Sunday, November 27, 2011
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
“When do we tell the children?”
He said it without feeling, without emotion, without giving weight to the words. He said it as though he
was asking the latest stock price for Microsoft or Google. These were his first words after nearly twenty minutes in the car together. On our anniversary.
“After Christmas,” I said, matching his evenness, his coldness. “Not tonight or tomorrow.”
“Don’t you think they know by now? At least that something’s up?”
“Not David, he’s too young. Justin asks questions and just looks at me with those doe eyes, but he keeps it in. Becca is the one I worry about.”
“Kids are resilient. If they don’t know, they’ll under¬stand. It’s for the best. For all of us.” I hope he’s right. “Now they’ll have two Christmases,” he said.
The windshield wipers beat their own rhythm as wet snow fell like rain. The landscape had retreated under the white covering, adding to a previous snowfall that hadn’t fully melted. The roadway, where you could see it, shone black with treachery from the moisture and fall¬ing temperatures. Cars inched along ahead of us on an incline as Jacob drove faster, crowding the car in front of us, looking for a chance to pass.
“Are you sure he’ll be at his office?” I said, looking out the window, bracing for impact. “In this weather? On Christmas Eve?”
“He’s still there. I called before we left. The papers are ready.”
“Does he have a family?” I said.
“What?” He said it with a healthy dose of condescen¬sion, and added a look I couldn’t stand. The look I could live the rest of my life without seeing.
“Does he have a family. A wife? Kids?”
“I have no idea.” More condescension. “I didn’t know
that was a prerequisite for you.” “It’s not. I was just wondering. Working on Christmas Eve. No wonder he’s a divorce lawyer.”
So much for a congenial discussion. The silence was getting to him now and he flipped on a talk station. I was surprised he hadn’t done that earlier. The clock showed 3:18, and a delayed Rush Limbaugh was going into a break. A commercial about an adjustable bed. Local traffic and the forecast. Snarled intersections and cold weather reporting. Expect an even whiter Christmas. Several inches whiter. Maybe more. A cold front moving in and more precipitation at higher elevations.
“Can we listen to something else?” I said.
He suppressed a huff and pressed the FM button. This was his car so nothing on the FM dial was pre-set. He hit “scan.”
He frowned. “Punch it when you hear something you like.”
I passed on Gene Autry and Rudolph. The song brought an ache for the children. Especially David who still believed in Santa and reindeer. At the next station, José Feliciano was down to his last Feliz Navidad. On the left side of the dial, the local Christian station played yet another version of “Silent Night.” I couldn’t stay there because of the guilt of what we were doing.
Paul McCartney said the mood was right and the spirit was up and he was simply having a wonderful Christmastime. I wished I could say the same. The band Journey sang “Don’t Stop Believin’,” but I had stopped long ago, at least concerning our marriage. This was not how we planned it twenty years ago, though the snow¬storm felt similar. Twenty Christmas Eves after I walked the aisle in a dress my mother and I had picked out, I was wearing jeans, an old T-shirt, and an overcoat, cruising in sneakers down the slippery road to a no-fault divorce.
Three children and the bird would live with me (a dog made too much mess and Jacob is allergic to cats), and he would move into an apartment after the New Year. Jacob promised to stay involved. There wasn’t another woman, as far as I knew, as far as he would let on. That wasn’t our problem. The problems were much deeper than infidelity.
I hit the button on singer Imogen Heap. Nothing at all about Christmas. Just quirky music and a synthe¬sized voice that took my mind off the present, which is supposed to be a gift, I know. I’ve heard that.
“I’m done with this road,” Jacob said. “I’m taking the shortcut.” “Over the hill? In this weather?” Two interrogatives to his one statement of fact. “It’ll cut the travel in half. Nobody takes County Line anymore.” “Don’t you think we should stay where they’ve plowed?”
He ignored my entreaty and turned left sharply. The rear of the car slid to the right. I grabbed the door handle instinctively as he corrected. He gave the Jacob head shake, and with shake you get eye roll and a sigh on the side.
“Trust me for once, will you?” he said.
I wanted to bring up a million little ways I’ve tried to trust him. A million little ways I’ve been let down. For twenty years I’ve searched for reasons to place my trust squarely on his shoulders. But how do you trust some¬one who has failed at the life you wanted? There were flashes of caring, a dozen roses to say “I’m sorry,” but the roses wilted and died. And then we started on this direction, him on the Interstate and me on the Frontage Road, separate but still traveling in a semblance of the
same direction. Two moons orbiting the same planet, rarely intersecting. “I don’t want the kids going to our funeral,” I muttered.
He slammed on the brakes and I yelped as we went into another slide. Passive-aggressive driving is his spe¬cialty.
“Fine, I’ll turn around.”
Both hands to my head, tears welling, I hit the power button on the radio and heard myself say, “No, just keep going.”
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 11:28 PM
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1863
The prayer of the reverend, standing on a raised platform for all to see and hear, droned in Ellie’s ears. She saw him but did not see him. Her heart and eyes focused more on the huge arch designating the entrance to Evergreen Cemetery and the rising fog that still clung over the raw mounds of dirt, marking the fresh graves in the new burial site of Gettysburg, about to be officially dedicated.
Reverend Stockton got louder, his prayer building, the words plucking at the taut chords of her heart. “. . .because Thou hast called us, that Thy blessings await us, and that Thy designs. . .”
Witnessing the terror of her friends and family during those terrible days of intense battle between the North and South. This was a blessing? What of the mourning Wade family, grieved over the loss of Genny, their young daughter, killed by a stray bullet as she made bread? The stench of death, still a powerful memory in her mind, when bodies lay in the fields bloated and rotting. Ellie’s breath choked and she pressed her hand against her mouth. What of the blessing of a husband of less than two years lying in a grave in hated Southern soil, lost and forgotten except by the one person who had loved him?
“. . .in reverence of Thy ways, and in accordance with Thy word, we love and magnify the infinite perfections. . .”
Ellie pressed her hand tighter to her lips. A touch on her elbow made her turn toward her friend.
She could hear the concern in Rose’s voice.
“You need to rest. Why don’t we go home?”
Ellie took a deep breath. She couldn’t allow her own grief to pull her friend away from this very important program, not with the president set to speak. Besides, at some point she needed to distance herself from her grief if she was to be of any use to Rose. Her quiet friend’s swelling body and pale face showed signs of her own private torment, what with the impending birth of her first child and the continued report of her husband missing in action.
Ellie led her friend through the crowd, mostly women. Some reached out to her, widows themselves. She felt their isolation in a physical way that pinched her vision to a narrow tunnel, and at the end of that tunnel was the cold stone of a grave marker.
Sunshine broke through the haze that marked the beginning of the day and shone down on her head, yet she felt it from a distance, the warmth unable to penetrate the shell of her grief.
“I believe we will see some sunshine today after all,” Rose murmured, resting a hand on her stomach. “It will be good to feel warm again.”
“Yes. It would feel good,” Ellie said, more to placate her friend than from any feeling of conviction. How long had it been since she’d felt the lulling warmth of peace? Seven long months. Ever since the news came that Martin had died.
“You don’t have to stay for me,” Rose said.
Ellie closed her eyes and swallowed. Forced a smile. “You wanted to hear Mr. Everett. We should stay.” Mr. Edward Everett’s speech would be long. She knew the man’s reputation, and she was unsure what reserve of strength she would draw from to survive what was surely to be a long day of even longer speeches. “And Mr. Lincoln, of course. What a treasure to have him come and speak on our behalf.” She again pressed her hand to her lips, recalling the president’s own recent grief. To lose a child so young. She chided herself for being selfish. Others knew grief and still functioned. She must as well. “I—I think I’ll take a stroll.”
She felt Rose’s eyes on her, and when her friend held out a handkerchief, Ellie took it without comment. That Rose knew where Ellie’s stroll would take her didn’t surprise her. The sight of row upon row of neatly placed graves tore at her. She rolled with the wave of fresh grief, shocked anew by the bitter taste of despair that sucked away what fleeting strength she had tried to cloak herself with.
She stopped at the edge of the field of graves. Disbelief swirling. All of this was a mistake. It had to be. Martin should be here, in Gettysburg, not buried haphazardly in some Southern field. She closed her eyes and went to her knees in the damp soil, uncaring of those who might be staring. No, they would have their attention fastened upon the speaker, she comforted herself. She shifted, grinding dirt into her skirts, dimly aware that the long prayer had ended and music played. She made use of Rose’s handkerchief until it became a saturated mass.
The music went quiet, and a man’s rich voice began the slow rise that marked the beginning of a speech. Everett. Rose must be entranced. Having heard so much of the orator and his absolute support of the Union’s cause, her friend had been excited to hear him talk. Ellie caught only bits and pieces of the man’s speech as she walked along the perimeter of the crowd, too restless to sit, too grieved to stand still.
Her legs had begun to ache when a smattering of applause broke her reverie. Ellie headed back toward the place where she had parted from Rose. Thousands of people crowded around the raised platform. When Ellie could not discern the familiar shape of her friend, panic plucked at her. Rose wouldn’t leave her. She was sure of it. Her throat closed. Maybe something terrible had happened. Dread squeezed her chest. She would be alone. Again.
Ellie took in the smear of pale faces staring her way. One moved in her direction and touched her arm. “Are you all right, ma’am?”
She did not recognize the man, nor the woman beside him. A couple. She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.
She turned, and Rose’s small form hurried toward her. “I was keeping an eye out for you.” Concern etched Rose’s expression and dimmed the twinkle in her eyes. “You’ve been crying.”
Ellie could see the protest form on Rose’s lips, but she turned her attention back to the speaker, steeling herself. She did her best to concentrate on the speech, but only when President Lincoln stood did she feel anything close to anticipation. Here was the man—black crepe around his top hat in honor of the death of his own son—who understood death in a personal way. President Lincoln’s presence injected a measure of life into the corner of her heart that the news of Martin’s death had withered.
Papers in hand, his higher-pitched voice strong with conviction, Lincoln began. “Fourscore and seven years ago. . .”
Theodore watched from the shadows of Rupp’s Tannery as a group of men on horseback cantered down Baltimore Street, passed him, then eased onto Emmitsburg Road. He pressed his back to the building that squatted parallel to Baltimore Street and prayed the moonlight would not reveal him. He withdrew to the back of the building, crossed the yard, forded a small stream, and passed through several yards before he reached Breckinridge Street. He stared at the house in front of him. It was the one he remembered from the day of his cousin’s marriage. His cousins’s bride’s house, left to her by her mother. The place Theo hoped to find her.
His tension eased when he realized the windows of the brick house were dark. A wide oak tree blocked the front of the house from view, but his cousin’s letters had described the clever entry to a cellar at one end of the porch and how his wife worked hard at putting up vegetables and storing various canned goods in the cool space. It was the place he hoped to call home for the night.
Theo rested against the cold brick and dared to close his eyes. His feet burned with rawness, a torture worsened with every passing day but endured out of necessity. He dared not loose the bloody strips of cloth he had tied on to relieve the pain in his bare feet.
In slow degrees, his body relaxed, but he jerked alert in the next breath. Exhaustion would be his downfall. He pushed himself away from the brick wall and went to his hands and knees. With ears keen from nights spent discerning the difference between the sounds of humans or animals approaching, Theo absorbed the atmosphere. Where his vision might fail, his ears would not.
Satisf ied that nothing out of the ordinary moved, he stood and hastened toward the house. Sweat broke out on his upper lip as the porch came into view. He squeezed himself up close to the brick wall of his cousin’s house and slithered toward the porch. In the darkness, he felt for the hinges of the cellar door and found the ring used to pull the door open.
Theo spit into his hand and smeared the wetness on first the top hinge then the lower one and prayed the added moisture would work as a lubricant and keep the door from squeaking. With trepidation, he eased the door toward him, drawing a breath only when the opening became large enough for him to slip through.
With the door firmly shut behind him, he felt his way along with his hands, a damp, cool wall of stone greeting his fingertips and scrubbing his palms. For a moment he stood perplexed. The porch ran the length of the house, a good ten feet by his estimate, yet he guessed that he had come only five feet. This stone wall must be to support the middle section to avoid sag. Sure his assessment must be correct, he followed the wall into a room that smelled of apples, with undertones of dust and mildew. But the scent refreshed him. He longed for a light to see by but dared not risk giving himself away, even if he had possessed a lantern.
His fingers skimmed the jars of produce and rough gunnysacks of apples and potatoes. Food. His hand closed around the smooth skin of an apple, and he sank his teeth into the fruit, surprised by the tart bite of the tender flesh. He munched as quietly as he could then began on a potato and finished with another apple.
A dull thud brought him up straight. His hands went clammy and he lowered the apple and cocked his head to listen harder.
The sound did not repeat. He took another bite, quieter this time. It must be someone in the house turning over in bed or falling out. If Martin’s wife, Ellie, was not alone, or if she had relatives living with her in the wake of her grief, his chances of being identified increased. The thought congealed the contents of his stomach into a heaving mass.
He put the apple aside and stretched out on the dirt floor, his body demanding rest. With his fist, he made a pillow of a small sack of apples. He closed his eyes and tried to plan how he would introduce himself into the household.
What would Ellie Lester be like in person? He had read so much about her in Martin’s letters that Theo felt as if he knew her. But among Martin’s personal effects, he never located a picture. Not everyone, he supposed, had the benefit of such a treasure to remember a loved one by, but he had hoped to remind himself what she looked like before coming face-to-face with her. His cousin’s wedding to the woman had been a long time ago, and though Theo recalled the day, the faces had receded a bit as the horrors of war had driven the pleasant memories into hiding.
Something tickled along Theo’s arm, and he slapped at the place, feeling the crush of a tiny body. A spider, no doubt. With a weary sigh, he rolled to his side and fell into a deep sleep.
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 11:23 PM
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Ten Days Until Christmas
“Judith, are you sure you don’t mind locking up tonight?” asked Joshua, a guilty tone heavy in his voice. “I feel bad, letting you close the store two nights in a row.”
“You shouldn’t. I don’t mind staying late at all. That’s what sisters are for, jah?”
When Josh continued to look doubtful, Judith Graber lifted her chin, forced a smile she didn’t feel inside. “Come, now. Gretta needs you. As does Will. Go on, or you’re going to be late. You two have plans, don’tcha?”
“Nothing much. We’re just getting together for supper with some other couples. You know, before things get too busy.”
She knew Joshua was talking about Christmas gettogethers and other holiday parties. Every frau she knew was busy baking and cooking for the planned activities.
Being single, she was not. “Go now, Joshua. I’ll be fine.”
“I promise, I’ll close the rest of the week,” he said as he shrugged on his coat.
Judith crossed her arms over her chest. “You better,” she teased with a mock frown.
However, she doubted her bruder had even noticed her expression. He was already beyond the wreath-adorned door that was closing behind him with a jangling of bells.
Judith watched through the store’s large picture windows as her brother weaved in between two parked cars and then, reaching the sidewalk, almost knocked into a woman carrying a wrapped package. He was practically racing home.
To his new home.
Just two months ago, he and Gretta had told the whole family that they were moving into a small house two blocks from the store. Living above the family shop no longer made sense, especially with Gretta in a family way again.
No member of the Graber family disagreed with their decision.
But, of course, none of them had been prepared for the adjustments that would have to be made now that Joshua would no longer be on the premises at all times. Now each member of the family had to take turns opening and closing the shop. Well, she, Joshua, and her father. Mamm was still too busy at home with the little ones to come in much, and Caleb had recently started at the brick factory. Anson was still a little too young to be of any real help.
So, it fell on Judith to do the majority of the work. As always.
Because she was the steady one.
The reliable one.
More like the one who had no life, Judith thought wryly. All while Joshua had been falling in love, and her brother Caleb had been struggling with his future, and even as Anson wrestled with his own growing pains, she had held steady and had quietly done what was expected of her.
Everyone was appreciative, to be sure. But that didn’t ease the restless ache that seemed to be growing inside.
Wistfully, Judith looked out the window at the gently falling snow, the wheel ruts in the lane, the road beyond that led . . . somewhere else.
She wished that she, like Joshua, had somewhere to run to. Wished she had someone who counted the passing minutes of her absence. . .
If only. . .
Realizing she’d been standing there in a daze, Judith slapped her hands on the counter. “If you’re going to be so dreamy, you might as well be truthful about it,” she said out loud. “You don’t wish just for someone. You wish you had a man, a sweetheart, counting the minutes until he saw you again.”
Her hollow laugh echoed through the empty store, a store that surely needed tending. And she knew from experience that wishes and dreams didn’t get things done.
Since there were only five more minutes until closing time, she left her spot behind the counter and began her usual walk through the store. As she did so, she organized stock and picked up stray pieces of trash people had left behind. A child’s toy, a gum wrapper. A grocery list.
The bells on the door jingled merrily, causing her to straighten.
“Hello?” a deep voice called out.
Well, of course someone decided to come in, now that it was mere minutes before closing time. Irritation flowed through her as she stood with her hands full of trash and a metal toy car, as the person darted toward the front. “May I help you?” she called out.
Then skidded to a stop. Because right there in front of her was Benjamin Knox.
Recognition flashed in his eyes as he glanced her way. And then a long, slow smile spread. A knowing and too-personal smile. “Judith Graber . . . Hi.”
“Ben.” She lifted her chin, pretending that she wasn’t shocked to her core. Two years ago, Ben Knox had left Sugarcreek under a haze of disapproval. Gossips reported that he’d gone to Missouri to help some cousins on their dairy farm, but had in truth done little besides flirt with the girls.
She needed to remember that. Keeping her voice cool and even, she asked, “May I help you?”
Under his black hat’s thick felt brim, his hazel eyes seemed to take in every inch of her. She felt his gaze’s sweep as surely as if he’d run a hand right down her periwinkle dress, down her black apron, along her black stockings.
“Nee,” he said.
She couldn’t remember what she’d asked him. “Nee?”
“No, I don’t need your help,” he said with an almost- smirk. “I’m not here for anything special. Just thought I’d look around for a few minutes. You know. See if there was anything that catches my eye.”
“And do you think there might be?”
Judith went cold. Was he purposely being rude, or was she being too sensitive?
Probably a bit of both.
Keenly aware of the tension she felt around Ben— that bit of unease she’d always felt around him—she cleared her throat. “Just to let you know, we’re closing in exactly one minute.”
An eyebrow rose. “In one minute, huh? Then what happens? All customers get locked in?”
“Of course not!” Oh, but of course he was teasing her. “What I meant to say is that you should probably leave.”
“Right now? Before I get a chance to look around some more?” He turned around and stared at the clock above the door. The ridiculous clock with birds on the face instead of numbers. The clock that chirped on the hour, much to the amusement of her mother . . . and to her extreme annoyance.
Before she could answer, the clock struck six and chirped. When he grinned, she felt her cheeks heat. Wished she was absolutely anywhere else but here, with him. Alone together in the store.
Ben Knox bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
It wasn’t because of the clock—his Aunt Beth had a large collection of hand-painted birdhouses on a shelf in her kitchen. He was used to such silly items.
No, what had him tempted to laugh was the girl standing across from him. Standing as stiff and looking as ruffled as the clock’s fierce mother sparrow painted where the number three would be.
But that was where the similarities ended. Judith Graber was far from being just a difficult, fussy girl, and she was not drab at all. No, her bright blue eyes and lovely light brown hair with its streaks of auburn caught his eye like little else.
He found her exasperation with him amusing. And very little had amused him in a long time.
“I guess the cardinal’s trill is my signal to leave?”
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 11:26 PM
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
WACO, TEXAS, 1858
That one right there—he’s your mark.”
Annie Sheffield slipped past her daddy and peeked around the corner of the building. A handsome youth with wheat-colored hair stood in the dirt road in front of the mercantile, a shiny pocket watch dangling from his fingers on a silver chain. Annie squinted when a shaft of light reflected off the watch, and she blinked several times, refocusing on her prey. A much younger boy with the same color hair reached for the watch, but the other boy lifted the treasure higher to safety.
The older boy’s look was stern but gentle. “No, Timothy. Remember this watch was Grandpa’s. It’s very old, and we must be careful with it.”
The younger boy’s face scrunched up but he nodded. Then the comely youth bent down and allowed Timothy to hold the shiny watch for a moment before he closed it and put it back in a small bag, a proud smile on his handsome face.
Ducking back into the alley, Annie leaned against the wall in the early evening shadows. She glanced at her daddy. “Do I have to?”
“You wanna eat, don’tcha? We need that watch.”
“But that boy looks so proud of it.”
Her father narrowed his gray eyes. “I’d be proud if’n it was mine.”
Annie sighed. If her father possessed the watch, he’d just go hock it or gamble it away.
“Go on with ya.” He flicked his thin index finger in the air, pointing toward the street. He tugged down on the ugly orange, green, and brown plaid vest that he always wore. “Scat!”
Annie peered around the building again, taking a moment to judge how fast she’d have to run and where she could hide once she’d taken the watch. She’d come to hate being a pickpocket. Ever since she heard that street preacher several months back in Galveston hollering to a small crowd of spectators that stealing was breaking one of God’s special laws, it had nagged her worse than a swarm of mosquitoes. But she was hungry, and they had no money.
She studied the boy’s long legs. Could she outrun him? And what about his little friend?
Her daddy was an expert pickpocket. He could snitch a wallet and disappear into a crowd like a crow in a flock, but when it came to running away from a target, well, that’s where she came in.
The tall cowboy was probably only a few years older than her thirteen years. He motioned to the younger boy, and they hopped up on the boardwalk and strolled toward her, completely unaware they were being spied on. He held one hand on the younger boy’s shoulder, as if wanting to keep him close. Now that they both faced her, she could see their resemblance. They had to be brothers. The big boy glanced at his watch bag, tucked it in his vest pocket, and gave it a loving pat.
Annie jumped back. “He’s coming,” she whispered over her shoulder.
Her father scowled. “I want that watch. Go!”
He gave her a shove. She stumbled forward and turned.
The youth’s blue eyes widened. “Hey, look—”
They collided—hard. Annie was knocked backwards, arms pumping, and her cap flew off. The youth grabbed her shoulders, and in a quick, smooth move that had taken Annie her whole life to master, she slipped his watch from his pocket and into hers. She ducked her head and stepped back. “Sorry, mister.”
Her apology was more for stealing his treasure than crashing into him. She spun around and ran, hating the baggy trousers her father made her wear so she’d look like a boy. Hating the life she was forced to live. Hating that the handsome youth would hate her. She ran past a bank and a dress shop, then ducked down another alley. Behind the building she turned right instead of going left and back toward her daddy. Right now she didn’t want to see him.
“Hey! Come back here, you thief!”
Annie’s heart lurched, and she switched from trot to gallop. She could no longer see the watch’s owner, but she knew it was him hollering. Bumping into that young man had flustered her. She hadn’t expected him to be so solid for a youth not even full grown yet. Men grew taller and tougher here in Texas than in the other cities of the South where she’d mostly grown up—a different city every few weeks. A thief wasn’t welcome in town for long.
Loud footsteps pounded behind her. She ducked under a wagon that sat behind the smithy, rolled, and dove into the open doorway. She crawled into the shadows of the building and curled up behind a barrel that had oats scattered on the ground around it. She took several gasps of air and listened for footsteps. The watch pressed hard against her hipbone, causing her guilt to mount. A horse in a nearby stall snorted and pawed the ground. Annie’s heartbeat thundered in her ears as she listened for her pursuer’s footsteps. Would he thrash her if he found her?
She peeked around the barrel. The tall boy stood in the doorway, looking around. She shrank back into the shadows like a rat—like the vermin she was.
After a moment, he spun around and quick steps took him away. Annie leaned against the wall, hating herself all over. Why couldn’t she have been born into a nice family who lived in a big house? She’d even be happy with a small house, if she could have regular meals, wash up every week or so, and wear a dress like other girls.
But no, she had to be born the daughter of a master pickpocket.
The blacksmith—redheaded, with huge shoulders and chest—plodded over to a shelf directly across from her, pulled something off it, then returned to the front of the building. He pounded his hammer, making a rhythmic ching.
What would he do if he found her hiding in his building? Would he pummel her like he did that horseshoe? He’d have to catch her first, and surely a man that muscled couldn’t run very fast. And if she was anything at all, she was fast.
Annie yawned and glanced at the door. Was it safe to leave yet?
Nah. She’d better wait until dark. Her stomach gurgled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten since early this morning, when her pa stole a loaf of bread right off someone’s table. The family had been out in the barn, doing chores, and he’d walked right in as if he owned the place. He’d laughed when he told her that the only person who saw him was a baby in her cradle—and she wasn’t tattling.
The sweet scent of fresh straw and leather blended with the odor of horses and manure. Annie leaned back against the wall, wincing when it creaked, then closed her eyes. She was so tired of her life. Of moving from place to place. If only her daddy could get a real job and they could live in a real house. . . .
Riley chased the boy, running until his side ached, but the little thief had disappeared. He bent and rested his hands on his knees, breathing hard as he watched the street for any sign of the pickpocket. Few people were on the streets of Waco this late. Most businesses had closed before suppertime, except the saloons. The lively tune of a piano did nothing to soothe his anger. How could he have not noticed that thief had slid his grandpa’s watch right out of his pocket?
Movement drew his attention to a couple strolling arm-in-arm on the far side of Main Street. Maybe he should ask if they had seen the pint-sized robber, but then they only seemed to be looking at each other. Riley glanced toward the boardinghouse where his family’s wagon was parked. They’d stay there tonight, then travel to their new ranch, a few miles outside of town, along a river called the South Bosque.
Riley heaved a sigh and shoved his hands into his pockets. He studied the small town that sat all cozied up to the Brazos River. He hadn’t wanted to come here in the first place—and neither had his mother. Their old farm had been perfectly fine, but his father said there were new opportunities in Waco and inexpensive land, too. Riley scowled and blew a heavy breath out his nose. He hadn’t wanted to leave his friends, especially Adrian Massey, a pretty neighbor girl he planned on courting once he was a few years older. He hoped that she would follow through and write to him as she promised.
His mother’s tears hadn’t swayed his father, though they made Riley’s heart ache. She wanted to go back to Victoria where her family and the rest of the Morgans lived. But not Pa. He loved his siblings, but he had a need to be independent, to play a part in developing Texas—and now they were even farther away.
At least his pa had pacified his ma by taking her for a visit back with her family and then on to the ranch where the Morgans had been raised, so they could see his aunt and attend her wedding. Talking with his aunt Billie about her time as a captive with the Comanche had been the most interesting part of the trip—that, and seeing the beautiful Morgan horses his uncle Jud raised. At least he could look forward to the delivery of the dozen broodmares and the young stallion his pa bought.
Staring down the street, he watched his pa take a small box off the wagon and hand it to Timothy. Riley winced, as the realization hit that he’d run off and left his little brother. Pa slowly turned in a circle, looking all around. Riley ducked into the alley. He couldn’t head back without searching for that thief again. The boy had to be here somewhere, because the town wasn’t all that big.
He ran his fingers through his hair, dreading seeing his father’s disappointment. Riley had overheard his pa’s initial objection to giving him the watch when Uncle Jud had suggested it—said that he wasn’t responsible enough to have something so valuable to the family. Riley kicked a rock and sent it rolling. Why didn’t his pa have more faith in him? Gritting his teeth, he had to admit he’d been right—at least in this instance. He raked his fingers through his hair and gazed down the alley, realizing that somewhere along the way he’d lost his hat too.
Half an hour later, as the sun ducked behind the horizon and cast a pink glow on the clouds, Riley headed back to the boardinghouse. Maybe if he were lucky, Timothy hadn’t tattled about him losing the watch. But as much as he loved his younger brother, he knew the truth. Pa would be waiting, and he would insist on hearing the whole story. And once again, his pa would be disappointed.
A horse’s whinny startled Annie and she jerked awake. During the night, she’d huddled up in a ball to stay warm and must have pulled hay over her from the empty stall on her left. She yawned and stretched, her empty belly growling its complaint. Bright shafts of sunlight drifted through the cracks on the eastern wall, and dust motes as thick as snow floated in the air. The front door creaked open. She jumped, then ducked back behind the barrel and peered over it. Chilly air seeped through the cracks in the walls, making her wish for her blanket. She wrapped her arms tight across her chest.
Her daddy would be so mad that she’d disappeared all night.
At least this town—Waco, he had called it—was small enough she shouldn’t have trouble finding him. The blacksmith plodded through the building and opened the back door, letting in a blast of cold air. Annie waited a few minutes while he fed the five horses, then grabbed a bucket and headed out the back door. She tiptoed to the opening and peered outside. The large man walked toward the river then bent down, lowering the pail into the water. Annie spun around and raced to the front door, peeked out, then dashed down the street and into the first alley she came to. Would her daddy be upset with her for being gone so long? Would he wallop her? Keeping as close to the buildings as possible, she hurried back to the spot she’d last seen him.
Three long days later, Annie nibbled on the moldy bread crust she’d dug out of someone’s trash heap and gazed out over the small town from the tree she had climbed. Her pa had up and left her—as he’d threatened on so many occasions when she hadn’t returned to their meeting spot with enough stolen goods.
She watched people coming and going, doing their Saturday shopping. Mamas held the hands of their youngsters and stood chatting with other women or walking between shops. Men compared horses, checking their hooves and sometimes their teeth. And the girls all wore dresses—some prettier than others—but dresses all the same. Her eyes stung. One man swung his daughter up in his arms, and even from so far away, Annie could see her smile. She rubbed her burning eyes. Her daddy wasn’t much of a family, but he was better than none at all—most of the time, anyway.
She swung on a nearby branch and dropped to the ground. With so many folks around, she should blend in. Hurrying past the livery and several other buildings, she stopped only to dip her hand in the horse trough for a quick drink, then continued to the far end of Waco. The house she aimed for sat a short ways out of town. She’d been there the past two days, drawn by the delicious aroma of baking bread and the children’s happy squeals.
Squatting down next to a sparse shrub, she peered through the wooden fence at the house she’d dreamed about—the one she longed to live in. Two stories, white with a dark roof, half a dozen rocking chairs on the porch, and even a few flowers out front, in spite of the chill that still lingered at night.
The children, all younger than she was, were an oddity, though. They walked around, holding their hands out in front of them, feeling their way along knotted ropes that lined the path. She decided they must be blind, just like some of the beggars she’d seen in New Orleans.
But these children wore nice clothes without ragged hems and torn sleeves, and their cheeks were rosy, and smiles lit the faces of most of them. Annie shook her head. What kind of person was she to be jealous of the blind?
The youngsters felt their way to the far side of the house, and Annie stooped down and ran around back. The odor of something delicious wafted out the back door. Someone inside banged cooking pots.
Annie hunkered down behind a rain barrel. A barn sat a short ways behind the house. Maybe she could sleep there tonight.
The back door opened, and a pretty woman who reminded Annie of her mama glided down the steps in a bright blue dress. Her yellow hair was piled up on the back of her head. Annie tugged at her short, plain brown hair. It had never been long enough to put up like that—not after her pa hacked it away with his knife. Besides, she wouldn’t know how to fix it anyway.
Fragrant odors drifted toward Annie. Her stomach moaned a long complaint.
The woman clapped her hands. “Children, time for lunch.”
As one, the youngsters turned toward her voice, carefully feeling their way toward her. Would anyone notice if she sneaked inside with them?
She glanced down at her dirty hands and fingernails. Her pants stunk, and her head itched. Maybe those kids couldn’t see her, but they sure would be able to smell her.
The idea she’d been chewing on for two days sounded better and better. Those children had everything she wanted—they were clean, had decent clothes, ate regular meals, and lived in the house she wanted.
Come morning, she’d be sitting on the front porch. And if she had to pretend to be a blind orphan in order to be taken in—so be it.
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 1:35 AM
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Abby Fraser gripped the railing of the New Delhi and lifted her chin to defy the solitary expanse of sea. She refused to believe a wife needed an invitation to join her husband. The war was over at last. Nick and she were married, and it was about time he remembered that.
One of the Queen Alexandra nurses escorting the Indian troops home stood beside Abby. With a rustle of starched cotton, Laine Harkness leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Why do you look like you’re headed for the Black Hole of Calcutta and not about to have a passionate reunion with the love of your life?”
Abby ran a hand down her linen skirt and watched the blue line of shore draw closer. What could she possibly say? Instead of replying she cuddled her little son, Cam, nearer to her side. In less than an hour he’d meet his father for the first time. Had she been foolish not to wait for an answer from Nick? So few letters from him in four years.
“I know you’re American,” Laine went on, “but I assure you, the only thing to be afraid of in this part of the British Empire is the wife of your husband’s commanding officer.” She shuddered with drama and grinned maliciously. “Once you’re settled in your shady little army cantonment, the old battle-axe will whip you into shape in no time. Then you’ll be quite the proper memsahib. It’s them that run the colony for us Brits. Don’t you think for a minute it’s the Viceroy or our army—it’s the average colonel’s wife.”
Abby crinkled her nose as she smiled. “You win. Is this better?”
“Much better. You were altogether too peaked for meeting your handsome lieutenant.”
The New Delhisliced her way through the narrows of Kolaba Point, and the familiar scent of Bombay reached out to Abby. Laine was right. No sense worrying. Tucking a strand of hair into her chignon, she savored a tantalizing whiff of overripe fruit, roses, marigolds and cloves, mingled with the acrid smell of dust. She lifted Cam up and snuggled her face into his neck, but he wiggled in her arms. At three years old he was heavy, much too big to be carried.
On the deck below, Indian soldiers stood with their British officers waiting to disembark. Yanking on her arm, Cam laughed and pointed to the tugboat pushing the ship into her berth, and Abby laughed with him. She felt six years old again. Like the troops, she was home. So close. In a few minutes she could touch her birthplace, so much brighter and warmer than Aunt Doreen’s dismal mansion in upstate New York or her father’s retirement manor in the Yorkshire Dales.
As soon as the liner stopped, it was as though an oven door dropped open, and hot air rushed in. On the quay, a kaleidoscope of color and humanity dazzled Abby’s eyes—Hindu women in saris of every hue, hot pinks, ochre yellows, lime greens. Parsee women wore their skirts of equally brilliant shades, their black hair ornamented with lace and gold. People balanced immense bundles on their heads. Bengali clerks rushed here and there, wearing yards of white muslin and Hindu caps, while other men wore turbans or solar topis. On the dock, uniformed soldiers joined the throng. So many people. She’d forgotten that claustrophobic feeling, the teeming press of millions. But she loved it all.
She hugged Cam and scanned the crowds of people on the quayside for Nick’s lean face and startling blue eyes. He’d be down there waiting for her, wouldn’t he? Her gaze stopped.
There he was. Her pulse pounded.
A tall soldier wearing his tan uniform, epaulets at his shoulder, his cap on his head, peered upwards at the passengers lining the ship’s railing. She could barely catch her breath as she waved. Cam, not seeing who she waved at, threw out his small hand, pumped it up and down, and laughed.
Nick looked up and waved. Her wide smile dimmed, and her hand went still. It wasn’t Nick. Someone farther along the ship’s railing sent an answering wave to the stranger on the quay.
Abby steadied her breath and swung her gaze over the crowd. Where was he? In addition to her letter announcing she was coming, she’d telegrammed Nick with her itinerary before she left Southampton. She’d sent another telegram and checked twice with the purser when they stopped at the Port of Aden days ago, and still there’d been no message from him.
“See you soon . . . goodbye . . . Christmas . . . take care of yourself,” the nurses said between hugs as they crowded toward the gangway. But Laine remained at Abby’s side.
“Please, Laine, go with the others. You’ve been wonderful, but Nick will be here.”
“You don’t know that for sure.” Laine’s practiced look was that of a nurse hating to give bad news. “You can’t fool me with that Yankee stoicism of yours. The whole voyage out, you’ve tried to hide your concerns.”
“Oh, all right.” Laine grew gruff as she relented, tucking a dark strand of hair under her nursing veil. “I’m always sticking my nose in where I shouldn’t. Occupational hazard.”
Abby took Laine’s arm and shook it. “Don’t be silly. I don’t know what I’d have done those first days of the voyage if you hadn’t taken pity on me till I got my sea legs. We’ll see each other on the train later anyway.” She gave the nursing matron a firm hug.
Laine joined the nurses, but Abby didn’t watch them leave the ship. She arched her neck to look into the sea of faces below. Sunlight glinted off the tin roofs at the quay and bounced off the ground. She squinted like a cat soaking up its rays and, taking a deep breath, moved toward the gangway.
A half hour later she carried Cam on her hip and walked out of the blistering customs shed. A hired bearer followed with their baggage.
The warm breeze loosened tendrils of hair at the base of her neck, and she blew from the side of her mouth to free a strand clinging to her cheek. Too bad she couldn’t tie it back in a plait like she used to. But as the wife of a British officer the time had come for chignons, silk stockings, and serving tea with cucumber sandwiches in flower-laden gardens. Time at last to be a proper memsahib. Her insides skittered. Time at last to be a wife.
Please, Nick, where are you?
The crowd thinned, and her fixed smile began to slip. She kissed Cam on his grime-streaked cheek. Her little boy made up for everything. He had Nick’s deep blue eyes, the right one slightly more narrow than the left so it always seemed one side of his face grinned in mischief. Without the help of the single photograph she had of her husband she doubted she’d have remembered his features. The echo of his voice faded long ago. Had that happened during the first year of the war? Or the second? But they’d only known each other those few weeks in England before he’d shipped out to India.
Coldness seeped into her veins. Was it possible she’d disappeared from Nick’s thoughts? She roused herself. If that indeed had happened, she’d fight it. She’d win back their brief flash of love and turn it into something to last a lifetime.
“Won’t be long, honey,” she said to Cam, more to bolster herself. Nick would be here. Of course he would.
“I’m thirsty, Mama.” Cam fussed, but she didn’t have the heart to scold him.
Over his complaints came the reed-like notes of a lute, the backdrop to thousands of voices, calling out, bartering, chattering. Overlaying the odor of burning cow dung patties hung the pungency of blossoms. Dust and spices clouded the air. Horns beeped and trolley cars rattled past. Wooden axles on bullock carts squeaked, counterbalanced by the tinkling of bells. It all smelled and sounded like home, except there was no sign of her husband.
“Mrs. Abigail Fraser,” boomed a voice with a Cockney accent. “Paging Mrs. Abigail Fraser.”
Abby whirled around to wave to a burly English sergeant.
The soldier presented her with a telegram. “Here you are, madam. May I hold the boy for you?”
Entranced by the soldier’s uniform, Cam went to him willingly while she held the envelope for a long moment before tearing it open to read:
Sorry STOP Away on Business STOP Meet your train in Amritsar STOP Nick STOP
All noise ceased and a buzzing filled her head, leaving her only marginally aware of the sergeant returning Cam to her arms and leaving. She blinked and raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sharp colors and white sunshine.
The last of the passengers moved away, and a swarm of children with extended bellies called out to her, “Maa maa, maa maa,” all stretching out small hands to grab her skirt.
“I’m sorry.” She gave them a few annas from her bag. “I’m sorry I don’t have any more.” She wasn’t sure if the moisture blurring her eyes was for Nick not meeting them or for these poor children as young as Cam begging for their food. Most of the children wandered off when the coins were gone, but a few stayed at her knee gazing up at her. A lump grew in Abby’s throat as she caressed one little girl’s head, but even this tiny one fled when a stench came close, gagging Abby.
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 11:05 PM
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Colm Francis Magee had died seven times before his seventh birthday. Cardiac arrest. Not to be mistaken for a heart attack in which clogged arteries prevent blood from reaching the heart and then the muscle withers. There was nothing wrong with Colm’s strength of heart. No, Colm Francis Magee’s heart simply and inexplicably stopped beating at the most inopportune moments.
The first time it had happened he was an infant. He was sitting up in the bathtub while his young mother gripped his arms as he kicked and splashed water into her smiling face. His auburn hair was wet and formed a crown around his head as he gazed at his adoring mama. His green eyes gleamed, wide with pride and wonder at what he could do with his tiny feet.
“That’s a boy. That’s my good boy. You’re gonna swim the Hudson. Swim for your mama.” When Cathleen cooed at him, she used her Irish mother’s nonsense-sounding baby-speak, a mixture of brogue and Brooklyn. She scooped the warm, cloudy water in her hand and poured it gently over the boy’s head, careful to keep soap from running in his eyes. His body relaxed and slowed with each pour, and so did her own.
When she first arrived home from work to feed, bathe, and put Colm to bed, she still carried the stress and anxiety of her day. She could feel it rise through her shoulders and neck, where it settled with an excruciating pressure in her temples. But as each moment passed while bathing the boy, her eyes brightened and her limbs loosened as a smile spread across her entire face.
Every morning had been the same for the past six months. She woke up tired at five a.m. a moment before Colm did and, out of lifelong habit, she said a quiet Hail Mary to herself before getting out of bed. Though her body needed sleep, it seemed to defy its own biology for the sake of another’s. Their bodies seemed to be in perfect tune; even his hunger brought her pain. Rising out of the bed slowly, she wondered about the odd evolutionary design of mother and child. It’s one thing to feel my own pain, but to physically feel it for my own child? She was at once grateful for and confounded by this phenomenon. And as she thought this she said her own version of a made-up prayer, From the beginning of time it has been the same. Every mother knows exactly what her child needs. And every child is dependent on that knowledge. May I always know what to do.
She concluded her silent prayer and, with an audible Amen, walked over to Colm’s crib and found him looking at her as if he had been waiting all night for her to come and get him. She lifted him before he even had a chance to let out his first sound and carried him over to her mother’s rocking chair from the old country, which she had set facing the window. The dawn always lightened the room just enough so that as Cathleen looked at Colm, he seemed to her to glow from within. As he drank from her, she rubbed his head softly and felt the folds of his fat thighs rippling around the edges of his diaper. Every day he seemed longer, larger, more ungainly.
Then, after taking more than his small stomach could handle, he’d pull himself away from her. He would do it so quickly that the release of the suction sent a surge of pain throughout her entire body. Before she had a second to shout out in pain, she would curse herself for lingering too long. She always gave him more than he needed, and she always paid the price. So much for knowing what to do.
Every day the same routine played out. Running late, she set Colm down in his bouncy chair and got ready for work before lugging the boy and his gear out onto the busy street. From the time they left the apartment, she was on a mission. She worked up such a sweat pushing the stroller that by the time she reached his day care, her freshly pressed blouse revealed sweat rings under her arms and down the center of her back. Once there, she set Colm down again and only had a couple of minutes to chat with his caretaker and kiss him good-bye before she dashed out the door and hustled to catch the subway to Midtown, where she began her daily duties as an office assistant.
While waiting at Starbucks to place her coworkers’ usual orders, she watched through the window as her bosses and peers arrived with designer handbags and expensive haircuts. She would never know what it would be like to be one of them—to live a single life without a child, let alone to build a career of her own making. Somewhere deep inside she also knew that married life and all that came with it was just another pipe dream for her. Dreams were like prayers, she thought. They brought comfort and moments of serenity, but in the end one couldn’t expect much of them. So Cathleen, like her mother before her, who had spent her life in the service of God and her children, did whatever she could to get by. Still, she never escaped the nagging feeling that in another time, in another place, in another world, she might have been able to realize her hopes for herself and her son.
Contrary to Cathleen’s constant state of concern, Colm was thriving. When Cathleen picked him up every evening, he always greeted her with an openmouthed smile. She often asked his teachers if he did OK without her. Did he cry or seem to miss her? They always responded the same way: “Nope. Not once. He’s a happy little guy.”
He seems to do just fine without you.
She knew she should be relieved he was doing so well, but it always hurt to hear. I’m so desperate and needy, she reprimanded herself. And then she would force herself to be grateful that Colm seemed no worse for wear.
Colm was a special sort of child. She even knew it from the night he was born, when she had asked the nurse to put him in bed with her so she could cut the loneliness in the room with no husband. She knew right then and there she would do anything for him. And then it happened. The moment everything changed. She thought it was an aberration at first, some sort of trick of her own eye or that she must be hearing things, but it was no such thing. Colm laughed. He laughed a small, almost silent laugh in his sleep. She stayed up all night—waiting for it— and he rewarded her for her vigilance again and again. There she sat in wonder, watching his slanted eyes, his two pronounced dimples, and his round toothless grin as he chuckled to himself in his sleep.
She had hoped to turn around and to share the miracle with someone. Did you see that? Did you see him smile? But there was no one there to hear her and no one to see him smile then or thereafter. His father was long gone by then. She had thought of reaching for the phone, pulling out the number scribbled on a piece of paper, and begging him to come back. But she knew he wouldn’t come, so she never made the call. Instead she lay in the quiet hospital room alone with her son.
There was no one in the bathroom with Cathleen either the day six-month-old Colm finished his imaginary swim down the Hudson and looked at his mother before his eyes rolled back into his head as he blacked out, slamming his head on the porcelain tub.
Cathleen ran with him to her bed where she felt for his pulse. Nothing. Panic filled her neck and face with a hot searing burn. She dialed 911 and yelled her address into it.
“Hurry, my baby isn’t breathing.”
Colm lay on the bed. She watched as his lips and nose and fingers turned blue, and his cheeks went from pink to gray. He made no sound. She could, for the first time since before she gave birth to him, hear only her own breathing in the room. She howled a deep guttural moan, the same sound she had heard once before as she pushed Colm out of her and into the world.
Without another thought, she grabbed Colm from the bed and held him close, pushing him to her breast as if forcing him back into her own body, as if she could start it all over, redo the past six months, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, and rewind all the way to the beginning to start over. And stop it.
She held him tightly as she rushed down the hall and down the stairs, where she heard the first faint sound of the ambulance on its way. When the paramedics arrived, she was already waiting for them on the sidewalk. Her gray work slacks and white shirt were drenched with bathwater, and she stood alone holding Colm, still naked in her arms.
Colm Francis Magee died his first godless death at seven in the evening on a Tuesday in June. His mother would find it hard to ever forgive him.
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 11:24 PM