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Currently reading Dubliners by James Joyce

To the Girl Back Home

October 20, 2020

FREE WRITING

1
    Icy cold hung over the encampment. Though the sun had risen—it must have by that time—the sky was grey and dead. The camp was quiet, besides the grumbling of the well and the groaning of the sick.
    The young man lying in the bunk in one of the roughly-constructed cabins was one of the sick. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he painstakingly wrote, hunched over the wooden board on his lap that served as a desk. His pale hand shook with the quill in it, but he went on anyway.

    Dear Abigail,

    How are you faring? I know your family is not far from Valley Forge, and that is where I am at. Tis a shame we could not visit. I would have liked to introduce you to my friends, and hear your thoughts on them. Though, perhaps tis better you cannot come, anyway. I'm ill, currently, and would be poor company. Don't worry, tis only a fever from being wet and cold all day. I'm now fortunate enough to have a cabin instead of a tent to sleep in, unlike the rest of my comrades...

    
His hand shook again, and the quill left a large blot on the paper. He winced. His handwriting was sloppy at best, but with the fever it was nearly indecipherable, even to him.
    "Best discard that one, Josiah," came a voice from his side, startling him. He looked up and saw Seth Miller, of the 8th Connecticut, one of the friends he had made at the camp.
    "You came," Josiah said with a cough, leaning back. "How are the rest of the fellows at the fire?"
    Seth had the uncanny luck of always being able to find food. Naturally, he shared this luck with a select few who came to sit at his fire. Josiah remembered pleasant nights, eating rich, hearty stew with men from all the States. That was Seth's one requirement: that the men from different regiments not fight.
    "Noble Galway got a mink, and they're trying to cook it up now," Seth said, gently pulling the board, quill, ink, and paper from Josiah's shaking hands. "I decided I'd best visit you early, before all the captains are up and in an uproar over whatever useless task we must do next."
    "They're not useless," Josiah said, with a thin smile.
    "Marching in this weather seems useless," Seth replied, pointing to the snow piling up outside the door. "Anyhow. The letter. Mmm."
    "Tis my letter," Josiah protested weakly.
    "Tis a terrible letter," Seth snorted, crumpling it and then stuffing it in a hole in his boot. "Wouldn't get past the censors, with how you've mentioned where we are."
    "The British know where we are, undoubtedly."
    "Perhaps, but nevertheless it's imprudent," Seth replied, dipping the quill in the ink. "Now, let's try again. What do you wish to send to your sister?"
    "She's not my sister," Josiah replied, flushing and leaning back against the hard mattress.
    Seth raised an eyebrow. "You're too young for a wife, unless you were forced into one of those unhappy marriages due to an impulsive decision."
    "No—she's—she's my master's daughter. I was prenticed to Mr. Daniel Ross before he let me go to join the Continental Army. She's—she's his daughter."
    "Perhaps a better address might be, 'Dear Miss Abigail Ross,'" Seth suggested, quill hovering over the paper.
    "No, she's not so, she's—let me write it," Josiah protested, sitting up quickly and reaching for the paper. Dizziness confounded his senses, and Seth was easily able to bat his hands away and gently push him back on the bed. Josiah squeezed his eyes shut furiously as hot tears threatened to roll down, sickness making his emotions run wild.
    "There now, don't fret," Seth said, pulling the blanket up to keep out the chill from the door. "You're too sick to worry about such things. Let me write it for you, so that the lady can actually read it without a decipherer."
    Josiah nodded, opening his eyes to see Seth's genuinely kind face. "Fine."
    "Now, what is the aim of this missive? To ask of her health? Send her good news? Bad? Propose marriage?"
    Josiah's eyes widened at the last, and he shook his head vehemently. "No. Well, not yet. Well...perhaps just to start writing to her?"
    "You haven't written to her yet?" Seth asked, hanging his head in disbelief. "It's quite obvious your interest in this Abigail Ross is more than usual, and with the entire seven months you've been out of her presence you haven't written her?"
    Josiah flushed. He hoped Seth would think it was fever. "Well...no. I was too afraid."
    "Of what? That her father would have off with you the moment you returned because he couldn't have an apprentice cavorting with his daughter? That she would reply with a neatly-written but resolved note of, 'Terribly sorry, Josiah, but not interested?' Good heavens, lad, if you want to ever make your way in life, you must take some risks. Tis how I married my wife, and I've never regretted it, for the most part."
    Josiah blew out a breath. "Well, I'm writing now. That's all that matters...if you please, could we begin?"
    "All right. Best write—"
    "Miss Abigail Ross," Josiah began, turning over so that he faced Seth, hollow eyes fixed on the quill.
    "Rather formal, perhaps?"
    'You suggested it. Carry on...I thought it might be good to write to you, because we were such good friends back in Morgantown, and I know you have interest in matters such as the war. I hope this letter finds you well and in good health.
    
Seth winced again. Nearly everyone used such a phrase in a formal letter. But he could see Josiah's attention was wavering through exhaustion and fever, so he wrote quickly and surely.
    "I was hoping to visit at some point, as we are in a location near enough to take leave one day and come to see you. Unfortunately, I have been laid up by a bit of fever, which probably comes from being in the cold and wet all day. I hope to be better soon, but I am not sure whether I will be. Most of the lads here die. Every day there is a different man in the bed across from me. The only thing that saves me, I suppose, are probably my shoes. Most of the men don't have them, and for some reason not having shoes makes one colder. I'm lucky to have smaller feet than most of everyone else, for nobody will steal my shoes then."
    
"Really?" Seth asked skeptically. "Do you suppose she'll be interested in shoes? And you needn't go on about death. A lady doesn't want to know if her sweetheart is going to die or not."
    "I'm not her sweetheart," Josiah protested, screwing up his face in frustration. "I don't know what to write. There's nothing happening. No battles, no fighting all but for a piece of bread. Only starvation and sickness."
    "Well, write about me, or some of your friends."
    "There's a fellow here named Seth Miller, who writes to you for me because I'm currently unable to hold a quill. I hope he's spelling everything right ..."
    
Seth was going to bristle at that slight insult, but one look at Josiah's weary face and he held his tongue. They would be best to finish this quickly.
    "I've got some other friends here. Noble Galway from the 2nd North Carolina. He's a crack shot and terrible tease. He gets us most of our game for stews. You would probably like him; he's always making jokes about everything from army life to King George."
    Josiah paused again, looked emptily at the ceiling for another word. Seth waited, dotting his 'i's and crossing his 't's with a flourish. He didn't care much for the letter. It was all business, and showed nothing of Josiah's real character. It also provided no hint of any affection towards the lady.
    "I suppose that's all," Josiah said finally, with a sigh and a fit of coughing. When he had settled, he finished, "give my best wishes to Mr. Ross and your family. Sincerely, Josiah Thomason."
    "Best wishes?" Seth muttered, but a miserable glance from Josiah silenced him. He knew well the feelings of not knowing what to say to a girl he liked. Wasn't that how he'd been around his Beth the first year he'd known her. Now, of course, they were settled with a farm and three children, but Seth still remembered. The lad needs some help. Best to let the girl know soon enough whether he cares for her or not, in case...well, war's unfair that way. Can take a man from this world in a moment. He resolved then, to do it himself, if Josiah wasn't able. He would fix everything, for wasn't that what Seth Miller did?
    "Best put your name down yourself," he said craftily, holding out the parchment. "Twill make her feel better to know you could sign it, even if she can't read it well."
    Josiah nodded, biting his lip in concentration as Seth guided the quill to his quivering hand and held his arm steady. The signature was still miserably twisted, but it was more legible than Josiah's earlier writing. When he was finished, Josiah laid the quill down like it was a heavy weight, and leaned back again with a breath of relief.
    "There," he said, a little proudly. "I've done it. Now you can said it, won't you, and perhaps—perhaps she won't take it amiss."
    "I'm sure she will be quite pleased to have a letter from such a handsome, good young man," Seth said soothingly, before standing. "I'll be right back. Just you rest a bit."
    He slipped the letter into his pocket, having no intention of sending it, and wove through the nest of fires, grumbling men, and tents to reach his own place—the 8th Connecticut. The fellow were already round the blaze, ladling out soup and laughing with each other like a large family. Noble looked up when Seth approached, and waved with a grin.
    "How's our boy Josiah?" he asked. "Doing better?"
    Seth shrugged. "He thinks he's dying, but I believe he'll make it through. Wanted me to send a letter to the girl back home."
    "Show it here! If little Josiah's actually writing to a girl, I'll have to see it."
    "It isn't much. Not worth reading," Seth replied, taking some stew for himself and Josiah. "I hope you fellows remembered to fish the lead out of whatever varmint you caught, Noble. Can't make our sick boy choke on a musket ball, now."
    "Mink. I told you already, it's mink," Noble said. "And we've already found the ball; Carl Schmidt near broke a tooth on it."
    Carl smirked, spitting a bone out on the snowy ground. Seth shook his head. "Don't poison anyone, lads."
    He went back to the cabin. Josiah was asleep, but it might have been light because he stirred as soon as Seth came to sit beside him again.
    "Brought you some food," Seth said, stirring the hot broth and spooning some into Josiah's mouth as he sat up. "Good, eh?"
    "Not so good as yours," Josiah murmured. "Noble caught it?"
    "Who else?"
    "Ought to give other fellows a chance to prove their worth."
    "Nobody else cares to be up before dawn and sit in a tree amidst a flurry."
    Josiah laughed, before choking on his food. When his coughs had abated, Seth glanced at him slyly. He felt the letter, a hard flat rectangle in his pocket.
    "Tell me more about this Abigail Ross, Josiah," he said. "What sort of a girl is she? You've never spoken of her before."
    "She's my master's daughter," Josiah said.
    "I know that...I presume you've grown up with her, then?"
    "Yes," Josiah said, looking at the ceiling again in thought before Seth forced another spoonful of broth down his throat.
    "Is she pretty?"
    Josiah shrugged. Seth shook his head. "You know, you needn't worry about telling me. I've a wife at home, and I wouldn't fear to proclaim all her merits to the world."
    "All right," Josiah replied. "She's pretty, I suppose. I don't think much of that. She's plump and rosy-cheeked, and she's got long nut-brown hair, with eyes grey like—like the sky on a cloudy day."
    "Or the sea?" Seth asked, remembering the shores of his home state.
    "I've never been to the sea," Josiah replied, "but I suppose. And she's got a freckled nose, because she never minds her mother and doesn't wear a hat when she's out in her garden."
    "She gardens?"
    "Oh, yes," Josiah replied, caught up in thoughts of home. "She runs the household better than her mother. Mrs. Ross is often sick, you know, or at least she says she is. Abby tells me she often pretends because then Mr. Ross stays home and it makes her feel safer. I know that's true; often I watch the carpentry when he's away. And so Abby then keeps the house. She's a wonderful cook. She makes the best rhubarb-strawberry pie, with rhubarb straight from her own garden. She also made me an apple dumpling once when I'd been up half the night at the shop completing a piece of furniture for an order. It was dreadfully cold that night, and I had to walk home in the snow a good ways. By the time I reached the house, I was cold and wet and miserable. But there was still a light in the window, and when I came in, there Abby was. Fire burning in the hearth, blankets to wrap round my shoulders, and a hot apple dumpling on the table. And she sat and talked with me the whole time, even if it was past midnight."
    "Sweet girl," Seth said, mentally writing every detail down. "She likes you, do you think?"
    "I hope so," Josiah said. "I've often wondered if she did. I don't suppose she would have stayed up half the night making an apple dumpling for her father. He's not very kind to her. Mrs. Ross tells him that she's a worthless girl because...well, because she isn't very pretty."
    "You told me she was."
    "I think she is. At least she isn't ugly. But Mrs. Ross was a beauty in her day, and she expects all of her children to be the same. Her other girls are, and her son Jedidiah is. But Abigail and the youngest boy look like their father, and Mr. Ross is of stocky Scottish blood."
    "Ah. And does Abigail speak of this to you?"
    "At times; not often, for she hates to think of the unhappy. But that's why I think she likes me. Because she doesn't speak of it to anybody else, she's too afraid. She can't be with me, because I already know—I see it in their house when Mrs. Ross yells at her. I can't stand the woman; she's such a sloth; Abigail does more work in that house than her mother ever did, and Mrs. Ross still won't recognize that she's just as good as her sisters."
    Seth nodded, and patted Josiah's shoulder soothingly. He could tell Josiah was getting upset about it. "Don't fret yourself. I'm sure she's fine, especially knowing she's got someone to depend upon who cares about her. Do you defend her often?"
    "Against Mrs. Ross when I can. Mr. Ross doesn't like it when I talk back to his wife, though, so mostly I just help Abigail with her chores to keep her mother from speaking ill of her. I don't mind the extra work. It's funny, but sometimes we speak of the best things while we're hanging laundry up."
    Josiah seemed to find this humorous, and laughed a little. Seth raised an eyebrow, trying to imagine himself helping his own wife hang up five lines of dirty nappies. He couldn't see it. Well, to each his own.
    "But the best times," Josiah went on, and his voice was low, "are when we go out and pick wild raspberries for a tart or pie. It takes a long time to get enough, and it's always hot and the air's full of bugs. The way there is through a muddy area; once Abigail got her shoe stuck in the bog and I had to help pull her out. But when we get to the raspberry bushes, we forget about the long walk and the work at home and whatever Mr. and Mrs. Ross will say if we come back scratched and muddy. It's sunny out there, and there's always goldenrod growing in the fields to look at while we pick and talk. Abigail says that in England they cultivate goldenrod in their gardens—isn't that strange? It's a weed here. But she says she would want some in her own garden anyway, only it's hard to grow where you want it to grow."
    Seth withheld a yawn, and glanced suspiciously at his friend, who was drowsily babbling now. Goldenrod? Truly? He concluded he had enough information; Josiah was growing weary anyway.
    "Best for you to sleep now, friend," he said, patting his shoulder.
    "I miss her, though," Josiah murmured, even as his eyes drooped shut. "She wouldn't like this place, anyway...she hates the cold. She hates rough men, too...thinks they're horrid...but most of our fellows are nice...she cooks better than you, Seth, and I'd bet...if we gave her a gun she would shoot better than Noble...she shoots, you know?...hunts like her father and brother, to get food..."
    "I know," Seth replied, as Josiah fell into a restless sleep. "Rest. Don't you worry, your Abigail will see you soon enough."
    He drew out once more the parchment, ink, quill, and board from under the bunk. The ink was thick with cold; he had to stir it for a bit. Then he wrote:

Dearest Abby,

    I am having a friend write this for me because I'm a bit ill with fever and cannot hold a quill at the moment. Do not worry for me; I'm lucky enough to have a cabin and am quite comfortable. 


    He looked at Josiah's sleeping form, still shivering, and threw another blanket over him so his last sentence wouldn't be a white lie.

    I decided to write to you because I've been thinking about you a lot. Especially now, in winter—remember that time you stayed up half the night to make me an apple dumpling? I've never paid you back for that, and all I can think of is that apple dumpling right now. You're a wonderful cook, you know? Better than my friend Seth Miller. You would be adored at camp because of that. You would probably be angry with the quartermaster though because he doesn't give us very fine meals. I could see you arguing with him, probably. Perhaps he would listen to you; he doesn't listen to us, but he might think you're so sweet and pretty he ought to listen.
    Anyhow, I hope you are faring well. Is your family all right? Is your mother "ill" again? I suppose she has a bout of consumption or has caught cold or fever in this weather. Tell her to wear shoes; when one is without shoes one is far more likely to be ill. That's what I've noticed here. Also, tell her that perhaps if she is out of bed and moving about more and being industrious, perhaps she will be warmed and not sick so often.
    Don't actually tell her that, she might take it amiss and have you punished. And twouldn't be fair, then, because I'm not there to share the punishment with you (though being here and away from you is punishment enough).
    I am trying to think of presents to bring back to you. All I can think of is a button from a British soldier I've kept in my pocket since my first battle. It's silver. It must have been from an officer. I wonder if I killed him.

   
    Seth nimbly reached into Josiah's pocket and took the button out. It was indeed silver. Better a humble gift then none.

    I hope it isn't a poor gift. I would have gotten you a ribbon for your beautiful nut-brown hair—perhaps gold? It would remind me of the goldenrods by the raspberry patch where we pick each year. Those days were wonderful. I remember how we would pick raspberries half the day, and then you would make a wonderful raspberry tart or something. But it when better when it was just the two of us in the field, talking and eating raspberries. You were prettiest then—not that you're not pretty at other times. I can see the sun shining off your hair, and your sea-grey eyes gleaming with happiness.
    And that's—that's what I've got to write about most, Abigail. There's only one thing I care about right now, and that's your happiness. I want to know, truly, whether you could be content living with your parents, in that house where your mother treats you so. I want to know whether it would be at all possible if you would want to—well, to marry me and live in a house that I built for you, where you could control it yourself and do whatever you wanted and whatever you wished. And even if you didn't want to marry me, I could build you a house anyway, just for you, without your sisters and brothers to care for or your mother to fuss at you. But I would most like to know if you could ever be happy with me, because I love you so.


    Seth hoped that was good enough. He wasn't sure. He wasn't very fluent in the written word, but at least he had tried. It was better than Josiah's original letter, moreover. And it got to the point. He glanced at the sleeping young man, and grinned.
    "Thank me later, Josiah," he murmured, taking up the quill once more and painstakingly replicating Josiah's signature at the bottom of the parchment.

    Love,

    Your Josiah. 

    "Ought to be good enough, eh?" he muttered to himself, folding the letter. "Sweet and loving, hopefully, and she'll see the heart through it. He'd probably agree with every word, if he was well enough and had enough gumption to admit it."
    He patted Josiah affectionately on the shoulder, and was relieved to hear that his friend breathed a little easier. Maybe he was getting better already.
    "Probably thinking about that girl back home," Seth said, standing and heading back out to sent the letter with the next post. "And thank your old fellow Seth, lad, because with my help you'll be more likely to come back and find her willing and ready to marry you."

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  • October 20, 2020 - 11:27am (Now Viewing)

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1 Comment
  • anemoia (#words)

    I LOVED THIS! I came here to reply and got so hooked! Oh, Seth, that was foolish, but I see why he did it! Josiah is precious, such a dear. It felt historically accurate and impressively written.
    Re: as for my novel, it's in a very preliminary stage... and I've got other projects right now as well as volleyball prep for our delayed season. But I'm glad you're intrigued; it's encouraging! Miss Wolhurst and Miss Fulbrook would be delighted to meet you. XD


    7 months ago