“From: Doctor John Forbes
Havana, 16th February 1854
My Dearest Anne,
My last letter to you left here yesterday morning in the American steamer “Isabel” for Charleston and if it goes safe I calculate it will reach you in a week. I am now beginning another letter to you; my dear Anne, next to receiving a letter from you my greatest pleasure is in writing to you. You see I don’t put off much time in beginning a fresh letter – the English mail steamer has not arrived here yet but is hourly expected and I suppose soon after that we will take our departure from Havana…”
A tell-tale squeak from the rocking chair drew Donald to the chilly front room. Mamma’s lap was covered by a warm woolen blanket that nestled the only one of Penny’s kittens to survive their harsh Niagara winter. As his mother lifted a letter to the last light of the day, her auburn hair caught the rays of sun that were streaming through the frosted front room window. She had failed to notice him staring at her until he touched one of the patches of bright orange fur that speckled the kitten’s coat.
At nine years of age, Donald was a small version of his father. Light brown hair fell over a broad forehead above curious green eyes. He pushed a lock of unruly hair from his eyes and gently lifted the kitten to his chest. The kitten opened one eye briefly but remained determinedly tucked in a ball. Donald smiled and squirmed as he felt the vibrations of the purring right through to his skin and he inhaled the sweet milky aroma of the kitten’s breath. In spite of rarely seeing his father, Donald had tried to adopt his father’s mannerisms. He would wait until Mamma looked directly at him before beginning to speak, but this time he could not contain himself.
“Where is Papa? Will he come home soon? Does he ask after me?” he said, his questions running out on a single breath.
His mother’s eyes moved to him, softened, and returned to the letter. “He is still in Cuba, he should be home in a few weeks, and I don’t know because you haven’t let me finish his letter.”
The mild rebuke reminded Donald that his father would return home exhausted from his tour as ships’ surgeon with the Royal Navy. He was always too tired to spend much time with him and he had to plead to hear a sea story at bedtime. Mamma said that Papa would take his retirement soon but then they would need to be more careful with money because he would receive a half pension, whatever that meant. He thought it would be a good thing to have Papa home all the time, even if he would no longer be called the man of the house. He’d earned that title by feeding the horses and milking Annabella, but he didn’t care much for feeding the hens and reaching for eggs guarded by fierce beaks. He sighed when his mother finally finished reading the letter and turned to him.
“Papa sends you his love and hopes that your school work is going well.”
“School work? Doesn’t he ask after the calf? You told him I birthed him didn’t you?” Donald tried to make his brow furrow in annoyance, just like his father’s, but his mother only smiled.
“I think Annabella did most of that dear, but yes, I did tell him you contributed to a good outcome. It’s a fine calf, but I’m sure your father has much on his mind. You can tell him all about it when he arrives home.”
Donald placed the kitten back in her lap and frowned at the roughness of the woolen blanket compared to the kitten’s silky coat. Disappointed with the letter, he stomped from the house, grabbing his coat and felt cap from the peg beside the door. Seeing his mother watching him through the window, he tugged at the small oak tree that Papa had planted several years earlier. It had stubbornly withstood many of his tugs of frustration. Then he saw Mamma rise up and walk towards the kitchen, and he hoped that she would make a cake for his birthday. His favorite was White Mountain cake piled high with icing and decorated with strawberry preserves. He licked his lips in anticipation, and the image pushed the disappointing letter from his mind.
Warmth from the animals engulfed Donald as he pulled open the barn door. He lugged the wooden water bucket towards the stall, managing to slop very little. He felt proud of his efforts to muck out Annabelle’s stall that morning, and he imagined his father saying that it looked ship-shape. But he dropped the bucket when he saw the calf lying ominously still in the fresh straw, its mother looming over the limp form. Donald’s skin grew moist then cold as he wondered how this could have happened. The calf had been bright-eyed and feeding well that morning.
When he tried to move closer to the calf, Annabelle refused to let him. She swished her tail and mooed a warning for him to keep his distance. Talking in a slow lilting voice, the one he used when milking, Donald slowly calmed her and then led her to the back of her stall. He secured her halter to a ring in the post and returned to kneel beside the calf. His little belly was swollen but the calf was cool to the touch. Blood had dribbled from the corner of his mouth and created a shiny pool under his muzzle. He touched the surface of the pool and then quickly lifted his finger, drawing a red thread with it. His stomach turned when he thought about the loss of the little creature. Papa would be vexed and would blame him for sure, especially if the calf had swallowed something it shouldn’t. If only his best friend Jessie were here. She might know why the calf had died.
Just as he was considering how to break the sad news to Mamma, Rhoda appeared silently at his side. His sister was five years younger, but she missed very little. “Just like you to show up right now,” Donald muttered.
“What’s wrong with the calf, Donny?” Rhoda asked, looking more perplexed than upset. Small for her age, she had auburn hair like her mother’s and a nose just a bit too big for her face. Papa’s nose, Donald realized. “Why is he so still?” she persisted, touching the calf tentatively with one finger.
“The calf is dead, Rhoda, and I don’t know why,” Donald sighed. “Annabelle is very upset, so you should stay away from her for a few days.” As if on cue, Annabelle emitted a mournful bellow, and Donald realized that the pressure of the milk meant for the calf must be paining her. He turned to his little sister. “Could you go get my wagon?”
“My wagon, you mean,” her eyes wide. “You said I could have it.”
“Of course, your wagon,” he sighed. “But I need to borrow it to move the calf from the stall.”
Before Donald could get an answer, Rhoda had streaked from the barn, yelling “Mamma, Mamma. The calf is dead.”
Outside, there was just enough light for him to retrieve the wagon that was leaning up against the leeward side of the barn, but when he saw the wooden toboggan hanging on a hook above it, he lifted it down instead, realizing that it would be easier to pull over the fresh snow. He would leave the calf under a tarpaulin next to the fence so that their hired hand could help him deal with it the next day. Returning to the barn, he bent down, grabbed the calf’s legs and began to drag it slowly backwards from the stall. His face warmed and he felt a wet drop slide down his cheek. Sweat, not tears, he told himself. As he pulled the front legs onto the toboggan, he spotted something shiny in the hay where the calf had been lying. He tugged the stiffening body onto the toboggan, draped a tarpaulin over it, and dragged it out to the fence. Then he returned quickly to examine the shiny thing in the straw.
A curved metal shard, about three inches long, had been lying beneath the calf. He kicked aside the hay and found two more pieces, one much larger. Knowing that calves would eat just about anything they found, he wondered whether the calf might have swallowed a bit of the metal that cut his insides. He searched all around inside the stall, then outside, checking the small rakes and spades hanging on the wall. Some of their tools were made of wood, but the spade, pick and hoe were hand forged of steel as was the pitch fork he’d been using that morning. None of the tools was missing bits of metal. He turned over the small fragments in his hands feeling their smooth curved surfaces. It looked like the broken rim of a small wheel. Perplexed, he walked back to the house to show his mother.
She was waiting for him in the kitchen and consoled him with a pat on his shoulder. “I wonder what could have happened to that calf,” she said. Donald handed her the metal bits.
“I found these in the stall, but they weren’t there this morning,” he said, anticipating her question. His mother was joining the pieces together and looked concerned. “What is it Mama? Could it have killed the calf?”
“Yes, Donny, if he swallowed something sharp like this. They look like pieces of a slave neck ring to me.”
“A slave neck ring,” Donald repeated, his eyes widening as he remembered his father’s story of the injustices committed upon the slaves transported from Africa. They were shackled to their berths for weeks at sea and often died on ship before seeing the new world. Papa had said that dogs were treated better than slaves. He was proud that his father helped stop these ships and free the slaves. “There is no one in the barn now,” he said.
“No, I suppose whoever it was just kept running, poor soul. He’ll be miles away by now. Although I do not begrudge that poor Negro from removing this tormenting device, it is unfortunate that the calf had to suffer for it, if that is what happened. There is nothing you could have done, Donny,” she added “Your father will be disappointed, but he will know that you are not to blame.”
“Would I find a piece of metal inside the calf, do you suppose?” he asked, wanting to know for sure why the animal had died. It would be something to tell Papa.
His mother smiled and patted his head. “Perhaps, but first you would need to develop your skills in surgery. That would please your father.” Donald looked up at her and set his mouth in the way his father did when he was pleased but trying not to show it.
“I’d like to be just like Papa. Then maybe I could have saved that calf.” Before he could savor this thought, a bellow from the barn reminded him that he must return to milk Annabelle.
Loosely based on letters written by my ancestors, this story takes place in 1854 on a farm near the village of Chippawa, now part of Niagara Falls Ontario. It provides a background to my novel Blood Memories, a historical “coming of age” story about Donald Forbes and his childhood friend, Jessie MacKay growing up in Ontario and Virginia during the American Civil War.
Blood Memories was short-listed for the 2015 Cedric Literary Awards. It was published with Kindle Direct Publishing in October, 2016.
White Mountain Cake
3 cups of sugar
1 cup of butter
Whites of 10 eggs, beaten stiff
½ cup of milk
1 tea-spoon of cream of tartar in the milk
3 ½ cups of flour
½ tea-spoon of soda put in the flour
Flavor with lemon. Makes 3 layers
1 lb of sugar
Whites of 3 eggs