Chapter 5: Albert I
Cushing, Knox County, Maine, Fall 1849
Albert was now seven years old. He had grown in the intervening years, and his comprehension had expanded. He still bore the white hair, but unlike on the ship, it was washed. Or at least had been Saturday night, prior to church the following morning.
If anyone asked him about his parents, he couldn't have told them anything about them. They were a distant memory. At times, he felt like they were no more than memories of a dream, a sweet one albeit. A sweet dream that he had dreamt long ago.
What he had instead was a new family. One that involved his Ma and Da, Abigale and George Swenny. They were the only parents he had truly known. His Ma had lost two children since she had taken him and his twin under her loving embrace.
Yet his Ma was still a cheerful woman, although at times he caught her at times of melancholy, tears streaming down her face. Those times he would walk up to her, give her as tight a hug as he could and tell her that he loved her. There was no woman that he ever imagined carried such a depth of love, like a bottomless pit, and it was this unending wellspring of love that drove her to such sadness.
After he hugged her and told her of his affection, tears would stream from those lovely eyee, one blue and one green. Ma Abby would tell him that he was her stars. If it were Naomi, she would tell her that she was her 'space dust', but he hadn't understood that. When he had asked Da George about that, he had laughed.
"You know how on a clear night you can look up in the stars and you can see what looks like a cloud of dust in the heavens?" he had asked. "That is what your mother means."
That was anything but clear and had as much clarity as when Ma would read passages of Isiah out of the Bible. Even after months of pondering, Albert still wasn't sure what that explanation even meant, but he accepted it all the same. He may not understand everything, but he understood that his parents loved him dearly, and he them.
It was in this space of love and warmth that found Albert sitting at the right side of the table, spooning up stew. A stew that combined broth, vegetables and meat. There was also bread rolls stacked in a small pile in middle of the table.
"That was when my great ancestor Enda fought a banshee that was terrorizing the monastic village, allowing the House of Burke to build their castle there," George was explaining to his small children. His hands emphatically moved to illustrate the story. "The banshee terrorized the village, nightly taking away souls to the death coachman. But my great ancestor, who was related to King Arthur through his mother Igraine through her daughter Morgause, had fairy magic in his blood. He went to the King of the Fairies, a mighty sorcerer named Flann, and convinced him to enchant his armor and sword with twilight dust."
Naomi stared wide-eyed at George, her stew forgotten as his story conjured up images of monsters and heroes she could only imagine in her dreams. Albert was not so sure of the truth of the story. Fairy kings and twilight dust swords were silly to think. Instead, he ate in silence, listening and pondering what was being told.
"Then with a terrible look in his eyes and a sword that sparkled in the night," George proclaimed, holding his knife up as if it were a sword he was pointing to heaven, "He faced the banshee. For three nights straight he strove with the creature. On the third night, she fled, wailing and releasing the souls that she had dragged from the living. The death coachman feared the great warrior and never again came to that settlement. No man has ever died in that village since that day."
Albert couldn't imagine a place where people never died. Death, wasn't it a natural part of life? Wouldn't all the babies make it a crowded place? He and his sister knew death, obviously it wasn't meant to be feared.
"Indeed, Enda still lives," George shook his head, his voice dripping in sorrow. "He lives in the depths of what is now Ashford Castle. Each night he climbs to the battlements and holds aloft his sword, ensuring the banshee and death coachman never return."
The story coming to an end, George made a motion with his hands, one patting his stomach and the other holding up in a sign of patience. Then, sucking in his stomach George let out a loud belch. A loud, wet belch.
Naomi and Albert laughed at the sound of the belch. Da had a big smile across his face and patted his stomach contentedly. Abby turned to him, throwing him a disgusted look, not at all finding it humorous.
His father pushed back the chair and putting his hands on the back of his hips arched his stomach forward. A pop came from his back and he gave a small grunt. With that, he began whistling a tune as turning, walked from the kitchen and into the small parlor connected to it. A small blast of chill air swept through the house as he walked out the front door, leaving them all alone.
"Da's ancestor must have been really brave!" Naomi exclaimed, her voice sounding awed.
"It certainly is a tale," Abby shook her head.
"Is it true, Ma?" Albert asked, frowning as he looked at her. Her red hair didn't really show in the candlelight. "Or is Da making a tall tale?"
His mother turned to him, rubbing her nose. "Now, now," she admonished him. "Don't be questioning your father's stories. And take your elbows off the table or you can go eat outside with Socks."
He lowered his eyes and returned to his food, sliding his elbows off obediently. Soon enough though, all the food was finished. Naomi had taken longer, as she had been too wrapped up in the story.
Soon George was back in from using the outhouse, and before they knew it, they had all filed outside, where a bonfire was lit. They left their dishes on the table, even though Abigale had been less than thrilled at that.
The Sweny Family lived on a small farm of three acres. They rented out to a Mr. Dobber, one of the richest men of Knox County. His family had come to the New World from Ireland back in 1760, right in middle of the French and Indian War. At the time, Maine was a part of Massachusetts Colony. But now, almost eight years later, the Dobber family owned over a hundred acres of land to their main property. They had sixty parcels of land that they also owned scattered across two counties. These acres were split and rented out to tenets.
George worked on the main farm as a carpenter. His skill was such that he had been able to permission from Dobber, to at times worked on the small house they rent from him. However, Mr. Dobber insisted that he inspect any and all additions to the building itself. Yet he was fair-minded when it came to such things and was not a hard sell on them.
The combination of skill and permission had allowed George to provide for his small family a modicum of comfort. He had been able to supply them with fine chairs, dresses and beds. He had even built a small partition wall in the children's room, so that each child had their own private space, even if the room itself wasn't large.
None of this even passed as an unconscious thought through young Albert's mind. Instead, he focused on the crackling flames, which made a merry sound. It seemed to him that the small farm danced, swaying to the flickering flames. It added a sense of the magical to a land his sister had once thought had goblins.
Da brought out a small fiddle and began to play tunes on it while Ma would sing. Sometimes the songs would be ones the children would know. On these Naomi and Albert would sing, sometimes belting out the song with gusto.
From the one slot stable, they could hear the black horse with white legs, Socks, neighing as if he were singing along to their music. Deep into the night they sang, enjoying the company of each other.
The school in Cushing was just like everything else in the small town: simple and practical. It was a log cabin with a single large room structure. Had there been no furniture at all, it would have been impractical to try fitting more than fifty adults inside. Certainly any more would have could have been uncomfortable to say the least. But once you added the desks and chairs for the students, there was far less space to work with.
The design of the furniture was unique and realistically one of the best aspects of the small school. Each row of desks and chairs was designed to fit a certain age range. So each row, the desks and chairs became larger as that row as meant to accommodate older students. Children no higher than knee-high to a grasshopper sat in the front row, and by the time you reached the back row, the oldest of the student towered over the heads of those who sat before them.
In the second row back, eight children sat. Three girls and five boys, ranging from ages seven to nine. Naomi sat in middle of her girlfriends and when the teacher was facing them, they would be the most serious of students. But as soon as the teacher wasn't look, they'd break down in whispered giggles.
Albert on the other hand was bored. He lay forward on his desk, arms folded in front of him and his chin resting on them. Even though his eyes were forward, he was staring off into space. It wasn't that he disliked school, he had well-enough marks.
Yet his teacher had a tendency to drone on and on. Usually when he had the misfortune of her teaching some history lesson. The lesson bored him, he couldn't even remember what was being talked about. He enjoyed reading, especially adventure books like The Last of the Mohicans, or scary ones like Frankenstein. Maybe they were a bit older in their writing, but he found the reading came easily.
Yet at the moment he would have given anything to be outside! He wanted to run around, jumping in the leaves with his best friend, Danny Benito. The other boy was also seven years old, but he was smart. He knew every secret hiding spot in a five-mile area! He knew all the best fishing spots, where the coolest fallen trees could be found, and where caves large enough for the two to hide out, playing Indians.
The fact that he talked a little funny only made him more exciting to be around. He said he was "Italian", whatever that meant. All he knew was that the black haired boy with two buck teeth was the best friend one could have.
"Mister Swenny!" The teachers voice shattered his daydream and he started. "Are you awake?"
He looked up at his teacher. Miss Jessica St. James stood there, her skin had a light tan look to it. Ma had told Albert that Miss St. James was part-Indian and part-French Canadian. When he had asked how she could be half something and half another, Abby had explained that her father had been a white man and the mother had been a red man. When he asked how they could have a child, she had gone scarlet and started to babble incoherently.
Miss St. James stood just a little shorter than Da George, but her hazel eyes pierced him. Her dark brunette hair fell to mid-bicep, which she wore loose. And she was standing right in front of his desk, her red blouse, black skirt dress making her seem more intimidating than she usually was.
"What?" he asked.
"Ah, so you are awake!" she said with a smirk. "Since you are awake, surely you answer the question?"
A question? What was she talking about? He didn't know what question she was talking about. Yet he glanced down, thinking hard. Surely, he could conjure up the question if he just thought hard enough!
"Let me give you a refresher," she said, only her black skirt visible from his angle. "What was the name of the settlement that John Smith and Governor Radcliff established?"
Radcliff? John Smith? He glanced sideways at Danny, seeing if he could help. Danny started mouthing words but Miss St. James caught it. Before Albert could read the words, her hand dropped between them, blocking his view. He gazed at her palm and the lines on it.
"Well, Mr. Swenny?" she asked, an impatient note in his voice.
He looked up to her, her eyes dark and piercing. There was no help for it, he had no clue what the answer was.
With a crushing feeling he dropped his head, staring at his desk. Accepting defeat was all he could do. He didn't know the answer! History was a boring subject. He'd much rather be outside playing. Was that so hard to ask?
"I guess you will have to stay after class and write lines," Miss St. James said with a sniff and turned to Danny. "Mr. Benito, could you be so good as to answer that for the class?"
The bell rang from outside the school. The local Catholic priest would everyday ring the bell when the school day was over. When asked about why he did so, his explanation was simple. "I do it so that our schoolteacher doesn't need to worry about it and can focus on educating our children."
Maybe he didn't have any children of his own. He seemed to take his vow of celibacy very seriously. There was no denying though that he thought of every person in the small community as his family.
Danny responded to the bell toll by closing his syllabus with a thump that could have awoken the dead. Albert grinned as he did so as well. They followed this up by standing, pushing their chairs back with their legs.
One of the great things about Danny was how close he lived to the Swenny farm. His family lived just two farms down from Albert's. They would spend the time swapping stories and making plans for great adventures.
"Do you want to swing by and see the dead tree?" Danny asked. "I think I saw a family of squirrels living in there yesterday night!"
"Really?" Albert asked, turning to follow him.
He glanced sideways at Naomi and saw her giggling with her best friend Ella. Ella was a Spanish girl, who was just a little shorter than Naomi. He scanned her, making sure she was happy.
He could never have explained why. Perhaps it was the fact that Naomi was his only living blood relative. Whatever it was, Albert had always felt protective of his little sister. They might be twins, but he was already taller than Naomi.
Satisfied that she was ok, he returned to their conversation. "Yeah!" Danny exclaimed excitedly. "Maybe we can catch them and…"
"Where do you think you're going, Mister Swenny?" Miss St. James said, her voice coming from right behind him. Albert started and screwed up his face. "As I recall, you have lines to do, Albert Swenny."
Why was his teacher so cruel? He just wanted to go home. Hadn't the tolling of the bell meant he could leave? Surely she didn't want him to stay here all night.
He looked to his friend, hoping against hope that his friend would stick up for him. Danny looked at him, looked toward the door. Then back to Albert. Then back to the door.
"See you later man," Danny said, throwing his friend a sympathetic look as he started towards freedom.
Albert watched as his friend started to walk away. It felt like a betrayal of their friendship! Danny fell into the line of twenty other children heading toward the door. The door that led to a freedom that he yearned for. He felt his heart drop as he watched one by one the other students leave.
"I'll stay with you!" Naomi volunteered, walking up to her brother. "I can do some of his lines!"
"And how exactly will your brother learn his lesson if you do half his work?" Miss St. James asked.
"We share everything!" Naomi said proudly, putting her hands on both her hips and puffing her chest out importantly.
Their teacher laughed. It was a long, nice sounding laugh. Despite the usual severity of their teacher when she was teaching, Albert had actually always liked her. She was a kind woman and was just as quick to smile as she was to discipline.
She and Da George got along famously. He saw the two chatting together when Ma was in a melancholic slump. Anyone who was friends with his step-father must be a good person.
"If only all siblings were that caring for each other," Miss St. James said, stepping around to Albert's side and kneeling down. "But this is a lesson you can't help him with. Go have fun with your little friends. He will be along directly."
Naomi looked toward her brother, looking for a prompting on what to do. Albert nodded his head, indicating that it was alright. Naomi nodded her head, her blond curls flapping up and down as she did so.
No words needed spoken between them. With that, she turned and skipped away, locking arms with Ella and they started singing as they skipped out of the classroom. He watched his sister leave, and it was like a small string tied them together and was stretching the further she went.
Yet he had no time to wallow in sadness. Miss St James stood up to her full height and turned to face him. She towered over him, with the top of his snowy-haired head barely reached the bottom of her ample breasts. She held out her hand, which unobserved beforehand held a piece of chalk between her fingertips, a little jagged at the end.
With a sigh, Albert reached out and took it from her hand. He turned towards the front, where the blackboard was and made the dreadful steps. The closer he stepped, the larger it grew until it was like a massive yawning cavern hungry to eat him. He probably didn't step more than ten times total, but each step had seemed an eternity in and of itself.
"Clean off the chalkboard," she instructed him, moving towards her desk which stood off the side slightly. "and when you are done, you will write the words: I will pay attention in class."
His heart sank further than it already had. That was a large amount of words. He quickly wiped off the simple math that was littered across the board in a manner of writing. The writing was done so neatly that it seemed too fine for chalk and board. When he was done erasing the evidence of study, he turned to her.
"How many times?" He asked.
"Fifty should be sufficient," she said.
With those words she sat in her chair, keeping her pierce green eyes on him. She crossed her arms and crossed her legs as well. She stared at him, tapping her pointer finger against her bicep as she waited. Waited for him to get started.
With a grumble, he turned to the board and began writing out the offending phrase, I will pay attention in class.
At first his writing was good, as the first ten came out tightly written. He also had made good progress. His momentum and his chalk writing kept strong….until about the midway mark. That was when his hand began to tire. About the thirtieth one, he kept having to stop to shake out his hand, and each time he stopped, Miss St. James would clear her throat in a threatening manner.
By number forty, all the neatness had left. Some letters would be larger than the others while some lines seemed to get messier with each word. Each time he wrote, he could feel his heart pounding. He could see the end as clearly as he could smell the chalk.
And then…..he wrote it! I WILL paY aTTentioN in clASS.
He felt a sense of triumph as he turned, smiling towards Miss St. James. Her head was bent down towards a stack of papers. They were the math test that she had assigned everyone that day.
His arm burned from the endurance and his wrist hurt. There was no sadness then when he dropped the chalk on a window ledge next to the blackboard. Hearing the dropped chalk, her head lifted and she turned to face him. He puffed out his chest, ignoring his sore hand. He had done it and there was still a little light outside.
"All done?" She asked.
"Yes ma'am!" he proclaimed.
"We'll see about that," she stated, and standing up, she walked to the board and read. She counted each off, mouthing the number as she went, but she didn't say anything aloud. But when she reached the end, she squeezed his shoulder. "Well done. Tell me Albert, what will you do from now on?"
"I will pay attention in class."
"You better," she said, turning a stink eye towards him. But quickly the stink-eye melted away, replaced with a twinkle and placing her arm around his shoulder, gave him a good natured shake. "Tell me, is your mother home tonight?"
Albert tried to remember. He conjured up a memory of her saying she was going to visit Mrs. Housek, who had just had a baby. Pastor Williams, the local Protestant preacher had invited her to one with him to help Mrs. Housek, whose husband was currently in New York on business.
"She's helping out a lady and said she most likely won't be back until well after 10," he said.
Miss St. James gave a small smile, with a queer look in her eyes. Albert frowned, staring at the look. He wasn't sure what the look was, but soon it passed. Miss St James cleared her throat and smiled down at him.
"Be a dear, Mr. Swenny and wipe off the chalkboard," she said, rubbing his shoulder. "And I will give you a ride home."
When he and Naomi walked into town, it usually would take them an hour to get to the school. Riding on the other hand, it took only about twenty minutes. The Swenny farm was about three miles north of Cushing. Far enough for privacy, not far enough to be inconvenient.
As Albert sat next to his teacher in her small black buggy, the sun was slowly falling to the western horizon. The light of the fading sun filtered through the thick woods that dotted the area. It gave the area an almost sacred feel to it.
All the while, Miss St. James inquired about her young students life. Albert was of course eager to tell her everything. A warty frog that he had found by himself, the last time Da George had allowed him to ride Socks and all his young boy frustrations.
It wasn't hard talking to his teacher. Miss St. James was a patient listener, and had a genuine interest in all that was said. Albert could barely hide his grins as she would gasp at the appropriate parts of his story. He loved how she would agree with any statement he made. She just approached their conversation with an overt tenderness that made her sympathetic with his side of events.
The clouds of the sky was beginning to be painted in brilliant reds and orange by the sunset when they approached the family farm. Miss St. James maneuvered the small buggy between the gate posts and into the fenced off small farm. Candles were already being lit from within, the front windows facing south and away from any last minute sunlight that would have streamed in.
With a slight pull of the reins, she pulled the buggy up front and a yard or so from the front door. The buggy hadn't even come to a stop before Albert jumped out, his feet landing on the ground. At that moment the door opened. His adopted father stood in the doorway, surprise registering on his face as he saw the buggy.
"Hello, Da!" Albert said, running to his father and wrapping his arms around the man's hips. "Miss St. James brought me home!"
"I can see that, my boyo," George replied, hugging his son around the shoulders. "I hope you didn't give you teacher any trouble."
"He is quiet the gentleman," she assured him. "Just like his father."
There was a slight tightening of the arms that held Albert. Albert gave an additional squeeze of his own. Honestly, he could never have imagined his life without his Da. His adopted parents had never treated him like he wasn't their own flesh and blood and he could never imagine that his father would ever loose the greatness that he always felt and aspired towards in his young life.
"Can we talk, George?" Albert's teacher asked.
There was a slight hesitation. Albert turned to look back at his teacher, unable to recall the last time she had called him by his first name. She had an anxious, hopeful look to her, but he noticed she had actually dismounted from the buggy. She pulled her white riding cloak she was wearing against the autumn chill closer together.
"Alright," Da George said reluctantly. He bent down and looking towards his son said, "Listen, go inside and help your sister set the table and wait for me. I'll be along directly."
Albert headed towards the door, waving to Miss St. James as he headed through the open door. She waved back to him, smiling at him with a smile that warmed him from it's sincerity. He turned away and stepped beyond the threshold. He barely had crossed when the door was pulled closed behind him, separating him from the conversation going on outside.
"What do you want to talk about, Jessica?"
Albert kicked off his shoes, that were personally fitted to his feet. He smiled in satisfaction as they flew a short distance with the effort. Had Ma been there, she would have chastised him about leaving his shoes over her nice floor and demanded he put them back.
Yet she wasn't there. Even if she had been, was it reasonable? Was it really reasonable to expect that this seven year old child would remember such a menial and cumbersome task?
"I want to talk about us."
Albert stood and he stretched his arms. He groaned contentedly as all the joints made a satisfying popping noise. He could do it without being scolded, as that was another of the many things his Ma didn't approve of.
One would suspect that he cared nothing for the rules. He tried to follow the rules, he really did! But it was difficult.
"There is no us, and you know that."
"That's only because you are afraid of this connection between us. We could be together, sharing something as beautiful as has ever been!"
"Even if there was this so called connection, I love my wife. I will not hurt her; I don't feel what you feel."
"That's because you won't even try! She wouldn't have to know. It would be our secret."
Albert heard the words, but he wasn't paying attention. It wasn't like he would have understood the words. He whistled as he headed towards the kitchen, where Naomi was standing on a chair, reaching for some of the dishes.
With his help, they managed to finish setting the table in quick fashion. They only needed to do three places after all. Once the plates were set, Albert and Naomi took their places and they began chatting.
Albert told her all about his ride home, the punishment of writing lines forgotten. Not to be outdone, Naomi proceeded to go deeply into a story about her and Ella. She was reaching the climax when their da came in. He was a shade of red, which Albert immediately meant he wasn't happy about something.
Albert looked at him curiously. Was he annoyed about learning of his inattentiveness in class? He really hoped not, because Da could be just as rough in his punishments as any.
George said nothing, moving to his spot at the head of the table. Their father sat as well. As he sat, he placed an elbow on the table. As he sat, he cupped his jaw and mouth in his hand. A frown furrowed his forehead as he thought.
"You can't put your elbows on the table!" Naomi chided him, waving a finger at him. "Mama will tan your hide!"
Da smirked but lowered it anyways and said, "You are correct, my dear. Let's say grace and then let's eat."