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  • Mj Pettengill

No Snow for an Angel


Nineteenth-Century Christmas Tree

It was well before daybreak, and the girls slumbered well. I was alert, and my nose was cold. I stared up at where I knew the boarded-up window to be and imagined a snowy day. I wondered if my sister had made her first snow angel and if the County Farm even permitted such activities. I thought of her in with the aged, the hungry, the sick, and those who suffered from senility. I heard that they also housed criminals.

I sat up. I cannot do it. There’s no snow for an angel. The streets were filled with sour, rotted food, and half-frozen puddles created by the sinks, outhouses, and overflowin’ chamber pots, dumped carelessly out the windows. All of the buildin’s were crowded together. I questioned my sanity, for I came from a world of vast openness—fields, mountains, and woods—and suddenly, I was unable to find a patch of clean snow.

Blessedly content, Mercy rolled into my space. How naive she was, eternally happy and inquisitive, runnin’ around with my messy old braid somehow pinned to her head. With a conflicted heart, I pulled the blanket over her shoulder.

Instead of bein’ pleased to be with her sister, Rebecca pecked at her, always tryin’ to embarrass her in front of others. If only she knew what it felt like to worry, to pray that her sister was well while knowin’ that she was in a horrid place filled with danger and darkness.

Rebecca’s callous behavior was unacceptable and invited a certain longin’ that I tried to push away, but since leavin’ Abigail, I could find no peace.

I nudged Mercy back to her section of the bed and nestled up against her. We could sleep late. It wasn’t just any Wednesday. It was Christmas. I didn’t need to get up and tromp through the dirty, gray slush on my way to the mill. I should have been happy. Typically, the holidays delighted me so, but I had no interest in stringin’ apples or singin’. Norah and the others baked ginger cookies while I sat in my alcove overlookin’ the city. I had my fill of Christmas carols when I played in front of City Hall and disgraced poor Jonas. The thought of it caused a fiery blush.

Then there was August. I did fancy him, but there was no time for such things. The drudgery of work each day was a challenge in itself. However, keepin’ such a vital secret caused my spirit to wilt. I started to purposely avoid him; I was tired of makin’ excuses. It was easier to try to forget about him than to face him.

I was proud. Even without Mother around to keep me in line, I managed to adhere to my Christian values. Surrenderin’ to him would have ruined everything. I needed to save money so that I could fetch Abigail from the County Farm, maybe send for her and the baby. Sortin’ it out had become a chore. No matter where he was raised, bein’ fatherless would leave an ugly mark and follow him everywhere.

With both love and sorrow, thoughts of our farm weighed heavily upon my heart, for I missed the cleanness of the countryside. Everything had changed. Christmas was so special with the tree, music, and merries. Even after Papa died, we were festive and cheerful.

Determined to make it work, I wouldn’t allow self-pity to enter into my existence, especially when I knew that it was much worse for others. I tried to be bright. It was not home, but we did our best to make our room pleasant. One of the older women crafted a wreath out of straggly branches, decorated it with scraps of red yarn from the mill, and hung it in the kitchen.

Returnin’ to New Hampshire was out of the question. I set out to be independent, and not nearly enough time had passed. It was hard. But, it was a matter of perspective.

I was meant to be in Fall River. It was possible to escape my grief where there were no physical reminders. However, I had to find a way to bring Abigail home, but there was no longer a home to speak of. Besides, I didn’t know if I could have handled the shame surroundin’ our blackened name. I may have murdered Silas for not bein’ a man of honor and found myself hangin’ by the neck. It seemed highly possible that I too would have ended up at the County Farm.

I also learned that Weston Jones, the only boy interestin’ enough to win my heart, did not only reject that sentiment, but he moved to Maine. It seemed best for me to stay put.

Although I could have slept longer, my thoughts marched into my head like an army of ants. I dreaded gettin’ up and leavin’ Mercy, who was always warm. Barely makin’ a sound, I inched my way to the closet to find the chamber pot.

When I was in the hallway, someone from another room brushed by, almost knockin’ me off my feet. I lifted my lamp but to no avail. She was gone.

I followed the scent of unsavory food. Once in the kitchen, I looked out the window. The clouds passed quickly overhead, and the street lamps illuminated the snow flurries. I believed that if I looked hard enough, I’d find a clean patch of snow.

When I turned to get the coal hod, I caught a glimpse of the one who pushed me earlier. It was Mary! I was concerned about her smokin’. She always sneaked out, and I thought it to be even worse for her health in the cold weather.

I was about to return to the chore at hand, when I noticed her bent over, clutchin’ her stomach. I slipped on my cloak and dashed out into the cold.

“Mary!” I shouted. “What’s wrong?”

She turned away.

I stood by anxiously, watchin’ her all hunched over in her oversized calico blouse, frayed petticoat, and mismatched shoes.

“Do you need help?” I asked.

She dragged her sleeve across her chin. “I’ll be fine.”

“You're ill. You should see a doctor,” I said, ignorin’ the echoes of conversations with my sister just a few months before.

She started heavin’ again. “People like us don’t see doctors.”

“Perhaps somethin’ you ate was spoilt,” I said. “More than once, I caught you eatin’ from the dinner pail after it should have been emptied.” I was stunned at my ability to find excuses for the obvious.

She leaned against the fence. “It ain’t nothin’ like that,” she said. “It’s a baby. There’s a baby inside of me.” She pulled out a stub of a cigarette.

“What?”

“Ya heard me,” she said. “Why are ya so surprised?”

I went to hug her, and she turned away to light her cigarette. I continually tried to help people who did not want my help. Mary was one of those people, the first on the list since movin’ to Fall River. I thought that she too would end up in the almshouse—the poor farm in Fall River.

“Ya don’t need to take pity on me,” she said, drawin’ long and hard on her cigarette.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” I said, sick of these women bearin’ the responsibility of motherhood without support from the men involved. “You have to tell Mr. Aldrich.”

“Why do I have to tell him?”

“Because he must own up to the consequences of his behavior.”

“What makes ya think it’s him?” she asked, throwin’ the cigarette on the ground and crushin’ it with the heel of her good shoe.

“What do you mean?” I asked, ignorin’ the rumblin’ in my own stomach.

“Brown—ya know, the weaver from ‘cross the way—caught sight of me with Mr. Aldrich and decided to have his way with me.”

“What? How could you do that? I know who he is. Mr. Aldrich was bad enough, and now you tell me that you lifted your skirts for him too?”

“No, I did not consent.”

“What?”

“I love Mr. Aldrich, and he loves me,” she said, wipin’ a tear from her eye. “Brown chased me down and forced himself on me in violence.” She came undone.

“Why didn’t you tell the police?”

“Do ya think they’d believe me? Brown is one of the men from England. And, if Mr. Aldrich found out, he wouldn’t want me anymore. I’m sure that when I tell him about the baby, he’ll take care of me. We might leave together. I know that he loves me. I’m not like my mum, I don’t sell my body to buy bread, and then trade it for whiskey.”

She fell into my arms and watered my cloak in tears. Her whole body shook. She was no longer a woman, but a scared little girl. We both knew that Mr. Aldrich would not leave with her, that she would give birth, and continue workin’ at the mill while one of the girls in the tenement watched the baby.

At the sound of the patrolman’s approach to extinguish the street lamps, we returned to the tenement. She sat at the kitchen table while I stirred the coals and emptied the hod. The silence ached to be filled.

“Did you ever make a snow angel?”

“Did I what?” she asked.

“You know, make snow angels,” I said.

“Do I seem to be one for the likes of it?”

“No, I mean you never know, Mary. Just about everyone makes them in New Hampshire, includin’ the boys. You fall back into the fresh snow, and by movin’ your arms and legs just so, leave an imprint of an angel.”

“There’s plenty of snow here for that,” she said.

“No, no there is not. It has to be deeper than what is on the streets, and clean. Angels need to be made in fresh snow,” I said.

“There’s more snow here than anywhere else,” she said and laughed.

“No, you have never been to New Hampshire. The snow is fresh and very white.”

“But, it snows almost every day here, even in the summer,” she said.

I shook my head. “You don’t understand.”

“I s’pose I don’t,” she said.

I found a bit of soft ginger root, enough to make us tea. We sat together in quietness, waitin’ patiently for the daylight to come. ~Sarah Hodgdon, December 1872, Fall River, MA Excerpt: The Angels' Lament - Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series: Book Two Update: The Crows' Path: Book Four, is in the making. Image: CCO


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