When Jonah said that Mrs. Wiley knew what to do with things from the garden he was not exaggerating. I was amazed at what she could do with the sweet, red berries. We were as industrious as beavers and frugal as church mice, not a single berry was allowed to go to waste.
Women from the village came early the next morning and we picked all the ripe berries on the plants. After it became too warm to pick the berries we would take them to great tubs on the kitchen porch and cut the green caps from them and then slice them for whatever Mrs. Wiley decided we needed to do next. First came the strawberry preserves that used honey to sweeten it; some went home with the village women but most of it went down into the coolest park of the cellar.
Next was dried strawberries on the great drying screens that Jonah pulled from the barn and cleaned. We made strawberry pulp leathers and put them down into the cold cellar for later use as well.
After we had been at this a couple of days I came out of the field to a surprise. Francine and her aunts were in the kitchen helping Mrs. Wiley who is never one to turn away a willing hand. I don’t know if Francine’s hands were willing but they were certainly working under her aunt’s strict guidance.
Muriel, addressing me, said, “I am glad to see that you are willing to learn the art of housewifery. I am afraid I had begun to despair of seeing you take your place as a wife. Dear Francine should not be left to do all the work.”
I nearly choked and if I hadn’t had a mouth full of strawberry I might have said something unwise. Instead I gave the woman a vacuous smile and she seemed content with that as a reply.
It was a couple of days later that Cor returned. He was absolutely amazed at finding Francine working away and believed everything the aunts fed him hook, line and sinker … and I suspect as much because he wanted to as because he is a lunkhead where some things are concerned.
At dinner that night the two lovebirds were all smiles for one another. I was happy to be ignored as I had sliced my thumb open capping strawberries and then gotten salt in it where I was stirring a batter of strawberry break. The thumb was thumping like a drum and I was eager to be away from all the noise … what was at the table and what my thumb was making. Then Hazel who had taken some strange delight in trying to whip me into shape said, “Cor Dear.” He looked at her and then she looked down the table towards me. I had no idea what she was up to but I wasn’t biting.
She kept looking at him and then looking at me pointedly. When none of us seem to be getting it she finally sighed and said to me, “Fel … Dear … please don’t worry. You will get your turn with Cor. I am sure that he brought you something from the fort as well.”
I nearly swallowed my tongue in quick and had a hard time coming up with a reply until my humor kicked in. “Aw Missus Hazel. I wouldn’t feel right taking time away from Francine. She was here first and when Cor left things in such a pucker. I won’t hold it against him none. Cor’s just glad she’s forgiven him and ‘tis only right that they have some alone time down there at the other end of the table. I know you wouldn’t think so as I’m a little hard headed but I have learned some manners since I was brung out of the Outlands.”
Mrs. Wiley was carrying out the leftovers from the strawberry cake she’d made for a treat and she nearly dropped the platter. I jumped up to save it and her … and in point of fact myself. I turned and said brightly, “Reckon this here is my cue. Thank you so much Missus Hazel for thinking of me so kindly but you folks should be able to talk amongst yourselves without having to worry whether you are leaving me in the dust or not.”
I followed Mrs. Wiley out to the kitchen carrying half the dishes while she carried the other half. After we sat the dishes in the tubs and the boys commenced to washing them Mrs. Wiley took my arm firmly and steered me to the two rooms that she had for her personal use. “I want ter see that thumb o yers.”
I started to say, “It’s fine …”
When she said, “I’ll have that thumb or I just might paddle yore behind like it deserves. Yer knows yer got more sense thens the way yer acts around them. I nearly dropped the dishes at that antic yer just pulled in thar. Why do yer hide yer brain like that?”
Trying to think of a truth that wouldn’t reveal the rest of my lie I told her, “Because they are meddlesome. They’re trying to force Cor to be some way he isn’t. They’re bossy and I … I just don’t want to give them any idea that their bossing will work on me.”
“Then jes tell ‘em that Gilly. What’s ter use of all the games?”
Then I told her, “Because I don’t necessarily want them to know they can’t boss me around.”
She stopped at gave me a searching look. “Yer don’t trust ‘em none.”
I shrugged as she turned my thumb gently this way and that. “Let’s just say that I’ve got reason to believe the Lathrops want to have more say in what goes on around here than they should.”
Another pause and she asks carefully, “You think Miss Francie is in on it?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what to think of Francine.”
“Thet’s not a yes er no.”
I shook my head again. “But it’s the only answer I can make that comes close enough to the truth that it isn’t a lie. I won’t try and set Cor against Francine and I won’t say something that makes people take sides when doing so will surely hurt someone real bad one way or the other. All I care about right now is making sure people have enough to eat this winter.”
She asked me no more questions. I said goodnight. And then I headed off to the cabin, but not before giving her a wicked look and snitching a couple of strawberries which made her laugh and shake her head.
Once in the cabin I decided to let myself relax. I was shaking my skirts out after washing up in a basin of cool water and putting on a long shirt that doubled as my sleeping outfit. Since my family died I had been used to sleeping in the clothes that I stood up in all day … both because that was all I had and because it was another layer of protection against our occasional night time “visitor”. But every time I turned around something was just sort of appearing in my laundry and for once I was grateful not to have to deal with threadbare breast bands and loin cloths and the few other underlinens that I put up with.
There was a unexpected knock on the door and I grabbed my knife from the small table where I had set it. By the time I turned around the doorway was filled with male and I was fit to be tied.
I hissed, “Cor! Are you looking to get gutted?!”
“Shhh! I wouldn’t put it passed those cacklers to be watching and listening in.”
He leaned against the door to close it in relief and then after a solid glance in my direction that left his jaw open and swinging in the breeze he slammed his hand over his eyes. “Put some clothes on!” he yelped quietly.
“They’re damp you loony. I’m not going to catch sick over something this silly, not even for you. Hang on if the sight of me is burning your eyes out of their sockets.” I pulled my extra quilt off the end of the bed and told him, “You can uncover your eyes now.”
He carefully peeked and then dropped his hand. I couldn’t help it, I laughed at him. He was embarrassed then angry and then quickly shook his head and said, “You don’t have to rub it in you know. You just caught me off guard.”
“Well maybe next time you knock you ought to way until you are invited in.”
He nodded and said, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
He looked a little big for the cabin and he started looking uncomfortable again. I said, “Did you have some reason in particular to be here?”
“Huh? Oh … yeah. Francine and her aunts, they … uh … they don’t think I was … uh … sharing …”
When he sputtered to a stop I asked, “Sharing what?”
He sighed and then said, “Me.”
I couldn’t help it. The look on his face was just too much. It was a good thing Daphne had cured me of personal vanity long ago. Instead all I could do was laugh … and laugh and laugh. I hadn’t laughed like that … well, in a long, long time.
With my eyes streaming I finally stopped and saw Cor sitting in the rocker trying not to laugh himself. He looked at me and he said, “And you call me a loon.”
Wiping my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt I said, “Seriously, why are you here.”
“Seriously, I’m here right now because that’s what they expect. I was going to wait until the morning but I might as well give them to you now.”
“Give me what?” I asked.
He picked up a sack he had set inside the door that I hadn’t noticed. He offered it to me but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. “Go on Fel, take it … it’s yours.”
“That’s not my rucksack.”
“I know it. You waiting for me to upend it for you or don’t you want your letters?”
“My letters?” I asked trying to hide my disappointed. “Didn’t you get to see Docia?”
He smiled and said, “Saw her and then went back to pick up her return letter for you. She said she’s sorry if the letter is a little stained but she was crying buckets and buckets for finally hearing from you. She also was able to get letters from a couple of the other girls you call sister and stick them in there too.”
I looked at him afraid to hope. “You better not be fooling me.”
He finally realized how important this was to me and said quietly, “I wouldn’t fool about this Fel. Here, take the sack … the letters and a couple of other things are in there too.”