Abigail grunted as she heaved the wooden door overhead. She clambered through and dumped the vegetables from her apron onto the pinewood table. Three carrots, a handful of potatoes and parsnips, and one fat turnip, large enough for carving. She paused, remembering her Jacob. What he couldn’t do with his best knife! Each fall, he’d set aside some turnips and whittle a little gallery of grotesques. He’d set them on the windowsill, tapers tucked into each one. With triangles for eyes and rickrack scowls, they made a festive display until a hard frost. Now that Jacob was gone, all the vegetables harvested this year were only for eating.
“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty,” Abigail whispered through the kitchen window of the log cabin. Midnight leapt onto the rough-hewn sill, her jet black fur shuddering in the autumn breeze. A handful of dry leaves blew in, littering the dirt floor.
“Naughty girl,” Abigail said, scooping up Midnight with one hand and tugging at the kitchen window with the other. “Didn’t have to bring in half the blackgum, did ye?”
She turned to close the cellar door before the feline could dart through it. That’s when she saw the handbill. Slipped under the front door. She secured the root cellar and stooped to retrieve the paper. The message filled the page. “Mandatory Town Meeting. 4 o’clock.”
She sighed, lowering Midnight onto the braided rug. “Our stew will have to wait, girl.” She scraped the vegetables into an iron kettle and hung it on the hearth. Untying her apron, she laid it over the back of the chair.
She threw her cape around her shoulders, securing it under her chin. She knew what they’d be discussing at that meeting. So, she grabbed her cotton scarf and wound it ’round her head, concealing most of her face, and started on her way.
She hurried along the stone path toward Town Center. Whenever the sun ducked behind the clouds, she’d wrap her arms around her for warmth. As she approached the town hall, she adjusted her scarf. She lowered her head as she shuffled through the entrance, ignoring the barbs of the gathering crowd.
“Thar she is, that witch.” “So, ye made it, Queenie?” “Did ye fly here on yer stick?”
Abigail slipped into the back pew, her head wrap still obscuring her face.
“The meetin’ can start,” a farmer called from the back. “She’s here.”
Councilman Benjamin Dulles rose and gaveled the assembly to order. “Quiet, everyone. We are here to consider,” he pointed to Abigail, “accusations against the Widow Fowler.”
One woman fainted onto her husband’s lap. Several in the audience cried out. Ben Dulles pounded the gavel thrice more.
“I said quiet down! Anyone who can’t wait his turn to speak will be hauled out of here by the deputy and locked up for a fortnight.” The townsfolk ceased their rumblings. Dulles cleared his throat. “Today, we review the case against Widow Fowler. If you have a report, step forward, turn and face the group, and speak up.”
While Abigail didn’t grow up in Northern Delaware like Jacob, she knew these people for 15 years. She wasn’t educated but had learned to read some. As she grew older, she taught herself about the medicinal properties of plants. She’d helped some local women after childbirth, sharing yarrow and Lady’s Mantle for compresses and belly salves. She also returned her neighbor’s hogs that had wandered up to her back gate after devouring her turnip greens and chamomile. She often shared cuttings of her herbs freely, but none of that generosity mattered today.
Martha Hale stepped forward. “I see’d her do it. Personally. We could catch our death, too.”
“Show of hands. How many have seen this?” Dulles asked.
Dozens of hands shot up. Someone with her hand raised said, “She killed her husband of the autumn fever!”
Abigail shook her head. “No,” she cried. “That’s not true.”
Councilman Dulles called her forward. She held the cotton scarf against her face.
Another woman rose from the third pew, and called out to Dulles, “Make her take that off. See what she’s done to herself. Hers is wide open all night. I swear.”
“No,” Martha Hale railed. “Don’t let her take it off. We will all die of it.”
“Everyone, cover your mouths,” Dulles said. “Widow Fowler, lower your head scarf.”
Abigail’s heart pounded. Very soon, they would all know the truth. Slowly, she uncoiled the scarf from around her head and lifted it, so the crowd could plainly see her face. Abigail was approaching her thirty-fifth year. Her skin was smooth as corn silk, as creamy as lard. Townspeople gasped.
Ben Dulles stared at her for a full minute. “Widow Fowler, for sleeping with your windows open at night, you are hereby sentenced to four days in jail. Under my watch,” he added and banged his gavel. The deputy grabbed her by the arm, dragging her away.
By the following spring, the story of Abigail’s smooth, luminous skin had traveled throughout the Brandywine Valley. No longer as fearful of autumnal fever as they were terrified of looking old before their time, middle-aged women began throwing open their windows at night, letting the cool air wash across their haggard faces.
Abigail Dulles had always thought fresh air to be healthful. She gazed through double-hung windows at the frothy blooms. A neatly trimmed elder bush adorned their brick townhome–her favorite. She remembered the town hall that fateful night that had changed her life. The corners of hips turned up in the slightest smile.
It was the insects that made people sick. Not the night breeze itself. And it wasn’t just cool open air that kept her looking young. “Chamomile face wash and lavender oil,” she whispered to her little baby boy. She kissed his cheek as Midnight purred and wound between her legs. “Now, don’t you dare tell your father. Our little secret, Benjamin, me bairn,” she said, cradling the sweet-smelling baby to her chest.