A short story based on the autobiography of Priscilla Merriman Evans.
Priscilla Merriman Evans
(1835 - 1914)
“There are two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots. The other is wings.” - Hodding Carter Jr.
“We’re going to be in so much trouble Sarah!” Priscilla said, chewing on her lower lip. The ruined walls of the old castle loomed above them casting an ominous pall over their adventure. The path to Castle Hill was off limits to the students of the National School and Priscilla just knew they were going to get caught. The seashore below them seemed to warn them away with reflected heat that was baking into the rocks and sand .
“Oh, don’t fuss so, Prissy” Papa has a shipment of coal coming in today for his smithy and Mrs. Morris is helping mama finish her quilt. We have at least another hour. Besides, once the baby comes we’ll never get another chance.” Sarah said, continuing down the steep hillside with single-minded purpose. Papa didn’t want them to go to the beach. He said the gypsies lived there. Priscilla didn’t like to break the rules and the ocean had always frightened her. But Sarah was right. They weren’t likely to get another chance to explore the seashore.
Mama relied on them to help with the boys and the housework. When the baby came, she would have to quit school altogether. Although she loved learning the Bible and how to sew, she loved her family more. She enjoyed playing with her little brothers and was anxious to teach them a new song she had learned. She slipped down the hill and grabbed a nearby root to steady herself. Ahead of her, Sarah had found the beach and was doodling in the sand with a twig.
Priscilla slid the last few feet to the solid ground and let out a long sigh of relief. The seagulls bawled their searching cries as they wheeled in the afternoon sun. Even from where she stood she could make out the shape of Sarah’s drawing. It was a hat. Priscilla rolled her eyes. Not another one. She was often woken in the middle of the night to try on another of Sarah’s creations. She could not see how Sarah could spend her precious free time on such frivolous endeavors.
But Sarah was enthralled. She loved beautiful things and had a flair for creating them. Even when she was supposed to be doing her chores she would often find the designs for dresses and matching hats coming to her when she closed her eyes. Papa would get angry at her but she couldn’t help it. Besides, the drudgery of housework and siblings held no excitement for her. She wished she could go to London to see all the grand ladies in their most fashionable gowns.
A sudden movement brought her slamming back to reality. An old gypsy woman was standing in the sun before them. Her grey hair looked almost silver in the light as the wind whipped around her face in the sea breeze.
“You must hear your fortunes.” She said through parched lips and darkened teeth.
“We don’t have any money and we have to go home now.” Priscilla said her eyes wide with fear and fascination. “Come on Sarah, let’s go.”
Sarah groaned. She didn’t want to go home yet. And she really wanted to hear her fortune. Would she ever be able to wear the elegant gowns she always dreamed about? Priscilla had already begun to turn away.
“No payment is needed. Your future is almost upon you.” She pointed at Sarah. “You will learn a profession You will be a great lady and dress in silks and satins and live in a beautiful home in a large city.” Sarah grinned widely. There would be no living with her now, Priscilla thought.
“And you,” she pointed at Priscilla,”you have a good heart. You will not have the opportunities of your sister. You have a great destiny that will change the lives of those to come. You must work hard until your body cries out and you can bear no more. You will cross the great waters and your family will benefit from your labors.” The old woman blinked and stared at Priscilla, here blue eyes piercing through the doubt in her heart. “These things will be so.” She turned and set out in the direction she had come, her tattered blue skirt billowing in the dying breeze.
Suddenly, a quiet calm surrounded them. The seagulls overhead stopped their lament as if listening to the silent voices of the ocean waves. The salty brine in the air tickled Priscilla’s nose and brought tears to her eyes. At least, she thought, it had to be why her cheeks were suddenly wet and sticky.
“Did you hear that!” Sarah yelled causing Priscilla to jump. “I knew it! I’ve been thinking about asking Mrs. Henton if she would take me to London to apprentice in her dress shop. That has to be what she was talking about.” Sarah turned and Priscilla watched as once again her mind wandered away to her beautiful world. Sarah talked to herself in a joyful haze all the way home.
But Priscilla was worried. She didn’t want a grand destiny. She wanted to live in Tenby with her family and maybe raise a family of her own there. She didn’t want to cross the “big waters”. She loved Wales. Surely her destiny was here. But what would a gypsy know anyway. She laughed to herself and put it out of her mind. Until now…
The low bellow of the ship’s horn startled her out of her reverie. Once again, the seagulls called overhead the scent of brine filled the air. Priscilla stood motionless and stared out at the hostile waves, their gentle rage filling her ears. How could she have known then the course her life would take? The truth of those words haunted her.
The beautiful dress pattern Sarah had sent her lay bunched in the box at her feet. Silk. Sarah had sent her a silk dress pattern. She rubbed her sweaty palms on the rough muslin homespun of her well worn dress. How like her sister it was to want her to have pretty things and send her a dress she could not possibly wear on the grand plains of America. Sarah’s dress shop in London was a success and she did, in fact, have a beautiful home and family.
Although Priscilla knew she had made the right decision to go to America, she was afraid of what lie ahead. She knew the trek to Zion would be difficult, and those long ago words echoed in her ears. “..You will work hard until your body cries out and you can bear no more...” Her heart fluttered a staccato beat as she thought of the trials she was sure to face. The task before her seemed daunting. How would she ever complete this journey? She missed her father and siblings and she knew she may never see them again. How could she have left the comfort of family and home for an unknown land and a persecuted church? Doubt and fear overcame her. This adventure was too great, the task too hard, and the burden too heavy for her small shoulders. Her heart hung in her chest, weighing her down with the reality of her decision. The dark skies and angry sea seemed to chastise her for her decision, and the wind mocked her with it’s deep and sorrowful song.
Looking up, she watched her husband carefully navigate the rocking deck to bring her a cup of warm soup. Even though he had been battling sea sickness himself, he was still taking care of her. And she knew he always would. She loved him utterly. As she watched him approach, the gypsy’s words came unbidden to her mind, ‘...you will cross the ‘big waters’ and your family will benefit from your labors.’ The truth of those long forgotten words confirmed what she already knew in heart. She had made the right decision to go to Zion with the Mormons. The great ship was getting ever closer to the destiny she had chosen and the place she was meant to be. The great weight released it’s dark grip on her soul and her doubt had fled with the wind. What a family they would have! What a great destiny they would fulfill! What a great promise they had been given. The road ahead would be hard but she would bear it gladly and proudly. For her family, she could do anything.
Author's note To read the actual autobiography depicting these events in Priscilla's words please see her accout.
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