This story is by Melany Franklin and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
As soon as the horses turned in the drive, the wheels of the cart bore down deep in the mud and refused to budge. Cora leaned forward and surveyed the yard. A thin band of sunlight crossed the edge of the rutted laneway and a large pool of dirty water smoked and gleamed. They were only about twenty feet from the house but it might well have been twenty miles. “You’ll have to carry me,” she announced to her brother but he was already gone, past the church gate and headed around to the shed in back.
There had been snow that morning, the first of the season, and the ground underneath was still raw, dank with wet leaves and the odd apple gone soft and sour. The previous week, heavy rains had lashed at everything, turning the fields around the old farm into a roaring mess. Cora’s mother had called it a bitter rain because it came after the crops had all got in and could do no real damage. Cora’s new shoes exempted perhaps. She considered them now, patent leather heels with a pearl lustre finish.
With the clatter of the cart put to rest, Cora could hear the trees, groaning and creaking under the weight of the snow, and the runoff from the eaves, heaving and spitting like a pot on boil. She pressed a finger to her temple. After a moment, she scrambled down from her perch, wincing as cold water rushed around her feet. She looked up at the house. No doubt they were all inside, huddled in the parlor. She reached across the bench for the cake tin and held it tight. She made a run for it. Slops of water hit her legs and spattered her coat but she didn’t fall.
A lace curtain kept the inside of the kitchen in shadow but with any luck the Reverend’s wife, Mrs. Miller, would let her in. She needed time to collect herself, to dry off. Cora ran her finger across the top of the tin. Inside, butter tarts and thick slices of spice cake were layered between sheets of parchment, ready for serving. Her sister, Phyllis, had sneered at her when she saw the baking. “I think they call it a shotgun wedding, not a bridal tea,” she had said. Cora had almost thrown the rolling pin at Phyllis but she hadn’t wanted to deal with a dint in the wall, not when she would be returning to the house later that day with her parents and with Frank. She and Frank were going to stay for two nights.
Mrs. Miller appeared at the window and quickly opened the door. “Come in dear, everyone’s here.” She motioned toward the front room but led Cora to a kitchen chair instead. “Our Saturday child,” she said, sitting down and smoothing Cora’s hair. She had been Cora’s teacher, way back before the church was built, when Sunday school was still run out of tents off the old Hybla road. “You look lovely despite all this damp. And what’s this?” she asked, peering at Cora’s tin. She got up and opened a cupboard. “You’ll be wanting a plate for those,” she said.
“I’m still your Saturday girl, am I?” Cora asked. “Saturday’s child works hard for a living.” She started to recite the rhyme from the beginning just as she had been taught, but the words caught in her throat, something she hadn’t expected. “I was afraid you wouldn’t approve,” she said, gesturing in the direction of the guests in the other room.
“Well, I like your young man,” Mrs. Miller replied. “And he seems to get on with your parents. That bodes well.” The mention of Frank made Cora want to turn back and run out the door but Mrs. Miller touched her arm. “Come on now,” she said. “He’s waiting for you.”
Cora focused on her father when she finally joined the others. He took her hand gently, or was it firmly, and led her to the center table, to stand with the Reverend and with Frank. Reverend Miller smiled. “I know you’ve just arrived, Cora,” he said, “but I think we need to get started. I’m not sure but that it might snow again.” At that, everyone looked out the front window. They could see her brother, struggling with the horses. The sun was still shining. Hard to tell if clouds were building though.
Cora’s mother and father had been gone for three days, making arrangements for the wedding and securing Frank’s attendance. What a grim chore that must have been. She imagined Frank’s surprise when he realized that he would be made to marry her. Both sets of parents were in agreement on that, at least.
Cora’s head hurt. She hated this, the whole thing, all of it. Frank was not a gentleman, he was a spoiled little brat, a prig, a selfish adolescent. He had no integrity. The last observation had come from Cora’s mother. She had framed it as a question, when she thought Cora couldn’t hear. “He has no integrity?” she had asked. “Apparently not,” her father had replied.
Cora concentrated on the Reverend, repeating her vows dutifully, with a little feeling even, as if she was acting a part in a play. When all was done she returned to the kitchen without saying another word to Frank. She could keep this up, she thought. Maybe she would never speak to him again.
With the threat of weather, Mrs. Miller’s tea was put in a thermos and the cake returned to Cora’s tin. Her father went up front to drive the horses and invited Frank to sit with him. Cora crowded in back with her mother and brother under a pile of heavy blankets. By the time she was jolted awake, they were on the Old Graphite Road past Goodkey Creek already, almost home. She could hear her father telling Frank about the farm.
The fire was on at the house and her sisters had set out a light supper. Still Cora did not speak. Even when Frank commented on the beautiful maple floors and the kitchen that was large enough for two squares she was quiet, pretending she hadn’t heard. She would never dance with him, she silently promised herself.
The girls were staying with neighbors so that she and Frank could have the big bedroom to themselves. How awful, she thought, dreading the moment when they would be alone, dreading all such future moments, of which she knew there would be many. How much better it would be if she were back in the valley caring for her grandmother. She had hated that place but now she realized she had never had it better, with no one to talk to and nothing to do.
That evening, Frank sat on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands. When Cora walked by, he reached out for her arm. “Hey,” he said. She ignored him. “Hey,” he said again, standing this time. “We’re going to have to be friends.” He touched her nose lightly and rested his finger on the bud of her lips. He gave her a smile. She quickly left the room.
Her mother was in the kitchen tending to the fire. “What’s this?” she asked. Cora shook her head but said nothing. She pretended to fiddle with the radio. “You’re not trying to hide in here, are you?” her mother asked. “Because you can forget that right now.”
Frank had put out the light. Cora closed the door slowly, hoping he wouldn’t hear. She lay on top of the blankets, felt the cold of the room. She listened for Frank’s breathing but there was only the scrape of a chair in the next room and her parents’ murmured voices. Cora turned and moved closer to him. She reached out in the dark, tentatively. She tried to make out his shape, this body that was now her husband, and then she kissed him, pressing her lips hard against his. In truth, she wanted to hurt him. When he tried to touch her, when his hand grazed her hair, she hit him on the cheek with her wrist. Frank hadn’t been expecting that. He grabbed her hand and she started kicking, flailing wildly. She didn’t stop until he was on top of her, holding her down between his elbows. She could feel his breath on her face, feel his chest expanding and contracting. She half expected him to kiss her, hoped for it actually, but he didn’t move, didn’t say a word. Finally, he climbed back to the far side of the bed.
You really are something, Cora wanted to say, but the idea was too big for words. Outside, the branches of the old sugar maple shuddered against the windowpane. She reached for the covers and pulled them close.