CLICK ON THE SNOWFLAKE TO OPEN THE DOOR!
HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM LEE BENOIT
Oakhampton, Massachusetts, 1834
Early snowfall brightened the late afternoon as Timothy watched the sledge from the sawmill, pulled by two coal-black draft horses, make its laborious way up Maple Street to his place. The load of slabs — all he could afford — teetered and creaked, but didn’t fall. It should have fallen, Timothy’s brain insisted, still working like the engineer he’d never become now.
The driver’s voice snapped him out of his futile contemplation of angles and forces and trajectories. “Young Mister Allen! Good to see you back.” The man’s — Timothy couldn’t remember his name — tone was a shade too hearty, but Timothy caught his meaning. It echoed the sentiment of the town fathers and the ladies at the Congregationalist Church and most of his neighbors as well. No one had expected effete, bookish Timothy to return to Oakhampton after his father died. They’d expected him to make straight for Boston to reunite with his mother and sisters. He’d intended exactly that. No farmer and he knew it, Timothy had left his studies at Amherst unfinished and made east for Boston, only stopping in Oakhampton to dispose of his father’s property.
That had been a month ago. Timothy rattled around the unfinished house and missed coach after coach for Boston. Winter closed in quickly, and Timothy pretended it had taken him by surprise. Tomorrow was Christmas, and he had finally admitted he’d spend the season in Oakhampton. Hence the slabs of wood to heat Toby’s Folly through the winter. No one named the house so to Timothy’s face, of course, but he agreed with conventional wisdom. Tobias Allen had undertaken to erect a gracious home in the Greek Revival style his wife so admired. Huge and almost silly in this sensible little town, the massive structure stood unfinished and Timothy knew enough of physics and winter weather not to expect the framing to survive until spring. The kitchen was finished on three sides, and boarded in on the fourth, and the hearth was a marvel of size and function. The barn, a provisional building, was sound enough, though mostly empty. It would be a mean winter, but Timothy couldn’t regret it. He couldn’t return to his beloved Amherst, wouldn’t advance to Boston. Here he would stay until mild weather returned.
“Come in for something warm,” Timothy offered the driver, but the man shook his head.
“Darkness is falling fast, and Mrs. Proctor will have my scalp if I’m not home for Christmas.”
Proctor! That was the man’s name. Timothy wrapped his muffler more snugly around his neck and said, “Well, then, I’ll help you unload this mess and you can get on. I wouldn’t want to be the cause of trouble for you.”
Proctor smiled with good humor. “We got a late start, but I’ve a fellow to help, so with three the work should go quickly.” Proctor gave Timothy’s thin shoulders and pale hands a dubious glance and shouted, “Oi! Irish! Get on with you then.”
Startled that he hadn’t seen anyone else, Timothy watched a small man round the back of the sledge. He must be the reason the slabs had stayed in place up the hill.
“Why, he could have been killed if the slabs had fallen!” Timothy spoke before thinking over his words, and endured a grim look from Mr. Proctor.
“Nonsense, boy. He had a rope.”
Timothy thought the man was joking, but his Amherst fellows often teased him for his failures to apprehend their japes. To cover his confusion, he stuck out his hand to shake the recently-risked sawmill employee’s. The man looked confused but after a beat or two removed his glove by tucking his hand under his opposite arm and pulling. The warm, rough feel of the man’s skin distracted Timothy so that he was forced to ask for a repetition of introductions.
“Donal Kitt, Mr. Allen,” the man said. A curious hitch in his speech reminded Timothy of a horse in strange traces.
“You’re Irish!” he blurted, at once proud and embarrassed.
Donal Kitt ducked his head and cast a wary glance at his employer. “I am,” he said. “Have you a–” he seemed to cast about for a word before giving up and holding his arms apart at oblique angles and taking a step or two backward.
Delighted with this full-body pantomime, Timothy grinned and supplied the missing word. “Travois. Of course. I’ll bring it.” He nearly stumbled on his way to the carriage bay of the barn because he forgot to break his eye contact with Donal.
Proctor was gruff but not cruel for all that he clearly disapproved of his immigrant employee. They used the carriage bay to store most of the slabs and stacked the rest on the leeward side of the kitchen for ease of access. Timothy, useless at pulling the laden travois despite being of a size with Donal, worked feverishly to stack the wood as they unloaded it. He was at best halfway finished by the time the sledge stood empty. Timothy paid Mr. Proctor from the last of his ready cash and Proctor flipped a few coins to Donal. “That’ll cover for the last week and today. Good luck to you, then.” With that, he mounted the bench of the sledge and clucked the horses into motion around the bend.
“Merry Christmas,” Timothy called after him, but got no answer. He turned to see Donal standing beside the Folly’s gatepost hunched against the cold, his breath issuing in short puffs of white vapor.
“Have you a destination, Mr. Kitt?” Timothy asked. He couldn’t imagine where the man might be welcome in Oakhampton.
“Be there an inn or such?”
Timothy stifled a laugh. “Not here. Out by the springs, in summer, but not here. What was Proctor thinking, turning you out in winter?”
Donal shrugged. “I ought to have left with the other lads, gone to the Springfield mills, but I didn’t. Proctor needed a hand until the mill pond froze, so he kept me on.”
Timothy wondered why Donal hadn’t departed with his “other lads”, but said instead, “You’re welcome to share my supper. Make plans in the morning.”
Donal peered up and down Oakhampton’s main road, from the church at the bottom to the Folly at the top, as if seeking some alternative Timothy knew didn’t exist. Was his hesitancy good manners, or fear? Timothy hastened to reassure him. “It’s only venison stew and bean cake, but you’re welcome.” He heard the pleading note in his voice. He missed his family, sure, but he missed the warm, rough camaraderie of his college friends more, and the company of a man close to his own age was an unlooked-for boon. When Donal still gave no answer, Timothy added, “It’s Christmas.”
“So it is,” Donal said in a whispery lilt Timothy wanted to hear more of. “I’m obliged to you, Mr. Allen.” He hefted a very modest pack that looked like little more than a bedroll. Even Timothy had brought a full trunk back from Amherst, though he’d had to sell everything but his engineering books to pay for the stage.
Timothy tried to keep from showing too eager as he led the way to the kitchen door. “Timothy,” he said. “Mr. Allen was my father.”
Donal tilted his head to acknowledge the words, but said nothing as he followed Timothy into the house. They doffed their caps but kept their coats on as Timothy stirred up the fire and laid a quartet of bean cakes in the warming oven. The stew, kept warm in a cast iron spider over two days, began to bubble scent the room.
For the first time, Donal spoke without having been spoken to first. “Quite a house.”
Timothy straightened from his position over the spider and took in the room with stranger’s eyes. The monstrous hearth stood in the center, with warming ovens built into two sides and the huge cooking hearth facing what would be the main part of the house. The room was bare of furniture but for a trestle table his mother had considered too rustic to take back east with her. Odds and ends of Timothy’s temporary residence littered the rest of the room. His books, precious things, had pride of place on the table, away from fire and cold. “It might have been,” he conceded. “My father died without finishing it.” That was obvious, of course, but Timothy could hardly say what he’d been about to say: the old man had died without making provisions for completing the ambitious structure.
“Won’t you finish it?” Donal looked around curiously as Timothy worked the pump so they could wash up before eating. Last summer, home from college and with bright new knowledge, he’d built the mechanism himself with an underground pipe so there would be flowing water in all but the deepest cold. Topped with a hand pump from the great metalworks to the east, it was simple and clean and functional: three of Timothy’s favorite things. The water from the well was bitter cold, but Timothy found he was too tired from stacking wood to bother waiting for it to warm up.
“I haven’t planned one way or another,” Timothy said. “You know they call this place Toby’s Folly?” No sensible man would build a house like this before his land was supporting him. Tobias Allen had been anything but sensible where his wife was concerned. Unable to afford land near Boston, he’d brought the family west on the promise of gracious living in the near wilderness.
Donal blew on his fingers to warm them after washing, so it took Timothy a moment to notice he was laughing quietly. “It is amusing, I suppose.”
But Donal shook his head negatively. “Your pardon, Timothy. Only my folks called it folly for me to leave Tralee, and here I’ve landed in folly for sure.” Donal’s blue eyes danced with mirth and Timothy found himself grinning along. It was a good joke.
While he dished up hot stew, Timothy ventured to observe, “You seem powerful easy for a man with no home and no prospects.” It was the sort of bluntness he’d cultivated with his bosom friends at Amherst, but for a moment Timothy feared he’d assumed too much. He and Donal had nothing but age in common, really. He opened his mouth to apologize for his intimacy, but Donal was laughing again and in danger of tipping his bowl.
“Haven’t you heard that about the Irish? Too careless by half unless they’ve been drinking, which is often, or breeding like rabbits, which is the only think they do oftener than drink.”
“I didn’t know that,” Timothy answered, smiling back helplessly. “So was it carelessness or drink that prevented you leaving good Mr. Proctor before the snows?” He looked away to dish up his own stew and add bean cakes to each of their bowls. When he returned his gaze to Donal, the man no longer smiled.
“Neither, I’m afraid. I fell out with my… cousin.” He seemed to search for the word. “He left without me.”
“I’m sorry,” Timothy said. “Eat up while it’s hot.” He dipped his spoon into the thick stew and raised it to his lips.
Donal didn’t eat immediately. Instead, he held the bowl in his left hand and used his right to cross himself, murmuring over his supper.”
“You’re a papist!” Timothy exclaimed.
“Am I now?” Donal’s eyes were dancing again.
“I didn’t intend any offense,” Timothy hastened to add. The only person he’d ever met who wasn’t his sort of Christian was a Mohammedan geographer employed by the college. “I was surprised, is all.”
Donal waved away Timothy’s discomfort and dug into his food. After a few moments of rapid shoveling, he asked, “And how is it you find yourself alone in this folly on Christmas?”
Timothy thought about telling of his aborted college education, his mother’s departure for civilization, and the sorry state of his father’s finances. He’d lost everything but this barely finished kitchen and some unproductive acreage. But Donal had left everything behind, and Timothy didn’t want to appear self-pitying by comparison. “My mother and sisters returned to her family in Boston before I made the trip from Amherst. I haven’t determined how to dispose of this place, and now shall have to wait until spring.”
“Hence the delivery of a ton of slabs.”
Timothy nodded. “I’m a good enough shot to stay fed through the winter.” His one real skill, besides tinkering, was hunting. Even now there was a side of venison salting in the barn. “Maybe one of the farmers in town will give me a price for the land. I can’t imagine anyone wanting the house.”
Donal chewed thoughtfully. “What kind of land is it? I’ve seen pasture between here and the sawmill, but you don’t have any livestock.”
“What the Allen land has, besides a very healthy herd of fieldstone, is an abundance of maple trees.” Timothy grimaced and put aside his empty bowl. “My father bought it sight unseen from an agent in Boston.”
“Sugar maples?” Donal’s voice was bright with curiosity.
Timothy nodded. For the first time, he imagined staying on past the spring thaws. If he had a reason besides his father’s failed dream, he’d consider it. If he had a companion, someone to throw in with and pull beside, the choice would make itself. But naturally, he didn’t say so.
He gathered up the bowls and set them in the wooden sink under the pump. He showed Donal the necessary in the lean-to off the barn, and hurried back inside. Most nights he went to sleep as soon as dark fell. Candles had to be shipped from Worcester or dipped at home, and Timothy hadn’t the supplies. By careful calculation, he had enough candles and lamp oil to last until the thaw, if the thaw came as early as it had the year before.
But tonight was Christmas Eve, and he found himself missing the services he’d become accustomed to in Amherst. So he left the lamp burning and fetched a jug from the pantry.
“I’ve no wine, but there’s cider,” he said to Donal. “And I thought I’d read a bit from Matthew. For Christmas, you know.”
“I’ll thank you for the cider, Timothy. But hadn’t you best get down to the church?”
“There aren’t evening services, not here,” Timothy said. He remembered his first winter in Amherst, and his wonder at the evening services with their carols and lights. The Oakhampton Congregational Church was, by comparison, severe and cold. “You must think me an awful heathen.”
“Oh, I’d think that anyway, what with mixing cider and verses,” Donal said solemnly but with the twinkle in his eyes that Timothy was becoming accustomed to with alarming speed. “You read, and I’ll pour, and it’ll be a poor man’s midnight mass.”
So Timothy read from Matthew and they doused the light before spending pleasant time running through their repertoires of carols to find the few they shared in common. They sang “Adeste Fideles” twice when they discovered they both knew the words in English and Latin, and they finished with “Silent Night,” which nothing seemed lovely enough to follow. It was by far the most companionable Christmas Timothy could remember.
Time for sleep arrived with a new problem. Timothy said, “You sleep beside the hearth, Donal. I’ll be warm enough on the other side.” He banked the fire as he spoke.
“Afraid to bed down with an Irishman, are you?” Donal teased. He didn’t press, but unrolled Timothy’s blankets alongside his own.
“Don’t be silly,” Timothy huffed. He shed his boots in the ruddy glow of the hearth’s embers and rolled up in his heavy blankets.
“Can’t believe your Ma didn’t even leave you a bed,” Donal said.
Timothy honestly hadn’t considered it before. “She expected me to follow her and my sisters to Boston right away.” Now he thought he might not follow at all. “Perhaps we should build a bed, if we’re staying the winter.”
Donal, halfway through wrestling his way out of his own boots, went still with one foot in midair. “Are we, then?”
Timothy froze. The fellow-feeling he experienced with Donal, such a welcome amplification of his sentiments for his dearest school friends wasn’t, he realized, entirely common. A thousand responses galloped through his brain as he tried to decide what to say.
He waited too long, for Donal dropped beside him, one boot on and one boot off, and leaned in close. “My cousin, the one I fell out with? He wasn’t blood kin. Do you know what I mean?”
Timothy did. His thoughts and emotions lined up the way his plans for the kitchen pump had done: tidy and pure and pointing clearly the way forward. In that moment, he knew what to say. “Go to sleep, Donal. We’ll figure everything out in the morning.”
Note: The images in this post come from two publications of the local historical society of my little Massachusetts village (pictured in 1900). They are, of course, of a much later vintage than the tale of Timothy and Donals’ first Christmas together. The sawmill in the second picture was operated by the same family for over a century and a half before its roof collapsed in a snowstorm in 1955. The photograph shows the kid of slabs Timothy bought to heat the Folly. The house in the last picture is the Folly as it appeared in the 1930s, a century after its completion in 1836.
Before dawn and after dark, Lee Benoit is a writer of queer fiction, some contemporary, some speculative, some historical. During the daylight hours she is a professor of sociology & anthropology. In the old days, Lee traveled the world doing field research. Nowadays, she lives in the middle of a New England hayfield where being a two-spirit single parent provides more than enough excitement. Lee also paints watercolors, bakes wild-yeast sourdough bread, and shares her bed with a pair of cats and an abjectly adoring hound-retriever mutt. Whenever she gets itchy feet and misses the world of research and advocacy, Lee invents a new world in her head and takes notes on what happens there. Visit Lee at http://leebenoittales.com
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