When Laura woke up, the sun was already high in the sky to signify midmorning. She blinked a few times in the unexpected light, wondering why she hadn't awakened earlier. Usually, Laura was up with the dawn automatically, and when she wasn't, her sister, Doris, would wake her to help with the chores.
She swung her legs down to the ground, and felt the cool, soft dirt of the floor crumble beneath her feet. She wondered who'd had the chance to fetch the day's water from the well, and who'd fed the chickens and milked the cows. Winter was mere months away, and if preparations weren't made now, the family might not survive the year's coldest months.
Last month, Laura had lost her brother, and considered herself lucky. Her mother's arms and legs had grown thinner with each week that her stomach had grown larger, until that final frightful night when little Joseph Bartholomew was born a shriveled blue and grey thing without even the strength to cry for milk or take his first breath.
The midwife had given Laura's mother the afterbirth to eat, and had taken Joseph away, claiming that if Ma had the chance to hold her son, she might never be willing to let go, and she might never recover the strength to last to spring. Laura had felt particularly sad for her mother, because she had two surviving daughters but no surviving sons. Her womb was no weaker than any other woman's, but she hadn't birthed an heir yet. Laura didn't even think Doris wanted the farm should she be the one to receive the farm when Pa passed.
Things could have been much worse, though. A fever struck many of their neighbors, sometimes taking three or four children, or even the heads of households. Childbirth was always a dangerous expedition as well, and that Laura's mother had survived five birhtings (two successful) was a miracle unto itself. Each time Ma announced that she was pregnant, Laura had to fight a small gasp of fear that this might be the child who'd trade his life for Ma's and send her away to Heaven, but it hadn't happened yet.
At the moment, though, there were more pressing problems, and Laura strode into the kitchen in search of Doris. In the kitchen, Ma stood over her big pot, boiling last summer's potatoes and carrots into a thick stew that Pa and the men could enjoy for lunch.
"The good Lord didn't give you your health so you could sleep the day away," Ma said without looking up, as if she somehow sensed that Laura was there watching her.
"I didn't know," Laura responded. "Nobody woke me, I meant to be up earlier, but I couldn't."
"I don't want your excuses," snapped Ma, who never took talk-back from anyone. "When you're married someday, do you think your husband's going to send his farm-hands in from the field to make sure you're awake in time to make him his supper? He won't, and you need to learn to take responsibility for your own actions."
"Yes, ma'am," Laura muttered, her eyes downcast with shame. Eager to turn the conversation toward safer grounds, Laura said, "I couldn't find Doris this morning. Where is she?"
"You best mind your own business," her mother responded, a surprising sentiment coming from a woman who believed that the family was weakened without even one of its members. She tended to expect everyone to look out for everyone else, and Laura found herself surprised at this dismissal of Laura's question.
Pressing, curious as to what caused her mother not to share, Laura added, "She normally wakes me up, and I'd imagine she'd be done with her chores by now."
"I'd imagine you to be awake hours ago, so I guess we were both surprised by others' behavior today," Ma responded, and this sharp comment worried Laura all the more. Her mother was hiding something, and she was afraid.
Deciding to escape the situation, Laura moved toward the door, thinking to check on the animals in the barn. If her family members had shirked their other duties, her sister probably hadn't remembered to feed the animals or milk the cows or change out the night's hay for fresher bedding. Although Laura couldn't judge her too harshly, as she'd been meant to help Doris, she fought irritation as she headed for the door.
"Where do you think you're off to?" Her mother's voice was sharp like the knife she used to slice carrots for the pot. It seemed to slice through Laura's step, staying her where she stood.
"The barn," Laura answered.
"No," commanded Ma. "You'll stay here and help me with dinner."
After years of practiced discipline, Laura knew better than to argue with Ma. No matter how reasonable Laura's arguments, once Ma had made up her mind, the matter was settled, and Laura had no reason to expect this discussion might be any different. This day had been so strange already, though, that Laura spoke back. The response was so unlike her, it was as if someone else spoke with Laura's voice.
"I'm worried about the hogs," she said. Once more, she moved toward the door, but now each step was hesitant, waiting for the next verbal battle to be fought. "I'm going to make sure they're fed and taken care of," she continued.
"You'll do no such thing," Ma retorted, and she sounded too angry and maybe a little bit scared, although that might have been Laura's imagination. Then again, maybe Ma was just reacting strongly because she wasn't used to being disobeyed, especially by her own daughter.
Laura would never later be able to explain just what struck her then. Maybe the devil got into a little bit, and made her breathing faster and her heart race. Maybe it was a cold wind or her own fear, but Laura began to panic, and she wasn't certain why. Laura just suddenly felt convinced that Ma was keeping some secret from her, some terrible secret that Laura could only discover by rushing from their home and throwing open the barn doors and discovering whatever it was that had everyone acting so strange.
"What's in the barn?" Laura screamed.
Ma looked taken aback, and rightly so, surely, for she had no reason to know why Laura screamed. "Laura," she sighed, and suddenly her stern edge was gone to be replaced by motherly compassion. "Laura, what is it?"
Without understanding why, Laura began to hyperventilate with panic. "I need to get to the barn. I need to see Doris!"
Laura lurched for the door, but Ma moved too quickly, stepping in the way and catching Laura in her arms. Laura screamed, thrashing and scratching, hardly caring that it was her mother she hurt with her frantic actions. All Laura knew was that she was suddenly certain that something horrible was happening to Doris, and that the only way to stop it was to reach her in the barn.
"Laura, stop!" her mother commanded. "You're too old to behave this way!"
As Laura continued to fight, she managed to fling the door open, and the barn stood so close, beckoning like a promise of salvation. As Laura watched, the barn door swung open, and she imagined the black-as-night fingers of Hell reaching out of the barn, and coming toward her to devour her entire family, as it had surely already done to Doris.
Two dark figures emerged from the barn, clad in night and darkness. They began moving toward the house, and Laura knew they were demons set on destroying all the Christian souls in her home. Laura pushed back away from the door, screaming.
"Laura!" Ma said in her old scolding voice, and it sounded so familiar that it shocked her right out of her panic. Laura looked up at her mother in confusion, no more certain as to why she'd panicked so much than her mother must be.
"I thought I saw something," Laura gasped, and in a second, the door opened as the two figures entered their house. Now, Laura saw that it was Doris, fresh from her chores in the barn, along with the village priest, Father Thomas. The good father had a basket on his arm, certainly filled with good, fresh-spun cotton that Ma could use to make clothes for the household. Father Thomas had always helped look after the people on the farm, bringing them small gifts regularly in order to say thanks for their regular church attendance and devotion.
"What's going on?" Doris demanded, leaning over Laura and examining her the way she would a sick cow. Her dress wasn't entirely tied up in front, and Laura could see her sister's body inappropriately displayed. Laura wouldn't say anything about it in front of the priest, however, who would judge her and her family for the lewdness.
"I just caught a fright, is all," Laura assured her sister. Remembering the original cause of her concern and the late time of day, she asked, "What were you and the father doing in the barn at this time of day? It's too late for the morning chores."
Doris looked away and blushed, and even Father Thomas shuffled his feet like he'd been caught at something he shouldn't be doing. Suddenly, several things fell into place for Laura; the father's constant visits and attentions, Doris's unlaced clothes, and her mother's insistence that Laura not catch the two of them together. Laura felt very angry, for she'd always thought Doris a good, God-fearing girl, and Father Thomas always preached so well on the topic of abstinence.
From the pair's reaction, Laura knew that they knew she'd figured them out. Even Ma, who must have been in on it, glared at her for catching the lie. Without saying anything, Laura said a silent prayer to thank God for sending her the vision that she might catch this sinfulness in her own household before it could infect her.
"I must be going," she said, then she pushed past them to walk out the door.