Mae Jacob, whose husband, Steven, was serving in Belgium and had been out of contact for weeks, received a letter from him the afternoon Hannah delivered a bagful of crimson tomatoes that were perfect for sauce. The next day Mae told her neighbors she’d dreamed of her husband when she slipped his letter beneath her pillow. She didn’t dare to share the details of the dream, which were far too personal, but she credited the tomatoes from Hannah’s garden for her new hopeful outlook, as well as the letters that had begun to arrive on a regular basis.
Hannah was unaware of the rumors about her garden until the evening she decided to hike over to the Jack Straw Bar and Grill. She had walked to the edge of town in search of a place where she could escape the heat, but even the countryside was stifling. With its darkened windows and its long wooden bar, the Jack Straw seemed promising. Hannah wore a summer dress and sandals. As soon as she was inside she perched on a wooden stool directly under the ceiling fan. She whirled around once on pure whim, then ordered a cold beer.
“You didn’t bring me any tomatoes?” the bartender, Bob Kelly, joked. They’d gone to high school together and were vaguely related through marriage. Hannah had been Bob’s tutor for a season or two. He couldn’t write an essay to save his life. He was deaf in one ear, so he hadn’t been called up to service. “Now I won’t get my wish,” Bob said.
“Meaning?” Hannah had decided to order a meatloaf sandwich even though she usually only had a salad for dinner. She was suddenly hungry. She had been working hard, forgetting meals, existing on iced tea, tomatoes, and Popsicles. Canning and putting up chutney and tomato sauce had taken up every other evening this week. The rims beneath her nails were scarlet. Her fingertips were scorched.
“People get their heart’s desire when they eat the tomatoes from your garden,” Bob informed her. “Or so I’ve been told.”
They both laughed. Hannah was a good egg when she let her hair down.
“People are pathetic.” She shrugged. “They’ll believe anything. If it’s true, then where’s my heart’s desire? I’ve practically eaten a bushel of tomatoes just this week.”
“Hard times make for simple minds,” Bob suggested. “What do you hear from Azurine?”
Half the men in town had been in love with Azurine at one time or another, and Bob had been among them.
“Out saving the world,” Hannah remarked. She missed her sister terribly.
“I’ll bet she’ll come back speaking French,” Bob said wistfully.
Hannah laughed. “Are you expecting my sister to come back?” Hannah had finished her sandwich and beer, so she stood up to go. It would still be broiling in her parlor when she got home. “Would you leave Paris to come back here?”
THE TOWN HAD decided to go forward with the yearly Founder’s Festival, even though so many of Blackwell’s sons were posted overseas and would be absent. A stage had been built in Band’s Meadow. Every year the drama society mounted a play about the plight of a local ghost called the Apparition. This summer Jenny Linden, aged five, had been given the starring role. As Hannah walked home from the Jack Straw Bar she spied a crowd huddled around the child, who was sprawled out in the grass, crying. No one could get Jenny to stop wailing—not the drama teacher, Grace Campbell, nor the other children gathered in a circle. Even Jenny’s own mother couldn’t comfort the child. Hannah felt herself drawn across the lawn. She sat down beside poor Jenny and patted her hair. When she heard children cry, she was always undone. She had lost a sister when she was quite young, and in some ways she’d never gotten over her grief.
“I was the Apparition when I was your age,” Hannah told the distraught little girl. Jenny looked at her, baleful, still tearing up. “I was nervous, too. But I remember how I felt when everyone applauded. I felt as though I was a star in the sky.”
Jenny hiccoughed, but she’d become attentive. The Apparition only had two lines. It’s me, sister, and I’m leaving this earth, but I’ll never leave you. Under Hannah’s tutelage Jenny practiced her part even though tears still shone on her face. She quickly improved with a little coaching. Hannah clapped her hands appreciatively.
“I can always tell who’ll make a good Apparition. You’ll be perfect,” Hannah encouraged Jenny, who had forgotten all about crying and had instead begun to think of stars up above and how brightly one might burn on the wooden stage if it should ever fall from the sky.
By the time the adults thought to thank Hannah Partridge, she was gone, walking through the meadow, burning not with light but with despair. She would never get her heart’s desire. More than anything, she wanted a child. Find a husband, someone might have told her, get married, have a baby or two—all easily accomplished even in a small town such as Blackwell. But Hannah was not interested in men. She never had been. She refused to speculate on what this might mean, or admit to the crushes she’d been aware of. She only knew that if she didn’t wish to be someone’s wife, she couldn’t have what she yearned for most in this world.