Excerpt – Miss Emily
Miss Emily Dickinson Finds a New Companion in the Kitchen
It is a very real possibility that I will remain always and forever under my father’s roof. I am, of course, happiest in my home circle-this is where I bloom-but something in me also longs for the peace of a place of my own, somewhere to withdraw to completely. I do not wish for travel or brave new lands, only a house surrounded by a sprawling orchard that holds orioles and bluebirds that trill for my ears alone, a cozy home with a kitchen uncluttered by others. I do not desire a man or babes; a husband would demand too much, I fear, of my time, of my very self. And there is no doubt that I would make an opinionated, quarrelsome wife.
The new Irish girl started some weeks past. I have not seen much of her, as I have been scratching ink across pages, but she seems lively and capable. She is a compact person, tidy in her dress, and has dark hair and icy eyes. Mother complained today that Ada is “prone to speechmaking,” which makes her appeal grow tenfold for me. Not that I mentioned this fact to Mother. I allow myself so few companions that I do enjoy a person who likes to talk. I entered the kitchen last week, and Ada stopped dead.
“Miss Dickinson?” she said.
“I am a regular here, Ada. Loaves of bread have been born into the world under my guidance.” She stared hard at me. “I like to bake,” I said.
“Like to, miss?”
I had to hold back a laugh so as not to wound her. I suppose for her baking is mere work, whereas for me it is ease and alchemy.
“Perhaps we might bake together soon,” I said, and left her alone. Now it occurs to me that she will have fresh methods of fashioning cakes and breads to share. What new tricks will she have brought from her mother’s table to ours? I lift my eyes to the window to see rain falling; I love the kitchen on a dreary day. I put down my pen and go there to question Ada about what she knows of cake making.
Rain sleets against the kitchen window, but all is warmth and industry. Ada is scraping the leavings of a stew from a pot into a bowl.
“The birds use their wings as umbrellas on days such as these,” I say.
She stops midscrape. “Is that so?” She fills the bowl, lays down her spoon and looks at me. “Begging your pardon, miss, but you talk a lot about birds. You must be very fond of them.”
“Do I talk about birds so much?” I ask.
“The other day you said something about a nightingale.”
” ‘It was the nightingale, and not the lark, / That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.’ ” I was quoting Shakespeare to amuse Mother. We need nothing else when we have Shakespeare, Ada.”
“That’s as may be, but your mother didn’t look very amused,
miss, if you don’t mind my saying. And I have pots to scrub.”
Ada has a superior, petulant face, but when she smiles, she glows like a window opening on a bright day. I want to make her smile.
“I hear that you Irish love rain,” I say. “My sources tell me you are not happy unless soaked through by a torrent.”
“We’re used to rain, miss-it is constant in Ireland-but that doesn’t mean we welcome it.” She turns toward the scullery, and I have to stand in her way to stop her going.
“Margaret O’Brien brought variety to our table, Ada. I wonder if you have any particular things you like to bake? Cutler’s store can order in even the most unusual items. We have an account there, of course.”
“I know that. Miss Vinnie has already instructed me.” She smooths her apron with one hand and looks at me as if she would like to be left alone. “The Concannons, the same as most Irish people, are plain eaters, Miss Dickinson. My mammy looks at salt as if the devil himself brought it to her table. If you like unfussy food, then I’m happy to share what I know with you.” She wriggles past me, a saucepan held out in front of her like a chalice.
“My Indian round bread took a prize at the Amherst Cattle Show, you know,” I say to her retreating back, and even as the words leave my lips, I know how silly I sound.
Ada turns. “Do cows like the taste of rye bread, Miss Emily?” she asks.
Is she teasing? The Irish employ a canny innocence that has fooled me before. Then she smiles, that lit‑up grin of hers, and winks slowly.
“I think you should get out from under my feet, Miss Emily, and let me move on with my day.”
“Let me perch here. I will be quiet as a nestling, and you won’t even know that I am in the room.”
She tuts. “Miss Emily, you’re more of a turkey than a wren, truly, and I will know quite well that you’re here.”
But she smiles again, and I know that, like Margaret O’Brien before her, she welcomes a chance to chatter as she goes about her work. The Irish put great store in spinning a narrative around every small thing, and although I may view life New Englandly, I think I must be somewhat Irish at my core, for I love to do the same.
Sue comes to me; she rolls in the door, her front a muslin-draped melon, and I lead her by the hand to the library, our favorite spot for conferring.
The first time I ever saw Sue, a cascade of sun fell from her head to her shoulders to her feet. She was entirely lit up, standing in the hallway of her sister’s home when we came to call. She was Susan Gilbert then, a new face in our orbit, and we all loved her instantly. Her composure, her china-white skin and her even features all drew me to Sue, before I knew of her boundless intelligence. She was as luminous then as she is now.
“You cultivate possessiveness,” Vinnie once told me. “You smother Sue, and every other acquaintance, with friendship.”
She meant it kindly-in an instructional way-but it set me thinking about Vinnie and whether she knows the real me, the me of my deepest desires. Vinnie has never been a good character judge; she runs with a lot of sillies who care more for Holland lace and ensnaring men than the finer things of the mind and heart. It strikes me that perhaps it is not possible ever to know another, no matter how much we long to. Sue is bridled to Austin, but he does not know her as I do. Before they married, he complained to me
that she did not respond to him as he might have liked.
“Dollie is filled with sawdust,” he declared one day, a moment of extreme exasperation, surely, for the Susan I know is wholly flesh, with a heart that pumps hot blood. There is nothing dry or inert about her; she has passion for poetry and every fine thing. She is of the world in a way that I could never be, and I love that she brings the world to me.
On this day Sue occupies her seat elegantly, as if her stomach is not full with a wriggling babe. “It is so hot,” she says, flicking a pamphlet in front of her face as a fan.
“What will hell be like?” I ask, and we both laugh.
“What news, Emily? Entertain me, for I cannot quite entertain myself these days. My brain has dried to biscuit.”
“The chartreuse zinnia we planted in the conservatory has come up.”
“And I have been itching to tell you all about our new maid.”
“Austin mentioned you had taken another Irish girl.”
“Yes, and she is a darling. Her name is Ada Concannon. Does her name not sound like a peregrine fruit, Sue? Something meaty but sweetly exotic?” Sue nods uncertainly. “Ada talks about Mother as if I were not related to her and then hastily excuses herself. But she means every word she says. There is something of the scamp about her.”
“Is it wise to engage so? Certainly do not encourage her to have a loose tongue, Emily. It may deliver trouble to your door.”
Sue settles back into the chair and folds her hands across her high belly; she sighs and retreats into that space expectant women go to-a covert, mystical place of the mind with room for only one: the soon‑to‑be mother.
“Father was speechifying yesterday, Sue.””Oh, yes? I do love when he sits atop his highest horse. What was his subject, Emily?”
“The usual: ‘Intellectual eminence should not be woman’s goal. Do not read too much, Emily.’ And then he handed me a parcel of new books, though he fears they ‘joggle the mind.’ ”
“Books are always welcome indeed. Was the latest Dostoyevsky among them?” I shake my head. “You must read it, my dear. It is about brilliance and murder-you will love its pathos.”
“But is it dignified, Susan?” I say, imitating Father’s sternest voice. “We must read only what is dignified!”
Sue laughs and tells me more about Crime and Punishment, about its treatise on intellectualism and its fluid, squalid nature.
“Dostoyevsky seems almost casual about death, Emily. It is shocking. Wonderfully so.”
“Just yesterday Ada found a hole in a loaf of bread she had baked. She held it up to me in dismay. I assured her it was all right and that a hole did not make the bread inedible. ‘You don’t understand, miss,’ she said. ‘It’s a coffin. It means a death before long.’ And she was so crushed by the idea that I had to go along with it and console her for a demise that has not yet taken place!”
“Oh, the Irish,” Sue says. “Everything is low and sad with them. Those Pocumtuc girls make adequate domestics, and they don’t talk much. And certainly not out of turn. You should hire one of them instead.”
“I like Ada. She brings spirit with her. She enlivens me. And the entire house.”
Sue waves her hand. “Emily, you want for company- that is why this girl amuses you. You must go forth from this house on occasion. Come to me, to one of my soirées.”
I see a crowded room in my mind, and I feel dizzy. “I think not.”
“People ask after you all the time.” She whisks her hand over her hair. “And it injures me a little, Emily, that you do not come anymore.”
I do not wish to wound Susan, but one as sociable as she perhaps cannot fully understand why strangers discombobulate me so much. I simply do not feel comfortable in a throng; my head gets addled, and I long for peace. And Sue may not comprehend either the writer’s absolute need for quiet and retreat, the solace of it. I am so entirely happy in my own company that I rarely feel the need for anyone else, and when I do, I like to choose my companions wisely.
Sue looks at me, expecting a response. Though her face is the gentle one I love, there is a firmness to her, too, an insistence.
“You know that I quake before prying, inquiring eyes,” I say. “It has always been so. Even when I seemed gay and giddy as a girl, I was uncomfortable. Deeply.”
Sue softens. “People are not necessarily prying when they look at you, dear Emily. The average man is interested in his fellow man and in conversation, nothing more.”
I slip from my chair and kneel before her. “When I talk too much, everything I think and feel is wrung from me. I have nothing to write about when all is spent. It takes me so long to restore myself. It is as if I must heal a wound after each party where all is chitchat and glances and fun.”
“I do not wish you to be upset, Emily. I merely want to introduce you to people. I would like my guests to experience you, not only the poems of yours I share with them.”
“I know you mean your invitation kindly, Dollie. But we are here together now.” I put my lips to her cheek and tell the curl of her ear, “I prefer to have you alone. That way you are all mine.”
Sue dips her head to my breast, and I place my hand to the back of her sweet neck. I study the chevrons
of tiny hairs that grow there, pointing their way down into her bodice.