The Hired Girl
Author:Laura Amy Schlitz

I said, “How very kind” in my best manner, but I wanted to laugh. I could see that Miss Chandler had imagined me like an invalid in a book, lying in bed and having flowers brought to me. Instead I was up and doing the wash. Why, I cleaned the chicken house the day after the accident — I figured if I was going to be miserable, I might as well get the chicken house cleaned at the same time. I hate that job.

I took the snowballs into the house and set them in the sink. I smoothed out the pieces of wet newspaper, to read later on, and dashed out with one of the kitchen chairs. I set it in the shade for Miss Chandler, and I went back in to prepare our picnic. Thank heavens I had the strawberries! Ripe strawberries and real cream are good enough for anybody. If the Queen of England came to Steeple Farm, I shouldn’t be ashamed to give her our strawberries and cream.

I charged upstairs to Ma’s hope chest. There were linen napkins inside — hemstitched — and little china bowls with roses on them, too fragile for everyday. I found silver spoons and rubbed the tarnish off them as quick as ever I could. The kitchen tray’s all scratched and stained looking, but I covered it with a napkin, and I sugared the berries well — brown sugar is tastier, but white is daintier, so I used white. Then I poured on the cream. For a moment it puzzled me what the tray would sit on, because the kitchen table’s too heavy to drag outdoors. But I picked up a stool, and set the tray on that, and carried the whole kit and caboodle out to the elm tree.

“Here’s the surprise,” I said, and set down the stool and the tray. “I picked the strawberries just this morning, and the cream came from the cow that kicked me in the face.”

Miss Chandler laughed. She has such a sweet laugh, not loud like mine, and she looked quite happily at the strawberries and cream. They did look lovely.

“I’m afraid I interrupted your work,” she said, “and you have no chair.”

“I don’t need one,” I said, and sat down at her feet. I almost forgot and sat cross-legged, which I do when I’m on my bed, but in the nick of time I sank down gracefully and tucked my feet under my skirt. At that moment — with my own bowl of strawberries and cream, knowing that Miss Chandler had come to see me because I was hurt, and knowing but trying not to think about the books she might have brought me — I was perfectly happy.

But I didn’t stay happy. Not perfectly happy, anyway. The first trouble was that I couldn’t think of what to say to Miss Chandler. Usually I saw her in school, where she was always teaching me something, and I could think of tons of things to say — my opinions about poetry and famous writers and so forth. But she’d never come to call before, and I felt shy. I think she did, too, because there were pauses between everything we said. Then she began to tell me about a new pupil she’d met at an ice-cream social: “One who reminds me of yourself, dear Joan.” This new girl is named Ivy Gillespie, and Miss Chandler says she is like me: “A regular bookworm and, I think, quite clever.” My joy was poisoned by jealousy as I imagined Ivy Gillespie going to school when I can’t, and Miss Chandler liking her better than me.

It seems to me that teachers are a little bit heartless. They greet each new wave of pupils and choose which ones they’ll like best, and then, when the students grow up and leave school, they forget all about them and turn to the next wave. I thought those thoughts and I was in a kind of panic, because I was sore with envy. I didn’t want to be. Miss Chandler was sitting there right in front of me, and she might never come again, and if I couldn’t enjoy myself having strawberries and cream with her — well, I didn’t know what was the matter with me.

Then I noticed Miss Chandler looking over my shoulder, nervous-like. I turned to see what she was looking at, and there was Father, coming up the hill. I forgot all about Ivy Gillespie and worried about Father. I could tell from the set of his shoulders he wasn’t in a good humor, and all at once I recollected that I hadn’t finished the laundry, and his trousers were lying on the grass. I knew Father wouldn’t like seeing Ma’s silver spoons or the little china bowls. Or the strawberries, either, because most of those we sell.

But there wasn’t anything I could do. I couldn’t hide the picnic things or make Miss Chandler vanish into thin air. I stopped listening to Miss Chandler and started to pray. Holy Mother of God, I thought, don’t let Father be ugly to Miss Chandler.

His footfalls came closer. At last I couldn’t stand waiting any longer. I got to my feet and turned to face him. I saw him with Miss Chandler’s eyes. Father’s a powerful man, and big. He was wearing his barn clothes, and you could smell them. His shirt was soaked with sweat and he had his sleeves rolled up, and he didn’t smile. “Father,” I said, “this is Miss Chandler. She came to call on me.” He didn’t say anything, the way he does, so I added, “My teacher.”

“You don’t go to school,” Father said curtly. He turned his head and spoke direct to Miss Chandler. “My daughter won’t be coming back to school. She’s needed at home.”