In any other circumstance Ida would be enjoying the day. The sun shone and a faint breeze tickled the water and cast up large dragonflies; lazy and sluggish in the sticky heat. She marveled at the quivering lotus lilies reaching high above the lake, their saucer-sized yellow petals bleached to translucency in the penetrating light. Ida closed her eyes and distracted herself by inhaling the warm intoxicating scents coming off the water surrounding the skiff. She hummed softly to herself.
The heat was sucking the oxygen out of the air and she was glad she insisted on bringing the parasol. Katherine had been all set to rush out of the house with only her bonnet for protection.
“But I want the white parasol, not that old green one with the tatty fringe. It clashes so with my yellow bonnet,” Katherine had shouted as she rushed upstairs to her bedroom. Ida raised an eyebrow at the sound of her sister’s heavy stomp across the wooden floor, accompanied by the slamming of wardrobe doors.
“The green one will have to do Katherine. We need to leave now. Joe’s out front with the buggy. He’s waiting,” If there was any reply from Katherine, Ida didn’t hear it.
And in all the rush and commotion, she had left her sketch pad and pencils behind. She couldn’t remember seeing them where they usually were; on the table by the coat stand. Maybe Charles hid them again, to avoid her ‘becoming too distracted from her wifely duties’.
Ida dangled her hand over the side of the boat and flinched at the coolness of the water. The parasol might yet be their saving grace, but she refused to think of that moment just yet.
She looked across at Katherine, now fast asleep after her exhaustive chatter about the arrival of the latest Parisian lace in Vermillion. Katherine would no doubt talk Charles into chaperoning them on an overnight expedition to Mary Fey’s to acquire these latest trimmings. A trip Ida could well do without. These days she slept fitfully and after much persuasion, Charles had relented and agreed to let her use the adjoining bedroom from time to time. But in Vermillion he would insist on keeping up appearances.
Maybe she would be able to sneak away and get some more herbs from the Indian girl. She’d met her the first day she went into town with Joe, their foreman, to fetch provisions from the store. When Ida went outside for some air, the girl had emerged from the shaded portico, as if waiting for her.
“Wasicun winyan, woman paleface,” she said urgently thrusting a bag towards her, chanting “No papoose, no papoose” under her breath. Ida had heard some of the other women whispering about special teas they bought from the Kickapoo Indians.
“Are you sure?” Ida asked after checking over her shoulder to make sure no-one was watching her.
The young girl shook her head, “No, no papoose”, she repeated. Desperate, Ida bought the foul-tasting leaves. She had to pick her time to creep into the kitchen and brew the concoction to avoid Mrs. Baker. Ida was convinced Charles paid the housekeeper extra to spy on her.
The tea made her feel nauseous, but the alternative was even more sickening. She had seen what ten pregnancies had done to her mother. Only Ida, Katherine and their older brother Jack had survived childbirth. Jack, her beloved Jack. Ida felt a deep pang of sadness.
She willfully ignored the water seeping through a crack in the bottom of the boat as she lifted the bundle of lilies Katherine had gathered onto her lap. Or, as Charles had corrected her over dinner the other night, “odorata to give them their proper name”. Ida tried to shut out his pompous voice, determined to drink in the stillness of the day while she could. She ran her hands along the rubbery lotus leaves. The Indians believed that the lilies that didn’t smell were poisonous. Could it be true?
So far, her sister was blissfully unaware of their predicament. Knowing full well Katherine’s ability to panic at the slightest thing, Ida was reluctant to wake her just yet. As soon as Joe had launched the boat, Ida insisted he go back with the farm hands. Usually on a Sunday afternoon the men would be fishing on the Huron but Charles was repairing the barn today and had persuaded them all to help out after church. In Joe’s rush, he had bundled Katherine and herself into the boat.
“Off you go ladies, enjoy the day,” Joe had said with a cheery grin as he pushed the boat from the landing slip into the water. “You’ll be needing that parasol, it’s going to be hotter than a prairie today.”
At first, even Ida hadn’t noticed that the oars got left behind. Whenever they took the boat out, she liked to drift languidly between the lotus flowers, letting the current nudge them this way and that. Then, after an hour or two when the shadows lengthened across Sandusky Bay, Ida and Katherine would use the paddles to meander through the thicket of giant lily pads back to shore.
How long would it take for anyone to notice that they were missing? Around sundown, she guessed, when the men would gather in the yard demanding to be fed and watered. By then it could well be too late.
Ida’s feet were soaked. She found the coolness of the water seeping through her boots something of a relief in the heat. She looked across at Katherine, oblivious to the rising water and now smiling as she slept. No doubt she was dreaming about Tom who lived on the next-door farm. Ida grinned as she remembered the look on Katherine’s face last week when she came across the pair of them in the corn field.
“Well, well, what are you two up to?”
“We were only chatting, honestly Ida,” Katherine had said as she stood up and brushed bits of chaff off her dress. “Tom was telling me about his new Chestnut foal. Promise me we can go and see it Ida, I’ve never seen a newborn up close before.” Katherine allowed a touch of innocence to widen her cornflower eyes but the deep blush that stung her cheeks told a different story.
“Perhaps both of us can go later in the week, but you must ask Charles first,” Ida said. “Run along now Tom, I’m sure you have work to do and your father will be wondering where you are.”
Ida had felt obliged to send Tom packing but couldn’t muster the energy to be too punishing. Class protocols were so wearisome. If he wasn’t the son of a blacksmith, Tom with his dark curly locks and lopsided smile, would be quite a catch. She could just imagine what Charles would say.
“I will not stand for any woman under my roof to marry beneath her station. Imagine the scandal.” For Charles, love was a weakness he had no time for. He would no sooner allow Katherine to marry Tom than he would cross one of his horses with an ass. It was all about breeding. The memory of his ruddy face and bulging eyes, and his bulky frame huffing and puffing on top of her made Ida squirm.
She did not want to end up like her mother. Shortly after giving birth to yet another stillborn baby, she had died of an infection. After that, their father became even more wedded to the demon drink, constantly fighting with Jack who fled after one fight too many. And the debts kept mounting. Their mother wasn’t but a fortnight in her grave when Ida and Katherine buried their father. The sisters posted notices throughout the county for Jack to return, but he appeared to have vanished from Ohio for good. Ida didn’t blame him but she often wondered how different her life might be had he stayed.
With little money left after paying for the funeral, Ida was keen to get a job. Some women were entering professions such as teaching. But within the month their well-intentioned neighbours had found Charles, a cousin living a few miles away, not only looking for a wife but willing to take in Katherine as well. Their fate was sealed.
Ida peered into the inky depths and wondered how deep the lake was. She lifted the lacey hem of her crisp white cotton dress higher out of the water’s muddy reach. Usually she would change after church into something more appropriate, but there had not been time today. Was it only six months ago that she had pledged herself to be Mrs. Charles Horrigan, for better or worse, in this very dress?
Mrs. Baker’s terse words last week as she unpicked the seams still haunted her.
“Just look at you Miss Ida,” tutted the housekeeper. “You’re thinner than the corn stalks in the fields. This is the second time I’ve had to take this dress in.” Mrs. Baker gazed accusingly at Ida’s flat stomach as if to remind her that it was high time she produce an heir for Charles.
“We’ll need to get you some of that Indian Blood Syrup,” she’d threatened. “That’ll boost your appetite and put a bit of colour in your cheeks. Mrs. Jackson next door swears by it. I hear Horton’s has a new batch in.”
“I’ll get some next time I’m in town,” said Ida, although she had no intention whatsoever of doing so.
Ida scanned the horizon but there was no-one in sight as the sun started sinking. The boat had drifted about half a mile from the shore of the aptly-named Lake Erie. They were on their own and it was up to her to think of a plan. She was surprised to find that a part of her was not particularly concerned. Would drowning be such a bad thing? The day was perfect and the water would certainly cool her down. It would be better than what lay ahead of her. She wasn’t sure how long she could avoid a pregnancy as Charles was determined to be a father.
Ida fleetingly indulged herself the immodest vision of herself as a rather elegant corpse. A billowing white cloud snug in a green and yellow embrace in spite of the colour clash. Katherine’s single, carefree state was something Ida envied, although not the fight she would have with Charles if she was determined to marry Tom. Tom! An image of Tom taking his mare for an afternoon ride along the shore barely had time to raise Ida’s hopes before she remembered that he was also at the barn today.
The water-filled boat was beginning to rock from side to side and Katherine was starting to stir. Ida couldn’t believe her sister could doze for so long. What were their options? Neither Ida or Katherine had learnt to swim, but while Ida, having watched the farm boys thrash about in the water, thought she could probably stay afloat after a fashion, Katherine would surely panic.
She could already see Katherine’s flailing arms and hear her shrieks. As her sister began to yawn, Ida knew what she must do. She reached down to unlace and remove her damp boots, undid the knot of ribbon under her chin and cast her bonnet out among the water lilies. Then imagining the look of shock on Mrs. Baker’s face, she took off her dress, reached for the parasol, breathed deeply and stood up.
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