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  • Mj Pettengill

Down from the Tree: Untamed Rooms


Old Man, Fiddle, Daidí, Needpix

Knowin’ your habits helps to overcome them. I used to think that the best way to go unnoticed was to keep your head down and stay close to the edge of everything. That usually worked, until one day, several years later, it occurred to me that maybe it was because I couldn’t see whether others noticed me or not. Perhaps it didn’t work at all, but I kept my head down just the same. Unless, of course, I had somethin’ to prove—maybe that I wasn’t scared, or that others’ opinions didn’t matter—and then I held my head up high and walked through the middle of it all. 


That day, I made my way outside the garden wall, where Agnes was perched on a low branch of the first apple tree in the orchard. I was proud of her for bein’ so cleverly hidden. Folks were at work close by, so we had to be quiet.

“Come over here,” I whispered.


She came down quite gracefully, stopped in front of me, and smiled. “I thought you’d never get here.” She looked pretty with several strips of yarrow leaf decoratin’ her cheeks.
 “You’re wearin’ the yarrow,” I said.


“Oh, that’s right.” She blushed and covered her cheeks with her hands.


“No, don’t take them off. It’s good for you. It looks nice,” I said.


“It does?”


“Yes. Maybe you should wear yarrow even when you don’t have scratches,” I said. 
 “You’re bein’ smart.”


“Nope. It’s true,” I said.

“Come on, let’s go over here.”

We walked through the orchard, towards the long rows of lilac trees. They were staggered in a way that left little pockets—untamed rooms, as Mamma called them—where we could sit without bein’ seen.

The thick grass, boastin’ its own shade of green, invited us to go barefoot. The black flies had left for the season, and the dragonflies filled the sky. Their silken wings brushed against us as they swooped in to pluck the mosquitoes that promised to devour us. It was a perfect day on the Farm.

Clusters of lilacs—full and browned— hung down their massive heads, clingin’ to the boughs while their sweet scent lingered. Mamma said that it was fine to let the blossoms wither on the tree for a bit. In fact, she preferred it. She picked them as needed to sweeten her tea.


I sat down and patted the ground beside me. “Sit down,” I said.


She gave me a look before sittin’. “Why are we hidin’ in here?” she asked. “It’s a little odd.”
 “We’re here because no one else is. Don’t you see? No one bothers comin’ here, so we can be at peace,” I said, quotin’ Mamma when she answered the same question asked by me.
 “We can be at peace down by the pond, too,” she said, crossin’ her arms.


“No, people can see us by the pond. Never mind. If you don’t want to be here, then you can leave,” I said. It seemed that Agnes was still bothered by her episode with the matrons or sore at me for havin’ too many secrets.


“It’s okay. What are we gonna do?” She pulled her knees up to her chest.


I took the paper with letters out of my pocket. “Here, let’s look at letters,” I said.


“Why?”


“Because, if we learn enough of them, we learn words, and then we can read and write.”
 “Oh,” she said. “I knew that. I just didn’t think that we’d do that here. You never shared letters with me before.”


“I only know some,” I said. “But I’m gonna learn them all and learn ‘rithmatic too.”
 “That won’t happen. You’ll go to school when you’re placed out, but here you only work.”
 “We can learn in here. We don’t have to go beyond the fence.”


“Why don’t you like it out there. You ain’t never been.”


“I don’t know. It’s not here. I’ve only heard bad things. Forget it, Agnes. You don’t get it,” I said. “You don’t want to get it.”


“No, I get it. I just wanted to know why is all,” she said.


“We don’t have to know the reason for everything.” I found myself quotin’ Mamma again. “Let’s look at these letters and say them out loud.”


Tho’ I couldn’t remember them all, we went through most of the letters. I would point to each one and say it, and Agnes repeated after me.


It wasn’t the same without Mamma. I was used to bein’ the one askin’ questions. I liked that Agnes thought of me as smart and all, but I also needed to know more. I wanted to figure out some of the other letters. Then there was that paper that I had found in the treasure chest. I pulled it out of my pocket and unfolded it.


“Whatcha’ got there?” she asked.


“I don’t know. It has to do with my great-grampa, Daidí, but I can’t read the words,” I said.
 “Look,” she said, perkin’ up. “Music.”


She pointed to the lines and dots. 


“That’s music?” I asked.

“How do you know?”


“Because my mother had some piano music that her aunt gave her. It didn’t do us any good with no piano or nothin’, but my mother hung onto it. She said that someday we’d get a piano, and she’d learn how to play. I used to look at it and imagine what it was like to know how to read it and play music. When I grow up, I’m gonna play the piano.”


When she talked, I couldn’t take my eyes away from her. And when she smiled, I saw a dimple that I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t just a look. Music meant somethin’ to her. I had to admit that it made me wobbly inside too.


That was when I knew that we had to find a way to get music at the Farm. Not just when the church folks showed up and sang their songs about the cross and Bethlehem and the manger. It was nice and all, but I was talkin’ about playin’ musical instruments too. It wouldn’t be easy, but nothin’ was impossible. 


There was a cracked and dirty concertina in one of the piles up in the loft. Mamma told me that it belonged to an old woman named Frances Keller, but that she had died a few years back. I didn’t see the harm in givin’ that old instrument a try. We could at least look at it. I’d wait until the next time I went up alone and borrow it for a bit. Excerpt Down from the Tree: Book ThreeEIG Historical Fiction Series Chapter 12 June 21, 1878 County Farm, Ossipee, NH

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