Prudence smoothed the scrap of muslin on her lap and studied the uneven lines of irregular stitches. Practice was supposed to improve her skills, but each successive row looked worse than the one before.
With a sigh, she slid the needle off the thread and began using it to pull out her handiwork. Where in the Good Book did it say that women must stitch every day?, she wondered.
Then, yanking a stitch to punctuate every word, “Surely God would not be disappointed that Prudence Fayreweather of tiny New Eden, New Hampshire, cannot stitch.”
Oh, no. Had she spoken aloud?
She sat churchly still. Papa and Jeremiah had taken the cows to graze on the common. They would not return until dinner. But Mama? Prudence closed her eyes and listened. She could just hear the faint clacking of the butter churn.
Her exhale of relief was quickly followed by a sideways glance at the back door. What were the chickens doing? Surely they had something more interesting to do than stitch.
She shifted her glance toward the front of the house. Mama would be busy churning for a while. She would never notice if her daughter took a short break to play with her feathered friends.
Prudence stuck the needle in the cloth and shoved the muslin off her lap before hopping off the chair. She paused at the door to listen one more time for her mother. Then she pushed the door open and darted outside—
The sky in the near distance was yellow.
Prudence blinked. She squinted. She rubbed her eyes. The sky was still yellow. And the yellow was spreading, toward her, toward the village.
“MAMA!” Prudence ran to the front of the house. “Mama! Come look!”
Mama stood, wiping her hands on her apron. “Prudence Fayreweather! Running wildly is not suitable for a young Christian woman.”
Mrs. Fayreweather set her hands on her hips. “How many times have we discussed this?” She shook her head before continuing. “Please go back to the corner of the house, walk to me calmly, and explain why you are not practicing your stitching.”
Mama pointed over Prudence’s shoulder.
Gritting her teeth, Prudence turned and hurried to the corner and back. “My stitches were getting sloppy,” she explained upon rejoining her mother. “I went outside to calm my mind, but then I saw the sky turning yellow.”
Mrs. Fayreweather sighed. “You have a fanciful imagination. I wish I knew what to do with it.”
“’Tis not—“ Prudence grabbed her mother’s hand and pulled her to the side of the house. She pointed at the sky. “It is not my imagination.”
Mama caught her breath. “My word.”
“What is it?”
“I have no idea. It looks like—”
Mama shook her head. “Nothing. That would be mindless speculation. Now,” Mama clapped her hands. “Let us get back to our chores. They won’t do themselves, no matter what color the sky is.” She put her hand on Prudence’s shoulder and guided the girl to the front of the house, but not before Prudence saw her mother glance worriedly back over her shoulder.
Prudence let herself be led into the house and then scurried to the window by the rear door. No matter what Mama said, something was very wrong.
She watched the sky grow darker and darker.
The sky was grayish-brown when Papa and Jeremiah returned. Prudence stood with Mama in the yard, watching as they guided the cows toward the barn. Judging by the moos and lows, the cows were as worried and confused as Prudence.
Movement to her right caught Pru’s attention. “Mama, look.” She pointed at the chickens, who were lining up to get back into the coop, something they only did at night.
“They’re probably confused by the darkening sky,” Mama said. “‘Tis nothing to worry about.” Mama rubbed her collarbone that certain way, and Prudence knew her mother’s words were a lie.
Once the animals were put to bed, the family followed Papa into the house. Mama lit the candles in the kitchen, and everyone took their places around the table: Papa at the head, Mama opposite him, Jeremiah on Papa’s right, Prudence on Papa’s left. No one looked out the windows, but their thoughts remained on the growing darkness.
Jeremiah turned to his father. “What is it, Pa? Could it be the war?”
Mr. Fayreweather shook his head. “I don’t think so. The last I heard, the fighting was all down by New York and in the Carolinas. Unless…”
Prudence peered at her father. “Unless what?”
Papa shared a look with Mama and then sighed before answering. “Unless we are being punished by the Lord.”
“For what?” Jeremiah cried. “We have every right to rebel against the king. He denied and trampled on our God-given rights. If anything, the Lord should be punishing him, not us.”
“Calm down, young man.” Papa’s voice was stern but gentle. “I’m not saying you’re wrong. You know I support independence. But there are many reasons the Lord could visit his wrath upon us. The war is the least of them. After all, the Bible tells us we are beings of sin. Perhaps we have not atoned enough for our transgressions.”
“Darkness was one of the plagues of Egypt,” Prudence chimed in.
“Yes, it was,” Jeremiah agreed. “Sent to persuade pharaoh to set the Hebrews free. Maybe this darkness is a plague on the British, to persuade the king to set us free.”
“But shouldn’t the darkness fall on London, then, instead of New Eden?” Prudence asked.
“I suppose,” Jeremiah sighed. “Maybe we are being punished after all.”
The family fell silent. Prudence felt a knot form in her belly. This was her fault. She had broken the sixth commandment. She had disobeyed her mother. She had believed that God would not give a thought to Prudence Fayreweather’s frivolity. She was wrong. She folded her hands together, closed her eyes, and whispered the Lord’s Prayer. She hoped that would be enough.
Papa waited until she was finished before setting his hands palm-down on the table and announcing he was hungry. “It is midday. Let’s have dinner.” He nodded at Mama. While she made her way to the sideboard, Papa turned to Prudence. “Perhaps you could help your mother by setting out the plates?”
Prudence nodded before getting up and sliding behind her father to the cabinet.
Papa then looked at Jeremiah. “And perhaps you can fetch more candles. I suspect these will not be enough to last us through the night.”
Prudence glanced out the window as her brother walked passed it. It did look like night outside, except no stars were visible. She reminded herself it was the middle of the day, not the middle of the night. If it was this dark now, what would it be like later? What if the sun never shone again? Prudence knew they did not have enough candles to survive that. No one did.
By the time Jeremiah returned with the half-dozen candles that normally resided in other rooms of the house, Mama had laid out the midday meal: bread, cheese, and pickles. Jeremiah set the candles on the sideboard before sliding back into his seat. At Papa’s nod, they all bowed their heads and said grace. For once, Jeremiah did not lunge for the bread at the final syllable in amen, waiting instead for Papa to take the first portion.
“Well?” Papa glanced around the table. “The food won’t eat itself. Best help yourself.”
At this cue, the rest of the Fayreweathers slowly filled their plates.
The first bite of bread felt dry in Prudence’s mouth and like a pebble going down her throat. Every bite grew worse, until she felt like she was choking down stones.
She watched each family member take their next bite and then looked down at her own plate. “It’s my fault.”
“What was that?” Mama asked. “Speak louder if you wish to be heard.”
Prudence pushed her plate away. “I said, it’s my fault.”
“What’s your fault?” Jeremiah asked through stuffed cheeks.
Mama slapped his arm. “Do not speak with your mouth full, young man.” She turned to Prudence. “But he asked an appropriate question. What is your fault?”
“This. The darkness. The Lord sent it to punish me.”
Mama gave Papa a pointed stare.
“Why would He punish you?” he asked.
“Because….because I broke the commandments. I cannot stitch. I disobeyed Mama. I envied the chickens—“
Jeremiah guffawed. Papa bit his cheek. Mama sent Papa a look of disapproval and gave Jeremiah another slap on the arm. Prudence let her tears flow.
After a nod from Mama, Papa grabbed one of the candles and pushed another toward his daughter. “Prudence, help me check on the animals.”
With a sniffle, Prudence pushed back her chair, took the candle, and followed her father out the back door. Papa stopped when they were clear of the building. “You are most certainly a headstrong young woman, but I do not believe the Lord did all this,” he said, waving his free hand toward the sky, “because of you. You are one of many.”
“But God sent disasters to punish individuals all the time in the Old Testament. Look what happened to Dathan, Abiram, and Korach.”
“Those men rebelled against Moses. You are not rebelling against anyone, except maybe your mother.”
Prudence wiped her cheeks with her sleeve, hiding a small smile.
“Beside,” Papa continued, “the Old Testament is full of strong women. What about Miriam, Ruth, and Esther?”
Prudence answered with a shrug and then walked with Papa to the barn, where almost half the cows were lying down. Two that Prudence checked on seemed to have fallen asleep, if their breathing was any indication.
Assured that the animals, at least, were taking the strange darkness in stride, the two Fayreweathers walked back to the house. They found Mama and Jeremiah in the sitting room, Mama reading the Bible by candlelight, Jeremiah on the floor by her feet. Prudence sat next to Jeremiah, and Papa took his chair. While Mama read Luke’s account of the Last Supper, Prudence drifted into a light, restless sleep.
She woke in darkness, to a dull pain in her legs.
Jeremiah gave her another kick and then spoke in a loud whisper, pointing at the window. “Look!”
Prudence walked on her knees to the pane. She gasped at the sight. There were stars in the sky! The Lord had restored the natural order.
She stood, kissed her mother on the cheek, and made her way to her own bedroom, where she kneeled by her bed and prayed her most fervent thanks. The next morning, she reached for her stitching without complaint.
Click here to read the story behind "A World Turned Upside Down."