When Ben left Blackwell, he didn’t bother to collect stories in any of the towns along the road to Amherst. He got on the train, buying his ticket with a donation Ruth Carson insisted he take. He was more than a week behind schedule, but no one at the WPA faulted him for that. People got lost out in the countryside. That’s what maps were for. On New Year’s Day Ben went to the Plaza. He told his colleagues about the banker’s family who lived in the church, and the lynx with one eye, and the tavern where the owner had shot himself after a fire. He left out the story of the fisherman’s wife, however. That one he kept for himself, and he wasn’t surprised when he lost the bet, or when he proceeded to buy a round not just for the winner, whose story concerned a beekeeper who’d been stung a thousand times, but a drink for one and all.
KISS AND TELL
HANNAH PARTRIDGE WAS FAMOUS FOR HER garden. That year, she had planted more than eighty tomato seedlings. She’d worked all through June, crouched down on her hands and knees in the dirt. Her tawny blond hair had turned red from the gritty soil. In the evenings, when she showered, the tub needed to be scrubbed every time. Now it was August and the fruit was ripening. In all the belladonna family, only tomatoes weren’t poisonous, though the leaves could be lethal if boiled into a tea. Tomatoes hadn’t even been considered fit to eat in Massachusetts until the mid-1800s. Now there were hundreds of varieties for cultivation. On summer evenings when Hannah’s neighbors walked by, they could smell the bitter green scent of the vines. They peered into the huge yard, where the twilight gleamed green and shadows stretched far into the woods. If they stood still enough in the first humid waves of nightfall, it was almost possible to hear the plants growing.
The large farms around town had closed down, the fields were bare, the barns empty. Food was at a premium when not homegrown, costly and hardly first-rate. Even in a small town such as Blackwell, beef and butter were rationed. There was a war to fight, and many of the young men who would have been working the local farms had been sent overseas. Thirty women in town had husbands in the armed services. Another twenty were the mothers of sons who had enlisted. Few people bothered to cook sit-down dinners these days, especially those who were missing a husband or son. The coffee shop had a new Victory menu, with simpler, more inexpensive fare. That was the extent of nightlife in town. People went to bed earlier than they used to, frightened by the darkness of the world beyond Blackwell.
Hannah was thirty-five that year. She was young and attractive, yet she felt her life had not yet begun. Why then did it seem as if it were already over? Hannah’s sister Azurine, who had studied to be a nurse, had gone off to France to work in the ambulance corps. Azurine was in the battle zone, facing the terrors of the world, driving over muddy fields, performing surgery she hadn’t been trained for should a doctor be unavailable, falling madly in love with one doomed man after another, spending torrid nights in their beds, and mourning each one before he had walked out the door. There may not be another chance to live, she wrote to her sister. If not now, when?
Hannah sat in the parlor in the evenings to read Azurine’s letters. The windows of the house were open and a fan was set up, yet it was beastly hot. Hannah wore a slip and nothing else. She kept her long, graceful feet in a pan of water in an attempt to stay cool.
The only way to fight evil is with joy, Azurine had written. Forget everything we’ve ever been taught.
Hannah’s skin was blotchy with heat, her pale hair was pinned up. Her knees were still dusted with red earth from her day’s work in the garden. Hannah considered herself to be plain, especially when compared with her sister, but her face in repose was incandescent. Had any man in town seen her at that moment, had he walked past and happened to have spied her, he would have realized she was beautiful. But no one saw her, and she couldn’t have cared less about the impression she made. The moths repeatedly hit against the windows, convinced they were headed in the right direction, heedless of the wire screens that stopped their flight. Hannah pitied them. Who but a fool would stay in one place and butt her head against the same window time and again? A fool who should have been in Paris, who never should have stayed home, but one who seemed tied to this garden and this house.
Hannah retained a stony aloofness. She had always been known as the serious sister, absorbed in her chores, tending to be somewhat standoffish. Still, people were drawn to her. She had an uncanny ability to gauge who was in need, often appearing at someone’s back door with exactly what they yearned for most: a pot of split pea soup, a bottle of milk, a blanket for an ailing baby, a spray of red phlox from her garden. As the summer went on, she had less to give, with nothing more than tomatoes to offer her neighbors. There was a glut of them, so many they fell from the vines in the night. The patter of falling fruit sounded like hail, waking people who lived nearby from their sleep. A rumor began that if Hannah Partridge came to your door with her wicker basket, your wish would be granted. It started when ten-year-old Eric Hildegarde found a rabbit in the grass after Hannah stopped by. Eric had always wanted a pet rabbit and was overjoyed to find one beside the back door. His father built a hutch in the yard the next day, and maybe that was what Eric had wanted most of all but hadn’t known it: to spend the day with his father learning how to use a hammer and saw.