It snowed in Lawrence, Massachusetts the week before the Christmas of 1911. While snow in December was not unusual, the skies seeming more menacing and the first flakes far larger, was, in part, due to the contrast with the mild weather of the first half of the month. Lulled into willful denial of the nature of the winters in New England, phrases like, ‘this might be the Winter without snow’, or ‘I can remember one year, must of been ’97 or ’98, when we went this far into the Winter without snow, it was a record warm year, that year’, floated in the air along the sidewalks, as tired workers and their nervous managers passed and mixed in a collegial stream, lulled by the un-seasonably warm temperatures of the first two weeks of the last month of the year.
The snow started early on Sunday, the 17th. As people walked to church, the pedestrian niceties possessed a subtle, barely-there, tinge of relief, ‘well, this is not unusual’ or ‘about time’, as if to express their disappointment at snow falling in December might somehow make matters worse. By unspoken agreement, no-one thought to complain about the snow fall, as if to speak of it, might, somehow, cause Winter to remember it’s true nature and make up for lost time. Like an elderly teacher nearing retirement, forgetting a scheduled exam, his students knew that to remind him of the over-sight would surely cause him to come up with a test far more difficult. All, as if to prove, somehow, that he wasn’t suffering from a mental decline.
It was still snowing when the faithful left their respective churches, stepping now more carefully, as the hour of snowing changed the sidewalks and paths through the Town Common from a condition of being ‘pretty’ to one warranting, ‘be careful’. Some were clearly disappointed that their prayers had been ignored. They did not express this disappointment for the same reasons the students of the increasingly senile teacher did not mention tests. Afternoon saw no end to the snow and the weather had taken the irrevocable step from, ‘snow’ to ‘a snow storm’. The un-seasonably green grass acquired 4 inches of snow cover by 3:00 pm and the sky grew darker than the clocks would require. Often, the early evening is when a mild snow storm begins to slow and stop, this was not to be, on this particular Sunday. By 6:00 pm the grey sky had turned a mottled black and it was as dark as midnight, the wind blew with increasing ferocity, out of the northeast. Old timers recognized the early signs of a blizzard and went about in their homes, making certain they knew where the candles and the empty buckets were, already wearing an extra sweater, as if to store up warmth against a very cold night.
“What the bloody hell are you talking about, Herlihy. Yes, I did, in fact, attend Dartmouth College. Speak up!! No, I have not recommended that a study be done!”
Frederick Prendergast debated whether he should stand to make his point or remain seated. Both offered a certain advantage. Looking across his wide desk at the policeman, with the too shiny badge and shoes glistening with permanently fresh machine oil stains, he decided standing wasn’t worth the bother.
Sargent Herlihy was, at first, excited to hear from his Captain that he was asked to go the office of the CEO of the Essex Company. He genuinely, if not naively believed that anything he did that came to the attention to those who ran the City of Lawrence, would surely bode well for his career. Now, standing in front of an elaborately ornate desk, a single piece of furniture worth more than he was, Sargent Gareth Herlihy was having second thoughts about his ambition. The man behind the desk was the most powerful man in Lawrence, but there was something about the man that he just didn’t like.
“At least you didn’t add to our problems. Thank you for that, Sargent,”
Seeing the cop perk up and his chest swell at the attention, depressed Frederick Prendergast more than he was when he left Church for this ridiculously un-necessary meeting. That he was meant for better things than to ride herd on cops and Mill town toughs, was apparently still being overlooked by the owners of Lawrence, Massachusetts, the real owners, the Essex Company,
“Keep an eye on that Union Hall. There are changes coming. Changes that will not sit well with a certain, unruly element in town. Can I count on you, Sergeant Herlihy?”
“Yes sir, yes you can. I’m your man.”
Sargent Gareth Herlihy left the office of the CEO of the Essex Company feeling angry. He hoped that there would be trouble somewhere in town tonight, snow or no snow. Arresting unruly suspects usually cheered him up.
Almira knew she was dreaming. Sometimes this was very amusing, as she would wander the world of night and explore, secure in the knowledge that everything around her, large and small, threatening and inviting, was insubstantial and therefore not a particularly real danger to her.
This dream was different. Some of the more curious elements were oddly familiar and yet, somehow, seemed to deliberately hold back some critical bit of information or insight. The threatening and frightening elements of this particular dream were more vague than usual, darkly-foreboding feelings, like a low ground fog, moved silently, as if stirred by a night-breeze.
…she was walking away from a small cottage that stood at the base of immensely tall, red cliffs. Clearly someone’s home, it’s location did not seem to enjoy the benefit of being sheltered by the towering cliffs, but actually, was at risk. And it was not that rock shards, boulders might fall and crush it, rather the danger seemed to lie in how the cliffs seemed to grow, and in the process of growing, threaten to absorb the little house, turning it’s soft, warm light into hard, cold brick. There was a sound, the dreaming girl suddenly realized, a moaning that was coming from within the bricks.
Almira started to run from the cliffs and their song of despair. Coming to the top of a flower-covered hill, she stopped running and stood, paralyzed by the sight of endless plains, spreading out before her, farther than the eye could see. Small clumps of trees, many with a companion blue lake, dotted the nearly flat landscape, she looked for and failed to find any pattern to the arrangement. Both of these other-wise quite normal and even charming features, served only to make the endless fields seem even more soul-sapping. She turned to her left and saw a man, standing at a small crossroads, just a short distance from where she stood, (this being a dream, after all, Almira smiled to herself). The intersection, in the middle of the vast prairie, really was just a smallish square of prairie grass that was more trampled into dirt than the areas around it.
“Pardon me, can you tell me where I am?” She asked the man, who appeared not to notice her sudden arrival.
“No, but I would be happy to tell you where you should try to go.”
The man, who Almira thought looked a little like Emerson, was smoking a pipe that made her add, ‘and a bit of Abraham Lincoln’. Looking directly at her, the tall man began to re-fill his pipe. Somehow it had become enormous, despite the fact that he’d been smoking when she first noticed him. He continued to focus on his pipe, until he had it filled to his satisfaction, at which point he assumed the manner of an orator,
“The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”
He looked off into the distance, as if for a dramatic effect and, then smiled to himself, while bending over to whisper in her ear,
“Even though I wrote that, I now think it’s rather obvious, don’t you? It was my good fortune to have first read it in public as a part of a sermon. Do you know how little people actually pay attention when listening to a sermon?”
Almira giggled and thought she felt something near her leg, looked down, but saw nothing.
Emerson/Lincoln stood looking at her and, with the air of an actor relaxing after a demanding performance, put his pipe away and said,
“My friend, Margaret Fuller, once said,
‘Two persons love in one another the future good which they aid one another to unfold.’
I rather like that one, don’t you?”
Almira found herself blushing, but nodded, her hand coming up to her face,
“and, personally, I think that this is the best we can hope for, but since I’m only a dream man…”
Again, Almira felt a warmth rise in her face and spread through her middle,
“…this is your dream about finding your way, I should try to be more sure of myself and therefore, helpful to you. So I will say,
‘If you go one way, it will be as it was. Of course, if you choose to go the other way, it will be as you hope. Neither is your choice alone’.”
Almira looked towards what felt like the western horizon, although she knew that in dreams, nothing was as it appeared to be, turned back to face the man and found only a plain field, a scattering of flowers growing in a pattern that hinted of a path.
‘Well,’ Almira thought, ‘I had better get moving’, as the far-off sound of a distant scream began to grow, coming from the direction of the tall, red cliffs…
The aroma of minestrone soup lifted Almira from her dream, the sound of a tea kettle gave her sleep-closed eyes a direction to look.
“Well, look who’s finally awake! Hey, good morning, sleepy head.”
Her friend, Annie LoPizzo, stood in front of the stove, in the kitchen end of the large room. Almira wrapped in a brown quilt, was lying on an even darker brown sofa, at the far end of this same room. Annie wore an apron around her waist and her long dark hair up in a bun. She lifted the kettle from the stove, poured boiling water into a small teapot and brought two cups, (decorated with a woodlands scene, done in pale blue and saucers with a gold band circling the rim), over to the low table in front of the couch. Returning to the stove, Annie brought back the teapot, a small sugar bowl and sat on the couch next to Almira, who had raised herself into a more upright position, while keeping the quilt nearly to her shoulders.
“I have to work the new Sunday second shift today. The Owners must have extra long Christmas gift lists this year.” Annie looked back towards the stove, got up and walked over to it, stirred the contents of a large sauce pan, and then arranged some plates on the kitchen table.
“It’s snowing, so I’m leaving a little early. I want to stop at the Union Hall to check on the Dombrovsky twins, before I go on to the Mill. Those girls are well-meaning and hard-working, but you’d think, with them being twins, it would be impossible to be so dumb! I’ll have to make sure that all the supplies are out on the counter. With this snow, I’m sure we’ll have people stopping by for supplies.”
Annie walked into the bedroom, unbuttoning her blouse, her apron left behind, draped on the back of one of the kitchen chairs. Pulling at the back of her skirt, she stepped out of it, never stopping, as she walked about the bedroom, gathering together the clothes she always wore to work at the Mill, clothes that were simple and fit closely to the body. She did not make this choice out of vanity, although a person would be forgiven for thinking so, as Annie had the kind of figure that men lusted for and women coveted.
As Annie stood in the bedroom doorway, wearing only her bloomers and a tooth brush, Almira found herself at once self-conscious and, at the same time, jealous of her friend’s natural comfort with herself. Her own figure was developed to quite an impressive degree, unfortunately, her self-confidence was not keeping pace with the increasingly prominent display of her feminine attributes.
“Sterling will be stopping by later, probably towards dinner, I have some gravy simmering on the stove for him. You should stay with the soup, maybe a little bread, ok?”
Almira pulled herself up on the couch,
“I’m not a little girl that you need to have someone babysit when you’re at work!”
Almira watched as Annie stopped working at her hair with her hairbrush. She saw a passing look pull at her friends face, the effort she made to resist whatever feeling possessed in that split-second showed in a slumping of her shoulders, her breasts, for just a fleeting time, made her look a woman of many more years and much more harder a life. Annie shook her head in a way that made Almira think of a horse, bridle removed after a long hard day pulling, shook her own mane and took the pleasure of feeling her hair brushing her shoulders to rejuvenate her,
“It wasn’t my idea! Your handsome and determined protector has been coming here everyday since …that night. Of course, you haven’t seen him because you’ve been asleep, healing. But he comes here every day. He sits and pretends to be interested in what my day has been like and how much work it is to run the Union Hall. And, you are never out of his sight.”
Almira looked surprised, a bit scared and yet quietly happy,
“What? You must be mistaken! You are why he is here, you’re so… so what men want. I am an ugly duckling in comparison. No, make that a ragged, under-sized raccoon. …with a very large nose.”
Annie stood and looked at Almira, and tilted her head, as if to get a different perspective, then walked over and, after brushing the girl’s hair down and to the side, stepped back and said,
“Well, now that I look, you’re right. But a very pretty, young raccoon.”
The room was silent, then both broke into laughter.
Almira Ristani hid from her thoughts nearly as much as from her emotions. To a passerby, she would seem cold, aloof and un-caring of the difficulties of those around her. However, to a friend and especially to a man who sees his life made worthwhile in her eyes, she was much, more more. To them, she appears a small, delicately featured girl who might someday turn into a woman. Her pale blue eyes were the color of a distant horizon on a summer afternoon. However, at those rare moments when caught off-guard, the observant person might be startled by the depth in her eyes. And, if one were especially daring, ambition incited by love, they might even see in her eyes, back where the soul touches the world, a sparkle of night flashing like distant lightening.
“You know men, but you must be mistaken.”
“I do know men. And you are still very young and, probably the smartest person I know… old or young, man or woman. You have such a gift for understanding,”
Annie sat on the edge of the couch and, after brushing Almira’s hair from her eyes, put her hand over the girls heart,
“You still have so much to learn about this. And, unlike that sharp and controllable mind of yours, the heart is like the ocean, powerful and un-controllable. And you, my little raccoon, have everything to learn about that particular subject!”
Almira took Annie’s hand in hers and looked at her friend,
“Yes, I know the bruises will go away. But my nose is now different, it feels different on my face. I find myself trying to look around it. It makes me feel that I need to squint. This morning, when I looked in the mirror, I thought, ‘So this is what a young, growing witch sees when she looks in the mirror’.”
“Stop that! This instant!
Annie’s voice was angry and Almira was taken aback by it’s vehemence,
“I never want to hear you speak like that about yourself again! Ever! I am a very attractive and intelligent woman, and I have only attractive and intelligent people for friends. Are you calling me a liar? If you are, we cannot be friends. I don’t have friends who think that I don’t know what I’m talking about or am stupid or something!”
Almira felt a sudden dipping in her stomach at the emotion in her friends voice. The passion and sincerity made the prospect of their friendship being at risk, terribly real. Annie remained seated and, for the young girl, the feeling of safety in the small space between the back of the couch and her friends leg melted the cold fear and a happy sadness overwhelmed her. Almira grabbed Annie’s arm in a hug, like a child clutching at her mother’s dress, a universal signal for being in need of protection.
Annie sat and held her friends hands as the girl began to cry,
“I won’t. I promise! As long as you are my friend, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of how I look, even the girl in my mirror.”
Almira curled on to her side, being very careful in resting her face against Annie’s leg. Annie stroked the girls hair, smoothing the tangles of fine hair, as if it was the tangle and confusion and knots that created the storm within her young friend, and to comb out and untangle the very, very light brown strands, would bring peace.
Without lifting her head, Almira spoke, almost into Annie’s thigh
“Exactly how well do you know men?”
Her body shook, as she tried to restrain her giggling.
Annie raised her eyebrow and looked sternly at the girl, both began to laugh,
“Your precious Mr Emerson and Mr Thoreau, with their lofty insights into the transcendental? They are children playing with wooden blocks compared to my understanding of the ways and nature of men! Your church-leading, college-men-of higher-education have not learned the secret language of boys who would be men. Young men speak words and think that we listen, seeing only the pretty pictures they paint with their voices. We listen and we watch, and …and, if we are smart, we learn to know them from what they do not say. Most of all, for those of us who are very, very smart, we learn from what they do not tell themselves.”
Leaning over the girl on the couch, Annie tucked in the quilt extra tight on the sides.
As Annie LoPizzo closed the apartment door, she looked and saw her houseguest on the couch with her books. Some lay open, across her lap and more on the floor, in front of the couch. Leather-bound pickets, running in staggered rows in the quiet before the battle.
Dorothy was out of the truck and running up to Eliza before Tom turned off the engine. She grabbed her friend in a hug that spoke of the quality of the time she spent apart much more eloquently than the amount of time passed.
“How long have you been waiting? I wish I’d known you were coming….” as she broke the hug first
“I only just got here. Don’t worry about me, I’ve had Henry Fonda here seeing that I didn’t get too bored.”
Dorothy watched as Eliza smiled at Hunk, barely keeping from licking her lips. For his part, Hunk only smiled into her friends dark eyes. Like a square of paper in a pan of developers solution, the parts appeared first, the meaning, second. With a feeling of surprise, tinged with something unidentifiable, she thought,
‘What happened to my scuff and stumble farmhand, Hunk? Eliza’s good with men, but I had no idea she could raise the not-yet-living to life.’
“Well, Dee, from the looks of your cute friend in the truck, you had some plans of your own, should I come back a little later?”
Eliza started to walk towards the cottage under the apple tree, next to the barn, “Come on, Hank, these two clearly have something on their minds. Show me all those books Dorothy told me so much about.”
Dorothy felt a hand entwine her fingers, large and strong, forcing them apart, forming a grasp that was at once rough and at the same time intimately exciting.
“Wait. No need. We were just stopping by the house for…”
Before she could complete the sentence, a distant sound, growing from the East, caused everyone, except Eliza and Hunk and Tom Hardesty to turn and look out over the fields towards County Rd #2 and the approaching vehicle.
“Shit! Why couldn’t it be a tornado tearing up the road instead of them!”
Dorothy looked around the open yard area, first at the house, then the barn and then the small cottage, where Eliza and Hunk had managed to get halfway to, and then at the two vehicles, Tom’s stake body truck, with Hardesty Farms painted on its rusty blue side panels and Eliza’s bright yellow Packard, it’s black canvas top making it look like a very large bee, sitting still between the flowers in a country yard.
“Hunk! Take Tom to the barn and Eliza, you stay with me. Let me do the talking, ok?”
Dorothy looked at the other three young people, Hunk looked thoughtful, Tom looked determined and Eliza was clearly amused.