I stood hesitantly on the lower part of the stairs leading to the first floor of the Institute. Having procrastinated as long as possible in my room, I had tidied my appearance before heading downstairs to meet Willow and Anne for breakfast. I was tired and surely looked the part. My sleep had been uneasy; ghosts from my previous dream dancing hedonistically in my sleep.
I wore a simple gingham dress in light blue today, a darker blue sash about my waist complimenting the blue one tied around my neck from which a small ivory oval hung. I'd taken pains to arrange my hair in a loose French twist low on my neck. Normally not one for the fancies of cosmetics, I had nonetheless spent some time pinching my cheeks to give them a rosy hue. Unconvincingly, I had told myself that the attention to detail was for my first official day on the job.
In one hand I clutched the telegram that Anne had delivered to me yesterday. In the other I cradled a small leather bound notebook with a miniature pen attached. I used it for all things of interest: writing, drawing and journaling. With one last sigh, I descended the remaining steps of the stairwell and proceeded towards the drawing room for breakfast.
I entered the drawing room on the far side of the dining area. I had quite a distance for which I could observe the seated figures as I approached. Willow and Anne sat next to a large end table, placed adjacent to a fireplace, which now held medium sized flames. They were speaking to each other in low tones, and though Willow had not observed me enter as yet, Anne's eyes immediately flickered to me before returning to the book she held in front of her. Willow was gesturing towards the book, making odd figures over it as if to tell a story with her fingers alone. From all appearances, it seemed she was describing the way in which someone would walk a dog.
Willow's appearance, though no less startling than yesterday, was certainly not as scandalous. She wore a man's shirt again, though pin striped in blue this time. She now had on a dress of sorts, which fell to just the tops of the small black leather boots on her feet. The tan dress had no pleats and seemed to have no petticoats underneath it. The fabric flowed straight down in one line, framing her thighs and knees were the fabric hung as she sat. It was an odd look to be sure, but as the pants had been, very flattering.
As I drew near, Willow looked up and our eyes connected. The fingers of her hand continued their pantomiming in the air though her voice trailed off in mid-sentence. Her gaze on me felt as warm as the fire that I approached. My eyes skittered away from hers, falling on Anne who was now looking up at me. I motioned to an open seat across from the duo.
"May I?" Willow nodded quickly and I sat down, adjusting my dress and looking anywhere but directly at her. Try at I might, I couldn't deny passing her a brief smile and then wishing a good morning to them both.
"Good morning Tara," Willow smiled at me. "Anne and I were just discussing a fascinating new book about dog training. Well actually, I was discussing it and Anne was just placating me. She doesn't really like dogs you see. I suppose she's more of a cat person. But, I was imagining that you could apply similar training techniques to cats and perhaps we could teach Isabelle, that's Anne's cat, to stop walking through her study with muddy paws. I really think it could work but Anne thinks cats are far too stubborn to be trained."
As Willow drew a breath before launching into another sentence, I glanced at Anne. She was gazing into the fireplace, one hand propped under her chin, trying to hide a huge smile with her fingers. I was happy to see that not even Anne was immune to the charm of Willow's babble. I turned back to Willow, smiling and laughing lightly.
Willow stopped mid-breath and simply regarded me. I felt her eyes run over me. It seemed as if she was tracing me to memory; taking me into her catalog, as I am sure she did with everything she observed. I fidgeted with my notebook then, placing it on the table nearby. I then smoothed the telegram I held in my other hand and placed it on top of the notebook.
"Did you sleep well Tara?" Willow inquired.
"New beds are always difficult Willow, but I made due. Thank you for asking." I couldn't help but remember bouncing lightly on the bed before retiring. Though my reaction to Willow had so far been rather extreme, I couldn't deny the levity and joy that she allowed me to feel. Lost in my thoughts, I hadn't noticed the servant approach with our breakfast. However, Anne had. She was already standing to help arrange the plates on the table.
As she busied herself with this task, she spoke to me. "Tara, I noticed you had your telegram with you. Will you want to respond this morning?"
Though she seemed nonchalant, her tone was curious, as was the open expectation on Willow's face. Because Anne was standing, and more likely because I wanted an excuse to speak to her, I addressed Willow.
"Yes, that would be ideal. The telegram was from my brother, Donald. There is a political meeting here in Chicago this May that he has been asked to attend. I'd like to see him when he is here, of course. He'll be staying in the city."
"He's coming for the Republican convention? He's not a Democrat?" I glanced at Willow, surprised by her comment. Then, chastising myself, I realized that in this room sat possibly the most educated women this side of the world. It would follow that they were active in the study of politics as well. At this point, Anne handed me a cup of coffee, which I took gratefully, and sat back down in her chair. She leaned forward expectantly for my response.
"No Willow, he's no Democrat. My father was a Republican. It wasn't a natural fit, but ever since the Southern blotters began endorsing a separate union in the 1850's, he became a staunch Republican. He was always at odds with the party, even before switching affiliation." I sipped my coffee and watched them silently. It no longer pained me to speak of my father, though he had only died four months prior.
"Is that why you left the South? Willow told me you are originally from Charleston." Anne too sipped her coffee. Willow only stared at me, waiting to hear more of my tale.
"That was part of the reason. My mother was ailing at the time. We came to Chicago to see a new doctor in 1852. It wasn't long after that she passed. My father didn't want to return to the South because of the growing political divide, so he finished raising and educating my brother and I here in Chicago." I paused before continuing.
"My brother is lawyer now. He's been in Virginia for many months helping with the defense of John Brown. My father died fighting with him at Harper's Ferry."
"Oh my god!" Willow shouted standing up partially, then sitting back down and glancing back and forth between Anne and I. "You're father is a hero Tara!"
"I'm glad you think so Willow." I smiled wanly. "It seemed rather foolhardy to me at the time. And look at poor John Brown; strung up just last December."
Willow's look turned grim as she continued to address me. Anne said nothing, but looked increasingly perturbed by the direction of the conversation.
"I'm sorry Tara, I know this must be difficult to talk about, but your father didn't die in vane. That rebellion has forced the Southern and Northern politicians to realize that it isn't only slaves that are revolting. Educated, wealthy men are revolting as well. This isn't an uprising of the poor or the mistreated Tara, this is an uprising of all of America's humanity. And mark my words; this nation won't stand divided much longer. War is inevitable. The Republicans will nominate an Abolitionist and the Democrats will nominate pro-Slavery. Either way, there will be war."
Willow was winded by the time she finished her impassioned speech. I noticed that tears were threatening to spring forth from her eyes and I fought the matching moisture in my own. All she had said was true and on an intellectual level, I realized this. It didn't make the loss of my father and the turmoil my brother and I had experienced any easier.
Anne, who still had not spoken since I revealed the reason for my father's death, stood and walked closer to the fire, wrapping her arms around herself as if she had suddenly become chilled. She cleared her throat, lightly shaking her head as she spoke.
"This is hard for all of us. Willow and I know how you feel Tara. All of us in this room are orphans. While your father died trying to free slaves, my husband, father and father-in-law were all slaughtered by the same slaves we wish to see set free. There is no comfort in dying a hero. All of our lives crumbled with one bloody incident. It's hard to feel anything but sorrow and anger."
The room was silent as Anne stared into the fire, I stared at my hands, and Willow stared at me. We seemed so bound by our experience, yet each with a different perspective learned from it. Anne was clearly hardened and depressed by hers. I was most definitely angry and bitter from mine. Willow, it seemed, was impassioned and motivated by hers.
I envied her, to see through eyes that clear and unbiased. I envied and admired her. I looked up at her then, the energy flowing off her in waves, her fist clenching and unclenching with repressed energy. And then she smiled at me. It was a comforting, simple smile, not happy or jovial. And yet, just that small smile lightened my heart. It was just a small moment in my day, in my life. It was just a small moment that needled its way into my heart and stung me there. And at that small moment, I knew I could not live without Willow's smile.