People and their stories are entwined in the most peculiar ways. Their doubt, jealousy, or prejudice can magnify their flaws in one chapter while an unkind word left unspoken can make them seem virtuous in another. A character who appears innocuous, not once cast in an unfavorable light, when seen through the lens of the reader’s own experience suddenly becomes despicable. Working out who’s who is the challenge of the writer. Creating believable characters faced with situations we recognize is a labor of love for those who write fiction. We ask ourselves what’s left to be told, where could we possibly take the imagination of a reader that it hasn’t been a thousand times before? Odyssey? Fantasy? Rhapsody? Wreckage? Revolution? The cult of Downton Abbey?
Which, by the way, lives up to the hype.
Julian Fellows gives characters substance worth returning to season after season. Beyond the cliff hangers and teasers employed to make sure we don’t forget them while on hiatus, the people and their stories are orchestrated to such a degree of perfection that we remember each unlikely alliance and every last betrayal. We become attached to the story and longingly await its return as though we depend upon the English Aristocracy for our own survival. I must admit, the period in which Downton Abbey is set fascinates me. On the cusp of dynamic change, women of all classes carried themselves with grace in a time when there was no law, natural or man-made, in their favor.
As a member of the fair sex, living now in a time of great personal freedom it is easy to take for granted that women are no longer chattel whose purpose it is to produce heirs to secure property rights. We possess hard fought and hard won rights. Rights, that for no other reason than someone made a choice to no longer be a slave to man-made laws masquerading as Divine Decree, we should never relinquish and never forget the responsibility to women who still suffer while we enjoy the privilege of those rights. You see, our stories, all of our stories, are connected. Only the names have been changed.
Here’s my most recent installment in the story of Millie Hollingsworth.
Old Man Moseley’s sister, Hazel, was a broad woman. She had what the old wives called baby making hips. Her skin was smooth and shiny, her hair pulled tight against her head, her expression knowing. She’d seen things, terrible things, yet the woman was unshakeable. The junk yard was once her father’s farm. He bought it from a preacher man who had to get out of town quick. Five-hundred dollars was a steal for the twenty acres, and her father didn’t mind stealing it from that snake in the grass who blew through Holy Redeemer’s building fund at the dog track. Jessup Moseley worked that land until the day he died, pouring sweat into it for over a decade to make a living for his family. Now it was a junk yard. Hazel kept a small garden in a back pasture, but her brother made more money on scrap metal than many farmers made in a year, and he wouldn’t entertain the idea of growing crops subsidized by the government. It might be a hard life, but he lived it on his own terms.
Millie’s voice was timid as she approached the woman shelling peas into her apron. “Jake told me.”
“Told you what?” Hazel didn’t look up from her lap.
“Jake told me you know how to help me.”
“It ain’t no magic to it, if that’s what you askin’. Jake needs yo help and you need mine. Simple, we work it out together.”
“Did you tell anybody you was comin’ here?”
“No ma’am. I don’t have anyone to tell. No one will speak to me since the choir director’s wife said I was ungrateful trash and threw me out of her house. She said people are talking about her, about how she was foolish to think if she gave me a proper home I would turn out to be worth anything. She says I’m a liar. I don’t have anywhere else to go. Jake’s the only friend I have. He’s the only one who believes I’m telling the truth about the choir director.”
“I can’t take you in. We done took in them boys, give ‘em a purpose. Mason done wasted his, but that Jake, he still got a chance. You be mindful of that, you hear? He deserve that chance, you understand what I’m tellin’ you?”
“Yes Ma’am. I’m not trash. My mama stole eggs to feed us because my daddy was a drunk, but I’m not trash.”
“Girl, I know all about them twisted roots of yo family tree. People talk, you know, people always gonna talk. Look into yo heart. See what you can see. It ain’t no light in there ‘less we be helpin’ somebody else. Say you gonna help Jake and I see what I can do.”
Millie shook her head, “I will. I will help Jake.”
Hazel, now standing, poured the peas into a washtub on the table. Hazel looked at Millie’s feet and then down at her own, at the boots her husband had worn in the Army. She felt a knot in her stomach.
“I was married, but we didn’t have no marriage license. My man, Franklin, he died in the war and the Army ain’t never give me nothin’ ‘cept these here shoes on my feet. They ain’t give me not one dime to help me feed my babies. That Franklin, he left me pregnant. And me with four babies already. How’s I sposed to feed five babies? Yes sir, I know how to help you, girl.”
Millie didn’t know who to trust. She had to trust herself. She had to trust that she was doing the right thing.
Hazel shook her head. “Come ‘round to the back porch.”