Missus Byrd was primal. The Seneca Seer. Tell her your name. She will tell you your fortune. Young Miss Converse thought to benefit from knowing her fortune and with that in mind she went straightway to the fortuneteller’s house.
Pink hollyhocks grew in front of Missus Byrd’s window. Veiny beet tops and spidery squash vines and three rows of corn grew beside the house. Behind the garden was a coop. Three Rhode Island reds pecked at grubs and snubbed the doe poking her nose through the chicken wire to nibble at weeds. The nanny ought to be milked. Miss Converse was a champion milker but the nanny was not hers. Miss Converse leaned on the squeaky gate until the gate flew open. She shut it and did not tarry.
She bolted up the steps. The verandah was swept and the sea-green porch-swing looked comfy. Something to enjoy on this sunny afternoon but instead of sitting down she knocked on the door and leaned to the right. She wanted to peep into the parlour. She stood on ballet toes but peeping was impossible. Hollyhocks acted like prison bars. No spying today. Not that she often spied on old folks. She did not. A tiny advantage was all she wanted. All anyone wanted really.
Missus Byrd opened the door. Come in. Tell me your name. I will tell you your fortune. In the parlour Missus Byrd offered Miss Converse a cup of Bettys tea. The teapot belly was silver. The pot had devil claws and a serpent’s spout and Miss Converse admired the amber pouring into forget-me-not bone china cups. Knee to knee the women ate cucumber sandwiches made with lots of salt and pepper until Missus Byrd removed the teapot and sandwiches and put in their stead a smallish crystal moonball. Miss Converse had no idea Missus Byrd’s originality came from a smallish crystal moonball and the banality made her squirm. The moonball got foggy. Missus Byrd spoke.
Miss Converse opened her straw bag, which was wide-woven and cherry pink at the lip and tight and narrow and Coho red at the bottom, and she reached down and waggled her fingers and hooked her ten-dollar bill and took out the bill and placed it beside her teacup. Outside hollyhocks trumpeted to bees and inside Miss Converse wondered about the soundness of Missus Byrd. Miss Converse was not clear on what to expect from a fortuneteller but felt any uplifting message would serve. She removed her hat and put it on her lap and settled back into the soft-padded chair and tapped her finger on the bill. People who took money for prophecy were known to say uplifting things. Miss Converse hoped for no less.
Missus Byrd wrapped her hands around the moonball and shook her head. My dear. You are a hermit.
Miss Converse sat straight. I beg pardon.
A knock at the door interrupted them and a voice from behind the door called out. Ho. Ho. Me! The breadman.
Missus Byrd lifted her head. She advised the breadman his payment was on the kitchen counter. And into the room strode a trim and curly-headed man. He had a slight overbite, which when he smiled was charming, and his breadman’s uniform fitted him nicely. Miss Converse did not know much about breadmen but supposed he carried out a daily delivery. Without asking for Missus Byrd’s order the breadman put a rye bread and six buttertarts on the counter and scooped the payment. This was done without hesitation and even as he put coins into his change purse he assured Miss Converse she was the pretty one. The breadman asked whether he might give her a kiss. He moved toward her. Missus Byrd’s eyes did not follow him.
Miss Converse wanted to say no way but he did it. He kissed her. Not a greedy kiss but more of a brush on the cheek. Breadman smelled sweet and fresh.
Actually the kiss should have affronted Miss Converse but she was already affronted and Missus Byrd made matters worse. The Seneca seer said it again. You are a hermit. The breadman laughed when he heard the word hermit and said hermit was a funny word to describe a beautiful girl. He stopped before the parlour window to speak to his client. See you tomorrow Missus Byrd.
Miss Converse was upset. The hermit business was upsetting. The breadman’s light kiss was upsetting. She caught the breadman’s eye. She rose from the soft chair. She strolled to the window and kissed him. She sucked his bottom lip. His lip tasted like cinnamon. She ran her tongue over his tongue and poked her tongue into his buttery mouth. Kissing the breadman melted her insides. The kiss made him gasp. Breathless he ran outside leaving Miss Converse yearning for something she could not have.
She wondered whether Missus Byrd would reevaluate the prophecy but no. The old lady was blind. She saw nothing. Missus Byrd’s mole eyes all but vanished into her furry cheeks. A dismayed Miss Converse reclaimed her ten-dollar bill from beneath the forget-me-not saucer.
Someone banged at the door. Missus Byrd trilled. Tell me your name. I will tell you your fortune. The door-banger was Missus Frances. The breadman’s partner. Like a mediaeval jouster Missus Frances charged into the room and she brandished a torn hollyhock and cried I want to meet that girl.
Do you mean me? Miss Converse felt panic rising in her throat.
Missus Frances was tall. Rosie the Riveter. Missus Frances rolled up her sleeves and she wound up for the pitch and caught Miss Converse in the eye. Missus Frances picked up a teacup and hurled the contents at Miss Converse and threw the forget-me-not into the air. The cup hit the floor and blue and pink porcelain smashed. To smithereens. Miss Converse raised her hand. She proposed to slap Missus Frances but Missus Frances was quick and warded off the blow and popped Miss Converse in the breadbasket.
Miss Converse was proud of herself. She cried. That was to be expected but she did not collapse. Not she. Miss Converse retrieved the broom from the corner and set about tidying.
Exultation deflated one. Seeing Miss Converse submissive and snivelling and sweeping up china bits must have soothed Missus Frances. Furthermore she was not seen. The old mole lady holding the moonball did not appear to have a clue about the fight and within seconds and with impunity Missus Frances trotted outside. As though nothing happened.
A youth stepped into the parlour. He did not acknowledge the departing Missus Frances and spoke to Missus Byrd. Hey Maureen. Missus Byrd was almost polite. She turned to Miss Converse. Meet the White boy. The boy declared he lost track of time but vowed he came to milk Mirabelle. He was sorry he was late.
Miss Converse thought the White boy did not look sorry. Missus Byrd sat there and her knuckles shone through her skin.
Missus Byrd turned toward Miss Converse. The old lady said she would consider it a kindness if the young lady would accompany the White boy to the garden. The grain bucket is there my dear. Miss Converse owed the Seneca seer a favour because of the china and followed the White boy outside. They found Mirabelle. With an udder fit to burst. Mirabelle put her sweet goat’s head in the stanchion, which Miss Converse snapped shut, and the goat munched on grain whilst the boy milked.
What’s your name?
Patsy. Patsy Converse. What’s yours?
Listen here Axel White. You are rough with Mirabelle.
Miss Converse suspected the boy found her tone condescending. She air-milked, which was gentler than talking.
Pffft. The White boy was dense. Miss Converse had enough. She said he should hop off the three-legged stool, which he did, and she sat down and got to work. Before long the milk bucket brimmed with snowy liquid but the boy kicked over the bucket tower. Milk soaked into the green grass and black earth until the remains were as diluted as water from plaster of Paris. He said he would tell Maureen. He said he would say Patsy spilled the milk. He pushed Miss Converse off the stool and booted her rear end and shouted. Maureen will be mad as hell. He jumped over the squeaky gate and tore down the road.
The White boy was a liar. Miss Converse did not believe a word he said. She dragged herself to Missus Byrd’s porch. She swung on the sea-green seat and yawned. What an afternoon. There was Missus Frances whom she feared. And the White boy whom she hated. She licked her lips. Her lips tasted of slippery cinnamon. Hmmm. There was also the breadman. He laughed when he heard she was the hermit.
Missus Byrd popped her head out the front door. Come in. Have some Bettys. And a buttertart. Tell me your name. I will tell you your fortune.
Feature: DNA National Geographic
“The habitation of a hermit” Apollinary Vasnetsov (1856-1923)