Eleanor was good at waiting.
Her father liked to say that his eldest daughter could outwait a stone. Though he never intended it as such, Eleanor took it as a compliment. She could outwait a stone, if it was for something she really wanted. For that, she could wait for days, weeks, years.
This time, though, she only needed to wait until the day of the new moon when the young man with the book would walk past her house.
It had frustrated her, his seemingly erratic pattern. Unseen for weeks, she might only glimpse him after he had passed by their house. Patience was an old friend, though, and with its help she had been able to discern that his trips were not random. They were as regular as the dark of the moon.
Since then, each night, in the darkest hours, the moon whispered her name. In answer, she would rise from her bed and pad through the small house her father had built on the hillside overlooking the new town of Seattle. At the front door, she would raise the latch and step out into the night—bare feet warm on the cold, damp wood of the front stoop—and look up.
Usually, the clouds would frustrate her, cloaking the sky and misting the world with drizzled rain. Even on such nights, though, she would wait.
She’d stand in the dark, listen to the bells of ships at anchor down at the wharf, and breathe in the moist, green scent of the muddy low tide. Up toward the treeline, raccoons would converse as they trooped through the scrub and, once or twice, from behind her neighbors’ shuttered window had come the warm sounds of midnight love. In time, the reluctant clouds would roll aside and give her a glimpse of the moon before they closed up again.
Each night in this last, cold month she had marked the moon’s progress in this way, waiting as it waxed from a hungry sliver to full-bellied repletion. She continued to rise, night after night, later and later each time, watching as the full moon wasted away toward newness.
Just like Mother, she thought, when she was carrying little Becka.
She had been barely seven years old when Becka had come. Eleanor had waited through those long months, watching Mother’s belly grow, but during that last moon all anticipation and excitement had turned to dread as Mother sickened, a waning of flesh and spirit that ended with Becka in a crib and Mother in the ground.
The moon had been jealous then—Eleanor saw it plain—jealous of Mother’s own fullness, her full round belly, her round smiling face. Afterward, the moon, once so beautiful, had become a cruel thing, a bringer of death, a monthly reminder of Mother’s passing, and Eleanor had cursed it, swearing never to forgive.
Father had done his best. He worked what jobs he could find to repay debts owed to doctors and landlords, but the greed of others and the growing war with the southern states had made it difficult for a man with no wife and two small girls. After a few years of trying, he’d told Eleanor to pick her favorite doll, while he would pick his favorite book. Her choice was the china doll in the gingham dress; his was the big, black leather book with the gilt-edged pages. Then he sold everything else, put his two girls on a wagon, and left Illinois behind, taking them west on a months-long journey to the continent’s edge where, Father insisted, a man could start anew.
Eleanor, still only ten years old, had done her best to be Mother during the trip. She read to Becka from Father’s book through the long hours on the trail, cooked their meager meals of beans and cornmeal bread, and reassured her toddler sister during nights filled with strange sounds and starlight. A child of Chicago’s tenements, Eleanor had found the unbroken skies terrifying and saw so much land in a single glance that she thought they would never cross it all. The moon had followed them, waxing and waning overhead, mocking her grief and sharpening her fears. She had turned to Father for comfort, but saw the same fear in his eyes as he scanned the hills around them. So she kept silent, and waited.
They made their way to San Francisco, to Portland, and after a shivering shipboard trip, arrived on the Seattle docks where the air smelled of sawdust and the trees stood in a black, forbidding line along the ridge above town. Father found work as a cook at the sawmill, built their little clapboard house on the hillside, and they had all settled into new lives in this raw place on the dark waters of Puget Sound.
Becka had taken to frontier living as born to it, and the doll Father had allowed Eleanor to bring out from Chicago, the lonely china face that had lain alone and unloved during their years of grief and travel, found a new mother in Becka’s arms.
For the next ten years, Eleanor had barely been able to keep ahead of her little sister as they both grew, their young bodies strengthened by clean air and hard work.
When Eleanor had turned fifteen, Father began to incorporate her into his plans, plans that did not take his daughter’s wishes into account. But where Eleanor’s own intentions had been constant for some time, her father’s plans changed from month to month, season to season, running to keep pace with his ever-evolving schemes for business success. Most recently, those schemes involved her marrying one of the voluble Murcheson boys.
As a young woman of eligible age in male-glutted Seattle, she could have had her pick of men. Indeed, Father had brought dozens of suitors through their front door for a quiet supper with his eldest daughter, but once conversation turned to personal likes (What is your favorite book?) and children (I will have none), the young men soon left and never returned for a second meal. Eleanor, an otherwise dutiful daughter who worked to please her father in every way, denied him in this. The man of her choice would be exactly that: her choice.
Then, last autumn, Eleanor had once again begun to fear the moon. Becka was now twelve, and had begun her monthly cycles. Soon, the house would vibrate with talk of boys and heartache and lovelorn longing, and from there, it wouldn’t be long before Father, calculating his eldest girl’s fading value, took up Becka as his new bargaining chip.
The cruel moon was good at waiting, better even than Eleanor herself, and the two of them had never reconciled. She could imagine how it would wax and wane, waiting through the years to come, waiting until the sisters forgot how it had wronged them, until one of them took a husband and decided to bring forth a child. Then, Eleanor feared, the moon would once more leave its dark bed and try to lay a pale hand across the new mother’s brow.
She decided it needed to end, and so, on the eve of the new year, she’d crept outside into the frosted cold and, with owls asking questions in the trees and bats flying chit-chit overhead, she had looked up at the crescent moon and made a pact. She would give up all her moon-times, all her motherhood. In return, the moon would leave Becka safe and healthy.
The shining moon did not answer, but in her breast, Eleanor felt the grip on her heart ease, and when she looked up at the moon’s sideways grin, she smiled back.
Becka was safe, her future ready to unfold. Eleanor could now get on with planning a life of her own. The time for waiting was over.
The day of April’s new moon dawned crisp and clear, with sunrise painting pink the snowcapped mountains across the Sound. Eleanor and Becka rose early and spent some hours digging overwintered onions out of the terraced earth of their back garden. Now, with her little sister off up the hill for a few hours’ schooling, Eleanor was prepared to put her own plans in motion.
She lifted the basket of onions to her hip and made her way around the side of the house. Raspberry bushes reached out to snag her apron. She swatted them away as she sidled past, stepping up onto the front stoop.
There was only enough room on the rough planks for the one chair—Father saw no purpose to a broad porch like the one fronting the Andersens’ home across their rutted stretch of Third Avenue. He’d grunted when she had asked him his opinion of their neighbors’ wide and prosperous-looking house. Ostentatious, he’d called it, and a waste of hard-earned money. What did a man need more than a place to sit and scrape the mud from his boots? She had not mentioned that she wanted only enough space for another chair, so that two people could sit and talk—two people, like her and the serious young man with the book.
She pulled up the lonely, straight-backed chair, sat down, and put the basket at her feet. Pulling a few onions from the pile, she trimmed the roots, wiped the moist, black soil from their round, papered faces, and began to twist the stems into a four-part braid. Every six turns, she reached down into the basket for another bulb, deftly trimmed it, rubbed it clean on the corner of her apron, and wove its green stems into the plait that she would hang in the pantry rafters. Months from now, when the onions had sweetened with age, she would cut one down, slice it into slivers, and add its bright flavor to a stew made of vegetables pulled from her garden, beans shipped up from California, and scraps of meat Father brought home from his work serving meals to the rough-mannered men at the sawmill.
She was halfway through the second braid when she caught sight of a familiar shape, a slouching curve of a man, back bent under a massive bundle of pelts, knees cushioning each step as he marched down the steep grade of the avenue, eyes fixed on the open book in his hand.
It was unfortunate, she thought, that an itinerant trapper was not the sort of man Father wanted for her—or to be more accurate, for himself, as all the young men he had ever brought home to inspect his eldest, first-hand, were better suited to his own business ambitions than to Eleanor’s desires.
When Father had wanted to team up with the butcher and supply the cookhouses, he brought Eleanor the butcher’s ginger-haired freckle of a boy, barely out of knee pants. When he thought he could make his fortune supplying cured meats to men heading out to the prospect fields, he had brought home the smokehouse owner’s son, a young man whose mouth had too many teeth and who smelled in equal measure of rancid fat and alderwood.
She had smiled politely to each one in his turn, spooning her savory stew into plain crockery bowls, cutting thick tranches of brown bread seasoned with fresh herbs from her garden. As Father explained to the boy how his latest business idea was a perfect match for the combined talents of their two families, she had nodded, waiting until she might be allowed to speak.
Month by month they came, supped, and after a brief conversation with Eleanor had gratefully departed: the cooper’s son, the cheesemaker’s boy, the baker’s youngest. Lastly, it was the Murcheson twins, sons of Seattle’s talented blacksmith, of which either one would have sufficed for Father’s current goals, but they, too, found her unreceptive to the match.
Despite these repeated disappointments, Father refused to consider Eleanor’s opinions on the matter. He wouldn’t allow just any man home to meet his daughter. He had his standards. He had never brought home any of the simple hill-men who cut down the dark, gigantic trees and dragged them down the corrugated skid road to Yesler’s mill. Nor had Eleanor ever met any of the rowdy workers from the mill where Father worked, or any ship’s crewman, in port for a week to take on supplies and a cargo of freshly sawn timbers bound for San Francisco.
As for Eleanor’s bookworm, a trapper living on the fringes of their small outpost here at the edge of the world, well, such a man was entirely beneath Father’s notice.
Father would not see this man as she did. To her eye, the young man’s leather-patched britches were a sign of practical economy, not evidence of poverty. His scraggly beard did not signify slovenly attitudes; it was merely a result of his isolation. Father, judging by the prospects he had ushered into their parlor, only saw the obvious in men: their money, their connections in the community, their possible application to his own ambitions. Like the Andersens’ porch, he saw only ostentation whereas Eleanor saw Mr. Andersen and Marguerite, his wife, sitting together in matched chairs, rocking without a word exchanged, each quietly enjoying the other’s presence.
Father would only see the young trapper as he appeared when he came into town. He did not have the patience, as she did, to wait and see the man as he departed, pushing up the hill with sober steps, his bundle of pelts exchanged for sacks of provisions and goods, his clothes laundered and pressed, his chin cleanly shaved, his boots waxed and polished.
To Eleanor, the truth was neither the man who trudged into town nor the man who left it. The truth of him was the change he underwent in between. That was the man she admired.
Trying to discuss him with Father would not be a useful conversation. This she knew. No entreaty, no amount of pleading would breach her father’s defenses. There were other ways, though, more effective ways that she might make her mind known. Ways that avoided any need for negotiation.
Calmly, unhurriedly, she finished off the second braid of onions and set it to the side. She rose, cleaning her hands on her apron. Slowly, she walked the path through the herbs she had planted, her hems brushing up sharp scents of rosemary and thyme, until she reached the hitching post that marked the limit of their parcel of land. She leaned against the post, rubbing at her dirty nails with the apron cloth, and waited.
The young man maintained his deliberate pace, turning a thin-papered page as he walked along. His steps were heavy beneath his burden of rolled pelts.
Last month, when she spied him passing her house, Eleanor had noted the skins of raccoon, rabbit, mink, and beaver among those tied to the L-shaped frame strapped to his back. A few days afterward, during a shopping trip she and Becka took down to Commercial Street, Eleanor had stopped in at the San Francisco Store to chat with Mr. Burns. As she browsed through the pieces of lace and fur that could be sewn onto collar or cuff to “smarten up an old frock,” as Mr. Burns put it, she asked seemingly innocuous questions about how his business worked. It took patience, but had proved worth the wait. The old gentleman eventually told her—in strictest confidence, of course—the price that various pelts could fetch on the wholesale market. Doing the sums in her head, Eleanor estimated that the young man who passed her home each month was carrying quite a sum into town.
He was close, now, close enough for Eleanor to see the red leather binding on his small book. Gold, embossed letters gleamed along the spine. As he walked closer, she prepared herself.
She had rehearsed this moment during the past weeks, turning over first one phrase and then another in her mind, trying the best ones aloud, listening to her words as if someone else was speaking them. As she stood at the hitching post, the sawmill’s noonday whistle blew. Seagulls squabbled overhead as they glided down the breeze toward town, hoping for scraps behind the millworks. Soon, Becka would be home from her lessons. It was time to act.
She took a breath to speak, but the words she’d chosen sounded too hollow and trite to be spoken aloud. She shut her gaping mouth and searched for something, anything to say. Her mind panicked, transforming her into a blushing statue incapable of either movement or speech. She stood there, frozen against the hitching post, the only sign of life the pounding pulse at her neck, and was able only to stare.
His dark-lashed eyes scanned the lines of his book, his mind oblivious to everything but the pages, the words, and the terrain he walked. His hands, broad and hardened, touched the pages with cautious reverence. Unaware of her presence, he walked right past her, continuing on his way to town without interruption.
The crucial moment she had anticipated for weeks was lost, ruined by her own indecision. Yes, she could wait another month, of course—what was another month?—but she did not want to wait. She’d had enough of waiting. She’d waited for Father’s grief to subside, waited as they crossed the prairies and mountains. She had waited for Becka to grow from a child toward womanhood, and always, she’d had to wait for her chance to seize an opportunity of her own. Now it was here, passing, nearly gone.
She saw the pages inside the young man’s book. The words did not form orderly, even-margined lines; they clumped together along the left side in irregular, ragged-edged stanzas, just like the lines in the book Father had brought with him from back East. When she caught sight of the author’s name, printed in red ink at the top of each page, it, too, was the same. She had learned to read from Father’s book, had spoken aloud the lines of each character, Father explaining the odd, old-fashioned words when she stumbled. At first, she had read the plays to be close to Father, but for a long time now she read them solely for her own pleasure. And now, this young man who so intrigued her, he read them, too.
“‘What do you read, my lord?’” she quoted.
“‘Words, words,’” he began in response, then slowed to a stop about four paces on. He turned to face her.
“‘Words,’” he finished, staring at her.
The young man blinked, looked at her from toes to crown before he caught himself and snatched the broad-brimmed hat from his head.
“My apologies, ma’am.”
“Miss,” she corrected him, unable to keep from smiling at his awkwardness.
A cloud crossed his brow at that. He returned the hat to his head, touched the brim, and faced back toward town.
She took a step.
“So, not Hamlet?”
He halted, looked down at the leather-bound book, his index finger unconsciously marking his page.
“Twelfth Night,” he said, showing her the gilt lettering.
“Ah, sweet Viola,” she said. “My favorite.”
This time, when he noted her smile, his lips smiled in return.
A voice from up the avenue called her name. She turned and saw Becka coming down the hill from her lessons. The little girl waved as she ran up, but slowed when she saw the dark-haired man in the ragged coat.
“Not to worry,” Eleanor told her sister, and then to the young man said, “This is my sister, Rebecca. I’m Eleanor.”
The man removed his hat again and nodded.
“Solomon,” he said. “A pleasure meeting you both.” Then he turned once more toward town.
“Would you care to come by for supper? Once you’ve concluded your business in town, that is.”
He looked at her over his shoulder, a furrow creasing his forehead. He tapped his chest with a finger.
Eleanor grinned as she nodded.
He chuckled and bowed as best as his burden would allow.
“Miss Eleanor, it would be a distinct pleasure.”
“Good.” Eleanor’s grin broadened. “I’ll be waiting.”
He donned his hat, touched the brim, and continued on down the grade.
Eleanor and Becka stood at the hitching post and watched him go.
“Come help. We are having a guest for supper.”
“Father won’t like him,” Becka said, sounding much more worldly than her ten years could account for.
Eleanor laughed and kissed the top of Becka’s head. “No,” she agreed. “Not right away, at least.”
Together, they walked up the herb-lined path, rosemary and thyme waving as they passed.