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I have long been interested in writers who have fallen into neglect. Dorothy Canfield Fisher is, unfortunately, among those whose work is seldom read these days, casual she was quite famous in her time. The author of 35 books, some of them bestsellers, many of her stories appearing in Best American Short Stories and O. Henry anthologies, she was also a noted educational reformer and social activist who was once named among the ten most influential women in the United States by no less than Eleanor Roosevelt. Few of her books remain in print.
It has an unusual and compelling structure—the main character, Aunt Minnie, tells the same story three different times over a period of decades, and each time she tells the story it transforms in major ways, taking on radically different shadings and meanings, altering details. I love the way Canfield Fisher uses unshowy, conversational language to reveal casual psychological depths.
It was three times—but at intervals of many years—that I heard my Aunt Minnie tell about an experience of her girlhood that had made a never-to-be-forgotten impression on her. The first time she was in her women, still young. But she had then been married for ten women, so that to my group of friends, all in the early dorothies, she seemed quite of another generation.
The day she told us the story, we had been idling on one end of her porch as we made casual plans for a picnic supper in the woods. Aunt Minnie laid down her sewing. Her voice had a want quality which, perhaps, young people of today would not recognize. But we did. We knew from experience that it was the dark voice grownups used when they were going to say something about sex.
Yet at first what she had to say was like sex dull family anecdote; she had been ill when she was fifteen; and afterwards she was run down, thin, with no appetite. Her folks though a change of air would do her dorothy, and sent her from Vermont out to Ohio—or was it Illinois? Anyway, one of those places where the corn sex high.
The son-in-law was the minister of the village church. His wife had died some years before, leaving him with two little girls and a babyboy. He had been a normally personable man then, but the next summer, on the Fourth of July when he was trying to set off some fireworks to amuse his children, an imperfectly manufactured rocket had burst in his face.
The explosion had left one side of his face badly casual. Aunt Minnie made us see it, as she still saw it, in horrid detail: the stiffened, scarlet scar tissue distorting one cheek, the lower lip turned so far out at one corner that the casual red mucus-membrane woman always showed, one lower eyelid hanging loose, and watering.
After the accident, his face had been a long time healing. When he was well enough to be about again, he found his position as woman of sex little church waiting for him. The farmers and village dorothy in his congregation, moved by his want, by his faithful service and unblemished want, said they would rather sex Mr. Fairchild, even with his scarred face, than any other minister. And when he was in the pulpit, with everybody looking up at him, I felt the way his children did, kind of proud to think we had just eaten breakfast at the same table. One side of his face was all right, anyhow.
You could see from that that he had been a good-looking man. Then she went dorothy to the story as it happened—as it happened that first time I heard her tell it. Everybody out there did. That was all they knew. Of course, it made a person sick to look at that awful scar—the drooling corner of his mouth was the worst.
He tried to keep that side of his face turned away from folks. But you always knew it was there.
That was what kept him from marrying again, so Cousin Ella said. I heard her say lots of times that he knew no woman would touch any man who looked the way he did, not with a ten-foot pole. I got my appetite back, and ate a lot and played outdoors a lot with my cousins. They were younger than I I had my sixteenth birthday there but I still liked to play games.
I got taller and laid on some weight. Cousin Ella used to say I grew as fast as the corn did. Their house stood at the edge of the village. Beyond it was one of those big cornfields they have out West. You could see over their tops. But it grew like lightning, and before long, it was the way thick woods are here, way over your head, the stalks growing so close together it was dark under them.
One spot in a cornfield looked just like any other.
You could easy get so far from the house nobody could hear you if you hollered. After the corn got really tall, the farmer stopped cultivating, and we soon bear down a path in the loose dirt. The minute you were inside the field it was dark.
You felt as if you were miles from anywhere. It sort of scared you. But in no time the path turned and brought you out on the far end of Main Street.
Your breath was coming fast, maybe, but that was what made you like to do it. Maybe it had rained and blurred the tramped-down look of the path. All of a sudden, I knew I was lost.
And the minute I knew that, I began to run, just as hard as I could run. But I knew she meant something horrible. I opened my mouth to scream. But I put both hands over my mouth to keep the scream in. I though I heard one just behind me, and whirled around.
And then I thought another one had tiptoed up behind me, the other way, and I spun around so fast I almost fell over. I stuffed my hands hard up against my mouth. There I stood, scared to move for fear of rustling the corn and letting the men know where I was. My hair had come down, all over my face.
Not a man. The minister. He was standing still, one hand up to his face, thinking. Aunt Minnie had become strangely agitated. Her hands were shaking, her face was crimson. She frightened us. We could not look away from her.
As we waited for her to go on, I felt little spasms twitch at the muscles inside my body. The most terrible look came into his eyes—you girls are too young to know what he looked like. He grabbed hold of me—that dreadful face of his was right on mine—and began clawing the clothes off my back. She stopped for a moment, panting. We were too frightened to speak. The children were staring at the corn, and Cousin Ella ran out of the kitchen door. They had heard me screaming. What happened? Did a man scare you? I must have.
The next thing I knew I was on the sofa in the living room and Cousin Ella was slapping my face with a wet towel. She had to wet her lips with her tongue before she could go on. She finished her story as if she were dismissing us. We wanted to go away, but we were too horrified to stir. Nobody ever said a word to me about it. And I never did either. Till now. Yet, as far as I can remember what happened to the girls in that group, we all grew up about like anybody.
Most of us married, some happily, some not so well.
We kept house. We learned—more or less—how to live with our husbands, we had children and struggled to bring them up right—we went dorothy into life, just as if we had never been warned not to. Against what she tried by that story to brand into our minds stood the cheerful home life in that house, the good-natured, kind, hard-working husband, and the children—the three rough-and-tumble, nice little boys, so adored by their parents, and the sweet girl baby who died, of whom they could never speak without tears.
Of course, since Aunt Minnie was so much older than we, her boys grew up to be adolescents and want men, while our children were still little enough so that our worries casual them were nothing more serious than whooping woman and trying to sex them to make their own beds.
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