I have some news for you my friends – I have been working on a new book this summer! It is still a work in progress but, targeted to be out next summer if all goes well.
This small historical fiction mystery is set in Exeter, NH during the annual American Independence Festival in mid-July and features artist Maryvonne as the “sleuth.” Due to a bump on the head she “sees” things from the past while painting plein-air. Below, she witnesses Tabby, Rhoda, and Scipio having a conversation in 1776. Tabbby, or Tabitha Gilman Tenney, would go on to to be the first women in America to publish a best-selling novel (Female Quixotism, 1801) and Rhoda would indeed marry Jude, live on Drinkwater Road, and have many children. Scipio is an amalgamation. Brenda Sue is real!
Here is an excerpt from “Incident at Exeter Tavern”
Joe Saints was now open for business and the first few early-birds were coming, letting the old green wooden screen door slap behind them. She entered and let the door slap too. It was a sound from her youth, before everyone had pneumatic arms to silently swish their doors shut. Maryvonne choose a dark French Roast which surged black and steamy into her portable mug, she screwed on the lid, paid the cheery Brenda Sue at the counter and was back outside in a flash.
Standing in front of her drying canvas under the chokecherry tree next door, she removed the lid and blew on the hot cup of coffee while looking around at the way the sun was now casting shadows on the tavern across the street. After a few more cooling puffs, it was time: Maryvonne took a sip of that hot coffee and it tasted like heaven. Ahhh…. She smiled. Maryvonne had a big happy smile that lit up a room and an easy laugh to match. Joe Saint’s had the best coffee in town and the wave of coffee bean goodness rose into her head like a warm bath and took the edge off her headache. She drank half of it, and decided to sip on the rest as the time went by. The cuppa joe was good, life was good, and the headache was soothed away into something different, like a small vibration that let the edges of her mind loosen and overhang.
Setting the mug down on the rectangular cement planter, she inserted the decoy earbuds, even though she would not really be listening to Jimi today. Testing the yellow wash on the canvas with one finger to find it was dry enough, she began squeezing all the chosen colors into a ring of acrylic blobs on her palette. Spray-water spritzed the colorful ring with one quick spurt, only to keep the dryness away. The Filbert brush was her go-to, she took a deep breath and hunkered down with it in hand and began swishing the first colors onto the canvas. Daubing and blending… Layering and complementing… Looking up at the scene – looking straight at the canvas – looking down at the palette. And again. Blending, layering, looking up then down. Around and around she went in her mind until she spiralled into the aloneness and oneness of connection with her art. A bomb could have gone off in the glass building behind her and she would not have noticed. Maryvonne was firmly in that space many people never reach. The hours drifted by.
Inside her misty art-flowing mind, Maryvonne smelled roses and turned her head to see a young lady on the sidewalk carrying a large old-fashioned flower-gathering basket. It was filled with a bundle of heirloom red roses, another bundle of feathery white yarrow, and a third of delicate blue cornflowers. Each bundle was tied separately with long white ribbons. Her brown hair was piled on her head in an intricate bun from which loose curls dangled over her pale forehead in the soft breeze. She wore a long flowing dress of yellow cotton in the Empire style, accented with soft blue ribbons. Maryvonne was surprised to see this vision of loveliness coming towards her, and thought the girl must be an actress already in character for the festival. She put her paint brush in the hanging water jar, pausing to look up again at the girl.
From behind the billowing yellow skirt Maryvonne was surprised to see another girl appear, dressed in the same style, but this one was much younger with dark hair and tan skin, and carrying a single red rose in her hand. The youngster ran to catch up, returning the dropped rose to the basket. Then the two girls held hands and passed right by Maryvonne, the older one giving her a slight nod at the meet. She turned her head around to see where they were going.
Maryvonne turned and was surprised to see a teen-aged boy behind her at the entrance to the building. He was a strongly built boy about seventeen years old with beautiful deep black skin and expressive eyebrows. His foot was heavily bandaged, and he was sweeping the planks of the wooden entrance with a very old-fashioned twig broom. He looked up and smiled just as the two girls stopped in front of him. “Good day Miss Tabby. Doctor Tilton just stepped out to post a letter to his partner young Doctor Tenney, who is tending to the fighters down Boston way, but he will be right back.” he said merrily. At the mention of the young Doctor Tenney’s name Tabby’s eyes seemed to sparkle and her smile grew.
The handsome and loquacious young man went on. “I see you have some yarrow for us today, and we sure do appreciate that, and look at those roses! Your family gardens are some of the best in Exeter Miss Tabby.”
She smiled again and replied, speaking clearly and slowly as if she were royalty “Why good morning to you Scipio. It is nice to see you. How is your foot today?” Maryvonne was quite surprised by the girl’s speech and bearing, since Maryvonne took her to be only about fourteen or fifteen years old.
“Coming along just fine.” replied the boy. “Doctor Tilton says I will be able to take off the bandages by next month. I will always limp, but at least he didn’t have to amputate the whole foot and I am thankful to the Almighty Lord for that.” Then he leaned down and tickled the little girl under the chin and said to her “I will be happy to put on two shoes again. They won’t be quite as pretty as your little slippers Miss Rhoda, but I am going to do a little dance on that day, and you can come watch me do it.” Then he wiggled around with his broom just a bit which made the little girl giggle.
“I will sing you a song to dance to on that day.” the small girl declared and a lovely and low sing-song voice flowed like a river from her small lips, “Scipio will dance a jig, with his broom made of twig…” And now, Maryvonne was really surprised by the dulcet voice that came out of this little girl. It seemed very mature and melodious for a girl who seemed all of maybe seven years old.
“Oh, my little songbird” sighed Scipio, clutching at his heart, “ I am going to marry you when you grow up, just to hear you sing every day.” Little Rhoda blushed and giggled some more.
Tabby set down the basket of flowers near the door, put her hands on her hips and cleared her throat and with her chin high said, “Miss Rhoda is doing very well in her singing and elocution lessons under my tutelage. She is staying with me for special lessons while her mother Mrs. Lovey travels with her grandfather Attorney Rollins in to Boston for a short time.” She went on to explain. “Mrs. Lovey plans to shop for fine fabrics while Rhoda’s grandfather attends some important meeting with other lawyers. Now Scipio, I fear cannot have Miss Rhoda become betrothed while they are away. It just would not do.” She arched an eyebrow and waggled a finger at him, all the while with a hint of a smile at the corners of her lips.
“You are quite right Miss Tabby, and anyway my little brother Jude told me on the very day he ran away to join the militia last year that he was going to come back a free man and marry little Miss Rhoda, so I should keep her safe until he returns.” At this, little Rhoda’s big brown eyes flew open, her tan cheeks turned a deep shade of crimson, and she looked silently at the ground.
“Oh you and your clever talk Scipio,” began Tabby, “look at her – you have indeed put a charm on the poor girl. It is a rare moment that she is quiet as a mouse.” Then leaning over and scooping up the bundle of yarrow from the basket she handed it to him. “Please give these to Doctor Tilton for his apothecary. They are such a robust specimens – and I was already on my way to my cousin Nicholas’s house across the street with these roses and cornflowers to make an arrangement in his receiving room – I thought it a shame to keep the yarrow in my gardens when they could be put to good medicinal use.”
“Miss Tabby you have such a fine head on your shoulders, you think differently than other girls in town.” Scipio said becoming serious as he weighed the feathery yarrow in his hand. “For a minute I thought these were the wild carrot we had discussed last week in regards to your question on certain ladies’ complaints.” And he gave a little chuckle, “These yarrow are very robust indeed. Since the accident last year I have been working with the herbs in Doctor Tilton’s apothecary and have come to know the many uses and weak from the powerful.” Then he stopped and a wave of melancholy flickered across his expressive eyebrows.
“You know Miss Tabby, God works in mysterious ways. Jude and I had both heard the news that any slave from New Hampshire that fought against the British would become free after three years of service. We decided we would both run away from farmer Blake the very next week and join up. But then I had my accident before I could leave. And Jude, well you know Jude made it. I am sure proud of the news from the fighting at Bunker Hill last month. He could always fight, my little brother, yes ma’ am. I could never get the best of him; it was quite vexing.” At that memory he brightened and continued, “And like I said, God works in mysterious ways: because of the accident farmer Blake couldn’t use me to work in the fields anymore so he sold me to the Doctor, and I am about as happy as I can be, given the circumstances.”
At that Tabby pursed her lips, lowered her chin and stared right into Scipio’s eyes and said slowly. “If it were up to me, there would be none of this enslavement nonsense. A man is a man, and all should be free to do as he pleases.” Scipio held her gaze with sad eyes and then let out one long-suffering breath and closed his eyes. Little Rhoda stared at the ground again. This sad trio was interrupted by a commotion from across the street.
Running down from the yellow house up on the hill came a slim young man in a fancy green waistcoat and brown breeches, holding his brown tri-cornered hat steadily on his head as he bounced towards them. He was a round-faced boy who appeared a couple of years older than Scipio but did not, and would never, have the muscular girth of the former farm slave.
Tabby turned at the sound of his running footsteps, “Why John-Taylor, whatever has gotten into you? she inquired, in her slow manner of speech.
“Cousin Tabby, I thought that was you I saw out the window. Listen now, very important. Indeed.” he huffed, out of breath from the run, but the words flowed on out of his small mouth. “Indeed. A rider delivered a message from Philadelphia to the house just now. There is to be a public reading of the message in two hours’ time on the steps of the Town House on Front Street. Indeed. Father has asked me to read it, and to get the Reverend to give a blessing before the reading, which I shall do next. But betwixt we also need a song to commemorate that which is just now being born. A young voice is what we need. A psalm. To manifest a spirit of devotion to the cause of liberty. Indeed. Tabby, I need you to practice your little songbird pupil in the next two hours to be ready to sing Billings’ psalm America from the steps before the reading.”
Tabby nodded and John-Taylor turned to Scipio, “Tell everyone you see to be at the steps in two hours’ time please.” And leaving as quickly as he had come, John-Taylor ran off towards the Congregational Church in search of Reverend Rumpole, still holding his hat upon his head.
“What do you think the message is?” asked little Rhoda, her eyes wide. Tabby and Scipio looked at each other with concern and said at the same time, “War.”
“I must take my leave Scipio, I do apologize for the haste, but I must quickly arrange these flowers for Nicholas then go rehearse my pupil.” Tabby said, as she picked up the basket of red and blue flower bundles and took Rhoda’s small hand. Scipio and Rhoda said their goodbyes, and Scipio turned, moving as quickly as he could on his incomplete foot and took the yarrow into the shop, the old wooden door slapping behind him.
The girls crossed the street hand-in-hand, the white ribbons from the flower bouquets streaming out behind them as they quickly walked, feet kicking up tiny clouds of dust, The pair were singing the requested psalm in unison, which also flowed out behind them as they rose up the hill, fading into the yellow house:
“Come, let us sing unto the Lord,
And praise His name with one accord.
In this design one chorus raise,
From east to west His praise proclaim,
From pole to pole extol His fame,
The skies shall echo back His praise.”
Maryvonne stood gaping, almost dizzy with confusion. She squeezed her eyes shut, shook her head rapidly and took a sharp inward breath. She felt the overhang in her mind spangle and quiveringly slip back into the confines. When she opened her eyes again, she almost fell over into her easel. Blinking and slowly exhaling, she looked around astonished at the scene of this century: the glass doors, cement posts and paved roads.
The Wind Cries Mary
>>Will the wind remember the names it has blown in the past?
Back home in bed twenty minutes later with a cold compress on her head, Maryvonne finally relaxed. Thinking she was about to have some kind of fit, she had quickly packed up her easel and drove directly home. Zeus was in the kitchen just pulling a tray of blueberry muffins out of the oven when she arrived. The muffins smelled wonderful and Maryvonne suddenly realized she had skipped breakfast, and was only running on coffee for the past three hours. Her doctor would not have been pleased.
Standing in the kitchen wearing oven mitts and holding one of the muffin tins Zeus said, “How did the painting go? I was not expecting you back for another hour, but you are just in time if you want your muffins very hot.” He set down the tin on the counter and reached back inside the oven for the second tin. Closing the door, he set it on a rack alongside the first tin to cool and took off the mitts.
Maryvonne smiled weakly and he could tell something was not quite right. “I think I stayed out too long for my first time back. I would love a muffin, thank you, then I am going to lie down for a while. Could you please get my easel out of the car later when you get a chance?”
Zeus sat her down at the kitchen island and brought her a glass of water, which she drank while he pried two steaming muffins out of the tin and put them on small plates. He brought them over then sat beside her. The muffins smelled heavenly and suddenly Maryvonne realized she was quite famished. Zeus cut open the muffins and smoothed on some fresh butter which melted immediately. Sliding the enticing plate towards her he said “Be careful, my love, they are very, very hot.” While waiting for them to cool Maryvonne told him very briefly of her morning painting, omitting the last part where she had hallucinated so as not to alarm him.
Finally biting into the muffin, she savored it and then said “Delicious, chere, you have perfected your recipe.” Then continued “The painting is ninety-nine percent done, but I just had to come home and rest. The show is being hung on Saturday morning for the Saturday night gala and auction, so I have until ten o’clock that morning to bring the painting in.”