Aunt Selima

A period piece with an American setting

By Jane Fairweather

It was a dream; of course it was a dream, but it was so vivid. Lucille was on the deck of the schooner (she knew enough about sailing ships to know it was a schooner). The sails had been furled, presumably by the pirates, and the schooner was tied to the larger pirate vessel, which still had its guns protruding from its side. The valiant little crew of the schooner were all dead and lying there on the deck. Some were covered in blood. Some were not covered in blood. Lucille noticed there were nooses hanging from one of the masts. Presumably they had been hanged by the angry pirates, who she could hear muttering that these idiots should have surrendered and not given them such a fight and the pickings were not worth the effort, let alone the loss of their captain. Then someone was asking what should they do with the girl, which was her, presumably. Then another someone was saying that they might as well have their fun with her. And then a voice with the sound of authority in it, it sounded very like her father, was saying that sort of fun always caused trouble; but they would have a different sort of fun with her. Then they were rigging a plank over the side of the schooner and were pushing her towards it and pricking her backside with a cutlass. Then she was out on the plank and it was bending under her weight; and then she was falling…

She woke up screaming.

“Whatever is it? It’s only a dream, whatever it is!” Her sister Katie was saying and putting an arm round her and gently kissing her hair.

Katie was nothing if not affectionate, she thought.

“Pirates were making me walk the plank and I thought the chief pirate was Pa.” She jabbered, starting to laugh at herself. It sounded so ridiculous in the light of day, but it had seemed so real. “They were pushing a cutlass into my bottom to make me keep walking. It was horrible!”

“I expect you are still a bit sore from yesterday and that is why you thought that they were pricking you with a cutlass.” Katie declared authoritatively.

Yesterday suddenly came back to her and she remembered the first extremely severe slap on her bare behind. Pa had been mad with her, he really had.

“It was your own darn fault!” Said Katie severely. “You’ve been riling Ma for weeks, you know darn well you have. And you did not have to say you hate Aunt Selima and would not lift a finger to make ready for her. I’d have been pretty mad with you myself.”

“It was just plain bad luck Pa came in the kitchen just as we were yelling at one another, though.” Lucille said laughing. “Ma would never have told him if he had not come in. She quite likes us hollering at one another. But Pa was real mad and I was marched into the Parlour and straight over his knee I went. And god that man can spank.”

“From what Ma said, you truly asked for it.” Said Katie with a touch of severity, “Were you really taking the name of the Lord in vain?”

“Oh, I was using every word I shouldn’t,” said Lucille laughing. “But Ma was as well. If Pa had come in just a minute before I reckon it could have been her that got spanked.”

“He would never have spanked Ma!” Katie retorted. “She is his wife. Besides which, she is rather big to be spanked; he’d never get her across his knee.”

“She’s his wife and I reckon she’d bend for the paddle.” Said Lucille half facetiously, half thoughtfully. “She respects him enough.”

“Sister, you are teasing me!” Said Katie. “I know darned well when you are teasing.”

“Oh Pa wouldn’t whip her really,” Lucille smiled. “But I think Ma would take it if he wanted to. She loves the man.”

“Anyway, what happened, you dreadful creature? I can’t believe you getting spanked at the age of twenty. You’re much too old. Your drawers surely did not come down at your advanced years, so it cannot have been that bad.”

“Oh, he took them down.” Lucille replied, blushing slightly. “That was maybe the worst bit. I begged quite a bit then, but he took them down.”

“And what then?” Asked Katie with a slightly fascinated look in her eye.

“Oh just a dozen spanks, which he made me count; but he took his time and each one of them hurt, sister. They really hurt.”

“Did you cry?”

“Yes, more than I wanted to.” Lucille said, looking and feeling decidedly embarrassed and wanting to change the subject.

“Well we’d better get up.” Katie observed, seeming to sense Lucille had reached the limits of what she wanted to say about her spanking. “Aunt Selima is coming at ten. Pa’s getting her off the train and they will want us looking real smart for Aunt Selima, though I never do know why. They seem to worship that woman and she is such a bitch. She condescends to us poor relations so much. That awful painting is up above the mantelpiece yet again. They always put it up when she comes here.”

“Better not say so, dear sister,” said Lucille. “Better not say so. No doubt they’ve got their reasons. I know you think you know about pictures and such like, but don’t you say so. What happened to me yesterday, could just happen to you today or tomorrow. You are only nineteen. I was twenty and I still got whipped.”

“Oh, it won’t.” Katie replied very firmly. “Pa said when I was sixteen it was my last whipping and he is a man of his word. Bet he’s never said that to you.”

“No, he hasn’t.” Lucille admitted, more than slightly grudgingly; it did not seem fair that she was still liable to be punished and her sister wasn’t. Still, no doubt Pa, who was always pretty fair, had his reasons.

“I would like to go and get taught painting and drawing with a proper teacher,” Katie came out with unexpectedly. “And then I could do proper teaching myself and leave here and not have to get married or face being a spinster in this backwoods place all my three score and ten years.”

“Pa wants to let you do it, he told me so, but you know money is short. Teaching a country school is more sorrow than wealth!”

“I know it, but if this goes on I might go somewhere I can earn enough dollars for myself looking after some old woman, or maybe children, and somehow pay for it myself.”

“That would be hard, sister, but it is brave of you to think of it.” Lucille observed, brushing her long auburn hair hard. “But we had better get on with getting up; Aunt Selima is on her way!”

*         *          *

A visit from Aunt Selima was always difficult, Lucille thought. The woman was in fact their mother’s aunt and she always seemed so old in her relentlessly black garments. She wore these, as she never failed to mention, in honour of her husband who had died in some skirmish or other in the Civil War over thirty years before. This in itself was bad enough, in Lucille’s view, but the woman had a most annoying habit of talking as if being poor was a sin in itself. It never seemed to occur to her that her own comfortable situation was entirely to do with her husband’s family having been reasonably well to do.

And always Aunt Selima would comment on the meal, which today Ma and Katie had been to great lengths to prepare, and observe in the same breath how excellent it was, but of course it was a triumph of skill over adversity when Pa had been so foolish as to waste his good college education on teaching a village school and had made barely a cent out of it, let alone a dollar.

As she heard Aunt Selima repeat this yet again, Lucille felt almost proud that she had stood up and been counted and refused to help with getting the food ready. That little act of defiance had effectively cost her a sore backside, even if in theory it had been for swearing at Ma, and she was still darn tender, but it had definitely been worth the candle she decided, quite definitely.

“Katie, I hear you have some desire to learn drawing from a proper teacher.” Aunt Selima was saying with unusual briskness.

This at least was new and Lucille pricked up her ears. Was Aunt Selima proposing to do something about Katie’s art? It seemed so unlikely.

“Yes, Aunt Selima, I do love drawing and painting and I would so like to learn properly.”

The yearning for the impossible was palpable in Katie’s voice.

“I expect you have some daubs you can show me?”

Aunt Selima’s voice somehow managed to sound malicious, even though the enquiry should have been kind and Lucille longed to speak out against the condescension, but she was all too aware that to say what she thought would certainly end any chance of patronage for Katie’s art from her great aunt.

She sat biting her lip and shuffling slightly on her behind while Katie vanished rapidly and re-emerged with a large portfolio, which she handed over to Aunt Selima. Various plates and cutlery were hurriedly got out of the way by Ma and Lucille and the portfolio was placed on the table in front of Aunt Selima, who opened it rather ceremoniously.

She looked at each piece of paper in turn, at first slowly, then more rapidly.

“Well obviously you have a shortage of materials, and how!” Aunt Selima observed. “But a good artist would rise above that. Your execution is awful, my dear Katie, and I must say I doubt very much if you can be taught anything. Your dogs look like cats and your cats like dogs and your flowers like trees and your trees like flowers.”

“That is not true!” Lucille exclaimed heatedly. “My sister’s pictures always look exactly like her own and they are good. You don’t have to make things look exactly as they are to make a picture. It can even look better if you don’t. You should give Katie some credit for not being the same!”

There was an uncomfortable silence.

“I am sorry for my daughter’s outburst. She has a way of saying too much what she thinks and she is fond of her sister.” Pa was saying, slightly desperately, obviously trying to calm the situation and very obviously building up to a promise to discipline Lucille for her insolence.

Lucille realised another spanking was almost certainly coming her way and felt more than slightly upset, but then thought it was worth it to have stood up for Katie. She had not had two spankings in two days since she was twelve, she realised. She waited rather wearily for Aunt Selima to demand her pound of flesh, but there was a distinct pause as the old woman sat looking very pensive and everyone waited for her to speak.

“There are worse things than standing up for your sister.” Aunt Selima eventually observed very unexpectedly. “I think that was quite brave of you, Lucille, to say that. Let us leave it at that, James. But what we are concerned with is Katie’s art. Katie, what you think of the picture your parents have on the wall?”

“Do you mean the painting or one of the prints?” Asked Katie, sounding nervous and glancing frantically between the single oil painting over the mantelpiece and the couple of very old and faded prints.

It flashed across her sister’s mind that Katie had said to her just that morning that the oil painting was a very bad picture; presumably her parents thought so too since it only appeared when Aunt Selima visited. What was the connection between this picture and Aunt Selima? Oh lord, what would Katie say; she never lied, did she. She willed her sister to lie for once in her life; her whole future might depend on it.

“The painting, of course child, not the prints. Take your time. If you give me a sensible answer I might just find the means for your lessons.”

The old woman suddenly sounded quite benevolent and Lucille began to wonder if Aunt Selima really rather liked it that someone in this household had given her an argument after all these years in which no one had said boo to a goose. Why were her parents always so meek to Aunt Selima? She did not really know, but not for the first time she concluded they must be hoping to be left something in her will and they were so poor that she could not blame them.

Katie, meanwhile, had walked up to the painting over the mantelpiece, which was of cattle in a vaguely pastoral setting, and looked at it closely before walking backwards and looking at it from a distance. Then she rather shakily resumed her seat opposite her great aunt.

“Well?” Enquired Aunt Selima.

“It’s a copy, I think, Aunt Selima; a bit like some Eighteenth century English paintings I’ve seen in the encyclopaedia.”

“Exactly right.” Said Aunt Selima benevolently. “But what do you think of it as a piece of art, Katie? Is it any good, do you think?”

Katie seemed to pause and think. Lucille kept mouthing: “Lie!” to her and thinking it frantically.

“I am afraid I don’t think it is very good, Aunt Selima. In fact, I think it is awful.”

Lucille, glancing round the table, saw the look of despair that went across Pa’s face.

“And why don’t you think it is very good, girl?” Said Aunt Selima, pointedly ignoring the second part of the reply.

“Say something not too rude!” Thought Lucille frantically.

“The cattle don’t look like cattle, the countryside doesn’t look like countryside and the brushwork is dreadful. And it needs cleaning.”

Lucille noted the look of anger on Aunt Selima’s face; the woman looked as if she was about to explode. Lucille gulped and felt on the verge of tears, even though it was Katie who was about to get it.

“So girl, do you know who painted this painting?”

“No, Aunt Selima, should I do?”

“Obviously your parents have never bothered to tell you. It was my late husband, Auberon, when we were young and courting. Now girl, what do you think of the painting now?”

“Just tell her what she wants to hear,” thought Lucille, though she was quite amazed at the scale of the hypocrisy she was witnessing.

“It does not make any difference if your late husband painted it, surely!” Katie ejaculated.

“Girl, you have just written yourself out of my will, let alone any painting lessons. And now, if you would be kind enough to take me to the station in your trap, James, I think I will take the earliest train I can and get myself out of this hole.”

Lucille felt a frantic desire to say something, but restrained herself.

Katie rose to her feet and screamed, eyes blazing: “Fuck you! To hell you, old bitch, I will do it myself. Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”

Pa rose from the table and grabbed his daughter by her arm.

“Into the parlour! You are going to have to be taught manners, young woman, the hard way. Now march!”

The three women round the meal table sat in silence and listened uncomfortably to the sound of a paddle being applied with considerable force eight times, and Katie hollering at the top of her voice. Lucille noticed that though Aunt Selima had been the cause of her great niece’s punishment she winced each time there was the noise of the paddle.

Pa re-emerged, looking still quite angry.

“I can only apologise, Aunt Selima,” he said. “I cannot think what got into my daughter’s head. She has not been brought up to speak so profanely.”

Lucille cursed to herself that Pa was letting the old woman win, though admittedly if she herself had deserved yesterday’s spanking for swearing, then Katie had deserved today’s paddling, though it seemed a little harsh.

She glanced round the table and noticed there were tears in Aunt Selima’s eyes, which seemed most improbable. Everyone was sitting rather awkwardly. Ma was not saying anything, but Lucille was pretty sure she was really mad with Pa and Pa was beginning to wilt under her gaze.

Finally Aunt Selima wiped her tears and said: “James, you have two very spirited daughters and I shall be glad to help them in any way I can. Please ask Katie to come back in. I want to apologise to her, don’t take no for an answer, James.”

Then, most oddly, a very tearful Katie was limping back in and Aunt Selima was very unwontedly apologising for her own anger and in the same breath asking how many swats Katie had just had.

Katie grudgingly accepted the apology and muttered through her tears that she had had eight.

“My worst was twelve with the hickory.” The old woman went on, “You used to get that bare, you know, or I did. I don’t know if it is worse than the paddle or not. I got it half a dozen times at least.”

“What was that for?” Asked Katie through her tears, showing no great eagerness to sit down, but looking decidedly triumphant.

Lucille found herself wondering if Katie’s backside was redder than hers had been; Pa’s hand was very hard and large. She had never had the paddle so it was hard to compare.

“Oh sticking to Auberon when they thought he was not good enough for me. If you must know, I yelled something very like you just screamed at me straight in my Papa’s face and it did not go down at all well. Now it will take a little while to do, but I will find out the best place for art on the East Coast for your strange way of painting and drawing and I will pay for it.”

It was a very strange end to the day, Lucille thought, and stranger still Aunt Selima stayed two more days than had been intended and was more human and friendly than anyone had ever thought her capable of.

The End

© Jane Fairweather 2016    To visit Jane Fairweather’s Amazon Author Page, click here