beatrice_otter: I always have been what I chose (Choice)
[personal profile] beatrice_otter
Title: The Storyteller
Author: [ profile] beatrice_otter 
Fandom: Big Fish
Rating: PG
Characters: Jenny Hill, Edward Bloom
Warnings: none
Word Count: 13,219
Written For: Rana Eros for [ profile] yuletide  2008.
Betaed by: [ profile] kittydesade and [ profile] tesserae_, who each provided feedback that was very valuable to me.
Summary: The biggest fish in the river gets that way by not getting caught.

When Jenny Beamen was eight, a man came to town. A man who told stories. Now, Spectre had its fair share of storytellers, but this one was something special. For one thing, no one’d heard any of his stories before, which made him a right novelty in those parts. For another, Jenny heard even the old-timers who sat outside her daddy’s store say he had a knack for the art and an eye for the absurd. A mite rough, maybe, but time would give him the polish to be a first-rate raconteur. (Jenny didn’t know what a raconteur was, but she couldn’t imagine Mister Bloom being anything but first-rate at anything he did, so she had no doubt the old-timers were right.) The gift he already had, wasn’t nobody in the world could teach, they maintained. They should know, being his primary audience, as he worked around the store doing odd-jobs to earn his bread and butter.

Jenny happened to agree with them. She spent every spare second she could scrape from her schoolwork and helping Momma with the household chores sitting on the front porch of the store, drinking in every word Edward Bloom said as he moved between shelves and tables laden with dry goods, restocking and straightening as he went.

“… and then I turned around, and what do you think I saw?”

Jenny sighed, dreamily, sure that no matter what Mister Bloom saw, it would be more fantastic than anything that had happened in Spectre in its entire history. Some of the old men sitting in rocking chairs out on the store’s porch hollered in guesses. Jenny frowned, and wished they’d be quiet to allow Mister Bloom to continue telling his story.

“Your daddy standing there with a switch?” Old Mister Adams was the loudest, on account of his hearing being half-gone. Also, he had no sense of humor and disapproved of the vice in others. Jenny shuddered, glad he wasn’t no relation of hers, and tried to ignore the way sweat made her dress cling unpleasantly to her back by throwing herself back into the story Mister Bloom was telling.

“Nossir, although I admit it would’ve stood me right if I had, the fright I’d given old Miz Bailey, skulking around her petunias.” Mister Bloom gave a smile. Everyone listening chuckled, Jenny included although she couldn’t see what was so funny about a switching. “No,” Mister Bloom shook his head, “instead I saw Maybelle Jones standing there, pretty as a peach blossom in her Sunday best, with my grandmother’s cut-glass punch bowl in one hand and the dime-store pearls in the other. You see, Elmer had gotten mighty tired of waitin’ around for me, and he’d gone back towards the soda shop to spend our ill-gotten gains by himself. On the way he’d run into …”

Jenny hardly dared breathe for the remainder of the story, and the one that followed it, for fear of distracting Mister Bloom and causing him to stop. Momma had to call her home twice before she could tear herself away and back to the ordinary, everyday chores awaiting her at home.

Mister Bloom had a way of drawing you in to his stories, making you feel like the most absurd things in the world were true, and sometimes even that they were happening to you. Why, he even made his home town of Ashton (a town not much bigger than Spectre, truth be told) seem like the most exciting place on earth! Jenny was all afire to go there, before Momma reminded her sharply that she’d been there once, and complained of boredom the whole day.

“Jenny, I think you been spending too much time listening to stories,” Momma said when Jenny protested that surely, they must just have been to Ashton on an off day. “Your imagination surely does not need any help. I don’t want you hanging ‘round there all the time. I’m sure you can find other things to do with yourself.”

“But, Momma!” Jenny protested, drumming her heels against the chair.

“Jenny,” Momma said, warning in her voice as she turned back to the chicken she’d been cutting up for supper. “I don’t want to hear any more on the subject.”

Jenny heaved a sigh, and turned back to snapping the beans. When Momma got that tone in her voice, wasn’t no use arguing with her.

So the next day after school, instead of heading over to the store, Jenny headed across to the other side of town to where old Aunt Bertha lived. Aunt Bertha wasn’t really Jenny’s aunt in the strictest sense of the word. She was some kind of relation on Momma’s side of the family, the Colberts, and Momma took Jenny over every other week or so to help out with the heavier chores Aunt Bertha couldn’t do on her own any more.

It was Jenny’s main claim to fame, besides her Daddy owning the general store, because Aunt Bertha lived right next to the field where the boys played baseball in the summer. She was a crotchety old lady who never failed to come out and shake her stick at them if anyone dared land a ball in her yard. She looked like she was a hundred years old, with white hair piled atop her head, and she’d worn black for years since her husband died. Even with Momma and Jenny’s help and that of her neighbors her house was always dirty and rundown, the garden overgrown with weeds. It had a kind of run-down magnificence, for the front porch had pillars instead of mere posts, decayed and ivy-covered as they were. Nobody’d ever seen Aunt Bertha in church, not even Christmas and Easter, which would have made her strange enough, but the truly shocking thing about her was the fact that she had only one eye.

There were many theories among the youth of Spectre as to how she’d lost it—some said she’d clawed it out in grief over the husband she still wore black for—some said her husband had done it in a fit of rage—some said it was a bizarre accident with a bb gun. Billy Jameson said she’d traded it to Sam Hill for arcane powers of life and death. For it was a sure and certain truth, known to every child in Spectre, that old Bertha Maddely was a witch. And it was Jenny’s claim to fame that she was the only child in the whole county who’d ever set foot inside that house and lived to tell the tale. Why, she’d even once seen the glass eye outside of Aunt Bertha’s head, sitting all by itself on a table!

Aunt Bertha had been feeling poorly, so Momma and Jenny had been over to bring her some soup and medicine. Momma had sent Jenny in to Aunt Bertha’s bedroom all by herself, to see if she was awake while Momma started tidying up the place. There’d been no reply when Jenny knocked on the door, but Aunt Bertha was hard of hearing so Jenny poked her head in just to check. And there it was, sitting out on the bedside table next to a glass with dentures and another one with a spoon sticking out of it. Dentures Jenny had seen before. A glass eye out of its socket? Now, that was a horse of a different color.

The eyeball had been milky white, and not quite perfectly round because it bulged out where the eye itself was, and that circle of color was staring right at her. Jenny had stared back, unable to blink or look away. Slowly, she’d crept into the room, closer to it with every step. She could see things in it, she realized, stooping down to look directly in it. Ghostly reflections of the room loomed in its polished surface, distorted and gruesome looking. There was one in particular that was awful beyond belief. “It’s the wardrobe,” Jenny muttered to herself. “Got to be.” Heaven knew that old relic in the corner was ugly enough already, and it was the only thing in the room big enough to look like that. Unless there really were horrible misshapen monsters in the house like Billy was always saying.

A face loomed large, eclipsing even the horrid wardrobe. It was craggy and lumpy and misshapen, and it had only one eye. “See anything interesting?” a voice croaked in Jenny’s ear.

Jenny shrieked and leaped to the side, away from that horrible eye. She looked over at the bed to see Aunt Bertha looking back at her, one eye socket shriveled and empty, and Jenny knew Billy had to be right, had to be, because surely only a witch who kept monsters locked in the basement could possibly look that horrible. She shrieked again and ran from the room, down the hall, out the front door, across the sagging front porch, and didn’t stop till she made it to the safety of the ball field. Aunt Bertha yelled at children in the ball field something awful, but she’d never hexed them or ate them or anything as long as they kept out of her overgrown yard.

It had only taken Momma a few minutes to come out after her, and one look at her face was all Jenny needed to know she was in serious trouble. She got a stern talking-to about how Aunt Bertha was most certainly not a witch, merely a very old, sick, and quarrelsome woman, and she’d had a hard life and deserved to be treated with respect and dignity in her twilight years and eight was certainly too old for such carrying-on. Jenny was to march right in there and apologize for disturbing her, and when they got home Momma was going to use the wire end of the fly swatter on her behind so’s she’d remember in the future how not to treat her elders. All of Jenny’s arguments and pleas to be spared the gruesome fate that surely awaited her in Aunt Bertha’s bedroom were ignored. Within five minutes she was in that dreaded place again, Momma’s hand clamped firmly on her shoulder denying any possibility of escape.

“I ‘pologize for coming into your bedroom without permission, Aunt Bertha,” Jenny said dutifully, eyes on the braided rag rug beside the bed so’s to look small and harmless. “And I ‘pologize for staring.” Momma’s hand tightened on Jenny’s shoulder. “And I apologize for making a scene and running out.”

“You’re forgiven,” Aunt Bertha said, and Jenny glanced up to make sure that her ears weren’t deceiving her—there was a twisted smile on the old woman’s face. Jenny couldn’t tell whether that was a bad sign or a good one. “I could use some help eating this fine soup you brought, Mildred,” Aunt Bertha said, lifting one hand to show how it trembled. All of a sudden she looked real small and weak, lying in bed in her nightgown, propped up with pillows to help her sit. Jenny wasn’t quite sure what to think—surely the witch and the sick old woman couldn’t possibly live in the same body, could they? Which one was real?

“Jenny can help you while I put things in order in the kitchen,” Momma said, tightening her fingers on Jenny’s shoulder again.

Jenny looked up, trying to plead with her eyes not to be made to stay, but just a look at her face convinced Jenny of the wisdom inherent in acting the dutiful daughter. “Yes, ma’am.”

Momma fussed around them until Aunt Bertha was comfortable in a good position for eating and Jenny was seated in a chair next to the bed, bowl in hand.

It was a long half-hour, feeding Aunt Bertha, and Jenny truthfully didn’t recall much detail of interest when pressed for information on the schoolyard, but when it was over Jenny was fairly certain Aunt Bertha was no witch. Not that she’d admit it in the hearing of her fellow children, of course—she got a great deal of respect for having seen the witch’s eye out of its socket and having spent a half-hour alone in her presence and surviving to tell the tale.

So now, some months later, Jenny was looking for something to do. Exploring the tangles of overgrown plants surrounding Aunt Bertha’s house so that you couldn’t tell where yard stopped and the swamp behind it began sounded at least as interesting as anything else.

“That you, Jenny?” came Aunt Bertha’s voice from inside as she came in sight of the house. Jenny sighed; she’d been hoping Aunt Bertha would be in bed instead of watching from the front. She kept to her room, most days now, but those days she felt well enough to sit in her front room she kept an eagle eye on anything passing by. Now she’d seen Jenny, there was no way Jenny could get out of having a short visit with her. And Aunt Bertha hadn’t ever had cookies or anything good for visitors even back when she’d been up to doing her own cooking and housework. But if Jenny walked on by, Aunt Bertha would be sure to tell Momma when Momma came with her supper and to ask if Aunt Bertha was finally willing to move in with the Beamens so she wouldn’t be alone all by herself on this end of town.

“Yes, Aunt Bertha,” Jenny said.

“Come in and sit awhile,” Aunt Bertha said.

Jenny sighed. “Yes, ma’am.”

“So, why aren’t you playing with your friend Sarah on such a nice day?” Aunt Bertha asked, once Jenny was settled in a chair in her front parlor with a glass of water. It was a parlor suitable for a witch, should anyone but Jenny and her Momma see it, complete with great, big, ominously carved furniture. There were cobwebs in all the corners and hard to reach places. It was dark and the heat was oppressive, even with the window open.

“Sarah moved away a few months ago,” Jenny said patiently, fanning herself with a hand. Wasn’t the first time she’d told Aunt Bertha that, probably wouldn’t be the last. Aunt Bertha was starting to forget things, and Daddy said it wouldn’t be long before she’d have to be moved out of her house and into theirs whether or not she wanted to come. She sipped her water. She might not want to sit here and listen to Aunt Bertha, but she was grateful for the drink—it was hot, and even though there was so much humidity in the air Jenny was surprised she couldn’t just drink it, the cool glass was appreciated. “And I don’t like Gertie, and she doesn’t like me, and the other girls won’t play with me if Gertie won’t.” In a town small enough to only have a two-room schoolhouse, the choice of companions was often slim.

“Mm.” Aunt Bertha said, nodding. “And what all is happening now in the great town of Spectre?”

“Well,” Jenny said, “There’s a new man in town, Mister Edward Bloom, and he works for my Daddy. He’s from Ashton, and he tells stories. Why, just the other day he …” and she was off, telling a story about the uncatchable fish Mister Bloom had told her. Which eventually turned into a description of Mister Bloom’s manly virtues and accomplishments, and finished up with “… and he’s eighteen, and I’m eight,” she said. “He’s ten years older than me. That’s a lot now, but it won’t be so much when he’s twenty-eight and I’m eighteen. It’ll be even less when he’s thirty-eight and I’m twenty-eight, and practically nothing at all when he’s forty-eight and I’m thirty-eight. So I think I’ll marry him, when I get old enough.”

“And what, exactly, does this paragon of a man think about that?” Aunt Bertha asked.

“Oh, he’s going to wait for me to grow up, of course,” Jenny said, swinging her legs impatiently. She was short for her age and Aunt Bertha’s chair was tall, and her toes didn’t reach the floor. Momma would say it wasn’t proper and ladylike to swing her legs so, but Jenny was bored and wanted to be let go out and play by herself since she didn’t have a friend in town any more and Momma said she couldn’t go back into town and hear Mister Bloom tell his stories. “He says I’m his best girl in town and the only one for him.”

“Is that so,” Aunt Bertha said. “Well, just you remember, young lady, that the biggest fish in the river gets that way by not being caught.”

Jenny frowned, not sure what she meant.

Aunt Bertha shook her head. “Go on, get off with you.”

Jenny hopped down off the chair, took her cup into the kitchen, and darted out the back door. By the time she remembered she’d forgotten to say goodbye, she was out of sight of the house and in no mood to go back.

Later, Jenny walked home past Mister Evans’ hardware store. Mister Bloom was sweeping and putting the place to rights for the evening—he sometimes did odd jobs for Mister Evans in addition to what he did for her Daddy, for a little extra cash. It was a wooden clapboard building much like her Daddy’s store, except instead of dry goods and candy and fabric and soap, it had bins for nails and screws and hammers and pipe and such. Not nearly as interesting.

“Hey, there, Miss Jenny,” Mister Bloom said. “Didn’t see you today.”

Jenny glanced around, knowing that half the town would know she stopped and talked. But the prohibition against seeing Mister Bloom was not generally known, and besides, Momma had specifically said Jenny wasn’t supposed to hang around him at Daddy’s store. Conscience thus soothed, Jenny went over and sat on the porch, watching Mister Bloom sweep while she told him about her day. This naturally led into the story of Aunt Bertha the witch and her glass eye and the time Jenny saw it out on the bedside table and the gruesome shadows she saw in it. (She left out, as she always did, the fact that they’d just been reflections of the furniture in the room.)

“So you can see things in it?” Mister Bloom said.

Jenny bounced in delight. He was really listening to her! Aside from old Aunt Bertha, that didn’t happen often lately with Sarah gone. Even with Aunt Bertha it was only because Jenny was her one source of news. (Momma had a horror of gossip and refused to repeat it, which had led to harsh words more than once between the two.)

“Like creatures, ghouls, that sort of thing?” Mister Bloom asked.

“Mmm,” Jenny said, hesitating, “not really. It was all real stuff, y’know? Aunt Bertha, old and looking like she was dying in that big bed of hers, that sort of thing.”

“Shows how she’ll die, does it?” Mister Bloom shook his head. “That’s some eye that witch has, I do admit.”

Jenny bit her tongue, not wanting to correct Mister Bloom. “Yes,” she said. “Except she doesn’t wear it much, now. She says it doesn’t fit correctly any more, so mostly she just wears an eye patch.”

“Really,” Mister Bloom said. “And this is the woman you took a glass of water from and sat down with all on your lonesome?”

“Yessir,” Jennifer said with a smile.

“I tell you, Jenny, you’re one brave girl,” he said.

He opened his mouth to say more but Jenny beat him to it. “I told her all about you, while I was visiting,” she said. “And she said a thing I didn’t understand. She said that the biggest fish in the river gets that way by not being caught. What did she mean by that, Mister Bloom?”

Mister Bloom leaned on his broom, deep in thought. “Well, you know, Miss Jenny, I have no idea. I wonder—”

But just then Mrs. Weber walked by. “It’s almost time for supper, Jenny,” she called. “You should be home to help your Momma set the table.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jenny said, hopping up from her perch and heading off at a run. It was late, and Momma would be looking for her. “See you later, Mister Bloom,” she called over her shoulder.

She never saw him again. A few weeks later he drifted off, no one quite knew where. Still, he left behind some good stories.


When Jenny Beaman was eighteen, she stopped being Jenny Beamen and became Jenny Hill. Charlie Hill was a storyteller, and ten years older than she was, which Jenny thought was the perfect age difference. Old enough to be a man, not some callow youth; old enough to be settled even if he still had that air of adventure and charm about him that young girls are warned about. His hair was a sunny blond, and his eyes a muddy green that turned hazel when they caught the light.

True, he only worked as a handyman and jack of all trades, but he made enough to live on for two and that was all Jenny cared about. Aunt Bertha had left her home to Jenny, lacking any closer relations. It’d sat mostly empty ever since, but could be made habitable with a little work, so they wouldn’t have to waste money on rent. Besides, eventually they’d inherit Daddy’s store, and that’d do for them once they had children. And in Spectre there weren’t many jobs to be found, prosperity having mostly passed the town by on its way to larger cities and industrial areas. So it wasn’t that unusual for a man almost thirty and about to be married to be without a steady job.

Jenny’d dreamed of getting married as long as she could remember; all the girls she knew had. If there wasn’t much money to spare on frills and everything, well, the spread the ladies at church put on and the wildflowers she and her bridesmaids had made into bouquets everywhere made up for it.

All that spoiled it was the fight Momma and Daddy got into the night before, when they thought Jenny was asleep. She was in a cot out on the screened porch, taking advantage of any cool breeze that might waft by, because her room was upstairs in what had once been an attic. Although the heat in the rest of the house was bad, it got pretty unbearable in her room in the height of summer. Consequently, all windows in the house being open, there was no way for her to avoid hearing her parents arguing in their own bedroom.

Jenny knew her Momma didn’t approve of the groom, but it hurt something awful to hear her hissing about “that man” and telling Daddy to “for God’s sake, do something Ernest, before it’s too late.”

“Now, Mildred,” Daddy replied, using the voice he’d used to calm Jenny down as a child, “it’s a bit late for calling things off now. Everything’s arranged, everyone’s coming—think of all that work the ladies have put into cooking for the dinner afterwards.”

“Think of Jenny’s life shackled to that good for nothing Hill boy to the end of her days!” Momma said. “She’s not listening to me on the subject. She’s normally such a level-headed child, I was hoping she’d come to her senses.”

Daddy sighed. “She’s eighteen, she don’t need my permission to marry, not legally, anyhow,” he said. “And she’s got a stubborn streak in her would do it despite us if we really tried to stop her. So I’m gonna give her away tomorrow and smile so’s she knows she has our support no matter what happens.” His voice hardened. “And Mildred, you’re gonna do the same.”

Jenny clutched the pillow to her as if it were the stuffed bear she’d abandoned as she grew older. That had been the end of the conversation, and Jenny had consoled herself that it was a well-known fact in Spectre that Momma didn’t think there was a man on God’s green earth good enough for Jenny. She’d react the same to any man trying to marry her precious daughter, wasn’t nothing specific against Charlie.

Still, it did take the glow off the wedding day, some.

Being married was nothing like Jenny’d thought it would be. Mostly, it was a lot of work, taking care of the house and the cooking and joining into the activities of the ladies of Spectre as an adult for the first time. She tried to tell herself things would be better after they got the house fixed up—the nine years it’d sat empty hadn’t done it one bit of good, and it hadn’t been much to look at to begin with—but truth was, it was more than that.

She’d expected to feel all grown up, but she still felt like a child playing house, only this time there was nowhere else to go at the end of the day. And Charlie had been real gentlemanly and solicitous of her feelings while they’d been courting, and that trickled away to practically nothing in short order after the wedding. Long’s she had food on the table when he got home, and put up with his advances in the bedroom, he didn’t seem to care much what she did or what she looked like.

Didn’t seem to care much what the house looked like, neither. He’d get home from wherever he’d been working that day and eat his dinner and sit around, and get real testy if she mentioned things needed a man’s strength or a handyman’s skill. His stories were good, but no substitute for four solid walls, a decent roof, and a generally habitable home.

“Woman, goddammit, would you just quit nagging all the time?” he said one day about a year after they were married, when she asked him (again) when he was going to fix the roof. He leaned his chair back so it was only on two legs; it was an old chair, and the joints were none too solid, and for a minute Jenny wished they’d give up the ghost and drop him on his fool head, though they couldn’t afford to replace the chair. “Jesus Christ,” Charlie went on, “I spend all day slaving away at Jack Jameson’s place to put food on this table for you to eat and clothes on your back, and when I get home you want me to climb up on the roof and start slaving away for you?”

Jenny flinched at the profanity, but not the tone; she’d heard it enough over the last few months. “’Less you really like living in a pond, yeah,” she replied. “I don’t have enough pots and pans to catch all the drips, and it’s gonna rain more soon, which means the roof has got to be fixed. Good light today, not too hot, not too cold, not too windy, and I called Maybel Jameson, and she said you only worked a half-day today for her husband, so you can’t be too tired out.” She ticked off all his customary excuses. “So you’ll go out there and fix that roof today because it needs doing, and I can’t do it myself.”

“If I’d’a known what a bossy, stuck-up bitch you were, I’d never have married you,” Charlie spat out.

Jenny clenched her jaw and tried to hide how much that hurt; she’d learned early on that he’d go for any weakness she let him see. “If I’d’a known what a lazy, stupid, jackass you were, I’d never have married you,” she said, instead of crying which was what she really felt like doing. “But that doesn’t change the fact that the roof needs fixing, and soon, and you’re the only one here can do it.”

“Hell with this,” he said, and stalked out of the house. Not to get his tools, though. No, he started off down the road into town, no doubt headed to the bar.

Jenny turned, feeling numb, and began clearing the table. She wouldn’t see him back that night, almost certainly. She brought the dishes in to the kitchen, avoiding the hump in the doorway and the cracked linoleum in the middle automatically. In some ways it was almost a relief not to have to deal with him, but they couldn’t afford the money he’d spend on booze, and the hangover’d make him twice as ugly tomorrow.

Still, it could be worse, she reflected, as she washed the dishes; there were one or two women in town couldn’t always make it to ladies’ events, and no matter what excuses they tried to give, everyone knew it was because their husbands beat them and they didn’t want anybody to see the bruises. Charlie might be lazy, and he sure tried to cut her down with his tongue, but he’d never raised his hand to her.

Then it struck her: this was the rest of her life she was thinking about, and the best she could say was that her husband didn’t beat her? She collapsed over the sink, head in her soapy hands, tears prickling at her eyes. “Lord, have mercy,” she choked out, and for the first time in her life it wasn’t rote, wasn’t an exclamation, but a true prayer.

Abandoning the dishes, she fled to the bedroom, and curled up in her (their) bed, crying her heart out among furniture mostly left over from Aunt Bertha. Years stretched ahead of her, barren, empty, and Jenny couldn’t bear to think about them.

After a while, she was all cried out, and lay there exhausted staring at the bedside table where Aunt Bertha had once kept her glass eye. She understood what the old woman had said now, she realized dully. She was well and truly caught, and wouldn’t ever get any bigger than she was now. Charlie wouldn’t let her.

She couldn’t divorce him; he’d never beat her, and to the best of her knowledge he wasn’t stepping out on her. Even if she could find grounds for a divorce, the thought of what the town would say if she tried to get one—and it’d be even worse if she succeeded. She’d never be welcome anywhere in town again, not church, not the ladies’ aid, not anywhere. They’d say it was Aunt Bertha’s taint coming through, and what could one expect of the great niece of a woman who murdered her husband? Gertie Pyle alone—she shuddered to think what poison Gertie would spread around town behind Jenny’s back. Her mother was a Hill, and the Hills could gossip like none other, and Gertie’d never liked Jenny to begin with.

Jenny’d heard the story of Aunt Bertha’s husband’s death many times, though only once from Aunt Bertha herself. It was Aunt Bertha’s version she thought back to now. She’d heard it on a cool day in early spring, not long after Jenny’d seen the glass eye out on the table, before Aunt Bertha’s memory had started to go. Momma had sent Jenny over to check on her, and Jenny had skipped over hoping to get another glimpse at the eye. Instead, to her dismay, her knock on the front door had been answered by a querulous old voice that still had an edge so dry Jenny was sure it could make even the muggiest Alabama summer day feel like the Sahara instead. She’d obeyed, to find Aunt Bertha sitting bolt upright in her own front parlor with the radio on and the glass eye firmly in its place.

Aunt Bertha had then gestured one imperious finger at the couch in front of her, onto which Jenny had gingerly sat, trying to avoid the sprung springs that poked through the fabric here and there. From her position, the window was right behind Aunt Bertha, making her hard to see. As Jenny fidgeted, Aunt Bertha had proceeded to give her a lecture on the great necessity of both choosing a suitable husband and being able to tell the truth behind whatever gossip was going around town.

Jenny, who was some years yet from starting to think on such subjects as boys with favor, and whose hobbies included sitting on the porch of her Daddy’s store listening to people gossip (and the more fantastic the tale, the better) had borne it with as much outward patience as an active girl of seven or eight can reasonably be expected, under the circumstances. Until Aunt Bertha had gotten around to explaining why such things were necessary.

“My George was a stupid man,” Aunt Bertha said, fixing an eagle eye on Jenny, who sank back into the couch. “He was only mean when he was drunk and only sober on Sundays. I wanted food on the table, I had to take care of things. When George had a job, I made sure his boss always knew to give the money directly to me at the end of the week, instead of George. Now, it’s not proper for a woman to handle the money if there’s a man around to do it for her—but George was no kind of man. I made good and sure everyone in the area knew better than to give George his pay directly.”

“How’d you do that, Aunt Bertha?” Jenny had asked, fascinated. Wasn’t often she’d heard stories where girls got to do things that weren’t proper. In fact, this might be the first one. Of course, that wasn’t too surprising considering it came from the town witch.

“Will Weber hired George one harvest time to work his cotton fields, and gave him his pay end of the week, which George promptly drank away. I went to Weber and told him that if he did that again, I’d castrate him with a dull knife. I knew how to do it, too, and he knew I did. He never did it again.” Her voice sounded as normal as if she’d just been discussing the price of cotton this season or an upcoming barbeque. It took Jenny a few minutes to figure out what she’d said, and her eyes had gotten huge.

“How’d you convince him you were serious?” she asked. “Did you wave a knife under his nose? Did you grab him by the scruff of the neck and shake him?” This she could not imagine, as the Webers were all tall as church steeples and solid as tanks, to boot. Aunt Bertha was not much taller than Jenny, herself, and looked like a stiff breeze could blow her over even on a good day. But how else could anyone have gotten a Weber to change his mind?

“Didn’t have to,” Aunt Bertha said. “Just looked him in the eye and told him. He knew I wasn’t bluffing. No need for theatrics.”

Jenny’s unvoiced “oooh” was ignored.

“Where was I,” Aunt Bertha muttered. “Oh, yes. Managed to cut off most of George’s drinking, then, because he didn’t have the money to pay for it. Except sometimes he did, and I still to this day do not know how he got it.” She shook her head, and Jenny watched in fascination as wiry wisps of hair came loose from their place and floated free, giving her almost a halo. “Lord knows he didn’t have friends would’ve been willing to pay his tab. One night he came home in a drunken rage, yelling all kinds of filth at me, threatening to kill me if I didn’t back down on the money. I held the paring knife I’d been using to cut up carrots under his nose and told him he didn’t frighten me but he did annoy me, and that might not be the smartest thing he ever did, considering who it was made sure we didn’t starve. Unfortunately Joanne Hill was walking by that particular moment, and had stopped to listen, and neither George nor I was being particularly quiet. And by the next day it was all over town that I’d chased George down the street with a butcher knife.”

Jennie nodded as wisely as she knew how. Momma was always warning her against consorting with Hills because they were inveterate gossipers, to the last one, and would make things up (just the right side of being outright lies) to make them as sensational as possible.

“Even that I could’ve lived down,” Aunt Bertha said, “but six months later George went up on the roof to replace some shingles while drunk, and fell off. I was well rid of him, except the damn fool managed to fall onto a Bowie knife he’d left leaning against a bush earlier that morning. Which, combined with the rumors, was enough to get me a week in the county hoosegow while the sheriff decided if it was murder or just an accident. Eventually they figured out I hadn’t had a thing to do with his death, and his own drunken stupidity more than explained everything. But fifty years later, I’m still not welcome in most places in this town, because of the chance I might be a murderess.” She shrugged. “I don’t much care any more, but life’s much easier if you’ve got the Ladies’ Aid on your side rather than lined up against you.”

It was the only time Jenny heard Aunt Bertha tell that story because it wasn’t long until Aunt Bertha’s memory started to go, and the rest of her body with it. Jenny hadn’t paid much attention to Aunt Bertha’s advice at the time, but she was beginning to see that she’d been right; the Ladies Aid sometimes had more say in what happened in Spectre (or at least, how it happened) than the mayor and city council. And none of them had a high opinion of divorce, or the kind of women who sought it out.

Jenny opened her eyes, staring up at the ceiling of what had once been Aunt Bertha’s bedroom and was now hers. Cracked, discolored patterns covered it, and she played her old familiar game of looking for patterns and shapes in it before forcing herself back to reality. Much as remembering Aunt Bertha’s tales was an enjoyable past-time, it wasn’t going to get anything done to help the situation.

She wanted Momma. But Momma wasn’t here, and Jenny was just a little girl trying to play house who’d gotten in over her head, and wasn’t nobody going to save her from her mistakes.

Eventually Jenny got tired of the self-pity and sat up. True, there was nobody to save her, but there were still chores to be done, and she’d keep the house up herself as best she could. She’d work around Charlie somehow. She’d make it work.

By the time she was done with the dishes and the final bits of cleaning up it was real late, and true to form her husband hadn’t shown back up, so she went to bed alone, luxuriating in having the whole thing to herself. She fell asleep and didn’t dream.

And was woken up the next morning by a crash of thunder. Jenny spent three hours running frantically from room to room, switching pots and dishes to catch the worst of the leaks, barely a few seconds here and there to catch her breath and grab a bite to eat. By the time it stopped and the sun showed its face, she was more exhausted than she could remember being in her whole entire life. So she went home.

She walked all the way there, dodging puddles and nodding cordially to those out and about now the deluge was over. Jenny passed the time imagining how good it would feel to have Momma coo and fuss over her and make her some coffee and maybe get her a slice of pie or cake or cookies, whatever was made up, and fret over what Charlie Hill hade done to her little girl. The storm had done a marvelous job of clearing the moisture from the air, and everything glistened with water as if it were made of glass. It was a pleasant walk, and the nicest half-hour she’d had in a long time. Wasn’t until she was almost home that Jenny realized that in order to have the fuss, she’d have to let go of her pride and admit she’d been wrong to marry him in the first place, and her pride was just about all she had left. So before she turned the corner onto the street she’d grown up in, Jenny sat herself down on a convenient stump and thought over her options.

The conversation she’d overheard the night before she was married echoed in her thoughts. Daddy, at least, wouldn’t refuse his help, and she didn’t think Momma would either. But much as that thought comforted, it didn’t take the sting off of needing to come crawling home for help, to Momma who’d chosen a fine upstanding man to marry, one who loved her and respected her and provided for her. Momma had never been in a situation like Jenny was; how could she possibly understand what her daughter was going through? While Jenny knew help would be available, that didn’t necessarily mean it would come freely and without recrimination. And Jenny didn’t think she could abide the thought of any more strings tying her down than the ones Charlie had already put on her. That she’d let him put on her.

Eventually, what decided her was the thought of walking all the way back to that hell-hole of a house, and having nothing there but chores and bitterness to welcome her.

“Oh, my baby girl,” her mother said when she opened the door. “My poor baby girl.”

She wrapped Jenny in a hug, and Jenny, who hadn’t expected Momma to know something was wrong from just one glance and wasn’t much used to affection now anyhow, froze, uncomfortable, not sure how to react. A year ago she’d been a little girl and would have melted right into that embrace. But she wasn’t a child any more. “Hey, Momma,” she said at last.

“Come on in,” Momma said, releasing her. “I’ll just get you settled and then you can tell Momma all about it.” She took Jenny by the hand, sat her down in the neatly-kept, bright kitchen with a glass of lemonade, next to the window so as to catch the most breeze in the room, and seated herself in the rocking chair opposite her. Jenny took a deep breath and began.

“Don’t you worry about a thing,” Momma said when Jenny was done with her story. “Your Daddy will take care of it. I promise.”

Jenny never did find out what her Daddy said to Charlie, but it seemed to work. Next few weeks, he came home from wherever he’d been working that day and got right to work fixing whatever needed fixed around the place, starting with the roof. He was surly and cold, but he never swore at her, and Jenny almost didn’t care as long as things were getting fixed. After about three weeks came the night she’d been waiting for, the night he fell back into his old habits. She’d have let it slide, only the plumbing in the kitchen had sprung a major leak and she couldn’t do much of anything in there until it was taken care of. Nothing she said moved him, however, not even pointing out that it meant nothing but sandwiches for supper. So the next day she went and told Daddy, and Charlie fixed the plumbing when he came home that evening.

Three days later, he didn’t come home at all. And never did.

Once Jenny got used to the idea he wasn’t coming back, she was kind of grateful it’d all turned out the way it did. At least being abandoned was better than being divorced, in the eyes of the town. Most of the big things were done, and she thought she could handle the rest. And despite the way the town was beginning to talk about her, it was still better than having Charlie around.

“I don’t see why you can’t move back home,” Momma said during a visit, eyeing the faded wallpaper that was peeling off the walls. Even faded, it was three or four shades darker than anything Momma had in her house. “We got your old room, just the way it was before you left. You wouldn’t have to deal with this ol’ heap, or any reminders of him.” Momma never said his name if she could help it.

For a second, Jenny wanted nothing more than to take up Momma’s offer. Then she remembered that she wasn’t a child any more, and didn’t want to be treated like one again. And truly, now that neither the roof nor the plumbing leaked, it wasn’t that bad a house. And it was hers. “Thanks for the offer, Momma,” she said. “It’s real tempting. But this is my home, now.”

“What are you going to live on?” Momma pressed. “You know your Daddy’ll let you clerk for him in the store, but he can’t afford to pay you enough to live on by yourself.”

“I been talking to Miss Mary Jean Miller,” Jenny said. “Going over to use her piano and brush up on my skills.”

“You always were such a lovely player,” Momma said fondly. “I realize Mary Jean’s closer to you here than home is, but if you moved back in you’d have our piano right downstairs whenever you wanted it.”

“Miss Miller’s getting old,” Jenny said. “She can’t really take care of that house by herself any longer, now her brother’s dead, so she’s moving in with her niece. But there’s no room for the piano, and even if there was she’s not feeling up to teaching any more lessons. She says she’d be willing to give the piano to me, turn her students over, too, if I’ll get someone to move it for her. I figure, if she could live on what she got from teaching all those years, I could too.”

Momma sighed, seeing an argument she wasn’t going to win. “I s’pose that would work,” she said grudgingly. Her mouth twisted into a smile she tried to hide. “You always were the best piano player in town. Of course you could make it as a teacher, if you really wanted to.”

“I do, Momma,” Jenny said. “I do.”

Part Two


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October 2017

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