For some people, death is not an obstacle...
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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
Lil, I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry."
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.
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.
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."
she'd been a goner from that second on.
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?
can't I touch you?" she asked, aching with the wanting.
you could if you tried, but I ain't ready."
you come home then?"
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."
not. Come on in the house."
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.
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
missed this," he said softly, and looked at her.
"Missed you, Lil. I am so sorry to be a'comin' home like
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."
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."
him. He didn't look that bad. Maybe that was his
get one," Joab agreed. "Me, I just wanted to come
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I'd know what to do with Yankee ghosts," she muttered. Pa
had taught her that much, at least.
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.
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.
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
Still, He had
brought him back.
the darkness out of her sewing with a fingertip and went back to
her mending, and smiled when Joab began to snore, ever so