Published on Wednesday, June 2, 2010
By Rachel Lim
Martha was nervous, despite herself. The house, scrubbed and clean, presented no distractions from the quiet churning in her stomach. Her mind flickered to her Ma's heirloom china, the fragile glass wrapped in paper. But the visitor was just Amelia, her younger sister. There would be no need for the china, used only for guests, for a christening, a death.
On impulse, Martha turned toward the glass windows, an anniversary gift from William, and the wide, rippling prairies punctuated by the dark smudge that was Clifford, the nearest town. And then she noticed the solitary figure riding astride -- a woman on horseback. The baby gurgled on Martha's back as she approached the windows and touched the glass, leaving quiet fingerprints she would later wipe away with water and a clean rag. She could only watch and wonder for so long, and burst out the door a moment later, waving. Amelia grew larger and larger until she leapt off the horse, reins still in hand, and hugged her sister hard.
"Martha," Amelia whispered.
The baby began to wail, but the two sisters ignored him. Quiet tears formed at the corners of Martha's eyes, and she dabbed at them with her apron. Familiar, beautiful Amelia: her little sister. There would be no need for the china.
"You're early." Martha rocked back and forth, quieting the baby. "I thought you weren't getting in until four."
Amelia laughed. "The train got rerouted in Missouri, so I arrived earlier. My luggage is coming on a later train, so I'll have to head back into town tomorrow morning. It's good to be home. Clifford hasn't changed at all. As if it was just yesterday I was leaving Kansas."
The pain of Amelia's sudden departure constricted in Martha's chest, feeling fresh as if -- "It was just yesterday," murmured Martha. She forced a smile. "Well, look at you. You look wild, riding astride like a man. I hope you didn't ride out of town like that." She surveyed her younger sister, noting the defiant look on her face. Amelia had always been slender and pretty. She looked magnificent despite the fact that her shining brown hair ran freely down her back, and the dress -- Martha reached out and touched the frills and bows. "You look like a city girl, except for your hair -- what have you done to your hair?"
"I feel the spirit of the prairie -- I'm an Indian princess! I ride like a man!" She laughed at the chagrined expression on Martha's face. "Let me take care of the horse, and then I want to see the house. Where's William?"
Amelia strode toward the watering trough, and Harry, the old gelding, moved over obligingly to allow Amelia's horse, who showed her teeth, to take a drink.
"William's baling hay today, said it's the perfect kind of weather." Martha scanned the cloudless sky. "It's August, alright -- hot as an oven. Now where'd you get this horse?"
Amelia tossed her head. "I borrowed her from Al Tinsley in town. He said I could bring her around tomorrow."
"Amelia!" Martha put her hands on her hips. "I sure hope that you didn't stride straight into the saloon and ask for Mr. Tinsley or something so improper. My, I'm glad to see you, but we would have been in town 'round three to give you a proper ride. You could have waited in the general store until --"
"Oh, Martha," Amelia said gaily. "I've seen plenty of saloons and bars in Chicago, and I certainly can take care of myself. I don't need to wait around for someone else to do things for me." She looped an arm through Martha's and led her toward her house.
"Well, I just don't know what William will say," muttered Martha. "And how scandalous, Amelia! What do you mean, you've seen plenty of saloons? Amelia, young ladies need to act --"
"Oh, you sound like my new Dean!" said Amelia, leading the way toward the house. "Martha, don't you see? Alcohol is an evil, a sin. Men fall susceptible to it -- it's just a consequence of the larger social problems around us. And it's up to women to take a stand. The Greek writer Xenophon did say, "Moderation in all things healthful; abstinence from all --'"
"I don't understand a word of what you're saying." She fought a sudden surge of irritation; Amelia had always been so clever. The baby was fidgeting, and she transferred the infant to her arms.
"Oh!" said Amelia, rushing into the house. "Glass windows!"
Glad for the change in topic, Martha followed Amelia as she touched the glass windows, exclaiming, and surveyed the rest of the house: the cheery table with its red-checkered cloth; the beautiful, hand-carved cabinets; the inky black stove imported straight from St. Louis; the rocking chair in front of the fireplace.
"You'll be sleeping here." Martha led the way to the final door, eager to show off her finest possession.
"A sewing machine! Oh, it's beautiful!" Amelia ran to examine the contraption, and touched the shining thread that wove itself through the complicated cogs and wheels.
"Took me a whole month to figure out what to do with it," said Martha. "But it works like a dream."
"It's so fancy, Martha. You must show me how it works."
Pleased by her sister's enthusiasm, Martha transferred the baby to Amelia and sat down on the stool in front of the machine. "You see, you step on this pedal, like so." The machine whirred to life, and Martha maneuvered a scrap piece of cloth under the flashing needle. "And look -- have you ever seen such neat stitches?"
Demonstration completed, Martha stood up and motioned toward the couch in one corner of the room and a curtain draped across the other. "You can leave your belongings behind the curtain. I'm sorry we don't have nothing more than a couch for you, but once I make it up it should be cozy."
Amelia took her sister's free hand. "This is plenty. Thank you, Martha."
The sisters sat on the couch, the silence between them interrupted by the cooing baby.
"What have you been doing for the past three years?" asked Martha. "You've barely written since Pa's funeral. Are you graduating soon?"
"Well," said Amelia, "I've been very, very busy. You see, I'm part of this organization called the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, founded by my former Dean, Miss Frances Willard. She's an amazing woman." Amelia's eyes were shining. "She's a real Progressive. And I've been volunteering with an incredible woman who works with the poor and underprivileged in Chicago. She's been thinking of buying this great big house right in the middle of Chicago and housing and feeding the poor -- you know, provide them with food, shelter and education. The basics to which every person is entitled."
"Well," said Martha, feeling a bit dazed, "Jesus always did say to feed the poor. That sounds admirable, Amelia. And what is this -- this -- organization? The Woman's Christian --"
"Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Oh, it's rousing. Absolutely rousing. We sing and pray outside of saloons and fight in the state Congress to limit the transportation of alcohol. There's nothing like joining hands with fellow sisters to fight against the evils of alcohol."
"Clifford's got two saloons, and I always said that was two saloons too many," said Martha. "But William certainly likes to take a drink every now and then, treat the farm boys. I suppose it can't be that evil."
"Oh, Martha!" Amelia's blue eyes were round and solemn. "No, no, Martha. I had half a mind to march up to the Clifford Saloon and start singing! You don't understand. Alcohol warps the minds of men -- they're the weaker sex morally, you know that. And the numbers of children killed by drunk wagon drivers! You should hear the testimony of a woman named Mrs. Carse, her son was struck by a man who --"
Martha covered her ears. "I don't want to hear, Amelia!" The baby began to cry again, and Martha rocked it. "Please."
For the first time, Amelia turned her attention to the baby. "It's so queer," she whispered, "to be an aunt. William Thompson Junior." She touched the baby's wispy hair.
Martha smiled. "He's a good boy. I wish that Ma and Pa would have gotten to see him. I know they're looking down from Heaven, but . . ." She took a deep, shuddering breath. "You can't help but wish."
The sound of the door opening distracted both sisters, who leapt to their feet.
"Martha?" called William, and she hurried out to greet him.
"Hello, William," said Amelia, curtsying slightly.
His eyes widened as they took in her wild hair and frilly dress. "Amelia? Now, I thought you weren't coming in for another hour. Here I was hurrying so I could get you from the train station."
"Oh, I'm sorry, William," said Martha. "I should have let you know so you wouldn't have rushed."
William waved her apology away. "I just wish I wasn't looking like a heathen in front of your sister." He motioned toward his dirty face and sweat-soaked britches before facing Amelia. "That's Tinsley's horse next to Harry -- what's it doing here?"
"I rode her out here," she said cheerfully.
William's jaw dropped. "You rode Tinsley's horse -- you didn't ride him astride, did you?"
Her quizzical expression was enough to confirm William's suspicions.
"I don't know what they teach you women out in Illinois," he said, crossing his arms, "but in Kansas you cannot ride off with another man's property. Now you understand that I'd be liable if anything were to happen to that horse."
"I don't see why," said Amelia. "I was the one who borrowed it."
The room grew hotter. The baby began to whimper.
"William," whispered Martha, "maybe we could return the horse tomorrow morning and forget about the whole thing."
He was still glaring at Amelia, his eyebrows furrowed.
"If it's such a matter of concern," said Amelia, her head held high, "I'll ride out to the Tinsley house tonight."
William laughed, a short, barking sound. "And let you walk back alone? No, Martha is right. It's best if we put the whole affair out of our minds until morning."
Amelia opened her mouth, perhaps to retort, but Martha reached out and touched her arm. Her sister seemed to recede, and silence filled the too-hot room.
Then William muttered something about a chicken, and retreated back outside. The sisters watched him disappear behind the barn before Amelia said, quietly, "I apologize, Martha."
Her frustration dissolved. "Just come take the baby, and I'll get dinner started. It's so hot today, so we decided to put the woodstove right in the front yard. I asked William to kill a chicken, too."
"Oh, Martha. You shouldn't have." Amelia took the baby, who fussed a little but quickly quieted. "You must come visit me in Evanston. I'll take you to Chicago, and we'll look at all the modern shops with their beautiful dresses -- just like in Godey's Lady's Book -- and eat at a quaint little restaurant on Lakeshore Drive."
Martha didn't say anything as she got the cornmeal from the cupboard. She watched William head toward the chicken coop through glass windows that no longer seemed so fine. "Illinois is awfully far."
"Oh, but the train -- you could take the train. They're so safe and reliable, and I would meet you right at the station." Amelia sat down in the rocking chair.
"It sounds like a grand idea."
They both knew that Martha would never come to Evanston or Chicago, would continue to wait in Clifford until Amelia returned, and returned, and ceased returning.
Martha continued to bustle around the kitchen, but snuck glances at Amelia, her wild hair hiding the baby from view. It was strange how maternal her sister seemed, cooing like that, smiling like that. It was as if she didn't have a care in the world, or even the slightest notion to offer to shell the peas or set the table.
Martha found herself moving toward the cabinet that held Ma's china, unwrapping the paper that enclosed the glistening white. After all, she did have visitor -- an important one. She felt something akin to jealousy or perhaps weariness settle within her chest.
Then she reminded herself, The Lord blesses those who settle at His feet.
It was nice, Martha thought, to have her sister back at home.
Rachel Lim is an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia studying English and American Studies. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming at Foliate Oak, The Lettered Olive, Suss Literary Journal and Every Day Fiction, among others.