Flourishes

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

“Goodwife Hawkins, sure it is a poor idea for a woman to live in this place, with the winters so cold and the trees filled well with savages and Frenchmen.”

Clarity chuckled but did not look away from putting out the washing; with the August air soon turning from crisp to foul she had little time to spare even for the most pleasant of company until her work was done. She paused just long enough to glance behind herself at the familiar voice. “Ye might say it, Selah Wooding,” she said, matching formality with formality, “but it would not be a whole truth, for I see to my wifely duties here with more company than the dear Lord Jesus alone.”

A kiss pressed against the curve of her jaw, causing her to smile. “Didst thee like my play-acting as the Reverend Webster?” asked Selah from where she lingered with her hands pressed against the back of Clarity’s dress.

“Were it any more like him they’d accuse thee of the same sins as Goodman Hawkins, God bless his soul even as the Devil gnaws it,” said Clarity. Her tone bore its usual sharpness but there was a smile beneath it. It was important to keep a smile to her words when speaking of such things, as otherwise her heart might break from it. To have one so close to her accused of such deeds was cause for great troublement. Even with the trial years passed it still kept her from her sleep at times.

Selah huffed in the manner she always did when Clarity spoke so. “Don’t thee go saying such, Goodwife Hawkins, even in jest,” she said, her countenance meek and God-fearing. “We do not need the Lord’s angels overhearing such merriment and passing the words along to ears that mightn’t understand, whether here or in distant Pemaquid.” Few things could change her mood faster than mention of the Adversary, for her mother, the Goodwife Wooding and then the Widow Wooding some years after, had borne the Christian name Speak-Not-of-Worldly-Wickedness, and Selah had known the hearth such a name would kindle for a score and five years before providence guided her into the cold trees of Maine.

“Thou know’st I meant nothing of it, Selah. I’ll be sure to ask for humility in my prayers this night, as a precaution.” Clarity put a final apron in its place and spun ’round to greet Selah properly. “I see thou’st returned from seeing to the traps,” she said, as Selah still had the household’s musket slung over one shoulder and her hands were hidden by a thick pair of buckskin gloves hemmed down from a larger set. Little bits of leaf litter still clung to the hem of her dress. That she could walk with such confidence through the wild wood even while still dressed in the raiment of a properly Godly woman was testament to the strength of both her faith and her character.

“Thou dost see correctly,” said Selah. “There were two coneys to be found, and a hare, and the creel by the little brook did yield some little fishes. I’ve hung them all up in the smokehouse.” She clasped her gloved hands together. “Pray tell me when thou plan’st to clean them, that I might leave thee to thy work and find meaningful tasks elsewhere.”

This earned a soft, merry sound from Clarity. “Of course, my dearest. I know thine eyes doth loathe the sight, even after all the life thou’st lived.” She reached up to tuck a stray lock of hair back beneath Selah’s bonnet. “If thou findest extra time upon putting away thy hunting tack, the floor is in need of a sweep. Surely I shall be done and washed of any trace that may distress thee by the time thou’st finished such a task.”

Ease settled upon Selah’s shoulders like morning dew upon the grass. “I thank thee,” she said. “Thou’rt always kindly toward mine uncertainties.”

Clarity scoffed. “Off with thee, now,” she said, her voice still sweetly sharp, and she placed another kiss upon Selah’s brow. “I must finish these tasks before me afore dinner can be started, and I shan’t be having thee complain of a belly echoing with growls if it is thy company that distracts me so.”

It took no further coaxing to shoo Selah into the little house. Once the last of the washing lay spread out on the grass to dry, Clarity went to the smokehouse to inspect Selah’s catch for herself. They were humble creatures, all, but fine ones, and to live in the Colonies was to take comfort in such fine humility, and with colder months looming ever-nearer Clarity was sure to give thanks to God that they had trapped as much as they had. Her knowing hands were fast with the knife; not so much as a whisker was wasted by the time she was done. The blood washed away cleanly. Just as Clarity had hoped, nothing displeasing was left behind.

Selah had nearly finished with her sweeping by the time Clarity returned to the house with two of the day’s fishes. They spoke as Clarity cooked, with words that were quiet but seasoned with deep kindness. It was more comforting to do so in places where the wind would not carry their voices far.

“Wilt thou be putting seasonings in the stew today?” asked Selah, who by then had retired to the little chair she kept by the fire where she did her mending. Selah would take up the needle most any time she found herself with time unspent. The embroidered scrap of linen that hung on the wall above the hearth was her own work, in fact: Goodman Hawkins had been alive to see her finish stitching the final letter of the Lord’s Prayer, and it remained one of her proudest achievements to have made it, even as she strove to live humbly.

“That I shall, dear Selah,” said Clarity. She tipped some flour into the bubbling pot to thicken it. “Those herbs thou didst gather have dried well, as did the things from the garden, and with the grace of God we shall yet see more ‘fore the first flight of winter takes it from us ’til spring’s thawing.” 

“Might it be the marjoram?” Selah asked with eagerness.

Clarity smiled into the stew pot. “Aye, t’was that leaf what seemed best suited for the meal, and I knowest thou dost love it so.”

“Ah! Thou’rt so kind.” Such gladness took Selah that she nearly let the stockings she was mending fall from her lap, though at the last moment she caught them once more. More reservedly, she added, “‘Tis always a blessing to live so finely, where I might sup upon more than berries and the generosity of our fellow man, even as I did rejoice to receive either.”

“‘Tis truly a blessing for us both that you came here safely from distant Connecticut,” said Clarity, her speech agreeable.

Selah nodded firmly. “Never did I regret a moment of my leaving, not even when my belly didst cry out for succor,” she said. It was a sentiment she repeated often. “Thy generosity hast been the sweetest of rewards.”

“I do no more than any other Godly soul wouldst.” Indeed, it had seemed only right for Clarity and her late husband to take in the sad and hungry thing that had slipped into the rear pew of the church one Sunday sermon. With no children of their own, they’d found an extra pair of hands most welcome for easing the burden of work. For a while it had been as simple as that.

“As thou sayest,” replied Selah, still firm, “but my heart is gladdened all the same.”

They spoke of other things as the stew simmered, and at times they allowed quiet to return as they saw to their own tasks. Silence was not such a dreadful thing between them, given their understanding, as sometimes there simply was nothing to be said, with no hidden venom. Clarity had been raised to be wary of serpents in the spaces between words. To be free of such a thing had been a balm upon her weary heart since she had first taken her late husband’s hand.

Soon their hunger was sated. What remained of the stew they left in the lidded pot, to be heated with fresh water to break their fast in the morning, and as there was still wakefulness between them Clarity chose to dedicate some of it to reading aloud. There were few books in their house, as even when Goodman Hawkins still drew breath their lives had been sparse ones, but even the leanest of times had found a copy of the Good Book at Clarity’s side, and she held fast to the little book of poetry that her late husband had given her some small time before he met his fate. She loved both dearly.

“By nature trees do rot when they are grown / And plums and apples thoroughly ripe do fall,” read Clarity from the page, “And corn and grass are in their season mown / And time brings down what is both strong and tall….”

“Thou’rt in a mood, dearest Clarity,” said Selah.

Clarity paused in her narration. “A mood?”

“Thou dost not customarily read those words writ in sorrow for the poet’s small grandchild,” Selah continued, “and thou hast lingered on such things greatly these past hours. I worry for thee, that perhaps it is some ailment that drives thee to solemncholy, here where no physician lives within the space of a timely ride.”

“I assure thee, ’tis no sickness.” A sigh parted Clarity’s lips. “The day of his birth is near,” she said, the both of them knowing of whom she spoke, “and so my thoughts oft turn to happier days.”

Her sigh was mirrored by Selah, whose mending she lay to one side that she might smooth out her skirts. “It is dark outside already or I would suggest we walk to the hillock,” said Selah. “Let us instead pray together for Goodman Hawkins’ soul, and on doing so retire, that we might rise up with fresh eyes come morning.”

While she did not say anything to this, Clarity placed her book of poems back at their Bible’s side, which was a good a way as any to show her agreement. They both knelt in prayer together. When their task was done they saw to stoking the dwindling hearth to keep the wicked wind from sneaking through the chimney as they prepared for sleep. The light of the Lord Jesus shone bright and true even in the depths of the wilderness; Clarity had learned over many harsh years that it was wisest to bolster that light with firewood.

Once the last chunk had caught light, Selah took the hem of Clarity’s sleeve between her fingertips. A certain look was in her eyes. “Doth I mistake a mood of a different nature about thy lips,  Goodwife Hawkins?” she asked, and while her face was stern there was hidden joy in her voice. “Perhaps the sort best kept by the fireside? ‘Twould be a shame were I to espy something other than a hope of flourishing nestled in thine eyes.”

A rare smile bloomed on Clarity’s face. “I suspect there is no mistake, sweet Selah. Allow me to brush thy hair, that we better understand what shall be done this evening.” And so they sat themselves upon the rag-rug that warmed the floor, each facing the other, and began to see to a task much different than their shared devotions.

Clarity undid the ties of her bonnet and placed it aside, turning then to unfastening her hair. Hers was lighter than Selah’s, it being a deep chestnut where Selah’s was nearly black, and it was also thinner, the simple wave left by its long hours of going coiled and out of sight unable to compare to the curls and coils Selah’s bore even after a whole night’s sleep. They were woeful to untangle. Clarity had helped Selah tame them since Selah had come to the household, and so it was now a common thing to take up the brush once the day’s work was done; this night was no different. To see those tresses dark against her ruddy skin was so enchanting it was no wonder women were encouraged to cover it. Here, though, they were together in a place where no God-fearing man might come across them suddenly, and so they were free to meet without their usual armor of modesty. Selah would tempt no honest soul with those raven locks with only Clarity to see.

There were no children at the Hawkins stead, nor guests, and save for the infrequent visits from the good Reverend Webster the only denizens were Clarity and Selah. Only rarely did Selah saddle up the horse and ride to the next settlement for trade. Truly it was a fine thing to avoid a gynecandrical life, as with the goodman’s passing they were but two women alone, with nothing but their beasts and garden for company. In this sinless place Clarity could press her lips against Selah’s and none could say it was unlawful. How could they, when she, a widow, honored her husband’s memory by ensuring no other man came to her bed?

They slowly doffed their aprons, then their dresses, then the shifts they wore beneath these things, each time laying the garments flat as though preparing for washing. Clarity permitted Selah to undo the laces on her stockings and ease them down. It was not yet so cold that she could not stand to be without them, not with the fire stoked up bright, and so just as they foraged from the garden and the wood to ensure they would last the winter, so too would they need to stockpile the feeling of breath against skin. They shared warmth in all but the hottest months of summer, as there was but a single bed in the cabin; it was not closeness that the winter would take from them, but openness, the joy of closing away the rest of the world to see nothing but each other. In the most bitter part of the year they had to make do with hands beneath skirts or slipped betwixt many layers of wool. Now, though, with the wind whispering of ice but not yet full to freezing, they could touch without worry, as truthful and bare as Eve in Eden.

An uncharitable soul might have called Selah plain, but this was too simple a description for Clarity’s tastes. Selah was broad-built and honest-faced, of a healthy aspect that could endure the ravages of the land far better than Clarity’s slip of a frame, even though of the two it was Clarity who stood taller. The brush of Clarity’s lips against Selah’s shoulder brought forth sounds as sweet as she was hardy. None knew those sounds but Clarity. How lovely it was to coax them forth with nothing but mouth and tongue, how splendid that the Lord had provided all they needed to engage in private jubilation! Had they permitted the practice of heathen instruments in the manner foreigners did, Selah would have been not unlike a flute, with Clarity her dutiful piper. Instead they would make do with a shared Psalm.

Selah’s strength lay with her hands when there was labor to be done, and in such quiet moments as these her fingers remained clever. She touched at the swell of Clarity’s breast with tenderness; her palm cupped the soft flesh there, her thumb playing cloyingly upon the brown-pink peak in its center. The kneading she did was far gentler than that used for working bread or clay. Her hands could set a snare or fire a rifle, groom a horse or heft an axe, and in spite of all these things Selah could make her touch as soft as a kitten’s paw when the hour was right. Now was such an hour.

“Ah,” said Clarity, her voice soft with emotion. “Thou’rt sweet to me, always.”

“I can do naught but what I know is right,” said Selah. She touched her lips to Clarity’s once more, and those fingers that did not cup at Clarity’s bosom traced downwards along her belly to rest at the seat of Clarity’s womanhood, itself now as wide and gasping as her mouth. Selah playfully ran her fingertips along the loose skin there. A daring dab might moisten a digit in the welling spring at Clarity’s cleft, but Selah lingered no more than this, in a manner that was as delightful as it was maddening. It was a familiar madness, true, as only when they were close in this manner did Selah permit herself a fit of mischief, but Clarity could not keep from squirming, and soon took her lips from Selah’s to call out quietly.

Selah cocked her head as though listening for a distant grouse-call. “Is it too much for thee?” she asked, though she did not stop with her teasing.

“Nay, nay, ’tis not enough,” said Clarity. A finger pressed against her but did not slip inside and she sighed with frustration at its retreat. “See now! Thou’rt too fleeting with thy touch.”

“Then I shall linger longer,” said Selah, and made good on her word.

Life without Goodman Hawkins had been difficult in many ways, but one of the manners Clarity felt most deeply was the loss of accepting him in her wifely duties. They had both been honest Christians when they were wed, henceforth knowing only one another in that manner, so Clarity had not known she was missing so much sweetness from their utilitarian unions, but her heart had gladdened every time he entered her, which she had always taken as a sign of the rightness of things between them. Selah’s finger was no match for her late husband’s member in its sizing, yet still delightful without question: Clarity opened around it and bade it fill her in its own way. She leaned against Selah’s hand like a starving dog for food. It was a silent act, or at least not one that could be heard above the popping of the fire, yet Clarity’s thoughts echoed with a wet sound that was not there, and heart gladdened as it once had when a man had lain above her.

Clarity leaned forward to hold Selah close. Her tongue counted the freckles upon Selah’s shoulders even as her hands traced stripes down Selah’s soft back, and she only stopped when Selah slipped a second finger to nestle against the first, leaving Clarity now twice as filled as before. Clarity bucked like a horse first learning the weight of the saddle. “Oh,” she said, little more than a breath with sound behind it. “Oh, I must have it. I must. I shall be burnt up by my own heat if I cannot….”

Selah’s hand moved. The feel of Selah’s fingers sliding into place and then back out again was all Clarity could think upon, and in a moment of weakness she might have said it was all there was in the world. Selah pushed deeply, each time pressing into Clarity until the meat of her hand stopped her from going further, and her thumb traced lazy circles around the nubbin at the crown of Clarity’s womanhood in a way that made Clarity shake with longing.

It was after some time of doing this that Selah tilted her chin to even her lips with Clarity’s ear. “Dost thou wish more than this?” she murmured. “I shall grant it to thee, but only if it is thy true desire.”

“I beg thee, Selah, I am hollow as a bell, and cannot rest until I am rung.”

A look of great satisfaction spread across Selah’s face. “Then ease thyself, dear Clarity, that thou mayst revel in thy tolling.”

There was great challenge in not seizing up to hold Selah’s fingers fast in place, but Clarity called upon the same reserves of guidance that had kept her hale though so many hard years. She permitted Selah to pull away, even as the emptiness left behind was near to unbearable, and only the sight of Selah folding up her hand could ease her. Where one finger was nothing compared to the length of Goodman Hawkins, all five pressed together dwarfed it in every way, and Selah cried out with joy to feel such a girth slide into her. She sank gratefully against Selah’s side and willed herself to remain welcoming even as the desire to hold fast returned. No hollowness could remain with such mass to banish it.

The act was a tenuous one and had to be done with care. In Clarity’s heart she would have taken whatever Selah had to give, past the wrist and more if it would be permitted, yet no matter the willingness of the spirit the flesh was as weak as any mortal shell; Clarity could permit Selah up to where Selah’s knuckles bumped snug against the gleaming skin of Clarity’s womanhood, but any more had always felt as though she would be rent in twain. Clarity still thought fondly of this impossible thing as Selah touched her. It was just as gladdening as dwelling on sounds that were not there.

When Clarity finally unraveled it was with a shout, and only Selah’s kiss could quiet her for long.

They lay together for some time after Clarity had finished. She ached, but in a lovely way. It would be a good companion in the coming days as she labored, as that small soreness would remind her of Selah’s attentions, which would provide warmth against the wilderness. Every time she knelt in the garden Clarity would know she was loved. Preparing for the winter would be easier with that secret reminder sweetening each coming day’s work.

Her work that evening was not yet done. “Rest thyself and I shall repay thee in the proper manner,” said Clarity. This was another thing that needed no explaining, nor had it for some while.

Selah nodded and leaned back until she lay prone upon the rag-rug, her legs parted. She had no taste for that which Clarity craved, no desire to have someone touch the space inside her, but there were other ways to bring joy to a woman, and Clarity had found no trouble in learning such. That Selah was equally wettened when Clarity leaned in to kiss her womanhood brought with it great comfort; no matter which lips it was that Clarity tasted, there was always hope of seeing proof it brought Selah as much joy as it brought her herself. 

Pleasing Selah rarely took long, though Clarity permitted herself some small greed in continuing past Selah’s shivers of delight, as the taste was one she’d grown to find richer than any salt or spice. She did not stop until Selah pulled away herself. They washed those parts of themselves that needed washing in the bucket kept at the fireside, and afterwards they dressed themselves for bed. The more somber of Clarity’s moods returned to her as they did so, and lulled her into silence; Selah, having known Clarity for many long years, did not question this, and herself remained mum despite the glow that lingered in her cheeks. The fire crackled the same as it had all through their joining. Save for a kiss to wish one another goodnight it was nearly as if nothing had happened at all.

It was not until they had broken their fast and seen to the morning chores that Clarity had many words to share again. “Wouldst thou walk with me a while?”

“I shall,” said Selah. “Will it be to the hillock? Or dost thou simply wish to wander?”

“The hillock it is, sweet Selah.”

Selah laced her fingers with Clarity’s and placed a kiss upon each knuckle. “Thou’rt a good wife to him, even now,” she said, with great understanding. And so they walked.

The tree that overlooked Goodman Hawkins’ grave still bore a few lone leaves, one of which pulled free from its bough as they approached and tumbled in the air like a lost bird. The grass was already pale and brittle. In autumn it often looked foul, and winter even worse, but such could be said for much of the Colonies so far north from the bosom of civilization. In springtime it would be sweeter. Clarity lived much of her life waiting out winters for the hopeful inevitability of spring.

A grinning skull spread its wings across the top of the tombstone, the space all ’round it carved with flowers and stars, and each chisel-mark was still as crisp as the day it had been hewn in spite of the many winters that had come to the hillock beneath the tree. It had not been a simple thing to have the stone made. Much weeping had watered the path between the end of Goodman Hawkins and the interment of his earthly remains, but Clarity had been as firm as the slab itself, and so in time her late husband was granted a fitting marker to remember him until the end of days.

Here lyes buried ye body of Benedict Hawkins, aged 33 years, it read, Died March 25th AD 1683. At times six years felt like the blink of an eye no matter how hard Clarity struggled to cling to what time she had. Perhaps this was the way God felt when observing His own children. It was nearly a wicked thing to think, and so Clarity knew she would be praying doubly that evening in the event she had caused the Savior any dismay with her foolishness.

“It is still an amazing thing that he was permitted a Christian burial,” said Selah, after a while.

Clarity hummed in agreement and gave a little nod. “Aye, amazing indeed,” she said. She reached out to touch the top of the stone with her fingertips. “We are fortunate, all of us, that he did forsake his gifts of witchcraft before he met the noose, and in doing so returned to the grace of God. Surely there is a sweet place for him in Heaven.”

“Didst thou not claim but a day prior to this that the Devil chews his soul?” asked Selah, her mouth pressed into a line.

“‘Tis the fate of all witches,” said Clarity, “and so the part of him that was such goest gnawed forevermore. But I believe the rest of him is better for losing it. Let us be glad he will be whole enough come Judgment Day.”

A breeze rattled the dying leaves and made Selah shiver. Neither of them turned away from the grave. In time, Selah asked, “Was it right, to say we’d seen him dancing in the trees?”

Clarity set her jaw. “I am no adulteress. I swore to be devoted to him until death parted us, and if my heart longed for thee whilst I still bore that sacred duty, then ’twas the fault of witchcraft, truly.” She ran her hand along the top of the stone again. “I dreamt I saw him dancing under the moon. I dreamt I saw him writing in the Devil’s book. Were it wrong to say it was truth, especially given his admission to the Reverend Webster in the end? What man tells lies on his death’s bed?” She had not been there to see it in person, but she had heard the cries Goodman Hawkins had made as they coaxed answers from him in Godly ways. If so many who knew them both had found him guilty at his trial then surely it was the truth.

Perhaps Selah could scent the hesitance upon her. “Some might say ’tis a sin, in spite of that.”

“Then my sins are only sins of love, and such cannot harm an innocent soul.”

“As thou sayest,” said Selah. They returned to silence for a time until she spoke again, her hand upon Clarity’s shoulder in the way it lay when she longed for reassurance. “Pray tell me the verse I likest best from thy little book, if thou wouldst. Thou knowest which.”

“Of course, dear Selah,” said Clarity. She looked up over the trees to the gray clouds beyond them, the same clouds that looked over every beast of the land, and every bird, and every Frenchman that had sacked Fort Charles. “Then when we live, in love let’s so persever,” she said, clutching at Selah’s hand. “That when we live no more, we may live ever.”

Selah sighed with something that was close to contentment. “I think ’tis a very fine sentiment,” she said.

Clarity chuckled, sharp and short. “The whole of the text speaks of a wife’s love for her husband.”

“Aye, perhaps ’tis so,” said Selah. “And dost thou not live in love, even here in this cold place, with the goodman judged and redeemed these many years…?”

“Thou speaketh the truth. Of this there is no question.”

“Then shall we, in love, abide like the poem sayeth, even once we are gone? Might this be where Heaven is found?” The wind raised up at what she said, as though it were trying to evoke the moans of a restless spirit.

The question soured Clarity’s countenance. “Let us allow Heaven to be where it wishes. The Lord God is in all places, but I suspect He stayeth least here.”

“I meant no disrespect, sweet Clarity,” said Selah, meekly. “But it would be a pleasing story, dost thou not agree?”

“And who might hear such a thing, were it writ? The garrison, now routed and gone? The foreign army, with no taste for the King’s English? The birds, perhaps, or the beasts, or the fishes?” She barked a small laugh. “It shall be a time of great strangeness should tales ever spring from the fallow fields of Maine. Let us hope the Reverend Webster knowest to look for us once it comes time for us to lie beneath this hill ourselves.” The wind rose further at her prompting, giving her cause to hide her hair in its passing. “Come, then, dear Selah. There is work to do in this place ‘fore the storm I smell doth arrive, and we’ve no man to help us in our labors.”

“Aye, ’tis so,” said Selah, and her hand found Clarity’s own even as her eyes remained uncertain.

They turned as one to leave the hillock. There was much to be done in the cold days ahead. No man would help them, it was so, and they would ask for none, and no more would Clarity dream of Goodman Hawkins capering with the Devil, nor would she remember his eyes in the courthouse when the verdict was handed down. So she hoped, and so she would continue to hope.

What good would she be were it any other way?

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9 thoughts on “Flourishes

  1. Okay, I definitely didn’t expect “Puritan slice of life” as a genre for this issue. Really strong style throughout, and the whole story feels kind of cozy and autumnal with the fireside scene and winter prep and dealing with grief. Love the gravestone as an end piece!

  2. Auuuuggggh there is so much to read between the lines here at the end…at first I was like, ah, a straightforward story about lesbian Puritans, but MAYBE NOT

  3. This was a nice little piece with a bit of a creepy touch at the end (perhaps?)
    What I liked most was the way these characters in this extremely repressive and puritanical environment have firstly managed to find love and beauty in one another and secondly reconciled their queerness with their faith in a way that is actually quite touching imo.

  4. I super did NOT expect that twist. I mean yay Puritan lesbians but also husband murder?! What a story!

  5. I was so bowled over by the ending when I first read it, this story is sweet and loving and wow, so quietly sinister, too. It does make me wonder just how and when Clarity and Selah’s relationship began.

  6. this was such a satisfying nugget of a story! that style of language was fun to read and i loved the sinister undertone that was growing throughout. this was a clever twist on the witch trials and i’m so morbidly fascinated by their idea of piety. great work!

  7. I’m kind of in love with the writing style in this and it worked soo well in the sex scene (or should I call it the the birds and the bees?). It’s fun to contrast the Jesus worshipping mentions woven in, with the conversation at the end.

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