Flax

Judith Robinson ran her hand over the stack of folded cloth. It felt rough in her hands as she smoothed it out on the table, just the way it was supposed to, a heavy linen.

So much work.

It was cloth made from flax they planted two years ago, back in 1787. Early in the season, as soon as they could, Samuel her husband had plowed up the ground, a whole acre for her linen, dunged it and harrowed it well to take advantage of the frost heave. Flax needs smooth, good soil, and that was the best way.

Afterwards, in April, they planted it. What a day that was!

Judith and her daughter Nancy, just turned 15, were in the parlor at the quilting frame. Little Asa was asleep in his cradle, and Sarah was knitting in the corner by the fireplace. Eleanor was back in the kitchen, seeing to the stew for dinner.

For once, the house was quiet. Only the click of Sarah's needles and the rustle of the fabric made any real sound.

Suddenly, the door burst open.

"Don't worry, Ma, we got the bleeding stopped," Edward said.

Judith bolted up, ran to where the Edward, a tall sixteen, and Lazarus, only ten, were carrying a blood-splattered Samuel into the house.

"My God, Sam, what happened!" she said, helping Edward ease his father into one of the wooden stick chairs around the table. There was a big piece of Lazarus' shirt wrapped around his father's leg.

"Oh, it was so stupid, Judy," said Samuel, leaning his head on to her shoulder as she bent over to examine him. There was blood all down his right leg, staining both his breeches and his stockings. "I was trimmin' a piece of leather on my tack for the harrow. We were getting ready to finish up the flax patch, but my hand slipped and I've done gashed my thigh."

"Nancy, go into the kitchen and put the kettle on. And bring me back the rum and my herb basket. I'll be wanting to make a poultice, I think. Sarah, go get me my ragbag. And some of that toweling I keep in the cabinet upstairs.

"You're going to be fine, dear," she said.

"I know, Judy. But it's starting to hurt."

She held his hand, kissed the top of his red head.

"What can I do, Ma? What are you going to do?" Edward asked.

"I'm going to see what damage your Pa has done to himself, and get it cleaned up and bandaged, then I'll put him to bed." she said, standing up.

"How far did you get in the planting?" she asked.

"Not much. We harrowed it once, and was getting ready to broadcast the seed, then Pa got hurt."

"Well, why don't you go take care of the horses and put everything up for the day, and we'll get it planted tomorrow. And Lazarus, you go put on a shirt."

It was a nasty looking gash, but clean. She ended up stitching it up with five silken stitches. She made him stay in bed the next few days, but soon he was back up and working on the corn.

She and Edward got the flax in the next day.

Waiting for the flax to sprout always made here a little anxious, and she would walk out and check on it, as if that would help the plants to start growing faster. One day, her mother walked out with her.

Mother Flett, now in her late sixties, walked around the field, looking at it with a critical eye.

"Soil looks nice," she said.

Judith nodded.

"You remembered, I hope, what your pa always said. If you plant it too thick, the flax plants won't make enough linen," she said.

There were traces of green sprouts starting to poke their heads through the soil, although too soon to judge how thick.

"It'll only be good for flaxseed if you did that. But if you didn't plant it thick enough, you got weeds and a course fiber only good for rope."

"I remembered, Ma. Just the way he told me." Judith replied.

"Your father, now he was a man who understood how to plant a flax field."

"Yes, Ma, I remember. You always had good flax."

Her mother sighed deeply, eyes saddening at a sudden memory. It had been more than ten years since her father passed away, but her mother still missed him deeply.

"Let's go home, Ma. I think the flax is going to be alright."

This year, as usual, the flax grew in thick enough and she continued on with the tasks of spring: gardening, cleaning, getting ready for the summer ahead. Flax normally grows about a hundred days, and they were busy ones. The outside world was almost as busy as Judith's. The news came and went. Lots of talk about hard times. Later, the word out of Philadephia was all a-buzz about the constitutional convention. But Judith had other things to do than listen to this talk.

It was pretty, flax was, when it was in bloom, a field of blue flowers against such a pretty green. It took a bit of hoeing to keep the weeds out, but you had to be careful not to disturb the roots. Soon, though, it was July, and Samuel. Later, it was they who did the preparation work to separate the fiber from the trash. Hard work, hours in the doing, slamming the bundles to break them up, hard work to hackle and comb them, separating the fine linen from the tow.

After they were through it was her turn again. Instead of a hoe, it was long hours with the spinning wheel. She spun what seemed all last winter, step by step on the wheel in the corner. First you bind the fiber on the distaff, then keeping the thread damp, you draw it out, pull after pull after pull. Then you wind each skein off the bobbin, and start again.

She thought about bleaching it, laying the threads out in the sun to whiten, but instead she brewed up a pot of walnut husks, boiled her linen clean then cooked it with sumac and alum root, and let the walnut bath color it drabby brown. A useful color, good for pants. Her daughter Nancy, not long married, came by and helped her, which was good, because she got a nasty scald on her arm that time. But it healed up alright.

Later, when the weather warmed up, she and Mrs. Reeves sleyed the loom, long backbreaking work. Oh, measuring the warp was easy enough, but threading the heddles and the reed, tying things nice and tidy always seemed to take nearly as long as the weaving. So much bending over!

The weaving, she liked, throwing the shuttle, clacking the pedals, pulling the reed. It had such a good rhythm of its own. She'd had liked to be able to spend all day at it, but there was the garden to be cared for, vegetables to harvest and dry for the winter, stockings to knit, clothes to sew, meals to cook. The little ones got a fever that summer, with a rash, and needed long nursing, too. It was nearly Christmas before she finished.

But now here it was. Yards and yards. She ran her hand across the pile, folded it deftly, smoothed it with the flatiron, then pulled out her scissors. It was time to put it to work.