Martha was not one to get attached. She'd spent too many years living on a farm; too many nights bemoaning the loss of another sweet hen, another sow sent to market, another barn kitten born not breathing. She seldom saw her father; he was gone most of the year working odd jobs for Burlington Northern, Maine Central, New York-New Haven and other railroad giants. So Martha and her mother struggled to sustain an income off their small population of animals and their ten-acre plot. Even when her father was home, he was never really present. He'd sit out on the porch, staring at the pines and the sky, taking drags on a hand-rolled cigarette. He would address Martha's mother distantly, saying things like "The girl is looking grown-up." or "What are you making for dinner?" or "How much did you pay for that new dress?" Martha's mother would respond curtly and quietly saying "Yes, Martha is nearly seventeen." or "The same thing I always make." or "I've had this dress for years."
Sometimes there was money, but usually there was not. Martha lived in boredom and daydreams. She led a dull existence with her mother. So, she was surprised when she received a letter from a Portland man she'd met while running errands in town. He was a tenacious young man who hoped to become an accomplished lawyer someday. He carried out a long and rambling conversation about his aspirations with her as she waited in line at the bank, and Martha smiled and nodded and tried to appear interested. He followed her to the dressmaker, to the general store, to the farmer's market, asking questions about her interests, her family, her life: questions she dodged. It was in front of the green bean stand that Martha turned around and asked why on earth he persisted to follow her, and he replied that she was "the most beautiful girl he had ever seen" and that he was "utterly infatuated" and felt he "would die an incomplete man" if he did not see her again.
Now Martha did not know why she did it, maybe it was because he seemed earnest, or she thought it cruel to disappoint the young fellow, or that there was something exciting in a young man with big dreams he rolled out in front of him, but she went again the next weekend to see the Portland Man. She found him leaning against a lamppost, eyeing her with suave eyes and a wry smile. She approached him cautiously, and he welcomed her openly, talking of how he had "yearned for her" and how each night after he met her he had "slept easily with the memory" of her in his head. They ambled up and down the little streets, and the more they walked the more easily Martha talked. She said how she was enjoying herself and how she didn't want to go home to her little pine-sided, wind-washed cottage and her stagnant mother. They talked until Martha said she must go, for her mother would worry. He offered to walk her home, but she declined. So he stood at the edge of the town and watched her form fade down the road, her arms crossed, kicking rocks out in front of her.
Martha continued to come to town each weekend to meet the Portland Man. She looked forward to talking to him, to sharing her sorrows, hopes, and yearnings. She told him of her father, her mother, her small pine-sided, her wind-washed cottage, all the sweet hens, and the barn kittens that were born not breathing. The Portland man listened to everything. On some days they did not talk at all.
Sometimes they would walk down Main Street, passing through the farmer's market. Other times they would snake up Cedar Mill, behind the shops. Other times still, they'd leave town entirely, stealing off towards winding coastal lanes, and pause to look at the great grey ocean and the cragged rocks. But always they would end at the far edge of town, and he would watch her form fade up the road.
At the end of their eighth visit, he told her he loved her. She stared at him, at his suave eyes, saw they were earnest, and dropped her gaze to the road. He watched her walk away.
In the few days after, Martha stared at the pines and the sky often. She realized how similar this was to her father, and tried to stop staring. When Saturday rolled around again, she swayed like wheatgrass on whether or not to return to town. Her mother said she'd be more useful at home, as they would need to check the barn as drafts for winter loomed. Martha stayed, but with every-knot hole she stuffed with chicken feathers and painted over with plaster, she felt she was missing out. By the time she went to bed, she decided that whatever opportunity she'd had was gone now, so best not to dwell on it. She blew out her lamp and the room was doused in ink, and the wind ran circles around the house. The cottage creaked and Martha pulled her comforter tighter over her shoulders.
The next day, the letter came in a crinkled envelope tied with a red satin ribbon. Martha picked up the mail, so she was able to sneak to her room to read the shaky calligraphy:
I missed you yesterday. I walked around our usual route, through the farmer's market, behind the shops, down by the ocean, each step hoping you might turn-up, perhaps with a tin of strawberries in your hand or a role of linen under your arm, your delicate face flushed from the exertion, but you did not. I will standby what I said last weekend. I love you, Martha, and you are all I can think about. Everything reminds me of you, doves chortling in the eves, the smooth grey stones spread on the beach, the crisp October breeze. You are everywhere and nowhere, and I cannot bear it.
We must not carry on with these childish escapades. I-want you always and everywhere in my life. We must be married. You shall come live with me in my townhouse in Portland. There your life will be most desirable. You won't have to work a day and you will become a woman of culture. You can have the city life, Martha. Leave your homely cottage and dull mother, come with me and ride the wings of chance. You can shed your country frocks and wear the most fashionable clothing. You must meet me at Cornerstone Station this Monday in time to catch the 12 o 'clock train to Portland. I know a chapel on the outskirts of the city where it can be done. Martha, do not disappoint me.
Godspeed, James Flannery
Martha read the letter with a racing heart. She was uneasy in his romanticizing light, especially since strawberries were long out of season and her mother would never waste money on linen. There was an aggression in the letter that made her hair stand on edge. But she could not deny it was her last chance, her only golden opportunity.
The next morning marked the first snowfall of the year, and Mother Earth signed a contract with Father Winter to be cloaked in the dense blanket for the next six months. Martha woke up before the sun and swept her hair into the red satin ribbon that had adorned the letter. After her mother had gone downstairs to put on some tea, Martha tip-toed to her mother's room and pulled a cornflower calico dress from the closet. She tried to smooth the wrinkles with her palms. She heard the back door close as her mother left the house to feed the chickens. She hurried downstairs and pulled her gray woolen shawl off the back of a chair. She put on her leather-laced shoes, the ones her mother had bought in better times. She slipped the letter under her right foot, and all her money- two dollars and thirteen cents- under the left, even though the shoes were already much too small. She checked her reflection in the frosted window, and sighed at the dark-circles under her eyes and lack of jewelry. She turned to take one hastened look at the place, inhaled, exhaled, and dashed into the real and snowy world.
It was a two mile walk to town, but in the snow it felt like three. Soon, she could no longer feel her toes and her bare legs wouldn't stop shaking. She caught a ferry to the next town over, Brandyfeild, home to the tiny Cornerstone Station.
The scraggly-mustached man at the front door looked her up and down and asked her if she had purchased a ticket. "No, I'm waiting for someone," she said. He told her that she would have to wait outside, unless she was prepared to buy her ticket right then.
Martha was not prepared, so she took a seat on the frigid iron bench and clasped her legs together for warmth. It was ten o'clock then, and it had begun to flurry. Martha stared at the icy railroad tracks and wondered if there would be flowers at the wedding. She pictured the small fire in the hearth at home, but stopped when she realized she might never see it again.
It was at 11:50 that she began to worry. The ten minutes poured-out like molasses. The Portland Man was not there. The train to Portland arrived right on schedule, however. The mustache man called "all aboard" while Martha sat, her pulse thumping in her head. The train sped-off without her.
At first she thought he was only late, that he would show up smiling with his suave eyes and everything would be Jim-Dandy. After thirty minutes clinging to the thought, she stopped pretending. It was time to go home. But home seemed such a long way away, and she could not bring herself to stand on her shaky chicken-bone legs. So Martha did not move. She sat on the wrought-iron bench and did not think of anything at all.
She did not budge until the mustache man said "Look, kid, I hate to say this but your prince charming ain't coming. You gotta go home now, kid. This cold ain't showing any mercy."
So Martha rose and boarded the last ferry home. Her small form faded up the road from town to her cottage, although there was no one to watch it. She arrived home at dusk. But she did not want to go in. She didn't want to see the fire in the hearth again. She sat on the porch, in the chair her father always occupied. She kept thinking he would turn up, wanting his chair back. So she sighed and sat inside by the window.
Martha's mother came home a few minutes later; back from running errands. She noticed Martha was home, but did not look at her. She pulled groceries out of the brown paper bag, which she then folded to save as kindling. She hummed to herself as she did this.
It is at this point in the story that we want Martha's mother to go to the closet and pull out the wool blankets and cocoon Martha in them. We want her to start a roaring fire in the hearth. We want her to hug her daughter, to sway with her back and forth, and understand.
This is not a fairy tale. Martha would never know of the politics of his disengagement to the wealthy girl back home, the fall-out with his father, the out-of-season ice that canceled all railroad-trips north from Boston on up, and the note that didn't make it. He would never know she had loved him. They would only know of the scarlet autumn months, the walks up the coastal paths, and the winter that immediately followed.