-Mount Placid, plantation, Prattville
-planting, peaceful, picture, painting, portrait, packet, potpourri, porch, post-chase, platform, porter, productive, pocket, poplars, private, please, property, passengers, pile, police
"The Perturbation of Mount Placid"
"Prattville Station! All passengers with the destination of Prattville, Alabama!"
Ruby peeked out the window of the train as the piercing whistle heralded the squeal of the brakes slowing down its progress.
She reached over and nudged the sleeping Nora.
"Ma," she whispered, "we're here."
Nora raised her head. The two-day trip from New York to Alabama seemed to hang from her every drooping wrinkle. She looked positively wilted as she followed Ruby's gaze.
The young woman felt the stiffness of her mother-in-law's grip on her hand.
"Coming home should be peaceful," Ruby heard Nora's perplexed voice. "Why does it feel like punishment?"
Ruby patted the old woman's shoulder. "It'll be all right," she whispered. "You'll see."
They stood up, but it was a while before the press of bodies in the aisle cleared up enough for Ruby to lead Nora out of the train.
On the platform, she discovered that the hasty porters had simply tossed the luggage in a pile, and she could see the corner of her small valise poking out from under a rather hefty trunk.
Cold horror gripped her chest as the young widow remembered exactly what she had so carefully packed in her case.
"Oh no!" She gasped, running forward. "Oh no! No!"
Fear gave her limbs astonishing strength as she single-handedly fought to pull the trunk off her precious package.
"Hey you!" A voice barked. "Hey! That Negro is stealing my trunk!"
Whistles shrieked, and a porter just coming down the platform grabbed her arm.
"Please!" Ruby begged. "It's got my—"
"Get away from his stuff, lady!"
"Somebody call the police!"
"No wait, please!"
Chaos reigned for a few moments, and Ruby couldn't even see the pile of luggage as passengers converged to make sure "the Negro thief" hadn't touched their belongings. When the porter released her arm, Ruby saw her flattened bag on the platform, next to Nora's travel trunk. She dashed forward, fumbling at the clasps with shaking hands. From the inner pocket, she withdrew a portrait she had commissioned just after marrying Charlie, intending to create a tradition of bringing it out when he was away.
The frame had bent and the glass had cracked under the pressure, but the painting was still intact.
Seeing his face again... Ruby felt the pain anew, bursting a hole right through her core. She clutched the picture to her chest as the sobs overcame her.
"Charlie!" She whimpered. "Oh Charlie!"
"Yes, just that one," she heard Nora giving instructions.
Ruby hastily dug a handkerchief out of her pocket and dabbed at her eyes. A porter loaded Nora's trunk onto a cart. Ruby slipped the painting back into her valise and picked it up to join her mother-in-law.
“I thought you might want a private moment,” Nora muttered, deliberately avoiding eye contact with Ruby.
“I’m all right now, Ma,” Ruby whispered.
“Ellenora Burke?” a man stood outside the station, a horse-drawn post-chase tethered to the rail outside.
Nora stepped forward. “Ellenora Mulberry, if you please.”
Ruby frowned; why wouldn’t Nora keep the name she’d taken as a wife?
The man took Nora’s hand to assist her down to the chase. “You and your companion can sit there, ma’am.“
“I’m not—“ Ruby stopped as the sound of her voice prompted the man to turn and acknowledge her for the first time. She cleared her throat and raised her chin. “I am her daughter-in-law, Ruby Burke.” She smiled and extended her hand, as etiquette dictated she could.
The man only stared at her with a puzzled expression, until Nora added, “Yes, she’s my—she’s family. Now, please, let’s go.”
The man shrugged, but he didn’t lift a finger to help Ruby after getting Nora settled. He climbed up to the driver’s seat and lifted the reins.
“Next stop, Mount Placid!” he announced, and they departed.
An uncomfortable silence pervaded the inside of that small coach, so small that the two women sat knee to knee. Nora could only ignore Ruby’s pointed stare for so long.
“It just hurts, you know?” she complained. “Hearing his name attached to mine, when he’s been gone for almost two years now. In Manhattan, I could at least live in the place he bought, walk through the stores he supplied—here? There is nothing of Ethan in Prattville. Particularly when we get to Mount Placid, you’ll find everything revolves around the Mulberry name.” She nodded with satisfaction, but when Ruby still wouldn’t reply, Nora grumbled, “It’s not as if you have to be Ruby Burke, either! There is nothing for you here—why did you even come? You saw the way those people treated you at the station; you realize we’re going to a plantation? One of the few that’s managed to stay productive? Didn’t that ever give you pause? Life in New York is very different than the one we live in Alabama—better and more peaceful in some ways, and in others…” her voice trailed off as they approached the lane lined with poplars—the private drive to the main property of Mount Placid plantation. “So much worse,” she finished.
Ruby leaned against the window, where the aroma of fresh green vegetation was most profuse. She sighed. It couldn’t be so bad, if a place had such pleasant smells. New York had always smelled like coal, kerosene, and vomit to her. Mount Placid smelled like the little packets of potpourri Ophelia would give her for her birthday.
“I came to support you, Nora,” she replied softly. “Before I met Charlie, I never had a mother—Ophelia was the closest thing to family I ever had. Since marrying him, you became my mother—and without him, you are the only person I’ve ever claimed as my real family. I don’t mind what other people say about me or do to me—it’s not altogether different than the life I led in Harlem. You accepted me as part of your family, so I am going to do everything I can to be a daughter to you.”
The post-chase pulled to a stop in front of a tall porch. The driver again helped Nora out of the carriage and up the steps, leaving Ruby to trudge behind. She stepped in and took her mother-in-law’s hand when the driver went back down to retrieve Nora’s luggage.
A dark-skinned woman in a voluminous plaid dress opened the door to greet them. She grinned when she saw who had come.
“Well, Miz Nora! You done made it home, child!”
“Hello, Persimmon,” Nora said. “How is Mother?”
Persimmon wagged her head, “Missus Philomena ain’t left her room since planting season.” She took Nora’s free hand and patted it. “She been getting worse since the Master passed away. You best be getting on to her.” Her gaze came to rest on Ruby. “I’ll show your help downstairs—“
“Thank you, Persimmon,” Nora held onto Ruby’s hand still. “That won’t be necessary. This is Ruby—my daughter-in-law. She’ll be staying in one of the guest rooms.”
Persimmon immediately ducked her head and said nothing. Perhaps she knew better than to protest.
Ruby didn’t look at the housekeeper as they climbed the stairs together, but she could feel the cold prickle of that persistent stare all the way to the second floor.
This story is a scene from another planned installment of The ReBible Series--"The Remnant Resonance", a re-telling of the story of Ruth, set in America during the Great Depression. Head over to the series page via either the tab at the top of the blog, or the hyperlinked text above for more excerpts from this title.
Also in the A-to-Z Challenge Series: ( * Continuations of previous Suggestion Box installments)