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The boy woke in the dark house and knew he was alone. It was knowing this that woke him. The house was not empty, he just was alone in it. He stood and dressed and went down through the house in the dark. From the kitchen, he could see the lantern light past the overgrown pasture beyond the barn. He took his jacket from the peg and held the door to settle it back into the frame without noise. Under the big hemlocks and tamaracks surrounding the house, he crossed the soft dirt track of the drive and stepped into the tangle of sumac and blackberries and young popples, keeping a clump of sumac between him and the light. He was not afraid of the dark. He was afraid of being in the house. The lantern sat on an upturned stone. His father was digging with a spade in the woods floor, piling the soil he lifted onto a canvas tarp laid next to the hole he was making. The boy heard the soft noise of dirt slipping off the spade. The hole was round, not wide but deep. His father worked carefully, prying free stones, small rocks, with the tip of the blade. When the handle disappeared halfway into the ground his father stopped, set down the spade and from the edge of the tarp took up one of three coffee cans and got down on his knees to position it in the bottom of the hole. Still on his knees, he packed handfuls of dirt around the can and only when it was covered did he rise to finish the job. He worked slowly, transferring the soil from the tarp back to the hole. When he was done, he tamped the soil with the flat of the blade, the sound gentle blows in the night. He set aside the spade and shook the tarp for the last traces of dirt and then took up a metal-tined rake andpulled the leaves and understory trash back over the hole, raking back and forth until he was satisfied with his job. Then he moved a short distance in the woods, the boy moving with him, a soft unwatched dance within the thicket. He watched as his father dug another hole, the same careful job as the first, another small grave for a coffee can. And when this was done, they both moved again and one more hole was dug and filled and finished, covered over, hidden. When his father was done, he sat on a stone, lighted a cigarette and smoked it. The boy watched, knowing he had to get back to the house before his father but only wanting enough time and no more. The cigarette tip made an orange flare in the dark as his father inhaled and the release of smoke from his lungs would come float through the brush where the boy stood and he'd breathe in all he could-as if it were his father's presence. The night after his little sister died and his mother still lay sick his father had sent him to bed but it had been his mother that woke him, standing at the foot of his bed with the girl held by the hand, his mother saying nothing but watching him while Claire waved to him. It was not long after this that his father came up the stairs to send the boy out with a lantern to shovel snow from the drive out through the hemlocks to the road, shoveling uselessly against the four-foot snowfall, crying as he worked, raging in an effort he already knew was for nothing. When his father came into the brittle orange and purple dawn to stop him, to still his shovel, to tell him his mother was dead, even then he would not stop, but dug at the snow as if into his own bursting heart. Seeing the two of them together, side by side in his room. A silent farewell. His mother and sister had come to him on their way out of the house to view him once more. This was enough then to be scared of being alone in the house. It was not the dark. He had no fear of the dark outside.
His father ground the cigarette against the sides of his trousers, broke the butt apart and scattered it, and still the boy waited. Then his father took up the tarp and passed it through his hands along one edge until he held the corners and draped it down before him, his arms spread wide. For a moment the tarp hid both father and lantern-a screen over the scene, the tarp backlit from the lantern-and then his father brought the corners together and folded the tarp against the length of his body, placed it under one arm and reached down with the other to gather up the rake and shovel. It was time to go. His father took up the lantern as the boy turned back to the house, moving swiftly through the dark, the house a blank silhouette against the night sky. He heard his father behind him, his wind a ragged suck as if he pulled himself forward by drawing in the air-his lungs still weak with the winter's influenza which he'd carried into the house but risen from, just when Claire had sickened with it and then their mother. They did not have it near as long as his father but both drowned in it. The boy had not been sick at all. With the noise his father was making he guessed he could have run, and not been seen or heard, but he wanted nothing more than just to beat his father back to the house. To lie in bed and hear him come in.
Whatever was in the coffee cans, whatever was buried in the woods behind him, he did not know. Something secret laid away, something hidden deep now in the earth, out of sight, gone. Without ever having once been told, he knew it was his father's business buried out there, not his. Curious as any boy, he still knew to leave it be.
Part One: Randolph
The boy's grandfather came down off the hill farm above the Bethel road south of Randolph early in the summer of 1862, leaving behind his mother and the youngest girl still at home along with a dwindling flock of Merino sheep and a slowly building herd of milk cows. Norman Pelham was barely seventeen, but he was well built in his homemade fine-stitched suit of clothes. His silent manner and extra height deflected any question of his age. His father drove him in the wagon and neither spoke during the hour trip to the depot in Randolph. The summer dust rose up through the trace chains and settled on the braided bobs of the team's tails. Norman was a serious youth who doubted that the secession of near half the states in the union would be quickly resolved. Still, his death seemed remote and unlikely. He planned to do his part as well as he could, but no hero's blood pumped through his veins. He had no desire for glory beyond traveling back up that same road one day. But he did not speak with his father of these things and his father offered nothing of his own fears that morning. Instead they tracked the course of crows over the valley and watched as men they knew worked at the first cutting of hay in the broad flat fields along the river. Some of those men rested their scythes to lift a hat or arm in greeting, some had sons already at the depot or in Brattleboro and some would soon follow. Father and son would incline their heads to the greetings with no need for words, for all knew their destination. They rode on to the strained creak of harness leather above the heavy wheels crumbling the road dust, the father's heart clattering as if loosed from a pivot in his chest and the heart of the boy also in fearsome ratchet. There had been no argument between them, no discussions of fitness or age. The father would have gone himself but could not. The boy was not going in his place. The boy was going on his own.
In Randolph, they drew the team up away from the depot and backed the wagon around so it was headed home. The team stood with dropped heads, sweat lather foaming around their backpads. The father wrapped the lines once in a loose loop around the brake lever and stepped down out of the wagon. Norman climbed down the other side and reached behind to lift out a valise with twin straps that held a winter coat, canvas pants, a boiled white shirt, a small inscribed Bible, extra socks and a razor. All but the razor had been brought at his mother's urging. Norman had planned to carry the razor in his pocket, confident he could always find a strop and soap of some kind. He thought the army might even provide these things. He didn't know; there was no one to ask.
There was a crowd around the depot, which was strung with homemade bunting. His father reached out, took his hand, and they both grasped hard, then dropped the other's hand at the same moment, as if from long practice.
"Well," his father said, his eyes drifting over the wagonbed toward the team.
"Keep an eye on my sheep," Norman said.
"Yuht," his father said. And then added, "Dodge them bullets."
"I'll do her."
His father nodded. "I'll get on to home then."
Norman raised the valise and held it against his back, with his elbow in the air. He echoed his father. "Yuht." As he turned away and walked toward the crowd, he realized for the first time that he would be around far more people than he was used to, yet knew all he needed to do was keep quiet and he could be as alone as he liked.
He rode the train south to Brattleboro for the rest of the day. Around him, men were eating food out of sacks or bound-up in cloth. Norman opened the valise, intent upon retrieving the razor and leaving the rest behind him, and found there on top a piece of cold mutton, tied up in paper and string, and a loaf of new bread along with a half dozen hard-boiled eggs. As he peeled the shells off the eggs, he thought of her egg money going with him. After he ate all the mutton and bread, he closed the valise and kept it held tight between his feet, razor and all.
In Brattleboro the next morning he signed the muster rolls and was issued a uniform and gun as well as a dozen or more other related items. He lived in a tent with five other men from rare and unknown parts of Vermont and went through a couple of weeks of drills and simple training that struck him as having little to do with anything at all. He learned over time that he was fortunate in having officers who were neither ambitious nor career men, but who had age and experience. In early July, they rode trains south and joined the thronged mass of the Army of the Potomac. Norman now carried only his razor in one pocket and his small Bible in another. He'd saved also his extra socks.
It was late September of 1865 before he passed through Bethel on his way back to the hill farm, months after his fellow members of the 2nd Vermont had returned in pairs or small groups. Although word of him had spread beyond that group of veterans, they would not speak of him; any of them who were approached by his mother would only assure her he'd be along any day and last they'd seen him he was fine. There were still those few whose eyes rose over whatever length of road they could see from time to time to see if the figure in the distance was him. Some among them even doubted he'd come at all, but even those doubts were less of a judgment than a curiosity. They were not the sort of men to place themselves in another's shoes and would not voice an opinion unless the matter bore directly upon them. And this with Norman did not. Still, they watched the road.
So they saw him pass along the road that Indian-summer morning with the sugarbush maples flaring on the hillsides and the hilltop sheep pastures overgrown with young cherry and maple. Word ran along the road ahead of him so near all his neighbors and townspeople saw him walking in the long easy stride of one who counted walking in months and years not miles, a rucksack cut from an issue blanket strapped to his back and by his side a girl near his own height in a sunfaded blue dress and carrying her own cardboard suitcase bound with rough twine. Norman wore his army brogans while the girl walked barefoot in the dust, her own pair of wornout boots tied together by the laces and slung over one shoulder. Norman raised his hand to greet those he saw and most nodded or waved back. And those that hung back in barn doorways or stood behind curtains he paid no attention to, satisfied to pass them by and telling himself he held no malice to those who ignored him. At one point the girl said to him, "They watching us."
"They been watching us all along the way."
"They has been. But these your folks."
"All they got is the right to look."
"No maybe about it," he said. "They can look all they want and think what they like, it don't matter to me and it don't matter to you." And he meant what he said; he'd walked through any fear he might be wrong back in southern Virginia. There was nothing cocksure or militant in how he felt, just his own certainty at having settled his fears and doubts. If there was any hesitation left in him it came from his great tenderness for her, his knowledge of the cruelty a person may inflict upon another and his determination to shield her from any damage that his own people might cast upon her. He was not simple in love but ferocious with it.
They turned off the road less than a mile from Randolph village to climb the half mile of gravel track to the hill farm where only his mother and youngest sister now waited, his father kicked in the head by the old mare as he bent to pick up a dropped dime two years before. The letter with this news had reached him just days before the battle of Fredericks-burg in which men died before, beside and twice behind him as his body recalled his father's advice and he dropped in a long swivel from his knees to rise again with the breech-loading Springfield coming up before him. His older sisters married and gone, Miriam on a farm in Iowa, Ethel to a paper-goods man out of St. Louis. As he and the girl passed the final house along the way, the farmwife was in the side yard stringing laundry, with her arms full and her mouth agape with pins, and so was unable to wave or call greeting but just watched them pass by, the neighbor boy grown war-hardened and the green-eyed girl with her African body so lovely in the fall sunshine, her skin the color and luster of hand-rubbed heartpine. Norman called out and the girl raised a hand in a gesture the woman read as saying You're over there and I'm over here and I'm going to stay right here unless you invite me otherwise. As they continued on up the hill, Norman thought he heard the soft spatter of clothespins falling into the grass behind them.
He was wounded twice. The first time was at Gettysburg when the 2nd Vermont found the breach in the flank of Pickett's fated charge and waded in to turn the battle, charging across the field through the offal of dead and dying men and horses, the siren of battle at full crescendo. Norman was wounded as a red-eyed cavalryman swept through them with his sabre flaring in the dying summer light and sliced Norman's right arm deep to the bone and the sabre flew up from the blow and was coming down again. Norman had dropped his Springfield but raised his left arm as he threw his body against the man's horse behind the long blade and drew the man down on top of him, knocking the wind from himself and leaving it to others to drag the rebel man from Norman and run bayonets through him. They saved the sabre and presented it to him when he returned to the company from the hospital at Lee's old home outside Washington but he did not want it, still able to feel the sweat coming from the cavalryman's mustache and chin as he came down on him, still able to smell his glaze of fear and death as they struck the earth and the sky darkened with the bodies of his comrades closing over them.
The second wound came almost two years later outside Richmond after that city fell and Lee's army was crumbling before them. It was late in the day when the company crossed a small stream with the dogwoods blooming and the few spring leaves on the trees fine and pale, the size of mouse ears. The men they were pursuing had gained enough ground to turn their one fieldpiece upon the 2nd and fire off a final canister of grapeshot that blew apart a dozen feet from where he crouched with the others in poison ivy and trout lilies, hearing the whistle of the grape coming in. While the shell fell short, it sent something hard through the air, a piece of tree perhaps, which struck Norman in the head, tore apart his left ear and left him unconscious and alone while the company camped around him. Sometime during the night he woke and, still senseless, crawled off in the manner of a sick animal seeking better shelter in which to die. He awoke in mighty pain at dawn next to a hedgerow somewhere in Virginia, his ear a throbbing thing attached to him and his brain ill and scattered, shivering with the dew already burning off before the rising sun and his tongue thick with wanting water. He'd rolled onto his good side to keep his ear in the air and away from the ground. He slept some like that and waking again saw a girl squatting there beside him, her face serious as death itself and her hands cupping a dipper gourd of water as she asked him, "Is you dead?"
He lay there etching her against the pan of his brain: the fine raised cheekbones that brought all focus of her face to her wide eyes already bright before the sun added light to them. The fine cleft chin he wanted to hold as an apple and the lips cracked with her own fearsome journey and still lovely as if chiseled from a piece of veined rose marble. Still he could barely speak from pain but felt he must or she would flee, thinking him dead or somehow dangerous, and so he said, "I just need to lay here a bit." Then, his head and ear booming, he asked, "Is that water you got there?"
She nodded and held the back of his head as he drank and then settled him slow back onto the ground and he slept again. When he woke later she was still there and the gourd was full again and she helped raise him up and gave him water. The sun was up but they sat in the thin shade from the hedge. She had biscuits and a hunk of ham with the mold scraped off and she fed some of that to him and he slept more. At full dusk he was awake again and heard whippoorwills calling each other off in the darkening woods. The girl stood over him this time. She said, "You got to get up and walk. It ain't far but you got to go. Another night here fever gonna carry you off. I spent too much time to have that happen." He saw that she had blankets looped long and narrow over one shoulder. She said, "You ain't that bad hurt. You ain't dead. Rise on up now." And when he was standing, his body pressed to hers and one arm around her and one of hers around him, he asked her name and she paused, her face turned away from him down into the folds of the blankets she carried. She said, "Leah."
"Why that's a pretty name," he said. "From the Bible."
And again slowly as if gauging him she said, "I guess so. Anyway its my name."
He wanted to tell her she was prettier than her name, any name, but the words were wrong; that, and he was still seeing her blackness, still thinking of her as the most beautiful colored girl he'd ever seen. As the land fell away with the dark, the pain in his head was made a lesser thing against the girl beside him.
They moved that way into the night, the girl leading him through fields as he struggled to find his own balance and when that would not happen finally let himself move along with her as with a current. She led him down through a woods of old oaks and into a narrow ravine with a small stream and he guessed this was where she had carried his water from. In the dark she brought him to a hidden dugout shored with logs and shielded with a thicket of rhododendron, the open front of the dugout half covered by a hand-laid drywall of stone, old enough so the surfaces of the stones were soft with moss. Inside she made a fire with flint and steel, and in the light they ate the rest of her ham and she brought more water up from the stream. She kept the fire small but with the food it warmed them. She asked where he was from and he told her and she asked where that was and he said up by Canada and she knew where that was. He asked where she was from and she thought about it and then said, "Round here." He didn't know if she was lying or telling the truth and knew it wasn't his business to probe. She had every reason not to trust him and he realized how exceptional her care of him was, how great her risk had been and in her eyes still likely was. He sat with her in the cave, built he guessed by her own kind. Word of this place and others like it passed along a vein of trust, a line of knowledge outside the reach of his own race, and he looked at her, feeling he was beginning to know her. The idea of sex bloomed in his mind and he moved a little away from her and took up one of the two blankets, leaving the most room he could for her by the fire and told her, "You've been awful helpful. I just want to tell you that. Dawn tomorrow I'll get out of your hair and get on and find my regiment. They'll probably go ahead and shoot me for deserting anyway." And seeing her eyes flare at this he said, "That's a joke. I bet they think I'm dead. Probably think I'm a ghost when they see me."
She made a face at him that was not quite a smile. "You're not any ghost."
He grinned at her. "Not yet anyhow."
"Some strange kind of man, that's what you are."
"What're you talking about?"
She shook her head and said, "Scuse me." Her tone sudden with spleen she stepped around him, ducking low until she was outside, and he lay and watched her disappear in the darkness. When she came back she was silent and so was he. Something had been extended from both of them, some straw bridge from one to the other, but then it had fallen apart and not either of them knowing what made it fall but both knowing it was gone. As children both feeling the fault and afraid to admit it. So they said nothing.
During the night she moved him close to the scant coals and wrapped in her own blanket had spooned against his back and so he woke at bare dawn with her against him and he lay without moving until there was light in the treetops and she stirred behind him. Through both their blankets, he felt the long muscles of her thighs against the backs of his and her torso and breasts pressed tight to his back and one arm flat against his chest inside his own blanket. Only when he felt her wake fully and leave the dugout did he move at all, so that when she returned he was up with his blanket folded, moving his arms and legs to wake. She led him to the stream and there ordered him onto his hands and knees and held his head in her hands and lowered the wound into the shock of water, letting her fingers run over his scalp to clear the matted blood and woods-trash, her touch warm even in the cold water. When he stood he found his balance and she stepped back from him and as if accusing said, "Should have done that yesterday."
Still breathless he said, "It would've killed me then."
She gripped his forearm and he felt the bite of her nails and she said, "Don't you tell nobody about this place, you hear me?" There was no protest before this fury and so he only nodded, once and short but looking straight into her eyes. He wanted again to touch her or say some words to her but she'd already turned and was walking away into the woods, looking back once with impatience or scorn, so he followed her because it was all he could do.
She led him in a straight line up the side of the ravine and through the woods again and he had no way of knowing if it was the same route they'd taken the night before or a different direction altogether. Then she led him across a field to a small height of wooded land until they looked down on a field beyond a road with the camp of the 2nd Vermont. He started forward, the smell of food rising from cookfires, and then turned back but she stayed in the underbrush and he said, "Come on down with me. There's food."
She shook her head.
"Come on. I guess I ate up all your food. Least you could let me do, it seems to me."
She shook her head again and then said, "You go on, Mister Norman Pelham." When he stepped toward her she held out a hand, palm raised out and flat to stop him. She stepped back, her hand still out, one step at a time until she placed a briar thicket overgrown with honeysuckle between them. He stood listening to her slipping away until no sound came from the woods and she was gone. He thought of following her back to the field on the other side but suddenly knew she would not be in sight. And so he stood there a long while and then turned and went down to the encampment.
When his wounds were dressed and he was fed, he told his story leaving out the part about the girl and it was listened to but only just; a rumor had come down late the night before from Appomattox Court House and there was talk of going home or going on into North Carolina where an army under Johnston was still in full fight. Others said that army was nothing but a fragment and Sherman would mop it as a barkeep would the overflow suds from a bucket of beer. Others reminded them they'd considered Lee done for before this and been proved wrong. It was all talk to Norman; even the idea of a surrender left him idly numbed and he was quiet among the men. He sat that night by the bright circle of the rail-fence fire, unable to see beyond the wall of dark but imagining her in the dugout with the small fire even as he knew she would've moved on from there, was likely miles away along her own route of hidden road. Norman wondered if she'd heard the rumor and what it might mean to her and once felt clearly that she was out there looking right back at him. He stood then, making a show of stretching his body, his face turned toward the wooded height, and then felt a fool, knowing she was not there. He moved out to the rim of light to pee and then back for a tin cup of the overboiled coffee they all sat drinking. An hour after midnight a horse clattered hard down the road and the war was done for them.
The next day they passed through two towns as they made their way back toward Washington and both times the townspeople stood silent watching them with empty faces and the troops were quiet also, as if they were all at the same funeral, the viewers and the procession all indispensable. In both towns Norman's eyes searched through the colored people but did not see her. He was already unsure if he'd recognize her until his eyes found one and then another tall woman and knew immediately each was not the one he sought. He wondered how long that surety would last and did not let himself consider why this was important.
Twice during the afternoon he saw movement off the roadside, once behind a hedgerow and once again farther off along a wooded edge, and both times he looked to the men around him to see if they too had seen anything and wondered if he'd imagined it or even why he might think it was her at all. The countryside was filled with people: men deserted and foraging from both armies, colored people some still bound as slaves and others runaway, white children competing with the deserters for what game or roots the land might offer up. There were women also, both white and black who'd come out to the encampments to offer what they had to offer for whatever they could get for it. Still he watched hard through the afternoon for another flicker of movement and saw nothing at all.
They camped that night in a well-built barn with overhanging sheds on both sides. The men tore out planking from empty mule stalls for fires, the rail fences already stripped away, and the woman of the house brought down a kettle of potato soup made with milk and butter although they saw no cow. The surrender meant something to someone somewhere but nothing yet to these men on the road and nothing yet to the people they imposed upon, except the chance to acknowledge the imposition, and so they filled their tin cups and thanked her one by one and she nodded to each and stood silent until the soup was gone and then carried the kettle back to the house.
After midnight he was walking sentry, the Springfield loose alongside him held in just one hand, his tunic unbuckled, open to more than just the spring night. In the darkness he paused and as he stood looking at those men the idea of leaving them frightened him a little. He wondered if the men there he knew from Bethel or Randolph or Royalton or Chelsea would come upon him in years ahead and nod their greeting and pass along by as if this were all nothing more but a great and forever silent part of their lives. Norman knew how glad he'd be back up on the farm with his arms bloody on February mornings from birthing lambs or his back burned and sore from lifting forkfuls of hay from the hot fields. The war was already breaking apart into fragments for his memory to hold, the odd things: the squirrel racing back along the road through the advancing troops that first day at Second Bull Run; the summer mist burning off the Potomac as they marched north into Pennsylvania two summers before; the man out on the field well before him who landed on his back and for a long moment seemed to hold the cannonball with both arms to his belly before he flew apart under it; the boy face up and his mouth open to the air, flies already pooled around his eyes as he called a woman's name, his tone plaintive as if she were nearby and ignoring him. These sights and others, each forever etched in its own small box of his mind. Life after this was not so simple a thing as going home and carrying on from where he'd left off, and he remembered his father's death, a news that at the time seemed just one more in a long chain of life poured out upon the ground. Now he could begin to feel it as the hole he'd forever carry forward with himself: not having the chance to not talk about the war with his father, not even having that silent presence there beside him as he birthed those lambs or dug that potato ground. He was watching his fellows and himself all at once when from behind him she said, "Norman don't you shoot me with that gun of yours."
He turned slow and saw her face split in half with shadow and light, her eyes wide, her nostrils flared as if to breathe him in and her lips parted like the mouth of a bell. He took a step closer and said, "I thought that was maybe you follering us." Smiling.
"You never seen me."
"Sho." She snorted this at him and he almost laughed. "Something in your head I guess."
"Well," he said. "You were there and now you're here."
"I didn't follow nothing. Been here waiting."
She nodded. He could see she wore a different dress, once a deep green now faded to old moss.
"Waiting for what?" And he immediately wanted to bite back the words from the night.
But she only said, "Waiting for that woman to get done with her charity while you all tore up her barn. Waiting to see you walk out here sometime tonight. Waiting to see if you jump up in the air already running when you see me like you see a spook. You still got time for that I guess."
"I'm sentry tonight. If I tore off running who knows what would happen. So I'm standing right here I guess."
"Sentry sposed to walk around I thought."
He shrugged. "War's over. I guess you heard that."
Now she shrugged. "You think that's gonna change a thing, Mister Norman Pelham?" Before he could respond she reached out one hand and ran her fingers down his forearm, and he felt the flesh of his arm rise up to meet her. She was speaking not of her life or the lives of her people or even the people all around them but of the sudden and irrevocable breach each had made in the other. And nothing said out yet in the air between them, nothing said to make it real, as if words could do such a thing. So he only asked, "You get anything to eat today?"
"Some folks shared what they had." She watching him now as if seeing he'd finally figured things out. Or maybe afraid he knew the words to break it apart. So he touched her upper arm and felt the chill of her skin, smooth and tight with cold. And said, "I need to find you a coat."
"I got a coat. Out there." Pointing out into the dark with her chin. "With my blankets and mess." Norman shuddered with the complicated ripple of knowledge that the next minutes hours days would circuit his life; he'd learned early in the war to avoid reading signs or portents into any one small thing because the larger ones pay no attention to those small events. Hope and desire or dread are puny human attributes beside the work of a dreadful god or a careless universe but at this moment he knew his life was some way shapable. He was breathless that long moment and then Leah moved forward so her face was in full light now and he told her, "You wait right here. You wait just one minute. Please. Here, hold this." He thrust the Springfield into her hands and turned to lope back up to the fire, where he poured out a can of coffee and took biscuits and bacon from the racks by the fire, stuffing his tunic pockets to a bulge. He was turning to leave when he saw Goundry watching him, the fervently quiet small blacksmith from Poultney now captain of the company, whose voice just carried the five feet between them.
"What're you doing, Pelham?"
"Something to eat sir?"
"Hungry?" Goundry eyeing the tunic.
Goundry nodded. "Where the hell's your rifle, Pelham?"
Norman inclined his head. "Back there. Right by the barn sir. I just wanted to get this food."
Goundry nodded again. "Is your head feeling all right, son?"
"It's fine sir."
Goundry held him with his eyes. Then he said, "By Jesus I'm glad this thing's done with. Get out of here, Pelham."
He found her crouched in the shadow beside one of the mule-stall partitions, his rifle held upright between her legs, the barrel hugged against her chest. He took her hand and helped her stand and she said, "Some man came out the back of the barn and peed there so I hid down here."
He traded her the can of coffee for his rifle and told her, "I've got some bread and bacon too. You know some place we could set down?"
She took him by the hand and led him over what had been vegetable gardens and then past a chicken yard, down a dirt track with a pair of empty cabins on each side, and behind these was a smaller structure made of heavy logs with no windows but with a door busted apart, pieces of timber still splinted upright by strap hinges. Inside she hung a blanket from nails over the doorway and lit a candle stub and he saw her suitcase and bedroll on the floor and a small rude bench made of a split log with unpeeled limbs splayed as legs. A short length of stout chain was bolted into the log wall, the chain ending in a manacle roughly cut open with the marks of the slipped chisel. They sat on the bench and shared the coffee and she ate some of the biscuit and the bacon he sliced off for her, ate with a vast controlled manner that made clear how hungry she was, and while she declined more than a small amount of the food he cleared his pockets and set the rest on the edge of the bench in a natural sort of way. They sat silent on the bench in the guttering candlelight, the boy younger than he thought he was and the girl older than she thought she was. He saw slight spasms running over her upper body and he unbuttoned his tunic and saw her watching him, her mouth tight and her eyes flat, and he took the tunic off and put it around her shoulders and sat there beside her with his suspenders up over his woolen undershirt. She crossed her arms to take the tunic edges in opposite hands and drew it close around her and in so doing leaned a little so her shoulder touched his and she said, "Norman, what do you want with me?"
He thought about this and only would say, "I guess I could ask the same thing."Without pause she said, "Ask then."
So he did and she said, "I want to go to Up-by-Canada."
"Vermont," he said.
"Ver-mont," she said, breaking the word in two parts and he thought Yes that's right, that verde monte, that old green hill of Champlain-his Randolph Academy brought back clear by the girl's usage--but he only said, "It's a long ways from here."
"Already walked one of those. I can walk another." Then, "Less you don't want me to."
Norman looked away from her now, looked down at his hands joined together between his knees, his elbows and forearms flat on his thighs, and was quiet until his voice came and then he said, "I don't know." He could hear her breathing beside him, could feel slight movement in her shoulder against his and felt a patience from her as she waited for him and he knew what for and didn't know how to say it and so only said, "I don't barely know you."
"Course you don't," she said. "What it takes to know a person you tell me soon's you know. I don't know, not me. You got brothers, -sisters?"
"Sisters," he said, "three of em."
But she kept right on talking as if he'd said nothing. "Your mama and daddy. You known those people all your life but you don't know what they really all about inside. And you think they all gonna sit around waiting for you to know, Norman? You think even they themselves know? Not like they like to, I tell you that. You and me sitting here strange as can be to one another but here we are, ain't that right? And what you call that? You call that a accident? I walked maybe three hundred miles to meet up with you Norman and didn't even know it was you till I seen you laying there under that briar clump and how'd I know then that you'd wake up to be you? I didn't. You know what I'm telling you Norman?"
All he could do was nod his head, just once.
She said, "I look at you, you know what I see? Norman?"
"I got no idea."
"I see a man gentle right down in his soul. All the way down."
Then she was quiet and when she spoke again her voice had lost a little edge and he heard it right away, a little less certainty and he felt this loss in his chest like hot water. She said, "So me. You look at me what do you see? Norman?"
His face furrowed like a spring field, wanting to get this just right. He had no idea what to say and kept looking at her hoping she'd wait for him, hoping she'd be patient. Hoping he'd find his way not out but through this.
She didn't wait. She said, "You see a little nigger girl wanting to eat up your biscuit, your bacon, whatever you got? You see me thinking my taking care of you once overnight is something I can trade for lots more than that? Or maybe even just nigger pussy ready for you to say the right words, do the right thing? That what you see, Norman?" And she was reared back away from him now, sitting still on the bench, upright as if at a great distance, her back arched like a drawn bow, eyes burning wide open as her soul welled up but not at all ready to pour out without something back from him. He watched his hands turning one over the other, the fingers lacing and relacing until he realized she was watching him do this. He slid around and lifted his right leg over the bench so he sat spraddle-legged facing her front on. With his face collapsed in sheer terror, he said to her, "Leah. All I see is the most lovely girl I've ever seen."
She stood off the bench away from him and said, "I told you the truth, Norman. I told you the truth. But you lying to me if that's all you see."
And without even thinking about it he said, "What I see is the most lovely girl and one fat wide world of trouble. Trouble for both of us. That's what I see."
And now she stepped back over the bench to face him and said, "You got that right. You got that just exactly right." He reached and took one of her hands and sat looking down at their hands lying one into the other, the small slip of warmth between his fingers, her life lying up against his, and still not looking at her he said, "Don't you ever talk that way to me again Leah."
"What way?" Her voice low, already knowing, needing to ask, needing him to tell her.
So he said, "That nigger-this nigger-that business."
"White men talk any way they want to a colored girl."
"Am I white men to you then?"
She reached her free hand and took his other hand and put it against her breastbone just below her throat and told him, "My daddy's a white man, Norman."
"I figured something like that," he said; in truth he hadn't thought that far. So again without thinking he said, "He doesn't talk that way does he?" His hand warming to the heat of her, his brain on the buttons down her dress-front.
She tilted her chin to look at him. "My daddy has never even said my name to me." Her voice tight with disgust, venom, a loathing that was distinct and almost covered all what sadness she had but that he knew was there, knew it the same way she believed his soul to be gentle. He scooted toward her on the bench and she brought her knees in tight to the bench to let him come close and he put his arms around her and she laid her head against him and he sat there, holding her like that.
From the bench to her blankets on the floorboards of the little stockade was not a long way to go but they took a long time moving there, seeming to travel down inch by inch in a locked body motion that neither led nor followed but went with them trembling. Once down, they wrestled with limbs made slow and heavy, his fingers thick with the buttons of her dress and her breasts out then, nipples like summer black-caps against thick honey, and she shuddered under his tongue. She astride him and with one hand he swept the dress up over her hips and opened his flies with the other, but she arched away from him even as he strained toward her, his thumb once traveling down the length of her as she opened under, the wet there breathtaking. Still she held off from him, their mouths smothering each other, tongues each hot and sharp to the other, almost struggling until she broke away, rolling over to lie beside him, her legs still spread and her dress open to the waist, and she said, "If you'd got it in I would've let you." He rolled over on top of her and as he entered she said, her voice now a wet thing in his ear, "I could just melt all over you," and with that he was done, thrusting from the small of his back and her soft cries falling into his ears like thin slices of bird-flight entering his brain. She reached down and held him to her after he was finished and told him, "Don't leave, don't go." So he stayed until he slipped from her and still he lay there, the wet between them sealing one to the other. Neither one now wanting or able to leave.
Walking up that final half mile of rough track above Randolph with the farmhouse not yet in sight, the crown of the elms over the house stretched ahead where the road cut an opening through the trees, the girl already thought she knew something of the place to which she'd come, having walked through half the state just to get here, as well as all the rest of the north that lay behind them now. The boy paced slow with so much home after so long finally in sight, both with those long days and too-short nights behind them; those and the weeks they spent outside Washington where after Lincoln's assassination Norman waited with his company through a mourning for the president. They stayed through most of May to walk together one final time as a military force down Pennsylvania Avenue in the Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac, Norman waiting with great agitation while Leah disappeared into the swamped springtime of the capital, a place at odds with itself, wildly festive with the war's end and murderously foul from the dead president. After four long days, she reappeared with lye-burned mottled hands and a pure gleefulness nothing could diminish; she was working in the basement of a hotel scrubbing linens and ironing them to a slick starched stiffness but earning cash money, in fact a sum that gave Norman pause; during the years of the war he'd come to think of money in the abstract and at those random intervals when his pay arrived he wired it through to his sheep account at the bank in Randolph. Those first six weeks passed and they went their own way, disregarding the packed trains leaving for Philadelphia or New York or Boston and walking up the country through the lush and easy summer, sleeping in woods or fields with hedgerow cover and buying food when they needed it. At times they had to fend off dogs and small boys with their name-calling and meanness strident and forgivable for their age and ignorance. Only once, outside Port Royal, New York, did a man on horseback block their passage, inquiring the price of the nigger whore. And Norman brought the man down from his horse, an easy job after that long-dead cavalryman, and thrashed him there in the dust of the road, three other men off in the distance watching and not involving themselves. It was not the watchers but Leah who stopped him, who began kicking him in the muscles on the backs of his calves and screaming at him until he gave way. They continued up the road, leaving the man lying and his horse standing off some distance in a field, blowing its nostrils clear, and Norman and Leah walked by the watching men and Norman met their gaze and wished them a good day. So they walked to Vermont, to home for both, and told each other stories along the way. Outside a river town in northern Massachusetts they married each other standing naked in the moonlight in the Connecticut River, the water end-of-summer low and syrup-colored even in the night, the rings thin gold bands he'd bought three days previous and carried as they watched and waited for the right place and time. Late the following day they crossed into Vermont and Leah grew quiet, her animation screwed now to a tight -focus, watching around her as if careful observation would offer keys or clues to the place she would assume among this landscape. As if her silence before this spectrum offered her protection against any hostilities or animosity.
They came up that first sharp knee of the home-place hill and the land opened out not so much in a bowl as a series of wide ledges that held the farmstead: the haymeadows and sheep pastures and the high field where potatoes were grown, the orchard just above the house and barns, to where the sugar house stood flanked by the bush of great maples rising in crown over it all, the final pitch of the hillside steep again at the top amongst granite outcroppings and ranks of spruce. Norman's gait gained with the sudden leveling of the track and the place there before him, his feet for the first time in years striking ground as if each separate egg of gravel and patch of dusty hardpan were known through the soles of his boots, Leah still apace beside him, her head high and her gaze steady before her, her eyes sweeping at first to draw it all in but settling on the house under the elms. Without looking at him she said, "Reckon they seen us yet?"
As she spoke a figure broke out from the apple trees heavy with ripe fruit. Norman saw the baskets under the trees and the narrow picking ladder and thought Cider-could not smell it yet but could taste it-and then the girl hurtling down the road toward them, short-legged and strong, twice the little girl he'd left behind, still small but grown, her schoolgirl breasts rising against her shirtwaist like young apples as she ran toward him, her voice calling out his name.
Beside him Leah softly echoed her. "Nawmin."
The girl spied Leah and gathered herself down to a walk and Norman saw the moment when she misstepped, saw her head cock like a puppy's at something strange, and yet she came on, her eyes on Leah even as Norman stepped the last three feet and pulled her against him. Before he could speak she said, "Seems to me, a man or stout boy would've been more useful around, you had to bring one of them home." And she stepped back from Norman then, her eyes already wiser as she looked Leah up and down.
"Maybe you'll find out, Miss Quickmouth," Leah said, "that I'm a good bit stouter than you like."
Connie shrugged this away. "There's work enough to share," she said. "I guess you already learned how to work."
"Worked all my life. I learned how to let my mind work for me too. Sometimes before I opened my mouth. I know my manners."
"Ain't no la about it. There was, you'd be behaving different."
"That's enough," Norman said.
Connie said, "You're a feisty one."
"I wasn't, you think I'd be here? Since your brother forgot himself, my name's Leah." She held out a hand. Connie looked at Norman and then back at the hand.
Norman said, "My little sister. Constance. Connie, we call her."
Connie let Leah take her hand and then both women let go. Norman said, "Where's Mother?"
Connie said, "Up to the house." And looked at Norman as if just thinking of something. She half turned and looked back at him. "You don't look like I remember."
He nodded. "You've grown some too."
"That's not what I meant."
He nodded again, both brother and sister using this time to take measure of the other, recognizing each as familiar stranger to be learned anew, some parts of each never to be glimpsed. Norman strove for the ordinary, some tentative linkage to all that lost. "You making cider?"
"Getting ready. Pressed some last week a little too rough. Sheep liked the pomace though."
"Jug of cider's about the only thing I can think of that might clear all this road out of my throat."
She grinned. "You'll have to help then." And glanced again at Leah.
Norman said, "I believe I recall how to crank a press."
"You'll want some dinner first."
"I could run help get things started."
"Sure," he said. "You do that. Carry your news along with you."
"You home is news enough." Her eyes cut once more to Leah; then she turned and flew up the road.
"So tell me Norman. That the easy part?"
"I guess," he said. "She didn't intend meanness. You're a shock. You have to allow that for folks. Otherwise you'll just be disappointed every time."
They went a little ways and Leah said, "Tell me you love me," and he did and she reached to take his hand. Norman took stock of the sheep in one high meadow, of the milk cows in higher grass of better pasture close to the barn and also of the broken axle off the wagon that sat upright against it like no one knew what to do next. There were other things, simple benign neglect adding up in his mind, an accounting freed of blame, more in the nature of inventory. Halfway to the house he felt her fingers begin to slip from his and he took a firm grip to hold her there beside him. He thought her only nervous and when she wrapped his hand tight with hers he thought she was fine again. He did not look at her. And so could not see the fear pass over her face or the swift knowing that ran through her, that the woman in the house ahead of her would take one look and read the weakness there that trembled constant as water running, the pith of despair and turmoil of her soul. She said nothing. Together they skirted the front of the house around to the side entry through the long woodshed and small toolshop into the kitchen, where he knew his mother and sister both waited. Leah walked alongside him.
His mother was an old woman. She was stooped over the oven of the range and she turned to place a beanpot on the table where Connie sat silent. His mother placed her hands flat on the table and looked at Norman as she said his name. Her face was fierce and worn like tree-bark, her hair pulled back tight as always but dappled gray like a Percheron. Her hands on the table thick with raised veins and spots the color of new rust. She'd grown old in three years.
So he only said, "Beans."
She demurred. "It's Saturday you know. They was for supper. But it happened I started them early yesterday. Before milking. So they're ready. I haven't steamed the brown bread yet, you'll have to make do with loaf-bread. There's pickle."
"Leah, my mother. Mother, this is Leah."
Leah said, "Missus Pelham." And her body swayed beside him as if almost to dip a curtsy. "Pleased to meet you." Erect now, not moving.
Mrs. Pelham remained behind the table, a guarded patience upon her face as if she'd seen wondrous and terrible things before and was waiting for this one to reveal which it was. She had never seen a black woman. And meeting her for the first time not in the village but here in her own kitchen. Brought by her warrior son. The woman was with him. That much was all she knew. So she inclined her head and responded. "I'm sure. You two set. I've got buttermilk and spring water and that's it. No cider, fresh or hard. I've not put any barrels up these past two years. Too much work for just the girl and me, without anyone to drink it. So you'll make do. But set; you must be famished walking all the way back up here." Her eyes on Norman as she added, "Other men rode trains at least part of the way."
Stretching for the beanpot, he said, "I should've got back here to help you. I wanted to see the country. Thought I might not get the chance again. And I figured you and sprout here was capable." And then added, "So we took our time."
"You took your time."
"Yes ma'am." Grinning at her, not yet realizing he couldn't be both the boy-child miscreant and the unassailable man. He dug the spoon to the bottom of the pot and lifted the seasoning onion up through the beans and divided it half onto his plate and half onto Leah's, then scooped beans onto his own plate and handed her the spoon.
Connie said, "Could be others might like some of that bean-onion."
"Could be," said Norman. "Could be some been eating bean-onions while others ate stale biscuit and bacon in the mud and rain. Sprout, you've grown up." To see if he could make her blush. She did not, but her eyes clouded with hostility.
She said, "I started to the Academy this fall."
Mrs. Pelham said, "Connie, go bring up some buttermilk."
"Not for me," Norman said. "Spring water's all I want." Eyeing it where the iron pipe ran in through the wall, ending over the soapstone sink, the line laid the summer before the war by Norman and his father from the spring high on the hill above the house, the water fed by gravity, running in a steady thin stream year round, draining through clean cheesecloth clamped in a small pouch over the end of the pipe. He said, "I've drank more mud than water, enough so that spring ran in my dreams."
"Perhaps Lee would-"
"Leah," she said.
"Yes, that's right." Mrs. Pelham said, agreeing to nothing. "Perhaps Leah would care for buttermilk."
"Thank you, no. Water would be fine. But I could get it." She started to rise.
"Set. There's no servants here but we can take care of a guest." Inflecting slightly on the last word and moving to the sink, filling a pitcher and placing it on the table, this time coming around to stand behind them and reach the pitcher through, placing it between them. She stayed there, her hand on the pitcher until Norman looked up at her, her eyes stark with brightness, a faint flutter around her mouth as she gazed on the bright slender band on his left hand. Her voice a husk, stripped of fluid as she said, "Oh Lord, Norman. What have you done?"
Leah swung her head sideways to look up but Mrs. Pelham was gone, her skirts swept by her movement. She opened the door of the small parlor and closed it after her. The sound a small clap in the stillness. Leah released a held breath. She said to him, "Go after her. Go talk to your mother, Norman."
"No." Connie stood up fast, her chair a rough scrape backwards. "No. I'll go. You two just set there. Set there and eat your damned beans." When he spoke her full name, she turned back as if his speaking had not lessened her angry confusion but charged it further, her small face pinched upon itself, her curls tossed adrift by the speed of her movement. "You waltz on in here in your own sweet time without a word about Father or how we made out alone here and set down to eat up the supper in the middle of the day and that's not enough, no sir, not for you, but you drag along home with you this . . . this . . . colored woman and set her down at the table to feed her while your own mother stands waiting a kind word or embrace from you, feeding her up our supper--"
"That's enough," Norman said. "Leah's my wife. We're married."
"That's right." His tone meant to settle the matter.
"Norman Pelham," his sister said all in one breath, "you've lost your mind," as she walked a mannered step through to the closed parlor and shut the door behind her soft as nothing at all.
"They not delighted with me," Leah said.
"That's all right," Norman said, wondering not only why he'd failed to write his mother some warning or caution but why he'd not even thought to. And stranger still, he felt a tingling of excitement at this failure, excitement real as his balls tightening. He looked at the woman next to him and said, "I am."
Copyright 2000 by Jeffrey Lent