Published on Tuesday, November 15, 2011
By Kristen Lynch
Absalom Harding felt the rain in his bones long before the clouds showed up, well in advance of the reckless winds that would come screeching in from the west, carrying a plague of icy rain and hail that later stung the open plains. He quickly recognized the familiar ache as it slowly melted into what remained of his right knee joints and burned his skin like glowing embers. In his hand, he held a rusty hammer and paused for a moment, rubbing the tender area from where the dull ache emanated.
Five years prior, he lost the bottom portion of his leg during an unfortunate incident between himself and a lone Yankee guard. Absalom had been wading in and out of the canebrakes near Duck River, as he and a troop of fellow Tennesseans marched toward Spring Hill. It was the end of November '64, and the general consensus was one of misery. To brighten dark spirits, the men joked that misery itself had decided to enlist to defend the south, placing a wretched hand over its bony ribs and cold, pitiless heart, donning a worn gray blouse and trousers and marching alongside them at every skirmish and campaign. And what did misery bring with him? Why, a whole host of things it appeared; chills and fever, endless days of sleet and rain that dampened clothes so thoroughly the very fabric rotted upon their backs. Misery shared tins of spoiled meat and maggot-laden biscuits and later, the sweats and agonizing cramps that caused grown men to cry. Absalom's cheekbones stuck out of his beard like a pair of taut elbows and if his boot leather had been a little more palatable, he'd have eaten it, laces and all. The men were left with tobacco and canteens of spring water and of course, their loyal companion, misery. Biding a moment to distract his gnawing hunger, Abe stepped out from a grove of elms to light his pipe, when he stumbled upon a solitary navy-clad guard. Both men were shocked, frozen in place by the surprise of it all. He remembered staring at the Union soldier, more boy than man, whisker-free face and swimming in his fatigues, but a sworn enemy, nonetheless. Absalom realized his grave mistake, holding his unlit pipe and chewing his chafed lips with a wry smile. He pictured his rifle, unattended and propped upon a thin tree trunk, not ten feet from behind him, but it might as well have been a thousand miles from where they stood. A shout came from the riverbank, bolting the young man to his senses bringing up his rifle and the next thing Abe was aware of was the entire forest exploding around him. It was then, as he spun around and darted back into the timbers that he and a Yankee bullet became well-acquainted.
These were no ordinary bullets. They were designed with more than death in mind, but upon impact to inflict extreme devastation upon its victims. Resulting in the flesh-tearing, bone-shattering remnants and the gaping holes left in their wake that produced right fertile grounds for deadly gangrene to come silently creeping into. And though Absalom survived its initial impact, learning to live on one leg, he was never able to fully make peace with it. It wasn't the injury itself. For no soldier escapes war unscathed in some kind of fashion or another. What he had trouble putting his mind to ease about, was the lack of memory of the amputation. He had been unable to recall the exact moment when the doctor had tossed his leg out the surgical room window and onto a pile of anonymous severed limbs. For as ridiculous as it might sound, he mourned the idea that he never got to give his leg a proper burial, and the grief of it haunted him. His leg, the very one with the jagged whitish scar from his youth when he jumped off his uncle's barn roof and sliced his shin open, the leg that he climbed creek beds with, and when he grew older, courted his bride-to-be with, his strong legs twirling his wife after they exchanged their wedding vows, and proudly carried their subsequent children with. Gone forever, lost in a heap.
Absalom merely awoke from the surgery, hours later, wading through a morphine fog, missing the lower half of his right leg, and that was that. There was no use digging around, searching for a familiar stump of flesh among the rotting masses. He simply had to make do with what he had. And for the most part, he accomplished that very task, even forgiving his fallen government and its lack of compensation. He'd be a southerner in his heart 'til he died, no matter where he lived, standing proud for his country and way of life, albeit on one leg. I suppose they gave me a little something for my sacrifice. Absalom chuckled a bit, biting back the bitter irony. Yes indeed, his service had cost him a pretty penny, but he had inadvertently acquired himself something in return; a damn good barometer. And odd way, he reckoned that helped with his new farming profession out here in the Dakota plains, though sometimes he wondered what good predicting the weather did him. It was so dry in these ceaseless prairie lands that by the time he got the aches, they had no way of collecting the inclement rainfall in any efficient manner.
After a moment of easing relief, the pain returned, throbbing against the scarred flesh. His skin felt warm, fevered with heat. He took a deep breath to counter the pain. Unlike times in the past when the pain swarmed his stumped limb, making him sweat out the aches under a blanket and a shot or two of medicinal rum, he reveled in it. It was August, and by his count the last time rain fell on his land was the end of May. What remained of their crops quickly faded from vibrant green to bone white.
When he searched the skies above, a smothering blue haze embraced the skyline and tried to persuade its story of continuing heat, but Absalom never doubted the cause of his aching.
He pulled off his worn hat and studied the horizon; cloudless and empty save for the afternoon sun. How it ached! He gritted his teeth against it. More so today, than he could ever recall. He rubbed his trousers where his skin met its wooden bones. Must be age, that, or dry mountain living that would bring on pain like this.
Absalom had been stacking newly cut logs on his endless stretch of fence. He smiled at his two younger boys who been lifting the wood, helping him remove the bent and broken ones.
"Rains comin', boys. I can feel it." He told his sons, "We best be gettin things ready."
The boys lifted their dusty bowler hats and wiped their sweaty brows. They looked at the sky with skeptical glances, but their father was never wrong about the weather.
"Go on, now. Go tell your mother."
They turned and ran off to their home, relaying the message to their mother, who was stirring the stew in preparation of the evening supper.
"Pa said a storms comin. I think he got the pains." The older boy, Nehemiah said. He was breathless rushing through the open doorway. His younger brother, Eli, merely nodded to confirm.
"If that's what he said, then that be the truth." Juelle replied, never lifting her eyes from the cast-iron pot or to turn to look at the sky. From within their sod house, it was good fifteen degrees hotter. Juelle tried to ignore the sweaty trickle coursing across her cheeks and plunging down the back of her neck while she stirred. She prayed that Absalom's statement was true; no doubt she could use a break in the weather. After nineteen years of marriage and her husband's way of knowing things, she was eager to feel cool raindrops, and not the usual sweat on her face, or when no one was looking, tears.
"Tell Malachi and Lem to bring those cattle in and you two can start on the windows. Janey will help."
The boys exchanged wry smiles, but kept their opinions to themselves, for their younger sister was hardly a help at all. They swallowed down their protests, heading to the pasture to find their older brothers before they began boarding the windows up. For those two small windows were Juelle's saving grace and she lovingly wiped the small square glass panes, each and every morning. As it was, by the time evening rolled around the windows were sprayed with its customary sheen of gritty dust. And though she would never admit to such a thing, she did wonder what might happen if she were to lose those parcels of blessed light. As sometimes in her lonelier moments, she thought they were the only things that prevented her mind from plunging into eternal darkness.
Juelle called to their youngest, four-year-old, Janey to finish up with her inside chores, sweeping the dirt floor and tucking in loose bedding, and give her brothers a hand. Clasped about her was a loosely-stitched, batten-stuffed semblance of a doll that was worshipped like an idol, and never left her daughter's side. Juelle had made the doll years ago from scraps of mismatched fabrics and yarn and never had there been an object of such devotion. Janey only had brothers out here on their hundred acres, not a playmate for miles. Their eldest daughter, Idella, had stayed in Tennessee, not making the move with them. Already, she was married three years now with one baby at her knee and another on the way. How it tore Juelle's heart to think of those younguns growing up without her. She flattened Janey's wild hair, tucking a ropy reddish tendril behind one of her ears.
"But mama, Eli promised to make a bed for Lilah!" The little girl protested, holding up her doll.
Just outside their doorway, her brother closest in age, had gathered a pile of sticks and straw to be used for the construction of the doll's bed.
"Where's she gonna sleep?" Her crown of red hair swayed side-to-side while she talked.
The fine strands were silky, flames of golden-red and Juelle had never seen hair that tangled so easily, like cobwebs it was. When she looked down at the little girl, Janey's face was a pale dish of wide gray eyes and concern. Idella and her boys had all favored her with olive skin and the same shade of brown hair and hazel eyes. Evidence of the wild Cherokee blood that ran through her veins, not so with this child. She appeared exempt from her inheritance. For red hair and pale skin was pure Harding. All of her husband's family was this way, as if they and the sun were incompatible. The sun appearing to take a stand against browning a skin that wasn't worth the hassle, a pale canvas that remained unpainted, save the scattered constellations of freckles. When she stroked Janey's cheek, the girl's skin was soft and shockingly white, appearing watery-blue like foremilk against Juelle's leathered hand.
Odd to think she could carry a child that looked nothing like her.
"Never you mind about that bed. You and your brother can make her a whole house tomorrow, tiny chimney and all. Lilah be fine with you tonight, anyway. Who is going to comfort her during the storm?" Her mother told her.
"Storm?" Janey's clear eyes crinkled quizzically, looking up at the empty sky.
"It's comin, baby." Juelle said.
As if to confirm the weather, a sudden breeze swept through the front door, bringing the scent of storm on it and raising gooseflesh upon Juelle's skin. It felt good. This unexpected break from the endless heat. Beneath her feet was the slightest of rumbles, somewhere thunder pounded the earth.
"Now. Young missy, you best get on."
Juelle stepped out of the front threshold and watched as her daughter reluctantly left to help her two brothers with the windows, handing nails and wood when needed. She noticed Janey kept glancing at the materials they collected for her doll furniture. The two of them had spent the better part of the morning gathering sticks, dried grass and torn pieces of canvas and now she saw her daughter's eyes spark with tears as another burst of wind sent the items scattering, swept into other bits of debris, creating miniature dust devils around the perimeter of their house. Out in the pasture, Juelle could see her oldest sons guiding the cattle into their stockyard.
Distracting Juelle from her children was a sudden flash of light that illuminated the ridge of Righteous Peak. The skies had indeed changed. In the west now, snagged upon the triangular point was a smattering of dark blue-gray clouds, dense with impending strength. A bolt of lightning uncoiled along the timberline, hitting the earth like a striking serpent. A stronger boom of thunder quickly followed. Juelle tightened her arms around her small frame, watching the horizon. She never liked these storms here in the Dakotas, this land where sheer mountain tops scraped the clouds and disappeared into the heavens and winds blew, hostile and angry. Thunder echoed metallic, like God rolling pebbles in a tin can, and brought rain that flooded the parched plains, quickly turning puddles into raging torrents without a place to collect the sudden rainwater. Or worse. Sometimes the rain didn't come at all. Juelle worried about these plains ignited by lightning strikes, the dried grass merely tinder to fuel its fiery rage. They made themselves a decent fire brake near the house, but what of their pasture? Their land? So dry it begged for fire to come finish the job.
She sighed again. How was it they had come to find themselves in such a place? Juelle felt as though she had been exiled here, put through some sort of test. But she would never speak of it to her husband. She would endure it as those before her had, God willing that was. It was the land, she hated. No less a desert to her then that told of from the Good Book, the very one where Hagar and her son Ishmael found themselves in when cast out from Abraham, where Moses wandered and God was less likely to be found. This was Juelle's desert, where the scorched earth curdled like leprous skin. And as far as she knew, Juelle had yet to see any magic wells left by God to put out flames if fire came to be.
Juelle shivered against the wind, crossing her arms tighter. She recalled the boys told her Absalom felt those aches, the rain pain, as they called them, and she allowed a bout of relief. This was not like the weather back home in Tennessee. Where the whole world was green. Their valley coveted the rain, where leaves trembled like giant tongues, gratefully drinking in the steady drops. The quiet mist that shrouded the low mountains like dancing ghosts and dampened the carpeted moss and tender grass shoots with its pleasant trickles. Lord, did she miss the green! But after enduring all the unpleasantness back home, they had nowhere else to go. Her husband was hell-bent on putting the past behind. Getting them a good-sized piece of land in these far-off Dakotas. And what was she to do? Gone was everything she had ever known in life. She followed her husband, duty-bound, but never would she learn to love these stark mountains, their rocky flesh stripped naked, purpled and barren of trees. Brooding above her, unfriendly and arrogant. All around her, these empty lands of unending grasses, bleached white and cracked like brittle bones beneath her feet. Never would she call this place home.
Juelle watched as her husband managed his way quickly over the dry dirt clumps and russet bunch grass. He limped, but was surprisingly agile, hurrying towards the house with a box of tools.
"It be here soon, Juelle, a big one by the pains of it." He yelled out, his voice muffled now that the wind gusted, chattering with dust and plant litter. "Get everybody in."
Juelle nodded. She went over to the remaining window, nailing in the last boards herself.
Thank you, Lord, for the rain.
They waited and waited for rain, eating their afternoon supper, hurrying with their meal, and afterwards, just waiting, peering out every now and then to see what the storm had in mind. To while away the time, Absalom got out his fiddle and played Janey's favorite tune, Pretty Saro, so she could sing along with her beloved father. The two of them, red-haired and freckled skin, making melodies so grand the music about came bursting through their boarded up windows, overpowering the blustering wind from outside. Little Janey never failed to delight an audience, especially such a captive one that was found in their tight quarters. Janey lifted her head and sang the song loud, clear and in the old way, her voice wrapping around each of her father's fiddle strokes, like satiny ribbons wound and tied together, making Juelle's heart swell and her eyes moisten. Juelle listened to the words, and its haunted verses that spoke of loss and an aching grief that could never be mended. To her, the song immediately brought her back to those long, lost days of creaky rocking chairs and moss-strewn front porches, Tennessee summers so hot and thick, you could carve the air out with a wooden spoon.
Juelle smiled at her husband and young daughter. Two peas in a pod, they were. Even her brothers were proud of their sister's talents, they didn't say as much, but their eyes shined as they tapped their feet in time with the music. The rain stayed put though and never came. Not so with the wind. For the breezes made up for the rain's absence and it screeched fierce through the open plains, heaving itself through the gaps of sod inside their confined space, breathing down their necks, making the small cabin shudder and moan.
Absalom put his fiddle away and Juelle fretted about, cursing the wind, wanting more than ever to leave this foreign place, to go back home. But she plastered a smile on her face, watching their oil lamp flicker with each sudden gust. She sat knitting tiny blankets for Lilah's new bed, patiently teaching her daughter how to count the stitches, giving Janey her own mound of yarn to practice with. By the time night rolled around, the wind stayed strong and Juelle gathered a sleeping Janey in her arms to put in the bed with them. Juelle soon joined her, sleeping fitfully, and wouldn't wake for hours. But Absalom did. It was the pains that woke him from the depths of slumber. A bone-aching throb from his phantom limb, now long gone, only to return as he relieved his amputation over and over in his dreams.
It was the same dream, the one where he imagined he could see the flash of metal, as the dull-toothed saw tore into his flesh, that crack of bone, loud in his ears, when it finally snapped, followed by his screams that often caused their sheets to sop up his sweat. Tonight he realized though, it wasn't just perspiration soaking their bedding that awoke him, for he could also feel the trickles of wind on his face and the heavy breath of smoke. Alarmed, Absalom hopped along the dirt floor, guiding his hands blindly to try to find his wooden leg. He kept it propped against the wall, and was relieved when his fingers finally touched the leather straps, feeling the wooden post from beneath his hands.
Something was wrong. For the wind was too strong to just be coming though any chinks in the walls. After affixing his leg he hobbled in the direction of the door. Once rounding the corner, a burst of wind hit his face and to his surprise, he found the door swung open, pressed against the wall, unable to shut due to the wind.
"My Lord!" he exclaimed under his breath, shielding his eyes from a burst of gritty dust.
At the threshold, he glanced outside and his eyes beset an awesome site. For along the skyline was a wild, fiery glow, churning orange-red waves that crested with the gusting breezes. The scent of smoke and ash was thick, oily in his lungs as he breathed in the wind.
"Juelle!" He hissed, hobbling over and shaking his wife awake. "We got big trouble. Get the boys up!"
He wrestled into his overcoat, limped out of their cabin and was swallowed up in the dank smoky air. The boys soon slid down the ladder, trying to get into their clothes so they could follow in their father's footsteps.
Juelle felt a pit in her stomach. Something was going to happen, she could feel it. The heat was still on the wind, but no rain fell.
Where was the rain? Juelle thought.
Her husband had felt the weather and Absalom was never wrong when it came to his curious predictions, but it was holding stubborn in the skies and didn't seem to want to come down. Must be the rain hates this land as much as I do.
She grabbed rags and dipped them in water for the boys to tie on their faces and watched with growing worry as they ran outside.
God, don't you forget about me. Protect my family, watch over them, she prayed.
Just over their pasture, the skyline was alive with flames, the darkness consumed in a fiery red haze. She could hear her husband's voice above the wind and crackling fire, shouting to the boys. The ash swirled in the air like a sooty snowstorm, blanketing everything it touched with charred flakes and melted soot.
Burn it all! She thought fiercely. Maybe then they could leave this land, this unrelenting desert of hell. She'd tell Absalom they did their best to give this land a good shot, but it just wasn't meant to be. They'd need to go back. To go home again.
"Mama! " Janey had awoken and was screaming in the dull light. She clenched her doll and wrapped herself around Juelle's legs. "What's happening, mama?"
"Oh baby doll, it's a bad fire. You need to help me wet everything around us," Juelle pried her daughter's terrified grip from her legs. "Come on now, you got to be a big girl!"
The two of them grabbed wooden buckets and began pumping water into them, dumping the water around their property. She couldn't hear or see the boys now. The smoke smothered, foggy and dense. How she hated this place!
Juelle felt bile rise from her stomach and perch itself upon her tongue. She collected what saliva she could and spat out into the dry, smoky air. For the first time in her married life, she also cursed her husband, blaming him forever bringing them away from her home, her misty, green-treed heaven.
The wind whipped all about them, clawing into her eyes and blinding her like a wounded animal. To her shock, Janey was nowhere to be found. Juelle dropped her bucket, whirling about, desperate to find her daughter.
Lord, have mercy, if we survive, I promise to never again complain about this land, about the heat and the endless grass. O God, let us live!
Her feet tripped over something unseen in the smoke, it was Janey crumpled and unconscious, succumbed by the heat. Juelle scooped her up and brought her inside, pouring water on her head and wetting rags to wrap around her body.
Janey slowly regained consciousness, her eyes just slits, swollen by the smoky ash.
"Mama?" She whispered, weak and feeble.
"Don't you talk, you lie still!" Juelle hovered over her, shaking with fear and frustration. "You are not to move. Not one little finger, do you hear me?"
Janey nodded and tears spilled down her cheeks, her white skin shining through its sooty trails.
Juelle wrapped a soggy rag around her own mouth and headed back outside. Anger welled inside of her with the same molten fury as the firestorm.
Have you come to take my children? The only thing left of my old world? Well, you can try, but I be damned if you take them away from me without a fight!
She grabbed a scythe and began swinging like a madwoman into the flaming fields, groaning and screaming against the roaring flames. The flames reared back and the embers drowned in the burnt dirt beneath her feet.
You may not take them! You may not take my children! Damn you to hell! You took my husband's leg and now you are after the rest. Over my dead body you will!
She was savagely threshing, her arms slashed and welted from the sharp bladed grass, unaware of the cuts as he fought the flames with all her might. Tears stung her eyes, but still she swung, until something stroked her ashy face. Like an angel kiss it was. It fell upon her again, causing her to stop her incessant swings. It was the rain. Cooling drops that finally fell out of the heavens, and licked her burning skin, fat, wet raindrops that hissed in the flaming embers and began to pelt the earth. What started as timid sprinkles, grew heavy and thick, pouring down above in a watery curtain.
Oh, it came, the rain! Juelle pulled off her sodden rag and opened her mouth letting the rain pour in, swallowing that sweet, blessed water.
Praises to you, my Lord.
Tears and raindrops slid down her face and she fell to her knees, the rainwater pooling all around. Sobbing in the smoky darkness, she lay down and let the rain absolve her, wash away her pain and anger, all those years, lost in this wasteland.
That was where her sons found her the next morning. Lem and Eli bent down and cautiously touched at the heap of dampened clothes, skin of mud and soot-caked streaks, not knowing what to expect. But to the boy's great amazement, Juelle moved and opened her eyes to find hazy sunrays and the ashy faces of her four sons staring down at her.
"Where's Janey?" She rose with a start, her voice thick with panic.
"She's sleepin, Ma. I got her." Malachi told her and Juelle saw burdened in his arms, a blanket-strewn sleeping child. But his face was hiding something.
"Oh, Lord. Not your pa? God in heaven. Where is he?" She cried out, but the boys didn't answer this time, they hung their heads looking away from her.
So the Lord had taken her up on her offer; there been a price to pay for their protection, she thought—The Lord did giveth, but he always did take his share, too.
They looked back at her, their mother and studied her carefully, watching as Juelle attempted to gather her wits about her.
"Where is he then? Where is his body?" She swung her face around, trying to stand up, shaking from the wet and from other things.
"He's in the barn. I put him in there." Nehemiah's voice choked. He wiped at his tears.
Juelle half-stumbled, half-ran to the barn where her boys quickly followed. Lem tried to steady her with his arm but she brushed him away with brusque hands. She had to see him, her husband. To see with her own eyes. This man she had wed, had made six beautiful children with, had sacrificed her life to. Her eyes spilled with tears that fell freely, the barn bleary in front of her as she moved closer. Her breath wheezed, ragged with grief, not knowing what she would discover. To her surprise, the barn remained miraculously unscathed, the flames stopping short all around it. As she ventured in, she noticed on a pile of wet straw, what appeared to be a rumpled form under a canvas sheet. Juelle sank down and touched the ashy cloth. Beyond the bottom edge, was the remnant of one burnt shoe, directly next to it was his peg leg, charred with black ash, smoke rising in lazy rings.
"We'll take him with us. But not that! Never that!" Juelle said at long last, seething at that obscene piece of burnt wood. "That goddamn thing is what brought us here in the first place. We will leave that here!"
The boys stood in shocked silence, for they had never in their lives heard their mother swear, not in all the time they had known her and loved her. Even through years of brutal war, when they had near nothing, their mother remained silent and went without so they would have something to put in their stomachs. When they pulled away in their wagon and left their sister behind, venturing forth with their agonizing move across country, their mother never said a word. But Juelle swore right then and never again would such words come out of her mouth.
"Losing his leg never set well with your pa. I believe your soul can't rest when your bones are scattered about. I'll not find his missing leg, God knows, but I believe I know right where to put the rest of him. Once he returns to that red clay his bones can reunite again, and stitch themselves in heaven." Juelle's eyes softened, thinking of the fertile green hillocks back home. The perfect place to honor her husband.
"We will go home now. All of us."
She'd sell it all. Everything they had. For now, she had been given permission to leave; her forty years were paid in full. She could finally return to her people, where she belonged.
Kristen Lynch has had short stories published at Midwest Literary Magazine, Centuarlit, The Idaho Writer's Guild website and a poem at cowboypoetry.com.