Poor Emily
 

 

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Poor Emily

© 2011 Karen Treanor

 

Everybody felt sorry for Emily Jensen: what a life she led, married to that drunken lout. Of course, she never said anything but the whole town knew how he treated her. How many times can a person fall down the cellar stairs, for mercy sakes? Life wasn’t easy for anyone in this small New England town with its poor stony soil and its fiercely changeable weather. But everybody felt sorry for poor Emily; even if there wasn't anything they could do to help.

Bob Martin, sheriff and hardware store proprietor, felt sorrier than most people.  In the dim past when Emily had still been palely pretty he had wanted to marry her, but her father had browbeaten her into the marriage with Jensen, because Jensen promised to stay on and work the farm, free.  Jensen slaved 1ike Jacob, awaiting the death of' his father-in-law, and dreaming of' the hidden cash box brimming with money.  Alas, the old man was a worse liar than he was a farmer; all he left was a mortgage.

The day of the wake Jensen started drinking and showed no sign of stopping short of the grave.

Emily never had children, which was probably for the best.  Her only friend was a cat.  Jensen used to kick the cat at every opportunity and threatened it with drowning, burning and other tortures, because he enjoyed the pain his cruelty caused Emily.  She had been so numbed by years of mistreatment that Jensen could rarely hurt her by direct attacks.  Because she no longer cried out when beaten, he had nearly killed her the last time.  Drunk as he was, he knew he’d have to be more careful, so the unfortunate cat shared his abuse when he could catch it.

Why the cat stayed with Emily was as much a mystery as why Emily stayed with Jensen.  Among the softer-hearted souls in town, it was thought that the cat loved Emily and sensed her need of it.  And Emily's having the cat made it easier to excuse oneself for not visiting her more often and running the risk of being rudely treated by Jensen, who treated the townsfolk little better than his wife..  “It isn’t as if she was all alone; she has the cat for company,” they comforted themselves.

Once in a great while, if Jensen hadn't kicked her too much, the cat would have a few scrawny kittens. They never lived long: Jensen delightedly disposed of them as soon as he found them.

One year Emily happily discovered the cat had had five kittens, and had thus far hidden them from Jensen.  Some pampered town cat must have sired the little creatures, for they were the healthiest, fattest kittens the poor old tabby had ever produced: two marmalades and three tabbies.

Emily was as close to joy as she had been in recent years.  When Jensen went to town or drank himself safely asleep, she would sneak into the barn and play with the present from Fate.  One night when the kittens were nearly weaned and Emily was happily feeding them some bits of stringy beef left from supper, Jensen came home in a fouler mood than usual--and that was going some.  Storming into the barn in search of Emily, he caught her feeding the kittens.

The last Emily remembered was the bottle coming down on her head.

She awoke the next morning, barely able to see for the pain. As she grabbed the bedpost for support she felt something furry brush her hand. The tabby cat and three of her kittens hung, one from each of the four bedposts, stiffly moving in the breeze from the window.

Emily went out to milk the cow and chop wood for the stove, which had gone out from lack of fuel.  She stepped carefully over the boozily snoring body of Jensen on the living room floor.  With luck he’d sleep until noon.

She buried the small corpses in the garden and then attended to the rest of her day’s work with the stoical demeanour that for years had marked all her movements.  There was always so much work to do on the farm: planting, weeding, putting up preserves and laying down salt pork for the winter; always something to keep her thoughts from dwelling too long on her condition.

Sunday Emily was not at church.  Monday one of the neighbours dropped by to see if everything was all right.  The one thing on which Emily never compromised with Jensen was church.  She hadn’t missed a Sunday in 18 years.  Emily thanked the neighbour for her concern, and said that she had not been able to attend church because Jensen hadn't come home Saturday night and she was beginning to get worried.  Sometimes he drank just a drop too much, she said, as if confiding a secret nobody had heretofore known.  She hoped the poor man wasn't lying somewhere with a broken leg.   She said she’d combed the five-acre wood and the two pastures.  She didn’t know what to do next.

The neighbour did, and at once reported the disappearance to Bob Martin, adding her opinion that it was good riddance, one could hope permanently, for Emily and the entire civilized world.

A search was duly initiated, with small enthusiasm.  The discovery of a battered hat and an empty bottle of cheap liquor known to be a favourite of the missing man was evidence enough for all concerned. Everybody said that the marsh near where the items were found was full of quicksand. No one saw any reason to doubt that Jensen had been pulled to a much-deserved sticky end after over-indulging in rotgut rye.  When a boot was regurgitated by the bog a week later, the coroner had no hesitation in declaring Jensen dead by misadventure.

The widow held up well under her ordeal and never once did an unkind word pass her lips, to the disappointment of the ladies of the town, who had hoped to hear, at long last, all the grim details of her wretched life with Jensen.

Emily kept working the farm, nurtured the two surviving kittens and even planted some flowers: a frivolous use of time that Jensen had never allowed her.   She had a modest but tasteful memorial tablet erected in the cemetery with the name "JENSEN" and the verse “Gone but not forgotten” inscribed on it. Tactfully, everybody pretended not to notice that the plot had room for only one grave.  The grave keeper said she had told him that it was her Mother's dying wish that her daughter be interred at her side, and as there was but one space left, there was no room for Jensen—assuming his remains were ever found.

After a decent interval, Bob Martin took to driving by the farm, “to see how Em was getting on.”  Within the year they were married, very quietly, and everyone remarked how nice the bride looked, considering.

The farm was sold with all its contents, with one exception:  Emily insisted on taking the two cats to her new home.  She said she owed them something; they’d helped her over a hard time.  Bob didn’t mind; he couldn’t deny Emily anything, especially when she brought forth a bonny pair of babies just shy of their first wedding anniversary.  The cats would keep the mice out of the pantry, and amuse the babies, Bob said.  They’d probably keep the foxes out of the chicken yard to boot: they were quite the largest tomcats ever seen in the county.

“What in the world did you feed them that they grew so big?” Bob asked one day, watching the orange cats stalking a pigeon on the veranda.

“Meat, dear; just meat,” Emily said, “mostly cheap cuts.”

“Humph. Surprised that old skinflint let you feed a cat anything.  No offence, Em, but Jensen wasn’t noted for his generosity.”

“Oh, he wasn’t that bad,” said Emily, smiling her gentle smile.  “In fact, Ginger and Tommy liked him quite a lot.”

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