A Long Time Ago

by George Opacic

In a village of industrious craftspeople there lived a young woman who could not cook.

When still a child, her mother had asked her to watch as the soup was made. Mother collected garden-fresh potatoes, carrots, celery, mushrooms and tomatoes, along with parsley, pepper, basil and salt from the pantry. The kitchen air blossomed with the small basket of garden produce she had just gathered. The daughter added more wood to the fire to heat the water, ready on the stove in their iron soup cauldron. Mother showed her daughter how to peel and chop the vegetables, how long to boil the root vegetables and then add the rest of the ingredients each at their own times. When the soup was ready, Mother served it to her family and proudly announced that their daughter would have soup for them the next day.

In preparation for that coming meal, the daughter went out next morning. Mother told her to take along a basket so she could carry home any produce she might want to collect, but the daughter said, “I have a different idea, mother.”

Later that morning the daughter came back with a strong boy who was carrying a heavy cauldron.

Mother was surprised. “Daughter, you do not have any vegetables under your arm and why is Tommy carrying that cauldron?”

Pleased to show her initiative the daughter replied, “Tommy is carrying the vegetables in the soup and it was all prepared by his mother. All I have to do is heat it up in time for supper.”

Sure enough, when Mother looked into the cauldron, it was full of prepared vegetables, spices and even water. “Tommy, why did you carry that heavy cauldron all the way from your house to here? Are you not going to have the soup yourself?”

Tommy looked a bit embarrassed. “Why, no, ma’am. Your daughter bought the soup all prepared and my mother only asks that you have the cauldron cleaned when I come for it tomorrow.”

Now it was Mother’s turn to be confused. “Bought? What do you mean bought?”

Placing his heavy load on the floor inside the door, Tommy explained. “Well, Susan, here, said she’d give my mother a coin if she would prepare the cauldron of soup. And here it is… Do you want it?”

Mother politely thanked Tommy for delivering the soup and promised that the clean cauldron would be ready for him in the morning.

When Tommy left, Mother turned sternly to her daughter. “Susan! What a complete waste of valuable coins! And where did you ever get those coins to throw away with such carelessness?”

Susan was not deterred by her mother’s attitude. “Mother, when you sent me last week to work for old Mrs. Harlow, she agreed to pay me five small coins for my work. So you see, I still have four coins left.”

“WHAT?” Mother was furious. “Mrs. Harlow is old and stiff with her joint pains and she can hardly get out of bed anymore. I sent you there out of charity, to help the poor woman! Not for you to rob her of her last possessions!”

Standing firm in the face of her mother’s wrath, Susan replied. “I did not ask Mrs. Harlow for the coins. She offered them because, as she said, she does not have much time left and she wanted to do some good with her coins before she passed on.”

Mother thought about that. “But still, Susan, I showed you how easy it is to make your soup. How will it look if Tommy goes about telling everyone in the village that you don’t know how to cook? There wouldn’t be a boy around here who would have you!”

“Have me as what, Mother?”

“Why, as a wife, of course!”

Susan thought for minute. “I have to say, Mother, that I cannot think of having any of these boys as my husband.”

“Susan!”

Seeing that her mother was about to become apoplectic, Susan scurried away to the stove with her cauldron of soup.

And so it was that Susan grew into a strong-willed young woman who made up her own mind as to what should be done in her life. She never did learn the craft of making her own food. But Susan did not go hungry while her mother was around.

And, apparently, her lack of skill in the kitchen did not deter the young men of the village from constantly asking her to accompany them for a walk in the meadow by the nearby lake. It was during the second of those invitations that Susan found herself in a compromising situation.

Charles was the eldest son of the village blacksmith. He followed in his father’s profession, of course, and was becoming a competent smith with bulging muscles.

One day, Susan was speaking to a group of young ladies about what she had learned when visiting the other village. Her stories were about the people from the great and mysterious and exciting city where the King lived.

Susan had been sent by her mother to the village on the other side of the lake to visit their relatives. Mother thought that Susan would settle down after having a bit of an adventure. Mother was wrong.

The neighbouring village was close to the highway that was used by the King’s men to travel to the sea coast, so the village had grown larger around the original travelers hotel. Now there were three hotels to serve the travelers, not all of whom were in the service of the King.

Susan had stayed for eight days with different relatives. Each night after the big supper, she was regaled with stories of the many travelers and the stories that they brought from the sea coast and from the King’s city. Susan’s mother had allowed her to take one of her small coins along and, on her third day in the bustling village she determined to spend her coin. Accompanied by a cousin who was delegated to keep her safe, Susan walked into the public house that comprised the lower level of the newest and grandest hotel in the village.

She had no idea what to expect. Whatever she may have dreamed about the public house, it was so delightfully foreign from any other experience she had, that Susan stumbled and then danced about from table to group in a trance. She had long conversations with people she had never met before and they spoke of silky clothing styles and jeweled buggy whips and food from the sea that tickled the tongue and curious relationships using words she had never heard before but which she just knew would horrify her mother if she ever heard them.

Hours later, her cousin finally managed to drag Susan outside. It was dark. It was well past supper time but Susan’s head was so filled with the wonders she experienced inside the public house that her head was spinning with colourful visions. Or maybe it was the drink that she bought with her coin.

Back in her own village, everything seemed grey and dull and so boringly quiet that Susan felt the urgent need to tell others about her adventures in the outside world. So, one evening, when Susan was asked by some acquaintances what she had seen and heard in the village across the lake, Susan was more than ready to tell them. She did add a few things, elaborating somewhat on the experiences that travelers had recounted in the public house. As Susan spoke, more young ladies crowded round, eager to hear. The larger the crowd became, the more fantastic Susan’s stories became, and the stories changed from happening to others, to happening to her.

Charles and a few other boys wandered by to see why a crowd was collecting. When they saw that it was Susan telling everyone about her adventures beyond the lake, the boys stayed. Charles was as interested as the others at first. However, he, too, had been to the other village while accompanying his father to bring back supplies of iron and coal. He finally could not contain himself as Susan told of how she had fought off a ruffian from the coast. Charles let out a loud guffaw. “You fought him off? I’d have trouble with some of those devils!”

Susan saw that she was on the verge of losing her rapturous audience. “Yes, Charles, you might have, but this old seaman had lost a leg, which is why they called him Pegleg. As he reached out for me I kicked his wooden leg and he fell headfirst onto a stout chair.”

With delighted chuckles, the audience was back on her side.

Susan learned from her first night’s story-telling to keep closer to reality.

Despite himself, Charles was intrigued with Susan. One day when Charles delivered a packet of new nails for Susan’s father to use on a project, Susan took the lead in bartering for payment. Her father backed away with a knowing smile. Normally, the packet of nails would have been worth two bushels of fresh vegetables from their garden. Susan’s father had been prepared to offer one-and-a-half bushels then perhaps bargain up to the two.

Susan opened the packet to inspect the nails. “Two of these are beginning to rust, Charles. Were they all made this week?” She smiled coyly up at his bushy-bearded face.

He grinned down at her. “I should be careful you don’t kick my pegleg. Yes, Susan. All these nails were hammered out by me, personally, this week. I will take the standard two bushels…”

Susan interrupted him, “Why Charles…” She surprised Charles and her father with her suggestive pose, “…I am disappointed that you should be so forward.” She combed a slithering hand through her light brown curls.

Charles was speechless. He stared at Susan’s hair, then his eyes started wandering, then he suddenly glanced at Susan’s father. At a distinct disadvantage under this feminine onslaught Charles cleared his throat. “Ah, well, like, we normally exchange this many nails for, ah, two bushels, but if, well, like, under the circumstances, with those two very slightly rusty nails in the packet, I will offer my apologies and accept a single bushel of your garden vegetables.” He heard what he had just said and quickly added, “Like, if you wouldn’t mind packing it tightly and having a few good-sized potatoes on the bottom.” He had glanced over at Susan’s father with a pleading look. “If you don’t mind, sir?”

Susan nodded in satisfaction. “That will be fine, Charles. Perhaps you’d care to accompany me to our garden. I can allow you to choose your own potatoes while I collect the rest of the basket.”

Susan’s father had to suppress a laugh. As the two young folk walked back to the garden, Father couldn’t wait to go inside to tell Mother what he had witnessed. Inside, he laughed out loud while she tittered in amusement, and some wonder.

That was when Charles had asked Susan if she’d like to go with him to the meadow by the lake.

That meadow was a favourite place for young folks to meet. Some sat on the slope leading to the lake, gazing at the ripples taken by a breeze across the calm water and made plans. Some gazed at each other, saying nothing, doing much. Some didn’t know what to do and sat stiffly wishing the other person with them would do something. Anything.

Susan was excited to be in the meadow once more. The last time, with Tommy, she was in the category of wishing that something would happen.

As they found a quiet location hidden from the village by shrubs and trees, Susan unfurled her blanket with the intent of sitting down. Charles could not contain himself. He exploded into a runting maelstrom, jumping at Susan and shoving her back onto the blanket, immediately covering her with his sweating body.

As Charles was pulling his pants down, Susan twisted sideways and, in doing so, elbowed him in the side of the head. Stunned, he was easier to push off her. Susan rolled away to jump to her feet. She yelled at Charles as he scrambled to pull his punts up. “What do you think you’re doing, you stupid brute! If you ever touch me again I will scratched your eyes out! One at a time! Believe me!”

Then Susan spun around and ran across the fields back to her house, her heart racing. Before she got to their garden in the Commons, Susan found herself smiling.

Charles could get only as far as kneeling on this pants. They would not go further, the legs having been half-knotted as he yanked them while on his back. He spitted and growled and swore in animal frustration. On his knees.

They never spoke again.

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