Cessily had spent the better part of the sunny afternoon pestering her mother like a bothersome gnat, in spite of Claudia’s urging the child to go outside and help her father with chores, or to entertain her brother with a game. But she had a cast-iron will and was not easily dissuaded from this stubborn longing to help her mother bake one apple pie as a gift for the Chathams, whose land this was, whose vernacular cottage she knew only as her own, and whose generosity afforded the Freeman family a reasonably abundant lifestyle, mainly sheltered from a good many woes in the world they might have suffered in other circumstances. Claudia had finally relented and pushed a chair up to the counter, wrapped a cotton apron around the child and then double wrapped the ties around her tiny waist, and handed her a beleaguered looking tin measuring cup. There was no recipe to follow scrawled on a card, no book laying open on the counter: Claudia baked this pie, like she did everything else, with blind expertise passed on to her by generations of experts. And now here she was on this balmy afternoon passing the torch to her own child, and in so doing, creating a great deal more effort for herself than she thought this pie deserved.
She made her family wait for their supper so she could deliver the pie to the Chathams about when they might expect it. Cecil had come inside and washed away the sweat from his face and the grime from his fingers, and then stripped off his coveralls, pulling on a clean shirt and trousers before he sat down to read. Andy took this as his cue to scramble into his daddy’s lap, where he reclined lazily against Cecil’s bony frame and idly played with a small wooden horse that was missing a leg, a casualty of an adult misstep in a room strewn with navigational hazards.
And just as Cessily had managed to wear down her mother earlier in the kitchen, now she applied the same strategy to convince Claudia to take her along down the graveled pathway to deliver the pie, an aromatic pastry baked into a tin and covered with a blue gingham tea towel. Claudia cleverly tucked under the towel’s fraying edges so that only the best part of the material showed. Cessily skipped tirelessly forward and backward for every few steps her mother took towards the big clapboard house, occasionally bouncing into imagined hopscotch squares. When they reached it, Claudia rapped softly on the screen door frame, but the cook had already seen her through the opening of the back door, which stood ajar to help ventilate some of the insufferable heat in the kitchen. She pantomimed for the two of them to come inside. Claudia meant to drop the pie and say it was from the Freemans, and then be on her way. But at that instant, Mrs. Chatham stepped inside the adjoining butler’s pantry and caught a glimpse of the child, and then her mother, and urged them both to come inside the massive great hall that led the way to the dining room.
Cessily now second guessed her desire to come on this errand with her mother. She felt Mrs. Chatham’s soft hand pressing into her shoulder, using it to steer her gently forward and then to the left into a room that rendered her speechless. She allowed her eyes to wander from one corner to the next, over the top of a massive window with an elegant damask valance, onward to a cabinet that sparkled with china and stemware, thence to a stern-looking portrait of a bearded gentleman, and finally alighting on a fireplace mantel where a clock stood perfectly centered beneath an oblong gilded mirror and ticked away the moments in this awkward silence. Mr. Chatham sat at the end of the table, looking delighted if surprised at the spectacle that stood before him. Cessily heard only some of the words that now fell from Mrs. Chatham’s lips: Look…Mrs. Freeman baked a pie…and this must be little Cessily.
Turning away from Mrs. Chatham, Cessily stepped behind her mother and buried her face within the folds of her skirt, which smelled reassuringly of soap and butter. She longed to be back at the cottage now, where she might have convinced her father to read aloud to her while they waited for a late supper. But there she stood, frozen and imprisoned, snuffing out the words floating on the air around her. She would push this moment down into her belly, where it would lay silent for years before finally knocking her senseless one morning, on the other side of the river that flowed silently down below this ridge.