"Slow down, boy, or I'll have to re-light every candle in the house!" she chided him. But there was laughter in her voice.
"Look, Mum!" Josiah held up a string with nine plump fish on it. Their scales glittered in the candlelight.
"Goodness, Josiah! That's a handsome catch for a day. How lucky we are to have such a fine fisherman in the house! As good as your father was!" Truly, it was a great help to their livelihood now that Josiah was old enough to go fishing in the river on his own. Their steadily-growing supply of salted and dried fish meant that they could pass this winter a little more comfortably than the last.
Rebecca took the string of trout from Josiah and followed him into the kitchen. He tossed his dinner pail onto the wooden table, and she winced slightly at the empty thunk it made as it landed. Growing boys, she thought ruefully. Nothing but raw appetite bound in a human skin.
As if on cue, Josiah made a beeline to where his older sister, Matilda, was tending a pot on the hearth. "What's for supper, Tildy?" he asked while peering excitedly into the pot.
"Stew," replied Tildy. "Fish stew, looks like, if Mama will spare one or two of them from salting."
"Take two. Josiah, go shake the crumbs from your dinner pail and hang it up where it belongs."
"Yes, Mum, but there aren't any crumbs. I et them."
"Ate, Josiah. You ate them, not et. Did you enjoy the apple pie?"
"No, Mum, I didn't."
Rebecca looked up in surprise. "No? Why ever not?"
"I didn't enjoy it 'cause I didn't eat it. I gave it to Barnaby."
"Barnaby?" It wasn't a large community, and Rebecca had never heard of anybody named Barnaby.
"He's a ghost. I met him at the river."
"Oh, a ghost is it?" Rebecca laughed. "A ghost who eats apple pie?"
"Yes! And he can change into a bear, or a wolf. And he has yellow eyes with red in the middle and he can use them to do magic. And he eats people, too, only he likes apple pie better."
Tildy rolled her eyes. "That's foolish, Josiah. There aren't any such things as ghosts that eat people or shape shifters or magical eyes. You're telling lies. It's wicked to lie, isn't it, Mama?"
"Tildy, you know well that there's a difference between telling lies and telling stories. Josiah has an active imagination, as is normal for a child his age. As did you when you were his age, I might add. Don't torment your brother."
Tildy sighed. "Yes, Mama."
"Mum?" Josiah asked. "Can I have a pie in my dinner pail again tomorrow? Barnaby said that if I give him another apple pie, he won't eat any of the townsfolk."
Rebecca was shaking so much from trying to suppress her laughter that she had to set the boning knife down on the table. Such a tale, all to finagle another apple pie! "I do believe there may be an extra pie that could find its way into your dinner tomorrow, dear fisherman, but only if you'll go bring in some more wood for the fire." she told Josiah with merriment in her eyes.
Josiah's face lit up "Thanks, Mum!" he shouted as he ran out the back door, setting the candles to dancing again.
Thud. This time, the dinner pail didn't sound hollow when Josiah set it on the table. A little puddle of water that had sloshed over the side formed under it.
"Gracious, Josiah, what did you do? Drop your dinner in the river?" Rebecca joked.
"No, Mum. There weren't so many fish today, so I dug up clams instead."
The pail was indeed full of clams. They wouldn't do anything to add to the winter stores, but they'd make a good supper for the night anyway. The pail would need to be cleaned.
"Did Barnaby enjoy his apple pie?" she asked Josiah.
"Yes! And he let me ride on his back while he was a wolf. He said he'd like another pie tomorrow.”
"And do you think I pull pies fresh made out of my apron pockets? That was the last one. Tell Master Barnaby he'll get stomach cramps if he eats naught but apple pie."
"I can tell him, Mum. But if he gets hungry, he might eat a person instead."
Rebecca considered while she shucked clams. Pies were not a luxury they could afford often. But harvest time was a good season. The branches in the orchard behind their house were heavy with shiny red and green apples. It was a mercy that Andrew had left her the orchard when he died. Without it, she’d have undoubtedly needed to remarry just to keep Tildy and Josiah fed. But with it, Rebecca could trade apples for goods and services she and her children needed. She enjoyed this short season each year when they had plenty, and she could allow her children a little extra.
"Josiah, your birthday is only a few days off. Would you like it if I made you some apple pies then? I'll give you a half dozen of them. You can take the day off from fishing and chores and share your pies with whomever you like."
"Truly, Mum? Half a dozen apple pies? Truly?"
"Truly. Do you think Barnaby can wait until your birthday without getting hungry enough to eat the townsfolk?"
"I think so, Mum! Thank you!"
Dear boy, thought Rebecca. If I hadn't any foresight, I'd give up every bushel of apples I had to see him smile like that.
Rebecca set the heavy bushel basket down on the cellar floor, wiped her hands on her rough woolen skirt, and breathed a heavy sigh. These were the last of the apples this year’s apples. Josiah and Tildy came down the stone steps behind her carrying smaller baskets laden with the last of their harvest of onions and turnips.
After depositing her basket of turnips, Tildy plopped down onto the cellar stairs. "I am so glad to be done digging turnips. I think there must be more turnips than last year, because I don't remember being so weary when we finished digging last year's garden."
"Quite so, Tildy," Rebecca said. "Last year I wrote in my diary that we had put away three bushels of turnips, but this year we have four and a half. It has been a mild season, and you've grown more skilled with the gardening." Tildy beamed.
"And thanks to Josiah, we have also a fair supply of salted fish that we did not have last year. We are blessed in our provisions for this winter."
"Mum," Josiah spoke up, "since we've finished and have such a good harvest, might I have some more apple pies for Barnaby? It's been weeks since my birthday pies. He's very hungry."
Rebecca sighed. Perhaps she had gone too far in humoring Josiah's Barnaby tales at first, for he had been asking after apple pies near daily for the past fortnight. "Between the apples for Barnaby's pies and the apples I would have to trade for the sugar and flour, we'd have no apples left for winter. We'd all get scurvy."
"It's a sickness born of not eating vegetables and fruits. First you'll become weak, then you'll take fever and your skin will yellow and spot. Your teeth will loosen and fall out. Would you like that very much, Josiah?"
"No, Mum." And then more quietly, "But it would still be better than being et by Barnaby."
"Eaten, Josiah. Civilized folk don’t say 'et.' Now go wash the turnip dust from your hands, and say no more of apple pies."
As Josiah trudged up the stairs, he reflected that when Barnaby got them, civilized folk weren't likely to care whether they were being ‘et’ or ‘eaten.’
*****************************"Will you come in and take tea, Martha?" Rebecca asked of the sturdy older woman who had just brought three sacks of flour to her door. Martha had charge of the operations of the town’s mill and bakery. In truth, the business belonged to her son Henry now, but Martha had been the one to operate the shop even when her husband Ephraim had been alive, and Henry was content to let things continue that way. Rebecca had a standing trade agreement with Martha. Each harvest season, Martha received several bushels of apples, and in return Rebecca was supplied with flour.
"Would that I had the time for tea, 'Becca, but half the autumn wheat's still in the storehouse waitin' to be milled, and the millers won't be diligent in turnin’ the stone if I'm not lookin’ at ‘em." She nodded toward Josiah, who had just come around the corner of the house with an armload of firewood. "That boy of yours has done me more help these few weeks than any of the louts I pay."
"Josiah's done you service? What do you mean?"
"You didn't know? He's been in my shop every few days sweepin' the floors, fetchin' wood for the oven, an’ takin' the ash bin out to be emptied." She grinned. "Never met a lad with such a nose for apple pies. Every time I put a batch of ‘em in the oven, I turn ‘round and find him at the door offerin’ to work."
Rebecca's face went pale. "I had no idea, Martha. I only noticed that he was coming home with fewer fish, but I reckoned it was the cold weather at fault. I do apologize for him. He'll be hearing some words when you've gone, and he won't trouble you in your shop again."
"Truly, the lad's no trouble, 'Becca. I like havin' a worker with some industry, even a little one. And a pie or two's no great price for the work he saves me."
"All the same, Martha, it isn't proper for him to go without my leave, and I can't have the townsfolk thinking I’m sending him out like a vagrant to solicit work and food, as if I didn't have enough of both for him here. And he's been badgering me for apple pies for two months, with a story about a creature named Barnaby who eats pies so that it doesn't have to eat people. I thought it naught but a harmless game, but he won’t let it go and I fear he thinks about pies more than his prayers."
"Oh, 'Becca, growin’ boys are powerful hungry creatures. My own Henry used to hound me for roasted beets until I thought he’d turn red. Once I told him he'd had enough, and he told me it was for a hungry beggar in the street. They'll tell all manner of tales to get an extra bite to put in their gapin’ mouths. Yet Josiah's comin' to me without your knowledge is a trouble, and it's best you do as you see fit to correct him."
"Thank you, Martha. Perhaps when he's set straight, I'll send him back to help you again. But not in return for pies."
"If it comes to that, I'll be glad to have him again.”
*****************************Martha stepped up to Rebecca’s hearth to hang her snow-covered cloak. Tildy came in just behind her and deposited a small parcel on the table before hanging her cloak next to Martha’s.
“Ah, a fire’s a fine thing after ridin’ from town,” sighed Martha. “Though if I’d known Tildy was to town this morn, I could’ve saved myself the journey. By the time I caught up to her on the road, I was near here already.”
“What could bring you this far in the snow, Martha, without need of bringing me flour?” Rebecca asked as she carefully measured the precious tea leaves from their little chest. “Josiah, the kettle’s aboil. Fetch it for me, and take care not to burn yourself.”
“News,” said Martha as she eased herself onto a chair. “Grave news, I’m afraid. Old Man Crawley’s died.”
“God rest his poor soul,” Rebecca said. “Was he ill?”
“Nay. Henry went with some loaves of bread a week past. Crawley wasn't at home, so he left the loaves on the table. When he went again yesternoon, last week’s loaves were still sittin’ where Henry’d left ‘em, frozen solid. Henry an’ a few of the millers went lookin’ for the old man, an’ they found his body a way into the woods.”
Josiah was listening, wide-eyed. “He got et by Barnaby. Eaten.”
“Josiah!” Rebecca snapped sharply. “A death is a grave matter and no fitting time for your tall tales.”
“Besides,” interjected Tildy, “he wasn't eaten. He was just dead. Like he lay down to sleep and never got up again.”
“That’s ‘cause Barnaby doesn't eat bodies. Just souls.” Josiah whispered.
“That is enough, Josiah. If you are so inclined to speak wickedly, then you no longer have leave to speak. You’ll go to the loft and you’ll lie in your bed until I give you leave to come down.” Rebecca shook her head sadly. “Old Man Crawley’s death needs no Barnaby to add to its woe. He was old, and senseless of mind, and wandered too far in the cold. He ought not to have been left living alone so far from the town.”
“Aye,” Martha nodded. “But if a widower wants to keep to himself after losin’ his wife, it isn't the business of other folk to say differently.”
“Aye,” Rebecca sighed. Would that the same held true for a widow, as well.
*****************************Rebecca was in a foul temper as she scraped the mud from her shoes and hung her rain-sodden cloak up to dry. She and Tildy had just returned from the town’s second funeral this week. The first, two days ago, had been for young Thomas Warren. Today’s had been for Susannah Howe. The two young folk had been sweethearts, but old John Howe had said nay to their marriage. A fortnight later, Thomas and Susannah had been found in the river, drowned.
Tildy was still hiccupping and wiping her red nose on her handkerchief. Susannah had been only a year older than her, and they had been good friends. But as if this dual tragedy and Tildy’s misery weren't enough woe for the day, Rebecca’s ears still echoed with the concerned words that Martha had whispered to her in a private moment.
“Josiah!” she called sharply. “Come to me at once.”
Josiah appeared from the kitchen. “Yes, Mum?”
“I talked to Martha Griggs in town today. What do you think she told me?”
“I don’t know, Mum.”
“I think you do, Josiah.” Rebecca’s eyes seemed to crackle and spark. “She told me that three days ago, she set out a dozen apple pies to cool in the bakery and then went back to the mill for more flour. When she came back, half the pies were gone. And we know someone who as an unhealthy fondness for apple pies, don’t we, Josiah?”
“Barnaby,” said Josiah.
“Don’t you speak to me of Barnaby, young man. Tell me now. Did you steal Martha’s pies?”
“I did not!” Josiah nearly shouted. “Barnaby took the pies, and Mrs. Griggs is lucky she had pies out or he’d have eaten her or one of the millers instead, just like he ate Thomas and Susannah and Old Man Crawley!”
Rebecca spoke quietly, but the intensity in her voice was such that even Tildy began to back into a corner. “Josiah Post, you are a thief and a liar, and you speak wickedly of the misfortune of those recently departed. You bring me shame. I fear I have been too lenient with you until now. Tildy, please go to the kitchen and fetch the large wooden spoon.”
“Yes, Mama.” Tildy ran out of the room and quickly returned with the spoon. “Here you are, Mama,” she said with a quaver in her voice.
Rebecca didn't like what she had to do, but she set her jaw determinedly and turned Josiah over her knee. She brought the spoon down on his rear until he began to howl, and then added a few more blows for good measure. By the time she finished, there were tears hiding at the corners of her eyes. She set Josiah back on his feet.
“It does not please me to give you a beating,” she spoke over his wailing, “but if you utter the words ‘Barnaby’ or ‘pie’ to me again, you’ll receive another. From now on, you’ll not leave this house without Tildy or me to keep you on God’s path. It will burden us, to not have you fishing or doing errands, but since I cannot trust you I have no choice. Furthermore, since you've glutted yourself on pies, I do not think you’ll be needing supper this night. You will go to bed, and if I see your face before morning, you’ll forfeit your breakfast as well.”
When Josiah’s wailing had faded into the sleeping area in the loft, Rebecca slumped onto the nearest bolster as though her bones had turned to jelly. She buried her face in her hands. She did not make any sounds, but Tildy could see the tears trickling down her wrists.
“Mama?” Tildy asked quietly. “Surely it’s not so bad? Mrs. Griggs said herself that there’s not a man in town who never snatched a pie or two when he was a boy. It doesn't seem like such a great cause to worry.”
“It would ordinarily be no great thing, Tildy, were I not a widow still of childbearing years and willfully unmarried. It’s a great mercy that Martha’s a friend and won’t speak of this to anyone else.”
“I know many of the townsfolk think it improper that you've not remarried, Mama, but why would a few stolen pies make a difference?”
“So long as I show that I’m able to provide for you and Josiah, and raise you with Godly principles, we’ll be left to live in peace. Folk will gossip and prod me to remarry, but they’ll not take action to force the issue. But if the townsfolk think I can’t feed you properly, or if Josiah’s known to be thieving and telling tales about devils, they’ll question my ability to raise you without a husband’s guidance. They may gather the church or even the court and force me to marry, or they may remove you from my care and indenture you to another family that has means and needs more working hands.”
“Mama, why are you so against remarrying? I know the widower Nathaniel Bridges has offered for you more than once. He’s a decent and industrious man, and not so terrible to look upon. Would our lives not be easier with his support, and without the public eye judging us unkindly?”
“Tildy, how is it that we’re able to make do, now?”
“Because of the orchard, Mama.”
“And why do we have that orchard?”
“It was Papa’s, and he left it when he died.”
“Yes. It was your Papa’s, and his Papa’s, and his Grandpapa’s before him. And what do you think will become of the orchard if I marry Nathaniel Bridges? Who will it belong to then?”
Tildy thought for a moment. “I suppose it would still belong to you in name, but Nathaniel would have the right to tell you what to do with it.”
“That’s right. And if I die before him, then the orchard is fully his in name and deed. Who do you think he would leave it to?”
Tildy’s eyes lit up with understanding. “He’d leave it to his son, James, most like.”
Rebecca looked up, and some of the fire had returned to her eyes. “Tildy, this land is your father’s, and James is no blood of your father. I intend for it to pass to you and Josiah, and I’ll not chance otherwise. That is why I will not marry, and why we must work so hard to keep up the appearance of doing well. Josiah doesn't yet understand, but he will need to learn quickly lest his words or actions damn us.”
But Josiah, stomach rumbling from lack of dinner, was listening from the loft. “I do understand,” he thought to himself.
Rebecca sat down on the grass and breathed deeply of the mild spring air, faintly laced with the scent of apples from the clouds of blossoms above her. She had sent Tildy and Josiah together on an errand to Martha’s shop, and was now taking a rare opportunity to enjoy the weather and her own company. She was not usually prone to idleness, but in the spring, she liked to sit in the orchard and look at the blossoming trees. She enjoyed the beauty, but she also enjoyed the promise of another harvest this autumn that would keep her little family secure. This orchard represented safety.
“Ah, the scent of apple blossoms is lovely, isn't it, Rebecca?” a voice behind her hissed. The safety of her orchard shattered, and she flew up, looking for the source of the menacing voice. She could see nothing.
“Of course, it is not quite so appealing as the scent of your fresh, juicy apple pies. You’ll make me another one soon, won’t you?”
Rebecca’s eyes followed the sound of the voice. There! Against the trees, she could see a faint outline of a creature. A bear? No, a wolf? As she stared, the translucent shape seemed to change form, until finally it looked like the silhouette of a tall, thin man, with the orchard still fuzzily discernible through it. In its head area, she found two deep yellow eyes with red pupils. She tried to run, but those eyes held her in place as if she’d grown roots.
“Now where would you want to be going, when we've only just made our acquaintance, dear Rebecca?” Below the yellow eyes, a crack appeared that broadened into a hideously wide grin.
“Barnaby!” Rebecca rasped through her suddenly parched throat. “You’re Barnaby. You’re what Josiah’s been talking about all this time.”
“Yes,” Barnaby hissed, with a sound that might have been laughter. “And you didn't believe him.”