By: Hannah Garrett
If you were to spin a globe and watch it pirouette upon its axis, blue and green and brown all blurring into one indistinguishable color, you could place your fingertips to it and feel the gentle rising and falling of miniscule mountain ranges against them. If you were to press down in just the right space on just the right bumps, you would see shapes emerge as the globe’s rotation slowed, among them a thin strip of land extending from the western side of the Appalachian Mountains.
If you were a bird flying over this strip of land, you would see a vast ocean of leafy waves ebbing and flowing across the hills in fiery hues, briefly punctuated by crisp little rectangles of green and gold. And if you were to rest your bird-wings and light on the weathered posts of the fences bordering these neat little rectangles, you would see the nearly identical white wooden houses that are never more than a stone’s throw away.
It is in one of these houses that Dicey Smith lays under a hand-sewn quilt as the soft velvet curtain of night is replaced by the gauzy haze of an autumn dawn. She watches the grey light glide across her husband’s face, gently pulling him into wakefulness. She lightly touches her lips to his forehead and makes her way down the hall to the kitchen, savoring the feel of the cool wooden floor beneath her feet.
Benjamin is a kind man. Dicey cannot remember a single instance in which he has acted with anything other than a calm and genial sensibility. She contemplates their courtship as she guides a knife through layers of cured meat and fat that sizzles as it is casually tossed into a waiting skillet. He certainly wasn’t the most handsome young man to call on her, and when he picked her up for their first date, she told him so. He laughed out loud and said that he supposed he ought to make up for it by being the most interesting, and he was. What others found to be contrary in her nature, he saw as a playful challenge that he eagerly accepted. Five months and three days after that date, they went to the courthouse, signed a piece of paper, and left with the same last name. She spent the next 32 years telling him exactly what she thought and he spent them laughing and taking it all in stride, each of them loving the other more for it.
She hears his footsteps in the hall, followed by the harsh scraping of wood on wood as a chair is pushed back and sat upon. She hears a newspaper snap open and crinkle as he rifles through the headlines. She looks over her shoulder at him. “Last time I checked, you weren’t an invalid or the King of England, so I hope you aren’t sitting there expecting me to bring your breakfast to you while you read the paper,” she says.
“No,” he answers, grinning. “I don’t guess I am. I just thought I’d read the paper for a bit first. But I’m glad to see you in such good spirits. It must be Tuesday.”
“You know good and well what day it is,” she says. Her arms, grown soft with age, stretch forward and back, rolling out dough for biscuits. Everybody knows that Dicey makes the best biscuits in three counties. Especially Edith Beaty, who has been trying to top Dicey’s recipe for years.
“If I hated my friends as much as you hate yours, I don’t believe I’d have them over for a Bible study every week,” he says.
“We’re women, Benjamin,” she says, “of course we hate each other.”
“Then why bother with the whole thing?” he asks.
She slides the biscuit pan into the oven. “If I didn’t have those old cows over here for Bible study, they’d have it somewhere else and the Good Lord only knows what they’d say about me then.”
He sets his newspaper aside as she places two plates on the table and takes the seat opposite him. “Well call me the King of England,” he says.
“Don’t get used to it. I was coming this way already,” she winks at him before bowing her head, “go ahead and bless it before we both starve.”
After the plates are emptied, Dicey gathers them and stands at the sink. Benjamin rises, grabbing his hat. “It just seems like you could all save yourselves some trouble if you just talked to God at home.”
Dicey walks over and hands him a jacket. “This is not about God, Benjamin. It’s about competition.” He shakes his head, gives her a quick kiss goodbye and wishes her luck.
Dicey leans against the doorframe until she can no longer see him then turns the corner and descends the stairs to the cellar. Every wall in the dark, cool space is lined with shelves bearing blue jars containing various fruits and vegetables suspended in liquid. She is reminded of the science lab at the high school and the fetal pigs, starfish, and disembodied cow eyeballs that line the walls there and shudders. She quickly grabs two or three jars of jelly and apple butter, along with a couple of herbs from the garden and takes them back upstairs.
Three hours later, the women begin to arrive. They file through the door one after the other, each bearing a Bible and a covered dish. After everyone arrives, they fill their plates and begin to eat. “My goodness, Dicey,” Sarah Armstrong says, “Your biscuits are as good as ever.”
Edith Beaty tucks the corner of her mouth in and says, “Something’s different. Did you change the recipe?”
Dicey nods, taking a sip of her tea. “Benjamin got me one of those cookbooks in town a while back and I saw a recipe for herbed biscuits and thought it might be good with this jam.” She passes the jar to Edith.
Edith nods smugly, “I thought they tasted different. If I’m being honest, honey, I don’t know that I like it.”
Dicey smiles kindly, “I guess that’s the thing about being the best at something: it leaves a little room to experiment.”
Edith snaps her head up and returns Dicey’s smile. “How lucky you are to have the time to carry out these experiments,” she says, laughing, “Some of us would love to have that kind of time. Isn’t that right Abigail?”
Abigail Patterson, the preacher’s young wife passes an uncomfortable glance between the two women, placing her hand on her swollen stomach. “Well,” she says, “Having little ones does seem to take up all of the time I used to have for things like that, but I don’t mind it.”
“Oh certainly,” Edith agrees, “Children are such a joy. They are worth every sacrifice. Raising them is what we are meant to do, after all.” She looks back at Dicey. “It is such a pity you never had any, Dicey. You would have made such a wonderful mother.”
Dicey lowers her fork, no longer smiling. “You’re right, Edith,” she says quietly, “It is a pity. I guess some of us are meant to raise children and some of us are meant to bake good biscuits. Maybe if I hadn’t been so good at one, God would have seen fit to give me the other.” Her tight-lipped smile returns.
Sarah laughs and says, “With eight boys, Edith, your biscuits must be terrible.”
Edith scowls and spreads another biscuit with butter and jam. “Well, I guess I’m just thankful that none of them have brought their daddy and me too much trouble,” She cuts her eyes in Sarah’s direction, “How is Joe Jr. anyway?” The women freeze, as if their collective inhalations and exhalations might dampen the spark between the two women before it ignites.
Sarah places her biscuit back on her plate and swallows. “He’s fine,” she answers.
Edith continues, “And Betsy?”
Sarah counters, “She’s fine, too.”
“Well that sure is good news,” Edith announces, “It was right Christian of her not to leave him when he got mixed up in all that trouble with the law.”
Sarah answers with a curt nod, “I suppose it was.”
The women finish their meal and clear the table together, small bits of chatter floating above their heads like raindrops suspended in a heavy cloud, waiting for the chance to fall. They move the chairs into the living room, lining them up along the edge of the old, but pristine, rug. “Alright, ladies, where did we leave off last week?” Edith asks as she turns the crinkly tissue pages of the well-worn book in her lap.
“I believe we were in the book of John, chapter eight,” Dicey offers.
“Oh yes, that’s right,” Edith says, “one of my favorites.”
* * *
On Sunday, Dicey watches the morning light creep into her window and wash the room with cold gray light as it does every other day of the week. She and Benjamin rise and dress and head to church. Brother Patterson, as usual, begins the sermon by taking prayer requests for any sheep in the flock who may be sick or lost. Joseph Armstrong stands and speaks.
“You may notice that Sarah is missing today. She seems to have come down with a stomach flu and asks that you send up prayers for her speedy recovery.”
Later that afternoon, Dicey walks into the garden and kneels by one of the neat rows. She plunges her fingers into the soft, crumbling earth and draws forth carrots and onions and herbs. She takes the basket to the edge of the woods and plucks the last remaining berries from wild bushes, placing them in her basket. In the kitchen, she chops and shreds and mixes and rolls. After assembling two casseroles and a basket of biscuits, she grabs some jam to toss into the basket and heads out the door.
As she walks up the drive to the Armstrong house, she meets Edith, who is also carrying two dishes and a basket. The women eye one another and the items they carry.
“I see you brought your biscuits, Dicey.”
“Of course. I see you brought yours.”
The two women walk the rest of the way, pausing at the door. Joseph greets them. “Thank you, ladies. I know Sarah sure does appreciate the help.”
“Happy to do it,” Dicey replies. “I’ll come in and show you what to do with the casserole.” She enters the kitchen, placing the dishes in the refrigerator and an index card with written directions under a magnet on its door. She turns to Sarah’s husband, “Now Joseph, the food is for you, but the jam is for Sarah. This is the last batch of the season and I won’t have you hogging it all from your sick wife.”
Edith chimes in, “The poor thing. How is she?”
“She’s just mad she missed out on clucking with the other hens at church this morning,” he says, winking at them.
Dicey smiles. “Well, I guess we ought to go fill her in to hold her over until next week.”
A few minutes later, the women say goodbye to Joseph. They turn and walk to the end of the drive in silence. When they reach the fence post, they part.
“See you Tuesday, Dicey.”
“See you Tuesday, Edith.”
* * *
The next Sunday, Sarah is still sick. When prayer requests are taken, Charlie Beaty requests prayer for his wife, Edith, who has taken ill with the same stomach flu. Dicey once again takes casseroles and biscuits to the Armstrong house, this time stopping by the Edith Beaty’s on the way. Five more Sundays pass and each time, another woman is sick. Dicey rolls out biscuit after biscuit, and boils can after can of wildberry jam, never leaving a single sick person unfed.
One Sunday, Dicey sees Benjamin watching her work.
“What is it, Benjamin?” she asks.
“Are you feeling alright?”
“Other than being sick of making these damn biscuits, yes.”
“You’re sure?” he asks with concern. “It seems every woman in church but you and Abigail has come down with it.”
“I’m fine, Benjamin. Now stop worrying and make yourself useful.” She hands him a basket and asks him to fill it.
He kisses her cheek and fills the basket, setting aside a biscuit for himself. He reaches for a jam jar. Dicey swiftly removes it from his grasp.
“That’s not yours, Benjamin. If you want some jam, you can go grab one of the jars from the cellar.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
She looks at him. “I’m fine. Those women are probably just sick from their own sour words and that’s why Abigail and me haven’t caught it yet. I’m sure they’ll recover and be back to terrorizing us soon enough.”
* * *
Eight weeks after that first Sunday, Joseph Armstrong sits on the front pew with Joe Jr. and Betsey as Brother Patterson delivers a eulogy for Sarah.
Over the next three weeks, four more eulogies are delivered.
As the pews grow more and more sparse each passing Sunday, the congregation speculates as to the cause. “I wonder why only some of the women seem to be affected,” Gale Presley says to Doc Masters.
“Well,” Doc answers, “I suppose they could have caught it from each other at that Bible study.”
“Then why isn’t Dicey sick? Or Abigail?” Gale asks.
“With the baby coming, Abigail stopped going a while back,” Doc says. “And Dicey’s strong. I saw her in the same state as Abigail three times and she lost them all.” He pauses, looking at the pew where the Smiths always sit. “She and Benjamin are good people who have had their fair share of sadness. Maybe God decided to cut them some slack for once.”
The following Tuesday, Dicey rises like always and leans in the doorway until Benjamin disappears down the drive. Instead of heading for the kitchen to prepare for Bible study, she slips her feet into her shoes and walks into the garden. She no longer prepares biscuits and jam on Tuesdays because the women no longer come.
She pulls the last carrot from the ground and stands. She gathers up her spade and her gloves and her basket and deposits them in the cellar. She walks past the tidy rows of translucent blue jars until she reaches the very back corner. Pulling a jar of strawberry jam from the shelf, she places her hand against the cool dampness of the cellar wall, groping for the book that she knows rests just behind it.
She mounts the stairs, one by one, passing the kitchen and arriving in the living room where she adds some wood to the dwindling fire from the bushes she asked Benjamin to cut down yesterday. Once the flames are hot enough, she pulls her chair close and leans back. She opens the book, pausing to glance at each page. One by one, she tears the pages from the binding and feeds them to the fire, watching the pencil drawn figures of leaves and branches darken and disintegrate to ash. Finally, she tears the cover in half, burning the back, then the front. She watches the title as it is licked into smoke by the dancing flames: The Outdoorsman’s Guide to Poisonous Berries. She remembers the day she plucked it from the store in town. It was a Tuesday after Bible study.