Read The Twelfth Child Online

Authors: Bette Lee Crosby

Tags: #General, #Fiction

The Twelfth Child (9 page)

BOOK: The Twelfth Child
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I certainly could have used Destiny’s help in going through that stuff; but, she didn’t move into the Meyerson place until the following summer so I was on my own. It took almost four weeks to sort through all those boxes; probably because when I’d happen upon one thing or another I’d get to thinking about the farm and the happy times we had before Mama died. When that happened, I’d set that box aside, fix myself a cup of tea and visit with my memories for a while. I’d never realized Becky was such a saver but she’d held on to most everything—even those old storybooks Mama would read from. The day I came upon a tattered old copy of
Grimm’s Fairytales
I sat there all afternoon leafing through the crinkled pages and hearing the stories in Mama’s voice.

It was the first of April, when I found the flowered box tied with a pink ribbon. It was sort of frilly-looking, the kind of box where you’d expect to find things like gloves and lace hankies, but instead it was filled with papers and sealed up envelopes. Right on the top was a blue envelope marked
Abigail Anne
. I could have sworn it was Papa’s handwriting, but of course there was no way of knowing for sure. I opened that envelope first and found a gold wedding ring—a tiny narrow band, plain as could be and probably just like a million others; but I knew it was Mama’s. I could picture the way she’d fidget with that ring when she was fretting about something—one hand folded over the other, twisting the ring round and round on her finger. Holding her ring in my hand I realized how slender my mama’s fingers must have been. Mama had always seemed bigger than life to me, strong and powerful, like she could move a mountain if she had to; but here was her ring, too small to fit my pinky. Even though she’d been gone for over sixty-five years, seeing that ring made me miss Mama so much that I just sat there bawling like a baby. I’ll admit it’s pretty strange, an old woman crying over something like that; but it don’t matter how old you get—your mama’s always gonna be your mama. That day I’d have given everything I owned just to have my Mama hug me one more time.

I brought the flowered box inside the house and set it on the kitchen table; but by then, my heart was so heavy I couldn’t look at another thing for two days. When I finally did get around to going through the rest of the box, I found a receipt for a tractor Papa had bought; letters Will had written in college, and Mama’s recipe for chocolate cake.  Way down near the bottom of the box was a bulky white envelope from Scott C. Bartell, Attorney at Law. I was pretty sure this was the will but, I was almost afraid to open it— mostly because I didn’t want to see that my brother had left something of Mama’s to Elliott Emerson. The will had been written three years ago, before Becky died, it told how if Will died first everything he owned should go to Becky and if she died first, everything should go to Will. On the second page it went on,
In the event both parties are deceased, all tangible personal property and estate assets are bequeathed to Miss Abigail Anne Lannigan, twin sister of William Matthew, and daughter of William John and Livonia Lannigan.
There was no mention whatsoever of Elliott Emerson.

Scott Bartell turned out to be a right nice person. I telephoned him and he said he was real sorry to hear about Will’s passing. He also told me not to worry because he’d take care of everything; even August J. Binkerman. “The only thing Will had was three bank accounts,” I told him, “and a handful of personal stuff that came from the farm.” I wasn’t really lying, because back then I didn’t know diddley-squat about the bonds. I knew Will had gotten a sizeable sum when he sold the farm but I figured he used that money to buy the house in Culpepper.  

“Get me the numbers for those bank accounts,” Mister Bartell said, “I’ll make sure that everything is transferred over to your name.” 

Scott Bartell did just that; and in no time at all, I had one-hundred and sixty-seven thousand dollars in the Middleboro Savings Bank. God knows that was the most money I’d ever had and I suppose it went to my head ‘cause I got to feeling a bit guilty about the way I’d turned my back on Elliott. In the middle of dusting a table or washing dishes, I’d get to thinking back on how much it pleased my brother to know there was another Lannigan. Unlike Becky, Will believed Elliott to be a direct descendant of Papa. “Distantly related,” he’d say, “but still a Lannigan.” Maybe if Will hadn’t fallen apart the way he did, he would have provided some sort of remembrance for Elliott.

In August I called Elliott. “My brother felt fondly toward you,” I told him, “and I think he would have wanted you to have his watch.”

“Is this really Aunt Abigail?” Elliott asked, like he thought it might have been somebody else playing a trick on him.

“Of course it is, you fool,” I said. That boy had a way of agitating a person the minute he opened his mouth and I had to practically grit my teeth to keep on talking. “I know we’ve had our differences, Elliott, but Will believed you’re Lannigan kin, and I want to do right by my brother.”

“You want
me
to have his watch?”

“Yes, and a bit of cash.”

Two days later, there was Elliott, standing on my doorstep with his hand open. “I came to visit,” he said and plopped himself down on my sofa. “Got anything cold to drink, lemonade maybe?”

I went into the kitchen, fixed some iced tea with a slice of lemon and served it to him in one of my very best glasses. The gracious thing would have been to take polite sips, but Elliott gulped it down like a man dying of thirst then set the glass down on the wooden end table—not on the coaster I’d put out for him but, smack on the wood. “Thanks Aunt Abby,” he said in this smart-alecky but supposed-to-be-funny way. 

“You’re quite welcome,” I told him; then I ceremoniously picked up that glass and moved it over onto the coaster. Elliott and I never had much to say to each other and being together was awkward—we were like two foreigners who spoke different languages. After he’d collected Will’s watch and a check for two-thousand dollars he took his leave. I suppose I was a bit disappointed because I’d been hoping a different Elliott would show up; one who was thoughtful and pleasant, one who could sit and visit with an old lady without fidgeting like his pants was on fire.  As it turned out, I can’t say I felt sorry to see him drive off, nor did I have any regrets about giving him that money.  I’d planned to write out a check for ten thousand dollars, but when he set that wet glass down on my fresh-polished table, I decided to make it two. Knowing what a good heart Will had, I imagine he would have gone ahead and given Elliott the ten thousand; but, I felt two was more than he deserved.  

Mama always used to say that God watches every thing you do; and if you do right by other people, He’ll do right by you. I expect it’s true, because a month after I gave Elliott the money, Destiny happened along.

 

 

Beyond the Valley

 

1927

 

T
he summer following Livonia’s death the Valley experienced a growing season such as the farmers could never before remember. Tomatoes grew to the size of melons and the corn became so tall that a man walking between the rows was hidden from view.  William spent hard-earned money to buy a new gasoline powered tractor and Will started riding Malvania back and forth to Cobbs Corner so he could visit with Rebecca Withers. Most everything in the valley changed that year; everything except Abigail Anne—she remained firm in the conviction that she would be a teacher like Miss Troy. From morning until night, she had her nose in a book. She’d be cooking potatoes or frying up a piece of pork and on the table alongside the stove would be an open book. She’d stir the pot absentmindedly and marvel at things she’d never thought possible. “Imagine,” she told Will, “talking movies!”

Emma Hopkins, the librarian, allowed Abigail Anne to take home six and seven books at a time even though the rule was no more than three. “Abigail dear, have you read this one about our United States Presidents?” Emma would ask; then she’d stack another book on top of the pile of those already selected. 

On the first Sunday in August, William told Abigail to fix an especially nice dinner.  “The Kellers are coming to visit,” he said, “and they’re bringing that nice young boy of theirs with them. Name’s Henry, I believe.” 

Abigail, who now wore Livonia’s apron day in and day out even though it had been washed a hundred times and long ago lost the scent of her mother, fried up a platter of chicken and boiled a pot of potatoes. It was the hottest day of the season, so hot that even the livestock left the grass of the field and clustered together under shady maples, but Abigail baked biscuits and a peach pie. When William saw the sideboard laden with food, he smiled. “Ah yes,” he said, “that boy’s gonna like this.”  

Abigail didn’t answer because she was engrossed in a news story telling how a woman from Montana had been elected to Congress. “See, Papa,” she said. “Mama was right; women can do anything they set their mind to!” 

“What are you talking about, girl?” William looked over Abigail’s shoulder and saw the headline that read
Jeanette Rankin—the U.S.’s First Congresswoman.
He turned down his mouth and shook his head from side to side. “Lord God,” he mumbled, “what next?” Then he told Abigail she ought to clean herself up, maybe rouge her cheeks a bit.

The Kellers arrived just after two o’clock with their son Henry, who was already taller than his father and skinny as a fence post. With a real friendly looking smile on his face, William led them into the parlor, the room usually reserved for very special company. “Sit here,” he told Mister Keller and motioned to the biggest chair. He told Abigail to fetch some cold tea; then he turned his attention back to Mister Keller. “Well, John,” he said, “how’s that spread of yours doing this year?”

John Keller was a somber faced man who had the habit of rubbing his chin whenever he had to think about something. “Better than ever,” he answered and cupped his palm to his chin. “We got twenty-two calves. Herd’s so thick I had to open up the far meadow.  You?”

“The same,” William answered. “Come harvest time we’ll need two, maybe three, pickers.” He looked over at Henry, who was all arms and legs. “I’ll bet a stropping lad like you is a mighty big help to your Pa. Is that so, boy?”

Henry shuffled around in his seat, as if being the topic of conversation made him uncomfortable. “I suppose,” he answered.

“My Abigail, she’s a born housekeeper. Since I lost Livonia, she’s taken over all the cooking and cleaning. Why, just wait ‘till you taste the dinner she’s cooked up today. Even Livonia couldn’t make a better peach pie than this girl!”  

“Papa!” Abigail blushed.

After dinner, William suggested that the young folks ought to visit on the front porch for a spell, but then he turned to Will and told him to take care of the evening chores. Henry led Abigail outside and they sat on the swing. 

“Your Papa’s a right nice man,” Henry said as he reached his arm around Abigail’s shoulder.

“He means well,” she answered.

“He was right about that pie. Best I’ve ever tasted.”

Abigail smiled. “Pie-making’s nothing, I’m gonna be a teacher.”

 

A
s soon as the Kellers had taken their leave, William turned to Abigail; “Well?” he said, “Did you like him?”

“He’s nice enough,” she answered then stuck her nose in a book about India.

“His family’s got the biggest spread in BlackburnCounty, and Henry, he’s their only boy. A fine looking lad; of marrying age, I’d say. A boy like that is bound to be a good provider.” Abigail didn’t answer, so William walked away grinning to himself. 

From that point on, Henry Keller became a regular visitor at the Lannigan farm and William went out of his way to make the boy feel welcome. “Have another piece of pie, son,” he’d say and clap the boy on the back so vigorously that the skinny lad wobbled. The minute Henry walked through the door William would let a grin settle on his face.  “You remind me of myself,” he’d say, “salt of the earth, hard working. Yes sir, not a whisker of foolishness about you.”

When school started again, Abigail was overjoyed. She’d practice the multiplication tables in her head as she washed William’s workpants; or she’d think about the rules of sentence structure as she swept the kitchen. “School is so exciting,” she told Henry, but he pretty much shrugged the thought off. “Miss Troy said there are airplanes that can fly from one end of the country to the other,” she told him but Henry preferred to grapple her into a position where he could steal a kiss. “Don’t you care about what goes on in the world?” she’d ask, and he’d shake his head no.

By the time fall turned into winter and the air became so cold and brittle it hurt a person’s lungs to breathe, Abigail’s worlds began to collide. It seemed that dinner was never ready on time, the biscuits were usually burned, she’d forget to feed the chickens then have to get out of bed in the dead of night to do it and she hadn’t read a book in months. One Sunday she told Henry he shouldn’t come over so often. “Once or twice a month,” she said, “that’s enough ‘till I catch up on my schoolwork.” 

William bolted out of his chair, “Abigail Lannigan!” he shouted. “Have you lost your mind?” He glared across the table like she’d committed the worst crime ever. “The girl’s just had a bad day,” he told Henry, “pay her no mind.”

“Papa, that’s not it,” Abigail said. “I’ve got studying to do.”

“Young lady, you can just march yourself right into the bedroom and don’t come out ‘till you get some manners!”

“But, Papa…”

“March!”

Abigail went to her room but left a crack in the door so that she could listen to the voices that came from the kitchen. 

“I’d best be going, Mister Lannigan.”

“Nonsense, boy. You wait a few minutes; she’ll be out here full of apologies. Abigail’s a good girl, high strung at times, but well worth a body’s trouble.”

“I don’t know, Mister Lannigan, Abigail sure don’t seem to care about me the way I care about her.”

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