by: Julie Howard
In a time and place where women belong to their husbands until death, one woman envisions a life on her own…
Patience stepped into the warm sunlight. The loose church stairs creaked under her shoes just like always. This was her favorite moment of the day. After the devil-warning, verse-reciting monotony of the church service was completed, she was dismissed from chores until the following morning. Out of sight of the house, Patience would strip off her petticoats, kick off her shoes and simply run as fast as she could. She would throw rocks, crush lavender between her fingers and sing by the cooling breeze of the river. She’d wade into the river’s cool waters and remain there, her feet submerged, until her toes turned blue. Patience reveled in her freedom.
The very sight of Patience was an offence to the Preacher. She came to him in his dreams. Those crystal blue eyes, her swollen bosom and tiny waist. The Preacher would toss and turn in his narrow bachelor’s bed, sweaty and tortured as Patience’s rosy, full lips whispered softly to him ungodly desires.
“That girl’s overdue for marriage,” the Preacher said to Patience’s father after service one day. Startled, Patience’s father’s eyes followed after the Preacher’s to his daughter. For the first time, he noticed the provocative sway of her hips as she walked and the alluring bounce of her shiny hair upon her shoulders. From across the yard, he heard her soft laugh – beckoning, teasing, and bewitching.
Patience’s father looked back and saw the Preacher lick his lips.
“She’s only fifteen,” he said.
“Satan is ageless.”
Patience’s father hesitated.
“I suppose one of the Levi boys would do.”
The Preacher shook his head firmly.
“She’ll need a firm hand. McKercher needs help at his place.”
Patience’s father nodded sadly.
Patience didn’t sing by the river that day. Her father took her aside after the noon meal and told her she would be married. McKercher would take her away to his home the following Sunday after church service.
The wedding was spare, like a business transaction. The too-small ring scraped Patience’s knuckle before squeezing like a noose around her finger. On the long bumpy ride to his one-room house, McKercher told her she could address him as “Sir.”
Patience’s bewildered blue eyes watched the miles pass. McKercher’s home was far from the river, on a mean piece of land that spat out stringy shoots of corn. Five lean steers glared at her from a dry pasture as they rode past.
Patience worked hard. She baked and washed, scrubbed and hauled water. McKercher had been an overseer of slaves before he moved north to buy land of his own. A thick rod, once used on the backs of slaves, was now used on Patience from time to time. At night, her husband climbed on her weary body and she performed one more chore before she slept.
Women couldn’t own property, vote, or claim abuse from their husbands. They couldn’t say no in the marriage bed and even if they did, husbands were free to take them anyway. They couldn’t have a bank account, take out a loan or own a business. Women belonged to their husbands until death.
Patience thought about this a lot.
Golda Mann was nine years a widow when she drove by with her butter wagon. Her husband had died when one of their oxen stamped on his head while he picked a stone from its hoof. The property went to Golda, a house with its one hundred and twenty riverfront acres, numerous livestock, creamery, and cart with two fine oxen.
Once a month, Golda Mann would drive by McKercher’s place on her way to market. In her cart were thick slabs of butter packed in tubs of icy river water and covered with straw. Sometimes, tethered behind, would be sheep or goats or a heifer that she would sell.
Golda never failed to ask for McKercher’s advice on something each visit – fixing a smoking chimney, the right feed for her goats, how to birth a breech calf. She nodded at his every comment and proclamation.
“That’s some woman,” McKercher would say each time as Golda Mann drove home. Patience suspected he’d tried and failed to woo her, although she had a hard time imagining her husband wooing anyone.
Both of them thought about Golda after she left. McKercher would think about his missed opportunity. Patience would think about the freedom the woman had to live as she pleased.
Heat rose from Patience’s core, flushing her cheeks and drenching her with sweat at night. She would rise before dawn to start her chores but would be feverish before the sun crossed the horizon. Her blood flowed molten through her veins.
McKercher watched his wife hopefully, but after months of her fevers, he realized they weren’t signs his wife was bearing fruit.
“Fevers?” Golda, who had been called in to help care for Patience, asked.
“Too hot to touch her,” McKercher said, his tone masquerading as one of a caring husband.
Golda glanced at the door to Patience’s room, noting the iron rod had shifted position since her last visit.
“I used to get those. Let me speak with her.”
Golda whispered a cure into Patience’s ear and left quickly.
“A picnic?” McKercher asked, confused with Patience’s desire.
The request was so startling that he couldn’t think of a reason to refuse. McKercher had never gone on a picnic before and wasn’t quite sure what one was exactly. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Patience packed a lunch and took a blanket off their bed. She told him they would go to the river.
McKercher ate and drank until sated and his eyes half closed in drowsiness.
“Let’s swim,” Patience said.
“I don’t swim.”
“I want to put my feet in the water. It looks so cooling.”
Those beautiful eyes begged at him and he rose.
Patience stepped into the rushing water and sighed with pleasure. Nervous, McKercher moved toward her.
“I’m fine,” she said, then slipped and the river grabbed her. Patience clung at a tree root.
“Help me!” she cried.
McKercher panted, afraid. He leaned out from shore, stretching an arm fruitlessly toward her.
He stepped closer and then once more. His hand closed on hers. In a flash, she yanked hard and he tumbled in.
Patience sang as the river carried him away.