2010 Short-Story Contest: 2nd place
Published: January 7, 2011
The Bundling Board
by Jill Koenigsdorf
When I came into the barn I saw that Father was working on something with fierce concentration.
“What are you making?” I asked, sidling up near enough so that I could see the ornate curlicues and chiseled cherubs he was carving into the wood. Father was a skilled carpenter, but usually his work was so plain.
He turned to me and blinked, then looked me up and down as if he did not recognize me. In truth, I believe he called all of us Daughter because he did not distinguish us, one girl from the other. Father answered in his usual grave voice:
"What am I making? Well Daughter, I’m making this for you. It is your bundling board.”
I am seventeen, not worldly wise, so when I heard this, I felt myself blush from the scalp on down. When Father saw me regarding my shoes, he said:
“Don’t worry. The strangers you’ll be sharing the bed with will likely be few, what with our homestead out so far and away. No, if we use this bundling board at all, it will mostly be for your courting of that Jerome.”
“Jerome?” I answered mildly, though I had been watching Jerome in the orchard, had even worked alongside him at picking time. And I had taken it into my head that it would be a fine thing if he would someday court me, though for his part, he had barely said more to me than “Thank-you, Klara.”
“Has he said something?”
Father just grunted, clicking his tongue then bent back over his work again.
I couldn’t help but add: “Yet...there will also be strangers?”
“Well Daughter, if a traveler now and again finds himself on our land at nightfall and needs a bed, we cannot turn him away, now can we? Especially now with the colder nights and shorter days upon us. Yes you’ll share the bed, but with all the family congregated there, right in the room with you, as always. And with this board,” and here he lifted the long plank up from its vice, “It will be as if you’re each in a compartment of your own, your chastity whole. Surely that’s a good deed all ‘round, Daughter? A warm bed and shelter for the weary passerby, and a little extra income for us as well. But in the case of Jerome, I am making this for your bed courting.”
I didn’t ask him anything else, as Father got impatient with too much gabble-gabble, as he called it. He was surrounded by girls, what with Mother, and myself the next, then Maddie and Gwen and the baby Polly. Mother was grim and weary most of the time, prone to frequent sighing instead of speech. My sisters were not falling far from the tree, prim, thin-lipped little phantoms. Yet I had grown up into what one of the neighbors had called, and this no compliment, “a willowy creature,” and I did not bow my head when I walked, as was encouraged.
But now, I was finished with my schooling, the apples were in, and Winter was upon us. I felt only an unbearable sense of being a bystander, passive and mute as dirt, waiting for the start of the next chapter of my life yet personally unable to turn the page.
I left Father’s workshop unsettled, not just from what was being planned, but from what I had already heard of this bundling during the quilting circle last week. I had stitched and I had listened.
“It took more than a bundling bolster to keep us apart,” Rose had whispered, bawdy.
“Your father would have done better with a brick wall, not some flimsy bolster!” Lauren rejoined, and most everyone tittered. I was hungry to learn more but one of the older women looked at her abashed, clapped her hands once and declared: “Enough!”
A few days after Father had finished the board, Mother fitted me for the bundling bag I would wear when the first overnight visitor came.
“Shall we sew you in, or can you be trusted with the drawstring?” she said through a mouthful of pins, not at all joking.
She pulled the muslin over my head and fit the track for a slipknot at the waist and another tight beneath my feet, so that if I took it into my head to move from that bed during the night, I would have to hop, as if in a potato sack race.
Gradually, I grew bewitched by the waiting divider, and would sneak into the closet where father stored it, rub my hand along its frippery and whisper, “soon you’ll have some stories to tell.”
The night Jerome finally did call, it was so cold even the rushing water in the creek froze almost down to the pebbles.
At the dinner table, I asked after the Baldwin trees, as they were sensitive to frost. I was craving conversation, what with the wind howling outside and the maddening clatter of cutlery against bowl in the subdued room.
“I’ve mulched them deep,” Father said, and that was it in the way of discourse. Mother served everyone from the pot of stew and I saw that Jerome ate like just Father, fast, as if it was an act to be gotten through, no savoring or pausing to enjoy. He called Father “Sir” and they spoke perfunctorily of apple blight or pests, then abruptly, Father rose, jerked his chin towards Mother so that she followed, and headed upstairs, stopping halfway and saying: “You girls come too. Klara can wash up.”
As nobody had bothered to instruct me about what to do, I looked over at Jerome, who looked away, coughed, and, without a word, pushed back from the table and headed upstairs as well, him more part of this family in that moment than I. When I finally entered, the room was almost dark, save the hearth. Mother had me step into the bundling bag, the sleeping costume she had made. I heard my sisters fidgeting under their covers. Everyone shares a bed on such a cold night, I reasoned, my heart thundering. I shuffled over to the bundling bed where Jerome was already on his own side, the mound of his hip showing slightly above the board.
I noticed right away an errant gap at the base of the divider; Father’s trust replacing penny nails. There was also a type of unintended peephole in the board, no bigger than a nickel, and when I managed to wriggle up to eye level, I could make out little jigsaw pieces of Jerome.
While we spoke little, I grew to know his various breaths and stirrings. Each time he stayed, the muslin scratched my skin, until I figured out a way to free my hands from out the neck hole. If Jerome had been inclined, he could have seen my bare shoulders, but certainly nothing more. He never did try to reach through the slight gap that ran between the mattress and the board, and I wondered if I should whisper to him of its existence, so we might at least share that secret. But no, he would prefer sleep.
One evening, I watched a stranger progress down our road at the helm of a small cart, pulled by a fine and muscular Clydesdale. The man halted alongside me and touched the brim of his hat, and great puffs of steam came forth from his nostrils and the horses’ as well. He said his name was Ethan and he had been traveling since first light and needed a place to rest. He was not much older than myself and I showed him the way inside.
Once he had placed a silver dollar in the plate Mother kept by the lantern she left in the window, we adjourned to eat. The light from the fire danced in the copper strands that shot through the stranger’s black hair, cinders and embers all at once. At the dinner table, I could tell from his foot tapping and his shifting in his seat that he was reining himself in for manner’s sake, saying: “Thank you Ma'am for your hospitality.” Or: “What a fine orchard, Sir,” and the like. He smiled at me when I handed him the bread and I felt graced by it.
As far as I could glean through the miserly opening in the bundling bed, Ethan wore some sort of union suit, and he smelled of clean sweat and green hay. I sensed that we were surrounded by pricked ears, but still he spoke hushed, only to me, undaunted all through the night, tales of places far west of here, vast and unexplored.
“What are they like, these cactus?” I whispered at one point, the length of me pressed against the divider.
“The Indians think their departed ones live on in these giants, easy to see, for they have arms and readable features that come out in the dusk light.”
I could imagine them and all the rest too, and in the thrall of what he had made me see, I pushed one of my fingers through the opening along the base of the board and felt that it touched the tip of one of his own fingers. Neither of us moved our hands away, and we talked on about the West, its wild thorny, mountainous beauty becoming legend in my own heart by dawn.
Ethan left early the next morning and I stood by as he mounted to go, offering his horse apples and acorns, pressing my face into its warm neck, making do with just that. Afterwards, there was only ice and grey, and for relief I would spend hours in the apple cellar, letting my eyes have their gift of color, murmuring their names for solace: Nittany, Black Gilliflower, Orin. I hid my feelings well, but when Jerome stayed in the bundling bed, it was I who feigned sleep. I saw that he was my fate, that it had been agreed upon in spite of me, and I saw no way to escape it.
Yet Ethan did appear again as the first crocus pierced through the snow. I ran halfway down the road to meet him. He patted the seat beside him as if we were old friends, and gave me his hand to pull me up.
“I’ve bought some acreage in Colorado, and am starting an apple orchard there, like yourself.” Ethan told Father at dinner. “I have come back here to order my affairs and if you’re willing, to purchase some of your fine saplings.”
“They’ll only die in such a climate,” Father decreed. “They were bought for Pennsylvania and that is all they know.”
Ethan looked him square in the eye, but said no more. That night, Father told me to sleep with Mother, and he himself lay on the other side of the bundling board.
Gradually, all were soundly sleeping. I knew well how to walk in silence and found that my bundling bag made a fine valise. I filled it with all that a woman might need for a journey, a few articles of clothing, a pen, a diary, the fine wheel of cheese the color of marigolds that we had been given at Christmas and that Father would probably not eat until it was blue with mold.
I worked in the dark, a marionette, something greater beyond myself prompting my movements. Ethan discovered me at dawn, hidden in the back of his cart, under the cover of the twenty slender apple saplings that I had taken from the barn. He paused only an instant, smiling down at me, then tightened the girth under his horse, and started us forward at a good clip. I lay looking up at the rosy clouds through the pilfered branches and I waited, for I knew there would come a moment when even these would no longer look familiar.
Jill Koenigsdorf lives in Santa Fe, N.M.