he train chuffed past, invisible in the autumn mist that filled the meadow like a placid gray lake. The night before was almost a frost, and the sun hadn’t yet burned through the fog. First train of the day and already running late, she thought. You’d think they could at least keep a train on schedule. It’s 1873 for Heaven’s sake! As if it heard her, the train picked up speed as it approached the summit below Cole Hill. Probably near-empty anyway: last Market Day word was they’re ready to shut the whole Branch down. She snorted out loud. Railroad complains there’s not enough freight but they’re seldom on time and breakdowns keep the schedule irregular. Nobody’s fault but their own! She had also heard the whole railroad was in trouble and would be out of business by winter. That sounded about right. But folks were holding out hope: the township needed the tax money and the farmers needed the transportation.
She was making apple jelly. The fire in the cook stove made the kitchen too hot to stay inside no matter how cool it was last night. As she stood on the porch cooling off, a man appeared out of the fog. Probably jumped off the train. Or walked from the station at Upper Beaver Meadow, she thought. Didn’t matter. He was average height, dirty blonde hair and mustache. He had the beefy back and broad shoulders that come from swinging a sledge hammer. Another railroad worker, she guessed. He was dressed in faded brown workman’s clothes and jacket with a dusty bowler on his head, tilted to one side. No doubt a gambling prize, she thought disgustedly. She stood and watched from the porch as he made his way through the tall wet grass. He waved, but it reminded her that the jelly was probably ready to boil over, and she went in to check it.
He saw her standing on the porch, a plain woman, in a worn dress of no particular color. From here, the sun made her face look all angles, sharp cheekbones, and nose. Her hands hung at her side as if worn out and tired. Healthy, he thought, if thin and overworked; she needed help. He watched her go back inside. That’s fine. He assessed the state of her barn and out-buildings as he got closer. Not rundown, not new. They could use some attention, though. Again, good: he was just the man she needed. He crossed the barnyard and a small flock of chickens nervously avoided him. He glanced through the barn door: barn needed cleaning. What were probably a couple of goats bleated and butted against the stall door. The smell of a pig pen hit his nose as the breeze picked up. It also needed cleaning.
He heard no one, saw no man, so he shouted a greeting. No one came out of the barn or the house. Up onto the porch, he knocked at the screen door. It was too dark to make out anything inside. In a moment, the latch clicked, he stepped back and the door swung open. The woman who had been on the porch came out, sweat on her brow, wiping something red off her hands onto her apron. He took off his bowler and smiled.
“Sorry to interrupt you, ma’am.”
She looked him up and down. “Talk fast, I’m making jelly and I can’t leave it settin’ long.”
“Heard you might have work for a man who wants to earn his keep.”
She nodded and asked his name (Michael Kelly) and how he heard about the job (from the other railroaders). He said he was tired of the railroading life. She didn’t respond. So he offered that he was now single: wife and only child died on the boat coming over.
He thought her expression softened a little, and she asked where from. “Ireland”, he said, letting his accent show a little more. She asked if he was Catholic. He asked if it mattered. Again, she looked at him without answering. For a long minute her expression didn’t change, but she looked him over again. He had some meat on his bones, probably from the rail work. He seemed harmless enough, if a little smart-alecky.
“Alright Michael Kelly, I’ll give you a chance.” She gave him directions to clean the hog pen. “Leave your coat and hat on the porch,” she said, pointing to a chair “Hog pen is over there…” She pointed with her chin at the barn back across the road. As he turned to go she told him she couldn’t pay railroad wages, but there’d be plenty of food and 20 dollars a month after market day, if he stayed that long. He agreed with a nod, draped his coat on the chair, set his hat carefully on his coat, and walked back across the road.
“I have more cannin’ to do,” she called after him. “I’ll be in the house”. She paused and added, “I’ll ring the bell when the noon meal is ready.” He waved.
Come noontime, the pig pen was clean and half cord of kindling was split and neatly stacked. The barn and the chicken coop would have to wait til after dinner.
“Must have been a while since the last man quit, eh?” He sat at the kitchen table. The kitchen was reasonably large with a bare wooden floor, walls plastered and whitewashed, simple red-checked curtains at the windows.
“He didn’t last long,” she said as she set the meal on the table. Sausage, potatoes, and green beans—a good hearty meal, better than he had in a long time. He tried to make conversation but she didn’t have much to say.
That afternoon he cleaned the barn and chicken coop and had just finished feeding the cow and goats when the bell rang. He washed at the barn, walked crossed the road, up onto the porch. He hesitated, then knocked. The evening sun slanted in and he could see inside now: the meal was on the table, she was at the stove. Over her shoulder she said, “No need to knock. Come in and sit down.”
After she sat down herself, she asked him to say grace over the meal. He was taken aback: he wasn’t accustomed to prayers at the supper table anymore, but he repeated a blessing he’d learned as a child. One he’d taught his own son. She seemed pleased but she said very little during the meal.
As the meal ended, she asked him, “What do you call the noon meal and the evening meal? I call them dinner and supper.” He nodded, “That’s what I was raised with.” That too seemed to please her. She stood up and began to clear the table. He sat, not sure what he should do next. As she finished, he asked about sleeping arrangements. Again she gave him the sharp look, but then seemed to consider something and said, “Wait here.”
A curtain hung across a doorway at the back of the kitchen. She pushed it aside and returned with a rough sheet and a blanket.
“Have to put you up in the barn tonight. Wasn’t expecting anyone. There’s a stall at the back that’s been empty a long time. It’s clean and warm. Breakfast at six, I’ll ring the bell. Don’t come in before.” She paused. “Outhouse and pump are behind the house, on this side if you need them.” He was happy for the water but wasn’t terribly pleased with the sleeping arrangement: the railroad had given him a rope bed in a bunk house at least. But the stall was clean, the straw fresh and it was indeed warm enough with the one blanket.
Next morning he used the outhouse and washed before the breakfast bell. She seemed different in the morning sunshine, less strained. Softer. A hint of a smile every now and then crossed her lips. He was encouraged by this and asked a few questions about the farm, how big was it, was it making money. She seemed pleased that he cared and answered with a few details. There were three men working the woodlot, cutting firewood for the railroad. They took care of themselves, she said. The pond, in the meadow he had walked across, was stocked with bass and bluegill, probably some big enough to be worth catching if he wanted to spend the time to clean them. The farm overall was “making ends meet. Not a lot left over, though.” He was satisfied with that.
Michael wanted to ask what happened to her husband but thought it might be painful. So he talked about himself.
“I rented a farm, m’self,” he said. “In the Old Country. Raw deal, of course. Could barely keep things together. This place–how did you come to own this one?” Her smile disappeared, and she was suddenly busy with the stove. He apologized for any offense.
“You better get to work on the hay in the barn. They’ll be here with another wagon load tomorrow, and the last one wasn’t put up right,” was all she answered. He spent the afternoon moving and stacking the hay already in the loft, making room for future loads. She came out once, nodded approval and left.
They ate dinner and supper in silence after the blessing. The silence was bearable if not comfortable and he said good night and left for the barn. He thought maybe she hesitated as he left, as if she was about to say something but then didn’t. He shrugged it off, undressed and fell asleep.
Next morning he again went in to breakfast at the bell. Sausage and pancakes, rather than the oatmeal of yesterday. He said “Good Mornin’ to ya” and she answered with, “Good Mornin’ to yourself as well.” It came as a small shock: his wife had greeted him with the same phrase . Considering her reaction the evening before, however, he kept that to himself. But he watched her keenly. She noticed, smiled a little as she served his food.
He went about his daily chores, tightening the hinges on one of the barn doors, and one of the outbuildings as well. Re-nailed some loose boards and generally kept busy until the hay showed up. The day progressed and he worked hard, ate hearty and it seemed to please her. It seemed to him that she was softening day by day. She opened up and began to tell her story at the evening meal, how she and her husband bought the farm, how the train coming through did them so much good. In hushed tones, she finally told how her husband died, killed in a wood-cutting accident. He’d gotten a foot tangled in some vines she said and the tree he’d been cutting crushed him as it fell. Michael expressed his sympathy. She shrugged it off. “It was years ago and it’s done”, was all she would say. She went on to mention how she had been forced to hire one man after another, but they never lasted very long. In his enthusiasm, he vowed then and there that he would stay!
She smiled and laughed. “That’s what they all say.”
To him, at that moment, her smile was so lively, so sweet—why would he want to leave!? Why would any man? She was everything his wife had been and perhaps more. Certainly, none of the nagging! He smiled to himself at that.
After dinner, he had gone to the barn for bed as usual. As he lay there in the straw, he said his prayer, crossed himself and was ready to drop off when it hit him like an ocean wave–the sadness of losing his wife and child. He thought he was over it. For months he had been fine, but it came now with such force his tears literally squirted from his tight-shut eyes. He cried quietly, cursing himself and his tears, but they would not stop. In time the tears stopped and he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
At breakfast, he looked so sad she asked what’s wrong. He told her the story of how he had lost his own mate. Softly she said, “I’m sorry!” When the meal was over, he stood to leave. She asked him to wait. He turned to face her and she embraced him, just a quick hug, and again said quietly, “I’m sorry.” He was mesmerized. He went to tip his hat but remembered he wasn’t wearing it, and embarrassed, he left.
At dinner she left the room while he ate, which suited him. Too well he noticed how attractive she had become. Suppertime came. It was his favorite dish although he had never told her–corned beef and cabbage. They ate together, although the conversation was scant.
In the morning, he came in to breakfast as usual. As he approaches the table, she set down his plate, already full of sausage, eggs and potatoes, and turned to him. She looked up into his face and he into hers and then without even thinking, he embraced her and kissed her on the lips, the way he always did his wife before breakfast. He was instantly aroused.
She made no effort to resist his kiss, although she didn’t actively return it. In a flash, he let her go. Shocked and embarrassed at what he had done, and his body’s response, he stepped back to the door. She just smiled, curtsied and turned back to the stove. He stumbled through an apology and explanation. She turned and smiled. “Apology accepted. Although a kiss like that needs no apology. She was a lucky woman!”
Her words just added to his embarrassment. Burning with shame and guilt, he bolted out the door without breakfast. All morning a war raged in his mind. First, he was filled with anger and shame and guilt at how evil a man he was to desert the memory of his wife and child—and for a mere stranger! But then without warning he would find himself again enjoying this new woman’s lips, the feel of her body in his arms, her body against his– and each time, his own body enjoyed the same lustful response. He would forget what he was doing and just stand wherever he was, remembering. The fantasies consumed him until he would wake from them and cry out loud for his own wife again and curse himself for his unfaithfulness. Back and forth this war raged, all morning long. Pitching two full wagons of hay as well as the barn chores was not enough distraction.
Dinner time came and he debated what to do when the bell rang–if indeed she would even ring it for the likes of him, he thought. His filthy mind and body deserved the punishment of two skipped meals at the very least, he reasoned. But when the bell rang, his hunger for food and for her eyes overwhelmed him and he gave in. He walked slowly up onto the porch and looked in through the screen door. It was too dark to tell if anyone was in there. He knocked self-consciously and waited. No answer. The smell of the meal was maddening. He knocked again, hesitated, and then walked in. The meal was on the table, one place setting. She was nowhere to be seen.
He dove in, forgetting all but the food. When he was nearly done, she appeared from the room behind the kitchen. He was sure now that it was her bedroom. The only other room he could see from the kitchen was through an open doorway into the parlor, at right angles to the bedroom.
He was ashamed of himself and said so to her. She laughed–so musical! How could she be his enemy, he wondered to himself? She said it was no harm done “It’s been a while since a strong, handsome man was so forward with me. I might have liked it, did you think?”
She walked toward him and the emotional upheaval in him was nearly uncontrollable. It had been so long without his wife, without any woman! If only she seemed less willing! In a panic, he stood up quickly. His chair tipped over backward, clattering on the bare wood floor. He stooped, picked it up. But as he straightened up she was there in front of him again. Too close. So close he could smell her hair.
Her arms circled his waist and he couldn’t stop himself. He held her, kissed her again. He held her like he used to hold his wife, stroking her silky hair with one of his rough hands. Tenderly, passionately, he kissed her long and deep. And this time, she kissed him back. It seemed sweet eternity before she gently pushed on his chest, pushed him away from her lips and he let her a little loose.
“You have work to do this afternoon, Mr. Michael Kelly,” she murmured. “But come hungry to supper.” She smiled and disappeared behind the curtain that blocked the way to her bedroom. It blocked his view but it waved to him, tempting him. He wanted to rip that curtain down, enter that room and finish what they had started. His body urged him to do it. She wanted him to do it, he was sure. He took one step and stopped.
What in the world are you doing, Michael Kelly? He thought to himself. Do you want to get yourself fired for…for that?! He couldn’t bring himself to say yes. He turned and ran to the barn.
A gang of five men were cutting and hauling the hay. They used their own wagons to draw it to the barn where Michael pitched it off the wagon into the hayloft and then rolled the wagon out of the barn for them to draw back to the field to refill. Like him, they were hired, but like the woodcutters, they took care of themselves. They ate their own lunches in the field or the shade of the barn. Today, they were eating behind the barn.
As he rushed up to the barn, they called him to come there. He did, and they asked him how he liked working for The Widow Woman, and what was she like and did he think he would stay. He blushed at their questions, not knowing what to say after the meal just past. But he voiced his opinion that if things keep going the way they were now, he was more than willing to stay.
The men laughed and winked knowingly. Angry, he asked, “What that was supposed to mean?”
They answered and said, “Oh, that’s what they all say! Here you are still in your first week or two, vowing to stay. But no one never does! Maybe a fortnight, almost none for long enough to get paid Market Day! They all move on without getting paid. We were just wondering what that’s all about: the same vow, always broken?”
“I have no idea about the others, only about myself,” he said. “And I have no reason to leave here now, no reason to go elsewhere.”
The hay men all laughed again. And again they said, “Yes! Yes! That same story, too! And yet, here you are, replacing the last lad! Good luck to you!” And they turned back to their dinners.
He was near ready to pick a fight, but thinking of the job and, for a moment, the woman, he changed his mind, and walked into the barn and climbed onto the wagon. With his pitchfork, he hurled the sweet smelling hay so hard it hit the far end of the barn. His anger had only barely abated when the men return with the next load. He said nothing to them, but instead went to the well behind the house for a drink and a rinse off from the prickly chaff.
He looked once at the house as he washed. The window nearest him would be the window to her bedroom, he thought. Again, the battle arose inside him. He rinsed his head, arms, and chest. The cold water felt good and he stretched his tense muscles in the sun. He put his shirt back on and one last time glanced at the window. He swore the curtain dropped into place just then. He returned to the barn where a fresh wagonload of hay waited. The men were gone and he set to, pitching this load more gently than the last.
Evening approached, the last wagon of the day came in and was emptied. This was to be the last load for her fields, they said, and that their work was done. He asked if they needed to speak to the Widow Woman about payment. They said no and that was all arranged. As they rode away on the empty wagon they wished him good luck. He acknowledged them, but muttered, “Good Riddance!”
They laughed as if they had heard him and waved goodbye. He fed the animals, shut the chickens in their coop, and headed for the well to wash for supper. As he washed, he watched the full moon, orange and huge, rise above the eastern horizon. He took his time washing, even unbuttoning his pants and washing between his legs, careful to face away from the window. His pants were already soaked with sweat from waist to knees and below. Pitching hay was hot work no matter what the weather. What matter if he wet his pants the rest of the way down to his boots, he thought? He might at least smell better. He tried not to think about why he wanted to. The other men had left and tonight there was just him and the Widow Woman.
As he buttoned back up, the bell rang. He resisted the urge to race to the porch, but as he came around the corner of the house, she stood on the porch holding the screen door open. As he started up the steps, her face lit up with a smile and quick as a wink, she stepped back inside, letting the screen door bang shut. He bolted up the steps, yanked the door open and there she stood. Laughing. Waiting. Inviting.
Dinner sat waiting on the table, but his mouth devoured her lips and neck. He picked her up and strode over to the doorway, pushed past the curtain. He almost threw her on the bed and fell after her. She offered no resistance; indeed gave herself fully to him and within moments both were naked. What his passion lacked in delicacy, he made up for in quantity. She accepted it, encouraged it with small gasps and moans, guiding his hands and lips. It was dark before they finished.
Through the crack in the window curtain, a sliver of moonlight fell on their naked limbs where they lay drained, soaked with sweat and satisfied.
“Well,” she said softly, “I suspect your supper is cold.”
He laughed quietly, “And so what?”
“Sure you’re hungry after a day’s work like that?” There was a smile in her voice.
“I could eat a horse!” His voice was deep and low and laughing as he spoke. He rose up on one elbow and moved his other hand gently across her belly and up over her breasts, cupping her face in his rough hand. “But what I want,” his voice suddenly serious, “is you—for my wife.”
Her silken arms slid around his neck and pulled his face close to hers. “And that,” she smiled, “is exactly what I was expectin’ you’d be sayin’, darlin’ Michael. The answer is yes!” And she kissed him. His heart soared. He pulled away from her kiss and raised his face to the ceiling in a howl of animal joy.
“Widow woman!,” he exclaimed looking down at her, “I will never leave you!”
“Indeed you won’t,” she said. The boning knife he sharpened for her last week slid across his throat in one practiced gesture. He gasped, sucked air through his now-open throat. Blood gushed onto her naked breasts, splattered on her still-smiling face. His bewildered eyes searched hers for the answer to a question his mouth could no longer voice. He fell back onto the bed beside her. She leaned over him. His blood dripped like rain from her breasts into the hair forest of his chest.
“Nobody leaves me, Michael Kelly. None of the other hired men. Not you. My husband, he left. It was no accident that took his life.” He was too weak to move now and she lifted his head from the blood-soaked pillow to her lap, stroked his hair and spoke softly.
“He hopped the same train you jumped from, Michael. Went West to get rich they said, but he never came back. I got over him, Michael Kelly. But I’ll not go through that for another man again. Not for nobody, not for you.” His response looked like a twitch, but she smiled down at him. “I love you too, Michael Kelly. And I’m glad you want to stay.”