The Cartographer’s Daughters, Part II

by Rachel Creager Ireland

We continue the story of these sisters, which we began last week. To read Part III, click here.

girls in rain

Maybe our sisters walked in rain like this, some time in the past.

The next morning I began baking as soon as Mrs. Horton had finished the breakfast dishes. I baked biscuits, a double batch. I’d give some to my sister and keep some in the house, in case my father noticed I was making them and wanted some for himself.

The kitchen was long and had east-facing windows most of the length of the room. The sun was brash in my face as I worked. In this room I always felt exposed. Anyone could be watching me, seeing me select the well-worn cookbook that had been my mother’s, which only I used. They could see me measuring the flour twice, rolling out two dozen biscuits? For a household of three? I was habituated to avoid being in the light.

While the dough was baking, I gathered together some dried fruits, mostly plums, which we had in plenty, but which my father didn’t favor. But I put in a few of the peaches and black currants as well. Black walnuts he wouldn’t miss, as he found the flavor to be of lower quality than imported English walnuts, and always thought it a waste of time to gather and shell them every fall. By then the biscuits were done, so I lay the things in a back corner of the pantry for later.

Not wanting to present an air of purposefulness, I spent the remainder of the morning and midday quietly upstairs in my room, only coming down for a brief lunch.

In midafternoon I felt brave enough to fry some seed cakes, with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. They would last longer than the biscuits, and provide protein and fat on otherwise lean days. I hoped fervently there would be few such days.

While I was rummaging through the kitchen closet for tins and baskets which no one would miss, my father heard my activity and called from his study.

“Are you making tea?”

“Yes, Father.”

In a few moments I entered the study carrying a tray with a pot of tea, two biscuits, and a small bowl of plum jam. The room was lit only by the yellowy light of a lamp over the table, but I knew without seeing the smoothness of the heavily paneled walls. I knew before hearing the way my shoes made a klip sound on the floor which was muted to a thum as I moved across the antique Persian rug.

He was standing at the broad table, several maps spread in front of him. His flaxen hair fell over his face, obscuring his eyes. I walked past the table to set the tray on the desk, and paused a moment, nervous. Could he feel my heightened state? I walked around the desk to the heavy, forest green velvet curtains behind it. I had to paw at the curtains for a moment to find the break. Finally I slid my hand into the opening, letting in a sliver of snow-gray light. The sun had given way to clouds.

“Why don’t you ever open the curtains, to let in some light?” I’d never divulged to him how much safer I felt in darkness, where I might find places to hide.

“Of course you know the ultraviolet rays are damaging to the maps. I always keep the light as dim as is tolerable to work in.”

“Of course.” The lock was right by my hand, it would be easy to turn it. But in such quiet space, every gesture could be noticed. Would he hear the click of the heavy mechanism disengaging? I turned, scraping my foot on the mahogany floor, and turned the bolt at the same time, in one awkward motion. I faced my father, no doubt with guilt in my eyes, but he wasn’t looking. He’d never raised his gaze from his maps.

I came to the table to see what he was studying, but before I could catch more than a glimpse, he said curtly, “Thank you. You may go.”

***

At dusk I found her crouching to light a small fire under a rabbit on a spit. She took my offered basket, and lifted the linen which wrapped the foods. “This linen will make good bandages, if I happen to need any.” Then, “Ah, biscuits. I’ll have rabbit and watercress sandwiches on homemade biscuits. Diners in the finest restaurants in cities would be pleased to eat so well.”

Though we’d always had more than adequate means, our mother had taught us how to live well with little. Survival in the wilderness was not why I feared for my sister.

“The door is unlocked.”

“Good.”

“How is the canoe coming along?”

“It’s coming. I’ll finish it tomorrow, and leave by evening. The moon will be bright enough to travel in the night.”

I had so many thoughts, and feelings too. I wanted her to stay. I wanted to go with her. I was afraid, terribly afraid, for her to come to the house. I was afraid for her to be in the woods. I was afraid for her to be in transit. I wanted so much to know where she was going, what she was doing. She said she would change things, but how? And how would a canoe be part of that? But it was understood between us that the less I knew, the better for us both. I didn’t ask any of these questions, and she didn’t volunteer any information.

I stood there watching her for a while, tending her little fire, turning the rabbit. She fed the fire from the growing pile of chips she’d struck from the log. The aromas of cedar and meat rose up, and it felt like home. I couldn’t remember ever having felt at home. I wondered if it were something I had had, long ago, before memory set in.

The fire was now the only light. Seeing the shadows, I felt a deep foreboding. “I should go.”

She looked up. “Yes.”

“I’ll come tomorrow.”

She nodded, holding my gaze for a breath. Then I left.

Advertisements