A week went by, and I forgot about it. Now, almost a month later, I got a call saying that I had won: a $50 giftcard, and they were going to feature my story in a local newspaper, and would I mind them using my full name and a picture? Oh, YES. And so I've basically been dancing around the house like mad...you'd think I'd gotten my first book published! But it's a good start, I think.
Anyway, I thought I'd share the first part of my story with you. =) Enjoy!
An Open Window
The woman had a soured expression on her weather-beaten face as she crossed her arms across her ample chest. Her shoulders were squared and she stood tall and firm, imposing despite her small stature. The three girls, though they towered over her, stood meekly before her, heads bowed and hands folded. The woman withdrew a cigarette from her cracked lips, and leaning back her head, exhaled, three smoke rings rising through the air. Three. One for each girl. One for each of her eldest daughters.
She sighed as she looked at them, youthful and naive as she had once been. They weren't ready for this, and she knew it. But it was necessary, she thought regretfully, remembering the circumstances that had brought them here.
Her name was Maude Bagnold, widow of William Bagnold, bearer of twelve children; five boys and seven girls. While her husband was alive, Maude had been a good woman, altruistic in nature. She might even have been what some would call beautiful, though as we all know, beauty is only skin-deep.
The family was nicely situated; neither rich nor poor, but settled comfortably in-between. They had even been able to afford a maid. But William had itchy feet, and with all the talk of adventure in the West, he leaped at the thought. It wasn't long before the quickly-enlarging family packed itself into a prairie schooner to travel half-way across the country to homestead on a colorless prairie. Maude had cried to learn that their nearest neighbors were five miles away, and the town, even further, held only a handful of stores and was home to a wealth of drunkards. From their little home to the horizon, all that could be seen was that awful, cursed prairie grass, swaying mockingly in the wind.
Then the fever came, infecting William and a handful of the children. Maude and the others had had it before and were therefore immune. Still, the air was rank with disease, and it affected them all one way or another. If they weren't sick, they were tired, if they weren't tired, they were hungry, as Maude gave her all to the nursing of her family. And then there was the hardship of seeing their strong father and siblings so weak.
The children fought through, but William was not so fortunate. Their closest neighbors and the reverend turned out to a dismal funeral. The stubbornly dry prairie had been drenched with rain, which drizzled down on the sorry group, and the air was filled with sneezes and coughs from the children who were still recovering. Maude watched, cold-faced and impassive, as two men, almost strangers, laid her husband to rest in the sodden ground.
And that was that. William had left her alone with twelve children and meager monetary support. Her relatives wrote often, pleading with her to return home. But Maude was faced with the bitter shame of what she had become. She was no longer the refined lady she had once been; that part of her had died - some in New York, while the rest had been buried with William. Maude had withdrawn into herself, become stony and cold. That was when she took up smoking.
For a long time, she would spend her days in a chair by the window, cigarette between her cracked lips, staring. Just staring. It was as though her soul had removed itself, leaving her body empty. The farm would have gone to ruin if not for the dedication of the older children, who wisely left her alone and went about their business.
It was guilt that brought her to her senses. Guilt that she was making her children's lives hard - forcing too much responsibility on them. And so she left her chair, and her window, though the cigarettes rarely left her lips.
A human heart still beat against her breast, and she did her best to raise her children into fine, God-fearing individuals. The children returned her love with all their hearts. There were times, though, late at night, when the air was filled with only the breathing of twelve children, that Maude wished she could have been a better mother, and her conscience troubled her.
The three girls were Anne, Mary, and Polly, all of them bright young women, whose only concerns should have been marrying a decent husband and starting a family. But such was not the case. The nearest town was miles away, and everything they needed was delivered. If there were any eligible young men, the girls didn't know about them.
Maude took another drag on her cigarette before reaching a hand into her apron pocket. "Hold out your hands," she barked, pressing a bundle of bills and coins into each girl's hand. "That's to get you started."
Anne, who as the eldest was used to speaking for her siblings, spoke up, her voice soft and lightly confident. "Don't worry, Mother, we'll be fine."
Maude's lips twitched at the corners; the closest she ever came to a smile. Roughly, she embraced each of her daughters in turn, watching as they left. The younger two didn't look back once; Mary had bowed her head to hide her tears, and Polly was counting the money in her palm. But Anne turned to wave, a reassuring smile on her face.
Leaning against the sturdy door-frame, Maude sighed again, cigarette dropping unnoticed to the ground. She had an uneasy feeling about leaving them to fend for themselves and worried about whether she had done the right thing. It had to be done, she told herself as she stooped to pick up her cig, stamping out the sparks that had risen. She had three less mouths to feed and would be better off for it.
Such was her hope. Wisps of smoke stretched their fingers to the sky, swirling in mesmerizing patterns. Maude watched them for a moment before stepping backwards and closing the heavy door, creating a wall between herself and her daughters. Now there was no going back.