The first Sunday Gemma attended church with the Lane couple, she was presented as a new member and greeted by every one of the sixty-or-so attendants. The second Sunday, a picnic was held outside after the morning service.
The church was a squat white building with a cross perched in the middle of the eaves and pointing to the sky. All around it was a grassy field, and fruit tree orchards could be seen at a distance behind it. It was in the fields that families laid down cloths to eat their lunch on, and it was then that two women approached her and asked if she would like to keep a dress they carried with them.
"I'm not sure I deserve such generosity," she explained to the second woman, who presented her with a simple chocolate brown dress. The woman smiled back at her with wrinkled cheeks and a sparkle in her brown eyes.
"We understand that you arrived without much to your name, so this is the least I can do."
"All I can say is thank you," Gemma accepted the dress into her arms. "I wish I could repay you."
The woman shifted a little. "Well, this is not a condition, mind you, but there is something. You see, the children in this village are capable of earning themselves a living, and they can speak as well as any educated person, but they don't get to know how to read or write. Jess Sparrow says you can do these."
Gemma smiled. "Yes. I can read and write, and I know mathematics and history."
"Wonderful!" the woman clapped her hands together. "As I said, our children know enough mathematics to earn themselves a living wage, but would you ever be open to teaching the rest in our little school? We would be mighty pleased!"
The young woman nodded. "I would love to. Allow me to make sure the Lanes can spare me during school hours, and I would be honored."
"How exciting," the woman clapped her hands together with a smile. "My name is Pearl Houston. My husband was a deacon at this church. Come meet some of your potential students!"
"I – well, all right," Gemma answered as Mrs. Houston snatched her hand and hauled her toward a large blanket packed with children eating their lunches. There was a great age range, from about six to perhaps seventeen. Several pairs of eyes darted up to her and stared.
"Children," Mrs. Houston announced, "this is Miss Gemma Gardenia. She may be your school teacher this year, so please welcome her kindly."
Immediately, the children scooted aside and left a space for their potential instructor to sit. A girl of about seven with fiery waves smiled up at Gemma with a space where her two front teeth once were. She set her palm on the place they just made and said, "Will you come sit with us, Miss Gardenia?"
"Thank you for asking," Gemma smiled and eased down to her knees and sat with her legs curled around her. She sensed her cheeks reddening with shyness as she smiled around her at the children who were still strangers.
"Are you the lady who showed up out of nowhere?" asked a small boy with clean cut brown hair.
"Tom!" Pearl Houston exclaimed. "That is a rude question. Please apologize."
"I apologize, Miss Gardenia," Tom dropped his chin with shame.
"Thank you," Gemma smiled, "but I understand why you're curious. I suppose I am that lady. So your name is Tom," she cleared her throat hastily. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"No," he answered. "I'm one of the only kids in the village without any siblings."
"And what about you?" Gemma asked a teenage girl at the edge of the blanket. She wore a simple ivory dress made of a soft material. She raised her misty gray eyes with surprise. Then she shook her head hastily.
"No, me neither. I actually have to leave," she gathered the dishes she had used into her picnic basket and scrambled up. She bid everyone a hasty good-bye and started back down the dirt road.
"Poor dear," Mrs. Houston sighed.
"What was the matter?" Gemma asked.
"Her father is gone. Her mother keeps the house while she supports them with the farm. She spends hours every day outside, even on Sundays."
Gemma pursed her lips and watched the girl leave.
"She sure could use a teacher like you," Mrs. Houston said.