laugh out loud. He carried in the smoked ham they’d brought for the Lannigan family, then sat on the sofa alongside his wife until it was time to leave. It was a noticeable thing when Clifford didn’t eat so William said, “Where’s your manners, Abigail Anne? Go fix a plate of food for Mister Callaghan.”

“She’ll do no such thing,” Agnes Callaghan said. “He can fix his own plate.” She patted her hand against the sofa. “Abigail, honey, you come sit over here.” 

Abigail was weighted down by her thoughts and before she could make a move to go sit alongside Missus Callaghan, Cora Mae had already slipped into the spot. For an hour, perhaps more, the awkward little group grasped at straws of conversation, saying anything to fill the emptiness, lingering over details of the weather and precisely where the best blackberries might be found if and when spring should ever come again. Clifford Callaghan, who was generally a man to see the brighter side of things, told of the bloody way a rabid raccoon had torn apart four of his best hens. Everyone mumbled something about what a hard winter it had been then Tom Cooper said he knew the Valley was in for a bitter cold planting season. He claimed for five nights in a row he’d dreamed of hawks swooping down on rats scurrying across an empty bean field, which was more than likely a sign. William agreed, and shaking his head in a most sorrowful way added that he’d already had more than enough bad fortune. Other than a few pleasantries offered up by Agnes Callaghan, the conversation was of a pitiful nature. When the Cooper boy fell asleep in the chair, Clifford Callaghan suggested they call an end to the visit so that everyone might get home before dark. 

As the Cooper’s and Callaghan’s bundled themselves back into the heavy coats and wool scarves still wet from the rain, Missus Callaghan pulled William to one side. “That girl of yours is hurting way more than she shows,” Agnes said. “She’s got to have a loving hand. Your boy, he’ll do just fine, he’s open about his hurt; but Abigail Anne is froze-up inside so you take special care with her.”

William nodded along as if he agreed with the statement but Abigail Anne, who had been listening with a sharp ear, knew better. She knew full well that the words would be fruitless, like seeds sown upon bedrock; still, it warmed her heart to hear Missus Callaghan speak in such a kindly way. When the woman turned and hugged Abigail to her chest, the child felt a pang of guilt about wishing her own mother was the one married to Mister Callaghan.     

That night, after the coals in the kitchen stove had cooled to a crimson glow and everyone else in the Lannigan household was sound asleep, Abigail Anne slid across the sheet and moved into the spot left empty by Livonia. In this place that had been shared by mother and daughter, she could still sense the fragrance of Lavender Water and linger with memories of the gentle voice that told stories of courageous women.
Someday, Abigail Anne,
her mother had promised,
someday every girl with an adventurous heart will be able to follow her dreams.
The tears started as small droplets that slid from the corners of her eyes, and then grew to great heavy sobs. Abigail Anne buried her face in the pillow to muffle the sound.     

When the cock crowed the next morning, Abigail Anne remained in bed and turned her face to the wall. When she heard the footfall of William’s heavy boots and the clank of iron against iron as he stoked the fire, she pushed deeper into the pillow. Long before the red of sunrise could be seen above the ridge, William came to her bedroom.

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