The fighting was over, but the war went on. The roads, and even the fields, crawled with soldiers coming home defeated, and they crawled with carpet-baggers, racing the soldiers to take, legally or extra-legally, their unprotected homes and farms from their hungry and over-worked wives and children. And they crawled with recently emancipated slaves, many of whom milled directionless without possessions or goals.
John watched his world with growing horror.
The major had brought them all here, having been invalided out of the army for an illness from which he had recovered long since. He spent his time now mainly away from home, helping the neighbours and doing small things for the town. His growing – and sickening – family was left to care for itself. John was pushed brusquely aside. Often he could see the major out walking with young Rachel from the next farm. And because he listened in town, both to rumours and jeers, he knew his father was active in the imported enemy court, an apologist now, though he was occasionally able to help another Southern family keep their land against the court.
John’s mother had worked far too hard those years, feeding and caring for the many people crowded into the farm house, from aunts several years older than John to baby cousins, and now the new former slave children his father had taken in. She had also managed and worked the land, John helping as best he could, with his older cousins. And Mattie. His mother always coughed now, stifling it for her son, but he heard its true effect at night. She had always been first to rise and last to sleep throughout the war. And when need had called her, from the town or another farm, she had always wakened ready, dressed impeccably, calm, gentle and reassuringly capable whatever
the hour. John had often crept silently from his own bed, just to see her dear head bent over mending when she had become too tired to stand, her skin warm and gold in the halo of lamplight. Now her skin was translucent and hot, cast with bleeding blooms from within her, and even with all her will she rarely rose from her bed.
It was night again. The major was out, and Mattie was washing Alice’s nightdress and sheets. Her face was red and damp in the heat, and though it was not proper she too was in her cotton nightdress. But it was war and such small things had fallen away. She looked so tired now, caring for John’s mother with him, her black hair long in s loose braid with the escaped tendrils corkscrewing in the steam. Her hands were raw from scrubbing at night and working in the field in the day, but still she had a smile for John.
He worked with her, fourteen now, his life cut with fear and love. The cloth needed to be wrung also and he twisted it tight and hard into ropes and then again, so they could hang it to dry and iron it. The wash-water was pink with his mother’s blood.
It was quiet in the night, surrounded by the sounds of sleep, and they were pleased with one another’s presence – a little shelter in the sorrow about them. Both of them dressed in simple white with their sleeves rolled. They almost mirrored each other, their resemblance strong, though his hair curled white, and hers black.
“Mattie...” His voice was almost a whisper. “In town today, there was a man from Uncle Thomas’ unit.”
“Oh, John,” Her voice was low as well, their faces close to hear but not to disturb the others. And, despite himself and the seriousness of his words, John liked the sense of her breath and her life so near and warm. “Oh, John. Was there any news of him?”
“Yes,” John bit his lip for the news was not good. “He is a warden in the Macon army hospital in Cuthbert, when he is not too ill to work.”
“But he is alive, and of course he is helping others. It really is wonderful to hear that he is able. How you must miss him. And how your mother must miss her brother.” Mattie’s voice was gentle, always caring first for others, never thinking of her own exhaustion or work. They both knew of the army hospitals with fever and disease and seas of men lying, some without beds, some without shelter, unable to sleep for the cries and pleas of their fellows, so many in shock or agony from amputations.
“Mattie...” John wanted to ask her – she was so good, all that was good in the world was embodied in his cousin. “Mattie...” Could he say it?
“Yes, John?” And she touched his face then, stroked his hair, as his eyes suddenly stung. She always understood.
“My mother is going to die. I want to... do something more for her. I was thinking I could bring Uncle Thomas back for her.” He swallowed. “Before she dies.” Even with Mattie’s soothing hand, he cried, holding himself tight, caught, his throat too hard to speak again for a moment.
“Oh, John.” And warm tender arms around him then, Mattie moving around the wooden basin, her arms still wet below the clean cotton nightgown, still taller than he, her actual body against his through the cloth. And he was able to cry. She knew the major was scarcely family now, and all his mother had left was John.
He told his plans to her shoulder, smooth and smelling of pure soap. He would take two horses and guns to cross the state to find him and bring him home. He would move through ditches and trees, neither through the fields nor on the roads, hiding, traveling at night if he could.
They both knew the country teemed with the desperate panicked hands of men from whom everything had been taken, men who had been robbed of more than they had ever had to give, men who had lost hope, value and morality under the pressures of simple need
. It teemed with the greedy grasping hands of men who had come to steal even the broken remnants of the Southern world. And John would need to thread his way between them with horses
, more needed and precious than food or life.
He felt so young, held and comforted. He felt so old, leaving childhood for the reality of fear and a need for strength that might be beyond him, risking himself.
Mattie’s lips pressed a soft kiss that shivered into his pale neck. “Though it seems impossible, I have perfect faith,” She said.
And John brought his uncle home from the war. Name: John H. Holliday, DDS.
Word Count: 1111
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Nulli Virtute Secundus