Friday, November 26, 2010

Read Chapter One

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
South Hadley, 1848

Tom the Handyman is wading in the snow outside my window in boots a burglar might wear. I cannot see the Tattoo on his arm. It is of a red heart pierced by a blue arrow if memory serves, & if it does not, then I will let Imagination run to folly. But I dreamt of that arm bared, so help me God, dreamt of it many a time. We are not permitted to talk to Tom. Mistress Lyon calls him our own Beast of Burden. She is unkind. Tom the Handyman is no more a beast than I am.

If he lights our stove or repairs the windowsill or bevels the bottom of our door, our vice principal, Rebecca Winslow, has to be in the room with him, & we poor girls have to run to Seminary Hall so that we will be far from Temptation. But I wonder who is the tempter here, Tom or we? There are close to three hundred of us—if you count the Misses Lyon and Winslow, & our seven Tutors, & Tom, the only male at Mt Holyoke. Heavens, I’d as lief call him Sultan Tom & ourselves his Harem. But Mistress would expel me in a wink dare I whisper that. And Tom is a sultan who depends on crumbs. He lives in the shed behind our domicile, a place so dark & solitary that a cow would die of loneliness were it trapped inside. He cannot come to the table when we dine, but must feed on whatever scraps are left. My room-mate, Cousin Lavinia, sneers at him, says Tom reeks of sweat. She is a Senior & cannot stop thinking of her suitors. Lavinia has hordes of them, the sons of merchant princes & potentates or boys from Amherst College who would love to sneak onto the grounds & serenade their Lavinia, but could not get past Tom & so have sent her half a mountain of Valentines. She is positively engorged with them.

“Cousin,” says she, after cursing Tom, “how many notes from Cupid have you received so far?”


“That’s a pity, because I’d opine that a girl hasn’t lived at all until she has a hundred beaux.”

There never was a show-off like Emily Lavinia Norcross. But I’d start a war between our families if I bludgeoned her.

Mistress Lyon summoned us to the assembly hall. She stared at us all, the perpetrators and the innocent parties. “I forbid you to send off those foolish notes. I will not tolerate such frivolities. We do not celebrate Valentine’s Day at Holyoke.” And she promised to dispatch Miss Rebecca to the Post Office to discover if anyone dared challenge her decree. But she did not interfere with the Valentines that kept arriving like missiles, as if any letter that had already been franked were a sacred thing. She wanted our election, and would suffer nothing less. The girls of Mt Holyoke had to avail themselves to be the little brides of Christ, & said brides did not scribble Valentines harum-scarum to the boys of Amherst. The sign of our election was a dreamy gaze into the atmosphere & strict attention to our calisthenics. But I was consigned to Hell, though I had never received nor sent one paltry Valentine. And Lavinia, with her half mountain, was a member of the elect who had discovered God in Mistress Lyon’s sitting room, had prostrated herself & prayed. But my mind would always drift during Devotions, & I’d think of Tom’s Tattoo. Tom had become my Calvary.

Lord, I do not know what love is, yet I am in love with Tom, if love be a blue arrow & a heart that can burn through skin and bone. Tom and I have never spoken. How could we? Mistress Lyon would have him hurled across the grounds if ever he dared address a bride of Christ. Still, I watch him in the snow, sinking into perilous terrain, rising in his burglar’s boots only to sink again & again, as if in the grip of some bad angel who would not leave Poor Tom alone. I pit him caught in the cold without a cup of beef tea. And how can a sinner such as myself help the Handyman? Soon he will start to sneeze & have a monstrous coughing fit & I will wonder if Tom is weak in the lung.

Holyoke does not believe in hired help. We girls make our own beds & have our individual chores. I am the corporal in charge of knives—no, the animal trainer, since knives are part of my menagerie, like tigers & tigresses, though I never call them such. I distribute the knives during meals & wash them in our sink. Mistress does most of the cooking, & until recently had her own pair of burglar’s boots. But she can no longer do the heaviest chores. Her ailing back will not permit her to collect the trash or repair stovepipes & pump handles. So Tom is on the premises by sufferance alone & Mistress pretends not to see him as much as she can. Pointless to send him notes. Tom does not belong to the population of readers. And no one amongst the faculty will deign converse with our Handyman. Miss Rebecca has taught herself to instruct Tom with a form of sign language & a few gruff shouts. If she wants him to repair the water pump, she performs a little pantomime. She gurgles for a moment, weaves around Tom as if she were a well, then stiffens into pipe or pump handle, & before she’s done, the Handyman has grabbed his tool box & disappeared into that spidery land below the sink.

But there are no Tutors in the snow to interfere with Tom as he rises and sinks like a burglar. I do not have an inkling of why he is out in that little Siberian winter beside Holyoke Hall. The wind is fierce & there is such a howling that the Lord Himself would take cover, though Mistress Lyon might call me a blasphemer for having said so. She, I’m sure, would declare that God can traverse the snow without tall boots. But that still does not explain Tom’s leaping about. Is our Tom constructing his own crooked path for the butcher & grocer? But why would they cross Siberia when there is an open passage to the front gate that Tom shovels every morning at six? Harum-scarum, it is the mystery of Holyoke Hall.

Then I catch the melody of Tom’s design. He is not on a meandering march. He is searching in the snow. He sinks again, & I fear that Siberia has swallowed him until he rises up with a creature in his arms, a baby deer frozen with fright, looking like an ornament on some cradle & not a live thing. It must have wandered far from its family & panicked in the snow. Lord, I cannot see its eyes. But Tom the Handyman keeps the stunned doe above his head & tosses it into the air as you would a sack. And what seems like an act of consummate cruelty isn’t cruel at all. The doe unlocks its legs and starts to leap. What a silent ballet before my eyes! A baby deer gliding above the snow, conquering our little Siberia in half a dozen leaps, & disappearing into the forest, while Tom watches until the doe is safe.

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