The Promise by Ann Weisgarber – Extract

The Promise


The Vigil

October 1899

There wasn’t nothing good about funerals. The very notion of them was a disturbance. I’ve told my kin, when my time comes, don’t lay me out for people to look at. Just close the coffin and bury me quick. But these Catholics had other notions. They stretched a funeral like nobody else could.

That was how it was for Bernadette. She was laid out in the middle of her parlor with three sawhorses holding up the coffin. It was the second day of October, still full daylight and plenty warm, but Sister Camillus had lit three white candles. They were on a tall metal stand near the foot of the coffin. At the other end, a stand held a crucfix. That was what they called it. A crucfix. I didn’t like it, Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, His hands and feet nailed to the cross, and His bare ribs showing. It wasn’t seemly. I wished someone would move that thing but nobody did.

A few hours before the vigil started, the neighbors showed up in their wagons. That set the dogs barking, and my two brothers had to go out and herd them into the barn. The neighbors came from up and down Galveston Island, and they came wearing black. The women were in their mourning dresses with their corsets pulled extra tight for the occasion. I’d done the same. The men wore suits, and their white collars were starched to stand up even when they took to tugging at them, sweat dribbling down the sides of their faces.

The neighbor women brought baskets of food filled with platters of shrimp and oysters. They brought pans of corn-bread, bowls of purple-hull peas, and more cakes than I had room for on Bernadette’s kitchen table. They talked in low tones – ‘Ain’t it sad?’ ‘Don’t it break your heart?’ the feathers on their hats bobbing as we put out the food. It was supper time but nobody ate. It didn’t seem right with Oscar standing by the coffin, his green eyes dulled with sorrow. There was no getting away from seeing him, the kitchen being the other half of the front room. Couldn’t keep from seeing the neighbor men, either, them clumped around Oscar. They turned their hats in their hands as they mumbled condolences; Daddy kept pinching the crown in his. My brothers weren’t much better but the married men were the most skittish. Their gazes skipped around until they found their wives. Don’t die, I could see the men think. Don’t leave me with our little ones, me not knowing what to do, me having to give them away or remarry quick. Don’t let me be like Oscar, widowed with a four-year-old boy.

It was hurtful to watch.

It didn’t take long for the men to drift away from Oscar and go out to the front veranda. That was where the neighbor children were. The boys sat on the wide-planked floor with their black-stocking legs poked between the railing posts so that their feet could dangle and swing. The little girls sat on the steps that led up to the veranda, their hair in braids and tied with ribbons. I saw them from the front kitchen windows, and I didn’t blame the men and the children for staying out ­side. There, the breeze whisked away the sweat. Outside, they could look at the sky with its high-riding puffed clouds. The house sat up on five-foot-high stilts and from the veranda, a person could see the rows of tall sand hills that were a quarter of a mile from the front of Bernadette and Oscar’s house. The Gulf of Mexico was on the other side of the sand hills and far off, at the horizon, a trail of steamships and schooners waited to come into Galveston’s port.

On the veranda, the neighbor men shucked off their high collars and went to the dairy barn, some of them taking their children with them. At the barn, I figured the men did what came natural. They worked. They filled the water troughs, and they cleaned out the stalls. They worked so that Oscar wouldn’t worry overly about his milk cows.

Likely Oscar wasn’t thinking about nothing else but Bernadette. As Mama said, he wasn’t but a shadow of him­self since she took sick a week ago.

When the vigil started, the Baptists mostly left and went on home. I wanted to do the same; I wanted to breathe air that wasn’t filled up with sadness. But Bernadette had been my friend since she and Oscar got married, and a person didn’t run out on friends.

Neither would I run out on Oscar. My family had known him since he came to our end of the island. We were practically next-door neighbors, our house being only a mile and a half away. My brothers, Frank T. and Wiley, worked for Oscar and hauled milk to Oscar’s city customers. So I stayed for the vigil, and Mama did, too. Sister Camillus got down on her knees on the braided rug by the coffin, her all swallowed up in nun’s clothes so that only part of her face showed. She had her white rosary beads in her hands. Oscar was there, too, kneeling and holding a black rosary, it looking small in his broad hands that were scarred and nicked from hard work.

I could hardly look at him. He was peaked pale, the sun washed out of his cheeks. But his necktie was knotted just so, and he was fresh shaved. Down on his knees, he kept his shoul­ders back and his bearing upright. He stayed that way all through the rosary praying – ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’ – each word sliding into the next. There was no end to that rosary; it called for a prayer for each bead and that thing was one bead after the next. But Oscar stayed steady. Likely he did it for Bernadette. It would hurt her hard to see him slump with sorrow.

Leastways, Andre didn’t have to suffer through all the praying. The nuns saw to that. The day before Bernadette died, her burning up worse than before with malaria and retching up watery bile, two of the nuns came and took him to St. Mary’s. ‘He shouldn’t be in the house,’ Sister Camillus had told Oscar. ‘It’s worrying Bernadette. She can hear him crying for her.’

I hadn’t liked them taking him, not one bit. Andre had cried, I wouldn’t say different. He asked for his mama, his little face puckered with puzzlement. But I was there seeing to him while Mama and Sister Camillus took turns nursing Bernadette. I washed his face in the mornings, saying how we had to scrub all them freckles of his. I helped him into his nightshirt at bedtime and made him say his prayers. When I cooked breakfast, dinner, and supper in Bernadette’s kitchen, Andre played under the table with his building blocks. ‘Miss Nan,’ he’d say, his black eyes with long eyelashes fixed on me. ‘I made me a fort. See?’

‘Ain’t that something?’ I’d say. When he cried for his mama, wanting to go into the bedroom to see her, I took him to the beach. There, he dug holes in the sand, his four dogs winding around him and dropping sticks for him to throw. When it was about time to go home, me and him picked the yellow sea daisies that grew in the sand hills. They were Bernadette’s favorite. We filled up a canning jar with them and when we got home, I’d knock on the closed bedroom door. If Mama or Sister Camillus said it was a good time, Andre took the flowers to his mama. As sick as she was, her eyes lit up when that little boy with his sun-browned cheeks and stand-up-straight cowlick came into the room.

That was how it was during the first four days of Bernadette’s sickness. Then she got worse and Andre went to St. Mary’s that was down the beach about a half-mile. St. Mary’s was an orphanage filled from corner to corner with children. The nuns were good to the orphans, I wouldn’t say different. And Bernadette was partial to the nuns. ‘They took me in,’ she said about them. ‘I won’t ever forget what they did for me.’ But it wasn’t the same for Andre. He had a home. I expected Oscar to buck the nuns about taking Andre while Bernadette was sick. Oscar thought the sun rose and set on that little boy, and Andre was the same way about his daddy. But Oscar let the nuns take him.

That was what ran through my mind during the vigil. Andre at the orphanage, waiting for his daddy to come get him. That vigil went on and on, all them beads to be prayed over. When it finally ended, the Catholics weren’t ready to quit. The fu­neral mass was the next day at St. Mary’s. The chapel was so crowded with neighbors that the orphans had to sit squashed together. Some city people were there, too, done up in high-quality clothes. The women’s hats were showy with big bows and long feathers, and the men had barbershop shaves. I figured they all were Oscar’s customers, and I didn’t pay them much attention. My mind was on Andre.

I saw him right off when me, Mama and Daddy, and my brothers came into the chapel before the service started. He was with Oscar in the front row, them two sitting pressed as close to each other as they could get. I could have cried if I was given to doing such. Bernadette’s coffin wasn’t more than a few yards from them.

Daddy made us sit in back, saying how we weren’t Catholics. Mama didn’t like it. ‘We’re nearly kin,’ she’d whispered.

‘Nearly kin ain’t the same as being,’ Daddy whispered back.

‘Well,’ Mama said. ‘Maybe.’ She sat down and the hymn-singing started, but I didn’t know the words. Next, the priest showed up and all through the kneeling and praying, I thought how proud Bernadette would be, her little boy being brave, not a peep out of him.

From the day he was born, she fussed over him. She called him mon cher ’tit chou. That was Cajun talk for my little sweet­heart, Bernadette had told me. She was from the swamps over there in Louisiana. But now Andre was a poor motherless child. That was what the neighbor women called him when the service was finally over and we walked together to our wagons and buggies that were parked off to the side of the chapel. Oscar couldn’t raise him alone, they said. No man could. Then somebody said, ‘The nuns’ll take good care of Andre, least-ways until Oscar remarries.’

I kept my mouth shut. The neighbors didn’t know. They weren’t there on the day Bernadette died like I was. I’d been washing her parlor windows, keeping the house up like she would, when Mama came out of the bedroom. ‘Nan,’ she’d said, ‘Bernadette wants to see you.’

It took everything I had to walk down the hall and into the bedroom. The room had a bad sour smell, Sister Camillus and Oscar sat on either side of the bed, and I hardly knew Bernadette. She laid on her side, slick with feverish sweat and pasty-colored. Her lips were cracked and bloody. She was nothing but skin and bones other than her belly, swelled with the baby she was expecting come Christmas. Oscar got up so I could take his place.

I took Bernadette’s hand. It was burning hot and her black eyes glittered. ‘I’m here,’ I said, pressing her hand to my cheek. Across from me, Sister Camillus’ brown eyes bored into mine. She didn’t like me, plain as day. Bernadette licked her lips. Then she came right out and told me to look after Andre.

‘Now you stop that talk,’ I told her. ‘Ain’t nothing all that wrong with you. Just a little fever, that’s all.’

Bernadette shook her head. She knew different. The priest had been there that morning. ‘Nan,’ she said. ‘Please.’

‘Bernadette,’ Sister Camillus said. ‘Dear.’

‘Forgive me, Sister.’ She swallowed hard like her throat wasn’t working right. She said, ‘Please. Nan.’

‘You’re going to get better,’ I said. ‘I just know it.’ But Oscar, standing beside me, likely couldn’t take it no more. ‘Promise,’ he said to me, that word coming out hard. ‘Say you will,’ he said. So I did, squeezing out the words, tears in my voice.

I thought about my promise when we left the chapel. Most of the neighbors went on home – chores were calling – but some of us lined up our buggies and wagons, one after the other, and went up the island to the cemetery in the city. We traveled along the beach road, the tide being low and the sand by the water’s edge packed down hard. To our right, the gulf sparkled like cut glass in the afternoon sun. Me, Mama, and Daddy were crowded up in the buggy while my brothers, Frank T. and Wiley, followed behind us in the wagon. The surf was a soft roar, and we didn’t say nothing, sadness likely wearing us all down.

The sand crunched under the buggy wheels, and up in the sky, long strings of pelicans floated on currents of air, their wings spread wide. Oscar was partial to pelicans and liked to count them. I hoped that he saw them as he rode with Sister Camillus on the buckboard of the wagon that carried Bernadette. Andre wasn’t with them. He’d been left behind at St. Mary’s; could be somebody thought he’d had enough. When we got to the cemetery and the priest found more to say before Bernadette was lowered into the grave, I hoped Oscar thought about pelicans, all light and airy up in the sky. Maybe they’d make him remember who Bernadette had been before she took sick.

It’d be easy for him to let the nuns keep Andre. It’d be easy for him to send Andre to his kin up in Ohio. That was where Oscar was from. Most men would do one or the other: a man couldn’t raise a child alone. Most would forget the promise I’d made, me not being kin. But when the priest finally ran out of prayers, when it was all over, the gravediggers waiting under the tree for us to leave, Oscar came over to me.

‘I’m bringing Andre home,’ he said. ‘Later today.’

‘He’ll be purely glad,’ I said.

The next morning, well before dawn, I let myself into the dark house and took up caring for Andre.

Excerpted from The Promise by Ann Weisgarber. Copyright © 2013 by Ann Weisgarber.
First published 2013 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world:
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


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