Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Ledger


Happy Thursday! I'm at it again with scriptic.org. When I first received this prompt (details at the end of the story) I kind of collapsed in my chair, thinking, "Huh. How the hell am I going to work that into something?!" And then I saw the farmhouse in my mind. The story just kind of tumbled right out of it - darker than what I normally write, but, damn, what a fun write it was!

It's also a longer story than usual, so pour yourselves a cup o' whatever and sit back.

Apr├Ęs vous, Dear Readers...
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Ora wrote in his journal, “Sold 12 White Leghorn pullets for $45 and one yearling cock bird from breeding stock for $7.00. Tithe $5.20.” Then, he closed the books on September and turned over to a fresh page and, in a neat, tiny script, wrote October, 1919.

The opening strains of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, tinny and far away floated through the air.

Underneath the October, 1919 heading, Ora wrote in bold capitals: SIN WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.

Again the opening strain of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir sounded.

Maggie blinked, startled. W’fuck? What was that all about?! She looked down at the cookbook in her hands and dropped it on the kitchen table as if it were on fire. That was a hell of a daydream. She looked out the dining room window. There was her Chevy, parked near the barn as always. That assured her that it was at least 1995, and the obvious mileage on the old beat up rig told her it was well past that. It was probably 2012, just like it had been when she woke earlier that morning.

Maggie went to the sink and with shaking hands splashed cold water on her face. Then she cupped her hands under the faucet, filled them with icy cold water and drank. Feeling better she looked out the window again. Yup. Truck’s still there. Get a grip, woman! It was just a dream. She looked back at the table. The only thing on it was her old Betty Crocker cookbook. She remembered that she had pulled it from the shelf to look up the recipe for apple pie. That was all. The rest of it was the dream about the old man and the chickens. And tithing, Chiquita. Don’t forget the tithe. Yes. The tithe. What an odd thought to insert itself in a dream. She hadn’t even been to church in at least twenty five years, didn’t remember when she’d last heard, much less used the word tithe.

Restless, Maggie wandered around the old farm house. It was really starting to come together. She had purchased it just two weeks ago. The place had sat vacant for a decade so she was able to move in right away. Now all her belongings were unpacked and it was starting to feel like it was hers, like it was home. The realtor had seemed surprised that she wanted it. “Are you sure? It’s a long way from the city. And it’s such a big place - what will you do with all that room?” Maggie had assured her that she wanted the peace and quiet. She wasn’t the kind of artist who took her inspiration from obnoxious city noises. In fact, the hustle and bustle gave her what her baby brother called cranial constipation.

Maggie thought that the place was just right for her. She had a beautiful room on the top floor with lots of natural light coming through the South-facing windows where she could do her art work. She had a smaller room on the top floor where she could write. Plus, there was another bedroom up there for guests, presuming she ever had any. The kitchen was a huge old-fashioned country kitchen with an attached dining room. The living room was a decent size too, and her bedroom, the original master bedroom, was off of that. The bathroom took up at least a sixth of the ground floor and had the original claw-foot bathtub still in it. Why would anyone not want to live here?!

Suddenly, Maggie remembered hearing Kashmir earlier - her cell phone ring tone. She pulled her phone from her pocket and flipped it open. One missed call and a message. It struck her as odd that she had missed the call -  she had it set to vibrate and ring, because sometimes when she was deep in the throes of creating or writing, it took a lot to grab her attention. She hit the message button and listened, “You have one new message. Message received at 10:45 AM.” Derek’s voice followed, “Heya Sis! You must be lost in the rabbit hole again. Put down the paintbrush and call a bruthah back, will ya?” Maggie smiled. Her “baby” brother was one of her best friends. She pulled up his number and hit the call button.

“Yo yo yo… wazzuhhhhhh?” he said into her ear.

“God, Derek. That is so nineties!”

“Hey. We can’t all be creative geniuses. What’re you up to?”

“I was thinking of making an apple pie. I bought a half bushel of pippins from the guy who owns the orchard out on Rt. 2. Want to come for dinner? I can throw some chicken and corn on the grill.”

“Sounds great. I haven’t seen your new place since you moved in. Love to see what you’ve done with it. I’ll bring grape juice.”

“Make it a velvety Malbec and you’re on!”

“Done! See ya six-ish?”

“Perfect.”

They both hung up. Maggie went out to the truck and pulled the basket of apples out of the back of it. It was a relatively cool, crisp day. Not cold, not yet, but enough to let her know that Autumn was coming. It was her favorite time of year - the colors, the cooler weather. Nothing fueled her creativity like an Autumn day. She set the bushel of apples on the porch just off the kitchen, picked eight of them off the top and carried them inside.

Before she started on the pie, she went into the living room. She flipped through a stack of discs and plucked one from the middle of the pile. Maggie grinned. Just the thing to get the woolies out of my head. She plopped the cd into the holder, pushed the cover shut, and cranked the volume a little. Stevie Ray Vaughan lit into Cold Shot. Maggie waved her middle finger in the air, laughed and said, “Take that no-sin-will-be-tolerated!”

Back in the kitchen she got out the big stainless steel bowl and started peeling apples and cutting them into slices for the pie. She always cut up more than she knew she needed because once she’d doused them in cinnamon and sugar, it was just too difficult to resist snacking on a few of them - the excuse being that just wouldn’t all fit into the pie shell. Munching on one such chunk and nodding her head in rhythm to Mr. Vaughan (who was now rocking it with Little Wing), Maggie pulled another big bowl out of the cabinet, got the flour from the pantry, and a stick of butter from the fridge. She found pie making ultimately soothing. Just as she dumped the flour into the bowl, she felt the telltale uncomfortable twinge in her belly. Damned period. But no wonder I felt a little whacked out this morning. She wiped the flour off her hands on a kitchen towel and went into the bathroom.

Ora stood at the kitchen sink, squinting out the window and sneering. He could hear the chickens raising a ruckus and he knew why. It was another coyote, he was sure of it. He muttered, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” He hollered to his daughter, “Ruthie! Bring me my shotgun! Devil’s bitches are in the hen house again! Ruthie!!!” When there was no response from his useless daughter, he stormed into his bedroom, grabbed the gun off of the wall rack, double checked to be sure it was loaded, then stormed back out through the kitchen. “I will deal with you shortly!” He hollered at the kitchen ceiling. “Sin will not be tolerated!” He opened the kitchen door and ran at a half jog toward the barn. Ora had built the chicken coop on the backside of the barn where it would get more shade. The coyote was hunkered at the edge of the brush, about twenty feet from the coop. It’s muzzle was bloody and there were feathers all around. Ora raised the rifle.

Maggie heard a loud bang just as pain pierced her right shoulder. “Ow! Goddamn!” She looked around her, perplexed. She was sitting in the dirt about twenty feet from her truck. Her dad’s old hunting rifle was about a yard to her right. How in the world… this is just… I don’t… Maggie heard something plopping onto the dirt. She looked up to see a hole that went through the grill on her truck and through the radiator. Fluid was leaking out of it onto the ground. I didn’t just… did I?… oh bitch in a buzz saw!  I shot my own fucking truck?! What the hell is wrong with me?

Maggie sat in the dirt, hung her head and cried. She knew something was so wrong with her, and just when everything should be so right. I wish Derek would get here sooner rather than later. Maggie’s eyes went wide. Shit! The pie! Is it burning? Maggie jumped up and ran into the house. She didn’t smell the pie baking at all. She went into the kitchen and heaved a sigh of relief. Whatever had happened to her, had happened before she’d made the dough.

Maggie went into the bathroom to wash her hands. She pulled a washcloth out of a stack on the shelf, ran it through cold water and scrubbed at her face. She ran the cloth through the water again and this time held it across her eyes. She sighed, feeling the cool compress easing the heat from crying. Then she went back to the kitchen and, with far less joy than usual, finished making the pie.

Two and a half hours later, she was curled up on the sofa, with an Annie Proulx book in her lap. The pie was out of the oven, the chicken marinating, and the corn was peeled. Everything was set and on hold until Derek arrived. Maggie turned a page, reading but not absorbing. She realized that she’d read half a chapter and had no idea what was going on with the characters. Movement caught her eye and she looked out the big picture window to see Derek’s car turning in the dirt drive. She went outside to start the grill and to greet him.

Later, as they were taking their dishes to the sink, Derek said, “Good grits, Sis. But I have to say, that’s got to be the quietest meal I’ve ever had. And you look whipped. You want to tell me what’s up?” Maggie heaved a heavy sigh and leaned against the counter. “You’re going to think I’m crazy…” Derek was quiet as Maggie poured out the day’s events to him.

“I don’t think you’re crazy. I mean, don’t they always say that crazy people don’t know they’re crazy? You were just very rational about everything that’s happened. You know, you’ve been through a lot in the last year and a half - divorce, you left your ten year career with Aside Graphics to do your own thing, bought this house and moved within a week. Those are big stressors, you know. I think you should call Dr. Figueroa in the morning and make an appointment for a thorough check up as soon as possible. Oh, god… your truck…”

Maggie waved that away. “The truck is the least of my worries. She was kind of on her last legs anyway. But… I mean… Jesus, Derek! I was wandering around out there in a total fog with Dad’s old shotgun! If that’s not crazy… I don’t… I just…” She shook her head. “You’re right. I’ll call Dr. Fig in the morning.”

“Are you okay on your own tonight? I could stay…”

Maggie shook her head firmly. “No, there’s no need. I’m going to crawl in bed with the heating pad. My period just started and my belly hurts, I’m exhausted. I know I’ll be out before my head hits the pillow. But thank you.”

Maggie packed up some of the left over chicken and pie for her brother. He hugged her and promised to call in the morning. She was shutting off the downstairs lights before his car turned out onto the road. She took the heating pad from a nook in the bathroom, plugged it in next to her bed, crawled into bed with it and was sound asleep in seconds.

Ruthie’s eyes were downcast. “Papa. I… I’m… bleeding.” She swept her hand across the tops of her thighs. “Down there.” Ora stopped his pacing back and forth in front of her, and lightning quick, raised his hand and backhanded her across the mouth. Ruthie rocked back on her heels, but didn’t cry out. “So you’re just another sinning bitch… just like your mother was.” He backhanded her again, this time hard enough to knock her to the floor. “Sin will not be tolerated! I will purge it from you, daughter! I will lead you through the burning fire until you are made clean, by Jesus!” Ora grabbed the kerosene lamp from the table and brought it down hard on Ruthie’s stomach. It shattered, throwing flame and fuel all over the kitchen, instantly igniting Ruthie’s cotton dress. The flames caught and spread immediately. Ora’s pant legs were aflame. Mindless of this, he continued beating Ruthie with the broken lamp, all the while screaming, “Sin will not be tolerated! Sin will not be tolerated!” The fire crawled across the floor and began to lick it’s way up the walls. “Sin. Will. Not. Be. Tolerated!” The blows he gave Ruthie punctuated each word. Flames stretched up the walls and began to tickle the ceiling.
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Derek pulled up close to the barn. I was just here. Now she’s gone. Everything. Gone. I should have stayed. It echoed in his mind, should have stayed, should have stayed, should have… He stood by the barn for several minutes, staring at the charred remains of his sister’s house. Should have stayed. As he stood there, something fluttered in the bushes next to the barn and caught his periphery. He walked over to take a closer look. It was an old book of some sort. He pulled it out from where it was caught in the branches of the bush. The leather cover was old and worn. He opened to the first page. In tiny neat script was written: A Full Accounting of Prayerful Living Farms by Ora Anders, Year of Our Lord 1919.

Derek flipped through the pages. It was mostly a ledger of some sort, accounting for chickens bought and sold, household expenses, and tithes given to a church. He came to the page marked October 1919 and his blood ran cold. There, in large scraggly capitals that were divergent from the earlier neat script, was written: SIN WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. Halfway down the page after that were the words, again in the neat script: One coyote killed. One chicken lost to Satan‘s bastard. One shotgun shell used. About an inch below that, again in the angry looking capitals: RUTHIE TURNED. PURGE NECESSARY. SIN WILL NOT BE TOLERATED!

Derek pulled a pen from his pocket. He licked his thumb, and with it, flicked the ledger to a new page. His lip curled into a sneer as he squinted and wrote in a neat, tiny script: Hell’s Bitch taken care of for good. Buy new lumber. Rebuild. Replace chicken that got ate up. Sin. Will. Not. Be. Tolerated.

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For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Jester Queen gave me this prompt: "Ora wrote in his journal, 'Sold 12 White Leghorn pullets for $45 and one yearling cock bird from breeding stock for $7.00. Tithe $5.20'. Then, he closed the books on September and turned over to a fresh page and wrote 'October, 1919.'" I gave SAM this prompt: Simon and Garfunkle sang, 'We walked off to look for America...' What do you think they found?

4 comments:

  1. OH my GOD I love this. I Just LOVE IT. And it is so amazingly ....
    Hang on -- I'll back up and tell you where this started.

    My husband's grandmother died recently, and we came across her father's diaries. He was a chicken farmer. He was exceedingly religious. He tithed like mad. Ten percent off the top to the church, always and unquestioned.

    His wife died when his youngest (Scott's grandmother) was only five. He had a total of five kids, and with no idea how to raise them, he hired somebody from in town to help. She lived with the family in her own apartment. Scott's grandmother was a bit of a rebel in nursing school because she went to parties with her classmates. All of this Ora's kids lived to ripe old ages, and nobody died of being burned to death because Dad didn't know about periods, and there wasn't a Ruthie in the bunch, but that's so perfect. Ora dark wasn't so very different from the Ora light I imagine!

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    Replies
    1. Ooooh, knowing the story behind it gave me goosebumps! I had so much fun writing this piece. Truly. And there is so much more to the story and the characters in my mind that I'm seriously considering working on it as a novel.

      So, thank you very much for the compliment AND for the... heh heh... killer prompt!

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  2. This was so interesting! Loved where you took the prompt. And the ending! Did not see that coming!

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  3. Whoa. I mean, WHOA.

    That is one good read. It's a really good read. Scary and moody and compelling. I don't think I would want to spend any time (none at all) with Ora on my own, but reading this accounting was fun.

    I may have nightmares.

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