It’s time for our quarterly short stories. For January 2023, the topic is New Year’s resolutions—those goals we set when the brand-new calendar opens to that first month. Promises, or admonitions, to ourselves. We resolve to change a behavior for the better, make an improvement, accomplish a goal.
The tradition dates to ancient times, when people promised their gods at the beginning of the year that they’d return borrowed objects and pay their debts. The Romans made promises to Janus, the god of beginnings, endings and transitions. Janus—January of course.
In the medieval era, knights took the “peacock vow” at the end of the Christmas season. They placed their hands on a peacock and recommit themselves for the next year to the ideals of chivalry.
New Year’s resolutions are a tradition that goes back thousands of years. So, too, is the tradition of not following through on those resolutions.
Think about that as you put your hand on the nearest peacock.
Enjoy the stories.
Why do I bother making all these resolutions in January? They go by the wayside in February and I feel like a failure, again.
Maybe it’s the resolutions I make. Same old same old.
Eat healthy, lots of fruits and veggies, lose the butter and cheese. Walk ten thousand steps a day. Boring.
Get control of my finances. That would be good. Though my dead-end job doesn’t pay much. The rent went up, along with the cost of everything else. It’s not like I have any money to spare.
Get rid of clutter. It would be nice to navigate the apartment without tripping on stuff. Or have enough room in the kitchen cabinets. I’ve been working on the clutter thing for years. It’s just that I can always find something better to do than clean out my sock drawer.
Reduce stress. Wouldn’t that be nice? Yeah, right.
I know of one way to reduce my stress.
Leave my husband.
Kill my husband?
Did I just say that, out loud? I can’t believe I did. About killing him. That just crept into my head.
Every year I think about leaving him. We’ve been together four years. The magic, if there ever was any, left the relationship long ago. Why did I get involved with him? I wasn’t looking for a husband, just someone to have fun with. Why did I even marry him? Impulse, I suppose. That weekend in Reno, too much booze, too much partying. When he proposed, I said, why not? Off we went to the wedding chapel.
Back home, reality set in, the fun long gone.
Why do I stay? What hold does he have over me? It’s not the sex. After those first few exhilarating weeks, that high turned into a low. He never was that great in bed anyway.
We don’t have any kids. At one time, I thought about it. But he never wanted children and he made that plain from the start. So I went along with that.
We never did buy a place. He always had these ideas, better uses for our money. I would be saving up for a down payment and he’d spend the money on “the next big idea.” Right, like setting himself up in that business that went bust.
His latest use for that money I saved? The car. Not used, it had to be new, shiny, latest model with all the bells and whistles, brand-new and right off the salesroom floor. Not that he lets me drive it. I get the old beater that needs new tires.
I’m stuck in this cramped apartment. He’s got some money stashed away. I was putting away laundry and found it under his socks. I’ve been siphoning off a few bills now and then.
I fiddle around on the internet, looking up stats on New Year’s resolutions. It beats clearing out a closet or tackling the drawers in the kitchen. About half of all Americans make those resolutions and about 10 percent actually keep them. I’m not alone.
Maybe I’m being unrealistic. That resolution about losing 25 pounds by Memorial Day? Not happening. Not unless I wave that magic wand I don’t have. Five pounds, maybe. That’s doable. The one about 10,000 steps a day. I can walk around the block every morning. I’ll think about it, just as soon as the weather improves. It’s raining out there. I don’t feel like putting on a raincoat and galoshes to slog through the gutters.
Clean out all the closets and drawers. I guess I could start with the one on the top left of the dresser, the one that I call the junk drawer. Everyone has a junk drawer, I suppose.
The point is to quit thinking about it and actually do it.
Right. It’s easier to fiddle around on the computer. Instead of looking up facts about New Year’s resolutions, I should be looking up recipes for dinner. Cooking and cleaning, my lot in life.
If I kill him, I’ll get the money and the car.
It would be so easy.
My fingers hover over the keyboard. What to have for dinner?
Then I do a search on common household poisons.
Cora Countryman set her business ledgers aside and opened the bottom drawer in what had been her mother’s secretary desk. A note fell from the underside of the drawer onto the floor. Cora ran her finger under the drawer, nothing more than flour and water had held the note in place. Cora inspected the paper folded in thirds and sealed closed with faded red wax aged by years in hiding.
She pulled out the small drawer that held her mother’s wax seals. A rose, and a fleur de lis. The seal on the note was neither. Cora ran her finger over the ridges. It was a simple star like a child might carve. She tapped the edge of the note on the writing surface of the desk. The top flap opened, leaving the wax on the bottom half.
Two words begged her open it: I resolve.
Those words dominated the top center of the note, written in cursive, with ink blobs wherever the writer had hesitated, making it certain the note had been written with a feather quill or an early pen nib. Which dated it to the early part of the century, before the War, before Cora, perhaps even before her thieving mother, Edith Countryman, was married.
Cora pulled the desk from the parlor wall until she could see where it had been made. Salem, Massachusetts. Thousands of miles away. Of course, it might have been shipped to Chicago for sale and her mother acquired it there. Her mother was born in Chicago, at least that is what Edith told her daughter. Cora knew little about her, not even her maiden name, only that she had moved or run away west with Frank Countryman, to Wanee, Illinois either before or after they were married. Which may or may not have been in 1848. And only if local gossip was to be believed.
A photograph of her parents left behind by her mother had led Cora to a photographer in Chicago. With high expectations, she walked into his studio on Lake Shore Drive. But the photographer was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, his camera clutched to his chest. Cora tracked down his widow who commented upon seeing the photograph that she was certain the girl’s image had circulated in the newspaper before the War. Cora thumbed through the newspaper’s morgue, coming away with her fingers blackened from ink and nothing more.
I resolve. Cora unfolded the bottom half of the note.
Should he lay his hand on me
In the dark, when I cannot see
I will have a knife at the ready
And holding it steady, erase my fear,
Then run from all I hold dear
Cora stared out the bay window in the front parlor, her elbow on the writing surface cradling her chin in that hand. By the spring of 1849, her parents were in Wanee. Rumors persisted that Countryman was a made-up surname, despite its appearance on legal documents such as the deed. What was certain was that the young couple brought plans for the house Cora now owned with them and commissioned it built. Indicating they were monied enough to afford it. The furniture followed, the desk in the shipment. Her mother must have moved from her parents’ home before the note was written, if so, why?
Cora sighed at the memory of her regal, dark-haired mother, flinching at any man’s touch other than her husband’s. If Edith were EM, what man had come to her in the dark? One she was promised to or someone closer?
Had her mother gotten away with murder?
When Frank Countryman died at the Battle of Chickamauga with near a dozen of Wanee’s best, Edith created a shrine to him and discouraged suitors. With her protector gone, had it been the fear of discovery that drove Edith to bilk her friends and most of the town before disappearing on the train her carpetbag on her lap?
Cora folded the top edge of the paper under the seal and slid the note into a slot in the desk hidden among others. M? Edith M from a well-heeled Chicago family. Had an M ever offered more hope?