A Faraway Song (Part 7)

I felt the pause that followed, and the silence that accompanied it.  It mirrored my own mind, which I think had actually blinked in shock when she said that.  This certainly seemed like an out-of-the-way place but for no one to have moved here in forty years seemed almost impossible.  Maybe she was just exaggerating for effect, or pulling my leg.  I mentioned both but she just shook her head slowly in reply.


“Yes indeed. Curious isn’t it?”

“You know I ran into a guy who lives down Cemetery Road, kind of a big guy.  He lives in a trailer over there.  He didn’t seem to be more than thirty or maybe thirty-five.”

“Was that you he was shooting at yesterday?”

“Well, yes.  But still, he seemed younger than forty for sure.”

Eyebrows got up and refilled both of our coffee cups, her hands trembling a little bit as she did.  It seemed to offend her that I noticed so I looked back out the window toward the side yard which was lined with Large-toothed Aspen’s that framed a magnificent Chestnut tree.  I heard the kettle click against the stove top as she set it down and turned my attention back to her.

“He was born here, right in that same trailer.  In fact his father died right on my kitchen floor here a long time ago.  He’s not a very friendly type is he?”

I shook my head and she continued.

“You know, I expect that you think maybe all the folks around here aren’t so friendly, and in that you might be right.  But I would caution you against judging the lot of us too harshly.  This is a strange place to live and it kind of turns you into a rascal after awhile, even if you set out to avoid it.  Do you believe that?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it other than what I told you about this being a spooky and weird place.  I don’t think I am judging you all as one.  I mean you seem nice enough.”  I gave her what I thought was a convincing smile to back that up but the old woman did not seem to buy it.  She stirred her coffee for several long moments after that and then spoke.

“So, you want to know about this place then?”

“I do.”

“Well, let’s go look at some pictures.”  With that she led me into the living room area and bent over to pull a large chest, covered in chipped yellow paint, out from underneath a table.  I made a move to help her but caught the look she gave me and backed off.  This was a woman who was both strong and also unwilling to deal with whatever frailties may have crept in on her over time.  She sat down with a small grunt on the yellow and green sofa and motioned me into a armchair.  As she opened the chest I expected to catch a hint of mothballs or old paper but instead smelled rosemary, which was quickly explained by the sachet the woman pulled out from the inside.  She waved her hand toward the chest.



“Go ahead, look around in there.  I keep all my pictures in this chest, every one I ever took since we moved here.  It might help you understand this place.”

Reaching down I picked up a few of them, mostly three-by-five inch black and white photos, many of them posed images of people.  I turned one toward her.

“Who’s this?”

The old woman's husband

The old woman’s husband

She smiled.  “My husband.  Doesn’t he look grand in that suit?  He only ever had two, the one he married me in, and that one.  He had just bought it about two weeks before the picture was taken.  That’s later of course, back here about ten years after we moved in.  He’s standing on a pile of railroad ties that we walked past one day when they were doing repairs.  Isn’t it silly how you can see my shadow in the picture too?  I wasn’t much of a photographer, was I?”

I had not even noticed that so I turned it back to look again.  “Oh, well, I wouldn’t feel too bad about it.  It’s nice picture.  What was he all dressed up for anyway?”

She sighed before replying.  “He always wore a suit on Sundays.  I buried him in it too of course.”  She was rubbing her hand along the arm of the sofa, another awkward silence building, so I returned to the pictures.  I went through the entire set of them, hundreds if not close to a thousand, and asked questions once she seemed to be paying attention again.  I got a lot of information but it was mostly just people’s names and sometimes  a reference to how they knew someone else, or were related to them.  I pressed several times for more details, asking about the few pictures that showed old buildings, or large groups of people, but Eyebrows usually deflected those questions with stories about her husband.  When I had finished I could tell that she was tired, her eyes closing slowly a few times before jumping back to focus on me.  I was about to shut the top of the chest when something struck me, a fact which had been skipping around at the edges of my mind while I poked around in her pictures.

“You know, I didn’t see one single picture in there of a child, at least not a young one.  I mean, all the younger people in those photos must have been at least sixteen I think.  What is that, some kind of other rule around here?  Don’t take the kid’s pictures because you steal their soul or something?”  I laughed but stopped when I glanced over at the old woman.  She looked angry and was standing up now, very straight, her angular features darkened by the shadows from the partially closed curtains.  I took two steps back toward the kitchen and stopped, caught in-between fear and incredulity.  We remained there, locked in a stare-down, for a full minute before she collapsed back onto the sofa, clearly exhausted.  She said something but in a voice too low for me to hear.  When I failed to respond she motioned me closer, which I declined to do, instead eyeballing the distance to the door.  I looked back at her and she looked so frail, so old and weak, that I obeyed her second summons, kneeling down next to her.

“Do you know where the red crow goes?”

Porcelain (Part 22)

Harriet walked down to the studio the next day, waiting patiently with Claudia while a newlywed couple had their portrait taken.  Once that was finished the shop’s owner, Albert Holmes, sat down to speak with Harriet.  More than willing to travel down to her house, he also suggested that it might be a good idea if he brought along one of his canvas backdrops, as these kind of staged photos were popular at the time.  As Harriet looked though his selection, Claudia seemed especially taken by one that displayed a forest setting with a lake and some blurry industrial buildings in the background.

“I guess that one will do Mr. Holmes.  She rather seems to like it and the portrait will be of her after all.”

“It will just be the one then, of the girl?”

“Yes.  Please stick to that arrangement.  My daughter, her mother of course, will be there and may well ask that you take others; however, I do not have the money for it.  Just the one portrait and the two prints we spoke of.”

“Very well.  I have a nice prop I can bring along with that canvas, one that will add to the picture.”

Taking their leave, Harriet went for a walk down Oregon Street before returning home with Claudia.  Receiving the news that the photographer would arrive tomorrow afternoon brightened up Olivia’s mood, which seemed to be slipping back into the darker regions it had occupied prior to her outburst on the porch.  As a precaution, Harriet did not allow Olivia to play marbles in the backyard with her daughter, an activity she had permitted over the last several days while keeping a close eye out from the kitchen.  On this evening, she insisted that the girl remain indoors and help her with baking pies, one for Doctor Warren and another for the photographer.  Harriet still believed in these social graces which seemed to be starting to slip away from society as everyone became busier and busier with their daily lives.   As they finished up, Olivia walked into the kitchen and announced that she was going to bed, stating a need to get up early and prepare herself to be photographed.  Nodding good night to her daughter, Harriet made a mental note that she needed to have the doctor present tomorrow afternoon, just in case things did not go well when Olivia figured out it would only be Claudia getting her portrait taken.  Several minutes later a knock on the door announced the delivery of a telegram, one that informed her that Doctor Fitzsimmons would be arriving in two days.  Tucking it away in her dress, Harriet cleaned up the kitchen and placed the pies on the window sill to cool before tucking Claudia in and heading to bed herself.

The next morning, Olivia was indeed up early, although still not before her mother, and took a considerable amount of time preparing herself for her anticipated portrait.   The last time that she had occasion to purchase any kind of formal wear had been in 1874 for the last Merchant’s Ball that had been held in Hiawatha.  Although not a store owner herself, she had been invited to attend by John Coe, who was a friend of Tom Drummond.  She had accepted of course, more in the hope of running into Tom than anything else, and spent far more than she should have on a dress and all of its accompanying paraphernalia.  That left her now, in 1883, with an out of fashion dress that also fit poorly due to the weight she had lost during her recent instability.  Still, she put in on faithfully, and emerged into the sitting room well in advance of noon.

“Well, you certainly look nice.”  As she said this, Harriet felt a combination of sorrow and pride rise up inside of her.  Olivia looked radiant despite her weight loss, a flashback to previous times, with her hair brushed to a shine, pulled up high on the sides and hanging in a series of ringlets down her neck.  Her skin was glowing and complimented the gentle peach hue of the dress, which had the full back stylish in the previous decade, a bustle holding the many overskirts in place and which was going to make for a long day for Olivia.

“You intend to stand all day then?  You certainly will not be sitting down with that affair on, although it does compliment you well.”

“I am going to take a stunning portrait mother, me and my daughter.   I am prepared to stand as long as it takes to await that.  Where is she?”

“I sent her out back to play.  We have several hours before Mr. Holmes arrives and she was getting rather bored.”

“She must come in!  I have to clean her up and get her ready.”

“You will hardly be doing anything of the sort my dear.  I think you had better just stand there and remain looking pretty.  I will see to Claudia.”

By the time that the photographer arrived, Harriet had both ensured her granddaughter was ready and also managed to get a message to Doctor Warren, asking him to stop by after lunch.  He had done so and remained after a whispered conversation with Harriet.  Mr. Holmes and his assistant had proceeded directly to setting up their gear and the canvas backdrop in the sitting room, accompanied by Olivia’s protests.

“What is this thing you are hanging up?  We are hardly by a lake nor do I wish my portrait to be taken in front of such a thing.  This will be a proper portrait of my daughter and I, here in our home.”

“Miss, I really need you to get back and there won’t,”

Harriet cut in before anything more could be said.

“Move away Olivia, this backdrop is just for the photo of Claudia.  She picked it out herself down at the studio and I think it will look very nice.”

“But mother, what is the point?  We are here, in our home, why have it be a photo in a forest?”  Olivia’s voice was rather loud by now and Doctor Warren had taken a few steps into the sitting room.

“It is just the thing these days.  You do want it to be modern, don’t you?”

“Well, yes I suppose.  But our picture together will be proper.  It must be.”

Her mother gave no reply to that, turning instead to watch the photographer’s assistant as he placed their prop, an actual branch from a tree, into location in front of the canvas.  With that, all seemed in order, and Harriet motioned for Claudia to come over from where she was watching by the doorway.

She was in the dress which her grandmother had made for her, and which had already been altered to account for her missing arm.  After an admonition from both Mr. Holmes and his assistant that she must stand still once they had her in place, the young girl walked up to the canvas and then turned around.  Without being told, she reached out and placed her hand on the branch, which stuck up from the very foreground of the scene.  Her grip, though on the edge of the prop, seemed tight, with her fingernails appearing slightly white from the pressure.  Claudia stood straight and tall, looking directly into the camera with eyes that showed a depth of understanding uncommon at her age, touched with just a shadow of fear.  The plate was exposed and the image sealed, a well-taken portrait with a sharp foreground and a slightly out of focus back, shadowy buildings and a mirrored lake lighting up the top.

Olivia did have to be sedated once it was clear that her picture was not to be taken, and she was put to bed and tended to by the doctor once again.  The cabinet cards, carefully tucked into a think folder, were delivered the next day, several hours in advance of Doctor Fitzsimmons arrival.

Young child Hiawatha, Kansas

Young child Hiawatha, Kansas

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 21)

Harriet leaned back against the wall and stayed silent while conflicting thoughts ran through her head.  Doctor Warren, and certainly his colleague also, were clearly from the new breed of medical men, ones that eschewed the practices of homeopathy she had been raised on and practiced throughout her life.  It was also true that there was no time for consultation with Doctor Martin, as he was no more modern than she and only communicated via letter.

“Can you contact him doctor?  I am not much of one for the telegraph and prefer to write letters, which I know will take too long in this case.”

“Very well.  I will send a message to him tomorrow.  For now, do not mention today’s incident or the details of what has been going on as you had related to me earlier.  Let’s just try to keep her calm and resting.”

Harriet nodded her assent and they returned to the room, where Claudia had managed to put her mother to sleep and was now sitting quietly in the chair by the bed.  The doctor left for town several hours later, convinced that his patient was going to remain relatively docile for the immediate future.

By the next morning it was apparent that Olivia had indeed experienced some kind of a breakdown, one that left her understanding that her daughter was going to leave her but unclear as to the specific reasons.  Over the course of several hours of talk, filled with vague references and partial truths, Harriet had managed to convince her daughter that she was generally sick and unable to care for Claudia any longer.  She had been extremely nervous as this truth took shape in Olivia’s mind, bracing herself for another attack and wishing the doctor was near at hand.  No anger or rage had shown itself though, and her daughter passed from realization into despondency and fits of tears.  Claudia was in and out of the room during this time, understanding that something different was wrong with her mother, but still preoccupied with smaller things as young children tend to be.  Occasionally she would bring a toy into the room and sit on the floor, playing with it while her mother and grandmother talked.  Whenever the tears came to Olivia, she would begin  singing again, her soft voice echoing in a strange harmony with her mother’s sorrow.

Doctor Warren returned later that day to check on Olivia’s condition and to inform Harriet that his colleague had been contacted and would be making his way down to Hiawatha within the next several weeks.  When he pointed out that this was being done as a special favor to him, Harriet understood that meant it was going to be particularly expensive.  She did, however, realize that in this case it was perhaps necessary for modern medicine to intervene and that the expense was worth it if the doctor could determine the root of her daughter’s problems.

Olivia’s condition remained stable in the days that followed, and all previous intentions to harm Claudia or get her to react in any particular way, seemed to have vanished.  She interacted gently with the young girl, showing more affection and love than had ever been previously present.  Harriet had small moments of hope; however, these were always tempered both by her own memories and by Doctor Warren’s warning that Olivia’s tranquil state may only be temporary.   In general, she remained unconvinced that her daughter’s recent behavior reflected any actual change in her underlying condition.  It was five days later, as Harriet sat with her daughter in her room, both of them having a cup of tea and remarking upon innocuous details, that Olivia posed the question.

“I know that my Claudia must leave me soon, and I am so going to miss her.  I know your decision to send her away cannot be undone due to my poor health; however, I will always want her by my side.  Do you think we could all go to the photography studio and have a portrait done of her before she leaves?”

Harriet considered this request carefully before responding.  Her practice over the course of Olivia’s mental and physical deterioration had been both to allow her out in public as little as possible and to not let Claudia to go anywhere with her mother.  This appeal to have the portrait done would violate both of these rules, which had served her well in mitigating the damage Olivia could do to herself, Claudia or the family’s reputation.  In her daughter’s current state it was, however, a reasonable request and one that she had entertained herself.  If nothing else, she would have a photo of her dear Claudia to treasure once she departed, and if it served Olivia’s needs also, then the idea had that much more merit.

“Well, mother, can we?”

Harriet decided that she still did not trust Olivia enough to allow all of her request.

“Perhaps we could instead have a photographer come here to the house.  It would be so much more comfortable for you and easier as well.  I’m sure they can work just as well in our sitting room as in their studio.”

Her daughter’s face lit up.  “Perhaps we could have several taken even.  I would love to have a photo of her and I together.”

“Yes, we will see.  Now, I must go look in on Claudia and you need to rest daughter.  The doctor will be here in about an hour to check on you again.”

…to be continued