Jessie’s Egg (1895), by Kathryn Kulpa
Jessie’s Egg (1895)
Jessie’s blind grandmother taught her to crack an egg one-handed. Such a clumsy girl, she would chide, when Jessie’s eggs took two smacks against the side of the bowl, or three, and bits of brown shell floated amid the slippery white. How Grandmother knew they were there, Jessie couldn’t guess, but her long, burled fingers would search through the bowl, picking them out. Jessie’s grandmother was known for her angel food cake, high and light as air. Lately Jessie’s young arms provided some of that air, beating egg whites for what felt like hours.
Jessie’s friend Susannah said eggs told fortunes, that you could see your future husband in the yolk, but she hadn’t said how. Would a firm round yolk mean a handsome man, or a dark yellow one a rich man? Would a thin, runny yolk mean a shiftless sort of fellow? Jessie had asked Susannah’s mother, and she said that was just an old wives’ tale, pure superstition, and what would the Reverend Mr. Phillips think?
I don’t want to marry Mr. Phillips, Jessie said, and Susannah’s mother said she was a wicked girl, but she said it with a merry look on her pink-cheeked face. If wicked things didn’t bring a whipping, they were worth doing or saying.
Sometimes, Jessie thought, if the wicked thing was fun enough, it was worth a whipping.
An old wives’ tale, Jessie thought. Jessie’s father had fought for the Union in the war, marched with the other old soldiers in the Fourth of July parade. If he was old, Grandmother must be even older. Jessie had never dared ask her age, afraid she’d get a wooden spoon across her knuckles for impertinence. Impertinence was one of Jessie’s faults, and laziness and wastefulness and muzzle-headedness. There were so many. Jessie pictured her faults piling up in a coffee can, like the egg money Grandmother saved.
Maybe Grandmother would know. Jessie’s grandmother was nothing if not old, and must have been a wife once, and so Jessie asked her, readying herself for a spoon-smack, but her grandmother’s laugh, high and strangely girlish, shocked her. Jessie heard the sound of splintering eggshell and saw Grandmother’s dripping fingers.
“Child, look what you’ve made me do with your fool talk! Did you get that from the Scotch witch?”
The “Scotch witch” was Jessie’s mother. “I’m not an egg, or a whisky,” Jessie’s mother would grumble, whenever Grandmother called her Scotch. She never corrected her on witch, and Jessie watched her mother carefully whenever she took up a broom to sweep, but Mother never flew away.
If Jessie were a witch she would fly off in nothing flat.
“Fetch me a towel,” Grandmother said now, “and don’t be so quick to look for a husband. You’ll have your whole long life to be a wife, but only a few years to run and play.”
The egg Jessie had gathered warm that morning floated in pieces in the bowl, the yolk hopelessly broken, bits of shell mixed in with everything, and Jessie thought of that song her mother sang, about the lover who came back broken from a war:
You’re a spineless, boneless, chickenless egg
And you’ll have to be put with a bowl to beg
O Johnny I hardly knew ye
Some of the men her father marched with in the July parade had patched eyes or wooden legs. Would Jessie’s husband, too, march off to war? Would he come back—Jessie counted the blobs of broken yolk—in two, three, maybe even four pieces? She tried to nudge the yellow bits back together with her spoon but they wouldn’t stay. They chased themselves across the bowl, hiding like broody hens, until Grandmother’s swift fork whisked away all the husbands Jessie would have.
Kathryn Kulpa is the author of Who's the Skirt? (Origami Poems Project), a micro-chapbook; Girls on Film (Paper Nautilus), a flash chapbook, and Cooking Tips for the Demon-Haunted, forthcoming from New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Five South, Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly, and Wigleaf. Kathryn is a librarian and a flash editor for Cleaver magazine. The character Jessie is based on her much-married great-grandmother, Jessie Sharp Drake Walker Willis Ethier, who also inspired the story "Jessie's Life in Three Surnames," published in New Flash Fiction Review. Kathryn has not yet found a photo of Jessie, but strongly suspects her of being a ginger.
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