A haunting tale of love, loss, and redemption.
“Markert's latest supernatural novel is captivating from the beginning… Readers of Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker will love Markert's newest release.” - 4 STARS, RT Book Reviews
In the wake of World War I in the small, Southern town of Bellhaven, South Carolina, the town folk believe they’ve found a little slice of heaven in a mysterious chapel in the woods. But they soon realize that evil can come in the most beautiful of forms.
The people of Bellhaven have always looked to Ellsworth Newberry for guidance, but after losing his wife and his future as a professional pitcher, he is moments away from testing his mortality once and for all. Until he finally takes notice of the changes in his town . . . and the cardinals that have returned.
Upon the discovery of a small chapel deep in the Bellhaven woods, healing seems to fall upon the townspeople, bringing peace after several years of mourning. But as they visit the “healing floor” more frequently, the people begin to turn on one another, and the unusually tolerant town becomes anything but.
The cracks between the natural and supernatural begin to widen, and tensions rise. Before the town crumbles, Ellsworth must pull himself from the brink of suicide, overcome his demons, and face the truth of who he was born to be by leading the town into the woods to face the evil threatening Bellhaven.
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
James Markert lives with his wife and two children in Louisville, Kentucky. He has a history degree from the University of Louisville and won an IPPY Award for The Requiem Rose, which was later published as A White Wind Blew, a story of redemption in a 1929 tuberculosis sanatorium, where a faith-tested doctor uses music therapy to heal the patients. James is also a USPTA tennis pro and has coached dozens of kids who’ve gone on to play college tennis in top conferences like the Big 10, the Big East, and the ACC. Learn more at JamesMarkert.com; Facebook: James Markert; Twitter: @JamesMarkert.
Read an Excerpt
Bellhaven, South Carolina
It was as good a day to die as any.
But first, Ellsworth Newberry would have his morning cup of joe.
He poured it from a dented pot, inhaled the earthy roast, and swirled in a finger's worth of medicinal whiskey. He'd begun stashing liquor the day the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified — a good year before Prohibition actually began — but as long as Dr. Philpot continued writing scrips for his bum leg, there was no reason to start using his stash of Old Sam. Whoever found his body could have what he'd hoarded.
He braced himself against the stove and took a step on his new wooden leg — a so-called Hanger limb, named after the man who'd designed it. If ol' Hanger had any sense, he'd have made it so the knee would bend. Leather attachments connected the leg to the stump above where his left knee used to be, and the leather pads on the heel and ball of the foot were prone to make him trip. "You'll need those pads for traction," the military doc had said.
Soon won't be needing the leg for anything.
Ellsworth used his cane into the living room, where his chair waited by the bay window. He dropped down on the wooden seat and unholstered the Smith & Wesson on the window ledge next to last night's dinner plate. Remnants of beef stew had hardened around the edges. He nudged the plate aside to make room for his coffee mug and then watched out the window.
Across the road, the façade of the town hall lay in rubble. Built by his late father, the building had once been the focal point of the town square, with sash windows and tall brick walls painted blue, eaves trimmed white to match the wraparound veranda that enclosed it all like a warm hug. Now the interior walls were visible, flame-scorched from the fire that had killed Bellhaven's soul and Ellsworth's wife.
The avenue of oaks was still there, though. Eliza once thought them magical — the way the Spanish moss draped their sprawling limbs, swaying in the coastal breeze and shimmering silver in sun- light. The live oaks overhung the road into town like a vault, evenly spaced on both sides for more than a hundred yards.
"It's like a perfect tunnel," Eliza had said on their wedding day, nestling the top of her head into the pocket of Ellsworth's shoulder as he steered their new Model T over the bumpy gravel. "Like driving under a dream."
What was it he'd said in response? "I reckon so ..."
She'd glanced at him before repositioning her head against his shoulder; a flicker of disappointment in those blue eyes. Breeze from the open windows moved strands of auburn hair against his cheek. Sometimes he could still feel the tickle.
Ellsworth moved hair that wasn't there, wishing now he'd said something different back then, something less dismissive than "I reckon so." But the truth was he'd been distracted by the rose-blossom scent of her hair, the puttering of the car engine, and the mockingbird trying to keep pace next to his window. That brief look she'd given him had been the first sign of her melancholy — what many in town referred to as her madness.
Instead of her smile he now saw chiggers and rat snakes. Boll weevils munching through cotton scabs. A long-abandoned town hall where 'coons lived in the attic, bats hung from rafters, and egret droppings covered the floorboards. Sea breezes passed through the broken windows like nothing of import had ever transpired in there — no festivals or potlucks, holiday gatherings or birthday parties, talent shows or theatrical plays. The music and singing had been something of wonder. Without it the town's heart thumped slowly and without much purpose.
Stacks of dirty plates rested beside his chair. No point cleaning them up now. No point grooming himself either. At twenty-two, his chestnut hair already had flecks of gray around the ears. The war had brought deep creases to an already rugged face, a bleakness to his blue eyes, and he swore now that Anna Belle Roper was trying to make him fat on top of it all.
Ellsworth's coffee was scalding, but he sipped it no matter. He didn't have time to let it cool. He had to get his business done before Anna Belle arrived with breakfast.
The coffee burned a trail down his throat. Steam opened his eyes and cleared his muddled head. He hadn't had a full night sleep since his return ten months ago, not with how the carnage flashed back every time he closed his eyes. Better off not sleeping, he'd tell himself nightly. Better off not living at all.
They'd been in such a hurry to fight the war President Wilson declared that they'd never stopped to think of why. Ellsworth thought maybe killing Krauts would help him grieve Eliza. Calvin and Alfred signed up because Ellsworth did. A mortar shell blew Ellsworth's left leg to bits during the battle of Château-Thierry. Calvin never made it through the first American offensive. Alfred returned blind from mustard gas, and his insomnia had left him jingle-brained.
Alfred sat now on a bench in the shadows of the town hall, in full army gear minus the dented helmet, feeding bread chunks to squirrels he couldn't see. Probably already thinking of wandering over to share a cup. He visited daily, as did half the town, it seemed. Like it was their mission to get Ellsworth out of the house and back into Bellhaven's trickling bloodstream.
Why can't they leave me be?
Ellsworth finished his coffee, hurried through a cigarette, and squashed the butt into the window ledge next to his revolver. He braced his hands on the chair arms and stood, wincing at the sharp pain that resonated where nub touched prosthesis.
He grabbed his Smith & Wesson from the window ledge. It was fully loaded with .45-caliber bullets. He slid the barrel into his mouth, and it clicked against his teeth. He wondered if Alfred across the road would hear the gunshot and run blindly to help. Hopefully somebody would hear and come find him before Anna Belle came with breakfast. Maybe that crotchety Old Man Tanner across the road. He was just mean enough to deserve cleaning up the mess. And that way Anna Belle wouldn't have to do it.
Ellsworth pushed the barrel in too far and gagged, tasted metal against his tongue. He pinched his eyes closed, but thoughts of Eliza flashed. In the days before the fire, she'd seemed more at peace than he'd seen her in years, certainly since their first baby came out stillborn.
"I talked with him, Ellsworth. Our son. Erik. I knelt upon the healing floor."
Ellsworth had felt uncomfortable naming a baby that never once breathed on his own. But they'd done it anyway, for Eliza's sake.
Till death do us part, Eliza. And brings us back together again.
Ellsworth reapplied pressure on the trigger. Would one bullet even do the trick?
Something thumped against the window. He opened his eyes.
A cardinal bird fluttered outside the glass. An olive-gray female with a prominently raised red-tinged crest and a stark orange beak. It settled on the windowsill, stared at him.
He watched the cardinal right back, watched it until his finger eased and he'd moved the barrel out enough to take a deep swallow. No other sign could have coaxed that gun from his mouth. He low- ered the revolver to his side, and his heart rate slowed.
Tears welled in his eyes.
The cardinal flew away.
Across the street, Anna Belle Roper's front door opened. She walked toward his house with a towel-covered plate of breakfast.
Too late now. Shouldn't have hesitated.
Ellsworth plopped back down on his chair and placed the gun on the window ledge, resigned to another day of living.
He sighed. "Hope she fried bacon."
Anna Belle was pretty as a sunrise and always dressed to the nines.
She'd been his first kiss at twelve, planting one on him while they waded in the Atlantic. "Just so I could say one day we did, Ellsworth." They'd all known she'd marry Calvin anyway. Now every morning Ellsworth battled the need to tell her about Cantigny, that small French village where Calvin was shot dead. About how he'd cradled her husband's head in his lap while he bled out from the throat wound. But every time he started, he'd choke up.
Today she wore a white sweater over a pink blouse, her strawberry-blond hair pinned up in a bundle atop her head. Her beige skirt hugged her hips and narrowed at the ankles, a soft silhouette of curves he tried not to notice when she placed the steaming plate of food on the window ledge. Bacon, fried potatoes, and two eggs over easy — just the way he liked them.
Anna Belle smiled, waited for a response.
He jerked her a nod. Lately he'd taken to staring at the floor-boards rather than meeting the walnut brown of her eyes. I held him in my lap, Anna Belle. I couldn't stop the bleeding. Any more than a nod would lead to conversation and, looks aside, Anna Belle talked too much. Never could leave quiet alone.
The rest of the town might visit, but they wouldn't stay. Ever since the night Eliza died in the fire — and with what Ellsworth had done to the Klansman after — they'd all acted a pinch leery of him, despite their innate fondness. But Anna Belle was the opposite. She brought Ellsworth breakfast and dinner every day, along with the newspaper from his porch.
He needed that daily paper even more than his morning coffee. He'd returned from war a month before Alfred and two months before his other pal, Omar, fearing more, daily, that both had died as Calvin had. He'd become obsessed with checking the news every day, even after both men had returned, each damaged in his own right.
But today Anna Belle backed away from his chair, the folded newspaper still in her grip. She didn't leave it next to his plate like usual.
"Why do you have the gun out, Ellsworth?"
"Might be Krauts in the woods, Anna Belle."
She grinned. Earlier, she'd knocked for two minutes before finally letting herself in his house. "A gentleman would get out of the chair and open the door for a woman."
"A wiser woman would catch a hint."
She huffed, looked at the gun. "So why didn't you shoot me for intruding?"
He slid a crisp bacon slice into his mouth. "This some kind of interview?"
She began stacking all the dirty plates he'd left around the chair.
"What are you doing?"
"Eat," she said. "I'll clean these, and then we can have more conversation."
"That what this is?" he mumbled, pulling the plate to his lap. The food was delicious. The potatoes were crisp. Eggs slid down like the grease they'd been fried in. He soaked the last piece of bacon in the remaining yolk and listened to Anna Belle clank dishes in the kitchen.
The sound of it brought back the urge to shoot himself. He and Eliza used to do the dishes together. She'd wash and he'd rinse. "It begins with you in their arms and ends with your arms in the sink." If she'd said it once, she'd said it a hundred times.
Anna Belle returned and sat in a chair opposite his. "So?"
"You've got to get out of this house at some point."
"To learn to walk again, for one."
"I walk fine."
"I haven't seen it."
"You don't see me using this chair as a privy, do you?"
She thought on it. "Then let's go for one."
"A walk, Ellsworth. It's a lovely day."
He grunted, kept his eyes on the street outside. She was relentless. She asked, "Do you have a nest egg I don't know about?"
"If I do it's none of your business."
"You'll need a job. There's still houses in need of painting about town, and your hands work fine."
He laughed, a quick burst, then poked the bottom of his clunky prosthesis into the floorboard three times. "I can't paint houses anymore."
"How about doghouses then? You wouldn't need to stand on a ladder to paint those. Or you could help Ned Gleeson paint those birdhouses he makes."
She glanced at his wooden leg, then looked away.
"I was a pitcher, Anna Belle."
For that she had no response. He had been a pitcher, one of the best South Carolina had ever seen. Before the war, the big leagues had been a certainty.
The summer after he and Eliza were married, Babe Ruth had come through Charleston between travel games to dine on fresh seafood. Ellsworth had caught wind of it and made the trip to Charleston. He'd approached the baseball star with a satchel of balls and a wooden bat and challenged him to three pitches, daring him to hit one into the harbor. Ruth took the challenge across the street at the nearby park — rolled up his sleeves and missed on three consecutive pitches. Ellsworth would later admit that Ruth had just finished his fourth pint of suds when he accepted the challenge, but he'd struck the man out no matter. When word reached the Dodgers, he felt sure his place in the minors would be assured.
Ellsworth knew that town folk whispered about the fact that now he'd never play in the big leagues like he'd dreamed. But this was the first time the tragedy had been spoken in his presence, and it felt like the air had been sucked from the room.
Anna Belle stood from the chair, opened the window. In came street noise, a subtle breeze, and the smell of blooming azaleas. "Have you noticed the hydrangeas are out? Along with the camellias?"
He'd seen it yesterday, but hadn't wanted to admit it to himself. Typically camellias flowered in winter, hydrangeas in the summer. But this spring both bloomed alongside the azaleas and the daffodils, and the magnolia trees were blooming early too. The town square was dotted with color — stunning shades of yellow and red, white and pink, blue and violet. The oddities of the Bellhaven woods; rumors sometimes breed truths of their own. But all Ellsworth said was, "What of it?"
"Just mighty peculiar is all." She watched out the window. "Pinch me, but everything is blooming at once." She breathed in the fragrant air. "Another good reason to take a walk."
Ellsworth watched Alfred feed squirrels in the distance. "Why do you care what I do?"
"Because that's what Eliza would have wanted. For you not to become a turtle."
"I can look after myself, Anna Belle."
"Like all men can?" She started away, stopped, turned back. "You know, that's what Calvin told me before he ran off and followed you to war. Alfred too. They'd follow you to hell if —"
"Don't do that, Anna Belle."
She looked down, fiddled with a button on her sweater. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. But Calvin did say that. Told me not to worry, that he'd take care of himself. Well, he didn't. And here I am a widow raising a boy that I've come to love even though he won't talk." She pointed at Ellsworth. "And you don't even have the courage to mention his name. 'The boy. That boy.' His name is Raphael, Ellsworth, not 'that boy.' So don't be cold to me. I'm doing the honorable thing for your late wife. She's the one asked me to watch over him should anything happen to her."
Anna Belle folded her arms. "Are you going to say anything?"
He grunted. "Thanks for breakfast."
She shook her head. "Sometimes I wonder if Calvin wasn't the lucky one for dying." They shared a glance. "Have you noticed the cardinals?" she asked. "They're everywhere. Saw at least a dozen on the town hall roof this morning, and the woods are singing. There was one perched on your window on my way over. Don't tell me you didn't notice it."
"I saw her."
"The cardinal. It was a female." She was luring him to the past with talk of the redbirds, but he wouldn't take the bait.
"Stop blaming him. Raphael. He's not the reason Eliza died." She turned toward the door. "I'll let myself out."
"Anna Belle, wait."
"Yes?" Her eyes lifted with hope.
Her face sagged. She stepped toward him, but then stopped and grinned. Instead of handing him the newspaper, she walked back outside with it, slamming the door.
Halfway down the walkway to the street, she stopped to look at his window to make sure he was watching.
She dropped the newspaper in the middle of the sidewalk and walked off toward home.
Ellsworth made it out of his chair twice and even got as far as opening the door the second time before deciding to leave the newspaper on the sidewalk.
If she wanted to play games, then fine. He'd once stared down Babe Ruth with a baseball bat. He could outlast Anna Belle Roper. The current events could wait until tomorrow. But what if she doesn't bring me my paper tomorrow either? Current events will soon become history. And the smell of ink had now become as much of a daily necessity as the alcohol. Never should have fretted over his pals' return in the first place. Even the survivors died over there.
He hoisted himself up from his chair for the third time to retrieve that paper.
Alfred appeared out the window, crossing the road with his right hand gripping his cane and something boxlike and clunky in the crook of his left elbow. A blind man had no business crossing the road with both hands occupied. How does Linda May let him out of the house like that?
Alfred navigated the crossing easily enough. Not too many in Bellhaven had cars yet, and it wasn't a busy thoroughfare. And the townspeople knew to look out for Alfred, who roamed the streets like a stray mutt.
Excerpted from "All Things Bright and Strange"
Copyright © 2018 James Markert.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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