Our Father, which art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy Kingdom come,
thy Will be done
on Earth, as it is in Heaven.
Give us this Day our daily Bread,
and forgive us our Trefpaffes,
as we forgive them that Trefpafs againft us;
And lead us not into Temptation,
but deliver us from Evil.
When Rebecca was a little girl, she imagined herself to be the bravest child in the New World. She was practically born in the wilderness and knew no luxuries like the girls in the towns. She had no fear of the toads that the boys threw in her face, nor of the howling wolves who skirted her village during hard winters. She was not afraid of the darkness beyond a sputtering candle, and warnings of hellfire were abstractions with vague meaning.
Later, when her mother passed, she knew differently. Her memories of Winifred’s death were foggy and distant, like something from a bad dream. It happened quickly: a tiny, inconsequential cut on her hand, infection, and then she was gone. Rebecca could not say where Winifred’s soul had gone-- whether consigned to Heaven or Hell-- that judgement was not hers to make. She only knew that her mother’s body had been laid to rest in the village cemetery. Flowers found anchor in the soil of her mother’s grave, but Rebecca was unmoored. Rebecca learned that she was not brave. Her fearlessness was rooted in the security of her mother, in the confidence of her support. WIthout Winifred, Rebecca learned fear.
Everyday brought new uncertainties and new doubts. She was not afraid of frogs or nighttime darkness, but she did not know the best way to card wool or bake bread. She did not know how to manage a household or act with a gentle and moderating hand. She had no mother to teach her, and her inadequacies dogged her heels more closely than any winter wolves.
Rebecca found ways to manage her fears, to grow with the guidance of her family and neighbours. She learned to perform the duties her mother should have been able to teach her, and she filled many of the gaps that her mother had left empty in their home. Rebecca now knew how to card wool and bake bread, yet she did not know how to comfort a friend who was struggling with loss. She wondered if this too was something she should have learned from her mother. Women were supposed to be soft and caring and compassionate, but Rebecca only felt a cold sadness as she listened to her friend.
“My mother is not well,” Sharon said. She spoke quietly, nearly inaudible over the sound of splashing water.
Rebecca and Sharon sat at the edge of the stream that ran by their farms. Baskets of linens were piled around them in need of a wash. The big spring laundry day was long past, but the sweat of farmwork made another round of the arduous task necessary. At least the water was cold and biting despite the warmth of the summer sun. Rebecca scrubbed while she waited for Sharon to continue, sensing more to her words. Bucky had managed to get a grass stain on the inside of his tunic, and Rebecca was grateful for the new bar of lye soap that Steve had made for her.
After some time, Sharon continued. “The sun rises and she wakes, but she does not break fast unless Margaret feeds her, and she does not go out to see the fields or the animals. She neglects her work and sits idle until dusk. Then Margaret puts her to bed like a child, though I am certain she does not sleep.”
Rebecca watched Sharon for a moment, noting the dark circles under her friend’s eyes and the pallor of her pretty face. “It must be hard for your mother, not knowing where your father has gone--”
Sharon scoffed. She shook out the linen shift in her hands with a wet splash against the rocks. “It is hard for all of us! My brother barely says a word all day, and little Elizabeth is crying up a storm. She is our mother and should uphold her duty to her family when our father does not.”
“You speak as if your father has abandoned you--”
“We don’t know what happened,” Rebecca hedged, not wanting to suggest more dire likelihoods.
“He has left us.” Sharon’s mouth flattened into a tense line. “Perhaps he is dead.”
Rebecca’s hands stilled, the laces of the garment she was rinsing tangled between her fingers. “Sharon,” Rebecca said softly.
“I think he is dead,” Sharon admitted, almost stubbornly, as if daring Rebecca to challenge her. Rebecca did not. Minister Carter had been missing for nearly a month. It was a long time for any family to wait, unknowing. Sharon exhaled shakily before continuing in a subdued voice. “You’re right. He would not-- he would not abandon us willingly.”
“I’m sorry,” Rebecca said, not knowing what else she could offer.
Sharon turned away from Rebecca and swiped the back of her hand over her eyes in one sharp motion. Then she sniffled once before turning back to Rebecca. Sharon’s eyes were red rimmed and her face was a blank slate. “I’ve heard rumours.”
Rebecca raised an eyebrow. “Rumours?”
“More than that-- news, I suppose-- of trials held out west, in Weyham. Trials for witchcraft.”
“Witchcraft,” Rebecca repeated in disbelief.
“Yes. Two women confessed and were hanged for the crime, but…” Sharon trailed off with a dismissive shrug, as if she were describing a sock she had recently darned. “Come morning, their bodies were missing from the hanging tree.”
Rebecca frowned. “I imagine their families laid them to rest after the crowds dispersed. Who would leave their kin displayed in such indignity, regardless of their guilt?”
“Perhaps,” Sharon allowed. “But I’ve heard that they were spirited away into the forests. There’s evil there that becomes emboldened at night.”
“Don’t tell me you believe these stories. That witches are just-- What? Hiding in the woods, waiting to invite passersby into their coven?” Rebecca feared Sharon did believe, and worse. For Sharon to broach the topic of witchcraft after speaking of her father’s disappearance--
Rebecca shook her head as if to clear the foolishness from her ears. Of course Rebecca believed that the Devil worked to tempt mankind astray-- one could not believe in God without acknowledging his detractors-- but Rebecca was of a practical mind. There was enough to worry about without throwing specters into the mix.
Sharon looked askance at Rebecca, but said nothing, scrubbing at another linen with renewed vigour. Rebecca resumed rinsing garments in the stream. A part of her regretted speaking so bluntly, but it did Sharon no good to entertain such ideas. Rebecca only wished she knew what to say to bridge the silence stretching between them, to offer better comfort than her inadequate presence.
Overhead, a flock of sparrows scattered into the evening sky, and Rebecca watched the stark silhouette of a raven borne on a cutting wind.
It was pleasantly cool when Rebecca woke the next day. She could hardly call it morning as the sky was still thick with darkness and the birds themselves had yet to sing their early greetings. Still, as tempting as it was to stay in the cocoon of her light blanket, Rebecca knew the harvest was set to begin and her father and brother would be doing the lion’s share of the labour. Of course, Rebecca would pitch in on the fields, but three able bodies would still be hard pressed to bring in the harvest for one farm, and they would undoubtedly need to help the neighbouring Carters as well. The Barneses would all need a hearty meal to fuel their work and it was up to Rebecca to prepare it.
Rebecca rose silently with a satisfying stretch of her arms above her head. Her older brother, Bucky, snuffled quietly in his pallet across the room, but he did not wake as Rebecca dressed. He was allowed a few more moments of rest than her, but Rebecca did not begrudge him his sleep. He needed it, and he would be up to tend to the chickens and goats soon enough.
Rebecca descended from the loft and quickly set to work. She checked the hearth and was pleased to see the smolder of last night’s embers, saving her from the trouble of relighting the fire. Rebecca grabbed a few logs from the stack Bucky had refreshed last night and fed the hearth back into a cheerful blaze. The fire brightened the modest cottage, its image doubled in the little circle of her mother’s old mirror where it hung on the wall.
Bird song and sunlight began to trickle past the tiny parchment windows of the cottage as Rebecca gave a pot of boiling cornmeal a last stir. She added a pinch of salt to the mush as a final touch before taking it off the heat. Then she set the table with cider, bread, and a little pot of molasses for the cornmeal mush. Rebecca turned to retrieve the fruit pie she’d made yesterday, and stumbled as her gaze caught on the shadow in her mother’s old mirror.
A large hand steadied Rebecca by her shoulder before she could fall. “Easy there. I’d hate to waste your fruit pie.”
“Steve!” Rebecca yelped in surprise. “When did you--” Rebecca shook her head. The cottage was small, but Bucky kept the door hinges well oiled, and she’d had her back turned to the entrance for some time. “Never mind.”
Steve smiled and took the fruit pie from Rebecca’s hands to lay on the table. “I brought salt pork,” Steve offered, indicating a basket he had set next to the bread. “Lots of work ahead of us these next few days. Thought it might be appreciated.”
Steve insisted on living in a cabin at the edge of the Barnes’ fields, despite sharing meals with them and working the same farmland. George Barnes had given Steve a portion of the Barnes’ plot after Steve’s mother passed. It was both a gift of appreciation for all that Sarah Rogers had done as a midwife, and a mark of the family bond drawn between the Barneses and Steven Rogers. While there was no relation by blood or marriage, it was widely accepted by the village that George had two sons: Bucky and Steve.
Rebecca huffed out a laugh. “I want to thank you for the salt pork, but why should you get thanks when no one thanks me for my cooking?”
A yawn and a few shuffling footsteps announced Bucky’s presence as he shambled down from the loft. “We thank you by eating it,” Bucky said, pushing the hair from his forehead and waving a hand in greeting to Steve.
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Is father up yet?” she asked.
“Sleeping like a bear in winter,” Bucky answered. “He ought to recite a few hundred catechisms on slothfulness.”
Rebecca held in an unattractive snort of laughter. “Don’t let him hear you, else you’ll be the one writing lines for filial respect.”
“Shouldn’t we wake him?” Steve asked. He remained standing as the Barnes siblings took their seats at the benches around the table and began to eat.
Bucky tugged at Steve’s wrist, urging him to sit, and Steve relented with a frown, dropping down next to Bucky. “Probably, but given the choice between a few more moments of shut eye or a hot bowl of mush-- well, which would you choose?”
“It’s not that bad,” said Steve.
“How ‘bout a trade then? You can have my mush, and I’ll have your share of the salt pork, thanks.” Bucky scraped his serving of cornmeal into Steve’s bowl before Steve could protest, then proceeded to take a double helping of salt pork from the basket. The annoyed expression on Steve’s face was no deterrent when the corners of his mouth were curled in fondness.
“And I already fed the chickens and goats for you this morning,” Steve complained.
“Including Big Steve?” Bucky asked, referring to Bucky’s favourite goat. The runt was a ball of energy and often wandered away.
Steve’s eyes narrowed. “Yes.” Bucky’s thanks was muffled by his enjoyment of the salt pork.
“So how is Sharon?” Steve asked Rebecca, dropping a dollop of molasses into his cornmeal. “I saw the two of you at the stream yesterday. Are the Carters… well?”
Rebecca cocked her head. The cornmeal seemed to curdle in her gut. “Didn’t you speak to Margaret just the other day?”
“Yes, but you know Peggy. She’d keep a stiff upper lip if she were upside-down in the Hudson. Sharon’s like you: younger, and a bit more honest with her heart.”
Rebecca often forgot that Steve was eight years older than Rebecca’s fifteen. It was an easy thing to do when Rebecca was sure she could pick Steve up and toss him clear across the cottage. Without his serious manner and his familiarity with Margaret, Rebecca would think Steve to be eighteen like Bucky.
“Sharon is…” Rebecca began haltingly, “I think they’re accepting that Minister Carter is… lost. Sharon-- thinks he is dead.”
Steve let his spoon rest in his bowl as he stared at the brightening rectangles of the parchment windows. Bucky looked solemnly at Rebecca, an unhappy crease in his brow.
“It has been nearly a month now,” said Steve slowly. “Search parties turned up nothing, and there has been no word from neighbouring villages. It’s a reasonable assumption and--”
“You’re the last person I’d expect to give up without proof,” Bucky interrupted mulishly. “Minister Carter wouldn’t abandon his family, and a church minister has no reason to venture into the wilderness, so how did he go missing?”
“What are you saying?” Rebecca asked. Her appetite was gone. Neither Steve nor Bucky answered her. Each turned their attention to their food: Bucky with a barbaric chomp into his salt pork and bread, and Steve with a hurried shovel of cornmeal. “Sharon said something about-- about witchcraft…” Rebecca trailed off, embarrassed and fiddling with her spoon.
“Wiff-craff?” Bucky echoed Rebecca’s disbelief from the prior day through a mouthful of bread.
“She said she heard that there was evil hiding in the forests…”
Bucky washed down his food with a gulp of cider. “If evil should reside anywhere, it would not be in the trees.” Bucky snorted. “There’s room enough in the hearts of men.”
Rebecca glanced at Steve to see if he had any thoughts to share, but Steve was staring intently at the bottom of his bowl where his spoon carved spirals in the dregs of cornmeal.
The three of them turned at the sound of George descending from the loft. Unlike his son, George had taken the time to tame his hair properly, the silver strands combed carefully back from his weathered brow. “What’s this? My unruly children breaking fast without me?”
“Only because our lazy father--” George wiped away Bucky’s cheeky grin with a gentle cuff to the head.
“Watch it, boy,” George groused, spreading his fingers to ruffle Bucky’s hair into an even wilder bird’s nest. Bucky swatted George’s hand away and resettled his hair with a toss of his head. George sat next to Rebecca and tented his hands primly. “Let’s pray-- as I’m sure you’ve already done-- so humour me.”
Rebecca, Bucky, and Steve exchanged sheepish glances before bowing their heads. George led the prayer, inserting a plea for the Lord to forgive his mouthy son, and closing with heartfelt thanks for his dutiful daughter and the tempering influence of Steve Rogers. After, George dug in with a smile for Rebecca’s fruit pie, and talk around the table turned to the harvest.
Despite being short-handed, the Barnes and Carter fields yielded a bountiful harvest which was sure to earn good coin at market and stock their larders for the winter. After several days of breaking their backs to bring in the harvest, Rebecca was almost glad to go to service. Of course, Rebecca would never say as much, because church was not a chore to be dreaded, but on this day, stepping into the village meeting-house brought Rebecca a sense of apprehension. The past weeks in church had been fraught. With Minister Carter missing and no replacement yet available, service was being led by Alexander Pierce.
Pierce was a gentlemanly and almost aggressively civil elder, but his sermons leaned heavily on threats of hellfire. Rebecca much preferred Minister Carter’s sermons which were imbued with faith in a better mankind, but many villagers approved of the brutal correctional style that Pierce endorsed and doled out to those deemed in need of salvation.
The meeting-house where service was held twice a week was the largest building in the village, but remained modest, as befitted a place for worship. The building was practical and its simplicity prevented distraction from the Word of God. The most elaborate aspect of the meeting-house was perhaps the seating arrangement, which was meticulously arranged each year by a seating committee. The seating arrangement was a representation of the village hierarchy, thus prime seats were coveted and families often jockeyed for better positions through contributions to the community or tasteful demonstrations of piety. The minister’s family was always seated on one side of the pulpit, and elders directly in front. The congregation sat in two columns of pews, with men on one side of the aisle and women on the other side. Those held in higher esteem were assigned by the seating committee to sit towards the front, and some general seating was left in the middle and back. Private pews could be purchased and installed opposite the minister’s family pew, but only one family in the village had the wealth to do so: the Pierces.
Pierce and his wife were well liked, educated, and affluent, but Rebecca detested his daughters. Mercy and Constance were two and one years older than Rebecca, respectively, but they behaved like spiteful children. While Mercy and Constance appeared pious and virtuous, Rebecca knew them to be vipers who spread poisonous gossip under the guise of concerned tittering. More than once, Rebecca had overheard them talking about Margaret Carter’s ‘mannish’ past-times damaging her marriageability, and Rebecca had seen them ruining their indentured servants’ work for the entertainment of making them repeat the labour. Pierce’s other daughters were too young to garner Rebecca’s dislike, but she was sure they would follow closely in their sisters’ footsteps.
With the honour of leading sermons granted to Pierce, his daughters had become more insufferable. Rebecca had always known that Mercy and Constance looked down on other village girls since their family was the only one wealthy enough to afford a private pew, but the extra prestige seemed to sharpen their smirks.
Rebecca still remembered when the Pierces had first purchased and installed their private pew. Although George Barnes was not a community elder, he was liked for his kindness and sincerity, thus the Barneses were well regarded in the community and annually assigned seats near the front. When she had been eight years of age, Rebecca had had little concept of the implications of the meeting-house seating, but she did understand that Mercy and Constance spat on Jane Rollins because the Pierces sat high next to the pulpit while Jane Rollins sat towards the back.
They were no longer little girls and their insults were better veiled than a glob of spit, but Rebecca knew their hearts were unchanged. It only annoyed her more when she had to watch Mercy and Constance make cow eyes at Bucky from their private pew. Rebecca thought Brock Rumlow was a better fit for the girls, seeing as the Pierces and Rumlows were neighbours known for their amiable relationship. Brock was twenty and would soon be looking for a bride. His face was handsome enough in a roguish way, and he was certainly mean enough to match Mercy. Alternatively, there was Jack Rollins, Brock’s closest friend, if Mercy or Constance preferred a brainless follower.
Mercy and Constance were wise enough to hide their mooning glances from their father during sermons, but it was widely known that they had designs on James Buchanan Barnes. It was Bucky’s misfortune that he had been born with their mother’s beauty. Rebecca was not blind to the way people turned their heads for him, and she often had to crush the kernel of envy which laid in the ugliest pit of her mind. Bucky had hair which fell in soft waves about his face. He was doe-eyed with thick eyelashes to frame his thoughtful blue gaze. His lips were needlessly rosy and underscored by a sharp, yet delicate jaw. Bucky was beautiful and Rebecca was plain.
Envious of her brother, but embarrassed by her own vanity, Rebecca had confided in Steve when she was twelve years old. In hindsight, it had been ridiculously thoughtless to complain to Steve of all people about being unattractive, but he had set her to rights.
“So what if you are plain?” Steve had asked, and Rebecca had had no answer. “It’s said that a curse is cast from a venomous eye, and I fear that this may be true. I have suffered enough for being distractingly ugly, and I worry that Bucky’s stupid face may one day catch an unwelcome eye. Perhaps in your plainness, you will be unnoticed and underestimated.”
Rebecca was shaken from her memories by a commotion at the pulpit. The congregation was still milling about, finding their seats and greeting each other, but whatever was happening at the minister’s pew was growing heated. Rebecca sat up straighter and glanced at where Bucky and her father sat on the men’s side of the aisle. They too had noticed, and a quick glance to the back of the room showed that Steve was alert as well. Soon, Rebecca could hear the clear voices of Margaret Carter and Alexander Pierce above the diminishing chatter of the crowd.
“You may be leading the service in my father’s absence, Mr. Pierce, but you are not the minister,” said Margaret. She was standing in front of her family where they sat on the minister’s pew, squared off against Pierce in the pulpit.
“And neither are you, my dear,” Pierce said patiently. His tawny hair was mostly grey, and the deep creases in his face combined with his pleasantly rolling voice lent him a decidedly paternal air.
Margaret spoke through clenched teeth, “No, I am not, but my father--”
“Is a minister. This pew is reserved for the family of the acting minister,” said Pierce, gesturing apologetically at the pew where the Carters sat. Sharon looked murderous, and her little brother Thomas was visibly frightened, clutching the hand of his pale-faced mother where she sat with little Elizabeth in her lap. “I am sorry to say it, Miss Carter,” Pierce continued, “but your father… is not currently acting as a minister in this community--”
“Because he is dead ,” said Margaret, her voice cracking. “But even in death, we retain that which was apportioned to us in his lifetime--”
“Now, Miss Carter, we don’t know that your father is dead,” Pierce placated. He turned his sorrowful expression from left to right, glancing at the other elders in the community and receiving sympathetic nods in return. “I understand it is a difficult time for your family, but the Church will be sending a new Minister soon enough. It would be best for us all if you became accustomed to the new order of things.”
Margaret’s eyes flashed with barely controlled anger, and Sharon looked ready to spring from the pew to tackle Pierce. However, before Margaret could open her mouth to deliver an undoubtedly scathing retort about what Pierce could do with his new order of things , Mrs. Carter stood up from her seat. “I understand, Mr. Pierce,” Mrs. Carter said, her voice a quiet rasp that Rebecca barely heard. Mrs. Carter walked away from the pulpit with a straight back, her quiet grace unaffected by the squirming toddler in her arms and the boy clutching at her skirts.
Rebecca kept her shock from showing on her face, but her mind raced. If the Carters gave up hope and declared Minister Carter dead without the evidence of a body, they would be perceived as heartless and faithless. Yet if the Carters carried on with a vain hope for his return, Minister Carter would be perceived as a dishonest man, one who had abandoned his congregation, and this was arguably worse. There would come rumours of hidden gambling debts or perhaps even adultery that had driven Minister Carter away from his family. Without a body or evidence of what happened to Minister Carter, the Carter family’s reputation was in question, and their dismissal from the minister’s pew would only fuel the congregation’s whispers.
Margaret closed her eyes, obviously thinking similar thoughts. Her mouth was pressed in a thin line, and Rebecca could see as she counted out several controlled breaths. When Margaret opened her eyes again, her gaze was cold and sharp. Somehow, Pierce did not flinch back from Margaret’s gaze, while Rebecca felt a jolt at the sight. “Mr. Pierce,” said Margaret, curt and even. It was the barest social nicety before Margaret pivoted on her heel and joined her mother at the back pews of the meeting-house.
Sharon, however, was not as disciplined as her mother and older sister. “No! This isn’t right!” she cried out, running forward as if to grab at Pierce’s jacket. Sharon’s wrist was in Brock Rumlow’s fist before her fingers could touch the fabric.
Sharon gasped in pain. Wood scraped against wood as benches were hastily pushed back. Other villagers had become uncomfortable with the physicality of the confrontation, and people looked to each other, unsure whether to intervene. Steve somehow reached Sharon first, despite sitting at the very back of the meeting-house.
“Let her go,” Steve commanded. His voice was pitched low, in a register that seemed impossible for his frail body. The force of his presence made the closest bystanders shift back as Steve pushed closer to Brock. Steve did not even come up to Brock’s shoulders, but there was an intensity to Steve’s eyes that made Rebecca believe in a strength he could not possibly possess.
Sharon leaned into Steve, and Bucky stepped forward from where he had been standing behind Steve. “C’mon, Brock. She’s just a kid,” Bucky said softly. Where Steve’s chin jutted out in challenge, Bucky’s face was tipped down demurely. Bucky edged himself between Steve and Brock, trying to de-escalate the situation while Pierce watched serenely and the rest of the congregation gawked with muted excitement.
Brock didn’t budge, but Steve made space for Bucky, giving Bucky some breathing room as he looked up at Brock from beneath his eyelashes. “No harm, right? She’s just a kid. Mrs. Carter will get her straightened out later,” Bucky said. Then Bucky reached slowly for Brock’s fist. Bucky touched Brock like he was adjusting a faulty snare, and somehow gently uncurled Brock’s fingers from Sharon’s wrist. All the while, Brock watched Bucky with an unnerving curiosity. It almost looked like Brock leaned minutely closer to Bucky, his heavy breath ruffling through the soft brown waves of Bucky’s hair.
At last, Sharon was released from Brock’s grip, and Bucky steered both Sharon and Steve away from the pulpit. Sharon’s wrist bore a white handprint that was quickly hidden by her sleeve. Sharon leaned into the shelter of Steve’s side. Her cheeks were blotchy with open anger, and her eyes darted from face to face as if identifying enemies throughout the congregation, but she kept her condemnation silent. Steve deposited her at the general seating in the back of the meeting-house, and her mother and sisters were quick to huddle around her with expressions ranging between concern and disappointment.
With a few nudges, Bucky reminded Steve to find his own seat. Steve quickly did so when he realized that Thomas Carter was now seated alone on the men’s side of the aisle, having no male relatives to sit with and no assigned seat. Steve forewent his usual seat in favour of sitting with Thomas and placing a comforting hand on the boy’s thin shoulder. Meanwhile, Bucky walked back to his seat near the front of the meeting-house. George Barnes stood there, crumpling the brim of his hat until Bucky was sat back where he belonged. Even then, it took a coaxing hand from Bucky to assure his father that he could sit as well, that he would not need to dive in to separate his sons from a brawl.
Rebecca sat down and released a breath she had not realized she had been holding. She did not know when she had stood up. Her heart beat against her ribs like she had been in the thick of the confrontation herself. Sweat trickled down the back of her dress, and she found that she had punched a small hole through her skirt where she had been gripping the fabric too fiercely. Around her, the rest of the congregation slowly shed the tension built by the seating dispute. In the past, blows had been exchanged over church seating arrangements, but those confrontations usually took place after the annual seating committee decision. There had never been a dispute involving the minister’s pew before.
Pierce was taking his time soothing the elders and giving Brock a fatherly pat on the back, allowing the congregation to settle in for the start of service. The Pierces sat comfortably on their private pew, with Mercy and Constance a picture of quiet reflection, only a satisfied glint in their eyes to give them away. Across from the Pierces, the minister’s pew was left empty.
Rebecca glanced over her shoulder, looking for the Carters. Rebecca could not see the Carters past the crowd of faces that separated her from them, but she could see the looks exchanged between members of the congregation. It would be uncouth to speak of what had just transpired, but Rebecca knew that gossip would be irresistible. The thought of what people would say about Margaret and Sharon left a bitter taste in the back of Rebecca’s throat.