My husband was not one of us. He remains, after decades, a mystery to me. Inexplicable. Yet, in many ways, and on most days, he was an ordinary man.
With him I learned that, before all mysteries, surrender is inevitable. We all give way to our true natures. This is his story. It is, of course, also my story, for I am the one left to do the telling.
Now finally, after decades, I am writing this down for my daughters, for their children and the children after them, the act of writing my atonement for all I have not told them. Until now. For now I have proof. Sweet, indisputable proof.
Sarah, our youngest daughter, sent me a photograph weeks ago, a full year since she moved to China with her husband, Jian, and their son, Michael. In it, her hair is glossy dark brown and straight. Her eyes are a deep brown as well, and the folds of her eyelids now suggest Asian ancestry. Her curly red hair and gold-flecked green Irish eyes are gone; in her new skin, she is her father’s daughter. Lil, my daughter who lives with me now, insists that Sarah must have had plastic surgery and dyed her hair. She’s puzzled and disappointed that her sister would take such measures to fit in where she now lives. But I know the truth.
This truth begins on a Saturday in 1944. I was fresh out of high school and already tired of working at the cotton mill when I heard our car pull up in the backyard. Then Momma trudged through the door, hard news on her face.
Without taking her coat off, she slumped down into one of the dining chairs. She stared at the table, then opened her mouth as if to speak. I propped the iron up.
Every day brought news of boys missing or dead in the war. Momma and Daddy had been visiting my widowed aunt Eva. Two of Eva’s three sons were already dead. The third, Ricky, was overseas after lying about his age to sign up with the army. I braced myself, expecting Momma to announce Eva’s remaining child among them. Instead, she closed her mouth, hung her head, and covered her eyes as Daddy paused on the back porch to wipe his feet.
“It’s your aunt Eva, Evelyn. She’s gone,” he said.
Then Momma began to cry in earnest. Aunt Eva, the baby sister of my grandmother, was in spirit, if not in fact, the matriarch of our family. Closer to Momma than her own mother had been.
I unplugged the iron as Daddy went to find my sisters, Rita and Bertie.
“It’s okay, Momma. It’ll be okay.” I rubbed her back. I loved my stern and demanding aunt Eva. I could not imagine her energy stilled by death and the farm left empty. But I sensed, even then, that this change was larger than a single death, that it would radiate out from this single point.
Daddy returned, shepherding my sisters into the kitchen. Bertie held out a handkerchief for Momma. Rita blinked nervously. Tears were rare for our mother.
Momma wiped her face and sighed a deep, shuddering sigh. “I knew something must have been wrong. She hadn’t been into town in over a week. She always . . .”
I started to sit down again and reached for Momma’s hand.
Daddy stopped me. “You’re going to the farm with me. Eva’s cows haven’t been milked.”
I didn’t want to leave Momma, but he was right. I was the one who should go with him. My brother, Joe, had no interest in the farm. Bertie had never deigned to touch a cow’s teat, and any animal larger than a house cat intimidated Rita. I knew Aunt Eva’s farm better than I knew my own bedroom. I followed Daddy to the car and slid in beside him.
“Probably a heart attack,” he said. “I don’t think she suffered. Your momma found her on the parlor couch, pictures of her boys next to her.”
He offered no more and I didn’t ask. We had never been much for words, the two of us. I looked out at the houses we passed. Eva was gone. A wave of anger surged through me. I tried to console myself with the hard practical thought that the natural death of an old woman was better than one more boy dead.
Daddy muttered, cursing the roughness of the steep driveway and downshifting the old Ford.
“The coroner’s here,” Daddy announced as we pulled around behind the house. Eva’s dog, Hobo, barked a welcome then retreated. Two men slid Eva’s sheet-covered body, strapped down as if she might get away, into the back of an open ambulance. Daddy got out of the car and greeted a man in a suit, who approached us holding some papers. I walked away from their voices, turning my back on the face of Eva’s house and its door propped open like a gaping mouth.
The plow horse, Becky, whinnied and pawed as soon as I opened the barn door. Eva’s three cows bellowed. Their bags hung heavily, enormous and painfully pink. Manure soured by too much urine lay over the normal sweet barn smell. I started first with Maybell, the cantankerous one, working my hands gently along her bag, checking for lumps. For once, she seemed grateful for the milking.
Only then, leaning against her warm, firm side, listening to the rhythm of milk hit the tin bucket, breathing the sweetness of it rising, did I begin to cry for the woman who had taught me to milk. I cried for her and for what the war had taken. All those boys dead, a new one in the newspaper every day. Now the war was taking my refuge, the farm. It had fallen into such neglect. That would not have happened just with the death of Uncle Lester. It took the war biting off one son at a time until there were none.
Since I’d been old enough to carry a bucket or wield a hoe, I had done my best to help Eva. But blinded by grief, she had let the place go. A dull darkness slipped over me as if, in her death, Eva’s sorrows had shifted to my shoulders.
After a few minutes, Daddy joined me. He snorted in disgust and stomped the manure off his shoes, then set to work on Beulah next to me. He offered nothing more about Eva’s death. He hated the farm. He had grown up poor on a farm and had vowed never to go back to one. I couldn’t see that we were any better off, the six of us living paycheck to paycheck crowded into the tiny mill-village house, but Daddy trusted the steady income of the textile mills. To him, farmers were a lot to be pitied. “Farmers are at the mercy of nature’s whims,” he liked to say. We finished the milking and started the feeding. While Daddy watered the hogs and chickens, I went into the house, drawn to it now that the coroner was gone. I pulled the screen door closed. Eva hated flies getting in the house. The stove was cold and held the same stillness that permeated the house. A saucer sat on the table, a half-eaten square of corn bread on it, a cup of coffee next to it, a spoon left in the cup. Such a puny breakfast—nothing like the ham, eggs, and biscuits she had always made for Uncle Lester, her boys, and me. I took the dishes to the sink and put them down soundlessly, not wanting to disturb the silence. I lay my hand on the pump handle, letting the cool of it into my palm. Through the window over the sink, I saw Daddy, bent at the hog pen, emptying a bucket of water into the trough. I imagined Aunt Eva behind me at the table, overwhelmed by a sudden urge to see her boys and, taking uncharacteristic leave of her breakfast and chores, going to look at their pictures in the parlor. Or had she known what was coming and decided to die there with them?
I followed her path down the dark-wood hall past the bedrooms. A stench surprised me before I got to the parlor. I sucked in my breath and I turned my head, but kept going. Her bedroom door stood open, the bed neatly made. She’d gotten that far. On the front porch, the rocking chairs sat motionless. I stood out at the edge of the yard where the land dropped to the railroad tracks. The air was calm and empty.
Then I felt the train, first in my feet—that faint, familiar vibration. The 5:40 out of Charlotte heading for the mill. I leapt and waved as the engine chugged rhythmically into sight, bursting into the air. I gave the engineer the bent-armed sign and pumped my elbow up and down. He saluted and obliged: two sharp blasts. The force reverberated in my breastbone, and I was a little girl for a moment, laughing and bouncing on my feet. The roar of the train swelled into a moving wall of sound as the long line of freight cars passed below. The ground shook.
The roar diminished as the train disappeared toward the mill and the quiet returned.
When Daddy called, I followed his voice to the parlor. He had maneuvered the sofa to the door and waited for my help. “It’s ruined. She must have lost control in the end.”
I held my hand up to shush him, a gesture my father normally would not have accepted from one of his children. I picked up my end and we worked the sofa down the hall. The smell was awful. Even in the dim light, the dark stain that ran half the length of the sofa was visible.
I kept my eyes on Daddy. Moving furniture was something he would normally do with my brother. Outside of his work at the mill, he was sedentary with his pipe and his rocking chair, already middle-aged, though still in his thirties. His strength and competence as we carried the big sofa through the kitchen surprised and pleased me. Sweat stuck my dress to my back by the time we got the heavy old sofa outside and, turning from the sight and smell of it, dropped it on the hard, bare clay beside the back porch.
A few minutes later, we drove away in the glow of the dashboard light. The dark shapes of trees slipped by in the dusk. I glanced at my father. His hands were on the wheel. Immutable and endlessly taciturn, he peered at the road ahead.
All my life, I had heard stories about my mother, both from her and her family. Illustrations of her stellar memory for numbers, her sly stubbornness, or her random gullibility. My youngest sister, Rita, pale and skittish as a feral cat, had always been transparent to me. Bertie, three years younger, was more complex but guileless and always willing to announce what was on her mind. My brother, Joe, born only eleven months after me and resembling Daddy as much as I resembled Momma, I knew in the thoughtless, unconscious way one knows a close sibling.
My father was a different story. I sometimes saw him laughing with other men, but at home he sat detached, his face vague behind the smoke of his pipe. Only blatant insubordination or dangerous stupidity on the part of us kids could animate him into flashes of authority. I never heard him tell a story.
Riding home from Eva’s, I glanced at him again. I wanted something from him, some sign of being touched by the same loss, a token of kinship. But we did not even look like kin. I had red, wavy hair and freckles. Like all the women of my mother’s family, I was tall. He was clear-skinned and compact, his dark hair straight.
We drove home in silence.
After the funeral, Momma and I crowded into the small basement of the farmhouse, pulling dusty jars of Eva’s beans, jams, and relishes off the shelves, sniffing and checking them to make sure they were still good. The small room smelled of mold and dust. Shelves of jars lined each wall.
“This farm kept us alive during the Depression,” Momma said. From her tone, I knew this was not idle chatter.
For me, the Depression was the dim past of my early childhood. I thought instead of how the war—which, at first, had seemed like a big, bright party—was taking everything. I had done my share for the war effort: helped neighbors in their victory gardens, donated my pennies, and collected cans, newspaper, toothpaste tubes, and grease. But these seemed like such small things. In the year before her death, when I should have been helping Eva, I’d worked the mill instead, standing in deafening noise, watching the birth of thread for the war effort. At night, I’d pulled cotton from my hair and the creases of my neck. In the mornings, I pinned my underwear to my skirts because all the rubber for elastic went to the war.
Momma raised her voice to get my attention. “Careful, Evelyn. We don’t have rations for more jars.” She motioned for me to remove the jars from the next shelf. “During the Depression everybody helped everybody else. And we traded what we could. But it was Eva and Lester who gave us the most, and they could afford to only because they had the farm. You kids didn’t get so skinny or quiet as some did.”
She stopped dusting, as if expecting an answer, then continued, “Land’s a terrible thing to waste, Evelyn. We’ve felt the lack of Eva’s work this year. Your brother and sisters are still growing. The government didn’t have growing kids in mind when it started the rationing.”
I understood then where she was going.
“We need at least a good garden crop this coming spring. Somebody needs to tend the house and barn, slop the hogs, and milk the cows.
This war will be over one day and we don’t know how things will be then. Jobs can be lost. Wages can go down. But land will keep giving, if you work it. We may need every ounce this farm can give.”
Through the small, cobwebbed basement window, I saw the apple tree and the wild brown tangle of the roses Eva had abandoned in her grief.
“We’ll all come up to help. Until your cousin Ricky gets back—if he gets back—it’s this or the mill, Evelyn.”
We looked at each other. I was seventeen. It was 1944. I was a farmer.
We went outside to watch Joe and Daddy burn the stuffing and upholstery they had pulled off the sofa Eva died on. Momma held her hand up to shade her eyes, as if the fire was the sun, as if restricting her vision would diminish the stench of burning horse hair, the loss of her aunt.
“I know we are all flesh—as much as the hogs and chickens we eat. And we go to dust. But it was hard finding her that way. A hard reminder,” Momma said softly as she stepped sideways to loop her arm through Daddy’s.
Though I wasn’t cold, I stood near the fire and held my hands out to its heat. The smoke wafted up. Parts of Eva were in that fire and smoke—probably a hair or two from her head, a sliver of fingernail, a thread from one of her dresses, along with what had drained out of her while she lay dead on the sofa. All of that rose above us, spread out, and joined the sky.
The next day was a Sunday. After supper, I carefully packed my clothes, my Bible, and the few possessions that I did not share with my siblings. Everything I owned fit into a bushel basket and two small suitcases.
Momma walked me to the car, carrying the last suitcase. Daddy waited, the motor running. She took my arm as she slid the suitcase into the backseat. “You’ll be fine, Evelyn. The land on Eva’s farm is tough, but better than most of the farms around here, and you know that farm better than you know your own bedroom. Eva always told me how hard you worked. Your daddy or I will come up with your brother and sisters every Saturday to help you. Sundays you’ll be at church and then have supper here.” She kissed my cheek.
I hated the monotony of the mill work and was happy to leave it, but the farm was now the means to fulfill a responsibility, not the solace it had once been. Later that evening, I folded my clothes and put them away in the newly emptied wardrobe Aunt Eva and Uncle Lester had shared for decades.
Soon, it became clear to me how much of Eva’s work I had taken for granted. The stove was cold when I got up in the mornings, the kitchen pump stiff or frozen. I had to do the milking and feeding both morning and night. The garden needed to be revived. The dead were a heavy absence.
Not long after I moved onto the farm, a man in uniform showed up at the back door, his hand raised, ready to knock when I spotted him. Before he spoke, I knew the news. Ricky wasn’t coming back; my laughing blond cousin was gone. There was no son to take over the farm.
The farm had always been the farm to my family. It lay an hour’s walk outside of Clarion, and about twenty-five miles from Charlotte, North Carolina, where the rest of my family, the Roes and the McMurroughs, lived. If you took Clear Lake Road from the mill and, when it veered west, continued up the narrow dirt road ahead, you crossed a creek. Then the simple clapboard house appeared perched on a small cliff formed by the railroad cutaway. At the end of the steep driveway, between the well-kept, generous barn and the creek, were Aunt Eva’s three-acre kitchen garden of table vegetables, herbs, and her one frivolity—tea roses. East of the barn were the smokehouse and the outhouse. A lone tart apple tree graced the barnyard. Just past it, the land took one more short step on its rise toward the Appalachians and then settled into 150 acres of blessedly flat fields. It was open land, seemingly without mystery, clad in the same hard, demanding red clay found throughout the Southeast. If you squatted to take a handful of that soil, you would feel its strength, smell its clean sweetness, and know that it would give back if given to.
Clarion, where I was born and lived with my parents, Robert and Lily Roe, was a one-business town. Narrow streets hugged the Lenford cotton mill, and the identical, mill-owned houses of the neighborhood everyone called the mill-village stood in curved rows. Not long out of the Appalachian hills, the mill workers who lived there were a rough, hardworking people, mostly Protestant and Sunday-school literate. They had lost their Celtic accents and immigrant hope for prosperity long before they came to the cotton mill-village for the luxury of electricity, indoor plumbing, and a weekly paycheck. During World War II, they bent to the rhythm of their work, seven days a week, in shifts that spanned the clock.
Clarion was not a tolerant community. Racism was the most glaring intolerance, but even small differences were noted. My father was known for his unusual habit of smoking a pipe as he pushed the dope wagon through the mill, selling the candies, colas, and tobaccos that helped the mill hands keep the stupor of their work at bay. What set my mother, my sisters, and me apart from everyone else was our height— even the women in the family were near six feet—and our copper-red hair from the McMurroughs, my mother’s side of the family. I was teased without mercy for what I could not control. The public library and the farm were my escapes.
I had hardly been more than a toddler when I first wandered away from our mill-village home. Dual lines of flapping sheets hid me from Momma’s sight while I made my getaway, past the streets and the other houses, across a meadow and through woods to a creek. Nothing beyond the meadow was familiar. The rapid purl of creek water made a comforting sound, sweeter than the noise of the mill and the chattering voices. Ferns lined the narrow bank of the creek, some open-handed, others still furled tight. Overhead, in the cathedral of the bright spring canopy, a woodpecker rapped. I sat on a tree root and watched pale butterflies siphon water from the sand. An owl’s bell-shaped call rose, then fell. I was happy. I was at the center of the universe, certain I had found the place where everything began.
A low branch lifted nearby, and my mother, stooping to go under it, emerged. She stepped out, scanning the underbrush and the creek, her face knotted in concern. A lock of her red hair caught on the branch behind her. I followed her glance down the creek but saw nothing unusual. Then she screamed my name and ran toward me.
I bolted, slid across a flat rock, and plunged neck-deep into icy water. Scrambling to the opposite bank, I choked on a mouthful. Momma scooped me up and turned me toward her, shaking me. Instead of scolding, she stared at me as I dangled, dripping in her extended arms. Wordlessly, she looked me over as if I was an unexpected stranger, a child she had never seen before. For one terrible moment, my mother did not know me.
Then she clutched me to her chest, her face inches from mine, fear in her eyes, an old, large fear. Her whole face opened into a wail and she crushed my head against her breasts. Her hand covered my ear, pressing me into the cacophony of her sobs and heartbeat, inside her sweet, milky odors. She stumbled back through the woods, clutching me. I could not have been more than three years old.
After that, the world began its split into twos: the spoken and unspoken, the known and unknown, home and not home, my mother and myself. Curiosity locked into my soul and put me at the edge of my tribe, an observer more than a participant, scouring the land for words and clues.
I was still very young, not in school yet, the first time I made my way to the farm by myself. Unsure of the route that appeared different, more spacious, without my family, I hiked from familiar point to familiar point. Then, there it was: the house on top of the hill. Following the narrow road up and around to the barn, I presented myself to Eva, who stood at a chest-high trellis of roses.
“I was wondering when you’d make it up here on your own. Figured you’d show up one day,” she said. Then she did something she had never done before. She knelt and took my hand.
I was a well-cared-for child, and so took those who cared for me for granted. Adults were simply part of a world that moved to rhythms and needs invisible to me. Large boots or full skirts to stay out of the way of.
As Eva knelt in front of me, sunlight glinting in her clear green eyes, she took me in with a long, assessing gaze. It was as if she had stepped out of the vague ether of the adult world into a full and separate being before me. The sweetness of her tea roses surrounded us. For the first time in my life, I was conscious of loving another person.
So it was I who became compensation for Eva’s lack of a daughter and my labor on the farm payment for the cans, baskets, and sacks full of food that Eva and Lester brought down the hill to my family.
On the farm, my three older cousins called me Little Sis. There, I could forget the children in the mill-village who teased me about my height and my bright red hair. I slept on a cot in the corner of the parlor. With no little sisters to complain about the lantern’s glare, I could read as late as I wanted. I learned to chop wood, sew, milk cows, cure hams, make butter, sauerkraut, and biscuits, bleach apples, store or preserve almost anything, and to make a toothbrush out of a hickory stick. Eva combed out my hair in the evenings and told me I should be proud of its new-penny brilliance.
Each time I came up the hill and saw the house, its front half shaded by the chinaberry tree, the farm seemed full of possibilities and far from the drab mill-village. My love for the farm set me further apart from my peers. While other children were fascinated with everything modern and aware of the deprivations of the Depression, I collected eggs and churned butter by hand and thought myself privileged, wealthy. It was a good place to be a child, the best place to be a child during the Depression.
During my first months alone on the farm after Eva’s death, I thought of these two events frequently—my mother’s pained gaze in the woods and my first solo trek to visit Aunt Eva. They seemed the first points in a line that led me to where I now was as the farm’s caretaker. Gradually, I also came to realize how much freedom and trust my parents had always given me. A kind of special dispensation. While other girls my age, particularly those with younger siblings, had been kept home with chores, I had been allowed to wander.
At times, I felt guilty about the pleasures I took on the farm while the suffering of war persisted. But I relished the luxury of my solitude. I worked hard. I ate when I was hungry. I took naps in the barn and, on one particularly cold night, made myself a pallet on the kitchen table and slept there to soak in the dying warmth of the stove. Whole days passed in which I saw only my neighbors, Mildred or one of the McAverys, when I took the eggs down the hill to them. Some days, I saw no one at all.
Having never had so much as a closet of my own, I now had a whole house, a whole quiet house. At night, cranky Bertie wasn’t there pulling quilts off me as I slept. Rita didn’t kick me in her sleep or wake me up because she heard some little noise. No radio blaring, no doors slamming. No neighbors arguing.
Privacy also had its smaller, vulgar privileges. Alone, I cursed out loud. I checked my armpits and crotch to find out if it was time for the trouble of drawing a bath in a house without indoor plumbing. Momma never would have tolerated such. On the first warm night of 1945, I slept naked, something I’d never done before. Moonlight spread across the sheets and over my bare belly, a thing not possible in a Baptist house with sisters crowded in a bed.
Later that year, when the Germans surrendered, the whole mill fell silent. Then a cheer burst from the office and rolled through the workers who ran outside, whooping and hollering, kissing and hugging each other. Kids poured out of the schools. I wasn’t there. Everyone told me about it later.
But up on the farm, I heard the car horns blasting. Church bells clanged. The mill horn blew as if calling God Himself to the cotton. I stopped mucking the barn stalls and dashed outside to the road. Louellen McAvery, who lived down the hill, knelt in the middle of Clear Lake Road, praying. Her boy, Tom, was still overseas. When she finished with God, she jumped up, danced a little jig, and waved to me, shouting. The war was over!
I jumped and ran back to the barn to tell—tell who? The chickens? The cows? The chickens, the sky, the barn were all the same, as indifferent to the end of the war as they had been to the war itself. I stopped halfway across the yard. The land I had worked stretched out before me and the blind sky above.
The horns and bells continued. The people celebrating below were people I knew. I knew their sons far away at war or fresh in their graves. They’d eaten the beans and corn my family grew and brought them back to us in heaped bowls when someone got sick, or died. The boy who would dig my grave was probably out there among those cheering.
We were under the same sky, breathing the same air. All of us. And not just us. The Germans and the Japanese, too.
In the months after the victory of war, a stunned quiet followed, then the town leapt into optimistic giddiness. Everyone everywhere seemed relieved, fatigued, excited. The world seemed wide-open. At church, at the feed store, in the shops downtown, and on the streets of the mill-village, expectation and relief blossomed into robust intent. Any moment things could burst out of themselves. I felt it in the long bones and muscles of my arms and legs.
Even in the quiet of Sunday morning, returned to us now that the war was over and the mill no longer ran seven days a week, I woke aware of the people down the hill, my family still warm in their beds, sleeping the sound sleep of victors.
Downtown one Saturday, I saw a woman open a newspaper. The headline declared the liberation of the death camps. The photograph showed gaunt, skeletal Jews. She studied the front page and crossed herself.
A violent scorn rose up in me. “Fool,” I thought. “You have the same God as the Germans.” I imagined a Nazi crossing himself before he turned on the gas.
I stood outside Bun’s Café, about to cross the street. Then, like a slap, the thought came: I, too, had the same God as the Nazis. I stepped away and turned my back to the busy street. I saw my face mirrored in the window of the café. The reflection of a passing car slid over the backs of the men eating inside at the counter. They were—we all were—Christians. Good Christian people.
A door shut in my mind. My heart tilted.
I kept that moment, running my hands over the worry stone of it. Church was not the same after that. I sat at the same pew every Sunday. My family expected me to be there and I did not want to disappoint my mother, but my throat could not be open as it had once been to those old familiar hymns.
A few weeks later, one rare day when I had finished my morning chores early, I took my lunch and walked down to Clear Lake. A snake the color of the water undulated near the shore, barely disturbing the reflection of clouds on the water’s surface. Trying to move with the same deftness, I followed on the lake’s bank as the snake paralleled the shore. After a few minutes, the snake turned toward the deeper waters of the lake. I watched its silent swiftness until it was lost in the glare of the sun. I longed to move through the world like that, deliberate and certain, the waters folding around me, wakeless.
I felt I could wander, seduced, into the woods and forget myself, leave my hair uncombed and let my name fall away. I wanted to lie down where I was with only the sky above me. I recognized this desire as the feral love of an animal for its place of being. It seemed most akin to the awe and holiness I knew I should feel in church. I also sensed in that impulse a kind of danger, a dissolution that could lead me from my own kind.
I was grateful, then, for the farm and the animals that demanded my attention. They tethered me, protecting me from the impulses that the land engendered.
Everything on the farm seemed purposeful: the bird calls; the thickness of the morning dew; light moving across the kitchen floor; the barn’s musk of hay, fresh manure, and dust. Even the sow’s prissy, mud-caked haunches were imbued with grace.
I settled in, grew lean and muscular. I ripened, ready for whatever came next, certain it would be good and new. I’d slept through the war, but now I was waking up. At night, I tossed and turned in my bed. In the house of my refuge, I set aside the God I was raised on and woke each morning, tenderized by light, bird song, and hard labor.
The farm was once again the solace it had been. It knew me and I knew it. On the hottest night in the summer, when I could not sleep for the heat and my sister Rita snorting through her dreams beside me, I made myself a solitary pallet outside under the stars. But the bugs kept me awake. Finally, with only the full moon for light, I got up and, in boots and nightgown, walked the creek and cut through the fields. A breeze stirred the corn, whispering, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” Everywhere my foot pressed the land I heard, “Home. Home. Home.” I was in love.
But love of land is not enough for a young body. I had put on weight and curves. I was stronger than I had ever been. At the feed store, at church, anywhere I went, I could feel as much as see how men were looking at me. Their gazes, like hands, cupped my hip or shoulder.
Some of the men were the same boys who had called me “carrot top” when I was a young girl, sneering as if red hair was an aberration worthy of hell. Many of them, fresh from combat, were broken-faced. Around them, I felt the burden of my innocence. I told myself that their attention was just the war’s end, just men lusting, as I did, for the land and smelling it on me. If one of them showed up at the farm, I did not stop my work to chat and flirt. I put him to work.
Something had been in the corn, so I rode the plow horse, Becky, out to check the fence between the Starneses’ pasture and our cornfield. I reined to a halt deep in the shade of a broad, low oak near the border of the Starneses’ land. One of their stallions was after a mare. I had seen horses mate before, but this time I went closer, right up to the fence, and watched. The receptive mare danced before the stallion and then stood still, her tail swished to the side. Becky snuffled and took a little two-step under me. Despite the cool of the shade, heat rose up from my belly.
I did not hear or see Cole Starnes ride up. But suddenly he was there in the shade, taking off his hat and wiping his face. I startled. Becky shinnied sideways again.
“We weren’t planning on breeding her this season,” he said, as if we had been discussing the situation for a while. “She came on earlier than we thought. Caught us off guard.” He was a good-looking boy, tall and thin, with a broad, friendly face and cowlick above his forehead.
I could feel the red in my ears. I kept my eyes on the horses.
Cole kept talking. “We were working on the tractor. Didn’t know she was coming on. I don’t like that tractor much.” He glanced back toward his house as if he expected to see the tractor coming his way. His horse stomped and pulled.
I turned without a word and left just as the stallion dismounted.
After that, Cole gave me a little nod and a comment every time we ran into each other, which began to happen more often. Every Sunday after church he was there, not saying much, talking about fences, tractors, and the foal that was coming. He never mentioned seeing me in the pasture that day. The swirl of his dark brown hair above his forehead made him appear continually windblown and slightly surprised, qualities that I began to find endearing. He’d never teased me about my hair or my freckles. I found myself thinking of him.
Then one night, he showed up at my back door with a bouquet of cornflowers and lilies, and a little Mason jar of moonshine. The day’s chores were done; there was no work for him to do, so I fed him supper. We drank the moonshine for dessert. I cut mine with cider, but he drank his down manly, grimacing. Outside of family, it was the first time I’d had company for supper on the farm. I felt like a grown woman, entertaining in her own home.
I was fine until he slid his hand over mine as I passed the jar of shine back to him. Once he touched me, it was all over. I lost my virginity that night and so did Cole, the two of us fumbling at each other until we got the job done. I don’t think either of us was very impressed. I had brought myself more satisfactory pleasure alone at night—a pleasure I’d never associated with boys. But the intensity and how badly I had wanted it stunned me. We were suddenly shy and sober afterward, the booze sponged up by our amazement at what we had done.
The next day, I waited for God to strike me down. I thought I would feel bad, but I didn’t. I felt relieved that the first time was over. I was curious to try it again, to get a better look at Cole. The barnyard can take some of the mystery out of the mechanics of the act, but a man is not a hog, a bull, or a stallion, though some do aspire to be one of the three.
A week later, Cole was back at my door. He had flowers again, but no shine, and asked in a shy, sweet whisper if we could try “it” again.
There had been no punishment from God, so, being curious about both God and Cole, I said yes.
After that, he would wait until dark fell and cut across the pasture instead of coming up the road. For the first time in my life, I made a conscious decision to sin and continue sinning. I braced myself for God’s retribution. I was careful though, making Cole withdraw. I didn’t want a baby to be the payment for my sin. Cole would have married me. He was that kind of boy, but I didn’t want that either. We were just very young and doing what nature told us to do.
Still, I was doing something I had been warned against all my life. A terrible sin. I continued listening, expecting some punishment from God. But there was none. In that silence, I kept remembering something I’d once heard that contradicted all else I’d heard about sex and sin.
When I was about twelve years old, Grandpa Mac, Momma’s grandfather, came to Sunday dinners at our house. Rail-thin and nearly blind, he sat on the front porch one evening with Momma. He rocked in the cane chair and she shelled peas beside him. I stood just inside the screen door behind them, bored until I realized they were discussing the mother of a boy I knew and a man she snuck around to see. I got very still, wishing Grandpa would stop creaking in the rocker so I wouldn’t miss a word. As if he had heard my wish, he paused. I thought he stopped to listen better to Momma, but he looked off toward the mill and said, “I don’t understand how something that beautiful between a man and a woman could ever be so wrong as people make it out to be.”
To my amazement, Momma nodded, smiled, and kept shelling as if he was discussing the beauty of sunshine, not sin. Grandpa spit off the side of the porch and went back to rocking.
Being quiet around adults, I was often rewarded with gossip or bawdy jokes. But suddenly, I realized that there were other worlds and ways of thinking, secret agreements and understandings among adults.
After I had been with Cole, I thought about what Grandpa had said. “Something that beautiful between a man and a woman” didn’t seem to describe what I did with Cole. But what we did didn’t seem to be an awful sin like stealing or hurting someone, either.
Momma and Daddy didn’t mind Cole courting me. He was a good, respectful boy. They were fine with him walking me to church and Momma welcomed his help on the weekends when my family came up to the farm, but they would not have tolerated his night visits. So Cole and I had to be discreet.
Still, Momma seemed to know somehow. Frank Roe, a cousin on my father’s side, had been discharged and would be coming back from Japan, she told me. He’d need a place to stay. With him at the farm, I would not be alone and I would have live-in help with the harvest every day.
“It’s not good, you staying up there by yourself. What if something happened to you? We might not know about it for days,” she said.
My being on the farm alone had never bothered her before.
Frank was not one of my favorite cousins, and I did not want my solitude broken, but how could I protest? The farm was not mine, I was just the caretaker until it was decided who would inherit it. But I told myself, if I had less work to do, I might be able to meet Cole more often.
As soon as Frank jumped off the back of Daddy’s truck and I saw his swagger, the way he wore his uniform and threw his duffel bag down, I knew that seeing Cole would be more, not less, difficult. Frank always had an edgy side to him, like a strange dog, alert and ready to lick you or rip into you. You could never tell which, and you didn’t want him to do either. His eyes seemed smaller now, more doglike, his body harder and more compact. The war had concentrated what he had been as a boy. He was not a man you would want to give the advantage of your secrets.
He moved into Ricky’s old room at the far end of the hall from me, and the house immediately took on the smell of his cigarette smoke and shoe polish.
“Looks like my little cousin is all growed up and got herself a farm,” he announced after he had given himself a tour. Then he looked me up and down in a way I did not like, sucked on his cigarette, and flicked the butt down onto the barn floor. I stared at the smoldering stub and he stomped it, twisting his heel into it. “I got it, I got it. I’m not going to let your precious barn burn,” he said.
As we walked out of the barn, Cole came up from across the field. Frank saw Cole’s face change as he realized I was not alone.
“I guess you are all grown up,” Frank leered.
Frank was a hard worker, but he was also a man. He expected me to fix all of his meals. The first night, I did make him a nice ham supper as a welcome. But on the second day, when he came to me at noon, I returned his dog-stare and told him, “You are not my husband and you are not my daddy. For the work you do around here, I’ll get our supper in the evening and if I make biscuits in the morning, I’ll leave you some. Otherwise, you take care of yourself.”
He ate heartily each evening, but never cooked. His eyes followed me. But he seldom spoke. Only at night did I hear much from him. I shut my bedroom door, but I could still hear him turn and shout in his sleep. His bed lurched and squeaked when the ghost of the war visited his dreams.
At the end of the first week, he went into town, bought a battery radio, and put it in his bedroom. Then there was smoke and music every night. Sometimes I could smell the booze on his breath by mid-afternoon.
He had been at the house a few weeks when I walked by the half-open door of his room one night. He sat on his bed, his back to me, staring at some pictures spread out before him. A man and a woman whispered to each other from the radio. I opened my mouth to speak, then realized that he had his hand down his pants. He may have just been scratching himself. As I stepped back, he turned, grabbed the pictures with both hands, and laid them over his lap. He shot me a look of pure disdain and said “war pictures” over the cigarette smoke that curled up his jaw.
Frank began drinking more and going into town during the week. One of the nights he was gone, I went into his room to see the pictures. I expected they would be images of naked girls. I couldn’t tell what the first one was. In the middle of a gray, textured background was a black spot, like a hole or a rip in the negative.
The next few photos, all black-and-white, showed the rubble of bombed-out buildings, like the photos I’d seen of London but flatter, ashen to the horizon. Japan after the bomb. In one picture, an American soldier stood in the field of trash under a low, dark sky. Nothing stood higher than his knee. He grinned, holding up a bottle in a congratulatory toast, his left foot propped on a half-crumbled block of stone. What I first thought was a flutter of torn, singed paper sticking out from under the block was, when I examined them closer, two arms. One stuck straight up from the elbow, and the blackened hand at the end of it had only a thumb and two fingers. The other, much smaller arm, ended with a splay of bone at the wrist joint, no fingers. Bile stirred in my stomach, water in my mouth. I looked back up at the soldier’s smile. There was no way to be sure if he knew about the arms. But how could he have missed them?
The next one was similar, the same dark sky, the same lifelessness to the horizon. In the foreground, the GI from the other photo had been joined by four American GIs, all with their shirts open or off. They smiled triumphant and happy. Not a line on their faces. Their bare, hairless chests pallid against the background of sky. The next photograph showed more GIs, more smiles, and ashy lumps on the ground. The GIs were smaller, the sky lower and darker with each photograph as if the photographer had moved farther away with each shot.
The last photograph was a close-up of a Japanese woman, her eyes closed. Shown from the waist up, she lay on her side. From her temple down her jaw, her neck, and over one breast, the skin puckered in a strange way, halfway between the crispness of a burn and the swirled, glossy scarring that comes months later. Her other breast, the one she lay on, was smooth, the cylindrical nipple only slightly darker than her pale skin.
I thumbed back to the first picture. The gray textures resembled the delicate ash left when we burned garbage. The hole in the middle was shaped like a baby, a baby curled on its side—a baby-shaped hole with no light in it, no reflection, no texture. Nauseated, I put the pictures back. My hands trembled.
All night I saw those pictures, the baby, the woman, and the GIs. Such wholesome smiles amid the hell of destruction; they seemed like some new kind of evil. Yet their faces looked like mine, like the faces of my people.
Not long after I found the photographs, Frank came home late one night, cussing, stumbling drunk at the back door, and woke me. I went to help him, but when I got close, he grabbed me and pressed me up against the door frame.
“Betcha give it to that Cole boy. Gimme some,” he hissed, as he tried to find my mouth with his. My arm hurt where he gripped it, but he was very drunk. I got my knee up between us, pushed him backward down the steps, and bolted the door.
I found him on the steps in the morning. Stinking, muddy, and bloody from a scrape on his cheek, but sleeping like a baby. I kicked him to wake him up.
That afternoon I left my work early, walked down to the mill-village, and told Momma what had happened, showed her the bruise on my arm.
“His daddy was bad to drink. But I was—we all were—hoping the war would make a difference in him. Grow him up,” she told me.
I shook my head, remembering the photographs. “I think the war made it worse, Momma.”
“I reckon you could be right about that. Made things worse for a lot of people. Go get your daddy and have him drive you back. Tell him we need Frank down here in the mill-village more than you need him up there. He can come up with the rest of us to help on Saturdays. Meanwhile, we can knock some sense into him if he goes after any of his own family again. If your daddy has questions, he can come see me.”
Daddy talked to Momma and then drove me back to the farm. It took Frank about five minutes to pack up the duffel bag and they were gone.
Later, when I was putting clean sheets on the bed in his room, I found one of Frank’s photographs under the bed—the one with the burned girl in it. I kept it.
I hadn’t liked what Frank said about Cole. I didn’t know what else he might say. Since Frank had arrived, Cole had visited only a few times and then we just sat on the porch talking, the tension of what we wanted sparking around us. If we got caught, both our daddies would have shotguns after us, baby or no baby coming. I wasn’t particularly romantic, but I wanted to choose my husband rather than have my daddy decide for me. Though I wanted to be near Cole, I wasn’t sure I loved him, and he was still more boy than man. Not ready to be a husband.
The next time I saw Cole at church, I told him he couldn’t be coming over anymore, that I was afraid of getting into trouble. He thought I was talking about getting pregnant. He’d be careful, he assured me.
“I mean getting caught by my daddy,” I said. “Momma seems to know something. And if she knows anything, he’ll know it soon enough.” At the mention of my daddy, Cole took a step back and looked so sad and defeated that I found myself adding, “Not forever, just a few months—until after Christmas.”
“So you gonna wait until after Christmas to give me my present?” He trotted off to join his family, but I heard the grin in his voice. That was late October. The cold nights were already coming on, and the trees had turned. Christmas seemed a long time to wait.
But those weeks alone again gave me time to think. Becoming Cole’s wife—or any man’s, for that matter—would mean leaving the farm. A wife was expected to follow her husband.
By then, I’d been on the farm over two years. I’d managed to keep a good-size kitchen garden, most of the livestock, and a few acres of hay, corn, and alfalfa. Even with the help of my family, it had not been easy. I was proud of my work. I wanted to stay where I was. Alone in my bed at night, I wanted Cole, but I didn’t want anything else to change.
But things did change.
For Christmas, Momma got one of her wishes. By virtue of her interest in the farm and the small sum she paid her siblings, the deed to the farm was hers. None of my aunts and uncles wanted to live in a house without an indoor toilet or electric lights. If it had been up to Momma, she and Daddy would have moved to the farm, but he wouldn’t have it. Momma made it clear to me that the farm was mine to live on as long as I kept the family in vegetables, eggs, milk, and meat. I knew I could keep my part of that bargain.
As everyone returned to their post-holiday work routines and Cole, who still had not received his “present,” was laid up with the flu, an early January snow fell. The house ticked and sighed around me with the change of temperature. Outside, an expectant hush of white enveloped the land. The contours of the world changed, angles softened to clean abstractions of themselves. The blank expanse of the fields seemed new, brilliant, and beguiling.
A week later, as the snow melted, receding to expose the rust-red clay again, the farm seemed reborn. A hard, steady rain followed. Lightning winked on the horizon and thunder muttered, still distant. Within hours, water rose between the house and the slight elevation of the fields. From the parlor window, I looked down at a narrow rush of water, roiling against the foundation of the house like a trapped animal seeking escape. The fields usually drained east behind the barn, then on to the creek or south to the tracks. But now they sent their runoff straight at the house as if the land had, indeed, undergone some subtle shift. In all my time at the farm, including the times with Eva when I was a little girl, I’d never seen that happen. But I’d also never seen rain like this, either. Lightning was unusual for a winter storm.
At dusk, as Eva’s dog, Hobo, and I stood on the back porch watching the storm, the blown mist swirling around us, I was glad for all the canned vegetables in the pantry and for the cords of firewood split, stacked, and dry. Beside me, Hobo whimpered and nudged my hand with his damp nose. Rain undulated across the fields like a living thing, in wild, flapping rows.
Excerpted from The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley. Copyright © 2013 by Rhonda Riley.
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