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The Washerwoman

Historical fiction.

Megan Preston Meyer
Megan Preston Meyer

Mili poked at the fire beneath the wash kettle and watched as the water moved to a slow, languid boil.

A bit of winter chill flitted toward her on the breeze, kissing her already rosy cheeks before fluttering away like a frosty moth. The sun, climbing in the sky, fought the chill back; Mili turned her face upward and breathed in the promise of summer. She acknowledged the ancient, eternal battle between seasons, but appreciated the ceasefire; in her little corner of the alps, it was firmly, gloriously springtime.

Snowdrops were starting to speckle the hillside; what had been brown only days before was a vibrant, verdant green. The landscape around her was waking up, cleaning up, getting ready for a fresh start. Mili was doing the same.

Earlier that morning, she had removed all of the delicately crocheted curtains from the mountain hut’s windows. The sunlight had streamed through the thick, bubbled panes, casting lazy shadows across the raw wood floors. The rooms were brighter than they had ever been, and felt different; it was if the light itself had scrubbed the walls, freeing the centuries of laughter, sweat, and tears that had seeped in over the ages and become trapped beneath the patina.

Mili had paused for a moment, absently fingering the yellowed linen of the curtains. Intricate scenes of cows and milkmaids echoed the cabin’s purpose, a simple wooden shelter for farmers tending to livestock summering on the mountain slopes. Despite the simplicity of the structure, pride had been taken in making it comfortable. The light crocheted curtains were testament to that.

She shook herself from the reverie; it was washday, and there was work to be done.

Mili hummed as she labored, using the long, wooden laundry bat to extract one of the curtains from the roiling washwater. She moved it into a secondary kettle, waiting with fresh water and a washboard on a sturdy oak stand.

As Mili lifted the linen to the top of the washboard, the fabric of time stretched thin. She heard whistling and singing and indistinct chatting; she looked around, startled, and saw, as through the rippled glass of an old window pane, visions of the past.

Generations of women spread out like a series of reflections across the green spring grass, each one standing in front of her own ghostly wash kettle. The women nearest to her looked over and smiled. They could see her, too.

Her breath caught in her throat. She stared at all the women who had swirled these curtains through cool mountain water before her. The crocheted threads stretched taut throughout time, binding Mili to the past and to the future. How many more hands, strong and calloused, would caress this cloth after hers?

“They didn’t have washboards.”

With a rush of wind, the women were gone. Mili blinked, the plain metal kettle coming back into focus. She felt a chill, and realized that the curtains, still soaking wet, were dripping into her sleeve.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re supposed to be from the 1820s, right?”

Mili sighed. “Yes, sir, today is May 25th, 1822.” It was kitschy, but her boss insisted that they not break character.

“Well, the galvinized metal washboard wasn’t invented until 1833.” The man sounded German and pleased with himself.

She started to reply, but he was already ambling down the path toward the 1909 farmhouse and its exhibit on heritage breed hogs.

Mili returned to her washing, humming a tune she’d never heard before.