Today my mother died, and next month my father will follow her to the grave. I am going backwards, unable to move or catch myself from this fall. I can see the light of day, but it must be night; only a dream could hold such horror for a fifteen year old girl. They tell me in a few days time I shall board a ship for Galveston. But this locke upon which I live couldn’t possibly fit such a ship, bound for so far away. From here I could go North to Canada, learn French, I have always been good with different languages and cultures – this should prove useful to me. It couldn’t be more than a day or two’s journey by horse – of course I will have to learn to ride, and there are so many waterways to traverse. But it is warm with spring on its way out. There are plenty of farms along the way, from which to steal a quick meal – I must learn to steal; I suppose I could.
“Are you ready?” asks the Reverend Gamaliel, interrupting my plotting. “So many people are downstairs, and you are the last one left to say your good-byes. I know it’s difficult, unimaginable, but you must be strong. Go out and say goodnight, then you can come back and pack your trunks. I guess you’ll want to bring those canaries?” the Rev. says softly, looking at the shiny cage hanging high above the window, like a shrine to the Virgin Mary, but still allowing for the cool breeze coming off the water, and as if to himself, “I have never seen any quite like those, such a unique color, blue canaries?”
Florence raises her face to the light and feels the warmth of the sun’s rays longingly. “Of course I will bring them, they’re the last living thing I have,” she says, wondering how she will manage them on horseback.
First the bed, and then the floor, squeak as I stand, steadying myself on the Rev. Gameliel’s arm, and smoothing the folds of tiny, blue flowers – which only appear to be alive, blowing with the breeze, as the fabric falls from my body – upon my dress. I take the first steps out of my room. Almost my last, I thought. You can do this, I hear him say. Yes, I can do this, I think, and the canaries can survive the long journey if by ship.
A tall, middle-aged woman, portly in size, stands in front of me, as if giving a sermon but much too close. I don’t have the luxury of sitting in the pew, separated from such a preacher by empty thoughts. She is right in my face, questioning me with flailing, heavy, jiggling arms which seem to make the rest of her body swell like an inflatable dummy. I imagine those arms, with fat, baby-like fingers holding a fragile teacup, clattering as she attempts to set it gently on the saucer. I must learn to deceive this woman, I think, it shouldn’t be difficult to utter an untruth, knowingly, with good intention. I think I should be better at it than those hobbledehoys down at the dock, with their dirty knickers and backward, cockeyed caps, who hurl their lurid meows at me as I hurry by. My mind wanders off.
“What will you do?” she repeats, leaning in even closer so that I can feel her perspiration, watching it slide down her brow. “I mean on the ship, taking you to Galveston, how will you get-by? Er…” she pauses, pregnant with remorse for suggesting the desperation I am feeling. Her eyes avert sideways not looking at anything, rather away from my pain.
It’s not about her, I remind myself as I begin spinning the tale in my head. I will keep a diary that should be helpful to pass the time and mend my mind, perhaps. But as I think of the future pages of this diary, my mind is as blank as them. At this moment, I realize I have a choice: to board the ship completely alone, desperate and empty, going nowhere of my choosing, coming from nothing, no one; or I can pack my trunk with paint brushes and crushed rubies, to color my new life, embracing the blank pages and imaging a place warm with new faces. I will begin with the captain of my ship, my first new friend.
Having traversed the mountainous ravine before the others, Florence made her way to the lonesome cabin that, even at a great distance, stood out among the high desert sagebrush. Her brow dripped sweat and her head drooped and bobbed loosely with each slow motioned step of her horse. Both badly needed water. The deafening din of the insects, God knows what kind, seemed to zap their energy at each length.
“Here we go, Bristol,” she encouraged her horse, stroking his strong neck, “we’re almost there,” as they closed the gap between themselves and the anticipated nourishment.
Dismounting her horse, she noticed for the first time, her blood-soaked, leather boots. The bloody toes long since dried, darkened, and stained over again with fresh, brighter red splotches. They were a gift from her father, God bless his soul, on HIS birthday, July Fourth. She remembered it longingly, pining for the luxury and warmth of family and a home reluctantly left. The boots were intended for her first riding lesson, which never happened, as father died not even ten days later – setting off this new course in her life.
The sound of hooves approaching quickly brought her back to the cabin. She would check it out before the others arrived. Again the loud buzzing of insects, flies, harassed her senses; but before she even opened the door to enter, the stench hit her harder. The odor of death enveloped all, but she had to make her way across the length of the small, one-room cabin, to check the cupboards. She reluctantly grasped the white porcelain knob, now brown and sticky from use by hard-working hands. Nothing! Nothing but the tiny droppings of long gone rodents – nothing she could eat. She bent down, her haunches aching from weeks in the saddle, and reached for the lower cabinet. Now moving with more speed and certainty – the certainty of no food and instantly she was sorry. Her own scream breaking the long silence of her thoughts, bringing her back to the living “a Rattler!” she screamed again, louder than the hiss of its tail. And before another thought could interrupt her, she slammed the heel of her blood-stained boot down hard, just behind the snakes head. Almost decapitated, and certainly incapacitated, you will definitely make a fine meal, she said wryly to the still writhing snake held high in her hand.
“Florence?” her half-sister stuck her weary face into the small sliver of light, let in by the open door, “we found a well, around back.” She smiled seeing the fat rattler Florence still held in her shaking hands. “Looks like we’ll be having a first course!”
The crackles of the fire became fewer until a loud POP brought Florence out of her semi-conscious sleepy-state. Her clothes and blankets were still wet from the sudden rain showers that roll through the desert, and her body ached from weeks of traveling on horse back. This sleeplessness emanated from her bones feeling as if they were 20 years older than her 15 years of privilege lived in New York.
Even now, on this seemingly never ending march to escape the southern vigilantes, this was the first night without a roof over her head. The thunder clouds broke the celestial light as they passed overhead. Florence’s last thoughts before succumbing to exhaustion were of her parents, now belonging to those celestial heavens. Perhaps it was their hands that guided the clouds away from their path, bringing them shelter and food when all seemed lost.
Her thoughts turned to dreams and she was home, with them and her siblings, in front of their large fireplace. Benjamin Franklin came alive as her father read aloud from his essay “Rules on Making Oneself Disagreeable.” The laughs were hardy and real as we all imagined our esteemed statesman as such a rogue. Even in her dream she could feel the real pain from her stomach, as laughter turned to tears and the rain fell down her cheeks.
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