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Authors: Laura Amy Schlitz

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BOOK: The Hired Girl
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“I’m making jam,” I said briskly, and skimmed raspberry froth off the top. “Your dinner’s on the kitchen stool under the elm tree. There’s beer and sandwiches and cookies.” And then — I don’t know how I found the courage — I went on. “I don’t see my way to making a hot dinner every day in this heat. I’m on strike.”

I couldn’t see Father’s face very well. He stood with the light behind him, and I could see that Mark and Luke were with him. There was a brief pause before Father took the Lord’s name in vain. Then he said the thing he’s always saying, about how a working man has a right to a hot meal. And then he demanded to know what in heaven’s name — only it wasn’t
heaven
he said — I meant by being
on strike.

“I don’t have any money,” I said over my shoulder. The jam was bubbling up high, so I wrapped towels around my hands and took the kettle off the heat for a minute. “I’m bound and determined to do what has to be done in this house, but I want a little money. So I won’t be doing anything that
doesn’t
have to be done. I’m not going to iron. I’ve made up my mind about that. And until I get a little money, you and the boys’ll have to make your own beds. And I don’t see why dinner has to be hot, not when it’s ninety in the shade, and I have to make jam.” I set the jam kettle on the table and fetched a saucer. I spooned a little jam onto the saucer and lifted the saucer to see if the jam would run or stay put.

It was still runny, so I put the kettle back on the stove. I picked up the wooden spoon and stirred.

Father took the name of the Lord in vain again. This time he added a middle initial, which was 
H.
I’ve always wondered if the
H
stood for
Holy.
I braced myself, because I didn’t know what he might do next — he might shake me, or even slap me.

But he didn’t. For one thing, Mark had hold of his arm. And for another — but it was only later that I remembered this — Father’s wary of being in the kitchen when I’m putting food by. I remember the first year I canned tomatoes, the jars exploded, one after another, and Father almost lost an eye. The funny thing is, the jars never explode when I make jam — I don’t know why. It’s the tomatoes that are temperamental.

But Father doesn’t know that. He gave an unpleasant grunt and turned away. I was busy with the jam, but I knew at once when he went out, and I felt a great rush of relief. When I peeked out the window a little later, Father was sitting under the elm tree with a ham sandwich in his fist. The way he was eating, I could tell I hadn’t spoiled his appetite.

I felt limp — and astonished — and triumphant. Oh, I hadn’t gotten the egg money yet — but I’d stood up to Father, and he hadn’t come after me. I felt so baffled-happy, I could scarcely keep my mind on the jam. All at once, the smell of it seemed as intoxicating as wine — some rare, racy, aromatic wine, like French champagne, though I’ve never tasted that. I’ve only heard about it. But I was drunk with relief and triumph and the smell of raspberries, and I reckon that’s as good as champagne any day.

I was proud of myself, and the jam turned out beautifully.

I had time to iron my things and wash up before supper. I made an especially good supper — no point in riling up Father twice in one day — pork chops with gravy, and boiled greens and hominy cakes, and dried-apple dumplings with cream. I was especially cheerful as I served it, and I said no more about the strike. Father didn’t speak to me. I think he doesn’t know what to do, so he’s pretending I’m not on strike at all.

After I finished the dishes, I said, “It’s such a lovely night. I think I’ll take the mending outdoors.” And I took up my workbasket, but
I’d hidden a pencil and this book inside.
And I haven’t been sewing, but writing. So there!

Later that evening

I think I will never stop crying.

Father has burned my books.

Wednesday, June the twenty-eighth, 1911

I’ve locked myself in my room. The door has no lock, but I’ve wedged a straight chair under the knob. I don’t even know why I did it — the men are outside harrowing — except that I need to be in a room where Father can’t come.

I’ve been crying all day. Sometimes I stop for a little. Then I think about what happened last night, and I start up again. It feels like I’ve rubbed off my eyelashes, I’ve cried so hard. My face hurts, and my mouth is as dry as cornstarch. I’m queasy and thirsty and wretched.

I wish Ma were here. If Ma were here she’d put her arms around me, and — there! — I’ve started crying again, wailing like a baby because I want Ma so. I’m sure Jane Eyre and Rebecca wouldn’t be so childish — but no, that’s worse. I think about my friends, my burned friends, and that makes me cry even harder. I
must
stop. I
will
stop.

I’m beginning to be hungry. I suppose I could creep downstairs and bring a little bread up to my room. I fixed breakfast this morning, same as always, but as soon as the men came down, I came back upstairs. Seems like I couldn’t face any of them. I’d hoped — how stupid I was! — that one of the boys might say something kind, but of course they didn’t. They don’t like me. It took Father to teach me that. I’ve known for some time that Father doesn’t love me, but I didn’t know about the boys.

My heart is broken.

I look ahead and I don’t know how I can bear the life that’s laid out for me. Years and years of it: washing and ironing and scrubbing out the privy, cooking and scouring and feeding and mending, everything the same, day after day, season after season, working myself to death, as Ma did. Only Ma wasn’t strong. It’ll be years before the work kills me. I see all those years ahead of me, and a dreadful bleakness comes over me and I want to die.

Except that I don’t. Even if I could go straight to heaven, like the holy saints, and didn’t have to bother with Purgatory, I don’t want to die. Miserable though I am, I feel the blood alive in my veins and I know my lungs are taking in air, and when I think of all of that stopping, I feel such horror and sadness that I can’t bear it. I could
never
kill myself.

But to go on, after last night — friendless, hopeless, imprisoned in this house of hateful men —

I find myself needing to write it all out in this book, which is blotted with tears and full of sentiments that aren’t refined. I meant so much better by this book. But then, I meant to have a better life — I meant to better myself, as Miss Chandler said. Only yesterday, I thought it was possible; I was a cocksure little girl who thought she could win the egg money from Father by going on strike. I want to weep for that girl. But at the same time I’m ashamed of her, because she was such a fool.

I came in from writing last night, with this book still hidden in my workbasket. The sun was down and the house was dim. The men had gone to bed. I came in through the kitchen and I ought to have noticed that the stove was lit and there was a smell of burned paper. I suppose I did notice, but I didn’t stop to think why. The kitchen’s always full of smells, and my mind was on other things.

I took a candle so I could read when I got upstairs. I thought I’d read a little of
Jane Eyre
before I went to sleep — the scene in the garden when Mr. Rochester asks her to marry him. I went up to my room and lit the candle and set it on my dresser. That’s when I saw my precious books were missing. The two round stones I use as bookends were there, and the Bible — even Father wouldn’t dare to burn Holy Writ. But the books that Miss Chandler gave me —
Dombey and Son,
and
Ivanhoe,
and
Jane Eyre
— were all gone. I stood aghast. I might have misplaced one of them — left it on the bed or even in the kitchen. But for all three to be missing —

Then I knew. I knew what Father had done, and I knew why a fire had been kindled in the stove. A different kind of father — not mine — might have taken my books as a rebuke, to be returned after I promised to be more respectful. But my books were gone for good. I knew it.

I had to make sure. I guess there was one part of me that cherished a hope that maybe
one
of the books mightn’t have burned to ashes; that I might be able to save just one. I ran downstairs to the kitchen and opened the stove. There was nothing but a bed of cinders.

I saw the book covers lying in the slop pail, and I shrieked. The slop pail! Leather stinks when it burns, so Father tore the books out of their bindings — I could see the tattered linen webs, with only a few shreds of paper still attached. It made it worse that my books had been mauled like that. I seemed to see Father wrenching out the pages that contained my dearest friends: Jane and Mr. Rochester, Wamba and Rebecca, Florence and Captain Cuttle and Mr. Toots. I remembered Miss Chandler’s handwriting on the flyleaves: “To Joan.” She wrote that in
Jane Eyre
and
Dombey and Son,
but “To dear Joan”— that’s what she wrote inside
Ivanhoe.

I ran straight to Father’s bedroom and yanked open the door. I wasn’t afraid, not one bit, not then; not even when I saw that Father was undressing. He’d lowered his braces and taken off his stockings and boots; he was unbuttoning his shirt. “My books!” I cried. “How could you? You burned my books! You cruel, wicked man, you unnatural father!” And then I echoed Jane Eyre’s very words: “You are like a Roman emperor — you are like a murderer —”

“That’s enough,” said Father. “You shut up about those books, you hear me? They’re burned up and good riddance.”

“I
won’t
shut up,” I said. At that moment, I was fearless. In one of Miss Chandler’s books — I think it was
Oliver Twist —
I read that when a woman is thoroughly roused, no man dare provoke her. I think I must have been in just that state, because Father seemed startled by my defiance. I screamed at him, “You
are
like a murderer! You’ve murdered me — taken away everything I care about, and I’ll never forgive you! My books, that Miss Chandler gave me, my only source of —” But there I broke down and sobbed, because I couldn’t even say what those books meant to me. During bad times, I’ve turned to them the way a pious girl might turn to her Bible. There was wisdom in them, though they were storybooks. And poetry. They might not have been books of verse, but they were poetry to me. Miss Chandler says that life isn’t worth living if you haven’t a sense of poetry.

But I think the most important thing those books gave me was a kind of faith. My books promised me that life wasn’t just made up of workaday tasks and prosaic things. The world is bigger and more colorful and more important than that. Maybe not here at Steeple Farm, but somewhere. It
has
to be.
It has to be.

I glared at Father through my tears, and he no longer seemed like my father but like some misshapen fiend. “Why are you so horrible to me?” I demanded. “You don’t show me one bit of kindness or affection; you treat me with miserable cruelty! And now you destroy my books! What have I ever done to you?”

“What I’ve done to
you
?” echoed Father. “What about what you’ve done to me? What about what you took from me?”

I threw up my hands. I couldn’t think of anything I’d done that could justify him burning my books and throwing the covers in the slop pail. “Took from you! What did I ever take from you?”

Father stepped forward. “I had a wife,” he said, and there was so much hatred in his voice that it sent a chill down my spine. “She was a good worker and a helpmeet, till you came along. We had three sons, and the doctor told her not to have another. He said she wasn’t strong —”

I couldn’t believe he was blaming me for Ma’s death. “She wasn’t strong because you worked her to death!” I shrieked. “She was too frail to do all that work! I
helped
her —
you
worked her to death —”

He went for me then. I must have known he was going to strike me, because I dodged the blow and shot for the door. Down the stairs I went, and I had it in my mind to dash out the kitchen door and escape into the darkness. But at the bottom of the stairs I turned to face him. I clutched the newel post to my bosom like a shield. “Don’t you dare strike me!” I yelled, and I scarcely knew my own voice; it was so low and harsh and fierce.

I stop now, writing this. Because I think — I
think
— that even though I was shouting at Father, I meant the boys to hear me. It all happened so fast, and I was in the grip of passion. But I
think
that at the back of my mind, there was an idea that if the boys knew Father meant to strike me, they might come.

But they didn’t. Father stopped halfway down the stairs, as if there were a barrier between us that he didn’t want to cross. I could feel his glare in the darkness. “She wanted a little girl!” he yelled, and I never heard the words
little girl
sound so terrible in all my life. They sounded like profanity. “After you were born, she didn’t give two cents about anything but you.” His voice rose to a falsetto; he was mimicking Ma. “‘Joan has to have hair ribbons! Joan has to have a doll! Joan has to go to high school! Promise me you won’t ever hit Joan! ’” He dropped the falsetto and bellowed, “She turned her back on her husband and forgot her sons! All she cared about was her precious Joan —”

“That’s not true!” I shouted, but it was no use, because now Father was thundering at me, and the things he said came so fast it was as if they were hailstones. He said I was stuck-up and conceited and a sneak, always reading instead of doing my chores. He said he’d promised Ma he wouldn’t hit me, but that a good whipping might have been the saving of me, only it was too late now. He said I was idle and clumsy and such a big ugly ox of a girl that nobody’d ever take me off his hands. I can’t even remember all the cruel things he said, but listening to them was like having someone hold my nose and tip back my head and pour poison into my mouth. At first I cried out in defiance, saying I wasn’t, and none of it was true. But after a while I only cried. I put my head down on the newel post and waited for him to stop. After a long time I heard him go up the stairs. He shut the bedroom door with a bang.

Then all was quiet, except for my sobs. But the quiet was terrible. I knew the boys must have heard us shouting, but they hadn’t come to protect me. The fight was between Father and me, and they were content that it should be so. If even one of my brothers — oh, Mark!— had come downstairs and spoken up for me, or come to console me, I would have knelt down and clasped my arms around his boots. But there was only silence.

BOOK: The Hired Girl
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