The crack of lightning in the distance signaled a storm rolling in. Looking in the distance, over the rolling hills, you could see the dark gray clouds rolling in the sky.
Eliza stood on the back porch, watching. She could see the rain pour from the clouds in the distance, as it slowly made its way toward the house. And yet she stood and waited. She could not go back inside, not yet. Because inside were mourners. The house was filled with people, some she knew well, some she did not, all there out of respect for her mother and father, in support of she and her sister, Joanna.
She knew they were there because they cared, most of them anyway, but she could not go back in, yet. Because a house that was once filled with love and laughter now so full of sadness was one she was not willing to be in.
She stood there a moment more, eyes closed, smelling the dirt in the air. She loved that smell, the scent carried on the wind when rain was near. It reminded her of renewal. Washing away the old. Her quiet was interrupted when the door screeched open. “There you are, Eliza!” Her father’s sister said. “We’ve been looking all over for you!”
Her father’s sister, her aunt she had to remind herself, had come as soon as she’d heard about her brother’s death. The first visit to the Alcott home Aunt Clara had ever made. When her father had decided to marry her mother, his family had abandoned him, they thought he’d come home when he realized he wasn’t happy raising farm and family in such a place. They were wrong, he had been quite happy.
“Come inside, dear, before you catch a cold!” Eliza was constantly baffled by her Aunt now that she was there. It was, in fact late spring. Too warm to catch a cold and the rain hadn’t even reached the property yet.
“Yes, aunt Clara,” she said.
“Your sister has been hiding as well. We cannot seem to convince her to come downstairs and greet her guests. Can you see if you can rouse her out, dear?”
Wordlessly, Eliza climbed the stairs went to exactly where she knew her sister “hid”. Their parents’ room. She sat down on the bed, and waited for Joanna to come out on her own. The little girl climbed up on bed and hugged her sister close. She was crying.
“Oh now. Its alright.” She held Joanna. “They wouldn’t want us to cry, would they?” Joanna shook her head no against her sister’s chest. “That’s right. They wouldn’t want us to hide either.” She looked down at her sister, who looked up to her. “Let’s go downstairs, say hello. I promise they won’t be here long, alright?”
Begrudgingly Joanna agreed to go downstairs, if Eliza held her hand. They quietly greeted neighbors who’d come to give their condolences. They avoided Aunt Clara and her husband Harris. Eliza knew there was something they wanted to discuss with her, she could see it on her aunt’s face. She had an idea of what it was.
A few hours later, Joanna had tired herself out, and Eliza escorted her to bed. She knew when she returned downstairs, her aunt and uncle would be waiting. She steeled herself before stepping into the kitchen, where they sat at the table. She made note that Clara sat in her father’s usual seat. “Have a seat, dear.”
Reluctantly, Eliza sat at the opposite end of the table.
“Now that we’ve laid your dear parents to rest,” Clara began, “There’s something we must discuss.”
And here it was, Eliza thought.
“It’s time to think of your future, Eliza.” Clara said, getting a stern look on her face. A look Eliza knew was hiding, waiting to come out. “You are still young and its time someone do right by you. Your parents seem to have made no attempt to introduce you to society, properly.”
“What do you mean, Aunt Clara?” Eliza asked, though she already knew.
“You are still within proper age for courtship. We need to introduce you as eligible in society.” She paused. “We can do that properly if you come back to the city and live with us! You’ll be a proper part of society and be invited to parties, to find a husband.”
“But, what about my home?” Eliza asked.
“Dear, we’ll have to sell the house and property. It’ll just go to waste sitting here! The profits will be used to take care of you and finance school for your sister.”
“Finance school?” Eliza asked. “She goes to school for free here! She has friends at school as well.”
“She’ll be sent to a proper school, dear. One where she will stay year-round and learn properly.”
“You mean boarding school? You’d separate us, then?”
“You’re too old to go to boarding school, dear. But she’s still young enough to start. She’ll have to catch up, of course.”
Eliza stood, upset. “I—no. No, I will not send her away. And I will not sell this house.”
“Dear, it’s not up to you. Your father—”
“My name is Eliza May Alcott. My father, Arthur Alcott would not have wanted us separated. He also anticipated something similar. He left a will.”
“And where is this supposed will?” Clara asked, angrily.
“It’s safe.” Eliza said. “In it, he left everything to my sister and I. And I know quite well about proper education, as he and my mother gave it to me. I may still be young enough for a “proper introduction”, but I am also old enough to know that I have the right to choose my future, especially now.”
Finally, Clara stood, glaring at her niece. “I came here with every intention to do right by you and your sister, since your father chose to deprive you of what you were entitled to. But I can see now that you inherited not only this shabby property, but his attitude as well!” She paused, taking a breath. “You decide. You can come live with us, have everything you need, or want, and never have to work again, and get the chance at a proper life. Or you can stay here. And trust me dear you won’t have anything handed over to you!”
With the final word, Aunt Clara grabbed her husband’s arm and stormed out of the house, where she’d apparently had a carriage waiting. She’d expected Eliza to happily go along with her plan.
But Eliza did have a decision to make. Despite what she thought was best, she had to admit the benefits of her aunt’s ideas. If she agreed to go live with her aunt, in the city, she and Joanna would have whatever they wanted or needed. They’d live comfortably and wouldn’t have to work the land or feed the animals. While her parents had never put emphasis on the need for her to find a husband, she would need one, eventually. Joanna would have to go off to school, where she might not see her sister. But she would learn, which she loved, and she would make friends. She could be happy.
If they stayed, Eliza would not only be keeping house and farm, but raising a child, her own sister. She would become her parents. She’d be doing both her father’s job and her mother’s. But they wouldn’t have to pick up and leave, they’d get to stay in their home, and be together. And it wasn’t as if either of them had never helped around the farm. They’d done so gladly, especially when it meant helping their parents.
Eliza crawled into bed, tucked the covers around her head, and closed her eyes. Mother and father wouldn’t want them to be sad, but she didn’t think they’d want their daughters to be burdened if they should be gone. Regardless, she’d have to find that will.