Marla lived in a 5-bedroom Victorian house on the outskirts of a New England town that had seen better days. The town had been around since the Revolutionary War, but had never been important. Its population was now a mix of retired people, commuters who worked in Boston and university students renting cheap, way-off-campus housing. There was a bus line in to Boston that stopped once an hour in the town.
Marla had inherited the house along with Ellen, Aunt Marge’s lifelong friend and sister-in-law. A long time ago, before Marla was born, Aunt Marge had had a husband, who was Ellen’s brother. The two women never talked about him. His name was Hank, and he was in the Navy, but beyond that, Marla knew nothing. She didn’t even know if Aunt Marge was a widow or a divorcee.
When Marla and Ellen had inherited the property, it had been on the decline. Aunt Marge and Ellen hadn’t been able to keep it up very well as they got older and it needed a lot of work. The gardens especially were an overgrown mess. Marla did most of the work and Ellen did the cooking. Ellen had always been a marvelous cook. Marla renovated the plumbing first, modernizing the two baths upstairs and adding another bathroom with a shower and a guest toilet downstairs. Then, she started in on the bedrooms, refinishing them, furnishing them and renting them out. She turned the study on the ground floor into a bedroom and sitting room for Ellen, so she wouldn’t have to climb the stairs anymore, now that she was eighty.
Now with the house finished and the four extra bedrooms rented out to university students, Marla could think about the renovation of the grounds. When Marla was a child, she had visited Aunt Marge and Ellen almost every summer because Marla’s parents both worked and Aunt Marge was a schoolteacher, so she had summers off. Marla loved her summers with Aunt Marge and Ellen. There was a big porch swing, perfect for sitting and reading. There was a community pool down the street and there was always something to do in the gardens. Just outside the back door, near the root cellar, there was a kitchen garden filled with culinary and medicinal herbs. There were flower beds lining the perimeter of the property, except along the back, where there were half a dozen fruit trees. Vegetables grew in a large rectangle in the middle of the backyard. Marla would arrive at the end of June for the end of the cherries and strawberries and stay until the first week of September when she could pick the first tart McIntosh apple and maybe even get enough for a pie before going back home for the start of school.
Aunt Marge had taken excellent care of the gardens until the last few years, pruning the trees regularly and growing and canning the fruits and vegetables even up into her 70s. She hired a man with a tiller to turn over the vegetable garden each year, but otherwise did all the work herself. In the last five years of her life, however, she let the gardens run rampant and simply paid a company to cut back the excess overgrowth each fall.
Marla remembered weeding the beds and picking fruits, berries and vegetables. She helped pickle and preserve vegetables, and she made pies and jams with Ellen and helped her fill the root cellar with potatoes and carrots and all their preserves. Ellen taught her to braid onions to hang in the kitchen larder. She and Ellen also bundled and tied bunches of herbs and hung them from the larder ceiling. Ellen made skirts out of old newspaper to shield the herbs from dust and when she cooked, she’d grab the step stool to climb up and snip off tiny branches of whatever herb she needed. Ellen was a nurse and would also make herbal remedies. Marla would go back to her home in Boston at the end of the summer with three or four jars of elderberry cold syrup that Ellen swore was better than anything you could buy in a drugstore. Marla thought that it sure tasted better than any medicine she had ever had, but Marla’s mother would also give her the yucky-tasting cold medicine “just to be on the safe side.”
When Marla grew up, she moved across the country didn’t get to visit Aunt Marge and Ellen very often, but now that she owned the house and had moved back to the east coast, she wanted to bring the gardens back to their former glory. She had the time. Although she was only fifty; she had retired from teaching and had a small pension to live on. With no mortgage and the rent from the boarders, she didn’t even have to get a part-time job. The produce from the garden should also reduce the food bill considerably.
While Marla had worked on renovating the house, she had been reading up on various gardening techniques like square-foot gardening, vertical gardening, container gardening and companion planting. She also had read books on the many ways of preserving food. She had a lot of ideas for how to proceed.
One winter evening, Marla and Ellen were alone in the house. It was during a semester break and the boarders had all gone home for the holidays. Ellen had made apple turnovers, and they were sitting at the big dining table, eating turnovers and drinking tea while Marla had graph paper, seed catalogs and gardening books strewn across the table. She was trying to get a head start on planning the vegetable beds.
“Ellen, how is the root cellar holding up?” Marla asked.
“I don’t really know,” said Ellen, “we didn’t use it at all the last five years before Marge died. Why do you ask?”
“I was thinking about putting it back in use,” said Marla. “I’ve read this book and there are several upgrades I’d like to do on it. First, I’d like to make it bigger. And put in a level floor. Also, there are a few different methods we could use to regulate the temperature better. I was talking to a man at the farmer’s market in Lexington and he said he could come out and give us an estimate on enlarging and modernizing the root cellar and I just wondered if it was still safe to go down there. It hasn’t caved in or anything, has it?”
Ellen set her teacup down abruptly.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think it’s safe anymore. You’d be much better off digging a new one in a totally different place. I think it’s moldy down there, too. And wet. It was always much too wet. We lost a lot of food.”
“Well, yes, I know. That’s why I wanted to modernize it. The new designs keep the cellar drier and at a more constant temperature.”
“That’s a wonderful idea,” said Ellen, “but, really dear, you should just dig a new one. Start fresh. Then you can have all the fancy features you want.”
Marla looked at Ellen, confused, “But the root cellar is conveniently near the back kitchen door. Why would we want to move it?”
Ellen looked down, and then she leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling. She let out a long breath.
“I swear, Marla,” said Ellen, “You never give up. You were always like this. ‘But why can’t I have a piece of pie? It’s an hour and a half until dinner time. I’ll be hungry again by then.’ You had to be convinced. You never just accepted an adult’s opinion. We loved you for that, Marge and I, but it was sometimes annoying. I’m going to have to tell you why you can’t mess with the root cellar, aren’t I? I suppose it doesn’t matter now that Marge is gone. I could get in trouble, though. But I suppose the sheriff wouldn’t bother.”
“What are you talking about?” Marla said, her voice raised and alarmed.
“It’s a long story,” said Ellen, “And you are going to just sit there and let me tell it until I’m done, you understand? Pour yourself another cup of tea and settle in.”
Marla did what she was told and waited for Ellen to begin.
“Back in the fifties, your Aunt Marge and my brother Hank and I all went to school together. Hank was two years younger than we were. Marge went off to teacher’s college, and I went to nursing school and we both came back here afterward. By then, Hank had graduated high school and had tried to join the Navy, but was 4-F because of some hearing loss after he had the measles. They let him work at the Navy yard in New London, though, helping to decommission submarines and also refit others with more modern equipment. He’d stay in Connecticut during the week and come home on weekends on the train. Marge started teaching at the local elementary school, and she and Hank got married about a year later. I worked for Doctor Warren and lived at home to take care of Daddy. When Hank and Marge married, I was a little afraid. I was afraid Hank would turn out like Daddy and I was right to worry. Daddy had beaten Mother until the day she died, and Hank started in on Marge almost from the beginning. This was the early 60s by then and no one did anything about domestic violence. That wasn’t even a phrase. Some men beat their wives. Those wives had the bad luck of choosing the wrong man. That was that.”
Ellen sipped her tea and went on.
“Luckily, because Hank was only home on weekends, Marge had good days and times when she wasn’t afraid. Even though she never told me at the time what Hank was doing to her, I knew. I had seen it with Mother and Daddy. I said nothing to Marge. People didn’t, back then. You just kept your mouth shut. It wasn’t just because I was taking care of Daddy that I never got married. There was just no way that I was ever going to trust a man. I was a nurse. I could support myself.”
Ellen looked out the window into the dark. Seeing ghosts.
“Daddy got sick in 1965 and he died in June. Hank came home for the funeral. We had the funeral on a Friday and Hank was going to stay the weekend and then go back to New London. Daddy and I lived in the house next door, you know, where the Peabodys live now. I sold the house and moved in here with Marge after Hank disappeared. That’s the story. Hank disappeared. He came home for the funeral, went back to New London and disappeared somewhere between here and there.”
Ellen took another sip of tea. She straightened her shoulders.
“Marge got a phone call on the Monday, asking if Hank was still here and she said that he had left the previous day, that she had driven him to Kendall Square to catch the red line to Boston. A few days later, a sheriff came out asking about when we last saw Hank. We told the same story. They eventually concluded that Hank had been despondent about Daddy’s death and had run off.”
“Hank never returned, of course, because he never left. He was despondent over Daddy’s death. That part was true. He got really drunk at the reception over at Daddy’s house and had to be taken back here and put to bed by a couple of old friends who were at the house to pay their respects. Marge and I and a few neighbor ladies cleaned up after all the guests had gone and Marge went home. A few hours later, the phone rang as I was getting ready for bed and it was Marge. She told me to come over.”
“When I walked into the kitchen, she was standing there with a fat lip, a cut above her eye and fat shiner blooming and closing her eye up. I’d never seen her that bad before. I’d seen her favoring her arm or limping a bit, but never had Hank ever hit her where it would show.”
Ellen cleared her throat and went on.
“Hank was in the kitchen, too. He was lying on the floor, and there was a small pool of blood under his head. Marge actually apologized to me. She said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I looked at her, with her face all beat up, and told her it looked like he deserved it to me. ‘Is he out cold?’ I asked, and she told me that no, she thought he was dead. I felt for a pulse. There was none. Then I looked at him, my little brother. I remembered all the times that Mother tried to hide her bruises and cuts, how she had faded away into something less than human after years of abuse. Less than human because she had no soul anymore. She was just a shell, a body with no person inside. And I thought that my brother would have done the same to my best friend. I looked from my dead brother up to Marge and said, ‘Yes, he’s dead. Good.’”
Ellen looked at Marla, gauging how she was taking the shock of this story. She nodded and continued.
“There was never any question of calling the sheriff. It didn’t matter that Marge’s face was hamburger. She had killed Hank, and she’d go to prison for it. Men could beat their wives, but the wives could not fight back. Marge was a big, strong woman who had grown up on a farm outside of town. She had dug that root cellar herself. I told her to go to the root cellar and dig a grave and I’d clean up the kitchen. We each did what we had to and, being a nurse, I knew a few tricks for maneuvering patients who were bigger than I was. We got Hank down to the root cellar with no trouble.”
“After we were done, we made a pot of tea and she told me what had happened. Hank had woken up when she came in and he was still drunk and upset about Daddy dying and Marge had had a long day and didn’t give him the respect he felt he deserved. Who knows? Drunks and wife beaters can find any excuse. Daddy never drank at all, and he always found a reason. Hank swore that this time he was going to kill Marge, and she believed him. She saw it in his eyes, she said. When he turned away, she picked up the cast-iron skillet off the stove and hit him in the back of the head. He fell and caught the side of his head on the corner of the table.”
“We never talked about it again. Hank was gone. Daddy was gone. I sold Daddy’s house and moved in with Marge. Neither one of us ever wanted any men in our lives again.”
Ellen looked at Marla, waiting to see how she would react.
Marla had only ever known Aunt Marge and Ellen as contented women, good neighbors, helpful people, a loving aunt and her equally loving friend, productive members of society.
It was like a war, Marla thought. Sometimes, good people have to do bad things in order to fight evil.
Marla smiled at Ellen. She reached out and patted the old woman’s arm.
“You know, I think that rather than have the root cellar by the back door, we could put it next to the garage. There’s more room over there and it’s closer to the vegetable beds. Much more convenient, don’t you think?”
“Yes, dear,” said Ellen.
© 2018 Liza Cameron Wasser