The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
THE LEGEND OF ABIGAIL JONES
Before leaving for work at the slate quarry, Abigail’s father stoked the fire. He ate one sausage biscuit prepared by his daughter the night before and tucked two wrapped ones into a jacket pocket. Then he patted other pockets to be sure he had pipe and tobacco as well as his small carving knife in its sheath and the piece of cedar wood from which he had begun to carve a figure. The knife’s edge, made from a broken pair of scissors, was thin and sharp with a curved tip that allowed him to render fine details. He would get on with his carving each time he rested from the difficult and tedious work of splitting slate.
There’s ice in the washpan,” Lloyd Jones said to his twelve-year-old daughter on his way out the door. “No need for you to freeze. Get your beauty rest.”
On this Saturday morning in January 1916, he paused on the front porch steps of his house near the cotton mill village of Muscadine in Northwest Georgia to light his pipe and look across the road to the shuttered cottage where two women lived, one short and grayhaired, the mother, and her tall, handsome daughter who had not married. The daughter kept her honey colored hair wound in a lovely thick coil that to him—he imagined it unpinned—was like a forest where his hands wanted to wander. The sudden emergence of that image caused Lloyd Jones to feel warm in the face, as if he might be blushing. It was only three years since his wife had died.
Only! Lonely! If only …. He put his cap on, then gloved his wayward hands and walked three miles to the quarry in Blackrock.
At ten o’clock Abigail Jones came forth from the house under a sky the color of galvanized tin. She hurried with her jump rope down the porch steps and into the yard where she stretched her arms high and wide, then whirled the rope over her head and under her feet, counting as she jumped.
1, 2, 3, 4
Inside the cottage across the road in front of the Jones house, Miss Irene Jordan lifted one panel of a Nottingham lace curtain to look out into the morning.
“Abigail is jumping rope,” she said to her mother.
“If Lydia Jones was alive, she’d teach that girl better than to work up perspiration on a cold day,” Mrs. Fanny Jordan replied. She was long accustomed to making such pronouncements to her daughter, whose father had passed away from a heart attack at a very young age. Irene had hardly known him.
“No, she doesn’t have the benefit of her mother’s advice,” Irene said, not without some sense of irony at her own situation in which she had perhaps too much of that commodity. Her mother was prone to suggest now and again that Irene’s choice of a dress or a scarf was too bold or that her hair was too loosely pinned or that it was no wonder she hadn’t married, given her stubborn reluctance to claim the nearest bachelor before it was too late.
“Poor thing,” Irene’s mother said of Abigail. “Maybe we ought to give her that bedspread with the popcorn pattern I crocheted for you that you never got around to using. I wonder if she’s started her chest yet.”
“Well, no,” Irene said, looking at the girl. “She hasn’t any chest to speak of.” “I mean a cedar chest,” Mrs. Jordan said. “A hope chest.”
“Oh,” Irene said, vaguely embarrassed that her mother had caught her thinking anatomically. Irene was a teacher in the primary school at Muscadine.
The girl with hair the color of nutmeg who had attracted this chorus of comments knew she was good for at least 64 jumps without missing, a number she had reached by the end of last summer despite the protest of her aching lungs. The wool sweater she wore over her cotton dress was still comfortable. Only the calves of her legs felt chilled as the rope sliced through the air over her windblown skirt, then stirred the dirt beneath her feet.
18, 19, 20
At work, Lloyd Jones tapped out pieces of slate and mused on things that were close to his heart. There was, for instance, his love of shaping small figures from wood. Since his wife died, he had lost no chance to carve yet another wonder to add to the collection of miniatures he’d created for his daughter: people, birds, beasts, plants, trees, dwellings, furniture, utensils, tools. Besides the pleasure he took in making them, he wanted also to ease some of the loneliness that had come to Abigail when she'd last looked upon her mother’s young face, lightly rouged to mask the pallor caused by the lung disease that had rushed her life to its conclusion.
He sometimes found himself uneasy about his daughter who, like her mother, seemed delicate of health. He was aware that loss has been the subject of poems and songs for time out of mind. He knew he was not a poet or song maker. Nevertheless, he thought himself well occupied in trying to capture as much of life’s variety as he could in his carvings that, for all he knew, might contain a little longer the traces of soul that linger when things pass away.
Abigail crossed her arms and kept the rope moving. After her father had left that morning, she’d walked about her room looking at objects arranged on windowsill and shelves. Any man could whittle a simple thing or two, but her daddy had tried to recreate for her, from cradle to coffin, all the things of the world. She took great pleasure in making scenes with these figures in the sand that filled a tabletop tray under her window. Today she had made an outdoor scene with a path that led to a tree surrounded by birds of various sizes and colors, including a beautifully detailed hummingbird. Near the tree she had placed her favorite figure, a goat carved from cedar, about two inches high and three long, with a hard little belly and feet planted forward under a small horned head drawn back as if ready to butt any creature in its way. Then she had made a ring of stones beside the goat. She was not sure what to put inside the ring and so had left the scene unfinished to go outdoors for awhile.
63, 64, 65!
Her breath was steaming now. Her springing feet and the rope going under them had made a little trough in the loose dirt. She performed a series of crossed-arm jumps to celebrate passing last year’s milestone and kept on moving. Now she was hot and itchy underneath the sweater. She longed to take it off, but that would require stopping, and suddenly she realized she would not stop until she passed a hundred. She lowered her small fierce face and plunged on.
“A wild child,” Mrs. Fanny Jordan said. She handed Irene a cup of coffee laced with cream. “Jumping rope in the winter! Such a thin girl, with weak lungs! Can’t be bound by common sense, I reckon.”
“Maybe,” Irene replied to her mother. She took a sip. “I expect I’d be a little wild myself if you had died when I was that young.”
Shocked, Mrs.Jordan responded, “What are you saying?”
“Abigail has only her father. He dotes on her. I wondered for a moment how that might feel.”
“To be spoiled by a man?”
“By Lloyd Jones,” her daughter answered.
At the slate quarry, Lloyd lit his pipe. He sat down on a boulder at the edge of the pit, puffed on the pipe and then laid it aside and brought out his knife and the carving he was working on, a girl with swirling skirts and a precisely rendered head of long-stranded hair that seemed to flow outward like her garment. With the curved tip of the blade, he lifted slivers of wood the size of pepper flakes, lengthening the neck and thrusting out the tiny chin. Then he went on to curve her lips, to find a tiny nose above them, and to open her large eyes. He was determined to finish the figure today.
98, 99, 100!
Abigail stepped across the rope one more time and landed flatfooted, uttering a triumphant Yes! She dropped the rope and sat gasping on a porch step, then pulled off her sweater and welcomed the bracing air to her sweaty skin. In just a few minutes, she was so cold that her teeth had started to chatter. She went inside and climbed into her bed under the quilt stitched by her mother in the pattern of a star.
When her daddy came home, he discovered that the fire had gone out and that Abigail had a fever. A great fear took hold of him. He laid a dampened towel across the girl’s forehead and rekindled the fire. Then he called on Irene Jordan for help. She returned with him, concerned for the girl's health and strangely stirred by the man's need of her.
Using a handkerchief doused with alcohol, Irene rubbed Abigail’s forehead, and when chills were upon the child, warmed her feet with towels hanging by the stove. An anguishing hour passed before their watchful eyes saw the girl at last in a restful slumber. Irene went home and came back early in the morning, just in time to be present when Abigail turned her face to them and murmured, “a hundred and one.” Her lips settled into a smile and her body into stillness.
When Irene reached out to Lloyd Jones instead of the child, he finally comprehended his daughter’s demise and roused himself from his vigil. Irene went to ask her mother's help. On her return, he went outside to collect poplar planks from his shed and began constructing Abigail's coffin, pausing from time to time to wipe away tears with his shirtsleeve. Mrs. Jordan brought a white nightgown from Irene’s hope chest and dressed Abigail in it. When the coffin was ready, Irene lined it with the star quilt, and after Lloyd had placed the girl upon it, she pulled the quilt around Abigail like a shawl. Mrs. Jordan went home.
Lloyd stood beside Irene and opened his hand. There lay his finished figure of a girl, complete with fingers reaching tenderly toward … What? Deeply moved, Irene took the figure into her own hands. On the back of slender shoulders were wings spread wide, as in the moment just before alighting or just after departure into flight. Irene saw how delicately the wings were feathered. “Angel?” she wondered aloud.
“What is an angel?” he asked, and then, swallowing his grief, answered himself. “An angel is a ghost girl with wings that watches over what she was and might have been and … and blesses all of it.”
Irene moved to the table where Abigail had left her sand picture. She sat down, looked at the picture for a long time, then placed the birdwinged girl inside the stone circle, with her hand reaching toward the little goat figure Abigail had loved so much. In turning back to Lloyd, Irene brushed her head against his hand. Not one but two pins slid without further provocation from her hair.
Come April, Irene told her mother that she intended to marry Lloyd Jones. Mrs. Fanny Jordan sat down for a few moments, and then her look of shock was replaced by one of shrewdness. She said, “I want that bedspread, the one we didn’t give to Abigail.” When Irene simply nodded, Mrs. Jordan went on:
“Years from now, when people stand at Abigail’s grave and notice she only lived twelve years, they'll say, “That’s the Jones girl who jumped rope on a cold winter day a hundred and one times without stopping. Then she took pneumonia and died. And that’s all they’ll remember about her."
Irene stepped away from her mother's pronouncement to look through the window. She reminded herself to prune the trumpet vine. Suddenly, she remembered a summer day when she had last seen a green hummingbird with a red throat fanning its wings above a scarlet trumpet flower. Smiling inwardly, she said aloud, “I will tell the children how Abigail took hold of her brief life and made it happy and fruitful, how her passion transcended her limitations. That will be the legend of Abigail Jones. I’ll see to it.”
Copyright, 2014. Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.