“Well, you gonna knock?” Josh asked impatiently.
“Of course I am,” Nat replied. He raised his hand and rapped on the door. He lowered his hand to his side slowly and waited.
No one answered.
“Knock a little louder,” Josh suggested.
“Well, I was knocking just as loud as is polite!”
“Maybe they’re all at the back of the house.”
Nat nodded and knocked again, firmer this time, throwing his whole shoulder weight into his pounding.
The door was opened almost before he lowered his hand by Polly Farjon herself. She was dressed in a frock even rattier than the uniform she wore to school, blonde hair tied back with a bit of twine, an apron - twice her size - that might once have been beautiful tied around her middle. She said not a word, as Josh has foretold; she simply stood there, blue eyes wide with something between fright and curiosity.
“Hello, Miss … Miss … hello, Polly. Do you remember us?” Nat asked.
She didn’t even blink.
“I’m Nathan Under … Nat, if you like … and this is Joshua Bailey. Josh. We … I mean, I … well, I was wondering if you’d like to come play with us.”
She glanced over her shoulder and shrugged.
“Well … well … would you?” Nat asked.
She smiled sadly and gestured over her shoulder helplessly.
“Can’t come?” Josh suggested, slouching against the porch rail.
She shook her head.
Josh glanced over her apron, damp from what might be dishwater. “Chores, maybe?”
She seemed relieved and nodded furiously.
“Well, that’s all right. We’ll see you later, Polly.” Josh turned to leave.
“Wait … do you … do you think you could come out later? This evening, maybe, after supper?”
Polly’s eyes widened. She shook her head.
“Are you sure?”
“Maybe some other day?”
She dropped her eyes and shrugged.
“Well, she doesn’t want to, Nat. Come on, leave her alone.”
Nat sighed, defeated. “I’ll see you tomorrow at school, Polly. Maybe we could talk … I could talk to you … well, maybe we could meet up, anyway.”
“Come on, Nat,” said Josh, practically hauling him away from the door.
* * * * *
That evening, Nat came home starved after a hard day battling. He could hardly wait until prayers were said to dig into his supper. When his first hunger was staunched, he set down his fork (if only momentarily).
“Mother, do you know the Farjons?” he asked.
Mrs. Under dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. “Why do you ask, Nathan?”
“Polly Farjon is in my class.”
“She’s the eldest, I believe,” Mrs. Under said. “She would be your age by now, I suppose. I haven’t heard from the Farjons much these last few years since ….” She glanced at her husband.
“Since Mr. Farjon died?” Nat asked.
“Yes,” Mrs. Under said quietly. “Poor woman. We didn’t make it to the funeral, but Louise did …” Louise was Mrs. Bailey, Josh’s mother. “… and Louisa said she was absolutely heartbroken.”
“It’s really a shame. He was a fine man,” said Mr. Under. “I only spoke to him half a dozen times, but he was always so happy, so full of energy.”
“I’ve heard tell he was very clever, too.”
Mr. Under nodded. “Yes, he was. A fine man, and a fine lawyer. Entertaining. Easily distracted, I admit, but we all suffer from that from time to time.”
“Yes, we do. But what was it that you wanted to know, Nathan?”
Nat shrugged. “Just wondering if you knew them.”
“We do, though not very well, especially since the accident.”
“Mrs. Farjon … has not been feeling up to visitors,” Mr. Under said slowly.
“Is she sick?” Nat asked.
“No, not exactly.”
“Then what’s wrong with her?”
“Some people grieve harder than others, and she simply couldn’t stand the strain,” Mrs. Under said. “Finish your supper, Nathan.”
* * * * *
Polly crouched on the counter and slowly opened the cabinet door, careful not to let it scrape her back. As soon as it was past her body, she straightened and examined the shelves. They were packed with food items, but she wasn’t sure if she could make anything - at least not anything special - out of the various ingredients.
She was fairly good with basic cooking and baking - always had been; her mother had taught her to prepare food from her cradle - but there wasn’t really anything to make except the same old things they had every night. If she asked her mother to help, she’d make something quick and simple, like she always did nowadays. Mamma’s food was delicious, yes, but it was bland. She just didn’t put her heart into it anymore.
Polly took a deep breath and picked up a few seasonings. She set these on the counter between her legs and carefully closed the cabinet door. Hopping down, she arranged the spices in a neat line and stared at them. Did she dare try to season their chicken, or would it be salt and pepper again? She didn’t think she could bear the flavorlessness another night.
Polly was a born chef, like her mother before her, and it repelled her. Food was meant to be enjoyed. It wasn’t just nourishment; it was an intricate part of one’s life. Life wasn’t meant to be bland. It was meant to contain a million flavors, and Polly wanted to experience them all.
The chicken sat on the counter, waiting to be cooked. But how did one season a chicken? She had only vague memories of her mother doing so; not enough to guide her to do it herself.
Angry at her own stupidity, Polly scowled, the closest to an emotional outburst she had ever got in her life. She had always been gentle, subtle. Since her father’s death, she had become almost invisible. However, despite her outward calm, she was quite furious, and she seethed at the world for its unfairness.
Unfair. That was what life was.
It extinguished your father’s life.
It stole your mother’s vitality.
It took your supports far away and left you all by yourself with an unseasoned chicken.
That was what life did to you.
Polly would have hated life if it weren’t for the fact that she needed it to care for her family.
As if reminding her of this responsibility, Polly heard a shrill voice calling her name. “Pawwy! PAWWY!” He demanded attention, and now.
He sleeps less and less every day, it seems. Soon he won’t want to take a nap at all. How will I get work done? I can’t ask Mamma to watch him while she’s supposed to be resting!
Polly raced out of the kitchen through the door that led to the narrow hallway and up the back stairs. At the top stood a very irritated two-year-old.
“I wasna sleeping,” he insisted.
Polly smiled. Colin was an independent little fellow, and he hated naps with a fury. He always insisted he wouldn’t sleep … but he always did. After all, he was really just a baby still. Babies had to sleep, no matter how determined they were.
Polly scooped Colin up, almost stumbling as she hadn’t anticipated his weight. He was getting heavier every day.
Soon I won’t be able to lift him.
Polly wanted to scold him for getting out of bed, but she didn’t say a word. It wasn’t worth it, anyway. Some things never healed, and she had accepted that. She wasn’t even sure she could talk anymore.
She turned to face her mother, clad in an old black dress she used as a nightgown. She simply wore it without her petticoats and corset. Polly supposed it was a bit of an unhealthy fascination, but her mother couldn’t stand to be out of black for a moment. Polly could hardly remember what her mother looked like in anything lighter.
“He’s up already?” Mrs. Farjon prompted.
“Are you going to set the table?”
Polly nodded again.
“Then let me take him. You can’t have him tagging around after you.”
Polly shrugged and offered a half-smile.
Mrs. Farjon sighed deeply. “Really, Polly. I’ll let him play with my jewelry. You mustn’t do any work except your chores, all right? None. I won’t allow it. You’re a little girl, and you should be enjoying life like Susan. Go outside and play when your jobs are done.”
Polly nodded, although she had no intention of doing any such thing, and slowly lowered Colin to his feet. He almost ran over to their mother and threw himself against his legs.
As Mrs. Farjon led Colin into her bedroom, Polly reflected on her mother’s words. They were a contradiction. Her mamma was letting Colin play with her jewelry; it was just a reminder of how she would never wear the pretty baubles again. She would never be herself again … and she needed Polly to do her work for her so she could rest.
Don’t worry, Mamma. I’ll take care of you.