Two days had passed and Emileah awoke without feeling bewildered for the first time since she’d taken ill. She clearly identified the scent of roasting meat and bread wafting through the house, and carefully tossed her blankets to the side.
Rachel was kneeling in the garden, working with a spade. Most would have reprimanded Emileah when she stepped outside with only slippers on her feet and no bonnet on her head, but Rachel merely smiled up at her as if encouraging her to breathe the fresh air.
Emileah stepped closer. “You’re cooking?”
Rachel continued to smile. “No. Grace has done the cooking today. I’m just overseeing it while she has returned home to tend her chores. Are you hungry?” Rachel took it as a good sign.
“Grace?” Emileah asked, reeling a bit. Grace Winningham was Justice Winningham’s daughter, a lovely girl that Collin had been courting. He had done most of the courting at the Winningham home, and Emileah did not know Grace very well.
“Yes, Grace,” Rachel repeated. “She’s quite good for someone so young. Her mother is an excellent homemaker.”
Emileah took a deep breath of fresh air and was nearly overcome as it filled her lungs. “Has Grace been here much?”
Rachel suddenly stopped stabbing at the earth with her spade and stood. “Just today. I did the cooking yesterday.”
Emileah could tell that Rachel sensed her displeasure. “I see.”
Rachel thought better of telling Emileah that someone had to cook, since she obviously wasn’t doing any. “Are you hungry?” she repeated.
Emileah was actually more hungry than she had been since Jacob’s death. “No. I’m really not very hungry.” She might have considered eating if it had been Rachel’s food, but she was not about to eat something that Grace had cooked here. She thought Grace very nice, but was not about to encourage the girl to take over the household. Not yet.
“I tried to weed your flowers a bit,” Rachel told her, gesturing with the spade. “I haven’t been near the roses, however.”
Emileah looked disdainfully over the vegetables that Rachel had been working in. “Thank you.” She did not care to tend the food as much as the flowers, which she loved intensely. She stepped toward a patch of deep-violet meadow sage that seemed to be fading. She couldn’t remember noticing that it had bloomed before. The nearby evening primrose was already beginning to dry out for the year.
She stepped carefully through her flowers, brushing her fingers across the delicate white petals of an aster before cupping the bloom of a purple coneflower in the palm of one hand.
Rachel knelt and once again began to dig for a fresh carrot. She watched Emileah from the corner of her eye. “No one has the gift for roses that you do, Emileah. The start you gave me is pale in comparison to yours.”
Emileah gazed across the garden at the wild violets and dandelions that dotted the grass and the field scabious along the fence and sighed. She had been avoiding the roses.
“You definitely inherited your gift of nature from your mother,” Rachel continued.
Emileah didn’t respond. She knew what Rachel knew – that Rachel’s mother was just as adept with plants as her own mother. She drew her thoughts back from the flowers and decided to get dressed – for what reason she hadn’t decided yet.
Rachel retrieved a carrot and watched with concern as Emileah disappeared without a word into the house. She’ll end up like her mother.
Emileah pretended to read the Bible in her room as Rachel, Henry, Grace and Collin sat down to dinner. For the first time in her life, she was not a gracious hostess.
She listened as they spoke in low, civilized conversation and could tell that she would like Grace when she got to know her better. Collin discussed the mill with Henry much like Jacob had used to discuss it with Collin. Grace and Rachel were engaged in a conversation about recipes. Emileah could not help the feeling of paranoia that they were purposefully avoiding a discussion about her because they knew she could hear them.
Her stomach growled for the third time and she set her book aside sadly, going to the window. She unlatched the clasp that held the panes fastened and opened it wide, slipping her body through it and out into the cool evening air before pushing the window almost shut again.
She cut through the field to the southeast road and trudged away from the village. The edge of their farm sat across from a large “Y” where the road went directly to the center of the town in one direction, and in another which branched into a small, narrow road leading northeast to several farms on the far edge of the settlement. She chose the opposite path, staying to the edge of the forest.
Now surrounded by trees, daylight had faded into shadows. There would be just enough time to visit the cottage before dark. She did not have a lantern and there would be no moon. There would, however, be owls and wolves.
She turned onto a practically non-existent forest path that snaked its way between trees. She only found it because she knew it was there – most would not have noticed it. As she walked, she took note of a dilapidated fencerow with brush overtaking it and a fallen tree.
The abandoned cottage was dark but no less inviting. It seemed so much smaller now than it had the last time Emileah had visited. She tiptoed to the threshold and lifted the latch.
The tiny house seemed to take a breath as the door opened. Emileah kept the door standing wide as she stepped inside and let her eyes adjust to the dim light. It was dusty, and every crevice was filled with cobwebs. Her heart pricked with a strange sensation – not quite sadness, but not joy. It was a longing but she couldn’t decide what for.
She touched a heavy wooden table and let her hand linger there as she stepped toward the hearth. The Bible that had once occupied the shelf now sat on her mantle at home. She inspected the space, with a sense that something was missing besides the Bible.
The bedroom door squeaked on old hinges as she pushed it open slowly with a flat hand. The room was empty. She noticed a yellow clay pitcher on a hook in the kitchen area but did not touch it, instead making her way out the back of the cottage.
The smell immediately brought memories flooding over her. This was her family’s solace. Lemon balm had overtaken the small garden, but mint and wild sage also remained in patches. She sat on the ground and leaned into a tree trunk, closing her eyes, breathing deeply.
“Come, girls!” Sarah Corey called to her daughters. Emileah and Collette dropped their sticks and bounded over immediately. “Look,” their mother whispered excitedly, opening a small cloth pouch and dumping out several oddly shaped pods. They were grayish brown and were long, with one very fat end with a stem and one slightly curled, pointed end. Emileah was afraid to touch them, for they were covered in what appeared to be spikes, but her mother handed a pod to each of them and she discovered that they didn’t hurt.
A slight breeze danced around the cottage and Sarah smiled. “Ready?” She cracked one of the pods open with a snap and pulled it apart, slowly releasing hundreds of tiny white wisps.
Emileah watched in wonder as her slightly older sister followed suit, using her finger to release the seedlings that clung stubbornly to the inside of the pod.
“What is it?” Emileah asked, cracking her own pod open in curiosity.
“Snow!” Collette called, chasing the wisps as they danced in the air before her and laughing as they avoided her. Sarah smiled at her daughter and opened another pod.
In less than a minute all the air was filled with tiny, lighter-than-air, white balls of fluff. Emileah and Collette danced and laughed like little sprites and stirred them in the air as they floated around the cottage like magic. The wisps whirled and spun, floating up into the treetops and down into the grasses, only to be caught by another breeze and sent in another direction. If any one from the village had come up the lane they would have stopped in utter amazement, wondering what they were seeing.
The excitement of the organic flurry was uplifting, and when the last seedling had settled or blown away the girls made their way back to their mother’s herb garden to sit with her as she worked – gathering bundles of plants for drying, taking buds and leaves for sachets and cooking, and sprinkling tobacco, eggshells, and spent tea leaves in the dirt. They were in awe of her.
Emileah could feel herself falling asleep in the memory, and forced her eyes open, gazing back at the empty cottage with a forlorn sigh. She reached out and picked several of the lemon balm stems to take back with her before going back to the cottage and securing the latches on the doors.
The dark of night had fallen by the time she reached home. Her bedroom window had been pulled shut and she knew they were aware of her disappearance. She laid the bundle of lemon balm on her sill before going around to the front door to meet their scrutiny.
Rachel was standing on the front step. “Where were you?” she asked with concern.
“I went for a walk,” Emileah told her.
Collin stepped out the front door. “Out the window?”
“I didn’t want to disturb your meal.”
Henry came onto the porch as well and Grace peeked out from inside. Emileah took a deep breath.
“You should have told someone,” Rachel said softly. “We didn’t know where you were.”
Emileah gave them all a bitter smile. “Do you really think I would go anywhere worth worrying about me over?”
Collin and Rachel shared a look that answered Emileah’s question.
“I’d like to speak to my mother,” Collin told the other three, who immediately consented and retreated back inside.
Emileah dug her heels in. She would not be scolded by her own son.
“Mother,” he said softly. She didn’t respond, so he came to her side. “I’m not accustomed to having a mother who sleeps in the cemetery and climbs out windows. It isn’t befitting.”
“Perhaps not,” she agreed tragically, not allowing herself the release of tears.
“I am concerned for you.”
She nodded. “Yes, I know. I understand.”
He put his arm around her shoulders silently, attempting to convey his own weakness in this trial. “You have friends. You are welcome at the mill any time, and Mistress Winningham would love to have you for company.”
Emileah took a step away from her son. “I shall do better,” she told him. He was so much like his father that it began to infuriate her. Why console and comfort her into the behavior he wanted? Why couldn’t he just argue so that she could release her anger on him? She opened the front door. “I’m sorry I concerned everyone. Excuse me. I think I’ll go to bed.”
Rachel glanced over at Collin, who looked helpless. Grace was simply trying to stay out of the matter. “I’ll clean up the chargers. Collin, it is probably time to take Grace home.”
Collin agreed reluctantly as Grace smiled at him. Henry waited patiently, smoking a pipe at the table as Rachel scraped the chargers and then took a bundle of bread to Emileah, rapping on the door lightly. “May I?” she asked, identifying herself.
Emileah considered whether or not to answer, but the door momentarily opened anyway. “Yes,” she sighed.
Emileah was arranging a bundle of lemon balm with some string and hanging it upside down from her bedpost. A lantern hanging on the wall lit the room. Rachel spread open the bundle of bread.
Emileah glanced at it twice – the second time as if realizing it was food — and thanked her cousin. “I am quite hungry,” she admitted.
Rachel sniffed at the wilting herbs. “Don’t tell me you were in your garden the whole time?”
Emileah shook her head as she finished a bite. “No. I went to the cottage. It’s my mother’s balm.”
“I won’t tell,” Rachel nodded reassuringly. Collin would not be happy to know.
“It’s alright,” Emileah shrugged. “Tell anyone you like.”
Rachel sighed and sank onto the edge of the bed. “You have changed. Where is Emileah?”
“I’ve not changed,” Emileah protested strongly. “You’ve just never had cause to notice until now.”
Rachel could not argue with this statement. Jacob had been the only one who truly knew Emileah. Everyone else in the village knew her as a gracious, happy goodwife who was often called upon to help her neighbors with chores but asked nothing in return. She had hosted a husking bee at the mill each harvest since she married Jacob, an event at which she always glowed with gaiety. There was not a soul in the village who did not envy her in some way.
But this was socially. Jacob was the only one close enough to determine her natural behavior. Rachel remembered Emileah had gotten in trouble quite frequently while still with her mother, but did not remember Emileah being rebellious. And she had raised a fine son. “Do you want to be left alone?” Rachel asked.
Emileah contemplated while she took another bite, chewed, and swallowed. “No, not particularly.”
“We used to tell each other everything,” Rachel smiled.
“Tell me something then,” Emileah answered with a hint of sadness in her smile.
Rachel leaned back and looked to the ceiling. “Hmm.”
“What is it I do not know?” Emileah prodded. “Tell me.”
There was, in fact, a great deal Emileah did not know, but Rachel was not about to tell her this night. “Michael Gray has asked about you.”
Michael Gray was the village cobbler and leather worker. He had lost both his wife and his son and was a very kind widower that kept to himself and his responsibilities to his neighbors. “I am tired of pity.”
“Perhaps he is the only person who understands what you are feeling?” Rachel asked.
Emileah considered it thoughtfully. She knew Rachel was right but could not resist arguing for the sake of it. “Perhaps he sees Jacob’s death as an opportunity.”
“What a terrible thing to say of one’s good Christian neighbor,” Rachel scolded. She wondered if Emileah had a point. “I daresay that there probably are less Christian men in our village who think along those lines, however.”
“Why would they? Surely everyone knows my devotion to Jacob?”
Rachel gazed at her cousin. “You are charming. And Collin will marry soon. There isn’t a man around who doesn’t think you’re the most winsome woman in the village.”
Emileah pushed the remaining bread away with a groan, putting one hand to her forehead and the other to her stomach. “Don’t speak to me of such things.”
Rachel paused, knowing she should not have spoken to Emileah along those lines. “You tell me something then,” she said quietly.
Emileah relaxed and ran her hand up and down the edge of the bed that Jacob used to sleep on. “We’re too young to die,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I’m too young to be a widow.”
Rachel nodded, beckoning her cousin to say more.
Emileah crossed the room and leaned on the back of the chair that had held her soiled dress two days ago. “Something is missing from my life. Something besides Jacob.”
When she didn’t continue, Rachel spoke up. “What is it?”
Emileah shook her head sadly. “I don’t know.”