Seven year old Ginger didn’t like it that the new itinerant farmhand, Peter McCrea, ate her and her three sisters' custard cups their daddy had bought them for their school lunches. And Ginger liked it even less that Peter had answered her angry complaint, and so haughtily, by stating that because he worked so hard on their farm, he could eat anything he liked whenever he liked. Ginger, who had once loved and would certainly have married the handsome farmhand, went from autumn-tress cherub to fiery-haired assassin in one cold moment. Now the monster would die.
Nights in Ireland lay black as doomsday when the moon has not yet arisen and the stars refuse to shine, or perhaps are suffering eclipse by magic or cloud. On such woesome eves, farmhands rely solely upon normalities when they retire to their jovially painted Gypsy caravans for the much-needed sleep necessary to stage the following day's pastoral pleasures, as it were. So, to fall headlong over a stone wall because the upturned steel bucket serving as merciful step has been demonically misplaced was not something Peter either anticipated or even desired, but happen it did, and a deeply bruised kneecap was the reward, but not the only one, for his devious custard-stealing.
As if a lit and guttering candle wasn't dangerous enough in the old wagon which harbored everything he owned on Earth, beneath it lay a note scrawled crazily in second grade print.
* * * *
The next night, as Peter sat alone, reading by the last rays of a dying sun (for it was well nigh High Summer), the large door of the family room creaked slowly open and, lo and behold, there stood Ginger. With a gun.
"I'm going to kill you, monster-man," she whispered, but her eyes screamed, I'm going to chop you up, Mr. Devil, an' you will die real slow an' painful ‘cause you eated our custard our daddy buyed for us.
Peter was both terrified and terribly entertained, as would any grownup be when faced with childhood judgment such as that being adroitly brought to bear by the unforgiving guardian of the house, who, incidentally, was a rather muscular little tyke.
"He's fallen again, Ginger!" ten year old Tammy Lynn announced the next night as Ginger knelt, tying five year old Molly's perfidious shoestrings. "Isn't it delightful?"
"Yes! So dewightful," Ginger intoned, a gruesome smile erupting across her freckled features.
"But... Oh! Peas don't hurt him muchly, Ginny," christlike Molly said as she pulled on Ginger's sleeve. "I wike him. I wike Petah!"
"But he eated your custard, Moll," Ginger replied, her cerulean eyes slimming and glazing over with hatred. "Don't ye fink he should die for it?"
Molly wasn't sure. She was not only just five, but, as suggested, she carried a much softer soul than either the death-dealing Ginger or the feral tomboy, Tammy Lynn.
The expertly-set rat trap did not feel comfortable to Peter's bare toes bright and early in the morning as he lumbered into the bathroom, nor did the jagged stones and pieces of broken bottle provide any comfort to his palms and shins as he fell yet again over the stone wall while he wandered drowsily into another Celtic midnight. It was at about this time that our farmhand thought it might be wise to have a little talk with the girls' parents. He did so during the following, and thankfully uneventful, breakfast. Calm before the storm, of course, he mused morosely. I'm getting out of here!
To add to Mr. Peter's shock, the parents were utterly dubious when they heard the obviously fantastic story, even after witnessing the damning evidence of slashed shins and severely wounded hands. And then, to make matters untenable, as Peter was seeking a second wind of defense so as to make certain of his case against the small murderesses, Ginger whispered a few choice words through a crack in the kitchen door.
"He eated our custard you boughted us, daddy."
"Then he said," said Tammy Lynn with a dreadful sordid glee tinged with just the right amount of tears in the voice. "Then he said, daddy, he could do anything he pleased anytime he wanted to, daddy!"
The air was a poisonous gas.
"Is this so, Peter?" the girls' gentle mother asked the itinerant worker as she turned modestly to him, a crushing hurt tinting her lilting Dubliner brogue. The kids' father, an upper class West-Ender, glared wordlessly at the traveler, showing himself to be the obvious progenitor of the two ring-leading imps. Just then, twelve year old Anne promenaded into the spacious room wearing a shimmering teal evening gown. "Look, daddy! High fashion!" And everything went bright as Christmas, angering Ginger so that she flung herself through the door and attached her relatively new incisors to Peter with such a degree of maniacal fervor that the poor man all but had a stroke.
"Ginger!" her mother exclaimed, and Ginger ceased and desisted, standing down and giving Mr. Peter the evilest eye possible under the childlike circumstances. He tried not to laugh. He failed. He coughed. The cover-up worked as he succeeded in swallowing his mirth.
Their father cleared his throat quite markedly and continued in his silent and rather righteous indignation, very certain that he did not, after all, like this referred and highly-spoken-of hand, and doubly certain the man's days were numbered at their abandoned-creamery-turned-happy-household.
Tammy Lynn stood in the kitchen threshold, eyeing the stranger more suspiciously than anyone ever has eyed.
"What, dear heart," Peter then asked the young executioner at his side, "would you have me do to make right this atrocious wrong I have done? Outside of dying for my sin, of course."
A creepy silence ensued. And then...
"We not sure," hissed Ginger, her mouth tightening as the wheels of her design began to turn ever the more furiously. But then she remembered hearing her mommy fall very hard once, just after yelling at Anne and making her cry. She had looked over at Tammy Lynn, nodding in agreement with her that their mommy had gotten what she deserved for being so bad. She had been very scared, though, only a few minutes later, when there was no sound from the room where their mommy had fallen. Was she dead? Then she had heard weeping, and she had rushed into the room to find mommy had fallen from a high ladder, and had fractured her hip. Ginger had been sorry she had been so quick to judge. Maybe she should be a little less hard on Peter too?
"If," offered Peter humbly as he lovingly moved a few stray ginger strands away from the little demon's deadly blue eyes. "If, let's say, I were to make everyone loads of custard, and I were to get to the places on my own to buy all the things needed for such a venture, and then I were to pay for everything out of my own money, would you forgive me then?"
He shot a glance over at grim-faced and tight-fisted Tammy Lynn. Molly stood next to her, tears welling up in her big black eyes as she nodded her head slowly up and down. Yes, yes! her little heart was crying. Oh my sisters hurted you bad, didn't they, my Mr. Petah! I so sorry!
"Okay," Ginger replied solemnly. "That is your punishment then. Make us loads of strawberry custard. And...you can’t eat any!"
The angst-ridden Tammy Lynn pumped her tiny fists like pistons. Good, that. Had she not manually primed the pump in those tense moments, her heart would have certainly stopped working for the pent-up rage she carried around in that prepubescent breast of hers. "With real live strawberries you go pick yourself!" she finally interjected through quivering, indigo lips.
"Or death," added Ginger with the first smile anyone had seen in days. "I hab a gun, you know." She reached over and placed a warm hand on one of Peter's wounded knees. She was sorry for hurting him.
And so it was settled, though under a good deal of strain. A three hour round-trip hitch to the market in town for the milk and sugar and corn starch, a one-way seven mile traipse out to the co-op strawberry fields and back, and the ingredients were brought together for a dire penance that Mr. Peter MacCree would not soon forget.
a new note said. A bouquet of gorgeous wild flowers lay next to it, tied with a bright pink ribbon. A fresh candle had been fitted into the waxy brass holder. Peter lit it, thanking Christ for love.
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