This story is by Laurel Grube and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The orange fall sky of evening blazes behind the trees. Lauren looks across the field at their black silhouettes. A cool breeze sends a shiver through her. Pulling her shawl closer, she steps off the porch and walks out across the field into the woods. She breathes in the scent of decaying leaves that crunch under foot. “Whipper will, whipper will,” calls the distant bird. Lauren stops to listen and thinks of William Grant.
“What do you think Mr. Whipper Will? Should I invite him to Thanksgiving dinner?”
“Whipper will, whipper will,” the bird answers.
Lauren smiles and strolls a little further into the woods enjoying the stillness, then turns back to the farmhouse where Grandma is rocking on the back porch.
“Let’s invite that new botanist in town, Mr. Grant, to Thanksgiving dinner. He might enjoy meeting new people and perhaps he’ll entertain us with stories of his travels.”
“That’s a nice idea, he seems like a fine young man,” says Grandma. “Shall I make my black walnut cake?”
Lauren knows the difficulty of cracking black walnuts, but she licks her lips thinking of their wonderful distinct flavor. “That’d be great. I’ll gather them Saturday.”
“Tomorrow you should go down to Potter’s bog and get some freshly harvested cranberries,” says Grandma, “we can make our sauce and jar it.”
While rocking, the two women watch bats fly in the near darkness catching insects. Grandma thinks about the menu and Lauren thinks about the last time she saw William Grant after church. She likes his distinguished mannerism and their common interest in plants.
The next morning Lauren hugs her cousin outside the post office. “Good morning Polly,” Lauren says. “What a beautiful bonnet!”
“Thank you; it’s the latest fashion. I saw it at the milliner’s and begged James for it.”
“The flowers look so real,” exclaims Lauren opening the door.
Polly laughs, “tell grandma we’ll bring corn for Thanksgiving.”
Blushing, Lauren adds, “We’re inviting Mr. Grant; I’m posting his invitation now.”
“I want to hear about his travels,” Polly says and waves.
A few days later Lauren is in a black walnut tree filling her apron and shaking branches to loosen the nuts. A refreshing breeze blows her auburn hair free from its pins. She happily sings along with the birds, enjoying the clear blue sky and colorful tree leaves. She stops upon hearing the crack of a branch on the ground below.
“Good day Miss Jeffrey. Please forgive me for interrupting your private moment. I was looking for Teaberry plants and thought some might grow around here.”
Lauren looks down and sees the adventurous Mr. Grant. Her balance wavers, she braces herself but loses the nuts that rain down upon him.
“Oh, Mr. Grant, I’m so sorry,” Lauren says and tries to hurry down; her foot slips and she falls into his strong arms.
Their eyes lock. A silent moment passes while she stares into his light brown eyes and he breathes in her soft floral scent.
“Are you hurt Miss Jeffrey?” he asks while steadying her on her feet.
“Ah, no, no, I’m alright. Thank you,” she says brushing her skirts and hair into place. “I’m so sorry about the nuts. I hope you’re not hurt.”
“Didn’t break any bones,” he laughs while helping her gather the nuts. “Glad you weren’t picking apples.”
“Come back tomorrow,” she teases.
Lauren playfully tosses dried oak leaves at him and runs ahead. He runs after her laughing.
“Wait,” he calls.
Lauren stops, catches her breath and smiles.
Laughing, they walk together.
“What are Teaberries?”
“You probably know them as Wintergreen. Their leaves are used to make an astringent that helps relieve pain, but I’m interested in discovering other potential uses.”
“I can show you the Teaberries sometime,” Lauren beams.
“Wonderful, thank you.”
Mr.Grant hands Lauren the nut basket when they reach her gate. “It was a pleasure walking with you,” he says tipping his hat, “Oh, I received your grandmother’s kind invitation. May I bring a guest? Sarah would enjoy it.”
Lauren’s eyes widen while her face falls. Then smiling quickly, “yes, of course, the family will be delighted to have you both.”
“Wonderful, see you in a few days.”
Lauren slowly walks into the house in disbelief.
“What’s wrong Lauren?” Grandma asks. “You look flushed. Are you ill?”
“No!” snaps Lauren, slamming her basket down. “Mr. Grant’s bringing a girl to Thanksgiving.”
“Are you sure you understood him correctly?”
“Yes, her name is Sarah.”
“Well, you can still be friends.”
“Oh Grandma,” Lauren cries and runs to her room in tears. That night Mr. Grant creeps into Lauren’s tormented dreams.
Thanksgiving. The smells of pie, onions, turnips and turkey are all adding different dimensions to the aroma in the house, but Lauren is still numb. Polly’s family arrives with a bushel of corn. James and Uncle Theodore husk them while Aunt Lydia sets the table. Aunt Maggie gathers the children round and gives them gifts from her visit to the beach that summer, a big shell for Timmy and a starfish for Mary.
Grandma answers the door when Mr. Grant and Sarah arrive. He carries a large bouquet of native blue Pine Barrens gentians, white sweet clover and a mixture of red maple leaves and golden yellow ash leaves. “For you Mrs. Jeffrey, thank you for inviting us.”
“Thank you for the lovely flowers.”
In the kitchen doorway Lauren pulls in her breath and her body stiffens when she sees the lovely blond-haired Sarah.
“Mrs. Jeffrey,” says Mr. Grant, “I’d like you to meet my-
“Lauren, take this,” says Polly, handing her a big bowl of cranberry sauce. Polly calls, “time to eat,” while carrying the turkey platter.
The room is filled with the bustle of getting to one’s seat but settles quickly while Uncle Theodore says grace.
“Pass the carrots, please.”
“I want the drumstick.”
Staring at her plate, Lauren eats little. Her stomach is in knots. She should be sitting next to Mr. Grant, not Sarah.
“Mrs. Jeffrey, I love the earthy flavor of your stuffing. What’s in it?” asks Mr. Grant.
“Thank you, it’s the black walnuts you helped Lauren gather.”
Sarah laughs, “Uncle William told me about all the nuts falling on him. Nothing can hurt his hard head.”
“Now Sarah, eat your dinner or I’ll send you back to Vassar College this minute,” Mr. Grant says while winking at Lauren.
Lauren’s breath catches, did Sara really say uncle?
“Augh, Uncle William, I’m just teasing you.”
Lauren’s face reddens and her body tingles while remembering Mr. Grant’s strong arms holding her.
“Whose ready for dessert?” asks Polly.
“I want cake,” everyone says.
“Mr. Grant please tell us about your travels in the Amazon. I imagine it’s a fascinating place far from civilization,” says Polly.
“You’re right, the native people, colorful birds and the flowers are all fascinating. “Mm, Mrs. Jeffrey, this cake is delicious,” Mr. Grant interrupts himself while taking a big forkful of cake.
Before long everyone is intently listening to Mr. Grant speak while he steals glances at Lauren’s beautiful hazel eyes.
“What did you enjoy most about the area?” asks Aunt Maggie.
“That’d have to be my work with the English botanist, Richard Spruce. I worked closely with him studying several species of Cinchona, a tree with little pink trumpet flowers. The British government wanted to propagate it in India to help their soldiers there. The bark is used to produce quinine.”
“What’s that?” asks Timmy.
“Quinine is a medicine used to treat malaria, a deadly disease that mosquitos carry,” answered Mr. Grant. “Malaria is a problem in many places. I’ve seen people suffer the symptoms for weeks or even months.”
“Imagine all the people you’ve helped,” Lauren says dreamily.
“That’s why I’m passionate about botany; many plants are medicinal. We just need to find them and learn how they might cure numerous illnesses.”
“Like grandma giving me that awful mint tea when my tummy hurts?” asks Mary.
“Exactly like that,” laughs Mr. Grant.
“Is that blue flower you brought medicine?” asks Timmy.
“No Timmy, I think it’s the white one,” says Mary.
Polly stands, “That’s enough children, help clear the table.”
“Miss Jeffrey, I’d be honored if you’d accompany me outside for a walk. Maybe find the Teaberries?”
Lauren smiles, “I’d like that.” She rises, pulls a shawl around her and steps outside.
“Please, tell me about the plants here in the Pine Barrens,” says Mr. Grant.
“My favorite is the native orchid, the Pink Lady Slipper,” says Lauren as they stroll toward the woods.
“I’ve seen pictures and can imagine your dainty feet wearing the silken slippers.”
Laughing, “Oh, Mr. Grant, you tease, my feet are too big.”
“Please call me William.”
“I’ve studied beautiful flowers but none as beautiful as you Miss Jeffrey.”
She dips her head shyly.
“May I take your hand?” he whispers.
Lauren looks up and with fluttering heart extends her hand to William.