The Hired Girl
Author:Laura Amy Schlitz

After the doctor left, I went to my room and slept a short while, but then Matthew rapped on my door. He said it was suppertime and they’d all agreed to make do with a cold meal, because of my eye. He seemed to think that was handsome of them, which aggravated me. I thought about not answering, pretending to be asleep, and not coming down. But then I remembered last winter, when I had the grippe and couldn’t get out of bed for four days. The men made an awful mess of the kitchen. They left the dirty dishes in the sink, and everything was sticky and greasy and crumby by the time I was well enough to come downstairs. And in four days they never once cleaned the privy. Oh, dear heavens, that is vulgar again! But how am I to be anything but vulgar, living in such a house?

I went downstairs and sliced ham and bread and cheese and made sandwiches. I put out jelly and pickles and cold baked beans. I couldn’t chew, because my face was too sore, but I had a glass of milk and some of the beans. Father looked at me and said, “That eye’s near swollen shut. Maybe that’ll keep you from reading instead of doing your chores.” How heartless he is! He was vexed with Mark for sending for the doctor, because the wound might have mended without stitching, and now there’ll be a bill to pay.

All through supper, Father reminded Mark of the expenses we’ve had this spring. Mark didn’t answer back. He just shoveled in his food. Every now and then Father would fall silent, and we’d think it was over, but then he’d start up again.

It was an unpleasant meal, even for Steeple Farm. But the men ate just as much as usual. When I stood up to clear away the plates, I felt frail and shaky. I wondered how much blood I’d lost and if it was enough to make me faint. I wished I could faint, right in front of everyone. But I didn’t. I cleared up the dishes and slipped my diary out from under the dish towels and brought it upstairs.

I looked at myself in the mirror, and oh, I wanted to cry. My face is all swollen and out of shape, and bright purple, and then there are those four black stitches, each one crusted with dark-red scabs. I thought about praying, but I wasn’t sure what to pray for because what’s done is done. I said, “Dear Mother of God,” and for a moment I imagined the Blessed Mother shifting the baby Jesus into the crook of her arm, so that she could reach out and lay her soft hand on my cheek. I imagined her saying, “There, now,” the way Ma used to do, and all at once I missed Ma so much I couldn’t stand it.

Then I was very pathetic. I went to my chest and took out Belinda, the rag doll Ma made for my sixth birthday. I crawled into bed with Belinda in my lap and rocked her. When I was six, I thought Belinda was the most beautiful doll in the world, better than any wax or china-faced doll. Now that I’m fourteen, I wonder how Ma managed her. Belinda’s pigtails are merino wool, and Ma made her wig so beautifully you can’t see her scalp through the yarn. And Belinda’s dress is silk, which Ma embroidered with flowers. The silk must have been a remnant, but even so, Ma must have spent a lot of her egg money to buy it. All the time that went into making me that doll — her petticoat is trimmed with three rows of ruffles, and there are more ruffles on her apron. Oh, Ma loved me; that much is sure and certain.

One thing about Belinda is a secret. Under the ruffles, her apron is stiff. It’s stiff because Ma sewed money inside the hem — dollar bills. I don’t know how many; from the stiffness, it might be ten or even fifteen. The summer before she died, Ma told me she was going to stitch the money inside Belinda’s apron, and that money was just for me, for a time when I really needed it. “Not for toys,” she whispered, and I remember how hot and sharp her whisper felt against my ear. “Not for toys or clothes or candy or pretty things. That money’s for something important. If I’m ever not here to help you, remember that money’s there for you, right in Belinda’s apron.”

I was nine years old, and scared. I didn’t like her talking about a time when she wouldn’t be around to help me. I suppose I knew even then that Ma wasn’t strong. She was too delicate to be a farmer’s wife. She had terrible headaches, and sometimes she’d stop working because she couldn’t get her breath. Even at nine, I was stronger than she was. Sometimes at the end of a day, she’d say, “I’ve worked you too hard,” but then she would smile and touch my cheek and say, “but never mind, you’re a strong girl and a good girl and a great help to me. That’s the thing you’ve got to remember.” And I did remember it, after she died.

I wish I looked like Ma. She always said she wasn’t pretty, but she was small and thin and quick in her movements — like Jane Eyre, maybe. I’d like to look in the mirror and see Ma’s face instead of my own. But the only thing I inherited from Ma was her blue eyes. For the rest of it, I look like Father, with a face as wide as a shovel, and broad shoulders and a big mouth. It’s not such a bad look for the men — Luke is even handsome — but it’s wrong for a girl. I’d rather look like Ma, more delicate and refined. But oh! just now I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror — all swollen and purple and goblin-ish! — and I’d give just about anything to look like myself again.

Monday, June the nineteenth, 1911