Last week, my friend, Joan H. Young sent me a challenge. Joan is on a year-long hike across several States, which, for the record, I think is the most courageous thing I've ever seen anyone do. She began this amazing journey at the beginning of December 2021, and she's already logged 954.5 miles! She keeps us updated on her progress and the interesting things she sees along the way with a daily blog post. This is tremendously comforting for me. I like to know she is safe.
Along her journey, she came upon two old wooden cabins in the woods. She thought there might be a story in them, and challenged me to write that story. So, of course, I accepted the challenge. It's the least I can do to support her amazing quest!
Stay warm, Joan. Stay safe, and enjoy your amazing adventure. I'm looking forward to talking all about it with you when you return!
The Wedding Quilt by Diana Kathryn Plopa
The cabins were old, older than any other building I’d ever seen. Even though there were some slats missing in the siding, and I was sure a strong wind could topple them easily, I was grateful. I’d been on this route for at least two hours, avoiding the dedicated trail, desperately trying to find a place to hide. Wintertime is no time to be out in the elements unprotected, but I would rather fight the specters of snow and ice, with the threat of losing my fingers and toes to frostbite, than face what made me run. It wasn’t a choice any rational person would make… but rational thought isn’t something prisoners know.
The sun falling toward the horizon insinuated night’s approach. But I had no idea how fast that might happen. He took my cell phone, my wallet, and my watch. Walking toward the sun as it got darker meant east, I thought… but who knew? Orienteering class from scouts was decades ago, and I’d long since given up on adventures that didn’t involve carefully planned itineraries and four-star hotels. The snow started to fall again, and despite my concern about spending the night with rabid rodents, I walked closer to the largest of the two cabins, hoping for a bit of respite until the morning. If my luck held out, he would give up the search, chalk up my disappearance as a minor inconvenience, and give up. For the record, I have never been a lucky person.
I thought the door might fall off it’s crumbling hinges when I pushed through the entrance. There was no sound, but the wood vibrated the strain of movement through my hands and down to my elbows, as I pushed against a snowdrift to squeeze my body through it’s opening. I turned back before letting it close behind me. The snow was falling harder now, soon my tracks would vanish. A helpful thing to dissuade him from following, but a frustration when I thought of a rescue team who would be hindered by the same. I stepped across the threshold, and pushed the door closed, resting my back against its fragile planking. The rhythm of my breathing resonated through the door and traveled along the walls as the entire room seemed to inhale and exhale my anxiety.
My stocking feet were numb, and probably blue or white by now, but I didn’t dare remove the covering. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to remain conscious once I saw myself in the beginning throes of decay. Grateful for the blanket I’d snatched before climbing out the window. I was thankful that he’d allowed me to dress in sweats, rather than the flimsy lingerie from the night before. I chastised myself for kind the thought. He didn’t deserve it.
My eyes moved around the room as the dwindling light revealed what I was sure would soon become my tomb. Sparsely furnished with what I assumed was Civil War era poverty, I was reassured that Fate’s string would be cut here, with nary a whisper of argument from me. The place was empty with no signs of life… not even tiny footprints across the snow-covered floor. It would seem even the rats knew this was a lost cause refuge.
In an act of foolish desperation, I felt the mantle above the hearth, my hands like clubs, pawing across the years of decay in search of anything that might improve my situation. I’m not sure what I was looking for but doing something felt better than doing nothing. Miraculously, I discovered an old tin box. When I opened it, small sticks of wood with crimson tips laid before me in soldier readiness. “Matches!” I said aloud, my voice becoming lost to the insulation of winter’s blanket. Quickly, I closed the box and tucked it in the pocket of my hoddie. I dropped my blanket and grappled for the ladder-back chair that stood on its side just a few feet away. Even though the wood was brittle with age, it still took nearly all of my energy to break it apart, using my foot to stomp on it. Finally, I had firewood. “Now, what to use for kindling?” I looked at my blanket. It was the logical choice. But, if it didn’t work, I’d be worse off. “It doesn’t really matter. I’m probably going to freeze to death, anyway.” I arranged the wood in the fireplace as a sort of tee-pee, and wrapped the blanket around the outside, leaving a small opening in both the front and back for the air to circulate and feed what I hoped would soon be raging flames. Before I lit the thing, though, I needed more wood. “This little bit isn’t going to be enough to make it through the night.”
Exhausted, I crawled on hands and knees through the cabin, and into a small adjoining room, which I quickly discovered to be a bedroom. It was surprising. The cabin didn’t look large enough for a second room from the outside, but then, I didn’t take the time to walk all the way around. I found another chair, and two old, faded quilts on a decaying mattress laying upon a cast iron bed frame. Most of the batting was lost, but I thought these two together might make up for the blanket I was about to burn. I struggled to my feet, scooping up the quilts from the bed and dragging the chair behind me, using it for a bit of stability as I hobbled back to the hearth.
Upon seeing my tiny bonfire preparations, hope and a bit of rationality returning, I swapped out my newer blanket for one of the ragged quilts. After breaking up the second chair, I dropped to the floor and draped my blanket around my shoulders. I slid the second quilt under me, wrapping the extra end pieces over my lap. It wasn’t a tremendous physical difference, but in my head, hope swelled. It’s crazy to think how the brain will fool us into a false sense of security when we are offered the tiniest bit of possibility.
I pulled the match tin out of my pocket and cradled it in my hands. I opened the box and counted. “One, two, three, four, five… Five chances to get warm. Five chances to not die. I hope I don’t screw this up.” I scooted a little closer to the hearth, and leaning in, my nose nearly touching the baby bonfire tee-pee, I struck the first match.
“One.” Nothing. I dropped the spent match inside the hearth and tried again.
“Two.” Nothing. The second dead soldier followed his brother to the bottom of the hearth.
“Okay, they say three’s the charm. Let’s hope they’re right.” I closed my eyes and struck the third match. A tiny flame erupted but died before I could get it close to the fringe of the blanket. “RATS!”
I inhaled slowly, trying to calm and steady my hands. I scooted a bit closer, and this time, held out the tin so that it was almost touching the fringe of the quilt. “Let’s try this again.”
I focused my vision, blinking a few times to be sure I was seeing the world correctly. I took a deep breath and this time with eyes wide open, struck the next match. “Four.” Again, a tiny flame exploded, and this time, caught the thin threads. The fire slowly began to travel along the bottom of the quilt. Heaving a sigh of relief, I blew on it a little bit, adding whatever confidence I could to the fire’s life. I tucked the tin with the final match back in my pocket and pulled the blanket tighter around my shoulders. As the flame ate at the old quilt, some of the chair wood also began to burn. My little fire was beginning to grow, pushing a small billow of smoke up and out the flue.
Warmth pushed itself toward me, and my hands began to ache as blood once again made its way to my fingers. I felt a little light-headed and found it difficult to keep my eyes open. I steadied myself, pushing one hand to the floor. The fire had taken hold now and was dancing before me in a reminder that perhaps death wasn’t right around the corner. “Oh, I’ll probably still die, but at least I’ll be warm when death gets here.” I thought about the smoke becoming a beacon for my assailant to find me, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be warm.
I threw one of the slats from the second chair on the fire and felt myself swaying in dizziness again. I no longer had the energy to sit upright, and in a slow-motion moment my face flushed, and I curled myself into a fetal ball, my face finding the cold floor, my vision fading to black.
“That’s when I found all of you here, standing around me as if I was an exhibit at a museum.” My voice was raspy, and my vision was still slightly blurred as I tried to recognize the people staring at me, their faces glowing in a warm illumination from the hearth. “Who are you?”
“I’m James Coffrey, and this is my wife, Anna, and our two children, Abigail and Charles.” He reached for my hand and helped me to a nearby chair. Anna brought me a blanket and draped it around my shoulders. It was heavy and warm. Abigail handed me a mug of tea. I blinked several times, pushing the tears of being found… being rescued… from my eyes. “What is your name, Miss?”
“I’m… um… Valerie…”
“We’re pleased to have you in our home, Miss Valerie, but we’re a little startled and surprised about how you got here.” James continued to talk, his words reaching my ears as indistinguishable mumbles.
I sipped from the mug in my hands and looked around the room as James spoke, recognizing the cabin, and realizing that it was somehow new. There were no worn slats through the siding and there was no snow upon the floor. Glass sat in the window holes, and a delicious aroma of stew floated through me, stimulating my stomach to lurch with a growl of insistent hunger. “How… Where…” I began to feel dizzy again.
Anna reached out a hand to steady me in the chair. As I regained my balance, I took another moment or two to look around the cabin. Everything screamed old America. I was in a small cabin, just two rooms, from what I could tell. Under the window, stood a dry-sink sideboard with a pitcher and bowl for washing. The family’s clothing, their shoes, the style of furniture… all clearly hand-made. The open hearth had a cook pot hanging above the log fire, and finally, a sepia-toned photograph of President Lincoln in an oval wooden frame placed prominently above the mantle. In elegant script, the caption read Inauguration Day, March 4, 1861. This wasn’t just an off-grid tiny house. This was a cabin, and a family, from another time.
“James, can’t you see the young lady is famished? Let your questions be. She needs to eat. Abigail, please bring a bowl of stew for our visitor.”
Abigail, who must have been about eight years old, replaced my mug with a bowl filled with meat, potatoes, and vegetables, steeping in hearty broth. Charles, who may have been five or six, handed me a spoon. “Thank you,” I said feebly. I raised the spoon to my mouth and felt the stew’s warmth fall through to my stomach. I took two more spoonfuls as the family watched in silence.
“There, that’s better,” said Anna as she looked to her husband. “You can’t expect a person to speak with half a brain unless they’ve got at least half a stomach.” She sat in the chair next to me. The others joined us at the table and began to eat the bowls of stew Abigail set before them.
After a few minutes, James offered me a slice of bread, and again asked, “Who are you, and where have you come from?”
“I’m Valerie Thompson, I was being held captive by a man… I escaped out a window and ran. I got lost in the woods and found myself here, at your cabin… but it was different. Everything was different…” I looked down to notice that my hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants were gone. In their place was a long dark blue muslin dress, white apron, and black lace-up boots. “What happened to my clothes, did you dress me?” I asked, reaching up to my head and feeling a muslin bonnet perched there.
“Of course not, my dear, we would never do such a thing,” said Anna, a bit flummoxed by my suggestion that they would be so forward as to take away my clothes. “This is how we found you, huddled in front of the fire when we came in from the fields.
“Who is this man you say kept you prisoner?” asked James. The look on his face was all worry and seriousness.
“Doug… Douglas Grady… my… husband.” The family grew statue-still and just as silent.
“Why on earth would your husband keep you against your will?” Anna looked to her children, sitting silently, eating their supper as a mild disgust fell across her face with concern that I might be a poor influence on their young ears. Wives didn’t escape from their husbands, after all. It was scandalous.
“He is my ex-husband, actually,” I told them, regret dripping from my words. I set the bowl of half-eaten stew on the table. “A judge granted us a divorce last year because he was beating me.” My face grew dark at the memory of his brutality. “He came for me three days ago, vowing to get even for tarnishing his name and forcing his business clients to pull their contracts. He builds houses. No one wanted to work with him since they found out what he did to me. He took me in a revenge-fueled rage…” My voice trailed off into the foggy place words go when you can’t find the energy to say them aloud.
“How horrible,” said Anna, as she made the sign of the cross. Her face changed to concern for both me and my soul.
James looked to me with a gentle strength. “Well, you are here with us now. He won’t hurt you again.” It was a promise I knew I could believe. “But we need to get you back to your home. I’m sure there are people looking for you… family…”
“There is no one,” I said, a tone of finality in my voice. “I have no children, or siblings. My parents passed away four years ago, in an accident.” I picked up the bowl of stew again, and helped another spoon bring energy to my exhaustion. “Besides, I’m not sure where I am.” Or when. “I don’t know how you would get me home.”
“Well, surely, you know where you were when you were taken? We could go back there,” suggested Anna. She noticed that the children were finished with their supper and gestured for them to go to the other room. They did as she asked, without a word.
Quiet obedience, I thought, taking another few bites of stew. That’s not normal. This is not my time.
“Where is your home?” asked James. “Perhaps we can help you find your way back.” He stood from the table and walked to a small desk in the corner of the room, returning with a hand-drawn map. “Now, this isn’t official, but this map has got me out and back enough that I know it works.” There was a hopeful confidence on his face as he unfolded and smoothed out the paper before him. “What town are you from, my dear?”
“Lewiston,” I said, finishing off the last of my stew and bread. I set the bowl on the table and waited for James to find the town on his map, although I knew he wouldn’t. Lewiston hadn’t become incorporated until 1891, thirty years after where I believed I was, or rather, when. I felt a sense of calm knowing that Doug wouldn’t be able to find me… but what now?
“Hmmm… I don’t see it on the map, but that’s not unusual. As I say, this is not as accurate as it could be. How long have you been traveling, perhaps we can find your town by the distance you traveled?” James was trying hard to be useful, but I knew the futility of it.
“I… I can’t remember. I collapsed in the snow on my escape. So much is a blur, I’m just so grateful that I was able to find your cabin before I froze to death. I’m sorry.” I hung my head in sincere apology and sadness. I wasn’t sure how I’d found myself here, in this place and time, and I wasn’t sure how I would manage… but I knew the first step would be acceptance. “I don’t think we’ll be able to find it.” Tears began to roll down my cheeks.
“Well, there’s no need to fret about it. You’re safe now, and that’s all that matters.” Anna looked to her husband, covering the hand on his map with her own, and drawing compassion from his heart. “You’re welcome to stay with us for as long as you like… perhaps one day, you’ll remember. But until then, you shall find a home with us.” She moved her free hand to cover mine, and James nodded his agreement.
Thirteen years later, I sat at the kitchen table, helping Anna prepare for Abigail’s wedding. Winter came early, and we struggled with making a headpiece of dried Black-Eyed Susan and Goldenrod. Late year weddings were unusual, but Abigail’s parents couldn’t deny her love simply to have a nice party in the Spring. Her suitor was a butcher, a nice young man, named Noah Taylor. He was very kind and promised her every advantage. Anna and James thought highly of him and supported the union.
“This is going to be such a pretty wedding, Abigail,” I said, full of the anticipation of the next day. This is such a special time for you. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of it.” A smile exploded from me that engulfed both women in warmth.
“Oh, Valerie,” said Abigail. “You have been a true joy to us. I’m so happy you came to join our family.”
“Indeed,” said Anna, echoing the sentiment. “Our family has become so much more since you came to stay with us.”
It was true, these past years had been the happiest of memory. When I found myself laying on the kitchen floor, I had no idea how my life would change… how it would be so much better. At first, I struggled with the work life required in the late 1800s, but soon, it became as second nature to me as carrying a cell phone and checking email in my old life. There was a simplicity of this life that brought peace. More than that, it was a life I could count on. There were no surprises and no brutality. There was no competition for a lifestyle beyond what was needed. Frivolous status and commercialism didn’t exist in this small farming community. This co-existence with Mother Nature wasn’t easy, not by any stretch. But it was comfortable, and it meant something. I discovered that was more valuable to me than all the technology, pizza, and Netflix binges I now only barely remembered.
I made many friends over the years, but never took a suitor to husband. That was the one piece that never felt right. My first marriage hadn’t gone so well, and I wasn’t in a hurry to repeat that history. James and Anna understood that my heart was broken, and they didn’t force me to pretend anything different.
Shortly after I arrived, James built a second, smaller cabin near the main house for me. It was just one room, but it was heaven. This was my refuge. Anna taught me to sew, cook, and manage on my own in this new wilderness of comfort. I planted a small vegetable garden and helped with the family farm and their small collection of livestock. In the evenings, I read and joined the family in storytelling with mugs of tea near the fire.
Before I came to this cabin in the woods, I was afraid of guns. But in the time I spent with the Coffrey family, I became a fairly decent shot, able to take my own rabbits and birds when necessary. It was a skill James insisted I learn. He never wanted me to feel obliged to take a husband, but knew I needed to be able to fend for myself, if that’s what my heart demanded. I regret none of it. In those years, I became a better person, inside and out.
As we prepared the flowers and sewed the veil for Abigail’s dress, James, Noah, and Charles were out deer and rabbit hunting for the wedding feast. We sang the songs of childhood and talked excitedly about the wonderful mother Abigail would be one day.
“I’ve been working on a special wedding gift for you,” I told Abigail as we finished sewing the veil.
“Really?” she asked, her voice giddy with excitement. “What is it?”
I smiled at Anna and looked over to Abigail as I began to pack up my sewing kit. “I don’t know if I should tell you… after all, you’re not quite married yet.” I shared a giggle with Anna, knowing how much Abigail detested secrets.
“Oh please,” squealed Abigail. “You know I’m a horrible waiter… Please tell me what it is!” Her face instantly transformed to that eight-year-old girl I saw my first day at the cabin in the woods. I was delighted beyond words.
“How could I say no to that face?” I said, clutching her cheeks gently between my hands. “Stay here, I’ll go get it and be right back.”
I ran to my little cabin next door and pulled the quilt I’d been sewing from the shelf above my bed. I held it carefully in my arms, considering the past year, and how much I learned. It was a triangle-pattern tapestry done in blue, green, yellow, and red. I’d added extra batting to make it thick, warm, and durable. Each square represented a year spent with a family who took me in and loved me unconditionally.
Just as I was about to open the door and walk back to the main house, I heard a shot. It was too close to be the hunters, but too loud to be anyone but them. I put my hand on the door handle and heard a second shot. The surprise of its reverberation through the door of my little cabin knocked me to the floor. I hit my head hard as I fell against the corner of the table on my way down.
The world went black.
I awoke, dizzy and with an ache in my body I’d not felt in years. I heard strange voices around me but couldn’t focus on their words. I was cold, my hands and feet were numb, and my face was covered with a layer of fresh snow.
“In here!” a man’s voice called.
There was a flurry of action as four men in dark clothes came rushing toward me. I opened my eyes to see one of them wrapping a blanket over me, and three more struggling to bring a gurney to me through the snow.
“One, two, three,” came a voice. I was lifted to the gurney and another blanket was tucked around me. Safety straps were tied gently about my legs and torso. As they took me from the cabin toward the waiting ambulance, I looked to my right and saw an officer zipping up a black body bag, laying on the ground between the two cabins.
“What… who…” I asked with an exhausted whisper.
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” came a voice nearby. Douglas Grady won’t hurt you ever again.”
After they put me in the ambulance, the EMT pulled away the blankets the police had wrapped around me, to start an IV.
A sad smile came to my face as I realized I was still clutching Abigail’s wedding quilt.
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