The Devil’s In the Details (by McFair)
Miss Abigail Jones looked up from her desk, noting a shadow blocking the door of the schoolhouse. She frowned as she raised a hand to block the glare. Whoever was there was a student – a small slender student with a head of curly hair.
Laying her pen down, she stepped from behind the desk and approached the boy. “Joseph, you should be on your way home,” she stated sternly.
The poor boy jumped, but held his ground.
Softening her tone a bit, she continued as she approached, “What is it you need, young man?”
He was holding his black hat and ringing it with his fingers. When Joseph looked up, she was struck once again by the simple beauty of the child – a beauty he knew he possessed and often used to his advantage. It was her job as his teacher to impress upon him that beauty was, indeed, more than skin deep.
The Cartwright boys were children of wealth and it would be so easy for them to lose their heads and their way.
“Well, Ma’am,” he began with hesitation, “it’s about that assignment for tomorrow.” He paused, swallowed and then went on. “The one to honor our mothers….”
She held out her hand. “Joseph, please, sit down.”
Those huge green eyes glanced at her and then he reached out and took her hand and let her lead him to one of the school benches.
For once, he did what he was told.
Joseph had spent more time in the corner of this room than his two brothers combined. She gazed at him now, thinking of the great intelligence the boy had. If only she could point it in the right direction.
When he said nothing, she asked, “Well?”
He looked down at the hat in his lap. “Miss Jones, well, you know my mama’s dead….”
She remembered Marie and, while she had not entirely approved of her, she had to admit she had been a diligent mother and wife. She was, however, one of the most undisciplined women she had ever met. Her eyes flicked to Joe.
The sins of the mother in this case….
“Yes, Joseph. There are other children in the class who have lost their mothers as well. You must write about what you remember.”
“That’s just it.” She heard the fire rising in his tone as it did whenever something hurt him emotionally. He was prone to cry, but before the tears there were usually fists. “I don’t remember anything!”
Her hand went out to land on his. “Joseph,” she said and waited.
He was sucking in air like he’d just come up out of Yorick’s grave. It took a moment, but he looked at her.
“Surely you remember something. Come now, let me help you.” She released his hand and leaned back. “Close your eyes.”
“It will shut out other distractions. Close your eyes.”
“Now, think about your mother.”
She saw him do it. Saw the pain register on that beautiful face. Saw his lips tremble.
Her hand returned to his.
“What do you see?”
For a moment he was silent. “I can hear her,” he whispered.
“Her skirts swishing. Her…voice.” His jaw clenched. “But I can’t see her.”
She bit her lip. “What do you see when you think of your mother, Joseph?”
“A pretty little woman. “
Marie was that. “And?”
He shook his head.
“What color was her hair?” She knew, of course, that it had been golden blonde.
Joseph sighed. After a moment, his eyes opened up and he looked at her. “Pa’s got, well, more than one picture. He said he had two painted in New Orleans and the artists got it wrong both times, making her hair too dark so it looked almost brown and her face not ‘her’ face. He…gave those to me anyhow and one of her likeness. Since I…. Since I can’t remember, Miss Jones, she’s all sort of…jumbled up in my head. Sometimes I think one of them is her, ‘cause I can see it in my head, and then other times….”
He looked up. “Ma’am?”
“Because, not ‘cause. You sound like one of your father’s ranch hands.”
“Hoss says ‘cause,” he said innocently.
Yes, Eric did. Ten years of working with that boy and it had done her no good. Eric had grown up with his father’s ranch hands and was more one of them in speech than of the Cartwright family. There had been no persuading him that he should speak better English. It had been one of her failures as a teacher. Still, Eric was a big gentle boy and was no slouch when it came to learning or retaining facts. Good grammar simply did not enter into his world.
She was going to see that it was different with his little brother.
“All right, Joseph. Maybe if we go back farther to your father’s and brothers’ memories, that will help. What do you know about your mother from them?”
“That’s confusing too, Ma’am. My Pa met her in New Orleans. He was there doing something for the first man she was married to who was dead. There’s….” The boy paused. His head went down. “People are always talking about her.”
So he’d overheard the whispers. She supposed the other children had too.
She tapped his leg and he looked at her. “You must learn to ignore idle speculation, Joseph. All that matters is what your father and brothers have told you.”
Poor child. His mother’s past had been conversation for wide speculation, accusing the woman of everything from bigamy to being a dance hall girl. The schoolmarm sighed. In spite of it all, there had to be more, else Benjamin Cartwright would not have married her.
“Well, Adam said he called her Marie and that she was about the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She was funny and a bit of a….” His eyes flicked to hers. “A bit of a Hellcat.”
Her brown brows popped. “Oh. And Eric?”
She drew a breath and let it out slowly. Why Benjamin Cartwright ever allowed his middle boy to become known by such a common appellation she would never understand.
“Oh.” Joseph smiled for the first time. “Hoss said she was pretty as a day of sunshine. Hoss called her ‘mama’ like me.”
“There, see. You remembered something.”
Joseph frowned and then the smiled widened. “Hey, I did!”
“Now, let’s go on. Like I’ve taught you in school, you have to investigate. What did your Pa tell you about the day you were born?”
The frown returned.
“That’s confusing too. When Pa and Adam and Hoss and me – ”
He sighed. “When Pa and Hoss and Adam and I was – ”
He sighed even bigger. “Ma’am, I gotta get home sometime. If you keep correcting me, we could be here all night.”
She hid her smile.
“When Pa and Adam and Hoss and…I were sitting in the great room one night, we got to talking about just that.”
‘Got too’, she inwardly sighed. Eric’s influence was definitely not the best. She would have to talk to their father about it.
“Pa looked up the stairs and said I was born in the little room upstairs.”
“And that is confusing because…?”
“Well, Pa was talking about a time when we went to New Orleans when I was just a little boy and Mama was still living, but I don’t remember it.”
“You had to have been very young.”
“But I do remember playing with a friend in New Orleans. Just not being in New Orleans.” He thought deeply for a moment. “I’m not sure which one I was dreaming.”
“Well, you’ll sort it out as you get older. Maybe you need to ask your father again.”
“One of the hands told me I was born in New Orleans.”
She could imagine why. Probably trying to disparage the poor child’s birth and plant a seed that would trouble the boy later – maybe make him think he was illegitimate.
People could be so cruel.
“So, let me see what we do have. Your mother was from New Orleans. She met your father there. She was very pretty and loving and had spirit, and your father loved her as much as she did him. She left the life she knew to come out West and build the Ponderosa. She was a good mother to your other brothers and gave birth to you. Your remember her voice and how much she loved you. “ She smiled gently. “Does that about sum it up?”
He was looking half-convinced.
“There’s one more thing, Ma’am.”
He looked quite upset. “Yes?”
“I ain’t…I’m not sure what her name was.”
That surprised her. “Your mother’s name was Marie.”
“But pa called her Felicia too. I know, I heard it.”
“Are you sure?”
She thought a moment. “Could it be,” she asked, “that he used the word ‘felicity’ instead?”
Those green eyes narrowed with puzzlement. “Why would he do that, Miss Jones?”
Her lips quirked. “Do you remember the meaning of ‘felicity’, Joe?” They’d studied it not all that long before.
He looked extremely guilty. “No, Ma’am.”
She rose and went to her desk and picked up the dictionary that lay there. Turning to the page to where the letter ‘F’ began, she continued on until she found the word. Sitting once more beside the boy, she handed it to him.
“You want me to read it?” he asked.
Joseph ran his finger along the page. He was frowning at first, but as he read, he began to smile. “Felicity – intense happiness. Something that is pleasing or well chosen.”
Her hand went to the boy’s riotous curls this time. “Perhaps your father called your mother ‘Felicia’. It has the same meaning. Sometimes grown-ups have pet names for each other. Terms of endearment, so to speak.” She released her hold. “So you can add that to your paper, now can’t you? Your mother was a blessing to your father and well-chosen.”
“But what about all the other stuff?” he asked as he laid the book down. “What about her looking different and whether or not I was born upstairs or in New Orleans or whether I’ve ever been there or not?”
She reached out and took both of his hands in hers. They were so small. He was so young, and with so much life ahead of him. A boy’s connection to his mother was primal. He needed to have it clear.
“Joseph, no matter what you have been told – or what you choose of your mother’s story to tell others – you know what?”
He shook his head.
“The Devil is in the details. God is in the greater picture and God has gifted you with a loving family and though it is missing one member, she is still there – Marie Felicia is still there – within you and she always will be.”
Someone cleared their throat and both their heads turned toward the open door.
“So there you are, you little scamp,” Ben Cartwright said with affection – and just a touch of relief in his voice.
Joseph was on his feet in an instant. “I’m sorry, Pa. I….”
“I kept Joseph after school to help him with his project, Ben. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize so much time had gone by.”
She looked at the boy as she said it. Maybe tonight would help to erase the image of her as an ogre that she was sure his brothers had planted in his young mind.
Ben came straight for them. Upon arrival he ruffled his son’s brown curls and smiled. “No harm done. What project are you working on, Little Joe?”
Joseph looked at his feet.
She bit the bullet, so to speak, as her eyes sought the older man’s. “It is a project for our Remembrance of Mother day.”
She saw the pain flash. Five years later, with the boy now ten years old, it was still raw.
“I see. And what did Little Joe need help with?”
There was fear in that question – fear and more pain.
Before Joseph could answer, she did. “Grammar and punctuation. Sentence structure.” She glanced at Joseph and managed a surreptitious wink. “Just a little help with the details.”
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