Society has its conventions, but who gets to decide what they are? For a beleaguered backwoods girl raised to casual magic and notions of the afterlife wildly at odds with those of her God-fearing neighbors, that becomes a life-defining question.  Notions of respectability jab relentlessly at both her peace of mind and her hope of claiming whatever God and the Civil War have left her of her marriage.

 

 

 
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Chapter 1
GENESIS

 

The evening was so pretty, Lilith reckoned it must be God's way of saying sorry for sending such a flood of dead boys tramping up the road past her house all day. The sun, busy exploring the backside of the mountains across the Valley, had opened the box of paints hidden back there; the colors were swarming up into the sky, let loose to play awhile. God's finger paints, Pa used to call them, and the Lord was certainly enjoying Himself tonight. Lilith wished she could catch that pretty purple into her garden: it might shame the lilacs into better form, but she had never quite figured out how to beguile those colors out of the sky. She leaned back in her rocker on the front porch with little gray Mamacat purring in her lap, glad that Joab had faced the place west so's she could watch the streaks of rose and gold and orange turn the Alleghenies to the gateway to glory. The hills rolling down from the Blue Ridge behind her filled their hollows with dusky blue shadows, puffing up a little smoke here and there from neighbors' chimneys hidden in the folds. Her chair creaked companionably against the worn boards, quiet counterpoint to the crickets starting in at the creek rushing down on her left. But then a bunch of quail that had just settled in for the night started up again where the run bent around in front of the house; she looked down toward the footbridge and saw them coming.

She would have known Joab was dead just from the way they stumped up the path and the sour pickle look on the preacher's face and the white pity in Martha Fox's. But she didn't need all that, because Joab himself was striding along right behind them, and he'd have never been content to trudge along in the rear if he was alive. No, he'd have run right up the road and splashed through the creek without bothering with the bridge, and snatched her up and whirled her around and forget good sense.

Calmly she stood up and waited there on the top step, listening to the rocker creaking to silence behind her. Only the sound of the water burbling over the rocks and the uneven chirping of the crickets broke the hush until the little procession got close, and then the heavy shuffle of their feet in the dust thudded like distant thunder. Lilith felt sorry for stout Martha puffing up the steep path from the bridge, and for little Hetty Gallagher and her husband's pa. Old Pappy Gallagher had loved Joab like a grandson. She didn't feel a bit sorry for the parson, who looked like he wanted awful bad to say I told you so.

The four of them stopped at the foot of the steps, looking up at her. Joab stopped too, watching her with his heart in his eyes and apology in his face. She nodded at him that they would take it up later as Reverend Fisk shuffled around, clearing his throat. Finally he up and said it.

"Mrs. Stark, I'm very sorry, but a rider came through today with word from the army. There was a battle up in Pennsylvania, over a week ago. General Armistead was killed, and a good many men with him. And Joab too."

Lilith said nothing, watching Joab making sour faces at the back of the preacher's head like he always used to. She almost smiled but it wouldn't be seemly. Martha started up the stairs, her arms outstretched.

"Oh, Lil, I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry."

Lilith let the older woman draw her into a hug, wondering what she was supposed to do in circumstances like this. Ma had died before she could teach her real manners, and then it was just her and Pa and Ben for years and years. Ben didn’t know any more about town folks than she did and Pa had never been much for tea and comfort. When Ben got himself smashed under a falling tree when Lilith was twelve, Pa never said a word, just went off and sat in the woods hoping Ben would come and say how it happened, but he never did. Lilith couldn't rightly recall what she herself had said and done that day; she'd been too upset. But that was before she'd found out about Heaven and such.

Hetty came up and hugged her, too. Pappy blew his nose a couple of times and said how sorry he was, and the parson read from the Book until the sun locked up the paints and it got too dark to see the words on the page. Lilith offered to light a lamp and lay out supper, but Martha looked scandalized and said she shouldn't bother and that Lilith should come along to her house for the night. Lilith shook her head and said as how she had bread in the oven and chickens needing tending and it would give her something to keep her mind off things. Finally they went away, looking back like they thought she was going to collapse and die right there on the porch.

When at last they were gone across the bridge into the night, she looked down at Joab looking so hangdog and said with a little snort, "A week! It took you long enough to get home, Joab Stark."

He came up the steps then, a long, tall ghost with broad shoulders and a face that still looked readier to laugh than frown, with the same unruly lock of brown hair falling over his right eye that he always had. He stopped in front of her, looking down with such regret in his face that Lilith caught her breath in dismay and reached to hold him.

He backed away. "No," he said, very low. His voice, still the rich, warm tenor that had sung so sweet on Sundays and caressed her ear on so many nights up in that feather bed in the loft, shivered through her with all its old enchantment. That voice had captured her from the first time he smiled up at her and said so low and quiet, "Hey there, Miss Lilith, I'm a'goin' to come courtin' you iffen you don't mind."

Oh, yes, she'd been a goner from that second on.

She stood very still there in the dark, looking up at him. She knew she shouldn't have been able to see his face so clear in the gloom, but he was a ghost after all, wasn't he?

"Why can't I touch you?" she asked, aching with the wanting.

"Reckon you could if you tried, but I ain't ready."

"Why'd you come home then?"

He smiled that crooked smile. "Guess I just ain't got sense enough to go on to Heaven." The smile faltered. "This is Heaven, Lil. Right here. I don't want no other."

"I 'spect not. Come on in the house."

She turned away inside and held the door for him though she suspected he didn't really need her to. The lamp stood ready on the shelf beside the door, a pale gleam drawn from the dim light spilling into the front room from the banked fire on the kitchen hearth. She had not had the heart for supper today, what with the steady parade of dead boys in bloodstained gray tramping up the road toward the ridge. None of them had bothered her; she reckoned they just wanted to get on home, and most of them knew they no longer had much call to stop for food and such anymore. Looking back, she knew she must have been waiting all day for Joab to turn up. The parade of dead had never troubled her before.

She carried the lamp into the kitchen and lit it with a splinter from the fire. Joab was there behind her when she turned, looking around with a look on his face like a kid eyeing the candy jars down at the store.

"I've missed this," he said softly, and looked at her. "Missed you, Lil. I am so sorry to be a'comin' home like this."

"Well, you came home. That's more'n a lot of women will have. Maggie Pettigrew's boy Dan tramped on home after Chancellorsville and knocked on her door, but she never heard a whisper, and finally he give up and went on."

Joab settled wearily into the old straight-backed chair beside the fire where she sat to warm her toes on cold days. "Might be just as well. I saw him catch a Minie ball in the face. He mighta scairt poor Maggie right on along to Heaven with him."

"I saw him. He didn't look that bad. Maybe that was his wish."

"We all get one," Joab agreed. "Me, I just wanted to come home."

She inspected him in the lamplight. He was thinner than she remembered, and the butternut shirt she had made him last Christmas had a tear above the heart and a rip in one sleeve. No blood. It must have been quick. It pleased her that he hadn't suffered, and saddened her that she couldn't feed him up and put him to rights. He had so loved her cooking.

"I'm glad." She turned away to poke up the fire before he saw her crying. Silly things, tears. Pa always said as how tears never watered the garden nor washed the dishes, so she fussed around for a bit with her back to Joab until she got them under control. She swiped her apron over her face, pretending she'd worked up a sweat from the fire, and turned back to find him sound asleep in the chair.

"Reckon gettin' kilt's a weary business," she said softly, and leaned down to kiss his forehead.

It felt like she remembered with Ma all those years ago. His hair brushed her cheek, soft as the down in the feather tick, and his skin under her lips felt more like the warm wind of a summer's day. She closed her eyes, wishing . . . but dead was dead. She wasn't ever going to feel the living warmth of him again, or the solidness of his arms around her, or make another baby to make up for the one that died after he went away to fight. But she had this. She could see him, talk to him. It would be enough.

She brought the rocking chair in from the porch and set it quietly opposite him in front of the fire, gathered up her mending and sat quietly sewing in the flickering light. It felt just like always, like there wasn't two years between the last time they sat together like this and now. She glanced over at him now and again, learning anew the planes and curves of his face, that looked so much older than thirty-three. Six years older than she was, and he said he’d stayed a bachelor so long because he never knew what he was looking for until he rode up into the hills and saw her peeking down from the old oak spreading its arms over the cabin. And then they'd only got four years together before the war came along and smashed everything.

Dadburned Yankees. Restlessly she put aside the mending and got up to prowl over to the back door. The crickets and the creek between them had the whole night singing. The whole bluebelly army could have ridden past and not been heard over that racket. She wondered if they would come now, if the battle that made all those ghosts meant the end of the war and Yankees running everywhere.

"Reckon I'd know what to do with Yankee ghosts," she muttered. Pa had taught her that much, at least.

Thinking about Pa calmed her. She settled into the rocker again, laying quick, neat stitches into the worn fabric. Even calico was too dear to waste these days, but at least she no longer had to worry about preserving Joab's clothes against his return. She could maybe sell some of the pants and turn the shirts for her own use, or make sachets out of them and barter them down at the store. She knew where all the sweetest-smelling herbs grew, and all the best berries. She could get by until General Lee won the war. If the dadburned Yankees didn't come first.

She looked over at sleeping Joab and smiled. A'course, they might get a surprise if they did.

She let him be, though her heart wanted to know awful things like how and when and where this had happened to him, and whether she dared believe God would let him stay. The best part of a person went out of a body when it breathed its last; she had the part of Joab that had drawn her down out of that cabin up on Baldy and made everything they had together so sweet. But she couldn’t help but wish a little for the part the Yankees took, too.

The faded cloth under her fingertips darkened suddenly. Lilith blinked and discovered a little stain of sadness creeping out from her hands. She sniffed and raised her head, looked at Joab, and found a smile. Half a blessing’s better’n a curse any day, Pa had used to say when things didn’t turn out quite according to plan. It looked like maybe God wasn’t paying but half a mind when He answered her prayer to bring Joab back to her.

Still, He had brought him back.

She shooed the darkness out of her sewing with a fingertip and went back to her mending, and smiled when Joab began to snore, ever so softly.

 


 

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