Little Brother Spying

Here is another excerpt that I couldn’t use because I chose Noble as my first-person narrator. Noble’s ten-year-old brother, Benjamin, was fascinated watching the wounded stranger Noble had brought home fall in love with Sheba, their older sister.


Ben watched John and Sheba with new awareness. He saw Sheba help John walk over the uneven ground to the bench by the well, John’s arm over her shoulder, and her arm wrapped around his waist.  Surely he needs no help walking. The wound is in his shoulder, not his leg!  Ben thought.

Though pretending not to hear, Ben listened to their conversations as he tormented Pearl, the cat, with a clover blossom. And he watched Ma and Pa to see if they knew what was obviously going on under their noses. He couldn’t quite tell.

He could tell that John was in love with Sheba. But why?   Up till now, Ben had simply taken her for granted, never considering whether she was attractive or not. Was she pretty?  Ben didn’t think so. She was too ordinary. It was hard for him to think about, as hard as if someone asked him to consider the relative beauty of a piece of furniture. If it served its purpose, it was fine. Beauty was immaterial.

But because John thought she was pretty, Ben began trying to see his sister through John’s eyes.  He noticed that her skin was fair, her eyes blue, her hair neatly covered with her cap. But that was true of nearly every girl in Meeting. Because John watched Sheba’s movements as she worked in the kitchen, Ben tried to notice, too. He could see no difference in the way she and Ma moved, except Ma was getting a little stiff with age. Sheba was more graceful, but wouldn’t anyone expect that of someone younger?

Ben listened to her voice. It was no softer than most girls’, but, in fact, she seemed to speak more softly to John.  She wasn’t bossy with him the way she was with her brothers. And a good thing, too. Ben couldn’t imagine anyone being bossy toward John McCowen.

One night Sheba went to her room before Ben prepared for bed. As he neared his door, he noticed hers was open a crack. Silently he looked in. Sheba was sitting in her shift at the low table in front of her window. She had loosened the ties at her elbows, so her sleeves fell toward her shoulders as she brushed her hair. Ben sucked in his breath. Women never exposed their upper arms!

Sheba’s hair glinted in the candlelight. As she brushed the entire length, individual strands drifted, seeming to have a life of their own. Her hair looked like flax prepared for spinning.

Ben felt strangely moved. Dimly, he began to understand how a man might. . . .

Suddenly a rough hand clamped the back of his neck and another covered his mouth. Pa whirled him around, marched him downstairs and out the front door, and dumped him on the bench next to the well.

“Spying on thy sister, Benjamin?  What is this all about?”

Ben felt the blush rise from his knotted stomach to the roots of the hair on his head. Shame silenced him.

“Why was thee spying on Sheba?” Pa insisted.

In a very small voice, Ben stammered, “I was trying to figure out why John seems to love her.”

Pa was silent, his mouth twisted as if he were trying not to laugh. Then he said in measured, deliberate words, “That is something thee will understand later, son. Meanwhile, thee must realize women are entitled to privacy, the same as men. Would thee want Sheba spying on thee?”

“Nay,” Ben admitted.

“Would thee want anyone spying on thee?”

“Nay, I wouldn’t.”

“The next time this happens. . . .”

“There won’t be a next time, Pa. I promise.”

“Then get thee to bed, and no more of this foolishness.”

The bench felt rough against Ben’s bony rump. He was glad to stand, but he wasn’t ready to end the conversation, now that Pa seemed to be finished with him.

“Pa, did thee know John loves Sheba?”

“I’ve had my suspicions.”

“Does Ma know?”

“We haven’t discussed it, but I’d be surprised if she doesn’t know more about it than thee and I do.”

“Would thee let Sheba marry someone who isn’t Quaker, Pa?”

“Thee is too far ahead of me, son. Neither John nor Sheba has said anything about marriage. John has to find his family and see what has happened to their farm. He’s very young and has yet to make his way in the world. ‘Tis true he’s taken with her, but who knows how seriously. When he leaves, we may never hear from him again. If he returns for her, then we’ll discuss marriage. By then, John may be ready to become a Friend himself.”

“Will thee tell Ma about our talk tonight?  I wish thee would not.”

Pa smiled and tousled Ben’s rumpled hair. “My lips are sealed,” he promised. “Some things are better kept amongst us men.”


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