Martha Darkley goes to bed
The silence around Martha Darkley’s house was broken by nothing more than the rustling of weeds at her window. “Look at the moon, Martha. See how it stains the darkness like a brilliant purple wound.”
“Many would see that as an ill omen, John.”
“Would they now?” asked John.
“Aye. A full moon as big as th’on? Why it excites many of the flimsy housewives in the town to their gossip.” Martha laughed. She twisted her neck to yawn, rocking backwards and forwards in the creaking chair by the small fire. The room served as both a sitting room and bedroom for the old woman, yet it was always warm and welcoming.
“And you, Martha?”
Martha raised a dismissive hand. “I’ve seen as many ill omens as I have winters, John. North Hallam has been drawn to them for as long as I can remember. It would be no sort of life were I to succumb to every little sign, omen or harbinger this dark world could show me.”
“Indeed, dear sister, indeed.”
“Aye. I remember the day Con died, strange the things that happened. I woke up in the morning and not one sneeze came upon me, but two. Mark that, two. No sooner had I finished sneezing than a raven, the blackest raven you could ever see, flew straight in through my window, circled the room three times and flew out again. I received news that day that he had fallen on the Acadian peninsula, ambushed by the French.”
“He was a good man.”
“Aye. Aye he was,” sighed Martha. “However you and the church, Mr. Paynter, have been like a second family to me since then. I do so look forward to your visits.”
“Thank you,” John smiled, his aged face always painted with a robust kindness, “it is always very pleasing to be appreciated.”
“Aye well don’t let it fill you with pride now, John. Pride is a mother. I’m sure you know the rest.”
John sighed and puffed out his cheeks, “Indeed,” he replied. They both sat staring at the dying firelight, feeling the night drawing in like a blanket. “I fear, sadly, our time has come to an end this evening.” He smiled warmly at the old widow.
Martha nodded. “Right you are.” She rubbed her hands on the front of her skirts and groaned as she rose. John stood first and took his hat and coat from the door frame. Martha followed him out to the front porch.
“Will you take any more blankets this evening Martha? The night chills very quickly at this time of year.” He said as he left. Martha assured him as to her relative comfort, that it was not for us, she said, to live at ease in Zion after all.
“’Tis true!” smiled John, “Well then, good evening my sister.” He pulled his hat tight over his forehead to protect himself from the cold. Martha watched him leave; in the darkness of the night he soon vanished from sight among the hedges, leaving the world in silence except for the rustling of the weeds.
Looks like fog tonight, thought Martha as she closed the door. Examining the room, she laid hold on a little candle holder made of shaped tin donated by Alderman Lavity last Winter. In it she found a little wax still remaining which fortunately saved her a journey to the scullery. The candles donated to her by the St. John’s ladies were running thin and before long she would be back to rush lighting again.
Lifting a pail from the side of the room she carefully doused the dying embers in the hearth, sending the room spiraling into darkness. Regardless of the many years she lived in these conditions, she had never gotten used to the way the darkness swept in on nights like this. She was most aware of it during this time - the fleeting moment between the fire going out and the candle being lit. She scrabbled in the dim glow of embers, hearing only the sound of her own breathing as she reached for the glowing end of a half-charred faggot. Her wheezing breath sounded so loud against the silence of the room. Holding the orange end against the wick, the candle flared into life. She was soon surrounded by an orb of glowing amber. Her breathing slowed. She dropped the piece of wood back onto the ashes to die.
It was a long day for Martha, but her work was not yet done. While she could still feel the tips of her fingers, she reasoned, she was fit enough for working. She made a meager living cutting candles and working tallow. It was hard but satisfying work for a lady advancing in age. She wouldn’t have time for that tonight, however. The children would be there in the morning - Jesse and Barnabas from the Miller family; Peter Whittingham’s daughter Juliet and the Coiler twins - for their lessons. She had arithmetic and history prepared, while she had arranged some reading practice for Jesse. She smiled at the thought, this was the highlight of her week. She would teach them of the old country, of the many times great men from many nations came to claim these shores and failed, the toll of life haunting them the rest of their days. She would teach them of how they eventually made a foothold, just a little way south, and with caution and trepidation sought to anchor themselves on this wild and difficult land. Jesse Miller was her bright spark; a tall, brunette bruiser of a boy. Martha laughed, peeling off her skirt and girdle, as she recollected the time Jesse corrected his brother in the previous week’s lesson. “No Barney,” he said, she could still hear the haughty condescension in his breaking voice, “the Mayflower was the ship, not a woman named May!”
It was a particularly cold night, just as kind Mr. Paynter promised; and on particularly cold nights Martha Darkley was accustomed to slipping into bed in her shift. She calmly recited the Lord’s Prayer, not forgetting to mention dear Mr. Coiler and his back; and for God to look after the little lambs in her care every week; to thank Him for never blessing her late husband and her with children of their own that she might care for the children of the town instead; and to keep the Indian and the negro at bay; and to provide strength for her work tomorrow; and to bless kind old Mr. Paynter and ensure he snares himself on no bush, pricks himself on no nettles nor gets startled by any strange noises on his homeward journey. She turned over and with a satisfying puff blew out the candle and lay contentedly in her bed. A pale, lurid face pressed against the window.