MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I still remember the first time I voted for the president of the United States. It’s such a crucial rite of passage, a pivotal pause on the road to adulthood. I remember reading newspaper articles in detail, listening to speeches, asking opinions of everyone I respected. I wanted desperately to be informed. I was in college at the time, at a large public university, and the upcoming election was big news. We painted posters and canvassed neighborhoods and put politics first in the school newspaper. Groups gathered after class to galvanize voters and encourage others to get involved. And then there was the actual day: walking into the room, presenting my voter registration card, and—at last—casting my vote.
But did I think about how I came to be casting my vote? At that age, I doubt it (although I’m sure my mother tried to tell me). Now, so many years later, I know how important a moment that was, both for me personally and in the context of women’s history in America.
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Like all movements of its kind, the push toward gender equality has been, and remains, a multifront challenge, but there is little doubt that the right to vote—and to have a voice in the democratic process—is fundamental for success. There can be no equality in a democratic society in which the government listens to only some of its citizens.
In the past one hundred years there has been so much change in lifestyle, in technology, in transportation that the “old days” can seem distant and a little unreal. It’s all too easy to forget the battles fought along the way and take for granted the hard-won victories. That’s why it’s especially important to remember and celebrate the women who fought bravely and paid dearly for their cause, and to teach our sons and daughters about the past.
Change in any political system comes at a cost, and women’s suffrage is no exception. Words weren’t enough to change the status quo and upset the long-accepted tenets of the system. Many women chose the dangerous practice of civil disobedience: they put their lives and their freedom on the line for their beliefs. Women were arrested and thrown in jail. They were force-fed when they went on hunger strikes. In many parts of the country, the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was only the beginning. It would take years before all women in America, especially women of color, had both the legal right to vote and the actual ability to cast ballots in every state. The ability to vote, and to access the polls, are fights we still face. But the passage of the amendment allowed women to have a voice in the democratic process for the first time and caused a seismic shift in the political landscape.
The difficulties women faced in gaining the vote, like much of women’s history, are often overlooked or forgotten or marginalized. Many younger women do not even know the story of the movement. It behooves us all to make a concerted effort to commemorate the triumphs of women and to tell their stories to the next generation. Victories cannot be taken for granted. There are still battles to be fought for the advancement of women’s rights, and in remembering the women who came before, and how far we’ve come, we find the strength to continue.
Legislation is an important first step. The opening of the gate, so to speak. But in times like these, when the country is deeply divided, more is required of people. It is not enough to have the vote. We must exercise that right with conviction and keep in mind the great power that lies within the right to vote. Simply, we must honor the women who fought for this right by voting in our elections and continuing the fight for equal rights.
This collection, written by some of the most celebrated authors writing today, commemorates and celebrates the battles women faced in fighting for the Nineteenth Amendment. The stories focus on women of different ages, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, as well as on the contributions made by men who supported the cause. These talented authors bring the powerful, important, emotional tales of the suffrage movement alive. In reading these stories as a collection, I was struck by the importance of the message. We are often reminded that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and I believe deeply in the truth of that sentiment. Few things are as vital as remembering and passing on history to future generations.
History is not a set of dry facts in a dusty old book. We keep the past alive by remembering the people who lived it, who fought for a more equal world and who paid for their convictions. This short story collection celebrates the women who fought for our voices to be heard. By voting, we join the ghosts of the women who came before us in the fight to make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren.
It is, at least, apple season. That one thing might save them. Although whether it can is yet uncertain. The orchard Grandmother planted long ago on the mountain’s craggy slopes has gone wild and spindly, without enough hands to tend it for three seasons now.
Still, the hardy little trees have done their part. As September slipped into October and New York’s Berkshire foothills donned their scarves of fog, the ragged orchard came in heavy-laden. Branches bowed to the ground, sometimes split at the forks under the weight of the ripening fruit. The trees once again proved themselves to be the kind of scrappy, determined things able to survive on the rough-hewn hillsides high above the Hudson Valley, hidden away to themselves, never having much need of outsiders.
Except this season, there is need. Little else but need.
Outsiders won’t come to the apples. That was what Ashmea had told herself weeks ago when the apples began bursting with color. Something’s got to be done before the crop goes to waste.
She knew, without anyone telling her, that not one apple can be lost when apples are all you have to get by until …
Until always ended in a question she couldn’t answer, and so she had tried not to ask it, even to herself, as she’d taken out the tattered baskets and prepared for the harvest.
The question had nibbled at her even before that, as summer waned and inched toward autumn, and there’d been no sign of her pa’s usual homecoming. And so with no one else to take charge of the harvest, she’d done so herself. She’d prodded her stepma, Clarey, from the bed and dressed the seven-year-old twins who were neither Clarey’s blood nor, in general, Clarey’s concern. In Clarey’s defense, she hadn’t come to the mountain expecting or prepared to be a stepmother. She was only double the age of the seven-year-old twins, Dabine and Blue, and just three years past Ashmea’s eleven.
Only fourteen, and already Clarey had birthed a baby that now lay buried out past the orchard, where Ash’s mother rested under a marking stone that Ash and the twins had rolled there themselves. They’d selected a pretty one with flecks that glimmered russet in the sun like apple skins. Like Ma’s hair. Her real ma, who’d fed the children, and stitched together clothes from scraps gathered or traded for, and had taught Ash, Dab, and Blue about the orchard … and had sent them there to hide anytime hiding was needed.
It’d been hard to say, when Clarey’s baby was lost, whether Clarey would’ve done the same for her tiny daughter if it had survived. There’d been no way of knowing whether Clarey had mourned or thought ahead about how she’d slip the baby away to some safe place when Pa took to the bottle and the leaning board-and-batten house turned into a bad place.
Clarey spoke in some strange language none of them understood. What little English she did know was poor enough that she couldn’t have possibly explained where Pa had gotten her from or if there was a home or a family out there, or anybody she missed. Clarey had the raven hair and dark eyes and high bones of the Indians who’d claimed these mountains before getting chased off to Ohio or married in with white farmers and timbermen. Her strange looks had been Ash’s only clue to who, or what, she might be. Pa had just led her in the door one day last spring and said, “This is your new stepma. Name’s Clarey. You show her where things are.”
The girl had stood there stoop-shouldered and trembling a little, her gaze darting uncertainly toward the twins and Ash, as if she was more than surprised to end up in a two-room house with three half-grown kids in it.
And that was that. Pa had doted on Clarey like a new prize for a while. It’d given Ash the feeling that if things got too crowded and somebody had to go, it’d be Ash and Dab, and maybe Blue, too, though Pa would be more likely to hang on to Blue for work, since he was a boy. Ash might’ve gone to the woods and figured out how to get by on her own—she could hunt and she could fish and forage—but with Dab and Blue being just seven, and Blue having a foot that’d healed lame after getting caught in the wagon spokes, there wasn’t much way.
Things had gone better for a month or two, with a new stepma around. Clarey could cook and she hadn’t turned out to be lazy. But then Clarey’s thin body had started thickening and rounding. Pa had gone off timbering and left them all there to sort things out on their own. Then the baby had come early and died, and Clarey had taken to the bed.
The last of the buckwheat flour had played out first, and later the cellar goods. All there’d been for a while was whatever Ash and the twins could trap or gather or catch in the streams … and the apples working their way toward ripe, promising better times ahead.
They’d started picking as soon as they could, a harvest crew of four, fighting off the birds and squirrels and the other creatures that would steal the bounty. Black bears had come at night and roared and grunted, bouncing their weight against the cellar doors, while the twins cried and huddled in their bunk. Ash had sat up in the rocking chair, the old rifle propped in her lap, but the long days and fitful nights had proven worthwhile, as had the trouble of hitching the rawboned bay mule and driving him slow and easy down the mountain to find just the right places.
The sorts of places where there were people with money and a taste for apples.
Places where a wagon with three little hill kids and a strange, solemn, dark-eyed girl wouldn’t be chased off by people who throw rocks and wave their fists and stab their fingers through the air, pointing away from their houses and storefronts and shade trees.
“Hillbillies! White trash! Go on. Get away!”
It’s not that Ash hadn’t heard the words before. In the far back of her memories was the time she went off to school one fall, riding double on the mule with the brother who was just a year older. The children there called them names and pulled her hair, but the teacher was kindly.
She said Ash was a very pretty little girl, with her chestnut hair and green eyes. And she said that Ash was smart. The teacher sent home books and fat pencils and pads of paper with big lines to write on. Magazines for Ma, too. And even a sewing pattern one time, neatly traced onto butcher paper, ready for Ma to cut out.
But by early spring, Brother had caught a fever and died, and nothing was the same after. Not with Pa, or with Ma, or with school. The books stayed, though. The teacher never came up the mountain to get those. If Pa wasn’t around to yank the books away and tear them up, Ma and Ash leafed through the pages together. That was how Ash learned letters and words and saw pictures of places far away from the mountain, like the factory towns and mills along the Hudson, and the big city where Grandma and Grandpa got off the ship from the Old Country before they came north to the Berkshire foothills.
Those strange places, seen only in pictures, tease Ash’s mind now as she guides the mule past farmsteads with tall red barns and through villages where all sorts of treasures wink from store windows. The twins lean over the sides of the wagon, their hands clutching the worn siderails, their thin bottoms balanced on boards propped up over the apple bushels.
“My tummy wants somethin’,” Blue complains, and rubs his middle with a hand that’s cleaner than usual after being scrubbed with the horsehair brush. Before they left home in the barely dawn hours of morning, Ash had made sure they were all washed up and their hair was combed. Nobody wants to buy apples from dirty children, Ma used to say in the before-time, when they’d do this very thing—go down the mountain to find the sort of people who had money to trade for apples.
“Get some walnuts from the lunch bucket, Blue, but just six,” Ash tells him. “And six for Dab, and six for Clarey.” She’s been teaching the twins to count when she has the chance, and this’ll keep them busy awhile. Other than apples, the walnuts and a few persimmons are all they could find that’d carry well on today’s trip. “Once we sell all these apples, we’ll buy something better.”
Ash feels Clarey look over with her slow-moving, careful eyes, hears her say something in that odd, thick-sounding language. Puckering her lips, Clarey presses all five fingertips against them.
“She says you oughta get six walnuts, too,” Dabine pipes up. Since they started the apple harvest and Clarey found her voice again, Little Sister has taken to talking for their strange stepma.
“You don’t know what she said,” Ash snaps.
“I do so.” Dab rises up a little and locks her bony arms over her chest, then sits back down hard. It’s troublesome, the way Dab has clung close to Clarey lately, like Dab was just waiting for their stepmother to rise from the bed and take over being Ma.
Ash snorts. “Dabine Wolters, you better stop that lying or I’ll pop you across the mouth. That’s what dirty, rotten liars get.” It’s what Pa would say, if he were the one driving the wagon. Ash hears him in the words, and even though it’s her own voice saying it, she feels her chin tuck and her head cower between her shoulders, like a big hand is sure to come out of the air and smack her hard enough that her ears ring. “Besides, Clarey can’t tell me when to eat. She’s not our ma. Only your ma can tell you that.” Ash adds this, a little more quietly, as they pass by a farmhouse, where a woman hanging wash shades her eyes to watch.
“You want some apples to buy?” Ash calls out. “Golden Russets, Kingston Blacks, Ashmeads, Dabinettes, Blue Pearmains. Good for eating or baking!” Those were the words Ma would yell when they’d go down the mountain to sell apples, back in the times before Big Brother died and things went bad.
“Finest apples in three counties!” Dabine adds, and Ash’s throat prickles and tears well up in her eyes. She didn’t even know Dab had learned those words from Ma. Seems like Dab would’ve been too young to remember Ma used to say that of the apples. “’Specially the Dabinettes!” Dab tosses in.
Blue throws back his head, his red-brown hair catching the sun. “And the Blue Pearmains!” They’ve played this game a hundred times in the orchard. Each of them has a special love for the trees Ma picked to be their particular namesakes.
The farm wife waits until they’re almost past the yard fence before she cups a hand to her mouth and answers, “Well … maybe a few.”
Ash pulls the reins, but as usual, the mule responds in his own time. They’re halfway down the farm field before the wagon finally comes to a stop.
The woman buys apples, anyway. They each hand her some, except Clarey, who sits stiffly in the wagon seat and holds the reins, keeping her eyes forward, like she’s afraid she might spoil things by watching.
“Your sister all right?” the woman asks, and slides a glance Clarey’s way.
“She’s our stepma,” Dabine blurts.
Ash snaps, “Hush up, Dab.”
The woman widens her eyes and shakes her head, and Ash is quick to tell her, “Our pa, he’s busy in the orchard, of course. Once we get all these apples sold—which ought not to take us long—we’ll go back and help pick some more. Awful fine season for apples this year.”
“Oh, my. I hope—” Whatever else the woman says is lost in the noise as an automobile roars around the corner and startles the mule. It’s all Clarey and the wagon brake can do to hold him in place. A man in a leather bonnet and eye goggles sits at the wheel, and in the back ride three women young enough to wear their hair loose over their shoulders. White ribbons stream from their white hats, floating like tail feathers on the breeze.
The twins cover their ears and stand with their mouths open, their faces catching a fine spray of mud. They’ve hardly ever seen an automobile, except in magazine drawings, where fancy-looking men in tall hats and tailcoats hold the gloved hands of beautiful women in long, pretty gowns and lovely hats.
The women in the automobile are like the ones in those pictures, like butterflies and birds, something too fleeting and beautiful to be seen fully before it takes wing again and sweeps away.
Ash wheels about and sprints after them, dodging mudholes and ruts, keeping a view as long as she can. A yellow blanket, tied across the back of the auto, puffs in the breeze. Big, black words are painted on, but she can’t read them before the rumbling beast rounds a curve and is gone, its polished skin flicking back splinters of sunlight.
When she returns to the wagon, Blue’s mouth is still hanging open, and his eyes are as big as tin dinnerplates. “Woweee! A oh-doough-mobile.”
“Automobile,” Ash corrects. She reads to the twins, when they can find the time to play pretend. In their games, she’s the pretty teacher and they’re the little hill kids who’ve come down to her school to learn things that can’t be known up on the mountain.
“Ff f f,” the farm wife spits under her breath. “Suffragettes.” Brushing the mud-spatter from her dress as she clutches an apple-filled apron, she scowls at the now-quiet road, her face narrow and red. The angry sweat breaking out over her cheeks doesn’t match the coolness of the day.
Ash fidgets uncomfortably, wondering if the woman might change her mind about the apples. Having grown up always watching for the signs of Pa’s mood going sour, Ash knows how to read the clues. Fists clenching, hands slapping, tools banging, red skin, eyes that scrunch up and turn hard.
Time to run for the orchard, if you can get away with it.
“We best settle up and be on our way, I expect.” Ash holds her arms stiff at her sides, fingers clenched over wads of her threadbare dress.
“Votes for women,” the farm wife grumbles, staring off down the road yet. “A travesty, that’s what that is. What in heaven’s name would a woman want with a vote? She’ll only have to do what her husband pleases with it.”
Ash sends the twins to the wagon with only the slightest twitch of her head. They have their signs, the three of them. Things no one else can see. Ways of warning each other that there might be trouble.
“Well, won’t she?” the woman demands, crooking her head to regard Ash.
“I guess so,” Ash says, and hopes it’s the right answer. The one that won’t upend the apple sale.
“Shamefulness, I tell you. No decent woman would go about in such a way.” Cradling her apron load like a pregnant belly, the farm wife sweeps off toward the house. “Come along!” she snaps when Ash doesn’t follow.
Ash trots after her into the yard, then hurries ahead to hold open the door, hoping that might sweeten the farm wife’s bad mood. Ash’s stomach grumbles and knots up as she gently lets the door close, then waits on the porch, crossing her fingers behind her back, praying the woman’s apple money is enough to provide something better than walnuts and persimmons to eat tonight. Maybe they can buy some buckwheat flour, even. Fried buckwheat flour cakes would taste as good as cream straight off the milk right now. Better, even.
When the woman comes back, she offers Ash a small muslin bundle, tied up with a piece of string. “Here’s four slices of bread and a bit of cheese. You share it with the others,” the farm wife says. When Ash tucks the gift in one elbow and holds out her hands, the woman drops in three silver nickels, as well. “Now, you won’t get five cents a pound from most other people you meet, but don’t take less than four. Those are fine apples. You’d do well to go on south toward the crossroads to Patterson and Quaker Hill. It’s early in the day yet, and fools will be traipsing off to catch the train to New York City, I suppose … so as to see those suffragette women make a spectacle of themselves this afternoon in their silly parade.”
Fastening her gaze to the bundle and the coins, Ash nods, swallows the water in her mouth and the prickly swelling in her throat. The food smells good, and kindness is a thing so far back in her memory that its sudden presence makes her feel dizzy and uncertain.
“And take care you don’t end up like that girl in the wagon with you. There’s no good to come from marrying so young.” Propping her fists on her hips, the farm wife towers over Ash. “You hill girls. Honestly. You can’t help it, I suppose.”
The sweet taste in Ash’s mouth turns sour.
“Well, get on with your troubles, now,” the woman commands. “I have wash to hang. If you hurry down the road, you’ll likely catch some business yet.”
Ash does as she’s told, tucking the coins safely in her pocket and returning to the wagon. Giving the food bundle to the twins to divide, she prods the mule into a trot, hurrying on toward the crossroads, where, if the farm wife is right, they might find people who have money and need apples.
Real bread and bites of cheese improve everyone’s mood, except the mule’s, and help to make short work of the trip downcountry to the junction.
When they arrive, there’s a woman in the road. Tall, and thin, and straight, she seems at first like a strange, wandering spirit, standing there in her white dress and hat. Her arms stretch skyward, hands extended all the way through the fingertips, as if she means to grab on to a cloud and float away.
The mule slows, unsure, or perhaps Ash pulls him up as she tries to make sense of the woman. Maybe she bounced out of the automobile and it drove on without her? The white dress is smudged and mud-spattered, and her hat hangs off-center in a way that says something’s gone wrong with her day. Her long yellow silk scarf has fallen from one shoulder, its tip trailing in the mud.
The wagon is almost upon her before the rattle and squeal cause her to lower her arms and shuffle in a slow, unsteady turn that shows she can’t be one of the young women who raced by earlier. Even before strands of gray hair come into view beneath the crooked hat, this woman’s age is clear.
Not one of those from the automobile, Ash is relieved to realize. Not one of the terrible kind the farm wife didn’t like.
“Praise be! You’ve come!” The stranger staggers impatiently over the muddy ground to meet them as Ash pulls on the mule. “I am the Reverend Octavia Rose, and I must have your help.”
“We don’t know you,” Ash answers, but her throat is dry and the words come out weak and small. Pa never trusts strangers, and the few times one ever came up the mountain, he didn’t take it well. Twice after Brother died, somebody named “Reverend” rode up and Pa turned that man away with a gun. Said nobody calling themselves “Reverend” was welcome. Ever.
“We just came to sell our apples here. To folks passing by,” Ash lets her know. “You have need of some good apples? If not, we’d best get on with our work. Blue, Dab, hold some apples up so she can see.”
The old woman doesn’t even wait for the twins to scramble around and uncover the baskets. “I’ll buy all of them,” she says. “If you will kindly bring them to my automobile and assist me in righting it on the road. I’ve had an accident, but only a slight one. Even so, the poor thing can’t seem to make its way out of the ditch. It’s most important that I continue on my way as quickly as possible. I must be in the city by three o’clock for the parade.”
Ash’s heart upticks a bit. This is the sort of person the farm wife warned about.
But, if she might buy the whole load of apples …
“You one of them sufferin’ women?” Blue pipes up, leaning around the wagon seat.
“Hush, Blue,” Ash tells him, then turns back to business. “Now … we get four … I mean five cents a pound for our apples, and—”
“Yes, yes,” the woman answers impatiently. “You may estimate the total pounds and we will settle on a price once the work is done. Is that a good, strong mule? And have you a length of chain or rope we might use to pull my automobile free? I don’t believe much will be needed to set her right again. She’s a good, sturdy Model T. There was a time, not so long ago, when I would have dug her out myself.”
“Haven’t you got nobody with you?” Blue asks, and this time Clarey and Dab shush him together.
The Reverend Octavia Rose raises her chin and straightens her hat. “Young man, I have not, and I need not,” she tells him. “I’ve traveled the length and width of a dozen states in my day. Served as one of the first ordained female ministers in this vast country and campaigned in the cause of justice for the female sex. I’ve not required the help of man or woman to make my way, and I won’t begin now.” Moving to the rear of the wagon, she braces her hands against the rough wooden bottom. Her breath comes in tattered gasps as she attempts to gain a seat there. “And … while … some … some well-meaning persons in the family may attempt to question … my competence … at this … this juncture, I will not be dissuaded … in today’s mission. Not by anyone. Boy, find something I might stand on to hoist myself into this wagon, or gather your sisters and help me in. We haven’t time to waste.”
“Her and her are my sisters. That one’s my stepma, Clarey,” Blue offers up, then scampers off the wagon.
The woman studies the three of them, then sighs. “Merciful heavens!” Her eyes roll upward. “I am reminded of why we must fight this battle until we can stand on the field no longer.” With a sudden rush of strength, she drags and wriggles herself sideways into the wagon bed. Her lacy dress catches on rough boards and loose nails as Blue rushes around to help and Dabine crawls over.
“No fussing over me,” the reverend admonishes, as Dab recovers a bit of dislodged lace and tries to hand it over. “We must hurry to free my Tin Lizzie from the mud. With a bit of good fortune, I will still arrive at East Eleventh Street in time to be in line with the autos and join the parade.”
But luck, as it turns out, isn’t with them. The Model T is heavier and more thoroughly stuck than the woman said, and the traffic coming down the road from Quaker Hill isn’t what the farm wife predicted. An hour passes as they dig around the tires, and try with the mule, and dig and try. As the last great pull wrenches the automobile free, and it roars onto the road, its tires spitting out a fan-shaped spray of mud, the mule’s dry, worn harness snaps at the uptug strap.
The reverend inspects the damage with Ash and Clarey, while the twins circle the Model T, peeking over and under, surveying its untold wonders. “These harness leathers are on the verge of disaster throughout. You’re fortunate to have made it this far with such an ill-kept rig.” Drumming her fingers on the mule’s collar, the reverend eyes the road impatiently. “I can’t send you off in this condition.”
“If you’d just pay us for the apples, we’ll be on our way,” Ash prods nervously. “We can load them in your car? All the apples, like you said?”
But the reverend won’t look her way. “It will be on my soul if the lot of you should perish in a wreck.”
“If we head back upcountry now, we’ll make it home before dark.”
“I do know my way around a harness.” The reverend turns from the road, her blue eyes gauging each of the twins, then Clarey, and finally Ash. “I was a farm girl … once upon a time, long ago. Worked to the bone caring for eight brothers and sisters and a mother who’d long since broken down under the strain. I know my way around a rig, and a mule, and the sort of toil that is heaped on a girl much too young to withstand it.”
A chill travels Ash’s body, but it’s not the nippy fall wind at fault; it’s the way the woman seems to look not at her, but through her. Into things Ash knows better than to tell.
Their eyes lock and hold.
Ash shakes her head a little to break the tie. Why is the woman watching her that way? What’s the thing Ash should say? The words that will finish up their bargain?
“I simply must continue on to the parade,” the woman mutters, tapping a knuckle to her chin. “I signed the participation pledge, and aside from that, it is the culmination of my life’s work, this one final push in the fight to free women from their bondage, to give them the dignity of a voice in public affairs and the power of the vote.”
“What would a woman want with a vote?” Ash echoes the farm wife’s words in hopes of showing that she’s not some little child. Not a baby like the twins. She knows things. “She just has to do what her husband tells her with it, anyway.” As soon as it’s in the air, Ash wishes she could take it back. The reverend’s eyes go wide and fiery. Ash tucks her chin and ducks away. There’s no mistaking that kind of look and what it means.
But the reverend doesn’t strike. She doesn’t slap, or grab hair by the handful, or clutch a skinny arm and twist it until it burns and stabs and goes numb. She only looks at Ash for a very long time.
“Transfer the apples to my automobile. Fill the splash apron in the back seat with as many as can possibly fit,” she says finally, in a way that leaves no room for argument. “But leave the seats for yourselves. You will accompany me to the parade, in case I should need further assistance along the way. When we have completed our mission, I will pay you for the apples, as well as the day’s work, and we will return to see about your wagon … and then we will see about you.”
It’s that last part that worries Ash. We will see about you. Those words cast a shadow over how exciting it’d be to get a ride in an automobile for the first time ever. “But … we’ve got our mule.”
“There was a farm up the way I came, not more than a half mile.” The reverend squints over her shoulder toward Quaker Hill. “No one was around the place when I tried for help there. We’ll put your mule in the corral and leave a note on the fence explaining. We will manage the rest upon our return. Sometimes, my dear, we must do whatever is needed to seize the day while it is yet the day.”
Within the hour, they’ve followed the orders of Reverend Octavia Rose, parked the wagon, secured the mule, and left a note signed by the reverend herself.
“Now, you children needn’t worry about a thing,” the old woman promises, as the twins, and then Clarey, scramble eagerly into the rear seat of the automobile and Ash slides uncertainly into the front. The reverend offers quilts to keep them warm. “Despite my slight miscalculation earlier, I am fully competent in the operation of a Tin Lizzie. In New York it may be uncommon for women to drive, but in Detroit where I am from, even the most common working families are now in possession of automobiles, thanks to Mr. Ford’s affordable products, and the women operate them as well as the men. Even women of an age. I am a bit … out of practice, since a bout with pneumonia last winter brought me here to convalesce at my niece’s home in Quaker Hill, that is all. But I believe the Lizzie and I are finding our stride, even as we speak.” She adjusts various buttons and levers, places one foot on a floor pedal, and the Model T lurches forward.
“Verbluffend!” Clarey’s squeal rises above the noise. “Ik kan dit niet geloven!”
The twins turn her way in surprise and the reverend lifts a brow, pausing to glance over her shoulder. “Ben je Nederlands, Clarey?”
“Ja,” Clarey answers shyly, her downcast gaze lifting and fastening to the woman. “Mijn grootouders zijn Nederlands.”
“Well, I’ll be,” the reverend remarks. “Your stepmother is a Dutch girl.”
“She is?” Ash turns to study the stepma she has put up with for almost a year now, but barely known. “I thought she was a Indian. She looks like one.”
“Ah,” says the reverend. “More likely Black Dutch. Which only goes to show that gauging the truth of a person merely by looking is a fool’s habit.”
Ash sinks back in her seat as they start off down the road. The car’s odd rumble tickling her feet and legs and its thrilling speed barely tug at her attention. She watches and listens, instead, as the reverend continues questioning Clarey, their loud conversing carrying on the cold breeze in that strange-sounding language Clarey long ago quit using on the farm, because nobody understood it, anyway. Now that someone hears her, Clarey has come to life. She pours out a story of some sort, her hands whirling and her face lengthening as tears pool in in her dark eyes and drip onto the quilt. Clarey has never cried before, not that Ash knows of, anyhow—not even when the too-small baby came into the world and never drew a breath.
The reverend listens, answering in soothing tones, until finally Clarey sighs and presses herself back into her seat, looking intently at the passing fields and wiping her moisture-stained face.
“That poor child,” the reverend says, shaking her head. “That poor, poor child.”
“What’d she tell you?” Ash can’t help but ask, and wonder. And worry.
Shaking her head, the reverend considers the story for a bit, seeming to decide how much to repeat. “When Clarey was barely eleven—about your age, I’m guessing—a man came to her grandparents’ farm promising that he had good factory work for her in the city. He told her grandparents she would be permitted to come back to visit on holidays, as well as to send money home to help the family save for her parents’ passage over from the Old Country. But the man who took Clarey away was not a good man. He was the worst sort of man. Terrible fates have befallen this dear girl, and that is how she came to meet your father, whom she believed would help her escape and return to her grandparents, but indeed did not. He took her to the mountains and kept her for himself. I have, I can see now, been given a mission to see that she, as well as you and your brother and sister, are left in different and better circumstances before this is through.”
Different and better circumstances. Ash tries to decide what that might mean. Given a mission …
Sniffling, the reverend moves her mouth as if she’s working on a bite of gristle. “You asked me,” she says finally, “a question some time ago as we started off on this journey.” She turns Ash’s way as they slow at a bend in the road, where the automobile splashes through a shallow pool of water and the wind quiets. “You asked why a woman would want a vote. What she might do with it. This girl, my dear—your stepmother by no choice of her own—is the reason. She and thousands more like her. They are the reason we fight. The reason we persist in our cause, though the way be rough and rocky. Until women and girls are given a voice, they will have no rights. It will continue to be the case that the young ones are bought and sold, forced into marriages when they are but children themselves, and that the old ones are robbed of their property and their independence. Those of us who can protest it, who can insist on fairness and justice, simply must. That is all. We must make a nuisance of ourselves when it matters. That is why we march.”
“I … I guess…” Ash stammers, and tries to imagine all that has been hidden behind Clarey’s silence, but she can’t. Finally, she looks into the back seat at her stepma, who really isn’t that at all, but just a girl taken so far from her home that she had no hope of finding her way back.
Ash can’t help but worry as they travel on, the countryside flattening and becoming less familiar, the farms crowding closer together, then disappearing into town after town. Each time, the town is larger, the buildings taller, until finally the buildings don’t end. They tower over the road on both sides like the tall rock walls of a canyon. And there are people. So many people! Wagons and harnessed teams, and cars, and pushcarts loaded with fruits, loaves of bread, fish, hams, sausages. Everywhere, there is noise. Voices and horses, bells ringing and wheels clattering, men yelling and dogs barking, engines chugging out smoke and trains whistling by on high bridges, with caves underneath for wagons and autos to pass through. Traffic clogs the roads and slows the way, and the reverend sounds the Model T’s horn, adding its voice to all the rest as they pass into the city.
“Move along! Move out of the way!” she shouts. “Make haste! Make haste!” Over and over, she checks the pretty gold watch she wears on a chain around her neck. She grumbles and murmurs about the late hour of the day. “We’ll miss it. We’ll miss it.” She complains, her face anxious and moist, “They’ll be starting soon.”
And then later, “Oh, by now they’ve begun. We’ve still so far to go.”
And as even more time passes, the light dims between the buildings, and the evening sharpens the icy edges of cold autumn wind, “They’ve been under way for over an hour now. Oh! It’s too long,” the reverend frets. “Surely, it’s too long. We are so very late.”
Rising onto her knees, Ash leans over the car door. “Out of the way!” she calls. “Move along!”
In the back, the twins echo her chorus. “Move ’long! Move ’long!”
Clarey takes up the call in her own language, as well.
Their efforts are of no help. Dusk presses in as the Tin Lizzie inches onward, working its way over bridges and through streets, each more congested than the last.
“Look! The crowds!” The reverend points down an alley when finally they’ve reached the heart of the city. “There are spectators in place yet!”
“I hear somethin’!” Dab rises in the back seat and leans out, and Clarey grabs the little girl’s dress to pull her down.
“I hear it, too!” Blue agrees. “Somebody’s singin’ someplace.”
“It’s a band,” the reverend corrects, turning an ear toward the rhythmic sound. “Oh, a band playing. In the parade. They are still here! We might make our way, after all. Hold tight, children. The autos are last in the parade.”
Inch by inch, foot by foot, they count down the distance together, as the music of one band fades and another strikes up. Voices echo along alleys and bounce off walls, the shouts from countless mouths they cannot see.
“Votes for women!”
“A vote for suffrage is a vote for justice!”
“Women suffrage in New York now!”
“Women suffrage in New Jersey now!”
When finally they reach East Eleventh Street, moving only as fast as any one of them could have walked, the old woman releases the steering wheel and throws her hands up, then grips the wheel again.
“Glory be! There they are!” she cheers. Ahead, dozens of automobiles sit parked and ready, their metal skins adorned with yellow flags and banners, their occupants milling about in coats and blankets, struggling to keep warm as the moon crests the tall buildings, and electric lights flicker to life overhead. “We have arrived, after all,” the reverend cries out, seizing Ash’s hand and lifting it triumphantly into the air. “My dears, we have arrived. I couldn’t have made it without you. Thank you for helping an old woman accomplish one more mission.”
Ash takes in the cold, weary-looking yet determined crowd as a woman guides the reverend’s automobile into place at the rear of the line. For a time, the five of them sit quietly, catching their breath and gazing down the long row of automobiles, dozens upon dozens. More than Ash would have imagined there were in the entire world. Drivers and passengers cluster around the cars impatiently, rubbing their hands and jumping up and down to stay warm.
“I’ll bet they’re hungry,” Ash muses. “Maybe they might like some apples.”
“Smart girl. I believe that is a fine idea,” the reverend agrees. “A very fine idea. But you children stay near. If you hear a whistle or see engines being cranked, hurry back to the Lizzie.”
Slipping from the Model T, Ash, Dab, Clarey, and Blue hurry among the crowds, distributing the crimson and yellow Dabinettes, the Blue Pearmains good for eating or baking. The lemony, sweet, golden Ashmeads are passed from hand to hand, the bounty of the orchard Grandmother started and Ma tended to the last of her days, high on the mountain. The moment is joyous in some new way. Ash can’t help thinking that her mother would be filled with happiness at seeing them here, in this strange place that feels like something from a dream.
In return for the apples, other paraders offer sweets and pocket pies and breads and tiny jars of jam from their baskets. The children return with so much that they feast in the Model T together as the moon rises higher overhead, pushing its glow into the sharp, square canyons between buildings.
And then, finally, the time arrives. A group of men marching in support of women’s suffrage troops through the intersection ahead. They carry banners and sing in loud, raucous voices.
When the end of their procession passes, the whistles blow, and the autos follow, taking to the parade route in formation, line after line, until finally the very last turns onto Fifth Avenue.
Ash gapes at the rows of spectators flanking the street, men and women of all shapes and sizes. Children propped on their fathers’ shoulders, wrapped in scarves and hats and blankets. Thousands upon thousands of people, braving the cold October night to witness the last of the parade.
“Sit tall and wave, children,” the reverend Octavia Rose commands, as she unwraps her mud-spattered scarf and hands it to Ash. “Now is the time to go forth and show the powers that be that until women’s voices are heard, we will persist in making of ourselves a fine and proper nuisance!”
Scrambling onto her knees, Ash leans over the door to hold up the square of silk, yellow-gold like autumn leaves on the mountain, like the apples for which Ash was named. Laughing, she watches as the fabric unfurls, straining against its tethers as it rises into the night sky and takes flight.
Copyright © 2020 by M. J. Rose and Fiona Davis