Icy rain fell as Romah walked along Temple Street. While crossing the main road, several thoughts beat in time with her heart. The train might delay. What if she had to stand for hours at the station, wet in her wool stockings? It might give her time to lose her resolve. Though the ticket lay in her handbag, Romah saw herself running back to her mother. “Uccellina,” Mrs. Gornan had said, “my little bird is leaving me.” After a two-day journey, Romah would arrive in Vermont. She was to start on the Waterbee Watchman in two weeks, having told the editor that she didn’t need time to settle in. Or to change my mind, she added to herself.
Romah had spent her girlhood as fact totem for The Informant. She delivered papers mainly, but also recorded town hall meetings when Gil Bailey showed up drunk. In the early days the men looked out for Romah, called her scrappy and brassy and the hardest-working lad in the bunch. But after the Steward business, they preferred the term ‘darkie-lover’. So before they could make trouble, Mr. Gornan had sent Romah to his sister’s in Vermont.
The rain muddied the road, but Romah walked on. In that first summer away, Waterbee had been a fairyland. No getting up at three in the morning to fold and stack newspapers, no press rooms choked with tobacco smoke, no errand boys yanking her braids. Waterbee folk didn’t mind that she went fishing and climbed trees. Those months had turned Romah back into a child, and the Gornans wrote nothing about the Steward business.
When she returned, Romah didn’t ask if Jake were still in jail or to visit Allison’s grave or what Dr. Dawson had done with the baby. But Billy Roy Drefford, whose father swore he’d beat him senseless if he so much as looked at Romah, told her about a man who had come through town with an article. It said folks were angry because Steward had married the colored girl and where did they get off trying to kill him for it. A few weeks later the man’s house caught fire, and the brigade only came once the house was good and gone. No one saw the man again and no one asked. Billy Roy and his brothers had to burn every copy of that article, and Mr. Drefford swore he’d beat them senseless if he caught them reading it. Mr. Drefford had taken his boys to a lynching only days after the Steward business, and Billy Roy said that he couldn’t keep his food down for a week.
With that unknown man at the back of her mind, Romah went to school and did her chores. But folks got suspicious when she took up her old job at The Informant. A year had passed, and the men grumbled about having ‘that kind’ around. Mr. Gornan assured them Romah was cured, never mind she had begged him into the ground to go back. Eventually the men owned up to having relied on Romah, not only to work until the work was done, but to enjoy their stories, to share in committing life to the printed page and thus to immortality. By age sixteen, Romah belonged as if she had never gone. At eighteen she took on the work, if not the pay, of a proofreader.
Despite being eighteen, Romah had only recently converted to bathing with regularity. Once the fog of ink, sweat, and turpentine lifted, there stood a creature no one recognized. Romah’s snub nose had given way to a classic profile, her freckles to a complexion of marbled ivory. Instead of dirt and paper filings, pearls nestled in the black of Romah’s hair. Her feisty green eyes remained, but fans of dark lashes softened their burn. Now that women’s magazines had a use beyond the outhouse, Romah found she liked the scent of rose oil and the feel of cold cream. It was around then that Ben Meyer, assistant editor, looked twice at his newspaper’s only female.
“Is it me,” he said to Ernie Washmore “or is Gornan getting pretty?”
Ben Meyer looked well enough. He earned a fine wage and had his choice of any Dunstead girl. He was the son of the town doctor, and the pettiest person Romah had ever met. So when rumors went about that Ben was sweet on her, dread filled her heart. Not only would refusing Ben end her years with The Informant, but his mother would declare her unmarriageable. Mrs. Meyer held sway on the women in town, who in turn held sway on their sons. No decent young man would seek her as a wife.
Not that nine years on a newspaper did much for Romah’s chances. Still, Ben dangled her in his claws for seven months before proposing to Romah in front of the entire staff. Romah doubted neither her reply nor its consequences. Her only hope lay in Mr. Kirby, editor-in-chief. Romah’s years of service had not escaped Mr. Kirby, nor did Ben’s dishonorable intentions. But even he wouldn’t cross Dr. Meyer’s boy. He did, however, provide Romah a glowing letter of reference and three months’ severance. “I’d have discharged you anyway.” said Mr. Kirby as he walked her out. “Too much going for you to waste it in Dunstead.”
Romah rang the door of 12 Temple Street. Glancing about, she saw torn paneling and rotted eaves. No one had lived there since the night Allison died, when Romah had left in her parents’ arms and the deputy dragged Jake from Allison’s side. The officers had shoved him into their wagon, but Romah couldn’t stand to look back. Again the baby shrieked, as if her voice were the most important.
It was the last Romah had seen of her, or of Jake. The Dawsons wound up taking the baby, which was more the doctor’s idea than his wife’s. Their family grew as well, and when their fifth child was born, Mrs. Dawson announced they no longer had room for Cress. Dr. Dawson wrote Romah about the matter, for they had corresponded ever since the mobbing. He occasionally sent copies of The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette with a paragraph about city doings. Romah’s replies began as ink-blotted epics of her delivery route, then matured into questions about smelting and steel, unionization and J.P. Morgan. Where the doctor found time to respond while seeing to two hundred patients and five children, Romah couldn’t guess. But when he asked if she knew of anyone who might take Cress, Romah volunteered to toe the line herself.
She rang again. After a moment, Mrs. Elaine Dawson opened the door. The doctor’s wife looked frailer than Romah remembered; sleepless nights had hollowed her cheeks. Romah recalled Mrs. Dawson’s taffeta, an embroidered, beaded suit too fancy for the likes of Dunstead. That morning she wore a dress of brown velvet, one that matched her eyes and seemed tight around the collar. And with more angles than curves, Mrs. Dawson looked like one of the neighbors now, another chore-laden wife.
“Oh Miss Gornan,” she squeezed Romah’s hands “am I glad to see you! If I had to spend another minute alone I would have screamed. Do come in.” She took Romah’s umbrella, shaking it with more force than it needed.
Romah watched her cram it into the umbrella stand. “Is Jake here?”
“Of course, dear. He’s been upstairs all morning, sorting through the bric-a-brac.”
“And,” Romah wrung her gloves “is Cress here too?”
“Yes.” Mrs. Dawson simpered. “Cress is here too.” She led Romah through the dim of the foyer, looking back at her as they walked. “My word but you’ve gotten pretty. I say, dear, you’re a vision now that I’m looking. Goodness, will you listen to me? I’ve been among the middle class far too long.” She looked about the parlor, at its sunken furniture and water-stained walls. “Why, my gently bred friends would have quite a laugh if they knew me now. Overall I prefer my good doctor to the old life, although not at the moment. Won’t you sit down, Romah?”
Romah wanted to ask how Mrs. Dawson came to have ‘gently bred’ friends, but found herself assaulted by the parlor’s odor. And sit down? Just standing in that room was enough to turn her stomach. Years of dust lurked in every corner, while cobwebs draped the fireplace. Termites had gnawed through the floorboards, the sofa eaten by moths. Romah gazed at the windows, the planks hammered over them that kept the room stagnant. Its damp sent a crawl through her. “I don’t blame you for not wanting to be alone here. I don’t know how Jake endured an entire week before you came.”
“Oh, he stayed at a hotel next town over. We’ve only been here since this morning. I wasn’t keen on coming to this hovel, but Jake insisted.” Mrs. Dawson looked at the ceiling. “He’s finally giving up this property, and the housing authority is coming today. Upstairs is pretty fair, but this parlor is a disgrace. My brother has come to his right mind since the old days.” Mrs. Dawson smiled. “You’ll think him someone else completely.”
Romah stood near a chair, but could not bring herself to sit on it. “How do you mean?”
Mrs. Dawson lifted her chin. “He is part-owner of a shipping firm in California. The town is Frimond Bay, just north of San Francisco. Anyway, he says the market out west is wide open, whatever that means. Not to mention he is to marry a San Francisco debutante, which will help with connections. And he just made twenty-six, so he’s got youth in his favor. Would you like some tea, dear? I hired a local girl to scour that kitchen, and the tea things are on loan from Jake’s hotel.” She went to the kitchen. “I told Jake I wasn’t about to use anything that hasn’t seen the light of day for nearly seven years. And do you know everything is just as I left it? I put empty preserve jars in the pantry, and they are there still. I wanted the hired girl to wait on us while we were here, but Dr. Dawson wouldn’t have it.” She returned to the parlor with a kettle and cups. “My silver set it isn’t, but it will do.”
As Mrs. Dawson poured Romah’s tea, peppermint mixed with the stale air. “Go on, dear, drink up. Didn’t you write that peppermint is your favorite?” She opened a trunk near the kitchen door. “I asked for linens to cover this dreadful sofa and chair. Some Irish woman brought them, crossed herself a dozen times before she came in and dashed out before I could pay her. Anyone you know?”
Romah laughed a bit. “Mrs. Flaherty, one of the laundresses. These are probably someone else’s linens. She’s a famous thief and . . .”
Mrs. Dawson put the sheets over the furniture. “And what, dear?”
Romah heaved a sigh. “Well, it’s only that Allison was a laundress too. She never stole and didn’t have to, since her reputation got her all the custom she could want. Including Mrs. Flaherty’s.”
Mrs. Dawson chuckled. “That sounds like Allison. People just gave in to her, no matter what she asked for. Somehow,” she sat on the sofa “it seemed wrong to deny her. I never really blamed Jake for running off with her, despite all of this. She just had a way, Allison. Did you ever notice it?”
Romah touched the teacup to her lips, recalling Allison’s confessions. “She did have a way. Is” she took a breath “Cress anything like her?”
Mrs. Dawson dropped a lump of sugar in her tea. “Mmm, I’d have to say yes, very much like her. Of course it broke our hearts to give her up, but it really is for the best.”
Romah, cup warming her hands, studied the doctor’s wife. In spite of Mrs. Dawson’s pallor, there seemed an air of relief about her. As rain fell against the house, Romah doubted that all of their hearts were broken.
Mrs. Dawson sighed. “We leave in a deluge, just as we live in one. I suppose you aren’t too put out, Romah, seeing as you are escaping this excuse for a town.”
Romah frowned. Dunstead kindled few embers in her, but she was a local. “Perhaps the high has not left your brow entirely, ma’am?”
Mrs. Dawson sat back. “My heavens, dear, I can’t help but think ill of this place. It’s been a sieve of despair for all of us, especially this house. See the holes burnt in that rug there? I never swung so hard as when I put those flames out.” Her shoulders slumped. “Do you know, I think I’ve been tired ever since. And with my boy just born I’m spent, Romah. I’ve done all and beyond what was asked of me, and I will not do any more.”
Romah sipped her tea. The parlor was unpleasant enough without Mrs. Dawson draining it. Just when the world seemed without hope, a thought came to her. “Mrs. Dawson, won’t you tell me more about Cress?”
The lady set her cup down. “Oh, you have nothing to worry about there. She’s a good girl, does what she’s told as soon as you tell her. A mite odd, but nothing to fret over. Yet far as her looks go, there may be some concern.”
“Is her hair an unhealthy shade of orange?” asked Romah. “It happens with some mulattos.”
Mrs. Dawson laid a hand on her chest. “I’ve seen that and it is tragic. Thankfully Cress’s hair is dark red, like a maple leaf in autumn. Really, she has lovely hair considering what could have happened. However,” she leaned close to Romah “she is the very image of Jake. She’s got his heavy eyebrows and even his chin. Can you imagine Jake’s chin on a little girl?” She tasted her tea. “Her eyes are big like Allison’s were. But the look of them, the way she looks at you, she got from my own father. Stormy blue-gray eyes that just dart into your soul. Now if you can imagine a Negro girl with your father’s eyes, welcome to my life. Her skin’s rather fair but she darkens in the summer. Overall, Cress is a decent enough child. Prone to quiet spells, but that is hardly a failing.”
A knock came to the door.
Mrs. Dawson rose. “You are certain to like her, Romah.” She went to the foyer. “Jake Steward, come down these stairs immediately!”
Romah heard two men come in. Dr. Dawson entered the parlor, followed by a man Romah knew to be an attorney. The doctor looked just as he had six years ago, and did not seem to notice the parlor. When he caught sight of Romah he smiled. “Why Miss Gornan, how grand to see you.”
“Dr. Dawson!” Romah hopped to her feet. She strode toward him, but Mrs. Dawson gave her a look. Slowing her steps, Romah gave him her hand. “You look very well, sir.”
The doctor nodded. “I’m well enough, and more than grateful to you. My word but you’ve grown, Romah. Why, I fear you’ve gotten taller than me, although many accomplish that feat before they’ve seen nineteen.”
“Didn’t she get pretty, dear?” Mrs. Dawson put her arm through his. “And you should hear the way she talks. You would never guess she grew up around here. Can you believe she’s still unmarried?”
Dr. Dawson laughed. “I don’t believe Romah wants to choose between the paper and a husband just yet.”
Romah smiled. “If you had a brother, sir, I might be inclined to.”
Again Mrs. Dawson peered at her. Romah met her gaze, then started at her own words. Though the doctor received high marks in her book, he was quite safe from her wiles.
The attorney approached them. “Dr. Dawson?”
He looked up, his smile leaving him. “Yes, we are here on business, aren’t we?”
“Is that the lawyerly fellow?” came a voice. Heavy feet jaunted down the stairs, and Jake Steward strode into the parlor. Romah could see every day of the last six years in his face; a squareness it had not possessed before. His blue-gray eyes were flat, his smile rehearsed. His shirt and trousers were pressed to perfection, made to fit him with obvious expense. A gold watch finished the ensemble, incandescent against the woodsmoke of his vest. The part in his hair was ruler-straight.
Mrs. Dawson glared at him. “How kind of you to join us. What have you been doing all morning?”
“Oh, bit o’ this, bit o’ that.” Jake stepped around his sister. “And don’t give me those looks, Elaine. I see nothing but your mother when you glower like that.” He turned to the attorney. “Sir, can this be brief? I’ve many duties yet unattended.”
Shocked into silence, Romah sat down again. Could this gentleman be the sobbing heap the police chief had locked in his wagon?
“Miss Gornan,” the attorney held documents before her.
Unconsciously Romah signed—suspension of parental rights, assumption of guardianship. Romah saw the black scrawl of Jake’s signature on every document, the typewritten names of ‘Jacob Fenimore Steward’ and ‘Allison Eleanor Barney (deceased)’. The raised seal of the state of West Virginia made it so final, Romah thought, as binding as the collar around Jake’s neck. He did not watch Romah, but spoke with Dr. Dawson about the growth potential of Pacific-based trade.
* * *
A fire warmed the hearth of the smaller room upstairs. Next to the fireplace sat a small acacia trunk packed with dresses, shoes and pinafores. Cress Steward pulled it toward the window, for she wanted to see the storm and the window was too high. It had been scary the night before, when the wind made coyote howls through dead trees. For the first time Cress had slept in a different bed, in a different town. She, Uncle Donald and Miss Elaine stayed in a hotel, and Mister Jake stayed there too.
Last night he came to the parlor of Uncle Donald’s room and the grown-ups talked for hours. Cress had heard storm winds before, but last night they frightened her. Would Miss Elaine or Uncle Donald check on her? Would Mister Jake maybe? No, none of them came. In the morning, Miss Elaine put Cress in her favorite lavender dress and tied a bow in her hair. The storm rumbled an apology for scaring her, and she accepted it.
But with a storm blowing, Cress could chase the lightning like she did at the Dawsons’. She never caught it, but what fun it was to chase! Then when Uncle Donald called her back, he would tuck her in his coat and pretend it was a bird’s nest. Cress squawked and cawed, and Uncle Donald wondered if maybe he held a real bird. Sometimes Cress didn’t know which was more fun—chasing lightning or being in the nest.
But she couldn’t do either at this house. Instead she waited for a strange lady to take her to a new place to live. Miss Elaine said her name was Romah Gornan-Ann Nice As Can Be. Cress thought that a long name. She wondered if Miss Nice As Can Be could make a bird’s nest. Could Cress chase the lightning at her house? She hoped so, because she sure couldn’t on this old street.
Her eyes lit up, for she knew Mister Jake’s voice. How thunder-like his steps were on the wood floor; how gigantic he looked kneeling beside her. She gave him the biggest smile she could muster. He smiled back, staring a second or two without talking. After a long swallow he stood up again.
“Mister Jake’s saying good-bye, tyke. I understand Miss Gornan’s going to take care of you from now on. You’ll behave for her, won’t you?”
Cress nodded, her crinkly braid bobbing. “I behave better than Uncle Donald’s children. That’s what Joan told me. Joan was the maid ‘till Gretta came.”
“Ah.” Mister Jake looked out of the window. “It’s really coming down, isn’t it?”
Cress took his hand with both of hers. “Mister Jake, how come we’re here? Is this your house?”
Mister Jake sighed. “Yes, it is.”
“Why do you live here?”
He looked at his hand in both of hers. “I don’t live here anymore. We are here because Miss Elaine and Uncle Donald have to give you away, and they didn’t want anyone to see them cry.”
Cress looked up at Mister Jake. “Why don’t they give me to my papa?”
He knelt once more to meet her. “Because he went a long ways away and no one can find him. But before he left, he told me that he loves you very much.”
Cress slowly let go of his hand, then turned to the window. “Where do you live, Mister Jake?”
“California. It’s on the other end of the universe, full of cowboys and outlaws. A rough place for a little girl like you.”
Cress’s face pinched in thought. Then she relaxed, her eyes on the storm. “Did you know my mama?”
“Can’t say I did.” Mister Jake clasped his hands. “But Miss Gornan will take great care of you. And maybe someday you’ll—” Mister Jake hurried to his feet, frowning. Then he laughed, patting Cress on the head. “I’d better see to my guests. So long, young one.”
Cress’s head felt cold when Mister Jake took his hand away. She watched him leave, his steps slower and quieter than when he came in. Uncle Donald met him in the hallway, but they didn’t talk to each other. Behind Uncle Donald was a woman Cress didn’t know, a pretty one. Miss Elaine came too, but Mister Jake took her out of sight. The pretty woman came up to Cress, even though she seemed a bit scared.
“So you are the famous Cress?” The woman rested her hands on her knees. “My name is Romah, and we are going to a place called Waterbee. Doesn’t that sound exciting?”
Cress thought a moment. “Where’s Waterbee? Near California?”
Romah straightened. “Um, no, no. It’s north of here, in a state called Vermont. There are lots of trees and flowers there, good places to play.”
“Are there storms in Waterbee?”
Romah sat on the trunk beside Cress. “Yes, but don’t be afraid of them. We’re going to live in a darling house that will keep those nasty storms away.”
Cress looked from the rain to Romah. “But won’t they get lonely if we keep them away?”
Romah laughed. “Storms don’t have feelings, dear.”
“They do so.” nodded Cress. “Don’t they, Uncle Donald?”
The doctor raised his hands. “My father told me to never settle spats between women. Why don’t you come off that trunk, Cress, so I can grab it?”
Cress hopped down and Romah stood up. Miss Elaine came back, holding Cress’s scarf and overcoat. As she put them on Cress, she made a strange face. Cress wondered if Miss Elaine might cry after all. But instead of crying, Miss Elaine straightened the bed linen and fluffed the pillows. Over the bed lay a quilt, made with squares of purple. Cress loved its flower garden smell. It was better than the mothballs Miss Elaine used on her quilts, and since she used them in every closet and chest of drawers, Cress would smell those mothballs day and night. If only Cress could take the good-smelling quilt with her. But Miss Elaine wouldn’t let her touch it.
As their train passed through barren, headless hills, Cress wondered why they were going to such a place. Miss Elaine told her that children do not speak unless spoken to. But none of the grown-ups spoke to Cress; they spoke about her and over her. Not even Mister Jake had much to say when they met him. Cress had seen him before; he was Miss Elaine’s brother and always had gifts for her children. Once he even had a present for Cress.
Yet things took a turn in Dunstead. Just last night Cress overheard Miss Elaine say “Is it really necessary to go to that old house?” Mister Jake didn’t talk for a while, then he said “I’m sorry I didn’t take care of this sooner.” Then a stranger came over who kept saying “Sign here, here and here”. The sign-here man had come with them to Mister Jake’s house, but now Cress heard him leave. Mister Jake would soon be gone, and a woman Cress had never met was about to take her away.
Uncle Donald had explained on the train that this Romah person would raise Cress because it was best for her. She would live in a nice town and learn how to read and write. It sounded all right to Cress, until she asked when Uncle Donald would come get her. No, there wouldn’t be any of that, he was afraid. Cress was to stay on with the Romah woman. No more living with the Dawsons? No more bird’s nest? But then, Miss Elaine always did look at her funny, as if she didn’t like Cress as much as Uncle Donald. Well Cress didn’t think a whole lot of Miss Elaine, with her mothballs everywhere.
Then there were the Dawson children. Cress loved playing with Kerrie and Katie Lynn because she was the smallest girl and could be the baby. Twins Kevin and Kirk were eight. They caught bugs and pinned them up in frames. Sometimes Cress joined them on their bug hunts, and she wasn’t afraid of the roly-polys they found. Kyle was too new to be much fun, only six months. Cress helped the nurse feed him, changed a diaper or two, and was the only person in the house who could get him to sleep. Miss Elaine wouldn’t believe that, and once she had the nurse try for two hours straight to quiet him. Finally she called in Cress. Cress stroked the baby’s forehead, made up a lullaby, and within five minutes sent Kyle to sleep. Miss Elaine gave Cress even worse looks then, and before long they were off to Dunstead.
In the room with the good-smelling quilt, Miss Elaine buttoned Cress’s coat. Cress stared out of the window. From there she had watched the rain, let the thunder in to say how-do. When Miss Elaine finished, Romah took Cress by the hand. As they walked out, Cress peeked behind her. Lightning flashed through the windowpane, the storm’s farewell to her.
“Farewell.” said Cress, but only so the storm could hear.