So, back in 1994, having nothing better to do with my time (the Liaden series was, according to Those Who Know, dead, forever dead, and Lee and Miller were washed-up authors), I outlined (insomuch &c) three kinda-cozy mysteries, set in the fictitious town of Wimsy, Maine, which is situated between the very real towns of Waterville and Winslow, Maine, on the shore of the equally fictitious Big Smoke River.
Excerpt from Barnburner, © Sharon Lee 1994
THE PICKUP TRUCK HAD been blue once, but general neglect and six winters of road salt had scrubbed it down to gray. It was lacy with rust around the wheel wells—salt again—and clanged like a sheet metal convention the long way down the drive and into the dooryard.
I rinsed out the coffee mug and put it to drain, pulled the plug in the kitchen sink and wiped my hands down the seat of my jeans.
“Harry’s here,” I told Jasper, a banality he vanquished with a single flick of his right ear. Jasper’s ears are very expressive. Mostly they express Jasper’s irritation with his present body servant. Jasper had been quite happy with his former servant, my Aunt Jennifer, and had been inclined from the first to lay blame for her sudden and unexplained desertion squarely at my door.
I inclined my head as I passed him in his window-perch—”Your Majesty”—worked the latch on the ancient plank door and stepped out onto the porch.
Harry was standing on the truck’s risky back bumper, bent over the gate and swearing so matter-of-factly that she might have been holding a Sunday social conversation with the rusty bedboards.
“Gotcha!” she announced as I came down the porch steps.
Awkwardly, she gathered a brown paper shopping bag into her arms and came upright, swaying with a certain Chaplin-esque precaritybefore simply stepping backward off the bumper.
I stretched my legs. Harry hit the ground, tottered—and grinned up at me as I grabbed her shoulders.
“Damn good thing you happened by. I’d’ve bruised my ass.”
I laughed. “What’s in the bag?”
“Beans,” Harry said, with relish. She headed for the porch, bag cradled against her chest.
“Beans,” I repeated, eyeing the bag with misgiving.
“Cull beans,” Harry expanded, setting the bag on the top step and treating me to another grin. “Least, it’s what they said down to the company. Bought a sackful for the sheep, opened her up just now—damn beans are just about perfect. Thought you could use some, with winter coming.”
The Maine year is measured by winter—it’s either coming, just gone, or here. In this case, Harry’s point was made with a Mainer’s understatement: it was mid-October, and winter breathing down our necks.
“Brought twenty pound, thereabout,” Harry said, pulling her flannel shirt straight. “Go on and bring out some bowls. I’ll sit an hour and help you pick ’em.”
Twenty pounds of beans, I thought, dismally. What on earth was I going to do with twenty pounds of beans?
It was impossible not to take the beans, just as it was impossible to decline the offered assistance. Manners, Jen, I told myself severely and started into the house.
“Glass of cider?” I asked Harry, holding the door open on my fingertips.
“That’d be fine.”
Haroldene Pelletier was Jennifer Pierce’s oldest friend and I had inherited her, with the house and Jasper, when Aunt Jen died, two years ago. She was a stocky, gap-toothed woman with shoulder-length gray hair squeezed flat under a succession of well-used peaked caps. Today’s hat was blue, with a faded GMC logo over the bill. It looked about as old as the usetabe-blue pickup.
I handed Harry a beer mug filled with cider and sat down on the step, the bag of beans between us. I waited until she’d had a sip before handing her the largest of Aunt Jen’s nesting pottery bowls.
“Good cider,” she said, setting the mug down with a thump.
“Morris brought it by yesterday.”
“Morris” is Mainer for Maurice. This particular Maurice is DuChamp, owner of Old Smoky Orchard, and, as far as I knew, the last of my aunt’s living bequests.
“Well, we’ve had our differences,” Harry said, which was her standard Morris line, “but I will say Morris DuChamp knows how to behave.”
She unrolled the top of the bag and reached in, pulling out a fistful of beans. She opened her fingers and showed me: pale beans with a scattering of faded red freckles along the seam, liberally mixed with stones, sticks, bits of hay, and beans that were nowhere near “perfect.”
I set the enameled colander one step down, hooked a leg up, planted the opposite foot two steps down (“High pockets,” Harry said, the first time we met. “Just like your aunt.”), and nestled the second-largest bowl in the crook of my knee.
“What kind of beans are these?” I asked, gamely reaching into the bag and hauling out a fistful.
“Soldier,” Harry said, head bent over her hand. “You got a good recipe for baked beans in your aunt’s card tin—’Thena Gagnon copied it out for her. Bean pot used to be in the bottom of the hutch.”
At first, it had frosted me utterly that these people—these strangers—knew more about the contents and keepings of my home than I did. Now and then I still had the urge to move everything in the house completely around and then hold a potluck for the neighbors. It was only the bone-deep belief that the neighbors would work day and night to put everything back “right” that saved the house and Jasper from disruption.
I opened my fist and began to sort. Sticks, stones and icky wrinkly, dried-up once-beans were the easy discards. They clattered into the colander like sudden hail.
Now, for the harder choices. I chose a pristine, plump specimen from the pile in my palm and dropped it into my bowl. Another… another.
The next one was slightly wrinkled. I consider it; flicked it into the colander.
“You be at the meeting tonight?”
I sighed down at my little clutch of beans.
“It was on my sheet yesterday,” I said, sounding almost as grumpy as I felt. “I guess it’ll be on my sheet today.” I discarded a cracked bean and a wrinkled one and hesitated over a pea-sized specimen before dropping it into the bowl.
“I wish Reverend Stern would get a life,” I grumbled.
Harry sniffed. “Always poking his nose into other people’s houses,” she said, sorting beans with efficient flicks of her finger. Her bowl was filling rapidly; the discards to the colander alarmingly few. “That way in elementary school. No use looking for him to change now.”
“Maybe he’ll move away,” I suggested.
Harry raised wide eyes to my face. “Whatever for?”
I grinned, sourly. “Yeah, why move to a city and be just another crank when you can be a big fool in a little town?”
Harry gave a crack of laughter. “Boss fish eats better than the minnows,” she commented and shook her head. “Where does that man get his money?”
“He goes to Boston once a month and robs a bank.”
“Wouldn’t think he was bold as that.”
I hiccuped against a laugh and threw Harry a grin. “You’re probably right.”
“Not as if they didn’t come asking for notice,” Harry said, reaching into the bag for another fistful of beans. “He’s quiet enough, but her—she might as well have popped the Reverend in the nose and had done with it.”
Him and her were Scott and Merry Ash, who’d bought the old Johnson place at the top of the Point Road. They’d moved in at the end of mud season—which is called April in most of the rest of the country—and started fixing the place up: roof, shingles, dooryard steps. They’d cleared the rubbish out of the abandoned kitchen garden and put in a modest planting, to the general approval of the neighborhood.
Scott acquitted himself well under interrogation by the old men who held morning court at Christie’s Donuts. He had admitted to planning for a sheep or two, an herb garden for Merry, setting in more vegetables, maybe starting a hive.
Nice young couple, the preliminary verdict went out from the donut court. Want to do right by the land.
Then Merry hit town.
In this age of Christian fundamentalism, Merry Ash is a Witch or—her preference—a Wiccan. Which is to say, a person embracing a specifically non-Christian—some insist, pre-Christian—belief system. Wicca honors a Goddess and a God, and a Wiccan keeping to the letter of her Rede honestly strives to “harm none.”
Wimsy is home to half-a-dozen assorted pagans that I know of, and probably twice that many who prefer to keep their beliefs quite, quite secret. What set Merry and Scott apart was that neither of them attempted to hide their affiliation. Indeed, Merry set out to educate others about her beliefs, and quickly became one of the more popular—and controversial—speakers at the local schools.
But trouble, when it sprang, didn’t spring from a Wiccan-versus-Christian matter at all.
It exploded out of the abortion debate.
Reverend Stern was pro-life, militantly so. He picketed the Wimsy Medical Center, there being no “abortionaries” on this side of the Smoke. He’d had a heart attack in February which had kept him close to home all summer, but before that he’d traveled extensively throughout Maine and the rest of the continental forty-eight, to the relief of the greater portion of Wimsy’s townsfolk, organizing rallies at other hospitals, medical centers and clinics.
In June, he’d taken his fervor to the streets, organizing a couple dozen staunch supporters to march as a bloc in the annual We Are Wimsy Day Parade.
So, picture it: Reverend Stern and his followers, with their placards of graphically ravaged fetuses, jostling through the crowd to find their place in the parade queue—and coming face-to-placard with Merry Ash and the founding membership of Gaia Coven.
The Wimsy Voice had been there, which meant me and Dan Skat. Dan won Best Grab from the Mid-Maine Newspaper Association for the shot of Merry wrenching Reverend Stern’s placard out of his hands.
Merry was ticketed by Officer Vince Kellor and had to pay a fine for littering. After she beat the placard to death against the side of the post office she left the pieces scattered around the parking lot.
If she’d thrown the bits into the rubbish bin, Vince told the Voice, he’d have had no cause to write any tickets. Far as he knew, there wasn’t no law against busting placards. As for the placard in question having belonged to Reverend Stern before its demise—”The gentleman was not able to prove ownership.”
“You know,” Harry commented, dry-voiced. “I bet some of them beans’ll cook up just as good as those pretty ones you’re keeping.”
I started, recalled to the present, and looked up guiltily.
“Too picky, huh?”
Harry sighed. “I don’t know how them folks in the city get on.”
“Too picky,” I concluded, and felt a sweep of nostalgia for the bright, wide-aisled supermarkets of my hometown.
Gamely, I reached into the bag again, deliberately chose a wrinkled bean and dropped it into my bowl.
“Bad enough they write letters back and forth to each other, clogging up the whole newspaper,” Harry continued, back with Scott and Merry and Reverend Stern. “But when he comes knocking on doors and quoting Scripture at me during my supper-hour—” She shook her head, and hauled another fistful of beans out of the bag.
The letter-writing war had been closely followed by all of Wimsy. Merry, at least, stuck to the abortion issue, and if she did from time to time cite her authority as a Wiccan High Priestess, it was no less than Reverend Stern did, by claiming a first-name relationship with Jesus.
But the Reverend just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Merry looked like getting the best of him in the abortion debate, to judge by the letters that poured through the Voice’s editorial desk, and he’d veered off into “Thou shalt not suffer a Witch” territory.
This had proved to be an unexpectedly fruitful field and the Reverend had tilled it and tended it with the devotion of a fanatic all the long, letter-writing summer.
But even that fertile territory had started to dry up after awhile. Folks started to write less fevered, more normal letters to the editor; Gaia Coven opened a co-op on Main Street; those who did went upcountry, late summer, and raked blueberries for their winter’s cash. The staff of the Wimsy Voice breathed a cautious sigh of relief.
Then Scott applied for the town’s permission to fix his barn.
Since there were significant portions of former barn still standing, this should have been a formality. Scott went to Town Hall on Thursday, filled out the form and paid his three dollar fee. Friday morning, the clerk posted his request and two others like it on the public notice board. There it was destined to remain until the next Friday, by which time anyone with objections should have come forward and said their piece.
Reverend Stern didn’t stop with saying his piece to the Wimsy Town Clerk. No sir. Reverend Stern took to the streets, to the churches and, yes, once again to the letters page of the Voice.
“Calling a whole meeting over a barn,” Harry grumbled, sorting beans like a dervish. “Think even Butchie Stern’d have more sense than that.”
I choked. “Butchie?”
She looked at me from under her lashes, sidewise-sly. “What we called him in elementary school.”
“I love it.”
“Don’t you go using that in no story,” Harry admonished. “Have him after me in the editorials.”
She flicked the last bean from her palm to her bowl and rubbed her hands down faded denim thighs.
“Time to be getting on,” she said, putting the bowl up. “This here’s enough to get you started.”
She swigged the dregs of her cider and stood. “You look up that recipe, now, and let me know how you like them beans.”
“I’ll do that,” I said, unwinding from the step and walking with her toward the faded blue truck. I smiled as she hauled herself into the driver’s seat. “Thanks, Harry.”
“You betcha. See you at meeting.”
I blinked in surprise. “You’re going?”
“Wouldn’t miss that show for the world,” she said and started the truck with a roar.