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A Flickering Light

Jane Kirkpatrick

  Praise for

  A Flickering Light

  “Jane Kirkpatrick has done it again. A Flickering Light is as engaging, well researched, and finely written as her other best-selling historical novels. Her characters are real people with real temptations, and at the end of the novel, this reader wants to know what happens next.”

  —LAURAINE SNELLING, author of One Perfect Day

  and the Blessing books

  “Jane Kirkpatrick’s brilliance as a storyteller and her elegant artistry with the written word shine like a beacon in A Flickering Light. A master at weaving historical accounts with threads of story, Jane has that rare ability to take her reader on a journey through time. You nearly feel the ground move beneath your feet.”

  —SUSAN MEISSNER, author of The Shape of Mercy

  “Jane Kirkpatrick handles some very difficult issues and situations in A Flickering Light. Her attention to historical detail is greatly appreciated and defines her mark on this story. As the series continues, I will watch with great anticipation to see where this journey takes us.”

  —TRACIE PETERSON, best-selling author of the Alaskan

  Quest and Brides of Gallatin County series

  “One of the marvels of this novel is Kirkpatrick’s uncanny ability to enter into the minds and hearts of many characters and inhabit them with authority, generosity of spirit, and wisdom. You’ll want to read slowly so you can savor each paragraph, each scene, each chapter.”

  —K. L. COOK, author of The Girl from Charnelle,

  winner of the 2007 WILLA Award for Contemporary

  Fiction, and Last Call, winner of the Prairie Schooner

  Book Prize in Fiction.

  “The dilemma of being an independent, artistic woman in a conservative, strict society is brought to light with great empathy by Ms. Kirkpatrick’s compassionate recreation of Jessie Ann’s life as one of the first female photographers. What Ms. Kirkpatrick accomplishes with absolute grace through memorable imagery is recognizing and honoring the eternal plight of all soul-seeking women in the story of one young girl who was determined to follow her creative passion.”

  —LAURIE WANGER BUYER, author of Spring’s

  Edge: A Ranch Wife’s Chronicles

  To the descendants of Jessie Ann.


  Jessie Ann Gaebele a photographer’s apprentice

  Lillian Ida Gaebele a seamstress and older sister to Jessie

  Selma Selena Gaebele a singer and younger sister to Jessie

  Roy William Gaebele a budding musician and younger brother to Jessie, nicknamed “Frog”

  William and Ida Gaebele parents of Jessie and owners of a drayage in Winona, Minnesota

  August Schoepp Ida Gaebele’s younger brother

  *Voe Kopp friend of Jessie’s

  *Jerome Kopp Voe’s brother

  Frederick John “FJ” Bauer owner of Bauer Studio

  Jessie Otis Bauer wife of FJ and professional photo retoucher

  Russell, Donald (deceased), Winifred, and Robert children of FJ and Jessie Bauer

  Mrs. Otis and Eva Jessie Bauer’s mother and sister

  Luise FJ’s younger sister

  *Daniel Henderson friend of Voe

  Herman Reinke FJ’s North Dakota ranch partner

  Nie Steffes owner of Winona Cycle Livery and Dealer

  Lottie Fort milliner in Winona

  Ralph Carleton a Winona evangelist

  Mayo brothers physicians in Rochester, Minnesota

  *Miss Jones a speech and language specialist

  Mrs. Johnson owner of a photographic studio in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

  Henry and Mary Harms Harms family

  Marie Harms Milwaukee host for Jessie Gaebele

  * Characters identified with asterisks are created from the author’s imagination. The female photographers identified in the text are actual historical figures.

  Faith, hope and love are the three eternities.

  To look up and not down, that is Faith;

  to look forward and not back, that is Hope;

  and then to look out and not in, that is Love.


  Woman’s Home Companion, July 1907

  The Truth must dazzle gradually

  Or every man be blind—


  “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”

  Then you will know the truth,

  and the truth will set you free.

  —JOHN 8:32, NIV

  Love…consists in…that two solitudes

  protect and border and salute each other.


  Letters to a Young Poet


  In my favorite portrait of myself, I am wearing an opaque eyelet dress, layered, with the scalloped edges of the hemline barely whispering across the studio floor. The dress could have been worn for a christening, though its lavish detail would have stolen something from an event where the child ought to be the focus. The child, wearing a long, flowing white dress that could be handed down to brother and sister for each successive important day, that’s what matters at a christening. The child is what people should gaze upon at such an event, not a mother or aunt or friend wearing a too-elegant eyelet dress.

  It could be a wedding dress, but of course, it wasn’t.

  I find so few photographs of myself that I wish to share with others, but in this one I appear taller than my five feet two inches, as I’ve chosen a hat with ostrich plumes swept up in the back and high over my head. The plumes shade my eyes with dried berries that flow out onto the hat’s white brim in a cornucopia of fruit. My hair, the color of oiled leather, is coiled up beneath the brim. (My little brother, Roy, says I have hair the color of the cow pies dotting the pasture on our grandparents’ farm, but that’s the nature of little brothers born in the new century, or at least was Roy’s creative nature before the…event.) The milliner did splendid work, and the white of the felted hat brim brings the eye to the dress, which is what I wanted. The beauty of the dress is the real subject of the photograph.

  My mother called it my “kept-woman dress.” It was no such thing, and it pained me to hear her say it. In time I came to know full well that I’d received favor, undeserved and accepted unwisely. But there are always misunderstandings in families, always sacrifices worthy of making too, no matter how strained they may seem at the time.

  I’d seen the dress in Choate’s window as I walked bundled up against Minnesota’s blistering river winds. The dress spoke of spring and newness, something I longed for. I vowed to buy it. And so I did, saving twenty-five cents a week for six months before bringing it home one fine summer day. Of course, I’d asked the clerk to set it aside for me and put fifty cents down so they knew I was serious, that I’d keep my commitment.

  In this photograph, I posed myself at the edge of a bench made to look like marble. Its molding can’t be identified as something specific but suggests lush relief and gives interest to the eye, though not enough to take away from the true subject. Morning light radiates through the studio windows.

  I’d painted a board white and set it just beyond the arc of the exposure so that the morning rays reflected against it and poured soft beams back onto the dress, keeping the area to my right in shadow. It seemed fitting with so much of my life a chase of shadow and light. Behind me I used the scenic drop of dark woods reflecting against a full moon shining. My face seems almost backlit by that sphere, a feature I hadn’t anticipated. It fascinates me that I can set up a subject, think I have everything perfectly arranged, and then only afterward see things I had not noticed, little things, like spots of light that highlight the tips of my size-three black high-button boots
or a moon giving unexpected brightness. It seems I turn reflective after the fact, surprised by what was always there that I failed to see.

  I had wanted the soft natural light to raise the detail of the eyelet dress and the overskirt and emphasize the hours of work that must have gone into making it, to shade gently on my shoulders and maybe, just maybe, to bring into focus—something one might notice after prolonged viewing—the rings I’m wearing, or the necklace.

  I leaned slightly forward, no easy task given the whalebone corset that fit as close to me as soap to skin. I clasped my hands at my knees. At the last minute, I also decided not to look at the camera but to gaze away, toward something I couldn’t quite name but knew I wanted. I did not smile. There are times to smile and times to cry and times to be serene. I see sadness in my eyes.

  Voe opened the shutter, exposed the film, then closed it, using my 3A Graflex. I developed the photograph myself.

  I never intended to show the image to him.

  But he saw it there among the other exposures of funeral flowers and family portraits made on New Year’s Day. A child had jiggled on her father’s lap, so that photograph was wasted, but I hated throwing the picture out because I did appreciate the family composition. The prints lay on the table outside the developing room, some of the edges beginning to curl because I’d wanted to save costs and didn’t use the more expensive paper.

  He wasn’t supposed to be there, recovering from his illnesses and everything else.

  His mustache twitched as his long fingers moved the photographs aside, then stalled at the one of me. He lifted it, adjusted his glasses, then lowered the print to catch my eyes. I couldn’t tell if his smile was wistful or contained a certain sense of pride…for his part in my having produced such a precious photograph or my part in being willing to have myself as the subject. I didn’t ask. Instead I pulled the picture from his fingers, careful not to touch him, and directed his attention elsewhere.

  I could do that and discovered nearly too late that I often had to.

  Doing the Right Thing

  AGAINST THE MORNING DARKNESS, Jessie Ann Gaebele quietly lit the stubby candle. Its feeble light flickered in the mirror while she dressed. She pulled her stockings on, donned her chemise, debated about a corset, decided against it. She’d make too much noise getting it hooked. No one was likely to see her this morning anyway, and she’d be back before her mother even knew she’d left the house without it. She could move faster without a “Grecian Bend,” as ladies magazines called the posture forced by the stays and bustle. She guessed some thought it an attractive look for a girl in 1907, emphasizing a small waist and a rounded derrière. Jessie claimed both but had little time for either that morning, and timing mattered if she was to succeed. If Jessie didn’t catch the moment, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

  She spilled the dark linen skirt over her petticoat, letting it settle on her slender frame. She inhaled the lavender her sister Selma insisted be added when they made their own soap, something they did more often now since they’d moved to Winona, Minnesota. Selma was prone to sensuous scents; sensuous music too, her husky voice holding people hostage when she sang.

  Jessie looked at her sleeping sisters. The candlelight cast shadows on the tousled hair of Selma, her younger sister, and on the nightcap that Lilly, her older sister, always wore. (“It will keep you from catching vapors in the night,” Lilly claimed.) Jessie pulled on the white shirtwaist. Even in sleep they reflected who they were when awake: Selma, dreamy and romantic; Lilly, organized and right. Always right. Jessie slept somewhere between them, literally. In life she guessed she had a bit of both of those girls’ practices in her. Selma would approve of Jessie’s morning goal for its dreamy adventure; Lilly wouldn’t. But Jessie’d organized it as Lilly would, leaving little to chance. She’d walked the route, knew the obstacles. She anticipated what she’d find when she got there. If she could make it on time.

  Luckily there were only five buttons down the back of her blouse, close to the high neck. She considered waking Selma to help her button them but decided against it. Selma would want the details and wake up Lilly, who would question her judgment. Jessie would not lie. Lilly would point out how ridiculous she was being, rising early and setting out for such foolishness when she had an important appointment in the day ahead. “That should be your emphasis,” Lilly would say. She spoke as though she were Jessie’s mother. Oh, she meant well; older sisters did. That’s what her mother told her. But still, Jessie was tired of having every person in the family older than she considered wiser and worldlier too.

  So Jessie reached back and buttoned the blouse herself, then centered a beaded-buckle belt on her tiny fifteen-year-old waist. Hat or no hat? Going out in public without her hat would be too casual. Someone just might question what she was doing or, worse, remember and tell her mother. She could get by without the corset, but she’d best wear the hat.

  She tossed a shawl around her shoulders, grabbed her shoes, then dropped one by mistake. She held her breath, hoping no one would wake. She blew out the candle and waited.


  “Go back to sleep, Selma.”

  “What are you up to?”

  Jessie moved to her sister’s side of the bed and whispered, “Don’t wake Lilly, all right? It’s a secret. Can you keep a secret?” Her sister nodded. “I’m going on an adventure.”

  “Can I come too?”

  “Not this time. But I’ll tell you all about it after you get home from school. Just don’t tell, please? If Mama asks, just say you don’t know. Because you don’t.”

  “Is it about a beau?”

  “You read too many of those stories in Woman’s Home Companion. No boys. Nothing like that.”

  “I better tell Mama.” She pushed the quilt back onto the empty space where Jessie had slept. “She won’t like you going off by yourself in the night.”

  “No!” Jessie looked at Lilly to see if her loud whisper had awakened her. “It’s nothing. I’ll be back before breakfast.”

  “All right. But you’ll tell me everything?”

  “Everything necessary,” Jessie said.

  Her sister settled back under the quilt, and Jessie picked up her shoe. She’d nearly crippled her adventure before it even started! She tiptoed past Roy’s room with special quietness, careful of the oak floor that creaked at a certain place near the head of the stairs. Roy had hearing like their mother’s. That woman could tell when any of them squabbled in the bedroom over a hairpiece even when she was outside in the yard, hanging up clothes on the far side of the house while the wind blew! Sadness bordered Jessie’s thoughts of her little brother like a photographic frame. Jessie slipped past his room, past her parents’ door, out onto the porch with the swing, and sighed relief.

  Outside, Jessie inhaled the morning. Late March and the promise of an early spring. Not long before flowers would poke their heads up through the crusty Minnesota ground. She heard a steamship whistle bawling its presence at Winona’s docks along the Mississippi. The shawl would be enough to ward off the cold once she started walking, and the promised sun would warm her up when she stood still. Within an hour, dawn would offer up its gift but would wait for only a few seconds for Jessie to receive it. After that, the shapes she wanted to capture would change, and soon the snow would be gone, the city would stop the burning, and she’d have to wait another year. She had little time to spare. She couldn’t be late today.

  On the porch steps, she pulled on her high-button shoes over scratchy wool socks, then grabbed the heavy leather bag from behind the porch latticework, where she’d placed it the night before. Her uncle August Schoepp had given her the bag and its precious cargo just last year, she supposed in memory of their time at the St. Louis World’s Fair. It was her treasure. She drew the strap over her shoulder, centered the weight on her right hip, then set off, holding the bag out to prevent the bruises it often left behind. The corset might have been a help to support her back against the bag
, but it was too late to think of that now.

  She set a fast pace on Broadway, liking the feel of the new concrete’s solidness pounding up through her slender legs. She crossed the street, kept walking. Pigeons flew from the rooftop of the Winona Hotel. Pancakes of dirty snow exposed themselves in the shaded window wells. The clank of railroad cars connecting and departing at the repair yards broke the morning calm. Against the gas streetlights, fingers of elm and maple branches rose before her. There’d be buds on them before long, and the maple sap would drip like dark honey down the trunks, making a rich contrast of brown on black.

  She turned the corner, walked several more blocks, then at the lamplight flickering in the bicycle shop’s window, Jessie grinned. Mr. Steffes had remembered. He was not a founder of the city, but he’d been around to see many of its changes while running his cycle livery and dealership and doing repair work on the side.

  A bicycle leaned against the framed wall. Maybe he meant for her to just take it. It would certainly save time. But he might have left it for someone else. She’d better go in and check.

  Jessie stepped inside, the small bell above the door announcing her arrival. She scanned the room. “Mr. Steffes? I’m here. Is the bicycle outside the one you meant for me to take?” The silence felt heavy. The shop smelled of sawdust, the kind brushed onto the wooden floors to soak up grease and oil. It was awfully cluttered. And still. “Mr. Steffes?” Jessie swallowed. “Remember? I left you a nickel for the use of the bicycle this morning. I said I’d come early.” She stumbled over a bucket filled with rags. Maybe she could earn the five cents back by offering to clean up this place.