Read The Twelfth Child Online

Authors: Bette Lee Crosby

Tags: #General, #Fiction

The Twelfth Child (6 page)

BOOK: The Twelfth Child

“Get up, girl,” he said. “You got chores to do.”

“I’m sick, Papa,” Abigail answered. 

“You’re no such thing. Now get up!”

“No, Papa, I’m
sick. See.” Abigail stuck her tongue out as if it might prove the point. “I been shivering and shaking all night long,” she said, which happened to be the truth but not for the reason she would have him believe.

“You got a fever?”

“Uh huh.”

William walked across the room and sat down on the side of her bed. He put his hand to her forehead, which was, as far back as Abigail could remember, the only time he’d touched her for something other than a paddling. “It don’t feel like a fever.”

“Oh, it
.  I’ve likely caught my death of pneumonia.” 

“Nonsense.” William removed his hand and let it fall limp between his knees.  “What’s likely is that you’re feeling sorry for yourself.”

“No, Papa, I’m
really and truly
sick. My throat hurts even.” Abigail mustered up a pitifully weak cough, and then fell back against her pillow.

“Well, okay. You stay in bed for awhile, but come midday I want you to have a meal on the table.”

“Why can’t Will . . .”

“He’s got men’s work to do. We’ve got to fix the south meadow fence.”

“Why can’t I help with the fence and let Will do the cooking?”

“What’s the matter with you, girl?” William looked down at his feet and shook his head. “You got the craziest notions I ever heard.”

“It’s not crazy. Mama said . . .”

William turned to face her, his eyes pitched with anger and his jawbone set hard as a wall of granite. “Your mama?” he sneered. “Well, your mama was a dreamer! A woman with a head full of silly notions and no understanding of what the world is
like!” He stood and walked out of the room.

Abigail remained in bed long after the sound of William’s footsteps faded. She thought of things she had done with Livonia, a picture they had once painted with color sticks, a quilt they had sewn with a brilliant rose in the center to conceal the droplets of blood that had fallen when she punctured her thumb. Abigail remembered the stories of the girl in the snow globe and she also thought about something her father owned—a sailing ship sealed inside of a bottle and set atop the fireplace mantle. It was a ship that could sail nowhere. She imagined tiny little sailors scurrying around the deck of the ship, forever trying to find a way out, a way back to the ocean. As she lay in bed, watching a light snow fall, it came to her that she was no better off than those imaginary sailors or the girl in the snow globe.  She was trapped in a world of her father’s making, with no seeable way of getting out.

Abigail vowed that if this was to be her life, she would remain in the bed until the day she died. Magic would be her salvation; she could dream of places beyond the high ridge, float off and become a suffragette, or a piano teacher, maybe even an actress on the stage. For a long while she watched as the snow deepened on the ground and draped a white blanket across the bare limbs of the chestnut trees but when William stomped in cold and hungry and told her to get her skinny ass out of bed, she did. She pulled on a pair of woolen stockings and covered her dress with the apron her mother had last worn; then she tromped into the kitchen and set about the task of warming foods that had been brought by the neighbors.

There was something about the wearing of Livonia’s apron that helped Abigail to remember the way her mother had moved about the kitchen. It came to her where Livonia kept the iron skillet that was used to fry the meat, she remembered to wrap the biscuits in a cloth towel before placing them inside the warmer, and when dinner was finished she heated water to wash the dishes. A neighbor peering through the windowpane could have believed it was Livonia moving about the kitchen, except for the stone set of Abigail’s eyes.

As the days drifted into February, Abigail developed the ability to be elsewhere as she worked. She would appear to be peeling potatoes or plucking frozen laundry from the clothesline, but inside her head she was riding horses and attending parties. She pictured a horse that was all her own, a black stallion with white markings, a horse named Thunder, so mighty that people took a deep breath and gasped as she climbed astride his back. She dreamed of taking the train to far away places such as Lynchburg and Alexandria and saw herself wearing a yellow hat with partridge feathers as she marched into President Wilson’s office along with the other suffragette ladies. Yet, try as she might, Abigail couldn’t imagine the fair-haired girl breaking free of the snow globe.


n early March, Abigail Anne returned to school, despite William’s objections. He’d been of the opinion that seventh grade was plenty of schooling for girls, but when Miss Troy came to call with Preacher Broody, he pretty much backed off of that stance. He might not have been intimidated by Miss Troy, even though she was said to be the prettiest teacher in BlackburnCounty, but he was a God-fearing Methodist and wasn’t about to go against anything Preacher Broody said. Abigail hid in the pantry and listened to every word that was spoken.

It started off with William being right sociable, like this was just a friendly-come-to-call-visit. Then when Miss Troy said it was past time that
children returned to school, he got real huffy. “Who’s to say, when my girl goes to school?” he snapped.

“Every child deserves an education.” Judith Troy answered; her voice as calm and collected as someone commenting on the favorable weather.

Preacher Broody didn’t say much but even Abigail Anne, peering through a crack in the pantry door, could see how he kept his eyes fixed on Miss Judith’s pretty face.

“She already knows how to read and write,” William said, his voice bristling with rancor. “And, with Livonia gone, she’s got more chores to do.”

“She’s just a

“She’s going on fourteen. I was only eleven when I started working the farm.”

“But, the world is changing,” Miss Troy argued, “Now-a-days children need to know more than just reading and writing.”

“Not for living on a farm, they don’t!”

“Abigail Anne might not want to be a farmer!” At this point, Judith Troy’s voice got sharper and she poked that little nose of hers out in a way that made Abigail Anne worry her papa would reach over and smack it good.

“She won’t
a farmer, but she’ll sure as hell marry up with one! You gonna educate her about caring for a family in that school of yours?”

 “I’ll teach
of the children the ways of the world so that they can choose what they want to be. The time is coming when men will travel to cities and take on jobs that their fathers never dreamed of. And women…someday they’ll be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside of men.  Don’t you want those things for your children?”

William stood so abruptly that his chair flew backward. “I sure as hell don’t!” he shouted. “I’m a Valley farmer and it’s a damn good life. If it’s good enough for me it’s sure as hell good enough for them!” William’s face was red as the noonday coals in the stove and Abigail Anne was certain if the preacher hadn’t been there, her daddy would have picked Miss Troy up and bodily tossed her out the door.

Preacher Broody must have known it also, because that’s when he started speaking up. “Now, William, there’s no call to get riled,” he said. “Miss Troy here is just trying to be helpful.”

“I don’t need help and neither does my kids.” William picked his chair up off the floor and sat back down at the table.

“There’s no way of knowing what God has in store for a body,” the preacher said. “Could be there’s some merit in what Miss Judith believes.”

William most always addressed the preacher with respect, but this time he looked him square in the eye and said, “Henry, I ain’t counting on the Lord to decide what’s in store for my kids. Will is gonna work this farm and Abigail Anne damn sight better be married off by time she’s sixteen.”

Just when Abigail Anne thought Miss Troy didn’t stand half-a-chance of changing her daddy’s mind, Preacher Broody hauled out his trump card. “The Lord takes a mighty dim view of such talk,” he said. “A closed mind is not the Christian way.”

Whereas he had been almost nose-to-nose with the preacher, William now slumped back in his chair. “I’m as God-fearing a Methodist as any,” he said, and that’s when the conversation took a turn for the better. Everybody’s tone of voice got a bit more easygoing and before the preacher and Miss Troy left the house, William had allowed that both children could attend school three days a week and Preacher Broody had indicated William’s name was sure to be on the list when the Congregation’s new Ministry Assistants were announced. In William’s mind, such an appointment practically meant a reserved spot in Heaven.

Still hidden back in the pantry, Abigail Anne grabbed hold of a sack of flour and kissed it as ardently as she would have kissed Miss Troy, if she’d had the opportunity.    


he second Monday in March was blustery and cold, but to Abigail it felt like the most glorious of days as she and Will rode across the ridge road and off to Bush Creek. They were riding double on the back of Whisper, who was well past his prime, so by time they arrived most of the other children, including Cora Mae Callaghan, were already in their seats. Miss Troy stopped what she was doing when the twins entered the schoolhouse. “Welcome back,” she said. “We’ve missed you, haven’t we class?”

“Yes, Miss Troy,” everyone echoed. 

Then Judith Troy walked over and hugged both children. Abigail Anne was certain she caught a whiff of the same Lavender Water Livonia always wore. The teacher was dressed in a brown wool skirt and a white blouse, but as Abigail watched throughout the day, she could envision Judith Troy in cloche hats, suffragette-type suits and rustling silk ball gowns. Once when Miss Troy touched the tip of her pencil to her chin, Abigail even pictured her smoking a cigarette.

That was when Abigail Anne first decided she wanted to be
like Judith Troy.  She took to studying her movements, her smile, her tone of voice, the way she combed her hair and even the precise shade of lip rouge she used. Long before she turned fifteen, Abigail Anne had set her mind to becoming a teacher. Most times she could picture how she would look in wool skirts and crisp cotton blouses, hear herself speaking with Miss Troy’s rounded vowel tones, even feel the rumble of the train that would carry her off to far away cities, but sometimes in the middle of those thoughts, she’d hear the echo of her father’s words—
better be married off before she turns sixteen


Troubled Times


estiny Fairchild always reminded me of the wild roses that sprang up along the south end of Chestnut Ridge every summer. In the dead of winter, when the snow on the plateau was as high as a man’s head, Mama would say “I don’t expect we’ll see any roses this year.” But a few months later there they’d be, millions of bright red buds twining their way along a row of split rail fences or shimmying up the sunny side of a chestnut tree. I always supposed God planted those roses so he could chuckle at the wonderment on folks’ faces when they passed by. I guess He also had a hand in bringing Destiny to Middleboro because, just like those roses, she cropped up out of nowhere and made folks feel happy. What kind of a mother would name a child Destiny I’d wonder; then I’d get to chuckling and have to admit it was pretty appropriate.      

I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Every time we’d go to the market, the clerks would call out, “Hi, Destiny!” They’d smile and wave from clear across the store, like they were real glad to see her. When we got home, there’d generally be an extra round of beef or package of fresh baked cookies in our bag. Once the butcher tucked in a twelve pound turkey! It was the same everywhere—the market, the gas station, the post office— people just seemed to take a liking to Destiny. That is, people other than Elliott. He only saw the girl a handful of times, but right off took a dislike to her.

“She’s a
neighbor,” I told Elliott. “I’m lucky to have her.”

“Oh, sure,” he said, with that condescending look where he raises one eyebrow and lets the rest of his face fall slack. “Her kind is out for what they can get from you.”

“She’s not asked for a dime!” I told him. I figured it would be better to leave it at that rather than reminding him of how
borrowed money on eight different occasions and never repaid a cent of it.   

Other than Elliott’s snide comments, you never heard a bad word about Destiny – that is until her twenty-fifth birthday, a day when the child should have been celebrating with cake and ice cream, instead of sitting in a police station. Morgan Broadhurst, a genuinely dislikable District Attorney, perched a pair of snobby looking glasses on his big red nose and sneered at her as if she was some low-life white trash. “Miss Fairchild,” he warned, “you either give this investigation your utmost cooperation, or face charges on five counts of grand larceny, forgery, failure to…”

Grand larceny? Forgery?
It was no such thing! I signed that car over to her, gave it up of my own free will! It hadn’t been driven since some time after Will died—four, maybe five, years ago. When her old Pinto finally gave out, I said, “Destiny, there’s a perfectly fine Buick sitting in my garage, you take it so we’ll have some way of getting back and forth to the market.” Granted, it was Destiny who filled out the papers and renewed the registration; but you’ve got to remember by that time my hand was real shaky and I couldn’t get around good as I once did. After she signed up for insurance, she polished and shined that car ‘till it looked brand new. She even went out and bought a Saint Christopher medal that was going to keep us safe. I suppose Saint Christopher was looking the other way when Elliott told Detective Nichols that Destiny had stolen the car and forged my name on the papers.

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