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Sunday, September 29, 2013

This painting by Johannes Vermeer was my inspiration for an assignment in my Creative Writing class. I hope you will enjoy this short story. 
An Excercise in Imagination ~ The Milkmaid

     Anna wondered about her father’s illness, and hoped for signs of improvement as she made her way back to the pantry for more bread. The cedar-lined cupboards were revealing more empty space as the inventory was depleted. One thing she could always count on was the comforting aroma of the pantry, even if the resources were low.  It had been two weeks since the last time the neighbors stopped by to check on them, bringing fresh fruit and bread. Anna was preoccupied in these thoughts while she prepared an afternoon snack for her father, his favorite of fresh milk, bread and jam.

     Anna began her day early in the morning when the rooster crowed, before sun-up, as she knew the best time to milk Bessie was in the morning. Pulling on her mud boots, she glopped across the wet grass and through the mud to get to the barn, where Bessie waited for her. The light of the oil-lamp barely glowed, but soon Anna knew the sun would illuminate the farmland and stream through the spaces between the slats of wood on the side of the old barn.

     Before her father got sick, he worked from daylight until dark, maintaining the farm in a standard which he was re-known for in the community. He cared for all the animals, including the milk-cow, Bessie, the two horses and a menagerie of pigs, goats and chickens. The sheep had all died out from the pox, which miraculously skipped the goats. Harold had been a sheep farmer all his life, but when he lost the sheep he made the difficult decision to retire from sheep-farming. While this meant less physical labor for him and Anna, he also knew it meant a sharp decline in the income and resources. He had faith that they would make it.         
     While Anna did not mind milking the cow, her favorite place to be was in the kitchen, which was just off the mud-room after entering the house from the back door. The construction of the home was thick brick-and-mortar, built by Anna’s mother’s family over one hundred years ago. The kitchen was a comforting place where she spent many hours baking bread, jams and canning fruits and vegetables from the prosperous garden she and her father planted every spring.

     The family had willed the home to Anna after her mother died in the horrible accident that no one could have predicted. It was a stormy night, and the wind howled for hours. It was February and the stove would barely stay lit because of the wind. Just when they thought it was over, the wind diminished, and then the rain started, soft and gentle at first, but it rained for four days straight. Anna’s father, Harold, insisted upon taking care of the animals himself and refused help offered to him from his wife, Trudy. After-all, she had a little one to care for, as Anna was just a toddler. On the fifth day, Trudy woke up before Harold and sneaked out to the barn to feed the animals and clean out the barn. She was able to get to Bessie and milk her engorged udder. The two buckets of fresh, steamy milk would be a welcome addition to the cold, damp kitchen, Trudy thought as she hurried toward the house.

     The first lightning strike came while she was making her way from the barn to the house, hands full with the buckets, and she ran to take shelter next to the outhouse. Harold heard the crack of thunder that accompanied the lightning and he ran to the barn in search of his wife. The baby Anna was still asleep in her cradle which Harold’s father made, carved from one block of the oak tree in the back of the farm. The tree the cradle was made from suffered a lightning strike over twenty years ago. Not only was Harold’s father also a sheep-farmer, like Harold, but a wood-worker too. His handiwork was visible throughout the home, with tables, chairs, and the cradle.

     Harold’s focus was on finding Trudy, but she was not in the barn. He searched in the hay loft, and in each of the animal pens. Knowing how Trudy cared for the horses, Harold thought she might have gone to them to comfort them from the storm which was raging all around them. When he did not find her in the barn, he headed toward the barn door, and at the same time he first felt, and then heard the crack of lightning, instantly deafening him momentarily. Instantly he knew, he could feel Trudy had been struck. He broke into a speed of running he never knew he had within him, and found Trudy lying on the ground between the outhouse and the back door of their home. The family home they shared as husband and wife for ten years, when finally summer before last they were blessed with a child, their little Anna. Now, standing beside his wife’s limp body, he was startled by the sounds of Anna. “Dada, Dada!” she cried over and over again. He picked up Trudy’s body and ran to his daughter. Harold knew what he had to do.

     The funeral service was a quiet event, with only the neighbors coming to stand by as Harold laid his wife’s body to rest. Anna can barely remember that day, and relies on her father for the memories of her mother. Standing at the window in the kitchen now, fifteen years later, Anna was thankful that her father is such a good man, both a mother and father to her. True, she had to share the heavy work-load that the farm required, but it only helped her stay physically fit. Her upper-body strength came from driving the plow-horses in the spring for the garden. Her legs were good and sturdy because of the miles of walking she did around the farm to mend the fences. But her classic beauty and silky-smooth skin she inherited from her mother. Anna was happy to be born a milk-maid.

     Lost in thought, Anna did not hear the rapping at the door until it grew louder and more frequent. She laid aside the tray of snacks for her father and, wiping her hands on her apron, went to the front door. “Doctor Abels, so nice to see you. Please come in.” The young doctor explained that Dr. Berg was away and sent him to call on Harold. Anna escorted the doctor to her father’s room, and left the two men to visit. Twenty minutes later Dr. Abels returned to the hallway between the bedroom and the kitchen. “Anna,” he said, “I have some news to tell you. May we sit down?” Anna ushered him into the living room, bringing with them a tray of tea and fresh, warm rolls with butter and honey. Anna could not read the expression on Dr. Abels’
face. She had only seen him a couple of times before, but always with Dr. Brinkerhoff. Anna set the tray down, and they each took a seat. “Anna, you father…is not getting better. There will not be much time left before the cancer takes over his whole body. I am so very sorry.” Anna felt like one of the bricks from the wall of the house had just landed on her chest. Stunned, her face ashen-white, she stared straight ahead. If ever she prayed for strength, it was now. She and her father had endured so much and came through the hard times, but now this she had to face alone. “Anna,” said the kind, young, doctor, “If there is anything you need, I am here for you.” He understood the look of shock on her face, and then poured her some tea. Neither of them touched the rolls.

     Two precious, short weeks is all Anna had with her father before his body succumbed to the disease. But Anna was thankful for those sweet memories they made in his final days. The neighbors came and helped Anna with the farm chores so she could have time with Harold. The milk-maid’s father passed away peacefully in his sleep. At Dr. Abels’ final house-call before Harold’s death, he assured Anna the funeral arrangements had all been taken care of by the community. The other farmer’s saw to it that the expenses were covered. Their only last concern was what was to become of the farmer’s daughter, the milk-maid. The community talked to Dr. Abels, but he had already thought of that. He just hoped the idea would be reciprocated.

     One month after the funeral they had their first date, a picnic along the river. Anna packed strawberry jam, fresh rolls, dried fish and a quart of cold milk. The young doctor did not mind whatever was in the picnic basket, he was just glad to spend time with Anna, now eighteen. In all his twenty-two years he had never been so drawn to another soul the way he was drawn to Anna. He would find out today if she felt the same. Anna realized she did not know this young, handsome doctor’s name. “Doctor, you know so much about me and my father, but I do not even know your first name. What is it?” He replied, “Gustaaf. Please call me Gus.” Anna realized now this was the same Gustaaf Abels who she has a crush on when she was just a school girl, and he came to the farm looking for work to put himself through medical school. Her father, although kind to the job-seeker, could not afford to employ him, but he had remained interested in the farm. He inquired with the other farmers in the community before Harold’s illness, and learned of the milk-maid. It was at this moment that Anna fell in love with the man, the doctor, Gustaaf Abels ~ and they lived happily ever after.
                                                            The End.